Arendtamormundi

Amor Mundi 3/13/16

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.

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Politics of the Deal

Arthur Goldhammer understands that Donald Trump is hardly Hitler and The Art of the Deal is no Mein Kampf. The Trump phenomenon may feed on racial tension, but it is not founded upon fascism, racism, or authoritarianism. Recognizing this is important because lazy criticism can be worse than the failure to criticize, as it only solidifies the sense of righteous anger in those are unfairly targeted. Calling Trump and his huge numbers of supporters racist or fascist may make a small group of intellectuals feel morally superior, but it will hardly convince those voters. The Trump phenomenon is powerful and potentially dangerous and it needs to be understood. What it promises is something new, the anti-politics of “the deal”; Trump outlines his philosophy with clarity in his book The Art of the Deal. Goldhammer is one of the few critics who pay attention.  “Some observers have argued that Trump exemplifies the authoritarian personality, who answers his supporters’ craving “for order and a fear of outsiders,” but that is not the right way to think about Trump. He is not an authoritarian but a celebrity. The French historian Antoine Lilti has described “the invention of celebrity” in the late 18th century. For Lilti, celebrity is a phenomenon of fusion. The relationship of admirer to celebrity is a mediated one, but in the mind of the admirer the mediation disappears: She becomes one with the object of her devotion, his desires becomes hers, his fulfilments as well. What he detests or fears, she detests or fears. One sees this urge to identify, to erase critical distance, in this video of a group of young women being shown around Trump’s penthouse. One sees it in his assumption that the things (and women) he collects are what everyone else covets as well. One sees it in his followers’ belief that no opposition will be capable of resisting him, because he has mastered “the art of the deal.” “The deal,” ultimately, is the trumpenproletariat’s answer to the potential for paralysis that the Founding Fathers built into the American Constitution to allay their fears of faction and tyranny. To prevent a faction or a tyrant from seizing power, they installed checks and balances into our system of government and sought to ensure that no individual or group would likely be able to control every possible veto point. But in recent years this veto-ridden system has shuddered to a halt. Immobilized, the great engine of government has failed to respond to the needs of many groups of citizens, not just those who see their salvation in Trump. With celebrity and the illusion of omnipotent wish-fulfillment it bestows, Trump now promises to slice through this Gordian knot. He has made a career of portraying himself as a man who gets things done, who builds buildings, beds women, pummels opponents, hires and fires apprentices. His followers want things done and, having identified with his self-presentation to the point of fusion, they have convinced themselves that with him their wishes, no matter how contradictory, will all be fulfilled. They mistake their man’s celebrity for the kind of power and mastery needed to unfreeze the system. And why shouldn’t they? As Thomas Hobbes put it, “Reputation of power is power.” Thanks to his reputation of power, Trump’s ignorance of government, of foreign policy, of economics counts in his favor, because as Hobbes also said, knowledge “is small power,” since the truths it contains are evident only to “such as in a good measure have attained it.” Ignorance cloaked in celebrity appeals to the many, while knowledge, with its frustrating acknowledgment of difficulty and of incompatible goods, does not please crowds.”

To understand Hitler, it helps to read Mein Kampf. Similarly, those who would understand Trump would do well to stop psychoanalyzing his supporters and look at what he wrote. The Art of the Deal is Trump’s manifesto. When Trump says that building a wall is the beginning of his negotiations with Mexico and that he will have to negotiate a final deal, you can hear his words written 40 years ago: “My style of deal-making is quite simple and straightforward. I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing to get what I’m after. Sometimes I settle for less than I sought, but in most cases I still end up with what I want.” When Trump responds to insults with invective and anger, you can hear his self-analysis in The Art of the Deal. “Much as it pays to emphasize the positive, there are times when the only choice is confrontation. In most cases I’m very easy to get along with. I’m very good to people who are good to me. But when people treat me badly or unfairly or try to take advantage of me, my general attitude, all my life, has been to fight back very hard. The risk is that you’ll make a bad situation worse, and I certainly don’t recommend this approach to everyone.” And when Trump shoots from the hip, seeming both uninformed and flippant, one should recall his well-established strategy of deal making: “Most people are surprised by the way I work. I play it very loose. I don’t carry a briefcase. I try not to schedule too many meetings. I leave my door open. You can’t be imaginative or entrepreneurial if you’ve got too much structure. I prefer to come to work each day and just see what develops.” And finally, when one listens to Trump joking, needling, and provoking, one should hear the resonance with his philosophy of life:  “I don’t kid myself. Life is very fragile, and success doesn’t change that. If anything, success makes it more fragile. Anything can change, without warning, and that’s why I try not to take any of what’s happened too seriously. Money was never a big motivation for me, except as a way to keep score. The real excitement is playing the game. I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what I should have done differently, or what’s going to happen next. If you ask me exactly what the deals I’m about to describe all add up to in the end, I’m not sure I have a very good answer. Except that I’ve had a very good time making them.””

There is an unmistakably racial undertone to many of Trump’s rallies and remarks. I’ve written about that here. But it is important to recognize that Trump’s focus on illegal immigrants, protectionism, the wall on the Mexican border, and the terrorist danger posed by Muslims transcends race. Illegal immigration is a problem in a society governed by the rule of law. Free trade does hollow out the jobs that have for generations sustained the working class. And while not all Muslims are terrorists and not all terrorists practice Islam, the rise of international Jihad and ISIS are inseparable from contemporary Islamic movements. Trump could and should make these distinctions clearer than he has. But it is hardly racist or fascist to take the positions he has. Indeed, both Democrat candidates have been supporters of a fence in Mexico and rigorous screenings of Muslim refugees. The difference between Trump, Clinton, and Sanders is one of rhetoric and degree, hardly of policy. And as Janell Ross has recently written in the Washington Post, Bernie Sanders’ supporters have pushed the limits of racial propriety as well. The real difference is that Sanders has shown a willingness to condemn excesses by his supporters while Trump has not. That shows a difference of character that’s is considerable and important. It shows Trump to be low class. It hardly makes Trump a racist.

For those who think this is quibbling, distinctions and definitions are not arbitrary and they are important. First because we should all try to speak with a clarity that allows others to understand us. Second, distinctions allow us to speak with those with whom we don’t agreed. To call Trump a racist is to score points amongst your friends, pile up “Likes” and “Loves” on Facebook, and win Twitter followers. But it will not persuade those with whom one disagrees because it does not truthfully engage with their reality. Politics, Hannah Arendt taught, is not about truth, it is about opinion. When Trump refuses to condemn violence or when his rhetoric is excessive, he should be called on it. When he makes up facts, he should be shamed. But too often the vitriol against Trump comes from a belief that his supporters have illegitimate beliefs. To delegitimize political beliefs with charges of racism and fascism is to drive a deeper wedge between the liberal and conservative elites who self-righteously condemn Trump and the bi-partisan working class Americans who have turned to Trump after decades of Republican and Democratic refusal to respond to their interests. The hope that a narcissistic deal-maker can save the country may be a shallow and desperate hope. But the worry that our political class is not up to the job is born from experience. -RB

Post-Democracy

Georg Diez writes about the anger of Jürgen Habermas and his newly empowered fight against European elites. We live at a time where western representative democracy has lost its legitimacy because it has ceased to be either representative or democratic. Habermas calls this post-democracy.  “”Zur Verfassung Europas” (“On Europe’s Constitution”) is the name of his new book, which is basically a long essay in which he describes how the essence of our democracy has changed under the pressure of the crisis and the frenzy of the markets. Habermas says that power has slipped from the hands of the people and shifted to bodies of questionable democratic legitimacy, such as the European Council. Basically, he suggests, the technocrats have long since staged a quiet coup d’état. “On July 22, 2011, (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel and (French President) Nicolas Sarkozy agreed to a vague compromise — which is certainly open to interpretation — between German economic liberalism and French etatism,” he writes. “All signs indicate that they would both like to transform the executive federalism enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty into an intergovernmental supremacy of the European Council that runs contrary to the spirit of the agreement.” Habermas refers to the system that Merkel and Sarkozy have established during the crisis as a “post-democracy.” The European Parliament barely has any influence. The European Commission has “an odd, suspended position,” without really being responsible for what it does. Most importantly, however, he points to the European Council, which was given a central role in the Lisbon Treaty — one that Habermas views as an “anomaly.” He sees the Council as a “governmental body that engages in politics without being authorized to do so.” He sees a Europe in which states are driven by the markets, in which the EU exerts massive influence on the formation of new governments in Italy and Greece, and in which what he so passionately defends and loves about Europe has been simply turned on its head.”

For so many today, the failure of democracy leads to pessimism and cynicism. Not for Habermas. As Diez writes, “Habermas truly believes in the rationality of the people. He truly believes in the old, ordered democracy. He truly believes in a public sphere that serves to make things better.” Hannah Arendt also rejects pessimism. Never afraid to look reality in the face, Arendt confronts the undemocratic element of representative democracy and the corruption of a citizenry that prefers acquisition and luxury to self-government. But Arendt also insists that we not only face up to reality, but resist it. Resistance for Arendt does not embrace the fantastic ideal of the “rationality of the people.” Such mythic ideals are an avoidance of reality. Instead, we must develop institutional incentives and constitutional institutions that habituate people to the joys of acting and speaking in public. Arendt shares Habermas’ optimism, but not his rationalist fantasies. What is needed, she suggests, is a wide-eyed confrontation with the way individuals can act and speak in ways that inspire new the ideals of citizenship, new institutions, and new ideals. The first step toward such action is a willingness to say what is and speak one’s opinion with vigor and newness. And that requires bold and provocative thinking that is out of step with public opinion. New political opinions will frequently be unpopular. But only new and even shocking opinions are those that can make others take note and talk about them. Only when truly new and surprising actions and opinions enter the public realms is there a real chance to create new ideals and new institutions. But new opinions will most often be attacked rather than embraced. That is why Arendt calls courage the first political virtue. -RB

The Public Safety State

Thinking about the rhetoric and legal bases of the War on Terror, Kade Crawford differentiates between kinds of public safety and, in turn, kinds of public good: “Both Democrats and Republicans justify Terror War abuses by telling the public, either directly or indirectly, that our national security hangs in the balance. But national security is not the same as public safety. And more: the things the government has done in the name of preserving national security-from invading Iraq to putting every man named Mohammed on a special list-actually undermine our public safety. That’s because, as David Talbot demonstrates in The Devil’s Chessboard, his revelatory Allen Dulles biography and devastating portrait of a CIA run amok, national security centers on “national interests,” which translates, in the brand of Cold War realpolitik that Dulles pioneered, into the preferred policy agendas of powerful corporations. Public safety, on the other hand, is concerned with whether you live or die, and how. Any serious effort at public safety requires a harm-reduction approach acknowledging straight out that no government program can foreclose the possibility of terroristic violence. The national security apparatus, by contrast, grows powerful in direct proportion to the perceived strength of the terrorist (or in yesterday’s language, the Communist) threat-and requires that you fear this threat so hysterically that you release your grip on reason. Reason tells you government cannot protect us from every bad thing that happens. But the endlessly repeated national security meme pretends otherwise, though the world consistently proves it wrong.” The confusion of national security with public safety is a theme of Arendt’s work; she insists that what we justify in the name of national security is rarely about the security of the nation and frequently in support of economic or imperialist adventures. And the turn toward public safety furthers the tenuous connection of our national security state to any meaningful connection to the security of the nation. The debate is really between personal freedom and personal security; the question is whether the seemingly unique unlimited human desire for security will corrupt the essential republican freedoms of free speech, free assembly, and free protest that are at the root of our constitutional freedoms.

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 Art in Dark Times

aleppo-wsj-amor-mundiUrsula Lindsey visits Egypt’s literary elite and, through their struggle with the country’s repressive, but secular, military government, tells a story of its history since Tahrir: “Cairo has always had a lively literary scene, which since the early 20th century has been anchored in the bars, bookstores, offices, and smoke-filled cafés of Downtown. The district adjoins Tahrir Square, a belle epoque wonder created by Khedive Ismail Pasha in 1865 to rival the glory of Paris. Its elegant apartment buildings, old palaces, and passages have slipped into charming dilapidation, but it remains the city’s cultural epicenter. In the novel The Yacoubian Building, a best seller during Mubarak’s twilight years in power, Alaa Al Aswany indicts the regime’s corruption and describes its repercussions on the lives of the residents of a historic Downtown building. Merit published the first edition. Two years after Mubarak’s downfall, Hashim and his friends were in the street again. In 2013, they backed the protests against the Muslim Brotherhood’s post-Mubarak government and the military intervention that ousted Mohamed Morsi from the presidency that July. Headed by Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has since become president, the regime outlawed the Brotherhood and arrested thousands of its members. When security forces cleared Morsi supporters from Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in August 2013, they left at least 1,000 people dead. As an Islamist insurgency grew in the Sinai Peninsula and the country’s economy faltered, the Sisi regime’s repression expanded in every direction, driving a generation of young activists into prison, exile, or silence. Egyptians are still dying regularly in police custody or being kidnapped and held for weeks or months on end in a secret, parallel prison system where torture is rampant. The authorities harass media outlets, human-rights groups, universities, civil-society organizations, and cultural institutions-anywhere citizens might congregate, reflect, and express themselves. In the entrance to Merit’s office hangs a tattered, framed gray sheet of paper covered in signatures. At the top is written i was in tahrir. So many waves of violence, fatigue, disappointment, and confusion have swept over Egypt since the uprising five years ago that these days, one almost forgets, or doubts, it ever took place. Sisi’s regime wants not only to rewrite the past-it insists the Arab Spring was a conspiracy hatched by the West and Islamists-but also to forbid any honest accounting of the present crisis and to disable the capacity to imagine alternatives. To the government, the motley spirit of defiance displayed by institutions like Merit is unacceptable.”

The Rise of the Social

Emily Bell takes stock of the new media landscape: “Something really dramatic is happening to our media landscape, the public sphere, and our journalism industry, almost without us noticing and certainly without the level of public examination and debate it deserves. Our news ecosystem has changed more dramatically in the past five years than perhaps at any time in the past five hundred. We are seeing huge leaps in technical capability-virtual reality, live video, artificially intelligent news bots, instant messaging, and chat apps. We are seeing massive changes in control, and finance, putting the future of our publishing ecosystem into the hands of a few, who now control the destiny of many. Social media hasn’t just swallowed journalism, it has swallowed everything. It has swallowed political campaigns, banking systems, personal histories, the leisure industry, retail, even government and security. The phone in our pocket is our portal to the world. I think in many ways this heralds enormously exciting opportunities for education, information, and connection, but it brings with it a host of contingent existential risks…The reintermediation of information, which once looked as though it was going to be fully democratized by the progress of the open Web, is likely to make the mechanisms for funding journalism worse before they get better. Looking at the prospects for mobile advertising and the aggressive growth targets Apple, Facebook, Google, and the rest have to meet to satisfy Wall Street, it is fair to say that unless social platforms return a great deal more money back to the source, producing news is likely to become a nonprofit pursuit rather than an engine of capitalism. To be sustainable, news and journalism companies will need to radically alter their cost base. It seems most likely that the next wave of news media companies will be fashioned around a studio model of managing different stories, talents, and products across a vast range of devices and platforms. As this shift happens, posting journalism directly to Facebook or other platforms will become the rule rather than the exception. Even maintaining a website could be abandoned in favor of hyperdistribution. The distinction between platforms and publishers will melt completely.”

The Common Turtle Pile

Diane Ravitch, citing a certain couplet loving children’s author, takes stock of the divide between educators and the people who write education policy: “In New York State, 220,000 students refused to take the state tests in 2015. This is called “opting out” of the test. A survey conducted by the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents sixty-eight urban districts, reported that the average student takes 112 standardized tests from pre-kindergarten to the end of high school, most of which are mandated by the federal government. The new online tests for the Common Core require children in grades three to eight to sit for fifteen to twenty hours over a two-week period to measure their reading and math skills. National opinion polls showed that a majority of parents thought there was too much testing in schools. In response to such expressions of parental opposition, the Obama administration announced in late October that it was taking action to reduce the burden of standardized testing. Secretary Duncan issued a statement saying that testing was consuming too much instructional time and “causing undue stress for students and educators.” The one concrete proposal in the Obama “Testing Action Plan” was advice to states and districts to limit tests to no more than 2 percent of class time. Since most schools are in session 180 days a year for at least six hours a day, the limit translates to twenty-one hours of testing time. In other words, the 2 percent “limit” merely confirmed the status quo, while giving the appearance that the administration was making genuine changes. Nothing in the administration’s plan allowed states to drop the failed practice of evaluating the quality of teachers by the test scores of their students. In early December, Congress passed and President Obama signed a new federal law, replacing Bush’s No Child Left Behind. It is called the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which is another way of saying “no child left behind” (why Congress feels the need to put an unrealistic prediction into the title of legislation is baffling). Like NCLB, the new law requires annual testing of students in grades three to eight in reading and mathematics, but it turns this responsibility over to the states. ESSA prohibits future secretaries of education from meddling in states’ decisions and contracts the federal role in education. It also eliminates federal punishments for schools and teachers with low test scores, leaving those decisions to the states. What is not abandoned is the core belief that standardized testing and accountability are the right levers to improve education. The best metaphor for education reform today is Dr. Seuss’s children’s book Yertle the Turtle. Yertle, the master turtle, forced all the other turtles to pile themselves into a very high stack so that he could survey his kingdom. From where Yertle sat, perched on top, everything looked grand and glorious. Those on the bottom were not experiencing anything but pain and frustration. When the pile collapsed, Yertle was brought back to earth and got his comeuppance. This will likely be the fate of the politicians, economists, and business leaders who decided to reform the nation’s schools, at a distance, without consulting working educators.”

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Death and the Public Realm

**This article was originally published on May 13, 2013**

“There is perhaps no clearer testimony to the loss of the public realm in the modern age than the almost complete loss of authentic concern with immortality, a loss somewhat overshadowed by the simultaneous loss of the metaphysical concern with eternity.”

–Hannah Arendt,  The Human Condition Continue reading

Amor Mundi 3/2/14

Arendtamormundi

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.

The End of Hide and Go Seek

gorey

Edward Gorey Charitable Trust

David Cole wonders if we’ve reached the point of no return on the issue of privacy: “Reviewing seven years of the NSA amassing comprehensive records on every American’s every phone call, the board identified only one case in which the program actually identified an unknown terrorist suspect. And that case involved not an act or even an attempted act of terrorism, but merely a young man who was trying to send money to Al-Shabaab, an organization in Somalia. If that’s all the NSA can show for a program that requires all of us to turn over to the government the records of our every phone call, is it really worth it?” Everyone speaks about the need for a National Security State and the necessary trade-offs involved in living in a dangerous world. What is often forgotten is that most people simply don’t care that much about privacy. Whether snoopers promise security or better-targeted advertisements, we are willing to open up our inner worlds for the price of convenience. If we are to save privacy, the first step is articulating what it is about privacy that makes it worth saving. You can read more on an Arendtian defense of privacy in Roger Berkowitz’s Weekend Read.

The Mindfulness Racket

Illustration by Jessica Fortner

Illustration by Jessica Fortner

In the New Republic, Evgeny Morozov questions the newly trendy rhetoric of “mindfulness” and “digital detox” that has been adopted by a variety of celebrities and public figures, from Deepak Chopra to Google chairman Eric Schmidt to Arianna Huffington. In response to technology critic Alexis Madrigal, who has argued in The Atlantic that the desire to unplug and live free of stress and distractions amounts to little more than “post-modern technoanxiety”—akin to the whole foods movement in its dream of “stripping away all the trappings of modern life”—Morozov contends that there are legitimate reasons for wanting to disconnect, though they might not be what we think. “With social media—much like with gambling machines or fast food—our addiction is manufactured, not natural,” he writes. “In other words, why we disconnect matters: We can continue in today’s mode of treating disconnection as a way to recharge and regain productivity, or we can view it as a way to sabotage the addiction tactics of the acceleration-distraction complex that is Silicon Valley. The former approach is reactionary but the latter can lead to emancipation, especially if such acts of refusal give rise to genuine social movements that will make problems of time and attention part of their political agendas—and not just the subject of hand-wringing by the Davos-based spirituality brigades.”

“Evil is unspectacular and always human”

audenEdward Mendelsohn has a moving and powerful portrait of W.H. Auden in the New York Review of Books, including this discussion of Auden’s account of evil: “He observed to friends how common it was to find a dedicated anti-fascist who conducted his erotic life as if he were invading Poland. Like everyone who thought more or less as he did, Auden didn’t mean that erotic greeds were morally equivalent to mass murder or that there was no difference between himself and Hitler. He was less interested in the obvious distinction between a responsible citizen and an evil dictator than he was in the more difficult question of what the citizen and dictator had in common, how the citizen’s moral and psychological failures helped the dictator to succeed. Those who hold the opposite view, the view that the citizen and dictator have nothing in common, tend to hold many corollary views. One such corollary is that a suitable response to the vast evil of Nazi genocide is wordless, uncomprehending awe—because citizen and dictator are different species with no language they can share. Another corollary view is that Hannah Arendt, in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), was offensively wrong about the “banality of evil,” because evil is something monstrous, exotic, and inhuman. The acts and thoughts of a good citizen, in this view, can be banal, not those of a dictator or his agents. Auden stated a view like Arendt’s as early as 1939, in his poem “Herman Melville”:

“Evil is unspectacular and always human,
And shares our bed and eats at our own table.”

Looking Intensely

sunYiyun Li tells why, if you were to run into her on the subway, you might find her staring at you: “Writing fiction is this kind of staring, too. You have to stare at your characters, like you would a stranger on the train, but for much longer than is comfortable for both of you. This way, you get to know characters layer by layer, until any dishonesty is stripped away. I believe all characters try to trick us. They lie to us. It’s just like when you meet someone in the real world—no one’s going to be 100 percent honest. They’re not going to tell you the whole story about themselves; in fact, the stories they do tell will say more about how they want to be perceived than how they actually are. There’s always a certain resistance with being known, and that’s true of characters and real people. People don’t want to tell you their secrets. Or they lie to themselves, or they lie to you.”

Through a Veteran’s Eyes

ptsdIn an interview, writer Jennifer Percy discusses rethinking how we talk about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: “I wanted to more fully imagine the homecoming experience of soldiers and their time at war. The language we use to talk about PTSD has historically been determined by political and economic factors. It’s attached to a vocabulary that intentionally limits our ability to imagine atrocity because it’s protective and reductive. It benefits the perpetrators but dehumanizes the other. It’s a process of rationalization. But what happens when that vocabulary is discarded, and we partake in an effort to fully imagine the experience of soldiers and veterans? This is the space I hoped to inhabit. We might refuse to imagine wartime experience because it’s outside the realm of the ordinary; or maybe it feels unnecessary, or is too demanding on our psyches. But when we do imagine it, what we find is often the familiar. It’s ourselves. And that might also be a reason we turn away.”

So You Want to Be a Writer

bookEmily Gould, who once sold a book for a big payday, only to find that her book sold just a few thousand copies, writes about what happened after the money ran out and she found she couldn’t write anything else: “With the exception of yoga earnings and freelance assignments, I mostly lived on money I borrowed from my boyfriend, Keith. (We’d moved in together in fall 2010, in part because we liked each other and in larger part because I couldn’t afford to pay rent.) We kept track of what I owed him at first, but at some point we stopped writing down the amounts; it was clear the total was greater than I could hope to repay anytime soon. He paid off one credit card so that I wouldn’t have to keep paying the monthly penalty. When I wanted to cancel my health insurance he insisted I keep it, and paid for it. He was patient when my attempts to get a job more remunerative than teaching yoga failed; he didn’t call me out on how much harder I could have tried. Without questioning my choices, he supported me, emotionally, creatively, and financially. I hated that he had to. At times he was stretched thin financially himself and I knew that our precarious money situation weighed heavily on his mind, even though he never complained. ‘You’ll sell your book for a million dollars,’ he said, over and over again.”

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Michiel Bot discusses Étienne Balibar’s interpretation of Arendt’s work, Jeffrey Champlin considers whether Arendt’s celebration of the council system, as discussed in On Revolution, can be applied to feminism, and Roger Berkowitz examines the promise and peril present in today’s Ukraine.  And  in the Weekend Read, Berkowitz argues the importance of the private realm for the political world.

Upcoming Events

blogBlogging and the New Public Intellectual – A Discussion with Tom Goldstein

Sunday, March 9, 2014 , 5:00 pm – 7:00 pm
Bard Graduate Center, NYC
Learn more here.

R.S.V.P. to arendt@bard.edu

 

on“Colors Through the Darkness: Three Generations Paint and Write for Justice”
Monday, March 10, 2013, 1:30  pm
Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Zito ’60 Auditorium (RKC 103)
Learn more here.

Death and the Public Realm

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“There is perhaps no clearer testimony to the loss of the public realm in the modern age than the almost complete loss of authentic concern with immortality, a loss somewhat overshadowed by the simultaneous loss of the metaphysical concern with eternity.”

-Hannah Arendt,  The Human Condition,

Hannah Arendt was one of the first to remark upon the loss of the public realm, or what Jürgen Habermas called the public sphere.  As indicated by the terms realm and sphere, along with related phrases such as public space and public sector, we are referring here to a kind of environment, or as Arendt puts it, “the world itself, in so far as it is common to all of us and distinguished from our privately owned place in it” (p. 52). The private realm, the subject of a previous post of mine (The Deprivations of Privacy) is defined in relation (and opposition) to the public, but both are differentiated from the natural environment according to Arendt.  Both are human artifacts, human inventions:

To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it: the world like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time. (p. 52)

The table is an apt metaphor, as it has the connotation of civilized discourse, and a willingness to sit down for peaceful negotiation. Indeed, it is much more than a metaphor, as the table does create a shared space for individuals, a medium, if you will, around which they can communicate. But the table also keeps individuals separate from one another, establishing a buffer zone that allows for a sense of safety in the company of individuals who might otherwise be threatening.  Sitting at a table restricts the possibilities of sudden movement, providing some assurance that the person seated across from you will not suddenly spring at you with sword or knife in hand, especially if both parties keep their hands visible on the table top. No wonder, then, that as the practice of sitting around a table for a meal emerges in the Middle Ages, it becomes the focal point for what Norbert Elias refers to as the civilizing process.

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The table is a medium, an in-between, as Arendt puts it, and each medium in its own way serves as a means by which individuals connect and relate to one another, and also are separated and kept apart from one another.  In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan expressed the same idea in saying that all media, meaning all technologies and human innovations, are extensions of some aspect of individuals, but at the same time are amputations.  As I have explained elsewhere, the medium that extends us into the world comes between us and the world, and in doing so becomes our world. Or as I like to put it, with apologies to McLuhan, the medium is the membrane.

The public realm then is a shared human environment, a media environment. As Arendt explains,

everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity. For us, appearance—something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves—constitutes reality. (p. 50)

Paul Watzlawick has argued that our reality is constructed through our communication, rather than mere reflected or represented by our messages. And this means that our reality is shaped by our means of communication, our media.  It is through publicity that we create the public realm.  And for the public realm to exist, there must also be the possibility for some communication to take place privately, in a context where it cannot be seen and heard by everybody, where there are barriers to people’s perception and their access to information, what Erving Goffman referred to as the back region.

The public realm is not a media environment we typically associate with tribal societies, where the distinction between public and private is, for the most part, non-existent.  Rather, it is strongly tied to the city as a human environment (and a medium of communication in its own right).  Lewis Mumford insightfully observed that cities are a type of container technology, indeed the container of containers, and what they contain includes great concentrations of population.  As settlements evolved into the first urban centers in the ancient world, they gave rise to the first true crowds and mobs, and also to audiences made up of people who do not necessarily know one another, or have strong social ties to each other.

These new kinds of audiences required a new form of communication:  public address.  They required new kinds of physical environments:  the agora, the forum, the marketplace.  And they required new forms of education:  the art of rhetoric.

The invention of writing is intimately bound up in all of these developments.  Without reasonably well-developed systems of notation, human populations were not able to handle the complexity of large populations. In tribal societies, as population increases, groups split up in order to keep their affairs manageable.  Writing, as a container for language, whose primary form is the spoken word, develops side by side with the city as container, and allows for the control and coordination of large populations and diverse activities.  And writing, in allowing language to be viewed and reviewed, made it possible to refine the art of public address, to study rhetoric and instruct others in the techniques of oratory, as did the Sophists in ancient Greece.  It is no accident that the introduction of the Greek alphabet was followed by the first forms of study, including rhetoric and grammar, and by the first forms of democracy.

Writing also has the peculiar effect of introducing the idea of the individual, of breaking people apart from their tribal, group identity. The ability to take one’s thoughts, write them down, and observe them from the outside, made it possible to separate the knower from the known, as Eric Havelock put it, which also separated individuals from their traditions.

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Written law, beginning with Hammurabi and Moses, took judicial matters out of the concrete realm of proverbs and parables, and reasoning by analogy, opened the door to the view that everyone is equal, as an individual, before the law.  The fact that literacy also facilitated increasingly more abstract modes of thought also was of great importance, but the simple act of reading and writing alone, in isolation, had much to do with the genesis of individualism.

The origin of the public realm is closely tied to the medium of the written word, in highly significant but limited ways. Script gave us the civic public, rooted in rhetoric, but it was the printing revolution in early modern Europe that made the public intro a national, mass phenomenon. As McLuhan noted in his preface to The Gutenberg Galaxy,

Printing from movable types created a quite unexpected new environment—it created the PUBLIC.  Manuscript technology did not have the intensity or power of extension necessary to create publics on a national scale.  What we have called “nations” in recent centuries did not, and could not, precede the advent of Gutenberg technology any more than they can survive the advent of electric circuitry with its power of totally involving all people in all other people. (p. ii)

A reading public is quite different from a listening public, as readers are separated in time and space from one another, and this form of mediation also had the effect of making individualism a ruling ideology.  And yes, Habermas did place a great deal of emphasis on people gathering in public places like coffee shops to discuss and debate the issues of the day, but they did so based on what they read in print media such as newspapers, pamphlets, and the like. Moreover, historian Elizabeth Eisenstein explained in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, the printers’ shops were the first places that people gathered for such intellectual exchanges, long before they gravitated to the coffee shops and taverns.  The point is that the content of these discussions were based on typographic media, the mindset of the discussants was shaped by print literacy, and both were situated within the print media environment.  Within such an environment, a population of individuals could gain common access to ideas and opinions through print media, which in turn could provide the basis for political action; in this way publics came into being.

Publics were formed by publicity, and publicity was achieved through publication.  As much as books, pamphlets, catalogs, calendars, periodicals, and all manner of ephemera were the products of the printing press, so too, as McLuhan observed, was the reading public.  Print technology gave us our first form of mass communication, characterized by wide and relatively rapid dissemination of multiple, identical copies of the same text, a democratizing process, as Walter Benjamin observed.

But printing also created a new sense of immortality, of the author’s words living on through the ages, and of posterity as the ultimate judge.  Elizabeth Eisenstein explains that the very multiplication of texts, however perishable any single copy might be, established what she referred to as the preservative powers of print far beyond anything previously known.  This idea of immortality goes hand in hand with the rise of a new kind of historical consciousness, which also emerged out of print culture.

Eternity, by way of contrast, is situated outside of historical time, within what Mircea Eliade calls sacred time. It is a time that looks back towards the moment of creation or a golden age. Through ritual, we can step out of the profane time of everyday life, and in enacting the myth of eternal return enter the sacred time that intersects with all of history—in this sense always a part of it and yet at the same time apart from it.

Traditional cultures look backward to creation or the golden age as a time superior to the present, a time they strive to reclaim.  Oral cultures are particularly associated with a cyclical understanding of time.  The invention of writing makes possible first chronology, then historical narrative, and this opens the door to the idea of progress. The shift begins with the biblical narrative in ancient Israel, and the secular history writing of ancient Greece and Rome.  But a complete reversal in orientation from looking to the past as the ideal towards anticipating the future as a continual process of getting better, perhaps culminating in utopia, is closely associated with the printing revolution and the modern world it gave rise to.  This is, in turn, superseded by a present-centered orientation brought on by the electronic media, as I have discussed in On the Binding Biases of Time.  The instantaneity and immediacy of electronic communication not only moves our focus from history and futurity to the present moment, but it translates the remembered past and the anticipated future into the present tense, the now of the computer program and digital simulation.

Arendt’s insight that the loss of a concern with immortality is intimately bound up with the loss of the public realm implies a common denominator, specifically the electronic media environment that has superseded the typographic media environment. If literacy and print go hand in hand with citizenship, civics, and the public realm, what happens when these media are overshadowed by electronic technologies, from the telegraph and wireless to radio and television now to the internet and mobile technology?

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We still use the word public of course, but we have seen a great blurring of the boundaries between public and private, the continuing erosion of privacy but also a loss of the expectation that dress, behavior, and communication ought to be different when we are in a public place, and that there are rules and obligations that go along with being a part of a public.  And we have experienced a loss of our longstanding sense of individualism, replaced by an emphasis on personalization; a loss of citizenship based on equality, replaced by group identity based on grievance and all manner of neo-tribalism; a loss of traditional notions of character and personal integrity, replaced by various forms of identity construction via online profiles, avatars, and the like; the loss of separate public and private selves, replaced by affiliations with different lifestyles and media preferences.

As consumers, members of audiences, and participants in the online world, we live for the moment, and we do so with disastrous results, economically, ethically, and ecologically.  Arendt suggests that, “under modern conditions, it is indeed so unlikely that anybody should earnestly aspire to an earthly immortality that we probably are justified in thinking it is nothing but vanity” (p. 56).  Along the same lines, Daniel Boorstin in The Image argued that the hero, characterized by greatness, has been replaced by the celebrity, characterized by publicity, famous for appearing on the media rather than for any accomplishments of historical significance.  Heroes were immortal. Celebrities become famous seemingly overnight, and then just as quickly fade from collective consciousness. Heroes, as Boorstin describes them, were known through print media; celebrities make up the content of our audiovisual and electronic media.  These are the role models that people pattern their lives after.

Arendt explains that a public realm ” cannot be erected for one generation and planned for the living only; it must transcend the life span of mortal men” (p. 55). And she goes on to explain,

It is the publicity of the public realm which can absorb and make shine through the centuries whatever men may want to save from the natural ruin of time. Through many ages before us—but now not any more—men entered the public realm because they wanted something of their own or something they had in common with others to be more permanent than their earthly lives. (p. 55)

Without this concern with a public realm that extends across history from the past into the future, what becomes of political action based on the common good, rather than private interests?

With the loss of any concern with immortality, have we witnessed not merely the erosion, but the irrevocable death of the public realm?

And perhaps most importantly of all, without the existence of a public, can there still exist, in something more than name only, a republic?

-Lance Strate

Water and Desert: Perspectives in Education

AredntNola

For two years I taught literature, reading and writing at a public university in one of New York City’s outer Boroughs. Of course having come out of a liberal arts “thinking” institution what I really thought (maybe hoped) I was teaching was new perspectives. Ironically, the challenge that most struck me was not administrative, nor class size or terrible grammar and endless hours of grading, the most pressing obstacle lay in creating a case for the value of “thinking.”

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I state “case” because I regularly felt like my passions and beliefs, as well as my liberal arts education went on daily trial. I had originally come from a hard-scrabble immigrant reality, but my perception of reality had been altered by my education experience, and as an educator I felt the need to authenticate my progressive (core text) education with my students.

I was regularly reminded that the  immediate world of the “average” student (citizen) with all its pressing, “real” concerns does not immediately open itself to “thought” in the liberal arts sense. We are a specialization, automation, struggling and hyper competitive society. The “learning time” of a student citizen is spent in the acquisition of “marketable,” and differentiating skills, while their “free time” is the opportunity to decompress from, or completely escape the pressures of competitive skill acquisition. The whole cycle is guided by an air of anxiety fostered in our national eduction philosophy, as well as the troubled economy and scattered society at large. I don’t think one can teach the humanities without listening to their students, and listening to the students calls for a deep inventory on the value of “thought” in the humanities sense, and then ultimately in how to most truthfully communicate this value to the students.

I need to add here that my students were quite smart and insightful. This made it even greater of a challenge. Their intelligence was one of realism. I needed to both acknowledge and sway their perspective, as well as my own.

Each semester I began with a close-reading of David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon College, “What is Water.” He begins his speech with the parable of two fish swimming by an older fish which as it swims by asks, How is the Water?” The little ones swim on and only later ask each other, “What is water?”  Didactic parable, cliche — yes — but Wallace goes on to deconstruct the artifice of commencement speeches, parables, and cliches, and then rebuilds them. Having so skillfully deconstructed them he has invited his listers into the form making, and as he communicates the truth beneath what had earlier seemed lofty or cliche, the listers follow him towards meaning making. Ultimately Wallace states that education is “less about teaching you how to think, and more about teaching you of the choice in what to think about.” To have agency is to be a meaning maker. And as more and more cultural institutions artfully vie for the citizens devotion and loyalty — politics, religion, but even more so, corporate houses and pop culture designs, in the ever growing noise of institutional marketing the call to choose seems ever more muted.

The choice, for so many students today, is simply in how to most skillfully compartmentalize themselves and their lives in the face of the anxieties of their immediate world. The choice for many young teachers, facing their own set of related anxieties, is in how far are they willing step away from the ideal of learning-living-teaching integration model — so easy is it today as an educator to simply become disenchanted, frustrated and aloof. Sometimes, “thinking” is the process of choosing what to keep and what to give away.

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Wallace’s insightful, no b.s, humorous and sincere tone resonated with my students, that is of course until they found out that Wallace killed himself. Then, that’s what everyone wanted to focus on. I can not blame them. There is a ‘text’ to ‘personal’ mystery, a ‘content’ to ‘context’ disjunction that opens itself at such a revelation, a mystery that the “thinking” mind wants to explore. The modern “thinking” mind draws little separation between the lofty and the sublime, the public and the personal. Such is a byproduct of a generation raised on reality television and celebrity stories. I, in all sincerity cannot judge this. My generation, the X’s who came of age on the cusp of the Millennials, were culturally educated by MTV, The Real World and Road Rules, and thus we crave hip, colorful, appropriately gentrified spaces to occupy — think of artist collectives, or Facebook and Google working environments (bean bags, chill and chic prescription sunglasses, lounge happy hour with juice bars, untraditional working hours, colorful earth tones). I digress, I meant to make some observation of “thinking.”

I was excited to teach what excited me: I began with Wallace, then Kafka, O’Connor (Flannery or Frank), Platonov, Carver, Babel, Achebe Kundera, Elliot, etc… It is, essentially, the seven sisters freshmen reading list, a popular catalogue of classic stories peppered with some international obscurity. It is the “cool” thing in liberal arts. But, over and over my students came to me complaining that they could not find this relevant to their lives. After such reports I would tweak my lesson plans to give a greater introduction to the works, going deeper into the philosophical tenets of the stories, and into the universal reward of being able to utilize the tools of the thinking, writing mind. Induct, deduct, compare, contrast, relate, “give it greater shape,” I would say. “Breath life into it.”

To have the skills to decipher plot, to record the echo of a narrative, to infer characterization from setting, to understand the complex structure of a character, to be invited to participate in the co-creation of a narrative which gently guides you through action but leaves the moral implications up to the reader. These are “indispensable,” I would advise my students. “Indispensable for human agency.” Some would slowly gravitate to my vision, as I prodded further and further into their motivations for being in school, career, and other ‘relevant’ choice. Yet, they often felt only like visitors in my library, preparing to check out and return to the “default” education thinking mode as soon as the quarter, mid, or end semester exam periods began. The pressures of what they call “the real world” are much stronger then the ghosts of books and introspective thought — vague, powerless, intangible.

“The real world:” Here I am reminded of the scene from the Matrix when Morpheus unveils to Neo “the desert of the real.” A barren waste land of human energy as only a power source nourished for consumption. The Matrix, I will add here, is based on a work by Jean Baudrillard, a french philosopher who warns of a modern society as a place existing in consumption and entertainment, devoid of meaning making — the urge towards agency, in hibernation; the map towards meaning, defunct. In describing this new world he coined the phrase “the desert of the real.” Again, I fall into tangental thought.

I needed to find a way to invite, seduce, capture my students. I tried using myself as a conduit.

I pride myself on the fact that I am an immigrant, a former “at risk” student, that my tattoos all have mythological meaning and thought behind them, that I am a high-school drop out with credentials to my name, a top tier education, a masters degree, etc… I felt like these could help me bridge for my students the platforms of reality-setting discourse and humanistic thought. I had, and still do, believed that real “thinking” is indispensable in being human, in being free, and in the ability to have fun and play with the world.

Again, my students would, at times, meet me in the middle space I wanted to create, though rarely did this space become living for them, instead they lay their heads to the sound of another’s palpitation and breath, and then moved on. Maybe I planted a seed, I like to think. But then, maybe, they were bringing me somewhere as well.

They could not recklessly follow me, or I them. It was an issue of pragmatic bonds. For a moment, my class, or an individual student I was reading with would delve into the power of words with me and the ending of Andrei Platonov’s “Potudon River”  would finally break through the events of the page: “Not every grief can be comforted; there is a grief that ends only after the heart has been worn away in long oblivion, or in distraction amidst life’s everyday concerns.” And my students would draw new understanding of the passage, enter it through a word or phrase that could unlock that middle space between their worlds and the world of literature, philosophy, metaphor. “Grief,” “long oblivion,” life’s everyday concerns,” all the sudden my students would give these new meaning, now only slightly guided by the story and letting their lives find a grip to the reigns. They would find new connections, and again they would return to the “real” world.

More and more I struggled to make thinking relevant. “Will this help me get a better job?” I was asked.

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Thinking about it I had to encounter my own struggles with this question. I know the answers. I know the programed liberal arts answer, and the “real” answer. I know that the liberal arts answer exposes the “real” as something at best lacking, at its worst empty. I also know that the real, is real; it happens in real time, removed from the concerns of literature, poetry, and philosophy which concern themselves with the work of mans eternity.

“Unlikely,” I would answer. For gods sake, though I was teaching all these things I cared so deeply about, I also worked nights as a bartender to satisfy the demands of the real. I had to produce something consumable and all of my learning and thoughts on thinking are not that.

Here I acknowledge that this answer is not entirely true. We can find jobs which call for liberal arts skills, but these are few and far between and rarely afford a comfortable standard of living. We may also posit the argument that liberal arts skills will contribute to ones ability to perform better and have a greater understanding of ones job, but this argument does not lend itself to substantial evidence, no matter how much I may actually believe it. This was the litmus test of my “thinking,” and it only survives in embracing the privacies of my world, that I chose my private world despite and above the “real.”

“Unlikely.” And where does that leave us?

Ultimately, all I have as a conscious being is the ability to tell stories, to choose and create my narrative from the scattered world I am provided. Ultimately, after deconstructing both the “real” and the “lofty” I could only encourage my students to choose their own themes. To the question of “what is water?” I could only answer, “the desert.”

Oddly enough, and as “unlikely” as it may seem, when I answered with honesty, to them as well as myself, they followed. — we could talk.

-Nikita Nelin

Thinking Challenge Excerpt-The Voiceless Generation – Emily M. Pascual

The hard reality is that our generation as a whole is under informed and over complacent. The system may be flawed, but the only way to bring about significant change is to engage ourselves in the democratic process. Our generation seems more celebrity obsessed and needs to realize the effects of choosing apathy over engagement, before we become a politically voiceless generation.

We cannot expect favorable results when we do nothing to bring them about.  That is at the core of P. Diddy’s “Vote or Die” campaign, and the message he tried to convey to us back in 2004.  Do something or expect nothing. Still, we should not rely on P. Diddy or any other Hollywood celebrities to engage our generation in political participation. We can do it ourselves!

Click here to read full submission.

Click here to learn more about the thinking challenge.