Natality is an essential precondition of politics, Hannah Arendt argues in her book The Human Condition (HC), in which she lays out a three-part schema to describe the active engagement of humans with the world. The vita activa, the active life, involves labor, work, and action, which entail, respectively, biological processes, the creation of things, and mutual engagement among people. In a saturated landscape of binary theories, nature/culture king among them, Arendt invites us to begin theorizing the world anew. Such is the spirit of natality: the possibility for beginnings. In this short essay, written from my perspective as a Jewish feminist, I draw together a plurality of engagements with natality to engender new conversations in political theology.
Against an absolute concept like creation ex nihilo performed by a singular entity outside of time, history, or materiality, natality is necessarily emergent from the condition of life itself: humans are necessarily born and die. Of course, neither is exclusive to human life. To understand why Arendt’s concept does not apply equally to, say, beavers, who do the labor of eating and reproducing, and the work of building structures and shaping their environments that leaves permanent traces, we need to consider how theological and political ideas come together in and through natality.
Natality is the precondition of action and the action of politics. While labor, work, and action are all “rooted in natality in so far as they have the task to provide and preserve the world for, to foresee and reckon with, the constant influx of newcomers who are born into the world as strangers,” the intimate alignment of natality and action is most significant for the formation and perpetuation of both “political bodies” and history (HC 8-9). The potential “inherent in birth” is only actualized by the impression the “newcomer” makes on the world by acting. Arendt elevates action above the less politically potent activity of contemplation, thus reversing the hierarchy established and maintained by Greek and then Christian thinkers, from Plato and Aristotle to Aquinas and Augustine. While Arendt follows Nietzsche and Marx, who flipped the hierarchy of the vita contemplativa and the vita activa on its head, it would be erroneous to assume natality is anathema to religion, especially dominant forms of Christianity.
Though Arendt will distinguish natality from Creation, she first introduces natality in the context of “The Beginning.” Early in HC, Arendt suggests that natality is “implicit” in the first creation story of humans in Genesis 1:27, in which God is said to have created them, Adam and Eve (HC 8). It is plurality which makes the political possible. “Action would be an unnecessary luxury, a capricious interference with general laws of behavior, if men were endlessly reproducible repetitions of the same model, whose nature or essence was the same for all and as predictable in the nature or essence of any other thing,” Arendt writes. “Plurality is the condition of human action because we are all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live” (HC 8).
It is not a feminist hermeneutic that attracts Arendt to the story of a mutual creation, over the second creation story in which Eve is produced from Adam as a helpmate (Genesis 2:21-3; see, for example, Pardes). In fact, Arendt adamantly rejects the move, which would soon become popular among feminist thinkers, to elevate labor and by extension nature and femininity (see Ortner). For Arendt, labor figures centrally in her critique of Marx, who does not treat labor as a ball and chain in flesh. For the sake of the economy of this short essay, I’ll simply note that Arendt is motivated to distinguish labor and work in reaction to Marx’s inclusion of labor as part of the ladder to liberation (it might be more accurate, to extend my idiom, to say that Marx treats labor as both shoot and ladder) (HC 101-109). Suffice it to say, Arendt would not be one to join in in Starhawk’s Circle Dance worshipping female bodily power nor to choke back tears while watching Beyoncé perform at the Grammys as a pregnant goddess.
If you approach Arendt, as I do, as a (Jewish) feminist scholar, this might be the moment where you lose hope that natality might be somehow redemptive of the patriarchal political theological traditions you’ve inherited. As it turns out, women as mothers are almost wholly absent, an unmentioned vessel to bear new beginnings in what turns out to be, in my reading, a quite androcentric philosophy. This is not a universal appraisal. Take, for example, the first essay in the body of Bonnie Honig’s collection, Feminist Interpretations of Hannah Arendt, in which Mary G. Dietz lays out the polarizing nature of Arendt’s thought among feminists. Some difference feminists (thinkers for whom the category of woman, as distinct from man, is a central object of analysis) reject Arendt’s fundamentally “phallocentric” thought for reproducing a masculinist valorization of the public sphere, rather than rescuing women’s labor from its denigrated status, as advocates of social reproduction would do. Others perform “gynocentric” readings of Arendt that, as Dietz aptly puts it, “appropriate natality or birth” in the service of feminist theory. Dietz treats Nancy Harstock’s reading of Arendt as emblematic of just how inappropriate natality is for feminist projects that ground women’s power in reproductive capacities or experiences; transfiguring Arendt’s valuation of labor, Dietz suggests, disfigures natality, which is necessarily about action, rather than embodiment (Dietz 27-9).
Is natality not about birth then? Perhaps not in the commonsense imagination of a particularly female reproductive activity. Later in HC, Arendt elaborates: “With word and deed we insert ourselves into the human world, and this insertion is like a second birth, in which we confirm and take upon ourselves the naked fact of our original physical appearance. This insertion is not forced upon us by necessity, like labor, and it is not prompted by utility, like work. It may be stimulated by the presence of others whose company we may wish to join, but it is never conditioned by them; its impulse springs from the beginning which came into the world when we were born and to which we responded by beginning something new on our own initiative” (HC 176-7). And thus, a wide variety of people, feminists included, have taken various liberties with natality, perhaps authorized by the concept itself.
A quarter-century after Honig’s volume, for example, a spate of Arendt interpreters has given new life to natality. Notably, rather than a phenomenologically grounded politics emerging from experiences of female embodiment, Rosalyn Diprose and Ewa Plonowska Ziarek’s Arendt, Natality and Biopolitics reasserts natality’s plurality and relationality as an event that can contend with repressive biopolitics, or the governance of life itself. As the central concept of a political ontology, then, natality opens new possibilities for “a more general notion of the political, of human inter-relationality, and of political action that includes but extends beyond the ‘right to have rights’” (8), a formulation that they argue is inextricable from the individualism of modern liberalism, and more tentatively they venture, Christian thought. Diprose and Ziarek argue that natality, which prefigured Foucault’s observation of modernity’s normalizing power, also outperforms the Foucauldian formulation in its political possibilities because of its insistence on “collective action and interaction” to combat the racism and patriarchy of modern biopolitics and to develop an “alternative to liberal notions of citizenship and to the logic of sovereignty” (20). Thus, for Diprose and Ziarek, natality becomes the philosophical tool that might save modern nation states from Hobbesian traditions of repressive, death-oriented politics that Arendt watched consume modern nation-states and that we today are witnessing as nativism, carceral logics, and the curtailing of reproductive rights.
It should come as no surprise, given natality’s strange fertility, that with some feminist political concerns now quieted, new questions begin to surface about the political theological tradition from which natality emerges. After all, Arendt identifies natality with a second birth. Her inspiration, HC makes plain, is none other than Jesus of Nazareth! Arendt seeks to recover Jesus as a political thinker from his interpreters, Paul among them, who she argues distorted Jesus’s call to action by emphasizing the telos of salvation. Arendt’s politics require worldly promises, the embodiment of which is not a sovereign (whether God or human ruler) but rather the child, man’s new beginning. It would go against Arendt’s metaphysics to say she deified the figure of child, but she does identify the natality that the child makes possible to be “the miracle that saves the world.” Ultimately, it is Jesus who is the archetype of natality, and “[a] child has been born unto us,” the words of the Gospels, its dictum (247). Is natality, thus, the grounding of a Christian political theology?Questions have arisen indeed!
Arendt’s thought does not lend itself to simple answers, but the short answer is no. As Miguel Vatter argues in Living Law, the miracle to which Arendt refers is not Jesus Christ. According to Vatter, Arendt prescinds Christian theology from what Jesus models and proclaims as his originary message, namely, “that forgiveness was an inherent articulation of natality, in the sense that it is that (re-)action which permits action and so beginnings to be repeated” (278). Thus, in a twofold sense, Jesus performs natality in the initiation of a movement and in the new beginnings that the action of forgiveness affords.
Arendt herself clarifies Jesus’s role in theorizing natality in On Revolution (1963), where she works to explicate how natality could undergird the formation of a republic that is stable but anti-authoritarian. As Vatter explains, “The concept of natality crowns her theoretical attempt to think political freedom as a function of the paradoxical coincidence of revolution and authority, of an an-archy and stability” (266). Arendt’s answers, Vatter argues, emerge from reading the Roman poet Virgil in conversation with the Jewish collective story, especially Moses who serves as a model for civil religion. To gloss Vatter through Sara Ahmad, Arendt’s orientation toward the past is akin to Buber’s rendering of the Hebrew Prophets as leading back toward their collective promises rather than the otherworldly, absolute ends of Christian apocalypticism. It is the very endless “iterability” in the world that natality engenders that Vatter identifies as the wedge between a just political ideology of secularism and Schmidtian secularization of divine authority (264-77).
So, I find myself asking, as a Jewish feminist, not whether natality can be redeemed, but how I can forgive it for what it as of yet fails to do. In the conversation I have constructed among strands of Arendtian thinkers and interpreters, natality is pregnant with possibility but also risk. With iteration there is the threat of what Donna Haraway and Sarah Franklin have referred to as the “reproduction of” or “tyranny of the same” (Staying with the Manifesto: An Interview with Donna Haraway, 9). What is hidden in the “nothing other” of Vatter’s assertion that “the ‘miracle that saves the world’ is nothing other than ‘the fact of natality’”? At the risk of reintroducing Hobbes, I wonder, can this “matter of fact”be taken as self-evident? I return to my reticence to divorce this fact of natality from the agents, the mothers, to pretend birth exists in a vacuum (See Shapin and Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump).
To further invoke Haraway, “Reproduction and production go together, and call up a complex historically-situated set of practices, worlding practices, world-making practices that necessarily involve the biological processes of bodies, and in particular, women’s reproductive labour in its entire comprehensive sense of making lives, and of bringing lives to the possibility of their taking off and having lives of their own.” Haraway goes on to insist, invoking Marilyn Strathern and Sarah Franklin, “production and reproduction are Euro categories” that have been “falsely universalized” (Staying with the Manifesto, 10). By reading these feminist refusals to separate (re)production back onto political theology, I don’t want to drown out natality’s potentiality as action but rather to call to account the way power suppresses some newcomers from equally impressing themselves on the world; the burdens of newcomers in a world where nature seems less and less likely a grounds for eternity; and the continuing incivility of Euro-American civil religion to Euro-divergent collectives, namely Jews.
With the following partial list of resources on which to build, Arendt and the collective of theorists who have read and re-read her again invite you into the risky yet rewarding business of initiating new directions in political theology.
Kei Hiruta, Hannah Arendt & Isaiah Berlin: Freedom, Politics and Humanity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021).
By framing the contours of Hannah Arendt’s and Isaiah Berlin’s disagreement, Hiruta draws out these two thinkers’ approaches to key conceptual categories, most notably human freedom.
Adam Stern, Survival: A Theological-Political Genealogy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021)
Survival traces the rhetorical work of “Jewish survival” in modern Jewish political theological thought, showing how the discourse is enmeshed in particularly Christian ideas about incarnation.
Samantha Rose Hill, Critical Lives: Hannah Arendt (London: Reaktion Books, 2021).
Hill locates political thought in the biographical and aesthetic life of the person who produced them, Hannah Arendt.
Roberto Esposito, (Timothy Campbell, ed.), Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008)
Esposito situates natality, in particular, and Arendt’s thought more broadly, in the context of biopolitical thought.