Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Amor Mundi 9/20/15


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-upCorporate Campus Cowardice

university campusFredrik deBoer writes in the NY Times Magazine that the increasingly bureaucratic and corporate university culture is at least partly to blame for the excessive political corrections and overly litigious Title IX complaints that are attacking the intellectual lives of colleges and universities. "If students have adopted a litigious approach to regulating campus life, they are only working within the culture that colleges have built for them. When your environment so deeply resembles a Fortune 500 company, it makes sense to take every complaint straight to H.R. I don't excuse students who so zealously pursue their vision of campus life that they file Title IX complaints against people whose opinions they don't like. But I recognize their behavior as a rational response within a bureaucracy. It's hard to blame people within a system--particularly people so young--who take advantage of structures they've been told exist to help them. The problem is that these structures exist for the institutions themselves, and thus the erosion of political freedom is ultimately a consequence of the institutions. When we identify students as the real threat to intellectual freedom on campus, we're almost always looking in the wrong place. Current conditions result in neither the muscular and effective student activism favored by the defenders of current campus politics nor the emboldened, challenging professors that critics prefer. Instead, both sides seem to be gradually marginalized in favor of the growing managerial class that dominates so many campuses. Yes, students get to dictate increasingly elaborate and punitive speech codes that some of them prefer. But what could be more corporate or bureaucratic than the increasingly tight control on language and culture in the workplace? Those efforts both divert attention from the material politics that the administration often strenuously opposes (like divestment campaigns) and contribute to a deepening cultural disrespect for student activism. Professors, meanwhile, cling for dear life, trying merely to preserve whatever tenure track they can, prevented by academic culture, a lack of coordination and interdepartmental resentments from rallying together as labor activists. That the contemporary campus quiets the voices of both students and teachers--the two indispensable actors in the educational exchange--speaks to the funhouse-mirror quality of today's academy." Limits on campus speech are not claims for privacy, that is, to be free from private intrusions into a private space. They are a bureaucratic and fear-inspired circumscribing of public space and public discourse, a removal of precisely the most important and contentious issues from respectable debate. It is one thing to say that there are certain private things that should be spoken about only in private; it is quite another to label matters of public importance private because one disagrees or is offended by them. 

Art and the Open Society

turkeyIn an essay set amidst the 14th Istanbul biennial, Salt Water: A Theory of Thought Forms, Ari Akkermans shows how artists have quickly become the lone source of public resistance to the Turkish governments. At a time when newspapers are attacked by mobs and the threat of terrorists is everywhere employed to justify repression, Akkermans writes: "The main concern here, however, is not whether to lend support to free media, but to make sure it does effectively exist. It is the very same media that has labeled these events 'anti-terror protests' that has become a victim of the same tactics of intimidation that have threatened minorities, journalists, and intellectuals for decades. 'The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen ... If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer,' remarked Hannah Arendt in 1974, addressing lies in politics and concluding that, 'A people that no longer can believe anything cannot make [up sic] its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such people you can then do what you please.' Have we reached that point? Yes, but there is no certainty of what is yet to come in this country, on the brink of a larger conflict. Under so much pressure and heavy censorship it has become increasingly difficult to write honestly about culture in Turkey and not hide behind the art, for the political climate has opened an abyss before us in which we are made defenseless. The time is up for those charades, catered to tourists, about Istanbul as the crossroads between East and West, on which the self-image of the city has fed for years. It is not possible or responsible to try to hide behind the art when there is so much at stake."

Beware the Stork King

stork kingAt the end of a passionate essay on the endangered privacy of modern life, Margaret Atwood turns to Aesop's fables. "One of Aesop's fables concerns the frogs. They told the gods they wanted a king, and the gods threw down a log to be their ruler. It floated here and there and didn't do anything, and for a while they were content. But then they began complaining, because they wanted a more active king. The gods, annoyed, sent them a stork, which ate them up. Our problem is that our western governments, increasingly, are an unpleasant combination of both the Log King and the Stork King. They're good at asserting their own freedom to spy and control, though bad at allowing their citizens as much freedom as they formerly enjoyed. Good at devising spy laws, bad at protecting us from the consequences of them, including false positives. Who says you are who you are? Whoever can alter your data. Though our digital technologies have made life super-convenient for us--just tap and it's yours, whatever it is--maybe it's time for us to recapture some of the territory we've ceded. Time to pull the blinds, exclude the snoops, recapture the notion of privacy. Go offline. Any volunteers? Right. I thought not. It won't be easy." Secrecy for government and transparency for citizens is indeed a dangerous inversion of the traditional democratic formula, where government is accountable to the people and the people are free from prying governmental surveillance.

amor_mundi_sign-upImprisoned Populations

black incarceration prisonIn a long and detailed essay, Ta-Nehisi Coates argues both for the reform of America's prison system and for the rehabilitation of the reputation of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who wrote the report that became the justification for the disproportionate over-representation of black men in American prisons, a phenomenon that both precedes Moynihan's report and that continues today: "In a 1972 essay in The Public Interest, Moynihan, who had by then left the White House and was a professor at Harvard, railed against 'the poverty professionals' who had failed to support his efforts and the 'upper-class' liars who had failed to see his perspective. He pointed out that his pessimistic predictions were now becoming reality. Crime was increasing. So were the number of children in poor, female-headed families. Moynihan issued a dire warning: 'Lower-class behavior in our cities is shaking them apart.' But America had an app for that...Our carceral state banishes American citizens to a gray wasteland far beyond the promises and protections the government grants its other citizens. Banishment continues long after one's actual time behind bars has ended, making housing and employment hard to secure. And banishment was not simply a well-intended response to rising crime. It was the method by which we chose to address the problems that preoccupied Moynihan, problems resulting from 'three centuries of sometimes unimaginable mistreatment.' At a cost of $80 billion a year, American correctional facilities are a social-service program--providing health care, meals, and shelter for a whole class of people. As the civil-rights movement wound down, Moynihan looked out and saw a black population reeling under the effects of 350 years of bondage and plunder. He believed that these effects could be addressed through state action. They were--through the mass incarceration of millions of black people."

Settling It The Old-Fashioned Way

cnn republication presidential debateJill Lepore is worried about what the Presidential Debates mean for the future of our political institutions (she's not the only one): "Democracy requires deliberative debate: people who want to govern themselves have to determine what rules to live by and what men and women to elect to represent them. This is not what the word 'debate' means in the phrase 'Presidential debate'... What CNN called 'The Main Event' started at 8 P.M. E.S.T., prime time, and obeyed an unwritten rule of television: The Bloodier the Better. If a candidate mentioned another candidate, even if only in passing, that other candidate was given an opportunity to reply and encouraged to take a swipe. CNN must have thought this would make great television, and help draw an audience as big as the unprecedented number of viewers who tuned in for last month's Fox News debate. The hitch here, though, is that televised Presidential debates are all or nearly all that many citizens see of the American political process. Is this how the nation's political leaders want to model disagreement and deliberation in a democracy? By kicking each other in the shins? A lot of high-school kids were required to watch the CNN debate, and, in class, they'll hold their own debates, applying the lesson this debate taught them, which is that appearance is everything and squabbling is everything else."

Being Alone in Public

companyBenjamin Aldes Wurgaft pinpoints the appeal of the local coffeehouse: "Part of the thrill of being in public spaces lies in chance and openness, in giving up perfect control over one's surroundings. That said, 'anything' probably won't happen. There probably won't be a robbery. Divorce proceedings are also unlikely, and so are adoption ceremonies, rain dances--and once you work your way down a list of events from the unlikely to the likely, you realize that café behavior is fairly predictable, that this encounter with chance is a constrained one. In Los Angeles (which could use a rain dance or two), I avoid Intelligentsia in Silver Lake after about 10 a.m., for fear of the beautiful people and their very small, very beautiful dogs, and I go almost daily to Fix, in my own neighborhood of Echo Park, to write and be around other people who write. I know that I'm expected, and it's hardly the first shop where I've built this pattern. At the Diesel Cafe in Somerville, Massachusetts (right next to Cambridge), I was a regular from 2000 to 2002, and that was where I wrote the first magazine stories I ever sold; I wrote my doctoral dissertation at Pizzaiolo in North Oakland (a restaurant with a morning coffee service), between 2007 and 2009, sitting there for two to four hours each morning. When I lived in the Village, I showed up at Third Rail three to four days a week, and I couldn't write there because the tables were too small, but it meant something that an Americano appeared not long after I did, without any fuss. I realize, more and more, that I started to go to cafés in a game of aspirational adolescent dress-up, and I kept going to them as an adult because of my desire to belong. Even though I like solitude, I'm afraid to be alone."


interdisciplinaritySimon Critchley remembers a mentor: "At the end of his book on Wittgenstein, Frank [Cioffi] tells a story about a philosophical paper (imagined or real, it is not clear) with the title 'Qualia and Materialism--Closing the Explanatory Gap.' The premise of the paper is twofold: first, there is a gap between how we experience the world--our subjective, conscious experiences (qualia)--and the scientific explanation of the material forces that constitute nature; and, second, that such a gap can potentially be closed through one, overarching theoretical explanation. Frank goes on to point out that if we can imagine such a paper, then we can also imagine papers called 'The Big Bang and Me--Closing the Explanatory Gap' or 'Natural Selection and Me--Closing the Explanatory Gap.' This is the risk of what some call 'scientism'--the belief that natural science can explain everything, right down to the detail of our subjective and social lives. All we need is a better form of science, a more complete theory, a theory of everything. Lord knows, there are even Oscar-winning Hollywood movies made about this topic. Frank's point, which is still hugely important, is that there is no theory of everything, nor should there be. There is a gap between nature and society. The mistake, for which scientism is the name, is the belief that this gap can or should be filled. One huge problem with scientism is that it invites, as an almost allergic reaction, the total rejection of science. As we know to our cost, we witness this every day with climate change deniers, flat-earthers and religious fundamentalists. This is what is called obscurantism, namely that the way things are is not explained by science, but with reference to occult forces like God, all-conquering Zeus, the benign earth goddess or fairies at the bottom of my garden. Now, in order to confront the challenge of obscurantism, we do not simply need to run into the arms of scientism. What is needed is a clearer overview of the occasions when a scientific remark is appropriate and when we need something else, the kind of elucidation we find in stories, poetry or indeed when we watch a movie or good TV (Frank watched a lot of TV)."

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

constitutionHannah Arendt, Privacy, and the Constitution

Constitution Day (or Citizenship Day) is observed on September 17 to recognize the U.S. Constitution and those who have become U.S. citizens. In honor of Constitution Day, the Arendt Center extends an invitation to attend a lecture by Roger Berkowitz.

"[T]o the extent that they had a positive notion of freedom which would transcend the idea of a successful liberation from tyrants and from necessity, this notion was identified with the act of foundation, that is, the framing of a constitution."

-Hannah Arendt, "On Revolution"

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito '60 Auditorium, Bard College, 5:00 pm

italian fascism's empire cinemaItalian Fascism's Empire Cinema

Italian Fascism's Empire Cinema (Indiana University Press, 2015) by Prof. Ruth Ben Ghiat (New York University) is the first in-depth study of the feature and documentary films made during Mussolini's dictatorship about Italy's African and Balkan occupations. The fruit of research in military and film archives, it focuses on the dramatic years between the invasion of Ethiopia (1935-1936) and the loss of the colonies (1941-43) during World War Two.

Ben Ghiat will present her recent study which restores these films to Italian and international film history and offers a case study of the intertwining of war and cinema and of the unfolding of imperial policy in the context of dictatorship.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito '60 Auditorium, Bard College, Time TBA

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #12

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, September 11, 2015

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



Privacy debate bannerBard College Public Debate

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

Campus Center, Multipurpose Room, 7:00pm

why privacy matters title cardSAVE THE DATE - 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

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.

Thursday, October 15 and Friday, October 16, 2015

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

hannah arendt poetryNo Word Breaks Into the Dark - The Poetry of Hannah Arendt

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.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Hannah Arendt Center, 1:00 pm

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Ian Storey discusses how the EU migrant crisis and attendant immigration discussions are symptomatic of a deeper rot in the heart of Europe in the Quote of the Week. Joseph Joubert comments on what is needed to comprehend a grand and beautiful thought in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. We are pleased to announce the winner of our 2015 Courage to Be Essay ContestFinally, we reflect on the marginalia Arendt made to her copy of Henri Frankfort's "Kingship and the Gods" 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.

Un Arendt Bibliotheque Personnelle


Recently, Thierry Ternisien d'Ouville shared with us an image of his personal Arendt library on Twitter.

thierry arendt library

Here is what Thierry had to say about his image:

"Ma bibliothèque Arendt. Auteure que je travaille depuis 2002 et tente de faire connaître en France au-delà des milieux universitaires. L'ensemble de ces livres n'est disponible en français que depuis 2012 ( avec la traduction de On Revolution). Un blog et des cours donnés à l'Université du Temps Libre d'Orléans. : www.ttoarendt.com. Un livre : Réinventer la politique avec Hannah Arendt."

As a rough translation, Thierry describes himself as an author who since 2002 has worked to make Hannah Arendt known outside of the world of academia. Towards that end, Thierry teaches a number of courses at l'Université du Temps Libre d'Orléans and keeps a blog on Arendt's thinking here. He has also written a book entitled Réinventer la politique avec Hannah Arendt, or "Reinventing Politics with Hannah Arendt." The set of books Thierry has elected to share with us, along with a translation of On Revolution, has been available in France since 2012.

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.

Expanding the Mind Through Arendt


Last week, Philipp Schinschke, one of our followers on Twitter, sent us a picture of his personal Arendt library:

mind arendt library

Here is what Philip had to say about the image:

I’m studying history and politics at Martin-Luther-University Halle/Germany. The first time I’ve got in contact with Hannah Arendt was in politics, when we were discussing her theory of difference between power and violence. My interest in this topic was awakened and I started reading her regularly. My second big field of interest is German society in the Third Reich. Her book on the Eichmann-trail and of course "The Origins of Totalitarianism" helped me a lot to understand the mechanisms of totalitarian societies. Last semester I wrote a paper in my political-theory-class in which I focused on the Arab Spring by using the catalogue of successful revolutions Hannah Arendt developed in "On Revolution". In my opinion, her thoughts are still relevant and I’m expanding my mind every time I read Hannah Arendt.

Thank you, Philip, for sharing your photograph and your love of Arendt with us!

Want to share pictures of your own Arendt library?

Please send them to David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at dbisson@bard.edu, and we might 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.

Beyond Bluebeard: Arendt’s “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy”


(Featured Image Source: io9)

By Philip Walsh

“Our decisions about right and wrong will depend on our choice of company, of those with whom we wish to spend our lives. And again, this company is chosen by thinking in examples, in examples of people dead or alive, real or fictitious, and in examples of incidents, past or present. In the unlikely case that someone should come and tell us that he would prefer Bluebeard for company, and hence take him as an example, the only think we could do is to make sure he never comes near us.”

-- Hannah Arendt, “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy”

In 1965-66, Hannah Arendt taught a course entitled “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy” at the New School of Social Research. An edited version of the lectures were posthumously published as an essay in Responsibility and Judgment. The essay reveals the continuation of Arendt’s thinking about morality that followed the Eichmann trial as well as the germ of the idea, explored further in The Life of the Mind, of the relationship between thinking and morality. This quotation reveals some of the startling conclusions she arrived at.

Philip Walsh
Philip Walsh is Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology at York University in Toronto. He is the author of several articles on the significance of the work of Hannah Arendt for the social sciences. His book, Arendt Contra Sociology: Theory, Society and its Science, was published by Ashgate in February 2015.

The Battle of Ideas: A Personal Arendt Library


This past week, we received this image from Robert L. Kehoe III, one of our followers on Twitter.

the battle of ideasHere is what Robert has to say about his photograph:

I saw a Twitter solicitation of Arendt personal library pics, so I finally had a little fun with mine and thought I'd pass it along -- yes, that's two copies of Between Friends, Eichmann in Jerusalem, and three of The Human Condition, topped with a winter-dogeared Green Bay Packers sideline cap. If you know anybody who has a first edition of On Revolution, I'm in the market.

Looking back, I was first introduced to Hannah Arendt by a truly remarkable professor and now dear friend, Ashley Woodiwiss, when I was a freshman in college. I shortly thereafter picked up my Penguin Portable and have been reading and collecting (at Frugal Muse in Madison, Raven in Cambridge, Moe's in Berkeley, Sem-Coop and Powell's in Chicago) ever since. There's no way of saying which of her titles is my favorite, but I do think the world would be a better place if everyone had three copies of The Human Condition, not to mention an appropriate thinking cap (team of your choosing) to accompany them in the battle of ideas!

We are grateful for Robert's thoughtful description and sincerely thank him for his contribution.

Want to share pictures of your own Arendt library? Please send them to David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at dbisson@bard.edu, and we might 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.

Hannah Arendt and the Political Dangers of Emotion


By Johannes Lang

“Whatever the passions and the emotions may be, and whatever their true connection with thought and reason, they certainly are located in the human heart. And not only is the human heart a place of darkness which, with certainty, no human eye can penetrate; the qualities of the heart need darkness and protection against the light of the public to grow and to remain what they are meant to be, innermost motives which are not for public display.”

–Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (1963)

Since September 11, 2001, historians and social scientists have rediscovered the political relevance of emotion. In the current climate of war and terror, public discussion is suffused with references to fear, hatred, and patriotism. But what are the moral and political consequences when such passions enter the public sphere? One of the most famous political thinkers of the twentieth century, Hannah Arendt, worried about the entry of emotion into politics. She scolded the French revolutionaries for having been carried away by their compassion for the poor and praised the American Founding Fathers for their aloof commitment to universal ideals and for their detached attitude to the suffering masses. Emotions may be important as subjective motives for individual action, Arendt granted, but they should neither be aired in public nor be made the basis for collective action. Emotions disfigure politics; political movements should be based on rational argument, not passion. Yet, as Volker Heins has pointed out, there was one thing Arendt feared more than the intrusion of emotions into politics: a politics completely devoid of emotion. The “ice-cold reasoning” and bureaucratic rationality she discerned behind the Holocaust was infinitely more terrifying than any other political pathology known to man. Arendt’s deep ambivalence toward emotions confronts us with a fundamental question: What is the proper place of emotion in politics?

Johannes Lang
Johannes Lang is a lecturer in psychology at the University of Copenhagen and a postdoctoral fellow at the Danish Institute for International Studies. He has previously been a postdoctoral fellow in sociology at Yale, and was one of the recipients of the Danish Research Council’s “Young Elite Researcher” awards for 2011. His most recent publication is titled “Against obedience: Hannah Arendt’s overlooked challenge to social-psychological explanations of mass atrocity,” in Theory & Psychology 2014, vol. 24.

The Hannah Arendt Library: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson


On a recent trip to the Hannah Arendt Library, we came across this small collection of letters, papers, and other writings by John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Hannah Arendt looked to both men as authoritative sources on the nature of American politics. John Adams was one of Arendt's favorite thinkers, for as Roger Berkowitz, Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center, explained in a Weekend Read, he "understood the deep connection between virtue and republicanism." With respect to this sensitivity, she quoted Adams' thoughts on the beginnings of the American Revolution in her book On Revolution.

Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson was to Arendt one of the most knowledgeable critics of the U.S. Constitution. Jefferson understood that while the document had guaranteed Americans their freedom, it had failed to articulate a space where they could exercise their liberty. This claim by Jefferson would play a profound role in shaping Arendt's thoughts on revolution and freedom.

adams and jefferson

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 Revolution Will Not Be Institutionalized

Freedom/Break the Mould Artist: Zenos Frudakis

“The failure of post-revolutionary thought to remember the revolutionary spirit and to understand it conceptually was preceded by the failure of the revolution to provide it with a lasting institution. The revolution, unless it ended in the disaster of terror, had come to an end with the establishment of a republic which, according to the men of the revolutions, was ‘the only form of government which is not eternally at open or secret war with the rights of mankind.’ But in this republic, as it presently turned out, there was no space reserved, no room left for the exercise of precisely those qualities which had been instrumental in building it…. The revolution, while it had given freedom to the people, had failed to provide a space where this freedom could be exercised.”

--Hannah Arendt, On Revolution

Hannah Arendt concludes her book on the revolutionary tradition in Europe and North America with a lament for its “lost treasure”: the public freedom of citizens to participate directly in the activity of government.

Jeffrey Jurgens
Jeffrey Jurgens received his Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is Fellow for Anthropology and Social Theory at the Bard Prison Initiative as well as Academic Co-Director of the Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison. His scholarly interests revolve around themes of migration, citizenship, public memory, youth culture, and the politics of religiosity and secularism.

American Exceptionalism: What Are We Fighting For?


Roger Berkowitz recently gave the opening lecture at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference “The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Ideas Worth Fighting For?” The conference, held at Bard College, included talks by David Bromwich, Anand Girdirhardas, Kennan Ferguson, Jerome Kohn, Ann Lauterbach, Lawrence Lessig, Charles Murray, George Packer, Robert Post, Joan Richardson, Amity Shlaes, Jim Sleeper and Kendall Thomas. You can view the conference in its entirety here. For the Weekend Read this week, we provide an edited transcript of Professor Berkowitz’s speech: “American Exceptionalism: What Are We Fighting For?”

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".

The Spirit of Revolution


**This post was originally published on November 14th, 2011**

"The end of rebellion is liberation, while the end of revolution is the foundation of freedom."

-Hannah Arendt, On Revolution

Physical liberty is a prerequisite for freedom, but freedom, Arendt writes, "is experienced in the process of acting and nothing else". The intimate connection between acting and freedom is what animates the intense passion for revolution. At a time when freedom is reverenced, but mostly in the breach, revolutions seduce us with the hope that the "course of history suddenly begins anew, that an entirely new story, a story never known or told before, is about to unfold". Revolution, as the coincidence of the idea of freedom and the experience of a new beginning, actualizes the experience of being free".

Arendt writes that the "revolutionary spirit" of freedom unites two seemingly contradictory elements. The first is the "act of founding the new body politic", an act that "involves the grave concern with the stability and durability of the new structure". As an act of foundation, revolutionary action strives to found new yet lasting governmental institutions. Often ignored amidst the focus on revolutionary violence, the desire to found stable structures is central to the revolutionary spirit.

The second element of the revolutionary spirit, however, is the revolutionary’s experience of the revolution. It is "the experience . . . which those who are engaged in this grave business are bound to have", namely the experience of an "exhilarating awareness of the human capacity of beginning". Caught up in the thrall of creation, revolution gives birth to the "high spirits which have always attended the birth of something new on earth". The revolutionary spirit, therefore, includes the joy and excitement that attends all endeavoring to tear down and build up. The joy in the destruction of the old that Nietzsche reminds us of is inseparable from the joy in the creation of the new.


Philosophical Anthropology

Arendt attributes the loss of the spirit of the revolution – what she calls the revolutionary treasure – to one overriding cause. The problem is that the republics that the revolutions created – one after another, whether in France, Russia, or America – left no space for the very freedom that constituted part of the revolutionary treasure. The question Arendt asks is: what kind of institutional spaces could, potentially, preserve a place for the revolutionary spirit of freedom within a republic?

I mention Arendt’s double characterization of the revolutionary spirit now in the shadow of the Arab Spring, the Israeli Summer, and the American Fall. In Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, rebellions liberated the people from oppressive regimes, and rebellions continue to seek liberation in Syria, Sudan, and Bahrain. Around the globe, however, revolutionaries are struggling with Arendt's question of how to find a revolutionary spirit of freedom within a political order. Amidst the sense of utter disenfranchisement and powerlessness that gave birth to these movements in the very heart of democratic states, we need to work to restore spaces and possibilities for the experience of freedom.

In the United States, Arendt bemoans that the US founders "failed to incorporate the township and the town-hall meeting into the Constitution". The town-hall meetings were "spaces of freedom"; as such, they were crucial institutions of the new republic. The life of the free man, Arendt writes, needs "a place where people could come together." The possibility of public freedom necessitates institutionally recognized forums for free action in which free citizens manifest themselves to others.

Arendt’s interest in these councils and town-hall meetings – and also Thomas Jefferson’s stillborn proposal for a "ward system" that would divide the nation into "elementary republics" – is not a nostalgic call for direct decision-making. The point of these societies and councils was not necessarily to make decisions or to govern or administer a municipality. Indeed, Arendt praises one French club in particular that prohibited itself from any attempt to influence the General Assembly. The club existed only "to talk about [public affairs] and to exchange opinions without necessarily arriving at propositions, petitions, addresses, and the like". The councils were a space for freedom, a space for people to gather and discuss the affairs of the day with others. Their importance was not in what they accomplished, but rather in what they nourished.

As institutional spaces of "organized political experience", the clubs promoted "the same kind of attunement to events that had drawn the revolutionaries into action, and along its path". In other words, the councils offered the experience of freedom that "is experienced in the process of acting and nothing else".

-- Roger Berkowitz

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".

Independence Day: Reexamining America’s Core Ideals


Independence Day began for me at the Nantucket Unitarian Universalist Meeting House where a packed crowd braved an impending hurricane to hear a reading of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights alongside some vigorous patriotic singing. I had never heard the Declaration read aloud before, but one recalls that it is a declaration and meant to be read. Also striking is that the bulk of the Declaration is concerned with listing the ills and wrongs suffered at the hands of King George.

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".

Arendt and Intergenerational Justice


“If the world is to contain a public space, it cannot be erected for one generation and planned for the living only; it must transcend the life-span of mortal men…. There is perhaps no clearer testimony to the loss of the public realm in the modern age than the almost complete loss of authentic concern with immortality, a loss somewhat overshadowed by the simultaneous loss of the metaphysical concern with eternity.”

--Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Intergenerational justice is a central idea in contemporary political thought about the environment, sustainability and global climate change. That we must live today in a manner that does not degrade the life chances of future generations is an intellectual response to the depletion of natural resources, particularly fossil fuels, and the global warming fostered by the use of these sources of energy. As one political response to climate change caused by fossil fuel use, intergenerational justice may be described in terms of a revivifying of public life and a corresponding cultivation of trust in politics. That is to say, intergenerational justice is conceived best not in abstract terms, but as a matter of directing concrete political action, which Arendt argues has a transformative nature, against the anti-political and anti-ecological encroachments of “the social realm” that prioritizes economic thinking, growth and bureaucratic efficiency over concerns for the future. In this sense, we appeal to Arendt, who shows us in On Revolution that the founding of new public space and the revitalization of citizenship are always possible.

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.

Arendt on the Limits of Social Science


“[Regarding The Origins of Totalitarianism] while I feel that within the necessary limitations of a historical study and political analysis I made myself sufficiently clear on certain general perplexities which have come to light through the full development of totalitarianism, I also know that I failed to explain the particular method which I came to use, and to account for a rather unusual approach [to] the whole field of political and historical sciences as such. One of the difficulties of the book is that it does not belong to any school and hardly uses any of the officially recognized or officially controversial instruments.”

--Hannah Arendt, Review of Politics, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Reply to Eric Voegelin (1953)

Arendt wrote this in defense of her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, less as a direct reply to the criticism of the political scientist Eric Voegelin than to the criticism in general which her book had received. According to this criticism Arendt got carried away by her “emotionally determined method of proceeding from a concrete center of shock toward generalizations” which “leads to a delimitation of (the) subject matter” and ignores the duties of a scientist regarding objectivity, universality and (the) validity of their research and the representation of the results of that research. There can hardly be a worse reproach against a political philosopher operating within the terrain of history and social science, and we can imagine how a still unknown Arendt would get on in our contemporary world of peer-reviewed journals with their comprehensive control that results in a kind of intellectual self-censorship.

But Arendt did not think at all to subordinate herself to the common scientific norms.  Her Oeuvre contains only a few remarks like those in her reply to Voegelin about the way she understood scientific work. They refer mainly to three aspects: critical thinking, commitment, and judgment.

1. Critical thinking: Writing her essays about the origins of totalitarianism Arendt asked herself how to write the history of anti-Semitism when you do not want to preserve but to destroy it. One answer would be: “from the perspective of the victims”, but according to Arendt this would be an apology, not historiography. So, she saw no other choice but to approach the analysis through historical concepts. This is also true for her book On Revolution, which is no historiography of the American and the French revolution either but also an analysis with historical concepts. To read these two books as works of history would miss the essential point.

Similar is the case of her writings about political phenomena. They do not either fit into traditional political science. The reason is, Arendt was a political thinker, not a scientific commentator: “The authors are auctores, that is, (they) augment the world,” she explained in a university course. “We move in a world, which is augmented by the authors. We cannot do without them, because they behave in an altogether different way from the commentators. The world in which the commentator moves is the world of books. This difference becomes visible in a person like Machiavelli. Machiavelli was interested in Italy, not in political theory, not even his own. Only the commentator is interested in political theory per se” (History of Political Theory, 1955). Therefore, Arendt was not interested in commenting on intellectual and theoretical systems like liberalism or pragmatism but rather in analyzing facts. “I proceed from facts and events instead of intellectual affinities and influences”, she declared in her reply to Voegelin.


2. Commitment: The criticism of her book on totalitarianism repudiated her tone as too committed and emotional. Arendt replied that the style should be appropriate to the context. Extreme poverty like that of the British miners at the beginning of industrialization would provoke indignation. To describe these conditions without indignation consequently would mean to remove them from their context and rob them of one of their essential qualities. This also applies to the concentration camps; to describe them sine ira “is not to be ‘objective’, but to condone them; and such condoning cannot be changed by a condemnation which the author may feel duty bound to add but which remains unrelated to the description itself. “

It is worth reading again Orwell’s social report The Road To Wigan Peer (1937) about the misery of the British miners. Is anything as memorable being written about the refugees on their way to the borders of the EU and the US, about the feminicide in Mexico and other countries, or the living conditions in Southern Europe during the economic and financial crisis? What do social scientists think about their social responsibility when in their research they transform subjects into objects and try to represent the social conditions objectively instead of adequately?


3. Judgment: it is very unusual for a scientist to show the limits of the sciences that common sense places upon them as Arendt did. She subdues scientific judgment to everyday understanding. In her essay “Understanding and Politics” (1952) she explains: “Knowledge and understanding are not the same, but they are interrelated. Understanding is based on knowledge and knowledge cannot proceed without a preliminary, inarticulate understanding. Preliminary understanding denounces totalitarianism as tyranny and has decided that our fight against it is a fight for freedom. ... Preliminary understanding ... no matter how rudimentary and even irrelevant it may ultimately prove to be, will certainly more effectively prevent people from joining a totalitarian movement than the most reliable information, the most perceptive political analysis, or the most comprehensive accumulated knowledge. Understanding precedes and succeeds knowledge. Preliminary understanding, which is at the basis of all knowledge, and true understanding, which transcends it, have this in common: They make knowledge meaningful.”

This means that the scientists can only illuminate, but neither prove nor disprove what they have preliminarily understood. And when he tries to create politics out of the results of his research he loses all common sense, “which alone will guide him securely through the labyrinth of his own knowledge”. And when he tries to make his knowledge meaningful, he “must become very humble again and listen closely to the popular language, in which words like ‘totalitarianism’ are daily used as political clichés and misused as catchwords, in order to re-establish contact between knowledge and understanding.”


This understanding means to judge, which is to take into consideration all real or possible points of view and to pronounce a judgment. Arendt discussed this procedure in another course with the example of a slum and its inhabitants whose points of view we should know in detail to be able to judge their situation, which does not mean to be in agreement with them.

But without critical thinking and commitment this judgment remains empty.

These three aspects show that the hitherto existing characterization of Arendt’s method as “thinking poetically” or of her position as “between the disciplines” are improper. Arendt rather attunes her style to the context and moves beyond the disciplines. And for her it is just as little about the alternative scientist or public intellectual, as she was sometimes called. While this professional thinker tends to raise himself above the common citizens, it is the non-professional action and judging of ordinary citizens, which stand at the center of Arendt’s work.

--Wolfgang Heuer

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.

Amor Mundi 3/2/14


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

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

The End of Hide and Go Seek


Edward Gorey Charitable Trust

David Cole wonders if we've reached the point of no return on the issue of privacy: “Reviewing seven years of the NSA amassing comprehensive records on every American’s every phone call, the board identified only one case in which the program actually identified an unknown terrorist suspect. And that case involved not an act or even an attempted act of terrorism, but merely a young man who was trying to send money to Al-Shabaab, an organization in Somalia. If that’s all the NSA can show for a program that requires all of us to turn over to the government the records of our every phone call, is it really worth it?” Everyone speaks about the need for a National Security State and the necessary trade-offs involved in living in a dangerous world. What is often forgotten is that most people simply don’t care that much about privacy. Whether snoopers promise security or better-targeted advertisements, we are willing to open up our inner worlds for the price of convenience. If we are to save privacy, the first step is articulating what it is about privacy that makes it worth saving. You can read more on an Arendtian defense of privacy in Roger Berkowitz’s Weekend Read.

The Mindfulness Racket

Illustration by Jessica Fortner

Illustration by Jessica Fortner

In the New Republic, Evgeny Morozov questions the newly trendy rhetoric of “mindfulness” and “digital detox” that has been adopted by a variety of celebrities and public figures, from Deepak Chopra to Google chairman Eric Schmidt to Arianna Huffington. In response to technology critic Alexis Madrigal, who has argued in The Atlantic that the desire to unplug and live free of stress and distractions amounts to little more than “post-modern technoanxiety”—akin to the whole foods movement in its dream of “stripping away all the trappings of modern life”—Morozov contends that there are legitimate reasons for wanting to disconnect, though they might not be what we think. “With social media—much like with gambling machines or fast food—our addiction is manufactured, not natural,” he writes. “In other words, why we disconnect matters: We can continue in today’s mode of treating disconnection as a way to recharge and regain productivity, or we can view it as a way to sabotage the addiction tactics of the acceleration-distraction complex that is Silicon Valley. The former approach is reactionary but the latter can lead to emancipation, especially if such acts of refusal give rise to genuine social movements that will make problems of time and attention part of their political agendas—and not just the subject of hand-wringing by the Davos-based spirituality brigades.”

"Evil is unspectacular and always human"

audenEdward Mendelsohn has a moving and powerful portrait of W.H. Auden in the New York Review of Books, including this discussion of Auden’s account of evil: “He observed to friends how common it was to find a dedicated anti-fascist who conducted his erotic life as if he were invading Poland. Like everyone who thought more or less as he did, Auden didn’t mean that erotic greeds were morally equivalent to mass murder or that there was no difference between himself and Hitler. He was less interested in the obvious distinction between a responsible citizen and an evil dictator than he was in the more difficult question of what the citizen and dictator had in common, how the citizen’s moral and psychological failures helped the dictator to succeed. Those who hold the opposite view, the view that the citizen and dictator have nothing in common, tend to hold many corollary views. One such corollary is that a suitable response to the vast evil of Nazi genocide is wordless, uncomprehending awe—because citizen and dictator are different species with no language they can share. Another corollary view is that Hannah Arendt, in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), was offensively wrong about the “banality of evil,” because evil is something monstrous, exotic, and inhuman. The acts and thoughts of a good citizen, in this view, can be banal, not those of a dictator or his agents. Auden stated a view like Arendt’s as early as 1939, in his poem “Herman Melville”:

"Evil is unspectacular and always human,
And shares our bed and eats at our own table.”

Looking Intensely

sunYiyun Li tells why, if you were to run into her on the subway, you might find her staring at you: "Writing fiction is this kind of staring, too. You have to stare at your characters, like you would a stranger on the train, but for much longer than is comfortable for both of you. This way, you get to know characters layer by layer, until any dishonesty is stripped away. I believe all characters try to trick us. They lie to us. It’s just like when you meet someone in the real world—no one’s going to be 100 percent honest. They’re not going to tell you the whole story about themselves; in fact, the stories they do tell will say more about how they want to be perceived than how they actually are. There’s always a certain resistance with being known, and that’s true of characters and real people. People don’t want to tell you their secrets. Or they lie to themselves, or they lie to you."

Through a Veteran's Eyes

ptsdIn an interview, writer Jennifer Percy discusses rethinking how we talk about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: "I wanted to more fully imagine the homecoming experience of soldiers and their time at war. The language we use to talk about PTSD has historically been determined by political and economic factors. It’s attached to a vocabulary that intentionally limits our ability to imagine atrocity because it’s protective and reductive. It benefits the perpetrators but dehumanizes the other. It’s a process of rationalization. But what happens when that vocabulary is discarded, and we partake in an effort to fully imagine the experience of soldiers and veterans? This is the space I hoped to inhabit. We might refuse to imagine wartime experience because it’s outside the realm of the ordinary; or maybe it feels unnecessary, or is too demanding on our psyches. But when we do imagine it, what we find is often the familiar. It’s ourselves. And that might also be a reason we turn away."

So You Want to Be a Writer

bookEmily Gould, who once sold a book for a big payday, only to find that her book sold just a few thousand copies, writes about what happened after the money ran out and she found she couldn't write anything else: "With the exception of yoga earnings and freelance assignments, I mostly lived on money I borrowed from my boyfriend, Keith. (We’d moved in together in fall 2010, in part because we liked each other and in larger part because I couldn’t afford to pay rent.) We kept track of what I owed him at first, but at some point we stopped writing down the amounts; it was clear the total was greater than I could hope to repay anytime soon. He paid off one credit card so that I wouldn’t have to keep paying the monthly penalty. When I wanted to cancel my health insurance he insisted I keep it, and paid for it. He was patient when my attempts to get a job more remunerative than teaching yoga failed; he didn’t call me out on how much harder I could have tried. Without questioning my choices, he supported me, emotionally, creatively, and financially. I hated that he had to. At times he was stretched thin financially himself and I knew that our precarious money situation weighed heavily on his mind, even though he never complained. 'You’ll sell your book for a million dollars,' he said, over and over again."

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Michiel Bot discusses Étienne Balibar’s interpretation of Arendt’s work, Jeffrey Champlin considers whether Arendt's celebration of the council system, as discussed in On Revolution, can be applied to feminism, and Roger Berkowitz examines the promise and peril present in today's Ukraine.  And  in the Weekend Read, Berkowitz argues the importance of the private realm for the political world.

Upcoming Events

blogBlogging and the New Public Intellectual - A Discussion with Tom Goldstein

Sunday, March 9, 2014 , 5:00 pm - 7:00 pm
Bard Graduate Center, NYC
Learn more here.

R.S.V.P. to arendt@bard.edu


on"Colors Through the Darkness: Three Generations Paint and Write for Justice"
Monday, March 10, 2013, 1:30  pm
Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Zito '60 Auditorium (RKC 103)
Learn more 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.