Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
27Oct/141

Amor Mundi 10/26/14

Arendtamormundi

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

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

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The Making of a Hero

Laura PoitrasIn a revelatory and subtle profile of Laura Poitras and her experience making "Citizenfour," her new documentary about Edward Snowden, George Packer raises questions about how close Poitras comes to Snowden's true story, and how uncritically Snowden's own narrative of his actions have become entrenched in the public consciousness: "The heart of the film is the hotel room in Hong Kong, where Poitras finds emotion in the small moments that give 'Citizenfour' the human truth she's always after. Even when the pace slows to the verge of boredom, the footage is mesmerizing, because we are watching a private encounter of great political significance unfold. For Poitras, the film is all about Snowden's decision. But, in this case, ... Snowden had already made his decision to go public, long before he got in touch with Poitras, so by the time we meet him it's a fait accompli. By e-mail and in Hong Kong, he presents his motives as so high-minded and public-spirited that they never become interesting. In Poitras's terms, he has already created a narrative of himself-it's a "locked path." He has stopped being a complicated character, and Poitras doesn't look for ways to complicate him. ... Snowden describes himself as an ordinary government employee who was going about his business until he could no longer ignore the wrongdoing he observed. This self-portrait doesn't completely square with others' accounts or with the historical record. Snowden was not as deeply embedded in the N.S.A.'s institutional culture as were previous agency whistle-blowers, like Binney, who arrived at their breaking points after sustained bureaucratic struggles. Snowden was more alienated and self-isolated, more radical, than that. His biographical trail reveals a young man who becomes most passionate when promoting the importance of maintaining absolute privacy on the Internet-he wore an Electronic Frontier Foundation hoodie to work-and who seems less eager to acknowledge how difficult the trade-off between liberty and security can be in a democratic society. Before the meeting in Hong Kong, he wrote a letter to Poitras and Greenwald that said, in part, "While I pray that public awareness and debate will lead to reform, bear in mind that the policies of men change in time, and even the Constitution is subverted when the appetites of power demand it. In words from history: Let us speak no more of faith in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of cryptography." Snowden went to great trouble over a long period to amass the astonishing quantity of secrets that he passed on to Poitras and Greenwald-including taking a private-contractor position solely with the aim of downloading N.S.A. files. None of this is revealed under Greenwald's questioning."

The Phantom in the Opera

death of klinghofferAlex Ross on why the response to the Metropolitan Opera's staging of composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman's The Death of Klinghoffer has been so vitriolic: "Adams and his librettist...do not advertise their intentions in neon. The story of the Achille Lauro hijacking is told in oblique, circuitous monologues, delivered by a variety of self-involved narrators, with interpolated choruses in rich, dense poetic language. The terrorists are allowed ecstatic flights, private musings, self-justifications. But none of this should surprise a public accustomed to dark, ambiguous TV shows like 'Homeland.' The most specious arguments against 'Klinghoffer' elide the terrorists' bigotry with the attitudes of the creators. By the same logic, one could call Steven Spielberg an anti-Semite because the commandant in 'Schindler's List' compares Jewish women to a virus. In the opera, the opposed groups follow divergent trajectories. The terrorists tend to lapse from poetry into brutality, whereas Leon Klinghoffer and his wife, Marilyn, remain robustly earthbound, caught up in the pleasures and pains of daily life, hopeful even as death hovers. Those trajectories are already implicit in the paired opening numbers, the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians and the Chorus of Exiled Jews. The former splinters into polyrhythmic violence, ending on the words 'break his teeth'; the latter keeps shifting from plaintive minor to sumptuous major, ending on the words 'stories of our love.' The scholar Robert Fink, in a 2005 essay, convincingly argues that the opera 'attempts to counterpoise to terror's deadly glamour the life-affirming virtues of the ordinary, of the decent man, of small things.' Moreover, subtle references to the Holocaust suggest that a familiar horror is recurring. 'At least we are not Jews,' an old Swiss woman says. 'I kept my distance,' an Austrian frigidly intones. The mellifluous, ineffectual Captain indulges in fantasies of appeasement, conversing under the stars with a silver-tongued terrorist named Mamoud."

Moral Equivalence

death of klinghoffer(2)Alan Dershowitz argues that The Death of Klinghoffer is an affront, first because it establishes a false moral equivalence between Jewish Zionism and Palestinian terrorism and second between the Holocaust and the Occupation. He also faults the music: "By any standard, The Death of Klinghoffer is anything but the 'masterpiece' its proponents are claiming it is. The music is uneven, with some lovely choruses-more on that coming-one decent aria, and lots of turgid recitatives. The libretto is awful. The drama is confused and rigid, especially the weak device of the captain looking back at the events several years later with the help of several silent passengers. There are silly and distracting arias from a British show girl who seems to have had a crush on one of the terrorists, as well as from a woman who hid in her cabin eating grapes and chocolate. They added neither to the drama nor the music of the opera. Then there were the choruses. The two that open the opera are supposed to demonstrate the comparative suffering of the displaced Palestinians and the displaced Jews. The Palestinian chorus is beautifully composed musically, with some compelling words, sung rhythmically and sympathetically. The Jewish chorus is a mishmash of whining about money, sex, betrayal and assorted 'Hasidism' protesting in front of movie theaters. It never mentions the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust, though the chorus is supposed to be sung by its survivors. The goal of that narrative chorus is to compare the displacement of 700,000 Palestinians-some of which was caused by Arab leaders urging them to leave and return victoriously after the Arabs murdered the Jews of Israel-with the systematic genocide of six million Jews. It was a moral abomination.... At bottom The Death of Klinghoffer-a title deliberately selected to sanitize his brutal murder-is more propaganda than art. It has some artistic moments, but the dominant theme is to create a false moral equivalence between terrorism and its victims, between Israel and Palestinian terrorist groups, and between the Holocaust and the self-inflicted Nakba."

Don't Give Up the Fight

Hong Kong protestsKeane Shum on why he won't give up on change in Hong Kong: "So many voices-our own government, the central government, foreign governments, much of the international media, and even some of the protesters themselves-say there is no chance of any concession by the authorities, that this is a futile battle against an intransigent force and can yield only moral victories. It is all just the dreams of naive students, they say, a fantasy. But so is Hong Kong. On that recent Sunday morning in Victoria Harbour, when I had swum to roughly the midpoint between Hong Kong Island and the mainland, I took a moment to drift on my back and let the city wash over me. The harbor and the skyline, the hills and the bays, the food, the movies, the money, and, of course, these protests-politically engaged teenagers doing homework on the streets, collecting garbage, singing songs-all these are unreal. Our city is a dream, a place where umbrellas float through tear gas, schoolchildren lead civic debates instead of virtual lives, and 999 of every 1,000 trains run on time. On that ship in Nanjing 172 years ago where China signed us away, after the British surrendered us on Christmas Day, 1941, when the tanks plowed into Tiananmen Square on the morning of June 4, 1989, we were never supposed to exist, not like this."

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Now and Then

Daniel MendelsohnDaniel Mendelsohn, suggests that books, even ones we love, should change as we do: " I teach Sophocles' 'Antigone.' My students, who are in their late teens and early 20s, tend to identify with the fiercely idealistic young heroine, who stands up for family and religion - for freedom of conscience, as we often see it today - against the decrees of her uncle, the autocratic new ruler of the state. But over the past quarter-century I have increasingly appreciated the validity of the uncle's claims: the necessity for order, the incoherence of a state that consists of individuals who cannot recognize the views of others. However much Holden Caulfield's helplessness and sensitivity may move us, it's important to remember that what is problematic in 'The Catcher in the Rye' is its hero's aversion to negotiation and compromise - not the negotiations and compromises themselves, which are simply part of adult life. Whatever else it may mean, the Museum of Natural History scene in Salinger's beloved classic can be read as a powerful allegory of how not to read beloved classics. Like Holden, we can and do keep revisiting them; but when we do, we should always be seeing something new, because the eyes with which we read should have changed."

To Grieve or Not to Grieve?

Colm ToibinIn a comprehensive essay on grief in literature, Colm Toibin points to Hamlet as a model: "I remember in school sitting at the back of the class soon after my father had died and listening to a discussion about Hamlet's madness and Hamlet's character and everyone wondering why Hamlet could in one second be in love, and the next out of love, and then angry and ready for revenge and then ready to procrastinate, the next minute melancholy and the next putting an antic disposition on, and why his tone could be so wise and then also so bitter and sharply sarcastic and rude. How could he be so many things, and how could we define his character? I wish I had put up my hand to say that I thought I understood what was at the root of all his antics. His father had died not long before. That was all. He had been unmoored. While those around him were trying to explain that what had happened was normal, a part of nature, and were trying to get on with things, Hamlet had become wayward and, luckily, Shakespeare had seen the dramatic possibilities of this."

A Lost Generation

South Boston busMichael Patrick MacDonald has a vivid essay-part investigative journalism, part personal recollection of his time growing up in South Boston-about the forced busing that integrated South Boston High School in 1974: "Among the rarely discussed facts about my neighborhood was that white South Boston High School had the highest number of students on welfare in any school, citywide. The school mostly served the population of Southie's three large housing projects and the 'Lower End,' three contiguous census tracts that collectively held the highest concentration of white poverty in the United States, with 73 percent single-parent female-headed households and upwards of 40 percent unemployment rate among adult men. In the years before busing, only 16 percent of students at white South Boston High school went on to college, and when they did, they were usually the first in their families to do so. Former Boston NAACP President Ken Guskett has recently said that, during the battle for desegregation, while white students citywide received more funding per student ($450) than black students ($250 at the black schools in Roxbury)-'the South Boston kids got less than Roxbury.' This is the problem with looking at statistics only by race, rather than also looking at economics." MacDonald brings a panoramic lens to the busing history, exploring how it happened that black children were integrated into the only Boston schools worse than their own, how South Boston united against that integration and lost its soul, and how the Boston elite stood apart from the fray. Above all it is a riveting tale of the personal toll of a well-meaning but poorly instituted government policy. 

How to Read a "Politically Charged Sentence"

heideggerJulia Ireland has published a long essay that centers upon one of those rare genuine scholarly discoveries. Reviewing original manuscripts of Martin Heidegger's lecture courses, she discovered that the published versions of the texts mistakenly read Heidegger's notation for "National Socialism" as "The Natural Sciences." Ireland argues that restoring Heidegger's original words actually helps make sense of his controversial claims in another essay written in the same year in which he speaks of the "inner truth of National Socialism." In doing so, Ireland offers an extraordinary example of how to treat controversial philosophical texts. As she explains in a footnote that should be read more widely: "I am deeply opposed to that style of scholarship whose tendentious use of quotations preempts genuine philosophical analysis in a manner I understand to actively mislead. It remains true that substandard scholarship continues to determine the wider debate surrounding Heidegger's politics and that in the United States such scholarship has received the imprimatur of a university press. (Emmanuel Faye's division of his 'Bibliography' into categories such as 'Works by Other National Socialist and Völkisch Authors,' 'Apologetic and Revisionist Studies,' and 'Works Critical of Heidegger,' in Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-35, is blatantly ideological; and his representation of student Protokolle as Heidegger's own words is specious; both should have been challenged by reviewers as violating the most basic principles of scholarship.) By contrast, I intend my analysis here as an alternative for what it means to read a single, politically charged sentence when interpretation has been constrained by the necessity of a philological reconstruction and the willingness to affirm the often surprising layers of complication that have accompanied it."

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Featured Events

Yasemin SariLunchtime Talk with Yasemin Sari

An Arendtian Recognitive Politics: "The Right to Have Rights" as a Performance of Visibility

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Hannah Arendt Center, 1:30 pm

 

 


humanitiesRediscovering the Humanities: Humanities Advocacy in the Digital Age

The Fall Experimental Humanities Mellon Lecture

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Jim Ottaway Jr. Film Center, 5:00 pm - 7:00 pm


Alexei GloukhovLunchtime Talk with Alexei Gloukhov

Arendt and the Question of Positive Freedom

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Hannah Arendt Center, 12:30 pm - 2:00 pm

 

 


From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Andrew T. Dilts reflects on forgiveness, punishment, and vengeance with respect to George Zimmerman's slaying of Trayvon Martin in the Quote of the Week. C. G. Jung provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. In our Video Archives, we look back at a talk Bard College President Leon Botstein gave on the state of American education at the Hannah Arendt Center's seventh annual fall conference. And we appreciate a small yet powerful personal library of Arendt's works in our 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.
22Sep/140

Amor Mundi 9/21/14

Amor Mundi

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.

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Anxiety and Writing

donald_antrimJohn Jeremiah Sullivan tells a tale of the anxieties and rare talents of Donald Antrim. At one point he recounts the story of Antrim's battles with mental illness and Antrim's decision to check himself into a psychiatric hospital. His doctors said: "'You're very sick, and you're very psychotic, and we can take care of you.' They told him they wanted him to undergo electroconvulsive therapy. He could take time to think about it. A nurse led him back into the hallway and down to his room. The news destroyed him. Not because he didn't believe them, that it was the best thing for him, nor even because he feared the procedure itself (though naturally it terrified him to face it), but because he believed it would mean the end of him as a writer. That his talent would be scattered. His brains scrambled. The mechanism disassembled. Not to write? A living death. What would it even mean to go about your day? Also he felt that it was, he said, 'a confirmation that I would never leave hospitals.' He sat down on a chair. 'Not 20 minutes later,' he said, 'a patient called out, "Mr. Antrim,­ there's a phone call for you."' He shuffled down to the phones near the medication dispensary. He picked up. 'Donald,' a voice said, 'this is Dave Wallace. I heard you were in bad shape....' Wallace, who had undergone the procedure himself, spent at least an hour telling Antrim that he shouldn't be afraid, that he would still be there when it was over, that it would still be there."

What Kind of Nazi Was He?

heideggerWe live in a time dominated by the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, the idea that one aspect of a person's life dominates the whole. Thus someone who has strong faith in God is dismissed as a fundamentalist just as someone who opposes the wearing of Burqas in public is labeled an Islamophobe and those who oppose Israel are called antisemites. In each of these instances, one opinion or quality of the person is used to devalue the entirety of their persona, as if to hold an offensive opinion makes one offensive. There are few opinions that are considered to disqualify one for good society more than to be a Nazi, which is why the publication of Martin Heidegger's Black Notebooks has unleashed a frenzy of self-satisfied accusation. In two recent reviews, Gregory Fried in the LA Review of Books and Peter Gordon in the New York Review of Books each make obligatory statements that the Notebooks prove Heidegger was a Nazi. But each also makes the effort then to ask what that means, to understand Heidegger's fully atypical and metaphysical Nazism. Here is Fried: "For one thing, the Notebooks show that the Nazi revolution was only an opportunity for Heidegger, a moment when the overturning might be possible, not guaranteed. He was proud enough to think he could become the leader in spirit of this movement, as Marx was to Communism, but the movement failed him and the historical rupture it should have served, not the other way around. Furthermore, Communism itself was, for Heidegger, just another form of Platonism. Much like the Christian end-times and apocalypse, Communism promises an end of history, a complete fulfillment of human destiny. Platonism in all its forms, according to Heidegger, explains what it means to be human as something grounded in a timeless realm beyond history that applies universally to all human beings, whether as created in God's image, or as bearers of human rights that apply to 'all men' - as the American Declaration would have it - or as participants in Communism's world revolution that would put an end to the question of what humanity has been and will become. To all such movements Heidegger applies the name 'liberalism,' not in the parochial, contemporary sense of modern welfare liberalism, but rather in a sense that reaches back to Plato and that defines human 'liberty' on the basis of an appeal to timeless and universal truths. In the Nazis, Heidegger thought he had found a movement that would reject universalistic liberalism in all its forms - Christianity, the secular Enlightenment, Communism - in favor of a politics that would root human history in the communal belonging of a finite historical people. By the end, though, the Notebooks show Heidegger accusing Nazism itself of falling prey to liberalism through its metaphysical reduction of all human differences to race, its treating the Volk as kind of super-subject akin to conventional liberalism's subjective individual, and its capitulation to the idols of machination and gigantism.... The promise of the Nazi revolution had devolved, for Heidegger, into a kitschy mish-mash of blood-and-soil myth-making, its followers qualified only by their willingness not to think or to question the meaning of modernity." You can view a discussion between Roger Berkowitz and Peter Trawny, the translator of the Black Notebooks, here.

A Metaphysical Nazi

martin_heideggerPeter Gordon also makes an effort to explore the depths and not simply the fact of Heidegger's Nazism: "As rector he tried to resist 'vulgar National Socialism.' He knew that Nazism was a concatenation of competing ideologies, and he expressed both resentment at his rivals and fear that the ascendant language of allegedly scientific racism would mislead the German people from its true historical mission. Although he grasped at the official jargon of 'blood and soil,' he eschewed 'dull biologism' because he felt it wrongly applied the schema of the natural sciences to human existence, as if the entire 'intellectual-historical world' grew in a 'plantlike' fashion from the body of the Volk. In April 1934, Heidegger tendered his resignation as rector. The details of his career have received ample documentation, notably in the scrupulous historical study by Hugo Ott. But the notebooks give us a fuller picture of Heidegger's personal disappointment. On April 28 he made sketches for a farewell address, desperately seeking a higher significance for the 'wrecked year.' The failure was not his alone, he wrote, and perhaps it was not a failure at all, since wreckage itself was 'the highest form of human experience, in which we meet with the effective world-powers in their merciless efficacy.' Failure or not, from this point onward the notebooks assume a tone of marked bitterness. Everywhere he saw only 'rushers and alarmists, makers and strivers.' By the summer of 1936 Heidegger was under surveillance, and although he continued to nourish hopes for Germany's political future, his own chances for a career as a public official of the Third Reich began to dwindle." You can view a discussion between Roger Berkowitz and Peter Trawny, the translator of the Black Notebooks, here.

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The Stamp of Disapproval

authorRobert Darnton wonders at the relationship between author and censor: "When exiles from the Soviet system invoked 'freedom' and 'truth,' they were not appealing to the protection of the First Amendment or speaking as philosophers. They were using words to describe their experience of censorship as a force operating in specific circumstances, a force that determined the nature of literature in an oppressive political system. 'Freedom of speech' served as a standard against which to measure the oppression. It did not apply to constraints of all kinds, although many kinds had weighed on the lives of the writers. Freedom for them was a principle made meaningful by the experience of its violation. Experiences varied, of course, and the variations make it hopeless to search for a general proposition that would encompass all of them, including some that have been studied up close, such as censorship under apartheid in South Africa. They also understood that literature in what Westerners called the 'free world' suffered from constraints. Does their experience argue for a relativistic notion of freedom?"

Revision is Joy

richard_rodriguezIn an interview, Richard Rodriguez describes his writing life: "My own writing life is as predictable as the old priest preparing to say the dawn mass. The pleasant cold, the mild pain of being alive. I have the same breakfast every day-cold cereal, yogurt, coffee. I read the newspapers. I take a fistful of vitamins. I shower. I linger at my bookshelf or at the window. I read a chapter or a poem from a shelf I keep above my desk of former lovers and seducers, impossible rivals-Nabokov or Lawrence, Larkin. Woolf. Sitting down at the computer is as daunting as the altar boy's first genuflection. Aquinas described writing as a form of prayer. Writing is for me dishearteningly hermetic. Revision is writing. Revision is humiliation-Tuesday saying something less well than Monday. Revision is open to noticing connections. Revision is joy at precisely that moment when the sentence no longer seems mine but speaks back to me and haughtily resists further revision. I read in the afternoons. I take long walks. I watch TV in the evening. I write letters at all times." Richard Rodriguez gave the keynote lecture at the 2013 Hannah Arendt Center Conference. Revisit it here.

How Easy It Is to Distort Reality

realityJake Flanagan offers a cautionary tale of internet deception on Facebook. "Zilla van der Born, a Dutch national, spent five weeks traveling through Southeast Asia and documented the trip in photos on Facebook. She posed for pictures while dining on dumplings, snorkeling among colorful fish in azure waters and visiting ornately decorated Buddhist temples - compiling the lot into a series of videos for her Vimeo account. All in all, Ms. van der Born seemed to have enjoyed a busy, albeit conventional, trip to Phuket, Luang Prabang or some other regional tourist hub. Or so it would appear. In reality, Ms. van der Born never left her home city, Amsterdam. Each photograph was expertly contrived.... The ultimate goal was to 'prove how easy it is to distort reality,' she said. 'Everybody knows that pictures of models are manipulated. But we often overlook the fact that we manipulate reality also in our own lives.'"

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Featured Events

milgramHuman Rights Course, Studies in Obedience, hosts Dr. David Mantell

As a Fellow at Max-Planck Institute of Psychiatry, in Munich, Mr. Mantell replicated the Milgram experiment.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Hannah Arendt Center, 3:00 pm


congressBard College Public Debate

Resolved: "The fate of the world depends upon the success or failure of America's model of democratic self-government."

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

Campus Center Multipurpose Room, 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm


conference_14SAVE THE DATE - 2014 FALL CONFERENCE

October 9-10

The Hannah Arendt Center's annual fall conference, The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Values Worth Fighting For?, will be held this year on October 9-10!

Registration is now OPEN! You can register here!

Want to know more about the schedule of the conference? Please click for details here!

Learn more about the conference here.

 

 


From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Laurie Naranch discusses Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt's shared investment in literary pearls, fragments, and moments in the Quote of the Week. French dramatist Jean Racine provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. We look back on Roger Hodge's talk "Alchemies of Deception" for our 2011 conference in our Video Archives. In our Library feature, we admire Arendt's impressive collection of Kant's writings. And Roger Berkowitz reflects on American exceptionalism and its decline in the Weekend Read.

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.
19Sep/140

Video Archives – “Lying in Politics: Alchemies of Deception” (2011)

lying_politics

Friday, March 5, 2011: “Lying and Politics: Alchemies of Deception”

Participants: Roger Hodge, Editor of Harper’s Magazine from 2006-2010

Roger Hodge gave a talk as a part of the Arendt Center’s March 2011 conference: “Lying and Politics.” Hodge focuses his talk on the matter of deception in politics.

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.
1Sep/140

Alienation from the Cartesian Change in the Meaning of Truth

enlightenment_truth

“Scientific and philosophic truth have parted company.”

—Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 41.290

What can it mean that there are two different types of truth—scientific and philosophic? And how could they not be connected?

Richard Barrett
Richard A. Barrett (B.A., University of Chicago; J.D., Yale Law School; Ph.D., University of California, San Diego) teaches Political Science and Law at the University of Southern California. His current research is on democratic education in Plato and how Platonic insights to education provide insights into how American legal education shapes the minds of young attorneys.
11Aug/141

Isaiah Berlin and the Collision of Values

pluralism

“Collisions of values are of the essence of what they are and what we are…the world in which what we see as incompatible values are not in conflict is a world altogether beyond our ken; …it is on earth that we live, and it is here that we must believe and act.”

-- Isaiah Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity

Ian Storey
Ian Storey (B.A., Dartmouth College; Ph.D., University of Chicago) is a political theorist who teaches at Harvard University and is an associate fellow of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College. Some of his research interests include the political and artistic history of interwar Europe, democratic theory, and concepts of social embeddedness.
7Aug/140

Video Archives – Roger Berkowitz L&T Lecture (2010)

tech_humanity

Monday, August 16, 2010: “Earth Alienation: From Galileo to Google”

Lecturer: Roger Berkowitz, Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College; Academic Director, Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities.

In this lecture, Roger Berkowitz welcomes the incoming Class of 2014 at Bard College with an important question: “Is humanity important?” The human race has witnessed impressive scientific and technological achievements, some of the most remarkable of which have occurred in the past 50 years. While some of these have advanced the history of humanity, others threaten to dampen its spark. Nuclear and biological weapons are capable of killing untold millions of people, and the urge to embrace automation in our everyday lives cultivates the fear that society may one day embrace euthanization as a way to rid itself of “superfluous persons”. Acknowledging this increasingly dangerous world we live in, Berkowitz argues it is imperative that we at this moment in time take a closer look at ourselves and consider our significance. He proposes two sources that can help us in our task: Galileo and Google.

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.
21Jul/141

The Story of Reconciliation

Greek_storytelling

**This article was originally published on April 9, 2012. You can access the original article here.**

"It is true that storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it, that it brings about consent and reconciliation with things as they really are, and that we may even trust it to contain eventually by implication that last word which we expect from the Day of Judgment”.

--Hannah Arendt, “Isak Dinesen: 1885 – 1963” in Men in Dark Times

David Bisson
David is the Media Coordinator at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College. He is also Editor for Information Security Buzz. David's research interests include cybersecurity, war, and the political impact of new technologies.
10Jul/140

Video Archives – Lunchtime Talk with Robert Pogue Harrison (2011)

thought

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011: Lunchtime Talk

Featured Speaker: Robert Pogue Harrison, Professor of Literature at Stanford University

Robert Pogue Harrison’s Lunchtime Talk at the Arendt Center focuses on a particular aspect of Arendt’s concept of thinking, which is thinking’s relation to phenomena not traditionally associated with it, such as friendship, and the role of thinking “in these domains where it has different registers, motivations, and outcomes” than what one might assume.

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.
23Jun/140

Amor Mundi 6/22/14

Amor Mundi

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.

Black in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

1Hilton Als, in reviewing a new book co-edited by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. entitled The Image of the Black In Western Art, The Twentieth Century: The Impact of Africa, is struck by a particular painting, Portrait of Tonia Stieltjes by the Dutch artist Jan Sluyters. The book focuses broadly on “image of the black during the age of mechanical reproduction and how it changed, was modernized, denigrated, and, often, fetishized.” Als, however, fixes on the singular humanity of one portrait: “Tonia’s grave face is powdered white, as was the fashion of the time, but then there is her ‘real’ skin and her style, which is something ‘other.’ My imagination reacts to those levels of density and nonverbal expression more readily than to portraits of black people by artists ranging from Goldie White to Brent Malone. I find their work predictable: it elevates blackness to a kind of folkloric purity and strength that doesn’t allow for labyrinthine humanness, or for the fact that most blacks come from some place they don’t know but, like Tonia, make themselves up out of the whole cloth of Europe, or Africa, or whatever temporary home will have them.... It’s Tonia’s isolation in public, the theatricalization of her different self through paint and dress, that encompasses so much of what makes the black in Western art incalculably lonely, unknowable, troubling, and, sometimes, beautiful, just like other people.”

Speaking Truth to Power

1In the New Republic, Christopher Ketcham makes the case that journalist idol Chris Hedges has a plagiarism problem. Ketcham's account, though bordering on the tedious, overly personal, and the monomaniacal, seems to make its case. It has recently been given further support by a long post by Adam Weinstein at Gawker, which both uncovers further instances of plagiarism and argues that Hedges habitually recycles 1000s of words of his own writing and even whole articles in longer articles and books that he claims to be original work. Hedges forcefully denies Ketcham’s charges and has written a response here that also includes responses from Ketcham and The New Republic. Ketcham’s thesis is that Hedges’s plagiarism must be outed to protect the integrity of journalism, an argument he puts in the words of a journalism expert: “Trust is a journalist’s and journalism’s most precious commodity…if there is even a hint of the possibility that misconduct was covered up, it’s even worse. Journalism will take another hit.” That is true. But equally central to this story is the nature of power. Hedges has said, “You have a choice between which two sets of principles you serve. Justice and truth or privilege and power…. The more you make concessions to those whose fealty is to privilege and power, the more you diminish the capacity for justice and truth.” He is so right. Admirably, Hedges has stood up for his principles, angering the right and the left, and always speaking his mind. We need more publicly courageous intellectuals like Hedges. But in his belief in his own importance to the cause for which he fights, Hedges has not only made mistakes (which can be forgiven) but also has refused to own up to his mistakes and instead has sought to drown out his critics with bluster. His response suggests that privilege and power may mean more to Hedges than he lets on.

Osmotic Learning

1In an interview with Granta, cartoonist Adrian Tomine discusses the value of a very informal education: "I've learned a lot of tangible, practical things from studying all kinds of things: comics, illustration, movies, prose, etc. But I think I've learned more from just hanging around creative people and talking to them and learning from their example. I suppose I'm talking about the kind of osmotic learning that comes from getting to know other artists (or writers or musicians or whatever). If you go over to the house of someone whose work you admire, and you look at their bookshelves and ask about things that jump out at you, that right there can be kind of an education. I've even learned a lot from just going to an art store with other cartoonists. Invariably they'll know about some drafting tool I'd never heard of, or have some preference for some brand of ink that they've arrived at after years of trial and error. And on a broader scale, it's really useful to watch how someone - especially someone who's been at it for longer - deals with issues that arise in their art and just in life in general."

The Beautiful Game as an Expression of National Character

1In the midst of the international frenzy of the World Cup, Matthew Futterman describes USA's German-born coach Jürgen Klinsmann as soccer's "Alexis de Tocqueville," endeavoring to create an American style of the game, saying that "he wanted to create a squad that represented what he sees as the defining American characteristic-a visceral hatred of being dictated to." Since, paradoxically, this change came from the top down, it, of course, turned out to be more difficult than easy.

I Come to Praise the CPA, Not to Bury Him

1Jacob Soll yearns for the heroic accountant of the early modern Dutch, for whom keeping one's books in order took on a spiritual meaning: "Double-entry accounting made it possible to calculate profit and capital and for managers, investors, and authorities to verify books. But at the time, it also had a moral implication. Keeping one's books balanced wasn't simply a matter of law, but an imitation of God, who kept moral accounts of humanity and tallied them in the Books of Life and Death. It was a financial technique whose power lay beyond the accountants, and beyond even the wealthy people who employed them. Accounting was closely tied to the notion of human audits and spiritual reckonings. Dutch artists began to paint what could be called a warning genre of accounting paintings. In Jan Provoost's 'Death and Merchant,' a businessman sits behind his sacks of gold doing his books, but he cannot balance them, for there is a missing entry. He reaches out for payment, not from the man who owes him the money, but from the grim reaper, death himself, the only one who can pay the final debts and balance the books. The message is clear: Humans cannot truly balance their books in the end, for they are accountable to the final auditor."

My Neighbor Marcel

1Alexandra Schwartz, riffing off the recent release of a book documenting Marcel Proust's letters to his upstairs neighbor, considers the loneliness and alienation of the city's crowd and remembers that, far from the mere writer of In Search of Lost Time, Proust was a real person who lived under neighbors whose loud banging sometimes annoyed him, too. Here is one such missive sent upstairs by Proust: "Madame, I hope you won't find me too indiscreet. There's been a lot of noise these past few days and as I'm not well, I'm more sensitive to it.... If the hammering must be done in the morning, might it be done in the part of your apartment that is above my kitchen, not my bedroom.... If there's too much noise on Sunday morning I won't be able to get out of bed until the afternoon." Schwartz adds, "We who toss and turn, fantasizing about the exquisitely cutting emails we'll never have the guts to send to the invisible others keeping us awake, are happy to have him on our team."

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Christopher C. Robinson discusses intergenerational justice and the ecological crisis in the Quote of the Week. Lord Byron provides this week's Thought on Thinking. And Roger Berkowitz discusses the conscience of Edward Snowden in the Weekend Read.

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.
12May/1492

Violence, Hypocrisy, and Scientific-Administrative “Laws”

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“Moreover, if we inquire historically into the causes likely to transform engagés into enragés, it is not injustice that ranks first, but hypocrisy. … To tear the mask of hypocrisy from the face of the enemy, to unmask him and the devious machinations and manipulations that permit him to rule without using violent means, that is, to provoke action even at the risk of annihilation so that the truth may come out—these are still among the strongest motives in today’s violence on the campuses and in the streets.  And this violence again is not irrational.  Since men live in a world of appearances and, in their dealing with it, depend on manifestation, hypocrisy’s conceits—as distinguished from expedient ruses, followed by disclosure in due time—cannot be met by so-called reasonable behavior.  Words can be relied on only if one is sure that their function is to reveal and not to conceal.  It is the semblance of rationality, much more than the interests behind it, that provokes rage.”

--On Violence (65-66)

In On Violence (1970), Arendt argues for political action and power as opposed to violence.  According to her conception, power is political, and it is an end in itself.  It is brought into being through the political and public “acting in concert” of a plurality of human beings.  Violence, on the other hand, is instrumental in two senses of the word:  it can only be carried out through the use of external instruments, and it is a means that cannot supply its own end.   Rule by violence becomes a possibility wherever real power is being lost, and while violence may destroy power, it can never produce it.  Violence relies on goals external to itself for its justification, yet it is also a means that can devour its own ends.

More particularly, and to place the passage in the proper late-1960s context, she is interested, on the one hand, in the extreme potential for violence produced through twentieth century technological developments and, on the other, the question of violence perpetrated by and against oppositional student groups in the western world.  The two are, of course, related in complex ways.  Arendt is worried about the unleashing of a vicious cycle of violence, in which students actively seek to provoke the police with the express purpose of bringing an underlying “fascism” or naked state violence to the fore.  Similarly, she writes, in the 1930s, fascism’s opponents had at times even celebrated its victory because it would reveal the internal contradictions of a “civilized society” that held violence and repression at its core.  “We saw how that turned out,” is the implied conclusion.

What is at the root of this cycle of violence?  From the outset, Arendt rejects biological explanations based on some innate human aggressiveness emerging from our animal selves.  According to the bio-psychological line of analysis, human impulses towards violence can be so dangerous because they have been blocked and severed from their original “natural” purpose of species preservation.  They have become redirected in a way that makes them irrational.  Arendt rejects this characterization and instead seeks to identify the rationale behind violence.  She finds it partially by examining rage against injustice, which arises “only where there is reason to suspect that conditions could be changed and are not…” (63).  She goes so far as to recognize that “… under certain circumstances violence—acting without argument or speech and without counting the consequences—is the only way to set the scales of justice right again.” (64)

That rage and violence against injustice can be rational, though, in no way makes them political.  Indeed, they are “without argument or speech,” and she explicitly characterizes them as “antipolitical.”  What Arendt describes, then, is an unpolitical cycle of violence, which forms a synthetic dialectic.  She additionally reveals that, despite themselves, the two parties to the dialectic are, by essence, largely the same.  The students rebel against the Establishment and the System, but they fail to recognize what these have become or their own role in their operation.  They romantically cling to the Marxist notion of a bourgeois-proletarian dialectic of class conflict when 1) the embourgeoisement of the post-war working class had stymied its revolutionary potential, and 2) this was in no small part due to scientific advances that made the intellectuals and the scientists the new mandarins, over and above the class warriors of the bourgeoisie.  And who are the future intellectuals and scientists if not the students, themselves?  The students are raging against the machine of technical conquest that produced the bomb and napalm, but they are simultaneously reproducing the machine, through their very being.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Violence emerges when political power is lost, and political power dissipates when there is no space for human action in which power can be renewed.  Arendt writes:

I am inclined to think that much of the present glorification of violence is caused by severe frustration of the faculty of action in the modern world.  It is simply true that riots in the ghettos and rebellions on the campuses make ‘people feel like they are acting together in a way that they rarely can.’ (83)

Violence is, then, a false politics that serves to placate the frustrated political actor.  It becomes an outlet for a political impulse that has been blocked, according to Arendt, especially by our belief in modern progress.  Progress as “growth, the relentless process of more and more, of bigger and bigger” increases demand for administration.  Bureaucratization, in turn, increases the appeal of violence precisely because it is unpolitical:

In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one can argue, to whom one can present grievances, on whom the pressures of power can be exerted.  Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.  The crucial feature in the student rebellions around the world is that they are directed everywhere against the ruling bureaucracy.

Bureaucratization and the ideal of progress block politics because the idea of politics, the notion that human beings might initiate the radically new and unexpected in the world, is fundamentally alien to them.  They are, instead, built upon the idea that everything can be accounted for and made predictable through the universal dictates of objective science and technique.

Bureaucracy is also a key source of the very hypocrisy Arendt identifies above as a catalyst of rage and violence.  It presents itself as the impartial bearer of technical truths, but bureaucracy is instrumental just like violence, which means it relies on external, political ends to provide its operating justification.  Despite claims to neutrality, it must, by definition, serve political ends.   Though also like violence, it constantly threatens to overflow its own bounds, overwhelming the ends with meaningless means.

Bureaucracy

The current dialectic in Europe, between a sometimes-violent populist revival and a technocracy claiming only to implement neutral economic truths, illustrates anew the dynamic Arendt identified in 1969-1970.  The populist aims to reveal the hypocrisy of the technocrat by existing as the technocrat’s opposite, by declaring himself the true representative of the people’s good.  But in being his opposite, he reproduces the same problem in mirror image.  Both deny politics and attempt to substitute some form of absolute reason in its place.  Thus, we ‘deal with’ our freedom by simultaneously declaring absolute control—via either technique or rule by populist incarnation—and giving up control absolutely—to the self-contained system of scientific principles or the populist leader.  In Arendt’s examples, the enraged reaction against hypocrisy ends up producing the very violence against which it fights, most obviously when students force the government to react with open violence in order to prove that the violence had been there all along.  Similarly, contemporary populism produces the negation of politics while fighting against the same negation of politics in another form.  Technocracy completes and perpetuates the cycle as it explicitly aims to combat populism and discipline the popular will in favor of "impartial truths."

In this context, the popular explosion of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is interesting in (at least) two ways: 1) Piketty justifies and provides fuel for populist rage against inequality.  He demonstrates the magnitude of current gross disparities in wealth and shows them to be the result of policies that have been presented as the only sound technical reactions to contemporary economic truths.  2) He also dethrones the notion of the economic law.  He reveals the fallacies of the postwar technocrats who believed their economic situation had been the natural result of the unfolding of “natural” economic developmental laws.  Instead, we now know that their unprecedented situation, characterized by high levels of growth and employment along with historically low levels of inequality, came as a result of historical contingency mixed with deliberate and free political action.  Their mistake was to reify their circumstances and then try and understand this “given” and “natural” phenomenon via scientific theory.

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Thomas Piketty

Arendt’s analysis of this very same time period, however, suggests that the human activity Piketty highlights was anything but “political action.”  To caricature and simplify, efforts directed towards material well-being cannot constitute politically free action, according to her, because they are determined by the objective circumstance of human need.  One could argue, though, that, in this, she may have fallen for the technocrats’ reification of political choices about material well-being into deterministic laws—even while she denounced their attempts to collapse human experience into behaviorist systems.  The question then becomes whether an Arendtian politics is possible that is nevertheless directed towards the maintenance of the living organism in some way.  In fact, both Arendt and Marx condemned inequality reduction as strictly unpolitical.  Despite extreme differences in their notions of politics, for both of them politics is about human freedom, not life or living.  It is a common misconception that Marx was arguing for the elimination of inequality.  In fact, he denounced all attempts to do so as weakly reformist.  The root of the problem was, rather, lack of freedom in a republican sense:  It does not matter how well or equally you are treated if you are nevertheless a slave.

The characterization of inequality concerns as “unpolitical” seems to go too far, though, if we consider the idea that people cannot act politically and freely if they lack basic security and trust in the world.  This is a point that Arendt makes in On Revolution, among other works, in which she writes that desperation can only produce violence and not politics.  (This point could also work towards providing an Arendtian explanation for populist violence à la Golden Dawn, etc.)  With this in mind, our fight against inequality could actually be understood as political action in the service of political action as an end in itself.

What Piketty has in common with Arendt is the condemnation of social “science” masquerading as natural science.  Arendt shows how this can be a hindrance to freedom, and she understands it as something that is also fundamentally unworkable.  The belief in its predictive power can only exist in denial of the unpredictable results of human action that will always undo the projected image of organized harmony.  Piketty is criticizing the economic establishment on these same grounds, which is why his crusade against inequality challenges Arendt’s sharp dividing line between politics and mere life.  While his data analysis shows that our world will tend towards more and more extreme inequality, Piketty emphasizes the fact that this tendency has been undone before, which implies that we can politically undo it again.  Insofar as they both believe in and endorse the possibility and power of political action, it seems reasonable to assume that Piketty would also endorse Arendt’s important claim that,

If we look on history in terms of a continuous chronological process, whose progress, moreover, is inevitable, violence in the shape of war and revolution may appear to constitute the only possible interruption.  If this were true, if only the practice of violence would make it possible to interrupt automatic processes in the realm of human affairs, the preachers of violence would have won an important point. … It is the function, however, of all action, as distinguished from mere behavior, to interrupt what otherwise would have proceeded automatically and therefore predictably. (30-31)

--Jennifer M. Hudson

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.
31Jan/143

Why Must We Care

ArendtWeekendReading

Is there such a thing as too much free speech? The Editors at N+1 think so. They posted an editorial this week lamenting the overabundance of speaking that has swept over our nation like a plague:

A strange mania governs the people of our great nation, a mania that these days results in many individual and collective miseries. This is the love of opinion, of free speech—a furious mania for free, spoken opinion. It exhausts us.

The N+1 Editors feel besieged. And we can all sympathize with their predicament. Too many people are writing blogs; too many voices are tweeting; too many friends are pontificating about something on Facebook. And then there are the trolls. It’s hard not to sympathize with our friends at N+1. Why do we have to listen to all of these folks? Shouldn’t all these folks just stop and read N+1 instead?

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Of course it is richly hypocritical for the Editors of an opinion journal to complain of an overabundance of opinions. And N+1 acknowledges and even trumpets its hypocrisy.

We are aware that to say [that others should stop expressing their opinions] (freely! our opinion!) makes us hypocrites. We are also aware that America’s hatred of hypocrisy is one of few passions to rival its love of free speech—as if the ideal citizen must see something, say something, and it must be the same thing, all the time. But we’ll be hypocrites because we’re tired, and we want eventually to stop talking.

Beyond the hypocrisy N +1 has a point: The internet has unleashed packs upon packs of angry often rabid dogs. These haters attack anything and everything, including each other. Hate and rage are everywhere:

The ragers in our feeds, our otherwise reasonable friends and comrades: how do they have this energy, this time, for these unsolicited opinions? They keep finding things to be mad about. Here, they’ve dug up some dickhead writer-­professor in Canada who claims not to teach women writers in his classes. He must be denounced, and many times! OK. Yes. We agree. But then it’s some protest (which we support), and then some pop song (which we like, or is this the one we don’t like?), and then some egregiously false study about austerity in Greece (full of lies!). Before we know it, we’ve found ourselves in a state of rage, a semi-permanent state of rage in fact, of perma-rage, our blood boiled by the things that make us mad and then the unworthy things that make other people mad.

Wouldn’t it be nice of public discourse were civil and loving? I too would prefer a rational discussion about the Boycott, Diversity, and Sanction movement. I would be thrilled if the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street could join forces to fight political corruption and the over-bureaucratization of government that disempowers individuals. And of course I would love it if those who religiously attack Hannah Arendt for her opinion that Adolf Eichmann was a superficial and banal man responsible for unspeakable evils could find common cause with those who find her provocative, moving and meaningful.

Of course it is exhausting dealing with those with whom we don’t see eye to eye. And there is always the impulse to say simply, “enough! I just don’t want to hear your opinions anymore.” This is precisely what N+1 is saying: “We don’t care!”

We assert our right to not care about stuff, to not say anything, to opt out of debate over things that are silly and also things that are serious—because why pretend to have a strong opinion when we do not? Why are we being asked to participate in some imaginary game of Risk where we have to take a side? We welcome the re-emergence of politics in the wake of the financial crash, the restoration of sincerity as a legitimate adult posture. But already we see this new political sincerity morphing into a set of consumer values, up for easy exploitation.

Underlying N+1’s ironic distance from the arena of opinions and discord is a basic anti-political fantasy that opinion is a waste of time, if it is not destructive. Wouldn’t it be better to skip the opinions and the battles and the disagreements and just cut straight to the truth? Just listen to the truth.

Truth is not an imperative, but something that must be discovered. Unlike liquid opinion, truth does not always circulate. It is that which you experience, deeply, and cannot forget. The right to not care is the right to sit still, to not talk, to be subject to unclarity and allow knowledge to come unbidden to you. To be in a constant state of rage, by contrast, is only the other side of piety and pseudoscience, the kind of belief that forms a quick chorus and cannot be disproved. Scroll down your Facebook feed and see if you don’t find one ditto after another. So many people with “good” or “bad politics,” delivered with conviction to rage or applause; so little doubt, error, falsifiability—surely the criteria by which anything true, or democratic, could ever be found.

What N+1 embraces is truth over opinion and escapism against engagement with others. What they forget, however, is that there are two fundamentally opposed routes to truth.

In one, the truthseeker turns away from the world of opinion. The world in which we live is a world of shadows and deceptions. Truth won’t be found in the marketplace of ideas, but on the mountaintop in the blinding light of the sun. Like Plato’s philosopher king, we must climb out of the cave and ascend to the heights. Alone, turned toward the heavens and the eternal truths that surf upon the sunrays, we open ourselves to the experience of truth.

A second view of truth is more mundane. The truthseeker stays firmly planted in the world of opinion and deception. Truth is a battle and it is fought with the weapons of words. Persuasion and rhetoric replace the light of the sun. The winner gains not insight but power. Truth doesn’t emerge from an experience; truth is the settled sentiment of the most persuasive opinion.

Both the mountain path and the road through the marketplace are paths to truth, but of different kinds. Philosophers and theologians may very well need to separate themselves from the world of opinion if they are to free themselves to experience truth. Philosophical truths, as Hannah Arendt argues, address “man in his singularity” and are thus “unpolitical by nature.” For her, philosophy and also philosophical truths are anti-political.

Politicians cannot concern themselves with absolute truths; they must embrace the life of the citizen and the currency of opinion rather than the truths of the philosopher. In politics, “no opinion is self-evident,” as Arendt understood. “In matters of opinion, but not in matters of [philosophical] truth, our thinking is discursive, running as it were, from place to place, from one part of the world to another, through all kinds of conflicting views, until it finally ascends from these particularities to some impartial generality.” In politics, truth may emerge, but it must go through the shadows that darken the marketplace.

What Arendt understands about political truths is that truths do indeed “circulate” in messy and often uncomfortable ways that the n+1 editorial board wishes to avoid. Political thought, Arendt argues, “is representative.” By that she means that it must sample as many different viewpoints and opinions as is possible. “I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent; that is, I represent them.” It is in hearing, imagining, and representing opposing and discordant views that one comes to test out his or her own views. It is not a matter of empathy, of feeling like someone else. It is rather an imaginative experiment in which I test my views against all comers. In this way, the enlarged mentality of imaginative thinking is the prerequisite for judgment.

When Arendt said of Adolf Eichmann that he was possessed of the “fearsome word-and-thought-defying banality of evil” because he did not think, what she meant was that he was simply incapable or unwilling to think from the perspective of others. His use of clichés was not thoughtlessness itself, but was evidence that he had barricaded himself inside an ideological cage. Above all, his desire to make others including Jews understand his point of view—his hope that they could see that he was a basically good man caught up on the wrong side of history—was for Arendt evidence of his superficiality and his lack of imagination. He simply could not and did not ever allow himself to challenge his own rationalizations and justifications by thinking from the perspective of Jews and his other victims. What allowed Eichmann to so efficiently dispatch millions to their deaths was his inability to think and encounter opinions that were different from his own.

In the internet age we are bombarded with such a diversity of angry and insulting and stupid and offensive viewpoints that it is only naturally to alternate between the urge to respond violently and the urge to withdraw.

opinion

It is easy to deride political opinion and idolize truth. But that is to forget that “seen from the viewpoint of politics, truth has a despotic character.”

Political thinking requires that we resist both the desire to fight opinions with violence and the desire to flee from opinions altogether. Instead, we need to learn to think in and with others whose opinions we often hate. We must find in the melee of divergent and offending opinions the joy that exists in the experience of human plurality. We don’t need to love or agree with those we find offensive; but so long as they are talking instead of fighting, we should respect them and listen to them. Indeed, we should care about them and their beliefs. That is why the N+1 manifesto for not caring is your weekend read.

-RB

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".
16Dec/130

The Laboratory as Anti-Environment

Arendtquote

"Seen from the perspective of the "real" world, the laboratory is the anticipation of a changed environment."

-Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind

I find this quote intriguing in that its reference to environments and environmental change speak to the fact that Arendt's philosophy was essentially an ecological one, indeed one that is profoundly media ecological. The quote appears in a section of The Life of the Mind entitled "Science and Common Sense," in which Arendt argues that the practice of science is quite distinct from thinking as a philosophical activity.

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As she explains:

Thinking, no doubt, plays an enormous role in every scientific enterprise, but it is a role of a means to an end; the end is determined by a decision about what is worthwhile knowing, and this decision cannot be scientific.

Here Arendt invokes a variation on Gödel's incompleteness theorem in mathematics, noting that science cannot justify itself on scientific grounds, but rather must somehow depend on something outside of and beyond itself. Perhaps more to the point, science, especially as associated with empiricism, cannot be divorced from concrete reality, and does not function only in the abstract realm of ideas that Plato insisted was the only true reality.

The transformation of truth into mere verity results primarily from the fact that the scientist remains bound to the common sense by which we find our bearings in a world of appearances. Thinking withdraws radically and for its own sake from this world and its evidential nature, whereas science profits from a possible withdrawal for the sake of specific results.

It is certainly the case that scientific truth is always contingent, tentative, open to refutation, as Karl Popper explained.  Scientific truth is never absolute, never anything more than a map of some other territory, a map that needs to be continually tested and reviewed, updated and revised, as Alfred Korzybski explained by way of establishing his discipline of general semantics. Even the so-called laws of nature and physics need not be considered immutable, but may be subject to change and evolution, as Lee Smolin argues in his insightful book, Time Reborn.

Scientists are engaged in the process of abstracting, insofar as they take the data gained by empirical investigation and make generalizations in the form of theories and hypotheses, but this process of induction cannot be divorced from concrete reality, from the world of appearances. Science may be used to test, challenge, and displace common sense, but it operates on the same level, as a distilled form of common sense, rather than something qualitatively different, a status Arendt reserves for the special activity of thinking associated with philosophy.

Arendt goes on to argue that both common sense and scientific speculation lack "the safeguards inherent in sheer thinking, namely thinking's critical capacity."  This includes the capacity for moral judgment, which became horrifically evident by the ways in which Nazi Germany used science to justify its genocidal policies and actions. Auschwitz did not represent a retrieval of tribal violence, but one of the ultimate expressions of the scientific enterprise in action. And the same might be said of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, holding aside whatever might be said to justify the use of the atomic bomb to bring the Second World War to a speedy conclusion. In remaining close to the human lifeworld, science abandons the very capacity that makes us human, that makes human life and human consciousness unique.

The story of modern science is in fact a story of shifting alliances. Science begins as a branch of philosophy, as natural philosophy. Indeed, philosophy itself is generally understood to begin with the pre-Socratics sometimes referred to as Ionian physicists, i.e., Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus, who first posited the concept of elements and atoms. Both science and philosophy therefore coalesce during the first century that followed the introduction of the Greek alphabet and the emergence of a literate culture in the ancient Greek colonies in Asia Minor.

And just as ancient science is alphabetic in its origins, modern science begins with typography, as the historian Elizabeth Eisenstein explains in her exhaustive study, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change in Early Modern Europe. Simply by making the writings of natural philosophers easily available through the distribution of printed books, scholars were able to compare and contrast what different philosophers had to say about the natural world, and uncover their differences of opinion and contradictions. And this in turn spurned them on to find out for themselves which of various competing explanations are correct, where the truth lies, so that more reading led to even more empirical research, which in turn would have to be published, that is made public, via printing, for the purposes of testing and confirmation. And publication encouraged the formation of a scientific republic of letters, a typographically mediated virtual community.

guten

Eisenstein notes that during the first century following Gutenberg, printed books gave Copernicus access to centuries of recorded observations of the movements of celestial objects, access not easily available to his predecessors. What is remarkable to consider is that the telescope was not invented in his lifetime, that the Polish astronomer arrived at his heliocentric view based only on what could be observed by the naked eye, by gazing up at the heavens, and down at the printed page. The typographic revolution that began in the 15th century was the necessary technological precondition for the Copernican revolution of the 16th century.  The telescope as a tool to extend vision beyond its natural capabilities had not yet been invented, and was not required, although soon after its introduction Galileo was able to confirm the theory that Copernicus had put forth a century earlier.

In the restricted literate culture of medieval Europe, the idea took hold that there are two books to be studied in an effort to discern the divine will, and mind: the book of scripture and the book of nature. Both books were seen as sources of knowledge that can be unlocked by a process of reading and interpretation. It was grammar, the ancient study of language, which became one third of the trivium, the foundational curriculum of the medieval university, that became the basis of modern science, and not dialectic or logic, that is, pure thinking, which is the source of the philosophic tradition, as Marshall McLuhan noted in The Classical Trivium. The medieval schoolmen of course placed scripture in the primary position, whereas modern science situates truth in the book of nature alone.

The publication of Francis Bacon's Novum Organum in 1620 first formalized the separation of science from philosophy within print culture, but the divorce was finalized during the 19th century, coinciding with the industrial revolution, as researchers became known as scientists rather than natural philosophers. In place of the alliance with philosophy, science came to be associated with technology; before this time, technology, and engineering, often referred to as mechanics, represented entirely different lines of inquiry, utterly practical, often intuitive rather than systematic. Mechanics was part of the world of work rather than that of action, to use the terms Arendt introduced in The Human Condition, which is to say that it was seen as the work of the hand rather than the mind. By the end of 19th century, scientific discovery emerged as the main the source of major technological breakthroughs, rather than innovation springing fully formed from the tinkering of inventors, and it became necessary to distinguish between applied science and theoretical science, the latter nonetheless still tied to the world of appearances.

Today, the acronym STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, has become a major buzzword in education, a major emphasis in particular for higher education, and a major concern in regards to economic competitiveness. We might well take note of how recent this combination of fields and disciplines really is, insofar as mathematics represents pure logic and highly abstract forms of thought, and science once was a purely philosophical enterprise, both aspects of the life of the mind. Technology and engineering, on the other hand, for most of our history took the form of arts and crafts, part of the world of appearances.

The convergence of science and technology also had much to do with scientists' increasing reliance on scientific instruments for their investigations, a trend increasingly prevalent following the introduction of both the telescope and the microscope in the early 17th century, a trend even more apparent from the 19th century on. The laboratory is in fact another such instrument, a technology whose function is to provide precisely controlled conditions, beyond its role as a facility for the storage and use of other scientific instruments. Scientific instruments are media that extend our senses and allow us to see the world in new ways, therefore altering our experience of our environment, while the discoveries they lead to provide us with the means of altering our environments physically. And the laboratory is an instrument that provides us with a total environment, enclosed, controlled, isolated from the world to become in effect the world. It is a micro-environment where experimental changes can be made that anticipate changes that can be made to the macro-environment we regularly inhabit.

The split between science and philosophy can also be characterized as a division between the eye and the ear. Modern science, as intimately bound up in typography, is associated with visualism, the idea that seeing is believing, that truth is based on vision, that knowledge can be displayed visually as an organized set of facts, rather than the product of ongoing dialogue, and debate. McLuhan noted the importance of the fixed point of view as a by-product of training the eye to read, and Walter Ong studied the paradigm-shift in education attributed to Peter Ramus, who introduced pedagogical methods we would today associated with textbooks, outlining, and the visual display of information. Philosophy has not been immune to this influence, but retains a connection to the oral-aural mode through the method of Socratic dialogue, and by way of an understanding of the history of ideas as an ongoing conversation. Arendt, in The Human Condition, explained action, the realm of words, as a social phenomenon, one based on dialogic exchanges of ideas and opinions, not a solitary matter of looking things up. And thinking, which she elevates above the scientific enterprise in The Life of the Mind, is mostly a matter of an inner dialogue, or monologue if you prefer, of hearing oneself think, of silent speech, and not of a mental form of writing out words or imaginary reading. We talk things out, to others and/or to ourselves.

Science, on the other hand, is all about visible representations, as words, numbers, illustrations, tables, graphs, charts, diagrams, etc. And it is the investigation of visible phenomena, or otherwise of phenomena that can be rendered visible through scientific instruments. Acoustic phenomena can only be dealt with scientifically by being turned into a visual measurement, either of numbers or of lines going up and down to depict sound waves.  The same is true for the other senses; smell, taste, and touch can only be dealt with scientifically though visual representation. Science cannot deal with any sense other than sight on its own terms, but always requires an act of translation into visual form. Thus, Arendt notes that modern science, being so intimately bound up in the world of appearances, is often concerned with making the invisible visible:

That modern science, always hunting for manifestations of the invisible—atoms, molecules, particles, cells, genes—should have added to the world a spectacular, unprecedented quantity of new perceptible things is only seemingly paradoxical.

Arendt might well have noted the continuity between the modern activity of making the invisible visible as an act of translation, and the medieval alchemist's search for methods of achieving material transformation, the translation of one substance into another. She does note that the use of scientific instruments are a means of extending natural functions, paralleling McLuhan's characterization of media as extensions of body and biology:

In order to prove or disprove its hypotheses… and to discover what makes things work, it [modern science] began to imitate the working processes of nature. For that purpose it produced the countless and enormously complex implements with which to force the non-appearing to appear (if only as an instrument-reading in the laboratory), as that was the sole means the scientist had to persuade himself of its reality. Modern technology was born in the laboratory, but this was not because scientists wanted to produce appliances or change the world. No matter how far their theories leave common-sense experience and common-sense reasoning behind, they must finally come back to some form of it or lose all sense of realness in the object of their investigation.

Note here the close connection between reality, that is, our conception of reality, and what lends someone the aura of authenticity, as Walter Benjamin would put it, is dependent on the visual sense, on the phenomenon being translated into the world of appearances (the aura as opposed to the aural). It is no accident then that there is a close connection in biblical literature and the Hebrew language between the words for spirit and soul, and the words for invisible but audible phenomena such as wind and breath, breath in turn being the basis of speech (and this is not unique to Hebraic culture or vocabulary). It is at this point that Arendt resumes her commentary on the function of the controlled environment:

And this return is possible only via the man-made, artificial world of the laboratory, where that which does not appear of its own accord is forced to appear and to disclose itself. Technology, the "plumber's" work held in some contempt by the scientist, who sees practical applicability as a mere by-product of his own efforts, introduces scientific findings, made in "unparalleled insulation… from the demands of the laity and of everyday life," into the everyday world of appearances and renders them accessible to common-sense experience; but this is possible only because the scientists themselves are ultimately dependent on that experience.

We now reach the point in the text where the quote I began this essay with appears, as Arendt writes:

Seen from the perspective of the "real" world, the laboratory is the anticipation of a changed environment; and the cognitive processes using the human abilities of thinking and fabricating as means to their end are indeed the most refined modes of common-sense reasoning. The activity of knowing is no less related to our sense of reality and no less a world-building activity than the building of houses.

Again, for Arendt, science and common sense both are distinct in this way from the activity of pure thinking, which can provide a sorely needed critical function. But her insight as to the function of the laboratory as an environment in which the invisible is made visible is important in that this helps us to understand that the laboratory is, in fact, what McLuhan referred to as a counter-environment or anti-environment.

In our everyday environment, the environment itself tends to be invisible, if not literally so, then functionally insofar as whatever fades into the background tends to fall out of our perceptual awareness or is otherwise ignored. Anything that becomes part of our routine falls into this category, becoming environmental, and therefore subliminal. And this includes our media, technology, and symbol systems, insofar as they are part of our everyday world. We do pay attention to them when they are brand new and unfamiliar, but once their novelty wears off they become part of the background, unless they malfunction or breakdown. In the absence of such conditions, we need an anti-environment to provide a contrast through which we can recognize the things we take for granted in our world, to provide a place to stand from which we can observe our situation from the outside in, from a relatively objective stance. We are, in effect, sleepwalkers in our everyday environment, and entering into an anti-environment is a way to wake us up, to enhance awareness and consciousness of our surroundings. This occurs, in a haphazard way, when we return home after spending time experiencing another culture, as for a brief time much of what was once routinized about own culture suddenly seems strange and arbitrary to us. The effect wears off relatively quickly, however, although the after-effects of broadening our minds in this way can be significant.

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The controlled environment of the laboratory helps to focus our attention on phenomena that are otherwise invisible to us, either because they are taken for granted, or because they require specialized instrumentation to be rendered visible. It is not just that such phenomena are brought into the world of appearances, however, but also that they are made into objects of concerted study, to be recorded, described, measured, experimented upon, etc.

McLuhan emphasized the role of art as an anti-environment. The art museum, for example, is a controlled environment, and the painting that we encounter there has the potential to make us see things we had never seen before, by which I mean not just objects depicted that are unfamiliar to us, but familiar objects depicted in unfamiliar ways. In this way, works of art are instruments that can help us to see the world in new and different ways, help us to see, to use our senses and perceive in new and different ways. McLuhan believed that artists served as a kind of distant early warning system, borrowing cold war terminology to refer to their ability to anticipate changes occurring in the present that most others are not aware of. He was fond of the Ezra Pound quote that the artist is the antenna of the race, and Kurt Vonnegut expressed a similar sentiment in describing the writer as a canary in a coal mine. We may further consider the art museum or gallery or library as a controlled environment, a laboratory of sorts, and note the parallel in the idea of art as the anticipation of a changed environment.

There are other anti-environments as well. Houses of worship function in this way, often because they are based on earlier eras and different cultures, and otherwise are constructed to remove us out of our everyday environment, and help us to see the world in a different light. They are in some way dedicated to making the invisible world of the spirit visible to us through the use of sacred symbols and objects, even for religions whose concept of God is one that is entirely outside of the world of appearances. Sanctuaries might therefore be considered laboratories used for moral, ethical, and sacred discovery, experimentation, and development, and places where changed environments are also anticipated, in the form of spiritual enlightenment and the pursuit of social justice. This also suggests that the scientific laboratory might be viewed, in a certain sense, as a sacred space, along the lines that Mircea Eliade discusses in The Sacred and the Profane.

The school and the classroom are also anti-environments, or at least ought to be, as Neil Postman argued in Teaching as a Conserving Activity.  Students are sequestered away from the everyday environment, into a controlled situation where the world they live in can be studied and understood, and phenomena that are taken for granted can be brought into conscious awareness. It is indeed a place where the invisible can be made visible. In this sense, the school and the classroom are laboratories for learning, although the metaphor can be problematic when it used to imply that the school is only about the world of appearances, and all that is needed is to let students discover that world for themselves. Exploration is indeed essential, and discovery is an important component of learning. But the school is also a place where we may engage in the critical activity of pure thinking, of critical reasoning, of dialogue and disputation.

The classroom is more than a laboratory, or at least it must become more than a laboratory, or the educational enterprise will be incomplete. The school ought to be an anti-environment, not only in regard to the everyday world of appearances and common sense, but also to that special world dominated by STEM, by science, technology, engineering and math.  We need the classroom to be an anti-environment for a world subject to a flood of entertainment and information, we need it to be a language-based anti-environment for a world increasingly overwhelmed by images and numbers. We need an anti-environment where words can take precedence, where reading and writing can be balanced by speech and conversation, where reason, thinking, and thinking about thinking can allow for critical evaluation of common sense and common science alike. Only then can schools be engaged in something more than just adjusting students to take their place in a changed and changing environment, integrating them within the technological system, as components of that system, as Jacques Ellul observed in The Technological Society. Only then can schools help students to change the environment itself, not just through scientific and technological innovation, but through the exercise of values other than the technological imperative of efficiency, to make things better, more human, more life-affirming.

The anti-environment that we so desperately need is what Hannah Arendt might well have called a laboratory of the mind.

-Lance Strate

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.
18Nov/130

One Against All

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This Quote of the Week was originally published on September 3, 2012.

It can be dangerous to tell the truth: “There will always be One against All, one person against all others. [This is so] not because One is terribly wise and All are terribly foolish, but because the process of thinking and researching, which finally yields truth, can only be accomplished by an individual person. In its singularity or duality, one human being seeks and finds – not the truth (Lessing) –, but some truth.”

-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, Book XXIV, No. 21

Hannah Arendt wrote these lines when she was confronted with the severe and often unfair, even slanderous, public criticism launched against her and her book Eichmann in Jerusalemafter its publication in 1963. The quote points to her understanding of the thinking I (as opposed to the acting We) on which she bases her moral and, partly, her political philosophy.

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It is the thinking I, defined with Kant as selbstdenkend (self-thinking [“singularity”]) and an-der-Stelle-jedes-andern-denkend (i.e., in Arendt’s terms, thinking representatively or practicing the two-in-one [“duality”]). Her words also hint at an essay she published in 1967 titled “Truth and Politics,” wherein she takes up the idea that it is dangerous to tell the truth, factual truth in particular, and considers the teller of factual truth to be powerless. Logically, the All are the powerful, because they may determine what at a specific place and time is considered to be factual truth; their lies, in the guise of truth, constitute reality. Thus, it is extremely hard to fight them.

In answer to questions posed in 1963 by the journalist Samuel Grafton regarding her report on Eichmann and published only recently, Arendt states: “Once I wrote, I was bound to tell the truth as I see it.” The statement reveals that she was quite well aware of the fact that her story, i.e., the result of her own thinking and researching, was only one among others. She also realized the lack of understanding and, in many cases, of thinking and researching, on the part of her critics.

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Thus, she lost any hope of being able to publicly debate her position in a “real controversy,” as she wrote to Rabbi Hertzberg (April 8, 1966). By the same token, she determined that she would not entertain her critics, as Socrates did the Athenians: “Don’t be offended at my telling you the truth.” Reminded of this quote from Plato’s Apology (31e) in a supportive letter from her friend Helen Wolff, she acknowledged the reference, but acted differently. After having made up her mind, she wrote to Mary McCarthy: “I am convinced that I should not answer individual critics. I probably shall finally make, not an answer, but a kind of evaluation of this whole strange business.” In other words, she did not defend herself in following the motto “One against All,” which she had perceived and noted in her Denktagebuch. Rather, as announced to McCarthy, she provided an “evaluation” in the 1964 preface to the German edition of Eichmann in Jerusalem and later when revising that preface for the postscript of the second English edition.

Arendt also refused to act in accordance with the old saying: Fiat iustitia, et pereat mundus(let there be justice, though the world perish). She writes – in the note of the Denktagebuchfrom which today’s quote is taken – that such acting would reveal the courage of the teller of truth “or, perhaps, his stubbornness, but neither the truth of what he had to say nor even his own truthfulness.” Thus, she rejected an attitude known in German cultural tradition under the name of Michael Kohlhaas.  A horse trader living in the 16th century, Kohlhaas became known for endlessly and in vain fighting injustice done to him (two of his horses were stolen on the order of a nobleman) and finally taking the law into his own hands by setting fire to houses in Wittenberg.

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Even so, Arendt has been praised as a woman of “intellectual courage” with regard to her book on Eichmann (see Richard Bernstein’s contribution to Thinking in Dark Times).

Intellectual courage based on thinking and researching was rare in Arendt’s time and has become even rarer since then. But should Arendt therefore only matter nostalgicly? Certainly not. Her emphasis on the benefits of thinking as a solitary business still remains current. Consider, for example, the following reference to Sherry Turkle, a sociologist at MIT and author of the recent book Alone Together. In an interview with Peter Haffner (published on July 27, 2012, in SZ Magazin), she argues that individuals who become absorbed in digital communication lose crucial components of their faculty of thinking. Turkle says (my translation): Students who spend all their time and energy on communication via SMS, Facebook, etc. “can hardly concentrate on a particular subject. They have difficulty thinking a complex idea through to its end.” No doubt, this sounds familiar to all of us who know about Hannah Arendt’s effort to promote thinking (and judging) in order to make our world more human.

To return to today’s quote: It can be dangerous to tell the truth, but thinking is dangerous too. Once in a while, not only the teller of truth but the thinking 'I' as well may find himself or herself in the position of One against All.

-Ursula Ludz

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.
1Nov/130

Canard of Decline

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The secret of American exceptionalism may very well be the uniquely American susceptibility to narratives of decline. From the American defeat in Vietnam and the Soviet launch of Sputnik to the quagmire in Afghanistan and the current financial crisis, naysayers proclaim the end of the American century. And yet the prophecies of decline are nearly always, in a uniquely American spirit, followed by calls for rejuvenation. Americans are neither pessimists nor optimists. Instead, they are darkened by despair and fired by hope.

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Decline, writes Josef Joffe in a recent essay in The American Interest, “is as American as apple pie. “ The tales of decline that populate American cultural myths have many morals, but one common shared theme: Renewal.

“Decline Time in America” is never just a disinterested tally of trends and numbers. It is not about truth, but about consequences—as in any morality tale. Declinism tells a story to shape belief and change behavior; it is a narrative that is impervious to empirical validation, whose purpose is to bring comforting coherence to the flow of events. The universal technique of mythic morality tales is dramatization and hyperbole. Since good news is no news, bad news is best in the marketplace of ideas. The winning vendor is not Pollyanna but Henny Penny, also known as Chicken Little, who always sees the sky falling. But why does alarmism work so well, be it on the pulpit or on the hustings—whatever the inconvenient facts?

Joffe, the editor of the German weekly Die Zeit, writes from the lofty perch of an all-knowing cultural critic. Declinism is, when looked at from above, little more than a marketing pitch:

Since biblical times, prophets have never gone to town on rosy oratory, and politicos only rarely. Fire and brimstone are usually the best USP, “unique selling proposition” in marketing-speak.

The origins of modern declinism, pace Joffe, are found in “the serial massacre that was World War I,” the rapacious carnage that revealed “the evil face of technology triumphant.” WWI deflated the enlightenment optimism in reason and science, showing instead the destructive impact of those very same progressive ideals.

The knowledge that raised the Eiffel Tower also birthed the machine gun, allowing one man to mow down a hundred without having to slow down for reloading. Nineteenth-century chemistry revolutionized industry, churning out those blessings from petroleum to plastics and pharmacology that made the modern world. But the same labs also invented poison gas. The hand that delivered good also enabled evil. Worse, freedom’s march was not only stopped but reversed. Democracy was flattened by the utopia-seeking totalitarians of the 20th century. Their utopia was the universe of the gulag and the death camp. Their road to salvation led to a war that claimed 55 million lives and then to a Cold War that imperiled hundreds of millions more.

America, the land of progress in Joffe’s telling, now exists in a productive tension with the anti-scientific tale of the “death of progress.”

“Technology and plenty, the critics of the Enlightenment argued, would not liberate the common man, but enslave him in the prison of “false consciousness” built by the ruling elites. The new despair of the former torchbearers of progress may well be the reason that declinism flourishes on both Left and Right. This new ideological kinship alone does not by itself explain any of the five waves of American declinism, but it has certainly broadened its appeal over time.

Joffe stands above both extremes of the declinism pendulum. Instead of embracing or rejecting the tale of decline, he names decline and its redemptive flipside the driving force of American exceptionalism. Myths of decline are necessary in order to fuel the exceptional calls for sacrifice, work, and innovation that have for centuries turned the tide of American elections and American culture.

[D]awn always follows doom—as when Kennedy called out in his Inaugural Address: “Let the word go forth that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” Gone was the Soviet bear who had grown to monstrous size in the 1950s. And so again twenty years later. At the end of Ronald Reagan’s first term, his fabled campaign commercial exulted: “It’s morning again in America. And under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better.” In the fourth year of Barack Obama’s first term, America was “back”, and again on top. Collapse was yesterday; today is resurrection. This miraculous turnaround might explain why declinism usually blossoms at the end of an administration—and wilts quickly after the next victory.

Over and over the handwriting that showed that decline was on the wall was, in truth, “a call to arms that galvanized the nation.”

Behind this long history of nightmares of degeneration and dreams of rebirth is Joffe’s ultimate question: Are the current worries about the death of the American century simply the latest in the American cycle of gloom and glee? Or is it possible that the American dream is, finally, used up? In other words, is it true that, since “at “some point, everything comes to an end,” this may be the end for America? Might it be that, as many in Europe now argue, “The United States is a confused and fearful country in 2010.” Is it true that the US is a “hate-filled country” in unavoidable decline?

Joffe is skeptical. Here is his one part of his answer:

Will they be proven right in the case of America? Not likely. For heuristic purposes, look at some numbers. At the pinnacle of British power (1870), the country’s GDP was separated from that of its rivals by mere percentages. The United States dwarfs the Rest, even China, by multiples—be it in terms of GDP, nuclear weapons, defense spending, projection forces, R&D outlays or patent applications. Seventeen of the world’s top universities are American; this is where tomorrow’s intellectual capital is being produced. America’s share of global GDP has held steady for forty years, while Europe’s, Japan’s and Russia’s have shrunk. And China’s miraculous growth is slipping, echoing the fates of the earlier Asian dragons (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan) that provided the economic model: high savings, low consumption, “exports first.” China is facing a disastrous demography; the United States, rejuvenated by steady immigration, will be the youngest country of the industrial world (after India).

In short, if America is to decline it will be because America refuses to stay true to its tradition of innovation and reinvention.

As convincing as Joffe is, the present danger that America’s current malaise will persist comes less from economics or from politics than from the extinguishing of the nation’s moral fire. And in this regard, essays such as Joffe’s are symptoms of the problem America faces. Joffe writes from above and specifically from the position of the social scientist. He looks down on America and American history and identifies trends. He cites figures. And he argues that in spite of the worry, all is generally ok. Inequality? Not to worry, it has been worse. Democratic sclerosis? Fret not; think back to the 1880s. Soul-destroying partisanship? Have you read the newspapers of the late 18th century? In short, our problems are nothing new under the sun. Keep it in perspective. There is painfully little urgency in such essays. Indeed, they trade above all in a defense of the status quo.

There is reason to worry though, and much to worry about. Joffe may himself have seen one such worry if he had lingered longer on an essay he cites briefly, but does not discuss. In 1954, Hannah Arendt published “Europe and America: Dream and Nightmare” in Commentary Magazine. In that essay—originally given as part of a series of talks at Princeton University on the relationship between Europe and America—she asked: “WHAT IMAGE DOES Europe have of America?”

Her answer is that Europe has never seen America as an exotic land like the South Sea Islands. Instead, there are two conflicting images of America that matter for Europeans. Politically, America names the very European dream of political liberty. In this sense, America is less the new world than the embodiment of the old world, the land in which European dreams of equality and liberty are made manifest. The political nearness of Europe and America explains their kinship.

European anti-Americanism, however, is lodged in a second myth about American, the economic image of America as the land of plenty. This European image of America’s stupendous wealth may or may not be borne out in reality, but it is a fantasy that drives European opinion:

America, it is true, has been the “land of plenty” almost since the beginning of its history, and the relative well-being of all her inhabitants deeply impressed even early travelers. … It is also true that the feeling was always present that the difference between the two continents was greater than national differences in Europe itself even if the actual figures did not bear this out. Still, at some moment—presumably after America emerged from her long isolation and became once more a central preoccupation of Europe after the First World War—this difference between Europe and America changed its meaning and became qualitative instead of quantitative. It was no longer a question of better, but of altogether different conditions, of a nature which makes understanding well nigh impossible. Like an invisible but very real Chinese wall, the wealth of the United States separates it from all other countries of the globe, just as it separates the individual American tourist from the inhabitants of the countries he visits.

Arendt’s interest in this “Chinese wall” that separates Europe from America is that it lies behind the anti-Americanism of European liberals, even as it inspires the poor. “As a result,” of this myth, Arendt writes, “sympathy for America today can be found, generally speaking, among those people whom Europeans call “reactionary,” whereas an anti-American posture is one of the best ways to prove oneself a liberal.” The same can largely be said today.

The danger in such European anti-Americanism is not only that it will fire a European nationalism, but also that it will  cast European nationalism as an ideological opposition to American wealth. “Anti-Americanism, its negative emptiness notwithstanding, threatens to become the content of a European movement.” In other words, European nationalism threatens to assume on a negative ideological tone.

That Europe will understand itself primarily in opposition to America as a land of wealth impacts America too, insofar as European opposition hardens Americans in their own mythic sense of themselves as a land of unfettered economic freedom and unlimited wealth. European anti-Americanism thus fosters the kind of free market ideology so rampant in America today.

What is more, when Europe and America emphasize their ideological opposition on an economic level, they deemphasize their political kinship as lands of freedom.

Myths of American decline serve a purpose on both sides of the Atlantic.

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In Europe, they help justify Europe’s social democratic welfare states, as well as their highly bureaucratized regulatory state. In America, they underlie attacks on regulation and calls to limit and shrink government. These are all important issues that should be thought and debated with an eye to reality. The danger is that the European emancipation and American exceptionalism threatens to elevate ideology over reality, hardening positions that need rather to be open for innovation.

Joffe’s essay on the Canard of Decline is a welcome spur to rethinking the gloom and the glee of our present moment. It is your weekend read.

-RB

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".
30Jul/130

Voltaire on Thinking

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"Stand upright, speak thy thoughts, declare the truth thou hast, that all may share; Be bold, proclaim it everywhere: They only live who dare."

-Voltaire

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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.