Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Hannah Arendt, Social Constructs, and Seeing the World


Rukaya Al Zayani, a 27-year-old writer that focuses on Turkish politics, has shared several images with us of her personal Arendt library.

Here is what she had to say about her photographs:

Here is a picture of my Arendt current library. The reader is from a seminar class on Hannah Arendt from Bahcesehir Universite that was taught by a Turkish political theorist Prof. Gaye Ilhan Demiryol. It covers some of Arendt’s major works, including The Origins of Totalitarianism, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Between Past and Future, The Human Condition, and On Revolution.

Hannah Arendt has influenced my perspectives and how I see the world. I have been taking an Arendtian  approach when it comes to terror and ideology, revolutions, and totalitarianism. The political philosophy of Arendt has inspired me to pursue political theory which I’m still trying to achieve.

Al Zayani 1 world

Here is a picture of Arendt chilling with Simone de Beauvoir, Adorno, Marx, and Kafka. Illustrated by @hghareeb

Al Zayani 2 world

I have written a piece that is influenced by Hannah Arendt’s philosophy.

Social Constructs

Part I

What is a revolution without a new beginning?
What is antisemitism without self-segregation?
And, what is totalitarianism without terror and ideology?

Part II

What is feminism without patriarchy?
What is white supremacy without colonization?
What is Marxism without Capitalism?
What are borders without governments?
What is Social Darwinism without humanity? And, what is existence without absurdity?

A picture of my cat Mika hanging out with Arendt.

Al Zayani 3 world

Want to share pictures of your own Arendt library?

Please send them to David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at dbisson@bard.edu, and we will feature them on our blog!

For more Library photos, please click here.

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

Studying the History of Political Theory with Hannah Arendt

political theory

By Samantha Rose Hill

“The true author, in other words, does not augment some spiritual or bookish world, but the real world, because he responds to it. In other words, a true author never stands only in the history of ideas, he is part and parcel of History.”

-- Hannah Arendt, Lecture Notes for History of Political Theory, Library of Congress Archive, box 39.

Hannah Arendt’s syllabi and lecture notes shed light on her teaching style and methodology as a political thinker. Arendt is an original thinker, full of contradictions and provocations, and it is easy to become frustrated with the seemingly absent red-thread from her work. There is an impulse to try and chart the course of her thought, draw lines between spheres, craft constellations, but there is an irony in this attempt to know her work. This attempt at knowing, possessing and naming moves against the spirit of understanding. Arendt doesn’t fit into a pre-formed category; she deploys a methodology in her work that resists the routine utilization of primary and secondary sources. Instead, she treats each author as an interlocutor and augmenter, drawing them into conversation. And because of this, she is able to think anew.

Samantha Hill
Samantha Rose Hill is the Hannah Arendt Center Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Bard College. She earned her doctorate from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and spent the last year at the Institut für Philosophie at the Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt am Main researching Theodor Adorno’s aesthetic theory and translating and editing a volume of Hannah Arendt’s poetry. Samantha’s research and teaching interests include the Frankfurt School, critical theory, and democratic theory.
Amor Mundi

Amor Mundi 10/25/15


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

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

amor_mundi_sign-upIndividual Stories Amidst the Waves

majidAnemona Hartocollis spent weeks traveling with the Majid family as they fled Syria, made their way through nine countries, and eventually found asylum in Sweden. As she writes, "The sheer number of people trudging alongside them has often led to impersonal descriptions: a wave, a mass, a crisis. But up close they were very much individuals living through an unsettling and sometimes terrifying journey." The long account of the Majid clan's travails is gripping and should be read. "I start to piece together the family's story. Ahmad, 30, is a natural leader who charms strangers and gains their trust with his good looks, confidence, air of authority, easy laugh and affectionate way with children. His brother Farid, 35, burly, with darker hair and sunken eyes, is more street-smart and cynical, a behind-the-scenes presence whose counsel Ahmad has always sought before making a decision. Together they ran a small clothing factory in Aleppo, making and exporting jeans, shirts and sweaters to Iraq. The factory was looted by forces on both sides of the Syrian civil war, they say, and at the beginning of 2013 they were forced to close. They retreated to their ancestral home, a stone house where they had always spent part of the year, in the small farming village of Ereb Werane, in Afrin. It is less than two miles from the Turkish border and about an hour's drive north of Aleppo, before military checkpoints choked off the road. They are Sunni Kurds, from a prominent clan, the Rashwans, they tell us, and held an honorary title: 'aghawat,' a privileged landowning class. The Majids' relatively secular lifestyle made them a target of Islamic fundamentalists. The women wore pants and no veils. Ahmad fasted during Ramadan but drank beer at other times. The fundamentalists called them 'kuffar,' unbelievers. 'We are in the middle and everyone is against us--the Turks, ISIS, al-Nusra, the Free Syrian Army, even the Kurds are harassing us to fight and pay taxes,' Ahmad says of those days. Their sophisticated lives devolved into a world of forcible conscription into militias, domination by warlords and the threat of violence and kidnapping. The warlords imposed tributes, like taxes on olive oil (the family also owned olive trees and an olive press), wheat, anything valuable. 'They say they're fighting for us and protecting us, and we have to give them everything we have,' Ahmad recalls. 'They take young people and just brainwash them; give them weapons, tell them they want to give them a car. These are kids--14, 15 years old.'"

Against the Religion of TED

jonathan franzenIn the suddenly exciting T Magazine (see last week's link to an essay by Wyatt Mason on Steve McQueen), Rachel Kushner recounts the highlights of her visit with Jonathan Franzen. Franzen's new novel Purity is partly set in East Germany, which he labels "The Republic of Bad Taste." And it is this portrayal of East Germany as a world without privacy that Franzen sees as analogous to our emerging Internet society. "'Until the advent of the Internet,' Jon said, 'the G.D.R. was the most perfectly surveilled society in the history of the world.' Which presented a natural transition to Andreas, an East German in 'Purity' who becomes an Assange-like leaker, except that while Assange seems to focus mostly on the secrecy of governments, Andreas believes in exposure as some kind of generalized goodness, and what he leaks is kept somewhat vague. At a late point in the narrative, Andreas compares the Internet to the Stasi itself, although it seems he feels its encroachment because he has a damning personal secret to protect. Assange, I said to Jon, had also made this comparison of the Stasi and the Internet, and Jon said, 'Good for him.' But for Assange, I said, I believe it's about Google's relation to the N.S.A. While for Jon, and Andreas, the nature of the Internet itself is totalitarian in its sheer ubiquity. 'I think the dream of radical transparency is a nightmare,' Jon said. 'People saying how wonderful technology is and that crime will disappear because everything will be known about everyone.' I pictured ISIS beheadings, which are certainly related to a skillful use of social media, or that's what everyone says, and I asked, but do people really talk that way? And he said, 'Yes, just go to TED talks,' and I said I'd never watched a TED talk. The mere name, I thought, sounds so idiotic. A TED talk."

The Variants of Home and Homelessness

Siegfried ZielinskiAlena Sokhan interviews Siegfried Zielinski in Berlin Art Link. Zielinski explains his idea of "variantology." "So I tried to develop for myself some small alternatives. At the beginning of the 90's, I began using the term anarchaeology, and of course everybody was irritated but I liked this irritation. Anarchaeology implies that the things that we are investigating in the past are much freer and much looser, and much less linear than we think. So we have to let them go and see how they develop. People immediately associate the term with political anarchism, and after a while I realized I wanted a more constructive concept. I returned to the starting point of my research, and realized that what I wanted to do was to challenge technology through poetic thinking and acting. Technology has a tendency towards standardization and universalization, so in confrontation with technology, I want to create different alternatives. I wanted to invite variance into my research, to assemble a variety of ideas and concepts. That is where the strange term 'variantology' emerged--it is a variant to the universal standard.'" An example may be in order, and here is how Zielinski understands the Arendtian idea of modern homelessness and rootlessness. "I think home is very subjective. I learned from Vilém Flusser that home is very problematic and to lose your home can also be a form of liberation. By losing your home you can start anew, and you have a different kind of world experience. Home is not defined by origins or territory anymore, it can be a good book, a dialogue, a familiar activity, a collaborative project. This sounds very poetic, but that's where new ideas come from. We have to develop new concepts, and it might help with this idiotic political situation which we are in at the moment. We are still thinking with the old concepts of home, Heimat, borders, and so on, and there are few attempts to think beyond that. We cannot demand this of politicians because it's not their responsibility to think in this way. We as intellectuals, artists and other people, who are able to listen to their free will, have to develop new ideas."

amor_mundi_sign-upIn the End...

george bellN.R. Kleinfield, in an article about what happens when you have no community and therefore too much privacy, tells the story of George Bell, a senior in New York City who died alone: "Each year around 50,000 people die in New York, and each year the mortality rate seems to graze a new low, with people living healthier and longer. A great majority of the deceased have relatives and friends who soon learn of their passing and tearfully assemble at their funeral. A reverent death notice appears. Sympathy cards accumulate. When the celebrated die or there is some heart-rending killing of the innocent, the entire city might weep. A much tinier number die alone in unwatched struggles. No one collects their bodies. No one mourns the conclusion of a life. They are just a name added to the death tables. In the year 2014, George Bell, age 72, was among those names. George Bell--a simple name, two syllables, the minimum. There were no obvious answers as to who he was or what shape his life had taken. What worries weighed on him. Whom he loved and who loved him. Like most New Yorkers, he lived in the corners, under the pale light of obscurity. Yet death even in such forlorn form can cause a surprising amount of activity, setting off an elaborate, lurching process that involves a hodgepodge of interlocking characters whose livelihoods flow in part or in whole from death. With George Bell, the ripples from the process would spill improbably and seemingly by happenstance from the shadows of Queens to upstate New York and Virginia and Florida. Dozens of people who never knew him, all cogs in the city's complicated machinery of mortality, would find themselves settling the affairs of an ordinary man who left this world without anyone in particular noticing. In discovering a death, you find a life story and perhaps meaning. Could anything in the map of George Bell's existence have explained his lonely end? Possibly not. But it was true that George Bell died carrying some secrets. Secrets about how he lived and secrets about who mattered most to him. Those secrets would bring sorrow. At the same time, they would deliver rewards. Death does that. It closes doors but also opens them."

Whose Books?

Google BooksDan Cohen, with the recent court decision declaring Google Books to be legal as is, looks into his crystal ball to divine the future of the copyright doctrine of fair use: "Works from before 1923 are in the public domain, and recent volumes are clearly under copyright. But a large percentage of books between the distant and recent past are in a grey territory where their status is foggy. Their copyright may not have been renewed, and their publishers and authors are long gone. With imperfect records we can't be sure what we can do with these millions of books. Fortunately, in the U.S., we can also appeal to fair use, an important principle that makes the American system of copyright different from most other countries. As the length of copyright terms has been repeatedly extended, fair use acts as a counterbalance, providing exceptions for using copyrighted materials in ways that benefit society without destroying the market for books. Authors also benefit from fair use, by being able to quote, parody, and build upon copyrighted works. However, like the status of so many books on our libraries' shelves, the nature of fair use has often been unclear. Judges are asked to balance four fairly abstract factors in deciding whether a use is fair, including how creative works are being repurposed and to what extent, and how the market for the original might be impacted...But critically, and with greater and lasting impact, the case also helped to clarify fair use in general. Authors Guild v. Google stands to make fair use much more muscular. Because many institutions want to avoid legal and financial risk, many possible uses that the courts would find fair--including a number of non-commercial, educational uses--are simply never attempted. A clearer fair-use principle, with stronger support from the courts, will make libraries and similar organizations more confident about pursuing forms of broader digital access."

No Place

city of truthWith the 500th birthday of Thomas More's Utopia in sight, Terry Eagleton considers what it means to dream of a perfect world: "To portray the future in the language of the present may well be to betray it. A truly radical change would defeat the categories we currently have to hand. If we can speak of the future at all, it follows that we are still tied to some extent to the present. This is one reason why Marx, who began his career in contention with the middle-class utopianists, steadfastly refused to engage in future-talk. The most a revolutionary could do was to describe the conditions under which a different sort of future might be possible. To stipulate exactly what it might look like was to try to programme freedom. If Marx was a prophet, it was not because he sought to foresee the future. Prophets--Old Testament ones, at least--aren't clairvoyants. Rather than gaze into the future, they warn you that unless you feed the hungry and welcome the immigrant, there isn't going to be one. Or if there is, it will be deeply unpleasant. The real soothsayers are those hired by the big corporations to peer into the entrails of the system and assure their masters that their profits are safe for another 30 years. We live in a world that seeks to extend its sovereignty even over what doesn't yet exist. Radicals thus find themselves under fire from opposite directions. If they refuse to debate what kind of cultural policies might flourish under socialism, for example, they are being shifty; if they hand you a thick bunch of documents on the question, they are guilty of blue-printing. Perhaps it is impossible to draw a line between being too agnostic about the future and being too assured about it. The Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin reminds us that the ancient Jews were forbidden to make icons of what was to come, rather as they were forbidden to fashion graven images of Yahweh. The two prohibitions are closely related, since for the Hebrew scriptures, Yahweh is the God of the future, whose kingdom of justice and friendship is still to come. Besides, the only image of God for Judaism is human flesh and blood. For Benjamin, seeking to portray the future is a kind of fetishism. Instead, we are driven backwards into this unexplored territory with our eyes fixed steadily on the injustice and exploitation of the past. Knowing exactly where we are going is the surest way of not getting there. In any case, the energies we invest in envisaging a better world might consume the energies we need to create it. Marx had no interest in human perfection. There is nothing in his work to suggest that post-capitalist societies would be magically free of predators, psychopaths, free-loaders, Piers Morgan-types or people who stow their luggage on aircraft with surreal slowness, indifferent to the fact that there are 50 people queuing behind them. The idea that history is moving ever onwards and upwards is an invention of the middle-class Enlightenment, not of the left."

The Presence of Sheldon Wolin

the presence of the pastMost books I start I never finish. Even when I do make it to the end, books are rarely memorable. There are some I don't even recall having read (my notes in the margins the only proof of my impoverished power of recall). Many, the majority, leave a vague sense of having been scanned, maybe a few fleeting impressions. There are some books, however, that one owns, reads, re-reads, copies down sentences from, and teaches; these books enter into your pores and your conscious and unconscious thoughts. And then, finally, there are those books that mark transformations in your being. For whatever reason, these books become more than books or arguments. They mark the forward--or is it the circular--movement of our intellectual wanderings and doings, cairns that demarcate the path of our spiritual biography. One such book in my own experience is The Presence of the Past, a short collection of essays by Sheldon Wolin. Wolin died this week. I never met him. But I owe him a great deal. I recall the experience of reading The Presence of the Past as if it were yesterday. I had just graduated from college; I had not yet applied to graduate school. I was on the large L-shaped white couch in my parental vacation house. My family was vacationing. I was being lifted and challenged, torn and reconstituted, and inspired and transformed. Amidst the crises and scandals of the late 1980s, Wolin articulated two basic ideas that have become central to my worldview, ideas that he helped articulate within the depths of my consciousness. First, at the foundation of American collective identity is an idea and an experience of constitutional power. Building on his reading of Alexander Hamilton, Wolin argues that the essence of American constitutionalism and of the American community is a constitutional "way of organizing and generating power for the pursuit of great national objectives." I had not yet in 1990 read enough of Hannah Arendt's work to see the Arendtian foundations of Wolin's insights. Wolin, who read Arendt well, never cites her in this book. But Wolin here alerted me to the importance of Arendt's own vision of the centrality of a new and distinctly American experience of constitutional power, power not as limitation but as the potentiality of organizing public life for grand and immortal projections of public life. Second, Wolin argues that in and around the 1980s America experienced a crisis of constitutional power. The root of the crisis is the diminution of constitutional power that is threatened on two sides. Constitutional institutions of power were simultaneously losing power to privatization of power on the one side and the emergence of an unelected bureaucratic megastate on the other. Both corporate and bureaucratic power threaten not power but politics, the political and constitutional institutions of power that Wolin saw to be the promise of the American experiment in self government. Wolin's book is about the presence of past ideas, the way memory of grand and meaningful ideas can inspire us when confronted with existential threats. Sheldon Wolin may be gone, but he is still present. [Here is another remembrance by Corey Robin.]--RB

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

albert knollAlbert Knoll, of the Dachau Archives, Will Be Honored as Archivist of the Year

The special event will take place in Manhattan on Oct. 26, 2015, 6.30pm, at the Bard Graduate Center at 38. West 86th Street, New York, NY, in conjunction with The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College. The Introductory Presentation will be by Professor Nikolaus Wachsmann, author of the acclaimed, new book, KL: A History of the Concentration Camps.

Honoree Albert Knoll, b. 1958, has served the mission of the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Museum since 1997. In addition to maintaining and expanding its archival work and databases, he has been instrumental in assisting relatives of former inmates as well as guiding researchers, scholars and authors around the world - including Awards Event speaker Nickolaus Wachsmann. Knoll has written articles on illegal photos, homosexual prisoners, contemporary Nazi press coverage of Dachau, etc, and contributed to the International Tracing Service's first scholarly yearbook. He has also organized international workshops on the gathering of data on all categories of National Socialist victims.

Invitation Only. RSVP Required. Please contact sconefoundation@yahoo.com.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Bard College Graduate Center, 38 West 86th Street, New York, NY, 6:30 pm

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #14HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.

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

Friday, November 6, 2015

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



From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Anabella Di Pego discusses how the reception of Arendt's writings in Argentina is associated originally with the thinking of political scientist Norbert Lechner in the Quote of the Week. French mathematician Jules Henri Poincare comments on the reality of unquestioningly doubting or believing everything in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we appreciate the annotations Hannah Arendt made to her copy of Leonardo Olschki's The Genius of Italy in this week's Library feature.
The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
Quote of the Week

Norbert Lechner and the Uses of Arendt in Argentina

democracy velvet revolution argentina

By Anabella Di Pego

“Terminologically speaking, the effort to recapture the lost spirit of revolution must, to a certain extent, consist in the attempt at thinking together and combining meaningfully what our present vocabulary presents to us in terms of opposition and contradiction. […] The political spirit of modernity was born when men were no longer satisfied that empires would rise and fall in sempiternal change; it is as though men wished to establish a world which could be trusted to last forever, precisely because they knew how novel everything was that their age attempted to do”.

-- Hannah Arendt, On Revolution

The applications of Arendt's writings in Argentina, now diverse since the fall of the Berlin Wall, date back to the years of democratic transition in the 1980s. It is no coincidence that Arendt’s reading in our region is associated originally with the transition rooted in “revolution” to the political vision of "democracy," as evident in the thinking of political scientist Norbert Lechner (1939-2004). Though he began living in Chile in the early 1970s, Lechner was born in Germany, and he maintained a continuous critical dialogue with classical German thought (from Kant to Marx) as well as with contemporary German thought (Luxemburg, Lukács, Bloch, Adorno, Arendt, Luhmann, and Habermas among others).

Anabella Di Pego
Anabella Di Pego received her Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of La Plata (Argentina) in 2013 and she has previously been a doctoral fellow of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) at the Freie Universität Berlin. At present, she is a researcher at the National Council of Scientific and Technological Research (Conicet). Her current research focuses on twentieth century philosophy, especially on Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin. Her book, "The Modernity in Question. Totalitarianism and Mass Society in Hannah Arendt," was just recently released.
Quote of the Week

We Never Left: When Nixon Went to China, or when Xi Came to America

barack obama xi jinping visit

By Ian Storey

“For while we only know, but do not yet understand, what it is we are fighting against, we know and understand even less what we are fighting for.”

-- Hannah Arendt, “The Difficulties of Understanding”

Professor Andy Murphy of Rutgers University a few years ago handed me a rightful chastening in his review of my paper that I have not forgotten, and his lesson might be summed up as follows: there are few words more dangerous than “we”. Bearing that lesson in mind, this is in no way meant to represent the “Arendtian” response to Professor Baehr’s erudite condemnation of the political practices of the Xi regime in China. Arendtians are, as I think she would be proud of, a fractious bunch, so these are merely some thoughts gleaned from some conversations with some like- and unlike-minded that attempt to remedy what Baehr sees as a public silence, if only by way of suggesting that silence has not been so silent after all.

Ian Storey
Ian Storey (B.A., Dartmouth College; Ph.D., University of Chicago) is a political theorist who teaches at Harvard University and is an associate fellow of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College. Some of his research interests include the political and artistic history of interwar Europe, democratic theory, and concepts of social embeddedness.
Amor Mundi

Amor Mundi 7/5/15


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

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

amor_mundi_sign-upOur Struggles

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


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

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

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

amor_mundi_sign-upAin't No Cure for the Wintertime Blues

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

Poet's Form

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

A Final Farewell

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

Regarding Susan Sontag

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

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #10

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

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

Friday, July 10, 2015

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



why privacy mattersSAVE THE DATE - 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

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

Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015

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

From the Arendt Center Blog

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

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

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

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

A Student’s Personal Arendt Library


Julia Frakes, a student of political science and peace & justice studies, recently sent us this image of her personal Arendt library.

julia frakes HA

Here is what she has to say about the image:

I posted this photo on Instagram a few months ago, knee-deep in research and awestricken with how much our contemporary scholarship owes to Arendtian moral and action theories articulated in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Judith Butler’s conceptualization of terrorism and the movements that sweep up youthful sympathies owes much to Arendt’s most striking and novel insight—that there is an intrinsic link between our ability (or inability) to think and evil itself—especially as our society contends with pressing questions about civil rights, the normative value of capitalism, state-sponsored violence, crimes against humanity, the spectacle of the 27/7 media cycle, global revolutions, violent swings toward nationalism, an eerie “unthaw” of the Cold War, exercises of totalitarian power structures and surveillance, and racial and ethnic crises in inner-cities and the Middle East which challenge easy and en vogue applications of Arendt’s totalitarianism thesis and demand that we veer from disastrous impassivity. To properly honor Hannah Arendt’s genius and wisdom, we must honestly tackle the ties between (not) thinking and evil (Villa 2000: 279).

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.
Quote of the Week

Arendt and Transformation


By Thomas Wild

“Let us assume I had an extraordinarily good memory, I would never have written anything down.”

– Hannah Arendt, 1964

“Let us assume I had an extraordinarily good memory, I would never have written anything down,” Hannah Arendt once said in an interview. We are lucky that Arendt actually did not have that kind of memory. Had she never written anything down, all her thoughts, in the moment she died, would have vanished from the world as though they had never existed.

Thomas Wild
Thomas Wild is an Assistant Professor of German Studies and a Hannah Arendt Center Research Associate at Bard College. He's published and edited several books on Hannah Arendt. His further research interests include contemporary German literature, film, poetics, and multilingualism. He is co-editor-in-chief preparing the first critical edition of Hannah Arendt's Complete Writings in English and German.
Quote of the Week

To Transform the Human Species


By Jeffrey Champlin

In Chapter 13 of The Origins of Totalitarianism, “Ideology and Terror: A Novel Form of Government,” Arendt connects the universal claim of totalitarianism to its project of completely transforming humanity:

The law of Nature or the law of History, if properly executed, is expected to produce mankind as its end product; and this expectation lies behind the claim to global rule of all totalitarian governments. Totalitarian policy claims to transform the human species into an active unfailing carrier of a law to which human beings otherwise would only passively and reluctantly be subjected (Origins, 462).

Arendt’s interchangeable reference to “the law of Nature or the law of History” indicates one of the most controversial claims of her study: that the racist Nazi government and Soviet communist government both followed a deeper underlying idea. To some liberals of the day, the “or” marked an outrageous equivalence since they held the Soviet Union to be qualitatively different due to its stated goals of equality. For Arendt though, the parallel works because both governments have the same understanding of the law. Arendt argues that traditionally the law functions as an imperfect mediator between a higher, stable source of authority and the changeable nature of human beings. For Nazi and Soviet governments, however, the law itself takes on a transcendent and unquestionable status. Law no longer represents authority but announces it immediately.

Jeffrey Champlin
Jeffrey Champlin is Fellow, Center for Civic Engagement and Human Rights at Bard and Program Head of Literature and Society, Bard College at Al-Quds University. He received his Ph D from New York University and has taught at NYU and Middlebury College. His work focuses on strategies and ruptures of representation in political theory, literature, and aesthetics.
Quote of the Week

Google Books and the Problem of Tradition


“Kierkegaard, Marx, and Nietzsche are for us like guideposts to a past which has lost its significance.”

--Hannah Arendt, “Tradition and the Modern Age”

The general outlines of the Google Books project are simple in principle and stunning in size. Collaborating with major libraries around the globe, Google has undertaken to scan all known existing books and to make them accessible to the electronically connected public. Started a decade ago in 2004, Google has already digitized roughly a quarter of the estimated 130 million books available worldwide. The completion of the collection is scheduled for 2020.

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.
Quote of the Week

Violence, Hypocrisy, and Scientific-Administrative “Laws”


“Moreover, if we inquire historically into the causes likely to transform engagés into enragés, it is not injustice that ranks first, but hypocrisy. … To tear the mask of hypocrisy from the face of the enemy, to unmask him and the devious machinations and manipulations that permit him to rule without using violent means, that is, to provoke action even at the risk of annihilation so that the truth may come out—these are still among the strongest motives in today’s violence on the campuses and in the streets.  And this violence again is not irrational.  Since men live in a world of appearances and, in their dealing with it, depend on manifestation, hypocrisy’s conceits—as distinguished from expedient ruses, followed by disclosure in due time—cannot be met by so-called reasonable behavior.  Words can be relied on only if one is sure that their function is to reveal and not to conceal.  It is the semblance of rationality, much more than the interests behind it, that provokes rage.”

--On Violence (65-66)

In On Violence (1970), Arendt argues for political action and power as opposed to violence.  According to her conception, power is political, and it is an end in itself.  It is brought into being through the political and public “acting in concert” of a plurality of human beings.  Violence, on the other hand, is instrumental in two senses of the word:  it can only be carried out through the use of external instruments, and it is a means that cannot supply its own end.   Rule by violence becomes a possibility wherever real power is being lost, and while violence may destroy power, it can never produce it.  Violence relies on goals external to itself for its justification, yet it is also a means that can devour its own ends.

More particularly, and to place the passage in the proper late-1960s context, she is interested, on the one hand, in the extreme potential for violence produced through twentieth century technological developments and, on the other, the question of violence perpetrated by and against oppositional student groups in the western world.  The two are, of course, related in complex ways.  Arendt is worried about the unleashing of a vicious cycle of violence, in which students actively seek to provoke the police with the express purpose of bringing an underlying “fascism” or naked state violence to the fore.  Similarly, she writes, in the 1930s, fascism’s opponents had at times even celebrated its victory because it would reveal the internal contradictions of a “civilized society” that held violence and repression at its core.  “We saw how that turned out,” is the implied conclusion.

What is at the root of this cycle of violence?  From the outset, Arendt rejects biological explanations based on some innate human aggressiveness emerging from our animal selves.  According to the bio-psychological line of analysis, human impulses towards violence can be so dangerous because they have been blocked and severed from their original “natural” purpose of species preservation.  They have become redirected in a way that makes them irrational.  Arendt rejects this characterization and instead seeks to identify the rationale behind violence.  She finds it partially by examining rage against injustice, which arises “only where there is reason to suspect that conditions could be changed and are not…” (63).  She goes so far as to recognize that “… under certain circumstances violence—acting without argument or speech and without counting the consequences—is the only way to set the scales of justice right again.” (64)

That rage and violence against injustice can be rational, though, in no way makes them political.  Indeed, they are “without argument or speech,” and she explicitly characterizes them as “antipolitical.”  What Arendt describes, then, is an unpolitical cycle of violence, which forms a synthetic dialectic.  She additionally reveals that, despite themselves, the two parties to the dialectic are, by essence, largely the same.  The students rebel against the Establishment and the System, but they fail to recognize what these have become or their own role in their operation.  They romantically cling to the Marxist notion of a bourgeois-proletarian dialectic of class conflict when 1) the embourgeoisement of the post-war working class had stymied its revolutionary potential, and 2) this was in no small part due to scientific advances that made the intellectuals and the scientists the new mandarins, over and above the class warriors of the bourgeoisie.  And who are the future intellectuals and scientists if not the students, themselves?  The students are raging against the machine of technical conquest that produced the bomb and napalm, but they are simultaneously reproducing the machine, through their very being.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Violence emerges when political power is lost, and political power dissipates when there is no space for human action in which power can be renewed.  Arendt writes:

I am inclined to think that much of the present glorification of violence is caused by severe frustration of the faculty of action in the modern world.  It is simply true that riots in the ghettos and rebellions on the campuses make ‘people feel like they are acting together in a way that they rarely can.’ (83)

Violence is, then, a false politics that serves to placate the frustrated political actor.  It becomes an outlet for a political impulse that has been blocked, according to Arendt, especially by our belief in modern progress.  Progress as “growth, the relentless process of more and more, of bigger and bigger” increases demand for administration.  Bureaucratization, in turn, increases the appeal of violence precisely because it is unpolitical:

In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one can argue, to whom one can present grievances, on whom the pressures of power can be exerted.  Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.  The crucial feature in the student rebellions around the world is that they are directed everywhere against the ruling bureaucracy.

Bureaucratization and the ideal of progress block politics because the idea of politics, the notion that human beings might initiate the radically new and unexpected in the world, is fundamentally alien to them.  They are, instead, built upon the idea that everything can be accounted for and made predictable through the universal dictates of objective science and technique.

Bureaucracy is also a key source of the very hypocrisy Arendt identifies above as a catalyst of rage and violence.  It presents itself as the impartial bearer of technical truths, but bureaucracy is instrumental just like violence, which means it relies on external, political ends to provide its operating justification.  Despite claims to neutrality, it must, by definition, serve political ends.   Though also like violence, it constantly threatens to overflow its own bounds, overwhelming the ends with meaningless means.


The current dialectic in Europe, between a sometimes-violent populist revival and a technocracy claiming only to implement neutral economic truths, illustrates anew the dynamic Arendt identified in 1969-1970.  The populist aims to reveal the hypocrisy of the technocrat by existing as the technocrat’s opposite, by declaring himself the true representative of the people’s good.  But in being his opposite, he reproduces the same problem in mirror image.  Both deny politics and attempt to substitute some form of absolute reason in its place.  Thus, we ‘deal with’ our freedom by simultaneously declaring absolute control—via either technique or rule by populist incarnation—and giving up control absolutely—to the self-contained system of scientific principles or the populist leader.  In Arendt’s examples, the enraged reaction against hypocrisy ends up producing the very violence against which it fights, most obviously when students force the government to react with open violence in order to prove that the violence had been there all along.  Similarly, contemporary populism produces the negation of politics while fighting against the same negation of politics in another form.  Technocracy completes and perpetuates the cycle as it explicitly aims to combat populism and discipline the popular will in favor of "impartial truths."

In this context, the popular explosion of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is interesting in (at least) two ways: 1) Piketty justifies and provides fuel for populist rage against inequality.  He demonstrates the magnitude of current gross disparities in wealth and shows them to be the result of policies that have been presented as the only sound technical reactions to contemporary economic truths.  2) He also dethrones the notion of the economic law.  He reveals the fallacies of the postwar technocrats who believed their economic situation had been the natural result of the unfolding of “natural” economic developmental laws.  Instead, we now know that their unprecedented situation, characterized by high levels of growth and employment along with historically low levels of inequality, came as a result of historical contingency mixed with deliberate and free political action.  Their mistake was to reify their circumstances and then try and understand this “given” and “natural” phenomenon via scientific theory.


Thomas Piketty

Arendt’s analysis of this very same time period, however, suggests that the human activity Piketty highlights was anything but “political action.”  To caricature and simplify, efforts directed towards material well-being cannot constitute politically free action, according to her, because they are determined by the objective circumstance of human need.  One could argue, though, that, in this, she may have fallen for the technocrats’ reification of political choices about material well-being into deterministic laws—even while she denounced their attempts to collapse human experience into behaviorist systems.  The question then becomes whether an Arendtian politics is possible that is nevertheless directed towards the maintenance of the living organism in some way.  In fact, both Arendt and Marx condemned inequality reduction as strictly unpolitical.  Despite extreme differences in their notions of politics, for both of them politics is about human freedom, not life or living.  It is a common misconception that Marx was arguing for the elimination of inequality.  In fact, he denounced all attempts to do so as weakly reformist.  The root of the problem was, rather, lack of freedom in a republican sense:  It does not matter how well or equally you are treated if you are nevertheless a slave.

The characterization of inequality concerns as “unpolitical” seems to go too far, though, if we consider the idea that people cannot act politically and freely if they lack basic security and trust in the world.  This is a point that Arendt makes in On Revolution, among other works, in which she writes that desperation can only produce violence and not politics.  (This point could also work towards providing an Arendtian explanation for populist violence à la Golden Dawn, etc.)  With this in mind, our fight against inequality could actually be understood as political action in the service of political action as an end in itself.

What Piketty has in common with Arendt is the condemnation of social “science” masquerading as natural science.  Arendt shows how this can be a hindrance to freedom, and she understands it as something that is also fundamentally unworkable.  The belief in its predictive power can only exist in denial of the unpredictable results of human action that will always undo the projected image of organized harmony.  Piketty is criticizing the economic establishment on these same grounds, which is why his crusade against inequality challenges Arendt’s sharp dividing line between politics and mere life.  While his data analysis shows that our world will tend towards more and more extreme inequality, Piketty emphasizes the fact that this tendency has been undone before, which implies that we can politically undo it again.  Insofar as they both believe in and endorse the possibility and power of political action, it seems reasonable to assume that Piketty would also endorse Arendt’s important claim that,

If we look on history in terms of a continuous chronological process, whose progress, moreover, is inevitable, violence in the shape of war and revolution may appear to constitute the only possible interruption.  If this were true, if only the practice of violence would make it possible to interrupt automatic processes in the realm of human affairs, the preachers of violence would have won an important point. … It is the function, however, of all action, as distinguished from mere behavior, to interrupt what otherwise would have proceeded automatically and therefore predictably. (30-31)

--Jennifer M. Hudson

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.

Why the Jews?


Anthony Grafton calls David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism “one of the saddest stories, and one of the most learned, I have ever read.” Grafton knows that Anti-Judaism “is certainly not the first effort to survey the long grim history of the charges that have been brought against the Jews by their long gray line of self-appointed prosecutors.” What makes this account of the long history of Jewish hatred so compelling is that Nirenberg asks the big question: Why the Jews?

[Nirenberg] wants to know why: why have so many cultures and so many intellectuals had so much to say about the Jews? More particularly, he wants to know why so many of them generated their descriptions and explanations of Jewishness not out of personal knowledge or scholarly research, but out of thin air—and from assumptions, some inherited and others newly minted, that the Jews could be wholly known even to those who knew no Jews.

The question recalls the famous joke told during the Holocaust, especially amongst Jews in concentration camps. Here is one formulation of the joke from Antisemitism, the first book in the trilogy that comprises Hannah Arendt’s magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism:  “An antisemite claimed that the Jews had caused the war; the reply was: Yes, the Jews and the bicyclists. Why the bicyclists? Asks the one? Why the Jews? asks the other.”


The point of the joke is clear: Anti-Judaism is as senseless and irrational as anti-bicyclists would be. “The theory that the Jews are always the scapegoat,” Arendt writes, “implies that the scapegoat might have been anyone else as well”—even bicyclists. The question, then, is why the Jews? Grafton gives a clue to Nirenberg’s subtle answer:

 Nirenberg’s answer—and to summarize it, as to summarize so much of this impassioned book, is to flatten it—is that ideas about the Jews can do, and have done, many different and important jobs. True, they are anything but stable: this is not a paper chase after some original idea of the Jew that crops up everywhere from early Christianity to early Nazism. Visions of the Jews change emphasis and content as the larger societies that entertain them change shape and texture. Ideas have multiple contexts, and Nirenberg shows dazzling skill and a daunting command of the sources as he observes the changes and draws connections between them and his authors’ larger worlds.

Nirenberg’s point is that anti-Judaism has nothing to do with Jews themselves. The negative ideas about Jews are held throughout history by a motley group of Christians, philosophers, tyrants, and martyrs. Shakespeare’s account of Shylock is only one of many examples in which an intellectual employs anti-Jewish stereotypes—the Jew as greedy moneylender—to make a wider social critique, this time of the dangers of capitalism. London is becoming a city of commerce. There are no Jews in London. Yet Shakespeare turns to Jews in order to find a way to criticize the emergent commercial culture.

The use of negative sentiments about Jews to bash capitalism was common, Nirenberg writes, and carries through history from Jerome to Marx. Marx couches his critique of capitalism through the lens of a critique of Jews. Shakespeare does the same with commercial society. Jews stand in for the oppressed in the world, so that oppressing Christians could be seen as making them Jewish. Jews at the same time were seen as powerful bankers and powerful agents of world domination, so that any group of conspirators from Bolsheviks in Russia to media moguls in Hollywood were tarred with the pungent scent of Judaism.

Jews have been characterized by non-Jews for their obstinacy—their refusal, for example, to recognize the known truth that the Messiah had come, which enabled them to become the villains of both early Christian and early Muslim narratives. They have been characterized by non-Jews for their viciousness—their desire to desecrate the sacrament and murder Christian children, which allowed them to be used both by rebels against royal authority, and by kings, in the Middle Ages, as each side could claim, when the wind blew from the right quarter, that Jews were polluting society through their materialism and greed. . . . Nirenberg’s parade of imagined and imaginary Jews—the most hideous procession since that of the flagellants in The Seventh Seal—stretches from the Arabian peninsula to London, and from the seventh century BCE to the twentieth CE. Working always from the original sources in their original languages, he observes the multiple ways in which imaginary Jews served the purposes of real writers and thinkers—everyone from Muhammad, founding a new religion, to Shakespeare, observing a new commercial society. God, here, is partly in the details: in the careful, tenderly observant way in which Nirenberg dissects everything from fierce political rhetoric to resonant Shakespearean drama. In works of the imagination, profound treatises, and acts of political radicalism, as he analyses them, imaginary Jews are wielded to powerful effect. He shows us the philosophes of the Enlightenment, those friends of humanity and enemies of tyrannical “infamy,” as they develop a viciously negative vision of Jewish sterility and error to attack Christianity at its origins or to characterize the authorities whom they defied.

The only reservation Grafton voices concerns the univocality of Nirenberg’s account. As exceptional as the account of anti-Jewish opinion is, Nirenberg largely ignores other perspectives and examples where real and imaginary Jews were accepted, embraced, and even praised.

As a social historian of conflict and an intellectual historian of the uncanny imagination, Nirenberg is unbeatable. But Jews and non-Jews lived other histories together as well. As Josephus recalled, when the thousands of diaspora Jews settled in the cities of the Roman world, across Asia Minor and Italy as well as Egypt, many of their pagan neighbors found their ways attractive. Pagans admired the Jews’ pursuit of a coherent code for living and their worship of a single, unseen god. Some became “god-fearers,” who accepted the Jewish god but did not hold full membership in the Jewish community. Some converted. Jews, meanwhile, pursued their own visions of high culture—whether these involved learning to write Greek tragedies about the Jewish past or rebuilding one’s foreskin to make possible appearances at the gymnasium.

Grafton largely stops there and minimizes his “very small complaints….Anti-Judaism is that rare thing, a great book, as much in its ability to provoke disagreement as in its power to shape future writing on the vast territory that its author has so brilliantly mapped.” But Grafton’s small complaints deserve a wider hearing, especially as concerns the leading question he and Nirenberg pose, “Why the Jews?”

The overarching argument of Anti-Judaism is one of eternal antisemitism: Anti-Judaism had nothing to do with the Jews themselves. It is an attitude that sees the Jews to be to blame and is concerned with imaginary Jews as opposed to real Jews. Anti-Judaism is powerful and impactful, but it has no rational connection to reality. Here is how Michael Walzer aptly sums up Nirenberg’s argument:

His argument is that a certain view of Judaism lies deep in the structure of Western civilization and has helped its intellectuals and polemicists explain Christian heresies, political tyrannies, medieval plagues, capitalist crises, and revolutionary movements. Anti-Judaism is and has long been one of the most powerful theoretical systems “for making sense of the world.” No doubt, Jews sometimes act out the roles that anti-Judaism assigns them—but so do the members of all the other national and religious groups, and in much greater numbers. The theory does not depend on the behavior of “real” Jews.

As Walzer notes in his own review of Anti-Judaism in the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books, Nirenberg includes an epilogue that takes on the most famous opponent of his view of eternal antisemitism, Hannah Arendt. As Arendt understands Nirenberg’s view, “Jew-hatred is a normal and natural reaction to which history gives only more or less opportunity. Outbursts need no special explanation because they are natural consequences of an eternal problem.” Since anti-Judaism is eternal and unending, it has been normalized. If thousand years, then Jew-killing is a normal, and even human, occupation and Jew-hatred is justified beyond the need of argument.”


The point is that Grafton’s minor complaint—that Nirenberg offers a magisterial account of Jew-hatred and ignores philo-semitism—is not so minor after all. By claiming that anti-Judaism is omnipresent and omnipotent—by focusing only on anti-Judaism and leaving aside those who embrace or praise Jews—Nirenberg risks normalizing antisemitism. Everyone traffics in Jew-hatred, even Jews. Such a move means, however, that we lose the ability to distinguish those who are antisemites from those who are not. Which is why Arendt argues that the eternal antisemitism thesis is one way to “escape the seriousness of antisemitism and the significance of the fact that the Jews were driven into the storm center of events.”

Walzer and Nirenberg condemn Arendt for seriously asking the question “Why the Jews?” She insists that there are reasons for antisemitism, reasons that the Nazis sought to exterminate the Jews and not the bicyclists. There are such reasons, and anti-Judaism is not simply mysterious and irrational accident. She does not think those are good reasons. She of course never says that the Jews are to blame or that the Jews were responsible for the holocaust as Nirenberg and Walzer wrongly argue. But she does insist we confront the fact that Jews have proven such convenient targets for anti-Judaism, that we seek to understand why it is that over and over it is the Jews who are targeted. There is not one simple answer to that question, Why the Jews? But Arendt asks it seriously and courageously and seeks to come up with a series of potential answers, none of which have to do with her claiming that the Jews are to blame.

If you have The Origins of Totalitarianism on your shelf, take it out and read Chapter One on “Antisemitism as an Outrage to Common Sense.” Then read Grafton and Walzer on Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism. It will be a sad but thrilling weekend.


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.

The Unproductive Labor of Politics: Arendt’s reading of Adam Smith


Richard Halpern, “Eclipse of Action: Hamlet and the Political Economy of Playing,” Shakespeare Quarterly, Volume 59, Number 4, Winter 2008, pp. 450-482

As he formulates an original response to the classic problem of Hamlet’s non-action, Halpern offers one of the few critical analyses of Arendt’s reading of Adam Smith in The Human Condition. He shows how Arendt draws on Smith’s concepts of productive and unproductive labor to articulate her key concepts of work and labor. Moreover, his close reading draws our attention to an intriguing paradox in the temporality of action that may indicate a corrective—albeit a difficult one—to the current demand for instant gratification that often leads to cynicism in the face of great political challenges.

Halpern reminds us that Aristotle separates action from labor; Smith replaces action with production; and Arendt seeks to restore action to a place of prominence in the political realm. Arendt explicitly says that “the distinction between productive and unproductive labor contains, albeit in a prejudicial manner, the more fundamental distinction between work and labor” (HC 87). She does not simply take over Smith’s idea, but wishes to transfer his distinction from his own economic system (the “prejudice” of his own thought) to her own thinking of labor and work.  Halpern’s analysis of Arendt’s move helps us start to think about her surprising appeal to 18th century economic theory. Moreover, it her discussion of Smith (and better known critique of Marx), I see her posing an even broader question: what does it mean to be productive and what are the appropriate spheres of different types of productivity?


Within the realm of production, Halpern looks at how Smith offers a further distinction in Book 2, Chapter 3 of The Wealth of Nations, under the heading “Of the Accumulation of Capital, or of Productive and Unproductive Labor”:

There is one sort of labor which adds to the value of the subject upon which it is bestowed: there is another which has no such effect. The former, as it produces a value, may be called productive; the latter, unproductive labour. Thus the labour of a manufacturer adds, generally, to the value of the materials which he works upon, that of his own maintenance, and of his master’s profit. The labor of a menial servant, on the contrary, adds to the value of nothing. (Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. Edwin Cannan (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1976), 351.)

Smith draws a distinction between labor that holds or builds value (say the manufacture of a chair), and labor that evaporates the moment the worker completes it (such as cleaning the house or washing clothes). Classical political economists of the 18th and 19th century engaged in wide ranging debates over what should “count” as value before capitalist countries agreed on the ratio of labour to output or per capita GDP as the standard; socialist countries, following the USSR, adopted an alternative “material product system” that prioritized the amount of goods. In a time of environmental change, this glimpse into the history of economic theory may offer a helpful reminder that society can decide to change the standard of economic success.

According to Halpern, Arendt draws from Smith not to rehabilitate an outmoded aspect of economic theory, but to draw inspiration for her creation of distinct conceptual spaces for labor, work, and action. Specifically, she aligns Smith’s “unproductive labor” with her circular conception of labor and “productive labor” with her linear conception of work. This does not mean that labor is unproductive but it does require a clarification of different types of productivity. I see it as useful to keep the discussion on productivity since these spheres of private life and cultural and industrial economy then offer a contrast to the political sphere where action can happen. Action is neither circular like labor, nor linear like work, but has its own peculiar directionality and temporality. Halpern’s analysis helpfully zeroes in on the perplexing relation between the ephemerality of labor and action and action’s desire for permanence:

The temporal paradox of the political is that while it aims at immortality, action and speech are, in themselves, evanescent: “Left to themselves, they lack not only the tangibility of other things, but are even less durable and more futile than what we produce for consumption” (HC 95). Like Smith’s unproductive labor, action disappears in the moment of its occurrence because it leaves no material trace behind. (Halpern, 457)

Politics demands an extraordinary effort. It asks that one expend energy indefinitely for an uncertain reward. Discussion and debate goes on and on, only occasionally clicking with spectacular agreement or deflationary compromise. Arendt’s analysis can help us perceive the difficulty of contemporary politics that attempts to fit into consumer culture that preserves, and thus remembers, nothing.

Arendt’s attention to the aspects of debate and negotiation that might be seen as unproductive (a dimension that in other parts of the Human Condition she relates to menial work, again often in relation to Smith) offers a corrective to a misguided understanding of politics that leads to frustration and despair.Even if we are not at the extreme level of the menial functioning of a New England town hall meeting debating the budget for potholes or an Occupy Wall Street discussion that requires unanimous consensus for closure, politics works in a different temporality. Rather than the fever pitched accusations of crisis that in the U.S. actually covers up rather than encourage political risk, a more humble sense of public debate as requiring something like the patience of the menial task may be a corrective.

Political action in Arendt’s sense differs from work in being freed from a fixed goal. She links this freedom, which for her is based on self-referentiality, to drama:

Arendt’s discomfort with the economic dimension of theater reveals itself when she criticizes Adam Smith for grouping actors, along with churchmen, lawyers, musicians, and others, as unproductive laborers and hence as lowly cousins of the menial servant (HC 207). Arendt would distinguish all of these activities from labor in that they “do not pursue an end . . . and leave no work behind . . . , but exhaust their full meaning in the performance itself ” (206). Smith’s inclusion of these autotelic activities under the category of labor is for Arendt a sign of the degradation that human activity had already undergone by the early days of the modern era. By contrast, “It was precisely these occupations—healing, flute-playing, play-acting—which furnished ancient thinking with examples for the highest and greatest activities of man” (207–21). What Arendt overlooks is that—already in the ancient world—healing, flute playing, and playacting became remunerated professions and differed in this respect from politics, which was not the work of a professional class of politicians. (Halpern 458)

Arendt agrees that actors on the stage perform fleeting scenes, but wishes to link this to “the highest and greatest activities of man,” ie. those of politics. Halpern argues that in fact, actors in ancient times already worked for wages and were thus not independent like citizens in their roles as politicians. Nonetheless, Arendt shows us that in the modern period we can learn something about acting in politics from acting in the arts. The key point for Halpern is that drama, etc. are “autotelic activities.” They do not even keep up the house like menial work; they have their own end and really evaporate in reaching this end. Political action works along an undecidable edge: even less productive than labor but at any moment potentially the most lasting. Against the odds, politics holds open the space in which something new can begin and thus renew the human world against the circular forces of nature.

One could reasonably argue that in his focus on the connection between labor and action, Halpern fails to adequately emphasize the importance of work. In a world of labor and the victory of animal laborans, there is no work to preserve action and no polis/world to give action memorialization. Indeed, we face the danger of the collapse of the world into the “waste economy” (HC 134) and the seductions to action disappear. However, Halpern does not say that play is action for Arendt but rather, as I understand his argument, that it there is an aspect of action that is like play. Action requires debate that may seem to be going nowhere, or just be undertaken for its own sake up to the moment that it takes a risk. When it dares to venture into the public realm, action clearly very different from play as a hobby.

Labor is both constant and fleeting. On the one hand, the demands of the body never end, nor do the cycles of nature. On the other hand, labor is also fleeting in that its mode of production only temporarily maintains life. Action is also fleeting from the perspective that the risk it takes often evaporates but has the utmost political constancy when one considers those actions that succeed in forming the power of a new beginning.


In the remainder of the article, Halpern moves from The Human Condition to Hamlet, arguing that Shakespeare replaces action on the classical model of tragedy with the ceaseless activity of Hamlet’s thoughts. This activity runs in circles like unproductive labor in Smith and labor in Arendt rather than the action of Aristotle’s aesthetic and Arendt’s political ideal. From an Arendtian point of view, the modernity of the drama reveals a challenge to politics, the challenge of a time out of joint that action has to face again and again.

-Jeffrey Champlin

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.