Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
24Jan/141

Loneliness and Expansive Writing

ArendtWeekendReading

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt asks after the “elements” of totalitarianism, those fundamental building blocks that made possible an altogether new and horrific form of government. The two structural elements she locates are the emergence of a new ideological form of Antisemitism and the rise of transnational imperialist movements, which gives the structure to her book: Part One (Antisemitism) and Part Two (Imperialism) lead into Part Three (Totalitarianism). Underlying both Antisemitism and Imperialism is what Arendt calls metaphysical rootlessness and metaphysical loneliness.

origins

Totalitarian government, Arendt writes, “bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.” The loneliness of modern humanity is multifaceted. It is “closely connected with uprootedness and superfluousness which have been the curse of modern masses since the beginning of the industrial revolution and have become acute with the rise of imperialism at the end of the last century and the breakdown of political institutions and social traditions in our own time.” The image of the factory worker laboring repetitively on a conveyor belt is forever associated with Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. In his 1950 classic The Lonely Crowd, David Reisman describes how middle class Americans had lost their meaningful connections to religion, to class, and to family. They take their values increasingly from a mass culture and they become malleable and subject to the influence of propaganda and advertising.

“Metaphysical rootlessness,” Arendt argues, is both the “basic experience” of modern society and also the generative impulse behind ideological racisms (which Arendt distinguishes from older non-scientific versions of racism). Without a core of personal and collective identity, the lonely mass man is “the common ground for terror, the essence of totalitarian government, and for ideology or logicality, the preparation of its executioners and victims.” Racism is based in hatred of a world in which lonely and rootless people are confronted with their meaninglessness, their belonging to no place, and their superfluousness. It is these masses that seek to build an imaginary and coherent togetherness based on race. Thus is rootlessness characteristic of all racism and all totalitarianism.

In her most pregnant attempt at a definition of totalitarianism, Arendt writes: “Totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated, individuals.” Totalitarianism depends upon “the masses [who] grew out of the fragments of a highly atomized society whose competitive structure and concomitant loneliness of the individual had been held in check only through membership in a class.” Shorn of family and national and class connection, the modern atomized individual becomes a mass man. “The chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness, but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships.”

The question underlying so much of Arendt’s work is how to respond to what she calls “the break in tradition,” the fact that the political, social, and intellectual traditions that bound people together in publically meaningful institutions and networks have frayed beyond repair. The customs and traditions that for millennia were the unspoken common sense of peoples can no longer be presumed. Stripped of these meaningful institutions of transcendence, mass men turn to racism or consumerism to give their lives meaning. Both are dangerous in different ways. Arendt ask repeatedly, how are we to make life meaningful, how are we to inure individuals from the seduction of ideological movements that lend weight to their meaningless lives?

If metaphysical loneliness is the basic experiences of modern life, then it is not surprising that great modern literature would struggle with the agony of such disconnection and seek to articulate paths of reconnection. That, indeed, is the thesis of Wyatt Mason’s essay “Make This Not True,” in this week’s New York Review of Books. Modern fiction, Mason argues, struggles to answer the question: How can we live and die and not be alone?

In the guise of a review of George Saunders Tenth of September (a 2012 finalist for the National Book Award), Mason suggests at least three paradigmatic answers to this question “How do I die?” The answers are represented alternatively by three of the greatest contemporary writers, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Saunders. In brief, Wallace combats the loneliness and inattention of the distracted masses by writing prose that is so seductively difficult that it demands attentiveness and thus membership in a community of readers. Franzen seeks the antidote to loneliness in palpable scenes of connection amidst the wreckages of modern relationships. For both Wallace and Franzen, connection is to be found in the cultivation of quintessentially modern relationships.

Flickr - Manky M.

Flickr - Manky M.

Saunders is notable for pursing a different path through the wilderness of contemporary isolation. Instead of external connections, Saunders is a master of the inward journey we must make alone. For Mason, there is an important link between Saunder’s Buddhism and his writing:

In Buddhist practice, through sitting meditation, the mind may be schooled in the way of softness, openness, expansiveness. This imaginative feat—of being able to live these ideas—is one of enormous subtlety. What makes Saunders’s work unique is not its satirical verve or its fierce humor but its unfathomable capacity to dramatize, in story form, the life-altering teachings of such a practice. … [I]f fiction is to continue to exert an influence over a culture that finds it ever easier to connect, however frailly, to the world around them through technology, Saunders’s stories suggest that the ambition to connect outwardly isn’t the only path we can choose. Rather, his fiction shows us that the path to reconciliation with our condition is inward, a journey we must make alone.

Mason’s essay is subtle and profound. It is your weekend read. And if you have the time, read Saunders’ masterful short story, "The Falls", which Mason discusses at length in his essay. Best of all, order Tenth of December. I spent a few rapturous days reading Saunders’ stories this summer. They can warm your January as well.

-RB

1Jul/130

Un-shared Worlds

Arendtquote

“Don’t hold your breath, ‘cause the pretty things are going to hell…”

-David Bowie

In the social spheres in which I circulate, both personal and electronic, reactions to the Supreme Court’s twin same-sex marriage rulings Wednesday have tended to fall fairly neatly into one of two categories, each sprinkled liberally with that unique brand of wry humor that long, bitter struggles breed.  On one side, the watch-phrase of the day is that it is “the end of an era,” a legal victory so pragmatically important and symbolically immense as to mark a break with a past of marginalization and oppression, a coda or at least a caesura in a national timeline of violence.  On the other side, there is a weary gladness that nevertheless casts a wary eye at the map of state-level battles won, and cautions that jubilance be tempered, slightly at least, with the reality that the race is still quite far from run.

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You hear relatively few of those somber cynics of the legal system who otherwise are generally keen to point out that historically, grand Supreme Court victories tend not to turn out very well for civil rights movements in the end.  Then, these tend to be a disagreeable sort to invite to a victory party, anyway.

In that description of my social world, though, lie the seeds both of a kind of beautiful promise and a form of quiet peril in this political moment that is easily lost behind the spectrum of satisfaction and still images of weeping couples.  And how and if and what we capture and carry from this moment hinges, a little at least, in whether or not we can find it in ourselves to tarry on these two things for a time, before resuming our march to where we will have been.  These musings should be taken for no more than that: no parades are meant to be rained on here, nor cynics bashed, nor innocence dispelled by piercing insight.  Simply a tarrying.  A more homemade kind of caesura.

Supreme Court decisions always reveal as much in what they do not settle as in what they do, and the palette of reactions I’ve described does too.  In both cases it is the unsettled, the absent which is both silent and intrusive.  It didn’t strike me until I began to work on this that I know literally not a single person who supported the Defense of Marriage Act (at least I don’t know that I do, which would simply signal another part of the same difficulty).  Not one, and my places of birth generally make the politics of my friends rather diverse (or perhaps more appropriately, in the older sense, queer).  And if that or something close to that experience is a fairly widespread one when we tarry long enough to notice – and I think it is, on both sides of the coin – that is deeply troubling, or ought to be deeply troubling as we paint each other pictures over tables and glasses of the road to come.

Some of the bitter fractiousness that marked Washington’s heights has died down a bit in recent months…this morning brought an until recently unthinkable immigration bill through the Senate, and while it faces a bloodier road in the House, that it may yet reach to foot of the road at all is an extraordinary thing, viewed through the eyes of ourselves a year younger.  But the at least temporary waning of the sheer, violent ugliness of that divisiveness should not obscure the deeper truth that was revealed in those days of “death panels” and other repeated invocations of cold, dead hands.  That the nation is deeply politically divided is facilely true, but also true of nearly all of its short history.  But it is possible that we face now something new, or at least a dangerous new incarnation of an old imp from our democracy’s outlands.

One of the reasons some activists will now focus on finding state-level legal cases in which to use the emphasis on dignity in United States v. Windsor’s majority  and Kennedy’s quite sweeping description of DOMA’s violation of equal protection is that there is a fear in parts of the movement that, without the power of the court, there remain what might be called “The Unreachables”: a handful of states (or more) in which opposition to non-hetero marriages is so entrenched that they cannot be won politically for the foreseeable future.

states

The idea of the Unreachable hints at something much deeper than a simple statistical diversion of views.  If this were the only problem, then demographic trends are, if too slow for some couples who still wait to marry, at least strongly on the movement’s side.  One of Hannah Arendt’s consistent concerns across her writings is the possibility of shared worlds.  Underlying the idea of the unreachable state, whether or not it is recognized, is the possibility that the divergences in politics between various parts of this country are only the symptoms of a deeper reality that individual experiences of the world around them are so different, share so little in common from which to draw a common weal, that in some politically and socially salient sense they are no longer sharing a world.  And in a nation with an ideologically divided media culture, extraordinary and accelerating wealth disparity, and any number of structural mechanisms that favor political extremism over moderation, there is more to this worry than we might be willing to admit.  If I try to cast my soul into the shoes of an evangelical preacher – whose experience of consumption may be far different from mine, whose experience of events of the outside world comes to her or him described in terms immensely unlike mine and contain figures barely recognizable to me, whose social frames and urban structure are radically disparate from my own – who is today mourning with all sincerity, and not cheering…in that moment it’s not moral difference that concerns me, as Scalia invoked in his dissent.  It is the vanishingly thin fabric of a jointly sensed world that seems at stake, a jointly sensed world from which a nation has to be imagined.

There’s a sense in which the one thing that Supreme Court decisions do not do, ironically, is decide.  At least, they do not decide much: they must be interpreted by lower courts and in the process extended or evacuated, they are subject to legislative challenge and circumvention, they have to be enforced and pursued by those outside the legal system.  In that sense, at least, a Supreme Court decision is not an end to anything, let alone an era, and this is why proponents of non-hetero marriage have cautioned each other against over-optimism, the piece of truth in the curmudgeonly dismissal of the power of the High Court.  But this essential malleability and chimeric strength becomes a particularly acute problem when filtered through the problem of un-shared worlds.  There will be some, in those 36 states that have banned non-hetero marriage (a fact which formally at least remains unchallenged by United States v. Windsor) who will be swayed by the rhetorical and symbolic power of Kennedy’s words, that handful that will actually be heard.  But those words, such few of them as trickle down the communicative chain, and the content of the decision, will by necessity be received filtered through social worlds both rich and rigidified.  And as sociopolitical soil for Kennedy’s words, some of those worlds are very hostile worlds, indeed.

But in another way, that is exactly the promise in moments like Kennedy’s decision.  What’s important about decisions, contra their image and verbiage, is precisely that they are never an end to anything.  Their more significant function is not their symbolism, but that they begin.

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The irony of a legal judgment is that, from the moment it is uttered, it becomes itself the subject of judgment.  It is judged by lawyers, it is judged by lawmakers, it is judged by commentators…and it is judged by janitors and welders and artists and firefighters, equally.  And as we circle our collective judgments around a mass of words uttered into our national vocabulary, a possibility is born.  Certainly, we may simply pat our social selves on each other’s backs, and revel in our joy (or anger) that we know already to be shared.  That’s not such a terrible thing itself.  But the greater promise of the day, and the institution, is that it begins something that is shared, however thinly, between Farragut, Tennessee and Coolidge, New Mexico.  It raises the possibility that our thoughts and judgments, a few at least, through those connections that remain in our worlds across lines built by mobile histories, might find their way into corners of other worlds.  It is in those moments, those moments when we are confronted by someone who is a part of our lives, national or personal, for whom the experience of the day is profoundly different, that a thin tissue of sharing an object of judgment is vital.  It may lead to the discovery of commonalities, it may lead to violent disagreement along all-to-familiar lines, but either way, a language is being born across worlds.  Here, in this issue, that language is a language around what is most intimate to us, the most precious and tumultuous and defining parts of our lives: our lives with intimate others.  And if we can share our lives with intimate others across the bounds of un-shared worlds, even in fraction and splice…then that world will not remain so un-shared, and another small bridge has been built between that which joins ourselves and our partners, our friends, our paramours, to each of our impish outlands.  And that, that is cause for hope.

-Ian Storey

29Apr/130

Performing thinking: Arendt’s Richard III

Arendtquote

"It is better for you to suffer than to do wrong because you can remain the friend of the sufferer; who would want to be the friend of and have to live together with a murderer? Not even a murderer.  What kind of dialogue could you lead with him? Precisely the dialogue which Shakespeare let Richard III lead with himself after a great number of crimes had been committed:

What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by.
Richard loves Richard: that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am:
Then fly. What from myself?"
-Hannah Arendt, ‘Thinking and Moral Considerations’

‘Thinking and Moral Considerations’ is one of the most perfect examples of Arendt’s late writing. A distillation of her career-long thinking on thinking, the essay performs what it so elegantly urges: it is an essay on thinking that thinks.

For Arendt, the moral considerations that follow from thinking and, more grievously, from not thinking are profound. Adolf Eichmann’s “quite authentic inability to think” demonstrated to Arendt the arrival of new kind of evil in the world when she attended his trial in 1961. The airy emptiness of his speech was not the stupidity of a loathsome toad: his jabbering of cliché falling upon cliché sounded totalitarianism’s evil in a chorus of thoughtlessness. Shallowness as exemplified by Eichmann cannot be fixed or given depth by reason; no doctrine will argue the thoughtless into righteousness. Only through the experience of thinking, Arendt insisted, of being in dialogue with oneself, can conscience again be breathed into life. Thinking may be useless in itself; it may be a solitary activity that can often feel a little bit mad. Yet thinking is the precondition for the return of judgment, of knowing and saying: “this is not right.”  By 1971, Arendt saw no evidence of a resurgence of thinking in the wake of atrocity.

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Writing an essay on thinking that thinks and thus performing the experience of thinking is itself an act of defiance. Performing is the right verb here: Arendt knows she is staging her argument as a public spectacle. Her hero is Socrates: gadfly, midwife, stingray, provoker, deliverer and galvaniser of thinking in others. Socrates democratises perplexity. And when he has finished chatting with others, he carries on talking at home, with his quizzical, critical companion, that ‘obnoxious fellow’ with whom we are forever in dialogue -- the two with whom we make a thinking one.  Arendt is fully aware that she is making a character out of Socrates. His inveterate dialogism is a model. Just as Dante’s characters conserve as much historical reality as the poet needs to make them representative, so too, she says, with her Socrates. Against the vacant image of Eichmann inanely mouthing his own eulogy in front of the hangman’s noose which opens the essay, we have Socrates: thoughtlessness versus thoughtfulness.

But what of the third character in Arendt’s essay—Shakespeare’s Richard III? The murderer who nobody wants to befriend? The villain who despite his best efforts cannot stop talking to himself?

Richard plays an odd, yet pivotal, role in Arendt’s performance of thinking. On the one hand, he is Socrates’ evil twin. Richard rejects conscience. ‘Every man that means to live well endeavours … to live without it’, he says. This is easy enough to do, says Arendt, because ‘all he has to do is never go home and examine things.’ Except, in Richard’s case, this proves difficult.  He may try to avoid going home, but eventually he runs into himself at midnight; and in solitude, like Socrates, Richard cannot help but have intercourse with himself. Alone he speaks with himself in soliliquoys (from the Latin solus – alone and loqui –to speak; Arendt’s beloved Augustine is believed to have first conceived the compound). And this is what makes this villain—one who many have wanted to claim for the calculating murderousness of the twentieth century—much more like Socrates than Eichmann.

Both Socrates and Richard have the capacity to think. True, Richard thinks himself into villainy—he ‘proves himself a villain’—but this is precisely his pathos in Arendt’s drama. If it is better to suffer than to do harm, it is also better to have suffered at the hands of Richard who at least thought about what he was doing, than suffered as a number in one of Eichmann’s filing cards, the pathetic loner who joins a murderous movement not because he’s frightened of who might await him at home, but because he doesn’t even suspect anyone might be there in the first place. For all the ham-fisted productions that want him to be, Richard is not a Nazi villain in early modern disguise. Better that he could have been, of course, because then we wouldn’t have to contemplate the particular thoughtlessness of contemporary evil.

Richard is no Osama Bin Laden, Colonel Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein either, despite comparable violent last stands (and the corpse lust that attended them).  This is well understood by Mark Rylance’s recent performance of Richard in the Globe Theater production that played in London last year and that is rumoured to open on Broadway soon. Rylance’s performance of Richard is like no other. It is also a performance that makes Arendt’s thinking more relevant than ever.

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Mark Rylance in the title role of Richard III at Shakespeare’s Globe,
London, 2012, directed by Tim Caroll. Photographer: Simon Annand.

Rylance understands that since the War on Terror, post 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, after Guantanamo, rendition and drone wars, it would be a travesty to play Richard’s villainy as safely and exotically other (by contrast, in 1995 it was entirely possible to set the play in a 1930s Nazi context, and have Ian McKellen play the role for its cruel humour with a knowing nod to Brecht).  Rylance’s Richard is plausible, pathetic even; he is compelling not in his all-too-evident evil but in his clumsy vulnerability. His creepy teeth sucking, and ever-twisting body mark a silent but persistent cogitation; he is a restless, needy, villain. Like a child, Rylance’s Richard grabs at his conscience— he thinks—and then chucks it away as one more ‘obstacle’, just as he spits in his mother’s face at the very moment he most desires she recognise him.  In a neat echo of Arendt’s analysis of how the loneliness of totalitarianism feeds thoughtless evil, the loveless hunchback fights solitude in an effort to avoid the midnight hour; orchestrating collective murder is his defence against being alone with his thoughts. (This was observed by my theater companion who, being ten years old—and a British schoolboy—understands the connection between feeling left out and group violence well). Richard’s tragedy is that circumstances turned him into a serial killer, to this extent he is a conventional villain; his pathos, however, as this production shows, is to be poised between thinking and thoughtlessness, between Socrates and Eichmann.

‘No. Yes, I am/Then fly. What from myself?’ When Rylance speaks this soliloquy he stutters slightly, giggles and looks—as Arendt might have anticipated—a little perplexed. This is not a knowing perplexity; Richard does not master his conscience, nothing is done with the solitary dialogue, but the thinking is there even if Richard himself seems unsettled by its presence. In refusing to play Richard simply as one of the ‘negative heroes in literature’ who, Arendt argues, are often played as such ‘out of envy and resentment’, Rylance brilliantly captures the last moment before evil becomes banal.

To play Richard’s cruelty alongside his vulnerability is not to fail to recognise his villainy, as some have complained; rather, it is to dramatize the experience of thinking in the process of being painfully and violently lost. With pathos, we might think, is the only way to play Richard III today. The Globe’s production is a late, but utterly timely, companion to Arendt’s essay.

-Lyndsey Stonebridge

1Feb/131

John Adams on Education

One of the great documents of American history is the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, written in 1779 by John Adams.

In Section Two of Chapter Six, Adams offers one of the most eloquent testaments to the political virtues of education. He writes:

Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them; especially the university at Cambridge, public schools, and grammar-schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, and good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments, among the people.

Adams felt deeply the connection between virtue and republican government. Like Montesquieu, whose writings are the foundation on which Adams’ constitutionalism is built, Adams knew that a democratic republic could only survive amidst people of virtue. That is why his Constitution also held that the “happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality.”

For Adams, piety and morality depend upon religion. The Constitution he wrote thus holds that a democratic government must promote the “public worship of God and the public instructions in piety, religion, and morality.” One of the great questions of our time is whether a democratic community can promote and nourish the virtue necessary for civil government in an irreligious age? Is it possible, in other words, to maintain a citizenry oriented to the common sense and common good of the nation absent the religious bonds and beliefs that have traditionally taught awe and respect for those higher goods beyond the interests of individuals?

Hannah Arendt saw the ferocity of this question with clear eyes. Totalitarianism was, for here, the proof of the political victory of nihilism, the devaluation of the highest values, the proof that we now live in a world in which anything is possible and where human beings no longer could claim to be meaningfully different from ants or bees. Absent the religious grounding for human dignity, and in the wake of the loss of the Kantian faith of the dignity of human reason, what was left, Arendt asked, upon which to build the world of common meaning that would elevate human groups from their bestial impulses to the human pursuit of good and glory?

The question of civic education is paramount today, and especially for those of us charged with educating our youth. We need to ask, as Lee Schulman recently has: “What are the essential elements of moral and civic character for Americans? How can higher education contribute to developing these qualities in sustained and effective ways?” In short, we need to insist that our institutions aim to live up to the task Adams claimed for them: “to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, and good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments, among the people.”

Everywhere we look, higher education is being dismissed as overly costly and irrelevant. In many, many cases, this is wrong and irresponsible. There is a reason that applications continue to increase at the best colleges around the country, and it is not simply because these colleges guarantee economic success. What distinguishes the elite educational institutions in the U.S. is not their ability to prepare students for technical careers. On the contrary, a liberal arts tradition offers useless education. But parents and students understand—explicitly or implicitly—that such useless education is powerfully useful. The great discoveries in physics come from useless basic research that then power satellites and computers. New brands emerge from late night reveries over the human psyche. And those who learn to conduct an orchestra or direct a play will years on have little difficulty managing a company. What students learn may be presently useless; but it builds the character and forms the intellect in ways that will have unintended and unimaginable consequences over lives and generations.

The theoretical justifications for the liberal arts are easy to mouth but difficult to put into practice. Especially today, defenses of higher education ignore the fact that colleges are not doing a great job of preparing students for democratic citizenship. Large lectures produce the mechanical digestion of information. Hyper-specialized seminars forget that our charge is to teach a liberal tradition. The fetishizing of research that no one reads exemplifies the rewarding of personal advancement at the expense of a common project. And, above all, the loss of any meaningful sense of a core curriculum reflects the abandonment of our responsibility to instruct students about making judgments about what is important. At faculties around the country, the desire to teach what one wants is seen as “liberal” and progressive, but it means in practice that students are advised that any knowledge is equally is good as any other knowledge.

To call for collective judgment about what students should learn is not to insist on a return to a Western canon. It is to say that if we as faculties cannot agree on what is important than we abdicate our responsibility as educators, to lead students into a common world as independent and engaged citizens who can, and will, then act to remake and re-imagine that world.

John Adams was one of Hannah Arendt’s favorite thinkers, and he was because he understood the deep connection between virtue and republicanism. Few documents are more worth revisiting today than the 1780 Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It is your weekend read.

-RB

The HAC blog covers the humanities, politics, and education extensively. For more, click here to read "The Humanities and Common Sense,"  and click here to read "The Progeny of Teachers."

13Mar/120

Agatha Christie on Thinking

“Poirot," I said. "I have been thinking."
"An admirable exercise my friend. Continue it.”

-Agatha Christie, Peril at End House