Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
The Unknown Within Ourselves
On the New Yorker blog, Joshua Rothman explores Virginia Woolf's idea of privacy. Unlike the "citizen's sense of privacy," which is concerned with the divide between public and private life and the need to keep some things unseen by other people, Woolf's novels allude to another, deeper kind of privacy that "preserves the melodies otherwise drowned out by words, stories, information." Concrete and experiential rather than political, Woolf's notion of privacy recognizes an inner core of self, a soul, that must be kept safe from one's own compulsion to examine and analyze. Writes Rothman: "Woolf often conceives of life this way: as a gift that you've been given, which you must hold onto and treasure but never open. Opening it would dispel the atmosphere, ruin the radiance-and the radiance of life is what makes it worth living. It's hard to say just what holding onto life without looking at it might mean; that's one of the puzzles of her books. But it has something to do with preserving life's mystery; with leaving certain things undescribed, unspecified, and unknown; with savoring certain emotions, such as curiosity, surprise, desire, and anticipation. It depends on an intensified sense of life's preciousness and fragility, and on a Heisenberg-like notion that, when it comes to our most abstract and spiritual intuitions, looking too closely changes what we feel. It has to do, in other words, with a kind of inner privacy, by means of which you shield yourself not just from others' prying eyes, but from your own. Call it an artist's sense of privacy." Read more on the Arendt Center blog.
Alexandra Socarides takes some time to (re)think Emily Dickinson's poem "I'm Nobody! Who are you?," which is usually read as a praise of the nobodies and against being somebody. Socarides finds an ode to something entirely different: "This fall I was asked to volunteer at my sons' elementary school, where the fourth graders were writing poetry and needed a little guidance. Despite having once gotten an MFA in Poetry and having taught poetry writing in the years after that, I have almost no memory of how to guide people in the ways of making poems. So, instead, I mostly sat with the students and watched them as they attempted, in their very best moments, to write something beautiful and strange. It was then, watching these kids shift in their prepubescent bodies, hungry and tired and mostly bored, that I found myself saying, over and over again in my head, just as the strangers in my basement had said to me: 'I'm Nobody! Who are you?' This was before I learned about Dickinson and frogs, before I pulled up the manuscripts, tracked down the letters, and returned to Walden to stand, metaphorically speaking, neck-deep in the pond with Thoreau. At this moment the poem simply functioned as an articulation of the alienation that I felt each and every one of those fourth graders knew intimately. To find a friend, and to locate some shared aspect of identity in that friendship, would be to find refuge from all the frogs croaking out on the playground."
Being and Time
In an interview, filmmaker Richard Linklater describes what it was like to make his upcoming Boyhood, for which he worked with a group of actors a few days out of the year for twelve years. The film tracks the growth of a young boy over the same span. Like the boy, Linklater says, he's the same person now as when he started making the film, but there are important ways that he's changed too: "I feel like the exact same person, but I've got twelve more years under the belt. I've got two more kids I didn't have then, I got a bunch more films. I got a bunch more life. This thing was such a life project, it's been a real wonderful demarcation thing, all along the way. Every year you had to ask yourself these questions, you had to really study the world and see it in a new way. I think we should all take on these life projects that just make you - whatever the final result is - pay attention. That's what I like about the arts, that they make you see the world in a way you might not be attuned to. Every film is so much work the subject matter better be something you find infinitely fascinating. If you can just explain it and be done with it, you shouldn't be making it. Every film I've done I'm really feeling my way through that subject - what don't I know, what do I want to discover? And usually in the process of making the film I feel I do get to know what I was after. This, with a twelve year commitment, had to be about something inexhaustible. And that was about growing up, parenting, the culture around it, the world changing. I knew that well would never come close to going dry. And it didn't. It didn't. You had to stay so in touch with these people as they changed, and not just the kids but also the adults. You do that as a parent, you do that as a friend, but it was interesting to see that refracted through this one work of art, that you're trying to take Eller and Lorelei and Ethan and Patricia and you're taking what's going on in their lives and I'm trying to take what went on in my life at that age and my own role as a parent - it was an all-encompassing refraction of the world. It was an incredible collaboration not just amongst us but also between our own parents and the unknown future. But that's the life metaphor here - we're all collaborating constantly with a future we think we're trying to control, but we only can to a certain degree."
Art and Public Space
Riffing on big public installations by artists Jeff Koons and Kara Walker, Jillian Steinhauer wonders what public art even is: "If you take it to mean a work of art widely available and accessible to the public, then yes, a big sculpture in the middle of Rockefeller Center works fine; if, however, you think about public art as a work that engages with the public, draws them into a conversation - well, then the primary difference between the Walker and the Koons becomes clear. In her book Public Art: Theory, Practice and Populism, art historian Cher Krause Knight cites critic Patricia Phillips and her conception of how art 'becomes fully public': 'it is public because of the kinds of questions it chooses to ask or address, and not because of its accessibility or volume of viewers,' Phillips says. Knight then offers her own addendum: 'To this I would add that art's publicness rests in the quality and impact of its exchanges with audiences.' This extends to the way Koons and Walker approach their subjects: Koons began with a personal object (as many of us do), added a neat formal twist ... and then stopped. Walker's art has long sprung from her identity as a black woman, but she focuses on a place where private narratives overlap with public histories. A Subtlety is no exception. Koons's failure to take this leap speaks to his white male privilege, or his lack of imagination as an artist, or both."
Education as an Introduction to Wonder
Joseph Miller tells the story of Daniel Godinez, a young man from California who found a program designed to groom first generation college students dreary and boring, until he was given the opportunity to do something otherworldly. Since having started to work with a high tech telescope, Godinez has received "county and state science-fair awards; a research mentorship at the University of California, Santa Barbara; a paid teaching assistantship as astronomy tutor at Santa Barbara City College; and a planetarium operator gig at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, which eventually led to a staff position as astronomy programs assistant there." He's also earned a Distinguished Scientist Scholarship to Bard College, where the Arendt Center is located. Godinez's story shows the power of education that allows students to find their own home in the world, of education that excites and interests young people in what is out there in the world, and beyond.
SAVE THE DATE - 2014 FALL CONFERENCE
October 9-10The Hannah Arendt Center's annual fall conference, The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Values Worth Fighting For?, will be held this year on October 9-10!
Registration is now OPEN! You can register here!
Learn more about the conference here.
This Week on the Hannah Aendt Center Blog
This week on the Blog, Martin Wagner uses Arendt to help us appreciate the value of tradition in the digital age in his Quote of the Week. Spanish philosopher and essayist José Ortega y Gasset provides this week's Thought on Thinking. We remember our 2011 Lunchtime Talk with Robert Pogue Harrison on "passionate thinking" in our Video Archives. And Roger Berkowitz reminds us of the importance of privacy in the Weekend Read.
A few weeks ago, Christy Wampole, a professor of French at Princeton, took to the New York Times to point to what she sees as a pandemic of irony, the symptom of a malignant hipster culture which has metastasized, spreading out from college campuses and hip neighborhoods and into the population at large. Last week, author R. Jay Magill responded to Wampole, noting that the professor was a very late entry into an analysis of irony that stretches back to the last gasps of the 20th century, and that even that discourse fits into a much longer conversation about sincerity and irony that has been going on at least since Diogenes.
Of course, this wasn’t Magill’s first visit to this particular arena; his own entry, entitled Sincerity: How a Moral Ideal Born Five Hundred Years Ago Inspired Religious Wars, Modern Art, Hipster Chic, and the Curious Notion That We All Have Something to Say (No Matter How Dull), came out in July. Magill very effectively recapitulates the main point from his book in his article for the Atlantic, but, if you were to read this new summary alone, you would both deny yourself of some of the pleasures of Magill’s research and prose, as well as spare yourself from some of his less convincing arguments, arguments which, incidentally, happen to suffice for the thrust of his recent article.
The most interesting chapters of Magill’s book deal with the early history of the rise of sincerity, which he traces back to the Reformation. In Magill’s telling, the word “sincere” enters the record of English in 1533, when an English reformer named John Frith writes, to Sir Thomas More, that John Wycliffe “had lived ‘a very sincere life.’” Before that use, in its origin in Latin and French, the word “sincere” had only been used to describe objects and, now, Frith was using it not only for the first time in English but also to describe a particular individual as unusually true and pure to his self, set in opposition to the various hypocrisies that had taken root within the Catholic Church. Magill sums this up quite elegantly: “to be sincere” he writes “was to be reformed.”
Now, this would have been revolutionary enough, since it suggested that a relationship with God required internal confirmation rather than external acclamation—in the words of St. Paul, a fidelity to the spirit of the law and not just the letter. And yet reformed sincerity was not simply a return to the Gospel. In order to be true to one’s self, there must be a self to accord with, an internal to look towards. Indeed, Magill’s history of the idea of sincerity succeeds when it describes the development of the self, and, in particular, that development as variably determined by the internal or the external.
Image by Shirin Rezaee
It gets more complicated, however, or perhaps more interesting, when Magill turns towards deceptive presentations of the self, that is, when he begins to talk about insincerity. He begins this conversation with Montaigne, who “comes to sense a definite split between his public and private selves and is the first author obsessed with portraying himself as he really is.” The most interesting appearance of this conversation is an excellent chapter on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who suggested that people should aspire to self-sameness, should do their best to “reconcile” one’s self to one’s self, a demand for authenticity that would come to be fully expressed in Immanuel Kant’s moral law, the command that I must set myself as a law for myself.
Sincerity, the moral ideal first put forth by John Frith, started as the Reformation’s response to the inability of the Catholic Church to enact that particular principle, in other words, its hypocrisy. This follows for each of the movements that Magill writes about, each responding to the hypocrisy of their own moment in a specific way. On this matter he has a very good teacher, Hannah Arendt, an inheritor of Kant, who was himself a reader of Rousseau. Arendt writes, in Crisis of the Republic, what might serve as a good summation of one of Magill’s more convincing arguments: “if we inquire historically into the causes likely to transform engagés into enragés, it is not injustice that ranks first, but hypocrisy.”
Still, while what makes the sincerity of Frith (who was burned at the stake) or Wycliffe (whose body was exhumed a half century after his death so that it, too, could be burned) compelling is the turn inwards, it is Rousseau’s substitution of the turn back for that turn inward that appears to interest Magill, who decries “the Enlightenment understanding of the world” that “would entirely dominate the West, relegating Rousseau to that breed of reactionary artististic and political minds who stood against the progress of technology, commerce, and modernization and pined for utopia.”
The whole point is moot; Rousseau was himself a hypocrite, often either unable or unwilling to enact the principles he set out in his writings. As Magill moves forward, though, it becomes clear the he values the turn back as a manifestation of sincerity, as a sort of expressing oneself honestly. The last few hundred years in the development of sincerity, it seems, are finding new iterations of the past in the self. He writes that the Romantics, a group he seems to favor as more sincere than most, “harbored a desire to escape a desire to escape forward-moving, rational civilization by worshipping nature, emotion, love, the nostalgic past, the bucolic idyll, violence, the grotesque, the mystical, the outcast and, failing these, suicide.” In turn, in his last chapter, Magill writes that hipster culture serves a vital cultural purpose: its “sincere remembrance of things past, however commodified or cheesy or kitschy or campy or embarrassing, remains real and small and beautiful because otherwise these old things are about to be discarded by a culture that bulldozes content once it has its economic utility.”
The hipster, for Magill, is not the cold affectation of an unculture, as Wampole wants to claim, but is instead the inheritor “of the the entire history of the Protestant-Romantic-rebellious ethos that has aimed for five hundred years to jam a stick into the endlessly turning spokes of time, culture and consumption and yell, “Stop! I want to get off!”
There’s the rub. What Magill offers doesn’t necessarily strike me as a move towards sincerity, but it is definitely a nod to nostalgia. Consider how he recapitulates his argument in the article:
One need really only look at what counts as inventive new music, film, or art. Much of it is stripped down, bare, devoid of over-production, or aware of its production—that is, an irony that produces sincerity. Sure, pop music and Jeff Koons alike retain huge pull (read: $$$), but lately there has been a return to artistic and musical genres that existed prior to the irony-debunking of 9/11: early punk, disco, rap, New Wave—with a winking nod to sparse Casio keyboard sounds, drum machines, naïve drawing, fake digital-look drawings, and jangly, Clash-like guitars. Bands like Arcade Fire, Metric, Scissor Sisters, CSS, Chairlift, and the Temper Trap all go in for heavy nostalgia and an acknowledgement of a less self-conscious, more D.I.Y. time in music.
Here, Magill is very selectively parsing the recent history of “indie music,” ignoring a particularly striking embrace of artificial pop music that happened alongside the rise of the “sincere” genres, like new folk, that he favors. There’s no reason to assume that Jeff Koons’s blown up balloon animals or Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes are any less sincere than the Scissor Sisters’s camp disco, just as there is no reason to assume that a desire to return to nature is any less sincere than the move into the city. Although Magill makes a good argument for the hipster’s cultural purpose, that purpose is not itself evidence that the hipster is expressing what’s truly inside himself, just as there’s no way for you to be sure that I am sincerely expressing my feelings about Sincerity. Magill, ultimately, makes the same mistake as Wampole, in that he judges with no evidence; the only person you can accurately identify as sincere is yourself.