Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Amor Mundi 5/10/15


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-upWho Watches the Watchers

french parliamentThere is nothing like a terrorist attack to create the political will for a surveillance state. Alissa J. Rubin reports in the New York Times about a new law in France that would empower the French authorities to monitor people in their homes, cars, and private spaces, as well to bug their computers. "The bill, in the works since last year, now goes to the Senate, where it seems likely to pass, having been given new impetus in reaction to the terrorist attacks in and around Paris in January, including at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and at a kosher grocery, that left 17 people dead. As the authorities struggle to keep up with the hundreds of French citizens who are cycling to and from battlefields in Iraq and Syria to wage jihad--often lured over the Internet--the new steps would give the intelligence services the right to gather potentially unlimited electronic data. The provisions, as currently outlined, would allow them to tap cellphones, read emails and force Internet providers to comply with government requests to sift through virtually all of their subscribers' communications. Among the types of surveillance that the intelligence services would be able to carry out is the bulk collection and analysis of metadata similar to that done by the United States' National Security Agency. The intelligence services could also request a right to put tiny microphones in a room or on objects such as cars or in computers or place antennas to capture telephone conversations or mechanisms that capture text messages. Both French citizens and foreigners could be tapped.... The new law would create a 13-member National Commission to Control Intelligence Techniques, which would be made up of six magistrates from the Council of State and the Court of Appeals, three representatives of the National Assembly and three senators from the upper house of the French Parliament and a technical expert. Any requests to initiate surveillance would have to go through the commission. However, if the commission recommended not to set up the monitoring, it could be overridden by the prime minister." While the Times article implies that France is ramping up its surveillance as the United States is pulling back, the fact is that the French proposal still puts members of the council of state, the French Court of Appeals, the National Assembly, and the French Senate on the panel that must approve surveillance requests. Compare that group of elected and appointed public servants with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in the United States, which is comprised of eleven unelected district court judges appointed by the Chief Justice of the United States. This reveals that even if the law is passed in France, at least there would be democratic representatives watching over the watchers.

Pulling the Trigger

columbia universityIn the Columbia Spectator, Columbia University's student newspaper, a letter by members of the Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board calls for trigger warnings before teaching Ovid's Metamorphoses as part of the college's core curriculum. "During the week spent on Ovid's 'Metamorphoses,' the class was instructed to read the myths of Persephone and Daphne, both of which include vivid depictions of rape and sexual assault. As a survivor of sexual assault, the student described being triggered while reading such detailed accounts of rape throughout the work. However, the student said her professor focused on the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery when lecturing on the text. As a result, the student completely disengaged from the class discussion as a means of self-preservation. She did not feel safe in the class. When she approached her professor after class, the student said she was essentially dismissed, and her concerns were ignored. Ovid's 'Metamorphoses' is a fixture of Lit Hum, but like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom. These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.... Students need to feel safe in the classroom, and that requires a learning environment that recognizes the multiplicity of their identities." The medicalization of the language around trauma is confusing this issue, which concerns one thing simply: the infantalization of university students and of the adults around them. College, not to mention life, is a space that challenges us to confront shocking as well as inspiring ideas, images, and people. It is not a safe space, and it cannot be if it is to be a space for thinking.

The Days After

nepal earthquakePhotographer Giles Price was in Nepal before last month's earthquake. His project there has since changed following the natural disaster: "Price photographed Katmandu the morning after the earthquake, assisted by a local reporter named Pradeep Bashyal, who had been with him on Everest. The city is home to more than a million people, and crowds of them had hastily relocated to its open spaces. The quake leveled several centuries-old World Heritage Sites, but many of Katmandu's modern buildings fared comparatively well. Still, the fear of aftershocks was all-consuming--and warranted. The two tectonic plates whose movement caused the disaster were still lurching and fidgeting, trying to get comfortable again. Within days, there would be 60 more quakes of magnitude 4.1 or greater, and scientists project that this residual shaking could continue for years. 'Unfortunately, this is simply what earthquakes do,' one geologist told NPR. Price didn't intend for his two sets of pictures to go together, but somehow they do. Or at least they grind against each other evocatively, like jagged plates, and never exactly settle. In some, people have trekked far outside the stability of civilization to confront the extremity of nature--as hired guides, or voluntarily, for pleasure and at no small expense. Others show people with comparatively little, who had that stability heaved up from underneath them. Here are people daring to live on a mountain. And here is a mountain of debris, where a moment ago people had dared to live."

Hard Labor

American prison systemJed Rakoff takes a look at the American prison system and wonders what, if anything, is working: "This mass incarceration--which also includes about 800,000 white and Asian males, as well as over 100,000 women (most of whom committed nonviolent offenses)--is the product of statutes that were enacted, beginning in the 1970s, with the twin purposes of lowering crime rates in general and deterring the drug trade in particular. These laws imposed mandatory minimum terms of imprisonment on many first offenders. They propounded sentencing guidelines that initially mandated, and still recommend, substantial prison terms for many other offenders. And they required lifetime imprisonment for many recidivists. These laws also substantially deprived judges of sentencing discretion and effectively guaranteed imprisonment for many offenders who would have previously received probation or deferred prosecution, or who would have been sent to drug treatment or mental health programs rather than prison. The unavoidable question is whether these laws have succeeded in reducing crime. Certainly crime rates have come down substantially from the very high levels of the 1970s and 1980s that gave rise to them. Overall, crime rates have been cut nearly in half since they reached their peak in 1991, and they are now at levels not seen in many decades. A simple but powerful argument can be made that, by locking up for extended periods the people who are most likely to commit crimes, we have both incapacitated those who would otherwise be recidivists and deterred still others from committing crimes in the first place. But is this true? The honest answer is that we don't know."

amor_mundi_sign-upWhat Cartoons Are

art spiegelmanIn an interview about why he agreed to co-host an event honoring the French humor magazine Charlie Hedbo, Art Spiegelman describes the power of the cartoon: "Cartoons are so much more immediate than prose. They have a visceral power that doesn't require you to slow down, but it does require you to slow down if you want to understand them. They have a deceptive directness that writers can only envy. They deploy the same tools that writers often use: symbolism, irony, metaphor. Cartoons enter your eye in a blink, and can't be unseen after they're seen." Numerous PEN society members boycotted the ceremony honoring Charlie Hedbo for their courage. As my Bard Colleague Neil Gaiman, who stepped in to co-host the event, said, "I was honoured to be invited to host a table. The Charlie Hebdo cartoonists are getting an award for courage: They continued putting out their magazine after the offices were firebombed, and the survivors have continued following the murders."

Film and Frailty

erros morrisRandolph Lewis considers the delicacy with which documentarian Errol Morris handles his subjects: "Though he is sometimes criticized for not pushing hard enough in his interviews, I think Morris is wise to put people in the center of the frame and let them run their mouths. Maybe I'm letting him off too easy, but I appreciate his willingness to let the story speak for itself without excessive punctuation or a melodramatic 60 Minutes-style confrontation, which is sometimes little more than a phony performance of moral outrage in which someone screams 'gotcha.' If Morris doesn't shout, 'Robert McNamara is a self-serving war criminal son-of-a-bitch' in The Fog of War, it's because he doesn't need to. Instead, he lays down plenty of rope for the viewer to hang the former defense secretary for his epic miscalculations, or better yet, to hang the system that elevated this blinkered technocrat to the apex of Cold War power. Or, even better still, the film encourages something more than easy denunciation and moral superiority: It invites a humane regard for McNamara's folly, as if he were a deluded king in Shakespearean tragedy who we can't quite reject outright. Without in any way excusing what McNamara did, Morris shows an awareness of human frailty and contradiction that we often attribute to great novelists."

Whither Industry

american steel millDeborah Rudacille takes a look at the effects of the old American industries on the bodies and minds of those who labored in them, and she wonders why we miss them: "Thousands of working-class communities around the country lament the shuttering of blast furnaces, coke ovens, mines and factories. This yearning for a vanishing industrial United States, a place in long, slow decline thanks to globalisation and technological change, has a name--smokestack nostalgia. It is a paradoxical phenomenon, considering the environmental damage and devastating health effects of many of the declining industries. Our forebears worked gruelling shifts in dangerous jobs, inhaling toxic fumes and particulates at work and at home. Many lived in neighbourhoods hemmed in by industries that pumped effluent into rivers, streams and creeks... Few of the steelworkers I've known deny the negative aspects of living and working on the Point, including long-standing racial, class and gender discrimination. Still, they grieve the shuttering of the Sparrows Point works, which provided not just union jobs with generous benefits, but a sense of family and community, identity and self-worth. At a ceremony on 24 November 2014 honouring the legacy and history of Sparrows Point, in advance of the demolition of what was once the largest blast furnace in the western hemisphere, steelworkers described what the Point meant to them. 'My heart will always be in this place. This is hallowed ground,' said Michael Lewis, a third-generation steelworker and union officer. Troy Pritt, another steel worker, read a poem calling the steelworks 'home'."

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #8

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

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

Friday, May 15, 2015

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



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

Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015

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

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Kazue Koishikawa challenges us to meditate on how the "political" relates to humanity and to understand why Arendt feels the public realm is diminishing in the Quote of the Week. Lebanese-American poet Khalil Gibran provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we share a photograph of a Twitter follower's personal library that includes different translations of many of Hannah Arendt's works 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.

Arendtian Action



‘This child, this in-between to which the lovers are now related and which they hold in common, is representative of the world in that it also separates them; it is an indication that they will insert a new world into the existing world.’

-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

What can we know about Arendtian action? In The Human Condition, Arendt tells us, variously, that it belongs to the public sphere, “the space of appearance”, that it takes place between political equals, and that it is “ontologically rooted” in “the fact of natality”. “Natality”, here, is not the same as birth, though it relies on the fact of birth for its conceptual understanding. Natality is the distinctly human capacity to bring forth the new, the radical, the unprecedented: that which is unaccountable by any natural causality, but the fact that we must recourse to the patterns of the natural world in order to explain it is what interests me here.

When we try to fix a notion of Arendtian action, it becomes clear that speech has an important role to play, though the precise relationship between speech and action is a slippery one. Actions are defined in speech, becoming recognisable as actions only when they have been placed in narrative, that is: regarded with “the backward glance of the historian”. At the same time, most actions “are performed in the manner of speech”. Speech is rendered as the revelatory tool of action, but, further to this, both action and speech share a number of key characteristics so that it is impossible to fully disentangle the one from the other.

A moment of possible illumination arrives under the heading “Irreversibility and the Power to Forgive”. For Arendt, action has no end. It contains within it the potential to produce an endless chain of reactions that are both unforeseeable and irreversible. With such terrifying momentum attached to everything we do, forgiveness is our release from the consequences of what we have done, without which “our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to a single deed from which we could never recover”. In this context, forgiveness is always radical. It is the beginning of the possibility of the new: “… the act of forgiving can never be predicted, it is the only reaction that acts in an unexpected way  and thus retains, though being a reaction, something of the original character of action”.

What’s more, forgiveness is personal, though not necessarily individual or private. It is, traditionally, connected to love, which Arendt describes as unworldly, indeed: “the most powerful of all anti-political human forces”. In the image of the lovers’ child, the child is used to represent the possibility of forgiveness, that is made representative of the world in its ability to join and divide.


Ultimately, it is not love that Arendt places in relation to forgiveness, it is a distant respect that can only occur “without intimacy and without closeness; it is a regard for the person from the distance which the space of the world puts between us”. Yet, in this moment in the text, Arendt leans upon an image of the unworldly in order to pull from it the particular activities of the world. It is the ability of action to emerge -- unforeseeable, unprecedented -- that Arendt performs here in language. It is the movement of the imagery that alerts us to the essential quality of action to appear, unexpected, as well as to the fragility of the political realm and its complex array of differences from and interconnections with the private. One need only examine the syntax to understand the dynamic of action that Arendt illustrates here: where a semi-colon would usually indicate two halves of a balanced equation, Arendt uses it as a springboard from which to make a tiger’s leap into the new.

There are a number of things to be gained from a close reading of the linguistic representation of the movement of action, not least in light of the fact that, in writing this book, Arendt is expressing a deep-seated fear that the faculty for action is about to slip away from us entirely. While much ink has been spilled over whether or not the categories and oppositions that arise in The Human Condition can be fully understood in any concrete way, on whether or not they hold, it may be that the apparent slippages in the text are, in fact, our most fruitful way in to understanding the particular dynamics and character of Arendtian action; an understanding that may then be put to some homeopathic use in our own work.

-Anna Metcalfe

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.

Arendt & Auden


“And wonder what you’ve missed”

- W. H. Auden, as quoted in Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind

At the end of the second-to-last chapter of the Thinking section of The Life of the Mind , Hannah Arendt quotes two stanzas from W. H. Auden’s poem As I Walked Out One Evening, the first of which is the following:

O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you've missed.

Arendt thus ends a chapter containing no prior reference to Auden with two significant quotes by him, offering no further comment of her own. This lies in stark contrast to her treatment of the quote from The Tempest, which directly precedes the Auden quote; she relates Shakespeare’s metaphors very clearly to the subject matter of the chapter. Why, then, do Auden and his quotes have free rein?

In her essay “Remembering Wystan H. Auden,” written shortly after Auden’s death, Arendt describes their relationship as “very good friends but not intimate friends.”  The rest of her tribute reveals her profound respect for Auden not just as a friend, but also as a writer and thinker. This respect is further indicated by their letter exchanges and the vast collection of Auden’s books in Arendt’s personal library; and it is reciprocated by Auden, who in 1959 reviewed The Human Condition for the magazine Encounter, describing within it the “jealous possessiveness” he experienced due to the close connection he felt with the book. Years later, Arendt dedicated her lecture Thinking and Moral Considerations to Auden. Shakespeare’s presence is to be noted in both this lecture and Auden’s essay The Fallen City. Some Reflections on Shakespeare’s “Henry IV”, upon which Arendt voiced her opinions in a letter to Auden. Arendt’s placement of the Shakespeare and Auden quotes in close proximity to each other in The Life of the Mind creates an illumination of each text by the other, as we will see later.

In order to unfold the meaning of the quote from As I Walked Out One Evening, however, one should consider the poem in its entirety. As two stanzas excerpted from a 15-stanza whole and presented without context, their meaning appears at first glance to be rather abstract. The poem focuses on humankind’s fight against time, explored mostly through a song sung by “a lover,” which the speaker of the poem overhears. This bears strong relation to one of the main questions explored by Arendt in her chapter: that of the position of the thinking ego in time, and its constant battle against both the past and the future. However, while Arendt concentrates on temporal freedom within the present realm of thought, which exists in an area bound to but not trapped in the midst of this battle, Auden’s focus is on the inevitability of “Time”, which is capitalized as such and portrayed as an ever more malignant force of nature. The description of the “crowds upon the pavement” as “fields of harvest wheat” in the first stanza already hints at death, evoking the Grim Reaper and time as a sickle on its way to sever our lives. The first explicit reference to Time appears in the sixth stanza:

But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.

Image by xetobyte

This context sheds light on the two stanzas quoted by Arendt. Even the exclamation “O” increases in its significance; one hears in the background of one’s mind odes from literary practices of centuries past, and ruminates on the continuity of traditions, considering Time’s role in it as both a destructive and constructive force, especially in light of Arendt’s own ruminations regarding the discontinuity of “the Roman trinity that for thousands of years united religion, authority, and tradition.”  Her related notion of a “fragmented past” resonates with the second of the two stanzas by Auden: “And the crack in the tea-cup opens/A lane to the land of the dead.”

The reiteration of the words “plunge” and “stare” in the first quoted stanza leads one to consider the significance of repetition, a technique that Auden employs throughout the poem, in the context of time. Repetition can be perceived as a loop of time, giving it a plurality (for example, describing the word as being used two times) while also somewhat of a stationary character, since physical time has elapsed but mental time has not, instead revolving around itself and meditating on the same idea in a suspended state. Auden’s poem thus offers us another way of approaching Arendt’s consideration of time as experienced by the thinking ego.

The physical imagery employed by Auden reveals water to be an especially powerful metaphor for time. The poem concludes with: “The clocks had ceased their chiming,/And the deep river ran on,” portraying the constancy of time, ever running, even when our own human efforts to measure or control time have stopped or failed. The eighth stanza also contains a subtle evocation of water: “In headaches and in worry/Vaguely life leaks away”; in this context, our personal lifetime is the water that we cannot imperviously contain. This aids our understanding of the image of water in the basin in the first quoted stanza. Containing water in the basin represents our attempts to control and preserve time in a human construct, but, despite all these efforts, we cannot grasp time in our hands, no matter how deeply we “plunge” our hands into the water. Instead we can only “stare, stare” at our reflection, and “wonder what you’ve missed”. These four words are possibly the key to unlocking the relationship between this poem and The Life of the Mind. The physical reflection of oneself in the basin’s water prompts a mental reflection on the passage of time; time is once again suspended as our thinking ego considers our past. But perhaps Time is even more malevolent, in that while we stare at our reflection (the verb “stare” itself having rather stern connotations, in contrast to words such as “look” or “gaze”), physical time is still passing, and we are consequently “miss[ing]” even more of or from our lives as we try to deduce what the past has already robbed from us.

In her interpretation of the Tempest quote preceding the Auden citation, Arendt presents a rather different view of the water-time metaphor. The sea here represents an infinite expanse of time containing “fragments from the past”, the “pearls” and “coral” that do not pass away but are modified by the time they spend in the sea. As two stanzas extracted from an entirety of fifteen, Arendt presents Auden’s words as “pearls” and invites us to play a part in the continuity of this poem and the thinking ego within it, saving it and treasuring its “sea-change” through the generations.

-Frances Lee


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.