Anand Giridharadas has written a thoughtful and thrilling new book, The True American. It tells two interlocking stories of Rais Bhuiyan and Mark Stroman. Bhuiyan is a striver, an immigrant from Bangladesh, and a Muslim. Stroman is a drug addict, a charmer, and a Texan who is hateful and broken. Shortly after the attacks on 9/11, Stroman goes on a rampage and shoots three people he thinks are Muslim. Two die. Rais Bhuiyan, the third, is badly wounded; losing his right eye, his face becomes permanently disfigured.
Giridharadas chronicles their lives. Rais seeks to rise above his adversity and live the American dream; Stroman finds God and redemption on death row. Ultimately Rais forgives Stroman and wages an international campaign to stop his execution. The story risks being cliché at every turn. But Giridharadas discovers amidst banality a brutal, shattering, and also inspiring window into modern America.
Reviewing The True American in the Washington Post, Eboo Patel writes:
The premise is simple — Bhuiyan forgives his attacker in the name of Islam and then wages a campaign to save Stroman from execution. An inspiring enough story, surely worthy of the flurry of news coverage it received around the 10th anniversary of 9/11. But a book-length treatment, especially with a title like “The True American,” runs the risk of being taken for a middle-school morality tale. Simply put, it’s not. This is a haunting book, one that penetrates deep into the lives of two complex individuals and reveals the worlds that made them.
Patel rightly sees that the richness of Giridharadas’ book is the way he offers two very different Americans in attempting to explore the sense of what it means to be a “true American.”
The individual stories are certainly compelling, but what sets this book apart is when it zooms out and illuminates the broader social context of the lives at the center. We get Bhuiyan’s immigrant eyes on America: his gratitude for the upward opportunities provided to the resourceful and industrious; his despair for those who have fallen into what he calls the SAD life, beholden to empty sex, alcohol and drugs; and above all his confusion at how so many Americans seem abandoned, unable to find family members to co-sign for car loans or take them in when they have no place to go.
Rais Bhuiyan is at once enraptured by the America he adopts and also aghast at the loneliness and dysfunction he witnesses – something so different from his life back home. Poverty in Bangladesh was much worse than in America, but the lives of the poor in the USA are worse than back home.
If he had only recently settled in America and already had friends who would sign on a lease for him, how could people who had been here for donkey’s years lack such connections? Rais saw his colleagues having to beg for rides or commute by foot on major roads in the searing heat, and he wondered why their family members weren’t picking them up—especially the young women. He felt offended on their behalf.
And Rais has more than a bit of that immigrant hubris, a frustration bordering on contempt for Americans who want a good life without struggle:
Ever since his arrival in America, a part of Rais—at first a small part, swollen by time—had wanted to grab these people, shake them by the shoulders, and wake them from their misery and depression and self-loathing and family-breaking and money-grabbing and loneliness and violence. He wanted to tell them: “Look, why you guys are still suffering? If I can overcome, if I can turn around my life, with the mercy of God, in this country, from that negative point to this point—you guys are born here, you guys speak better than me, you understand the culture better than me, you have more networks, more resource. Why can’t you stay in the same place—even going down day by day? Why you have to struggle on a regular basis, just to survive?
As Rais resolves to forgive Stroman for his violence, Giridharadas shows that the real agenda is more grand. Rais is out to save America from itself. In seeking to save him, Rais wants not only to save Stroman’s life from what in Texas is called “The Death,” but to save his soul and the souls of millions of other Americans like him. Rais, a newly minted American, wants to “stay true to this vision of waking his countrymen up.” The True American is a story of regeneration, a call to America from its optimistic and immigrant soul, to reclaim its freedom.
[Rais] wanted, he said, to save them from childhoods with “no peace at home”; from an idea of life centered on “sex, alcohol, and drugs, starting from your teenage until when you grow up”; from people staying poor “generation-wise because of lack of education”; from members of an overclass that “never even know what is happening in the poor people’s life”; from “lack of in-touch with family”; from stressed and fragmented parents “busy with their own lives,” who tell their young to “just feel comfortable, just make your life happy” and thus nudge them towards things like drugs; from people who are “free, but the way they’re living their life, they’re losing their freedom.”
Meanwhile, Giridharadas paints an equally nuanced and at times compelling picture of Mark Stroman. Stroman insists that he is no racist because he is married to a Mexican. Yet he spouts racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Here is Patel:
It would be easy to dismiss Stroman, with his Aryan Nation friends and swastika tattoo, as simply a murderous white supremacist. But Giridharadas spends time with Stroman’s kids, visiting his son Robert in the maximum-security area of a maximum-security prison, and hanging out in a halfway house with Stroman’s first wife and their daughters as they try to beat addictions and hold down fast-food jobs. The Stromans’ problems are replicated throughout lower-class America: the uncertain parentages and anarchic families, the ubiquity of meth, the race-gang-dominated prisons, the sex that begins at the turn of puberty.
Giridharadas also tells the story of the friendship between Stroman and Ilan Ziv, an Israeli documentarian who comes to befriend Stroman. Ziv tells of the days after the killing of 13 soldiers at the Fort Hood military base by an American Muslim of Palestinian provenance.
[T]hey spoke of a book that Stroman had been reading and had grown infatuated with: Man’s Search for Meaning, by the Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. It was not clear whether he had read it because of his relationship with Ziv. … They spoke at length about the book that first day. There was much in the work—born of Frankl’s years in Nazi concentration camps and his investigation of how people survive the direst circumstances—to calm a man in Stroman’s situation: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Stroman, who used to spout terms like “nigger-loving Jew,” now found himself drawn to one Jewish man’s story of inner transformation: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
Yet even as Stroman spoke of his power to change and the “responsibility he bears toward a human being,” he remains also the bigot he has been. When he learns of the Fort Hood shootings,
that news of the attack had reawakened the specter of 9/11 for him and roused his dormant hatred of Muslims, whom he still thought to be evil. “You know me and Muslims,” Stroman snarled.
Ziv responds angrily and honestly:
“I looked him in the eye,” Ziv said, “and I say, ‘You know what, Mark? You’re a fucked-up person, and now I see how fucked you are,’ because that’s the way we talked. I said, ‘I see how fucked-up because you know what your problem is? You don’t see people. You see groups, right? You see groups, and I see people. And that person who did this killing is a very fucked-up individual. From everyone’s perspective, you’re a very fucked-up person. Nobody would say you’re white and you’re Christian, and all white Christians are fucked up. You’re fucked up.’”
Stroman looked at Ziv for the longest time and finally said, “So this is what they did to the Jews, right?”
Giridharadas has written an excellent book about America, hate, and redemption. At once despairing of and affirming the American dream, The True American is your Weekend Read. You can read an excerpt here. Better yet, order The True American here.
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.
Anthony Grafton calls David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism “one of the saddest stories, and one of the most learned, I have ever read.” Grafton knows that Anti-Judaism “is certainly not the first effort to survey the long grim history of the charges that have been brought against the Jews by their long gray line of self-appointed prosecutors.” What makes this account of the long history of Jewish hatred so compelling is that Nirenberg asks the big question: Why the Jews? “[Nirenberg] wants to know why: why have so many cultures and so many intellectuals had so much to say about the Jews? More particularly, he wants to know why so many of them generated their descriptions and explanations of Jewishness not out of personal knowledge or scholarly research, but out of thin air—and from assumptions, some inherited and others newly minted, that the Jews could be wholly known even to those who knew no Jews.” The question recalls the famous joke told during the Holocaust, especially amongst Jews in concentration camps. Here is one formulation of the joke from Antisemitism, the first book in the trilogy that comprises Hannah Arendt’s magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “An antisemite claimed that the Jews had caused the war; the reply was: Yes, the Jews and the bicyclists. Why the bicyclists? Asks the one? Why the Jews? asks the other.” Read more on the Arendt Center blog.
News that the SAT is about to undergo a makeover leaves Bard College President Leon Botstein unimpressed: “The changes recently announced by the College Board to its SAT college entrance exam bring to mind the familiar phrase “too little, too late.” The alleged improvements are motivated not by any serious soul searching about the SAT but by the competition the College Board has experienced from its arch rival, the ACT, the other major purveyor of standardized college entrance exams. But the problems that plague the SAT also plague the ACT. The SAT needs to be abandoned and replaced. The SAT has a status as a reliable measure of college readiness it does not deserve. The College Board has successfully marketed its exams to parents, students, colleges and universities as arbiters of educational standards. The nation actually needs fewer such exam schemes; they damage the high school curriculum and terrify both students and parents. The blunt fact is that the SAT has never been a good predictor of academic achievement in college. High school grades adjusted to account for the curriculum and academic programs in the high school from which a student graduates are. The essential mechanism of the SAT, the multiple choice test question, is a bizarre relic of long outdated twentieth century social scientific assumptions and strategies. As every adult recognizes, knowing something or how to do something in real life is never defined by being able to choose a “right” answer from a set of possible answers (some of them intentionally misleading) put forward by faceless test designers who are rarely eminent experts. No scientist, engineer, writer, psychologist, artist, or physician— and certainly no scholar, and therefore no serious university faculty member—pursues his or her vocation by getting right answers from a set of prescribed alternatives that trivialize complexity and ambiguity.”
Foreign policy types are up in arms—not over Russia’s pending annexation of Crimea, but over the response in the West. By yelling loudly but doing nothing in Syria and now in the Ukraine, America and Europe are losing all credibility. The insinuation is clear. If we don’t draw the line at Crimea, we will embolden Putin in Poland. Much as in the 1930s, the current NATO alliance seems unwilling to stand up for anything on principle if the costs are more than a few photo opportunities and some angry tweets. According to The American Interest, “Putin believes the West is decadent, weak, and divided. The West needs to prove him wrong.” And in Politico, Ben Judah writes: “Russia’s rulers have been buying up Europe for years. They have mansions and luxury flats from London’s West End to France’s Cote d’Azure. Their children are safe at British boarding and Swiss finishing schools. And their money is squirrelled away in Austrian banks and British tax havens.Putin’s inner circle no longer fear the European establishment. They once imagined them all in MI6. Now they know better. They have seen firsthand how obsequious Western aristocrats and corporate tycoons suddenly turn when their billions come into play. They now view them as hypocrites—the same European elites who help them hide their fortunes.”
In The New York Times Magazine, Siddhartha Deb profiles Arundhati Roy, the Indian writer best known in the West for her 1997 novel The God of Small Things. Though the book made Roy into a national icon, her political essays – in which she has addressed, among other issues, India’s occupation of Kashmir, the “lunacy” of India’s nuclear programme, and the paramilitary operations in central India against the ultraleft guerillas and indigenous populations – have angered many nationalist and upper-class Indians for their fierce critiques. Roy’s most recent work, The Doctor and the Saint, is an introduction to Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s famous 1936 essay “The Annihilation of Caste” that is likely to spark controversy over her rebuke of Ghandi, who wanted to abolish untouchability but not caste. How does Roy see her fiction in relation to her politics? “I’m not a person who likes to use fiction as a means,” she says. “I think it’s an irreducible thing, fiction. It’s itself. It’s not a movie, it’s not a political tract, it’s not a slogan. The ways in which I have thought politically, the proteins of that have to be broken down and forgotten about, until it comes out as the sweat on your skin.” You can read Deb’s profile of Roy here, and an excerpt from The Doctor and the Saint here.
Comparing the MOOC and the GED, Michael Guerreiro wonders whether participants approach both programs with the same sense of purpose. The answer, he suspects, is no: "The data tells us that very few of the students who enroll in a MOOC will ever reach its end. In the ivy, brick, and mortar world from which MOOCs were spun, that would be damning enough. Sticking around is important there; credentials and connections reign, starting with the high-school transcript and continuing through graduate degrees. But students may go into an online course knowing that a completion certificate, even offered under the imprimatur of Harvard or UPenn, doesn’t have the same worth. A recent study by a team of researchers from Coursera found that, for many MOOC students, the credential isn’t the goal at all. Students may treat the MOOC as a resource or a text rather than as a course, jumping in to learn new code or view an enticing lecture and back out whenever they want, just as they would while skimming the wider Web. For many, MOOCs may be just one more Internet tool or diversion; in the Coursera study, the retention rate among committed students for a typical class was shown to be roughly on par with that of a mobile app. And the London Times reported last week that, when given the option to get course credit for their MOOC (for a fee), none of the thousand, or so students who enrolled in a British online class did.” A potent reminder that while MOOCs may indeed succeed and may even replace university education for many people, they are not so much about education as a combination of entertainment, credential, and manual. These are important activities each, but they are not what liberal arts colleges should be about. The hope in the rise of MOOCs, as we’ve written before, is that they help return college to its mission: to teach critical thinking and expose students to the life of the mind.
Noam Chomsky, speaking to the Adjunct Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers, takes issue with the idea that the American university was once living and is now undead, and seeks a way forward: "First of all, we should put aside any idea that there was once a “golden age.” Things were different and in some ways better in the past, but far from perfect. The traditional universities were, for example, extremely hierarchical, with very little democratic participation in decision-making. One part of the activism of the 1960s was to try to democratize the universities, to bring in, say, student representatives to faculty committees, to bring in staff to participate. These efforts were carried forward under student initiatives, with some degree of success. Most universities now have some degree of student participation in faculty decisions. And I think those are the kinds of things we should be moving towards: a democratic institution, in which the people involved in the institution, whoever they may be (faculty, students, staff), participate in determining the nature of the institution and how it runs; and the same should go for a factory. These are not radical ideas."
This week on the blog Anna Metcalfe examines the multi-dimensional idea of action which Arendt discusses in The Human Condition. And in the Weekend Read, entitled 'Why the Jews?', Roger Berkowitz delves into anti-Judaism and its deeply seated roots in Western civilization.
Featuring Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.
Bard College partners with five local libraries for six weeks of activities, performances, and discussions scheduled throughout the Hudson Valley.
Learn more here.
'What Europe? Ideals to Fight for Today'
The HAC co-sponsors the second annual conference with Bard College in Berlin
March 27-28, 2014
Learn more here.
“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
Franz Kafka is hung in Israel for being a Nazi. Hannah Arendt laughs in the face of Auschwitz. Walter Benjamin cries for the lost revolution. With such visions, the Berlin-based-artist Volker März has carved out a space for himself as an artist of the thoughtful and the absurd. I met him last month at MEINBLAU, a gallery on Christinenstraße, his most recent exhibit in Berlin.
I was quickly ushered into an alternate reality. As you walk in, you must become acquainted with the März' artificial world.
This it the tale of Franz Kafka, who, in 1924, aged 41, does not die of tuberculosis but rows with his ape, Mr. Rotpeter, to Palestine, where he still lives to this day in Tel Aviv, aged 126. From here he provides a commentary on world events of the last 85 years, including the history of Israel in brief comments that I have gleaned from his letters and emails.
The exhibit that follows is titled "Israel Hangs Kafka." In März’s world, Kafka was tried and executed in Israel in 2009. He was accused of being a Nazi. In heaven Kafka finds "only a crowd of Kafkas, who tell him that every individual ends up in his own personal heaven in which he has to put up with hundreds of copies of himself." In 2010 there is a new government elected in Israel. Ashamed that the country had framed Kafka, the new government petitions God to have Kafka exonerated and return him to Israel. But as Kafka is falling back to earth, he goes astray and lands on the back of a Donkey in Ramallah in the West Bank. The Donkey carries Kafka to Pina Bausch who, like Kafka, is recently returned from heaven.
And this is just the textual frame for März's playful, gripping, and unexpected figures. The artworks themselves are thousands of miniature clay figures, hanging from the ceilings, attached to walls, and climbing throughout the exhibition hall.
They comprise a suggestive and inventive visual world. Kafka is naked, often erect, sometimes carrying an elephant or with his ape. He rides a donkey. He dances with Pina Bausch. He shoots a gun, he is blown up or drowned. Sometimes he addresses the Knesset. Behind each figure or scene is a story, but the exhibition does not provide the full narrative. For that, one should buy März's two bi-lingual volumes, Kafka In Israel, and In Search of Pina Bausch (Kafka: Auf der Suche nach Pina Bausch).
Volker März is tall, affable, and funny. "Kafka Hangs Israel" is the last of his "trilogy" of work on German-speaking Jewish intellectuals of the 20th century. His first show in the series, "Auratransfer," was inspired by Walter Benjamin. "The Laughter of Hannah Arendt/The Concentration Camp as Space of Thinking" is the show that brought März to my attention, along with his piercing motto that gets right to the heart of brutal reality of Arendt's thesis of the banality of evil: "Auschwitz is human." März pierces Arendt's insight that the evil of the holocaust—as evil—was enabled not by monsters but by human beings who were merely human, or, in other words, who did not think. The banality of evil is an expression of the awful potentiality of human action when mankind abandons the truly human capacity to think.
There is a sense in which the provocative motto “Auschwitz is human” gets Arendt wrong in a small way. For Arendt, the fact that Eichmann is banal is not to say that he is human. It is rather to point to the loss of his humanity. This is the reason that Arendt disavowed a connection between her work and the Stanley Milgram experiments, in which people applied increasing doses of electricity to test subjects when told to do so by the scientists running the experiment. For Arendt, the fact that most people do act with banality shows not that humans are evil, but that in the modern age human beings are in danger of losing their humanity. The motto “Auschwitz is human” gets at the heart of Arendt’s insight that Eichmann—and all real evil in the modern era of the bureaucratic machinery of evil—was rather thoughtless than monstrous. But she never acquiesces to the motto that thoughtlessness is human. On the contrary, the highest activity of humanity is to think.
The transformative power of thinking lies behind Arendt’s own interest in Franz Kafka. For Arendt, Kafka's parables and texts were examples of thinking. Arendt is taken above all by Kafka’s account of the space between past and future, an image she took as the title of her 1954 book Between Past and Future. The parable concerns a person shoved forward from the past, pressed backwards by the future, someone who can jump outside the forces of history and find a space for thinking freely outside of history and free from social scientific predictions of the future. The space of thinking is found, she writes, in "the experience of thinking."
März’s exhibition in Berlin contained only a fraction of the Kafka figures he has created and tell only a fragment of the elaborate story that knits them together. That story is told in his two books on Kafka that can hardly be called the exhibition's catalogues. They are rather books in themselves, bilingual in German and English, and fantastic to read.
The first book is Kafka in Israel. It tells the story I have outlined above, up until Kafka's execution. In it we are introduced to Kafka and also Rotpeter, Kafka's ape. On the occasion of Kafka's 100th birthday the writer is invited to address the Israeli Knesset where he says: "Among all human beings, the Monkey is the one and only outsider." The ape, human but inhuman, is excluded. Which is why "we're pretty much agreed now that an ape is in urgent need of a continent of its own, one inaccessible to humans."
The second book, Kafka in Search of Pina Bausch, takes place after Kafka has been executed by Israel and returns to the West Bank where he meets the German choreographer Pina Bausch, herself recently returned from the beyond. More political than the first volume, the search for Pina Bausch is a raucous and often biting look at the hypocrisies and tensions in the political and culture divisions between Israel and Palestine.
Together, these two volumes make a fascinating journey in both pictures and text. They are accessible and brief, but compelling. You could do worse than to order yourself a copy. And while you are at it, don’t forget to order also März’s volume on Hannah Arendt, The Laughter of Hannah Arendt. These books by Märx are your weekend read.
The Hannah Arendt Center is co-sponsoring an interesting event this Friday afternoon, March 23, in conjunction with the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York and the Written Arts Program at Bard College. Bard Professor, Norman Manea, will be holding a conversation with fellow Romanian writers about the challenge of writing under the oppression of censorship. Present will be Romanian writers Carmen Firan, Dan Lungu, Simona Popescu, Bogdan Suceavă, and Lucian Dan Teodorovici. The event comes on the heels of the publication of Romanian Writers on Writing, a new anthology offering a panoramic and unique glimpse into Romanian literature for English language readers, edited by Manea.
You can learn more about the event here.
Manea, who was born in Romania, spent four years as a child in a concentration camp. He is a prolific writer, with his work translated into more than twenty languages. Just recently, his novelistic memoir, The Hooligan's Return was released in Sweden to rave reviews, with several reviewers deeming it worthy of the Nobel Prize.
Manea is is the Francis Flournoy Professor of European Culture and writer in residence at Bard College.