Reader’s Diary: Fred Dewey’s ‘From an Apparent Contradiction in Arendt’

(photo by Daniel Tiffany) (click to enlarge)

Hannah Arendt, an untimely, unassimilable figure, looms ever larger in the life of thought. Fred Dewey begins this essay published in pamphlet form by considering her assertion of “the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence.” It’s an attitude, I think, more common among poets and artists than among philosophers and political thinkers, who are from our point of view too quick to divide things into categories of importance and triviality, relevance and inconsequence. But Dewey’s essay is founded, not so much on this idea, as on one that follows, and which might seem more surprising to some readers of Arendt: “To think, she says, one must ‘withdraw from the world.’” Dewey rightly wonders how this squares with Arendt’s insistence that thinking means “to consult experience and learn from reality.” (Notice that she speaks here of experience, reality, and not of their technicized, reified distillates — facts, data, etc.) The answer has to do with the way thinking does not merely accord with or register reality, but contests it, and therefore puts the thinker at odds with what appears to be common sense. But how is this “withdrawal” part of public life, of politics? It happens when we “stop and think” in the midst of common life — Socrates’ agora — and invite others to do so with us, to attend together to the “perplexities” of who and what we are and have done. Since the late 1990s, Dewey has conducted a series of collective public readings/discussions (in Los Angeles, Berlin, and elsewhere) of Arendt and other writers in the hope that through a collective attention to their details, “politics and thinking might be able to meet.” I’m a great believer myself in the method of collective reading, though unlike Dewey I have not practiced it much. I’d like to be there for one of those sessions some day. Style counts, and his style in pursuing this method must be impressive. Or so I presume, because while I’d never heard of Dewey, the former director of Beyond Baroque in L.A., before I arrived in Berlin in early July, his name seemed to be on everyone’s lips there. Luckily I was able to find this pamphlet for one euro at the marvelous Saint George’s English Bookshop — a bookshop as bookshops should be. I note that another collection of his essays exists, under the title The School of Public Life: a subject for further investigation. In the meantime, I want consider how to give some “thinking attention” to the fact that I initially spelled the third word of this pamphlet’s title as “apparendt.”

Fred Dewey’s From an Apparent Contradiction in Arendt to a Working Group Method (2016) is published by re: public and available from Saint George’s English Bookshop, Berlin. It will soon be available through Printed Matter in Manhattan and SPD, Small Press Distributors, later this fall.

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