Arendt on Humanity’s Cosmic Awareness

(Featured Image: An aerial view of a jumble of cars, Source: Slickzine)

“If, in concluding, we return once more to the discovery of the Archimedean point and apply it, as Kafka warned us not to do, to man himself and to what he is doing on this earth, it at once becomes manifest that all of his activities, watched from a sufficiently removed vantage point in the universe, would appear not as activities of any kind but as processes, so that, as a scientist recently put it, modern motorization would appear like a process of biological mutation in which human bodies gradually begin to be covered by shells of steel.”

–Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 322-3.

In the preface to The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt not only starts provocatively with the point of view of an “earth born object made by man,” but describes this object, the recently launched Sputnik satellite, as the realization of the dream of science fiction literature that illuminates “mass sentiments and mass desires”. In this passage quoted above from the very last section of the book, Arendt returns to space and for a moment herself sounds like a science fiction writer, inviting the reader to look with her from a number of challenging perspectives. Continue reading


Video Archives – Lunchtime Talk with Douglas Irvin (2012)

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012: The Origins of Genocide: Tracing the Lemkin-Arendt debate in Lemkin’s Archives

Lecturer: Douglas Irvin, Ph.D. candidate at the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights at Rutgers University.

In this Lunchtime talk at the Arendt Center, Douglas Irvin explores the connections between Arendt and Raphael Lemkin. Continue reading

A Common Language


“Any period to which its own past has become as questionable as it has to us must eventually come up against the phenomenon of language, for in it the past is contained ineradicably, thwarting all attempts to get rid of it once and for all. The Greek polis will continue to exist at the bottom of our political existence…for as long as we use the word ‘politics.'”

-Hannah Arendt, “Walter Benjamin: 1892-1940”

Some years ago a mentor told me a story from his days as a graduate student at a prestigious political science department. There was a professor there specializing in Russian politics and Sovietology, an older professor who loved teaching and taught well past the standard age of retirement. His enthusiasm was palpable, and he was well-liked by his students. His most popular course was on Russian politics, and towards the end of one semester, a precocious undergraduate visited during office hours: “How hard is it to learn Russian,” the student asked, “because I’d really like to start.” “Pretty hard,” he said, “but that’s great to hear. What has you so excited about it?” “Well,” said the student, “after taking your course, I’m very inspired to read Marx in the original.” At the next class the professor told this story to all of his students, and none of them laughed. He paused for a moment, then somewhat despondently said: “It has only now become clear to me….that none of you know the first thing about Karl Marx.”

The story has several morals. As a professor, it reminds me to be careful about assuming what students know. As a student, it reminds me of an undergraduate paper I wrote which spelled Marx’s first name with a “C.” My professor kindly marked the mistake, but today I can better imagine her frustration. And if the story works as a joke, it is because we accept its basic premise, that knowledge of foreign languages is important, not only for our engagement with texts but with the world at large. After all, the course in question was not about Marx.

The fast approach of the Hannah Arendt Center’s 2013 Conference on “The Educated Citizen in Crisis” offers a fitting backdrop to consider the place of language education in the education of the citizen. The problem has long been salient in America, a land of immigrants and a country of rich cultural diversity; and debates about the relation between the embrace of English and American assimilation continue to draw attention. Samuel Huntington, for example, recently interpreted challenges to English preeminence as a threat to American political culture: “There is no Americano dream,” he writes in “The Hispanic Challenge,” “There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican Americans will share in that dream and in that society only if they dream in English.”  For Huntington English is an element of national citizenship, not only as a language learned, but as an essential component of American identity.

This might be juxtaposed with Tracy Strong’s support of learning (at least a) second language, including Latin, as an element of democratic citizenship. A second language, writes Strong (see his “Language Learning and the Social Sciences”) helps one acquire “what I might call an anthropological perspective on one’s own society,” for “An important achievement of learning a foreign language is learning a perspective on one’s world that is not one’s own. In turn, the acquisition of another perspective or even the recognition of the legitimacy of another perspective is, to my understanding, a very important component of a democratic political understanding.” Strong illustrates his point with a passage from Hannah Arendt’s “Truth and Politics”: “I form an opinion,” says Arendt, “by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent: that is, I represent them.”

Hannah Arendt’s deep respect for the American Constitution and American political culture, manifest no less (perhaps even more!) in her criticism than her praise, is well known. After fleeing Nazi Germany and German-occupied France, Arendt moved to the United States where she became a naturalized citizen in 1951. And her views on the relation between the English language and American citizenship are rich and complex.

In “The Crisis in Education” Arendt highlights how education plays a unique political role in America, where “it is obvious that the enormously difficult melting together of the most diverse ethnic groups…can only be accomplished through the schooling, education, and Americanization of the immigrants’ children.” Education prepares citizens to enter a common world, of which English in America is a key component: “Since for most of these children English is not their mother tongue but has to be learned in school, schools must obviously assume functions which in a nation-state would be performed as a matter of course in the home.”

At the same time, Arendt’s own embrace of English is hardly straightforward. In a famous 1964 interview with she says: “The Europe of the pre-Hitler period? I do not long for that, I can tell you. What remains? The language remains. […] I have always consciously refused to lose my mother tongue. I have always maintained a certain distance from French, which I then spoke very well, as well as from English, which I write today […] I write in English, but I have never lost a feeling of distance from it. There is a tremendous difference between your mother tongue and another language…The German language is the essential thing that has remained and that I have always consciously preserved.”

Here Arendt seems both with and against Huntington. On one hand, learning and embracing English—the public language of the country—is what enables diverse Americans to share a common political world. And in this respect, her decision to write and publish in English represents one of her most important acts of American democratic citizenship. By writing in English, Arendt “assumes responsibility for the world,” the same responsibility that education requires from its educators if they are to give the younger generation a common world, but which she finds sorely lacking in “The Crisis of Education.”

At the same time, though, Arendt rejects the idea that American citizenship requires treating English as if it were a mother tongue. Arendt consciously preserves her German mother tongue as both an element of her identity and a grounding of her understanding of the world, and in 1967 she even accepted the Sigmund Freud Award of the German Academy of Language and Poetry that “lauded her efforts to keep the German language alive although she had been living and writing in the United States for more than three decades” (I quote from Frank Mehring’s 2011 article “‘All for the Sake of Freedom’: Hannah Arendt’s Democratic Dissent, Trauma, and American Citizenship”).  For Arendt, it seems, it is precisely this potentiality in America—for citizens to share and assume responsibility for a common world approached in its own terms, while also bringing to bear a separate understanding grounded by very different terms—that offers America’s greatest democratic possibilities. One might suggest that Arendt’s engagement with language, in her combination of English responsibility and German self-understanding, offers a powerful and thought-provoking model of American democratic citizenship.

What about the teaching of language? In the “The Crisis in Education” Arendt is critical of the way language, especially foreign language, is taught in American schools. In a passage worth quoting at length she says:

“The close connection between these two things—the substitution of doing for learning and of playing for working—is directly illustrated by the teaching of languages; the child is to learn by speaking, that is by doing, not by studying grammar and syntax; in other words he is to learn a foreign language in the same way that as an infant he learned his own language: as though at play and in the uninterrupted continuity of simple existence. Quite apart from the question of whether this is possible or not…it is perfectly clear that this procedure consciously attempts to keep the older child as far as possible at the infant level.”

Arendt writes that such “pragmatist” methods intend “not to teach knowledge but to inculcate a skill.” Pragmatic instruction helps one to get by in the real world; but it does not allow one to love or understand the world. It renders language useful, but reduces language to an instrument, something easily discarded when no longer needed. It precludes philosophical engagement and representative thinking. The latest smartphone translation apps render it superfluous.


But how would one approach language differently? And what does this have to do with grammar and syntax? Perhaps there are clues in the passage selected as our quote of the week, culled from Arendt’s 1968 biographical essay about her friend Walter Benjamin. There, Arendt appreciates that Benjamin’s study of language abandons any “utilitarian” or “communicative” goals, but approaches language as a “poetic phenomenon.” The focused study of grammar develops different habits than pragmatist pedagogy. In the process of translation, for example, it facilitates an engagement with language that is divorced from practical use and focused squarely on meaning. To wrestle with grammar means to wrestle with language in the pursuit of truth, in a manner that inspires love for language—that it exists—and cross-cultural understanding. Arendt was famous for flexing her Greek and Latin muscles—in part, I think, as a reflection of her love for the world. The study of Greek and Latin is especially amenable to a relationship of love, because these languages are hardly “practical.” One studies them principally to understand, to shed light on the obscure; and through their investigation one discovers the sunken meanings that remain hidden and embedded in our modern languages, in words we speak regularly without realizing all that is contained within them. By engaging these “dead” languages, we more richly and seriously understand ourselves. And these same disinterested habits, when applied to the study of modern foreign languages, can enrich not only our understanding of different worldviews, but our participation in the world as democratic citizens.

-John LeJeune

Arendt and Philosophical Anthropology


“[Augustine] distinguishes between the questions of “Who am I?” and “What am I?” the first being directed by man at himself […] For in the “great mystery,” the grande profundum, which man is (iv. 14), there is “something of man [aliquid hominis] which the spirit of man which is in him itself knoweth not. But Thou, Lord, who has made him [fecisti eum] knowest everything of him [eius omnia]” (x. 5).”

Hannah Arendt, Human Condition

In the Human Condition Arendt raises major concerns about the place of man but she does not intend to respond to the loss of the earth as a unique human condition with a restoration of solid ground. To the question “What am I?” the only answer is: “You are a man—whatever that may be.” In lieu of an answer that would give man a new foundation, Arendt offers a description of man’s ever changing territory.

Following Augustine, Arendt claims that only God could have the distance to answer the question of “who” man is with anything resembling a concrete statement of human nature. She respects the unknown “spirit of man,” even beyond the knowledge provided by religion.


When philosophy attempts to answer this question, it ends up creating its own image of a higher power, which remains linked through projection to man. Importantly though, philosophy should still ask the question.

Some context can help to open Arendt’s question here for readers in English speaking countries where philosophical anthropology never gained the same traction as in Germany. Her challenge picks up on the heated debates of the 1920s and 30s over how to take the collapse of universal values seriously without falling back to simple subjectivism that culminated in the work of Husserl and Heidegger.

In the space of four pages of Being and Time (46-49), Martin Heidegger specifies his criticism with reference to Dilthey, Bergson, Scheler, and Husserl, as well as views from ancient Greek philosophy and Genesis. Heidegger says he has focused his analytic of Dasein on the question of Being and that it cannot therefore provide the fully ontological basis of Dasein needed for “‘philosophical’ anthropology'” but states that part of his goal is to “make such an anthropology possible.” Later though, in section 10, Heidegger provides a further explanation of his criticism of anthropology: in “the attempt to determine the essence of ‘man,’ as an entity, the question of Being has been forgotten.”


In its turn to experience and consciousness, philosophical anthropology forgets to ask the question of ontological definition of perceptual experience (cogitationes). Heidegger thus suggests that his investigation might provide the basis for an anthropology but does not claim to actually deliver this basis. He opens the question of the definition of man, but does so to orient man (recast as Dasein) toward his relation to Being. In a parallel manner, we can understand Arendt’s reading of Augustine as opening the question of the relation between the “who” and “what” man is, but not closing it. Her work here is provocative because it can not be said to be in the service of a simple secularization that removes a higher power for human measure. Nor does she wish to save or restore divine guarantee. Perhaps Augustine allows her to pose similar questions of philosophical anthropology to those raised by Heidegger, but to win some distance from her teacher so that she can open a new space of freedom of action rather than freedom of thought.

-Jeff Champlin

Ned Curthoys’ Recovery of Arendt’s Intellectual Dialogue with Ernst Cassirer

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?

From Arendt’s library at Bard College.

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’sArendt’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)

Casualties on “The War on Fat

Thinking through the Human Condition: Arendt and Anthropology

Common wisdom has it that the U.S. now faces an “obesity epidemic.” Ample statistical evidence would seem to support this claim. According to recent research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, sixty-eight percent of adults, and thirty-two percent of children and adolescents, qualify as obese or overweight as determined by the Body Mass Index (BMI). The BMI is the biomedical measure of “healthy” and “unhealthy” weight currently employed by most doctors, researchers, educators, and policymakers in the U.S. (and a growing number of other countries).

The public health response to this state of affairs, initially launched by Surgeon General C. Everett Koop in 1997, has been promoted as a “war on obesity” or a “war on fat” that echoes the militaristic rhetoric of other governmental campaigns (against poverty, drugs, and terror[ism], for example). This war effort has consistently conceived of obesity as a medical abnormality or disease that can be remedied through concerted social and political intervention. Health professionals and policymakers have regularly enjoined Americans to diet and exercise so that they might achieve—and then maintain—a normative body weight and shape. In addition, political figures like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and First Lady Michelle Obama have publicly thrown their support behind measures that encourage healthy eating and regular physical activity.

Public reactions to the war on fat have varied a good deal. Most of its advocates argue that the campaign is a necessary response to a serious threat to the nation’s health and health care system, while some of its detractors contend that, at its extreme, it unduly interferes with individual Americans’ ability—or right—to eat, drink, and otherwise attend to their bodies as they find appropriate. Other critics focus on what I consider to be a more significant issue: the lived consequences of the war on fat, particularly for those young people who are its main targets.

To my knowledge, Hannah Arendt never directly engaged with the state’s role in the biomedical health of society and polity, but I suspect that she would have regarded the current campaign with skepticism. If her essay “Reflections on Little Rock” is any indication, she would be troubled by the ways that today’s children and adolescents are being asked to scrutinize their food choices and physical activity and thus bear the burden of a public health problem that ultimately derives from this country’s political economy of food production and consumption. In addition, she might well insist that children are “first of all part of family and home” and should therefore be shielded “against the demands of the social and the responsibilities of the political realm” (pp. 241-242 in The Portable Hannah Arendt). Indeed, she might even consider the war on fat to be a troubling infringement on parents’ private right to “bring up their children as they see fit” (p. 242), a right to which they are entitled even if they fail to conform to society’s prevailing conventions and customs.

This line of argument certainly possesses its own consistency and coherence. But I would suggest that it remains open to question on two (if not more) counts. First, it implies that young people’s diet and exercise are ultimately matters of private discretion in a fashion that is troublingly close to some industry objections to the war on fat. It thereby offers little basis to challenge the ways that corporate “big food” has invoked individual choice to defend dietary habits and tastes that it has not merely cultivated, but profited from handsomely. Second, and more broadly, this line of argument proposes a sharp distinction between public and private that prevents us from grasping the ways that young people—whether we like it or not—are implicated in larger political debates and struggles. Moreover, it does not really equip us to grasp how public discourse, including government-sponsored injunctions to diet and exercise, can mold individual sentiments, attitudes, and sensibilities.

This last issue is a central concern in anthropologist Susan Greenhalgh’s article “Weighty Subjects,” which appears in the most recent issue of American Ethnologist. Much of Greenhalgh’s argument turns on her analysis of student essays written for “The Woman and the Body,” a lecture course she taught at the University of California, Irvine from 1995 to 2011. Inspired by Michel Foucault’s work on governmentality and bio-power, Greenhalgh argues that the ultimate product of the war on fat is not a large number of thinner, fitter bodies, but rather a great deal of intimate and public “fat talk.” Such fat talk either instructs heavyset people about how they can attain a normative body or else derides their “excessive” weight as a mark of personal shame and failure.

In Greenhalgh’s analysis, this pervasive stream of fat talk induces all too many young women and men to adopt a “fat” subjectivity, even if they do not formally qualify as obese or overweight according to the BMI.

Building on a close reading of several students’ essays, she asserts that these “fat subjects” come to treat their weight as an essential component of their selfhood and social (un)acceptability. They engage in forms of exercise, dieting, and more extreme self-denial that may result in some temporary weight loss but which often pose major health risks in the long run. And they internalize the moralizing idioms of fat talk to the point where they ultimately hold themselves responsible for their weight and their frequent inability to achieve a normative body. Fat talk and the larger war on fat thereby resonate with the broader neoliberal turn in American public life, which holds individual self-governance, not industry regulation and other structural measures, as the preferred response to pressing social problems.

In sum, Greenhalgh’s objections to the war on fat ultimately rest not on the notion that local, state, and federal government is intervening (illegitimately) in a realm of private decision-making, but rather on the evidence that the preoccupation with obesity is creating significant emotional suffering for a considerable number of people. Like many other anthropologists, she thereby underscores how the political realm does not merely impinge on intimate senses of self and personhood, but actually works to produce them.

-Jeff Jurgens

Thinking through the Human Condition

Thinking through the Human Condition: Arendt and Anthropology

Answering Arendt’s Indictments of Social Science

My blog post today is the first of a series of contributions that aims to bring Arendt’s thought into conversation with cultural anthropology, my home discipline, and other modes of social analysis. At first glance, Arendt and anthropologists would seem to make for strange bedfellows, since their arguments have rarely intersected in any explicit way: Arendt engaged little if at all with cultural anthropology in her wide-ranging corpus, and anthropologists have tended to avoid Arendt, despite the inspiration they often take from other philosophers and political theorists. Nevertheless, the guiding premise behind this series is that Arendtian and anthropological analyses can be brought together in a manner that offers a great deal to wider contemplation of the human condition. This potential can only be realized, however, if we also recognize the frictions that emerge from their contrasting starting points and lines of argument.

Thomas Hirschhorn / Marcus Steinweg

Peter Baehr’s recent book, Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, and the Social Sciences (2010), offers an enlightening vantage on these frictions and the difficulties they present for such an encounter. Indeed, Arendt regarded sociology and the other social science disciplines with the utmost skepticism. On the one hand, she took issue with what she regarded as their deterministic theories of historical causality and their misguided presumptions about human self-interest. As she contended in The Human Condition, the social sciences “[aimed] to reduce man as a whole, in all his activity, to the level of a conditioned and behaving animal” (p. 45). In so doing, they not only denied the existence of human freedom; they also reflected—and helped to perpetuate—the very mass societies they ostensibly explained. At the same time, the social sciences operated (in Arendt’s understanding) on the core assumption that “human conduct springs essentially from self-interested, instrumental, and utilitarian considerations” (Baehr, p. 14). This premise rendered the social sciences utterly incapable of coming to terms with the non- and even anti-utilitarian nature of totalitarianism.

Such shortcomings were only further compounded by social scientists’ reliance on established conceptual models and their penchant for historical analogy. In Arendt’s view, the social sciences were entirely too quick to cast specific social phenomena as reflexes or symptoms of underlying transhistorical processes (such as the materialist dialectic proposed by Marx). As a result, they were prone to untenable generalizations that occluded salient differences between distinct social and political forms (such as totalitarian concentration camps and institutions of slavery). In keeping with this complaint, Arendt harbored particular scorn for Weberian ideal types like charisma and bureaucracy, which she regarded as devices to “normalize” particular phenomena and make of them “an item or case of something already known” (Baehr, p. 26).

Arendt’s criticisms certainly apply to some forms of social science scholarship, particularly those that seize opportunistically on specific instances to engage in the kind of grand theorizing that bleaches human intercourse of particularity, emotion, and moral import. In such moments, complex human realities can and do become mere grist for the conceptual mill. Yet her dismissal of the social sciences ultimately strikes me as overdrawn. Many social scientists explore the conditions of human autonomy and historical novelty with greater nuance than she was prepared to admit. Moreover, many of them challenge the notion that human activity can only be explained in utilitarian terms. Cultural anthropology, in particular, has repeatedly highlighted how human beings arrange their lives in ways that defy scientific models of rationality.

Baehr remains a strong advocate of Arendt’s theorizing, but he also demonstrates the subtlety of social science analysis through three appreciative critics of her work in the 1940s and 1950s. The interdisciplinary scholar David Riesman, for example, found Arendt’s analysis of totalitarian society too sweeping: Arendt exaggerated the capacity of the Nazi and Stalinist regimes to rework human subjectivity, and ignored human beings’ stubborn ability to retain their individuality, exercise their agency, and otherwise elude total domination (Baehr, chapter 2, especially pp. 45-56). Riesman thereby drew worthwhile attention to the ways that Arendt, in her zeal to convey the pervasiveness of totalitarian power, neglected the sociology of everyday life.

The political sociologist Raymond Aron thoughtfully resisted Arendt’s notion that totalitarianism constituted a radical break with previous modes of rule. He related the emergence of totalitarianism to the existence of monopolistic political parties in Germany and the Soviet Union. He dissected the ways that totalitarian terror, especially in the Soviet Union, was legally codified and administratively routinized, rather than being entirely inscrutable and haphazard. And he insisted that totalitarian ideology was open to flexible application and transformation in a fashion that Arendt, with her focus on its uncompromising deductive rigidity, did not acknowledge (Baehr, chapter 3, especially pp. 77-87). On the basis of these specific claims, Aron contended that totalitarianism bore intelligible continuities with older modes of tyranny. As he did so, however, he admittedly shied away from the “mysterious margin” of nightmarish absurdity that he too observed in totalitarian regimes—and that Arendt traced so evocatively.

Finally, the sociologist Jules Monnerot sharply underscored the ways that totalitarian ideologies mobilized the fervor of their adherents through party gatherings, mass celebrations, and other ritual encounters. In the process, he likened totalitarianism to religious traditions (above all, Islam) in a fashion that resonated with other treatments of totalitarianism as a “secular” or “political religion” (Baehr, chapter 4, especially pp. 95-99). Arendt pointedly refused any such equation. In her account, religion provides limits and standards that protect the sacredness of human life; totalitarianism, by contrast, pursues the notion that “everything is possible and permitted,” and it regards particular human beings as superfluous and dispensable in its effort to transform human nature itself. Yet as Baehr notes, Arendt’s position did not resolve the question of totalitarianism’s (lack of) relationship with religion as decisively as she might have thought. In the end, it failed to take into account many witnesses’ quasi-religious experience of totalitarian performances, and it neglected the fact that religious forms and expressions did suffuse totalitarian discourse in demonstrable ways.

The point of Baehr’s book is not that we need to side either with Arendt or with her social science critics exclusively. I happen to find Riesman’s objections quite trenchant, but I also believe, like Baehr, that Aron’s confident diagnosis fails to grapple with the chaotic madness that characterized the Nazi and Stalinist regimes.

And as much as Arendt’s position on ritual and religion might be interrogated, her insistence that we maintain fine distinctions—and not succumb to easy generalizations and conflations—is a valuable one. One implication of this point is that we should be duly suspicious of any intellectual stance, including Arendt’s, which dismisses an entire realm of disciplinary inquiry root and branch. As Baehr’s book shows, rigorous social scientific scholarship can usefully probe the limits of Arendt’s assumptions, evidence, and arguments—just as it can lead us to a greater admiration of her insights.

-Jeff Jurgens


Recalling the Egyptian Revolution

In the aftermath of the recent presidential elections and the sentencing of Hosni Mubarak, the attention of many observers within and outside Egypt has turned to the complexities of the country’s immediate future. This focus is entirely understandable given Egypt’s prominent place in the wider Arab world and the intractable challenges it now confronts. But it has also entailed a certain emotional and intellectual distance from the transformative events that transfixed the world in January and February 2011. The uprising that took most visible form in the Tahrir Square protests is already retreating into the twilit realm of history and memory.

This process is inevitable, and there is little point in attempting to arrest it. But we would still do well to recall the urgency and enormity of Egypt’s transformation before it recedes even further into the maelstrom of our twenty-four-hour news cycles and day-to-day cares. One occasion for such reflection is the “Egypt Forum” that recently appeared in American Ethnologist, one of the world’s most prominent journals in my field, cultural anthropology. Composed of nine short essays from some of the discipline’s foremost scholars, the Forum illustrates anthropology’s capacity to bring vivid lived experience into conversation with larger processes and forces. Taken together, the assembled contributions remind us that the 2011 uprising was not an inevitable triumph of popular sovereignty, but a tense and even disorienting moment of uncertainty, one in which the very nature of politics was up for grabs.

The “Egypt Forum” makes three notable contributions to our understanding of Mubarak’s ouster from power. First, it underscores how many Egyptian citizens drew on local moral categories, not just the liberal language of rights and democracy, to interpret the uprising. Farha Ghannam examines how residents of one Cairo neighborhood relied on notions of “thuggery” (baltagiyya) to condemn violent attacks against protesters and more general corruption among state officials. Sherine Hamdy describes how her Egyptian acquaintances imagined themselves as resilient in the face of obstacles, but also physically and spiritually enfeebled by years of state-sponsored injustice and brutality. And as Lila Abu-Lughod details, the protests prompted young men and women in one Upper Egyptian village to establish a popular committee to solve problems of resource distribution, build homes for indigent neighbors, and collect funds for displaced families. Rather than couching their efforts in overtly “political” language, however, they dubbed their committee the “Youth of Good Works” (shabab al-khayr).

Second, the Forum highlights the extent to which the protests against Mubarak’s regime defied the commonplace distinction between “religious” and “secular.” Indeed, as Hussein Ali Agrama contends, the protests constituted a moment of “asecular” power not merely because they drew a variety of liberal, left-leaning, and devout participants, but because the protesters were not particularly concerned with characterizing their efforts in “secular” or “religious” terms—or with drawing boundaries between the two realms. Charles Hirschkind is also struck by the accommodating spirit of the uprising, and he traces its guiding sensibility to the careers of three public intellectuals who have reflected in innovative ways on the place of Islam in Egyptian life. For all of these commentators, the Islamic tradition is not an impediment to national independence and democracy, but rather a resource and frame of reference for “an open, nondogmatic style of political engagement.”

Third, the Forum draws attention to the forms of marginalization that the revolution and its aftermath have not entirely overcome. Although women were conspicuous among the protesters who gathered in Tahrir Square, Sherine Hafez notes that they have been largely excluded from Egyptian politics after the overthrow of Mubarak’s regime. Perhaps most notably, they played no role in the “Council of Wise Men” (note the name) that initially negotiated with the Supreme Military Council, and they were entirely absent from the committee charged with reforming the constitution. (Hafez also observes, with biting irony, that it did not take long for Tahrir Square to regain its reputation as a zone of routine sexual harassment.) For her part, Jessica Winegar highlights the ongoing domestic duties that prevented many women from participating in the protests, and she emphasizes the economic realities that made work more pressing than revolution for many of Cairo’s poorer residents. Indeed, many of the young women Winegar knew were only too happy to see the end of the protests, since it meant that they could once more move about the city and return to their jobs.

All in all, these essays are worth reading because they illuminate facets of the Egyptian uprising that have eluded many pundits and other “expert commentators.” They thereby demonstrate the value of intimate and sustained social inquiry, even—and perhaps especially—when the revolution is televised.

-Jeff Jurgens

Political Scientists Bemoan Funding Cuts

Political scientists around the country are in a huff here, and here, and here. The reason has little to do with the upcoming election, the vacuum in political leadership, or the state of the world. No, they are upset because Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake has proposed cutting the National Science Foundation’s Political Science Program that awards about $11 Million a year to support political science research.

The anger and posturing are extraordinary. And political scientists are rushing to defend the relevance and necessity of their research. Special anger is directed at Congressman Flake’s blindness to the import of a $700,000 NSF proposed study to develop “A multi-level, agent-based model for identifying the factors that enable or constrain international climate change negotiations.” I have no doubt such a study has uses. But I do wonder if those writing the study could make those uses more accessible. They write:

The goal of our research is to develop a new tool for international climate policy analysis based on the concept of agent-based modeling (ABM).  ABM facilitates a more realistic and simultaneous treatment of the diverse forces which influence multi-party decisions.  Our model will represent both the international climate negotiation process, as well as the key dynamics of domestic economies relevant to energy and climate change.  Some key questions to be explored with our model include: Are there patterns of innovation, adaptation, or climate damages that emerge from an ABM representation of an economy that are obscured by conventional assessments? …

The authors then provide this graphic to illustrate what they mean:

I don’t want to disparage the research, which I am sure will be of interest to a subset of academic political scientists. This research may even, over years, produce insights that gradually merge with the fruits of other research to change and even improve our understanding of how multiparty negotiations impact complicated international topics.  And, yes, $700,000 is less than a drop in the bucket in the federal budget. But when looking at the Federal Budget, at a time when students are being forced into bankruptcy because they can’t repay student debt, is this where the government should be spending its money?

Congressman Flake, who I never have heard of before happens to have a Masters degree in Political Science; he understands that these grants have multiple uses. First, they advance the general knowledge of the social sciences. They also advance the careers of the political scientists who win them.  What is more, the vast majority of the funds dispersed go to subsidize the administrative costs at our nation’s colleges and universities. And here is where the proposed funding looks mighty suspect.

The researchers proposing this study are from Dartmouth. Dartmouth is a fine school, also a small school that happens to have an endowment of over $3 Billion dollars. As Congressman Flake notes,

According to the NSF Web site, to date, more than $80 million has been awarded to the program’s nearly 200 active projects. Three-quarters of these awards, totaling over $46 million, were directed to universities with endowments greater than $1 billion.

The outrage of the political science community at these cuts is more than misplaced.

We may wonder why political science and not anthropology. I guess the first answer is that Congressman Flake is a political scientist and thus is beginning to cut in the areas he knows best. But the bigger issue is that these cuts are just the beginning of a desperately needed rethinking of what the federal government should be spending money on at a time of coming austerity.

The beauty of the American system is the dispersion of power. The federal government does not control all the levers of power or all the money in the USA. If the NSF cannot or does not fund a study, those who feel the need for that study have plenty of other pots to dip their hands into. There are a myriad of foundations and universities that support an enormous amount of social science research. The issue is not that necessary research may not get done, but that there will now be one fewer pot. That is sad for political scientists, but not a tragedy. Indeed, political scientists might ask: How has bureaucratic federal grant-making changed and influenced the nature of political science research?


On the History of “Genocide”

What precisely do we mean when we use the term “genocide”? Has the word always been associated with the mass killing of individuals on the basis of their group affiliation? Or have there been alternative conceptions of genocide of which we should be aware?

These questions were at the heart of the Hannah Arendt Center’s latest Lunchtime Talk, which occurred amid picturesque snowfall on Wednesday, February 29th. The presenter was Douglas Irvin, a Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers’ Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights. Irving’s talk revolved around the work of the Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959).

After escaping from Nazi-occupied Poland and lecturing at the University of Stockholm, Lemkin emigrated to the U.S., served as an advisor at the Nuremberg Trials, and played a central role in the passage of the 1948 U.N. Genocide Convention. Indeed, Lemkin was the first public figure to use the term “genocide,” which he derived from the Greek root genus (family, race, or tribe) and the Latin root, cide (killing).

Lemkin and Arendt were contemporaries with overlapping experiences and interests, but they engaged very little with one another in print (aside, perhaps, from a few allusions and anonymous criticisms). Irvin contends that there are good reasons for this lack of dialogue, since the two differed significantly in their views of genocide and humanity more broadly.

On the one hand, Arendt regarded genocide as a historically recent outgrowth of modern totalitarianism. According to Irvin, this understanding was in keeping with her more general conception of the human cosmos, which ultimately emerged through, and was grounded in, individual interactions within the arena of the polis.

Lemkin, by contrast, regarded genocide as a much older phenomenon, one that was premised not on the destruction of individuals on the basis of their group affiliation, but rather on the annihilation of entire cultural traditions and collective identities. Drawing eclectically on the work of seventeenth-century Spanish theologians, romantic thinkers like Johann Gottfried von Herder, and anthropological understandings of cultures as integrated wholes, Lemkin ultimately defined genocide as a coordinated attack on the conditions that make the lives of nations and other collectivities possible.

In this conception, genocide does not necessarily or inevitably entail the mass killing of a group’s members, but rather turns on concerted efforts to obliterate that group’s institutions, language, religious observance, and economic livelihood. In Irvin’s argument, this approach resonated with the broadly communitarian nature of Lemkin’s thought: human existence was in his estimation defined by interactions between culture-bearing groups, and human freedom could ultimately be secured through the benevolent recognition and protection of cultural pluralism.

Significantly, the U.N. Genocide Convention that Lemkin championed did not incorporate many aspects of his thinking. His ideas encountered strong resistance from the U.S., U.K., and other imperial powers, many of which feared that their treatment of indigenous and colonial populations would qualify as genocide under the standards that Lemkin (and his collaborators) proposed. As a result, our current understanding of genocide is in no small part a byproduct of a diplomatic battle to redefine this legal category in a fashion that would encompass the Nazi Holocaust but not implicate other states (including several of the Allied powers that fought against Germany in World War II). This wrangling has also contributed to the minimal attention that has since been paid to Lemkin’s ideas, which were only rediscovered in a significant way in the early 1990s.

Douglas Irvin’s stimulating talk suggested that such inattention is unfortunate. Whatever one thinks of Lemkin’s effort to inscribe a form of cultural relativity into liberal international law, a more thoughtful understanding of his life and thought can only enrich our understanding of genocide’s  career as a concept.

Click here to watch the Douglas Irvin lunchtime talk.

-Jeff Jurgens