Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Amor Mundi 11/15/15


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

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

amor_mundi_sign-upAmor Mundi

paris isis attacksIn 1955, Hannah Arendt wrote to Karl Jaspers: "Out of gratitude, I want to call my book about political theories Amor Mundi." She suffered through antisemitism, totalitarianism, and even genocide. But somehow, she was determined to not lose hope. Arendt eventually called her book The Human Condition (and Vita Activa in German). But what was Arendt grateful for? The question arises in the wake of terror attacks by ISIS in France and Lebanon over the past two days. Our hearts go out to the hundreds who died and the hundreds more who were wounded, senseless violence which forces us to ask ourselves: can we still find the ability to "love the world"? And if so, how? Here we look to Arendt, who leads us to recall that evil first enables the good. She writes in her Denktagebuch: "The Path of Wrong--anti-Semitism--imperialism--world historically--totalitarianism--. How is it that only the paths of wrong have been accessible, have been relevant, above all still had a relation to the actual questions, difficulties and catastrophes and that there are never paths of right and cannot be? This is the cardinal question." Arendt's point is that horrific wrongs are, in the end, the only meaningful events of human history. She quotes Hegel's maxim that "a ripped stocking is better than a dirty stocking," which she glosses to mean, "being ripped first makes noticeable the original unity.... The stocking thus appears as a 'living unity' in the ripped stocking precisely then when it proves its uselessness for life." All unity and thus all being begins in negation. For Arendt, it is in confronting evil and knowing it as it is that we can imagine the good and the just. Tragedies are part of human history; without the depths of evil, we would not climb the heights of the good. This is neither to justify or excuse evil nor to accept it. Against Hegel, Arendt insists that reality may at times simply be irreconcilable, that there are some evils so horrific that they cannot be loved. But still, evil carries with in the seeds of greater good. Even as we condemn the ugliness of evil, we also affirm that with evil comes the possibility of the good. That is the beauty of the human condition: amidst the darkness, new light can shine forth. The conviction that human action will light up the dark is how and why Arendt took such pride in being able to love the world.--RB

Missing the Obvious

ben carsonAmy Davidson debunks the debunkers who are trying to find mistakes and inconsistencies in Ben Carson's biography. She considers two of the more widespread stories, first that Carson made up a story about being given a small cash award for being the only student in a psychology class at Yale to have proven honest, and the second that he had been offered admission to West Point. For Davidson, in each instance, Carson's stories hold up better than the debunkers'. What Davidson finds troublesome, however, is why the media is so obsessed with trying to debunk Carson's biography while it refuses to seriously question his inaccurate and false claims underlying his policy proposals. "The odd thing is that the Carson campaign is what might be called a target-rich environment for journalists--or it should be. He has been utterly dismissive of climate change, and he has fostered the idea that vaccines cause autism. The numbers for his tax plan, insofar as there are any, don't add up. He has said that Joseph, of the coat of many colors, built the pyramids in order to store the grain of the seven fat years--a statement that, as I've written, was troubling not because we expect our Presidents to be up on the distinction between Early and Middle Kingdom dynasties but because Carson presented it as an example of why one should reject the theories of experts and scientists and turn, instead, to the Bible. Similarly, his claim that none of the signers of the Declaration of Independence had experience in elective office, when a great number of them did, is significant not only because it is false but because it speaks to a particular view of history and politics. (Carson later amended the statement to say that none had federal experience. Of course, they couldn't have, because there was no federal government when the Declaration was signed.) He has suggested that President Obama might declare martial law, and that the 2016 elections might be cancelled amid scenes of untenable civil disorder. He has compared Obamacare to slavery and to Nazism. He has also made what PolitiFact judged to be outright false statements in the last Republican debate about his ties to a nutritional-supplement company. (In contrast, PolitiFact rated Carson's description of West Point's 'scholarships' as mostly true.) Perhaps the problem isn't that the media is too partisan but that, in looking at Carson, there was a hope that there might be a non-partisan way to address a campaign whose success is hard for observers of American politics to understand."

You Like That?

critique of booksTim Parks wonders what it means that we don't all like the same books: "Could this be the function, then, or at least one important function of fiction: to make us aware of our differences? To have our contrasting positions emerge in response to these highly complex cultural artifacts? Not that superficial togetherness in celebration that the publishing industry, the literary festivals, and the interminable literary prizes are forever seeking to generate, the happy conviction that we have found a new literary hero and can all gloat together over his or her achievement. But all the heated debate that actually preceded the prize-giving; the shifting alliances as each book was discussed, the times you just couldn't believe that the fellow jurist who supported you over book A is now seriously proposing to ditch book B, and so on. In this view our reaction to literature becomes a repeated act of self-discovery. Our contrasting reactions to the books we read tell us who we are. We are our position in relation to each other as understood in the reaction to these books. Reading other peoples' takes on Primo Levi, or Murakami, or David Eggers, and comparing them to my own, I get some sense of who we all are and what we're up to. Sometimes this turns out to be far more interesting than reading the book itself. If this is the case, then, the important thing would be, first, really to understand one's own reaction, to observe it with great care; and, second, to articulate it honestly, without any fudging for fear that others might disagree. Though even a fudge is a declaration of identity. And nothing could be more common among the community of book reviewers than fudging."

amor_mundi_sign-upWhence Your Tomato?

farmer marketLouise O Fresco suggests that sustainable agriculture requires sacrificing a few sacred ideas but not just eating less meat: "The logic of farmers' markets begins with this: that the route from harvest to plate ought to be as direct as possible. That's fine if farmers live round the corner from consumers. But urban land is in short supply, expensive, often polluted, and unsuitable for horticulture. And there is more. Even in a short chain from farm to table, produce can get spoiled. A fresh tomato is not dead; like all fresh products, it's a living organism with an active metabolism, post-harvesting, that provides a fertile substrate for microorganisms and causes tomatoes to deteriorate very fast. Freshness does not in itself translate into sustainability: unless the supply chain is well-organised, losses can be considerable. And food losses come down to a waste of land, water, energy and chemicals used to produce what is ultimately discarded. This ought to be a good argument for local markets, but it is not. Everything depends on transportation, storage and speed. Poorly packed products go to waste in a matter of hours... our thinking about sustainability should not limit itself to technical optimisation or cost efficiency. There is a cultural dimension to factor in, too. Urban consumers in the US and other affluent countries might always respond to the humanity of small-scale, traditional farming. But we must reckon with the realities of current and future food production. The belief that only small-scale, non-mechanised agriculture without the use of chemicals respects biodiversity, and that tradition is key to the future, is illusory. In reality, small-scale unfertilised farming of annual crops or unregulated grazing in the tropics are major causes of destruction of soils and forests. In reality: an ever-declining number of farmers will need to feed rapidly growing megacities."  

Closing Frontiers

myanmarIn the wake of the elections in Myanmar, Francis Wade takes stock of the country's periphery: "To get something approaching an accurate reading of Burma today requires a process of telescoping in and out, of contrasting grand narratives with hyper-local experiences. The international fixation on Burma's transition, of which the November elections have been billed as the next step in democratization, if not the final leap to democracy, obfuscates the fact that processes begun decades ago in areas of the country little scrutinized by international observers will persist, regardless of whatever changes occur in government in the coming months. The manipulation of ethnic tensions has long been a principal strategy of Burma's rulers, for it locks ethnic groups in a state of perpetual instability that the military can profit by. The original Na Ta La villages were by and large built on land confiscated from the Rohingya, and therefore were deeply resented by Rohingya communities who could no longer work the soil and reap its produce. But these new settlers from central Burma and elsewhere in Rakhine State were also resented by local Rakhine who, while ideologically supportive of whatever strategy could weaken the Muslim population, knew that the scheme meant a further mixing of the Rakhine identity. And the Rakhine more recently resettled from Bangladesh have been gifted houses of a quality beyond the reach of most other Rakhine, thereby drawing ire from neglected communities among their own ethnicity, but also that of the Rohingya and of the older generation of resettled Bamar who, from their buckled wooden houses, wonder what became of their promises of a better life here. Burma's rulers have been able to triangulate communal tensions in Rakhine State, as they have elsewhere, in a way that keeps each ethnicity there in a state of persistent antipathy towards one another. Local tensions then distract from the workings of their real nemesis--the central state--and weaken any prospect of a cohesive front of persecuted minorities that could rally together against it. This has been the regime's crowning achievement, and its effects, both in Rakhine and all around Burma's periphery, have forever stunted the country's political and social development."   

The Right Feelings

yale universityJelani Cobb makes an important point writing in the New Yorker: "The unrest that occurred at the University of Missouri and at Yale University, two outwardly dissimilar institutions, shared themes of racial obtuseness, arthritic institutional responses to it, and the feeling, among students of color, that they are tenants rather than stakeholders in their universities. That these issues have now been subsumed in a debate over political correctness and free speech on campus--important but largely separate subjects--is proof of the self-serving deflection to which we should be accustomed at this point." The shouts by many about the loss of free speech at Yale are overblown insofar as all the speech that has happened at Yale has been free and none of it has been punished or sanctioned (at least so far). The original letter from the Dean was a bland and bureaucratic missive sent to thousands of students. It represented a coherent if somewhat weak official plea. For many 18 year olds, such a plea might lead to a rebellious desire to do precisely what was counseled against. But the email itself was fine and affirmed the right of free speech. Similarly, the response by Erika Christakis was quite tame. It acknowledged the good intentions of the Dean's email, even agreed with them. Christakis simply raised an intellectual question, asking whether such good intentions were unintentionally having other negative impacts. In no way did Christakis incite students to uncivil or racist behavior. So too are the students within their rights to protest Christakis' email and to argue that they found it offensive. None of this raises free speech issues. Finally, the extensive discussions between Christakis, her husband, and the students have been exemplary models of impassioned speech, even if some of the students became uncivil at times. None of the speech crossed the boundary into hate speech. One should also note that there have been personal insults and even death threats hurled at a few of the students, all of which must be condemned. Even when students called for Christakis to be fired, that is protected speech. Overall, what we have seen throughout this controversy at Yale is quite hopeful. Unpopular speech was met with more speech. No one was censored. We should give the Yale administration, faculty, and students credit. Those involved have been engaged in a serious and difficult debate, one that has been waged vigorously and for the most part quite respectfully.

In defending the students at Yale, however, Cobb diminishes the problem that current racial discourses pose to a free society. His central thesis is: "These [systemic racial tensions (rb)] are not abstractions. And this is where the arguments about the freedom of speech become most tone deaf. The freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered. The enlightenment principles that undergird free speech also prescribed that the natural limits of one's liberty lie at the precise point at which it begins to impose upon the liberty of another." Cobb turns the controversy around: those arguing for free speech are powerful bullies imposing on the liberty of the students to make their case about the damage that systematic racism is doing to their campus. But to see the students as "relatively disempowered" and to imagine the press as bullies is to look past the fact that the students' case is frequently articulated in the absolutist language of affect and trauma. This is part of a broad movement on campus that holds that students should not be forced to confront ideas or texts that remind them of traumas. Just as Cobb is right to bring in the racial context at Yale to help understand the situation, so too is it important to recall the pervasive rhetoric of trauma, trigger warnings, and Title IX bureaucratic procedures to understand the worries of those defending free speech.

Take for example Cobb's discussion of the student demand to change the name of Yale's Calhoun College. He writes: "Six weeks ago, I participated in a forum at Yale on the massacre in Charleston. When the historian Edward Ball pointed out that the shootings had occurred on Calhoun Street, named for the intellectual godfather of the Confederacy, students immediately pointed out that Calhoun was an alumnus and that a college is still named for him. One member of the audience asked Jonathan Holloway, a civil-rights historian and the dean of Yale College, who has been at the center of the recent events, if he would remove Calhoun's name from the college. (Holloway, who previously served as the master of Calhoun College, indicated that he had not yet decided how he would handle the matter.) To understand the real complexities of these students' situation, free-speech purists would have to grapple with what it means to live in a building named for a man who dedicated himself to the principle of white supremacy and to the ownership of your ancestors." Cobb raises a question: What does it mean for students (presumably of all races) to live in a building named for such a man? Good question. What does it mean? I imagine it means many, many things. For the vast majority of students, it means nothing. Some may, as Cobb implies, be bothered that Yale named a building for a man who fought for and justified chattel slavery in the South. But others might find it fascinating that Calhoun originally was a defender of Federal power but over time developed a constitutional and political theory designed to protect minority voices. That the minority Calhoun sought to protect was Southern whites does not necessarily reduce the power and importance of his efforts to develop constitutional protections against the power and potential tyranny of the majority. Students interested in questions of government corruption might also find it interesting that Calhoun as Secretary of War helped develop a professional bureaucracy that replaced the corrupt system of patronage appointments. One might hope that students living in a building named for Calhoun might be prompted to think about the republican and democratic principles at the foundation of American democracy alongside the fact that our democratic republic somehow emerged from out of a people that was deeply divided by economic, philosophical, as well as racial opinions. Would some students living in Calhoun dormitory be uneasy to know that he strongly defended chattel slavery? Surely. Are there better people to name a residential college for? Undoubtedly. But does Cobb's rhetorical question do justice to the complex question of what to do with monuments and celebrations of great persons who were also flawed? Hardly. Instead, Cobb seems to suggest that since some students might be upset by living in Calhoun dormitory, their feelings are determinative, the complexities of the issue fall away, and it is an affront to these students that Yale has refused to rename the dormitory. It may be time to rename the College--we should hear how people feel--but the demand that some feelings necessitate action is hardly an argument.

Many at Yale are defending the student reaction as part of an overall context of racial problems at Yale. That is a good argument, and I am excited to see how quickly the original threats and demands have morphed into a serious discussion about race and justice. This speaks well for the fate of serious and difficult debate at Yale.  It is time to reject the discourse of trauma and the idea of a college is a "safe space." We must resist those who demand firing and disciplining others for nothing more than expressing their considered opinions. This is a truly corrosive idea. And it is depoliticizing in the extreme. As Cobb and others are arguing, we need to replace the language of trauma with the practice of politics.--RB

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

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

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

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

Friday, November 20, 2015

Hannah Arendt Center, 3:00 pm

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #15

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

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

Friday, December 4, 2015

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



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

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

Thursday and Friday, October 20 and 21, 2016

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

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Charles Snyder reminds us that while human natality can make freedom appear and disappear, the busy nobody also has the capacity to block the initiative that would manifest human freedom in the Quote of the Week. William James reflects on the true and the right as expedients in the way of our thinking in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, Christo Datso shares an image of his personal Arendt library that attempts to convey how every thinker, including Arendt, comes into connection with others in this week's Library feature.

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

Beyond Forgiveness

dylan roof

“It is therefore quite significant, a structural element in the realm of human affairs, that men are unable to forgive what they cannot punish and that they are unable to punish what has turned out to be unforgivable. This is the true hallmark of those offenses, which, since Kant, we call a ‘radical evil’ and about whose nature so little is known, even to us who have been exposed to one of their rare outbursts on the public scene. All we know is that we can neither punish nor forgive such offenses and that they therefore transcend the realm of human affairs and the potentialities of human power, both of which they radically destroy wherever they make their appearance.”

— Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Last Friday afternoon, Dylann Roof appeared in court for arraignment through a closed-circuit television, all the while flanked by law enforcement officers. The protection of the blue screen seemed a testament to the degree of his offence: murdering 9 people during a Bible study at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The scene was made more surreal for viewers who listened to the disembodied voices of the victims’ family members address Roof directly, confronting him with their suffering and pain and offering their forgiveness. The daughter of one victim, Ethel Lance, said: “I forgive you. You took something very precious from me and I will never talk to her again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.” The words of forgiveness were so remarkable even President Obama tweeted: “In the midst of darkest tragedy, the decency and goodness of the American people shines through in these families.”

Samantha Hill
Samantha Rose Hill is the Hannah Arendt Center Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Bard College. She earned her doctorate from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and spent the last year at the Institut für Philosophie at the Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt am Main researching Theodor Adorno’s aesthetic theory and translating and editing a volume of Hannah Arendt’s poetry. Samantha’s research and teaching interests include the Frankfurt School, critical theory, and democratic theory.

Human Life and Politics in Arendt


By Kazue Koishikawa

“Without repeating life in imagination, you can never be fully alive. ‘Lack of imagination’ prevents people from ‘existing’… Be loyal to life, don’t create fiction but accept what life is giving you, show yourself worthy of whatever it may be by recollecting and pondering over it, thus repeating it in imagination; this is the way to remain alive.”

—Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times

Karen Blixen (1885-1962), better known by her penname Isak Dinesen, was a Danish writer whose life in Kenya was related in the film, “Out of Africa” (1985). She was a matriarch of her beloved beautiful coffee farm 9000 feet above sea level outside of Nairobi where she was called “Titania” after the Queen of the fairies in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Partly due to her desire to “design” or “create” her life, she experienced a number of failures over her many years. Her business failed, she lost both her kingdom and her lover, and she ultimately left , at which point she became a true storyteller.

Kazue Koishikawa
Kazue Koishikawa recently earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Duquesne University. She is working on her first book, in which she explores reading the political philosophy of Arendt as a phenomenological theory of imagination, particularly in Arendt’s interpretation of Kant’s aesthetic judgment. She specializes in phenomenology and political philosophy.

The Nation Principle


Marburg, July 1952

Ad imperialism: Imperialism, i.e. the idea of empire carried by the nation, has perished because wherever the nation appears, it engenders nations according to its own principle. This is, concretely, how the “conquest” of the world by the West took place, except that it wasn’t a real conquest and that assimilation to the conquering people [Eroberervolk] was just as impossible as the introduction of its own law.

The real tragedy in this process lies in the fact that the West only set out on its triumphant course over the earth at the moment when expansion had become the only way out of the national problems that had become insoluble. The nation spread across the earth when it had been proven that nation-states do not have the potential of conducting world politics. Thus, Europe by definition not only exported the national idea but “nationalism” as a desperate flight from the collapse of the nation-state. In this process, or at its end, the “nation” separated itself from the “state,” hoping that the problem was with the concept of the state. With that began the tribal [völkische] stage of nationalism; one step further on this extraordinarily lopsided plain appeared race, in which the people [Volk] had also separated itself from the soil and had become a devastating [verwüstende] horde. Thus collapsed the holy national trinity of people [Volk]-state-territory. Today, after the collapse of the imperialist experiment and in light of the totally-totalitarian menace, we have states behind which the people [Volk] no longer stands; territories that will no longer be defended against foreign conquerors by their inhabitants; and peoples [Völker] that are neither organized and protected by the state nor “enrooted” in the soil. This is the space of the desert, in which the sand storms are unleashed.

(Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, pp. 216-7 (entry number 22), translation mine.)

Written three years after Arendt finished the original manuscript of The Origins of Totalitarianism, this very dense entry in Arendt’s Denktagebuch (“think diary”) revisits several of the main arguments developed in part 2, “Imperialism,” of that book. I will draw primarily on Origins to unpack it.

Michiel Bot
Michiel Bot is a Hannah Arendt Center Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Bard College, where he teaches in Political Studies. He received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from New York University in 2013.

Jean Racine on Thinking

Jean Racine

“Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel.”

-- Jean Racine

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

Reading With Your Computer


Franco Moretti is a literature professor, and founder of the Stanford Literary Lab, who believes in something called "computational criticism," that is, the ability of computers to aid in the understanding of literature. Joshua Rothman's recent profile of Moretti has provoked a lot of response, most of it defending traditional literary criticism from the digital barbarians at the gates. Moretti's defenders argue, however, that his critics have failed to understand a crucial difference between his work and what they're worried it might supplant: "The basic idea in Moretti’s work is that, if you really want to understand literature, you can’t just read a few books or poems over and over (“Hamlet,” “Anna Karenina,” “The Waste Land”). Instead, you have to work with hundreds or even thousands of texts at a time. By turning those books into data, and analyzing that data, you can discover facts about literature in general—facts that are true not just about a small number of canonized works but about what the critic Margaret Cohen has called the 'Great Unread.'"


The truth Moretti is after, however, has nothing to do with literature, with the bone curdling insights of tragedy or the personal insights of the novel's hero. What Moretti seeks is a better understanding of all the other texts, of the  entirety of texts and the overarching literariness of a period or of history as a whole. One could say that rather than supplant the traditional literary critic, Moretti's work will aid the literary historian, if only to give a potentially comprehensive idea of any given zeitgeist. That is true, so far as it goes. But as the already decreasing numbers of literature students are now in part siphoned off into alternative studies of literature that ignore and even disdain the surprising and irreducible quality of momentary shock of insight, the declining impact of the literary sensibility will only be accelerated. This is hardly to condemn Moretti and his data-oriented approach to literature as a reservoir of information into mass society; we ought, nevertheless, to find in the popularity of such trends the provocation to remind ourselves why literature is meant to be read by humans instead of machines.

RB  h/t Josh Kopin

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

Dr. Strangelove and the Banality of Evil



Indeed my opinion now is that evil is never “radical,” that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus over the surface. It is ‘thought-defying,’ as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing.

-Hannah Arendt, letter to Gershom Scholem

Recent commentators have marked the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s bleak nuclear satire, Dr. Strangelove, by noting that the film contained quite a bit more reality than we had thought. While national security and military officials at the time scoffed at the film’s farfetched depictions of a nuclear holocaust set off by a crazed general, we now know that such an unthinkable event would have been, at least theoretically, entirely possible. Yet there is another, deeper sense in which Kubrick’s satire puts us in touch with a reality that could not be readily depicted through other means.

The film tells the story of a rogue general who, at the height of the Cold War arms race, launches a nuclear attack that cannot be recalled, which leads to the destruction of most of humanity in a nuclear holocaust. These are events that we would conventionally describe as “tragic,” but the film is no tragedy. Why not? One answer, of course, is the comic, satirical touch with which Kubrick treated the material, his use of Peter Sellers to play three different characters, and his method of actually tricking his actors into playing their roles more ridiculously than they would have otherwise. But in a deeper sense, Stranglove is about the loss of a capacity for the tragic. The characters, absorbed in utter banalities as they hurtle toward collective catastrophe, display no real grasp of the moral reality of their actions, because they’ve lost contact with the moral reality of the world they share. Dr. Strangelove, then, is a satire about the impossibility of tragedy.


Still from "Dr. Strangelove"

In order to think about what this might mean, it’s helpful to turn to the idea, famously invoked by Hannah Arendt at the end of Eichmann in Jerusalem, of the banality of evil. As Arendt stressed in a later essay, the banality of evil is not a theory or a doctrine “but something quite factual, the phenomenon of evil deeds, committed on a gigantic scale, which could not be traced to any particularity of wickedness, pathology, or ideological conviction in the doer, whose only personal distinction was perhaps extraordinary shallowness.” Eichmann was no villainous monster or demon; rather, he was “terrifyingly normal,” and his chief characteristic was “not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think.” The inability to think has nothing to do with the capacity of strategizing, performing instrumental calculations, or “reckoning with consequences,” as Hobbes put it. Rather, thinking has to do with awakening the inner dialogue involved in all consciousness, the questioning of the self by the self, which Arendt says dissolves all certainties and examines anew all accepted dogmas and values.

According to Arendt, the socially recognized function of “clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct” is to “protect us against reality”; their function is to protect us against the claim that reality makes on our thinking.  This claim, which awakens the dissolving powers of thought, can be so destabilizing that we all must inure ourselves to some degree against it, so that ordinary life can go on at all. What characterized Eichmann is that “he clearly knew of no such claim at all.” Eichmann’s absorption in instrumental and strategic problem solving, on the one hand, and clichés and empty platitudes on the other, was total. The absence of thought, and with it the absence of judgment, ensured a total lack of contact with the moral reality of his actions. Hence the “banality” of his evil resides not in the enormity of the consequences of his actions, but in the depthless opacity of the perpetrator.

The characters in Dr. Strangelove are banal in precisely this sense. All of them—from the affable, hapless president, the red-blooded general, the vodka-swilling diplomat, the self-interested advisors and Dr. Strangelove himself—are silly cardboard cutouts, superficial stereotypes of characters that any lack depth, self-reflection or the capacity for communicating anything other than empty clichés. They are missing what Arendt called “the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining and reflecting upon whatever happens to come to pass, regardless of specific content and quite independent of results…” They also lack any contact with the moral reality of their activity. All of their actions takes place in an increasingly claustrophobic series of confined spaces carefully sealed off by design: the war room, the military base, the bomber cockpit. The world—Arendt’s common world of appearances that constitutes the possibility of narrative and story telling—never appears at all; reality cannot break through.

The presence of some of Arendt’s core themes in Kubrick’s film should not come as a surprise. Although she dedicated very little attention in her published works to the problem of nuclear war, in an early draft of a text that would later become The Human Condition, Arendt claimed that two experiences of the 20th century, “totalitarianism and the atomic bomb – ignite the question about the meaning of politics in our time. They are fundamental experiences of our age, and if we ignore them it is as if we never lived in the world that is our world.” Moreover, the culmination of strategic statecraft in social scientific doctrines mandating the nuclear arms race reflects on some of the core themes Arendt identified with political modernity: the emergence of a conception of politics as a strategic use of violence for the purposes of protecting society.

Celebrating Nuclear War: The 1946 “Atom Bomb Cake”

Celebrating Nuclear War: The 1946 “Atom Bomb Cake”

Niccolò Machiavelli, a thinker for whom Arendt had a lot of admiration, helped inaugurate this modern adventure of strategic statecraft by reframing politics as l’arte della stato – the art of the state, which unlike the internal civic space of the republic, always finds itself intervening within an instrumental economy of violence. For Machiavelli the prince, shedding the persona of Ciceronian humanism, must be willing to become beastly, animal-like, to discover the virtues of the vir virtutis in the animal nature of the lion and the fox. If political modernity is inaugurated by Machiavelli’s image of the centaur, the Prince-becoming-beastly, Strangelove closes with a suitable 20th century corollary to the career of modern statecraft. It is the image of the amiable, good-natured “pilot” who never steers the machines he occupies but is himself steered by them, finally straddling and literally transforming himself into the Bomb. It is an image that, in our own age of remote drone warfare and the possible dawning of a new, not yet fully conceivable epoch of post-human violence, has not lost its power to provoke reflection.

-Ian Zuckerman

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

The Unproductive Labor of Politics: Arendt’s reading of Adam Smith



Richard Halpern, “Eclipse of Action: Hamlet and the Political Economy of Playing,” Shakespeare Quarterly, Volume 59, Number 4, Winter 2008, pp. 450-482

As he formulates an original response to the classic problem of Hamlet’s non-action, Halpern offers one of the few critical analyses of Arendt’s reading of Adam Smith in The Human Condition. He shows how Arendt draws on Smith’s concepts of productive and unproductive labor to articulate her key concepts of work and labor. Moreover, his close reading draws our attention to an intriguing paradox in the temporality of action that may indicate a corrective—albeit a difficult one—to the current demand for instant gratification that often leads to cynicism in the face of great political challenges.

Halpern reminds us that Aristotle separates action from labor; Smith replaces action with production; and Arendt seeks to restore action to a place of prominence in the political realm. Arendt explicitly says that “the distinction between productive and unproductive labor contains, albeit in a prejudicial manner, the more fundamental distinction between work and labor” (HC 87). She does not simply take over Smith’s idea, but wishes to transfer his distinction from his own economic system (the “prejudice” of his own thought) to her own thinking of labor and work.  Halpern’s analysis of Arendt’s move helps us start to think about her surprising appeal to 18th century economic theory. Moreover, it her discussion of Smith (and better known critique of Marx), I see her posing an even broader question: what does it mean to be productive and what are the appropriate spheres of different types of productivity?


Within the realm of production, Halpern looks at how Smith offers a further distinction in Book 2, Chapter 3 of The Wealth of Nations, under the heading “Of the Accumulation of Capital, or of Productive and Unproductive Labor”:

There is one sort of labor which adds to the value of the subject upon which it is bestowed: there is another which has no such effect. The former, as it produces a value, may be called productive; the latter, unproductive labour. Thus the labour of a manufacturer adds, generally, to the value of the materials which he works upon, that of his own maintenance, and of his master’s profit. The labor of a menial servant, on the contrary, adds to the value of nothing. (Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. Edwin Cannan (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1976), 351.)

Smith draws a distinction between labor that holds or builds value (say the manufacture of a chair), and labor that evaporates the moment the worker completes it (such as cleaning the house or washing clothes). Classical political economists of the 18th and 19th century engaged in wide ranging debates over what should “count” as value before capitalist countries agreed on the ratio of labour to output or per capita GDP as the standard; socialist countries, following the USSR, adopted an alternative “material product system” that prioritized the amount of goods. In a time of environmental change, this glimpse into the history of economic theory may offer a helpful reminder that society can decide to change the standard of economic success.

According to Halpern, Arendt draws from Smith not to rehabilitate an outmoded aspect of economic theory, but to draw inspiration for her creation of distinct conceptual spaces for labor, work, and action. Specifically, she aligns Smith’s “unproductive labor” with her circular conception of labor and “productive labor” with her linear conception of work. This does not mean that labor is unproductive but it does require a clarification of different types of productivity. I see it as useful to keep the discussion on productivity since these spheres of private life and cultural and industrial economy then offer a contrast to the political sphere where action can happen. Action is neither circular like labor, nor linear like work, but has its own peculiar directionality and temporality. Halpern’s analysis helpfully zeroes in on the perplexing relation between the ephemerality of labor and action and action’s desire for permanence:

The temporal paradox of the political is that while it aims at immortality, action and speech are, in themselves, evanescent: “Left to themselves, they lack not only the tangibility of other things, but are even less durable and more futile than what we produce for consumption” (HC 95). Like Smith’s unproductive labor, action disappears in the moment of its occurrence because it leaves no material trace behind. (Halpern, 457)

Politics demands an extraordinary effort. It asks that one expend energy indefinitely for an uncertain reward. Discussion and debate goes on and on, only occasionally clicking with spectacular agreement or deflationary compromise. Arendt’s analysis can help us perceive the difficulty of contemporary politics that attempts to fit into consumer culture that preserves, and thus remembers, nothing.

Arendt’s attention to the aspects of debate and negotiation that might be seen as unproductive (a dimension that in other parts of the Human Condition she relates to menial work, again often in relation to Smith) offers a corrective to a misguided understanding of politics that leads to frustration and despair.Even if we are not at the extreme level of the menial functioning of a New England town hall meeting debating the budget for potholes or an Occupy Wall Street discussion that requires unanimous consensus for closure, politics works in a different temporality. Rather than the fever pitched accusations of crisis that in the U.S. actually covers up rather than encourage political risk, a more humble sense of public debate as requiring something like the patience of the menial task may be a corrective.

Political action in Arendt’s sense differs from work in being freed from a fixed goal. She links this freedom, which for her is based on self-referentiality, to drama:

Arendt’s discomfort with the economic dimension of theater reveals itself when she criticizes Adam Smith for grouping actors, along with churchmen, lawyers, musicians, and others, as unproductive laborers and hence as lowly cousins of the menial servant (HC 207). Arendt would distinguish all of these activities from labor in that they “do not pursue an end . . . and leave no work behind . . . , but exhaust their full meaning in the performance itself ” (206). Smith’s inclusion of these autotelic activities under the category of labor is for Arendt a sign of the degradation that human activity had already undergone by the early days of the modern era. By contrast, “It was precisely these occupations—healing, flute-playing, play-acting—which furnished ancient thinking with examples for the highest and greatest activities of man” (207–21). What Arendt overlooks is that—already in the ancient world—healing, flute playing, and playacting became remunerated professions and differed in this respect from politics, which was not the work of a professional class of politicians. (Halpern 458)

Arendt agrees that actors on the stage perform fleeting scenes, but wishes to link this to “the highest and greatest activities of man,” ie. those of politics. Halpern argues that in fact, actors in ancient times already worked for wages and were thus not independent like citizens in their roles as politicians. Nonetheless, Arendt shows us that in the modern period we can learn something about acting in politics from acting in the arts. The key point for Halpern is that drama, etc. are “autotelic activities.” They do not even keep up the house like menial work; they have their own end and really evaporate in reaching this end. Political action works along an undecidable edge: even less productive than labor but at any moment potentially the most lasting. Against the odds, politics holds open the space in which something new can begin and thus renew the human world against the circular forces of nature.

One could reasonably argue that in his focus on the connection between labor and action, Halpern fails to adequately emphasize the importance of work. In a world of labor and the victory of animal laborans, there is no work to preserve action and no polis/world to give action memorialization. Indeed, we face the danger of the collapse of the world into the “waste economy” (HC 134) and the seductions to action disappear. However, Halpern does not say that play is action for Arendt but rather, as I understand his argument, that it there is an aspect of action that is like play. Action requires debate that may seem to be going nowhere, or just be undertaken for its own sake up to the moment that it takes a risk. When it dares to venture into the public realm, action clearly very different from play as a hobby.

Labor is both constant and fleeting. On the one hand, the demands of the body never end, nor do the cycles of nature. On the other hand, labor is also fleeting in that its mode of production only temporarily maintains life. Action is also fleeting from the perspective that the risk it takes often evaporates but has the utmost political constancy when one considers those actions that succeed in forming the power of a new beginning.


In the remainder of the article, Halpern moves from The Human Condition to Hamlet, arguing that Shakespeare replaces action on the classical model of tragedy with the ceaseless activity of Hamlet’s thoughts. This activity runs in circles like unproductive labor in Smith and labor in Arendt rather than the action of Aristotle’s aesthetic and Arendt’s political ideal. From an Arendtian point of view, the modernity of the drama reveals a challenge to politics, the challenge of a time out of joint that action has to face again and again.

-Jeffrey Champlin

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

Arendt on Narrative Theory and Practice



“Arendt on Narrative Theory and Practice”

Allen Speight, College Literature, Volume 38, Number 1, Winter 2011, pp. 115-130

Allen Speight, Director, Institute for Philosophy and Religion at Boston University, argues for Arendt’s place among theorists of narrative such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Talyor, and Paul Ricouer. While he does indicate contemporary questions in both the Anglo-American and continental traditions throughout the article, he delivers particularly rich insights into Arendt’s engagement with three canonical thinkers. Specifically, he highlights aspects of Arendt’s use of conceptions of narration in developing her ideas of action in The Human Condition. In each aspect, he sees Arendt drawing on a specific philosophical precursor—Aristotle, Hegel, and Augustine in turn—but also diverging from them.


In relation to Aristotle, Speight focuses on how action reveals the “who,” how the actor emerges not from his intention but from his impact on the world. As does Aristotle, Arendt places a strong focus on drama. Aristotle and Arendt both hold that “dramatic actions” allow us to  “construe what sort of a character an agent has.” However, rather than focusing on the reception of the audience, Arendt links the spectator to the actor. Indeed, expanding from Speight’s interpretation, we might say Arendt opens another center in the actor himself with her idea of the daimon, who watches over one’s shoulder.

From Hegel, Speight sees Arendt picking up on the tragic nature of action and how this leads to a need for forgiveness. The agent will not get what he wants and indeed often perish due to effects that he cannot foresee. Speight makes a striking link to Hegel here:

“A stone thrown is the devil’s,” Hegel liked to say: action by its nature is not something construable in given terms but is a kind of “stepping-forth” or opening up of the unexpected and unpredictable  (Elements of the Philosophy of Right.)  The classic, tragic examples of action in its openness—Antigone’s deed, for example, which both Hegel and Arendt were drawn to—present in an intensified way what is an underlying condition within ordinary action, one requiring the need for some means of reconciliation.

With the line “A stone thrown is the devil’s,” Hegel lets the personified evil step in as a kind of holding place that opens the question of how the effect of action will change the actor. Unlike Hegel though, the ultimate judge is not institutionalized world history, but the world as the space in which the who is revealed.

Stepping back chronologically, Speight then turns to Augustine as a source of Arendt’s idea of  narrative rebirth. Here he picks up on an existentialist debate through Sartre: given that one’s account of one’s life can change it fundamentally, do we have a responsibility to an authentic narration? To what extent are we free when we tell our own stories? Arendt rejects the possibility that a life can simply me “made” in narrative. However:

for Arendt the distinction between a life that is “lived” and a story that is “made” involves two distinctly non-Sartrean consequences. The first we have already seen in her “daimõn thesis”: that precisely because we live rather than make a life, there is a privileged—but (pace Sartre) a not necessarily false—retrospective position from which we must view the “who,“ the daimõn, that is revealed in our lives. Thus, as we have seen, the “who” is visible “ex post facto through action and speech” (Arendt 1958, 186) and this retrospectivity in turn privileges the work of the discerning interpretive historian or storyteller. (121)


I find Speight’s repeated discussion of the daimon particularly relevant, since it offers an original way to talk about the belatedness of knowledge, of how it can comes later, or even from the side, without privileging an end position as Hegel does.

In the second half of his article, Speight offers a reading of Men in Dark Times that illustrates how Arendt uses these three aspects of her narrative theory in her own practice of narration. His reading the sections on Jaspers and Waldemar Gurian explicitly link the question of the daimon, biography, and how a person come to appearance in the public realm. Readers following the growing subsection of Arendt scholarship engaged with Arendt’s literary dimension will find an original effort here that offers a model for future work connecting Arendt’s theoretical articulations with her writing practice.

-Jeffrey Champlin

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

Violence, and Thinking With Others


“All thought arises out of experience, but no thought yields any meaning or even coherence without undergoing the operations of imagining and thinking.”

- Hannah Arendt, Thinking

In the wake of an extraordinarily brutal punctuation to an extraordinarily brutal year of gun violence in the United States and across the continent, the eye of American politics has finally turned back toward something it perhaps ought never have left, the problem in this country of the private ownership of the means to commit extraordinary brutality.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, public discourse around the problem has descended nearly instantaneously from fractiousness into what could now only generously be termed playground name-calling (to spend millions of dollars to publicly call one’s opponent an “elitist hypocrite” should feel extraordinary, even if it doesn’t).  There are many tempting culprits to blame for this fall.  The actors, of course, include some powerful players whose opposing ideologies so deeply inflect their understanding of the situation that it is entirely uncertain whether they are in fact seeing the same world, let alone the same problem within it.  There is the stage on which the actors play, a largely national media structure whose voracious demands can be fed most easily, if not most effectively, by those who seek the currency of political power in hyperbole and absoluteness of conviction.  Finally, there is the problem of constructing the problem itself: is it clear that private ownership of the means of extraordinary violence is so distinct a problem from that of its public ownership and (borderless) use?  Can the line of acceptability between means of extraordinary brutality really be settled by types of implements, let alone the number of bullets in a magazine?  What are the connections and disconnections between the events – Oak Creek, Chicago, Newtown,… – that have summoned the problem back onto our collective stage, and why had the problem disappeared in the first place when the violence so demonstrably had not?  There is something in all of these instincts, but before we rush to decry our national theater (more Mamet than melodrama), it’s worth remembering that the problem is an extraordinary one, and that many of the pathologies of our various reactions to it spring from the same seed as our best resources: the nature of thinking itself.

The rhetoric used in describing the problem of gun violence – formulated so readily and so intractably – coupled with the unavoidable connection of the problem with intense emotion make it tempting to suspect one’s political opponents in this arena of ceasing to think altogether.  I will admit to sometimes being convinced that there was no thought at all behind some of the words being splayed across television screens and RSS feeds (not, it should be said, entirely without reason).  Arendt, in Thinking, describes thinking and feeling as inherently mutually antagonistic, and whether or not that is true it certainly seems that the tenor and pitch of the vitriol make thinking, let alone conversing, difficult.  But that may point to a reality still more sobering than the perennially (and maybe banally) true observation that a great deal of what passes for public discourse did not require serious thought in its formulation: that when we deal with certain kinds of events, and try to engage in the process of translating them and reconstructing them into the form of a problem, we are running up against dimensions of the human experience so extraordinary that they shove us flatly against the limits of what we are able to do in thought.  Perhaps the struggle now is less against a chronic inability to think, and more with recognizing the ways in which the limits of how we can feel and see and know – and then think – have created limits not just to how we can understand the problem, but to how we can understand each others’ responses to it.

One permanent refrain in this debate is the culpability of violent media in generating cultures in which, it is said, such extraordinary brutality becomes possible (ignoring, it might be objected, that humankind has shown a rather vibrant aptitude for brutality for quite some time).  The newest variation on this theme, which in structure has changed little since its revival by Tipper Gore and Susan Baker in the 1980s, is that violent video games, by wedding the sensation of the rapid pleasures of accomplishment unique to video games with a sense of agency in apparent violence have created a generation desensitized not just to images of extraordinary violence, but to the prospect of committing it oneself.  A friend of mine who has good reason to be sensitive was so infuriated at the NRA’s release of a mobile app promoting “responsible gun use” one month to the day after the Newtown shootings that he couldn’t eat for several days.

If it is possible to set aside questions of titanically poor taste and worse (and its not clear that we should), there is something about this way of thinking about the problem of violent imaginaries that reflects what I am suggesting is an issue of pathologies arising from mental necessities.

There is little use denying that being intensively immersed in gaming environments (any gaming environments, and not just violent electronic ones) for extended periods of time can seriously, if usually temporarily, alter a person’s phenomenal experience of their own agency and the realness of the world around them (I confess this as a recovering Sid Meier enthusiast myself).  But the concept of de-sensitization is a difficult one in particular because, as Arendt points out, de-sensitization is precisely what thought does, and must do to carry out its work.  Nowhere is this more clear than in those cases in which we are confronted with events that seriously strain the possibility of thinking about them at all.

Thinking about tragedies involves a twin process that need not, and should not, lessen the experience of their terribleness…but it always can.  That twin process, as Arendt describes it, is one of de-sensation and re-sensation.  When we try to think about what has occur, we have to call it up, we reproduce it “by repeating in [our] imagination, we de-sense whatever had been given to our senses.”  In remembering, we convert the data of our senses, including our common sense, into objects of thought.  We do that in order to make them fit for the preoccupation of thought, our “quest for meaning;” in other words, re-sensation, the process of translation into narrative and metaphor by which facts become truths.

It’s not difficult to see how extraordinary brutality challenges this double operation to the point of impossibility.  On the one hand, this model of de-sensation by the reproductive imagination presumes a kind of voluntarism to the recollection, when often, and most especially in the cases like those of immediate victims where the stakes are highest, recollection comes unbidden, and far from de-sensing involves the cruel and incessant reiteration of sense that is renewed in all of its thought-destroying power.  On the other hand, extraordinary brutality by its very nature resists re-sensation in proportion to its extraordinariness: to read the trial of Anders Breivik, for example, is to watch a play of the utter failure of not only the killer’s own efforts at narrative, but those of every single speaking person involved.  It is not a surprise that these trials test the law’s own limited strictures of re-sensation to the breaking point, which often comes as nothing more than quiet acquittal (as with Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, in whose case international law was forced to confess the inadequacy of its categories).

What’s more difficult to see is how that terrible challenge presented by extraordinary brutality to our very capacity to think is simultaneously a challenge to our politics, one perhaps graver still for our hope, as Arendt puts it in her Denktagebuch, to share a world with those with whom we must live.  Extraordinary brutality makes a shamble of our narrating powers, and the failures of others to make sense of it which incite our scorn – as when, I will admit, even as someone who grew up in a gun culture, I literally cannot make sense of the suggestion that high-capacity magazines would be better combated by their increased prevalence in the school environment itself – are no less replicated by our own attempts, whether or not we can see and admit it.  Imagination’s other function, its most political function for Arendt, is to put ourselves in the place of others in order to more fully see the political world that confronts us.  If this is true, then it is not our capacity to put ourselves in the place of a killer that most threatens our political capacity to respond, whatever the prevalence of this problem in popular discourse.  This may often be an impossibility, but the stakes are much lower than that of the impossibility of putting ourselves in the places of others who are also trying – and like us mostly failing – to respond.  In trying and failing to renarrate tragedy in order to construct political problems and solutions, we come up against the limits of our imaginations, limits are themselves defined by the bounds of our prior experiences and our thought itself.  When it comes to the world of the gun (and here, I can only urge a look at the truly remarkable The Language of the Gun), we are running up against the reality that contemporary American polity covers experiences of the world divergent to such an extreme – how much, in terms of sensory experience in their personal history do David Keene and Alan Padilla share, really? – that answers truly are being constructed from worlds which, in the senses that matter to policymaking, don’t overlap.  And in an environment where that is true, the first, most critical order must be the one that is neglected most: not to analyze why our competing solutions are right or wrong, but to understand why the solutions we are proposing arise from the experiences of the world we have had, including our experiences of the tragedies we cannot re-sense.

Responses cannot be crafted out of worlds that are not shared, and tending to the former requires a kind of tending to the latter that we see vanishingly rarely, thought the torch still carried by a few radio producers and documentary filmmakers.  Absent that kind of dedicated world-making – and perhaps that process requires a time and restraint that too is threatened by extraordinary brutality – we will simply be left with what we have, an issue politics without common sense because the only sense that is common, the event, is insensible.  When they respond in ways we cannot abide, understanding our political others is an almost impossibly difficult task.  It is also one that a polity cannot possibly do without.

-Ian Storey

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

Horace Walpole on Thinking


"The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.”

― Horace Walpole

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

The Cinematic Jew as Pariah – Lance Strate


"While lack of political sense and persistence in the obsolete system of making charity the basis of national unity have prevented the Jewish people from taking a positive part in the political life of our day, these very qualities, translated into dramatic forms, have inspired one of the most singular products of modern art—the films of Charlie Chaplin.  In Chaplin the most unpopular people in the world inspired what was long the most popular of contemporary figures—not because he was a modern Merry Andrew, but because he represented the revival of a quality long thought to have been killed by a century of class conflict, namely, the entrancing charm of the little people."

-Hannah Arendt, "The Jew as Pariah:  A Hidden Tradition" (1944)

The image of Charlie Chaplin's signature character, the Little Tramp, is an icon recognized throughout the world, one that remains powerful where those of his contemporaries, for example his partners in United Artists, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., have faded from popular consciousness.  Moreover, Chaplin is widely recognized for his comedic brilliance, and beyond that, for his artistic genius as an actor, director and composer.  Largely forgotten within the public mind, however, is the close association between Chaplin and Jewish identity, regarding both the actor and the character he portrayed.  But to early 20th century audiences in the United States and Europe, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, the Little Tramp was recognized as a Jewish character type, a popular culture stereotype with origins in the 19th century, a by-product of the Industrial Revolution and (dare I say it?) modern times.  Regarding himself, Chaplin never corrected misconceptions about his gentile ancestry, saying that to do so would "play directly into the hands of anti-Semites," while also taking pride in the fact that one of his great grandmothers was a Romani (aka Gypsy), and more generally he was outspoken in defense of all of the little people, the lower classes, the poor and the downtrodden.  On the big screen, he was the Little Tramp, but in real life, as a human person and a champion of the humane and the humanistic, he was a giant.

Hannah Arendt identifies Chaplin's Little Tramp as something more than a Merry Andrew or clown, but as an example of a specific character type she refers to as the Jew as pariah.  The term pariah is typically defined as outcast, which carries a more negative connotation than that of exile.  Exile, in turn, is a status long associated with the Jewish people in particular, but today incorporated into the broader, and more neutral category of diaspora.  As a wanderer,sojourner, or immigrant, the outcast becomes the outsider, the stranger, the foreigner, thealien, and also the barbarian (in ancient Greece, barbaros referred to anyone who was not Greek, not a citizen); in philosophical terms, the outcast is the other.  The outcast is also theout-caste, the individual who is not a part of the existing social structure, who has no status or position, who is stateless or homeless, or jobless.  The myth of the nation is one of blood ties, of an extended conception of kinship, of tribalism writ large.  Against such cultural foundations, political reformation derived from Enlightenment rationality provided thin cover indeed.  And it is in this context that the unique nature of the American experiment stands out, and I find it interesting at this juncture to juxtapose the words of another Jewish woman, one who was a native New Yorker of the 19th century:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.  From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame,
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips.  "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

This famous poem is "The New Colossus," written by Emma Lazarus in 1883, as part of a campaign to raise money to build a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty, and later added to the site of the monument (with the effect of permanently changing the meaning of the monument from its original intent as a political statement).  Lazarus, a poetic protégé of Ralph Waldo Emerson, had awakened from her comfortable middle class youth to a profound social consciousness as she watched the influx of European immigrants to the twin cities of New York and Brooklyn, and in particular was moved by the arrival of vast numbers of European Jews seeking to escape the persecution and pogroms that accompanied their pariah status, becoming a proto-Zionist in her own right.

Arendt may well have viewed Lazarus as idealistic, perhaps even politically naïve, but of course it was in the United States that Arendt found a safe haven from Nazi persecution, and it was here that she made her home, just as it was the nation that welcomed Charlie Chaplin as an English immigrant, where he found opportunity for advancement and success, becoming a Hollywood star and also an entrepreneur, as a partner in the founding of the United Artists film company.  This is not to deny the fact that Chaplin was also a victim of McCarthyism, finding himself exiled from the United States in 1952 on account of his politics, and settled in Switzerland, nor is it meant to discount the fact that Arendt was one of the lucky few to be permitted entry, whereas the vast majority of European Jews seeking to escape the Holocaust were not allowed to emigrate to the US.  And there certainly is no denying the multitude of social ills that have existed and persisted in American society.  But I would say that it is here in the United States that pariahs have come to find parity, and I would go so far as to say that this nation is truly exceptional in that regard.

Click here to read "The Cinematic Jew as Pariah in its entirety.

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

Philippe Nonet: The Unity of Tragedy and Comedy


From our archives: Posting today the audio of a lecture given last year by Philippe Nonet--professor of Jurisprudence at the University of California, Berkeley. The lecture was held April 20, 2010, at  7pm in Bito Auditorium at Bard College.

The Unity of Tragedy and Comedy

Nonet begins with Heideggger's statement

"Das Denken des Seins ist die Sorgfalt für den Sprachgebrauch."

To think the truth of being is to care for the use of language.

Nonet's aim is to recover the ability to speak the two words, tragedy and comedy, in a thoughtful way.

Tragedy: an ode sung and danced around a male goat.

Comedy: an ode sung and danced around a festive occasion on the eve of something joyous.

What does a male goat and the festive procession have to do with comic and tragic art of the highest sort? And what do these two different occasions with the singing of these odes have to do with one another?

The answer to these questions turns on the meaning of the Greek God Dionysus and one of his symbols, the Labyrinth, that in which one journeys back to oneself--the eternally returning attempt that fails eternally to reach its end. The Dionysian labyrinth symbolizes an immortal power that immortally endures mortality. That is the essence of the God Dionysus. And, on the other side, it symbolizes mortal man who nevertheless partakes of immortality and takes some solace from that.

His analysis proceeds from a reading of Heraclitus, frag. 15:

But Hades and Dionysus are the same, him for whom they rave and celebrate Lenaia.

These are questions and pathways Professor Nonet explores in this fascinating and provocative lecture.

You can listen to it here. tragedy_and_comedy

I look forward to thoughts and comments.


Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".