Amor Mundi 2/7/16

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-upPublic and Private

liberty ridge farmThe New York Supreme Court recently decided Gifford v. McCarthy, a case that turned on the question of whether a Christian couple can deny a gay couple the right to marry on private land. “Petitioners Cynthia Gifford and Robert Gifford own and operate petitioner Liberty Ridge Farm, LLC, a nearly 100-acre property located in the Town of Schaghticoke, Rensselaer County. Registered as a limited liability corporation, Liberty Ridge is not a member organization, a non-profit organization or a religious entity. In addition to harvesting and selling various crops to the public, Liberty Ridge rents portions of the farm to the public as a venue for, among other things, wedding ceremonies and receptions. It hosts both religious and secular wedding ceremonies on the farm. When providing a venue site, Liberty Ridge offers several wedding-related event services, including transportation of guests within the premises, a light beverage station, decoration and set-up services, flower arrangements and event coordination. Such services are provided primarily by the Giffords themselves, particularly Cynthia Gifford, who serves as the ‘event coordinator.’ Liberty Ridge also offers food and beverages for wedding receptions through a catering contract and employs catering, kitchen and wait staff for that purpose. In October 2011, respondents Melisa McCarthy and Jennifer McCarthy–a same-sex couple–became engaged to be married. Approximately a year later, Melisa McCarthy spoke with Cynthia Gifford on the telephone concerning Liberty Ridge as a venue for her wedding ceremony and reception. During their conversation, Melisa McCarthy used the female pronoun to refer to her fiancée, thus indicating that she was engaged to a woman. Cynthia Gifford promptly interjected that there was ‘a problem’ and that the farm did ‘not hold same[-]sex marriages.’ In response to Melisa McCarthy’s query as to the reason for not allowing same-sex marriages, Cynthia Gifford explained that ‘it’s a decision that my husband and I have made that that’s not what we wanted to have on the farm.’ The McCarthys thereafter filed complaints and amended complaints with respondent State Division of Human Rights (hereinafter SDHR) alleging that petitioners engaged in unlawful discriminatory practices based upon sexual orientation.”

Specifically, the McCarthys invoked the NY Human Rights Law, the purpose of which is “‘to assure that every individual within this state is afforded an equal opportunity to enjoy a full and productive life’ by ‘eliminat[ing] and prevent[ing] discrimination in employment, in places of public accommodation, resort or amusement, in educational institutions, in public services, in housing accommodations, in commercial space and in credit transactions.'” In finding that the Giffords violated the Mccarthys’ human rights, the court ultimately handed down its ruling based upon the definition of a public accommodation. “Executive Law § 292 (9) ‘defines “place of public accommodation, resort or amusement” inclusively and illustratively, not specifically, and sets forth an extensive list of examples of places within the statute’ …. Such term includes ‘establishments dealing with goods or services of any kind’ and ‘any place where food is sold for consumption on the premises’ (Executive Law § 292 [9]). Over the years, the statutory definition has been expanded repeatedly, ‘provid[ing] a clear indication that the Legislature used the phrase place of public accommodation “in the broad sense of providing conveniences and services to the public” and that it intended that the definition of place of accommodation should be interpreted liberally.'”

As a matter of NY law, the court appears to be correct. But we do need to ask what such a broad and expanded definition of public accommodation does to the right of privacy and also to the right of free association. The court writes that the Giffords “open Liberty Ridge to the public as a venue for wedding ceremonies and receptions and offer several wedding-related event services in connection therewith.” But is there not a difference between someone who opens a hair salon and someone else who once or twice a week cuts people’s hair in her kitchen? Hannah Arendt agrees that we have a clear and necessary right to ride buses and sit where we want on public transportation, even if the company that operates the buses or trains is private. For Arendt, “when we are dealing with services that everyone needs in order to pursue his business and lead his life,” the business is clearly public, even if privately owned. This includes also the “right to enter hotels and restaurants in business districts.” But Arendt argues that not all places of business are public; she writes, “If as a Jew I wish to spend my vacations only in the company of Jews, I cannot see how anyone can reasonably prevent my doing so; just as I seen no reason why other resorts should not cater to a clientele that wishes not to see Jews while on a holiday. There cannot be a ‘right to go into any hotel or recreation area or place of amusement,’ because many of these are in the realm of the purely social where the right to free association, and therefore to discrimination, has greater validity than the principle of equality.” The questions Arendt raises are essential if we are going to maintain meaningful rights of both free association and privacy.–RB

Head Coverings

head scarfElif Batuman describes her brief flirtation with wearing a hijab in Turkey: “I found myself thinking about high heels. High heels were painful, and, for me at least, expensive, because they made walking more difficult and I ended up taking more taxis. Yet there were many times when I wore heels to work-related events in New York, specifically because I felt it made people treat me with more consideration. Why, then, would I refuse to wear a head scarf, which brought a similar benefit of social acceptance, without the disadvantage of impeding my ability to stand or walk? And yet, when I thought about leaving the scarf on for the rest of my stay, something about it felt dishonest, almost shameful, as if I were duping people into being kind to me. Those girls who smiled into my eyes–they thought I was like them. The guy who helped me on the bus–he thought I was his sister. At that point, another thought came to me, a kind of fantasy, so foreign that I could barely articulate it even to myself: What if I really did it? What if I wore a scarf not as a disguise but somehow for real? I was thirty-four, and I’d been having a lot of doubts about the direction my life was taking. I had had an abortion the previous year, with some reluctance, and everything–every minor defeat, every sign of unfriendliness–still hurt a little extra. I had never felt so alone, and in a way that seemed suddenly to have been of my design, as if I had chosen this life without realizing it, years earlier, when I set out to become a writer. And now a glimmer appeared before me of a totally different way of being than any I had imagined, a life with clear rules and duties that you followed, in exchange for which you were respected and honored and safe. You had children–not maybe but definitely. You didn’t have to worry that your social value was irrevocably tied to your sexual value. You had less freedom, true. But what was so great about freedom? What was so great about being a journalist and going around being a pain in everyone’s a–, having people either be suspicious and mean to you or try to use you for their P.R. strategy? Travelling alone, especially as a woman, especially in a patriarchal culture, can be really stressful. It can make you question the most basic priorities around which your life is arranged. Like: Why do I have a job that makes me travel alone? For literature? What’s literature?”

To Live Another Day

arabian nightsAdam Thirlwell marvels at Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes’s adaptation of The Arabian Nights into a six-hour anthology that is divided into three parts and then divided again within those, built around stories of Portugal’s recent depression. It is, as the movie itself tells us, an adaptation of form but not of story: “The Arabian Nights, of course–written and rewritten between the tenth and fourteenth centuries, and translated into French by Antoine Galland at the beginning of the eighteenth century–have nourished many subsequent fictions, from Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq to James Joyce. A reader only needs to remember the celebrated names: Aladdin! Sinbad the Sailor! Or the tale that forms its outermost layer, where the Grand Vizier’s daughter Scheherazade tells a story every morning before dawn, to avert her execution by Schahriar, the Sultan driven murderously misogynist on discovering his wife’s infidelity. You can derive a sequence of theorems from the original Nights: that storytelling is a matter of life and death, since an execution can be postponed by a story; that a story can be infinitely extended, because any character is capable of beginning a new supernatural tale; and that what might seem a story about the supernatural may also, or in fact, be a story about power. (Money, in the Nights, is always woozy with transformative potential, all sudden multiplications and terrible subtractions.)… One way of talking about power in fiction is to talk about the marvelous, and while the original Nights represents one of literature’s most exuberant explorations of what the marvelous might mean, it’s a category that perhaps cinema can most fluently investigate–with the absolute materialist authority a film confers on visionary events (like the way in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet (1955) Inger Borgen seems, very quietly, to rise from the dead). Gomes has his own deadpan way with the supernatural–in his lo-fi filming of Scheherazade in an imaginary seaside Baghdad, or his presentation of a ‘wind genie’ as a man accidentally trapped in a bird-net. But the true meaning of the marvelous, Gomes seems to be suggesting, is in the way a life is constantly being changed by powers beyond its control or prediction–a system of everyday metamorphosis which is at its most intense in an era of austerity poverty. Not, however, that it must always therefore be a record of defeat. There’s a hopeful version of the marvelous too, and it’s visible in the final story, ‘The Inebriating Chorus of the Chaffinches’–a study of bird-trappers in Lisbon’s outer suburbs, living in government housing on the sites of former shanty towns out by the airport. It’s very small, almost nothing, but in the miniature actions of cage-cleaning and bird-training, or the way the trappers invent impossible birdsongs on their computers by combining different melodies into a single artificial track, some kind of small-scale, improvised utopia emerges.”

amor_mundi_sign-upDark Lit

dark webAmy Brady interviews GMH (a pseudonym) and Robert Gehl (a communications professor), who are the editors of the new literary journal Torist, which is digital and accessible only on the dark web: “Reading through The Torist, you probably won’t find any reasons for why the writers wouldn’t want their identities known. Yes, the pieces share thematic concerns over individual privacy and the consequences of living under government surveillance. But there’s nothing illegal about their complaints. In fact, some of the work is quite good. So why are these writers publishing in The Torist, anyway, a magazine accessible by only a fraction of Internet users, many of them presumably surfing the Dark Web for things other than literary discoveries? The whole project seems downright contrary to what most contemporary writers look for in a literary magazine–namely, an audience. With this question and others (so many) in mind, I sought out the editors of The Torist to see if they could shed some light on their literary contribution to the Dark-Web world. Both agreed to chat, mercifully, via clear-web email. The only exposure this luddite has to encrypted online communication is whatever that hacker character Gavin Orsay was up to in the second season of House of Cards (though I did figure out how to download the magazine). As it turns out, both editors are thoughtful proponents of personal privacy and literary art, dedicated as much to asking questions about what’s possible in literature as to finding solutions to what they see as massive infringements on human rights. They also have some impressive favorite reads.”

We’re Watching

laura poitrasWhile considering filmmaker Laura Poitras’s new exhibit on surveillance art, opening this week at the Whitney, Andy Greenberg relates the story of her life under surveillance: “The exhibit is vast and unsettling, ranging from films to documents that can be viewed only through wooden slits to a video expanse of Yemeni sky which visitors are invited to lie beneath. But the most personal parts of the show are documents that lay bare how excruciating life was for Poitras as a target of government surveillance–and how her subsequent paranoia made her the ideal collaborator in Snowden’s mission to expose America’s surveillance state. First, she’s installed a wall of papers that she received in response to an ongoing Freedom of Information lawsuit the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed on her behalf against the FBI. The documents definitively show why Poitras was tracked and repeatedly searched at the US border for years, and even that she was the subject of a grand jury investigation. And second, a book she’s publishing to accompany the exhibit includes her journal from the height of that surveillance, recording her first-person experience of becoming a spying subject, along with her inner monologue as she first corresponded with the secret NSA leaker she then knew only as ‘Citizenfour.’ Poitras says she initially intended to use only a few quotes from her journal in that book. But as she was transcribing it, she ‘realized that it was a primary source document about navigating a certain reality,’ she says. The finished book, which includes a biographical piece by Guantanamo detainee Lakhdar Boumediene, a photo collection from Ai Weiwei, and a short essay by Snowden on using radio waves from stars to generate random data for encryption, is subtitled ‘A Survival Guide for Living Under Total Surveillance.’ It will be published widely on February 23. ‘I’ve asked people for a long time to reveal a lot in my films,’ Poitras says. But telling her own story, even in limited glimpses, ‘provides a concrete example of how the process works we don’t usually see.’ That process, for Poitras, is the experience of being unwittingly ingested into the American surveillance system.”

What Digital Does

unprinted bookRichard Lea opens up about the digital novel: “Publisher Anna Gerber isn’t trying to kill off the printed book–she’d just like you to spend a bit more time on your mobile. ‘We don’t really think the point is to change the way we read,’ she says, ‘but we do like the idea of trying to immerse readers in books on their phones.’ Gerber has been pushing at the boundaries of the printed page since she and Britt Iversen founded Visual Editions in 2010, a publisher of mould-breaking books including Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes and Marc Saporta’s Composition No 1. Now Visual Editions has teamed up with Google Creative Lab in Sydney to create Editions at Play, a publishing project and online bookstore that sells books that ‘cannot be printed’, with each one available through Google Play. ‘We’re trying to make books that are delightful, surprising and completely unprintable,’ Gerber says. ‘They’re not games and they’re not apps–they’re all built out of HTML–but each one is impossible to envisage on paper.’ …’People like to talk about how physical books have qualities that don’t transfer well to digital,’ says Iversen. ‘We want to show that digital books can have narrative and visual qualities that champion writing but can’t be transferred to print. You wouldn’t really sit and read a novel while at your desktop would you? You’re more likely to curl up on your sofa or armchair and read a book–and you can do that on your phone just as easily as you can with a paperback.’ With Editions at Play, Iversen, Gerber and Google are trying to create books that draw people in, so that they might spend an hour with a book on their phone ‘in the way they might on Facebook–only to feel better about themselves once they have.'”

Hannah Arendt, the Neighbor

libraryHilton Obenzinger tells a story of Jane Kinzler and John Jacobs. Jacobs was a campus radical at Columbia in the 1960s. Kinzler, his girlfriend, lived in the same apartment building as Hannah Arendt. According to Kinzler, Jacobs and Arendt formed a unique relationship: “Many times, when John came by the apartment on 109th St and Riverside Drive he would put a tie on his blue work shirt. He would comb his fingers through his long tangled hair and go up a few floors to ring Hannah Arendt’s doorbell. He would be gone for an hour or so and come back with his mind on fire, his eyes sparkling, his wild hair seeming to give off sparks. John was already very intense, but after a little time with Hannah Arendt he was electric. The philosopher had very mixed feelings about student revolutionaries, and their move toward more militant protests: she liked the energy of the young, their sheer courage, their ‘astounding will to action,’ as John quoted her; they were the generation that could imagine worldwide destruction and could hear the ticking of the bomb, yet they had ‘supreme confidence in the possibility of change.’ She told him that the whole idea of ‘a student rebellion almost exclusively inspired by moral considerations certainly belongs among the totally unexpected events of this century.’ John thrilled at Arendt’s brilliance, and her praise. But Hannah Arendt would also criticize radicals, especially Chairman Mao, and John would argue with her. She was writing on violence and thought the idea that, ‘Power grows out of a barrel of gun’ was ridiculous. For sure, Marx knew about violence in history, but it was secondary, Arendt would argue; principally, it would be the contradictions within the old society that would bring it down. Mao’s words were thoroughly non-Marxist to her. Violence certainly precedes a new society, like labor pains, but it does not cause its birth, she explained. Power comes from the people’s support of the institutions of a country, by consent, or withdrawing consent. As John described it, Arendt thought violence is more often useless as a tactic. ‘Revolutions are not made,’ she said. He puzzled over that.”

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

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

vrg banner headingHAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #18

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, March 4, 2016, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm

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

1The 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, N. A. J. Taylor observes that if we are to have an Arendtian nuclear theory we must now construct it ourselves in the Quote of the Week. Paul Valery reflects on how man relates to his thoughts in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we appreciate the annotations Hannah Arendt made to an anthology of essays on political thought in this week’s Library feature.

Thoughtless Purposefulness


The word designating military drones comes from the word for bee. This is true all over the world, in countless languages. Partly because of this linguistic consistency, it is a common misperception that drones take their name from the buzzing sound when unmanned aircraft fill the air. More accurately, however, drones trace their etymological lineage to the male honey-bee that is called a drone. The male drone-bee is distinguished from the female worker-bees. It does no useful work and has one single function: to impregnate the queen-bee. What unites military drones with their apiary namesakes is not sound, but thoughtless purposefulness.

The beauty of the drone-bee—like the dark beauty of the military drone—is its single-minded purpose. It is a miracle of efficiency, designed to do one thing. The drone-bee is not distracted by the perfume of flowers or the contentment of labor. It is born, lives, and dies with only one task in mind. Similarly, the military drone suffers neither from hunger nor from distraction. It does what it is told. If necessary, it will sacrifice itself for its mission. It is a model of thoughtless efficiency.


A few weeks ago I wrote about Ernst Jünger’s novel The Glass Bees, in which a brilliant inventor produces tiny flying glass bees that offer limitless potential for surveillance and war. Today I turn to Jake Kosek’s recent paper “Ecologies of Empire: On The New Uses of the Honeybee.” Kosek does not cite Jünger’s novel, and yet his article is in many ways its non-fiction sequel. What Kosek sees is that the rise of drones in military strategy is tied deeply to their ability to mimic the activity and demeanor of male honey-bees. It is because bees can fly, swarm, change direction, alter their course, and yet achieve their single purpose absent any intentionality or thinking that bees are so useful in modern warfare.

Bees have long been associated with military endeavors, both metaphorically and literally. Kosek tells that our word bomb comes from the Greek bombos, which means bee. The first bombs were, it seems, beehives dropped or catapulted into the heart of the enemy camp. Bees are today trained to sniff out toxic chemicals; and beeswax was for generations an essential ingredient in munitions.

In the war on terror, bees have taken on a special significance. The “enemy’s lack of coherence—institutionally, ideologically, and territorially— makes the search for the enemy central to the politics of the war on terror.” War in the war on terror is ever less a contest of armies on the battlefield and is increasingly a war of knowledge. This means that surveillance—for centuries an important complement to battlefield tactics—comes to occupy the core of the modern war on terror. In this regard, drones are essential, as drones can hover in the air unseen for days, gathering essential intelligence on persons, groups, or even whole cities. All the more powerful would be miniature drones that fly through the air unseen and at ground level. That is why Kosek writes that “Intelligence gathering [is] not just limited to psychologists, sociologists, lawyers, and military planners, but [has come] to include biologists, anthropologists, epidemiologists, and even entomologists.”  What the military use of bees promises is access to information and worlds not previously open to human knowledge. Bees, Kosek writes, are increasingly the model for the modern military.

The advantage of bees is not simply their thoughtlessness, but is found also in their ability to operate as part of a swarm. Current drone technology requires that each drone be controlled by a single pilot. What happens when hundreds of drones must share the airspace around a target? How can drones coordinate their activity? Kosek quotes a private contractor, John Sauter, who says:

“A central aspect of the future of warfare technology is to get networks of machines to operate as self-synchronized war fighting units that can act as complex adaptive systems. . . We want these machines to be fighting units that can operate as reconfigurable swarms that are less mechanical and more organic, less engineered and more grown.”

The point is that drones, be they large or small, must increasingly work in conjunction with each other at a speed and level of nuance that is impossible for human controllers to manage. The result is that we must model the drones of the future on bees.

The scientists working with the Pentagon to create drones that can fly and function like bees are not entomologists, but mathematicians. The DNA of the glass or silicone bees of the future will be complex algorithms inspired by but actually surpassing the ability of swarms “to coordinate and collect small bits of information that can be synchronized to make collective action by drones possible.” Once this is possible, one controller will be able to manage a single drone “and the others adapt, react, and coordinate with that drone.”


Kosek’s article is provocative and fascinating. His ruminations on empire strike me as overdone; his insights about the way our training and use of bees has transformed the bee and the ways that bees are serving as models and inspiration for our own development of new ways to fight wars and solve problems are important. So too is his imagination of the bee as the six-legged soldier of the future. Whether the drones of the future are cyborg bees (as some in Kosek’s article suggest) or mechanical bees as Jünger imagined half a century ago, it is nevertheless the case that thinking about the impact of drones on warfare and human life is enriched by the meditation on the male honeybee. For your weekend read , I offer you Jake Kosek’s  “Ecologies of Empire: On The New Uses of the Honeybee.”


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.