Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
1Nov/150

Amor Mundi 11/1/15

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

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

amor_mundi_sign-upPermanent Purgatory

refugee campElizabeth Dunn uses the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe to consider the ever-present fact of refugee camps around the world. The average refugee lives in a camp for 12 years, while many spend the remainder of their lives in these places. As Dunn writes, "the purgatory of camp life lasts decades or even generations, as the politics of refugees' home countries remains unstable." For Dunn, the refugee "problem" cannot be thought of as a border problem but must be seen as a question of resettlement. Her view is buttressed by an uncompromising look at the reality of living in a camp. "The problem is compounded by the total failure of the refugee camp as a humanitarian and political technology. Since the 1950s, Western Europe has tried to keep displaced people outside its borders by funding large-scale refugee camps in Third World countries. Despite the United Nations High Commission for Refugees' call for 'durable solutions' for displaced people, the plan for most refugees is for them to wait in camps until they can return home, even when there is no foreseeable end to the wars or occupations that have displaced them. But while these camps offer politicians a convenient way to avoid making decisions about foreign wars and domestic immigration issues, the camps can only offer refugees a way of life that is permanently temporary. With no prospects for permanent relocation and the basic necessities for sustaining life in short supply, it is no surprise that displaced people are attempting the dangerous voyage to Europe. 'This isn't living; it's just existing,' Mzia Khizanishvili told me in the summer of 2014, as we sat outside her small cottage in a refugee camp in the Republic of Georgia. During the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia, Khizanishvili, a middle-aged school principal, became a victim of ethnic cleansing along with 28,000 other people in the breakaway province of South Ossetia. More than six years later, most of them were still stuck in the camps, which the government euphemistically called 'new settlements.' With unemployment rates at more than 80 percent and little farmland available for the camp's residents, the internally displaced people in Georgia did what displaced people around the world do in refugee camps: they sat and waited to begin new lives."

Free Expression on Campus

nadine strossenNadine Strossen went to Harvard's Shorenstein Center to deliver the eighth annual Salant Lecture on Freedom of the Press. In her talk, Strossen discussed "how university sexual harassment policies increasingly go well beyond the Supreme Court's definition of sexual harassment, 'extending to speech with any sexual content that anyone finds offensive.' Strossen argued that this concept has become 'entrenched' on university campuses as the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has threatened to pull federal funding from schools that do not 'enact sexual misconduct policies that violate many civil liberties.' 'Combating gender discrimination, violence and sexual assault is of the utmost urgency,' said Strossen, 'but OCR's distorted concept of sexual harassment actually does more harm than good to gender justice, not to mention free speech.' 'OCR's flawed sexual harassment concept reflects sexist stereotypes that are equally insulting to women and men. For women, it embodies the archaic infantilizing notion that we are inherently demeaned by any expression with sexual content,' she continued. Strossen critiqued the current trend toward shielding students from ideas that may make them uncomfortable. 'Last fall, Brown University set up a safe space for students who felt endangered by the mere fact that a debate was taking place on campus on the topic of how should campuses handle sexual assault,' she said, noting that the space was equipped with calming music, videos of puppies, and playdough. 'This focus on safety from disturbing ideas is especially misplaced given the ongoing serious threats to students' physical safety, including rape and sexual assault,' said Strossen. 'Also in the wake of the latest mass gun murders on a campus, we have to contrast government pressure to shield students from ideas with its failure to shield them from guns...when it comes to safety our students are being doubly disserved, too often denied safety from physical violence, which is critical for their education, but too often granted safety from ideas, which is antithetical to their education.'" The question of "How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex, and Religion on Campus" is the topic for the ninth annual Hannah Arendt Center Conference on Oct. 20-21, 2016. Save the date.

Triggering the Teacher

trigger warningsRani Neutill was teaching a class on the representation of sex throughout American cinema and at the same time working as Director of the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention Services at her university. Her students demanded trigger warnings and even still came crying hysterical to her office. She complied, even as she worried that doing so was neither effective nor productive. That is, until she lost patience. She has left teaching because of her experiences. Colleges, she writes, "are the new helicopter parents, places where the quest for emotional safety and psychic healing leads not to learning, but regression." Here was the final straw that sent Neutill over the edge: "Nevertheless, I did it. Each night I sent a meticulous email detailing which scene I was showing, where in the film the scene was, and what the content of the scene included. My role as a sexual assault prevention services specialist and survivor advocate eclipsed my role as a professor as I tried to accommodate students over and over again. The next film to piss them all off was 9 1/2 Weeks. The film is about an S&M relationship between a character played by Micky Rourke and one played by Kim Basinger. At first Basinger's character is drawn to Rourke and they begin an S&M style consensual relationship. As the film goes on, Rourke becomes abusive and the sex becomes non-consensual, but the beauty of the film is that Basinger is eventually able to let go and take something from the relationship--a heightened sense of her sexuality and desires. There's an infamous scene with Rourke feeding Basinger a number of food items while she's blindfolded. It's basically a series of soft-core money shots. It is a consensual scene. When conversation began in class, a white male student started talking about the scene as one of consent. Four hands shot up. One said, 'no--it is clearly not consensual.' Other students concurred. They argued that if someone is in an abusive relationship, they can never consent to sex because they are being manipulated. This triggered me. I was furious. Sexual assault survivor support is about empowerment. The model says, 'Hey! It's not for you to tell the survivor what happened to them; that's their story, they know, don't f--king label it.' What these students were essentially doing was stripping every person in an abusive relationship of all their agency. They were telling every survivor that they were raped, even when the survivor may have wanted to have sex with their abuser. They were claiming god like knowledge of every sexual encounter. And they were only 20. If that. Their frontal lobes haven't even fully developed. I was done with it. I was drained. I was anxious. I was tired. I was fed up. But I didn't want to be. I had been teaching for ten years with passion."

Humility

academiaArthur C. Brooks argues in the NY Times that increasing homogeneity of thought on college and university campuses is endangering free and critical thinking. "But even honest researchers are affected by the unconscious bias that creeps in when everyone thinks the same way. Certain results--especially when they reinforce commonly held ideas--tend to receive a lower standard of scrutiny. This might help explain why, when the Open Science Collaboration's Reproducibility Project recently sought to retest 100 social science studies, the group was unable to confirm the original findings more than half the time. These concerns aren't a modern innovation. In one classic experiment from 1975, a group of scholars was asked to evaluate one of two research papers that used the same statistical methodology to reach opposite conclusions. One version 'found' that liberal political activists were mentally healthier than the general population; the other paper, otherwise identical, was set up to 'prove' the opposite conclusion. The liberal reviewers rated the first version significantly more publishable than its less flattering twin." For Brooks, we should welcome opposing and dissenting voices not simply because they may be right and we wrong, but rather because responding to dissent will force us to respond and recalibrate. It is, Brooks argues, a question of humility: "[I]mproving ideological diversity is not a fundamentally political undertaking. Rather, it is a question of humility. Proper scholarship is based on the simple virtues of tolerance, openness and modesty. Having people around who think differently thus improves not only science, but also character."

The Commons

obama robinsonIn Part II of the conversation between President Obama and writer Marilynne Robinson, President Obama speaks about the loss of common literature, common culture, and "common reference points."

"The President: Part of the challenge is--and I see this in our politics--is a common conversation. It's not so much, I think, that people don't read at all; it's that everybody is reading [in] their niche, and so often, at least in the media, they're reading stuff that reinforces their existing point of view. And so you don't have that phenomenon of here's a set of great books that everybody is familiar with and everybody is talking about. Sometimes you get some TV shows that fill that void, but increasingly now, that's splintered, too, so other than the Super Bowl, we don't have a lot of common reference points. And you can argue that that's part of the reason why our politics has gotten so polarized, is that--when I was growing up, if the president spoke to the country, there were three stations and every city had its own newspaper and they were going to cover that story. And that would last for a couple of weeks, people talking about what the president had talked about. Today, my poor press team, they're tweeting every two minutes because some new thing has happened, which then puts a premium on the sensational and the most outrageous or a conflict as a way of getting attention and breaking through the noise--which then creates, I believe, a pessimism about the country because all those quiet, sturdy voices that we were talking about at the beginning, they're not heard. It's not interesting to hear a story about some good people in some quiet place that did something sensible and figured out how to get along.

"Robinson: I think that in our earlier history--the Gettysburg Address or something--there was the conscious sense that democracy was an achievement. It was not simply the most efficient modern system or something. It was something that people collectively made and they understood that they held it together by valuing it. I think that in earlier periods--which is not to say one we will never return to--the president himself was this sort of symbolic achievement of democracy. And there was the human respect that I was talking about before, [that] compounds itself in the respect for the personified achievement of a democratic culture. Which is a hard thing--not many people can pull that together, you know.... So I do think that one of the things that we have to realize and talk about is that we cannot take it for granted. It's a made thing that we make continuously."

The common sense that we cannot take for granted and that we must continuously make is a central theme of Hannah Arendt's understanding of political action. Action is new, surprising, and shocking. It is the spontaneous surprise of action that gathers people around and initiates the conversations, dialogue, and discourses that gather a plural and diverse group of individuals into a political people. The worry Arendt voices is that in an era of spectacle and statistics, surprising action is rare and easily dismissed as an aberration. Action can be either criminal or heroic. To surprise and shock, action must become ever more extreme, which leads to it increasingly being seen as criminal, or at least irrelevant. The result is the splintering of attention and the loss of a common focus.

amor_mundi_sign-upLook at Me

Anselm KieferTrinie Dalton reviews Anselm Kiefer's Notebooks, Volume 1, 1998-99 in the LA Review of Books. "These Notebooks, which also often remark upon his burgeoning computer skills and how it takes up to '25 minutes to upload a file to the floppy disk,' are eerily all-too-contemporary when it comes to that existential angst that drives some social media fixations today--again the fine line between BE HERE NOW and LOOK AT ME. These journals are a reminder that our obsessions with staying occupied and proving we are real (i.e. selfies for some; jerking off for others) are not dictated by technology but rather are innate human traits expressible across behaviors and mediums. Kiefer's art and writing remind us that these compulsions have driven artistic practice since the dawn of time, not only in time-specific mediums (like narrative writing and music) but also in textual and visual mediums (like poetry and painting), which are arguably less tethered to time." One seemingly exemplary entry reads: "Sitting with my laptop, waiting. For what? What differentiates this waiting from waiting for a train or a flight? In both cases you wait until something arrives. In the case of waiting for something to write, the waiting is already a part of what is to be written down. Because something is already 'at work' while you wait, which could end the wait."

The Great Plastic Soup

Pinar YoldasIn an interview, Turkish artist Pinar Yoldas thinks aloud about environmentalism in the age of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch: "We are living in a time when we really need to define what nature is. We have these images of nature that are also false. Eco-futurism is an attempt to better understand nature in order build a new culture that has more to offer. Eco-punk, I don't know. I'm always thinking of the future of the artist, or the future of the designer. Say you're a designer, and you design a chair or lemon squeezer or a lighting fixture, which we all need. Everybody loves nice lighting fixtures and chairs. But don't we have enough of these well-designed chairs? The definition of design has to change. We need subversive objects to create a discourse, not to solve a problem. We need critical design. I did a project similar to Ecology of Excess years earlier, called AlterEvolution. In LA I'd first read the phrase 'cage-free chickens,' which amazed me. Aren't chickens supposed to be cage-free? So I designed chickens without legs or wings. I took out the brain, so that only reproductive, circulatory, skeletal, and muscular systems remained. This was a critique of the food industry, of course. I called it biological minimalism at its best. Or take the issue of human engineering. There are already clinics in LA that let you pick your child's eye color. Why waste time with eye color? Go straight to the prefrontal cortex! I'm not just interested in protecting the environment. I want to know how we perceive ourselves as humans and what we are actually doing as pure consumers--with eugenics, for example, which has to do with human pride, this idea that we are the pinnacles of evolution. This kind of mentality is what I'm criticizing."

Dot Dot Dot

ellipsisKaty Waldman considers the ellipse: "The three dots extend from the end of the phrase like a ledge into the surrounding silence. They co-mingle the thrill of possibility with the fear of irresolution. Who can say what varmints lurk, what vistas shimmer, to the right of those humble stepping stones? Who can say if there's anything there at all? Dashes--useful and lovely though they are--are not ... ellipses. They excel at representing interruptions, trains of thought abruptly shorn off. Meanwhile, an ellipsis trails away gradually, delicately, all hesitance and apprehension. If a dash indicates the sudden arrival of a fiend in a Bram Stoker novel ('The curtains flutter strangely in the moonlight, I hear a noise--'), an ellipsis means the monster has come and gone, and things aren't looking good for the victim. ('It had ... fangs ... my neck ... ow.') According to The Chicago Manual of Style, 'ellipsis points suggest faltering or fragmented speech accompanied by confusion, insecurity, distress, or uncertainty.' While dashes jolt you forward, ellipses make you pause and linger... But not all ellipses are ghoulishly suggestive. Some--the kind a colleague calls 'ellipses of anticipation'--are exuberantly, epically suggestive! Star Wars begins with one such dot dot dot: 'A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away ...' (A more prosaic example of the anticipatory ellipsis might be the three blue orbs that appear on your iPhone when someone's texting you back.) In a Peanuts strip, Snoopy types out a flurry of paperback clichés ('Suddenly a shot rang out. A door slammed. The maid screamed.'), and then frets that he 'may have written [himself] into a corner ...'. His final punctuation--not to mention the conditional 'MAY have written'--adds a charming understated wryness to the punch line. But what's especially great about Snoopy's ellipsis is how it resists the very closure he fears. As the dog's words trail off beyond the strip's last square, those dots become the thread leading him out of the corner. Where Joyce's ellipses suggest fracture or disjunction, the anticipatory ellipsis implies continuity, a world or life persisting independently of what appears on the page."

Better Bread

breadFerris Jabr profiles Stephen Jones, a scientist who thinks he can make bread interesting again: "What most people picture when they think of flour--that anonymous chalk-white powder from the supermarket--is anathema to Jones. Before the advent of industrial agriculture, Americans enjoyed a wide range of regional flours milled from equally diverse wheats, which in turn could be used to make breads that were astonish­ingly flavorful and nutritious. For nearly a century, however, America has grown wheat tailored to an industrial system designed to produce nutrient-poor flour and insipid, spongy breads soaked in preservatives. For the sake of profit and expediency, we forfeited pleasure and health. The Bread Lab's mission is to make regional grain farming viable once more, by creating entirely new kinds of wheat that unite the taste and wholesomeness of their ancestors with the robustness of their modern counterparts. Although regional grain economies have developed in California, North Carolina, Arizona and elsewhere, there are few people who match Jones's fervor for wheat and none with an equally grand vision for its future. His lab was founded just three years ago, but it has already earned the respect of the country's most celebrated bakers, like Chad Robertson of Tartine and Jeffrey Hamelman, the director of King Arthur Bakery. Dan Barber teamed up with Jones to develop 'Barber wheat' for his restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns, which is ensconced in a working farm. Bread Lab breads have even made their way to the kitchens of the White House. In recent months, the lab's newfound popularity has caused a bit of an identity crisis. Its latest collaborator is the fast-casual Mexican chain Chipotle, which wants to use one of the lab's regional wheats in its tortillas. Chipotle serves 800,000 tortillas around the country every day. 'There are definitely issues of scale,' Jones says. 'If you have Chipotle come in, how big does it get, and how quickly? Do we end up with a commodity by any other name?'"

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #14

HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.

For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at dbisson@bard.edu.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm

 

 


Critical Theory and Surreal Practice: A Conversation with Elisabeth Lenk and Rita BischofCritical Theory and Surreal Practice: A Conversation with Elizabeth Lenk and Rita Bischoff

In 1962, a politically active Elisabeth Lenk moved to Paris and persuaded Theodor W. Adorno to supervise her sociology dissertation on the surrealists. Adorno, though critical of Surrealism, agreed. The Challenge of Surrealism presents their correspondence, written between 1962 and Adorno's death in 1969, set against the backdrop of Adorno and Walter Benjamin's disagreement about the present possibilities of future political action, crystallization, and the dialectical image. The letters offer a fresh portrait of Adorno and expand upon his view of Surrealism and the student movements in 1960s France and Germany, while Lenk's essays and Bischof's introduction argue that there is a legitimate connection between Surrealism and political resistance that still holds true today. Please join us at the Hannah Arendt Center for a conversation with Elisabeth Lenk and Rita Bischof to celebrate the English translation of The Challenge of Surrealism: The Correspondence of Theodor W. Adorno and Elisabeth Lenk.

Free & Open to the Public. Kaffee and Kuchen will be served!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Hannah Arendt Center, 3:00 pm


How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on CampusSAVE THE DATE - 2016 FALL CONFERENCE

On OCTOBER 20-21, 2016 we will host our ninth annual fall conference: "How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on Campus". We'll see you there!

Thursday and Friday, October 20 and 21, 2016

Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm


From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Hans Teerds discusses how being at home in a desert-like landscape invokes the danger of losing any real contact with the world and its (other) inhabitants in the Quote of the Week. The Persian poet Rumi reflects on the heartache and sorrow involved in thinking in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. We publicize the news that the Department of Philosophy at West Chester University will be hosting the tenth independent conference of the Hannah Arendt Circle, March 10-12, 2016 and that the Hannah Arendt Circle is now accepting papers for this event. Finally, we appreciate Arendt's three-volume copy of The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History in this week's Library feature.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
5Jul/153

The Promise of Action

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By Hans Teerds

“Wherever men come together, in whatever numbers, public interests come into play.… And the Public Realm is formed. In America where there are still spontaneous associations, which then disband again – the kind of associations already described by Tocqueville – you can see this very clearly. Some public interests concerns a specific group of people, those in a neighborhood or even in just one house or in a city or in some other sort of group. Then these people will convene, and they are very capable of acting publicly in these matters – for they have an overview of them.”

-- Hannah Arendt, “What Remains? The Language Remains” [interview with Günther Gaus]

In a neighborhood in Amsterdam where we lived, a group of neighbors joined forces in order to halt a little playground’s deterioration. The playground had been maintained for decades by the public services of the municipality. However, in the last decade, due to budget cuts and a changing perspective on the role of a municipality within urban society, the playground slowly but surely went into decay. Despite the closing of the fences, the playground was still in heavy use. So the neighbors decided to do something. A committee was set up, a list of volunteers formed, and a letter to the municipality written. And it succeeded: the municipality in the end embraced this initiative and was able to push aside all formalistic and bureaucratic procedures. The neighboring committee was allowed to open up the playground on Wednesday afternoons for when the kids arrived home from school. On the weekends, they were also allowed to operate a cabin next to the sandpit, from which they could loan buckets, shovels, and small bikes to the kids; sell coffee and tea to comfort the parents; and on hot-summer days provide ice cream to be enjoyed by all. A new spirit has also run through the playground: the playground equipment has been refurbished and new materials have been bought. Today this place is very popular – the sandpit almost overcrowded – and there are enough volunteers to fill the schedule of keeping an eye on the playground and to lend out materials.

Hans Teerds
Hans Teerds is an architect based in Amsterdam. He currently is writing a Ph.D thesis on the public aspects of architecture as understood through the writings of Hannah Arendt at the Delft University of Technology.
24May/151

The Dystopia of Knowledge

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Featured Image Source: IMG Arcade

By Jennifer M. Hudson

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

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

-- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

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

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

privacy

(Source: Digital Trends)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Circle

(Source: Amazon)

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

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

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

mind patterns

(Source: Medical Science Navigator)

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

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

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

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
2Mar/152

Arendt and Transformation

Transformation
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By Thomas Wild

“Let us assume I had an extraordinarily good memory, I would never have written anything down.”

– Hannah Arendt, 1964

“Let us assume I had an extraordinarily good memory, I would never have written anything down,” Hannah Arendt once said in an interview. We are lucky that Arendt actually did not have that kind of memory. Had she never written anything down, all her thoughts, in the moment she died, would have vanished from the world as though they had never existed.

Thomas Wild
Thomas Wild is an Assistant Professor of German Studies and a Hannah Arendt Center Research Associate at Bard College. He's published and edited several books on Hannah Arendt. His further research interests include contemporary German literature, film, poetics, and multilingualism. He is co-editor-in-chief preparing the first critical edition of Hannah Arendt's Complete Writings in English and German.
17Nov/140

Obedience and Political Affairs

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“[T]here is no such thing as obedience in political and moral matters.”

– Hannah Arendt, “Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship” (1964)

How could Arendt reject obedience as a factor in political and moral affairs? Was her basic point about totalitarianism not that it had reduced people to thoughtless puppets of the regime? Did she not describe Adolf Eichmann, chief organizer of transports to the Nazi death camps, as someone who had simply exchanged “one system of values for another” in order to serve his new masters? This was certainly how many people read Arendt. The individual, she seemed to be saying, had disappeared into a mass movement. But if this was not obedience, then what could possibly deserve the name?

Johannes Lang
Johannes Lang is a lecturer in psychology at the University of Copenhagen and a postdoctoral fellow at the Danish Institute for International Studies. He has previously been a postdoctoral fellow in sociology at Yale, and was one of the recipients of the Danish Research Council’s “Young Elite Researcher” awards for 2011. His most recent publication is titled “Against obedience: Hannah Arendt’s overlooked challenge to social-psychological explanations of mass atrocity,” in Theory & Psychology 2014, vol. 24.
19Sep/140

Video Archives – “Lying in Politics: Alchemies of Deception” (2011)

lying_politics
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Friday, March 5, 2011: “Lying and Politics: Alchemies of Deception”

Participants: Roger Hodge, Editor of Harper’s Magazine from 2006-2010

Roger Hodge gave a talk as a part of the Arendt Center’s March 2011 conference: “Lying and Politics.” Hodge focuses his talk on the matter of deception in politics.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
16Jun/140

Arendt and Intergenerational Justice

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“If the world is to contain a public space, it cannot be erected for one generation and planned for the living only; it must transcend the life-span of mortal men…. 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, a loss somewhat overshadowed by the simultaneous loss of the metaphysical concern with eternity.”

--Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Intergenerational justice is a central idea in contemporary political thought about the environment, sustainability and global climate change. That we must live today in a manner that does not degrade the life chances of future generations is an intellectual response to the depletion of natural resources, particularly fossil fuels, and the global warming fostered by the use of these sources of energy. As one political response to climate change caused by fossil fuel use, intergenerational justice may be described in terms of a revivifying of public life and a corresponding cultivation of trust in politics. That is to say, intergenerational justice is conceived best not in abstract terms, but as a matter of directing concrete political action, which Arendt argues has a transformative nature, against the anti-political and anti-ecological encroachments of “the social realm” that prioritizes economic thinking, growth and bureaucratic efficiency over concerns for the future. In this sense, we appeal to Arendt, who shows us in On Revolution that the founding of new public space and the revitalization of citizenship are always possible.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
12May/141

Violence, Hypocrisy, and Scientific-Administrative “Laws”

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Arendtquote

“Moreover, if we inquire historically into the causes likely to transform engagés into enragés, it is not injustice that ranks first, but hypocrisy. … To tear the mask of hypocrisy from the face of the enemy, to unmask him and the devious machinations and manipulations that permit him to rule without using violent means, that is, to provoke action even at the risk of annihilation so that the truth may come out—these are still among the strongest motives in today’s violence on the campuses and in the streets.  And this violence again is not irrational.  Since men live in a world of appearances and, in their dealing with it, depend on manifestation, hypocrisy’s conceits—as distinguished from expedient ruses, followed by disclosure in due time—cannot be met by so-called reasonable behavior.  Words can be relied on only if one is sure that their function is to reveal and not to conceal.  It is the semblance of rationality, much more than the interests behind it, that provokes rage.”

--On Violence (65-66)

In On Violence (1970), Arendt argues for political action and power as opposed to violence.  According to her conception, power is political, and it is an end in itself.  It is brought into being through the political and public “acting in concert” of a plurality of human beings.  Violence, on the other hand, is instrumental in two senses of the word:  it can only be carried out through the use of external instruments, and it is a means that cannot supply its own end.   Rule by violence becomes a possibility wherever real power is being lost, and while violence may destroy power, it can never produce it.  Violence relies on goals external to itself for its justification, yet it is also a means that can devour its own ends.

More particularly, and to place the passage in the proper late-1960s context, she is interested, on the one hand, in the extreme potential for violence produced through twentieth century technological developments and, on the other, the question of violence perpetrated by and against oppositional student groups in the western world.  The two are, of course, related in complex ways.  Arendt is worried about the unleashing of a vicious cycle of violence, in which students actively seek to provoke the police with the express purpose of bringing an underlying “fascism” or naked state violence to the fore.  Similarly, she writes, in the 1930s, fascism’s opponents had at times even celebrated its victory because it would reveal the internal contradictions of a “civilized society” that held violence and repression at its core.  “We saw how that turned out,” is the implied conclusion.

What is at the root of this cycle of violence?  From the outset, Arendt rejects biological explanations based on some innate human aggressiveness emerging from our animal selves.  According to the bio-psychological line of analysis, human impulses towards violence can be so dangerous because they have been blocked and severed from their original “natural” purpose of species preservation.  They have become redirected in a way that makes them irrational.  Arendt rejects this characterization and instead seeks to identify the rationale behind violence.  She finds it partially by examining rage against injustice, which arises “only where there is reason to suspect that conditions could be changed and are not…” (63).  She goes so far as to recognize that “… under certain circumstances violence—acting without argument or speech and without counting the consequences—is the only way to set the scales of justice right again.” (64)

That rage and violence against injustice can be rational, though, in no way makes them political.  Indeed, they are “without argument or speech,” and she explicitly characterizes them as “antipolitical.”  What Arendt describes, then, is an unpolitical cycle of violence, which forms a synthetic dialectic.  She additionally reveals that, despite themselves, the two parties to the dialectic are, by essence, largely the same.  The students rebel against the Establishment and the System, but they fail to recognize what these have become or their own role in their operation.  They romantically cling to the Marxist notion of a bourgeois-proletarian dialectic of class conflict when 1) the embourgeoisement of the post-war working class had stymied its revolutionary potential, and 2) this was in no small part due to scientific advances that made the intellectuals and the scientists the new mandarins, over and above the class warriors of the bourgeoisie.  And who are the future intellectuals and scientists if not the students, themselves?  The students are raging against the machine of technical conquest that produced the bomb and napalm, but they are simultaneously reproducing the machine, through their very being.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Violence emerges when political power is lost, and political power dissipates when there is no space for human action in which power can be renewed.  Arendt writes:

I am inclined to think that much of the present glorification of violence is caused by severe frustration of the faculty of action in the modern world.  It is simply true that riots in the ghettos and rebellions on the campuses make ‘people feel like they are acting together in a way that they rarely can.’ (83)

Violence is, then, a false politics that serves to placate the frustrated political actor.  It becomes an outlet for a political impulse that has been blocked, according to Arendt, especially by our belief in modern progress.  Progress as “growth, the relentless process of more and more, of bigger and bigger” increases demand for administration.  Bureaucratization, in turn, increases the appeal of violence precisely because it is unpolitical:

In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one can argue, to whom one can present grievances, on whom the pressures of power can be exerted.  Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.  The crucial feature in the student rebellions around the world is that they are directed everywhere against the ruling bureaucracy.

Bureaucratization and the ideal of progress block politics because the idea of politics, the notion that human beings might initiate the radically new and unexpected in the world, is fundamentally alien to them.  They are, instead, built upon the idea that everything can be accounted for and made predictable through the universal dictates of objective science and technique.

Bureaucracy is also a key source of the very hypocrisy Arendt identifies above as a catalyst of rage and violence.  It presents itself as the impartial bearer of technical truths, but bureaucracy is instrumental just like violence, which means it relies on external, political ends to provide its operating justification.  Despite claims to neutrality, it must, by definition, serve political ends.   Though also like violence, it constantly threatens to overflow its own bounds, overwhelming the ends with meaningless means.

Bureaucracy

The current dialectic in Europe, between a sometimes-violent populist revival and a technocracy claiming only to implement neutral economic truths, illustrates anew the dynamic Arendt identified in 1969-1970.  The populist aims to reveal the hypocrisy of the technocrat by existing as the technocrat’s opposite, by declaring himself the true representative of the people’s good.  But in being his opposite, he reproduces the same problem in mirror image.  Both deny politics and attempt to substitute some form of absolute reason in its place.  Thus, we ‘deal with’ our freedom by simultaneously declaring absolute control—via either technique or rule by populist incarnation—and giving up control absolutely—to the self-contained system of scientific principles or the populist leader.  In Arendt’s examples, the enraged reaction against hypocrisy ends up producing the very violence against which it fights, most obviously when students force the government to react with open violence in order to prove that the violence had been there all along.  Similarly, contemporary populism produces the negation of politics while fighting against the same negation of politics in another form.  Technocracy completes and perpetuates the cycle as it explicitly aims to combat populism and discipline the popular will in favor of "impartial truths."

In this context, the popular explosion of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is interesting in (at least) two ways: 1) Piketty justifies and provides fuel for populist rage against inequality.  He demonstrates the magnitude of current gross disparities in wealth and shows them to be the result of policies that have been presented as the only sound technical reactions to contemporary economic truths.  2) He also dethrones the notion of the economic law.  He reveals the fallacies of the postwar technocrats who believed their economic situation had been the natural result of the unfolding of “natural” economic developmental laws.  Instead, we now know that their unprecedented situation, characterized by high levels of growth and employment along with historically low levels of inequality, came as a result of historical contingency mixed with deliberate and free political action.  Their mistake was to reify their circumstances and then try and understand this “given” and “natural” phenomenon via scientific theory.

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Thomas Piketty

Arendt’s analysis of this very same time period, however, suggests that the human activity Piketty highlights was anything but “political action.”  To caricature and simplify, efforts directed towards material well-being cannot constitute politically free action, according to her, because they are determined by the objective circumstance of human need.  One could argue, though, that, in this, she may have fallen for the technocrats’ reification of political choices about material well-being into deterministic laws—even while she denounced their attempts to collapse human experience into behaviorist systems.  The question then becomes whether an Arendtian politics is possible that is nevertheless directed towards the maintenance of the living organism in some way.  In fact, both Arendt and Marx condemned inequality reduction as strictly unpolitical.  Despite extreme differences in their notions of politics, for both of them politics is about human freedom, not life or living.  It is a common misconception that Marx was arguing for the elimination of inequality.  In fact, he denounced all attempts to do so as weakly reformist.  The root of the problem was, rather, lack of freedom in a republican sense:  It does not matter how well or equally you are treated if you are nevertheless a slave.

The characterization of inequality concerns as “unpolitical” seems to go too far, though, if we consider the idea that people cannot act politically and freely if they lack basic security and trust in the world.  This is a point that Arendt makes in On Revolution, among other works, in which she writes that desperation can only produce violence and not politics.  (This point could also work towards providing an Arendtian explanation for populist violence à la Golden Dawn, etc.)  With this in mind, our fight against inequality could actually be understood as political action in the service of political action as an end in itself.

What Piketty has in common with Arendt is the condemnation of social “science” masquerading as natural science.  Arendt shows how this can be a hindrance to freedom, and she understands it as something that is also fundamentally unworkable.  The belief in its predictive power can only exist in denial of the unpredictable results of human action that will always undo the projected image of organized harmony.  Piketty is criticizing the economic establishment on these same grounds, which is why his crusade against inequality challenges Arendt’s sharp dividing line between politics and mere life.  While his data analysis shows that our world will tend towards more and more extreme inequality, Piketty emphasizes the fact that this tendency has been undone before, which implies that we can politically undo it again.  Insofar as they both believe in and endorse the possibility and power of political action, it seems reasonable to assume that Piketty would also endorse Arendt’s important claim that,

If we look on history in terms of a continuous chronological process, whose progress, moreover, is inevitable, violence in the shape of war and revolution may appear to constitute the only possible interruption.  If this were true, if only the practice of violence would make it possible to interrupt automatic processes in the realm of human affairs, the preachers of violence would have won an important point. … It is the function, however, of all action, as distinguished from mere behavior, to interrupt what otherwise would have proceeded automatically and therefore predictably. (30-31)

--Jennifer M. Hudson

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

The Dystopia of Knowledge

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Arendtquote

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

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

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

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

surv

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dave

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

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

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

blue

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

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

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

-Jennifer M. Hudson

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
29Nov/130

What is Politics?

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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.

conference

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.

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
23Sep/130

The False Culture of Utility

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Arendtquote

“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.

culture

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?”

tech

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

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
26Aug/130

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

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Arendtquote

“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”.

labor

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.

robot

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

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
12Apr/130

Is Hannah Arendt a Jewish Thinker?

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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.

jewishquestion

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.

happy

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.

books

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

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
12Feb/130

The Politics of Non-Movement

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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).

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
15Oct/120

The Political Weakness of Empathy

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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

 

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