Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at Bard College
24Jan/16Off
Amor Mundi

Amor Mundi 1/24/16

Arendtamormundi

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

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

amor_mundi_sign-upWaking the Sleeping Sovereign

constitutionIn an essay loosely imagined as a review of of Richard Tuck's new book The Sleeping Sovereign, Jedediah Purdy argues that the American Constitution deserves its special reverence. "The genius of a constitution was that it gave the whole citizenry a way of making its own law: not by constantly engaging in self-government through assemblies or parliaments, but by occasionally mobilizing, through special institutions such as conventions and plebiscites, to authorize the fundamental law of their polities. A constitution was the law that the people authorized, directly rather than through their representatives. This power to make fundamental law was called sovereignty, and a democracy was a political community where sovereignty lay with the citizens. By contrast, the ordinary laws that legislatures passed were simply government, the apparatus that carried out sovereign decisions. Government, as Rousseau wrote, mediates between the sovereign, which makes the law, and the people, who live under it. In a democracy, government mediates between two aspects of the people: as democratic sovereign lawmakers, and as everyday law-abiders. Less mystically, government is what the mobilized people sets up to keep order after the sovereign citizens disperse to their private lives. A constitution, Tuck argues, was an answer to a problem that had long been thought insoluble: how could democracy possibly be revived in the modern world? What difference does this make? Some contrasts are helpful. In this way of thinking, the distinctive thing about a constitution, its special interest and force, is not in the structure of government that it sets up, but in the theory of sovereignty that underlies it. It is true that the US Constitution has the democracy-baffling 'republican' features that clog and divert political decisions, such as the divided Congress, the unrepresentative Senate, and the presidential veto. But these checks and balances were intended originally to keep the government from usurping the powers of the sovereign but dispersed people, according to whose collective will it was originally established." Purdy and Tuck argue that while it includes anti-democratic elements like the Supreme Court and limitations on majority rule, the American Constitution is fundamentally democratic not least because it was approved by the people and can--at times--be revised by the people. The Constitution is both an act of the people and a way for the people to protect themselves from the very democratic government they establish. Tuck and Purdy call this Constitutional power sovereignty.

Hannah Arendt, who had a similar view of the democratic importance of the U.S. Constitution, saw that the Constitution's fundamental democratic role rests with its emergence in opposition to sovereignty. She writes: "In this respect, the great and, in the long run, perhaps the greatest American innovation in politics as such was the consistent abolition of sovereignty within the body politic of the republic, the insight that in the realm of human affairs sovereignty and tyranny are the same. The defect of the Confederacy was that there had been no 'partition of power between the General and the Local Governments'; and that it had acted as the central agency of an alliance rather than as a government; experience had shown that in tis alliance of powers there was a dangerous tendency for the allied powers not to act as checks upon one another but to cancel one another out, that is, to breed impotence. What the founders were afraid of in practice was not power but impotence, and their fears were intensified by the view of Montesquieu, quoted throughout these discussions, that republican government was effective only in relatively small territories." The American Constitution succeeds, at least initially in Arendt's telling, in part because it establishes multiple and overlapping power centers--the Federal government, state governments, local governments, and non-governmental civic organizations--all of which mobilize democratic citizens to govern themselves when necessary. It is because there is no single sovereign source under the American Constitution that the democratic power of the people is protected. By the 1960s, Arendt worried that this pluralization and dispersal of power at the foundation of the American Constitution had eroded; as power has increasingly been centralized under single and increasingly sovereign national government, the American "Revolutionary spirit"--what Arendt calls the "new American experience of power"--has waned. It may be that the people are simply sleeping and might awake, as Purdy and Tuck appear to hope. But one lasting effect of the nationalization of power is that most American citizens have little or no experience in self-government aside from voting. The temptation in such a situation is not self-government, which is time-consuming and messy, but the election of a demagogue who promises to deliver what we want. The question is how the sleeping sovereign can be awoken while still protecting and strengthening our democratic constitutional traditions.--RB

So Sad

nick drake Earlier this week, I went to see Guy Maddin's 2003 film The Saddest Music in The World, in which contestants from countries all around the world compete to win a $25,000 prize for playing, well, the saddest music in the world, as judged by a Canadian beer magnate. Set in the Depression, and filmed as if it were actually from that period, the film satirizes the way that sadness can be evoked through kitsch and a little "razzle dazzle," even as it also takes aim at those who seek out suffering in far flung parts of the world and take it for granted that suffering must live in places outside of the West. At the heart of Maddin's movie is the idea that sadness is incommensurate and that it can't be transmitted, least of all through music. In the New York Times, Ben Ratliff suggests that what we're hearing isn't sadness at all: "We do a lot of extra work in our listening around the notion of sadness--a phantom quality in listening that most of us nonetheless recognize and agree on--and through our extra work, we become especially vested in the music. The extra work takes the form of myths that we build around the reasons and circumstances of a recording, and through that myth-building we temporarily disbelieve in artifice. Artifice is the practice and process of being something one is not, and it is used to small or large degree by every artist in the world. It's as transcendent as truth. But sadness portrayed in music, whether the zombified reserve of some English bohemian folk singers during the 1960s--Nick Drake, Jacqui McShee, Vashti Bunyan--or a sustained low note on a cello, is Lethe water: You recognize the symbol, drink it as you listen, and you forget all possible practical circumstances around the sadness you think you're hearing. These can be the musician's desire to connect with the tradition and audience of an earlier musician, and thereby to have his work accepted more quickly and earn some money; a producer's desire to add emotional variety to an artist's work; a singer's decision to use a different part of his voice or capture it differently through microphones; or a fully contrived aesthetic absolutism equating misery, integrity and obscurity--the Romantic era's interest-bearing gift to the future. On the listener's end, the circumstances adding up to a 'sad' listening experience can be practical and not sad at all: the need for a focused and isolated stretch of time that is all his; the need for a bracing effect in order to focus while doing something boring, like being in transit; or the need to re-enact the emotions around something awful, which paradoxically makes you feel alive--a death, a breakup, a rejection, a failure... What is sadness in sound per se? Nothing. It doesn't exist. There is no note or kind of note that in and of itself is sad and only sad. (Heard differently, Drake's voice can also be relaxed, or tired, or content.) But the construct of sadness, and the attendant contract that it helps build between musician and listener, has to do with how we might recognize it person-to-person: through silence and dissonant long tones, or through agitation and mania; through closed systems of harmony or phrasing, or through unnervingly open and dark ones. We hear it through voices and through instruments. And as listeners agree to play by the official rules of sadness, so do most musicians, and so do most singers, imitating the sound of instruments." Ratliff, I think, takes it a step too far. Even if artful sadness is manufactured, it still creates a real effect in those who hear it, generating or articulating something which is felt within which, in turn, might (or might not) create a community of people who feel the same way, if never for exactly the same reasons. The question, then, is not whether sadness in art is real. Instead, it's something like "what does it mean to share the unsharable"? Is empathy always empty, the ethical facade for what is essentially entertainment for the more fortunate? Or can it catalyze love of the world?--JK

Comparatively

benedict andersonBenedict Anderson, a famed scholar of Indonesia who wrote the much-taught book Imagined Communities, died last month. In a posthumously published essay, he tells the tale of his intellectual development: "The 35 years I spent as a professor of government at Cornell taught me two interesting lessons about US academia. The first was that theory, mirroring the style of late capitalism, has obsolescence built into it, in the manner of high-end commodities. In year X students had to read and more or less revere Theory Y, while sharpening their teeth on passé Theory W. Not too many years later, they were told to sharpen their teeth on passé Theory Y, admire Theory Z, and forget about Theory W. The second lesson was that--with some important exceptions like the work of Barrington Moore, Jr--the extension of political science to comparative politics tended to proceed, consciously or unconsciously, on the basis of the US example: one measured how far other countries were progressing in approximating America's liberty, respect for law, economic development, democracy etc. Hence the rapid rise, and equally rapid fall, of an approach that today looks pretty dead--modernisation theory. Needless to say, there was often an openly stated Cold War objective behind this kind of theory. Namely, to prove that Marxism was fundamentally wrong. In its innocence, this kind of 'look at me' theory typically ignored such embarrassing things as the very high murder rate in the US, its hugely disproportionate black prison population, persistent illiteracy and significant levels of political corruption. Even so, there is no doubt in my mind that my experience as a graduate student unconsciously prepared me for later comparative work. My duties as a teaching assistant in American politics and (European) comparative politics obliged me to study a great many texts that I would not otherwise have read. The undergraduates in those days were 90 per cent American and knew very little about Europe. To help them, I found it useful to make constant comparisons between the US, the UK, France and Germany. I myself took graduate courses on the Soviet Union, Asia, the US and Western Europe. Finally, the format of the Southeast Asia programme forced me not only to start thinking across the region in a comparative sense, but also to read across disciplines, especially anthropology, history and economics. It was all fun because it was so new to me. My gradual introduction to comparative thinking, however, was quite bookish and 'intellectual' until I went to Indonesia. There, for the first time, my emotional and political leanings came into play in my work. Yet the main effect was not to make me think more theoretically in any general sense. Rather I found myself becoming a kind of Indonesian (or Indonesian-Javanese) nationalist, and feeling annoyed when I ran into bullying American officials who clearly looked down on Indonesians, had no time for Sukarno and were anti-communist, to the point that when Sukarno angrily uttered his famous anti-American phrase, 'To hell with your aid!', I felt like cheering."

In Search of a More Elevated Public

public intellectualCorey Robin profiles the 'public intellectual,' that mix between a celebrity and a scholar: "The public intellectual is not simply interested in a wide audience of readers, in shopping her ideas on the op-ed page to sell more books. She's not looking for markets or hungry for a brand. She's not an explainer or a popularizer. She is instead the literary equivalent of the epic political actor, who sees her writing as a transformative mode of action, a thought-deed in the world. The transformation she seeks may be a far-reaching change of policy, an education of manners and morals, or a renovation of the human estate. Her watch may be wound for tomorrow or today. But whatever her aim or time frame, the public intellectual wants her writing to have an effect, to have all the power of power itself. To have that effect, however, she must be attuned to the sensitivities of her audience. Not because she wishes to massage or assuage them but because she wants to tear them apart. Her aim is to turn her readers from what they are into what they are not, to alienate her readers from themselves. The public intellectual I have in mind is not indifferent to her readers; her project is not complete without them. But there's a thin line separating her needing readers from her being needy of and for readers. And it is on that thin line--that tension wire between thinker and actor, intellectual and celebrity--that she must stand and balance herself. 'I want to make 200 million people change their minds,' said Gore Vidal, a writer who, not coincidentally, stretched that wire to its breaking point. Though the public intellectual is a political actor, a performer on stage, what differentiates her from the celebrity or publicity hound is that she is writing for an audience that does not yet exist. Unlike the ordinary journalist or enterprising scholar, she is writing for a reader she hopes to bring into being. She never speaks to the reader as he is; she speaks to the reader as he might be. Her common reader is an uncommon reader."

amor_mundi_sign-upOn Not Being a Journalist

nietzscheMimi Howard considers Friedrich Nietzsche's "On the Future of Our Educational Institutions," which has been re-translated, re-published, and re-titled Anti-Education. "Like the screw-maker, who becomes virtuosic in executing his only task, the scholar's total separation from all other fields is held up as evidence of his genius. The total remoteness of his work is 'a badge of honor, a sign of noble moderation.' Likewise, the philosopher's student is eminently concerned with this narrowing of scholarship against the background of greater democratization. In a turn of phrase that Nietzsche uses once more at the end of his last lecture, calling it the 'thesis' of his argument, he says: It seems to me we need to distinguish between two dominant tendencies in our educational institutions, apparently opposed but equally ruinous in effect and eventually converging in their end results. The first is the drive for the greatest possible expansion and dissemination of education; the other is the drive for the narrowing and weakening of education. He later adds that this phenomenon has allowed scholarship to be eclipsed by journalism. 'It is in journalism that the two tendencies converge,' he says. 'The daily newspaper has effectively replaced education, and anyone who still lays claim to culture or education, even a scholar, typically relies on a sticky layer of journalism.' Gravitation toward journalism and other popular forms of critique was wrapped up in a forgetting of classical education. This forgetting begins with the curriculum at the gymnasium, which instructs its students to prematurely cultivate their personalities by writing indulgent personal essays, among other worthless exercises, and ends with the mindless vocational training that goes on in university. And even though both the gymnasium and the university claim to appreciate the classics, a true classical model would involve something to which they have not yet committed, namely, a serious consideration of language. 'In sum,' the old philosopher says, 'the gymnasium has neglected and still neglects the one place where true education begins, and the readiest subject to hand: the mother tongue.' Disciplined mastery of German is, for the philosopher, the only way that a pupil can begin to formulate true critique. Once he understands how difficult language is, how slippery and misguiding, only then will he 'feel physical disgust for the "refined diction" of our literati and the "elegance" of style so beloved and praised in our novelists and mass-producers of journalism.' At first this whiff of snobbery seems reasonable enough. But it soon takes on an intensely elitist, if not vehemently oligarchic, bent. Education is necessary only insofar as it allows a society to recognize its own, very select number of geniuses. It is a mistake, the older philosopher says, to think that education can produce a large amount of exceptional individuals. In reality, it produces very few. But it is the responsibility of the cultured and educated to keep one's eye out for these truly remarkable individuals, and to nurture them when they emerge. 'The genius is not actually born of culture, or education: His origin is, as it were, metaphysical,' the philosopher says. 'But for him to appear, to emerge from a people [...] all of this the genius can only do if he has been ripened in the womb and nourished in the lap of his people's culture.' It appears the purpose of the institution is not simply to keep afloat amid a sea of deceptive drudgery, but also something more essential, and more authoritarian."

Republican Class Warfare

trumpDavid Frum in The Atlantic looks into the origins of the Trump phenomena and finds a class divide within the Republican Party. "The mutiny of the 2016 election cycle has been different. By the fall of 2015, a majority of Republicans favored candidates who had never been elected to anything: Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina. Fiorina's campaign was perhaps not so unusual. A former CEO, she appealed to the same business-minded Republicans who might have voted for Romney in 2012. Carson appealed to the same religious conservatives that candidates like Mike Huckabee and Santorum had appealed to in prior presidential cycles. What was new and astonishing was the Trump boom. He jettisoned party orthodoxy on issues ranging from entitlement spending to foreign policy. He scoffed at trade agreements. He said rude things about Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers. He reviled the campaign contributions of big donors--himself included!--as open and blatant favor-buying. Trump's surge was a decisive repudiation by millions of Republican voters of the collective wisdom of their party elite. When Trump first erupted into the Republican race in June, he did so with a message of grim pessimism. 'We got $18 trillion in debt. We got nothing but problems ... We're dying. We're dying. We need money ... We have losers. We have people that don't have it. We have people that are morally corrupt. We have people that are selling this country down the drain ... The American dream is dead.' That message did not resonate with those who'd ridden the S&P 500 from less than 900 in 2009 to more than 2,000 in 2015. But it found an audience all the same. Half of Trump's supporters within the GOP had stopped their education at or before high-school graduation, according to the polling firm YouGov. Only 19 percent had a college or postcollege degree. Thirty-eight percent earned less than $50,000. Only 11 percent earned more than $100,000. Trump Republicans were not ideologically militant. Just 13 percent said they were very conservative; 19 percent described themselves as moderate. Nor were they highly religious by Republican standards. What set them apart from other Republicans was their economic insecurity and the intensity of their economic nationalism. Sixty-three percent of Trump supporters wished to end birthright citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants born on U.S. soil--a dozen points higher than the norm for all Republicans. More than other Republicans, Trump supporters distrusted Barack Obama as alien and dangerous: Only 21 percent acknowledged that the president was born in the United States, according to an August survey by the Democratic-oriented polling firm PPP. Sixty-six percent believed the president was a Muslim. Trump promised to protect these voters' pensions from their own party's austerity. 'We've got Social Security that's going to be destroyed if somebody like me doesn't bring money into the country. All these other people want to cut the hell out of it. I'm not going to cut it at all; I'm going to bring money in, and we're going to save it.' He promised to protect their children from being drawn into another war in the Middle East, this time in Syria. 'If we're going to have World War III,' he told The Washington Post in October, 'it's not going to be over Syria.' As for the politicians threatening to shoot down the Russian jets flying missions in Syria, 'I won't even call them hawks. I call them the fools.' He promised a campaign independent of the influences of money that had swayed so many Republican races of the past. 'I will tell you that our system is broken. I gave to many people. Before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me. And that's a broken system.' He promised above all to protect their wages from being undercut by Republican immigration policy."

The Death of Privilege

jesusSunita Puri, a doctor of palliative medicine, is attentive to the economic and social inequalities she witnesses when making house calls to patients dying at home. "I think ahead to my next visit in Baldwin Village with Janice, a woman in her 60s with advanced breast cancer. Because she is estranged from her children and sisters, her landlady and two friends from church take turns caring for her. 'Just list Jesus Christ as my emergency contact,' she snapped at me once. 'You can't trust nobody, especially not family.' After Janice, I will see Joseph, a veteran in his early 50s whose lung cancer has spread to his bones. Even though he needs opiates to control the extreme pain his cancer causes when he tries to walk, he refuses to fill the prescription because he is afraid of being robbed and harmed if 'the youngsters find out I have that stuff in my house.' I will then visit 56-year-old Jorge, who has Lou Gehrig's disease. On my last visit, I found him alone at home, unable to reach for his medication for shortness of breath. He explained that his wife was returning from working an extra shift to make up for the income he could no longer provide. In three days, she will have enough money to pay for help, he reassured me and our team social worker. I constantly wonder whether, given these life circumstances, my patients fully benefit from the care my team and I try to provide. Aside from assessing symptoms and providing medications to ease them, perhaps just treating what I can with compassion is the best I can do for them. Still, I try to find some meaning in these visits, in the visits that preceded them, in all the visits that await, so that I can get up tomorrow and do this imperfect work again. My patients offer a vivid lesson in accepting inexplicable circumstances and choosing to live the best they can. I witness their hard-won wisdom and dignity and strength--and I know that these, too, are not things hospice can provide. Wisdom and dignity and strength have nothing to do with social or economic status or one's neighborhood. Yet they are perhaps the most essential components to the very private, internal process of making peace with life as part of the process of dying."

In Tibet

tibetIn a month when we've been discussing China's heavy hand in silencing dissent (or perceived dissent) from state policy in both Hong Kong and Taiwan, Tsering Woeser draws our attention to another area of contested political power. Why, he asks, are Tibetans setting themselves on fire?: "February 27, 2009, was the third day of Losar, the Tibetan New Year. It was also the day that self-immolation came to Tibet. The authorities had just cancelled a Great Prayer Festival (Monlam) that was supposed to commemorate the victims of the government crackdown in 2008. A monk by the name of Tapey stepped out of the Kirti Monastery and set his body alight on the streets of Ngawa, in the region known in Tibetan as Amdo, a place of great religious reverence and relevance, now designated as part of China's Sichuan Province. At least 145 other Tibetans have self-immolated since then. Of these, 141 did so within Tibet, while the remaining five were living in exile. According to the best information we have, 125 have died (including 122 within Tibet and three abroad). Most of these individuals are men, though some are women. Many were parents who left behind young children. The oldest was sixty-four, and the youngest was sixteen. Seven underage Tibetans have either self-immolated or attempted self-immolation; two of them died, and two were detained and their fate is unknown. The numbers include three monks of high rank (tulkus, or reincarnated masters), along with thirty-nine ordinary monks and eight nuns. But many were ordinary people: seventy-four were nomads or peasants; among the others were high school students, workers, vendors, a carpenter, a woodworker, a writer, a tangka painter, a taxi driver, a retired government cadre, a laundry owner, a park ranger, and three activists exiled abroad. All are Tibetan... In my interviews with international media on the topic of self-immolation, I have always tried to emphasize one area of frequent misunderstanding: self-immolation is not suicide, and it is not a gesture of despair. Rather, it is sacrifice for a greater cause, and an attempt to press for change, as can be seen in these two peaks in self-immolation. Such an act is not to be judged by the precepts of Buddhism: it can only be judged by its political results. Each and every one of these roaring flames on the Tibetan plateau has been ignited by ethnic oppression. Each is a torch casting light on a land trapped in darkness. These names are a continuation of the protests of 2008 and a continuation of the monks' decision that March: 'We must stand up!' Attempts to label these acts as suicide--or even, curiously, as a forbidden act of 'killing'--are either a complete misinterpretation of the phenomenon or, more likely, the type of deliberate misrepresentation that we see all too often in Chinese state propaganda. A high-ranking monk once confided in me very clearly: 'The cases of self-immolation in Tibet absolutely do not violate our Buddhist teachings on killing. They are not in any way opposed to Dharma, and certainly do not violate it. The motivations of self-immolators in Tibet, whether monks or laypeople, have nothing at all to do with personal interest.... These acts are meant to protect the Dharma and to win the Tibetan people's rights to freedom and democracy.' Self-immolators are bodhisattvas sacrificing the self for others, phoenixes reincarnated from the flames of death."

"The Summer of Our Discontent"

mlkHow better to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. day? In the Boston Globe, Jill Terreri Ramos reports about the discovery at Amherst College of a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. "The result is a clear recording of King's deliberate delivery of 'The Summer of Our Discontent,' in which he offers reasons for civil rights activism during the summer of 1963. The speech was delivered at the New School in New York City on Feb. 6, 1964, and was broadcast by the student radio station at Amherst College on Dec. 8, 1964. During the hour-long recording, King talks about low incomes in black communities, inequities in public schools, and the failure of political leaders to act on civil rights. The similarities between King's themes and modern events are not lost on Leavitt and her colleagues."

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

vrg banner headingHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #17

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 dbisson@bard.edu.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm


A Taste for Chaos: The Hidden Order in the Art of Improvisation

A Taste for Chaos: The Hidden Order in the Art of ImprovisationJazz, as the modern art form that lays claim to improvisation, situates music in a productive tension between individual freedom and a mysterious yet sentient order. As do modern theories of liberalism in politics, Jazz insists both on the individual liberty of each that is through fidelity to common truths, recognition of traditional customs, or embrace of collective ends is rendered compatible with a larger inter-subjective order. Freedom as an art of improvisation means that men are free only insofar as they act in ways that are both free and constrained. This is very much what Hannah Arendt means means when she writes that "Men are free-as distinguished from their possessing the gift of freedom- as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same.” In this evening on "A Taste for Chaos: The Hidden Order in the Art of Improvisation,” we bring together leading thinkers and musicians to explore the nature of improvisation and the art of freedom.

Free & Open to the Public

Monday, February 15, 2016

László Z. Bitó '60 Conservatory Building, 5:00 pm - 7:00 pm


What Is Political Theory?

political theorySheldon S. Wolin (August 4, 1922 - October 21, 2015) was one of the most important American political theorists of the 20th century. Wolin authored critical works such as Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought, Hobbes and the Epic Tradition of Political Theory, Presence of the Past: Essays on State and the Constitution, Tocqueville Between Two Worlds: The Making of a Political and Theoretical Life, and Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Professor of Politics, Emeritus, at Princeton University, Wolin was the founding editor of the influential journal democracy (1981-1983), with the help Nicholas Xenos. In memory of Wolin, we discuss the work of political theory with Nicholas Xenos.

Free & Open to the Public

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito '60 Auditorium, 5:00 pm - 6:30 pm


Lunchtime Talk with Klemens von Klemperer Post Doctoral Fellow Jana Schmidt

jana schmidtJana V. Schmidt's research pertains to questions of literature and art, their status vis-à-vis the political and the social, image theory, mimesis, and the representation of intersubjectivity. Her main focus as a literary scholar is on twentieth century German and American literature, literary theory (including "continental" philosophy and critical theory), and literature's relation to violence. One nodal point for these inquiries has been the problem of reconciliation in the aftermath of the Holocaust. How to constitute a "world" after 1945 and how to integrate the victims' memories into such world-making are crucial questions for her work. Hannah Arendt's thought on conciliation, her literary writings, and her notion of world have shaped her answers to these questions in her dissertation, "An Aesthetics of Reconciliation - Intersubjectivity after the End of Community, 1945-1970." Jana's next project will investigate the figure of the survivor in postwar American literature and public Holocaust discourses. Other interests include Jewish studies, psychoanalysis, phenomenology, memory and memorialization, and the study of exile. An essay on the American painter Philip Guston and Jean-François Lyotard's notion of the figure is forthcoming with Bloomsbury. Jana holds an MA in English from the University of Pennsylvania and a PhD in Comparative Literature from the State University of New York at Buffalo. She is looking forward to teaching the First Year Seminar at Bard.

RSVP to Christine Stanton at cstanton@bard.edu.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Hannah Arendt Center, 1:30 pm


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

hacThe 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 Interfolio.com at: http://apply.interfolio.com/33792  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 EpidemicsLearning 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 activaVita Activa - The Spirit of Hannah Arendt

The 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 8, 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 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, Kazue Koishikawa discusses how identifying freedom with free will has brought the "most dangerous consequence" by allowing us to claim freedom at the price of all others' sovereignty in the Quote of the Week. Alan Rickman reflects on the human need for storytelling and considering what's possible in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Roger Berkowitz, the Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center, announces that he is looking to hire a Part Time Research Assistant to assist with a book project. Finally, we appreciate the annotations Hannah Arendt made to her copy of Jules Monnerot's Sociology and Psychology of Communism in this week's Library feature.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
24Mar/14Off
Quote of the Week

The Essay Form

Arendtquote

“Like all collections of essays, this book of exercises [is] a sequence of movements which, like in a musical suite, are written in the same or related keys.”

– Hannah Arendt, Preface to Between Past and Future, 1961

Hannah Arendt called Between Past and Future her most important book. The essay collection deals with fundamental political-philosophical terms such as freedom, authority, power and reason. Its subtitle—“Exercises in Political Thought”—points towards the genre of the book, essay, which of course comes from the French essayer, meaning something like to try, to experiment and, in this sense, to exercise. It was from Michel de Montaigne’s Essais—the wonderfully experimental, experience-based reflections on topics both philosophical and mundane, first published in 1580—that the genre got its name. Arendt read Montaigne both in the original French and in English translation, and the two respective versions of Essais in her library prove that she read them carefully, and with a pencil at the ready. Friedrich Nietzsche and Walter Benjamin developed and expanded the possibilities of this genre in their own unique ways, and both thinkers count among Arendt’s key interlocutors. It is however less well known that Arendt’s work in the genre of “essay” also have another starting point: in American literature, from the writings of Emerson and Melville, both of whom she grew to know through the writings of the literary critic Alfred Kazin.

big

Arendt and Kazin became close friends in the late 1940’s. Their conversation in letters began with Kafka and continued through literature, friendship, and genuine interest in each other's work. Kazin helped Arendt find a publisher for her first American book, “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” and also played a central role in editing that groundbreaking study. At the same time Arendt was reading Kazin’s essay collection “On Native Grounds,”—she read it “every day at breakfast,” in fact, as she wrote to him. For Arendt, who had arrived in the USA only a few years earlier, Kazin’s book was an introduction to the literature and history of her new homeland—as well as a paradigm of the “essay” genre. At the highpoint of their friendship, in the summer of 1956, Arendt told Kazin in a letter that she had written him into her will as “literary executor for all things in English.” In the very same letter that links their literary legacies in such a meaningful way, Arendt comes back to “On Native Grounds,” and to the “essay:” Harcourt Brace, who published both authors, had suggested to Arendt “that I prepare also a volume of essays,” yet she “shuddered at the thought of it,” since she understood the great challenges posed by the genre that in her eyes Kazin was mastering. It took five more years for Arendt to set aside her “shudder,” and to publish Between Past and Future.

In the meantime, Arendt and Kazin sent other writings to each other, among which two texts in particular continued their conversation about the “essay.” The first is a preface written by Kazin to a new edition of Moby Dick. The novel, Kazin writes, “is not so much a book about Captain Ahab’s quest for the whale as it is an experience of that quest.” To understand writing as an invitation to experience something—an invitation to a process of thinking, to an exercise—echoes the project of Arendt’s Exercises in Political Thought. “This is only to say, what we can say of any true poem,” Kazin continues, “that we cannot reduce its essential substance to a subject, that we should not intellectualize and summarize it, but that we should recognize that its very force and beauty lie in the way it is conceived and written.” “The Introduction is wunderbar,” Arendt wrote Kazin enthusiastically, using the German word both as a sign of intimacy and because the German “wunderbar” more strongly connotes the spirit of “wonder” than the English “wonderful.”

Soon thereafter Alfred Kazin published a large anthology of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writings. Many of Arendt’s American readers rightfully wonder why Emerson does not appear more frequently in her writing. There seems to be such an intriguing correspondence between both writers’ style of thinking and care for language. But Arendt’s copy of Kazin’s anthology shows just how attentively she read Emerson: the volume is heavily underlined. The markings begin in the introduction and revolve — perhaps not so surprisingly, since Emerson was one of the founding figures of American essay writing—around his writing style. “He is a writer who lives entirely by ideas, but who really lives them,” Kazin writes at the very beginning. “He is not a philosopher, not a maker of systems or a prover of systems or a justifier of them. He starts from a conviction about man’s central importance in the world which he never really elaborates, but which he accepts as necessary and evident and profoundly human – he could almost have said, the only human account of the world in modern, ‘scientific’ times.” It is a description that strikingly resembles the fundamental concept of love for the world —amor mundi—which Arendt was writing in The Human Condition at the very same time. Her books moved and excited him, Kazin later wrote to Arendt, “in a way that no ‘technical philosophy’ ever could. What a visionary you are, as my most beloved poets are!”

As visionary as a poet? Or is this more a view of poetic thinking? Hannah Arendt coined the term “poetic thinking” in her essay on Walter Benjamin. Her catchy formulation is explained in a series of negative characterizations. To fundamentally comprehend Benjamin, according to Arendt, one must understand that he was “very scholarly, but in no way a scholar; that his major subject was text and the interpretation of texts, but that he was no philologist; […] that he was a writer whose greatest ambition was to build a text entirely comprised of quotes from other texts—that is, to override his own role as writer; […] he published countless book reviews and many conventional essays on dead and contemporary writers and poets, but he was no literary critic.” The list is much longer in the original, but it continues in the same vein: Benjamin doesn’t belong to any discipline nor profession; readers need to understand that he “thought poetically.”

poet

Arendt’s remarks on Benjamin find an astounding echo in Kazin’s efforts to answer his own question about Emerson: “What kind of writer shall we call him?” “He is not, of course, a novelist or a dramatist,” Kazin writes, “in fact, he could hardly read novels or wholly enjoy great plays for their own sake. Although he was a remarkable and inventive poet, no one can claim that poetry is the major side of his work. As we have said, he is not a philosopher – not even a philosopher like Nietzsche, who so much admired him.” What, then, could a suitable description look like? Kazin finds a surprising turn of phrase: “And though one falls back on the term ‘essayist,’ the term hardly explains why the essay form, as Emerson developed it, attains a free form that is profoundly musical and fugal, a series of variations starting from a set theme.”

“The essay form,” are the three words of the quote that Arendt underlined in her copy. They echo the passage from Between Past and Future quoted here at the beginning: “Like all collections of essays, this book of exercises [is] a sequence of movements which, like in a musical suite, are written in the same or related keys.” On the same page of this preface, Arendt expands the resonance and meaning of these “related keys” in a highly intriguing way. Her investigations between past and future seek to discover the “spirit” which has “so sadly evaporated from the very key words of political language,” such as freedom and justice, responsibility and virtue. In order to trace the “wunderbaren” spirits that Arendt roused from the key words of our political language, we need to listen to the keys in which these exercises and essays in political and poetic thinking were composed and written.

-Thomas Wild

-Translated from German by Anne Posten

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
13Mar/14Off
Thinking About Thinking

Friedrich Nietzsche on Thinking

Arendtthoughts

'The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.'

-Friedrich Nietzsche

nietzsche

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
12Mar/14Off

The Preferential President

FromtheArendtCenter

There is a fascinating essay over on the Guernica blog, where David Bromwich examines “how Obama became a publicist for his presidency (rather than the president).” In his first term Obama delivered 1,852 separate speeches, comments, or scheduled public remarks and granted 591 interviews. These exceptional numbers, explains Bromwich, were the result of  “magical thinking” on the part of the Obama White House: if the American public heard the president often enough, they would see how sincere and bipartisan he was and accept his policies. An endless string of speeches, road trips, and town hall meetings thus came to serve as a stand-in for the decision-making and confrontation that true leadership requires, and genuine conviction demands. Argues Bromwich: “…The truth is that Obama’s convictions were never strong. He did not find this out until his convictions were tested, and they were not tested until he became president.

Perhaps the thin connection between Obama’s words and his actions does not support the use of the word “conviction” at all. Let us say instead that he mistook his preferences for convictions—and he can still be trusted to tell us what he would prefer to do. Review the record and it will show that his first statement on a given issue generally lays out what he would prefer. Later on, he resigns himself to supporting a lesser evil, which he tells us is temporary and necessary. The creation of a category of permanent prisoners in “this war we’re in” (which he declines to call “the war on terror”) was an early and characteristic instance. Such is Obama’s belief in the power and significance of his own words that, as he judges his own case, saying the right thing is a decent second-best to doing the right thing.”

ob

Bromwich’s reflections call to mind two classic statements of what might be called the nihilism of the modern age—the psychological state in which all values are relative and none may rise from preference to conviction. The first is a fragment from Friedrich Nietzsche’s notebooks composed in 1881-1882. It reads:

…we call good someone who does his heart’s bidding, but also the one who only tends to his duty;
we call good the meek and the reconciled, but also the courageous, unbending, severe;
we call good someone who employs no force against himself, but also the heroes of self-overcoming;
we call good the utterly loyal friend of the true, but also the man of piety, one who transfigures things;
we call good those who are obedient to themselves, but also the pious;
we call good those who are noble and exalted, but also those who do not despise and condescend;
we call good those of joyful spirit, the peaceable, but also those desirous of battle and victory;
we call good those who always want to be first, but also those who do not want to take precedence over anyone in any respect.

As Nietzsche writes elsewhere, “The most extreme form of nihilism would be: that every belief, every holding-as-true, is necessarily false: because there is no true world at all.” To call the President a nihilist is nothing extreme; it is simply to say that he well represents the age in which he lives, an age that is extraordinarily uncomfortable with convictions of any kind. Some believe in God, but too strong a belief in God is unseemly, even fanatic. It is good to believe in democracy, but we recognize the need for stable tyrannies as well. The free market is the best system of economics, but only if it is not too free. We live in a pragmatic age and Obama is our pragmatic President. That is precisely what many like in him. And yet we also want him to lead. In other words, we want strong leadership of a convinced leader and at the same time we want the pragmatic and technocratic malleability of someone with preferences absent convictions.

There is no better expression of this fear basic psychological state of modernity than William Butler Yeats poem, “THE SECOND COMING”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The problem with President Obama is not that he lacks convictions. It is that he doesn’t know that he lacks convictions. And despite what Bromwich writes, the President hasn’t learned this. He still believes that he has strong convictions that Syria cannot use chemical weapons in a civil war against its own people. He still believes that it is intolerable to allow Russia to annex part of a sovereign country. He stands up and makes his strong convictions clear. But then he sits down and refuses to fight for those convictions, proving them beliefs. The point is not that he should fight in Syria or in Ukraine. The point is that he should not be speaking loudly and issuing ultimatums when he lacks the conviction to back them up.

-RB (hat tip Anna Hadfield)

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
21Feb/14Off
Weekend Reading

The Irony of the Elite

ArendtWeekendReading

Peggy Noonan is worried about the decadence of elite American culture. While the folks over at DailyKos are foaming about the irony of Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter complaining about the excesses of the power elites, Noonan makes an important point about the corrosive effects that irony has on elites and on culture more generally.

The two targets of Noonan’s scorn are a “Now This News” video compilation of real congressmen quoting their favorite lines from the Netflix series “House of Cards,” and the recent publication of an excerpt from Kevin Roose’s new book Young Money. The “House of Cards” is about the scheming, power hungry, and luxurious life of our political elite in Washington. Roose’s excerpt provides audios, videos, and a description of a recent Kappa Beta Phi meeting, in which Wall Street titans binge on alcohol and engage in skits and speeches making fun of anyone who would question their inalienable right to easy money at the expense of rubes in government and on main street.

Noonan’s response to these sets of recordings is bafflement and disappointment. Why is it, she asks, that elites would join in on the jokes made at their expense?

“I don’t understand why members of Congress, the White House and the media become cooperators in videos that sort of show that deep down they all see themselves as ... actors. And good ones! In a phony drama. Meant I suppose to fool the rubes. It’s all supposed to be amusing, supposed to show you’re an insider who sees right through this town.”

houseofcards

Why do elites join in the laughter of a popular TV serial that grills them and shows them to be callow, avaricious, and without public spirit? Why do they delight in demonstrating their ability to view their failings with irony?

““House of Cards” very famously does nothing to enhance Washington’s reputation. It reinforces the idea that the capital has no room for clean people. The earnest, the diligent, the idealistic, they have no place there. Why would powerful members of Congress align themselves with this message? Why do they become part of it? I guess they think they’re showing they’re in on the joke and hip to the culture. I guess they think they’re impressing people with their surprising groovelocity.”

Noonan is right to see this elite reaction of wanting to be in on the joke as meaningful and worrisome. She finds it decadent:

“They are America’s putative great business leaders. They are laughing, singing, drinking, posing in drag and acting out skits. The skits make fun of their greed and cynicism. In doing this they declare and make clear, just in case you had any doubts, that they are greedy and cynical. All of this is supposed to be merry, high-jinksy, unpretentious, wickedly self-spoofing. But it seems more self-exposing, doesn’t it? And all of it feels so decadent.”

It is insufficient, however, to watch the videos on both these sites and conclude the obvious that they offer damning evidence of corruption and decadence.

What is more important than the decadence on display is the self-satisfied irony.  The elites in Washington and Wall Street seem not to care about their decadence and even take joy in the revealing of their decadence. It is as if a burden has been lifted, that we all in the outside world can now know what they have borne in secret. With the secret out, they can enjoy themselves without guilt.

This embrace of the revelation of decadence recalls the cultural milieu of Weimar Germany, and especially the reception of Berthold Brecht’s classic satire the “Threepenny Opera.” Here is how Hannah Arendt describes the arrival and reception of Brecht’s play:

“The play presented gangsters as respectable businessmen and respectable businessmen as gangsters. The irony was somewhat lost when respectable businessmen in the audience considered this a deep insight into the ways of the world and when the mob welcomed it as an artistic sanction of gangsterism. The theme song in the play, “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral” [First comes the animal-like satisfaction of one’s hungers, then comes morality], was greeted with frantic applause by exactly everybody, though for different reasons. The mob applauded because it took the statement literally; the bourgeoisie applauded because it had been fooled by its own hypocrisy for so long that it had grown tired of the tension and found deep wisdom in the expression of the banality by which it lived; the elite applauded because the unveiling of hypocrisy was such superior, wonderful fun.”

Brecht hoped to shock not only with his portrayal of corruption and the breakdown of morality, but by his gleeful presentation of Weimar decadence; but the effect of “Threepenny Opera” was exactly the opposite, since all groups in society reacted to Brecht’s satire with joy instead of repulsion.

Arendt has little hope for the mob or the bourgeoisie, but she is clearly cut to the quick by the ease with which the elite felt “genuine delight” in watching the bourgeoisie and the mob “destroy respectability.” As Arendt explained, the “members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it.” Because the elite had largely rejected their belief in the justice and meaningfulness of the moral and common values that had supported the edifice of civilization, they found more joy in the ironic skewering of those values than they felt fear at what the loss of common values might come to mean.

three

There is no greater thinker of decadence than Friedrich Nietzsche. This is how Nietzsche defines decadence in The Case of Wagner as a “question of style”:

“I dwell this time only on the question of style–What is the sign of every literary decadence? That life no longer dwells in the whole. Word becomes sovereign and leaps out of the sentence, the sentence reaches out and obscures the meaning of the page, the page gains life at the expense of the whole–the whole is no longer a whole. But this is the simile of every style of decadence: every time, the anarchy of atoms, the disgregation of the will, “freedom of the individual,” to use moral terms–expanded into a political theory, “equal rights for all.” Life, equal vitality, the vibration and exuberance of life pushed back into the smallest forms; the rest, poor in life. Everywhere paralysis, hardship, torpidity, or hostility, and chaos: both more and more obvious the higher one ascends in forms of organization. The whole no longer lives at all: it is composite, calculated, artificial, and artifact.”

As Andrew Huddleston has recently written, Nietzsche understands that “decadence is literally a kind of disorder – that is, a lack of cohesive order – within the individual or the culture.” It is a sickness by which individuals and groups think only of themselves and lose sight of their belonging to a common world or a meaningful order.

The disordering forces of decadence are not always disadvantageous. Throughout American history centripetal forces have allowed an understanding of power that permits different states and plural groups that pursue their own interests to, nevertheless, hold fast to the common idea of constitutional republican democracy and government by the people. What we see in the irony of the elites—let alone the decadence of the bourgeoisie and the power brokers—is the superior feeling of freedom that proceeds from the belief in the comic dissolution of the moral, political and economic values that have for two centuries animated the American imagination of itself as a exceptional experiment in free and democratic self-government.

Noonan is right to call out this ironic pose of the elite. She is right to worry that “No one wants to be the earnest outsider now, no one wants to play the sober steward, no one wants to be the grind, the guy carrying around a cross of dignity. No one wants to be accused of being staid. No one wants to say, “This isn’t good for the country, and it isn’t good for our profession.”” Her essay is your weekend read. Don’t forget to watch the videos. See if you catch yourself smiling.

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
29Mar/13Off

Are We One of Them?

ArendtWeekendReading

In an essay in the Wall Street Journal, Frans de Waal—C. H. Candler Professor of Primate Behavior at Emory University—offers a fascinating review of recent scientific studies that upend long-held expectations about the intelligence of animals. De Waal rehearses a catalogue of fantastic studies in which animals do things that scientists have long thought they could not do. Here are a few examples:

Ayumu, a male chimpanzee, excels at memory; just as the IBM computer Watson can beat human champions at Jeopardy, Ayumu can easily best the human memory champion in games of memory.

Similarly, Kandula, a young elephant bull, was able to reach some fragrant fruit hung out of reach by moving a stool over to the tree, standing on it, and reaching for the fruit with his trunk. I’ll admit this doesn’t seem like much of a feat to me, but for the researchers de Waal talks with, it is surprising proof that elephants can use tools.

elephant

Scientists may be surprised that animals can remember things or use tools to accomplish tasks, but any one raised on children’s tales of Lassie or Black Beauty knows this well, as does anyone whose pet dog opened a door knob, brought them a newspaper, or barked at intruders. The problem these studies address is less our societal view of animals than the overly reductive view of animals that de Waal attributes to his fellow scientists. It’s hard to take these studies seriously as evidence that animals think in the way that humans do.

Seemingly more interesting are experiments with self-recognition and also facial recognition. De Waal describes one Asian Elephant who stood in front of a mirror and “repeatedly rubbed a white cross on her forehead.” Apparently the elephant recognized the image in the mirror as herself. In another experiment, chimpanzees were able to recognize which pictures of chimpanzees were from their own species. Like my childhood Labrador who used to stare knowingly into the mirror, these studies confirm that animals are able to recognize themselves. This means that animals do, likely, understand that they are selves.

For de Waal, these studies have started to upend a view of humankind's unique place in the universe that dates back at least to ancient Greece. “Science,” he writes, “keeps chipping away at the wall that separates us from the other animals. We have moved from viewing animals as instinct-driven stimulus-response machines to seeing them as sophisticated decision makers.”

The flattening of the distinction between animals and humans is to be celebrated, De Waal argues, and not feared. He writes:

Aristotle's ladder of nature is not just being flattened; it is being transformed into a bush with many branches. This is no insult to human superiority. It is long-overdue recognition that intelligent life is not something for us to seek in the outer reaches of space but is abundant right here on earth, under our noses.

DeWaal has long championed the intelligence of animals, and now his vision is gaining momentum. This week, in a long essay called “One of Us” in the new Lapham’s Quarterly on animals, the glorious essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan begins with this description of similar studies to the ones DeWaal writes about:

These are stimulating times for anyone interested in questions of animal consciousness. On what seems like a monthly basis, scientific teams announce the results of new experiments, adding to a preponderance of evidence that we’ve been underestimating animal minds, even those of us who have rated them fairly highly. New animal behaviors and capacities are observed in the wild, often involving tool use—or at least object manipulation—the very kinds of activity that led the distinguished zoologist Donald R. Griffin to found the field of cognitive ethology (animal thinking) in 1978: octopuses piling stones in front of their hideyholes, to name one recent example; or dolphins fitting marine sponges to their beaks in order to dig for food on the seabed; or wasps using small stones to smooth the sand around their egg chambers, concealing them from predators. At the same time neurobiologists have been finding that the physical structures in our own brains most commonly held responsible for consciousness are not as rare in the animal kingdom as had been assumed. Indeed they are common. All of this work and discovery appeared to reach a kind of crescendo last summer, when an international group of prominent neuroscientists meeting at the University of Cambridge issued “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Non-Human Animals,” a document stating that “humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.” It goes further to conclude that numerous documented animal behaviors must be considered “consistent with experienced feeling states.”

With nuance and subtlety, Sullivan understands that our tradition has not drawn the boundary between human and animal nearly as securely as de Waal portrays it. Throughout human existence, humans and animals have been conjoined in the human imagination. Sullivan writes that the most consistent “motif in the artwork made between four thousand and forty thousand years ago,” is the focus on “animal-human hybrids, drawings and carvings and statuettes showing part man or woman and part something else—lion or bird or bear.” In these paintings and sculptures, our ancestors gave form to a basic intuition: “Animals knew things, possessed their forms of wisdom.”

pot

Religious history too is replete with evidence of the human recognition of the dignity of animals. God says in Isaiah that the beasts will honor him and St. Francis, the namesake of the new Pope, is famous for preaching to birds. What is more, we are told that God cares about the deaths of animals.

“In the Gospel According to Matthew we’re told, “Not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” Think about that. If the bird dies on the branch, and the bird has no immortal soul, and is from that moment only inanimate matter, already basically dust, how can it be “with” God as it’s falling? And not in some abstract all-of-creation sense but in the very way that we are with Him, the explicit point of the verse: the line right before it is “fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul.” If sparrows lack souls, if the logos liveth not in them, Jesus isn’t making any sense in Matthew 10:28-29.

What changed and interrupted the ancient and deeply human appreciation of our kinship with besouled animals? Sullivan’s answer is René Descartes. The modern depreciation of animals, Sullivan writes,

proceeds, with the rest of the Enlightenment, from the mind of René Descartes, whose take on animals was vividly (and approvingly) paraphrased by the French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche: they “eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it; they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing.” Descartes’ term for them was automata—windup toys, like the Renaissance protorobots he’d seen as a boy in the gardens at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, “hydraulic statues” that moved and made music and even appeared to speak as they sprinkled the plants.

Too easy, however, is the move to say that the modern comprehension of the difference between animal and human proceeds from a mechanistic view of animals. We live at a time of the animal rights movement. Around the world, societies exist and thrive whose mission is to prevent cruelty toward and to protect animals. Yes, factory farms treat chickens and pigs as organic mechanisms for the production of meat, but these farms co-exist with active and quite successful movements calling for humane standards in food production. Whatever the power of Cartesian mechanics, its success is at odds with the persistence of the religious, ancient solidarity, and also deeply modern sympathy between human and animal.

A more meaningful account of the modern attitude towards animals might be found in Spinoza. Spinoza, as Sullivan quotes him, recognizes that animals feel in ways that Descartes did not. As do animal rights activists, Spinoza admits what is obvious: that animals feel pain, show emotion, and have desires. And yet, Spinoza maintains a distinction between human and animal—one grounded not in emotion or feeling, but in human nature. In his Ethics, he writes:

Hence it follows that the emotions of the animals which are called irrational…only differ from man’s emotions to the extent that brute nature differs from human nature. Horse and man are alike carried away by the desire of procreation, but the desire of the former is equine, the desire of the latter is human…Thus, although each individual lives content and rejoices in that nature belonging to him wherein he has his being, yet the life, wherein each is content and rejoices, is nothing else but the idea, or soul, of the said individual…It follows from the foregoing proposition that there is no small difference between the joy which actuates, say, a drunkard, and the joy possessed by a philosopher.

Spinoza argues against the law prohibiting slaughter of animals—it is “founded rather on vain superstition and womanish pity than on sound reason”—because humans are more powerful than animals.  Here is how he defends the slaughter of animals:

The rational quest of what is useful to us further teaches us the necessity of associating ourselves with our fellow men, but not with beasts, or things, whose nature is different from our own; we have the same rights in respect to them as they have in respect to us. Nay, as everyone’s right is defined by his virtue, or power, men have far greater rights over beasts than beasts have over men. Still I do not deny that beasts feel: what I deny is that we may not consult our own advantage and use them as we please, treating them in the way which best suits us; for their nature is not like ours.

Spinoza’s point is quite simple: Of course animals feel and of course they are intelligent. Who could doubt such a thing? But they are not human. That is clear too. While we humans may care for and even love our pets, we recognize the difference between a dog and a human. And we will, in the end, associate more with our fellow humans than with dogs and porpoises. Finally, we humans will use animals when they serve our purposes. And this is ok, because have the power to do so.

Is Spinoza arguing that might makes right? Surely not in the realm of law amongst fellow humans. But he is insisting that we recognize that for us humans, there is something about being human that is different and, even, higher and more important. Spinoza couches his argument in the language of natural right, but what he is saying is that we must recognize that there are important differences between animals and humans.

At a time that values equality over what Friedrich Nietzsche called the “pathos of difference,” the valuation of human beings over animals is ever more in doubt. This comes home clearly in a story told recently by General Stanley McChrystal, about a soldier who expressed sympathy for some dogs killed in a raid in Iraq.  McChrystal responded, severely: “"Seven enemy were killed on that target last night.  Seven humans.  Are you telling me you're more concerned about the dog than the people that died?  The car fell silent again. "Hey listen," I said. "Don't lose your humanity in this thing."” Many, no doubt, are more concerned, or at least are equally concerned, about the deaths of animals as they are about the deaths of humans. There is ever-increasing discomfort about McChrystal’s common sense affirmation of Spinoza’s claim that human beings simply are of more worth than animals.

eye

The distinctions upon which the moral sense of human distinction is based are foundering. For DeWaal and Sullivan, the danger today is that we continue to insist on differences between animals and humans—differences that we don’t fully understand. The consequences of their openness to the humanization of animals, however, is undoubtedly the animalization of humans. The danger that we humans lose sight of what distinguishes us from animals is much more significant than the possibility that we underestimate animal intelligence.

I fully agree with DeWaal and Sullivan that there is a symphony of intelligence in the world, much of it not human. And yes, we should have proper respect for our ignorance. But all the experiments in the world do little to alter the basic facts, that no matter how intelligent and feeling and even conscious animals may be, humans and animals are different.

What is the quality of that difference? It is difficult to say and may never be fully articulated in propositional form. On one level it is this: Simply to live, as do plants or animals, does not constitute a human life. In other words, human life is not simply about living. Nor is it about doing tasks or even being conscious of ourselves as humans. It is about living meaningfully. There may, of course, be some animals that can create worlds of meaning—worlds that we have not yet discovered. But their worlds are not the worlds to which we humans aspire.

Over two millennia ago, Sophocles, in his “Ode to Man,” named man Deinon, a Greek word that connotes both greatness and horror, that which is so extraordinary as to be at once terrifying and beautiful. Man, Sophocles tells us, can travel over water and tame animals, using them to plough fields. He can invent speech, and institute governments that bring humans together to form lasting institutions. As an inventor and maker of his world, this wonder that is man terrifyingly carries the seeds of his destruction. As he invents and comes to control his world, he threatens to extinguish the mystery of his existence, that part of man that man himself does not control. As the chorus sings: “Always overcoming all ways, man loses his way and comes to nothing.” If man so tames the earth as to free himself from uncertainty, what then is left of human being?

Sophocles knew that man could be a terror; but he also glorified the wonder that man is. He knew that what separates us humans from animals is our capacity to alter the earth and our natural environment. “The human artifice of the world,” Arendt writes, “separates human existence from all mere animal environment…” Not only by building houses and erecting dams—animals can do those things and more—but also by telling stories and building political communities that give to man a humanly created world in which he lives. If all we did as humans was live or build things on earth, we would not be human.

To be human means that we can destroy all living matter on the Earth. We can even today destroy the earth itself. Whether we do so or not, it now means that to live on Earth today is a “Choice” that we make, not a matter of fate or chance. Our Earth, although we did not create it, is now something we humans can decide to sustain or destroy. In this sense, it is a human creation. No other animal has such a potential or such a responsibility.

There is a deep desire today to flee from that awesome and increasingly unbearable human responsibility. We flee, therefore, our humanity and take solace in the view that we are just one amongst the many animals in the world. We see this reductionism above all in human rights discourse. One core demand of human rights—that men and women have a right to live and not be killed—brought about a shift in the idea of humanity from logos to life. The rise of a politics of life—the political demand that governments limit freedoms and regulate populations in order to protect and facilitate their citizens’ ability to live in comfort—has pushed the animality, the “life,” of human beings to the center of political and ethical activity. In embracing a politics of life over a politics of the meaningful life, human rights rejects the distinctive dignity of human rationality and works to reduce humanity to its animality.

Hannah Arendt saw human rights as dangerous precisely because they risked confusing the meaning of human worldliness with the existence of mere animal life. For Arendt, human beings are the beings who build and live in a political world, by which she means the stories, institutions, and achievements that mark the glory and agony of humanity. To be human, she insists, is more than simply living, laboring, working, acting, and thinking. It is to do all of these activities in such a way as to create, together, a common life amongst a plurality of persons.

I fear that the interest in animal consciousness today is less a result of scientific proof that animals are human than it is an increasing discomfort with the world we humans have built. A first step in responding to such discomfort, however, is a reaffirmation of our humanity and our human responsibility. There is no better way to begin that process than in engaging with a very human response to the question of our animality. Towards that end, I commend to you “One of Us,” by John Jeremiah Sullivan.

-RB

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
26Oct/12Off

In Memorium – Jacques Barzun

"Teaching is not a lost art but the regard 
for it is a lost tradition. Hence tomorrow's problem will not be to 
get teachers, but to recognize the good ones and not discourage them
 before they have done their stint."

—Jacques Barzun, Teacher in
 America

Jacques Barzun has died. With his passing we lose another of the grand European-born intellectuals who made America their home. Barzun was born in 1907, one year after Hannah Arendt. He did not come to the United States persecuted for his religion. He came in 1920 to pursue a university education at Columbia. He graduated Columbia in 1927, received his Ph.D. in 1932 and taught at Columbia until his retirement in 1975. Along the way he became one of the nation's preeminent scholars and public intellectuals.

Here is what Edward Rothstein writes today in the New York Times:

[Barzun] wrote dozens of books across many decades, demonstrating that old age did not necessarily mean intellectual decline. He published his most ambitious and encyclopedic book at the age of 92 (and credited his productivity in part to chronic insomnia). That work, “From Dawn to Decadence,” is an 877-page survey of 500 years of Western culture in which he argued that Western civilization itself had entered a period of decline.

Mr. Barzun was both of the academy and the public square, a man of letters and — he was proud to say — of the people. In books and in the classroom he championed Romantic literature, 19th-century music and the Western literary canon. He helped design the influential “great books” curriculum at Columbia, where he was one of its most admired figures for half a century, serving as provost, dean of faculty and university professor.

As an educator Mr. Barzun was an important critic of American universities, arguing in 1968 that their curriculums had become an undisciplined “bazaar” of miscellaneous studies.

But he was also a popularizer, believing that the achievements of the arts and scholarship should not be divorced from the wider American culture. Writing for a general audience, he said, was “a responsibility of scholars.”

Barzun's work touched nearly every part of humanistic thought, from his work on Berlioz to his late epic on the decadence of Western culture. In “Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage," he took up the critique of scientific culture initiated by Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Weber. As did Hannah Arendt, Barzun worried deeply about the way scientific thinking was intruding upon the realm of human freedom and human creativity. His last book, From Dawn to Decadence, traces Western civilization from the renaissance to the present. It is at once sad in its mourning of lost greatness and optimistic about the impending regeneration. Barzun is a brilliant guide through the ages of the western mind.

Above all Barzun was a teacher. For all of us committed to the dual goals of enlivening and making accessible the world of ideas, the loss of Jacques Barzun is a day to recall the nobility of that enterprise.

You can learn more about Jacques Barzun here.  Treat yourself, and read Roger Kimball's review of From Dawn to Decadence.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.