Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
14Apr/142

Hiatus, Discontinuity, and Change

Arendtquote

"The end of the old is not necessarily the beginning of the new."

Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind

This is a simple enough statement, and yet it masks a profound truth, one that we often overlook out of the very human tendency to seek consistency and connection, to make order out of the chaos of reality, and to ignore the anomalous nature of that which lies in between whatever phenomena we are attending to.

Perhaps the clearest example of this has been what proved to be the unfounded optimism that greeted the overthrow of autocratic regimes through American intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the native-born movements known collectively as the Arab Spring. It is one thing to disrupt the status quo, to overthrow an unpopular and undemocratic regime. But that end does not necessarily lead to the establishment of a new, beneficent and participatory political structure. We see this time and time again, now in Putin's Russia, a century ago with the Russian Revolution, and over two centuries ago with the French Revolution.

Of course, it has long been understood that oftentimes, to begin something new, we first have to put an end to something old. The popular saying that you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs reflects this understanding, although it is certainly not the case that breaking eggs will inevitably and automatically lead to the creation of an omelet. Breaking eggs is a necessary but not sufficient cause of omelets, and while this is not an example of the classic chicken and egg problem, I think we can imagine that the chicken might have something to say on the matter of breaking eggs. Certainly, the chicken would have a different view on what is signified or ought to be signified by the end of the old, meaning the end of the egg shell, insofar as you can't make a chicken without it first breaking out of the egg that it took form within.

eggs

So, whether you take the chicken's point of view, or adopt the perspective of the omelet, looking backwards, reverse engineering the current situation, it is only natural to view the beginning of the new as an effect brought into being by the end of the old, to assume or make an inference based on sequencing in time, to posit a causal relationship and commit the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc, if for no other reason that by force of narrative logic that compels us to create a coherent storyline.  In this respect, Arendt points to the foundation tales of ancient Israel and Rome:

We have the Biblical story of the exodus of Israeli tribes from Egypt, which preceded the Mosaic legislation constituting the Hebrew people, and Virgil's story of the wanderings of Aeneas, which led to the foundation of Rome—"dum conderet urbem," as Virgil defines the content of his great poem even in its first lines. Both legends begin with an act of liberation, the flight from oppression and slavery in Egypt and the flight from burning Troy (that is, from annihilation); and in both instances this act is told from the perspective of a new freedom, the conquest of a new "promised land" that offers more than Egypt's fleshpots and the foundation of a new City that is prepared for by a war destined to undo the Trojan war, so that the order of events as laid down by Homer could be reversed.

 Fast forward to the American Revolution, and we find that the founders of the republic, mindful of the uniqueness of their undertaking, searched for archetypes in the ancient world. And what they found in the narratives of Exodus and the Aeneid was that the act of liberation, and the establishment of a new freedom are two events, not one, and in effect subject to Alfred Korzybski's non-Aristotelian Principle of Non-Identity. The success of the formation of the American republic can be attributed to the awareness on their part of the chasm that exists between the closing of one era and the opening of a new age, of their separation in time and space:

No doubt if we read these legends as tales, there is a world of difference between the aimless desperate wanderings of the Israeli tribes in the desert after the Exodus and the marvelously colorful tales of the adventures of Aeneas and his fellow Trojans; but to the men of action of later generations who ransacked the archives of antiquity for paradigms to guide their own intentions, this was not decisive. What was decisive was that there was a hiatus between disaster and salvation, between liberation from the old order and the new freedom, embodied in a novus ordo saeclorum, a "new world order of the ages" with whose rise the world had structurally changed.

I find Arendt's use of the term hiatus interesting, given that in contemporary American culture it has largely been appropriated by the television industry to refer to a series that has been taken off the air for a period of time, but not cancelled. The typical phrase is on hiatus, meaning on a break or on vacation. But Arendt reminds us that such connotations only scratch the surface of the word's broader meanings. The Latin word hiatus refers to an opening or rupture, a physical break or missing part or link in a concrete material object. As such, it becomes a spatial metaphor when applied to an interruption or break in time, a usage introduced in the 17th century. Interestingly, this coincides with the period in English history known as the Interregnum, which began in 1649 with the execution of King Charles I, led to Oliver Cromwell's installation as Lord Protector, and ended after Cromwell's death with the Restoration of the monarchy under Charles II, son of Charles I. While in some ways anticipating the American Revolution, the English Civil War followed an older pattern, one that Mircea Eliade referred to as the myth of eternal return, a circular movement rather than the linear progression of history and cause-effect relations.

The idea of moving forward, of progress, requires a future-orientation that only comes into being in the modern age, by which I mean the era that followed the printing revolution associated with Johannes Gutenberg (I discuss this in my book, On the Binding Biases of Time and Other Essays on General Semantics and Media Ecology). But that same print culture also gave rise to modern science, and with it the monopoly granted to efficient causality, cause-effect relations, to the exclusion in particular of final and formal cause (see Marshall and Eric McLuhan's Media and Formal Cause). This is the basis of the Newtonian universe in which every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and every effect can be linked back in a causal chain to another event that preceded it and brought it into being. The view of time as continuous and connected can be traced back to the introduction of the mechanical clock in the 13th century, but was solidified through the printing of calendars and time lines, and the same effect was created in spatial terms by the reproduction of maps, and the use of spatial grids, e.g., the Mercator projection.

And while the invention of history, as a written narrative concerning the linear progression over time can be traced back to the ancient Israelites, and the story of the exodus, the story incorporates the idea of a hiatus in overlapping structures:

A1.  Joseph is the golden boy, the son favored by his father Jacob, earning him the enmity of his brothers

A2.  he is sold into slavery by them, winds up in Egypt as a slave and then is falsely accused and imprisoned

A3.  by virtue of his ability to interpret dreams he gains his freedom and rises to the position of Pharaoh's prime minister

 

B1.  Joseph welcomes his brothers and father, and the House of Israel goes down to Egypt to sojourn due to famine in the land of Canaan

B2.  their descendants are enslaved, oppressed, and persecuted

B3.  Moses is chosen to confront Pharaoh, liberate the Israelites, and lead them on their journey through the desert

 

C1.  the Israelites are freed from bondage and escape from Egypt

C2.  the revelation at Sinai fully establishes their covenant with God

C3.  after many trials, they return to the Promised Land

It can be clearly seen in these narrative structures that the role of the hiatus, in ritual terms, is that of the rite of passage, the initiation period that marks, in symbolic fashion, the change in status, the transformation from one social role or state of being to another (e.g., child to adult, outsider to member of the group). This is not to discount the role that actual trials, tests, and other hardships may play in the transition, as they serve to establish or reinforce, psychologically and sometimes physically, the value and reality of the transformation.

In mythic terms, this structure has become known as the hero's journey or hero's adventure, made famous by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and also known as the monomyth, because he claimed that the same basic structure is universal to all cultures. The basis structure he identified consists of three main elements: separation (e.g., the hero leaves home), initiation (e.g., the hero enters another realm, experiences tests and trials, leading to the bestowing of gifts, abilities, and/or a new status), and return (the hero returns to utilize what he has gained from the initiation and save the day, restoring the status quo or establishing a new status quo).

Understanding the mythic, non-rational element of initiation is the key to recognizing the role of the hiatus, and in the modern era this meant using rationality to realize the limits of rationality. With this in mind, let me return to the quote I began this essay with, but now provide the larger context of the entire paragraph:

The legendary hiatus between a no-more and a not-yet clearly indicated that freedom would not be the automatic result of liberation, that the end of the old is not necessarily the beginning of the new, that the notion of an all-powerful time continuum is an illusion. Tales of a transitory period—from bondage to freedom, from disaster to salvation—were all the more appealing because the legends chiefly concerned the deeds of great leaders, persons of world-historic significance who appeared on the stage of history precisely during such gaps of historical time. All those who pressed by exterior circumstances or motivated by radical utopian thought-trains, were not satisfied to change the world by the gradual reform of an old order (and this rejection of the gradual was precisely what transformed the men of action of the eighteenth century, the first century of a fully secularized intellectual elite, into the men of the revolutions) were almost logically forced to accept the possibility of a hiatus in the continuous flow of temporal sequence.

Note that concept of gaps in historical time, which brings to mind Eliade's distinction between the sacred and the profane. Historical time is a form of profane time, and sacred time represents a gap or break in that linear progression, one that takes us outside of history, connecting us instead in an eternal return to the time associated with a moment of creation or foundation. The revelation in Sinai is an example of such a time, and accordingly Deuteronomy states that all of the members of the House of Israel were present at that event, not just those alive at that time, but those not present, the generations of the future. This statement is included in the liturgy of the Passover Seder, which is a ritual reenactment of the exodus and revelation, which in turn becomes part of the reenactment of the Passion in Christianity, one of the primary examples of Campbell's monomyth.

Arendt's hiatus, then represents a rupture between two different states or stages, an interruption, a disruption linked to an eruption. In the parlance of chaos and complexity theory, it is a bifurcation point. Arendt's contemporary, Peter Drucker, a philosopher who pioneered the scholarly study of business and management, characterized the contemporary zeitgeist in the title of his 1969 book: The Age of Discontinuity. It is an age in which Newtonian physics was replaced by Einstein's relativity and Heisenberg's uncertainty, the phrase quantum leap becoming a metaphor drawn from subatomic physics for all forms of discontinuity. It is an age in which the fixed point of view that yielded perspective in art and the essay and novel in literature yielded to Cubism and subsequent forms of modern art, and stream of consciousness in writing.

cubism

Beginning in the 19th century, photography gave us the frozen, discontinuous moment, and the technique of montage in the motion picture gave us a series of shots and scenes whose connections have to be filled in by the audience. Telegraphy gave us the instantaneous transmission of messages that took them out of their natural context, the subject of the famous comment by Henry David Thoreau that connecting Maine and Texas to one another will not guarantee that they have anything sensible to share with each other. The wire services gave us the nonlinear, inverted pyramid style of newspaper reporting, which also was associated with the nonlinear look of the newspaper front page, a form that Marshall McLuhan referred to as a mosaic. Neil Postman criticized television's role in decontextualizing public discourse in Amusing Ourselves to Death, where he used the phrase, "in the context of no context," and I discuss this as well in my recently published follow-up to his work, Amazing Ourselves to Death.

The concept of the hiatus comes naturally to the premodern mind, schooled by myth and ritual within the context of oral culture. That same concept is repressed, in turn, by the modern mind, shaped by the linearity and rationality of literacy and typography. As the modern mind yields to a new, postmodern alternative, one that emerges out of the electronic media environment, we see the return of the repressed in the idea of the jump cut writ large.

There is psychological satisfaction in the deterministic view of history as the inevitable result of cause-effect relations in the Newtonian sense, as this provides a sense of closure and coherence consistent with the typographic mindset. And there is similar satisfaction in the view of history as entirely consisting of human decisions that are the product of free will, of human agency unfettered by outside constraints, which is also consistent with the individualism that emerges out of the literate mindset and print culture, and with a social rather that physical version of efficient causality. What we are only beginning to come to terms with is the understanding of formal causality, as discussed by Marshall and Eric McLuhan in Media and Formal Cause. What formal causality suggests is that history has a tendency to follow certain patterns, patterns that connect one state or stage to another, patterns that repeat again and again over time. This is the notion that history repeats itself, meaning that historical events tend to fall into certain patterns (repetition being the precondition for the existence of patterns), and that the goal, as McLuhan articulated in Understanding Media, is pattern recognition. This helps to clarify the famous remark by George Santayana, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." In other words, those who are blind to patterns will find it difficult to break out of them.

Campbell engages in pattern recognition in his identification of the heroic monomyth, as Arendt does in her discussion of the historical hiatus.  Recognizing the patterns are the first step in escaping them, and may even allow for the possibility of taking control and influencing them. This also means understanding that the tendency for phenomena to fall into patterns is a powerful one. It is a force akin to entropy, and perhaps a result of that very statistical tendency that is expressed by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, as Terrence Deacon argues in Incomplete Nature. It follows that there are only certain points in history, certain moments, certain bifurcation points, when it is possible to make a difference, or to make a difference that makes a difference, to use Gregory Bateson's formulation, and change the course of history. The moment of transition, of initiation, the hiatus, represents such a moment.

McLuhan's concept of medium goes far beyond the ordinary sense of the word, as he relates it to the idea of gaps and intervals, the ground that surrounds the figure, and explains that his philosophy of media is not about transportation (of information), but transformation. The medium is the hiatus.

The particular pattern that has come to the fore in our time is that of the network, whether it's the decentralized computer network and the internet as the network of networks, or the highly centralized and hierarchical broadcast network, or the interpersonal network associated with Stanley Milgram's research (popularly known as six degrees of separation), or the neural networks that define brain structure and function, or social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, etc. And it is not the nodes, which may be considered the content of the network, that defines the network, but the links that connect them, which function as the network medium, and which, in the systems view favored by Bateson, provide the structure for the network system, the interaction or relationship between the nodes. What matters is not the nodes, it's the modes.

Hiatus and link may seem like polar opposites, the break and the bridge, but they are two sides of the same coin, the medium that goes between, simultaneously separating and connecting. The boundary divides the system from its environment, allowing the system to maintain its identity as separate and distinct from the environment, keeping it from being absorbed by the environment. But the membrane also serves as a filter, engaged in the process of abstracting, to use Korzybski's favored term, letting through or bringing material, energy, and information from the environment into the system so that the system can maintain itself and survive. The boundary keeps the system in touch with its situation, keeps it contextualized within its environment.

The systems view emphasizes space over time, as does ecology, but the concept of the hiatus as a temporal interruption suggests an association with evolution as well. Darwin's view of evolution as continuous was consistent with Newtonian physics. The more recent modification of evolutionary theory put forth by Stephen Jay Gould, known as punctuated equilibrium, suggests that evolution occurs in fits and starts, in relatively rare and isolated periods of major change, surrounded by long periods of relative stability and stasis. Not surprisingly, this particular conception of discontinuity was introduced during the television era, in the early 1970s, just a few years after the publication of Peter Drucker's The Age of Discontinuity.

When you consider the extraordinary changes that we are experiencing in our time, technologically and ecologically, the latter underlined by the recent news concerning the United Nations' latest report on global warming, what we need is an understanding of the concept of change, a way to study the patterns of change, patterns that exist and persist across different levels, the micro and the macro, the physical, chemical, biological, psychological, and social, what Bateson referred to as metapatterns, the subject of further elaboration by biologist Tyler Volk in his book on the subject. Paul Watzlawick argued for the need to study change in and of itself in a little book co-authored by John H. Weakland and Richard Fisch, entitled Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution, which considers the problem from the point of view of psychotherapy. Arendt gives us a philosophical entrée into the problem by introducing the pattern of the hiatus, the moment of discontinuity that leads to change, and possibly a moment in which we, as human agents, can have an influence on the direction of that change.

To have such an influence, we do need to have that break, to find a space and more importantly a time to pause and reflect, to evaluate and formulate. Arendt famously emphasizes the importance of thinking in and of itself, the importance not of the content of thought alone, but of the act of thinking, the medium of thinking, which requires an opening, a time out, a respite from the onslaught of 24/7/365. This underscores the value of sacred time, and it follows that it is no accident that during that period of initiation in the story of the exodus, there is the revelation at Sinai and the gift of divine law, the Torah or Law, and chief among them the Ten Commandments, which includes the fourth of the commandments, and the one presented in greatest detail, to observe the Sabbath day. This premodern ritual requires us to make the hiatus a regular part of our lives, to break the continuity of profane time on a weekly basis. From that foundation, other commandments establish the idea of the sabbatical year, and the sabbatical of sabbaticals, or jubilee year. Whether it's a Sabbath mandated by religious observance, or a new movement to engage in a Technology Sabbath, the hiatus functions as the response to the homogenization of time that was associated with efficient causality and literate linearity, and that continues to intensify in conjunction with the technological imperative of efficiency über alles.

hiatus

To return one last time to the quote that I began with, the end of the old is not necessarily the beginning of the new because there may not be a new beginning at all, there may not be anything new to take the place of the old. The end of the old may be just that, the end, period, the end of it all. The presence of a hiatus to follow the end of the old serves as a promise that something new will begin to take its place after the hiatus is over. And the presence of a hiatus in our lives, individually and collectively, may also serve as a promise that we will not inevitably rush towards an end of the old that will also be an end of it all, that we will be able to find the opening to begin something new, that we will be able to make the transition to something better, that both survival and progress are possible, through an understanding of the processes of continuity and change.

-Lance Strate

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.
17Feb/140

The Dystopia of Knowledge

Arendtquote

“This future man, whom the scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years, seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself.”

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

The future man of whom Arendt writes is one who has been released from earthly ties, from nature.  He has been released from earth as a physical space but also as “the quintessence of the human condition.”  He will have been able to “create life in a test tube” and “extend man’s life-span far beyond the hundred-year limit.”  The idea that this man would wish to exchange his given existence for something artificial is part of a rather intricate intellectual historical argument about the development of modern science.

The more man has sought after perfect knowledge of nature, the more he has found himself in nature’s stead, and the more uncertain he has felt, and the more he has continued to seek, with dire consequences.  This is the essential idea.  The negative consequences are bundled together within Arendt’s term, “world alienation,” and signify, ultimately, the endangerment of possibilities for human freedom.  Evocative of dystopian fiction from the first half of the twentieth century, this theme has enjoyed renewed popularity in our current world of never-ending war and ubiquitous surveillance facilitated by technical innovation.

surv

Arendt’s narration gravitates around Galileo’s consummation of the Copernican revolution, which marks the birth of “the modern astrophysical world view.”  The significance of Galileo, Arendt writes, is that with him we managed to find “the Archimedean point” or the universal point of view.  This is an imagined point outside the earth from which it should be possible to make objective observations and formulate universal natural laws.  Our reaching of the Archimedean point, without leaving the earth, was responsible for natural science’s greatest triumphs and the extreme pace of discovery and technical innovation.

This was also a profoundly destabilizing achievement, and Arendt’s chronicle of its cultural effects takes on an almost psychological resonance.  While we had known since Plato that the senses were unreliable for the discovery of truth, she says, Galileo’s telescope told us that we could not trust our capacity for reason, either.  Instead, a manmade instrument had shown us the truth, undermining both reason and faith in reason.

In grappling with the resulting radical uncertainty, we arrived at Descartes’ solution of universal doubt.  Arendt describes this as a turn towards introspection, which provides a solution insofar as it takes place within the confines of one’s mind.  External forces cannot intrude here, at least upon the certainty that mental processes are true in the sense that they are real.  Man’s turn within himself afforded him some control.  This is because it corresponded with “the most obvious conclusion to be drawn from the new physical science: though one cannot know truth as something given and disclosed, man can at least know what he makes himself.” According to Arendt, this is the fundamental reasoning that has driven science and discovery at an ever-quickening pace.  It is at the source of man’s desire to exchange his given existence “for something he has made himself.”

The discovery of the Archimedean point with Galileo led us to confront our basic condition of uncertainty, and the Cartesian solution was to move the Archimedean point inside man.  The human mind became the ultimate point of reference, supported by a mathematical framework that it produces itself.  Mathematics, as a formal structure produced by the mind, became the highest expression of knowledge.  As a consequence, “common sense” was internalized and lost its worldly, relational aspect.  If common sense only means that all of us will arrive at the same answer to a mathematical question, then it refers to a faculty that is internally held by individuals rather than one that fits us each into the common world of all, with each other, which is Arendt’s ideal.  She points to the loss of common sense as a crucial aspect of “world alienation.”

This loss is closely related to Arendt’s concerns about threats to human political communication. She worries that we have reached the point at which the discoveries of science are no longer comprehensible.  They cannot be translated from the language of mathematics into speech, which is at the core of Arendt’s notion of political action and freedom.

The threat to freedom is compounded when we apply our vision from the Archimedean point to ourselves.  Arendt cautions, “If we look down from this point upon what is going on on earth and upon the various activities of men, … then these activities will indeed appear to ourselves as no more than ‘overt behavior,’ which we can study with the same methods we use to study the behavior of rats.” (“The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man” in Between Past and Future)

She argues against the behaviorist perspective on human affairs as a false one, but more frightening for her is the fact it could become reality.  We may be seeking this transformation through our desire to control and know and thus live in a world that we have ourselves created.  When we look at human affairs from the Archimedean, objective scientific point of view, our behavior appears to be analyzable, predictable, and uniform like the activity of subatomic particles or the movement of celestial bodies.  We are choosing to look at things with such far remove that, like these other activities and movements, they are beyond the grasp of experience.  “World alienation” refers to this taking of distance, which collapses human action into behavior.  The purpose would be to remedy the unbearable condition of contingency, but in erasing contingency, by definition, we erase the unexpected events that are the worldly manifestations of human freedom.

To restate the argument in rather familiar terms: Our quest for control, to put an end to the unbearable human condition of uncertainty and contingency, leads to a loss of both control and freedom.  This sentiment should be recognizable as a hallmark of the immediate post-war period, represented in works of fiction like Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Beckett’s Endgame, and Orwell’s 1984.  We can also find it even earlier in Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Huxley’s Brave New World.  There has been a recent recovery and reemergence of the dystopian genre, at least in one notable case, and with it renewed interest in Arendt’s themes as they are explored here.

Dave Eggers’ The Circle, released in 2013, revolves around an imagined Bay Area cultish tech company that is a combination of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and PayPal.  In its apparent quest for progress, convenience, and utility, it creates an all-encompassing universe in which all of existence is interpreted in terms of data points and everything is recorded. The protagonist, an employee of the Circle, is eventually convinced to “go transparent,” meaning that her every moment is live streamed and recorded, with very few exceptions.   Reviews of the book have emphasized our culture of over-sharing and the risks to privacy that this entails.  They have also drawn parallels between this allegorical warning and the Snowden revelations.  Few, though, if any, have discussed the book in terms of the human quest for absolute knowledge in order to eliminate uncertainty and contingency, with privacy as collateral damage.

dave

In The Circle, the firm promotes transparency and surveillance as solutions to crime and corruption.  Executives claim that through acquired knowledge and technology, anything is possible, including social harmony and world peace.  The goal is to organize human affairs in a harmonious way using technical innovation and objective knowledge.  This new world is to be man made so that it can be manipulated for progressive ends.  In one key conversation, Mae, the main character, confronts one of the three firm leaders, saying, “… you can’t be saying that everyone should know everything,” to which he replies, “… I’m saying that everyone should have a right to know everything and should have the tools to know anything.  There’s not enough time to know everything, though I certainly wish there was.”

In this world, there are several senses in which man has chosen to replace existence as given with something he has made himself.  First and most obviously, new gadgets dazzle him at every turn, and he is dependent on them.  Second, he reduces all information “to the measure of the human mind.”  The technical innovations and continuing scientific discoveries are made with the help of manmade instruments, such that:  “Instead of objective qualities … we find instruments, and instead of nature or the universe—in the words of Heisenberg—man encounters only himself.” (The Human Condition, p. 261) Everything is reduced to a mathematical calculation.  An employee’s (somewhat forced) contributions to the social network are tabulated and converted into “retail raw,” the dollar measure of consumption they have inspired (through product placement, etc.).  All circlers are ranked, in a competitive manner, according to their presence on social media.  The effects in terms of Arendt’s notion of common sense are obvious.  Communication takes place in flat, dead prose.  Some reviewers have criticized Eggers for the writing style, but what appears to be bad writing actually matches the form to the content in this case.

Finally, it is not enough to experience reality here; all experience must be recorded, stored, and made searchable by the Circle.  Experience is thus replaced with a man made replica.  Again, the logic is that we can only know what we produce ourselves.  As all knowledge is organized according to human artifice, the human mind, observing from a sufficient distance, can find the patterns within it.  These forms, pleasing to the mind, are justifiable because they work.

blue

They produce practical successes.  Here, harmony is discovered because it is created.  Arendt writes:

“If it should be true that a whole universe, or rather any number of utterly different universes will spring into existence and ‘prove’ whatever over-all pattern the human mind has constructed, then man may indeed, for a moment, rejoice in a reassertion of the ‘pre-established harmony between pure mathematics and physics,’ between mind and matter, between man and the universe.  But it will be difficult to ward off the suspicion that this mathematically preconceived world may be a dream world where every dreamed vision man himself produces has the character of reality only as long as the dream lasts.”

If harmony is artificially created, then it can only last so long as it is enforced.  Indeed, in the end of the novel, when the “dream” is revealed as nightmare, Mae is faced with the choice of prolonging it.  We can find a similar final moment of hope in The Human Condition.  As she often does, Arendt has set up a crushing course of events, a seeming onslaught of catastrophe, but she leaves us with at least one ambiguous ray of light: “The idea that only what I am going to make will be real—perfectly true and legitimate in the realm of fabrication—is forever defeated by the actual course of events, where nothing happens more frequently than the totally unexpected.”

-Jennifer M. Hudson

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
22Nov/134

Nettlesomeness and Humanity

ArendtWeekendReading

Magnus Carlsen—just 22 years old—beat Viswanathan Anand (the reigning world chess champion) this week at the World Chess Championships in Chennai, India. There has been much excitement about Carlsen’s victory, and not simply because of his youth. As Joe Weisenthal writes, Carlsen’s win signifies the emergence of a new kind of chess. We can profitably speak of at least three eras.

chess

First, what is often called the Romantic era of chess. Here is how Weisenthal describes it:

In the old days, high-level chess was a swashbuckling game filled with daring piece sacrifices and head-spinning multi-move combinations where the winner would pull off wins seemingly out of nowhere.

Beginning in the middle of the 20th century, Weisenthal explains, chess became more methodical. New champions would still take chances, but they were studied risks, more considered, and often pre-tested in preparation games. Players would study all past games by opponents analyzed through computers. This meant that the spontaneous move was more often than not beaten back by the prepared answer.

As the study of chess became more rigorous, these wild games became more and more rare at the highest level, as daring (but theoretically weak) combinations became more easy to repel…. Modern chess champions have won by building crushing, airtight, positional superiorities against their opponents, grinding them down and forcing a resignation. The chess is amazing, although frequently less of a high-wire act.

The third era of recent chess might be called the computer age. It began, for better or worse, when IBM’s Deep Blue super computer beat the great chess champion Gary Kasparov in 1997. The current generation of players (like Carlsen) were raised playing chess against computers. This has changed the way the game is played.

In an essay a while back in the NYRB, Kasparov reflected on what the rise of chess-playing computers meant.

The heavy use of computer analysis has pushed the game itself in new directions. The machine doesn’t care about style or patterns or hundreds of years of established theory. It counts up the values of the chess pieces, analyzes a few billion moves, and counts them up again. (A computer translates each piece and each positional factor into a value in order to reduce the game to numbers it can crunch.) It is entirely free of prejudice and doctrine and this has contributed to the development of players who are almost as free of dogma as the machines with which they train. Increasingly, a move isn’t good or bad because it looks that way or because it hasn’t been done that way before. It’s simply good if it works and bad if it doesn’t. Although we still require a strong measure of intuition and logic to play well, humans today are starting to play more like computers.

One way to put this is that as we rely on computers and begin to value what computers value and think like computers think, our world becomes more rational, more efficient, and more powerful, but also less beautiful, less unique, and less exotic. The romantic era of elegant and swashbuckling chess is over. But so too is the rational, calculated, grinding chess that Weisenthal describes as the style of the late 20th century. Since all players are trained by the logical rigidity of playing against computers, playing by pure logic will rarely give one side the ultimate advantage.

Which brings us to Carlsen and the buzz about his victory at the World Chess Championships. Behind Carlsen’s victories is what is being called his “nettlesomeness,” a concept apparently developed by the computer science professor Ken Regan. The idea has been described recently by Tyler Cowen:

Carlsen is demonstrating one of his most feared qualities, namely his “nettlesomeness,” to use a term coined for this purpose by Ken Regan. Using computer analysis, you can measure which players do the most to cause their opponents to make mistakes. Carlsen has the highest nettlesomeness score by this metric, because his creative moves pressure the other player and open up a lot of room for mistakes. In contrast, a player such as Kramnik plays a high percentage of very accurate moves, and of course he is very strong, but those moves are in some way calmer and they are less likely to induce mistakes in response.

For Weisenthal, the rise of “nettlesomeness” signifies the "new era of post-modern chess. It's not about uncorking crazy, romantic brilliancies. And it's not about achieving crushing, positional victories. It's about being as cool as a computer while your opponent does things that are, well, human."

I am not sure Weisenthal gives full credit to Carlsen’s nettlesomeness. Yes, Carlsen does engage in a bit of emotional warfare—the getting up from the table, trying to throw off one’s opponent. But his nettlesomeness also involves “his creative moves pressure the other player and open up a lot of room for mistakes.” This is important.

players

In Kasparov’s earlier essay, he also describes his experience of two matches played against the Bulgarian Veselin Topalov, at the time the world's highest ranked Chess Master. When Kasparov played him in regular timed chess, he bested Topalov 3-1. But when he played him in a match when both were allowed to consult a computer for assistance, the match ended in a 3-3 draw. The lesson Kasparov drew from this is that computer-assisted chess magnifies the importance of human creativity:

The computer could project the consequences of each move we considered, pointing out possible outcomes and countermoves we might otherwise have missed. With that taken care of for us, we could concentrate on strategic planning instead of spending so much time on calculations. Human creativity was even more paramount under these conditions.

One may, however, question Kasparov’s conclusion. The computers did even out the match. As he admits, “My advantage in calculating tactics had been nullified by the machine.” More often than not, the result of computer-assisted chess is a draw.

What Carlsen’s victory may show, however, is that at a time when most players learn against machines and become technical wizards, it is those players who rise above the calculating game and are adept at finding the surprising or at least unsettling moves that will, at the very top of the sport, prove victorious. That is what Regan and Cowen mean by nettlesomeness. All of which suggests that, at least for the top chess player in the world, chess remains a human endeavor in which creativity can be enlisted to discombobulate human opponents playing increasingly like machines.

For your weekend read, take a long gander at Weisenthal’s essay. It includes simulated chess games to illustrate his point! Happy reading and playing.

-RB

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".
26Aug/130

Amor Mundi – 8/25/13

Arendtamormundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor MundiLove 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.

Peter Maass on the Surveillance State

lauraHow does the rise of a secret, inscrutable, and unaccountable security bureaucracy in the United States impact law-abiding citizens? This is a crucial question as many of us struggle to understand the domestic spying programs unveiled by Edward Snowden. In one such program, Xkeyscore, low-level NSA analysts are permitted to “mine enormous agency databases by filling in a simple on-screen form giving only a broad justification for the search. The request is not reviewed by a court or any NSA personnel before it is processed.” It is arguably true that the government needs to be able to act in extraordinary ways to protect the country at a time of world terrorism. It is equally true, however, that once such information is available and held by the government, it is likely that it will be abused. Information is easily transferred. If the government collects and holds data on citizens, that data will eventually be misused, whether by the government or others. One case in point is Laura Poitras. In Peter Maass’ must-read cover story in last week’s New York Times Magazine, he tells how since 2006 Poitras has been on government watch lists because of rumors falsely spread about her. While winning awards and producing lauded documentaries, she was repeatedly detained, met with armed guards, and had her computers and notes taken, searched, and held for weeks—because of secret and ultimately false rumors. And all before she got involved with Edward Snowden. Now Poitras—who has helped to bring Snowden’s revelations about the illegal excesses of government surveillance to light in a responsible manner—may never be able to enter the United States again without being harassed and arrested. It is important to balance the need for security against the rights of citizens and the essential American right of free speech and meaningful dissent. But how did it happen that the Attorney General of the United States of America had to write to the President of Russia assuring him that if Snowden were extradited to the U.S. he would not be tortured? As Daniel Ellsberg has pointed out, when he turned himself in after publishing the Pentagon papers, he was freed on bond pending trial. Would the Obama administration’s justice department have treated Snowden that way? There is in the end a fine line separating the surveillance of terrorists and the harassment of citizens. Maass’ article sheds light on the surveillance state through the personal story of one woman. Wherever you come down on the question of national security surveillance, it is an essay that you should read.

"In America, It is Always a Paranoid Time"

truthersLaura Miller reviews Jesse Walker's new short history of American conspiracy theories, For Walker, the conspiracy theory is a kind of national past time, with some conspiracy or another widely discussed within many disparate demographics. Miller delves into why this might be: "As Walker sees it, our brains are predisposed to see patterns in random data and to apply stories to explain them, which is why conspiracy theory can be so contagious. Although conspiracies do exist, we need to be vigilant against our propensity to find them whether they are there or not. The most sensible outlook would appear to be that of Robert Anton Wilson, who concluded that “powerful people” could well be “engaged in criminal plots” but who found it unlikely that “the conspirators were capable of carrying out those plots competently.” Or, I would add, of covering them up effectively."

Snowballing Assessments

metricsPresident Obama gave a speech this week promising to take on university tuition. It is a worthy goal at a time of skyrocketing student debt. But the devil is in the details and here the details include a universal assessment board that will rank how well schools prepare students for employment. The idea is to allow students and parents to know which schools are the best return on their investment and to shame colleges and universities into cutting costs and focusing more on preparing students for gainful employment. There are many questions that could be asked, including whether we are better served spending money to make college more affordable or by actually turning high school—which is already free and mandatory—into a meaningful experience that prepares students for work and citizenship? But philosophical questions aside, does such assessment work? Not according to Colin Macilwain, writing in the Scientific Journal Nature. Discussing “Snowball,” a system designed to assess British Universities, Macilwain writes: “A major problem with metrics is the well-charted tendency for people to distort their own behaviour to optimize whatever is being measured (such as publications in highly cited journals) at the expense of what is not (such as careful teaching). Snowball is supposed to get around that by measuring many different things at once. Yet it cannot quantify the attributes that society values most in a university researcher — originality of thinking and the ability to nurture students. Which is not the same as scoring highly in increasingly ubiquitous student questionnaires.” As assessments become a way of life, it is important to recall their unintended ill-effects.

The Young and the Rebellious

iranIn an essay about the ways that Iran's regime has used the deaths of "martyrs" to political advantage in the past and how opponents of the regime used that same rhetoric to push the opposite way following the death of Neda Agha-Soltan in 2009, Mehdi Okasi describes his own youthful push back as an American-Iranian visiting Tehran as a teenager: "I ignored my family’s warnings, and carried my copy of The Satanic Verses with me throughout Tehran: to coffee shops, internet cafes, even the park. I held it in my hand as I walked around the city, placed it on tables as I ordered in restaurants, or on the counter at the local bakery where my sweet tooth was placated daily by cream pastries layered with jam and rolled in crushed pistachios. I even made a point of opening it in view of police and soldiers. But to my disappointment, no one paid me any attention. When I visited the many bookstores around Engelob Square, I asked booksellers if they had a copy squirreled away. My question didn’t inspire rage or offense. They didn’t gasp in disbelief or chase me out the store with a broom. Instead, in a rather bored tone, they informed me that the book wasn’t available in Iran. When they learned that I was visiting from America, they added that I could probably find a copy at so-and-so’s bookstore. Like anything else that was forbidden, you only had to know where to look and how to ask for it."

An American Speaker in Paris

parisTa-Nehisi Coates has spent part of the summer learning French in Paris. His continuing education in a foreign tongue, and his decision to pursue that education in a place where that language has spoken, has revealed to him the arrogance of native speakers of English; Coates tells his friends that he wishes more Americans were multilingual and "they can't understand. They tell me English is the international language. Why would an American need to know anything else?" For his own part, Coates seems to have been dissuaded of that particular notion simply by venturing into the world outside of his door; humility and empathy have been his prizes. "You come to this place" he says "and find yourself disarmed. You see that it has its own culture, its own ages and venerable traditions, that the people do not tremble before you. And then you understand that there is not just intelligent life in outer space, but life so graceful that it shames you into silence."

Featured Events

smallfailingOctober 3-4, 2013

The sixth annual fall conference, "Failing Fast:The Crisis of the Educated Citizen"

Olin Hall, Bard College
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.
29Jul/130

Amor Mundi – 7/28/13

Arendtamormundi

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.

Who's Afraid of the Intellectuals?

believeRelevant to the most recent Quote of the Week on the danger of intellectuals is Jan Mieszkowski's review of historian Christian Ingrao's recent book Believe and Destroy: Intellectuals in the SS War Machine. Ingrao's book employs a particular qualitative methodology to explore the role and motives of intellectuals within the Nazi elite - specifically of lawyers, historians, philosophers, and similarly trained professionals who joined the Sicherheitsdiest or SD - the intelligence arm of the SS. According to Mieszkowski, "Believe and Destroy focuses on "a group of eighty university graduates: economists, lawyers, linguists, philosophers, historians and geographers." Drawing on a range of archival sources, Ingrao follows their careers from school and university through their participation in the SD and subsequent efforts to defend themselves in postwar trials. (A dozen members of the group were hanged; most of the others received prison sentences.) He is particularly concerned with the transition from the 1930s, when the SD evolved into an immense surveillance and social science research organization operating inside Germany, to the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, when these men took the first steps toward putting their theories about the Germanification of foreign lands into practice." Read Roger Berkowitz's further account on Mieszkowski's essay here.

The Importance of Reading Pushkin

pushkinMikhail Shiskin discusses the way that Russian governance, from the absolutist czars, to the communists, and into today's nominal democracy, has felt that it needed to make a political hero out of Pushkin: "From the times of Pushkin and Nicholas I, it was no longer enough for the earthly czar to be anointed by God; the ruler had also to be sanctified by Russian literature, the second sacred Russian power. That is why Stalin's regime was so concerned with perpetuating the memory of the classic Russian writer. If Orthodox czars based their right to own the bodies and souls of their subjects on heavenly law, the Communists legitimized the dictatorship of the party with "scientific" theses such as, 'The teachings of Marx are omnipotent because they are the truth.' But the real sacred figures who could sanctify the state were Pushkin and Gogol - the poets and the writers. When the people followed the Communists at the beginning of the twentieth century, they gave up Christ, but they found it impossible, as the revolutionary poets exhorted them, 'to throw Pushkin overboard the steamboat of modernity.' They could not raise their hand against that which is most sacred for the Russian soul. So this prison state built monuments to Pushkin everywhere, trying to seem righteous in the people's eyes."

The Value of the Prison Paper

angoIn the wake of the recent system-wide hunger strike in the California prison system, Andrea Jones considers the role of the free press in connecting prisoners to the outside world. "There are more prisoners than ever, but the emotional distance we have from prisons is also greater than ever," suggests Sarita Alami, a historian at work on a project that employs digital methods like topic modeling and text mining to identify patterns in archived prison periodicals. Analyzing the volume and content of inmate journalism from 1912 through 1980 -what she calls the "golden years" - Alami studies intervals of collective unrest and activism in prisons. She has determined that the Great Depression, the early 1950s, and the late 1960s through early 1970s - time periods characterized by widespread riots, lawsuits, and work stoppages - corresponded to upswings in prison journalism, which she posits as a key facilitator of resistance and reform." But in recent decades, "as prison populations ballooned..., inmate-produced media did not experience a parallel upsurge. According to Alami, the penal press was suppressed twofold: by the rise of the prison-industrial complex, and by broad shifts in media consumption. ... the ascension of the Internet, while expanding the scope of information on the outside, served to cut off prisoners from the mediated public sphere of the modern world." She goes on to conclude, convincingly, that prisoners are often punished, particularly with solitary confinement, for trying to write and share their experience of the world.

Reconciling Experience with History

makkaiDiscussing her recent essay in Harper's, writer Rebecca Makkai talks about her experience of her grandfather, whom she knew as a yoga instructor who lived in Hawaii, who was also the principal author of Hungary's Second Jewish Law, which passed in 1939. At one point, she strikes a particularly Arendtian note: "There's also the fact that it's just very difficult, psychologically, to reconcile the face of a real person with one of the darkest moments of the twentieth century. It's not the same as looking at someone who's personally violent, likely to reach out and hit you. This guy is chopping up papaya on his balcony, telling jokes, and I think we have an instinct to forgive, to see just the best in that person, to see him at just that moment. (The irony being that this is what he and his colleagues failed to do - to see humans in front of them.)"

The Confused Readers of "The Lottery"

lotteryRuth Franklin, writing about Shirley Jackson's 1948 horror short story "The Lottery," draws attention to a few of the letters that the New Yorker received after the story's publication in its pages: There were indeed some cancelled subscriptions, as well as a fair share of name-calling - Jackson was said to be "perverted" and "gratuitously disagreeable," with "incredibly bad taste." But the vast majority of the letter writers were not angry or abusive but simply confused. More than anything else, they wanted to understand what the story meant."

 

Featured Events

 July 22-July 31, 2013
The Hannah Arendt Center 10 DAY/100 MEMBER CAMPAIGN

October 3-4, 2013
The sixth annual fall conference, "Failing Fast" The Educated Citizen in Crisis"
Olin Hall, Bard College

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Jeff Jurgens considers how Hannah Arendt's Jewish identity contributed to her cosmopolitanism. Roger Berkowitz thinks through Arendt's feelings about intellectuals. Your weeked read explores the role and motives of intellectuals within the Nazi elite. And this week we kicked off a short membership drive; Roger explains what's next for the Center, and why you should consider joining us, 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.
11Jan/130

Infinitely Intoxicating

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.

-RB

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".