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.
Marilynne Robinson, taking up questions of American sacred and secular religion, obliquely picks up on a famous maxim of Franklin Roosevelt. America is a Christian country, she says, but its political culture turns a deaf ear to that heritage and not in the way that people usually suggest: "There is something I have felt the need to say, that I have spoken about in various settings, extemporaneously, because my thoughts on the subject have not been entirely formed, and because it is painful to me to have to express them. However, my thesis is always the same, and it is very simply stated, though it has two parts: first, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind. As children we learn to say, 'Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.' We learn that, after his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples, 'Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.' Christ is a gracious, abiding presence in all reality, and in him history will finally be resolved. These are larger, more embracing terms than contemporary Christianity is in the habit of using. But we are taught that Christ 'was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made....The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.' The present tense here is to be noted. John's First Letter proclaims 'the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us.' We as Christians cannot think of Christ as isolated in space or time if we really do accept the authority of our own texts. Nor can we imagine that this life on earth is our only life, our primary life. As Christians we are to believe that we are to fear not the death of our bodies but the loss of our souls. We hear a great deal now about the drift of America away from a Christian identity. Whenever there is talk of decline--as in fact there always is--the one thing that seems to be lacking is a meaningful standard of change. How can we know where we are if we don't know where we were, in those days when things were as they ought to be? How can we know there has been decline, an invidious qualitative change, if we cannot establish a terminus a quo? I propose attention to the marked and oddly general fearfulness of our culture at present as one way of dealing with the problem. In the twenty-sixth chapter of Leviticus we find a description of the state the people of Israel will find themselves in if they depart from their loyalty to God: 'The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight, and they shall flee as one flees from the sword, and they shall fall when none pursues. They shall stumble over one another, as if to escape a sword, though none pursues.'" Robinson's point, apart from her claim that America is a Christian nation, is that if you fear indiscriminately, courage dissipates. Her worry is that the decline of religiosity is part and parcel of our fearful moral and political cowardice.
Kwame Anthony Appiah appraises contemporary higher education: "Neither Utility U. nor Utopia U. has the full run of any one campus. In the familiar caricature, there's the performance-studies major who is putting up fliers for the Naomi Klein talk, collecting signatures for the fossil-free petition and wondering whether the student alliance for gender equity is as racially inclusive as it claims. Then there's the engineering major, first in the family to go to college, traipsing across the quad with a discounted, two-editions-out-of-date version of the material-science textbook. All that identity stuff is a dimly perceived distraction in this student's light cone, readily tuned out. One student thinks 'bi-curious' is a word; the other doesn't see why you would use molecular-orbital theory when valence bonding provides answers faster. The two students cross paths only physically. It's almost as if they're attending two different colleges. One reason this is a caricature is that people aren't always found on the expected side of the disciplinary (and class) divides. At liberal-arts campuses, certainly, almost everyone drinks from the fountain of human betterment, albeit some from a Dixie cup and others from a Big Gulp. And very few are completely unmindful of the getting-a-job thing that's rumored to follow graduation. But when you superimpose the two visions of college--as a forcing house of virtue and as means for building human capital--you inevitably get interference patterns, ripples and ridges of indignation and disquiet. That's what you're seeing when the safe-space ethic runs amok, as with students who claim offense when their ideas are challenged or who want to see 'trigger warnings' on even canonical literature, like those cardboard lids on hotel-room glasses. Here, the student is at once the sensitive servant of high causes and a demanding customer. Nor are these tensions likely to resolve themselves, because higher education has to play so many roles. The truth is that colleges and universities do a tremendous amount that neither of these pictures captures--that just can't be reduced to the well-being of their graduates. For one thing, the old ideal of knowledge for its own sake hasn't been extinguished. For another, universities are the homes of all kinds of public goods. They are, for example, the source of much of today's best research. Without them we would know much less than we do about the nature of the cosmos or the workings of the human brain or the ways of reading a novel. A flourishing literary culture is made possible not because institutions of higher learning create writers but because they prepare readers (and yes, it helps that they provide jobs for plenty of poets and novelists too). There's even something to be said, especially in a democracy, for an educated citizenry, able to question the creeds of the moment."
Stephen Greenblatt in the New York Times argues that teaching Shakespeare still is meaningful to today's students but frequently in new and unexpected ways. "Shakespeare has not lost his place in this new world, just as, despite the grim jeremiads of the cultural pessimists, he has not lost his place in colleges and universities. On the contrary, his works (and even his image) turn up everywhere, and students continue to flock to courses that teach him, even when those courses are not required. But as I have discovered in my teaching, it is a different Shakespeare from the one with whom I first fell in love. Many of my students may have less verbal acuity than in years past, but they often possess highly developed visual, musical and performative skills. They intuitively grasp, in a way I came to understand only slowly, the pervasiveness of songs in Shakespeare's plays, the strange ways that his scenes flow one into another or the cunning alternation of close-ups and long views. When I ask them to write a 10-page paper analyzing a particular web of metaphors, exploring a complex theme or amassing evidence to support an argument, the results are often wooden; when I ask them to analyze a film clip, perform a scene or make a video, I stand a better chance of receiving something extraordinary. A student with a beautiful voice performed Brahms's Ophelia songs, with a piano accompaniment by another gifted musician. Students with a knack for creative writing have composed monologues in the voice of the villainous Iago, short stories depicting an awkward reunion of Shylock and his daughter, Jessica, or even additional scenes in Shakespearean verse. This does not mean that I should abandon the paper assignment; it is an important form of training for a range of very different challenges that lie in their future. But I see that their deep imaginative engagement with Shakespeare, their intoxication, lies elsewhere. And I should add that no one, as far as I can tell, any longer dreams of establishing symbolic descent from Stratford-upon-Avon to substitute for or displace actual descent from Vilnius or Seoul or Johannesburg. Contrary to my expectations, my students at Harvard are far more diverse, in geographical origin, culture and class, than my students ever were at U.C. Berkeley. They embrace this diversity and confidently expect to make their way through a global environment linked by complex digital networks."
There are the challenges of the humanities. Star professors rarely teach. And the profit motive corrupts of our college and universities. Writing in the The Boston Review, Robert L. Kehoe III considers all these criticisms, but hones in the particularly gruesome state of college athletics. "Echoing Albert Camus's belief that the most profound ethical teaching he experienced was on the soccer field, theologian Stanley Hauwerwas has argued, 'The most determinative moral formation most people have in our society is when they learn to play baseball, basketball, quilt, cook, or learn to lay bricks.' That college athletics (and academics) could support the intellectual and moral development of student-athletes, while enhancing the communal strength of campus life, is inarguable. But it is only a sustainable prospect if administrators and faculty at colleges and universities preserve the nonprofit values of higher education and treat athletics as more than a source of entertainment, revenue, and prestige. To do so would demand a vision of athletic education that resists the temptation to profiteer at a time when college football's popularity is soaring. Last season's national championship game garnered the highest ratings in cable TV history, for a contest that featured Ohio State (whose starting quarterback Tweeted about his disregard for academic responsibility) and the University of Oregon (whose football players have an at-best middling graduation rate but enjoy a $68 million locker room paid for by Nike co-founder and Chairman Phil Knight). No amount of compromise or corruption has dissuaded fans and investors from tuning in--with eyeballs and cash. And when those investors include media conglomerates that attempt to do the work of journalism while promoting entertainment they profit from, there can be little hope that visible sports writers and commentators will take a more active role in reforming the current system. As the New York Times reports, media outlets often have a vested interest in the status quo; ESPN, for example, has infused so many billions of dollars into college football that it has effectively become 'both puppet-master and kingmaker, arranging games, setting schedules and bestowing the gift of nationwide exposure on its chosen universities, players and coaches.' In such a landscape, those who question the centrality of football in college life appear little more than tedious gadflies spoiling the tailgate."
An author identifying herself as Michelle G, a student at MIT, acknowledges, "There is empirical evidence to support the idea that males have a higher capacity for spatial reasoning than females." But Michelle G. dives deeply into these and other studies to argue that such "evidence" is a "factual misconception." "I'm guessing that you're familiar with common notions that men are spatial and logical thinkers, while females are more verbally proficient. A man being tested for spatial ability might assume that he's going to have an easier time than a woman of otherwise equal intelligence, his conclusion based not on sexism but on objective science. And statistically speaking, he's right. It is true that men score higher on spatial reasoning tests, though you might have caught on that there's a little bit more to this picture (why would a female MIT student publicize stereotypes that actively work against her?). If you're now wondering whether I'm about to throw some kind of feminist rant at you, I'll give you a 'well, sort of,' because calling out factual misconception is just as important as promoting feminist ideals here, and because I think those two go hand in hand anyway. I'll largely put the romance of egalitarianism aside, though, to talk about empiricism.... I think it's important to acknowledge the very rightful discomfort that arises when scientific studies attempt to trace such differences to biologically determined origins. Yet, across decades of research, no biological cause has actually been identified as a suitable explanation for the spatial reasoning discrepancy. Studies regarding testosterone and mental rotation, for example, found inconsistent or absent effects across cultures, prompting inquiries into 'differing cultural values' to account for the results. And gaps between men's and women's scores on some spatially-geared tests have significantly shrunk in the past few decades, which is interesting because noticeable evolutionary or nature-based development might take thousands of decades to take effect. ('Nurture'-based conditions are of course rapidly changing.) Still though, the gap has lingered, and a satisfying and empirically-supported explanation as to 'what gives' was not achieved until 2008, when researchers eliminated the performance gap under a single simple condition."
Timothy Snyder in the New York Review of Books explores "Hitler's World" and what he finds will surprise some. Above all, human races were likes species involved in a fateful fight to the death. Life was a struggle that followed natural laws, but one that could be influenced by human action. And as Hannah Arendt so clearly emphasized in her Origins of Totalitarianism, Hitler and his Nazi party embraced a movement that transcended nations and states. In short, Nazism was not nationalist, a common misconception. "Hitler's basic critique was not the usual one that human beings were good but had been corrupted by an overly Jewish civilization. It was rather that humans were animals and that any exercise of ethical deliberation was in itself a sign of Jewish corruption. The very attempt to set a universal ideal and strain toward it was precisely what was hateful. Heinrich Himmler, Hitler's most important deputy, did not follow every twist of Hitler's thinking, but he grasped its conclusion: ethics as such was the error; the only morality was fidelity to race. Participation in mass murder, Himmler maintained, was a good act, since it brought to the race an internal harmony as well as unity with nature. The difficulty of seeing, for example, thousands of Jewish corpses marked the transcendence of conventional morality. The temporary strains of murder were a worthy sacrifice to the future of the race. Any nonracist attitude was Jewish, thought Hitler, and any universal idea a mechanism of Jewish dominion. Both capitalism and communism were Jewish. Their apparent embrace of struggle was simply cover for the Jewish desire for world domination. Any abstract idea of the state was also Jewish. 'There is no such thing,' wrote Hitler, 'as the state as an end in itself.' As he clarified, 'the highest goal of human beings' was not 'the preservation of any given state or government, but the preservation of their kind.' The frontiers of existing states would be washed away by the forces of nature in the course of racial struggle: 'One must not be diverted from the borders of Eternal Right by the existence of political borders.' If states were not impressive human achievements but fragile barriers to be overcome by nature, it followed that law was particular rather than general, an artifact of racial superiority rather than an avenue of equality. Hans Frank, Hitler's personal lawyer and during World War II the governor-general of occupied Poland, maintained that the law was built 'on the survival elements of our German people.' Legal traditions based on anything beyond race were 'bloodless abstractions.' Law had no purpose beyond the codification of a Führer's momentary intuitions about the good of his race. The German concept of a Rechtsstaat, a state that operated under the rule of law, was without substance. As Carl Schmitt explained, law served the race, and the state served the race, and so race was the only pertinent concept. The idea of a state held to external legal standards was a sham designed to suppress the strong."
Hua Hsu considers the case of white poet Michael Derrick Hudson, who occasionally published poetry under the assumed identity of a Chinese poet named Yi-Fen Chou but who, very unusually, owned up to the subterfuge when his work was admitted to the 2015 Best American Poetry anthology. The anthology's editor, Sherman Alexie, recently published a blog post about why he included Hudson's poem anyway, and that's where Hsu picks up: "The more revealing aspect of Alexie's response is his account of what attracted him to 'The Bees' once Hudson's calculated hunch had garnered the poem 'a close read.' The poem wasn't obviously 'Chinese,' however you might interpret that, Alexie explains. Instead, it referenced 'Adam and Eve, Poseidon, the Roman Coliseum, and Jesus.' It was, in other words, 'inherently obsessed with European culture.' Alexie goes on, 'When I first read it, I'd briefly wondered about the life story of a Chinese American poet who would be compelled to write a poem with such overt and affectionate European classical and Christian imagery, and I marveled at how interesting many of us are in our cross-cultural lives, and then I tossed the poem on the "maybe" pile that eventually became a "yes" pile.' Alexie is a sharp and self-aware Native American writer and filmmaker, and he didn't necessarily mean to suggest that a Chinese person raised in America wouldn't gravitate toward Western themes. (Isn't that how assimilation works?) But his phrasing reminds me of the odd standard often applied to marginalized voices: in this case, there was something refreshingly noteworthy about a Chinese poet writing about non-Chinese things. Consider the comparative privilege of the white artist, whose experiences are received as 'universal,' even if that artist chooses to assume the guise of the other. Ezra Pound's flawed 'translations' of Chinese poetry, for example, became a key foundation for modernism. The only limitation for such an artist, really, is the extent to which it can all be explained away as an avant-garde game if things get too weird... Perhaps, too, spoofing the Chinese struck Hudson as a relatively safe masquerade, likely to provoke less generalized rage than, say, the fake autobiography of a purported ex-gangster or a Holocaust survivor. Or maybe it was simply more efficient. When it comes to such hoaxes, it seems somehow easier to fake Asia, a land still distant and inscrutable to many Americans; while other hoaxes work because of their thoroughness and care, the Asian-themed sort often get by with only a few details, as long as those details seem just 'Asian' enough. After all, imitating the sound of Asian languages is something of a national pastime, from Mark Twain and Bret Harte's 'Ah Sin' to Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar's 'Cream of Sum Yung Guy.' In 2013, a Bay Area news report about an Asian Air crash listed the pilots' names as Ho Lee Fuk, Wi Tu Lo, Sum Ting Wong, and Bang Ding Ow, presumably because these names appeared sufficiently believable."
Constitution Day (or Citizenship Day) is observed on September 17 to recognize the U.S. Constitution and those who have become U.S. citizens. In honor of Constitution Day, the Arendt Center extends an invitation to attend a lecture by Roger Berkowitz.
"[T]o the extent that they had a positive notion of freedom which would transcend the idea of a successful liberation from tyrants and from necessity, this notion was identified with the act of foundation, that is, the framing of a constitution."
-Hannah Arendt, "On Revolution"
Wednesday, September 23, 2015
Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito '60 Auditorium, Bard College, 5:00 pm
HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.
For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at email@example.com.
Friday, September 11, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm
The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Why Privacy Matters: What Do We Lose When We Lose Our Privacy?," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!
**UPDATE** Registration for our conference is now open! Save your seat for this exciting two-day event here!
Thursday, October 15 and Friday, October 16, 2015
Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm
This week on the Blog, Louise Brinkerhoff discusses how even in solitude there are always two sides in dialogue in the Quote of the Week. Sir Aubrey De Vere comments on how one thought immortalized in ink can lead millions to think in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. We share a chapter from Stephen Most's Stories Make the World, a book which describes how Most applied Arendt's thinking about stories to his work as a filmmaker. Finally, Thierry Ternisien d'Ouville shares with us an image of his personal Arendt library on Twitter in this week's Library feature.
“Snow Fall” is an essay by John Branch that appeared on the NY Times online yesterday. It is, simply, gripping. I read it holding my small screen, shaking, and could not put it down.
Here is how Branch describes the internal life of Elyse Saugstad as she experienced beings swallowed up by an avalanche.
She had no control of her body as she tumbled downhill. She did not know up from down. It was not unlike being cartwheeled in a relentlessly crashing wave. But snow does not recede. It swallows its victims. It does not spit them out.
Snow filled her mouth. She caromed off things she never saw, tumbling through a cluttered canyon like a steel marble falling through pins in a pachinko machine.
At first she thought she would be embarrassed that she had deployed her air bag, that the other expert skiers she was with, more than a dozen of them, would have a good laugh at her panicked overreaction. Seconds later, tumbling uncontrollably inside a ribbon of speeding snow, she was sure this was how she was going to die.
I know the pressures and allure of back-country skiing. Fresh powder and immeasurable quiet beckon. So too do adventure and risk. The first time I hooked up with some off-duty ski-patrollers and went looking for powder outside of a ski-area was one of the great thrills of my life. Standing atop a huge mountain of snow and looking down into the gully below, we prepared our dynamite. They asked me to throw a charge. Reason kicked in a bit and I asked, “This is safe, right? You’re an expert.” The answer I received was direct: “All the experts are dead.”
Adrenaline and camaraderie bring one to the top of a risky and bountiful snowfield. Once fear and reason kick in, it is often too late. Or so it seems.
One of the skiers, Megan Michelson, recalls her misgivings, and how she suppressed them:
"If it was up to me, I would never have gone backcountry skiing with 12 people,” Michelson, the ESPN journalist, said. “That’s just way too many. But there were sort of the social dynamics of that — where I didn’t want to be the one to say, you know, ‘Hey, this is too big a group and we shouldn’t be doing this.’ I was invited by someone else, so I didn’t want to stand up and cause a fuss. And not to play the gender card, but there were 2 girls and 10 guys, and I didn’t want to be the whiny female figure, you know? So I just followed along.” Others suppressed reservations, too.
There is great writing in Branch’s essay. And many life lessons. How did 16 of the best, most knowledgeable back-country skiers in the country make such a colossal misjudgment? Why did they do so, even as some of them knew what they were doing was a mistake? How is technology making us feel safer and take ever-greater risks? What is the place and importance of risk in human life? Branch’s re-creation of the 24 hours bookending the fateful avalanche and the insightful reporting on the persons involved, makes this one of those rare essays appearing in the New York Times recently that should be a must read for all.
As the Arendt Center readies for its annual Winter relocation to the Colorado Rockies, I plan to be skiing on piste this year. I wish you all a happy and healthy Holiday Season.
For now, wherever you are, cuddle up and enjoy Snow Fall. It is your holiday read.