Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
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.

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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.

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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

29Nov/130

What is Politics?

ArendtWeekendReading

“What is Politics?” is the question taken up by a conference co-sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center and the Villa Aurora in Los Angeles earlier this month. Hannah Arendt dedicated her work to the reinvention of the public realm and to freedom in political action. Today, as in the 1960s, her ideas inspire theoretical debates as well as civil political initiatives.

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The conference, with lectures by experts on Hannah Arendt’s work, focused on the influence of her European-American experience and the particular importance of transcultural exchange in Arendt’s theory of political action. Speakers included Marie Luise Knott, Anson Rabinbach; Princeton University, Peg Birmingham; DePaul University, Robert Harrison; Stanford University, Martín Plot; California Institute of the Arts, Wolfgang Heuer; Freie Universität Berlin, and Roger Berkowitz; Bard College. Most of the talks were videotaped and are now online. They are your weekend read. Happy Thanksgiving.

23Sep/130

The False Culture of Utility

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“Culture is being threatened when all worldly objects and things, produced by the present or the past, are treated as mere functions for the life process of society, as though they are there only to fulfill some need, and for this functionalization it is almost irrelevant whether the needs in question are of a high or a low order.”

--Hannah Arendt, “The Crisis in Culture”

Hannah Arendt defines the cultural as that which gives testimony to the past and in preserving the past helps constitute  our common world.  A cultural object embodies the human goal of achieving “immortality,” which as Arendt explains in The Human Condition is not the same as eternal life or the biological propagation of the species. Immortality concerns the life of a people and is ultimately political.  It refers to the particular type of transcendence afforded by political action. In “The Crisis of Culture,” Arendt shows how culture has a political role insofar as it creates durable and lasting objects that contribute to the immortality of a people.

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The danger Arendt confronts in “The Crisis in Culture” is that mass culture makes art disposable and thus threatens the political ability of cultural life to produce lasting and immortal objects.  The source of her worry is not an invasion of culture by the low and the base, but a sort of cannibalization of culture by itself.  The problem is that mass culture swallows culture and subsumes it under the rubric of need.  The immortal is degraded to a biological necessity, to be endlessly consumed and reproduced. Durable cultural objects that constitute a meaningful political world are thereby consumed, eroding the common world that is the place of politics.

Arendt’s point is first that mass culture—like all culture under the sway of society— is too often confused with status, self-fulfillment, or entertainment. In the name of status or entertainment, cultural achievements are stripped down and repackaged as something to be consumed in the life process.  She would argue that this happens every time Hamlet is made into a movie or the Iliad is condensed into a children’s edition. By making culture accessible for those who would use it to improve themselves, the mass-culture industry makes it less and less likely that we will ever confront the great works of our past in their most challenging form.  Eventually, the watering down of once immortal works can make it difficult or impossible to perceive the importance of culture and cultural education for humanity and our common world.

However, Arendt does not offer simply a banal critique of reality television as fast-food.  We might recognize a more insidious form of the risks she describes in the new intellectualism that marks the politics, or anti-politics of the tech milieu. What has been termed Silicon Valley’s anti-intellectualism should instead be understood as a forced colonization of the space potentially inhabited by the public intellectual.

The prophets of the tech world see themselves as fulfilling a social and political duty through enterprise.  They unselfconsciously describe their creations as sources of liberation, democracy, and revolution.  And yet they eschew politics. Their abnegation of overt political activity is comprehensible in that, for them, ‘politics’ is always already contained in the project of saving the world through technological progress.

We see such exemplars of technological cultural salvation all around us.  Scholars and cultural figures are invited to lecture at the “campuses” of Apple and Google, and their ideas get digested into the business model or spit back out in the form of TED talks.  Even Burning Man, originally a ‘counter-cultural’ annual desert festival with utopian pretensions, has been sucked into the vortex, such that Stanford Professor Fred Turner could give a powerpoint lecture titled, “Burning Man at Google: A cultural infrastructure for new media production.”  The abstract for his article in New Media & Society is even more suggestive: “…this article explores the ways in which Burning Man’s bohemian ethos supports new forms of production emerging in Silicon Valley and especially at Google. It shows how elements of the Burning Man world – including the building of a sociotechnical commons, participation in project-based artistic labor and the fusion of social and professional interaction – help to shape and legitimate the collaborative manufacturing processes driving the growth of Google and other firms.”  Turner’s conclusion virtually replicates Arendt’s differentiation between nineteenth century philistinism and the omniphagic nature of mass culture:

In the 19th century, at the height of the industrial era, the celebration of art provided an occasion for the display of wealth. In the 21st century, under conditions of commons-based peer production, it has become an occasion for its [i.e. wealth] creation.

The instrumentalization of culture within polite society has given way to the digestion and reconstitution of culture in the form of gadgets meant to increase convenience.  Would-be cultural objects become rungs on the hamster wheel of life’s progress. Progress as the ultimate goal of technological cultural innovation is a vague concept because it is taken for granted due to the self-contained and self-enclosed nature of the industry.  Where it is defined, it is demonstrated through examples, such as the implementation of the smart parking meter or the use of cloud networking in order to better administer services to San Francisco’s homeless population.

In a recent New Yorker article on the tech revolutionaries, George Packer writes, “A favorite word in tech circles is ‘frictionless.’ It captures the pleasures of an app so beautifully designed that using it is intuitive, and it evokes a fantasy in which all inefficiencies, annoyances, and grievances have been smoothed out of existence—that is, an apolitical world.” Progress here is the increasingly efficient administration of life.

When tech does leave its insular environment and direct its energies outward, its engagements reflect both its solipsism and focus on utility, which for Arendt go together.  The Gates Foundation’s substantial investments in higher education impose the quantitatively verifiable standard of degree completion as the sole or main objective, which seems odd in itself, given Gates’ notoriety as a Harvard drop-out.  The efforts of the Foundation aim less at placing Shakespeare in the hands of every fast-food worker, and more towards redirecting all of cultural education toward the development of a cheap version of utilitarian aptitude.  Such tech intellectualism will ask, “What is the point of slaving over the so-called classics?” The claim is that the liberal arts vision of university education is inseparable from elitist designs, based on an exclusive definition of what ‘culture’ should be.

“What is the use?” is the wrong question, though, and it is tinged by the solipsistic mentality of a tech elite that dare not speak its name.  The tech intellectual presents the culture of Silicon Valley as inherently egalitarian, despite the fact that capital gains in the sector bare a large burden of the blame for this country’s soaring rate of inequality.  This false sense of equality fosters a naïve view of political and social issues.  It also fuels tech’s hubristic desire to remake the world in its own image:  Life is about frictionless success and efficient progress, and these can be realized via the technological fix.  “It worked for us, what’s the matter with you?”

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For Arendt, culture is not meant to be useful for employment or even the lofty purpose of self-cultivation; our relationship to culture nurtures our ability to make judgments.  Kant’s discussion of taste and “common sense” informs her notion of the faculty of judgment in art and politics.  In matters of taste, judging rests on the human ability to enlarge one’s mind and think with reference to an “anticipated communication with others” and “potential agreement.”  Common sense, as she uses it, “discloses to us the nature of the world insofar as it is a common world.”  Culture and politics are linked in that both can only exist in a world that is shared.  She writes:

Culture and politics, then, belong together because it is not knowledge or truth which is at stake, but rather judgment and decision, the judicious exchange of opinion about the sphere of public life and the common world, and the decision what manner of action is to be taken, as well as to how it is to look henceforth, what kind of things are to appear in it.

That culture and politics are about enacting judgments, rather than truth or technique for the advancement of biological life, is a point that is clearly missed by the tech intellectuals.  The establishment of utility as the sole goal of higher education represents only one section of a general lens through which the world appears only as a series of practical problems to be figured out.  In this paradoxical utopia of mass accessibility, insulation, and narrow-mindedness, applied knowledge threatens to occupy and pervert culture at the expense of political action and care for our common world.

-Jennifer Hudson

26Aug/130

Machine-man and man-machines in the last stage of the laboring society

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“The last stage of the laboring society, the society of job holders, demands of its members a sheer automatic functioning, as though individual life had actually been submerged in the over-all life process of the species and the only active decision still required of the individual were to let go, so to speak, to abandon his individuality, the still individually sensed pain and trouble of living, and acquiesce in a dazed, ‘tranquilized’, functional type of behavior”.

-Hannah Arendt,  "The Human Condition"

About fifty years ago Hannah Arendt diagnosed the “last stage of the laboring society”.  Human beings can only live as “job holders” without access to the realm of freedom in the sense of the classical ideal of political action. For Arendt this state of affairs is the result of the development process of modernity. As the life of the species, the ‘social’ became the central interest of the public sphere. There is no margin for self-realization unless this is within the limits of an adaptation to the needs of the collective life process. Even a passive freedom of “sensing pain and trouble of living” is no longer permitted. Human beings not only have to function automatically, they have to “bow with joy” to their condition. This ideological aspect of the contemporary conditio humana is perhaps the one that outrages Arendt the most. The anesthesia of the mind in modern society: Individuals have to “acquiesce in a dazed, ‘tranquilized’, functional type of behavior”.

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Through her diagnosis Arendt addresses the development of the “machine-man” in the laboring society. Subliminal to the process of the modern liberation of individuality, which reaches a pinnacle in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the private sphere of the ancient household as a place of labor is extended to the whole of society. At the end of the day individuals have to conform to the needs of the life production process in a way that makes it impossible for them even to look after their rights. This is the age of the machine-man. “Functionality” becomes the grounding element of human behavior. Positivistic fate in progress represents its civil religion: When every aspect of society could be traced back to its proper functioning there were no limits to life perfection.

With this result, to speak with Max Weber, a specific idea achieved an overwhelming impact on societal transformation. Descartes’ separation of res cogitans and res extensa produced the idea of an animal-machine without a soul, which could be completely reduced to the functional needs of rationalistic world domination. Some hundred years later La Mettrie completed the reflection with the idea of the homme-machine. Without knowing its sources in cultural history, industrialization translated the idea radically into action: By being reduced to machine-men individuals had to fulfill the needs of a mechanized production system. In order to face the anthropological consequences of the industrial development of modernity, Marx and Engels provided the plot for the political redemption of the machine-men. The only way to escape alienation is to attain the complete automation of the factory, and thus the substitution of job holders by intelligent machines. In 1921 reversed this utopia in a dystopia. He coined the word “robot” for his theater piece “Rossum’s Universal Robots” using the Slavic word robota, which traditionally means the work period (corvée) a serf had to give for his lord. By reviving the theme of the Jewish legend about the Golem, Čapek put the religious prohibition of recreating human beings at the forefront of the debate. There could be no liberation of machine-man by constructing man-machines without provoking a rebellion of the latter against their creators: this has been the subject of all science fiction literature and film about man-machines ever since.

A sociologically based intercultural survey about the current development of robotics shows that both the scientific utopia of creating man-machines as well as the public’s fears about their potential danger are present in the reflections of European and American engineers. Japanese roboticists on the other hand think that the introduction of man-machines into social interaction does not provoke any dystopic consequences. In an age of an increasing crisis of labor as the central category of modernity, technology research tries to develop substitutes for the missing animal laborans. Its leading idea is that an aging society needs support and care for humans who live long after they have ceased to be job holders. Instead of thinking about a different organization of society, decision-makers and stakeholders aim at substituting the absent young job holders with machines that have all the characteristics of functionality pointed out in Arendt’s diagnosis of the last stage of laboring society’s members. The machine-man reproduces himself as a man-machine.

But furthermore, the empirical surveys show that utopia stalls with the implementation of the man-machine. Technically, it is very hard to realize robots that can effectively substitute working humans in a real-world environment. Societally, there is a very low level of acceptance for man-machines, not least because of deep ethical concerns about human–robot interaction. Legal issues offer an even greater problem: Neither the European, American nor Japanese legal system provides proper legal instruments to allow robots to enter real-world settings.

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This background strongly influences the further development of technological research. So it is interesting to observe how developers worldwide slowly abandon the plan of realizing a substitute for the animal laborans as an autonomous entity. Following the design guidelines of “Ambient Assisted Living”, single parts of its body are disaggregated and put into the environment of the pensioned job holders. The man-machine only survives as an executer (Europe) or as a communication tool (Japan) for an overall ambient intelligence. Robots thereby become an interface for the “rule of nobody” of a superior control instance within the private life of the discharged job holders. No advent of autonomous robots seems therefore to be expected, if not as a result of undercover research into military robotics that plans for their introduction in the extra-legal domain of war.

Machine-men hesitate to realize the utopia of man-machines. They seem to abandon the idea of making man-machines full members of the public sphere, as they are to be seen e. g. in the film adaptation of Asimov’s I, Robot. This current stage of the laboring society poses the question of its critical assessment. It would be interesting to know what Hannah Arendt would have said about this.

-Gregor Fitzi

University of Potsdam, Germany

12Apr/132

Is Hannah Arendt a Jewish Thinker?

ArendtWeekendReading
Is Hannah Arendt A Jewish Thinker? On one level, the answer is obvious. Arendt was indeed Jewish, raised in Germany during the first three decades of the 20th century. True, Arendt was non-religious and in much of her writing was deeply critical of Jews and Jewish leaders. Yet she was arrested twice as a Jew, once in Germany and once in France, escaping both times. If one is attacked as a Jew, she said, one must respond as a Jew. That she did. She led Jewish Youth to Palestine and wrote essays during the war calling for a Jewish army. She attended the first meeting of the Jewish World Congress. She worked for years for the committee for Jewish Cultural Reconstruction. Her first two books—Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of Jewess, and The Origins of Totalitarianism—are deeply infused by her understanding of the Jewish question. So too is her best known book, Eichmann in Jerusalem. It would be folly to deny that her thinking is influenced by her experience of being a Jew.

But to ask if she was a Jewish thinker is something else. It is to ask whether her political thinking is inspired by or in some way quintessentially Jewish. The question is posed this way often by students hoping to find something in Arendt with which they can identify. Others ask it in the hope of redeeming Arendt from the perceived sins of her book on Adolf Eichmann. And the question of the Jewish influence on Arendt is also a scholarly question.

For some Arendtian scholars, her thinking is a distillation of the work of her first teacher and youthful lover, Martin Heidegger. Others trace the source of her political ideas to her dear friend and mentor Karl Jaspers. She is often said to be an Aristotelian; one super-intelligent recent Ph.D. argued to me last week that the decisive influence on her work was Niccolo Machiavelli. A recent article argues that Arendt’s Denktagebuch proves that her most influential interlocutor was Plato. And then there is of course a Jewish reading of Arendt, one first explored in depth (and in its complexity) by Richard Bernstein in his book Hannah Arendt and the Jewish Question.

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In all such arguments seeking Arendt’s true source, there is painfully little tolerance for letting Arendt be Arendt, for recognizing her to be the original thinker she is. Contextualizing is the scholarly obsession. At some point, however, we must stop and admit that Arendt represents something new—which means only that any effort to claim one privileged influence upon her work will be incomplete.

The impact of her Jewish experiences on Arendt’s thought is most visible in the distinction she makes between the social and the political realms, which runs through her entire body of thought. As Leon Botstein has written, “Arendt’s basic theoretical claim, the separation of the social form the political, originated in her understanding of the Jewish problem as decisively political rather than social in character.” Arendt sought in her early Jewish writings to make a space for Jews to preserve their social aloofness (their being separate and living according to their own laws) while at the same time engaging in political action.

At the same time, Arendt’s distinction between society and politics is infused by her reading of Carl Schmitt as well as by her rejection of the Western philosophical canon that elevates contemplation over action. In The Human Condition, where Arendt first fully develops her distinction between the social and political, Jewish concerns are absent. And yet, the roots of that distinction are explored in Antisemitism, Book One of The Origins of Totalitarianism. It would be “irresponsible,” as Jerry Kohn has written, to doubt the importance to her thinking of what Arendt experienced as a Jew. Still, it would be saying too much to call her a Jewish thinker. Arendt is, quite simply, an original. She is impossible to compartmentalize or box in. She is neither liberal nor conservative, neither Jewish nor universal. Of course she is a Jewish thinker—and so much more.

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I raise these reflections in response to Jewish Memory and the Cosmopolitan Order, an important new book by Natan Sznaider. Sznaider visited the Arendt Center last week and in two public presentations made his case for two theses: First, that Arendt’s mature political thinking has its roots in her Jewish experience from the 1930s through the 1940s; and second, that she has helped articulate a uniquely Jewish perspective on human rights conveyed and concretized through catastrophe and memory around the holocaust.

The foundation for Sznaider’s argument is an exceptional archival reconstruction of Arendt’s until-now little-known work for the committee for Jewish Cultural Reconstruction (JCR). Arendt was the research director for JCR in the 1940s, when she was hired by Salo Baron, a specialist in Jewish history at Columbia University. Baron hired Arendt and gave her what was her first paid position in the United States. As research director of JCR Arendt was thrust into post-war Jewish politics. Based on fruitful work in the Salo Baron archives at Stanford, Sznaider develops an account of the close intellectual, personal, and political relationship between Arendt and Baron, based on a shared belief in what he calls a “hidden Jewish tradition.” Against the mainstream Jewish tradition of victimhood and withdrawal, Arendt and Baron shared a belief in a vibrant and glorious tradition of Jewish political activity.

In her work for the JCR, Arendt compiled inventories of Jewish cultural artifacts. Relying on a network of Jewish refugees around the world, she published lists with titles like: “Tentative List of Jewish Cultural Treasures in Axis-Occupied Countries.” Sznaider makes the case that these lists “are among her important publications on Jewish matters” and should be considered part of the Arendt canon. Working from these lists, Arendt then traveled to Europe and negotiated with German, Israeli, and U.S. military authorities to determine the fate of Jewish cultural treasures that had been stockpiled by the Nazis or saved by European communities.

Arendt’s work at the JCR was importantly an opportunity to engage in Jewish politics as a representative of world Jewry. She was one of the few unelected Jewish leaders tasked with deciding how the salvaged cultural heritage would be distributed to Jewish communities around the world. A large part of her work was convincing the U.S. military to depart from settled international law, which required that these treasures be returned to the communities from which they came. As there were no Jews left in these ravaged European Jewish communities, Arendt and Baron, along with Gershom Scholem in Israel, argued that the Jewish cultural heritage should be distributed to new Jewish communities in Israel, America, and around the world.

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According to Sznaider, Arendt saw herself as an emissary of the Jewish people. “Arendt believed that the JCR would be the representative of the Jewish people as a collective and not of Jews as citizens of their respective countries.” Through her work for JCR, Arendt came to believe in the possibility of a Jewish politics outside of traditional nation states. It is in this context, he argues, that Arendt distanced herself from Zionist circles. She was, he writes, convinced that “the only viable answer for modern Jews is politics—not necessarily Zionist politics, but collective politics of some kind.” In lieu of the security of a national state, Arendt hoped for a “federal principle of political organization, not only for Jews but for all European peoples.” It is in this sense that Sznaider argues that Arendt’s political thinking as it emerges in her later writing is deeply indebted to her experience of Jewish political action.

Sznaider has many aims in his book and one is to enlist Arendt as the progenitor of what he calls “rooted cosmopolitanism,” a modern politics that is both rooted in particular identity and also open to the modern demand for equality. Another is to argue that there is a particular Jewish perspective on human rights that is rooted in the Jewish experience of catastrophe. Human rights, he argues leaning on Arendt, does not have a philosophical ground. But Jewish history and the memory of the holocaust offer a non-metaphysical ground for human rights in fear itself.

You can watch Sznaider’s  lecture  here. I recommend you do so. Then buy a copy of Jewish Memory and the Cosmopolitan Order. It is your weekend read.

-RB

12Feb/130

The Politics of Non-Movement

Did the Arab Spring come from nowhere, or was it preceded by modes of social and political action that might have eluded our common conceptual frames? How do ordinary people in the Middle East manage and even alter the conditions of everyday life despite the recalcitrance of authoritarian governments? These questions formed the starting point for Asef Bayat’s lecture “Non-Movements and the Power of the Ordinary,” which he gave in Olin Hall on Thursday evening, February 7th. Bayat is the Catherine and Bruce Bastian Professor of Global and Transnational Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches in the sociology and Middle East Studies departments. Throughout his illustrious career, his research has focused on social movements, religiosity, and urban space in Iran, Egypt, and other Middle Eastern states.

Contrary to common public perception, Bayat insisted that these countries’ subaltern populations do not resign themselves to adverse economic and political circumstances. Indeed, the region has well established traditions of activism among leftists, unionists, women, Islamists, and post-Islamists, among many other constituencies. But it has often proven difficult to create and sustain organized social movements when Middle Eastern states have been so reluctant to tolerate opposition. How then might citizens foster meaningful political change?

Bayat argued that many Middle Easterners, rather than overtly confronting authoritarian governments, have resorted to what he calls “social non-movements.” Such non-movements are defined not by formal lobbying and protest, but rather by fleeting moments of mundane but nevertheless contentious action. Such action constitutes a “quiet encroachment of the ordinary” to the extent that it slowly alters everyday conditions in a manner that authoritarian state forces must respond to but cannot easily prevent. At the same time, social non-movements are propelled not by bureaucratic organizations that governments can readily identify and target, but rather by constituencies of dispersed individuals and groups who mobilize around common experiences and grievances.

In an effort to lend empirical weight to these general claims, Bayat offered a series of illustrative case studies. One concerned the actions of the poor. In Egypt and many other countries of the Middle East, large numbers of rural residents have sought to escape grinding material scarcity by moving to larger cities and building their own homes from scavenged materials. The formation of these squatter settlements is rarely if ever coordinated by any formal collective organization, but it nevertheless results in a dramatic reshaping of the urban landscape. Although government forces may initially destroy homes built in this fashion, the persistent construction and reconstruction eventually compels them to alter urban planning protocols, provide water, electricity and other utilities, and incorporate these makeshift districts into the “official city.”

Another case study turned on pious women’s myriad efforts to carve out more satisfying places for themselves in Iranian public life. The Islamic Republic has long sought to regulate female bodily coverage in the street as one means of assuring the nation’s moral and spiritual integrity, but hundreds of thousands of women have opted to defy government dictates by wearing “bad hijab” (i.e., headscarves and chadors that leave a few centimeters of hair visible). These women’s subtle but consistent sartorial challenges, which circumvent but do not entirely disregard the state’s norms of bodily coverage, have gradually shifted the requirements that government actors can effectively enforce on a day-to-day basis.

Moreover, large numbers of women wear hijab while hiking, jogging, driving cars, and engaging in other activities that are not conventionally regarded as gender-appropriate, or they choose to live alone and unmarried rather than in the homes of their parents and spouses. Once again, these varied practices have not been centrally orchestrated or institutionalized, but they have nevertheless altered the terms of women’s participation in everyday life.

Bayat acknowledged that social non-movements like these can and do coalesce into more organized and concerted activism, and he recognized that both movements and non-movements constitute important means for subaltern groups to claim de facto citizenship. But he also insisted that these two modes of action cannot be readily equated. Whereas social movements pursue a politics of overt protest, non-movements engage in a quieter, less obtrusive politics of everyday presence and practice. They are also driven less by specific and explicit ideological commitments than by inchoate desires for more expansive and appealing life chances. Nevertheless, they also provide a nutritive context within which more articulate claims for rights and resources might be formulated.

Bayat’s lecture offered a suggestive framework through which to conceive practices and processes that often do not meet our established expectations of politics. Much of the ensuing discussion then attempted to probe and delimit the contours of his argument. What, for example, are the conditions in which a social non-movement might pivot into more cohesive and institutionalized forms of collective protest? How can a social non-movement be distinguished from a dissenting subculture or counter-public, more conventional forms of deviant or illegal behavior, or the glacial drift of wider social change? And to what degree does the notion of a social non-movement presume the existence of an authoritarian state, whether in the Middle East or in other parts of the world? Could we also identify non-movements, for instance, in the liberal democracies of North America and Western Europe?

Here Bayat contended that non-movements were closely tied to authoritarian states that retain a degree of “softness.” That is to say, these states aspire to exert thorough if not complete control over the social field, but they ultimately lack the capacity to make such control a living reality. As a result, they necessarily leave “opaque spaces” that subaltern groups can turn to their own advantage. Bayat’s remarks obviously referred to the many Middle Eastern governments that have recently teetered or toppled as a result of the Arab Spring. Yet he also suggested that the gradual undoing of Prohibition in the 1930s U.S. might also illustrate the concept of a social non-movement and its long-term incremental effects.

In his reading, the ban on alcohol was undermined less by concerted lobbying and protest than by millions of Americans’ spontaneous, mundane but eventually consequential disregard for existing legislation.

To my mind, this apparent discrepancy was not a flaw in Bayat’s analysis as much as an invitation for further inquiry. Like the lecture as a whole, it demonstrated the rewards but also the challenges of breaking out of our intellectual ruts to wrestle with complexity in new ways.

-Jeff Jurgens

Readers who would like to delve further into Bayat’s argument should consult his book Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Stanford University Press, 2010).

15Oct/122

The Political Weakness of Empathy

Political thought is representative. I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints….This process of representation does not blindly adopt the actual views of those who stand somewhere else, and hence look upon the world from a different perspective; this is a question neither of empathy, as though I tried to be or to feel like somebody else, nor of counting noses and joining a majority but of being and thinking in my own identity where actually I am not.

-Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics” in Between Past and Future, p. 241

In response to the shootings in Aurora, Colorado in July, President Obama had this to say:

While we will never know fully what causes somebody to take the life of another, we do know what makes life worth living. The people we lost in Aurora loved and they were loved….They had hopes for the future and they had dreams that were not yet fulfilled. And if there’s anything to take away from this tragedy, it’s the reminder that life is very fragile…What matters at the end of the day is not the small things; it’s not the trivial things…Ultimately it’s how we choose to treat one another and how we love one another.

This speech was disturbing for a number of reasons. Yes, it was full of clichés and tired appeals to the hopes and futures of people who are nothing but a vague idea to Obama’s audience. But most disturbing of all was the fact that it revealed the response of the country’s highest public official to a breakdown of public safety was essentially a complete abdication of responsibility for the public.

In this speech, Obama refuses to articulate what Arendt calls political thought, instead luxuriating in the experience of empathy and asking the audience to the do same. The problem with speaking and thinking of politics as a sphere in which individuals must try “to be or to feel like somebody else,” as Arendt saw it, is that feeling with another does nothing to acknowledge and maintain the plurality that is so necessary to politics. In empathy, one remains isolated and alone as an individual, albeit an individual with a different set of emotional experiences than what one had before. In this instance, Obama puts himself into the shoes of those individuals who lost family and friends in the shooting and asks his Florida audience to do the same. In so doing, he transforms the event from one that confronts the American polity with questions about our shared public space—about national gun control laws and issues connected to the lack of appropriate physical and mental health care—into a question of the appropriate personal response to loss. Seen in this light, it is not at all surprising that the President would conclude his speech by telling the audience that he and his wife will hug their daughters a bit more tightly that night.

Characterizing what is surely a public problem into an issue of bedtime rituals among family members reveals not only the extent to which politics has given way to personal concerns, but also the unhappy possibility that not even our political leaders are able to move beyond personal concerns to take responsibility for the public as a whole.

It is tempting to interpret Arendt’s quote as an admonition to individuals to reveal themselves in political action. This understanding of Arendtian politics and action is the most familiar one and Arendt’s language of “being and thinking in my own identity” certainly evokes the language of personal courage she uses to describe the political actor in The Human Condition. There she ascribes to the decision to enter politics a courage that is necessary to bring to the public light one’s thoughts and deeds as undeniably one’s own and to “ris[e] into sight from some darker ground” (The Human Condition, 71).

But these lines of “Truth and Politics” strongly suggest that the public appearance one makes as an individual must somehow be tied intimately to other people. What one reveals, in other words, is not oneself in one’s personal sentiments, but rather one’s opinion, which necessarily takes into account the viewpoints of other people. The rising from a dark ground into the light of the public is less about revealing oneself in all one’s uniqueness and more about situating or orienting oneself within a realm of others from whom one may or may not differ. It is for this reason, I think, that Arendt considers empathy to be destructive of politics. In empathy, we appropriate the other to collapse the distance between us that would make possible our orientation in the world. One cannot be “oriented” in the absence of external markers against which one can orient oneself.

The consequences of reading politics as a world of empathetic individuals are dire. Empathy makes it easy to justify the appropriation of others’ lives and perspectives as one’s own. In the name of feeling with the victim, we can often leave the victim even more impoverished than he was before the outpouring of empathy. The loss suffered by those in Aurora has become the sadness and pain of those for whom the victims of the shooting, both living and dead, were really nothing but examples of our country’s political failure. On top of what these victims had already lost, it is possible that they might also lose ownership of the event. Such an appropriation has implications beyond the aesthetic or moral. The political problem with Obama’s speech is not simply that he did not reveal himself or that he appropriated the suffering of the Colorado victims. It is that his empathy allowed him to refuse to take responsibility for the community as a whole and it made it easy for the rest of us to do the same and to do so with a clear conscience. Taking care of one’s community and one’s neighbors is measured by the degree to which one can take care of the imagined personal pains of others, not one’s response to the institutional and other structural conditions that have made such events so commonplace in this country.

Aurora shooting victims

Arendt’s distinction between engaging with the viewpoints of others and feeling with another is ultimately a foundation for political responsibility, not just courageous action understood independently of one’s responsibility to the public world. To the extent that politics requires courage, it requires courage not simply to reveal oneself in a crude individualism, but to take responsibility for the big questions of our community. There is of course nothing wrong with hugging one’s children at night. But to define one’s political self in this act and to ask others do so as well is to shirk one’s responsibility for the community and to tell us that such an abdication of responsibility is not only acceptable, but also laudable because it is “human” and feeling. This might not be a necessary consequence of empathy, but, as Arendt tells us, it is an inherent possibility and a threat.

-Jennie Han

 

6Aug/120

Hannah Arendt & the Case of Poetry

“The accusative of violence, like that of love, destroys the in-between, crushes or burns it, renders the other defenseless, strips itself of protection.  In contrast to this stands the dative of saying and speaking, which confirms the in-between, moves within it.  Then again there is the accusative of the singing poem, which removes and releases what it sings from the in-between and its relations, without confirming anything.  When poetry and not philosophy absolutizes, there’s rescue.”

-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, vol. 1, p. 428 [August 1953], (my translation.)

When I was in college, puzzling over Arendt’s work for the first time, I read Hanna Pitkin’s famous essay “Justice: On Relating Private and Public,” which contains some of the most-quoted words ever written about The Human Condition: “What is it that they talk about together, in that endless palaver in the agora?”[1]  This question grew in part out of Arendt’s love of the troublesome phrase “for its own sake,” which, when used to characterize political action, seemed to imply that genuine action had to be about nothing but itself, gloriously pointless: praxis as peacock-feather.  Yet at other times Arendt took the edge off of this austerity: “Most words and deeds,” she says, almost offhandedly, “are about some worldly objective reality in addition to being a disclosure of the acting and speaking agent.”[2]  They talked about a thousand mundane things.

This week’s passage, drawn from Hannah Arendt’s notebooks from 1953, elegantly uses a grammatical idea to hold these two thoughts together.  As readers of German will know, the “accusative” and the “dative” are two of German’s four grammatical cases, in which pronouns and nouns are changed, or given specific endings, to signal their relationship to another part of a sentence.  The accusative case is used, roughly, when something is the direct object of a verb—when we are in the register of cause and effect, you might say, in which one thing “accuses” another through the linguistic mark it bears of an action that was taken upon it.  The dative case, by contrast, is used for indirect objects, and originally with objects to which or to whom something is given.  (And that means, incidentally, that acknowledging givenness isn’t a matter of submitting to the brute, determining force of things as they are: to be given something is not to be struck with it, no matter how unalterable it may be.)

These are very different kinds of relationship, as Arendt emphasizes by tying this grammatical distinction to her oft-repeated contrast between violence and speech; but they are also relationships that can exist, side by side or even hand in hand, in a single course of action.  It happens all the time in language: we give something (accusative) to someone (dative); or, as Arendt says elsewhere in her notebooks, we speak about something (über, accusative) with others (mit, dative).  She also suggests that speech that isn’t about anything—speech that has lost its “Über”—isn’t an admirable exemplar of human freedom, but merely the “last residuum” of speech; bare, formal logic; on its way to silence.[3]

And, although Arendt herself doesn’t make this point explicitly, we might also notice that the phrase “for the sake of” (um...willen in German) indicates yet another kind of relationship, for it takes the genitive case, the case of possession (for God’s sake).  The “sake” in “for the sake of” is also a cause, but not in the sense of efficient causality, nor even in the sense of an ultimate purpose, if that is understood as the final term in a linked chain of means and ends.  It is more like a “cause” in the sense of a legal issue, a dispute that bears on or is relevant to certain parties—both their cause and their case.  To say that action is for its own sake, from this grammatical perspective, is not incompatible with action being about some particular object, nor with action establishing indirect relations between people that are mediated by that object.  It means only that nothing outside the field of action itself determines the range or sustains the intensity of its relevance.

The other striking part of this passage, of course, is its suggestion that, at least sometimes, human activity can stand between, or straddle, the accusative of violence and love and the dative of speaking and saying.  Arendt’s example is “the accusative of the singing poem,” which has a direct object, but acts upon it in a distinctive way: not violently or absorptively, but by “releasing” it, she says, from the in-between and its relations.  Arendt presents this release as a kind of “absolutization,” but not the kind performed by philosophy—or at least some kinds of philosophy—where, as she had put it in her notebooks a few months earlier, an object is abstracted or isolated from all worldly relations in order to be measured according to a standard that comes “from outside,” that is, which is itself also grasped in isolation.[4]

What happens in the “singing poem,” then, is not absolutization as universalization, as a stripping-away of muddying particularities, but absolutization as the creation of something particular that can subsist, for a while, as its own world, that can be encountered as an appearance and not, or not yet, as a means to an end.  This is what Arendt, in one of her essays on Bertolt Brecht, called the “precise generality of the literary art.”[5]  The poem places a dark, silent margin around its object, a horizon that turns us back to the specificity of its words—of its own words, for its own sake.  Yet its removal of itself and its object from the in-between is only provisional, for what it releases from the world it then releases into the world, transfigured in what—in a few years—Arendt will call “a veritable metamorphosis in which it is as though the course of nature which wills that all fire burn to ashes is reverted and even dust can burn into flames.”[6]

These flames do not destroy the world, but braze together its cases.

-Patchen Markell



[1] Hanna Fenichel Pitkin, “Justice: On Relating Private and Public,” Political Theory 9, no. 3 (August 1981): 336.

[2] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958),

[3] Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, vol. 1, 214; 345.

[4] Ibid., 339.

[5] Hannah Arendt, “The Poet Bertolt Brecht,” in Brecht: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Peter Demetz (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962), 45.

[6] Arendt, The Human Condition, 168.

23Apr/120

The Truth About Politics

“Factual truth is always related to other people [...]. It is political by nature.”

-Hannah Arendt, Truth and Politics 

“Our inheritance was left to us by no testament”

-Hannah Arendt, quoting René Char, Between Past and Future

In his acceptance speech, the recipient of the 1997 Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought wondered why he of all people had been chosen for it.  He was, he said, a pragmatist, a practitioner of politics, not a political thinker.  At the time he was already a prominent figure in contemporary politics: as a courageous pastor in the GDR who did not shy away from conflict with the regime, as a participant in the freedom movement of 1989 which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and, since 1990, as the Federal Commissioner for the newly created Stasi Archives, which was tasked with processing the history and crimes of the socialist dictatorship.  This man, the winner of the 1997 Arendt prize, is the recently elected German Bundespräsident, Joachim Gauck . [Under the German constitution, the President is the country’s highest representative, while the Chancellor is the head of government and most influential political figure in the German parliamentary democracy (Angela Merkel currently holds the latter position).]

The connection between Arendt and the highest office of the German government makes sense only in light of its oddity and of the unorthodox character of Joachim Gauck.  His comment in the acceptance speech that he is a political practitioner rather than a political thinker marks a striking difference between himself and Arendt.  One could say, however, that Gauck’s political actions largely constitute the realization of a political understanding that Arendt herself theoretically and conceptually developed.  Their shared center of gravity can be formulated in a sentence from Arendt’s “Introduction into Politics”: “The meaning of politics is freedom.”

It is fitting, in a certain way, that the intellectual correspondence between Arendt and Gauck is least to be found in his text Plea for Freedom. This small book, published shortly before his election, can be read as the manifesto of his presidency.  The book, divided into the three chapters “Freedom,” “Responsibility,” and “Tolerance” preaches more than it reflects.  Generalized talk of “the soul,” and of supposed anthropological constants such as “the human psyche,” or the universal desire for happiness and healing overshadows the knowledge upon which the book is based: that politics comes out of plurality and exists in the living modes of “relatedness.”

When writing serves to express a political program, it becomes a part of the process of political action.  Action and thought cannot occur simultaneously, Arendt notes.  Thought and consideration become possible only when action has become history-- that is, when it has been completed and can be retold as a story and reflected upon.

Joachim Gauck’s best texts are distinguished by the fact that they are written out of personal experience.  They speak from the perspective of an “I” that knows that political speech must be concrete and therefore limited.  The more I generalize, the farther I distance myself from the solid ground of the facts.  For a theologian, this may not be self-evident.  In his acceptance speech for the Arendt prize, Gauck does not pay lip service to the prize’s eponym-- as did so many of those to whom Arendt became “hip” after 1989-- by claiming her as the inspiration for his political actions during the dictatorship.  Rather, he recognizes his own lapse in not studying Arendt’s texts at the right time.  He sees it as a failure to confront the intuitive striving and fighting for freedom with “conceptual clarity and precision,” quoting Arendt’s On Revolution.

Does this lack of conceptual clarity point to a romanticization which placed (the self-perceptions of) personal actions in the world of wishful thinking instead of in the world of facts, Gauck asked? The question is directed at himself and his contemporaries.  “Did it suffice to have an opinion about reality, whose facts I hadn’t thoroughly developed?” he reflects with reference to Arendt in his afterword to the Blackbook of Communism (1998).  I individually can hold an opinion, almost like philosophically wise thoughts or words; facts, on the other hand, are political, since I always share them with others.  Arendt formulated it thus in Truth and Politics: “Factual truth is always related to other people [...]. It is political by nature.”

This understanding of the eminently political quality of facts shaped Joachim Gauck’s work as the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi-Archives.  Perhaps this constitutes the greatest accomplishment of his life: Gauck’s work secured the documents and archived materials without which the history of the SED-dictatorship and its repressive apparatuses could not have been written.

In the months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, hundreds of citizens and members of opposition groups occupied the headquarters of the state secret police in East Berlin and other cities of the GDR.  The Stasi had already begun to destroy documents on a large scale.  Approximately 130 miles of files were saved, where 3 feet of files could contain up to 10,000 pages.  The Stasi had collected approximately 6 million personal files-- 4 million on citizens of the GDR, 2 million on citizens of the old Bundesrepublik.  What was to be done with such a legacy?

Many demanded that the files be closed or even destroyed in the interest of “national peace.”  One could expect such a vote from former GDR elites, who could be prosecuted or face moral discredit if the files were made public.  But even reputable social-democratic politicians like Egon Bahr and, out of quite different motives, the West German secret service, wanted to prevent the Stasi files from becoming publicly accessible.

The “inherited burden of dictatorship,” Gauck called this legacy in his Memoirs (2009).  It is an inheritance left with no testament, one could say with Arendt and René Char.  It is an inheritance without precedent, for which a legal, political, moral, and historiographic procedure had to be found before any work could begin.  Joachim Gauck, along with more than 3000 staff members, created the blueprints for dealing with the material.  Since 1990, victims of Stasi persecution, as well as the media and researchers, are able to read and study the files of the state surveillance apparatus.

The fact that this is now possible cannot be taken for granted.  Since the transition to democracy, other countries such as Poland, Hungary, and Romania have decided against opening their archives.  In Germany, it’s one of Gauck’s major accomplishments to have successfully carried out the demand of the East Germany democracy movement to make the Stasi files publicly accessible.

The Federal Commission for the Stasi-Archives is now a permanent institution in Germany.  The commission is internationally respected, and stands as a symbol for Germany’s way of dealing and coming to terms with dictatorship after 1989.  The legal and administrative character of the commission, and the basis of its success, is largely thanks to Joachim Gauck’s capacity for political judgment, as he was the first director of the Commission from 1990 to 2000.  Gauck, the unconventional political activist from the Baltic, recruited a legal and data protection expert from Bavaria as an administrator, to help carry out the revolutionary civil movement’s lofty goal of universal access to the records.  The two persistently maintained this political demand in the face of the reservations and greediness of West German administration and political parties.  Gauck recognized that the new Commission for the Stasi Archives would have to fit into the institutional structure of West Germany, and that this framework had to be confronted without naivete or arrogance.

During and since the first national elections in unified Germany in 1990, naivete and arrogance towards the power of established parties and institutions relegated almost all of the East German opposition groups to political meaninglessness.  The widespread feeling that the momentum of political freedom was too quickly muted by, and swallowed up into the institutional structure of West Germany burdens the unification process to this day.  The Federal Commission for the Stasi Archives is one of the few achievements in which something truly politically new came out of the momentum of freedom in 1989.

The election of Joachim Gauck connects the memory of this founding moment of political freedom with the highest office in Germany—which is delightful, but also feels incongruous.  It may also appear incongruous to many that Gauck is the first nominee in Germany’s post-war history who was not elected President directly from another high political office.  Since 2000, Gauck has worked for foundations, and as a free-lance writer and lecturer.  He is less a man of the political class than a political man. This symbolic fact is one that might have interested Hannah Arendt.

-Thomas Wild,

with Anne Posten

Thomas Wild will begin teaching at Bard in the fall and will join the Hannah Arendt Center as a Research Associate.

 

1Jan/122

Welcome to 2012

Undoubtedly it will be a year of surprises and challenges. The world faces a series of unresolved crises; from the financial turmoil that still threatens to lower European and American standards of living, to military crises in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. The environmental crisis has seemingly fallen off the radar and the crisis in education has left young people in the United States profoundly unprepared for the future. Our political crisis proceeds from an unresponsive and ineffective government, paralyzed by a corrupt campaign finance system, which has led to unprecedented levels of distrust and dismay at government.

Above all, we confront a crisis of values, in which people from all walks of life imagine themselves as entitled to benefits and ways of life that are simply unsustainable. On Wall Street, bankers continue to think themselves entitled to bonuses that are a product of dangerous and unsustainable leverage and largesse. Public employees continue to insist on pensions and benefits that cannot be borne by taxpayers, and students continue to take out debts to finance pricey educations that will not land them jobs that enable them to pay back those debts. And politicians refuse to make the hard decisions about how we are going to move forward and lead amongst these many crises.

We are suffering a crisis of leadership of international proportions. From Europe to Japan, from Russia to Egypt, and from China to the United States, political leaders are proving singularly inept at addressing the turmoil that is now more common and certainly more dangerous than the common cold. Across the board,  this lack of political leadership is rooted in a crisis of values in which everyone believes they are somehow entitled to have it all without paying for it. Or, as Thomas Friedman has written, "No leaders want to take hard decisions anymore, except when forced to. Everyone — even China’s leaders — seems more afraid of their own people than ever." There is a real question whether the transformative power of the internet and has made participatory democracy so participatory and so democratic that the checks and balances of our constitutional system are no longer up to the task of developing a political system capable of leading and making difficult decisions.

Amidst this worldwide need for and lack of leadership, the United States is about to elect a President. Over the next 11 months, we will spend close to three billion dollars on the presidential contest. Hundreds of thousands of Americans will donate time and money, and about one hundred million will vote. And what will be the effect? If we limit ourselves to the expected choice of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, we may well be choosing between two pragmatic technocrats, both intelligent, well-meaning, and competent, but neither having demonstrated strong faiths or convictions about where a country in crisis needs to go. Rather than convictions, our politicians promise technocratic solutions designed to give no offense.

We suffer today from a failure of elite and technocratic rationality. As Ross Douthat writes today in the New York Times,

The United States is living through an era of unprecedented elite failure, in which America's public institutions are understandably distrusted and our leadership class is justifiably despised.

Amidst this crisis of elites, there is desperation for leadership that will be bold, and yet our politicians produce the pallid pablum of party politics.

One wonders where leaders will come from and how we might elect a President who can lead and unite the country. Real leaders, wrote the novelist David Foster Wallace, are people who “help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.” Such leaders seem unlikely in a political system in which politicians must tell the people what they want to hear.

In 1946, shortly after arriving in the United States as a Jewish refugee from Germany, Hannah Arendt wrote, "There really is such a thing as freedom here and a strong feeling among many people that one cannot live without freedom." Arendt fell in love with America, and eagerly became a citizen. At the same time, she worried that the greatest threat to a uniquely American freedom was the sheer bigness of America alongside the rise of a technocracy. The size of the country in concert with a rising bureaucracy threatened to swallow the love for individual freedoms and personal initiative that she saw as the potent core of American civic life.

Arendt understood that political action must be measured in terms of greatness if it is to preserve political freedom from the sway of technocratic rationalism. Political action is necessarily courageous action, action in the public sphere with the potential to either succeed or fail.  Political leaders are those who act in unexpected ways and whose actions are so surprising and yet meaningful as to inspire the citizens to re-imagine and re-vitalize their sense of belonging to a common people with a common purpose. Especially in times of crisis, we need politicians who can inspire and lead. At a time when politics is ever more driven by the democratic and technocratic need to appeal to the wishes of the people, Arendt prods us to ask how we can maintain the ideal of freedom and the possibility of leadership.

To desire political leadership is not to ask for a Führer or a demagogue. It is to see, with Max Weber, that charismatic leaders are necessary bulwarks against a leaderless Democracy, which Weber describes as, “the rule of professional politicians without a calling, without the inner charismatic qualities that make a leader.”  The challenge, as Weber defines it in his classic essay Politics as a Vocation, is: How to allow for a “safety-valve of the demand for leadership” to counteract the dutiful but overly obedient officialdom of a leaderless democracy without running to the opposed danger of a partisan democracy with soulless followers seeking nothing but victory.

Weber's answer is simple: The politician must serve a cause.  The cause itself doesn’t necessarily always matter. “The politician may serve national, humanitarian, social, ethical, cultural, worldly, or religious ends. … However some kind of faith must always exist." In today's language, we need a politician with vision and with the charisma and thoughtfulness to unify a fragmented and fearful country around that vision of a common future. That indeed is the classical ideal of a politician, one who stands in the center of a polis and speaks and acts to articulate the common truths that hold the polity together.

Crises can breed opportunity.  A crisis, as Arendt writes, "tears away facades and obliterates prejudices," and thus allows us "to explore and inquire into whatever has been laid bare of the essence of the matter." The task today is to respond with new and thoughtful action, which requires that we abandon our preformed judgments and attachments that have brought us to this space. Giving up our prejudices is difficult, as is accepting the challenge of the new. And yet the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements have shown that there is a hunger for a new politics that breaks the bounds of traditional political discourse. Our New Year's wish to all of you is that 2012 might bring a bold politics that can bring forth a new politics from out of the cauldron of crisis.

-RB

16Dec/113

Christopher Hitchens on Antisemitism

Christopher Hitchens has died. We and all the world are poorer for the loss.

Hitchens was not an Arendt Scholar, but he did deliver the keynote address at the Hannah Arendt Center's inaugural conference, Thinking in Dark Times, in 2006.

I invited Christopher to speak for a few reasons. First, Christopher was constitutionally incapable of giving a bad speech. Having heard him speak many times, I can safely say that there is no one who consistently enthralled, provoked, and stimulated as Christopher did. Secondly, I invited Christopher  because it was clear to me that much of his writing at that time showed the influence of Hannah Arendt. If I disagreed with his support for the Iraq war, I had enormous respect for him as one of the few public intellectuals with the courage to express strong and often unpopular opinions. And I was always impressed at his ability to make me think, to argue for his opinions with unparalleled wit and elegance. So I took a chance and issued the invitation, along with an apology: As a brand new Academic Center with no sources of funding, we could only afford to pay him $300. I sent off my email with little hope of a response.

I did not have to wait long. Within about 10 minutes, Christopher had accepted my invitation. Indeed, he wrote, he had been thinking about Arendt's work and was eager for a forum to engage with others writing and thinking about her. His excitement was palpable as was his generosity and magnanimity as we planned his talk and then continued our conversation after the conference. At the conference itself, Christopher reveled in conversations with Bard students and faculty, staying late into the evening, Scotch in one hand, cigarette in the other, debating and discussing with passion and joy.

The talk Christopher gave was "Reflections on Antisemitism." It focused on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and Arendt's epilogue on that revolution, which she published in the second edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt later removed the epilogue from future editions, and it is not widely known or available. Arendt never hid the original epilogue, but simply said that it had “become obsolete in many details.” Christopher wanted to ask why she had written it and, more importantly for him, why she had removed it. That is the question he sought to answer in his talk.

Christopher begins by noting something surprising: Arendt's epilogue is full of optimism. Indeed, the epilogue on the Hungarian Revolution is one of those rare instances where one finds Arendt excited about the present and hopeful for the future. Having heard about how the Hungarian workers spontaneously organized themselves into workers' councils, she allowed herself to dream of a return of political action. As Christopher said, in his inimitable and unmatched song of a voice, Arendt even waxed nostalgic.

I think perhaps here she was expressing a nostalgia—even a little romance—for the German revolutions of 1919 in Munich and elsewhere, in which her future husband Heinrich Blücher had played such an honorable part.

Christopher jumped on the optimistic, nostalgic, and naive tone of Arendt's account, which was in many ways so out of character with the usual intensity and seriousness of her prose. What he found there was, perhaps, one of the most pure expressions of Arendt's own ideal of political action and her faith in the possibility of the revolutionary freedom. It is worth quoting his account in full:

Arendt’s epilogue was naive also because it laid great stress on what she called the peaceful and orderly and good-humored crowds of Budapest. She rather romanticized the good-naturedness of the Hungarian revolution. Now, this optimism may possibly be justified in the long term, which is why it’s worth looking up that epilogue again. After all, in 1989, not more than three decades later, there was a peaceful, bloodless, and orderly velvet revolution; it had its beginning in Budapest when the Hungarians allowed their East German brethren to resist by transiting Hungarian soil without hindrance. It led, in the end, to the fall of the Berlin Wall. And that was a classic case of the recovery of what Arendt so beautifully called, I think, the lost treasure of revolution.

The lost treasure of revolution is the common property to which Hannah Arendt alludes, very lyrically, in the opening passages of her collection Between Past and Future. She describes this ability to recover freedom: the spirit of an unforced liberty that is latent, she thought, in all people and which she claimed to detect in “the summer in 1776 in Philadelphia, the summer of 1789 in Paris, and the autumn of 1956 in Budapest.”  Which, as you can see, is putting 1956 in Budapest on quite a high pedestal and threshold. Now this concept of the hidden treasure, the treasure that’s always hidden but that can be reclaimed, is remarkable for its lack of what a Marxist would call concreteness. Here’s how it appears according to Hannah Arendt, this treasure: It appears only “under the most varied circumstances, appears abruptly, unexpectedly, and disappears again under different mysterious conditions, as though it were a fata morgana,” or, so to say, as a will of the wisp or ignis fatuus. The lost treasure of the revolution is a very, very elusive, almost ethereal concept for Hannah Arendt to be dealing with. And let me say, one of the nice things about reading and rereading Hannah Arendt is to discover how nice it is when she is fanciful every now and then.

These few lines of Christopher’s show how insightfully he writes and thinks. He has caught sight not only of Arendt's writing about the Lost Treasure of the Revolutions, but also of what might be called Arendt's own treasure, the "experience of freedom" that is the fact and the dream underlying so much of Arendt's political writing.

Christopher went on to make a novel and I think correct argument, that the reason she later removed the epilogue had to do with the antisemitism of many of the Hungarian revolutionaries. As she became aware of the dark side of the revolution, she rethought her initial optimism, and simply withdrew the epilogue.

Christopher then offered a thoughtful critique of Arendt's rejection of eternal antisemitism. For Arendt, the assumption of "eternal antisemitism" wrongly gives an alibi for the horrors, for "if it is true that mankind has insisted on murdering Jews for more than two thousand years, then Jew-killing is a normal, and even human, occupation and Jew-hatred is justified beyond the need of argument." What was needed, instead, was to take seriously why antisemitism reared its head in the 20th century, and also to what extent Jews themselves had a role to play in the rise of German antisemitism. In one of her many provocations in the name of telling the truth, Arendt argued that there was a way in which Jews themselves, wary of assimilation and the loss of their status as a distinct and special people, unknowingly and unintentionally played into the claims of their difference. This was a dangerous and difficult argument, one Arendt approached with her typical courage and force. She made it clear that she was in no way blaming the Jews or excusing the Germans, but was simply insisting that we confront the specificity of 20th century antisemitism. Unlike earlier antisemitism, modern antisemitism took place amidst the background of assimilation, and thus was different from earlier manifestations.

Christopher, who found out only quite late in life that he was Jewish, made a sustained argument that Arendt's attempt to comprehend antisemitism—to find rational and logical explanations for its appearance—was misguided. Instead, he argued, antisemitism is an illogical, irrational, and inexplicable phenomenon. One that simply must be constantly called out and resisted, but never intellectually analyzed.  Here is how he put it:

When one has analyzed all the different strains and the contradictions that materialize or that constitute antisemitism, whether it’s the Jewish middlemen in the French scandal over the Panama Canal shares, or whether it’s the role of the Rothschilds in financing this or that bourgeois revolution, or whether it’s the extraordinary preeminence of Arendt’s hero and antihero Benjamin Disraeli in forwarding the cause of British imperialism in India, one is still increasingly impelled to doubt that the thing will yield to an analysis, even one that’s as deft and thorough as hers is. Kurt Blumenfeld once quoted an observation, with which Arendt greatly agreed, that was made by his friend and publisher Salmon Schocken as early as 1914. Schocken had said, “In the emancipation period for Jews, one asked: ‘What do you believe?’ Today one only asks: ‘Who are you?’” And the answer was always, to that question, as Arendt had to concede, that whatever you believe, you still have to answer that you are a Jew.  Now, this is a depressing conclusion, because it suggests that the analysis and combating of antisemitism lies somewhere outside the rationalist and Enlightenment universe.

Depressing, indeed, and yet spoken in the name of truth. The truth, Arendt thought, was often unpalatable, and yet always worthwhile. She spoke her truth. And Christopher responded with his. They were two of the bravest intellectuals of our time. And so it should not be surprising to see Christopher take Arendt on, again in the name of truth. It was a quintessentially riveting talk by Christopher Hitchens.

The entirety of Christopher's talk at the conference is published in Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics. For a limited time, you can read his essay here. If you are so inclined, enjoy a glass of scotch while you do so.

-RB

 

4Nov/110

Truthtelling at the Arendt Center Conference

A week after the Arendt Center's fourth annual conference, "Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts", Arendt Center Visiting Fellow, Kieran Bonner, reflects on the lecture given by Professor Peg Birmingham.

Professor Peg Birmingham says that to fully understand Arendt’s relation to facts we must remember her distinction between moral action and political action. For Arendt, moral action is concerned with the dialogue between me and myself, and sets as its criteria for action, whether actors can live with themselves. Political action, on the other hand, is concerned with actors’ relation to the world. Political action happens between humans while moral action is a concern primarily within the human, though, as she described it in “Truth and Politics”, sometimes moral action becomes political action.

Her case for this is Socrates refusal to escape from prison and therefore to die for the truth of his position. In the Human Condition, Arendt talks about the relation between the public realm and action. “There is perhaps no clearer testimony to the loss of the public realm in the modern age than the almost complete loss of authentic concern with immortality.”  Political action is fundamentally about public admiration, immortality and glory and the loss of these as authentic concerns points to the loss of the public realm. This loss of the public realm is interrelated with a decline in common sense and, in turn, the sense of worldly reality. “Only where things can be seen by many in a variety of aspects without changing their identity, so that those who are gathered around them know they see sameness in utter diversity, can worldly reality truly and reliably appear.”  It is precisely this loss that is a consequence of world alienation, an alienation that the rise of the natural and social sciences have contributed to significantly.

As Peg noted, this means that while Arendt was very much concerned with facts, and the need for action to have a public realm bounded by law and history, her notion of fact was ‘neither forensic nor positivistic.’  Two questions emerge for me: What was the status of many of the presentations on the first day of the conference where factual truth was presented as a result of a forensic exercise. I am thinking in particular of Oreskes and Kay’s presentations, in particular. Second, what is ‘factual truth’ for Arendt, if it is neither forensic nor positivistic? Perhaps it is better to explore the second issue first.

Arendt’s concern with truth telling and facts, while implicit in much of her early work, became an explicit concern after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Sam Tanenhaus disputed her claim of doing ‘reportage’ in the ordinary way that is understood by journalists. She does not, as he claims, give us a living sense of what the atmosphere of the court was like. As well, few if any would claim that her presentation was neutral and detached in the way many reports are presented. Does this modify her insistence that it is a ‘report’?

As Jerome Kohn remarked in his presentation, the term banality of evil is only mentioned once at the end of the book. Despite all the historical and statistical facts that she presents in this book, might the phenomenon of Eichmann’s actions and defense point to what she means by ‘factual truth’? The reality of the fact of Eichmann’s actions is both the monstrous deeds he accomplished and the banality of the account he gave. What kind of factual truth is that? As Birmingham said also echoing Roger Berkowitz's opening remarks, this kind of report strives, following Herodotus, ‘to say what is’.

What kind of truth did presenters like Oreskes and Kay present? Both undertook and successfully accomplished a forensic investigation into their separate subjects, on the one hand the ‘merchants of doubt’ who politically undermined the scientific consensus on global warming, and on the other, an investigation of conspiracy theorists and the patterns they follow. Both supplied much documentary evidence for their claims. In Oreskes case, ‘a small handful of men’ who were otherwise respected scientists in their fields, for purely ideological reasons, sought to sow doubt in the public mind about the ‘facts’ of everything from the dangers of tobacco and second hand smoke to global warming. These ‘cold war warriors,’ for ideological reasons, deliberately misrepresented the consensus in science. What kind of fact are we dealing with here? There is first the forensic investigation by Oreskes and there is secondly the ‘fact’ of global warming. One comes about as a result of sound historical research and on the basis of how scientific facts emerge. The other is the report on the consensus of scientists on the basis of the way science works as an institution.

Are either of these ‘factual truths’ in Arendt’s sense? The fact that Germany invaded Belgium and the fact that Trotsky was a member of the Communist Party—these are historical truths that help give us bearing in the world. While these were worldly facts in Arendt’s time, in that they were witnessed and acknowledged by many people (Stalin notwithstanding), to us they are historical facts. (This is an issue worth pursuing in another context.) The facts of the merchants of doubt and the pattern behind conspiracy theories are facts that need to be taken into account if we are to be able to find our comportment. But these are not facts in the sense that they call on us to think about what our world means. They are not stories that help us bear the sorrows of the world. Rather, as forensic and scientific truths, and while extremely important, they do not, by themselves, reconcile us with ‘worldly reality’.

“At any event, while world alienation determined the course and the development of modern society, earth alienation became and has remained the hallmark of modern science.”

The knowledge gained through modern science, while it certainly adds to our knowledge of the universe, and through its alliance with technology has enabled humans to ‘act into nature’ (with dangerous irreversible and unpredictable consequences ensuing), is not a story in Arendt’s sense. It does not reconcile us to ‘what is.’ Rather, “whatever we do today in physics … we always handle nature from a point in the universe outside the earth.”  If so, then neither the facts of the sciences nor of the social sciences nor of the forensic investigators, are examples of factual truths in Arendt’s sense. The latter is concerned with meaning while the former are concerned with an accurate representation of empirical reality. Worldly reality and empirical reality are very different phenomenon.

I would argue that neither Oreskes’s nor Kay’s presentations are about meaning. They are concerned with empirical reality. The natural response they generate is whether they are accurate portrayers of empirical reality (yes). If so, Oreskes teaches us about dangers to our earth bound existence and the need to take corrective action on global warming. In Kay’s case, he points to importance of pattern recognition with regard to conspiracy theorists claims to truth telling, an important but technical skill. But what’s the story? What sorrows do we humans need to bear? What human condition meaning do we have to confront? The answers to these questions remain to emerge and this was the hunger I personally felt after many of the first day’s presentations. This longing or Eros, I should add, was engaged with many of the presentations on the second day.

Let me dramatize the difference between Arendt’s understanding of a factual truth and the positivistic understanding of factual truth. I will summarize her views on authority, as I see it. For Arendt, the factual truth about authority in the modern world is that it has disappeared. She acknowledges that conservative and liberal political scientists and functionalist social scientists not only deny this worldly fact; they have much data and research to support their conclusions. For the functional social scientist, authority has merely taken another form and for the liberal political scientists authority is inimical to the progress of freedom in modern society. Factual truth for Arendt is a phenomenon, in the phenomenological sense of that term. The reality of the disappearance of authority from the modern world is a phenomenon that we moderns have to bear. This does not mean that authority has disappeared, phenomenologically speaking. That she speaks about it, that she articulates what it is in ways that are intelligible and meaningful, speaks to its phenomenological presence, in spite of its worldly disappearance. To understand what Arendt means about factual truth, we have to understand phenomenological hermeneutics.

-Kieran Bonner

**Click here to watch Peg Birmingham, Naomi Oreskes, Jonathan Kay, Sam Tanenhaus, and Jerome Kohn speaking at the conference.