Belated Proposal: The Passion of Compassion: Arendt, Castoriadis, and the Imaginary Institution of Solidarity

At risk of drawing attention to the belatedness of this proposal, I’m posting it here anyway in hopes of suggestions/comments/feedback…

The Passion of Compassion: Arendt, Castoriadis, and the Imaginary Institution of Solidarity

This paper explores the phenomenon of solidarity. As the affective element of political and revolutionary activity, solidarity entails feeling with others. The upsurge of excitement generated by protest, the bursts of outrage generated by injustice, the sense of elation generated by liberation, these affective experiences depend upon a sense of collectivity. The awareness, in other words, that a feeling is shared intensifies the feeling itself, and this is especially important in the affective elements of revolutionary and political activity.

It is this feeling together, this compassion, that is the source of the possibility of solidarity according to the formulation of it in Hannah Arendt’s work. In On Revolution Arendt tells us that solidarity arises from compassion and yet makes possible a dispassionate community of interest.This claim calls into question the role that passion has to play both in revolutionary practices and in political action more broadly.  We might, at first glance, see Arendt’s insistence on solidarity as a dispassionate political community as a kind of Enlightenment relic, positing reason over emotion, mind over body, etc.  But if this is the case, then we might also ask how solidarity, as a tie that binds individuals to one another, can be free from passion at all.   There seems to be a tension, in other words, between an account of solidarity as arising from our capacity for compassion on the one hand and an account of solidarity as founding a dispassionate community of interest on the other.

The paradoxical role that “passion” plays in politics is mirrored in a similarly paradoxical relation between passion and knowledge. Cornelius Castoriadis treats this paradox in Figures of the Thinkable. Castoriadis, following Piera Aulinger, formulates passion as the movement whereby an object of pleasure becomes an object of need, passion is the development of the relation to something without which life is not worth living.

This paper aims at developing an account of solidarity that brings together the work of Hannah Arendt and Cornelius Castoriadis. Both Arendt and Castoriadis turn to Kant in their formulation of the relation between passion, knowledge, and politics. The positive account of solidarity formulated out of this project, articulates solidarity as a Kantain regulative ideal.






The introduction will set up the question What is Solidarity? And situate it within the context of the new media, asking What do we do with increased access to images of suffering?


Section I: Images of violence and revolutionary activity in “The New Media”

These past few months have seen a flurry of violent events on this planet.  And images from these events– from the suppression of the January protests in Venezuela, from the outrageously harsh death sentences issued in Egypt, and most recently from the brutal response to uprisings in the Ukraine have rolled across television and computer screens around the world, one after the other in a disturbing parade of the suffering and misery that this violence has engendered. How are we to respond to the images of violence? What is the difference in responding to these images with pity, or compassion, or solidarity? Why is this distinction important? There is a political danger to the proliferation of pity as an impetus for political action. And it has to do with the worry that viewing the images of suffering and violence that stream across computer and television screens is that all one can do is consume these images. No action is possible. In this section, I will set up these questions using Vilém Flusser’s theory of images in “the new media” in order to account for the danger of pity in our current global, political context.


Section II: Feeling with versus feeling for

“Pity may be the perversion of compassion, but its alternative is solidarity” (On Revolution 78). What is the distinction upon which Arendt’s formulation lies? In this section I will trace out the distinction between solidarity and pity as two possibilities that arise from compassion as Arendt formulates it in On Revolution. I will also draw from Castoriadis’ work on passion and knowledge to show a kind of analogue between these two thinkers that make sense of the paradoxical use of passion in both the pursuit of knowledge and politics.


Section III: Sensus Communis

Arendt’s insistence that solidarity arises from feeling with others (com-passion) but makes possible a dispassionate community of interest is generated out of her reading of Kant’s notion of sensus communis and the importance of the ability to think from the perspective of others. This section will provide a reading of Arendt’s notion of solidarity as a political transposing of Kant’s concept of sensus communis, of solidarity as a Kantian regulative ideal. To this end, it will also engage Castoriadis’ account of the affective bond that held together the Athenian state. In an interview with Chris Marker for French Public Television, Castoriadis tells a story about the constitution of Athens. The document was lost for hundreds of years, and when it was discovered, it was translated as “The Constitution of Athens.” But this translation is a mistake, the Greek title actually reads “The Constitution of the Athenians.” This is an important difference that exposes the difference between the Modern and Ancient notions of political unity and that also exposes a kind of model for thinking about solidarity. Instead of emphasizing the state as some foreign body to the people, the constitution represents a living, breathing, feeling body of actual living, breathing, feeling beings.



Book List

Arendt, Hannah On Revolution

——————— What is Freedom

——————— On Violence

——————— The Human Condition

——————— Truth and Politics

——————— Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy


Aulagnier, Piera The Violence of Interpretation: From Pictogram to Statement


Castoriadis, Cornelius Figures of the Thinkable: Including Passion and Knowledge

————————— The Imaginary Institution of Society

————————— Interview with Chris Marker


Flusser, Vilém “Images in the New Media”


Kristeva, Julia Hannah Arendt

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One Response to Belated Proposal: The Passion of Compassion: Arendt, Castoriadis, and the Imaginary Institution of Solidarity

  1. Dave Mesing says:

    It could be interesting to trade this more affective register out in terms of Arendt’s critique of the Marxist tradition. For example, she makes an interesting remark in On Violence that both Marx and Lenin were motivated by compassion or a passion for justice. (pg 24). I’m more or less just wondering out loud here, as a flag for future projects, but depending on how big of a role Arendt grants to compassion throughout her arguments, I wonder how we distinguish the different ways that solidarity can play out, because I’m sure that Arendt would want to delineate between a group of Marxist revolutionaries and the “Founding Fathers,” for example. But maybe the compassion/solidarity reading has some tools for subversively undermining this dichotomy.

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