Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Amor Mundi 11/22/15


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.

amor_mundi_sign-upHome Away From Home

yale protestsJeannie Suk notices that the student protests that erupted last week at Yale, Mizzou, and elsewhere mobilize the rhetoric of home and the family: "Particularly in the way things have unfolded at Yale, students' social-justice activism has been expressed, in part, as the need for care from authority figures. When they experience the hurt that motivates them to political action, they're deeply disappointed with parental surrogates for not responding adequately or quickly enough to support and nurture them. The world in which it's not bizarre for a young person to rebuke someone for failing to 'create a place of comfort and home,' or to yell, 'Be quiet ... You're disgusting!,' and storm away, is the world of family, where a child in pain desperately desires empathy and understanding from a parent. The online scorn heaped on the student who was filmed behaving this way represents an unproductive refusal to compassionately translate her behavior across the generational divide. In a piece called 'Hurt at Home,' another Yale student wrote, 'I feel my home is being threatened,' and contrasted her comforting relationship with her father to the care she felt students emphatically did not receive from the master of Silliman College. Yale tells its students that the residential college is their 'home away from home,' but this generation might be the first to insist so literally on that idea.... The president of Claremont McKenna College--which has recently seen racial-bias protests, hunger strikes, and a high administrator's resignation--wrote in an e-mail to the community that one role of higher education is to 'provide a very special home for our students as a bridge from their families to the truly adult and independent world.' This formulation is particularly poignant at a time when material independence will be elusive for many college students, who are coming of age during a recession, with onerous debt, and may actually go home to their parents for much of their twenties in order to make ends meet. In the midst of the developing story on campus activism, the horror of mass violence in Paris wrought by ISIS brought us back to our experience of the September 11th attacks, an event seared into the child psyches of current college students, and sufficient to have robbed them of the basic sense of safety that my generation enjoyed. The students' preoccupation with safe spaces and the comfort of home seems a plausible manifestation of the profound lack of security--from violence to financial insolvency--that their generation faces. No wonder that their calls for social justice return to the talisman of safety and care of parental figures." 

This isn't the first time that metaphors of home have been marshaled as pleas for safety in a suddenly dangerous world. They appeared during the Cold War, when the suburbs turned into a refuge for white families attempting to protect themselves in a homogenized home from the dual threats of Communism and the atomic bomb. The family and social formations encouraged by those metaphors led to an infamously flat and seemingly conformist culture, which led to the countercultural spasms of the 1960s and in turn to the conservative revolution of the 1970s and 1980s, which also mobilized home and family as symbols of a time when the world seemed a little safer, that is, somewhat ironically, than the 1950s. In both cases, the symbolism of the home was used to protect the private lives of white people. 

In her essay "What Is Freedom," Arendt writes that "the public realm stands in the starkest possible contrast to our private domain, where, in the protection of family and home, everything serves or must serve the security of the life process." Similarly, Richard Rodriguez in his book Hunger of Memory distinguishes the intimacy and safety of the home life of a young Latino immigrant from the publicity and challenges of life at school. As Rodriguez argued at his talk during the 2013 Arendt Center conference "Failing Fast," becoming a citizen means learning to switch between the two worlds of home and public life; it means acquiring a public self. One important role of higher education is to give students the experience of living away from home, in public, where they can experiment with and learn to assume their public personas. That college, which constitutes a time for taking chances, also means that it is a moment of failure and danger. This has always been the case, but it is also true that students today negotiate a more complicated world of class, race, religion, and gender than students of any prior generation. So many college students now find themselves without safe homes and private places to which they can retreat at moments of crisis. More students at colleges and universities are from diverse and insular communities than ever before. Thrust from their often-sheltered lives, students now must negotiate public interactions with people whose opinions they have never before encountered and that they frequently find threatening. And in college dorms teeming with sometimes obnoxious students eager to try out new ideas, tensions can rise. 

No one can live in public all the time, and all of us need moments alone where we can, in private, collect ourselves and steel ourselves for the courage public life demands. At a time when the security of a private space is fleeting for so many young people, colleges and universities have added layers of student deans and counselors to help students through emotional, racial, and sexual crises. Students now call upon and depend on the very administrators for help whom they criticize and protest against. In such a situation, the danger lies less with students and more with administrators who, in the name of consumerism and motivated by an aversion to risk, are creating policies and procedures that shut down the vibrancy of the student experience. Some students may demand trigger warnings, disciplinary procedures, and censorship. That is part of the experience of being young and experimenting with new and powerful if also dangerous ideas. We shouldn't blame students for speaking and trying out new ideas. The fault, if there is one, is with administrators who accede to these demands. --RB (with assistance from JK)

Save the date for the Hannah Arendt Center's 2016 conference: "How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex, and Religion on Campus." October 20-21, 2016.

The Challenge of Unmediated Media

jonathan hollowayIn the New Yorker, Jelani Cobb interviews Yale Dean Jonathan Holloway. Cobb: "There have been people who look at this situation and say, 'These students, who are at one of the most élite institutions in the United States and are reacting in this way, they are coddled and thin-skinned and they should just maybe toughen up. That's the biggest thing they need to do." Holloway: "I understand that. This is not just a black problem or a brown problem or a women's problem or whatever. We are seeing a generation of students, and I don't know why, who do seem less resilient than in the past. I think part of it is that things aren't mediated like they have been in the past. You don't have the luxury of sitting down and pondering what somebody just said, because you're too busy putting it into a Tweet and saying, 'This is an outrage.' There's no mediation of ideas. It's all off the top of my head and it's pain, in this case. I think that, because people are not getting enough sleep, and these things just keep on, Tweets keep coming in, that they are not equipped properly to process it all. I think that's a major part of it. The other part is that students have been struggling at Yale for a long time, and at similar institutions. The administrations were not set up even to care about them. It's not just that maybe students are less resilient, it's that the administrations actually are doing more work to identify people who are struggling. In a different era, if you had a drinking problem, there's a nod and a wink, and that's just the way Buster behaved. Now we understand women's side, that this thing is a real problem, and, hey, wait a second, this guy drinks and he sexually assaults somebody. We've got to deal with that. You build up an apparatus to deal with people in crisis, and it actually helps us understand that--you know what?--more people are in crisis than we actually thought. I think these things go hand in hand, and I don't think anybody's really figured it out. We can claim we figured it out, but I think no one's got the patent on that one yet. I think I've said it, but I've actually been buoyed in the last couple days, because I've seen the Yale that I believe is normal--a really smart school confronting a problem and trying in a creative way to solve it together. That sounds like an advertisement but I actually believe that it operates that way. People are being increasingly willing to presume good faith on someone else's behalf instead of just being negative. It's as simple as that. Time will tell where this all shakes out, but I am cautiously optimistic that we are moving to a different place here. Hell, I've been wrong three or four times already this week, so who knows?"

Snowden Against Sousveillance

snowden sousveillanceAmong the many accounts of Edward Snowden's recent talk at the Hannah Arendt Center's conference "Why Privacy Matters," Ruth Starkman's essay in the LA Review of Books stands out for raising the wide range of issues discussed, including some of the more controversial. For example, Starkman focuses on Snowden's somewhat unpopular (at least at Bard) rejection of sousveillance as a response to surveillance. Sousveillance means to observe from below as opposed to the observation from above, that is, surveillance. "Indeed, Snowden flung the doors wide open on public discussions of privacy and the internet. His legacy was clear at the Bard College 'Why Privacy Matters' conference, which featured prominent speakers whose careers have one way or another been shaped by Snowden, including Ben Wizner. Senior editor from The Intercept Peter Maass interviewed Snowden. Fritz Schwarz of the historic Church Commission took student questions about information before and after 9/11. Kate Crawford asked questions about the sort of ethical education computer science students should receive. Jeremy Waldron argued for 'an accountable, open' surveillance, which allows people to talk back to and cooperate with government agencies. Astrophysicist and sci-fi author David Brin took the radical position that students and the general public at large should fight surveillance with their own cameras, as people have in the Black Lives Matter movement. Brin describes this kind of grassroots, defensive surveillance as 'sousveillance.' Sousveillance appeals to students of all stripes. In fact, when the Bard College Debate Union invited the West Point Debate Society to debate the question of surveillance, both sides argued that surveillance could become an instrument of the public as well as the government, and could protect 'black and brown bodies, the LBGTQ community and other vulnerable populations.' West Point debaters on both sides of the debate reminded the audience that this debate was purely educational and did not reflect the opinions of the United States or its military. Snowden disagrees with sousveillance: 'We don't need a surveillance arms race; we need to protect individual privacy.' Bard students defended grassroots public surveillance as a tactic against the elite (an elite to which institutions like Bard, Stanford, Harvard, and Princeton also belong). Snowden didn't budge much here."

Unintended Consequences

borderAlfredo Corchado in The New Yorker cites Hannah Arendt Center Fellow Natalia Mendoza as a means to explore the unexpected consequences of beefed up security at the U.S.-Mexican border. "Like many other policies from Washington, this one had unintended consequences. The anthropologist Natalia Mendoza, a fellow at Bard College, observes that, because of greater border securitization, 'the cost of smuggling has increased to a point that smugglers can no longer be independent.' That is, as small, autonomous, local 'mom and pop' smuggling became more expensive and difficult, bigger, more structured, and violent organizations took over. Common-use crossing points, for instance, were now 'privatized' by criminal networks able to keep their operations going, absorb the rising costs, and still make a profit. Hence, groups of smugglers who used to work on their own or as subcontractors for different bosses were either pushed out of business or forced to join a larger cartel. Even if unanticipated, this process of criminal professionalization was a perfectly rational result of border security acquiring 'industrial' proportions: with the post-9/11 clampdown, the business of drug smuggling consolidated. The old and close-knit communities along the border never prevented drug trafficking or illegal crossing. Yet they used to function as a sort of social-control mechanism that kept drug-related violence relatively under check. People knew one another; they kept an eye on things. Suddenly, though, fear and hardened policies broke those bonds. Border communities started resembling ghost towns. The result was a surge of violence in Mexico, as cartels fought to establish dominance over important drug-shipping routes. According to estimates, the drug trade makes up between half a per cent and four per cent of Mexico's $1.2 trillion annual G.D.P.--totaling between about six billion dollars and forty billion dollars--and employs at least half a million people. Contraband U.S. guns that are trafficked into Mexico facilitate the drug traffickers' work. Around two hundred and fifty thousand firearms are purchased each year to be trafficked, and U.S. and Mexican authorities are seizing only about fifteen per cent of them, according to a study by the University of San Diego and Igarapé Institute."


japanese internmentSeeking a way through the questions, the grandstanding about whether or not the United States should accept Syrian refugees following last week's attack in Paris, Matt Ford suggests that we look back to the internment of Japanese residents and citizens during WWII, as well as the Supreme Court case, Korematsu v. United States, that upheld that policy: "The Supreme Court has never overturned Korematsu, largely because federal and state governments have not attempted the mass internment of an entire ethnic group since then. But the decision belongs to what legal scholars describe as the anti-canon of American constitutional law--a small group of Supreme Court rulings universally assailed as wrong, immoral, and unconstitutional. Dred Scott v. Sandford, Plessy v. Ferguson, Buck v. Bell, and Korematsu form the anti-canon's core; legal scholars sometimes include other decisions as well. Korematsu's place in that grim pantheon is well-earned. Courts apply strict scrutiny, the highest level of review, when weighing laws or policies that discriminate on the basis of race, national origin, or alienage. Korematsu was the standard's first application; it was also the last time it failed to protect the group in question. 'There is only one situation in which the Court expressly upheld racial classifications burdening minorities: the rulings affirming the constitutionality of the evacuations of Japanese-Americans during World War II,' wrote Erwin Chemerinsky, a UC Irvine law professor and prominent scholar of constitutional law. 'No evidence of a specific threat was required to evacuate and intern a person. Race alone was used to determine who would be uprooted and incarcerated and who would remain free.'... Expelling all Japanese Americans from the Pacific Coast would have seemed unthinkable in 1940. Then came the fear and paranoia that pervaded cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco after Pearl Harbor. Frenzied reports of Japanese submarines off Oregon and saboteurs in California fueled a climate in which extreme constitutional violations towards an unpopular few seemed reasonable to a fearful many. Korematsu is a reminder that, in times of crisis, there will always be an unpopular minority to fear and opportunistic demagogues to demonize them. But central to the Bill of Rights' purpose is the protection of the few from the cruelty of the many, no matter who that few or many may be."

A Lesson in Courage

syrian refugeesPhil Klay, a decorated Marine and winner of the National Book Award, engaged the debate over refugees in a series of twelve tweets. Here are a few: "3. The Marine hymn claims that Marines are the 'first to fight for right and freedom and to keep our honor clean.'--Phil Klay (@PhilKlay) November 19, 2015. 4. You're not supposed to risk your life just for the physical safety of American citizens--Phil Klay (@PhilKlay) November 19, 2015. 5. You're supposed to risk your life for American ideals as well.... 11. Millions of pilgrims are hurtling through the darkness, but it's Germany that has recently been the beacon standing strong and true. Phil Klay (@PhilKlay) November 19, 2015."

The Risk It May Be Boring

homerIn the NY Times Magazine, Arendt Center Senior Fellow Wyatt Mason recommends Christopher Logue's half-completed and finally posthumously published translations of Homer's Iliad. "'I find it boring,' Logue said to a friend, Doris Lessing, about Homer's epic, echoing a feeling that I--and perhaps you, too--have had upon trying to read any of the translations we've endured in school: I'm looking at you, Richmond Lattimore! 'Professor Lattimore adheres to the literal at times as stubbornly as a mule eating briars,' wrote the Thoreauvianly literate American critic Guy Davenport in his great 'The Geography of the Imagination.' Lattimore's literality--English words arranged in Greek syntax--produces a language that is barely English, let alone representative of Homer's poetry. 'One can say in this language,' Davenport explains, quoting Lattimore, 'such things as "slept in that place in an exhaustion of sleep" (for Homer's "aching with fatigue and weary for lack of sleep") and "the shining clothes are lying away uncared for" (for "your laundry is tossed in a heap waiting to be washed").' Carne-Ross, who was commissioning his new 'Iliad' to evade translatorese, wouldn't accept Logue's demurral. He, too, found many translations of Homer--Lattimore's especially--boring and had the Greek to back it up. He also had a plan for how Logue could manage the impossible task of translating a language he did not know. 'I will make you a crib,' Carne-Ross told Logue. A crib: a word-for-word translation of the Greek for Logue to work from. Carne-Ross also read the Greek aloud to Logue, to give him a sense of how it felt. Logue quickly discovered that there was nothing boring about Homer, only the risk of translating Homer into something boring."


dying comicJared Gardner suggests that comics may be a form particularly suited for describing illness: "As the authors behind the Graphic Medicine Manifesto argue, the comics form that emerged simultaneously with the new imaging technologies at the end of the 19th century was in the 20th the constant subject of experiments in the relationship between two semantic systems--word and image--as they collaborated and competed to convey meaning. The highly charged relationship wherein neither text nor image conveys the truth but together succeed in saying something more true than either could individually has been termed 'the vital blend' by Robert C. Harvey. This blend extends further to the relationship between creator and reader, who must, as Scott McCloud and others have argued, collaborate at every turn to make meaning by filling in the gaps of what this highly elliptical and fragmentary form necessarily leaves unwritten and undrawn. Arguably more than any other narrative form, comics have always wrestled with the challenges of making meaning out of competing systems and storytellers, yielding something different--and, when it is done right, better--than either could tell alone. And here is where comics can come to the rescue of medicine, as they did for this patient and for so many others over the last generation, modeling generative collaborations between image and text, data and narrative, creator and reader, and doctor and patient in the face of experiences seemingly impossible to relate. Graphic autobiography was born with an illness narrative--Justin Green's Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary (1972), about debilitating OCD--but it was not until the 1990s that illness memoirs began truly to proliferate in comics, with such seminal texts as Al Davison's The Spiral Cage (spina bifida) and Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner's Our Cancer Year (testicular cancer and chemotherapy). In the 21st century, narratives about mental and physical illness have emerged as the dominant form of nonfiction comics."

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #15

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 dbisson@bard.edu.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:30 pm



images of surveillanceImages of Surveillance: The Politics, Economics, and Aesthetics of Surveillance Societies

Roger Berkowitz, director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities, will be a participant at the interdisciplinary symposium: Images of Surveillance: The Politics, Economics, and Aesthetics of Surveillance Societies. The symposium is presented by the Goethe-Institut in New York, NY December 4-6, 2015.

The symposium will combine lectures, panel discussion, artist talks, and presentations to explore the topic in its various political, economic, and aethetic dimensions and open new ways to think about surveillance in the 21st century. At the heart of Images of Surveillance is the recognition that surveillance as object of study is far too complex to be grasped from any single point of view and thus requires us to combine multiple perspectives into a fuller picture of what surveillance might be. Such an approach rejects both disciplinary boundaries and post-modern indeterminacy in favor of a concerted effort to create overlaps and conceptual chains across a wide variety of practices and discourses.

To learn more about the symposium, schedule, and participants visit goethe.de/ny/sensitivedata.

Friday, December 4 through Sunday, December 6, 2015

Goethe Institut, 30 Irving Place, New York, NY 10003

How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on CampusSAVE THE DATE - 2016 FALL CONFERENCE

On OCTOBER 20-21, 2016 we will host our ninth annual fall conference: "How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on Campus". We'll see you there!

Thursday and Friday, October 20 and 21, 2016

Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Stefanie Rosenmüller discusses how Arendt scarcely addressed distributive justice but how her reasoning could nonetheless augment that of Martha Nussbaum, who criticized the liberal model of John Rawls, in the Quote of the Week. Albert Camus discusses the responsibility of thinking people in a world of victims and executioners in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we appreciate the annotations Hannah Arendt made to E. P. Thompson's "The Making of the English Working Class" in this week's Library feature.

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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.

Amor Mundi 8/9/15


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.

amor_mundi_sign-upRemembering Boredom

boredomClaire Messud in Harpers writes of her nostalgia for boredom. "When I recall my formative years, of course there was loads of reading, and travel, and biking, and TV. But there was also a whole lot of boredom. I guess that's what concerns me, as a parent: that my kids, who lack for nothing even more than I did, are not only unversed in material deprivation and insufficiently familiar with self-restraint but, most terribly, they know nothing of nothingness. Having no truly empty time, they're unfamiliar too with the unexpected and exhilarating flowers that can grow there. I want my children to embrace doing nothing, to embrace the slowing of an afternoon to a near standstill, when all you can hear is the laborious ticking of the clock and the dog snoring on the sofa, the rain's patter at the window, the occasional swoosh of a slowly passing car. Remember those days? The exasperation, the excruciating itchiness of them? My kids would have to dive in, live through the agony, and come out the other side. They'd have to learn to lie on the lawn watching ants scale the grass blades; they'd have to linger, digits pruning, in the bathtub; they'd have to stop, to be still, and then to wait, and wait, and wait, allowing time to fatten around them, like a dewdrop on the tip of a leaf. And then, only then, who knows what they might imagine or invent? How can I teach them, when they're not of an age to listen, and when, more problematically, I too often live in the world just as they do? In practice, I set a poor example, never idling or ambling or reading in bed. I'd like to figure out how to be the kind of parent who holds at bay all demands and exhortations, all fripperies and nonsense. I'd like to show the wisdom of restraint. A different version of washing out Ziploc bags and mending moth holes, it arises from the same impulse: from the understanding that if you attend thoughtfully to what you already have, you need nothing more. It's all here, inside and in the room--not on the screen--before us."

Horrified and Baffled
isisIn the New York Review of Books, a writer who wishes to remain anonymous suggests that, in order to understand ISIS, we have to admit that we don't have the tools to understand it: "Much of what ISIS has done clearly contradicts the moral intuitions and principles of many of its supporters. And we sense--through Hassan Hassan and Michael Weiss's careful interviews--that its supporters are at least partially aware of this contradiction. Again, we can list the different external groups that have provided funding and support to ISIS. But there are no logical connections of ideology, identity, or interests that should link Iran, the Taliban, and the Baathists to one another or to ISIS. Rather, each case suggests that institutions that are starkly divided in theology, politics, and culture perpetually improvise lethal and even self-defeating partnerships of convenience. The thinkers, tacticians, soldiers, and leaders of the movement we know as ISIS are not great strategists; their policies are often haphazard, reckless, even preposterous; regardless of whether their government is, as some argue, skillful, or as others imply, hapless, it is not delivering genuine economic growth or sustainable social justice. The theology, principles, and ethics of the ISIS leaders are neither robust nor defensible. Our analytical spade hits bedrock very fast. I have often been tempted to argue that we simply need more and better information. But that is to underestimate the alien and bewildering nature of this phenomenon. To take only one example, five years ago not even the most austere Salafi theorists advocated the reintroduction of slavery; but ISIS has in fact imposed it. Nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible, and difficult to reverse as the rise of ISIS. None of our analysts, soldiers, diplomats, intelligence officers, politicians, or journalists has yet produced an explanation rich enough--even in hindsight--to have predicted the movement's rise. We hide this from ourselves with theories and concepts that do not bear deep examination. And we will not remedy this simply through the accumulation of more facts. It is not clear whether our culture can ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination, and humility to grasp the phenomenon of ISIS. But for now, we should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled."

Suicide and the Liberal Arts

liberal artsJohn Agresto renews the debate about what is killing the liberal arts. His answer: the liberal arts. "Still, it's not simply the high cost of higher education, or their supposed uselessness, that has buried today's liberal arts. More important, professors in the liberal arts have over-promised, or promised wrongly. We have these lovely phrases, like making our students 'well-rounded,' that are more or less just words. Are those who study medicine or nursing not 'well-rounded'? Are those who major in film studies or contemporary 'lit crit' more intellectually worthy than those who study economics and finance? Often enough over the years I've heard my humanities confreres say that a liberal education makes us finer people, more sensitive, more concerned, more humane, even more human. Pretentious shibboleths such as these, expressed in our egalitarian age, are an excellent way to lose one's audience. And that's exactly where the liberal arts are today. Liberal arts has not been killed by parental or student philistinism, or the cupidity of today's educational institutions whose excessive costs have made the liberal arts into an unattainable luxury. In too many ways the liberal arts have died not by murder but by suicide. To restore the liberal arts, those of us who teach should begin by thinking about students. Almost all of them have serious questions about major issues, and all of them are looking for answers. What is right? What is love? What do I owe others? What do others owe me? In too many places these are not questions for examination but issues for indoctrination. Instead of guiding young men and women by encouraging them to read history, biography, philosophy and literature, we'd rather debunk the past, deconstruct the authors and dethrone our finest minds and statesmen."

amor_mundi_sign-upOn Bullshit
jon stewartJon Stewart signed off as host of The Daily Show with a speech about bullshit. It is worth watching, but here is a rough transcription. "Bullshit is everywhere. Are the kids still in here? We'll deal with that later. Bullshit is everywhere. There is very little that you will encounter in life that has not been, in some ways, infused with bullshit. Not all of it bad. Your general, day-to-day, organic free-range bullshit is often necessary. Or at the very least innocuous. 'Oh what a beautiful baby--I'm sure it will grow into that.' That kind of bullshit in many ways provides important social contract fertilizer. It keeps people from making each other cry all day. But then there's the more pernicious bullshit. Your premeditated, institutional bullshit, designed to obscure and distract. Designed by whom? The bullshittocracy. It comes in three basic flavors. One, making bad things sound like good things. 'Organic, All Natural cupcakes.' Because factory-made sugar oatmeal balls doesn't sell. Patriot Act. Because 'Are You Scared Enough To Let Me Look At All Your Phone Records Act' doesn't sell. So, whenever something has been titled Freedom Family Fairness Health America, take a good long sniff. Chances are it has been manufactured in a facility that may contain traces of bullshit. Number Two, the second way: Hiding bad things under mountains of bullshit. Complexity. You know, I would love to download Drizzy's latest Meek Mill diss--(everyone promised me that that made sense). But I'm not really interested right now in reading Tolstoy's iTunes agreement. So I'll just click and agree, even if it grants Apple prima nocte with my spouse. Here's another one, simply put, banks shouldn't be able to bet your pension money on red. Bullshitly put, it's Dodd Frank. Hey, a handful of billionaires can't buy our elections right? Of course not. They can only pour unlimited, anonymous cash into a 501(c)4; otherwise they'd have to 501(c)6 it, or funnel it openly through a non-campaign coordinated Super Pac. 'I think they're asleep now, we can sneak out.' And finally, it's the bullshit of infinite possibility. These bullshitters cover their unwillingness to act under the guise of unending inquiry. We can't do anything because we don't yet know everything. We cannot take action on climate change, until everyone in the world agrees gay-marriage vaccines won't cause our children to marry goats, who are going to come for our guns. Until then, I say it leads to controversy. Now the good news is this. Bullshitters have gotten pretty lazy. And their work is easily detected. And looking for it is kind of a pleasant way to pass the time. Like an 'I Spy' of bullshit. So I say to you tonight, friends. The best defense against bullshit is vigilance. So if you smell something, say something."

Keep the Church Weird

jesusEmma Green profiles Southern Baptist Convention political leader Russell Moore, who, instead of trying to bring the sacred and the profane as close together as possible wants to emphasize the separateness of the Church by redefining American Protestant identity with a seemingly pejorative rhetorical strategy: "Moore is making an argument for embracing Christian strangeness. 'Our message will be seen as increasingly freakish to American culture,' he writes. 'Let's embrace the freakishness, knowing that such freakishness is the power of God unto salvation.' This word, 'freak,' is both jarring and effective: It's a high-school-hallway diss, all hard-edged consonants and staccato contempt. Christians have reclaimed this word before; the 1960s-era 'Jesus freaks' mixed gospel teachings with hippie counter-culture. In many ways, Moore wants to capture a similar mentality, one of standing against and apart from culture, rather than trying to win it over. This is not quite the same as 'the Benedict option,' as Rod Dreher has called it--a strategic retreat from culture and fortification of communities that share similar values. As Moore pointed out, the core of being an evangelical is evangelism, spreading the good news of Christ; there's no low-church history of monastic retreat like there is in the Catholic or Orthodox traditions. But it is a strategic reorientation: to see the world through the eyes of the outcast, rather than the conqueror."

Copyediting a Hero
shirley jacksonBenjamin Dreyer, who copyedited a new collection of material from writer Shirley Jackson, explains the joy and terror of working with a favorite, and long passed, writer: "I'm not much for telling tales out of school, so had I encountered any majorly irksome gaffes as I made my way through the manuscript, I'd likely be keeping them discreetly to myself anyway rather than spilling them here, but the God's honest truth is that even at close scrutiny--very close: I like to copyedit more or less in Cinerama, with a document set in 14-point type and, furthermore, at 150 percent, so that I can barely see beyond the margins unless I turn my head--Jackson's prose remained resolutely fine. I confess that I was oddly pleased to learn that my paragon was, in manuscript, not entirely infallible: Jackson goes to the well of 'suddenly' and 'and then' a bit too frequently (with the Hymans' approval, there are now quite a few fewer of those in the finished book), and she occasionally puts more pressure on the worthy semicolon than a semicolon can bear. (I may well, though I will not confirm it, on occasion have yelled at my screen 'A period, for Pete's sake, a period!') But mostly, sentence after sentence, I was happily awed. So happily awed that I quickly--and easily, I should stress--established a rule of self-restraint: Anything I felt the need to do that couldn't be easily accomplished with a mild rejiggering of punctuation or the addition or deletion of no more than two words at a time would be weighed carefully before I even dared suggest it. As it turned out, I found maybe a half-dozen knotted-up sentences that were easily untangled--just as, I'm certain, Jackson herself would have untangled them on a subsequent run-through. At one point I spent a good fifteen minutes willing a sentence to move from the beginning of a paragraph to the end before I decided it was fine where its author had placed it. Once and only once did I venture to suggest that a couple of words more interesting than 'that' or 'the' needed to be added to fill out a resolutely unsatisfactory sentence, and the Hymans accepted my suggestion. It's a heady thing for me that I actually contributed two whole substantive words to a Shirley Jackson story, but the truth is that if I did my job properly, if I did that brain burrowing that my colleague said was the real art of copyediting, they're not my words at all; they're Jackson's. I just had to listen for them."

The Dawn of the Atomic Age

hiroshimaThis week was the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Of all the pieces looking back at the human terror and technological sublime of the first of two uses of such a weapon in recorded history, John Hershey's 1946 issue-length article in the New Yorker, published at a time when the magazine cost fifteen cents an issue, might still be the best. In honor of the anniversary, the magazine has put the whole article online for free.

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #12

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 dbisson@bard.edu.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm



why privacy matters title cardSAVE THE DATE - 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Why Privacy Matters: What Do We Lose When We Lose Our Privacy?," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!

**UPDATE** Registration for our conference is now open! Save your seat for this exciting two-day event here!

Thursday, October 15 and Friday, October 16, 2015

Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Laurie Naranch wonders if education can prepare us to assume responsibility for and help renew the common world in the Quote of the Week. Alexander Hamilton reflects on how the fruit of labor and thought help constitute the appearance of genius in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we reflect on the extent to which Hannah Arendt respected American's love for freedom in this week's Library feature.

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.

The Laboratory as Anti-Environment



"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.

-Lance Strate

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.

The New Materialism: From ‘Why’ and ‘What’ to ‘How.’



“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

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.