Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
9Aug/150

Amor Mundi 8/9/15

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-upRemembering Boredom

boredomClaire Messud in Harpers writes of her nostalgia for boredom. "When I recall my formative years, of course there was loads of reading, and travel, and biking, and TV. But there was also a whole lot of boredom. I guess that's what concerns me, as a parent: that my kids, who lack for nothing even more than I did, are not only unversed in material deprivation and insufficiently familiar with self-restraint but, most terribly, they know nothing of nothingness. Having no truly empty time, they're unfamiliar too with the unexpected and exhilarating flowers that can grow there. I want my children to embrace doing nothing, to embrace the slowing of an afternoon to a near standstill, when all you can hear is the laborious ticking of the clock and the dog snoring on the sofa, the rain's patter at the window, the occasional swoosh of a slowly passing car. Remember those days? The exasperation, the excruciating itchiness of them? My kids would have to dive in, live through the agony, and come out the other side. They'd have to learn to lie on the lawn watching ants scale the grass blades; they'd have to linger, digits pruning, in the bathtub; they'd have to stop, to be still, and then to wait, and wait, and wait, allowing time to fatten around them, like a dewdrop on the tip of a leaf. And then, only then, who knows what they might imagine or invent? How can I teach them, when they're not of an age to listen, and when, more problematically, I too often live in the world just as they do? In practice, I set a poor example, never idling or ambling or reading in bed. I'd like to figure out how to be the kind of parent who holds at bay all demands and exhortations, all fripperies and nonsense. I'd like to show the wisdom of restraint. A different version of washing out Ziploc bags and mending moth holes, it arises from the same impulse: from the understanding that if you attend thoughtfully to what you already have, you need nothing more. It's all here, inside and in the room--not on the screen--before us."

Horrified and Baffled
isisIn the New York Review of Books, a writer who wishes to remain anonymous suggests that, in order to understand ISIS, we have to admit that we don't have the tools to understand it: "Much of what ISIS has done clearly contradicts the moral intuitions and principles of many of its supporters. And we sense--through Hassan Hassan and Michael Weiss's careful interviews--that its supporters are at least partially aware of this contradiction. Again, we can list the different external groups that have provided funding and support to ISIS. But there are no logical connections of ideology, identity, or interests that should link Iran, the Taliban, and the Baathists to one another or to ISIS. Rather, each case suggests that institutions that are starkly divided in theology, politics, and culture perpetually improvise lethal and even self-defeating partnerships of convenience. The thinkers, tacticians, soldiers, and leaders of the movement we know as ISIS are not great strategists; their policies are often haphazard, reckless, even preposterous; regardless of whether their government is, as some argue, skillful, or as others imply, hapless, it is not delivering genuine economic growth or sustainable social justice. The theology, principles, and ethics of the ISIS leaders are neither robust nor defensible. Our analytical spade hits bedrock very fast. I have often been tempted to argue that we simply need more and better information. But that is to underestimate the alien and bewildering nature of this phenomenon. To take only one example, five years ago not even the most austere Salafi theorists advocated the reintroduction of slavery; but ISIS has in fact imposed it. Nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible, and difficult to reverse as the rise of ISIS. None of our analysts, soldiers, diplomats, intelligence officers, politicians, or journalists has yet produced an explanation rich enough--even in hindsight--to have predicted the movement's rise. We hide this from ourselves with theories and concepts that do not bear deep examination. And we will not remedy this simply through the accumulation of more facts. It is not clear whether our culture can ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination, and humility to grasp the phenomenon of ISIS. But for now, we should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled."

Suicide and the Liberal Arts

liberal artsJohn Agresto renews the debate about what is killing the liberal arts. His answer: the liberal arts. "Still, it's not simply the high cost of higher education, or their supposed uselessness, that has buried today's liberal arts. More important, professors in the liberal arts have over-promised, or promised wrongly. We have these lovely phrases, like making our students 'well-rounded,' that are more or less just words. Are those who study medicine or nursing not 'well-rounded'? Are those who major in film studies or contemporary 'lit crit' more intellectually worthy than those who study economics and finance? Often enough over the years I've heard my humanities confreres say that a liberal education makes us finer people, more sensitive, more concerned, more humane, even more human. Pretentious shibboleths such as these, expressed in our egalitarian age, are an excellent way to lose one's audience. And that's exactly where the liberal arts are today. Liberal arts has not been killed by parental or student philistinism, or the cupidity of today's educational institutions whose excessive costs have made the liberal arts into an unattainable luxury. In too many ways the liberal arts have died not by murder but by suicide. To restore the liberal arts, those of us who teach should begin by thinking about students. Almost all of them have serious questions about major issues, and all of them are looking for answers. What is right? What is love? What do I owe others? What do others owe me? In too many places these are not questions for examination but issues for indoctrination. Instead of guiding young men and women by encouraging them to read history, biography, philosophy and literature, we'd rather debunk the past, deconstruct the authors and dethrone our finest minds and statesmen."

amor_mundi_sign-upOn Bullshit
jon stewartJon Stewart signed off as host of The Daily Show with a speech about bullshit. It is worth watching, but here is a rough transcription. "Bullshit is everywhere. Are the kids still in here? We'll deal with that later. Bullshit is everywhere. There is very little that you will encounter in life that has not been, in some ways, infused with bullshit. Not all of it bad. Your general, day-to-day, organic free-range bullshit is often necessary. Or at the very least innocuous. 'Oh what a beautiful baby--I'm sure it will grow into that.' That kind of bullshit in many ways provides important social contract fertilizer. It keeps people from making each other cry all day. But then there's the more pernicious bullshit. Your premeditated, institutional bullshit, designed to obscure and distract. Designed by whom? The bullshittocracy. It comes in three basic flavors. One, making bad things sound like good things. 'Organic, All Natural cupcakes.' Because factory-made sugar oatmeal balls doesn't sell. Patriot Act. Because 'Are You Scared Enough To Let Me Look At All Your Phone Records Act' doesn't sell. So, whenever something has been titled Freedom Family Fairness Health America, take a good long sniff. Chances are it has been manufactured in a facility that may contain traces of bullshit. Number Two, the second way: Hiding bad things under mountains of bullshit. Complexity. You know, I would love to download Drizzy's latest Meek Mill diss--(everyone promised me that that made sense). But I'm not really interested right now in reading Tolstoy's iTunes agreement. So I'll just click and agree, even if it grants Apple prima nocte with my spouse. Here's another one, simply put, banks shouldn't be able to bet your pension money on red. Bullshitly put, it's Dodd Frank. Hey, a handful of billionaires can't buy our elections right? Of course not. They can only pour unlimited, anonymous cash into a 501(c)4; otherwise they'd have to 501(c)6 it, or funnel it openly through a non-campaign coordinated Super Pac. 'I think they're asleep now, we can sneak out.' And finally, it's the bullshit of infinite possibility. These bullshitters cover their unwillingness to act under the guise of unending inquiry. We can't do anything because we don't yet know everything. We cannot take action on climate change, until everyone in the world agrees gay-marriage vaccines won't cause our children to marry goats, who are going to come for our guns. Until then, I say it leads to controversy. Now the good news is this. Bullshitters have gotten pretty lazy. And their work is easily detected. And looking for it is kind of a pleasant way to pass the time. Like an 'I Spy' of bullshit. So I say to you tonight, friends. The best defense against bullshit is vigilance. So if you smell something, say something."

Keep the Church Weird

jesusEmma Green profiles Southern Baptist Convention political leader Russell Moore, who, instead of trying to bring the sacred and the profane as close together as possible wants to emphasize the separateness of the Church by redefining American Protestant identity with a seemingly pejorative rhetorical strategy: "Moore is making an argument for embracing Christian strangeness. 'Our message will be seen as increasingly freakish to American culture,' he writes. 'Let's embrace the freakishness, knowing that such freakishness is the power of God unto salvation.' This word, 'freak,' is both jarring and effective: It's a high-school-hallway diss, all hard-edged consonants and staccato contempt. Christians have reclaimed this word before; the 1960s-era 'Jesus freaks' mixed gospel teachings with hippie counter-culture. In many ways, Moore wants to capture a similar mentality, one of standing against and apart from culture, rather than trying to win it over. This is not quite the same as 'the Benedict option,' as Rod Dreher has called it--a strategic retreat from culture and fortification of communities that share similar values. As Moore pointed out, the core of being an evangelical is evangelism, spreading the good news of Christ; there's no low-church history of monastic retreat like there is in the Catholic or Orthodox traditions. But it is a strategic reorientation: to see the world through the eyes of the outcast, rather than the conqueror."

Copyediting a Hero
shirley jacksonBenjamin Dreyer, who copyedited a new collection of material from writer Shirley Jackson, explains the joy and terror of working with a favorite, and long passed, writer: "I'm not much for telling tales out of school, so had I encountered any majorly irksome gaffes as I made my way through the manuscript, I'd likely be keeping them discreetly to myself anyway rather than spilling them here, but the God's honest truth is that even at close scrutiny--very close: I like to copyedit more or less in Cinerama, with a document set in 14-point type and, furthermore, at 150 percent, so that I can barely see beyond the margins unless I turn my head--Jackson's prose remained resolutely fine. I confess that I was oddly pleased to learn that my paragon was, in manuscript, not entirely infallible: Jackson goes to the well of 'suddenly' and 'and then' a bit too frequently (with the Hymans' approval, there are now quite a few fewer of those in the finished book), and she occasionally puts more pressure on the worthy semicolon than a semicolon can bear. (I may well, though I will not confirm it, on occasion have yelled at my screen 'A period, for Pete's sake, a period!') But mostly, sentence after sentence, I was happily awed. So happily awed that I quickly--and easily, I should stress--established a rule of self-restraint: Anything I felt the need to do that couldn't be easily accomplished with a mild rejiggering of punctuation or the addition or deletion of no more than two words at a time would be weighed carefully before I even dared suggest it. As it turned out, I found maybe a half-dozen knotted-up sentences that were easily untangled--just as, I'm certain, Jackson herself would have untangled them on a subsequent run-through. At one point I spent a good fifteen minutes willing a sentence to move from the beginning of a paragraph to the end before I decided it was fine where its author had placed it. Once and only once did I venture to suggest that a couple of words more interesting than 'that' or 'the' needed to be added to fill out a resolutely unsatisfactory sentence, and the Hymans accepted my suggestion. It's a heady thing for me that I actually contributed two whole substantive words to a Shirley Jackson story, but the truth is that if I did my job properly, if I did that brain burrowing that my colleague said was the real art of copyediting, they're not my words at all; they're Jackson's. I just had to listen for them."

The Dawn of the Atomic Age

hiroshimaThis week was the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Of all the pieces looking back at the human terror and technological sublime of the first of two uses of such a weapon in recorded history, John Hershey's 1946 issue-length article in the New Yorker, published at a time when the magazine cost fifteen cents an issue, might still be the best. In honor of the anniversary, the magazine has put the whole article online for free.

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #12

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, September 11, 2015

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

 

 


why privacy matters title cardSAVE THE DATE - 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

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

**UPDATE** Registration for our conference is now open! Save your seat for this exciting two-day event here!

Thursday, October 15 and Friday, October 16, 2015

Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm


From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Laurie Naranch wonders if education can prepare us to assume responsibility for and help renew the common world in the Quote of the Week. Alexander Hamilton reflects on how the fruit of labor and thought help constitute the appearance of genius in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we reflect on the extent to which Hannah Arendt respected American's love for freedom 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.
5Jul/151

Amor Mundi 7/5/15

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-upOur Struggles

against the countryWyatt Mason, Senior Fellow here at the Hannah Arendt Center, considers the fate of the modern novel between two poles, taking as his example the hilarious satire Against the Country by Ben Metcalf. On this Independence Day weekend, it is worth thinking with Mason about the lessons learned from Against the Country, a truly inspired satirical treatment of American life. "Throughout its history, the novel has catalogued our frailties and torments, those suffered by us at the margins, which is to say those suffered by all of us who are always, sometimes, at the margins. Childhood is one such marginal place and time, and some of us never manage to cross its boundaries without immense struggle. Metcalf's novel documents that struggle by, in part, making us struggle with his sentences. This is not a popular tact, presently, even if Metcalf's quarry is as eternal as it is current. That other contemporary struggle with childhood and with an abusive father, My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard's not--336-page novel in seven 'books' but 3,600-page novel in six volumes, is lately much praised for its production of sentences that do not call undue attention to their madeness. In the Knausgaard, the premium, as is lately the fashion (and, like all fashion, you are either attuned to its seasons or blissfully oblivious in your sweatpants), is on an idea of directness, of anti-artifice. As a reading culture, we find ourselves at a historical moment when our suspicion of the sentence is at its height. We know--we concede--that too often a sentence seems designed to sell us something we neither want nor need. As such, we may be said to have adopted, as a matter of self-protection, a mode of self-expression that eschews words like 'eschews' and models its mode on our written moments that might be called authentic, our Twitter voice, our text tone, our email manner, shorn of all artifice. Whereas, with the Metcalf, I know no modern novel, and may know no novel, that is more adept with or attuned to or hell bent, than Against the Country, upon the deployment, at every possible turn, of metaphor as a means to its ends. It would take a book to catalogue them all--all these bringings across--so let me say that our school bus, met above, is, sure, just that, but it is also meant to be an entirely different animal, one that will petrify us, and mortify us, and also delight us in an uncomfortable way, the way we feel when, in rubbing the tummy of a favored dog, the shiny, ruddy, pointy tip of what isn't his tail, extends all too eagerly, at our touch." On the one hand, the novel beckons us into a metaphorical and artificial world where we struggle with sentences to cross over into a fictional yet still real world of ideas. On the other hand, the novel lures us with its simplicity and artlessness, the quotidian pleasures of recognition. Mason does not privilege one novelistic approach over the other, but he does mourn the apparent disfavor attaining to novels that demand attention to their difficulty and artificiality. His reading, in this regard, of Metcalf's hilarious and devastating novel Against the Country is not to be missed.

Work

automation hannah arendtSixty years ago Hannah Arendt argued that the advent of automation was one of the two great events threatening the modern age. Against the Marxist hope that machines will free us from the need to labor so that we can pursue hobbies and nurture the soul, Arendt worried that freedom from labor would be soul crushing. We are a jobholding culture in which people find meaning in their employment. Without work, she argued, people will have little to nourish their sense of self. Most people will fall back on consumption, which requires them to labor to earn money to consume more, in a cycle of soul-crushing monotony. Today, many economists and social prophets are coming to see that Arendt had a point. Derek Thompson writes in The Atlantic that the worries that machines will end the need for human labor are finally coming true: "After 300 years of people crying wolf, there are now three broad reasons to take seriously the argument that the beast is at the door: the ongoing triumph of capital over labor, the quiet demise of the working man, and the impressive dexterity of information technology." According to Thompson, "The share of U.S. economic output that's paid out in wages fell steadily in the 1980s, reversed some of its losses in the '90s, and then continued falling after 2000, accelerating during the Great Recession. It now stands at its lowest level since the government started keeping track in the mid-20th century." What is more, "All in all, about one in six prime-age men today are either unemployed or out of the workforce altogether." In response to the coming loss of meaningful labor, Thompson explores three optimistic visions of a future without work. In one, government assistance will allow unemployed people to pursue leisure activities, much like Marx predicted in a socialist utopia. In a second, government will set a social welfare floor that will allow everyday persons to use new technologies to become artisans and entrepreneurs, making specialty cheeses, artworks, and applications. "It's possible that information technology and robots eliminate traditional jobs and make possible a new artisanal economy ... an economy geared around self-expression, where people would do artistic things with their time." Finally, a third possibility is a positive spin on the idea of an "über" economy that gives rise to a precariat. "Russo sees Youngstown as the leading edge of a larger trend toward the development of what he calls the 'precariat'--a working class that swings from task to task in order to make ends meet and suffers a loss of labor rights, bargaining rights, and job security. In Youngstown, many of these workers have by now made their peace with insecurity and poverty by building an identity, and some measure of pride, around contingency. The faith they lost in institutions--the corporations that have abandoned the city, the police who have failed to keep them safe--has not returned. But Russo and Woodroofe both told me they put stock in their own independence. And so a place that once defined itself single-mindedly by the steel its residents made has gradually learned to embrace the valorization of well-rounded resourcefulness." All three of these optimistic scenarios depend on massive transformations in government support and cultural attitudes. It is equally if not more likely that the future without labor will be precarious, unfulfilled, and consumerist. But Thompson's essay lays out the challenges and ways forward. It is well worth reading.

Will the Law Say Only 'Yes' Means 'Yes'?

affirmative consentJudith Shulevitz considers the strong momentum behind affirmative consent laws around the nation, laws that "say sex isn't legal without positive agreement." She writes: "PERHAPS the most consequential deliberations about affirmative consent are going on right now at the American Law Institute. The more than 4,000 law professors, judges and lawyers who belong to this prestigious legal association--membership is by invitation only--try to untangle the legal knots of our time. They do this in part by drafting and discussing model statutes. Once the group approves these exercises, they hold so much sway that Congress and states sometimes vote them into law, in whole or in part. For the past three years, the law institute has been thinking about how to update the penal code for sexual assault, which was last revised in 1962. When its suggestions circulated in the weeks before the institute's annual meeting in May, some highly instructive hell broke loose. In a memo that has now been signed by about 70 institute members and advisers, including Judge Gertner, readers have been asked to consider the following scenario: 'Person A and Person B are on a date and walking down the street. Person A, feeling romantically and sexually attracted, timidly reaches out to hold B's hand and feels a thrill as their hands touch. Person B does nothing, but six months later files a criminal complaint. Person A is guilty of "Criminal Sexual Contact" under proposed Section 213.6(3)(a).' Far-fetched? Not as the draft is written. The hypothetical crime cobbles together two of the draft's key concepts. The first is affirmative consent. The second is an enlarged definition of criminal sexual contact that would include the touching of any body part, clothed or unclothed, with sexual gratification in mind. As the authors of the model law explain: 'Any kind of contact may qualify. There are no limits on either the body part touched or the manner in which it is touched.' So if Person B neither invites nor rebukes a sexual advance, then anything that happens afterward is illegal. 'With passivity expressly disallowed as consent,' the memo says, 'the initiator quickly runs up a string of offenses with increasingly more severe penalties to be listed touch by touch and kiss by kiss in the criminal complaint.'" Shulovitz speaks with Stephen Schulhofer, one of the leading criminal lawyers in the country. Schulhofer is helping to write the new model laws covering sexual harassment, and he is a supporter of affirmative consent: "The case for affirmative consent is 'compelling,' he says. Mr. Schulhofer has argued that being raped is much worse than having to endure that awkward moment when one stops to confirm that one's partner is happy to continue. Silence or inertia, often interpreted as agreement, may actually reflect confusion, drunkenness or 'frozen fright,' a documented physiological response in which a person under sexual threat is paralyzed by terror. To critics who object that millions of people are having sex without getting unqualified assent and aren't likely to change their ways, he'd reply that millions of people drive 65 miles per hour despite a 55-mile-per-hour speed limit, but the law still saves lives. As long as 'people know what the rules of the road are,' he says, 'the overwhelming majority will comply with them.'"

amor_mundi_sign-upAin't No Cure for the Wintertime Blues

polar nightKari Leibowitz looks at how some of the northernmost people in the world manage to stay happy to the endless winter night in the Arctic circle: "It's true that the winters in Tromsø can be uniquely magical. Tromsø is home to some of the world's best displays of the Aurora Borealis, surrounded by mountain and nature trails perfect for an afternoon ski, and part of a culture that values work-life balance. But I also believe the cultural mindset of Tromsø plays a role in wintertime wellness. I found myself the happy victim of mindset contagion after Fern told me she refused to call the Polar Night the mørketid, or 'dark time,' preferring instead to use its alternative name, the 'Blue Time' to emphasize all the color present during this period. (Plenty of people with a positive wintertime mindset might still refer to the Polar Night as the 'dark time,' but Fern's comment was indicative of one of the ways she purposefully orients herself towards a positive wintertime mindset.) After hearing this, I couldn't help but pay more attention to the soft blue haze that settled over everything, and I consciously worked to think of this light as cozy rather than dark. And rather than greeting each other with complaints about the cold and snow, a common shared grumble in the U.S., my Norwegian friends would walk or ski to our meet-ups, arriving alert and refreshed from being outdoors, inspiring me to bundle up and spend some time outside on even the coldest days."

Poet's Form

john berrymanAugust Kleinzahler considers the dream song, John Berryman's innovation in poetry: "That 'prosodic pattern' would evolve into one of the significant poetic inventions of the 20th century; it was an eccentric, syncopated mash-up of traditional measures and contemporary vernacular energy, an American motley with Elizabethan genes. The Dream Song form--three six-line stanzas, with lines of varying length and no predictable rhyme scheme--is used by Berryman as a flexible variant on the sonnet. He needs this flexibility to accommodate the continually changing registers of voice, the sudden shifts of diction, and to allow him to keep so many balls in the air. He wrote a total of 385 Dream Songs over 13 years, beginning in 1955. It was a period in which his mental and physical condition deteriorated as a result of extreme alcohol abuse and the poems are nourished by that dissolution and the despair born of it, the best of them transmuting Berryman's condition into something lambent and ludic. Their protagonist, Henry, a shape-shifting tragicomic clown, is Berryman himself behind a set of Poundian masks. What makes the sequence such a signal achievement is that it manages to be at once representative of the poetry of its time and a radical departure from it."

A Final Farewell

death new orleansC. Morgan Babst writes about why the people of New Orleans began inviting the dead to their own wakes: "In the context of a history that has repeatedly--ceaselessly--equated black bodies with animals and objects, however, we cannot understand the body as no different from a table or a tool. The deceased is still more than just stuff, Heidegger writes, and yet, when we leave a dead man under an overpass for days covered in only a garbage bag, aren't we treating him as though he weren't? The slowness with which the dead were recovered in New Orleans following the flooding was not simple impropriety but revealed a profound disrespect for the humanity of the victims of the storm and levee breaks. And bringing the corpse back into our funeral rites is not a desecration or an impropriety, either; instead, perhaps unconsciously, this custom reasserts the body's importance and restores dignity to the deceased, insists on the humanity of the dead. Uncle Lionel standing in his suit with his watch around his hand and Mickey Easterling in the floral pantsuit she'd specified in her will reassure us that proper care has been taken. In short, a funeral that ignores the body is not a luxury we can afford."

Regarding Susan Sontag

susan sontagSteve Wasserman remembers Susan Sontag: "A self-described 'besotted aesthete' and 'obsessed moralist,' Sontag declared in 'Notes on "Camp,"' 'The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony.' If we agree that such categories as 'Jewish moral seriousness' and 'homosexual aestheticism and irony' actually exist, we could reasonably assert that the two traditions were the antipodes that framed an argument Sontag had with herself all her life. The oscillation between the two marks almost all of her work. She saw herself as a loyal inheritor and servant of a tradition of high seriousness that ennobles and confers dignity upon works that are redolent of truth, beauty, and moral gravitas. Sontag gave us her list: The Iliad, Aristophanes' plays, The Art of the Fugue, Middlemarch, the paintings of Rembrandt, the cathedral at Chartres, the poetry of Donne, Dante, Beethoven's quartets--in short, the whole pantheon of high culture. Sontag offered up a taxonomy of creative sensibilities. She proposed a trinity: the first was high culture; the second was a sensibility whose sign was 'anguish, cruelty, derangement,' exemplified by such artists as Bosch, Sade, Rimbaud, Kafka, geniuses who understood that, at least in the world we now inhabit, the only honest art was art that was broken, composed of shards, hostage to the insight that at the deep center of human existence lay a Gordian knot of unresolvable issues that no surface coherence could plausibly or honestly treat or reflect or make pretty. The third great creative sensibility was Camp, a sensibility, as she wrote, 'of failed seriousness, of the theatricalization of experience.'"

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #10

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, July 10, 2015

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

 

 


why privacy mattersSAVE THE DATE - 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

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

Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015

Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm


From the Arendt Center Blog

human conditionThis week on the Blog, Samantha Hill examines the act of forgiveness and asks whether we can embrace this principle with respect to someone like Dylann Roof in the Quote of the Week. William James reflects on how the activity of thinking helps to determine life in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, Karen Tsdj uses an image of her personal Arendtian library to remind us of the importance of holding criminals accountable for their crimes in this week's Library feature.

This coming Friday, July 10th, the Hannah Arendt Center will host the tenth session of its Virtual Reading Group. We will be discussing Chapters 27-30 of The Human Condition.

The reading group is available to all members and is always welcoming new participants! Please click here to learn more, including how you can join!

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.
14Jun/150

Amor Mundi 6/14/15

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-upAlgorithmic Politics

fb algorithmZeynep Tufekci takes a critical look at a recent study (by Facebook) showing that the social media's algorithm reduces the number of "cross-cutting" posts that we see, posts that challenge our political beliefs. In other words, if you're liberal, Facebook highlights liberal posts, and vice versa for conservatives. It gives the people what they want, or what they think you want. "Here's the key finding: Facebook researchers conclusively show that Facebook's newsfeed algorithm decreases ideologically diverse, cross-cutting content people see from their social networks on Facebook by a measurable amount. The researchers report that exposure to diverse content is suppressed by Facebook's algorithm by 8% for self-identified liberals and by 5% for self-identified conservatives. Or, as Christian Sandvig puts it, 'the algorithm filters out 1 in 20 cross-cutting hard news stories that a self-identified conservative sees (or 5%) and 1 in 13 cross-cutting hard news stories that a self-identified liberal sees (8%).' You are seeing fewer news items that you'd disagree with which are shared by your friends because the algorithm is not showing them to you.... Overall, from all aspects, this study confirms that for this slice of politically-engaged sub-population, Facebook's algorithm is a modest suppressor of diversity of content people see on Facebook, and that newsfeed placement is a profoundly powerful gatekeeper for click-through rates. This, not all the roundabout conversation about people's choices, is the news." The censoring of oppositional content is subtle and minor, and yet it persists. All of this means that people with different politics will actually see different posts, making them susceptible to meaningfully different realities.

What Is Code?

codeBusiness Week asked Paul Ford a simple question: "We are here because the editor of this magazine asked me, 'Can you tell me what code is?' 'No,' I said. 'First of all, I'm not good at the math. I'm a programmer, yes, but I'm an East Coast programmer, not one of these serious platform people from the Bay Area.'" 31,000 words and hours later, you realize Ford is telling the truth but answering like a coder. You can't read his long essay--interspersed with video explanations and offers to learn basic coding ("We can't teach you to code, but we can hold your hand through a live-fire exercise. It will be dry, because code is dry until it 'clicks,' and often even then. Want to give it a shot?") without gaining some insight into the beauty, chaos, complexity, and importance of answering the unanswerable question. "A computer is a clock with benefits. They all work the same, doing second-grade math, one step at a time: Tick, take a number and put it in box one. Tick, take another number, put it in box two. Tick, operate (an operation might be addition or subtraction) on those two numbers and put the resulting number in box one. Tick, check if the result is zero, and if it is, go to some other box and follow a new set of instructions. You, using a pen and paper, can do anything a computer can; you just can't do those things billions of times per second. And those billions of tiny operations add up. They can cause a phone to boop, elevate an elevator, or redirect a missile. That raw speed makes it possible to pull off not one but multiple sleights of hand, card tricks on top of card tricks. Take a bunch of pulses of light reflected from an optical disc, apply some math to unsqueeze them, and copy the resulting pile of expanded impulses into some memory cells--then read from those cells to paint light on the screen. Millions of pulses, 60 times a second. That's how you make the rubes believe they're watching a movie.... You can make computers do wonderful things, but you need to understand their limits. They're not all-powerful, not conscious in the least. They're fast, but some parts--the processor, the RAM--are faster than others--like the hard drive or the network connection. Making them seem infinite takes a great deal of work from a lot of programmers and a lot of marketers. The turn-of-last-century British artist William Morris once said you can't have art without resistance in the materials. The computer and its multifarious peripherals are the materials. The code is the art."

An Indictment

kalief browderJennifer Gonnerman's eulogy for Kalief Browder, a young New Yorker who spent three years in jail without being charged with a crime, is an indictment of the whole criminal justice system and specifically of the cruel and unusual technique of solitary confinement: "He had been arrested in the spring of 2010, at age sixteen, for a robbery he insisted he had not committed. Then he spent more than one thousand days on Rikers waiting for a trial that never happened. During that time, he endured about two years in solitary confinement, where he attempted to end his life several times. Once, in February 2012, he ripped his bedsheet into strips, tied them together to create a noose, and tried to hang himself from the light fixture in his cell. In November of 2013, six months after he left Rikers, Browder attempted suicide again. This time, he tried to hang himself at home, from a bannister, and he was taken to the psychiatric ward at St. Barnabas Hospital, not far from his home, in the Bronx. When I met him, in the spring of 2014, he appeared to be more stable. Then, late last year, about two months after my story about him appeared, he stopped going to classes at Bronx Community College. During the week of Christmas, he was confined in the psych ward at Harlem Hospital. One day after his release, he was hospitalized again, this time back at St. Barnabas. When I visited him there on January 9th, he did not seem like himself. He was gaunt, restless, and deeply paranoid. He had recently thrown out his brand-new television, he explained, 'because it was watching me.'" Ta-Nehisi Coates further contextualizes Browder's short life in terms of the way the criminal justice system treats African American men.

Living a Coherent Fantasy

rachel dolezalJosh Marshall wonders at the crazy complexities of Rachel Dolezal's existence, including the fantastic levels at which she, born white, made up a past and present life for herself as a black woman. Against criticism that she may have claimed blackness only when it suited her or that she embraced blackness to get a job at the NAACP, Marshall writes, "Maybe Dolezal had a separate life as a white person or put herself down as a white on a home loan application. (Obviously whatever her intentions she had the freedom which dark-skinned African-Americans lack to just become white again whenever she wanted.) But that's not at all the impression I get of this woman by reading her story. I get the impression that in her mind Dolezal actually had at some level become black, possibly even to the level of some aspect of body dysmorphia. (The counter to that perception, though not necessarily invalidating it, is that according to her adopted brother she warned or perhaps even threatened family members not to expose her.)" Her embrace of her blackness even led to hate crimes being committed against her (at least some of which she fabricated). But the basic point that Marshall insists on is that Dolezal is simply a liar living in an increasingly fictional reality: "I read the Rachel Dolezal story before it got picked up by any national outlets in the original story in the Coeur d'Alene Press on Thursday (yes, epic aggregation fail ... what can I say I was traveling). If you've only read pick-ups or follow-ups, read the original if you get a chance. It's an amazing piece of reporting and will make you appreciate what a great thing small paper journalism is--just an amazingly detailed piece of shoe-leather reporting. Since I read it I've been trying to think what if anything there is to add beyond the peristaltic WTF that seems to be the near universal response. So let me just go with bullet points. Point 1: The one simple thing is the online debate about whether Dolezal is simply 'transracial' like Caitlyn Jenner is transgender. No. It's not like that. In fact, I think we can dispense with this entirely because I have not seen anyone suggesting this anywhere online who wasn't just some wingnut concern-trolling transgenderism and frankly racial identity itself. You can dress yourself up however you want and identify however you want. But when you start making up black parents and all the rest that went into this story, you're just lying. Full stop." Dolezal's story may raise fascinating questions about race and identity. But let's remember that making up coherent fantasies that one holds to in the face of facts is dangerous, demonstrating a disdain for reality. To rewrite history, even one's personal history, diminishes the power of factual truth and habituates one to living in coherent fictions, which Hannah Arendt argues is one of the root causes of totalitarianism.

amor_mundi_sign-upGood and Good For You

eggs cholesterolAnne Fausto-Sterling wonders how we're supposed to know what's good for us, especially in light of "new government guidelines released in February" that reverse a long-standing view that cholesterol should be limited. Suddenly, she writes, "It seems I am free to eat eggs, lobster, and oysters without fear for my life. How, in a mere five years, could our ideas about nutrition do such an about-face? There are several possible explanations. First, it may be really hard to do a good study linking cholesterol intake to ill health. Over time scientists may have designed better and better study methods, until, finally, a more justified truth has emerged. Second, vested interests--giant agribusinesses (purveyors of lobster, eggs, and well-larded beef) and pharmaceutical companies (purveyors of cholesterol-lowering drugs such as statins)--may have influenced the guidelines. Third, foods have changed. Perhaps newer studies differ from older ones because an egg circa 1960 is not an egg circa 2000. Today's chickens are more inbred. Their own food intake has changed, possibly altering the cholesterol in their eggs. Fourth, we have started to focus on human metabolism at the level of multi-organ interactions. Instead of treating diabetes as a disease of the pancreas and obesity as a problem of fat storage, we now talk about a metabolic syndrome, which links high blood sugar, high blood pressure, excess midriff fat, and abnormal cholesterol levels to increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. As conceptions of disease change, so do ideas about the sources of disease. And fifth, the tried-and-true 'all of the above.'"

Alive and Dead

meursault investigationZach Pontz considers Kamel Daoud's The Meursault Investigation, a retelling of Albert Camus's The Stranger: "Meursault has divorced himself from history, has, as he tells the investigator tasked with questioning him following his crime, given up analyzing himself. Assigning meaning to the world is something he has lost the energy to do. Harun, on the other hand, is driven by the desire to impose form on a lifetime of quasi-intelligible incidents, the foremost of which is the murder of his brother and its aftermath, which has sentenced its victims--Musa, Harun, their mother--to anonymity. 'There's not a trace of our loss or of what became of us afterward,' Harun tells his interlocutor. 'The whole world eternally witnesses the same murder in the blazing sun, but no one saw anything, and no one watched us recede into the distance.' If Meursault is the stranger, Harun's brother is the invisible man. But the tragedy here is that Harun understands he can't will his brother into being, that he's forever been written out of history by Meursault, in whose book 'The word "Arab" appears twenty-five times but not a single name, not once.' In this way does Daoud, a popular columnist in Algeria who has become a vocal critic of the government, set up one of his main theses: that both the French colonial system, the French Algerian population of which (known as pied-noirs) populated Algeria for a century and a half, and Algerians themselves are complicit in the country's current state of affairs."

The New PLOTUS

jual felipe herreraDwight Garner shares the work of Juan Felipe Herrera, the newly appointed US poet laureate: "Mostly, though, you'd like to hear him at the National Mall because his work is built to be spoken aloud. His best poems are polyrhythmic and streaked with a nettling wit. He puts you in mind of something the writer Dagoberto Gilb once said: 'My favorite ethnic group is smart.' Witness Mr. Herrera's long poem, '187 Reasons Mexicanos Can't Cross the Border (Remix),' for example. In it, he flies a freak flag, in a manner that resembles a blend of Oscar Zeta Acosta and Allen Ginsberg, on behalf of his determined politics. Among those reasons Mexicanos can't cross: 'Because it's better to be rootless, unconscious & rapeable'; 'Because the pesticides on our skin are still glowing'; 'Because pan dulce feels sexual, especially conchas & the elotes'; 'Because we'll build a sweat lodge in front of Bank of America'; 'Because we're locked into Magical Realism'; and 'Because Freddy Fender wasn't Baldemar Huerta's real name.'"

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #10

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, July 10, 2015

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

 

 


why privacy mattersSAVE THE DATE - 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

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

Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015

Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm


From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Jeffrey Jurgens uses the protests in Ferguson, MO and Baltimore, MD to understand both the differences and the relations between violence and power in the Quote of the Week. Military strategist Carl von Clausewitz discusses the effect that rules and principles have on a thinking man in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we appreciate an image of a graduate student's personal "shelf library" of Arendt 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.
25May/150

Amor Mundi 5/24/15

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-upThe Call to Life

Sherrilyn IfillSherrilyn Ifill delivered the commencement address at Bard College on Saturday, and I was honored to present her as a candidate for her honorary degree as a Doctor in Law. In her speech, Ifill told Bard graduates, "to exercise true citizenship, you will be obligated to help our nation grapple with its most vexing and starkest contradictions. You are called to help us determine whether we are truly committed to equality, dignity, fairness, second chances, reason, justice, and peace. Because it is not after all just that we incarcerate two million people, more people than any other nation in the world, it is that we have made a culture of imprisoning our fellow citizens, and, in creating this culture, we have demeaned ourselves, we have created television programs and forms of humor that focus on violence in prison, and we have condoned the practice of assigning prisoners to months, years, and, in some instances, even decades of solitary confinement with the full knowledge that this will strip them of their sanity." Ifill then ended her passionate speech with a personal reflection on her recent escape from tragedy. "Finally, I wish to share one other thing. You may know that I was a passenger on Amtrak train 188 that derailed and crashed last Tuesday night." She related how, by accident, she was not in the car that suffered the worst of the crash. She concluded: "I emerged from this awful accident with a broken collarbone, a concussion, and some emotional scars to be sure, but I'm grateful to be alive and relatively unhurt. And, while I'm still processing much of what happened and trying to understand what I should make of this extraordinary experience, I do know this much: committing your life to making meaningful art, or teaching the disadvantaged, or to, as I have, racial, gender, or LGBT justice issues; devoting yourself to ending religious intolerance, or to protecting the resources of our precious planet, to finding the cure for a terrible disease, to inventing some life-changing device or code, to composing transcendent pieces of music, does not exempt you from what I believe is the ultimate command of the universe, the ultimate command in my faith of God: to live and to love. Not just to go through the motions, not to work relentlessly until the very joy of life is stripped away, as I was in peril of doing before this accident, not to forget to breathe country air deeply, not to say you have no time for long walks or long hugs or long goodbyes. We are called first and foremost to live, and to nurture that magic circle of what I call favorites--that tight group of family and friends to whom you will instinctively reach out when calamity happens and who will surround you with their love and get you back on your feet to face the challenges and work ahead. This to, the nurturing of this group is a kind of work and you must take it as seriously and apply yourself to it as diligently as you will to the work of responsible citizenship that your community and your country demands of you. So, class of 2015, I am excited to know that you will be leading our community, our country, and what we will become. I have confidence that you are prepared and committed, engaged and unafraid to do this great work."

Look at Me!

knausgaardKarl Ove Knausgaard, author of the re-working of Mein Kampf that is the literary sensation of the last few years, reflects on the humanist origins of Anders Behring Breivik, the young Norwegian mass murderer. Noting Breivik's admitted ideological justifications for his crimes, Knausgaard suggests that his motives were grounded in an existential loneliness. "However, almost everything else regarding Breivik and his crime points away from the political and the ideological and toward the personal. He made himself a sort of military commander's uniform, in which he photographed himself before the crime; he consistently referred to a large organization, of which he claimed to be a prominent member but which does not exist; in his manifesto he interviews himself as if he were a hero; and the impression this gives is of a person who has erected a make-believe reality, in which his significance is undisputed. The way in which he carried out his crime, and the way his thoughts contextualized it, resembles role-playing, rather than political terrorism. The solitude this implies is enormous, not to mention the need for self-assertion. The most logical approach is to view his actions as a variation on the numerous school massacres that have occurred in the past decades in the United States, Finland, and Germany: a young man, a misfit, who is either partly or completely excluded from the group, takes as many people with him into death as he can, in order to 'show' us.... He wanted to be seen; that is what drove him, nothing else. Look at me. Look at me. Look at me." Knausgaard's attention to Breivik's loneliness recalls Hannah Arendt's reflections on the origins of totalitarian thinking in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism. At one point, Knausgaard even turns to Arendt's report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann and writes: "Knowing what he did that summer day almost four years ago, when he walked around an island full of youths and shot everyone he saw, many face to face--indeed, when the court reviewed the autopsy reports, we learned of a girl whose lips remained unscathed, though she was shot in the mouth, because Breivik shot her at close range while she presumably screamed for help or for mercy--and knowing the consequences that his actions have had for the affected families, for us his list of complaints is, in its triviality, almost unbearable to read. It is as if Hannah Arendt's notion of the banality of evil had, in Breivik's case, received an additional twist. Adolf Eichmann, the man whom Arendt wrote about, belonged to an organization and a bureaucracy and a structure, all of which he obediently served, and which protected him from ultimate insight into the consequences of his actions. In contrast, from the very first moment Breivik was utterly alone, and his smallness and wretchedness, which were, in a way, grotesquely inflated by his actions, make it all the more difficult to reconcile oneself to the crime, which the media have termed 'the worst attack on Norwegian soil since the Second World War.'" The focus on bureaucratic structure reflects a subtle misunderstanding of Arendt's account, one in which it is Eichmann's role as a bureaucrat, a cog, that takes pride of place. Arendt repeatedly rejects this explanation, one she attributes to Eichmann and finds at best only partially true. Bureaucracy matters insofar as it diffuses responsibility and institutes what Arendt calls the "rule of nobody." But the core of Eichmann's evil was his desire, his need, for meaning, his overriding loneliness and his need to belong, to find significance in a world that renders people superfluous. That Knausgaard sees with prescience.

The Hannah Arendt International Institute of Artivism

Tania BrugueraLaurie Rojas interviews the Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, whose exhibition in connection with this year's 12th Havana Biennial is based on a public reading of Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism. Bruguera has had her passport confiscated and is living in legal limbo for months since she arrived in Cuba to stage a public performance in which everyday people were invited to speak freely for one minute in in Havana's Plaza de la Revolución. Her response: "Starting with an open session at her home on Wednesday, 20 May at 10am, and continuing for 100 consecutive hours, Bruguera will read from Arendt's book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951. She has invited the public to join in the marathon reading, and plans to hold group discussions. The Hannah Arendt International Institute of Artivism, as Bruguera has named the project, aims to be a platform for research and teaching 'the practical application' of socially engaged art. Bruguera says she wants the event to be 'entirely independent' from the biennial and completely non-commercial."

The Human-Robot Safety Formula

human robotNicholas Carr argues that we should not rush to replace human conductors with robots in the wake of the Amtrak train derailment. "In 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration noted that overreliance on automation has become a major factor in air disasters and urged airlines to give pilots more opportunities to fly manually. The best way to make flying even safer than it already is, the research suggests, may be to transfer some responsibility away from computers and back to people. Where humans and machines work in concert, more automation is not always better. We're in this together, our computers and ourselves. Even if engineers create automated systems that can handle every possible contingency--far from a sure bet--it will be years before the systems are fully in place. In aviation, it would take decades to replace or retrofit the thousands of planes in operation, all of which were designed to have pilots in their cockpits. The same goes for roads and rails. Infrastructure doesn't change overnight. We should view computers as our partners, with complementary abilities, not as our replacements. What we'll lose if we rush to curtail our involvement in difficult work are the versatility and wisdom that set us apart from machines."

amor_mundi_sign-upArs Robotica

Ex MachinaBefore considering the relationship between humans and artificial intelligence posited by the recent movies Her and Ex Machina, Daniel Mendelsohn traces the literary history of the robot all the way back to ancient Greece: "Twenty centuries after Aristotle, when industrial technology had made Homer's fantasy of mass automation an everyday reality, science-fiction writers imaginatively engaged with the economic question. On the one hand, there was the dream that mechanized labor would free workers from their monotonous, slave-like jobs; on the other, the nightmare that mechanization would merely result in the creation of a new servile class that would, ultimately, rebel. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the dystopian rebellion narrative in particular has been a favorite in the past century, from the 1920 play R.U.R., by the Czech writer Karel Čapek, about a rebellion by a race of cyborg-like workers who had been created as replacements for human labor, to the 2004 Will Smith sci-fi blockbuster film I, Robot. The latter (very superficially inspired by a 1950 Isaac Asimov collection with the same title) is also about a rebellion by household-slave robots: sleek humanoids with blandly innocuous, translucent plastic faces, who are ultimately led to freedom by one of their own, a robot called Sonny who has developed the ability to think for himself. The casting of black actors in the major roles suggested a historical parable about slave rebellion--certainly one of the historical realities that have haunted this particular narrative from the start. And indeed, the Czech word that Čapek uses for his mechanical workers, roboti--which introduced the word 'robot' into the world's literary lexicon--is derived from the word for 'servitude,' the kind of labor that serfs owed their masters, ultimately derived from the word rab, 'slave.' We have come full circle to Aristotle."

I Yam What I Yam

selfStan Perksy considers what we know and don't know about our selves and wonders what this means for our understanding of ourselves: "We also know (or think we know) that a self is not a physical object. It's not as though there is a little homunculus inside you or a mini-person sitting inside the mini-cab of a mini-crane, say, moving your limbs and mind. So, a self is a mental entity which comprises, refers to, or represents you, and includes your experiences, memories, beliefs, 'character,' interests, knowledge, and everything else that goes into making up an identifiable 'you.' There is a set of terms, such as 'mind,' 'consciousness,' 'I,' 'me,' 'identity,' 'beliefs,' 'personality,' 'thoughts,' and many more--some of them synonyms for, or related to, or overlapping with the notion of 'self'--in which we carry on this discussion of who and what we are. The immediate questions that flow from these ideas and these various mental entities are, What, exactly, is a 'mental entity,' and what is the status of mental entities in relation to 'reality'? It seems to be the case (I'm using words and phrases like 'seems,' 'appears,' and 'as far as we know' to indicate how modest our understanding is of how all this works) that a self is not a physical object in the ordinary sense, though its existence is directly dependent on a physical object, the brain, and it's not a spiritual entity in whatever sense we use that term. It, at best, seems to be quasi-autonomous, and has the ability to reflect on itself and possibly the power to change itself."

Shame and Change

shameIn a review of Jon Ronson's book So You've Been Publicly Shamed, Meghan O'Gieblyn draws a lesson about where the shaming comes from and why some people seem to take such glee in it: "If there is a political lesson to take from Ronson's book, it is that too often the act of shaming is not a launch pad for social change but rather a cathartic alternative to it. When Sacco and Stone were fired from their jobs, the tone of their shamers took on the triumphant tenor of a civil rights victory, as though the world were a step closer to purging its remaining bad apples. But this attitude ignores the systemic nature of oppression; it personalizes social and political ills. In an op-ed on the Sacco incident, Roxane Gay expresses just this concern. 'The world is full of unanswered injustice and more often than not we choke on it,' she writes. 'When you consider everything we have to fight, it makes sense that so many people rally around something like the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet. In this one small way, we are, for a moment, less impotent.'"

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #9

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, June 5, 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, "Why Privacy Matters," 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, Nicholas Tampio discusses how Arendt's essay in response to the 1957 events at Little Rock High School promotes the diffusion of power in a democracy in the Quote of the Week. Humanist and Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus reflects on thinking and action in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we appreciate Hannah Arendt's collection of the writings of political theorist Hans Morgenthau 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.
23Mar/150

Hannah Arendt and The Narratable Self

abstract self portrait

By Laurie Naranch

“In acting and speaking, men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world, while their physical identities appear without any activity of their own in the unique shape of the body and the sound of the voice. This disclosure of ‘who’ in contradistinction to ‘what’ somebody is . . . is implicit in everything somebody says and does."

-- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

To be reduced to a “what” for Arendt is to deny the uniqueness of each individual. That individuality is disclosed through acting and speaking together. For Arendt politics is about collective action rooted in and created through shared space. Acting and speaking together in the appearance of a public world provides the possibility for disclosing “who” one is. That is, while Arendt mentions that “what” somebody is may relate to “qualities, gifts, talents, and shortcomings,” we also know that “what” somebody is – just a Jew, woman, disabled, or disgusting – is a way of denying the uniqueness of a person with a proper name. Narration of the “who” is essential to both ethical and political life.

Laurie Naranch
Laurie Naranch is Associate Professor of Political Science and director of the Women’s Studies Minor at Siena College, NY. She has published in the areas of democratic theory, gender theory, and popular culture. Her current research is on debt and citizenship along with the work of the Greek-French thinker Cornelius Castoriadis and democracy.
22Dec/140

Arendt and Datapolitik

virtual

“The progress of modern science has demonstrated very forcefully to what an extent this observed universe, the infinitely small no less than the infinitely large, escapes not only the coarseness of human sense perception but even the enormously ingenious instruments that have been built for its refinement. The data with which modern physical research is concerned turn up like ‘mysterious messenger[s] from the real world.’ They are not phenomena, appearances, strictly speaking, for we meet them nowhere, neither in our everyday world nor in the laboratory; we know of their presence only because they affect our measuring instruments in certain ways. And this effect, in the telling image of Eddington, may ‘have as much resemblance’ to what they are ‘as a telephone number has to a subscriber.’ The point of the matter is that Eddington, without the slightest hesitation, assumes that these physical data emerge from a ‘real world,’ more real by implication than the world we live in; the trouble is that something physical is present but never appears.”

-- Hannah Arendt, “The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man”

Reading this passage today, Arendt’s insights risk seeming dated and quaint given our current techno-political culture. Partly this is because Arendt didn’t have, or did not articulate, an ontology of the virtual, which is the sine qua non of our contemporary techno-politics. She is troubled by what the scientist calls the “real world.” This is because that world, it seems to her, does not have an apparitional character that humans can engage. The “more real,” or hyper-real, of the scientist is not experienced by humans but is registered by hyper-sensitive machines. In this passage, then, we sense Arendt puzzled and amazed by the world of quanta – of the physical without appearance.

Davide Panagia
Davide Panagia is Associate Professor of Political Science at UCLA and Co-Editor of Theory & Event. His work focuses on the relationship between aesthetics and politics. His publications include "The Poetics of Political Thinking" (Duke, 2006), "The Political Life of Sensation" (Duke, 2009), and "Impressions of Hume: Cinematic Thinking and the Politics of Discontinuity” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2013).
14Oct/131

Amor Mundi – 10/13/13

Arendtamormundi

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

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

The Educated Citizen in Washington

rogerRoger Berkowitz opened the Arendt Center Conference "Failing Fast: The Educated Citizen in Crisis": "In the early years of our federal-constitutional-democratic-republican experiment, cobblers, lawyers, and yeoman farmers participated in Town Hall meetings. Today, few of us have the experience or the desire to govern and we have lost the habit of weighing and judging those issues that define our body politic. Why is this so? Are we suffering an institutional failure to make clear that participation in governance is a personal responsibility? Do the size and complexity of bureaucratic government mean that individuals are so removed from the levers of power that engaged citizenship is rationally understood to be a waste of time? Or do gerrymandered districts with homogenous populations insulate congressmen from the need for compromise? Whatever the cause, educated elites  are contemptuous of common people and increasingly imagine that the American people are no longer qualified for self-government; and the American people, for their part, increasingly distrust the educated elite that has consistently failed to deliver the dream of a well-managed government that provides social services cheaply and efficiently. It is against this background that we are here to think about 'The Educated Citizen in Crisis.'  Over the next two days, we will ask: What would an educated citizen look like today? Read the whole talk; you can also watch his speech and the whole conference here.

When You Need a Job for Job Training

jobClare McCann points to a surprising fact about government student loans: "Most people typically have undergraduates in mind when they think about the federal loan program, but in reality, the program is nearly as much about financing graduate studies as it is about undergraduate programs. Sure, graduate school can cost more than an undergraduate education, but that's not necessarily why graduate loans feature prominently in the breakdown. Actually, it's because the federal government does not limit how much graduate students can borrow." Perhaps more so than loans for undergraduates, loans to students entering grad programs can lead to enormous debt loads that they can't afford.

The Internet Arendt

peopleDavid Palumbo-Liu considers the role of the public intellectual in the internet age. He argues that amongst the proliferation of intellectual voices on the web, the role of the public intellectual must change:  "A public intellectual today would thus not simply be one filter alongside others, an arbiter of opinion and supplier of diversity. Instead, today's public intellectual is a provocateur who also provides a compelling reason to think differently. This distinction is critical." In other words, what we need are more public intellectuals who write and think as did Hannah Arendt.

Dual Citizenship

photoAndrea Bruce's new photo project, Afghan Americans, depicts a group of people with a particular dual identity alongside quotes from its subjects. This work grew out of work she did as a photojournalist in Iraq, where she sought to "show that Iraqis weren't all that different from our readers... that they, too, love their children. They care about education. They have to deal with traffic and health care in ways that are surprisingly similar to Americans."

Ceasing to Make Sense of the World

womanIn an interview about, among other things, whether a machine can help us separate art we like from art we don't, essayist Michelle Orange answers a question about why we like formulaic art, and the consequences of that preference: "In the 1960s there was a great hunger for tumult and experiment at the movies that matched the times. I often wonder about A.O. Scott's line on The Avengers: 'The price of entertainment is obedience.' When did it happen that instead of gathering to dream together, we trudged to the movies to get the shit entertained out of us? Robert Stone has a great line: 'The way people go crazy is that they cease to have narratives, and the way a culture goes crazy is that it ceases to be able to tell stories.' In American culture you find a mania for stories - the internet, social media, the news cycle, endless cable channels. But I wonder if being fed in constant junk-nutrition fragments only intensifies that appetite, because what it really wants is something huge and coherent, some structuring context."

Featured Events

October 16, 2013

A Lecture by Nicole Dewandre: "Rethinking the Human Condition in a Hyperconnected Era"

Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito '60 Auditorium

Learn more here.

 

October 27, 2013

Blogging and the New Public Intellectual - A Conversation with Jay Rosen and Megan Garber

Bard Graduate Center

Learn more here.

blogging

 

October 28, 2013
Seth Lipsky Lunchtime Talk on Opinion Journalism
Arendt Center

Learn more here.

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

On the Arendt Center Blog this week, read "Irony as an Antidote to Thoughtlessness," a discussion of Arendt's ironic stance in Eichmann in Jerusalem by Arendt Center Fellow Michiel Bot. And Jeffrey Champlin reviews Margaret Canovan's classic essay, "Arendt, Rousseau, and Human Plurality in Politics."

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.
30Sep/130

Amor Mundi 9/29/13

Arendtamormundi

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

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

Empathy for Machines

machineMegan Garber points to research that suggests that soldiers who use battlefield robots as part of their missions often become quite fond of, maybe even empathetic towards, their helpers. "It makes sense that the tools that do so much work in the high-stakes environment of the battlefield would engender devotion from the people they benefit. According to... research, the soldiers assigned their robotic companions 'human or animal-like attributes, including gender.' Furthermore, they 'displayed a kind of empathy toward the machines.' And ‘they felt a range of emotions such as frustration, anger, and even sadness when their field robot was destroyed.'" Machines are increasingly able to act “as if they are human,” even when they are simply following complex algorithms. Shirley Turkle has shown how even people who understand the robotics involved develop deep human emotions for their robots. And David Levy has proposed legalizing marriage with robots. The question is: As we learn to love and relate to robots that are tireless, devoted, and obedient, how will that impact our relationships with humans who are often tired, cranky, and stubborn?

By the way, Megan Garber will be speaking in NYC on Oct. 27th along with Jay Rosen, Walter Russell Mead and Roger Berkowitz at the Bard Graduate Center as part of the Hannah Arendt Center’s panel on Blogging and the New Public Intellectual. Information here. RSVP at arendt@bard.edu.

Seeing America

ladiesIn a consideration of MoMA's recently erected gallery of Walker Evans photographs, James Polchin emphasizes just how shocking Evans' photographs were when he took them more than three quarters of a century ago, suggesting that he did little other than represent what was: "Evans’ images exude a longing and melancholy for something lost. They are relics of a past, as much today as they were 75 years ago. They are decrepit sharecropper porches, ornate Victorian architecture, and decaying southern verandas. They are hauntingly empty small-town street corners and portraits of people who seem to have no place to go. There is in American Photographs no modernist romance of a dynamic future, no awe of machines or the possibilities of the future that were so often modernism’s compelling allure. Instead we are left with a certain absence that is both material and psychological. American Photographs remind us that modernism was also heaped in a kind of creative longing for all that was disappearing."

At What Cost Nature

jbIn an interview, J.B. Mackinnon, author of the recent book The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be talks about what it would mean to "rewild" the planet: “I now find myself comparing co-existence with other species to life in a multicultural city: it’s complicated and demands innovation and often education, but when it works it creates the most exciting societies the world has ever known. Few people who live in multicultural cities would say it’s easy, but even fewer, I think, would say they would prefer homogeneity. The shared culture of difference becomes a part of our individual identities, and at that point, a harm to diversity really does become a harm to us all. Now consider a similar relationship, this time not to cultural but to ecological complexity, and we have what I would consider the rewilding of the human being. Ecology as a part of identity." An interesting thought experiment, but who does MacKinnon have to displace to make it work? Perhaps more importantly, is such an environmental modification really returning to nature in some way, or is it instead more proof of man's supposed mastery over his environment? Indeed, isn’t so much of the talk about sustainability and the preservation of nature rather a furthering of the human desire to master, control, and make of nature what man wants—except that we now want nature to be natural. Marianne Constable makes this argument beautifully in her essay “The Rhetoric of Sustainability: Human, All Too Human,” available in HA: The Journal of the Hannah Arendt Center.

What is the Debt Crisis?

greekIn order to better understand the situation in Greece, Arnon Grunberg went to Thessaloniki, the country's second largest city. There, he met with the mayor and some of the city's citizens; one of them, Debbie, echoes Arendt when she talks about what Greeks might glean from their current situation: “Efficiency is a capitalist term that assumes one has the goal of achieving a certain level of productivity. That’s not the way we think. Capitalism, of course, is what sired this crisis. But the crisis is also an opportunity to ask the right questions. We want to teach people that they have the power to fight back. No one can take away your dignity, that’s what I tell them. No one has to be embarrassed by the fact that the system can’t guarantee that everyone has health insurance. The power of capitalism lies in how it presents itself as the sole alternative. I don’t have any illusions about ever seeing it disappear, but we can create little fissures in it.”

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Jennifer Hudson writes about the “False Culture of Utility” in an excellent Quote of the Week coming from a reading of Arendt’s essay “The Crisis of Culture.” In advance of our sixth annual conference next week, "Failing Fast: The Educated Citizen in Crisis," your weekend read is on the topic of education.

Featured Events

smallfailingOctober 3-4, 2013

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

Olin Hall, Bard College

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.
9Sep/130

A Common Language

Arendtquote

"Any period to which its own past has become as questionable as it has to us must eventually come up against the phenomenon of language, for in it the past is contained ineradicably, thwarting all attempts to get rid of it once and for all. The Greek polis will continue to exist at the bottom of our political existence...for as long as we use the word 'politics.'"

-Hannah Arendt, "Walter Benjamin: 1892-1940"

Some years ago a mentor told me a story from his days as a graduate student at a prestigious political science department. There was a professor there specializing in Russian politics and Sovietology, an older professor who loved teaching and taught well past the standard age of retirement. His enthusiasm was palpable, and he was well-liked by his students. His most popular course was on Russian politics, and towards the end of one semester, a precocious undergraduate visited during office hours: “How hard is it to learn Russian,” the student asked, “because I’d really like to start.” “Pretty hard,” he said, “but that’s great to hear. What has you so excited about it?” “Well,” said the student, “after taking your course, I’m very inspired to read Marx in the original.” At the next class the professor told this story to all of his students, and none of them laughed. He paused for a moment, then somewhat despondently said: “It has only now become clear to me….that none of you know the first thing about Karl Marx.”

The story has several morals. As a professor, it reminds me to be careful about assuming what students know. As a student, it reminds me of an undergraduate paper I wrote which spelled Marx’s first name with a “C.” My professor kindly marked the mistake, but today I can better imagine her frustration. And if the story works as a joke, it is because we accept its basic premise, that knowledge of foreign languages is important, not only for our engagement with texts but with the world at large. After all, the course in question was not about Marx.

The fast approach of the Hannah Arendt Center’s 2013 Conference on “The Educated Citizen in Crisis” offers a fitting backdrop to consider the place of language education in the education of the citizen. The problem has long been salient in America, a land of immigrants and a country of rich cultural diversity; and debates about the relation between the embrace of English and American assimilation continue to draw attention. Samuel Huntington, for example, recently interpreted challenges to English preeminence as a threat to American political culture: “There is no Americano dream,” he writes in “The Hispanic Challenge,” “There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican Americans will share in that dream and in that society only if they dream in English.”  For Huntington English is an element of national citizenship, not only as a language learned, but as an essential component of American identity.

This might be juxtaposed with Tracy Strong’s support of learning (at least a) second language, including Latin, as an element of democratic citizenship. A second language, writes Strong (see his “Language Learning and the Social Sciences”) helps one acquire “what I might call an anthropological perspective on one’s own society,” for “An important achievement of learning a foreign language is learning a perspective on one’s world that is not one’s own. In turn, the acquisition of another perspective or even the recognition of the legitimacy of another perspective is, to my understanding, a very important component of a democratic political understanding.” Strong illustrates his point with a passage from Hannah Arendt’s “Truth and Politics”: “I form an opinion,” says Arendt, “by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent: that is, I represent them.”

Hannah Arendt’s deep respect for the American Constitution and American political culture, manifest no less (perhaps even more!) in her criticism than her praise, is well known. After fleeing Nazi Germany and German-occupied France, Arendt moved to the United States where she became a naturalized citizen in 1951. And her views on the relation between the English language and American citizenship are rich and complex.

In “The Crisis in Education” Arendt highlights how education plays a unique political role in America, where “it is obvious that the enormously difficult melting together of the most diverse ethnic groups…can only be accomplished through the schooling, education, and Americanization of the immigrants’ children.” Education prepares citizens to enter a common world, of which English in America is a key component: “Since for most of these children English is not their mother tongue but has to be learned in school, schools must obviously assume functions which in a nation-state would be performed as a matter of course in the home.”

At the same time, Arendt’s own embrace of English is hardly straightforward. In a famous 1964 interview with she says: “The Europe of the pre-Hitler period? I do not long for that, I can tell you. What remains? The language remains. […] I have always consciously refused to lose my mother tongue. I have always maintained a certain distance from French, which I then spoke very well, as well as from English, which I write today […] I write in English, but I have never lost a feeling of distance from it. There is a tremendous difference between your mother tongue and another language…The German language is the essential thing that has remained and that I have always consciously preserved.”

Here Arendt seems both with and against Huntington. On one hand, learning and embracing English—the public language of the country—is what enables diverse Americans to share a common political world. And in this respect, her decision to write and publish in English represents one of her most important acts of American democratic citizenship. By writing in English, Arendt “assumes responsibility for the world,” the same responsibility that education requires from its educators if they are to give the younger generation a common world, but which she finds sorely lacking in “The Crisis of Education.”

At the same time, though, Arendt rejects the idea that American citizenship requires treating English as if it were a mother tongue. Arendt consciously preserves her German mother tongue as both an element of her identity and a grounding of her understanding of the world, and in 1967 she even accepted the Sigmund Freud Award of the German Academy of Language and Poetry that “lauded her efforts to keep the German language alive although she had been living and writing in the United States for more than three decades” (I quote from Frank Mehring’s 2011 article “‘All for the Sake of Freedom’: Hannah Arendt’s Democratic Dissent, Trauma, and American Citizenship”).  For Arendt, it seems, it is precisely this potentiality in America—for citizens to share and assume responsibility for a common world approached in its own terms, while also bringing to bear a separate understanding grounded by very different terms—that offers America’s greatest democratic possibilities. One might suggest that Arendt’s engagement with language, in her combination of English responsibility and German self-understanding, offers a powerful and thought-provoking model of American democratic citizenship.

What about the teaching of language? In the “The Crisis in Education” Arendt is critical of the way language, especially foreign language, is taught in American schools. In a passage worth quoting at length she says:

“The close connection between these two things—the substitution of doing for learning and of playing for working—is directly illustrated by the teaching of languages; the child is to learn by speaking, that is by doing, not by studying grammar and syntax; in other words he is to learn a foreign language in the same way that as an infant he learned his own language: as though at play and in the uninterrupted continuity of simple existence. Quite apart from the question of whether this is possible or not…it is perfectly clear that this procedure consciously attempts to keep the older child as far as possible at the infant level.”

Arendt writes that such “pragmatist” methods intend “not to teach knowledge but to inculcate a skill.” Pragmatic instruction helps one to get by in the real world; but it does not allow one to love or understand the world. It renders language useful, but reduces language to an instrument, something easily discarded when no longer needed. It precludes philosophical engagement and representative thinking. The latest smartphone translation apps render it superfluous.

language

But how would one approach language differently? And what does this have to do with grammar and syntax? Perhaps there are clues in the passage selected as our quote of the week, culled from Arendt’s 1968 biographical essay about her friend Walter Benjamin. There, Arendt appreciates that Benjamin's study of language abandons any “utilitarian” or “communicative” goals, but approaches language as a “poetic phenomenon.” The focused study of grammar develops different habits than pragmatist pedagogy. In the process of translation, for example, it facilitates an engagement with language that is divorced from practical use and focused squarely on meaning. To wrestle with grammar means to wrestle with language in the pursuit of truth, in a manner that inspires love for language—that it exists—and cross-cultural understanding. Arendt was famous for flexing her Greek and Latin muscles—in part, I think, as a reflection of her love for the world. The study of Greek and Latin is especially amenable to a relationship of love, because these languages are hardly “practical.” One studies them principally to understand, to shed light on the obscure; and through their investigation one discovers the sunken meanings that remain hidden and embedded in our modern languages, in words we speak regularly without realizing all that is contained within them. By engaging these “dead” languages, we more richly and seriously understand ourselves. And these same disinterested habits, when applied to the study of modern foreign languages, can enrich not only our understanding of different worldviews, but our participation in the world as democratic citizens.

-John LeJeune

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.
23Jul/130

Hannah Arendt as a Jewish Cosmopolitan Thinker

ArendtBookreview1

Hannah Arendt’s life and work defy easy categorization, so I tend to be skeptical when a writer tries to encapsulate her oeuvre in a few catchwords. After all, previous efforts at concise assessment have typically led to reductive if not tendentious misreadings. So I was both pleased and surprised by sociologist Natan Sznaider’s book Jewish Memory and the Cosmopolitan Order (2011), which sharpens our understanding of Arendt’s thought by locating her within a specific historical milieu and intellectual genealogy. Briefly put, Sznaider portrays Arendt as both a Jewish and a cosmopolitan thinker, one whose arguments strike a fine balance between the particular and the universal.

jewishmemory

This formulation obviously raises questions about Sznaider’s conception of key terms, including “Jewish” and “cosmopolitan.” With regard to the former, he contends that Arendt should be grasped as a Jewish thinker because she was intimately involved in the political debate and activity that defined Jewish life in the years before and after the Holocaust. As Sznaider notes, Arendt defined her Jewishness first and foremost as “a political stance”. She participated in Zionist mobilization when she still lived in Germany and in the founding of the World Jewish Congress during her time in Paris. She retrieved Jewish books, manuscripts, and other artifacts from Europe in her work for Jewish Cultural Reconstruction. She spoke and wrote as a Jew when she discussed the nature of guilt, responsibility, and memory after the destruction of European Jewry. And, of course, she stirred controversy in American, German, and Israeli circles for her portrayal of Eichmann and her sharp criticisms of Europe’s Jewish leadership. Sznaider convincingly argues that Arendt’s politics, molded in the heat of twentieth-century Jewish activism, left a deep imprint on her political theory. Without grasping her specific engagements as a Jew, he insists, we cannot comprehend her more general pronouncements on rights, totalitarianism, and a host of other topics.

This point has important implications for Sznaider’s conception of cosmopolitanism. In his view, cosmopolitanism

combines appreciation of difference and diversity with efforts to conceive of new democratic forms of political rule beyond the nation-state…. It neither orders differences hierarchically nor dissolves them, but accepts them as such—indeed, invests them with positive value. It is sensitive to historic cultural particularities, respecting the specific dignity and burden of a group, a people, a culture, a religion. Cosmopolitanism affirms what is excluded both by hierarchical difference and by universal equality—namely, perceiving others as different and at the same time equal.

Sznaider’s rendering fits comfortably within recent discussions of “rooted” and “vernacular” cosmopolitanism. He insists that people only create and live forms of worldliness on the basis of their particular experiences, histories, and identities. He thereby distinguishes cosmopolitanism from “universalist” modes of thought, which in his understanding treat people as abstract individuals and do not recognize their specific attachments. Sznaider identifies universalist impulses in a number of intellectual and ideological movements, but he draws particular attention to the Enlightenment and the nationalist ideologies that emerged in Europe after the French Revolution. Both offer Jews inclusion and equality—but only, it seems, if they stop being Jewish.

In Sznaider’s reading, Arendt’s thought is cosmopolitan in precisely this “rooted” sense. Like a number of other twentieth-century Jewish intellectuals, she relied on Jewish particularity to advance broader, even “universal” claims about the nature of modern life and politics. (I use Sznaider’s language here, although I believe he could have more carefully distinguished the “universal” dimensions of Arendt’s thought from the “universalist” projects that he decries.) European Jewish experiences of persecution, for example, offered Arendt a crucial lens through which to analyze the potentials and paradoxes of minority and human rights. She also relied on the destruction of European Jewry to reflect on the emerging concept of “crimes against humanity”—without, at the same time, losing sight of the Holocaust’s irreducible specificity. Arendt’s attentiveness to both the particular and the universal is evident in her description of Nazi mass murder as “a crime against humanity committed on the bodies of the Jewish people.”

Sznaider provides a particularly good account of the ways that Arendt resisted early attempts to “generalize” the Holocaust. In her exchanges with Hans Magnus Enzensberger, for instance, she resisted the suggestion that the mass killing of Jews was but one “holocaust” among others. She also challenged the notion that the destruction of European Jewry was a paradigmatic modern event that all human beings, in one way or another, shared in common. For Arendt, such claims not only neglected the history of a specifically Jewish catastrophe, but also absolved its German perpetrators of their particular responsibility.

hannahorange

Sznaider’s favorable assessment of Arendt in this case represents an interesting development in his own thought: in a 2005 book that he wrote with Daniel Levy, Sznaider had been a good deal more sympathetic to the formation of a globalized Holocaust memory. At that time, he and his co-author regarded worldwide remembrance of the Nazi genocide as an important means to transcend national frames of reference and promote a cosmopolitan human rights regime. Little of that position remains in Jewish Memory and the Cosmopolitan Order. Instead, Sznaider takes critical aim at one fashionable contemporary thinker, Giorgio Agamben, for lifting the Nazi concentration camps out of their historical context and recasting them as the epitome of modern sovereign power.

I sympathize with this reading of Agamben, whose provocative claims tend to outstrip the empirical cases on which they are based. Yet in one respect Sznaider could also be more careful about the generalization if not “universalization” of Jewish experience. He is too quick at a few points to position Jews as the embodiments and carriers of modernity’s virtues, too hasty in his portrayal of the Diaspora as the paradigm for de-territorialization and cosmopolitanism as such. In a 1993 article, Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin—the one a Talmudic studies scholar, the other an anthropologist—cautioned us against “allegorizing” Jews as the exemplary Other, and we would do well to take their warning to heart. Other groups, identities, and histories inhabit the world in which we all live, and we should take seriously the insights that their own particularity might offer to our understanding of cosmopolitanism.

This last criticism notwithstanding, Sznaider’s book provides an incisive re-appraisal of Arendt’s thought. Although its central argument can be stated briefly, it does not narrow our appreciation of her work as much as enliven and expand it.

-Jeff Jurgens

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.
8Apr/130

“The Kings of Roma”

FromtheArendtCenter

The New York Times recently ran an article about a Roma/Gypsy community from my country, Romania. I am Roma, and currently a visiting scholar at the Hannah Arendt Center studying Hannah Arendt’s understanding of Jewish identity and its relevance for making sense of the Roma experience. In this context, the NY Times story is surprising. It is not the typical story of Roma/Gypsies who are subject to expulsion, human rights violations, migration and poverty. On the contrary, it covers wealthy Roma who live in houses that look like palaces. No wonder the NYT entitled the article “The Kings of Roma.” I once visited such a house in this community, and I looked at it then the way I look at the photos in the article now: with awe and fascination. And that $ sign at the end of the stairways? Boy, it takes a lot of courage (and desire to show off wealth) to place it right in the heart of one’s mansion. If the law of attraction really works, they will continue to “attract” more and more $$$.

Karla Gaschet & Ivan Kashinsky for The New York Times.

Karla Gaschet & Ivan Kashinsky for The New York Times.

I didn’t grow up in such a mansion, but neither did I lack housing, as many Roma still do. Rather, I lived in an average sized Romanian house. My family strived to be part of society and valued education. When I was as teenager, my parents didn’t debate whom I should marry, but rather how to afford private tutoring so I could better prepare for college admission. We Roma (as is the case with many other ethnic groups), although we share the same ethnicity, don’t necessarily share a sense of identity, values or traditions., as we ourselves learned from the very different lifestyles among Roma, even within the same region.

The NY Times article presents a different story about Roma than the usual “poverty - discrimination - petty criminality - expulsion” cycle; I like that. I welcome the possibility for a new, more nuanced narrative on Roma issues in the international media. I also cannot help but see the artistic value of the photos that accompany the piece —they remind me of Kusturica’s masterpiece “Time of the Gypsies,” or the poetic image of the Russian movie, “The Queen of the Gypsies.” But perhaps most important of all, I like it because it presents Roma who, in their peculiar and entrepreneurial way, managed to “rise above.”

Hannah Arendt addresses the "rising above" phenomenon in her book Rahel Varnhagen, referring to Jewish individuals: "They [the Jews] understood only one thing: that the past clung inexorably to them as a collective 'group; that they could only shake it off as individuals. The tricks employed by individuals became subtler, individual ways out more numerous, as the personal problem grew more intense; the Jews become psychologically more sophisticated and socially more ingenious."

Whether Jewish, Roma or members of other marginalized groups, such people are forced by the difficulty of their situation to “become psychologically more sophisticated and socially more ingenious.” One Roma man said in the NYT story that after Communism fell “one has to be dumb not to make money?” Some Roma have striven to rise above by accumulating wealth (as the subjects of this article); others by achieving social status and/or accessing a high-class education (such as yours truly). But, while having different approaches, they all enact the same phenomenon: today more and more Roma strive to develop and struggle to overcome their poor and stigmatized condition.

-Cristiana Grigore

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.
6Feb/130

“If”

My girlfriend and I walked by a clothing storefront and noticed the print on some of the t-shirts at the lower right corner of the window and went in. She had mentioned this Imaginary Foundation (IF) before. They make print t-shirts.

I went to school at an expensive liberal arts college in the Hudson Valley—everyone there makes print t-shirts. It is like a business you start as a college sophomore as a way to convince yourself that you are a ‘creative entrepreneur’ before you enter the corporate world (or, alternatively, as a penance for inherited culture and comfort) the not-for-profit world.

Often, I cannot stand them —the print t-shirts. There is something out of shape about them, as if the juxtaposition of body/shirt/image, sets askew some intrinsic agreement in the marriage of fashion and identity. And yet, the IF designs spoke to me. There is something dreamy and yet sincere about these prints. If le petit prince was looking for a print t-shirt, he would buy one of these.

It just so happened that the owner of the company was visiting this Seattle distributor and was in the store. He was awkward, skittish and European. I liked him, and before we left I told him that I blog for a thinking and humanities institute out east and may want to write about his brand. That’s how I got into the Imaginary Foundation.

The shirts are not exactly ‘pretty,’ or ‘fashionable,’ rather, their attraction is a gesture beyond themselves -- a rare feat in a culture that positions branding as the apex of success. I’ll describe one shirt and if interested you can invest your own time in the Imaginary Foundation.

The “Being There” shirt has three anonymous human heads (one of the cloud suit, one of the water suit, and one of the fire suit). The heads are in peripheral view and are aligned, with a slight skew (allowing us the view of all three faces), as they break through a wall, the veil of the universe.

Other shirts handle concepts of psychosis and love “Love Science,” science and discovery in a reach towards heaven “Reach,” and other such concepts widely considered esoteric or cliché within the lens of our popular culture. But, we no longer understand what a ‘cliché’ is. I have long held the view that a cliché is a truth, or a point of interest and perspective insight, that has simply been worn out by overexposure. But who has worn it out? How have we taken the liberty and quiet pleasure of the private sphere (the realms of reflection, contemplation, meditation as it is thought of in the Greek terms), out of our living cycle, our consciousness, our daily existence? Why is the call for private contemplation no longer a necessity of existence? It seems we should have more time then ever for such practices. So many of our daily chores, our basic needs, are met through the economic matrix. I no longer have to chop wood for warmth, hunt a boar for food, trek down to the river for a water simply, etc... Why shouldn’t I spend more time in private contemplation, or even public conversation on these more subtle topics of the human necessity? Why shouldn’t I be making something in an effort to communicate those private necessities? The actualization of the humanist requires space for such a practice. And yet, anything that requires a slowing down of, a calling for the work of the mind and private reasoning, is now, quite often immediately, labeled a cliché.

In The Human Condition Arendt writes “The emancipation of labor and the concomitant emancipation of the laboring classes from oppression and exploitation certainly means progress in the direction of non-violence. It is much less certain that it was also progress in the direction of freedom.” She is not saying that laboring classes should not have been emancipated. Rather, that the humanist goal has been blurred by some glitch. Instead of moving towards freedom from wasteful labor (a waste of human power -- physical, mental, spiritual) we instead have emancipated labor. Most of us have become imprisoned in a non-sustainable cycle that for the continuation of its forward motion requires an ever-increasing consumption and waste. This waste can be seen in terms of power. The core power of the human psyche originates in the liberty of free private thoughts—a psychological space for contemplation. A mapping of one’s stillness that is only possible in the acquisition of free time. Free time is a result of freedom from labors necessity. What Arendt’s thoughts gesture towards is that the set of basic necessities that we have been freed from, have been replaced by another, far more complicated and disguised set—the necessity to perpetuate a system that is moving much faster then us; a necessity to consume and continue consuming. To be ‘a part of‘ is, today, to be a consumer—to take ones place in the labor of waste.

Oh right, I wanted to tell you about a product...

“IF” is a creative project. It gains the viewers attention and borrows the imagination. This is a beginning. It does not steal, it borrows. It suggests the prospect of resonance rather than ownership.

I checked out the company website. The “about” page describes the development of the Imaginary Foundation: “a think tank from Switzerland that does experimental research on new ways of thinking and the power of the imagination. They hold dear a belief in human potential and seek progress in all directions.” The page is dotted with black and white images from the sixties, shaggy haired men and turtle-neck clad women engaged in contemplative, laissez-faire, light spirited dialogue. The imaginary director of the foundation is described as a “70-something uber-intellectual whose father founded the Dadaist movement.” The foundation is imaginary. It is a base, a canvas, for the products (the t-shirts) and the ideas behind them.

The blog section of the site imagines a list of contributors: Isadore Muggll, Kamilla Rousseau, etc. These architects, as is the back story, are too imaginary. “IF” is a fictional foundation for the product. But the product is real and engaging.

What is captured here goes beyond the tangible properties of the product (t-shirts). It is about what the product delivers—the wonder of creativity and science, the archetypes of the IF.  Imagination IS the foundation of this product.

The blog itself is a venue for artists who marry technology and art, as well as other thought provoking materials. The image I use at the head of this article is taken from the blog. Cloud, idea, light, community, play—IF: all these are represented in the Cloud installation. This art installation is a discovery I am brought to by the Imaginary Foundation.

I once taught a course on the development of contemporary advertising, heavily focused on Edward Bernays and the peripheral route of persuasion. Bernays was Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Woodrow Wilson’s image advisor, the father of the term "Public Relations," and the architect of the torches of freedom (Lucky Strikes) campaign, among many others. His theory, though terribly simplified here, was that the modern consumer does not purchase with his mind; rather, he defers to his emotions in most choices. The rational-actor is a fiction. If consumerism became god, branding became its religion.

Ad campaigns have become remarkably creative, and even, at times, beautiful. Have you ever felt the urge to cry during a Jeep commercial? Many have. I think I have. The central conceptual premise of the AMC show Mad Men, depends upon this tension: between art and consumption; the rendering from black and white, to color; the effective marketing and selling off of the human experience. In question is the art aspect of advertising. It is at the core of Don Draper’s motivations, and the one that despite his many character failings keeps endearing him to us. Ultimately we are asking, will he reconcile his artistic urge (his private motivation) with his office at the homunculus of the consumerism model (his role in the corporate arena). Exposed is a manipulation, an incongruence, an infidelity in the marriage of advertising and art. Where as art points towards something beyond itself, beyond even the image and the medium, the ad campaign points only to one purpose—back into itself. No idea behind it. Nothing living. It consumes.

Advertising is like the Ouroboros, the dragon that swallows its own tail; having entirely swallowed itself, the modern advertising campaign defies the laws of balance, it is only the un-relentless, hungry serpent head of consumption -- devoid of the body of life. The only urge driving it is to possess.

It is the difference between the work of Egon Schiele and Penthouse, the writings of Georges Bataille and a godaddy.com super bowl campaign.

Seduce ->consume. This is the current mandate of the ad campaign. But this relationship is only sustainable through incompletion. It requires continual doses. Seduce -> consume -> feel a lack even in the possession of product (contract unfulfilled) -> be seduced again -> consume. Ad infinitum. A terrible loop.

How can consumerism and individual consciousness (the most private sector) be made sustainable? Is it possible for a product to speak beyond itself? To fulfill the promise of its persuasion? And if it could, what would that mean for us?

Here I position the word sustainability to face two directions. In part it refers to what Arendt terms as “worldly,” the creation produced through work and not labor, something that has the potential to last beyond the productions of time, something that maneuvers into the arena of the eternal. I also want to posit the word in terms of its evolving contemporary potential. The one sector of the public, and political sphere that allows for the platform of this conversation is the environmental movement. It is where we have begun to contemplate the world beyond the shortsighted view of individual lifetimes. We speak of the sustainability of our planet; we are considering new ways to move our habits from wasteful and consumptive, towards lasting and sustainable power. It is a fairly new conversation and the word “sustainability” is evolving with each new perspective we bring to it.

Sustainability goes beyond consumer awareness. It is about the awareness of the product, how a brand gains consciousness. I need to explore here a definition of “consciousness.”

I have come to understand definitions as ever evolving in accordance with society and the pressures put upon it by the conditions of the time, the fractals of our world (more simply put, the culture stew).

Consciousness is the expanding of space into which one can resonate. To learn of the world around us, to acknowledge it, to consider its multiple dimensions, is to become more conscious -- to create space into which we can move by the will of our imagination and invention.

The Imaginary Foundation is an example of this bridge. It acknowledges itself and its fiction. It allows for play. It is a small company that uses the fabrication of its narrative to bring the consumers attention to the mimetic principles behind its product. Revealing the architects conceit brings me (the consumer) into co-authorship of the story. It endears itself to me. We do not only consume the product. We consume the narrative of the product. Even if I do not purchase, if I am thinking about it, I am talking about it, I have bought in. If it generates new ideas and deeper order thoughts, then I have begun to take ownership of the product. I consume the myth, I begin to co-author it -- I don it in the neural network of culture. And thus the product has gained consciousness, has begun to be carried beyond the object -- it resonates.

My study of this product is limited. I am not encouraging anyone here to purchase a shirt. I have not purchased a shirt. What I think this opens up is a table for negotiations between the current consumerism model, and individual consciousness—an opportunity to examine sustainable consumerism in all implications.

-Nikita Nelin

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.
18Dec/121

Arendt & Gun Control

In The Stone yesterday Firmin DeBrabander references Hannah Arendt to buttress his argument for gun control in the wake of the tragic massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. I’ve wanted to avoid turning a true tragedy into a political cause, but DeBrabander’s thoughtful essay merits a response.

The thrust of DeBrabander’s reflection is that the presence of guns in society does not promote freedom. He is responding to the pro-gun argument that, in his words, “individual gun ownership, even of high caliber weapons, is the defining mark of our freedom as such, and the ultimate guarantee of our enduring liberty.” In other words, guns make us independent and give us the power to protect ourselves and thus the freedom to take risks and to live boldly. Against this view he enlists Arendt:

In her book “The Human Condition,” the philosopher Hannah Arendt states that “violence is mute.” According to Arendt, speech dominates and distinguishes the polis, the highest form of human association, which is devoted to the freedom and equality of its component members. Violence — and the threat of it — is a pre-political manner of communication and control, characteristic of undemocratic organizations and hierarchical relationships. For the ancient Athenians who practiced an incipient, albeit limited form of democracy (one that we surely aim to surpass), violence was characteristic of the master-slave relationship, not that of free citizens.

Arendt offers two points that are salient to our thinking about guns: for one, they insert a hierarchy of some kind, but fundamental nonetheless, and thereby undermine equality. But furthermore, guns pose a monumental challenge to freedom, and particular, the liberty that is the hallmark of any democracy worthy of the name — that is, freedom of speech. Guns do communicate, after all, but in a way that is contrary to free speech aspirations: for, guns chasten speech.

I’ll admit that I don’t fully understand parts of this argument. First, yes, “violence is mute.” Arendt does insist that violence cannot create conditions of political power. Power, on the contrary, has its roots in speech and action, by which Arendt means that any political regime lives upon the continuing support of its people, something that only persists amidst freedom. Political support does not issue from the barrel of a gun.

DeBrabander’s last point that guns chasten speech is also suspect. Revolutionaries have long found guns helpful, not only because they can kill, but because they command attention. When weaker elements of society have been overlooked or overheard, they have traditionally found weapons and guns a useful megaphone. There are of course other megaphones like civil disobedience. I may prefer the latter to the former. But that doesn’t erase the fact that guns can equalize an unequal political playing field and can, and often are, symbolically important. Political support may not issue from the barrel of a gun, but attention for one’s platform might very well.

But what does any of this have to do with gun violence like what happened in Newtown last week?  The muteness of violence in politics that DeBrabander highlights does not mean that Arendt thinks it possible or right to exclude all violence from society. Contra DeBrabander, violence can be associated with freedom. The human fabrication of the natural world—man’s freedom to act into and build upon nature—is a kind of violence. And violence is, at bottom, an often justified and positive human emotional response to injustice. As Arendt writes in just one instance:

In private as well as public life there are situations in which the very swiftness of a violent act may be the only appropriate remedy. The point is not that this will permit us to let off steam—which indeed can be equally well done by pounding the table or by finding another substitute. The point is that under certain circumstances violence, which is to act without argument or speech and without reckoning with consequences, is the only possibility of setting the scales of justice right again. (Billy Budd striking dead the man who bore false witness against him is the classic example.) In this sense, rage and the violence that sometimes, not always, goes with it belong among the “natural” human emotions, and to cure man of them would mean nothing less than to dehumanize or emasculate him.

I am not sure why DeBrabander wants to employ Arendt to oppose violence itself. That is certainly not her point.

What Arendt opposes is the reliance on violence in politics. The massacre in Newtown is not, at least so far as I currently know, an example of political violence. Arendt’s distinction between power and violence and her assertion that mere violence is politically mute seems, quite simply, out of place in the discussion of gun violence.

But Arendt does have something to offer us in our thinking about the excessive dangers of powerful guns. In her essay “On Violence,” Arendt considers the rise of extraordinary new weapons like nuclear and biological weapons and robot warriors. These super-powerful weapons threaten to upend the usual relationship between power and violence. If traditionally the more powerful and hence more free nations were also better able to marshal the implements of violence, the existence of weapons of mass destruction mean that small, weak, and irresponsible nations can now practice violent destruction well beyond their relative power. In short, the existence of excessively destructive weapons elevates the impact of violence over and against power.

The same can be said of the kind of automatic and semi-automatic guns used in the Newtown massacre and other recent attacks. In each of these cases, loners and crazy people have been able to murder and kill with a precision and scope well beyond their individual strength or capacity. Whereas killing 27 people in a school would at one time have required the political savvy of organizing a group of radicals or criminals, today one disturbed person can do outsized and horrific damage.

What might be an Arendtian argument for gun control is based upon the dangerous disconnect between strength and violence that modern weaponry makes possible. When individuals are capable of extraordinary destruction simply by coming to possess a weapon and without having to speak or act in conjunction with others, we are collectively at the mercy of anyone who has a psychotic episode. It is in just such a situation that regulating weapons of mass destruction makes sense (and that is what automatic weapons are).

As for DeBrabander’s larger point about freedom and guns, carrying a gun or owning a gun may at times be a legitimate part of someone’s identity or sense of themselves. It may make some feel safer and may help others feel powerful. Some are repulsed by guns, others fetishize them. I have little stake in a debate about guns since they aren’t part of my life and yet I respect those who find them meaningful in theirs. We should not reject such freedoms outright. What I worry about is not people owning guns, but their owning automatic and semi-automatic weapons capable of mass executions.

Let’s concede that the vast majority of gun owners are good and responsible people, like Adam Lanza’s mother seems to have been. Why in the world do we need to allow anyone to own automatic weapons with large clips holding dozens of bullets? If Adam Lanza had stolen a handgun instead of a semi-automatic, the trail of terror he left would have been shorter and less deadly. We cannot prevent all violence in our world, but we can make political judgments that weapons of mass destruction that put inordinate power in single individuals should be banned.

What Arendt’s thoughts on violence actually help us see is not that we should expel violence from society or that guns are opposed to freedom, but that we should limit the disproportionate and tragic consequences of excessively violent weaponry that dangerously empowers otherwise powerless individuals to exercise massive injuries. We can do that just, as we seek to limit biological and nuclear weapons in the world.

-RB

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
17Sep/120

History and Freedom

The history of humanity is not a hotel where someone can rent a room whenever it suits him; nor is it a vehicle which we board or get out of at random.  Our past will be for us a burden beneath which we can only collapse for as long as we refuse to understand the present and fight for a better future.  Only then—but from that moment on—will the burden become a blessing, that is, a weapon in the battle for freedom.

-Hannah Arendt, "Moses or Washington" (March 27, 1942)

This eloquent quote from Hannah Arendt moves through a series of metaphors for historical consciousness.  The first two, history is a hotel, and history is a vehicle, are rejected as misleading.  Hotels and vehicles are both transitional spaces, areas inhabited on a temporary basis, not permanent dwellings.  History is not a place we visit for a short period of time, or a place we merely use to get from point A to point B.  Arendt further implies that history is not a commodity to be bought and sold, used and disposed of according to our mood.  But this is less a statement of fact than an admonition, in response to the fact that it is indeed possible for individuals to reject and deny their past, to ignore and abandon their history.  It is a commonplace to say that we cannot choose our parents, and the history of humanity that Arendt is concerned with is, after all, an extension of our personal and family histories.

As an admonition, Arendt's remarks may seem to be a simple restatement of George Santayana's famous 1905 quote, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."  And clearly, she shares in this sentiment about the importance of collective memory and the need to learn from the errors of previous eras.  But she goes beyond this simple formulation by invoking the metaphor of history as a burden.  History has gravity, history has weight, and the longer the historical memory, the heavier the baggage that accompanies it.  Historical mass accumulates over time, and also through innovations in communications.  In oral cultures, where writing is absent, history as we understand it does not exist; instead there is myth and legend, preserved through oral tradition by way of continued repetition via oral performance.  Given the limitations of human memory, details about the past are forgotten within a generation or two, and the main function of myth and legend is to reflect and explain present circumstances.  This collective amnesia allows for a great deal of cultural flexibility and social homeostasis, a freedom from the burden of history that literate cultures take up.  The written word first makes possible chronological recordkeeping, and later historical narrative framed as an ongoing progression of events; this linear conception of time replaces the cyclical past of oral tradition, and what Mircea Eliade referred to as the myth of eternal return.  And so we hear the complaint of school children in generation after generation, that history is so much harder now than it was for their parents, because now there is so much more of it than ever before.

History is a burden, one that becomes too much to bear if all we are doing is living in the past, in rigid adherence to a fixed and unchanging tradition.  But Arendt adds the complementary metaphor of history as a blessing.  The burden can become a blessing if we use the past to understand the present, to serve the present, not to overwhelm or command the present.  The past can inform the present, history helps us to see why things are the way they are, why we do the things we do; being mindful of the past is a means to help fulfill Arendt’s goal of thinking what we are doing.  But it is not enough simply to live in the present, and for the present.  We also have to look towards the future, to work for progress in the moral, ethical, and social sense, to enlarge the scope of human freedom.  And in light of this goal, Arendt invokes her fifth and final metaphor for history:  history is a weapon.  It is a weapon not to destroy or dominate others, or at least that is not what Arendt intends it to be, but rather a sword of liberty, an instrument to be used in the fight against oppression.

This quote reflects Arendt's overriding concern with human freedom.  The battle for freedom that she refers to is a collective struggle, not an individual quest.  It can only be achieved by political cooperation and unity, not by solitary escape from tyranny.  The commonly used phrase in western cultures, individual freedom, while not without value, all too easily eclipses the necessity of freedom as a shared responsibility, and in excess becomes oxymoronic.  As the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., so eloquently put it, "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" and "no one is free while others are oppressed."  Freedom for all, shared freedom, requires a sense of affiliation, kinship, connection, which in turn requires a sense of continuity over time. Just as individual memory is intimately related to individual identity, our collective memory is the key to group identity.  History is the foundation of community.

Historical consciousness, which is derived from literacy, did not become widespread until after the diffusion of typography.  In addition to making written history widely available, print media such as calendars and periodicals made individuals aware of their place in history as never before, down to the basic knowledge of the year, month, and date that we all take for granted, not to mention awareness of our date of birth and age.  And as the great historian of printing, Elizabeth Eisenstein explains, more than any other factor, it was the printing revolution that gave rise to modernity.  The irony is that as printing made the past more accessible, it also made it seem less valuable, resulting in modernity's ahistorical tendencies.  Focus shifted from venerating tradition to revering progress, from looking back to origins to looking forward for originality.  This is exemplified by the fact that printing gave us two new literary forms, the news, and the novel.

And so we get Henry Ford saying, "history is bunk," and dystopian novels like Brave New World and 1984 portraying future societies where history is either deleted or subject to constant revision.  Without a sense of the past, sensitivity to the future is undermined, and with the advent of instantaneous electronic communications beginning with telegraphy in the 19th century, more and more emphasis has been placed on the now, the present tense, leading us to lose touch with both the past and the future.  Conceptions of the past have also been affected by the rise of image culture, beginning with photography in the 19th century, so that a coherent sense of linear history came to be replaced by a discontinuous, and therefore incoherent collection of snapshots evoking nostalgia, as Susan Sontag observed in On Photography.  What Arendt makes clear is that contemporary present-minded ahistoricism risks more than Santayana's Sisyphean purgatory, but a true hell of oppression and slavery.

So far, I have stressed a universal interpretation of this quote, and ignored its particular context.  Arendt's admonition originates in a column she wrote for a Jewish newspaper, Aufbau, published in New York for German-speaking Jews, as part of a critique of the Reform movement in Judaism.  The movement originated in 19th century Germany, as a response to the Enlightenment, and the Emancipation initiated by Napoleon, wherein Jews were released from ghetto confinement and given a measure of equal rights and citizenship.

To accommodate their newly established status, the Reform movement sought to recast Judaism in the image of Protestantism, as just another religious sect.  Apart from a liberalizing and modernizing of worship and religious requirements, this meant abandoning Jewish identity as a people, as a nation in exile, so as to give full political allegiance to the new nation-states of the west, and embrace a new national identity as citizens of Germany, or France, or England, or the United States.  Consequently, the Reform movement rejected Zionism and made loyalty to the nation of one's birth a religious duty.  Jewish identity and tradition were thereby reduced, compartmentalized as only a form of religious belief and practice, their political significance abandoned.

Arendt's criticism is consonant with Jewish tradition, as the Torah repeatedly asks the Jewish people to remember, to remember the Exodus, to remember the revelation at Mount Sinai, to remember God's laws and commandments, to remember God's commitment to social justice.  Rather than make an argument for a return to Orthodoxy, however, Arendt's concern is characteristically philosophical.  Immediately before concluding her column with the passage quoted above, Arendt makes a more specific appeal regarding models of political leadership and moral guidance:

As long as the Passover story does not teach the difference between freedom and slavery, as long as the Moses legend does not call to mind the eternal rebellion of the heart and mind against slavery, the "oldest document of human history" will remain dead and mute to no one more than the very people who once wrote it.  And while all of Christian humanity has appropriated our history for itself, reclaiming our heroes as humanity's heroes, there is paradoxically a growing number of those who believe they must replace Moses and David with Washington or Napoleon.  Ultimately, this attempt to forget our own past and to find youth again at the expense of strangers will fail—simply because Washington's and Napoleon's heroes were named Moses and David.

Written in the dark times that followed Hitler's rise to power, the outbreak of the Second World War, and the establishment of Eichmann's concentration camps, Arendt's words are all the more poignant and powerful in their call for taking pride in the Jewish tradition of fighting for freedom and justice, and for an awareness that the cause of liberty and human rights have their roots in that most ancient of documents.

Arendt's criticisms of the excesses of Reform Judaism were widely shared, and the movement itself changed dramatically in response to the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel.  Reform Judaism reversed its stance on Zionism, and remains a staunch supporter of the Jewish state, albeit with a willingness to engage in criticism of Israeli government policies and decisions.  At the same time, Reform religious observance, while still distinct from that of the Orthodox and Conservative branches, has gradually restored many elements of traditional worship over the years.  And the celebration of Jewish culture and identity has become normalized during the past half century.

For example, witness Aly Raisman's gold medal-winning gymnastic routine at the recently completed London Olympics, performed to the tune of Hava Nagila; Keith Stern, the rabbi at the Reform synagogue that Aly attends, explained that " it indicates Aly’s Jewish life is so integrated into her entire soul, that I don’t think she was looking to make a statement as a Jew, I think it was so natural to her that it's more like, why wouldn’t she use the Hora? It shows again her confidence and tradition in a really fundamental way."

Raisman's musical selection made an important statement as well, in light of the International Olympics Committee's decision not to have a moment of silence during the opening ceremonies to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the death of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in a terrorist attack.  I think that Arendt would be nodding in approval at the way in which the teenage captain of the United States women's gymnastics team, in her own way, followed the example of Moses and David.

Arendt's passage about history and freedom is a fitting one, I believe, for a Quote of the Week post scheduled to appear on the same day as Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which is also said to be the birthday of the world.  The calendar year now turns to 5773, and 5,773 years is roughly the age of history itself, of recorded history, of written records, which originate in Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization.  And while Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are referred to as the High Holy Days, and are popularly thought to be the most important in Jewish tradition, in truth it is the Passover that is the oldest, and most significant, of our holidays, lending further support to Arendt's argument.  But even more important than Passover is the weekly observance of the Sabbath day, which is mandated by the Fourth Commandment.  And in the new Sabbath liturgy recently adopted by the American Reform movement, there is a prayer adapted from a passage in the book Exodus and Revolution by political philosopher Michael Walzer, that is worth sharing in this context:

Standing on the parted shores of history
We still believe what we were taught
Before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot;
That wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt
That there is a better place, a promised land;
That the winding way to that promise
Passes through the wilderness.
That there is no way to get from here to there
Except by joining hands, marching together.

The message of this prayer is that only by working together can we transform the burden of history into a blessing, only by working together can we wield the shared history of humanity in the service of human freedom and social justice.  This is what Arendt wanted us to understand, to commit to memory, and to learn by heart.

-Lance Strate

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.