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.
Wyatt Mason, Senior Fellow here at the Hannah Arendt Center, considers the fate of the modern novel between two poles, taking as his example the hilarious satire Against the Country by Ben Metcalf. On this Independence Day weekend, it is worth thinking with Mason about the lessons learned from Against the Country, a truly inspired satirical treatment of American life. “Throughout its history, the novel has catalogued our frailties and torments, those suffered by us at the margins, which is to say those suffered by all of us who are always, sometimes, at the margins. Childhood is one such marginal place and time, and some of us never manage to cross its boundaries without immense struggle. Metcalf’s novel documents that struggle by, in part, making us struggle with his sentences. This is not a popular tact, presently, even if Metcalf’s quarry is as eternal as it is current. That other contemporary struggle with childhood and with an abusive father, My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s not–336-page novel in seven ‘books’ but 3,600-page novel in six volumes, is lately much praised for its production of sentences that do not call undue attention to their madeness. In the Knausgaard, the premium, as is lately the fashion (and, like all fashion, you are either attuned to its seasons or blissfully oblivious in your sweatpants), is on an idea of directness, of anti-artifice. As a reading culture, we find ourselves at a historical moment when our suspicion of the sentence is at its height. We know–we concede–that too often a sentence seems designed to sell us something we neither want nor need. As such, we may be said to have adopted, as a matter of self-protection, a mode of self-expression that eschews words like ‘eschews’ and models its mode on our written moments that might be called authentic, our Twitter voice, our text tone, our email manner, shorn of all artifice. Whereas, with the Metcalf, I know no modern novel, and may know no novel, that is more adept with or attuned to or hell bent, than Against the Country, upon the deployment, at every possible turn, of metaphor as a means to its ends. It would take a book to catalogue them all–all these bringings across–so let me say that our school bus, met above, is, sure, just that, but it is also meant to be an entirely different animal, one that will petrify us, and mortify us, and also delight us in an uncomfortable way, the way we feel when, in rubbing the tummy of a favored dog, the shiny, ruddy, pointy tip of what isn’t his tail, extends all too eagerly, at our touch.” On the one hand, the novel beckons us into a metaphorical and artificial world where we struggle with sentences to cross over into a fictional yet still real world of ideas. On the other hand, the novel lures us with its simplicity and artlessness, the quotidian pleasures of recognition. Mason does not privilege one novelistic approach over the other, but he does mourn the apparent disfavor attaining to novels that demand attention to their difficulty and artificiality. His reading, in this regard, of Metcalf’s hilarious and devastating novel Against the Country is not to be missed.
Sixty years ago Hannah Arendt argued that the advent of automation was one of the two great events threatening the modern age. Against the Marxist hope that machines will free us from the need to labor so that we can pursue hobbies and nurture the soul, Arendt worried that freedom from labor would be soul crushing. We are a jobholding culture in which people find meaning in their employment. Without work, she argued, people will have little to nourish their sense of self. Most people will fall back on consumption, which requires them to labor to earn money to consume more, in a cycle of soul-crushing monotony. Today, many economists and social prophets are coming to see that Arendt had a point. Derek Thompson writes in The Atlantic that the worries that machines will end the need for human labor are finally coming true: “After 300 years of people crying wolf, there are now three broad reasons to take seriously the argument that the beast is at the door: the ongoing triumph of capital over labor, the quiet demise of the working man, and the impressive dexterity of information technology.” According to Thompson, “The share of U.S. economic output that’s paid out in wages fell steadily in the 1980s, reversed some of its losses in the ’90s, and then continued falling after 2000, accelerating during the Great Recession. It now stands at its lowest level since the government started keeping track in the mid-20th century.” What is more, “All in all, about one in six prime-age men today are either unemployed or out of the workforce altogether.” In response to the coming loss of meaningful labor, Thompson explores three optimistic visions of a future without work. In one, government assistance will allow unemployed people to pursue leisure activities, much like Marx predicted in a socialist utopia. In a second, government will set a social welfare floor that will allow everyday persons to use new technologies to become artisans and entrepreneurs, making specialty cheeses, artworks, and applications. “It’s possible that information technology and robots eliminate traditional jobs and make possible a new artisanal economy … an economy geared around self-expression, where people would do artistic things with their time.” Finally, a third possibility is a positive spin on the idea of an “über” economy that gives rise to a precariat. “Russo sees Youngstown as the leading edge of a larger trend toward the development of what he calls the ‘precariat’–a working class that swings from task to task in order to make ends meet and suffers a loss of labor rights, bargaining rights, and job security. In Youngstown, many of these workers have by now made their peace with insecurity and poverty by building an identity, and some measure of pride, around contingency. The faith they lost in institutions–the corporations that have abandoned the city, the police who have failed to keep them safe–has not returned. But Russo and Woodroofe both told me they put stock in their own independence. And so a place that once defined itself single-mindedly by the steel its residents made has gradually learned to embrace the valorization of well-rounded resourcefulness.” All three of these optimistic scenarios depend on massive transformations in government support and cultural attitudes. It is equally if not more likely that the future without labor will be precarious, unfulfilled, and consumerist. But Thompson’s essay lays out the challenges and ways forward. It is well worth reading.
Will the Law Say Only ‘Yes’ Means ‘Yes’?
Judith Shulevitz considers the strong momentum behind affirmative consent laws around the nation, laws that “say sex isn’t legal without positive agreement.” She writes: “PERHAPS the most consequential deliberations about affirmative consent are going on right now at the American Law Institute. The more than 4,000 law professors, judges and lawyers who belong to this prestigious legal association–membership is by invitation only–try to untangle the legal knots of our time. They do this in part by drafting and discussing model statutes. Once the group approves these exercises, they hold so much sway that Congress and states sometimes vote them into law, in whole or in part. For the past three years, the law institute has been thinking about how to update the penal code for sexual assault, which was last revised in 1962. When its suggestions circulated in the weeks before the institute’s annual meeting in May, some highly instructive hell broke loose. In a memo that has now been signed by about 70 institute members and advisers, including Judge Gertner, readers have been asked to consider the following scenario: ‘Person A and Person B are on a date and walking down the street. Person A, feeling romantically and sexually attracted, timidly reaches out to hold B’s hand and feels a thrill as their hands touch. Person B does nothing, but six months later files a criminal complaint. Person A is guilty of “Criminal Sexual Contact” under proposed Section 213.6(3)(a).’ Far-fetched? Not as the draft is written. The hypothetical crime cobbles together two of the draft’s key concepts. The first is affirmative consent. The second is an enlarged definition of criminal sexual contact that would include the touching of any body part, clothed or unclothed, with sexual gratification in mind. As the authors of the model law explain: ‘Any kind of contact may qualify. There are no limits on either the body part touched or the manner in which it is touched.’ So if Person B neither invites nor rebukes a sexual advance, then anything that happens afterward is illegal. ‘With passivity expressly disallowed as consent,’ the memo says, ‘the initiator quickly runs up a string of offenses with increasingly more severe penalties to be listed touch by touch and kiss by kiss in the criminal complaint.'” Shulovitz speaks with Stephen Schulhofer, one of the leading criminal lawyers in the country. Schulhofer is helping to write the new model laws covering sexual harassment, and he is a supporter of affirmative consent: “The case for affirmative consent is ‘compelling,’ he says. Mr. Schulhofer has argued that being raped is much worse than having to endure that awkward moment when one stops to confirm that one’s partner is happy to continue. Silence or inertia, often interpreted as agreement, may actually reflect confusion, drunkenness or ‘frozen fright,’ a documented physiological response in which a person under sexual threat is paralyzed by terror. To critics who object that millions of people are having sex without getting unqualified assent and aren’t likely to change their ways, he’d reply that millions of people drive 65 miles per hour despite a 55-mile-per-hour speed limit, but the law still saves lives. As long as ‘people know what the rules of the road are,’ he says, ‘the overwhelming majority will comply with them.'”
Ain’t No Cure for the Wintertime Blues
Kari Leibowitz looks at how some of the northernmost people in the world manage to stay happy to the endless winter night in the Arctic circle: “It’s true that the winters in Tromsø can be uniquely magical. Tromsø is home to some of the world’s best displays of the Aurora Borealis, surrounded by mountain and nature trails perfect for an afternoon ski, and part of a culture that values work-life balance. But I also believe the cultural mindset of Tromsø plays a role in wintertime wellness. I found myself the happy victim of mindset contagion after Fern told me she refused to call the Polar Night the mørketid, or ‘dark time,’ preferring instead to use its alternative name, the ‘Blue Time’ to emphasize all the color present during this period. (Plenty of people with a positive wintertime mindset might still refer to the Polar Night as the ‘dark time,’ but Fern’s comment was indicative of one of the ways she purposefully orients herself towards a positive wintertime mindset.) After hearing this, I couldn’t help but pay more attention to the soft blue haze that settled over everything, and I consciously worked to think of this light as cozy rather than dark. And rather than greeting each other with complaints about the cold and snow, a common shared grumble in the U.S., my Norwegian friends would walk or ski to our meet-ups, arriving alert and refreshed from being outdoors, inspiring me to bundle up and spend some time outside on even the coldest days.”
August Kleinzahler considers the dream song, John Berryman’s innovation in poetry: “That ‘prosodic pattern’ would evolve into one of the significant poetic inventions of the 20th century; it was an eccentric, syncopated mash-up of traditional measures and contemporary vernacular energy, an American motley with Elizabethan genes. The Dream Song form–three six-line stanzas, with lines of varying length and no predictable rhyme scheme–is used by Berryman as a flexible variant on the sonnet. He needs this flexibility to accommodate the continually changing registers of voice, the sudden shifts of diction, and to allow him to keep so many balls in the air. He wrote a total of 385 Dream Songs over 13 years, beginning in 1955. It was a period in which his mental and physical condition deteriorated as a result of extreme alcohol abuse and the poems are nourished by that dissolution and the despair born of it, the best of them transmuting Berryman’s condition into something lambent and ludic. Their protagonist, Henry, a shape-shifting tragicomic clown, is Berryman himself behind a set of Poundian masks. What makes the sequence such a signal achievement is that it manages to be at once representative of the poetry of its time and a radical departure from it.”
A Final Farewell
C. Morgan Babst writes about why the people of New Orleans began inviting the dead to their own wakes: “In the context of a history that has repeatedly–ceaselessly–equated black bodies with animals and objects, however, we cannot understand the body as no different from a table or a tool. The deceased is still more than just stuff, Heidegger writes, and yet, when we leave a dead man under an overpass for days covered in only a garbage bag, aren’t we treating him as though he weren’t? The slowness with which the dead were recovered in New Orleans following the flooding was not simple impropriety but revealed a profound disrespect for the humanity of the victims of the storm and levee breaks. And bringing the corpse back into our funeral rites is not a desecration or an impropriety, either; instead, perhaps unconsciously, this custom reasserts the body’s importance and restores dignity to the deceased, insists on the humanity of the dead. Uncle Lionel standing in his suit with his watch around his hand and Mickey Easterling in the floral pantsuit she’d specified in her will reassure us that proper care has been taken. In short, a funeral that ignores the body is not a luxury we can afford.”
Regarding Susan Sontag
Steve Wasserman remembers Susan Sontag: “A self-described ‘besotted aesthete’ and ‘obsessed moralist,’ Sontag declared in ‘Notes on “Camp,”‘ ‘The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony.’ If we agree that such categories as ‘Jewish moral seriousness’ and ‘homosexual aestheticism and irony’ actually exist, we could reasonably assert that the two traditions were the antipodes that framed an argument Sontag had with herself all her life. The oscillation between the two marks almost all of her work. She saw herself as a loyal inheritor and servant of a tradition of high seriousness that ennobles and confers dignity upon works that are redolent of truth, beauty, and moral gravitas. Sontag gave us her list: The Iliad, Aristophanes’ plays, The Art of the Fugue, Middlemarch, the paintings of Rembrandt, the cathedral at Chartres, the poetry of Donne, Dante, Beethoven’s quartets–in short, the whole pantheon of high culture. Sontag offered up a taxonomy of creative sensibilities. She proposed a trinity: the first was high culture; the second was a sensibility whose sign was ‘anguish, cruelty, derangement,’ exemplified by such artists as Bosch, Sade, Rimbaud, Kafka, geniuses who understood that, at least in the world we now inhabit, the only honest art was art that was broken, composed of shards, hostage to the insight that at the deep center of human existence lay a Gordian knot of unresolvable issues that no surface coherence could plausibly or honestly treat or reflect or make pretty. The third great creative sensibility was Camp, a sensibility, as she wrote, ‘of failed seriousness, of the theatricalization of experience.'”
HAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #10
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, July 10, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm
SAVE THE DATE – 2015 FALL CONFERENCE
The Hannah Arendt Center’s eighth annual fall conference, “Why Privacy Matters,” will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We’ll see you there!
Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015
Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am – 6:00 pm
From the Arendt Center Blog
This week on the Blog, Samantha Hill examines the act of forgiveness and asks whether we can embrace this principle with respect to someone like Dylann Roof in the Quote of the Week. William James reflects on how the activity of thinking helps to determine life in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, Karen Tsdj uses an image of her personal Arendtian library to remind us of the importance of holding criminals accountable for their crimes in this week’s Library feature.
This coming Friday, July 10th, the Hannah Arendt Center will host the tenth session of its Virtual Reading Group. We will be discussing Chapters 27-30 of The Human Condition.
The reading group is available to all members and is always welcoming new participants! Please click here to learn more, including how you can join!