Watch Hannah Arendt’s Diagnosis of the Banality of Evil as an 8‑Bit Video Game

Per­mit us a cou­ple of great over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tions: Han­nah Arendt became well-known by writ­ing about evil. Video games, espe­cial­ly clas­sic ones, usu­al­ly chal­lenge the play­er to fight some kind of evil. And so we have a suit­able, if at first seem­ing­ly incon­gru­ous, meet­ing of form and sub­stance in this video, “What is Evil?,” from the 8‑Bit Phi­los­o­phy series. It casts the 20th-cen­tu­ry polit­i­cal the­o­rist as the hero this time around, ren­der­ing in vin­tage video-game aes­thet­ics her quest not sim­ply to fight evil, but to iden­ti­fy evil — a much more trou­bling enter­prise.

“Tra­di­tion­al con­cep­tions of evil focus on the utter mon­stros­i­ty of evil actions — the com­plete awe and unthink­a­bil­i­ty of hor­ror,” says the nar­ra­tor. “Called pure or rad­i­cal evil, this is the sort of evil asso­ci­at­ed with antag­o­nists or vil­lains — is is the antithe­sis of good.”

It also hap­pens to be just the sort of obvi­ous straight-up evil video games tend to put their play­ers up against: ene­my ships you can only shoot down before they shoot you down, mad doc­tors you can only blow up before they blow the world up, mon­sters you can can only jump on before they eat you.

Arendt start­ed see­ing things dif­fer­ent­ly from this black-and-white (or in the case of eight-bit video games, 64-col­or) con­cep­tion after she saw the tri­al of Adolf Eich­mann. “Put on tri­al for numer­ous hor­rors, Eich­mann was found guilty of crimes against human­i­ty — espe­cial­ly against the Jew­ish peo­ple, for over­see­ing the trains that trans­port­ed peo­ple to Nazi death camps.” Sound like a mean piece of work though the guy may, Arendt beheld in the court­room “an alto­geth­er innocu­ous and seem­ing­ly nor­mal lit­tle man,” a “stereo­typ­i­cal bureau­crat” who “nev­er stopped to put him­self in any­one else’s shoes,” dri­ven by an “unques­tion­ing sense of oblig­a­tion to author­i­ty.”

To put it in video-game terms, Arendt expect­ed the sort of grotesque, cack­ling big boss that appears in the last stage, and she got the kind of drone who sim­ply stands around wait­ing to be slain with one hit in the first. This led her to coin her immor­tal phrase “the banal­i­ty of evil,” which, she explains in Eich­mann in Jerusalem, describes it “only on the strict­ly fac­tu­al lev­el. He was not stu­pid. It was thought­less­ness, some­thing by no means iden­ti­cal to stu­pid­i­ty. Such remote­ness from real­i­ty can wreak more hav­oc than all the instincts tak­en togeth­er.” And what kind of sword, laser, or pow­er-up could defeat that?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Look Inside Han­nah Arendt’s Per­son­al Library: Down­load Mar­gin­a­lia from 90 Books (Hei­deg­ger, Kant, Marx & More)

Enter the Han­nah Arendt Archives & Dis­cov­er Rare Audio Lec­tures, Man­u­scripts, Mar­gin­a­lia, Let­ters, Post­cards & More

Han­nah Arendt Dis­cuss­es Phi­los­o­phy, Pol­i­tics & Eich­mann in Rare 1964 TV Inter­view

Han­nah Arendt’s Orig­i­nal Arti­cles on “the Banal­i­ty of Evil” in the New York­er Archive

8‑Bit Phi­los­o­phy: Pla­to, Sartre, Der­ri­da & Oth­er Thinkers Explained With Vin­tage Video Games

Exis­ten­tial Phi­los­o­phy of Kierkegaard, Sartre, Camus Explained with 8‑Bit Video Games

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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