Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
31Jul/121

Seeking a Political Genius—In Vain?

 

 

 

 

It is cliché to say that a presidential election is important. And yet, the 2012 presidential election may be one of the most decisively meaningful elections in recent history. The world is now in year four of the global financial crisis. In addition to economic retraction that may last decades, there is social dislocation and political unrest. The level of frustration and cynicism is reaching all-time highs. And as Congress, the President, the Supreme Court, Universities, and businesses record their lowest levels of public trust and integrity, the only major U.S. institutions that continue to be well respected in public polls are the army and the police. If we do not somehow elect a President who can begin to halt or reverse the descent into political paralysis, the risks to the United States are enormous.

We are in need of a political genius, as Peggy Noonan wrote this month in the Wall Street Journal:

Why do people think we need a kind of political genius? Because they know exactly how deep our problems are and exactly how divided our nation is. We need a president who knows and understands politics because he knows and understands people and can galvanize them. When he speaks, you listen, in part because you believe he'll give it to you straight, in part because his views seem commonsensical, in part because something in his optimism pings right into your latent hopefulness, and in part because he's direct and doesn't hide his meaning in obfuscation, abstraction, clichés and dead words.

As much as we need an inspired political leader, it is clear beyond a doubt that neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney is such a leader. The result is that this election is as depressing as it is boring.

The promise of a Romney-Obama matchup is terrifying not simply because one of them will win; but more, because it is so obvious that these two politicians who actually are so similar in temperament and worldview would never actually engage in a contest of ideas. We have two candidates who are, quintessentially, moderate technocrats. Both are products of Harvard professional schools. Both candidates are essentially risk-averse technocrats. One worships data. The other worships experts. And both will do and say anything to win.

It is hard not to wish that Newt Gingrich had won the Republican nomination. At least his promise of hounding Obama to debate the core issues of American governance promised a consequential and engaging campaign.

Instead, this is a campaign not of ideas but of consultants. David Brooks, who writes today that the upcoming election is "incredibly consequential and incredibly boring all at the same time," gets this right:

Candidates know that they’d be punished for saying something unexpected — by the rich, elderly donors and by the hyperorthodox talk-show hosts. Instead of saying something new, now they just try to boost turnout within their own demographic niches and suppress turnout in the other guy’s niches.

 Hannah Arendt taught that politics is about action that is spontaneous and surprising. Political action needs to be courageous and new, since only unexpectedly bold action can galvanize and unite a people. The political actor is one who can inspire, but inspiring action must above all be risky and extraordinary. For Arendt, freedom demands such leadership if life is to remain surprising, new, and human.

As Roberto Mangabeira Unger argued recently, we need a political leader who brings a wartime mentality to our contemporary crisis. Peggy Noonan from the right agrees. From all sides there is a longing for just such political leader, one that candidate Barack Obama promised to be four years ago. The falsity of that promise has hardened people against hope. The cynicism and dishonesty of both candidates is numbing. It is further diminishing our political culture, at a time when we hardly thought politics could sink lower and we can hardly afford to allow it to do so.

 What would it mean to elect a leader who could revive American politics? That is, in fact, the question asked in the upcoming Arendt Center Conference, "Does the President Matter? Reflections on the American Age of Political Disrepair."

 On the most obvious level, the President does matter. Of course some will benefit under President Romney and others under President Obama. But on the level that matters most—the regeneration of the political life of the United States—it is hard to see how this election means anything. Neither candidate is speaking to the whole country and neither has the ambition or the spark to inspire us to overcome the limitations of our selfishness, weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder, and more common things than we can do on our own.

—RB

30Jul/121

The Highest Law of the Land

“The highest laws of the land (America) are not only the constitution and constitutional laws, but also contracts.”

-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, p. 131

Having published The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt turned her attention  to the country around her.  In a sequence of entries in her Denktagebuch for September 1951, she starts by referring to America as “the politically new” – these are thoughts that will eventually result in her argument in On Revolution .  Her analysis has often been criticized from an historical point of view, especially as she refers to the Constitution as being the first to be established “without force, without ruling (archein) and being ruled (archesthai). “  Whatever the validity of these criticisms, they strike me as missing an essential point of her concerns.  Arendt is trying to work out what she a few pages later calls “the central question of the coming (künftigen) politics,” a problem she sees as lodged in “the problem of the giving of laws.” (ibid, 141). Her aim is to describe a political (i.e. humanly appropriate) system that would not rest upon will and in particular on the will of the sovereign.  “That I must have power (Macht) to be able to will, makes the problem of power into the central political fact of all politics that are grounded on sovereignty – all, that is, with the exception of the American.” (idem)

Her concern in these pages (130-143) centers around what a human society would be that was truly political.  Her version of America is her entry into this question.  What is striking about her discussion in the intervening (and other) pages is that she approaches this question explicitly through the lens of European philosophy.  Thus she is attempting an answer to the question of “can we determine the particular excellence of the American polity by viewing it through the lenses of European thought?”  The point is not to Europeanize America: it is to see if America does not in some manner constitute a potential instantiation of what has been thought in Europe over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The sequence of European thinkers she invokes is important. She first mentions Marx and then Nietzsche, each of whom she sees as part of and as makers of the “end of Western philosophy.”  Marx is held to have inverted Hegel, Nietzsche the same for Plato. The point of her analysis of Marx and Nietzsche is to assert that they released thought from its bond to the “Absolute.”  Indeed:  to hold to the idea of an Absolute is to “make possible in the present unjust and bestial behavior.” (ibid, 133).  As we know, this will be an ever-returning theme in her work.  She expects to find in America the elements of the political that does not rest on an “absolute.”

At what might one look to find this vision of a non-absolute political? Nietzsche provides the opening to an answer.  We are to look not to his doctrine of the revaluation of values but to his discussion of promising in the second essay of the Genealogy of Morals.  She quotes: “To breed an animal with the right to make promises – is that not …  the real problem of humans?” For Arendt, the foundation of a new “morality” lies in the right to make a promise; the promise makes possible human relations based on contract.  And the grounding on contract, as she writes in the Denktagebuch, was for her the particular excellence of the American polity.

What is the implication of Arendt's claim that contract is the “highest law” and particular excellence of America? One answer is revealed by the end of extended quotation of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals where he indicates that the person who has the right to make promises can “ für sich als Zukunft gut sagen zu können,”a phrase that might be rendered as “able to give himself as answer for the future.” In Arendt’s gloss, this means that if in making a contract (which is what a promise is) one pledges that each will remain true to him-or herself as the person making the contract, then each has made his or her own being the foundation for a political space.

Such a grounding or foundation is not based either on will or on any external absolute.  It is a matter, as the signers of the Declaration made clear, that we “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” Temporally speaking, this means that what one did in the past remains alive as the present.   Our political present will thereby be tied to the historical, although not, she notes, in a “weltgeschichtliche” [world-historical: i.e. transcendental] manner.

To make the implications of this clearer, she immediately turns to a consideration of Max Weber’s distinction between the “ethic of responsibility” (which she holds to be the foundation of the pragmatism and genius of American politics) as opposed to the “ethic of conviction,” which, she says, allows for anything as we cannot know “until the day of the Last Judgment” if our conviction be correct. The implication here is that if we base our polity on the conviction of the supposed correctness of our moral judgments (as opposed to our ability to be responsible to ourselves) we will be able to justify anything, as the validation for our claim can be infinitely postponed. (One has but to look at the claims made about bringing democracy to Iraq).  Indeed, Arendt sees “central question of our time” to be a change in our ability to make valid moral judgments, that is ones the correctness of which is not postponed indefinitely. (ibid 138).   She now turns to an examination of how various thinkers have dealt with the problem of moral judgment.  After she worked her way through a partial rejection of the manners in which Hegel, Nietzsche, and the Kant of the Critique of Practical Reason respond to this main question, she turns to the Critique of the Power of Judgment.  Those thoughts are not developed at this time in the Denktagebuch -- but they will concern her for the rest of her life.

What is striking here is how the approach from European philosophy brings out the importance of what is new in the American experiment.  As Hamilton wrote in the first Federalist:

It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.

To which, in our present day, one may only wonder if at some point a “wrong election“ has not been made.

-Tracy B. Strong (UCSD)

30Jul/120

Membership Update

We had a great weekend with lots of new members joining the Center! We are very excited to report that we are very close to reaching our goal! We have 84 new members and need only 16 more by tomorrow to reach out goal!

Please consider becoming a member. Learn more here.
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27Jul/120

The Splintering of Culture

 

Earlier this month I attended a lecture by Matthias Lilienthal, the former artistic director of Hebbel am Ufer (HAU). HAU as it is affectionately known in Berlin is an organization with three performance spaces in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, and is one of the largest, best funded, and risk-taking performance theatre complexes in the world. As one of the most important and innovative avant garde theatre directors, Lilienthal has "created, instigated and nourished many of the most important developments in theatre in recent decades," according to Tom Sellar of Yale who introduced him.

Lilienthal was interviewed after his talk by Gideon Lester, my exciting new colleague who now is director of the theatre program at Bard.

While Lilienthal is an artistic director and has a background in the theatre, he calls himself a "booker" of talent more than an artist or a curator.  He is committed to theatre that has social and political impact. His mission is to constantly create friction. Friction means in his telling, "to be polemic against society and be an urban laboratory for the future."  That said, Lilienthal insists that he remains an artist, someone who in his words cares most about the aesthetic experience his works bring about.

Lilienthal discussed a number of his past projects to explain what he means by a theatre of friction. One of the most famous and interesting is FOREIGNERS OUT! SCHLINGENSIEF'S CONTAINER, a performance, installation, and movie that he produced in collaboration with the filmmaker Christoph Schlingensief.

FOREIGNERS OUT! premiered in Vienna in the summer of 2000, at a time of great anti-immigrant sentiment in Austria—it was shortly after the xenophobic politician Jörg Haider came to power in Austria. Schlingensief and Lilienthal put two large containers in the public square in front of the Viennese Opera house and filled them with 15 asylum seekers. Above the asylum seekers, the artists hung a sign that read: "Foreigners Out." They then gave the Austrian population the opportunity to vote which foreigner to expel from the country. Over 10,000 Austrians voted every day and the first person sent home was a Nigerian woman.

Lilienthal speaks of a "hysterical longing for reality in today's theatre." Much of his work and the work he "books" mixes reality with theatre. His most famous performance piece, performed all over the world, is "X Wohnungen" or "X Apartments."  Artists are asked to create artistic experiences that last up to ten minutes and take place in private apartments or houses. In one example that Lilienthal showed a clip from during his talk, audience members in groups of two are led into apartments of immigrants in Cologne where they are told to kneel in front of doors with keyholes. Through the keyholes they watch a Muslim woman in a burka and hijab strip naked and recline on a couch. They are then interrupted, given tea and told to go out.

Lilienthal explains that "we are playing a private reality, with voyeurism and with exhibitionism." His participatory performance art is "a kind of playful treatment of reality. You are playing with prejudgments against migrants. You are playing with your own voyeurism." The effort is partly to create discussions about Islam, religion, and sexuality. But it above all, in his words, to "to bring together experiences of reality."

Lilienthal was quite critical of the New York art scene, arguing that NYC artists are too commercial and that there is no meaningful artistic forum in the U.S. as there is in Germany. His point is that his HAU stages have, in his telling, become the center of German and European art worlds, presenting all the most interesting and most important artists from around the world under a single umbrella. He lamented the fact that there was no similarly dominant and unifying artistic space in NY or in the U.S. New York, he said provocatively, in the East Village, is a provincial state.

Lester asked Lilienthal what would he have done in NYC had he accepted a job here? He answered, (I am paraphrasing here),"I would have presented art that offers a polemic against society. I would like everyone to know me and then I would have been... perhaps they would kill me after a year."

There is something both noble and anachronistic in Lilienthal's Socratic dream to create art so full of friction and power that he would be killed for it. It is a noble dream because it imagines that art, like philosophy, might still have the power and importance to be seen as a threat to the state or the society. It is anachronistic because art and philosophy have long since lost such centrality.

When I asked Lilienthal about this, his answer was that it was different in Berlin, where the arts are more central and given more public financing and public attention. But I don't accept the argument that the arts are so much more important in Berlin than in NYC. In Berlin, as everywhere today, the intellectual world is just no longer governed by a unified aesthetic or a single dominant medium. There is a mass culture, but the premise of the mass culture is consumerism. Everybody buys what they want and art connoisseurs consume what they like. Most intellectuals and educated people now consume art and news that is hardly distinguishable from middle or low-brow tastes; indeed, the distinction between high and low is now illegitimate. But more important even than that, is the fact that those who do like the best art or best philosophy or best theatre or the best philosophy do not agree on what the "best" is.

One sees this fracturing of culture everywhere. The New York Times was, for a period of time, the arbiter of what mattered in the United States. That is no longer the case and has not been so for decades. It is not the Internet that brought about the factionalization of cultural and political opinion, but, on the contrary, the loss of any single or dominant opinion made the cacophony of voices and platforms on the Internet appealing and powerful.

Similarly, philosophy is broken into analytic and continental schools, and within each there are esoteric sub-schools so specialized that advanced papers and thinking can be read and understood by only dozens of people around the world.  The same fission occurs in literature and art as well. Who now feels the need to read all the books profiled in the NY Times Book Review or the New York Review of Books? The selection criteria are ever more arbitrary and there are no longer any acknowledged gateways to culture.

There are, of course, still important artists and writers, but they appeal to ever-more specialized and localized crowds of followers. Lilienthal's dream of a unified artistic world with a single influential cultural world is long gone. And this is true in Berlin as well as in NYC. We will never again have a situation where the chattering classes are all reading the same books and seeing the same shows. The culture is simply too diffuse and differentiated and democratized. There are no measures of quality that are widely accepted. So what we have are simply sub-groups and sub-genres and sub-cultures.

A version of this argument is made by Peter Sloterdijk in his essay Themes from the Human Zoo. Sloterdijk writes:

Because of the formation of mass culture through the media—radio in the First World War and television after 1945, and even more through the contemporary web revolution—the coexistence of people in the present societies has been established on new foundations. These are, as it can uncontrovertibly be shown, clearly post-literary, post-epistolary, and thus post-humanistic. Anyone who thinks the prefix `post' in this formulation is too dramatic can replace it with the adverb `marginal'. Thus our thesis: modern societies can produce their political and cultural synthesis only marginally through literary, letter-writing, humanistic media. Of course, that does not mean that literature has come to an end, but it has split itself off and become a sui generis subculture, and the days of its value as bearer of the national spirit have passed. The social synthesis is no longer—and is no longer seen to be—primarily a matter of books and letters. New means of political-cultural telecommunication have come into prominence, which have restricted the pattern of script-born friendship to a limited number of people. The period when modern humanism was the model for schooling and education has passed, because it is no longer possible to retain the illusion that political and economic structures could be organized on the amiable model of literary societies.

What Sloterdijk rightly sees is that literate means of cultural analysis have lost their once-dominant place in the social and political formation of society. Books and theatre and artworks have been replaced by mass entertainments and diversions, so that literate works are relegated to sub-genres of importance only to their particular fans and followers. Art and philosophy, therefore, become socially and politically marginal.  

Instead of seeking to bring back a unified culture of art in which artists matter to the social and political worlds, as Lilienthal dreams, it would be more radical and more honest to admit that we live today in a world in which those who make art, write literature, and think philosophy matter ever less. To think the challenges of doing art and thinking in a world immune to the charms of art and thought is the challenge we are faced with today.

Matthias Lilienthal's talk is fascinating and, as you can see, provocative, which is justification enough to spend one hour this weekend watching him. Thanks to Theatre Magazine for posting the video of the talk. Here is your weekend read.

-RB

26Jul/121

The Human Condition Meets Denktagebuch

The Human Condition meets Denktagebuch.

24Jul/120

HA! Journal Coming Soon

Coming this September, the inaugural edition of HA!, a new journal featuring essays by  leading scholars & intellectuals, reflecting our last two fall conferences. The volume is available only to Arendt Center Supporter Members and is part of our 10 day/100 member campaign.

 

 

 

 

24Jul/120

Thomas Jefferson on Thinking

"The worst day in a man's life is when he sits down and begins thinking about how he can get something for nothing."

-Thomas Jefferson

23Jul/120

Membership Update

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23Jul/120

The Intimate World

“What in thinking only occasionally and quasi-metaphorically happens, to retreat from the world of appearances, takes place in aging and dying as an appearance… in this sense thinking is an anticipation of dying (ceasing, ‘to cease to be among men’) just as action in the sense of ‘to make a beginning’ is a repetition of birth.”

-Hannah Arendt, -Denktagebuch, p. 792

One of the wonderful aspects of reading the Denktagebuch is its peculiar intimacy.  As with so much of Arendt’s way of thinking about the world, it is a kind of intimacy which is familiar, but unique and strange enough to make us rethink the place of that category in our lives, how we sense it and find it meaningful.  The sense of intimacy is present from the very first entry – a long, fluid contemplation of responsiveness and evil written in the wake of her first visit to Germany (and Heidegger) after the war – to the last, when the notebooks trail off into a bare succession of dates and places.

It infuses each echo of her published work with a sense of its interconnection with a hundred fragmentary thoughts, occasions, meditations, and struggles.  The Denktagebuch helps renew the liveliness of Arendt’s work as not just a set of arguments, but a profound, rich sensibility, a sensibility in the double sense of a way of sensing what is going on in the world around us, and the dense world-experience of a human, a thinker, a woman, a writer who set herself the gravid task of thinking what we are doing.

Of course, the intimacy found in Arendt’s notebooks was never going to be quite what we usually think of when we use the term.  In general, Arendt’s is not a thought that we associate with intimacy.  On the contrary, what distinguishes Arendt’s writing, even on the most personal topics, is its resolute publicity, its unwavering concern for what is common, what is shared, and what is political in writing: its specific capacity to make things appear to others.  This resolutely public (or perhaps simply political) character to her analysis was a commitment that got her into trouble repeatedly when she moved into topics which were, for her American audience and beyond, violently emotionally charged.  A consistent refrain, in the hostile reception of both the Eichmann essays for The New Yorker and “Reflections on Little Rock” in Dissent, was the apparent coldness or withdrawal with which her critics saw her as treating desperately dear subjects.  So perhaps it is unsurprising that the peculiar intimacy of the Denktagebuch, even in the time when it was a quasi-private record for her own uses, was what might be called by the paradoxical name of political intimacy, the intimacy specific to what she calls here a “world of appearances.”  What can intimacy even mean in a sensibility staunchly committed to rejecting our historical prioritization of the internal (the soul, the mind, the self) over our external lives of appearing to and acting with others?

This passage comes from a section of the Denktagebuch that not only provides an idea of what that form of intimacy might be, but does so in a way that brings out the intimacy already present throughout her work.  The 27th notebook is the last substantive one, and it is saturated with thoughts about ends.  The two senses of the word in English and German weave in and out of her entries: both purposes – the purposes of thought, of philosophy, of acting, of being in the world – and finality, conclusions, ultimately death itself.  At times, there is a deep, almost bitter sadness to the omnipresence of the end in this notebook.  She concludes in one entry with Kant’s thoughts in Critique of Judgment about the ends of human life that “no one would go through life again of their own free will.”  At other times, there is an old contentment with the prospect of the end, as when she writes that “death is the price we the living pay for having lived.  To not want to pay this price, is miserable.”  Birth, natality, the human capacity to bring something new into the world was always central to Arendt’s idea of a public and action.  Here, death and thought appear together for the first time as the inverse, a retreat initially in mind and then in body from the world in which we write the stories of our lives with others.  And the idea of thought as death’s companion, and our companion in the end, gives the first hint of what this uniquely Arendtian intimacy-in-publicity holds.

The Life of the Mind, Arendt’s un-ended work, gives us glimpses of something that comes out even more strongly in the Denktagebuch.  In the life-process of Arendt’s thought there seems to be a constant attempt to return to what was put aside, to reckon with, and to a certain extent, redeem the things that at first glance in the earlier works seemed like ideas and practices that were supposed to be the problem or the threat.  Her stunning elegies for Heidegger and Brecht – both neither pardon nor disavowal – reflect this process of problematization and partial redemption, turned from the analysis of concepts to telling the stories of lives lost.  We should all be so lucky.  And so it is here, in the Denktagebuch, in the case of endfulness and end-orientation.  In a whole series of the earlier works, this end-orientation was the thing that most threatened what was supposed to be the Arendtian good, whether it was action or culture or the public itself.  It was always the baunism of workers (The Human Condition) or philistines (“The Crisis in Culture”) that was the thing that threatened to remove from action and the political life what was peculiar to it.  But in this section Arendt returns to the scene to do something like right by ends, to think about whether or not there is a place for endfulness and what that place might be.

In this notebook, thought is the dominion of ends, and the spontaneous, undetermined originality of action and the titanic worldly power of understanding find their end in thought’s retreat from the world’s appearances.  Even in her darkest moments of facing the end this is not a tragedy to be mourned: it is simply the price of doing and being and living with others, the inescapable departure point of a world that we enter “confronted with what appears only once, with the sensuously perceptible” (780).  After all, as Arendt cautions, action would disappear from the world in the moment of its enactment without being taken up and made a part of our collective story by a process of end-making.  This necessary grave of the end gives the Human Condition in particular a different kind of normative bent than we might otherwise read in it – almost an odd kind of Platonism – in which it no longer appears that the natural instrumentality of work threatens everything around it, at least not simply so.  Endfulness too has its place, indeed all of these familiar categories (labor, action, the social, the private) in their place are both necessary and productive.  It is only those places where the messily amalgamated categories of our living in the world inevitably cross and mix that dangers, but perhaps also possibilities, are produced: every untidy palisade and nook of the shared world in which we can appear to each other.

This is, in the end, the sole place where that uniquely Arendtian sense of intimacy, a political intimacy, can exist.  The intimacy of the Denktagebuch, which is no less present in Arendt’s confrontation with totalitarianism and is beautifully echoed in the struggles of those on this site with issues like the punishment of George Zimmerman and the decimations wrought by homophobic schooling systems, is not an intimacy of distilled selves but an intimacy of our selves with our world, an intimacy with what is shared and what forms, for good or for terrible ill, the fabric of what we can experience together.  Arendt shows us what it means to be unblinkingly, meaningfully, at times painfully intimate with the human world.  To engage in Arendtian politics is to enter into a relationship of intimacy, an intimacy with the terrible and the evil as much as with the beautiful and the good, and to find through that intimacy what we can do and who we can be with each other.  And that intimacy, for Arendt, is what makes it possible for us to bear our ends.

-Ian Storey

20Jul/121

Take Downs

If you are a political theorist or philosopher between 18 and 50, you probably had at least a passing flirtation with Slavoj Zizek. First of all, you can't avoid him. The man has written over 60 books in les than 30 years in addition to innumerable articles and interviews. Oh, and he has made two movies, including the humbly named Zizek!  If you want more, there is the International Journal of Žižek Studies.

What to make of the literary, philosophical, and marketing phenomenon that is Slavoj Zizek?

Slavoj Zizek

John Gray tries to answer that question in this week's NYRB in what is one of the most engaging take downs of an academic star you will get to read.

Zizek is a pugilist and there is much to fight against. He well sees the hypocrisies and injustices of liberal democratic society. He begins with the premise that modern day liberal capitalism not only has won, but it is indestructible. It is not reformable. He does not see socialism as a legitimate alternative. He derides anarchism as conceding the power to those in control. So what does Zizek want? He wants to be in control. His is an unapologetic call for violent takeover of the state for the benefit of the dispossessed. If the state is violence, he insists, why not it be "our" violence. This is the reason for his support of dictators and tyrants like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

It is striking that the course on which Hugo Chávez has embarked since 2006 is the exact opposite of the one chosen by the postmodern Left: far from resisting state power, he grabbed it (first by an attempted coup, then democratically), ruthlessly using the Venezuelan state apparatuses to promote his goals. Furthermore, he is militarising the barrios, and organising the training of armed units there. And, the ultimate scare: now that he is feeling the economic effects of capital’s ‘resistance’ to his rule (temporary shortages of some goods in the state-subsidised supermarkets), he has announced plans to consolidate the 24 parties that support him into a single party. Even some of his allies are sceptical about this move: will it come at the expense of the popular movements that have given the Venezuelan revolution its élan? However, this choice, though risky, should be fully endorsed: the task is to make the new party function not as a typical state socialist (or Peronist) party, but as a vehicle for the mobilisation of new forms of politics (like the grass roots slum committees). What should we say to someone like Chávez? ‘No, do not grab state power, just withdraw, leave the state and the current situation in place’? Chávez is often dismissed as a clown – but wouldn’t such a withdrawal just reduce him to a version of Subcomandante Marcos, whom many Mexican leftists now refer to as ‘Subcomediante Marcos’? Today, it is the great capitalists – Bill Gates, corporate polluters, fox hunters – who ‘resist’ the state.

Zizek's "full endorsement" of tyranny has won him many fans, including adoring youthful supporters. He played a bit part in Occupy Wall Street, largely as a internal critic of the anarchist tendencies of the movement. For Zizek, OWS was mistaken to refuse to make demands. As he writes:

The lesson here is that the truly subversive thing is not to insist on ‘infinite’ demands we know those in power cannot fulfil. The thing to do is, on the contrary, to bombard those in power with strategically well-selected, precise, finite demands, which can’t be met with the same excuse.

Gray is reviewing Zizek's latest tomes, Less than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, out this year, and Living in the End Times, from 2011. Less than Nothing is not a slim volume at 1,038 pages. End Times is a mere 504 pages.

Gray's review takes Zizek seriously as it should and quotes liberally from his works. Here is one example:

The underlying premise of the present book is a simple one: the global capitalist system is approaching an apocalyptic zero-point. Its “four riders of the apocalypse” are comprised by the ecological crisis, the consequences of the biogenetic revolution, imbalances within the system itself (problems with intellectual property; forthcoming struggles over raw materials, food and water), and the explosive growth of social divisions and exclusions.

To which Gray's response is:

With its sweeping claims and magniloquent rhetoric, this passage is typical of much in Žižek’s work. What he describes as the premise of the book is simple only because it passes over historical facts. Reading it, no one would suspect that, putting aside the killings of many millions for ideological reasons, some of the last century’s worst ecological disasters—the destruction of nature in the former Soviet Union and the devastation of the countryside during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, for example—occurred in centrally planned economies. Ecological devastation is not a result only of the economic system that exists in much of the world at the present time; while it may be true that the prevailing version of capitalism is unsustainable in environmental terms, there is nothing in the history of the past century that suggests the environment will be better protected if a socialist system is installed.

Gray offers this summation:

Whether or not Marx’s vision of communism is “the inherent capitalist fantasy,” Žižek’s vision—which apart from rejecting earlier conceptions lacks any definite content—is well adapted to an economy based on the continuous production of novel commodities and experiences, each supposed to be different from any that has gone before. With the prevailing capitalist order aware that it is in trouble but unable to conceive of practicable alternatives, Žižek’s formless radicalism is ideally suited to a culture transfixed by the spectacle of its own fragility.

There is little effort in Gray to appreciate the intensity of the struggle Zizek engages in. It is the struggle of those on the left who have come to see that they have lost and that the injustices they experience and know to be wrong are either not seen as injustices or are accepted by the majority of the people. Zizek's turn to violence is born of frustration and passion, both of which need to be respected and understood, even if his tyrannical fantasies must be called out and rejected.

If you want to learn a bit about Zizek or see how to take someone down gracefully in the NYRB, read Gray's review. It is your weekend read.

-RB

19Jul/120

Summer Research Project

Summer Research project

Submitted by Alex Kirkpatrick

19Jul/121

Does the President Matter?

Does the President Matter? Consider this quotation from Jurek Martin in today's Financial times:

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney may speak, sometimes even to real audiences but more often to fat cat fundraisers, but their words fall on deaf ears if not empty wallets. Lots of people speak for them, in the strange languages known to advertising and political consultants, but what they say is ephemeral and leaves, beyond the daily news fix, “not a wrack behind”, as Shakespeare put it. Yet they are fueled by piles of money, which means they speak more and more – to lesser and lesser effect.

Lawrence Lessig is of course right to worry about the corrupting influence of money on our elections. But the greatest effect of all this money is the drowning out of meaningful speech in a throbbing sea of money-driven sound bites, consultant-approved platitudes, and poll-tested attacks. Everyone must stay on message, which means that no one says or does anything. In such a system, how can the President matter or make a difference in the world?

If you have an answer, enter our 2012 Thinking Challenge by answering the question: "How might the President Matter in the 21st Century?"

Learn more here.

17Jul/120

Thinking through the Human Condition

Thinking through the Human Condition: Arendt and Anthropology

Answering Arendt’s Indictments of Social Science

My blog post today is the first of a series of contributions that aims to bring Arendt’s thought into conversation with cultural anthropology, my home discipline, and other modes of social analysis. At first glance, Arendt and anthropologists would seem to make for strange bedfellows, since their arguments have rarely intersected in any explicit way: Arendt engaged little if at all with cultural anthropology in her wide-ranging corpus, and anthropologists have tended to avoid Arendt, despite the inspiration they often take from other philosophers and political theorists. Nevertheless, the guiding premise behind this series is that Arendtian and anthropological analyses can be brought together in a manner that offers a great deal to wider contemplation of the human condition. This potential can only be realized, however, if we also recognize the frictions that emerge from their contrasting starting points and lines of argument.

Thomas Hirschhorn / Marcus Steinweg

Peter Baehr’s recent book, Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, and the Social Sciences (2010), offers an enlightening vantage on these frictions and the difficulties they present for such an encounter. Indeed, Arendt regarded sociology and the other social science disciplines with the utmost skepticism. On the one hand, she took issue with what she regarded as their deterministic theories of historical causality and their misguided presumptions about human self-interest. As she contended in The Human Condition, the social sciences “[aimed] to reduce man as a whole, in all his activity, to the level of a conditioned and behaving animal” (p. 45). In so doing, they not only denied the existence of human freedom; they also reflected—and helped to perpetuate—the very mass societies they ostensibly explained. At the same time, the social sciences operated (in Arendt’s understanding) on the core assumption that “human conduct springs essentially from self-interested, instrumental, and utilitarian considerations” (Baehr, p. 14). This premise rendered the social sciences utterly incapable of coming to terms with the non- and even anti-utilitarian nature of totalitarianism.

Such shortcomings were only further compounded by social scientists’ reliance on established conceptual models and their penchant for historical analogy. In Arendt’s view, the social sciences were entirely too quick to cast specific social phenomena as reflexes or symptoms of underlying transhistorical processes (such as the materialist dialectic proposed by Marx). As a result, they were prone to untenable generalizations that occluded salient differences between distinct social and political forms (such as totalitarian concentration camps and institutions of slavery). In keeping with this complaint, Arendt harbored particular scorn for Weberian ideal types like charisma and bureaucracy, which she regarded as devices to “normalize” particular phenomena and make of them “an item or case of something already known” (Baehr, p. 26).

Arendt’s criticisms certainly apply to some forms of social science scholarship, particularly those that seize opportunistically on specific instances to engage in the kind of grand theorizing that bleaches human intercourse of particularity, emotion, and moral import. In such moments, complex human realities can and do become mere grist for the conceptual mill. Yet her dismissal of the social sciences ultimately strikes me as overdrawn. Many social scientists explore the conditions of human autonomy and historical novelty with greater nuance than she was prepared to admit. Moreover, many of them challenge the notion that human activity can only be explained in utilitarian terms. Cultural anthropology, in particular, has repeatedly highlighted how human beings arrange their lives in ways that defy scientific models of rationality.

Baehr remains a strong advocate of Arendt’s theorizing, but he also demonstrates the subtlety of social science analysis through three appreciative critics of her work in the 1940s and 1950s. The interdisciplinary scholar David Riesman, for example, found Arendt’s analysis of totalitarian society too sweeping: Arendt exaggerated the capacity of the Nazi and Stalinist regimes to rework human subjectivity, and ignored human beings’ stubborn ability to retain their individuality, exercise their agency, and otherwise elude total domination (Baehr, chapter 2, especially pp. 45-56). Riesman thereby drew worthwhile attention to the ways that Arendt, in her zeal to convey the pervasiveness of totalitarian power, neglected the sociology of everyday life.

The political sociologist Raymond Aron thoughtfully resisted Arendt’s notion that totalitarianism constituted a radical break with previous modes of rule. He related the emergence of totalitarianism to the existence of monopolistic political parties in Germany and the Soviet Union. He dissected the ways that totalitarian terror, especially in the Soviet Union, was legally codified and administratively routinized, rather than being entirely inscrutable and haphazard. And he insisted that totalitarian ideology was open to flexible application and transformation in a fashion that Arendt, with her focus on its uncompromising deductive rigidity, did not acknowledge (Baehr, chapter 3, especially pp. 77-87). On the basis of these specific claims, Aron contended that totalitarianism bore intelligible continuities with older modes of tyranny. As he did so, however, he admittedly shied away from the “mysterious margin” of nightmarish absurdity that he too observed in totalitarian regimes—and that Arendt traced so evocatively.

Finally, the sociologist Jules Monnerot sharply underscored the ways that totalitarian ideologies mobilized the fervor of their adherents through party gatherings, mass celebrations, and other ritual encounters. In the process, he likened totalitarianism to religious traditions (above all, Islam) in a fashion that resonated with other treatments of totalitarianism as a “secular” or “political religion” (Baehr, chapter 4, especially pp. 95-99). Arendt pointedly refused any such equation. In her account, religion provides limits and standards that protect the sacredness of human life; totalitarianism, by contrast, pursues the notion that “everything is possible and permitted,” and it regards particular human beings as superfluous and dispensable in its effort to transform human nature itself. Yet as Baehr notes, Arendt’s position did not resolve the question of totalitarianism’s (lack of) relationship with religion as decisively as she might have thought. In the end, it failed to take into account many witnesses’ quasi-religious experience of totalitarian performances, and it neglected the fact that religious forms and expressions did suffuse totalitarian discourse in demonstrable ways.

The point of Baehr’s book is not that we need to side either with Arendt or with her social science critics exclusively. I happen to find Riesman’s objections quite trenchant, but I also believe, like Baehr, that Aron’s confident diagnosis fails to grapple with the chaotic madness that characterized the Nazi and Stalinist regimes.

And as much as Arendt’s position on ritual and religion might be interrogated, her insistence that we maintain fine distinctions—and not succumb to easy generalizations and conflations—is a valuable one. One implication of this point is that we should be duly suspicious of any intellectual stance, including Arendt’s, which dismisses an entire realm of disciplinary inquiry root and branch. As Baehr’s book shows, rigorous social scientific scholarship can usefully probe the limits of Arendt’s assumptions, evidence, and arguments—just as it can lead us to a greater admiration of her insights.

-Jeff Jurgens

 

17Jul/120

Georg Christophe Lichtenberg on Thinking

"Everyone is a genius at least once a year. The real geniuses simply have their bright ideas closer together."

-Georg Christophe Lichtenberg

16Jul/120

Why Think?

"What makes us think? Hegel's answer: Reconciliation. Reconciliation with what? With things as they are. But this we do constantly anyhow by establishing ourselves in the world. Why repeat it in thought?"

          - Hannah Arendt's Denktagebuch, 782.

No relation is more central to Hannah Arendt's writing than that between acting and thinking. Thinking, Arendt knows, is distinct from action that takes place in the world. Thinking is a seeing into the unseeable and the unsayable. It is a relation with oneself in the two-in-one of a dialogue one has with oneself. In thinking, the thinker withdraws from the world. "In thinking," she writes in 1970, there is a partial "pulling of oneself back out of the world of appearances."  Thinking, in other words, can be apolitical and unworldly. Thinking is even, she writes, analogous to death in its rejection of the world.

Against the un-worldliness of thinking, Arendt embraces the political humanism of action. In The Human Condition, Arendt names action as "the only activity that goes on directly between men" and "corresponds to the human condition of plurality, to the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world." To act, she writes, is to live and "to be among men." Action is tied to human life just as thinking is, for Arendt, a metaphor for death.

The connection between action and human life, as well as the association of thinking with death, might suggest that Arendt prefers action to thought. And yet such a view would be at least misleading if not mistaken. Thinking, Arendt insists in The Human Condition, is the "highest and perhaps purest activity of which men are capable." Above all, she strives to bring thinking and action together; to think what we are doing. Arendt's entire life's work is a response to the thoughtlessness of our time that is the fundamental enabling condition of totalitarianism. There is, for Arendt, no more meaningful or powerful response to the dangers of totalitarianism than the pure activity of thinking.

What then is thinking? And why is it important? These are questions Arendt struggles with at all times, but nowhere more explicitly than in her Denktagebuch. In the passage quoted above, Arendt writes that Hegel answers the question: "Why Think?" with the idea of reconciliation.

For Hegel, reconciliation is experienced as a response to his fundamental experience of the world ripped asunder. In other words, the world appears to man as that which is foreign. Man stands against the objects and things of the world, which are separate from him. And man's dream and drive is to reunite himself with the world. In Hegel's words from his Encyclopedia:

"The highest and final aim of philosophic science is to bring about ... a reconciliation of the self-conscious reason with the reason which is in the world – in other words, with actuality.”

The aim of thinking, Hegel repeats,

"Is to divest the objective world that stands opposed to us of its strangeness, and to find ourselves at home in it: which means no more than to trace the objective world back to the notion – to our inmost self.”

What this means, Hegel writes in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, is that “the ultimate aim and business of philosophy is to reconcile thought or the Notion with reality.”

Arendt returns repeatedly to Hegel's idea of reconciliation. Perhaps no other thread of inquiry receives more attention in Arendt's Denktagebuch, which begins in 1950 with a seven page meditation on the political importance of reconciliation. In Between Past and Future, Arendt writes:

“The task of the mind is to understand what happened, and this understanding, according to Hegel, is man’s way of reconciling himself with reality; its actual end is to be at peace with the world.”

In Truth and Politics, Arendt again raises the problem of a thoughtful reconciliation to reality alongside a reference to Hegel:

"Who says what is always tells a story. To the extent that the teller of factual truth is also a storyteller, he brings about that ‘reconciliation with reality’ which Hegel, the philosopher of history par excellence, understood as the ultimate goal of all philosophical thought."

In Hannah Arendt: The Recovery of the Public World, Melvyn A. Hill reports a further remark by Arendt, in which she says,

"I can very well live without doing anything. But I cannot live without trying at least to understand whatever happens. And this is somehow the same sense in which you know it from Hegel, namely where I think the central role is reconciliation--reconciliation of man as a thinking and reasonable being. This is what actually happens in the world."

In all these and in many other instances, Arendt affirms the centrality of reconciliation to her project. Thinking, as a kind of reconciliation with the world, is the activity in which human beings work to understand and comprehend the world around them. This understanding-reconciliation is necessary because without it we would not live in a world that we could understand or make our way in. Objects for which we have no understanding and no language to describe them are non-existent. There is a basic truth to Hegel's idealism; that the real world only is for humans insofar as we humans think about that world and reconcile ourselves to it.

At the same time, Arendt distinguishes her sense of reconciliation from that of Hegel. We humans are constantly and of necessity reconciling ourselves with reality. In living and acting, we establish ourselves in the world. We accept and conform to institutions, traditions, habits, and customs. We build a human world and then live in it, even if we at times resist that world or rebel against it. Both resistance and rebellion presume a prior reconciliation with and understanding of the world. This is what it means to be human and to act. In our everyday actions and life we enact our reconciliation to the world.

If reconciliation is almost unconscious and natural, why then, Arendt asks, do we have to repeat this reconciliation in thought? This is a question Arendt repeats often and in different ways. Her answer has much to do with her conviction that sometime in the early parts of the 20th century, philosophy and thinking ceased to be able "to perform the task assigned to it by Hegel and the philosophy of history, that is, to understand and grasp conceptually historical reality and the events that made the modern world what it is." For Arendt, somehow the "human mind had ceased, for some mysterious reasons, to function properly." In other words, what happens in the 20th century is that a gap emerges between reality and thinking.

This gap between thinking and reality itself, Arendt writes, is not new. It may be, she supposes, "coeval with the existence of man on earth." But for centuries and millennia, the gap was "bridged over by tradition." Human beings created gods, customs, and cultures that gave their lives meaning. The world made sense and human reason seemed to fit well to the realities that surrounded it.

The homelessness of the modern world, our undeterred will to truth, combined with our scientific insistence upon universal knowledge, means that we moderns can never be at home in a finite and mortal human world. It is in such a world that the drive for certainty risks perfecting itself into totalitarian ideology and the need for coherence threatens to elevate comforting lies over unsettling truths.

In our modern world where our thinking efforts to understand the real world forever fall short, reconciliation assumes a different and distinctly non-Hegelian sense. Reconciliation demands that we forego the will to absolute knowledge or scientific mastery of the world.  We must, instead, reconcile ourselves to the reality of the gap between thinking and acting.

Thinking today requires “settling down in the gap between past and future;” in other words, thinking demands that we continually recommit ourselves to the loss of a knowable and hospitable world and, instead, commit ourselves to the struggle of thinking and acting in a world without banisters.  Only if we think and reconcile ourselves to the reality of our irreconcilable world can we hope to resist the ever-present possibility of totalitarianism.

-Roger Berkowitz