The banality of sociality

Hannah Arendt’s seminal Eichmann in Jerusalem famously describes Nazism, personified in the Holocaust administrator on trial in Jerusalem, as ‘the banality of evil’. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt considers the alliance between ‘elite’ and ‘mob’ underpinning totalitarian politics. If the totalitarian elite is characterised by a sinister banality, a strange coupling of dull personality and callous calculation, could the same be said of society at large? 

Philosopher Hannah Arendt, in full flow.

Today, many social norms regulate interaction between people. There are rules of politeness, for instance, which seem to impose something approximating a moral constraint on behaviour. But these rules are conditioned by class background, and many social norms in many contexts involve an insistence on breaking traditions to remake the world in a radical image. Each set of social norms could be moral, meaningful, or beyond banal, and evading evil. But in practice, social life depends on the repression of feeling, of thought, and of moral fibre, perfectly expressing the banality of sociality. Let me explain. 

Like Eichmann, a family man, social life today is premised on a set of personal relationships that each person is entangled in. These relationships offer the possibility of escape from our inner worlds, towards an external moral plain. But the mores and norms of social life, which may collectively be termed ‘sociality’, have all the characteristics of Eichmann’s own banality. They are directed towards efficiency, not morality; we uncritically assume, as Eichmann did, a set of goals towards which we should each aim. When we don’t, it is not due to careful reflection, but rather due to a certain instinct. But in a society characterised by banality, both reasons and emotions will embed this banality and reflect it back onto us. Hence, sociality — which mediates between conscious thought and unconscious feeling — represents and exacerbates the banality of our daily experience. Why?

Sociality emerges from a set of powerful relationships among people and institutions, or collections of rules and networks of resources that involve technologies of power. These technologies are used, as French sociologist Michel Foucault suggested, to discipline behaviour and keep it aligned with expectations. The function of the police today is much like the function of guards of an internment camp: to keep everyone in their place, in accordance with rules which multiply by the day, without rhyme or reason. The state today is much like the authoritarian state: propped up by monopolies and militaries, forced to comply with the constraints of internal commerce and external conquest. The difference is that commerce is now external, or global, while conquest is internal, or civil. But this kind of dynamic is precisely what preceded the outbreak of hostilities in the first half of the twentieth century: trade created the emptiness in people’s souls that war attempted to fill through annihilation of our peacetime regrets with the catastrophes of violent conflict. War is, as Clausewitz said, politics by other means. When normal politics fails, the politics of the exception begins. 

But both peace and war in the modern age are regulated by a geopolitical economy (Helen Thompson), or institutionalised social order (Nancy Fraser), that gives rise to a certain social lifeworld (Habermas) characterised by deep and profound shallowness, emptiness, and banality. Without any deeper reasons for living other than living itself, politics becomes barely biological: ‘bio-politics’, as Foucault coined the phrase which Agamben applied to describe the febrile world of pandemic politics. But politics is not the only thing emptied of morality and filled with biology; so is society as a whole, the totality of social relationships, external and internal to families and their own dynamics of divided affection. Once the economy was characterised by the banality of profit-seeking and book-keeping. In the twentieth century the polity was captured by a similar banality. Now sociality is infected with the same illness, spreading to the totality of social relationships (society) rooted in their inner logic (sociality). If social life is banal, to follow Arendt’s logic, we have truly lost morality. We have not left the world of Dante’s Inferno; indeed, we are deeper into darkness than ever before. What comes next is anyone’s guess. Let us hope we find a way out, before we ourselves become banal.

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