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.
Death today has been medicalized and marginalized. But this has not always been the case. To illustrate, Deborah Lutz has explored the way the Victorians approached death and has found a much different and worthy approach to the dying body. "What I came to realize was that the Victorians cared about the mortal body; its very mortality mattered profoundly to them. Today we try to deny the body's movement toward death, its inevitable decay. The Victorians, instead of fearing the process of dying and the corpse, felt reverence. These were stages in the life of a beloved body and should be treasured. Indeed, the image of the corpse was worthy of fixing with the art of the death mask, painting or photography. A snippet of hair was often turned into jewelry. What was beautiful--and tragic, but more lovely for all that--was the body's ephemerality, its being always on the way to disappearing. The Victorians recognized that death's presence was woven into the texture of life, giving that life one of its essential meanings. Religion, of course, played a role in this attitude. Evangelical revivals early in the 19th century reinvigorated the tradition of the good death, in which God called believers to him. Even the sinful might be saved in the end, and this salvation could be seen in the face of the dying and heard in their words. Dying was something to be watched--a triumph even.... What we have lost is not only a savoring of ephemerality, but also an appreciation of the way that time marks the body. We try too hard to keep the terminally ill alive because we can't admit to finality. This has begun to change with the rise of the hospice movement and the work of a handful of artists, like Ishiuchi Miyako and Sophie Calle, who are interested in documenting the dying of loved ones. Even so, the philosopher Walter Benjamin's lament in the 1930s about death still rings true. By avoiding the sight of the dying, he felt, one misses the moment when the meaning of a life is completed and illuminated in its ending. The denial of death then leads to the demise of the art of storytelling. He called his contemporaries 'dry dwellers of eternity' because they 'live in rooms that have never been touched by death.'"
Jeffrey E. Stern reports on a recent botched execution in Oklahoma and on the source of the problem, namely, the difficulty of finding the right drugs: "What many people don't realize, however, is that choosing the specific drugs and doses involves as much guesswork as expertise. In many cases, the person responsible for selecting the drugs has no medical training. Sometimes that person is a lawyer--a state attorney general or an attorney for the prison. These officials base their confidence that a certain drug will work largely on the fact that it has seemed to work in the past. So naturally, they prefer not to experiment with new drugs. In recent years, however, they have been forced to do so... The problems began at a pharmaceutical plant in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. The Food and Drug Administration discovered that some of the drugs made there were contaminated and in April 2010 sent the manufacturer, Hospira, a warning letter. Hospira stopped producing, among other drugs, a barbiturate called sodium thiopental. No other company was approved by the FDA to make sodium thiopental, which was the anesthetic of choice for almost all of the states that carried out executions." Stern doesn't editorialize. But the horrific facts of the case themselves seem to ask whether or not this punishment fits any crime.
Russell Jacoby is critical of the academic fashion for studies of objects, books on golf balls, paper clips, and doorknobs. This kind of microscopic approach can be done well--Jacoby offers the excellent example of the Sigfried Giedion's 1948 Mechanization Takes Command. But in the current iteration of object studies, Jacoby discerns an empty, consumerist, apolitical desire expression of exhaustion. "The tendencies here reflect new academic fashions that seem to move in two opposite directions--fields get larger and subject matter smaller. We have new fields of global studies or material culture--allied to object theory--which seem to cover everything; but they frequently serve as licenses to study very small things. The connections, in any case, between larger fields and microstudies are hardly addressed. A recent issue of the Journal of Material Culture, for instance, has an article on energy shortages in an African city ('Infrastructure turned suprastructure: Unpredictable materialities and visions of a Nigerian nation') and the incompatible standards of electrical plugs in Western Europe ('Plugging in: Power sockets, standards and the valencies of national habitus'). There is nothing wrong with this--except that after all the theoretical panting we are left gawking at unrelated items in the display case of history. For all the references to Lukacs, object study bespeaks reification, turning social relations into things. Perhaps an awkward French translation for reification, 'chosification'--'thingification' in English--captures something of Lukacs' concept. Historical material subject to potential change gets transmuted into things subject to passive viewing."
Andrea DenHoed applauds an undergraduate design class project which is aimed at alleviating the problem of homelessness in New York City: "Perhaps it's fanciful to be discussing beautiful design in the face of horror stories about the city's neglected, dilapidated shelters. Or perhaps the project of reconceptualizing what it means to house the homeless goes hand in hand with the project of finding sustainable approaches to homelessness. (In an area where the best practices seem wholly inadequate to the problem at hand, and where departures from orthodoxy--such as a Utah experiment that simply gave homeless people houses--can be notably fruitful, the idea of radical reconceptualization is particularly attractive.) But the ability to conceive of and implement beautiful design with scarce resources is a great test of skill and talent, and it's worth wondering whether top-tier designers would even be interested in these tight-budget contracts. ('My passion still goes to high-end residential spaces,' which allow for extensive customization, one student said.) But from the working designer's point of view, designing for a low-income demographic might offer another kind of freedom. Walz said that he's observed a growing discontent among interior designers with some of the changes that economic trends have wrought on their profession. 'Everybody has sort of had it with the sense of entitlement in certain parts of the population,' he said. 'But nobody wants to talk about it--you don't want to bite the hand that feeds you.'"
Corey Robin has a long essay on Hannah Arendt and the Eichmann controversy in the latest Nation. Robin's article has the virtue of length and breadth, allowing him to explore Arendt's critics and their errors but also to search for meaning in the recurring conflict. He asks, "What is it about this most Jewish of texts that makes it such a perennial source of rancor among Jews, and what does their rancor tell us about Jewish life in the shadow of the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel? What does the wrongness of Eichmann's readers reveal about the rightness of its arguments?" Robin takes on Arendt's critics on many levels, and in the end argues that Arendt's account of the Eichmann trial, was, as Arendt once wrote, "the groundwork for creating new political morals." Robin writes: "If evil comes in small steps, overcoming it, nearing goodness, also inheres in small steps. As Susan Neiman explains: 'Arendt was convinced that evil could be overcome only if we acknowledge that it overwhelms us in ways that are minute. Great temptations are easier to recognize and thus to resist, for resistance comes in heroic terms. Contemporary dangers begin with trivial and insidious steps.' Return the coat of collateral at night; take the eggs, not the bird; give a hunted Jew a truck. Jerusalem, then--not the Athens of the Greeks or the Königsberg of Kant--may be not only the site but also the spirit of Arendt's text. The intransigence of her ethic of everyday life, her insistence that every action matters, that we attend to the minutes of our practice--not the purity of our souls but the justness of our conduct and how it will affect things; if not now, when all is hopeless, then in the future, when all will be remembered--that kind of mindfulness is reminiscent, too, of the Hebraic ethos described by Arnold in Culture and Anarchy: 'this energy driving at practice' that 'would not let the Hebrew rest till, as is well known, he had at last got out of the law a network of prescriptions to enwrap his whole life, to govern every moment of it, every impulse, every action.' On December 21, 1962, two months before the first of her articles would appear in The New Yorker, Arendt gave her friend, the literary critic Alfred Kazin, a copy of the manuscript. The next day, he finished it. Overwhelmed by 'the stink of so much evil,' he went out for a walk. He 'walked and walked,' he writes in his journal, 'shivering to get the wintry pure air into my lungs.' Then he was hit by a realization: 'Hannah in her imperious yecke [a Yiddish term for German Jews] way is one of the just.' 'This is the lightning in her to which I always respond. She has the fundamental sense of value. She still believes in the right. Oddly enough, she still believes in the Ten Commandments.'"
Christy Wampole poses a simple question many of us ask regularly: Why are academic conferences so boring? "We are weary of academic conferences. We are humanists who recognize very little humanity in the conference format and content. We have sat patiently and politely through talks read line by line in a monotone voice by a speaker who doesn't look up once, wondering why we couldn't have read the paper ourselves in advance with a much greater level of absorption. We have tried to ignore the lack of a thesis or even one interesting sentence in a 20-minute talk. Our jaws have hung in disbelief as a speaker tries to squeeze a 30-minute talk into a 20-minute slot by reading too fast to be understood. We have been one of two attendees at a panel.... Academic conferences are a habit from the past, embraced by the administrativersity as a way to showcase knowledge and to increase productivity in the form of published conference proceedings. We have been complicit. Until now. We believe it is time to ask ourselves: What is the purpose of the conference?" It is an excellent question, and one that should spur experimentation. Hannah Arendt Center Conferences are one attempt to re-imagine the tired academic conference by bringing academics together with students, the engaged public, artists, business people, and public intellectuals to explore present concerns in politics through the humanities. If you haven't attended one of our events, join us at our next conference: Private Life: Why Does it Matter?
Reflecting on poverty and the unrest in Baltimore, Thomas B. Edsall offers a comparison with Muskogee, Oklahoma. "Today Muskogee, Okla., a city of 38,863, has nine drug treatment centers and a court specifically devoted to drug offenders. A search for 'methamphetamine arrest' on the website of the Muskogee Phoenix, the local newspaper, produces 316 hits. In 2013 just under two-thirds of the births in the city of Muskogee, 62.6 percent, were to unwed mothers, including 48.3 percent of the births to white mothers. The teenage birthrate in Oklahoma was 47.3 per 1,000; in Muskogee, it's 59.2, almost twice the national rate, which is 29.7. The Baltimore poverty rate is 23.8 percent, 8.4 points above the national rate, but below Muskogee's 27.7 percent. The median household income in Baltimore is $41,385, $11,661 below the $53,046 national level, but $7,712 above Muskogee's $33,664.... Why am I talking about Muskogee? Two reasons. The first is that the Baltimore riots have become a vehicle for conservatives to point to the city as an emblem of the failure of liberalism and the Democratic Party. The current state of affairs in Muskogee suggests that the left does not deserve exclusive credit for social disorder. The second reason is that worsening conditions in working-class white Republican communities indicate that the conservative moral agenda has not decisively won the battle for the hearts of America's youth.... If conservatives place responsibility on liberal Democrats, feminism and the abandonment of traditional family values for Baltimore's decay, what role did the 249 churches in and around Muskogee play in that city's troubles? The fact is that the poor and working classes of both races were not well equipped to adjust to changes in behavior driven by the sexual revolution and the second demographic transition--a collection of forces that are inexorably changing the family, marriage patterns and child rearing worldwide." On the left there is a conviction that racism lies behind the problems in Baltimore. On the right, they blame feminism, gay rights, and the loss of religious order. Edsall focuses on the similarities between the breakdown of society in both Baltimore and Muskogee, arguing that they reflect a more widespread demographic and moral collapse.
Jon Peterson remembers a moment just before the internet when fiction seemed like it might be intruding on truth, networks and hacking struck fear in the heart of the government, and the Secret Service thought it was protecting the public good by confiscating the manual to a tabletop role-playing game: "In hindsight, it's difficult to explain how esoteric computers appeared to the mainstream in the 1980s. The Internet existed--but even in 1990, few had any inkling of the prominence it would soon attain. It was just one of several communications networks, largely confined to university environments and overshadowed by closed monolithic information services like CompuServe. The web as such didn't exist either, and even functions like email and newsgroups depended on a patchwork of interconnected systems with limited standardization. The promise of an open, global network for commerce, entertainment, and personal communications remained in the realm of science fiction... But in 1990, the territory where these stories played out remained imaginary: the Internet lingered on the cusp of becoming habitable. Only a marginal community of hobbyists spent any significant fraction of their lives online, in various bulletin boards, newsgroups, and chat services where they communicated with like-minded explorers of the electronic frontier. Perhaps the closest you could get at that time to an experience of Gibson's future was in the role-playing games that tried to capture the flavor of that world, known by the genre label 'cyberpunk.'"
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Friday, June 5, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm
Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Privacy: Why Does It Matter?," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!
This week on the Blog, Hans Teerds reflects on how we understand architecture as a political concern and, by extension, understand Karl Jaspers' spatial approach to thinking in the Quote of the Week. We share a link to a broadcast by Deutschlandfunk Radio that provides some coverage of "Can We Have Some Privacy?," a conference we sponsored earlier this month. Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of Charles Lindbergh, reflects on writing, thinking, and life in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Bethany Zulick, a HAC student fellow, recounts artist Jeanne van Heeswijk's lecture for our spring 2015 "Courage to Be" dinner/speaker series. Finally, we appreciate two annotations Arendt made to her copy of "Black Reconstruction in America" in this week's Library feature.
On Tuesday, May 5th, we had the pleasure of talking with American choreographer and dancer Bill T. Jones and with members of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company following a rehearsal for their upcoming world premiere performance, "Analogy/Dora: Tramontane." We will be uploading a recording of our Q&A session with Jones and company to our Vimeo account in the next few weeks. Please stay tuned!
This past weekend I took the time to watch Eugene Jarecki’s new documentary film The House I Live In, which calls passionately and insistently for the U.S. to end its decades-long War on Drugs. Jarecki’s previous documentary work includes The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002) and Why We Fight (2006), and he is known for activist filmmaking that combines sharp social commentary with fluid storytelling. There is much to admire in Jarecki’s take on the effort to stamp out illicit drugs, and given the massive racial and class disparities that have emerged in prosecution and sentencing, he is right to cast the War as a litmus test of our national commitment to equitable democratic citizenship. But there is also something about the manner in which he makes his case, and the very sweep of his vision, that gives me momentary pause.
Let me touch on the film’s strong suits first. Above all else, Jarecki sheds powerful light on the intimate impacts of the drug trade and the law enforcement crackdown against it. He does so in no small part by giving a prominent role to Nannie Jeter, the African-American woman that Jarecki’s family employed as a housekeeper in his youth. (Nannie is Jeter’s given name, not a reference to her role in the family’s life.) Jarecki regards Jeter as a second mother, and he often played with her children as a boy. We learn, however, that their paths in the world diverged sharply from his own, and several of them eventually became entangled in drug use, drug-related HIV/AIDS, and incarceration. Jarecki unflinchingly relates how his family’s privilege had adverse if unintended consequences for Jeter’s, and while some viewers might fault him for inserting himself into the film, his approach ultimately lends moral heft to his pointed political argument. Jarecki maintains that we are all implicated in the circumstances that led to the War on Drugs, and he refuses to remove himself from the film’s critical scrutiny.
In addition, The House I Live In includes revealing commentary from the many varied participants in the American drug crackdown: dealers and cops, defendants and judges, prisoners and wardens, activists and lawmakers, parents and children. The film features articulate reflections from people who have dealt drugs in the past and are now in correctional custody. Significantly, not one of these individuals denies responsibility for their actions—“I messed up” is a common refrain—but all seek to situate their decisions and actions within larger structures of constraint and disadvantage. At the same time, Jarecki includes remarkably candid insights from law enforcement personnel. Although a few of them make disturbing admissions about the perverse incentives that encourage profiling and drug-bust profiteering, the film does not demonize police officers and corrections officials. It instead allows them to express both the pride and the ambivalence they feel toward their work.
Lastly, Jarecki musters a wide array of legal and other experts, including prominent academics like Michelle Alexander and Charles Ogletree, to lend his film critical perspective and authority. To be sure, almost all of these commentators are sympathetic to Jarecki’s viewpoint, but it is nevertheless refreshing to hear intellectuals speak as intellectuals in any kind of feature-length American film. What is more, these figures do not merely touch on what are, at least for me, the most familiar and even well-worn points about recent drug-related criminal justice: the introduction of mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines in the 1970s and 1980s, the precipitous increase in rates of incarceration, and the dramatic expansion that ensued in both the state-run and private prison industries. For these commentators also relate the War on Drugs to the years of Jim Crow in the South; the Great Migration of African Americans to the Northeast and Midwest; the redlining and other practices that contributed to the formation of racially segregated ghettos; and the far-reaching impacts of deindustrialization. This attention to the longue durée of U.S. history is one of the film’s strongest attributes.
At the same time, Jarecki’s commitment to accessible and engaging narrative sometimes gets him into trouble. Although he and his collaborators are quick to criticize the reductive sound-bites that have defined mainstream public discourse from Nixon to George W. Bush, the film is occasionally too content to rely on its own slick editing and glib turns of phrase. There are also moments when sobriety yields too much ground to showmanship. Of all his interlocutors, Jarecki grants the most prominent role not to any person directly impacted by the War on Drugs, but to David Simon, the former journalist who went on to create the HBO hit “The Wire.” To his credit, Simon is a generally subdued and thoughtful commentator, but should the maker of a television series, however relevant and critically acclaimed, really receive this kind of precedence?
Jarecki’s priorities as a filmmaker also entail some unfortunate substantive trade-offs. At one key point in the film, he relies on interview footage with several experts to contend that the criminalization of opium, cocaine, and marijuana in the early twentieth century was not ultimately driven by benign public health and safety concerns; it was rather motivated by racially charged anxieties over the arrival of immigrant groups and the challenges they posed to white workers on local and regional labor markets. I am willing to grant that racist and nativist resentments may have played some role in the crackdowns against the users and distributors of these substances.
I can only imagine, however, that this claim—at least in its bald formulation in the film—is much more contentious in scholarly and other circles than Jarecki is prepared to admit here.In any case, such a line of argument cannot explain the more recent public response to methamphetamine, a drug that is more closely associated with (poor) whites than any minority or immigrant group.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the film, however, concerns the dubious parallels that Jarecki proposes between the War on Drugs and other cases of group exclusion and violence. Drawing once more on footage from multiple interviewees, he suggests that American law enforcement since the late 1960s has followed a sequence of collective identification, ostracism, confiscation, concentration, and annihilation that can also be observed (most notably) in the Nazi genocide of European Jewry. The film is quick to add that the “chain of destruction” evident in the contemporary U.S. is not equivalent to the one that unfolded in Central and Eastern Europe during World War II. But that does not prevent David Simon from casting the War on Drugs as “a Holocaust in slow motion” against America’s poor and minority populations. Such hyperbolic language strikes me not just as deeply misguided, but entirely unnecessary. Viewers do not need such problematic analogies in order to grasp the film’s claims and stakes.
Despite these warts and missteps, The House I Live In is well worth watching. The film makes a daring claim on viewers’ conscience, and it calls on all of us to undertake the challenging work of thinking through our convictions as citizens in fundamental ways. We need more, not less, of this kind of provocation.