Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
2Mar/152

Arendt and Transformation

Transformation

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.
23Feb/150

Hannah Arendt and the Political Dangers of Emotion

emotion

By Johannes Lang

“Whatever the passions and the emotions may be, and whatever their true connection with thought and reason, they certainly are located in the human heart. And not only is the human heart a place of darkness which, with certainty, no human eye can penetrate; the qualities of the heart need darkness and protection against the light of the public to grow and to remain what they are meant to be, innermost motives which are not for public display.”

–Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (1963)

Since September 11, 2001, historians and social scientists have rediscovered the political relevance of emotion. In the current climate of war and terror, public discussion is suffused with references to fear, hatred, and patriotism. But what are the moral and political consequences when such passions enter the public sphere? One of the most famous political thinkers of the twentieth century, Hannah Arendt, worried about the entry of emotion into politics. She scolded the French revolutionaries for having been carried away by their compassion for the poor and praised the American Founding Fathers for their aloof commitment to universal ideals and for their detached attitude to the suffering masses. Emotions may be important as subjective motives for individual action, Arendt granted, but they should neither be aired in public nor be made the basis for collective action. Emotions disfigure politics; political movements should be based on rational argument, not passion. Yet, as Volker Heins has pointed out, there was one thing Arendt feared more than the intrusion of emotions into politics: a politics completely devoid of emotion. The “ice-cold reasoning” and bureaucratic rationality she discerned behind the Holocaust was infinitely more terrifying than any other political pathology known to man. Arendt’s deep ambivalence toward emotions confronts us with a fundamental question: What is the proper place of emotion in politics?

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.
9Feb/150

Political Lies: Altering Facts and Rewriting History

history

By Richard A. Barrett

“Freedom of opinion is a farce unless factual information is guaranteed and the facts themselves are not in dispute. In other words, factual truth informs political thought just as rational truth informs philosophical speculation.”

—Hannah Arendt, Truth and Politics

Arendt tells us that factual truth is at once crucial for political life and more vulnerable to manipulation than we typically consider it. A reminder of the fragility of facts is timely in light of Russian attempts to alter both recent and historical fact, as well as China's formidable ability to control its people's access to information on the Internet.

Richard Barrett
Richard A. Barrett (B.A., University of Chicago; J.D., Yale Law School; Ph.D., University of California, San Diego) teaches Political Science and Law at the University of Southern California. His current research is on democratic education in Plato and how Platonic insights to education provide insights into how American legal education shapes the minds of young attorneys.
26Jan/152

Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, and the Importance of the Interior

Cinders concept art. Home

By Hans Teerds

“The French have become masters in the art of being happy among ‘small things,’ within the space of their own four walls, between chest and bed, table and chair, dog and cat and flowerpot, extending to these things a care and tenderness which, in a world where rapid industrialization constantly kills off the things of yesterday to produce today’s objects, may even appear to be the world’s last, purely humane corner.”

-- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

During my first reading of Arendt’s The Human Condition, this particular quote attracted my attention, probably since I’m trained as an architect and sensible to these kind of imaginable, tangible examples. (I must also mention the very nice and almost poetic rhythm in the ‘construction’ of the sentences quoted above). The passage immediately reminded me of the famous text “Paris: Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” in which Walter Benjamin, among other things, links the importance of the domestic interior to the emerging impact of industrialization on the working people. Through the mutability of modernity, as symbolised by the arcades with their cast-iron constructions, Benjamin argues that the interior comes into conscious being to the extent that our life, work, and surroundings change. The interior of domestic life originates in the need for a place of one’s own: a small but personal haven in a turbulent world that is subject to constant change.

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.
1Dec/140

Experience as an Anchor for Thinking

experience

"[T]hese are exercises in political thought as it arises out of the actuality of political incidents (though such incidents are mentioned only occasionally), and my assumption is that thought itself arises out of incidents of living experience and must remain bound to them as the only guidepost by which to take its bearings."

-- Hannah Arendt, “Preface,” in Between Past and Future

One of the enduring sources of inspiration in Hannah Arendt's political thought is her exceptional capability of tying together reflections on concrete worldly events with in-depth philosophical, historical, and cultural insights. Her thinking never prioritizes abstract theorizations and never uses the incidents of the political world only as “examples.” Instead, for her the activity of thinking is about making sense of the events of the time. Whenever Arendt – against her habit – assumes a self-reflective position with regards to her own way of doing political theory, her emphasis is on the experiential nature of thought. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, she insists on facing the “impact of reality and the shock of experience” in all their force without succumbing to either reckless pessimism or optimism. The call to “think what we are doing,” as she puts it in The Human Condition, is indeed the primus motor underlying all her works.

Ari Elmeri Hyvonen
Ari-Elmeri Hyvönen is a PhD candidate in Politics at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. He received his Master of Social Sciences from the University of Tampere, Finland (2012). From 2012-2014, he worked as a visiting researcher at Tampere Peace Research Institute. His current research focuses on the worldly and temporal aspects of Arendt's thought as well as its relevance in the contemporary context-both political and theoretical.
29Oct/140

Proust on Thinking

Marcel Proust

"The habit of thinking prevents us at times from experiencing reality, immunises us against it, makes it seem no more than any other thought."

-- Marcel Proust

(Featured Image: Marcel Proust; Source: Famous Authors)

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.
28Jul/140

Death and the Public Realm

public_realm

**This article was originally published on May 13, 2013**

"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

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.
10May/140

Equality and Singularity

ArendtWeekendReading

Thomas Piketty is not the only Frenchman making waves with a new book about inequality. The Society of Equals by Pierre Rosanvallon was just published in a translation by Arthur Goldhammer with Harvard University Press (the same press that published Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century). As does Piketty, Rosanvallon employs philosophy and history to characterize the return of inequality in the late 20th and now 21st centuries. But Rosanvallon, unlike Piketty, argues that we need to understand how inequality and equality now are different than they used to be. As a result, Rosanvallon is much more sanguine about economic inequality and optimistic about the possibilities for meaningful equality in the future.

9780674724594

Paul Star of Princeton and The American Prospect reviews The Society of Equals in the New York Review of Books. Rosanvallon begins, Star writes, by noting that the return of massive inequality in European and American societies has not been met with real anger or revolutionary unrest. There is, instead, “passive consent to inequality,” and, as Rosanvallon writes, “‘a generalized sense that inequalities have grown ‘too large’ or even become ‘scandalous.’” And yet, that sense “‘coexists with tacit acceptance of many specific forms of inequality and with silent resistance to any practical steps to correct them.’” Economic inequality for Rosanvallon is rampant and important, but the widening income gap in and of itself is no longer seen as unjust. As Star writes:

The crisis of equality therefore involves more than widening economic disparities: “It reflects the collapse of a whole set of old ideas of justice and injustice” and “must be grasped as a total social fact.”

In other words, Rosanvallon wants to enlarge and transform what we mean when we speak about inequality. He seeks to “provide a comprehensive understanding that would help overcome the general sense of resignation and revive equality as a moral ideal and political project.”

Specifically, Rosanvallon wants to move the discussion of inequality away from an exclusive focus on income and towards an equality of individual self-flourishing, what he will call an “equality for a new ‘age of singularity’ when ‘everyone wants to ‘be someone.’” Here is how Star summarizes Rosanvallon’s approach to equality:

The story that Rosanvallon tells here is that as new forms of knowledge and economic relations have emerged, people have come to think of their situation in less collective ways. Since the 1980s, he writes, capitalism has put “a new emphasis on the creative abilities of individuals,” and jobs increasingly demand that workers invest their personalities in their work. No longer assured of being able to stay at one company, employees have to develop their distinctive qualities—their “brand”—so as to be able to move nimbly from one position to another.

As a result of both cognitive and social change, “everyone implicitly claims the right to be considered a star, an expert, or an artist, that is, to see his or her ideas and judgments taken into account and recognized as valuable.” The demand to be treated as singular does not come just from celebrities. On Facebook and many other online sites millions are saying: here are my opinions, my music, my photos. The yearning for distinction has become democratized. Yet amid this explosion of individuality, equality loses none of its importance: “The most intolerable form of inequality,” Rosanvallon writes, “is still not to be treated as a human being, to be rejected as worthless.”

The kind of inequality that Rosanvallon is concerned with—the kind that makes one feel rejected and worthless—is neither economic nor political, but a matter of social status.

social inequality

There is good reason for such a focus, but one that has little to do with the purported Marxist revival that Piketty’s book is supposed to herald. The strange thing about the incessant talk about inequality today is that rarely does one encounter genuine concern regarding the plight of the poor. The inequality debate has little to do with poverty or the impoverished and everything to do with the increasing gap separating the super-rich from the merely rich and the middle class. For Rosanvallon, we need to simply accept that economic inequality is part of our reality; what is more, he suggests that most of us have accepted that reality. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon the ideal of equality. Instead, we must re-imagine equality for the modern age.

Rosanvallon wants to renew the egalitarian tradition in line with the changed circumstances of our time. “We live today in an individualist age and must reformulate things accordingly,” he writes in his new book. Does he solve the contemporary puzzles about inequality? I don’t think so. But he analyzes them in so illuminating a way that anyone interested in understanding and reversing the surge in inequality should read his work.

Reading Star’s account of Rosanvallon recalls John Adams’ claim that the true evils of poverty are less economic than invisibility:

The poor man’s conscience is clear; yet he is ashamed…. He feels himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. Mankind takes no notice of him. He rambles and wanders unheeded. In the midst of a crowd, at church, in the market… he is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or a cellar. He is not disapproved, censured, or reproached; he is only not seen… To be wholly overlooked, and to know it, are intolerable. If Crusoe on his island had the library of Alexandria, and a certainty that he should never again see the face of man, would he ever open a volume?

For Hannah Arendt, from whom I take this quotation of Adams, these words express “the feeling of injustice” and “the conviction that darkness rather than want is the curse of poverty.” For Arendt, as for Adams, the “political predicament of the poor” could only be seen because of the relative “absence of misery” prevailing in revolutionary America.

Of course there was misery and poverty in revolutionary America, some amongst whites but clearly amongst black slaves. But as Arendt writes, even as the founding fathers “were aware of the primordial crime upon which the fabric of American society rested, if they ‘trembled when [they] thought that God is just’ (Jefferson), they did so because they were convinced of the incompatibility of the institution of slavery with the foundation of freedom, not because they were moved by pity or by a feeling of solidarity with their fellow men.” She concludes from this that “the institution of slavery carries an obscurity even blacker than the obscurity of poverty; the slave, not the poor man, was ‘wholly overlooked.’” It was this blindness to misery that allowed the founders of America to imagine the true evils of inequality to rest not in deprivation but in invisibility. And it was upon this blindness that the American Revolution imagined a kind of political equality in which the freedom to appear in public could flourish.

AR Equality

What Rosanvallon sees is that the fact of extreme inequality today carries the threat not of misery but of irrelevancy. But such an analysis of inequality has very nearly obscured the question of poverty; it focuses, instead, on the feelings of disempowerment and resentment of the upper and lower middle classes. It is for these classes that Rosenvallon’s new ideal of equality will appeal—the right to equally appear as a singular individual. Here is how Star understands the new ideal of equality as singularity:

The idea of framing equality around the principle of singularity is provocative and appealing. Of course, even in the age of YouTube and Twitter, no society could possibly satisfy the desire of everyone to be a star, but in Rosanvallon’s conception singularity is a basis of human connection: “The difference that defines singularity binds a person to others; it does not set him apart. It arouses in others curiosity, interest, and a desire to understand.” Singularity demands recognition and acceptance:

‘Each individual seeks to stand out by virtue of the unique qualities that he or she alone possesses. The existence of diversity then becomes the standard of equality.’

Star raises serious questions about the way Rosanvallon depoliticizes economic inequality as he refocuses the idea of equality around the equal right to stand out and exist in public. But Star also recognizes that there is something true in Rosanvallon’s account, something that all the attention given to his countryman Piketty continues to overlook: That inequality absent misery may not be the real problem of political justice. The reason so much inequality is greeted with resentment but acceptance, is that our current imagination of justice concerns visibility and singularity more than it does equality of income. Of course, both these points depend upon our leaving the truly miserable and poor outside of the debate on inequality. So far, that has proven a fairly reliable assumption.

Star’s review is well worth being 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".
14Apr/140

Hiatus, Discontinuity, and Change

Arendtquote

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

Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind

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

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

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

eggs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

B2.  their descendants are enslaved, oppressed, and persecuted

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cubism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Lance Strate

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
24Mar/140

Amor Mundi 3/23/14

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.

What Silver Knows

foxData journalist Nate Silver reopened his FiveThirtyEight blog this past week, after leaving the New York Times last year. Although the website launched with a full slate of articles, the opening salvo is a manifesto he calls "What The Fox Knows," referencing the maxim from the poet Archilochus’, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” For Silver, this means, “We take a pluralistic approach and we hope to contribute to your understanding of the news in a variety of ways.” What separates FiveThirtyEight is its focus on big data, the long trail of information left by everything we do in a digital world. From big data, Silver believes he can predict outcomes more accurately than traditional journalism, and that he will also be better able to explain and predict human behavior. “Indeed, as more human behaviors are being measured, the line between the quantitative and the qualitative has blurred. I admire Brian Burke, who led the U.S. men’s hockey team on an Olympic run in 2010 and who has been an outspoken advocate for gay-rights causes in sports. But Burke said something on the hockey analytics panel at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference last month that I took issue with. He expressed concern that statistics couldn’t measure a hockey player’s perseverance. For instance, he asked, would one of his forwards retain control of the puck when Zdeno Chara, the Boston Bruins’ intimidating 6’9″ defenseman, was bearing down on him? The thing is, this is something you could measure. You could watch video of all Bruins games and record how often different forwards kept control of the puck. Soon, the NHL may install motion-tracking cameras in its arenas, as other sports leagues have done, creating a record of each player’s x- and y-coordinates throughout the game and making this data collection process much easier.” As the availability of data increases beyond comprehension, humans will necessarily turn the effort of analysis over to machines running algorithms. Predictions and simulations will abound and human actions—whether voting for a president or holding on to a hockey puck—will increasingly appear to be predictable behavior. The fact that actions are never fully predictable is already fading from view; we have become accustomed to knowing how things will end before they begin. At the very least, Nate Silver and his team at FiveThirtyEight will try to “critique incautious uses of statistics when they arise elsewhere in news coverage.”

All in All, Another Tweet in the Wall

tejuAuthor Teju Cole recently composed and released an essay called “A Piece of The Wall” exclusively on Twitter. In an interview, along with details about the technical aspects of putting together what's more like a piece of radio journalism than a piece of print journalism, Cole notes that there may be a connection between readership and change: "I’m not getting my hopes up, but the point of writing about these things, and hoping they reach a big audience, has nothing to do with “innovation” or with “writing.” It’s about the hope that more and more people will have their conscience moved about the plight of other human beings. In the case of drones, for example, I think that all the writing and sorrow about it has led to a scaling back of operations: It continues, it’s still awful, but the rate has been scaled back, and this has been in specific response to public criticism. I continue to believe the emperor has a soul."

A Religious Age?

bergerPeter Berger has a thoughtful critique of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, one that accepts Taylor’s philosophical premise but denies its sociological reality. “I think that Taylor’s magnum opus makes a very significant contribution, though I disagree with its central proposition: We don’t live in a “secular age”; rather in most of the world we live in a turbulently religious age (with the exception of a few places, like university philosophy departments in Canada and football clubs in Britain). (Has Taylor been recently in Nepal? Or for that matter in central Texas?) Taylor is a very sophisticated philosopher, not an empirically oriented sociologist of religion. It so happens that we now have a sizable body of empirical data from much of the world (including America and Europe) on what ordinary religious people actually believe and how they relate their faith to various secular definitions of reality). Let me just mention the rich work of Robert Wuthnow, Nancy Ammerman and Tanya Luhrmann in the US, and Grace Davie, Linda Woodhead and Daniele Hervieu-Leger in Europe. There is a phrase that sociology students learn in the first year of graduate study—frequency distribution:  It is important for me to understand just what X is; it is even more important for me to know how much X there is at a given time in a given place. The phrase is to be recommended to all inclined to make a priori  statements about anything. In this case, I think that Taylor has made a very useful contribution in his careful description of what he calls “the immanent frame” (he also calls it “exclusive humanism”)—a sense of reality that excludes all references to transcendence or anything beyond mundane human experience. Taylor also traced the historical development of this definition of reality.” Maybe the disagreement is more subtle: Religion continues in the secular age, but it is more personal. Quite simply, churches were once the tallest and most central buildings, representing the center of public and civic life. That is no longer the case in Europe; nor in Nepal.

Looking Under the Skin

scarlettAnthony Lane in The New Yorker asks the question, “Why should we watch Scarlett Johansson with any more attention than we pay to other actors?” His answer concerns Johansson’s role and performance in her new movie “Under the Skin.” Lane is near obsessed with Johansson’s ability to reveal nothing and everything with a look—what he calls the “Johansson look, already potent and unnerving. She was starting to poke under the skin.” He continues describing Johansson in a photo shoot: ““Give me nothing,” Dukovic said, and Johansson wiped the expression from her face, saying, “I’ll just pretend to be a model.” Pause. “I rarely have anything inside me.” Then came the laugh: dry and dirty, as if this were a drama class and her task was to play a Martini. Invited to simulate a Renaissance picture, she immediately slipped into a sixteenth-century persona, pretending to hold a pose for a painter and kvetching about it: “How long do I have to sit here for? My sciatica is killing me.” You could not wish for a more plausible insight into the mind-set of the Mona Lisa. A small table and a stool were provided, and Johansson sat down with her arms folded in front of her. “I want to look Presidential,” she declared. “I want this to be my Mt. Rushmore portrait.” Once more, Dukovic told her what to show: “Absolutely nothing.” Not long after, he and his team began to pack up. The whole shoot had taken seventeen minutes. She had given him absolutely everything. We should not be surprised by this. After all, film stars are those unlikely beings who seem more alive, not less, when images are made of them; who unfurl and reach toward the light, instead of seizing up, when confronted by a camera; and who, by some miracle or trick, become enriched versions of themselves, even as they ramify into other selves on cue. Clarence Sinclair Bull, the great stills photographer at M-G-M, said of Greta Garbo that “she seems to feel the emotion for each pose as part of her personality.” From the late nineteen-twenties, he held a near-monopoly on pictures of Garbo, so uncanny was their rapport. “All I did was to light the face and wait. And watch,” he said. Why should we watch Johansson with any more attention than we pay to other actors?”

Fantasizing About Being Lost

malaysiaGeoffrey Gray suggests a reason why we've become obsessed with the missing plane: "Wherever the Malaysia Airlines plane is, it found a hiding place. And the longer it takes investigators to discover where it is and what went wrong, the longer we have to indulge in the fantasy that we too might be able to elude the computers tracking our clicks, text messages, and even our movements. Hidden from the rest of the world, if only for an imagined moment, we feel what the passengers of Flight 370 most likely don't: safe."

 

This Week on the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, learn more about the Program Associate position now available at the Arendt Center. In the Quote of the Week, Ian Zuckerman looks at the role some of Arendt's core themes play in Kubrik's famed nuclear satire, "Dr Strangelove." And, HannahArendt.net issues a call for papers for their upcoming 'Justice and Law' edition being released in August of this year.

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.
17Mar/140

Dr. Strangelove and the Banality of Evil

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Indeed my opinion now is that evil is never “radical,” that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus over the surface. It is ‘thought-defying,’ as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing.

-Hannah Arendt, letter to Gershom Scholem

Recent commentators have marked the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s bleak nuclear satire, Dr. Strangelove, by noting that the film contained quite a bit more reality than we had thought. While national security and military officials at the time scoffed at the film’s farfetched depictions of a nuclear holocaust set off by a crazed general, we now know that such an unthinkable event would have been, at least theoretically, entirely possible. Yet there is another, deeper sense in which Kubrick’s satire puts us in touch with a reality that could not be readily depicted through other means.

The film tells the story of a rogue general who, at the height of the Cold War arms race, launches a nuclear attack that cannot be recalled, which leads to the destruction of most of humanity in a nuclear holocaust. These are events that we would conventionally describe as “tragic,” but the film is no tragedy. Why not? One answer, of course, is the comic, satirical touch with which Kubrick treated the material, his use of Peter Sellers to play three different characters, and his method of actually tricking his actors into playing their roles more ridiculously than they would have otherwise. But in a deeper sense, Stranglove is about the loss of a capacity for the tragic. The characters, absorbed in utter banalities as they hurtle toward collective catastrophe, display no real grasp of the moral reality of their actions, because they’ve lost contact with the moral reality of the world they share. Dr. Strangelove, then, is a satire about the impossibility of tragedy.

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Still from "Dr. Strangelove"

In order to think about what this might mean, it’s helpful to turn to the idea, famously invoked by Hannah Arendt at the end of Eichmann in Jerusalem, of the banality of evil. As Arendt stressed in a later essay, the banality of evil is not a theory or a doctrine “but something quite factual, the phenomenon of evil deeds, committed on a gigantic scale, which could not be traced to any particularity of wickedness, pathology, or ideological conviction in the doer, whose only personal distinction was perhaps extraordinary shallowness.” Eichmann was no villainous monster or demon; rather, he was “terrifyingly normal,” and his chief characteristic was “not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think.” The inability to think has nothing to do with the capacity of strategizing, performing instrumental calculations, or “reckoning with consequences,” as Hobbes put it. Rather, thinking has to do with awakening the inner dialogue involved in all consciousness, the questioning of the self by the self, which Arendt says dissolves all certainties and examines anew all accepted dogmas and values.

According to Arendt, the socially recognized function of “clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct” is to “protect us against reality”; their function is to protect us against the claim that reality makes on our thinking.  This claim, which awakens the dissolving powers of thought, can be so destabilizing that we all must inure ourselves to some degree against it, so that ordinary life can go on at all. What characterized Eichmann is that “he clearly knew of no such claim at all.” Eichmann’s absorption in instrumental and strategic problem solving, on the one hand, and clichés and empty platitudes on the other, was total. The absence of thought, and with it the absence of judgment, ensured a total lack of contact with the moral reality of his actions. Hence the “banality” of his evil resides not in the enormity of the consequences of his actions, but in the depthless opacity of the perpetrator.

The characters in Dr. Strangelove are banal in precisely this sense. All of them—from the affable, hapless president, the red-blooded general, the vodka-swilling diplomat, the self-interested advisors and Dr. Strangelove himself—are silly cardboard cutouts, superficial stereotypes of characters that any lack depth, self-reflection or the capacity for communicating anything other than empty clichés. They are missing what Arendt called “the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining and reflecting upon whatever happens to come to pass, regardless of specific content and quite independent of results…” They also lack any contact with the moral reality of their activity. All of their actions takes place in an increasingly claustrophobic series of confined spaces carefully sealed off by design: the war room, the military base, the bomber cockpit. The world—Arendt’s common world of appearances that constitutes the possibility of narrative and story telling—never appears at all; reality cannot break through.

The presence of some of Arendt’s core themes in Kubrick’s film should not come as a surprise. Although she dedicated very little attention in her published works to the problem of nuclear war, in an early draft of a text that would later become The Human Condition, Arendt claimed that two experiences of the 20th century, “totalitarianism and the atomic bomb – ignite the question about the meaning of politics in our time. They are fundamental experiences of our age, and if we ignore them it is as if we never lived in the world that is our world.” Moreover, the culmination of strategic statecraft in social scientific doctrines mandating the nuclear arms race reflects on some of the core themes Arendt identified with political modernity: the emergence of a conception of politics as a strategic use of violence for the purposes of protecting society.

Celebrating Nuclear War: The 1946 “Atom Bomb Cake”

Celebrating Nuclear War: The 1946 “Atom Bomb Cake”

Niccolò Machiavelli, a thinker for whom Arendt had a lot of admiration, helped inaugurate this modern adventure of strategic statecraft by reframing politics as l’arte della stato – the art of the state, which unlike the internal civic space of the republic, always finds itself intervening within an instrumental economy of violence. For Machiavelli the prince, shedding the persona of Ciceronian humanism, must be willing to become beastly, animal-like, to discover the virtues of the vir virtutis in the animal nature of the lion and the fox. If political modernity is inaugurated by Machiavelli’s image of the centaur, the Prince-becoming-beastly, Strangelove closes with a suitable 20th century corollary to the career of modern statecraft. It is the image of the amiable, good-natured “pilot” who never steers the machines he occupies but is himself steered by them, finally straddling and literally transforming himself into the Bomb. It is an image that, in our own age of remote drone warfare and the possible dawning of a new, not yet fully conceivable epoch of post-human violence, has not lost its power to provoke reflection.

-Ian Zuckerman

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.
10Feb/140

Why Think?

Arendtquote

This post was originally published July 16, 2012

"What makes us think? Hegel's answer: Reconciliation. Reconciliation with what? With things as they are. But this we do constantly anyhow by establishing ourselves in the world. Why repeat it in thought?"

          - Hannah Arendt's Denktagebuch, 782

No relation is more central to Hannah Arendt's writing than that between acting and thinking. Thinking, Arendt knows, is distinct from action that takes place in the world. Thinking is a seeing into the unseeable and the unsayable. It is a relation with oneself in the two-in-one of a dialogue one has with oneself. In thinking, the thinker withdraws from the world. "In thinking," she writes in 1970, there is a partial "pulling of oneself back out of the world of appearances."  Thinking, in other words, can be apolitical and unworldly. Thinking is even, she writes, analogous to death in its rejection of the world.

Against the un-worldliness of thinking, Arendt embraces the political humanism of action. InThe Human Condition, Arendt names action as "the only activity that goes on directly between men" and "corresponds to the human condition of plurality, to the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world." To act, she writes, is to live and "to be among men." Action is tied to human life just as thinking is, for Arendt, a metaphor for death.

The connection between action and human life, as well as the association of thinking with death, might suggest that Arendt prefers action to thought. And yet such a view would be at least misleading if not mistaken. Thinking, Arendt insists in The Human Condition, is the "highest and perhaps purest activity of which men are capable." Above all, she strives to bring thinking and action together; to think what we are doing. Arendt's entire life's work is a response to the thoughtlessness of our time that is the fundamental enabling condition of totalitarianism. There is, for Arendt, no more meaningful or powerful response to the dangers of totalitarianism than the pure activity of thinking.

What then is thinking? And why is it important? These are questions Arendt struggles with at all times, but nowhere more explicitly than in her Denktagebuch. In the passage quoted above, Arendt writes that Hegel answers the question: "Why Think?" with the idea of reconciliation.

For Hegel, reconciliation is experienced as a response to his fundamental experience of the world ripped asunder. In other words, the world appears to man as that which is foreign. Man stands against the objects and things of the world, which are separate from him. And man's dream and drive is to reunite himself with the world. In Hegel's words from his Encyclopedia:

"The highest and final aim of philosophic science is to bring about ... a reconciliation of the self-conscious reason with the reason which is in the world – in other words, with actuality.”

The aim of thinking, Hegel repeats,

"Is to divest the objective world that stands opposed to us of its strangeness, and to find ourselves at home in it: which means no more than to trace the objective world back to the notion – to our inmost self.”

What this means, Hegel writes in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, is that “the ultimate aim and business of philosophy is to reconcile thought or the Notion with reality.”

Arendt returns repeatedly to Hegel's idea of reconciliation. Perhaps no other thread of inquiry receives more attention in Arendt's Denktagebuch, which begins in 1950 with a seven page meditation on the political importance of reconciliation. In Between Past and Future, Arendt writes:

“The task of the mind is to understand what happened, and this understanding, according to Hegel, is man’s way of reconciling himself with reality; its actual end is to be at peace with the world.”

In Truth and Politics, Arendt again raises the problem of a thoughtful reconciliation to reality alongside a reference to Hegel:

"Who says what is always tells a story. To the extent that the teller of factual truth is also a storyteller, he brings about that ‘reconciliation with reality’ which Hegel, the philosopher of history par excellence, understood as the ultimate goal of all philosophical thought."

In Hannah Arendt: The Recovery of the Public World, Melvyn A. Hill reports a further remark by Arendt, in which she says,

"I can very well live without doing anything. But I cannot live without trying at least to understand whatever happens. And this is somehow the same sense in which you know it from Hegel, namely where I think the central role is reconciliation--reconciliation of man as a thinking and reasonable being. This is what actually happens in the world."

In all these and in many other instances, Arendt affirms the centrality of reconciliation to her project. Thinking, as a kind of reconciliation with the world, is the activity in which human beings work to understand and comprehend the world around them. This understanding-reconciliation is necessary because without it we would not live in a world that we could understand or make our way in. Objects for which we have no understanding and no language to describe them are non-existent. There is a basic truth to Hegel's idealism; that the real world only is for humans insofar as we humans think about that world and reconcile ourselves to it.

At the same time, Arendt distinguishes her sense of reconciliation from that of Hegel. We humans are constantly and of necessity reconciling ourselves with reality. In living and acting, we establish ourselves in the world. We accept and conform to institutions, traditions, habits, and customs. We build a human world and then live in it, even if we at times resist that world or rebel against it. Both resistance and rebellion presume a prior reconciliation with and understanding of the world. This is what it means to be human and to act. In our everyday actions and life we enact our reconciliation to the world.

If reconciliation is almost unconscious and natural, why then, Arendt asks, do we have to repeat this reconciliation in thought? This is a question Arendt repeats often and in different ways. Her answer has much to do with her conviction that sometime in the early parts of the 20th century, philosophy and thinking ceased to be able "to perform the task assigned to it by Hegel and the philosophy of history, that is, to understand and grasp conceptually historical reality and the events that made the modern world what it is." For Arendt, somehow the "human mind had ceased, for some mysterious reasons, to function properly." In other words, what happens in the 20th century is that a gap emerges between reality and thinking.

This gap between thinking and reality itself, Arendt writes, is not new. It may be, she supposes, "coeval with the existence of man on earth." But for centuries and millennia, the gap was "bridged over by tradition." Human beings created gods, customs, and cultures that gave their lives meaning. The world made sense and human reason seemed to fit well to the realities that surrounded it.

The homelessness of the modern world, our undeterred will to truth, combined with our scientific insistence upon universal knowledge, means that we moderns can never be at home in a finite and mortal human world. It is in such a world that the drive for certainty risks perfecting itself into totalitarian ideology and the need for coherence threatens to elevate comforting lies over unsettling truths.

In our modern world where our thinking efforts to understand the real world forever fall short, reconciliation assumes a different and distinctly non-Hegelian sense. Reconciliation demands that we forego the will to absolute knowledge or scientific mastery of the world.  We must, instead, reconcile ourselves to the reality of the gap between thinking and acting.

Thinking today requires “settling down in the gap between past and future;” in other words, thinking demands that we continually recommit ourselves to the loss of a knowable and hospitable world and, instead, commit ourselves to the struggle of thinking and acting in a world without banisters.  Only if we think and reconcile ourselves to the reality of our irreconcilable world can we hope to resist the ever-present possibility of totalitarianism.

-Roger Berkowitz

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.
13Jan/140

Constitutions and the Social Questions: Arendt, Ambedkar, and the limits of Political Theory

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“[T]o the extent that they had a positive notion of freedom which would transcend the idea of a successful liberation from tyrants and from necessity, this notion was identified with the act of foundation, that is, the framing of a constitution.”

-Hannah Arendt, "On Revolution"

The year just gone by marked the centenary of B.R. Ambedkar, the chairman of the drafting committee of the Indian Constitution, often referred to as the ‘father of the Indian Constitution’, even though it was a claim of paternity that he vigorously rejected in later years (for reasons we shall soon get to). Ambedkar is a remarkable, and in some ways paradoxical member of that exclusive club of great constitutional founders. The significance of his influence in the framing of the Indian Constitution is incontrovertible. Yet, he was in many ways an outsider to the class of political elites that assumed power at the moment of India’s independence from British colonial rule. Politically, he remained an opponent of the Congress Party, the party that dominated the anticolonial struggle as well as the postcolonial government for decades. More significantly, his status as an outsider was marked most starkly by him being a Dalit, an “untouchable” from one of the lowest rungs of India’s caste hierarchy. Unlike most of the members of the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar experienced in his own life the degrading and dehumanizing aspects of caste oppression, and devoted his public life to the cause of eradicating the caste system. As an outsider in this double sense, both in terms of his opposition to the dominant political party, and hailing from the most marginalized and oppressed sections of the society, the story of Ambedkar’s relationship to the Constitution illuminate certain paradoxes of new beginnings that only those at the margins can illuminate.

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Let us return to Arendt’s quote. There are three elements in the quote that reflect themes that run through "On Revolution." First, one finds here an elaboration of two concepts that engaged her for much of her life: freedom and beginnings, from an explicitly political standpoint. Freedom, as a political concept, is understood as the collective capacity of human beings to create a new political reality. Emerging in moments of revolution, what marks this political freedom is its ability to institute, to create a new and secure public space. It gives political actors the ability to author their own political world. It is, in that sense, world-making.

The quote then identifies this world-making act in a particular form – that of “framing of a constitution”. The fulfillment of the promise of freedom generated by the revolutionary moment is the making of a new constitution. What political freedom brings forth then is something specific – new institutions and constitutional structures, which acts as bricks and mortars for the new world that has been created, and creates the concrete space where freedom can become a political reality, and not an abstract concept. Lastly, it names ‘tyranny’ and ‘necessity’ as the two conditions from which freedom is marked, a point which we will return to later.

Ambedkar’s participation – especially in a central capacity as the Chairman of the Drafting Committee – in the making of the Indian Constitution was in itself an interesting fact. As a consistent opponent of the Congress, especially its leader M.K. Gandhi, and as one who was deeply weary of the upper caste leadership of the Congress, one can wonder why he accepted the position offered to him. One possible answer that could be gleaned from his extensive interventions during the constituent assembly debates is a cautious hope that the Constitution would succeed in creating a new institutional structure that could ameliorate, and even eliminate, the most pervasive forms of unfreedom experienced by Indians. That a constitution would succeed in not merely marking India’s liberation from colonial rule, but in creating a new political world free from the hierarchies and dominations of the past.

Ambedkar’s belief in the significance of this new possibility was evident in an extraordinary speech he made at the floor of the assembly, whereby he laid out a strong case as to why after the commencement of the constitution extra-constitutional political actions should be delegitimized. Now that free India has a constitution of its own, written and instituted in the name of “We the People”, extra-constitutional political mobilizations should be replaced with contestations through constitutional paths. This argument is especially significant given that one of those ‘extra-constitutional’ forms of actions Ambedkar mentioned in this speech was the Gandhian method of civil disobedience that had garnered wide prevalence during the struggle against colonial rule.

Here we see a distance developing between Arendt and Ambedkar. Arendt despite the importance she accorded to domesticating the revolution through creation of institutions, remained skeptical of constitutional law emerging as the only acceptable language of political action. In ‘On Revolution’ itself she goes on to ask, in an uneasy tone, “if the end of revolution and the introduction of constitutional government spelled the end of public freedom, was it then desirable to end the revolution?” The moment of constitution making was identified by Arendt with the notion of a “positive idea of freedom” not in a transcendental but an immanent way. What made it special was not simply the institution of some higher order value system, but that it was a sublime expression of creative political act – a political world making par excellence. The freedom inheres not in the ideal form of ‘a constitution’, but in the act of constituting, which reveals the essential human agency for self-reflexively creating the world that one inhabits.

The resuscitation of this creative agency was at the heart of Arendt’s political thought. In the landscape of mid-twentieth century, in an increasingly bureaucratized space of human existence where collective action became dictated by the rationale of ‘necessity’ and the ‘tyranny’ of governmentalized calculations, Arendt sought in politics a space where human beings could collective reclaim their ability to make their own world from which they have been alienated. To this end (as Hanna Pitkin has pointed out) sets of binaries emerge in her work – freedom is contrasted with necessity, action with behavior, polis with oikos, and politics with ‘the social’.

She sought to recover that space, marked by the first half of those binaries, through thinking, speech and action in concert in the public realm. It was based on mutuality and reciprocity – captured in her well-known discussion of the faculty of ‘promising’ – conducted amongst human beings who spoke and acted towards each other as equals political beings. These words and deeds, properly political in nature, produced and maintained the space for freedom against ‘tyranny’ and ‘necessities’. She refused to seek foundation for this space in something outside of those words and deeds – either in a sovereign will, or in some form of desirable social condition achieved via analysis and transformation of social relations. The space was produced and maintained through the continual act of producing and maintaining it.

The most significant aspect of the ‘revolution’ that precedes the constitution – as Arendt showed through her stylized reconstruction of the American revolutionary experience – was therefore not any pure claim to an absolute break or fundamental change of a socio-economic fact, but the creation of a condition where human beings can collectively come together to self-reflexively create author their own political world. This was the great good fortune of the American revolutionaries that Arendt talked about. They had through their lived experience and associational forms generated the necessary praxis for this form of speech and action much before the revolutionary event or the constitutional moment came about. The condition for the realization of freedom in America according to Arendt was, as Bonnie Honig writes, “brought into being avant la lettre” so to speak. In that instance, the letters of the constitution reveal, express and institutionalize something whose conditions in a conceptual form was already conceived. The birth could not happen without conception.

One can say that for Arendt it created a space for political theory free from both political theology and social analysis. The constitution is the supreme achievement borne out of such a theory in praxis.

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What was Ambedkar’s assessment of the possibility for such an achievement in India? In his concluding speech, he noted what he called the ‘contradictions’ inherent to the process of making a constitution. “On the 26th of January [the day the Constitution was adopted] we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we shall be recognizing the principle of one man, one vote, one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of economic structure continue to deny [this principle]. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradiction? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so by putting our democracy in peril.” Note the foreboding tone of the last line. Ambedkar here is not voicing a simple discomfort about the existence of inequities in the Indian social life. Rather, he voices a far deeper concern about the limits of political theory to accomplish the work of creating a space where freedom “is not a concept but a living reality” without the attendant work of social transformation. Despite the extraordinary achievement of liberation from colonial rule, and the constituting of a polity with full political rights, Ambedkar suggests that the path of becoming republican citizens, for Indians, cannot run through the terrain of political theory alone and eschew the treacherous field of social theory. One cannot meaningfully talk about the sphere of freedom without also at the same time dealing with the sphere of necessity – not because one shouldn’t, but because one cannot. Dealing with only one only ends up generating a “contradiction’ that would imperil the whole project. Given this predicament, the endeavor of making a constitution for India had to concern itself with the social question – with “necessities” – which Ambedkar supported. Nevertheless, in the subsequent years after the constitution was brought in force he became increasingly weary of the potential of the constitution-making project to create any meaningful condition of freedom for the people of India. As the preeminent leader of those who were the most marginalized in the Indian society, he was acutely aware of this limitation. In 1953, only three years after the Constitution came into force, he remarked: “My friends tell me that I have made the Constitution. But I am quiet prepared to say that I shall be the first person to burn it out.” It was a spectacular act of renunciation from a man still referred to as the father of the Indian Constitution. This renunciation, it must be underlined, was not of the nature of a Jeffersonian demand for generational renewal of the revolutionary moment. It was not a lament about the extinguishing of the revolutionary flame. Rather, it was an expression of the frustration with a social revolution that never happened, and the related disavowal of the faith he once held in the constituent moment to truly birth a new political reality.

The question worth thinking through here is not just about the specificities of the Indian history. Rather, it concerns the nature of political theory itself, and the enduring question that Arendt took as the central concern of that theoretical endeavor – freedom. In the context of the late twentieth century landscape, and what she took to be alienating and fatal encroachment of the ‘social question’ on the sphere of human collective action, Arendt was unwilling to ground her conception of freedom – and of politics – on an analysis of social conditions under which human beings live. Her response to the challenges of twentieth century political life was to draw upon the experience of late eighteenth century colonists who, in Tocqueville’s phrase, were ‘born equal’ rather than having to become so. The horizontal practice of concerted action and mutual promises, harnessed in town halls and churches, could show a way towards creating a space for practicing and theorizing politics free from the clutches of necessity, and its attendant social analysis and calculus. The supreme achievement of that late eighteenth century moment – making of the constitution – provided a template for a political and reflexive collective world making act, free from the technocratic calculus of social transformation. Yet Ambedkar’s own journey – as the preeminent constitution maker coming from the margins of the Indian ‘social’ as Arendt would call it – and its tragic denouement demonstrates the limits of that vision. It shows that in creating the space for agonistic political freedom, one cannot ignore the weapons being wielded through social power. Countering those weapons requires analyzing and addressing the condition that produces them. Finding the theory and praxis for such a move, without retreating into a technocratic calculus, remains the challenge for contemporary political thought, as much for our time as it was for Arendt’s.

-Sandipto Dasgupta, Lecturer in Social Studies, Harvard University

Acknowledgement: I wanted to acknowledge Christophe Jaffrelot, whose paper on Ambedkar at a recent conference provided the initial food for thought for this piece. 
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