TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The Politics of Death

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Lewis West
looks at Julia Hell’s “Remnants of Totalitarianism: Hannah Arendt, Heiner Müller, Slavoj Žižek, and the Re-Invention of Politics” from Telos 136 (Fall 2006).

Catastrophic history does not free society: it allows the individual no exit from an endless spiral of destruction. Such destruction promises liberation for some, but it only tilts the world closer to ever-greater annihilation. To place one’s hope in redemptive violence constitutes a leap into the absurd. It is an act of pure faith.

This is how Julia Hell, in her essay “Remnants of Totalitarianism: Hannah Arendt, Heiner Müller, Slavoj Žižek, and the Re-Invention of Politics,” reads the apocalyptic politics of Müller and Žižek. Hell frames her critique with a rigorous practicality: she laments Žižek’s “empty terms,” and likewise she sees the political writings of Giorgio Agamben and Judith Butler as hopelessly vague (103). Yet Hell’s rejection of Müller and Žižek does not reflect an entirely pragmatic method. While Hell insists on the need for a usable, specific politics, her attentive readings of each thinker also point to a vast philosophical disagreement. In the end, the true debate is not over the applications of theory. It is instead over the answer to a single question: what is the relationship of politics to death?

Müller and Žižek offer one answer. Müller’s “texts represent the other, catastrophic side of a romantic radicalism caught between melancholic paralysis and revolutionary voluntarism” (78). He is entranced by a history punctuated by suicide and massacre. Yet hope still remains: “the space left by destruction, flooded with rubble, might again turn into a space of liberation” (80). This faith quietly echoes through Müller’s later work. Still, Hell sees a literary parallel in these writings to the desperate violence of the German Red Army Faction (RAF). This is “utter resignation tinged by an apocalyptic rage” (86). For Müller and the RAF, no political program offers an escape from an oppressive, capitalist system; one can only revel in emancipatory violence, in a politics of death.

Žižek also embraces a politics which carries at its core a visceral encounter with death. Here, revolution begins with a foundational act. It remains one which “‘cannot be planned in advance—we have to take a risk, a step into the open . . .’—and [whose] consequences might well be Stalinist terror” (96). It is this “authentic revolutionary act” that brings the practitioner at once closer to utopia and violent disintegration.

Death forms the center of Žižek and Müller’s theories of revolution. Without a violent fusion of bloodshed and ruin, the future remains a melancholy repetition of fascist pasts. Hell rightly argues that such an approach fails to escape the catastrophic imaginary; even though the violent act may distance the revolutionaries from the past, it does not draw them into an ideal future.

In making this critique, Hell joins the company of many recent scholars who have sought to shift this relationship of politics and death. Adriana Cavarero, for example, understands the encounter with death as rooted in a deeply patriarchal philosophical framework: in privileging death politics, one negates birth and the reality that, though we may pass away into nothingness, we do not originate there, but in the womb.[1] Focusing on the reality of politics rather than its ideal form, Achille Mbembe notes that modern biopolitics, while certainly locating life within the realm of state authority, also maintains a distinct hold on death. The slave-holding South, apartheid South Africa, today’s Gaza: all are “death-worlds,” lands where “vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead.”[2] In the death-world, martyrdom becomes an urge to retake control of one’s life. Death does represent a political act, but only in a space where one lacks even the right to die.

Faced with the philosophical poverty associated with a politics of death, Hell prefers Hannah Arendt’s vision of a politics of creation. For Arendt, it is “the fact of birth” that represents the realization of the human condition.[3] We are constantly creating, beginning, renewing the world around us; with each new life humanity re-embodies its capacity for action. Hell finds promise in what Arendt sees as the logical corollary to this philosophy of natality: a politics that “takes place within the framework of parliamentary democracy and . . . transforms the friend/enemy antagonism into a friend/adversary agonism.” This is a far more plausible response to “U.S. Republican politics and their own brand of catastrophic scenarios” (103).

While Hell approves of the parliamentary ramifications of Arendt’s philosophy, she remains wary of the power Arendt invests in birth. Hell writes: “While Arendt takes recourse to the miracle of birth, Žižek conjures the miracle of the authentic act. What distinguishes Žižek from Arendt is his willingness to take the ultimate risk: to sever the connection to liberal parliamentary democracy” (103). Arendt escapes a catastrophic vision of history, but not by a method too different from that of Žižek. Both thinkers rely on a “miracle,” whether of birth or of the authentic act. Indeed, Arendt’s reliance on the miracle of birth seems not too different from the “messianic politics” that traps Müller and Žižek (103). Though Arendt openly rejects a politics of death, Hell’s writing suggests that even the miracle of birth remains enmeshed in similar intellectual and rhetorical frameworks. The politics of death, then, shares with the politics of birth a miraculous enchantment in the minds of revolutionary thinkers as well as the direct actions of revolutionary movements.

When Hell seeks to dismantle the ties between politics and death, she also makes a more radical gesture. Not only should future politics eschew catastrophic measures of history, but it must also abandon all miraculous foundations. Perhaps the world has outgrown a politics of miracles, just as it has the politics of death. The challenge, then, is how to live life without recourse to the enchanted act, and how to die when death is simply a passing into another realm.


1. See Adriana Cavarero, In Spite of Plato: A Feminist Rewriting of Ancient Philosophy, trans. Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio and Áine O’Healy (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995).

2. Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” trans. Libby Meintjes, Public Culture 15.1 (2003): 40.

3. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 178.

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