Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
23Sep/131

The False Culture of Utility

Arendtquote

“Culture is being threatened when all worldly objects and things, produced by the present or the past, are treated as mere functions for the life process of society, as though they are there only to fulfill some need, and for this functionalization it is almost irrelevant whether the needs in question are of a high or a low order.”

--Hannah Arendt, “The Crisis in Culture”

Hannah Arendt defines the cultural as that which gives testimony to the past and in preserving the past helps constitute  our common world.  A cultural object embodies the human goal of achieving “immortality,” which as Arendt explains in The Human Condition is not the same as eternal life or the biological propagation of the species. Immortality concerns the life of a people and is ultimately political.  It refers to the particular type of transcendence afforded by political action. In “The Crisis of Culture,” Arendt shows how culture has a political role insofar as it creates durable and lasting objects that contribute to the immortality of a people.

culture

The danger Arendt confronts in “The Crisis in Culture” is that mass culture makes art disposable and thus threatens the political ability of cultural life to produce lasting and immortal objects.  The source of her worry is not an invasion of culture by the low and the base, but a sort of cannibalization of culture by itself.  The problem is that mass culture swallows culture and subsumes it under the rubric of need.  The immortal is degraded to a biological necessity, to be endlessly consumed and reproduced. Durable cultural objects that constitute a meaningful political world are thereby consumed, eroding the common world that is the place of politics.

Arendt’s point is first that mass culture—like all culture under the sway of society— is too often confused with status, self-fulfillment, or entertainment. In the name of status or entertainment, cultural achievements are stripped down and repackaged as something to be consumed in the life process.  She would argue that this happens every time Hamlet is made into a movie or the Iliad is condensed into a children’s edition. By making culture accessible for those who would use it to improve themselves, the mass-culture industry makes it less and less likely that we will ever confront the great works of our past in their most challenging form.  Eventually, the watering down of once immortal works can make it difficult or impossible to perceive the importance of culture and cultural education for humanity and our common world.

However, Arendt does not offer simply a banal critique of reality television as fast-food.  We might recognize a more insidious form of the risks she describes in the new intellectualism that marks the politics, or anti-politics of the tech milieu. What has been termed Silicon Valley’s anti-intellectualism should instead be understood as a forced colonization of the space potentially inhabited by the public intellectual.

The prophets of the tech world see themselves as fulfilling a social and political duty through enterprise.  They unselfconsciously describe their creations as sources of liberation, democracy, and revolution.  And yet they eschew politics. Their abnegation of overt political activity is comprehensible in that, for them, ‘politics’ is always already contained in the project of saving the world through technological progress.

We see such exemplars of technological cultural salvation all around us.  Scholars and cultural figures are invited to lecture at the “campuses” of Apple and Google, and their ideas get digested into the business model or spit back out in the form of TED talks.  Even Burning Man, originally a ‘counter-cultural’ annual desert festival with utopian pretensions, has been sucked into the vortex, such that Stanford Professor Fred Turner could give a powerpoint lecture titled, “Burning Man at Google: A cultural infrastructure for new media production.”  The abstract for his article in New Media & Society is even more suggestive: “…this article explores the ways in which Burning Man’s bohemian ethos supports new forms of production emerging in Silicon Valley and especially at Google. It shows how elements of the Burning Man world – including the building of a sociotechnical commons, participation in project-based artistic labor and the fusion of social and professional interaction – help to shape and legitimate the collaborative manufacturing processes driving the growth of Google and other firms.”  Turner’s conclusion virtually replicates Arendt’s differentiation between nineteenth century philistinism and the omniphagic nature of mass culture:

In the 19th century, at the height of the industrial era, the celebration of art provided an occasion for the display of wealth. In the 21st century, under conditions of commons-based peer production, it has become an occasion for its [i.e. wealth] creation.

The instrumentalization of culture within polite society has given way to the digestion and reconstitution of culture in the form of gadgets meant to increase convenience.  Would-be cultural objects become rungs on the hamster wheel of life’s progress. Progress as the ultimate goal of technological cultural innovation is a vague concept because it is taken for granted due to the self-contained and self-enclosed nature of the industry.  Where it is defined, it is demonstrated through examples, such as the implementation of the smart parking meter or the use of cloud networking in order to better administer services to San Francisco’s homeless population.

In a recent New Yorker article on the tech revolutionaries, George Packer writes, “A favorite word in tech circles is ‘frictionless.’ It captures the pleasures of an app so beautifully designed that using it is intuitive, and it evokes a fantasy in which all inefficiencies, annoyances, and grievances have been smoothed out of existence—that is, an apolitical world.” Progress here is the increasingly efficient administration of life.

When tech does leave its insular environment and direct its energies outward, its engagements reflect both its solipsism and focus on utility, which for Arendt go together.  The Gates Foundation’s substantial investments in higher education impose the quantitatively verifiable standard of degree completion as the sole or main objective, which seems odd in itself, given Gates’ notoriety as a Harvard drop-out.  The efforts of the Foundation aim less at placing Shakespeare in the hands of every fast-food worker, and more towards redirecting all of cultural education toward the development of a cheap version of utilitarian aptitude.  Such tech intellectualism will ask, “What is the point of slaving over the so-called classics?” The claim is that the liberal arts vision of university education is inseparable from elitist designs, based on an exclusive definition of what ‘culture’ should be.

“What is the use?” is the wrong question, though, and it is tinged by the solipsistic mentality of a tech elite that dare not speak its name.  The tech intellectual presents the culture of Silicon Valley as inherently egalitarian, despite the fact that capital gains in the sector bare a large burden of the blame for this country’s soaring rate of inequality.  This false sense of equality fosters a naïve view of political and social issues.  It also fuels tech’s hubristic desire to remake the world in its own image:  Life is about frictionless success and efficient progress, and these can be realized via the technological fix.  “It worked for us, what’s the matter with you?”

tech

For Arendt, culture is not meant to be useful for employment or even the lofty purpose of self-cultivation; our relationship to culture nurtures our ability to make judgments.  Kant’s discussion of taste and “common sense” informs her notion of the faculty of judgment in art and politics.  In matters of taste, judging rests on the human ability to enlarge one’s mind and think with reference to an “anticipated communication with others” and “potential agreement.”  Common sense, as she uses it, “discloses to us the nature of the world insofar as it is a common world.”  Culture and politics are linked in that both can only exist in a world that is shared.  She writes:

Culture and politics, then, belong together because it is not knowledge or truth which is at stake, but rather judgment and decision, the judicious exchange of opinion about the sphere of public life and the common world, and the decision what manner of action is to be taken, as well as to how it is to look henceforth, what kind of things are to appear in it.

That culture and politics are about enacting judgments, rather than truth or technique for the advancement of biological life, is a point that is clearly missed by the tech intellectuals.  The establishment of utility as the sole goal of higher education represents only one section of a general lens through which the world appears only as a series of practical problems to be figured out.  In this paradoxical utopia of mass accessibility, insulation, and narrow-mindedness, applied knowledge threatens to occupy and pervert culture at the expense of political action and care for our common world.

-Jennifer Hudson

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
8Apr/130

Amor Mundi 4/7/13

Arendtamormundi

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.

"My Republican Friends Ask if I've Gone Crazy."

frumminiA favorite exemplar of American intellectual is the reformed proselytizer, which in part explains the celebrity of David Frum. A lifelong Republican and official in the George W. Bush administration, Frum was part of the neo-conservative movement. For the last few years, however, Frum has positioned himself as a centrist, the thinking man's Republican. In 2011 he published a manifesto of sorts, breaking with the extremes of his party: "I've been a Republican all my adult life. I have worked on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, at Forbes magazine, at the Manhattan and American Enterprise Institutes, as a speechwriter in the George W. Bush administration. I believe in free markets, low taxes, reasonable regulation, and limited government. I voted for John McCain in 2008, and I have strongly criticized the major policy decisions of the Obama administration. But as I contemplate my party and my movement in 2011, I see things I simply cannot support." The full essay is well worth reading today. So is Frum's blog, one of the best. Take a look, and then come hear Roger Berkowitz and Walter Russell Mead talk with Frum in NYC on Tuesday, April 9th, as part of the Hannah Arendt Center's series, "Blogging and the New Public Intellectual." More information here.

What is Poetry For?

poetIn honor of National Poetry Month, The Big Think asked Robert Pinsky, the 39th Poet Laureate of the United States, about The Favorite Poem Project, which he founded in 1997. In the course of the interview, Pinsky speaks about teaching poetry: The best thing I know of about teaching art is in William Butler Yeats' great poem, "Sailing to Byzantium." He says-in the first draft he said, "There is no singing school, but studying monuments of its own magnificence." He doesn't say there's no singing school but going to an MFA program or to Julliard or to Conservatory. He says the way, indeed the only way, you learn singing or any other art is to study, not just sample or be exposed to, but to study. Not just things that are pretty good or not bad or that are in fashion this year, but monuments of the arts magnificence. And that's how you learn something.

Saxifrage

saxIn William Carlos Williams' poem, the Saxifrage is the flower of insight and invention, the flower that "splits the rocks." For Tim Cook (not that Tim Cook for you Apple fans), the Saxifrage School is the two-year old effort to re-imagine college education. The school has no buildings and few permanent staff. "Saxifrage is woven into the bustle of three East Pittsburgh neighborhoods. A graphic-design course is taught in a coffee shop. A course on organic agriculture uses the boiler room in an abandoned city pool house for its seed-starting workshop. Other offerings are computer programming and carpentry & design. The courses are taught by working professionals and craftsmen, and the plan is to hire adjuncts and Ph.D students from traditional colleges to teach humanities classes as they are added." The advantage is low cost and high flexibility. And it is part of a growing trend of alternatives to traditional college education.

The Burden of Fees

hatsMarian Wang points to one of the reasons that college is so much more expensive than it appears to be: fees. Fees amount to a "second tuition" that often means that students end up paying far more than the sticker price for an education. Driven by decreased state support, colleges and universities are using these extra charges as a way to close the funding gap. Wang uses Massachusetts as a particularly egregious example: "At state schools in Massachusetts, where the state board of higher education has held tuition flat for more than a decade, "mandatory fees" wind up far outstripping the price of tuition. At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the flagship of the UMass system, mandatory fees are more than six times the cost of in-state tuition."

Religion for Atheists

atheiLate last month, The New Statesman asked several thinkers about what purpose religion might serve for an atheist. Among the most popular answers is Karen Armstrong's: "Throughout history, however, many people have been content with a personalized deity, yet not because they "believed" in it but because they learned to behave - ritually and ethically - in a way that made it a reality. Religion is a form of practical knowledge, like driving or dancing. You cannot learn to drive by reading the car manual or the Highway Code; you have to get into the vehicle and learn to manipulate the brakes."

Featured Upcoming NYC Event

frumminiBlogging and the New Public Intellectual

An Ongoing Series of discussions moderated by Roger Berkowitz and Walter Russell Mead.

April 9, 2013 at Bard Graduate Center

 

David Frum, blogger for The Daily Beast & The Huffington Post.

David Frum is back. And he's jockeying to be the front and center of the post-Romney American conservative movement".  - Eddy Moretti

Learn more here.

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Jennie Han considers how Arendt's idea of critical thinking was influenced by Kant's idea of a "world citizen." Jeff Champlin discusses Seyla Benhabib's essay, "Hannah Arendt and the Redemptive Power of Narrative." And Roger Berkowitz thinks about the line between human and animal consciousness.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
8Aug/121

The Fecundity of the Unexpected

Readers of the Hannah Arendt Center blog are well acquainted with the pension train wreck that is heading our way.  It is not only public union pensions but also those corporate pensions that still guarantee defined benefits that are radically underfunded. And what hides the immensity of the problem is continued unrealistic assumptions about long-term future returns.

As was reported recently, Maryland—to take just one example—continues to assume a 7.75% annual return on its public pensions, which is even higher than the 6.6% 100 year historical average on stock returns.

While there is blame to go around—including feckless politicians and Wall Street hucksterism—the root of the problem may be a general unwillingness on all sides to realize that the last 100 years may have been an aberration. This is the argument that legendary investor Bill Gross makes in a report he sent to PIMCO clients this week.

Gross takes aim at the oft-repeated "truth" that over time stocks will return a real return of 6.6%. He argues that the returns over the last century were predicated on a Ponzi scheme, giving extra returns to shareholders at the expense of laborers (declining real wages) and government (declining real taxes). As those trends reach their limits, it is inevitable, Gross writes, that real returns must decline as well:

The legitimate question that market analysts, government forecasters and pension consultants should answer is how that 6.6% real return can possibly be duplicated in the future given today’s initial conditions which historically have never been more favorable for corporate profits. If labor and indeed government must demand some recompense for the four decade’s long downward tilting teeter-totter of wealth creation, and if GDP growth itself is slowing significantly due to deleveraging in a New Normal economy, then how can stocks appreciate at 6.6% real? They cannot, absent a productivity miracle that resembles Apple’s wizardry.

And it is not only stocks that will suffer. With treasuries yielding 2.55% (less than inflation), it is increasingly unlikely that long term bonds will provide meaningful returns.  The sad result:

Together then, a presumed 2% return for bonds and an historically low percentage nominal return for stocks – call it 4%, when combined in a diversified portfolio produce a nominal return of 3% and an expected inflation adjusted return near zero. The Siegel constant of 6.6% real appreciation, therefore, is an historical freak, a mutation likely never to be seen again as far as we mortals are concerned.

The consequence of these reduced expectations for public and private pension funds (and also for retirees with 401k plans that assume healthy investment returns) are dire. Simply put, throughout society, we are living beyond our means. We are in denial and continuing to make unrealistic investment assumptions. Gross draws the inevitable lesson for pension plans:

Private pension funds, government budgets and household savings balances have in many cases been predicated and justified on the basis of 7–8% minimum asset appreciation annually. One of the country’s largest state pension funds for instance recently assumed that its diversified portfolio would appreciate at a real rate of 4.75%. Assuming a goodly portion of that is in bonds yielding at 1–2% real, then stocks must do some very heavy lifting at 7–8% after adjusting for inflation. That is unlikely. If/when that does not happen, then the economy’s wheels start spinning like a two-wheel-drive sedan on a sandy beach. Instead of thrusting forward, spending patterns flatline or reverse; instead of thriving, a growing number of households and corporations experience a haircut of wealth and/or default; instead of returning to old norms, economies begin to resemble the lost decades of Japan.

We should applaud Gross for saying what many of us suspect: that the efforts of technocrats who populate pension plans to predict future returns is unpredictable at best and more likely subject to rosy biases. And yet even Gross then goes on to assume the tone of an all-knowing sage, something that seems de rigueur for public commentators today. We will solve the problem, Gross assures us, by turning to inflation.

Maybe Gross is right. But whatever the future holds, we must first confront the fact that as things now stand, we face a collective reduction in our wealth. How we respond to the reality of that threat will define the United States in coming generations. Either we can continue to insist that we are a wealthy nation and go on spending and living as if nothing had changed, or we can adjust our expectations downward.

Or we can somehow seek to unleash new forces of wealth creation that would generate the kind of economic growth and social and economic change that will lead to unexpected transformations in who we are.

We should neither take Bill Gross' prognostications as prophecy nor deny the reality he describes. Gross offers merely a hypothesis about the future, something far different from a fact. We do not have an adequate understanding of human nature and human economy to predict the GDP for this year, let alone for 2030. Human spontaneity, chance, and freedom mean that predictions of the future are simply calculations based upon the assumption that such and such will happen if men act rationally and nothing unexpected happens. In such cases it is helpful to recall Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's remark (loved by Hannah Arendt) that "the fecundity of the unexpected far exceeds the statesman's prudence."

Read more from Bill Gross here. You can also read more on Pensions as Ponzi schemes here and here.

-RB

*This post originally appeared yesterday on Via Media.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.