Action is “the miracle that saves the world from its normal, ‘natural’ ruin.”
-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
“I mentioned the quality of being a person as distinguished from being mere human..., and I said that to speak about a moral personality is almost redundancy...In the process of thought in which I actualize the specifically human difference of speech I explicitly constitute myself a person, and I shall remain one to the extent that I am capable of such constitution ever again and anew.”
-Hannah Arendt, "Some Questions of Moral Philosophy"
We are used to finding in Arendt’s work a clear distinction between action and speech on the one hand and thinking and judging on the other. But here in the second quote, Arendt declares that only this thinking through and - qualified - speech can transform a mere human being into a personality.
Now, when, as Arendt writes in the first quote, the miracle of action saves the world from its normal‚ 'natural’ ruin, defining nature as non-civilization, as barbarity, then this means that such an action is insolubly connected to the question of the personality of those who act. Who are those who acted in Occupy Now! or joined Los Indignados in Spain: were they individuals in the literal sense of independent human beings as the smallest units, which change sometimes rapidly into parts of masses, or were they persons, personalities? This question is much more important than the question of political goals or theoretical programs. Because it depends on those, who act, whether the world can be saved from its neo-liberal ruin and if yes, how.
The distinction between individuals and personalities always has an elitist appearance. But it is evident that we find personalities independent of their social status among workers, academics and politicians. A personality is not formed by its social origin or intellectual Bildung, but by a practical everyday education of citizens. This education is not based on the separation of reason and emotion, but on that what Arendt referred to as the “understanding heart” of the biblical King Solomon, which comprises equally heart and mind. The European 18th century, facing a secular society increasingly oriented towards an open freedom, searched for the possibility of a self-bound orientation in judgment. It discussed taste as a power of cognition. Melchior Grimm for example, a more or less forgotten German illustrator, essayist and diplomat, wrote: “The condition of a pronounced and perfect taste is to have a sharp intellect, a sensitive soul and a righteous heart.” Here taste does not only mean the aesthetic but also the moral judgment. In Grimm’s trilogy all three elements are indispensible in their mutual conditionality: reason can become inhuman without soul and heart; the sensitive soul apolitical due to an unchecked compassion; the righteous heart confused without reason.
Back then there was a prevailing understanding that moral and artistic quality rest in equal measure on independent thinking and on independent judgment. This is still visible in our everyday use of language whenever we speak of a “beautiful” or “ugly” gesture or figure of speech or of the “inner beauty” which a person possessing integrity shows by that integrity. These examples are, according to Kant, expressions of the harmony of the different powers of cognition both in regards to their inner proportions and in respect to the free coexistence of these powers and their mutual influence on one another. It is a harmony which occurs between form and content as well as between “an enlarged mentality” and reason, it differs from purely rational judgment.
Therefore, it is not the reason, which we are proud of because it distinguishes us from animals, but rather what Arendt calls an enlarged mentality which is of decisive political importance. In her Denktagebuch (Thinking Diary) she wrote: “Because of the fact that not self-bound reason but only an enlarged mentality makes it possible ‘to think in the place of another’, it is not reason, but the enlarged mentality which forms the link between human beings. Against the sense of self fueled by reason, by the I-think, one finds a sense for the world, fueled by the others as common-sense (passive) and the enlarged mentality (active.)”
From this interpersonal perspective follows the aspect that freedom is to be understood as “freedom for,” as inter-subjective, common freedom, which is inseparably bound to the responsibility for everything that happens in the political community. This responsibility does not deal with moral or juridical guilt for one’s own actions but instead with the responsibility of someone who is “a responder,” who understands that the actions of all decide whether or not we live in a decent society.
Though with Kant the era of investigations into the conditions for an independent judgment ended and the Kantian “capacity to judge” was replaced during the 19th and 20th centuries by logic, ideologies and theoretical systems, there were still some ambassadors of the 18th century left – Arendt of course, and her contemporaries like George Orwell and Albert Camus. Orwell’s works are marked by a hypothesis; namely, that the decency inherent in the everyday life of normal people can resist the general loss of orientation in an age of ideology. “It looks like a platitude,” he wrote, but his message was nothing more than: “If men would behave decently the world would be decent.” He tried to interpret what he called the “common decency” as a compass not only of single persons but also of the social and political life of citizens. According to Orwell this common decency rests on general, practical everyday moral norms and habits. Common decency differs from explicit and rigid moral prescriptions of “the good human being” by its openness and flexibility. For Orwell it was not human dignity in an abstract way that had to be protected but the behaviour to which a society commits itself that was in need of defending. The decent life affords social regulations that consist of respect for others, the absence of domination or humiliation, and social, economic or cultural equality. The highest income should not be ten times higher than the lowest. All laws should respect or support a decent life and include all citizens in the “pouvoir constituant des vie ordinaries.” Orwell was against the socialism of his time as an oligarchic collectivism, which attracted only the socially marginalized and intellectuals. “In our country,” he wrote, “the liberals fear freedom and the intellectuals are ready for any sort of ignominy against thinking.” That means: “The direct conscious attack on intellectual decency comes from the intellectuals themselves.”
This aspect of decency refers to what for Arendt is the basis of all political action and independent judgment; the effort to recover in a political community the right middle ground and human scale that marks the place where civilization ends.
Like Arendt and Orwell, Albert Camus stressed the importance of moderation while he observed excess among Marxist intellectuals after WW II, described in his most provocative book The Rebel. Revolutionary errors, he declared, disregarded natural limits and in so doing betrayed human inviolability. The experience of modern revolutions shows that “revolutions when they have no limits other than historical effectiveness, means endless slavery.” For Camus it is the task of revolt to redefine the place of the right middle and human scale in a permanent critical confrontation with present conditions.
Herein lays the actuality of these three authors, Arendt, Orwell and Camus: writing about totalitarianism, they described the conditions of a decent society, which was menaced then by revolutionary dogmatism and ideological mass-movements, and which is menaced today - not by revolts, or mass protests - but quite the contrary, by the destruction of politics and the common good by neo-liberalism.
Therefore, it is not by chance that Arendt in her portraits of writers, politicians and thinkers, which she wrote on various occasions and published in her book Men in dark Times, always came to speak about their personal qualities. For example, Lessing’s critical mentality which could “never give rise to a definite worldview which, once adopted, is immune to further experiences in the world because it has hitched itself firmly to one possible perspective”; Rosa Luxemburg’s cultural background of an assimilated Jewish life in Poland characterized by excellent literary taste, independent moral concepts and the absence of social prejudices, and Waldemar Gurian’s independent judgment and non-conformism – he was her friend and the dean of the University of Notre Dame - who “was delighted when he could break down the(se) barriers of so-called civilized society, because he saw in them barriers between human souls.
"impartiality is obtained by taking the viewpoints of others into account; impartiality is not the result of some higher standpoint that would then actually settle the dispute by being altogether above the meleé."
-Hannah Arendt, Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy
In Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy, Arendt takes the surprising approach of drawing on Kant's aesthetics to offer a distinct interpretation of political philosophy. She does not just turn to the Critique of Judgment alone however, but draws a line of questioning from of a number of Kant's later political writings that she then responds to with the Third Critique. Her explication of the term "impartiality" in this context is particularly striking since it offers a way between the models of objective judgment (from outside or above, so to speak) and subjective judgment (taking one's own standpoint as the measure of right).
Arendt's language marks a struggle of thinking in the middle. We're far from the high point of Plato's cave, where, even when looking down to a reflection, one wants to see the good as the sun above. Instead, the reference to "meleé" suggests that confusion and physical combat mark the scene of plural judgment. The goals is to get away from being "partial," away from taking a side and becoming just a "part" of some greater already given whole. Yet the right way to do so is not by stepping away from these positions, but by moving through them. "Account" suggests a kind of calculation, of adding up, but Arendt clarifies that it is not a matter of getting to a place from which one can survey all positions. Still, let's note that she says that one is not "altogether" above, which does retain a bit of vertical positioning.
Returning to the final word of the quote, the "meleé," makes it clear that we have to stay at the level of others. The viewpoints that one has to consider do not exist independently of each other, but are instead in conflict. How does this affect one's ability to "take them into account"? The traditional idea of detached reason would have to be modified to accept this idea of thinking in a tussle.
Later on the same page, Arendt uses a more peaceful metaphor for thinking: "To think with an enlarged mentality means to train one's thought to go visiting" (43-44). The contrast between "visiting" and "meleé" is striking, since the former term suggests that one does stay clear of trouble and merely collects impressions from others. Between the two terms, we get a sense of judgment that is not "altogether" above.
"Men=earthbound creatures, living in communities, endowed with common sense, sensus communis, a community sense; not autonomous, needing each other’s company even for thinking (“freedom of the pen”)=first part of the Critique of Judgment: aesthetic judgment."
-Hannah Arendt, Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy
This fragment from Arendt’s Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy is easy to overlook, as upon first glance, it seems to do little more than restate her reliance on Kant’s concepts of the sensus communis and “enlarged thought” to define judgment. These lines are notes she has jotted down, expressing early sketches on the finished product of judgment as the idea that judgment is the mental operation of “placing [oneself] at the standpoint of others” to become an individual of “enlarged thought."
But upon closer examination, a puzzle emerges. In these lines, the sensus communis and the community that is presumed in this sense seems to encroach upon thinking—that faculty that Arendt insists occurs only in isolation. Thinking is the silent dialogue, the “two-in-one” that exists only when I am alone, for in appearing to others, “I am one; otherwise I would be unrecognizable.” In these notes in the Lectures, however, Arendt seems to reject the very terms by which she herself establishes the category of thought, undermining the boundary between the thinking self and the community, which she herself establishes. (“You must be alone in order to think; you need company to enjoy a meal.”)
One obvious solution to the puzzle is to say that the community sense arises from imagining others’ standpoints, rather than from actual others who could constitute “real” company. But given how often Arendt describes the two-in-one of thinking as a “duality” by which I keep myself company, drawing the line between imagined others and actual others seems too crude to capture what Arendt means by company. We do not need others, imagined or otherwise, to have company, as one can—and should be—one’s own company.
Another solution, and the one that has come to define Arendtian judgment, has been simply to ignore the solitude that thinking imposes onto judgment and to instead describe the operation of the latter as an imagined discourse that one might have with others. Here, judgment seems to introduce into the two-in-one of thinking other individuals such that it is not myself, but other people, who keep me company in thought.
But this characterization of judgment should make careful readers of Arendt uncomfortable, for in reducing the “thoughtfulness” of judgment to a dialogue with others in their specific circumstances, we not only veer dangerously close to empathy, but also lose conscience and responsibility as gifts that accompany thinking in its solitude. Without conscience telling us that we must live with ourselves, it becomes too easy to lose in the company and noise of others who we are and what we do. It becomes too easy to perform tasks that exposed in the solitude of thought; we might not be able to live with.
What then could Arendt mean when she says that we might need each other’s company for thinking? I submit that the interpretive problems that I’ve so far identified emerge from associating the “general standpoint” of enlarged thought too much with the visiting of other standpoints at the expense of another prominent metaphorical figure in Arendt’s Lectures—the figure of the Judge. As Arendt acknowledges, the “whole terminology of Kant’s philosophy is shot through with legal metaphors: it is the Tribunal or Reason before which the occurrences of the world appear.” It is as an impartial judge in a tribunal, not as an individual who engages or empathizes with the specific circumstances of others, that one achieves a “general standpoint.” In one’s position as a judge, one gives up not only one’s own “factual existence,” but also factual existence as such. The judge “lays down his verdict” not with the multiplicity of human life in mind, but rather with the impartiality that comes from giving up “the dokei moi, the it-seems-to-me, and the desire to seem to others; we have given up the doxa, which is both opinion and fame.” The judge is not impartial because he has seen all the partial perspectives of the world, but because he is importantly isolated from any of these perspectives.
But despite this language that seems to move us away from what we usually see as Arendt’s politics, Arendt chose to focus on Kantian judgment, shot through with all of its language of reason and the law, to develop a political understanding of judgment. She did so, I submit, because she saw that the courtroom also demands the openness and publicity that is the hallmark of the political. The impartiality of the judge lies in the simple fact that for the judge and the court, “justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done.” And when it comes to judgment properly understood, the audience is the world itself with all of its multiplicity and plurality, which would overwhelm any individual’s attempt even to begin imaginatively to apprehend, much less visit, the universe of perspectives it contains.
One must simply accept this plurality as a sheer given and a fact, acknowledging that such a world will be the tribunal in which one will be judged. To again borrow words that Arendt used in a different context, judgment is fundamentally about the willingness to “share the earth” with whoever happens to occupy it such that “member[s] of the human race can be expected to want to share the earth” with us as well and be willing to judge us. Judgment does not require that we attempt to know the specific circumstances of these others. In fact, it demands that we do not attempt to understand or know it, and instead to accept and reconcile ourselves to the fact that there are others and, more importantly, that it is in front of an unknown, cosmopolitan world that contains them that we will be seen and judged.
Eichmann lacked judgment because he refused to live in such a world, choosing instead to follow a regime whose policy it was to try to remake this world more familiar and friendly to it. And as difficult or impossible as the project of the Third Reich was to bring to fruition, carrying it out certainly did not require the bravery demanded in politics. The cowardice of the Nazis was evident in the trials of Nuremburg and Jerusalem, as well as in their reaction to resistance even during the war, when the “courage” of the soldiers “melt[ed] like butter in the sun” in the face of Danish resistance. The courage of politics, the courage of judgment demands that one be able to stand in front of and be willing to be judged by world full of strangers whose particular perspectives, standpoints, ideas, or circumstances we could not begin to appreciate.
Louis Pasteur once wrote:
I see everywhere in the world, the inevitable expression of the concept of infinity…. The idea of God is nothing more than one form of the idea of infinity. So long as the mystery of the infinite weighs on the human mind, so long will temples be raised to the cult of the infinite, whether it be called Bramah, Allah, Jehovah, or Jesus…. The Greeks understood the mysterious power of the hidden side of things. They bequethed to us one of the most beautiful words in our language—the word ‘enthusiasm’—En Theos—“A God Within.” The grandeur of human actions is measured by the inspiration from which they spring. Happy is he who hears a god within, and who obeys it. The ideals of art, of science, are lighted by reflection from the infinite.
To bear a god within is not an easy task for us mortals. The god within—even more so than the god without—demands to be obeyed. Having a god inside us—or Socrates like a daimon on our shoulder—is no recipe for happiness.
It can lead to unbearable obligation and even to martyrdom. And, if the god is a muse, it can lead to the travails of the artist.
All great art and all great artists are consumed by the infinite. As Oscar Wilde once wrote, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars.” Those are the artists, the ones who amidst the muck feel part of something higher, something everlasting, the infinite.
The great enemy of the infinite is reason. Reason is calculating. It is rational. It is logical. It insists that everything is knowable and comprehensible. Ends justify means. And means can achieve ends. Reason insists on explanation. The self—the mystery—must be made knowable.
David Brooks in the NY Times today lauds the entry of behavioral psychology into politics and policy. We want to know, he writes, how to get people to vote and how to get congress to cut the deficit. If science can tell us how what to put in their drinking water, how to frame the question, what books to read to them in vitro, or how to rewire their brains to be rational, wouldn’t that make policy all the more reasonable? Wouldn’t that be a good thing?
Science can make us more rational. That of course is the dream of people like Ray Kurzweil as well as the social scientists who insist that humans can be studied like rats. Let’s not object to the fact. We can be studied like rats and that is what university social science departments around the country and the world are doing everyday. This research is eminently useful, as Brooks rightly remarks. If we employ it, we can be made to be more reasonable.
What the rationalization of humanity means, however, is not a question science can answer. Max Weber began the study of the rationalization of mankind when he proposed that the rise of the enlightenment and the age of reason was bringing about an “Entzauberung” or a “de-magicification” of the world. Capitalism emerged at this time for a number of reasons, but one main reason, Weber understood, was that capitalism provided in the profit motive rational and objective criteria for measuring human endeavors. The problem, as Weber so well understood, is that the elevation of reason and rationality brought about the devaluation of all highest values—what Nietzsche would call nihilism. This is because reason, derived from ratio, is always a relation. All values are relative. In such a world, nothing is infinite. Stuck amidst the relations of means and ends, everything is a calculation. All is a game. There is no purpose or meaning to the game of life. As we become more rational, we also become less consumed by the infinite. That is the true danger of the rise of the social sciences and our rationality-consumed culture that insists that all human behavior be made understandable so that it can be made better.
In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt is concerned with the way that the rise of reason and rationality is challenging the quintessence of the human condition—at least as that human condition has been experienced and known since the dawn of humanity. The rise of the social sciences, she writes over and over, are subjecting the mystery and fecundity of human action to the law of large numbers. While each and every human action may in itself be surprising and mysterious, it is nevertheless true that studied in groups and analyzed over time, human action does fall into comprehensible patterns. The more we study and know these patterns, the more we come to think of humans as predictable animals rather than surprising and spontaneous selves. This sociological and psychological reduction of man to animal is very much at the heart of what Arendt is opposing in her book.
Nowhere is the rationality of our times more visible than in the victory of labor and the marginalization of art. We are, all of us, laborers today. That is why the first question we ask others we meet is: What do you do? Our labor defines us. It gives our lives meaning in that it assigns us a use and a value. Even professors, judges, and presidents now say regularly: this is my job. By which we mean, don’t blame us for what we do. Don’t hold me to some higher standard. Don’t expect miracles. It is our job to do this. We do this to make a living.
The one group in society who is at times excepted from this reduction to labor is artists. But even the artist is today is taken less and less seriously. Insofar as artists are enthusiasts consumed with the infinite, they are ignored or viewed as marginal. Art is reduced to playfulness. A hobby. “From the standpoint of “making a living,” every activity unconnected with labor becomes a “hobby.”” And those artists who are taken seriously, whose work is bought and sold on the art market, turn artistic work into the job of making a living.
Art, Arendt writes, is a process of magic. Citing a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, she insists that the magic of art is the artist’s transfiguration of something ordinary—the canvas, clay or word—into something extraordinary, an expression of the infinite in the finite world of things.
Because art figures the infinite, poetry is the “most human” of the arts and the art that “remains closest to the thought that inspired it.” The poem, of all artworks, is the most lasting because its medium is the least subject to decay. It is the closest expression of the infinite we humans possess.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose resonance with Arendt in so many things has been too infrequently remarked, agrees that poetry is the art form in which the individual artist can access and figure in the world a public and common truth. In “The Poet,” Emerson writes:
It is a secret which every intellectual man quickly learns, that beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect, he is capable of a new energy (as of an intellect doubled on itself ), by abandonment to the nature of things; that, beside his privacy of power as an individual man, there is a great public power on which he can draw by unlocking, at all risks, his human doors and suffering the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through him: then he is caught up into the life of the universe; his speech is thunder; his thought is law, and his words are universally intelligible as the plants and animals. The poet knows that he speaks adequately, then, only when he speaks somewhat wildly, or, “with the flower of the mind”; not with the intellect used as an organ but with the intellect released from all service…inebriated by nectar. As the traveler who has lost his way throws his reins on his horse’s neck and trusts to the instinct of the animal to find his road, so must we do with the divine animal who carries us through this world. For if in any manner we can stimulate this instinct, new passages are opened for us into nature, the mind flows into and through things hardest and highest, and the metamorphosis is possible. This is the reason why bards love wine, mead, narcotics, coffee, tea, opium, the fumes of sandalwood and tobacco, or whatever other species of animal exhilaration. All men avail themselves of such means as they can to add this extraordinary power to their normal powers, and to this end they prize conversation, music, pictures, sculpture, dancing, theaters, traveling, wars, mobs, fires, gaming, politics, or love, or science, or animal intoxication, which are several coarser or finer quasi-mechanical substitutes for the true nectar, which is the ravishment of the intellect by coming nearer to the fact.
I take this quotation from Emerson’s “The Poet” from an exceptional recent essay by Sven Birkirts. The essay appears in the latest edition of Lapham’s Quarterly, an entire issue focusing on the merits and need for inebriation.
As Birkirts writes:
For Emerson, the intoxication is not escape but access, a means of getting closer to “the fact,” which might, with heartfelt imprecision, be called life itself. What he means by “public power,” I think, is something like what Carl Jung and others later meant by the phrase collective unconscious, the emphasis falling on the unconscious, that posited reservoir of our shared archetypes and primordial associations—that which reason by itself cannot fathom, for it is, in essence, antithetical to reason.
Birkirt’s reflects not only on the need for inebriation in the pursuit of artistic infinity, but also on the decreasing potency of intoxicants today. For him, the rise of the mass market in art, the globalization of experience, the accessibility of all information all have made the world smaller, knowable, and accountable. What is lost in such access is precisely the portal to the infinite.
Artistically and in almost every other way ours has become a culture of proliferation. Information, perspectives, as well as the hypercharged clips and images of our global experience are within the radius of the keystroke. Nothing is unspoken, nothing is unaccounted. Every taste is given a niche and every niche is catered to. Here, one might argue, is more material than ever; here are opportunities for even greater acts of synthesis. But I am skeptical. Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” The temptation is to invert the phrases and ascribe causality: where everything is permitted, nothing is true. Where nothing is true, where is the Emersonian fact to be found? This bears directly on the artist’s task. The idea that writers can keep producing grandly synthesizing or totalizing work—that has the ring of truth, of mattering—is debatable.
Birkirt’s essay may not be the intoxicant of your choice this weekend, but it should be. It is your weekend read. And you might check out the surprising selection at the bar at Lapham’s Quarterly as well.
And for those with time to spare: Arthur Koestler, from whom I first learned of the Louis Pasteur quote at the top of this essay, was consumed with the connection between intoxication and the infinite. I have discussed Koestler’s pursuit of the infinite at length. You can read that discussion here.
A few weeks ago I ran into Nikita Nelin, a former student who has had success as a fiction writer and recently as a professor. He told me he was off on an adventure to attend the Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert. His intention was to write about the experience and see what he thought of it. We decided he would send back reports of his immediate reflections upon the experience that we would publish here on the Hannah Arendt Center blog. Below is his first report. His effort is to report on what is happening in a thoughtful way rather than to offer judgments about the events he is describing. This may disappoint those who would seek to find praise or disdain, but spectatorial distance offers an opportunity for thinking outside the confines of liberal and conservative political discourse.
Ten hours after arriving I woke up in the middle of the night completely disoriented, in a lightless box, trying to tear my way out. I brought down a curtain rod and my fingers tore at a thin wooden wall. Everything was rocking in my movements.
There was a slight strip of illumination, not from anything natural but from one of the forty feet tall construction lights outside, which seeped into my trailer as I began, slowly, to orient myself.
That’s how I arrive. Whether it is a New York apartment, a Bayou shotgun house, a tent in upstate New York, or a dusty trailer in the Nevada desert, I first, half unconscious, have to try to tear my way out before I can understand the new geography of home. You may find this odd but in a sense we all do this. We grapple, be it by will, intellect, or some approximation with the divine, to define the dimensions of here, of home.
Right now I live in the Nevada desert, a little over three hours drive east of Reno. The land is a dry sponge, unyielding. I am sunburned -- five applications of sunscreen a day is not enough when there is no cover -- and everything I own is caked in “playa dust.” It’s like bathing in a milk substance but without any moisture to it. It gets into everything. Even my insides feel compromised by it. There is construction outside. Someone is barking out orders.
Why am I here? Why would someone put themselves through this? I’ve been now asking this for five days.
I came out here to learn about Burning Man, an annual event/festival/artistic orgy/creative epicenter (call it what you will, though believe me when I say that there is no way to define it except through immersion into it). It began in 1986 on Baker Beach in California. The first year 20 people attended and a stick figure of a man was burned at its finale. Today it takes place in the desert and by August 27th, over 60,000 people will descend on this previously empty desert city.
It is a city. For one week it becomes the 6th largest city in Nevada. I am here for the building of it. It grows out of the sponge, from nothing, and then is burned, its remains scrubbed. There will be no sign of its presence. Just the over 60,000 stories.
Like any community it functions under a set of principles: “Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-reliance, Radical Self-expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, Immediacy.” Before you judge this as naive, I ask that you try one exercise. Consider each of those principles individually. Weighed for the multiplicity of their meanings. For a moment lets leave the pressures of immediacy and criticisms behind and deal strictly with definitions. What is the potential of each of these words? Of each of these principles? In definition alone, not yet masked by dissolution and skepticism, how wide can each word, each principle, resonate?
In part due to the commitment of its designers, and participants, and in part arising from the challenge of the inhospitable environment of the desert, these principles are followed as if commandments by almost everyone here.
It is truly a community, entirely dependent on the effort and strength of one another for its construction, survival, and burn.
This is a creative center. First come the walls, the gate, the streets, the gigantic arts projects (a forty foot man with his sixty foot base, a temple, and this year a mock replica of Wall Street—then the smaller projects, more people, performers, fire breathers, Mad Max cars, cast-iron unicorns and dragons, and twisted designs from the mind of Dante). If it can be invented, someone will find a way to make it here. Fire is the central element of creativity; it mends, fuses, inspires and destroys. “Every act of creation is preceded by an act of destruction” is the famous statement by Picasso; it is a cycle that, depending on your perspective, can go from destruction to creation.
This a place of metaphor, of community, of story, of extreme physical effort. It is a place of definition.
When I first told people what I wanted to do the response was supportive, but tempered. Many consider Burning Man to be a hedonistic party, a drug-fest, an indulgence, a carnival of freaks. And, this too is here. But that is only a small part of what one finds and it is the act of “Participation” that can allow one to find what they need here. Granted, there is such a thing as seeking without a purpose, a way to become lost in the act of fantasy, a dark abyss. There is a quote by Francisco de Goya that I keep turning around in my mind: “Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters.” But, the act of creation begins with fantasy. Purpose (reason) drives it. It manifests an idea into the tangible. Gives form to the elusive. That’s what writing does. That’s what society does -- we manifest -- be it true though, that so often, today, we no longer know the reason.
Reason, can be seen in two aspects. It is the reason for, and the reasoning of. It can be the answer to why, and to the how. To understand where we are, we have to understand both definitions of reason. Otherwise we lose track of our path, our history (personal, cultural, political, economic, spiritual). To be divorced from reason is a type of vertigo. It is waking up in the dark, trying to dig your way out, not knowing where you are, how you got here, why you came -- it is an endless digging, a struggle without reason -- just an endless, exhausting, flailing effort, seemingly without end. A nightmare without light. Lucid, but without consciousness. Dehumanizing.
Our society has moved further and further away from the ability to converse, to exchange stories, to trust, to know where we have come from; from what principles, out of what needs were we constructed: why and how did we come together, and why are we so apart? How do we define community today? How do we define its dimensions? Its values and principles? Its needs?
I have come here to experience the entirety of this event, from its building, to the celebration, to the breakdown—and to report on it. I believe that our society is at a crucial point where we find ourselves divorced from the reasons. Not sure of how we got here -- broke, isolated, struggling to keep pace but uncertain with what, and why.
Hannah Arendt foresaw, perhaps sooner and with greater clarity than any other, the break with tradition that the 20th century brought. This need to live without traditions, without the pillars of the past, she called “living without banisters.” And she knew that the only answer to such an abandoned condition was action and the stories that action generates. It is in stories, Arendt tells us, that we create the common world in which we live together.
Community, story telling, creativity, intellectual rigor, these are all present here if one seeks them. Though many consider this to be a ‘hippy event,’ Burning Man attracts a wide cut of society. Intellectuals, Silicon Valley executives, accomplished artists and performers. All are represented here, and all seek to participate, to give without asking in return. All want to be part of a community—each a single piece of the definition.
This is my first time here. And, this is my first blog post on the event. Here is simply an introduction to two conversations, between Burning Man and myself, and you and I.
I am a writer and teacher. The few skills I bring to this are the ability to observe, and report—and thus participate. In the Gonzo tradition of reporting I do not believe in an entirely ‘objective’ format. And so, I am here. I have given you my reasons.
I go outside and here is what I see: desert and dust, and yet each day new clusters of camps and lights and zones appear. The two mile wide city is designed like a clock. At it’s center is the figure of the Man—the idea. At twelve o’clock is the Temple—it’s spiritual center. And I am at ten o’clock, with the Burn Wall Street Project. It is one of the most ambitious Burning Man projects to date. In the span of ten days, seventy volunteers will build five buildings that represent some of the key players from Wall Street, a replica of a bull included and all. During the event the pieces will be open to everyone. Climb on it, hit it, staple your foreclosure notice onto the walls. Scream at it! And then it will all burn. Otto Von Danger (his Burning Man name), a gulf war veteran and a veteran of "Burning Man Builds," is the artist behind this project. He believes our community has been slowly tearing apart, and this tearing has been helped along by a Machiavellian, dividing, create-the-enemy-among-the-disenfranchised style of politics and economics. He believes people are angry, and has created a small yet ambitious outlet for this anger.
I do not yet know what I feel about this project. There are moments when I feel it oversimplifies the issues of political division and our financial woes. And yet I strongly agree with the fact that the various outraged communities in our society can in fact share a dialogue. Everyone, be it the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street, is reacting to the sense of being compressed in the dark. Ultimately they all care about one simple principle—community. And this is the principle that today we find most ill defined. So fractured, its reigns so stolen away from us, that we are almost, almost ready to protest—only waiting for a common reason. I do not yet know how I feel about Burn Wall Street. It has the potential of imposing a reason simply through the forceful creation of a common enemy. The real issue, the fracturing of our society, is far more complicated. And yet this project, as does so much else that goes on this two-mile strip of the Nevada desert, has the potential to create dialogue. And, ultimately, is this not a central tenet of art? To give us new entry points, new perspectives to discuss, understand, engage, and receive our world.
I am looking for a definition to my world, as we all are. Right now I am looking here. I’ll tell what I find.
Oh yeah, before I forget. That quote, the one about reason, or fantasy, or monsters -- whatever be your current inclination—here is the rest of it; “Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters. United with it, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels.”
Originally born in the Soviet Union, Nikita Nelin immigrated into the U.S in 1990. He holds an MFA from Brooklyn College, and has been published in Tabled Magazine, Southword Journal, Electric Literature blog, and Defunct Magazine. Along with having been shortlisted in the Faulkner-Wisdom competition and the Sozopol fiction contest, he is the winner of the 2010 Sean O’Faolain prize for short fiction, and the 2011 Summer Literary Seminars prize for non-fiction. Currently he is in the Nevada desert writing about Burning Man.
One of my favorite images in Arendt's writings comes not from Arendt herself, but her citation of the poem "Magic" by Rainer Maria Rilke. Rilke's poem reads (in an approximate translation):
From indescribable transformation originate
Amazing shapes. Feel! Trust!
We suffer often: To ashes turn our flames;
Yet art can set on fire the dust.
Magic is here. In the realm of enchantment
The ordinary word appears elevated
But sounds as real as if the dove called
To seek its invisible mate.
Arendt cites Rilke's poem in the final section of the chapter of the Human Condition on Work. It is part of her discussion of art and her claim that "the immediate source of the art work is the human capacity for thought."
Art, Arendt writes, has its foundation in thinking. Works of art, she writes, are "thought things." They are thingifications of thoughts, or to use a word that is so often abused, they are reifications of thoughts—The making of thoughts into things. It is this process of transformation and transfiguration that Rilke captures in "Magic": To "set fire to the dust" and bring beauty and truth to the real world. That is what art does.
My mind turned to Rilke's poem as I watched the great South African artist William Kentridge deliver the first of his 2012 Norton Lectures at Harvard University.
Kentridge spoke in praise of shadows, and situated his talk within a reading of Plato's allegory of the Cave in Book VII of the Republic. The story of the cave begins with prisoners shackled and unmovable who see shadows along a wall projected by a fire. First one sets himself free and climbs out into the light of the sun and, slowly, painfully, comes to recognize in the light of the sun that the shadows were indeed shadows, untrue. The parable illustrates the error of sensible things and is one part of Plato's illustration of his theory of ideas. The ideas, supersensible truths of reason and logic, do not deceive and change like the shadowy things of the world. Only what lasts eternally is true; all that is sensible and fleeting is false.
Kentridge tells the story of Plato's cave to explain why he sees art, and especially his art, in opposition to the Platonic idea of truth. If Plato celebrates the primacy of the eternally true over the shadows, Kentridge argues that art elevates the image above the truth. For this reason, at least in part, Kentridge's art works with shadows. Shadow figures and shadow puppets.
Kentridge lauds shadows. In the very limitations of the shadows, in the gaps, in the gaps that inspire in us leaps to complete an image, that is where we think and learn. The leanness of the illusion pushes us to complete the recognition. It is in shadows that we find our agency in apprehending the world.
Shadow art is, for Kentridge, political. Plato's politics depends on a truth known and understood by the few and then imposed on the many. In this sense philosophy is, in Arendt's words, opposed to politics, and the philosopher either must seek merely to be left alone by the people (which is difficult because philosophers are dangerous), or they will always seek to dominate and tyrannize the polity with their reason. Arendt's lifelong battle is to free politics from the certainty of rational and philosophical truth, to open us to a politics of opinion and openness.
Knowledge is power and there is, in Kentridge's words, a relation between knowledge and violence. Kentridge embraces shadows and silhouettes to oppose the philosophical and Platonic tyranny of reason. He writes elsewhere:
I am interested in a political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain ending - an art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check, and nihilism at bay.
Optimism must be kept in check since any certainty about the destination can underwrite the need for violence to bring others to that end. For Kentridge, "There is no destination. all destinations, all bright lights, arouse our mistrust."
Kentridge offers us an image of the artist. He speaks from the studio and from his notebook to emphasize the source of artistic truth in the thought image rather than the logical word. An artist thinks. He sees. He makes art. He makes things that reflect not truth and certainty but gaps, misgivings, and questions. Kentridge gives reality to the questionability of the world in his shadow art. In this way his art reminds us of the magic of Rilke's fire that transfigures dust into flame.
Few modern artists work magic like William Kentridge. His Norton Lectures are a great introduction to his art and the thinking behind his art. If you are not graduating this weekend, take the time to hear and look at what Kentridge says and makes.
You can view Kentridge's First Norton Lecture here. Consider it your visual weekend read.
Martin Heidegger's Letter on Humanism is one of the great works of the 20th century. It was written in 1946 after his experience of the war and being stripped of teaching duties as Rectorship of Freiburg University as well as losing his membership in the Nazi party. The Letter is an attempt to re-cast his past work on a current and future path, seeking to save humanity from inhumanity.
The Letter remains controversial for many reasons, not least because Heidegger refuses to see Nazism as the name for the inhumanity threatening our world. Instead, he attributes the dehumanization of mankind, including Nazism, to a general homelessness that has its roots in what he calls the age of Technik.
I am just finishing up a semester-long seminar on Heidegger's Letter on Humanism, a course I try to teach every other year. I always end the course by reading the one text on Heidegger's Letter that I find both intelligent and provocative.
In Rules for the Human Zoo: A Response to the Letter on Humanism, Peter Sloterdijk sets Heidegger's text in the context of humanism. While this may seem obvious, it is not. Heidegger goes through a history of humanism in two short pages of his text, and never addresses it again. But for Sloterdijk, the text is to be read as a last effort to save a dying humanist tradition.
The core of the humanist tradition, in Sloterdijk's provocative telling, is the book as love letter. Books, he writes, citing the poet Jean Paul, "are thick letters to friends." Humanism, as love letters, are messages sent out in printed form looking for friends. A humanist writes a book to move others to love what he himself loves. Humanism is thus a "communitarian fantasy" in which "participation through reading the canon reveals a common love of inspiring messages."
The power of humanist writing is the power to communicate love of humanity to others whom one does not know. It is to awake in others the love for being human, for living as human, in the way and manner of a human being. And for most of Western humanism, the essence of that human being that inspires such love and devotion has been the human capacity to think, to reason, and to create. It is because humans can create beautiful works of art, found great empires, and devote themselves to truth and to God that humans are different from animals and worthy of our love.
Humanists must, Sloterdijk knows, distinguish themselves from animals. Thus:
Anyone who is asking today about the future of humanity and about the methods of humanization wants to know if there is any hope of mastering the contemporary tendency towards the bestialization of humanity.
Sloterdijk sees humanism as the effort to tame the human beast—the beast in the human. It is the desire to influence for the good the constant tension in human beings between beastialization and humanization.
It is because humanism is always one side of a struggle against a perceived threat of the bestialization of human beings that humanists must, of necessity, stand apart not only from animals, but also from mass culture. Sloterdijk presents this point in the context of Roman humanism with clarity:
Ancient humanism can be understood only when it is grasped as one opponent in a media contest: that is, as the resistance of the books against the amphitheater, and the opposition of the humanizing, patient-making, sensitizing philosophical reading against the dehumanizing, impatient, unrestrained, sensation-mongering and excitement-mongering of the stadium. What the educated Romans called humanitas would have been unthinkable without the need to abstain from the mass culture of the theaters of cruelty.
From these premises, Sloterdijk makes the surprising claim that humanism, "the question of how a person can become a true or real human being becomes unavoidably a media question." The great event of our time, in Sloterdijk's telling, and that which ends the humanist endeavor, is the telecommunications revolution. The end of the book, the loss of the medium of high culture that will distinguish itself from the masses and thus the massification and bestializaiton of man is, he writes, a death knell for the very idea of a humanity that is to be held separate from and higher than animals.
Hannah Arendt fought her life against efforts of human rights activists to reduce man to a living being and against the dreams of social scientists to make of man a predictable member of a mass.
Her fight was, on her own terms, the fight to preserve an idea of the human distinct from animals that also powers Heidegger's exploration of humanity in the Letter on Humanism. Sloterdijk's account of Heidegger's effort, and his judgment of its unavoidable failure, is well worth your time this weekend. It is your weekend read.
One of the students in my Heidegger seminar sent around this discussion of Angst via Kierkegaard in Saturday's New York Times. The key is the connection between Angst and freedom.
Here is how Gordon Marino frames it:
Many philosophers treat emotions as though they were merely an impediment to reason, but for Kierkegaard there is a cognitive component to angst. It is in our anxiety that we come to understand feelingly that we are free, that the possibilities are endless, we can do what we want — jump off the cliff or, in my case, perhaps one day go into the class I teach and, like Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, say absolutely nothing.
Writing in different key, Kierkegaard registered this journal entry: “Deep within every human being there still lives the anxiety over the possibility of being alone in the world, forgotten by God, overlooked among the millions and millions in this enormous household. A person keeps this anxiety at a distance by looking at the many round about who are related to him as kin and friends, but the anxiety is still there.”
To locate freedom from Angst is very different from Arendt's finding of freedom in our natality, our capacity to begin. That we are beginners. And yet, in a world increasingly organized by social science, statistical norms, and bell curves, freedom does require a turn away from our standardized approach to the world. That is where Angst can be useful, insofar as angst singularizes us and separates us from convention.