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.
If Charles Murray's book Coming Apart chronicles the vast divergences between the richest and poorest communities in America, Claude S. Fischer gathers a series of studies and new books to argue that the places we live and grow up have an outsized impact on our future. Writing in the Boston Review, Fischer reports that "the places-the communities, neighborhoods, blocks-where people live act as a factor in slowing economic mobility." There are many reasons that poor and dysfunctional neighborhoods pass on poverty. "Consider the ways that the immediate environment shapes a child's development. It does so physically. Air and soil pollution, noise, and traffic, for example, measurably affect children's health, stress, and cognitive development. Local institutions and resources, such as the policing, quality of the schools, availability of health services, food options, parks, and so on matter, as well. And the social environment may matter most of all. Growing up in a community with gangs, dangerous streets, discouraging role models, confused social expectations, and few connections to outsiders commanding resources is a burden for any child. Just getting by day-to-day can be a struggle. In a pair of studies, Sharkey found that a violent crime occurring near black children's homes in the days before they took a standardized test reduced their scores on the test, presumably because of anxiety and distraction." One major difference between Murray and Fischer is their consideration of race. Murray focuses on white poverty and the incredible rise of white inequality to argue that the decadence and disconnect of the new poor happens regardless of race. Fischer demurs: "No discussion of neighborhood effects can ignore the racial dimension, because the residential segregation of blacks has been and, though reduced, continues to be extreme: 41 percent of the African-American parent-child pairs in the study grew up in poor neighborhoods in both generations; only 2 percent of white families did. Poor whites were less likely to live in concentrated areas of poverty and are more likely to get out of them if they did. The weight of the past is much heavier for some than others."
Contrarian poet and uncreative writer Kenneth Goldsmith is going to spend next semester teaching 21st century leisure. He explains: "Come January, fifteen University of Pennsylvania creative-writing students and I will sit silently in a room with nothing more than our devices and a Wi-Fi connection, for three hours a week, in a course called 'Wasting Time on the Internet.' Although we'll all be in the same room, our communication will happen exclusively through chat rooms and listservs, or over social media. Distraction and split attention will be mandatory. So will aimless drifting and intuitive surfing. The students will be encouraged to get lost on the Web, disappearing for three hours in a Situationist-inspired dérive, drowsily emerging from the digital haze only when class is over. We will enter a collective dreamspace, an experience out of which the students will be expected to render works of literature. To bolster their practice, they'll explore the long history of the recuperation of boredom and time-wasting, through critical texts by thinkers such as Guy Debord, Mary Kelly, Erving Goffman, Raymond Williams, and John Cage. Nothing is off limits: if it is on the Internet, it is fair play. Students watching three hours of porn can use it as the basis for compelling erotica; they can troll nefarious right-wing sites, scraping hate-filled language for spy thrillers; they can render celebrity Twitter feeds into epic Dadaist poetry; they can recast Facebook feeds as novellas; or they can simply hand in their browser history at the end of a session and present it as a memoir."
12 years ago, Felix Stalder could already see how the rise of a networked society would lead individuals to trade privacy for personal service: "We live in a surveillance society. The creation, collection and processing of personal data is nearly a ubiquitous phenomenon. Every time we use a loyalty card at a retailer, our names are correlated with our purchases and entered into giant databases. Every time we pass an electronic tollbooth on the highway, every time we use a cell phone or a credit card, our locations are being recorded, analyzed and stored. Every time we go to see a doctor, submit an insurance claim, pay our utility bills, interact with the government, or go online, the picture gleaned from our actions and states grows finer and fatter." For Stalder, the traditional idea of privacy - that I control my information and data-is simply impossible to uphold in the modern world. Instead of talking about privacy - which he thinks an antiquated idea-we need to begin asking how to prevent the abuse of information. "Rather than continuing on the defensive by trying to maintain an ever-weakening illusion of privacy, we have to shift to the offensive and start demanding accountability of those whose power is enhanced by the new connections. In a democracy, political power is, at least ideally, tamed by making the government accountable to those who are governed and not by carving out areas in which the law doesn't apply. It is, in this perspective, perhaps no co-incidence that many of the strongest privacy advocates (at least in the US) lean politically towards libertarianism, a movement which includes on its fringe white militias that try to set up zones liberated from the US government. In our democracies, extensive institutional mechanisms have been put into to place to create and maintain accountability and to punish those who abuse their power. We need to develop and instate similar mechanisms for the handling of personal information - a technique as crucial to power as the ability to exercise physical violence - in order to limit the concentration of power inherent in situations that involve unchecked surveillance. The current notion of privacy, which frames the issue as a personal one, won't help us accomplish that."
Adam Davis says that our present and sped up culture of disruptive innovation is really as much a culture of failure: "An age of constant invention naturally begets one of constant failure. The life span of an innovation, in fact, has never been shorter. An African hand ax from 285,000 years ago, for instance, was essentially identical to those made some 250,000 years later. The Sumerians believed that the hoe was invented by a godlike figure named Enlil a few thousand years before Jesus, but a similar tool was being used a thousand years after his death. During the Middle Ages, amid major advances in agriculture, warfare, and building technology, the failure loop closed to less than a century. During the Enlightenment and early Industrial Revolution, it was reduced to about a lifetime. By the 20th century, it could be measured in decades. Today, it is best measured in years and, for some products, even less.... The closure of the failure loop has sent uncomfortable ripples through the economy. When a product or company is no longer valued in the marketplace, there are typically thousands of workers whose own market value diminishes, too. Our breakneck pace of innovation can be seen in stock-market volatility and other boardroom metrics, but it can also be measured in unemployment checks, in divorces and involuntary moves, and in promising careers turned stagnant. Every derelict product that makes its way into Weird Stuff exists as part of a massive ecosystem of human lives - of engineers and manufacturers; sales people and marketing departments; logistics planners and truck drivers - that has shared in this process of failure."
In "Antisemitism," Part One of The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt discusses the emergence of the Jewish Type, the Jew in General, as it came to be in Germany in the 19th century. "Jewishness," she wrote, "became a psychological quality and the Jewish question became an involved personal problem for every individual Jew." And yet it is also the case that the Nazis still imagined Judaism as a physical attribute and not simply a psychology. As Sara Lipton reminds us in the New York Review of Books, "In 1940 the Nazis released a propaganda film called The Eternal Jew. The film claimed to show the Jews in their 'original state,' 'before they put on the mask of civilized Europeans.' Stagings of Jewish rituals were interspersed with scenes of yarmulke- and caftan-wearing Jews shuffling down crowded alleys, all meant to show the benighted nature of Jewish life. Above all, the filmmakers focused on Jewish faces. They trained their cameras in lingering close-up on their subjects' eyes, noses, beards, and mouths, confident that the sight of certain stereotypical features would arouse responses of loathing and contempt."
In an interview with the Yale Daily News, Leon Botstein speaks about his lecture "Beyond Fashion and Fear: The Future of the Humanities and the Arts in the University." Botstein advises that we stop the high-minded defenses of the humanities and focus on teaching them in ways that are meaningful: "If we really believed that the humanities were vital, how would we organize them?" It may well be that what is most useful about the humanities is not the most advanced and critical research but the reading and consideration of foundational texts and works of art. The humanities, as Hannah Arendt understood, are important insofar as they preserve and conserve the common world. An example of their importance is visible in Botstein's answer to a question about the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math: "My position is that the STEM fields cannot exist without the humanities, and that the humanities cannot exist without the STEM fields. The separation is purely bureaucratic; it's purely a structural separation having to do with the way it's 'easier' to organize things within a university. My view is that anybody who is interested in the humanities is at his or her peril to not think about the fundamental role of science, technology, engineering and the character of science, and vice versa; there's no serious scientist in the world that isn't confronted with - that doesn't deal with - the non-'purely scientific' or nontechnical motivations or consequences of their work. The separation of the two is nonsensical."
In a review of Slavoj Zizek's two newest books, Terry Eagleton considers the Slovenian philosopher's sense of humor: "There is a dash of the Dubliner Oscar Wilde in Zizek, a man who couldn't hear a pious English sentiment without feeling an irresistible itch to reverse its terms, rip it inside out, or stand it on its head. Zizek, who has the grim appearance of a hired assassin in a Jacobean tragedy, lacks Wilde's stylishness and elegance. He also lacks his distinctive brand of humour. Zizek is funny but not witty. He tells some excellent jokes and has a well-honed sense of the absurd, but one couldn't extract a book of epigrams from his writing, as one can from Wilde's. Both men, however, are natural-born debunkers and deconstructors, allergic to high moral tones and good clean fun. That Zizek should be a skilled exponent of Jewish black humour, the Woody Allen of Ljubljana, comes as no surprise. Even so, his urge to deface and deflate is a long way from cynicism. Remarkably, he combines the tragic vision of Freud with a Marxist faith in the future."
Arendt and the Question of Positive Freedom
Tuesday, November 18, 2014
The Hannah Arendt Center, 12:30 pm - 2:00 pm
Film Screening & Director's Discussion: Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt with Nazis
Thursday, December 4, 2014
Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito '60 Auditorium, 5:00 - 8:00 pm
Roundtable on Academic Freedom
Tuesday, December 9, 2014
Bard College Campus Center, Multipurpose Room, 7:00 pm
Film Screening & Director's Discussion: A Snake Gives Birth to a Snake
Wednesday, December 10, 2014
Bard College Campus Center, Weis Cinema, 5:00 - 8:00 pm
This week on the Blog, Thomas Wild discusses Arendt's conception of freedom as a state of being experienced only in public in the Quote of the Week. Victor Hugo provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. In our Video Archives, we remember a 2012 discussion between historian Deborah Lipstadt and Roger Berkowitz on Arendt's treatment of the Eichmann trial. And we appreciate Arendt's deep love of art in our Library feature.
'When people agree with me I always feel that I must be wrong.'
Louis Pasteur once wrote:
I see everywhere in the world, the inevitable expression of the concept of infinity…. The idea of God is nothing more than one form of the idea of infinity. So long as the mystery of the infinite weighs on the human mind, so long will temples be raised to the cult of the infinite, whether it be called Bramah, Allah, Jehovah, or Jesus…. The Greeks understood the mysterious power of the hidden side of things. They bequethed to us one of the most beautiful words in our language—the word ‘enthusiasm’—En Theos—“A God Within.” The grandeur of human actions is measured by the inspiration from which they spring. Happy is he who hears a god within, and who obeys it. The ideals of art, of science, are lighted by reflection from the infinite.
To bear a god within is not an easy task for us mortals. The god within—even more so than the god without—demands to be obeyed. Having a god inside us—or Socrates like a daimon on our shoulder—is no recipe for happiness.
It can lead to unbearable obligation and even to martyrdom. And, if the god is a muse, it can lead to the travails of the artist.
All great art and all great artists are consumed by the infinite. As Oscar Wilde once wrote, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars.” Those are the artists, the ones who amidst the muck feel part of something higher, something everlasting, the infinite.
The great enemy of the infinite is reason. Reason is calculating. It is rational. It is logical. It insists that everything is knowable and comprehensible. Ends justify means. And means can achieve ends. Reason insists on explanation. The self—the mystery—must be made knowable.
David Brooks in the NY Times today lauds the entry of behavioral psychology into politics and policy. We want to know, he writes, how to get people to vote and how to get congress to cut the deficit. If science can tell us how what to put in their drinking water, how to frame the question, what books to read to them in vitro, or how to rewire their brains to be rational, wouldn’t that make policy all the more reasonable? Wouldn’t that be a good thing?
Science can make us more rational. That of course is the dream of people like Ray Kurzweil as well as the social scientists who insist that humans can be studied like rats. Let’s not object to the fact. We can be studied like rats and that is what university social science departments around the country and the world are doing everyday. This research is eminently useful, as Brooks rightly remarks. If we employ it, we can be made to be more reasonable.
What the rationalization of humanity means, however, is not a question science can answer. Max Weber began the study of the rationalization of mankind when he proposed that the rise of the enlightenment and the age of reason was bringing about an “Entzauberung” or a “de-magicification” of the world. Capitalism emerged at this time for a number of reasons, but one main reason, Weber understood, was that capitalism provided in the profit motive rational and objective criteria for measuring human endeavors. The problem, as Weber so well understood, is that the elevation of reason and rationality brought about the devaluation of all highest values—what Nietzsche would call nihilism. This is because reason, derived from ratio, is always a relation. All values are relative. In such a world, nothing is infinite. Stuck amidst the relations of means and ends, everything is a calculation. All is a game. There is no purpose or meaning to the game of life. As we become more rational, we also become less consumed by the infinite. That is the true danger of the rise of the social sciences and our rationality-consumed culture that insists that all human behavior be made understandable so that it can be made better.
In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt is concerned with the way that the rise of reason and rationality is challenging the quintessence of the human condition—at least as that human condition has been experienced and known since the dawn of humanity. The rise of the social sciences, she writes over and over, are subjecting the mystery and fecundity of human action to the law of large numbers. While each and every human action may in itself be surprising and mysterious, it is nevertheless true that studied in groups and analyzed over time, human action does fall into comprehensible patterns. The more we study and know these patterns, the more we come to think of humans as predictable animals rather than surprising and spontaneous selves. This sociological and psychological reduction of man to animal is very much at the heart of what Arendt is opposing in her book.
Nowhere is the rationality of our times more visible than in the victory of labor and the marginalization of art. We are, all of us, laborers today. That is why the first question we ask others we meet is: What do you do? Our labor defines us. It gives our lives meaning in that it assigns us a use and a value. Even professors, judges, and presidents now say regularly: this is my job. By which we mean, don’t blame us for what we do. Don’t hold me to some higher standard. Don’t expect miracles. It is our job to do this. We do this to make a living.
The one group in society who is at times excepted from this reduction to labor is artists. But even the artist is today is taken less and less seriously. Insofar as artists are enthusiasts consumed with the infinite, they are ignored or viewed as marginal. Art is reduced to playfulness. A hobby. “From the standpoint of “making a living,” every activity unconnected with labor becomes a “hobby.”” And those artists who are taken seriously, whose work is bought and sold on the art market, turn artistic work into the job of making a living.
Art, Arendt writes, is a process of magic. Citing a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, she insists that the magic of art is the artist’s transfiguration of something ordinary—the canvas, clay or word—into something extraordinary, an expression of the infinite in the finite world of things.
Because art figures the infinite, poetry is the “most human” of the arts and the art that “remains closest to the thought that inspired it.” The poem, of all artworks, is the most lasting because its medium is the least subject to decay. It is the closest expression of the infinite we humans possess.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose resonance with Arendt in so many things has been too infrequently remarked, agrees that poetry is the art form in which the individual artist can access and figure in the world a public and common truth. In “The Poet,” Emerson writes:
It is a secret which every intellectual man quickly learns, that beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect, he is capable of a new energy (as of an intellect doubled on itself ), by abandonment to the nature of things; that, beside his privacy of power as an individual man, there is a great public power on which he can draw by unlocking, at all risks, his human doors and suffering the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through him: then he is caught up into the life of the universe; his speech is thunder; his thought is law, and his words are universally intelligible as the plants and animals. The poet knows that he speaks adequately, then, only when he speaks somewhat wildly, or, “with the flower of the mind”; not with the intellect used as an organ but with the intellect released from all service…inebriated by nectar. As the traveler who has lost his way throws his reins on his horse’s neck and trusts to the instinct of the animal to find his road, so must we do with the divine animal who carries us through this world. For if in any manner we can stimulate this instinct, new passages are opened for us into nature, the mind flows into and through things hardest and highest, and the metamorphosis is possible. This is the reason why bards love wine, mead, narcotics, coffee, tea, opium, the fumes of sandalwood and tobacco, or whatever other species of animal exhilaration. All men avail themselves of such means as they can to add this extraordinary power to their normal powers, and to this end they prize conversation, music, pictures, sculpture, dancing, theaters, traveling, wars, mobs, fires, gaming, politics, or love, or science, or animal intoxication, which are several coarser or finer quasi-mechanical substitutes for the true nectar, which is the ravishment of the intellect by coming nearer to the fact.
I take this quotation from Emerson’s “The Poet” from an exceptional recent essay by Sven Birkirts. The essay appears in the latest edition of Lapham’s Quarterly, an entire issue focusing on the merits and need for inebriation.
As Birkirts writes:
For Emerson, the intoxication is not escape but access, a means of getting closer to “the fact,” which might, with heartfelt imprecision, be called life itself. What he means by “public power,” I think, is something like what Carl Jung and others later meant by the phrase collective unconscious, the emphasis falling on the unconscious, that posited reservoir of our shared archetypes and primordial associations—that which reason by itself cannot fathom, for it is, in essence, antithetical to reason.
Birkirt’s reflects not only on the need for inebriation in the pursuit of artistic infinity, but also on the decreasing potency of intoxicants today. For him, the rise of the mass market in art, the globalization of experience, the accessibility of all information all have made the world smaller, knowable, and accountable. What is lost in such access is precisely the portal to the infinite.
Artistically and in almost every other way ours has become a culture of proliferation. Information, perspectives, as well as the hypercharged clips and images of our global experience are within the radius of the keystroke. Nothing is unspoken, nothing is unaccounted. Every taste is given a niche and every niche is catered to. Here, one might argue, is more material than ever; here are opportunities for even greater acts of synthesis. But I am skeptical. Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” The temptation is to invert the phrases and ascribe causality: where everything is permitted, nothing is true. Where nothing is true, where is the Emersonian fact to be found? This bears directly on the artist’s task. The idea that writers can keep producing grandly synthesizing or totalizing work—that has the ring of truth, of mattering—is debatable.
Birkirt’s essay may not be the intoxicant of your choice this weekend, but it should be. It is your weekend read. And you might check out the surprising selection at the bar at Lapham’s Quarterly as well.
And for those with time to spare: Arthur Koestler, from whom I first learned of the Louis Pasteur quote at the top of this essay, was consumed with the connection between intoxication and the infinite. I have discussed Koestler’s pursuit of the infinite at length. You can read that discussion here.