TransAct 17

TransAct statement

"Understanding, while it cannot be expected to provide results which are specifically helpful or inspiring in the fight against totalitarianism, must accompany this fight if it is to be more than a mere fight for survival. Insofar as totalitarian movements have sprung up in the non-totalitarian world (crystallizing elements found in that world, for totalitarian governments have not been imported from the moon), the process of understanding is clearly, and perhaps primarily, also a process of self-understanding. For while we merely know, but do not yet understand, what we are fighting against, we know and understand even less what we are fighting for. And the resignation, so characteristic of Europe during the last war and so precisely formulated by an English poet who said that 'we who lived by noble dreams/defend the bad against the worse,' will no longer suffice. In this sense, the activity of understanding is necessary; while it can never directly inspire the fight or provide otherwise missing objectives, it alone can make it meaningful and prepare a new resourcefulness of the human mind and heart which perhaps will come into free play only after the battle is won. [.] Yet, has not the task of understanding become hopeless if it is true that we are confronted with something which has destroyed our categories of thought and standards of judgement? [.] Maybe it is preposterous even to think that anything can ever happen which our categories are not equipped to understand. Maybe we should resign ourselves to the preliminary understanding, which at once ranges the new among the old, and with the scientific approach, which follows it and deduces methodically the unprecedented from precedents, even though such a description of the new phenomena may be demonstrably at variance with the reality. [.] The paradox of the modern situation seems to be that our need to transcend preliminary understanding and the strictly scientific approach springs from the fact that we have lost our tools of understanding. Our quest for meaning is at the same time prompted and frustrated by our inability to originate meaning. [.] Only in action will we proceed, as a matter of course, from the changed set of circumstances that the event has created, that is, treat it as a beginning."

Horror is the transformation of violence into ordinary, everyday routine. It is the existence of "detention centres" and imprisonment for men and women who have no papers.

I would like to add: in spite of the energetic action which western countries talk about using in favour of the democratic rights of minorities in Europe, Layla Zana and other Kurd parliamentary representatives remain interred in Turkish prisons.

Alejandra Riera, Paris

Quotations from Hannah Arendt, Understanding and Politics, originally published in: Partisan Review 20 (1953), No. 4, pp. 377–392.