Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
Fenton Johnson in Harpers meditates on a fundamental question of our loud and distracted age: "What is the usefulness of sitting alone at one's desk and writing, especially writing those vast seas of pages that will see only the recycling bin? What is the usefulness of meditation, or of prayer? What is the usefulness of the solitary?" Being alone, avoiding society and choosing to live on one's own, is an art, something we need to practice and learn. And Johnson argues it is worth the effort. "I do not wish to say that being solitary is superior or inferior to being coupled, nor that the full experience of solitude requires living alone, though doing so may create a greater silence in which to hear an inner voice." That inner voice of solitude may, for one thing, speak differently than our outward voice: "Could solitaries model the choice for reverence over irony? Instead of conquering nations or mountains or outer space, might we set out to conquer our need to conquer? If that seems a tall order, I offer you Paul Cézanne, painting himself to the point of diabetic collapse, reinventing painting. Think about the hallucinatory quality of his late work; think about how modern art owes itself to solitude and low blood sugar. I offer Eudora Welty, writing magical realism when Gabriel García Márquez was a teenager. Henry James, portraying the caustic corruptions of fortress marriage, living alone in Lamb House by the sea. Zora Neale Hurston, who nurtured a flame of mysticism in a world hostile to it, and who showed that through her wits alone a black woman could live by her own rules, and who died in poverty and was buried in an unmarked grave in a potter's field. Thomas Merton, who spent twenty years in a monastery preparing for his true vocation, which was solitude. Walt Whitman, who taught us how to be American. Emily Dickinson, his sister in solitude, who taught us how to be alive to the world, most especially to the suffering of its solitaries. I offer you Jesus, that renegade proto-feminist communitarian bachelor Jew, who reminded us of the lesson first set forth a thousand years earlier in the Hebrews' holy book: to love our neighbors as ourselves. I offer you Siddhartha Gautama, who sat in solitude to achieve the understanding that everyone and everything are one." As does Hannah Arendt who distinguishes solitude from loneliness and writes that solitude is the precondition for thinking, Johnson suggests that amidst the "chatter and diversions of our lives," solitude is what can "keep the demons at bay." The question, unasked and unanswered, is how to find and nurture solitude in a world increasingly devoid of private places.
Gabriel Weinberg, whose DuckDuckGo search engine does not track users' web searches, thinks that the country is now ready for a thoughtful debate about data privacy. "Any day now President Obama is going to propose a new privacy bill of rights that will give you much more control over your personal information. A healthy debate will then ensue, and you can and should be a part of it. You can actually move the needle on this one. Let me try to convince you. First things first, this is not a partisan issue. This is not Obama's debate. This is our debate. It's our personal information. Obama is just sparking the flame. In 2012 he proposed something similar and it didn't catch. Three short years later, enough has changed in the world to expect this time it will be different.... The question in the upcoming debate will quickly become: what limits? The status quo of collect it all and reveal as little as possible has to go, but there is a massive range between maximum possible collection and minimum necessary collection. Here are a few things we could do. Companies (and governments) could explicitly tell you what is happening to your personal information. They could allow you to opt-out. They could give you granular control of your data. They could even tell you exactly what you're getting when you give out specific pieces of information. Disclosure requirements could mimic those in other areas like credit cards and mortgages where the most relevant risks are highlighted. In other words, there are a lot of options." Weinberg writes that people are beginning to care and that it is time to pass new regulations limiting the use of private data. That will only happen, however, if we the people actually see the gathering, use, and selling of immense amount of our personal data as a danger. Weinberg believes that this is happening: "We've all noticed those annoying ads following us around the Internet. That's just the tip of the iceberg. Most people still don't know that private companies build and sell profiles about them or that many retailers charge different prices based on these data profiles." The question is, once we know this is happening, will we change our behavior? Is the answer only if and when we understand what is truly lost when we give up our privacy? This is the question being asked at the Arendt Center Fall 2015 Conference "Privacy: Why Does It Matter?" Save the date: October 15-16.
Babette Babich publishes a long meditation on Margarethe von Trotta's film "Hannah Arendt," in which the theme is the celluloid expression of internal states. "Like Adorno, Arendt would be vigorously denounced for arrogance, an arrogance von Trotta's film also documents (Arendt's colleagues indict her in just this language and von Trotta's film thus illustrates a common side of academic non-collegiality). It is also Arendt's arrogance that colors von Trotta's depiction (this is more of the film's signal syncretism) of the falling out between Hannah Arendt and the Hans Jonas who would go on to make what one might describe as monotonic ethics his personal calling card. In von Trotta's film, Jonas is represented as the injured party, a favoring that is unsurprising as the film drew on Jonas' Memoirs (and therewith his point of view). The contrast between arrogance and the steadfast adherence to a conventionally received ethical viewpoint is key. Where arrogance is regarded as a vice, modesty is a virtue, most especially for a woman, a troublesome demand for an academic and an intellectual like Arendt. The vice of arrogance is also supposed to be emotive (though on whose side remains an open question) and perforce irrational."
Novelist Tom McCarthy thinks that while the best and most creative among us once turned to art, they're now working for Google: "It is not just that people with degrees in English generally go to work for corporations (which of course they do); the point is that the company, in its most cutting-edge incarnation, has become the arena in which narratives and fictions, metaphors and metonymies and symbol networks at their most dynamic and incisive are being generated, worked through and transformed. While 'official' fiction has retreated into comforting nostalgia about kings and queens, or supposed tales of the contemporary rendered in an equally nostalgic mode of unexamined realism, it is funky architecture firms, digital media companies and brand consultancies that have assumed the mantle of the cultural avant garde. It is they who, now, seem to be performing writers' essential task of working through the fragmentations of old orders of experience and representation, and coming up with radical new forms to chart and manage new, emergent ones. If there is an individual alive in 2015 with the genius and vision of James Joyce, they're probably working for Google, and if there isn't, it doesn't matter since the operations of that genius and vision are being developed and performed collectively by operators on the payroll of that company, or of one like it."
Robert L. Kehoe III considers sociologist David Goldblatt's new book The Game of Our Lives on the newfound (at least, newfound to Americans) prominence of English soccer: "Borrowing from Don DeLillo's Underworld, Goldblatt's investigation of British football reminds us that 'longing on a large scale is what makes history.' Today those grand longings have become 'increasingly colonized by commercially manufactured imagery.' Gone are the days where witnessing a live sporting event was principally a physical and communal experience. Now, 'distant, mediated, artificial events' have become 'the central nodes of an atomized culture held together by a shared addiction to stupefaction and the spectacle.' Subsequently, intimacy, immediacy, spontaneity, and authenticity have been replaced by hype, cliché, and exaggeration, leaving the concrete human realities of sport in the shadows of the circus. According to Goldblatt, any institution or activity subject to mediation (and especially mass-mediation) is vulnerable to its 21st-century simulacra. Taken to its logical conclusion you arrive at the overt farce of professional wrestling, and while football faces similar dangers under the influence of organized match-fixing, its salvation is 'that the raw material out of which the media-football complex constructs the spectacle remains intensely local.' Still, vividly capturing the drama of English football through enhanced production methods can only create the illusion of a tangible social relationship between say fans at Anfield and a bar in Los Angeles. Illusory or otherwise, English football has a growing international consumer base that doesn't just enjoy the spectacle: they feel as though they're a part of it. Goldblatt calls this an imaginary community; full of religious fervor but devoid of any tangible communal purpose."
In an essay about the relationship between Charlie Brown and Charlie Hedbo, Sarah Boxer pens a paean to Peanuts: "Back in 1969, when Snoopy helped launch Charlie Mensuel, Peanuts was still seen as pretty subversive. It had a minimalist look and an existentialist twist that no other strip had. Timothy Leary, four years before writing his work on psilocybin mushrooms, praised Peanuts as 'masterful.' The English psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wanted to use a picture of Linus with his blanket to illustrate what a transitional object was. And, according to Michaelis, it was 'the first mainstream comic strip ever to regularize the use of the word "depressed."' 'Nobody was saying this stuff,' said the cartoonist Jules Feiffer. 'You didn't find it in The New Yorker. You found it in cellar clubs, and, on occasion, in the pages of the Village Voice. But not many other places.' Schulz himself knew that he was doing something new, showing that even 'little kids can be very nasty' to each other--and miserable, too. With a subtlety that Charlie Hebdo would never dream of, Peanuts also made people look at their own meanness and zeal, including the religious kind. In 1965, according to Michaelis, Schulz got a letter complaining that 'the Great Pumpkin was sacrilegious.' (Schulz agreed.) And in a memorable strip penned shortly after Snoopy's doghouse went up in flames, while Snoopy was still mourning the cinders--his lost pool table, his books, his records, his Wyeth--you see Lucy yelling at him, in triumph: 'You know why your doghouse burned down? You sinned, that's why! You're being punished for something you did wrong! That's the way these things always work!'"
Peter Levine asks what Hannah Arendt might have meant when she praised Martin Heidegger for bringing thinking to life in his classrooms. Levine writes that philosophers can do three things: they can interpret the philosophical tradition, make rational arguments, and practice reflection and introspection. For Levine, Arendt was one of the last thinkers to do all three: "Arendt perceived Heidegger as putting these parts back together. Reading classical works in his seminar (or in a reading group, called a Graecae) was a creative and spiritual exercise as well as an academic pursuit. Karl Jaspers held different substantive positions, but he had a similar view of philosophy, the discipline to which he had moved after a brilliant career in psychiatry. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl writes that Jaspers'
new orientation was summarized in many different ways, but this sentence is exemplary: 'Philosophizing is real as it pervades an individual life at a given moment.' For Hannah Arendt, this concrete approach was a revelation; and Jaspers living his philosophy was an example to her: 'I perceived his Reason in praxis, so to speak,' she remembered (Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World, pp. 63-4).
Arendt fairly quickly decided that 'introspection' was a self-indulgent dead-end and that Heidegger's philosophy was selfishly egoistic. Then the Nazi takeover of 1933 pressed her into something new, as she assisted enemies of the regime to escape and then escaped herself. She found deep satisfaction in what she called 'action.' From then on, she sought to combine 'thinking' (disciplined inquiry) with political action in ways that were meant to pervade her whole life. That combination is hard to find today, if it can be found at all."
Writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach, reaching way back into his past, wonders what it means to derive, to plagiarize, in the age of mass culture: "The amusing truth of the matter is this: often--especially in a mature career in a medium with six decades of mass visibility--you will hear a pitch that is derivative of something that was, itself, derivative of something else that the pitcher is not aware of. More than once I have heard a younger writer say, 'Do you remember that old episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Riker passes out in the teaser and wakes up 16 years later as captain of the Enterprise, but he can't remember anything ... and he cleverly realizes that his amnesia is really a Romulan ruse to get him to give up sensitive information?' only to be shocked when told, 'Yeah, it was a takeoff from an even older James Garner movie--based on a Roald Dahl short story--where he's an Allied spy who passes out before the D-Day invasion, wakes up in a U.S. Army Hospital six years later, and can't remember anything, then cleverly realizes that his amnesia is a German ruse to extract from him the location of the invasion.' Derivation is the air we breathe."
Synopsis: A diverse group of South African actors tours the war-torn regions of Northern Ireland, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia to share their country's experiment with reconciliation. As they ignite a dialogue among people with raw memories of atrocity, the actors find they must once again confront their homeland's violent past, and question their own capacity for healing and forgiveness.
Tuesday, March 24, 2015
Weis Cinema, Campus Center, 6:30 pm
Putting Courage at the Centre: Gandhi on Civility, Society and Self-Knowledge
Invite Only. RSVP Required.
HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.
For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at email@example.com.
Friday, April 3, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm
Property and Freedom: Are Access to Legal Title and Assets the Path to Overcoming Poverty in South Africa?
A one-day conference sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, the Human Rights Project, and the Center for Civic Engagement, with support from the Ford Foundation, The Brenthurst Foundation, and The University of The Western Cape
Free and open to the public!
Monday, April 6, 2015
Bard College Campus Center, Weis Cinema, 10:00 am - 7:00 pm
"The Right to Literature"
Tuesday, April 14, 2015
Hannah Arendt Center, 6:00 pm
"Relations Between Hannah Arendt's Council System and the Human Condition"
Wednesday, April 15, 2015
Hannah Arendt Center, 12:00 pm
Invite Only. RSVP Required.
Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Privacy: Why Does It Matter?," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!
This week on the Blog, Philip Walsh discusses Hannah Arendt's critique of the consumer society that was emerging in the 1950s in the Quote of the Week. Psychiatrist and academic Thomas Szasz provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. And we appreciate a student's personal Arendt library in our Library feature.
Did the Arab Spring come from nowhere, or was it preceded by modes of social and political action that might have eluded our common conceptual frames? How do ordinary people in the Middle East manage and even alter the conditions of everyday life despite the recalcitrance of authoritarian governments? These questions formed the starting point for Asef Bayat’s lecture “Non-Movements and the Power of the Ordinary,” which he gave in Olin Hall on Thursday evening, February 7th. Bayat is the Catherine and Bruce Bastian Professor of Global and Transnational Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches in the sociology and Middle East Studies departments. Throughout his illustrious career, his research has focused on social movements, religiosity, and urban space in Iran, Egypt, and other Middle Eastern states.
Contrary to common public perception, Bayat insisted that these countries’ subaltern populations do not resign themselves to adverse economic and political circumstances. Indeed, the region has well established traditions of activism among leftists, unionists, women, Islamists, and post-Islamists, among many other constituencies. But it has often proven difficult to create and sustain organized social movements when Middle Eastern states have been so reluctant to tolerate opposition. How then might citizens foster meaningful political change?
Bayat argued that many Middle Easterners, rather than overtly confronting authoritarian governments, have resorted to what he calls “social non-movements.” Such non-movements are defined not by formal lobbying and protest, but rather by fleeting moments of mundane but nevertheless contentious action. Such action constitutes a “quiet encroachment of the ordinary” to the extent that it slowly alters everyday conditions in a manner that authoritarian state forces must respond to but cannot easily prevent. At the same time, social non-movements are propelled not by bureaucratic organizations that governments can readily identify and target, but rather by constituencies of dispersed individuals and groups who mobilize around common experiences and grievances.
In an effort to lend empirical weight to these general claims, Bayat offered a series of illustrative case studies. One concerned the actions of the poor. In Egypt and many other countries of the Middle East, large numbers of rural residents have sought to escape grinding material scarcity by moving to larger cities and building their own homes from scavenged materials. The formation of these squatter settlements is rarely if ever coordinated by any formal collective organization, but it nevertheless results in a dramatic reshaping of the urban landscape. Although government forces may initially destroy homes built in this fashion, the persistent construction and reconstruction eventually compels them to alter urban planning protocols, provide water, electricity and other utilities, and incorporate these makeshift districts into the “official city.”
Another case study turned on pious women’s myriad efforts to carve out more satisfying places for themselves in Iranian public life. The Islamic Republic has long sought to regulate female bodily coverage in the street as one means of assuring the nation’s moral and spiritual integrity, but hundreds of thousands of women have opted to defy government dictates by wearing “bad hijab” (i.e., headscarves and chadors that leave a few centimeters of hair visible). These women’s subtle but consistent sartorial challenges, which circumvent but do not entirely disregard the state’s norms of bodily coverage, have gradually shifted the requirements that government actors can effectively enforce on a day-to-day basis.
Moreover, large numbers of women wear hijab while hiking, jogging, driving cars, and engaging in other activities that are not conventionally regarded as gender-appropriate, or they choose to live alone and unmarried rather than in the homes of their parents and spouses. Once again, these varied practices have not been centrally orchestrated or institutionalized, but they have nevertheless altered the terms of women’s participation in everyday life.
Bayat acknowledged that social non-movements like these can and do coalesce into more organized and concerted activism, and he recognized that both movements and non-movements constitute important means for subaltern groups to claim de facto citizenship. But he also insisted that these two modes of action cannot be readily equated. Whereas social movements pursue a politics of overt protest, non-movements engage in a quieter, less obtrusive politics of everyday presence and practice. They are also driven less by specific and explicit ideological commitments than by inchoate desires for more expansive and appealing life chances. Nevertheless, they also provide a nutritive context within which more articulate claims for rights and resources might be formulated.
Bayat’s lecture offered a suggestive framework through which to conceive practices and processes that often do not meet our established expectations of politics. Much of the ensuing discussion then attempted to probe and delimit the contours of his argument. What, for example, are the conditions in which a social non-movement might pivot into more cohesive and institutionalized forms of collective protest? How can a social non-movement be distinguished from a dissenting subculture or counter-public, more conventional forms of deviant or illegal behavior, or the glacial drift of wider social change? And to what degree does the notion of a social non-movement presume the existence of an authoritarian state, whether in the Middle East or in other parts of the world? Could we also identify non-movements, for instance, in the liberal democracies of North America and Western Europe?
Here Bayat contended that non-movements were closely tied to authoritarian states that retain a degree of “softness.” That is to say, these states aspire to exert thorough if not complete control over the social field, but they ultimately lack the capacity to make such control a living reality. As a result, they necessarily leave “opaque spaces” that subaltern groups can turn to their own advantage. Bayat’s remarks obviously referred to the many Middle Eastern governments that have recently teetered or toppled as a result of the Arab Spring. Yet he also suggested that the gradual undoing of Prohibition in the 1930s U.S. might also illustrate the concept of a social non-movement and its long-term incremental effects.
In his reading, the ban on alcohol was undermined less by concerted lobbying and protest than by millions of Americans’ spontaneous, mundane but eventually consequential disregard for existing legislation.
To my mind, this apparent discrepancy was not a flaw in Bayat’s analysis as much as an invitation for further inquiry. Like the lecture as a whole, it demonstrated the rewards but also the challenges of breaking out of our intellectual ruts to wrestle with complexity in new ways.
Readers who would like to delve further into Bayat’s argument should consult his book Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Stanford University Press, 2010).