Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
24Jan/141

Loneliness and Expansive Writing

ArendtWeekendReading

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt asks after the “elements” of totalitarianism, those fundamental building blocks that made possible an altogether new and horrific form of government. The two structural elements she locates are the emergence of a new ideological form of Antisemitism and the rise of transnational imperialist movements, which gives the structure to her book: Part One (Antisemitism) and Part Two (Imperialism) lead into Part Three (Totalitarianism). Underlying both Antisemitism and Imperialism is what Arendt calls metaphysical rootlessness and metaphysical loneliness.

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Totalitarian government, Arendt writes, “bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.” The loneliness of modern humanity is multifaceted. It is “closely connected with uprootedness and superfluousness which have been the curse of modern masses since the beginning of the industrial revolution and have become acute with the rise of imperialism at the end of the last century and the breakdown of political institutions and social traditions in our own time.” The image of the factory worker laboring repetitively on a conveyor belt is forever associated with Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. In his 1950 classic The Lonely Crowd, David Reisman describes how middle class Americans had lost their meaningful connections to religion, to class, and to family. They take their values increasingly from a mass culture and they become malleable and subject to the influence of propaganda and advertising.

“Metaphysical rootlessness,” Arendt argues, is both the “basic experience” of modern society and also the generative impulse behind ideological racisms (which Arendt distinguishes from older non-scientific versions of racism). Without a core of personal and collective identity, the lonely mass man is “the common ground for terror, the essence of totalitarian government, and for ideology or logicality, the preparation of its executioners and victims.” Racism is based in hatred of a world in which lonely and rootless people are confronted with their meaninglessness, their belonging to no place, and their superfluousness. It is these masses that seek to build an imaginary and coherent togetherness based on race. Thus is rootlessness characteristic of all racism and all totalitarianism.

In her most pregnant attempt at a definition of totalitarianism, Arendt writes: “Totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated, individuals.” Totalitarianism depends upon “the masses [who] grew out of the fragments of a highly atomized society whose competitive structure and concomitant loneliness of the individual had been held in check only through membership in a class.” Shorn of family and national and class connection, the modern atomized individual becomes a mass man. “The chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness, but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships.”

The question underlying so much of Arendt’s work is how to respond to what she calls “the break in tradition,” the fact that the political, social, and intellectual traditions that bound people together in publically meaningful institutions and networks have frayed beyond repair. The customs and traditions that for millennia were the unspoken common sense of peoples can no longer be presumed. Stripped of these meaningful institutions of transcendence, mass men turn to racism or consumerism to give their lives meaning. Both are dangerous in different ways. Arendt ask repeatedly, how are we to make life meaningful, how are we to inure individuals from the seduction of ideological movements that lend weight to their meaningless lives?

If metaphysical loneliness is the basic experiences of modern life, then it is not surprising that great modern literature would struggle with the agony of such disconnection and seek to articulate paths of reconnection. That, indeed, is the thesis of Wyatt Mason’s essay “Make This Not True,” in this week’s New York Review of Books. Modern fiction, Mason argues, struggles to answer the question: How can we live and die and not be alone?

In the guise of a review of George Saunders Tenth of September (a 2012 finalist for the National Book Award), Mason suggests at least three paradigmatic answers to this question “How do I die?” The answers are represented alternatively by three of the greatest contemporary writers, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Saunders. In brief, Wallace combats the loneliness and inattention of the distracted masses by writing prose that is so seductively difficult that it demands attentiveness and thus membership in a community of readers. Franzen seeks the antidote to loneliness in palpable scenes of connection amidst the wreckages of modern relationships. For both Wallace and Franzen, connection is to be found in the cultivation of quintessentially modern relationships.

Flickr - Manky M.

Flickr - Manky M.

Saunders is notable for pursing a different path through the wilderness of contemporary isolation. Instead of external connections, Saunders is a master of the inward journey we must make alone. For Mason, there is an important link between Saunder’s Buddhism and his writing:

In Buddhist practice, through sitting meditation, the mind may be schooled in the way of softness, openness, expansiveness. This imaginative feat—of being able to live these ideas—is one of enormous subtlety. What makes Saunders’s work unique is not its satirical verve or its fierce humor but its unfathomable capacity to dramatize, in story form, the life-altering teachings of such a practice. … [I]f fiction is to continue to exert an influence over a culture that finds it ever easier to connect, however frailly, to the world around them through technology, Saunders’s stories suggest that the ambition to connect outwardly isn’t the only path we can choose. Rather, his fiction shows us that the path to reconciliation with our condition is inward, a journey we must make alone.

Mason’s essay is subtle and profound. It is your weekend read. And if you have the time, read Saunders’ masterful short story, "The Falls", which Mason discusses at length in his essay. Best of all, order Tenth of December. I spent a few rapturous days reading Saunders’ stories this summer. They can warm your January as well.

-RB

7Nov/130

Arendt on the Declaration of Independence

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"Declarations of Independence: Arendt and Derrida on the Problem of Founding a Republic"
Bonnie Honig
The American Political Science Review, Vol. 85, No. 1 (Mar., 1991), pp. 97-113

Arendt often emphasizes the ramifications of the modern loss of authority for politics. Without faith in traditions or gods, humanity now continually faces the problem of legitimacy in government. To put it more concretely, in the modern age: “[t]hose who get together to constitute a new government are themselves unconstitutional, that is, they have no authority to do what they set out to achieve” (Arendt, On Revolution, quoted in Honig 98). In this article Bonnie Honig, professor of Political Science at Northwestern University, argues that in her work on the American Revolution Arendt goes beyond pessimism to recast the question of founding the state by distancing it from higher powers.

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Arendt points out that the Enlightenment thinkers of the American Revolution were surprised by the novelty of their actions, which quickly outstripped their conception of political reform as restoration (the classical definition of revolution). As they sought to theoretically ground their deeds, they faltered at the ramifications of their radically secular act and inserted references to essentialist elements such as “self evidence” and a higher power. Arendt regrets this because she sees the true advance of the American Revolution as the insight into the role of argument and persuasion between people in the absence of a higher standard of truth.

Using the terminology of speech act theorist J.L. Austin, Honig argues that for Arendt the Declaration of Independence succeeds as a “performative” act that creates a new institution that does not rely on the “constative” truths of gods or tradition. In the text of the Declaration, Honig places particular emphasis on Arendt analysis of the phrase “we hold these truths to be self-evident.” Using the term “we hold” indicates a creative moment very different from a simple statement of fact along the lines of “these truths are self-evident.” Through this creative priority, the American Revolution changes the very conception of revolution. It does not simply seek to refound authority in the classical sense, which would be impossible in this age. Indeed, trying to go back to tradition at gods is in Arendt’s view the cause of the failure of so many 19th and 20th century revolutions. Honig writes that:

Only the modern conception of authority is viable for modernity because it requires for its sustenance not a shared belief in particular deities or myths but a common subscription to the authoritative linguistic practice of promising (102).

People choose to accept the promise of the new social contract when writing the constitution and this shared orientation alone grounds the government. Honig notes though that Arendt does not sufficiently discuss the hidden commonalities that allow people to make such promises. In other words: the promise is a structure, even a ritual, that one must be trained to rely on. She turns to Derrida’s article "Declarations of Independence" to look at this precondition of the promise. While Arendt focuses on the “we hold,” Derrida focuses on the “we” of “we the people. Rather than accepting the promise as an answer to the problem of founding, he sees it as a moment of a leap in which the community of the “we” itself first comes into being. In its rhetorical form though, this “we” also seems like it must have already been there and therefore creates an undecidable moment between the constative and performative.

From the point of view of Derrida’s analysis, Honig sees Arendt as unjustifiably longing for a “pure performative” that would start the new state. Her point is complex and surprising, since Honig in effect accuses Arendt of going too far away from reality and reference. Derrida, who is more often associated with the supposedly relativistic meme “there is nothing outside the text” actually insists in this essay that there has to be an obscure moment in which the “we” both preexisists the Declaration and comes into being with it.

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As strict as Honig’s opposition between Derrida and Arendt is at this point, at the end of the article she notes that Arendt’s “we hold” also has a constative moment that should be acknowledged. In this context, and in the broader scope of Arendt’s challenge to metaphysical ideas such as God, natural law, etc., she proposes the concept of “resistibility” as an Arendtian way of approaching Derrida’s concept of “intervention.” For Honig, both thinkers work within a challenge to authority rather than simply seeking to escape it.

While Honig stays with the difficult structure of the founding moment of modern politics, from a narrative perspective her article also suggests that the confusing undecidability of the “we” might also offer a way to perceive a change in the status of “the people” over the course of the founding of the state. To this extent, the “we hold” that Arendt discusses could actually work just as well, since it indicates a new subjective orientation of the framers: with this formulation they virtualize, in other words put some distance, between themselves and truth. This distance, perhaps no less mysterious than God or truth, but more open to debate, ‘grounds’ the modern state.

-Jeffrey Champlin

17Sep/130

Arendt in Contemporary Art: Lyln Foulkes at the New Museum

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Arendt in Contemporary Art: Lyln Foulkes at the New Museum

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Margarethe von Trotta’s film Hannah Arendt is only the latest appearance of the political thinker in popular culture. This summer, the New Museum's Lyln Foulkes retrospective provided an opportunity to examine an appearance of Arendt in contemporary art. Completed in 1991, The New Renaissance employs materials and motifs reminiscent of pop art and post-modern collage to create a vibrant but mysterious self-portrait.

The setting of the painting, Santa Monica Bay, reminds us of the early paintings modeled on post cards that first brought Foulkes critical attention in the 1960s. The face of the painter, traditionally the center of subjectivity in Western painting, has been disfigured in a style that Foulkes employed since the 1970s. While facing, if not exactly looking, west though, the painter seems to reach out to the East, painting the Chinese character “humanity.” The words written on the painter's brain list a series of concepts and problems, the pallet has a wide mix of colors, but on the canvas it seems that the painter is able to get a clear sign of the picture he wishes to express. Foulkes also uses what looks like real wood for the telephone pole, further satirizing the process of art as creative mediation.

At the viewer's left, Arendt’s book The Human Condition appears in the hands of Foulkes’s wife. She stands behind him in black and white outline, unfinished or highlighted by lack of color. One might conjecture that she reads Arendt to attempt to make sense of the work of art before her. In this case, we might imagine that she's immersed in book 4, where Arendt calls works of art "the most worldly of all things." Foulkes's work leads us to ask how contemporary art creates a human world by telling a story. What kind of "durability" does it create, given that it often challenges understanding rather than simply marking an event (like a monument), or even recounting an recognizable story?

The “HUMAN” in all capital letters of the title makes its way from the book through the painter to the Chinese character on canvas. West meets East here through different cultural symbols. In a similar manner, the ghostly, electric image on Christ on the telephone pole suggests a striking confrontation of the modern age with the imagery of the biblical tradition. Whether or not one thinks that Foulkes succeeds in contributing to the durability of the world with these combinations, we can see them as the kind of attempt to confront the challenges of the present with resources of the past that Arendt advocated and practiced.

-Jeffrey Champlin

 

26Aug/130

Amor Mundi – 8/25/13

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Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor MundiLove 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.

Peter Maass on the Surveillance State

lauraHow does the rise of a secret, inscrutable, and unaccountable security bureaucracy in the United States impact law-abiding citizens? This is a crucial question as many of us struggle to understand the domestic spying programs unveiled by Edward Snowden. In one such program, Xkeyscore, low-level NSA analysts are permitted to “mine enormous agency databases by filling in a simple on-screen form giving only a broad justification for the search. The request is not reviewed by a court or any NSA personnel before it is processed.” It is arguably true that the government needs to be able to act in extraordinary ways to protect the country at a time of world terrorism. It is equally true, however, that once such information is available and held by the government, it is likely that it will be abused. Information is easily transferred. If the government collects and holds data on citizens, that data will eventually be misused, whether by the government or others. One case in point is Laura Poitras. In Peter Maass’ must-read cover story in last week’s New York Times Magazine, he tells how since 2006 Poitras has been on government watch lists because of rumors falsely spread about her. While winning awards and producing lauded documentaries, she was repeatedly detained, met with armed guards, and had her computers and notes taken, searched, and held for weeks—because of secret and ultimately false rumors. And all before she got involved with Edward Snowden. Now Poitras—who has helped to bring Snowden’s revelations about the illegal excesses of government surveillance to light in a responsible manner—may never be able to enter the United States again without being harassed and arrested. It is important to balance the need for security against the rights of citizens and the essential American right of free speech and meaningful dissent. But how did it happen that the Attorney General of the United States of America had to write to the President of Russia assuring him that if Snowden were extradited to the U.S. he would not be tortured? As Daniel Ellsberg has pointed out, when he turned himself in after publishing the Pentagon papers, he was freed on bond pending trial. Would the Obama administration’s justice department have treated Snowden that way? There is in the end a fine line separating the surveillance of terrorists and the harassment of citizens. Maass’ article sheds light on the surveillance state through the personal story of one woman. Wherever you come down on the question of national security surveillance, it is an essay that you should read.

"In America, It is Always a Paranoid Time"

truthersLaura Miller reviews Jesse Walker's new short history of American conspiracy theories, For Walker, the conspiracy theory is a kind of national past time, with some conspiracy or another widely discussed within many disparate demographics. Miller delves into why this might be: "As Walker sees it, our brains are predisposed to see patterns in random data and to apply stories to explain them, which is why conspiracy theory can be so contagious. Although conspiracies do exist, we need to be vigilant against our propensity to find them whether they are there or not. The most sensible outlook would appear to be that of Robert Anton Wilson, who concluded that “powerful people” could well be “engaged in criminal plots” but who found it unlikely that “the conspirators were capable of carrying out those plots competently.” Or, I would add, of covering them up effectively."

Snowballing Assessments

metricsPresident Obama gave a speech this week promising to take on university tuition. It is a worthy goal at a time of skyrocketing student debt. But the devil is in the details and here the details include a universal assessment board that will rank how well schools prepare students for employment. The idea is to allow students and parents to know which schools are the best return on their investment and to shame colleges and universities into cutting costs and focusing more on preparing students for gainful employment. There are many questions that could be asked, including whether we are better served spending money to make college more affordable or by actually turning high school—which is already free and mandatory—into a meaningful experience that prepares students for work and citizenship? But philosophical questions aside, does such assessment work? Not according to Colin Macilwain, writing in the Scientific Journal Nature. Discussing “Snowball,” a system designed to assess British Universities, Macilwain writes: “A major problem with metrics is the well-charted tendency for people to distort their own behaviour to optimize whatever is being measured (such as publications in highly cited journals) at the expense of what is not (such as careful teaching). Snowball is supposed to get around that by measuring many different things at once. Yet it cannot quantify the attributes that society values most in a university researcher — originality of thinking and the ability to nurture students. Which is not the same as scoring highly in increasingly ubiquitous student questionnaires.” As assessments become a way of life, it is important to recall their unintended ill-effects.

The Young and the Rebellious

iranIn an essay about the ways that Iran's regime has used the deaths of "martyrs" to political advantage in the past and how opponents of the regime used that same rhetoric to push the opposite way following the death of Neda Agha-Soltan in 2009, Mehdi Okasi describes his own youthful push back as an American-Iranian visiting Tehran as a teenager: "I ignored my family’s warnings, and carried my copy of The Satanic Verses with me throughout Tehran: to coffee shops, internet cafes, even the park. I held it in my hand as I walked around the city, placed it on tables as I ordered in restaurants, or on the counter at the local bakery where my sweet tooth was placated daily by cream pastries layered with jam and rolled in crushed pistachios. I even made a point of opening it in view of police and soldiers. But to my disappointment, no one paid me any attention. When I visited the many bookstores around Engelob Square, I asked booksellers if they had a copy squirreled away. My question didn’t inspire rage or offense. They didn’t gasp in disbelief or chase me out the store with a broom. Instead, in a rather bored tone, they informed me that the book wasn’t available in Iran. When they learned that I was visiting from America, they added that I could probably find a copy at so-and-so’s bookstore. Like anything else that was forbidden, you only had to know where to look and how to ask for it."

An American Speaker in Paris

parisTa-Nehisi Coates has spent part of the summer learning French in Paris. His continuing education in a foreign tongue, and his decision to pursue that education in a place where that language has spoken, has revealed to him the arrogance of native speakers of English; Coates tells his friends that he wishes more Americans were multilingual and "they can't understand. They tell me English is the international language. Why would an American need to know anything else?" For his own part, Coates seems to have been dissuaded of that particular notion simply by venturing into the world outside of his door; humility and empathy have been his prizes. "You come to this place" he says "and find yourself disarmed. You see that it has its own culture, its own ages and venerable traditions, that the people do not tremble before you. And then you understand that there is not just intelligent life in outer space, but life so graceful that it shames you into silence."

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29Jul/131

Hannah Arendt’s Denktagebuch

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Futility of action = need
for permanence—
Poetry or body politic
Natalität

-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch,  October 1953 (volume 1, p. 61)

Arendt's Thought Diary (Denktagebuch) contains fascinating reflective engagements that span the history of western thought from Plato to Heidegger. The form of the entries is as striking as their content: Arendt employs not only the conceptual mode of inquiry that one expects from a philosopher, but also brief narrative accounts (stories) and poetry that highlight the literary dimension of her thought.

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The quote above comes from a section that is unique even within this context of the varied forms of the Denktagebuch. The full entry has two columns of text side by side comprised of key terms, punctuation, and additional operator markings such as arrows and equal signs. In their spatial division, order of terms, and employment of symbols, these two columns offer a compelling challenge to readers of Arendt who seek to discover specific insights of the Thought Diary that may go beyond those of the her published work.

Each column is headed by a German term easily understandable to English speakers: "Pluralität" and "Singularität." The positive movement that builds earlier in the right hand column through "Pluralität," "equality," and "thought" breaks down on “futility.” We can go at least two directions with this interruption. It might just be a blip in her run of thought, a speed bump, so to speak. I will pursue the more promising thought that Arendt considers an objection, acknowledging the fact that the boldly announced “action” remains threatened by disappointment. This voice contends that practical failure leads to a metaphysical need for stability.

“[N]eed for permanence” aligns with “body politic.” Traditionally, political philosophy uses the body to describe a principle of stable organization. This was already true for Aristotle, who insists on the analogy between mind / body and ruler / subject. As Ernst Kantorowicz famously demonstrated, Medieval political theology argues for the continuity of the ruler with the idea of the two bodies of the king: a physical body that passes away in the death of the king, and one spiritual body that doesn't change. Most importantly for modern thought, Hobbes describes individuals in the state of nature who cede their individual power to the ruler, resulting in a single body that the famous front piece of The Leviathan pictures as a giant composite of smaller people.

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Linguistically, “body politic” has unique currency in Anglo-American thought. “Staatskörper” does not have the same reign in German discourse, where the mechanistic “Staatsapparat” (“state apparatus”) predominates. Rousseau employs “corps politique” in On the Social Contract but it never takes a central place in French debate. Arendt takes on a specific concept in a specific language and tradition, but one that she opens to an unexpected future. From the medieval period to the 20th century, these theories of the body politic share a common emphasis on unity and an organic principle of stability that points to a metaphysical “need for permanence.”

With this background, one might not be surprised that other figures of birth in the Thought Diary relate not to change, sudden or otherwise, but to consistency and integration. However, the way Arendt describes this maintenance of the social world provides the uncircumventable basis for the ultimately radical energy that she grants action. In the “or” of Arendt’s “Poetry or body politic,” she compels us to consider an alternative to a fixed organic structure. Indeed, the very form of the entry tends towards poetry, and in its spacing and rhythm challenges standard modes of conceptual analysis.

Reading a few key entries around the same time in the Thought Diary shows that the world (i.e. the common realm of living together) needs to be sustained; it doesn’t just exist by itself. In this regard, the phrase “Poetry or body politic” indicates that the political body does not just last by itself but needs to be continually renewed. This renewal has both a conservative aspect and a potential for radical change in action. Each new body does not just fit the higher state-body, but continually maintains the social structure.

The column ends with “natality” (“Natalität”), Arendt's only use of the term in the Thought Diary in the years leading up to her major explication of the idea in the Human Condition. The entry, taken precisely in its note layout and read together with nearby entries that employ figures of birth, shows Arendt criticizing a political metaphysics of the body through an alternative corporeality. Precisely because the state lacks a higher principle of stability, the common world can change its entire political structure because it brings with it the possibility of starting something wholly new.

-Jeffrey Champlin

21Jun/132

Defending the Humanities While Trashing Them

ArendtWeekendReading

Leon Wieseltier, the longtime cultural editor of the New Republic, dedicated his commencement address at Brandeis last month to a defense of the humanities. He asks, “Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were cherished less, and has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were needed more?” It was a rhetorical question, and Wieseltier offers a full-throttled defense of teaching and studying the humanities. The culprit, he writes, is technology.

For decades now in America we have been witnessing a steady and sickening denigration of humanistic understanding and humanistic method. We live in a society inebriated by technology, and happily, even giddily governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency, and convenience. The technological mentality that has become the American worldview instructs us to prefer practical questions to questions of meaning – to ask of things not if they are true or false, or good or evil, but how they work. Our reason has become an instrumental reason, and is no longer the reason of the philosophers, with its ancient magnitude of intellectual ambition, its belief that the proper subjects of human thought are the largest subjects, and that the mind, in one way or another, can penetrate to the very principles of natural life and human life. Philosophy itself has shrunk under the influence of our weakness for instrumentality – modern American philosophy was in fact one of the causes of that weakness -- and generally it, too, prefers to tinker and to tweak.

The machines to which we have become enslaved, all of them quite astonishing, represent the greatest assault on human attention ever devised: they are engines of mental and spiritual dispersal, which make us wider only by making us less deep. There are thinkers, reputable ones if you can believe it, who proclaim that the exponential growth in computational ability will soon take us beyond the finitude of our bodies and our minds so that, as one of them puts it, there will no longer be any difference between human and machine. La Mettrie lives in Silicon Valley. This, of course, is not an apotheosis of the human but an abolition of the human; but Google is very excited by it.

I too value the humanities and have dedicated my life to them. I agree with Wieseltier about the distracting influence of technology and also the danger of scientism.

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But I do wonder why it is that Wieseltier did not ask also what the humanities might have contributed to the fact that nationally now only 7% of students choose to study the humanities. Even at Harvard, only 20% of students are majoring in the humanities. Are all these students eschewing the humanities out of evil or ignorance? Or is there something wrong with the way we are teaching the humanities? 

The truth is that too much of what our humanities faculties teach is neither interesting nor wanted by our students and even by our colleagues. It is an amazing truth that much of what academics write and publish is rarely, if ever, read. Even by other academics. 

The standard response to such whispered confessions is that scholarship is timeless. Its value may not be discovered for centuries. Or that it is like basic research, useful in itself. The problem with these arguments is that such really original scholarship is rare and getting ever more rare. The increasing specialization of academic life leads to professors knowing more and more about less and less. This is the source of the irrelevance of much of humanities scholarship today.

As Hannah Arendt wrote 50 years ago in her essay On Violence, humanities scholars today are better served by being learned and erudite than by seeking to do original research by uncovering some new or forgotten scrap. While such finds can be interesting, they are exceedingly rare and largely insignificant.

To say that excessively specialized humanities scholarship today is irrelevant is not to say that the humanities are irrelevant. As I have written elsewhere,

The humanities are that space in the university system where power does not have the last word, where truth and beauty as well as insight and eccentricity reign supreme and where young people come into contact with the great traditions, writing, and thinking that have made us whom we are today. The humanities introduce us to our ancestors and our forebears and acculturate students into their common heritage. It is in the humanities that we learn to judge the good from the bad and thus where we first encounter the basic moral facility for making judgments. It is because the humanities teach taste and judgment that they are absolutely essential to politics. It is even likely that the decline of politics today is profoundly connected to the corruption of the humanities.

One might think that given his concern with technology changing and threatening our humanity, Wieseltier might find an ally in Hannah Arendt.  Hannah Arendt is one of the most articulate defenders of the connection between humanities learning and political and an engaged political life. For her, politics depends upon the stories and actions that preserve the traditions and the institutions that give meaning and sense to our common lives. The crisis in the humanities is, Arendt understood, deeply connected to our political crisis.

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Wieseltier has never been a fan of Arendt’s writing, which of course is fine. But with the opening of the new movie “Hannah Arendt” by Margarethe von Trotta, he seems to have decided to establish the new New Republic as ground zero of irresponsible Arendt bashing. Under his guidance, the New Republic has published not one but two scathingly critical reviews of the film, each riddled with errors. I wrote already about the glaring factual mistakes plaguing Stanley Kaufmann’s review last week, in a post on the Febrile Imagination of Arendt Haters. I only recently became aware of a second attack by Saul Austerlitz.

The Austerlitz review is given the subtle title “A New Movie Perpetuates the Pernicious Myth of Hannah Arendt.” Austerlitz calls Arendt a “threadbare hero,” and complains that the movie eschews “serious consideration of the sustained critical response to Eichmann in Jerusalem.” That is strange given the prominence in the film given to Arendt’s critics, including Kurt Blumenfeld (who also utters damning words written by Gershom Scholem), Charlotte Beradt, Norman Podhoretz, and, most forcefully, Hans Jonas. Undoubtedly the film comes down on Arendt’s side. But when Jonas turns away from Arendt after her lecture, the moral clarity of his accusation of arrogance weighs on through till the credits.

Some of Austerlitz’s criticisms hit home. For example, he worries, as I have, that the encounter between Siegfried Moses and Arendt is too one-sided, even if he does not know that the actual encounter was much different.

But mostly Austerlitz just follows the herd by attacking Arendt not by engaging her work (he never once cites Arendt), but by quoting from others. Mostly Austerlitz chooses to cite Deborah Lipstadt, author of a revisionist account of the Eichmann trial in which suggests without any reason or supporting evidence that Arendt defended Eichmann (something she certainly did not do) in order to excuse or please her former lover Martin Heidegger. Such contentions would be laughable if they weren’t then adopted uncritically by others as fact. In any case, here is what Austerlitz writes about Eichmann in Jerusalem (giving no indication whatsoever whether he has read it):

The book makes for good philosophy, but shoddy history, as many have asserted in the decades since its publication. As historian Deborah Lipstadt observes of Arendt in The Eichmann Trial (2011), “The only way she could have concluded that Eichmann was unaware was to give more credence to his demeanor and testimony at the trial than to what he actually did during the war.” 

One wonders, upon reading such a paragraph, what Lipstadt was saying Arendt was unaware of? Since Austerlitz’s preceding sentence accuses Arendt of believing that Eichmann, “bore the Jews no special animus, intent merely on carrying out his duties to the utmost,” it suggests that Lipstadt is arguing that Arendt is unaware of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism. But if one goes back to Lipstadt’s book itself, she is in fact arguing that Arendt said that Eichmann was unaware that he had committed crimes.

debo

Whether or not Eichmann was aware that he committed crimes is an important question. It certainly cannot be decided as Lipstadt does by appealing to but never citing the memoir Eichmann wrote while in Argentina. Over and over in that memoir, Eichmann asserts his belief that he was justified in doing what he did and that he violated no laws in doing so. Indeed, Arendt herself argued that Eichmann’s pleas of having a “clear conscience” were made questionable by “the fact that the Nazis, and especially the criminal organizations to which Eichmann belonged, had been so very busy destroying evidence of their crimes during the last months of the war.” And yet Arendt, trying to take Eichmann’s statements in Argentina seriously, recognized also that the destruction of evidence 

proved no more than recognition that the law of mass murder, because of its novelty, was not yet accepted by other nations; or, in the language of the Nazis, that they had lost their fight to “liberate” mankind from the “rule of subhumans,” especially from the dominion of the Elders of Zion; or, in ordinary language, it proved no more than the admission of defeat. Would any one of them have suffered from a guilty conscience if they had won? 

Whether or not Eichmann was or was not possessed of a guilty conscience may be open for debate, but the claim that Arendt was unaware of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism is folly.  As is Austerlitz’s also unsupported claim that “Eichmann bore the Jews no special animus.”  I realize others have pedaled such trash before, but repeating falsities does not make them true.

There is irony in Wieseltier’s condemning the decline of the humanities even as he oversees publication of two irresponsible reviews about a movie that, whatever its failings, is the most significant attempt to bring a major humanist to the screen in a thoughtful and respectful way. I am not asking for cheerleading, but serious engagement would be welcomed.   

Ignore the reviews and instead read Wieseltier’s commencement speech celebrating the humanities. It is your weekend read.  And then review my own defense of the humanities here.

-RB

3Jun/132

The Delusion of the Omnipotence

Arendtquote

“There is a difference between a man who sets out to murder his old aunt and people who without considering the economic usefulness of their actions at all (…) build factories to produce corpses. (…) Perhaps what is behind it all is only that individual human beings did not kill other individual human beings for human reasons, but that an organized attempt was made to eradicate the concept of the human being”.  –  “And all this ... arises from – or, better, goes along with – the delusion of the omnipotence (not simply with the lust for power) of an individual man. If an individual man qua man were omnipotent, then there is in fact no reason why men in the plural should exist at all – just as in monotheism it is only God’s omnipotence that made him ONE.”

-Hannah Arendt / Karl Jaspers: Correspondence 1926-1969

Arendt distinguishes two historical boundaries that separated pre-modernity from modernity and liberalism from total domination. In her books The Human Condition and Between Past and Future Arendt discusses the profound changes which modernity brought about through technological progress and simultaneous world alienation, by withdrawal from the common world to self-reflection, by division of the world into subjectivity and objectivity, by substitution of philosophy and politics with an instrumental understanding of theory and praxis, and loss of the interwoven phenomena of authority, tradition and religion as guarantees for the stability of political communities.

clocks

All this opened the way to transgress traditional boundaries and to give in to the temptation to be omnipotent. The totalitarian movements transformed the nihilistic “all is allowed” into “all is possible”.

Is is precisely the same thesis that Freud, Castoriadis and others advanced: the lust for omnipotence is neither an exception nor the experience of a limited number of human beings but the general experience of early childhood. The experience of omnipotence precedes the recognition of otherness. Recognition of the other has to be learned in the course of development from the pre-social to the socially shaped human being. According to philosopher and psychoanalyst Joel Whitebook, we are thus confronted with a constant working of  “the negative” in us.

“The experience of omnipotence is significant for the normal as well as for the abnormal child, for youth and for adulthood. Examples can be found in religious, aesthetic and erotic experiences, in the state of being in love, in mass phenomena and in certain forms of psychosis.”

In this context it is worth analysing the different forms of violence and asking why and how they transgress the boundaries to omnipotence. For example, we can distinguish between hooligan crowd violence, sniper killings in wartime and the mass murder committed by the Norwegian Anders Breivik. Transgressing boundaries in the case of hooligans consists of crossing the boundary from respect for the physical integrity of the other to illegal physical injury, in the case of snipers from a ban on killing to legally controlled or uncontrolled killing of enemy combatants, and in the case of Breivik in the annihilation of all representatives of the enemy. In Eichmann’s case, as we know, the maximum transgression consisted in the endless annihilation of entire peoples and populations.

What we find in the first case, the fierce violence of hooligans, is lust for power and temporary transgression. Here a code of honour prescribes that violence should be fierce and brutal, but not fatal, that those not involved should not be attacked, that the use of weapons is forbidden and that conflicting groups should be similar in number and strength. Hooligans do not intend to destroy their opponents but merely to gain victory over them. Consequently their violence has nothing to do with delusions of omnipotence, but a great deal to do with lust for power. There is, however, an element in their behaviour that could pave the way for omnipotence. They themselves describe this as a kick, a surge of violence that can be produced instantly and only stopped on the threshold of destroying the other. In the interests of journalism, the American journalist Bill Buford socialized with British hooligans for some time and observed in himself the euphoria that accompanied each transgression, a sense of transcendence that rose to ecstasy, where the individual was completely absorbed into the crowd. “Violence is one of the strongest sensations of pleasure." He described the vast majority of hooligans as what we might call ordinary neighbours.

glass

The second group are the snipers. What makes them transgress boundaries is the lust to kill enemies as defined by the state, the army or the militia to which they belong. Chris Kyle, for example, the best sniper the US army ever produced, officially shot 160 enemy combatants in Iraq, 250 in his opinion, and described killing as his job and the war as his area of work.

“When you kill someone the first time, you’re stirred up. You think: Am I really allowed to kill this guy? Is this OK? But once you kill an enemy, you realize it’s alright. You do it again. And again. You do it so the enemy cannot kill you and your compatriots. You do it until there’s no one left to kill. "

Chris Kyle became a killing machine employed by the state.

When his marriage was threatened, he returned to the United States. There too, death remained his main topic. He became an alcoholic, was involved in brawls, shot two car thieves, set up a company to train snipers and took care of traumatized veterans by accompanying them to shooting ranges. In February of this year he was shot by one of the traumatized ex-soldiers at a shooting range. Chris Kyle received numerous awards. The nation is proud of him.

The Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik represents the third form of transgression. His deed is not marked primarily by the lust for power or the lust to kill but by the ideological justification of an omnipotent action. He bombed the government district of Oslo, killing eight people, and massacred 69 participants of a social-democrat youth camp. He justified this act in a fifteen hundred page manifesto entitled 2083 A European Declaration of Independence. He claimed to represent a Norwegian and European resistance movement and to be a member of the “indigenous population” struggling against the decline of Norway due to uncontrolled immigration policies by liberals and representatives of a multicultural society.

“It is 100 percent certain that there will be a war between nationalists and internationalists in Europe. We, the first militant nationalists, are the first raindrops indicating that a big storm is coming. ... To die as a martyr for his people’s survival is the greatest honour in a man’s life.”

As a single perpetrator Breivik needed a particularly strong ideological justification and defined himself as a martyr who was sacrificing his life for the ethnic community. To do this he needed to distance himself emotionally from his fellow citizens and avoid any kind of interaction for several months, which he spent exclusively playing violent video games.

The same occurs with guerrilla groups. A crucial prerequisite for their deeds is the ideologically justified dehumanization of the potential victims and the transformation of the guerrilla fighters into cold-blooded killers. It is not only permissible to kill the “lackeys of imperialism” but the murders must be carried out in the most cold-blooded manner to be effective. In his Message to the Tricontinental in 1967 Che Guevara declared:

“Hatred as an element of the struggle; a relentless hatred of the enemy, impelling us over and beyond the natural limitations that man is heir to and transforming him into an effective, violent, selective and cold killing machine. Our soldiers must be thus; a people without hatred cannot vanquish a brutal enemy.”

We tend to underestimate the ongoing existence of violence and the lust for omnipotence. When we talk about recognition we forget the disregard, humiliation and negation of the other and consider this of secondary importance. When we talk about state monopoly on the use of force, we tend to forget that violence still exists, that there are permanent no-go areas and terrorist groups, and that there is violence that is permitted, trained and paid for by the state and violence exercised by our neighbours. Whether legal or illegal – there is an irreconcilable relationship between civilized behaviour at work during the week and violent behaviour on weekends, and between a democratic family father who respects the rule of law in one country and systematically kills in another.

head

When Arendt searched the origins of totalitarianism she found them in the non-totalitarian modernity (unsolved minority problems, un-political human rights concepts, administrative colonialism, nationalist concepts of politics, etc.) Violence belongs to them. It holds in itself not only the negation of plurality and freedom but also the delusion of the omnipotence.

-Wolfgang Heuer

22Apr/130

Thinking Metaphors

Arendtquote

This Quote of the Week post was first published on August 27, 2012.

“What connects thinking and poetry [Dichten] is metaphor. In philosophy one calls concept what in poetry [Dichtkunst] is called metaphor. Thinking creates its “concepts” out of the visible, in order to designate the invisible.”

-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, vol. 2, p. 728 (August 1969) (translation my own)

Arendt’s Denktagebuch is less a “book” than a collection of “thought fragments”. These fragments, such as the one quoted above, are perhaps best considered not as advocating some position, but as specific angles or starting points from which we are invited to think something through.

All too often, her published works are understood in an “advocatory” fashion. Accordingly, The Human Condition, is sometimes read as a “plea” in favor of the vita activa over and against the vita contemplativa. In fact, however, Arendt explicitly denies that she wishes to reverse the traditional hierarchy between the two ways of life. Rather, she is questioning the conceptual framework within which both ways of life have traditionally been understood.

color

Hence, I take it to be her aim not only to liberate acting [Handeln] from its being reduced to nothing more than an instrument in the process of making [Herstellen], but, analogously, to liberate the activity of thinking from its being reduced to nothing more than an instrument in the process of cognition culminating in contemplation, in “seeing” the truth which, in turn, serves as blueprint for the process of making. She notes that both the process of making, which uses mute violence, and the end of contemplation, which is reached in a state of speechless wonder, entail a loss of language.[1] As a consequence, the element of speech has disappeared not only from our conception of action (including politics), but also from our conception of thinking (including philosophy).

If not from the model of the passive contemplation, how does Arendt wish to understand the activity of thinking? In my view, there are at least three thinking “motifs” which can be traced throughout her oeuvre. The first, and certainly the best known, is that of “dialectical thinking”, that is, the soundless dialogue between me and myself (“two-in-one”). It is used in The Origins of Totalitarianism, and it keeps recurring in many of her later works, including The Life of the Mind. The second, somewhat less prominent motif is that of “representative thinking”, which denotes the capacity of placing oneself in the perspectives of (more than two) fellow human beings, and which prepares the formation of opinions and judgments. The notion itself occurs for the first time in ‘The Crisis in Culture’ (1960), but it is clearly related to, if not identical with, the “communicative” thinking introduced in her essays on Karl Jaspers a few years earlier.

The third motif, “poetic thinking”, is perhaps the most interesting one. Although she uses the term itself exclusively in her essay on Walter Benjamin (1968), a description of the underlying phenomenon recurs in The Life of the Mind, more specifically in its two chapters on metaphor. Arendt describes the function of metaphor as “turning the mind back to the sensory world in order to illuminate the mind’s non-sensory experiences for which there are no words in any language.” (The Life of the Mind, vol.1, p. 106)

birds

As soon as we realize, as do the poets, that all language is metaphorical, we will, as thinkers, be able to assess the crucial role of our language in bridging the gap between the visible phenomena of the outer world and the invisible concepts of our inner mind. To give an example, by tracing a concept – such as “politics” – to its originally underlying experience – the Greek polis – we will be able to assess whether the way in which we employ it, is “adequate”, that is, whether we actually employ it in any meaningful way, whether it really “makes sense”.

In concluding her chapters on metaphor, Arendt raises the challenging question whether there exists a metaphor that could serve to illuminate the invisible activity of “thinking” itself. The most she is willing to offer, however, is the metaphor of “the sensation of being alive”, of which she herself readily admits that it “remains singularly empty” (idem, p. 124).

Why does she not mention the metaphor of poetry here? In the Denktagebuch fragment quoted above, written while she was preparing The Life of the Mind, Arendt clearly points to a certain correspondence between the role of metaphor in poetry and the role of concept in thinking. Perhaps we may go so far as to suggest that she uses poetry – or rather, since she uses the substantivized German verb “Dichten”, the activity of “making poetry” – as a metaphor for thinking.

However, the word “poetry” itself is derived from the Greek word “poièsis”, which should be rendered as “making” [Herstellen]. Hence, she might have thought that by using poetry as a metaphor for thought, she would have reiterated the traditional problem of the activity of thinking having been overlaid with the contemplative element in the experience of making. Indeed, in The Human Condition, in the section titled ‘The Permanence of the World and the Work of Art’, she seems to imply that writing poetry involves “the same workmanship which, through the primordial instrument of human hands, builds the other durable things of the human artifice.” (The Human Condition, p. 169)

Yet, in the very same section another, more promising, understanding of “poetry” is beginning to emerge. Arendt calls music and poetry “the least “materialistic” of the arts because their “material” consists of sounds and words” – note her use of quotation marks here – and she adds that the workmanship they demand is “kept to a minimum”.

words

Moreover, after having suggested that the durability of a poem is not so much caused by the fact that it is written down, but by “condensation”, she speaks of poetry as “language spoken in utmost density and concentration” (idem, p. 169). The German word for condensation is “Verdichtung” and for density “Dichte”. While being absent in the English expression of “making poetry”, both words clearly resonate in the German verb “dichten”.

Arendt does not draw any explicit connection between the activity of condensation and the use of metaphor. Still, she might have had it in mind. One page earlier (idem, p. 168), she referred to a poem by Rilke in order to illustrate the “veritable metamorphosis” a work of art is capable of bringing about, being more than a mere reification, more than a matter of “making” in the ordinary sense. Consider especially the second strophe, which simultaneously articulates and demonstrates the power of metaphor in “calling” the invisible:

Here is magic. In the realm of a spell
the common word seems lifted up above...
and yet is really like the call of the male
who calls for the invisible female dove.[2]

- Wout Cornelissen

[1] See, amongst others, Denktagebuch, pp. 345-346.

[2] Translation by John J.L. Mood. Arendt quotes the German original only.

10Apr/130

Islamic and Liberal Intersections

FromtheArendtCenter

Over the course of the past two decades, the political idiom of liberalism has substantially expanded its global reach and dominance. In the vast majority of the world’s existing states, principles of individual rights and collective recognition have been or are being enshrined in constitutions and other legal codes, and actors in the public sphere and the realm of civil society are adopting liberal discourse in order to press their claims for equality and freedom. The recent Arab Spring is only one of the most recent instantiations of this larger trend.

Yet even as we acknowledge liberalism’s dominance, we should not overlook those settings where it still (and ironically) carries a counter-hegemonic charge. One such locale is the Republic of Turkey, ostensibly one of the most stable and democratic states in the wider Middle East. Here a variety of Islamic organizations have relied on liberal imaginings in their efforts to challenge the state’s anti-clerical model of secularism.

window

This Islamic recourse to liberalism is the central concern of Jeremy Walton’s intriguing article in the most recent American Ethnologist, “Confessional Pluralism and the Civil Society Effect.” Walton pays particular attention to the work of four Islamic NGOs in Istanbul and Ankara, all of which have adopted the language of confessional pluralism in their efforts to obtain recognition from the state and secure their inclusion in Turkish public life.[i] These organizations define “religion” as a nonpolitical, voluntary mode of social and ethical life that legitimately, indeed necessarily, takes different forms. They also insist that these varied modes of life deserve acknowledgement and protection on the basis of “the ostensibly universal values of liberty and equality.”

When viewed from the perspective of Turkey’s party politics, these NGOs make strange bedfellows. Three of the organizations analyzed by Walton represent Alevism, a syncretic minority tradition that can be broadly defined by its emphasis on Twelver Shi’a history and belief, its incorporation of Central Asian mystical and shamanistic practices, and its distinctive ritual performances. Alevis have typically supported the Republican People’s Party (CHP, the party established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk) because its staunch secularism has appeared to offer a bulwark against Sunni majoritarianism and discrimination. The fourth organization, meanwhile, is a Sunni association inspired by the contemporary Turkish theologian Fethullah Gülen and his project of universal religious dialogue. It also epitomizes the recent emergence of the Sunni Muslim bourgeoisie, the constituency that has played a pivotal role in the ascendance of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Thanks to its overwhelming success in local and national elections over the past decade, the AKP has effectively supplanted the CHP as Turkey’s preeminent political party.

Yet as Walton rightly notes, these NGOs’ seemingly obvious political differences belie their common turn to the liberal rhetoric of pluralism and collective recognition. All of them desire public acknowledgement of their own (and others’) communities and identities, and all thereby challenge the presumption of ethnolinguistic and religious homogeneity that has prevailed in Turkish governmental discourse since the founding of the Republic in 1923. In addition, all of these organizations question the state’s long-standing effort not only to define and regulate the legitimate practice of religion (especially Sunni Islam), but also to limit religious expression to the private sphere. These rather paradoxical governmental imperatives, which remained largely unchallenged in Turkey until the 1990s, can be traced to the laicist model of secularism that the Republic adopted from the French Jacobin tradition.

In subtle or dramatic ways, all of these NGOs seek to divert Turkish secularism from its previous path. One of the Alevi organizations, for example, seeks a mode of pluralism that would grant to Alevis the same privileges—state funding for houses of worship, inclusion in the mandatory religion classes taught in public schools—that the state has historically allocated to Sunni Islam. Another Alevi association, by contrast, favors an “American-style” secularism that would limit or even prohibit state intervention in religious affairs. The Sunni organization, meanwhile, seeks to promote tolerance and public dialogue across confessional boundaries in a manner that departs markedly from the state’s efforts to privatize religious expression. Significantly, the idiom of liberalism is flexible enough to accommodate these varied and not always compatible projects.

At the same time, the liberal language of confessional pluralism creates tensions and dilemmas for the very organizations that seek to mobilize it. Above all, claims for collective recognition presume coherent and “authentic” (i.e., long-standing, non- or pre-political) religious identities as the necessary ground for communal acknowledgement and equal protection. As Walton convincingly relates, it is precisely such coherence and authenticity that prove elusive for many Islamic NGOs. Alevi associations in particular are defined by intense arguments over the very definition of Alevi identity. Does Alevism constitute a distinct and more or less uniform tradition of its own? What precisely is its relationship with Islam? Does Alevism even constitute a “religion” as the concept is commonly understood, or is it rather a body of folklore, a philosophical and political orientation, or an ethnicity? Alevi associations disagree sharply on the answers to these questions, even as they share a common discursive logic.

mosque

Walton is somewhat less persuasive, however, when he turns to Islamic NGOs’ relationship to the state and state governance. In his reading, these associations engage in a form of “nongovernmental politics” that does not aspire to occupy the position of a governing agency. In fact, they contribute to what Walton, drawing on the work of Timothy Mitchell, calls “the civil society effect”: the romantic notion that civil society constitutes “a self-evident domain of freedom and authenticity” wholly autonomous from the state. I follow Walton’s reasoning when he notes that the NGOs he analyzes have displayed an increasing skepticism toward Turkey’s dominant model of secularism and its major political parties, including the CHP and the AKP. I believe he oversteps, however, when he suggests that many if not all of these associations dismiss political society and the state. To my mind, the very language of liberalism adopted by these NGOs indicates that they care a great deal about the state and its policies. Very much in the spirit of Arendt’s celebrated pronouncements in The Origins of Totalitarianism, they grasp that rights and recognition, if they are to have real substance, must be backed and warranted by the state’s governmental power.

This wrong turn notwithstanding, Walton’s argument makes for stimulating reading. Perhaps above all, it offers a sharp challenge to the still common presumption that Islam and modern politics are hermetically separate, fundamentally irreconcilable domains. Instead, as Walton subtly demonstrates, they “authorize, animate, challenge, and contextualize each other in contextually specific ways.”

-Jeffrey Jurgens

__________________________________________

[i] For the sake of easy reading, I do not dwell on the NGOs by name, but the Alevi associations include the Cem Foundation, the Hacı Bektaş Veli Anatolian Cultural Foundation, and the Ehl-i Beyt Foundation. The Sunni association aligned with Gülen is the Journalists and Writers Foundation.

4Apr/131

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.

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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

25Feb/130

Learning From Crisis

"[T]here is another even more cogent reason for [the layman] concerning himself with a critical situation in which he is not immediately involved. And that is the opportunity, provided by the very fact of crisis—which tears away facades and obliterates prejudices—to explore and inquire into whatever has been laid bare of the essence of the matter…"

-Hannah Arendt, "The Crisis in Education"

I

It is often said that the Chinese word for “crisis,” or weiji, means a combination of “danger” and “opportunity,” and every so often the trope appears in the highest echelons of American politics. Linguist Benjamin Zimmer cites its frequent use by John F. Kennedy in speeches leading into the 1960 presidential election; and more recently, Al Gore in 2006-7 used weiji to anchor both his Congressional testimony on the problem of climate change, and his Vanity Fair article (“The Moment of Truth”) concerning the same. During her January 2007 trip to the Middle East, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters of conditions in the region, "I don't read Chinese but I am told that the Chinese character for crisis is wei-ji, which means both danger and opportunity…And I think that states it very well. We'll try to maximize the opportunity."

This use of weiji has irked some linguists. Zimmer calls Gore’s Chinese riff a “linguistic canard” and writes that in all these cases, “[T]he trope was deployed for similar effect: as a framing technique for describing current perils posed by a particular world crisis and future possibilities for resolving that crisis. Thus it allows the speaker to shift rhetorical footing from pessimism to optimism, ending with an upbeat tone and a call to action.” Victor H. Mair, a professor of Chinese language and literature at UPenn, identifies a “fatal” error of interpretation that centers on the second character, ji, which rather than “opportunity,” here means something like “incipient moment; crucial point (when something begins or changes).” Thus, “A weiji indicates a perilous situation when one should be especially wary. It is not a juncture when one goes looking for advantages and benefits.”

To those still seeking New Age wisdom in the danger/opportunity coupling, Mair points to the old Greek usage. Modern “crisis” stems from the Greek krinein, meaning to separate, decide, or judge. The word reached Middle English in the 15th century via Latin, and the Oxford English Dictionary says that by mid-16th century it meant judgment related specifically to sickness and the sudden change of disease (The Online Etymology Dictionary cites Hippocrates using krinein in the same way.). Soon thereafter it referred more generally to “A vitally important or decisive stage in the progress of anything; a turning-point,” as well as judgment or decision simply, and “A point by which to judge; a criterion; token; sign.”

In moments of crisis the important connection between “danger” and “opportunity” centers on their common source in a disruption of normal order, a disruption that entails instability and volatility, but also openings to previously precluded or unimagined possibilities for action. The moment of crisis is transient, and in political matters the statesman’s virtue is two-fold—not only to manage (or “seize”) a crisis situation, but also to recognize the situation when it arises (See Lenin, “The Crisis Has Matured,” September 29, 1917) or foresee its coming. By recognizing a crisis for what it is—a moment of decision—we can wrest the decision to ourselves.

II

Hannah Arendt’s essay “The Crisis in Education” seems to offer a different understanding of social and political crisis—one less concerned with critical moments and more concerned with the “elemental structures” of modernity that “crystallize” over time and manifest today in a variety of ways. The essay starts by observing that “The general crisis that has overtaken the modern world everywhere and in almost every sphere of life manifests itself differently in each country, involving different areas and taking on different forms.” In America the general crisis has assumed the form of “the recurring crisis in education that, during the last decade at least, has become a political problem of the first magnitude[.]” This introduces a recurring theme in the essay, that while examining a particular political crisis in America, the essay is also—and perhaps more fundamentally—about “a more general crisis and instability in modern society.”

This more general crisis is the modern crisis of authority that is “closely connected with the crisis of tradition…the crisis in our attitude towards the realm of the past.” Seeing how this bears on the crisis of education requires examining “whatever has been laid bare of the essence of the matter, and the essence of education is natality, the fact that human beings are born into the world.” At the same time, Arendt writes, “Basically we are always educating for a world that is or is becoming out of joint,” a world that, because it is made by mortals, “runs the risk of becoming as mortal as they.” And thus—because the essence of education is natality, and the “newcomers” need a world in which to live and act, but the world in which we live and act constantly “is or is becoming out of joint”—the problem of education concerns how to stabilize this world for the “newcomers” without also stifling their capacity to renew or even drastically alter it: “Exactly for the sake of what is new and revolutionary in every child,” Arendt writes, “education must be conservative; it must preserve this newness and introduce it as a new thing into an old world[.]”

Here the crisis of modernity and education converge—for the process of giving students a world has historically relied on the authority of tradition and the past. But if these authorities can no longer be relied upon, then what remains? Stunningly, Arendt locates a new authority for modern conditions in the teacher’s “assumption of responsibility for that world.”

III

Arendt’s account of the American crisis of education illustrates the connection between local political crises around the world and a larger civilizational crisis. Indeed, a central goal of “The Crisis in Education” is to highlight the blind spots in understanding that result when one regards “a local phenomenon” like the crisis of education as “unconnected with the larger issues of the century, to be blamed on certain peculiarities of life in the United States” (as for example its history of “continuous immigration”). To localize such problems is tempting because “However clearly a general problem may present itself in a crisis, it is nevertheless impossible ever to isolate completely the universal element from the concrete and specific circumstances in which it makes its appearance.” But while “There is always a temptation to believe that we are dealing with specific problems confined within historical and national boundaries and of importance only to those immediately affected”— “It is precisely this belief that in our time has consistently proved false” (emphasis added).

This false belief prevents us from, among other things, ascertaining “which aspects of the modern world and its crisis have actually revealed themselves” (in a local crisis)—that is, “the true reasons that for decades things could be said and done in such glaring contradiction to common sense.” And events continue in this manner due in part to the illusion that situation-specific and/or scientific solutions, which may (or may not) satisfactorily solve local problems in the short term, actually touch upon the heart of the matter. The illusion manifests in “repeat performance” of the crisis, “though perhaps different in form, since there are no limits to the possibilities of nonsense and capricious notions that can be decked out as the last word in science.”  Arendt’s criticism of the futility of pragmatist pedagogy in addressing the crisis of authority in the classroom represents a case in point.

IV

In recent months and years, few words have achieved more prominence in Washington politics than crisis. As recently as February 3, President Obama said in a CBS interview that “Washington cannot continually operate under a cloud of crisis.” And following the latest inconclusive negotiations over the country’s fiscal situation and looming (depending on who you ask) “debt crisis,” a recent article in the Huffington Post bemoans the “pattern of a Congress that governs from crisis to crisis” that has become “all too familiar—and predictable. The trend goes something like this: As a deadline approaches, Republicans repeat their calls for spending cuts. Democrats accuse Republicans of hostage-taking. A short-term agreement is then reached that averts economic calamity, but ultimately kicks the can down the road for yet another fight.”

What does it mean for a Congress to routinely “govern from crisis to crisis”? Does “governing by crisis” constitute functioning politics, or a political crisis of the first order? In The Crisis in Education Arendt writes that “the very fact of crisis…tears away facades and obliterates prejudices,” and allows one “to explore and inquire into whatever has been laid bare of the essence of the matter.” But to state the obvious, if “the very fact of crisis…tears away facades and obliterates prejudices,” then such tearing and obliteration requires that “the very fact of crisis” be recognized and acknowledged. In the current governing crisis in Washington, what fundamentally new, to say nothing of unprejudiced, questions—other than how Washington’s two parties will “compromise” and avoid self-destruction—have been asked? Who has spoken seriously, truthfully, and critically, in an effort to lay bare the essence of the matter?

At a time when happenings in Washington “could be said and done in such glaring contradiction to common sense” (How else are we to understand “governing by crisis”?), Hannah Arendt reminds us to seek out and overcome those “prejudices” and “preformed judgments”—including the obligatory moves to technocratic and ideological narratives—that preclude the introduction of new questions and corresponding answers that require direct and original judgments and, perhaps most importantly, thinking and responsibility. Counterintuitively, in such situations Arendt highlights the importance of questions rather than solutions in confronting political crisis—that the proper response to crisis requires thinking rather than knowledge. To narrowly search for efficient policy “solutions” or ideological “compromises” based on prior prejudices simply misses the point.

If crisis does not seem especially urgent to Arendt in “The Crisis on Education,” she does warn that, in the end, “unreflective perseverance…can only…lead to ruin.” Ironically, one of the prejudiced assumptions that seems most prevalent in Congress today—that abandoning one’s prejudices and preformed judgments spells political death—may be most indicative of our current political crisis.–—And yet if, as Arendt suggests on more than one occasion, one answer to the modern crisis of authority lies in the “assumption of responsibility”—be it responsibility for the world in the classroom, responsibility for extraordinary action in politics (Arendt once attributed Lenin’s revolutionary authority to his singular willingness to “assume responsibility for the revolution after it happened.”), or even responsibility for truthful speech (as opposed to “mere talk”) and action in normal, everyday politics—then notwithstanding whatever the American crisis is, whoever has the courage to speak truthfully and accept political responsibility may wake up to find real power and opportunity suddenly within his grasp.

-John LeJeune

14Jan/132

When Power is Lost

Power is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and where deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.

 -Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Arendt’s conception of power is one of the most subtle and elusive features of her political theory.  Here Arendt poses the problem of power in terms of power’s loss, of powerlessness, which is also what she calls “the death of political communities.”

What is powerlessness? What, exactly, is lost when power is lost?

There are many ways to become powerless in the world of twenty-first century politics.  In the United States we often imagine that citizens would be powerless without their constitutional rights – the vote, free speech, due process.  In and around the world’s many war zones, the loss of military protection seems to produce a very different kind of powerlessness, one that is linked to both our physical vulnerability to violence as human beings and the persistence of violence between sovereign states (and within them.)  There is also the powerlessness that seems to follow from the dislocations or migrations of peoples, a condition that Arendt calls mass homelessness, which may come from the movement of peoples across borders or the redrawing of borders across peoples.  Poverty appears to be another form of powerlessness altogether, one that disrupts our capacity to appropriate nonhuman nature through labor and work and thereby sustain our lives. Arendt argues that mass destitution, alongside mass homelessness, is a form of powerlessness that is peculiar to the political condition of the modern age.

Many other kinds of powerlessness can be added to this list.  The list is disturbing not only for its variety and length, but also because the felt urgency of each danger invites us to elevate one or two above the others, so that we risk settling for powerlessness of several kinds in order to secure power in one or two “emergency” domains.  We choose between the power of kill lists and drone strikes and the power of due process for Americans accused of terrorism.  We weigh our powerlessness in the face of global warming against the powerlessness caused by the Great Recession, where the hoped-for “recovery” will be defined by consumption-led “growth,” rendered tangible by lower gas prices and more crowded shopping malls.  Or, we may think that US power in the globalizing world of free trade and faster capital flows is dependent upon “securing our national borders,” achieved through the quasi-militarization of immigration enforcement.  Hard choices are the stuff of politics - they are supposed to be what power is all about - but the dilemmas of modern powerlessness are peculiarly wrenching in large part because they are not readily negotiable by political action, by those practices of public creativity and initiative that are uniquely capable of redefining what is possible in the common world.  Rather, these “choices” and others like them seem more like dead-ends, tired old traps that mark the growing powerlessness of politics itself.

The death of the body politic, which can only occur by way of the powerlessness of politics itself, is Arendt’s main concern in the above quote.  In contrast to Hobbes, Rousseau, Weber, and Habermas, among others, Arendt distinguishes power from domination, strength, rationality, propaganda, and violence.  Located within the open and common world of human speech and action, power reveals its ethical and political limits when it is overcome by deception, empty words, destruction, and “brutality.”  Rooted in the human conditions of natality and plurality, and constituted by the gathered actions of many in a public space of appearance, power exists only in its actualization through speech and deed.  Like action, power depends upon the public self-disclosure of actors in historical time.  Actors acting together with other actors generate power.  Yet because we do not know “who” we disclose ourselves to be in the course of collective action, or what the effects of our actions will turn out to mean in the web of human stories, power itself is always “boundless and unpredictable,” which in part explains its peculiar force.  Given its boundlessness and unpredictability, power cannot be stored up for emergencies, like weapons or food and water, nor kept in place through fixed territories, as with national sovereignty.  Power therefore co-exists only uneasily with machpolitik. Power can overcome violence and strength through the gathered voices and acts of the many; it can also be destroyed (but not replaced) through the dispersal of the many and the dissolution of the space of appearance.  In-between gathering and dispersal, power is preserved through what Arendt calls “organization,” the laws, traditions, habits, and institutions that sustain the space of appearance during those interims when actors disperse temporarily and withdraw back into the private realm, only to reappear later.

For Arendt, the loss of power is the loss of our capacity to act with others in a way that generates, sustains, and discloses a common world.  Powerlessness is marked by the receding of public spaces. This may occur, for example, through the gentle decline of a formally constituted public realm into the technocratic shadows of the social, or through the brutal sovereign repression of spontaneously emergent spaces of appearance.  In both cases, our ethical and political incapacities to act together, and the philosophical inability to recognize power when we see it, are at the root of modern political powerlessness. Power-seekers, on Arendt’s view, would be well advised to cultivate a deeper political appreciation for both the immaterial force and fragility of human natality, plurality, and public space, which will be lost when power is mistaken for its rivals, like reason, strength, violence, or sovereignty.

-William Dixon

13Dec/120

Tuning Out, Heroism, and the Power of Example

I received an email from an old friend this weekend. She has been deeply affected by the death of Ki Suck Han, the New York man who was pushed off a subway platform near Times Square—and abandoned by all his fellow passengers, before being run over by an oncoming train. She wrote:

The subway death was on my mind all day long yesterday, I was devastated about it. I once worked for the MTA Arts for Transit, maybe that's why. Nobody stepped forth (the platform wasn't empty before the guy fell on the tracks), at least moved forward, rather than back. In that photo the man is all alone facing that train, everyone has moved back and away to make space for the accident to unfold unhindered, out of the zone of implication. We're all so afraid of danger, and even afraid of the fear itself.

Forty Seven people were killed after being hit by trains in 2011—I know this from the helpful signs in the subways that remind us to be careful.

We all know about Ki Suck Han because in the 22 seconds between when he was pushed on the tracks and when a train pinned him against the platform, a New York Post photographer snapped dozens of pictures of him. One of those pictures was then published on the front page of the NYC tabloid.

There has been near universal condemnation of the Post, with a few exceptions. The photographer too has been harangued, accused of taking pictures rather than running to save the man. But the platform had not been empty and another waiting rider actually filmed the argument Ki Suck Han had been having with the man who later pushed him to the tracks. All these passengers fled the scene, moved to the other end of the platform. No one went to help Ki Suck Han. In 22 seconds, no one acted the hero.

“What,” my friend asked, “might Hannah Arendt say about the fact that no one helped a person in need?”

I hazard to say or think I know what Hannah Arendt would have thought or said. I respond to all such queries simply: Hannah Arendt was nothing if not surprising and provocative and more brilliant than I am. I have no special insight into what she would have thought.

What I can do is try to think about how her thinking, her provocative and insistent determination to think what we are doing, helps us today to make sense of ethical and political events like this tragic death. Along those lines, here are a few thoughts.

First, we should not draw too many conclusions from one event. While no heroes showed themselves in this circumstance, there are unsung heroes every year who risk their lives to save people around the world, and even in New York Subways. In fact, just last weekend Doreen Winkler saved two people from an oncoming train in New York City. You can read about Winkler’s heroic acts here and here. And if you want to be inspired by truly heroic acts of daring subway rescues, watch this video from Korea.

Second, the unwillingness to play the hero in this situation reminds me of what Arendt names the loss of our sense of a common world. It is the common world—a world that used to be imagined and held together by tradition and authority—that provides a public space in which actions are remembered. Pericles could say with confidence that the Athenian polis would remember the deeds of its heroes, just as the American revolutionaries could hope that their heroic deeds would live on in monuments, song, and poetry.

Monuments in Washington and around the nation testify to the common world that shares in the memory of great acts—acts that strike people as both surprising and worthy of glory and support. It is the power and promise of memory in the common world that both holds out examples of the glory of heroism and also promises to bring the hero immortality, something more lasting than life and security. There is little faith today that someone who is a hero will be remembered longer than someone who cuts people to bits or dances naked on TV. Heroism is one of many avenues to 15 minutes of fame. So there is no strong sense of acting courageously getting you anything.

Third, the loss of the common world is part and parcel of the retreat into loneliness. I was having dinner with another friend recently who told me of his new resolution, to listen to more music on his Iphone on the way to and from work. I recall once reading Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s letters and being in awe of his reports to friends of the books he was reading, his continuing education as he put it. My friend saw his headphone-wearing study of music in the same vein. And yet, there is a difference. Walking with headphones, even more than reading in the subway or playing books on tape in the car, is a way of tuning out of the world around you. People get lost in their own world, ignoring the sights, sounds, and faces that pass them by.

My conversation with my music-studying friend also called to mind a recent email sent by the Bard College Rabbi. Rabbi David Nelson worried that more and more our young people, in the spirit of urban dwellers, “walk around campus much of the time avoiding eye contact, which is another way of saying that they avoid looking one another directly in the face.” For the rabbi, the loss of eye contact and real face-time is dangerous and corrupting. He writes:

Those who have spent time living in densely populated urban areas are accustomed to the polite avoidance of eye contact, in crowded elevators, crowded rush-hour subway trains, and similar crowded venues. This is a way to maintain separateness and privacy in an environment where the density of the population threatens our ability ever to feel alone and unobserved. This is exactly the behavior that we see on campus. But we are not an anonymous, densely populated urban tangle. We are--or we ought to be--an intentional, involved, caring community. And our students' assiduous avoidance of one another's faces is at least a sign of, and perhaps a cause of, the widespread sense that this is a place where it's hard to really connect with others.

The proliferation of headphones began decades ago with the Sony Walkman craze and continues unabated with the Ipod and Iphone. People walk around listening to music or books or podcasts. And many are proud of this development, rationalizing their anti-social behavior by arguing to themselves that they are bettering themselves, learning, or expanding their minds. This may be true. But the retreat from personal contact and the eye contact with our fellow travelers must also weaken our connection to others. It is a cold and distant world, one in which we are less and less entangled with and personally related to those around us.

Our actions are ever more calculating and less instinctive. In such instances, calculation will stop you from acting. You need to feel it. It is no accident that nearly every subway hero who jumps on the tracts to rescue someone says that they didn’t think about it but simply acted.

Above all, the un-heroic action in the subway last week reminds us of the increasing rarity of action. Heroism is never normal. It is, by definition, extra-ordinary and surprising, which is why it is glorified and remembered. It thus thrives on a world that rewards and celebrates heroic acts. Hannah Arendt saw, however, that rare deeds would be ever rarer in the modern age. The primary reason for this is that in large societies, rare deeds lose their rarity and distinction. There are at least two reasons for this decline in great deeds.

First, the law of large numbers means that all action is predictable. We know that most people will not act spontaneously to save a passenger in need; but we also know that a certain percentage of people will. Actions of heroism are not mundane, but they are expected. That is why it was so shocking and surprising that no one acted. When someone does act heroically, like Doreen Winkler, few newspapers reported it. Heroism in the subway promises very little acclaim.

Second, heroism requires a common world in which one’s great deed will be remembered. Without the promise or the expectation that heroic acts will be immortalized, the risk of action is rarely balanced by the reward. In a calculating society, heroism rarely seems to justify the risk.

Thankfully, however, there are exceptions to these dispiriting trends. There are moments of unexpected heroism that do break through the standardization of our social expectations and become examples of heroic action. One recent example of this is Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s racing into a burning house to save his neighbor. At a time when we expect so little from our public figures who refuse to risk even bucking opinion polls, Booker’s public heroism was shocking. The power of his example, and of those who act as he does, keeps the ideal of heroism alive at a time when it is ever more rare and unexpected. Because action interrupts the everyday and the normal, it is, Arendt writes, the “one miracle-working faculty of man.” Action introduces greatness and glory into the world, makes us take notice, and calls us then to gather around the beauty of the glorious act; action, heroic action, is what constantly refreshes and re-orients us toward the common world that we share together.

-RB

 

16Nov/120

What is a House?

Hannah Arendt spoke of having acquired, through her life, a "love of the world." When writing about education she argues that "education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it." And in politics, she insists, we must care for and love the world more than oneself. What then is the world?

The world is related to human making and to the things and artifacts that human beings make. What defines the things of a world is that those things gather individuals together.

In the public realm, a politician is that person who speaks and acts in such a way that those around him come to see those institutions and values that they share and treasure. The common world is the world that emerges when a plurality of people bind themselves to stories, traditions, institutions, rituals, and practices that they share and that they love. Like a table that unites those who sit around it in a common conversation or feast, the common world brings different people together. It stands between them, both joining and separating them.

In the private realm, a world is founded in property, and property has an essential role in the public realm too. For property is what one owns, what is proper to one, and thus defines one over against others in the common world. Property provides the boundaries between people and also serves as the boundary between the commonality of the public realm and the uniqueness of the private realm. It is no accident that original Greek word for law, nemein, also means to distribute and to possess, as well as to dwell. Property, in English, also names the laws of propriety, what is right and given to each.

In both the public and the private realms the world consists of things that endure. Worldly things must not only be common. They must also last. Since we must love the world more than our own lives—since we must be willing to pursue the world as an ideal and sacrifice ourselves to the glory and good of the world we share with others—the world must offer us the promise of permanence and thus immortality.

How are to understand the worldly conditions of permanence and immortality? We might ask: What is a house?

This is one of the many questions at issue in Jonathan Franzen's essay "House For Sale," about his return to his mother's house in Webster Grove, Missouri to sell the house after her death. Here is how Franzen describes his mother's house.

This was the house where, five days a month for ten month, while my brothers and I were going about our coastal lives, she had come home alone from chemotherapy and crawled into bed. The house from which, a year after that, in early June, she had called me in New York and said she was returning to the hospital for more exploratory surgery, and then had broken down in tears and apologized for being such a disappointment to everyone and giving us more bad news. The house where, a week after her surgeon had shaken his head bitterly and sewn her abdomen back up, she'd grilled her most trusted daughter-in-law on the idea of the afterlife, and my sister-in-law had confessed that, in point of sheer logistics, the idea seemed to her pretty far-fetched, and my mother, agreeing with her, had then, as it were, put a check beside the item "Decide about the afterlife" and continued down her to-do list in her usual pragmatic way, addressing other tasks that her decision had rendered more urgent than ever, such as "Invite best friends over one by one and say goodbye to them forever." This was the house from which, on a Saturday morning in July, my brother Bob had driven her to her hairdresser, who was Vietnamese and affordable and who greeted her with the words "Oh, Mrs. Fran, Mrs. Fan, you look terrible," and to which she'd returned, an hour later, to complete her makeover, because she was spending long-hoarded frequent-flyer miles on two first-class tickets, and first-class travel was an occasion for looking her best, which also translated into feeling her best; she came down from her bedroom dressed for first class, said goodbye to her sister, who had traveled from New York to ensure that the house would not be empty when my mother walked away from it—that someone would be left behind—and then went to the airport with my brother and flew to the Pacific Northwest for the rest of her life. Her house, being a house, was enough slower in its dying to be a zone of comfort to my mother, who needed something larger than herself to hold on to but didn't believe in supernatural beings. Her home was the heavy (but not infinitely heavy) and sturdy (but not everlasting) God that she'd loved and served and been sustained by, and my aunt had done a very smart thing by coming when she did.

Franzen offers us a house in many valences.

It was where his mother lived. Where she was sick. Where she thought about dying and God. Where she recovered from surgery and made herself up. Above all, it was his mother's house. Later he writes that the house was "my mother's novel, the concrete story she told about herself." In this house she "pondered the arrangement of paintings on a wall like a writer pondering commas." It was a house in which she showed herself. It was thus an invitation. And "she wanted you to want to stay."

The problem is that Franzen does not want to stay in his mother's house. He grew up in the house, but he resents it. The house his mother made, was filled with "sturdy and well made" furniture that "my brothers and I couldn't make ourselves want." He has fled the house and returns only to remove those photos that for his mother made the house hers, to act like a conqueror, he admits, and repossess the house from his mother. But only to then sell it.

If Mrs. Fanzen's house is her novel and if it was a house in which she both concealed and showed herself, her son's house in NYC is something else entirely. Here is how Franzen describes his own dwelling place:

I now owned a nice apartment on East Eighty-first Street. Walking in the door, after two months in California, I had the sensation of walking into somebody else's apartment. The guy who lived here was apparently a prosperous middle-aged Manhattanite with the sort of life I'd spent my thirties envying from afar, vaguely disdaining, and finally being defeated in my attempts to imagine my way into. How odd that I now had the keys to this guy's apartment.

House for sale is, amongst other themes like the loss of religion, the loss of family, and the loss of the American middle class, about the loss of the American house. It is also therefore, in an Arendtian vein, a story about the loss of our world, the property that both hides and nurtures our souls and separates and distinguishes us from our fellow citizens. Denuded of our habitus and property, we are defenseless against the conformity of society. Without desks and bookshelves passed down over generations that fit us, over and against our choices, into a private world, we are consumers who build a temporary bulwark whether styled by Ikea or the local antique store. Such a house is not meant to last and to be passed down across the generations. It will be used and, eventually, sold or walked away from. With nothing that defines us in a lasting and immortal vein, our lives have no depth or meaning beyond our accomplishments. There is no weight or law that claims us and obligates. We are free, but free, unsure why we are here or what it all means.

I recently encountered Jonathan Franzen's essay within an extraordinary theatrical experience. The play "House For Sale" is based on his essay by the same name.

It has been adapted for the stage by Daniel Fish. I have now been to see it twice. The play is hilarious, brutal, and shattering. It makes Franzen's essay come alive in ways miraculous and uplifting. The final scene itself is worth dropping every plan you have, flying to NYC, and rushing to the Duke Theatre on 42nd St. to catch it. I can't recommend this highly enough. But hurry, it is playing for only a few more performances. You can buy tickets here.

Or, if you simply can't get to NYC, buy The Discomfort Zone, Franzen's book of essays in which "House For Sale" originally appeared. It is your weekend read.

-RB