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The Banality of Evil and the Death of the Author

Thoughts on social interaction, and questions of individual recognition and responsibility

I hope we can agree: we are not alone, and even when we are alone, we are not alone. We humans are what we are as we interact with each other: no interaction, no person; no interaction, no politics; no interaction, no art, science and love; no sex and no sexism; no mighty states and no resistance to states and their ideological apparatuses; no prosperity and no poverty.

This is on my mind this gray Friday morning as I think about the dilemmas of recognition and responsibility, reading some posts on Public Seminar this week, attending the graduation ceremony of The New School for Social Research, and anticipating courses on social interaction I will teach next year, one for undergraduates in the Fall, the other for graduate students in the Spring.

Death of the Author? I get the idea, but I also get the complaint of historians and scholars as they feel exploited by journalists who draw on others’ labor in the archives without attribution. Brian Connolly’s post and the responses to it reveal an intriguing field of debate. When you do research, when I write, when you create art, there is a sense that we are doing the research, writing and creating, and not specifically one of us or the other. And there is also the problem that our labor is monetized, and under the present order of things (must we call it “neo-liberal”?) not to our benefit.

We work with the tools and the resources provided for us. We add or subtract from our cultural inheritance, even when we are in rebellion against it. Those who precede us and our contemporaries shape and contribute to our ideas. Where their influence ends and our distinctive contributions begin is a matter of debate. Foucault’s idea of the author as a historical individualization and Barthes notion that “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author” highlight the collective creation of cultural work, (including writing but also reading). They present a radical skepticism about individual creativity and genius, a position less critically charged in Howard S. Becker’s interactive analysis of art as collective action.

While I appreciate the democratic, anti-elitist, anti-heroic insight of Foucault, Barthes and Becker, I wonder how this applies to not only commendable, but also despicable action. If the author is dead, does this mean that Hitler wasn’t the author of Mein Kampf? If what we do is a product of our situation in a network of interactions, what responsibility do we have for how we respond to the situation we are in? What happens to individual responsibility for evil?

What about torture? Jeremy Varon’s analysis of the deeply problematic confirmation hearings of Gina Haspel to be Director of the Central Intelligence Agency illuminates the dangers of conflating the collective with the individual.

After 9/11, the President of the United States declared a war on terrorism. Subsequently, and following odd legal gymnastics, “enhanced interrogations” of terrorist suspects became official American policy. The CIA tortured. Who was responsible? President Bush, Vice President Cheney, John Yoo, the author of the memo that justified torture as constitutional? Were the CIA agents just following orders when they tortured terrorist suspects? And what about those who oversaw and directed the torture, such as Gina Haspel? There was systematic torture, but was it systemic? Individual responsibility for, authorship of, torture is the question.

Haspel seemed to echo Hannah Arendt’s account of Heinrich Himmler in Eichmann in Jerusalem:

“So that instead of saying: What horrible things I did to people!, the murderers would be able to say: What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!”

Haspel would not categorically reject torture as immoral. She wouldn’t say torture is ineffective. She wouldn’t relinquish control over what aspects of her career could become public. All this is revealed in a telling exchange between Senator Kamala Harris and Haspel.

Varon, thus, despairs: “Haspel’s actions have been an offense to humanity. The process of her nomination has been an offense to democracy.” But I am not so sure. I think there is a textured, gray reality that has to be closely examined.

I agree with Varon about Haspel, but think that the interaction between her and Harris is of greater significance than he seems to recognize. It constituted democracy, even as it did not prevail. It has a telling significance, very much like a powerful dissent on the Supreme Court. Because Harris spoke so forthrightly and cogently, there is an opening that would have been closed if she hadn’t.

Varon opens his post, with a confession: he is a disenchanted American democratic patriot, who once revered the monuments to our democracy. But he goes on and notes: “Any such reverence was completely gone as I witnessed in the Hart Senate Office Building on May 9 the dismal confirmation hearings of Gina Haspel…” I know how he feels, but I think we must fight against despair. Paying close attention to social interaction, helps. Thus, I have decided to focus my teaching next year on this domain.

A closing summary note on recent events and graduation ceremonies at The New School for Social Research: I have long been struck by the tension between the ideals of The New School, to which I have dedicated my entire professorial life, and the realities of my far from perfect employer. I think the tension between the realities and the ideals, as we interact practically, informed by normative commitments, defines the institution and its history. I am especially worried now how this tension is developing.

I am deeply concerned about the way we treat our graduate students. Most pay tuition. Those who get a tuition waiver, still have to somehow manage to live and eat in New York City, not easy. And I wonder even how the fortunate few who do get stipends manage. This is the context of the unionization of student workers. That the administration took as long as it did to recognize the union was offensive. That the strike last week didn’t result in an agreement, or at least news that an agreement was on the near horizon, cast a shadow over the graduation ceremonies of this week. I worry that the administration is negotiating without an understanding of our university ideals and without fully recognizing how our student workers in their scholarship and teaching make the ideals a reality. This was on full display at graduation, as it is as I work with our students in classes, on their dissertation committees and here on Public Seminar. 

I need to speak out, because to be silent is to be complicit in a system that has a rationale and a logic, but is immoral in the way it treats its least privileged workers, not only student workers, but also apparently cafeteria workers (about whom I don’t know enough). I note with confusion the size of our administration, contrary to the principles of our founding. I am dismayed that among the administrators, there are salaries that don’t seem to match the situation of the institution: in comparison to many other private and public institutions, a relatively poor university, tuition dependent. Like all institutions, from my perspective, The New School is constituted through social interactions. As such, in small ways and in large, we are its authors. We are responsible. To proceed thoughtlessly without paying attention to the implication of our actions, to observe with sadness, “horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties,” is what Hannah Arendt meant as the banality of evil in Eichmann in Jerusalem. She highlighted the problematic nature of “the rule of no one” (bureaucracy in her definition), i.e. the problematic nature of the idea of the death of the author.

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar.

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Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

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