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The Time of Natality


Arendt’s opposition to the presence of familial and biological themes in the sphere of politics is well-known. She argues that to model a political system on the family or to see the maintenance of life as a central political concern is much more than a simple misunderstanding – it is to promote views that are actively destructive of politics itself. It is thus puzzling that Arendt relies on the vocabulary of natality at the very heart of her own theorization of political action. As she states famously in The Human Condition, “since action is the political activity par excellence, natality, and not mortality, may be the central category of political, as distinguished from metaphysical, thought” (9). How are we to understand Arendt’s persistent appeal to this term, a tem which so strongly evokes both the family and life, in the face of her clear opposition to these themes in politics?

 

The first step in answering this question is to note that Arendt distinguishes physical birth from natality. The former is our natural, bodily birth, while the latter is the capacity to begin something new in the political sphere. However, this gives rise to a further question: What relation can be said to hold between these two terms? Two competing responses are found in the secondary literature. First, some feminist theorists have argued that the familial connotations of birth should be embraced, desiring in particular the promotion of the maternal relation in the political sphere. This interpretation thus explicitly resists Arendt’s unambiguous denigration of life and the familial. By contrast, an opposing and more dominant view strips natality of all biological connotations, and argues that the idea of a new beginning is the only dimension of birth relevant to Arendtian political action. This second interpretation implies that the specific vocabulary of birth is more or less irrelevant – it is a metaphor at best, but one that could easily be discarded should the familial connotations prove too strong. Each response thus negotiates the original tension by leaving one of the elements behind.

 

In this paper I argue for an alternative interpretation of the relation between physical birth and natality that preserves all the elements of Arendt’s account. The key, I propose, is to examine the temporality underlying her theorizations of birth. While Arendt leaves the precise location of physical birth ambiguous, sometimes placing it in nature and at other times in the world, in both cases she positions it firmly in the past. Physical birth has always already happened, marking a necessary fact that can never be altered. By contrast, Arendt positions natality in the future – as the beginning of something never before seen, natality lies in a contingent future that is to be enacted by political subjects. Thus, in addition to distinguishing these terms with reference to life and politics, and necessity and contingency, Arendt also separates them along a temporal axis, between past and future.

 

This understood, the question remains concerning the relation between these elements – what links past and future, or physical birth and natality? The answer lies in Arendt’s designation of natality as a “second birth” (HC176). Here she explicitly acknowledges that the contingent future always arrives through a reference to the past – a reworking or inheritance of the past from which it is distinguished. The name “birth” is thus neither reduced to its biological and familial meaning nor a mere metaphor that could be avoided. Further, my focus on this link between past and future casts political action as a whole in a different light. For I am arguing that the act of beginning something new made possible by natality does not involve a radical break with the past. Rather, politics occurs in the taking up of what has been, in the redeployment of the past in the service of an unknown future.

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