Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Amor Mundi 11/8/15


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

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

amor_mundi_sign-upNostalgia for Obnoxiousness at Yale University

yale halloween freedomHaley Hudler on the FIRE website (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) writes about recent events at Yale University. Just before Halloween, Yale's undergraduate students received a letter from the university's Intercultural Affairs Committee advising them to be thoughtful in choosing their costumes. The letter affirmed Yale's commitment to free speech but advised students to avoid dressing in blackface, with feathers, or in ways that might make some at Yale feel uncomfortable. In response, Erika Christakis, a Yale lecturer and the Associate master of Silliman College, wrote: "I don't wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community. I know that many decent people have proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense. I laud those goals, in theory, as most of us do. But in practice, I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional (which is to say: bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students.... Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious... a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition." The disagreement between Christakis and Yale's Intercultural Affairs Committee could have become a productive one, leading to some thoughtful debates about civility, speech, youthfulness, and humor. That debate may still happen; Christakis and her husband are to be applauded for meeting for hours with students--at times openly hostile and angry students--to talk about their disagreements. As Hudler writes, the students demand that Christakis and her husband offer an apology for creating an unsafe atmosphere and for making Yale students feel comfortable. They are asking Christakis and her husband to resign as Masters of Silliman. Hudler concludes: "Are the students' protests against the Christakises protected speech? Of course. But the students' demand that the Christakises lose their jobs for their dissident opinions represents another strong example of the phenomenon Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt talked about in their September cover story for The Atlantic, 'The Coddling of the American Mind.' In their article, Lukianoff and Haidt argue that students are increasingly engaging in a culture of 'vindictive protectiveness' that seeks to control campus speech in a way that not only limits free expression and chills candor, but that can also promote distorted ways of thinking." There are long videos on the website of discussions between Mr. Christakis and Yale students. The videos are worth watching. On one level, the debates at Yale are a sign of a healthy intellectual culture and are to be applauded. On another level, the intensity of anger over an email that simply questions whether sensitivity has gone too far is evidence of a culture of extreme intolerance for hearing contrary opinions, opinions that are no longer said to be merely wrong but traumatizing, no longer disagreeable but threatening. Which is why the 2016 Hannah Arendt Center Conference asks: "How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex, and Religion on Campus." Save the Date: Oct. 20-21, 2016. --RB

Whither Goes the Library?

reading roomJames Gleick considers the place of the library in the digital landscape: "In the midst of an information explosion, librarians are still the most versatile information specialists we have. And the purest. In his new book BiblioTech, a wise and passionate manifesto, John Palfrey reminds us that the library is the last free space for the gathering and sharing of knowledge: 'Our attention cannot be bought and sold in a library.' As a tradition barely a century and a half old in the United States, it gives physical form to the principle that public access to knowledge is the foundation of democracy. The problem of libraries now--and it is a problem--involves some paradoxes, which need to be sorted out. For one thing, as Palfrey says, librarians will need to cherish their special talent as 'stewards' while letting go of the instinct to be 'collectors.' Knowledge in physical form needs to be handled carefully, preserved, and curated. But with digital information pouring into iPhones and Kindles in petabytes--via Twitter and Instagram and YouTube, not to mention Amazon's self-publishing factories--libraries need to rethink old habits. They cannot collect everything, or even a small fraction of everything. 'That model is already too hard to keep up,' Palfrey says. 'A network of stewards can accomplish vastly more than a disconnected (even sometimes competitive) group of collectors ever can.' The packrat instinct is hard to shed. Five years ago the Library of Congress began a project that collects every utterance on Twitter, in the name of preserving the nation's digital heritage. That is billions weekly, sucked up for storage in secure tape archives, and the Library has yet to figure out how to make any of it available to researchers. Divorced from a human curator, the unfiltered mass of Twitter may as well be a garbage heap. Meanwhile, onward streams the continually vanishing conversation in Facebook and Snapchat and whatever next year's channels will be, along with the email of the great and small, preserved haphazardly or not at all, to the presumed dismay of future historians. What's an archivist to do? There is no escaping the tension between real and virtual space, between the shelf and the cloud. 'Librarians well know that the discovery of information is moving out of physical locations and into distributed spaces'--i.e. screens everywhere--says Palfrey, and this is an understatement. He recalls an afternoon in his town library in Andover, Massachusetts, when he heard a thirteen-year-old shouting into his iPhone, 'Siri, what does "terminal velocity" mean?' Evidently the feckless genius of the cloud had nothing to offer. Palfrey took comfort from that, knowing that any reference librarian could do better: 'I realized that all will be well in the world of libraries, at least for a while.'"

The Obligation to Daydream

neil gaimanNeil Gaiman, writing in the Guardian, defends reading, libraries, and the need for daydreams. "We all--adults and children, writers and readers--have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different. Look around you: I mean it. Pause, for a moment and look around the room that you are in. I'm going to point out something so obvious that it tends to be forgotten. It's this: that everything you can see, including the walls, was, at some point, imagined. Someone decided it was easier to sit on a chair than on the ground and imagined the chair. Someone had to imagine a way that I could talk to you in London right now without us all getting rained on. This room and the things in it, and all the other things in this building, this city, exist because, over and over and over, people imagined things."

amor_mundi_sign-upOur Future

children refugeesThe New York Times Magazine launched a new digital multimedia initiative tied to a virtual reality app. To watch the story in virtual reality, you need to acquire special glasses. We here at the Hannah Arendt Center read the story in regular old reality. It was still powerful. The Times told the stories of four children displaced by recent violence in and around their homes and sought to bring us into their lives in new places. Jake Silverstein provides an introduction: "Oleg, Hana and Chuol account for the tiniest fraction of a percentage of those 30 million children, but their experiences stand in for the whole. In Hana's story, we see the daily trials of a refugee who now lives in a foreign country and is trying to make a provisional life; in Oleg's, we see the difficulties of building a new life amid the ruins of the old. Chuol's story is more grave. He is in the midst of a terrifying escape, unsure of where or when a new life might begin. As dissimilar as these three children are, they're bound in an unhappy fellowship, not only with one another but also with the other displaced kids around the world, with the two children in the photos on my desk and with the numberless children displaced throughout history by all the world's wars. Think of them, moving silently within the mass migrations and terrified departures, the families running away at night, the human displacements on an unfathomable scale. Aztec children fleeing the armored conquistadors. French Huguenot children crossing the English Channel with their parents. European children streaming east and west and north and south during the First and Second World Wars. Jewish children resettling all over the world. Vietnamese children leaping into boats. Liberian children riding on their parents' shoulders down roads lined by bodies. Iraqi children running from the gigantic explosions of the gulf war. Generations of Haitian children. Generations of Palestinian children. Generations of Afghan children. See them struggling along, year after year after year, carrying the burden of ensuring our future upon their small backs." There's something tempting about the opportunity that the Times thinks its providing, the ability to step into the world of these children and understand them better through a "360-degree environment that encircles the viewer" and "creates the experience of being present within distant worlds." Silverstein suggests this technology makes it "uniquely suited to projects, like this one, that speak to our senses of empathy and community." But this feeling of community, just like the connection that he draws between these displaced children and others throughout history, is a false one. It isn't wrong to speak of displacement as a global problem with global consequences, but it does collapse the varieties of causes that lead to displacement and the variety of experiences that arise from it; it is possible, perhaps even likely, that suffering is incommensurate, and the suffering of one person is unintelligible not only to people who haven't suffered but also those who have. To step into the worlds of these children through virtual reality provides the illusion that their experiences can become our own, a facade that masks the transformation of its subjects into a kind of technological spectacle that enables us to feel good for being on the cutting edge even as we feel bad about displaced persons across the world. In both cases, the experience provided by the Times virtual reality app allows us to encounter the issues of our world without forcing us to reckon with them. --JK

All in Good Pun

shakespeareChi Luu considers the pun: "It turns out puns are pretty weird, linguistically speaking, given what we think we know about words and what they signify, as Saussure might have it. In communication, it's usually desirable for meaning to be as unambiguous and clear as possible. Puns are plays on words, as everyone knows, built upon a deliberate grammatical ambiguity, whether phonological ('Grime doesn't pay'), syntactic ('Our business is picking up') or lexical ('A proud past, a perfect present'), among others. At any given time a pun can (and indeed must) simultaneously juggle multiple meanings in one form within one expression. That's rather precarious. According to Saussure's famed structuralist system, in any language, meaningful words are signs consisting of a signifier (the form the word takes, such as the sequence of letters 'b a t' to form 'bat') and signified (the concept it's representing, such as a small furry, winged animal, a bat). One signifier to one signified. Neat, simple, logical. That's not to say there can't be homonyms (such as 'bat' signifying a tool used in sport), but simply put, each sign is supposed to contain a one-to-one relation at any one time, with the mind 'naturally discard[ing] all associations likely to impede understanding.' But in the case of puns, 'bat' must represent both a small furry winged animal and baseball gear at the same time, not to mention any other meanings relevant to the context. Two signifieds to one signifier. The signs all point to a kind of lexical rebellion that is not supposed to happen, as clear communication and understanding descend into chaos--and yet something rather special emerges from the wreckage."

Hot Hat

metsIn the midst of the World Series, a Mets fan tried to find a way to exert some control over a sporting event that had nothing to do with him (at least on the field): "On July 31, the day Cespedes was traded to the Mets, I bought a Minnesota Twins hat at Target Field in Minneapolis. It was a tourist's purchase--I was in Minnesota for a couple of ballgames with some friends. But the hat started to mean something more. That weekend, the Mets swept the Washington Nationals to tie for first place in the NL East. So I kept wearing the hat. And the Mets kept winning. The Mets went 37-22 to close out the season, and won the NL East despite a 23 percent chance of doing so when I bought the hat. (The rational readers among you will note that they also went 37-22 to close out the season after Cespedes joined the team, but, again, this is not a rational story.) Soon, the Twins hat had replaced my Mets hat. My Mets friends texted me and asked me to wear it when they were feeling nervous about a game. I nearly forgot it on a plane, and felt the Mets season slipping away until I stormed back to retrieve it. At the start of the playoffs, I went on a poorly timed vacation to India, and brought the Twins hat to ensure the Mets advanced."

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

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

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

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

Friday, November 20, 2015

Hannah Arendt Center, 3:00 pm

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #15

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

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

Friday, December 4, 2015

Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:30 pm



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

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

Thursday and Friday, October 20 and 21, 2016

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

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Jeffrey Champlin discusses how Arendt's description of The Trial in terms of "sarcasm" raises a number of issues about the effect and intended meaning of Kafka's writing in the Quote of the Week. Sigmund Freud reflects on the experimental and methodical nature of thought in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, Connel Fanning shares an image from his Reading for Change Book Club featuring Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem in this week's Library feature.

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

Kafka’s Sarcasm and Arendt’s Action

franz kafka

By Jeffrey Champlin

"[W]hat is wrong with the world in which Kafka's heroes are caught is precisely its deification, its pretense of representing divine necessity. […] The modern reader, or at least the reader of the twenties […] is quite serious when it comes to Kafka's sarcasm about the lying necessity and the necessary lying as divine law."

-- “Franz Kafka: A Revaluation (On the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of his death)”, Essays in Understanding

Arendt's reflection on Kafka emerged during World War II, appearing for the first time in the Partisan Review in 1944. The passage cited above occurs in the essay's section on The Trial. The manuscript then moves to The Castle, the stories in general, and concludes with an analysis of "A Common Confusion." Throughout the piece, Arendt repeatedly returns to the question of Kafka's modernity. She contrasts his contemporary readers of the 1920s with those of her time, who saw his prophecy of bureaucratic totalitarianism come true. The issue of Kafka's sarcasm has a key place in this contrast, and I see it pointing to a broader question of the relation between fiction and action in the present day.

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

Hannah Arendt and Yiddish


“German Jewry, like Western European Jewry in general, never understood that the simple person is the true center of politics in all democratically governed countries.

And this is also the reason why German Jews often do not understand the just national aspirations of the Jewish people [folk]. Most do not know at all what a people [folk] really is and what it wants. The most beautiful Hebrew in the world will not teach them that. Let the German Jews learn to respect simple person [poshete mentshn], in general, and the simple Jew [yiddishe folks-mentsh], in particular – and then you will be able to speak to them about Jewish politics in all the languages of the world.”

These are the closing words of an op-ed written by Hannah Arendt in November 1942 for the New York Yiddish daily Morgen Zshurnal. The short piece is a response to an account of recent conflicts between German and Hebrew speakers in the Jewish settlement in Palestine (the Yishuv) written by Aaron Zeitlin, a Yiddish author and regular contributor to the newspaper.

Children in the Yishuv, 1941

It is, by all evidence, Arendt’s only Yiddish-language publication. (A year earlier, in December 1941, the News Bulletin of the “Emergency Committee for Zionist Affairs” published a Yiddish translation of Arendt’s first Aufbau op-ed, “The Jewish Army – The Beginning of Jewish Politics?” But the Morgen Zshurnal piece seems to be the only one that Arendt published exclusively in Yiddish.) Arendt’s Yiddish voice is both familiar and surprising, and, as I shall sketch very briefly here, her exchange with Zeitlin fascinatingly prefigures significant moments in Arendt’s thinking and her dialogue with others later in life, for example her exchange with Gershom Scholem about Eichmann in Jerusalem.

In the fall of 1942, tensions between immigrants from Nazi Germany and the veteran Zionist community of the Yishuv had reached a violent peak with the bombing of a press in Jerusalem, which had been printing a German-language newspaper. Zeitlin bases his account of the event, and of the political atmosphere that led up to it, on a report by Menachem Ben Eliezer, which appeared in October in the Hebrew newspaper Hadoar, published in New York by the Hebrew Federation of America. The Hebrew reporter and the Yiddish commentator both blame the German Jews, known as “Yekkes,” for failing to assimilate into the society of the Yishuv and, especially, for obstinately refusing to learn Hebrew. In Zeitlin’s words, the German Jews are not patriotic because they lack a love of Israel (“ahavat Israel” or, in Yiddish, “ahaves Yisroel”).

Arendt, described in the byline as “a well-known German-Jewish writer and Zionist activist” who, “in 1935, visited the Land of Israel, where she spent three months and had the opportunity to get to know the Yishuv and the new immigration (Aliyah),” responds to the accusations ambivalently. Outraged by the violent act of the Hebrew purists of the Yishuv, she nevertheless concedes that the failure of German Jews to understand the simple Jews of Eastern Europe and their justified national aspirations is a problem.

The brief op-ed piece thus reveals a fascinating moment in the development of Arendt’s identity and her political affinities. Having recently arrived as a refugee from Europe, Arendt was writing for the German-language Aufbau and would soon start publishing in English-language publications such as Partisan Review and Nation. But her attention was evidently also devoted to publications such as Morgen Zshurnal and their Yiddish-speaking readership. As Thomas Wild has recently argued on this website, Arendt’s career would continue to move productively between German and English, for example when she substantially revised the English The Human Condition to produce the German Vita Activa.

And even after this brief stint, the Yiddish language did not disappear from her writing entirely, as I briefly mention below. She would also find opportunities to reflect publicly on issues of language choice, for example in her 1948 dedication of the German book Sechs Essays to her friend and mentor Karl Jaspers, where she explains the difficulty and the necessity of writing and publishing in her native language. But this Yiddish op-ed – written in a language that she had studied as an adult and that was rapidly moving aside to make space for English, not only in her mind but also in the American-Jewish public sphere – is probably the only statement that Arendt made about Jewish language politics.

Interestingly, at this juncture in her own linguistic affiliations, Arendt insists that the battle over languages is a political red herring. “Unlike Herr Zeitlin,” she writes, “I am of the opinion that the entire education and psychology of the world could not successfully separate people from their mother tongue […]. It is a process of a generation or two, and in America we have the best proof of that.” Instead of focusing on the struggle between the languages, Arendt points her readers in two different directions. The piece opens, in a familiarly sarcastic tone, with an expression of Arendt’s interest in Jewish militancy as a form of political response to the current crisis (an interest that was expressed in her contemporary writing for Aufbau): “I am of the opinion that it would be better for the Yishuv to boycott German merchandise rather than the German language, and that the hotheads would do better to save the bombs for Rommel’s soldiers rather than to use them against the Jews for their German language.” But it ends on a different note, with a vision of a post-Babelian politics that grows out of solidarity with the simple people. If the German Jews only understood what a true Jewish “folks-mentsh” is, the conversation could transcend linguistic divisions and one would be “able to speak to them about Jewish politics in all the languages of the world.”

As Elizabeth Young-Bruehl describes in her biography and as evidenced also in the early correspondence with Heinrich Blücher, Arendt had studied Yiddish with her friend Chanan Klenbort in Paris. But in the absence of further information about the composition process – was the piece written in German and translated into Yiddish? Or did a native speaker aid Arendt, in the way that friends such as Randall Jarrell and Alfred Kazin later helped her with her English? – one can only speculate about the significance of the highly Germanic style of the Yiddish in which the piece is written or of word choices such as “folks-mentsh” and “posheter mentsh.” Reading Arendt in Yiddish can feel like a glimpse through a door to an alternative history. What would have been the circumstances – in Arendt’s own intellectual development, in the history of the Jews – that would have compelled her to keep writing in Yiddish? Would the Yiddish version of The Human Condition have placed the “posheter mentsh” at the center of politics? In other words, the Yiddish op-ed focuses our view on Arendt’s preoccupations and her transformation during her early years in the United States. It also sharpens questions that have already been raised in relation to her writing for Aufbau: Does the writing of this period prepare the ground for her later philosophical and political work? And if it does, how should we describe this ground? Or does the shift of her positions on Zionism rather constitute a break in her thinking?

It is easy to see the continuity between the criticism Arendt expresses here and her sharp critique of German Jewry in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem. But there are other, far more uncanny, linguistic continuities, not only in Arendt’s own writing but also in her dialogues and polemics with others. In his famous response to the Eichmann book, Gershom Scholem echoes Zeitlin – most probably unwittingly – when he laments Arendt’s lack of “Ahabath Israel” (as Scholem rather Germanically transcribes the Hebrew expression). Arendt seems to hear that echo when she inserts in her reply to Scholem’s letter a parenthetical inquiry about the history of the term: “I would, by the way, be very thankful if you could tell me since when this concept plays a role in the Hebrew language and scripture, when it first appears, etc.” Indeed, the echo seems to conjure up in Arendt elements of her original response to Zeitlin, and so she returns to the same simple person she had once hoped that German Jewry could listen to, in Yiddish or in “all the languages of the world.” Thus, when she attempts to defend her (to many readers indefensible) position on Jewish collaboration with the Nazis, she explains to Scholem: “There was no possibility of resistance, but there was a possibility of doing nothing. And in order to do nothing, one need not have been a saint, but rather one needed simply to say: I am a simple Jew (ein poscheter Jude) and I do not want to be more than that.”

The Yiddish was excised from the German version that was published by the Neue Zürcher Zeitung in October 1963 (where it was replaced by “einfacher Jude”) and from the English translation published in Encounter in December 1964 (which refers to “a Simple Jew”). The act of self-censorship is probably as revealing as Arendt’s use of the term itself.

Arendt’s brief foray into Yiddish journalism also has a fascinating postscript on the pages of the Morgen Zshurnal (or rather its continuation Der Tog Morgen Zshurnal). As Richard I. Cohen has described, in 1965 the newspaper carried Aaron Zeitlin’s raging response to Arendt’s Eichmann book, a response in which he described her as the agent of the devil. Zeitlin does not explicitly mention his previous disagreement with Arendt, indeed, he conspicuously avoids mentioning her by name. But, in its emphasis on Arendt’s misnaming of Eichmann when she describes him as a “grey, simple (posheter) average person,” his vitriolic attack can be read as a response to Arendt’s polemic twenty-three years earlier

-Na’ama Rokem

Based on research and translation conducted in collaboration with Sunny Yudkoff. Many thanks to Barbara Hahn and Thomas Wild, who uncovered the Yiddish piece in the Hannah Arendt archive. 

NOTE: This Saturday, February 23, 2013 marks the launch of the Hananh Arendt Center three part series, "Music in the Holocaust: Jewish Identity and Cosmopolitanism". The series is made possible through the generosity of grant from the Bertha Effron Fund of the Community Foundation of the Hudson Valley. Learn more here.

February 23

COERCION, COLLUSION & CREATIVITY - Music of the Terezin Ghetto & the Central European Experience

April 20

NATIONALISM, CONTINUITY & SYNTHESIS - Music of Warsaw, Lodz, & other Eastern ghettos

April 27

KURT WEILL & THE MODERNIST MIGRATION - Music of Weill & Other Émigrés


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