"[T]here is another even more cogent reason for [the layman] concerning himself with a critical situation in which he is not immediately involved. And that is the opportunity, provided by the very fact of crisis—which tears away facades and obliterates prejudices—to explore and inquire into whatever has been laid bare of the essence of the matter…"
-Hannah Arendt, "The Crisis in Education"
It is often said that the Chinese word for “crisis,” or weiji, means a combination of “danger” and “opportunity,” and every so often the trope appears in the highest echelons of American politics. Linguist Benjamin Zimmer cites its frequent use by John F. Kennedy in speeches leading into the 1960 presidential election; and more recently, Al Gore in 2006-7 used weiji to anchor both his Congressional testimony on the problem of climate change, and his Vanity Fair article (“The Moment of Truth”) concerning the same. During her January 2007 trip to the Middle East, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters of conditions in the region, "I don't read Chinese but I am told that the Chinese character for crisis is wei-ji, which means both danger and opportunity…And I think that states it very well. We'll try to maximize the opportunity."
This use of weiji has irked some linguists. Zimmer calls Gore’s Chinese riff a “linguistic canard” and writes that in all these cases, “[T]he trope was deployed for similar effect: as a framing technique for describing current perils posed by a particular world crisis and future possibilities for resolving that crisis. Thus it allows the speaker to shift rhetorical footing from pessimism to optimism, ending with an upbeat tone and a call to action.” Victor H. Mair, a professor of Chinese language and literature at UPenn, identifies a “fatal” error of interpretation that centers on the second character, ji, which rather than “opportunity,” here means something like “incipient moment; crucial point (when something begins or changes).” Thus, “A weiji indicates a perilous situation when one should be especially wary. It is not a juncture when one goes looking for advantages and benefits.”
To those still seeking New Age wisdom in the danger/opportunity coupling, Mair points to the old Greek usage. Modern “crisis” stems from the Greek krinein, meaning to separate, decide, or judge. The word reached Middle English in the 15th century via Latin, and the Oxford English Dictionary says that by mid-16th century it meant judgment related specifically to sickness and the sudden change of disease (The Online Etymology Dictionary cites Hippocrates using krinein in the same way.). Soon thereafter it referred more generally to “A vitally important or decisive stage in the progress of anything; a turning-point,” as well as judgment or decision simply, and “A point by which to judge; a criterion; token; sign.”
In moments of crisis the important connection between “danger” and “opportunity” centers on their common source in a disruption of normal order, a disruption that entails instability and volatility, but also openings to previously precluded or unimagined possibilities for action. The moment of crisis is transient, and in political matters the statesman’s virtue is two-fold—not only to manage (or “seize”) a crisis situation, but also to recognize the situation when it arises (See Lenin, “The Crisis Has Matured,” September 29, 1917) or foresee its coming. By recognizing a crisis for what it is—a moment of decision—we can wrest the decision to ourselves.
Hannah Arendt’s essay “The Crisis in Education” seems to offer a different understanding of social and political crisis—one less concerned with critical moments and more concerned with the “elemental structures” of modernity that “crystallize” over time and manifest today in a variety of ways. The essay starts by observing that “The general crisis that has overtaken the modern world everywhere and in almost every sphere of life manifests itself differently in each country, involving different areas and taking on different forms.” In America the general crisis has assumed the form of “the recurring crisis in education that, during the last decade at least, has become a political problem of the first magnitude[.]” This introduces a recurring theme in the essay, that while examining a particular political crisis in America, the essay is also—and perhaps more fundamentally—about “a more general crisis and instability in modern society.”
This more general crisis is the modern crisis of authority that is “closely connected with the crisis of tradition…the crisis in our attitude towards the realm of the past.” Seeing how this bears on the crisis of education requires examining “whatever has been laid bare of the essence of the matter, and the essence of education is natality, the fact that human beings are born into the world.” At the same time, Arendt writes, “Basically we are always educating for a world that is or is becoming out of joint,” a world that, because it is made by mortals, “runs the risk of becoming as mortal as they.” And thus—because the essence of education is natality, and the “newcomers” need a world in which to live and act, but the world in which we live and act constantly “is or is becoming out of joint”—the problem of education concerns how to stabilize this world for the “newcomers” without also stifling their capacity to renew or even drastically alter it: “Exactly for the sake of what is new and revolutionary in every child,” Arendt writes, “education must be conservative; it must preserve this newness and introduce it as a new thing into an old world[.]”
Here the crisis of modernity and education converge—for the process of giving students a world has historically relied on the authority of tradition and the past. But if these authorities can no longer be relied upon, then what remains? Stunningly, Arendt locates a new authority for modern conditions in the teacher’s “assumption of responsibility for that world.”
Arendt’s account of the American crisis of education illustrates the connection between local political crises around the world and a larger civilizational crisis. Indeed, a central goal of “The Crisis in Education” is to highlight the blind spots in understanding that result when one regards “a local phenomenon” like the crisis of education as “unconnected with the larger issues of the century, to be blamed on certain peculiarities of life in the United States” (as for example its history of “continuous immigration”). To localize such problems is tempting because “However clearly a general problem may present itself in a crisis, it is nevertheless impossible ever to isolate completely the universal element from the concrete and specific circumstances in which it makes its appearance.” But while “There is always a temptation to believe that we are dealing with specific problems confined within historical and national boundaries and of importance only to those immediately affected”— “It is precisely this belief that in our time has consistently proved false” (emphasis added).
This false belief prevents us from, among other things, ascertaining “which aspects of the modern world and its crisis have actually revealed themselves” (in a local crisis)—that is, “the true reasons that for decades things could be said and done in such glaring contradiction to common sense.” And events continue in this manner due in part to the illusion that situation-specific and/or scientific solutions, which may (or may not) satisfactorily solve local problems in the short term, actually touch upon the heart of the matter. The illusion manifests in “repeat performance” of the crisis, “though perhaps different in form, since there are no limits to the possibilities of nonsense and capricious notions that can be decked out as the last word in science.” Arendt’s criticism of the futility of pragmatist pedagogy in addressing the crisis of authority in the classroom represents a case in point.
In recent months and years, few words have achieved more prominence in Washington politics than crisis. As recently as February 3, President Obama said in a CBS interview that “Washington cannot continually operate under a cloud of crisis.” And following the latest inconclusive negotiations over the country’s fiscal situation and looming (depending on who you ask) “debt crisis,” a recent article in the Huffington Post bemoans the “pattern of a Congress that governs from crisis to crisis” that has become “all too familiar—and predictable. The trend goes something like this: As a deadline approaches, Republicans repeat their calls for spending cuts. Democrats accuse Republicans of hostage-taking. A short-term agreement is then reached that averts economic calamity, but ultimately kicks the can down the road for yet another fight.”
What does it mean for a Congress to routinely “govern from crisis to crisis”? Does “governing by crisis” constitute functioning politics, or a political crisis of the first order? In The Crisis in Education Arendt writes that “the very fact of crisis…tears away facades and obliterates prejudices,” and allows one “to explore and inquire into whatever has been laid bare of the essence of the matter.” But to state the obvious, if “the very fact of crisis…tears away facades and obliterates prejudices,” then such tearing and obliteration requires that “the very fact of crisis” be recognized and acknowledged. In the current governing crisis in Washington, what fundamentally new, to say nothing of unprejudiced, questions—other than how Washington’s two parties will “compromise” and avoid self-destruction—have been asked? Who has spoken seriously, truthfully, and critically, in an effort to lay bare the essence of the matter?
At a time when happenings in Washington “could be said and done in such glaring contradiction to common sense” (How else are we to understand “governing by crisis”?), Hannah Arendt reminds us to seek out and overcome those “prejudices” and “preformed judgments”—including the obligatory moves to technocratic and ideological narratives—that preclude the introduction of new questions and corresponding answers that require direct and original judgments and, perhaps most importantly, thinking and responsibility. Counterintuitively, in such situations Arendt highlights the importance of questions rather than solutions in confronting political crisis—that the proper response to crisis requires thinking rather than knowledge. To narrowly search for efficient policy “solutions” or ideological “compromises” based on prior prejudices simply misses the point.
If crisis does not seem especially urgent to Arendt in “The Crisis on Education,” she does warn that, in the end, “unreflective perseverance…can only…lead to ruin.” Ironically, one of the prejudiced assumptions that seems most prevalent in Congress today—that abandoning one’s prejudices and preformed judgments spells political death—may be most indicative of our current political crisis.–—And yet if, as Arendt suggests on more than one occasion, one answer to the modern crisis of authority lies in the “assumption of responsibility”—be it responsibility for the world in the classroom, responsibility for extraordinary action in politics (Arendt once attributed Lenin’s revolutionary authority to his singular willingness to “assume responsibility for the revolution after it happened.”), or even responsibility for truthful speech (as opposed to “mere talk”) and action in normal, everyday politics—then notwithstanding whatever the American crisis is, whoever has the courage to speak truthfully and accept political responsibility may wake up to find real power and opportunity suddenly within his grasp.
Louis Pasteur once wrote:
I see everywhere in the world, the inevitable expression of the concept of infinity…. The idea of God is nothing more than one form of the idea of infinity. So long as the mystery of the infinite weighs on the human mind, so long will temples be raised to the cult of the infinite, whether it be called Bramah, Allah, Jehovah, or Jesus…. The Greeks understood the mysterious power of the hidden side of things. They bequethed to us one of the most beautiful words in our language—the word ‘enthusiasm’—En Theos—“A God Within.” The grandeur of human actions is measured by the inspiration from which they spring. Happy is he who hears a god within, and who obeys it. The ideals of art, of science, are lighted by reflection from the infinite.
To bear a god within is not an easy task for us mortals. The god within—even more so than the god without—demands to be obeyed. Having a god inside us—or Socrates like a daimon on our shoulder—is no recipe for happiness.
It can lead to unbearable obligation and even to martyrdom. And, if the god is a muse, it can lead to the travails of the artist.
All great art and all great artists are consumed by the infinite. As Oscar Wilde once wrote, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars.” Those are the artists, the ones who amidst the muck feel part of something higher, something everlasting, the infinite.
The great enemy of the infinite is reason. Reason is calculating. It is rational. It is logical. It insists that everything is knowable and comprehensible. Ends justify means. And means can achieve ends. Reason insists on explanation. The self—the mystery—must be made knowable.
David Brooks in the NY Times today lauds the entry of behavioral psychology into politics and policy. We want to know, he writes, how to get people to vote and how to get congress to cut the deficit. If science can tell us how what to put in their drinking water, how to frame the question, what books to read to them in vitro, or how to rewire their brains to be rational, wouldn’t that make policy all the more reasonable? Wouldn’t that be a good thing?
Science can make us more rational. That of course is the dream of people like Ray Kurzweil as well as the social scientists who insist that humans can be studied like rats. Let’s not object to the fact. We can be studied like rats and that is what university social science departments around the country and the world are doing everyday. This research is eminently useful, as Brooks rightly remarks. If we employ it, we can be made to be more reasonable.
What the rationalization of humanity means, however, is not a question science can answer. Max Weber began the study of the rationalization of mankind when he proposed that the rise of the enlightenment and the age of reason was bringing about an “Entzauberung” or a “de-magicification” of the world. Capitalism emerged at this time for a number of reasons, but one main reason, Weber understood, was that capitalism provided in the profit motive rational and objective criteria for measuring human endeavors. The problem, as Weber so well understood, is that the elevation of reason and rationality brought about the devaluation of all highest values—what Nietzsche would call nihilism. This is because reason, derived from ratio, is always a relation. All values are relative. In such a world, nothing is infinite. Stuck amidst the relations of means and ends, everything is a calculation. All is a game. There is no purpose or meaning to the game of life. As we become more rational, we also become less consumed by the infinite. That is the true danger of the rise of the social sciences and our rationality-consumed culture that insists that all human behavior be made understandable so that it can be made better.
In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt is concerned with the way that the rise of reason and rationality is challenging the quintessence of the human condition—at least as that human condition has been experienced and known since the dawn of humanity. The rise of the social sciences, she writes over and over, are subjecting the mystery and fecundity of human action to the law of large numbers. While each and every human action may in itself be surprising and mysterious, it is nevertheless true that studied in groups and analyzed over time, human action does fall into comprehensible patterns. The more we study and know these patterns, the more we come to think of humans as predictable animals rather than surprising and spontaneous selves. This sociological and psychological reduction of man to animal is very much at the heart of what Arendt is opposing in her book.
Nowhere is the rationality of our times more visible than in the victory of labor and the marginalization of art. We are, all of us, laborers today. That is why the first question we ask others we meet is: What do you do? Our labor defines us. It gives our lives meaning in that it assigns us a use and a value. Even professors, judges, and presidents now say regularly: this is my job. By which we mean, don’t blame us for what we do. Don’t hold me to some higher standard. Don’t expect miracles. It is our job to do this. We do this to make a living.
The one group in society who is at times excepted from this reduction to labor is artists. But even the artist is today is taken less and less seriously. Insofar as artists are enthusiasts consumed with the infinite, they are ignored or viewed as marginal. Art is reduced to playfulness. A hobby. “From the standpoint of “making a living,” every activity unconnected with labor becomes a “hobby.”” And those artists who are taken seriously, whose work is bought and sold on the art market, turn artistic work into the job of making a living.
Art, Arendt writes, is a process of magic. Citing a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, she insists that the magic of art is the artist’s transfiguration of something ordinary—the canvas, clay or word—into something extraordinary, an expression of the infinite in the finite world of things.
Because art figures the infinite, poetry is the “most human” of the arts and the art that “remains closest to the thought that inspired it.” The poem, of all artworks, is the most lasting because its medium is the least subject to decay. It is the closest expression of the infinite we humans possess.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose resonance with Arendt in so many things has been too infrequently remarked, agrees that poetry is the art form in which the individual artist can access and figure in the world a public and common truth. In “The Poet,” Emerson writes:
It is a secret which every intellectual man quickly learns, that beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect, he is capable of a new energy (as of an intellect doubled on itself ), by abandonment to the nature of things; that, beside his privacy of power as an individual man, there is a great public power on which he can draw by unlocking, at all risks, his human doors and suffering the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through him: then he is caught up into the life of the universe; his speech is thunder; his thought is law, and his words are universally intelligible as the plants and animals. The poet knows that he speaks adequately, then, only when he speaks somewhat wildly, or, “with the flower of the mind”; not with the intellect used as an organ but with the intellect released from all service…inebriated by nectar. As the traveler who has lost his way throws his reins on his horse’s neck and trusts to the instinct of the animal to find his road, so must we do with the divine animal who carries us through this world. For if in any manner we can stimulate this instinct, new passages are opened for us into nature, the mind flows into and through things hardest and highest, and the metamorphosis is possible. This is the reason why bards love wine, mead, narcotics, coffee, tea, opium, the fumes of sandalwood and tobacco, or whatever other species of animal exhilaration. All men avail themselves of such means as they can to add this extraordinary power to their normal powers, and to this end they prize conversation, music, pictures, sculpture, dancing, theaters, traveling, wars, mobs, fires, gaming, politics, or love, or science, or animal intoxication, which are several coarser or finer quasi-mechanical substitutes for the true nectar, which is the ravishment of the intellect by coming nearer to the fact.
I take this quotation from Emerson’s “The Poet” from an exceptional recent essay by Sven Birkirts. The essay appears in the latest edition of Lapham’s Quarterly, an entire issue focusing on the merits and need for inebriation.
As Birkirts writes:
For Emerson, the intoxication is not escape but access, a means of getting closer to “the fact,” which might, with heartfelt imprecision, be called life itself. What he means by “public power,” I think, is something like what Carl Jung and others later meant by the phrase collective unconscious, the emphasis falling on the unconscious, that posited reservoir of our shared archetypes and primordial associations—that which reason by itself cannot fathom, for it is, in essence, antithetical to reason.
Birkirt’s reflects not only on the need for inebriation in the pursuit of artistic infinity, but also on the decreasing potency of intoxicants today. For him, the rise of the mass market in art, the globalization of experience, the accessibility of all information all have made the world smaller, knowable, and accountable. What is lost in such access is precisely the portal to the infinite.
Artistically and in almost every other way ours has become a culture of proliferation. Information, perspectives, as well as the hypercharged clips and images of our global experience are within the radius of the keystroke. Nothing is unspoken, nothing is unaccounted. Every taste is given a niche and every niche is catered to. Here, one might argue, is more material than ever; here are opportunities for even greater acts of synthesis. But I am skeptical. Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” The temptation is to invert the phrases and ascribe causality: where everything is permitted, nothing is true. Where nothing is true, where is the Emersonian fact to be found? This bears directly on the artist’s task. The idea that writers can keep producing grandly synthesizing or totalizing work—that has the ring of truth, of mattering—is debatable.
Birkirt’s essay may not be the intoxicant of your choice this weekend, but it should be. It is your weekend read. And you might check out the surprising selection at the bar at Lapham’s Quarterly as well.
And for those with time to spare: Arthur Koestler, from whom I first learned of the Louis Pasteur quote at the top of this essay, was consumed with the connection between intoxication and the infinite. I have discussed Koestler’s pursuit of the infinite at length. You can read that discussion here.