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How to Survive Totalitarianism. Lessons from Hannah Arendt

Roth, Zoë

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In the wake of the Trump election, Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism garnered renewed attention. In it, she argues that totalitarian ideology "is severed from the world individuals perceive through the five senses "and insists on a 'truer' reality concealed behind all perceptible things." By changing what appears true, totalitarian regimes can produce new, upside-down realities built on "alternative facts." The question of perception, appearance, and the senses points to the important role that aesthetics—or what pertains to sense perception—play in Arendt's theorization of totalitarianism. However, scholarly attention to aesthetic concepts in her thinking, including work/fabrication, common sense, and performance, mostly concentrates on later works that largely eschew the concrete political context of totalitarianism, fascism, and the concentration camp. This article argues that Arendt's analysis of totalitarianism provides a crucible for her development of aesthetic concepts and methods. Through drawing out the structure of totalitarianism's perceptual regime, it demonstrates that totalitarianism produces a form of anaesthesia. It destroys the concrete texture of reality and replaces it with hollowed out, atomized, and spectral traces of phenomenal experience. In turn, the article shows that situating Arendt's aesthetic thinking on fabrication and common sense in relation to totalitarianism reveals how aesthetic objects and criticism can challenge political forces' assault on reality.


Roth, Z. (2023). How to Survive Totalitarianism. Lessons from Hannah Arendt. New Literary History, 54(2), 1059-1083

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Mar 17, 2023
Online Publication Date Sep 20, 2023
Publication Date 2023
Deposit Date May 17, 2023
Publicly Available Date Sep 20, 2023
Journal New Literary History
Print ISSN 0028-6087
Electronic ISSN 1080-661X
Publisher Johns Hopkins University Press
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 54
Issue 2
Pages 1059-1083
Public URL
Publisher URL


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