Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
26Jul/150

Dianoetic Laughter

iran

By Charles Snyder

“… laughter, a humorous excitement that permits man to prove his essential freedom through a kind of serene superiority to his own failures.”

-- Hannah Arendt, “Franz Kafka: A Revaluation” in Essays in Understanding, 1930-1954: Formation, Exile, and Totalitarianism

Enter Michael Rubin. Resident scholar of Mideast policy at the American Enterprise Institute and former Pentagon official during the first term presidency of George W. Bush. It is important to grasp the reality of this person. He has written as an expert on the mentality of Iranians, and he asserts that Iranians and Americans “think in very different ways.” Rubin worries aloud about projecting our values onto those who “think” differently. To great effect, Rubin cites his knowledge that most Iranians are imperialistic and nationalistic, even condescending to other states. The expert attributes to Iranians possession of the concept “near abroad.” With this concept, Iranians chalk up nearby states in the same manner Vladimir Putin considers the “near abroad” of Russia, that is, by assuming a right to exert major influence in that region. For dramatic illustration of how different Iranians “think,” the expert invokes the image of inexperienced Americans and Europeans being fleeced in Isfahan’s Naqsh-e Jahan Square. That’s right. Rubin can also be funny.

Charles Snyder
Charles Snyder studied philosophy at the New School for Social Research (PhD, 2014). His current writing addresses the relation between philosophy and political life in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, with particular interest in the philosophical schools of the Hellenistic period. He teaches broadly in the history of ancient philosophy, ancient tragic drama from Aeschylus to Seneca, and contemporary political theory.
31May/151

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

philosophy

(Featured Image Source: io9)

By Philip Walsh

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

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

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

Philip Walsh
Philip Walsh is Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology at York University in Toronto. He is the author of several articles on the significance of the work of Hannah Arendt for the social sciences. His book, Arendt Contra Sociology: Theory, Society and its Science, was published by Ashgate in February 2015.
24May/151

The Dystopia of Knowledge

man machine

Featured Image Source: IMG Arcade

By Jennifer M. Hudson

**This post was originally published on February 17, 2014.**

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

-- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

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

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

privacy

(Source: Digital Trends)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Circle

(Source: Amazon)

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

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

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

mind patterns

(Source: Medical Science Navigator)

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

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

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

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.
19Jan/15Off

Thinking in School

thinking in school

By Nicholas Tampio

“It is this duality of myself with myself that makes thinking a true activity, in which I am both the one who asks and the one who answers.”

-- Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind

How can teachers encourage thinking in school?

Arendt’s The Life of the Mind influences my answer. As an educator, my job is to prompt students to think—to have them become two-in-one (in Socratic terms) or to have soundless dialogues within themselves (in the Platonic sense). One way to accomplish that is to structure courses as a conversation between philosophers. In my American political thought course, for instance, I teach lessons on the liberal John Rawls and the conservative Leo Strauss. An integral part of that particular unit is for students to enact a conversation between those two figures in their own minds.

Nicholas Tampio
Nicholas Tampio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Fordham University. He is the author of Kantian Courage (Fordham University Press, 2012) and is currently writing an article on democracy and education standards.
17Dec/140

Plato on Thinking

plato

“As it is, the lover of inquiry must follow his beloved wherever it may lead him.”

-- Plato, Euthyphro

(Featured Image: Plato; Source: John de Nugent)

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.
13Oct/140

Amor Mundi 10/12/14

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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Whoispatrickmodiano?

Patrick ModianoThe Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded this week to French novelist Patrick Modiano, whose work is more or less unavailable in English. Alexandra Schwartz offers an introduction: "[Modiano's first novel] La Place de l'Étoile appeared at a moment when the core tenet of French postwar identity-'the myth of France as a nation of resisters,' as the French writer Clémence Boulouque put it to me when I called her to discuss Modiano's win-was beginning to crumble. (The book was published in May, 1968, the same month that the famous student protests in Paris began; General de Gaulle, the President of the Republic and the living symbol of French heroism during the war, fled to a military base in Germany to wait it all out.) Modiano knew the soiled truth firsthand. His father had refused to wear the star and did not turn himself in when Paris's Jews were rounded up for deportation to concentration camps; he spent the war doing business on the black market and hanging around with the Gestapo stationed on the Rue Lauriston. Boulouque, who is currently a post-doctoral fellow in Jewish Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, told me that in his three dozen or so novels Modiano has returned again and again to the same themes: the pull of the past, the threat of disappearance, the blurring of moral boundaries, 'the dark side of the soul.' Modiano, she told me, believes that 'the novelist has an ethical duty to record the traces of the people who have vanished, the people who were made to disappear.' It will not have escaped the attention of the Nobel committee that Modiano's win comes at a time when anti-Semitism in France is on the rise, as is the rate of French Jews' emigration to Israel. The fear that French Jews are not safe in their own land, that French Jewish culture may vanish, is once again palpable, and real."

War Without Imagination

The ValleyBrian Castner asks why with so much fiction and poetry coming from veterans of the war in Iraq, almost no fiction has emerged from the war in Afghanistan. His best answer: "Afghanistan was always a Task Force war. It began with CIA officers and special forces soldiers on horseback, 'Just a couple guys dressed up like Afghans giving the middle finger to the camera,' according to Maurer. Eventually larger units arrived, but still Rangers and paratroopers and the air assets to support them. That culture survived as the war grew: every aspect of the mission was executed by a Task Force with a name like Odin and Paladin or, for the more secret elite units, a numerical designation alone. Regional commands were given greater autonomy, special forces teams blanketed the country and had freedom to operate, and small outposts were left to survive on their own. Contrast this experience with Iraq, a centrally controlled war where every armor division and artillery regiment took a turn; in military-speak, Big Army was in charge. 'Iraq was televised,' Maurer says. 'It was a big invasion, it was a lot of guys, and it was a combined arms wet dream. They got a chance to use all the stuff.' The long occupation of Iraq then required many average soldiers, many cogs of the war machine, to patrol streets, sweep highways, and simply be in the neighborhoods, on the forward operating bases (FOBs), in country. To use a term from military doctrine, Iraq became a war of mass. 'I think special operations is the overarching narrative of the Afghan War,' says Maurer, 'and those guys love their jobs. To get to that level, it isn't a part-time job, it is your life, it's how you define yourself. So it makes sense they want to do memoirs to recount their stories. I don't see a lot of those guys sitting quietly at the firebase with an existential crisis, some sort of deep journaling. Meanwhile, you go to any platoon in the major conventional units, and you have a cross section of the country.' 'Who's even drawn to write novels?' Molin asks me, not entirely rhetorically. Not only did the average soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan have vastly different experiences, they had different backgrounds, skill sets, and relationship with their chosen occupation. 'If you think of a young guy in an unconventional unit, a SEAL team or special forces, out at a fire base, they have a vote,' says Maurer. 'Even the newest guy on the team, they are going to look at him for his specialty, they will ask his input on certain parts of a mission. An 18-year-old assistant machine gunner in the infantry, you're not being asked to do anything other than pick up your machine gun and walk.'"

Big Positivism

big dataNathan Jurgenson suggests that Big Data is the new positivism, but with a perverse twist: "The positivist fiction has always relied on unequal access: science could sell itself as morally and politically disinterested for so long because the requisite skills were so unevenly distributed. As scientific practice is increasingly conducted from different cultural standpoints, the inherited political biases of previous science become more obvious. As access to education and advanced research methodologies became more widespread, they could no longer support the positivist myth. The cultural ideology of Big Data attempts to reverse this by shifting authority away from (slightly more) democratized research expertise toward unequal access to proprietary, gated data. (Molly Osberg points out in her review of Dataclysm for the Verge how Rudder explains in the notes how he gathered most of his information through personal interactions with other tech company executives.) When data is said to be so good that it tells its own truths and researchers downplay their own methodological skills, that should be understood as an effort to make access to that data more valuable, more rarefied. And the same people positioning this data as so valuable and authoritative are typically the ones who own it and routinely sell access to it."

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Magical Mystery Tour

literary tourIn an interview about the creation and teaching of a class on Landscape Artists at the Iowa Writer's Workshop. Karen Russell talks revisiting the much-read: "In class, we take a sort of field trip of the mind together, and it's fun to see some of the places we've all been to before with fresh eyes-Nathaniel Hawthorne territory, Faulkner's county, Shirley Jackson's terrifying 'Lottery' village. The spots on the literary tram tour. I assumed Hemingway was on that itinerary, so I handed out the story without his name, but half the class wasn't familiar with it. It reads totally differently if you remove it from the context of Hemingway's Nick Adams stories and the war, so it became an accidental experiment to learn how much context informs your experience of a place in story. The students still loved it, but what they loved about it seemed more experiential-the animal happiness of being safe in a tent, for instance."

Not Always Right

Eula BissEula Biss compares the crisis in education to the crisis in health care. At the root of it all, she says, is a consumer mentality: "Yes, we may be consumers, of health care as well as many other things, but that doesn't mean that it always serves us best to think like consumers. Health care is one of those areas, like art-making or community-building or education, where the consumerist approach of trying to get as much as you can for as little as possible can be counterproductive. As a teacher, I've had ample opportunity to observe what consumerism does to education. Students who approach their education as consumers may be passive, may want a product not a process, and may expect learning to feel like entertainment. Learning tends to hurt more than entertainment, and the inevitable disappointment felt by the consumerist learner is often interpreted as a defect in the product. The loss there is twofold-the learner loses the opportunity to learn, but also loses the awareness that she is responsible for that loss. This is not to say that we shouldn't be looking hard at the high cost of education, and the low returns some students get for that cost. We should absolutely interrogate the economy of education and its corruptions, just as we should interrogate the economy of health care and its corruptions. But we aren't served any better, within these troubled systems, by failing to understand our personal role and responsibilities."

Do Words Limit Art

SpiegelmanSuddenly comics are everywhere. Best sellers are reissued in graphic editions and graphic books are best sellers. For the under 15 set, graphic novels are now a mainstay. Asked whether "Words Limit Art?" Art Spiegelman offers a theory about why comics have had trouble gaining cultural footing: "I would say that as words rose in our cultural firmament, pictures got smashed down to make room for them. And ever since, pictures have been more suspect. We're living in this Protestant country that doesn't respect imagery the same way it respects the word. And all of a sudden something like comics comes along that mixes the two together, and it's viewed as contraband. We're getting into a place where we're barraged with words and images all the time, and we have to get rid of our prejudices against one or the other, and this (tour) is like a controlled science experiment where you've got the pictures without the language."

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Featured Events

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, Ian Storey invokes two pieces by E. B. White to speculate about the United States' fear for the world it must confront today in the Quote of the Week. And Plato provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking.

conference_14On Thursday and Friday, we held our seventh annual fall conference "The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Ideals Worth Fighting For?" It was a busy two days full of talks and discussions, made all the more stimulating by audience members' insightful comments and questions. We hope you were able to make it, and if not, hopefully you were able to watch the conference using our live webcast.

We at the Hannah Arendt Center pride ourselves on our ability to host engaging, thought-provoking events for the Bard community and the greater public at large. We look forward to continuing this tradition well into the future.

Thank you for supporting the Hannah Arendt Center and for helping to make this past week's conference our best conference yet!

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.
8Oct/140

Plato on Thinking

plato

“For this feeling of wonder shows that you are a philosopher, since wonder is the only beginning of philosophy.”

-- Plato, Theaetetus

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

Arendt, Matisse, and Stripping Away the Face

"No Face" by Dylan Ralph

(Featured image: "No Face" by Dylan Ralph")

“Matisse Show in Chicago: The five sculptured heads of Jeanette (1910-1913): the first—her appearance, and then as though layer upon layer were ripped off, one uglier than the former, the last like a monstrosity makes the first look as though our face were nothing but a precarious façade. Plato’s naked soul piercing into naked soul. As though our clothes were only to hide the ugliness of the body. The whole of modern psychology. The soul-body problem = appearance versus being.”

—Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch XXV, 10

Arendt’s notes on the exhibition “The Magic of Matisse” first splashed onto the pages of her Denktagebuch in April 1966. By then, she had written elsewhere about the role of the artist and the existential significance of artwork. But we nonetheless catch her in the very act of responding viscerally, irritably, powerfully to a particular work, and she’s not holding back. The heads of Jeanette provoke her. They set the train of thought in motion, but Matisse turns out not to be the final destination. Her thoughts ultimately take her all the way to Freud and “the fallacy of all modern psychology.”

Anne O'Byrne
Anne O’Byrne is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Stony Brook University. Her book Natality and Finitude appeared with Indiana University Press in 2010. She is currently working on a manuscript on genocide and nationality.
7Jul/140

Google Books and the Problem of Tradition

Google_books

“Kierkegaard, Marx, and Nietzsche are for us like guideposts to a past which has lost its significance.”

--Hannah Arendt, “Tradition and the Modern Age”

The general outlines of the Google Books project are simple in principle and stunning in size. Collaborating with major libraries around the globe, Google has undertaken to scan all known existing books and to make them accessible to the electronically connected public. Started a decade ago in 2004, Google has already digitized roughly a quarter of the estimated 130 million books available worldwide. The completion of the collection is scheduled for 2020.

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.
7Apr/140

Amor Mundi 4/6/14

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.

Oligarchs, Inc.

supremeOver at SCOTUSblog, Burt Neuborne writes that “American democracy is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Oligarchs, Inc.” The good news, Neuborne reminds, is that “this too shall pass.” After a fluid and trenchant review of the case and the recent decision declaring limits on aggregate giving to political campaigns to be unconstitutional, Neuborne writes: “Perhaps most importantly, McCutcheon illustrates two competing visions of the First Amendment in action. Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion turning American democracy over to the tender mercies of the very rich insists that whether aggregate contribution limits are good or bad for American democracy is not the Supreme Court’s problem. He tears seven words out of the forty-five words that constitute Madison’s First Amendment – “Congress shall make no law abridging . . . speech”; ignores the crucial limiting phrase “the freedom of,” and reads the artificially isolated text fragment as an iron deregulatory command that disables government from regulating campaign financing, even when deregulation results in an appalling vision of government of the oligarchs, by the oligarchs, and for the oligarchs that would make Madison (and Lincoln) weep. Justice Breyer’s dissent, seeking to retain some limit on the power of the very rich to exercise undue influence over American democracy, views the First Amendment, not as a simplistic deregulatory command, but as an aspirational ideal seeking to advance the Founders’ effort to establish a government of the people, by the people, and for the people for the first time in human history. For Justice Breyer, therefore, the question of what kind of democracy the Supreme Court’s decision will produce is at the center of the First Amendment analysis. For Chief Justice Roberts, it is completely beside the point. I wonder which approach Madison would have chosen. As a nation, we’ve weathered bad constitutional law before. Once upon a time, the Supreme Court protected slavery. Once upon a time the Supreme Court blocked minimum-wage and maximum-hour legislation.  Once upon a time, the Supreme Court endorsed racial segregation, denied equality to women, and jailed people for their thoughts and associations. This, too, shall pass. The real tragedy would be for people to give up on taking our democracy back from the oligarchs. Fixing the loopholes in disclosure laws, and public financing of elections are now more important than ever. Moreover, the legal walls of the airless room are paper-thin. Money isn’t speech at obscenely high levels. Protecting political equality is a compelling interest justifying limits on uncontrolled spending by the very rich. And preventing corruption means far more than stopping quid pro quo bribery. It means the preservation of a democracy where the governed can expect their representatives to decide issues independently, free from economic serfdom to their paymasters. The road to 2016 starts here. The stakes are the preservation of democracy itself.” It is important to remember that the issue is not really partisan, but that both parties are corrupted by the influx of huge amounts of money. Democracy is in danger not because one party will by the election, but because the oligarchs on both sides are crowding out grassroots participation. This is an essay you should read in full. For a plain English review of the decision, read this from SCOTUSblog. And for a Brief History of Campaign Finance, check out this from the Arendt Center Archives.

Saving Democracy

democZephyr Teachout, the most original and important thinker about the constitutional response to political corruption, has an op-ed in the Washington Post: “We should take this McCutcheon moment to build a better democracy. The plans are there. Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) has proposed something that would do more than fix flaws. H.R. 20, which he introduced in February, is designed around a belief that federal political campaigns should be directly funded by millions of passionate, but not wealthy, supporters. A proposal in New York would do a similar thing at the state level.” Teachout spoke at the Arendt Center two years ago after the Citizens United case. Afterwards, Roger Berkowitz wrote: “It is important to see that Teachout is really pointing out a shift between two alternate political theories. First, she argues that for the founders and for the United States up until the mid-20th century, the foundational value that legitimates our democracy is the confidence that our political system is free from corruption. Laws that restrict lobbying or penalize bribery are uncontroversial and constitutional, because they recognize core—if not the core—constitutional values. Second, Teachout sees that increasingly free speech has replaced anti-corruption as the foundational constitutional value in the United States. Beginning in the 20th century and culminating in the Court's decision in Citizens United, the Court gradually accepted the argument that the only way to guarantee a legitimate democracy is to give unlimited protection to the marketplace of idea. Put simply, truth is nothing else but the product of free debate and any limits on debate, especially political debate, will delegitimize our politics.” Read the entirety of his commentary here. Watch a recording of Teachout’s speech here.

The Forensic Gaze

forA new exhibition opened two weeks ago at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin that examines the changing ways in which states police and govern their subjects through forensics, and how certain aesthetic-political practices have also been used to challenge or expose states. Curated by Anselm Franke and Eyal Weizman, Forensis “raises fundamental questions about the conditions under which spatial and material evidence is recorded and presented, and tests the potential of new types of evidence to expand our juridical imagination, open up forums for political dispute and practice, and articulate new claims for justice.” Harry Burke and Lucy Chien review the exhibition on Rhizome: “The exhibition argues that forensics is a political practice primarily at the point of interpretation. Yet if the exhibition is its own kind of forensic practice, then it is the point of the viewer's engagement where the exhibition becomes significant. The underlying argument in Forensis is that the object of forensics should be as much the looker and the act of looking as the looked-upon.” You may want to read more and then we suggest Mengele’s Skull: The Advent of a Forensic Aesthetics.

Empathy's Mess

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In an interview, Leslie Jamison, author of the very recently published The Empathy Exams, offers up a counterintuitive defense of empathy: “I’m interested in everything that might be flawed or messy about empathy — how imagining other lives can constitute a kind of tyranny, or artificially absolve our sense of guilt or responsibility; how feeling empathy can make us feel we’ve done something good when we actually haven’t. Zizek talks about how 'feeling good' has become a kind of commodity we purchase for ourselves when we buy socially responsible products; there’s some version of this inoculation logic — or danger — that’s possible with empathy as well: we start to like the feeling of feeling bad for others; it can make us feel good about ourselves. So there’s a lot of danger attached to empathy: it might be self-serving or self-absorbed; it might lead our moral reasoning astray, or supplant moral reasoning entirely. But do I want to defend it, despite acknowledging this mess? More like: I want to defend it by acknowledging this mess. Saying: Yes. Of course. But yet. Anyway.”

What the Language Does

barsIn a review of Romanian writer Herta Muller's recently translated collection Christina and Her Double, Costica Bradatan points to what changing language can do, what it can't do, and how those who attempt to manipulate it may also underestimate its power: “Behind all these efforts was the belief that language can change the real world. If religious terms are removed from language, people will stop having religious feelings; if the vocabulary of death is properly engineered, people will stop being afraid of dying. We may smile today, but in the long run such polices did produce a change, if not the intended one. The change was not in people’s attitudes toward death or the afterworld, but in their ability to make sense of what was going on. Since language plays such an important part in the construction of the self, when the state subjects you to constant acts of linguistic aggression, whether you realize it or not, your sense of who you are and of your place in the world are seriously affected. Your language is not just something you use, but an essential part of what you are. For this reason any political disruption of the way language is normally used can in the long run cripple you mentally, socially, and existentially. When you are unable to think clearly you cannot act coherently. Such an outcome is precisely what a totalitarian system wants: a population perpetually caught in a state of civic paralysis.”

Humanities and Human Life

humanCharles Samuleson, author of "The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone," has this paean to the humanities in the Wall Street Journal: “I once had a student, a factory worker, who read all of Schopenhauer just to find a few lines that I quoted in class. An ex-con wrote a searing essay for me about the injustice of mandatory minimum sentencing, arguing that it fails miserably to live up to either the retributive or utilitarian standards that he had studied in Introduction to Ethics. I watched a preschool music teacher light up at Plato's "Republic," a recovering alcoholic become obsessed by Stoicism, and a wayward vet fall in love with logic (he's now finishing law school at Berkeley). A Sudanese refugee asked me, trembling, if we could study arguments concerning religious freedom. Never more has John Locke —or, for that matter, the liberal arts—seemed so vital to me.”

Caritas and Felicitas

charityArthur C. Brooks makes the case that charitable giving makes us happier and even more successful: “In 2003, while working on a book about charitable giving, I stumbled across a strange pattern in my data. Paradoxically, I was finding that donors ended up with more income after making their gifts. This was more than correlation; I found solid evidence that giving stimulated prosperity…. Why? Charitable giving improves what psychologists call “self-efficacy,” one’s belief that one is capable of handling a situation and bringing about a desired outcome. When people give their time or money to a cause they believe in, they become problem solvers. Problem solvers are happier than bystanders and victims of circumstance.” Do yourself a favor, then, and become a member of the Arendt Center.

Featured Events

heidThe Black Notebooks (1931-1941):

What Heidegger's Denktagebuch reveals about his thinking during the Nazi regime.

April 8, 2014

Goethe Institut, NYC

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"My Name is Ruth."

An Evening with Bard Big Read and Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping

Excerpts will be read by Neil Gaiman, Nicole Quinn, & Mary Caponegro

April 23, 2014

Richard B. Fisher Center, Bard College

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From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, our Quote of the Week comes from Martin Wager, who views Arendt's idea of world alienation through the lens of modern day travel. Josh Kopin looks at Stanford Literary Lab's idea of using computers and data as a tool for literary criticism. In the Weekend Read, Roger Berkowitz ponders the slippery slope of using the First Amendment as the basis for campaign finance reform. 

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
17Feb/140

The Dystopia of Knowledge

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

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dave

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

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

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

blue

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

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

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

-Jennifer M. Hudson

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
31Jan/140

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?

n1

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".
27Jan/140

Forgiving Falling Stars

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“Even if all criticism of Plato is right, Plato may still be better company than his critics.  At any rate, we may remember what the Romans…thought a cultivated person ought to be: one who knows how to choose his company among men, among things, among thoughts, in the present as well as in the past.”

Hannah Arendt-Between Past and Future

Cycles of falling stars are simultaneously bewildering unpredictable in the particular for modern astronomy, yet sufficiently regular and constant in general to form calendars and seasons of activity.  This is equally, or perhaps more true of the psychic life of the American public space, and after a troubled political year, that season of falling stars that you always know will come seems to be upon us. Like Gloucesterians, we seem fond of winter in the United States: all three branches of the federal government, both major political parties, and the president have disapproval ratings that range from personal lows to ranking among the worst in the nation’s history.  But this time has been no less filled with high profile cases in Western and Eastern Europe, South America, Central and North Africa, China, South Asia…the list could continue at will.  I’m choosing not to dwell on the stories of particular politicians precisely because it is the trough of an ugly time, and it has been an ugly season for long enough that it’s worth thinking about not just where this particular cycle came from, but why we have them the way we do, and what it means to get out.

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The newest issue of Interview Magazine is carrying a pretty extraordinary dialogue. That Steve McQueen – whose brilliant shorts established him as one of the brightest young directing talents of a generation well before the current run that culminated in last year’s shattering 12 Years a Slave – takes the role of interviewer rather than interviewee is enough to justify expecting something special.  His subject (and that is the right term, in several senses) is Kanye West, perhaps the artist who most exemplifies in a single, still brief career the dizzying cycle of fall from grace and resurrection that defines the dramatic life of the modern public.  Admittedly, the dialogue leans heavily toward a monologue, as you might expect given both the form and the figures.  But it is also one of the most fascinating co-meditations I have ever read on what it means to strive and fail and thrive under the gaze of others, to actively confront the reality that the narrative of your life is only ever partially written by you.  That neither artist would feign for a moment to be Everyman is paradoxically what gives the exchange such an incredible vibrancy, a resonance held open for any one precisely by refusing universality.  Their crafting of West’s story comes out as two voices speaking through a bewildering tapestry of fragmented influences, pressures, and above all images of West both painted and defied.  To a degree that only maybe his “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” also allows, there is just something in the collision between West’s intensely solipsistic artistic brilliance and his equally intense and utterly open social vulnerability that can’t help but grab and shake raw your sense of what it means to live and die – and fail – in public.  Wrapped in the presence and influence of McQueen, it also manages to viscerally bring home one of Arendt’s most important thoughts: that those questions are, and must be, personal to each one of us, too.

I can’t speak well to the public humours outside of this country, but I know that the particular dynamics that McQueen draws West to describe reflect a pattern of the rise and fall of public lives in this country.  The only way I can reach to describe that pattern is by grafting metaphors of love onto Arendt’s language for describing how we tell stories about a “who”, that precarious hybrid of a person and a narrative that none of us can escape being.  In these scenes of disgrace, as we remold dramas in a matter of moments from adoration to utter disillusionment, we are depressingly adroit at ignoring a gap in our own passions between our reasons for falling so quickly in love, and our reasons for so quickly embracing its opposite.  When a public embraces someone – politicians no less than cultural superstars – with that special fervor that marks our peculiar brand of messianism, it is never purely for the sake of what she has done.  We admire the what, we respect the what, but when we love, publicly, we love the who in a way that no measure of what they’ve done could possibly justify.  Maybe that is simply the nature of love, of a public or a person, because that is the nature of a who.  Though we’re fond of decrying it when retrospect turns bitter, would we really want it to be otherwise?  Wouldn’t there always have been a certain miserliness in trying to practice our story-building and our allegiances with dry lists of accomplishments, a certain desiccated frugality to our attachment to the public?  I know of no one in my life who could say with real honesty that their public loves of choice – whether those were Barack Obama or Lance Armstrong, Chris Christie or Kanye West – ever resembled anything of the sort.

Yet when we cast these down, in that moment, that who we had been narrating with such care to ourselves and each other becomes utterly overtaken by a what, and not that figure’s whats taken together, but a what which simply becomes their disgraced who to us.  Often, it becomes a pattern of whats.  Often, it was always a pattern of whats that simply hadn’t made it into the story, either through deceptions by others or our own to ourselves.  But it is always a what – a sin, a crime, an act, a betrayal – that turns the page.

There are times when that switch is justified.  There are moments of whats so grave that they ought to come to dominate our vision of a who…that is what it means to reserve to ourselves the right not only to tell histories, but to judge them.  There are times when this must be done.  But in a season like this, we must judge, but we must also be honest with ourselves about what we are doing, to recognize…and taking care because of it…that we are exercising one of our most precious capacities, one that Arendt called in the quoted essay by a name now itself disgraced in some eyes: our humanism.

In her very Augustinian rendition, Arendt describes forgiveness as “an eminently personal…affair in which what was done is forgiven for the sake of who did it”.  Many have criticized the thought, but it seems worth returning to at least in the context of these so very public scenes.  Forgiveness of this form is never a duty.  Indeed, it may be a grace we want to use sparingly.  It means even less the suspension of punishment.  But it is first and foremost an exercise in that faculty Arendt described, in a way few had admitted since Cicero, as choosing with whom we will share our world.  There will always be those who we decide we want to share our public world with because they retain some reason that drives us to.  Though never, I think, so very terrible, West has done and said some things that others have found unforgivable; but I, for one, want the who in that interview to remain in my world, and in some part create that world.

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There will also always be those who we decide, with justice, that we will not share our world with them.  Some of those will be for trespasses no greater than West’s, and where that hazy line lies might be the consistent thread in McQueen’s storytelling.  Others will not be for trespasses, but for enormities that defy even the possibility of forgiveness for us.  Arendt closed her report on the Eichmann trial with the judgment that she, and we, could not share a world with Eichmann.  In the wake of those writings, there were many who decided that they could not share a world with her.  It is not a process we can do with out, least of all in that most public of spheres, politics.  But I also suspect that if we did it with a clearer eye on we were doing with our whos and our whats, and a less clouded memory, the discontent would not run so deep in our winters.  At least, it could never be said that we know not what we do.

-Ian Storey

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.