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.
Corporate Campus Cowardice
Fredrik deBoer writes in the NY Times Magazine that the increasingly bureaucratic and corporate university culture is at least partly to blame for the excessive political corrections and overly litigious Title IX complaints that are attacking the intellectual lives of colleges and universities. “If students have adopted a litigious approach to regulating campus life, they are only working within the culture that colleges have built for them. When your environment so deeply resembles a Fortune 500 company, it makes sense to take every complaint straight to H.R. I don’t excuse students who so zealously pursue their vision of campus life that they file Title IX complaints against people whose opinions they don’t like. But I recognize their behavior as a rational response within a bureaucracy. It’s hard to blame people within a system–particularly people so young–who take advantage of structures they’ve been told exist to help them. The problem is that these structures exist for the institutions themselves, and thus the erosion of political freedom is ultimately a consequence of the institutions. When we identify students as the real threat to intellectual freedom on campus, we’re almost always looking in the wrong place. Current conditions result in neither the muscular and effective student activism favored by the defenders of current campus politics nor the emboldened, challenging professors that critics prefer. Instead, both sides seem to be gradually marginalized in favor of the growing managerial class that dominates so many campuses. Yes, students get to dictate increasingly elaborate and punitive speech codes that some of them prefer. But what could be more corporate or bureaucratic than the increasingly tight control on language and culture in the workplace? Those efforts both divert attention from the material politics that the administration often strenuously opposes (like divestment campaigns) and contribute to a deepening cultural disrespect for student activism. Professors, meanwhile, cling for dear life, trying merely to preserve whatever tenure track they can, prevented by academic culture, a lack of coordination and interdepartmental resentments from rallying together as labor activists. That the contemporary campus quiets the voices of both students and teachers–the two indispensable actors in the educational exchange–speaks to the funhouse-mirror quality of today’s academy.” Limits on campus speech are not claims for privacy, that is, to be free from private intrusions into a private space. They are a bureaucratic and fear-inspired circumscribing of public space and public discourse, a removal of precisely the most important and contentious issues from respectable debate. It is one thing to say that there are certain private things that should be spoken about only in private; it is quite another to label matters of public importance private because one disagrees or is offended by them.
Art and the Open Society
In an essay set amidst the 14th Istanbul biennial, Salt Water: A Theory of Thought Forms, Ari Akkermans shows how artists have quickly become the lone source of public resistance to the Turkish governments. At a time when newspapers are attacked by mobs and the threat of terrorists is everywhere employed to justify repression, Akkermans writes: “The main concern here, however, is not whether to lend support to free media, but to make sure it does effectively exist. It is the very same media that has labeled these events ‘anti-terror protests’ that has become a victim of the same tactics of intimidation that have threatened minorities, journalists, and intellectuals for decades. ‘The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen … If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer,’ remarked Hannah Arendt in 1974, addressing lies in politics and concluding that, ‘A people that no longer can believe anything cannot make [up sic] its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such people you can then do what you please.’ Have we reached that point? Yes, but there is no certainty of what is yet to come in this country, on the brink of a larger conflict. Under so much pressure and heavy censorship it has become increasingly difficult to write honestly about culture in Turkey and not hide behind the art, for the political climate has opened an abyss before us in which we are made defenseless. The time is up for those charades, catered to tourists, about Istanbul as the crossroads between East and West, on which the self-image of the city has fed for years. It is not possible or responsible to try to hide behind the art when there is so much at stake.”
Beware the Stork King
At the end of a passionate essay on the endangered privacy of modern life, Margaret Atwood turns to Aesop’s fables. “One of Aesop’s fables concerns the frogs. They told the gods they wanted a king, and the gods threw down a log to be their ruler. It floated here and there and didn’t do anything, and for a while they were content. But then they began complaining, because they wanted a more active king. The gods, annoyed, sent them a stork, which ate them up. Our problem is that our western governments, increasingly, are an unpleasant combination of both the Log King and the Stork King. They’re good at asserting their own freedom to spy and control, though bad at allowing their citizens as much freedom as they formerly enjoyed. Good at devising spy laws, bad at protecting us from the consequences of them, including false positives. Who says you are who you are? Whoever can alter your data. Though our digital technologies have made life super-convenient for us–just tap and it’s yours, whatever it is–maybe it’s time for us to recapture some of the territory we’ve ceded. Time to pull the blinds, exclude the snoops, recapture the notion of privacy. Go offline. Any volunteers? Right. I thought not. It won’t be easy.” Secrecy for government and transparency for citizens is indeed a dangerous inversion of the traditional democratic formula, where government is accountable to the people and the people are free from prying governmental surveillance.
In a long and detailed essay, Ta-Nehisi Coates argues both for the reform of America’s prison system and for the rehabilitation of the reputation of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who wrote the report that became the justification for the disproportionate over-representation of black men in American prisons, a phenomenon that both precedes Moynihan’s report and that continues today: “In a 1972 essay in The Public Interest, Moynihan, who had by then left the White House and was a professor at Harvard, railed against ‘the poverty professionals’ who had failed to support his efforts and the ‘upper-class’ liars who had failed to see his perspective. He pointed out that his pessimistic predictions were now becoming reality. Crime was increasing. So were the number of children in poor, female-headed families. Moynihan issued a dire warning: ‘Lower-class behavior in our cities is shaking them apart.’ But America had an app for that…Our carceral state banishes American citizens to a gray wasteland far beyond the promises and protections the government grants its other citizens. Banishment continues long after one’s actual time behind bars has ended, making housing and employment hard to secure. And banishment was not simply a well-intended response to rising crime. It was the method by which we chose to address the problems that preoccupied Moynihan, problems resulting from ‘three centuries of sometimes unimaginable mistreatment.’ At a cost of $80 billion a year, American correctional facilities are a social-service program–providing health care, meals, and shelter for a whole class of people. As the civil-rights movement wound down, Moynihan looked out and saw a black population reeling under the effects of 350 years of bondage and plunder. He believed that these effects could be addressed through state action. They were–through the mass incarceration of millions of black people.”
Settling It The Old-Fashioned Way
Jill Lepore is worried about what the Presidential Debates mean for the future of our political institutions (she’s not the only one): “Democracy requires deliberative debate: people who want to govern themselves have to determine what rules to live by and what men and women to elect to represent them. This is not what the word ‘debate’ means in the phrase ‘Presidential debate’… What CNN called ‘The Main Event’ started at 8 P.M. E.S.T., prime time, and obeyed an unwritten rule of television: The Bloodier the Better. If a candidate mentioned another candidate, even if only in passing, that other candidate was given an opportunity to reply and encouraged to take a swipe. CNN must have thought this would make great television, and help draw an audience as big as the unprecedented number of viewers who tuned in for last month’s Fox News debate. The hitch here, though, is that televised Presidential debates are all or nearly all that many citizens see of the American political process. Is this how the nation’s political leaders want to model disagreement and deliberation in a democracy? By kicking each other in the shins? A lot of high-school kids were required to watch the CNN debate, and, in class, they’ll hold their own debates, applying the lesson this debate taught them, which is that appearance is everything and squabbling is everything else.”
Being Alone in Public
Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft pinpoints the appeal of the local coffeehouse: “Part of the thrill of being in public spaces lies in chance and openness, in giving up perfect control over one’s surroundings. That said, ‘anything’ probably won’t happen. There probably won’t be a robbery. Divorce proceedings are also unlikely, and so are adoption ceremonies, rain dances–and once you work your way down a list of events from the unlikely to the likely, you realize that café behavior is fairly predictable, that this encounter with chance is a constrained one. In Los Angeles (which could use a rain dance or two), I avoid Intelligentsia in Silver Lake after about 10 a.m., for fear of the beautiful people and their very small, very beautiful dogs, and I go almost daily to Fix, in my own neighborhood of Echo Park, to write and be around other people who write. I know that I’m expected, and it’s hardly the first shop where I’ve built this pattern. At the Diesel Cafe in Somerville, Massachusetts (right next to Cambridge), I was a regular from 2000 to 2002, and that was where I wrote the first magazine stories I ever sold; I wrote my doctoral dissertation at Pizzaiolo in North Oakland (a restaurant with a morning coffee service), between 2007 and 2009, sitting there for two to four hours each morning. When I lived in the Village, I showed up at Third Rail three to four days a week, and I couldn’t write there because the tables were too small, but it meant something that an Americano appeared not long after I did, without any fuss. I realize, more and more, that I started to go to cafés in a game of aspirational adolescent dress-up, and I kept going to them as an adult because of my desire to belong. Even though I like solitude, I’m afraid to be alone.”
Simon Critchley remembers a mentor: “At the end of his book on Wittgenstein, Frank [Cioffi] tells a story about a philosophical paper (imagined or real, it is not clear) with the title ‘Qualia and Materialism–Closing the Explanatory Gap.’ The premise of the paper is twofold: first, there is a gap between how we experience the world–our subjective, conscious experiences (qualia)–and the scientific explanation of the material forces that constitute nature; and, second, that such a gap can potentially be closed through one, overarching theoretical explanation. Frank goes on to point out that if we can imagine such a paper, then we can also imagine papers called ‘The Big Bang and Me–Closing the Explanatory Gap’ or ‘Natural Selection and Me–Closing the Explanatory Gap.’ This is the risk of what some call ‘scientism’–the belief that natural science can explain everything, right down to the detail of our subjective and social lives. All we need is a better form of science, a more complete theory, a theory of everything. Lord knows, there are even Oscar-winning Hollywood movies made about this topic. Frank’s point, which is still hugely important, is that there is no theory of everything, nor should there be. There is a gap between nature and society. The mistake, for which scientism is the name, is the belief that this gap can or should be filled. One huge problem with scientism is that it invites, as an almost allergic reaction, the total rejection of science. As we know to our cost, we witness this every day with climate change deniers, flat-earthers and religious fundamentalists. This is what is called obscurantism, namely that the way things are is not explained by science, but with reference to occult forces like God, all-conquering Zeus, the benign earth goddess or fairies at the bottom of my garden. Now, in order to confront the challenge of obscurantism, we do not simply need to run into the arms of scientism. What is needed is a clearer overview of the occasions when a scientific remark is appropriate and when we need something else, the kind of elucidation we find in stories, poetry or indeed when we watch a movie or good TV (Frank watched a lot of TV).”
Hannah Arendt, Privacy, and the Constitution
Constitution Day (or Citizenship Day) is observed on September 17 to recognize the U.S. Constitution and those who have become U.S. citizens. In honor of Constitution Day, the Arendt Center extends an invitation to attend a lecture by Roger Berkowitz.
“[T]o the extent that they had a positive notion of freedom which would transcend the idea of a successful liberation from tyrants and from necessity, this notion was identified with the act of foundation, that is, the framing of a constitution.”
-Hannah Arendt, “On Revolution”
Wednesday, September 23, 2015
Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito ’60 Auditorium, Bard College, 5:00 pm
Italian Fascism’s Empire Cinema
Italian Fascism’s Empire Cinema (Indiana University Press, 2015) by Prof. Ruth Ben Ghiat (New York University) is the first in-depth study of the feature and documentary films made during Mussolini’s dictatorship about Italy’s African and Balkan occupations. The fruit of research in military and film archives, it focuses on the dramatic years between the invasion of Ethiopia (1935-1936) and the loss of the colonies (1941-43) during World War Two.
Ben Ghiat will present her recent study which restores these films to Italian and international film history and offers a case study of the intertwining of war and cinema and of the unfolding of imperial policy in the context of dictatorship.
Thursday, September 24, 2015
Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito ’60 Auditorium, Bard College, Time TBA
HAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #12
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Friday, September 11, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm
Bard College Public Debate
Resolved: “National security is more important than the individual right to privacy.”
Please join us for an exciting public debate inspired by the topic of this year’s Hannah Arendt Center Conference, “Why Privacy Matters.” The debate will feature Bard Debate Union members, Bard College faculty, and cadets and faculty from the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Wednesday, October 14, 2015
Campus Center, Multipurpose Room, 7:00pm
SAVE THE DATE – 2015 FALL CONFERENCE
The Hannah Arendt Center’s eighth annual fall conference, “Why Privacy Matters: What Do We Lose When We Lose Our Privacy?,” will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We’ll see you there!
**UPDATE** Registration for our conference is NOW CLOSED except for on-site registration, which is subject to availability and will cost $45 for ALL interested parties except those of the Bard community.
Thursday, October 15 and Friday, October 16, 2015
Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am – 6:00 pm
No Word Breaks Into the Dark – The Poetry of Hannah Arendt
Hannah Arendt always returned to poetry and kept the language of German poems in her hinterkopf. For Arendt, poetry is the closest form we have to thought itself, bearing the burden of language and memory. It should then be no surprise that Arendt herself wrote poems.
The poems now appear in translation for the first time, edited and translated into English by Samantha Hill and into French by Karin Biro. Biro and Hill join us to read from their translations and discuss Arendt’s poetry, the work of translation, and the place of poetry across Arendt’s political and philosophical works.
Tuesday, October 20, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center, 1:00 pm
From the Arendt Center Blog
This week on the Blog, Ian Storey discusses how the EU migrant crisis and attendant immigration discussions are symptomatic of a deeper rot in the heart of Europe in the Quote of the Week. Joseph Joubert comments on what is needed to comprehend a grand and beautiful thought in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. We are pleased to announce the winner of our 2015 Courage to Be Essay Contest. Finally, we reflect on the marginalia Arendt made to her copy of Henri Frankfort’s “Kingship and the Gods” in this week’s Library feature.