Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Amor Mundi 5/17/15


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-upBeing Toward Death

death maskDeath today has been medicalized and marginalized. But this has not always been the case. To illustrate, Deborah Lutz has explored the way the Victorians approached death and has found a much different and worthy approach to the dying body. "What I came to realize was that the Victorians cared about the mortal body; its very mortality mattered profoundly to them. Today we try to deny the body's movement toward death, its inevitable decay. The Victorians, instead of fearing the process of dying and the corpse, felt reverence. These were stages in the life of a beloved body and should be treasured. Indeed, the image of the corpse was worthy of fixing with the art of the death mask, painting or photography. A snippet of hair was often turned into jewelry. What was beautiful--and tragic, but more lovely for all that--was the body's ephemerality, its being always on the way to disappearing. The Victorians recognized that death's presence was woven into the texture of life, giving that life one of its essential meanings. Religion, of course, played a role in this attitude. Evangelical revivals early in the 19th century reinvigorated the tradition of the good death, in which God called believers to him. Even the sinful might be saved in the end, and this salvation could be seen in the face of the dying and heard in their words. Dying was something to be watched--a triumph even.... What we have lost is not only a savoring of ephemerality, but also an appreciation of the way that time marks the body. We try too hard to keep the terminally ill alive because we can't admit to finality. This has begun to change with the rise of the hospice movement and the work of a handful of artists, like Ishiuchi Miyako and Sophie Calle, who are interested in documenting the dying of loved ones. Even so, the philosopher Walter Benjamin's lament in the 1930s about death still rings true. By avoiding the sight of the dying, he felt, one misses the moment when the meaning of a life is completed and illuminated in its ending. The denial of death then leads to the demise of the art of storytelling. He called his contemporaries 'dry dwellers of eternity' because they 'live in rooms that have never been touched by death.'"

The Wrong Stuff

death chamberJeffrey E. Stern reports on a recent botched execution in Oklahoma and on the source of the problem, namely, the difficulty of finding the right drugs: "What many people don't realize, however, is that choosing the specific drugs and doses involves as much guesswork as expertise. In many cases, the person responsible for selecting the drugs has no medical training. Sometimes that person is a lawyer--a state attorney general or an attorney for the prison. These officials base their confidence that a certain drug will work largely on the fact that it has seemed to work in the past. So naturally, they prefer not to experiment with new drugs. In recent years, however, they have been forced to do so... The problems began at a pharmaceutical plant in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. The Food and Drug Administration discovered that some of the drugs made there were contaminated and in April 2010 sent the manufacturer, Hospira, a warning letter. Hospira stopped producing, among other drugs, a barbiturate called sodium thiopental. No other company was approved by the FDA to make sodium thiopental, which was the anesthetic of choice for almost all of the states that carried out executions." Stern doesn't editorialize. But the horrific facts of the case themselves seem to ask whether or not this punishment fits any crime.


thingsRussell Jacoby is critical of the academic fashion for studies of objects, books on golf balls, paper clips, and doorknobs. This kind of microscopic approach can be done well--Jacoby offers the excellent example of the Sigfried Giedion's 1948 Mechanization Takes Command. But in the current iteration of object studies, Jacoby discerns an empty, consumerist, apolitical desire expression of exhaustion. "The tendencies here reflect new academic fashions that seem to move in two opposite directions--fields get larger and subject matter smaller. We have new fields of global studies or material culture--allied to object theory--which seem to cover everything; but they frequently serve as licenses to study very small things. The connections, in any case, between larger fields and microstudies are hardly addressed. A recent issue of the Journal of Material Culture, for instance, has an article on energy shortages in an African city ('Infrastructure turned suprastructure: Unpredictable materialities and visions of a Nigerian nation') and the incompatible standards of electrical plugs in Western Europe ('Plugging in: Power sockets, standards and the valencies of national habitus'). There is nothing wrong with this--except that after all the theoretical panting we are left gawking at unrelated items in the display case of history. For all the references to Lukacs, object study bespeaks reification, turning social relations into things. Perhaps an awkward French translation for reification, 'chosification'--'thingification' in English--captures something of Lukacs' concept. Historical material subject to potential change gets transmuted into things subject to passive viewing."

Design Within Reach

homelessAndrea DenHoed applauds an undergraduate design class project which is aimed at alleviating the problem of homelessness in New York City: "Perhaps it's fanciful to be discussing beautiful design in the face of horror stories about the city's neglected, dilapidated shelters. Or perhaps the project of reconceptualizing what it means to house the homeless goes hand in hand with the project of finding sustainable approaches to homelessness. (In an area where the best practices seem wholly inadequate to the problem at hand, and where departures from orthodoxy--such as a Utah experiment that simply gave homeless people houses--can be notably fruitful, the idea of radical reconceptualization is particularly attractive.) But the ability to conceive of and implement beautiful design with scarce resources is a great test of skill and talent, and it's worth wondering whether top-tier designers would even be interested in these tight-budget contracts. ('My passion still goes to high-end residential spaces,' which allow for extensive customization, one student said.) But from the working designer's point of view, designing for a low-income demographic might offer another kind of freedom. Walz said that he's observed a growing discontent among interior designers with some of the changes that economic trends have wrought on their profession. 'Everybody has sort of had it with the sense of entitlement in certain parts of the population,' he said. 'But nobody wants to talk about it--you don't want to bite the hand that feeds you.'"

amor_mundi_sign-upArendt's Moral Groundwork

hannah arendtCorey Robin has a long essay on Hannah Arendt and the Eichmann controversy in the latest Nation. Robin's article has the virtue of length and breadth, allowing him to explore Arendt's critics and their errors but also to search for meaning in the recurring conflict. He asks, "What is it about this most Jewish of texts that makes it such a perennial source of rancor among Jews, and what does their rancor tell us about Jewish life in the shadow of the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel? What does the wrongness of Eichmann's readers reveal about the rightness of its arguments?" Robin takes on Arendt's critics on many levels, and in the end argues that Arendt's account of the Eichmann trial, was, as Arendt once wrote, "the groundwork for creating new political morals." Robin writes: "If evil comes in small steps, overcoming it, nearing goodness, also inheres in small steps. As Susan Neiman explains: 'Arendt was convinced that evil could be overcome only if we acknowledge that it overwhelms us in ways that are minute. Great temptations are easier to recognize and thus to resist, for resistance comes in heroic terms. Contemporary dangers begin with trivial and insidious steps.' Return the coat of collateral at night; take the eggs, not the bird; give a hunted Jew a truck. Jerusalem, then--not the Athens of the Greeks or the Königsberg of Kant--may be not only the site but also the spirit of Arendt's text. The intransigence of her ethic of everyday life, her insistence that every action matters, that we attend to the minutes of our practice--not the purity of our souls but the justness of our conduct and how it will affect things; if not now, when all is hopeless, then in the future, when all will be remembered--that kind of mindfulness is reminiscent, too, of the Hebraic ethos described by Arnold in Culture and Anarchy: 'this energy driving at practice' that 'would not let the Hebrew rest till, as is well known, he had at last got out of the law a network of prescriptions to enwrap his whole life, to govern every moment of it, every impulse, every action.' On December 21, 1962, two months before the first of her articles would appear in The New Yorker, Arendt gave her friend, the literary critic Alfred Kazin, a copy of the manuscript. The next day, he finished it. Overwhelmed by 'the stink of so much evil,' he went out for a walk. He 'walked and walked,' he writes in his journal, 'shivering to get the wintry pure air into my lungs.' Then he was hit by a realization: 'Hannah in her imperious yecke [a Yiddish term for German Jews] way is one of the just.' 'This is the lightning in her to which I always respond. She has the fundamental sense of value. She still believes in the right. Oddly enough, she still believes in the Ten Commandments.'"

In Search of a Human Humanities Conference

humanities conferenceChristy Wampole poses a simple question many of us ask regularly: Why are academic conferences so boring? "We are weary of academic conferences. We are humanists who recognize very little humanity in the conference format and content. We have sat patiently and politely through talks read line by line in a monotone voice by a speaker who doesn't look up once, wondering why we couldn't have read the paper ourselves in advance with a much greater level of absorption. We have tried to ignore the lack of a thesis or even one interesting sentence in a 20-minute talk. Our jaws have hung in disbelief as a speaker tries to squeeze a 30-minute talk into a 20-minute slot by reading too fast to be understood. We have been one of two attendees at a panel.... Academic conferences are a habit from the past, embraced by the administrativersity as a way to showcase knowledge and to increase productivity in the form of published conference proceedings. We have been complicit. Until now. We believe it is time to ask ourselves: What is the purpose of the conference?" It is an excellent question, and one that should spur experimentation. Hannah Arendt Center Conferences are one attempt to re-imagine the tired academic conference by bringing academics together with students, the engaged public, artists, business people, and public intellectuals to explore present concerns in politics through the humanities. If you haven't attended one of our events, join us at our next conference: Private Life: Why Does it Matter?

Drugs, Babies, and Poverty in America

muskogeeReflecting on poverty and the unrest in Baltimore, Thomas B. Edsall offers a comparison with Muskogee, Oklahoma. "Today Muskogee, Okla., a city of 38,863, has nine drug treatment centers and a court specifically devoted to drug offenders. A search for 'methamphetamine arrest' on the website of the Muskogee Phoenix, the local newspaper, produces 316 hits. In 2013 just under two-thirds of the births in the city of Muskogee, 62.6 percent, were to unwed mothers, including 48.3 percent of the births to white mothers. The teenage birthrate in Oklahoma was 47.3 per 1,000; in Muskogee, it's 59.2, almost twice the national rate, which is 29.7. The Baltimore poverty rate is 23.8 percent, 8.4 points above the national rate, but below Muskogee's 27.7 percent. The median household income in Baltimore is $41,385, $11,661 below the $53,046 national level, but $7,712 above Muskogee's $33,664.... Why am I talking about Muskogee? Two reasons. The first is that the Baltimore riots have become a vehicle for conservatives to point to the city as an emblem of the failure of liberalism and the Democratic Party. The current state of affairs in Muskogee suggests that the left does not deserve exclusive credit for social disorder. The second reason is that worsening conditions in working-class white Republican communities indicate that the conservative moral agenda has not decisively won the battle for the hearts of America's youth.... If conservatives place responsibility on liberal Democrats, feminism and the abandonment of traditional family values for Baltimore's decay, what role did the 249 churches in and around Muskogee play in that city's troubles? The fact is that the poor and working classes of both races were not well equipped to adjust to changes in behavior driven by the sexual revolution and the second demographic transition--a collection of forces that are inexorably changing the family, marriage patterns and child rearing worldwide." On the left there is a conviction that racism lies behind the problems in Baltimore. On the right, they blame feminism, gay rights, and the loss of religious order. Edsall focuses on the similarities between the breakdown of society in both Baltimore and Muskogee, arguing that they reflect a more widespread demographic and moral collapse.

Critical Miss

computerJon Peterson remembers a moment just before the internet when fiction seemed like it might be intruding on truth, networks and hacking struck fear in the heart of the government, and the Secret Service thought it was protecting the public good by confiscating the manual to a tabletop role-playing game: "In hindsight, it's difficult to explain how esoteric computers appeared to the mainstream in the 1980s. The Internet existed--but even in 1990, few had any inkling of the prominence it would soon attain. It was just one of several communications networks, largely confined to university environments and overshadowed by closed monolithic information services like CompuServe. The web as such didn't exist either, and even functions like email and newsgroups depended on a patchwork of interconnected systems with limited standardization. The promise of an open, global network for commerce, entertainment, and personal communications remained in the realm of science fiction... But in 1990, the territory where these stories played out remained imaginary: the Internet lingered on the cusp of becoming habitable. Only a marginal community of hobbyists spent any significant fraction of their lives online, in various bulletin boards, newsgroups, and chat services where they communicated with like-minded explorers of the electronic frontier. Perhaps the closest you could get at that time to an experience of Gibson's future was in the role-playing games that tried to capture the flavor of that world, known by the genre label 'cyberpunk.'"

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #9

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, June 5, 2015

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



privacy con 2015 (temp)SAVE THE DATE - 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015

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

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Hans Teerds reflects on how we understand architecture as a political concern and, by extension, understand Karl Jaspers' spatial approach to thinking in the Quote of the Week. We share a link to a broadcast by Deutschlandfunk Radio that provides some coverage of "Can We Have Some Privacy?," a conference we sponsored earlier this month. Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of Charles Lindbergh, reflects on writing, thinking, and life in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Bethany Zulick, a HAC student fellow, recounts artist Jeanne van Heeswijk's lecture for our spring 2015 "Courage to Be" dinner/speaker series. Finally, we appreciate two annotations Arendt made to her copy of "Black Reconstruction in America" in this week's Library feature.

bill t. jones On Tuesday, May 5th, we had the pleasure of talking with American choreographer and dancer Bill T. Jones and with members of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company following a rehearsal for their upcoming world premiere performance, "Analogy/Dora: Tramontane." We will be uploading a recording of our Q&A session with Jones and company to our Vimeo account in the next few weeks. Please stay tuned!

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 Irony of Sincerity


A few weeks ago, Christy Wampole, a professor of French at Princeton, took to the New York Times to point to what she sees as a pandemic of irony, the symptom of a malignant hipster culture which has metastasized, spreading out from college campuses and hip neighborhoods and into the population at large. Last week, author R. Jay Magill responded to Wampole, noting that the professor was a very late entry into an analysis of irony that stretches back to the last gasps of the 20th century, and that even that discourse fits into a much longer conversation about sincerity and irony that has been going on at least since Diogenes.

Of course, this wasn’t Magill’s first visit to this particular arena; his own entry, entitled Sincerity: How a Moral Ideal Born Five Hundred Years Ago Inspired Religious Wars, Modern Art, Hipster Chic, and the Curious Notion That We All Have Something to Say (No Matter How Dull), came out in July. Magill very effectively recapitulates the main point from his book in his article for the Atlantic, but, if you were to read this new summary alone, you would both deny yourself of some of the pleasures of Magill’s research and prose, as well as spare yourself from some of his less convincing arguments, arguments which, incidentally, happen to suffice for the thrust of his recent article.

The most interesting chapters of Magill’s book deal with the early history of the rise of sincerity, which he traces back to the Reformation. In Magill’s telling, the word “sincere” enters the record of English in 1533, when an English reformer named John Frith writes, to Sir Thomas More, that John Wycliffe “had lived ‘a very sincere life.’” Before that use, in its origin in Latin and French, the word “sincere” had only been used to describe objects and, now, Frith was using it not only for the first time in English but also to describe a particular individual as unusually true and pure to his self, set in opposition to the various hypocrisies that had taken root within the Catholic Church. Magill sums this up quite elegantly: “to be sincere” he writes “was to be reformed.”

Now, this would have been revolutionary enough, since it suggested that a relationship with God required internal confirmation rather than external acclamation—in the words of St. Paul, a fidelity to the spirit of the law and not just the letter. And yet reformed sincerity was not simply a return to the Gospel. In order to be true to one’s self, there must be a self to accord with, an internal to look towards. Indeed, Magill’s history of the idea of sincerity succeeds when it describes the development of the self, and, in particular, that development as variably determined by the internal or the external.

Image by Shirin Rezaee

It gets more complicated, however, or perhaps more interesting, when Magill turns towards deceptive presentations of the self, that is, when he begins to talk about insincerity. He begins this conversation with Montaigne, who “comes to sense a definite split between his public and private selves and is the first author obsessed with portraying himself as he really is.” The most interesting appearance of this conversation is an excellent chapter on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who suggested that people should aspire to self-sameness, should do their best to “reconcile” one’s self to one’s self, a demand for authenticity that would come to be fully expressed in Immanuel Kant’s moral law, the command that I must set myself as a law for myself.

Sincerity, the moral ideal first put forth by John Frith, started as the Reformation’s response to the inability of the Catholic Church to enact that particular principle, in other words, its hypocrisy. This follows for each of the movements that Magill writes about, each responding to the hypocrisy of their own moment in a specific way. On this matter he has a very good teacher, Hannah Arendt, an inheritor of Kant, who was himself a reader of Rousseau. Arendt writes, in Crisis of the Republic, what might serve as a good summation of one of Magill’s more convincing arguments: “if we inquire historically into the causes likely to transform engagés into enragés, it is not injustice that ranks first, but hypocrisy.”

Still, while what makes the sincerity of Frith (who was burned at the stake) or Wycliffe (whose body was exhumed a half century after his death so that it, too, could be burned) compelling is the turn inwards, it is Rousseau’s substitution of the turn back for that turn inward that appears to interest Magill, who decries “the Enlightenment understanding of the world” that “would entirely dominate the West, relegating Rousseau to that breed of reactionary artististic and political minds who stood against the progress of technology, commerce, and modernization and pined for utopia.”

The whole point is moot; Rousseau was himself a hypocrite, often either unable or unwilling to enact the principles he set out in his writings. As Magill moves forward, though, it becomes clear the he values the turn back as a manifestation of sincerity, as a sort of expressing oneself honestly. The last few hundred years in the development of sincerity, it seems, are finding new iterations of the past in the self. He writes that the Romantics, a group he seems to favor as more sincere than most, “harbored a desire to escape a desire to escape forward-moving, rational civilization by worshipping nature, emotion, love, the nostalgic past, the bucolic idyll, violence, the grotesque, the mystical, the outcast and, failing these, suicide.” In turn, in his last chapter, Magill writes that hipster culture serves a vital cultural purpose: its “sincere remembrance of things past, however commodified or cheesy or kitschy or campy or embarrassing, remains real and small and beautiful because otherwise these old things are about to be discarded by a culture that bulldozes content once it has its economic utility.”

The hipster, for Magill, is not the cold affectation of an unculture, as Wampole wants to claim, but is instead the inheritor “of the the entire history of the Protestant-Romantic-rebellious ethos that has aimed for five hundred years to jam a stick into the endlessly turning spokes of time, culture and consumption and yell, “Stop! I want to get off!”

There’s the rub. What Magill offers doesn’t necessarily strike me as a move towards sincerity, but it is definitely a nod to nostalgia. Consider how he recapitulates his argument in the article:

One need really only look at what counts as inventive new music, film, or art. Much of it is stripped down, bare, devoid of over-production, or aware of its production—that is, an irony that produces sincerity. Sure, pop music and Jeff Koons alike retain huge pull (read: $$$), but lately there has been a return to artistic and musical genres that existed prior to the irony-debunking of 9/11: early punk, disco, rap, New Wave—with a winking nod to sparse Casio keyboard sounds, drum machines, naïve drawing, fake digital-look drawings, and jangly, Clash-like guitars. Bands like Arcade Fire, Metric, Scissor Sisters, CSS, Chairlift, and the Temper Trap all go in for heavy nostalgia and an acknowledgement of a less self-conscious, more D.I.Y. time in music.

Here, Magill is very selectively parsing the recent history of “indie music,” ignoring a particularly striking embrace of artificial pop music that happened alongside the rise of the “sincere” genres, like new folk, that he favors. There’s no reason to assume that Jeff Koons’s blown up balloon animals or Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes are any less sincere than the Scissor Sisters’s camp disco, just as there is no reason to assume that a desire to return to nature is any less sincere than the move into the city. Although Magill makes a good argument for the hipster’s cultural purpose, that purpose is not itself evidence that the hipster is expressing what’s truly inside himself, just as there’s no way for you to be sure that I am sincerely expressing my feelings about Sincerity. Magill, ultimately, makes the same mistake as Wampole, in that he judges with no evidence; the only person you can accurately identify as sincere is yourself.

-Josh Kopin

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.