President Obama’s recent speech laying out his plan to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State in Syria (or in the Levant as he prefers to call it) hasn’t drawn that much rhetorical analysis. But some have noted its strong appeal to American exceptionalism.
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.
Jonathan Galassi offers an excellent account of the Futurist Movement, the best exemplars of which are currently on view at Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe, a show at the Guggenheim Museum. Futurism celebrated speed, vigor, and creative destruction, as expressed in the 1909 Manifesto of Futurism written by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Here is how Galassi describes Marinetti's founding moment? "'My friends and I had stayed up all night, sitting beneath the lamps of a mosque, whose star-studded, filigreed brass domes resembled our souls,...listening to the tedious mumbled prayers of an ancient canal and the creaking bones of dilapidated palaces.' Their Orientalist idyll is disturbed by 'the sudden roar of ravening motorcars,' and Marinetti and friends leave the mosque in hot pursuit ('all the myths and mystical ideals are behind us. We're about to witness the birth of a Centaur'). 'Like young lions,' they go chasing 'after Death' and end up in a ditch. Marinetti apostrophized: 'O mother of a ditch, brimful with muddy water!... How I relished your strength-giving sludge that reminded me so much of the saintly black breast of my Sudanese nurse.... When I got myself up-soaked, filthy, foul-smelling rag that I was-from beneath my overturned car, I had a wonderful sense of my heart being pierced by the red-hot sword of joy!' Marinetti had found his way out of the cul-de-sac of too much civilization. The Futurist manifesto that follows on his dream, the first of many, glorifies 'aggressive action' and asserts that 'a roaring motorcar...is more beautiful than the Winged Victory of Samothrace' (never mind that Boccioni's sculpture will uncannily resemble it). 'There is no longer any beauty except the struggle,' Marinetti declared. War is 'the sole cleanser of the world.'"
Underlying President Obama's decision this week to secure the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl by releasing five detainees allegedly affiliated with the Taliban from Guantanamo is the question of why Guantanamo remains open in the first place. Several commentators, including Glenn Greenwald on The Intercept, have declared that Obama's releasing of the detainees was in fact illegal, as he failed to provide Congress with the 30-day notice that is required by the 2014 defense authorization statute. As Greenwald argues, the only possible legal argument to justify the release is if the Obama White House maintains, as it has in the past, that such congressional restrictions do not bind them, and that the release of detainees is a decision solely allocated to the commander-in-chief. But if the President does in fact have the power to override these restrictions, what accounts for his ongoing failure to close Guantanamo as he pledged to do, or at least release those detainees who are already cleared? After the events of this week, writes Greenwald, the Obama administration now finds itself in a legal quandary: "The sole excuse now offered by Democratic loyalists for this failure (to close GITMO) has been that Congress prevented him from closing the camp. But here, the Obama White House appears to be arguing that Congress lacks the authority to constrain the President's power to release detainees when he wants...Obama defenders seem to have two choices here: either the president broke the law in releasing these five detainees, or Congress cannot bind the commander-in-chief's power to transfer detainees when he wants, thus leaving Obama free to make those decisions himself. Which is it?"
In reviewing Social Physics, a new book by Alex Pentland on what big data can teach us about human behavior, Joshua Rothman tells of a Bank of America call center: "Life at the call center was almost fanatically regimented: Pentland writes that call center managers 'often try to minimize the amount of talking among employees because operations are so routine and standardized.' At this call center, even the coffee breaks were scheduled individually, so as to maximize the number of workers on the phone at any given time. The mystery to be solved, in this environment of extreme solitude, was why different teams of operators handled their calls at different speeds. Pentland found that, of the four twenty-person teams he tracked, the ones with the fastest 'average call handling time,' or A.H.T., were also the most social. In fact, the most successful teams spent more time doing exactly what their managers didn't want them to be doing: talking. Pentland suggested the introduction of team-wide coffee breaks, designed to encourage mingling. The increase in speed was so dramatic that Bank of America did the same at all of its call centers, generating a fifteen-million-dollar increase in annual productivity (and, presumably, some newly quantifiable amount of good cheer)." Rothman sees the double edged quality of big data. In revealing the truth that human sociability can be productive, big data explodes myths that make our workplaces ever less human. At the same time, the statistical study of the most intimate details of our lives is both invasive and reductive, lending credibility to the managerial dream to optimize human resources.
Judith Wolfe, writing in Standpoint, has a strong account of the Black Notebooks and Heidegger's philosophical engagement with Nazism and the Jews. Here is her explanation of Heidegger's poetic use of Jewishness: "The conclusions that Heidegger drew from this last point were not as radical as we might hope: he questioned not the stereotype of the calculating Jews but only their uniqueness. He himself speculated that the Jews might have a role to play in the technological crisis of the modern world, though he never specified what. What Heidegger thoroughly rejected, however, was any description of the Jews as a 'race': 'The question of the role of World Jewry', he insisted, 'is not a racial one, but the metaphysical question of a form of humanity' characterized by deracination and instrumental reasoning. It would be absurd to assume that this 'form of humanity' could be eradicated by eliminating a particular group of people. On the contrary: such calculated extermination would only perpetuate the technological logic that Heidegger was calling his compatriots to abandon. That logic could only be overcome, as Heidegger wrote, by 'suffering and danger and knowledge.'" As Wolfe rightly sees, "The real danger of his comments about the Jews is not merely that they are racist but that they seem to hold out an abstract, poetic typology as a replacement for political awareness: by reducing the Jews to a poetic type, he becomes deaf to their practical plight. This sometimes takes grotesque forms: though he would never advocate or condone Hitler's and Himmler's 'final solution', for example, Heidegger seems to find a measure of poetic justice in the Nazis' calculating reduction of the Jews to a 'race' as matching the Jews' own reductive tendency towards racial thinking. He is, as Hannah Arendt later put it to Günter Gaus, 'caught in the trap of his own ideas.'"
Discussing the meaning of internet "nerd" celebrities John and Hank Green, Clare Malone suggests that habits are one of the things that allows humans to reach beyond themselves: "We haven't spent a whole lot of time talking about the audience that the Brothers Green are sending their video missives out to. But they're the people whose clicks make this world go 'round. This Vlogbrothers movement is a sort of 'revenge of the nerds' type of thing-except the movie based on it would probably be called 'the civil disobedience of the nerds,' because John and Hank are about encouraging people to channel outsiderness into something productive, like living well through small acts of kindness. I can imagine a person getting into the habit of watching these daily and thinking about their meaning (maybe not actively, more by osmosis), almost in the way a monk goes to vespers or a devout Muslim prays five times a day. I'm not even being theological; I'm just thinking about the importance of habit. Prayers involve repetition to get a person into a meditative state. To a certain extent it's Pavlovian, but we need that push into a different headspace to think about things outside necessities of the flesh."
Neil Richards suggests that privacy isn't dead, just changing, although not for the better: "Fifteen years ago, the Internet was heralded as a great forum for intellectual liberation-a place to think for ourselves and meet like- (and different) minded people unmediated by censors or surveillance. Yet, incrementally, the Internet has been transformed from a place of anarchic freedom to something much closer to an environment of total tracking and total control. All too often, it may seem like the digital future is unfolding before our eyes in some kind of natural and unstoppable evolution. But the final state of Internet architecture is not inevitable, nor is it unchangeable. It is up for grabs. In the end, the choices we make now about surveillance and privacy, about freedom and control in the digital environment will define the society of the very near future. I fear that the 'privacy is dead' rhetoric is masking a sinister shift, from a world in which individuals have privacy but exercise transparency over the powerful institutions in their lives, to a world in which our lives are transparent but the powerful institutions are opaque. That's a pretty scary future, and one which we've told ourselves for decades that we don't want. The availability of cheap smartphones and free apps shouldn't change that. We should choose both control of our digital information and the benefits of our digital tools. We can make that choice, but the 'privacy is dead' rhetoric is obscuring the existence of the choice."
This week on the Blog, Manu Samnotra discusses how the language of fate and destiny shaped Arendt's philosophy and political theory in the Quote of the Week. British philosopher Jeremy Bentham provides this week's Thought on Thinking. And Roger Berkowitz discusses nihilism and futurism in the Weekend Read.
“It is obvious: if you do not accept something that assumes the form of ‘destiny,’ you not only change its ‘natural laws’ but also the laws of the enemy playing the role of fate.”
--Hannah Arendt, The Jewish Writings (223)
In 1944, as the Allied armies liberated areas under Nazi control, news about the horrors of the extermination camps inevitably wound its way to the United States. In her interview with Günter Gaus many years later, Hannah Arendt would recount these months as full of devastating shocks that unveiled the fullest extent of what was transpiring in Europe. It was in the midst of the delivery of the news of this carnage, this knowledge of the “fabrication of corpses,” that Arendt continued to perform her role as “something between a historian and political journalist.” This delicate terrain – somewhere “between silence and speechlessness” – is what Arendt had to traverse as she informed and provoked her audience into action.
How are we to explain the formation and collapse of the world’s great empires in the sweep of human history? And what might the fates of past civilizations suggest about the global political scene in the present and future? Such questions are the focus of Robert D. Kaplan’s recent book, The Revenge of Geography (2012), which Malise Ruthven treats in extensive detail in the February 21st issue of The New York Review of Books. Kaplan has worked for decades as a journalist, author, consultant, and lecturer, and one of his earlier books, Balkan Ghosts (1993), apparently dissuaded President Clinton from earlier intervention in the former Yugoslavia. Kaplan served as a member of the Defense Policy Board under Secretary of Defense Robert Gates from 2009 to 2011, and since then he has been chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, a private global intelligence firm based in Austin, Texas.
As the title of his book suggests, Kaplan regards geography, the physical features of the earth’s landmasses and waters, as the most basic and abiding determinant of human history. He takes issue with accounts that position culture and ideology as the motor forces of social and political affairs, and he questions the notion that globalization, with its boundary-traversing flows of people, goods, ideas, ideas, and images, is fundamentally recasting the contemporary world. Yet he would be among the first to admit that his analytical optic is not new, for he draws much inspiration from the work of the medieval Arab chronicler and social theorist Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) as well as the British geographer Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947).
Ibn Khaldun argued that the earliest societies were formed by nomadic peoples in the rugged steppes, deserts, and mountains who constructed relations of authority through ties of kinship and “group feeling” (‘asabiya). Groups with pronounced ‘asabiya were the most capable of forming expansive dynasties and empires, and stable empires in turn offered the most promising conditions for productive agriculture, prosperous cities, and refined urban life. But every empire bore the seeds of its own demise, since the luxuries of rule were all too likely to result in corrupt and tyrannical rulers. New groups from the severe margins would eventually displace the old dynasts, according to Ibn Khaldun, and the cycle of imperial ascent and decline would begin once more.
Ibn Khaldun’s claims have been most thoroughly elaborated in the work of historian Marshall Hodgson, who is best known for his three-volume work Venture of Islam. But they also resonate with the vision of Halford Mackinder, who proposed the existence of a Central Asian “heartland” within a larger “World Island” of Eurasia and Africa. For Mackinder, this heartland of flatlands and steppes has consistently served as “the pivot on which the fate of great world empires rests.” In Mackinder’s analysis, the geography of Central Asia, with its arid expanses and harsh climates, bred tough nomadic peoples (think of the Huns and Mongols) who not only formed their own empires, but also prompted Russians and Europeans to establish powerful states in order to fend off their advances. In Mackinder’s estimation, controlling this heartland, and that portion of Eastern Europe that lay on its doorstep, provided the key to world domination.
Robert Kaplan draws heavily on Khaldun and Mackinder’s ideas to explicate the geopolitical challenges faced by a number of contemporary states. For example, he applies Ibn Khaldun’s scenario of settled states and nomadic invaders to present-day China, which is defined in his characterization by a dominant Han population in the country’s arable cradle and a host of restive Tibetans, Uighur Turks, and Inner Mongolians on its periphery. “The ultimate fate of the Chinese state,” he contends, will depend on whether the Han can keep these groups under control, “especially as China undergoes economic and social disruptions.” In similar fashion, Kaplan turns to Mackinder’s heartland thesis to make sense of Russia’s recent geopolitical aspirations, which in his view have turned on Putin and Medvedev’s efforts to create a land-based Central Asian empire with vast oil and natural gas reserves.
There are certainly some instances when Kaplan’s insistence on the salience of geography is well-taken. But there are far too many moments when his account is overly narrow if not myopic. China’s “economic and social disruptions”—the embrace of neoliberal restructuring, the rapid but uneven economic expansion, the simmering discontents of both avowed dissidents and ordinary citizens—are hardly secondary to the state’s fraught relations with its sizable ethnic minorities, which cannot in any case be entirely reduced to the realities of the physical environment. In addition, Kaplan is much too quick to impute sweeping cultural effects to geographic factors. For example, he proposes that Mongol incursions from the steppes helped to deny Russia the full impact of the Renaissance.
He also suggests that the country’s current lack of natural boundaries (aside from the Arctic and Pacific oceans) has promoted its thorough militarization and obsessive focus on security. In short, Kaplan paints a canvas of the world’s past and present in bold but overly broad strokes, strokes that in the end obscure a good deal more than they reveal.
Indeed, the thrust of Kaplan’s argument reminds me of nothing so much as the work of Samuel Huntington, another commentator who has sought to provide a skeleton key to the world’s current conflicts. To be sure, The Clash of Civilizations posits cultural divides, not geographical configurations, as the main force driving contemporary geopolitical tensions. But Huntington and Kaplan share the same penchant for more or less monocausal explanations, the same readiness to cast reified peoples, cultures, and states as the central protagonists of their geopolitical dramas. Moreover, both writers imply that the Cold War was a brief interlude that departed only momentarily from the more consistent and defining dynamics of world history. To an important extent, both writers suggest that our global present is not merely shaped by the past, but fundamentally in its thrall.
Thus, The Revenge of Geography and other works of its ilk are troubling not merely because they carry considerable weight in key sectors of U.S. policymaking circles and the broader reading public. More broadly, they leave us ill prepared to confront the specificity and singularity of the current global conjuncture. Much as Hannah Arendt insisted on the newness of totalitarianism even as she placed it within the long arc of anti-Semitism, imperialism, and modern oppression, we too should scrutinize the present with an eye for its irreducible distinctiveness. Little is to be gained, and much potentially lost, from the impulse to read the current moment as the product of general determining forces. Whether such forces go by the name of “geography” or “culture,” they encourage an interpretation of history by commonplaces, including the commonplace that history is ultimately—and merely—a narrative of rise and fall.
The modern era is the age of the enlightenment, in which man throws off the shackles of religion and tradition and stands on his own feet. And yet it hardly seems as if we are living in the age of freedom. In an age of mass bureaucracy and scientific determinism, we are more wont to hear of helplessness and despair than of self-rule. For Hannah Arendt, freedom, like politics, is endangered by the rise of a social realm of government, scientific rationality, and bureaucratic administration. For Max Weber, the modern age is marked by a Herrenlose Sklaverei, a servitude without a master. The enlightenment, it seems, has taken an unexpected turn. What then is the Destiny of Freedom?
That is the question Professor Philippe Nonet poses in a two-part lecture he gave recently at the Hannah Arendt Center.
We are, Nonet argues, before the necessity of a decision regarding freedom. Until now, freedom has been thought as an attribute of the will. But freedom of the will leads, Nonet argues, to the rise of modern technique that threatens to extinguish the freedom of man. Freedom of the will thus threatens to transform itself into utter servility—the Herrenlose Sklaverei of Max Weber's famous formulation. This is the destiny of freedom insofar as freedom is thought from out of the will.
And yet, there is the possibility of a new opening of freedom, understood as freedom from the will, that Nonet finds in the thinking of Martin Heidegger.
We hope you enjoy these extraordinary lectures. You can watch them here.