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.
Wyatt Mason, Senior Fellow here at the Hannah Arendt Center, considers the fate of the modern novel between two poles, taking as his example the hilarious satire Against the Country by Ben Metcalf. On this Independence Day weekend, it is worth thinking with Mason about the lessons learned from Against the Country, a truly inspired satirical treatment of American life. "Throughout its history, the novel has catalogued our frailties and torments, those suffered by us at the margins, which is to say those suffered by all of us who are always, sometimes, at the margins. Childhood is one such marginal place and time, and some of us never manage to cross its boundaries without immense struggle. Metcalf's novel documents that struggle by, in part, making us struggle with his sentences. This is not a popular tact, presently, even if Metcalf's quarry is as eternal as it is current. That other contemporary struggle with childhood and with an abusive father, My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard's not--336-page novel in seven 'books' but 3,600-page novel in six volumes, is lately much praised for its production of sentences that do not call undue attention to their madeness. In the Knausgaard, the premium, as is lately the fashion (and, like all fashion, you are either attuned to its seasons or blissfully oblivious in your sweatpants), is on an idea of directness, of anti-artifice. As a reading culture, we find ourselves at a historical moment when our suspicion of the sentence is at its height. We know--we concede--that too often a sentence seems designed to sell us something we neither want nor need. As such, we may be said to have adopted, as a matter of self-protection, a mode of self-expression that eschews words like 'eschews' and models its mode on our written moments that might be called authentic, our Twitter voice, our text tone, our email manner, shorn of all artifice. Whereas, with the Metcalf, I know no modern novel, and may know no novel, that is more adept with or attuned to or hell bent, than Against the Country, upon the deployment, at every possible turn, of metaphor as a means to its ends. It would take a book to catalogue them all--all these bringings across--so let me say that our school bus, met above, is, sure, just that, but it is also meant to be an entirely different animal, one that will petrify us, and mortify us, and also delight us in an uncomfortable way, the way we feel when, in rubbing the tummy of a favored dog, the shiny, ruddy, pointy tip of what isn't his tail, extends all too eagerly, at our touch." On the one hand, the novel beckons us into a metaphorical and artificial world where we struggle with sentences to cross over into a fictional yet still real world of ideas. On the other hand, the novel lures us with its simplicity and artlessness, the quotidian pleasures of recognition. Mason does not privilege one novelistic approach over the other, but he does mourn the apparent disfavor attaining to novels that demand attention to their difficulty and artificiality. His reading, in this regard, of Metcalf's hilarious and devastating novel Against the Country is not to be missed.
Sixty years ago Hannah Arendt argued that the advent of automation was one of the two great events threatening the modern age. Against the Marxist hope that machines will free us from the need to labor so that we can pursue hobbies and nurture the soul, Arendt worried that freedom from labor would be soul crushing. We are a jobholding culture in which people find meaning in their employment. Without work, she argued, people will have little to nourish their sense of self. Most people will fall back on consumption, which requires them to labor to earn money to consume more, in a cycle of soul-crushing monotony. Today, many economists and social prophets are coming to see that Arendt had a point. Derek Thompson writes in The Atlantic that the worries that machines will end the need for human labor are finally coming true: "After 300 years of people crying wolf, there are now three broad reasons to take seriously the argument that the beast is at the door: the ongoing triumph of capital over labor, the quiet demise of the working man, and the impressive dexterity of information technology." According to Thompson, "The share of U.S. economic output that's paid out in wages fell steadily in the 1980s, reversed some of its losses in the '90s, and then continued falling after 2000, accelerating during the Great Recession. It now stands at its lowest level since the government started keeping track in the mid-20th century." What is more, "All in all, about one in six prime-age men today are either unemployed or out of the workforce altogether." In response to the coming loss of meaningful labor, Thompson explores three optimistic visions of a future without work. In one, government assistance will allow unemployed people to pursue leisure activities, much like Marx predicted in a socialist utopia. In a second, government will set a social welfare floor that will allow everyday persons to use new technologies to become artisans and entrepreneurs, making specialty cheeses, artworks, and applications. "It's possible that information technology and robots eliminate traditional jobs and make possible a new artisanal economy ... an economy geared around self-expression, where people would do artistic things with their time." Finally, a third possibility is a positive spin on the idea of an "über" economy that gives rise to a precariat. "Russo sees Youngstown as the leading edge of a larger trend toward the development of what he calls the 'precariat'--a working class that swings from task to task in order to make ends meet and suffers a loss of labor rights, bargaining rights, and job security. In Youngstown, many of these workers have by now made their peace with insecurity and poverty by building an identity, and some measure of pride, around contingency. The faith they lost in institutions--the corporations that have abandoned the city, the police who have failed to keep them safe--has not returned. But Russo and Woodroofe both told me they put stock in their own independence. And so a place that once defined itself single-mindedly by the steel its residents made has gradually learned to embrace the valorization of well-rounded resourcefulness." All three of these optimistic scenarios depend on massive transformations in government support and cultural attitudes. It is equally if not more likely that the future without labor will be precarious, unfulfilled, and consumerist. But Thompson's essay lays out the challenges and ways forward. It is well worth reading.
Judith Shulevitz considers the strong momentum behind affirmative consent laws around the nation, laws that "say sex isn't legal without positive agreement." She writes: "PERHAPS the most consequential deliberations about affirmative consent are going on right now at the American Law Institute. The more than 4,000 law professors, judges and lawyers who belong to this prestigious legal association--membership is by invitation only--try to untangle the legal knots of our time. They do this in part by drafting and discussing model statutes. Once the group approves these exercises, they hold so much sway that Congress and states sometimes vote them into law, in whole or in part. For the past three years, the law institute has been thinking about how to update the penal code for sexual assault, which was last revised in 1962. When its suggestions circulated in the weeks before the institute's annual meeting in May, some highly instructive hell broke loose. In a memo that has now been signed by about 70 institute members and advisers, including Judge Gertner, readers have been asked to consider the following scenario: 'Person A and Person B are on a date and walking down the street. Person A, feeling romantically and sexually attracted, timidly reaches out to hold B's hand and feels a thrill as their hands touch. Person B does nothing, but six months later files a criminal complaint. Person A is guilty of "Criminal Sexual Contact" under proposed Section 213.6(3)(a).' Far-fetched? Not as the draft is written. The hypothetical crime cobbles together two of the draft's key concepts. The first is affirmative consent. The second is an enlarged definition of criminal sexual contact that would include the touching of any body part, clothed or unclothed, with sexual gratification in mind. As the authors of the model law explain: 'Any kind of contact may qualify. There are no limits on either the body part touched or the manner in which it is touched.' So if Person B neither invites nor rebukes a sexual advance, then anything that happens afterward is illegal. 'With passivity expressly disallowed as consent,' the memo says, 'the initiator quickly runs up a string of offenses with increasingly more severe penalties to be listed touch by touch and kiss by kiss in the criminal complaint.'" Shulovitz speaks with Stephen Schulhofer, one of the leading criminal lawyers in the country. Schulhofer is helping to write the new model laws covering sexual harassment, and he is a supporter of affirmative consent: "The case for affirmative consent is 'compelling,' he says. Mr. Schulhofer has argued that being raped is much worse than having to endure that awkward moment when one stops to confirm that one's partner is happy to continue. Silence or inertia, often interpreted as agreement, may actually reflect confusion, drunkenness or 'frozen fright,' a documented physiological response in which a person under sexual threat is paralyzed by terror. To critics who object that millions of people are having sex without getting unqualified assent and aren't likely to change their ways, he'd reply that millions of people drive 65 miles per hour despite a 55-mile-per-hour speed limit, but the law still saves lives. As long as 'people know what the rules of the road are,' he says, 'the overwhelming majority will comply with them.'"
Kari Leibowitz looks at how some of the northernmost people in the world manage to stay happy to the endless winter night in the Arctic circle: "It's true that the winters in Tromsø can be uniquely magical. Tromsø is home to some of the world's best displays of the Aurora Borealis, surrounded by mountain and nature trails perfect for an afternoon ski, and part of a culture that values work-life balance. But I also believe the cultural mindset of Tromsø plays a role in wintertime wellness. I found myself the happy victim of mindset contagion after Fern told me she refused to call the Polar Night the mørketid, or 'dark time,' preferring instead to use its alternative name, the 'Blue Time' to emphasize all the color present during this period. (Plenty of people with a positive wintertime mindset might still refer to the Polar Night as the 'dark time,' but Fern's comment was indicative of one of the ways she purposefully orients herself towards a positive wintertime mindset.) After hearing this, I couldn't help but pay more attention to the soft blue haze that settled over everything, and I consciously worked to think of this light as cozy rather than dark. And rather than greeting each other with complaints about the cold and snow, a common shared grumble in the U.S., my Norwegian friends would walk or ski to our meet-ups, arriving alert and refreshed from being outdoors, inspiring me to bundle up and spend some time outside on even the coldest days."
August Kleinzahler considers the dream song, John Berryman's innovation in poetry: "That 'prosodic pattern' would evolve into one of the significant poetic inventions of the 20th century; it was an eccentric, syncopated mash-up of traditional measures and contemporary vernacular energy, an American motley with Elizabethan genes. The Dream Song form--three six-line stanzas, with lines of varying length and no predictable rhyme scheme--is used by Berryman as a flexible variant on the sonnet. He needs this flexibility to accommodate the continually changing registers of voice, the sudden shifts of diction, and to allow him to keep so many balls in the air. He wrote a total of 385 Dream Songs over 13 years, beginning in 1955. It was a period in which his mental and physical condition deteriorated as a result of extreme alcohol abuse and the poems are nourished by that dissolution and the despair born of it, the best of them transmuting Berryman's condition into something lambent and ludic. Their protagonist, Henry, a shape-shifting tragicomic clown, is Berryman himself behind a set of Poundian masks. What makes the sequence such a signal achievement is that it manages to be at once representative of the poetry of its time and a radical departure from it."
C. Morgan Babst writes about why the people of New Orleans began inviting the dead to their own wakes: "In the context of a history that has repeatedly--ceaselessly--equated black bodies with animals and objects, however, we cannot understand the body as no different from a table or a tool. The deceased is still more than just stuff, Heidegger writes, and yet, when we leave a dead man under an overpass for days covered in only a garbage bag, aren't we treating him as though he weren't? The slowness with which the dead were recovered in New Orleans following the flooding was not simple impropriety but revealed a profound disrespect for the humanity of the victims of the storm and levee breaks. And bringing the corpse back into our funeral rites is not a desecration or an impropriety, either; instead, perhaps unconsciously, this custom reasserts the body's importance and restores dignity to the deceased, insists on the humanity of the dead. Uncle Lionel standing in his suit with his watch around his hand and Mickey Easterling in the floral pantsuit she'd specified in her will reassure us that proper care has been taken. In short, a funeral that ignores the body is not a luxury we can afford."
Steve Wasserman remembers Susan Sontag: "A self-described 'besotted aesthete' and 'obsessed moralist,' Sontag declared in 'Notes on "Camp,"' 'The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony.' If we agree that such categories as 'Jewish moral seriousness' and 'homosexual aestheticism and irony' actually exist, we could reasonably assert that the two traditions were the antipodes that framed an argument Sontag had with herself all her life. The oscillation between the two marks almost all of her work. She saw herself as a loyal inheritor and servant of a tradition of high seriousness that ennobles and confers dignity upon works that are redolent of truth, beauty, and moral gravitas. Sontag gave us her list: The Iliad, Aristophanes' plays, The Art of the Fugue, Middlemarch, the paintings of Rembrandt, the cathedral at Chartres, the poetry of Donne, Dante, Beethoven's quartets--in short, the whole pantheon of high culture. Sontag offered up a taxonomy of creative sensibilities. She proposed a trinity: the first was high culture; the second was a sensibility whose sign was 'anguish, cruelty, derangement,' exemplified by such artists as Bosch, Sade, Rimbaud, Kafka, geniuses who understood that, at least in the world we now inhabit, the only honest art was art that was broken, composed of shards, hostage to the insight that at the deep center of human existence lay a Gordian knot of unresolvable issues that no surface coherence could plausibly or honestly treat or reflect or make pretty. The third great creative sensibility was Camp, a sensibility, as she wrote, 'of failed seriousness, of the theatricalization of experience.'"
HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.
For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at email@example.com.
Friday, July 10, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm
The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Why Privacy Matters," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!
Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015
Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm
This week on the Blog, Samantha Hill examines the act of forgiveness and asks whether we can embrace this principle with respect to someone like Dylann Roof in the Quote of the Week. William James reflects on how the activity of thinking helps to determine life in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, Karen Tsdj uses an image of her personal Arendtian library to remind us of the importance of holding criminals accountable for their crimes in this week's Library feature.
This coming Friday, July 10th, the Hannah Arendt Center will host the tenth session of its Virtual Reading Group. We will be discussing Chapters 27-30 of The Human Condition.
The reading group is available to all members and is always welcoming new participants! Please click here to learn more, including how you can join!
“Even if all criticism of Plato is right, Plato may still be better company than his critics. At any rate, we may remember what the Romans…thought a cultivated person ought to be: one who knows how to choose his company among men, among things, among thoughts, in the present as well as in the past.”
Hannah Arendt-Between Past and Future
Cycles of falling stars are simultaneously bewildering unpredictable in the particular for modern astronomy, yet sufficiently regular and constant in general to form calendars and seasons of activity. This is equally, or perhaps more true of the psychic life of the American public space, and after a troubled political year, that season of falling stars that you always know will come seems to be upon us. Like Gloucesterians, we seem fond of winter in the United States: all three branches of the federal government, both major political parties, and the president have disapproval ratings that range from personal lows to ranking among the worst in the nation’s history. But this time has been no less filled with high profile cases in Western and Eastern Europe, South America, Central and North Africa, China, South Asia…the list could continue at will. I’m choosing not to dwell on the stories of particular politicians precisely because it is the trough of an ugly time, and it has been an ugly season for long enough that it’s worth thinking about not just where this particular cycle came from, but why we have them the way we do, and what it means to get out.
The newest issue of Interview Magazine is carrying a pretty extraordinary dialogue. That Steve McQueen – whose brilliant shorts established him as one of the brightest young directing talents of a generation well before the current run that culminated in last year’s shattering 12 Years a Slave – takes the role of interviewer rather than interviewee is enough to justify expecting something special. His subject (and that is the right term, in several senses) is Kanye West, perhaps the artist who most exemplifies in a single, still brief career the dizzying cycle of fall from grace and resurrection that defines the dramatic life of the modern public. Admittedly, the dialogue leans heavily toward a monologue, as you might expect given both the form and the figures. But it is also one of the most fascinating co-meditations I have ever read on what it means to strive and fail and thrive under the gaze of others, to actively confront the reality that the narrative of your life is only ever partially written by you. That neither artist would feign for a moment to be Everyman is paradoxically what gives the exchange such an incredible vibrancy, a resonance held open for any one precisely by refusing universality. Their crafting of West’s story comes out as two voices speaking through a bewildering tapestry of fragmented influences, pressures, and above all images of West both painted and defied. To a degree that only maybe his “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” also allows, there is just something in the collision between West’s intensely solipsistic artistic brilliance and his equally intense and utterly open social vulnerability that can’t help but grab and shake raw your sense of what it means to live and die – and fail – in public. Wrapped in the presence and influence of McQueen, it also manages to viscerally bring home one of Arendt’s most important thoughts: that those questions are, and must be, personal to each one of us, too.
I can’t speak well to the public humours outside of this country, but I know that the particular dynamics that McQueen draws West to describe reflect a pattern of the rise and fall of public lives in this country. The only way I can reach to describe that pattern is by grafting metaphors of love onto Arendt’s language for describing how we tell stories about a “who”, that precarious hybrid of a person and a narrative that none of us can escape being. In these scenes of disgrace, as we remold dramas in a matter of moments from adoration to utter disillusionment, we are depressingly adroit at ignoring a gap in our own passions between our reasons for falling so quickly in love, and our reasons for so quickly embracing its opposite. When a public embraces someone – politicians no less than cultural superstars – with that special fervor that marks our peculiar brand of messianism, it is never purely for the sake of what she has done. We admire the what, we respect the what, but when we love, publicly, we love the who in a way that no measure of what they’ve done could possibly justify. Maybe that is simply the nature of love, of a public or a person, because that is the nature of a who. Though we’re fond of decrying it when retrospect turns bitter, would we really want it to be otherwise? Wouldn’t there always have been a certain miserliness in trying to practice our story-building and our allegiances with dry lists of accomplishments, a certain desiccated frugality to our attachment to the public? I know of no one in my life who could say with real honesty that their public loves of choice – whether those were Barack Obama or Lance Armstrong, Chris Christie or Kanye West – ever resembled anything of the sort.
Yet when we cast these down, in that moment, that who we had been narrating with such care to ourselves and each other becomes utterly overtaken by a what, and not that figure’s whats taken together, but a what which simply becomes their disgraced who to us. Often, it becomes a pattern of whats. Often, it was always a pattern of whats that simply hadn’t made it into the story, either through deceptions by others or our own to ourselves. But it is always a what – a sin, a crime, an act, a betrayal – that turns the page.
There are times when that switch is justified. There are moments of whats so grave that they ought to come to dominate our vision of a who…that is what it means to reserve to ourselves the right not only to tell histories, but to judge them. There are times when this must be done. But in a season like this, we must judge, but we must also be honest with ourselves about what we are doing, to recognize…and taking care because of it…that we are exercising one of our most precious capacities, one that Arendt called in the quoted essay by a name now itself disgraced in some eyes: our humanism.
In her very Augustinian rendition, Arendt describes forgiveness as “an eminently personal…affair in which what was done is forgiven for the sake of who did it”. Many have criticized the thought, but it seems worth returning to at least in the context of these so very public scenes. Forgiveness of this form is never a duty. Indeed, it may be a grace we want to use sparingly. It means even less the suspension of punishment. But it is first and foremost an exercise in that faculty Arendt described, in a way few had admitted since Cicero, as choosing with whom we will share our world. There will always be those who we decide we want to share our public world with because they retain some reason that drives us to. Though never, I think, so very terrible, West has done and said some things that others have found unforgivable; but I, for one, want the who in that interview to remain in my world, and in some part create that world.
There will also always be those who we decide, with justice, that we will not share our world with them. Some of those will be for trespasses no greater than West’s, and where that hazy line lies might be the consistent thread in McQueen’s storytelling. Others will not be for trespasses, but for enormities that defy even the possibility of forgiveness for us. Arendt closed her report on the Eichmann trial with the judgment that she, and we, could not share a world with Eichmann. In the wake of those writings, there were many who decided that they could not share a world with her. It is not a process we can do with out, least of all in that most public of spheres, politics. But I also suspect that if we did it with a clearer eye on we were doing with our whos and our whats, and a less clouded memory, the discontent would not run so deep in our winters. At least, it could never be said that we know not what we do.
“Snow Fall” is an essay by John Branch that appeared on the NY Times online yesterday. It is, simply, gripping. I read it holding my small screen, shaking, and could not put it down.
Here is how Branch describes the internal life of Elyse Saugstad as she experienced beings swallowed up by an avalanche.
She had no control of her body as she tumbled downhill. She did not know up from down. It was not unlike being cartwheeled in a relentlessly crashing wave. But snow does not recede. It swallows its victims. It does not spit them out.
Snow filled her mouth. She caromed off things she never saw, tumbling through a cluttered canyon like a steel marble falling through pins in a pachinko machine.
At first she thought she would be embarrassed that she had deployed her air bag, that the other expert skiers she was with, more than a dozen of them, would have a good laugh at her panicked overreaction. Seconds later, tumbling uncontrollably inside a ribbon of speeding snow, she was sure this was how she was going to die.
I know the pressures and allure of back-country skiing. Fresh powder and immeasurable quiet beckon. So too do adventure and risk. The first time I hooked up with some off-duty ski-patrollers and went looking for powder outside of a ski-area was one of the great thrills of my life. Standing atop a huge mountain of snow and looking down into the gully below, we prepared our dynamite. They asked me to throw a charge. Reason kicked in a bit and I asked, “This is safe, right? You’re an expert.” The answer I received was direct: “All the experts are dead.”
Adrenaline and camaraderie bring one to the top of a risky and bountiful snowfield. Once fear and reason kick in, it is often too late. Or so it seems.
One of the skiers, Megan Michelson, recalls her misgivings, and how she suppressed them:
"If it was up to me, I would never have gone backcountry skiing with 12 people,” Michelson, the ESPN journalist, said. “That’s just way too many. But there were sort of the social dynamics of that — where I didn’t want to be the one to say, you know, ‘Hey, this is too big a group and we shouldn’t be doing this.’ I was invited by someone else, so I didn’t want to stand up and cause a fuss. And not to play the gender card, but there were 2 girls and 10 guys, and I didn’t want to be the whiny female figure, you know? So I just followed along.” Others suppressed reservations, too.
There is great writing in Branch’s essay. And many life lessons. How did 16 of the best, most knowledgeable back-country skiers in the country make such a colossal misjudgment? Why did they do so, even as some of them knew what they were doing was a mistake? How is technology making us feel safer and take ever-greater risks? What is the place and importance of risk in human life? Branch’s re-creation of the 24 hours bookending the fateful avalanche and the insightful reporting on the persons involved, makes this one of those rare essays appearing in the New York Times recently that should be a must read for all.
As the Arendt Center readies for its annual Winter relocation to the Colorado Rockies, I plan to be skiing on piste this year. I wish you all a happy and healthy Holiday Season.
For now, wherever you are, cuddle up and enjoy Snow Fall. It is your holiday read.