Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
18May/150

Amor Mundi 5/17/15

Arendtamormundi

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.

Thingification

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.
27Apr/151

Amor Mundi 4/26/15

Arendtamormundi

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-upWill It Never End?

violenceJohn Gray, writing in The Guardian, takes on Steven Pinker's argument that progress and the Enlightenment are bringing about the decline and extinction of violence. "It may be true that the modern state's monopoly of force has led, in some contexts, to declining rates of violent death. But it is also true that the power of the modern state has been used for purposes of mass killing, and one should not pass too quickly over victims of state terror. With increasing historical knowledge it has become clear that the 'Holocaust-by-bullets'--the mass shootings of Jews, mostly in the Soviet Union, during the second world war--was perpetrated on an even larger scale than previously realised. Soviet agricultural collectivisation incurred millions of foreseeable deaths, mainly as a result of starvation, with deportation to uninhabitable regions, life-threatening conditions in the Gulag and military-style operations against recalcitrant villages also playing an important role. Peacetime deaths due to internal repression under the Mao regime have been estimated to be around 70 million. Along with fatalities caused by state terror were unnumbered millions whose lives were irreparably broken and shortened. How these casualties fit into the scheme of declining violence is unclear. Pinker goes so far as to suggest that the 20th-century Hemoclysm might have been a gigantic statistical fluke, and cautions that any history of the last century that represents it as having been especially violent may be 'apt to exaggerate the narrative coherence of this history' (the italics are Pinker's). However, there is an equal or greater risk in abandoning a coherent and truthful narrative of the violence of the last century for the sake of a spurious quantitative precision."

How About Improving High Schools?

college reformDavid Leonhardt takes on the conventional wisdom that college is not for everyone. (Although I thought the conventional wisdom is that college is for everyone.) In his Upshot column in the NY Times, Leonhardt argues that new studies show that college benefits even the most marginal students. "The fate of students like Mr. Escanilla is crucial to today's debate over who should go to college: How much money should taxpayers spend subsidizing higher education? How willing should students be to take on college debt? How hard should Washington and state governments push colleges to lift their graduation rates? All of these questions depend on whether a large number of at-risk students are really capable of completing a four-year degree. As it happens, two separate--and ambitious--recent academic studies have looked at precisely this issue. The economists and education researchers tracked thousands of people over the last two decades in Florida, Georgia and elsewhere who had fallen on either side of hard admissions cutoffs. Less selective colleges often set such benchmarks: Students who score 840 on the SAT, for example, or maintain a C+ average in high school are admitted. Those who don't clear the bar are generally rejected, and many don't attend any four-year college. Such stark cutoffs provide researchers with a kind of natural experiment. Students who score an 830 on the SAT are nearly identical to those who score an 840. Yet if one group goes to college and the other doesn't, researchers can make meaningful estimates of the true effects of college. And the two studies have come to remarkably similar conclusions: Enrolling in a four-year college brings large benefits to marginal students. Roughly half of the students in Georgia who had cleared the bar went on to earn a bachelor's degree within six years, compared with only 17 percent of those who missed the cutoff, according to one of the studies, by Joshua S. Goodman of Harvard and Michael Hurwitz and Jonathan Smith of the College Board. The benefits were concentrated among lower-income students, both studies found, and among men, one of them found." What is unasked in Leonhardt's argument is, "What about high school?" It is not controversial that sending someone to college will help people. But does it make sense for us to continue offering free high school educations that are horrific and then charge people for better college educations? Wouldn't the money and effort spent on community colleges and financial aid for lower tier colleges be better spent reforming high school education in a meaningful way? It seems most people simply have given up on high school, which is why college becomes an expensive and next-best alternative.

Your Smart Things, They're Spying On You

smart homeJustin McGuirk says the smart house is here and that it's here less to make your life convenient and more to gather data about what you do at home: "For the first time since the mid-twentieth century--with its labor-saving household appliances and rising quality of life--the domestic is once again the site of radical change. And though domestic space appears to fall within the realm of architecture, architects themselves have been almost mute on the implications of such change. Architecture, it seems, has given up its dreams of imagining how we might live, and so into that void technology is rushing. That tired old trope of 'the house of the future' has been replaced by what is now called the 'smart home.' The smart home is the network's great white hope for ubiquitous connectivity. It sounds benign enough, and may conjure Jacques Tati-style mise-en-scènes populated by absurd devices--the smart home is prime territory for farce--but it is also an ideology. It is the house-shaped manifestation of the internet of things, according to which all our devices and appliances will join the network, communicating with us and each other. To say that the internet of things is an ideology is to suggest that the use-value of the concept has yet to be sold to the consumer. It is easily mocked by skeptical hacks who question the need for talking fridges and washing machines that you can program with your smartphone ('You still need to put the clothes in yourself, right?'). Bruce Sterling argues that the internet of things has nothing to do with the consumer and everything to do with the business interests of the service providers. Given that data is the new currency, the internet of things is an epic power grab by the lords of the network--Sterling focuses on the 'big five' of Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft--to gain control of as much human data as physically possible. As the primary interface of the internet of things, the smart home is effectively the tendrils of the network rising out of the ground and into every one of our household appliances to allow mass data collection and digital surveillance." And while it used to be that you could strategically opt out of this data gathering, McGuirk suggests that the smart home will just render you redundant. Home, then, is no longer any retreat from the public space.

amor_mundi_sign-upMindfulness and Social Control

mindfulnessVirginia Heffernan is wary of the way "mindfulness," an idea brought into Western thought from various Eastern religions, has been taken up by businesses and 21st century self-help gurus: "Mindfulness as 'keeping in tune' has a nice ring to it. But it's 'focused on the task at hand' that appeals to managers, like Jackson, who are conscious of performance goals. Might workplace mindfulness--in the cubicle or on the court--be just another way to keep employees undistracted and to get them to work harder for nothing but airy rewards? In this context of performance enhancement, 'mindfulness' seems perilously close to doggerel from the same playbook that brought us corny affirmations, inner children and vision boards. Maybe the word 'mindfulness' is like the Prius emblem, a badge of enlightened and self-satisfied consumerism, and of success and achievement. If so, not deploying mindfulness--taking pills or naps for anxiety, say, or going out to church or cocktails--makes you look sort of backward or classless. Like driving a Hummer."

Feeling and Thinking

Françoise MoulyFrançoise Mouly, in an interview, talks about the relationship between thought and emotion in art: "Often, we separate intellectual discourse from emotional reaction. But I take such genuine pleasure in things that are intellectually well architected. It's definitely an integrated experience for me. Much more than any kind of cheap, emotional pulls that you get in popular culture, when I read a sentence and it's beautifully written, it can bring me to tears. I know what I respond to is a voice. A voice is not just a stylistic thing, but it means someone who really has something to say. I think a lot of what I get from books--whether they be books of comics or books of literature--is a window into somebody's mind and their way of thinking. I love it when it's so specific. It's a new way to look at the world. It's as if I could get in and see it through their eyes. It also reaches a level of universality because, somehow, I can recognize some of my feelings in seeing somebody who is actually expressing their own inner reality. Even though Flaubert has not been in Madame Bovary's skin, you do get a sense of what it's like to be that person. It's a kind of empathic response when you're reading it."

The Fiction and the Fact

joseph mitchellIn a piece on the New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, Janet Malcom, starting with facts from a new biography of Mitchell, tries to work out whether it matters that his tendency to exaggerate or flat-out invent in his profiles for the magazine, more prevalent than previously believed, matters. Ultimately, she says, it doesn't. But only because he was good at it: "Every writer of nonfiction who has struggled with the ditch and the bushes knows what Mitchell is talking about, but few of us have gone as far as Mitchell in bending actuality to our artistic will. This is not because we are more virtuous than Mitchell. It is because we are less gifted than Mitchell. The idea that reporters are constantly resisting the temptation to invent is a laughable one. Reporters don't invent because they don't know how to. This is why they are journalists rather than novelists or short-story writers. They depend on the kindness of the strangers they actually meet for the characters in their stories. There are no fictional characters lurking in their imaginations. They couldn't create a character like Mr. Flood or Cockeye Johnny if you held a gun to their heads. Mitchell's travels across the line that separates fiction and nonfiction are his singular feat. His impatience with the annoying, boring bits of actuality, his slashings through the underbrush of unreadable facticity, give his pieces their electric force, are why they're so much more exciting to read than the work of other nonfiction writers of ambition. In the title piece of The Bottom of the Harbor, a short work of great subtlety about the ability of fish and shellfish to survive in polluted water, Mitchell mentions a small area of the New York waterfront where, in contrast to the general foulness, 'clean, sparkling, steel-blue water' can be found. This image of purity in the midst of contamination could serve as an emblem of Mitchell's journalistic exceptionalism. He has filtered out the impurities other journalists helplessly accept as the defining condition of their genre. Mitchell's genre is some kind of hybrid, as yet to be named."

What We Talk About When We Talk About Dresses

dressMegan Garber wonders what might have caused the backlash against some designer dresses that went on sale at Target this week, coming up with an answer that suggests, as always, that when we're talking about clothes, we're not just talking about clothes: "A common phrase you'll hear associated with Pulitzer is 'uniform'--as in, as Givhan put it, 'part of a preppy uniform that announces itself from fifty paces,' or, as the Boston Globe put it, 'a uniform of the well-heeled WASP.' Which is ironic, of course: Uniforms are about the constriction of freedoms, and preppiness and WASPiness are, in general, about the freedom that comes with privilege. And clothing, furthermore-'fashion,' in haughtier moments--is most optimistically about the freedoms of self-expression and self-reinvention. It recognizes very little distinction between faking it and making it. If you have the money and the inclination, you can stock your closet--and swath your body--with Alice + Olivia and Thakoon and Marc Jacobs and Marchesa, or with very convincing knockoffs. You can balance them out, as the fashion magazines have taught you to do, with items from H&M and Zara and Forever 21. We live in an economy of sartorial abundance; one outcome of that is that 'style' is something we have come to associate with freedom. But Pulitzer's clothes are, again, 'uniforms'--which are, on the whole, designed to free their wearers from the burdens of free thinking. And this is perhaps the main source of the ire about Pulitzer's clothes: The garments suggest a kind of willful conscription, celebrating what happens when wealth and status are accompanied by an insistent rejection of creativity. It was, and to some extent still is, popular to deride women for being 'basic,' which is to say for loving pumpkin-spice lattes, Ugg boots, Gucci handbags, and other predictable outcomes of commercialized femininity. 'Basic' is a terrible epithet in many ways, but it is also, as far as 'Lillys' are concerned, an instructive one: Pulitzer's clothes are, in this sense, the worst kind of basic. They promise class and community and the relief of conformity. They are marketed to people of privilege. Worst of all, though, they suggest that the best thing one can do with one's privilege is to use it to go on vacation."

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

h. g. adlerTranslating the Holocaust: H. G. Adler as Writer and Scholar

This event, which features a keynote address, several panels, and a performance, will offer a unique opportunity to consider the intersection of both the scholarly and artistic work of H. G. Adler, a major thinker and writer who is just becoming known in English.

Sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center, The Bard Translation Initiative, Jewish Studies, German Studies, and Human Rights Project.

Free and open to the public!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Bard Hall, Bard College, 4:00 pm - 6:00 pm


human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #8

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, May 15, 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, Jennie Han discusses how Arendt's and Kant's conceptions of critical thinking help open us up to the rest of the world in the Quote of the Week. Albert Einstein provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. In a special feature, Zelda May Bas, a student fellow with the Hannah Arendt Center, recounts our second "Courage to Be" dinner, during which Professor Uday Mehta spoke on Gandhi. Finally, we visit the Hannah Arendt Collection and peruse a number of books dedicated to understanding the character and political aspirations of Adolf Hitler in this week's Library feature.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
24Nov/140

Amor Mundi 11/23/14

Arendtamormundi

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.

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On Loneliness

lonelinessIn The New Republic, Judith Shulevitz writes about the deadening impact of loneliness and how it can ravage our body and our brain. She traces modern interest in loneliness to Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, a psychoanalyst whose "1959 essay, 'On Loneliness,' is considered a founding document in a fast-growing area of scientific research you might call loneliness studies. Over the past half-century, academic psychologists have largely abandoned psychoanalysis and made themselves over as biologists. And as they delve deeper into the workings of cells and nerves, they are confirming that loneliness is as monstrous as Fromm-Reichmann said it was. It has now been linked with a wide array of bodily ailments as well as the old mental ones. In a way, these discoveries are as consequential as the germ theory of disease. Just as we once knew that infectious diseases killed, but didn't know that germs spread them, we've known intuitively that loneliness hastens death, but haven't been able to explain how. Psychobiologists can now show that loneliness sends misleading hormonal signals, rejiggers the molecules on genes that govern behavior, and wrenches a slew of other systems out of whack. They have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you. Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer's, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer - tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people." The turn toward biology situates loneliness as a mental and a physical illness, one to be combated with public health programs. Shulevitz traces the efforts to medicalize loneliness, as well as programs to treat loneliness as a problem of inequality. And yet, in the end, she suggests that humans have incredible resources to fend off loneliness: "[T]here's something awe-inspiring about our resilience, too. Put an orphan in foster care, and his brain will repair its missing connections. Teach a lonely person to respond to others without fear and paranoia, and over time, her body will make fewer stress hormones and get less sick from them. Care for a pet or start believing in a supernatural being, and your score on the UCLA Loneliness Scale will go down. Even an act as simple as joining an athletic team or a church can lead to what Cole calls 'molecular remodeling.' 'One message I take away from this is, "Hey, it's not just early life that counts,"' he says. 'We have to choose our life well.'"

Arendt and the "Mass Man"

arendt lonelinessLoneliness was a constant theme in Hannah Arendt's work. In her most pregnant attempt at a definition of totalitarianism, published in 1950, Arendt writes: "Totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated, individuals." Totalitarianism depends upon "the masses [who] grew out of the fragments of a highly atomized society whose competitive structure and concomitant loneliness of the individual had been held in check only through membership in a class." Shorn of family and national and class connection, the modern atomized individual becomes a mass man. "The chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships." Stripped of the political, social, and intellectual traditions that historically bound people together in publically meaningful institutions and networks, mass men turn to racism or consumerism to give their lives meaning. Both are dangerous in different ways. As Paul Morrow writes, "Loneliness can result from formal prohibitions on expression or action, as seen in totalitarian societies; but it can also result from informal standards and patterns of life which disvalue political - and overvalue social or commercial - interactions." And Bill Dixon adds: "To be lonely is to be deprived of both the public and the private realms and therefore to feel utterly abandoned by other human beings, to finally lose one's place in the world completely. The mass production of loneliness is closely linked to the experiences of 'uprootedness' and 'superfluousness' that have unevenly afflicted peoples across the earth since the industrial revolution and European imperialism. Pervasive loneliness as a modern way of life therefore amorphously anticipates the emergence of the totalitarian form, but it also serves to structure and vivify its psychic violence once underway. Loneliness perversely tends to intensify when felt in the presence of others, that is, when one is not strictly speaking alone."  

Integrity and Privacy

snowdenDavid Bromwich reviews Laura Poitras' Citizenfour and argues that it shows Edward Snowden to be a modern hero, a courageous conscientious objector in the war on privacy: "An incidental strength of Citizenfour is that it will make such casual slanders harder to repeat. Nevertheless, they are likely to be repeated or anyway muttered in semiprivate by otherwise judicious persons who want to go on with their business head-down and not be bothered. It must be added that our past politics give no help in arriving at an apt description of Snowden and his action. The reason is that the world in which he worked is new. Perhaps one should think of him as a conscientious objector to the war on privacy - a respectful dissident who, having observed the repressive treatment endured by William Binney, Thomas Drake, and other recent whistle-blowers, does not recognize the constitutional right of the government to put him in prison indefinitely and bring him to trial for treason. His action constitutes a reproach to the many good citizens who have learned what is happening and done nothing about it. That, too, is surely a cause of the resentment that has a hard time finding the appropriate adjectives for Snowden." Bromwich is right that listening to Snowden in the movie is to be in the presence of someone of integrity: "The undeclared subject of Citizenfour is integrity - the insistence by an individual that his life and the principle he lives by should be all of a piece. Something resembling an aesthetic correlative of that integrity can be found in the documentary style of Laura Poitras." What Snowden, Poitras, and Bromwich show is that the core of privacy is integrity. It is thus the integrity of the person that is under attack in the age of surveillance.

Learning and Teaching

teachingIn an essay about how it is for teachers, both now and in the past, Jonathan Zimmerman says he thinks he's figured out what's happened to teaching in America: "the federal Race to the Top program sponsored by the Obama administration encouraged schools to use students' test scores in evaluating individual teachers. The primary responsibility of teachers is no longer to encourage good behavior in future citizens, as Horace Mann insisted. Instead, it's to ensure that they get the right answers on a high-stakes test. The shift in goals has unfortunately done nothing to alter the tedious, anti-intellectual practices of American teaching. If anything, the strong commitment to 'academic' goals has probably made teaching less academic - so far as the quality of learning is concerned - and more routinized than it was before. When teachers were hired for their inborn ability to 'nurture' schoolchildren, many derided or disregarded their intellectual capacities. Now we've created a system that is so firmly tied to scholastic achievement - as narrowly defined by standardized tests - that no serious scholar would want to teach in it."

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Rereading Without Revising

readingIn the New York Times, seven writers reread some of their old work and write about how they feel about it all this time later. Marilynne Robinson, for example, tries to recall what it was like to write Housekeeping: "In writing 'Housekeeping' I was trying to recover the appearance and the atmosphere of a very particular place, northern Idaho. When I wrote it, I had not spent much time there for almost 20 years. So it was very much an exploration of memory that I was engaged in. I thought I was writing an unpublishable book, so I was undistracted by other considerations than my own interest in the workings of memory and the ability of language to evoke what I 'saw' in memory. I found that the common old question 'What was it like?' stimulated recollection and recruited words and images that made my sense of the thing remembered, a place or a smell or the glint of light on water, much more accessible to me than I could have anticipated. It became a discipline for me, always to keep a scene before my eyes and to be ready to value and explore any detail that presented itself to me with an especially pungent or plangent specificity. I wrote much of the book in a darkened room. This was not intended as part of the experiment, but it may have contributed to it. My memories were often as bright as dreams and often as highly detailed. Only the place is actually remembered in the book. None of the characters or events are real. The point was to let my imagination take on the colorations of memory and interpret the place, as music might do."

Not The Absence of Fear

cornel westIn an interview with Questlove Thompson, an interview that's as much about music as anything else, Cornel West defines courage: "But we all live in fear. Courage is not the absence of fear. It is the working through and overcoming of fear. Brother Martin had fear. He just wouldn't allow fear to determine his behavior. As human beings, everyone has stuff coming at them, and a certain kind of fear. But courage is being true to yourself, true to a sense of integrity. And that's what is more and more difficult."

At the Intersection of Art and Commerce

ursula le guinIn her National Book Awards acceptance speech, Ursula K. Lu Guin explains why she loves, and fears for, literature: "Books aren't just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable - but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words. I've had a long career as a writer, and a good one, in good company. Here at the end of it, I don't want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want and should demand our fair share of the proceeds; but the name of our beautiful reward isn't profit. Its name is freedom."

On Ethics and Reporting

bill cosbyIn a piece about the resurfaced allegations of rape against Bill Cosby, Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us that he, like all writers, lives in history, with his own context and biography. Knowing that is a kindness - one, he suggests, that an ethical journalist must transcend: "The Bill Cosby piece was my first shot writing for a big national magazine. I had been writing for 12 financially insecure years. By 2007, when I finished my first draft, I had lost three jobs in seven years. I had just been laid-off by Time magazine. My kid was getting older. I was subsisting off unemployment checks and someone else's salary. A voice in my head was, indeed, pushing me to do something more expansive and broader in its implication, something that did not just question Cosby's moralizing, but weighed it against the acts which I believed he committed. But Cosby was such a big target that I thought it was only a matter of time before someone published a hard-hitting, investigative piece. And besides, I had in my hand the longest, best, and most personally challenging piece I'd ever written. It was not enough. I have often thought about how those women would have felt had they read my piece. The subject was morality - and yet one of the biggest accusations of immorality was left for a few sentences, was rendered invisible. I don't have many writing regrets. But this is one of them. I regret not saying what I thought of the accusations, and then pursuing those thoughts. I regret it because the lack of pursuit puts me in league with people who either looked away, or did not look hard enough. I take it as a personal admonition to always go there, to never flinch, to never look away."

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Featured Events

Film Screening & Director's Discussion: Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt with Nazis

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito '60 Auditorium, 5:00 - 8:00 pm


Roundtable on Academic Freedom

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Bard College Campus Center, Multipurpose Room, 7:00 pm

 


From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Johannes Lang discusses Arendt's critique of obedience in political and moral matters in the Quote of the Week. Carl Sagan provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. In our Video Archives, we remember a talk George Kateb gave at our 2011 annual fall conference on the ideal of governmental transparency. And we appreciate Arendt's impressive collection of Goethe's works in our Library feature.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
24Jan/140

Loneliness and Expansive Writing

ArendtWeekendReading

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt asks after the “elements” of totalitarianism, those fundamental building blocks that made possible an altogether new and horrific form of government. The two structural elements she locates are the emergence of a new ideological form of Antisemitism and the rise of transnational imperialist movements, which gives the structure to her book: Part One (Antisemitism) and Part Two (Imperialism) lead into Part Three (Totalitarianism). Underlying both Antisemitism and Imperialism is what Arendt calls metaphysical rootlessness and metaphysical loneliness.

origins

Totalitarian government, Arendt writes, “bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.” The loneliness of modern humanity is multifaceted. It is “closely connected with uprootedness and superfluousness which have been the curse of modern masses since the beginning of the industrial revolution and have become acute with the rise of imperialism at the end of the last century and the breakdown of political institutions and social traditions in our own time.” The image of the factory worker laboring repetitively on a conveyor belt is forever associated with Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. In his 1950 classic The Lonely Crowd, David Reisman describes how middle class Americans had lost their meaningful connections to religion, to class, and to family. They take their values increasingly from a mass culture and they become malleable and subject to the influence of propaganda and advertising.

“Metaphysical rootlessness,” Arendt argues, is both the “basic experience” of modern society and also the generative impulse behind ideological racisms (which Arendt distinguishes from older non-scientific versions of racism). Without a core of personal and collective identity, the lonely mass man is “the common ground for terror, the essence of totalitarian government, and for ideology or logicality, the preparation of its executioners and victims.” Racism is based in hatred of a world in which lonely and rootless people are confronted with their meaninglessness, their belonging to no place, and their superfluousness. It is these masses that seek to build an imaginary and coherent togetherness based on race. Thus is rootlessness characteristic of all racism and all totalitarianism.

In her most pregnant attempt at a definition of totalitarianism, Arendt writes: “Totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated, individuals.” Totalitarianism depends upon “the masses [who] grew out of the fragments of a highly atomized society whose competitive structure and concomitant loneliness of the individual had been held in check only through membership in a class.” Shorn of family and national and class connection, the modern atomized individual becomes a mass man. “The chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness, but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships.”

The question underlying so much of Arendt’s work is how to respond to what she calls “the break in tradition,” the fact that the political, social, and intellectual traditions that bound people together in publically meaningful institutions and networks have frayed beyond repair. The customs and traditions that for millennia were the unspoken common sense of peoples can no longer be presumed. Stripped of these meaningful institutions of transcendence, mass men turn to racism or consumerism to give their lives meaning. Both are dangerous in different ways. Arendt ask repeatedly, how are we to make life meaningful, how are we to inure individuals from the seduction of ideological movements that lend weight to their meaningless lives?

If metaphysical loneliness is the basic experiences of modern life, then it is not surprising that great modern literature would struggle with the agony of such disconnection and seek to articulate paths of reconnection. That, indeed, is the thesis of Wyatt Mason’s essay “Make This Not True,” in this week’s New York Review of Books. Modern fiction, Mason argues, struggles to answer the question: How can we live and die and not be alone?

In the guise of a review of George Saunders Tenth of September (a 2012 finalist for the National Book Award), Mason suggests at least three paradigmatic answers to this question “How do I die?” The answers are represented alternatively by three of the greatest contemporary writers, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Saunders. In brief, Wallace combats the loneliness and inattention of the distracted masses by writing prose that is so seductively difficult that it demands attentiveness and thus membership in a community of readers. Franzen seeks the antidote to loneliness in palpable scenes of connection amidst the wreckages of modern relationships. For both Wallace and Franzen, connection is to be found in the cultivation of quintessentially modern relationships.

Flickr - Manky M.

Flickr - Manky M.

Saunders is notable for pursing a different path through the wilderness of contemporary isolation. Instead of external connections, Saunders is a master of the inward journey we must make alone. For Mason, there is an important link between Saunder’s Buddhism and his writing:

In Buddhist practice, through sitting meditation, the mind may be schooled in the way of softness, openness, expansiveness. This imaginative feat—of being able to live these ideas—is one of enormous subtlety. What makes Saunders’s work unique is not its satirical verve or its fierce humor but its unfathomable capacity to dramatize, in story form, the life-altering teachings of such a practice. … [I]f fiction is to continue to exert an influence over a culture that finds it ever easier to connect, however frailly, to the world around them through technology, Saunders’s stories suggest that the ambition to connect outwardly isn’t the only path we can choose. Rather, his fiction shows us that the path to reconciliation with our condition is inward, a journey we must make alone.

Mason’s essay is subtle and profound. It is your weekend read. And if you have the time, read Saunders’ masterful short story, "The Falls", which Mason discusses at length in his essay. Best of all, order Tenth of December. I spent a few rapturous days reading Saunders’ stories this summer. They can warm your January as well.

-RB

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.
9Aug/130

The Splintering of Culture

ArendtWeekendReading

The Arendt Center is on vacation this week. We will be back next week. Enjoy one of our more popular weekend reads from the archives.

Earlier this month I attended a lecture by Matthias Lilienthal, the former artistic director of Hebbel am Ufer (HAU). HAU as it is affectionately known in Berlin is an organization with three performance spaces in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, and is one of the largest, best funded, and risk-taking performance theatre complexes in the world. As one of the most important and innovative avant garde theatre directors, Lilienthal has "created, instigated and nourished many of the most important developments in theatre in recent decades," according to Tom Sellar of Yale who introduced him.

lil

Lilienthal was interviewed after his talk by Gideon Lester, my exciting new colleague who now is director of the theatre program at Bard.

While Lilienthal is an artistic director and has a background in the theatre, he calls himself a "booker" of talent more than an artist or a curator. He is committed to theatre that has social and political impact. His mission is to constantly create friction. Friction means in his telling, "to be polemic against society and be an urban laboratory for the future." That said, Lilienthal insists that he remains an artist, someone who in his words cares most about the aesthetic experience his works bring about.

Lilienthal discussed a number of his past projects to explain what he means by a theatre of friction. One of the most famous and interesting is FOREIGNERS OUT! SCHLINGENSIEF'S CONTAINER, a performance, installation, and movie that he produced in collaboration with the filmmaker Christoph Schlingensief.

FOREIGNERS OUT! premiered in Vienna in the summer of 2000, at a time of great anti-immigrant sentiment in Austria—it was shortly after the xenophobic politician Jörg Haider came to power in Austria. Schlingensief and Lilienthal put two large containers in the public square in front of the Viennese Opera house and filled them with 15 asylum seekers. Above the asylum seekers, the artists hung a sign that read: "Foreigners Out." They then gave the Austrian population the opportunity to vote which foreigner to expel from the country. Over 10,000 Austrians voted every day and the first person sent home was a Nigerian woman.

aus

Lilienthal speaks of a "hysterical longing for reality in today's theatre." Much of his work and the work he "books" mixes reality with theatre. His most famous performance piece, performed all over the world, is "X Wohnungen" or "X Apartments."  Artists are asked to create artistic experiences that last up to ten minutes and take place in private apartments or houses. In one example that Lilienthal showed a clip from during his talk, audience members in groups of two are led into apartments of immigrants in Cologne where they are told to kneel in front of doors with keyholes. Through the keyholes they watch a Muslim woman in a burka and hijab strip naked and recline on a couch. They are then interrupted, given tea and told to go out.

Lilienthal explains that "we are playing a private reality, with voyeurism and with exhibitionism." His participatory performance art is "a kind of playful treatment of reality. You are playing with prejudgments against migrants. You are playing with your own voyeurism." The effort is partly to create discussions about Islam, religion, and sexuality. But it above all, in his words, to "to bring together experiences of reality."

Lilienthal was quite critical of the New York art scene, arguing that NYC artists are too commercial and that there is no meaningful artistic forum in the U.S. as there is in Germany. His point is that his HAU stages have, in his telling, become the center of German and European art worlds, presenting all the most interesting and most important artists from around the world under a single umbrella. He lamented the fact that there was no similarly dominant and unifying artistic space in NY or in the U.S. New York, he said provocatively, in the East Village, is a provincial state.

Lester asked Lilienthal what would he have done in NYC had he accepted a job here? He answered, (I am paraphrasing here),"I would have presented art that offers a polemic against society. I would like everyone to know me and then I would have been... perhaps they would kill me after a year."

There is something both noble and anachronistic in Lilienthal's Socratic dream to create art so full of friction and power that he would be killed for it. It is a noble dream because it imagines that art, like philosophy, might still have the power and importance to be seen as a threat to the state or the society. It is anachronistic because art and philosophy have long since lost such centrality.

blackandwhite

When I asked Lilienthal about this, his answer was that it was different in Berlin, where the arts are more central and given more public financing and public attention. But I don't accept the argument that the arts are so much more important in Berlin than in NYC. In Berlin, as everywhere today, the intellectual world is just no longer governed by a unified aesthetic or a single dominant medium. There is a mass culture, but the premise of the mass culture is consumerism. Everybody buys what they want and art connoisseurs consume what they like. Most intellectuals and educated people now consume art and news that is hardly distinguishable from middle or low-brow tastes; indeed, the distinction between high and low is now illegitimate. But more important even than that, is the fact that those who do like the best art or best philosophy or best theatre or the best philosophy do not agree on what the "best" is.

One sees this fracturing of culture everywhere. The New York Times was, for a period of time, the arbiter of what mattered in the United States. That is no longer the case and has not been so for decades. It is not the Internet that brought about the factionalization of cultural and political opinion, but, on the contrary, the loss of any single or dominant opinion made the cacophony of voices and platforms on the Internet appealing and powerful.

Similarly, philosophy is broken into analytic and continental schools, and within each there are esoteric sub-schools so specialized that advanced papers and thinking can be read and understood by only dozens of people around the world. The same fission occurs in literature and art as well. Who now feels the need to read all the books profiled in the NY Times Book Review or the New York Review of Books? The selection criteria are ever more arbitrary and there are no longer any acknowledged gateways to culture.

There are, of course, still important artists and writers, but they appeal to ever-more specialized and localized crowds of followers. Lilienthal's dream of a unified artistic world with a single influential cultural world is long gone. And this is true in Berlin as well as in NYC. We will never again have a situation where the chattering classes are all reading the same books and seeing the same shows. The culture is simply too diffuse and differentiated and democratized. There are no measures of quality that are widely accepted. So what we have are simply sub-groups and sub-genres and sub-cultures.

pic

A version of this argument is made by Peter Sloterdijk in his essay Themes from the Human Zoo. Sloterdijk writes:

Because of the formation of mass culture through the media—radio in the First World War and television after 1945, and even more through the contemporary web revolution—the coexistence of people in the present societies has been established on new foundations. These are, as it can uncontrovertibly be shown, clearly post-literary, post-epistolary, and thus post-humanistic. Anyone who thinks the prefix `post' in this formulation is too dramatic can replace it with the adverb `marginal'. Thus our thesis: modern societies can produce their political and cultural synthesis only marginally through literary, letter-writing, humanistic media. Of course, that does not mean that literature has come to an end, but it has split itself off and become a sui generis subculture, and the days of its value as bearer of the national spirit have passed. The social synthesis is no longer—and is no longer seen to be—primarily a matter of books and letters. New means of political-cultural telecommunication have come into prominence, which have restricted the pattern of script-born friendship to a limited number of people. The period when modern humanism was the model for schooling and education has passed, because it is no longer possible to retain the illusion that political and economic structures could be organized on the amiable model of literary societies. 

What Sloterdijk rightly sees is that literate means of cultural analysis have lost their once-dominant place in the social and political formation of society. Books and theatre and artworks have been replaced by mass entertainments and diversions, so that literate works are relegated to sub-genres of importance only to their particular fans and followers. Art and philosophy, therefore, become socially and politically marginal.

Instead of seeking to bring back a unified culture of art in which artists matter to the social and political worlds, as Lilienthal dreams, it would be more radical and more honest to admit that we live today in a world in which those who make art, write literature, and think philosophy matter ever less. To think the challenges of doing art and thinking in a world immune to the charms of art and thought is the challenge we are faced with today. 

Matthias Lilienthal's talk is fascinating and, as you can see, provocative, which is justification enough to spend one hour this weekend watching him. Thanks to Theatre Magazine for posting the video of the talk. Here is your weekend read.

-RB

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.
4Jan/130

The “E” Word, Part Two

This Weekend Read is Part Two in “The “E” Word,”  a continuing series on “elitism” in the United States educational system. Read Part One here.

Peter Thiel has made headlines offering fellowships to college students who drop out to start a business. One of those Thiel fellows is Dale Stephens, founder of Uncollege. Uncollege advertises itself as radical. At the top of their website, Uncollege cites a line from the movie "Good Will Hunting":

You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library.

The Uncollege website is filled with one-liners extolling life without college. It can be and often is sophomoric. And yet, there is something deeply important about what Uncollege is saying. And its message is resonating. Uncollege has been getting quite a bit of attention lately, part of a culture of  obsession with college dropouts that is increasingly skeptical of the value of college.

At its best, Uncollege does not simply dismiss college as an overpriced institution seeking to preserve worthless knowledge. Rather, Uncollege claims that college has become too anti-intellectual. College, as Uncollege sees it, has become conventional, bureaucratic, and not really dedicated to learning. In short, Uncollege criticizes college for not being enough like college should be. Hardly radical, Uncollege trades rather in revolutionary rhetoric in the sense that Hannah Arendt means the word revolution: a return to basic values. In this case, Uncollege is of course right that colleges have lost their way.

Or that is what I find interesting about Uncollege.

To actually read their website and the recent Uncollege Manifesto by Dale Stephens, is to encounter something different. The first proposition Uncollege highlights has little to do with education and everything to do with economics. It is the decreasing value of a college education. 

The argument that college has ever less value will seem counter intuitive to those captivated by all the paeans to the value of college and increased earning potential of college graduates. But Uncollege certainly has a point. Currently about 30% of the U.S. adult population has a degree. But among 20-24 year olds, nearly 40% have a college degree. And The Obama administration aims to raise that number to 60% by 2020. Uncollege calls this Academic Inflation. As more and more people have a college degree, the value of that degree will decrease. It is already the case that many good jobs require a Masters or a Ph.D. In short, the monetary value of the college degree is diminished and diminishing. This gives us a hint of where Uncollege is coming from.

The Uncollege response to the mainstreaming of college goes by a number of names. At times it is called unschooling. Unschooling is actually a movement began by the legendary educator John Holt. I recall reading John Holt’s How Children Learn while I was in High School—a teacher gave it to me. I was captivated by Holt’s claim that school can destroy the innate curiosity of children. I actually wrote my college application essay on Holt’s educational philosophy and announced to my future college that my motto was Mark Twain’s quip, “I never let school interfere with my education”—which is also a quotation prominently featured in the Uncollege Manifesto.

Unschooling—as opposed to Uncollege—calls for students to make the most of their courses, coupling those courses with independent studies, reading groups, and internships. I regularly advise my students to take fewer not more courses. I tell them to pick one course each semester that most interests them and pursue it intently. Ask the professor for extra reading. Do extra writing. Organize discussion groups about the class with other students. Go to the professor’s office hours weekly and talk about the ideas of the course. Learners must become drivers of their education, not passive consumers. Students should take their pursuit of knowledge out of the classroom, into the dining halls, and into their dorms.

Uncollege ads that unschooling or “hacking your education” can be done outside of schools and universities. With Google, public libraries, and free courses from Stanford, MIT and Harvard professors proliferating on the web, an enterprising student of any age can compose an educational path today that is more rigorous than anything offered “off-the-shelf” at a college or university. I have no problem with online courses. I hope to take  a few. But it is a mistake to think that systems of massive information delivery are the same thing as education.

What Uncollege offers is something more and something less wholesome than simply a call for educational seriousness. It packages that call with the message that college has become boring, conventional, expensive, and unnecessary. In the Uncollege world, only suckers pay for college. The Uncollege Manifesto promotes “Standing out from the other 6.7 billion”; it derides traditional paths pointing out that “5,000 janitors in the United States have Ph.Ds.”; and  cautions, “If you are content with life and education you should probably stop reading… You shall fit in just fine with society and no one will ever require you to be different. Conforming to societal standards is the easy and expected path. You are not alone!” 

At the core of the Uncollege message is that dirty and yet all-so-powerful little word again: “elitism.” Later in the Uncollege Manifesto we are told that young people have a choice between “real accomplishments” and the “easy path to mediocrity”:

To succeed without a college degree you will have to build your competency and reputation through real world accomplishments. I am warning now: this is not going to be easy. If you want to take the easy path to mediocrity, I encourage you to go to college and join the masses. If you want to stand out from the crowd and change the world, Uncollege is for you!

At one point, the Uncollege Manifesto lauds NPR’s “This I Believe” series and commends these short 500 word essays on personal credos. But Uncollege adds a twist: instead of writing what one believes, it advises its devotees to write an essay answering the question: “What do you believe about the world that most others reject?” It is not enough simply to believe in something. You must believe in something that sets you apart and makes you different.

Uncollege is at least suggesting that it might be cool to want, as it has not been for 50 years, to aim for excellence and to yearn to be different. In short, Uncollege is calling up students at elite institutions to boldly grab the ring of elitism and actively seek to stand outside and above the norm. And it is saying that education is no longer elite, but conventional.

It is hard not to see this embrace of elitism as refreshing although no doubt many will scream the “e” word. I have often lectured to students at elite institutions and confronted them with their fear of elitism. They or someone spends upwards of $200,000 on an education not to mention four years of their lives, and then they reject the entire premise of elitism: that they are different or special. By refusing to see themselves as members of an elite, these students too often refuse to accept the responsibility of elites, to mold and preserve societal values and to assume leadership roles in society.

Leading takes courage. In Arendtian terms, it requires living a public life where one takes risks, acts in surprising ways, and subjects oneself to public judgment. Leading can be uncomfortable and dangerous, and it is often more comfortable and fun to pursue one’s private economic, familial, and personal dreams. Our elite colleges have become too much about preparing students for private success rather than launching young people into lives of public engagement. And part of that failure is a result of a retreat from elitism and a false humility that includes an easy embrace of equality.

That Uncollege is selling its message of excellence and elitism to students at elite institutions of higher learning is simply one sign of how mainstream and conformist many of these elite institutions have become. But what is it that Uncollege offers these elite students who drop out and join Uncollege?

According to its website, Uncollege is selling “hackademic camps” and a “gap year program” that are designed to teach young people how to create their own learning plans. The programs come with living abroad programs and internships. Interestingly, these are all programs offered by most major universities and colleges. The difference is money and time. For $10,000 in just one year, you get access to mentors and pushed to write op-eds, and the “opportunity to work at hot Silicon Valley startups, some of them paid positions.” In the gap year program, participants will also “build your personal brand.  Speak at a conference, Write an op-ed for a major news outlet.  Build a personal website.”

None of this sounds radical, intellectual, or all-that elitist. On the contrary, it claims that young people have little to learn from educators. Teachers are unimportant, to be replaced by mentors in the world. The claim is that young people lack nothing but information and access in order to compete in the world.

What Uncollege preaches often has little to do with elitism or intellectual growth. It is a deeply practical product being sold as an alternative to the cost of college. In one year and for one-twentieth of what a four-year elite college education costs, a young person can get launched into the practical world of knowledge workers, hooked up with mentors, and set into the world of business, technology, and media. It is a vocational training program for wannabe elites, training people to leap into the creative and technology fields and compete with recent college graduates but without the four years of studying the classics, the debt, and the degree. The elitism that Uncollege is selling is an entrepreneurial elitism measurable by money. By appealing to young students’ sense of superiority, ambition, and risk-taking, Uncollege stands a real chance of attracting ambitious young people more interested in a good job and a hot career than in reading the classics or studying abstract math.

Let’s stipulate this is a good thing. Not everybody should be going to liberal arts colleges. People unmoved by Nietzsche, Einstein, or Titian who are then forced to sit through lectures, cram for exams, and pull all-nighters writing papers cribbed from the internet are wasting their time and money on an elite liberal arts education. What is more, they bring cynicism into an environment that should be fired by idealism and electrified by passion. For those who truly believe that it is important in the world to have people who are enraptured by Sebald and transformed by Arendt, it is deeply important that the liberal arts college remain a bastion apart, a place where youthful exuberance for the beautiful and the true can shine clearly.

We should remember, as well, that reading great books and studying Stravinsky is not an activity limited to the academy. We should welcome a movement like Uncollege that frees people from unwanted courses but nevertheless encourages them to pursue their education on their own. Yes, many of these self-educated strivers will acquire idiosyncratic readings of Heidegger or strange views about patriotism. But even when different, opinions are the essence of a human political system.

One question we desperately need to ask is whether having a self-chosen minority of people trained in the liberal arts is important in modern society. I teach in an avowedly liberal arts institution precisely because I fervently believe that such ideas matter and that having a class of intellectuals whose minds are fired by ideas is essential to any society, especially a democracy.

I sincerely hope that the liberal arts and the humanities persist. As I have written,

The humanities are that space in the university system where power does not have the last word, where truth and beauty as well as insight and eccentricity reign supreme and where young people come into contact with the great traditions, writing, and thinking that have made us whom we are today. The humanities introduce us to our ancestors and our forebears and acculturate students into their common heritage. It is in the humanities that we learn to judge the good from the bad and thus where we first encounter the basic moral facility for making judgments. It is because the humanities teach taste and judgment that they are absolutely essential to politics. It is even likely that the decline of politics today is profoundly connected to the corruption of the humanities.

Our problem, today, is that college is caught between incompatible demands, to spark imaginations and idealism and to prepare young people for employment and success. For a long while now colleges have been doing neither of these things well. Currently, the political pressure on colleges is to cut costs and become more efficient. The unspoken assumption is that colleges must more cheaply and more quickly prepare students for employment. For those of us who care about college as an intellectual endeavor, we should welcome new alternatives to college like internet courses, vocational education, and Uncollege that will pull away young people for whom college would have been the wrong choice. Maybe, under the pressure of Uncollege, colleges will return to their core mission of passionately educating young people and preparing them for lives of civic engagement.

I encourage you this weekend to read the Uncollege Manifesto. Let me know what you think.

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
25Sep/120

Does the President Matter?

“Hence it is not in the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and to expect “miracles” in the political realm. And the more heavily the scales are weighted in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear.”

                        —Hannah Arendt, What is Freedom?

This week at Bard College, in preparation for the Hannah Arendt Center Conference "Does the President Matter?", we put up 2 writing blocks around campus, multi-paneled chalkboards that invite students to respond to the question: Does the President Matter?  The blocks generated quite a few interesting comments. Many mentioned the Supreme Court. Quite a few invoked the previous president, war, and torture. And, since we are at Bard, others responded: it depends what you mean by matters.

This last comment struck me as prescient. It does depend on what you mean by matters.

If what we mean is, say, an increasing and unprecedented power by a democratic leader not seen since the time of enlightened monarchy, the president does matter. We live in an age of an imperial presidency. The President can, at least he does, send our troops into battle without the approval of Congress. The President can, and does, harness the power of the TV, Internet, and twitter to bypass his critics and reach the masses more directly than ever before. The president can, and does, appoint Supreme Court Justices with barely a whimper from the Senate; and the president’s appointments can, and do, swing the balance on a prisoner’s right to habeas corpus, a woman’s right to choose, or a couple’s right to marry.

And yet, what if by matter, we mean something else? What if we mean, having the power to change who we are in meaningful ways? What if by matter we mean: to confront honestly the enormous challenges of the present? What if by matter we mean: to make unpredictable and visionary choices, to invite and inspire a better future?

­On the really big questions—the thoughtless consumerism that degrades our environment and our souls; the millions of people who have no jobs and increasingly little prospect for productive employment; the threat of devastating terrorism; and the astronomical National Debt: 16 trillion and counting for the US. -- That is $140,000 for each taxpayer. -- Add to that the deficiency in Public Pension Obligations (estimated at anywhere from $1 to $5 trillion.) Not to mention the 1 trillion dollars of inextinguishable student debt that is creating a lost generation of young people whose lives are stifled by unwise decisions made before they were allowed to buy a beer.

This election should be about a frank acknowledgement of the unsustainability of our economic, social, and environmental practices and expectations. We should be talking together about how we should remake our future in ways that are both just and exciting. This election should be scary and exciting. But so far it’s small-minded and ugly.

Around the world, we witness worldwide distrust and disdain for government. In Greece there is a clear choice between austerity and devaluation; but Greek leaders have saddled their people with half-hearted austerity that causes pain without prospect for relief.  In Italy, the paralysis of political leaders has led to resignation and the appointment of an interim technocratic government. In Germany, the most powerful European leader delays and denies, trusting that others will blink every time they are brought to the mouth of the abyss.

No wonder that the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street in the US, and the Pirate Parties in Europe share a common sense that liberal democratic government is broken. A substantial—and highly educated—portion of the electorate has concluded that our government is so inept and so compromised that it needs to be abandoned or radically constrained. No president, it seems, is up to the challenge of fixing our broken political system.

Every President comes to Washington promising reform!  And they all fail.  According to Jon Rauch, a leading journalist for The Atlantic and the National Journal, this is inevitable. He has this to say in his book Government's End:

If the business of America is business, the business of government programs and their clients is to stay in business. And after a while, as the programs and the clients and their political protectors adapt to nourish and protect each other, government and its universe of groups reach a turning point—or, perhaps more accurately, a point from which there is no turning back. That point has arrived. Government has become what it is and will remain: a large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform. And this evolution cannot be reversed.

On the really big questions of transforming politics, the President is, Rauch argues, simply powerless. President Obama apparently agrees. Just last week he said, in Florida: "The most important lesson I've learned is that you can't change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside."

A similar sentiment is offered by Laurence Lessig, a founding member of Creative Commons. In his recent book Republic 2.0, Lessig writes:

The great threat today is in plain sight. It is the economy of influence now transparent to all, which has normalized a process that draws our democracy away from the will of the people. A process that distorts our democracy from ends sought by both the Left and the Right: For the single most salient feature of the government that we have evolved is not that it discriminates in favor of one side and against the other. The single most salient feature is that it discriminates against all sides to favor itself. We have created an engine of influence that seeks not some particular strand of political or economic ideology, whether Marx or Hayek. We have created instead an engine of influence that seeks simply to make those most connected rich.

The system of influence and corruption through PACs, SuperPacs, and lobbyists is so entrenched, Lessig writes, that no reform seems plausible.  All that is left is the Hail Mary idea of a new constitutional convention—an idea Lessig promotes widely, as with his Conference On the Constitutional Convention last year at Harvard.

For Rauch on the Right and Lessig on the Left, government is so concerned with its parochial interests and its need to stay in business that we have forfeited control over it. We have, in other words, lost the freedom to govern ourselves.

The question  "Does the President Matter?" is asked, in the context of the Arendt Center conference, from out of Hannah Arendt's maxim that Freedom is the fundamental raison d'etre of politics. In "What is Freedom?", Arendt writes:

“Freedom is actually the reason that men live together in political organization at all. Without it, political life as such would be meaningless. The raison d’être of politics is freedom.”

So what is freedom? To be free, Arendt says, is to act. Arendt writes: "Men are free as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same.”

What is action? Action is something done spontaneously. It brings something new into the world. Man is the being capable of starting something new. Political action, and action in general, must happen in public. Like the performing arts—dance, theatre, and music—politics and political actions requires an audience. Political actors act in front of other people. They need spectators, so that the spectators can be drawn to the action; and when the spectators find the doings of politicians right, or true, or beautiful, they gather around and form themselves into a polity. The political act, the free act must be surprising if it is to draw people to itself. Only an act that is surprising and bold is a political act, because only such an act will strike others, and make them pay attention.

The very word politics derives from the Greek polis which itself is rooted in the Greek pelein, a verb used to describe the circular motion of smoke rings rising up from out of a pipe. The point is that politics is the gathering of a plurality around a common center. The plurality does not become a singularity in circling around a polestar, but it does acknowledgement something common, something that unites the members of a polity in spite of their uniqueness and difference.

When President Washington stepped down after his second term; when President Lincoln emancipated the slaves; when FDR created the New Deal; when President Eisenhower called the Arkansas National Guard into Federal Service in order to integrate schools in Little Rock; these presidents acted in ways that helped refine, redefine, and re-imagine what it means to be an American.

Arendt makes one further point about action and freedom that is important as they relate to the question: Does the President Matter? Courage, she writes, is "the political virtue par excellence."  To act in public is leave the security of one's home and enter the world of the public. Such action is dangerous, for the political actor might be jailed for his crime or even killed. Arendt's favorite example of political courage is Socrates, who was killed for his courageous engagement of his fellow Athenians. We must always recall that Socrates was sentenced to death for violating the Athenian law.

Political action also requires courage because the actor can suffer a fate even worse than death. He may be ignored. At least to be killed for one's ideas means that one is recognized as capable of action, of saying and doing something that matters. To be ignored, however, denies the actor the basic human capacity for action and freedom.

One fascinating corollary of Arendt's understanding of the identity of action and freedom is that action, any action—any original deed, any political act that is new and shows leadership—is, of necessity, something that was not done before. It is, therefore, always against the law.

This is an insight familiar to readers of Fyodor Dostoevsky. In Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov says:

Let's say, the lawgivers and founders of mankind, starting from the most ancient and going on to the Lycurguses, the Solons, the Muhammads, the Napoleons, and so forth, that all of them to a man were criminals, from the fact alone that in giving a new law they thereby violated the old one.

All leaders are, in important ways, related to criminals. This is an insight Arendt and Nietzsche too share.

Shortly after we began to plan this conference, I heard an interview with John Ashcroft speaking on the Freakonomics Radio Show. He said:

"Leadership in a moral and cultural sense may be even more important than what a person does in a governmental sense. A leader calls people to their highest and best. ... No one ever achieves greatness merely by obeying the law. People who do above what the law requires become really valuable to a culture. And a President can set a tone that inspires people to do that."

My first reaction was: This is a surprising thing for the Attorney General of the United States to say. My second reaction was: I want him to speak at the conference. Sadly, Mr. Ashcroft could not be with us here today. But this does not change the fact that, in an important way, Ashcroft is right. Great leaders will rise above the laws in crisis. They will call us to our highest and best.

What Ashcroft doesn't quite say, and yet Arendt and Dostoevsky make clear, is that there is a thin and yet all-so-important line separating great leaders from criminals. Both act in ways unexpected and novel. In a sense, both break the law.

But only the leader's act shows itself to be right and thus re-makes the law.  Hitler may have acted and shown a capacity for freedom; his action, however, was rejected. He was a criminal, not a legislator.  Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi also broke the laws in actions of civil disobedience. Great leader show in their lawbreaking that the earlier law had been wrong; they forge a new moral and also written law through the force and power of moral example.

In what is perhaps the latest example in the United States of a Presidential act of lawbreaking, President George W. Bush clearly broke both U.S. and international law in his prosecution of the war on terror. At least at this time it seems painfully clear that President George W. Bush's decision to systematize torture stands closer to a criminal act than an act of great legislation.

In many ways Presidential politics in the 21st takes place in the shadow of George W. Bush's overreach. One result is that we have reacted against great and daring leadership. In line with the spirit of equality that drives our age, we ruthlessly expose the foibles, missteps, scandals and failures of anyone who rises to prominence. Bold leaders are risk takers. They fail and embarrass themselves. They have unruly skeletons in their closets. They will hesitate to endure and rarely prevail in the public inquisition that the presidential selection process has become.

These candidates, who are inoffensive enough to prevail, are branded by their consultants as pragmatists. Our current pragmatists are Products of Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School. Mr. Romney loves data. President Obama worships experts. They are both nothing if not faithful to the doctrine of technocratic optimism, that we with the right people in charge we can do anything. The only problem is they refuse to tell us what it is they want to do. They have forgotten that politics is a matter of thinking, not a pragmatic exercise in technical efficiency.

Look at the Mall in Washington: the Washington monument honors our first President,  the Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  There is not a monument to any president since FDR. And yet, just 2 years ago we dedicated the Martin Luther King Memorial. It doesn't seem like an accident that the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were not politicians. Our leaders today do not gravitate to the presidency. The presidency does not attract leaders. Bold leaders today are not the people running for office.

Yet, people crave what used to be called a statesman. To ask: "Does the President Matter?" is to ask:  might a president, might a political leader, be able to transform our nation, to restore the dignity and meaning of politics? It is to ask, in other words, for a miracle.

At the end of her essay, "What is Freedom?", Hannah Arendt said this about the importance of miracles in politics.

Hence it is not in the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and to expect “miracles” in the political realm. And the more heavily the scales are weighted in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear.

She continued:

It is men who perform miracles—men who because they have received the twofold gift of freedom and action can establish a reality of their own.

I don't know if the president matters.

But I know that he or she must. Which is why we must believe that miracles are possible. And that means we, ourselves, must act in freedom to make the miraculous happen.

In the service of the not-yet-imagined possibilities of our time, our goal over the two days of the conference days was to engage in the difficult, surprising, and never-to-be-understood work of thinking, and of thinking together, in public, amongst others. We heard from philosophers and businessmen, artists and academics. The speakers came from across the political spectrum, but they shared a commitment to thinking beyond ideology. Such thinking is itself a form of action, especially so in a time of such ideological rigidity. Whether our meeting here at Bard gives birth to the miracle of political action--that is up to you.  If we succeeded in thinking together, in provoking, and in unsettling, we perhaps sowed the seeds that will one day blossom into the miracle of freedom.

-RB

Watch Roger's  opening talk from the conference, "Does the President Matter?" here.

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.
27Jul/120

The Splintering of Culture

 

Earlier this month I attended a lecture by Matthias Lilienthal, the former artistic director of Hebbel am Ufer (HAU). HAU as it is affectionately known in Berlin is an organization with three performance spaces in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, and is one of the largest, best funded, and risk-taking performance theatre complexes in the world. As one of the most important and innovative avant garde theatre directors, Lilienthal has "created, instigated and nourished many of the most important developments in theatre in recent decades," according to Tom Sellar of Yale who introduced him.

Lilienthal was interviewed after his talk by Gideon Lester, my exciting new colleague who now is director of the theatre program at Bard.

While Lilienthal is an artistic director and has a background in the theatre, he calls himself a "booker" of talent more than an artist or a curator.  He is committed to theatre that has social and political impact. His mission is to constantly create friction. Friction means in his telling, "to be polemic against society and be an urban laboratory for the future."  That said, Lilienthal insists that he remains an artist, someone who in his words cares most about the aesthetic experience his works bring about.

Lilienthal discussed a number of his past projects to explain what he means by a theatre of friction. One of the most famous and interesting is FOREIGNERS OUT! SCHLINGENSIEF'S CONTAINER, a performance, installation, and movie that he produced in collaboration with the filmmaker Christoph Schlingensief.

FOREIGNERS OUT! premiered in Vienna in the summer of 2000, at a time of great anti-immigrant sentiment in Austria—it was shortly after the xenophobic politician Jörg Haider came to power in Austria. Schlingensief and Lilienthal put two large containers in the public square in front of the Viennese Opera house and filled them with 15 asylum seekers. Above the asylum seekers, the artists hung a sign that read: "Foreigners Out." They then gave the Austrian population the opportunity to vote which foreigner to expel from the country. Over 10,000 Austrians voted every day and the first person sent home was a Nigerian woman.

Lilienthal speaks of a "hysterical longing for reality in today's theatre." Much of his work and the work he "books" mixes reality with theatre. His most famous performance piece, performed all over the world, is "X Wohnungen" or "X Apartments."  Artists are asked to create artistic experiences that last up to ten minutes and take place in private apartments or houses. In one example that Lilienthal showed a clip from during his talk, audience members in groups of two are led into apartments of immigrants in Cologne where they are told to kneel in front of doors with keyholes. Through the keyholes they watch a Muslim woman in a burka and hijab strip naked and recline on a couch. They are then interrupted, given tea and told to go out.

Lilienthal explains that "we are playing a private reality, with voyeurism and with exhibitionism." His participatory performance art is "a kind of playful treatment of reality. You are playing with prejudgments against migrants. You are playing with your own voyeurism." The effort is partly to create discussions about Islam, religion, and sexuality. But it above all, in his words, to "to bring together experiences of reality."

Lilienthal was quite critical of the New York art scene, arguing that NYC artists are too commercial and that there is no meaningful artistic forum in the U.S. as there is in Germany. His point is that his HAU stages have, in his telling, become the center of German and European art worlds, presenting all the most interesting and most important artists from around the world under a single umbrella. He lamented the fact that there was no similarly dominant and unifying artistic space in NY or in the U.S. New York, he said provocatively, in the East Village, is a provincial state.

Lester asked Lilienthal what would he have done in NYC had he accepted a job here? He answered, (I am paraphrasing here),"I would have presented art that offers a polemic against society. I would like everyone to know me and then I would have been... perhaps they would kill me after a year."

There is something both noble and anachronistic in Lilienthal's Socratic dream to create art so full of friction and power that he would be killed for it. It is a noble dream because it imagines that art, like philosophy, might still have the power and importance to be seen as a threat to the state or the society. It is anachronistic because art and philosophy have long since lost such centrality.

When I asked Lilienthal about this, his answer was that it was different in Berlin, where the arts are more central and given more public financing and public attention. But I don't accept the argument that the arts are so much more important in Berlin than in NYC. In Berlin, as everywhere today, the intellectual world is just no longer governed by a unified aesthetic or a single dominant medium. There is a mass culture, but the premise of the mass culture is consumerism. Everybody buys what they want and art connoisseurs consume what they like. Most intellectuals and educated people now consume art and news that is hardly distinguishable from middle or low-brow tastes; indeed, the distinction between high and low is now illegitimate. But more important even than that, is the fact that those who do like the best art or best philosophy or best theatre or the best philosophy do not agree on what the "best" is.

One sees this fracturing of culture everywhere. The New York Times was, for a period of time, the arbiter of what mattered in the United States. That is no longer the case and has not been so for decades. It is not the Internet that brought about the factionalization of cultural and political opinion, but, on the contrary, the loss of any single or dominant opinion made the cacophony of voices and platforms on the Internet appealing and powerful.

Similarly, philosophy is broken into analytic and continental schools, and within each there are esoteric sub-schools so specialized that advanced papers and thinking can be read and understood by only dozens of people around the world.  The same fission occurs in literature and art as well. Who now feels the need to read all the books profiled in the NY Times Book Review or the New York Review of Books? The selection criteria are ever more arbitrary and there are no longer any acknowledged gateways to culture.

There are, of course, still important artists and writers, but they appeal to ever-more specialized and localized crowds of followers. Lilienthal's dream of a unified artistic world with a single influential cultural world is long gone. And this is true in Berlin as well as in NYC. We will never again have a situation where the chattering classes are all reading the same books and seeing the same shows. The culture is simply too diffuse and differentiated and democratized. There are no measures of quality that are widely accepted. So what we have are simply sub-groups and sub-genres and sub-cultures.

A version of this argument is made by Peter Sloterdijk in his essay Themes from the Human Zoo. Sloterdijk writes:

Because of the formation of mass culture through the media—radio in the First World War and television after 1945, and even more through the contemporary web revolution—the coexistence of people in the present societies has been established on new foundations. These are, as it can uncontrovertibly be shown, clearly post-literary, post-epistolary, and thus post-humanistic. Anyone who thinks the prefix `post' in this formulation is too dramatic can replace it with the adverb `marginal'. Thus our thesis: modern societies can produce their political and cultural synthesis only marginally through literary, letter-writing, humanistic media. Of course, that does not mean that literature has come to an end, but it has split itself off and become a sui generis subculture, and the days of its value as bearer of the national spirit have passed. The social synthesis is no longer—and is no longer seen to be—primarily a matter of books and letters. New means of political-cultural telecommunication have come into prominence, which have restricted the pattern of script-born friendship to a limited number of people. The period when modern humanism was the model for schooling and education has passed, because it is no longer possible to retain the illusion that political and economic structures could be organized on the amiable model of literary societies.

What Sloterdijk rightly sees is that literate means of cultural analysis have lost their once-dominant place in the social and political formation of society. Books and theatre and artworks have been replaced by mass entertainments and diversions, so that literate works are relegated to sub-genres of importance only to their particular fans and followers. Art and philosophy, therefore, become socially and politically marginal.  

Instead of seeking to bring back a unified culture of art in which artists matter to the social and political worlds, as Lilienthal dreams, it would be more radical and more honest to admit that we live today in a world in which those who make art, write literature, and think philosophy matter ever less. To think the challenges of doing art and thinking in a world immune to the charms of art and thought is the challenge we are faced with today.

Matthias Lilienthal's talk is fascinating and, as you can see, provocative, which is justification enough to spend one hour this weekend watching him. Thanks to Theatre Magazine for posting the video of the talk. Here is your weekend read.

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".