Hannah Arendt, Wesleyan University, c. 1961/62
Involuntary Euthanasia. Hannah Arendt’s work has warnings about totalitarianism; sadly, they seem today to apply to democracies also
By Luis Feduchi
It is surprising that the Aktion T4 program, forerunner of the plan to exterminate the Jewish people, is unknown to many Germans today. It is surprising because German society is not known for having turned its back on that fatal episode in its history, but also because an embrace of the idea that confronting the past ensures that it will not repeat necessitates the study of the past with as much or more diligence than the horror that it wrought.
The program to which I refer, whose euphemistic name perhaps reflects the difficulty of revealing its objective, was a death sentence exacted without consent upon terminally ill patients –a law whose title should have been that of this article. The ultimate name chosen for the action is an acronym of the Berlin street address where the plan was conceived: Tiergartenstraße 4.
In 1961, 20 years after her exile to the United States and with pride in her American citizenship (not so in her nationality), German-born Hannah Arendt was commissioned by The New Yorker to cover the trial set to take place in Jerusalem against the alleged war criminal Adolf Eichmann, the uncontroversial Nazi civil servant who had been found in Argentina a year earlier. The report would be published in installments in five successive editions of the magazine and later compiled in the book Eichmann in Jerusalem.
In her chronicle, Arendt refers, without mentioning it by name, to the involuntary euthanasia program as such: “There is the well-known fact that Hitler began his mass murders by granting ‘mercy deaths’ to the ‘incurably ill’, and that he intended to wind up his extermination program by doing away with ‘genetically damaged’ Germans (heart and lung patients).” [i]
A month after the Covid-19 pandemic began, while rereading this impeccable reportage, I noticed the parenthetical addendum “(heart and lung patients)”, which Arendt may have inserted to clarify which of her compatriots Aktion T4 targeted. It seems she wanted to make clear that Hitler’s operation extended beyond race and ideology, thus demonstrating that he had little or no compassion for the elderly or for those of weak health, those we have now come to refer to as the vulnerable.
Associating vulnerability with the fact of being explicitly marked to die is something that cannot leave us cold. When vulnerability is not only a product of congenital or unexpected disease, when ethnicity or social conditions become a shortcut to such vulnerability, when opposition to a political regime, as with many refugees, pushes groups into that state of fragility and lack of protection, we read Arendt’s words as an undeniable exhortation to what may be may transpire when the economic and social crisis exacerbated by Covid-19 soon manifests in full.
Whether it’s the kids children shot at by lockdown police in an East African slum, or the elderly who died at home for fear of going to crowded health centers during the peak of the pandemic in Southern Europe; be they the long-term deaths of despair caused by the loss of income that freedom of movement at least guaranteed, or the fatalities of the ongoing civil wars whose desperate conditions further intensify during confinement – what we cannot forget is that confinement, a measure that has placated the outbreak of the pandemic, can also be an instrument of dubious protection of citizens when not only in the hands of totalitarian authoritarianism, but also in the face of the social injustice that not even the most progressive countries have eradicated.
There are hardly any countries devoid of well-founded accusations of abusing the power that confinement has allowed. In this climate, it is surprising to see demonstrations fueling conspiracies in Germany or allegations of mismanagement in Spain and Italy, when in India, Brazil, Russia, Turkey, Burma, the Philippines – not to mention the United States and China, where uprisings in the former and unrest silenced are everyday news – the impact that confinement is having on minorities and abuse of power is adding to the daily toll. The risks do not come only from populist and authoritarian leaders, but also from uncontroverted civil servants and the complex state machinery of purportedly democratic regimes.
If, as Jürgen Habermas said, “the task of those who dedicate themselves to the profession of thought is to shed light on the crimes that were committed in the past and to keep awareness of them alive”, then Arendt’s work may suffer spikes of inattention as to the possible repetition of crimes that are difficult to foresee and almost impossible to believe. But what should surely remain in focus is the way in which even a brief passage from her oeuvre is able to shake us alert and inspire our vigilance to prevent such colossal crimes from happening again.
[i] Hannah Arendt, Eichmann and the Holocaust (London, Penguin, 2005), p.116.
Luis Feduchi is a practicing architect and academic.
June 23rd, 2020 — Rosa Mercedes / 02
Lauren Berlant, the brilliant theorist of “cruel optimism” and related issues, died of a rare form of cancer on June 28. The following, devastatingly optimistic quote is from a 2016 essay on the commons as “infrastructures for troubling times,” part of a book that they worked on with the typically double-edged title On the Inconvenience of Other People: “What remains for our pedagogy of unlearning is to build affective infrastructures that admit the work of desire as the work of an aspirational ambivalence. What remains is the potential we have to common infrastructures that absorb the blows of our aggressive need for the world to accommodate us and our resistance to adaptation and that, at the same time, hold out the prospect of a world worth attaching to that’s something other than an old hope’s bitter echo. A failed episode is not evidence that the project was in error. By definition, the common forms of life are always going through a phase, as infrastructures will.”
Some basics from the Strike MoMA site: “Campaigns, actions, and letters chip away at the regime’s facade from the outside. Inside, every time workers organize, defy the boss, care for a coworker, disrespect secrecy, or enact other forms of subversion, cracks are created in the core. Cracking and chipping, chipping and cracking. As the walls that artificially separate the museum from the world collapse, we reorient away from the institution and come together to make plans. Let us strike in all the ways possible to exit from the terms of the museum so we can set our own.”
Hyperallergic on the environmental impact of blockchain referring to recent NFT (non-fungible token) art sales: “This is not the first time the art world has come under scrutiny for being on the wrong side of the climate conversation. Artists and activists have protested everything from the carbon footprint of physical art fairs to the fossil fuel money funding major museums. But some say the energy consumption of cryptocurrencies is particularly egregious, and research shows it’s relatively easily quantifiable. A study by Cambridge University, for instance, estimates that bitcoin uses more electricity per year than the entire nation of Argentina. (Ethereum mining consumes a quarter to half of what Bitcoin mining does, but one transaction uses more power than an average US household in a day, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.)”
Nicholas Mirzoeff on “Artificial vision, white space and racial surveillance capitalism”: “Based as it is on ‘epidermalization’ (the assertion of absolute difference based on relative differences in skin color), AI’s racial surveillance deploys an all-too-familiar racialized way of seeing operating at plan-etary scale. It is the plantation future we are now living in. All such operations take place in and via the new imagined white space of technology known as the cloud. In reality, a very material arrangement of servers and cables, the cloud is both an engine of high-return low-employment capitalism and one of the prime drivers of carbon emissions.”
Sara Ahmed on the performativity of disgust (from The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 2004): “To name something as disgusting is to transfer the stickiness of the word ‘disgust’ to an object, which henceforth becomes generated as the very thing that is spoken. The relationship between the stickiness of the sign and the stickiness of the object is crucial to the performativity of disgust as well as the apparent resistance of disgust reactions to ‘newness’ in terms of the generation of different kinds of objects. The object that is generated as a disgusting (bad) object through the speech act comes to stick. It becomes sticky and acquires a fetish quality, which then engenders its own effects.”
November 7th, 2020
David Graeber (1961-2020) on What Would It Take (from his The Democracy Project. A History, a Crisis, a Movement, 2013, p. 193): “We have little idea what sort of organizations, or for that matter, technologies, would emerge if free people were unfettered to use their imagination to actually solve collective problems rather than to make them worse. But the primary question is: how do we even get there? What would it take to allow our political and economic systems to become a mode of collective problem solving rather than, as they are now, a mode of collective war?”
September 7th, 2020
T.J. Demos on why cultural practitioners should never surrender, via tranzit.sk: “For artists, writers, and curators, as art historians and teachers, the meaning-production of an artwork is never finished, never fully appropriated and coopted, in my view, and we should never surrender it; the battle over significance is ongoing. We see that battle rise up in relation to racist and colonial monuments these days in the US, the UK, and South Africa. While the destruction of such monuments results from and is enabling of radical politics, it’s still not enough until the larger institutions that support and maintain their existence as well as the continuation of the politics they represent are also torn down. This is urgent as well in the cultural sphere, including the arts institutions, universities, art markets, discursive sphere of magazines and journals, all in thrall to neoliberalism, where we must recognize that it’s ultimately inadequate to simply inject critical or radical content into these frameworks, which we know excel at incorporating those anti-extractivist expressions into further forms of cultural capital and wealth accumulation. What’s required is more of the building of nonprofit and community-based institutions, organizing radical political horizons and solidarity between social formations.”
August 21st, 2020