Law school applications have gone off a cliff. Just look at this statistic from today’s NY Times.
As of this month, there were 30,000 applicants to law schools for the fall, a 20 percent decrease from the same time last year and a 38 percent decline from 2010, according to the Law School Admission Council. Of some 200 law schools nationwide, only 4 have seen increases in applications this year. In 2004 there were 100,000 applicants to law schools; this year there are likely to be 54,000.
This radical drop in law school applications is not because people are suddenly reading Shakespeare. The reason is clear. Lawyers aren’t getting jobs. For law school grads in 2011, only 55% got full-time jobs working as lawyers. That means 45% did not get jobs they were trained to do. No wonder students and their parents aren’t lining up to take out debt to get a legal education.
Just as journalism has been upended by the Internet revolution, so too law is changing. The changes are different. Lawyers are still needed and law firms will exist. But more of the work can be done more cheaply, off-location, and by fewer people. Quite simply, we need fewer lawyers. And those we do need, don’t command the salaries they once did.
Finally, law school was for years the refuge of the uncommitted. For liberal arts grad unsure of what to do next, the answer was law school. But now with tuitions skyrocketing, debt ballooning, and job prospects dimming, law schools are out of favor.
What is more, these changes coming to law schools will be coming to other professional and graduate schools as well. All those Ph.D.s in hyper-specialized disciplines ranging from Italian studies to Political Theory are in for a really tragically rude awakening? There are no jobs. And those jobs are not coming back. For academics to keep bringing young scholars into Ph.D. programs now is really deeply wrong.
This retreat from law school is a good thing. My J.D. was hardly an educational experience worth three years of my time. Law schools are caught between being professional schools training practicing lawyers and the desire to be also to be something more. The result, they largely do neither well. They don’t produce lawyers ready to practice. Nor do they produce deep legal minds. Little would be lost if law school were reduced to 2 years (or even less), which is why legal academics are pushing an experiment to offer two-year J.D.s.
Education does matter and will continue to distinguish people who pursue it and excel at it. Liberal arts majors who combine a love for the renaissance with an interest in dance will succeed, whether they create new works of art or found a business curating Italian wines, these students learn to pursue their dreams. Education will survive because it raises people from their daily lives to the life of the mind. Education, as opposed to factory schools and large lectures, fosters creativity and daring, leading people to invent lives for themselves in pursuit of their passions.
While education will survive, schools and universities that have become credentialing factories will be increasingly challenged. When what matters is measureable performance, credentials will become ever less important. Law schools—at least many of them that do not offer an elite status—are credentialing institutions. So too are many of the colleges and universities around the country, where students sit in large lectures for four years so that they can get a degree that stamps them employable. Such credentials are ever less valuable in an age of cheap Internet driven education. That is why these institutions are under pressure.
There is a petition going circulating asking Bowling Green University to rescind its decision to cut 11% of its faculty—nearly 100 positions—while simultaneously planning to increase enrollment. The petition reads:
Slashing faculty numbers while planning to increase enrollment by 6,000 students (as you publicly announced in 2012) will greatly diminish BGSU’s position as one of Ohio’s top-rated public universities. Your plans would compromise the education of current students, and it would reduce the prestige of degrees that have already been granted by BGSU.
The decision is designed to save $5.2 Million, just over the $5 Million that the university is set to lose as a result of Ohio’s recent budget cuts to public university education.
On the one hand, this is a story that will be repeated over and over in the coming years. On the other hand, why is it that the university chooses to fill the entirety of its budget gap by letting faculty go? There was no announcement about cutting administrators, pairing back expensive sports programs, and halting an expensive building plan. Here is what the The Bowling Green State University Faculty Association said:
“[T]he $5.2-million savings is suspiciously close to the $5 million number that BGSU officials have floated as the loss from state share of instruction under Ohio’s new funding plan,” the statement indicates. “In other words, Mazey may have decided that faculty alone should absorb any budgetary challenges. It’s certainly easier than cutting six-figure administrators, in-the-red athletics, expensive residence halls, luxurious renovations to the rec center, high-priced outside consultants, failed football bowl games, or Mazey’s team of spin doctors which, as Mazey administration spending indicates, are her true priorities.”
It does seem that the University is cutting the faculty in a disproportionate and severe manner, especially given the announced intent to increase enrollment. It would be much better to cut administration and sports teams. But the sad fact remains, colleges like Bowling Green are going to suffer as public funding is cut back, student debt levels depress enrollments, and alternatives to college emerge. At the same time, technology will begin to displace many faculty members and allow colleges to educate more students with fewer professors.
Given the changes coming to higher education, it is important that colleges and universities adapt intelligently. We might start by cutting back on administration and luxury dorms. One big question is whether tenured faculty positions will continue to make sense at a time that demands flexibility and innovation. It is worth noting that Bowling Green cut exclusively amongst adjuncts and part-time faculty, leaving its tenured faculty untouched. How much longer that will continue to happen is real question.
When people talk about the cost of entitlements or pensions, there is often a whiff of condescension, as if government employees don’t deserve their benefits. Often forgotten is the fact that private pensions are underfunded as well, and they are insured by the federal government. And now we are told that the military may have the biggest pension problem of all. Here is what the Financial Times reports:
Of all the politically difficult budget issues that Mr Hagel will face, few are more charged than the question of military entitlements which have risen sharply over the past decade. A report last year by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments concluded that at current rates, “military personnel costs will consume the entire defence budget by 2039”. Robert Gates, Mr Obama’s first defence secretary, once warned that these expenses were “eating us alive”.
Just as pensions and entitlements will soon crowd out all other government spending, so too will military pensions crowd out all military spending.
No one today can responsibly argue against pensions and health care. And no one can call the soldiers lazy burdens on the public weal. But neither can we fail to recognize that our addiction to entitlements is destroying our politics and our public spirit. We are sacrificing public action—be it the pursuit of scientific knowledge, the erecting of monuments, the education of our young, the building of infrastructure, and even a well-outfitted military—for the private comfort of individuals. It is no wonder that our political system is broken at a time when all incentives in the country lead interest groups to focus on parochial interests above the common good. It is inconceivable that this situation is not in some way related to the emergence of entitlements as the central function of government.
The question is one of principle. We have gone from a common sense that people are responsible for themselves and the government provides a safety net to a common sense that everyone should receive an education, everyone should receive healthcare, and everyone should receive pension benefits for as long as they live. It is possible to embrace the latter common sense, but with it comes a significantly higher tax burden and a much more communal ethic than has typically reigned in America. This is not a problem that hits only public employees. It is endemic throughout society. And our military.
“At Learning's fountain it is sweet to drink,
But 'tis a nobler privilege to think.”
-John Godfrey Saxe
"Exactly for the sake of what is new and revolutionary in every child, education must be conservative; it must preserve this newness and introduce it as a new thing into an old world."
-Hannah Arendt, The Crisis in Education
In the central and perhaps most provocative passage of her essay on The Crisis in Education (1958), Arendt thrice repeats the same word: to preserve. This should not be surprising, in the context of her presentation of the thesis that “education must be conservative.” Education must be carried out with a “conservative attitude” in order to preserve the possibility for something new to arise.
Arendt thinks little of educators and professors who issue directives to their pupils about what actions they should undertake to change the world. The responsibility of the educator is more to bring a “love for the world” into the seminar room. Whether the tutor wishes the world to be different, better, or more just should be inconsequential. It is his job to represent the factual world as frankly as possible. One cannot do more and should not do less. This love for the world forms the basis for “newcomers” to take the chances of their new beginning into their own hands. Seen in this way the tutor must be “conservative” (in relation to the state of the world), not in order inspire “progressive” action but rather to enable new beginnings that cannot be planned or calculated. And so says the full quote about education that must be conservative: “Exactly for the sake of what is new and revolutionary in every child, education must be conservative; it must preserve this newness and introduce it as a new thing into an old world.”
A few lines earlier Arendt distinguishes between this innovative “conservative attitude” in education and conservatism in politics. Political conservatism, “striving only to preserve the status quo,” ultimately leads to destruction: if people do not undertake renewals, reformations, the world is abandoned to decay over time. Immediately after this second use of “to preserve” Arendt uses the word a third time. Since the world is shaped by mortals, it is at risk of becoming as mortal as its inhabitants. “To preserve the world against the mortality of its creators and inhabitants,” Arendt writes, “it must be constantly set right new.” The “capacity of beginning something anew” appears according to Arendt principally in action, which is the capacity that has “the closest connection with the human condition of natality”—“the new beginning inherent in birth,” Arendt writes at the same time in The Human Condition (1958).
Aren’t these three very different meanings of “to preserve”? Can this single word really convey all these nuances? Only when one consults the original German version of Arendt’s essay does the scope of distinctions become clear. The Crisis in Education is the English version of a lecture Arendt gave in 1958 in Bremen, Germany, translated by Denver Lindley.
The conservative stance in politics, which is “striving only to preserve the status quo” is said in German to seek to “erhalten.” This is very similar to the English to preserve, to conserve, to maintain. Yet in the next part, where education is said to be the way “to preserve the world against the mortality of its creators and inhabitants,” this protection of the world against mortality is called in German “im Sein halten,” literally “to hold or to keep in the state of being.” The point here is not any physical preservation of the world, nor any quasi-metaphysical or Heideggerian elevation of the “world.” Arendt’s German wording rather suggests that the philosophical is to be found in the world, which she understands as something that emerges from the space in-between people: the in-between of the many and diverse. Finally, the task of education to be conservative and to “preserve” the revolutionary in every child is called “bewahren” in the German version, i.e., to retain and perpetuate, literally: to keep true—to keep the newness true.
“Erhalten,” “im Sein halten,” “bewahren”—these differentiations of the “conservative attitude” of education that Arendt develops in German on the conceptual level must be conveyed through context in English. This does not mean that the English is deficient. Rather, it demands that the reader reflect on the particularity of each appearance of “to preserve.” Arendt’s German text lends the direction of these reflections important impetus.
Likewise, a decisive conceptual impetus for Arendt’s German lecture comes from the English. In the middle of the passage on the conservative attitude in education, she quotes an English line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right.” The literary citation is not tasked with illustrating a theoretical reflection. Arendt thinks and writes with the poetic thought of this verse. In the German lecture she uses an unusual construction, saying that the world must be (newly) “eingerenkt”—it is the German equivalent of “to set it right,” if one reads “joint” literally as the joint of a body; the usual translation of “out of joint” is “aus den Fugen,” where “Fuge” has more the connotation of “seam,” “interstice,” or “connection.” In this way Arendt answers the English literally and therefore newly in German. She gives her text a “figurative posture,” which advocates for a plurality of languages. This can also be understood as a political gesture against the totalizing assertion of one homogenous language (of truth, of philosophy etc.).
All of this is possibly less revolutionary than the “newness” that each child brings into the world. And yet a reflection of it is brought “as a new thing into an old world.” In addition, Hamlet’s line “that ever I was born to set it right” being placed in the charged context of Arendt’s thoughts on natality (the human condition of being born, which equips every newcomer with “the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting”) challenges both perspectives on action: Is Shakespeare’s Hamlet more capable of taking action than we usually think? Is Arendt’s “newcomer” more bound in his or her actions than we typically assume? Arendt’s mode of writing preserves an educating esprit for her readers.
—Thomas Wild, with Anne Posten
China has embraced the idea of a Western college education in a big way. As the NY Times reported recently, the country is making a $250 billion-a-year investment designed to give millions of young Chinese citizens a college education. “Just as the United States helped build a white-collar middle class in the late 1940s and early 1950s by using the G.I. Bill to help educate millions of World War II veterans, the Chinese government is using large subsidies to educate tens of millions of young people as they move from farms to cities.”
But for most of these newly minted college graduates, jobs are scarce. One reason is that these graduates often have few marketable skills and they refuse to take the jobs that actually exist. What China needs are people to work in factories. But for college graduates, factory work has little or even no allure.
Consider the case of Wang Zengsong.
Wang Zengsong is desperate for a steady job. He has been unemployed for most of the three years since he graduated from a community college here after growing up on a rice farm. Mr. Wang, 25, has worked only several months at a time in low-paying jobs, once as a shopping mall guard, another time as a restaurant waiter and most recently as an office building security guard.
But he will not consider applying for a full-time factory job because Mr. Wang, as a college graduate, thinks that is beneath him. Instead, he searches every day for an office job, which would initially pay as little as a third of factory wages.
“I have never and will never consider a factory job — what’s the point of sitting there hour after hour, doing repetitive work?” he asked.
This story is actually not unique to China. In the United States too, we here repeatedly that small businesses are unable to expand because they cannot find qualified workers. The usual reprise is that high school graduates don’t have the skills. Rarely asked is why college graduates don’t apply? I assume the reason is the same as in China. College graduates see production work as beneath them.
Plenty of college graduates, many with debt, are interning for free or working odd jobs that pay little; yet they do not even consider learning a skill and taking a job that would require them to build something. Just like their comrades in China, these young people identify as knowledge workers, not as fabricators. For them, a job making things is seen as a step down. Something that is beneath them.
Disdain for manual labor combined with respect for cognitive work is the theme of Matthew B. Crawford’s book Shop Craft as Soul Craft, based on his article by the same name that appeared in 2006 in The New Atlantis. Crawford’s writing is rich and his thinking profound. But boiled down, I took three main points from his book and article.
First, there is a meaningful and thoughtful component to manual labor. To make something is not thoughtless, but requires both skill and intelligence. This is true if you are building a table, where you must think about the shape, functionality, and aesthetics of a table. But even in factory work, there is the challenge of figuring out how to do something better. And in the modern factory, labor demands technical skill, problem solving, and creativity. Whether you are building a house or making a battery, making things requires thought. What is more, it is good for the soul. Here is how Crawford writes about the soul benefits of craft:
Hobbyists will tell you that making one’s own furniture is hard to justify economically. And yet they persist. Shared memories attach to the material souvenirs of our lives, and producing them is a kind of communion, with others and with the future. Finding myself at loose ends one summer in Berkeley, I built a mahogany coffee table on which I spared no expense of effort. At that time I had no immediate prospect of becoming a father, yet I imagined a child who would form indelible impressions of this table and know that it was his father’s work. I imagined the table fading into the background of a future life, the defects in its execution as well as inevitable stains and scars becoming a surface textured enough that memory and sentiment might cling to it, in unnoticed accretions. More fundamentally, the durable objects of use produced by men “give rise to the familiarity of the world, its customs and habits of intercourse between men and things as well as between men and men,” as Hannah Arendt says. “The reality and reliability of the human world rest primarily on the fact that we are surrounded by things more permanent than the activity by which they were produced, and potentially even more permanent than the lives of their authors.”
Arendt values those who make things, especially things that last, because lasting objects give permanence to our world. And such workers who make things are above all thinkers in her understanding. Work is the process of transfiguring the idea of something into a real and reliable object.
But even laborers who make consumable goods are, for Arendt, doing deeply human activity. To be human has been, for time immemorial, also to labor, to produce the goods one needs to live. A life without labor is impoverished and “the blessing of labor is that effort and gratification follow each other as closely as producing and consuming the means of subsistence.” Granted, in repetitive factory labor these blessings may seem obscure, but then again, Dilbert has taught us much about the supposed blessings of office work as well.
Second, Crawford tells the story of how schools in the U.S. have done away with shop classes, home economics, and auto-repair, all classes I and many others took in junior high and high school. In the pursuit of college preparation, education has ceased to value the blessings of labor and work.
Third, Crawford argues that in a global economy it will be work with out hands and not just work with our brains that pays well. When legal analysis can be outsourced or replaced by robots as easily as phone operators, the one kind of job that will remain necessary for humans is repair work, fixing things, and building things. Such work requires the combination of mental and physical dexterity that machines will unlikely reach for a very long time. Thus, Crawford argues that by emptying our schools of training in handwork, we are not only intellectually impoverishing our students, but also failing to train them for the kinds of jobs that will actually exist in the future.
Many of my students might now agree. I have former students who have written excellent senior theses on Emerson and Heidegger now working on Organic farms or learning the trade of gourmet cheese production. Others are making specialty furniture. One is even making a new custom-built conference table for the Hannah Arendt Center here at Bard. These students love what they do and are making good livings doing it. They are enriching the world with meaningful objects and memories that they are producing, things they can share as gifts and sell with pride.
Many of the best jobs out there now are in the specialty craft areas. These jobs require thought and creativity, but also experience with craftsmanship and labor. Crawford does not argue against training people well in the liberal arts, but he does raise important questions about our valuation of intellectual over manual labor. We here in the U.S. as well as our friends in China should pay attention. Perhaps we need to rethink our intellectual aversion to production. Maybe we should even begin again to teach crafts and skills in school.
Crawford will be speaking at the next Hannah Arendt Center Conference “The Educated Citizen” on Oct. 3-4, at Bard College. We invite you to join us. Until then, I commend to you his book or at least his essay; Shop Craft as Soul Craft is your weekend read.
Controversy is raging around Thomas Friedman’s column today advising the presumptive Secretary of State John Kerry to “break all the rules.”
In short, Friedman—known for his faithful belief that technology is making the world flat and changing things for the better—counsels that the U.S. ignore hostile governments and appeal directly to the people. Here’s the key paragraph:
Let’s break all the rules. Rather than negotiating with Iran’s leaders in secret — which, so far, has produced nothing and allows the Iranian leaders to control the narrative and tell their people that they’re suffering sanctions because of U.S. intransigence — why not negotiate with the Iranian people? President Obama should put a simple offer on the table, in Farsi, for all Iranians to see: The U.S. and its allies will permit Iran to maintain a civil nuclear enrichment capability — which it claims is all it wants to meet power needs — provided it agrees to U.N. observers and restrictions that would prevent Tehran from ever assembling a nuclear bomb. We should not only make this offer public, but also say to the Iranian people over and over: “The only reason your currency is being crushed, your savings rapidly eroded by inflation, many of your college graduates unemployed and your global trade impeded and the risk of war hanging overhead, is because your leaders won’t accept a deal that would allow Iran to develop civil nuclear power but not a bomb.” Iran wants its people to think it has no partner for a civil nuclear deal. The U.S. can prove otherwise.
Foreign policy types like Dan Drezner respond with derision.
Friedman's "break all the rules" strategy is as transgressive as those dumb-ass Dr. Pepper commercials. Worse, he's recommending a policy that would actually be counter-productive to any hope of reaching a deal with Iran. This is the worst kind of "World is Flat" pablum, applied to nuclear diplomacy. God forbid John Kerry were to read it and follow Friedman's advice.
I’ll leave the debate to others. But look at the central assumption in Friedman’s logic. If the leaders of a country don’t agree with us, go to the people. Tell them our plan. They’ll love it. But why is that so? For Friedman and so many of his brothers and sisters on the left and the right in the commentariat, the answer is: because our proposals are rational. Whether it is Friedman on Iran or Brooks on the economy or liberals on gun control or conservatives on the budget, there is an assumption that if everyone would just get together and talk this through like rational individuals, we would agree on a workable and rational solution. This is of course the basic view of President Obama. He sees himself as the most rational person in the room and wonders why people don’t agree with him.
This rationalist fallacy is wrong. Neuro-scientists tell us that people respond to emotional and non-rational inputs. But long ago Hannah Arendt understood and argued that the essence of politics is neither truth nor reason. It is plurality and opinion. The basic condition of politics is plurality, which means people need to come together and pursue a common good in spite of their disagreements and differences.
For Arendt, Western history has seen politics had come under the sway of philosophy and thus the pursuit of rational truth instead of being what it was: a space for the public engagement of different opinions. The tragedy of the last 50 years is that philosophical rationality has now been supplanted by technocratic rationality, so that politics is increasingly about neither opinion nor common truths, but technocracy.
One lesson Arendt took from her fundamental distrust of unity and rationality was the importance of the diffusion of powers and her distrust of centralized power. Her embrace of American Constitutional Federalism was neither conservative nor liberal; it was born from her insistence that politics cannot and should not seek to replace opinions with truths.
Friedman wants rational truth to win out and believes that if we just talk to the people, the veils will fall from their eyes. Well it doesn’t work here at home because people really do disagree and see the world differently. There is no reason to think it will work around the world either. A thoughtful foreign policy, as opposed to a rational one, would begin with the fact of true plurality. The question is not how to make others agree with us, but rather how we who disagree can still live together meaningfully in a common world.
Germany’s Deutschlandfunk Radio program recently broadcast an interview with Margarethe von Trotta about her new film “Hannah Arendt.” The film is now set to be released on May 29 in the U.S. by Zeitgeist Films. The Hannah Arendt Center will be hosting an opening night screening at the Film Forum in NYC. More information to follow.
The radio interview is in German. We offer here in translation von Trotta’s response to Susanne Berg’s first question:
Susanne Berg: How important is it today to come to terms with Hannah Arendt?
Margarita von Trotta: I think Hannah Arendt was one of the most important people and thinkers of the last century. And we are not yet through with the last century. Particularly as Germans the century will pursue us for a long time. I say always, that Hitler wanted a 1,000 year Reich. It lasted only 12 years. But we will have to deal with it for 1,000 years. In this regard we cannot now say, yeah, it’s the 21st century, now it is all in the past. And as I saw the documentary over the Eichmann trial—there is a wonderful film called “The Specialist” by an Israeli, I thought then for the first time, this I want this man in a film. And that was still before I knew that I would describe Hannah Arendt. It was because he showed me what Germany was. Not the greats, not Hitler, not Göring, not Goebbels, all these whom we have in our memory as one can say evil. But these mediocre and middling people, they have formed history.
The reference is to Eyal Sivan’s fascinating and controversial documentary about the Eichmann trial. You can watch short excerpt here.
"Truly successful decision making relies on a balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking."
“All thought arises out of experience, but no thought yields any meaning or even coherence without undergoing the operations of imagining and thinking.”
- Hannah Arendt, Thinking
In the wake of an extraordinarily brutal punctuation to an extraordinarily brutal year of gun violence in the United States and across the continent, the eye of American politics has finally turned back toward something it perhaps ought never have left, the problem in this country of the private ownership of the means to commit extraordinary brutality.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, public discourse around the problem has descended nearly instantaneously from fractiousness into what could now only generously be termed playground name-calling (to spend millions of dollars to publicly call one’s opponent an “elitist hypocrite” should feel extraordinary, even if it doesn’t). There are many tempting culprits to blame for this fall. The actors, of course, include some powerful players whose opposing ideologies so deeply inflect their understanding of the situation that it is entirely uncertain whether they are in fact seeing the same world, let alone the same problem within it. There is the stage on which the actors play, a largely national media structure whose voracious demands can be fed most easily, if not most effectively, by those who seek the currency of political power in hyperbole and absoluteness of conviction. Finally, there is the problem of constructing the problem itself: is it clear that private ownership of the means of extraordinary violence is so distinct a problem from that of its public ownership and (borderless) use? Can the line of acceptability between means of extraordinary brutality really be settled by types of implements, let alone the number of bullets in a magazine? What are the connections and disconnections between the events – Oak Creek, Chicago, Newtown,… – that have summoned the problem back onto our collective stage, and why had the problem disappeared in the first place when the violence so demonstrably had not? There is something in all of these instincts, but before we rush to decry our national theater (more Mamet than melodrama), it’s worth remembering that the problem is an extraordinary one, and that many of the pathologies of our various reactions to it spring from the same seed as our best resources: the nature of thinking itself.
The rhetoric used in describing the problem of gun violence – formulated so readily and so intractably – coupled with the unavoidable connection of the problem with intense emotion make it tempting to suspect one’s political opponents in this arena of ceasing to think altogether. I will admit to sometimes being convinced that there was no thought at all behind some of the words being splayed across television screens and RSS feeds (not, it should be said, entirely without reason). Arendt, in Thinking, describes thinking and feeling as inherently mutually antagonistic, and whether or not that is true it certainly seems that the tenor and pitch of the vitriol make thinking, let alone conversing, difficult. But that may point to a reality still more sobering than the perennially (and maybe banally) true observation that a great deal of what passes for public discourse did not require serious thought in its formulation: that when we deal with certain kinds of events, and try to engage in the process of translating them and reconstructing them into the form of a problem, we are running up against dimensions of the human experience so extraordinary that they shove us flatly against the limits of what we are able to do in thought. Perhaps the struggle now is less against a chronic inability to think, and more with recognizing the ways in which the limits of how we can feel and see and know – and then think – have created limits not just to how we can understand the problem, but to how we can understand each others’ responses to it.
One permanent refrain in this debate is the culpability of violent media in generating cultures in which, it is said, such extraordinary brutality becomes possible (ignoring, it might be objected, that humankind has shown a rather vibrant aptitude for brutality for quite some time). The newest variation on this theme, which in structure has changed little since its revival by Tipper Gore and Susan Baker in the 1980s, is that violent video games, by wedding the sensation of the rapid pleasures of accomplishment unique to video games with a sense of agency in apparent violence have created a generation desensitized not just to images of extraordinary violence, but to the prospect of committing it oneself. A friend of mine who has good reason to be sensitive was so infuriated at the NRA’s release of a mobile app promoting “responsible gun use” one month to the day after the Newtown shootings that he couldn’t eat for several days.
If it is possible to set aside questions of titanically poor taste and worse (and its not clear that we should), there is something about this way of thinking about the problem of violent imaginaries that reflects what I am suggesting is an issue of pathologies arising from mental necessities.
There is little use denying that being intensively immersed in gaming environments (any gaming environments, and not just violent electronic ones) for extended periods of time can seriously, if usually temporarily, alter a person’s phenomenal experience of their own agency and the realness of the world around them (I confess this as a recovering Sid Meier enthusiast myself). But the concept of de-sensitization is a difficult one in particular because, as Arendt points out, de-sensitization is precisely what thought does, and must do to carry out its work. Nowhere is this more clear than in those cases in which we are confronted with events that seriously strain the possibility of thinking about them at all.
Thinking about tragedies involves a twin process that need not, and should not, lessen the experience of their terribleness…but it always can. That twin process, as Arendt describes it, is one of de-sensation and re-sensation. When we try to think about what has occur, we have to call it up, we reproduce it “by repeating in [our] imagination, we de-sense whatever had been given to our senses.” In remembering, we convert the data of our senses, including our common sense, into objects of thought. We do that in order to make them fit for the preoccupation of thought, our “quest for meaning;” in other words, re-sensation, the process of translation into narrative and metaphor by which facts become truths.
It’s not difficult to see how extraordinary brutality challenges this double operation to the point of impossibility. On the one hand, this model of de-sensation by the reproductive imagination presumes a kind of voluntarism to the recollection, when often, and most especially in the cases like those of immediate victims where the stakes are highest, recollection comes unbidden, and far from de-sensing involves the cruel and incessant reiteration of sense that is renewed in all of its thought-destroying power. On the other hand, extraordinary brutality by its very nature resists re-sensation in proportion to its extraordinariness: to read the trial of Anders Breivik, for example, is to watch a play of the utter failure of not only the killer’s own efforts at narrative, but those of every single speaking person involved. It is not a surprise that these trials test the law’s own limited strictures of re-sensation to the breaking point, which often comes as nothing more than quiet acquittal (as with Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, in whose case international law was forced to confess the inadequacy of its categories).
What’s more difficult to see is how that terrible challenge presented by extraordinary brutality to our very capacity to think is simultaneously a challenge to our politics, one perhaps graver still for our hope, as Arendt puts it in her Denktagebuch, to share a world with those with whom we must live. Extraordinary brutality makes a shamble of our narrating powers, and the failures of others to make sense of it which incite our scorn – as when, I will admit, even as someone who grew up in a gun culture, I literally cannot make sense of the suggestion that high-capacity magazines would be better combated by their increased prevalence in the school environment itself – are no less replicated by our own attempts, whether or not we can see and admit it. Imagination’s other function, its most political function for Arendt, is to put ourselves in the place of others in order to more fully see the political world that confronts us. If this is true, then it is not our capacity to put ourselves in the place of a killer that most threatens our political capacity to respond, whatever the prevalence of this problem in popular discourse. This may often be an impossibility, but the stakes are much lower than that of the impossibility of putting ourselves in the places of others who are also trying – and like us mostly failing – to respond. In trying and failing to renarrate tragedy in order to construct political problems and solutions, we come up against the limits of our imaginations, limits are themselves defined by the bounds of our prior experiences and our thought itself. When it comes to the world of the gun (and here, I can only urge a look at the truly remarkable The Language of the Gun), we are running up against the reality that contemporary American polity covers experiences of the world divergent to such an extreme – how much, in terms of sensory experience in their personal history do David Keene and Alan Padilla share, really? – that answers truly are being constructed from worlds which, in the senses that matter to policymaking, don’t overlap. And in an environment where that is true, the first, most critical order must be the one that is neglected most: not to analyze why our competing solutions are right or wrong, but to understand why the solutions we are proposing arise from the experiences of the world we have had, including our experiences of the tragedies we cannot re-sense.
Responses cannot be crafted out of worlds that are not shared, and tending to the former requires a kind of tending to the latter that we see vanishingly rarely, thought the torch still carried by a few radio producers and documentary filmmakers. Absent that kind of dedicated world-making – and perhaps that process requires a time and restraint that too is threatened by extraordinary brutality – we will simply be left with what we have, an issue politics without common sense because the only sense that is common, the event, is insensible. When they respond in ways we cannot abide, understanding our political others is an almost impossibly difficult task. It is also one that a polity cannot possibly do without.