Arendtamormundi

Amor Mundi 2/21/16

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-upA Party of One

party crasherJill Lepore wonders if we’re at the start of something new: “There will not be a revolution, but this election might mark the beginning of the seventh party system. The Internet, like all new communications technologies, has contributed to a period of political disequilibrium, one in which, as always, party followers have been revolting against party leaders. So far, neither the R.N.C. nor the D.N.C., nor any of their favored candidates, has been able to grab the wheel. Trump, meanwhile, is barrelling down the highway toward the White House, ignoring every road sign, a man without a party. The fate of the free world does not hinge on this election. But the direction of the party system might. And that’s probably worth thinking about, slowly and deeply. Parties, while not written into the U.S. Constitution, do sustain our system of government. As the political scientist V. O. Key pointed out, half a century ago, ‘They perform an essential function in the management of succession to power, as well as in the process of obtaining popular consent to the course of public policy. They amass sufficient support to buttress the authority of governments; or, on the contrary, they attract or organize discontent and dissatisfaction sufficient to oust the government. In either case, they perform the function of the articulation of the interests and aspirations of a substantial segment of the citizenry, usually in ways contended to be promotive of the national weal.’ The American party system is not only a creation of the press; it is dependent on it. It is currently fashionable, indispensable, even, to malign the press, whether liberal or conservative. ‘That’s the media game,’ Sanders said, dismissing a question that Cooper had asked him during CNN’s town hall. ‘That’s what the media talks about. Who cares?’ But when the press is in the throes of change, so is the party system. And the national weal had better watch out. It’s unlikely, but not impossible, that the accelerating and atomizing forces of this latest communications revolution will bring about the end of the party system and the beginning of a new and wobblier political institution. With our phones in our hands and our eyes on our phones, each of us is a reporter, each a photographer, unedited and ill judged, chatting, snapping, tweeting, and posting, yikking and yakking. At some point, does each of us become a party of one?”

Parties are coalitions, and they in some way connect voters based on common interests. The breakdown of parties reflects the retreat of interest as a prime motivation for voting. Candidates are selected for being likable, honest, and fresh. The breakdown of interests and classes is accompanied by the rise of mass politics, one that appeals to coherent fantasies rather than complicated realities. For Hannah Arendt, “The breakdown of the class system meant automatically the breakdown of the party system, chiefly because these parties, being interest parties, could no longer represent class interests…. The fall of protecting class walls transformed the slumbering majorities behind all parties into one great unorganized structureless mass of furious individuals who had nothing in common except their vague apprehension that the hopes of party members were doomed, that, consequently, the most respected, articulate and representative members of the community were fools and that all the power that be were not so much evil as they equally stupid and fraudulent.” The hatred of the establishment today and the anger of individuals is connected, as Lepore argues, to the rise of social media–it is no accident that the two leading beneficiaries of popular anger are both running campaigns focused around social media. The point that Arendt makes and Lepore here affirms is that mass movements, separate from interest, rises alongside a “highly differentiated individualism and sophistication” that brings about “social atomization and extreme individualization.” Arendt’s point is that “the masses grew out of the fragments of a highly atomized society whose competitive structure and concomitant loneliness of the individual had been held in check only through membership in a class.” The atomizing impact of social media along with the breakdown of interest-based parties does, as Lepore writes, threaten a meaningful change in the American political landscape. –RB

Device People

device managerJacob Weisberg considers our fate as “device people.” In 2015, “Americans spend an average of five and a half hours a day with digital media, more than half of that time on mobile devices, according to the research firm eMarketer.” Amazingly, “we check our phones 221 times a day–an average of every 4.3 minutes–according to a UK study.” But what does our device dependence mean? “It is the troubling aspects of social and mobile media that Sherry Turkle attends to in her wise and observant new book, Reclaiming Conversation. A clinical psychologist and sociologist who teaches at MIT, Turkle is by no means antitechnology. But after a career examining relations between people and computers, she blends her description with advocacy. She presents a powerful case that a new communication revolution is degrading the quality of human relationships–with family and friends, as well as colleagues and romantic partners. The picture she paints is both familiar and heartbreaking: parents who are constantly distracted on the playground and at the dinner table; children who are frustrated that they can’t get their parents’ undivided attention; gatherings where friends who are present vie for attention with virtual friends; classrooms where professors gaze out at a sea of semiengaged multitaskers; and a dating culture in which infinite choice undermines the ability to make emotional commitments. Turkle finds the roots of the problem in the failure of young people absorbed in their devices to develop fully independent selves, a topic she began to explore in Alone Together (2011). In that book, she examined the way interaction with robotic toys and ‘always on’ connections affect adolescent development. She argued that phones and texting disrupt the ability to separate from one’s parents, and raise other obstacles to adulthood. Curating a Facebook profile alters the presentation of self. Absorption in a gaming avatar can become a flight from the difficulties of real life. Young people face new anxieties around the loss of privacy and the persistence of online data. In her new book, she expresses a version of those concerns that is as much philosophic as psychiatric. Because they aren’t learning how to be alone, she contends, young people are losing their ability to empathize. ‘It’s the capacity for solitude that allows you to reach out to others and see them as separate and independent,’ Turkle writes. Without an ability to look inward, those locked into the virtual worlds of social media develop a sensibility of ‘I share, therefore I am,’ crafting their identities for others. Continuous digital performance leaves teenagers experiencing what ought to be the satisfactions of solitude only as ‘disconnection anxiety.'”

Unkindred Spirits

malheur national wildlife refugeHal Herring offers one of the few really meaningful accounts of the recently ended occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. “What more can be said? I was one of the hundreds of journalists who went to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge during the Ammon Bundy occupation, and I saw the same things that all the rest of them did. If there was any difference between myself and those hundreds of other journalists, maybe it was that I went there looking for kindred spirits. I am a self-employed, American-born writer with a wife and two teenage children living in a tiny town on the plains of Montana. I’m a reader of the U.S. Constitution, one who truly believes that the Second Amendment guarantees the survival of the rest of the Bill of Rights. I came of age reading Edward Abbey’s The Brave Cowboy, Orwell’s 1984, and a laundry-list of anarchists, from Tolstoy and Kropotkin to Bakunin and Proudhon, who gave me the maxim that defined my early twenties: ‘Whoever lays his hand on me to govern me is a usurper and a tyrant: I declare him my enemy.’ I read Malthus and Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, and am a skeptic of government power. I was not surprised when I read about the outrage over the sentencing of Oregon ranchers Dwight and Steve Hammond for arson: Federal mandatory minimum sentencing has been a terrible idea since its inception. I am gobsmacked by an economy that seems engineered to impoverish anyone who dares try make their own living, and by a government that seems more and more distant from the people it represents, except when calling up our sons and daughters to attack chaotic peoples that clearly have nothing to do with me or anybody I know. I am isolated by a culture that is as inscrutable to me as any in the mountains of Afghanistan. For loving wilderness and empty lands and birdsong rather than teeming cities, I risk being called a xenophobe, a noxious nativist. For viewing guns as constitutionally protected, essential tools of self-defense and, if need be, liberation, I’m told that I defend the massacres of innocents in mass shootings. When I came to Montana at age twenty-five, I found in this vast landscape, especially in the public lands where I hunted and camped and worked, the freedom that was evaporating in the South, where I grew up. I got happily lost in the space and the history. For a nature-obsessed, gun-soaked malcontent like me, it was home, and when Ammon Bundy and his men took over the Malheur refuge, on a cold night in January, I thought I should go visit my neighbors.” What Herring found at Malheur was not what he expected. “I went to the Malheur looking for kindred spirits. I found the mad, the fervent, the passionately misguided. I found the unknowing pawns of an existential chess game, in which we are, all of us, now caught. Driving home across the snow-packed Malheur Basin, through mile after mile of sage, with towering basalt cliffs in the near distance, herds of mule deer appearing as gray specks in the tongues of slide rock and wind-exposed yellow grass, I did not wonder what Edward Abbey would have said about all of this, or Kropotkin or the lugubrious monarchist Thomas Hobbes. I thought instead of the old C.S. Lewis books of my childhood, and of Lewis’ writings on the nature of evil, where evil is never a lie, because lying implies creation, and evil, by its nature, has no creative power. Instead, the nature of evil is to take a truth and twist it, sometimes as much as 180 degrees. Love of country becomes hatred of those we believe don’t share our devotion, or don’t share it the same way. The natural right of armed self-defense becomes the means to take over a wildlife refuge, to exert tyranny on those who work there, or those who love the place for the nature it preserves in a world replete with man’s endeavors. The U.S. Constitution, one of the most liberal and empowering documents ever composed, becomes, with just a slight annotation or interpretation, the tool of our own enslavement.” h/t Tom Keenan.

The HAC Is Hiring a Media Coordinator

hacThe Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College is looking for a leadership-oriented and dependable Part-Time Media Coordinator (20 to 25 Hours/Week) who can lead the expansion of the Center’s public impact and media presence, both online and in print. While no deep knowledge of Hannah Arendt is required, we seek someone passionate about the power of ideas to provoke thinking and elevate our public discourse. This job may be done remotely, but the Media Coordinator will need to be on campus at Bard College to assist with major events 2-3 times per year. To apply ASAP for this position, please click here.

amor_mundi_sign-upBy Law and Custom

great migrationIsabel Wilkerson argues that we are experiencing a second nadir in race relations in this country, one that is premised on racial hierarchies enforced by “law and custom.” “It has been a century since the Great Migration that produced both [Emmett Till and Tamir Rice] began. Our current era seems oddly aligned with that moment. The brutal decades preceding the Great Migration–when a black person was lynched on average every four days–were given a name by the historian Rayford Logan. He called them the Nadir. Today, in the era of the Charleston massacre, when, according to one analysis of F.B.I. statistics, an African-American is killed by a white police officer roughly every three and a half days, has the makings of a second Nadir. Or perhaps, in the words of Eric Foner, the leading scholar of Reconstruction, a ‘second Redemption.’ That is what historians call the period of backlash against the gains made by newly freedmen that led to Jim Crow. Today, with black advancement by an elite few extending as far as the White House, we are seeing ‘a similar kind of retreat,’ Professor Foner said. ‘The attack on voting rights, incarceration, obviously but even more intellectually and culturally, a sort of exhaustion with black protest, an attitude of “What are these people really complaining about? Look at what we’ve done for you.”‘ The country seems caught in a cycle. We leap forward only to slip back. ‘We have not made anywhere near the progress we think we have,’ said Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama. ‘It’s as if we’re at halftime, and we started cheering as if we won the game.’ What befell Emmett and Tamir reflects how racial interactions have mutated over time, from the overt hatreds now shunned by most Americans to the unspoken, unconscious biases that are no less lethal and may be harder to fight. For all of its changes, the country remains in a similar place, a caste system based on what people look like. The men and women of the Great Migration were asking questions that remain unanswered today: What is to be the role of the people whom the country has marginalized by law and custom and with state-sanctioned violence for most of their time on this soil? How might these now 45 million people, still the most segregated of all groups in America, partake of the full fruits of citizenship? How can deeply embedded racial hierarchies be overcome?”

The Riddle of Human Suffering

prosperity gospelKate Bowler, a scholar of American evangelism sick with late-stage cancer, writes about how the strain of American Christianity known as the prosperity gospel deals with illness like hers: “The prosperity gospel tries to solve the riddle of human suffering. It is an explanation for the problem of evil. It provides an answer to the question: Why me? For years I sat with prosperity churchgoers and asked them about how they drew conclusions about the good and the bad in their lives. Does God want you to get that promotion? Tell me what it’s like to believe in healing from that hospital bed. What do you hear God saying when it all falls apart? The prosperity gospel popularized a Christian explanation for why some people make it and some do not. They revolutionized prayer as an instrument for getting God always to say ‘yes.’ It offers people a guarantee: Follow these rules, and God will reward you, heal you, restore you. It’s also distressingly similar to the popular cartoon emojis for the iPhone, the ones that show you images of yourself in various poses. One of the standard cartoons shows me holding a #blessed sign. My world is conspiring to make me believe that I am special, that I am the exception whose character will save me from the grisly predictions and the CT scans in my inbox. I am blessed. The prosperity gospel holds to this illusion of control until the very end. If a believer gets sick and dies, shame compounds the grief. Those who are loved and lost are just that–those who have lost the test of faith. In my work, I have heard countless stories of refusing to acknowledge that the end had finally come. An emaciated man was pushed about a megachurch in a wheelchair as churchgoers declared that he was already healed. A woman danced around her sister’s deathbed shouting to horrified family members that the body can yet live. There is no graceful death, no ars moriendi, in the prosperity gospel. There are only jarring disappointments after fevered attempts to deny its inevitability. The prosperity gospel has taken a religion based on the contemplation of a dying man and stripped it of its call to surrender all. Perhaps worse, it has replaced Christian faith with the most painful forms of certainty. The movement has perfected a rarefied form of America’s addiction to self-rule, which denies much of our humanity: our fragile bodies, our finitude, our need to stare down our deaths (at least once in a while) and be filled with dread and wonder. At some point, we must say to ourselves, I’m going to need to let go.”

Flaneurs and Salesmen

istanbul vendorKaya Genç walks with Istanbul’s street vendors: “Take a walk in Istanbul this winter and you will likely come across a kestaneci (chestnut seller), a pilavcı (chickpea rice man), or a macuncu (candyman) on one of its labyrinthine streets. Kestaneci sells chestnuts from his fancy little cart where he has a small oven, scales and a collection of paper bags to prepare your order. Kestaneci carts, most of them crimson-colored, are located on Istanbul’s Istiklal Avenue. There is one near Taksim Square and if you come to the city by boat you will certainly find one by the pier. Kestaneci provides the finest cure for a depressing day: you hand him five liras (around two dollars) and he hands you 50 grams of chestnuts, carefully measured in those miniature scales, before wishing you a very good afternoon. Whilst living in Amsterdam I used to love visiting the free market on the city’s streets during Queen’s Day (now known as King’s Day) where locals sold their crafts and bric-a-brac for bargain prices. Dutch authorities allowed the free market to take place one day every year. Here, street selling is a year long occupation; every day is for the Istanbul Street Vendor. In this city, vendors illuminate your way during nocturnal walks. Not long ago, after a heavy night of drinking, I came across a pilavcı in Karaköy. He seemed to have been placed there for the sole purpose of helping me to sober up a bit. Vendors often make you feel this way: their sudden appearances on street corners are quite miraculous, almost angel-ish. Pilavcı‘s cart had large wheels and an umbrella affixed to its top. The main part of the cart consisted of a huge metal plate covered on four sides with thick glass. The inside was illuminated so I got a nice view of the warm rice that awaited me, which, on that and other winter nights, was a particularly mouthwatering sight. This pilavcı had placed a selection of drinks on top of this. With his long white mustache and benevolent face, he calmly filled a plastic case with spoonfuls of newly cooked rice, rich with chickpea and pepper. It was delicious. Exhausted after a long day I gratefully sat down on one of his wooden stools and, while filling my plastic spoon, chatted with the elderly man. Where did he get his rice, I asked him. How long had he been doing this job? Did he earn well? He was used to questions like mine, which he answered quickly before complaining about the lack of interest to his food, the rise of unemployment in the country, and his problems with paying his electricity bills. The pilavcı wore a white apron that night, which gave him the air of a surgeon; hipsters in Karaköy mostly ignore his offerings, preferring to eat overpriced pizza and sushi in places that make them feel like they are having lunch in Paris or Tokyo. They should know better.”

You Think What You Eat

food flavor In a profile of celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, Maria Konnikova argues that molecular gastronomy is the art of putting biology back into eating: “What we eat and why we eat it is as much a psychological phenomenon as a physical one. Throughout most of history, eating has been understood as a primitive human characteristic, an evolutionary necessity, the stuff of base survival instinct. This perception turns out to be far too simplistic. The more we learn about flavor, the more we realize just how easy it is to manipulate. Not just by the overclocked sensations of processed food, but in ways that makes healthier choices seem at once tastier and more satisfying. Though most of us would like to think we have discerning palates, our taste is quite easy to fool. When we try to imagine the flavor of something, we tend to focus on our mouth–the experience of placing, say, a ripe strawberry on our tongue. But that, in fact, is taste, and though we tend to conflate it with flavor, a vast chasm exists between the two. Taste is an experience composed of only five elements: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami. Thousands of receptors on our tongue are designed to identify and respond to these elements, each one specializing in one of the five qualities. Without input from other senses–most notably our nose, but also our eyes, ears, and even hands–taste is merely a flat, single-note sensation with none of the nuance or enjoyment we associate with food in general and with specific foods in particular. Flavor is at once a broader and more powerful property than taste, one that marries the senses and their associate properties–memory, experience, neurobiology–to create and control the way we eat. The promise that neurogastronomy holds is that once we understand how the mind combines the disparate biological and evocative forces that create flavor, we will be able to circumvent the learned and innate preferences of our taste buds. And with that capacity–truly an example of mind over matter–instead of stimulating appetite via the conventional and unhealthy trifecta of salt, sugar, and fat, we can employ the neural pathways through which flavor is constructed in the brain to divert attention to different, more nutritious foods. Control flavor and you control what we eat–and perhaps, given time and more research, begin fighting the global nutrition problems that are a direct result of the industrialized production of food.”

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

Lunchtime Talk with Klemens von Klemperer Post Doctoral Fellow Jana Schmidt

jana schmidt

In the Shadow of Forgetting: Iconic Thinking

In one of Oliver Sacks’ “clinical tales,” the popular neurologist describes a man whose identity is threatened by the perpetual dissolution of his self. “He remembered nothing for more than a few seconds. He was continually disoriented. Abysses of amnesia continually opened beneath him, but he would bridge them, nimbly, by fluent confabulations and fictions of all kinds.” Afflicted with a severe case of Korsakoff’s syndrome, a neurological condition brought on by alcoholism, the unfortunate man appears hardly human to Sacks for he lacks all sense of relation and reality. Thus, in reading his patient’s “mythomania,” his prolific production of stories and images, as an illusory substitute for a genuine connection to the world, Sacks’ musings on what remains when forgetting takes hold reach beyond the confines of clinical diagnosis toward a theory of forgetting, imagination, and “iconic” thinking.

It is not by accident then that Sacks was reading Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind when he was writing the narratives of neurological disability, of amnesia and aphasia that populate his 1985 book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. In it, Sacks develops a model of iconic thinking that furthers some of Arendt’s own ideas on the interrelation of thought and the making of images; ideas she herself at least partly borrowed from thinkers in the life science (Adolf Portmann, Konrad Lorenz, and Rudolf Arnheim). My talk will revisit these mutual influences to explore whether forgetting, rather than the “other” of thinking, might itself be considered an operation of thinking, and in particular of “iconic thinking.”

BIO: Jana 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.

RSVP to Christine Stanton at cstanton@bard.edu.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Hannah Arendt Center, 1:30 pm


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 dbisson@bard.edu.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Bluejeans.com, 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 cstanton@bard.edu.

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 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 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


SAVE THE DATE – 2016 FALL CONFERENCE

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, Samantha Hill explains that Arendt never gave an account of her methodology in political theory but in her notes offers us a way to engage the world of political thinking in the Quote of the Week. French writer Anatole France reflects on how education relates to knowledge in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, Rukaya Al Zayani shares several images with us of her personal Arendt library and explains how Arendt has influenced her view of the world in this week’s Library feature.

theodore h. white

Theodore H. White on Thinking Unlike Your Friends

“To go against the dominant thinking of your friends, of most of the people you see every day, is perhaps the most difficult act of heroism you can perform.”

— Theodore H. White

(Featured image sourced from ABC News)

Theodore H. White’s Biography

Theodore H. White, in full Theodore Harold White (born May 6, 1915, Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.—died May 15, 1986, New York, New York), American journalist, historian, and novelist, best known for his astute, suspenseful accounts of the 1960 and 1964 presidential elections.The son of a lawyer, White grew up in Boston and graduated from Boston Latin School in 1932. After graduating from Harvard in 1938, he served as one of Time magazine’s first foreign correspondents, being stationed in East Asia from 1939 to 1945. He then served as European correspondent for the Overseas News Agency (1948–50) and for The Reporter (1950–53). With this extensive background in analyzing other cultures, White was well equipped to tackle the American scene in The Making of the President, 1960 (1961) and The Making of the President, 1964 (1965). Accepted as standard histories of presidential campaigns, these books present their subjects by intelligently juxtaposing events and treating politicians as personalities rather than as symbols.

White’s intimate style of journalism, which had its critics as well as its supporters, had a great influence on campaign coverage. He won the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction for The Making of the President, 1960; he was also acclaimed for his exclusive interview with Jacqueline Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination, in which White compared the short-lived presidency of John F. Kennedy with the legend of Camelot. White went on to analyze the elections of 1968 and 1972 in later books.

(Biography sourced from Encyclopedia Britannica)

To read additional Thoughts on Thinking, please click here.

Arendtamormundi

Amor Mundi 4/19/15

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-upIntelligence and Inhumanity

holocaust remembrance dayDirector of the FBI James B. Comey requires his agents to visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. He explains why in a speech he gave on Holocaust Remembrance Day this past week. “The Holocaust was, as I said, the most horrific display in world history of inhumanity. But it was also the most horrific display in world history of our humanity, of our capacity for evil and for moral surrender. And that second significance is the reason I require every new FBI special agent and intelligence analyst to go to the Holocaust Museum. Naturally, I want them to learn about abuse of authority on a breathtaking scale. But I want them to confront something more painful and more dangerous: I want them to see humanity and what we are capable of. I want them to see that, although this slaughter was led by sick and evil people, those sick and evil leaders were joined by, and followed by, people who loved their families, took soup to a sick neighbor, went to church and gave to charity. Good people helped murder millions. And that’s the most frightening lesson of all–that our very humanity made us capable of, even susceptible to, surrendering our individual moral authority to the group, where it can be hijacked by evil. Of being so cowed by those in power. Of convincing ourselves of nearly anything.” If Comey doesn’t mention Arendt’s thesis concerning the banality of evil, the resonances are clear. It might be worth noting that while Arendt would agree with Comey about the need to fight both sick and evil leaders and their normal followers, she had serious reservations about doing so through spying and surveillance.  

Privacy and Individualism

privacyYou have no privacy. Get over it. Such sentiments are now cliché and represent the sense of many. Both the government and corporations offer security and convenience in return for our most intimate information, and over and over we provide that information. While many bemoan the loss of privacy, pitifully few take any actions to protect their privacy. Which raises the question: “Why Does Privacy Matter?” This is the question we will ask at the Hannah Arendt Center’s 8th Annual Conference from Oct. 15-16, 2015. David Brooks offers one answer. “Privacy is important to the development of full individuals because there has to be an interior zone within each person that other people don’t see. There has to be a zone where half-formed thoughts and delicate emotions can grow and evolve, without being exposed to the harsh glare of public judgment. There has to be a place where you can be free to develop ideas and convictions away from the pressure to conform. There has to be a spot where you are only yourself and can define yourself. Privacy is important to families and friendships because there has to be a zone where you can be fully known. There has to be a private space where you can share your doubts and secrets and expose your weaknesses with the expectation that you will still be loved and forgiven and supported. Privacy is important for communities because there has to be a space where people with common affiliations can develop bonds of affection and trust. There has to be a boundary between us and them. Within that boundary, you look out for each other; you rally to support each other; you cut each other some slack; you share fierce common loyalties.”

Genre and Futurity

lauren berlantVirginia Jackson considers the work of critic Lauren Berlant and in the process wonders what criticism means for us now and what genre might mean for us in the future: “Berlant wants that recognition to mean that genres can become the vehicles of social change, or at least of degrees of adjustment. She can skate the outlines of received genres with more precision than any of us, but she also wants to make those boundaries turn out toward a utopian horizon where the barriers between us may not exactly fall but will be illuminated as shared in what Berlant likes to call ‘the history of the present.’ As she said recently in an interview on the ‘Society and Space’ blog (as an old friend of mine once said, Berlant ‘has a lot of language,’ so the interview is a good genre for her, and the blogosphere a good generic medium, since so much of the language she has so much of can overflow and circulate there), ‘it’s never about shaming people’s objects, it’s always about creating better and better objects. It’s always about creating better worlds, making it possible for us to think in more and different kinds of ways about how we relationally can move through life.’ If for Arnold the function of criticism at the present time was to help us agree to be mutually and soberly bummed out, to move through life in a shared state of exile from literary scenes of fulfillment, distinguished only by our cultivated taste for more such disappointments, for Berlant the function of criticism at the present time is to create better worlds, worlds in which genres are not settled states of common disappointment and classed distinction in the experience and expression of that disappointment, but are instead signs and figures for shared world making.”

Not Worth The…

booksTim Parks considers the relationship between literature and the paper that it’s printed on: “With the arrival of print in the late fifteenth century, it was suddenly possible to start thinking of a mass audience; 20 million books had been printed in Europe by 1500. Yet it was the printing shops–often more than one if a book was popular–rather than the authors, who made the money. You might write out of a passion to get your ideas around, or out of megalomania–never a condition to be underestimated where writers are concerned–but there was still no steady money to be had producing writing of whatever kind. In economic terms, it was hardly worth insisting you were the author of a text, hence the anonymous book was rather more common than it is today. Meantime, with this new possibility of printing so many books it made sense to start thinking of all those people who didn’t know Latin. The switch to writing in the vernacular had begun; this meant that, though more copies were being sold, most books were now trapped inside their language community. There were scholars capable of translating of course, and a book that made a big impression in one country would eventually be translated into another. But it took time, and it wouldn’t happen if a book didn’t impress in its original language. Nor for the most part were these translators under contract with publishers. Initially, they were simply scholars who translated what they were interested in and what they believed was worth disseminating. Think of that.”

amor_mundi_sign-upBankspeak

financial languageFranco Moretti and Dominique Pestre have a fascinating essay in the New Left Review that analyzes the important changes in vocabulary and grammar used by the World Bank in its Annual Reports from the 1960s to the present. Moretti and Pestre find significant shifts, noting a move from concrete nouns like “loans,” “development,” and “power” to abstract and technical nouns like “fair value,” “portfolio,” “derivative,” “accrual,” “equity,” “hedging,” “liquidity” and “liabilities.” They trace the rise of what they call with a nod to Orwell “bankspeak.” “Aside from individual words, it’s the nature of the Bank’s language that is changing: becoming more abstract, more distant from concrete social life; a technical code, detached from everyday communication and pared down to the economic factors crucial to the repayment of the debt. Solutions are disengaged from any specificity: they are the same for everybody, everywhere. Faced with the potentially devastating consequences of default, the Bank’s chief objective is no longer development, but, more simply, the rescue of private lenders (Harpagon: ‘My casket! My casket!’). The banker must be saved before the client: doubts have disappeared, and the Bank’s core beliefs are hammered home over and over again: the economy must be strengthened by making it leaner; the public sector must be restructured to create favourable conditions for private business and the market; the state must shrink and become more efficient. Such ‘solutions’ transcend the need to respond to the debt crisis: they aim at social transformation through the return to an uncompromising liberalism.”

Democracy And the Monopoly On Force

police reformTa-Nehisi Coates thinks we’ve thrown out all the tools of domestic statecraft, save one: “Police officers fight crime. Police officers are neither case-workers, nor teachers, nor mental-health professionals, nor drug counselors. One of the great hallmarks of the past forty years of American domestic policy is a broad disinterest in that difference. The problem of restoring police authority is not really a problem of police authority, but a problem of democratic authority. It is what happens when you decide to solve all your problems with a hammer. To ask, at this late date, why the police seem to have lost their minds is to ask why our hammers are so bad at installing air-conditioners. More it is to ignore the state of the house all around us. A reform that begins with the officer on the beat is not reform at all. It’s avoidance. It’s a continuance of the American preference for considering the actions of bad individuals, as opposed to the function and intention of systems.”

Hard Heads

nail houseThe Atlantic offers a stunning photo essay about the “nail houses” in China, properties whose owners have refused to sell to enable developments sprouting around them. The results are visually shocking, revealing both China’s unstoppable growth and the stubborn individuality of Chinese homeowners.

 

 

Hidden Power

architectureIn the Financial Times, Edwin Heathcote writes about the changing face of architecture for nuclear power plants. “High quality global journalism requires investment. In Britain, home of the world’s first civil nuclear power programme, the architect Sir Basil Spence was commissioned to design one of its earliest power stations, begun in 1959 in Trawsfynydd in Snowdonia, Wales. Spence, the designer of Coventry Cathedral, a symbol of postwar reconstruction, was arguably Britain’s biggest architectural name at the time. Trawsfynydd is an elegant concrete mass that sits somewhere between Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s brick-mountain Bankside Power Station (now Tate Modern) in London, and a kind of picturesque castle. There had been local opposition to the plans and Spence’s architecture represented an effort to allay fears and to give it presence and dignity. Walking around the crinkly tin sheds and anonymous industrial landscape of Sizewell B, completed in 1995 and still Britain’s most recent nuclear power station, it seems that either those concerns have died away and the architecture is no longer considered important as a vehicle for reassurance, or that our culture has changed so radically that we now accept banality as an expression of safety. The concrete lump of the neighbouring Sizewell A, which was completed in 1966, still has some of the solidity we might expect from a nuclear power station. Its mass conveys its purpose, the heavy concrete expressed as what it is, an impenetrably dense, protective shell. At Sizewell B, everything is covered up, clad in the same corrugated metal sheet that has become the default language of anonymous roadside industry. There is no sense of celebration of this extraordinary technology. I asked Ian Bryant, head of planning at EDF Energy, what scope architects had in the design of new nuclear power stations, given the fearsome barrage of regulation they are subject to. ‘They can try to ensure that they sit into the local environment,’ he replies. ‘Colour can make a real difference.’ I’m not entirely sure how they could not sit into their natural environment but it does seem a shame that the architects’ role has been reduced to choosing the paint.”

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

joy connollyThe Life of Roman Republicanism with Joy Connolly

Joy Connolly, a Professor of Classics at New York University, will discuss her book The Life of Roman Republicanism (Princeton 2014), which examines key themes in Roman republican thought: freedom, recognition, antagonism, self-knowledge, irony, and imagination.

Free and open to the public!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Bard College, Olin 204, 6:00 pm

 


human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #7

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, April 24, 2015

Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm

 

 


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

Location TBA, 4:00 pm – 6:00 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, Michiel Bot discusses how Arendt’s use of the term “savages” and “Dark Continent” in The Origins of Totalitarianism can advance our political thinking in the Quote of the Week. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel provides this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we visit the Hannah Arendt Collection and appreciate the annotations Arendt made to her copy of a biography written about Leon Trotsky in this week’s Library feature.

Thinking and Moral Considerations

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“There exists in our society widespread fear of judging…[B]ehind the unwillingness to judge lurks the suspicion that no one is a free agent, and hence doubt that anyone is responsible or could be expected to answer for what he has done…Who has ever maintained that by judging a wrong I presuppose that I myself would be incapable of committing it?”

-Hannah Arendt, “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship”

It’s difficult to know where to begin to counter the errors, misreadings, and plain obfuscations of Arendt’s point of view in this essay by Richard Brody that appeared a few days ago in The New Yorker online. But perhaps the most glaring mistake Brody makes is to confuse what Arendt wrote about “thinking” with some form of “intellectualism.” To begin with, when, in her interview with Gunther Gaus, she makes the point that it was the betrayal by “friends” that she found most shocking this is not because she thought only intellectuals could think or were the only ones to have “ideas” but that they “believed”—without thinking!—the very “ideas” they had fabricated, without considering where these “ideas” might take them. They were “trapped” in their ideas, which is why Arendt, in the same interview, refused to call herself a philosopher, cut off from the world, and insisted she was a political theorist.

Thinking depends on letting the imagination go visiting, and Arendt argued it was Eichmann’s inability to think from the standpoint of anyone else that made him “thoughtless” and hence become unable to distinguish right from wrong. But the same could be said, for different reasons, of the “intellectuals” Arendt referred to and said she’d found so grotesque in the interview with Gaus. And, whether you like where it took her or not, thinking from the standpoint of others was exactly what she practiced in the case of her judgment of the leaders of the Jewish Councils. She imagined they might not have cooperated. Yes, they faced “fear and despair,” as Brody notes, but Arendt imagined it was still possible not to comply even in the face of significant threats and consequences. And the historical evidence indicates this to be the case: not everyone complied.

Yet nowhere does Arendt claim the ability to judge a situation means I myself (or she) necessarily would have done anything differently. The most chilling conclusion she reached from her reflections on the trial is that there are no guarantees “when the chips are down” that I will know the right thing to do, and just do it. And it was her confrontation with Eichmann’s banality—not what he did, but who he showed he was, and “how many were like him” during this time—that led Arendt to warn near the end of the book that once such crimes had entered the human experience it is entirely possible that “similar crimes may be committed in the future.”

In an interview with Roger Errera, from which Brody also quotes, Arendt remarked that her intention was in writing about Eichmann as she did was to “destroy the legend of the greatness of evil. As she was thinking about this issue she said she’d “found in Brecht the following remark: ‘The great political criminals must be exposed and exposed especially to laughter.’ ” And her “tone” in Eichmann in Jerusalem was an attempt to do just that: expose the criminals to derision.

It was the banality of the criminals—not the crimes they committed—that gave Arendt such a shock she responded with laughter. And it’s a shame Brody doesn’t understand what this signifies: the humanization of perpetrators actually serves to humanize victims as well. She did not equate the responsibility of “persecutors and persecuted” for crimes committed by the Nazi state, as Brody claims. But not to allow victims and perpetrators to occupy the same moral universe is to traffic in the dangerous idea that guilt and innocence are not the result of human behavior but exist somehow independent of what people do.

diving

Let me close with an excerpt from my new book, Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt:

Many people still find abhorrent Arendt’s claim that Eichmann, the man, was no monster. Everyone knows murder is wrong; certainly, then, murdering millions without a guilty conscience must be the classic example of monstrous behavior. Or madness. Surely only a monster or a madman could commit such heinous deeds. And that’s an understandable reaction. Most of us hold fast to a well-guarded belief that rules and standards used to tell right from wrong, rules we assume to be universal, cannot be easily discarded. Not I, we believers in our own inherent goodness insist; I would never comply with such an order. But Arendt wouldn’t let anyone rest on such a convenient way to avoid having to think for herself.

“The trouble with Eichmann,” she wrote, “was precisely so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together, for it implied…that this new type of criminal…commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong.

The idea that “an average, ‘normal’ person, neither feeble-minded nor indoctrinated nor cynical, could be perfectly incapable of telling right from wrong” defies any ordinary understanding of good and evil. And yet, Arendt observed, “without much notice, all [these rules governing right and wrong] collapsed almost overnight…What happened? Did we finally awake from a dream?” How had it become so easy for so many to behave like Eichmann and participate in carrying out these atrocities?

Arendt explained it this way: the Nazi state had generated a “totality of…moral collapse…in respectable European society—not only in Germany but in almost all countries, not only among the persecutors but also among the victims.” And at that sentence, many people throw her book across the room in disgust, perhaps missing the other point she made: not everyone complied with the system.

But Arendt’s writing has made me wonder why we need to believe a solid wall separates the performers of horrible acts from the rest of us? And what holds that wall in place?

“When I think back to the last two decades since the end of the last war,” she wrote in the mid-1960s, “I have the feeling that this moral issue has lain dormant because it was concealed by something about which it is indeed much more difficult to speak and with which it is almost impossible to come to terms—the horror itself in its naked monstrosity.” Trying to think the unthinkable—the horror of state-ordered, socially coordinated manufacturing of corpses in the twentieth century, or of other genocides in previous centuries and in this one—can take one’s breath away. Not even time’s healing power seems to bring relief.

[T]his past has grown worse as the years have gone by so that we are sometimes tempted to think, this will never be over as long as we are not all dead…This past has turned out to be ‘unmastered’ by everybody, not only the German nation.

Yet Arendt insisted on confronting those concealed moral issues even though they looked like “side issues…compared with the horror.” She pushed past the speechless horror to grapple with the moral implications of the “ubiquitous complicity” surrounding the Holocaust. Because not grappling with those implications would allow Eichmann to gain what the monk Thomas Merton, deeply influenced by reading Eichmann in Jerusalem, would have considered a “posthumous long life,” making us all, like it or not, as Karl Plank observed in his essay about Merton, “vulnerable to complicity in deeds of destruction.”

-Kathleen B. Jones

In the Age of Big Data, Should We Live in Awe of Machines?

ArendtWeekendReading

In 1949, The New York Times asked Norbert Wiener, author of Cybernetics, to write an essay for the paper that expressed his ideas in simple form. For editorial and other reasons, Wiener’s essay never appeared and was lost. Recently, a draft of the never-published essay was found in the MIT archives. Written now 64 years ago, the essay remains deeply topical. The Times recently printed excerpts. Here is the first paragraph:

By this time the public is well aware that a new age of machines is upon us based on the computing machine, and not on the power machine. The tendency of these new machines is to replace human judgment on all levels but a fairly high one, rather than to replace human energy and power by machine energy and power. It is already clear that this new replacement will have a profound influence upon our lives, but it is not clear to the man of the street what this influence will be.

Wiener draws a core distinction between machines and computing machines, a distinction that is founded upon the ability of machines to mimic and replace not only human labor, but also human judgment. In the 1950s, when Wiener wrote, most Americans worried about automation replacing factory workers. What Wiener saw was a different danger: that intelligent machines could be created that would “replace human judgment on all levels but a fairly high one.”  

Today, of course, Wiener’s prophecy is finally coming true. The IBM supercomputer Watson is being trained to make diagnoses with such accuracy, speed, and efficiency that it will largely replace the need for doctors to be trained in diagnostics.

watson

Google is developing a self-driving car that will obviate the need for humans to judge how fast and near to others they will drive, just as GPS systems already render moot the human sense of direction. MOOCs are automating the process of education and grading so that fewer human decisions need to be made at every level. Facebook is automating the acquisition of friends, lawyers are employing computers to read and analyze documents, and on Wall Street computer trading is automating the buying and selling of stocks. Surveillance drones, of course, are being given increasing autonomy to sift through data and decide which persons to follow or investigate. Finally, in the scandal of the day, the National Security Agency is using computer algorithms to mine data about our phone calls looking for abnormalities and suspicious patterns that would suggest potential dangers. In all these cases, the turn to machines to supplement or even replace human judgment has a simple reason: Even if machines cannot think, they can be programmed to do traditionally human tasks in ways that are faster, more reliable, and less expensive than can be done by human beings. In ways big and small, human judgment is being replaced by computers and machines.

It is important to recognize that Wiener is not arguing that we will create artificial human beings. The claim is not that humans are simply fancy machines or that machines can become human. Rather, the point is that machines can be made to mimic human judgment with such precision and subtlety so that their judgments, while not human, are considered either equal to human judgment or even better. The result, Wiener writes, is that “Machines much more closely analogous to the human organism are well understood, and are now on the verge of being built. They will control entire industrial processes and will even make possible the factory substantially without employees.”

Wiener saw this new machine age as dangerous on at least two grounds. First, economically, the rise of machines carries the potential to upend basic structures of civilization. He writes:

These new machines have a great capacity for upsetting the present basis of industry, and of reducing the economic value of the routine factory employee to a point at which he is not worth hiring at any price. If we combine our machine-potentials of a factory with the valuation of human beings on which our present factory system is based, we are in for an industrial revolution of unmitigated cruelty.

The dangers Wiener sees from our increased reliance on computing machines are not limited to economic dislocation. The real threat that computing machines pose is that as we cede more and more power to machines in our daily lives, we will, he writes, gradually forfeit our freedom and independence:

[I]f we move in the direction of making machines which learn and whose behavior is modified by experience, we must face the fact that every degree of independence we give the machine is a degree of possible defiance of our wishes. The genie in the bottle will not willingly go back in the bottle, nor have we any reason to expect them to be well disposed to us.

In short, it is only a humanity which is capable of awe, which will also be capable of controlling the new potentials which we are opening for ourselves. We can be humble and live a good life with the aid of the machines, or we can be arrogant and die.

For Wiener, our eventual servitude to machines is both an acceptable result and a fait accompli, one we must learn to accept. If we insist on arrogantly maintaining our independence and freedom, we will die. I gather the point is not that machines will rise up and kill their creators, but rather that we ourselves will program our machines to eliminate, imprison, immobilize, or re-program those humans who refuse to comply with paternalistic and well-meaning directives of the machines systems we create in order to provide ourselves with security and plenty.

Wiener counsels that instead of self-important resistance, we must learn to be in awe of our machines. Our machines will improve our lives. They will ensure better medical care, safer streets, more efficient production, better education, more reliable childcare and more human warfare. Machines offer the promise of a cybernetic civilization in which an entire human and natural world is regulated and driven towards a common good with super-human intelligence and calculative power. In the face of such utopian possibility, we must accept our new status as the lucky beneficiaries of the regulatory systems we have created and humble ourselves as beings meant to live well rather than to live free.

tech

Recent revelations about the U.S. government’s using powerful computers to mine and analyze enormous amounts of data collected via subpoenas from U.S. telecom companies is simply one example of the kind of tradeoff Wiener suggests we will and we should make. If I understand the conclusions of Glenn Greenwald’s typically excellent investigative reporting, the NSA uses computer algorithms to scan the totality of phone calls and internet traffic in and out of the United States. The NSA needs all of this data—all of our private data—in order to understand the normal patterns of telephony and web traffic and thus to notice, as well, those exceptional patterns of calling, chatting, and surfing. The civil libertarian challenges of such a program are clear: the construction of a database of normal behavior allows the government to attend to those whose activities are outside the norm. Those outliers can be terrorists or pedophiles; they may be Branch Davidians or members of Occupy Wall Street; they may be Heideggerians or Arendtians. Whomever they are, once those who exist and act in patterns outside the norm are identified, it is up to the government whether to act on that information and what to do with it. We are put in the position of having to trust our government to use that information wisely, with pitifully little oversight. Yet the temptation will always be there for the government to make use of private information once they have it.

In the face of the rise of machines and the present NSA action, we have, Wiener writes, a choice. We can arrogantly thump our chests and insist that our privacy be protected from snooping machines and governmental bureaucracies, or we can sit back and stare in awe of the power of these machines to keep us safe from terrorists and criminals at such a slight cost to our happiness and quality of life. We already allow the healthcare bureaucracy to know the most intimate details of our lives and the banking system to penetrate into the most minute details of our finances and the advertising system to know the most embarrassing details of our surfing and purchasing histories; why, Wiener pushes us to ask, should we shy away from allowing the security apparatus from making use of our communication?

If there is a convincing answer to this hypothetical question and if we are to decide to resist the humbling loss of human freedom and human dignity that Wiener welcomes, we need to articulate the dangers Wiener recognizes and then rationalizes in a much more provocative and profound way. Towards that end, there are few books more worth reading than Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. Wiener is not mentioned in Hannah Arendt’s 1958 book; and yet, her concern and her theme, if not her response, are very much in line with the threat that cybernetic scientific and computational thinking pose for the future of human beings.

In her prologue to The Human Condition, Arendt writes that two threatening events define the modern age. The first was the launch of Sputnik. The threat of Sputnik had nothing to do with the cold war or the Russian lead in the race for space. Rather, Sputnik signifies for Arendt the fact that we humans are finally capable of realizing the age-old dream of altering the basic conditions of human life, above all that we are earth-bound creatures subject to fate. What Sputnik meant is that we were then in the 1950s, for the first time, in a position to humanly control and transform our human condition and that we are doing so, thoughtlessly, without politically and thoughtfully considering what that would mean. I have written much about this elsewhere and given a TEDx talk about it here.

The second “equally decisive” and “no less threatening event” is “the advent of automation.”  In the 1950s, automation of factories threatened to “liberate mankind from its oldest and most natural burden, the burden of laboring and the bondage to necessity.” Laboring, Arendt writes, has for thousands of years been one essential part of what it means to be a human being. Along with work and action, labor comprises those activities engaged in by all humans. To be human has meant to labor and support oneself; to be human has for thousands of years meant that we produce things—houses, tables, stories, and artworks—that provide a common humanly built world in which we live together; and to be human has meant to have the ability to act and speak in such a way as to surprise others so that your action will be seen and talked about and reacted to with a force that will alter the course and direction of the human world. Together these activities comprise the dignity of man, our freedom to build, influence, and change our given world—within limits.

But all three of these activities of what Arendt calls the vita activa, are now threatened, if not with extinction, then at least with increasing rarity and public irrelevance. As automation replaces human laborers, the human condition of laboring for our necessary preservation is diminished, and we come to rely more and more on the altruism of a state enriched by the productivity of machine labor. Laboring, part of what it has meant to be human for thousands of years, threatens to become ever less necessary and to occupy an ever smaller demand on our existence. As the things we make, the houses we live in, and the art we produce become ever more consumable, fleeting, and temporary, the common world in which we live comes to seem ever more fluid; we move houses and abandon friends with the greater ease than previous ages would dispose of a pair of pants. Our collective focus turns toward our present material needs rather than towards the building of common spiritual and ethical worlds. Finally, as human action is seen as the statistically predictable and understandable outcome of human behavior rather than the surprising and free action of human beings, our human dignity is sacrificed to our rational control and steering of life to secure safety and plenty. The threat to labor, work, and action that Arendt engages emerges from the rise of science—what she calls earth and world alienation—and the insistence that all things, including human beings, are comprehensible and predictable by scientific laws.

Arendt’s response to these collective threats to the human condition is that we must “think what we are doing.” She writes at the end of her prologue:

What I propose in the following is a reconsideration of the human condition from the vantage point of our newest experiences and our most recent fears. This, obviously, is a matter of thought, and thoughtlessness—the heedless recklessness or hopeless confusion or complacent repetition of “truths” which have become trivial and empty—seems to me among the outstanding characteristics of our time. What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.

Years before Arendt traveled to Jerusalem and witnessed what she saw as the thoughtlessness of Adolf Eichmann, she saw the impending thoughtlessness of our age as the great danger of our time. Only by thinking what we are doing—and in thinking also resisting the behaviorism and materialism of our calculating time—can we humans hope to resist the impulse to be in awe of our machines and, instead, retain our reverence for human being that is foundation of our humanity. Thinking—that dark, irrational, and deeply human activity—is the one meaningful response Arendt finds to both the thoughtlessness of scientific behaviorism and the thoughtlessness of the bureaucratic administration of mass murder.

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There will be great examples of chest thumping about the loss of privacy and the violation of constitutional liberties over the next few days. This is as it should be. There will also be sober warnings about the need to secure ourselves from terrorists and enemies. This is also necessary. What is needed beyond both these predictable postures, however, is serious thinking about the tradeoffs between our need for reliable and affordable security along with honest discussion of what we today mean by human freedom. To begin such a discussion, it is well worth revisiting Norbert Wiener’s essay. It is your weekend read.

If you are interested in pursuing Arendt’s own response to crisis of humanism, you can find a series of essays and public lectures on that theme here.

-RB

Here’s How to Demonize Thinking

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Richard Brody writes of “Hannah Arendt,” the new movie by Margarethe von Trotta, “The movie, unfortunately, doesn’t do Arendt justice”—a rhetorical gambit that suggests at least a fair-minded inquiry into Arendt’s thought. But Brody then proceeds to accuse Arendt of a propensity toward “monstrous abstractions.” Her tendency toward abstraction occurs despite what Brody calls  “her meticulous pileup of facts,” which has such “a terrifying, implacable, unbearable power” as to render her book “overwhelming, incommensurable, alien to human experience.” Brody repeats the widespread error that Arendt accepts “at face value” Eichmann’s claim not to be an anti-Semite. Arendt, Brody writes, misses the “mystery, ambiguity, vastness, complexity, and horror” of the Eichmann trial. Arendt and von Trotta, Brody writes in a synthesis of reality and fiction, both make “the same mistake” of setting up “’thinking’” as a special category of activity.” Arendt, pace Brody, “writes from the point of view of a philosopher, not of a journalist”—as if that critique explains her mistake in thinking that “thinking” might be important. The only half-positive sentence about Arendt comes in the last line where he concedes: “From [Arendt’s] philosophical, historical, and journalistic failures, Arendt created an accidental literary masterwork despite itself.” If von Trotta’s movie doesn’t do Arendt justice, one wonders what Brody would think necessary for the movie to do her justice.

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He tells us. To do Arendt justice, von Trotta should have focused on “giving small gestures and daily labors grand scope.” He actually says that Arendt should be more ridiculous and less dignified: “Von Trotta preserves Arendt’s dignity to the point of dehumanization, depriving the protagonist of any trait that could render her ridiculous.” He insists on seeing more of her regular life with family and friends, after acknowledging that von Trotta’s movie does offer a balanced insight into the importance of Arendt’s friends in her life. The implication is we want more gossip and less thinking, a portrayal of the chatty girlish Hannah rather than the austere chain smoker. Aside from the misogyny in such a statement about one of the great thinkers of the 20th century who happened to have been a woman, Brody here exhibits his fundamental lack of understanding of all things concerning Arendt. For Arendt was not the least bit interested in “small gestures and daily labors.” She was a thinker of surprising and unexpected deeds that, she argued, can only be measured by their greatness. Nothing chatty here.

What galls Brody above all is that a serious movie is made about a serious thinker that takes seriously precisely what is unique (for better or worse) about Arendt—her insistence on being different and apart. Arendt called herself an “intentional pariah,” someone who sought freedom and independence by standing aloof from society. Brody finds such moral seriousness silly and Arendt’s insistence on self-thinking brings forth his disdain for what he dismisses as the false “gleaming nobility of the life of the mind” that diverts us from the truth of “the turmoil of regular life.” Von Trotta’s movie, with the extraordinary assistance of Barbara Sukowa’s acting, nails this most essential characteristic of Arendt’s persona to perfection. For that achievement of cinematic, biographical, and intellectual fidelity, Brody skewers both von Trotta and Arendt.  The exploration of uniqueness is apparently something Brody cannot abide.

The absolute low point of his rejection of Arendt’s idea of thinking comes when he expresses through multiple examples his complete discomfort with thinking itself. As A.O. Scott and others including myself have argued, the genius of von Trotta’s movie is the setting to screen not a theory of thinking, but the act itself. For Brody, this is no accomplishment. This is because for him thinking is nothing special. Thinking, he argues, is banal. It is, as he writes, commonplace and, in the end, common. Thus thinking and showing thinking both are easy:  “Actually, the work of thinking is easy, almost effortless, to show—it’s what almost every movie is made of.”

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To bring home his point, Brody offers six links to putative examples of thinking on display in movies. The first is to an actress peeling a potato for 150 seconds, an exercise in the profundity of mundane life. The second extols the virtue of killing and violence for masculinity. The third, from Murnau’s silent “The Last Laugh,” shows Max Schreck in emotional agony. The fourth, from “Bringing up Baby,” has Katharine Hepburn tricking Cary Grant into coming over and helping her with a leopard. You get the idea. There is no thinking going on in these scenes. That is apparently Brody point: thinking doesn’t exist except in the most mundane and calculating of ways.

Brody’s antipathy to the act of thinking is flagrant. He writes: “The movie’s sanctimonious depiction of “thinking” as something greater than what the regular run of people do is one of the signs of its artistic failure.” But Brody’s defense of the common man is misplaced, for Arendt in no ways denies that run of the mill people can think.  On the contrary, she imagines that uneducated people raised with traditions and character are frequently more thoughtful than intellectuals. Those trained in ideas and abstractions are uniquely susceptible to the power of rationalization and the sway of ideologies in ways that those relying on common sense are not.

That everyone can think does not mean that we all do. Thinking, Arendt insists, is rare. It is fundamentally distinguished from reasoning. It is not the same as calculating. It is also not the same as being creative, intelligent, inventive or smart. Thinkers are not necessarily intellectuals. Above all, thinkers are distinguished from “problem solvers,” those educated persons of “great self-confidence” who are uncommonly adept at convincing themselves of their infallibility. Thinking doubts and puts up obstacles. Its primary effect is to raise questions rather than offering answers.

We need to understand that by thinking Arendt means something specific. Thinking means, above all, Selbstdenken—an untranslatable German word for “self-thinking,” or thinking for oneself. It is the act of having a conversation with oneself in which one acknowledges the basic moral premise that it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong. Such thinking is free from social conventions, clichés, and oversimplifications. Thinking is also quite distinct from social science, which seeks answers precisely in the kind of normalization of unique actions that thinking rebels against. Only thinking, Arendt argued, has the potential to remind us of our human dignity and free us to resist our servility. Such thinking, in Arendt’s view, cannot be taught: it can only be exemplified.

We cannot learn thinking through catechism or study. We learn thinking only through experience, when we are inspired by those whose thinking enthralls us—when we encounter someone who stands apart from the crowd.

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Brody’s review dismisses Arendt’s understanding of thinking with an unknowing wave of his hand. He reduces thinking to an emotional scream—like the agony on Shreck’s face— or cunning—Hepburn knocking over a tea set and pretending a leopard is attacking her. Brody doesn’t much like thinking and finds it pretentious and overly intellectual.  So he makes fun of those who strive to write or make films about thinking, calling what he won’t understand “soft-core philosophical porn.”

At another point, Brody cites interviews with Claude Lanzmann to raise questions about Arendt’s portrayals of the Jewish leaders who collaborated or cooperated with the Nazis during the war. There are legitimate disagreements one can have with Arendt on this issue, and von Trotta’s film gives these opposing views full voice, something a reader of Brody’s review would never learn. In the film two of Arendt’s dearest friends turn away from her and Hans Jonas lambasts her for unfeeling arrogance in refusing to see the moral and practical tragedies of Jewish leaders during the war. Jonas is right to point to Arendt’s arrogance, and von Trotta confronts that arrogance head on, leaving it to the viewer to decide whether such independence is called for. Jonas’ critique of his friend is more blistering—and more insightful—than anything Brody might add.

Hannah Arendt was neither a saint nor infallible. She may in the end be wrong about the power of thinking to save or dissuade people from doing evil. Neither I nor the Arendt Center has an interest in holding her on a pedestal. The Center regularly publishes posts and essays critical of her work; on our blog you can find a collection of reviews of “Hannah Arendt,” the movie, with critical reviews that raise meaningful questions about both her and the movie. I have no problem with criticizing Arendt intelligently. Such criticism, however, demands some baby steps toward taking Arendt seriously. Brody merely crawls around throwing sand.

You can read Brody’s review here.

-RB

Too Busy to Think

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“One feels very lonely in this country; this has to do in particular with the fact that everyone is very busy and that for most people the need for leisure simply ceases to exist after a certain amount of time.”

– Hannah Arendt to Gershom Scholem, November 4, 1943

Hannah Arendt had lived for a year and a half in the United States when she noted in a letter to her friend Gershom Scholem: “One feels very lonely in this country; this has to do in particular with the fact that everyone is very busy and that for most people the need for leisure simply ceases to exist after a certain amount of time.”

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This entails, Arendt continues, a certain attitude of “permanent absence (by which I mean ‘absent-mindedness’), rendering human contact between people to be very difficult.” Scholem, who received Arendt’s letter from New York in Jerusalem, was familiar with this phenomenon. “All my friends in the U.S. are muted by this ‘public isolation’,” hence communicating with them became very difficult, he writes in December 1943, “unfortunately you are not an exception in that regard.”

Scholem’s response is noteworthy, for he addresses the political implication of Arendt’s (self-) observation. In general, being busy and leading a public life is not a contradiction. “One can be occupied by his daily work, and when this period of work in the private realm of a factory or an office space has ended, one can enter the public sphere by being a citizen – or a friend” (Jerome Kohn). Arendt had a political understanding of friendship; for her, friendship consists of the world that appears between friends who are diverse and embody plurality rather than an imagined or imposed ‘unity’. In a state of “absent-mindedness” though, one cannot be in public, nor political, nor with friends in a meaningful way.

The problem starts with the absent need for “leisure,” Arendt states. In her letter to Scholem she uses a particular (untranslatable) German term for leisure: “Musse,” which is the German version of the Latin concept of otium. It denotes the free time I have for contemplation when I’m not busy (opposed to neg-otium, the time when I’m not free for contemplation, i.e. when I’m busy).

The term “Musse” that Arendt uses also appears in the title “Musse und Müssiggang” (Leisure and Idleness) of section no. 329 in Nietzsche’s Gay Science. Nietzsche, who is not known for having great interest in the New World, in this very passage talks explicitly about America, and in particular about the Americans’ “distinctive vice”: “the breathless haste with which they work,” so that “one no longer has time or energy […] for otium at all.” Arendt read this passage thoroughly: her private (German) copy of Nietzsche’s Gay Science has marked up not only this sentence, but shows underlinings and marginalia throughout the entire entry on “Leisure and Idleness.”

One would think with a watch in one’s hand, Nietzsche continues in his depiction of America’s oblivious take on “Musse,” and the common principle “Rather do anything rather than nothing,” would throttle all culture and good taste. In effect, all forms and “the feeling for form itself, the ear and eye for the melody of movements” were visibly perishing because of the haste of the busy people. Before the takeover of the protestant work ethic, it actually was ‘busy action’ that suffered from a bad consciousness, Nietzsche recalls, and Arendt underlined the related sentence: “the desire for enjoyment already calls itself ‘need of recreation,’ and even begins to be ashamed of itself.”

Arendt’s underlining, with regard to her letter to Scholem, outlines – at a very early stage – her larger political and theoretical project: the modern problem of world-alienation and its threat to the human faculty of judgment.

Thinking needs solitude, according to Arendt, not loneliness or isolation (another distinction inspired by Nietzsche).

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World-alienated loneliness or isolation precludes the thinker from the common world; yet, out of the state of solitude he can reenter it once he has ended his act of thinking. Judging relates abstract thoughts back to the world by giving them a concrete form perceivable and disputable in public, in company with others. Absent-mindedness is oblivious of this company. That’s why the perished “feeling for form itself,” deriving from a common lack of “Musse,” may entail a crisis of political judgment: in other words, a disconnection between vita contemplative and the public sphere. Nietzsche, in the passage intensely marked by Arendt, offers a form of counteracting this disconnect: “to take a stroll with thoughts and friends.”

-Thomas Wild

Remembrance and Gratitude

“We are wont to see friendship solely as a phenomenon of intimacy in which the friends open their hearts to each other unmolested by the world and its demands…Thus it is hard for us to understand the political relevance of friendship…But for the Greeks the essence of friendship consisted in discourse…The converse (in contrast to the intimate talk in which individuals speak about themselves), permeated though it may be by pleasure in the friend’s presence, is concerned with the common world.”

-Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times, p. 24

As the year comes to an end, in many English-speaking countries, including the U.S., Arendt’s adopted country, friends and neighbors may gather to sing Auld Lang Syne, the song adapted from the verse of Scottish poet, Robert Burns and traditionally sung at the stroke of midnight, as one year fades into the next. An evocation of memory, and times long ago, it resonates also with an image of a long-lasting friendship. So, in tune with the season, I chose for commentary an image of friendship Arendt crafted in her essay on Lessing, the opening piece in Men in Dark Times. “The essence of friendship consisted in discourse…concerned with the common world.”

Both memory and friendship are important themes in Arendt’s writing. “We can no more master the past than we can undo it. But we can reconcile ourselves to it. The form for this is the lament, which arises out of all recollection.” (Men in Dark Times, p. 21) Recollection, or remembrance, becomes, in Arendt’s view, a pathway to reconcile ourselves to what has happened. Bearing the burden of the past and the responsibility past events places on us meant, for Arendt, facing up to reality, no matter what it might have been.

When Arendt wrote about bearing the burden of the past she had in mind the terrible weight that the most momentous events of the twentieth century—the emergence of totalitarianism and the catastrophe of the Holocaust—had put upon the shoulders of modern humanity. In the aftermath of these events, we face new difficulties: “the bitter realization that nothing has been promised to us, no Messianic Age, no classless society, no paradise after death.” (Origins of Totalitarianism) Referring to this as humanity’s “coming of age,” she recognized that its first “disastrous result…is that modern man has come to resent everything given, even his own existence—to resent the very fact that he is not the creator of the universe and himself. In this fundamental resentment he refuses to see rhyme or reason in the given world.”

But remembrance does not so much dwell in the past as allow the possibility of action in the future through the cultivation of gratitude. The opposite of passivity, which is the unconscious reception of everything that happens, has happened or might happen, gratitude might be said to be the  active acceptance of the chance I have been given to make some mark in the world within the endowment of time, however brief or long, I have to live in it. As Arendt wrote in Origins, “[S]uch gratitude expects nothing except, in the worlds of Faulkner–‘one’s own one anonymous chance to perform something passionate and brave and austere not just in but into man’s enduring chronicle…in gratitude for the gift of [one’s] time in it.’ ” And, in many ways, these words echo sentiments Arendt expressed in her doctoral dissertation: “[G]ratitude for life having been given at all is the spring of remembrance, for a life is cherished even in misery: ‘Now you are miserable and still you do not want to die for no other reason but that you want to be.’ What ultimately stills the fear of death is not hope or desire, but remembrance and gratitude.” The kind of friendship Arendt calls “political” (because of its concern with the common world) is the model for those relationships that facilitate remembrance and cultivate gratitude.

There were, in fact, two types of friendship in Arendt’s life–those that were most like her characterization of friendship in her portrait of Lessing in Men in Dark Times (quoted above), which she called “friendship among citizens,” and those she called “intimate.” Sometimes, but only rarely, the two types were interwoven in the same friend. Besides her relationship with her husband, Heinrich Blucher, Arendt’s friendship with Mary McCarthy provides another glimpse into the practice of these two types of friendship with the same person.

Though an unlikely partnership, and one that got off to a rocky start, the improbable friendship between Hannah and Mary McCarthy found a way to begin and lasted nearly three decades, nourished by several streams of intellectual and emotional sustenance each offered the other. Littered throughout the McCarthy/Arendt correspondence are recommendations for books to read and write, places to visit, and ways to think about current issues. But the undertone of dialogue between them is one of growing intimacy and fervor, whether engaging topics worldly or personal.

When McCarthy read Men in Dark Times she thought the centrality of friendship as a theme in Men in Dark Times came through so strongly she told Arendt she thought the book to be “very maternal…mutterlich, if that is a word. You’ve made me think a lot about the Germans and how you/they are different from us. It’s the only work of yours I would call ‘German,’ and this may have something to do with the role friendship plays in it, workmanly friendship, of apprentices starting out with their bundle on a pole and doing a piece of the road together.” Hannah replied that she was not sure why McCarthy thought the book was ‘German.’ But she heartily embraced the idea of friendship that McCarthy had characterized: “And of course friendship in the sense of ‘doing a piece of the road together’–as distinguished from intimacy. Thanks!”

Hannah Arendt & Mary McCarthy

A year after Heinrich Blücher’s death, Arendt traveled with McCarthy and her husband, Jim West, to Greece, visiting many places Hannah had been with her Blücher, on an earlier trip. “I know it was painful for you to revisit so many of the places you had been with Heinrich,” McCarthy wrote to Hannah after she’d returned to New York. “That has never happened to me, to repeat an experience, with different people, that I’d shared with someone now lost…I can only hope the good outweighed the disagreeable or discordant.” Arendt replied indirectly to McCarthy’s worries. “During the last months I have often thought of myself–free like a leaf in the wind…And all the time I also thought: Don’t do anything against this, that is the way it is, let no ‘autocratic will’ interfere…Let me come back once more to the ‘leaf in the wind.’ It is of course only half true. For there is, on the other hand, the whole weight of the past (gravitas). And what Hölderlin once said in a beautiful line: ‘Und vieles/Wie auf den Schultern eine/Last von Scheitern ist/Zu behalten–And much/ as on your shoulders/ a burden of logs/ is to bear and keep.’–In short: remembrance. Much, much love. Yours, Hannah.”

“What ultimately stills the fear of death….is remembrance and gratitude.”

-Kathleen B. Jones