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Hannah Arendt and Jacques Derrida: On Notions of Beginning, Foundation and Violence

In the introduction of On revolution, Hannah Arendt associates revolution with notions of beginning and foundation of freedom. She also affirms that revolution is brought up by violence and is even inconceivable outside the domain of violence. She then declares that her analysis is not concerned with the history of revolution, but rather with the implications of the French and American revolutions for the political realm and for man as a political being. This choice in approaching notions of beginning and revolution allows her to do away with the analysis of the violence she points at as foundational in the event of revolution. She justifies this exclusion by expelling violence from the political space because of its incompatibility with speech, which seems to imply a distinction between revolution as an interruptive event locatable in a particular moment in time and brought up by violence, and its political significance or its translation into political institutions.

Thus, the complex problem of the relation between violence, revolution and beginning that opens Arendt's book seems in many ways cast into the margins after that opening, thus implying a radical separation between politics and violence. This exclusion of violence from the political space as well as from Arendt’s analysis of revolution as a political event raises many questions about the very nature and the meaning of her account of revolution. One may argue that the inscription of violence is Arendt’s notion of revolution is aporetical, first by being named as foundational to and excluded from the essence of revolution as a political event, and secondly by being reduced to physical or empirical violence.

My paper will consist on the reading of this aporia through a juxtaposition of Arendt’s text and Derrida’s notion of ‘decision’, intrinsically linked to the notion of beginning. This juxtaposition is first motivated by the fact that Arend'ts aporetic formulations seem to require a thinking of aporias and politics as one might find in Derrida's notion of ‘decision’, which is also, as in Arendt's work on revolution, a thinking of the event. Secondly, this juxtaposition will allow for a reconceptualization of violence that will expand its definition beyond empirical, physical or narratable violence. This will consist in accounting for the arbitrariness of the unfolding of the event as a form of violence, which extends its presence to any act of foundation. Finally, I will argue that this form of violence is structurally linked to empirical or physical violence as all are inhabited by Derrida’s moment of ‘decision’ and its arbitrariness.

From this, I will first argue that revolution remains an interruptive moment not locatable in one particular, empirical or narratable point in time but inherently infects and repeats itself in what is thought of as its later institutionalization in the political sphere. Violence remains inscribed in whatever systems revolutions establish as well as in any account of these establishments in so much as they are, like the event of revolution brought up by violence, haunted by a ‘decision’. Secondly,  rather than using Derrida’s notions of ‘arbitrariness’ and ‘decision’ to point at or correct Arendt’s aporetic reading of revolution, I would try to read the meaning of what one might rather point at as a rigorous inscription of aporia in her text. I will try to go beyond the opposition between the event and its institutionalization that seems, a priori, to be predominant in Arendt’s analysis through a close reading of the tensions that this opposition make emerge in the text. Finally, in an attempt to define Arendt’s motivations for the intended exclusion of violence in her analysis, I will turn to Lyotard’s idea of marked writing when he suggests that ‘écriture’ in recent French thought, philosophy and literature is marked by the crime perpetuated against the king during the French Revolution and which calls into question any legitimacy in the political sphere. Lyotard’s statement will be helpful to create a link between Derrida and Arendt in their conflicting notions of beginning and foundation. It will also be helpful to explain the link between Arendt’s exclusion of violence and her emphasis on beginning as a human faculty by arguing that her account of revolution is marked by her experience and account of totalitarianism which goal, to her, is the elimination of the capacity to begin through the erasure of the event of natality.

The detours by Derrida and Lyotrad will allow us to read through the aporias in Arendt’s text by reading her own writing as foundational act and an event that bears witness to and carries the foundational violence she excludes from her analysis, and thus stands for the futurity of revolution.