Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
4May/150

Amor Mundi 5/3/15

Arendtamormundi

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-upOur Daily Routine

nazi trialAnna 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.

Psycho Babble

psychologyWe 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!"

Order and Violence

baltimore protestsViolence 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.

Civility and Truth

salaitaThe 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.

amor_mundi_sign-upAn Ideologue and a Meddlesome Egoist

pope francisPope 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.

Consider the Paragraph

paragraphElisa 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."

Not Just Clowning Around

Bernie SandersMatt 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."

Forgetting to Forget

warMichelle 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."

The Courage to Not Be Busy

from the heartOmid 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."

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

h. g. adlerTranslating the Holocaust: H. G. Adler as Writer and Scholar

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


human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #8

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, May 15, 2015

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

 

 


privacy con 2015 (temp)SAVE THE DATE - 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

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!


From the Arendt Center Blog

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.

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.
13Apr/150

Amor Mundi 4/12/15

Arendtamormundi

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-upA Poet of Ordinary Life

toni morrisonIn a long profile of Toni Morrison, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah tries to define the arc of the novelist's career: "On one level, Morrison's project is obvious: It is a history that stretches across 11 novels and just as many geographies and eras to tell a story that is hardly chronological but is thematically chained and somewhat continuous. This is the project most readily understood and accepted by even her least generous critics. But then there is the other mission, the less obvious one, the one in which Morrison often does the unthinkable as a minority, as a woman, as a former member of the working class: She democratically opens the door to all of her books only to say, 'You can come in and you can sit, and you can tell me what you think, and I'm glad you are here, but you should know that this house isn't built for you or by you.' Here, blackness isn't a commodity; it isn't inherently political; it is the race of a people who are varied and complicated. This is where her works become less of a history and more of a liturgy, still stretching across geographies and time, but now more pointedly, to capture and historicize: This is how we pray, this is how we escape, this is how we hurt, this is how we repent, this is how we move on. It is a project that, although ignored by many critics, evidences itself on the page. It has allowed Morrison to play with language, to take chances with how stories unravel and to consistently resist the demand to create an empirical understanding of black life in America. Instead, she makes black life--regular, quotidian black life, the kind that doesn't sell out concert halls or sports stadiums--complex, fantastic and heroic, despite its devaluation. It is both aphorism and beyond aphorism, and a result has been pure possibility."

Offense Heard Everywhere

claudia rankineNick Laird in the New York Review of Books writes about the poetry and essays of Claudia Rankine. Rankine describes everyday slights that condition her experience of being black, what increasingly are called "microaggressions"--those daily and often unconscious and unintended slights that individuals perceive as burdensome and deadening. The dialogue around microaggressions can be helpful insofar as people of all races reach across divides and try to understand each other. But too often the discussion of microaggressions is itself an aggressive accusation. Then attention to microaggressions takes over one's life. As Laird writes: "This is how racism works: it blocks the possibility of living an undefended life. For those who know 'the urgency brought on by an overflow of compromises, deaths, and tempers specific to a profile woke to and gone to sleep to each day,' every incident is a possible example of it. In an open letter discussing 'The Change,' a poem by her erstwhile colleague the poet Tony Hoagland (Rankine maintains that 'some readers perceived [it] to be...racist' and Hoagland maintains that it is 'racially complex'), she writes that 'when offense is being taken offense is heard everywhere, even in the imagination.'"

The Woman in Pain

woman traumaThe corollary of microaggression in feminism today is trauma, something explored by Jessa Crispin in Boston Review. "Last May, after the Isla Vista shooter's manifesto revealed a deep misogyny, women went online to talk about the violent retaliation of men they had rejected, to describe the feeling of being intimidated or harassed. These personal experiences soon took on a sense of universality. And so #yesallwomen was born--yes all women have been victims of male violence in one form or another. I was bothered by the hashtag campaign. Not by the male response, which ranged from outraged and cynical to condescending, nor the way the media dove in because the campaign was useful fodder. I recoiled from the gendering of pain, the installation of victimhood into the definition of femininity--and from the way pain became a polemic.... If you are wounded, everything you do is brave and beyond reproach. If you are wounded, you get to say that any portrayal of a woman as lying or manipulative is harmful to the culture and all of the future wounded women. If you are wounded, you get to control what is said and thought about you, and you get to try to create a criticism-free world."

amor_mundi_sign-upCan We Have an Intelligent Debate?

RFRAOver at Commonweal, Paul Horwitz has produced perhaps the most intelligent commentary yet on Indiana's religious freedom law and its impact on gay and lesbian rights. Horwitz worries that the quality of debate is so poor as to make questionable our capacity to have public debates about difficult and important questions: "That the debate is playing out so publicly and with such fervor is understandable, even commendable. It speaks to how far our society has come in a short time on the question of the equal dignity of gays and lesbians. For those who have long yearned for such recognition, questioning the quality of this debate may seem like mere carping--like caviling over the proper placement of commas in the Declaration of Independence. But the quality of this discussion matters. Nothing, I think, will--or should--stop the basic recognition of gay rights, and the heat of the current debate in part reflects this inevitability. But the details are still in flux, especially regarding same-sex marriage, and the current debate will surely affect some of the particular details of our new social settlement. Moreover, this debate raises questions about our very capacity to engage in the kind of thoughtful, careful public discussion that serious issues like this demand. By that standard, there is good reason to be dispirited. The public furor over Indiana's religious freedom law, or 'RFRA,' was long on heat and short on light. There is a difference between attempting to persuade by careful reasoning and simply trying to play on emotions or rely on rhetorical tropes. Public arguments needn't observe the rules of the seminar room, of course. But it may be possible to offer a few tips to inoculate readers against some of the more questionable or manipulative arguments." The rest of Horwitz's essay considers three common misconceptions around the religious freedom debate. It is necessary reading for anyone who wants to think intelligently about the contest of religious freedom and full rights for gays and lesbians. As Horwitz concludes: "It is difficult for any one legal system to fully recognize both LGBT rights, broadly understood, and religious freedom--also broadly understood. No; it is impossible. It is important nevertheless that we try--and that, when the contest produces winners and losers, we are candid about it, rather than try to pretend that there was no real conflict to begin with because one side was wholly unreasonable. We should have high expectations about what our public discourse looks like, do our best to hold ourselves to those expectations, and treat with caution anyone whose arguments fall short. Contrary to the old saying, not all is fair in love or war. This is a culture war about love: the right to love one's partner, and one's God. The stakes are high. But even this war has rules."

A Still Divided House

rfraEven though the 150th anniversary of Robert E. Lee's surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox was this week, David W. Blight thinks that the Civil War never ended: "Yet Appomattox was not the end of the war. Three more military surrenders occurred over the next month and a half. On April 26, at a farmhouse called Bennett Place between Greensboro and Raleigh, North Carolina, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered to Union General William Tecumseh Sherman. Further west in Alabama, on May 4, Confederate General Richard Taylor surrendered the remaining troops east of the Mississippi River. And finally, on May 26, in Arkansas, General Edmund Kirby Smith surrendered the remainder of a Confederate trans-Mississippi army. Formally, the hostilities were over; the affair of arms and exhausted soldiers, indeed the dying, seemed at an end. But these apparently conclusive and clean surrenders masked the difficult and conflicted post-war era that would follow. The war ended with revolutionary and lasting results that echo down to the present day--especially in the two broad questions of racial equality and federalism. A great deal of American political, constitutional, and social history can be read through these two broad, likely eternal challenges."

Finding Time

time booksOliver Burkeman thinks he knows why it's so hard to find time to read well: "In fact, 'becoming more efficient' is part of the problem. Thinking of time as a resource to be maximised means you approach it instrumentally, judging any given moment as well spent only in so far as it advances progress toward some goal. Immersive reading, by contrast, depends on being willing to risk inefficiency, goallessness, even time-wasting. Try to slot it in as a to-do list item and you'll manage only goal-focused reading--useful, sometimes, but not the most fulfilling kind. 'The future comes at us like empty bottles along an unstoppable and nearly infinite conveyor belt,' writes Gary Eberle in his book Sacred Time, and 'we feel a pressure to fill these different-sized bottles (days, hours, minutes) as they pass, for if they get by without being filled, we will have wasted them.' No mind-set could be worse for losing yourself in a book."

The World Beyond Your Head

matthew crawfordMichael S. Roth, in a thoughtful review of Matthew Crawford's The World Beyond Your Head, asks what the world of distraction means for us as people and as educators. "The concern isn't just the technological appendages like computers or iPhones that we've come to depend on; it's that we can't control our own responses to them. 'Our distractibility indicates that we are agnostic on the question of what is worth paying attention to--that is, what to value,' Crawford writes. Everywhere we go, we are assaulted by commercial forces that make claims on our mental space, so that 'silence is now offered as a luxury good.' That isn't just inconvenient. It destroys independence of thought and feeling: 'Without the ability to direct our attention where we will, we become more receptive to those who would direct our attention where they will.' And they have gotten very good at manipulating our environment so that we are turned in the directions that can be monetized. But it's really bad for us. 'Distractibility,' Crawford tells us, 'might be regarded as the mental equivalent of obesity.' We have become more vulnerable to this regime of manipulated attention, he argues, because we have only individualism as a defense. The Enlightenment quest for autonomy leaves us powerless against those who mount noisy appeals to our personal preferences, in service of manipulating us. Against this tendency, Crawford argues for a situated self, one that is always linked to (not independent of) the environment, including other people. We may not be in a bike-repair shop, but we are always somewhere."

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

joy connollyThe Life of Roman Republicanism with Joy Connolly

Joy Connolly, a Professor of Classics at New York University, will discuss her book The Life of Roman Republicanism (Princeton 2014), which examines key themes in Roman republican thought: freedom, recognition, antagonism, self-knowledge, irony, and imagination.

Free and open to the public!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Bard College, Aspinwall 302, 6:00 pm

 


human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #7

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, April 24, 2015

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

 

 


h. g. adlerTranslating the Holocaust: H. G. Adler as Writer and Scholar

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

Location TBA, 4:00 pm - 6:00 pm


privacy con 2015 (temp)SAVE THE DATE - 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

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!


From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Anabella di Pego encourages us to see Arendt's support of institutionalizing civil disobedience as a chance to evaluate our democratic institutions in the Quote of the Week. American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. And we reflect on how Hannah Arendt was a "who's who" in 1974-5--just one year prior to her death at the age of 69--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.
26Jan/1511

Amor Mundi 1/25/15

Arendtamormundi

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-up
What Should Remain Hidden in Private

childbirthDawn Herrera-Helphand draws Arendtian lessons about the meaningfulness of privacy from her experience of giving birth. Writing in The Point, Herrera-Helphand describes the emotional intensity of her natural birth, all of which connected her to pain she did know she could bear and power she did not know she might have. Giving birth was an ecstasy, a standing apart from herself, what she found to be "a liberating intimacy with the immanent force of life." Herrera-Helphand asks: "Could this necessary self-abandon have proceeded if I did not feel sheltered? The body has a sense of fear or safety, precognitive and wholly prior to our rationalizations. To feel vulnerable to the eyes of others, to their designs or interventions, is to want to maintain some semblance of control. The illusion of sovereignty that we cultivate in public is precious, not easily relinquished. The ambition to maintain it is antithetical to the necessary labor of childbirth. Apropos of nothing, my cousin, in her second trimester, told me her fantasy of hiding away to give birth 'like an animal.' It makes sense when you think about it: not wanting a hungry bear to eat the baby, not wanting to be seen so deep in suffering.... Giving birth afforded me a fresh perspective on Arendt's distinction between what should be hidden and what should be shown. This binary of private and public remains deeply problematic regarding questions of domestic work and caregiving. But from another angle, privacy is not so much a question of what is fit for appearance to public eyes as of what cannot fully transpire in view of others. The idea that privacy is proper to the realm of necessity need not be based on shame in the body. Privacy can also shield interests that are literally vital, so as to give them their full weight." It is precisely the power of privacy to give weight and depth to life that makes the loss of privacy in our times so terrifying. Privacy will be the theme of the Hannah Arendt Center's 8th annual conference this October 15-16th. Save the Date.

What Would Hannah Arendt Do?

arendt thoughtIn an exchange of letters with David Mikics, Mark Greif asks: "What would Arendt do? I've often thought I should make up a WWAD necklace. One certainly would like to know what she would have done, or said, in the face of the present day. But part of her charm is that she was surprising and unpredictable. Not unpredictable because she was inconsistent--rather, I think, because she did insist on thinking things through, in each new situation, all the way to the root. She was an intensely annoying figure to her contemporaries. Lately she has become another 'inspiring' figure and source of sanctimony. I wish there were more room to try to think things down to their roots, and see what itineraries you wind up following, right or wrong, usefully or--sometimes--as mere exploration. People in her circles in the 1940s and 1950s liked to point out, in the face of doctrinaire leftists, that this was the real meaning of radical--at least etymologically--to go 'down to the root.' And then to be prepared to tug up the roots--or defend them and nourish them--rather than keep plucking off leaves...." We at the Arendt Center resist the question of what Arendt would think precisely for the reason Greif offers: that her thought was at once deeply consistent and remarkably surprising. To think radically, down to the roots, means that one looks beyond conventional categories, looks at facts plainly and gathers them together informed by a unique and critical perspective, one informed by tradition and yet not a slave to the past. That is how Arendt thought and it is why she has become such an inspiring figure to many even as others insist on using her, wrongly, to advance their pet political positions. Greif's insistence in these letters is that we think well. The terrorists, he argue, thought poorly: "For the kosher supermarket mass murderer, I think the sequence went something like this: The Israeli state, or all Israelis, are in bloody conflict with nearby Palestinians. Israel is a Jewish state. Palestinians are Muslims. I am Muslim. I guess I too am in a bloody conflict with Israeli Jews. Wait--France has Jews. I ought to kill them. I eat Halal, but they eat Kosher. Therefore I know just where to find them. The universe shouldn't have room--I think Hannah Arendt would point out--for such a lethal mockery of thought, or thoughtlessness. Because it undoes all the distinctions that allow political thinking, political difference, ideas, and legitimate conflict, ever to occur." At the same time, Greif worries that too many responses to the attacks are also plagued by poor thinking: "But I think a corollary of this way of judging relative wrongs--here I'm doing my Arendtian ventriloquism, as I understand it--is that actually too wide, flowing, and unanalytic a sense of identification on 'our' side, lumping together of many different things rather than following out their distinctions and differences, is a bad idea, too. Because we won't think well. We won't be able to follow different effects to different causes; keep several incompatible ideas in mind at once, to judge among them; judge rightly. And one thing I do think Arendt would want us to try to keep straight about, is the question of proximity and distance. Time will tell--and near time, too--how much of a fluke the Charlie Hebdo and supermarket murders were. Should European Jews, and European writers, actually expect attacks--should they change their life on that basis?"

On The Right

national frontRosie Gray checks in on The National Front, France's newly popular far-right party, which is in the middle of reinvigorating itself and sanitizing its image: "the image of the National Front is starting to change. Marine Le Pen has largely avoided the kind of forthrightly intolerant comments her father is famous for, and she is a savvy public figure, the Rand Paul to Jean-Marie's Ron. The party has seen some of its positions leaking into the mainstream, and even into the left. For example, after the Charlie Hebdo attack, Socialist politician Jean-Marc Germain said that France must re-examine the Schengen zone--the policy of border-free travel within most of Europe, a position that the Front, which wants to remove France from the Schengen area of border-free travel entirely, has held for years. Le Pen has deftly kept herself in the center of the French political conversation during the crisis, announcing that she would not attend the massive unity rally in Paris after French President François Hollande did not invite her. On Sunday night, the New York Times published an op-ed by her, both in English and French, slamming the French government for what she perceives as its unwillingness to clearly name radical Islam as the reason for the attack. 'Now the French people, as if a single person, must put pressure on their leaders so that these days in January will not have been in vain,' Le Pen wrote. 'From France's tragedy must spring hope for real change.'"

Poe's Brain

poeMarilynne Robinson champions the thinking of Edgar Allan Poe: "Poe's mind was by no means commonplace. In the last year of his life he wrote a prose poem, Eureka, which would have established this fact beyond doubt--if it had not been so full of intuitive insight that neither his contemporaries nor subsequent generations, at least until the late twentieth century, could make any sense of it. Its very brilliance made it an object of ridicule, an instance of affectation and delusion, and so it is regarded to this day among readers and critics who are not at all abreast of contemporary physics. Eureka describes the origins of the universe in a single particle, from which 'radiated' the atoms of which all matter is made. Minute dissimilarities of size and distribution among these atoms meant that the effects of gravity caused them to accumulate as matter, forming the physical universe. This by itself would be a startling anticipation of modern cosmology, if Poe had not also drawn striking conclusions from it, for example that space and 'duration' are one thing, that there might be stars that emit no light, that there is a repulsive force that in some degree counteracts the force of gravity, that there could be any number of universes with different laws simultaneous with ours, that our universe might collapse to its original state and another universe erupt from the particle it would have become, that our present universe may be one in a series. All this is perfectly sound as observation, hypothesis, or speculation by the lights of science in the twenty-first century. And of course Poe had neither evidence nor authority for any of it. It was the product, he said, of a kind of aesthetic reasoning--therefore, he insisted, a poem. He was absolutely sincere about the truth of the account he had made of cosmic origins, and he was ridiculed for his sincerity. Eureka is important because it indicates the scale and the seriousness of Poe's thinking, and its remarkable integrity. It demonstrates his use of his aesthetic sense as a particularly rigorous method of inquiry."

amor_mundi_sign-up
Strange Persecutions

billie holidayJohann Hari has a powerful essay on the unrelenting persecution of Billie Holiday by Harry Anslinger and the FBI. "Jazz was the opposite of everything Harry Anslinger believed in. It is improvised, relaxed, free-form. It follows its own rhythm. Worst of all, it is a mongrel music made up of European, Caribbean and African echoes, all mating on American shores. To Anslinger, this was musical anarchy and evidence of a recurrence of the primitive impulses that lurk in black people, waiting to emerge. 'It sounded,' his internal memos said, 'like the jungles in the dead of night.' Another memo warned that 'unbelievably ancient indecent rites of the East Indies are resurrected' in this black man's music. The lives of the jazzmen, he said, 'reek of filth.'" Driven by racial as well as musical hatred, Anslinger could not crack the intensely insular and loyal Jazz world, but he directed his obsession on one person: Holiday. "One night, in 1939, Billie Holiday stood on stage in New York City and sang a song that was unlike anything anyone had heard before. 'Strange Fruit' was a musical lament against lynching. It imagined black bodies hanging from trees as a dark fruit native to the South. Here was a black woman, before a mixed audience, grieving for the racist murders in the United States. Immediately after, Billie Holiday received her first threat from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics."

My Algorithm, My Self

algorithmEvan Selinger is worried that autocomplete is going to turn us into 'personal cliches,' rendering us dead and unthinking: "by encouraging us not to think too deeply about our words, predictive technology may subtly change how we interact with one another. As communication becomes less of an intentional act, we give others more algorithm and less of ourselves. This is why I argued in Wired last year that automation can be bad for us; it can stop us thinking. When predictive technology learns how we communicate, finds patterns specific to what we're inclined to say, and drills down into the essence of our idiosyncrasies, the result is incessantly generated boilerplate. As the artist Salvador Dali famously quipped: 'The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot.' Yet here, the repetition is of ourselves. When algorithms study our conscientious communication and subsequently repeat us back to ourselves, they don't identify the point at which recycling becomes degrading and one-dimensional. (And perversely, frequency of word use seems likely to be given positive weight when algorithms calculate relevance.)"

The Philosopher and the Man

gunther figalGünter Figal has resigned his position as the Head of the Martin Heidegger Society. The Daily Nous offers a translation of part of his statement: "As chairman of a society, which is named after a person, one is in certain way a representative of that person. After reading the Schwarze Hefte, especially the antisemitic passages, I do not wish to be such a representative any longer. These statements have not only shocked me, but have turned me around to such an extent that it has become difficult to be a co-representative of this." One can listen to a longer interview with Figal, in German, here. A few thoughts are in order. First, Figal seems to be surprised that Heidegger as a person was an antisemite. Really? How can this have been surprising to him? Second, he makes a series of demarcations. The early Heidegger up through and past Being and Time is clearly not implicated, but the middle Heidegger might very well be. We need to do more research. The late Heidegger may be, too. (It would be helpful to see the later editions of the Schwarze Hefte.) Third, he offers one example of the way Heidegger's philosophy may be racist. He says that Heidegger's account of Rechnung and calculation is developed in his published works out of Greek philosophy from Plato and others. But in the Black Notebooks, in a handful of passages over 8 years, Heidegger mentions that the Jews also fit into this history because of their reputation as money-oriented calculating sly foxes. This suggests to Figal that Heidegger may actually have developed his entire approach to Rechnung and the impact of calculation in our world out of antisemitism and sought to make it presentable by tying it to the Greeks, or that maybe, alternatively, it is founded subconsciously in Heidegger's antisemitsm. Finally, Figal says that as the chief of the Heidegger Society he has to represent not just the philosopher but the man. Here Figal has something right. As the Director of the Hannah Arendt Center, I do have some obligation to respond to irresponsible attacks on Arendt (of which there are many). And I do think it is important that in the end I respect the person of Hannah Arendt and not simply what she wrote. I do. On Heidegger, my opinions have always been different. I have seen, and still see, no evidence that his philosophy is in any way affected by his antisemitism. But on the question of Heidegger himself, I have long thought that he himself was a mean-spirited and resentful man--and a racist. I don't identify as a Heidegger scholar and am not interested in doing so, even though I read Heidegger regularly, teach him regularly, and find his work along with Arendt's some of the only work of the 20th century worth large percentages of my intellectual energy. In short, I am not opposed to Figal's decision to step down; I am only concerned that he was just now surprised to learn of Heidegger's racism and that by reacting so publicly he is fanning the flames of those who would tarnish the thinker with the sins of the man. For more, see my discussion with Peter Trawny, the editor of Heidegger's Black Notebooks, and my account of that discussion here.

The Grumbler's Age

grumblingJoshua Rothman has a few notes on grumbling: "It seems absurd to imagine that people grumble more than they used to: all the evidence points to the fact that people have grumbled throughout history. (That's why the Bible is full of anti-grumbling propaganda.) But it's entirely possible that we're grumbling better. The Internet has made our grumbles more audible; our taste in grumbles has improved. This may be making our grumbling more performative and self-aware--perhaps even more camp--than it has been in the past. And grumbling, as a form of communication, seems to resonate with the part of our contemporary outlook that's repelled by stridency and self-assertion. Even if we're not grumbling more, we could be in a golden age of grumbling."

amor_mundi_sign-up
Featured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #4

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, February 6, 2015

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

 

 


arendtNow Accepting Applications for Post-Doctoral Fellowships!

The Hannah Arendt Center announces three post-doctoral fellowships for the 2015-2016 academic year.

To learn more about the fellowships, including how to apply, click here.

Application Deadline: Thursday, March 5, 2015


eyal press Courage To Be: Lecture and Dinner Series, with Eyal Press

The Courage To Refuse

Monday, February 9, 2015

Kline Faculty Dining Room, 6:00 pm


Jeanne van Heeswijk Courage To Be: Lecture and Dinner Series, with Keith Haring Fellow in Art and Activism, Jeanne van Heeswijk

Monday, February 16, 2015

Kline Faculty Dining Room, 6:00 pm

 


angela maioneLunchtime Talk with Angela Maione, our Klemens Von Klemperer Post-Doctoral Fellow

"Wollstonecraft and the Right to Political Community

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Hannah Arendt Center, 6:00 - 7:00 pm


the decent oneScreening of The Decent One and Q&A with Director Vanessa Lapa and Sound Designer Tomer Eliav

The film is based on the newly discovered diaries of Heinrich Himmler. Read more about the film and watch a trailer here.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Campus Center, Weis Cinema, 6:00 - 9:00 pm

 

 

 


charles snyderLunchtime Talk with Charles Snyder, a Hannah Arendt Center Post-Doctoral Fellow

"Natality and its Vicissitudes"

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Hannah Arendt Center, 12:00 pm

 

 


uday mehtaCourage To Be: Lecture and Dinner Series, with Uday Mehta

Putting Courage at the Centre: Gandhi on Civility, Society and Self-Knowledge

Monday, March 30, 2015

Manor House Cafe, 6:00 pm

 


sa poverty Property and Freedom: Are Access to Legal Title and Assets the Path to Overcoming Poverty in South Africa?

A one-day conference sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, the Human Rights Project, and the Center for Civic Engagement, with support from the Ford Foundation, The Brenthurst Foundation, and The University of The Western Cape

Monday, April 6, 2015

Bard College Campus Center, Weis Cinema, 10:00 am - 7:00 pm


privacy con 2015 (temp)SAVE THE DATE - 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

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!

 

 


From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Nicholas Tampio discusses the dangers of the Common Core program and appeals to Arendt's concept of natality as a way to help education once again teach students how to think for themselves in the Quote of the Week. Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. We appreciate Arendt's copy of Paul Tillich's "The Shaking of the Foundations," which contains a special note, in our Library feature.  And we are pleased to share "Arendt and Ricoeur on Ideology and Authority," an article written by a former HAC fellow.

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.
14Aug/140

Video Archives – Public Discussion with Roger Berkowitz and Bill Jones (2010)

dance_thought

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010: A Public Conversation - “The Life of the Mind and Floating the Tongue”

Participants:

-     Bill T. Jones -- Co-founder of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company.
-     Roger Berkowitz -- Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College; Academic Director, Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities

In a conversation following a performance of his movement art piece “Floating the Tongue” (performed by Bard faculty member and Member of the Bill T. Jones/Anie Zane Dance Company Leah Cox), Bill T. Jones sat down with Roger Berkowitz to discuss the Arendtian notion of thinking that he explores in his dance.

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.
18Jun/140

Lord Byron on Thinking

1

"For in itself a thought, a slumbering thought, is capable of years, and curdles a long life into one hour."

--Lord Byron

 

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.
6Nov/130

Steve Jobs on Thinking

Arendtthoughts

“Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

-Steve Jobs

jobs

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.
4Apr/130

Hannah Arendt & the Redemptive Power of Narrative

FromtheArendtCenter

Hannah Arendt and the Redemptive Power of Narrative
Selya Benhabib, Social Research, Vol. 57, No. 1, Philosophy and Politics II (spring 1990), pp. 167-196

Selya Benhabib, Eugene Mayer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University, sees Arendt as affirming the modernist move beyond the nation to universal human rights,  while at the same time disparaging the social in a way that many critics see as anti-modern. As Roger Berkowitz explains regarding a later work, Benhabib works out this universal aspiration “with and against Arendt.”  In this 1990 article, Benhabib makes only passing reference to Arendt’s famous critical phrase “the right to have rights.” Briefly put though, she sees Arendt’s concern not as a fundamental challenge but rather as  an implicit spur for a broader guarantee of rights.

seyla

For Arendt the social, which in large part corresponds to economic activity, no longer remains in its proper place of the household, but emerges to obscure the public space of politics. One might then ask, is Arendt a Romantic proponent of a return to Greek origins, in line with Hölderlin, Hegel, and Heidegger?  Benhabib denies this challenge, arguing instead that Arendt’s confrontation with National Socialism led her to develop a new idea

of political theory as "storytelling." In light of this conception, her analysis of the decline of the public space cannot be considered a nostalgic Verfallsgeschichte (a history of decline). Rather, it must be viewed as an "exercise" in thought, the chief task of which is to dig under the rubble of history and to recover those "pearls" of past experience, with their sedimented and hidden layers of meaning, so as to cull from them a story that can orient the mind in the future.

The figures of secret “pearls” and covered sediments align in part but not in whole: historians could be seen as describing the hidden layers of ruins that we rarely consider beneath our feet. The idea of finding “pearls,” which Benhabib draws from Arendt’s longer citation to Shakespeare’s Tempest offers the key idea of a particular point of significance that then rearranges other semantic layers.

Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made,
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange. (The Tempest, act I, scene 2)

Benhabib sees the theorist casting the challenges of history as “rich and strange” stories.  One might push this idea further and see the theorist as descending into the depths to inhabit history from the specific place of the dead man, who longer sees naturally, but retains the markers of perception. We might even say that the drowned man offers the right body to connect ourselves to a broken past. Drawing on Heidegger’s terminology, Benhabib writes:

If Dasein is in time, narrative is the modality through which time is experienced. Even when the thread of tradition is broken, even when the past is no longer authoritative simply because it has been, it lives within us and we cannot avoid placing ourselves in relation to it. The narrative uniting past and present defines who we are at any point. Narrative then, or, in Arendt's word, storytelling, is a fundamental human activity. There is then a continuum between the attempt of the theorist to understand the past and the need of the acting person to interpret the past as part of a coherent and continuing life story.

Notice that Benhabib sees it as a necessity that we place ourselves in relation to tradition. The distinctive mark of Arendt’s storytelling is that it is not purely imaginative in the sense that “anything goes.” Instead, it establishes a creative relation to the past.

steps

In the 2004 Tanner lectures, Benhabib argues for human rights based on intersubjective cosmopolitanism rather than a metaphysical universalism. The work on narrative in this earlier article raises the question of the role that narrative plays in creating such a cosmopolitanism. Indeed, in the continuing demand to tell a “coherent” story, perhaps we can see the emergence of an international narrative that does not rely so much on the stability of intersubjectivity as one continually open to the future in action.

-Jeffrey Champlin

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.
10Dec/120

Arendt & Auden

“And wonder what you’ve missed”

- W. H. Auden, as quoted in Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind

At the end of the second-to-last chapter of the Thinking section of The Life of the Mind , Hannah Arendt quotes two stanzas from W. H. Auden’s poem As I Walked Out One Evening, the first of which is the following:

O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you've missed.

Arendt thus ends a chapter containing no prior reference to Auden with two significant quotes by him, offering no further comment of her own. This lies in stark contrast to her treatment of the quote from The Tempest, which directly precedes the Auden quote; she relates Shakespeare’s metaphors very clearly to the subject matter of the chapter. Why, then, do Auden and his quotes have free rein?

In her essay “Remembering Wystan H. Auden,” written shortly after Auden’s death, Arendt describes their relationship as “very good friends but not intimate friends.”  The rest of her tribute reveals her profound respect for Auden not just as a friend, but also as a writer and thinker. This respect is further indicated by their letter exchanges and the vast collection of Auden’s books in Arendt’s personal library; and it is reciprocated by Auden, who in 1959 reviewed The Human Condition for the magazine Encounter, describing within it the “jealous possessiveness” he experienced due to the close connection he felt with the book. Years later, Arendt dedicated her lecture Thinking and Moral Considerations to Auden. Shakespeare’s presence is to be noted in both this lecture and Auden’s essay The Fallen City. Some Reflections on Shakespeare’s “Henry IV”, upon which Arendt voiced her opinions in a letter to Auden. Arendt’s placement of the Shakespeare and Auden quotes in close proximity to each other in The Life of the Mind creates an illumination of each text by the other, as we will see later.

In order to unfold the meaning of the quote from As I Walked Out One Evening, however, one should consider the poem in its entirety. As two stanzas excerpted from a 15-stanza whole and presented without context, their meaning appears at first glance to be rather abstract. The poem focuses on humankind’s fight against time, explored mostly through a song sung by “a lover,” which the speaker of the poem overhears. This bears strong relation to one of the main questions explored by Arendt in her chapter: that of the position of the thinking ego in time, and its constant battle against both the past and the future. However, while Arendt concentrates on temporal freedom within the present realm of thought, which exists in an area bound to but not trapped in the midst of this battle, Auden’s focus is on the inevitability of “Time”, which is capitalized as such and portrayed as an ever more malignant force of nature. The description of the “crowds upon the pavement” as “fields of harvest wheat” in the first stanza already hints at death, evoking the Grim Reaper and time as a sickle on its way to sever our lives. The first explicit reference to Time appears in the sixth stanza:

But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.

Image by xetobyte

This context sheds light on the two stanzas quoted by Arendt. Even the exclamation “O” increases in its significance; one hears in the background of one’s mind odes from literary practices of centuries past, and ruminates on the continuity of traditions, considering Time’s role in it as both a destructive and constructive force, especially in light of Arendt’s own ruminations regarding the discontinuity of “the Roman trinity that for thousands of years united religion, authority, and tradition.”  Her related notion of a “fragmented past” resonates with the second of the two stanzas by Auden: “And the crack in the tea-cup opens/A lane to the land of the dead.”

The reiteration of the words “plunge” and “stare” in the first quoted stanza leads one to consider the significance of repetition, a technique that Auden employs throughout the poem, in the context of time. Repetition can be perceived as a loop of time, giving it a plurality (for example, describing the word as being used two times) while also somewhat of a stationary character, since physical time has elapsed but mental time has not, instead revolving around itself and meditating on the same idea in a suspended state. Auden’s poem thus offers us another way of approaching Arendt’s consideration of time as experienced by the thinking ego.

The physical imagery employed by Auden reveals water to be an especially powerful metaphor for time. The poem concludes with: “The clocks had ceased their chiming,/And the deep river ran on,” portraying the constancy of time, ever running, even when our own human efforts to measure or control time have stopped or failed. The eighth stanza also contains a subtle evocation of water: “In headaches and in worry/Vaguely life leaks away”; in this context, our personal lifetime is the water that we cannot imperviously contain. This aids our understanding of the image of water in the basin in the first quoted stanza. Containing water in the basin represents our attempts to control and preserve time in a human construct, but, despite all these efforts, we cannot grasp time in our hands, no matter how deeply we “plunge” our hands into the water. Instead we can only “stare, stare” at our reflection, and “wonder what you’ve missed”. These four words are possibly the key to unlocking the relationship between this poem and The Life of the Mind. The physical reflection of oneself in the basin’s water prompts a mental reflection on the passage of time; time is once again suspended as our thinking ego considers our past. But perhaps Time is even more malevolent, in that while we stare at our reflection (the verb “stare” itself having rather stern connotations, in contrast to words such as “look” or “gaze”), physical time is still passing, and we are consequently “miss[ing]” even more of or from our lives as we try to deduce what the past has already robbed from us.

In her interpretation of the Tempest quote preceding the Auden citation, Arendt presents a rather different view of the water-time metaphor. The sea here represents an infinite expanse of time containing “fragments from the past”, the “pearls” and “coral” that do not pass away but are modified by the time they spend in the sea. As two stanzas extracted from an entirety of fifteen, Arendt presents Auden’s words as “pearls” and invites us to play a part in the continuity of this poem and the thinking ego within it, saving it and treasuring its “sea-change” through the generations.

-Frances Lee

 

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.
25Sep/120

Playafied: From Ritual to Ceremony

Nikita Nelin concludes his report of the Burning Man Festival in Nevada, 8/15/12-9/5/12. You can read his first post here, and his second post here.

Decompression: Before my hands heal I should sit down and find a way to wrap this up. I have been out of the desert (Black Rock City) for over a week now. I am back in the state of ‘normalcy,’ and yet I cannot help to feel that this ‘normal’ world is the exception. Have I been bedazzled, indoctrinated by some paganistic ritual? Did the “party” get me?

“Playa hands,” or feet, is the term used to describe what happens to ones hands, and feet, when they are overexposed to the conditions of the desert. They begin cracking -- “playafied” -- like the desert floor itself. Moisturizer helps, but the secret is to spray them down with vinegar every morning -- something about alkaline, acidity, etc...

I was out there for almost three weeks. Blood had begun to escape through some of the cracks. Yet, amid the sensory overload that is Burning Man -- coupled with the knowledge that whatever happens in the desert is hyper-transient -- your bodily concerns become secondary to the need to engage the world created for you. You celebrate despite the discomfort, or maybe even in part driven on by it. You don’t want to miss anything.

My hands have almost healed, new skin appearing underneath. I miss the damage. I miss what Burning Man proved.

I was moved towards Burning Man by the stories of others. What most attracted me to these stories were the themes of ritual, ceremony, and story telling. What I experienced, as a byproduct of being there, is the stuff I do not want to leave behind -- the concepts of ‘intent of environment’ (architecture and guiding principles), and ‘currency of gratitude.’ To feel complete, my new skin must now make space for these.

For this past week I have been needling my brain to pin down the difference between ritual and ceremony. I find it easy to mix them up. Why is there such confusion? Ultimately, I have come to see ritual as a loosely prescribed set of practices, or intentions, while ceremony is the celebration, or interpretation, of the prescribed by the practitioner. Certainly some anthropologists and theologists will find fault with my definitions. Well, I challenge you to bring me another set and if it reveals itself to be an exercise beyond semantics, I will be happy to sacrifice my hard won approximations. But that’s the catch, isn’t it? Definitions are the products of their society. They move, evolve... disappear. They are ‘approximate,’ in accordance to the pressure exercised upon them by what I call The Social Body -- our communal practices, beliefs and values, toys (inventions), cultural narratives, and the principles we deduce from the tangible matter of our environment.

Maybe what’s most worth exploring in the road towards a definition of ritual and ceremony is the location of the struggle itself: Why do we so struggle in defining them? What does this say about our society, and its practices? In the simplistic thinking somewhat necessary to engage such questions I had hoped to use my time at Burning Man as an aperture into the society at large. I brought my child brain, the one asks to see before judgement -- the one open to signs of proof.

What burning Man provides is a scaffolding of a society, a set of pillars (in its principles and architecture) to be built upon, and filled in by the participants. It is in this movement, from the scaffolding -- from the available structures -- towards the experience, that ‘ritual’ is made into ‘ceremony.’ It is where meaning is formed, and body is found. The concept of the ‘social body’ implies more then mere existence, or survival, more than just the fractals of society; it is a narrative, it is consciousness (a self-aware organism, capable of self correction), it is the accumulation of meaning.

The set of principles for this experimental society (Burning Man) are “Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-reliance, Radical Self-expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, Immediacy.” To survive, and thrive in the desert, and to feel a part of the experience, one must find their own relationship to these principles, otherwise the experience will be tedious and lonely.

The other part of the scaffolding is the architectural intent. There is the city (its streets), its coordinates measured in the units of time, and thus when you arrive at a place you arrive to a time -- time is appropriated into a location (brings us closer to the definition of ‘being here’ doesn’t it?); there is the Playa floor, a space for various art installations; the camp space, the themes to be supplied by each individual camp, each camp identifying its own purpose; the Man, to be empowered with whatever meaning one finds necessary to bring to it; and the Temple, a spiritual space to be used for remembering loved ones, the execution of weddings, and a creative space for communion. There is also Center Camp, where you will find lectures, performances, coffee (it is in fact the only place where you can “buy” something). A friend of mine described Center Camp as “the heart of Burning Man.” Maybe because this is where the exchange of stories, connectivity, takes place.

The scaffolding of ritual is provided (a labor intensive process on the levels of planning, recruiting, development, and construction). In my conversation with Larry Harvey, one of the founders of Burning Man, he summed up the intention behind this social scaffolding like this, “I am, we are, it is.” He was not pointing to himself, or to the structure of the Man, rather, the gesture was towards the “participant.” No further elaboration is given. Meaning is not handed out here, nor is it imposed. What is implied by this is that the highest level of “participation,” is to give meaning. This is “radical inclusivity.” No ones experience is void. You can come here for a great party, or to say goodbye to a passed parent. You can have your own vision quest after sunrise, way out in deep playa, or you can don the outfit of a renegade and strap yourself up in the Thunder-Dome, just to see how you feel in the costume of primal power. All experiences are affirmed, accepted. The forms are created for you, and you fill in the space. Two experiences may further elaborate on this.

One night I was warned to wear white. “The white procession,” is what I was told. After being out all night, meeting people, seeing art pieces on the playa and dancing, we made our way to the temple for sunrise. After a night of being engulfed in noise and neon lights, we arrived at the wooden, ornate temple. The quiet, a gesture of respect to the space, was hyper-pronounced all around us. People praying, crying, meditating, talking in the open space. There were pictures and poems and notes stapled to every reachable surface of the structure. As the sun began to rise a small ensemble of musicians began to play soft wooden instruments. More and more people showed up, wearing white. Some in intricate feather outfits, some on stilts, some in a simple white shirt and seersucker pants (well, me!) -- the playa was flooded in white. I have been to spiritual spaces from Eastern Europe, to Europe, to the U.S., but the power of that space, its sincerity, was unlike anything I have ever experienced (I have no elegant words for this -- it was really something “I have never experienced”).

I can tell you more of that morning, the conversations, the white anonymous mask I had carried with me, the umbrella we found, the way this umbrella became empowered through a dance, through the power of movement and intention, when an art-car showed up with a music group called the Human Experience, how that empowerment became an opportunity for someone to say goodbye to her mother who had passed two years ago. How the anonymous mask, as more people in white arrived, as people celebrated the space and the new day, was endowed with personality of the dancers behind it. But I will simply say that ‘we filled the space,’ and allow you to unpack this meaning. Did my scientifically educated mind attempt to balk at this scene? I am trained to bring skepticism, but skepticism is only useful in service to a greater goal -- to seek out what is true in the arena of living. Otherwise it becomes a defense against its initial intention. To be disarmed, to be taken-in by a communal experience, to sense the meaning of the practice, is to be a living part of the ‘social body.’

Another morning we had wondered out to deep playa, where the installations are few and far in between. There we stumbled upon a smaller temple (about 20 feet high) made of diamond shaped wooden pods -- a hive. Inside sat a man with a hot stove and four people joining him in a circle. On a low table before him were five glass ramekins filled with tea. As we approached he took two more out of his bag and added them to the already existing ones, making the pattern of a diamond on the table, now reflecting the shape of the pods. We accepted the invitation. On a cold desert morning a hot cup of tea is the power of the sunrise. Soon my partner took out a ceremonial orchid fragrance and offered it up to the others. We sat there in the quiet, warmed up and without hurry, without any knowledge of the time. Tea, orchid fragrances, tarot cards, all become an invitation to converse -- to join, to exchange, to fill-in the space. We sat for two hours and the tea master told us of his camp and how it was their mission to keep tea in this space, and his fiance and work with a non-profit music space on the West coast. There were individual pods about forty yards off to one side of the structure, the side that faced the central playa and the camp spaces. Later I found similar pods scattered throughout the playa, including inside the base of The Man. Call it metaphysics, call it the construction of myth, but after the tea experience, every time I saw one of the pods, I could not help but to feel the transmission of that experience. The space of ritual became empowered through the formation of our ceremony, and the experience felt transmitted through association from portal to portal. Is that not the fabric of culture and meaning? Is that not how we once created a society worth participating in? Practices, intention, invitation, and room for interpretation, is that not the scaffolding of purpose and faith?

If I had to mold that space into a single definition I would call it an ‘intentional space holder.’ The camp, committed to keep a tea going in that structure, held space for participants -- for the arrival of stories (the people that bring them, and the articles that facilitate them). And this is another crucial memento that I carry from Burning Man. How often do we sit down and create a story between us? How versed are we today in exchanging myth? We exchange information at a rapid pace, having now been conditioned to advertise ourselves at every opportunity. We lobby the enterprise of self, and self today is an entity that is simply trying to survive -- survive in a plethora of other voices. We seek “hits,” and, “tweets,” attention to a carefully crafted mask. With painful detail we foster an identify that can “sell” and we update its status in a witty, seemingly effortless, “I have nothing to hide” fashion, so that we become “liked,” so that our circle of “network connections” can explode. We, each, becoming conditioned to present a face on a book, but without dimensions to it. How are we known? Do we now even know what to be known is? How many, or how few, of our actions are intentioned with the creation of meaning? How much in our repertoire of communication comes from a departure from the the practice of being seen, a false conditioning to define ourselves through the limiting shapes of business, career, education, ‘appropriate‘ culture defined beliefs -- assimilation? Assimilation, but to what? Have we each become a corporation of isolated creatures -- human inc.? And have we fallen into the practice of survival (holding ground) rather then the practice of exploration (creating space)? These are lofty questions, I know. And yet, is not our struggle in defining “story telling” and “connectivity” similar to the struggle in defining “ritual” and “community?” Could this struggle of definitions point towards us having taken for granted the initial pillars of community forming? Having moved away from something essential, could we have paralyzed the ‘social body?’

I have no clear answers to these questions. Only the sense that some of what I experienced at Burning Man helps to redirect my personal exploration of these subjects back to an older mode, to a practice that I had already sensed absent, yet one which when I am faced with, I recognize as essential. In part, this rerouting is somehow centered in the principles behind the event.

For those looking for more tangible examples to the power of “participant,” consider this: Burning Man, for a week the third largest city in Nevada, has almost no crime rate. It is a city that literally leaves nothing behind in trash, or MOOP (Matter Out Of Place) as it is called here. Everyone brings their own trash bags and collects MOOP while on the playa. In fact, when a group of Nevada policy makers came to examine Burning Man their collective surprise was centered on the absence of both public trash receptacles, and trash. Participants take pride in their society -- there is ownership of the ‘social body.’

Finally, I move to “intent of environment” and “currency of gratitude.” Once I left Black Rock CIty, and drove back into “our” society, I experienced a sense of vertigo. At each new scene I encountered my mind worked to solve the riddle of intention. At a starbucks, I wanted to ask the barista, what is the theme of your camp? What experience are you charged to awake in me? When I order one of your “luxurious hot chocolate beverages for the sophisticated palate” what am I inviting? What are the articles of facilitation within this camp? At a strip-mall outside of Reno I asked, what is the purpose of this installation? What does this space inspire? What psychic and creative pressure does it exercise on me? I had become sensitive to these questions.

We float from one “must do” to another, from one operational space to the next. Our practice has become ‘to-accomplish,’ ‘to-get-done,’ a checklist of survival before we come back to the safety of homes and return to sleep. We know a thing by what it does, by what it does for us, but not what it does to us or what it ‘impresses’ upon us. We have become too busy in the ritual of ‘getting-by’ to examine this question. No wonder the irony of Frank Gehry having been tapped to design the new Facebook campus speaks so loudly to us (even if we’re not sure of the words): An abstractionist tapped to give tangible form to the institution that most clearly provides us with the venue through which we can best abstract the condition of being. The questions our our being are finally visible in the structures which surround us -- that’s the irony we now interact with. Arthur Koestler, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, and others, had predicted and observed this movement -- the emergence of space that comments on the loss of self. And now we live within this triangle -- self, our physical structures, our virtual structures -- uncertain which is the commentary, which is the creator, and which is in service of which.

Lastly I want to comment on the major form of currency at Burning Man. As mentioned earlier the exchange of money is extremely rare. Yet, there is exchange. Millions of dollars are spent yearly by individuals and groups, just to create an experience. I talked to a computer engineer who had been coming to Burning Man for five years. “It changed my life,” he said. “How?” “It made me want to give more, without asking for anything in return.” Such a cliche, right? You give without asking for anything in return, and you receive the gift of gratitude. Such a cliche, right..? And yet, this is the most obvious currency at Black Rock City. Each person is provided with an opportunity to form an experience for another. From the grand structures that hold space for everyone, to the theme camps that invite you to join them and pour gifts upon you -- from drinks to ice cream, to food, to conversation, to workshops, to tarot readings, to music, to showers and espresso, costumes, to confessionals, to the Thunder-Dome, to tea ceremonies, to trinkets and bracelets and other handcrafted articles of remembrance, to the extent of the human imagination. Such a cliche? Right? No competition, no “one-upmanship.” ‘You are invited,’ they say. You, are enough.

It is in the examination of such cliches that maybe we can begin a return to that place where we lost meaning. When did we decide that we are too busy, too smart, to be truly humanist? What made us this? The humanist tradition asks us to examine our being on every level -- the concentric circles of community (world, culture, self -- it, we, I). To use the full spectrum of our gifts in examining the state of being. To not hold “contempt prior to investigation” because such a state can lead one to loose the trail, and a skill once in service (skepticism) becomes a master -- a true state of purposelessness. Maybe it’s time to stop and reexamine our society, to allow for our deepest and most personal, and maybe most essential questions and concerns on the state of being, to catch up to the gifts of our inventions.

The creating of space: I cannot get away from this idea. This is what Burning Man does. It creates a space (a space for meeting, for discovery, serendipity, a space for creating) and I, pressurized (or inspired) by this space -- its subtle intentions, architecture and principles -- am left to empower this space with meaning, to fill in the forms. I am endowed with the magic of meaning making. From ritual to ceremony I make matter -- I make this time (this space) matter.

Left to my own devices I perform the rituals of living, but without the movements of meaning. I struggle to empower the mask.

We have passed to the end of the existential age. Someone declared God to be dead. Science, with all its promise and discovery, has too failed in filling in the shapes of existence. Consumerism, the god of the 20th century, has also, ultimately, failed to provide us with the kind of purpose that leads to a greater belonging, or safety. The internet age, having initially promised to connect us, is now making us even more isolated. The onus is placed on us. On the individual. In this age of the spectator (internet, TV, emotional removal from the immediacy of our world) we are left to create a ceremony of our existence, to question our rituals, to define the space of our community, and our coordinates within it -- to become  participants. To bring the social body back to a state of being.

-Nikita Nelin

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.
24Feb/120

The Meaning of Life

Three weeks into my seminar on Martin Heidegger's "Letter on Humanism," I am once again at that moment when the students are simultaneously exasperated and thrilled by the audacity of Heidegger's thinking. There is the confusion caused by Heidegger's re-fashioning of words and his insistence that basic concepts like "person" and "essence" are the products of a stale metaphysical language that hide more than they conceal. One senses as well, the joyful anticipation in the first glimpses of the power of sentences like: Being "is" not, and the being (Sein) of beings (Seiendes) is not itself a being (Seiende.).

Heidegger focuses relentlessly on human being, the being who can ask the question: "Who am I?"  At our most vigorous, we human beings are characterized by our ability to think about ourselves in relation to the meaningfulness of our truth, to the truth understood not as one particular truth, but as that which gathers and calls us to be whom we most properly are. He does not tell us what we most properly are. Rather, he shows us that we are the beings who can live meaningfully in the world. We can give our existence and our world meaning.

Nietzsche had said that all human suffering is bearable if we can believe it has meaning. Religion gives suffering meaning by claiming that suffering faithfully in this world will bring us to heaven. Science gives suffering meaning, in its insistence that there is nothing that happens without a reason—so that all things, even the most awful—are part of the reason of the cosmos (secularly speaking). Mankind can endure all sufferings, so long as he believes it has meaning. The great danger of nihilism—the loss of belief in the highest values—is that we lose faith in either religion or science as guarantors of the meaningfulness of human suffering.  

The political danger of nihilism is that human life loses its meaning. All sorts of killings, suicide bombings, and genocides are thereby justifiable in the service of any political project. Without a living sense of meaning, life is cheap, and human destruction can be sought in the name of any and every political or economic goal.

As the dominant contemporary response to the dangers of nihilism, human rights holds that human beings have dignity as living beings. Above all, we must be kept alive. But what is more, we must be treated with a certain basic dignity. Just like chickens, we should neither be killed nor penned up and force-fed. Like dogs we deserve basic health and love. And like dolphins and whales, we should not be indiscriminately killed.

Heidegger, like his student Hannah Arendt, insists that the response to nihilism that insists on the rights of human beings to live well with a certain basic dignity makes the tragic mistake of blurring the difference between humans and animals. The human rights community focuses on the right to life and the right to be fed and be clothed. It sometimes even insists on the right to housing and the right to a job. But all of these human rights are directed at our animality, the fact that the human being is a kind of living animal. This is of course true. And yet, human rights are the rights of man as animals. These rights do not name or protect human beings. The fight for human rights can, therefore, turn our attention towards preserving humans in their animality even as it covers over what is most meaningful about human being itself.

So what is the meaningfulness of human life? Heidegger develops his answer over his writing life, but his first effort to do so is in Being and Time, the most influential and important book of philosophy written during the 20th century. Being and Time is a difficult book. It is also unfinished. And Heidegger abandoned its ultimate project shortly after it was published. And yet, it remains one of the greatest works in the history of thinking.

Many commentaries have sought to help students through Being and Time. But Simon Critchley has done something no one else even thought possible. He has given a clear and simple account of the impact of Being and Time in five short columns for the British newspaper, The Guardian. While these columns are necessarily pithy, they are in my mind the best introduction to Being and Time.

In his first column, Critchley writes:

That said, the basic idea of Being and Time is extremely simple: being is time. That is, what it means for a human being to be is to exist temporally in the stretch between birth and death. Being is time and time is finite, it comes to an end with our death. Therefore, if we want to understand what it means to be an authentic human being, then it is essential that we constantly project our lives onto the horizon of our death, what Heidegger calls "being-towards-death".

Such brevity will lead, no doubt to compromises. In this quote, for example, Being is used in multiple senses, but what is really at issue in Being and Time is the being of human being. In Heidegger's later work, that focus on the being of human being will come eventually to turn human beings away from human beings and towards being itself. That strikes many as anti-human. But as Heidegger insists, it is not inhuman, and it is driven by a profound humanity.

For one seeking a way into Heidegger's greatest book, Critchley's five-part introduction is a great place to start.  You can read the first part of Critchley's account here.

-RB

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.
17Feb/120

Prisoner of Time

Adam Gopnik’s piece in the January 30th edition of The New Yorker, “The Caging of America,” offers sober and sobering commentary on our country’s predilection for mass incarceration. Gopnik passionately denounces the indifference if not callous disregard that many Americans exhibit toward prisons and prisoners, and he unsettles some of the rigid certainties that dog run-of-the-mill discussions of criminal justice. And yet my appreciation is also mixed with a degree of unease, in no small part because his rendering of the experience of incarceration strikes me as one-sided. This one-sidedness in turn has implications for how we might conduct public conversations about this vital facet of contemporary American life.

Full disclosure: I am not a prison activist or expert, and I have never been imprisoned. I instead write as an anthropologist and educator with the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), a program that offers a rigorous liberal arts education to incarcerated students in five New York prisons.

This work affords me a measure of insight into the social dynamics of American incarceration, but my angle of vision is also (inevitably) limited and partial. I therefore approach this topic with considerable humility, but as shall become clear, such humility is precisely my point.

Many of us tend to think of imprisonment first and foremost in terms of physical confinement, but one of the real strengths of Gopnik’s article is his attention to the centrality of time. Indeed, the nature of American prison life gives new meaning to the “empty, homogeneous time” that Walter Benjamin diagnosed as a hallmark of modern existence. In Gopnik’s words:

“It isn’t the horror of the time at hand but the unimaginable sameness of the time ahead that makes prisons unendurable for their inmates…. The basic reality of American prisons is not that of the lock and key but that of the lock and clock.”

My own experience with BPI certainly attests to this tyranny of time. Two of my students once asked if they could remove the clock from the classroom wall so that they would not have to look at it. They explained that time would pass faster this way, and making the time pass, in whatever way possible, was one of their chief concerns.

Yet even as inmates recognize the heavy weight of carceral time, many insist that they are not powerless in the face of it. As another of my students noted, inmates urge one another to take control of their situation to the extent that they are able. “You do the time,” the common injunction apparently goes. “Don’t let the time do you.” That is to say, many inmates aspire to endure and even exert a measure of autonomy, despite the regimentation, dreariness, and pain that often pervade their existence.

Gopnik says too little for my taste about this dimension of incarceration. I sympathize with his claim that “the scale and the brutality of our prisons are the moral scandal of American life." And he is right to emphasize the anxiety, boredom and fear that so often suffuse prison life, just as he is to note the frequency of physical violence, including rape, committed by and against prisoners. But we do a disservice to inmates if we believe that they are entirely at the mercy of the institutions in which they reside—and that the time they serve is merely (to paraphrase Gopnik) “something being done to them.” Most of the inmates I know through BPI seek actively to give shape and direction to the time during and after their imprisonment. They are not defeated and destroyed by their current circumstances, but acutely reflective and articulate about them.

We would do well not merely to hold incarcerated men and women accountable for the offenses they have committed, but also to include their perspectives in necessary public deliberation over the ongoing epidemic of incarceration. They have inhabited and negotiated social worlds that many Americans cannot readily imagine, and they could contribute a great deal to debates where glib self-assurance and easy moralizing are far too common.

There is a pressing need for a more nuanced and democratic conversation about the state of American prisons, particularly when the poor and people of color bear the brunt of incarceration. But such a conversation will not happen if we disqualify current and former inmates from public discussion, either because we believe we know what prison is like and can therefore speak for them, or because we believe that they are not worthy or capable of participating.

-Jeff Jurgens

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.