By N.A.J. Taylor[i]
“The horror that swept over mankind when it learned about the first atomic bomb was a horror of an energy that came from the universe and is supernatural in the truest sense of the word. The scope of the devastation to buildings and boulevards, even the number of human lives destroyed, was relevant only because, in unleashing death and destruction on so vast a scale, this newly discovered source of energy had eerily impressive symbolic power from the very moment of its birth.”
-- Hannah Arendt (2007b, 1977), The Promise of Politics
Although Arendt wrote relatively very little on the nuclear age, we know from her earlier writings what she thought about the existence of nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear war. From such disparate references to the nuclear age, a strikingly simple yet prescient idea emerges that arguably bears more resemblance to Eastern cosmology than any Western tradition: the human condition must be properly understood as being co-constituted and mutually implicated in the cosmos.
"Seen from the perspective of the "real" world, the laboratory is the anticipation of a changed environment."
-Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind
I find this quote intriguing in that its reference to environments and environmental change speak to the fact that Arendt's philosophy was essentially an ecological one, indeed one that is profoundly media ecological. The quote appears in a section of The Life of the Mind entitled "Science and Common Sense," in which Arendt argues that the practice of science is quite distinct from thinking as a philosophical activity.
As she explains:
Thinking, no doubt, plays an enormous role in every scientific enterprise, but it is a role of a means to an end; the end is determined by a decision about what is worthwhile knowing, and this decision cannot be scientific.
Here Arendt invokes a variation on Gödel's incompleteness theorem in mathematics, noting that science cannot justify itself on scientific grounds, but rather must somehow depend on something outside of and beyond itself. Perhaps more to the point, science, especially as associated with empiricism, cannot be divorced from concrete reality, and does not function only in the abstract realm of ideas that Plato insisted was the only true reality.
The transformation of truth into mere verity results primarily from the fact that the scientist remains bound to the common sense by which we find our bearings in a world of appearances. Thinking withdraws radically and for its own sake from this world and its evidential nature, whereas science profits from a possible withdrawal for the sake of specific results.
It is certainly the case that scientific truth is always contingent, tentative, open to refutation, as Karl Popper explained. Scientific truth is never absolute, never anything more than a map of some other territory, a map that needs to be continually tested and reviewed, updated and revised, as Alfred Korzybski explained by way of establishing his discipline of general semantics. Even the so-called laws of nature and physics need not be considered immutable, but may be subject to change and evolution, as Lee Smolin argues in his insightful book, Time Reborn.
Scientists are engaged in the process of abstracting, insofar as they take the data gained by empirical investigation and make generalizations in the form of theories and hypotheses, but this process of induction cannot be divorced from concrete reality, from the world of appearances. Science may be used to test, challenge, and displace common sense, but it operates on the same level, as a distilled form of common sense, rather than something qualitatively different, a status Arendt reserves for the special activity of thinking associated with philosophy.
Arendt goes on to argue that both common sense and scientific speculation lack "the safeguards inherent in sheer thinking, namely thinking's critical capacity." This includes the capacity for moral judgment, which became horrifically evident by the ways in which Nazi Germany used science to justify its genocidal policies and actions. Auschwitz did not represent a retrieval of tribal violence, but one of the ultimate expressions of the scientific enterprise in action. And the same might be said of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, holding aside whatever might be said to justify the use of the atomic bomb to bring the Second World War to a speedy conclusion. In remaining close to the human lifeworld, science abandons the very capacity that makes us human, that makes human life and human consciousness unique.
The story of modern science is in fact a story of shifting alliances. Science begins as a branch of philosophy, as natural philosophy. Indeed, philosophy itself is generally understood to begin with the pre-Socratics sometimes referred to as Ionian physicists, i.e., Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus, who first posited the concept of elements and atoms. Both science and philosophy therefore coalesce during the first century that followed the introduction of the Greek alphabet and the emergence of a literate culture in the ancient Greek colonies in Asia Minor.
And just as ancient science is alphabetic in its origins, modern science begins with typography, as the historian Elizabeth Eisenstein explains in her exhaustive study, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change in Early Modern Europe. Simply by making the writings of natural philosophers easily available through the distribution of printed books, scholars were able to compare and contrast what different philosophers had to say about the natural world, and uncover their differences of opinion and contradictions. And this in turn spurned them on to find out for themselves which of various competing explanations are correct, where the truth lies, so that more reading led to even more empirical research, which in turn would have to be published, that is made public, via printing, for the purposes of testing and confirmation. And publication encouraged the formation of a scientific republic of letters, a typographically mediated virtual community.
Eisenstein notes that during the first century following Gutenberg, printed books gave Copernicus access to centuries of recorded observations of the movements of celestial objects, access not easily available to his predecessors. What is remarkable to consider is that the telescope was not invented in his lifetime, that the Polish astronomer arrived at his heliocentric view based only on what could be observed by the naked eye, by gazing up at the heavens, and down at the printed page. The typographic revolution that began in the 15th century was the necessary technological precondition for the Copernican revolution of the 16th century. The telescope as a tool to extend vision beyond its natural capabilities had not yet been invented, and was not required, although soon after its introduction Galileo was able to confirm the theory that Copernicus had put forth a century earlier.
In the restricted literate culture of medieval Europe, the idea took hold that there are two books to be studied in an effort to discern the divine will, and mind: the book of scripture and the book of nature. Both books were seen as sources of knowledge that can be unlocked by a process of reading and interpretation. It was grammar, the ancient study of language, which became one third of the trivium, the foundational curriculum of the medieval university, that became the basis of modern science, and not dialectic or logic, that is, pure thinking, which is the source of the philosophic tradition, as Marshall McLuhan noted in The Classical Trivium. The medieval schoolmen of course placed scripture in the primary position, whereas modern science situates truth in the book of nature alone.
The publication of Francis Bacon's Novum Organum in 1620 first formalized the separation of science from philosophy within print culture, but the divorce was finalized during the 19th century, coinciding with the industrial revolution, as researchers became known as scientists rather than natural philosophers. In place of the alliance with philosophy, science came to be associated with technology; before this time, technology, and engineering, often referred to as mechanics, represented entirely different lines of inquiry, utterly practical, often intuitive rather than systematic. Mechanics was part of the world of work rather than that of action, to use the terms Arendt introduced in The Human Condition, which is to say that it was seen as the work of the hand rather than the mind. By the end of 19th century, scientific discovery emerged as the main the source of major technological breakthroughs, rather than innovation springing fully formed from the tinkering of inventors, and it became necessary to distinguish between applied science and theoretical science, the latter nonetheless still tied to the world of appearances.
Today, the acronym STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, has become a major buzzword in education, a major emphasis in particular for higher education, and a major concern in regards to economic competitiveness. We might well take note of how recent this combination of fields and disciplines really is, insofar as mathematics represents pure logic and highly abstract forms of thought, and science once was a purely philosophical enterprise, both aspects of the life of the mind. Technology and engineering, on the other hand, for most of our history took the form of arts and crafts, part of the world of appearances.
The convergence of science and technology also had much to do with scientists' increasing reliance on scientific instruments for their investigations, a trend increasingly prevalent following the introduction of both the telescope and the microscope in the early 17th century, a trend even more apparent from the 19th century on. The laboratory is in fact another such instrument, a technology whose function is to provide precisely controlled conditions, beyond its role as a facility for the storage and use of other scientific instruments. Scientific instruments are media that extend our senses and allow us to see the world in new ways, therefore altering our experience of our environment, while the discoveries they lead to provide us with the means of altering our environments physically. And the laboratory is an instrument that provides us with a total environment, enclosed, controlled, isolated from the world to become in effect the world. It is a micro-environment where experimental changes can be made that anticipate changes that can be made to the macro-environment we regularly inhabit.
The split between science and philosophy can also be characterized as a division between the eye and the ear. Modern science, as intimately bound up in typography, is associated with visualism, the idea that seeing is believing, that truth is based on vision, that knowledge can be displayed visually as an organized set of facts, rather than the product of ongoing dialogue, and debate. McLuhan noted the importance of the fixed point of view as a by-product of training the eye to read, and Walter Ong studied the paradigm-shift in education attributed to Peter Ramus, who introduced pedagogical methods we would today associated with textbooks, outlining, and the visual display of information. Philosophy has not been immune to this influence, but retains a connection to the oral-aural mode through the method of Socratic dialogue, and by way of an understanding of the history of ideas as an ongoing conversation. Arendt, in The Human Condition, explained action, the realm of words, as a social phenomenon, one based on dialogic exchanges of ideas and opinions, not a solitary matter of looking things up. And thinking, which she elevates above the scientific enterprise in The Life of the Mind, is mostly a matter of an inner dialogue, or monologue if you prefer, of hearing oneself think, of silent speech, and not of a mental form of writing out words or imaginary reading. We talk things out, to others and/or to ourselves.
Science, on the other hand, is all about visible representations, as words, numbers, illustrations, tables, graphs, charts, diagrams, etc. And it is the investigation of visible phenomena, or otherwise of phenomena that can be rendered visible through scientific instruments. Acoustic phenomena can only be dealt with scientifically by being turned into a visual measurement, either of numbers or of lines going up and down to depict sound waves. The same is true for the other senses; smell, taste, and touch can only be dealt with scientifically though visual representation. Science cannot deal with any sense other than sight on its own terms, but always requires an act of translation into visual form. Thus, Arendt notes that modern science, being so intimately bound up in the world of appearances, is often concerned with making the invisible visible:
That modern science, always hunting for manifestations of the invisible—atoms, molecules, particles, cells, genes—should have added to the world a spectacular, unprecedented quantity of new perceptible things is only seemingly paradoxical.
Arendt might well have noted the continuity between the modern activity of making the invisible visible as an act of translation, and the medieval alchemist's search for methods of achieving material transformation, the translation of one substance into another. She does note that the use of scientific instruments are a means of extending natural functions, paralleling McLuhan's characterization of media as extensions of body and biology:
In order to prove or disprove its hypotheses… and to discover what makes things work, it [modern science] began to imitate the working processes of nature. For that purpose it produced the countless and enormously complex implements with which to force the non-appearing to appear (if only as an instrument-reading in the laboratory), as that was the sole means the scientist had to persuade himself of its reality. Modern technology was born in the laboratory, but this was not because scientists wanted to produce appliances or change the world. No matter how far their theories leave common-sense experience and common-sense reasoning behind, they must finally come back to some form of it or lose all sense of realness in the object of their investigation.
Note here the close connection between reality, that is, our conception of reality, and what lends someone the aura of authenticity, as Walter Benjamin would put it, is dependent on the visual sense, on the phenomenon being translated into the world of appearances (the aura as opposed to the aural). It is no accident then that there is a close connection in biblical literature and the Hebrew language between the words for spirit and soul, and the words for invisible but audible phenomena such as wind and breath, breath in turn being the basis of speech (and this is not unique to Hebraic culture or vocabulary). It is at this point that Arendt resumes her commentary on the function of the controlled environment:
And this return is possible only via the man-made, artificial world of the laboratory, where that which does not appear of its own accord is forced to appear and to disclose itself. Technology, the "plumber's" work held in some contempt by the scientist, who sees practical applicability as a mere by-product of his own efforts, introduces scientific findings, made in "unparalleled insulation… from the demands of the laity and of everyday life," into the everyday world of appearances and renders them accessible to common-sense experience; but this is possible only because the scientists themselves are ultimately dependent on that experience.
We now reach the point in the text where the quote I began this essay with appears, as Arendt writes:
Seen from the perspective of the "real" world, the laboratory is the anticipation of a changed environment; and the cognitive processes using the human abilities of thinking and fabricating as means to their end are indeed the most refined modes of common-sense reasoning. The activity of knowing is no less related to our sense of reality and no less a world-building activity than the building of houses.
Again, for Arendt, science and common sense both are distinct in this way from the activity of pure thinking, which can provide a sorely needed critical function. But her insight as to the function of the laboratory as an environment in which the invisible is made visible is important in that this helps us to understand that the laboratory is, in fact, what McLuhan referred to as a counter-environment or anti-environment.
In our everyday environment, the environment itself tends to be invisible, if not literally so, then functionally insofar as whatever fades into the background tends to fall out of our perceptual awareness or is otherwise ignored. Anything that becomes part of our routine falls into this category, becoming environmental, and therefore subliminal. And this includes our media, technology, and symbol systems, insofar as they are part of our everyday world. We do pay attention to them when they are brand new and unfamiliar, but once their novelty wears off they become part of the background, unless they malfunction or breakdown. In the absence of such conditions, we need an anti-environment to provide a contrast through which we can recognize the things we take for granted in our world, to provide a place to stand from which we can observe our situation from the outside in, from a relatively objective stance. We are, in effect, sleepwalkers in our everyday environment, and entering into an anti-environment is a way to wake us up, to enhance awareness and consciousness of our surroundings. This occurs, in a haphazard way, when we return home after spending time experiencing another culture, as for a brief time much of what was once routinized about own culture suddenly seems strange and arbitrary to us. The effect wears off relatively quickly, however, although the after-effects of broadening our minds in this way can be significant.
The controlled environment of the laboratory helps to focus our attention on phenomena that are otherwise invisible to us, either because they are taken for granted, or because they require specialized instrumentation to be rendered visible. It is not just that such phenomena are brought into the world of appearances, however, but also that they are made into objects of concerted study, to be recorded, described, measured, experimented upon, etc.
McLuhan emphasized the role of art as an anti-environment. The art museum, for example, is a controlled environment, and the painting that we encounter there has the potential to make us see things we had never seen before, by which I mean not just objects depicted that are unfamiliar to us, but familiar objects depicted in unfamiliar ways. In this way, works of art are instruments that can help us to see the world in new and different ways, help us to see, to use our senses and perceive in new and different ways. McLuhan believed that artists served as a kind of distant early warning system, borrowing cold war terminology to refer to their ability to anticipate changes occurring in the present that most others are not aware of. He was fond of the Ezra Pound quote that the artist is the antenna of the race, and Kurt Vonnegut expressed a similar sentiment in describing the writer as a canary in a coal mine. We may further consider the art museum or gallery or library as a controlled environment, a laboratory of sorts, and note the parallel in the idea of art as the anticipation of a changed environment.
There are other anti-environments as well. Houses of worship function in this way, often because they are based on earlier eras and different cultures, and otherwise are constructed to remove us out of our everyday environment, and help us to see the world in a different light. They are in some way dedicated to making the invisible world of the spirit visible to us through the use of sacred symbols and objects, even for religions whose concept of God is one that is entirely outside of the world of appearances. Sanctuaries might therefore be considered laboratories used for moral, ethical, and sacred discovery, experimentation, and development, and places where changed environments are also anticipated, in the form of spiritual enlightenment and the pursuit of social justice. This also suggests that the scientific laboratory might be viewed, in a certain sense, as a sacred space, along the lines that Mircea Eliade discusses in The Sacred and the Profane.
The school and the classroom are also anti-environments, or at least ought to be, as Neil Postman argued in Teaching as a Conserving Activity. Students are sequestered away from the everyday environment, into a controlled situation where the world they live in can be studied and understood, and phenomena that are taken for granted can be brought into conscious awareness. It is indeed a place where the invisible can be made visible. In this sense, the school and the classroom are laboratories for learning, although the metaphor can be problematic when it used to imply that the school is only about the world of appearances, and all that is needed is to let students discover that world for themselves. Exploration is indeed essential, and discovery is an important component of learning. But the school is also a place where we may engage in the critical activity of pure thinking, of critical reasoning, of dialogue and disputation.
The classroom is more than a laboratory, or at least it must become more than a laboratory, or the educational enterprise will be incomplete. The school ought to be an anti-environment, not only in regard to the everyday world of appearances and common sense, but also to that special world dominated by STEM, by science, technology, engineering and math. We need the classroom to be an anti-environment for a world subject to a flood of entertainment and information, we need it to be a language-based anti-environment for a world increasingly overwhelmed by images and numbers. We need an anti-environment where words can take precedence, where reading and writing can be balanced by speech and conversation, where reason, thinking, and thinking about thinking can allow for critical evaluation of common sense and common science alike. Only then can schools be engaged in something more than just adjusting students to take their place in a changed and changing environment, integrating them within the technological system, as components of that system, as Jacques Ellul observed in The Technological Society. Only then can schools help students to change the environment itself, not just through scientific and technological innovation, but through the exercise of values other than the technological imperative of efficiency, to make things better, more human, more life-affirming.
The anti-environment that we so desperately need is what Hannah Arendt might well have called a laboratory of the mind.
“The shift from the ‘why’ and ‘what’ to the ‘how’ implies that the actual objects of knowledge can no longer be things or eternal motions but must be processes, and that the object of science is no longer nature or the universe but the history, the story of the coming into being, of nature or life or the universe....Nature, because it could be known only in processes which human ingenuity, the ingeniousness of homo faber, could repeat and remake in the experiment, became a process, and all particular natural things derived their significance and meaning solely from their function in the over-all process. In the place of the concept of Being we now find the concept of Process. And whereas it is in the nature of Being to appear and thus disclose itself, it is in the nature of Process to remain invisible, to be something whose existence can only be inferred from the presence of certain phenomena.”
-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
Bookending Arendt’s consideration of the human condition “from the vantage point of our newest experiences and our most recent fears” is her invocation of several “events, ” which she took to be emblematic of the modern world launched by the atomic explosions of the 1940s and the threshold of the modern age that preceded it by several centuries. The event she invokes in the opening pages is the launch of Sputnik in 1957; its companion events are named in the last chapter of the book--the discovery of America, the Reformation, and the invention of the telescope and the development of a new science.
Not once mentioned in The Human Condition, but, as Mary Dietz argued so persuasively in her Turning Operations, palpably present as a “felt absence,” is the event of the Shoah, the “hellish experiment” of the SS concentration camps, which is memorialized today, Yom HaShoah. Reading Arendt’s commentaries on the discovery of the Archimedean point and its application in modern science with the palpably present but textually absent event of the Holocaust in mind sheds new light on the significance of her cautionary tale about the worrying implications of the new techno-science of algorithms and quantum physics and its understanding of nature produced through the experiment.
What happens, she seems to be asking, when the meaning of all “particular things” derives solely from “their function in the over-all process”? If nature in all of its aspects is understood as the inter- (or intra-) related aspects of the overall life process of the universe, does then human existence, as part of nature, become merely one part of that larger process, differing perhaps in degree, but not kind, from any other part?
Recently, “new materialist” philosophers have lauded this so-called “posthumanist” conceptualization of existence, arguing that the anthropocentrism anchoring earlier modern philosophies—Arendt implicitly placed among them?—arbitrarily separates humans from the rest of nature and positions them as masters in charge of the world (universe). By contrast, a diverse range of thinkers such as Jane Bennett, Rosi Braidotti, William Connolly, Diana Coole, and Cary Wolfe have drawn on a variety of philosophical and scientific traditions to re-appropriate and “post-modernize” some form of vitalism. The result is a reformulation of an ontology of process—what Connolly calls “a world of becoming”—as the most accurate way to understand matter’s dynamic and eternal self-unfolding. And, consequentially, it also entails transforming agency from a human capacity of “the will” with its related intentions to a theory of agency of “multiple degrees and sites...flowing from simple natural processes, to human beings and collective social assemblages” with each level and site containing “traces and remnants from the levels from which it evolved,” which “affect [agency’s] operation.” (Connolly, A World Becoming, p. 22, emphasis added). The advantage of a “philosophy/faith of radical immanence or immanent realism,” Connolly argues, is its ability to engage the “human predicament”: “how to negotiate life, without hubris or existential resentment, in a world that is neither providential nor susceptible to consummate mastery. We must explore how to invest existential affirmation in such a world, even as we strive to fend off its worst dangers.”
An implicit ethic of aiming to take better care of the world, “to fold a spirit of presumptive generosity for the diversity of life into your conduct” by not becoming too enamored with human agency resides in this philosophy/faith. In the entanglements she explores between human and non-human materiality—a “heterogeneous monism of vibrant bodies” —one can discern similar ethical concerns in Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter. “It seems necessary and impossible to rewrite the default grammar of agency, a grammar that assigns activity to people and passivity to things.” Conceptualizing nature as “an active becoming, a creative not-quite-human force capable of producing the new” Bennett affirms a “vital materiality [that] congeals into bodies, bodies that seek to persevere or prolong their run,” (p. 118, emphasis in the original) where “bodies” connotes all forms of matter. And she contends that this vital materialism can “enhance the prospects for a more sustainability-oriented public.” Yet, without some normative criteria for discerning the ways this new materialism can work toward “sustainability,” it is by no means obvious how either a declaration of faith in the “radical character of the (fractious) kinship between the human and the non-human” or having greater “attentiveness to the indispensable foreignness that we are” would lead to a change in political direction toward more gratitude and away from more destructive patterns of production and consumption. The recognition of our vulnerability could just as easily lead to renewed efforts to truncate or even eradicate the “foreignness” within.
Nonetheless, although these and other accounts call for a reconceptualization of concepts of agency and of causality, none pushes as far toward a productivist/performative account of matter and meaning as does Karen Barad’s theory of “agential realism.” Drawing out the implications of Niels Bohr’s quantum mechanics, Barad develops a theory of how “subjects” and “objects” are produced as apparently separable entities by “specific material configurings of the world” which enact “boundaries, properties, and meanings.” And, in her conceptualization, “meaning is not a human-based notion; rather meaning is an ongoing performance of the world in its differential intelligibility...Intelligibility is not an inherent characteristic of humans but a feature of the world in its differential becoming. The world articulates itself differently...[H]uman concepts or experimental practices are not foundational to the nature of phenomena. ” The world is immanently real and matter immanently materializes.
At first glance, this posthumanist understanding of reality seems consistent with Arendt’s own critique of Cartesian dualism and Newtonian physics and her understanding of the implicitly conditioned nature of human existence. “Men are conditioned beings because everything they come into contact with turns immediately into a condition of their existence. The world in which the vita activa spends itself consists of things produced by human activities; but the things that owe their existence exclusively to men nevertheless constantly condition their human makers.” Nonetheless, there is a profound difference between them. For Barad, “world” is not Arendt’s humanly built habitat, the domain of homo faber (which does not necessarily entail mastery of nature, but always involves a certain amount of violence done to nature, even to the point of “degrading nature and the world into mere means, robbing both of their independent dignity.” (H.C., p. 156, emphasis added.) “World” is matter, the physical, ever-changing reality of an inherently active, “larger material configuration of the world and it ongoing open-ended articulation.” Or is it?
Since this world is made demonstrably real or determinate only through the design of the right experiment to measure the effects of, or marks on, bodies, or “measuring agencies” (such as a photographic plate) made or produced by “measured objects” (such as electrons), the physical nature of this reality becomes an effect of the experiment itself. Despite the fact that Barad insists that “phenomena do not require cognizing minds for their existence” and that technoscientific practices merely manifest “an expression of the objective existence of particular material phenomena” (p. 361), the importance of the well-crafted scientific experiment to establishing the fact of matter looms large.
Why worry about the experiment as the basis for determining the nature of nature, including so-called “human nature? For Arendt, the answer was clear: “The world of the experiment seems always capable of becoming a man-made reality, and this, while it may increase man’s power of making and acting, even of creating a world, far beyond what any previous age dared imagine...unfortunately puts man back once more—and now even more forcefully—into the prison of his own mind, into the limitations of patterns he himself has created...[A] universe construed according to the behavior of nature in the experiment and in accordance with the very principles which man can translate technically into a working reality lacks all possible representation...With the disappearance of the sensually given world, the transcendent world disappears as well, and with it the possibility of transcending the material world in concept and thought.”
The transcendence of representationalism does not trouble Barad, who sees “representation” as a process of reflection or mirroring hopelessly entangled with an outmoded “geometrical optics of externality.” But for Arendt, appearance matters, and not in the sense that a subject discloses some inner core of being through her speaking and doing, but in the sense that what is given to the senses of perception—and not just to the sense of vision—is the basis for constructing a world in common. The loss of this “sensually given world” found its monstrous enactment in the world of the extermination camps, which Arendt saw as “special laboratories to carry through its experiment in total domination.”
If there is a residual humanism in Arendt’s theorizing it is not the simplistic anthropocentrism, which takes “man as the measure of all things,” a position she implicitly rejects, especially in her critique of instrumentalism. Rather, she insists that “the modes of human cognition [science among them] applicable to things with ‘natural’ qualities, including ourselves to the limited extent that we are specimens of the most highly developed species of organic life, fail us when we raise the question: And who are we?” (H.C., p. 11, emphasis in the original) And then there is the question of responsibility.
We may be unable to control the effects of the actions we set in motion, or, in Barad’s words, “the various ontological entanglements that materiality entails.”
But no undifferentiated assignation of agency to matter, or material sedimentations of the past “ingrained in the body’s becoming” can release us humans from the differential burden of consciousness and memory that is attached to something we call the practice of judgment. And no appeal to an “ethical call...written into the very matter of all being and becoming” will settle the question of judgment, of what is to be done. There may be no place to detach ourselves from responsibility, but how to act in the face of it is by no means given by the fact of entanglement itself. What if “everything is possible.”?
-Kathleen B. Jones
We were prepared Monday night at the Hannah Arendt Center's NYC hideout, huddled together with candles and a portable radio, as we toasted the storm over dinner with neighbors and friends. Thankfully, the Arendt Center's two homes at Bard College and in upper NYC both escaped the wrath of the hurricane. Many of our supporters and friends were not so lucky. Bard's High School/Early Colleges in lower Manhattan and Newark have suffered greatly. People's lives have been disrupted and many who are older or immobile are stranded without power, heat, and water as the temperatures drop. Our hearts and thoughts go out to all who are struggling to salvage homes, stay warm, and put your lives back together. We hope soon that you can return to normal lives.
When nature roars and our lives are disrupted, the question of normalcy comes to the fore. People want to get back to normal. We all do. It is amazing to me how important normalcy is. This is especially true when one has children. Routines govern our lives and also help structure our days. They give to the cruel world a patina of safety, predictability, and control. Even more than the learning my daughter does in school or the teaching I returned to at Bard on Tuesday, our daily life routines assert our control over our lives. Humans are creative creatures and we build the world in which we live. Moments when nature and life assert themselves remind us that we are also earthy creatures, whose mastery over the world is as incomplete as it is tenuous.
As I wish you all a return to normalcy, I am aware that for some of you there is a kind of joy or even elation amidst the chaos. As much as we yearn for normal life, it is more often the comradeship found in extremis that stands out as the happiest and most meaningful moments of our lives.
Hannah Arendt knew this fellowship of disaster all-too well. A Jew in Germany, she was arrested twice, first in Germany and then later in France. She lived through Nazism and McCarthyism as well as the early days of the Atomic Bomb. Few knew as deeply as she did the need for the secure place of a home, a private place where one could live securely, in private, and think in solitude. The walls of our homes as well as the walls that encircle our cities and nations are, Arendt saw, essential foundations for human life. They structure our private lives and offer a space for public engagement.
And yet Arendt worried too about the numbing effects of normal life and glorified the experience of public action that accompanies natural as well as man-made catastrophes. In writing of the French resistance after the war, she was acutely aware of the way that tragedy could and often did open the door to human action. She writes of the French resistance fighters:
The collapse of France, to them a totally unexpected event, had emptied, from one day to the next, the political scene of their country, leaving it to the puppet-like antics of knaves or fools, and they who as a matter of course had never participated in the official business of the Third Republic were sucked into politics as though with the force of a vacuum. Thus, without premonition and probably against their conscious inclinations, they had come to constitute willy-nilly a public realm where - without the paraphernalia of officialdom and hidden from the eyes of friend and foe - all relevant business in the affairs of the country was transacted in deed and word.
In the midst of disaster, the French resistance found the joy of public action, of fighting and risking their lives for something that mattered. And during this struggle, the poet Rene Char saw the paradoxical situation, that the tragedy of French defeat and the victory of the Nazi's—events that not only disrupted his normal and everyday existence but threatened his life—had given his life more meaning than it had ever had. In the midst of the conflict, Char wrote: "If I survive, I know that I shall have to break with the aroma of those essential years, silently reject (not repress) my treasure".
In other words, Char knew that the treasure of public freedom found in resistance—the experience of acting publicly in meaningful and surprising ways, and thus the experience of freedom—was incompatible with a return to normal life. Once the horror of the war ended, so too would the weightiness of a life in which freedom and action were everyday experiences. And that was indeed the case. As Arendt writes: "After a few short years they were liberated [...] and thrown back into what they now knew to be the weightless irrelevance of their personal affairs."
It is something else for those who do not return, as many did not during the war and as many will not in the deadly wake of Hurricane Sandy. For them and their loved ones there is pain and loss. For the rest of us, there is normal life.
As we return, thankfully, to the welcome weightlessness of our personal lives, many of us will carry with us the aroma of even brief moments of communal fellowship, when we helped a stranger, overcame flood waters, snuggled in blankets and layers of clothes to stay warm, or struggled to start a generator. These moments, sometimes painful and even dangerous, will, if we are fortunate, become memories of our resilience and human capacities, often forgotten, to make do in extreme situations.
For those with time to reflect on the storm, here are a few of the best writings I have come across this week from those trying to make sense and find solace amidst the storm.
Walter Russell Mead has an exceptional essay reflecting on the power of nature and the fragility of human life.
But events like this don’t come out of nowhere. Sandy isn’t an irruption of abnormality into a sane and sensible world; it is a reminder of what the world really is like. Human beings want to build lives that exclude what we can’t control — but we can’t.
Hurricane Sandy is many things; one of those things is a symbol. The day is coming for all of us when a storm enters our happy, busy lives and throws them into utter disarray. The job on which everything depends can disappear. That relationship that holds everything together can fall apart. The doctor can call and say the test results are not good. All of these things can happen to anybody; something like this will happen to us all.
Somewhere in the future, each of us has an inescapable appointment with irresistible force. For each one of us, the waters will someday rise, the winds spin out of control, the roof will come off the house and the power will go out for good.
Alex Koppelmann reminds us of "Sandy's Forgotten," in an essay on the residents of The Baruch House, a public housing project that has been deeply impacted by the storm.
The people who live at the Baruch Houses were supposed to have evacuated before Sandy hit. Some did. Many did not, though, often because they had no good place to go. They are still there, without power, water, or any visible help from any government agency; city, state, or federal—other than some people from the city Housing Authority who’d come by to pump water out of flooded basements. Everywhere you walk in the neighborhood, fire hydrants have been turned into makeshift wells, with lines of people waiting, bottles and jugs in hand.
Downtown, hundreds of thousands of people remain without power. Many of them—usually those who live in buildings that stand six stories or higher, and there are plenty of those—are without running water as well. Public transportation remains limited. The subway is not running below Thirty-fourth Street, and on Wednesday night the M.T.A. temporarily suspended all bus service below Twenty-third Street; given their explanation of that decision, it seems likely that service will be suspended at night for as long as downtown remains dark. There are still very few ways for the people who live down there to get information about their situation—there is little or no cell phone service, and, of course, there is no television without electricity, though there are pay phones and some people, presumably, have battery-powered radios, though who knows how long those will last—so some are still wandering the streets inquiring of anyone who might know something. And it’s getting cold; temperatures dipped into the low forties overnight, and they’re not supposed to top the low fifties today.
The people I saw around the Baruch Houses seemed upbeat, an attitude noted by Reverend Leo Lawrence, who works at the nearby Dewitt Reformed Church. “It seems to me that it’s the first time I’ve seen so much cooperation between people, stores, everything,” he said. “It’s much more neighborly.” He thought most would try to wait the situation out. Asked why he hadn’t evacuated, he seemed surprised at the question. “Where would I go?” he asked.
Michael Specter makes the connection between Hurricane Sandy and climate change:
Some people will deny anything that displeases or scares them: unusual pain in their chests, unwanted lumps beneath their skin, or the fact that humans share ancestry with apes are a few examples. Another is climate change. There are people who could watch a hurricane like Sandy blow out of the Atlantic every other day and blame it on anything but human activity. They are like those who, having been diagnosed with diabetes, eat donuts for breakfast. There’s not much to do about them.
Unfortunately, that leads us to another type of denialism, more understandable, but possibly just as pernicious: the refusal to accept that we are edging up to the point where extraordinary measures will be required to lessen the impact of a climactic disaster. The best way to deal with climate change has been obvious for years: cut greenhouse-gas emissions severely. We haven’t done that. In 2010, for example, carbon emissions rose by six per cent—the largest such increase on record. (The data for 2011 is not yet final, but most researchers believe the numbers have continued their upward arc.)
Roger Pielke Jr. refutes those who are too quick to assert that we are suffering a spike in extreme weather events.
To put things into even starker perspective, consider that from August 1954 through August 1955, the East Coast saw three different storms make landfall—Carol, Hazel and Diane—that in 2012 each would have caused about twice as much damage as Sandy.
While it's hardly mentioned in the media, the U.S. is currently in an extended and intense hurricane "drought." The last Category 3 or stronger storm to make landfall was Wilma in 2005. The more than seven years since then is the longest such span in over a century.
Then again, Pielke's numbers may be quite wrong, as Mark Zandi suggests today. I give you Pielke's essay not because of his climate change skepticism, but rather as one example of the ways people are trying to make sense of the world in the wake of Hurricane Sandy's devastation. For those affected by the storm, we here at the Hannah Arendt Center wish you and your loved ones a quick return to normal life.
I am adding this essay by the painter Allen Hirsch, which appeared Saturday, November 3.
The chill and gloom in the air of our SoHo loft had made little difference to my daughter (“Daddy, when will I have Facebook?!”), although now, after two days, the desperation in her voice was slowly changing to resignation. This has been the longest period in her teenage life without an Internet connection. I shrugged my shoulders in the candlelight. I myself was as cut off as she was and had no way of knowing.
The blackout reminded many of us of how drastically the Internet and our myriad electronic devices have changed our lives. When the lights went out, we felt ourselves also losing power, as if we were part of the same flowing electricity that lit up the city.
Losing this power, however, also reminded my daughter and me of what we have left. Having “nothing better to do” can be a meaningful and sobering experience. While the darkness made us feel our vulnerabilities, it also illuminated the possibilities that we forgot were always within it.