Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
24May/150

The Dystopia of Knowledge

man machine

Featured Image Source: IMG Arcade

By Jennifer M. Hudson

**This post was originally published on February 17, 2014.**

“This future man, whom the scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years, seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself.”

-- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

The future man of whom Arendt writes is one who has been released from earthly ties, from nature. He has been released from earth as a physical space but also as “the quintessence of the human condition.” He will have been able to “create life in a test tube” and “extend man’s life-span far beyond the hundred-year limit.” The idea that this man would wish to exchange his given existence for something artificial is part of a rather intricate intellectual historical argument about the development of modern science.

The more man has sought after perfect knowledge of nature, the more he has found himself in nature’s stead, and the more uncertain he has felt, and the more he has continued to seek, with dire consequences. This is the essential idea. The negative consequences are bundled together within Arendt’s term, “world alienation,” and signify, ultimately, the endangerment of possibilities for human freedom. Evocative of dystopian fiction from the first half of the twentieth century, this theme has enjoyed renewed popularity in our current world of never-ending war and ubiquitous surveillance facilitated by technical innovation.

privacy

(Source: Digital Trends)

Arendt’s narration gravitates around Galileo’s consummation of the Copernican revolution, which marks the birth of “the modern astrophysical world view.” The significance of Galileo, Arendt writes, is that with him we managed to find “the Archimedean point” or the universal point of view. This is an imagined point outside the earth from which it should be possible to make objective observations and formulate universal natural laws. Our reaching of the Archimedean point, without leaving the earth, was responsible for natural science’s greatest triumphs and the extreme pace of discovery and technical innovation.

This was also a profoundly destabilizing achievement, and Arendt’s chronicle of its cultural effects takes on an almost psychological resonance. While we had known since Plato that the senses were unreliable for the discovery of truth, she says, Galileo’s telescope told us that we could not trust our capacity for reason, either. Instead, a manmade instrument had shown us the truth, undermining both reason and faith in reason.

In grappling with the resulting radical uncertainty, we arrived at Descartes’ solution of universal doubt. Arendt describes this as a turn towards introspection, which provides a solution insofar as it takes place within the confines of one’s mind. External forces cannot intrude here, at least upon the certainty that mental processes are true in the sense that they are real. Man’s turn within himself afforded him some control. This is because it corresponded with “the most obvious conclusion to be drawn from the new physical science: though one cannot know truth as something given and disclosed, man can at least know what he makes himself.” According to Arendt, this is the fundamental reasoning that has driven science and discovery at an ever-quickening pace. It is at the source of man’s desire to exchange his given existence “for something he has made himself.”

The discovery of the Archimedean point with Galileo led us to confront our basic condition of uncertainty, and the Cartesian solution was to move the Archimedean point inside man. The human mind became the ultimate point of reference, supported by a mathematical framework that it produces itself. Mathematics, as a formal structure produced by the mind, became the highest expression of knowledge. As a consequence, “common sense” was internalized and lost its worldly, relational aspect. If common sense only means that all of us will arrive at the same answer to a mathematical question, then it refers to a faculty that is internally held by individuals rather than one that fits us each into the common world of all, with each other, which is Arendt’s ideal. She points to the loss of common sense as a crucial aspect of “world alienation.”

This loss is closely related to Arendt’s concerns about threats to human political communication. She worries that we have reached the point at which the discoveries of science are no longer comprehensible. They cannot be translated from the language of mathematics into speech, which is at the core of Arendt’s notion of political action and freedom.

The threat to freedom is compounded when we apply our vision from the Archimedean point to ourselves. Arendt cautions, “If we look down from this point upon what is going on on earth and upon the various activities of men, … then these activities will indeed appear to ourselves as no more than ‘overt behavior,’ which we can study with the same methods we use to study the behavior of rats.” (“The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man” in Between Past and Future)

She argues against the behaviorist perspective on human affairs as a false one, but more frightening for her is the fact it could become reality. We may be seeking this transformation through our desire to control and know and thus live in a world that we have ourselves created. When we look at human affairs from the Archimedean, objective scientific point of view, our behavior appears to be analyzable, predictable, and uniform like the activity of subatomic particles or the movement of celestial bodies. We are choosing to look at things with such far remove that, like these other activities and movements, they are beyond the grasp of experience. “World alienation” refers to this taking of distance, which collapses human action into behavior. The purpose would be to remedy the unbearable condition of contingency, but in erasing contingency, by definition, we erase the unexpected events that are the worldly manifestations of human freedom.

To restate the argument in rather familiar terms: Our quest for control, to put an end to the unbearable human condition of uncertainty and contingency, leads to a loss of both control and freedom. This sentiment should be recognizable as a hallmark of the immediate post-war period, represented in works of fiction like Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Beckett’s Endgame, and Orwell’s 1984. We can also find it even earlier in Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Huxley’s Brave New World. There has been a recent recovery and reemergence of the dystopian genre, at least in one notable case, and with it renewed interest in Arendt’s themes as they are explored here.

Dave Eggers’ The Circle, released in 2013, revolves around an imagined Bay Area cultish tech company that is a combination of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and PayPal. In its apparent quest for progress, convenience, and utility, it creates an all-encompassing universe in which all of existence is interpreted in terms of data points and everything is recorded. The protagonist, an employee of the Circle, is eventually convinced to “go transparent,” meaning that her every moment is live streamed and recorded, with very few exceptions. Reviews of the book have emphasized our culture of over-sharing and the risks to privacy that this entails. They have also drawn parallels between this allegorical warning and the Snowden revelations. Few, though, if any, have discussed the book in terms of the human quest for absolute knowledge in order to eliminate uncertainty and contingency, with privacy as collateral damage.

The Circle

(Source: Amazon)

In The Circle, the firm promotes transparency and surveillance as solutions to crime and corruption. Executives claim that through acquired knowledge and technology, anything is possible, including social harmony and world peace. The goal is to organize human affairs in a harmonious way using technical innovation and objective knowledge. This new world is to be man made so that it can be manipulated for progressive ends. In one key conversation, Mae, the main character, confronts one of the three firm leaders, saying, “… you can’t be saying that everyone should know everything,” to which he replies, “… I’m saying that everyone should have a right to know everything and should have the tools to know anything. There’s not enough time to know everything, though I certainly wish there was.”

In this world, there are several senses in which man has chosen to replace existence as given with something he has made himself. First and most obviously, new gadgets dazzle him at every turn, and he is dependent on them. Second, he reduces all information “to the measure of the human mind.” The technical innovations and continuing scientific discoveries are made with the help of manmade instruments, such that: “Instead of objective qualities … we find instruments, and instead of nature or the universe—in the words of Heisenberg—man encounters only himself.” (The Human Condition, p. 261) Everything is reduced to a mathematical calculation. An employee’s (somewhat forced) contributions to the social network are tabulated and converted into “retail raw,” the dollar measure of consumption they have inspired (through product placement, etc.). All circlers are ranked, in a competitive manner, according to their presence on social media. The effects in terms of Arendt’s notion of common sense are obvious. Communication takes place in flat, dead prose. Some reviewers have criticized Eggers for the writing style, but what appears to be bad writing actually matches the form to the content in this case.

Finally, it is not enough to experience reality here; all experience must be recorded, stored, and made searchable by the Circle. Experience is thus replaced with a man made replica. Again, the logic is that we can only know what we produce ourselves. As all knowledge is organized according to human artifice, the human mind, observing from a sufficient distance, can find the patterns within it. These forms, pleasing to the mind, are justifiable because they work.

mind patterns

(Source: Medical Science Navigator)

They produce practical successes. Here, harmony is discovered because it is created. Arendt writes:

“If it should be true that a whole universe, or rather any number of utterly different universes will spring into existence and ‘prove’ whatever over-all pattern the human mind has constructed, then man may indeed, for a moment, rejoice in a reassertion of the ‘pre-established harmony between pure mathematics and physics,’ between mind and matter, between man and the universe. But it will be difficult to ward off the suspicion that this mathematically preconceived world may be a dream world where every dreamed vision man himself produces has the character of reality only as long as the dream lasts.”

If harmony is artificially created, then it can only last so long as it is enforced. Indeed, in the end of the novel, when the “dream” is revealed as nightmare, Mae is faced with the choice of prolonging it. We can find a similar final moment of hope in The Human Condition. As she often does, Arendt has set up a crushing course of events, a seeming onslaught of catastrophe, but she leaves us with at least one ambiguous ray of light: “The idea that only what I am going to make will be real—perfectly true and legitimate in the realm of fabrication—is forever defeated by the actual course of events, where nothing happens more frequently than the totally unexpected.”

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
27Apr/151

Amor Mundi 4/26/15

Arendtamormundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

amor_mundi_sign-upWill It Never End?

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

How About Improving High Schools?

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

Your Smart Things, They're Spying On You

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

amor_mundi_sign-upMindfulness and Social Control

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

Feeling and Thinking

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

The Fiction and the Fact

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

What We Talk About When We Talk About Dresses

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

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

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

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

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

Free and open to the public!

Monday, May 4, 2015

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


human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #8

HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.

For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at dbisson@bard.edu.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm

 

 


privacy con 2015 (temp)SAVE THE DATE - 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015

The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Privacy: Why Does It Matter?," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!


From the Arendt Center Blog

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

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
9Feb/150

Amor Mundi 2/8/15

Arendtamormundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

amor_mundi_sign-up
Creative Entrepreneurship

creativityThe artist, Hannah Arendt wrote, was the last person who could resist the dominant role of laborer and produce works that transfigured the everyday into the extraordinary. To do so, she saw, required the artist to exist outside of society as a conscious pariah, in solitude, where the artist could acquire his or her unique and original thoughts about the world. Bill Deresiewicz has an essay in The Atlantic on the transformation of artists into creative entrepreneurs. "Creative entrepreneurship, to start with what is most apparent, is far more interactive, at least in terms of how we understand the word today, than the model of the artist-as-genius, turning his back on the world, and even than the model of the artist as professional, operating within a relatively small and stable set of relationships. The operative concept today is the network, along with the verb that goes with it, networking.... What we see in the new paradigm--in both the artist's external relationships and her internal creative capacity--is what we see throughout the culture: the displacement of depth by breadth. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? No doubt some of both, in a ratio that's yet to be revealed." But Deresiewicz clearly has his worries: "It's hard to believe that the new arrangement will not favor work that's safer: more familiar, formulaic, user-friendly, eager to please--more like entertainment, less like art. Artists will inevitably spend a lot more time looking over their shoulder, trying to figure out what the customer wants rather than what they themselves are seeking to say. The nature of aesthetic judgment will itself be reconfigured. 'No more gatekeepers,' goes the slogan of the Internet apostles. Everyone's opinion, as expressed in Amazon reviews and suchlike, carries equal weight--the democratization of taste. Judgment rested with the patron, in the age of the artisan. In the age of the professional, it rested with the critic, a professionalized aesthete or intellectual. In the age of the genius, which was also the age of avant-gardes, of tremendous experimental energy across the arts, it largely rested with artists themselves. 'Every great and original writer,' Wordsworth said, 'must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished.' But now we have come to the age of the customer, who perforce is always right."   

What Do We Hold in Common?

common worldThe common world, that world of appearance we share amidst are meaningful differences, is ever more fragile. In her book The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt worries that we lose faith in anything true or great that could unite plural individuals in a common world. She sees that the loss of a concern with immortality and with acts, deeds, and works that deserve to be remembered would deprive us of a shared world. All politics, Arendt writes, demands transcendence in the sense that we step beyond our solipsistic experiences and enter a world we share with others. Pursuing this Arendtian theme, Michael W. Clune in the LA Review of Books explores the effort of some contemporary art to cultivate the experience of "mere appearance," appearances so fleeting that they resist any shared commonality. Such art celebrates the radically individual transcendental experience against the transcendence of a common world: "Here is the fact: Something is wrong with the world. There is a fundamental flaw in society. Relations between people seem to have something wrong with them. Something ... off. Sometimes, when I want to share something with you, I realize that my experience has an unsharable dimension. I realize that we encounter each other only by peering across the thick boundary of our social personas. I don't know how to fix this problem, but I don't like it. I can only meet other people on the terrain of a common world that seems too heavy, too alien, too uncomfortable, too cold. Sometimes I protest by looking away, by watching the part of my experience that none of you can touch." For Clune, the effort of contemporary artists to dwell in mere appearance is, but is not only, a "turn away from the world."

Praising Cheap Pop Culture

comicsTa-Nehisi Coates discusses the importance of popular art that's cheap to produce: "One reason why I still enjoy books, including comic books, is that there's still more room for a transgressive diversity. If Greg Pak wants to create an Amadeus Cho, he doesn't have to worry about whether America is ready for a Korean-American protagonist. Or rather, he doesn't have to put millions of dollars behind it. I don't know what that means to a young, Asian-American comic books fan. But when I was eight, the fact that Storm could exist--as she was, and in a way that I knew the rest of society did not accept--meant something. Outside of hip-hop, it was in comics that I most often found the aesthetics and wisdom of my world reflected. Monica Rambeau was my first Captain Marvel. James Rhodes was the first Iron Man I knew...one reason I'm always cautious about the assumption that everything is improved by turning it into a movie is that the range of possibility necessarily shrinks. I'd frankly be shocked if we ever see a Storm, in all her fullness and glory, in a film."

The Right to be Forgotten

right to be forgottenIf you carry a cell-phone, use the internet, or walk down the street, you abandon your expectation of privacy. Even in your home, your life is increasingly transparent. There is no place to hide from the bright light of the public. But in Europe, unlike in the United States, there is an effort to think about the right to have your private failures publicly forgotten. Heather Roff explores how this might work. "Last year, The European Court of Justice ruled in Google vs. Costeja that European citizens have the right, under certain circumstances, to request search engines like Google, to remove links that contain personal information about them. The Court held that in instances where data is 'inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive' individuals may request the information to be erased and delinked from the search engines. This 'right to be forgotten' is a right that is intended to support and complement an individual's privacy rights. It is not absolute, but must be balanced 'against other fundamental rights, such as freedom of expression and of the media' (paragraph 85 of the ruling). In the case of Costeja, he asked that a 1998 article in a Spanish newspaper be delinked from his name, for in that article, information pertaining to an auction of his foreclosed home appeared. Mr. Costeja subsequently paid the debt, and so on these grounds, the Court ruled that the link to his information was no longer relevant. The case did not state that information regarding Mr. Costeja has to be erased, or that the newspaper article eliminated, merely that the search engine result did not need to make this particular information 'ubiquitous.' The idea is that in an age of instantaneous and ubiquitous information about private details, individuals have a right to try to balance their personal privacy against other rights, such as freedom of speech." Privacy, and why it matters, will be the theme of the Hannah Arendt Center's 8th annual conference this October 15-16th. Save the Date.

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With Liberty and Justice for All

boko haramSlavoj Zizek considers the possibilities of solidarity in the shadow of neoliberalism and colonialism: "It was relatively easy to identify with the Charlie Hebdo journalists, but it would have been much more difficult to announce: 'We are all from Baga!' (For those who don't know: Baga is a small town in the north-east of Nigeria where Boko Haram executed two thousand people.) The name 'Boko Haram' can be roughly translated as 'Western education is forbidden,' specifically the education of women. How to account for the weird fact of a massive sociopolitical movement whose main aim is the hierarchic regulation of the relationship between the sexes? Why do Muslims who were undoubtedly exposed to exploitation, domination and other destructive and humiliating aspects of colonialism, target in their response the best part (for us, at least) of the Western legacy, our egalitarianism and personal freedoms, including the freedom to mock all authorities? One answer is that their target is well chosen: the liberal West is so unbearable because it not only practises exploitation and violent domination, but presents this brutal reality in the guise of its opposite: freedom, equality and democracy."

The Great Email Silence

emailLucy Kellaway explores the excruciating and unbounded silence of unanswered emails. "Silence is not just a response to job searches, but to pitches, invitations, proposed meetings, memos, general requests--or to anything sent by email. From this non-communication everyone loses, though some more than others. For the purveyors of silence, not replying may be neither polite nor efficient, but is vital for survival. Every day I fail to reply to dozens of messages as with so much dross coming in, silence is the only way of staying sane. But such sanity on one side breeds insanity on the other. The jobseeker is demented by the silence--the certainty of rejection, he told me, would have been kind by comparison. On any given day I am anywhere between mildly and debilitatingly anxious about why assorted people have failed to reply to my messages. Was the silence that greeted a slightly cheeky email due to disgust at its fresh tone? When I sent an email containing the outline of a column idea in it, was the resulting silence dismay? Or disagreement? Or something else entirely? What is so distracting about silence on email is that it is impossible to fathom. When you are speaking to someone, you can see whether they are struck dumb from amazement, disapproval or boredom. But emails give no clues. Has the person even seen your message? Are they deliberately ignoring you? Are they disgusted? Busy? Out of battery? Or could it be that--as often happens to me--they have read the message on their mobile without reading glasses to hand, and by the time they have got their glasses the moment has passed." Kellaway has some excellent insights into how and when to nag or follow up on email. But no techniques will eradicate the nausea of email overload or the anxiety of unanswered emails.

The Humor in the Crowd

larry wilmoreIan Crouch lauds new Larry Wilmore's Comedy Central fake news show, The Nightly Report, as he chronicles its growing pains: "The show has included the kinds of voices that don't normally get much of a fair airing on Comedy Central, or in the wider Jon Stewart produced or inspired universe of political comedy. Last Wednesday, the conservative radio host David Webb could be seen defending the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. The night before, an anti-vaccine activist named Zoey O'Toole argued that immunization should be more about individual choice than public safety. This week, the Baptist pastor Michel Faulkner talked about his opposition to gay marriage. None of these arguments were particularly persuasive or, to the average Comedy Central viewer, likely even plausible, but they were at least freely expressed, as part of the show's nightly unscripted discussion between Wilmore and a changing four-person panel made up of journalists, politicians, activists, and comedians. One of the trademarks of Comedy Central's political comedy has been its insularity. The sets of Stewart and Colbert were safe spaces for liberals to mock the powerful and fatuous, and laugh together through their shared outrage. The chanting and hooting from the studio audience was polite liberalism tapping into its id. On 'Colbert,' the anti-vaxxer would have been discredited by the eager support of the idiotic Colbert character; on 'The Daily Show,' she would have been openly ridiculed. Here, Wilmore and the other guests on the panel mostly tried to reason with her, which is more generous, and perhaps even more useful, than simple excoriation or humiliation. But can the search for consensus or good will be funny? 'I'm not interested in doing a show where I give my opinion and people react to my opinion,' Wilmore said a few weeks ago, during a press appearance. 'Our show is more about the discovery of things. I want people who will teach me something.' So far, however, there has been little evidence of discovery."

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Featured Events

 arendtNow Accepting Applications for Post-Doctoral Fellowships!

The Hannah Arendt Center announces three post-doctoral fellowships for the 2015-2016 academic year.

To learn more about the fellowships, including how to apply, click here.

Application Deadline: Thursday, March 5, 2015


eyal press Courage To Be: Lecture and Dinner Series, with Eyal Press

The Courage To Refuse

Monday, February 9, 2015

Kline Faculty Dining Room, 6:00 pm


angela maioneLunchtime Talk with Angela Maione, our Klemens Von Klemperer Post-Doctoral Fellow

"Wollstonecraft and the Right to Political Community

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Hannah Arendt Center, 6:00 - 7:00 pm


the decent oneScreening of The Decent One and Q&A with Director Vanessa Lapa and Sound Designer Tomer Eliav

The film is based on the newly discovered diaries of Heinrich Himmler. Watch a trailer here.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Campus Center, Weis Cinema, 6:00 - 9:00 pm

 

 

 


charles snyderLunchtime Talk with Charles Snyder, a Hannah Arendt Center Post-Doctoral Fellow

"Natality and its Vicissitudes"

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Hannah Arendt Center, 12:00 pm

 

 


uday mehtaCourage To Be: Lecture and Dinner Series, with Uday Mehta

Putting Courage at the Centre: Gandhi on Civility, Society and Self-Knowledge

Monday, March 30, 2015

Manor House Cafe, 6:00 pm

 


sa poverty Property and Freedom: Are Access to Legal Title and Assets the Path to Overcoming Poverty in South Africa?

A one-day conference sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, the Human Rights Project, and the Center for Civic Engagement, with support from the Ford Foundation, The Brenthurst Foundation, and The University of The Western Cape

Monday, April 6, 2015

Bard College Campus Center, Weis Cinema, 10:00 am - 7:00 pm


privacy con 2015 (temp)SAVE THE DATE - 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015

The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Privacy: Why Does It Matter?," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!


From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Ian Storey discusses how a problem of language and appearance in our society fails to account for untold millions of people who are suffering in the Quote of the Week. J. William Fulbright provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. And we appreciate a particular passage that Arendt underlined in Machiavelli's history of Florence in our Library feature.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
7Aug/140

Video Archives – Roger Berkowitz L&T Lecture (2010)

tech_humanity

Monday, August 16, 2010: “Earth Alienation: From Galileo to Google”

Lecturer: Roger Berkowitz, Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College; Academic Director, Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities.

In this lecture, Roger Berkowitz welcomes the incoming Class of 2014 at Bard College with an important question: “Is humanity important?” The human race has witnessed impressive scientific and technological achievements, some of the most remarkable of which have occurred in the past 50 years. While some of these have advanced the history of humanity, others threaten to dampen its spark. Nuclear and biological weapons are capable of killing untold millions of people, and the urge to embrace automation in our everyday lives cultivates the fear that society may one day embrace euthanization as a way to rid itself of “superfluous persons”. Acknowledging this increasingly dangerous world we live in, Berkowitz argues it is imperative that we at this moment in time take a closer look at ourselves and consider our significance. He proposes two sources that can help us in our task: Galileo and Google.

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.
21Jul/140

Amor Mundi 7/20/14

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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The Holy Hell

1Sari Nusseibeh, recently retired President of Al Quds University in East Jerusalem, thoughtfully writes of the end of his lifelong dream that Israel and Palestine might be able to live together in a peaceful and vibrant future. All that is left, he writes, is the promise of hell. "I can, of course, see and admire beautiful individuals. Israel boasts so many of them - poets, writers, journalists, scholars, artists - and just ordinary people in ordinary jobs, trying to live their harmless lives. But that special luster of an idealistic nation to be admired has vanished. I can no longer see it anywhere. It has become replaced, in my mind - sorry to say - by what appears to have become a scientifically skilled colonialist group of self-serving thugs, bent on self-aggrandizement, capitalizing on world-guilt for past pains and horrors suffered, and now hiding behind a religious fiction to justify all the pain and suffering it does to my own people, our heritage and culture.... I cannot see an Israeli government now offering what a Palestinian government can now accept. I can therefore only foresee a worsening climate - not a one-time disaster (say, an avalanche following the killing of a Jew while performing a prayer in the Noble Sanctuary, on what Israelis call the Temple Mount in Jerusalem) that can once and for all be put behind, by whichever side, but an increasingly ugly living climate in which only those who can acclimatize and be ugly themselves can survive. In simple words, even if called 'holy,' I can foresee this place turning into a hell for all those who live in it. It will not be place for normal human beings who want to pursue normal lives, let alone a place where anyone can hope to fulfill a sublime life." Read Roger Berkowitz's response on the Arendt Center blog.

Changing Vs. Loving the World

1In the New York Review of Books Robert Pogue Harrison notes that changing the world through work has become a Silicon Valley cliché: "When Steve Jobs sought to persuade John Sculley, the chief executive of Pepsi, to join Apple in 1983, he succeeded with an irresistible pitch: 'Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?' The day I sat down to write this article, a full-page ad for Blackberry in The New York Times featured a smiling Arianna Huffington with an oversize caption in quotes: 'Don't just take your place at the top of the world. Change the world.' A day earlier, I heard Bill Gates urge the Stanford graduating class to 'change the world' through optimism and empathy. The mantra is so hackneyed by now that it's hard to believe it still gets chanted regularly. Our silicon age, which sees no glory in maintenance, but only in transformation and disruption, makes it extremely difficult for us to imagine how, in past eras, those who would change the world were viewed with suspicion and dread. If you loved the world; if you considered it your mortal home; if you were aware of how much effort and foresight it had cost your forebears to secure its foundations, build its institutions, and shape its culture; if you saw the world as the place of your secular afterlife, then you had good reasons to impute sinister tendencies to those who would tamper with its configuration or render it alien to you. Referring to all that happened during the 'dark times' of the first half of the twentieth century, 'with its political catastrophes, its moral disasters, and its astonishing development of the arts and sciences,' Hannah Arendt summarized the human cost of endless disruption: 'The world becomes inhuman, inhospitable to human needs-which are the needs of mortals-when it is violently wrenched into a movement in which there is no longer any sort of permanence.'" You can also watch Harrison's talk on Thinking and Friendship given at the Arendt Center.

The End of Dangerous Thinking?

dangerous_thinkingIn a piece on the place of theory and dangerous thinking in contemporary intellectual discourse, Henry Giroux describes why such practices appear to be in decline, citing its unintelligibility, an assault on them from particular political interests, as well as the corporatization of the university, among other things. It doesn't help that good critical thinking is hard to do, and that thinking and action aren't the same: "One important function of dangerous thinking is that it foregrounds the responsibility of artists, intellectuals, academics and others who use it. Mapping the full range of how power is used and how it can be made accountable represents a productive pedagogical and political use of theory. Theorizing the political, economic and cultural landscapes is central to any form of political activism and suggests that theory is like oxygen. That is, a valuable resource, which one has to become conscious of in order to realize how necessary it is to have it. Where we should take pause is when academic culture uses critical thought in the service of ideological purity and in doing so transforms pedagogy into forms of poisonous indoctrination for students. Critical thought in this case ossifies from a practice to a form of political dogmatism. The cheerleaders for casino capitalism hate critical theory and thought because they contain the possibility of politicizing everyday life and exposing those savage market-driven ideologies, practices and social relations that hide behind an appeal to commonsense. Both the fetishism of thinking and its dismissal are part of the same coin, the overall refusal to link conception and practice, agency and intervention, all aggravated by neoliberalism's hatred of all things social and public."

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The Liberal Arts as Teacher Education

liberal_artsStephen Mucher makes the case that liberal arts faculty should be more involved in teacher education, suggesting that teachers who are well versed in the humanities, in addition to teaching practice, prepare more curious, more creative students with better critical thinking skills: "Without a professional core of teachers who are versed in the humanities and steeped in the great questions of science, schools are especially vulnerable to forces that reduce teaching to a series of discrete measurable acts. Yet the more teaching is dissected, the less attractive the profession becomes for graduates who might otherwise consider it a viable and meaningful career option. More directly, these reductionist policy trends obscure something that humanists care deeply about -- the enduring beauty of teaching and learning. As one outgoing pedagogy chair lamented in 1900, 'the attempt to mechanize instruction is part of the monstrous error that free minds can be coerced; it has really the same root as religious persecution.' By remaining largely silent for so long, colleges of liberal arts and sciences have contributed to these developments. By pushing big questions about K-12 teaching to the margins and assigning them solely to education specialists, institutions of higher education became complicit in trends that continue to make public education more separate and more unequal."

Poetry and Tradition

Carol_Muske-DukesIn an interview, poet Carol Muske-Dukes takes on the notion of "unoriginal genius," which she thinks is alienating contemporary poetry from the public, and emphasizes instead an older way of thinking about verse. Let's bring back readable poetry we can recite: "Proponents of unoriginal genius would say that they are putting forward a version of interpretation and illumination of a technological age. But the fact is, this mirroring of disjunction represents no real speaking or reading or thinking population.... The struggle here, as it is with overly accessible, catchy poetry, is a struggle to be both popular and enlightening. We live in a time when language matters. Not only because of the constant threat of misunderstanding in translation - in diplomacy, in wartime, in the university and literary life - but, as always, in individual human relations. So the abdication of accessible rhetoric and a turn toward so-called scholarship is an abdication of the human. The academy has opted for pointless experimentation in language compared to my mother's generation - she's ninety-eight - of well schooled, publicly educated students of poetry who know pages and pages of poetry by heart. Should anyone who believes in sense be ostracized from the ongoing conversation of literature?"

The Laboring Animal in the Leisure Suit

googleKate Losse suggests that there's something sinister behind the connection of work and leisure on the campuses of innovative tech companies: "Of course, the remaking of the contemporary tech office into a mixed work-cum-leisure space is not actually meant to promote leisure. Instead, the work/leisure mixing that takes place in the office mirrors what happens across digital, social and professional spaces. Work has seeped into our leisure hours, making the two tough to distinguish. And so, the white-collar work-life blend reaches its logical conclusion with the transformation of modern luxury spaces such as airport lounges into spaces that look much like the offices from which the technocrat has arrived. Perhaps to secure the business of the new moneyed tech class, the design of the new Centurion Lounge for American Express card members draws from the same design palette as today's tech office: reclaimed-wood panels, tree-stump stools, copious couches and a cafeteria serving kale salad on bespoke ceramic plates. In these lounges, the blurring of recreation and work becomes doubly disconcerting for the tech employee. Is one headed out on vacation or still at the office - and is there a difference? If the reward for participation in the highly lucrative tech economy is not increasing leisure but a kind of highly decorated, almost Disneyland vision of perpetual labour, what will be its endgame? As work continues to consume workers' lives, tech offices might compete for increasingly unique and obscure toys and luxury perks to inhibit their employees' awareness that they are always working." Maybe Silicon Valley's idea of changing the world is simply the collapse of the labor vs. leisure distinction.

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Featured Events

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!

Learn more about the conference here.

 

 

 

From The Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Michael Weinman discusses Arendt's use of the term "irony" in her report on the "banality of evil" in his Quote of the Week. American modernist poet Wallace Sevens provides this week's Thought on Thinking. We look back on a free speech lecture Zephyr Teachout delivered at Bard in 2012 in our Video Archives. And Roger Berkowitz discusses the hell that the Middle East is fast becoming 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.
7Jul/140

Google Books and the Problem of Tradition

Google_books

“Kierkegaard, Marx, and Nietzsche are for us like guideposts to a past which has lost its significance.”

--Hannah Arendt, “Tradition and the Modern Age”

The general outlines of the Google Books project are simple in principle and stunning in size. Collaborating with major libraries around the globe, Google has undertaken to scan all known existing books and to make them accessible to the electronically connected public. Started a decade ago in 2004, Google has already digitized roughly a quarter of the estimated 130 million books available worldwide. The completion of the collection is scheduled for 2020.

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.
3Mar/140

Amor Mundi 3/2/14

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 End of Hide and Go Seek

gorey

Edward Gorey Charitable Trust

David Cole wonders if we've reached the point of no return on the issue of privacy: “Reviewing seven years of the NSA amassing comprehensive records on every American’s every phone call, the board identified only one case in which the program actually identified an unknown terrorist suspect. And that case involved not an act or even an attempted act of terrorism, but merely a young man who was trying to send money to Al-Shabaab, an organization in Somalia. If that’s all the NSA can show for a program that requires all of us to turn over to the government the records of our every phone call, is it really worth it?” Everyone speaks about the need for a National Security State and the necessary trade-offs involved in living in a dangerous world. What is often forgotten is that most people simply don’t care that much about privacy. Whether snoopers promise security or better-targeted advertisements, we are willing to open up our inner worlds for the price of convenience. If we are to save privacy, the first step is articulating what it is about privacy that makes it worth saving. You can read more on an Arendtian defense of privacy in Roger Berkowitz’s Weekend Read.

The Mindfulness Racket

Illustration by Jessica Fortner

Illustration by Jessica Fortner

In the New Republic, Evgeny Morozov questions the newly trendy rhetoric of “mindfulness” and “digital detox” that has been adopted by a variety of celebrities and public figures, from Deepak Chopra to Google chairman Eric Schmidt to Arianna Huffington. In response to technology critic Alexis Madrigal, who has argued in The Atlantic that the desire to unplug and live free of stress and distractions amounts to little more than “post-modern technoanxiety”—akin to the whole foods movement in its dream of “stripping away all the trappings of modern life”—Morozov contends that there are legitimate reasons for wanting to disconnect, though they might not be what we think. “With social media—much like with gambling machines or fast food—our addiction is manufactured, not natural,” he writes. “In other words, why we disconnect matters: We can continue in today’s mode of treating disconnection as a way to recharge and regain productivity, or we can view it as a way to sabotage the addiction tactics of the acceleration-distraction complex that is Silicon Valley. The former approach is reactionary but the latter can lead to emancipation, especially if such acts of refusal give rise to genuine social movements that will make problems of time and attention part of their political agendas—and not just the subject of hand-wringing by the Davos-based spirituality brigades.”

"Evil is unspectacular and always human"

audenEdward Mendelsohn has a moving and powerful portrait of W.H. Auden in the New York Review of Books, including this discussion of Auden’s account of evil: “He observed to friends how common it was to find a dedicated anti-fascist who conducted his erotic life as if he were invading Poland. Like everyone who thought more or less as he did, Auden didn’t mean that erotic greeds were morally equivalent to mass murder or that there was no difference between himself and Hitler. He was less interested in the obvious distinction between a responsible citizen and an evil dictator than he was in the more difficult question of what the citizen and dictator had in common, how the citizen’s moral and psychological failures helped the dictator to succeed. Those who hold the opposite view, the view that the citizen and dictator have nothing in common, tend to hold many corollary views. One such corollary is that a suitable response to the vast evil of Nazi genocide is wordless, uncomprehending awe—because citizen and dictator are different species with no language they can share. Another corollary view is that Hannah Arendt, in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), was offensively wrong about the “banality of evil,” because evil is something monstrous, exotic, and inhuman. The acts and thoughts of a good citizen, in this view, can be banal, not those of a dictator or his agents. Auden stated a view like Arendt’s as early as 1939, in his poem “Herman Melville”:

"Evil is unspectacular and always human,
And shares our bed and eats at our own table.”

Looking Intensely

sunYiyun Li tells why, if you were to run into her on the subway, you might find her staring at you: "Writing fiction is this kind of staring, too. You have to stare at your characters, like you would a stranger on the train, but for much longer than is comfortable for both of you. This way, you get to know characters layer by layer, until any dishonesty is stripped away. I believe all characters try to trick us. They lie to us. It’s just like when you meet someone in the real world—no one’s going to be 100 percent honest. They’re not going to tell you the whole story about themselves; in fact, the stories they do tell will say more about how they want to be perceived than how they actually are. There’s always a certain resistance with being known, and that’s true of characters and real people. People don’t want to tell you their secrets. Or they lie to themselves, or they lie to you."

Through a Veteran's Eyes

ptsdIn an interview, writer Jennifer Percy discusses rethinking how we talk about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: "I wanted to more fully imagine the homecoming experience of soldiers and their time at war. The language we use to talk about PTSD has historically been determined by political and economic factors. It’s attached to a vocabulary that intentionally limits our ability to imagine atrocity because it’s protective and reductive. It benefits the perpetrators but dehumanizes the other. It’s a process of rationalization. But what happens when that vocabulary is discarded, and we partake in an effort to fully imagine the experience of soldiers and veterans? This is the space I hoped to inhabit. We might refuse to imagine wartime experience because it’s outside the realm of the ordinary; or maybe it feels unnecessary, or is too demanding on our psyches. But when we do imagine it, what we find is often the familiar. It’s ourselves. And that might also be a reason we turn away."

So You Want to Be a Writer

bookEmily Gould, who once sold a book for a big payday, only to find that her book sold just a few thousand copies, writes about what happened after the money ran out and she found she couldn't write anything else: "With the exception of yoga earnings and freelance assignments, I mostly lived on money I borrowed from my boyfriend, Keith. (We’d moved in together in fall 2010, in part because we liked each other and in larger part because I couldn’t afford to pay rent.) We kept track of what I owed him at first, but at some point we stopped writing down the amounts; it was clear the total was greater than I could hope to repay anytime soon. He paid off one credit card so that I wouldn’t have to keep paying the monthly penalty. When I wanted to cancel my health insurance he insisted I keep it, and paid for it. He was patient when my attempts to get a job more remunerative than teaching yoga failed; he didn’t call me out on how much harder I could have tried. Without questioning my choices, he supported me, emotionally, creatively, and financially. I hated that he had to. At times he was stretched thin financially himself and I knew that our precarious money situation weighed heavily on his mind, even though he never complained. 'You’ll sell your book for a million dollars,' he said, over and over again."

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Michiel Bot discusses Étienne Balibar’s interpretation of Arendt’s work, Jeffrey Champlin considers whether Arendt's celebration of the council system, as discussed in On Revolution, can be applied to feminism, and Roger Berkowitz examines the promise and peril present in today's Ukraine.  And  in the Weekend Read, Berkowitz argues the importance of the private realm for the political world.

Upcoming Events

blogBlogging and the New Public Intellectual - A Discussion with Tom Goldstein

Sunday, March 9, 2014 , 5:00 pm - 7:00 pm
Bard Graduate Center, NYC
Learn more here.

R.S.V.P. to arendt@bard.edu

 

on"Colors Through the Darkness: Three Generations Paint and Write for Justice"
Monday, March 10, 2013, 1:30  pm
Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Zito '60 Auditorium (RKC 103)
Learn more here.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
17Feb/140

Amor Mundi 2/16/14

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 Young and Unexceptional

xcetAccording to Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru, “The survival of American exceptionalism as we have known it is at the heart of the debate over Obama’s program. It is why that debate is so charged.” Mitt Romney repeated this same line during his failed bid to unseat the President, arguing that President Obama “doesn't have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do.” American exceptionalism—long a sociological concept used to describe qualities that distinguished American cultural and political institutions—has become a political truncheon. Now comes Peter Beinart writing in the National Journal that the conservatives are half correct. It is true that American exceptionalism is threatened and in decline. But the cause is not President Obama. Beinart argues that the real cause of the decline of exceptionalist feeling in the United States is conservatism itself. Here is Beinart on one way the current younger generation is an exception to the tradition of American exceptionalism: “For centuries, observers have seen America as an exception to the European assumption that modernity brings secularism. “There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America,” de Tocqueville wrote. In his 1996 book, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, Seymour Martin Lipset quoted Karl Marx as calling America “preeminently the country of religiosity,” and then argued that Marx was still correct. America, wrote Lipset, remained “the most religious country in Christendom.”  But in important ways, the exceptional American religiosity that Gingrich wants to defend is an artifact of the past. The share of Americans who refuse any religious affiliation has risen from one in 20 in 1972 to one in five today. Among Americans under 30, it's one in three. According to the Pew Research Center, millennials—Americans born after 1980—are more than 30 percentage points less likely than seniors to say that "religious faith and values are very important to America's success." And young Americans don't merely attend church far less frequently than their elders. They also attend far less than young people did in the past. "Americans," Pew notes, "do not generally become more [religiously] affiliated as they move through the life cycle"—which means it's unlikely that America's decline in religious affiliation will reverse itself simply as millennials age.  In 1970, according to the World Religion Database, Europeans were over 16 percentage points more likely than Americans to eschew any religious identification. By 2010, the gap was less than half of 1 percentage point. According to Pew, while Americans are today more likely to affirm a religious affiliation than people in Germany or France, they are actually less likely to do so than Italians and Danes.” Read more on Beinart and American exceptionalism in the Weekend Read.

 Humans and the Technium

guyIn this interview, Kevin Kelly, one of the founders of Wired magazine, explains his concept of the “technium,” or the whole system of technology that has developed over time and which, he argues, has its own biases and tendencies “inherently outside of what humans like us want.” One thing technology wants is to watch us and to track us. Kelly writes: “How can we have a world in which we are all watching each other, and everybody feels happy? I don't see any counter force to the forces of surveillance and self-tracking, so I'm trying to listen to what the technology wants, and the technology is suggesting that it wants to be watched. What the Internet does is track, just like what the Internet does is to copy, and you can't stop copying. You have to go with the copies flowing, and I think the same thing about this technology. It's suggesting that it wants to monitor, it wants to track, and that you really can't stop the tracking. So maybe what we have to do is work with this tracking—try to bring symmetry or have areas where there's no tracking in a temporary basis. I don't know, but this is the question I'm asking myself: how are we going to live in a world of ubiquitous tracking?” Asking such questions is where humans fit into the technium world. “In a certain sense,” he says, “what becomes really valuable in a world running under Google's reign are great questions, and that’s something that for a long time humans will be better at than machines. Machines are for answers; humans are for questions.”

Literature Against Consumer Culture 

coupleTaking issue with a commentator's claim that The Paris Review's use of the word "crepuscular" (adj., resembling twilight) was elitist, Eleanor Catton suggests that the anti-critical attitude of contemporary readers arises out of consumer culture: "The reader who is outraged by being “forced” to look up an unfamiliar word — characterising the writer as a tyrant, a torturer — is a consumer outraged by inconvenience and false advertising. Advertising relies on the fiction that the personal happiness of the consumer is valued above all other things; we are reassured in every way imaginable that we, the customers, are always right." Literature, she says, resists this attitude, and, in fact cannot be elitist at all: "A book cannot be selective of its readership; nor can it insist upon the conditions under which it is read or received. The degree to which a book is successful depends only on the degree to which it is loved. All a starred review amounts to is an expression of brand loyalty, an assertion of personal preference for one brand of literature above another. It is as hopelessly beside the point as giving four stars to your mother, three stars to your childhood, or two stars to your cat."

Global Corruption

corruptVladislav Inozemtsev reviews Laurence Cockcroft’s book Global Corruption. “The book’s central argument is that corruption has political roots, which Cockcroft identifies as the “merging of elites.” Surveying the mechanisms of top-level decision-making from Russia to Brazil, to Peru and India, as well as in many other countries, he discerns a pattern: Politicians today often act as entrepreneurs, surround themselves with sycophants and deputies, and so navigate the entire political process as they would any commercial business. The hallmarks of a corrupt society are the widespread leveraging of wealth to secure public office; the leveraging of such authority to secure various kinds of privileges; and the interplay of both to make even bigger money. Simply put, corruption is a transformation of public service into a specific kind of entrepreneurship.”

Amazon's Bait and Switch

amazonGeorge Packer takes a look at Amazon's role in the book business noting that its founder, Jeff Bezos, knew from the start that book sales were only the lure; Amazon's real business was Big Data, a big deal in an industry that speaks to people's hearts and minds as well as their wallets. Still, "Amazon remains intimately tangled up in books. Few notice if Amazon prices an electronics store out of business (except its staff); but, in the influential, self-conscious world of people who care about reading, Amazon’s unparalleled power generates endless discussion, along with paranoia, resentment, confusion, and yearning. For its part, Amazon continues to expend considerable effort both to dominate this small, fragile market and to win the hearts and minds of readers. To many book professionals, Amazon is a ruthless predator. The company claims to want a more literate world—and it came along when the book world was in distress, offering a vital new source of sales. But then it started asking a lot of personal questions, and it created dependency and harshly exploited its leverage; eventually, the book world realized that Amazon had its house keys and its bank-account number, and wondered if that had been the intention all along."

Ready or Not

michaelTa-Nehisi Coates, in the wake of NFL prospect Michael Sam's announcement that he is gay, considers how the concept of readiness is backwards: "The question which we so often have been offered—is the NFL ready for a gay player?—is backwards. Powerful interests are rarely “ready” for change, so much as they are assaulted by it. We refer to barriers being "broken" for a reason. The reason is not because great powers generally like to unbar the gates and hold a picnic in the honor of the previously excluded. The NFL has no moral right to be "ready" for a gay player, which is to say it has no right to discriminate against gay men at its leisure which anyone is bound to respect.”

Counter Reformation

classThis week, the magazine Jacobin released Class Action, a handbook for activist teachers, set against school reform and financed using the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform. One of the many essays contained within is Dean Baker's "Unremedial Education," which contains one of the handbook's major theses, an important reminder for those who are interested in education as a route to both the life of the mind and the success of the person: "Education is tremendously valuable for reasons unrelated to work and income. Literacy, basic numeracy skills, and critical thinking are an essential part of a fulfilling life. Insofar as we have children going through school without developing these skills, it is an enormous failing of society. Any just society would place a top priority on ensuring that all children learn such basic skills before leaving school. However, it clearly is not the case that plausible increases in education quality and attainment will have a substantial impact on inequality."

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Roger Berkowitz asks "Why Think?". And in the Weekend Read, Berkowitz reflects on the loss of American exceptionalism.

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.
17Feb/140

The Dystopia of Knowledge

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“This future man, whom the scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years, seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself.”

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

The future man of whom Arendt writes is one who has been released from earthly ties, from nature.  He has been released from earth as a physical space but also as “the quintessence of the human condition.”  He will have been able to “create life in a test tube” and “extend man’s life-span far beyond the hundred-year limit.”  The idea that this man would wish to exchange his given existence for something artificial is part of a rather intricate intellectual historical argument about the development of modern science.

The more man has sought after perfect knowledge of nature, the more he has found himself in nature’s stead, and the more uncertain he has felt, and the more he has continued to seek, with dire consequences.  This is the essential idea.  The negative consequences are bundled together within Arendt’s term, “world alienation,” and signify, ultimately, the endangerment of possibilities for human freedom.  Evocative of dystopian fiction from the first half of the twentieth century, this theme has enjoyed renewed popularity in our current world of never-ending war and ubiquitous surveillance facilitated by technical innovation.

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Arendt’s narration gravitates around Galileo’s consummation of the Copernican revolution, which marks the birth of “the modern astrophysical world view.”  The significance of Galileo, Arendt writes, is that with him we managed to find “the Archimedean point” or the universal point of view.  This is an imagined point outside the earth from which it should be possible to make objective observations and formulate universal natural laws.  Our reaching of the Archimedean point, without leaving the earth, was responsible for natural science’s greatest triumphs and the extreme pace of discovery and technical innovation.

This was also a profoundly destabilizing achievement, and Arendt’s chronicle of its cultural effects takes on an almost psychological resonance.  While we had known since Plato that the senses were unreliable for the discovery of truth, she says, Galileo’s telescope told us that we could not trust our capacity for reason, either.  Instead, a manmade instrument had shown us the truth, undermining both reason and faith in reason.

In grappling with the resulting radical uncertainty, we arrived at Descartes’ solution of universal doubt.  Arendt describes this as a turn towards introspection, which provides a solution insofar as it takes place within the confines of one’s mind.  External forces cannot intrude here, at least upon the certainty that mental processes are true in the sense that they are real.  Man’s turn within himself afforded him some control.  This is because it corresponded with “the most obvious conclusion to be drawn from the new physical science: though one cannot know truth as something given and disclosed, man can at least know what he makes himself.” According to Arendt, this is the fundamental reasoning that has driven science and discovery at an ever-quickening pace.  It is at the source of man’s desire to exchange his given existence “for something he has made himself.”

The discovery of the Archimedean point with Galileo led us to confront our basic condition of uncertainty, and the Cartesian solution was to move the Archimedean point inside man.  The human mind became the ultimate point of reference, supported by a mathematical framework that it produces itself.  Mathematics, as a formal structure produced by the mind, became the highest expression of knowledge.  As a consequence, “common sense” was internalized and lost its worldly, relational aspect.  If common sense only means that all of us will arrive at the same answer to a mathematical question, then it refers to a faculty that is internally held by individuals rather than one that fits us each into the common world of all, with each other, which is Arendt’s ideal.  She points to the loss of common sense as a crucial aspect of “world alienation.”

This loss is closely related to Arendt’s concerns about threats to human political communication. She worries that we have reached the point at which the discoveries of science are no longer comprehensible.  They cannot be translated from the language of mathematics into speech, which is at the core of Arendt’s notion of political action and freedom.

The threat to freedom is compounded when we apply our vision from the Archimedean point to ourselves.  Arendt cautions, “If we look down from this point upon what is going on on earth and upon the various activities of men, … then these activities will indeed appear to ourselves as no more than ‘overt behavior,’ which we can study with the same methods we use to study the behavior of rats.” (“The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man” in Between Past and Future)

She argues against the behaviorist perspective on human affairs as a false one, but more frightening for her is the fact it could become reality.  We may be seeking this transformation through our desire to control and know and thus live in a world that we have ourselves created.  When we look at human affairs from the Archimedean, objective scientific point of view, our behavior appears to be analyzable, predictable, and uniform like the activity of subatomic particles or the movement of celestial bodies.  We are choosing to look at things with such far remove that, like these other activities and movements, they are beyond the grasp of experience.  “World alienation” refers to this taking of distance, which collapses human action into behavior.  The purpose would be to remedy the unbearable condition of contingency, but in erasing contingency, by definition, we erase the unexpected events that are the worldly manifestations of human freedom.

To restate the argument in rather familiar terms: Our quest for control, to put an end to the unbearable human condition of uncertainty and contingency, leads to a loss of both control and freedom.  This sentiment should be recognizable as a hallmark of the immediate post-war period, represented in works of fiction like Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Beckett’s Endgame, and Orwell’s 1984.  We can also find it even earlier in Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Huxley’s Brave New World.  There has been a recent recovery and reemergence of the dystopian genre, at least in one notable case, and with it renewed interest in Arendt’s themes as they are explored here.

Dave Eggers’ The Circle, released in 2013, revolves around an imagined Bay Area cultish tech company that is a combination of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and PayPal.  In its apparent quest for progress, convenience, and utility, it creates an all-encompassing universe in which all of existence is interpreted in terms of data points and everything is recorded. The protagonist, an employee of the Circle, is eventually convinced to “go transparent,” meaning that her every moment is live streamed and recorded, with very few exceptions.   Reviews of the book have emphasized our culture of over-sharing and the risks to privacy that this entails.  They have also drawn parallels between this allegorical warning and the Snowden revelations.  Few, though, if any, have discussed the book in terms of the human quest for absolute knowledge in order to eliminate uncertainty and contingency, with privacy as collateral damage.

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In The Circle, the firm promotes transparency and surveillance as solutions to crime and corruption.  Executives claim that through acquired knowledge and technology, anything is possible, including social harmony and world peace.  The goal is to organize human affairs in a harmonious way using technical innovation and objective knowledge.  This new world is to be man made so that it can be manipulated for progressive ends.  In one key conversation, Mae, the main character, confronts one of the three firm leaders, saying, “… you can’t be saying that everyone should know everything,” to which he replies, “… I’m saying that everyone should have a right to know everything and should have the tools to know anything.  There’s not enough time to know everything, though I certainly wish there was.”

In this world, there are several senses in which man has chosen to replace existence as given with something he has made himself.  First and most obviously, new gadgets dazzle him at every turn, and he is dependent on them.  Second, he reduces all information “to the measure of the human mind.”  The technical innovations and continuing scientific discoveries are made with the help of manmade instruments, such that:  “Instead of objective qualities … we find instruments, and instead of nature or the universe—in the words of Heisenberg—man encounters only himself.” (The Human Condition, p. 261) Everything is reduced to a mathematical calculation.  An employee’s (somewhat forced) contributions to the social network are tabulated and converted into “retail raw,” the dollar measure of consumption they have inspired (through product placement, etc.).  All circlers are ranked, in a competitive manner, according to their presence on social media.  The effects in terms of Arendt’s notion of common sense are obvious.  Communication takes place in flat, dead prose.  Some reviewers have criticized Eggers for the writing style, but what appears to be bad writing actually matches the form to the content in this case.

Finally, it is not enough to experience reality here; all experience must be recorded, stored, and made searchable by the Circle.  Experience is thus replaced with a man made replica.  Again, the logic is that we can only know what we produce ourselves.  As all knowledge is organized according to human artifice, the human mind, observing from a sufficient distance, can find the patterns within it.  These forms, pleasing to the mind, are justifiable because they work.

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They produce practical successes.  Here, harmony is discovered because it is created.  Arendt writes:

“If it should be true that a whole universe, or rather any number of utterly different universes will spring into existence and ‘prove’ whatever over-all pattern the human mind has constructed, then man may indeed, for a moment, rejoice in a reassertion of the ‘pre-established harmony between pure mathematics and physics,’ between mind and matter, between man and the universe.  But it will be difficult to ward off the suspicion that this mathematically preconceived world may be a dream world where every dreamed vision man himself produces has the character of reality only as long as the dream lasts.”

If harmony is artificially created, then it can only last so long as it is enforced.  Indeed, in the end of the novel, when the “dream” is revealed as nightmare, Mae is faced with the choice of prolonging it.  We can find a similar final moment of hope in The Human Condition.  As she often does, Arendt has set up a crushing course of events, a seeming onslaught of catastrophe, but she leaves us with at least one ambiguous ray of light: “The idea that only what I am going to make will be real—perfectly true and legitimate in the realm of fabrication—is forever defeated by the actual course of events, where nothing happens more frequently than the totally unexpected.”

-Jennifer M. Hudson

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.
23Sep/130

The False Culture of Utility

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“Culture is being threatened when all worldly objects and things, produced by the present or the past, are treated as mere functions for the life process of society, as though they are there only to fulfill some need, and for this functionalization it is almost irrelevant whether the needs in question are of a high or a low order.”

--Hannah Arendt, “The Crisis in Culture”

Hannah Arendt defines the cultural as that which gives testimony to the past and in preserving the past helps constitute  our common world.  A cultural object embodies the human goal of achieving “immortality,” which as Arendt explains in The Human Condition is not the same as eternal life or the biological propagation of the species. Immortality concerns the life of a people and is ultimately political.  It refers to the particular type of transcendence afforded by political action. In “The Crisis of Culture,” Arendt shows how culture has a political role insofar as it creates durable and lasting objects that contribute to the immortality of a people.

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The danger Arendt confronts in “The Crisis in Culture” is that mass culture makes art disposable and thus threatens the political ability of cultural life to produce lasting and immortal objects.  The source of her worry is not an invasion of culture by the low and the base, but a sort of cannibalization of culture by itself.  The problem is that mass culture swallows culture and subsumes it under the rubric of need.  The immortal is degraded to a biological necessity, to be endlessly consumed and reproduced. Durable cultural objects that constitute a meaningful political world are thereby consumed, eroding the common world that is the place of politics.

Arendt’s point is first that mass culture—like all culture under the sway of society— is too often confused with status, self-fulfillment, or entertainment. In the name of status or entertainment, cultural achievements are stripped down and repackaged as something to be consumed in the life process.  She would argue that this happens every time Hamlet is made into a movie or the Iliad is condensed into a children’s edition. By making culture accessible for those who would use it to improve themselves, the mass-culture industry makes it less and less likely that we will ever confront the great works of our past in their most challenging form.  Eventually, the watering down of once immortal works can make it difficult or impossible to perceive the importance of culture and cultural education for humanity and our common world.

However, Arendt does not offer simply a banal critique of reality television as fast-food.  We might recognize a more insidious form of the risks she describes in the new intellectualism that marks the politics, or anti-politics of the tech milieu. What has been termed Silicon Valley’s anti-intellectualism should instead be understood as a forced colonization of the space potentially inhabited by the public intellectual.

The prophets of the tech world see themselves as fulfilling a social and political duty through enterprise.  They unselfconsciously describe their creations as sources of liberation, democracy, and revolution.  And yet they eschew politics. Their abnegation of overt political activity is comprehensible in that, for them, ‘politics’ is always already contained in the project of saving the world through technological progress.

We see such exemplars of technological cultural salvation all around us.  Scholars and cultural figures are invited to lecture at the “campuses” of Apple and Google, and their ideas get digested into the business model or spit back out in the form of TED talks.  Even Burning Man, originally a ‘counter-cultural’ annual desert festival with utopian pretensions, has been sucked into the vortex, such that Stanford Professor Fred Turner could give a powerpoint lecture titled, “Burning Man at Google: A cultural infrastructure for new media production.”  The abstract for his article in New Media & Society is even more suggestive: “…this article explores the ways in which Burning Man’s bohemian ethos supports new forms of production emerging in Silicon Valley and especially at Google. It shows how elements of the Burning Man world – including the building of a sociotechnical commons, participation in project-based artistic labor and the fusion of social and professional interaction – help to shape and legitimate the collaborative manufacturing processes driving the growth of Google and other firms.”  Turner’s conclusion virtually replicates Arendt’s differentiation between nineteenth century philistinism and the omniphagic nature of mass culture:

In the 19th century, at the height of the industrial era, the celebration of art provided an occasion for the display of wealth. In the 21st century, under conditions of commons-based peer production, it has become an occasion for its [i.e. wealth] creation.

The instrumentalization of culture within polite society has given way to the digestion and reconstitution of culture in the form of gadgets meant to increase convenience.  Would-be cultural objects become rungs on the hamster wheel of life’s progress. Progress as the ultimate goal of technological cultural innovation is a vague concept because it is taken for granted due to the self-contained and self-enclosed nature of the industry.  Where it is defined, it is demonstrated through examples, such as the implementation of the smart parking meter or the use of cloud networking in order to better administer services to San Francisco’s homeless population.

In a recent New Yorker article on the tech revolutionaries, George Packer writes, “A favorite word in tech circles is ‘frictionless.’ It captures the pleasures of an app so beautifully designed that using it is intuitive, and it evokes a fantasy in which all inefficiencies, annoyances, and grievances have been smoothed out of existence—that is, an apolitical world.” Progress here is the increasingly efficient administration of life.

When tech does leave its insular environment and direct its energies outward, its engagements reflect both its solipsism and focus on utility, which for Arendt go together.  The Gates Foundation’s substantial investments in higher education impose the quantitatively verifiable standard of degree completion as the sole or main objective, which seems odd in itself, given Gates’ notoriety as a Harvard drop-out.  The efforts of the Foundation aim less at placing Shakespeare in the hands of every fast-food worker, and more towards redirecting all of cultural education toward the development of a cheap version of utilitarian aptitude.  Such tech intellectualism will ask, “What is the point of slaving over the so-called classics?” The claim is that the liberal arts vision of university education is inseparable from elitist designs, based on an exclusive definition of what ‘culture’ should be.

“What is the use?” is the wrong question, though, and it is tinged by the solipsistic mentality of a tech elite that dare not speak its name.  The tech intellectual presents the culture of Silicon Valley as inherently egalitarian, despite the fact that capital gains in the sector bare a large burden of the blame for this country’s soaring rate of inequality.  This false sense of equality fosters a naïve view of political and social issues.  It also fuels tech’s hubristic desire to remake the world in its own image:  Life is about frictionless success and efficient progress, and these can be realized via the technological fix.  “It worked for us, what’s the matter with you?”

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For Arendt, culture is not meant to be useful for employment or even the lofty purpose of self-cultivation; our relationship to culture nurtures our ability to make judgments.  Kant’s discussion of taste and “common sense” informs her notion of the faculty of judgment in art and politics.  In matters of taste, judging rests on the human ability to enlarge one’s mind and think with reference to an “anticipated communication with others” and “potential agreement.”  Common sense, as she uses it, “discloses to us the nature of the world insofar as it is a common world.”  Culture and politics are linked in that both can only exist in a world that is shared.  She writes:

Culture and politics, then, belong together because it is not knowledge or truth which is at stake, but rather judgment and decision, the judicious exchange of opinion about the sphere of public life and the common world, and the decision what manner of action is to be taken, as well as to how it is to look henceforth, what kind of things are to appear in it.

That culture and politics are about enacting judgments, rather than truth or technique for the advancement of biological life, is a point that is clearly missed by the tech intellectuals.  The establishment of utility as the sole goal of higher education represents only one section of a general lens through which the world appears only as a series of practical problems to be figured out.  In this paradoxical utopia of mass accessibility, insulation, and narrow-mindedness, applied knowledge threatens to occupy and pervert culture at the expense of political action and care for our common world.

-Jennifer Hudson

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.
8Jul/130

Amor Mundi – 7/7/13

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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.

Roger Berkowitz on Arendt's Unconventional Wisdom

arendtIn the New York Times, Roger Berkowitz takes on what he calls the new consensus emerging in responses to the new "Hannah Arendt" movie, that seems to be resolving the vitriolic debates over Arendt's characterization of Adolf Eichmann over the last 50 years. This new consensus holds that Arendt was right in her general claim that many evildoers are normal people, but was wrong about Eichmann in particular. As Christopher Browning summed it up recently in the New York Review of Books, "Arendt grasped an important concept but not the right example." As Berkowitz writes, this new consensus is founded upon "new scholarship on Eichmann's writings and reflections from the 1950's, when he was living amongst a fraternity of former Nazis in Argentina, before Israeli agents captured him and spirited him out of the country and to Israel. Eichmann's writings include an unpublished memoir, "The Others Spoke, Now Will I Speak," and an interview conducted over many months with a Nazi journalist and war criminal, Willem Sassen, which were not released until long after the trial. Eichmann's justification of his actions to Sassen is considered more genuine than his testimony before judges in Jerusalem. In recent decades, scholars have argued that the Sassen interviews show that Arendt was simply wrong in her judgment of Eichmann because she did not have all the facts." As tempting as this new consensus is, it is wrong, Berkowitz argues. Read his full argument here.

A Challenging World View

garyGeoff Dyer, flipping through the catalogue of a recent Gary Winograd retrospective at SFMoMA, considers the way that the street photographer presented what he saw: "the pictures didn't look right, they were all skewed and lurchy, random-seeming and wrong. They were, it was felt, an unprovoked assault on the eye... We were accustomed to viewing the world through a set of conventional lenses that Winograd wrenched from our face, making us conscious of how short-sighted we had been." Winograd's still pictures, in other words, act on their viewers, betraying our sense of the world, shifting it out of focus, and therefore revealing it for what it is.

The Meaning of Gettysburg

gettyTony Horwitz uses the upcoming 150th anniversary of Gettysburg to zoom out and consider the changing historical narrative about the American Civil War, in the process offering up an important reminder that history is a living, changing thing: "the 150th anniversary of the Civil War is too narrow a lens through which to view the conflict. We are commemorating the four years of combat that began in 1861 and ended with Union victory in 1865. But Iraq and Afghanistan remind us, yet again, that the aftermath of war matters as much as its initial outcome. Though Confederate armies surrendered in 1865, white Southerners fought on by other means, wearing down a war-weary North that was ambivalent about if not hostile to black equality. Looking backwards, and hitting the pause button at the Gettysburg Address or the passage of the 13th amendment, we see a "good" and successful war for freedom. If we focus instead on the run-up to war, when Lincoln pledged to not interfere with slavery in the South, or pan out to include the 1870s, when the nation abandoned Reconstruction, the story of the Civil War isn't quite so uplifting. "

Fixing the Digital Economy

digitalComputer scientist and writer Jaron Lanier critiques the present digital economy with a close look at the evolving relationship between technology and power. To make his argument for change, he insightfully reinterprets what many consider to be a paradox - that the pairing of technology and power at once enriches and erodes the agency of individual actors. Companies like Google are so valuable, he argues, because they control enormously powerful and expensive servers-he calls them Siren Servers to emphasize their irresistible allure-that allow it to manipulate aggregate activity over time. "While people are rarely forced to accept the influence of Siren Servers in any particular case, on a broad statistical basis it becomes impossible for a population to do anything but acquiesce over time....While no particular Google ad is guaranteed to work, the overall Google ad scheme by definition must work, because of the laws of statistics. Superior computation lets a Siren Server enjoy the magical benefits of reliably manipulating others even though no hand is forced ... We need to experiment; to learn how to nurture a middle class that can thrive even in a highly automated society."

Reconciling Experience with History

treeDiscussing her recent essay in Harper's, writer Rebecca Makkai talks about her experience of her grandfather, whom she knew as a yoga instructor who lived in Hawaii, who was also the principal author of Hungary's Second Jewish Law, which passed in 1939. At one point, she strikes a particularly Arendtian note: "There's also the fact that it's just very difficult, psychologically, to reconcile the face of a real person with one of the darkest moments of the twentieth century. It's not the same as looking at someone who's personally violent, likely to reach out and hit you. This guy is chopping up papaya on his balcony, telling jokes, and I think we have an instinct to forgive, to see just the best in that person, to see him at just that moment. (The irony being that this is what he and his colleagues failed to do - to see humans in front of them.)"

Featured Upcoming Events

minimovieJuly 13, 2013

Roger Berkowitz will be in attendance at the Moviehouse in Millerton for a discussion after the 4:00 pm screening of "Hannah Arendt" and before the 7:00 pm screening.

July 16, 2013

Following the 7:40 pm showing of "Hannah Arendt" at the Quad Cinema on 13th St. in N.Y.C., there will be a Q&A with Roger Berkowitz about the film.

July 21, 2013

Following the 6:00 pm showing of "Hannah Arendt" at Symphony Space on Broadway and 95th St. in N.Y.C., there will be a Q&A with Roger Berkowitz about the film.

October 3-4, 2013

The sixth annual fall conference, "Failing Fast" The Educated Citizen in Crisis"

Olin Hall, Bard College
Learn more here.

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Ian Storey in the Quote of the Week looks at the implications of the recent Supreme Court same sex marriage rulings. Jeff Champlin considers Arendt's reading of Kant, offering a new way to think about judgment. Hannah Arendt's thinking is brought to bear on the Paula Deen scandal. And, for your weekend read, Roger Berkowitz looks at the moral implications of financial inequality.

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.
21Jun/130

Defending the Humanities While Trashing Them

ArendtWeekendReading

Leon Wieseltier, the longtime cultural editor of the New Republic, dedicated his commencement address at Brandeis last month to a defense of the humanities. He asks, “Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were cherished less, and has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were needed more?” It was a rhetorical question, and Wieseltier offers a full-throttled defense of teaching and studying the humanities. The culprit, he writes, is technology.

For decades now in America we have been witnessing a steady and sickening denigration of humanistic understanding and humanistic method. We live in a society inebriated by technology, and happily, even giddily governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency, and convenience. The technological mentality that has become the American worldview instructs us to prefer practical questions to questions of meaning – to ask of things not if they are true or false, or good or evil, but how they work. Our reason has become an instrumental reason, and is no longer the reason of the philosophers, with its ancient magnitude of intellectual ambition, its belief that the proper subjects of human thought are the largest subjects, and that the mind, in one way or another, can penetrate to the very principles of natural life and human life. Philosophy itself has shrunk under the influence of our weakness for instrumentality – modern American philosophy was in fact one of the causes of that weakness -- and generally it, too, prefers to tinker and to tweak.

The machines to which we have become enslaved, all of them quite astonishing, represent the greatest assault on human attention ever devised: they are engines of mental and spiritual dispersal, which make us wider only by making us less deep. There are thinkers, reputable ones if you can believe it, who proclaim that the exponential growth in computational ability will soon take us beyond the finitude of our bodies and our minds so that, as one of them puts it, there will no longer be any difference between human and machine. La Mettrie lives in Silicon Valley. This, of course, is not an apotheosis of the human but an abolition of the human; but Google is very excited by it.

I too value the humanities and have dedicated my life to them. I agree with Wieseltier about the distracting influence of technology and also the danger of scientism.

humanities

But I do wonder why it is that Wieseltier did not ask also what the humanities might have contributed to the fact that nationally now only 7% of students choose to study the humanities. Even at Harvard, only 20% of students are majoring in the humanities. Are all these students eschewing the humanities out of evil or ignorance? Or is there something wrong with the way we are teaching the humanities? 

The truth is that too much of what our humanities faculties teach is neither interesting nor wanted by our students and even by our colleagues. It is an amazing truth that much of what academics write and publish is rarely, if ever, read. Even by other academics. 

The standard response to such whispered confessions is that scholarship is timeless. Its value may not be discovered for centuries. Or that it is like basic research, useful in itself. The problem with these arguments is that such really original scholarship is rare and getting ever more rare. The increasing specialization of academic life leads to professors knowing more and more about less and less. This is the source of the irrelevance of much of humanities scholarship today.

As Hannah Arendt wrote 50 years ago in her essay On Violence, humanities scholars today are better served by being learned and erudite than by seeking to do original research by uncovering some new or forgotten scrap. While such finds can be interesting, they are exceedingly rare and largely insignificant.

To say that excessively specialized humanities scholarship today is irrelevant is not to say that the humanities are irrelevant. As I have written elsewhere,

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

One might think that given his concern with technology changing and threatening our humanity, Wieseltier might find an ally in Hannah Arendt.  Hannah Arendt is one of the most articulate defenders of the connection between humanities learning and political and an engaged political life. For her, politics depends upon the stories and actions that preserve the traditions and the institutions that give meaning and sense to our common lives. The crisis in the humanities is, Arendt understood, deeply connected to our political crisis.

arendt

Wieseltier has never been a fan of Arendt’s writing, which of course is fine. But with the opening of the new movie “Hannah Arendt” by Margarethe von Trotta, he seems to have decided to establish the new New Republic as ground zero of irresponsible Arendt bashing. Under his guidance, the New Republic has published not one but two scathingly critical reviews of the film, each riddled with errors. I wrote already about the glaring factual mistakes plaguing Stanley Kaufmann’s review last week, in a post on the Febrile Imagination of Arendt Haters. I only recently became aware of a second attack by Saul Austerlitz.

The Austerlitz review is given the subtle title “A New Movie Perpetuates the Pernicious Myth of Hannah Arendt.” Austerlitz calls Arendt a “threadbare hero,” and complains that the movie eschews “serious consideration of the sustained critical response to Eichmann in Jerusalem.” That is strange given the prominence in the film given to Arendt’s critics, including Kurt Blumenfeld (who also utters damning words written by Gershom Scholem), Charlotte Beradt, Norman Podhoretz, and, most forcefully, Hans Jonas. Undoubtedly the film comes down on Arendt’s side. But when Jonas turns away from Arendt after her lecture, the moral clarity of his accusation of arrogance weighs on through till the credits.

Some of Austerlitz’s criticisms hit home. For example, he worries, as I have, that the encounter between Siegfried Moses and Arendt is too one-sided, even if he does not know that the actual encounter was much different.

But mostly Austerlitz just follows the herd by attacking Arendt not by engaging her work (he never once cites Arendt), but by quoting from others. Mostly Austerlitz chooses to cite Deborah Lipstadt, author of a revisionist account of the Eichmann trial in which suggests without any reason or supporting evidence that Arendt defended Eichmann (something she certainly did not do) in order to excuse or please her former lover Martin Heidegger. Such contentions would be laughable if they weren’t then adopted uncritically by others as fact. In any case, here is what Austerlitz writes about Eichmann in Jerusalem (giving no indication whatsoever whether he has read it):

The book makes for good philosophy, but shoddy history, as many have asserted in the decades since its publication. As historian Deborah Lipstadt observes of Arendt in The Eichmann Trial (2011), “The only way she could have concluded that Eichmann was unaware was to give more credence to his demeanor and testimony at the trial than to what he actually did during the war.” 

One wonders, upon reading such a paragraph, what Lipstadt was saying Arendt was unaware of? Since Austerlitz’s preceding sentence accuses Arendt of believing that Eichmann, “bore the Jews no special animus, intent merely on carrying out his duties to the utmost,” it suggests that Lipstadt is arguing that Arendt is unaware of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism. But if one goes back to Lipstadt’s book itself, she is in fact arguing that Arendt said that Eichmann was unaware that he had committed crimes.

debo

Whether or not Eichmann was aware that he committed crimes is an important question. It certainly cannot be decided as Lipstadt does by appealing to but never citing the memoir Eichmann wrote while in Argentina. Over and over in that memoir, Eichmann asserts his belief that he was justified in doing what he did and that he violated no laws in doing so. Indeed, Arendt herself argued that Eichmann’s pleas of having a “clear conscience” were made questionable by “the fact that the Nazis, and especially the criminal organizations to which Eichmann belonged, had been so very busy destroying evidence of their crimes during the last months of the war.” And yet Arendt, trying to take Eichmann’s statements in Argentina seriously, recognized also that the destruction of evidence 

proved no more than recognition that the law of mass murder, because of its novelty, was not yet accepted by other nations; or, in the language of the Nazis, that they had lost their fight to “liberate” mankind from the “rule of subhumans,” especially from the dominion of the Elders of Zion; or, in ordinary language, it proved no more than the admission of defeat. Would any one of them have suffered from a guilty conscience if they had won? 

Whether or not Eichmann was or was not possessed of a guilty conscience may be open for debate, but the claim that Arendt was unaware of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism is folly.  As is Austerlitz’s also unsupported claim that “Eichmann bore the Jews no special animus.”  I realize others have pedaled such trash before, but repeating falsities does not make them true.

There is irony in Wieseltier’s condemning the decline of the humanities even as he oversees publication of two irresponsible reviews about a movie that, whatever its failings, is the most significant attempt to bring a major humanist to the screen in a thoughtful and respectful way. I am not asking for cheerleading, but serious engagement would be welcomed.   

Ignore the reviews and instead read Wieseltier’s commencement speech celebrating the humanities. It is your weekend read.  And then review my own defense of the humanities 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".
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".