Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
4Aug/140

Amor Mundi 8/3/14

Amor Mundi

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.

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The Conservative Spirit

conservatismAndrew Sullivan, pivoting off of a reader's response to an appreciation of Montaigne, offers thoughtful comments on conservatism in the contemporary political environment: "What motivated both Montaigne and Oakeshott was a preference for 'present laughter' over 'utopian bliss.' Yes, reforms may well be necessary; yes, there are times for collective action; but a political regime that leaves people alone in their consciences and allows us the task of ordinary living is the best regime. In that sense, Montaigne was stranded in the wrong country. While France was convulsed with the blood of religious conflict, England was benefiting from that very politique Queen, Elizabeth I. As for our time, an attachment to a fixed ideology called conservatism (which is currently suffused with the zeal and passion Montaigne so deeply suspected) or to an ideology called progressivism (which increasingly regards most of its opponents as mere bigots) does not exhaust the possibilities. A disposition for moderation and pragmatism, for the long view over the short-term victory, for maintaining the balance in American life in a polarized time: this remains a live option. You can see how, influenced by this mindset, I have had little difficulty supporting a Democratic president as the most conservative figure, properly speaking, now on the national stage. You can see why I have become so hostile to neoconservatism whose unofficial motto is 'Toujours l'audace!' And you can see why, after an important reform like marriage equality, I am deeply suspicious of those on the left seeking to remake society in its wake and to obliterate bigotry in our time."

Is Liberal Zionism at an End?

zionismOne week after he published a masterful review on the promise of liberal Zionism that was written before the latest war in Gaza, Jonathan Freedland returns to his theme and wonders whether the facts on the ground have exhausted the possibilities of liberal Zionism: "For nearly three decades, the hope of an eventual two state solution provided a kind of comfort zone for liberal Zionists, if not comfort blanket. The two-state solution expressed the liberal Zionist position perfectly: Jews could have a state of their own, without depriving Palestinians of their legitimate national aspirations. Even if it was not about to be realized any time soon, it was a goal that allowed one to be both a Zionist and a liberal at the same time. But the two-state solution does not offer much comfort if it becomes a chimera, a mythical notion as out of reach as the holy grail or Atlantis. The failure of Oslo, the failure at Camp David, the failure of Annapolis, the failure most recently of John Kerry's indefatigable nine-month effort has prompted the unwelcome thought: what if it keeps failing not because the leaders did not try hard enough, but because the plan cannot work? What if the two-state solution is impossible? That prospect frightens liberal Zionists to their core. For the alternatives to two states are unpalatable, either for liberal reasons or for Zionist reasons. A single state in all of historic Palestine, dominated by Jews but in which Palestinians are deprived of the vote, might be Zionist but it certainly would not be liberal. A binational state offering full equality between Jew and Arab would be admirably liberal, but it would seem to thwart Jewish self-determination, at least as it has traditionally been conceived, and therefore could not easily be described as Zionist."

The Ivory Tower

ivory towerDavid Bromwich reviews the documentary film Ivory Tower and questions the anxieties plaguing academia as well as the technological fixes that so many believe can save it. "A fair number of the current complaints derive from a fallacy about the proper character of a university education. Michael Oakeshott, who wrote with great acuteness about university study as a 'pause' from utilitarian pursuits, described the fallacy in question as the reflection theory of learning. Broadly, this theory assumes that the content of college courses ought to reflect the composition and the attitudes of our society. Thus, to take an extreme case that no one has put into practice, since Catholics make up 25 percent of the population of the United States, a quarter of the curriculum ought to be dedicated to Catholic experiences and beliefs. The reflection theory has had a long history in America, and from causes that are not hard to discover. It carries an irresistible charm for people who want to see democracy extended to areas of life that lie far outside politics. An explicitly left-wing version of the theory holds that a set portion of course work should be devoted to ethnic materials, reflecting the lives and the self-image of ethnic minorities. But there has always been a conservative version too. It says that a business civilization like ours should equip students with the skills necessary for success in business; and this demand is likely to receive an answering echo today from education technocrats. The hope is that by conveying the relevant new skills to young people, institutions of higher learning will cause the suitable jobs to materialize. The secretary of education, Arne Duncan, believes this, and accordingly has pressed for an alternative to college that will bring the US closer to the European pattern of 'tracking' students into vocational training programs. Yet the difficulty of getting a decent job after college is probably the smaller of two distinct sources of anxiety. The other source is the present scale of student debt."

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The Crisis in Culture

workingDan Piepinberg points to digital artist Cory Arcangel's new book Working on My Novel, an aggregation of tweets from people claiming to do just that, as a symptom of a peculiar cultural moment: "it's the story of what it means to live in a cultural climate that stifles almost every creative impulse, and why it so often seems we should stop trying. Arcangel suggests there's something inherently ennobling in trying to write, but his book is an aggregate of delusion, narcissism, procrastination, boredom, self-congratulation, confusion-every stumbling block, in other words, between here and art. Working captures the worrisome extent to which creative writing has been synonymized with therapy; nearly everyone quoted in it pursues novel writing as a kind of exercise regimen. ('I love my mind,' writes one aspirant novelist, as if he's just done fifty reps with it and is admiring it all engorged with blood.)"

"I'd Prefer To..."

workplaceIn a review of Cubed, Nikil Saval's history of the office, Jenny Diski considers the way that the pleasures of the office, and those of the idea of business, mask the reality of what is produced by office work: "But the actual work, what needs to be done with all the desirable sundries, the reason for them, wasn't clear. Obviously mostly it had to do with paper. Books were kept and letters written, loose-leaf papers filed. But what the letters were about, what was written in the books that were kept, wasn't even vaguely known. Some instinct kept me from demanding detail, perhaps because of a correct suspicion that the actual business of business was the very least of the pleasures of the office. What is done in offices, to generalise, is pretty boring and derivative, being at the hands-off service-end of those other places of work where things got made, mined, taught or sold. Work that is always about something other than itself. Paperwork. Allowed to play, I typed 'Dear Sir' at the desk on the huge typewriter, sitting high on the chair, legs dangling. And ended 'Yours Faithfully' ('Sincerely' only after a named 'Dear' - I learned that very young), after which I squiggled an elaborate signature that bore no relation to the alphabet. In the space between I let my fingers run riot over the keys, to produce a gobbledygook body of the letter that probably made as much sense to me as most of the real correspondence would have. The accoutrements and contraptions of the office were the delight, the actual commerce remained not so much a secret as an unwanted answer to an uncompelling mystery. Like the most extraordinary couture, Alexander McQueen's designs, say. You delight in and admire them, gorgeously and dramatically displayed in the videos of professional mannequins on runways, but you don't want to see them in everyday action, being worn disappointingly as clothes, in real life, to dull receptions or dinners without the special lighting and the right pose (how many frocks are designed to be sat down in?), by people who have them only because they are rich."

America Drops a Nuclear Bomb

atomic_bombThe New Yorker has put its whole archive online for free, for a limited time (of course). Over the next few weeks, we'll be combing the archives, finding articles worth your attention. This week we point to John Hershey's poignant account of what happened when American war planes dropped the atom bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, an article that took up an entire issue of the magazine and has also since been published as a book.

 

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From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Lance Strate discusses Arendt's thoughts on the loss of the public realm in the Quote of the Week. Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein provides this week's Thought on Thinking. We look back on a lecture Douglas Irvin delivered in 2012 on the origins of genocide in our Video Archives. And Roger Berkowitz observes how radical viewpoints perpetuate the conflict in the Middle East in the Weekend Read.

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.
28Jul/140

Death and the Public Realm

public_realm

**This article was originally published on May 13, 2013**

"There is perhaps no clearer testimony to the loss of the public realm in the modern age than the almost complete loss of authentic concern with immortality, a loss somewhat overshadowed by the simultaneous loss of the metaphysical concern with eternity."

--Hannah Arendt,  The Human Condition

David Bisson
David is the Media Coordinator at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College. He is also Editor for Information Security Buzz. David's research interests include cybersecurity, war, and the political impact of new technologies.
21Apr/142

Amor Mundi 4/20/14

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.

Is Capitalism a Social Good?

421A book captures the Zeitgeist rarely in the 21st century, especially a book written by an empirical economist, published by a University Press, and translated from French. And yet Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, published by Harvard University Press, is suddenly everywhere. Andrew Hussey at The Guardian interviews Piketty, who argues that capitalism does not improve the quality of life for everyone. Piketty seeks to prove that capitalism is rigged in favor of the wealthy. In other words, the wealth of the wealthy increases faster than the income of the workers. His main contention is that over the centuries since the emergence of capitalism, return on capital tends to be greater than the growth of the economy. Which leads to Piketty’s final conclusion that increasing inequality is inevitable within capitalism – and will only get worse: “When I began, simply collecting data, I was genuinely surprised by what I found, which was that inequality is growing so fast and that capitalism cannot apparently solve it. Many economists begin the other way around, by asking questions about poverty, but I wanted to understand how wealth, or super-wealth, is working to increase the inequality gap. And what I found, as I said before, is that the speed at which the inequality gap is growing is getting faster and faster. You have to ask what does this mean for ordinary people, who are not billionaires and who will never will be billionaires. Well, I think it means a deterioration in the first instance of the economic well-being of the collective, in other words the degradation of the public sector. You only have to look at what Obama's administration wants to do – which is to erode inequality in healthcare and so on – and how difficult it is to achieve that, to understand how important this is. There is a fundamentalist belief by capitalists that capital will save the world, and it just isn't so. Not because of what Marx said about the contradictions of capitalism, because, as I discovered, capital is an end in itself and no more.” That the wealthy get wealthier in capitalism may seem obvious to some; but capitalism is widely embraced by the poor as well as the rich because it increases productivity and supposedly makes everybody better off. Capitalism may make some filthy rich, so the story goes, but it also allows more mobility of status and income than pre-capitalist economies, thus opening possibilities to everyone. Piketty argues against these truisms. In the end, however, whether inequality is good or bad is not an empirical question, and no amount of empirical research can tell us whether capitalism is good or bad. What Piketty does show convincingly, is that capitalism will not lead to equality. For more on Piketty, see Roger Berkowitz’s essay at The American Interest.

Is Capitalist Inequality Really So Bad?

422Perhaps the best review of Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is by Martin Wolf, the Financial Times columnist. Wolf gives an excellent summary of Piketty’s four “remarkable achievements” and then considers what they mean. He makes clear the importance of Piketty’s book. But he also raises the question Piketty leaves unasked: “Yet the book also has clear weaknesses. The most important is that it does not deal with why soaring inequality – while more than adequately demonstrated – matters. Essentially, Piketty simply assumes that it does. One argument for inequality is that it is a spur to (or product of) innovation. The contrary evidence is clear: contemporary inequality and, above all, inherited wealth are unnecessary for this purpose. Another argument is that the product of just processes must be just. Yet even if the processes driving inequality were themselves just (which is doubtful), this is not the only principle of distributive justice. Another – to me more plausible – argument against Piketty’s is that inequality is less important in an economy that is now 20 times as productive as those of two centuries ago: even the poor enjoy goods and services unavailable to the richest a few decades ago.” This does not mean that Wolf thinks increasing inequality is unimportant. Rightly, he turns to Aristotle to make this most-important point: “For me the most convincing argument against the ongoing rise in economic inequality is that it is incompatible with true equality as citizens. If, as the ancient Athenians believed, participation in public life is a fundamental aspect of human self-realization, huge inequalities cannot but destroy it.” You can read Eduardo Porter’s excellent review of the literature on the impact of wealth inequality on economic growth here. Of course, you should all read Piketty’s book for yourselves.

Fixed Records

423In an online interactive feature from The New York Times, an excellent example of what internet journalism can do well, John Jeremiah Sullivan recounts his recent search for 1930s blueswomen Elvie Thomas and Geeshie Wiley. Among his sources for the project was the blues scholar Mack McCormick, who has a mountain of blues material, photos and interviews as well as tracks, collected over several decades, and now organized into something called “The Monster.” McCormick has been largely unable to produce writing from his collection; as he's sitting on sources that no one else has, and that few have access to, this failure represents an extraordinary series of lacunas in blues history. Sullivan notes, however, that McCormick is still as significant a figure as the field has: “He is on record (in one of two or three notably good profiles done on him over the years) as saying that the subject of [blues guitarist Robert] Johnson has gone dead on him. And he has said since that part of him wishes he hadn’t let that one singer, that riddle of a man, consume him. Which is a human thing to feel . . . except for when you happen to know more than anyone on earth about a subject that loads of people in several countries want to know more about. Then your inability to produce becomes not just a personal problem but a cultural one. It’s plausible that the scope of research finally got too large for any one mind, even a uniquely brilliant one, to hold in orbit. The point here is not to accuse or defend him, but rather to point out that even his footnotes, even the fragments from his research that have landed in other scholars’ pages, have been enough to place him among the two or three most important figures in this field. He’s one of those people whose influence starts to show up everywhere, once you’re sensitized to it.” Sullivan’s essay is an excellent walk through the historian's craft, a peak into how the record is made, as it were. Although Arendt described the job of the historian as describing the world as it was, that task is more or less difficult depending on the preservation or availability of certain sources. Through a combination of resources and luck, Sullivan and his research assistant were able to piece together a little more than half the story he set out to tell; the rest is still absent, awaiting another curious investigator and another stroke of good fortune.

The Sacred and the Profane

Simonos Petra is a greek Orthodox monastery built on XIV century , in 1364 was enlarged by a serbian king ,, three times burned last time in 1891 with his library. Its located at the base of the Mount Athos with 2000 altitude . Agion Oros or Mount Athos iThere's a Greek mountain, Athos, home to a number of Orthodox monasteries, and no females; no women, no female animals. In a short profile of the space, Tom Whipple notes that it is both sacred and profane: “Athos is a place where a bearded octogenarian who has not seen a woman in 60 years can venerate the bones of a two-millennia-dead saint, then pull out a mobile phone to speak to his abbot. Where a pilgrim with a wooden staff in one hand can have a digital camera in the other. And where, in the dim light of dawn matins, I can look on a church interior that would be instantly recognizable to a pilgrim from five centuries ago. Maybe this is part of the reason I come: to play the time-traveler?” Elsewhere on the peninsula is a monastery under siege for having broken with the Orthodox Patriarch, and another that is believed to be in part responsible for Greece's financial crash more than half a decade ago. Even here, men who have repudiated the world find that they live within it.

Get To Work

425In an interview that covers his views on Ireland as a post-colonial site and the importance of gay themes in the Canon, Colm Toibin gives some advice to young writers: “I suppose the thing really is, you could suggest they might finish everything that they start. And the reason for that is, certainly with me, what happens is that something—an image, a memory, or something known, or something half thought of—stays in our mind, at some point or other it becomes a rhythm, and you write it down. Part of that is, you know it; you sort of know what you want to do. The chances are high of wanting to abandon it halfway through on the basis of, it really ceases to interest you because you know it already. And then you have to really push yourself to realize that other people don't know it. And that you're writing for communication, and that is not a private activity. Therefore you have to go on working—that's what the real work is maybe. But if you're young and starting off, it's so easy to abandon something at that point thinking, 'Oh yeah, I'm not sure there's any more I can gain from the writing of this.' And the answer is: You don't matter anymore. Get to work.”

Seeing The World Through God

426Rod Dreher, who picked up Dante during a midlife crisis, suggests that the Divine Comedy is about learning to see the world as it is through the mediation of the divine: “Beatrice, a Florentine woman young Dante had loved from afar, and who died early, serves as a representation of Divine Revelation. What the poet says here is that on Earth she represented to him a theophany, a disclosure of the divine. When she died, Dante forgot about the vision of divine reality she stood for. He allowed his eyes to be turned from faith—the hope in ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,’ as Scripture says—to a misdirected love for the transitory and worldly. This is how Dante ended up in the dark and savage wood. This is how I did, too. This is how many of us find ourselves there in the middle of the journey of our life. Dante’s pilgrimage, and the one we readers have taken with him, teaches us to see the world and ourselves as they really are and to cleanse through repentance and ascesis our own darkened vision through reordering the will. By learning to want for ourselves and for others what God wants, we become more like Him, and we come to see all things as He does."

Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Second Opportunity on Earth

427Gabriel Garcia Marquez has died. It is worth revisiting “The Solitude of Latin America,” Marquez’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. The speech ends with these words: “On a day like today, my master William Faulkner said, ‘I decline to accept the end of man.’ I would fall unworthy of standing in this place that was his, if I were not fully aware that the colossal tragedy he refused to recognize thirty-two years ago is now, for the first time since the beginning of humanity, nothing more than a simple scientific possibility. Faced with this awesome reality that must have seemed a mere utopia through all of human time, we, the inventors of tales, who will believe anything, feel entitled to believe that it is not yet too late to engage in the creation of the opposite utopia. A new and sweeping utopia of life, where no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible, and where the races condemned to one hundred years of solitude will have, at last and forever, a second opportunity on earth.”

Is it Possible to Be a Jewish Intellectual?

428In Haaretz (subscription required), sociologist Eva Illouz reprints her 2014 Andrea and Charles Bronfman Lecture in Israeli Studies, at the University of Toronto. Illouz considers Gershom Scholem’s accusation that Hannah Arendt had no lover for the Jewish people and her response, “How right you are that I have no such love, and for two reasons: First, I have never in my life ‘loved’ some nation or collective – not the German, French or American nation, or the working class, or whatever else might exist. The fact is that I love only my friends and am quite incapable of any other sort of love. Second, this kind of love for the Jews would seem suspect to me, since I am Jewish myself. I don’t love myself or anything I know that belongs to the substance of my being … [T]he magnificence of this people once lay in its belief in God – that is, in the way its trust and love of God far outweighed its fear of God. And now this people believes only in itself? In this sense I don’t love the Jews, nor do I ‘believe’ in them.” Illouz writes: “To better grasp what should strike us here, let me refer to another debate, one that had taken place just a few years earlier in France, where another intellectual’s position had also generated a storm. Upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in Stockholm in 1957, Albert Camus was interviewed by an Arab student about his positions on the Algerian war. He famously answered, ‘People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.’ Camus’ statement provoked a ruckus in French intellectual circles. As Norman Podhoretz wrote, “When he declared that he chose his mother above justice, he was, as [Conor Cruise] O’Brien puts it, choosing ‘his own tribe’ against an abstract ideal of universal justice. A greater heresy against the dogmas of the left is hard to imagine.” Indeed, since the Dreyfus affair, at the end of the 19th century, intellectuals’ intervention in the public sphere had been defined by their claim to universality, a position that remained unchanged throughout the 20th century.… I evoke here Camus’ example only to better highlight how the position of the contemporary Jewish intellectual differs from what we may call the position of the intellectual in Europe. What was anathema to the European intellectual – to defend one’s group and family against competing universal claims – is, in fact, what is routinely expected from the Jewish intellectual – by which I mean not only the intellectual of Jewish origins, but the one who engages in a dialogue with his/her community…. Arendt’s refusal to respond to the needs of her group and the fury her positions generated is only one of the many occurrences in a long list of hostile reactions by the organized Jewish community to critique, defined here as a sustained questioning of a group’s beliefs and practices. (For a superb discussion of these issues, see Idith Zertal’s 2005 book Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood.) In fact, over the last 30 years, one of the favorite exercises of various representatives of Jewish and Israeli communities has been to unmask the hidden anti-Zionist or anti-Jewish tenets of critique. I am not saying some of the critiques of Israel may not be motivated by anti-Semitism. I simply note that the suspicion of critique has become an elaborate cultural and intellectual genre in the Jewish world.

From The Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Lance Strate considers Arendt’s quotation, "The end of the old is not necessarily the beginning of the new." And in the Weekend Read, Roger Berkowitz looks at Timothy Shenk’s review of millennial Marxism and Thomas Piketty.

 

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.
23Dec/130

Amor Mundi 12/22/13

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.

The Boycott and Intellectual Freedom

israeliThe American Studies Association, a group of about 5,000 scholars, voted overwhelmingly this week to support the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. The vote has almost no practical import. According to the NY Times, It “bars official collaboration with Israeli institutions but not with Israeli scholars themselves; it has no binding power over members, and no American colleges have signed on.” But symbolically, the vote is a sign of the increasing disillusionment of the American left with Israel. My colleague Walter Russell Mead has a long and passionate rebuttal, one that is noteworthy for what Arendt calls “enlarged thinking,” namely, the effort to understand those with whom he nevertheless still strongly disagrees. Amidst his account, which many will disagree with but no one will be able to say is irrational, he writes: “Speaking personally, I don’t boycott. I’ve met with representatives from both Hamas and Fatah over the years in Gaza, on the West Bank and in Beirut. I’ve also met with Israelis on all points of the political spectrum there, including radical settlers in and around Hebron. Globally, as a journalist and a scholar, I’ve met with all kinds of people whose viewpoints I find objectionable. I’ve had dinner with Fidel Castro, I’ve interviewed neo-Nazi skinhead thugs in the former GDR, I’ve visited North Korea and met with officials of that regime. (I’ve never broken US law on these trips, by the way.) I did stay out of South Africa until the first majority elections had been held, but would have met with officials or scholars representing the old regime had there been some reason to do so, as I have met with scholars from Iran and with officials of Hezbollah. I am on the board of the New America Foundation, an organization that has come under criticism when one of its senior fellows invited the controversial author of a book very critical of Israel to speak. I neither resigned from that board nor criticized the event. When Brandeis University recently canceled its cooperation agreement with Al-Quds, a Palestinian university where students held a demonstration in support of the terrorist organization Islamic Jihad, I supported the decision of Bard College, where I teach, to continue our relationship based on the facts as we understood them. I may not always succeed, but it is my intention and my goal as a scholar and a writer to provide a consistent defense of intellectual freedom and to promote the ideal of free exchange of ideas.”

Scribblings, Notes, Poetry Jotted Down on Envelopes

poetryHillary Kelly zeroes in on what makes a new edition of Emily Dickinson's poetry, one that reproduces the original scraps of paper she wrote her poems on, so interesting: "The result is a collection of scrap paper that says more about the Belle of Amherst than most biographies could. The madcap pencil strokes, torn edges, and higgledy-piggledy line breaks are the work of a quick-thinking, passionate woman. But the carefully crossed through and reworked prose are the mark of a poet bent on perfection. The harmony between the content and use of space, most of all, reveals Dickinson’s self-awareness and inherent knack for poetic construction."

A Well Written Conclusion

essay

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Rebecca Schuman argues for the end of the essay exam in most college humanities and social science courses. On the heels of the news that the current average grade at Harvard is A- and that the most often given grade at Harvard is a straight up A, it is time to revisit our means of evaluating college students. I personally make increasing use of written exams in my courses. It is not that students cannot write, for many can. It is that if the aim is to get them to engage deeply and thoughtfully with the material, studying that material is an essential first step. Exams are much better incentives than papers. Here is Schuman’s rationale for replacing essays with exams: "With more exams and no papers, they’ll at least have a shot at retaining, just for a short while, the basic facts of some of the greatest stories ever recorded. In that short while, they may even develop the tiniest inkling of what Martha Nussbaum calls 'sympathetic imagination'—the cultivation of our own humanity, and something that unfolds when we’re touched by stories of people who are very much unlike us. And that, frankly, is more than any essay will ever do for them."

American Cockroach

roachIt is dinner party season and last week I met the artist and scientist Catherine Chalmers. This led me to her website where I found fascinating photographic images as well as interviews from her book “American Cockroach.” Here is one excerpt:“With American Cockroach, I am interested not so much in troublesome behavior as in an animal humans find problematic. The roach, and the disgust we feel for it, make for a rich conduit to the psychological landscape that inculcates our complex and often violent relationship with the animal world. I can think of few species that are as thoroughly loathed as the cockroach. But interestingly enough, although they carry this heavy burden of our hostility, they don’t do very much in terms of behavior. They don’t eat in a dramatic way, and they certainly don’t have the wild sex life of, say, the praying mantis. They don’t sting, bite, or carry the dangerous pathogens that flies, mice, and mosquitoes regularly do. Having a cockroach in your kitchen is not like having a venomous snake living in the house. There’s nothing about the animal that is life-threatening. The dichotomy of the roach being a loaded subject, yet in habit, a fairly blank canvas, allowed me to bring more to this work.”

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Lance Strate details the concept of the laboratory as an anti-environment. The weekend read revisits a post detailing Michael Ignatieff's acceptance speech upon winning the Hannah Arendt prize in Bremen.

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.
16Dec/130

The Laboratory as Anti-Environment

Arendtquote

"Seen from the perspective of the "real" world, the laboratory is the anticipation of a changed environment."

-Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind

I find this quote intriguing in that its reference to environments and environmental change speak to the fact that Arendt's philosophy was essentially an ecological one, indeed one that is profoundly media ecological. The quote appears in a section of The Life of the Mind entitled "Science and Common Sense," in which Arendt argues that the practice of science is quite distinct from thinking as a philosophical activity.

lifeofmind

As she explains:

Thinking, no doubt, plays an enormous role in every scientific enterprise, but it is a role of a means to an end; the end is determined by a decision about what is worthwhile knowing, and this decision cannot be scientific.

Here Arendt invokes a variation on Gödel's incompleteness theorem in mathematics, noting that science cannot justify itself on scientific grounds, but rather must somehow depend on something outside of and beyond itself. Perhaps more to the point, science, especially as associated with empiricism, cannot be divorced from concrete reality, and does not function only in the abstract realm of ideas that Plato insisted was the only true reality.

The transformation of truth into mere verity results primarily from the fact that the scientist remains bound to the common sense by which we find our bearings in a world of appearances. Thinking withdraws radically and for its own sake from this world and its evidential nature, whereas science profits from a possible withdrawal for the sake of specific results.

It is certainly the case that scientific truth is always contingent, tentative, open to refutation, as Karl Popper explained.  Scientific truth is never absolute, never anything more than a map of some other territory, a map that needs to be continually tested and reviewed, updated and revised, as Alfred Korzybski explained by way of establishing his discipline of general semantics. Even the so-called laws of nature and physics need not be considered immutable, but may be subject to change and evolution, as Lee Smolin argues in his insightful book, Time Reborn.

Scientists are engaged in the process of abstracting, insofar as they take the data gained by empirical investigation and make generalizations in the form of theories and hypotheses, but this process of induction cannot be divorced from concrete reality, from the world of appearances. Science may be used to test, challenge, and displace common sense, but it operates on the same level, as a distilled form of common sense, rather than something qualitatively different, a status Arendt reserves for the special activity of thinking associated with philosophy.

Arendt goes on to argue that both common sense and scientific speculation lack "the safeguards inherent in sheer thinking, namely thinking's critical capacity."  This includes the capacity for moral judgment, which became horrifically evident by the ways in which Nazi Germany used science to justify its genocidal policies and actions. Auschwitz did not represent a retrieval of tribal violence, but one of the ultimate expressions of the scientific enterprise in action. And the same might be said of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, holding aside whatever might be said to justify the use of the atomic bomb to bring the Second World War to a speedy conclusion. In remaining close to the human lifeworld, science abandons the very capacity that makes us human, that makes human life and human consciousness unique.

The story of modern science is in fact a story of shifting alliances. Science begins as a branch of philosophy, as natural philosophy. Indeed, philosophy itself is generally understood to begin with the pre-Socratics sometimes referred to as Ionian physicists, i.e., Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus, who first posited the concept of elements and atoms. Both science and philosophy therefore coalesce during the first century that followed the introduction of the Greek alphabet and the emergence of a literate culture in the ancient Greek colonies in Asia Minor.

And just as ancient science is alphabetic in its origins, modern science begins with typography, as the historian Elizabeth Eisenstein explains in her exhaustive study, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change in Early Modern Europe. Simply by making the writings of natural philosophers easily available through the distribution of printed books, scholars were able to compare and contrast what different philosophers had to say about the natural world, and uncover their differences of opinion and contradictions. And this in turn spurned them on to find out for themselves which of various competing explanations are correct, where the truth lies, so that more reading led to even more empirical research, which in turn would have to be published, that is made public, via printing, for the purposes of testing and confirmation. And publication encouraged the formation of a scientific republic of letters, a typographically mediated virtual community.

guten

Eisenstein notes that during the first century following Gutenberg, printed books gave Copernicus access to centuries of recorded observations of the movements of celestial objects, access not easily available to his predecessors. What is remarkable to consider is that the telescope was not invented in his lifetime, that the Polish astronomer arrived at his heliocentric view based only on what could be observed by the naked eye, by gazing up at the heavens, and down at the printed page. The typographic revolution that began in the 15th century was the necessary technological precondition for the Copernican revolution of the 16th century.  The telescope as a tool to extend vision beyond its natural capabilities had not yet been invented, and was not required, although soon after its introduction Galileo was able to confirm the theory that Copernicus had put forth a century earlier.

In the restricted literate culture of medieval Europe, the idea took hold that there are two books to be studied in an effort to discern the divine will, and mind: the book of scripture and the book of nature. Both books were seen as sources of knowledge that can be unlocked by a process of reading and interpretation. It was grammar, the ancient study of language, which became one third of the trivium, the foundational curriculum of the medieval university, that became the basis of modern science, and not dialectic or logic, that is, pure thinking, which is the source of the philosophic tradition, as Marshall McLuhan noted in The Classical Trivium. The medieval schoolmen of course placed scripture in the primary position, whereas modern science situates truth in the book of nature alone.

The publication of Francis Bacon's Novum Organum in 1620 first formalized the separation of science from philosophy within print culture, but the divorce was finalized during the 19th century, coinciding with the industrial revolution, as researchers became known as scientists rather than natural philosophers. In place of the alliance with philosophy, science came to be associated with technology; before this time, technology, and engineering, often referred to as mechanics, represented entirely different lines of inquiry, utterly practical, often intuitive rather than systematic. Mechanics was part of the world of work rather than that of action, to use the terms Arendt introduced in The Human Condition, which is to say that it was seen as the work of the hand rather than the mind. By the end of 19th century, scientific discovery emerged as the main the source of major technological breakthroughs, rather than innovation springing fully formed from the tinkering of inventors, and it became necessary to distinguish between applied science and theoretical science, the latter nonetheless still tied to the world of appearances.

Today, the acronym STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, has become a major buzzword in education, a major emphasis in particular for higher education, and a major concern in regards to economic competitiveness. We might well take note of how recent this combination of fields and disciplines really is, insofar as mathematics represents pure logic and highly abstract forms of thought, and science once was a purely philosophical enterprise, both aspects of the life of the mind. Technology and engineering, on the other hand, for most of our history took the form of arts and crafts, part of the world of appearances.

The convergence of science and technology also had much to do with scientists' increasing reliance on scientific instruments for their investigations, a trend increasingly prevalent following the introduction of both the telescope and the microscope in the early 17th century, a trend even more apparent from the 19th century on. The laboratory is in fact another such instrument, a technology whose function is to provide precisely controlled conditions, beyond its role as a facility for the storage and use of other scientific instruments. Scientific instruments are media that extend our senses and allow us to see the world in new ways, therefore altering our experience of our environment, while the discoveries they lead to provide us with the means of altering our environments physically. And the laboratory is an instrument that provides us with a total environment, enclosed, controlled, isolated from the world to become in effect the world. It is a micro-environment where experimental changes can be made that anticipate changes that can be made to the macro-environment we regularly inhabit.

The split between science and philosophy can also be characterized as a division between the eye and the ear. Modern science, as intimately bound up in typography, is associated with visualism, the idea that seeing is believing, that truth is based on vision, that knowledge can be displayed visually as an organized set of facts, rather than the product of ongoing dialogue, and debate. McLuhan noted the importance of the fixed point of view as a by-product of training the eye to read, and Walter Ong studied the paradigm-shift in education attributed to Peter Ramus, who introduced pedagogical methods we would today associated with textbooks, outlining, and the visual display of information. Philosophy has not been immune to this influence, but retains a connection to the oral-aural mode through the method of Socratic dialogue, and by way of an understanding of the history of ideas as an ongoing conversation. Arendt, in The Human Condition, explained action, the realm of words, as a social phenomenon, one based on dialogic exchanges of ideas and opinions, not a solitary matter of looking things up. And thinking, which she elevates above the scientific enterprise in The Life of the Mind, is mostly a matter of an inner dialogue, or monologue if you prefer, of hearing oneself think, of silent speech, and not of a mental form of writing out words or imaginary reading. We talk things out, to others and/or to ourselves.

Science, on the other hand, is all about visible representations, as words, numbers, illustrations, tables, graphs, charts, diagrams, etc. And it is the investigation of visible phenomena, or otherwise of phenomena that can be rendered visible through scientific instruments. Acoustic phenomena can only be dealt with scientifically by being turned into a visual measurement, either of numbers or of lines going up and down to depict sound waves.  The same is true for the other senses; smell, taste, and touch can only be dealt with scientifically though visual representation. Science cannot deal with any sense other than sight on its own terms, but always requires an act of translation into visual form. Thus, Arendt notes that modern science, being so intimately bound up in the world of appearances, is often concerned with making the invisible visible:

That modern science, always hunting for manifestations of the invisible—atoms, molecules, particles, cells, genes—should have added to the world a spectacular, unprecedented quantity of new perceptible things is only seemingly paradoxical.

Arendt might well have noted the continuity between the modern activity of making the invisible visible as an act of translation, and the medieval alchemist's search for methods of achieving material transformation, the translation of one substance into another. She does note that the use of scientific instruments are a means of extending natural functions, paralleling McLuhan's characterization of media as extensions of body and biology:

In order to prove or disprove its hypotheses… and to discover what makes things work, it [modern science] began to imitate the working processes of nature. For that purpose it produced the countless and enormously complex implements with which to force the non-appearing to appear (if only as an instrument-reading in the laboratory), as that was the sole means the scientist had to persuade himself of its reality. Modern technology was born in the laboratory, but this was not because scientists wanted to produce appliances or change the world. No matter how far their theories leave common-sense experience and common-sense reasoning behind, they must finally come back to some form of it or lose all sense of realness in the object of their investigation.

Note here the close connection between reality, that is, our conception of reality, and what lends someone the aura of authenticity, as Walter Benjamin would put it, is dependent on the visual sense, on the phenomenon being translated into the world of appearances (the aura as opposed to the aural). It is no accident then that there is a close connection in biblical literature and the Hebrew language between the words for spirit and soul, and the words for invisible but audible phenomena such as wind and breath, breath in turn being the basis of speech (and this is not unique to Hebraic culture or vocabulary). It is at this point that Arendt resumes her commentary on the function of the controlled environment:

And this return is possible only via the man-made, artificial world of the laboratory, where that which does not appear of its own accord is forced to appear and to disclose itself. Technology, the "plumber's" work held in some contempt by the scientist, who sees practical applicability as a mere by-product of his own efforts, introduces scientific findings, made in "unparalleled insulation… from the demands of the laity and of everyday life," into the everyday world of appearances and renders them accessible to common-sense experience; but this is possible only because the scientists themselves are ultimately dependent on that experience.

We now reach the point in the text where the quote I began this essay with appears, as Arendt writes:

Seen from the perspective of the "real" world, the laboratory is the anticipation of a changed environment; and the cognitive processes using the human abilities of thinking and fabricating as means to their end are indeed the most refined modes of common-sense reasoning. The activity of knowing is no less related to our sense of reality and no less a world-building activity than the building of houses.

Again, for Arendt, science and common sense both are distinct in this way from the activity of pure thinking, which can provide a sorely needed critical function. But her insight as to the function of the laboratory as an environment in which the invisible is made visible is important in that this helps us to understand that the laboratory is, in fact, what McLuhan referred to as a counter-environment or anti-environment.

In our everyday environment, the environment itself tends to be invisible, if not literally so, then functionally insofar as whatever fades into the background tends to fall out of our perceptual awareness or is otherwise ignored. Anything that becomes part of our routine falls into this category, becoming environmental, and therefore subliminal. And this includes our media, technology, and symbol systems, insofar as they are part of our everyday world. We do pay attention to them when they are brand new and unfamiliar, but once their novelty wears off they become part of the background, unless they malfunction or breakdown. In the absence of such conditions, we need an anti-environment to provide a contrast through which we can recognize the things we take for granted in our world, to provide a place to stand from which we can observe our situation from the outside in, from a relatively objective stance. We are, in effect, sleepwalkers in our everyday environment, and entering into an anti-environment is a way to wake us up, to enhance awareness and consciousness of our surroundings. This occurs, in a haphazard way, when we return home after spending time experiencing another culture, as for a brief time much of what was once routinized about own culture suddenly seems strange and arbitrary to us. The effect wears off relatively quickly, however, although the after-effects of broadening our minds in this way can be significant.

science

The controlled environment of the laboratory helps to focus our attention on phenomena that are otherwise invisible to us, either because they are taken for granted, or because they require specialized instrumentation to be rendered visible. It is not just that such phenomena are brought into the world of appearances, however, but also that they are made into objects of concerted study, to be recorded, described, measured, experimented upon, etc.

McLuhan emphasized the role of art as an anti-environment. The art museum, for example, is a controlled environment, and the painting that we encounter there has the potential to make us see things we had never seen before, by which I mean not just objects depicted that are unfamiliar to us, but familiar objects depicted in unfamiliar ways. In this way, works of art are instruments that can help us to see the world in new and different ways, help us to see, to use our senses and perceive in new and different ways. McLuhan believed that artists served as a kind of distant early warning system, borrowing cold war terminology to refer to their ability to anticipate changes occurring in the present that most others are not aware of. He was fond of the Ezra Pound quote that the artist is the antenna of the race, and Kurt Vonnegut expressed a similar sentiment in describing the writer as a canary in a coal mine. We may further consider the art museum or gallery or library as a controlled environment, a laboratory of sorts, and note the parallel in the idea of art as the anticipation of a changed environment.

There are other anti-environments as well. Houses of worship function in this way, often because they are based on earlier eras and different cultures, and otherwise are constructed to remove us out of our everyday environment, and help us to see the world in a different light. They are in some way dedicated to making the invisible world of the spirit visible to us through the use of sacred symbols and objects, even for religions whose concept of God is one that is entirely outside of the world of appearances. Sanctuaries might therefore be considered laboratories used for moral, ethical, and sacred discovery, experimentation, and development, and places where changed environments are also anticipated, in the form of spiritual enlightenment and the pursuit of social justice. This also suggests that the scientific laboratory might be viewed, in a certain sense, as a sacred space, along the lines that Mircea Eliade discusses in The Sacred and the Profane.

The school and the classroom are also anti-environments, or at least ought to be, as Neil Postman argued in Teaching as a Conserving Activity.  Students are sequestered away from the everyday environment, into a controlled situation where the world they live in can be studied and understood, and phenomena that are taken for granted can be brought into conscious awareness. It is indeed a place where the invisible can be made visible. In this sense, the school and the classroom are laboratories for learning, although the metaphor can be problematic when it used to imply that the school is only about the world of appearances, and all that is needed is to let students discover that world for themselves. Exploration is indeed essential, and discovery is an important component of learning. But the school is also a place where we may engage in the critical activity of pure thinking, of critical reasoning, of dialogue and disputation.

The classroom is more than a laboratory, or at least it must become more than a laboratory, or the educational enterprise will be incomplete. The school ought to be an anti-environment, not only in regard to the everyday world of appearances and common sense, but also to that special world dominated by STEM, by science, technology, engineering and math.  We need the classroom to be an anti-environment for a world subject to a flood of entertainment and information, we need it to be a language-based anti-environment for a world increasingly overwhelmed by images and numbers. We need an anti-environment where words can take precedence, where reading and writing can be balanced by speech and conversation, where reason, thinking, and thinking about thinking can allow for critical evaluation of common sense and common science alike. Only then can schools be engaged in something more than just adjusting students to take their place in a changed and changing environment, integrating them within the technological system, as components of that system, as Jacques Ellul observed in The Technological Society. Only then can schools help students to change the environment itself, not just through scientific and technological innovation, but through the exercise of values other than the technological imperative of efficiency, to make things better, more human, more life-affirming.

The anti-environment that we so desperately need is what Hannah Arendt might well have called a laboratory of the mind.

-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.
19Aug/131

Amor Mundi – 8/18/13

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.

Judgment in Extremis

eichIn May 2013, the Hannah Arendt Center and ECLA of Bard sponsored a conference in Berlin: Judgment in Extremis, a conference Inspired by the Fiftieth Anniversary of Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. The video from the conference is now online and you can watch lectures by Roger Berkowitz, Jay Bernstein, Seyla Benhabib, Kerry Bystrom, Andreas Nachama, Gerd Hankel, and Christoph Menke. The conference focuses on the fact that Arendt's book on Eichmann's trial is actually a book less about Eichmann and the banality of evil than an inquiry into the problems of doing justice in extreme cases of evil of the kind Eichmann represented. This is especially apparent in the keynote talks by Roger Berkowitz and Christoph Menke. As Berkowitz frames the question, Arendt "didn't go to the trial to develop a thesis on the banality of evil; she went to the trial in order to answer this question on the adequacy and inadequacy of law to deal with extreme crimes like genocide. She had already developed this in the 1940s in correspondence with Karl Jaspers, and she writes, "We have no tools at hand except legal ones, with which we have to judge and pass sentence on something which cannot be adequately represented, either in legal terms, or in political terms." So she is dealing with a problem that she has already identified, and that problem is that law is just a way we deal with a trial and deal with crimes, and is inadequate for these kinds of experiences. In the Eichmann in Jerusalem book, proper, she repeats this same point. This is but one example among many to convey the inadequacy of the prevailing legal system, and the current judicial concepts, to deal with the fact of administrative massacres, organized by the state apparatus. I want to suggest here that this is really the question she goes to Israel to answer." For both Berkowitz and Menke, Eichmann in Jerusalem is a book about the inadequacy of law to deal with extreme cases of wrong and Arendt's response to that inadequacy. You can watch all the videos here.

The Pay is Too Damn Low

mcJames Surowiecki  over at the New Yorker  writes about the recent walkouts by fast food workers and attempts at local and federal levels to pass living wage bills. The real problem, he argues, is that fast-food workers are now family breadwinners: "[T]he reason this has become a big political issue is not that the jobs have changed; it's that the people doing the jobs have. Historically, low-wage work tended to be done either by the young or by women looking for part-time jobs to supplement family income. As the historian Bethany Moreton has shown, Walmart in its early days sought explicitly to hire underemployed married women. Fast-food workforces, meanwhile, were dominated by teen-agers. Now, though, plenty of family breadwinners are stuck in these jobs. That's because, over the past three decades, the U.S. economy has done a poor job of creating good middle-class jobs; five of the six fastest-growing job categories today pay less than the median wage. ... More of them are relying on their paychecks not for pin money or to pay for Friday-night dates but, rather, to support families." Surowiecki argues we need legislation to require higher wages and also increased governmental safety nets to guarantee a middle class life. But maybe also we need to face the reality that across the country, the standard of living we associate with a middle class lifestyle is simply beyond the means of most middle class jobs.

The Future in the Present

mags2Rebecca Bates talks to editor Jesse Pearson about the second issue of his magazine Apology, which he calls his "apologia against... the state of magazines today." When he elaborates, he talks about a way of publishing that is outside of time, noting that "many magazines seems to be overly obsessed with the new and are often lifestyle/culture catalogs for new, new, new, new, new. I like the idea of doing a magazine that owes nothing to the current moment."

Portrait of the Artist

artRyan Bloom recently  translated a wordless play of Albert Camus's. In the mimeodrama, an artist becomes distracted from his life by his art; as he paints, he removes himself from the world and the world passes him by.

 

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

transitIn a review of Anna Segher's recently republished book Transit, Adam Levy considers the German-Jewish-born Segher's experience of trying to find a way out of Marseilles in the first few years of World War II. Instead of writing her attempts to leave into her novel, she invents a protagonist who is desperate to stay; in doing so, Levy says, she turns the tragedy of the refugee on its head: "You could say that permanence is the goal of the displaced, and not always to return home. For the narrator of Transit this is certainly the case. What home is left for him to return to? And if home resides somewhere else... what would be the point in continuing to run? The logistics of staying put, however, set the narrator paradoxically on the road to departure: to stay in Marseille he must prove that he is preparing to leave."

The Newspaper in its Twilight

newspaperIn the wake of Amazon mogul Jeff Bezos's purchase of the Washington Post, Todd Gitlin writes about just what happened to the American newspaper: "The business model built on advertising and circulation to sustain a professional staff lasted roughly a century, and is now skidding and smoldering when it is not crashing and burning. Suburbanization killed afternoon papers, and along with television, drained department stores of their taste for full-page display ads. The Internet ate up the classifieds. At both high and low-end papers, circulation, stagnant for years at best, plunged, as did profits, especially the sort of superprofits that became de rigueur as newspaper chains and other publicly traded media companies squeezed the newsrooms for more (and less news) for their bucks."

Featured Events

smallfailingOctober 3-4, 2013

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

Olin Hall, Bard College

Learn more here.

 

 

 

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Lance Strate wonders whether or not we can survive the entertainment age. Jeffrey Jurgens considers recent events in Germany's refugee 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.
12Aug/130

Amor Mundi – 8/11/13

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 Glasses and the Man

glassesGary Shteyngart tries Google's new digital glasses and feels alternately estranged and powerful. Above all, Shteyngart comes to feel the emergence of a new human-technological symbiosis that he explains by referring to "Bloodchild," a science fiction story by Octavia Butler. "The story takes place on a faraway planet dominated by a large insect-like species called the Tlic. The humans who have fled oppression on their own planet live on a so-called Preserve, where their bodies are used as hosts for the Tlic's eggs, culminating in a horrifyingly graphic hatching procedure often resulting in the death of the human host.... Butler wrote that she thought of "Bloodchild" as "a love story between two very different beings." Although their relationship is unequal and often gruesome, Tlic and humans need each other to survive. Today, when I think of our relationship with technology, I cannot help but think of human and Tlic, the latter's insect limbs wrapped around the former's warm-blooded trunk, about to hatch something new."

Bearing False Witness Against Thy Self

printWe know that eyewitness evidence is notoriously unreliable, but confessions are still thought to be meaningful. Wrongly, it seems. Using a case study where a man admitted to a murder two others were already in prison for, Marc Bookman examines the false confessions of the innocent: "People have been admitting to things they haven't done for as long as they've been committing crimes. On the North American continent, prominent examples reach back to 1692 and the Salem witch trials. DNA exonerations over the past 24 years have established not only how error-prone our system of justice is, but how more than a quarter of those wrongly convicted have been inculpated by their own words. Now an entire body of scientific research is devoted to the phenomenon of the false confession."

Photographing Syrians

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Turkish photographer Cihad Caner recently traveled to Syria, where he took pictures of Syrians. He then asked his subjects to alter pictures of themselves; writing and drawing on the photos, his collaborators take the last word on the state of their home.

Poor Men Want to be Rich, Rich Men Want to be Kings

ACChris Pomorski profiles Atlantic City, intermixing the narrative of one of the city's recent homicides with a short history of the area. What Pomorski finds is a place that was promised much, and that promises much, but that didn't get, and doesn't give, what it was hoping for.

The Real and the Fake

paintCharles Hope writes a short history of the art forger: "It is often said that art forgery has existed as long as the demand for works of art, but this is not strictly true. There is no clear evidence that art forgeries as such existed in the ancient world. There were plenty of collectors, but they seem to have found copies just as desirable as originals. Even the presence of a signature was not necessarily taken as an indication that the object in question had been made by that artist. The notion of art forgery, as we understand it today, seems to require the idea that originals possess certain qualities not found even in the best copies. It also requires the presence of an expert with the ability to distinguish between the two; but such expertise does not seem to have existed in antiquity."

Featured Events

smallfailingOctober 3-4, 2013

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

Olin Hall, Bard College

Learn more here.

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Jeff Champlin investigates the relationship between Arendt and Feminist politics. Lance Strate delves into the human condition. Your weekend read looks at the splintering of culture in an intellectual world no longer governed by a unified aesthetic or a single dominant medium.

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.
12Aug/130

Can We Survive Entertainment?

Arendtquote

"The state of affairs, which indeed is equaled nowhere else in the world, can properly be called mass culture; its promoters are neither the masses nor their entertainers, but are those who try to entertain the masses with what once was an authentic object of culture, or to persuade them that Hamlet can be as entertaining as My Fair Lady, and educational as well. The danger of mass education is precisely that it may become very entertaining indeed; there are many great authors of the past who have survived centuries of oblivion and neglect, but it is still an open question whether they will be able to survive an entertaining version of what they have to say. "

-Hannah Arendt, "Mass Culture and Mass Media"

I recently completed work on a book entitled Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman's Brave New World Revisited, to be published by Peter Lang. And as the title implies, the book takes up the arguments made by Postman in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, published nearly three decades ago, and considers them in light of the contemporary media environment, and the kind of culture that it has given rise to.  I bring this up because the passage from Hannah Arendt's essay, "Mass Culture and Mass Media," is a quote that I first read in Amusing Ourselves to Death.  Interestingly, Postman used it not in his chapter on education, but in one focusing on religion, one that placed particular emphasis on the phenomenon of televangelism that exploded into prominence back in the eighties.  To put the quote into the context that Postman had earlier placed it in, he prefaced the passage with the following:

There is a final argument that whatever criticisms may be made of televised religion, there remains the inescapable fact that it attracts viewers by the millions. This would appear to be the meaning of the statements, quoted earlier by Billy Graham and Pat Robertson, that there is a need for it among the multitude. To which the best reply I know was made by Hannah Arendt, who, in reflecting on the products of mass culture, wrote:

And this is where Arendt's quote appears, after which Postman provides the following commentary:

If we substitute the word "religion" for Hamlet, and the phrase "great religious traditions" for "great authors of the past," this question may stand as the decisive critique of televised religion. There is no doubt, in other words, that religion can be made entertaining. The question is, by doing so, do we destroy it as an "authentic object of culture"? And does the popularity of a religion that employs the full resources of vaudeville drive more traditional religious conceptions into manic and trivial displays?

In returning to Postman's critique of the age of television, I decided to use this same quote in my own book, noting how Postman had used it earlier, but this time placing it in a chapter on education.  In particular, I brought it up following a brief discussion of the latest fad in higher education, massive open online courses, abbreviated as MOOCs.

moocs

A MOOC can contain as many as 100,000 students, which raises the question of, in what sense is a MOOC a course, and in what sense is the instructor actually teaching?  It is perhaps revealing that the acronym MOOC is a new variation on other terms associated with new media, such as MMO, which stands for massive multiplayer online (used to describe certain types of games), and the more specific MMORPG, which stands for massive multiplayer online role-playing game.  These terms are in turn derived from older ones such as MUD, multi-user dungeon, and MUSH, multi-user shared hallucination, and also MOO, multi-user dungeon, object oriented.  In other words, the primary connotation is with gaming, not education.  Holding this genealogy aside, it is clear that offering MOOCs is presently seen as a means to lend prestige to universities, and they may well be a means to bring education to masses of people who could not otherwise afford a college course, and also to individuals who are not interested in pursuing traditional forms of education, but then again, there is nothing new about the phenomenon of the autodidact, which was made possible by the spread of literacy and easy availability of books. There is no question that much can be learned from reading books, or listening to lectures via iTunes, or watching presentations on YouTube, but is that what we mean by education? By teaching?

Regarding Arendt's comments on the dangers of mass education, we might look to the preferences of the most affluent members of our society? What do people with the means to afford any type of education available tend to choose for their children, and for themselves? The answer, of course, is traditional classrooms with very favorable teacher-student ratios, if not private, one-on-one tutoring (the same is true for children with special needs, such as autism).  There should be no question as to what constitutes the best form of education, and it may be that we do not have the resources to provide it, but still we can ask whether money should be spent on equipping classrooms with the latest in educational technology, when the same limited resources could be used to hire more teachers?  It is a question of judgment, of the ability to decide on priorities based on objective assessment, rather than automatically jumping on the new technology bandwagon time and time again.

The broader question that concerns both Arendt and Postman is whether serious discourse, be it educational, religious, or political, can survive the imperative to make everything as entertaining as possible.  For Arendt, this was a feature of mass media and their content, mass culture. Postman argues that of the mass media, print media retains a measure of seriousness, insofar as the written word is a relatively abstract form of communication, one that provides some degree of objective distance from its subject matter, and that requires relatively coherent forms of organization. Television, on the other hand, is an image-centered medium that places a premium on attracting and keeping audiences, not to mention the fact that of all the mass media, it is the most massive.  The bias of the television medium is towards showing, rather than telling, towards displaying exciting visuals, and therefore towards entertaining content.  Of course, it's possible to run counter to the medium's bias, in which case you get something like C-SPAN, whose audience is miniscule.

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The expansion of television via cable and satellite has given us better quality entertainment, via the original series appearing on HBO, Showtime, Starz, and AMC, but the same is not true about the quality of journalism.  Cable news on CNN, MSNBC, and FOX does not provide much in the way of in-depth reporting or thoughtful analysis. Rather, what we get is confrontation and conflict, which of course is dramatic, and above all entertaining, but contributes little to the democratic political process.  Consider that at the time of the founding of the American republic, the freedom to express opinions via speech and press was associated with the free marketplace of ideas, that is, with the understanding that different views can be subject to relatively objective evaluation, different descriptions can be examined in order to determine which one best matches with reality, different proposals can be analyzed in order to determine which one might be the best course of action.  The exchange of opinions was intended to open up discussion, and eventually lead to some form of resolution. Today, as can be seen best on cable news networks, when pundits express opinions, it's to close down dialogue, the priority being to score points, to have the last word if possible, and at minimum to get across a carefully prepared message, rather than to listen to what the other person has to say, and find common ground.  And this is reflected in Congress, as our elected representatives are unwilling to talk to each other, work with each other, negotiate settlements, and actually be productive as legislators.

Once upon a time, the CBS network news anchor Walter Cronkite was dubbed "the most trusted man in American." And while his version of the news conformed to the biases of the television medium, still he tried to engage in serious journalism as much as he was able to within those constraints. Today, we would be hard put to identify anyone as our most trusted source of information, certainly none of the network news anchors would qualify, but if anyone deserves the title, at least for a large segment of American society, it would be Jon Stewart of The Daily Show.  And while there is something to be said for the kind of critique that he and his compatriot Stephen Colbert provide, what they provide us with, after all, are comedy programs, and at best we can say that they do not pretend to be providing anything other than entertainment.  But we are left with the question, when so many Americans get their news from late night comedians, does that mean that journalism has become a joke?

Cable television has also given us specialized educational programming via the National Geographic Channel, the History Channel, and the Discovery Channel, and while this has provided an avenue for the dissemination of documentaries, audiences are especially drawn to programs such as Dog Whisperer with Cesar Milan, Moonshiners, Ancient Aliens, UFO Files, and The Nostradamus Effect.  On the Animal Planet channel, two specials entitled Mermaids: The Body Found and Mermaids: The New Evidence, broadcast in 2012 and 2013 respectively, gave the cable outlet its highest ratings in its seventeen-year history. These fake documentaries were assumed to be real by many viewers, prompting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to issue a statement stating that mermaids do not actually exist.  And it is almost to easy to mention that The Learning Channel, aka TLC, has achieved its highest ratings by turning to reality programs, such as Toddlers & Tiaras, and its notorious spin-off, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

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Many more examples come to mind, but it is also worth asking whether Facebook status updates and tweets on Twitter provide any kind of alternative to serious, reasoned discourse?  In the foreword to Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman wrote, "As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists 'failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.'"  Does the constant barrage of stimuli that we receive today via new media, and the electronic media in general, make it easier or harder for us to think, and to think about thinking, as Arendt would have us do? Huxley's final words in Brave New World Revisited are worth recalling:

Meanwhile, there is still some freedom left in the world. Many young people, it is true, do not seem to value freedom.  But some of us still believe that, without freedom, human beings cannot become fully human and that freedom is therefore supremely valuable. Perhaps the forces that now menace freedom are too strong to be resisted for very long. It is still our duty to do whatever we can to resist them. (1958, pp. 122-123)

It's not that distractions and entertainment are inherently evil, or enslaving, but what Huxley, Postman, and Arendt all argue for is the need for placing limits on our amusements, maintaining a separation between contexts, based on what content is most appropriate. Or as was so famously expressed in Ecclesiastes: "To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven." The problem is that now the time is always 24/7/365, and the boundaries between contexts dissolve within the electronic media environment.  Without a context, there is no balance, the key ecological value that relates to the survival, and sustainability of any given culture.  For Postman, whose emphasis was on the prospects for democratic culture, we have become a culture dangerously out of balance.  For Arendt, in "Mass Culture and Mass Media," the emphasis was somewhat different, but the conclusion quite similar, as can be seen in her final comments:

An object is cultural to the extent that it can endure; this durability is the very opposite of its functionality, which is the quality which makes it disappear again from the phenomenal world by being used and used up. The "thingness" of an object appears in its shape and appearance, the proper criterion of which is beauty. If we wanted to judge an object by its use value alone, and not also by its appearance… we would first have to pluck out our eyes. Thus, the functionalization of the world which occurs in both society and mass society deprives the world of culture as well as beauty.  Culture can be safe only with those who love the world for its own sake, who know that without the beauty of man-made, worldly things which we call works of art, without the radiant glory in which potential imperishability is made manifest to the world and in the world, all human life would be futile and no greatness could endure.

Our constant stream of technological innovation continues to contribute to the functionalization of the world, and the dominance of what Jacques Ellul called "la technique," the drive toward efficiency as the only value that can be effectively invoked in the kind of society that Postman termed a technopoly, a society in which culture is completed dominated by this technological imperative.  The futility of human life that Arendt warns us about is masked by our never-ending parade of distractions and amusements; the substitution of the trivial for greatness is disguised by the quality and quantity of our entertainment.  We experience the extremes of the hyperrational and the hyperreal, both of which focus our attention on the ephemeral, rather than the eternal that Arendt upholds.  She argues for the importance of loving the world for its own sake, which requires us to be truly ecological in our orientation, balanced in our approach, clear and true in our minds and our hearts.  Is there any question that this is what is desperately needed today? Is there any question that this is what seems to elude us time and time again, as all of our innovations carry us further and further away from the human lifeworld?

-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.
5Aug/130

We Create the Conditions that Condition Us

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This "Quote" of the week originally ran on May 28, 2012

"The human condition comprehends more than the condition under which life has been given to man. Men are conditioned beings because everything they come in contact with turns immediately into a condition of their existence.  The world in which the vita activa spends itself consists of things produced by human activities; but the things that owe their existence exclusively to men nevertheless constantly condition their human makers."

-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

The human condition is the context or situation we, as human beings, find ourselves in, the implication being that human life cannot be fully understood by considering humanity in isolation from its environment.  We are, to a large degree, shaped by our environment, which is why Arendt refers to us as conditioned beings.

We are conditioned by phenomena external to us, and this may be considered learning in its broadest sense, that is, in the sense that the Skinnerian conditioned response is a learned reaction to external stimuli.  It follows that any form of life that is capable of modifying its behavior in response to external stimuli is, to some extent, a conditioned being.

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On a grander scale, natural selection, as it is popularly understood, can be seen as a conditioning force.  Survival of the fittest is survival of those best able to adapt to existing external conditions, survival of those best able to meet the conditions of their environment.  The fittest are, quite naturally, those in the best condition, that is, the best condition to survive.  Whether we are considering the effects of natural selection upon an entire species, or individual members of a species, or what Richard Dawkins refers to as the selfish gene, the environment sets the conditions that various forms of life must meet to survive and reproduce.

Such views are inherently incorrect insofar as they posit an artificial separation between the conditions of life and the form of life that is conditioned.  An ecological or systems view would instead emphasize the interdependent and interactive relationships that exist, as all forms of life alter their conditions simply by their very presence, by their metabolism, for example, and through their reproduction.  Darwin understood this, I hasten to add, and the seeds of ecology can be found in his work, although they did not fully germinate until the turn of the 20th century.  And Skinner certainly was aware of the individual's capacity for self-stimulation, and self-modification, but a truly relational approach in psychology did not coalesce until Gregory Bateson introduced a cybernetic perspective during the 1950s.

In the passage quoted above, it is readily apparent that Arendt is an ecological thinker.  In saying that, "the things that owe their existence exclusively to men nevertheless constantly condition their human makers," she is saying that we create the conditions that in turn condition us.  We exist within a reciprocal relationship, a dialogue if you like, between the conditioned and the conditions, the internal and the external, the organism and its environment.  The changes that we introduce into our environment, that alter the environment, feedback into ourselves as we are influenced, affected, and shaped by our environment.

The contrast between using tools and techniques in the most basic way to adapt to the conditions of the environment, and the creation of an entirely new technological environment of great complexity that requires us to perform highly convoluted acts of adaptation was portrayed with brilliant sensitivity and humor in the 1980 South African film, directed by Jamie Uys, entitled The Gods Must Be Crazy.  A good part of the documentary style opening can be seen on this YouTube clip:

The story of the Coke bottle, although fictional, follows the pattern of many documented cases in which the introduction of new technologies to traditional societies has had disruptive, and often enough, disastrous effects (the film itself, I hasten to add, is marvelously comedic, and quite often slapstick following the introductory quarter hour.)

The understanding that we are conditioned by the conditions we ourselves introduce was not unknown in the ancient world.  The 115th Psalm of David, in its polemic against idolatry and the idols that are "the work of men's hands," cautions that "they who make them shall be like unto them; yea every one that trusts in them."  Along the same lines, the Gospel of Matthew includes the famous quote, "all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword," while the Epistle to the Galatians advises, "whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap." A more contemporary variation of that maxim is, "as you make your bed, so you shall lie on it," although in the United States it is often rendered in the imperative and punitive form of, "you made your bed, go lie in it!"  During the 19th century, Henry David Thoreau notified us that "we do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us," while Mark Twain humorously observed that, "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."  More recently, we have been told, "ask a silly question, get a silly answer," to which computer scientists have responded with the acronym GIGO, which stands for, "garbage in, garbage out."  Winston Churchill said, "we shape our buildings, and thereafter they shape us," and former Fordham professor John Culkin, in turn, offered, "we shape our tools, and thereafter they shape us," as a corollary to Marhsall McLuhan's media ecology aphorism, "the medium is the message."

All of these voices, in their varying ways, are pointing to the same essential truth about the human condition that Arendt is relating in the quote that begins this post.  And to pick up where that quote leaves off, Arendt goes on to argue,

In addition to the conditions under which life is given to man on earth, and partly out of them, men constantly create their own, self-made conditions, which, their human origin and their variability not withstanding, possess the same conditioning power as natural things.

The "conditions" that we make are used to create a buffer or shield against the conditions that we inherit, so that our self-made conditions are meant to stand between us and what we would consider to be the natural environment.  In this sense, our self-made conditions mediatebetween ourselves and the pre-existing conditions that we operate under, which is to say that our conditions are media of human life.  And in mediating, in going between our prior conditions and ourselves, the new conditions that we create become our new environment.  And as we become conditioned to our new conditions, they fade from view, being routinized they melt into the background and become essentially invisible to us.Let us return now for the conclusion of the passage from The Human Condition:

Whatever touches or enters into a sustained relationship with human life immediately assumes the character of a condition of human existence.  This is why men, no matter what they do, are always conditioned beings.  Whatever enters the world of its own accord or is drawn into it by human effort becomes part of the human condition.  The impact of the world's reality upon human existence is felt and received as a conditioning force.  The objectivity of the world—its object- or thing-character—and the human condition supplement each other; because human existence is conditioned existence, it would be impossible without things, and things would be a heap of unrelated articles, a non-world, if they were not the conditioners of human existence.

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This last point is quite striking.  It is we, as human beings, who create worlds, which brings to mind the moving commentary from the Talmud:  "whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world."  We create worlds, in the sense that we give meaning to existence, we attribute meaning to phenomena, we construct symbolic as well as material environments.  Each one of us, in our singular subjectivity, creates a world of our own, and therefore each one of us represents a world unto ourselves.

But these individual worlds are links, nodes in a social network, interdependent and interactive parts of an ecological whole.  The term condition, in its root meaning is derived from the Latin prefix com, which means together, and dicere, which means to speak.  And our ability to speak together, to engage in discussion and deliberation, to enter into symbolic interaction, constitutes the means by which we collectively construct our intersubjective, social realities, our worlds.

As human beings, we are conditioned not only by our labor, the ways in which we obtain the necessities of life, i.e., air, water, food, shelter, to which Marx sought to reduce all aspects of society, a position that Arendt severely criticized.  We are conditioned not only by our work, which Arendt associated with artifacts, with instrumentality and technology, with arts and crafts.  We are conditioned most importantly by action, which in Arendt's view is intimately tied to speech and the symbolic, and to processes rather than things, to relations rather than objects.

In the end, Arendt reminds us that the human condition is itself conditional, and to be fully human requires not only that we take care of biological necessity, nor that we make life easier through technological innovation, but that we cooperate through speech and action in collectively constructing a world that is truly blessed with freedom and with justice.

-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.
20May/130

Amor Mundi – 5/19/13

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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 Belief in Belief

amayaJonathan Lee interviews Twelve Tribes of Hattie author Ayana Mathis, who talks about the way that indecision (in her education) and doubt (of her religion) has affected her development as a person and as a writer. Mathis, who was Marilynne Robinson's student at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, says that, despite her doubt, there's something deeply, uniquely human about honest religious experience: "A belief in God may not be fully within me anymore, but there's still a belief in belief. The high drama and power of the Church has stayed with me. As a child in church, I saw grown men at the altar crying out for God's mercy. And the idea of someone doing that has become a joke in the popular culture, but when you are there and you see it, you experience-for a moment-an incredibly raw, honest, strange insight into what it means to be a human being. Those experiences don't leave you."

artCollapsing the High and Low

Maria Popova points to the American Rock 'n Roll historian Greil Marcus' recent commencement address to the School of Visual Art's class of 2013. In his speech, Marcus rails against the high and low divisions of art and culture, suggesting that there's something controlling in those categories, something that totally degrades the mystery of art.

From Italo

italoAll last week, The New Yorker's Page Turner blog has been sharing excerpts from a collection of Italo Calvino's letters. On Christmas Eve 1959, Calvino shared his impression of New York with a friend: "But really it is not this I mainly wanted to talk to you about, it's more to say that this country here knows nothing about us Europeans-and Russia here you can feel is part of Europe, and with no great differences either-because they are totally devoid of a sense of history. To put it briefly, I am beginning to understand something about America, but I have not got the time even to think never mind writing. I am leading the life of a business man, because this is the real way to live in this city-I say business, but all I do is see publishers and have endless business lunches with them-I act as ambassador for an imaginary Italian Democratic Republic, because I feel it is my duty and responsibility to do so, being one of the few men of the left who has been given the chance to visit this country for six months."

Letter From Catalonia

orwellOn its seventy-fifth anniversary, Mike Hume writes about George Orwell's book about the Spanish Civil War, Letters from Catalonia. "Orwell," he writes, "was obviously deeply touched by the decency and heroism of the ordinary Spaniards and foreigners fighting for freedom by his side. Isolated on the frontline with the workers' militia, he recalls: 'One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word "comrade" stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality.'"

Featured Upcoming Event

movie posterThe Official U.S. Opening of the biopic, Hannah Arendt in NYC

 May 29, 2013 at Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St., NYC at 7:45 PM
Film followed by discussion with the director; Margarethe von Trotta, the screenwriter; Pam Katz, Barbara Sukowa and Janet McTeer (playing Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy.)

 Learn more here.

 

 

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Lance Strate considers the existence and meaning of the public realm, and Roger Berkowitz looks at the continuing debate about the merit of MOOCs.

 

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.
13May/130

Death and the Public Realm

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"There is perhaps no clearer testimony to the loss of the public realm in the modern age than the almost complete loss of authentic concern with immortality, a loss somewhat overshadowed by the simultaneous loss of the metaphysical concern with eternity."

-Hannah Arendt,  The Human Condition,

Hannah Arendt was one of the first to remark upon the loss of the public realm, or what Jürgen Habermas called the public sphere.  As indicated by the terms realm and sphere, along with related phrases such as public space and public sector, we are referring here to a kind of environment, or as Arendt puts it, "the world itself, in so far as it is common to all of us and distinguished from our privately owned place in it" (p. 52). The private realm, the subject of a previous post of mine (The Deprivations of Privacy) is defined in relation (and opposition) to the public, but both are differentiated from the natural environment according to Arendt.  Both are human artifacts, human inventions:

To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it: the world like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time. (p. 52)

The table is an apt metaphor, as it has the connotation of civilized discourse, and a willingness to sit down for peaceful negotiation. Indeed, it is much more than a metaphor, as the table does create a shared space for individuals, a medium, if you will, around which they can communicate. But the table also keeps individuals separate from one another, establishing a buffer zone that allows for a sense of safety in the company of individuals who might otherwise be threatening.  Sitting at a table restricts the possibilities of sudden movement, providing some assurance that the person seated across from you will not suddenly spring at you with sword or knife in hand, especially if both parties keep their hands visible on the table top. No wonder, then, that as the practice of sitting around a table for a meal emerges in the Middle Ages, it becomes the focal point for what Norbert Elias refers to as the civilizing process.

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The table is a medium, an in-between, as Arendt puts it, and each medium in its own way serves as a means by which individuals connect and relate to one another, and also are separated and kept apart from one another.  In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan expressed the same idea in saying that all media, meaning all technologies and human innovations, are extensions of some aspect of individuals, but at the same time are amputations.  As I have explained elsewhere, the medium that extends us into the world comes between us and the world, and in doing so becomes our world. Or as I like to put it, with apologies to McLuhan, the medium is the membrane.

The public realm then is a shared human environment, a media environment. As Arendt explains,

everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity. For us, appearance—something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves—constitutes reality. (p. 50)

Paul Watzlawick has argued that our reality is constructed through our communication, rather than mere reflected or represented by our messages. And this means that our reality is shaped by our means of communication, our media.  It is through publicity that we create the public realm.  And for the public realm to exist, there must also be the possibility for some communication to take place privately, in a context where it cannot be seen and heard by everybody, where there are barriers to people's perception and their access to information, what Erving Goffman referred to as the back region.

The public realm is not a media environment we typically associate with tribal societies, where the distinction between public and private is, for the most part, non-existent.  Rather, it is strongly tied to the city as a human environment (and a medium of communication in its own right).  Lewis Mumford insightfully observed that cities are a type of container technology, indeed the container of containers, and what they contain includes great concentrations of population.  As settlements evolved into the first urban centers in the ancient world, they gave rise to the first true crowds and mobs, and also to audiences made up of people who do not necessarily know one another, or have strong social ties to each other.

These new kinds of audiences required a new form of communication:  public address.  They required new kinds of physical environments:  the agora, the forum, the marketplace.  And they required new forms of education:  the art of rhetoric.

The invention of writing is intimately bound up in all of these developments.  Without reasonably well-developed systems of notation, human populations were not able to handle the complexity of large populations. In tribal societies, as population increases, groups split up in order to keep their affairs manageable.  Writing, as a container for language, whose primary form is the spoken word, develops side by side with the city as container, and allows for the control and coordination of large populations and diverse activities.  And writing, in allowing language to be viewed and reviewed, made it possible to refine the art of public address, to study rhetoric and instruct others in the techniques of oratory, as did the Sophists in ancient Greece.  It is no accident that the introduction of the Greek alphabet was followed by the first forms of study, including rhetoric and grammar, and by the first forms of democracy.

Writing also has the peculiar effect of introducing the idea of the individual, of breaking people apart from their tribal, group identity. The ability to take one's thoughts, write them down, and observe them from the outside, made it possible to separate the knower from the known, as Eric Havelock put it, which also separated individuals from their traditions.

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Written law, beginning with Hammurabi and Moses, took judicial matters out of the concrete realm of proverbs and parables, and reasoning by analogy, opened the door to the view that everyone is equal, as an individual, before the law.  The fact that literacy also facilitated increasingly more abstract modes of thought also was of great importance, but the simple act of reading and writing alone, in isolation, had much to do with the genesis of individualism.

The origin of the public realm is closely tied to the medium of the written word, in highly significant but limited ways. Script gave us the civic public, rooted in rhetoric, but it was the printing revolution in early modern Europe that made the public intro a national, mass phenomenon. As McLuhan noted in his preface to The Gutenberg Galaxy,

Printing from movable types created a quite unexpected new environment—it created the PUBLIC.  Manuscript technology did not have the intensity or power of extension necessary to create publics on a national scale.  What we have called "nations" in recent centuries did not, and could not, precede the advent of Gutenberg technology any more than they can survive the advent of electric circuitry with its power of totally involving all people in all other people. (p. ii)

A reading public is quite different from a listening public, as readers are separated in time and space from one another, and this form of mediation also had the effect of making individualism a ruling ideology.  And yes, Habermas did place a great deal of emphasis on people gathering in public places like coffee shops to discuss and debate the issues of the day, but they did so based on what they read in print media such as newspapers, pamphlets, and the like. Moreover, historian Elizabeth Eisenstein explained in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, the printers' shops were the first places that people gathered for such intellectual exchanges, long before they gravitated to the coffee shops and taverns.  The point is that the content of these discussions were based on typographic media, the mindset of the discussants was shaped by print literacy, and both were situated within the print media environment.  Within such an environment, a population of individuals could gain common access to ideas and opinions through print media, which in turn could provide the basis for political action; in this way publics came into being.

Publics were formed by publicity, and publicity was achieved through publication.  As much as books, pamphlets, catalogs, calendars, periodicals, and all manner of ephemera were the products of the printing press, so too, as McLuhan observed, was the reading public.  Print technology gave us our first form of mass communication, characterized by wide and relatively rapid dissemination of multiple, identical copies of the same text, a democratizing process, as Walter Benjamin observed.

But printing also created a new sense of immortality, of the author's words living on through the ages, and of posterity as the ultimate judge.  Elizabeth Eisenstein explains that the very multiplication of texts, however perishable any single copy might be, established what she referred to as the preservative powers of print far beyond anything previously known.  This idea of immortality goes hand in hand with the rise of a new kind of historical consciousness, which also emerged out of print culture.

Eternity, by way of contrast, is situated outside of historical time, within what Mircea Eliade calls sacred time. It is a time that looks back towards the moment of creation or a golden age. Through ritual, we can step out of the profane time of everyday life, and in enacting the myth of eternal return enter the sacred time that intersects with all of history—in this sense always a part of it and yet at the same time apart from it.

Traditional cultures look backward to creation or the golden age as a time superior to the present, a time they strive to reclaim.  Oral cultures are particularly associated with a cyclical understanding of time.  The invention of writing makes possible first chronology, then historical narrative, and this opens the door to the idea of progress. The shift begins with the biblical narrative in ancient Israel, and the secular history writing of ancient Greece and Rome.  But a complete reversal in orientation from looking to the past as the ideal towards anticipating the future as a continual process of getting better, perhaps culminating in utopia, is closely associated with the printing revolution and the modern world it gave rise to.  This is, in turn, superseded by a present-centered orientation brought on by the electronic media, as I have discussed in On the Binding Biases of Time.  The instantaneity and immediacy of electronic communication not only moves our focus from history and futurity to the present moment, but it translates the remembered past and the anticipated future into the present tense, the now of the computer program and digital simulation.

Arendt's insight that the loss of a concern with immortality is intimately bound up with the loss of the public realm implies a common denominator, specifically the electronic media environment that has superseded the typographic media environment. If literacy and print go hand in hand with citizenship, civics, and the public realm, what happens when these media are overshadowed by electronic technologies, from the telegraph and wireless to radio and television now to the internet and mobile technology?

tech

We still use the word public of course, but we have seen a great blurring of the boundaries between public and private, the continuing erosion of privacy but also a loss of the expectation that dress, behavior, and communication ought to be different when we are in a public place, and that there are rules and obligations that go along with being a part of a public.  And we have experienced a loss of our longstanding sense of individualism, replaced by an emphasis on personalization; a loss of citizenship based on equality, replaced by group identity based on grievance and all manner of neo-tribalism; a loss of traditional notions of character and personal integrity, replaced by various forms of identity construction via online profiles, avatars, and the like; the loss of separate public and private selves, replaced by affiliations with different lifestyles and media preferences.

As consumers, members of audiences, and participants in the online world, we live for the moment, and we do so with disastrous results, economically, ethically, and ecologically.  Arendt suggests that, "under modern conditions, it is indeed so unlikely that anybody should earnestly aspire to an earthly immortality that we probably are justified in thinking it is nothing but vanity" (p. 56).  Along the same lines, Daniel Boorstin in The Image argued that the hero, characterized by greatness, has been replaced by the celebrity, characterized by publicity, famous for appearing on the media rather than for any accomplishments of historical significance.  Heroes were immortal. Celebrities become famous seemingly overnight, and then just as quickly fade from collective consciousness. Heroes, as Boorstin describes them, were known through print media; celebrities make up the content of our audiovisual and electronic media.  These are the role models that people pattern their lives after.

Arendt explains that a public realm " cannot be erected for one generation and planned for the living only; it must transcend the life span of mortal men" (p. 55). And she goes on to explain,

It is the publicity of the public realm which can absorb and make shine through the centuries whatever men may want to save from the natural ruin of time. Through many ages before us—but now not any more—men entered the public realm because they wanted something of their own or something they had in common with others to be more permanent than their earthly lives. (p. 55)

Without this concern with a public realm that extends across history from the past into the future, what becomes of political action based on the common good, rather than private interests?

With the loss of any concern with immortality, have we witnessed not merely the erosion, but the irrevocable death of the public realm?

And perhaps most importantly of all, without the existence of a public, can there still exist, in something more than name only, a republic?

-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.
11Feb/130

Secondhand Gun Smoke

"The extreme form of power is All against One, the extreme form of violence is One against All. And this latter is never possible without instruments."

Hannah Arendt, On Violence

The instruments that Hannah Arendt refers to in this quote are instruments of violence, that is to say, weapons.  Weapons, which in the main, translates to firearms, make it possible for One to commit acts of violence against All. And this fact has been brought into sharp focus in light of the devastating tragedy of this past December 14th, 2012:  the massacre of 20 young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut by a 20-year-old man using a semi-automatic assault rifle that belonged to his mother, the first victim of a killing spree that ended when he turned his weapon on himself and took his own life. The extreme depravity of this incident sent shockwaves throughout the nation, and reports of subsequent shootings of a more commonplace variety have been picked up by the news media, whereas previously they have more often than not been ignored. Fulfilling their function as agenda-setters, journalists have placed gun violence high on the list of national debates, reflecting the outrage of many citizens, as well as the genuine concern of a significant number of leaders and officials in government and organized religion.

Despite the fact that many citizens find the status quo intolerable, and favor legislation that would increase the limitations on the types of weaponry citizens can legally purchase and own, and on the requirements for sale and ownership of firearms, there has been considerable opposition to any form of what is commonly referred to as gun control. That pushback had come from what is sometimes referred to as the gun lobby, the National Rifle Association being the primary organization representing the firearms industry, and citizens who insist that our constitution's second amendment guarantees them the freedom to arm themselves as they see fit. And whereas one side mostly speaks in the language of moderation, arguing for reasonable restrictions on firearms sales, the other tends to speak in an extremist language of absolutes, arguing against any abridgement of rights and freedom, maintaining that gun control legislation is completely ineffective, and that, in the words of NRA Vice-President Wayne LaPierre, "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

Fighting fire with fire is not a method favored by firefighters, except in the most extreme of circumstances, and likewise fighting firearms with firearms is a tactic of last resort for putting an end to gun violence. Firefighters stress the importance of prevention, and we certainly are entitled to ask, how can we prevent a bad guy from getting hold of a gun in the first place? When prevention is ineffective, and violence ensues, it may be necessary to engage in further violence as a countermeasure. But even if the result is cessation rather than escalation, the situation already represents a failure and breakdown of the community. As Arendt explains,

the danger of violence, even if it moves consciously within a nonextremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end. If goals are not achieved rapidly, the result will be not merely defeat but the introduction of the practice of violence into the whole body politic. Action is irreversible, and a return to the status quo in case of defeat is always unlikely. The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.

LaPierre's insistence that the only way to stop violence is with violence is not only simplistic in his childish morality of good guys vs. bad guys, but in his view of the situation as being One against One. Again, it would certainly be reasonable to concede the point that violent action on the part of one individual is sometimes required to put an end to violent action on the part of another individual, and such action is authorized on the part of duly appointed representatives of the law, e.g., police. But in acting in the role of police, such individuals are acting as representatives of the All, so that what appears to be One against One is in fact a case of All against One.  But LaPierre's notion of a good guy with a gun is not a police officer—indeed police departments typically favor stricter gun control—but an armed private citizen. In other words, his One against One would exist in a larger context of All against All, everyone armed in defense against everyone else, everyone prepared to engage in violence against everyone else.

That guns are instruments of violence ought to be clear. You cannot cut a steak with a gun. You cannot chop wood with a gun. You cannot excavate a mine with a gun. Unlike knives, axes, and even explosives, firearms have no practical use other than to harm and kill living things. There are recreational applications, granted, but there is nothing new about violence in recreational activities, boxing, wrestling, and fencing all have their origins in antiquity, while eastern martial arts disciplines have grown quite popular in the United States over the past half century, and football has become our most popular sport. It follows that hunting is simply another violent recreational activity, as we are now 10,000 years past the agricultural revolution, and few if any of us live in the wilderness as nomadic hunter-gatherers.  And target ranges, skeet shooting, and the like, all of which use obvious surrogates for human and animal bodies, are essentially recreational activities, apart from their function in training individuals  how to use firearms.

Instruments of violence, like all tools, are made to be used, and their violence cannot be confined to prescribed targets and situations. So with All against All, everyone lives under the shadow of violence, the possibility of being fired upon serving as a guarantee against bad behavior. From the individual's point of view, everyone is suspect, everyone is a potential menace that must be guarded against. And of course the danger they pose is greatly amplified if they are bearing arms. So peace is achieved through mutual intimidation, and at best a respect based on threat and fear. Under these circumstances, there is no solid foundation for political action based on consensus and cooperation, let alone social cohesion. With All against All, the potential for action taken by All against One is minimized.

Reducing if not eliminating the potential for All against One is central to the ideology of the NRA, for whom the All is not so much everyone else as it is our representatives in positions of authority. Armed private citizens are the good guys with guns, and it is not only the "criminals and crazies" who are bad guys, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the government. Ignoring the fact that historically, the second amendment was understood as granting individual states in the union the right to create militias in the absence of a standing federal army, gun advocates invoke "the right to bear arms" as a check against government tyranny, insisting that they are entitled to the same right to revolution that was claimed by the founders of our nation in the Declaration of Independence. That the Confederate states invoked the same right in seceding from the Union, igniting a debate settled by the most violent of means, is of little import it seems. The Civil War apparently did not end with Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, but merely underwent a transformation into a subtle insurgency movement that continues to this day. This no doubt comes as a surprise to the vast majority of American citizens, including the multitudes that flocked to movie theaters in recent months to see Steven Spielberg's Lincoln.

Arendt drives home the point that violence exists in inverse relationship to power.  Power is derived from the All, from the consent and agreement of the governed, the source of political legitimacy. Power is the ability to achieve goals without the use of violence. When governments are forced to resort to violence, it reflects a loss of power, one that is difficult to reclaim, and may ultimately result in that governments demise. Violence can destroy power, that is the lesson of revolution, but it cannot create power, only political action can. It follows that gun advocates see the second amendment as curbing the power of government, thereby empowering the individual. That sense of power is something of a chimera, however, for as soon as firearms are used, their power dissipates. If they are used against another private citizen, even a so-called bad guy, the user will have to answer to the legal system, and may be found guilty of unlawful action, or subject to civil liability. If they are used against a government official, the user will sooner or later discover that he (or she, but almost always it is a he) is outgunned, that One against All may only succeed in the short-term but will eventually fall to the vastly superior firepower of organized authorities.

American society, like all societies, looks to a set of values that, upon close inspection, holds logical contradictions, values that, from a distance, appear to be psychologically consistent with each other. We value the individual, and adhere to the most extreme form of individualism of any western society, but we also value the community. We seek a balance between the two, but ultimately they come in conflict with one another, the One vs. the All.  And we value freedom, but we also value equality. Both seem fundamental, but freedom includes the freedom to excel, to dominate, to gain an advantage, enforce and reinforce inequity, while any effort to be truly egalitarian requires restrictions on those freedoms. Moreover, we believe in capitalism, free enterprise as it were, but also in democracy, the American way, politically-speaking, and we assume the two can co-exist without discord. But capitalism is inherently undemocratic, favoring oligarchies and the absence of government regulation and oversight, whereas the exercise of democracy extends to policies that affect and constrain economic and financial activities, and the organization and conduct of business.

In the past, Americans have slightly favored the individual, freedom, and capitalism, all of which are aligned with one another, over the community, equality, and democracy, although the emphasis has shifted somewhat depending on circumstances (for example, during wartime, we become increasingly more likely to rally around the values of community and equality, and belief in democracy). To put it into Arendt's more succinct terms, we try to find a balance between the One and the All, but to the extent that the two are in conflict, we lean a bit towards the One.

In favoring the One, we tolerate the One against All, the result being that we are scarred by gun violence to a degree vastly out of proportion with other western societies. For gun advocates, gun ownership is an individual right and an essential freedom that must not be abridged. Never mind the fact that "the right to bear arms" is rarely found on any listing of basic human rights, as opposed to the right to live in safety and security, free from fear and threat, a right that gun ownership jeopardizes at least as much as it protects. And never mind the fact that our first amendment freedoms are subject to significant limitations and governed by legislation, and those freedoms are listed in a clear and unequivocal manner, in contrast to the second amendment's convoluted and confused diction ("A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed"). It is also interesting to note that gun advocates like LaPierre do not hesitate to try to shift the focus onto the first amendment, blaming violence in film, television programming, and videogames for incidents like the Newtown shooting. And what is often downplayed is that the gun lobby, in resisting all attempts at gun control, are defending the interests of the gun industry, the businesses that manufacture, distribute, and sell firearms. Of course, it is hard to play up the importance of free enterprise in the wake of the murder of elementary school children.

In their radical views on the second amendment, and their absolute embrace of individual freedom and capitalism against the interests of community, equality, and democracy, gun ideologues like LaPierre insist on the supremacy of One against All, and it is not surprising that the result is an extreme form of violence.  And, as I noted earlier, leaders representing the interests of the All against the One tend to speak, naturally enough, in the language of practical politics operating within a democratic form of government, the language of negotiation and compromise, but find themselves confronted on the other side with the abstract absolutes characteristic of the language of ideology. You might say, what we got here is a failure to communicate, in the words of Cool Hand Luke, although the two sides probably understand each other better than they let on.

The ideologues know that if they refuse to blink first, the compromisers will most likely give up and move on to more pressing matters. And the compromisers know that the ideologues refusal to negotiate gives them an excuse to turn away from a divisive issue that may cost them a measure of support in the next election, and deal with more pressing matters with a greater probability of reaching a successful conclusion. Only now, after Newtown, is there talk of having reached a tipping point in public opinion, one that may pressure the compromisers to insist upon a settlement, and may force the ideologues to accept the pragmatic need for negotiation. The likely outcome is that the ideologues will make some minor concessions, allowing for some small progress on gun control, a step in the right direction to be sure, but a far cry from the measures needed to curb the high incidence of gun violence in the United States.

Change will come, because the alternative is intolerable. To the extent that we live in increasingly denser populated areas, in urban sprawl rather than rural isolation, so that the consequences of violent action become increasingly more catastrophic, we require more civilized, more civil living conditions, the insurance against violence that can only come from the power of organized authority subject to political oversight, not private citizens responsible only to themselves. To live in a society of All against All is ultimately regressive, and can only make sense if the social system disintegrates, a remote possibility that cannot be balanced against the actuality of incident after incident of gun violence.

Change will come, but it may only come gradually, given our cultural bias towards the One against All, and it may only come generationally.  Over the past half century, Americans have become increasingly more risk aversive, as more information about potential risks to health and safety have been made available through the electronic media. However, as Henry Perkinson argues in No Safety in Numbers, it is the risks that we have no control over that we are particularly averse to. When the risk is perceived as a matter of individual choice, an expression of personal freedom, we are less averse to it than when it is understood to fall outside of our locus of control. Prohibition is often invoked as the archetype of failed measures to eliminate harmful behavior, and the word prohibition is often thrown into discussions on gun control and similar measures in order to summon up those negative connotations. Despite the potential risks to health and safety from alcoholic inebriation, over-consumption, and addiction, drinking was seen as an exercise of free will, and therefore acceptable. It was only with the campaign against drinking and driving that the locus of risk was shifted from the individual consuming intoxicating beverages to the innocent victims of drunk driving, accident victims who had no choice in the matter, whose freedom was in fact curtailed by the drinker. The same is true of tobacco.

Once medical research established that smoking causes emphysema, heart disease, and cancer, modest change in American smoking habits ensued. It was not until the findings about secondhand smoke were established that real cultural change took place, a truly extraordinary shift in attitudes and behavior about smoking. The key was that secondhand smoke exposed individuals to risks that they had no control over, risks that they were subjected to against their own volition.

While this form of risk-aversion is relatively recent, a more basic understanding that permeates American society is that individuals can exercise their freedoms as long as those freedoms do not jeopardize others. The early assertion of a right to own slaves could only persist insofar as individuals were willing to view the enslaved as somehow less than fully human; otherwise the freedom to enslave clearly cannot justify the denial of another individual's freedom. Similarly, free enterprise and free markets, the freedom of individuals to engage in any kind of business and labor practices they might chose to, eventually was understood to conflict with the rights of labor, of workers and employees, as well as the rights of consumers, so that the freedom of capitalism is subject to constraints imposed in the interests of the community and democracy.

In the face of the violence of One against All, what is needed is the power, in the positive sense of democratic political action, of All against One. The power of public opinion and a growing consensus will serve as a bulletproof vest to protect the body politic from assault by the weapons industry and gun ideologues. And the best place to begin is by talking about the dangers that uncontrolled access to firearms pose to citizens who do not choose to live with these instruments of violence, citizens whose freedoms and rights and very lives are put at risk without their consent, citizens who all are victims of secondhand gun smoke.

-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.
17Sep/122

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.
28May/120

We Create the Conditions that Condition Us

"The human condition comprehends more than the condition under which life has been given to man. Men are conditioned beings because everything they come in contact with turns immediately into a condition of their existence.  The world in which the vita activa spends itself consists of things produced by human activities; but the things that owe their existence exclusively to men nevertheless constantly condition their human makers."

-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 1958, p. 9

The human condition is the context or situation we, as human beings, find ourselves in, the implication being that human life cannot be fully understood by considering humanity in isolation from its environment.  We are, to a large degree, shaped by our environment, which is why Arendt refers to us as conditioned beings.

We are conditioned by phenomena external to us, and this may be considered learning in its broadest sense, that is, in the sense that the Skinnerian conditioned response is a learned reaction to external stimuli.  It follows that any form of life that is capable of modifying its behavior in response to external stimuli is, to some extent, a conditioned being.

On a grander scale, natural selection, as it is popularly understood, can be seen as a conditioning force.  Survival of the fittest is survival of those best able to adapt to existing external conditions, survival of those best able to meet the conditions of their environment.  The fittest are, quite naturally, those in the best condition, that is, the best condition to survive.  Whether we are considering the effects of natural selection upon an entire species, or individual members of a species, or what Richard Dawkins refers to as the selfish gene, the environment sets the conditions that various forms of life must meet to survive and reproduce.

Such views are inherently incorrect insofar as they posit an artificial separation between the conditions of life and the form of life that is conditioned.  An ecological or systems view would instead emphasize the interdependent and interactive relationships that exist, as all forms of life alter their conditions simply by their very presence, by their metabolism, for example, and through their reproduction.  Darwin understood this, I hasten to add, and the seeds of ecology can be found in his work, although they did not fully germinate until the turn of the 20th century.  And Skinner certainly was aware of the individual's capacity for self-stimulation, and self-modification, but a truly relational approach in psychology did not coalesce until Gregory Bateson introduced a cybernetic perspective during the 1950s.

In the passage quoted above, it is readily apparent that Arendt is an ecological thinker.  In saying that, "the things that owe their existence exclusively to men nevertheless constantly condition their human makers," she is saying that we create the conditions that in turn condition us.  We exist within a reciprocal relationship, a dialogue if you like, between the conditioned and the conditions, the internal and the external, the organism and its environment.  The changes that we introduce into our environment, that alter the environment, feedback into ourselves as we are influenced, affected, and shaped by our environment.

The contrast between using tools and techniques in the most basic way to adapt to the conditions of the environment, and the creation of an entirely new technological environment of great complexity that requires us to perform highly convoluted acts of adaptation was portrayed with brilliant sensitivity and humor in the 1980 South African film, directed by Jamie Uys, entitled The Gods Must Be Crazy.  A good part of the documentary style opening can be seen on this YouTube clip:

The story of the Coke bottle, although fictional, follows the pattern of many documented cases in which the introduction of new technologies to traditional societies has had disruptive, and often enough, disastrous effects (the film itself, I hasten to add, is marvelously comedic, and quite often slapstick following the introductory quarter hour.)

The understanding that we are conditioned by the conditions we ourselves introduce was not unknown in the ancient world.  The 115th Psalm of David, in its polemic against idolatry and the idols that are "the work of men's hands," cautions that "they who make them shall be like unto them; yea every one that trusts in them."  Along the same lines, the Gospel of Matthew includes the famous quote, "all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword," while the Epistle to the Galatians advises, "whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap." A more contemporary variation of that maxim is, "as you make your bed, so you shall lie on it," although in the United States it is often rendered in the imperative and punitive form of, "you made your bed, go lie in it!"  During the 19th century, Henry David Thoreau notified us that "we do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us," while Mark Twain humorously observed that, "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."  More recently, we have been told, "ask a silly question, get a silly answer," to which computer scientists have responded with the acronym GIGO, which stands for, "garbage in, garbage out."  Winston Churchill said, "we shape our buildings, and thereafter they shape us," and former Fordham professor John Culkin, in turn, offered, "we shape our tools, and thereafter they shape us," as a corollary to Marhsall McLuhan's media ecology aphorism, "the medium is the message."

All of these voices, in their varying ways, are pointing to the same essential truth about the human condition that Arendt is relating in the quote that begins this post.  And to pick up where that quote leaves off, Arendt goes on to argue,

In addition to the conditions under which life is given to man on earth, and partly out of them, men constantly create their own, self-made conditions, which, their human origin and their variability not withstanding, possess the same conditioning power as natural things.

The "conditions" that we make are used to create a buffer or shield against the conditions that we inherit, so that our self-made conditions are meant to stand between us and what we would consider to be the natural environment.  In this sense, our self-made conditions mediate between ourselves and the pre-existing conditions that we operate under, which is to say that our conditions are media of human life.  And in mediating, in going between our prior conditions and ourselves, the new conditions that we create become our new environment.  And as we become conditioned to our new conditions, they fade from view, being routinized they melt into the background and become essentially invisible to us.

Let us return now for the conclusion of the passage from The Human Condition:

Whatever touches or enters into a sustained relationship with human life immediately assumes the character of a condition of human existence.  This is why men, no matter what they do, are always conditioned beings.  Whatever enters the world of its own accord or is drawn into it by human effort becomes part of the human condition.  The impact of the world's reality upon human existence is felt and received as a conditioning force.  The objectivity of the world—its object- or thing-character—and the human condition supplement each other; because human existence is conditioned existence, it would be impossible without things, and things would be a heap of unrelated articles, a non-world, if they were not the conditioners of human existence.

This last point is quite striking.  It is we, as human beings, who create worlds, which brings to mind the moving commentary from the Talmud:  "whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world."  We create worlds, in the sense that we give meaning to existence, we attribute meaning to phenomena, we construct symbolic as well as material environments.  Each one of us, in our singular subjectivity, creates a world of our own, and therefore each one of us represents a world unto ourselves.

But these individual worlds are links, nodes in a social network, interdependent and interactive parts of an ecological whole.  The term condition, in its root meaning is derived from the Latin prefix com, which means together, and dicere, which means to speak.  And our ability to speak together, to engage in discussion and deliberation, to enter into symbolic interaction, constitutes the means by which we collectively construct our intersubjective, social realities, our worlds.

As human beings, we are conditioned not only by our labor, the ways in which we obtain the necessities of life, i.e., air, water, food, shelter, to which Marx sought to reduce all aspects of society, a position that Arendt severely criticized.  We are conditioned not only by our work, which Arendt associated with artifacts, with instrumentality and technology, with arts and crafts.  We are conditioned most importantly by action, which in Arendt's view is intimately tied to speech and the symbolic, and to processes rather than things, to relations rather than objects.

In the end, Arendt reminds us that the human condition is itself conditional, and to be fully human requires not only that we take care of biological necessity, nor that we make life easier through technological innovation, but that we cooperate through speech and action in collectively constructing a world that is truly blessed with freedom and with justice.

-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.