Arendt and Milgram

In today’s Opinionator, Roger Berkowitz describes the most common misreading of Eichmann in Jerusalem, which has Arendt attributing Eichmann’s actions to following orders and, by extension, using the phrase “the banality of evil” to mean mindless, order-following bureaucracy.  Berkowitz tells us that this isn’t what Arendt says.  She did not portray Eichmann as a mere “clerk”;  this is not the quality that leads her to speak of his “inability to think.”  Eichmann’s thoughtlessness emerges, on the contrary, from what Berkowitz calls his being a “joiner,” that is, his enthusiastic embrace of an ideology.  And the medium by which his inability to think is sustained is his allegiance to cliches.

Arendt knew well that Eichmann was a fervent Nazi and a creative manager of death.  If Eichmann in Jerusalem makes us look more deeply at ourselves, it is not to ask whether we are all cogs in a bureaucratic machine.  It is rather to ask whether we are all ideologues — an ideologue being, in Berkowitz’s words, “someone who will sacrifice his own moral convictions when they come in conflict with the ‘idea’ of the movement that gives life meaning.”  And it is to ask whether we sustain this commitment through a set of commonly accepted and repeated cliches, cliches that ease the realization of the narrative we have bought into and at the same time hide our irresponsibility from ourselves.

I like Berkowitz’s argument, but I’d like to dispute one point.  It’s about Stanley Milgram.

“The widespread misperception,” Berkowitz writes, “that Arendt saw Eichmann as merely following orders emerged largely from a conflation of her conclusions with those of Stanley Milgram, the Yale psychologist who conducted a series of controversial experiments in the early 1960s. Milgram was inspired by the Eichmann trial to ask test subjects to assist researchers in training students by administering what they thought were potentially lethal shocks to students who answered incorrectly. The test subjects largely did as they were instructed. Milgram invoked Arendt when he concluded that his experiments showed most people would follow orders to do things they thought wrong.”

Do Milgram’s experiments really show only that people will follow orders against their moral sense?  There is more to it than that.  To erect a situation in which his subjects would follow orders he had to invoke their status as joiners, and since he did not have time to train them in an ideology he had to use one that was already in place:  their utopian faith in the benevolence of science.  The subjects would in general not have recognized themselves as ideologues in the church of scientific progress, but they were believers enough:  enough that the laboratory they found themselves in, the lab coats worn by the experimenters, the clinical monotone the experimenters maintained, and the pseudoscientific sound of lines like “there will be no permanent damage to the tissue” — these things, these cliches, signaled to them their already accepted membership in something larger, something hopeful:  the promise of science.  Without the ideology and the cliches, there could have been no Milgram. Milgram and Arendt are showing aspects of the same problem.

Berkowitz tells us that “Arendt rejected… Milgram’s claim that obedience carried with it no responsibility. Instead, Arendt insisted, ‘obedience and support are the same.’”  But Milgram is only claiming that being obedient makes us think we aren’t responsible, not that we should be held less responsible.  And isn’t this also the meaning of the line cited from Arendt?  Obedience and support are the same:  Arendt believes it, and Milgram believes it.  Obedience vs. support is, for both of them, a false opposition:  there is no obedience unless you’ve already invoked an ideology, unless the subject has, as Berkowitz puts it, joined.

So Arendt knows full well that there’s a sense in which Eichmann was indeed only following orders.  Which is not to say the scholars dismissed by Berkowitz aren’t wrong:  they are serious misreaders of Arendt if they think she doesn’t know that Eichmann was a fervent Nazi — really this makes it obvious that they haven’t read Arendt at all.  But the other mistake they make is one that Berkowitz makes too:   to think a clerk is ever merely a clerk.  For when Arendt rejects the obedience/support distinction, she is also rejecting the clerk/perp distinction.  The questions we must ask of our inner-clerk are:  what makes you follow orders?  What makes you ally yourself with those who are giving you orders?  What makes you so involved that you will go beyond those orders into a creative application of the ordering ideology?  The “clerk” is not a cypher;  his autonomy was not taken from him.  The “clerk” has given up his autonomy, given it up to something he believes in.

The sun and the moon

You’ve probably heard that Bill Nye was booed in Waco, Texas for saying that the moon did not shine its own light but reflected the light of the sun.  Apparently a number of people decided that he was speaking against Genesis 1:16 which says that God made two great lights and put them in the sky:  one woman snatched up her children and walked out, saying “we believe in God.”

One thinks of literalist believers as having a problem with the scientific understanding of time:  creation (and a short duration) vs. evolution (and a long one).  But this story bespeaks a problem with the scientific account of space.  The Waco woman seems to think of reality as a canvas on which God stuck things, the things he stuck there being the things that exist.  Reality, for her, is a diorama.  It makes perfect sense, but for some reason I had never understood that someone could see the world this way.  It has illuminated my current thinking about time and space.

In an episode of Sherlock! (aka the best TV show since The Wire) Watson has to explain to Holmes that the earth revolves around the sun, and later blogs about the exchange to the amusement of his readers.  But despite a seeming affinity, Holmes’s ignorance is the opposite of the Waco woman’s.  This is not just because he takes correction, but because when corrected he says, “it doesn’t matter.”  In this case these are golden words.  It doesn’t matter to Holmes that the earth revolves around the sun since Holmes’s knowledge of reality, which is vast, is circumscribed by its utility:  everything that Holmes needs to understand, he needs to understand from the perspective of human experience.  The Waco woman’s painted canvas is in distinction a God’s-eye view, and so she cannot be corrected.  And to her it does matter;  it is the only thing that matters.

Victor Turner: time and space

This is really just a note to myself, partly because I want to remember some things I learned about Victor Turner this year, and partly because it’s good for me to remember that I learned them from my students.  I’m not going to explain the background, so if you’re not at least marginally familiar with Victor Turner this is not for you.

It’s well-known and obvious that Turner has two accounts of liminality, one drawn from his ethnographic work on the Ndembu and a second where he goes ballistic and starts seeing liminality everywhere in human social structure, and as I taught him I was mentally labeling them the “narrow” account and the “grandiose” account.  The first insight I came to, arising out of class discussion, was that they could also be labelled the “temporal” account and the “spatial” account.  Thus, in the first, a ritual will allow a practitioner to pass into a state of liminality and then back out of it to a profane state of normalcy in which she fulfills her role in the social hierarchy, while in the second, certain figures (Turner mentions hippies) are liminal to others:  they do not stop being liminal, not because they do not go through changes or enact rituals, but because the word liminal is now being used to describe a cross-section of social relations viewed from a static lens.

One of my best student papers this semester puts the two accounts together in what I think is an entirely convincing way.  “While Turner,” the student writes, “argues that it is liminality itself that works to reveal and create communitas, it is perhaps more accurate to say that the liminality recreated in ritual actually achieves this end.  Ritual arises in a response to liminality and ultimately functions as a reproduction of it;  the ritual process first recognizes liminality as a distinct form of existence, in a way fixing the liminal individual within the social structure just as surely as their social position might have.  The ritual subject has deviated in some way from their position in society, and naming this deviation functions to highlight the importance of social structure and the cultural values manifest in the society’s social categories.”  In short, the function of ritual, for Turner, is to allow individuals who are liminal (spatial account) symbolically to reproduce that liminality (temporal account) in order to overcome it, and in this way, “ritual uses liminality to reify the social order and fixed relationships within the community, thus working to generate communitas.”  The paper is titled “Yo Dawg, We Heard You Like Liminality, So We Put Some Liminality in Your Ritual about Liminality So You Can Be Liminal while You’re Being Liminal,” and the author is Sarah Patzer.  Of course the account only works to bring the spatial sense of the word into the temporal or ritual sense, not to bring the latter into the former.

Which leads me to another excellent paper reminding us that the two accounts remain distinct.  Aliyana Gewirtzman points out that if applied to literature, Turner’s temporal account would be more or less identical to the home-away-home pattern as analysed by scholars of children’s literature, or the hero’s journey as analysed by Joseph Campbell.  But on the rare occasions Turner mentions literature, he does not use the temporal account, but instead the spatial one.  Thus, for Turner, Sonya in War and Peace is a liminal figure and remains a liminal figure, and Turner seems not to turn his attention to literary characters who pass through a state of liminality and then return.  Putting Gewirtzman’s argument together with Patzer’s, one would say that Sonya stays liminal because Tolstoy does not give her a chance symbolically to reproduce her liminality.  But it is probably truer that Turner has no ear for literature.