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.
Andrew M. Schocket thinks he knows why the American Revolution is such a fertile ground for rhetoric in contemporary American politics: “the American Revolution was indeed unusual, as is its relation to the American present. Unlike many other countries, the United States can point to a period of less than two decades as its seminal founding moment. Most other nations have either multiple founding moments or have lived through various evolutions. Unlike the United States, most countries trace their origins to ethnicity and language, rather than to the establishment of a particular political structure. The United States retains its governmental form from the federal constitution that served as the Revolution’s crowning achievement, and so its citizens look to the people who established that form as authorities on it. Most other countries have been through multiple iterations of their national governments. The founding generation of the United States was a particularly articulate bunch, whose vast public and private writings have been preserved, ever at the ready. Few other nations have a single generation of leaders that happen to have left such a wordy legacy, always available for apparent authority and, perhaps, exploitation.” Schocket’s reflections come from his new book, Fighting over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution, which is about the continuing fights over the founding documents of American government–fights, he argues, about nationalism and belonging. Hannah Arendt too saw our continuing worship of the U.S. Constitution as central to the American ideal of freedom, but Arendt argued that the substantive innovation in American constitutional democracy was the abolition of sovereignty: “The great and, in the long run, perhaps the greatest American innovation in politics as such was the consistent abolition of sovereignty within the body politics of the republic, the insight that in the realm of human affairs sovereignty and tyranny are the same.” The truly innovative idea of American government for Arendt was to so multiply sources of power on the federal, state, and local levels so that powerful institutions throughout society would exist to resist tyranny whenever it would begin to emerge, as undoubtedly it does. The real danger to American freedom, in Arendt’s reading, is the rise of centralized government bureaucracies that undermine the power-based institutions of civic life. Read more about Arendt’s view of American democracy here.
Bard College President Leon Botstein was asked by James Traub about the moral core of running a Liberal Arts College. Botstein’s answer is well worth hearing. In part, Botstein talks about the lesson he learned as a child of immigrants and how it has affected his understanding of how to run a liberal arts college: “The moral of the story is that we learned two things. Which have stuck with all of us. One is that if you are ever in the position of privilege, which we as immigrants never expected ourselves to be, you have an obligation to do the right thing and to do the right thing now. You cannot excuse not acting on behalf of what is right and what is needed. You have to imagine that what went wrong in the Second World War among other things was the failure of ordinary people to stand up for what was right. We never expected ourselves to be in a position to help. We turned out to be in such a position. And it informs what I do…. We run, public, not charter schools, high-school early colleges, that reach underserved populations: Two in NYC; Two full high schools; a one-year college prep program in Harlem Children’s Zone; A full high school in Newark; One in Cleveland and we’re opening one in Baltimore. And a one-year program in New Orleans. We’re a private college, unendowed. And we’re running these public institutions.” He was then asked: “Is this by the way, as a practical question, is this an affordable expense for a school like Bard, that is barely surviving?” Botstein’s answer: “It is the wrong question–because you have nothing to lose. The people who are risk-averse are the rich, who become like Fafnir in Wagner’s Ring. You know in Wagner’s Ring, the gold is cursed. The two brothers fight each other over the gold. Fasolt gets killed. And Fafnir gets the gold and what does he do? (From the viewer’s point of view for the next 12 hours in Valkyrie and Siegfried,…) In real life, for a long time, until Siegfried becomes mature, he sits immobilized, having turned himself into a dragon guarding the gold. So what was the gold for?”
Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone tells the story of Michael Winston, a whistleblower who has both been celebrated as a hero for exposing fraud at Countrywide Financial and sued and penalized to an extraordinary degree. “This is the age of the whistleblower. From Chelsea Manning to Edward Snowden to the latest cloak-and-dagger lifter of files, ex-HSBC employee Hervé Falciani, whistleblowers are becoming to this decade what rock stars were to the Sixties–pop culture icons, global countercultural heroes. But one of America’s ugliest secrets is that our own whistleblowers often don’t do so well after the headlines fade and cameras recede. The ones who don’t end up in jail like Manning, or in exile like Snowden, often still go through years of harassment and financial hardship. And while we wait to see if Loretta Lynch is confirmed as the next Attorney General, it’s worth taking a look at how whistleblowers in America fared under the last regime.” We venerate whistleblowers because they have the moral courage to stand up in the face of bureaucratic evil and do the right thing. But such moral actors are also disloyal and even lawbreakers, leading them to be scorned and punished. Taibbi details the way that Winston and others have had their lives destroyed after first being venerated for being heroes.
One of the great intellectual institutions in the United States has just been reinvigorated. The NY Times Magazine–until recently a sickly image of its former self–arrived this weekend not only bigger and printed on weightier paper, but newly committed to the world of letters. One example of the new Times Magazine will be the repeating column on photography by Teju Cole. In his first column, Cole writes of some of his favorite imagistic chroniclers the Civil Rights Movement, first among them Roy DeCarava. He begins with a description of DeCarava’s “Mississippi Freedom Marcher, Washington, D.C., 1963”: “One such image left me short of breath the first time I saw it. It’s of a young woman whose face is at once relaxed and intense. She is apparently in bright sunshine, but both her face and the rest of the picture give off a feeling of modulated darkness; we can see her beautiful features, but they are underlit somehow. Only later did I learn the picture’s title, ‘Mississippi Freedom Marcher, Washington, D.C., 1963’ which helps explain the young woman’s serene and resolute expression. It is an expression suitable for the event she’s attending, the most famous civil rights march of them all. The title also confirms the sense that she’s standing in a great crowd, even though we see only half of one other person’s face (a boy’s, indistinct in the foreground) and, behind the young woman, the barest suggestion of two other bodies. The picture was taken by Roy DeCarava, one of the most intriguing and poetic of American photographers. The power of this picture is in the loveliness of its dark areas. His work was, in fact, an exploration of just how much could be seen in the shadowed parts of a photograph, or how much could be imagined into those shadows. He resisted being too explicit in his work, a reticence that expresses itself in his choice of subjects as well as in the way he presented them…. All technology arises out of specific social circumstances. In our time, as in previous generations, cameras and the mechanical tools of photography have rarely made it easy to photograph black skin. The dynamic range of film emulsions, for example, were generally calibrated for white skin and had limited sensitivity to brown, red or yellow skin tones. Light meters had similar limitations, with a tendency to underexpose dark skin. And for many years, beginning in the mid-1940s, the smaller film-developing units manufactured by Kodak came with Shirley cards, so-named after the white model who was featured on them and whose whiteness was marked on the cards as ‘normal.’ Some of these instruments improved with time. In the age of digital photography, for instance, Shirley cards are hardly used anymore. But even now, there are reminders that photographic technology is neither value-free nor ethnically neutral. In 2009, the face-recognition technology on HP webcams had difficulty recognizing black faces, suggesting, again, that the process of calibration had favored lighter skin.”
Aminatta Forna wonders why we need canons: “Forty years ago the great Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o argued against the idea of national canons. There should, he said, be a single department with a single word on the door and that word should be LITERATURE. A perfectly excellent idea, it seems to me, which naturally never came to pass. Instead, the study of literature became fragmented by the politics of university departments. Categories were added: American literature, post-colonial literature, comparative literature, women’s literature. The creative output of the world’s writers was hived off, territory was staked out and defended. In university departments no doubt this stuff mattered, because it came with opportunities for funding, career advancement and empire building. (In fact, it has been interesting to observe in recent times something of a reversal of fortunes, as English departments in British universities have their funding cut, while in the US a diverse student body has begun to insist on a range of subjects to reflect their interests. We will have to wait and see what long-term impact these changes will have.) All this classifying, it seems to me, is the very antithesis of literature. The way of literature is to seek universality. Writers try to reach beyond those things that divide us: culture, class, gender, race. Given the chance, we would resist classification. I have never met a writer who wishes to be described as a female writer, gay writer, black writer, Asian writer or African writer. We hyphenated writers complain about the privilege accorded to the white male writer, he who dominates the western canon and is the only one called simply ‘writer.'”
In an essay about the rhetorical strategies engaged in Mein Kampf, Albrecht Kaschorke suggests that the book, rather than more modern forms of communication, is the great form of dictatorial communication: As different as the works of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, and Mu’ammar Gadhafi are in style and ideology, the bibliocentric orientation of their regimes is something they have in common. In simplified, ideal-typical terms, we may speak of the book as the symbolic center of the totalitarian system. It forms the sacral center of a state propaganda that otherwise employs more modern media: radio, film, and television. The book is given out to party cadres, even to the entire population, and assumes the character of a constitutional document; at a minimum, it is endowed with an authority to which tribute must be paid in the regime’s public displays and within its power networks. The book’s guiding idea is to provide a durable foundation for a political formation that has emerged from the tumultuous events of war and revolution and is extremely precarious when it comes to legitimacy and stability. Consequently, the book serves a quasi-religious function and is meant to inherit the mantle of the holy books of the great world religions. This explains the tension between, on the one hand, the use of technical and industrial media by the regime’s propaganda and, on the other, the archaizing rituals carried out around the sacral book, blending bibliophilic splendor, fetishism, talismanic touching, and other forms of magical performance in a peculiar syndrome.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, eulogizing David Carr, tells the story of how Carr hired him to his first journalism job: “In the February of 1996, I sent David Carr two poorly conceived college-newspaper articles and a chapbook of black-nationalist poetry–and David Carr hired me. I can’t even tell you what he saw. I know that I immediately felt unworthy–a feeling that never quite faded–because I was a knucklehead and a fuck-up. But what I didn’t then know about David Carr was that he’d written and edited the knucklehead chronicles, and published annual editions wholly devoted to the craft of fucking-up. I think that David–recovering crack addict, recovering alcoholic, ex-cocaine dealer, lymphoma survivor, beautiful writer, gorgeous human–knew something about how a life of fucking up burrows itself into the bones of knuckleheads, and it changes there, transmutes into an abiding shame, a gnawing fear which likely dogs the reformed knucklehead right into the grave. Perhaps that fear could be turned into something beautiful. Perhaps a young journalist could pull power from that fear, could write from it, the way Bob Hayes ran with it, because the fear was not of anything earthly but of demons born from profound shame and fantastic imagination.”
The Hannah Arendt Center announces three post-doctoral fellowships for the 2015-2016 academic year.
To learn more about the fellowships, including how to apply, click here.
Application Deadline: Thursday, March 5, 2015
The film is based on the newly discovered diaries of Heinrich Himmler. Watch a trailer here.
Monday, February 23, 2015
Campus Center, Weis Cinema, 6:00 – 9:00 pm
“Natality and its Vicissitudes”
Wednesday, February 25, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center, 12:00 pm
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, March 6, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm
“Arendt’s Critique of Modern Society as an Analysis of Process Imaginary”
Tuesday, March 3, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center, 1:00 pm
Putting Courage at the Centre: Gandhi on Civility, Society and Self-Knowledge
Invite Only. RSVP Required.
Property and Freedom: Are Access to Legal Title and Assets the Path to Overcoming Poverty in South Africa?
A one-day conference sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, the Human Rights Project, and the Center for Civic Engagement, with support from the Ford Foundation, The Brenthurst Foundation, and The University of The Western Cape
Monday, April 6, 2015
Bard College Campus Center, Weis Cinema, 10:00 am – 7:00 pm
Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center’s eighth annual fall conference, “Privacy: Why Does It Matter?,” will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We’ll see you there!
This week on the Blog, Etienne Tassin discusses how we can use Arendt to understand the political success of those demonstrators who rallied together in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in the Quote of the Week. Leo Tolstoy provides this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. We appreciate Arendt’s collection of books on Marxist capitalism in our Library feature. And we congratulate our post-doctoral fellow Michiel Bot on receiving the Witteveen Memorial Fellowship in Law and Humanities at Tilburg University for the summer of 2015.