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.
Anna Sauerbrey has an op-ed in the NY Times about the ongoing trial of Oskar Gröning, what will likely be the last trial of a German Nazi for crimes against humanity. One captivating aspect of the trial is that Gröning has long admitted to his role in the genocide and expressed regret for it. For Sauerbrey, the core of the trial is Gröning's uncanny banality. "At the trial, Mr. Gröning said that from his perspective, the killing of the Hungarian Jews, which had been meticulously planned and for which several new gas chambers had been built in Auschwitz, was 'routine.' What shocked him were merely individual outbursts of violence, like an SS man beating a crying infant to death. The killings in the gas chambers, he said, were 'orderly' and 'clean.' He rarely said the word 'murder.' 'In 24 hours you could take care of 5,000 people,' he said. 'After all, that's how things went in a concentration camp.' Mr. Gröning's language naturally makes one think of Adolf Eichmann, and how his detached explanation of his role as a bureaucrat, at his 1961 trial in Jerusalem, led Hannah Arendt to coin the phrase 'the banality of evil.' Ms. Arendt was, some say, fooled by the defendant, and that Eichmann had embraced the hatred fueling the killing machine. But if Ms. Arendt was wrong about Eichmann, she was on to something, something we now see in what Mr. Gröning is saying. It is the horrifying, mind-wrecking banality of evil condensed in a sentence like 'that's how things went in a concentration camp' that has sustained the German self-narrative of guilt, much more than compassion ever could have. Mr. Gröning makes us question ourselves. I, too, am afraid I wouldn't have resisted. The victims tell us: We must never forget. The perpetrators say: We might do it again." Arendt did not accept Eichmann's claim that he was a mere bureaucrat; she insisted that he chose to participate in genocide and should be killed for his acts. More importantly, she agreed with Sauerbrey that the key question of the Eichmann trial was why some Germans chose to resist Nazi evil while others participated thoughtlessly. The question was, and remains, thus: why could people like Gröning conclude that the orderly planned killing of Jews was routine even as they were shocked by disorderly outbursts of violence? After a semester teaching a course on moral and political courage, it is now clear that what separates those who resist from those who cooperate is simple: it is character. The people who resist simply have an idea of themselves that disallows them from doing certain things. They have a sense of self and the courage to be who they are no matter the costs. They have depth, which is the opposite of banality.
We live in an age of social science. Everywhere we turn, and in every newspaper we read, we are bombarded with statistics about human behavior. Policy wonks from Cass Sunstein to David Brooks want to use social science research to nudge people to behave in more rational and more responsible ways. But not everyone is an advocate of such research. In her lifetime, Hannah Arendt was eternally suspicious of social science data. First, because she insists that human freedom means that we are never as predictable as data would have us believe. And second, because the admitted success of data as a predictor of mass behavior leads to a loss of faith in the freedom and thus greatness of human action, thus an acceptance of the machine-like behavior of humans. It is thus helpful to remember that many of the seemingly endless studies about human psychological behavior are total bunk, as Kas Thomas writes (in admittedly colorful language). "An effort to replicate 100 research findings in psychology turned up the disturbing fact that key findings from only 39 of the published studies could be reproduced. From the 30 April 2015 article in Nature: 'The results should convince everyone that psychology has a replicability problem,' says Hal Pashler, a cognitive psychologist at the University of California, San Diego, and an author of one of the papers whose findings were successfully repeated. 'A lot of working scientists assume that if it's published, it's right,' he says. 'This makes it hard to dismiss that there are still a lot of false positives in the literature.' But Daniele Fanelli, who studies bias and scientific misconduct at Stanford University in California, says the results suggest that the reproducibility of findings in psychology does not necessarily lag behind that in other sciences. There is plenty of room for improvement, he adds, but earlier studies have suggested that reproducibility rates in cancer biology and drug discovery could be even lower. 'From my expectations, these are not bad at all,' Fanelli says. 'Though I have spoken to psychologists who are quite disappointed.' In other words, these results aren't that bad, really, because they're just as shitty as in other, 'harder' sciences!"
Violence can be useful. In response to injustice, it can even be justifiable on a utilitarian scale if violence brings attention to injustice and thus serves the doing of justice. But usually, violence does not lead to justice but rather to more violence. That is the danger of political uses of violence, as Hannah Arendt understood it in her essay On Violence. Responding to the protests following the unexplained brutal beating and subsequent death of Freddie Gray while he was held in police custody in Baltimore, Ta-Nehisi Coates says that calls for 'nonviolence' are being made in bad faith, although that does not in turn justify violence: "When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is 'correct' or 'wise,' any more than a forest fire can be 'correct' or 'wise.' Wisdom isn't the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community." The violent protests in Baltimore shed light on the injustice of police violence. There is a question of whether the violent protests were necessary in that aim. But so far, it is hard to deny that the violent protests have yielded what they sought and that they may prove to be one of those rare instances when violence proves itself in the service of justice.
The American Association of University Professors has released a report on the firing of Steven Salaita. As the report concludes, "At the heart of this case is the question of Professor Salaita's employment status at the University of Illinois when Chancellor Wise informed him that she would not forward his appointment to the board of trustees." Since the AAUP finds, correctly, that Salaita had indeed been hired, his irregular firing without procedural safeguards was a violation of his protected status. A larger question in the report concerns the claim by the University of Illinois that the firing was justified because of the uncivil nature of Professor Salaita's comments. On this point, the AAUP's report takes a strong stand against civility: "Statements by Chancellor Wise and the trustees insisted that 'civility' was a standard by which the fitness of a scholar and teacher could be judged. They used synonyms such as courtesy and respect, and they maintained that incivility threatened the comfort and security of students. The trustees claimed that disrespectful speech 'is not an acceptable form of civil argument' and 'has no place . . . in our democracy.' There are three objections to these claims. The first is that 'civility' is vague and ill-defined.... The second objection is that, inevitably, the standard of civility conflates the tone of an enunciation with its content.... The third objection is that, even if the tone of one's expression is highly charged, it does not constitute grounds for punishment. Whether it is a matter of First Amendment rights or of the principles of academic freedom, there is concurrence on the dangers to democracy of attempting to outlaw emotionally provocative speech. The CAFT report cites a 1971 Supreme Court case that struck down punishment because of a speaker's use of an offensive expletive-'an expletive Dr. Salaita's tweets are much given to.' The Court ruled, 'We cannot sanction the view that the Constitution, while solicitous of the cognitive content of individual speech, has little or no regard for that emotive function which practically speaking may often be the more important element of the overall message sought to be communicated.' In the Davis case at UCLA, one of the dissenting regents put it similarly: 'In this day and age when the decibel level of political debate . . . has reached the heights it has, it is unrealistic and disingenuous to demand as a condition of employment that the professor address political rallies in the muted cadences of scholarly exchanges. Professors are products of their times even as the rest of us.'" One problem with such reasoning, however, is that the AAUP wants to insist that professors are different from the rest of us and that professors deserve extra protection of academic freedom because they are engaged in the pursuit of truth that may and often is unconventional and controversial. If that is true, and it should be, then it may well require that professors act professorial in order to claim their academic freedom. In other words, the civility that often is out of place in political arguments is a structuring condition of academic inquiry.
Pope Francis is on a mission, and the measure of his potential success is the fear he is causing. Garry Wills asks the right question: who is scared of Pope Francis? It turns out some very wealthy and powerful people are. "Those who profit from what harms the earth have to keep the poor out of sight. They have trouble enough fighting off the scientific, economic, and political arguments against bastioned privilege. Bringing basic morality to the fore could be fatal to them. That is why they are mounting such a public pre-emptive strike against the encyclical before it even appears. They must not only discredit the pope's words (whatever they turn out to be), they must block them, ridicule them, destroy them. The measure of their fear is demonstrated by an article in First Things, the Catholic journal that defended the donations to bishops of the pederast religious founder Marcial Maciel. The First Things writer Maureen Mullarkey calls the pope 'an ideologue and a meddlesome egoist,' and continues: 'Francis sullies his office by using demagogic formulations to bully the populace into reflexive climate action with no more substantive guide than theologized propaganda.'" At a time of incredible inaction around the world on all issues from climate change and inequality to corruption and terrorism, the one world leader who seems able and willing to take bold action informed by common sense moral intuitions is the Catholic Pope. One hopes some other leaders follow his example.
Elisa Gabbert wonders after prose's forgotten unit of organization: "Reading a book, I always glance ahead to see where the section or chapter ends, so I know when I can stop reading if I want or need to. Stopping mid-paragraph is deeply unsatisfying--no sense of closure, no easy way to remember where I left off when I next pick it up. Claustrophobic tendencies aside, of late I am actively interested in paragraphs, their formal possibilities. Sentences are taken to be the basic unit of prose, and we use them metonymically--we say 'She writes wonderful sentences' when we mean to praise the author's prose. James Salter is so well-known for his sentences that it rises to the level (or sinks, I suppose) of critical cliché. In a 2013 profile in the New Yorker, Salter is quoted, in a letter to a friend: 'I wanted to get past the great-writer-of-sentences thing. I don't care about that, at this stage.' But why is it, I wonder, we rarely talk about a writer's way with paragraphs? It may be because there is a lot more you can do with a sentence to vary it; syntax and diction, all those micro-choices that add up to the macro-style of (say) a novel, happen at the level of the sentence. There are pretty much only two ways to vary your paragraphs. The first is length. Some writers work in short paragraphs, some in fluctuating lengths, others in long, multi-page-spanning paragraphs, like our incantatory friend above. Some writers work at both ends, depending on the book--compare As I Lay Dying to Absalom, Absalom! It's no coincidence that the former, with its many breaks, is easier to read; it could almost pass for YA. Bestsellers keep paragraphs and chapters short as a tactic--they make for more addictive, snack-like reading, so the reader repeatedly thinks I'll just read one more."
Matt Taibbi thinks Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders's run for the presidency could invigorate our moribund political culture, and he is infuriated that some people don't think that the Senator is being serious: "this whole question of 'seriousness'--which will dominate coverage of the Sanders campaign--should really be read as a profound indictment of our political system, which is now so openly an oligarchy that any politician who doesn't have the blessing of the bosses is marginalized before he or she steps into the ring."
Michelle Garcia offers a haunting tale of memory and time that somehow unite her father's death and her decision to go and work in refugee camps in the Sahara: "No longer do I organize time chronologically. Keeping time reminds me of where I went wrong. Saturday afternoon: I call my father and promise to call back on Sunday. The conversation was difficult, we talked about my brother. Sunday: I prepare for bed and remember to call my father, but my boyfriend says, The last conversation upset you and it's late. Call tomorrow first thing. I remember the moment vividly. Monday morning: I walk into the office, sit down at my desk, and lift the phone to call my father. My cellphone rings. It's my brother and he's crying. Time, in that moment, was like a record player needle on a scratched album, unable to advance. But I was just about to call, the phone was in my hand.... Neat divisions of time are largely obliterated in the war of forgetting. The past and present co-mingle, speak to, and inform each other. Anyone who has ever lived through war, with its echoes of regret, knows that a war of forgetting endures after the bodies are buried, the peace accords are signed, and the soldiers remove their uniforms. The war of forgetting is the undocumented legacy of war, often relegated to the psycho-analytic bins of trauma, nostalgia, and remorse. For the next seven years, the war of forgetting would dominate my travels and my attention, but after each experience, I hesitated to write about what I had seen until I could give shape and words to the absence, the missing."
Omid Safi diagnoses the modern disease of business, or busyness. "This disease of being 'busy' (and let's call it what it is, the dis-ease of being busy, when we are never at ease) is spiritually destructive to our health and wellbeing. It saps our ability to be fully present with those we love the most in our families, and keeps us from forming the kind of community that we all so desperately crave.... It doesn't have to be this way. In many Muslim cultures, when you want to ask them how they're doing, you ask: in Arabic, Kayf haal-ik? or, in Persian, Haal-e shomaa chetoreh? How is your haal? What is this haal that you inquire about? It is the transient state of one's heart. In reality, we ask, 'How is your heart doing at this very moment, at this breath?' When I ask, 'How are you?' that is really what I want to know. I am not asking how many items are on your to-do list, nor asking how many items are in your inbox. I want to know how your heart is doing, at this very moment. Tell me. Tell me your heart is joyous, tell me your heart is aching, tell me your heart is sad, tell me your heart craves a human touch. Examine your own heart, explore your soul, and then tell me something about your heart and your soul. Tell me you remember you are still a human being, not just a human doing. Tell me you're more than just a machine, checking off items from your to-do list. Have that conversation, that glance, that touch. Be a healing conversation, one filled with grace and presence. Put your hand on my arm, look me in the eye, and connect with me for one second."
This event, which features a keynote address, several panels, and a performance, will offer a unique opportunity to consider the intersection of both the scholarly and artistic work of H. G. Adler, a major thinker and writer who is just becoming known in English.
Sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center, The Bard Translation Initiative, Jewish Studies, German Studies, and Human Rights Project.
Free and open to the public!
Monday, May 4, 2015
Bard Hall, Bard College, 4:00 pm - 6:00 pm
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 email@example.com.
Friday, May 15, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm
Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Privacy: Why Does It Matter?," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!
This week on the Blog, Jeffrey Champlin discusses how Arendt's use of the "Archimedean point" in Chapter 5 of The Human Condition helps us understand the Anthropocene in the Quote of the Week. Ray Bradbury provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we appreciate a photo of a personal Arendt library that includes, among other things, a thinking cap that is used to aid the reader in the battle of ideas in this week's Library feature.
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.
The first chapter of The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State by John Mickletwait and Adrian Wooldridge has been reprinted in various forms, most recently in the Wall Street Journal. It begins with fear and awe-of China. The first chapter, parts of which have been reprinted in various forms most recently in the Wall Street Journal, introduces the reader to CELAP, the China Executive Leadership Academy Pudong. "Today, Chinese students and officials hurtle around the world, studying successful models from Chile to Sweden. Some 1,300 years ago, CELAP's staff remind you, imperial China sought out the brightest young people to become civil servants. For centuries, these mandarins ran the world's most advanced government-until the Europeans and then the Americans forged ahead. Better government has long been one of the West's great advantages. Now the Chinese want that title back. Western policy makers should look at this effort the same way that Western businessmen looked at Chinese factories in the 1990s: with a mixture of awe and fear. Just as China deliberately set out to remaster the art of capitalism, it is now trying to remaster the art of government. The only difference is a chilling one: Many Chinese think there is far less to be gained from studying Western government than they did from studying Western capitalism. They visit Silicon Valley and Wall Street, not Washington, D.C." Beginning with the uncontroversial premise that government is broken, The Fourth Revolution argues that two responses are necessary. The first response is technical: "Government can be made slimmer and better." The second response is "ideological: it requires people to ask just what they want government to do." What is needed is a revolution, the surprising and unpredictable emergence of a new common sense that can inspire sacrifice and dedication in the name of a collective vision. Mickletwait and Wooldridge are to be commended for moving beyond the typical jeremiads that all that we need to fix government are technical solutions. The last third of their book is an attempt to articulate a vision of a common idea that can inspire and animate a revolutionary re-imagination of the state. That their proposed idea, which they call "freedom," is actually quite old is an argument against neither the idea nor its messengers. That said, their view of freedom is disappointingly tame and apolitical. Read more in the Weekend Read by Roger Berkowitz on the Arendt Center blog.
What happens when a rock star Democratic mayor, a popular no-nonsense Republican Governor, and a billionaire philanthropist decide to make an all-out and high-profile effort to reform the failing schools in a poor post-industrial city? Dale Russakoff, in a long fascinating essay, describes the axis of local and financial interests that drove-and blocked-school reform in Newark, New Jersey. Despite a $100,000,000 commitment from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the results of the program have been mixed. "Almost four years later, Newark has fifty new principals, four new public high schools, a new teachers' contract that ties pay to performance, and an agreement by most charter schools to serve their share of the neediest students. But residents only recently learned that the overhaul would require thousands of students to move to other schools, and a thousand teachers and more than eight hundred support staff to be laid off within three years. In mid-April, seventy-seven members of the clergy signed a letter to Christie requesting a moratorium on the plan, citing 'venomous' public anger and 'the moral imperative' that people have power over their own destiny. Booker, now a U.S. senator, said in a recent interview that he understood families' fear and anger: 'My mom-she would've been fit to be tied with some of what happened.' But he characterized the rancor as 'a sort of nadir,' and predicted that in two or three years Newark could be a national model of urban education. 'That's pretty monumental in terms of the accomplishment that will be.'"
In a review essay summing up a recent biography of John Quincy Adams and both a recent biography and a collection of essays from his wife Louisa Catherine Adams, Susan Dunn points to Adams as perhaps the last member of the political generation of the founders, suggesting that he was both brilliant and behind his times: "Adams's program was a transformational one, but he disdained the transactional skills with which he might have achieved his goals. He rejected party-building, party leadership and followership, and piously stood opposed to using the tool of political patronage. He had neither talent nor patience for the essence of democratic leadership: connecting with, educating, and empowering ordinary citizens who were beginning to play a decisive part in American government. He did not grasp, as the historian Gordon Wood memorably wrote, that the voice of the people would become 'America's nineteenth-century popular substitute for the elitist intellectual leadership of the Revolutionary generation.' On the contrary, like the founders who worshiped 'the public' but feared 'the people,' Adams felt only scorn for the idea of dirtying his hands in the increasingly boisterous, personality-driven, sectional, and partisan politics of the 1820s and 1830s." Proving, however, that no one is just one thing, Adams would later prove to be in the advance guard of another issue; after losing the presidency in 1829, he took up abolition, which he fought as a member of the House of Representatives until his death two decades later.
Philip Ball pushes on the idea that the most elegant scientific solution is likely to be the best one, and the following ideal that simplicity is therefore beautiful, and finds it empty: "The idea that simplicity, as distinct from beauty, is a guide to truth - the idea, in other words, that Occam's Razor is a useful tool - seems like something of a shibboleth in itself. As these examples show, it is not reliably correct. Perhaps it is a logical assumption, all else being equal. But it is rare in science that all else is equal. More often, some experiments support one theory and others another, with no yardstick of parsimony to act as referee. We can be sure, however, that simplicity is not the ultimate desideratum of aesthetic merit. Indeed, in music and visual art, there appears to be an optimal level of complexity below which preference declines. A graph of enjoyment versus complexity has the shape of an inverted U: there is a general preference for, say, 'Eleanor Rigby' over both 'Baa Baa Black Sheep' and Pierre Boulez's Structures Ia, just as there is for lush landscapes over monochromes. For most of us, our tastes eschew the extremes."
Ben Lerner has an excellent essay in the London Review of Books on volume three of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle series. One of the most distinctive qualities of the series is the overwhelming amount of detail Knausgaard offers to describe even the most mundane of events, like the exact appearance and characteristics of a bowl of cornflakes. Indeed, Knausgaard has remarked in an interview, "I thought of this project as a kind of experiment in realistic prose. How far is it possible to go into detail before the novel cracks and becomes unreadable?" Lerner observes that it is this immersive and anti-literary formlessness-as well as the risk it carries-that ultimately gives Knausgaard's experiment its peculiar power. "What's unnerving about Knausgaard is that it's hard to decide if he's just a child who stares at everything, who makes no distinctions, or if he indeed qualifies as a Baudelairean man-child, as a genius who can 'bring order into the sum of experience, involuntarily amassed'. Another way to put it: does My Struggle ultimately have an aesthetic form? Or is it just one thing after another? I think it's because My Struggle is both absorbing and can feel undifferentiated that you'll find it being likened at once to crack cocaine and Marcel Proust. It's why we can read it compulsively while being uncertain if it's good."
Paul Carrese and Michael Doran, weary of having to listen to pundits discuss foreign policy and wary of off-the-shelf foreign policy doctrine, look back to Washington's 1796 Farewell Address as a model for present day American decision making. They note four points - the primacy of natural rights and religious ideals, maintaining military readiness and civilian authority, wariness of faction but adherence to Constitutional rules, and a statesmanship balanced between interest and justice - worthy of continued consideration. They conclude, finally, that the foreign policy put forth by Washington is a foreign policy of an informed citizenry: "the Founders' school of foreign policy encourages us to maintain a flexible but principled disposition. Washington hoped his moderate, balanced principles would 'prevent our nation from running the course which has hitherto marked the destiny of nations.' This presupposed civic vigilance by citizens and leaders alike. The Farewell Address thus calls his 'friends and fellow citizens' to take up the hard work of learning about and debating difficult issues, while avoiding passion and partisan rancor to the highest degree humanly possible. In foreign policy, as in all aspects of political life, neither the experts nor the public have a monopoly on insight. Both are capable of error. A successful, long-term American strategy toward any given problem, or any given era of international realities, will command the respect of a large portion of the public and a significant portion of the experts. Such strategies must be a product of co-creation, and must be rooted in our deepest principles and values."
In the Intercept, Ryan Devereaux, Glenn Greenwald, and Laura Poitras write about MYSTIC, a secret NSA program that allows the U.S. Government to record and listen to every single phone call in certain countries. "Rather than simply making 'tentative analytic conclusions derived from metadata,' the memo notes, analysts can follow up on hunches by going back in time and listening to phone calls recorded during the previous month. Such 'retrospective retrieval' means that analysts can figure out what targets were saying even when the calls occurred before the targets were identified. '[W]e buffer certain calls that MAY be of foreign intelligence value for a sufficient period to permit a well-informed decision on whether to retrieve and return specific audio content,' the NSA official reported. The program raises profound questions about the nature and extent of American surveillance abroad. The U.S. intelligence community routinely justifies its massive spying efforts by citing the threats to national security posed by global terrorism and unpredictable rival nations like Russia and Iran. But the NSA documents indicate that SOMALGET has been deployed in the Bahamas to locate 'international narcotics traffickers and special-interest alien smugglers' - traditional law-enforcement concerns, but a far cry from derailing terror plots or intercepting weapons of mass destruction. 'The Bahamas is a stable democracy that shares democratic principles, personal freedoms, and rule of law with the United States,' the State Department concluded in a crime and safety report published last year. 'There is little to no threat facing Americans from domestic (Bahamian) terrorism, war, or civil unrest.' By targeting the Bahamas' entire mobile network, the NSA is intentionally collecting and retaining intelligence on millions of people who have not been accused of any crime or terrorist activity."
This week on the Blog Wolfgang Heuer writes about Arendt and social science in the "Quote" of the Week. And Roger Berkowitz writes about the Fourth Revolution, a call for a classical liberal revolution in the Weekend Read.
“Moreover, if we inquire historically into the causes likely to transform engagés into enragés, it is not injustice that ranks first, but hypocrisy. … To tear the mask of hypocrisy from the face of the enemy, to unmask him and the devious machinations and manipulations that permit him to rule without using violent means, that is, to provoke action even at the risk of annihilation so that the truth may come out—these are still among the strongest motives in today’s violence on the campuses and in the streets. And this violence again is not irrational. Since men live in a world of appearances and, in their dealing with it, depend on manifestation, hypocrisy’s conceits—as distinguished from expedient ruses, followed by disclosure in due time—cannot be met by so-called reasonable behavior. Words can be relied on only if one is sure that their function is to reveal and not to conceal. It is the semblance of rationality, much more than the interests behind it, that provokes rage.”
--On Violence (65-66)
In On Violence (1970), Arendt argues for political action and power as opposed to violence. According to her conception, power is political, and it is an end in itself. It is brought into being through the political and public “acting in concert” of a plurality of human beings. Violence, on the other hand, is instrumental in two senses of the word: it can only be carried out through the use of external instruments, and it is a means that cannot supply its own end. Rule by violence becomes a possibility wherever real power is being lost, and while violence may destroy power, it can never produce it. Violence relies on goals external to itself for its justification, yet it is also a means that can devour its own ends.
More particularly, and to place the passage in the proper late-1960s context, she is interested, on the one hand, in the extreme potential for violence produced through twentieth century technological developments and, on the other, the question of violence perpetrated by and against oppositional student groups in the western world. The two are, of course, related in complex ways. Arendt is worried about the unleashing of a vicious cycle of violence, in which students actively seek to provoke the police with the express purpose of bringing an underlying “fascism” or naked state violence to the fore. Similarly, she writes, in the 1930s, fascism’s opponents had at times even celebrated its victory because it would reveal the internal contradictions of a “civilized society” that held violence and repression at its core. “We saw how that turned out,” is the implied conclusion.
What is at the root of this cycle of violence? From the outset, Arendt rejects biological explanations based on some innate human aggressiveness emerging from our animal selves. According to the bio-psychological line of analysis, human impulses towards violence can be so dangerous because they have been blocked and severed from their original “natural” purpose of species preservation. They have become redirected in a way that makes them irrational. Arendt rejects this characterization and instead seeks to identify the rationale behind violence. She finds it partially by examining rage against injustice, which arises “only where there is reason to suspect that conditions could be changed and are not…” (63). She goes so far as to recognize that “… under certain circumstances violence—acting without argument or speech and without counting the consequences—is the only way to set the scales of justice right again.” (64)
That rage and violence against injustice can be rational, though, in no way makes them political. Indeed, they are “without argument or speech,” and she explicitly characterizes them as “antipolitical.” What Arendt describes, then, is an unpolitical cycle of violence, which forms a synthetic dialectic. She additionally reveals that, despite themselves, the two parties to the dialectic are, by essence, largely the same. The students rebel against the Establishment and the System, but they fail to recognize what these have become or their own role in their operation. They romantically cling to the Marxist notion of a bourgeois-proletarian dialectic of class conflict when 1) the embourgeoisement of the post-war working class had stymied its revolutionary potential, and 2) this was in no small part due to scientific advances that made the intellectuals and the scientists the new mandarins, over and above the class warriors of the bourgeoisie. And who are the future intellectuals and scientists if not the students, themselves? The students are raging against the machine of technical conquest that produced the bomb and napalm, but they are simultaneously reproducing the machine, through their very being.
Violence emerges when political power is lost, and political power dissipates when there is no space for human action in which power can be renewed. Arendt writes:
I am inclined to think that much of the present glorification of violence is caused by severe frustration of the faculty of action in the modern world. It is simply true that riots in the ghettos and rebellions on the campuses make ‘people feel like they are acting together in a way that they rarely can.’ (83)
Violence is, then, a false politics that serves to placate the frustrated political actor. It becomes an outlet for a political impulse that has been blocked, according to Arendt, especially by our belief in modern progress. Progress as “growth, the relentless process of more and more, of bigger and bigger” increases demand for administration. Bureaucratization, in turn, increases the appeal of violence precisely because it is unpolitical:
In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one can argue, to whom one can present grievances, on whom the pressures of power can be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant. The crucial feature in the student rebellions around the world is that they are directed everywhere against the ruling bureaucracy.
Bureaucratization and the ideal of progress block politics because the idea of politics, the notion that human beings might initiate the radically new and unexpected in the world, is fundamentally alien to them. They are, instead, built upon the idea that everything can be accounted for and made predictable through the universal dictates of objective science and technique.
Bureaucracy is also a key source of the very hypocrisy Arendt identifies above as a catalyst of rage and violence. It presents itself as the impartial bearer of technical truths, but bureaucracy is instrumental just like violence, which means it relies on external, political ends to provide its operating justification. Despite claims to neutrality, it must, by definition, serve political ends. Though also like violence, it constantly threatens to overflow its own bounds, overwhelming the ends with meaningless means.
The current dialectic in Europe, between a sometimes-violent populist revival and a technocracy claiming only to implement neutral economic truths, illustrates anew the dynamic Arendt identified in 1969-1970. The populist aims to reveal the hypocrisy of the technocrat by existing as the technocrat’s opposite, by declaring himself the true representative of the people’s good. But in being his opposite, he reproduces the same problem in mirror image. Both deny politics and attempt to substitute some form of absolute reason in its place. Thus, we ‘deal with’ our freedom by simultaneously declaring absolute control—via either technique or rule by populist incarnation—and giving up control absolutely—to the self-contained system of scientific principles or the populist leader. In Arendt’s examples, the enraged reaction against hypocrisy ends up producing the very violence against which it fights, most obviously when students force the government to react with open violence in order to prove that the violence had been there all along. Similarly, contemporary populism produces the negation of politics while fighting against the same negation of politics in another form. Technocracy completes and perpetuates the cycle as it explicitly aims to combat populism and discipline the popular will in favor of "impartial truths."
In this context, the popular explosion of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is interesting in (at least) two ways: 1) Piketty justifies and provides fuel for populist rage against inequality. He demonstrates the magnitude of current gross disparities in wealth and shows them to be the result of policies that have been presented as the only sound technical reactions to contemporary economic truths. 2) He also dethrones the notion of the economic law. He reveals the fallacies of the postwar technocrats who believed their economic situation had been the natural result of the unfolding of “natural” economic developmental laws. Instead, we now know that their unprecedented situation, characterized by high levels of growth and employment along with historically low levels of inequality, came as a result of historical contingency mixed with deliberate and free political action. Their mistake was to reify their circumstances and then try and understand this “given” and “natural” phenomenon via scientific theory.
Arendt’s analysis of this very same time period, however, suggests that the human activity Piketty highlights was anything but “political action.” To caricature and simplify, efforts directed towards material well-being cannot constitute politically free action, according to her, because they are determined by the objective circumstance of human need. One could argue, though, that, in this, she may have fallen for the technocrats’ reification of political choices about material well-being into deterministic laws—even while she denounced their attempts to collapse human experience into behaviorist systems. The question then becomes whether an Arendtian politics is possible that is nevertheless directed towards the maintenance of the living organism in some way. In fact, both Arendt and Marx condemned inequality reduction as strictly unpolitical. Despite extreme differences in their notions of politics, for both of them politics is about human freedom, not life or living. It is a common misconception that Marx was arguing for the elimination of inequality. In fact, he denounced all attempts to do so as weakly reformist. The root of the problem was, rather, lack of freedom in a republican sense: It does not matter how well or equally you are treated if you are nevertheless a slave.
The characterization of inequality concerns as “unpolitical” seems to go too far, though, if we consider the idea that people cannot act politically and freely if they lack basic security and trust in the world. This is a point that Arendt makes in On Revolution, among other works, in which she writes that desperation can only produce violence and not politics. (This point could also work towards providing an Arendtian explanation for populist violence à la Golden Dawn, etc.) With this in mind, our fight against inequality could actually be understood as political action in the service of political action as an end in itself.
What Piketty has in common with Arendt is the condemnation of social “science” masquerading as natural science. Arendt shows how this can be a hindrance to freedom, and she understands it as something that is also fundamentally unworkable. The belief in its predictive power can only exist in denial of the unpredictable results of human action that will always undo the projected image of organized harmony. Piketty is criticizing the economic establishment on these same grounds, which is why his crusade against inequality challenges Arendt’s sharp dividing line between politics and mere life. While his data analysis shows that our world will tend towards more and more extreme inequality, Piketty emphasizes the fact that this tendency has been undone before, which implies that we can politically undo it again. Insofar as they both believe in and endorse the possibility and power of political action, it seems reasonable to assume that Piketty would also endorse Arendt’s important claim that,
If we look on history in terms of a continuous chronological process, whose progress, moreover, is inevitable, violence in the shape of war and revolution may appear to constitute the only possible interruption. If this were true, if only the practice of violence would make it possible to interrupt automatic processes in the realm of human affairs, the preachers of violence would have won an important point. … It is the function, however, of all action, as distinguished from mere behavior, to interrupt what otherwise would have proceeded automatically and therefore predictably. (30-31)
--Jennifer M. Hudson
Richard Brody writes of “Hannah Arendt,” the new movie by Margarethe von Trotta, “The movie, unfortunately, doesn’t do Arendt justice”—a rhetorical gambit that suggests at least a fair-minded inquiry into Arendt’s thought. But Brody then proceeds to accuse Arendt of a propensity toward “monstrous abstractions.” Her tendency toward abstraction occurs despite what Brody calls “her meticulous pileup of facts,” which has such “a terrifying, implacable, unbearable power” as to render her book “overwhelming, incommensurable, alien to human experience.” Brody repeats the widespread error that Arendt accepts “at face value” Eichmann’s claim not to be an anti-Semite. Arendt, Brody writes, misses the “mystery, ambiguity, vastness, complexity, and horror” of the Eichmann trial. Arendt and von Trotta, Brody writes in a synthesis of reality and fiction, both make “the same mistake” of setting up “’thinking’” as a special category of activity.” Arendt, pace Brody, “writes from the point of view of a philosopher, not of a journalist”—as if that critique explains her mistake in thinking that “thinking” might be important. The only half-positive sentence about Arendt comes in the last line where he concedes: “From [Arendt’s] philosophical, historical, and journalistic failures, Arendt created an accidental literary masterwork despite itself.” If von Trotta’s movie doesn’t do Arendt justice, one wonders what Brody would think necessary for the movie to do her justice.
He tells us. To do Arendt justice, von Trotta should have focused on “giving small gestures and daily labors grand scope.” He actually says that Arendt should be more ridiculous and less dignified: “Von Trotta preserves Arendt’s dignity to the point of dehumanization, depriving the protagonist of any trait that could render her ridiculous.” He insists on seeing more of her regular life with family and friends, after acknowledging that von Trotta’s movie does offer a balanced insight into the importance of Arendt’s friends in her life. The implication is we want more gossip and less thinking, a portrayal of the chatty girlish Hannah rather than the austere chain smoker. Aside from the misogyny in such a statement about one of the great thinkers of the 20th century who happened to have been a woman, Brody here exhibits his fundamental lack of understanding of all things concerning Arendt. For Arendt was not the least bit interested in “small gestures and daily labors.” She was a thinker of surprising and unexpected deeds that, she argued, can only be measured by their greatness. Nothing chatty here.
What galls Brody above all is that a serious movie is made about a serious thinker that takes seriously precisely what is unique (for better or worse) about Arendt—her insistence on being different and apart. Arendt called herself an “intentional pariah,” someone who sought freedom and independence by standing aloof from society. Brody finds such moral seriousness silly and Arendt’s insistence on self-thinking brings forth his disdain for what he dismisses as the false “gleaming nobility of the life of the mind” that diverts us from the truth of “the turmoil of regular life.” Von Trotta’s movie, with the extraordinary assistance of Barbara Sukowa’s acting, nails this most essential characteristic of Arendt’s persona to perfection. For that achievement of cinematic, biographical, and intellectual fidelity, Brody skewers both von Trotta and Arendt. The exploration of uniqueness is apparently something Brody cannot abide.
The absolute low point of his rejection of Arendt’s idea of thinking comes when he expresses through multiple examples his complete discomfort with thinking itself. As A.O. Scott and others including myself have argued, the genius of von Trotta’s movie is the setting to screen not a theory of thinking, but the act itself. For Brody, this is no accomplishment. This is because for him thinking is nothing special. Thinking, he argues, is banal. It is, as he writes, commonplace and, in the end, common. Thus thinking and showing thinking both are easy: "Actually, the work of thinking is easy, almost effortless, to show—it’s what almost every movie is made of."
To bring home his point, Brody offers six links to putative examples of thinking on display in movies. The first is to an actress peeling a potato for 150 seconds, an exercise in the profundity of mundane life. The second extols the virtue of killing and violence for masculinity. The third, from Murnau’s silent “The Last Laugh,” shows Max Schreck in emotional agony. The fourth, from “Bringing up Baby,” has Katharine Hepburn tricking Cary Grant into coming over and helping her with a leopard. You get the idea. There is no thinking going on in these scenes. That is apparently Brody point: thinking doesn’t exist except in the most mundane and calculating of ways.
Brody’s antipathy to the act of thinking is flagrant. He writes: “The movie’s sanctimonious depiction of “thinking” as something greater than what the regular run of people do is one of the signs of its artistic failure.” But Brody’s defense of the common man is misplaced, for Arendt in no ways denies that run of the mill people can think. On the contrary, she imagines that uneducated people raised with traditions and character are frequently more thoughtful than intellectuals. Those trained in ideas and abstractions are uniquely susceptible to the power of rationalization and the sway of ideologies in ways that those relying on common sense are not.
That everyone can think does not mean that we all do. Thinking, Arendt insists, is rare. It is fundamentally distinguished from reasoning. It is not the same as calculating. It is also not the same as being creative, intelligent, inventive or smart. Thinkers are not necessarily intellectuals. Above all, thinkers are distinguished from “problem solvers,” those educated persons of “great self-confidence” who are uncommonly adept at convincing themselves of their infallibility. Thinking doubts and puts up obstacles. Its primary effect is to raise questions rather than offering answers.
We need to understand that by thinking Arendt means something specific. Thinking means, above all, Selbstdenken—an untranslatable German word for “self-thinking,” or thinking for oneself. It is the act of having a conversation with oneself in which one acknowledges the basic moral premise that it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong. Such thinking is free from social conventions, clichés, and oversimplifications. Thinking is also quite distinct from social science, which seeks answers precisely in the kind of normalization of unique actions that thinking rebels against. Only thinking, Arendt argued, has the potential to remind us of our human dignity and free us to resist our servility. Such thinking, in Arendt’s view, cannot be taught: it can only be exemplified.
We cannot learn thinking through catechism or study. We learn thinking only through experience, when we are inspired by those whose thinking enthralls us—when we encounter someone who stands apart from the crowd.
Brody’s review dismisses Arendt’s understanding of thinking with an unknowing wave of his hand. He reduces thinking to an emotional scream—like the agony on Shreck’s face— or cunning—Hepburn knocking over a tea set and pretending a leopard is attacking her. Brody doesn’t much like thinking and finds it pretentious and overly intellectual. So he makes fun of those who strive to write or make films about thinking, calling what he won’t understand “soft-core philosophical porn.”
At another point, Brody cites interviews with Claude Lanzmann to raise questions about Arendt’s portrayals of the Jewish leaders who collaborated or cooperated with the Nazis during the war. There are legitimate disagreements one can have with Arendt on this issue, and von Trotta’s film gives these opposing views full voice, something a reader of Brody’s review would never learn. In the film two of Arendt’s dearest friends turn away from her and Hans Jonas lambasts her for unfeeling arrogance in refusing to see the moral and practical tragedies of Jewish leaders during the war. Jonas is right to point to Arendt’s arrogance, and von Trotta confronts that arrogance head on, leaving it to the viewer to decide whether such independence is called for. Jonas’ critique of his friend is more blistering—and more insightful—than anything Brody might add.
Hannah Arendt was neither a saint nor infallible. She may in the end be wrong about the power of thinking to save or dissuade people from doing evil. Neither I nor the Arendt Center has an interest in holding her on a pedestal. The Center regularly publishes posts and essays critical of her work; on our blog you can find a collection of reviews of “Hannah Arendt,” the movie, with critical reviews that raise meaningful questions about both her and the movie. I have no problem with criticizing Arendt intelligently. Such criticism, however, demands some baby steps toward taking Arendt seriously. Brody merely crawls around throwing sand.
You can read Brody’s review here.
Louis Pasteur once wrote:
I see everywhere in the world, the inevitable expression of the concept of infinity…. The idea of God is nothing more than one form of the idea of infinity. So long as the mystery of the infinite weighs on the human mind, so long will temples be raised to the cult of the infinite, whether it be called Bramah, Allah, Jehovah, or Jesus…. The Greeks understood the mysterious power of the hidden side of things. They bequethed to us one of the most beautiful words in our language—the word ‘enthusiasm’—En Theos—“A God Within.” The grandeur of human actions is measured by the inspiration from which they spring. Happy is he who hears a god within, and who obeys it. The ideals of art, of science, are lighted by reflection from the infinite.
To bear a god within is not an easy task for us mortals. The god within—even more so than the god without—demands to be obeyed. Having a god inside us—or Socrates like a daimon on our shoulder—is no recipe for happiness.
It can lead to unbearable obligation and even to martyrdom. And, if the god is a muse, it can lead to the travails of the artist.
All great art and all great artists are consumed by the infinite. As Oscar Wilde once wrote, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars.” Those are the artists, the ones who amidst the muck feel part of something higher, something everlasting, the infinite.
The great enemy of the infinite is reason. Reason is calculating. It is rational. It is logical. It insists that everything is knowable and comprehensible. Ends justify means. And means can achieve ends. Reason insists on explanation. The self—the mystery—must be made knowable.
David Brooks in the NY Times today lauds the entry of behavioral psychology into politics and policy. We want to know, he writes, how to get people to vote and how to get congress to cut the deficit. If science can tell us how what to put in their drinking water, how to frame the question, what books to read to them in vitro, or how to rewire their brains to be rational, wouldn’t that make policy all the more reasonable? Wouldn’t that be a good thing?
Science can make us more rational. That of course is the dream of people like Ray Kurzweil as well as the social scientists who insist that humans can be studied like rats. Let’s not object to the fact. We can be studied like rats and that is what university social science departments around the country and the world are doing everyday. This research is eminently useful, as Brooks rightly remarks. If we employ it, we can be made to be more reasonable.
What the rationalization of humanity means, however, is not a question science can answer. Max Weber began the study of the rationalization of mankind when he proposed that the rise of the enlightenment and the age of reason was bringing about an “Entzauberung” or a “de-magicification” of the world. Capitalism emerged at this time for a number of reasons, but one main reason, Weber understood, was that capitalism provided in the profit motive rational and objective criteria for measuring human endeavors. The problem, as Weber so well understood, is that the elevation of reason and rationality brought about the devaluation of all highest values—what Nietzsche would call nihilism. This is because reason, derived from ratio, is always a relation. All values are relative. In such a world, nothing is infinite. Stuck amidst the relations of means and ends, everything is a calculation. All is a game. There is no purpose or meaning to the game of life. As we become more rational, we also become less consumed by the infinite. That is the true danger of the rise of the social sciences and our rationality-consumed culture that insists that all human behavior be made understandable so that it can be made better.
In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt is concerned with the way that the rise of reason and rationality is challenging the quintessence of the human condition—at least as that human condition has been experienced and known since the dawn of humanity. The rise of the social sciences, she writes over and over, are subjecting the mystery and fecundity of human action to the law of large numbers. While each and every human action may in itself be surprising and mysterious, it is nevertheless true that studied in groups and analyzed over time, human action does fall into comprehensible patterns. The more we study and know these patterns, the more we come to think of humans as predictable animals rather than surprising and spontaneous selves. This sociological and psychological reduction of man to animal is very much at the heart of what Arendt is opposing in her book.
Nowhere is the rationality of our times more visible than in the victory of labor and the marginalization of art. We are, all of us, laborers today. That is why the first question we ask others we meet is: What do you do? Our labor defines us. It gives our lives meaning in that it assigns us a use and a value. Even professors, judges, and presidents now say regularly: this is my job. By which we mean, don’t blame us for what we do. Don’t hold me to some higher standard. Don’t expect miracles. It is our job to do this. We do this to make a living.
The one group in society who is at times excepted from this reduction to labor is artists. But even the artist is today is taken less and less seriously. Insofar as artists are enthusiasts consumed with the infinite, they are ignored or viewed as marginal. Art is reduced to playfulness. A hobby. “From the standpoint of “making a living,” every activity unconnected with labor becomes a “hobby.”” And those artists who are taken seriously, whose work is bought and sold on the art market, turn artistic work into the job of making a living.
Art, Arendt writes, is a process of magic. Citing a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, she insists that the magic of art is the artist’s transfiguration of something ordinary—the canvas, clay or word—into something extraordinary, an expression of the infinite in the finite world of things.
Because art figures the infinite, poetry is the “most human” of the arts and the art that “remains closest to the thought that inspired it.” The poem, of all artworks, is the most lasting because its medium is the least subject to decay. It is the closest expression of the infinite we humans possess.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose resonance with Arendt in so many things has been too infrequently remarked, agrees that poetry is the art form in which the individual artist can access and figure in the world a public and common truth. In “The Poet,” Emerson writes:
It is a secret which every intellectual man quickly learns, that beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect, he is capable of a new energy (as of an intellect doubled on itself ), by abandonment to the nature of things; that, beside his privacy of power as an individual man, there is a great public power on which he can draw by unlocking, at all risks, his human doors and suffering the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through him: then he is caught up into the life of the universe; his speech is thunder; his thought is law, and his words are universally intelligible as the plants and animals. The poet knows that he speaks adequately, then, only when he speaks somewhat wildly, or, “with the flower of the mind”; not with the intellect used as an organ but with the intellect released from all service…inebriated by nectar. As the traveler who has lost his way throws his reins on his horse’s neck and trusts to the instinct of the animal to find his road, so must we do with the divine animal who carries us through this world. For if in any manner we can stimulate this instinct, new passages are opened for us into nature, the mind flows into and through things hardest and highest, and the metamorphosis is possible. This is the reason why bards love wine, mead, narcotics, coffee, tea, opium, the fumes of sandalwood and tobacco, or whatever other species of animal exhilaration. All men avail themselves of such means as they can to add this extraordinary power to their normal powers, and to this end they prize conversation, music, pictures, sculpture, dancing, theaters, traveling, wars, mobs, fires, gaming, politics, or love, or science, or animal intoxication, which are several coarser or finer quasi-mechanical substitutes for the true nectar, which is the ravishment of the intellect by coming nearer to the fact.
I take this quotation from Emerson’s “The Poet” from an exceptional recent essay by Sven Birkirts. The essay appears in the latest edition of Lapham’s Quarterly, an entire issue focusing on the merits and need for inebriation.
As Birkirts writes:
For Emerson, the intoxication is not escape but access, a means of getting closer to “the fact,” which might, with heartfelt imprecision, be called life itself. What he means by “public power,” I think, is something like what Carl Jung and others later meant by the phrase collective unconscious, the emphasis falling on the unconscious, that posited reservoir of our shared archetypes and primordial associations—that which reason by itself cannot fathom, for it is, in essence, antithetical to reason.
Birkirt’s reflects not only on the need for inebriation in the pursuit of artistic infinity, but also on the decreasing potency of intoxicants today. For him, the rise of the mass market in art, the globalization of experience, the accessibility of all information all have made the world smaller, knowable, and accountable. What is lost in such access is precisely the portal to the infinite.
Artistically and in almost every other way ours has become a culture of proliferation. Information, perspectives, as well as the hypercharged clips and images of our global experience are within the radius of the keystroke. Nothing is unspoken, nothing is unaccounted. Every taste is given a niche and every niche is catered to. Here, one might argue, is more material than ever; here are opportunities for even greater acts of synthesis. But I am skeptical. Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” The temptation is to invert the phrases and ascribe causality: where everything is permitted, nothing is true. Where nothing is true, where is the Emersonian fact to be found? This bears directly on the artist’s task. The idea that writers can keep producing grandly synthesizing or totalizing work—that has the ring of truth, of mattering—is debatable.
Birkirt’s essay may not be the intoxicant of your choice this weekend, but it should be. It is your weekend read. And you might check out the surprising selection at the bar at Lapham’s Quarterly as well.
And for those with time to spare: Arthur Koestler, from whom I first learned of the Louis Pasteur quote at the top of this essay, was consumed with the connection between intoxication and the infinite. I have discussed Koestler’s pursuit of the infinite at length. You can read that discussion here.
Thinking through the Human Condition: Arendt and Anthropology
Answering Arendt’s Indictments of Social Science
My blog post today is the first of a series of contributions that aims to bring Arendt’s thought into conversation with cultural anthropology, my home discipline, and other modes of social analysis. At first glance, Arendt and anthropologists would seem to make for strange bedfellows, since their arguments have rarely intersected in any explicit way: Arendt engaged little if at all with cultural anthropology in her wide-ranging corpus, and anthropologists have tended to avoid Arendt, despite the inspiration they often take from other philosophers and political theorists. Nevertheless, the guiding premise behind this series is that Arendtian and anthropological analyses can be brought together in a manner that offers a great deal to wider contemplation of the human condition. This potential can only be realized, however, if we also recognize the frictions that emerge from their contrasting starting points and lines of argument.
Peter Baehr’s recent book, Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, and the Social Sciences (2010), offers an enlightening vantage on these frictions and the difficulties they present for such an encounter. Indeed, Arendt regarded sociology and the other social science disciplines with the utmost skepticism. On the one hand, she took issue with what she regarded as their deterministic theories of historical causality and their misguided presumptions about human self-interest. As she contended in The Human Condition, the social sciences “[aimed] to reduce man as a whole, in all his activity, to the level of a conditioned and behaving animal” (p. 45). In so doing, they not only denied the existence of human freedom; they also reflected—and helped to perpetuate—the very mass societies they ostensibly explained. At the same time, the social sciences operated (in Arendt’s understanding) on the core assumption that “human conduct springs essentially from self-interested, instrumental, and utilitarian considerations” (Baehr, p. 14). This premise rendered the social sciences utterly incapable of coming to terms with the non- and even anti-utilitarian nature of totalitarianism.
Such shortcomings were only further compounded by social scientists’ reliance on established conceptual models and their penchant for historical analogy. In Arendt’s view, the social sciences were entirely too quick to cast specific social phenomena as reflexes or symptoms of underlying transhistorical processes (such as the materialist dialectic proposed by Marx). As a result, they were prone to untenable generalizations that occluded salient differences between distinct social and political forms (such as totalitarian concentration camps and institutions of slavery). In keeping with this complaint, Arendt harbored particular scorn for Weberian ideal types like charisma and bureaucracy, which she regarded as devices to “normalize” particular phenomena and make of them “an item or case of something already known” (Baehr, p. 26).
Arendt’s criticisms certainly apply to some forms of social science scholarship, particularly those that seize opportunistically on specific instances to engage in the kind of grand theorizing that bleaches human intercourse of particularity, emotion, and moral import. In such moments, complex human realities can and do become mere grist for the conceptual mill. Yet her dismissal of the social sciences ultimately strikes me as overdrawn. Many social scientists explore the conditions of human autonomy and historical novelty with greater nuance than she was prepared to admit. Moreover, many of them challenge the notion that human activity can only be explained in utilitarian terms. Cultural anthropology, in particular, has repeatedly highlighted how human beings arrange their lives in ways that defy scientific models of rationality.
Baehr remains a strong advocate of Arendt’s theorizing, but he also demonstrates the subtlety of social science analysis through three appreciative critics of her work in the 1940s and 1950s. The interdisciplinary scholar David Riesman, for example, found Arendt’s analysis of totalitarian society too sweeping: Arendt exaggerated the capacity of the Nazi and Stalinist regimes to rework human subjectivity, and ignored human beings’ stubborn ability to retain their individuality, exercise their agency, and otherwise elude total domination (Baehr, chapter 2, especially pp. 45-56). Riesman thereby drew worthwhile attention to the ways that Arendt, in her zeal to convey the pervasiveness of totalitarian power, neglected the sociology of everyday life.
The political sociologist Raymond Aron thoughtfully resisted Arendt’s notion that totalitarianism constituted a radical break with previous modes of rule. He related the emergence of totalitarianism to the existence of monopolistic political parties in Germany and the Soviet Union. He dissected the ways that totalitarian terror, especially in the Soviet Union, was legally codified and administratively routinized, rather than being entirely inscrutable and haphazard. And he insisted that totalitarian ideology was open to flexible application and transformation in a fashion that Arendt, with her focus on its uncompromising deductive rigidity, did not acknowledge (Baehr, chapter 3, especially pp. 77-87). On the basis of these specific claims, Aron contended that totalitarianism bore intelligible continuities with older modes of tyranny. As he did so, however, he admittedly shied away from the “mysterious margin” of nightmarish absurdity that he too observed in totalitarian regimes—and that Arendt traced so evocatively.
Finally, the sociologist Jules Monnerot sharply underscored the ways that totalitarian ideologies mobilized the fervor of their adherents through party gatherings, mass celebrations, and other ritual encounters. In the process, he likened totalitarianism to religious traditions (above all, Islam) in a fashion that resonated with other treatments of totalitarianism as a “secular” or “political religion” (Baehr, chapter 4, especially pp. 95-99). Arendt pointedly refused any such equation. In her account, religion provides limits and standards that protect the sacredness of human life; totalitarianism, by contrast, pursues the notion that “everything is possible and permitted,” and it regards particular human beings as superfluous and dispensable in its effort to transform human nature itself. Yet as Baehr notes, Arendt’s position did not resolve the question of totalitarianism’s (lack of) relationship with religion as decisively as she might have thought. In the end, it failed to take into account many witnesses’ quasi-religious experience of totalitarian performances, and it neglected the fact that religious forms and expressions did suffuse totalitarian discourse in demonstrable ways.
The point of Baehr’s book is not that we need to side either with Arendt or with her social science critics exclusively. I happen to find Riesman’s objections quite trenchant, but I also believe, like Baehr, that Aron’s confident diagnosis fails to grapple with the chaotic madness that characterized the Nazi and Stalinist regimes.
And as much as Arendt’s position on ritual and religion might be interrogated, her insistence that we maintain fine distinctions—and not succumb to easy generalizations and conflations—is a valuable one. One implication of this point is that we should be duly suspicious of any intellectual stance, including Arendt’s, which dismisses an entire realm of disciplinary inquiry root and branch. As Baehr’s book shows, rigorous social scientific scholarship can usefully probe the limits of Arendt’s assumptions, evidence, and arguments—just as it can lead us to a greater admiration of her insights.