The Point Podcast

Selected Essays | Greg Jackson on Hannah Arendt

May 28, 2024 The Point Magazine Season 2 Episode 8
Selected Essays | Greg Jackson on Hannah Arendt
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The Point Podcast
Selected Essays | Greg Jackson on Hannah Arendt
May 28, 2024 Season 2 Episode 8
The Point Magazine

On this episode of “Selected Essays,” Jess and Zach talk with Greg Jackson about
 his essay “Within the Pretense of No Pretense,” published in issue 31 of The Point, and Hannah Arendt’s “Truth and Politics,” first published in 1967 in the New Yorker.

Craving more essays? Subscribe to The Point here at 50% off the normal rate.

Show Notes Transcript

On this episode of “Selected Essays,” Jess and Zach talk with Greg Jackson about
 his essay “Within the Pretense of No Pretense,” published in issue 31 of The Point, and Hannah Arendt’s “Truth and Politics,” first published in 1967 in the New Yorker.

Craving more essays? Subscribe to The Point here at 50% off the normal rate.

Jessica Swoboda  00:05

Hey everyone. Welcome to Selected Essays, a podcast series from The Point magazine about essays you should read, but probably haven't. Each episode we'll be talking with writers about an essay that's influenced one of their own. My name is Jess Swoboda, and I'm here with my co host Zach Fine.


Zach Fine  00:23

We spoke this week to Greg Jackson about Hannah Arendt's essay "Truth and Politics," which was originally published in the New Yorker in 1967, and was occasioned in part by the controversy around Arendt's famous book Eichmann in Jerusalem. We also spoke to Greg about his essay "Within the Pretense of No Pretense," which appeared in the winter 2024 issue of The Point. Greg is the author of the celebrated short story collection Prodigals, and was named one of Granta's "Best Young American Novelists" in 2017. He's written essays for The New Yorker, Harper's, and the Virginia Quarterly Review, among other publications. His new novel, The Dimensions of a Cave, was published by FSG in October.


Jessica Swoboda  01:03

We hope you'll enjoy this episode and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. If you have questions, comments, or anything else, send an email to We'd love to hear from you. And also be sure to subscribe to The Point, the magazine that brings you content like this podcast. You can find a 50% off discount code exclusive to listeners in the Episode Notes. Hey, Greg, thanks so much for joining us on this episode of Selected Essays.


Greg Jackson  01:41

I'm really pleased to be here and in fact recording from where I am in the Hudson Valley, I'm about about five miles from where Hannah Arendt is buried from her grave site, and I lived, at one point, so close I can basically see it from my from my window. So yes, it feels very appropriate to be recording an episode about her and her work.


Jessica Swoboda  02:11

So what do you think is important we know about a wrench life for reading this essay of hers, "Truth and Politics"? 


Greg Jackson  02:18

Well, I'll give a brief kind of overview of her life and hopefully it'll be concise enough and kind of get to the main points. I think the rent is, you know, generally well known but she's a German Jewish philosopher, political philosopher. She was born in Germany and spent most of her childhood in Königsberg and Far East Prussia. She very famously studied with Martin Heidegger. And also with well with him, she had a notorious, passionate affair. She also said that his mentor Edmund Husserl, they were kind of coming out of this school that Husserl is in some ways seen as the father of phenomenology, which I think is a little bit important for understanding Arendt's approach to philosophy, although she's very hard to kind of characterize in her thinking, but essentially, phenomenology takes political questions and looks at reality and political questions from the perspective of subjective experience. And there's something always with her, her work that's very rooted in life as it is lived. She had some formative experiences. Being a German and a Jew in Europe, in the early 20th century, she had to flee Königsberg as a child during the First World War, and then she had to flee Nazi Germany in 1933. She was actually detained for a while by Nazi officials for collecting anti semitic statements from the State Library, and after that she fled to Paris, stayed in Paris for a while. Then when war broke out, she and many other German nationals who are in France at the time were put in internment camps. She was in an internment camp in southern France in a place called Gers. And she remained there until France fell to Germany when France fell to Germany, and kind of the ensuing confusion and seeing the writing on the wall, she escaped with some other women internees and a kind of tragic side note, but that's sort of bears on other things we might get into is that the Jewish women who remained in the camp were later sent to Auschwitz by Adolf Eichmann, where they were subsequently killed. So that could have been Arendt's fate. In any case, Eichmann comes back into the story soon. Arendt did manage to get out of France after a few harrowing years, she traveled to Lisbon and then from there to New York City, where she developed sort of life among the intellectuals, intelligentsia. There she began writing essays and eventually wrote her first major work, which was the Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951. It was kind of the first major study to look at the rise of Nazism and Stalinism as related phenomena and to describe this new form of government totalitarianism, as distinct from, you know, authoritarianism or fascism or dictatorship is something new. On the basis of that work, she achieved a kind of new level of success. She taught at many important institutions, universities across the United States. She wrote a number of books and many influential essays. She often wrote for The New Yorker. In 1960, she learned along with the rest of the world that Israeli intelligence agents, agents of the Mossad had apprehended Adolf Eichmann, the one of the architects of the final solution and of the Holocaust in Argentina. And she decided that she had to see him in the flesh, and she decided that she was going to cover the trial in Jerusalem. She got assigned to report on it, and she traveled to Jerusalem in 1961. But she was pretty dismayed, maybe and disgusted by the trial itself for complex reasons you can get into or not. She ended up writing a five part series that was published in the New Yorker in 1963 that got released as a book the same year, called Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. This book, these essays, created a firestorm. She attracted basically a ton of criticism from friends, acquaintances, from sort of the Jewish intelligentsia at large. They had a lot of objections to what she had done, they objected to her tone, they objected to a lack of seeming solidarity or love for the Jewish people. They objected to the fact that she brought into her discussion some of the complicity and cooperation of Jewish leaders, the Jewish councils, with the Nazis. And perhaps most of all, people objected to this term, the banality of evil, which she ascribed to Eichmann, this banality, they thought that it somehow diminished maybe the monstrosity of his actions or his culpability, that it suggested there was something commonplace about evil or that anyone could have done what he had done. You know, she rejected these characterizations of her work. And she tried to confront them head on. She meant by banality not that it was commonplace, but that there was something sort of that Eichmann lacked the kind of imagination and imagination to enter into the experience of other people. And addressing the sort of controversy and the fear that it had kicked up, she eventually wrote the piece, "Truth and Politics," which we're discussing today, and which was published in the New Yorker in 1967. "Truth and Politics" was very well received, and you could even say sort of rehabilitated her reputation among those who had criticized her. It tried to address, she says in a footnote to the title, two issues that had sort of arisen from the controversy around her piece. One was whether it's always legitimate to tell the truth, and the other was what she described as the number of lies that had been, you know, kind of trotted out against her and people's criticisms, lies about what she had actually said and about what she had reported to the piece, tried to address those, those questions, and that sort of leads us into the piece itself. The only thing other thing to say about her biography, I guess, is that she lived for eight more years after that, and died in 1975 at the age of 69. 


Jessica Swoboda  09:38

So you've taken us through a lot of the different movements in her life and in her career and so of all of the work that she's published and written, why did you select "Truth and Politics"?


Greg Jackson  09:50

Truth and politics, I guess I chose partly because I've kind of come to it more recently than some of her other works I knew better like the Origins of Totalitarianism. It seemed like a question I wanted to understand more deeply, the relationship between truth and politics and why they might be in conflict, why truth in this particular age, which, you know, some people have described as post truth? You know, I don't know exactly if that's how I would characterize it, but, you know, I wanted to think more deeply about why the fate of truth and of speaking truth, of establishing truth has, you know, is imperiled in the political realm. And, you know, it seemed to me like it had a lot to do, a lot of relevance with contemporary culture. So that's why I chose it to talk about it. And also because it was pressure material for me.


Zach Fine  10:53

Can you tell us a little bit about Arendt's essay and what the argument is?


Greg Jackson  10:56

Well, I can tell you the core thesis statement as I take it, but I also can run through the argument. It's a long piece, it's complicated. Arendt has a quality that in her writing, where she's sort of almost thinking aloud, and there's a lot of twists and turns to the argument. They're digressions, they're things that don't immediately announce how they fit within the framework. So there's a lot to be said, for kind of going through some of the movements of the argument. But if I had to say her central thesis statement, I suppose I would say that she she suggests that to abandon that, well, truth is, in some ways, quite weak or impotent in the face of politics, that will be swallowed by politics, or it will crumble in the on the onslaught of power, let's say, it's actually not something that can meaningfully be sacrificed to certain expedient ends or political ends, that to sacrifice truth would imperil the very things politics is trying to accomplish, our survival and flourishing and perseverance. And in many ways, the essay is sort of charting the fate of truth within the political realm, but also trying to substantiate the necessity that truth has for politics, even if it is in some ways, weak imperiled within the political sphere.


Zach Fine  12:28

Before we look more closely at the essay, can you read the first passage for us?


Greg Jackson  12:32

Sure. I'm going to read from the version that appeared in the New Yorker. There are later published versions that might vary vary slightly differ, but I think they're virtually the same. "The subject of these reflections, the antithesis of truth in politics is a commonplace. No one has ever doubted that truth and politics are in rather bad terms with each other, and no one as far as I know, has ever countered, counted truthfulness among the political virtues. lies have always been regarded as necessary and justifiable tools not only of the politicians or the demagogues, but also of the state statesman's trade. Why is that so? And what does it mean for the nature and the dignity of the political realm on the one side, and for the nature and the dignity of truth and truthfulness on the other? Is it of the very essence of truth to be impotent in a power to be deceitful? And what kind of reality does truth possess if it is powerless in the public realm, which more than any other sphere of human life guarantees reality of existence to Natal and mortal men? That is to beings who know they have appeared out of non being and will, after a short while again, disappear into it? Finally, is not impotent truth, just as despicable as power that gives no heed to truth? These are uncomfortable questions, but they arise necessarily out of our current convictions in this matter."


Jessica Swoboda  13:57

So in this passage, Arendt acknowledges her preoccupations, and the title of the essay "Truth and Politics" tells us that she's indeed preoccupied with examining the relationship between the two. And so what do you see as their relationship, or maybe tension is more accurate, according to Arendt? What is the relationship between truth and politics? What's going on here?


Greg Jackson  14:19

Well, so Arendt does distinguish between a few different kinds of truth, including rational truth and mathematical or axiomatic truth, but fundamentally she's concerned with factual truth. And the factual truth has a very particular life for her in in the kind of political sphere. It's inherently political. And it's contrary as opposed to the opposite of rational truth which might be error or illusion. The contrary a factual truth is the deliberate falsehood or the plain lie. She believes that the kind of fundamental tension between truth and politics first arises out of two different modes of being--the life of the philosopher and the life of the citizen. The life of the citizen is concerned with sort of this ever changing world of human affairs and the philosophers concerned with everlasting truth. And there's a kind of fundamental potency here. Truth has this coercive quality, she describes, it has a different mode of asserting its validity to opinion. And this is problematic because at the core of politics, in the core of governance, are rests opinion, the opinion of the people who confer legitimacy or consent upon the governed. Truth, she says is beyond agreement, dispute, opinion or consent, which are at the essence of politics. So fundamentally, truth is sort of domineering in her view, it is simply stubbornly insisting upon what is and it's not amenable to the kind of debate that is at the core of political life. You know, I think this is the place where she traces sort of the fundamental opposition, in truth, in politics, although then she elaborates on all the kinds of interesting ways in which that opposition plays out. 


Zach Fine  16:12

Arendt makes a point in the essay of distinguishing different kinds of truth, scientific truth, factual, truth, rational truth, what are those distinctions and why are they so important for her,


Greg Jackson  16:24

She starts by talking about mathematical or axiomatic truth, which are sort of truths that are in a way sort of self evident or discoverable through sort of thought alone. And then she moves to a slightly more kind of fragile but adjacent category of truth which she calls rational truth, which is the truth of say, scientists or philosophers, which she also says is sort of established and based upon logic and reasoning. And while these truths can be denied by political forces or power forces, because they are based in in logic and rationality they can potentially be rediscovered. The opposite of them is not lying, per se, or falsehood, its error or illusion. And so these are, in some ways more robust. Factual truth, which is really what she's concerned with most in the essay, she says is sort of the most fragile of all truths because it only really exists or can exist in human minds. It is established by witnesses and documents, witnesses, which can be inaccurate or bear false testimony, documents which can be forgeries, or suspected of being forgeries, factual truth, there's nothing really you can call upon to establish it, there's no sort of higher principle or logic, besides simply more evidence, more testimony, more witnesses. And so in the sense, factual truth, kind of operates the same way opinion does, or at least the way we resolve disputes about factual truth is the same way we resolve disputes about opinion. And so this, you know, doesn't make it the same as opinion but it makes it in the political realm have many of the kind of frailties that opinion does, or at least it can be kind of conflated or blurred into opinion in a way that sort of undermines it. Do you think we


Jessica Swoboda  18:22

Do you think we need all of these distinctions between different types of truth? Like I, as I was reading, I was like, okay, first of all, I was trying to keep track of all the different types of truth that Arendt was detailing and describing, and then I was like, wait a second, why do I need to be so careful about distinguishing these? Like isn't truth just truth? Why does it need to have a specific category under which it falls? So I don't know what your thoughts are there. And if you maybe you agree with Arednt, maybe you're like, no more categories, even. But I


Greg Jackson  18:51

Yeah, no, I mean, I think that for me to kind of, in a different arena of discussion, these distinctions about truth could be very interesting and fruitful, at least philosophically. But I don't think that they're really that essential for the argument that Arendt is making in the piece. And in some ways, maybe it's easiest to kind of leave aside some of the distinctions and focus more on this issue of factual truth, which is where she's really focused. You know, I think one of the places that she takes us that I find most interesting and fruitful is she essentially says that factual statements don't have kind of political significance in themselves, or at least they're not a form of political action. Whereas on the other hand, lying, actually trying to rewrite history or alter the record, that in itself is a kind of action. It's the liar wants things to be different from what they are. The liar wants to change the world. And in that way, there's this kind of affinity between our capacity for action, our ability to change the world and, and lying. It's that ability to see that things could be different, to insist that maybe they should be, to be free from kind of the conditions that were given the circumstances we find ourselves in, that freedom is very close to the freedom to be able to imagine counterfactuals and therefore propose counterfactuals, to propose lies. And so there's this kind of natural affinity that Arendt sees between lying and politics or lying as a kind of perversion, perhaps of a very inevitable facet of politics. And, you know, she says that only kind of in the realm of in a society or a community or something like that, it's that where organized lying is endemic, only there does speaking truth or telling the truth really rise to the level of a politically significant act. You know, I find this a very kind of provocative idea, and I think it does help get at some of the reason why, yeah, why truth and politics have this tension and why kind of lying has always been seen as a somewhat acceptable or venial sin within the political sphere.


Jessica Swoboda  21:21

Yeah, because as I was reading, I was like, okay, why is the liar in some ways the enemy of fact, and rather than, say, like the ignorant person, or the uninformed opinion giver, and you your answer's really helping me think through that.


Greg Jackson  21:35

Yeah, you know, she contrasts like error and illusion more with rational truth than with actual truth. Where she sort of takes this discussion, which I think is where it gets really very relevant to and insightful about kind of contemporary life and culture and things that are going on, is she talks about sort of this more modern phenomenon, which she calls the rise of mass manipulation.She talks about kind of image making and, and storytelling, this sort of propagandistic idea of creating a sort of image or story that's going to supplant or replace reality. But what she says is essentially that to carry off such a large scale lie, you can't even just have deception, basically, self deception becomes becomes inevitable, to to maintain such a big lie. And so what happens is sort of the deceiver and the deceived begin to merge and blur and the energy of the group then kind of goes into maintaining this image or this story. And the people, the figures that are most threatening to that image, or the story are not kind of people on the outside who disagree, but people on the inside, who haven't fallen under its spell and continue to kind of deal in factual truth as they see it and understand it. And, you know, I think this is a really interesting way of thinking about why so many groups are most kind of concerned with and perhaps most punitive towards members of their own kind of tribe or their own, you know, allies who diverge from the kind of party line or from going along with this image. And you know, what Arendt says is that this has the tendency of kind of taking contestations, political contestations, let's say between which ones were maybe between nations were international or between groups, which were intergroup, and kind of turning them in on themselves so that it becomes about domestic politics or becomes about intergroup conflict. And yeah, I find that like a very fascinating way to think about you know, what often is going on in contemporary culture, where it's kind of the internecine battles over truth within groups, as opposed to between groups that almost are the most fiercely contested or vicious.


Jessica Swoboda  24:15

Now seems like a good time to turn to the passage you selected to read aloud. Can you take us there?


Greg Jackson  24:20

So the essay itself is in five parts and this is this passage comes at the end of the fourth part. That facts are not secure in the hands of power is obvious. But the point here is that power by its very nature can never produce a substitute for the security or stability of factual reality, which because it is past has grown into a dimension beyond our reach. Facts assert themselves by being stubborn, and their fragility is oddly combined with great resiliency, the same irreversibility that is the hallmark of all human action in their stubbornness, facts are superior to power. Are there less transitory than power formations which arise when men get together for a purpose but disappear as soon as the purpose is either achieved or lost. This transitory character makes power a highly unreliable instrument for achieving permanence of any kind. And therefore, not only truth and facts are insecure in its hands, but untruth and non facts as well. The political attitude toward facts must indeed tread the very narrow path between the danger of taking them as the results of some necessary development, which men cannot prevent, and about which they can therefore do nothing. And the danger of denying them or trying to manipulate them out of the world."


Jessica Swoboda  25:41

So why did you select this passage to read aloud?


Greg Jackson  25:44

Well, I think this passage, in many ways is, for me, the kind of most concise, interesting conclusion summary of where her thinking in the piece has led her. There is a fifth part that comes after this. But this passage really gathers together for me kind of the strands of her argument to this point. We didn't address yet the part of the essay where she talks about the kind of stubborn fairness of facts that has this sort of stability that that lies or mass manipulation, images, stories can never quite achieve, that they can supplant the truth and they can supplant facts, but they can never substitute for it, because they don't have this kind of inherent givenness. This aspect that emerges from the fact that they're simply what happened. So that was sort of the part that precedes this. So, you know, a lot of the essay to this point has been about describing how weak or impotent facts and truth are in the face of politics and power. But here, she's sort of getting into the kind of odd way in which facts have this other strengths, that's even greater than, than power. And that, you know, sort of endures, despite powers attempts to write it out of existence. You know, the final part of this passage is the part that I find most interesting. You know, she's, this is a sort of assertion, it's not necessarily, I guess, proven, but she, you know, she begins this passage with "the political attitude toward facts must indeed, tread the very narrow path." So she's saying that this is kind of the answer. This is how politics must treat facts. And she's talking about this narrow path between two possibilities on either side, which she both thinks are wrongheaded. One of the possibilities is to essentially treat what has happened as inevitable. This she describes as sort of the temptation of the professional historian, perhaps even the philosopher to, to look at history as a kind of inevitable development of a sequence of cause and effects. Or perhaps from like a Hegelian or Marxist point of view, as this inevitable development of, you know, historical materialism or the world spirit to sort of say that things were always going to wind up this way. And she rejects that because it's, well, it falsifies the fact that things always could have been otherwise, the facts are contingent, and that's at the very root of human freedom, the ability to act, that we could have acted differently, that we could have changed things. So to preserve the political possibility of human action, you can't believe that things are just inevitable in that way. But then she contrasts that on the other side of this narrow path with this other temptation, which he describes as the temptation of the professional politician, which is sort of just as bad, which is to essentially, write facts out of existence to overwrite the facts. And, you know, that may be a temptation for the politician, because the politician is trying to change reality and trying to, you know, propose something that hasn't yet come to be or propose, you know, some sort of plan or grandiose project that they want to achieve. But, you know, the very difficulty of achieving those things means that there's always a temptation to sort of over promise or to lie about how things work or what can be accomplished, it overstates the possibility of human freedom, for political reasons. And so, you know, this narrow path is sort of between believing in a kind of impossibility of action on the one hand and, you know, too great a possibility of action on the other, and actually for politics to be able to operate in the sphere where, where it can change things where it can have an impact. It has to both recognize the its freedom to act, but also the limitations on that freedom. And that's why factual truth is so necessary for politics.


Jessica Swoboda  30:12

Yeah, as we've been talking, and especially in that last answer of yours, I've been thinking of how relevant this essay is to our current political moment and how this essay might also help us think through our current political moment and what's dominating the discourse, what politicians are accustomed to do and most inclined to do. And I'm just, I'm wondering how this essay can in facthelp us think through our current political moment, if if at all, from your perspective?


Greg Jackson  30:42

Yeah, I, you know, I think it is, it makes a strong case for the necessity of preserving truth and truth telling, you know, not even necessarily for their own sake, but for the sake of having a politics that continues to function and uphold, you know, its promises to maintain its integrity. I think what we discussed before, this idea that you could see kind of groups cleave off into, you know, their own kind of realities, or worlds in which what they're engaged in primarily is maintaining a sort of image or story that winds up operating only in this kind of world of make believe. She believes that the problem with lying is that it pulls the ground out from underneath us, and that there's no ground on which to build anything in which to act. And that, you know, in a passage I like, a lot, she says, "the erection of Potemkin villages so dear to the politicians and propagandists of underdeveloped countries, never leads to the establishment of the real thing, but only to a proliferation and perfection of make believe, in essence." You know, I think she believes that, you know, indulging in this sort of image making, leaving behind factual truth, it only really leaves you with the possibility of continuing to kind of spin out and elaborate a kind of world of make believe. You know, I was thinking in relation to this about, it's probably a very obvious connection, but you know, the certain things that happened under the Trump administration, and there were all of these promises that the Trump made at various points, you know, he promised to build a border wall. At one point, he promised, you know, some sort of crystal clear water and, you know, beautiful air. He promised to undo Obamacare and give everybody some sort of better health insurance. There was, you know, he, he kept talking about how there was going to be infrastructure, we can, you know, that never materialized. And, you know, it's not even just to derive this. I think that a lot of people said, at the time, oh, this is, you know, it's because there's no follow through, or there's no, you know, intention to do these things. There's, you know, it's basically a kind of inept administration, or, you know, it just wants to signal these things and not do them. But, you know, I wonder more deeply if what is going on is that a, you know, any sort of political movement or political administration that is so deeply engaged in image making and storytelling in the world of make believe, it simply cannot really deal with or have fruitful commerce with the kind of factual, tangible, concrete realities that go into achieving those kind of actual ends, that there, it's simply incompatible to achieve, you know, tangible goals, to deal with material reality when you're so profoundly engaged with in this world of make believe, and that's kind of, you know, what this sort of departure from truth or factual truths entails. I mean, obviously, under Trump, there was, you know, everything that we know about kind of alternative facts and all of these things that seem kind of part and parcel of what Arendt is, you know, talking about when she talks about kind of mass manipulation and this departure from factual truth. But, you know, I don't think it's something that we're on any particular side completely immune from. I think that a lot of groups are, at this point engaged in defending certain stories that they've been telling and are threatened by the introduction of factual truth or dissenting truth. And yeah, I think for me, Arendt makes a pretty strong case that that is ultimately fatal to politics. Yeah, absolutely.


Jessica Swoboda  34:58

So you chose your essay "Within the Pretense of No Pretense," recently out with The Point in Issue 31, to pair with Arendt's. And obviously your essay is indebted to George Trow's, "Within the Context of No Context," another essay published in the New Yorker, this time in 1980. But in what ways is your essay for The Point also indebted to Arendt's "Truth and Politics"?


Greg Jackson  35:21

So I'm not sure if I had read "Truth and Politics" when I wrote "Within the Pretense of No Pretense." I might have read it later, or possibly at some point when I was revising it. But you know, I certainly saw a lot of points of overlap, I might, you know, even just start by saying that one thing I see, it's a little bit different, but it's a little bit similar between the Trow and the Arendt that I hope I do in my piece as well is that, you know, Arendt sort of uses certain kind of common words or vocabulary in a way that is a little bit idiosyncratic. And it sort of breaks out of some of the cliches of common words that we sort of hear and just think we know whether, you know, it's truth, politics, action, opinion, you know, everything in her work has, has its own kind of slightly precise way in which he means it. In the Trow, this is obviously a little bit different. He develops a kind of not even just a vocabulary, but he developed these kind of tropes or these figures, things like the cold child, the decline of adulthood. This is a lot of the reason why I think he structures it as in a sort of episodic, or aphoristic way, is to kind of create his own internal vocabulary or taxonomy that that the piece itself kind of educates you into, and gives you context for and, you know, I hope I do this a bit in "Within the Pretense of No Pretense." You know, one key kind of taxonomy I make, or one key kind of vocabulary, or maybe not vocabulary, but um, you know, particular kind of figure that I try and establish a set of figures in the pieces, the critic and the pundit. You know, the critic for me is kind of akin to Arendt's truth teller. It's  somebody who kind of resides in the life of the philosopher, which, you know, she would say, as a sort of necessary mode of life for arriving at truth and protecting truth. What for Arendt is sort of the key discipline that the philosopher or the truth teller must have is to be sort of disinterested, impartial, to be free from self interest. And interestingly, and I think just coincidentally, this was sort of the conclusion I came to about the critic that that was the key fact of the critic, the critic was trying to say, truth as he or she saw it without any guarded from kind of self interest and the way in which self interest could affect that. And I counterpose that with the pundit who I say is, in many ways, very much like the critic, but is actually operating from the perspective of self interest and self interest of his or her own career and status. And that this is sort of fatal, perhaps to the kind of truth, the truth that emerges from the life of the philosopher as Arendt describes it. In a way, you know, I talk in the piece about how a lot of this arises, the the rise of the pundit kind of decline of the critic, arises from the very public relentlessly public nature of our culture these days. Arendt also talks in other places about the distinct need to maintain the distinction between public and private life. It seems to me like one thing that happens when public and private life are no longer distinguished, when private life gets kind of overrun or subsumed by public life, is that you lose the kind of life of the philosopher you lose the critic in my vocabulary. And every one becomes sort of, is living the life of the citizen, which is, you know, it which is not kind of compatible with the authority and disinterestedness of truth and truth telling.


Jessica Swoboda  39:31

I'm glad you brought us to those sections that you have on the critic because I wanted to ask you questions about that. But you've already answered the question about what's the critics relationship to facts to truth to politics, so thank you for that. That was really clarifying. I'm wondering why you choose pretense instead of context. Why why make that shift from the Trow?


Greg Jackson  39:52

Yeah, I talked about this a bit in the piece, I think, you know, in the piece, the way to describe it is essentially that the figure for we're always kind of imagining is, is looking out at the world and trying to kind of answer these timeless questions about, you know, what is the world beyond my experience like and where do I fit in it now that we've moved much more kind of into a world of representation, this kind of screen world that we inhabit, where we are often acting as sort of audience members looking at something on mass and responding on mass or where we're addressing ourselves, not to individuals, but to audiences. We've moved into this realm of kind of a pretense where the questions are more about how am I to behave as a person under public scrutiny or in the public eye. And this difference between addressing ourselves to individuals or addressing ourselves kind of as an individual to another individual's privacy and addressing ourselves to audiences or masses of people, inevitably entails a kind of a type of acting a type of posturing and pretense. And, you know, I think that that is maybe an unrecognized you know, consequence of how we interact these day, these days, through technology, and given the ways that it structures our conversation, we might not even always be as aware of it as we could or should be. But this sort of pretense and posturing is trying to present ourselves in a certain light to the audience before us. It's not necessarily trying to communicate private truth or conscience to another individual.


Jessica Swoboda  41:44

Yeah, and how would you describe the persona of the writer writing this essay? Is it a Greg Jack? Is it Greg Jackson? Or is it a kind of character? And I don't mean this in a glib death of the author sort of way, but more just how were you thinking of tone when writing this essay?


Greg Jackson  42:02

That's a very interesting question that I've actually given, no thought to, so I wonder if I have anything very profound to say about that, it's certainly not like, I'm not speaking in a kind of natural or personal voice in the essay. I mean, I do, I guess, try and do a little bit of what Trow does in terms of a little bit of this kind of incantatory or oracular quality. But, you know, I, you know, if I, if there's anything that I wish I'd done a little more that tried to do so well is, you know, there's so much humor in his piece, I would have liked to have been a little bit funnier, perhaps. But I think in a lot of my essays, or my nonfiction work, what I'm often really trying to do, and this relates to that idea of trying to use language in slightly novel ways, or create your own kind of vocabulary, or idiolect, that skirts a little bit the sort of more common and cliched ways of using language. It's just, you know, I hope and I mean, I never want to say that I believe or know that I succeed in this. But I hope that it creates ways of looking at things or thinking about things that's that allow you to think before you kind of just immediately can put them into a conceptual framework that pre exists or an idea of how you're going to kind of slot this into the divisions in your mind that you already use to kind of receive information from the world outside. Arednt talks about thinking without a banister, by which he means sort of thinking without preconceived, or inherited conceptual categories. And what I want to do or aspire to do is to kind of create through slightly unusual or de familiarized ways of writing in a piece like this, the possibility to think anew before you just come to your conclusions about what I'm saying? Or before you just slot me into, oh, this person is coming from this perspective, or has this point of view and I know what I think about that, if that makes sense. 


Jessica Swoboda  44:22

It does. Well, Greg, thank you so much for joining us on this episode of Selected Essays. It's been really great to think through the Arednt with you which is a text I only encountered for the first time when you when you suggested it, and struggled with but now I feel like I'm leaving our conversation with with a much better grasp on her arguments and the moves that she's making in the piece. So thank you.


Greg Jackson  44:42

Well, thank you so much for having me, and it was a real pleasure.


Jessica Swoboda  44:47

Thanks, everyone for joining us for this episode of selected essays. We'd like to thank John Trevaskis for editing the podcast and Meg Duffy of Hand Habits for contributing the original music. As always, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and please subscribe to the point. There's a discount code for listeners in the show notes. If you have questions, comments or anything else, send an email to We'd love to hear from you. Until next time listeners.