“To my dear Hannah,
In these years our friendship has stood the test.
In this relationship we no longer need to have any worries.
New York, April 30th 1945.”
“Meiner lieben Hannah,” reads a handwritten inscription in a copy of Franz Kafka’s Der Prozess (The Trial), gifted from publisher Kurt Wolff to Hannah Arendt in New York; the book is a Schocken Verlag 1935 edition published in Berlin. “In diesen Jahren hat sich unseren Freundschaft bewährt,” Wolff writes: “Wir brauchen in dieser Beziehung keine Sorge mehr zu haben. Auf Wiedersehen, Dein Kurt. New York, 30. April 1945.”
This inscription stands as a symbol of survival on many levels: from the survival of the names mentioned – Hannah Arendt, Franz Kafka, and Kurt Wolff as well as Schocken Publishing House – to the survival of friendship, to the implications of the date which invite this reading.
Kurt Wolff, who founded the publishing house Kurt Wolff Verlag in Leipzig in 1912 and soon became one of the leading publishers of expressionist literature in Germany, worked extensively with Kafka’s works up until the author’s death in 1924. With the exception of the unfinished, posthumously published writings, Wolff published the majority of Kafka’s works. A look at their correspondence indicates how significant Wolff was in convincing a hesitant Kafka to prepare his manuscripts for publication. Despite his efforts to come to terms with the gap between what the public wants to read and what the public should want to read, a problem which troubled him personally and financially throughout his publishing career, Wolff closed down the Kurt Wolff Verlag in 1933.
Wolff came from a German-Jewish family and, after fleeing to the United States, he started a new publishing house with his wife, Helen Wolff, what was to become Pantheon Books in New York. It was there in New York in the early 1940s that he first made Hannah Arendt’s acquaintance.
Although Arendt never met Kafka personally (she was 17 when Kafka died), she did seriously engage with his work during the last thirty years of her life. Indeed, after immigrating to the United States in 1941 she resolved to ‘save’ or ‘rescue’ many eastern-European Jewish authors threatened by abandonment through an idea for a ‘Jewish Journal’ (Jüdische Zeitschrift) featuring these writers. As Marie Luise Knott writes in her co-authored book with Barbara Hahn on Arendt, Von den Dichtern erwarten wir Wahrheit, this goal was something which, while never reaching fruition, endured throughout Arendt’s career.
Kafka, in particular, represented for Arendt a distinct voice articulating the alienation involved in the assimilation into a new place or society. In fact, after finally meeting Salman Schocken (of Schocken Verlag) in 1945 and accepting a position as a Chief Editor at Schocken Books (which had also recently recently moved its offices from Berlin to New York), her initial project was to edit the first English translation of Kafka’s diaries. Even before that, Arendt wrote an essay in 1944 for the 20th anniversary of Kafka’s 1924 passing, entitled “Franz Kafka: A Revaluation”; she spends the first half of the essay discussing The Trial (the novel Kurt Wolff chose for his inscription a year later). Kafka also appears in Arendt’s essay “The Jew as Pariah”, and she would go on to work with Helen Wolff, after Kurt’s death, for example, to co-edit Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations in 1968.
With all of this in mind, why did Wolff send this particular book of Kafka’s to Arendt, and why at this specific date?
“April 30th 1945” has become a historically significant date: it is the date of Adolf Hitler’s suicide, marking a turning point and a near-end to World War II. It is unlikely, though, that anyone in New York knew of this on the actual day it happened. For Wolff and Arendt, however, both transplanted German Jews, the date after the fact also connects them symbolically to their survival of Hitler’s Third Reich and the Holocaust.
In a different yet related reading, the date concerns Kurt Wolff’s publishing ventures in New York where he started Pantheon Books in January 1943. In Kurt Wolff: A Portrait in Essays and Letters, he is quoted as having written that “Pantheon was founded on an extremely small amount of initial capital to give me the chance to earn a living. It was an experiment- and since no matter what the balance sheet says on April 30, 1944, a profit is unavoidable- the experiment is a success.” One can read this, in conjunction with the Kafka inscription, as April 30 taking on a new meaning in his life. It marks, in addition to his personal survival, the survival of his first publishing undertaking in the United States, and it now points to his valuable lasting friendship with Hannah Arendt.
Wolff, though Kafka’s first publisher, never published The Trial. Max Brod prepared the manuscript from Kafka’s Nachlass for Verlag Die Schmiede in Berlin in 1925, then in 1931 gave full publishing rights of Kafka’s works and manuscripts to Schocken Verlag. That The Trial itself was not published by Wolff, but more importantly, was not published in Kafka’s lifetime, speaks to this theme of survival in the inscription. The Trial survived Kafka, this copy published in 1935 survived World War II, and Arendt, through her essays and editorial work, helped Kafka to survive and arrive in the public world after 1945.
Wolff sent this book to Arendt certainly not as a reading recommendation, but rather as a symbolic gift. For Arendt, as Wolff surely knew, had not only already read The Trial, but had also written essays on it. Thus, in contrast to other books in her personal library, there are no annotations or markings to be found anywhere else in the book. This particular copy was not meant to be read, it seems, but to be appreciated in a different way.
To conclude the inscription, Wolff writes Auf Wiedersehen. To translate this as the usual “Goodbye” gives this entire gift - of the book, of their friendship, of their survival – a perhaps unnecessarily ominous and melancholic feeling. Rather, the literal meaning is here the more accurate one: “See you again”.
- Kerk Soursourian, Bard College
Ernst Cassirer is an oft-neglected thinker in contemporary continental philosophy. He is typically eclipsed by Martin Heidegger, whom he faced in the now famous disputation at Davos, Switzerland in the spring of 1929, which had such a dramatic effect on continental philosophy that the young Emmanuel Levinas, who attended the debate, felt as if he were "present at the creation and end of the world". In spite of Cassirer's attempt to make his three-volume Philosophie der symbolischen Formen (1923-1929) more accessible to an English speaking audience through a concise redaction in An Essay on Man (1944), he remains a marginal figure in contemporary philosophy.
However, Ned Curthoys, a researcher at the Australian National University's School of Cultural Inquiry, has recently recovered a latent conversation between Cassirer and Hannah Arendt that casts new light on the impact and significance of his work.
Arendt's vigorous annotations in her copy of Cassirer's An Essay on Man indicate that she was a diligent and consistent reader of Cassirer. Her personal library housed in the Arendt Collection at Bard College contains over a dozen titles by Cassirer. Most Cassirer’s works in Arendt's personal library contain heavy annotations and marginalia, which suggest a critical and substantive engagement with Cassirer's work. Although Arendt's references to Cassirer in her major works are sparse—once in her essay "The Concept of History: Ancient and Modern" in Between Past and Future, and four times in The Human Condition—it is clear that Cassirer had an influence on Arendt's postwar writings. The question is: What was the extent of this influence?
Curthoys has recently taken up this question and offers a persuasive argument that Arendt's philosophy of history and her philosophical anthropology were shaped significantly by her reading of Cassirer. Curthoys' early essays on Arendt explored the political significance of narrative in her work and her use of "thought-figures," like Charlie Chaplin, Franz Kafka, Karl Jaspers, Walter Benjamin, and Isak Dinesen, all of whom attempted to subvert the authoritative discourses of their times by means of counter-narratives. Curthoys discerns the marks of a German émigré consciousness in Arendt's postwar writings that suggests an intellectual dialogue with other German émigrés like Karl Jaspers, Walter Benjamin, and Ernst Cassirer. He foregrounds Arendt's status as a conscious pariah and engages in a postcolonial reading of her work that highlights her development of a counter-narrative to the Eurocentric metanarratives of her age.
More recently, Curthoys has begun excavating a latent conversation between Arendt and Cassirer. In his essay, "The Pathos and Promise of Counter-History: Hannah Arendt and Ernst Cassirer's German-Jewish Historical Consciousness" (in Power, Judgment, and Political Evil,), Curthoys explores Arendt's philosophy of history, and argues that she found a "counter-history" in Walter Benjamin and Ernst Cassirer that allowed her to challenge the Eurocentric discourse on history that had rendered her an outsider, a pariah. It is precisely this location outside the dominant identities and political narratives of Europe, Curthoys avers, that served as Arendt's Ansatzpunkt, or starting point, and allowed her to engage in a recursive investigation of history.
What is most significant in this essay is Curthoys' claim that Arendt's engagement with Cassirer's "philosophy of symbolic forms" was instrumental in the development of her philosophy of history, and his suggestion that it led to her reconsider Cassirer's defense of neo-Kantianism in the Davos debate, a reconsideration that Curthoys sees as the impetus for Arendt's return to Kant in her final years. This engagement was not a wholesale adoption of Cassirer's approach to history, Curthoys argues, but a critical and creative renewal of his thought.
Curthoys has extended this exploration of the connection between Arendt and Cassirer in a subsequent article titled, "Ernst Cassirer, Hannah Arendt, and the Twentieth-Century Revival of Philosophical Anthropology." Curthoys argues that Arendt's focus on philosophical anthropology in The Human Condition, Men in Dark Times, The Life of the Mind, and her final lectures on Kant is the result of her ongoing critical engagement with Cassirer's work. At the heart of this article is Curthoys’ assertion that Cassirer's theory of symbolic forms is refracted in Arendt's notion of a common world. Cassirer had argued in his Philosophie der symbolischen Formen that human beings are symbolic animals that express themselves in systems of signs, which mediate reality in networks of meaning. These systems of signs take form in language, myth, religion, art, science, and history. Readers of Patchen Markell's "Arendt's Work: On the Architecture of The Human Condition" will recall his claim that "work" plays a mediating role, which resonates with Cassirer's notion of symbolic forms.
Curthoys' investigation and recovery of the intellectual conversation between Arendt and Cassirer is compelling, but more needs to be done to make this influence explicit. Curthoys' new book The Legacy of Liberal Judaism: Ernst Cassirer's and Hannah Arendt's Hidden Conversation (Forthcoming in September 2013, Berghahn Books) promises to offer more evidence for Arendt's creative development of Cassirer's thought. Curthoys' research opens up a new line of inquiry into the wider connections between Arendt and the German-Jewish intellectual tradition and offers further confirmation of her fidelity to Jewish thought in general.
-John Douglas Macready (University of Dallas)
Franz Kafka is hung in Israel for being a Nazi. Hannah Arendt laughs in the face of Auschwitz. Walter Benjamin cries for the lost revolution. With such visions, the Berlin-based-artist Volker März has carved out a space for himself as an artist of the thoughtful and the absurd. I met him last month at MEINBLAU, a gallery on Christinenstraße, his most recent exhibit in Berlin.
I was quickly ushered into an alternate reality. As you walk in, you must become acquainted with the März' artificial world.
This it the tale of Franz Kafka, who, in 1924, aged 41, does not die of tuberculosis but rows with his ape, Mr. Rotpeter, to Palestine, where he still lives to this day in Tel Aviv, aged 126. From here he provides a commentary on world events of the last 85 years, including the history of Israel in brief comments that I have gleaned from his letters and emails.
The exhibit that follows is titled "Israel Hangs Kafka." In März’s world, Kafka was tried and executed in Israel in 2009. He was accused of being a Nazi. In heaven Kafka finds "only a crowd of Kafkas, who tell him that every individual ends up in his own personal heaven in which he has to put up with hundreds of copies of himself." In 2010 there is a new government elected in Israel. Ashamed that the country had framed Kafka, the new government petitions God to have Kafka exonerated and return him to Israel. But as Kafka is falling back to earth, he goes astray and lands on the back of a Donkey in Ramallah in the West Bank. The Donkey carries Kafka to Pina Bausch who, like Kafka, is recently returned from heaven.
And this is just the textual frame for März's playful, gripping, and unexpected figures. The artworks themselves are thousands of miniature clay figures, hanging from the ceilings, attached to walls, and climbing throughout the exhibition hall.
They comprise a suggestive and inventive visual world. Kafka is naked, often erect, sometimes carrying an elephant or with his ape. He rides a donkey. He dances with Pina Bausch. He shoots a gun, he is blown up or drowned. Sometimes he addresses the Knesset. Behind each figure or scene is a story, but the exhibition does not provide the full narrative. For that, one should buy März's two bi-lingual volumes, Kafka In Israel, and In Search of Pina Bausch (Kafka: Auf der Suche nach Pina Bausch).
Volker März is tall, affable, and funny. "Kafka Hangs Israel" is the last of his "trilogy" of work on German-speaking Jewish intellectuals of the 20th century. His first show in the series, "Auratransfer," was inspired by Walter Benjamin. "The Laughter of Hannah Arendt/The Concentration Camp as Space of Thinking" is the show that brought März to my attention, along with his piercing motto that gets right to the heart of brutal reality of Arendt's thesis of the banality of evil: "Auschwitz is human." März pierces Arendt's insight that the evil of the holocaust—as evil—was enabled not by monsters but by human beings who were merely human, or, in other words, who did not think. The banality of evil is an expression of the awful potentiality of human action when mankind abandons the truly human capacity to think.
There is a sense in which the provocative motto “Auschwitz is human” gets Arendt wrong in a small way. For Arendt, the fact that Eichmann is banal is not to say that he is human. It is rather to point to the loss of his humanity. This is the reason that Arendt disavowed a connection between her work and the Stanley Milgram experiments, in which people applied increasing doses of electricity to test subjects when told to do so by the scientists running the experiment. For Arendt, the fact that most people do act with banality shows not that humans are evil, but that in the modern age human beings are in danger of losing their humanity. The motto “Auschwitz is human” gets at the heart of Arendt’s insight that Eichmann—and all real evil in the modern era of the bureaucratic machinery of evil—was rather thoughtless than monstrous. But she never acquiesces to the motto that thoughtlessness is human. On the contrary, the highest activity of humanity is to think.
The transformative power of thinking lies behind Arendt’s own interest in Franz Kafka. For Arendt, Kafka's parables and texts were examples of thinking. Arendt is taken above all by Kafka’s account of the space between past and future, an image she took as the title of her 1954 book Between Past and Future. The parable concerns a person shoved forward from the past, pressed backwards by the future, someone who can jump outside the forces of history and find a space for thinking freely outside of history and free from social scientific predictions of the future. The space of thinking is found, she writes, in "the experience of thinking."
März’s exhibition in Berlin contained only a fraction of the Kafka figures he has created and tell only a fragment of the elaborate story that knits them together. That story is told in his two books on Kafka that can hardly be called the exhibition's catalogues. They are rather books in themselves, bilingual in German and English, and fantastic to read.
The first book is Kafka in Israel. It tells the story I have outlined above, up until Kafka's execution. In it we are introduced to Kafka and also Rotpeter, Kafka's ape. On the occasion of Kafka's 100th birthday the writer is invited to address the Israeli Knesset where he says: "Among all human beings, the Monkey is the one and only outsider." The ape, human but inhuman, is excluded. Which is why "we're pretty much agreed now that an ape is in urgent need of a continent of its own, one inaccessible to humans."
The second book, Kafka in Search of Pina Bausch, takes place after Kafka has been executed by Israel and returns to the West Bank where he meets the German choreographer Pina Bausch, herself recently returned from the beyond. More political than the first volume, the search for Pina Bausch is a raucous and often biting look at the hypocrisies and tensions in the political and culture divisions between Israel and Palestine.
Together, these two volumes make a fascinating journey in both pictures and text. They are accessible and brief, but compelling. You could do worse than to order yourself a copy. And while you are at it, don’t forget to order also März’s volume on Hannah Arendt, The Laughter of Hannah Arendt. These books by Märx are your weekend read.
“Plurality of languages: [...] It is crucial 1. that there are many languages and that they differ not only in vocabulary, but also in grammar, and so in mode of thought and 2. that all languages are learnable.”
-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, i.e. Thinking Diary, p. 42f
Hannah Arendt learned English quickly. In the year after her arrival to the USA in 1941, her work was already being printed by American magazines and publishers. In November 1950, as she wrote the above sentences on the “plurality of languages,” her groundbreaking book The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) was ready for publication. Contemporaneously with the publication of her first book in English, and shortly before her “naturalization” as an American citizen, Arendt began her Denktagebuch; it was written in several languages—often, like the entry above, in German.
According to Arendt, the fact that an entity designed to bear and present things can be called both “table” and “Tisch” suggests that something of the “true essence” escapes from that which we produce and name ourselves. The belief that we can positively comprehend the essence of a table with the word “table” would only function under the assumption of a “homogenous human collective.” This hypothesis is in Arendt’s eyes just as “absurd” as the idea of a universal “world language” or one “human condition.” Such conceptions imply the danger of an “artificial forcible disambiguation of the ambiguous,” the entry in the Denktagebuch continues. In political terms this would mean: the abolition of plurality.
Plurality is a fundamental concept in Arendt’s writing. The many and the various are for Arendt the starting point from which to think in new ways about the political, whose meaning is freedom, in the age of totalitarianism. Arendt’s theoretical project responds to the political circumstances of the time: in more than one language. This passage written in German in the Denktagebuch on the “plurality of languages,” for example, is framed by a note in French and one in English—the languages of Arendt’s exile (she left Berlin in 1933 in flight from the Nazis, spent the next eight years in Paris and fled further to New York when Hitler invaded France.).
Interestingly, one German word of the quoted entry is put in quotation marks and thereby emphasized: “Entsprechungen” (“counterparts”). Arendt draws a correspondence between the experience of the “wavering ambiguity of the world and the uncertainty of people within it” and the experience that (mediated by the learnability of other languages) there are “yet other ‘counterparts‘ for our mutual-identical world.” In the echo chamber of the bordering entries in French and English, what would be the counterpart of the German “Entsprechungen”? Pendants, adéquations, équivalents – equivalences, analogies, counterparts? Or perhaps correspondences – correspondences?
Arendt came to speak again of “correspondences” almost twenty years later in her essay on Walter Benjamin. “What fascinated him,” she wrote of Benjamin, “was that the spirit and its material manifestation were so intimately connected that it seemed permissible to discover everywhere Baudelaire’s correspondences, which clarified and illuminated one another if they were properly correlated, so that finally they would no longer require any interpretative or explanatory commentary.”
In the same context, Arendt characterizes Benjamin’s special mode of thinking as “poetic thinking.” Is this to be read also as a response to her fundamental question, noted in her Denktagebuch in December 1950, in close proximity to her entry on the plurality of languages: “Is there a mode of thinking that is not tyrannical?”
A considerable portion of Arendt’s books and essays is written not in one, but in two languages. Depending on the situation, for example, first in English and then later in German, when the same text was published on the other side of Atlantic. Particularly fascinating in this respect is a comparative reading of Arendt’s The Human Condition (1958) and the German version Vita activa oder Vom tätigen Leben (1960). Literally every page, every paragraph, and every sentence of both books shows how Arendt thinks and writes in two languages, “not only in vocabulary, but also in grammar.”
Take for example the presumably well-known division of human activity that Arendt deals with in The Human Condition: labor, work, action. As Patchen Markell has presented in his essay “On the Architecture of The Human Condition,” this conceptual triad is best understood “not as a single, functionally continuous three-part distinction,” but rather as “the fraught conjunction of two different pairs of concepts— labor and work, and work and action.” In a dense passage of §12 of The Human Condition, Arendt puts these distinctions into words in the following way:
Needed by our bodies and produced by its laboring, but without stability of their own, these things [consumer goods] for incessant consumption appear and disappear in an environment of things that are not consumed but used, and to which, as we use them, we become used and accustomed. As such, they give rise to the familiarity of the world, its customs and habits of intercourse between men and things [labor, work] as well as between men and men [action]. (p. 94)
In the placing together of “to use” and “to get used to,” Arendt’s systematic reflections on labor, work, and action as distinct and connected concepts verbally echo her thought. In the German version of the same passage in Vita Activa the scope and radicality of this thought is made clear in another way. Here Arendt works with the words “verbrauchen” (to consume) and “gebrauchen” (to use). While the first one refers to labor and the second to work, their conceptual proximity becomes visible in the shared stem: “brauchen.” In the same passage of Vita Activa, Arendt transforms the work-related activity into a noun, “Gebrauch” (use), which is a collective singular, while the plural form is “Gebräuche,” i.e. when the word enters the realm of plurality it opens up what the English version calls “customs and habits,” including manners and morals, i.e. phenomena belonging to the world of (political) practice and leaning towards action. All the terms in Arendt’s constellation of distinct yet related concepts share the word “brauchen.” Ironically or aptly, this German word means not only “to use” but also “to need” and in its reflexive form “to need each other.”
We need to read Hannah Arendt in the plurality of her languages, so that their differences can illuminate each other, if we want to grasp the political and poetic, poetic and political spectrum, legacy, and provocation of her thinking. Well, I might rather say: we need to begin.
-Thomas Wild, with Anne Posten
"We need to learn ‘simplicity’ and to unlearn ‘the simplification of abstract thinking’, to become fluent in the art and the language of ‘concrete’ thoughts and feelings, and thus to comprehend that both abstract notions and abstract emotions are not merely false to what actually happens but are viciously interconnected.”
-Hannah Arendt: Introduction to J. Glenn Gray: The Warriors. Reflections on Men in Battle, New York: Harcourt 1970, p. viii
This is not a declaration of intent: passions and emotions play an essential role in Arendt’s work.
In her book about totalitarianism Arendt described the “Eiseskälte”, the ice-cold reasoning (Hitler), of the totalitarian ideology withdrawing itself from each concrete earthly world into the self-motion of the logic of abstract ideas, where no concrete feelings towards others existed anymore but only abstract feeling towards the own people, the nation or the enemy.
When there still existed any concrete feelings, then they were feelings of impotence, loneliness and of fear not to conform oneself in the right way to the coercive force of logicality but to contradict it. This fear according to Arendt can be compared with the fear of death.
The totalitarian ice-cold reasoning was already germinating in the early part of the 20th century after the catastrophe of WWI by "behavioral theories of coldness" (Helmuth Lethen), noticeable in the "Neue Sachlichkeit" (the New Objectivity) and the writings of Ernst Jünger, Gottfried Benn and Carl Schmitt, but also of Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin.
Hannah Arendt criticized the coldness and addressed the warmth. She spoke of the impartial but not indifferent spectator of our common world which only appears through interpersonal relationships, and of passions accompanying the right use of reason: the critical attitude to the world, laughter as an emotion of thinking and friendship being more important than truth. Reading the police interrogations of Eichmann, Arendt had to laugh several times, “but loud!”, because of the discrepancy between his words and deeds. At another occasion she highlighted Brecht’s remarks about Arturo Ui in 1948 portraying Hitler: “The great political criminals must certainly be exposed, and preferably through ridicule. Because above all, they are not great political criminals, but the perpetrators of great political crimes, which is something utterly different.” Very moved, in her book about the Eichmann trial, Arendt described the scene when the story of the rescuer Anton Schmidt was told: “A hush settled over the courtroom; it was as though the crowd had spontaneously decided to observe the usual two minutes of silence … which were like a sudden burst of light in the midst of the impenetrable, unfathomable darkness”.
In her sympathetic characterization of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Arendt shows that critical thinking can go along with passions.
Lessing “never made his peace with the world in which he lived. He enjoyed 'challenging prejudices’ and 'telling the truth to the court missions.’ Dearly though he paid for these pleasures, they were literally pleasures. Once when he was attempting to explain to himself the source of 'tragic pleasure’, he said that 'all passions, even the most unpleasant, are as passions pleasant’ because, they make us ... more conscious of our existence, they make us feel more real."
More real were also the feelings of the French resistance fighters during WWII, the insurgents in Budapest in 1956 and all those spontaneously acting persons, whom Arendt always mentioned. To act, to dare the risk of entering the public space means to feel the reality more intensively, to be more alive. Her book Men in Dark Times deals with examples of this liveliness. In her ‘Thought Diaries’ Arendt wrote down: “An excess of reason is indifference: the created space makes an unbridgeable distance; the relation breaks off. An excess of feeling is destructiveness, together with the in-between, the object is being destroyed, even and particularly the loved object’.“ (1968)
In 1967 during the Vietnam War, Arendt wrote the introduction cited above for the new edition of her friend’s book, The Warrior. Jesse Glenn Gray was a professor of philosophy at Colorado College and in 1957 published for the first time his memories of being a US agent of the Counter Intelligence Corps during WWII in Italy, France, and Germany. For Arendt it was a ”singularly earnest and beautiful book”, talking about “life and death, love, friendship, and comradeship, about courage and recklessness, about sensuality and the ‘surge of vitality’, about ‘inhuman cruelty’ and ‘superhuman kindness’, not as stereotypical opposites but as being simultaneously present in the same person.” Especially moving, also for Arendt, is the description of the friendly encounter J. Glenn Gray had with an illiterate hermit in the Italian mountains who did not even know that there was a war going on. Glenn Gray was dismayed with himself after the encounter, for though he held a PhD in philosophy, he was left wondering what he actually knew about life?
Adam Gopnik’s piece in the January 30th edition of The New Yorker, “The Caging of America,” offers sober and sobering commentary on our country’s predilection for mass incarceration. Gopnik passionately denounces the indifference if not callous disregard that many Americans exhibit toward prisons and prisoners, and he unsettles some of the rigid certainties that dog run-of-the-mill discussions of criminal justice. And yet my appreciation is also mixed with a degree of unease, in no small part because his rendering of the experience of incarceration strikes me as one-sided. This one-sidedness in turn has implications for how we might conduct public conversations about this vital facet of contemporary American life.
Full disclosure: I am not a prison activist or expert, and I have never been imprisoned. I instead write as an anthropologist and educator with the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), a program that offers a rigorous liberal arts education to incarcerated students in five New York prisons.
This work affords me a measure of insight into the social dynamics of American incarceration, but my angle of vision is also (inevitably) limited and partial. I therefore approach this topic with considerable humility, but as shall become clear, such humility is precisely my point.
Many of us tend to think of imprisonment first and foremost in terms of physical confinement, but one of the real strengths of Gopnik’s article is his attention to the centrality of time. Indeed, the nature of American prison life gives new meaning to the “empty, homogeneous time” that Walter Benjamin diagnosed as a hallmark of modern existence. In Gopnik’s words:
“It isn’t the horror of the time at hand but the unimaginable sameness of the time ahead that makes prisons unendurable for their inmates…. The basic reality of American prisons is not that of the lock and key but that of the lock and clock.”
My own experience with BPI certainly attests to this tyranny of time. Two of my students once asked if they could remove the clock from the classroom wall so that they would not have to look at it. They explained that time would pass faster this way, and making the time pass, in whatever way possible, was one of their chief concerns.
Yet even as inmates recognize the heavy weight of carceral time, many insist that they are not powerless in the face of it. As another of my students noted, inmates urge one another to take control of their situation to the extent that they are able. “You do the time,” the common injunction apparently goes. “Don’t let the time do you.” That is to say, many inmates aspire to endure and even exert a measure of autonomy, despite the regimentation, dreariness, and pain that often pervade their existence.
Gopnik says too little for my taste about this dimension of incarceration. I sympathize with his claim that “the scale and the brutality of our prisons are the moral scandal of American life." And he is right to emphasize the anxiety, boredom and fear that so often suffuse prison life, just as he is to note the frequency of physical violence, including rape, committed by and against prisoners. But we do a disservice to inmates if we believe that they are entirely at the mercy of the institutions in which they reside—and that the time they serve is merely (to paraphrase Gopnik) “something being done to them.” Most of the inmates I know through BPI seek actively to give shape and direction to the time during and after their imprisonment. They are not defeated and destroyed by their current circumstances, but acutely reflective and articulate about them.
We would do well not merely to hold incarcerated men and women accountable for the offenses they have committed, but also to include their perspectives in necessary public deliberation over the ongoing epidemic of incarceration. They have inhabited and negotiated social worlds that many Americans cannot readily imagine, and they could contribute a great deal to debates where glib self-assurance and easy moralizing are far too common.
There is a pressing need for a more nuanced and democratic conversation about the state of American prisons, particularly when the poor and people of color bear the brunt of incarceration. But such a conversation will not happen if we disqualify current and former inmates from public discussion, either because we believe we know what prison is like and can therefore speak for them, or because we believe that they are not worthy or capable of participating.