Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
A.O. Scott makes an argument for snobbery, which is to say that he makes an argument for taste: "It seems to be an article of modern democratic faith that disputing taste is taboo: at best a lapse in manners, at worst an offense against feelings or social order (which sometimes seem to amount to the same thing). Our nation is at present riven by social inequality and polarized by ideology, but the last thing anyone wants to be called is an elitist. That epithet has a political sting that the old one lacked, and 'snob' is not wielded as readily as it used to be. Instead of food snobs--or 'gourmets,' as they once called themselves--we now have foodies. Literary snobbery died when Jonathan Franzen fell out with Oprah and conquered the best-seller list anyway. The hot narrative art form of the moment, television, is genetically immune to snobbery. For most of modern history, the only way to be a TV snob was not to own a set. (Or maybe to say that you only watched PBS, not that anyone would have believed you.) The arrival of 'serious,' 'difficult' cable dramas and spiky, insidery comedies has not changed the essentially populist character of the medium. We all have our binge watches, our guilty pleasures, and our relationship to them is less exclusive than evangelical. Television is horizontal rather than hierarchal. And the flowering of television coincides with the digital transformation of cultural consumption, a great leveling force that turns a forbidding landscape of steep crags and hidden valleys into a sunlit plain of equivalence. The world of the Yelp score, the Amazon algorithm and the Facebook thumb is a place of liking and like-mindedness, of niches and coteries and shared enthusiasms, a Utopian zone in which everyone is a critic and nobody is a snob because nobody's taste can be better than anyone else's. That's the theory, anyway. But permit me a moment of dissent, even if I risk looking like a reactionary nostalgist." The loss of snobbery is a part of what Hannah Arendt worried about with regards to the end of judgment. Arendt was hardly an elitist in the traditional sense of an inherited or moneyed elite. But she did insist that a meaningful public sphere that can inspire many and last over time feeds upon the doing of deeds that are and deserve to be talked about by others.
Philip Gourevitch introduces this year's Nobel Prize winner for literature, Svetlana Alexievich: "In a brief manifesto, 'In Lieu of Biography,' on her Web site, Alexievich argues that in our time--'when man and the world have become so multifaceted and diversified'--reportorial documentation is the best means of representing reality, while 'art as such often proves impotent.' And, having written five books from documentary material in the course of twenty years, she goes on to say, 'I declare that art has failed to understand many things about people.' Alexievich, you see, is a reporter--she started out, in her native Belarus, writing for newspapers--and her books are woven from hundreds of interviews, in a hybrid form of reportage and oral history that has the quality of a documentary film on paper. But Alexievich is anything but a simple recorder and transcriber of found voices; she has a writerly voice of her own which emerges from the chorus she assembles, with great style and authority, and she shapes her investigations of Soviet and post-Soviet life and death into epic dramatic chronicles as universally essential as Greek tragedies. So it is precisely because her work renders meaningless the distinction she draws between documentation and art that she is now the first full-time, lifelong journalist to win the literature prize."
Brian Hanrahan remembers an unexpected figure in the history of children's radio: "Of all mass media, radio has always had the least developed relation to children. The history of film or photography, of TV or the Internet, could hardly be written without reference to the child: images of children, children as audience and market, children's actual or hysterically invoked vulnerability. But radio has always been an overwhelmingly adult phenomenon Of course, there has long been broadcast radio aimed at children. There were kids' serials in the American network golden age, cozy British stuff like Listen with Mother in the 1960s, various kinds of educational radio. There are Sirius satellite channels, and Radio TEDDY, a German children's broadcaster, still transmits on the airwaves. But all this--and even radio hardware marketed to children--is a small and relatively unimportant part of radio as a historical phenomenon. Moreover, radio's relation to children is indirect, even uncanny: for children, radio is above all something addressed to grown-ups, but they can overhear it, or listen in on it. Radio, in this way, becomes a channel to a world beyond the home. Voices and sounds from the radio bring traces of a different life into the cloistered spaces of childhood and family. Any serious history of children and radio--any history going beyond a chronicle of program offerings--must include the German writer Walter Benjamin. Benjamin wrote extensively for the radio, and most of those broadcast writings--now newly translated and collected--were written for children, at least at first glance. More than that, something quintessentially Benjaminian happens in that uncanny encounter of radio and child: the hint of an unsettling remainder in the everyday, in the dislocation of sent message and received meaning, in the figure of the child who knows something his parents do not."
Daniel Faggella finds it tragic that the debate around the dangers of artificial intelligence is so shallow and ideological. Considering the heated denunciations and defenses of Elon Musk's warning that "With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon," Faggella writes: "What I believe is tragic, is when a debate no longer serves the end of finding truth, or unearthing concerns / opportunities. One class of fruitless conversation comes in the form of mis-informed and close-minded dismissal of an idea. Advanced technologies are far from being the only domain in which such 'disagreement' squashes the possibilities of progress / assessment, but I believe that there hasn't been enough media-worthy attention on AI to bring this unfortunate facet of human nature out of hiding and into open debate, until now. A few minutes of Googling will unearth a good deal of articles and videos from those who do and those who do not consider AI to be a significant near-term threat. More often than I'd hope, the perspectives given are often 'clearly those who disagree aren't even sane.' A second class of fruitless conversation seems about as hard to avoid as the first, namely, the protection of our beliefs and the swaying of our opinions to further our own outcomes. Some of the most ardent backlash to Elon Musk's comments about AI came from those who are most heavily invested in developing AGI, or those who are 'rooting for the Singularity' in one way or another. Of course, there's positively nothing wrong with work on AGI, or with enthusiasm and interest in the Singularity... but someone invested in those domains is more likely to want to spit on concerns about technological progress."
In a review of Japanese novelist Minae Mizumura's book The Fall of Language in the Age of English, Haruo Shirane considers the fate of world literature in an Anglophone global culture: " In the medieval and early modern periods, transnational languages such as Latin, Arabic, or literary Chinese served as the language of high culture and technology; in the modern period, 'national languages' have taken on that role. However, unlike the premodern period, when there were multiple 'universal' (transnational, cosmopolitan) languages, or the modern period (late 19th and the first half of the 20th century for Japan), in which national languages and national literatures flourished, the present age has seen a single tongue become the one and only universal language. English's dominance in all spheres from science to literature is far greater than that of the earlier cosmopolitan languages such as Latin in medieval Europe, literary Chinese in East Asia, Arabic in the Middle East, or French in 19th-century Europe. Because there are now more literate people than at any other time in world history and because of new technologies that create global simultaneity on an unprecedented scale, English now penetrates every sphere. Much has been said recently about the growth of world literature in the age of globalization, but this has overwhelmingly come from those writing in English and/or dealing with literatures in the Romance languages. For example, Pascale Casanova's The World Republic of Letters ( 2004) traces the rise and dominance of French language and literature; David Damrosch's What Is World Literature? (2003) examines the ways in which literature travels around the world, either in translation or from one language to another, often following trade routes. In secondary and higher education in the United States, the traditional canons of national literature have been expanded or broken up to include a larger corpus of literature from around the world. However, almost all of the literature dealt with in these studies is based on European languages, and these representatives of 'world literature' are read almost entirely in English translation. The assumptions of this Anglophone view of 'world literature' are reflected in the genres and texts that have been chosen by Anglophone critics and scholars to represent 'world literature.' Franco Moretti, for example, in his attempt to draw up a 'world literary' map, ends up focusing on such modern European-based themes and genres as the "rise of the novel." In most of Asia, the so-called novel was a minor genre, not even considered serious literature until the 19th century, mostly under the impact of the European novel, while poetry (particularly the lyric), historical writings (chronicles and biographies), and philosophical writing were central. Compared to educated Europeans, until the modern period, elite East Asians (especially Confucian literati) had a very low view of fiction, at least on the surface, and almost all canonical literary genres were thought to be direct reflections of individual or historical experience. In other words, the very notion of 'world literature' that has emerged in English largely reflects the modern European notion of literature as imaginative narrative, with particular emphasis on the epic, the novel, and the short story."
John Branch considers the meaning of a baseball word: "Baseball considers itself the most thoughtful of games, a pastime more than a sport, written about with reverence and lyricism, in which pitching is considered more art than athleticism. Yet the primary term used to explain the art of pitching, which often determines who wins and who loses, is an inelegant word of ill-defined mush. Stuff. 'Stuff is a big word in baseball,' said Roger Craig, who pitched for 12 seasons in the major leagues, beginning in 1955, and coached pitchers and managed for nearly 25 more. 'It's probably used more than any word that I can think of, especially in pitching.' Its use as a descriptor in baseball dates back more than a century. It is a word so ordinary that it avoids consideration as a cliché, hidden behind an ever-creative spectrum of modifiers: pure stuff, ace stuff, nasty stuff, hit-and-miss stuff, electric stuff, primary stuff, secondary stuff, top-rotation stuff. Stuff can be good, great, tremendous. Some pitchers have plus stuff. Some have more...The word is both meaningful and meaningless. There are no synonyms. Like pornography, stuff is defined mostly by example. And only pitchers have stuff. Hitters do not have stuff. 'Hitters got tools,' Dempster said. 'We never say the pitchers got tools. We say the pitchers got stuff.'"
Back in 2005 in the New Yorker (h/t Travis Wentworth), Jonathan Franzen responded to the Starr report with an essay on privacy, one that sounds deeply influenced by Hannah Arendt. On the one hand Franzen begins, we have more solitude and privacy than ever. "The 'right to be left alone'? Far from disappearing, it's exploding. It's the essence of modern American architecture, landscape, transportation, communication, and mainstream political philosophy." On the other hand, the dissolving boundary between the private and the public spheres threatens to eradicate the public sphere. "If privacy depends upon an expectation of invisibility, the expectation of visibility is what defines a public space. My 'sense of privacy' functions to keep the public out of the private and to keep the private out of the public. A kind of mental Border collie yelps in distress when I feel that the line between the two has been breached. This is why the violation of a public space is so similar, as an experience, to the violation of privacy. I walk past a man taking a leak on a sidewalk in broad daylight (delivery-truck drivers can be especially self-righteous in their 'Ya gotta go, ya gotta go' philosophy of bladder management), and although the man with the yawning fly is ostensibly the one whose privacy is compromised by the leak, I'm the one who feels the impingement.... Reticence, meanwhile, has become an obsolete virtue. People now readily name their diseases, rents, antidepressants. Sexual histories get spilled on first dates, Birkenstocks and cutoffs infiltrate the office on casual Fridays, telecommuting puts the boardroom in the bedroom, 'softer' modern office design puts the bedroom in the boardroom, sales people unilaterally address customers by their first name, waiters won't bring food until I've established a personal relationship with them, voice-mail machinery stresses the 'I' in 'I'm sorry, but I don't understand what you dialed,' and cyberenthusiasts, in a particularly groteseque misnomer, designate as 'public forums' pieces of etched silicon with which a forum's unshaved 'participant' may communicate while sitting crosslegged in tangled sheets. The networked world as a threat to privacy? It's the ugly spectacle of a privacy triumuphant." The Hannah Arendt Center conference "Why Privacy Matters" begins Thursday. ("Imperial Bedroom" was published in How To Be Alone. To order, click here. To read, click here).
In a BBC series of video essays on the oak tree, we learn about the historical impact of the Gall wasp, which lays eggs in the buds of trees. In doing so, the wasps seemingly take over the genetic structure of the oak tree's flower so that instead of acorns, galls emerge that nourish young wasp larvae. "The myriad of different types of structures these wasps create for their offspring is simply staggering. But of all the weird and wonderful types of Oak Gall, there's one that has a strange connection with the human race. One type of Oak Gall has shaped our history. That's because for a thousand years it was the source of a special kind of ink with which nearly all our historical documents were written." The Magna Carta, Newton's scientific theories, Leonardo da Vinci's drawings, Mozart's music, Darwin's letters, and more were written in this oak-derived ink.
Please join us at The Hannah Arendt Center for the first Democratic Debate on Tuesday October 13th.
Light refreshments will be served.
Space is limited, so please R.S.V.P. to firstname.lastname@example.org
Tuesday, October 13, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center, Time TBA
Resolved: "National security is more important than the individual right to privacy."
Please join us for an exciting public debate inspired by the topic of this year's Hannah Arendt Center Conference, "Why Privacy Matters." The debate will feature Bard Debate Union members, Bard College faculty, and cadets and faculty from the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Wednesday, October 14, 2015
Free and Open to the Public
Campus Center, Multipurpose Room, 7:00pm
The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Why Privacy Matters: What Do We Lose When We Lose Our Privacy?," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!
**UPDATE** Registration for our conference is NOW CLOSED except for on-site registration, which is subject to availability and will cost $45 for ALL interested parties except those of the Bard community.
We will be offering a live webcast to individuals who are interested in watching one or both days of the conference. To learn more, please click here.
Thursday, October 15 and Friday, October 16, 2015
Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm
Hannah Arendt always returned to poetry and kept the language of German poems in her hinterkopf. For Arendt, poetry is the closest form we have to thought itself, bearing the burden of language and memory. It should then be no surprise that Arendt herself wrote poems.
The poems now appear in translation for the first time, edited and translated into English by Samantha Hill and into French by Karin Biro. Biro and Hill join us to read from their translations and discuss Arendt's poetry, the work of translation, and the place of poetry across Arendt's political and philosophical works.
Free and Open to the Public, but space is limited. Please RSVP to email@example.com
Tuesday, October 20, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center, 1:00 pm
National Endowment for the Humanities/Hannah Arendt Center Distinguished Visiting Fellow DAVID BRIN is a scientist who has served as a NASA visiting scholar in exobiology. As a writer of science fiction, he has received the Nebula award, two Hugo awards, and four Locus awards, and has published books including Earth and The Postman. He is also the author of The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy?
Free and Open to the Public
Thursday, October 22, 2015
Bard Hall, Bard College, Time TBA
The special event will take place in Manhattan on Oct. 26, 2015, 6.30pm, at the Bard Graduate Center at 38. West 86th Street, New York, NY, in conjunction with The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College. The Introductory Presentation will be by Professor Nikolaus Wachsmann, author of the acclaimed, new book, KL: A History of the Concentration Camps.
Honoree Albert Knoll, b. 1958, has served the mission of the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Museum since 1997. In addition to maintaining and expanding its archival work and databases, he has been instrumental in assisting relatives of former inmates as well as guiding researchers, scholars and authors around the world - including Awards Event speaker Nickolaus Wachsmann. Knoll has written articles on illegal photos, homosexual prisoners, contemporary Nazi press coverage of Dachau, etc, and contributed to the International Tracing Service's first scholarly yearbook. He has also organized international workshops on the gathering of data on all categories of National Socialist victims.
Invitation Only. RSVP Required. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Monday, October 26, 2015
Bard College Graduate Center, 38 West 86th Street, New York, NY, 6:30 pm
HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.
For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at email@example.com.
Friday, November 6, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm
This week on the Blog, Dawn Herrera Helphand considers how Pope Francis I's posture of humility resembles that of Roncalli, whose confidence as a follower of God Arendt sought to understand, in the Quote of the Week. Former Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat offers his comments on how one can change reality and make progress in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we appreciate a member's personal Arendt library as well as her book "The Political Tradition in the Work of Hannah Arendt" in this week's Library feature.
By Kathleen B. Jones
“The calamity of the rightless is not that they are deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law and freedom of opinion, but that they no longer belonged to any community whatsoever.”
-- Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
For the past few weeks, I have been in Birmingham UK, home to one of the most diverse communities in England, including many Muslims from India, Pakistan, and the Middle East who constitute more than 20% of the population of this city. The area where I reside has a decidedly “live and let live” attitude. In the morning, groups of women and men in various forms of hijab or niqab take their children to school, some heading for one of the Islamic schools, others to the nearby Catholic primary or another Church-affiliated school, and still others to the state-run local primary, where they mix together with “white British,” Caribbeans, and a range of other ethnicities. A nearby Italian restaurant assures its customers who inquire that its meat is halal. The stores are filled with sales personnel of all ethnicities, genders, and types. A colorfully tattooed man collects his morning coffee from a woman in an equally colorful headscarf. A young Muslim woman selling electronics in a large department store becomes positively giddy when she learns I am from California. “I so want to go there; I love America!” she tells me. And yet, as the 2011 census reported, nearly 90% of the population, regardless of their ethnicity, consider themselves British.
Julia Frakes, a student of political science and peace & justice studies, recently sent us this image of her personal Arendt library.
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).
Wednesday, October 12, 2011: Roundtable Discussion on Occupy Wall Street
-- Roger Berkowitz, Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights; Academic Director, Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities, Bard College.
-- Paul Mariental, Director of the Bard TLS Program.
-- Jennifer Derr, a former professor in the History and Middle Eastern Studies programs at Bard College.
-- Steven Maslow, a banker on Wall Street and an avid supporter of the Hannah Arendt Center.
-- Two Bard Students who have been involved in the OWS demonstrations.
On October 12th, 2011, the Arendt Center hosted a roundtable discussion on the Occupy Wall Street movement with Bard faculty, Bard students who participated in the protests, and representatives of Wall Street.
President Obama’s recent speech laying out his plan to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State in Syria (or in the Levant as he prefers to call it) hasn’t drawn that much rhetorical analysis. But some have noted its strong appeal to American exceptionalism.
Thursday, February 16, 2012: Lunchtime Talk with Ory Amitay
Participant: Ory Amitay, Professor of History at the University of Haifa
In his Lunchtime Talk, Professor Ory Amitay discusses his efforts to write a history of monotheism, as well as his broader goal of utilizing network theory and data analysis to create a collaborative project for studying monotheistic religions.
“Between Sovereign states there can be no last resort except war; if war no longer serves that purpose, that fact alone proves that we must have a new concept of the state.”
—Hannah Arendt, in an interview with Adelbert Reif, 1970.
No government exclusively based on the means of violence has ever existed. Even the totalitarian ruler, whose chief instrument of rule is torture, needs a power basis—the secret police and its net of informers. Only the development of robot soldiers, which, as previously mentioned, would eliminate the human factor completely and, conceivably, permit one man with a push button to destroy whomever he pleased, could change this fundamental ascendancy of power over violence.
—Hannah Arendt, “On Violence.”
Hannah Arendt wrote these lines in the midst of the United States’ defeat in Vietnam. Her argument was that as long as robot soldiers were a thing of the future, brute violence and force like that unleashed by the United States would always succumb to collective power, of the kind exhibited by the Vietcong. Hers was, at least in part, a hopeful voice, praising the impotence of violence in the face of power.
To read Arendt’s lines today, amidst the rise of drone warfare, alters the valence of her remarks. Drones are increasingly prototypes and even embodiments of the “robot soldiers” that Arendt worried would dehumanize war and elevate violence over power. If we draw out the consequences from Arendt’s logic, then drone soldiers might displace the traditional limits that politics places on violence; drones, in other words, make possible unprecedented levels of unlimited violence.
The rise of drones matters, Arendt suggests, in ways that are not currently being seen. Her worry has little to do with assassination, the concern of most opponents of drones today. Nor is she specifically concerned with surveillance. Instead, against those, like General Stanley McChrystal, who argue that drones are simply new tools in an old activity of war, Arendt’s warning is that drones and robot soldiers may change the very dynamic of war and politics.
To see how drones change the calculus of violence in politics, we need to understand Arendt’s thesis about the traditional political superiority of power over violence. The priority of power over violence is based on the idea that power is “inherent in the very existence of political communities.” Power, Arendt writes, “corresponds to the human ability not just to act, but to act in concert.” It “springs up whenever people get together and act in concert.” All government, and this is central to Arendt’s thesis, needs power in order to act.
This need for popular support is true even for totalitarian governments, which also depend on the power of people—at least a select group of them like the secret police and their informers—continuing to act together. It is thus a myth that totalitarian rule can exist without the support of the people. Whether in Nazi Germany or contemporary Syria, totalitarian or tyrannical governments still are predicated on power that comes from support of key segments of the population.
Even if all government is predicated on some power, governments also employ violence—but that violence is held in check by political limits. As a government loses its popular support, it finds itself tempted to “substitute violence for power.” The problem is that when governments give in to the temptation to use violence to shore up slackening of popular power, their use of violence diminishes further their power and results in impotence. The more violence a government needs to rely upon, the less power it has at its disposal. There is thus a political limit on how much violence any government can employ before it brings about the loss of its own power.
As much as she respects the claims for power over violence, Arendt is clear-eyed about the damage violence can wield. In a direct confrontation between power and violence, violence will win—at least in the short term. Arendt writes that if Gandhi’s “enormously powerful and successful strategy of nonviolent resistance” had met a different enemy—a Stalin or Bashar al-Assad instead of a Churchill or Mubarek—“the outcome would not have been decolonization, but massacre and submission.” Sheer violence can bring victory. But the price for such a triumph is high, not only for the losers, but also for the victors.
We see this exemplified in Middle East over the last few years. In those countries like Bahrain and Syria where governments did not shy from unlimited violence to repress popular revolts, the governments have maintained themselves and the Arab Spring has turned into a long and frigid winter. Assad has been able to maintain power; but his power is irreparably diminished. In the end, there is a limit to the viability and effectiveness of relying on mere violence at the expense of power. This is even more true in a constitutional democracy, where support of the people is a political necessity.
As confident as Arendt is that violence is limited in politics by the need for power, she worries that the coming age of “robot soldiers” might bring about the end of the political advantage power has over violence. Robot soldiers can be controlled absent of consent or political support. With the push of a button or a simple command, a tyrant or totalitarian ruler can exert nearly unlimited violence and destruction, even without the support a massive secret police or a network of informers. Drones threaten the time-immemorial dependence of even the most lonely tyrant on others who will support him and do his bidding.
Of course drones must be built, programmed, and maintained. No tyrant is fully autonomous. Yet building, programming, and maintaining machinery are fundamentally different jobs than arresting and killing dissenters. It is far easier for programmers and electricians to justify doing their jobs in a powerless yet violent state than for soldiers and secret agents to justify theirs.
In a drone-led war, men will rarely need to go into action as soldiers. That is of course one reputed advantage of drones, that they make war less dangerous and more technically predictable. But it also means that as modern warfare becomes safer and more humane, it also excludes without human soldiers and risks stripping war of its human and active character. This helps to explain an enigmatic passage of Arendt’s in The Human Condition, where she offers modern war as an example of when action “loses its specific character” as human action and “becomes one form of achievement among others.” The degradation of human action in modern war, she writes,
happens whenever human togetherness is lost, that is, when people are only for or against other people, as for instance in modern warfare, where men go into action and use means of violence in order to achieve certain objectives for their own side against the enemy. In these instances, which of course have always existed, speech becomes indeed ‘mere talk,’ simply one more means toward the end….
Arendt is here thinking of the anonymity of the modern soldier epitomized by the monuments to the unknown soldiers—the mute mass of humanity who fight and die without the “still existing need for glorification” that makes war a human instead of a merely mechanical activity.
Her modern warfare in its inhumanity and technological capacity abandons the togetherness that has traditionally made war a prime example of human political togetherness.
In the technological advances of modern warfare that made war so awful and so mechanical, Arendt actually found a glimmer of hope: that war’s rabid violence was compensated by neither political advantage nor personal glory. In On Revolution, she dared hope that the fact that technology had reached the stage “where the means of destruction were such as to exclude their rational use” might lead to a “disappearance of war from the scene of politics….” It was possible, she thought, that the threat of total war and total destruction that accompanies war in the modern era might actually lead to the disappearance of war.
Clearly such a hope has not come to pass. One reason for the continuation of war, however, is that the horrors of war are made ever more palatable and silent—at least to the victors—by the use of technology that exerts violence without the need for political power and participation. The drone wars of the early 21st century are in this respect notable for the unprecedented silence that accompanies violence. Since U.S. soldiers are rarely injured or killed and since the strikes are classified and the damage remote, we have indeed entered an era where we can fight wars absent the speech, glory, and “human togetherness” that has traditionally marked both the comradeship of soldiers and the patriotic sacrifice of a nation at war. It is in this extraordinary capacity of mute violence to substitute for power in which we can glimpse both the promise and the peril of drones.
Over the course of the past two decades, the political idiom of liberalism has substantially expanded its global reach and dominance. In the vast majority of the world’s existing states, principles of individual rights and collective recognition have been or are being enshrined in constitutions and other legal codes, and actors in the public sphere and the realm of civil society are adopting liberal discourse in order to press their claims for equality and freedom. The recent Arab Spring is only one of the most recent instantiations of this larger trend.
Yet even as we acknowledge liberalism’s dominance, we should not overlook those settings where it still (and ironically) carries a counter-hegemonic charge. One such locale is the Republic of Turkey, ostensibly one of the most stable and democratic states in the wider Middle East. Here a variety of Islamic organizations have relied on liberal imaginings in their efforts to challenge the state’s anti-clerical model of secularism.
This Islamic recourse to liberalism is the central concern of Jeremy Walton’s intriguing article in the most recent American Ethnologist, “Confessional Pluralism and the Civil Society Effect.” Walton pays particular attention to the work of four Islamic NGOs in Istanbul and Ankara, all of which have adopted the language of confessional pluralism in their efforts to obtain recognition from the state and secure their inclusion in Turkish public life.[i] These organizations define “religion” as a nonpolitical, voluntary mode of social and ethical life that legitimately, indeed necessarily, takes different forms. They also insist that these varied modes of life deserve acknowledgement and protection on the basis of “the ostensibly universal values of liberty and equality.”
When viewed from the perspective of Turkey’s party politics, these NGOs make strange bedfellows. Three of the organizations analyzed by Walton represent Alevism, a syncretic minority tradition that can be broadly defined by its emphasis on Twelver Shi’a history and belief, its incorporation of Central Asian mystical and shamanistic practices, and its distinctive ritual performances. Alevis have typically supported the Republican People’s Party (CHP, the party established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk) because its staunch secularism has appeared to offer a bulwark against Sunni majoritarianism and discrimination. The fourth organization, meanwhile, is a Sunni association inspired by the contemporary Turkish theologian Fethullah Gülen and his project of universal religious dialogue. It also epitomizes the recent emergence of the Sunni Muslim bourgeoisie, the constituency that has played a pivotal role in the ascendance of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Thanks to its overwhelming success in local and national elections over the past decade, the AKP has effectively supplanted the CHP as Turkey’s preeminent political party.
Yet as Walton rightly notes, these NGOs’ seemingly obvious political differences belie their common turn to the liberal rhetoric of pluralism and collective recognition. All of them desire public acknowledgement of their own (and others’) communities and identities, and all thereby challenge the presumption of ethnolinguistic and religious homogeneity that has prevailed in Turkish governmental discourse since the founding of the Republic in 1923. In addition, all of these organizations question the state’s long-standing effort not only to define and regulate the legitimate practice of religion (especially Sunni Islam), but also to limit religious expression to the private sphere. These rather paradoxical governmental imperatives, which remained largely unchallenged in Turkey until the 1990s, can be traced to the laicist model of secularism that the Republic adopted from the French Jacobin tradition.
In subtle or dramatic ways, all of these NGOs seek to divert Turkish secularism from its previous path. One of the Alevi organizations, for example, seeks a mode of pluralism that would grant to Alevis the same privileges—state funding for houses of worship, inclusion in the mandatory religion classes taught in public schools—that the state has historically allocated to Sunni Islam. Another Alevi association, by contrast, favors an “American-style” secularism that would limit or even prohibit state intervention in religious affairs. The Sunni organization, meanwhile, seeks to promote tolerance and public dialogue across confessional boundaries in a manner that departs markedly from the state’s efforts to privatize religious expression. Significantly, the idiom of liberalism is flexible enough to accommodate these varied and not always compatible projects.
At the same time, the liberal language of confessional pluralism creates tensions and dilemmas for the very organizations that seek to mobilize it. Above all, claims for collective recognition presume coherent and “authentic” (i.e., long-standing, non- or pre-political) religious identities as the necessary ground for communal acknowledgement and equal protection. As Walton convincingly relates, it is precisely such coherence and authenticity that prove elusive for many Islamic NGOs. Alevi associations in particular are defined by intense arguments over the very definition of Alevi identity. Does Alevism constitute a distinct and more or less uniform tradition of its own? What precisely is its relationship with Islam? Does Alevism even constitute a “religion” as the concept is commonly understood, or is it rather a body of folklore, a philosophical and political orientation, or an ethnicity? Alevi associations disagree sharply on the answers to these questions, even as they share a common discursive logic.
Walton is somewhat less persuasive, however, when he turns to Islamic NGOs’ relationship to the state and state governance. In his reading, these associations engage in a form of “nongovernmental politics” that does not aspire to occupy the position of a governing agency. In fact, they contribute to what Walton, drawing on the work of Timothy Mitchell, calls “the civil society effect”: the romantic notion that civil society constitutes “a self-evident domain of freedom and authenticity” wholly autonomous from the state. I follow Walton’s reasoning when he notes that the NGOs he analyzes have displayed an increasing skepticism toward Turkey’s dominant model of secularism and its major political parties, including the CHP and the AKP. I believe he oversteps, however, when he suggests that many if not all of these associations dismiss political society and the state. To my mind, the very language of liberalism adopted by these NGOs indicates that they care a great deal about the state and its policies. Very much in the spirit of Arendt’s celebrated pronouncements in The Origins of Totalitarianism, they grasp that rights and recognition, if they are to have real substance, must be backed and warranted by the state’s governmental power.
This wrong turn notwithstanding, Walton’s argument makes for stimulating reading. Perhaps above all, it offers a sharp challenge to the still common presumption that Islam and modern politics are hermetically separate, fundamentally irreconcilable domains. Instead, as Walton subtly demonstrates, they “authorize, animate, challenge, and contextualize each other in contextually specific ways.”
[i] For the sake of easy reading, I do not dwell on the NGOs by name, but the Alevi associations include the Cem Foundation, the Hacı Bektaş Veli Anatolian Cultural Foundation, and the Ehl-i Beyt Foundation. The Sunni association aligned with Gülen is the Journalists and Writers Foundation.