Locating Hannah Arendt within Postcolonial Thought: A Prospectus

Publication Type:

Journal Article


College Literature, Volume 38, p.95–114 (2011)




This essay attempts to integrate the ideas of Hannah Arendt into the field of postcolonial studies. It does so by focusing on two texts, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). Although the central purpose of both works is to understand the dimensions of the Holocaust, the conceptual ideas and political implications of these two books extend well beyond this historical event. At the center of The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) is an argument for the role of imperialism in shaping ideologies of racial difference and their employment for political purposes, both in colonial contexts and elsewhere. Indeed, Arendt's early contention that state practices of modern imperialism influenced the rise of totalitarianism in Europe represents a significant precursor to later work that has sought to articulate the mutual constitution of Europe and its overseas possessions, Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism (1993) being emblematic. Eichmann in Jerusalem offers a different set of ideas to consider. Although her examination of the "banality" of evil has drawn the most attention, Arendt's separate discussions of the political theater of the trial and what kind of justice can be achieved through such proceedings speak to contemporary dilemmas found in countries such as South Africa and Rwanda regarding the uses of legal means for resolving past forms of trauma. Finally, her critical views of Israel found in Eichmann combined with her other writing on statelessness and the question of rights have influenced later thinking on the Palestinian question and similar postcolonial issues. In sum, this essay provides a brief prospectus as to how Arendt and her ideas may be utilized to further expand the dimensions of postcolonial studies and its engagement with political issues found in the past and present.

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