Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
6Oct/140

Amor Mundi 10/5/14

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.

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We Have Nothing To...

marilynne_robinsonIn a brilliant profile of Marilynne Robinson, whose new book Lila will be out this month, Wyatt Mason (a Senior Fellow at the Arendt Center) notes that Robinson thinks that fear dominates our contemporary condition; fear, she says, is the root of a cultural cynicism: "I hate to say it, but I think a default posture of human beings is fear." Robinson comes to speak about fear in answer to Mason's question: "What do you think people should be talking about more?" Her answer: "'One of the things that bothers me,' she began, with feeling, 'is that there are prohibitions of an unarticulated kind that are culturally felt that prevent people from actually saying what they think.' From there, she raised her well-documented relationship to faith; said that students at Iowa from faith-based backgrounds seek her out; sketched the inhibition these students nonetheless feel in describing the sacred ('If you're Jewish or Catholic, you can make all the jokes about your mother or the nun, but in terms of saying on one's deathbed, "What will it mean to me that this is how I would have described myself, how does the cosmos feel as it nestles in my particular breast?" they are completely inarticulate about that'); addressed that inhibition and suggested its root ('It's as if when you describe something good, you are being deceived or are being deceptive'); offered Flannery O'Connor as an example of a religious writer who fails to describe goodness ('Her prose is beautiful, her imagination appalls me'); evoked the nature of O'Connor's failure ('There's a lot of writing about religion with a cold eye, but virtually none with a loving heart'); complained about the widespread ignorance of religion in American life; told the story of Oseola McCarty, a laundress who bequeathed most of her life savings to the University of Southern Mississippi ('[An] interviewer was talking about how McCarty took down this Bible and First Corinthians fell out of it, it had been so read. And you think, Here is this woman that, by many standards, might have been considered marginally literate, that by another standard would have been considered to be a major expert on the meaning of First Corinthians!'); suggested that McCarty's understanding of First Corinthians - in which Paul lays out the kind of communitarian behaviors upon which Christian decency might depend - reveals what it means to read a text well ('It makes you think that comprehension has an ethical content'); jumped to some reading she has been doing that has an explicit ethical content - essays by John Wycliffe, who played a crucial role in the first English translations of the Bible ('Wycliffe says that if you do not object strenuously to a superior's bad behavior, you are as bad, as guilty as he is of what happens'); and rehearsed the radical activist tradition of translating the Bible, how rendering it into English was a courageous act, a risky resistance of royal authority. ... And it was here that Robinson brought up fear: How it has come to keep us at bay from our best selves, the selves that could and should 'do something.' In her case, that 'something' has been writing. For Robinson, writing is not a craft; it is 'testimony,' a bearing witness: an act that demands much of its maker, not least of which is the courage to reveal what one loves."

Same Spot, Different Day

hereSteven Heller considers cartoonist Richard McGuire's newly updated project Here, a comic set in one room over the course of many centuries: "Here is, furthermore, a meditation on 'impermanence,' which is what makes it emotionally compelling yet unsettling-as though every moment in time is preserved in some random playback mode. Structurally, everything and everyone has what McGuire calls a 'walk-on part' as the mysterious scenes go flowing by. 'If you stop to think about this, the "now" becomes heightened,' he says. 'We are so rarely "in the moment," we spend most of our time thinking of the past or worrying about the future. The "now" is the only thing that really exists. The book starts with the question, "Why did I come in here again?" Which is what I was asking myself when I started this project. It took me a long time to figure out how exactly to make this book. The book ends with a moment of recognition of the "now." The person finds the book they are looking for. Which is also my answer, I came back to this idea to make it into a book.'"

Why Acadamese?

academic_writingSteven Pinker suggests that, although there are lots of reasons why academics write so poorly, most it is because they are not encouraged to write well: "Fog comes easily to writers; it's the clarity that requires practice. The naïve realism and breezy conversation in classic style are deceptive, an artifice constructed through effort and skill. Exorcising the curse of knowledge is no easier. It requires more than just honing one's empathy for the generic reader. Since our powers of telepathy are limited, it also requires showing a draft to a sample of real readers and seeing if they can follow it, together with showing it to yourself after enough time has passed that it's no longer familiar and putting it through another draft (or two or three or four). And there is the toolbox of writerly tricks that have to be acquired one by one: a repertoire of handy idioms and tropes, the deft use of coherence connectors such as nonetheless and moreover, an ability to fix convoluted syntax and confusing garden paths, and much else. You don't have to swallow the rational-actor model of human behavior to see that professionals may not bother with this costly self-improvement if their profession doesn't reward it. And by and large, academe does not. Few graduate programs teach writing. Few academic journals stipulate clarity among their criteria for acceptance, and few reviewers and editors enforce it. While no academic would confess to shoddy methodology or slapdash reading, many are blasé about their incompetence at writing. Enough already. Our indifference to how we share the fruits of our intellectual labors is a betrayal of our calling to enhance the spread of knowledge. In writing badly, we are wasting each other's time, sowing confusion and error, and turning our profession into a laughingstock."

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Weaponising Religion

samsonWriting about former nun Karen Armstrong's new book Fields of Blood: Religion of History and Violence, Ferdinand Mound troubles the commonly understood relationship between the two: "Armstrong argues persuasively that it is under the cumulative pressure of invasion by outsiders and internal oppression that secular grievance morphs into jihad. To use an apt but unlovely term, invented I think by Dr. Henry Kissinger, religion is 'weaponised' - how Dr. Strangelove would adore the word. After years of Israeli blockade and creeping land grabs, Yasser Arafat's entirely secular Palestine Liberation Organisation has segued into the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas. Israel herself, founded as a secular haven in the teeth of the rabbis, has become a holy land after half a century of Arab encirclement. Now young men all over the Middle East, many of them originally secular and ignorant of Islam, as were the majority of the 9/11 bombers, are being hyped up by selective quotation of holy writ to commit crimes as unspeakable as, well, Samson's. Religion makes its comeback into politics in this hideous perverted form for much the same reason as it emerged in the first place - as an anguished reaction against a heartless world. Westerners lament that Islam never had a Reformation. Muslims may retort that if we had not trampled all over them, they wouldn't have needed one."

Arendt's Kantianism

eichmannSeyla Benhabib has an excellent account of the poverty of those American critics who take to the media to denounce Hannah Arendt every time a new opportunity emerges. In doing so, she provides an excellent account of Arendt's use of Kant in her understanding of Adolf Eichmann: "Commenting on Eichmann's claim that he was 'neither a murderer nor a mass murderer,' Stangneth writes that his 'inner morality is not an idea of justice, a universal moral category, or even a kind of introspection.... Eichmann was not demanding a common human law, which could also apply to him, because he, too, was human. He was actually demanding recognition for a National Socialist dogma, according to which each people (Volk) has a right to defend itself by any means necessary, the German people most of all.' Stangneth explains that for Eichmann 'Conscience was simply the "morality of the Fatherland that dwells within" a person, which Eichmann also termed "the voice of the blood."' This recalls the famous exchange during Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem between Judge Yitzhak Raveh and the defendant about Kant's moral philosophy, which Arendt cites in 'Eichmann in Jerusalem.' She quotes Eichmann saying, 'I meant by my remark about Kant that the principle of my will must always be such that it can become the principle of general laws.' But Arendt notes that Eichmann's meaning perverts Kant's Categorical Imperative: Whereas 'In Kant's philosophy the source, that source was practical reason, in Eichmann's household use of him, it was the will of the Führer.' So when Arendt uses the phrase 'the inability to think' to characterize Eichmann's reduction of conscience to a 'voice of blood' and of the categorical imperative to the command of the Führer, she is taking as given the Kantian terminology, in which 'to think' means to think for oneself and to think consistently, but also from the standpoint of everyone else. The Categorical Imperative in one of its formulations says, 'Act in such a way that the principle of your actions can be a universal law for all.' Eichmann neither thought for himself nor from a universal standpoint in any Kantian sense, and Arendt returned to the relationship between thinking and moral action in several of her essays after 'Eichmann in Jerusalem.'"

 The Secular Diamond

baseball_diamondIn an interview at the end of the regular season, baseball fan George Will takes on the idea that baseball is somehow religious: "Part of the beauty of baseball, and sport generally, is that it doesn't mean a damn thing. It's valued for itself. Now, it can be the pursuit of excellence. It is competition tamed and made civil by rules. It is aggression channeled in a wholesome direction. These are all virtues. They tiptoe up to the point and stop well short of giving baseball meaning. It's a game. It's a very pretty, demanding, and dangerous game. I do think that baseball satisfies a longing in people, particularly urban people. There is a vestigial tribal impulse in all of us. For instance, when you get on the L and the cars begin to fill up with people wearing their Cub blue and you're all going to the same place for the same reason, for about three hours a little community exists. It disperses after three hours, but it will come back tomorrow. Daniel Patrick Moynihan talked about what he called the 'liberal expectancy.' He said that with the coming of modernity the two drivers of history, religion and ethnicity, would lose their saliency. Sport caters to this and entertains this desire for group identification. But there's nothing transcendent about baseball."

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Featured Events

milgramHuman Rights Course, Studies in Obedience, hosts Dr. David Mantell

As a Fellow at Max-Planck Institute of Psychiatry, in Munich, Mr. Mantell replicated the Milgram experiment.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Hannah Arendt Center, 3:00 pm


congressBard College Public Debate

Resolved: "Individualism is an American value worth fighting for."

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

Campus Center Multipurpose Room, 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm


conference_14THIS WEEK - 2014 FALL CONFERENCE

October 9-10

The Hannah Arendt Center's annual fall conference, The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Values Worth Fighting For?, will be held this week on Thursday and Friday, October 9-10!

Registration closes Monday, 10/6! You can register here before it's too late!

Want to know more about the schedule of the conference? Please click for details here!

Learn more about the conference here.

Just in case you are unable to make it to our conference, you can watch a live webcast of all the lectures and panel discussions here.


dorst_ehlerReading: Tankred Dorst and Ursula Ehler

Two of Germany's most distinguished contemporary playwrights read from Discovery of America and other works.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Olin Room 102, 7:30 pm


One Day University Film School Presents: "Robot and Frank" and a Discussion with Roger Berkowitz

Robot and Frank explores the depths of friendship and even love between a robot and a man. Though the film is a comedy, the underlying questions it raises are both timely and serious. What is friendship? Can a machine love? More importantly, what happens when humans fall in love with machines?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Manhattan Movement and Arts Center, 2:00 pm - 5:00 pm


From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Kazue Koishikawa discusses Arendt's conception of the self and how our thoughts, our bodies, our speech, and our love shape our existence as communal beings in the Quote of the Week. Portuguese poet and philosopher Fernando Pessoa provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. We look back to a 2012 lecture delivered by Michael McCarthy analyzing Arendt's critique of "the world alienation of modernity" in our Video Archives. In our Library feature, we appreciate Arendt's collection of Lichtenberg's works. And Roger Berkowitz reflects on the decline of and how we might reinvigorate America's exceptionalism in the Weekend Read.

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.
22Sep/140

Amor Mundi 9/21/14

Amor Mundi

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.

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Anxiety and Writing

donald_antrimJohn Jeremiah Sullivan tells a tale of the anxieties and rare talents of Donald Antrim. At one point he recounts the story of Antrim's battles with mental illness and Antrim's decision to check himself into a psychiatric hospital. His doctors said: "'You're very sick, and you're very psychotic, and we can take care of you.' They told him they wanted him to undergo electroconvulsive therapy. He could take time to think about it. A nurse led him back into the hallway and down to his room. The news destroyed him. Not because he didn't believe them, that it was the best thing for him, nor even because he feared the procedure itself (though naturally it terrified him to face it), but because he believed it would mean the end of him as a writer. That his talent would be scattered. His brains scrambled. The mechanism disassembled. Not to write? A living death. What would it even mean to go about your day? Also he felt that it was, he said, 'a confirmation that I would never leave hospitals.' He sat down on a chair. 'Not 20 minutes later,' he said, 'a patient called out, "Mr. Antrim,­ there's a phone call for you."' He shuffled down to the phones near the medication dispensary. He picked up. 'Donald,' a voice said, 'this is Dave Wallace. I heard you were in bad shape....' Wallace, who had undergone the procedure himself, spent at least an hour telling Antrim that he shouldn't be afraid, that he would still be there when it was over, that it would still be there."

What Kind of Nazi Was He?

heideggerWe live in a time dominated by the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, the idea that one aspect of a person's life dominates the whole. Thus someone who has strong faith in God is dismissed as a fundamentalist just as someone who opposes the wearing of Burqas in public is labeled an Islamophobe and those who oppose Israel are called antisemites. In each of these instances, one opinion or quality of the person is used to devalue the entirety of their persona, as if to hold an offensive opinion makes one offensive. There are few opinions that are considered to disqualify one for good society more than to be a Nazi, which is why the publication of Martin Heidegger's Black Notebooks has unleashed a frenzy of self-satisfied accusation. In two recent reviews, Gregory Fried in the LA Review of Books and Peter Gordon in the New York Review of Books each make obligatory statements that the Notebooks prove Heidegger was a Nazi. But each also makes the effort then to ask what that means, to understand Heidegger's fully atypical and metaphysical Nazism. Here is Fried: "For one thing, the Notebooks show that the Nazi revolution was only an opportunity for Heidegger, a moment when the overturning might be possible, not guaranteed. He was proud enough to think he could become the leader in spirit of this movement, as Marx was to Communism, but the movement failed him and the historical rupture it should have served, not the other way around. Furthermore, Communism itself was, for Heidegger, just another form of Platonism. Much like the Christian end-times and apocalypse, Communism promises an end of history, a complete fulfillment of human destiny. Platonism in all its forms, according to Heidegger, explains what it means to be human as something grounded in a timeless realm beyond history that applies universally to all human beings, whether as created in God's image, or as bearers of human rights that apply to 'all men' - as the American Declaration would have it - or as participants in Communism's world revolution that would put an end to the question of what humanity has been and will become. To all such movements Heidegger applies the name 'liberalism,' not in the parochial, contemporary sense of modern welfare liberalism, but rather in a sense that reaches back to Plato and that defines human 'liberty' on the basis of an appeal to timeless and universal truths. In the Nazis, Heidegger thought he had found a movement that would reject universalistic liberalism in all its forms - Christianity, the secular Enlightenment, Communism - in favor of a politics that would root human history in the communal belonging of a finite historical people. By the end, though, the Notebooks show Heidegger accusing Nazism itself of falling prey to liberalism through its metaphysical reduction of all human differences to race, its treating the Volk as kind of super-subject akin to conventional liberalism's subjective individual, and its capitulation to the idols of machination and gigantism.... The promise of the Nazi revolution had devolved, for Heidegger, into a kitschy mish-mash of blood-and-soil myth-making, its followers qualified only by their willingness not to think or to question the meaning of modernity." You can view a discussion between Roger Berkowitz and Peter Trawny, the translator of the Black Notebooks, here.

A Metaphysical Nazi

martin_heideggerPeter Gordon also makes an effort to explore the depths and not simply the fact of Heidegger's Nazism: "As rector he tried to resist 'vulgar National Socialism.' He knew that Nazism was a concatenation of competing ideologies, and he expressed both resentment at his rivals and fear that the ascendant language of allegedly scientific racism would mislead the German people from its true historical mission. Although he grasped at the official jargon of 'blood and soil,' he eschewed 'dull biologism' because he felt it wrongly applied the schema of the natural sciences to human existence, as if the entire 'intellectual-historical world' grew in a 'plantlike' fashion from the body of the Volk. In April 1934, Heidegger tendered his resignation as rector. The details of his career have received ample documentation, notably in the scrupulous historical study by Hugo Ott. But the notebooks give us a fuller picture of Heidegger's personal disappointment. On April 28 he made sketches for a farewell address, desperately seeking a higher significance for the 'wrecked year.' The failure was not his alone, he wrote, and perhaps it was not a failure at all, since wreckage itself was 'the highest form of human experience, in which we meet with the effective world-powers in their merciless efficacy.' Failure or not, from this point onward the notebooks assume a tone of marked bitterness. Everywhere he saw only 'rushers and alarmists, makers and strivers.' By the summer of 1936 Heidegger was under surveillance, and although he continued to nourish hopes for Germany's political future, his own chances for a career as a public official of the Third Reich began to dwindle." You can view a discussion between Roger Berkowitz and Peter Trawny, the translator of the Black Notebooks, here.

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The Stamp of Disapproval

authorRobert Darnton wonders at the relationship between author and censor: "When exiles from the Soviet system invoked 'freedom' and 'truth,' they were not appealing to the protection of the First Amendment or speaking as philosophers. They were using words to describe their experience of censorship as a force operating in specific circumstances, a force that determined the nature of literature in an oppressive political system. 'Freedom of speech' served as a standard against which to measure the oppression. It did not apply to constraints of all kinds, although many kinds had weighed on the lives of the writers. Freedom for them was a principle made meaningful by the experience of its violation. Experiences varied, of course, and the variations make it hopeless to search for a general proposition that would encompass all of them, including some that have been studied up close, such as censorship under apartheid in South Africa. They also understood that literature in what Westerners called the 'free world' suffered from constraints. Does their experience argue for a relativistic notion of freedom?"

Revision is Joy

richard_rodriguezIn an interview, Richard Rodriguez describes his writing life: "My own writing life is as predictable as the old priest preparing to say the dawn mass. The pleasant cold, the mild pain of being alive. I have the same breakfast every day-cold cereal, yogurt, coffee. I read the newspapers. I take a fistful of vitamins. I shower. I linger at my bookshelf or at the window. I read a chapter or a poem from a shelf I keep above my desk of former lovers and seducers, impossible rivals-Nabokov or Lawrence, Larkin. Woolf. Sitting down at the computer is as daunting as the altar boy's first genuflection. Aquinas described writing as a form of prayer. Writing is for me dishearteningly hermetic. Revision is writing. Revision is humiliation-Tuesday saying something less well than Monday. Revision is open to noticing connections. Revision is joy at precisely that moment when the sentence no longer seems mine but speaks back to me and haughtily resists further revision. I read in the afternoons. I take long walks. I watch TV in the evening. I write letters at all times." Richard Rodriguez gave the keynote lecture at the 2013 Hannah Arendt Center Conference. Revisit it here.

How Easy It Is to Distort Reality

realityJake Flanagan offers a cautionary tale of internet deception on Facebook. "Zilla van der Born, a Dutch national, spent five weeks traveling through Southeast Asia and documented the trip in photos on Facebook. She posed for pictures while dining on dumplings, snorkeling among colorful fish in azure waters and visiting ornately decorated Buddhist temples - compiling the lot into a series of videos for her Vimeo account. All in all, Ms. van der Born seemed to have enjoyed a busy, albeit conventional, trip to Phuket, Luang Prabang or some other regional tourist hub. Or so it would appear. In reality, Ms. van der Born never left her home city, Amsterdam. Each photograph was expertly contrived.... The ultimate goal was to 'prove how easy it is to distort reality,' she said. 'Everybody knows that pictures of models are manipulated. But we often overlook the fact that we manipulate reality also in our own lives.'"

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Featured Events

milgramHuman Rights Course, Studies in Obedience, hosts Dr. David Mantell

As a Fellow at Max-Planck Institute of Psychiatry, in Munich, Mr. Mantell replicated the Milgram experiment.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Hannah Arendt Center, 3:00 pm


congressBard College Public Debate

Resolved: "The fate of the world depends upon the success or failure of America's model of democratic self-government."

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

Campus Center Multipurpose Room, 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm


conference_14SAVE THE DATE - 2014 FALL CONFERENCE

October 9-10

The Hannah Arendt Center's annual fall conference, The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Values Worth Fighting For?, will be held this year on October 9-10!

Registration is now OPEN! You can register here!

Want to know more about the schedule of the conference? Please click for details here!

Learn more about the conference here.

 

 


From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Laurie Naranch discusses Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt's shared investment in literary pearls, fragments, and moments in the Quote of the Week. French dramatist Jean Racine provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. We look back on Roger Hodge's talk "Alchemies of Deception" for our 2011 conference in our Video Archives. In our Library feature, we admire Arendt's impressive collection of Kant's writings. And Roger Berkowitz reflects on American exceptionalism and its decline in the Weekend Read.

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.
8Sep/142

Amor Mundi 9/7/14

Amor Mundi

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

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

amor_mundi_sign-up
Did Eichmann Think?

eichmann_before_jerusalemEichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer is the new English translation of Bettina Stangneth's exhaustive history of the life of Adolf Eichmann. Stangneth writes that her book has two aims. The first is "to present all the available material, as well as the challenges that come with it." The second is to engage in a "dialogue with Hannah Arendt, and not simply because I first came to this topic many years ago through Eichmann in Jerusalem." Stangneth traces her interest in Eichmann to Arendt's book, a book that in Stangneth's words "had the courage to form a clear judgment, even at the risk of knowing too little." Her plunge into the depths of Eichmann's soul is an effort to reckon with power and provocation of Arendt's judgment. Stangneth goes to great lengths to praise Arendt in interviews and in her writing, citing Arendt as an inspiration and model for fearless and critical thinking about difficult and horrible events. In the end, however, Stangneth concludes that as brilliant as Arendt's book on the Eichmann trial is, Arendt herself was mistaken in her characterization of Eichmann as banal: "one of the most significant insights to be gained from studying Adolf Eichmann is reflected in Arendt: even someone of average intelligence can induce a highly intelligent person to defeat herself with her own weapon: her desire to see her expectations fulfilled." In other words, Arendt expected Eichmann to be thoughtless; in concluding that he was banal, she was fooled by him. Stangneth's book is the best account of Eichmann the man to appear since Arendt's trial report in 1963. You can read an excerpt here. You can read my account on the Arendt Center blog.

It's All French to Me

franceTa-Nehisi Coates spent the summer in a French immersion program at Middlebury College. In an essay about the experience, he talks about how communicating and reading almost exclusively in French alienated him from the world outside of campus (except, perhaps, the world according to the French), how educational opportunities in America have been traditionally afforded to some and not others, and how the importance of the experience is, in part, discovering something counterintuitive: "One afternoon, I was walking from lunch feeling battered by the language. I started talking with a young master in training. I told her I was having a tough time. She gave me some encouraging words in French from a famous author. I told her I didn't understand. She repeated them. I still didn't understand. She repeated them again. I shook my head, smiled, and walked away mildly frustrated because I understood every word she was saying but could not understand how it fit. It was as though someone had said, 'He her walks swim plus that yesterday the fight.' (This is how French often sounds to me.) The next day, I sat at lunch with her and another young woman. I asked her to spell the quote out for me. I wrote the phrase down. I did not understand. The other young lady explained the function of the pronouns in the sentence. Suddenly I understood-and not just the meaning of the phrase. I understood something about the function of language, why being able to diagram sentences was important, why understanding partitives and collective nouns was important. In my long voyage through this sea of language, that was my first sighting of land. I now knew how much I didn't know. The feeling of discovery and understanding that came from this was incredible. It was the first moment when I thought I might survive the sea."

Corruption in America

teachoutWe are sick of politics, and who can blame us when the only rational conclusion is that getting involved doesn't make a difference? And yet every once in a while someone comes along who is convinced that they can make a difference, that politics can matter again. David Cole writes about Zephyr Teachout and her new book Corruption in America. "Indeed, according to Teachout, corruption is not just Cuomo's-or New York's-problem. It is the most pressing threat that our democracy faces. And the problem, as Teachout sees it, is that those in power refuse to admit it. Just as Cuomo shut down the Moreland Commission's inquiry into corruption, so the Supreme Court, by adopting an ahistorical and improperly narrow view of corruption, has shut down an exploration of the very real threat that unrestricted campaign spending actually poses to our democracy. In Corruption in America, an eloquent, revealing, and sometimes surprising historical inquiry, Teachout convincingly argues that corruption, broadly understood as placing private interests over the public good in public office, is at the root of what ails American democracy. Regulating corruption has been a persistent theme through American history and has bedeviled lawyers, politicians, and political philosophers alike. Everyone agrees that it is a problem, but few can agree on how to define it, much less fight it effectively." Teachout spoke at Bard last week as she prepares for the NY Democratic primary this Tuesday, in which she is challenging Andrew Cuomo. And she will be speaking as well with Lawrence Lessig at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference The Unmaking of Americans in October.

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Teaching Teachers to Think

teachingDaniel Bergner describes Eva Moskowitz as a one-woman tsunami bringing about the drive for educational excellence in New York. "'I thought that as chairwoman of the Education Committee, I could make a difference,' [Moskowitz] said. But labor was too intransigent, the government bureaucracy too cumbersome and entrenched. 'I kept getting more and more narrow: Well, if you can't bring better science or better arts - I held a hearing on toilet paper. I thought, That's going to be a winner, everyone's for toilet paper, surely we can come together. But you couldn't, because the administration denied' that there was a problem. 'I had to go around photographing bathrooms where there wasn't toilet paper. . . . I thought, This is not a system that delivers for children. Kids can't wait till all the policies change. That's going to be another two centuries.'" Moskowitz has created a series of schools in which mostly poor and disadvantaged students test better than students at the best public and private schools. Her technique might surprise: "Above all, there are her exacting standards for the network's adults - the teachers she hires straight from certification programs or after stints with public schools or Teach for America and the administrators who have been promoted from her faculty. It's their intellectual capacity that is her main concern; the training sessions I sat in on this summer were less about teaching teachers to teach than about teaching them to think. I watched Jessica Sie, the associate director of literacy, lead an auditorium full of elementary- and middle-school faculty members in a discussion of the nuances in a short essay from The New Yorker. They wouldn't be using the essay with their students. But Moskowitz wants her faculty to know how to read in the deepest way, so they can model this for their pupils right from the youngest grades, when everyone is discussing 'The Tortoise and the Hare.'"

Indiscriminate Discrimination

discriminationWhile pursuing her Ph.D. at Vanderbilt, Tish Harrison Warren led the Graduate Christian Fellowship-a chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship-until a new policy led her group to be put on probation. Their fault was to require leaders of the group to affirm certain Christian beliefs. She hoped it was all a misunderstanding. "But as I met with other administrators, the tone began to change. The word discrimination began to be used-a lot-specifically in regard to creedal requirements. It was lobbed like a grenade to end all argument. Administrators compared Christian students to 1960s segregationists. I once mustered courage to ask them if they truly thought it was fair to equate racial prejudice with asking Bible study leaders to affirm the Resurrection. The vice chancellor replied, 'Creedal discrimination is still discrimination.' .... The line between good and evil was drawn by two issues: creedal belief and sexual expression. If religious groups required set truths or limited sexual autonomy, they were bad-not just wrong but evil, narrow-minded, and too dangerous to be tolerated on campus. It didn't matter to them if we were politically or racially diverse, if we cared about the environment or built Habitat homes. It didn't matter if our students were top in their fields and some of the kindest, most thoughtful, most compassionate leaders on campus. There was a line in the sand, and we fell on the wrong side of it." All of which leads Warren to ask, with justification, if there is still space for religious organizations in America's universities.

Mooooom! I'm Booooored!

James WardJames Ward, who puts on something called the Boring Conference, talks to conference goers, including a woman who takes photographs of IBM cash registers, another who makes sound recordings of vending machines, and a man who keeps track of his sneezes. Why pay some attention to something so, well, boring? Ward explains: "'How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs every day?' asks the French writer Georges Perec in his 1973 essay on the 'infra-ordinary' (his word for everything that's the opposite of 'extraordinary'). Perec challenges us to question the habitual. 'But that's just it, we're habituated to it. We don't question it, it doesn't question us, it doesn't seem to pose a problem, we live it without thinking, as if it carried within it neither question nor answers, as if it weren't the bearer of any information. Perec's point is that everything contains information. It's just that, sometimes, it takes a bit of work to notice it. These days, an audience and a platform can be found for even the most niche interests, as people demonstrate that nothing is truly boring - not if you look at it closely enough.'"

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From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Richard Barrett discusses scientific and philosophic truth in the Quote of the Week. French philosopher Henri Bergson provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. We look back on a Lunchtime Talk with Ory Amitay on the nature and history of monotheism in our Video Archives. We celebrate the return of our Library feature with a visit to the Hannah Arendt Library at Bard College. Roger Berkowitz addresses some of the common critiques leveled against Eichmann in Jerusalem in the Weekend Read. And as a special treat, Roger Berkowitz discusses Bettina Stangneth's Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer.

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.
21Jul/141

The Story of Reconciliation

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**This article was originally published on April 9, 2012. You can access the original article here.**

"It is true that storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it, that it brings about consent and reconciliation with things as they really are, and that we may even trust it to contain eventually by implication that last word which we expect from the Day of Judgment”.

--Hannah Arendt, “Isak Dinesen: 1885 – 1963” in Men in Dark Times

David Bisson
David is the Media Coordinator at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College. He is also Editor for Information Security Buzz. David's research interests include cybersecurity, war, and the political impact of new technologies.
19Jul/140

When The Hell That Is War Loses Its Power

gaza_conflict

“Between Sovereign states there can be no last resort except war; if war no longer serves that purpose, that fact alone proves that we must have a new concept of the state.”

—Hannah Arendt, in an interview with Adelbert Reif, 1970.

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".
16Jun/141

Amor Mundi 6/15/14

Amor Mundi

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.

Unconstitutional Schools

1Dana Goldstein in The Atlantic partly agrees with the California superior-court judge who ruled this week that the state's teacher tenure system is a mess and discriminates against the state's poorest students. But Goldstein argues that simply abolishing tenure is not the answer. The problem is that good teachers simply don't want to teach in decrepit, disorganized, and discontented schools. "The lesson here is that California's tenure policies may be insensible, but they aren't the only, or even the primary, driver of the teacher-quality gap between the state's middle-class and low-income schools. The larger problem is that too few of the best teachers are willing to work long-term in the country's most racially isolated and poorest neighborhoods. There are lots of reasons why, ranging from plain old racism and classism to the higher principal turnover that turns poor schools into chaotic workplaces that mature teachers avoid. The schools with the most poverty are also more likely to focus on standardized test prep, which teachers dislike. Plus, teachers tend to live in middle-class neighborhoods and may not want a long commute. Educational equality is about more than teacher-seniority rules: It is about making the schools that serve poor children more attractive places for the smartest, most ambitious people to spend their careers." Read more in this week's Weekend Read.

Drones and Humanity

1In the Carnegie Journal of Ethics and International Affairs, Roger Berkowitz argues that the increasing reliance on drones is threatening our humanity-but not as usually thought. In "Drones and the Question of 'The Human,'" Berkowitz argues it is a mistake "to use the term 'drone' to refer only to these much publicized military devices. Drones, more precisely understood, are intelligent machines that-possessed of the capacity to perform repetitive tasks with efficiency, reliability, and mechanical rationality-increasingly displace the need for human thinking and doing.... The trend Jünger and Turkle worry about is unmistakable: we are at risk of losing the rich and mature relationships that mark us as human. The rise of social robots, unmanned aerial vehicles, and other one-dimensional machines that act like humans-without the perceived human weaknesses of distraction, emotion, exhaustion, quirkiness, risk, and unreliability-answers a profound human desire to replace human judgment with the more reliable, more efficient, and more rational judgment of machines. For all the superficial paeans to human instinct and intuition, human beings, in practice, repeatedly prefer drone-like reliability to the uncertain spontaneity of human intuition. In other words, we confront a future in which 'human' is a derogatory adjective signifying inefficiency, incompetence, and backwardness."

Take This Job and Shove It

509Karl Marx imagined that in a socialist utopia, everyone would work less and have more time to study or pursue hobbies. But contrary to Marx's prophecy-and also the prediction of John Maynard Keynes, who argued in the 1930s that improving productivity would result in significantly more leisure time for workers-increases in productivity have coincided with longer workdays. In an ever-wealthier society with more disposable income, the idea of leisure time is becoming culturally devalued. In an interview with Thomas Frank, David Graeber observes that this development has happened in part because of the creation of "bullshit jobs," which he describes as "the kind of jobs that even those who work them feel do not really need to exist," and work coming to be seen as a virtue in itself-and all the more virtuous if the job in question offers little intrinsic gratification: "Suddenly it became possible to see that if there's a rule, it's that the more obviously your work benefits others, the less you're paid for it. CEOs and financial consultants that are actually making other people's lives worse were paid millions, useless paper-pushers got handsomely compensated, people fulfilling obviously useful functions like taking care of the sick or teaching children or repairing broken heating systems or picking vegetables were the least rewarded. But another curious thing that happened after the crash is that people came to see these arrangements as basically justified. You started hearing people say, 'well, of course I deserve to be paid more, because I do miserable and alienating work,' by which they meant not that they were forced to go into the sewers or package fish, but exactly the opposite-that they didn't get to do work that had some obvious social benefit. I saw a very interesting blog by someone named Geoff Shullenberger recently that pointed out that in many companies, there's now an assumption that if there's work that anyone might want to do for any reason other than the money, any work that is seen as having intrinsic merit in itself, they assume they shouldn't have to pay for it. He gave the example of translation work. But it extends to the logic of internships and the like so thoroughly exposed by authors like Sarah Kendzior and Astra Taylor. At the same time, these companies are willing to shell out huge amounts of money to paper-pushers coming up with strategic vision statements who they know perfectly well are doing absolutely nothing."

Min Kamp

1Evan Hughes considers Karl Ove Knausgaard's suggestive titling of his six book autobiographical opus My Struggle, rendered in its original Norwegian as Min Kamp. Noting that the title was proposed by a friend, and suggesting that it is in some way a response to Knausgaard's childhood spent near the home of famous Norwegian author and Nazi sympathizer Knut Hamsun, Hughes also considers the way that Knausgaard's distinguishes himself, "sometimes speak[ing] in interviews and public appearances of an irony inherent in the name of the book; where Hitler is all ideology and rigid perfection in Mein Kampf, Knausgaard's struggle as a middle-class dad is quotidian, messy, faintly ridiculous. But his book is not all that ironic or clever. In fact, its directness and sincerity-to the point of frequent, unembarrassed cliché-contributes to the almost shocking immediacy of the voice. My Struggle makes no apologies. Knausgaard does not protect himself from the charge of narcissism by turning to self-deprecation or rationalization or literary tricks. Go ahead and say it's nothing much, he seems to say, but this is my struggle. For me, it counts."

The War Over "Good"

1Evgenia Peretz considers the recent blowup in literary criticism over the quality of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch deserves its popularity. Noting that these questions are malleable, she provides an example: "The questions are as old as fiction itself. The history of literature is filled with books now considered masterpieces that were thought hackwork in their time. Take Dickens, the greatest novelist of the Victorian period, whose mantle writers from John Irving to Tom Wolfe to Tartt have sought to inherit. Henry James called Dickens the greatest of superficial novelists ... 'We are aware that this definition confines him to an inferior rank in the department of letters which he adorns; but we accept this consequence of our proposition. It were, in our opinion, an offence against humanity to place Mr. Dickens among the greatest novelists.... He has added nothing to our understanding of human character.'"

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Jeffrey Champlin discusses the dual nature of thinking as a human activity in the Quote of the Week. Swiss philosopher and poet Henri-Frédéric Amiel provides this week's Thought on Thinking. And Roger Berkowitz discusses the value of tenure as both a luxury and evil in the Weekend Read.

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.
7Mar/142

Why the Jews?

ArendtWeekendReading

Anthony Grafton calls David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism “one of the saddest stories, and one of the most learned, I have ever read.” Grafton knows that Anti-Judaism “is certainly not the first effort to survey the long grim history of the charges that have been brought against the Jews by their long gray line of self-appointed prosecutors.” What makes this account of the long history of Jewish hatred so compelling is that Nirenberg asks the big question: Why the Jews?

[Nirenberg] wants to know why: why have so many cultures and so many intellectuals had so much to say about the Jews? More particularly, he wants to know why so many of them generated their descriptions and explanations of Jewishness not out of personal knowledge or scholarly research, but out of thin air—and from assumptions, some inherited and others newly minted, that the Jews could be wholly known even to those who knew no Jews.

The question recalls the famous joke told during the Holocaust, especially amongst Jews in concentration camps. Here is one formulation of the joke from Antisemitism, the first book in the trilogy that comprises Hannah Arendt’s magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism:  “An antisemite claimed that the Jews had caused the war; the reply was: Yes, the Jews and the bicyclists. Why the bicyclists? Asks the one? Why the Jews? asks the other.”

origins

The point of the joke is clear: Anti-Judaism is as senseless and irrational as anti-bicyclists would be. “The theory that the Jews are always the scapegoat,” Arendt writes, “implies that the scapegoat might have been anyone else as well”—even bicyclists. The question, then, is why the Jews? Grafton gives a clue to Nirenberg’s subtle answer:

 Nirenberg’s answer—and to summarize it, as to summarize so much of this impassioned book, is to flatten it—is that ideas about the Jews can do, and have done, many different and important jobs. True, they are anything but stable: this is not a paper chase after some original idea of the Jew that crops up everywhere from early Christianity to early Nazism. Visions of the Jews change emphasis and content as the larger societies that entertain them change shape and texture. Ideas have multiple contexts, and Nirenberg shows dazzling skill and a daunting command of the sources as he observes the changes and draws connections between them and his authors’ larger worlds.

Nirenberg’s point is that anti-Judaism has nothing to do with Jews themselves. The negative ideas about Jews are held throughout history by a motley group of Christians, philosophers, tyrants, and martyrs. Shakespeare’s account of Shylock is only one of many examples in which an intellectual employs anti-Jewish stereotypes—the Jew as greedy moneylender—to make a wider social critique, this time of the dangers of capitalism. London is becoming a city of commerce. There are no Jews in London. Yet Shakespeare turns to Jews in order to find a way to criticize the emergent commercial culture.

The use of negative sentiments about Jews to bash capitalism was common, Nirenberg writes, and carries through history from Jerome to Marx. Marx couches his critique of capitalism through the lens of a critique of Jews. Shakespeare does the same with commercial society. Jews stand in for the oppressed in the world, so that oppressing Christians could be seen as making them Jewish. Jews at the same time were seen as powerful bankers and powerful agents of world domination, so that any group of conspirators from Bolsheviks in Russia to media moguls in Hollywood were tarred with the pungent scent of Judaism.

Jews have been characterized by non-Jews for their obstinacy—their refusal, for example, to recognize the known truth that the Messiah had come, which enabled them to become the villains of both early Christian and early Muslim narratives. They have been characterized by non-Jews for their viciousness—their desire to desecrate the sacrament and murder Christian children, which allowed them to be used both by rebels against royal authority, and by kings, in the Middle Ages, as each side could claim, when the wind blew from the right quarter, that Jews were polluting society through their materialism and greed. . . . Nirenberg’s parade of imagined and imaginary Jews—the most hideous procession since that of the flagellants in The Seventh Seal—stretches from the Arabian peninsula to London, and from the seventh century BCE to the twentieth CE. Working always from the original sources in their original languages, he observes the multiple ways in which imaginary Jews served the purposes of real writers and thinkers—everyone from Muhammad, founding a new religion, to Shakespeare, observing a new commercial society. God, here, is partly in the details: in the careful, tenderly observant way in which Nirenberg dissects everything from fierce political rhetoric to resonant Shakespearean drama. In works of the imagination, profound treatises, and acts of political radicalism, as he analyses them, imaginary Jews are wielded to powerful effect. He shows us the philosophes of the Enlightenment, those friends of humanity and enemies of tyrannical “infamy,” as they develop a viciously negative vision of Jewish sterility and error to attack Christianity at its origins or to characterize the authorities whom they defied.

The only reservation Grafton voices concerns the univocality of Nirenberg’s account. As exceptional as the account of anti-Jewish opinion is, Nirenberg largely ignores other perspectives and examples where real and imaginary Jews were accepted, embraced, and even praised.

As a social historian of conflict and an intellectual historian of the uncanny imagination, Nirenberg is unbeatable. But Jews and non-Jews lived other histories together as well. As Josephus recalled, when the thousands of diaspora Jews settled in the cities of the Roman world, across Asia Minor and Italy as well as Egypt, many of their pagan neighbors found their ways attractive. Pagans admired the Jews’ pursuit of a coherent code for living and their worship of a single, unseen god. Some became “god-fearers,” who accepted the Jewish god but did not hold full membership in the Jewish community. Some converted. Jews, meanwhile, pursued their own visions of high culture—whether these involved learning to write Greek tragedies about the Jewish past or rebuilding one’s foreskin to make possible appearances at the gymnasium.

Grafton largely stops there and minimizes his “very small complaints….Anti-Judaism is that rare thing, a great book, as much in its ability to provoke disagreement as in its power to shape future writing on the vast territory that its author has so brilliantly mapped.” But Grafton’s small complaints deserve a wider hearing, especially as concerns the leading question he and Nirenberg pose, “Why the Jews?”

The overarching argument of Anti-Judaism is one of eternal antisemitism: Anti-Judaism had nothing to do with the Jews themselves. It is an attitude that sees the Jews to be to blame and is concerned with imaginary Jews as opposed to real Jews. Anti-Judaism is powerful and impactful, but it has no rational connection to reality. Here is how Michael Walzer aptly sums up Nirenberg’s argument:

His argument is that a certain view of Judaism lies deep in the structure of Western civilization and has helped its intellectuals and polemicists explain Christian heresies, political tyrannies, medieval plagues, capitalist crises, and revolutionary movements. Anti-Judaism is and has long been one of the most powerful theoretical systems “for making sense of the world.” No doubt, Jews sometimes act out the roles that anti-Judaism assigns them—but so do the members of all the other national and religious groups, and in much greater numbers. The theory does not depend on the behavior of “real” Jews.

As Walzer notes in his own review of Anti-Judaism in the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books, Nirenberg includes an epilogue that takes on the most famous opponent of his view of eternal antisemitism, Hannah Arendt. As Arendt understands Nirenberg’s view, “Jew-hatred is a normal and natural reaction to which history gives only more or less opportunity. Outbursts need no special explanation because they are natural consequences of an eternal problem.” Since anti-Judaism is eternal and unending, it has been normalized. If thousand years, then Jew-killing is a normal, and even human, occupation and Jew-hatred is justified beyond the need of argument.”

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The point is that Grafton’s minor complaint—that Nirenberg offers a magisterial account of Jew-hatred and ignores philo-semitism—is not so minor after all. By claiming that anti-Judaism is omnipresent and omnipotent—by focusing only on anti-Judaism and leaving aside those who embrace or praise Jews—Nirenberg risks normalizing antisemitism. Everyone traffics in Jew-hatred, even Jews. Such a move means, however, that we lose the ability to distinguish those who are antisemites from those who are not. Which is why Arendt argues that the eternal antisemitism thesis is one way to “escape the seriousness of antisemitism and the significance of the fact that the Jews were driven into the storm center of events.”

Walzer and Nirenberg condemn Arendt for seriously asking the question “Why the Jews?” She insists that there are reasons for antisemitism, reasons that the Nazis sought to exterminate the Jews and not the bicyclists. There are such reasons, and anti-Judaism is not simply mysterious and irrational accident. She does not think those are good reasons. She of course never says that the Jews are to blame or that the Jews were responsible for the holocaust as Nirenberg and Walzer wrongly argue. But she does insist we confront the fact that Jews have proven such convenient targets for anti-Judaism, that we seek to understand why it is that over and over it is the Jews who are targeted. There is not one simple answer to that question, Why the Jews? But Arendt asks it seriously and courageously and seeks to come up with a series of potential answers, none of which have to do with her claiming that the Jews are to blame.

If you have The Origins of Totalitarianism on your shelf, take it out and read Chapter One on “Antisemitism as an Outrage to Common Sense.” Then read Grafton and Walzer on Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism. It will be a sad but thrilling weekend.

-RB

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.
24Feb/140

Etienne Balibar’s Reading of Arendt’s “Politics of Human Rights”

Arendtquote

"We need to go one step further, in order to bring to light the extreme radicality of Arendt’s thesis: following the dialectical model of the coincidentia oppositorum, she does not limit herself to making the institution the source of positive right, but she sees in it a construction of the human as such, and she pushes the idea of a politics of human rights to the point of making dissidence—in the specifically modern form of ‘civil disobedience’—the touchstone of the founding reciprocity of rights."

Étienne Balibar

This quote is from French philosopher Étienne Balibar’s interpretation of Arendt’s work in an article titled, “Arendt, le droit aux droits et la désobéissance civique” [Arendt, the right to rights, and civil disobedience], one of the essays in La proposition de l’égaliberté, which is about to appear in translation from Duke University Press. A shorter version of this essay appeared in Social Research as “(De)Constructing the Human as Human Institution: A Reflection on the Coherence of Hannah Arendt’s Practical Philosophy.” The quotes in this blog post are my translations of the French text; where possible I have made use of the English text in the Social Research article.

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Balibar’s interpretation of Arendt in this essay is systematic rather than historical. Although he observes that Arendt is a thinker who “never wrote the same book twice” and that her work is a “continuous, unfinished experiment of thought,” he nevertheless finds a recurrence of certain questions obsédantes, questions that don’t leave her alone, and he attempts to reconstruct what in his view may be Arendt’s central philosophical problem: that of “the politics of human rights and its ‘foundation,’ or rather its absence of foundation, its ‘un-founded’ character.” He discusses this problem by connecting Arendt’s critique (and redefinition) of human rights in The Origins of Totalitarianism  with her essay on “Civil Disobedience” published in Crises of the Republic.

Balibar presents Arendt’s critique of human rights as a “(…) direct refutation of the ideological foundation of the nation-state itself, which presented the ‘rights of the citizen’ (in this case the national citizen) as a secondary construction, an institution of previously existing ‘human rights’ that, in turn, provides the citizen’s rights and the political institutions—that is, the state—with a universalistic principle of legitimacy.” Arendt’s critique, which Balibar refers to as Arendt’s “theorem,” is that in fact, it works the other way around: human rights are a “secondary” construction of civil rights in the nation state, as is demonstrated by the fact that when citizens’ civil rights are destroyed , their human rights are destroyed as well (cf. oppressed minorities, stateless people, refugees, etc.). Thus, human rights are based on civil rights, not vice versa. However, Balibar argues, it is important to realize that Arendt does not argue that only political institutions create rights, whereas human beings outside institutions do not have rights. Instead, her idea is that “(…) outside the institution of the community (…), there are no human beings.” The importance of this realization is that Arendt does not relativize or seek to abolish the association of the idea of humanity with the idea of rights in general, but that she, on the contrary, reinforces this association. The point is to make the idea of rights “indissociable and indiscernible from a construction of the human that is the internal effect immanent in the historical invention of political institutions.” It is for this reason that the “primary” right is neither human rights (cf. natural right theory) nor civil rights (cf. a historicist institutionalism/legal positivism), but the right to have rights.

Arendt’s right to have rights, which she also defines as “the right of every individual to belong to humanity,” is the right to appear, speak, and act in a “common world” as equals. Like Rousseau, Arendt argues that human beings are not “naturally” equal but only become equal within an “artificially” constituted political community. As she puts it in chapter 9 of The Origins of Totalitarianism: “We are not born equal; we become equal as members of a group on the strength of our decision to guarantee ourselves mutually equal rights.” Balibar’s interest is in exploring how this “becoming equal” entails a permanent politics of dissidence, of challenging and redefining who counts as equal and who belongs to what common world. Balibar calls this Arendt’s “politics of human rights,” which he considers to have an “antinomic character.”

What, then, does Balibar mean when he writes that Arendt makes dissidence the “touchstone of the founding reciprocity of rights”? Balibar finds this idea primarily in Arendt’s essay on “Civil Disobedience,” which is an intervention in debates about protests against the Vietnam War in the United States. Arendt argues in this essay that civil disobedience is not a matter of the conscience of individuals, but of acting “in the name and for the sake of a group,” an “organized minority” of dissent. For Arendt, Balibar argues, civil disobedience is “(…) a collective movement that, in a given situation and with a given, limited aim, suppresses the ‘vertical’ form of authority and creates a ‘horizontal’ form of association in order to recreate the conditions of a ‘free consent’ to the law.” Balibar emphasizes Arendt’s insistence on the idea of risk involved in civil disobedience, which is not the legal risk of being punished, but, as Balibar puts it, the political risk of “misjudging the situation and the forces that make up the situation, so that the intention to recreate the continuity of the politeia or the conditions of existence of the ‘active’ citizen might well change into its opposite, by a ‘ruse of reason’ or rather of history, symmetrical to that of Hegel, and end in their definitive destruction.” If this sentence of Balibar’s sounds much more dramatic than the general tone of Arendt’s essay on “Civil Disobedience,” this is because according to Balibar’s interpretation, the stakes of Arendt’s “politics of human rights” are so incredibly high: what is at stake is the political construction of the human as such, or the violent rejection of people as non-human.

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Since the late 1990s, Balibar has repeatedly invoked Arendt’s concept of the right to have rights to think what he calls a “politics of civility.” By a politics of civility, Balibar means “the speculative idea of a politics of politics, or a politics in the second degree, which aims at creating, recreating, and conserving the set of conditions within which politics as a collective participation in public affairs is possible, or at least is not made absolutely impossible.” In “Outline of a Topography of Cruelty: Citizenship and Civility in an Era of Global Violence,” Balibar presents this idea of a politics of civility as an antidote to what he calls the “cruelty” or “extreme violence” directed against what might perhaps be called “dehumanized people.” And according to Balibar, “It is not only the state and the economy that needs to be ‘civilized’ or to become ‘civil,’ but also revolution itself.” What Balibar seems to be advocating here is that all politics, including revolutionary politics, orient itself towards the possibility of politics at every step, that is, towards the possibility of a common world in which people can appear, speak, and act as equal human beings.

I am unable to go further into Balibar’s interpretation and use of Arendt within this short blog post, but I hope to have sparked a curiosity among readers of Arendt about what I see as a productive engagement with her work by an important contemporary French political thinker of the left. For further reading, I recommend, in addition to the articles and books mentioned in this blog post, Balibar’s article, “Historical Dilemmas of Democracy and Their Contemporary Relevance for Citizenship” (Rethinking Marxism 20:4), and, on the politics of civility, Violence et civilité, which is forthcoming in English translation from Columbia University Press.

-Michiel Bot

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.
31Jan/143

Why Must We Care

ArendtWeekendReading

Is there such a thing as too much free speech? The Editors at N+1 think so. They posted an editorial this week lamenting the overabundance of speaking that has swept over our nation like a plague:

A strange mania governs the people of our great nation, a mania that these days results in many individual and collective miseries. This is the love of opinion, of free speech—a furious mania for free, spoken opinion. It exhausts us.

The N+1 Editors feel besieged. And we can all sympathize with their predicament. Too many people are writing blogs; too many voices are tweeting; too many friends are pontificating about something on Facebook. And then there are the trolls. It’s hard not to sympathize with our friends at N+1. Why do we have to listen to all of these folks? Shouldn’t all these folks just stop and read N+1 instead?

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Of course it is richly hypocritical for the Editors of an opinion journal to complain of an overabundance of opinions. And N+1 acknowledges and even trumpets its hypocrisy.

We are aware that to say [that others should stop expressing their opinions] (freely! our opinion!) makes us hypocrites. We are also aware that America’s hatred of hypocrisy is one of few passions to rival its love of free speech—as if the ideal citizen must see something, say something, and it must be the same thing, all the time. But we’ll be hypocrites because we’re tired, and we want eventually to stop talking.

Beyond the hypocrisy N +1 has a point: The internet has unleashed packs upon packs of angry often rabid dogs. These haters attack anything and everything, including each other. Hate and rage are everywhere:

The ragers in our feeds, our otherwise reasonable friends and comrades: how do they have this energy, this time, for these unsolicited opinions? They keep finding things to be mad about. Here, they’ve dug up some dickhead writer-­professor in Canada who claims not to teach women writers in his classes. He must be denounced, and many times! OK. Yes. We agree. But then it’s some protest (which we support), and then some pop song (which we like, or is this the one we don’t like?), and then some egregiously false study about austerity in Greece (full of lies!). Before we know it, we’ve found ourselves in a state of rage, a semi-permanent state of rage in fact, of perma-rage, our blood boiled by the things that make us mad and then the unworthy things that make other people mad.

Wouldn’t it be nice of public discourse were civil and loving? I too would prefer a rational discussion about the Boycott, Diversity, and Sanction movement. I would be thrilled if the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street could join forces to fight political corruption and the over-bureaucratization of government that disempowers individuals. And of course I would love it if those who religiously attack Hannah Arendt for her opinion that Adolf Eichmann was a superficial and banal man responsible for unspeakable evils could find common cause with those who find her provocative, moving and meaningful.

Of course it is exhausting dealing with those with whom we don’t see eye to eye. And there is always the impulse to say simply, “enough! I just don’t want to hear your opinions anymore.” This is precisely what N+1 is saying: “We don’t care!”

We assert our right to not care about stuff, to not say anything, to opt out of debate over things that are silly and also things that are serious—because why pretend to have a strong opinion when we do not? Why are we being asked to participate in some imaginary game of Risk where we have to take a side? We welcome the re-emergence of politics in the wake of the financial crash, the restoration of sincerity as a legitimate adult posture. But already we see this new political sincerity morphing into a set of consumer values, up for easy exploitation.

Underlying N+1’s ironic distance from the arena of opinions and discord is a basic anti-political fantasy that opinion is a waste of time, if it is not destructive. Wouldn’t it be better to skip the opinions and the battles and the disagreements and just cut straight to the truth? Just listen to the truth.

Truth is not an imperative, but something that must be discovered. Unlike liquid opinion, truth does not always circulate. It is that which you experience, deeply, and cannot forget. The right to not care is the right to sit still, to not talk, to be subject to unclarity and allow knowledge to come unbidden to you. To be in a constant state of rage, by contrast, is only the other side of piety and pseudoscience, the kind of belief that forms a quick chorus and cannot be disproved. Scroll down your Facebook feed and see if you don’t find one ditto after another. So many people with “good” or “bad politics,” delivered with conviction to rage or applause; so little doubt, error, falsifiability—surely the criteria by which anything true, or democratic, could ever be found.

What N+1 embraces is truth over opinion and escapism against engagement with others. What they forget, however, is that there are two fundamentally opposed routes to truth.

In one, the truthseeker turns away from the world of opinion. The world in which we live is a world of shadows and deceptions. Truth won’t be found in the marketplace of ideas, but on the mountaintop in the blinding light of the sun. Like Plato’s philosopher king, we must climb out of the cave and ascend to the heights. Alone, turned toward the heavens and the eternal truths that surf upon the sunrays, we open ourselves to the experience of truth.

A second view of truth is more mundane. The truthseeker stays firmly planted in the world of opinion and deception. Truth is a battle and it is fought with the weapons of words. Persuasion and rhetoric replace the light of the sun. The winner gains not insight but power. Truth doesn’t emerge from an experience; truth is the settled sentiment of the most persuasive opinion.

Both the mountain path and the road through the marketplace are paths to truth, but of different kinds. Philosophers and theologians may very well need to separate themselves from the world of opinion if they are to free themselves to experience truth. Philosophical truths, as Hannah Arendt argues, address “man in his singularity” and are thus “unpolitical by nature.” For her, philosophy and also philosophical truths are anti-political.

Politicians cannot concern themselves with absolute truths; they must embrace the life of the citizen and the currency of opinion rather than the truths of the philosopher. In politics, “no opinion is self-evident,” as Arendt understood. “In matters of opinion, but not in matters of [philosophical] truth, our thinking is discursive, running as it were, from place to place, from one part of the world to another, through all kinds of conflicting views, until it finally ascends from these particularities to some impartial generality.” In politics, truth may emerge, but it must go through the shadows that darken the marketplace.

What Arendt understands about political truths is that truths do indeed “circulate” in messy and often uncomfortable ways that the n+1 editorial board wishes to avoid. Political thought, Arendt argues, “is representative.” By that she means that it must sample as many different viewpoints and opinions as is possible. “I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent; that is, I represent them.” It is in hearing, imagining, and representing opposing and discordant views that one comes to test out his or her own views. It is not a matter of empathy, of feeling like someone else. It is rather an imaginative experiment in which I test my views against all comers. In this way, the enlarged mentality of imaginative thinking is the prerequisite for judgment.

When Arendt said of Adolf Eichmann that he was possessed of the “fearsome word-and-thought-defying banality of evil” because he did not think, what she meant was that he was simply incapable or unwilling to think from the perspective of others. His use of clichés was not thoughtlessness itself, but was evidence that he had barricaded himself inside an ideological cage. Above all, his desire to make others including Jews understand his point of view—his hope that they could see that he was a basically good man caught up on the wrong side of history—was for Arendt evidence of his superficiality and his lack of imagination. He simply could not and did not ever allow himself to challenge his own rationalizations and justifications by thinking from the perspective of Jews and his other victims. What allowed Eichmann to so efficiently dispatch millions to their deaths was his inability to think and encounter opinions that were different from his own.

In the internet age we are bombarded with such a diversity of angry and insulting and stupid and offensive viewpoints that it is only naturally to alternate between the urge to respond violently and the urge to withdraw.

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It is easy to deride political opinion and idolize truth. But that is to forget that “seen from the viewpoint of politics, truth has a despotic character.”

Political thinking requires that we resist both the desire to fight opinions with violence and the desire to flee from opinions altogether. Instead, we need to learn to think in and with others whose opinions we often hate. We must find in the melee of divergent and offending opinions the joy that exists in the experience of human plurality. We don’t need to love or agree with those we find offensive; but so long as they are talking instead of fighting, we should respect them and listen to them. Indeed, we should care about them and their beliefs. That is why the N+1 manifesto for not caring is your weekend read.

-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".
9Dec/132

Thinking and Moral Considerations

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“There exists in our society widespread fear of judging…[B]ehind the unwillingness to judge lurks the suspicion that no one is a free agent, and hence doubt that anyone is responsible or could be expected to answer for what he has done…Who has ever maintained that by judging a wrong I presuppose that I myself would be incapable of committing it?”

-Hannah Arendt, "Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship"

It’s difficult to know where to begin to counter the errors, misreadings, and plain obfuscations of Arendt’s point of view in this essay by Richard Brody that appeared a few days ago in The New Yorker online. But perhaps the most glaring mistake Brody makes is to confuse what Arendt wrote about “thinking” with some form of “intellectualism.” To begin with, when, in her interview with Gunther Gaus, she makes the point that it was the betrayal by “friends” that she found most shocking this is not because she thought only intellectuals could think or were the only ones to have “ideas” but that they “believed”—without thinking!—the very “ideas” they had fabricated, without considering where these “ideas” might take them. They were “trapped” in their ideas, which is why Arendt, in the same interview, refused to call herself a philosopher, cut off from the world, and insisted she was a political theorist.

Thinking depends on letting the imagination go visiting, and Arendt argued it was Eichmann’s inability to think from the standpoint of anyone else that made him “thoughtless” and hence become unable to distinguish right from wrong. But the same could be said, for different reasons, of the “intellectuals” Arendt referred to and said she’d found so grotesque in the interview with Gaus. And, whether you like where it took her or not, thinking from the standpoint of others was exactly what she practiced in the case of her judgment of the leaders of the Jewish Councils. She imagined they might not have cooperated. Yes, they faced “fear and despair,” as Brody notes, but Arendt imagined it was still possible not to comply even in the face of significant threats and consequences. And the historical evidence indicates this to be the case: not everyone complied.

Yet nowhere does Arendt claim the ability to judge a situation means I myself (or she) necessarily would have done anything differently. The most chilling conclusion she reached from her reflections on the trial is that there are no guarantees “when the chips are down” that I will know the right thing to do, and just do it. And it was her confrontation with Eichmann’s banality—not what he did, but who he showed he was, and “how many were like him” during this time—that led Arendt to warn near the end of the book that once such crimes had entered the human experience it is entirely possible that “similar crimes may be committed in the future.”

In an interview with Roger Errera, from which Brody also quotes, Arendt remarked that her intention was in writing about Eichmann as she did was to “destroy the legend of the greatness of evil. As she was thinking about this issue she said she’d “found in Brecht the following remark: ‘The great political criminals must be exposed and exposed especially to laughter.’ " And her “tone” in Eichmann in Jerusalem was an attempt to do just that: expose the criminals to derision.

It was the banality of the criminals—not the crimes they committed—that gave Arendt such a shock she responded with laughter. And it’s a shame Brody doesn’t understand what this signifies: the humanization of perpetrators actually serves to humanize victims as well. She did not equate the responsibility of “persecutors and persecuted” for crimes committed by the Nazi state, as Brody claims. But not to allow victims and perpetrators to occupy the same moral universe is to traffic in the dangerous idea that guilt and innocence are not the result of human behavior but exist somehow independent of what people do.

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Let me close with an excerpt from my new book, Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt:

Many people still find abhorrent Arendt’s claim that Eichmann, the man, was no monster. Everyone knows murder is wrong; certainly, then, murdering millions without a guilty conscience must be the classic example of monstrous behavior. Or madness. Surely only a monster or a madman could commit such heinous deeds. And that’s an understandable reaction. Most of us hold fast to a well-guarded belief that rules and standards used to tell right from wrong, rules we assume to be universal, cannot be easily discarded. Not I, we believers in our own inherent goodness insist; I would never comply with such an order. But Arendt wouldn’t let anyone rest on such a convenient way to avoid having to think for herself.

“The trouble with Eichmann,” she wrote, “was precisely so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together, for it implied...that this new type of criminal...commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong.

The idea that “an average, ‘normal’ person, neither feeble-minded nor indoctrinated nor cynical, could be perfectly incapable of telling right from wrong” defies any ordinary understanding of good and evil. And yet, Arendt observed, “without much notice, all [these rules governing right and wrong] collapsed almost overnight...What happened? Did we finally awake from a dream?” How had it become so easy for so many to behave like Eichmann and participate in carrying out these atrocities?

Arendt explained it this way: the Nazi state had generated a “totality of...moral collapse...in respectable European society—not only in Germany but in almost all countries, not only among the persecutors but also among the victims.” And at that sentence, many people throw her book across the room in disgust, perhaps missing the other point she made: not everyone complied with the system.

But Arendt’s writing has made me wonder why we need to believe a solid wall separates the performers of horrible acts from the rest of us? And what holds that wall in place?

“When I think back to the last two decades since the end of the last war,” she wrote in the mid-1960s, “I have the feeling that this moral issue has lain dormant because it was concealed by something about which it is indeed much more difficult to speak and with which it is almost impossible to come to terms—the horror itself in its naked monstrosity.” Trying to think the unthinkable—the horror of state-ordered, socially coordinated manufacturing of corpses in the twentieth century, or of other genocides in previous centuries and in this one—can take one’s breath away. Not even time’s healing power seems to bring relief.

[T]his past has grown worse as the years have gone by so that we are sometimes tempted to think, this will never be over as long as we are not all dead...This past has turned out to be ‘unmastered’ by everybody, not only the German nation.

Yet Arendt insisted on confronting those concealed moral issues even though they looked like “side issues...compared with the horror.” She pushed past the speechless horror to grapple with the moral implications of the “ubiquitous complicity” surrounding the Holocaust. Because not grappling with those implications would allow Eichmann to gain what the monk Thomas Merton, deeply influenced by reading Eichmann in Jerusalem, would have considered a “posthumous long life,” making us all, like it or not, as Karl Plank observed in his essay about Merton, “vulnerable to complicity in deeds of destruction.”

-Kathleen B. Jones

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/131

Hannah Arendt’s Denktagebuch

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Futility of action = need
for permanence—
Poetry or body politic
Natalität

-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch,  October 1953 (volume 1, p. 61)

Arendt's Thought Diary (Denktagebuch) contains fascinating reflective engagements that span the history of western thought from Plato to Heidegger. The form of the entries is as striking as their content: Arendt employs not only the conceptual mode of inquiry that one expects from a philosopher, but also brief narrative accounts (stories) and poetry that highlight the literary dimension of her thought.

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The quote above comes from a section that is unique even within this context of the varied forms of the Denktagebuch. The full entry has two columns of text side by side comprised of key terms, punctuation, and additional operator markings such as arrows and equal signs. In their spatial division, order of terms, and employment of symbols, these two columns offer a compelling challenge to readers of Arendt who seek to discover specific insights of the Thought Diary that may go beyond those of the her published work.

Each column is headed by a German term easily understandable to English speakers: "Pluralität" and "Singularität." The positive movement that builds earlier in the right hand column through "Pluralität," "equality," and "thought" breaks down on “futility.” We can go at least two directions with this interruption. It might just be a blip in her run of thought, a speed bump, so to speak. I will pursue the more promising thought that Arendt considers an objection, acknowledging the fact that the boldly announced “action” remains threatened by disappointment. This voice contends that practical failure leads to a metaphysical need for stability.

“[N]eed for permanence” aligns with “body politic.” Traditionally, political philosophy uses the body to describe a principle of stable organization. This was already true for Aristotle, who insists on the analogy between mind / body and ruler / subject. As Ernst Kantorowicz famously demonstrated, Medieval political theology argues for the continuity of the ruler with the idea of the two bodies of the king: a physical body that passes away in the death of the king, and one spiritual body that doesn't change. Most importantly for modern thought, Hobbes describes individuals in the state of nature who cede their individual power to the ruler, resulting in a single body that the famous front piece of The Leviathan pictures as a giant composite of smaller people.

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Linguistically, “body politic” has unique currency in Anglo-American thought. “Staatskörper” does not have the same reign in German discourse, where the mechanistic “Staatsapparat” (“state apparatus”) predominates. Rousseau employs “corps politique” in On the Social Contract but it never takes a central place in French debate. Arendt takes on a specific concept in a specific language and tradition, but one that she opens to an unexpected future. From the medieval period to the 20th century, these theories of the body politic share a common emphasis on unity and an organic principle of stability that points to a metaphysical “need for permanence.”

With this background, one might not be surprised that other figures of birth in the Thought Diary relate not to change, sudden or otherwise, but to consistency and integration. However, the way Arendt describes this maintenance of the social world provides the uncircumventable basis for the ultimately radical energy that she grants action. In the “or” of Arendt’s “Poetry or body politic,” she compels us to consider an alternative to a fixed organic structure. Indeed, the very form of the entry tends towards poetry, and in its spacing and rhythm challenges standard modes of conceptual analysis.

Reading a few key entries around the same time in the Thought Diary shows that the world (i.e. the common realm of living together) needs to be sustained; it doesn’t just exist by itself. In this regard, the phrase “Poetry or body politic” indicates that the political body does not just last by itself but needs to be continually renewed. This renewal has both a conservative aspect and a potential for radical change in action. Each new body does not just fit the higher state-body, but continually maintains the social structure.

The column ends with “natality” (“Natalität”), Arendt's only use of the term in the Thought Diary in the years leading up to her major explication of the idea in the Human Condition. The entry, taken precisely in its note layout and read together with nearby entries that employ figures of birth, shows Arendt criticizing a political metaphysics of the body through an alternative corporeality. Precisely because the state lacks a higher principle of stability, the common world can change its entire political structure because it brings with it the possibility of starting something wholly new.

-Jeffrey Champlin

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.
5Jun/130

Here’s How to Demonize Thinking

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Richard Brody writes of “Hannah Arendt,” the new movie by Margarethe von Trotta, “The movie, unfortunately, doesn’t do Arendt justice”—a rhetorical gambit that suggests at least a fair-minded inquiry into Arendt’s thought. But Brody then proceeds to accuse Arendt of a propensity toward “monstrous abstractions.” Her tendency toward abstraction occurs despite what Brody calls  “her meticulous pileup of facts,” which has such “a terrifying, implacable, unbearable power” as to render her book “overwhelming, incommensurable, alien to human experience.” Brody repeats the widespread error that Arendt accepts “at face value” Eichmann’s claim not to be an anti-Semite. Arendt, Brody writes, misses the “mystery, ambiguity, vastness, complexity, and horror” of the Eichmann trial. Arendt and von Trotta, Brody writes in a synthesis of reality and fiction, both make “the same mistake” of setting up “’thinking’” as a special category of activity.” Arendt, pace Brody, “writes from the point of view of a philosopher, not of a journalist”—as if that critique explains her mistake in thinking that “thinking” might be important. The only half-positive sentence about Arendt comes in the last line where he concedes: “From [Arendt’s] philosophical, historical, and journalistic failures, Arendt created an accidental literary masterwork despite itself.” If von Trotta’s movie doesn’t do Arendt justice, one wonders what Brody would think necessary for the movie to do her justice.

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He tells us. To do Arendt justice, von Trotta should have focused on “giving small gestures and daily labors grand scope.” He actually says that Arendt should be more ridiculous and less dignified: “Von Trotta preserves Arendt’s dignity to the point of dehumanization, depriving the protagonist of any trait that could render her ridiculous.” He insists on seeing more of her regular life with family and friends, after acknowledging that von Trotta’s movie does offer a balanced insight into the importance of Arendt’s friends in her life. The implication is we want more gossip and less thinking, a portrayal of the chatty girlish Hannah rather than the austere chain smoker. Aside from the misogyny in such a statement about one of the great thinkers of the 20th century who happened to have been a woman, Brody here exhibits his fundamental lack of understanding of all things concerning Arendt. For Arendt was not the least bit interested in “small gestures and daily labors.” She was a thinker of surprising and unexpected deeds that, she argued, can only be measured by their greatness. Nothing chatty here.

What galls Brody above all is that a serious movie is made about a serious thinker that takes seriously precisely what is unique (for better or worse) about Arendt—her insistence on being different and apart. Arendt called herself an “intentional pariah,” someone who sought freedom and independence by standing aloof from society. Brody finds such moral seriousness silly and Arendt’s insistence on self-thinking brings forth his disdain for what he dismisses as the false “gleaming nobility of the life of the mind” that diverts us from the truth of “the turmoil of regular life.” Von Trotta’s movie, with the extraordinary assistance of Barbara Sukowa’s acting, nails this most essential characteristic of Arendt’s persona to perfection. For that achievement of cinematic, biographical, and intellectual fidelity, Brody skewers both von Trotta and Arendt.  The exploration of uniqueness is apparently something Brody cannot abide.

The absolute low point of his rejection of Arendt’s idea of thinking comes when he expresses through multiple examples his complete discomfort with thinking itself. As A.O. Scott and others including myself have argued, the genius of von Trotta’s movie is the setting to screen not a theory of thinking, but the act itself. For Brody, this is no accomplishment. This is because for him thinking is nothing special. Thinking, he argues, is banal. It is, as he writes, commonplace and, in the end, common. Thus thinking and showing thinking both are easy:  "Actually, the work of thinking is easy, almost effortless, to show—it’s what almost every movie is made of."

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To bring home his point, Brody offers six links to putative examples of thinking on display in movies. The first is to an actress peeling a potato for 150 seconds, an exercise in the profundity of mundane life. The second extols the virtue of killing and violence for masculinity. The third, from Murnau’s silent “The Last Laugh,” shows Max Schreck in emotional agony. The fourth, from “Bringing up Baby,” has Katharine Hepburn tricking Cary Grant into coming over and helping her with a leopard. You get the idea. There is no thinking going on in these scenes. That is apparently Brody point: thinking doesn’t exist except in the most mundane and calculating of ways.

Brody’s antipathy to the act of thinking is flagrant. He writes: “The movie’s sanctimonious depiction of “thinking” as something greater than what the regular run of people do is one of the signs of its artistic failure.” But Brody’s defense of the common man is misplaced, for Arendt in no ways denies that run of the mill people can think.  On the contrary, she imagines that uneducated people raised with traditions and character are frequently more thoughtful than intellectuals. Those trained in ideas and abstractions are uniquely susceptible to the power of rationalization and the sway of ideologies in ways that those relying on common sense are not.

That everyone can think does not mean that we all do. Thinking, Arendt insists, is rare. It is fundamentally distinguished from reasoning. It is not the same as calculating. It is also not the same as being creative, intelligent, inventive or smart. Thinkers are not necessarily intellectuals. Above all, thinkers are distinguished from “problem solvers,” those educated persons of “great self-confidence” who are uncommonly adept at convincing themselves of their infallibility. Thinking doubts and puts up obstacles. Its primary effect is to raise questions rather than offering answers.

We need to understand that by thinking Arendt means something specific. Thinking means, above all, Selbstdenken—an untranslatable German word for “self-thinking,” or thinking for oneself. It is the act of having a conversation with oneself in which one acknowledges the basic moral premise that it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong. Such thinking is free from social conventions, clichés, and oversimplifications. Thinking is also quite distinct from social science, which seeks answers precisely in the kind of normalization of unique actions that thinking rebels against. Only thinking, Arendt argued, has the potential to remind us of our human dignity and free us to resist our servility. Such thinking, in Arendt’s view, cannot be taught: it can only be exemplified.

We cannot learn thinking through catechism or study. We learn thinking only through experience, when we are inspired by those whose thinking enthralls us—when we encounter someone who stands apart from the crowd.

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Brody’s review dismisses Arendt’s understanding of thinking with an unknowing wave of his hand. He reduces thinking to an emotional scream—like the agony on Shreck’s face— or cunning—Hepburn knocking over a tea set and pretending a leopard is attacking her. Brody doesn’t much like thinking and finds it pretentious and overly intellectual.  So he makes fun of those who strive to write or make films about thinking, calling what he won’t understand “soft-core philosophical porn.”

At another point, Brody cites interviews with Claude Lanzmann to raise questions about Arendt’s portrayals of the Jewish leaders who collaborated or cooperated with the Nazis during the war. There are legitimate disagreements one can have with Arendt on this issue, and von Trotta’s film gives these opposing views full voice, something a reader of Brody’s review would never learn. In the film two of Arendt’s dearest friends turn away from her and Hans Jonas lambasts her for unfeeling arrogance in refusing to see the moral and practical tragedies of Jewish leaders during the war. Jonas is right to point to Arendt’s arrogance, and von Trotta confronts that arrogance head on, leaving it to the viewer to decide whether such independence is called for. Jonas’ critique of his friend is more blistering—and more insightful—than anything Brody might add.

Hannah Arendt was neither a saint nor infallible. She may in the end be wrong about the power of thinking to save or dissuade people from doing evil. Neither I nor the Arendt Center has an interest in holding her on a pedestal. The Center regularly publishes posts and essays critical of her work; on our blog you can find a collection of reviews of “Hannah Arendt,” the movie, with critical reviews that raise meaningful questions about both her and the movie. I have no problem with criticizing Arendt intelligently. Such criticism, however, demands some baby steps toward taking Arendt seriously. Brody merely crawls around throwing sand.

You can read Brody’s review here.

-RB

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.
13May/130

Amor Mundi 5/12/13

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

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

The Closing Arguments at Guantanamo

barbedWith the conditions at the United States military detention facility in Guantanamo recently coming under scrutiny comes renewed attention to the case of Mohammed Jawad, the first Guantanamo detainee to testify, under oath and to a military commission, that he had been tortured while being held. Last month, a dramatic reading of statements made by Jawad's lawyer, David Frakt, juxtaposed with statements made by the case's lead prosecutor, Darrel Vandervelde, who left the military in order to help free Jawad, was held at the Pen World Voices Festival of International Literature. In their statements, both men use the language of Constitutionality to suggest that, by torturing detainees such as Jawad, "America," as Frakt puts it, "lost a little of its greatness." Vandervelde writes of his choice to testify in favor of Jawad: "I did it because I believe in truth, justice, the rule of law, and our common humanity. I did it for Mohammed Jawad, I did it because it was my duty, and I did it for us all."

A.O. Hirschman, Philosopher of the World

hirschCass Sunstein summarizes Jeremy Adelman's recent, and massive, biography of the twentieth century scholar Albert Hirschman. Describing him as a thinker whose work has direct relevance to today's questions, Sunstein both praises Adelman's work and Hirschman's, saying of the latter: "He insisted that human history provides stories, intricate and often nonrepeatable,' which 'look more like tricks history has up its sleeve than like social-scientific regularities, not to speak of laws.'" Hirschman sought, Sunstein writes, "to "prove Hamlet wrong." In Shakespeare's account, Hamlet is immobilized and defeated by doubt. Hirschman was a great believer in doubt-he never doubted it-and he certainly doubted his own convictions. At a conference designed to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of his first book, who else would take the opportunity to show that one of his own central arguments was wrong? Who else would publish an essay in The American Economic Review exploring the "overproduction of opinionated opinion," questioning the value of having strong opinions, and emphasizing the importance of doubting one's opinions and even one's tastes? Hirschman thought that strong opinions, as such, "might be dangerous to the health of our democracy," because they are an obstacle to mutual understanding and constructive problem-solving. Writing in 1989, he was not speaking of the current political culture, but he might as well have been."

The Anarchist Paradox

nyseKelefa Sanneh reviews in The New Yorker; The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement by David Graeber and Two Cheers for Anarchism by James C. Scott. Graeber, an anthropologist, became famous as one of the intellectual leaders of Occupy Wall Street. Scott is also an anthropologist and a fellow anarchist. "Graeber did his anthropological field work in the highlands of Madagascar, and Scott did his in Southeast Asia, but their conclusions were similar. Both of them encountered communities that lived more or less autonomously, finding ways to resist or ignore whatever governments claimed jurisdiction over them. And both are eager to expand the history of lived anarchism beyond Paris and Catalonia; it is, they argue, broader and more common than we've been taught." Sanneh understands that "in America anarchism's appeal surely has something to do with the seeming durability of our current arrangement, and the inexorable growth of the government that maintains it. Such is the power of a sprawling and sophisticated state: the bigger it gets, the easier it becomes for us to imagine that we could live without it."

The Death of a Scholar

scholarJulia Hobsbawm gives her father, the historian Eric Hobsbawm, a eulogy with familial warmth that is well aware of his global stature. Still, she focuses mostly on his love for her, for ideas and, importantly, for books of all kinds: "I called his mobile to check in and asked if he needed anything. He had a big sweet tooth and I expected him to ask for some fruit jellies, a favourite, or perhaps some dark chocolate. 'I managed to bring a most turgid book in with me, he said apologetically. 'Would you mind getting me something better?' It turned out that the book he had picked up, assuming it was the last he would ever hold, was a German edition of The Brothers Karamazov, and with the crisis over it was now not to his liking. Knowing his weakness for thrillers - one book wall is covered in the Penguin crime paperbacks with the green spines, his old Ed McBains and more recently Elmore Leonards - I brought him in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. It got him through the hospital tedium and even prompted a rather racy discussion about how much marital bed-hopping it featured. 'Too much,' he declared."

In Praise of the Self Suspicious Journalist

janetAlice Gregory praises author and essayist Janet Malcolm, highlighting in particular her suspicion of the truth claim of any narrative: "Malcolm would say that any story-and especially a well-told and well-reported one-is inevitably a distortion. Throughout her career, she has insisted upon this. 'The realities of characters in fiction-and of their cousins in journalism-derives precisely from the bold, almost childlike strokes from which they are drawn,' she writes in Reading Chekhov."

 

Featured Upcoming Event

The Official U.S. Opening of the biopic, Hannah Arendt in NYC

movie posterMay 29, 2013 at Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St., NYC at 7:45 PM

 Film followed by discussion with the director; Margarethe von Trotta, the screenwriter; Pam Katz, Barbara Sukowa and Janet McTeer (playing Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy.)

 Buy tickets and learn more here.

 
 

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Arendt Center Blog, Jeffrey Champlin talks Arnold Geheln on Arendt and considers Arendt's relationship to philosophical anthropology.

 

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.
18Apr/139

Banality, Banality, Banality

FromtheArendtCenter

When Gershom Scholem once wrote to Arendt that her phrase the “banality of evil” was a cliché, her response was swift: As far as she had known, nobody had ever used it before. The banality of evil was no common formulation worn meaningless by overuse. When she coined the phrase, it was a searing and dangerous provocation to thought, a warning to all those who in the face of horrific crimes carried out by bureaucrats would seek to transform those bureaucrats into monsters. To make people like Eichmann into radically evil monsters is, Arendt argued, to mistake an even greater and more insidious fact about evil: that in the modern context of bureaucratic governance, evil depends upon banal people who allow themselves to participate in evil because they are thoughtless and lack the clarity of mind or the courage of conviction to stand up to the mechanized and bureaucratized doing of evil.

One can disagree with Arendt’s thesis, but it was hardly a cliché. Unfortunately, too often today it is used as the cliché Scholem feared it had already become. A case in point is an opinion piece in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal by James Taranto.

Taranto is discussing a current case in which Dr. Kermit Gosnell is on trial for murdering seven viable fetuses.

gosnell

Three associates have pled guilty to third-degree murder and five others have pled guilty to other crimes. Gosnell faces the death penalty. According to the New York Times, whose account Taranto refers to,

Reporters heard testimony from the Philadelphia medical examiner about unsanitary, even filthy conditions at Dr. Gosnell’s clinic, from which the remains of 47 fetuses were removed, some in a water jug, a juice carton and a pet-food container.

In earlier testimony, according to several news reports, an unlicensed doctor said that Dr. Gosnell, 72, showed him how to cut the necks of babies born alive to make sure they died, and a young woman who worked at the clinic as a teenager said she assisted in abortions in which she saw at least five babies moving and breathing.

The details are grisly. The main thrust of Taranto’s article is that the liberal media is ignoring the case because it upsets their narrative that abortions are clean and easy. According to experts cited in the Times article, it seems that conservative media outlets have ignored the case as well, and that the Times actually had given it more coverage than more conservative papers, but I will leave that argument to others.

What interests me more is Taranto’s sudden invocation of Hannah Arendt and her thesis of the banality of evil. The context is the guilty pleas of the eight employees of Gosnell’s clinic. They included an unlicensed doctor and untrained aids who worked under difficult and unsanitary conditions where they were trained how to break the neck of living fetuses. An Associated Press wire story described the fate of these workers and concluded: “But for most, it was the best job they could find.”  This is what leads Taranto (through the route of a reader’s comment and a 1999 essay in the New York Observer) to compare the AP’s account of eight medical technicians with Hannah Arendt’s account of Adolf Eichmann.

eichmann

It is not at all clear whether Taranto has ever set eyes upon Arendt’s book, for he cites only an essay on the book. It is, of course, the height of cliché to speak about books and ideas from second or third hand sources. But that is what Taranto does. He repeats the following claims from the 1999 article, all false: first, that Arendt believed that Eichmann wasn’t anti-Semitic (she reports his claim, but dismisses it as unbelievable, a fact all-too-often forgotten); that she offered the banality of evil as an “overarching theory”; that she “took him at his word” that he was just following orders; that she was a philosopher; and that she was the “world’s worst court reporter”—as if that is what she were.

But what is truly mind-boggling is that after dismissing Arendt’s thesis based on second-hand accounts, Taranto then comes to agree with her. He writes:

And while Rosenbaum [the author of the 1999 article] seems correct in rejecting "the banality of evil" as an overarching theory, surely it has some explanatory or descriptive power. "Faceless little men following evil orders" surely is a fitting characterization of the Pennsylvania bureaucrats who, because of a mix of indifference, incompetence and politics, failed in their oversight of Gosnell's clinic and allowed it to keep operating for decades.

It's also true that banality is a tactic of evil, a method it employs to make orders easier to follow. One of Gosnell's employees might have blown the whistle on him had he expressly commanded them to slash babies to death after they were born, rather than to "snip" them after they "precipitated" to "ensure fetal demise."

All too often we see this approach to Arendt’s book and thesis. She is excoriated for getting Eichmann wrong and for having the temerity to suggest he wasn’t a monster. And then we are told that actually, she was largely right, and that there is something fundamentally true about the idea that evil is done and made possible as much by thoughtlessness as by fanaticism. In other words, she was right in general but not about Eichmann.

Such an argument has become popular in the wake of David Cesarani’s book on Eichmann, which simultaneously says that Arendt under emphasized Eichmann's anti-Semitism and then accepted her argument about the banality of evil. There is a legitimate debate about how Arendt perceived Eichmann. It is wrong to say that she accepted his claims of being a friend of Jews and it is simply inaccurate to think she thought he was not an anti-Semite. That said, there is evidence of his later anti-Semitism expressed in Argentina that Arendt had not seen. Does that evidence impact her thesis? I don't believe so, but if she had had access to it and included it, such remarks would have given a fuller appraisal of Eichmann. In any case,  few who repeat Cesarani's argument have  read him or for that matter Arendt herself.

To reject and embrace the banality of evil in the same essay is too simple. It is easy to repeat Arendt’s insight but then protect oneself from the unsettling implications the weight of her thought must bear. To do so, sadly, is to treat the banality of evil as a cliché. She and her work deserve better.

-RB

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.
29Mar/133

Are We One of Them?

ArendtWeekendReading

In an essay in the Wall Street Journal, Frans de Waal—C. H. Candler Professor of Primate Behavior at Emory University—offers a fascinating review of recent scientific studies that upend long-held expectations about the intelligence of animals. De Waal rehearses a catalogue of fantastic studies in which animals do things that scientists have long thought they could not do. Here are a few examples:

Ayumu, a male chimpanzee, excels at memory; just as the IBM computer Watson can beat human champions at Jeopardy, Ayumu can easily best the human memory champion in games of memory.

Similarly, Kandula, a young elephant bull, was able to reach some fragrant fruit hung out of reach by moving a stool over to the tree, standing on it, and reaching for the fruit with his trunk. I’ll admit this doesn’t seem like much of a feat to me, but for the researchers de Waal talks with, it is surprising proof that elephants can use tools.

elephant

Scientists may be surprised that animals can remember things or use tools to accomplish tasks, but any one raised on children’s tales of Lassie or Black Beauty knows this well, as does anyone whose pet dog opened a door knob, brought them a newspaper, or barked at intruders. The problem these studies address is less our societal view of animals than the overly reductive view of animals that de Waal attributes to his fellow scientists. It’s hard to take these studies seriously as evidence that animals think in the way that humans do.

Seemingly more interesting are experiments with self-recognition and also facial recognition. De Waal describes one Asian Elephant who stood in front of a mirror and “repeatedly rubbed a white cross on her forehead.” Apparently the elephant recognized the image in the mirror as herself. In another experiment, chimpanzees were able to recognize which pictures of chimpanzees were from their own species. Like my childhood Labrador who used to stare knowingly into the mirror, these studies confirm that animals are able to recognize themselves. This means that animals do, likely, understand that they are selves.

For de Waal, these studies have started to upend a view of humankind's unique place in the universe that dates back at least to ancient Greece. “Science,” he writes, “keeps chipping away at the wall that separates us from the other animals. We have moved from viewing animals as instinct-driven stimulus-response machines to seeing them as sophisticated decision makers.”

The flattening of the distinction between animals and humans is to be celebrated, De Waal argues, and not feared. He writes:

Aristotle's ladder of nature is not just being flattened; it is being transformed into a bush with many branches. This is no insult to human superiority. It is long-overdue recognition that intelligent life is not something for us to seek in the outer reaches of space but is abundant right here on earth, under our noses.

DeWaal has long championed the intelligence of animals, and now his vision is gaining momentum. This week, in a long essay called “One of Us” in the new Lapham’s Quarterly on animals, the glorious essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan begins with this description of similar studies to the ones DeWaal writes about:

These are stimulating times for anyone interested in questions of animal consciousness. On what seems like a monthly basis, scientific teams announce the results of new experiments, adding to a preponderance of evidence that we’ve been underestimating animal minds, even those of us who have rated them fairly highly. New animal behaviors and capacities are observed in the wild, often involving tool use—or at least object manipulation—the very kinds of activity that led the distinguished zoologist Donald R. Griffin to found the field of cognitive ethology (animal thinking) in 1978: octopuses piling stones in front of their hideyholes, to name one recent example; or dolphins fitting marine sponges to their beaks in order to dig for food on the seabed; or wasps using small stones to smooth the sand around their egg chambers, concealing them from predators. At the same time neurobiologists have been finding that the physical structures in our own brains most commonly held responsible for consciousness are not as rare in the animal kingdom as had been assumed. Indeed they are common. All of this work and discovery appeared to reach a kind of crescendo last summer, when an international group of prominent neuroscientists meeting at the University of Cambridge issued “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Non-Human Animals,” a document stating that “humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.” It goes further to conclude that numerous documented animal behaviors must be considered “consistent with experienced feeling states.”

With nuance and subtlety, Sullivan understands that our tradition has not drawn the boundary between human and animal nearly as securely as de Waal portrays it. Throughout human existence, humans and animals have been conjoined in the human imagination. Sullivan writes that the most consistent “motif in the artwork made between four thousand and forty thousand years ago,” is the focus on “animal-human hybrids, drawings and carvings and statuettes showing part man or woman and part something else—lion or bird or bear.” In these paintings and sculptures, our ancestors gave form to a basic intuition: “Animals knew things, possessed their forms of wisdom.”

pot

Religious history too is replete with evidence of the human recognition of the dignity of animals. God says in Isaiah that the beasts will honor him and St. Francis, the namesake of the new Pope, is famous for preaching to birds. What is more, we are told that God cares about the deaths of animals.

“In the Gospel According to Matthew we’re told, “Not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” Think about that. If the bird dies on the branch, and the bird has no immortal soul, and is from that moment only inanimate matter, already basically dust, how can it be “with” God as it’s falling? And not in some abstract all-of-creation sense but in the very way that we are with Him, the explicit point of the verse: the line right before it is “fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul.” If sparrows lack souls, if the logos liveth not in them, Jesus isn’t making any sense in Matthew 10:28-29.

What changed and interrupted the ancient and deeply human appreciation of our kinship with besouled animals? Sullivan’s answer is René Descartes. The modern depreciation of animals, Sullivan writes,

proceeds, with the rest of the Enlightenment, from the mind of René Descartes, whose take on animals was vividly (and approvingly) paraphrased by the French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche: they “eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it; they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing.” Descartes’ term for them was automata—windup toys, like the Renaissance protorobots he’d seen as a boy in the gardens at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, “hydraulic statues” that moved and made music and even appeared to speak as they sprinkled the plants.

Too easy, however, is the move to say that the modern comprehension of the difference between animal and human proceeds from a mechanistic view of animals. We live at a time of the animal rights movement. Around the world, societies exist and thrive whose mission is to prevent cruelty toward and to protect animals. Yes, factory farms treat chickens and pigs as organic mechanisms for the production of meat, but these farms co-exist with active and quite successful movements calling for humane standards in food production. Whatever the power of Cartesian mechanics, its success is at odds with the persistence of the religious, ancient solidarity, and also deeply modern sympathy between human and animal.

A more meaningful account of the modern attitude towards animals might be found in Spinoza. Spinoza, as Sullivan quotes him, recognizes that animals feel in ways that Descartes did not. As do animal rights activists, Spinoza admits what is obvious: that animals feel pain, show emotion, and have desires. And yet, Spinoza maintains a distinction between human and animal—one grounded not in emotion or feeling, but in human nature. In his Ethics, he writes:

Hence it follows that the emotions of the animals which are called irrational…only differ from man’s emotions to the extent that brute nature differs from human nature. Horse and man are alike carried away by the desire of procreation, but the desire of the former is equine, the desire of the latter is human…Thus, although each individual lives content and rejoices in that nature belonging to him wherein he has his being, yet the life, wherein each is content and rejoices, is nothing else but the idea, or soul, of the said individual…It follows from the foregoing proposition that there is no small difference between the joy which actuates, say, a drunkard, and the joy possessed by a philosopher.

Spinoza argues against the law prohibiting slaughter of animals—it is “founded rather on vain superstition and womanish pity than on sound reason”—because humans are more powerful than animals.  Here is how he defends the slaughter of animals:

The rational quest of what is useful to us further teaches us the necessity of associating ourselves with our fellow men, but not with beasts, or things, whose nature is different from our own; we have the same rights in respect to them as they have in respect to us. Nay, as everyone’s right is defined by his virtue, or power, men have far greater rights over beasts than beasts have over men. Still I do not deny that beasts feel: what I deny is that we may not consult our own advantage and use them as we please, treating them in the way which best suits us; for their nature is not like ours.

Spinoza’s point is quite simple: Of course animals feel and of course they are intelligent. Who could doubt such a thing? But they are not human. That is clear too. While we humans may care for and even love our pets, we recognize the difference between a dog and a human. And we will, in the end, associate more with our fellow humans than with dogs and porpoises. Finally, we humans will use animals when they serve our purposes. And this is ok, because have the power to do so.

Is Spinoza arguing that might makes right? Surely not in the realm of law amongst fellow humans. But he is insisting that we recognize that for us humans, there is something about being human that is different and, even, higher and more important. Spinoza couches his argument in the language of natural right, but what he is saying is that we must recognize that there are important differences between animals and humans.

At a time that values equality over what Friedrich Nietzsche called the “pathos of difference,” the valuation of human beings over animals is ever more in doubt. This comes home clearly in a story told recently by General Stanley McChrystal, about a soldier who expressed sympathy for some dogs killed in a raid in Iraq.  McChrystal responded, severely: “"Seven enemy were killed on that target last night.  Seven humans.  Are you telling me you're more concerned about the dog than the people that died?  The car fell silent again. "Hey listen," I said. "Don't lose your humanity in this thing."” Many, no doubt, are more concerned, or at least are equally concerned, about the deaths of animals as they are about the deaths of humans. There is ever-increasing discomfort about McChrystal’s common sense affirmation of Spinoza’s claim that human beings simply are of more worth than animals.

eye

The distinctions upon which the moral sense of human distinction is based are foundering. For DeWaal and Sullivan, the danger today is that we continue to insist on differences between animals and humans—differences that we don’t fully understand. The consequences of their openness to the humanization of animals, however, is undoubtedly the animalization of humans. The danger that we humans lose sight of what distinguishes us from animals is much more significant than the possibility that we underestimate animal intelligence.

I fully agree with DeWaal and Sullivan that there is a symphony of intelligence in the world, much of it not human. And yes, we should have proper respect for our ignorance. But all the experiments in the world do little to alter the basic facts, that no matter how intelligent and feeling and even conscious animals may be, humans and animals are different.

What is the quality of that difference? It is difficult to say and may never be fully articulated in propositional form. On one level it is this: Simply to live, as do plants or animals, does not constitute a human life. In other words, human life is not simply about living. Nor is it about doing tasks or even being conscious of ourselves as humans. It is about living meaningfully. There may, of course, be some animals that can create worlds of meaning—worlds that we have not yet discovered. But their worlds are not the worlds to which we humans aspire.

Over two millennia ago, Sophocles, in his “Ode to Man,” named man Deinon, a Greek word that connotes both greatness and horror, that which is so extraordinary as to be at once terrifying and beautiful. Man, Sophocles tells us, can travel over water and tame animals, using them to plough fields. He can invent speech, and institute governments that bring humans together to form lasting institutions. As an inventor and maker of his world, this wonder that is man terrifyingly carries the seeds of his destruction. As he invents and comes to control his world, he threatens to extinguish the mystery of his existence, that part of man that man himself does not control. As the chorus sings: “Always overcoming all ways, man loses his way and comes to nothing.” If man so tames the earth as to free himself from uncertainty, what then is left of human being?

Sophocles knew that man could be a terror; but he also glorified the wonder that man is. He knew that what separates us humans from animals is our capacity to alter the earth and our natural environment. “The human artifice of the world,” Arendt writes, “separates human existence from all mere animal environment…” Not only by building houses and erecting dams—animals can do those things and more—but also by telling stories and building political communities that give to man a humanly created world in which he lives. If all we did as humans was live or build things on earth, we would not be human.

To be human means that we can destroy all living matter on the Earth. We can even today destroy the earth itself. Whether we do so or not, it now means that to live on Earth today is a “Choice” that we make, not a matter of fate or chance. Our Earth, although we did not create it, is now something we humans can decide to sustain or destroy. In this sense, it is a human creation. No other animal has such a potential or such a responsibility.

There is a deep desire today to flee from that awesome and increasingly unbearable human responsibility. We flee, therefore, our humanity and take solace in the view that we are just one amongst the many animals in the world. We see this reductionism above all in human rights discourse. One core demand of human rights—that men and women have a right to live and not be killed—brought about a shift in the idea of humanity from logos to life. The rise of a politics of life—the political demand that governments limit freedoms and regulate populations in order to protect and facilitate their citizens’ ability to live in comfort—has pushed the animality, the “life,” of human beings to the center of political and ethical activity. In embracing a politics of life over a politics of the meaningful life, human rights rejects the distinctive dignity of human rationality and works to reduce humanity to its animality.

Hannah Arendt saw human rights as dangerous precisely because they risked confusing the meaning of human worldliness with the existence of mere animal life. For Arendt, human beings are the beings who build and live in a political world, by which she means the stories, institutions, and achievements that mark the glory and agony of humanity. To be human, she insists, is more than simply living, laboring, working, acting, and thinking. It is to do all of these activities in such a way as to create, together, a common life amongst a plurality of persons.

I fear that the interest in animal consciousness today is less a result of scientific proof that animals are human than it is an increasing discomfort with the world we humans have built. A first step in responding to such discomfort, however, is a reaffirmation of our humanity and our human responsibility. There is no better way to begin that process than in engaging with a very human response to the question of our animality. Towards that end, I commend to you “One of Us,” by John Jeremiah Sullivan.

-RB

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.