Amor Mundi 1/24/16

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

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

amor_mundi_sign-upWaking the Sleeping Sovereign

constitutionIn an essay loosely imagined as a review of of Richard Tuck’s new book The Sleeping Sovereign, Jedediah Purdy argues that the American Constitution deserves its special reverence. “The genius of a constitution was that it gave the whole citizenry a way of making its own law: not by constantly engaging in self-government through assemblies or parliaments, but by occasionally mobilizing, through special institutions such as conventions and plebiscites, to authorize the fundamental law of their polities. A constitution was the law that the people authorized, directly rather than through their representatives. This power to make fundamental law was called sovereignty, and a democracy was a political community where sovereignty lay with the citizens. By contrast, the ordinary laws that legislatures passed were simply government, the apparatus that carried out sovereign decisions. Government, as Rousseau wrote, mediates between the sovereign, which makes the law, and the people, who live under it. In a democracy, government mediates between two aspects of the people: as democratic sovereign lawmakers, and as everyday law-abiders. Less mystically, government is what the mobilized people sets up to keep order after the sovereign citizens disperse to their private lives. A constitution, Tuck argues, was an answer to a problem that had long been thought insoluble: how could democracy possibly be revived in the modern world? What difference does this make? Some contrasts are helpful. In this way of thinking, the distinctive thing about a constitution, its special interest and force, is not in the structure of government that it sets up, but in the theory of sovereignty that underlies it. It is true that the US Constitution has the democracy-baffling ‘republican’ features that clog and divert political decisions, such as the divided Congress, the unrepresentative Senate, and the presidential veto. But these checks and balances were intended originally to keep the government from usurping the powers of the sovereign but dispersed people, according to whose collective will it was originally established.” Purdy and Tuck argue that while it includes anti-democratic elements like the Supreme Court and limitations on majority rule, the American Constitution is fundamentally democratic not least because it was approved by the people and can–at times–be revised by the people. The Constitution is both an act of the people and a way for the people to protect themselves from the very democratic government they establish. Tuck and Purdy call this Constitutional power sovereignty.

Hannah Arendt, who had a similar view of the democratic importance of the U.S. Constitution, saw that the Constitution’s fundamental democratic role rests with its emergence in opposition to sovereignty. She writes: “In this respect, the great and, in the long run, perhaps the greatest American innovation in politics as such was the consistent abolition of sovereignty within the body politic of the republic, the insight that in the realm of human affairs sovereignty and tyranny are the same. The defect of the Confederacy was that there had been no ‘partition of power between the General and the Local Governments’; and that it had acted as the central agency of an alliance rather than as a government; experience had shown that in tis alliance of powers there was a dangerous tendency for the allied powers not to act as checks upon one another but to cancel one another out, that is, to breed impotence. What the founders were afraid of in practice was not power but impotence, and their fears were intensified by the view of Montesquieu, quoted throughout these discussions, that republican government was effective only in relatively small territories.” The American Constitution succeeds, at least initially in Arendt’s telling, in part because it establishes multiple and overlapping power centers–the Federal government, state governments, local governments, and non-governmental civic organizations–all of which mobilize democratic citizens to govern themselves when necessary. It is because there is no single sovereign source under the American Constitution that the democratic power of the people is protected. By the 1960s, Arendt worried that this pluralization and dispersal of power at the foundation of the American Constitution had eroded; as power has increasingly been centralized under single and increasingly sovereign national government, the American “Revolutionary spirit”–what Arendt calls the “new American experience of power”–has waned. It may be that the people are simply sleeping and might awake, as Purdy and Tuck appear to hope. But one lasting effect of the nationalization of power is that most American citizens have little or no experience in self-government aside from voting. The temptation in such a situation is not self-government, which is time-consuming and messy, but the election of a demagogue who promises to deliver what we want. The question is how the sleeping sovereign can be awoken while still protecting and strengthening our democratic constitutional traditions.–RB

So Sad

nick drake Earlier this week, I went to see Guy Maddin’s 2003 film The Saddest Music in The World, in which contestants from countries all around the world compete to win a $25,000 prize for playing, well, the saddest music in the world, as judged by a Canadian beer magnate. Set in the Depression, and filmed as if it were actually from that period, the film satirizes the way that sadness can be evoked through kitsch and a little “razzle dazzle,” even as it also takes aim at those who seek out suffering in far flung parts of the world and take it for granted that suffering must live in places outside of the West. At the heart of Maddin’s movie is the idea that sadness is incommensurate and that it can’t be transmitted, least of all through music. In the New York Times, Ben Ratliff suggests that what we’re hearing isn’t sadness at all: “We do a lot of extra work in our listening around the notion of sadness–a phantom quality in listening that most of us nonetheless recognize and agree on–and through our extra work, we become especially vested in the music. The extra work takes the form of myths that we build around the reasons and circumstances of a recording, and through that myth-building we temporarily disbelieve in artifice. Artifice is the practice and process of being something one is not, and it is used to small or large degree by every artist in the world. It’s as transcendent as truth. But sadness portrayed in music, whether the zombified reserve of some English bohemian folk singers during the 1960s–Nick Drake, Jacqui McShee, Vashti Bunyan–or a sustained low note on a cello, is Lethe water: You recognize the symbol, drink it as you listen, and you forget all possible practical circumstances around the sadness you think you’re hearing. These can be the musician’s desire to connect with the tradition and audience of an earlier musician, and thereby to have his work accepted more quickly and earn some money; a producer’s desire to add emotional variety to an artist’s work; a singer’s decision to use a different part of his voice or capture it differently through microphones; or a fully contrived aesthetic absolutism equating misery, integrity and obscurity–the Romantic era’s interest-bearing gift to the future. On the listener’s end, the circumstances adding up to a ‘sad’ listening experience can be practical and not sad at all: the need for a focused and isolated stretch of time that is all his; the need for a bracing effect in order to focus while doing something boring, like being in transit; or the need to re-enact the emotions around something awful, which paradoxically makes you feel alive–a death, a breakup, a rejection, a failure… What is sadness in sound per se? Nothing. It doesn’t exist. There is no note or kind of note that in and of itself is sad and only sad. (Heard differently, Drake’s voice can also be relaxed, or tired, or content.) But the construct of sadness, and the attendant contract that it helps build between musician and listener, has to do with how we might recognize it person-to-person: through silence and dissonant long tones, or through agitation and mania; through closed systems of harmony or phrasing, or through unnervingly open and dark ones. We hear it through voices and through instruments. And as listeners agree to play by the official rules of sadness, so do most musicians, and so do most singers, imitating the sound of instruments.” Ratliff, I think, takes it a step too far. Even if artful sadness is manufactured, it still creates a real effect in those who hear it, generating or articulating something which is felt within which, in turn, might (or might not) create a community of people who feel the same way, if never for exactly the same reasons. The question, then, is not whether sadness in art is real. Instead, it’s something like “what does it mean to share the unsharable”? Is empathy always empty, the ethical facade for what is essentially entertainment for the more fortunate? Or can it catalyze love of the world?–JK


benedict andersonBenedict Anderson, a famed scholar of Indonesia who wrote the much-taught book Imagined Communities, died last month. In a posthumously published essay, he tells the tale of his intellectual development: “The 35 years I spent as a professor of government at Cornell taught me two interesting lessons about US academia. The first was that theory, mirroring the style of late capitalism, has obsolescence built into it, in the manner of high-end commodities. In year X students had to read and more or less revere Theory Y, while sharpening their teeth on passé Theory W. Not too many years later, they were told to sharpen their teeth on passé Theory Y, admire Theory Z, and forget about Theory W. The second lesson was that–with some important exceptions like the work of Barrington Moore, Jr–the extension of political science to comparative politics tended to proceed, consciously or unconsciously, on the basis of the US example: one measured how far other countries were progressing in approximating America’s liberty, respect for law, economic development, democracy etc. Hence the rapid rise, and equally rapid fall, of an approach that today looks pretty dead–modernisation theory. Needless to say, there was often an openly stated Cold War objective behind this kind of theory. Namely, to prove that Marxism was fundamentally wrong. In its innocence, this kind of ‘look at me’ theory typically ignored such embarrassing things as the very high murder rate in the US, its hugely disproportionate black prison population, persistent illiteracy and significant levels of political corruption. Even so, there is no doubt in my mind that my experience as a graduate student unconsciously prepared me for later comparative work. My duties as a teaching assistant in American politics and (European) comparative politics obliged me to study a great many texts that I would not otherwise have read. The undergraduates in those days were 90 per cent American and knew very little about Europe. To help them, I found it useful to make constant comparisons between the US, the UK, France and Germany. I myself took graduate courses on the Soviet Union, Asia, the US and Western Europe. Finally, the format of the Southeast Asia programme forced me not only to start thinking across the region in a comparative sense, but also to read across disciplines, especially anthropology, history and economics. It was all fun because it was so new to me. My gradual introduction to comparative thinking, however, was quite bookish and ‘intellectual’ until I went to Indonesia. There, for the first time, my emotional and political leanings came into play in my work. Yet the main effect was not to make me think more theoretically in any general sense. Rather I found myself becoming a kind of Indonesian (or Indonesian-Javanese) nationalist, and feeling annoyed when I ran into bullying American officials who clearly looked down on Indonesians, had no time for Sukarno and were anti-communist, to the point that when Sukarno angrily uttered his famous anti-American phrase, ‘To hell with your aid!’, I felt like cheering.”

In Search of a More Elevated Public

public intellectualCorey Robin profiles the ‘public intellectual,’ that mix between a celebrity and a scholar: “The public intellectual is not simply interested in a wide audience of readers, in shopping her ideas on the op-ed page to sell more books. She’s not looking for markets or hungry for a brand. She’s not an explainer or a popularizer. She is instead the literary equivalent of the epic political actor, who sees her writing as a transformative mode of action, a thought-deed in the world. The transformation she seeks may be a far-reaching change of policy, an education of manners and morals, or a renovation of the human estate. Her watch may be wound for tomorrow or today. But whatever her aim or time frame, the public intellectual wants her writing to have an effect, to have all the power of power itself. To have that effect, however, she must be attuned to the sensitivities of her audience. Not because she wishes to massage or assuage them but because she wants to tear them apart. Her aim is to turn her readers from what they are into what they are not, to alienate her readers from themselves. The public intellectual I have in mind is not indifferent to her readers; her project is not complete without them. But there’s a thin line separating her needing readers from her being needy of and for readers. And it is on that thin line–that tension wire between thinker and actor, intellectual and celebrity–that she must stand and balance herself. ‘I want to make 200 million people change their minds,’ said Gore Vidal, a writer who, not coincidentally, stretched that wire to its breaking point. Though the public intellectual is a political actor, a performer on stage, what differentiates her from the celebrity or publicity hound is that she is writing for an audience that does not yet exist. Unlike the ordinary journalist or enterprising scholar, she is writing for a reader she hopes to bring into being. She never speaks to the reader as he is; she speaks to the reader as he might be. Her common reader is an uncommon reader.”

amor_mundi_sign-upOn Not Being a Journalist

nietzscheMimi Howard considers Friedrich Nietzsche’s “On the Future of Our Educational Institutions,” which has been re-translated, re-published, and re-titled Anti-Education. “Like the screw-maker, who becomes virtuosic in executing his only task, the scholar’s total separation from all other fields is held up as evidence of his genius. The total remoteness of his work is ‘a badge of honor, a sign of noble moderation.’ Likewise, the philosopher’s student is eminently concerned with this narrowing of scholarship against the background of greater democratization. In a turn of phrase that Nietzsche uses once more at the end of his last lecture, calling it the ‘thesis’ of his argument, he says: It seems to me we need to distinguish between two dominant tendencies in our educational institutions, apparently opposed but equally ruinous in effect and eventually converging in their end results. The first is the drive for the greatest possible expansion and dissemination of education; the other is the drive for the narrowing and weakening of education. He later adds that this phenomenon has allowed scholarship to be eclipsed by journalism. ‘It is in journalism that the two tendencies converge,’ he says. ‘The daily newspaper has effectively replaced education, and anyone who still lays claim to culture or education, even a scholar, typically relies on a sticky layer of journalism.’ Gravitation toward journalism and other popular forms of critique was wrapped up in a forgetting of classical education. This forgetting begins with the curriculum at the gymnasium, which instructs its students to prematurely cultivate their personalities by writing indulgent personal essays, among other worthless exercises, and ends with the mindless vocational training that goes on in university. And even though both the gymnasium and the university claim to appreciate the classics, a true classical model would involve something to which they have not yet committed, namely, a serious consideration of language. ‘In sum,’ the old philosopher says, ‘the gymnasium has neglected and still neglects the one place where true education begins, and the readiest subject to hand: the mother tongue.’ Disciplined mastery of German is, for the philosopher, the only way that a pupil can begin to formulate true critique. Once he understands how difficult language is, how slippery and misguiding, only then will he ‘feel physical disgust for the “refined diction” of our literati and the “elegance” of style so beloved and praised in our novelists and mass-producers of journalism.’ At first this whiff of snobbery seems reasonable enough. But it soon takes on an intensely elitist, if not vehemently oligarchic, bent. Education is necessary only insofar as it allows a society to recognize its own, very select number of geniuses. It is a mistake, the older philosopher says, to think that education can produce a large amount of exceptional individuals. In reality, it produces very few. But it is the responsibility of the cultured and educated to keep one’s eye out for these truly remarkable individuals, and to nurture them when they emerge. ‘The genius is not actually born of culture, or education: His origin is, as it were, metaphysical,’ the philosopher says. ‘But for him to appear, to emerge from a people […] all of this the genius can only do if he has been ripened in the womb and nourished in the lap of his people’s culture.’ It appears the purpose of the institution is not simply to keep afloat amid a sea of deceptive drudgery, but also something more essential, and more authoritarian.”

Republican Class Warfare

trumpDavid Frum in The Atlantic looks into the origins of the Trump phenomena and finds a class divide within the Republican Party. “The mutiny of the 2016 election cycle has been different. By the fall of 2015, a majority of Republicans favored candidates who had never been elected to anything: Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina. Fiorina’s campaign was perhaps not so unusual. A former CEO, she appealed to the same business-minded Republicans who might have voted for Romney in 2012. Carson appealed to the same religious conservatives that candidates like Mike Huckabee and Santorum had appealed to in prior presidential cycles. What was new and astonishing was the Trump boom. He jettisoned party orthodoxy on issues ranging from entitlement spending to foreign policy. He scoffed at trade agreements. He said rude things about Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers. He reviled the campaign contributions of big donors–himself included!–as open and blatant favor-buying. Trump’s surge was a decisive repudiation by millions of Republican voters of the collective wisdom of their party elite. When Trump first erupted into the Republican race in June, he did so with a message of grim pessimism. ‘We got $18 trillion in debt. We got nothing but problems … We’re dying. We’re dying. We need money … We have losers. We have people that don’t have it. We have people that are morally corrupt. We have people that are selling this country down the drain … The American dream is dead.’ That message did not resonate with those who’d ridden the S&P 500 from less than 900 in 2009 to more than 2,000 in 2015. But it found an audience all the same. Half of Trump’s supporters within the GOP had stopped their education at or before high-school graduation, according to the polling firm YouGov. Only 19 percent had a college or postcollege degree. Thirty-eight percent earned less than $50,000. Only 11 percent earned more than $100,000. Trump Republicans were not ideologically militant. Just 13 percent said they were very conservative; 19 percent described themselves as moderate. Nor were they highly religious by Republican standards. What set them apart from other Republicans was their economic insecurity and the intensity of their economic nationalism. Sixty-three percent of Trump supporters wished to end birthright citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants born on U.S. soil–a dozen points higher than the norm for all Republicans. More than other Republicans, Trump supporters distrusted Barack Obama as alien and dangerous: Only 21 percent acknowledged that the president was born in the United States, according to an August survey by the Democratic-oriented polling firm PPP. Sixty-six percent believed the president was a Muslim. Trump promised to protect these voters’ pensions from their own party’s austerity. ‘We’ve got Social Security that’s going to be destroyed if somebody like me doesn’t bring money into the country. All these other people want to cut the hell out of it. I’m not going to cut it at all; I’m going to bring money in, and we’re going to save it.’ He promised to protect their children from being drawn into another war in the Middle East, this time in Syria. ‘If we’re going to have World War III,’ he told The Washington Post in October, ‘it’s not going to be over Syria.’ As for the politicians threatening to shoot down the Russian jets flying missions in Syria, ‘I won’t even call them hawks. I call them the fools.’ He promised a campaign independent of the influences of money that had swayed so many Republican races of the past. ‘I will tell you that our system is broken. I gave to many people. Before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me. And that’s a broken system.’ He promised above all to protect their wages from being undercut by Republican immigration policy.”

The Death of Privilege

jesusSunita Puri, a doctor of palliative medicine, is attentive to the economic and social inequalities she witnesses when making house calls to patients dying at home. “I think ahead to my next visit in Baldwin Village with Janice, a woman in her 60s with advanced breast cancer. Because she is estranged from her children and sisters, her landlady and two friends from church take turns caring for her. ‘Just list Jesus Christ as my emergency contact,’ she snapped at me once. ‘You can’t trust nobody, especially not family.’ After Janice, I will see Joseph, a veteran in his early 50s whose lung cancer has spread to his bones. Even though he needs opiates to control the extreme pain his cancer causes when he tries to walk, he refuses to fill the prescription because he is afraid of being robbed and harmed if ‘the youngsters find out I have that stuff in my house.’ I will then visit 56-year-old Jorge, who has Lou Gehrig’s disease. On my last visit, I found him alone at home, unable to reach for his medication for shortness of breath. He explained that his wife was returning from working an extra shift to make up for the income he could no longer provide. In three days, she will have enough money to pay for help, he reassured me and our team social worker. I constantly wonder whether, given these life circumstances, my patients fully benefit from the care my team and I try to provide. Aside from assessing symptoms and providing medications to ease them, perhaps just treating what I can with compassion is the best I can do for them. Still, I try to find some meaning in these visits, in the visits that preceded them, in all the visits that await, so that I can get up tomorrow and do this imperfect work again. My patients offer a vivid lesson in accepting inexplicable circumstances and choosing to live the best they can. I witness their hard-won wisdom and dignity and strength–and I know that these, too, are not things hospice can provide. Wisdom and dignity and strength have nothing to do with social or economic status or one’s neighborhood. Yet they are perhaps the most essential components to the very private, internal process of making peace with life as part of the process of dying.”

In Tibet

tibetIn a month when we’ve been discussing China’s heavy hand in silencing dissent (or perceived dissent) from state policy in both Hong Kong and Taiwan, Tsering Woeser draws our attention to another area of contested political power. Why, he asks, are Tibetans setting themselves on fire?: “February 27, 2009, was the third day of Losar, the Tibetan New Year. It was also the day that self-immolation came to Tibet. The authorities had just cancelled a Great Prayer Festival (Monlam) that was supposed to commemorate the victims of the government crackdown in 2008. A monk by the name of Tapey stepped out of the Kirti Monastery and set his body alight on the streets of Ngawa, in the region known in Tibetan as Amdo, a place of great religious reverence and relevance, now designated as part of China’s Sichuan Province. At least 145 other Tibetans have self-immolated since then. Of these, 141 did so within Tibet, while the remaining five were living in exile. According to the best information we have, 125 have died (including 122 within Tibet and three abroad). Most of these individuals are men, though some are women. Many were parents who left behind young children. The oldest was sixty-four, and the youngest was sixteen. Seven underage Tibetans have either self-immolated or attempted self-immolation; two of them died, and two were detained and their fate is unknown. The numbers include three monks of high rank (tulkus, or reincarnated masters), along with thirty-nine ordinary monks and eight nuns. But many were ordinary people: seventy-four were nomads or peasants; among the others were high school students, workers, vendors, a carpenter, a woodworker, a writer, a tangka painter, a taxi driver, a retired government cadre, a laundry owner, a park ranger, and three activists exiled abroad. All are Tibetan… In my interviews with international media on the topic of self-immolation, I have always tried to emphasize one area of frequent misunderstanding: self-immolation is not suicide, and it is not a gesture of despair. Rather, it is sacrifice for a greater cause, and an attempt to press for change, as can be seen in these two peaks in self-immolation. Such an act is not to be judged by the precepts of Buddhism: it can only be judged by its political results. Each and every one of these roaring flames on the Tibetan plateau has been ignited by ethnic oppression. Each is a torch casting light on a land trapped in darkness. These names are a continuation of the protests of 2008 and a continuation of the monks’ decision that March: ‘We must stand up!’ Attempts to label these acts as suicide–or even, curiously, as a forbidden act of ‘killing’–are either a complete misinterpretation of the phenomenon or, more likely, the type of deliberate misrepresentation that we see all too often in Chinese state propaganda. A high-ranking monk once confided in me very clearly: ‘The cases of self-immolation in Tibet absolutely do not violate our Buddhist teachings on killing. They are not in any way opposed to Dharma, and certainly do not violate it. The motivations of self-immolators in Tibet, whether monks or laypeople, have nothing at all to do with personal interest…. These acts are meant to protect the Dharma and to win the Tibetan people’s rights to freedom and democracy.’ Self-immolators are bodhisattvas sacrificing the self for others, phoenixes reincarnated from the flames of death.”

“The Summer of Our Discontent”

mlkHow better to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. day? In the Boston Globe, Jill Terreri Ramos reports about the discovery at Amherst College of a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. “The result is a clear recording of King’s deliberate delivery of ‘The Summer of Our Discontent,’ in which he offers reasons for civil rights activism during the summer of 1963. The speech was delivered at the New School in New York City on Feb. 6, 1964, and was broadcast by the student radio station at Amherst College on Dec. 8, 1964. During the hour-long recording, King talks about low incomes in black communities, inequities in public schools, and the failure of political leaders to act on civil rights. The similarities between King’s themes and modern events are not lost on Leavitt and her colleagues.”

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

vrg banner headingHAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #17

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

Friday, February 5, 2016, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm

A Taste for Chaos: The Hidden Order in the Art of Improvisation

A Taste for Chaos: The Hidden Order in the Art of ImprovisationJazz, as the modern art form that lays claim to improvisation, situates music in a productive tension between individual freedom and a mysterious yet sentient order. As do modern theories of liberalism in politics, Jazz insists both on the individual liberty of each that is through fidelity to common truths, recognition of traditional customs, or embrace of collective ends is rendered compatible with a larger inter-subjective order. Freedom as an art of improvisation means that men are free only insofar as they act in ways that are both free and constrained. This is very much what Hannah Arendt means means when she writes that “Men are free-as distinguished from their possessing the gift of freedom- as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same.” In this evening on “A Taste for Chaos: The Hidden Order in the Art of Improvisation,” we bring together leading thinkers and musicians to explore the nature of improvisation and the art of freedom.

Free & Open to the Public

Monday, February 15, 2016

László Z. Bitó ’60 Conservatory Building, 5:00 pm – 7:00 pm

What Is Political Theory?

political theorySheldon S. Wolin (August 4, 1922 – October 21, 2015) was one of the most important American political theorists of the 20th century. Wolin authored critical works such as Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought, Hobbes and the Epic Tradition of Political Theory, Presence of the Past: Essays on State and the Constitution, Tocqueville Between Two Worlds: The Making of a Political and Theoretical Life, and Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Professor of Politics, Emeritus, at Princeton University, Wolin was the founding editor of the influential journal democracy (1981-1983), with the help Nicholas Xenos. In memory of Wolin, we discuss the work of political theory with Nicholas Xenos.

Free & Open to the Public

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito ’60 Auditorium, 5:00 pm – 6:30 pm

Lunchtime Talk with Klemens von Klemperer Post Doctoral Fellow Jana Schmidt

jana schmidtJana V. Schmidt’s research pertains to questions of literature and art, their status vis-à-vis the political and the social, image theory, mimesis, and the representation of intersubjectivity. Her main focus as a literary scholar is on twentieth century German and American literature, literary theory (including “continental” philosophy and critical theory), and literature’s relation to violence. One nodal point for these inquiries has been the problem of reconciliation in the aftermath of the Holocaust. How to constitute a “world” after 1945 and how to integrate the victims’ memories into such world-making are crucial questions for her work. Hannah Arendt’s thought on conciliation, her literary writings, and her notion of world have shaped her answers to these questions in her dissertation, “An Aesthetics of Reconciliation – Intersubjectivity after the End of Community, 1945-1970.” Jana’s next project will investigate the figure of the survivor in postwar American literature and public Holocaust discourses. Other interests include Jewish studies, psychoanalysis, phenomenology, memory and memorialization, and the study of exile. An essay on the American painter Philip Guston and Jean-François Lyotard’s notion of the figure is forthcoming with Bloomsbury. Jana holds an MA in English from the University of Pennsylvania and a PhD in Comparative Literature from the State University of New York at Buffalo. She is looking forward to teaching the First Year Seminar at Bard.

RSVP to Christine Stanton at

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Hannah Arendt Center, 1:30 pm

Now Hiring Two Post-Doctoral Fellows for the 2016-2017 Academic Year!

hacThe Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College announces two post-doctoral fellowships for the 2016-2017 academic year. The fellows should have a Ph.D. in political theory, philosophy, or a related field in the humanities, and his or her work should intersect meaningfully with Hannah Arendt’s thinking. In residence at the Arendt Center, the fellow will pursue his or her independent research at the Center, which includes Hannah Arendt’s personal library. The fellow will have access to Arendt’s Digital Archive through a relationship with the Arendt Center in New York City. In addition, the fellow will have the opportunity to participate in seminars, conferences, lectures, colloquia, and workshops organized by the Center.

To apply for the fellowship, please apply through at:  with a letter of application explaining your research project and interest in the Center and a description of your teaching experience, CV, and two letters of reference.

The Deadline for consideration is Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Hannah Arendt Center, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY

Learning from the West African Ebola Epidemic: The Role of Governance in Preventing EpidemicsLearning from the West African Ebola Epidemic: The Role of Governance in Preventing Epidemics

“Learning From the West African Ebola Epidemic” is a one-day conference in New York City exploring the hypothesis that building public trust in effective organizations is essential for fighting health crises such as Ebola. The conference is grounded in the Global Health Security Agenda that seeks to accelerate progress towards a world safe from infectious disease.

Specifically, the Global Health Security Agenda seeks to

  • Prevent avoidable epidemics;
  • Detect threats early; and
  • Respond rapidly and effectively.

Combining social science and political actors with leading scientists and Ebola specialists, we will explore the Ebola epidemic and its consequences as a case study to explore how educational, governance and healthcare resources can be better deployed against future outbreaks. The conference is sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center, Citizen Science, CCE, and the Ford Foundation in collaboration with the Honorable Dr. Wilmot James, South African MP and the Carnegie Council for Ethics In International Affairs.

To learn more about and register for our conference, please click here.

Free & Open to the Public

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Carnegie Council for Ethics & International Affairs, NYC, 10:00 am – 6:00 pm

vita activaVita Activa – The Spirit of Hannah Arendt

The Film Forum in New York City will be screening the new film, VITA ACTIVA – THE SPIRIT OF HANNAH ARENDT, directed by Ada Ushpiz, later this spring.

About the Film: A brand new documentary about one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. The German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt caused an uproar in the 1960s by coining the subversive concept of the “Banality of Evil” when referring to the trial of Adolph Eichmann, which she covered for the New Yorker magazine. Her private life was no less controversial thanks to her early love affair with the renowned German philosopher and Nazi supporter Martin Heidegger. This thought provoking and spirited documentary, with its abundance of archival materials, offers an intimate portrait of the whole of Arendt’s life, traveling to places where she lived, worked, loved, and was betrayed, as she wrote about the open wounds of modern times. Through her books, which are still widely read and the recent release of Margarethe von Trotta’s biopic Hannah Arendt (also a Zeitgeist Films release) there is renewed interest in Arendt throughout the world, especially among young people who find her insights into the nature of evil, totalitarianism, ideologies, and the perils faced by refugees, more relevant than ever. Watch the Trailer.

Wednesday, April 8, 2016

Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street West of 6th Ave., New York, NY, Time TBA

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

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

Thursday and Friday, October 20 and 21, 2016

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

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Kazue Koishikawa discusses how identifying freedom with free will has brought the “most dangerous consequence” by allowing us to claim freedom at the price of all others’ sovereignty in the Quote of the Week. Alan Rickman reflects on the human need for storytelling and considering what’s possible in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. Roger Berkowitz, the Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center, announces that he is looking to hire a Part Time Research Assistant to assist with a book project. Finally, we appreciate the annotations Hannah Arendt made to her copy of Jules Monnerot’s Sociology and Psychology of Communism in this week’s Library feature.

Privacy and Politics


In the most recent NY Review of Books, David Cole wonders if we’ve reached the point of no return on the issue of privacy:

“Reviewing seven years of the NSA amassing comprehensive records on every American’s every phone call, the board identified only one case in which the program actually identified an unknown terrorist suspect. And that case involved not an act or even an attempted act of terrorism, but merely a young man who was trying to send money to Al-Shabaab, an organization in Somalia. If that’s all the NSA can show for a program that requires all of us to turn over to the government the records of our every phone call, is it really worth it?”

Cole is beyond convincing in listing the dangers to privacy in the new national security state. Like many others in the media, he speaks the language of necessary trade-offs involved in living in a dangerous world, but suggests we are trading away too much and getting back too little in return. He warns that if we are not careful, privacy will disappear. He is right.


Edward Gorey Charitable Trust

What is often forgotten and is absent in Cole’s narrative is that most people—at least in practice—simply don’t care that much about privacy. Whether snoopers promise security or better-targeted advertisements, we are willing to open up our inner worlds for the price of convenience. If we are to save privacy, the first step is articulating what it is about privacy that makes it worth saving.

Cole simply assumes the value of privacy and doesn’t address the benefits of privacy until his final paragraph. When he does come to explaining why privacy is important, he invokes popular culture dystopias to suggest the horror of a world without privacy:

More broadly, all three branches of government—and the American public—need to take up the challenge of how to preserve privacy in the information age. George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Philip K. Dick’s The Minority Report all vividly portrayed worlds without privacy. They are not worlds in which any of us would want to live. The threat is no longer a matter of science fiction. It’s here. And as both reports eloquently attest, unless we adapt our laws to address the ever-advancing technology that increasingly consumes us, it will consume our privacy, too.

There are two problems with such fear mongering in defense of privacy. The first is that these dystopias seem too distant. Most of us don’t experience the violations of our privacy by the government or by Facebook as intrusions. The second is that on a daily basis the fact that my phone knows where I am and that in a pinch the government could locate me is pretty convenient. These dystopian visions can appear not so dystopian.

Most writing about privacy simply assume that privacy is important. We are treated to myriad descriptions of the way privacy is violated. The intent is to shock us. But rarely are people shocked enough to actually respond in ways that protect the privacy they often say that they cherish. We have collectively come to see privacy as a romantic notion, a long-forgotten idle, exotic and even titillating in its possibilities, but ultimately irrelevant in our lives.

There is, of course, a reason why so many advocates of privacy don’t articulate a meaningful defense of privacy: It is because to defend privacy means to defend a rich and varied sphere of difference and plurality, the right and importance of people actually holding opinions divergent from one’s own. In an age of political correctness and ideological conformism, privacy sounds good in principle but is less welcome in practice when those we disagree with assert privacy rights.  Thus many who defend privacy do so only in the abstract.


When it comes to actually allowing individuals to raise their children according to their religious or racial beliefs or when the question is whether people can marry whomever they want, defenders of privacy often turn tail and insist that some opinions and some practices must be prohibited. Over and over today, advocates of privacy show that they value an orderly, safe, and respectful public realm and that they are willing to abandon privacy in the name of security and a broad conception of civility according to which no one should have to encounter opinions and acts that give them offense.

The only major thinker of the last 100 years who insisted fully and consistently on the crucial importance of a rich and vibrant private realm is Hannah Arendt. Privacy, Arendt argues, is essential because it is what allows individuals to emerge as unique persons in the world. The private realm is the realm of “exclusiveness,” it is that realm in which we “choose those with whom we wish to spend our lives, personal friends and those we love.” The private choices we make are guided by nothing objective or knowable, “but strikes, inexplicably and unerringly, at one person in his uniqueness, his unlikeness to all other people we know.” Privacy is controversial because the “rules of uniqueness and exclusiveness are, and always will be, in conflict with the standards of society.” Arendt’s defense of mixed marriages (and by extension gay marriages) proceeds—no less than her defense of the right of parents to educate their children in single-sex or segregated schools—from her conviction that the uniqueness and distinction of private lives need to be respected and protected.

Privacy, for Arendt, is connected to the “sanctity of the hearth” and thus to the idea of private property. Indeed, property itself is respected not on economic grounds, but because “without owning a house a man could not participate in the affairs of the world because he had no location in it which was properly his own.” Property guarantees privacy because it enforces a boundary line, “ kind of no man’s land between the private and the public, sheltering and protecting both.” In private, behind the four walls of house and heath, the “sacredness of the hidden” protects men from the conformist expectations of the social and political worlds.

In private, shaded from the conformity of societal opinions as well from the demands of the public world, we can grow in our own way and develop our own idiosyncratic character. Because we are hidden, “man does not know where he comes from when he is born and where he goes when he dies.” This essential darkness of privacy gives flight to our uniqueness, our freedom to be different. It is privacy, in other words, that we become who we are. What this means is that without privacy there can be no meaningful difference. The political importance of privacy is that privacy is what guarantees difference and thus plurality in the public world.

Arendt develops her thinking on privacy most explicitly in her essays on education. Education must perform two seemingly contradictory functions. First, education leads a young person into the public world, introducing them and acclimating them to the traditions, public language, and common sense that precede him. Second, education must also guard the child against the world, care for the child so that “nothing destructive may happen to him from the world.” The child, to be protected against the destructive onslaught of the world, needs the privacy that has its “traditional place” in the family.

Because the child must be protected against the world, his traditional place is in the family, whose adult members return back from the outside world and withdraw into the security of private life within four walls. These four walls, within which people’s private family life is lived, constitute a shield against the world and specifically against the public aspect of the world. This holds good not only for the life of childhood but for human life in general…Everything that lives, not vegetative life alone, emerges from darkness and, however, strong its natural tendency to thrust itself into the light, it nevertheless needs the security of darkness to grow at all.

The public world is unforgiving. It can be cold and hard. All persons count equally in public, and little if any allowance is made for individual hardships or the bonds of friendship and love. Only in privacy, Arendt argues, can individuals emerge as unique individuals who can then leave the private realm to engage the political sphere as confident, self-thinking, and independent citizens.


The political import of Arendt’s defense of privacy is that privacy is what allows for meaningful plurality and differences that prevent one mass movement, one idea, or one opinion from imposing itself throughout society. Just as Arendt valued the constitutional federalism in the American Constitution because it multiplied power sources through the many state and local governments in the United States, so did she too value privacy because it nurtures meaningfully different and even opposed opinions, customs, and faiths. She defends the regional differences in the United States as important and even necessary to preserve the constitutional structure of dispersed power that she saw as the great bulwark of freedom against the tyranny of the majority. In other words, Arendt saw privacy as the foundation not only of private eccentricity, but also of political freedom.

Cole offers a clear-sighted account of the ways that government is impinging on privacy. It is essential reading and it is your weekend read.


The Rationality of Breaking the Rules

Controversy is raging around Thomas Friedman’s column today advising the presumptive Secretary of State John Kerry to “break all the rules.”

In short, Friedman—known for his faithful belief that technology is making the world flat and changing things for the better—counsels that the U.S. ignore hostile governments and appeal directly to the people. Here’s the key paragraph:

Let’s break all the rules. Rather than negotiating with Iran’s leaders in secret — which, so far, has produced nothing and allows the Iranian leaders to control the narrative and tell their people that they’re suffering sanctions because of U.S. intransigence — why not negotiate with the Iranian people? President Obama should put a simple offer on the table, in Farsi, for all Iranians to see: The U.S. and its allies will permit Iran to maintain a civil nuclear enrichment capability — which it claims is all it wants to meet power needs — provided it agrees to U.N. observers and restrictions that would prevent Tehran from ever assembling a nuclear bomb. We should not only make this offer public, but also say to the Iranian people over and over: “The only reason your currency is being crushed, your savings rapidly eroded by inflation, many of your college graduates unemployed and your global trade impeded and the risk of war hanging overhead, is because your leaders won’t accept a deal that would allow Iran to develop civil nuclear power but not a bomb.” Iran wants its people to think it has no partner for a civil nuclear deal. The U.S. can prove otherwise.

Foreign policy types like Dan Drezner respond with derision.

Friedman’s “break all the rules” strategy is as transgressive as those dumb-ass Dr. Pepper commercials.  Worse, he’s recommending a policy that would actually be counter-productive to any hope of reaching a deal with Iran.  This is the worst kind of “World is Flat” pablum, applied to nuclear diplomacy.  God forbid John Kerry were to read it and follow Friedman’s advice.

I’ll leave the debate to others. But look at the central assumption in Friedman’s logic. If the leaders of a country don’t agree with us, go to the people. Tell them our plan. They’ll love it.  But why is that so? For Friedman and so many of his brothers and sisters on the left and the right in the commentariat, the answer is: because our proposals are rational. Whether it is Friedman on Iran or Brooks on the economy or liberals on gun control or conservatives on the budget, there is an assumption that if everyone would just get together and talk this through like rational individuals, we would agree on a workable and rational solution. This is of course the basic view of President Obama. He sees himself as the most rational person in the room and wonders why people don’t agree with him.

This rationalist fallacy is wrong. Neuro-scientists tell us that people respond to emotional and non-rational inputs. But long ago Hannah Arendt understood and argued that the essence of politics is neither truth nor reason. It is plurality and opinion. The basic condition of politics is plurality, which means people need to come together and pursue a common good in spite of their disagreements and differences.

For Arendt, Western history has seen politics had come under the sway of philosophy and thus the pursuit of rational truth instead of being what it was: a space for the public engagement of different opinions. The tragedy of the last 50 years is that philosophical rationality has now been supplanted by technocratic rationality, so that politics is increasingly about neither opinion nor common truths, but technocracy.

One lesson Arendt took from her fundamental distrust of unity and rationality was the importance of the diffusion of powers and her distrust of centralized power. Her embrace of American Constitutional Federalism was neither conservative nor liberal; it was born from her insistence that politics cannot and should not seek to replace opinions with truths.

Friedman wants rational truth to win out and believes that if we just talk to the people, the veils will fall from their eyes. Well it doesn’t work here at home because people really do disagree and see the world differently. There is no reason to think it will work around the world either. A thoughtful foreign policy, as opposed to a rational one, would begin with the fact of true plurality. The question is not how to make others agree with us, but rather how we who disagree can still live together meaningfully in a common world.



Civil Disobedience & O.W.S.

Given Mayor Bloomberg’s clearing of Zuccotti Park just shy of the OWS two-month anniversary, and the escalating tensions between police and protesters at Occupy sites across the country, a cluster of questions surrounding the meaning and uses of civil disobedience come once again to the fore.  In particular the violent altercations at the University of California, Berkeley–a campus with a long legacy of civil disobedience—force us to reconsider the role of this specific form of dissent.

Hannah Arendt considered civil disobedience  an essential part of the United States’ political system.  By revisiting some of her main ideas on the issue we can more fully appreciate how the civil disobedience carried out by the OWS movement both harnesses and re-imbues the public realm with political energy.

Berkeley Professor Celeste Langan, participated in a civil disobedience action on the university campus, and was treated harshly, to say the least.  Her description of the encounter reminds us just what can be involved in this form of protest:

“I knew, both before and after the police gave orders to disperse, that I was engaged in an act of civil disobedience. I want to stress both of those words: I knew I would be disobeying the police order, and therefore subject to arrest; I also understood that simply standing, occupying ground, and linking arms with others who were similarly standing, was a form of non-violent, hence civil, resistance. I therefore anticipated that the police might arrest us, but in a similarly non-violent manner. When the student in front of me was forcibly removed, I held out my wrist and said “Arrest me! Arrest me!” But rather than take my wrist or arm, the police grabbed me by my hair and yanked me forward to the ground, where I was told to lie on my stomach and was handcuffed. The injuries I sustained were relatively minor–a fat lip, a few scrapes to the back of my palms, a sore scalp–but also unnecessary and unjustified. “

Arendt noted that the most basic, yet the most crucial quality of civil disobedience is the necessity of joining oneself to others. This political binding to one’s fellow citizens often becomes physicalized through the specific tactics of demonstration, as Langan testified.

Bard College Professor Verity Smith, reminds us of the important distinction Arendt made between civil disobedience and conscientious objection, the latter the expression of individual resistance, while the former inherently a collective enterprise .  “Civil disobedients,” Arendt wrote in the essay “Civil Disobedience,” “are nothing but the latest form of voluntary association…they are thus quite in tune with the oldest traditions of the country.”  Arendt saw civil disobedience as an invigorating and hence indispensable element of the U.S. political system she so deeply admired.  How though, does this type of voluntary association represent what she called an “American remedy” for  “the failure of social institutions, the unreliability of men, and the uncertainty of the future”?

For Arendt, civil disobedience ultimately sustains the democratic process by interrupting the authority and sovereignty of the state.  Arendt saw undivided sovereignty as perhaps the greatest threat to democracy.  Undivided sovereignty effectively disintegrates plurality and the multiplicities within the space of appearance that are required for authentic political life. She argues that it is not conflict but stasis and homogeneity that deadens the body politic. Hence, by producing fissures in our political ground, civil disobedients, according to Arendt, are actually fortifying it.

This apparent paradox takes us closer to Arendt’s conception of politics as one in keeping with the Roman augure, which connotes a process of both restoration and of change. On Revolution provides us with a more thorough treatment of this essential dynamic, which OWS civil disobedience also serves to illustrate. The concepts of ‘inherit’ and ‘invent’ (to borrow Smith’s terms), are not mutually exclusive but deeply connected and often simultaneous activities involved in the process of political renewal. The OWS civil disobedients both draw on historical precedents (such as the 1969 student protests at Berkeley that appropriated and converted university land into the ‘People’s Park’), while also attempting to inaugurate a novel moment. This is no contradiction, it is simply the truth of beginnings, political and otherwise:  things are born, utterly unknown and unforeseeable, from that which is entirely established and given. This is the law of both politics and life.

This is precisely what Arendt so highly esteemed about the American Constitution and the processes it engendered, the possibility of a document whose re-visioning was not its renunciation but its perfection. Yet, it is this seemingly paradoxical principle that we still have so much trouble in grasping, especially when it comes to matters of protest and civil disobedience.  Pressed between bandana and baton is it possible to appreciate that the very acts that in some sense, threaten the political nexus, are necessary for its endurance? We have become less and less able to accept the precept that both Arendt and Montesquieu found to be fundamental to a healthy political sphere, which Smith states as, “the startling notion that contestation is actually a form of reverence, and even preservation.”

While we might be ready to accept Arendt’s formulation of the role of civil disobedience theoretically, and in certain historical contexts, the present protests at Zuccotti Park and Sproul Plaza pose particular challenges to it. I would wager that, if asked, many of those engaged in these movements would state that they do not want to fortify but to dismantle the current political framework.While Arendt saw the clamor of civil disobedience as part of the grander political opera, many season ticket holders are looking to unsubscribe this season. Part of the reason Arendt’s theory of dissent doesn’t quite jive with the OWS disobedients is because the protesters, whose voices Arendt identified as being so vital, were culled from the upper crust. As Smith mentions “elites act to invigorate but not replace mass democratic politics and representative institutions, acting as a kind of supplement to constituted governments so that democratic ideals do not ossify.”  The aim of many in the OWS movement is not to provide an occasion for enhancement, but rather for the overturning, of the current system.

It remains to be seen if this desire to overturn will be reabsorbed back into the existing ground or continue to expand and strengthen its outgrowths.   As the pitch of protest heightens, and police begin disbanding the demonstrations, OWS still displays the energizing power of voluntary association that Arendt trumpeted. The acts of civil disobedience are inevitably a testament to, and reveling in, the capacity for the public assembly, a bedrock of the very democracy the movement seeks to disturb.  As J.M Bernstein remarks in his essay “Promising and Civil Disobedience”, even those acts of dissent that aim to break away from the status quo can never unfetter from it fully.  Civil disobedience, he writes, “is always dependent on the radical past it exceeds and the repressive present it repudiates.”

And yet, as Arendt saw it, implicit in acts of civil disobedience such as those at Occupy sites, is dissent’s opposite; consent.  Which is to say that what the OWS disobedients are succeeding in doing is making legible the consent of those who continue to subscribe to the political process they consider malign.  Their persistence in the face of police and the ensuing arrests, serve to suggest that there is an alternative to the current form of political governance that is perhaps more worthy of our authorization—and it involves what Arendt considered to be a distinctly American remedy.