Amor Mundi 2/28/16

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

amor_mundi_sign-upCould It Happen Here?

donald trumpIn an essay in the Washington Post, Danielle Allen invokes Hannah Arendt to suggest that we must speak out about the danger Donald Trump poses to constitutional democracy. “Like any number of us raised in the late 20th century, I have spent my life perplexed about exactly how Hitler could have come to power in Germany. Watching Donald Trump’s rise, I now understand. Leave aside whether a direct comparison of Trump to Hitler is accurate. That is not my point. My point rather is about how a demagogic opportunist can exploit a divided country. To understand the rise of Hitler and the spread of Nazism, I have generally relied on the German-Jewish émigré philosopher Hannah Arendt and her arguments about the banality of evil. Somehow people can understand themselves as ‘just doing their job,’ yet act as cogs in the wheel of a murderous machine. Arendt also offered a second answer in a small but powerful book called ‘Men in Dark Times.’ In this book, she described all those who thought that Hitler’s rise was a terrible thing but chose ‘internal exile,’ or staying invisible and out of the way as their strategy for coping with the situation. They knew evil was evil, but they too facilitated it, by departing from the battlefield out of a sense of hopelessness.” Allen knows that Trump is not the same as Hitler. Hitler had written an ideological and racist book calling for the rise of an Aryan nation and the expulsion and murder of the Jews; Trump, on the other hand, is seemingly non-ideological. But Allen does rightly see that Trump is dangerous insofar as he seems to have no respect for limits to his power, whether those limits are civil or constitutional. “Donald Trump has no respect for the basic rights that are the foundation of constitutional democracy, nor for the requirements of decency necessary to sustain democratic citizenship. Nor can any democracy survive without an expectation that the people require reasonable arguments that bring the truth to light, and Trump has nothing but contempt for our intelligence.” As first Chris Christie and now Maine Governor Paul LePage endorse Trump, it is clear that Trump is breaking down the resistance of the Republican establishment. While evangelical leaders are on record saying they will not support Trump if he is the nominee, establishment Republicans seem prepared to accept Trump as their standard-bearer.

Allen’s essay was met with a barrage of ugliness on social media. In an update Allen published, she reproduces dozens of tweets she received. Everyone should read these tweets simply to recognize the racist and anti-Semitic boorishness pulsing within Donald Trumps supporters–if not Trump himself. One tweet from DMT Trump Wizard goes “You cannot stop Donald Trump. White people are going to stop hating themselves and there is nothing you can do to stop it.” Another from War & Peace (an insult to Tolstoy) reads: “Jewish ancestry? 40%? 50%?” Another says, “You would be working a McDonalds if it wasn’t for affirmative action. What exactly are you bringing to the country?” The same person then attaches an anti-Semitic cartoon and writes, “I smell a jew.” Someone named Paul Harris asks, “why do third world people come to European ancestry countries to paracite of us? Why has the third world never created anything.” An exceedingly angry racist named Theodore Bundy sends multiple tweets including: “imagine, no more affirmative action. How will you get a job? This PC shit has destroyed a once great nation.” One writes, “My jewdar just went beep. Does the affirmative action negress have a bit of jew inside. No breaks on Trump train. Soz.” Aristides writes, “I can’t wait to see the look on your primitive monkey faces when the GOD-EMPEROR takes his throne. Go back to Africa posthaste.” And adds: “Wow, you are one butt-ugly n—er. Your face makes me sick to my stomach. Please gas yourself.” Ok, these tweets go on and on. Many are worse and call for Allen’s death. You should read them also to remind yourselves that speaking publicly takes courage.

Is Donald Trump racist and anti-Semitic? One can’t blame Trump or anyone for the opinions of his supporters. But when so many Trump supporters are so vocally racist and anti-Semitic, Trump owes it to himself and to the American people to publicly reject those vile opinions. That is a what someone must do if he aspires to be the leader of a multi-ethic and pluralistic democratic country. Not only has Trump not done so, but he has fanned the flames. Twice now he has retweeted tweets from members of white-supremacist groups, one of whose Twitter handle is @WhiteGenocideTM and whose profile tagline reads, “Get the f— out of my country.” Trump’s attacks on President Obama, his birther comments, his questioning of Ted Cruz’s citizenship, and his demonizing of Mexicans and Muslims have contributed to an atmosphere of hate that enables such racial attacks.

None of this means Trump himself is racist. He certainly does not pedal a consistent ideological racism of supremacy as Adolf Hitler and the Nazis did. There is little to suggest that Trump would attack the laws guaranteeing equal voting rights or question the equal protection clause of the Constitution. Rather, Trump is responding at least in part to decades of repressed anger where many Americans have been told they can not speak their minds, express their feelings, or state their opinion. A dishonest and calculated political correctness has enabled Trump to appear as a liberator by unleashing a pent-up anger that is a result of a political culture that has prohibited people from saying what they believe. One real and meaningful attraction of Trump’s campaign is his refusal to self-censor and his embrace of an honest if also low-class and boorish racial anger. Trump as President would likely make the USA a less tolerant and more hateful and angry country. Such a cultural transformation very well could happen here, and it is, of course, dangerous.

But the real danger of a Trump presidency may lie elsewhere. After Trump’s victory in Nevada, he hammered home his main them: Grab as much as you can. “Now we’re going to get greedy for the United States we’re going to grab and grab and grab. We’re going to bring in so much money and so much everything. We’re going to make America great again, folks, I’m telling you folks we’re going to make America great again.” What Trump hates is politics, the collective striving after common ideals of democracy and justice. What he loves about America is simply its promise of abundance, not its tradition of self-government. Freedom for Trump is not the Arendtian freedom to act and speak in public in ways that matter; it is the freedom to get rich and plaster one’s name on buildings and reality television shows.

Alongside Trump’s contempt for politics is his dismissal of the rule of law. He threatens to ban Muslims, to bring back water boarding, and to kill family members of the Islamic State, which are all violations of either international or U.S. Law. Former CIA Director Michael Hayden said recently on “Real Time With Bill Maher” that the US military should and would refuse to carry out such illegal orders if Trump as Commander-in-Chief were to issue them. Trump’s contempt for the law and all political and civil limits is part and parcel of his disdain for politics and all limits on what works.

No doubt Trump’s pragmatic and greedy America is part of America. But it is not the whole or even the best of the American tradition, a tradition that has its roots in Alexander Hamilton’s expressed hope in the first of the Federalist Papers that the United States would stand not for economic liberty but for political freedom: “It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, to decide by their conduct and example, the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” As corrupt as our political system is, the answer cannot be to simply demean and dismiss the nobility of our democratic and constitutional traditions. The danger Trump truly poses is that he seems to care only about the idea of America as a land of milk and honey and to have forgotten or simply dismissed the idea of America as a land of political liberty. And he seems ready, able, and willing to tear down our corrupt political structures with no plan or idea of how they would be rebuilt or re-imagined. Creative destruction is a classic axiom of capitalist innovation, but it rarely works so well in democratic politics. –RB

Make ’em Laugh

trump protestersMark Steyn comes as close to anyone in understanding both the appeal and the danger Trump represents. In a long and rambling account of his experience attending a Trump rally in Burlington, Vermont, Steyn writes: “And then the announcement: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the next President of the United States, Donald J Trump…’ ~THE SHOW: He’s very good at this. Very good. On the same day as Trump’s speech, Peter Shumlin, the colorless dullard serving as Vermont’s governor, came to the State House in Montpelier to deliver his ‘State of the State’ address. He required two prompters so he could do the Obama swivel-head like a guy with good seats at Wimbledon following the world’s slowest centre-court rally. Two prompters! In the Vermont legislature! And for the same old generic boilerplate you forget as soon as you’ve heard it. Trump has no prompters. He walks out, pulls a couple of pieces of folded paper from his pocket, and then starts talking. Somewhere in there is the germ of a stump speech, but it would bore him to do the same poll-tested focus-grouped thing night after night, so he basically riffs on whatever’s on his mind. This can lead to some odd juxtapositions: One minute he’s talking about the Iran deal, the next he detours into how Macy’s stock is in the toilet since they dumped Trump ties. But in a strange way it all hangs together: It’s both a political speech, and a simultaneous running commentary on his own campaign. It’s also hilarious. I’ve seen no end of really mediocre shows at the Flynn in the last quarter-century, and I would have to account this the best night’s entertainment I’ve had there with the exception of the great jazz singer Dianne Reeves a few years back. He’s way funnier than half the stand-up acts I’ve seen at the Juste pour rires comedy festival a couple of hours north in Montreal. And I can guarantee that he was funnier than any of the guys trying their hand at Trump Improv night at the Vermont Comedy Club a couple of blocks away. He has a natural comic timing. Just to be non-partisan about this, the other day I was listening to Obama’s gun-control photo-op at the White House, and he thanked Gabby Giffords, by explaining that her husband Mark’s brother is an astronaut in outer space and he’d called just before Mark’s last meeting at the White House but, not wishing to disturb the President, Mark didn’t pick up. ‘Which made me feel kind of bad,’ said the President. ‘That’s a long-distance call.’ As I was driving along, I remember thinking how brilliantly Obama delivered that line. He’s not usually generous to others and he’s too thin-skinned to be self-deprecating with respect to himself, but, when he wants to get laughs, he knows how to do it. Trump’s is a different style: He’s looser, and more freewheeling. He’s not like Jeb – he doesn’t need writers, and scripted lines; he has a natural instinct for where the comedy lies. He has a zest for the comedy of life. To be sure, some of the gags can be a little – what’s the word? – mean-spirited. The performance was interrupted by knots of protesters. ‘Throw ’em out!’ barked Trump, after the first chants broke out. The second time it happened, he watched one of the security guys carefully picking up the heckler’s coat. ‘Confiscate their coats,’ deadpanned Trump. ‘It’s ten below zero outside.’ Third time it happened, he extended his coat riff: ‘We’ll mail them back to them in a couple of weeks.’ On MSNBC, they apparently had a discussion on how Trump could be so outrageous as to demand the confiscation of private property. But in showbusiness this is what is known as a ‘joke’. And in the theatre it lands: everyone’s laughing and having a ball. That’s the point. I think it would help if every member of the pundit class had to attend a Trump rally before cranking out the usual shtick about how he’s tapping into what Jeb called ‘angst and anger’. Yes, Trump supporters are indignant (and right to be) about the bipartisan cartel’s erasure of the southern border and their preference for unskilled Third World labor over their own citizenry, but ‘anger’ is not the defining quality of a Trump night out. The candidate is clearly having the time of his life, and that’s infectious, which is why his supporters are having a good time, too. Had Mitt campaigned like this, he’d be president. But he had no ability to connect with voters. Nor does Jeb (‘I’ve been endorsed by another 27 has-beens’) Bush.”

Brace Yourselves, America. It’s Really Happening.

donald trumpMatt Taibbi sees the appeal and the danger in Trump and worries he may well win. “In Manchester, a protester barely even manages to say a word before disappearing under a blanket of angry boos: ‘Trump! Trump! Trump!’ It’s a scene straight out of Freaks. In a Trump presidency, there will be free tar and feathers provided at the executive’s every public address. It’s a few minutes after that when a woman in the crowd shouts that Ted Cruz is a p-ssy. She will later tell a journalist she supports Trump because his balls are the size of ‘watermelons,’ while his opponents’ balls are more like ‘grapes’ or ‘raisins.’ Trump’s balls are unaware of this, but he instinctively likes her comment and decides to go into headline-making mode. ‘I never expect to hear that from you again!’ he says, grinning. ‘She said he’s a p-ssy. That’s terrible.” Then, theatrically, he turns his back to the crowd. As the 500 or so reporters in attendance scramble to instantly make this the most important piece of news in the world–in less than a year Trump has succeeded in turning the USA into a massive high school–the candidate beams. What’s he got to be insecure about? The American electoral system is opening before him like a flower. In person, you can’t miss it: The same way Sarah Palin can see Russia from her house, Donald on the stump can see his future. The pundits don’t want to admit it, but it’s sitting there in plain view, 12 moves ahead, like a chess game already won: President Donald Trump. A thousand ridiculous accidents needed to happen in the unlikeliest of sequences for it to be possible, but absent a dramatic turn of events–an early primary catastrophe, Mike Bloomberg ego-crashing the race, etc.–this boorish, monosyllabic TV tyrant with the attention span of an Xbox-playing 11-year-old really is set to lay waste to the most impenetrable oligarchy the Western world ever devised. It turns out we let our electoral process devolve into something so fake and dysfunctional that any half-bright con man with the stones to try it could walk right through the front door and tear it to shreds on the first go. And Trump is no half-bright con man, either. He’s way better than average. His pitch is: He’s rich, he won’t owe anyone anything upon election, and therefore he won’t do what both Democratic and Republican politicians unfailingly do upon taking office, i.e., approve rotten/regressive policies that screw ordinary people. He talks, for instance, about the anti-trust exemption enjoyed by insurance companies, an atrocity dating back more than half a century, to the McCarran-Ferguson Act of 1945. This law, sponsored by one of the most notorious legislators in our history (Nevada Sen. Pat McCarran was thought to be the inspiration for the corrupt Sen. Pat Geary in The Godfather II), allows insurance companies to share information and collude to divvy up markets. Trump may travel to campaign stops on his own plane, but his speeches are increasingly populist as he rails against money in politics, big pharma and insurance companies. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats made a serious effort to overturn this indefensible loophole during the debate over the Affordable Care Act. Trump pounds home this theme in his speeches, explaining things from his perspective as an employer. ‘The insurance companies,’ he says, ‘they’d rather have monopolies in each state than hundreds of companies going all over the place bidding … It’s so hard for me to make deals … because I can’t get bids.’ He goes on to explain that prices would go down if the state-by-state insurance fiefdoms were eliminated, but that’s impossible because of the influence of the industry. ‘I’m the only one that’s self-funding … Everyone else is taking money from, I call them the bloodsuckers.’ Trump isn’t lying about any of this.”


croissantsAdam Gopnik mourns the crescent croissant: “Why is a croissant shaped that way, anyway? The first truth is that they are not, necessarily. As veteran visitors to Parisian bakeries know, the superior, all-butter croissants are already commonly articulated as straight pastries–or, at least, as gently sloping ones–while the inferior oil or margarine ones must, by law, be neatly turned in. This sometimes leads those who expect clarity and logic, rather than complexity and self-cancelling entrapment, from French laws to think that the straight croissants are all butter and the curved ones are reliably not. The truth is that a butter croissant can be any shape it chooses, on the general atavistic aristocratic principle that, butter being better, it creates its own realm of privilege. One only wishes that Umberto Eco, whom we sadly lost last week, was still around to parse this issue, because Eco, long before he was king of the airport bookstore, was an emperor of signs, one of the world’s leading linguists and semioticians. The underlying logic for the croissant being a crescent, one suspects he would have said, is ‘Saussurean,’ after the great early-twentieth-century linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who glimpsed the truth that linguistic signs are arbitrary and find their meaning only by being clearly distinguished from other opposing signs. We know ‘Monday’ only because it doesn’t sound or look like ‘Sunday.’ P. G. Wodehouse, not surprisingly, showed his grasp of this rule when he had one of the Drones, on holiday in France, point out that he had been given a Continental breakfast consisting of ‘a roll shaped like a crescent and a roll shaped like a roll.’ Without the standard accompanying brioche, there would be no need for the curve; a roll-shaped roll produces a curved one, as ‘Sunday’ makes ‘Monday.’ The croissant, in this view, is curved in order to make plain what it isn’t as much as what it is. Murkier depths of meaning surely reside here, too, which would have taken Eco’s eye to plumb. Doubtless some social historian, a century or so hence, will get a thesis out of examining how, on the very verge of the threatened ‘Brexit’–the exit of England, at least, from the European Community–the mass marketers of Britain ostentatiously rejected a form seen as so clearly French that it is a regular part of that ominously named ‘Continental’ breakfast. Adding an arbitrary national shape to an established one to attempt an entirely English croissant, that future scholar will argue, is an affirmation of refusing to be one with Europe. (The crescent, moreover, is the sign of the Islamic empire, and some damp, suspicious kinds will see meaning in that, too.)”

amor_mundi_sign-upBad Habits

habitsJennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen reads the contemporary literature on habituation–that is, self-help achieved by the ritualisation of certain kinds of virtuous praxis. The topic goes back to Aristotle, and perhaps even farther, but Ratner-Rosenhagen thinks it’s missing something these days: “Much of today’s habits literature has a contemporary feeling, with its focus on time management, individual productivity, and business success, but the genre has a long history. For millennia, there has been a tradition of august thinkers writing about how healthy habits promote–and unhealthy habits undermine–self-fashioning and moral improvement. The ancient Stoics, for example, sought to understand how perfecting one’s reason by making it a habit could be the path to virtue. The Enlightenment psychologist Maine de Biran had a harder time squaring rigorous intellect and habitual practices, contending that ‘all that happens exclusively under the sway of habit should lose its authority before the eyes of reason’. Friedrich Nietzsche, too, was fascinated with habits. He had his own übermenschliche work habits, while at the same time he felt grateful to every bit of ‘misery and… sickness’ that came his way because they gave him ‘a hundred backdoors through which I can escape from enduring habits’. Gertrude Stein couldn’t have disagreed more. For Stein, the habits of ‘daily island life’–those simple, unglamorous rituals of cleaning, eating, sleeping–were the means by which people who had lived through the savagery and chaos of two world wars could orient themselves with the simple and commonplace. As ever, the habits literature of today promises order in a disordered world, but it also comes with a subtle and significant difference. The most important difference is not the forgotten art of style, though the staccato prose, exclamation points, bland generalisations, and clichéd motivational quotations of today’s literature neither stimulate the imagination nor activate the will. Rather, it is the lost promise of habits literature as a form of ethical inquiry and social commentary. Individual improvement has always been the purpose of habits literature, but the genre used to require appraising the society in which the self, and the habits, formed. Historically, thinking about habits without social contexts or ethical consequences was unthinkable. Today it is axiomatic.”

Aristotelian Safe Spaces

teamworkCharles Duhigg writes about Google’s Project Aristotle seeking to understand why some corporate teams work better than others. The answer, it seems, has less to do with intelligence, leadership, or structure and more to do with psychological safety, or what Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines as a ‘”shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.'” Psychological safety in the new corporate lingo “‘…describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’ When Rozovsky and her Google colleagues encountered the concept of psychological safety in academic papers, it was as if everything suddenly fell into place. One engineer, for instance, had told researchers that his team leader was ‘direct and straightforward, which creates a safe space for you to take risks.’ That team, researchers estimated, was among Google’s accomplished groups. By contrast, another engineer had told the researchers that his ‘team leader has poor emotional control.’ He added: ‘He panics over small issues and keeps trying to grab control. I would hate to be driving with him being in the passenger seat, because he would keep trying to grab the steering wheel and crash the car.’ That team, researchers presumed, did not perform well. Most of all, employees had talked about how various teams felt. ‘And that made a lot of sense to me, maybe because of my experiences at Yale,’ Rozovsky said. ‘I’d been on some teams that left me feeling totally exhausted and others where I got so much energy from the group.’ Rozovsky’s study group at Yale was draining because the norms–the fights over leadership, the tendency to critique–put her on guard. Whereas the norms of her case-competition team–enthusiasm for one another’s ideas, joking around and having fun–allowed everyone to feel relaxed and energized. For Project Aristotle, research on psychological safety pointed to particular norms that are vital to success. There were other behaviors that seemed important as well–like making sure teams had clear goals and creating a culture of dependability. But Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work. ‘We had to get people to establish psychologically safe environments,’ Rozovsky told me. But it wasn’t clear how to do that. ‘People here are really busy,’ she said. ‘We needed clear guidelines.'” Duhigg writes that the rise of group work in Silicon Valley is driven by research showing that profitability and worker satisfaction increase when workers collaborate. What is unremarked is the confluence between the demand for safe spaces in universities and in corporations, which offers a whole new take on the corporatization of the university. –RB

Uncomfortable Learning

adam falkWilliams College has a student organization that sponsors an “Uncomfortable Learning” lecture series that brings speakers to campus whose views are out of step with the majority opinion on campus. The group made news back in October when it first invited and then–in response to campus opposition–disinvited Suzanne Venker–a conservative woman and author of The War Against Men. Now Robby Soave reports that the group has made news again after a speaker it invited was prohibited from giving his speech by Williams’ President Adam Falk. In a statement to campus, Falk writes: “‘Today I am taking the extraordinary step of canceling a speech by John Derbyshire, who was to have presented his views here on Monday night. The college didn’t invite Derbyshire, but I have made it clear to the students who did that the college will not provide a platform for him. Free speech is a value I hold in extremely high regard. The college has a very long history of encouraging the expression of a range of viewpoints and giving voice to widely differing opinions. We have said we wouldn’t cancel speakers or prevent the expression of views except in the most extreme circumstances. In other words: There’s a line somewhere, but in our history of hosting events and speeches of all kinds, we hadn’t yet found it. We’ve found the line. Derbyshire, in my opinion, is on the other side of it. Many of his expressions clearly constitute hate speech, and we will not promote such speech on this campus or in our community. We respect–and expect–our students’ exploration of ideas, including ones that are very challenging, and we encourage individual choice and decision-making by students. But at times it’s our role as educators and administrators to step in and make decisions that are in the best interest of students and our community. This is one of those times.'” Zach Wood, a Williams student who helps run the “Uncomfortable Learning” series, explained his disagreement with Falk: “‘I think that President Falk is an analytic and deliberative leader and I respect his decision; however, I sharply disagree with his decision and if I could challenge it, I certainly would. I think his decision to cancel the speaker not only does a disservice to the intellectual character of our institution, but is antithetical to the principles of free speech and intellectual freedom that he has previously claimed to endorse. This decision is evidence of the fact that President Falk has failed to show support for student efforts to instill and promote political tolerance at Williams. I radically disagree with John Derybshire. And he has said offensive, even hateful things about minorities, things that I have a problem with. That is precisely why I was looking forward to taking him to task. If every student does not desire that kind of intellectual challenge, that is perfectly okay. But for President Falk to deny Williams students that opportunity, I believe, is not merely injudicious, but undemocratic and irresponsible.'” As I write this, I am in Saratoga Springs at a two-day retreat on how to talk about difficult questions like race and sex on campus. The conversations here are inspiring. Students come from communities all over the world with meaningfully different values and traditions, and they arrive on campus and have to figure out how to live with and talk to people whose worldviews challenge them. The students I speak with are genuinely curious and want to hear what others have to say. In most cases, then, there is a false debate between hate speech and free speech. It is not the students at Yale or the students at Williams who shut down speech. When free speech is sacrificed, it is not done by students. Rather it is cowardly administrators who fear criticism and don’t trust their students. –RB

Our Devices, Our Selves

iphone 6Cypress Marrs takes a second to think about what Apple’s devices are: “This campaign, like so much of Apple’s marketing, attempts to render potential anxieties about new computing devices irrelevant. The customer has questions, gut level concerns–how will this device impact their privacy? Their political life? How they interact with other people? How they experience their life? Apple responds to these reservations with a nod and a wink. Its marketing campaigns show individuals using Apple’s technologies toward ends that stand in contrast to the reality that consumers fear the devices will bring into being. The devices are not marketed through a catalogue of their functions but rather by conflating their functions with what they may facilitate. To do this, Apple employs our shared symbolic language… As imprecise use of these symbols spreads, it becomes increasingly difficult for individuals to think acutely about the world around them. Likewise, Apple ads are attempts to radically reshape the ways–the symbolic tools–which individuals use to comprehend the world. As personal computing devices become increasingly intimate–as they move from the desk to the book bag, from the pants pocket to the wrist–the symbolic fun-house of Apple’s marketing continues to conflate what a device does with what it might do–the device becomes the time taken for a kiss, the appreciation of the skyline, and the revolutionary impulse in an authoritarian state. Such conflations in conjunction with the constant and intimate presence of telecommunication has shrunk the distance between the personal and the public–between an experience and the image of that experience. Taken together, all of this makes it difficult to conceive of ourselves–or even conceive of conceiving of ourselves–in relation to a large and symbolically complex whole.”

Setting the Bar Low

collegeStephen J. Rose defends residential colleges against the threat of MOOCs and online education. But in so doing, Rose makes an argument for what colleges do best that is hardly inspiring and that certainly abandons any notion that college education is about learning to think with and against a tradition of intellectual, scientific, artistic, and humanist inquiry. “Higher education essentially has two functions: First, for those who reside on or near campus, it provides a period of semi-independence and autonomy in a protected environment with many social interactions; and second, it develops the workplace skills of general cognition, ability to learn, task completion, group and organizational skills, and, for many students, a field-specific knowledge base. While Carey does show the limitations of the current system, he falls very short in showing how a MOOC-based system can be scaled up and produce better results in preparing young people to enter and succeed in the labor force…. [I]n virtually all modern, industrialized societies, higher education has become the main path for preparing workers for the new service economy based in offices, health care, and education. The costs of such education in dollars and time are indeed immense–but there is a large payoff for the economy as a whole.”

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

HAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #18

vrg banner headingHAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.

For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at

Friday, March 4, 2016, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm

Joyce Dalsheim: Cultural Anthropologist Researching Nationalism, Religion, and the Israel/Palestine Conflict

joyce dalsheimOn Goat Surveillance and the False Promises of Sovereignty

In her critique of the Rights of Man, Hannah Arendt analyzed the problem of the “abstract” human being who was nowhere to be found. If Arendt’s political analyses stemmed from her grappling with the Jewish Question and the problems of minorities or stateless people, this talk takes a different turn. Rather than considering the outcomes of the Rights of Man for subaltern groups or refugees, this talk follows the transformation of the Jewish Question when Jews themselves are no longer a minority, but sovereign citizens in their own ethno-national state. It considers some of the many ways in which Israeli Jews struggle to be Jewish-from conversion and keeping kosher to the everyday surveillance of goats-suggesting that popular sovereignty might not be liberating in the ways we imagine.

BIO: Joyce Dalsheim is currently Assistant Professor in the Department of Global, International and Area Studies at UNC-Charlotte. She is a cultural anthropologist who studies nationalism, religion and the secular, and conflict in Israel/Palestine. She earned her her doctorate from the New School for Social Research, and has taught at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, and Wake Forest University.

RSVP to Christine Stanton at

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Hannah Arendt Center, 1:30 pm – 3:00 pm

Celebrating the Complete Works of Primo Levi

primo leviToni Morrison described Primo Levi’s writing as a “triumph of human identity and worth over the pathology of human destruction.” Levi is the distinguished author of decisive books such as If This Is a Man, and The Periodic Table. For the first time the entire oeuvre of the most acclaimed Holocaust survivor is available in English, after a 7-years collective endeavor lead by Ann Goldstein, New Yorker editor and celebrated translator of Elena Ferrante and Jhumpa Lahiri. Together with Goldstein, the event will feature Michael F. Moore, a most accomplished translator from Italian and UN interpreter.

For more info on Goldstein and the Complete Works of Primo Levi, view interview: HERE.

Primo Levi, (born July 31, 1919, Turin, Italy-died April 11, 1987, Turin), Italian-Jewish writer and chemist, noted for his restrained and moving autobiographical account of and reflections on survival in the Nazi concentration camps.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Reem-Kayden Center László Z. Bitó ’60 Auditorium, Bard College, 6:00 pm

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

1The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College announces two post-doctoral fellowships for the 2016-2017 academic year. The fellows should have a Ph.D. in political theory, philosophy, or a related field in the humanities, and his or her work should intersect meaningfully with Hannah Arendt’s thinking. In residence at the Arendt Center, the fellow will pursue his or her independent research at the Center, which includes Hannah Arendt’s personal library. The fellow will have access to Arendt’s Digital Archive through a relationship with the Arendt Center in New York City. In addition, the fellow will have the opportunity to participate in seminars, conferences, lectures, colloquia, and workshops organized by the Center.

To apply for the fellowship, please apply through at: with a letter of application explaining your research project and interest in the Center and a description of your teaching experience, CV, and two letters of reference.

The Deadline for consideration is Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Hannah Arendt Center, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY

Learning from the West African Ebola Epidemic: The Role of Governance in Preventing Epidemics

Learning from the West African Ebola Epidemic: The Role of Governance in Preventing Epidemics“Learning From the West African Ebola Epidemic” is a one-day conference in New York City exploring the hypothesis that building public trust in effective organizations is essential for fighting health crises such as Ebola. The conference is grounded in the Global Health Security Agenda that seeks to accelerate progress towards a world safe from infectious disease.

Specifically, the Global Health Security Agenda seeks to

  • Prevent avoidable epidemics;
  • Detect threats early; and
  • Respond rapidly and effectively.

Combining social science and political actors with leading scientists and Ebola specialists, we will explore the Ebola epidemic and its consequences as a case study to explore how educational, governance and healthcare resources can be better deployed against future outbreaks. The conference is sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center, Citizen Science, CCE, and the Ford Foundation in collaboration with the Honorable Dr. Wilmot James, South African MP and the Carnegie Council for Ethics In International Affairs.

To learn more about and register for our conference, please click here.

Free & Open to the Public

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Carnegie Council for Ethics & International Affairs, NYC, 10:00 am – 6:00 pm

Vita Activa – The Spirit of Hannah Arendt

vita activaThe Film Forum in New York City will be screening the new film, VITA ACTIVA – THE SPIRIT OF HANNAH ARENDT, directed by Ada Ushpiz, later this spring.

About the Film: A brand new documentary about one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. The German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt caused an uproar in the 1960s by coining the subversive concept of the “Banality of Evil” when referring to the trial of Adolph Eichmann, which she covered for the New Yorker magazine. Her private life was no less controversial thanks to her early love affair with the renowned German philosopher and Nazi supporter Martin Heidegger. This thought provoking and spirited documentary, with its abundance of archival materials, offers an intimate portrait of the whole of Arendt’s life, traveling to places where she lived, worked, loved, and was betrayed, as she wrote about the open wounds of modern times. Through her books, which are still widely read and the recent release of Margarethe von Trotta’s biopic Hannah Arendt (also a Zeitgeist Films release) there is renewed interest in Arendt throughout the world, especially among young people who find her insights into the nature of evil, totalitarianism, ideologies, and the perils faced by refugees, more relevant than ever. Watch the Trailer.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street West of 6th Ave., New York, NY, Time TBA


How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on CampusOn OCTOBER 20-21, 2016 we will host our ninth annual fall conference: “How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on Campus“. We’ll see you there!

Thursday and Friday, October 20 and 21, 2016

Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Bard College, 10:00 am – 6:00 pm

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Dawn Herrera Helphand discusses why Bernie Sanders’ appeal illustrates how widespread the political sentiments that Hannah Arendt identified as the causes of revolution are in both parties in the Quote of the Week. Marshall McLuhan comments on the power of critical thinking against automatic movement in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. We are pleased to announce the first issue of AJPA News, the official newsletter of the American Jewish Peace Archive (AJPA). Finally, we appreciate the annotations Hannah Arendt made to her copy of Montesquieu’s “The Spirit of Laws” in this week’s Library feature.


Amor Mundi 11/1/15

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

amor_mundi_sign-upPermanent Purgatory

refugee campElizabeth Dunn uses the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe to consider the ever-present fact of refugee camps around the world. The average refugee lives in a camp for 12 years, while many spend the remainder of their lives in these places. As Dunn writes, “the purgatory of camp life lasts decades or even generations, as the politics of refugees’ home countries remains unstable.” For Dunn, the refugee “problem” cannot be thought of as a border problem but must be seen as a question of resettlement. Her view is buttressed by an uncompromising look at the reality of living in a camp. “The problem is compounded by the total failure of the refugee camp as a humanitarian and political technology. Since the 1950s, Western Europe has tried to keep displaced people outside its borders by funding large-scale refugee camps in Third World countries. Despite the United Nations High Commission for Refugees’ call for ‘durable solutions’ for displaced people, the plan for most refugees is for them to wait in camps until they can return home, even when there is no foreseeable end to the wars or occupations that have displaced them. But while these camps offer politicians a convenient way to avoid making decisions about foreign wars and domestic immigration issues, the camps can only offer refugees a way of life that is permanently temporary. With no prospects for permanent relocation and the basic necessities for sustaining life in short supply, it is no surprise that displaced people are attempting the dangerous voyage to Europe. ‘This isn’t living; it’s just existing,’ Mzia Khizanishvili told me in the summer of 2014, as we sat outside her small cottage in a refugee camp in the Republic of Georgia. During the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia, Khizanishvili, a middle-aged school principal, became a victim of ethnic cleansing along with 28,000 other people in the breakaway province of South Ossetia. More than six years later, most of them were still stuck in the camps, which the government euphemistically called ‘new settlements.’ With unemployment rates at more than 80 percent and little farmland available for the camp’s residents, the internally displaced people in Georgia did what displaced people around the world do in refugee camps: they sat and waited to begin new lives.”

Free Expression on Campus

nadine strossenNadine Strossen went to Harvard’s Shorenstein Center to deliver the eighth annual Salant Lecture on Freedom of the Press. In her talk, Strossen discussed “how university sexual harassment policies increasingly go well beyond the Supreme Court’s definition of sexual harassment, ‘extending to speech with any sexual content that anyone finds offensive.’ Strossen argued that this concept has become ‘entrenched’ on university campuses as the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has threatened to pull federal funding from schools that do not ‘enact sexual misconduct policies that violate many civil liberties.’ ‘Combating gender discrimination, violence and sexual assault is of the utmost urgency,’ said Strossen, ‘but OCR’s distorted concept of sexual harassment actually does more harm than good to gender justice, not to mention free speech.’ ‘OCR’s flawed sexual harassment concept reflects sexist stereotypes that are equally insulting to women and men. For women, it embodies the archaic infantilizing notion that we are inherently demeaned by any expression with sexual content,’ she continued. Strossen critiqued the current trend toward shielding students from ideas that may make them uncomfortable. ‘Last fall, Brown University set up a safe space for students who felt endangered by the mere fact that a debate was taking place on campus on the topic of how should campuses handle sexual assault,’ she said, noting that the space was equipped with calming music, videos of puppies, and playdough. ‘This focus on safety from disturbing ideas is especially misplaced given the ongoing serious threats to students’ physical safety, including rape and sexual assault,’ said Strossen. ‘Also in the wake of the latest mass gun murders on a campus, we have to contrast government pressure to shield students from ideas with its failure to shield them from guns…when it comes to safety our students are being doubly disserved, too often denied safety from physical violence, which is critical for their education, but too often granted safety from ideas, which is antithetical to their education.'” The question of “How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex, and Religion on Campus” is the topic for the ninth annual Hannah Arendt Center Conference on Oct. 20-21, 2016. Save the date.

Triggering the Teacher

trigger warningsRani Neutill was teaching a class on the representation of sex throughout American cinema and at the same time working as Director of the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention Services at her university. Her students demanded trigger warnings and even still came crying hysterical to her office. She complied, even as she worried that doing so was neither effective nor productive. That is, until she lost patience. She has left teaching because of her experiences. Colleges, she writes, “are the new helicopter parents, places where the quest for emotional safety and psychic healing leads not to learning, but regression.” Here was the final straw that sent Neutill over the edge: “Nevertheless, I did it. Each night I sent a meticulous email detailing which scene I was showing, where in the film the scene was, and what the content of the scene included. My role as a sexual assault prevention services specialist and survivor advocate eclipsed my role as a professor as I tried to accommodate students over and over again. The next film to piss them all off was 9 1/2 Weeks. The film is about an S&M relationship between a character played by Micky Rourke and one played by Kim Basinger. At first Basinger’s character is drawn to Rourke and they begin an S&M style consensual relationship. As the film goes on, Rourke becomes abusive and the sex becomes non-consensual, but the beauty of the film is that Basinger is eventually able to let go and take something from the relationship–a heightened sense of her sexuality and desires. There’s an infamous scene with Rourke feeding Basinger a number of food items while she’s blindfolded. It’s basically a series of soft-core money shots. It is a consensual scene. When conversation began in class, a white male student started talking about the scene as one of consent. Four hands shot up. One said, ‘no–it is clearly not consensual.’ Other students concurred. They argued that if someone is in an abusive relationship, they can never consent to sex because they are being manipulated. This triggered me. I was furious. Sexual assault survivor support is about empowerment. The model says, ‘Hey! It’s not for you to tell the survivor what happened to them; that’s their story, they know, don’t f–king label it.’ What these students were essentially doing was stripping every person in an abusive relationship of all their agency. They were telling every survivor that they were raped, even when the survivor may have wanted to have sex with their abuser. They were claiming god like knowledge of every sexual encounter. And they were only 20. If that. Their frontal lobes haven’t even fully developed. I was done with it. I was drained. I was anxious. I was tired. I was fed up. But I didn’t want to be. I had been teaching for ten years with passion.”


academiaArthur C. Brooks argues in the NY Times that increasing homogeneity of thought on college and university campuses is endangering free and critical thinking. “But even honest researchers are affected by the unconscious bias that creeps in when everyone thinks the same way. Certain results–especially when they reinforce commonly held ideas–tend to receive a lower standard of scrutiny. This might help explain why, when the Open Science Collaboration’s Reproducibility Project recently sought to retest 100 social science studies, the group was unable to confirm the original findings more than half the time. These concerns aren’t a modern innovation. In one classic experiment from 1975, a group of scholars was asked to evaluate one of two research papers that used the same statistical methodology to reach opposite conclusions. One version ‘found’ that liberal political activists were mentally healthier than the general population; the other paper, otherwise identical, was set up to ‘prove’ the opposite conclusion. The liberal reviewers rated the first version significantly more publishable than its less flattering twin.” For Brooks, we should welcome opposing and dissenting voices not simply because they may be right and we wrong, but rather because responding to dissent will force us to respond and recalibrate. It is, Brooks argues, a question of humility: “[I]mproving ideological diversity is not a fundamentally political undertaking. Rather, it is a question of humility. Proper scholarship is based on the simple virtues of tolerance, openness and modesty. Having people around who think differently thus improves not only science, but also character.”

The Commons

obama robinsonIn Part II of the conversation between President Obama and writer Marilynne Robinson, President Obama speaks about the loss of common literature, common culture, and “common reference points.”

The President: Part of the challenge is–and I see this in our politics–is a common conversation. It’s not so much, I think, that people don’t read at all; it’s that everybody is reading [in] their niche, and so often, at least in the media, they’re reading stuff that reinforces their existing point of view. And so you don’t have that phenomenon of here’s a set of great books that everybody is familiar with and everybody is talking about. Sometimes you get some TV shows that fill that void, but increasingly now, that’s splintered, too, so other than the Super Bowl, we don’t have a lot of common reference points. And you can argue that that’s part of the reason why our politics has gotten so polarized, is that–when I was growing up, if the president spoke to the country, there were three stations and every city had its own newspaper and they were going to cover that story. And that would last for a couple of weeks, people talking about what the president had talked about. Today, my poor press team, they’re tweeting every two minutes because some new thing has happened, which then puts a premium on the sensational and the most outrageous or a conflict as a way of getting attention and breaking through the noise–which then creates, I believe, a pessimism about the country because all those quiet, sturdy voices that we were talking about at the beginning, they’re not heard. It’s not interesting to hear a story about some good people in some quiet place that did something sensible and figured out how to get along.

Robinson: I think that in our earlier history–the Gettysburg Address or something–there was the conscious sense that democracy was an achievement. It was not simply the most efficient modern system or something. It was something that people collectively made and they understood that they held it together by valuing it. I think that in earlier periods–which is not to say one we will never return to–the president himself was this sort of symbolic achievement of democracy. And there was the human respect that I was talking about before, [that] compounds itself in the respect for the personified achievement of a democratic culture. Which is a hard thing–not many people can pull that together, you know…. So I do think that one of the things that we have to realize and talk about is that we cannot take it for granted. It’s a made thing that we make continuously.”

The common sense that we cannot take for granted and that we must continuously make is a central theme of Hannah Arendt’s understanding of political action. Action is new, surprising, and shocking. It is the spontaneous surprise of action that gathers people around and initiates the conversations, dialogue, and discourses that gather a plural and diverse group of individuals into a political people. The worry Arendt voices is that in an era of spectacle and statistics, surprising action is rare and easily dismissed as an aberration. Action can be either criminal or heroic. To surprise and shock, action must become ever more extreme, which leads to it increasingly being seen as criminal, or at least irrelevant. The result is the splintering of attention and the loss of a common focus.

amor_mundi_sign-upLook at Me

Anselm KieferTrinie Dalton reviews Anselm Kiefer’s Notebooks, Volume 1, 1998-99 in the LA Review of Books. “These Notebooks, which also often remark upon his burgeoning computer skills and how it takes up to ’25 minutes to upload a file to the floppy disk,’ are eerily all-too-contemporary when it comes to that existential angst that drives some social media fixations today–again the fine line between BE HERE NOW and LOOK AT ME. These journals are a reminder that our obsessions with staying occupied and proving we are real (i.e. selfies for some; jerking off for others) are not dictated by technology but rather are innate human traits expressible across behaviors and mediums. Kiefer’s art and writing remind us that these compulsions have driven artistic practice since the dawn of time, not only in time-specific mediums (like narrative writing and music) but also in textual and visual mediums (like poetry and painting), which are arguably less tethered to time.” One seemingly exemplary entry reads: “Sitting with my laptop, waiting. For what? What differentiates this waiting from waiting for a train or a flight? In both cases you wait until something arrives. In the case of waiting for something to write, the waiting is already a part of what is to be written down. Because something is already ‘at work’ while you wait, which could end the wait.”

The Great Plastic Soup

Pinar YoldasIn an interview, Turkish artist Pinar Yoldas thinks aloud about environmentalism in the age of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch: “We are living in a time when we really need to define what nature is. We have these images of nature that are also false. Eco-futurism is an attempt to better understand nature in order build a new culture that has more to offer. Eco-punk, I don’t know. I’m always thinking of the future of the artist, or the future of the designer. Say you’re a designer, and you design a chair or lemon squeezer or a lighting fixture, which we all need. Everybody loves nice lighting fixtures and chairs. But don’t we have enough of these well-designed chairs? The definition of design has to change. We need subversive objects to create a discourse, not to solve a problem. We need critical design. I did a project similar to Ecology of Excess years earlier, called AlterEvolution. In LA I’d first read the phrase ‘cage-free chickens,’ which amazed me. Aren’t chickens supposed to be cage-free? So I designed chickens without legs or wings. I took out the brain, so that only reproductive, circulatory, skeletal, and muscular systems remained. This was a critique of the food industry, of course. I called it biological minimalism at its best. Or take the issue of human engineering. There are already clinics in LA that let you pick your child’s eye color. Why waste time with eye color? Go straight to the prefrontal cortex! I’m not just interested in protecting the environment. I want to know how we perceive ourselves as humans and what we are actually doing as pure consumers–with eugenics, for example, which has to do with human pride, this idea that we are the pinnacles of evolution. This kind of mentality is what I’m criticizing.”

Dot Dot Dot

ellipsisKaty Waldman considers the ellipse: “The three dots extend from the end of the phrase like a ledge into the surrounding silence. They co-mingle the thrill of possibility with the fear of irresolution. Who can say what varmints lurk, what vistas shimmer, to the right of those humble stepping stones? Who can say if there’s anything there at all? Dashes–useful and lovely though they are–are not … ellipses. They excel at representing interruptions, trains of thought abruptly shorn off. Meanwhile, an ellipsis trails away gradually, delicately, all hesitance and apprehension. If a dash indicates the sudden arrival of a fiend in a Bram Stoker novel (‘The curtains flutter strangely in the moonlight, I hear a noise–‘), an ellipsis means the monster has come and gone, and things aren’t looking good for the victim. (‘It had … fangs … my neck … ow.’) According to The Chicago Manual of Style, ‘ellipsis points suggest faltering or fragmented speech accompanied by confusion, insecurity, distress, or uncertainty.’ While dashes jolt you forward, ellipses make you pause and linger… But not all ellipses are ghoulishly suggestive. Some–the kind a colleague calls ‘ellipses of anticipation’–are exuberantly, epically suggestive! Star Wars begins with one such dot dot dot: ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away …’ (A more prosaic example of the anticipatory ellipsis might be the three blue orbs that appear on your iPhone when someone’s texting you back.) In a Peanuts strip, Snoopy types out a flurry of paperback clichés (‘Suddenly a shot rang out. A door slammed. The maid screamed.’), and then frets that he ‘may have written [himself] into a corner …’. His final punctuation–not to mention the conditional ‘MAY have written’–adds a charming understated wryness to the punch line. But what’s especially great about Snoopy’s ellipsis is how it resists the very closure he fears. As the dog’s words trail off beyond the strip’s last square, those dots become the thread leading him out of the corner. Where Joyce’s ellipses suggest fracture or disjunction, the anticipatory ellipsis implies continuity, a world or life persisting independently of what appears on the page.”

Better Bread

breadFerris Jabr profiles Stephen Jones, a scientist who thinks he can make bread interesting again: “What most people picture when they think of flour–that anonymous chalk-white powder from the supermarket–is anathema to Jones. Before the advent of industrial agriculture, Americans enjoyed a wide range of regional flours milled from equally diverse wheats, which in turn could be used to make breads that were astonish­ingly flavorful and nutritious. For nearly a century, however, America has grown wheat tailored to an industrial system designed to produce nutrient-poor flour and insipid, spongy breads soaked in preservatives. For the sake of profit and expediency, we forfeited pleasure and health. The Bread Lab’s mission is to make regional grain farming viable once more, by creating entirely new kinds of wheat that unite the taste and wholesomeness of their ancestors with the robustness of their modern counterparts. Although regional grain economies have developed in California, North Carolina, Arizona and elsewhere, there are few people who match Jones’s fervor for wheat and none with an equally grand vision for its future. His lab was founded just three years ago, but it has already earned the respect of the country’s most celebrated bakers, like Chad Robertson of Tartine and Jeffrey Hamelman, the director of King Arthur Bakery. Dan Barber teamed up with Jones to develop ‘Barber wheat’ for his restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns, which is ensconced in a working farm. Bread Lab breads have even made their way to the kitchens of the White House. In recent months, the lab’s newfound popularity has caused a bit of an identity crisis. Its latest collaborator is the fast-casual Mexican chain Chipotle, which wants to use one of the lab’s regional wheats in its tortillas. Chipotle serves 800,000 tortillas around the country every day. ‘There are definitely issues of scale,’ Jones says. ‘If you have Chipotle come in, how big does it get, and how quickly? Do we end up with a commodity by any other name?'”

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #14

HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.

For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at

Friday, November 6, 2015, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm



Critical Theory and Surreal Practice: A Conversation with Elisabeth Lenk and Rita BischofCritical Theory and Surreal Practice: A Conversation with Elizabeth Lenk and Rita Bischoff

In 1962, a politically active Elisabeth Lenk moved to Paris and persuaded Theodor W. Adorno to supervise her sociology dissertation on the surrealists. Adorno, though critical of Surrealism, agreed. The Challenge of Surrealism presents their correspondence, written between 1962 and Adorno’s death in 1969, set against the backdrop of Adorno and Walter Benjamin’s disagreement about the present possibilities of future political action, crystallization, and the dialectical image. The letters offer a fresh portrait of Adorno and expand upon his view of Surrealism and the student movements in 1960s France and Germany, while Lenk’s essays and Bischof’s introduction argue that there is a legitimate connection between Surrealism and political resistance that still holds true today. Please join us at the Hannah Arendt Center for a conversation with Elisabeth Lenk and Rita Bischof to celebrate the English translation of The Challenge of Surrealism: The Correspondence of Theodor W. Adorno and Elisabeth Lenk.

Free & Open to the Public. Kaffee and Kuchen will be served!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Hannah Arendt Center, 3:00 pm

How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on CampusSAVE THE DATE – 2016 FALL CONFERENCE

On OCTOBER 20-21, 2016 we will host our ninth annual fall conference: “How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on Campus“. We’ll see you there!

Thursday and Friday, October 20 and 21, 2016

Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am – 6:00 pm

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Hans Teerds discusses how being at home in a desert-like landscape invokes the danger of losing any real contact with the world and its (other) inhabitants in the Quote of the Week. The Persian poet Rumi reflects on the heartache and sorrow involved in thinking in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. We publicize the news that the Department of Philosophy at West Chester University will be hosting the tenth independent conference of the Hannah Arendt Circle, March 10-12, 2016 and that the Hannah Arendt Circle is now accepting papers for this event. Finally, we appreciate Arendt’s three-volume copy of The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History in this week’s Library feature.


Amor Mundi 4/26/15

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

amor_mundi_sign-upWill It Never End?

violenceJohn Gray, writing in The Guardian, takes on Steven Pinker’s argument that progress and the Enlightenment are bringing about the decline and extinction of violence. “It may be true that the modern state’s monopoly of force has led, in some contexts, to declining rates of violent death. But it is also true that the power of the modern state has been used for purposes of mass killing, and one should not pass too quickly over victims of state terror. With increasing historical knowledge it has become clear that the ‘Holocaust-by-bullets’–the mass shootings of Jews, mostly in the Soviet Union, during the second world war–was perpetrated on an even larger scale than previously realised. Soviet agricultural collectivisation incurred millions of foreseeable deaths, mainly as a result of starvation, with deportation to uninhabitable regions, life-threatening conditions in the Gulag and military-style operations against recalcitrant villages also playing an important role. Peacetime deaths due to internal repression under the Mao regime have been estimated to be around 70 million. Along with fatalities caused by state terror were unnumbered millions whose lives were irreparably broken and shortened. How these casualties fit into the scheme of declining violence is unclear. Pinker goes so far as to suggest that the 20th-century Hemoclysm might have been a gigantic statistical fluke, and cautions that any history of the last century that represents it as having been especially violent may be ‘apt to exaggerate the narrative coherence of this history’ (the italics are Pinker’s). However, there is an equal or greater risk in abandoning a coherent and truthful narrative of the violence of the last century for the sake of a spurious quantitative precision.”

How About Improving High Schools?

college reformDavid Leonhardt takes on the conventional wisdom that college is not for everyone. (Although I thought the conventional wisdom is that college is for everyone.) In his Upshot column in the NY Times, Leonhardt argues that new studies show that college benefits even the most marginal students. “The fate of students like Mr. Escanilla is crucial to today’s debate over who should go to college: How much money should taxpayers spend subsidizing higher education? How willing should students be to take on college debt? How hard should Washington and state governments push colleges to lift their graduation rates? All of these questions depend on whether a large number of at-risk students are really capable of completing a four-year degree. As it happens, two separate–and ambitious–recent academic studies have looked at precisely this issue. The economists and education researchers tracked thousands of people over the last two decades in Florida, Georgia and elsewhere who had fallen on either side of hard admissions cutoffs. Less selective colleges often set such benchmarks: Students who score 840 on the SAT, for example, or maintain a C+ average in high school are admitted. Those who don’t clear the bar are generally rejected, and many don’t attend any four-year college. Such stark cutoffs provide researchers with a kind of natural experiment. Students who score an 830 on the SAT are nearly identical to those who score an 840. Yet if one group goes to college and the other doesn’t, researchers can make meaningful estimates of the true effects of college. And the two studies have come to remarkably similar conclusions: Enrolling in a four-year college brings large benefits to marginal students. Roughly half of the students in Georgia who had cleared the bar went on to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years, compared with only 17 percent of those who missed the cutoff, according to one of the studies, by Joshua S. Goodman of Harvard and Michael Hurwitz and Jonathan Smith of the College Board. The benefits were concentrated among lower-income students, both studies found, and among men, one of them found.” What is unasked in Leonhardt’s argument is, “What about high school?” It is not controversial that sending someone to college will help people. But does it make sense for us to continue offering free high school educations that are horrific and then charge people for better college educations? Wouldn’t the money and effort spent on community colleges and financial aid for lower tier colleges be better spent reforming high school education in a meaningful way? It seems most people simply have given up on high school, which is why college becomes an expensive and next-best alternative.

Your Smart Things, They’re Spying On You

smart homeJustin McGuirk says the smart house is here and that it’s here less to make your life convenient and more to gather data about what you do at home: “For the first time since the mid-twentieth century–with its labor-saving household appliances and rising quality of life–the domestic is once again the site of radical change. And though domestic space appears to fall within the realm of architecture, architects themselves have been almost mute on the implications of such change. Architecture, it seems, has given up its dreams of imagining how we might live, and so into that void technology is rushing. That tired old trope of ‘the house of the future’ has been replaced by what is now called the ‘smart home.’ The smart home is the network’s great white hope for ubiquitous connectivity. It sounds benign enough, and may conjure Jacques Tati-style mise-en-scènes populated by absurd devices–the smart home is prime territory for farce–but it is also an ideology. It is the house-shaped manifestation of the internet of things, according to which all our devices and appliances will join the network, communicating with us and each other. To say that the internet of things is an ideology is to suggest that the use-value of the concept has yet to be sold to the consumer. It is easily mocked by skeptical hacks who question the need for talking fridges and washing machines that you can program with your smartphone (‘You still need to put the clothes in yourself, right?’). Bruce Sterling argues that the internet of things has nothing to do with the consumer and everything to do with the business interests of the service providers. Given that data is the new currency, the internet of things is an epic power grab by the lords of the network–Sterling focuses on the ‘big five’ of Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft–to gain control of as much human data as physically possible. As the primary interface of the internet of things, the smart home is effectively the tendrils of the network rising out of the ground and into every one of our household appliances to allow mass data collection and digital surveillance.” And while it used to be that you could strategically opt out of this data gathering, McGuirk suggests that the smart home will just render you redundant. Home, then, is no longer any retreat from the public space.

amor_mundi_sign-upMindfulness and Social Control

mindfulnessVirginia Heffernan is wary of the way “mindfulness,” an idea brought into Western thought from various Eastern religions, has been taken up by businesses and 21st century self-help gurus: “Mindfulness as ‘keeping in tune’ has a nice ring to it. But it’s ‘focused on the task at hand’ that appeals to managers, like Jackson, who are conscious of performance goals. Might workplace mindfulness–in the cubicle or on the court–be just another way to keep employees undistracted and to get them to work harder for nothing but airy rewards? In this context of performance enhancement, ‘mindfulness’ seems perilously close to doggerel from the same playbook that brought us corny affirmations, inner children and vision boards. Maybe the word ‘mindfulness’ is like the Prius emblem, a badge of enlightened and self-satisfied consumerism, and of success and achievement. If so, not deploying mindfulness–taking pills or naps for anxiety, say, or going out to church or cocktails–makes you look sort of backward or classless. Like driving a Hummer.”

Feeling and Thinking

Françoise MoulyFrançoise Mouly, in an interview, talks about the relationship between thought and emotion in art: “Often, we separate intellectual discourse from emotional reaction. But I take such genuine pleasure in things that are intellectually well architected. It’s definitely an integrated experience for me. Much more than any kind of cheap, emotional pulls that you get in popular culture, when I read a sentence and it’s beautifully written, it can bring me to tears. I know what I respond to is a voice. A voice is not just a stylistic thing, but it means someone who really has something to say. I think a lot of what I get from books–whether they be books of comics or books of literature–is a window into somebody’s mind and their way of thinking. I love it when it’s so specific. It’s a new way to look at the world. It’s as if I could get in and see it through their eyes. It also reaches a level of universality because, somehow, I can recognize some of my feelings in seeing somebody who is actually expressing their own inner reality. Even though Flaubert has not been in Madame Bovary’s skin, you do get a sense of what it’s like to be that person. It’s a kind of empathic response when you’re reading it.”

The Fiction and the Fact

joseph mitchellIn a piece on the New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, Janet Malcom, starting with facts from a new biography of Mitchell, tries to work out whether it matters that his tendency to exaggerate or flat-out invent in his profiles for the magazine, more prevalent than previously believed, matters. Ultimately, she says, it doesn’t. But only because he was good at it: “Every writer of nonfiction who has struggled with the ditch and the bushes knows what Mitchell is talking about, but few of us have gone as far as Mitchell in bending actuality to our artistic will. This is not because we are more virtuous than Mitchell. It is because we are less gifted than Mitchell. The idea that reporters are constantly resisting the temptation to invent is a laughable one. Reporters don’t invent because they don’t know how to. This is why they are journalists rather than novelists or short-story writers. They depend on the kindness of the strangers they actually meet for the characters in their stories. There are no fictional characters lurking in their imaginations. They couldn’t create a character like Mr. Flood or Cockeye Johnny if you held a gun to their heads. Mitchell’s travels across the line that separates fiction and nonfiction are his singular feat. His impatience with the annoying, boring bits of actuality, his slashings through the underbrush of unreadable facticity, give his pieces their electric force, are why they’re so much more exciting to read than the work of other nonfiction writers of ambition. In the title piece of The Bottom of the Harbor, a short work of great subtlety about the ability of fish and shellfish to survive in polluted water, Mitchell mentions a small area of the New York waterfront where, in contrast to the general foulness, ‘clean, sparkling, steel-blue water’ can be found. This image of purity in the midst of contamination could serve as an emblem of Mitchell’s journalistic exceptionalism. He has filtered out the impurities other journalists helplessly accept as the defining condition of their genre. Mitchell’s genre is some kind of hybrid, as yet to be named.”

What We Talk About When We Talk About Dresses

dressMegan Garber wonders what might have caused the backlash against some designer dresses that went on sale at Target this week, coming up with an answer that suggests, as always, that when we’re talking about clothes, we’re not just talking about clothes: “A common phrase you’ll hear associated with Pulitzer is ‘uniform’–as in, as Givhan put it, ‘part of a preppy uniform that announces itself from fifty paces,’ or, as the Boston Globe put it, ‘a uniform of the well-heeled WASP.’ Which is ironic, of course: Uniforms are about the constriction of freedoms, and preppiness and WASPiness are, in general, about the freedom that comes with privilege. And clothing, furthermore-‘fashion,’ in haughtier moments–is most optimistically about the freedoms of self-expression and self-reinvention. It recognizes very little distinction between faking it and making it. If you have the money and the inclination, you can stock your closet–and swath your body–with Alice + Olivia and Thakoon and Marc Jacobs and Marchesa, or with very convincing knockoffs. You can balance them out, as the fashion magazines have taught you to do, with items from H&M and Zara and Forever 21. We live in an economy of sartorial abundance; one outcome of that is that ‘style’ is something we have come to associate with freedom. But Pulitzer’s clothes are, again, ‘uniforms’–which are, on the whole, designed to free their wearers from the burdens of free thinking. And this is perhaps the main source of the ire about Pulitzer’s clothes: The garments suggest a kind of willful conscription, celebrating what happens when wealth and status are accompanied by an insistent rejection of creativity. It was, and to some extent still is, popular to deride women for being ‘basic,’ which is to say for loving pumpkin-spice lattes, Ugg boots, Gucci handbags, and other predictable outcomes of commercialized femininity. ‘Basic’ is a terrible epithet in many ways, but it is also, as far as ‘Lillys’ are concerned, an instructive one: Pulitzer’s clothes are, in this sense, the worst kind of basic. They promise class and community and the relief of conformity. They are marketed to people of privilege. Worst of all, though, they suggest that the best thing one can do with one’s privilege is to use it to go on vacation.”

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

h. g. adlerTranslating the Holocaust: H. G. Adler as Writer and Scholar

This event, which features a keynote address, several panels, and a performance, will offer a unique opportunity to consider the intersection of both the scholarly and artistic work of H. G. Adler, a major thinker and writer who is just becoming known in English.

Sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center, The Bard Translation Initiative, Jewish Studies, German Studies, and Human Rights Project.

Free and open to the public!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Bard Hall, Bard College, 4:00 pm – 6:00 pm

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #8

HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.

For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at

Friday, May 15, 2015, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm



privacy con 2015 (temp)SAVE THE DATE – 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

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!

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Jennie Han discusses how Arendt’s and Kant’s conceptions of critical thinking help open us up to the rest of the world in the Quote of the Week. Albert Einstein provides this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. In a special feature, Zelda May Bas, a student fellow with the Hannah Arendt Center, recounts our second “Courage to Be” dinner, during which Professor Uday Mehta spoke on Gandhi. Finally, we visit the Hannah Arendt Collection and peruse a number of books dedicated to understanding the character and political aspirations of Adolf Hitler in this week’s Library feature.

critical thinking

Critical Thinking, Judgment, and Empathy

By Jennie Han

**This article was originally published on April 1, 2013.**

“Critical thinking is possible only where the standpoints of all others are open to inspection. Hence, critical thinking, while still a solitary business, does not cut itself off from ‘all others.’ To be sure, it still goes on in isolation, but by the force of imagination it makes the others present and thus moves in a space that is potentially public, open to all sides; in other words, it adopts the position of Kant’s world citizen. To think with an enlarged mentality means that one trains one’s imagination to go visiting.”

— Hannah Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy

Arendt’s appeal to the “enlargement of the mind” of Kantian judgment is well known and is often discussed in relation to Eichmann’s failure to think and recognize the world’s plurality. To the extent that we find lessons in these discussions, a prominent one is that we might all be vulnerable to such failures of judgment. Continue reading


The Poverty of Ideas

In an essay on the past and future of critical theory, Raymond Geuss offers an observation that has increasing resonance across all fields of inquiry, from politics and economics to philosophy and literature: sometime around 1970, the basic 20th century consensus that democracy and capitalism would provide an eternal increase in both justice and wealth began to unravel. Thomas Piketty makes a similar point in his book Capital in the 21st Century. It is increasingly likely that the post-World War II marriage of rising equality and rising incomes was a bubble of sorts. Whether one mourns the loss of a golden age or celebrates the liberation from childish illusions, the loss of the hopeful liberal idealism of the mid-20th century is a fact still to be reckoned with. Continue reading

Amor Mundi 5/18/14


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.

Is Democracy Over?

1Thomas Meaney and Yascha Mounk argue in a long essay in The Nation that the democratic moment is passing if it has not yet passed. Meaney and Mounk build their argument on a simple critical insight, a kind of “unmasking” of what might be called the hypocrisy of modern democracy. Democracy is supposed to be the will of the people. It is a long time since the small group of Athenian citizens governed themselves. Modern democrats have defended representative democracy as a pragmatic alternative because gathering all the citizens of modern states together for democratic debate is simply impossible. But technology has changed that. “As long as direct democracy was impracticable within the confines of the modern territorial state, the claim that representative institutions constituted the truest form of self-government was just about plausible. But now, in the early twenty-first century, the claim about direct democracy being impossible at the national level and beyond is no longer credible. As the constraints of time and space have eroded, the ubiquitous assumption that we live in a democracy seems very far from reality. The American people may not all fit into Madison Square Garden, but they can assemble on virtual platforms and legislate remotely, if that is what they want. Yet almost no one desires to be that actively political, or to replace representation with more direct political responsibility. Asked to inform themselves about the important political issues of the day, most citizens politely decline. If forced to hold an informed opinion on every law and regulation, many would gladly mount the barricades to defend their right not to rule themselves in such a burdensome manner. The challenge posed by information technology lies not in the possibility that we might adopt more direct forms of democracy but in the disquieting recognition that we no longer dream of ruling ourselves.” In short, democracy understood as self-government is now once again possible in the technical age. Such techno-democratic possibility is not, however, leading to more democracy. Thus, Meaney and Mounk conclude, technology allows us to see through the illusions of democracy as hypocritical and hollow. While it is true that people are not flocking to technical versions of mass democracies, they are taking to the streets and organizing protests, and involving themselves in the activities of citizenship. Meaney and Mounk are right, democracy is not assured, and we should never simply assume its continued vitality. But neither should we write it off entirely. Read more in the Weekend Read by Roger Berkowitz.

Who is Modi?

1Narenda Modi is a corruption-fighting son of a tea merchant who has risen from one of India’s lowest castes to be its new Prime Minister. He is also a member of an ultra-nationalist organization who is alleged to have enabled anti-Muslim pogroms and has until now been banned from traveling to the United States. An unsigned editorial in the Wall Street Journal gushes: “Mr. Modi’s record offers reason for optimism. As governor for 13 years of Gujarat state, he was the archetypal energetic executive, forcing through approvals of new projects and welcoming foreign investment. Gujarat now accounts for 25% of India’s exports, and the poverty rate has plunged. As the son of a tea-seller, Mr. Modi also has a gut sense of the economic aspirations of ordinary Indians.” In a longer essay in the same paper, Geeta Anand and Gordon Fairclough speak of India’s “post-ideological moment”: “Voters from different castes and regions, rural and urban areas, the middle class and those who want to be middle class-all turned out to vote for Mr. Modi. ‘This is a big shift. It is the beginning of a post-ideological generation, not left-centered,’ says Shekhar Gupta, editor in chief of the Indian Express newspaper. ‘This is the rise of Indians more interested in themselves. They are aspirational, and they are united in their impatience.'” And yet, in the Guardian, Pankaj Mishra warns: “Back then, it would have been inconceivable that a figure such as Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist chief minister of Gujarat accused, along with his closest aides, of complicity in crimes ranging from an anti-Muslim pogrom in his state in 2002 to extrajudicial killings, and barred from entering the US, may occupy India’s highest political office. Modi is a lifelong member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary Hindu nationalist organization inspired by the fascist movements of Europe, whose founder’s belief that Nazi Germany had manifested ‘race pride at its highest’ by purging the Jews is by no means unexceptional among the votaries of Hindutva, or ”Hinduness’. In 1948, a former member of the RSS murdered Gandhi for being too soft on Muslims. The outfit, traditionally dominated by upper-caste Hindus, has led many vicious assaults on minorities. A notorious executioner of dozens of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 crowed that he had slashed open with his sword the womb of a heavily pregnant woman and extracted her foetus. Modi himself described the relief camps housing tens of thousands of displaced Muslims as ‘child-breeding centres’. Such rhetoric has helped Modi sweep one election after another in Gujarat.”

A Penny for Your Thoughts

1Subscriptions to academic journals can run into the $1,000s. What is more, after a publication and review process that takes years, the articles are frequently barricaded behind firewalls for years more. Robert Darnton, despairing over inaccessibility of academic journals and what that means both for both research and the public good, notes that there is, in fact, some hope in any number of organizations looking to align the interests of authors and readers both: “the desire to reach readers may be one of the most underestimated forces in the world of knowledge. Aside from journal articles, academics produce a large numbers of books, yet they rarely make much money from them. Authors in general derive little income from a book a year or two after its publication. Once its commercial life has ended, it dies a slow death, lying unread, except for rare occasions, on the shelves of libraries, inaccessible to the vast majority of readers. At that stage, authors generally have one dominant desire-for their work to circulate freely through the public; and their interest coincides with the goals of the open-access movement.” The new model of open-source academic publishing seeks to subsidize peer review by charging a fee for submission. Good idea.

Against Critical Thinking

1Hardly any idea is more in vogue these days than ‘critical thinking.’ There is even a National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking that defines critical thinking as the intellectually disciplined process of skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, and evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. Isn’t that what we are supposed to be teaching our children and our students? Not according to Michael S. Roth, President of Wesleyan University. In “The Stone” in the New York Times, Roth argues that students-and not only students-are too critical in their approach to texts and ideas. “Our best college students are very good at being critical. In fact being smart, for many, means being critical. Having strong critical skills shows that you will not be easily fooled. It is a sign of sophistication, especially when coupled with an acknowledgment of one’s own ‘privilege.’The combination of resistance to influence and deflection of responsibility by confessing to one’s advantages is a sure sign of one’s ability to negotiate the politics of learning on campus. But this ability will not take you very far beyond the university. Taking things apart, or taking people down, can provide the satisfactions of cynicism. But this is thin gruel.” Critical thinking is important. First, however, learning requires submission to the text, the facts, or the thinker. Too often, students and even professors skip the hard work of learning and proceed directly to criticism. As I am constantly telling my students, first try to understand Nietzsche before you decide if he is right or wrong.

The Death Penalty in Context

1In an essay on the racial-bias in the death penalty, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes: “When [Ramesh] Ponnuru suggests that the way to correct for the death penalty’s disproportionate use is to execute more white people, he is presenting a world in which the death penalty has neither history nor context. One merely flips the ‘Hey Guys, Let’s Not Be Racist’ switch and then the magic happens. Those of us who cite the disproportionate application of the death penalty as a reason for outlawing it do so because we believe that a criminal-justice system is not an abstraction but a real thing, existing in a real context, with a real history. In America, the history of the criminal justice-and the death penalty-is utterly inseparable from white supremacy. During the Civil War, black soldiers were significantly more likely to be court-martialed and executed than their white counterparts. This practice continued into World War II. ‘African-Americans comprised 10 percent of the armed forces but accounted for almost 80 percent of the soldiers executed during the war,’ writes law professor Elizabeth Lutes Hillman.”

The Rainbow Pope

1Omar Encarnación argues in Foreign Affairs that we should pay attention to Pope Francis not only because of his well-remarked attention to economic inequality. “More surprising than Francis’ endorsement of economic populism and even liberalization theology are his views on social issues, homosexuality in particular, which suggest an even deeper Latin American influence on Francis’ papacy. On a flight back from Brazil last July, he told reporters: ‘If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?’ Then, in an interview in September, he called on Catholics to ‘get over their obsession with abortion, contraceptives, and homosexuality.’ Most recently, in an interview in March, Francis insinuated that he supported same-sex civil unions and that the church would tolerate them — for economic reasons. ‘Matrimony is between a man and a woman,’ he said. But moves to ‘regulate diverse situations of cohabitation [are] driven by the need to regulate economic aspects among persons, as for instance to assure medical care.'”

What They Show

1Dahlia Schweitzer praises the work of photographer Cindy Sherman for daring to reveal what’s beneath: “After all, Sherman’s photographs are an encyclopedia of body language, identities performed with carefully arranged figures. The body is a collection of limbs used to convey roles, personalities, and situations. Each gesture, each object, is loaded with meaning. Her photographs are never casual snapshots or self-portraits. Rather, they are explorations of arrangement and archetype. She questions stereotype and learned behavior through her compositions and subjects, and through the diorama-like environments she creates for each scenario. She exposes the ruptures under the surface by taking everyday life and shifting it off-kilter, examining society’s expectations for appearance and behavior. Her photographs work for the attention they bring to that which does not fit, to the exact point of the tear.”

Heidegger, Arendt, and the Political

1Babette Babich speaks with Roger Berkowitz and Tracy Strong in a long conversation touching upon Hannah Arendt, the Margarethe von Trotta film, managerial governance, totalitarianism, the Eichmann case, Stanley Milgram, evil, democracy, Martin Heidegger, and politics in the 21st century.






From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Jennifer M. Hudson in the Quote of the Week compares Thomas Piketty to Arendt’s approach to populism and technocratic rule. And in the Weekend Read, Roger Berkowitz argues that claims portending the end of democracy are overstated.

Arendt on the Limits of Social Science


“[Regarding The Origins of Totalitarianism] while I feel that within the necessary limitations of a historical study and political analysis I made myself sufficiently clear on certain general perplexities which have come to light through the full development of totalitarianism, I also know that I failed to explain the particular method which I came to use, and to account for a rather unusual approach [to] the whole field of political and historical sciences as such. One of the difficulties of the book is that it does not belong to any school and hardly uses any of the officially recognized or officially controversial instruments.”

–Hannah Arendt, Review of Politics, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Reply to Eric Voegelin (1953)

Arendt wrote this in defense of her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, less as a direct reply to the criticism of the political scientist Eric Voegelin than to the criticism in general which her book had received. According to this criticism Arendt got carried away by her “emotionally determined method of proceeding from a concrete center of shock toward generalizations” which “leads to a delimitation of (the) subject matter” and ignores the duties of a scientist regarding objectivity, universality and (the) validity of their research and the representation of the results of that research. There can hardly be a worse reproach against a political philosopher operating within the terrain of history and social science, and we can imagine how a still unknown Arendt would get on in our contemporary world of peer-reviewed journals with their comprehensive control that results in a kind of intellectual self-censorship.

But Arendt did not think at all to subordinate herself to the common scientific norms.  Her Oeuvre contains only a few remarks like those in her reply to Voegelin about the way she understood scientific work. They refer mainly to three aspects: critical thinking, commitment, and judgment.

1. Critical thinking: Writing her essays about the origins of totalitarianism Arendt asked herself how to write the history of anti-Semitism when you do not want to preserve but to destroy it. One answer would be: “from the perspective of the victims”, but according to Arendt this would be an apology, not historiography. So, she saw no other choice but to approach the analysis through historical concepts. This is also true for her book On Revolution, which is no historiography of the American and the French revolution either but also an analysis with historical concepts. To read these two books as works of history would miss the essential point.

Similar is the case of her writings about political phenomena. They do not either fit into traditional political science. The reason is, Arendt was a political thinker, not a scientific commentator: “The authors are auctores, that is, (they) augment the world,” she explained in a university course. “We move in a world, which is augmented by the authors. We cannot do without them, because they behave in an altogether different way from the commentators. The world in which the commentator moves is the world of books. This difference becomes visible in a person like Machiavelli. Machiavelli was interested in Italy, not in political theory, not even his own. Only the commentator is interested in political theory per se” (History of Political Theory, 1955). Therefore, Arendt was not interested in commenting on intellectual and theoretical systems like liberalism or pragmatism but rather in analyzing facts. “I proceed from facts and events instead of intellectual affinities and influences”, she declared in her reply to Voegelin.


2. Commitment: The criticism of her book on totalitarianism repudiated her tone as too committed and emotional. Arendt replied that the style should be appropriate to the context. Extreme poverty like that of the British miners at the beginning of industrialization would provoke indignation. To describe these conditions without indignation consequently would mean to remove them from their context and rob them of one of their essential qualities. This also applies to the concentration camps; to describe them sine ira “is not to be ‘objective’, but to condone them; and such condoning cannot be changed by a condemnation which the author may feel duty bound to add but which remains unrelated to the description itself. “

It is worth reading again Orwell’s social report The Road To Wigan Peer (1937) about the misery of the British miners. Is anything as memorable being written about the refugees on their way to the borders of the EU and the US, about the feminicide in Mexico and other countries, or the living conditions in Southern Europe during the economic and financial crisis? What do social scientists think about their social responsibility when in their research they transform subjects into objects and try to represent the social conditions objectively instead of adequately?


3. Judgment: it is very unusual for a scientist to show the limits of the sciences that common sense places upon them as Arendt did. She subdues scientific judgment to everyday understanding. In her essay “Understanding and Politics” (1952) she explains: “Knowledge and understanding are not the same, but they are interrelated. Understanding is based on knowledge and knowledge cannot proceed without a preliminary, inarticulate understanding. Preliminary understanding denounces totalitarianism as tyranny and has decided that our fight against it is a fight for freedom. … Preliminary understanding … no matter how rudimentary and even irrelevant it may ultimately prove to be, will certainly more effectively prevent people from joining a totalitarian movement than the most reliable information, the most perceptive political analysis, or the most comprehensive accumulated knowledge. Understanding precedes and succeeds knowledge. Preliminary understanding, which is at the basis of all knowledge, and true understanding, which transcends it, have this in common: They make knowledge meaningful.”

This means that the scientists can only illuminate, but neither prove nor disprove what they have preliminarily understood. And when he tries to create politics out of the results of his research he loses all common sense, “which alone will guide him securely through the labyrinth of his own knowledge”. And when he tries to make his knowledge meaningful, he “must become very humble again and listen closely to the popular language, in which words like ‘totalitarianism’ are daily used as political clichés and misused as catchwords, in order to re-establish contact between knowledge and understanding.”


This understanding means to judge, which is to take into consideration all real or possible points of view and to pronounce a judgment. Arendt discussed this procedure in another course with the example of a slum and its inhabitants whose points of view we should know in detail to be able to judge their situation, which does not mean to be in agreement with them.

But without critical thinking and commitment this judgment remains empty.

These three aspects show that the hitherto existing characterization of Arendt’s method as “thinking poetically” or of her position as “between the disciplines” are improper. Arendt rather attunes her style to the context and moves beyond the disciplines. And for her it is just as little about the alternative scientist or public intellectual, as she was sometimes called. While this professional thinker tends to raise himself above the common citizens, it is the non-professional action and judging of ordinary citizens, which stand at the center of Arendt’s work.

–Wolfgang Heuer

Politics Beyond Councils: Arendt, Recognition, and Feminism


Marieke Borren, “Feminism as Revolutionary Practice: From Justice and the Politics of Recognition to Freedom”

Hypatia vol. 28, no. 1 (Winter 2013)

One of the broader appeals of feminism for critical thinking today derives from its focus on specificity. In their focus on embodiment, in the narrower and wider sense, the best feminist writers offer a productive complement to postmodern critiques of subjectivity based on the power of superstructures. The relationship is rarely peaceful, and, in its essentialist guise, insistence on identity of any kind seems to merely push back against the power of structures rather than engaging it. Borren turns to Arendt to propose a definition of freedom and action that may assist minority political movements such as feminism reach specific goals related to identity, but does not require a agreement on the commonalities of the actors.

Borren’s article has two main proposals. First, against the general trend of feminist criticism, she defends Arendt’s division between the social and the political. Second, she identifies aspects of Arendt’s celebration of the council system in On Revolution that she sees as having a wider application.


If first wave feminism focused on gender equality (in terms of equal rights), second wave feminism emphasized difference, not only between genders, but within feminism itself. Borren highlights the importance of recognition for this group, which she specifies as the need to be acknowledged as one of a group that a person self-identifies. In response to this idea, she reminds us that Arendt was not concerned with “what” people are as (essentialist) groups, but “who” they are individuals. In defining justice not in terms of recognition, but freedom, she sees a feminist contribution from Arendt. To this extent she defends the separation of the realm of the social from the realm of action as far as the definition of politics is concerned, since the social stands for “behavior guided by rules and norms” as opposed to unexpected action. Still, Borren argues that action can nonetheless act on social questions such as the economy or discrimination. The important point is that for Arendt “difference is not opposed to equality but […] they mutually presuppose each other” (203). Equality in this sense is not the presupposition of action but arises only upon entrance to a group that will act.

In her analysis of Arendt’s writing on the councils, Borren highlights that the councils acted directly (without structures of parliamentary representation), for concrete goals, and for short periods of time. She sees these aspects of the council system as illustrative for action by what she calls “extra-parliamentary” groups and “voluntary associations,” by which she means activist and civic organizations. They approach a common problem in a limited frame of space and time, and this action is itself the focus rather than the search for a basis of common qualities for the group. Although questions of identity may be at stake, the focus is on “the world to which we relate from plural perspectives” (202).

This description of action help Borren describe the early stages of first wave (equality) and second wave (difference) feminism in terms of “spontaneous emergence” and “associative action” (207). She even points to a possible “third wave feminism” in the culture movements around 1990s – ”Riot Grrrl” punk. Toward the end of the article, Borren pushes hard on the fact that “freedom in the Arendtian sense does not refer to freedom of choice or freedom of will, but to contingency, to the inherent spontaneity and unpredictability of action and speech and to newness” (210). Her formulation here is accurate, but at this point the connection to feminism as such falters.

-Jeffrey Champlin

Amor Mundi 2/16/14


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 Young and Unexceptional

xcetAccording to Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru, “The survival of American exceptionalism as we have known it is at the heart of the debate over Obama’s program. It is why that debate is so charged.” Mitt Romney repeated this same line during his failed bid to unseat the President, arguing that President Obama “doesn’t have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do.” American exceptionalism—long a sociological concept used to describe qualities that distinguished American cultural and political institutions—has become a political truncheon. Now comes Peter Beinart writing in the National Journal that the conservatives are half correct. It is true that American exceptionalism is threatened and in decline. But the cause is not President Obama. Beinart argues that the real cause of the decline of exceptionalist feeling in the United States is conservatism itself. Here is Beinart on one way the current younger generation is an exception to the tradition of American exceptionalism: “For centuries, observers have seen America as an exception to the European assumption that modernity brings secularism. “There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America,” de Tocqueville wrote. In his 1996 book, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, Seymour Martin Lipset quoted Karl Marx as calling America “preeminently the country of religiosity,” and then argued that Marx was still correct. America, wrote Lipset, remained “the most religious country in Christendom.”  But in important ways, the exceptional American religiosity that Gingrich wants to defend is an artifact of the past. The share of Americans who refuse any religious affiliation has risen from one in 20 in 1972 to one in five today. Among Americans under 30, it’s one in three. According to the Pew Research Center, millennials—Americans born after 1980—are more than 30 percentage points less likely than seniors to say that “religious faith and values are very important to America’s success.” And young Americans don’t merely attend church far less frequently than their elders. They also attend far less than young people did in the past. “Americans,” Pew notes, “do not generally become more [religiously] affiliated as they move through the life cycle”—which means it’s unlikely that America’s decline in religious affiliation will reverse itself simply as millennials age.  In 1970, according to the World Religion Database, Europeans were over 16 percentage points more likely than Americans to eschew any religious identification. By 2010, the gap was less than half of 1 percentage point. According to Pew, while Americans are today more likely to affirm a religious affiliation than people in Germany or France, they are actually less likely to do so than Italians and Danes.” Read more on Beinart and American exceptionalism in the Weekend Read.

 Humans and the Technium

guyIn this interview, Kevin Kelly, one of the founders of Wired magazine, explains his concept of the “technium,” or the whole system of technology that has developed over time and which, he argues, has its own biases and tendencies “inherently outside of what humans like us want.” One thing technology wants is to watch us and to track us. Kelly writes: “How can we have a world in which we are all watching each other, and everybody feels happy? I don’t see any counter force to the forces of surveillance and self-tracking, so I’m trying to listen to what the technology wants, and the technology is suggesting that it wants to be watched. What the Internet does is track, just like what the Internet does is to copy, and you can’t stop copying. You have to go with the copies flowing, and I think the same thing about this technology. It’s suggesting that it wants to monitor, it wants to track, and that you really can’t stop the tracking. So maybe what we have to do is work with this tracking—try to bring symmetry or have areas where there’s no tracking in a temporary basis. I don’t know, but this is the question I’m asking myself: how are we going to live in a world of ubiquitous tracking?” Asking such questions is where humans fit into the technium world. “In a certain sense,” he says, “what becomes really valuable in a world running under Google’s reign are great questions, and that’s something that for a long time humans will be better at than machines. Machines are for answers; humans are for questions.”

Literature Against Consumer Culture 

coupleTaking issue with a commentator’s claim that The Paris Review’s use of the word “crepuscular” (adj., resembling twilight) was elitist, Eleanor Catton suggests that the anti-critical attitude of contemporary readers arises out of consumer culture: “The reader who is outraged by being “forced” to look up an unfamiliar word — characterising the writer as a tyrant, a torturer — is a consumer outraged by inconvenience and false advertising. Advertising relies on the fiction that the personal happiness of the consumer is valued above all other things; we are reassured in every way imaginable that we, the customers, are always right.” Literature, she says, resists this attitude, and, in fact cannot be elitist at all: “A book cannot be selective of its readership; nor can it insist upon the conditions under which it is read or received. The degree to which a book is successful depends only on the degree to which it is loved. All a starred review amounts to is an expression of brand loyalty, an assertion of personal preference for one brand of literature above another. It is as hopelessly beside the point as giving four stars to your mother, three stars to your childhood, or two stars to your cat.”

Global Corruption

corruptVladislav Inozemtsev reviews Laurence Cockcroft’s book Global Corruption. “The book’s central argument is that corruption has political roots, which Cockcroft identifies as the “merging of elites.” Surveying the mechanisms of top-level decision-making from Russia to Brazil, to Peru and India, as well as in many other countries, he discerns a pattern: Politicians today often act as entrepreneurs, surround themselves with sycophants and deputies, and so navigate the entire political process as they would any commercial business. The hallmarks of a corrupt society are the widespread leveraging of wealth to secure public office; the leveraging of such authority to secure various kinds of privileges; and the interplay of both to make even bigger money. Simply put, corruption is a transformation of public service into a specific kind of entrepreneurship.”

Amazon’s Bait and Switch

amazonGeorge Packer takes a look at Amazon’s role in the book business noting that its founder, Jeff Bezos, knew from the start that book sales were only the lure; Amazon’s real business was Big Data, a big deal in an industry that speaks to people’s hearts and minds as well as their wallets. Still, “Amazon remains intimately tangled up in books. Few notice if Amazon prices an electronics store out of business (except its staff); but, in the influential, self-conscious world of people who care about reading, Amazon’s unparalleled power generates endless discussion, along with paranoia, resentment, confusion, and yearning. For its part, Amazon continues to expend considerable effort both to dominate this small, fragile market and to win the hearts and minds of readers. To many book professionals, Amazon is a ruthless predator. The company claims to want a more literate world—and it came along when the book world was in distress, offering a vital new source of sales. But then it started asking a lot of personal questions, and it created dependency and harshly exploited its leverage; eventually, the book world realized that Amazon had its house keys and its bank-account number, and wondered if that had been the intention all along.”

Ready or Not

michaelTa-Nehisi Coates, in the wake of NFL prospect Michael Sam’s announcement that he is gay, considers how the concept of readiness is backwards: “The question which we so often have been offered—is the NFL ready for a gay player?—is backwards. Powerful interests are rarely “ready” for change, so much as they are assaulted by it. We refer to barriers being “broken” for a reason. The reason is not because great powers generally like to unbar the gates and hold a picnic in the honor of the previously excluded. The NFL has no moral right to be “ready” for a gay player, which is to say it has no right to discriminate against gay men at its leisure which anyone is bound to respect.”

Counter Reformation

classThis week, the magazine Jacobin released Class Action, a handbook for activist teachers, set against school reform and financed using the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform. One of the many essays contained within is Dean Baker’s “Unremedial Education,” which contains one of the handbook’s major theses, an important reminder for those who are interested in education as a route to both the life of the mind and the success of the person: “Education is tremendously valuable for reasons unrelated to work and income. Literacy, basic numeracy skills, and critical thinking are an essential part of a fulfilling life. Insofar as we have children going through school without developing these skills, it is an enormous failing of society. Any just society would place a top priority on ensuring that all children learn such basic skills before leaving school. However, it clearly is not the case that plausible increases in education quality and attainment will have a substantial impact on inequality.”

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Roger Berkowitz asks “Why Think?”. And in the Weekend Read, Berkowitz reflects on the loss of American exceptionalism.

The Laboratory as Anti-Environment


“Seen from the perspective of the “real” world, the laboratory is the anticipation of a changed environment.”

-Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind

I find this quote intriguing in that its reference to environments and environmental change speak to the fact that Arendt’s philosophy was essentially an ecological one, indeed one that is profoundly media ecological. The quote appears in a section of The Life of the Mind entitled “Science and Common Sense,” in which Arendt argues that the practice of science is quite distinct from thinking as a philosophical activity.


As she explains:

Thinking, no doubt, plays an enormous role in every scientific enterprise, but it is a role of a means to an end; the end is determined by a decision about what is worthwhile knowing, and this decision cannot be scientific.

Here Arendt invokes a variation on Gödel’s incompleteness theorem in mathematics, noting that science cannot justify itself on scientific grounds, but rather must somehow depend on something outside of and beyond itself. Perhaps more to the point, science, especially as associated with empiricism, cannot be divorced from concrete reality, and does not function only in the abstract realm of ideas that Plato insisted was the only true reality.

The transformation of truth into mere verity results primarily from the fact that the scientist remains bound to the common sense by which we find our bearings in a world of appearances. Thinking withdraws radically and for its own sake from this world and its evidential nature, whereas science profits from a possible withdrawal for the sake of specific results.

It is certainly the case that scientific truth is always contingent, tentative, open to refutation, as Karl Popper explained.  Scientific truth is never absolute, never anything more than a map of some other territory, a map that needs to be continually tested and reviewed, updated and revised, as Alfred Korzybski explained by way of establishing his discipline of general semantics. Even the so-called laws of nature and physics need not be considered immutable, but may be subject to change and evolution, as Lee Smolin argues in his insightful book, Time Reborn.

Scientists are engaged in the process of abstracting, insofar as they take the data gained by empirical investigation and make generalizations in the form of theories and hypotheses, but this process of induction cannot be divorced from concrete reality, from the world of appearances. Science may be used to test, challenge, and displace common sense, but it operates on the same level, as a distilled form of common sense, rather than something qualitatively different, a status Arendt reserves for the special activity of thinking associated with philosophy.

Arendt goes on to argue that both common sense and scientific speculation lack “the safeguards inherent in sheer thinking, namely thinking’s critical capacity.”  This includes the capacity for moral judgment, which became horrifically evident by the ways in which Nazi Germany used science to justify its genocidal policies and actions. Auschwitz did not represent a retrieval of tribal violence, but one of the ultimate expressions of the scientific enterprise in action. And the same might be said of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, holding aside whatever might be said to justify the use of the atomic bomb to bring the Second World War to a speedy conclusion. In remaining close to the human lifeworld, science abandons the very capacity that makes us human, that makes human life and human consciousness unique.

The story of modern science is in fact a story of shifting alliances. Science begins as a branch of philosophy, as natural philosophy. Indeed, philosophy itself is generally understood to begin with the pre-Socratics sometimes referred to as Ionian physicists, i.e., Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus, who first posited the concept of elements and atoms. Both science and philosophy therefore coalesce during the first century that followed the introduction of the Greek alphabet and the emergence of a literate culture in the ancient Greek colonies in Asia Minor.

And just as ancient science is alphabetic in its origins, modern science begins with typography, as the historian Elizabeth Eisenstein explains in her exhaustive study, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change in Early Modern Europe. Simply by making the writings of natural philosophers easily available through the distribution of printed books, scholars were able to compare and contrast what different philosophers had to say about the natural world, and uncover their differences of opinion and contradictions. And this in turn spurned them on to find out for themselves which of various competing explanations are correct, where the truth lies, so that more reading led to even more empirical research, which in turn would have to be published, that is made public, via printing, for the purposes of testing and confirmation. And publication encouraged the formation of a scientific republic of letters, a typographically mediated virtual community.


Eisenstein notes that during the first century following Gutenberg, printed books gave Copernicus access to centuries of recorded observations of the movements of celestial objects, access not easily available to his predecessors. What is remarkable to consider is that the telescope was not invented in his lifetime, that the Polish astronomer arrived at his heliocentric view based only on what could be observed by the naked eye, by gazing up at the heavens, and down at the printed page. The typographic revolution that began in the 15th century was the necessary technological precondition for the Copernican revolution of the 16th century.  The telescope as a tool to extend vision beyond its natural capabilities had not yet been invented, and was not required, although soon after its introduction Galileo was able to confirm the theory that Copernicus had put forth a century earlier.

In the restricted literate culture of medieval Europe, the idea took hold that there are two books to be studied in an effort to discern the divine will, and mind: the book of scripture and the book of nature. Both books were seen as sources of knowledge that can be unlocked by a process of reading and interpretation. It was grammar, the ancient study of language, which became one third of the trivium, the foundational curriculum of the medieval university, that became the basis of modern science, and not dialectic or logic, that is, pure thinking, which is the source of the philosophic tradition, as Marshall McLuhan noted in The Classical Trivium. The medieval schoolmen of course placed scripture in the primary position, whereas modern science situates truth in the book of nature alone.

The publication of Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum in 1620 first formalized the separation of science from philosophy within print culture, but the divorce was finalized during the 19th century, coinciding with the industrial revolution, as researchers became known as scientists rather than natural philosophers. In place of the alliance with philosophy, science came to be associated with technology; before this time, technology, and engineering, often referred to as mechanics, represented entirely different lines of inquiry, utterly practical, often intuitive rather than systematic. Mechanics was part of the world of work rather than that of action, to use the terms Arendt introduced in The Human Condition, which is to say that it was seen as the work of the hand rather than the mind. By the end of 19th century, scientific discovery emerged as the main the source of major technological breakthroughs, rather than innovation springing fully formed from the tinkering of inventors, and it became necessary to distinguish between applied science and theoretical science, the latter nonetheless still tied to the world of appearances.

Today, the acronym STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, has become a major buzzword in education, a major emphasis in particular for higher education, and a major concern in regards to economic competitiveness. We might well take note of how recent this combination of fields and disciplines really is, insofar as mathematics represents pure logic and highly abstract forms of thought, and science once was a purely philosophical enterprise, both aspects of the life of the mind. Technology and engineering, on the other hand, for most of our history took the form of arts and crafts, part of the world of appearances.

The convergence of science and technology also had much to do with scientists’ increasing reliance on scientific instruments for their investigations, a trend increasingly prevalent following the introduction of both the telescope and the microscope in the early 17th century, a trend even more apparent from the 19th century on. The laboratory is in fact another such instrument, a technology whose function is to provide precisely controlled conditions, beyond its role as a facility for the storage and use of other scientific instruments. Scientific instruments are media that extend our senses and allow us to see the world in new ways, therefore altering our experience of our environment, while the discoveries they lead to provide us with the means of altering our environments physically. And the laboratory is an instrument that provides us with a total environment, enclosed, controlled, isolated from the world to become in effect the world. It is a micro-environment where experimental changes can be made that anticipate changes that can be made to the macro-environment we regularly inhabit.

The split between science and philosophy can also be characterized as a division between the eye and the ear. Modern science, as intimately bound up in typography, is associated with visualism, the idea that seeing is believing, that truth is based on vision, that knowledge can be displayed visually as an organized set of facts, rather than the product of ongoing dialogue, and debate. McLuhan noted the importance of the fixed point of view as a by-product of training the eye to read, and Walter Ong studied the paradigm-shift in education attributed to Peter Ramus, who introduced pedagogical methods we would today associated with textbooks, outlining, and the visual display of information. Philosophy has not been immune to this influence, but retains a connection to the oral-aural mode through the method of Socratic dialogue, and by way of an understanding of the history of ideas as an ongoing conversation. Arendt, in The Human Condition, explained action, the realm of words, as a social phenomenon, one based on dialogic exchanges of ideas and opinions, not a solitary matter of looking things up. And thinking, which she elevates above the scientific enterprise in The Life of the Mind, is mostly a matter of an inner dialogue, or monologue if you prefer, of hearing oneself think, of silent speech, and not of a mental form of writing out words or imaginary reading. We talk things out, to others and/or to ourselves.

Science, on the other hand, is all about visible representations, as words, numbers, illustrations, tables, graphs, charts, diagrams, etc. And it is the investigation of visible phenomena, or otherwise of phenomena that can be rendered visible through scientific instruments. Acoustic phenomena can only be dealt with scientifically by being turned into a visual measurement, either of numbers or of lines going up and down to depict sound waves.  The same is true for the other senses; smell, taste, and touch can only be dealt with scientifically though visual representation. Science cannot deal with any sense other than sight on its own terms, but always requires an act of translation into visual form. Thus, Arendt notes that modern science, being so intimately bound up in the world of appearances, is often concerned with making the invisible visible:

That modern science, always hunting for manifestations of the invisible—atoms, molecules, particles, cells, genes—should have added to the world a spectacular, unprecedented quantity of new perceptible things is only seemingly paradoxical.

Arendt might well have noted the continuity between the modern activity of making the invisible visible as an act of translation, and the medieval alchemist’s search for methods of achieving material transformation, the translation of one substance into another. She does note that the use of scientific instruments are a means of extending natural functions, paralleling McLuhan’s characterization of media as extensions of body and biology:

In order to prove or disprove its hypotheses… and to discover what makes things work, it [modern science] began to imitate the working processes of nature. For that purpose it produced the countless and enormously complex implements with which to force the non-appearing to appear (if only as an instrument-reading in the laboratory), as that was the sole means the scientist had to persuade himself of its reality. Modern technology was born in the laboratory, but this was not because scientists wanted to produce appliances or change the world. No matter how far their theories leave common-sense experience and common-sense reasoning behind, they must finally come back to some form of it or lose all sense of realness in the object of their investigation.

Note here the close connection between reality, that is, our conception of reality, and what lends someone the aura of authenticity, as Walter Benjamin would put it, is dependent on the visual sense, on the phenomenon being translated into the world of appearances (the aura as opposed to the aural). It is no accident then that there is a close connection in biblical literature and the Hebrew language between the words for spirit and soul, and the words for invisible but audible phenomena such as wind and breath, breath in turn being the basis of speech (and this is not unique to Hebraic culture or vocabulary). It is at this point that Arendt resumes her commentary on the function of the controlled environment:

And this return is possible only via the man-made, artificial world of the laboratory, where that which does not appear of its own accord is forced to appear and to disclose itself. Technology, the “plumber’s” work held in some contempt by the scientist, who sees practical applicability as a mere by-product of his own efforts, introduces scientific findings, made in “unparalleled insulation… from the demands of the laity and of everyday life,” into the everyday world of appearances and renders them accessible to common-sense experience; but this is possible only because the scientists themselves are ultimately dependent on that experience.

We now reach the point in the text where the quote I began this essay with appears, as Arendt writes:

Seen from the perspective of the “real” world, the laboratory is the anticipation of a changed environment; and the cognitive processes using the human abilities of thinking and fabricating as means to their end are indeed the most refined modes of common-sense reasoning. The activity of knowing is no less related to our sense of reality and no less a world-building activity than the building of houses.

Again, for Arendt, science and common sense both are distinct in this way from the activity of pure thinking, which can provide a sorely needed critical function. But her insight as to the function of the laboratory as an environment in which the invisible is made visible is important in that this helps us to understand that the laboratory is, in fact, what McLuhan referred to as a counter-environment or anti-environment.

In our everyday environment, the environment itself tends to be invisible, if not literally so, then functionally insofar as whatever fades into the background tends to fall out of our perceptual awareness or is otherwise ignored. Anything that becomes part of our routine falls into this category, becoming environmental, and therefore subliminal. And this includes our media, technology, and symbol systems, insofar as they are part of our everyday world. We do pay attention to them when they are brand new and unfamiliar, but once their novelty wears off they become part of the background, unless they malfunction or breakdown. In the absence of such conditions, we need an anti-environment to provide a contrast through which we can recognize the things we take for granted in our world, to provide a place to stand from which we can observe our situation from the outside in, from a relatively objective stance. We are, in effect, sleepwalkers in our everyday environment, and entering into an anti-environment is a way to wake us up, to enhance awareness and consciousness of our surroundings. This occurs, in a haphazard way, when we return home after spending time experiencing another culture, as for a brief time much of what was once routinized about own culture suddenly seems strange and arbitrary to us. The effect wears off relatively quickly, however, although the after-effects of broadening our minds in this way can be significant.


The controlled environment of the laboratory helps to focus our attention on phenomena that are otherwise invisible to us, either because they are taken for granted, or because they require specialized instrumentation to be rendered visible. It is not just that such phenomena are brought into the world of appearances, however, but also that they are made into objects of concerted study, to be recorded, described, measured, experimented upon, etc.

McLuhan emphasized the role of art as an anti-environment. The art museum, for example, is a controlled environment, and the painting that we encounter there has the potential to make us see things we had never seen before, by which I mean not just objects depicted that are unfamiliar to us, but familiar objects depicted in unfamiliar ways. In this way, works of art are instruments that can help us to see the world in new and different ways, help us to see, to use our senses and perceive in new and different ways. McLuhan believed that artists served as a kind of distant early warning system, borrowing cold war terminology to refer to their ability to anticipate changes occurring in the present that most others are not aware of. He was fond of the Ezra Pound quote that the artist is the antenna of the race, and Kurt Vonnegut expressed a similar sentiment in describing the writer as a canary in a coal mine. We may further consider the art museum or gallery or library as a controlled environment, a laboratory of sorts, and note the parallel in the idea of art as the anticipation of a changed environment.

There are other anti-environments as well. Houses of worship function in this way, often because they are based on earlier eras and different cultures, and otherwise are constructed to remove us out of our everyday environment, and help us to see the world in a different light. They are in some way dedicated to making the invisible world of the spirit visible to us through the use of sacred symbols and objects, even for religions whose concept of God is one that is entirely outside of the world of appearances. Sanctuaries might therefore be considered laboratories used for moral, ethical, and sacred discovery, experimentation, and development, and places where changed environments are also anticipated, in the form of spiritual enlightenment and the pursuit of social justice. This also suggests that the scientific laboratory might be viewed, in a certain sense, as a sacred space, along the lines that Mircea Eliade discusses in The Sacred and the Profane.

The school and the classroom are also anti-environments, or at least ought to be, as Neil Postman argued in Teaching as a Conserving Activity.  Students are sequestered away from the everyday environment, into a controlled situation where the world they live in can be studied and understood, and phenomena that are taken for granted can be brought into conscious awareness. It is indeed a place where the invisible can be made visible. In this sense, the school and the classroom are laboratories for learning, although the metaphor can be problematic when it used to imply that the school is only about the world of appearances, and all that is needed is to let students discover that world for themselves. Exploration is indeed essential, and discovery is an important component of learning. But the school is also a place where we may engage in the critical activity of pure thinking, of critical reasoning, of dialogue and disputation.

The classroom is more than a laboratory, or at least it must become more than a laboratory, or the educational enterprise will be incomplete. The school ought to be an anti-environment, not only in regard to the everyday world of appearances and common sense, but also to that special world dominated by STEM, by science, technology, engineering and math.  We need the classroom to be an anti-environment for a world subject to a flood of entertainment and information, we need it to be a language-based anti-environment for a world increasingly overwhelmed by images and numbers. We need an anti-environment where words can take precedence, where reading and writing can be balanced by speech and conversation, where reason, thinking, and thinking about thinking can allow for critical evaluation of common sense and common science alike. Only then can schools be engaged in something more than just adjusting students to take their place in a changed and changing environment, integrating them within the technological system, as components of that system, as Jacques Ellul observed in The Technological Society. Only then can schools help students to change the environment itself, not just through scientific and technological innovation, but through the exercise of values other than the technological imperative of efficiency, to make things better, more human, more life-affirming.

The anti-environment that we so desperately need is what Hannah Arendt might well have called a laboratory of the mind.

-Lance Strate

Hannah Arendt, Quote Unquote


“To interpret, to quote – yet only to have witnesses, also friends.”

-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, vol. 2, p. 756 (November 1969), my translation.

When we quote someone, we often seem to do so in order to appeal to some kind of authority. We use a statement of Arendt, for instance, in order to shed light on a contemporary event or phenomenon that calls for our attention. We consider her as a “theorist” who supposedly has “relevant” things to say that may help us “solve” a contemporary problem of understanding. We ask ourselves: “What would Hannah Arendt say?”

For several reasons, however, this practice is problematic. Firstly, as Arendt herself repeatedly insisted, thinking, understood as the never-ending attempt to make sense of events, experiences, and phenomena that occur, is an activity that we can only perform for and by ourselves. Secondly, by “applying” an authoritative “theory” to concrete events, we run the risk of explaining them away, rather than to “save the phenomena” in their concrete particularity. Finally, we run the risk of doing injustice to the “authority” in question. Arendt’s work is much too multi-vocal and perspectival for it to be reduced to a bag of “relevant” propositions that we can use at will. Much of what she says is more complicated and puzzling than it may seem, and requires a serious and sustained effort of interpretation. “Results” are by no means guaranteed. In this sense, the self-evident practice of quoting her every week entails the risk that she becomes all-too-familiar to us, that she is turned into someone whose “convictions” we no longer question, but complacently apply.


The use of Arendt as an authority becomes especially problematic when she is read in what could be called a “pessimistic” or “nostalgic” way, as if the most important thing that we can learn from her consists in a “diagnosis” of “our time”, which entails the claim that politics has been “lost”, that culture and education are in “crisis”, etc. By reading her this way, we run the risk of reinforcing an “objectifying” picture of our contemporary situation, as if the terms “loss” and “crisis” refer to objective facts that are “out there”, rather than to conceptual interventions that may (and perhaps should) invite our own counter-interventions. What is more, we run the risk of placing ourselves on the side of the few who really “got it”, against the many who still do not get it and will perhaps never get it, lest they start reading – and quoting – Arendt.

This is not to say that there is no basis at all in her work for reading her like this, but it is at odds with what may be considered as a more promising and liberating reading – a reading which invites us to begin something new, both in thinking and by acting, however difficult this may seem to be. Invoking Arendt as an authority, by contrast, may precisely serve as a substitute for thinking, rather than as its starting point.

By taking as our starting point a quote about quoting, we hope to make the practice of quoting Arendt into something uncommon, something unfamiliar. The quote in question, cited above, is a singular entry from Arendt’s Denktagebuch, the “thinking diary” that she kept from the early fifties until a few years before her death, and which she never intended for publication. The sentence is from November 1969, when she was working on what would become the first volume of The Life of the Mind, called Thinking, in which she addresses the question, what are we “doing” when we do nothing but think.

The meaning of the sentence – perhaps “meditation” is a better term – is by no means easy to grasp. It appears as a moment of self-reflection, a moment in which she stops, steps back, and thinks about the very thing she has been doing in her notebook: to interpret, to quote. It almost reads as a warning: make sure you consider these interpretations and quotations only as witnesses [Zeugen], also friends [Freunde], rather than as – we are tempted to add – authoritative statements, or – to borrow a phrase from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own – nuggets of pure truth to keep between the pages of your notebook and keep on the mantelpiece forever.

What does it mean to consider the practice of “interpreting, quoting” as a means to have “witnesses, also friends”? In the entry that immediately follows, Arendt uses the word “friend” twice: “Thought speaks with itself (as with a friend)…” and “In thought, the self is a friend…” Only two entries earlier, she had written that critical thinking consists in a giving-of-account [Rechenschaft geben] in a dialogue with oneself. She cites Kant as the genuine representative of this form of thinking, who had distinguished the quaestio facti – how one comes in possession of a specific concept, or what the origin of a specific term is – from the quaestio juris – with what right one possesses and makes use of a specific concept.

The process of a giving-of-account in this latter sense requires that you are friends with yourself. If there is too much distance, you do no longer talk with yourself, and the inner dialogue comes to an end. Yet the activity of talking something through also comes to an end when there is not enough distance, when you do no longer disagree with yourself at all. As Arendt writes earlier in her notebook: “Only because I can speak with others, can I also speak with myself, i.e., think. Ergo: Aristotle is not right: A friend is not “another self”, rather, the self is another friend.”

Perhaps it is here that we should bring the notion of a “witness” into play. The figure of a witness may be described as someone who testifies to an event that is beyond our own immediate experience, something we were not there to see with our own eyes, perhaps something unheard of. In the entry on critical thinking mentioned above, Arendt notes that our conscience finds its origin in our activity of thinking in the sense of a giving-of-account of something, in a dialogue with ourselves. In another Denktagebuch-entry, written in December 1969, so one month later, she uses the notion of a witness precisely in the context of explaining the workings of our conscience. When our conscience speaks, it serves as our inner witness by reminding us of something we did, and in calling us to account for it. Obviously, the point here is not that we were not present at the actual event, but that we do not want to hear about it anymore.


In the context of our quotation, we may say that a witness confronts us with a certain perspective on our conception of a certain event or experience, perhaps a strange or unsuspected one. Thereby, he or she invites us to give account of our own convictions and interpretations. However, the addition “also friends” is required: only if we approach a witness as a friend – a friendly interlocutor – will the thinking dialogue actually come to pass, will we start thinking something through.

By quoting, we may now suggest, we invoke a testimony by someone who calls us into thinking. By interpreting a quotation, we may add, we gain the opportunity to think something through by and for ourselves, rather than to use it as a means of adding authority to our already existing convictions and interpretations or to use the “answers” it contains in order to “solve” our problems for us. Or, in the words of Walter Benjamin, as quoted by Arendt in her essay on him: “Quotations … are like robbers by the roadside who make an armed attack and relieves an idler of his convictions.”

-Wout Cornelissen

The Threat to the Humanities


The Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee has published an open letter on the recent threats to universities and to the humanities in particular. The threat, however, is not limited to universities. As Coetzee writes:

All over the world, as governments retreat from their traditional duty to foster the common good and reconceive of themselves as mere managers of national economies, universities have been coming under pressure to turn themselves into training schools equipping young people with the skills required by a modern economy.

What Coetzee names the “traditional duty to foster the common good” may smack a bit of nostalgia. And yet, it is the case that at times in history government has allowed for and enabled the flourishing of a meaningful public sphere where a plurality of people jointly pursue noble collective endeavors. The civil rights movement in the 1960s was one such endeavor, as was the founding of the United States as a land federal constitutional democratic republic instituted to preserve the freedom of self-government. In Europe we can point to the emergence of social democracy as another collective act to bring about a public world. And yet all public actions are opposed by the liberal bourgeois desire realized in representative democracy, the demand that government simply leave us alone to pursue our private lives.


Universities are not the only spaces for articulating the common good in society. But they do serve an important role in that project. For liberal arts universities, at their best, exist to foster independent and thoughtful persons. What universities have been, since their inception, are institutions that stand apart from society. They are places where slowness and reflection flourish in contradistinction to the speed and busyness of the everyday world of business. In reading Plato, exploring the wonders of DNA, and reciting Shakespeare, young people grapple with the greatest thoughts and works and discoveries that our human civilization has produced. They ask themselves what they think of these works and they come to have their personal opinions. That is what it means to think for oneself, or, as Arendt calls it in her native German, Selbstdenken. For Emerson, a liberal arts humanist education is where we acquire the backbone that girds our self reliance.

Coetzee offers two reasons why he believes that universities will disappear as incubators of such independence. First, he writes that universities are being financially punished to the extent that they imagine themselves as autonomous, independent, and critical of society. In response to the mobilization of universities in the 1960s and 1970s, governments and boards of trustees around the world are fighting back:

The response of the political class to the university’s claim to a special status in relation to the polity has been crude but effectual: if the university, which, when the chips are down, is simply one among many players competing for public funds, really believes in the lofty ideals it proclaims, then it must show it is prepared to starve for its beliefs. I know of no case in which a university has taken up the challenge.
The fact is that the record of universities, over the past 30 years, in defending themselves against pressure from the state has not been a proud one. Resistance was weak and ill organised; routed, the professors beat a retreat to their dugouts, from where they have done little besides launching the intermittent satirical barb against the managerial newspeak they are perforce having to acquire.

Coetzee also offers a second reason for the decline of the university as an important cultural-political institution: “there are too few people left who really believe in the humanities and in the university built on humanistic grounds, with philosophical, historical and philological studies as its pillars.” What Coeztee means is not simply that people are abandoning Shakespeare for computer science. It is rather that the professors and students who read Shakespeare and Plato don’t believe in the importance of the very books they read.

We can see this is the kind of overly-specialized writing and research coming out of research universities, where scholars too often (obviously with exceptions, but they are rare) seek to produce highly specialized and erudite studies that seek to say something new or original but have little to do with the books or the thinkers they are writing about.

We also find this same loss of belief in the humanities in the ever-increasing talk about using the humanities to teach basic literacy or critical thinking “skills”, in the parlance of recent jargon that dominates committees discussing educational reform. Here is Coetzee:

Even if we grant that critical literacy is as important as you claim, do students really need to know about Hesiod and Petrarch, about Francis Bacon and Jean-Paul Sartre, about the Boxer Rebellion and the Thirty Years War, to attain a sufficient competence in such literacy? Can you not simply design a pair of one­-semester courses – courses in which all undergraduates, no matter what their career track, will be required to enroll – one course to be entitled “Reading and Writing”, in which students will be trained to dissect arguments and write good expository prose; and the other to be entitled “Great Ideas”, in which they will be briefed on the main currents of world thought from Ancient Egypt to the present? A pair of courses like that will not require an entire faculty of humanities behind them, merely a school of critical literacy staffed with bright young instructors.

In other words, to argue that what students need are simply skills is to abandon any actual defense of the humanities. While skills can be taught through the humanities, they can likely be taught as well and more cheaply in other ways. Attempts to defend the humanities because they inculcate useful skills does not and cannot defend the humanities themselves. Whether those skills are themselves useful is an open question; the bigger question is whether there are easier ways to acquire those skills then spending years reading and writing about old books.

The only true defense of the humanities Coetzee recognizes is one that defends them on their own grounds: that humanities are good in themselves.

I believe, you will have to make a stand. You will have to say: we need free enquiry because freedom of thought is good in itself. We need institutions where teachers and students can pursue unconstrained the life of the mind because such institutions are, in ways that are difficult to pin down, good for all of us: good for the individual and good for society.

What I take Coetzee to mean is that the humanities—by which I understand the humanist inquiry into literature, philosophy, politics, science, and art—teach people to pursue their truths by standing on the shoulders of giants.


What the humanist education does is both teach us to love the world as it has been handed down to us and also to make it our own. That is why education is both conservative and revolutionary.

Very much in the spirit of Arendt, Coeztee is calling for just such a conservative and revolutionary idea of the humanities, one that is quite out of tune with the current professional and intellectual trends reigning in academic institutions. His letter is short and worth your attention. It is your weekend read.