Hannah Arendt’s interest in literature was part of a broader concern, which was inspired by her reading of Kant, with the role played by aesthetic representation in ethical and political judgment. Her rich repertoire of writings about literature deserves to be considered alongside the works more commonly associated with the ethical turn in literary studies. Arendt’s unique contribution, I argue here, is a heightened awareness of the assimilative tendencies of aesthetic and cultural representation, coupled with a critique of empathy as potentially illusory or even condescending when confronted with a political judgment that is set up to absorb difference. To recognize alterity requires us, if we follow Arendt, to understand otherness “in acting and speaking,” as she argued in The Human Condition
. Much of her philosophical and political work was dedicated to understanding the obstacles facing human togetherness, so that she could suggest ways for us to overcome them. Aesthetic representation, in her view, was one of the most effective strategies for achieving community because it offers a reconstruction of another’s viewpoints that invites both an imaginative projection and a sustained cognitive effort.
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