Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
1Sep/140

Amor Mundi 8/31/14

Amor Mundi

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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Dignity and Reason

arthur_koestlerThe Guardian is asking writers and critics to choose the book that changed them. Rafael Behr answers Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler. It is a good choice. Behr writes: "When I went to university I was only tangentially interested in politics. Then, during the summer holiday at the end of the first year, driving across France, I borrowed Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon from a friend. He was studying philosophy and had been ordered to read it. I was studying languages and was avoiding some untranslated set text. I had never been gripped by anything so theoretical before. The story is sparse. Rubashov, an ageing first-generation revolutionary, is imprisoned and interrogated by an ambitious thug from the steelier, younger generation. Execution is certain. Pacing his cell, Rubashov recalls his past work for the party abroad, manipulating and ultimately destroying idealistic but dispensable foreign communist agents. He composes a tract on 'the relative maturity of the masses' which submerges his personal dilemma - to die in silence or serve the party one last time by submitting to a show trial - in a sweeping quasi-Marxist rumination on history and destiny. The drama is not contained in the action. What excited 19-year-old me was the guided tour of a totalitarian mind." Rightly, Behr sets Darkness at Noon next to Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, as "companion volumes in my imagination." Both Koestler and Arendt are spurs against the seductions of totalitarian rationalism. For more on Darkness at Noon, take a look at Roger Berkowitz's essay Approaching Infinity: Dignity in Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon.

Lost in Translation From the Classroom to the Dining Room

ask_big_questionsDavid Bornstein asks, "How can we repair our public discourse?" And in a recent essay he answers that we need to re-learn how to listen and have meaningful conversations, which is the goal of the initiative "Ask Big Questions." Bornstein writes: "Imagine that you're among a group of college students who want to discuss the big issues of the day. What can be done to bring peace to the Middle East? How can we reduce sexual assaults on campuses? What should be done about immigration? These questions have the potential to produce rich explorations. But they're equally likely to devolve into shouting matches that increase anger and mistrust. Is there a way to frame conversations so that people actually listen to one another?... Ask Big Questions helps students discover how to establish a foundation of trust and confidentiality in a group, invite contributions from everyone, and guide others into deeper learning by interpreting the meaning of poems, texts or images, reflecting on their lives and the implications for action. The interpretive part of the discussion is essential, says Feigelson: 'If you don't have some sort of a text or interpretive object, the conversation can easily veer off into bad group therapy.'" The initiative teaches students how to think and speak about hard questions by seeking to understand opposing views and imagining that the truth might have various shades. This is, of course, one premise of a liberal arts education, which makes one wonder why the lessons from the classroom are not being translated to the dining room.

As the Old Saying Goes...

historyAdam Gopnick takes on the old adage about those who don't learn from history, suggesting that repetition is even more likely when the history being read is a self serving one: "Studying history doesn't argue for nothing-ism, but it makes a very good case for minimalism: for doing the least violent thing possible that might help prevent more violence from happening... The real sin that the absence of a historical sense encourages is presentism, in the sense of exaggerating our present problems out of all proportion to those that have previously existed. It lies in believing that things are much worse than they have ever been-and, thus, than they really are-or are uniquely threatening rather than familiarly difficult. Every episode becomes an epidemic, every image is turned into a permanent injury, and each crisis is a historical crisis in need of urgent aggressive handling-even if all experience shows that aggressive handling of such situations has in the past, quite often made things worse...Those of us who obsess, for instance, particularly in this centennial year, on the tragedy of August, 1914-on how an optimistic and largely prosperous civilization could commit suicide-don't believe that the trouble then was that nobody read history. The trouble was that they were reading the wrong history, a make-believe history of grand designs and chess-master-like wisdom. History, well read, is simply humility well told, in many manners. And a few sessions of humility can often prevent a series of humiliations."

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A Reason to Fight

ferris_wheelMolly Crabapple tries to think of an ethical response to the horror and violence of the last few months. One response, to affirm her complicity as a white woman for the police violence in Ferguson, evidences a basic fallacy of collective guilt. Crabapple is not guilty of killing Michael Brown. And if someone is guilty, her musings about her own guilt minimizes his guilt. But Crabapple's second response is infinitely more moving: to affirm the beauty of the world: "Power seeks to enclose beauty-to make it scarce, controlled. There is scant beauty in militarized zones or prisons. But beauty keeps breaking out anyway, like the roses on that Ferguson street. The world is connected now. Where it breaks, we all break. But it is our world, to love as it burns around us. Jack Gilbert is right. 'We must risk delight' in the summer of monsters. Beauty is survival, not distraction. Beauty is a way of fighting. Beauty is a reason to fight." Crabapple's musings on beauty in dark times call to mind Berthold Brecht's poem"To Posterity":

Truly, I live in dark times!
An artless word is foolish. A smooth forehead
Points to insensitivity. He who laughs
Has not yet received
The terrible news.
What times are these, in which
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
For in doing so we maintain our silence about so much wrongdoing!
And he who walks quietly across the street,
Passes out of the reach of his friends
Who are in danger?

In Praise of Universalism

classicsJoseph Luzzi suggests a reason why some books remain important long after their original place and time, attempting to rehabilitate the idea of the universality of literature in the process: "This contrast, between a celebrated and largely unread classic and an enduringly popular classic, shows that a key to a work's ongoing celebrity is that dangerous term: universality. We hold the word with suspicion because it tends to elevate one group at the expense of another; what's supposedly applicable to all is often only applicable to a certain group that presumes to speak for everybody else. And yet certain elements and experiences do play a major role in most of our lives: falling in love, chasing a dream, and, yes, transitioning as Pinocchio does from childhood to adolescence. The classic that keeps on being read is the book whose situations and themes remain relevant over time-that miracle of interpretive openness that makes us feel as though certain stories, poems, and plays are written with us in mind."

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Featured Events

teachoutA Discussion with Zephyr Teachout

Zephyr Teachout, author of Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin's Snuff Box to Citizens United and a Democratic Primary Candidate in the upcoming Gubernatorial Election, will be visiting Bard College to address students, staff and community members.

Friday, September 5th, 2014

Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito '60 Auditorium, 3:00-4:00 pm

For more information about this event, please click here.

 

 

 


Kenan MalikLunchtime Talk with Kenan Malik

Details soon to follow.

Wednesday, September 17h, 2014

The Hannah Arendt Center, 12:30 pm

 

 

 


congressBard College Public Debate

Resolved: "The fate of the world depends upon the success or failure of America's model of democratic self-government."

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

Campus Center Multipurpose Room, 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm


conference_14SAVE THE DATE - 2014 FALL CONFERENCE

October 9-10

The Hannah Arendt Center's annual fall conference, The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Values Worth Fighting For?, will be held this year on October 9-10!

Registration is now OPEN! You can register here!

Want to know more about the schedule of the conference? Please click for details here!

Learn more about the conference here.

 

 


From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Roger Berkowitz emphasizes the need to restore spaces where freedom can be enjoyed in the Quote of the Week. American poet and writer Sylvia Plath provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. We look back on a lecture by Philippe Nonet on the history of metaphysical freedom in our Video Archives. And Roger Berkowitz remarks on the needlessly specialized nature of modern humanities scholarship in the Weekend Read.

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.
1Sep/140

Alienation from the Cartesian Change in the Meaning of Truth

enlightenment_truth

“Scientific and philosophic truth have parted company.”

—Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 41.290

What can it mean that there are two different types of truth—scientific and philosophic? And how could they not be connected?

Richard Barrett
Richard A. Barrett (B.A., University of Chicago; J.D., Yale Law School; Ph.D., University of California, San Diego) teaches Political Science and Law at the University of Southern California. His current research is on democratic education in Plato and how Platonic insights to education provide insights into how American legal education shapes the minds of young attorneys.
17Mar/140

Amor Mundi Newsletter 3/16/14

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.

The Preferential President

obOn the Guernica blog, David Bromwich examines “how Obama became a publicist for his presidency (rather than the president).” In his first term Obama delivered 1,852 separate speeches, comments, or scheduled public remarks and granted 591 interviews. These exceptional numbers, Bromwich writes, were the result of “magical thinking” on the part of the Obama White House: if the American public heard the president often enough, they would see how sincere and bipartisan he was and accept his policies. An endless string of speeches, road trips, and town hall meetings thus came to serve as a stand-in for the decision-making and confrontation that true leadership requires, and genuine conviction demands. Argues Bromwich: “…The truth is that Obama’s convictions were never strong. He did not find this out until his convictions were tested, and they were not tested until he became president. Perhaps the thin connection between Obama’s words and his actions does not support the use of the word “conviction” at all. Let us say instead that he mistook his preferences for convictions—and he can still be trusted to tell us what he would prefer to do. Review the record and it will show that his first statement on a given issue generally lays out what he would prefer. Later on, he resigns himself to supporting a lesser evil, which he tells us is temporary and necessary. The creation of a category of permanent prisoners in “this war we’re in” (which he declines to call “the war on terror”) was an early and characteristic instance. Such is Obama’s belief in the power and significance of his own words that, as he judges his own case, saying the right thing is a decent second-best to doing the right thing.” For more see a commentary on the Arendt Center blog.

Borrowing More than Just Vowels

languagenewPhillip Durkin, author of the forthcoming book Borrowed Words, uses an interactive tool to show how English has changed over the last thousand years. Although still mostly dominated by Latin and French, English has also begun to borrow from languages with more distant origins, like Japanese, Russian, and Greek. Durkin's tool, and presumably his book, is a reminder of the fact that both words and their speakers exist in history, something all too easily lost in the hegemony of any present context.

The Aspirationism of the Creative Class

believeLeonard Pierce takes aim at the aspirationism of the creative class, who, he says, are selling us their luck as our own failure. He concludes from the long view, “It is hard enough just being alive, just living and trying to be a decent person without being overwhelmed by shame and guilt and the demands of the world; the last thing we need is someone who got a few extra pulls of the handle at the cosmic slot machine telling us we’re doing it all wrong.  If there is something we should aspire to, it certainly cannot be a position from which we look upon ordinary people, people no less miraculous but perhaps just a little less lucky than ourselves, as a lesser form of life."

Freedom and Dignity

merkelIn a speech to German Parliament, Angela Merkel, that country's chancellor, explains her position on privacy and surveillance. The question is about more than what happens in what country's borders, she says, and "millions of people who live in undemocratic states are watching very closely how the world’s democracies react to threats to their security: whether they act circumspectly, in sovereign self-assurance, or undermine precisely what in the eyes of these millions of people makes them so attractive—freedom and the dignity of the individual."

The Hero and the Artist

joseConsidering the Philippine writer and hero Jose Mizal in the wake of reading Benedict Anderson's short book Why Counting Counts, Gina Apostol notes his two legacies: “For a Filipino novelist like myself, Rizal is a troubling emblem. Many writers like to dwell on the burden of his monumental legacy. But my problem is that Rizal is forgotten as an artist. Remembered (or dismembered) as a patriot, a martyr, a nationalist, a savior, a saint, Rizal is not discussed much as a writer — he is not read as an artist. Our national hero now shares the fate of all of us who attempt to write about our country in fiction. No one really reads his novels."

If Only They Knew...

cosmosAudra Wolfe, taking note of Neil Degrasse Tyson's resurrection of Carl Sagan's TV science epic Cosmos, suggests that any hope that the series may bring increased attention, and therefore increased funding, to scientific pursuits may be misguided: "As is so often the case with science communication, the assumption seems to be that public understanding of science—sprinkled with a hearty dose of wonder and awe—will produce respect for scientific authority, support for science funding, and a new generation of would-be scientists. If only Americans loved science a little more, the thinking goes, we could end our squabbling about climate change, clean energy, evolution, and funding NASA and the National Science Foundation. These are high hopes to pin on a television show, even one as glorious as Cosmos." Although Wolfe makes a good argument about how Sagan's world is different from the world we now inhabit with Tyson, there's something more basic at work, here: the pernicious notion that, if we educate people who don't agree with us just a little bit more, they'll come around to our way of thinking. This, obviously, is a deeply dismissive point of view, one that suggests that everyone should think as we do, and that they don't is a question of status rather than viewpoint. If Cosmos gets people interested in science, it will be the possibility, the things that we are yet to understand, that get them excited, rather than what has already been settled. Speak to that sense of wonder and people very well may listen; speak to what you think people don't know and should, and they'll tune you out.

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, read a recap and watch the video of Roger Berkowitz and Walter Russell Mead speaking with SCOTUSblog founder, Tom Goldstein, as part of our “Blogging and the New Public Intellectual series. Jason Adams relates Arendt’s belief that the act of thinking slips humanity out of historical and biographical time and into a non-time that reconstitutes the world.Roger Berkowitz ponders whether President Obama lacks conviction, and in the Weekend Read, Roger Berkowitz examines the current antisemitic controversies surrounding both Martin Heidegger and Paul de Man.

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.
21Nov/130

Blaise Pascal on Thinking

Arendtthoughts

“Man is obviously made for thinking. Therein lies all his dignity and his merit; and his whole duty is to think as he ought.”

-Blaise Pascal

blaise

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.
28Jun/132

Justice Kennedy’s Dignity

ArendtWeekendReading

Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion in United States v. Windsor did much more than declare unconstitutional section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act. It did more than affirm the right of states to allow gay marriage; it went beyond insisting that the Federal Government must recognize those lawful unions. Kennedy’s opinion, as Justice Scalia sees clearly and Justice Roberts strives futilely to deny, argues forcefully that depriving gay people of the right to marry is an affront to their basic human dignity.  In making this argument, Kennedy opens two doors. First, he signals that the same 5-4 majority might very well uphold a challenge to those presently existing state laws that deny gay people the right to marry. He also takes one more step in the evolution of dignity as a meaningful legal ideal.

Justice Kennedy invokes the word “dignity” 11 times in his short majority opinion. When states recognize the validity of same-sex marriages, as New York does, they confer dignity on that personal and enduring bond.

The States’ interest in defining and regulating the marital relation, subject to constitutional guarantees, stems from the understanding that marriage is more than a routine classification for purposes of certain statutory benefits. Private, consensual sexual intimacy between two adult persons of the same sex may not be punished by the State, and it can form “but one element in a personal bond that is more enduring.” Lawrence v. Texas. By its recognition of the validity of same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions and then by authorizing same-sex unions and same-sex marriages, New York sought to give further protection and dignity to that bond.

The marital status, Kennedy continues, “is a far-reaching legal acknowledgment of the intimate relationship between two people, a relationship deemed by the State worthy of dignity in the community equal with all other marriages. It reflects both the community's considered perspective on the historical roots of the institution of marriage and its evolving understanding of the meaning of equality.” To recognize same-sex marriages as New York and other states have done is to dignify same-sex unions.

Here the State's decision to give this class of persons the right to marry conferred upon them a dignity and status of immense import. When the State used its historic and essential authority to define the marital relation in this way, its role and its power in making the decision enhanced the recognition, dignity, and protection of the class in their own community.

The converse of such dignified recognition is, of course, the denial of dignity when same-sex marriages are not affirmed. The Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, “seeks to injure the very class New York seeks to protect.” The injury is understood in a few ways. First, it denies gay people the equal protection of the laws:

The avowed purpose and practical effect of the law here in question are to impose a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the States.

But Kennedy goes far beyond the claim that DOMA violates equal protection. He adds that the Defense of Marriage Act is a violation of dignity.

The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity.

Kennedy’s statement should be obvious, and to bring the point home he elaborates on the indignity of DOMA. The statute

humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples. The law in question makes it even more difficult for the children to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives.

Kennedy’s reasoning here is hard to limit to simply those states that have passed laws legalizing gay marriage. The point is that gay couples across the country are living together and raising children in matrimony. If marriage confers dignity on the act of living together and raising a family, than the denial of marriage is a denial of dignity. It does seem likely that Kennedy’s opinion signals that the Court is ready to invalidate state laws prohibiting gay marriage. What is undeniable is that Kennedy’s opinion is another step in the introduction of dignity as a meaningful idea in U.S. Constitutional law.

Justice Kennedy’s decision in United States v. Windsor is well worth reading. You can skip section II, which addresses technical legal questions of standing. The rest, however, is compelling reading. There are few legal decisions to really celebrate these days. This is one that merits attention. It is your weekend read.

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.
7Jun/130

In the Age of Big Data, Should We Live in Awe of Machines?

ArendtWeekendReading

In 1949, The New York Times asked Norbert Wiener, author of Cybernetics, to write an essay for the paper that expressed his ideas in simple form. For editorial and other reasons, Wiener’s essay never appeared and was lost. Recently, a draft of the never-published essay was found in the MIT archives. Written now 64 years ago, the essay remains deeply topical. The Times recently printed excerpts. Here is the first paragraph:

By this time the public is well aware that a new age of machines is upon us based on the computing machine, and not on the power machine. The tendency of these new machines is to replace human judgment on all levels but a fairly high one, rather than to replace human energy and power by machine energy and power. It is already clear that this new replacement will have a profound influence upon our lives, but it is not clear to the man of the street what this influence will be.

Wiener draws a core distinction between machines and computing machines, a distinction that is founded upon the ability of machines to mimic and replace not only human labor, but also human judgment. In the 1950s, when Wiener wrote, most Americans worried about automation replacing factory workers. What Wiener saw was a different danger: that intelligent machines could be created that would “replace human judgment on all levels but a fairly high one.”  

Today, of course, Wiener’s prophecy is finally coming true. The IBM supercomputer Watson is being trained to make diagnoses with such accuracy, speed, and efficiency that it will largely replace the need for doctors to be trained in diagnostics.

watson

Google is developing a self-driving car that will obviate the need for humans to judge how fast and near to others they will drive, just as GPS systems already render moot the human sense of direction. MOOCs are automating the process of education and grading so that fewer human decisions need to be made at every level. Facebook is automating the acquisition of friends, lawyers are employing computers to read and analyze documents, and on Wall Street computer trading is automating the buying and selling of stocks. Surveillance drones, of course, are being given increasing autonomy to sift through data and decide which persons to follow or investigate. Finally, in the scandal of the day, the National Security Agency is using computer algorithms to mine data about our phone calls looking for abnormalities and suspicious patterns that would suggest potential dangers. In all these cases, the turn to machines to supplement or even replace human judgment has a simple reason: Even if machines cannot think, they can be programmed to do traditionally human tasks in ways that are faster, more reliable, and less expensive than can be done by human beings. In ways big and small, human judgment is being replaced by computers and machines.

It is important to recognize that Wiener is not arguing that we will create artificial human beings. The claim is not that humans are simply fancy machines or that machines can become human. Rather, the point is that machines can be made to mimic human judgment with such precision and subtlety so that their judgments, while not human, are considered either equal to human judgment or even better. The result, Wiener writes, is that “Machines much more closely analogous to the human organism are well understood, and are now on the verge of being built. They will control entire industrial processes and will even make possible the factory substantially without employees.”

Wiener saw this new machine age as dangerous on at least two grounds. First, economically, the rise of machines carries the potential to upend basic structures of civilization. He writes:

These new machines have a great capacity for upsetting the present basis of industry, and of reducing the economic value of the routine factory employee to a point at which he is not worth hiring at any price. If we combine our machine-potentials of a factory with the valuation of human beings on which our present factory system is based, we are in for an industrial revolution of unmitigated cruelty.

The dangers Wiener sees from our increased reliance on computing machines are not limited to economic dislocation. The real threat that computing machines pose is that as we cede more and more power to machines in our daily lives, we will, he writes, gradually forfeit our freedom and independence:

[I]f we move in the direction of making machines which learn and whose behavior is modified by experience, we must face the fact that every degree of independence we give the machine is a degree of possible defiance of our wishes. The genie in the bottle will not willingly go back in the bottle, nor have we any reason to expect them to be well disposed to us.

In short, it is only a humanity which is capable of awe, which will also be capable of controlling the new potentials which we are opening for ourselves. We can be humble and live a good life with the aid of the machines, or we can be arrogant and die.

For Wiener, our eventual servitude to machines is both an acceptable result and a fait accompli, one we must learn to accept. If we insist on arrogantly maintaining our independence and freedom, we will die. I gather the point is not that machines will rise up and kill their creators, but rather that we ourselves will program our machines to eliminate, imprison, immobilize, or re-program those humans who refuse to comply with paternalistic and well-meaning directives of the machines systems we create in order to provide ourselves with security and plenty.

Wiener counsels that instead of self-important resistance, we must learn to be in awe of our machines. Our machines will improve our lives. They will ensure better medical care, safer streets, more efficient production, better education, more reliable childcare and more human warfare. Machines offer the promise of a cybernetic civilization in which an entire human and natural world is regulated and driven towards a common good with super-human intelligence and calculative power. In the face of such utopian possibility, we must accept our new status as the lucky beneficiaries of the regulatory systems we have created and humble ourselves as beings meant to live well rather than to live free.

tech

Recent revelations about the U.S. government’s using powerful computers to mine and analyze enormous amounts of data collected via subpoenas from U.S. telecom companies is simply one example of the kind of tradeoff Wiener suggests we will and we should make. If I understand the conclusions of Glenn Greenwald’s typically excellent investigative reporting, the NSA uses computer algorithms to scan the totality of phone calls and internet traffic in and out of the United States. The NSA needs all of this data—all of our private data—in order to understand the normal patterns of telephony and web traffic and thus to notice, as well, those exceptional patterns of calling, chatting, and surfing. The civil libertarian challenges of such a program are clear: the construction of a database of normal behavior allows the government to attend to those whose activities are outside the norm. Those outliers can be terrorists or pedophiles; they may be Branch Davidians or members of Occupy Wall Street; they may be Heideggerians or Arendtians. Whomever they are, once those who exist and act in patterns outside the norm are identified, it is up to the government whether to act on that information and what to do with it. We are put in the position of having to trust our government to use that information wisely, with pitifully little oversight. Yet the temptation will always be there for the government to make use of private information once they have it.

In the face of the rise of machines and the present NSA action, we have, Wiener writes, a choice. We can arrogantly thump our chests and insist that our privacy be protected from snooping machines and governmental bureaucracies, or we can sit back and stare in awe of the power of these machines to keep us safe from terrorists and criminals at such a slight cost to our happiness and quality of life. We already allow the healthcare bureaucracy to know the most intimate details of our lives and the banking system to penetrate into the most minute details of our finances and the advertising system to know the most embarrassing details of our surfing and purchasing histories; why, Wiener pushes us to ask, should we shy away from allowing the security apparatus from making use of our communication?

If there is a convincing answer to this hypothetical question and if we are to decide to resist the humbling loss of human freedom and human dignity that Wiener welcomes, we need to articulate the dangers Wiener recognizes and then rationalizes in a much more provocative and profound way. Towards that end, there are few books more worth reading than Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. Wiener is not mentioned in Hannah Arendt’s 1958 book; and yet, her concern and her theme, if not her response, are very much in line with the threat that cybernetic scientific and computational thinking pose for the future of human beings.

In her prologue to The Human Condition, Arendt writes that two threatening events define the modern age. The first was the launch of Sputnik. The threat of Sputnik had nothing to do with the cold war or the Russian lead in the race for space. Rather, Sputnik signifies for Arendt the fact that we humans are finally capable of realizing the age-old dream of altering the basic conditions of human life, above all that we are earth-bound creatures subject to fate. What Sputnik meant is that we were then in the 1950s, for the first time, in a position to humanly control and transform our human condition and that we are doing so, thoughtlessly, without politically and thoughtfully considering what that would mean. I have written much about this elsewhere and given a TEDx talk about it here.

The second “equally decisive” and “no less threatening event” is “the advent of automation.”  In the 1950s, automation of factories threatened to “liberate mankind from its oldest and most natural burden, the burden of laboring and the bondage to necessity.” Laboring, Arendt writes, has for thousands of years been one essential part of what it means to be a human being. Along with work and action, labor comprises those activities engaged in by all humans. To be human has meant to labor and support oneself; to be human has for thousands of years meant that we produce things—houses, tables, stories, and artworks—that provide a common humanly built world in which we live together; and to be human has meant to have the ability to act and speak in such a way as to surprise others so that your action will be seen and talked about and reacted to with a force that will alter the course and direction of the human world. Together these activities comprise the dignity of man, our freedom to build, influence, and change our given world—within limits.

But all three of these activities of what Arendt calls the vita activa, are now threatened, if not with extinction, then at least with increasing rarity and public irrelevance. As automation replaces human laborers, the human condition of laboring for our necessary preservation is diminished, and we come to rely more and more on the altruism of a state enriched by the productivity of machine labor. Laboring, part of what it has meant to be human for thousands of years, threatens to become ever less necessary and to occupy an ever smaller demand on our existence. As the things we make, the houses we live in, and the art we produce become ever more consumable, fleeting, and temporary, the common world in which we live comes to seem ever more fluid; we move houses and abandon friends with the greater ease than previous ages would dispose of a pair of pants. Our collective focus turns toward our present material needs rather than towards the building of common spiritual and ethical worlds. Finally, as human action is seen as the statistically predictable and understandable outcome of human behavior rather than the surprising and free action of human beings, our human dignity is sacrificed to our rational control and steering of life to secure safety and plenty. The threat to labor, work, and action that Arendt engages emerges from the rise of science—what she calls earth and world alienation—and the insistence that all things, including human beings, are comprehensible and predictable by scientific laws.

Arendt’s response to these collective threats to the human condition is that we must “think what we are doing.” She writes at the end of her prologue:

What I propose in the following is a reconsideration of the human condition from the vantage point of our newest experiences and our most recent fears. This, obviously, is a matter of thought, and thoughtlessness—the heedless recklessness or hopeless confusion or complacent repetition of “truths” which have become trivial and empty—seems to me among the outstanding characteristics of our time. What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.

Years before Arendt traveled to Jerusalem and witnessed what she saw as the thoughtlessness of Adolf Eichmann, she saw the impending thoughtlessness of our age as the great danger of our time. Only by thinking what we are doing—and in thinking also resisting the behaviorism and materialism of our calculating time—can we humans hope to resist the impulse to be in awe of our machines and, instead, retain our reverence for human being that is foundation of our humanity. Thinking—that dark, irrational, and deeply human activity—is the one meaningful response Arendt finds to both the thoughtlessness of scientific behaviorism and the thoughtlessness of the bureaucratic administration of mass murder.

think

There will be great examples of chest thumping about the loss of privacy and the violation of constitutional liberties over the next few days. This is as it should be. There will also be sober warnings about the need to secure ourselves from terrorists and enemies. This is also necessary. What is needed beyond both these predictable postures, however, is serious thinking about the tradeoffs between our need for reliable and affordable security along with honest discussion of what we today mean by human freedom. To begin such a discussion, it is well worth revisiting Norbert Wiener’s essay. It is your weekend read.

If you are interested in pursuing Arendt’s own response to crisis of humanism, you can find a series of essays and public lectures on that theme here.

-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".
5Jun/130

Here’s How to Demonize Thinking

ArendtFilm2

Richard Brody writes of “Hannah Arendt,” the new movie by Margarethe von Trotta, “The movie, unfortunately, doesn’t do Arendt justice”—a rhetorical gambit that suggests at least a fair-minded inquiry into Arendt’s thought. But Brody then proceeds to accuse Arendt of a propensity toward “monstrous abstractions.” Her tendency toward abstraction occurs despite what Brody calls  “her meticulous pileup of facts,” which has such “a terrifying, implacable, unbearable power” as to render her book “overwhelming, incommensurable, alien to human experience.” Brody repeats the widespread error that Arendt accepts “at face value” Eichmann’s claim not to be an anti-Semite. Arendt, Brody writes, misses the “mystery, ambiguity, vastness, complexity, and horror” of the Eichmann trial. Arendt and von Trotta, Brody writes in a synthesis of reality and fiction, both make “the same mistake” of setting up “’thinking’” as a special category of activity.” Arendt, pace Brody, “writes from the point of view of a philosopher, not of a journalist”—as if that critique explains her mistake in thinking that “thinking” might be important. The only half-positive sentence about Arendt comes in the last line where he concedes: “From [Arendt’s] philosophical, historical, and journalistic failures, Arendt created an accidental literary masterwork despite itself.” If von Trotta’s movie doesn’t do Arendt justice, one wonders what Brody would think necessary for the movie to do her justice.

movie poster

He tells us. To do Arendt justice, von Trotta should have focused on “giving small gestures and daily labors grand scope.” He actually says that Arendt should be more ridiculous and less dignified: “Von Trotta preserves Arendt’s dignity to the point of dehumanization, depriving the protagonist of any trait that could render her ridiculous.” He insists on seeing more of her regular life with family and friends, after acknowledging that von Trotta’s movie does offer a balanced insight into the importance of Arendt’s friends in her life. The implication is we want more gossip and less thinking, a portrayal of the chatty girlish Hannah rather than the austere chain smoker. Aside from the misogyny in such a statement about one of the great thinkers of the 20th century who happened to have been a woman, Brody here exhibits his fundamental lack of understanding of all things concerning Arendt. For Arendt was not the least bit interested in “small gestures and daily labors.” She was a thinker of surprising and unexpected deeds that, she argued, can only be measured by their greatness. Nothing chatty here.

What galls Brody above all is that a serious movie is made about a serious thinker that takes seriously precisely what is unique (for better or worse) about Arendt—her insistence on being different and apart. Arendt called herself an “intentional pariah,” someone who sought freedom and independence by standing aloof from society. Brody finds such moral seriousness silly and Arendt’s insistence on self-thinking brings forth his disdain for what he dismisses as the false “gleaming nobility of the life of the mind” that diverts us from the truth of “the turmoil of regular life.” Von Trotta’s movie, with the extraordinary assistance of Barbara Sukowa’s acting, nails this most essential characteristic of Arendt’s persona to perfection. For that achievement of cinematic, biographical, and intellectual fidelity, Brody skewers both von Trotta and Arendt.  The exploration of uniqueness is apparently something Brody cannot abide.

The absolute low point of his rejection of Arendt’s idea of thinking comes when he expresses through multiple examples his complete discomfort with thinking itself. As A.O. Scott and others including myself have argued, the genius of von Trotta’s movie is the setting to screen not a theory of thinking, but the act itself. For Brody, this is no accomplishment. This is because for him thinking is nothing special. Thinking, he argues, is banal. It is, as he writes, commonplace and, in the end, common. Thus thinking and showing thinking both are easy:  "Actually, the work of thinking is easy, almost effortless, to show—it’s what almost every movie is made of."

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To bring home his point, Brody offers six links to putative examples of thinking on display in movies. The first is to an actress peeling a potato for 150 seconds, an exercise in the profundity of mundane life. The second extols the virtue of killing and violence for masculinity. The third, from Murnau’s silent “The Last Laugh,” shows Max Schreck in emotional agony. The fourth, from “Bringing up Baby,” has Katharine Hepburn tricking Cary Grant into coming over and helping her with a leopard. You get the idea. There is no thinking going on in these scenes. That is apparently Brody point: thinking doesn’t exist except in the most mundane and calculating of ways.

Brody’s antipathy to the act of thinking is flagrant. He writes: “The movie’s sanctimonious depiction of “thinking” as something greater than what the regular run of people do is one of the signs of its artistic failure.” But Brody’s defense of the common man is misplaced, for Arendt in no ways denies that run of the mill people can think.  On the contrary, she imagines that uneducated people raised with traditions and character are frequently more thoughtful than intellectuals. Those trained in ideas and abstractions are uniquely susceptible to the power of rationalization and the sway of ideologies in ways that those relying on common sense are not.

That everyone can think does not mean that we all do. Thinking, Arendt insists, is rare. It is fundamentally distinguished from reasoning. It is not the same as calculating. It is also not the same as being creative, intelligent, inventive or smart. Thinkers are not necessarily intellectuals. Above all, thinkers are distinguished from “problem solvers,” those educated persons of “great self-confidence” who are uncommonly adept at convincing themselves of their infallibility. Thinking doubts and puts up obstacles. Its primary effect is to raise questions rather than offering answers.

We need to understand that by thinking Arendt means something specific. Thinking means, above all, Selbstdenken—an untranslatable German word for “self-thinking,” or thinking for oneself. It is the act of having a conversation with oneself in which one acknowledges the basic moral premise that it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong. Such thinking is free from social conventions, clichés, and oversimplifications. Thinking is also quite distinct from social science, which seeks answers precisely in the kind of normalization of unique actions that thinking rebels against. Only thinking, Arendt argued, has the potential to remind us of our human dignity and free us to resist our servility. Such thinking, in Arendt’s view, cannot be taught: it can only be exemplified.

We cannot learn thinking through catechism or study. We learn thinking only through experience, when we are inspired by those whose thinking enthralls us—when we encounter someone who stands apart from the crowd.

hasmoke

Brody’s review dismisses Arendt’s understanding of thinking with an unknowing wave of his hand. He reduces thinking to an emotional scream—like the agony on Shreck’s face— or cunning—Hepburn knocking over a tea set and pretending a leopard is attacking her. Brody doesn’t much like thinking and finds it pretentious and overly intellectual.  So he makes fun of those who strive to write or make films about thinking, calling what he won’t understand “soft-core philosophical porn.”

At another point, Brody cites interviews with Claude Lanzmann to raise questions about Arendt’s portrayals of the Jewish leaders who collaborated or cooperated with the Nazis during the war. There are legitimate disagreements one can have with Arendt on this issue, and von Trotta’s film gives these opposing views full voice, something a reader of Brody’s review would never learn. In the film two of Arendt’s dearest friends turn away from her and Hans Jonas lambasts her for unfeeling arrogance in refusing to see the moral and practical tragedies of Jewish leaders during the war. Jonas is right to point to Arendt’s arrogance, and von Trotta confronts that arrogance head on, leaving it to the viewer to decide whether such independence is called for. Jonas’ critique of his friend is more blistering—and more insightful—than anything Brody might add.

Hannah Arendt was neither a saint nor infallible. She may in the end be wrong about the power of thinking to save or dissuade people from doing evil. Neither I nor the Arendt Center has an interest in holding her on a pedestal. The Center regularly publishes posts and essays critical of her work; on our blog you can find a collection of reviews of “Hannah Arendt,” the movie, with critical reviews that raise meaningful questions about both her and the movie. I have no problem with criticizing Arendt intelligently. Such criticism, however, demands some baby steps toward taking Arendt seriously. Brody merely crawls around throwing sand.

You can read Brody’s review here.

-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.
24May/130

Looking Beyond A Digital Harvard

ArendtWeekendReading

Graduation is upon us. Saturday I will be in full academic regalia mixing with the motley colors of my colleagues as we send forth yet another class of graduates onto the rest of their lives. I advised three senior projects this year. One student is headed to East Jerusalem, where she will be a fellow at the Bard Honors College at Al Quds University. Another is staying at Bard where he will co-direct Bard’s new Center for the Study of the Drone. The third is returning to the United Kingdom where he will be the fourth person in a new technology driven public relations start up. A former student just completed Bard’s Masters in Teaching and will begin a career as a high school teacher. Another recent grad is returning from Pakistan to New York where she will earn a Masters in interactive technology at the Tisch School for the Arts at NYU.  These are just a few of the extraordinary opportunities that young graduates are finding or making for themselves.

graduation

The absolute best part of being a college professor is the immersion in optimism from being around exceptional young people. Students remind us that no matter how badly we screw things up, they keep on dreaming and working to reinvent the world as a better and more meaningful place. I sometimes wonder how people who don’t have children or don’t teach can possibly keep their sanity. I count my lucky stars to be able to live and work around such amazing students.

I write this at a time, however, in which the future of physical colleges where students and professors congregate in small classrooms to read and think together is at a crossroads. In The New Yorker, Nathan Heller has perhaps the most illuminating essay on MOOC’s yet to be written. His focus is on Harvard University, which brings a different perspective than most such articles. Heller asks how MOOCs will change not only our wholesale educational delivery at state and community colleges across the country, but also how the rush to transfer physical courses into online courses will transform elite education as well. He writes: “Elite educators used to be obsessed with “faculty-to-student-ratio”; now schools like Harvard aim to be broadcast networks.”

By focusing on Harvard, Heller shifts the traditional discourse surrounding MOOCs, one that usually concentrates on economics. When San Jose State or the California State University system adopts MOOCs, the rationale is typically said to be savings for an overburdened state budget. While many studies show that students actually do better in electronic online courses than they do in physical lectures, a combination of cynicism and hope leads professors to be suspicious of such claims. The replacement of faculty by machines is thought to be a coldly economic calculation.

But at Harvard, which is wealthier than most oil sheikdoms, the warp speed push into online education is not simply driven by money (although there is a desire to corner a market in the future). For many of the professors Heller interviews in his essay, the attraction of MOOCs is that they will actually improve the elite educational experience.

Take for example Gregory Nagy, professor of classics, and one of the most popular professors at Harvard. Nagy is one of Harvard’s elite professors flinging himself headlong into the world of online education. He is dividing his usual hour-long lectures into short videos of about 6 minutes each—people get distracted watching lectures on their Iphones at home or on the bus. He imagines “each segment as a short film” and says that, “crumbling up the course like this forced him to study his own teaching more than he had at the lectern.” For Nagy, the online experience is actually forcing him to be more clear; it allows for spot-checking the participants comprehension of the lecture through repeated multiple-choice quizzes that must be passed before students can continue on to the next lecture. Dividing the course into digestible bits that can be swallowed whole in small meals throughout the day is, Nagy argues, not cynical, but progress. “Our ambition is actually to make the Harvard experience now closer to the MOOC experience.”

harvard

It is worth noting that the Harvard experience of Nagy’s real-world class is not actually very personal or physical. Nagy’s class is called “Concepts of the Hero in Classical Greek Civilization.” Students call it “Heroes for Zeroes” because it has a “soft grading curve” and it typically attracts hundreds of students. When you strip away Nagy’s undeniable brilliance, his physical course is a massive lecture course constrained only by the size of the Harvard’s physical plant. For those of us who have been on both sides of the lectern, we know such lectures can be entertaining and informative. But we also know that students are anonymous, often sleepy, rarely prepared, and none too engaged with their professors. Not much learning goes on in such lectures that can’t be simply replicated on a TV screen. And in this context, Nagy is correct. When one compares a large lecture course with a well-designed online course, it may very well be that the online course is a superior educational venture—even at Harvard.

As I have written here before, the value of MOOCs is to finally put the college lecture course out of its misery. There is no reason to be nostalgic for the lecture course. It was never a very good idea. Aside from a few exceptional lecturers—in my world I can think of the reputations of Hegel, his student Eduard Gans, Martin Heidegger, and, of course, Hannah Arendt—college lectures are largely an economical way to allow masses of students to acquire basic introductory knowledge in a field. If the masses are now more massive and the lectures more accessible, I’ll accept that as progress.

The real problems MOOCs pose is not that they threaten to replace lecture courses, but that they intensify our already considerable confusion regarding what education is. Elite educational institutions, as Heller writes, no longer compete against themselves. He talks with Gary King, University Professor of Quantitative Social Science and Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s President, who see Harvard’s biggest threat not to be Yale or Amherst but “The University of Phoenix,” the for-profit university. The future of online education, King argues, will be driven by understanding education as a “data-gathering resource.” Here is his argument:

Traditionally, it has been hard to assess and compare how well different teaching approaches work. King explained that this could change online through “large-scale measurement and analysis,” often known as big data. He said, “We could do this at Harvard. We could not only innovate in our own classes—which is what we are doing—but we could instrument every student, every classroom, every administrative office, every house, every recreational activity, every security officer, everything. We could basically get the information about everything that goes on here, and we could use it for the students. A giant, detailed data pool of all activities on the campus of a school like Harvard, he said, might help students resolve a lot of ambiguities in college life.

At stake in the battle over MOOCs is not merely a few faculty jobs. It is a question of how we educate our young people. Will they be, as they increasingly are, seen as bits of data to be analyzed, explained, and guided by algorithmic regularities, or are they human beings learning to be at home in a world of ambiguity.

Most of the opposition to MOOCs continues to be economically tinged. But the real danger MOOCs pose is their threat to human dignity. Just imagine that after journalists and professors and teachers, the next industry to be replaced by machines is babysitters. The advantages are obvious. Robotic babysitters are more reliable than 18 year olds, less prone to be distracted by text messages or twitter. They won’t be exhausted and will have access to the highest quality first aid databases. Of course they will eventually also be much cheaper. But do we want our children raised by machines?

That Harvard is so committed to a digital future is a sign of things to come. The behemoths of elite universities have their sights set on educating the masses and then importing that technology back into the ivy quadrangles to study their own students and create the perfectly digitized educational curriculum.

And yet it is unlikely that Harvard will ever abandon personalized education. Professors like Peter J. Burgard, who teaches German at Harvard, will remain, at least for the near future.

Burgard insists that teaching requires “sitting in a classroom with students, and preferably with few enough students that you can have real interaction, and really digging into and exploring a knotty topic—a difficult image, a fascinating text, whatever. That’s what’s exciting. There’s a chemistry to it that simply cannot be replicated online.”

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Burgard is right. And at Harvard, with its endowment, professors will continue to teach intimate and passionate seminars. Such personalized and intense education is what small liberal arts colleges such as Bard offer, without the lectures and with a fraction of the administrative overhead that weighs down larger universities. But at less privileged universities around the land, courses like Burgard’s will likely become ever more rare. Students who want such an experience will look elsewhere. And here I return to my optimism around graduation.

Dale Stephens of Uncollege is experimenting with educational alternatives to college that foster learning and thinking in small groups outside the college environment. In Pittsburgh, the Saxifrage School and the Brooklyn Institute of Social Science are offering college courses at a fraction of the usual cost, betting that students will happily use public libraries and local gyms in return for a cheaper and still inspiring educational experience. I tell my students who want to go to graduate school that the teaching jobs of the future may not be at universities and likely won’t involve tenure. I don’t know where the students of tomorrow will go to learn and to think, but I know that they will go somewhere. And I am sure some of my students will be teaching them. And that gives me hope.

As graduates around the country spring forth, take the time to read Nathan Heller’s essay, Laptop U. It is your weekend read.

You can also read our past posts on education and on the challenge of MOOCs here.

-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".
15Apr/131

Amor Mundi 4/14/13

Arendtamormundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor MundiLove 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.

Kehinde Wiley: King of the Art World

kehindeHannah Arendt Center Senior Fellow Wyatt Mason explores the wild and wonderful world of super-artist Kehinde Wiley. "Wiley, as some of you may know, is an American artist, an unusually successful one. In the decade of his career to date, he's become one of the most sought-after painters in America. Holland Cotter, of The New York Times, called Wiley "a history painter, one of the best we have.... He creates history as much as he tells it." Even if you don't know him by name, you've likely glimpsed his grand portraits of hip-hop artists-LL, Ice-T, Biggie. Maybe you've even seen his massive portrait of the King of Pop: the one of MJ in full armor, astride a prancing warhorse. If all this suggests that Wiley, a 36-year-old gay African-American man, is court painter to the black celebretariat, that misconception has been useful to promoting his brand, up to a point."

Mason is skeptical, but if you don't know the Wiley brand, the route through Wiley's world of surfaces is about as fine a reflection as you'll find of the challenges facing the artist in a consumer society.

Letter from a Bahrani Prison

bahraniZainab Al-Khawaja is sitting in a Bahrani prison reading Martin Luther King Jr. Al-Khawaja is a political prisoner. She is in a cell with 14 others, some murderers. To maintain her dignity and to announce her difference from common criminals, she has refused to wear an orange prison jumpsuit. As a punishment, she is denied family visits, including by her baby. She is now on hunger strike. "Prison administrators ask me why I am on hunger strike. I reply, "Because I want to see my baby." They respond, nonchalantly, "Obey and you will see her." But if I obey, my little Jude will not in fact be seeing her mother, but rather a broken version of her. I wrote to the prison administration that I refuse to wear the convicts' uniform because "no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice." (Thoreau)." Al-Khawaja's thoughts on dignity and non-violence are more than worthy testaments to her mentor.

 

The Micro-Gig

microSara Horowitz takes on the "micro-gig," a new kind of freelancing that allows people to employ others for small tasks, like delivering or assembling IKEA furniture. Horowitz, however, worries about what "micro-gigging" might mean for workers: "It's as if we're eliminating the "extraneous" parts of a worker's day--like lunch or bathroom breaks--and paying only for the minutes someone is actually in front of the computer or engaged in a task." Welcome to our piece-work future.

Chim's Children

chimChloe Pantazi considers the work of the photographer Chim, also known as David Seymour, on the occasion of a showing of his work at the International Center of Photography. Pantazi focuses in particular on Chim's photos of children, saying that as he "offers up the every day lives of such adults working within the industry of war (as soldiers, munitions workers) we trust that Chim's postwar photographs of children yield something close to their every day, as vulnerable innocents who-like the newborn seen suckling at its mother's breast in a photograph taken of the crowd at a land reform meeting at the brink of the Civil War, in Spain, 1936-were virtually reared on the conflicts of their time."

Medvedev Political Art

medLucy McKeon explores Russian poet Kiril Medvedev, who has renounced the copyright to all of his works. McKeon recounts Medvedev's rebellion against the bourgeois idea of artist as private citizen-a type idealized by Joseph Brodsky in his 1987 Nobel Prize address. Medvedev is searching for a post-individualized and post-socialist culture-what he calls new humanism. "Logically, Medvedev's answer to individualized disconnectedness calls for a synthesis of twentieth-century leftist political and intellectual thought, a situation where several senses of the word 'humanism' begin to collide." Where something from poetry meets something from philosophy; where postmodernism, logocentrism, psychology, culture and counterculture, "and probably something else, too, that we haven't though of yet," writes Medevedev, join to form "a new shared understanding of humanity." Only in this utopian future society could the artist as private citizen responsibly exist and create."

Featured Upcoming Event

Music in the Holocaust: Jewish Identity and Cosmopolitanism

Part II: Music of Warsaw, Ludz and other Eastern Ghettoes

musicApril 20, 2013 at Olin Hall, Bard College at 7:00 PM

 Learn more here.

 

From the Hannah Arendt Center blog

Roger Berkowitz lauds the idea of early college. Jeffrey Jurgens considers Jeremy Walton's recent article "Confessional Pluralism and the Civil Society Effect." Cristiana Grigore responds to the recent New York Times article, "The Kings of Roma" by describing her own Roma upbringing in Romania. Kathleen B. Jones takes on New Materialism from an Arendtian point of view.

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.
2Apr/130

Amor Mundi 3/31/13

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.

Are Animals One of Us?

animalJohn Jeremiah Sullivan has an essay in the new Lapham's Quarterly on animals. Sullivan begins his essay "One of Us" with this description of studies that upend our view of humankind's unique place in the universe. Against the view that humans are special, that we think differently than animals, and that only humans have consciousness, Sullivan writes, "If we put aside the self-awareness standard-and really, how arbitrary and arrogant is that, to take the attribute of consciousness we happen to possess over all creatures and set it atop the hierarchy, proclaiming it the very definition of consciousness (Georg Christoph Lichtenberg wrote something wise in his notebooks, to the effect of: only a man can draw a self-portrait, but only a man wants to)-it becomes possible to say at least the following: the overwhelming tendency of all this scientific work, of its results, has been toward more consciousness. More species having it, and species having more of it than assumed." For Sullivan, we can no longer rely on an easy distinction between human and animal; on the Arendt Center blog Roger Berkowitz responds.

Writing After Tahrir

typeLast year Stephen Morison Jr. went to Egypt to seek out the country's post-Mubarak literary culture. What he found were people alternately disillusioned and still hopeful, including the short story writer Muhamed "Nebo" Abdelnaby, who told him that, as the possibility of censorship has replaced the reality of corruption, the Western expectations for Egyptian writers has changed little: "They don't want us to be experimental; they don't want us to be a little bit crazy; this is for their writers."

 

 

Traveling America's Arteries

Prison Compound at Angola. Photo by Alan Lomax, 1934.

Prison Compound at Angola. Photo by Alan Lomax, 1934.

John F. Cline recently began a trip that will retrace many of the routes African Americans took from the South into the North in the early parts of the 20th century. One of his first stops was Louisiana's infamous Angola prison, which he was allowed to tour. Among other things, he describes Angola's hospice program, at which inmates care for dying members of the prison population. Cline notes that those who pass are buried with dignity and respect: "when the hospice patients die, they are no longer buried in a corner of the facility in Styrofoam containers: wooden coffins are built in the prison's carpentry shop, covered with hand-quilted palls, and the dead are taken to their graves in a horse-drawn hearse trailed by an inmate procession."

 

The Trial of General Rios Montt

rios

Flickr via Ian Bunn

Aryeh Neier points to the beginnings of Guatemala's proceedings against its former dictator General Efrain Rios Montt as a "repudiation" of America's Latin America policies in the 1980s. This is the first time "a former head of state is being tried for genocide in the courts of his own country." The charges against Rios Montt include the deaths of more than 1,700 Ixils, one of the country's indigenous populations, and his trial includes testimony from Ixil survivors, something that Neier thinks is, of itself, "a remarkable development."

 

Charles Krafft and the Conundrum of Nazi Art

artRachel Arons considers the recent outing of fine artist Charles Krafft as a neo nazi and Holocaust denier. Krafft's work has often included Nazi imagery, which was previously widely believed to have been used ironically. As Arons points out, however, interpreting Krafft, and other artists who appropriate Nazi iconography, has always been complicated. "There isn't," she writes, "a clear line between 'irony' and 'homage' in Krafft's work, and it's a mistake to assume, as many members of the art world apparently have, that an ironic artistic appropriation of Nazi symbols safely amounts to an anti-Nazi critique."

Featured Upcoming N.Y.C. Event

Blogging and the New Public Intellectual

An Ongoing Series of discussions moderated by Roger Berkowitz and Walter Russell Mead.

April 9, 2013 at Bard Graduate Center

David Frum, blogger for

The Daily Beast&

The Huffington Post.

Learn more here.

"David Frum is back. And he's jockeying to be the front and center of the post-Romney American conservative movement". - Eddy Moretti

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

 

This week on the blog, Nikita Nelin rites about his experience as a teacher of literature working with students focused on employment and Jeff Jurgens wonders whether Americans will ever understand what the invasion of Iraq meant for Iraqis.

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.
25Mar/131

Forgiveness

Arendtquote

Trespassing is an everyday occurrence which is in the very nature of action’s constant establishment of new relationships within a web of relations, and it needs forgiving, dismissing in order to go on by constantly releasing men from what they have done unknowingly.  Only through this constant mutual release from what they do can men remain free agents, only by constant willingness to change their minds and start again can they be trusted with so great a power as that to begin something new.

—Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt relates Augustine’s Christian concept of forgiveness to human action and agency. Forgiveness solves an important problem inherent to the activity of action. Since “men never have been and never will be able to undo or even control reliably any of the processes they start through action,” human beings are met with the disabling reality of processes whose outcomes are both unpredictable and irreversible. Knowing that our actions may lead to evil or unhappiness, why would anyone take the risk of action at all?  Remarkably, Arendt finds the remedy to this predicament within the faculty of action itself. The antidote for irreversibility is forgiveness, which "serves to undo the deeds of the past" by releasing actors from the consequences of their actions.

forgive

The beauty of forgiveness is that it interrupts otherwise automatic processes. For example, forgiveness enables actors to become freed from vengeance, “which encloses both doer and sufferer in the relentless automatism of the action process, which by itself need never come to an end.” Within the space created by the interruption, forgiveness creates a new relationship that is radically different from what existed before.

As something startlingly new, forgiveness is not conditioned by the wrong that provokes it and it can therefore never be predicted. Arendt admits as much. She explains, “forgiving, in other words, is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly.”  Released from vengeful reactions, I can act in ways that are not predetermined or compelled by another's trespasses against me. In this sense, forgiveness is an unanticipated, uncaused and undetermined act; is it truly spontaneous. Arendtian forgiveness seems to take on a metaphysical stature; it appears to be able to change the nature of reality, undoing the irreversible. It acts against necessity, undoing what was done by releasing the doer from the deed.

In the last 60 years, notably in tribunals and reconciliation commissions characteristic of transitional justice, forgiveness has become a political and legal ideal in cases where massive moral injury threatens to extinguish human plurality and dignity. Seen as a willingness to continually participate in an imperfect world with civility, those willing to forgive demonstrate the ability to begin again not only despite the social facts of moral injury and misrecognition, but as Arendt teaches, also despite ontological facts of irreversibility, contingency, and unpredictability. Forgiving victims who are able to respond creatively rather than vindictively are said to escape the vicious cycle of violence and exemplify their moral agency.

What does forgiveness really do as a political tool? Arendt's forgiveness responds creatively to the fact of injury. What I’d like to suggest is that Arendt understands forgiveness as a cure for the irreversibility of action, not of violence. Unlike many contemporary (theological and secular) political views that see forgiveness as an act of compassion in response to atrocity, Arendt insists that forgiveness is an activity of politics.

Understood politically, forgiveness is about surviving these effects of irreversibility. Because linear time shapes human experience, irreversibility is unavoidable. Taking aim at what cannot be undone, forgiveness releases actors from what would otherwise become a mechanistic or routinized cycle of retaliation.

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Arendt describes forgiveness as the act of constantly releasing the wrongdoer. Quoting Luke 17:3-4, she says “And if he trespass against thee…and…turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt release him.” If the wrongdoer shows signs of contrition or transformation, he should be released from the trespass.

In his essay about Arendt’s judgment of Eichmann, Roger Berkowitz argues that Arendt adopts the language of release or dismissal (which I find very similar to Nietzsche's understanding of forgetting) in order to characterize the action of forgiveness, a move that greatly limits the scope or reach of forgiveness. Berkowitz explains,

Arendt critically limits the province of forgiveness to minor trespasses… As she notes, the Greek word in the Gospels traditionally translated as “forgiveness” is aphienai, which Arendt suggests means to “dismiss” and “release” rather than “forgive.” As a release, Arendt’s defense of forgiveness does not reach the forgiving of crimes and sins. Instead, forgiveness is limited to the “constant mutual release” that allows men to continue to act in the world.

People can release each other, but the capacity as denoted by the original Greek amounts to dismissal rather than pardon or exoneration.

Whereas forgiveness releases, its opposite, vengeance, binds people to the past crime and to the process of reaction. Vengeance, unlike forgiveness, is not creative of new possibilities for action. Instead, it “acts in the form of re-acting against an original trespassing, whereby far from putting an end to the consequences of the first misdeed, everybody remains bound to the process. But note that it is the deterministic character that threatens the sphere of action and which morphs a trespass into an unforgiveable crime. The magnitude of the crime is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for crimes against plurality.

Unlike the common imperialist tactic of legalized discrimination, Arendt explains in Eichmann in Jerusalem that war crimes committed by totalitarianism gave rise to the unprecedented:

It was when the Nazi regime declared that the German people not only were unwilling to have any Jews in Germany but wished to make the entire Jewish people disappear from the face of the earth that the new crime, the crime against humanity—in the sense of a crime “against human status,” or against the very nature of mankind—appeared.

She continues,

Expulsion and genocide must remain distinct; the former is an offense against fellow-nations, whereas the latter is an attack upon human diversity as such, that is, upon a characteristic of the ‘human status’ without which the very worlds ‘mankind’ or ‘humanity’ would be devoid of meaning.

Arendt described such actions as those which “transcend the realm of human affairs and the potentialities of human power, both of which they radically destroy wherever they make their appearance.” Eichmann’s actions destroyed human potentiality. Arendt cannot forgive such crimes.

eichmn

This is our first clue that the offences to which forgiveness responds are within the reach of dismissal, whereas crimes against the human status are not. Moreover, forgiveness releases those who "unknowingly" transgressed. The predicament of action is that people cannot know the consequences of their actions (action is unpredictable). When the act is intended to harm, the law calls for punishment. It would be a mistake therefore to think that Arendtian forgiveness is intended to cure anything outside the realm of action.

It is a striking absence that Arendt did not refer to the concept of forgiveness as it is developed in the Human Condition in her decision in Eichmann in Jerusalem. And yet Arendt wasn't attempting to create a complete system of concepts across her work. As her views changed, her concepts also shifted. But having the limits of Arendt's forgiveness in mind can, I think, nonetheless help us understand her judgment against Eichmann. Because Eichmann’s decisions and rule following annihilated spontaneity and plurality, he cannot be released from his deeds.

-Grace Hunt

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.
4Mar/136

Arendt on Resentment

Arendtquote

Until now the totalitarian belief that everything is possible seems to have proved only that everything can be destroyed. Yet, in their effort to prove that everything is possible, totalitarian regimes have discovered without knowing it that there are crimes which men can neither punish nor forgive. When the impossible was made possible it became the unpunishable, unforgivable absolute evil which could no longer be understood and explained by the evil motives of self-interest, greed, covetousness, resentment, lust for power, and cowardice; and which therefore anger could not revenge, love could not endure, friendship could not forgive. Just as the victims in the death factories or the holes of oblivion are no longer "human" in the eyes of their executioners, so this newest species of criminals is beyond the pale even of solidarity in human sinfulness.

-Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

Although Hannah Arendt never dedicated an entire chapter or essay to the emotion, she was nonetheless well aware of the insidious pull of resentment. In The Origins of Totalitarianism resentment is mentioned 16 times.

origings

Early in the Origins, Arendt writes, "The social resentment of the lower middle classes against the Jews turned into a highly explosive political element, because these bitterly hated Jews were thought to be well on their way to political power." Here resentment refers to the mobilization of mass antisemitism and the driving force behind the scapegoating of Jews.

By the end of Origins of Totalitarianism, in the lengthy passage quoted above, Arendt refers to resentment as one of many "evil motives" that had in the past made crimes understandable. With the advent of radical evil typical of the Third Reich, however, crimes against human plurality that could neither be punished nor forgiven could also not be explained away by unsavory human emotions and intentions. Here we can see a shift in meaning: in the beginning stages of Nazi occupation, resentment is an emotion that helps to make sense of antisemitic attitudes. With the advent of the death factories we find that evil human motives of self-interest, lust for power and resentment are no longer able to make sense of the world.

I find the ambiguity of the meaning of resentment in Arendt's work fascinating. Origins begins with a fairly common understanding of the emotion as a kind of envious grudge that seeks revenge. But it would be a mistake to understand resentment as the psychological essence of totalitarian rule. For although Arendt acknowledges the role resentment played in the mobilization of social attitudes of antisemitism, she also reveals the limits of human emotions within the Nazi program of destruction. Resentment is not the cause of human destruction. Rather she says,

Propaganda and organization no longer suffice to assert that the impossible is possible, that the incredible is true, that an insane consistency rules the world; the chief psychological support of totalitarian fiction—the active resentment of the status quo, which the masses refused to accept as the only possible world—is no longer there.

But where does resentment go, and what replaces it? Ironically, Arendt saw resentment as the last remnant of humanly recognizable relations—relations that were quashed as a requirement of totalitarian destruction.

resentment

To illustrate this point, near the end of the book, Arendt makes a distinction in the torture practices first performed by the Nazi Party's "Brown Shirts," the Sturmabteilung (SA) and later by Hitler's paramilitary, the Schutzstaffel (SS).

Whereas torture for the SA officer was provoked by a heated resentment against all those the SA guard perceived to be better than himself, torture of the magnitude required for the annihilation of a people—the kind that was effectively able to exterminate people long before they became biologically dead—was not the result of any human emotion. It was precisely the total lack of human emotion that enabled this atrocity. Arendt contrasts the irrational, sadistic type of torture driven by resentment and carried out by the SA to the rational calculations of the SS:

Behind the blind bestiality of the SA, there often lay a deep hatred and resentment against all those who were socially, intellectually, or physically better off than themselves, and who now, as if in fulfillment of their wildest dreams, were in their power. This resentment, which never died out entirely in the camps, strikes us as a last remnant of humanly understandable feeling (GH emphasis). The real horror began, however, when the SS took over the administration of the camps. The old spontaneous bestiality gave way to an absolutely cold and systematic destruction of human bodies, calculated to destroy human dignity; death was avoided or postponed indefinitely. The camps were no longer amusement parks for beasts in human form, that is, for men who really belonged in mental institutions and prisons; the reverse became true: they were turned into "drill grounds," on which perfectly normal men were trained to be full-fledged members of the SS.

I glean two points from this passage. First, Arendt believed that the human destruction perpetrated by the Third Reich was an exemplification of what she called the "banality of evil." This is to say that it was not pathologically sadistic and neurotically resentful and self-interested men, but rather "perfectly normal men" who, by following the rules, fulfilled the brutal logic of the Third Reich. Second, the annihilation of the Jews required cold calculation that in effect destroyed the very condition of possibility for resentment: human plurality. And this is where the irony of Arendt's thinking shines through: Resentment disappeared in the camps because understandable human sinfulness disappeared. Through this irony Arendt exposes her readers to a provocative ambiguity: Resentment appears in Origins as both the provocation of criminality and a vague remnant of human plurality.

-Grace Hunt

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.
22Jan/130

Reflections on an Inaugural Address

I watched President Obama’s second Inaugural Address with my seven-year-old daughter. She had just completed a letter to the President—something she had been composing all week. She was glued to the TV. I found myself tearing up at times, as I do and should do at all such events. “The Star Spangled Banner” by Beyonce was… well, my daughter stood up right there in the living room, so I followed suit. The Inaugural Poem by Richard Blanco began strong—I found the first two stanzas powerful and lyrical.

The invocation of “One sun rose on us today,” is Whitmanesque, as is: “My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors.” That second verse really grabbed me:

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yearning to life, crescendoing into our day,
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.

I was hooked here, with Blanco’s rendition of a motley American life guided by a rising sun. But the poem dragged for me. I lost the thread. Still, I am so grateful for the continued presence of poetry at inaugural events. They remind us that the Presidency and the country is more than policy and prose.

In the President’s speech itself, there was too much politics, some prose, and a bit of poetry. There were a few stirring lines affirming the grand dreams of the United States. His opening was pitch perfect:

 Each time we gather to inaugurate a President we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution.  We affirm the promise of our democracy.  We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names.  What makes us exceptional -- what makes us American -- is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Storytelling, Hannah Arendt knew, was at the essence of politics. The President understands the importance and power of a story and the story of America is one of the dream of democracy and freedom. He tells it well. Some will balk at his full embrace of American exceptionalism. They are right to when such a stand leads to arrogance. But American exceptionalism is also, and more importantly, a tale of the dream of the Promised Land. It is an ever-receding dream, as all such dreams are. But that means only that the dream must be kept alive. That is one of the purposes of Presidential Inaugurations, and President Obama did that beautifully.

Another stirring section invoked the freedom struggles of the past struggles for equality.

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

The President, our nation’s first black President now elected for a second term, sought to raise the aspiration for racial and sexual equality to the pantheon of our Constitutional truths. Including the struggles of gay Americans—he mentioned gay rights for the first time in an inaugural address—the President powerfully rooted the inclusivity of the American dream in the sacred words of the Declaration of Independence and set them in the hallowed grounds of constitutional ideals.

When later I saw the headlines and the blogs, it was as if I had watched a different speech. Supposedly the President offered an “aggressive” speech. And he came out as unabashedly liberal.  This is because he mentioned climate change (saying nothing about how he will approach it) and gay rights. Oh, and many saw it as unabashedly liberal when the President said:

For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class.  We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship.  We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.

How is it “liberal” to value the middle-class and pride in work? There was nearly nothing in this talk about the poor or welfare. It was about working Americans, the people whose labor builds the bridges and protects are people. And it was about the American dream of income and class mobility. How is that liberal? Is it liberal to insist on a progressive income tax? Granted, it is liberal to insist that we raise revenue without cutting expenses. But where was that said?

And then there are the swarm of comments and critiques about the President’s defense of entitlements.  Well here is what he said:

We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time.  So we must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, reach higher.  But while the means will change, our purpose endures:  a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American.  That is what this moment requires.  That is what will give real meaning to our creed.   We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity.  We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.  But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.  (Applause.)  For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn.

If I read this correctly, the President is here saying: We spend too much on health care and we need to cut our deficit. Outworn programs must change and we need innovation and technology to improve our schools even as we reduce the cost of education. We must, he says, “make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.”  Yet we must do so without abandoning the nation’s creed: the every American has equal worth and dignity. This is a call for changing and rethinking entitlements while cutting their cost. It is pragmatic and yet sensible. How is it liberal? Is it now liberal to believe in social security and Medicare? Show me any nationally influential conservative who will do away with these programs? Reform them, yes. But abandon them?

More than a liberal, the President sounded like a constitutional law professor. He laid out broad principles. We must care for our fellow citizens. But he left open the way that we might do so.

Perhaps the most problematic section of the President’s speech is this one:

We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few.  We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm.  The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us.  They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.

Here the President might sound liberal. But what is he saying? He is raising the entitlement programs of the New Deal to Constitutional status, saying that these programs are part of the American way of life. He is not wrong. No Republican—not Reagan, not Romney, not Paul Ryan—proposes getting rid of these programs. They have become part of the American way of life.

That said, these programs are not unproblematic. The President might say that “these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.” But saying it does not make it true. There are times when these programs care for the sick and unfortunate. And yet there are no doubt times and places where the social safety net leads to taking and weakness. It is also true that these programs are taking up ever more of our national budget, as this chart from the Government Accounting Office makes clear.

The President knows we need to cut entitlements. He has said so repeatedly. His greatest liability now is not that he can’t control opposition Republicans. It is that he doesn’t seem able or willing to exert leadership over the members of his own party in coming up with a meaningful approach to bring our entitlement spending—spending that is necessary and rightly part of our constitutional DNA—into the modern era. That is the President’s challenge.

The problem with President Obama’s speech was not that it was liberal. Rather, what the President failed to offer was a meaningful example of leadership in doing what he knows we must do: Rethinking, re-imagining, and re-forming our entitlement programs to bring them into the modern era.

-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.
24Feb/120

The Meaning of Life

Three weeks into my seminar on Martin Heidegger's "Letter on Humanism," I am once again at that moment when the students are simultaneously exasperated and thrilled by the audacity of Heidegger's thinking. There is the confusion caused by Heidegger's re-fashioning of words and his insistence that basic concepts like "person" and "essence" are the products of a stale metaphysical language that hide more than they conceal. One senses as well, the joyful anticipation in the first glimpses of the power of sentences like: Being "is" not, and the being (Sein) of beings (Seiendes) is not itself a being (Seiende.).

Heidegger focuses relentlessly on human being, the being who can ask the question: "Who am I?"  At our most vigorous, we human beings are characterized by our ability to think about ourselves in relation to the meaningfulness of our truth, to the truth understood not as one particular truth, but as that which gathers and calls us to be whom we most properly are. He does not tell us what we most properly are. Rather, he shows us that we are the beings who can live meaningfully in the world. We can give our existence and our world meaning.

Nietzsche had said that all human suffering is bearable if we can believe it has meaning. Religion gives suffering meaning by claiming that suffering faithfully in this world will bring us to heaven. Science gives suffering meaning, in its insistence that there is nothing that happens without a reason—so that all things, even the most awful—are part of the reason of the cosmos (secularly speaking). Mankind can endure all sufferings, so long as he believes it has meaning. The great danger of nihilism—the loss of belief in the highest values—is that we lose faith in either religion or science as guarantors of the meaningfulness of human suffering.  

The political danger of nihilism is that human life loses its meaning. All sorts of killings, suicide bombings, and genocides are thereby justifiable in the service of any political project. Without a living sense of meaning, life is cheap, and human destruction can be sought in the name of any and every political or economic goal.

As the dominant contemporary response to the dangers of nihilism, human rights holds that human beings have dignity as living beings. Above all, we must be kept alive. But what is more, we must be treated with a certain basic dignity. Just like chickens, we should neither be killed nor penned up and force-fed. Like dogs we deserve basic health and love. And like dolphins and whales, we should not be indiscriminately killed.

Heidegger, like his student Hannah Arendt, insists that the response to nihilism that insists on the rights of human beings to live well with a certain basic dignity makes the tragic mistake of blurring the difference between humans and animals. The human rights community focuses on the right to life and the right to be fed and be clothed. It sometimes even insists on the right to housing and the right to a job. But all of these human rights are directed at our animality, the fact that the human being is a kind of living animal. This is of course true. And yet, human rights are the rights of man as animals. These rights do not name or protect human beings. The fight for human rights can, therefore, turn our attention towards preserving humans in their animality even as it covers over what is most meaningful about human being itself.

So what is the meaningfulness of human life? Heidegger develops his answer over his writing life, but his first effort to do so is in Being and Time, the most influential and important book of philosophy written during the 20th century. Being and Time is a difficult book. It is also unfinished. And Heidegger abandoned its ultimate project shortly after it was published. And yet, it remains one of the greatest works in the history of thinking.

Many commentaries have sought to help students through Being and Time. But Simon Critchley has done something no one else even thought possible. He has given a clear and simple account of the impact of Being and Time in five short columns for the British newspaper, The Guardian. While these columns are necessarily pithy, they are in my mind the best introduction to Being and Time.

In his first column, Critchley writes:

That said, the basic idea of Being and Time is extremely simple: being is time. That is, what it means for a human being to be is to exist temporally in the stretch between birth and death. Being is time and time is finite, it comes to an end with our death. Therefore, if we want to understand what it means to be an authentic human being, then it is essential that we constantly project our lives onto the horizon of our death, what Heidegger calls "being-towards-death".

Such brevity will lead, no doubt to compromises. In this quote, for example, Being is used in multiple senses, but what is really at issue in Being and Time is the being of human being. In Heidegger's later work, that focus on the being of human being will come eventually to turn human beings away from human beings and towards being itself. That strikes many as anti-human. But as Heidegger insists, it is not inhuman, and it is driven by a profound humanity.

For one seeking a way into Heidegger's greatest book, Critchley's five-part introduction is a great place to start.  You can read the first part of Critchley's account here.

-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.