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.
Marilynne Robinson, taking up questions of American sacred and secular religion, obliquely picks up on a famous maxim of Franklin Roosevelt. America is a Christian country, she says, but its political culture turns a deaf ear to that heritage and not in the way that people usually suggest: "There is something I have felt the need to say, that I have spoken about in various settings, extemporaneously, because my thoughts on the subject have not been entirely formed, and because it is painful to me to have to express them. However, my thesis is always the same, and it is very simply stated, though it has two parts: first, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind. As children we learn to say, 'Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.' We learn that, after his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples, 'Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.' Christ is a gracious, abiding presence in all reality, and in him history will finally be resolved. These are larger, more embracing terms than contemporary Christianity is in the habit of using. But we are taught that Christ 'was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made....The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.' The present tense here is to be noted. John's First Letter proclaims 'the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us.' We as Christians cannot think of Christ as isolated in space or time if we really do accept the authority of our own texts. Nor can we imagine that this life on earth is our only life, our primary life. As Christians we are to believe that we are to fear not the death of our bodies but the loss of our souls. We hear a great deal now about the drift of America away from a Christian identity. Whenever there is talk of decline--as in fact there always is--the one thing that seems to be lacking is a meaningful standard of change. How can we know where we are if we don't know where we were, in those days when things were as they ought to be? How can we know there has been decline, an invidious qualitative change, if we cannot establish a terminus a quo? I propose attention to the marked and oddly general fearfulness of our culture at present as one way of dealing with the problem. In the twenty-sixth chapter of Leviticus we find a description of the state the people of Israel will find themselves in if they depart from their loyalty to God: 'The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight, and they shall flee as one flees from the sword, and they shall fall when none pursues. They shall stumble over one another, as if to escape a sword, though none pursues.'" Robinson's point, apart from her claim that America is a Christian nation, is that if you fear indiscriminately, courage dissipates. Her worry is that the decline of religiosity is part and parcel of our fearful moral and political cowardice.
Kwame Anthony Appiah appraises contemporary higher education: "Neither Utility U. nor Utopia U. has the full run of any one campus. In the familiar caricature, there's the performance-studies major who is putting up fliers for the Naomi Klein talk, collecting signatures for the fossil-free petition and wondering whether the student alliance for gender equity is as racially inclusive as it claims. Then there's the engineering major, first in the family to go to college, traipsing across the quad with a discounted, two-editions-out-of-date version of the material-science textbook. All that identity stuff is a dimly perceived distraction in this student's light cone, readily tuned out. One student thinks 'bi-curious' is a word; the other doesn't see why you would use molecular-orbital theory when valence bonding provides answers faster. The two students cross paths only physically. It's almost as if they're attending two different colleges. One reason this is a caricature is that people aren't always found on the expected side of the disciplinary (and class) divides. At liberal-arts campuses, certainly, almost everyone drinks from the fountain of human betterment, albeit some from a Dixie cup and others from a Big Gulp. And very few are completely unmindful of the getting-a-job thing that's rumored to follow graduation. But when you superimpose the two visions of college--as a forcing house of virtue and as means for building human capital--you inevitably get interference patterns, ripples and ridges of indignation and disquiet. That's what you're seeing when the safe-space ethic runs amok, as with students who claim offense when their ideas are challenged or who want to see 'trigger warnings' on even canonical literature, like those cardboard lids on hotel-room glasses. Here, the student is at once the sensitive servant of high causes and a demanding customer. Nor are these tensions likely to resolve themselves, because higher education has to play so many roles. The truth is that colleges and universities do a tremendous amount that neither of these pictures captures--that just can't be reduced to the well-being of their graduates. For one thing, the old ideal of knowledge for its own sake hasn't been extinguished. For another, universities are the homes of all kinds of public goods. They are, for example, the source of much of today's best research. Without them we would know much less than we do about the nature of the cosmos or the workings of the human brain or the ways of reading a novel. A flourishing literary culture is made possible not because institutions of higher learning create writers but because they prepare readers (and yes, it helps that they provide jobs for plenty of poets and novelists too). There's even something to be said, especially in a democracy, for an educated citizenry, able to question the creeds of the moment."
Stephen Greenblatt in the New York Times argues that teaching Shakespeare still is meaningful to today's students but frequently in new and unexpected ways. "Shakespeare has not lost his place in this new world, just as, despite the grim jeremiads of the cultural pessimists, he has not lost his place in colleges and universities. On the contrary, his works (and even his image) turn up everywhere, and students continue to flock to courses that teach him, even when those courses are not required. But as I have discovered in my teaching, it is a different Shakespeare from the one with whom I first fell in love. Many of my students may have less verbal acuity than in years past, but they often possess highly developed visual, musical and performative skills. They intuitively grasp, in a way I came to understand only slowly, the pervasiveness of songs in Shakespeare's plays, the strange ways that his scenes flow one into another or the cunning alternation of close-ups and long views. When I ask them to write a 10-page paper analyzing a particular web of metaphors, exploring a complex theme or amassing evidence to support an argument, the results are often wooden; when I ask them to analyze a film clip, perform a scene or make a video, I stand a better chance of receiving something extraordinary. A student with a beautiful voice performed Brahms's Ophelia songs, with a piano accompaniment by another gifted musician. Students with a knack for creative writing have composed monologues in the voice of the villainous Iago, short stories depicting an awkward reunion of Shylock and his daughter, Jessica, or even additional scenes in Shakespearean verse. This does not mean that I should abandon the paper assignment; it is an important form of training for a range of very different challenges that lie in their future. But I see that their deep imaginative engagement with Shakespeare, their intoxication, lies elsewhere. And I should add that no one, as far as I can tell, any longer dreams of establishing symbolic descent from Stratford-upon-Avon to substitute for or displace actual descent from Vilnius or Seoul or Johannesburg. Contrary to my expectations, my students at Harvard are far more diverse, in geographical origin, culture and class, than my students ever were at U.C. Berkeley. They embrace this diversity and confidently expect to make their way through a global environment linked by complex digital networks."
There are the challenges of the humanities. Star professors rarely teach. And the profit motive corrupts of our college and universities. Writing in the The Boston Review, Robert L. Kehoe III considers all these criticisms, but hones in the particularly gruesome state of college athletics. "Echoing Albert Camus's belief that the most profound ethical teaching he experienced was on the soccer field, theologian Stanley Hauwerwas has argued, 'The most determinative moral formation most people have in our society is when they learn to play baseball, basketball, quilt, cook, or learn to lay bricks.' That college athletics (and academics) could support the intellectual and moral development of student-athletes, while enhancing the communal strength of campus life, is inarguable. But it is only a sustainable prospect if administrators and faculty at colleges and universities preserve the nonprofit values of higher education and treat athletics as more than a source of entertainment, revenue, and prestige. To do so would demand a vision of athletic education that resists the temptation to profiteer at a time when college football's popularity is soaring. Last season's national championship game garnered the highest ratings in cable TV history, for a contest that featured Ohio State (whose starting quarterback Tweeted about his disregard for academic responsibility) and the University of Oregon (whose football players have an at-best middling graduation rate but enjoy a $68 million locker room paid for by Nike co-founder and Chairman Phil Knight). No amount of compromise or corruption has dissuaded fans and investors from tuning in--with eyeballs and cash. And when those investors include media conglomerates that attempt to do the work of journalism while promoting entertainment they profit from, there can be little hope that visible sports writers and commentators will take a more active role in reforming the current system. As the New York Times reports, media outlets often have a vested interest in the status quo; ESPN, for example, has infused so many billions of dollars into college football that it has effectively become 'both puppet-master and kingmaker, arranging games, setting schedules and bestowing the gift of nationwide exposure on its chosen universities, players and coaches.' In such a landscape, those who question the centrality of football in college life appear little more than tedious gadflies spoiling the tailgate."
An author identifying herself as Michelle G, a student at MIT, acknowledges, "There is empirical evidence to support the idea that males have a higher capacity for spatial reasoning than females." But Michelle G. dives deeply into these and other studies to argue that such "evidence" is a "factual misconception." "I'm guessing that you're familiar with common notions that men are spatial and logical thinkers, while females are more verbally proficient. A man being tested for spatial ability might assume that he's going to have an easier time than a woman of otherwise equal intelligence, his conclusion based not on sexism but on objective science. And statistically speaking, he's right. It is true that men score higher on spatial reasoning tests, though you might have caught on that there's a little bit more to this picture (why would a female MIT student publicize stereotypes that actively work against her?). If you're now wondering whether I'm about to throw some kind of feminist rant at you, I'll give you a 'well, sort of,' because calling out factual misconception is just as important as promoting feminist ideals here, and because I think those two go hand in hand anyway. I'll largely put the romance of egalitarianism aside, though, to talk about empiricism.... I think it's important to acknowledge the very rightful discomfort that arises when scientific studies attempt to trace such differences to biologically determined origins. Yet, across decades of research, no biological cause has actually been identified as a suitable explanation for the spatial reasoning discrepancy. Studies regarding testosterone and mental rotation, for example, found inconsistent or absent effects across cultures, prompting inquiries into 'differing cultural values' to account for the results. And gaps between men's and women's scores on some spatially-geared tests have significantly shrunk in the past few decades, which is interesting because noticeable evolutionary or nature-based development might take thousands of decades to take effect. ('Nurture'-based conditions are of course rapidly changing.) Still though, the gap has lingered, and a satisfying and empirically-supported explanation as to 'what gives' was not achieved until 2008, when researchers eliminated the performance gap under a single simple condition."
Timothy Snyder in the New York Review of Books explores "Hitler's World" and what he finds will surprise some. Above all, human races were likes species involved in a fateful fight to the death. Life was a struggle that followed natural laws, but one that could be influenced by human action. And as Hannah Arendt so clearly emphasized in her Origins of Totalitarianism, Hitler and his Nazi party embraced a movement that transcended nations and states. In short, Nazism was not nationalist, a common misconception. "Hitler's basic critique was not the usual one that human beings were good but had been corrupted by an overly Jewish civilization. It was rather that humans were animals and that any exercise of ethical deliberation was in itself a sign of Jewish corruption. The very attempt to set a universal ideal and strain toward it was precisely what was hateful. Heinrich Himmler, Hitler's most important deputy, did not follow every twist of Hitler's thinking, but he grasped its conclusion: ethics as such was the error; the only morality was fidelity to race. Participation in mass murder, Himmler maintained, was a good act, since it brought to the race an internal harmony as well as unity with nature. The difficulty of seeing, for example, thousands of Jewish corpses marked the transcendence of conventional morality. The temporary strains of murder were a worthy sacrifice to the future of the race. Any nonracist attitude was Jewish, thought Hitler, and any universal idea a mechanism of Jewish dominion. Both capitalism and communism were Jewish. Their apparent embrace of struggle was simply cover for the Jewish desire for world domination. Any abstract idea of the state was also Jewish. 'There is no such thing,' wrote Hitler, 'as the state as an end in itself.' As he clarified, 'the highest goal of human beings' was not 'the preservation of any given state or government, but the preservation of their kind.' The frontiers of existing states would be washed away by the forces of nature in the course of racial struggle: 'One must not be diverted from the borders of Eternal Right by the existence of political borders.' If states were not impressive human achievements but fragile barriers to be overcome by nature, it followed that law was particular rather than general, an artifact of racial superiority rather than an avenue of equality. Hans Frank, Hitler's personal lawyer and during World War II the governor-general of occupied Poland, maintained that the law was built 'on the survival elements of our German people.' Legal traditions based on anything beyond race were 'bloodless abstractions.' Law had no purpose beyond the codification of a Führer's momentary intuitions about the good of his race. The German concept of a Rechtsstaat, a state that operated under the rule of law, was without substance. As Carl Schmitt explained, law served the race, and the state served the race, and so race was the only pertinent concept. The idea of a state held to external legal standards was a sham designed to suppress the strong."
Hua Hsu considers the case of white poet Michael Derrick Hudson, who occasionally published poetry under the assumed identity of a Chinese poet named Yi-Fen Chou but who, very unusually, owned up to the subterfuge when his work was admitted to the 2015 Best American Poetry anthology. The anthology's editor, Sherman Alexie, recently published a blog post about why he included Hudson's poem anyway, and that's where Hsu picks up: "The more revealing aspect of Alexie's response is his account of what attracted him to 'The Bees' once Hudson's calculated hunch had garnered the poem 'a close read.' The poem wasn't obviously 'Chinese,' however you might interpret that, Alexie explains. Instead, it referenced 'Adam and Eve, Poseidon, the Roman Coliseum, and Jesus.' It was, in other words, 'inherently obsessed with European culture.' Alexie goes on, 'When I first read it, I'd briefly wondered about the life story of a Chinese American poet who would be compelled to write a poem with such overt and affectionate European classical and Christian imagery, and I marveled at how interesting many of us are in our cross-cultural lives, and then I tossed the poem on the "maybe" pile that eventually became a "yes" pile.' Alexie is a sharp and self-aware Native American writer and filmmaker, and he didn't necessarily mean to suggest that a Chinese person raised in America wouldn't gravitate toward Western themes. (Isn't that how assimilation works?) But his phrasing reminds me of the odd standard often applied to marginalized voices: in this case, there was something refreshingly noteworthy about a Chinese poet writing about non-Chinese things. Consider the comparative privilege of the white artist, whose experiences are received as 'universal,' even if that artist chooses to assume the guise of the other. Ezra Pound's flawed 'translations' of Chinese poetry, for example, became a key foundation for modernism. The only limitation for such an artist, really, is the extent to which it can all be explained away as an avant-garde game if things get too weird... Perhaps, too, spoofing the Chinese struck Hudson as a relatively safe masquerade, likely to provoke less generalized rage than, say, the fake autobiography of a purported ex-gangster or a Holocaust survivor. Or maybe it was simply more efficient. When it comes to such hoaxes, it seems somehow easier to fake Asia, a land still distant and inscrutable to many Americans; while other hoaxes work because of their thoroughness and care, the Asian-themed sort often get by with only a few details, as long as those details seem just 'Asian' enough. After all, imitating the sound of Asian languages is something of a national pastime, from Mark Twain and Bret Harte's 'Ah Sin' to Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar's 'Cream of Sum Yung Guy.' In 2013, a Bay Area news report about an Asian Air crash listed the pilots' names as Ho Lee Fuk, Wi Tu Lo, Sum Ting Wong, and Bang Ding Ow, presumably because these names appeared sufficiently believable."
Constitution Day (or Citizenship Day) is observed on September 17 to recognize the U.S. Constitution and those who have become U.S. citizens. In honor of Constitution Day, the Arendt Center extends an invitation to attend a lecture by Roger Berkowitz.
"[T]o the extent that they had a positive notion of freedom which would transcend the idea of a successful liberation from tyrants and from necessity, this notion was identified with the act of foundation, that is, the framing of a constitution."
-Hannah Arendt, "On Revolution"
Wednesday, September 23, 2015
Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito '60 Auditorium, Bard College, 5:00 pm
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Friday, September 11, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm
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
This week on the Blog, Louise Brinkerhoff discusses how even in solitude there are always two sides in dialogue in the Quote of the Week. Sir Aubrey De Vere comments on how one thought immortalized in ink can lead millions to think in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. We share a chapter from Stephen Most's Stories Make the World, a book which describes how Most applied Arendt's thinking about stories to his work as a filmmaker. Finally, Thierry Ternisien d'Ouville shares with us an image of his personal Arendt library on Twitter in this week's Library feature.
I received an email from an old friend this weekend. She has been deeply affected by the death of Ki Suck Han, the New York man who was pushed off a subway platform near Times Square—and abandoned by all his fellow passengers, before being run over by an oncoming train. She wrote:
The subway death was on my mind all day long yesterday, I was devastated about it. I once worked for the MTA Arts for Transit, maybe that's why. Nobody stepped forth (the platform wasn't empty before the guy fell on the tracks), at least moved forward, rather than back. In that photo the man is all alone facing that train, everyone has moved back and away to make space for the accident to unfold unhindered, out of the zone of implication. We're all so afraid of danger, and even afraid of the fear itself.
Forty Seven people were killed after being hit by trains in 2011—I know this from the helpful signs in the subways that remind us to be careful.
We all know about Ki Suck Han because in the 22 seconds between when he was pushed on the tracks and when a train pinned him against the platform, a New York Post photographer snapped dozens of pictures of him. One of those pictures was then published on the front page of the NYC tabloid.
There has been near universal condemnation of the Post, with a few exceptions. The photographer too has been harangued, accused of taking pictures rather than running to save the man. But the platform had not been empty and another waiting rider actually filmed the argument Ki Suck Han had been having with the man who later pushed him to the tracks. All these passengers fled the scene, moved to the other end of the platform. No one went to help Ki Suck Han. In 22 seconds, no one acted the hero.
“What,” my friend asked, “might Hannah Arendt say about the fact that no one helped a person in need?”
I hazard to say or think I know what Hannah Arendt would have thought or said. I respond to all such queries simply: Hannah Arendt was nothing if not surprising and provocative and more brilliant than I am. I have no special insight into what she would have thought.
What I can do is try to think about how her thinking, her provocative and insistent determination to think what we are doing, helps us today to make sense of ethical and political events like this tragic death. Along those lines, here are a few thoughts.
First, we should not draw too many conclusions from one event. While no heroes showed themselves in this circumstance, there are unsung heroes every year who risk their lives to save people around the world, and even in New York Subways. In fact, just last weekend Doreen Winkler saved two people from an oncoming train in New York City. You can read about Winkler’s heroic acts here and here. And if you want to be inspired by truly heroic acts of daring subway rescues, watch this video from Korea.
Second, the unwillingness to play the hero in this situation reminds me of what Arendt names the loss of our sense of a common world. It is the common world—a world that used to be imagined and held together by tradition and authority—that provides a public space in which actions are remembered. Pericles could say with confidence that the Athenian polis would remember the deeds of its heroes, just as the American revolutionaries could hope that their heroic deeds would live on in monuments, song, and poetry.
Monuments in Washington and around the nation testify to the common world that shares in the memory of great acts—acts that strike people as both surprising and worthy of glory and support. It is the power and promise of memory in the common world that both holds out examples of the glory of heroism and also promises to bring the hero immortality, something more lasting than life and security. There is little faith today that someone who is a hero will be remembered longer than someone who cuts people to bits or dances naked on TV. Heroism is one of many avenues to 15 minutes of fame. So there is no strong sense of acting courageously getting you anything.
Third, the loss of the common world is part and parcel of the retreat into loneliness. I was having dinner with another friend recently who told me of his new resolution, to listen to more music on his Iphone on the way to and from work. I recall once reading Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s letters and being in awe of his reports to friends of the books he was reading, his continuing education as he put it. My friend saw his headphone-wearing study of music in the same vein. And yet, there is a difference. Walking with headphones, even more than reading in the subway or playing books on tape in the car, is a way of tuning out of the world around you. People get lost in their own world, ignoring the sights, sounds, and faces that pass them by.
My conversation with my music-studying friend also called to mind a recent email sent by the Bard College Rabbi. Rabbi David Nelson worried that more and more our young people, in the spirit of urban dwellers, “walk around campus much of the time avoiding eye contact, which is another way of saying that they avoid looking one another directly in the face.” For the rabbi, the loss of eye contact and real face-time is dangerous and corrupting. He writes:
Those who have spent time living in densely populated urban areas are accustomed to the polite avoidance of eye contact, in crowded elevators, crowded rush-hour subway trains, and similar crowded venues. This is a way to maintain separateness and privacy in an environment where the density of the population threatens our ability ever to feel alone and unobserved. This is exactly the behavior that we see on campus. But we are not an anonymous, densely populated urban tangle. We are--or we ought to be--an intentional, involved, caring community. And our students' assiduous avoidance of one another's faces is at least a sign of, and perhaps a cause of, the widespread sense that this is a place where it's hard to really connect with others.
The proliferation of headphones began decades ago with the Sony Walkman craze and continues unabated with the Ipod and Iphone. People walk around listening to music or books or podcasts. And many are proud of this development, rationalizing their anti-social behavior by arguing to themselves that they are bettering themselves, learning, or expanding their minds. This may be true. But the retreat from personal contact and the eye contact with our fellow travelers must also weaken our connection to others. It is a cold and distant world, one in which we are less and less entangled with and personally related to those around us.
Our actions are ever more calculating and less instinctive. In such instances, calculation will stop you from acting. You need to feel it. It is no accident that nearly every subway hero who jumps on the tracts to rescue someone says that they didn’t think about it but simply acted.
Above all, the un-heroic action in the subway last week reminds us of the increasing rarity of action. Heroism is never normal. It is, by definition, extra-ordinary and surprising, which is why it is glorified and remembered. It thus thrives on a world that rewards and celebrates heroic acts. Hannah Arendt saw, however, that rare deeds would be ever rarer in the modern age. The primary reason for this is that in large societies, rare deeds lose their rarity and distinction. There are at least two reasons for this decline in great deeds.
First, the law of large numbers means that all action is predictable. We know that most people will not act spontaneously to save a passenger in need; but we also know that a certain percentage of people will. Actions of heroism are not mundane, but they are expected. That is why it was so shocking and surprising that no one acted. When someone does act heroically, like Doreen Winkler, few newspapers reported it. Heroism in the subway promises very little acclaim.
Second, heroism requires a common world in which one’s great deed will be remembered. Without the promise or the expectation that heroic acts will be immortalized, the risk of action is rarely balanced by the reward. In a calculating society, heroism rarely seems to justify the risk.
Thankfully, however, there are exceptions to these dispiriting trends. There are moments of unexpected heroism that do break through the standardization of our social expectations and become examples of heroic action. One recent example of this is Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s racing into a burning house to save his neighbor. At a time when we expect so little from our public figures who refuse to risk even bucking opinion polls, Booker’s public heroism was shocking. The power of his example, and of those who act as he does, keeps the ideal of heroism alive at a time when it is ever more rare and unexpected. Because action interrupts the everyday and the normal, it is, Arendt writes, the “one miracle-working faculty of man.” Action introduces greatness and glory into the world, makes us take notice, and calls us then to gather around the beauty of the glorious act; action, heroic action, is what constantly refreshes and re-orients us toward the common world that we share together.