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.
A.O. Scott makes an argument for snobbery, which is to say that he makes an argument for taste: "It seems to be an article of modern democratic faith that disputing taste is taboo: at best a lapse in manners, at worst an offense against feelings or social order (which sometimes seem to amount to the same thing). Our nation is at present riven by social inequality and polarized by ideology, but the last thing anyone wants to be called is an elitist. That epithet has a political sting that the old one lacked, and 'snob' is not wielded as readily as it used to be. Instead of food snobs--or 'gourmets,' as they once called themselves--we now have foodies. Literary snobbery died when Jonathan Franzen fell out with Oprah and conquered the best-seller list anyway. The hot narrative art form of the moment, television, is genetically immune to snobbery. For most of modern history, the only way to be a TV snob was not to own a set. (Or maybe to say that you only watched PBS, not that anyone would have believed you.) The arrival of 'serious,' 'difficult' cable dramas and spiky, insidery comedies has not changed the essentially populist character of the medium. We all have our binge watches, our guilty pleasures, and our relationship to them is less exclusive than evangelical. Television is horizontal rather than hierarchal. And the flowering of television coincides with the digital transformation of cultural consumption, a great leveling force that turns a forbidding landscape of steep crags and hidden valleys into a sunlit plain of equivalence. The world of the Yelp score, the Amazon algorithm and the Facebook thumb is a place of liking and like-mindedness, of niches and coteries and shared enthusiasms, a Utopian zone in which everyone is a critic and nobody is a snob because nobody's taste can be better than anyone else's. That's the theory, anyway. But permit me a moment of dissent, even if I risk looking like a reactionary nostalgist." The loss of snobbery is a part of what Hannah Arendt worried about with regards to the end of judgment. Arendt was hardly an elitist in the traditional sense of an inherited or moneyed elite. But she did insist that a meaningful public sphere that can inspire many and last over time feeds upon the doing of deeds that are and deserve to be talked about by others.
Philip Gourevitch introduces this year's Nobel Prize winner for literature, Svetlana Alexievich: "In a brief manifesto, 'In Lieu of Biography,' on her Web site, Alexievich argues that in our time--'when man and the world have become so multifaceted and diversified'--reportorial documentation is the best means of representing reality, while 'art as such often proves impotent.' And, having written five books from documentary material in the course of twenty years, she goes on to say, 'I declare that art has failed to understand many things about people.' Alexievich, you see, is a reporter--she started out, in her native Belarus, writing for newspapers--and her books are woven from hundreds of interviews, in a hybrid form of reportage and oral history that has the quality of a documentary film on paper. But Alexievich is anything but a simple recorder and transcriber of found voices; she has a writerly voice of her own which emerges from the chorus she assembles, with great style and authority, and she shapes her investigations of Soviet and post-Soviet life and death into epic dramatic chronicles as universally essential as Greek tragedies. So it is precisely because her work renders meaningless the distinction she draws between documentation and art that she is now the first full-time, lifelong journalist to win the literature prize."
Brian Hanrahan remembers an unexpected figure in the history of children's radio: "Of all mass media, radio has always had the least developed relation to children. The history of film or photography, of TV or the Internet, could hardly be written without reference to the child: images of children, children as audience and market, children's actual or hysterically invoked vulnerability. But radio has always been an overwhelmingly adult phenomenon Of course, there has long been broadcast radio aimed at children. There were kids' serials in the American network golden age, cozy British stuff like Listen with Mother in the 1960s, various kinds of educational radio. There are Sirius satellite channels, and Radio TEDDY, a German children's broadcaster, still transmits on the airwaves. But all this--and even radio hardware marketed to children--is a small and relatively unimportant part of radio as a historical phenomenon. Moreover, radio's relation to children is indirect, even uncanny: for children, radio is above all something addressed to grown-ups, but they can overhear it, or listen in on it. Radio, in this way, becomes a channel to a world beyond the home. Voices and sounds from the radio bring traces of a different life into the cloistered spaces of childhood and family. Any serious history of children and radio--any history going beyond a chronicle of program offerings--must include the German writer Walter Benjamin. Benjamin wrote extensively for the radio, and most of those broadcast writings--now newly translated and collected--were written for children, at least at first glance. More than that, something quintessentially Benjaminian happens in that uncanny encounter of radio and child: the hint of an unsettling remainder in the everyday, in the dislocation of sent message and received meaning, in the figure of the child who knows something his parents do not."
Daniel Faggella finds it tragic that the debate around the dangers of artificial intelligence is so shallow and ideological. Considering the heated denunciations and defenses of Elon Musk's warning that "With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon," Faggella writes: "What I believe is tragic, is when a debate no longer serves the end of finding truth, or unearthing concerns / opportunities. One class of fruitless conversation comes in the form of mis-informed and close-minded dismissal of an idea. Advanced technologies are far from being the only domain in which such 'disagreement' squashes the possibilities of progress / assessment, but I believe that there hasn't been enough media-worthy attention on AI to bring this unfortunate facet of human nature out of hiding and into open debate, until now. A few minutes of Googling will unearth a good deal of articles and videos from those who do and those who do not consider AI to be a significant near-term threat. More often than I'd hope, the perspectives given are often 'clearly those who disagree aren't even sane.' A second class of fruitless conversation seems about as hard to avoid as the first, namely, the protection of our beliefs and the swaying of our opinions to further our own outcomes. Some of the most ardent backlash to Elon Musk's comments about AI came from those who are most heavily invested in developing AGI, or those who are 'rooting for the Singularity' in one way or another. Of course, there's positively nothing wrong with work on AGI, or with enthusiasm and interest in the Singularity... but someone invested in those domains is more likely to want to spit on concerns about technological progress."
In a review of Japanese novelist Minae Mizumura's book The Fall of Language in the Age of English, Haruo Shirane considers the fate of world literature in an Anglophone global culture: " In the medieval and early modern periods, transnational languages such as Latin, Arabic, or literary Chinese served as the language of high culture and technology; in the modern period, 'national languages' have taken on that role. However, unlike the premodern period, when there were multiple 'universal' (transnational, cosmopolitan) languages, or the modern period (late 19th and the first half of the 20th century for Japan), in which national languages and national literatures flourished, the present age has seen a single tongue become the one and only universal language. English's dominance in all spheres from science to literature is far greater than that of the earlier cosmopolitan languages such as Latin in medieval Europe, literary Chinese in East Asia, Arabic in the Middle East, or French in 19th-century Europe. Because there are now more literate people than at any other time in world history and because of new technologies that create global simultaneity on an unprecedented scale, English now penetrates every sphere. Much has been said recently about the growth of world literature in the age of globalization, but this has overwhelmingly come from those writing in English and/or dealing with literatures in the Romance languages. For example, Pascale Casanova's The World Republic of Letters ( 2004) traces the rise and dominance of French language and literature; David Damrosch's What Is World Literature? (2003) examines the ways in which literature travels around the world, either in translation or from one language to another, often following trade routes. In secondary and higher education in the United States, the traditional canons of national literature have been expanded or broken up to include a larger corpus of literature from around the world. However, almost all of the literature dealt with in these studies is based on European languages, and these representatives of 'world literature' are read almost entirely in English translation. The assumptions of this Anglophone view of 'world literature' are reflected in the genres and texts that have been chosen by Anglophone critics and scholars to represent 'world literature.' Franco Moretti, for example, in his attempt to draw up a 'world literary' map, ends up focusing on such modern European-based themes and genres as the "rise of the novel." In most of Asia, the so-called novel was a minor genre, not even considered serious literature until the 19th century, mostly under the impact of the European novel, while poetry (particularly the lyric), historical writings (chronicles and biographies), and philosophical writing were central. Compared to educated Europeans, until the modern period, elite East Asians (especially Confucian literati) had a very low view of fiction, at least on the surface, and almost all canonical literary genres were thought to be direct reflections of individual or historical experience. In other words, the very notion of 'world literature' that has emerged in English largely reflects the modern European notion of literature as imaginative narrative, with particular emphasis on the epic, the novel, and the short story."
John Branch considers the meaning of a baseball word: "Baseball considers itself the most thoughtful of games, a pastime more than a sport, written about with reverence and lyricism, in which pitching is considered more art than athleticism. Yet the primary term used to explain the art of pitching, which often determines who wins and who loses, is an inelegant word of ill-defined mush. Stuff. 'Stuff is a big word in baseball,' said Roger Craig, who pitched for 12 seasons in the major leagues, beginning in 1955, and coached pitchers and managed for nearly 25 more. 'It's probably used more than any word that I can think of, especially in pitching.' Its use as a descriptor in baseball dates back more than a century. It is a word so ordinary that it avoids consideration as a cliché, hidden behind an ever-creative spectrum of modifiers: pure stuff, ace stuff, nasty stuff, hit-and-miss stuff, electric stuff, primary stuff, secondary stuff, top-rotation stuff. Stuff can be good, great, tremendous. Some pitchers have plus stuff. Some have more...The word is both meaningful and meaningless. There are no synonyms. Like pornography, stuff is defined mostly by example. And only pitchers have stuff. Hitters do not have stuff. 'Hitters got tools,' Dempster said. 'We never say the pitchers got tools. We say the pitchers got stuff.'"
Back in 2005 in the New Yorker (h/t Travis Wentworth), Jonathan Franzen responded to the Starr report with an essay on privacy, one that sounds deeply influenced by Hannah Arendt. On the one hand Franzen begins, we have more solitude and privacy than ever. "The 'right to be left alone'? Far from disappearing, it's exploding. It's the essence of modern American architecture, landscape, transportation, communication, and mainstream political philosophy." On the other hand, the dissolving boundary between the private and the public spheres threatens to eradicate the public sphere. "If privacy depends upon an expectation of invisibility, the expectation of visibility is what defines a public space. My 'sense of privacy' functions to keep the public out of the private and to keep the private out of the public. A kind of mental Border collie yelps in distress when I feel that the line between the two has been breached. This is why the violation of a public space is so similar, as an experience, to the violation of privacy. I walk past a man taking a leak on a sidewalk in broad daylight (delivery-truck drivers can be especially self-righteous in their 'Ya gotta go, ya gotta go' philosophy of bladder management), and although the man with the yawning fly is ostensibly the one whose privacy is compromised by the leak, I'm the one who feels the impingement.... Reticence, meanwhile, has become an obsolete virtue. People now readily name their diseases, rents, antidepressants. Sexual histories get spilled on first dates, Birkenstocks and cutoffs infiltrate the office on casual Fridays, telecommuting puts the boardroom in the bedroom, 'softer' modern office design puts the bedroom in the boardroom, sales people unilaterally address customers by their first name, waiters won't bring food until I've established a personal relationship with them, voice-mail machinery stresses the 'I' in 'I'm sorry, but I don't understand what you dialed,' and cyberenthusiasts, in a particularly groteseque misnomer, designate as 'public forums' pieces of etched silicon with which a forum's unshaved 'participant' may communicate while sitting crosslegged in tangled sheets. The networked world as a threat to privacy? It's the ugly spectacle of a privacy triumuphant." The Hannah Arendt Center conference "Why Privacy Matters" begins Thursday. ("Imperial Bedroom" was published in How To Be Alone. To order, click here. To read, click here).
In a BBC series of video essays on the oak tree, we learn about the historical impact of the Gall wasp, which lays eggs in the buds of trees. In doing so, the wasps seemingly take over the genetic structure of the oak tree's flower so that instead of acorns, galls emerge that nourish young wasp larvae. "The myriad of different types of structures these wasps create for their offspring is simply staggering. But of all the weird and wonderful types of Oak Gall, there's one that has a strange connection with the human race. One type of Oak Gall has shaped our history. That's because for a thousand years it was the source of a special kind of ink with which nearly all our historical documents were written." The Magna Carta, Newton's scientific theories, Leonardo da Vinci's drawings, Mozart's music, Darwin's letters, and more were written in this oak-derived ink.
Please join us at The Hannah Arendt Center for the first Democratic Debate on Tuesday October 13th.
Light refreshments will be served.
Space is limited, so please R.S.V.P. to firstname.lastname@example.org
Tuesday, October 13, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center, Time TBA
Resolved: "National security is more important than the individual right to privacy."
Please join us for an exciting public debate inspired by the topic of this year's Hannah Arendt Center Conference, "Why Privacy Matters." The debate will feature Bard Debate Union members, Bard College faculty, and cadets and faculty from the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Wednesday, October 14, 2015
Free and Open to the Public
Campus Center, Multipurpose Room, 7:00pm
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 CLOSED except for on-site registration, which is subject to availability and will cost $45 for ALL interested parties except those of the Bard community.
We will be offering a live webcast to individuals who are interested in watching one or both days of the conference. To learn more, please click here.
Thursday, October 15 and Friday, October 16, 2015
Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm
Hannah Arendt always returned to poetry and kept the language of German poems in her hinterkopf. For Arendt, poetry is the closest form we have to thought itself, bearing the burden of language and memory. It should then be no surprise that Arendt herself wrote poems.
The poems now appear in translation for the first time, edited and translated into English by Samantha Hill and into French by Karin Biro. Biro and Hill join us to read from their translations and discuss Arendt's poetry, the work of translation, and the place of poetry across Arendt's political and philosophical works.
Free and Open to the Public, but space is limited. Please RSVP to email@example.com
Tuesday, October 20, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center, 1:00 pm
National Endowment for the Humanities/Hannah Arendt Center Distinguished Visiting Fellow DAVID BRIN is a scientist who has served as a NASA visiting scholar in exobiology. As a writer of science fiction, he has received the Nebula award, two Hugo awards, and four Locus awards, and has published books including Earth and The Postman. He is also the author of The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy?
Free and Open to the Public
Thursday, October 22, 2015
Bard Hall, Bard College, Time TBA
The special event will take place in Manhattan on Oct. 26, 2015, 6.30pm, at the Bard Graduate Center at 38. West 86th Street, New York, NY, in conjunction with The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College. The Introductory Presentation will be by Professor Nikolaus Wachsmann, author of the acclaimed, new book, KL: A History of the Concentration Camps.
Honoree Albert Knoll, b. 1958, has served the mission of the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Museum since 1997. In addition to maintaining and expanding its archival work and databases, he has been instrumental in assisting relatives of former inmates as well as guiding researchers, scholars and authors around the world - including Awards Event speaker Nickolaus Wachsmann. Knoll has written articles on illegal photos, homosexual prisoners, contemporary Nazi press coverage of Dachau, etc, and contributed to the International Tracing Service's first scholarly yearbook. He has also organized international workshops on the gathering of data on all categories of National Socialist victims.
Invitation Only. RSVP Required. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Monday, October 26, 2015
Bard College Graduate Center, 38 West 86th Street, New York, NY, 6:30 pm
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 email@example.com.
Friday, November 6, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm
This week on the Blog, Dawn Herrera Helphand considers how Pope Francis I's posture of humility resembles that of Roncalli, whose confidence as a follower of God Arendt sought to understand, in the Quote of the Week. Former Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat offers his comments on how one can change reality and make progress in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we appreciate a member's personal Arendt library as well as her book "The Political Tradition in the Work of Hannah Arendt" in this week's Library feature.
Hannah Arendt spoke of having acquired, through her life, a "love of the world." When writing about education she argues that "education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it." And in politics, she insists, we must care for and love the world more than oneself. What then is the world?
The world is related to human making and to the things and artifacts that human beings make. What defines the things of a world is that those things gather individuals together.
In the public realm, a politician is that person who speaks and acts in such a way that those around him come to see those institutions and values that they share and treasure. The common world is the world that emerges when a plurality of people bind themselves to stories, traditions, institutions, rituals, and practices that they share and that they love. Like a table that unites those who sit around it in a common conversation or feast, the common world brings different people together. It stands between them, both joining and separating them.
In the private realm, a world is founded in property, and property has an essential role in the public realm too. For property is what one owns, what is proper to one, and thus defines one over against others in the common world. Property provides the boundaries between people and also serves as the boundary between the commonality of the public realm and the uniqueness of the private realm. It is no accident that original Greek word for law, nemein, also means to distribute and to possess, as well as to dwell. Property, in English, also names the laws of propriety, what is right and given to each.
In both the public and the private realms the world consists of things that endure. Worldly things must not only be common. They must also last. Since we must love the world more than our own lives—since we must be willing to pursue the world as an ideal and sacrifice ourselves to the glory and good of the world we share with others—the world must offer us the promise of permanence and thus immortality.
How are to understand the worldly conditions of permanence and immortality? We might ask: What is a house?
This is one of the many questions at issue in Jonathan Franzen's essay "House For Sale," about his return to his mother's house in Webster Grove, Missouri to sell the house after her death. Here is how Franzen describes his mother's house.
This was the house where, five days a month for ten month, while my brothers and I were going about our coastal lives, she had come home alone from chemotherapy and crawled into bed. The house from which, a year after that, in early June, she had called me in New York and said she was returning to the hospital for more exploratory surgery, and then had broken down in tears and apologized for being such a disappointment to everyone and giving us more bad news. The house where, a week after her surgeon had shaken his head bitterly and sewn her abdomen back up, she'd grilled her most trusted daughter-in-law on the idea of the afterlife, and my sister-in-law had confessed that, in point of sheer logistics, the idea seemed to her pretty far-fetched, and my mother, agreeing with her, had then, as it were, put a check beside the item "Decide about the afterlife" and continued down her to-do list in her usual pragmatic way, addressing other tasks that her decision had rendered more urgent than ever, such as "Invite best friends over one by one and say goodbye to them forever." This was the house from which, on a Saturday morning in July, my brother Bob had driven her to her hairdresser, who was Vietnamese and affordable and who greeted her with the words "Oh, Mrs. Fran, Mrs. Fan, you look terrible," and to which she'd returned, an hour later, to complete her makeover, because she was spending long-hoarded frequent-flyer miles on two first-class tickets, and first-class travel was an occasion for looking her best, which also translated into feeling her best; she came down from her bedroom dressed for first class, said goodbye to her sister, who had traveled from New York to ensure that the house would not be empty when my mother walked away from it—that someone would be left behind—and then went to the airport with my brother and flew to the Pacific Northwest for the rest of her life. Her house, being a house, was enough slower in its dying to be a zone of comfort to my mother, who needed something larger than herself to hold on to but didn't believe in supernatural beings. Her home was the heavy (but not infinitely heavy) and sturdy (but not everlasting) God that she'd loved and served and been sustained by, and my aunt had done a very smart thing by coming when she did.
Franzen offers us a house in many valences.
It was where his mother lived. Where she was sick. Where she thought about dying and God. Where she recovered from surgery and made herself up. Above all, it was his mother's house. Later he writes that the house was "my mother's novel, the concrete story she told about herself." In this house she "pondered the arrangement of paintings on a wall like a writer pondering commas." It was a house in which she showed herself. It was thus an invitation. And "she wanted you to want to stay."
The problem is that Franzen does not want to stay in his mother's house. He grew up in the house, but he resents it. The house his mother made, was filled with "sturdy and well made" furniture that "my brothers and I couldn't make ourselves want." He has fled the house and returns only to remove those photos that for his mother made the house hers, to act like a conqueror, he admits, and repossess the house from his mother. But only to then sell it.
If Mrs. Fanzen's house is her novel and if it was a house in which she both concealed and showed herself, her son's house in NYC is something else entirely. Here is how Franzen describes his own dwelling place:
I now owned a nice apartment on East Eighty-first Street. Walking in the door, after two months in California, I had the sensation of walking into somebody else's apartment. The guy who lived here was apparently a prosperous middle-aged Manhattanite with the sort of life I'd spent my thirties envying from afar, vaguely disdaining, and finally being defeated in my attempts to imagine my way into. How odd that I now had the keys to this guy's apartment.
House for sale is, amongst other themes like the loss of religion, the loss of family, and the loss of the American middle class, about the loss of the American house. It is also therefore, in an Arendtian vein, a story about the loss of our world, the property that both hides and nurtures our souls and separates and distinguishes us from our fellow citizens. Denuded of our habitus and property, we are defenseless against the conformity of society. Without desks and bookshelves passed down over generations that fit us, over and against our choices, into a private world, we are consumers who build a temporary bulwark whether styled by Ikea or the local antique store. Such a house is not meant to last and to be passed down across the generations. It will be used and, eventually, sold or walked away from. With nothing that defines us in a lasting and immortal vein, our lives have no depth or meaning beyond our accomplishments. There is no weight or law that claims us and obligates. We are free, but free, unsure why we are here or what it all means.
I recently encountered Jonathan Franzen's essay within an extraordinary theatrical experience. The play "House For Sale" is based on his essay by the same name.
It has been adapted for the stage by Daniel Fish. I have now been to see it twice. The play is hilarious, brutal, and shattering. It makes Franzen's essay come alive in ways miraculous and uplifting. The final scene itself is worth dropping every plan you have, flying to NYC, and rushing to the Duke Theatre on 42nd St. to catch it. I can't recommend this highly enough. But hurry, it is playing for only a few more performances. You can buy tickets here.
Or, if you simply can't get to NYC, buy The Discomfort Zone, Franzen's book of essays in which "House For Sale" originally appeared. It is your weekend read.