Portable Polis, Berlin, Germany

By Fred Dewey

“The Portable Polis” was a group of strangers convened by writer Fred Dewey to read Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition out loud to one another over the course of a summer in Berlin. Meeting at locations around the city (chosen by Dewey for their relevance to Arendt’s insights into politics and statelessness), the group of ten to twenty, varying in size from week to week, read and argued, producing, as Dewey puts it, “a kind of objectivity, reality, and personal solidarity…born not of concepts, uniformity, or issues, but from our differences.” Dewey often works as a kind of midwife to the “agora,” birthing encounters—always temporary, contentious, and public—where people who can’t find politics elsewhere, together construct it in groups. Arendt’s texts often form the focus. “When read out loud in a group,” Dewey writes, “and led by someone willing to probe and push and demand, the style and nature of Arendt’s writing reveals that inherent plurality on which thinking, rights, and every polity must rest.” Dewey’s projects conjoin two human potentials that Arendt saw as radically divergent: “politics” (always collective, noisy, and contentious); and “poetic thinking” (which is private and inward, as healing and reparative as politics is rupturous). Dewey keeps these potentials active—together—by borrowing familiar cultural frames (the seminar, the poetry series, the reading group) and filling them with his unvetted, conflicted public of idiosyncratic readers. The stability and durability of the text grounds the dynamic, unpredictable work of politics, constructing an agora in which everyone can speak and even the poets can be heard. This is his account of that work, seen as “existential preliminaries to a resistant polity in literature and beyond.”

Reflections on Existential Preliminaries to a Resistant Polity in Literature and Beyond

1 March, 2022