“Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel.”
-- Jean Racine
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
We were prepared Monday night at the Hannah Arendt Center's NYC hideout, huddled together with candles and a portable radio, as we toasted the storm over dinner with neighbors and friends. Thankfully, the Arendt Center's two homes at Bard College and in upper NYC both escaped the wrath of the hurricane. Many of our supporters and friends were not so lucky. Bard's High School/Early Colleges in lower Manhattan and Newark have suffered greatly. People's lives have been disrupted and many who are older or immobile are stranded without power, heat, and water as the temperatures drop. Our hearts and thoughts go out to all who are struggling to salvage homes, stay warm, and put your lives back together. We hope soon that you can return to normal lives.
When nature roars and our lives are disrupted, the question of normalcy comes to the fore. People want to get back to normal. We all do. It is amazing to me how important normalcy is. This is especially true when one has children. Routines govern our lives and also help structure our days. They give to the cruel world a patina of safety, predictability, and control. Even more than the learning my daughter does in school or the teaching I returned to at Bard on Tuesday, our daily life routines assert our control over our lives. Humans are creative creatures and we build the world in which we live. Moments when nature and life assert themselves remind us that we are also earthy creatures, whose mastery over the world is as incomplete as it is tenuous.
As I wish you all a return to normalcy, I am aware that for some of you there is a kind of joy or even elation amidst the chaos. As much as we yearn for normal life, it is more often the comradeship found in extremis that stands out as the happiest and most meaningful moments of our lives.
Hannah Arendt knew this fellowship of disaster all-too well. A Jew in Germany, she was arrested twice, first in Germany and then later in France. She lived through Nazism and McCarthyism as well as the early days of the Atomic Bomb. Few knew as deeply as she did the need for the secure place of a home, a private place where one could live securely, in private, and think in solitude. The walls of our homes as well as the walls that encircle our cities and nations are, Arendt saw, essential foundations for human life. They structure our private lives and offer a space for public engagement.
And yet Arendt worried too about the numbing effects of normal life and glorified the experience of public action that accompanies natural as well as man-made catastrophes. In writing of the French resistance after the war, she was acutely aware of the way that tragedy could and often did open the door to human action. She writes of the French resistance fighters:
The collapse of France, to them a totally unexpected event, had emptied, from one day to the next, the political scene of their country, leaving it to the puppet-like antics of knaves or fools, and they who as a matter of course had never participated in the official business of the Third Republic were sucked into politics as though with the force of a vacuum. Thus, without premonition and probably against their conscious inclinations, they had come to constitute willy-nilly a public realm where - without the paraphernalia of officialdom and hidden from the eyes of friend and foe - all relevant business in the affairs of the country was transacted in deed and word.
In the midst of disaster, the French resistance found the joy of public action, of fighting and risking their lives for something that mattered. And during this struggle, the poet Rene Char saw the paradoxical situation, that the tragedy of French defeat and the victory of the Nazi's—events that not only disrupted his normal and everyday existence but threatened his life—had given his life more meaning than it had ever had. In the midst of the conflict, Char wrote: "If I survive, I know that I shall have to break with the aroma of those essential years, silently reject (not repress) my treasure".
In other words, Char knew that the treasure of public freedom found in resistance—the experience of acting publicly in meaningful and surprising ways, and thus the experience of freedom—was incompatible with a return to normal life. Once the horror of the war ended, so too would the weightiness of a life in which freedom and action were everyday experiences. And that was indeed the case. As Arendt writes: "After a few short years they were liberated [...] and thrown back into what they now knew to be the weightless irrelevance of their personal affairs."
It is something else for those who do not return, as many did not during the war and as many will not in the deadly wake of Hurricane Sandy. For them and their loved ones there is pain and loss. For the rest of us, there is normal life.
As we return, thankfully, to the welcome weightlessness of our personal lives, many of us will carry with us the aroma of even brief moments of communal fellowship, when we helped a stranger, overcame flood waters, snuggled in blankets and layers of clothes to stay warm, or struggled to start a generator. These moments, sometimes painful and even dangerous, will, if we are fortunate, become memories of our resilience and human capacities, often forgotten, to make do in extreme situations.
For those with time to reflect on the storm, here are a few of the best writings I have come across this week from those trying to make sense and find solace amidst the storm.
Walter Russell Mead has an exceptional essay reflecting on the power of nature and the fragility of human life.
But events like this don’t come out of nowhere. Sandy isn’t an irruption of abnormality into a sane and sensible world; it is a reminder of what the world really is like. Human beings want to build lives that exclude what we can’t control — but we can’t.
Hurricane Sandy is many things; one of those things is a symbol. The day is coming for all of us when a storm enters our happy, busy lives and throws them into utter disarray. The job on which everything depends can disappear. That relationship that holds everything together can fall apart. The doctor can call and say the test results are not good. All of these things can happen to anybody; something like this will happen to us all.
Somewhere in the future, each of us has an inescapable appointment with irresistible force. For each one of us, the waters will someday rise, the winds spin out of control, the roof will come off the house and the power will go out for good.
Alex Koppelmann reminds us of "Sandy's Forgotten," in an essay on the residents of The Baruch House, a public housing project that has been deeply impacted by the storm.
The people who live at the Baruch Houses were supposed to have evacuated before Sandy hit. Some did. Many did not, though, often because they had no good place to go. They are still there, without power, water, or any visible help from any government agency; city, state, or federal—other than some people from the city Housing Authority who’d come by to pump water out of flooded basements. Everywhere you walk in the neighborhood, fire hydrants have been turned into makeshift wells, with lines of people waiting, bottles and jugs in hand.
Downtown, hundreds of thousands of people remain without power. Many of them—usually those who live in buildings that stand six stories or higher, and there are plenty of those—are without running water as well. Public transportation remains limited. The subway is not running below Thirty-fourth Street, and on Wednesday night the M.T.A. temporarily suspended all bus service below Twenty-third Street; given their explanation of that decision, it seems likely that service will be suspended at night for as long as downtown remains dark. There are still very few ways for the people who live down there to get information about their situation—there is little or no cell phone service, and, of course, there is no television without electricity, though there are pay phones and some people, presumably, have battery-powered radios, though who knows how long those will last—so some are still wandering the streets inquiring of anyone who might know something. And it’s getting cold; temperatures dipped into the low forties overnight, and they’re not supposed to top the low fifties today.
The people I saw around the Baruch Houses seemed upbeat, an attitude noted by Reverend Leo Lawrence, who works at the nearby Dewitt Reformed Church. “It seems to me that it’s the first time I’ve seen so much cooperation between people, stores, everything,” he said. “It’s much more neighborly.” He thought most would try to wait the situation out. Asked why he hadn’t evacuated, he seemed surprised at the question. “Where would I go?” he asked.
Michael Specter makes the connection between Hurricane Sandy and climate change:
Some people will deny anything that displeases or scares them: unusual pain in their chests, unwanted lumps beneath their skin, or the fact that humans share ancestry with apes are a few examples. Another is climate change. There are people who could watch a hurricane like Sandy blow out of the Atlantic every other day and blame it on anything but human activity. They are like those who, having been diagnosed with diabetes, eat donuts for breakfast. There’s not much to do about them.
Unfortunately, that leads us to another type of denialism, more understandable, but possibly just as pernicious: the refusal to accept that we are edging up to the point where extraordinary measures will be required to lessen the impact of a climactic disaster. The best way to deal with climate change has been obvious for years: cut greenhouse-gas emissions severely. We haven’t done that. In 2010, for example, carbon emissions rose by six per cent—the largest such increase on record. (The data for 2011 is not yet final, but most researchers believe the numbers have continued their upward arc.)
Roger Pielke Jr. refutes those who are too quick to assert that we are suffering a spike in extreme weather events.
To put things into even starker perspective, consider that from August 1954 through August 1955, the East Coast saw three different storms make landfall—Carol, Hazel and Diane—that in 2012 each would have caused about twice as much damage as Sandy.
While it's hardly mentioned in the media, the U.S. is currently in an extended and intense hurricane "drought." The last Category 3 or stronger storm to make landfall was Wilma in 2005. The more than seven years since then is the longest such span in over a century.
Then again, Pielke's numbers may be quite wrong, as Mark Zandi suggests today. I give you Pielke's essay not because of his climate change skepticism, but rather as one example of the ways people are trying to make sense of the world in the wake of Hurricane Sandy's devastation. For those affected by the storm, we here at the Hannah Arendt Center wish you and your loved ones a quick return to normal life.
I am adding this essay by the painter Allen Hirsch, which appeared Saturday, November 3.
The chill and gloom in the air of our SoHo loft had made little difference to my daughter (“Daddy, when will I have Facebook?!”), although now, after two days, the desperation in her voice was slowly changing to resignation. This has been the longest period in her teenage life without an Internet connection. I shrugged my shoulders in the candlelight. I myself was as cut off as she was and had no way of knowing.
The blackout reminded many of us of how drastically the Internet and our myriad electronic devices have changed our lives. When the lights went out, we felt ourselves also losing power, as if we were part of the same flowing electricity that lit up the city.
Losing this power, however, also reminded my daughter and me of what we have left. Having “nothing better to do” can be a meaningful and sobering experience. While the darkness made us feel our vulnerabilities, it also illuminated the possibilities that we forgot were always within it.
"The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.”
― Horace Walpole
"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.
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.