Over the course of the past two decades, the political idiom of liberalism has substantially expanded its global reach and dominance. In the vast majority of the world’s existing states, principles of individual rights and collective recognition have been or are being enshrined in constitutions and other legal codes, and actors in the public sphere and the realm of civil society are adopting liberal discourse in order to press their claims for equality and freedom. The recent Arab Spring is only one of the most recent instantiations of this larger trend.
Yet even as we acknowledge liberalism’s dominance, we should not overlook those settings where it still (and ironically) carries a counter-hegemonic charge. One such locale is the Republic of Turkey, ostensibly one of the most stable and democratic states in the wider Middle East. Here a variety of Islamic organizations have relied on liberal imaginings in their efforts to challenge the state’s anti-clerical model of secularism.
This Islamic recourse to liberalism is the central concern of Jeremy Walton’s intriguing article in the most recent American Ethnologist, “Confessional Pluralism and the Civil Society Effect.” Walton pays particular attention to the work of four Islamic NGOs in Istanbul and Ankara, all of which have adopted the language of confessional pluralism in their efforts to obtain recognition from the state and secure their inclusion in Turkish public life.[i] These organizations define “religion” as a nonpolitical, voluntary mode of social and ethical life that legitimately, indeed necessarily, takes different forms. They also insist that these varied modes of life deserve acknowledgement and protection on the basis of “the ostensibly universal values of liberty and equality.”
When viewed from the perspective of Turkey’s party politics, these NGOs make strange bedfellows. Three of the organizations analyzed by Walton represent Alevism, a syncretic minority tradition that can be broadly defined by its emphasis on Twelver Shi’a history and belief, its incorporation of Central Asian mystical and shamanistic practices, and its distinctive ritual performances. Alevis have typically supported the Republican People’s Party (CHP, the party established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk) because its staunch secularism has appeared to offer a bulwark against Sunni majoritarianism and discrimination. The fourth organization, meanwhile, is a Sunni association inspired by the contemporary Turkish theologian Fethullah Gülen and his project of universal religious dialogue. It also epitomizes the recent emergence of the Sunni Muslim bourgeoisie, the constituency that has played a pivotal role in the ascendance of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Thanks to its overwhelming success in local and national elections over the past decade, the AKP has effectively supplanted the CHP as Turkey’s preeminent political party.
Yet as Walton rightly notes, these NGOs’ seemingly obvious political differences belie their common turn to the liberal rhetoric of pluralism and collective recognition. All of them desire public acknowledgement of their own (and others’) communities and identities, and all thereby challenge the presumption of ethnolinguistic and religious homogeneity that has prevailed in Turkish governmental discourse since the founding of the Republic in 1923. In addition, all of these organizations question the state’s long-standing effort not only to define and regulate the legitimate practice of religion (especially Sunni Islam), but also to limit religious expression to the private sphere. These rather paradoxical governmental imperatives, which remained largely unchallenged in Turkey until the 1990s, can be traced to the laicist model of secularism that the Republic adopted from the French Jacobin tradition.
In subtle or dramatic ways, all of these NGOs seek to divert Turkish secularism from its previous path. One of the Alevi organizations, for example, seeks a mode of pluralism that would grant to Alevis the same privileges—state funding for houses of worship, inclusion in the mandatory religion classes taught in public schools—that the state has historically allocated to Sunni Islam. Another Alevi association, by contrast, favors an “American-style” secularism that would limit or even prohibit state intervention in religious affairs. The Sunni organization, meanwhile, seeks to promote tolerance and public dialogue across confessional boundaries in a manner that departs markedly from the state’s efforts to privatize religious expression. Significantly, the idiom of liberalism is flexible enough to accommodate these varied and not always compatible projects.
At the same time, the liberal language of confessional pluralism creates tensions and dilemmas for the very organizations that seek to mobilize it. Above all, claims for collective recognition presume coherent and “authentic” (i.e., long-standing, non- or pre-political) religious identities as the necessary ground for communal acknowledgement and equal protection. As Walton convincingly relates, it is precisely such coherence and authenticity that prove elusive for many Islamic NGOs. Alevi associations in particular are defined by intense arguments over the very definition of Alevi identity. Does Alevism constitute a distinct and more or less uniform tradition of its own? What precisely is its relationship with Islam? Does Alevism even constitute a “religion” as the concept is commonly understood, or is it rather a body of folklore, a philosophical and political orientation, or an ethnicity? Alevi associations disagree sharply on the answers to these questions, even as they share a common discursive logic.
Walton is somewhat less persuasive, however, when he turns to Islamic NGOs’ relationship to the state and state governance. In his reading, these associations engage in a form of “nongovernmental politics” that does not aspire to occupy the position of a governing agency. In fact, they contribute to what Walton, drawing on the work of Timothy Mitchell, calls “the civil society effect”: the romantic notion that civil society constitutes “a self-evident domain of freedom and authenticity” wholly autonomous from the state. I follow Walton’s reasoning when he notes that the NGOs he analyzes have displayed an increasing skepticism toward Turkey’s dominant model of secularism and its major political parties, including the CHP and the AKP. I believe he oversteps, however, when he suggests that many if not all of these associations dismiss political society and the state. To my mind, the very language of liberalism adopted by these NGOs indicates that they care a great deal about the state and its policies. Very much in the spirit of Arendt’s celebrated pronouncements in The Origins of Totalitarianism, they grasp that rights and recognition, if they are to have real substance, must be backed and warranted by the state’s governmental power.
This wrong turn notwithstanding, Walton’s argument makes for stimulating reading. Perhaps above all, it offers a sharp challenge to the still common presumption that Islam and modern politics are hermetically separate, fundamentally irreconcilable domains. Instead, as Walton subtly demonstrates, they “authorize, animate, challenge, and contextualize each other in contextually specific ways.”
[i] For the sake of easy reading, I do not dwell on the NGOs by name, but the Alevi associations include the Cem Foundation, the Hacı Bektaş Veli Anatolian Cultural Foundation, and the Ehl-i Beyt Foundation. The Sunni association aligned with Gülen is the Journalists and Writers Foundation.
For two years I taught literature, reading and writing at a public university in one of New York City’s outer Boroughs. Of course having come out of a liberal arts “thinking” institution what I really thought (maybe hoped) I was teaching was new perspectives. Ironically, the challenge that most struck me was not administrative, nor class size or terrible grammar and endless hours of grading, the most pressing obstacle lay in creating a case for the value of “thinking.”
I state “case” because I regularly felt like my passions and beliefs, as well as my liberal arts education went on daily trial. I had originally come from a hard-scrabble immigrant reality, but my perception of reality had been altered by my education experience, and as an educator I felt the need to authenticate my progressive (core text) education with my students.
I was regularly reminded that the immediate world of the “average” student (citizen) with all its pressing, “real” concerns does not immediately open itself to “thought” in the liberal arts sense. We are a specialization, automation, struggling and hyper competitive society. The “learning time” of a student citizen is spent in the acquisition of “marketable,” and differentiating skills, while their “free time” is the opportunity to decompress from, or completely escape the pressures of competitive skill acquisition. The whole cycle is guided by an air of anxiety fostered in our national eduction philosophy, as well as the troubled economy and scattered society at large. I don’t think one can teach the humanities without listening to their students, and listening to the students calls for a deep inventory on the value of “thought” in the humanities sense, and then ultimately in how to most truthfully communicate this value to the students.
I need to add here that my students were quite smart and insightful. This made it even greater of a challenge. Their intelligence was one of realism. I needed to both acknowledge and sway their perspective, as well as my own.
Each semester I began with a close-reading of David Foster Wallace's commencement speech at Kenyon College, “What is Water.” He begins his speech with the parable of two fish swimming by an older fish which as it swims by asks, How is the Water?” The little ones swim on and only later ask each other, “What is water?” Didactic parable, cliche -- yes -- but Wallace goes on to deconstruct the artifice of commencement speeches, parables, and cliches, and then rebuilds them. Having so skillfully deconstructed them he has invited his listers into the form making, and as he communicates the truth beneath what had earlier seemed lofty or cliche, the listers follow him towards meaning making. Ultimately Wallace states that education is “less about teaching you how to think, and more about teaching you of the choice in what to think about.” To have agency is to be a meaning maker. And as more and more cultural institutions artfully vie for the citizens devotion and loyalty -- politics, religion, but even more so, corporate houses and pop culture designs, in the ever growing noise of institutional marketing the call to choose seems ever more muted.
The choice, for so many students today, is simply in how to most skillfully compartmentalize themselves and their lives in the face of the anxieties of their immediate world. The choice for many young teachers, facing their own set of related anxieties, is in how far are they willing step away from the ideal of learning-living-teaching integration model -- so easy is it today as an educator to simply become disenchanted, frustrated and aloof. Sometimes, “thinking” is the process of choosing what to keep and what to give away.
Wallace's insightful, no b.s, humorous and sincere tone resonated with my students, that is of course until they found out that Wallace killed himself. Then, that’s what everyone wanted to focus on. I can not blame them. There is a ‘text’ to ‘personal’ mystery, a ‘content’ to ‘context’ disjunction that opens itself at such a revelation, a mystery that the “thinking” mind wants to explore. The modern “thinking” mind draws little separation between the lofty and the sublime, the public and the personal. Such is a byproduct of a generation raised on reality television and celebrity stories. I, in all sincerity cannot judge this. My generation, the X’s who came of age on the cusp of the Millennials, were culturally educated by MTV, The Real World and Road Rules, and thus we crave hip, colorful, appropriately gentrified spaces to occupy -- think of artist collectives, or Facebook and Google working environments (bean bags, chill and chic prescription sunglasses, lounge happy hour with juice bars, untraditional working hours, colorful earth tones). I digress, I meant to make some observation of “thinking.”
I was excited to teach what excited me: I began with Wallace, then Kafka, O’Connor (Flannery or Frank), Platonov, Carver, Babel, Achebe Kundera, Elliot, etc... It is, essentially, the seven sisters freshmen reading list, a popular catalogue of classic stories peppered with some international obscurity. It is the “cool” thing in liberal arts. But, over and over my students came to me complaining that they could not find this relevant to their lives. After such reports I would tweak my lesson plans to give a greater introduction to the works, going deeper into the philosophical tenets of the stories, and into the universal reward of being able to utilize the tools of the thinking, writing mind. Induct, deduct, compare, contrast, relate, “give it greater shape,” I would say. “Breath life into it.”
To have the skills to decipher plot, to record the echo of a narrative, to infer characterization from setting, to understand the complex structure of a character, to be invited to participate in the co-creation of a narrative which gently guides you through action but leaves the moral implications up to the reader. These are “indispensable,” I would advise my students. “Indispensable for human agency.” Some would slowly gravitate to my vision, as I prodded further and further into their motivations for being in school, career, and other ‘relevant’ choice. Yet, they often felt only like visitors in my library, preparing to check out and return to the “default” education thinking mode as soon as the quarter, mid, or end semester exam periods began. The pressures of what they call “the real world” are much stronger then the ghosts of books and introspective thought -- vague, powerless, intangible.
“The real world:” Here I am reminded of the scene from the Matrix when Morpheus unveils to Neo “the desert of the real.” A barren waste land of human energy as only a power source nourished for consumption. The Matrix, I will add here, is based on a work by Jean Baudrillard, a french philosopher who warns of a modern society as a place existing in consumption and entertainment, devoid of meaning making -- the urge towards agency, in hibernation; the map towards meaning, defunct. In describing this new world he coined the phrase “the desert of the real.” Again, I fall into tangental thought.
I needed to find a way to invite, seduce, capture my students. I tried using myself as a conduit.
I pride myself on the fact that I am an immigrant, a former “at risk” student, that my tattoos all have mythological meaning and thought behind them, that I am a high-school drop out with credentials to my name, a top tier education, a masters degree, etc... I felt like these could help me bridge for my students the platforms of reality-setting discourse and humanistic thought. I had, and still do, believed that real “thinking” is indispensable in being human, in being free, and in the ability to have fun and play with the world.
Again, my students would, at times, meet me in the middle space I wanted to create, though rarely did this space become living for them, instead they lay their heads to the sound of another’s palpitation and breath, and then moved on. Maybe I planted a seed, I like to think. But then, maybe, they were bringing me somewhere as well.
They could not recklessly follow me, or I them. It was an issue of pragmatic bonds. For a moment, my class, or an individual student I was reading with would delve into the power of words with me and the ending of Andrei Platonov’s “Potudon River” would finally break through the events of the page: “Not every grief can be comforted; there is a grief that ends only after the heart has been worn away in long oblivion, or in distraction amidst life’s everyday concerns.” And my students would draw new understanding of the passage, enter it through a word or phrase that could unlock that middle space between their worlds and the world of literature, philosophy, metaphor. “Grief,” “long oblivion,” life’s everyday concerns,” all the sudden my students would give these new meaning, now only slightly guided by the story and letting their lives find a grip to the reigns. They would find new connections, and again they would return to the “real” world.
More and more I struggled to make thinking relevant. “Will this help me get a better job?” I was asked.
Thinking about it I had to encounter my own struggles with this question. I know the answers. I know the programed liberal arts answer, and the “real” answer. I know that the liberal arts answer exposes the “real” as something at best lacking, at its worst empty. I also know that the real, is real; it happens in real time, removed from the concerns of literature, poetry, and philosophy which concern themselves with the work of mans eternity.
“Unlikely,” I would answer. For gods sake, though I was teaching all these things I cared so deeply about, I also worked nights as a bartender to satisfy the demands of the real. I had to produce something consumable and all of my learning and thoughts on thinking are not that.
Here I acknowledge that this answer is not entirely true. We can find jobs which call for liberal arts skills, but these are few and far between and rarely afford a comfortable standard of living. We may also posit the argument that liberal arts skills will contribute to ones ability to perform better and have a greater understanding of ones job, but this argument does not lend itself to substantial evidence, no matter how much I may actually believe it. This was the litmus test of my “thinking,” and it only survives in embracing the privacies of my world, that I chose my private world despite and above the “real.”
“Unlikely.” And where does that leave us?
Ultimately, all I have as a conscious being is the ability to tell stories, to choose and create my narrative from the scattered world I am provided. Ultimately, after deconstructing both the “real” and the “lofty” I could only encourage my students to choose their own themes. To the question of “what is water?” I could only answer, “the desert.”
Oddly enough, and as “unlikely” as it may seem, when I answered with honesty, to them as well as myself, they followed. -- we could talk.
One of the great documents of American history is the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, written in 1779 by John Adams.
In Section Two of Chapter Six, Adams offers one of the most eloquent testaments to the political virtues of education. He writes:
Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them; especially the university at Cambridge, public schools, and grammar-schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, and good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments, among the people.
Adams felt deeply the connection between virtue and republican government. Like Montesquieu, whose writings are the foundation on which Adams’ constitutionalism is built, Adams knew that a democratic republic could only survive amidst people of virtue. That is why his Constitution also held that the “happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality.”
For Adams, piety and morality depend upon religion. The Constitution he wrote thus holds that a democratic government must promote the “public worship of God and the public instructions in piety, religion, and morality.” One of the great questions of our time is whether a democratic community can promote and nourish the virtue necessary for civil government in an irreligious age? Is it possible, in other words, to maintain a citizenry oriented to the common sense and common good of the nation absent the religious bonds and beliefs that have traditionally taught awe and respect for those higher goods beyond the interests of individuals?
Hannah Arendt saw the ferocity of this question with clear eyes. Totalitarianism was, for here, the proof of the political victory of nihilism, the devaluation of the highest values, the proof that we now live in a world in which anything is possible and where human beings no longer could claim to be meaningfully different from ants or bees. Absent the religious grounding for human dignity, and in the wake of the loss of the Kantian faith of the dignity of human reason, what was left, Arendt asked, upon which to build the world of common meaning that would elevate human groups from their bestial impulses to the human pursuit of good and glory?
The question of civic education is paramount today, and especially for those of us charged with educating our youth. We need to ask, as Lee Schulman recently has: “What are the essential elements of moral and civic character for Americans? How can higher education contribute to developing these qualities in sustained and effective ways?” In short, we need to insist that our institutions aim to live up to the task Adams claimed for them: “to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, and good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments, among the people.”
Everywhere we look, higher education is being dismissed as overly costly and irrelevant. In many, many cases, this is wrong and irresponsible. There is a reason that applications continue to increase at the best colleges around the country, and it is not simply because these colleges guarantee economic success. What distinguishes the elite educational institutions in the U.S. is not their ability to prepare students for technical careers. On the contrary, a liberal arts tradition offers useless education. But parents and students understand—explicitly or implicitly—that such useless education is powerfully useful. The great discoveries in physics come from useless basic research that then power satellites and computers. New brands emerge from late night reveries over the human psyche. And those who learn to conduct an orchestra or direct a play will years on have little difficulty managing a company. What students learn may be presently useless; but it builds the character and forms the intellect in ways that will have unintended and unimaginable consequences over lives and generations.
The theoretical justifications for the liberal arts are easy to mouth but difficult to put into practice. Especially today, defenses of higher education ignore the fact that colleges are not doing a great job of preparing students for democratic citizenship. Large lectures produce the mechanical digestion of information. Hyper-specialized seminars forget that our charge is to teach a liberal tradition. The fetishizing of research that no one reads exemplifies the rewarding of personal advancement at the expense of a common project. And, above all, the loss of any meaningful sense of a core curriculum reflects the abandonment of our responsibility to instruct students about making judgments about what is important. At faculties around the country, the desire to teach what one wants is seen as “liberal” and progressive, but it means in practice that students are advised that any knowledge is equally is good as any other knowledge.
To call for collective judgment about what students should learn is not to insist on a return to a Western canon. It is to say that if we as faculties cannot agree on what is important than we abdicate our responsibility as educators, to lead students into a common world as independent and engaged citizens who can, and will, then act to remake and re-imagine that world.
John Adams was one of Hannah Arendt’s favorite thinkers, and he was because he understood the deep connection between virtue and republicanism. Few documents are more worth revisiting today than the 1780 Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It is your weekend read.
Hannah Arendt spoke of having acquired, through her life, a "love of the world." When writing about education she argues that "education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it." And in politics, she insists, we must care for and love the world more than oneself. What then is the world?
The world is related to human making and to the things and artifacts that human beings make. What defines the things of a world is that those things gather individuals together.
In the public realm, a politician is that person who speaks and acts in such a way that those around him come to see those institutions and values that they share and treasure. The common world is the world that emerges when a plurality of people bind themselves to stories, traditions, institutions, rituals, and practices that they share and that they love. Like a table that unites those who sit around it in a common conversation or feast, the common world brings different people together. It stands between them, both joining and separating them.
In the private realm, a world is founded in property, and property has an essential role in the public realm too. For property is what one owns, what is proper to one, and thus defines one over against others in the common world. Property provides the boundaries between people and also serves as the boundary between the commonality of the public realm and the uniqueness of the private realm. It is no accident that original Greek word for law, nemein, also means to distribute and to possess, as well as to dwell. Property, in English, also names the laws of propriety, what is right and given to each.
In both the public and the private realms the world consists of things that endure. Worldly things must not only be common. They must also last. Since we must love the world more than our own lives—since we must be willing to pursue the world as an ideal and sacrifice ourselves to the glory and good of the world we share with others—the world must offer us the promise of permanence and thus immortality.
How are to understand the worldly conditions of permanence and immortality? We might ask: What is a house?
This is one of the many questions at issue in Jonathan Franzen's essay "House For Sale," about his return to his mother's house in Webster Grove, Missouri to sell the house after her death. Here is how Franzen describes his mother's house.
This was the house where, five days a month for ten month, while my brothers and I were going about our coastal lives, she had come home alone from chemotherapy and crawled into bed. The house from which, a year after that, in early June, she had called me in New York and said she was returning to the hospital for more exploratory surgery, and then had broken down in tears and apologized for being such a disappointment to everyone and giving us more bad news. The house where, a week after her surgeon had shaken his head bitterly and sewn her abdomen back up, she'd grilled her most trusted daughter-in-law on the idea of the afterlife, and my sister-in-law had confessed that, in point of sheer logistics, the idea seemed to her pretty far-fetched, and my mother, agreeing with her, had then, as it were, put a check beside the item "Decide about the afterlife" and continued down her to-do list in her usual pragmatic way, addressing other tasks that her decision had rendered more urgent than ever, such as "Invite best friends over one by one and say goodbye to them forever." This was the house from which, on a Saturday morning in July, my brother Bob had driven her to her hairdresser, who was Vietnamese and affordable and who greeted her with the words "Oh, Mrs. Fran, Mrs. Fan, you look terrible," and to which she'd returned, an hour later, to complete her makeover, because she was spending long-hoarded frequent-flyer miles on two first-class tickets, and first-class travel was an occasion for looking her best, which also translated into feeling her best; she came down from her bedroom dressed for first class, said goodbye to her sister, who had traveled from New York to ensure that the house would not be empty when my mother walked away from it—that someone would be left behind—and then went to the airport with my brother and flew to the Pacific Northwest for the rest of her life. Her house, being a house, was enough slower in its dying to be a zone of comfort to my mother, who needed something larger than herself to hold on to but didn't believe in supernatural beings. Her home was the heavy (but not infinitely heavy) and sturdy (but not everlasting) God that she'd loved and served and been sustained by, and my aunt had done a very smart thing by coming when she did.
Franzen offers us a house in many valences.
It was where his mother lived. Where she was sick. Where she thought about dying and God. Where she recovered from surgery and made herself up. Above all, it was his mother's house. Later he writes that the house was "my mother's novel, the concrete story she told about herself." In this house she "pondered the arrangement of paintings on a wall like a writer pondering commas." It was a house in which she showed herself. It was thus an invitation. And "she wanted you to want to stay."
The problem is that Franzen does not want to stay in his mother's house. He grew up in the house, but he resents it. The house his mother made, was filled with "sturdy and well made" furniture that "my brothers and I couldn't make ourselves want." He has fled the house and returns only to remove those photos that for his mother made the house hers, to act like a conqueror, he admits, and repossess the house from his mother. But only to then sell it.
If Mrs. Fanzen's house is her novel and if it was a house in which she both concealed and showed herself, her son's house in NYC is something else entirely. Here is how Franzen describes his own dwelling place:
I now owned a nice apartment on East Eighty-first Street. Walking in the door, after two months in California, I had the sensation of walking into somebody else's apartment. The guy who lived here was apparently a prosperous middle-aged Manhattanite with the sort of life I'd spent my thirties envying from afar, vaguely disdaining, and finally being defeated in my attempts to imagine my way into. How odd that I now had the keys to this guy's apartment.
House for sale is, amongst other themes like the loss of religion, the loss of family, and the loss of the American middle class, about the loss of the American house. It is also therefore, in an Arendtian vein, a story about the loss of our world, the property that both hides and nurtures our souls and separates and distinguishes us from our fellow citizens. Denuded of our habitus and property, we are defenseless against the conformity of society. Without desks and bookshelves passed down over generations that fit us, over and against our choices, into a private world, we are consumers who build a temporary bulwark whether styled by Ikea or the local antique store. Such a house is not meant to last and to be passed down across the generations. It will be used and, eventually, sold or walked away from. With nothing that defines us in a lasting and immortal vein, our lives have no depth or meaning beyond our accomplishments. There is no weight or law that claims us and obligates. We are free, but free, unsure why we are here or what it all means.
I recently encountered Jonathan Franzen's essay within an extraordinary theatrical experience. The play "House For Sale" is based on his essay by the same name.
It has been adapted for the stage by Daniel Fish. I have now been to see it twice. The play is hilarious, brutal, and shattering. It makes Franzen's essay come alive in ways miraculous and uplifting. The final scene itself is worth dropping every plan you have, flying to NYC, and rushing to the Duke Theatre on 42nd St. to catch it. I can't recommend this highly enough. But hurry, it is playing for only a few more performances. You can buy tickets here.
Or, if you simply can't get to NYC, buy The Discomfort Zone, Franzen's book of essays in which "House For Sale" originally appeared. It is your weekend read.
The modern era is the age of the enlightenment, in which man throws off the shackles of religion and tradition and stands on his own feet. And yet it hardly seems as if we are living in the age of freedom. In an age of mass bureaucracy and scientific determinism, we are more wont to hear of helplessness and despair than of self-rule. For Hannah Arendt, freedom, like politics, is endangered by the rise of a social realm of government, scientific rationality, and bureaucratic administration. For Max Weber, the modern age is marked by a Herrenlose Sklaverei, a servitude without a master. The enlightenment, it seems, has taken an unexpected turn. What then is the Destiny of Freedom?
That is the question Professor Philippe Nonet poses in a two-part lecture he gave recently at the Hannah Arendt Center.
We are, Nonet argues, before the necessity of a decision regarding freedom. Until now, freedom has been thought as an attribute of the will. But freedom of the will leads, Nonet argues, to the rise of modern technique that threatens to extinguish the freedom of man. Freedom of the will thus threatens to transform itself into utter servility—the Herrenlose Sklaverei of Max Weber's famous formulation. This is the destiny of freedom insofar as freedom is thought from out of the will.
And yet, there is the possibility of a new opening of freedom, understood as freedom from the will, that Nonet finds in the thinking of Martin Heidegger.
We hope you enjoy these extraordinary lectures. You can watch them here.
Earlier this month I attended a lecture by Matthias Lilienthal, the former artistic director of Hebbel am Ufer (HAU). HAU as it is affectionately known in Berlin is an organization with three performance spaces in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, and is one of the largest, best funded, and risk-taking performance theatre complexes in the world. As one of the most important and innovative avant garde theatre directors, Lilienthal has "created, instigated and nourished many of the most important developments in theatre in recent decades," according to Tom Sellar of Yale who introduced him.
Lilienthal was interviewed after his talk by Gideon Lester, my exciting new colleague who now is director of the theatre program at Bard.
While Lilienthal is an artistic director and has a background in the theatre, he calls himself a "booker" of talent more than an artist or a curator. He is committed to theatre that has social and political impact. His mission is to constantly create friction. Friction means in his telling, "to be polemic against society and be an urban laboratory for the future." That said, Lilienthal insists that he remains an artist, someone who in his words cares most about the aesthetic experience his works bring about.
Lilienthal discussed a number of his past projects to explain what he means by a theatre of friction. One of the most famous and interesting is FOREIGNERS OUT! SCHLINGENSIEF'S CONTAINER, a performance, installation, and movie that he produced in collaboration with the filmmaker Christoph Schlingensief.
FOREIGNERS OUT! premiered in Vienna in the summer of 2000, at a time of great anti-immigrant sentiment in Austria—it was shortly after the xenophobic politician Jörg Haider came to power in Austria. Schlingensief and Lilienthal put two large containers in the public square in front of the Viennese Opera house and filled them with 15 asylum seekers. Above the asylum seekers, the artists hung a sign that read: "Foreigners Out." They then gave the Austrian population the opportunity to vote which foreigner to expel from the country. Over 10,000 Austrians voted every day and the first person sent home was a Nigerian woman.
Lilienthal speaks of a "hysterical longing for reality in today's theatre." Much of his work and the work he "books" mixes reality with theatre. His most famous performance piece, performed all over the world, is "X Wohnungen" or "X Apartments." Artists are asked to create artistic experiences that last up to ten minutes and take place in private apartments or houses. In one example that Lilienthal showed a clip from during his talk, audience members in groups of two are led into apartments of immigrants in Cologne where they are told to kneel in front of doors with keyholes. Through the keyholes they watch a Muslim woman in a burka and hijab strip naked and recline on a couch. They are then interrupted, given tea and told to go out.
Lilienthal explains that "we are playing a private reality, with voyeurism and with exhibitionism." His participatory performance art is "a kind of playful treatment of reality. You are playing with prejudgments against migrants. You are playing with your own voyeurism." The effort is partly to create discussions about Islam, religion, and sexuality. But it above all, in his words, to "to bring together experiences of reality."
Lilienthal was quite critical of the New York art scene, arguing that NYC artists are too commercial and that there is no meaningful artistic forum in the U.S. as there is in Germany. His point is that his HAU stages have, in his telling, become the center of German and European art worlds, presenting all the most interesting and most important artists from around the world under a single umbrella. He lamented the fact that there was no similarly dominant and unifying artistic space in NY or in the U.S. New York, he said provocatively, in the East Village, is a provincial state.
Lester asked Lilienthal what would he have done in NYC had he accepted a job here? He answered, (I am paraphrasing here),"I would have presented art that offers a polemic against society. I would like everyone to know me and then I would have been... perhaps they would kill me after a year."
There is something both noble and anachronistic in Lilienthal's Socratic dream to create art so full of friction and power that he would be killed for it. It is a noble dream because it imagines that art, like philosophy, might still have the power and importance to be seen as a threat to the state or the society. It is anachronistic because art and philosophy have long since lost such centrality.
When I asked Lilienthal about this, his answer was that it was different in Berlin, where the arts are more central and given more public financing and public attention. But I don't accept the argument that the arts are so much more important in Berlin than in NYC. In Berlin, as everywhere today, the intellectual world is just no longer governed by a unified aesthetic or a single dominant medium. There is a mass culture, but the premise of the mass culture is consumerism. Everybody buys what they want and art connoisseurs consume what they like. Most intellectuals and educated people now consume art and news that is hardly distinguishable from middle or low-brow tastes; indeed, the distinction between high and low is now illegitimate. But more important even than that, is the fact that those who do like the best art or best philosophy or best theatre or the best philosophy do not agree on what the "best" is.
One sees this fracturing of culture everywhere. The New York Times was, for a period of time, the arbiter of what mattered in the United States. That is no longer the case and has not been so for decades. It is not the Internet that brought about the factionalization of cultural and political opinion, but, on the contrary, the loss of any single or dominant opinion made the cacophony of voices and platforms on the Internet appealing and powerful.
Similarly, philosophy is broken into analytic and continental schools, and within each there are esoteric sub-schools so specialized that advanced papers and thinking can be read and understood by only dozens of people around the world. The same fission occurs in literature and art as well. Who now feels the need to read all the books profiled in the NY Times Book Review or the New York Review of Books? The selection criteria are ever more arbitrary and there are no longer any acknowledged gateways to culture.
There are, of course, still important artists and writers, but they appeal to ever-more specialized and localized crowds of followers. Lilienthal's dream of a unified artistic world with a single influential cultural world is long gone. And this is true in Berlin as well as in NYC. We will never again have a situation where the chattering classes are all reading the same books and seeing the same shows. The culture is simply too diffuse and differentiated and democratized. There are no measures of quality that are widely accepted. So what we have are simply sub-groups and sub-genres and sub-cultures.
A version of this argument is made by Peter Sloterdijk in his essay Themes from the Human Zoo. Sloterdijk writes:
Because of the formation of mass culture through the media—radio in the First World War and television after 1945, and even more through the contemporary web revolution—the coexistence of people in the present societies has been established on new foundations. These are, as it can uncontrovertibly be shown, clearly post-literary, post-epistolary, and thus post-humanistic. Anyone who thinks the prefix `post' in this formulation is too dramatic can replace it with the adverb `marginal'. Thus our thesis: modern societies can produce their political and cultural synthesis only marginally through literary, letter-writing, humanistic media. Of course, that does not mean that literature has come to an end, but it has split itself off and become a sui generis subculture, and the days of its value as bearer of the national spirit have passed. The social synthesis is no longer—and is no longer seen to be—primarily a matter of books and letters. New means of political-cultural telecommunication have come into prominence, which have restricted the pattern of script-born friendship to a limited number of people. The period when modern humanism was the model for schooling and education has passed, because it is no longer possible to retain the illusion that political and economic structures could be organized on the amiable model of literary societies.
What Sloterdijk rightly sees is that literate means of cultural analysis have lost their once-dominant place in the social and political formation of society. Books and theatre and artworks have been replaced by mass entertainments and diversions, so that literate works are relegated to sub-genres of importance only to their particular fans and followers. Art and philosophy, therefore, become socially and politically marginal.
Instead of seeking to bring back a unified culture of art in which artists matter to the social and political worlds, as Lilienthal dreams, it would be more radical and more honest to admit that we live today in a world in which those who make art, write literature, and think philosophy matter ever less. To think the challenges of doing art and thinking in a world immune to the charms of art and thought is the challenge we are faced with today.
Matthias Lilienthal's talk is fascinating and, as you can see, provocative, which is justification enough to spend one hour this weekend watching him. Thanks to Theatre Magazine for posting the video of the talk. Here is your weekend read.
“The Garden of the Prophet”, Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran’s posthumous book, included the poem “Pity the Nation”, his most famous and that ends with the following stanza: “Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation.”
“Pity the Nation” might well be an eight-stanza history of Lebanon: Fullness of beliefs and emptiness of religion, acclaiming the bully as hero, not raising its voice except in funerals, boasting not except among ruins, welcoming rulers with trumpeting only in order to farewell them with hooting and welcome another with more trumpeting; more than anything stands out the division into fragments, each one acting as a nation or in the name of the nation.
Already in 1860’s geopolitical conflicts in the region were translated into bitter sectarian conflicts that continued throughout independence, only to be further marred by the creation of the neighboring State of Israel. The weak political leadership of the different sects looked elsewhere than Lebanon to enter larger alliances that could further consolidate their power and quickly enough the central government began to lose control and the sectarian violence deteriorated into a civil war lasting nearly twenty years.
The history of the Lebanese civil war is rather well known, and though remarkable it was in terms of the actors involved, what is even more remarkable is the ways that the Lebanese found to negotiate their former conflicts and rehabilitate the public sphere in order to move on from a turbulent past into a future plagued by open wounds and uncertainties.
Nowhere is the legacy of the war more visible than in the city of Beirut, whose status as a cosmopolitan regional hub wasn’t born out of planning but rather the obvious accidental consequence of a very troubled past.
Craig Larkin outlined in his paper “Reconstructing and Deconstructing Beirut: Space, Memory and Lebanese Youth” some of the reasons behind Lebanon’s dynamism: A mountain refugee for religious minorities; a forged compromise of colonial powers and indigenous elites; a republic of tribes and villages; a cosmopolitan mercantile power-sharing enclave; a playground for the rich; a battle ground for religious and political ideologies; a fusion and combustion of the Arab East and the Christian West; an improbable, precarious, fragmented, shattered, torn nation.
All of these elements convened at once in Beirut in pre-war times: The city grew along the lines of quarters – usually of different religious communities – that developed an inclusive space for all after 1879 when a public garden was launched in the “bourj” (Martyrs’ Square) and the area evolved into a urban hub for all types of public activities.
During the civil war it was precisely this area what split the city in two and along the lines of which militia fighting was drawn, separating the city between East and West Beirut, and shifting the once mixed population. The end of the war, with its permanent calls for dialogue and reconciliation, surprisingly, did nothing to change the demographic status quo of the war.
The reconstruction of Beirut, and particularly of its historical downtown, was taken up in 1994 by private venture Solidere (Société libanaise pour le développement et la reconstruction de Beyrouth), established by then prime minister Rafik Hariri – later assassinated – at a time when the Lebanese state was still too weak and could not appropriately pass strong judgments in order to punish war criminals and effect a true social reconciliation in Lebanese society.
The solution then – as aptly described by Sune Haugbolle in his book “War and Memory in Lebanon”- was a vision of national unity, imagined or imaginary, through which Hariri’s capitalism seized the day with a state-sponsored amnesia in which reconciliation was limited to the private sphere and a vision reigned in which the most important thing was to leave the past behind.
The price that Beirut had to pay for this nominally was the actual destruction of what had been formerly the sole equivalent of a physical public realm. The obvious lack of interest in social reconciliation eliminated the possibility of true interaction between the different communities and this was further consolidated by the total absence of shared public areas. The forces and powers of the state were incorporated into Hariri’s capital and became identical with it.
The reconstruction of Beirut wasn’t so much an exercise in reconstruction as it was the total remaking of a symbolic part of the city that closed off the vaults of the past to interpretation in order to replace the immediate past with two equally disturbing symptoms of amnesia: The absolute past and the absolute future. The motto “Beirut: Ancient City of the Future” was coined and before the reconstruction even began, a large part of the area was demolished; in fact, much more than had been destroyed during the entire war.
The futuristic landscape entirely absent of public spaces – consisting mostly of prohibitively expensive residential towers and an exclusive shopping district – was coupled with an interest to preserve Beirut’s ancient heritage – ruins from Roman and Phoenician times – in order to create a model of a city that was entirely disconnected, even physically, from the vast majority of Beirut and created yet new sources of segregation and division.
Solidere’s concept envisioned a “Beirut reborn” in which the past informs the future, doing precisely what prominent Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury expressed: “It completely bypasses the present. It evokes and links the past and the future, but shrugs off any notion of the present.”
But Beirut shows a different picture in which the present rises as it self-destructs: The ambitiously wealthy downtown is contrasted to a city with poverty looming close to 35% and where news of buildings collapsing because of inadequate infrastructure is not uncommon.
At the same time the ghost of sectarianism is a living reality: What had been checkpoints and militia roadblocks during the civil war have now been replaced by subtle division lines that can be experienced by anyone who travels through the city: Posters of different sect leaders, graffiti and other religious and political icons serve the exact same function and give the unavoidable impression of a city deeply divided that echoes Lebanon’s political landscape.
Acts of memory have become commonplace in response not only to Hariri’s capitalism but to the entire political establishment, however they remain at the level of demanding what no Lebanese movement or faction has ever done: To step up to the challenge of opening public spaces in which there can be social reconciliation; namely, the acceptance that a court of justice cannot punish an entire country in which all groups involved bear responsibility.
Artists on the other hand have remained trapped in two narratives that equally defy the gist of the present: Either the total view of Lebanon through the eyes of the war or the Oriental Romanticism of the pre-republican Lebanon that is identical with the Western fantasies about the Middle East. Khoury says elsewhere: “Beirut has a false relationship with its past, characterized by a superficially Arabocentric kind of nostalgia.” What is remarkable here is the absence of the present.
Recently, I elaborated in “War and Memory in Lebanon” about the challenges posed by Hannah Arendt’s ideas on forgiveness and reconciliation in postwar Lebanon in the context of Tajaddod’s interactive exhibit “Another Memory”, however I want to turn my attention now to Beirut’s relationship to the public space.
Arendt conceived of the public realm as a space produced by particular forms of citizen interaction, where citizens engage in the unpredictable self-disclosure typical of political action, properly conceived, and strengthen the bonds between them in order to sustain this selfsame space.
She writes in The Human Condition:
The term public signifies the world itself, in so far as it is common to all of us and distinguished from our privately owned place in it. This world, however, is not identical with the earth or with nature, and the limited space for the movement of men and the general condition of organic life. It is related, rather, to the human artifact, the fabrication of human hands, as well as to affairs which go on among those who inhabit the man-made world together. To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time.
Under the conditions of a common world, reality is not guaranteed primarily by the “common nature” of all men who constitute it, but rather by the fact that, differences of position and the resulting variety of perspectives notwithstanding, everybody is always concerned with the same object. The end of the common world has come when it is seen only under one aspect and is permitted to present itself in only one perspective.
This common world which Arendt discusses is a man-made phenomenon that occurs in between men naturally rather than dictated by one man alone, and this variety of “crafted” worlds is typical not only of totalitarian regimes but of any situation – political or otherwise – in which the spontaneity of human action is taken away in order to be replaced with an ideal situation in which the unpredictability of action is traded for calculations.
One of those situations in which human action is calculated is the privatization of the public realm, as has been elaborated by Mark Willson in his paper “Enacting public space: Arendt, citizenship and the city” where he makes the case for the importance of citizenship practices within the shared space of the city and how the political implications of the privatization of the public space always result in the weakening of participatory democracy.
Willson brings up recent work of Margaret Kohn (2004) which is immediately relevant to the case of Beirut: “Even when members of different groups do not engage in formal political discussion, expose to others may help offset the mutual fear and suspicion fostered by segregation. It is difficult to feel solidarity with strangers if we never inhabit places that are shared with people who are different.”
The privatization of downtown Beirut and the area surrounding Martyrs’ Square isn’t simply a question of neo-liberal economy but an attempt to dovetail and manipulate the public space into an artificial arena of consumption.
On the other hand, alternative public spaces have existed in Beirut through the war years and not limited to downtown; Larkin for example brings up the case of Hamra, home to the prestigious American University in Beirut and where the lack of urban planning and official governance enabled the development of a creative environment, allowing greater room for contested post-war visions and plural identities.
Cross-sectarian platforms do exist in Lebanese society (among them, Tajaddod is but one example) and there has been something of a resurrection of a secular movement, however at the level of the state, representation remains largely sectarian as it was from the times of French edict of 1936, after which people had to declare membership in one of the religious communities to receive the right to citizenship. Many aspects of life are still largely determined by sect.
But the consequence of this is that the fragile balance remains in spite of the official narrative of reconciliation between past and future, and without present; proof of the above is that recent clashes in the north of the country quickly spread to Beirut and brought up the anxiety of the civil war years in an environment in which people are acutely aware that the balance may break at the slightest disturbance.
It is highly unlikely that the current political leadership will be able to resolve the sectarian conflict at the heart of Lebanon’s turbulent history since they rose – against all odds – out of the sectarian conflicts and are indebted to the status quo for their power and authority in representing large sections of the Lebanese population.
A public space reinvented on a policy of amnesia isn’t only a limited public realm but also the gentrification of an entire location of memory into an elitist museum, closing not only the past but also the future. A student interviewed by Larkin expressed it best: “The redevelopment involved a covering or hiding of the memory of the war, and in this sense it’s unreal. You can’t talk just of Romans and Phoenicians and our great heritage, without mentioning militias, kidnapping and bombs.”
Even though the historical downtown isn’t the only of Solidere’s ventures (that include also the failed Elyssar plan in southern Beirut) it would be of course an unfair assessment to say that Solidere alone is responsible for the gap in the Lebanese memory. Bernard Khoury comes to mind again when he says the obvious: “Could anything more be demanded of a private company when the country as a whole is incapable of writing its own history? It’s very sad now that in school books history stops in 1975.”
Lourdes Martinez-Garrido articulated it very well in her “Beirut Reconstruction: A Missed Opportunity for Conflict Resolution” (Al Nakhlah, Fall 2008): The Lebanese civil war resolved none of the conditions that generated the initial confrontation. Like any other type of violence, it generated fear, suffering and destruction. In the process of recovery, there was no political plan for social reconstruction.
Finally, the attempted reconstruction of Beirut – though an apparent success – has decidedly turned its own heritage and culture into a “product”, usually a product of entertainment for everyone but those who suffered the war, into a touristic souvenir. This is what Hannah Arendt warned about in “The Crisis in Culture”:
Mass culture comes into being when mass society seizes upon cultural objects, and its danger is that the life process of society (which like all biological processes insatiably draws everything available into the cycle of its metabolism) will literally consume cultural objects, eat them up, and destroy them.
The Lebanese heritage that has survived millennia of wars might yet not survive a couple of decades of amnesia and disappear altogether with the public realm. As these risks loom close, the proponents of doom will seek shelter in the past and the proponents of progress will seek shelter in the future, all while the present will continue, unfortunately, to pity the nation.
What precisely do we mean when we use the term “genocide”? Has the word always been associated with the mass killing of individuals on the basis of their group affiliation? Or have there been alternative conceptions of genocide of which we should be aware?
These questions were at the heart of the Hannah Arendt Center’s latest Lunchtime Talk, which occurred amid picturesque snowfall on Wednesday, February 29th. The presenter was Douglas Irvin, a Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers’ Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights. Irving's talk revolved around the work of the Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959).
After escaping from Nazi-occupied Poland and lecturing at the University of Stockholm, Lemkin emigrated to the U.S., served as an advisor at the Nuremberg Trials, and played a central role in the passage of the 1948 U.N. Genocide Convention. Indeed, Lemkin was the first public figure to use the term “genocide,” which he derived from the Greek root genus (family, race, or tribe) and the Latin root, cide (killing).
Lemkin and Arendt were contemporaries with overlapping experiences and interests, but they engaged very little with one another in print (aside, perhaps, from a few allusions and anonymous criticisms). Irvin contends that there are good reasons for this lack of dialogue, since the two differed significantly in their views of genocide and humanity more broadly.
On the one hand, Arendt regarded genocide as a historically recent outgrowth of modern totalitarianism. According to Irvin, this understanding was in keeping with her more general conception of the human cosmos, which ultimately emerged through, and was grounded in, individual interactions within the arena of the polis.
Lemkin, by contrast, regarded genocide as a much older phenomenon, one that was premised not on the destruction of individuals on the basis of their group affiliation, but rather on the annihilation of entire cultural traditions and collective identities. Drawing eclectically on the work of seventeenth-century Spanish theologians, romantic thinkers like Johann Gottfried von Herder, and anthropological understandings of cultures as integrated wholes, Lemkin ultimately defined genocide as a coordinated attack on the conditions that make the lives of nations and other collectivities possible.
In this conception, genocide does not necessarily or inevitably entail the mass killing of a group’s members, but rather turns on concerted efforts to obliterate that group’s institutions, language, religious observance, and economic livelihood. In Irvin’s argument, this approach resonated with the broadly communitarian nature of Lemkin’s thought: human existence was in his estimation defined by interactions between culture-bearing groups, and human freedom could ultimately be secured through the benevolent recognition and protection of cultural pluralism.
Significantly, the U.N. Genocide Convention that Lemkin championed did not incorporate many aspects of his thinking. His ideas encountered strong resistance from the U.S., U.K., and other imperial powers, many of which feared that their treatment of indigenous and colonial populations would qualify as genocide under the standards that Lemkin (and his collaborators) proposed. As a result, our current understanding of genocide is in no small part a byproduct of a diplomatic battle to redefine this legal category in a fashion that would encompass the Nazi Holocaust but not implicate other states (including several of the Allied powers that fought against Germany in World War II). This wrangling has also contributed to the minimal attention that has since been paid to Lemkin’s ideas, which were only rediscovered in a significant way in the early 1990s.
Douglas Irvin’s stimulating talk suggested that such inattention is unfortunate. Whatever one thinks of Lemkin’s effort to inscribe a form of cultural relativity into liberal international law, a more thoughtful understanding of his life and thought can only enrich our understanding of genocide’s career as a concept.
Click here to watch the Douglas Irvin lunchtime talk.
David Brooks is giving advice to radicals today on how to be radical. It's a strange spot for the left's favorite conservative to be in, although it is a role he's taken up in now a few of his columns. And he's only partly wrong.
The occasion for Brooks' advice to radicals is the latest viral YouTube sensation, “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus.” a video by Jefferson Bethke. The genre is not new. Mr. Jefferson's namesake, Thomas Jefferson, wrote a famous and wonderful little book, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, in which he separates out the purely ethical sprouts of Jesus' teachings from the religious chaff. Alexis de Tocqueville saw that religion in a democratic time would increasingly take the form of moral aphorisms without the strict commandments that democratic citizens would rebel against. And modern evangelicalism as practiced in mega churches like Rick Warren's Saddleback Church shuns discussion of sin and burdensome religious rituals or commands. The attraction of Jefferson Bethke's video poem is, precisely, how well it fits in with the anti-authoritarian spirit of our age that craves meaning and justice yet disdains the authority and tradition that give life meaning and embody the ideals of justice.
Brooks' column is less about Bethke's rebellion than about his re-conversion. For Bethke has, since his video, publicly admitted the error of his ways and returned to the bosom of the church. All of which leads Brooks to wonder: Why is rebellion so ineffective today?
This is a question many rebels ask today as well. One common complaint, on the left, is that the rise of humanitarianism has replaced political movements like Marxism, utopianism, and social democracy with the idea that it is simply enough to send food and clothes to those who are suffering. Today's radicals don't want to change the system, they simply perpetuate it by preventing the extreme suffering that might nurture real radicals. The dreamers of a better future seem to be busy with other pursuits. As Brooks rightly notes:
This seems to be a moment when many people — in religion, economics and politics — are disgusted by current institutions, but then they are vague about what sorts of institutions should replace them. This seems to be a moment of fervent protest movements that are ultimately vague and ineffectual.
Brooks has a theory for why this is so, one he has offered before.
My own theory revolves around a single bad idea. For generations people have been told: Think for yourself; come up with your own independent worldview. Unless your name is Nietzsche, that’s probably a bad idea. Very few people have the genius or time to come up with a comprehensive and rigorous worldview.
Aside from the silliness about Nietzsche—who certainly thought with and against a tradition—Brooks makes a valid point. Rebellion cannot be simply a negation of what is, an overturning.
Indeed, that was Nietzsche's point. Nihilism, which Nietzsche diagnosed, is the saying no to what is, an overturning of all values. Thus, a rejection of any value that is not simply a subjective value. This nihilism is precisely what Nietzsche saw and feared, which is why he struggled to think about how new higher values, new idols, new laws, new myths, might emerge.
Brooks wants young rebels to seek out the classics and find their mentors in rebellion. He is right that "Effective rebellion isn’t just expressing your personal feelings. It means replacing one set of authorities and institutions with a better set of authorities and institutions." He is also right that "Authorities and institutions don’t repress the passions of the heart, the way some young people now suppose. They give them focus and a means to turn passion into change."
But the point isn't simply to rediscover Marx so that we can, once again, fight for the proletarian revolution. That movie has run. The point of education is not to provide us with failed dreams of the past so that we can try again. As Arendt wrote in The Crisis of Education, the effort of education is to teach students about the world as it is. Only when they confront the world as it is, honestly, can they begin to resist it.
Instead of blaming our children, we need to look at ourselves. For Arendt, education requires teachers who "love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices." We must teach them about our world, as it is. And that means, we must teach them about what it means to live in a world in which there are no higher values that can sustain meaningful protests and rebellions. This is the world of nihilism Nietzsche saw emerging 130 years ago. And it is the world David Brooks is, in some ways, trying to articulate, even as he also refuses it and condemn it in his columns.
I don't disagree with Brooks' judgment of nihilism. But it is time for us, finally, to confront the reality of the world we live in. It is our world. If our leaders and public intellectuals won't be honest, how can we expect such courage from our youth?
We need to reconcile ourselves to the corrupting and debilitating nihilism of our world if we have any hope of educating young people who might be able to resist it. Arendt writes:
Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same tame token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable.
It is the job of education to “teach children what the world is like” so that they can begin the task of reconciling themselves with it; only then can they have a chance of truly resisting it. First come to see the ruin. Then learn to rebel against it. That is the promise of revolution, a circular process that offers the promise of a future that mere rebellion does not.
You'd do well to read Brooks' column.
Better yet, for your weekend read, pull out your edition of Between Past and Future and re-read The Crisis in Education.
Last week Jews of all stripes crowded into synagogues across the country to welcome the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and will return this weekend for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. For those of us living the lives of the academically vagrant the High Holidays are accompanied by the challenge of finding a congregation in a new college town. The services I attended this year were held in the basement of a dormitory in the northeast. Fifteen people attended the first day of services, three people the second, excluding the Rabbi, his wife, and their Golden Retriever.
The High Holidays never fail to remind us, me at least, that Hannah Arendt’s thought is so clearly and so elegantly embroidered with Jewish themes, including remembrance, judgment, and forgiveness, not to mention natality, the anchor of much of her writing. However there are two dimensions to the High Holidays that I would like to look at that underpin these themes, both I believe in the practice of Jewish prayer and in Arendt’s work. They help to shed light on why those of us who may not attend synagogue during the year seek both a sanctuary and a congregation on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
The first requirement of the reflective work that the High Holidays both affords us the chance to do and demands of us, is of course that we suspend the frenzy of life and turn ourselves over to contemplation, the realm of thought.
Human contemplating begins in many respects with a reveling. Before we can inspect the mind both Arendt and Jewish custom, ask us to marvel at it. Yet, we have in many respects abandoned the art of awe. As Marilynne Robinson argues in her 2010 book Absence of Mind we are in the midst of an era in which the mode of contemplation has been largely discredited since it is founded on the very thing, the singular human self, that threatens to contaminate that treasure of modernity: objectivity.
Robinson provides a critique of what she refers to as “parascientific” literature, faux-science, which she traces from the work of greats such as Malthus and Freud up to contemporaries such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. The chief feature uniting the multiple parascientific movements she examines is their attempt to banish what is both distinct and contingent about persons. She writes: “the core assumption that remains unchallenged and unquestioned through all the variations within the diverse traditions of ‘modern thought’ is that the experience and testimony of the individual mind is to be explained away.”
Robinson’s reference to this experience as that of the “felt mind” echoes Arendt’s account of thinking when she declares, “the only possible metaphor one may conceive of for the life of the mind is the sensation of being alive. Without the breath of life the human body is a corpse; without thinking the human mind is dead.” As the Rabbi leading the services I attended this Rosh Hoshannah remarks, and as many High Holiday commentaries draw our attention to, etymologically the word “spirit” is derived in many languages, including Hebrew, from the word for “breath.” Contemplation--whether in a classroom or in a shul--rests on the capacity to treat the mind not as an instrument for computation, or even argumentation, but quite literally as a muscle. Thinking, for Robinson and Arendt is equivalent only to the pulsation of the heart’s chambers, or the inhale and exhalation of the respiring body; phenomenon so staggering and exquisite any attempt to describe them inevitably rusts even our best language.
This notion of thought is derided by the Dawkins of our age, who are suspicious of anything that invites a discourse with the divine. The musculature, and hence the majesty, of the mind threatens both the proofs and the proscriptions they are trying to draw up about the behavioral laws that govern our species, and the direction of its destiny. What could be less absolute and law-bound than individuals’ conception and experience of grace? Yet as Robinson points out this literature often contains a strange contradiction since at the same time that the mind and all its messy subjectivity is banished, it is simultaneously called up and indicted, as, what she calls, a “perjured witness.”
The attempt to oust the individual mind from the palace of objective reason is accompanied by our obsession with its alleged fraudulence. While parascientists aim to eliminate the singular self, they also insist on telescoping in on the mind’s deviations; perhaps in an effort to legitimate their ultimate censuring of it. Stretched out on the shrink’s couch we have resigned ourselves to the fact that we will never be able to decipher our true desires or our criminal cravings. Instead we have come to take our cues for self-renovation from readings of the zodiacs that manage to predict in the same paragraph both the most suitable choice for footwear, and our ultimate fortune.
These too are theses of modernity Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur fundamentally refute. The High Holidays reject the claim that because we often become ensnared in the trickeries of the psyche we therefore shouldn’t hold ourselves to account for the injuries we inflict, just as they challenge the idea that the possibilities for healing are out of our human hands. Sinning and atonement, Jews recall each autumn, are inextricable from the human condition, yet, if we engage in an honest consideration of them the process of genuine renewal and rebirth is ours for the making. However this consideration can only occur when we have stilled the panting ego enough to let the mind take its deeper draws.
This first dimension of the High Holidays, that of the self’s experience of its own mind, may initially seem opposed, but is intimately related to, their second essential dimension, public worship. We tend to find that contemplation, akin as we have seen to Arendtian thinking, is generally best performed on one’s own, sheltered from the intrusion of others or from worldy interference. Yet Jewish custom states that certain prayers cannot be recited without a minyan, or ten adults.
There is a kind of thinking we are told we can’t quite do unless we are included within a greater community. Because those assembled at the services I attended this year only tallied in the single digits on the second day, significant portions of the service had to be skipped. What is important about this is less the liturgy that was lost than what it is about the High Holidays that demands we come together in order to think, to pray.
There are various religious explanations for why it is we congregate in order to face our transgressions and ask for forgiveness, however I think Arendt may in fact gives us the best explanation, when she says famously and simply that “men, not Man, inhabit the earth.” Plurality is of course the bedrock of Arendt’s work on political action and while there is a tension between the vita activa and vita contemplativa I would argue that the High Holidays in one sense comes to dissolve it. The aim of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is of course not only repair of personal relations but of the world. While the work of thought is each individual’s its subject is explicitly, what Marilynne Robinson calls in an Arendtian turn of phrase, our “tenure on this planet.”
It is the sheer presence of other thinking minds that activates the transformation of self and world and renders it real. This process goes by various names depending on the context in which it’s performed: sometimes we call it prayer, sometimes we call it politics, sometimes we call it poetry. Though we keep calling—and rightly so—transcendent--each of those occasions, in which an awe-filled encounter provokes us towards greater beauty, and greater justice.