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.
Anemona Hartocollis spent weeks traveling with the Majid family as they fled Syria, made their way through nine countries, and eventually found asylum in Sweden. As she writes, “The sheer number of people trudging alongside them has often led to impersonal descriptions: a wave, a mass, a crisis. But up close they were very much individuals living through an unsettling and sometimes terrifying journey.” The long account of the Majid clan’s travails is gripping and should be read. “I start to piece together the family’s story. Ahmad, 30, is a natural leader who charms strangers and gains their trust with his good looks, confidence, air of authority, easy laugh and affectionate way with children. His brother Farid, 35, burly, with darker hair and sunken eyes, is more street-smart and cynical, a behind-the-scenes presence whose counsel Ahmad has always sought before making a decision. Together they ran a small clothing factory in Aleppo, making and exporting jeans, shirts and sweaters to Iraq. The factory was looted by forces on both sides of the Syrian civil war, they say, and at the beginning of 2013 they were forced to close. They retreated to their ancestral home, a stone house where they had always spent part of the year, in the small farming village of Ereb Werane, in Afrin. It is less than two miles from the Turkish border and about an hour’s drive north of Aleppo, before military checkpoints choked off the road. They are Sunni Kurds, from a prominent clan, the Rashwans, they tell us, and held an honorary title: ‘aghawat,’ a privileged landowning class. The Majids’ relatively secular lifestyle made them a target of Islamic fundamentalists. The women wore pants and no veils. Ahmad fasted during Ramadan but drank beer at other times. The fundamentalists called them ‘kuffar,’ unbelievers. ‘We are in the middle and everyone is against us–the Turks, ISIS, al-Nusra, the Free Syrian Army, even the Kurds are harassing us to fight and pay taxes,’ Ahmad says of those days. Their sophisticated lives devolved into a world of forcible conscription into militias, domination by warlords and the threat of violence and kidnapping. The warlords imposed tributes, like taxes on olive oil (the family also owned olive trees and an olive press), wheat, anything valuable. ‘They say they’re fighting for us and protecting us, and we have to give them everything we have,’ Ahmad recalls. ‘They take young people and just brainwash them; give them weapons, tell them they want to give them a car. These are kids–14, 15 years old.'”
In the suddenly exciting T Magazine (see last week’s link to an essay by Wyatt Mason on Steve McQueen), Rachel Kushner recounts the highlights of her visit with Jonathan Franzen. Franzen’s new novel Purity is partly set in East Germany, which he labels “The Republic of Bad Taste.” And it is this portrayal of East Germany as a world without privacy that Franzen sees as analogous to our emerging Internet society. “‘Until the advent of the Internet,’ Jon said, ‘the G.D.R. was the most perfectly surveilled society in the history of the world.’ Which presented a natural transition to Andreas, an East German in ‘Purity’ who becomes an Assange-like leaker, except that while Assange seems to focus mostly on the secrecy of governments, Andreas believes in exposure as some kind of generalized goodness, and what he leaks is kept somewhat vague. At a late point in the narrative, Andreas compares the Internet to the Stasi itself, although it seems he feels its encroachment because he has a damning personal secret to protect. Assange, I said to Jon, had also made this comparison of the Stasi and the Internet, and Jon said, ‘Good for him.’ But for Assange, I said, I believe it’s about Google’s relation to the N.S.A. While for Jon, and Andreas, the nature of the Internet itself is totalitarian in its sheer ubiquity. ‘I think the dream of radical transparency is a nightmare,’ Jon said. ‘People saying how wonderful technology is and that crime will disappear because everything will be known about everyone.’ I pictured ISIS beheadings, which are certainly related to a skillful use of social media, or that’s what everyone says, and I asked, but do people really talk that way? And he said, ‘Yes, just go to TED talks,’ and I said I’d never watched a TED talk. The mere name, I thought, sounds so idiotic. A TED talk.”
Alena Sokhan interviews Siegfried Zielinski in Berlin Art Link. Zielinski explains his idea of “variantology.” “So I tried to develop for myself some small alternatives. At the beginning of the 90’s, I began using the term anarchaeology, and of course everybody was irritated but I liked this irritation. Anarchaeology implies that the things that we are investigating in the past are much freer and much looser, and much less linear than we think. So we have to let them go and see how they develop. People immediately associate the term with political anarchism, and after a while I realized I wanted a more constructive concept. I returned to the starting point of my research, and realized that what I wanted to do was to challenge technology through poetic thinking and acting. Technology has a tendency towards standardization and universalization, so in confrontation with technology, I want to create different alternatives. I wanted to invite variance into my research, to assemble a variety of ideas and concepts. That is where the strange term ‘variantology’ emerged–it is a variant to the universal standard.'” An example may be in order, and here is how Zielinski understands the Arendtian idea of modern homelessness and rootlessness. “I think home is very subjective. I learned from Vilém Flusser that home is very problematic and to lose your home can also be a form of liberation. By losing your home you can start anew, and you have a different kind of world experience. Home is not defined by origins or territory anymore, it can be a good book, a dialogue, a familiar activity, a collaborative project. This sounds very poetic, but that’s where new ideas come from. We have to develop new concepts, and it might help with this idiotic political situation which we are in at the moment. We are still thinking with the old concepts of home, Heimat, borders, and so on, and there are few attempts to think beyond that. We cannot demand this of politicians because it’s not their responsibility to think in this way. We as intellectuals, artists and other people, who are able to listen to their free will, have to develop new ideas.”
N.R. Kleinfield, in an article about what happens when you have no community and therefore too much privacy, tells the story of George Bell, a senior in New York City who died alone: “Each year around 50,000 people die in New York, and each year the mortality rate seems to graze a new low, with people living healthier and longer. A great majority of the deceased have relatives and friends who soon learn of their passing and tearfully assemble at their funeral. A reverent death notice appears. Sympathy cards accumulate. When the celebrated die or there is some heart-rending killing of the innocent, the entire city might weep. A much tinier number die alone in unwatched struggles. No one collects their bodies. No one mourns the conclusion of a life. They are just a name added to the death tables. In the year 2014, George Bell, age 72, was among those names. George Bell–a simple name, two syllables, the minimum. There were no obvious answers as to who he was or what shape his life had taken. What worries weighed on him. Whom he loved and who loved him. Like most New Yorkers, he lived in the corners, under the pale light of obscurity. Yet death even in such forlorn form can cause a surprising amount of activity, setting off an elaborate, lurching process that involves a hodgepodge of interlocking characters whose livelihoods flow in part or in whole from death. With George Bell, the ripples from the process would spill improbably and seemingly by happenstance from the shadows of Queens to upstate New York and Virginia and Florida. Dozens of people who never knew him, all cogs in the city’s complicated machinery of mortality, would find themselves settling the affairs of an ordinary man who left this world without anyone in particular noticing. In discovering a death, you find a life story and perhaps meaning. Could anything in the map of George Bell’s existence have explained his lonely end? Possibly not. But it was true that George Bell died carrying some secrets. Secrets about how he lived and secrets about who mattered most to him. Those secrets would bring sorrow. At the same time, they would deliver rewards. Death does that. It closes doors but also opens them.”
Dan Cohen, with the recent court decision declaring Google Books to be legal as is, looks into his crystal ball to divine the future of the copyright doctrine of fair use: “Works from before 1923 are in the public domain, and recent volumes are clearly under copyright. But a large percentage of books between the distant and recent past are in a grey territory where their status is foggy. Their copyright may not have been renewed, and their publishers and authors are long gone. With imperfect records we can’t be sure what we can do with these millions of books. Fortunately, in the U.S., we can also appeal to fair use, an important principle that makes the American system of copyright different from most other countries. As the length of copyright terms has been repeatedly extended, fair use acts as a counterbalance, providing exceptions for using copyrighted materials in ways that benefit society without destroying the market for books. Authors also benefit from fair use, by being able to quote, parody, and build upon copyrighted works. However, like the status of so many books on our libraries’ shelves, the nature of fair use has often been unclear. Judges are asked to balance four fairly abstract factors in deciding whether a use is fair, including how creative works are being repurposed and to what extent, and how the market for the original might be impacted…But critically, and with greater and lasting impact, the case also helped to clarify fair use in general. Authors Guild v. Google stands to make fair use much more muscular. Because many institutions want to avoid legal and financial risk, many possible uses that the courts would find fair–including a number of non-commercial, educational uses–are simply never attempted. A clearer fair-use principle, with stronger support from the courts, will make libraries and similar organizations more confident about pursuing forms of broader digital access.”
With the 500th birthday of Thomas More’s Utopia in sight, Terry Eagleton considers what it means to dream of a perfect world: “To portray the future in the language of the present may well be to betray it. A truly radical change would defeat the categories we currently have to hand. If we can speak of the future at all, it follows that we are still tied to some extent to the present. This is one reason why Marx, who began his career in contention with the middle-class utopianists, steadfastly refused to engage in future-talk. The most a revolutionary could do was to describe the conditions under which a different sort of future might be possible. To stipulate exactly what it might look like was to try to programme freedom. If Marx was a prophet, it was not because he sought to foresee the future. Prophets–Old Testament ones, at least–aren’t clairvoyants. Rather than gaze into the future, they warn you that unless you feed the hungry and welcome the immigrant, there isn’t going to be one. Or if there is, it will be deeply unpleasant. The real soothsayers are those hired by the big corporations to peer into the entrails of the system and assure their masters that their profits are safe for another 30 years. We live in a world that seeks to extend its sovereignty even over what doesn’t yet exist. Radicals thus find themselves under fire from opposite directions. If they refuse to debate what kind of cultural policies might flourish under socialism, for example, they are being shifty; if they hand you a thick bunch of documents on the question, they are guilty of blue-printing. Perhaps it is impossible to draw a line between being too agnostic about the future and being too assured about it. The Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin reminds us that the ancient Jews were forbidden to make icons of what was to come, rather as they were forbidden to fashion graven images of Yahweh. The two prohibitions are closely related, since for the Hebrew scriptures, Yahweh is the God of the future, whose kingdom of justice and friendship is still to come. Besides, the only image of God for Judaism is human flesh and blood. For Benjamin, seeking to portray the future is a kind of fetishism. Instead, we are driven backwards into this unexplored territory with our eyes fixed steadily on the injustice and exploitation of the past. Knowing exactly where we are going is the surest way of not getting there. In any case, the energies we invest in envisaging a better world might consume the energies we need to create it. Marx had no interest in human perfection. There is nothing in his work to suggest that post-capitalist societies would be magically free of predators, psychopaths, free-loaders, Piers Morgan-types or people who stow their luggage on aircraft with surreal slowness, indifferent to the fact that there are 50 people queuing behind them. The idea that history is moving ever onwards and upwards is an invention of the middle-class Enlightenment, not of the left.”
Most books I start I never finish. Even when I do make it to the end, books are rarely memorable. There are some I don’t even recall having read (my notes in the margins the only proof of my impoverished power of recall). Many, the majority, leave a vague sense of having been scanned, maybe a few fleeting impressions. There are some books, however, that one owns, reads, re-reads, copies down sentences from, and teaches; these books enter into your pores and your conscious and unconscious thoughts. And then, finally, there are those books that mark transformations in your being. For whatever reason, these books become more than books or arguments. They mark the forward–or is it the circular–movement of our intellectual wanderings and doings, cairns that demarcate the path of our spiritual biography. One such book in my own experience is The Presence of the Past, a short collection of essays by Sheldon Wolin. Wolin died this week. I never met him. But I owe him a great deal. I recall the experience of reading The Presence of the Past as if it were yesterday. I had just graduated from college; I had not yet applied to graduate school. I was on the large L-shaped white couch in my parental vacation house. My family was vacationing. I was being lifted and challenged, torn and reconstituted, and inspired and transformed. Amidst the crises and scandals of the late 1980s, Wolin articulated two basic ideas that have become central to my worldview, ideas that he helped articulate within the depths of my consciousness. First, at the foundation of American collective identity is an idea and an experience of constitutional power. Building on his reading of Alexander Hamilton, Wolin argues that the essence of American constitutionalism and of the American community is a constitutional “way of organizing and generating power for the pursuit of great national objectives.” I had not yet in 1990 read enough of Hannah Arendt’s work to see the Arendtian foundations of Wolin’s insights. Wolin, who read Arendt well, never cites her in this book. But Wolin here alerted me to the importance of Arendt’s own vision of the centrality of a new and distinctly American experience of constitutional power, power not as limitation but as the potentiality of organizing public life for grand and immortal projections of public life. Second, Wolin argues that in and around the 1980s America experienced a crisis of constitutional power. The root of the crisis is the diminution of constitutional power that is threatened on two sides. Constitutional institutions of power were simultaneously losing power to privatization of power on the one side and the emergence of an unelected bureaucratic megastate on the other. Both corporate and bureaucratic power threaten not power but politics, the political and constitutional institutions of power that Wolin saw to be the promise of the American experiment in self government. Wolin’s book is about the presence of past ideas, the way memory of grand and meaningful ideas can inspire us when confronted with existential threats. Sheldon Wolin may be gone, but he is still present. [Here is another remembrance by Corey Robin.]–RB
The special event will take place in Manhattan on Oct. 26, 2015, 6.30pm, at the Bard Graduate Center at 38. West 86th Street, New York, NY, in conjunction with The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College. The Introductory Presentation will be by Professor Nikolaus Wachsmann, author of the acclaimed, new book, KL: A History of the Concentration Camps.
Honoree Albert Knoll, b. 1958, has served the mission of the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Museum since 1997. In addition to maintaining and expanding its archival work and databases, he has been instrumental in assisting relatives of former inmates as well as guiding researchers, scholars and authors around the world – including Awards Event speaker Nickolaus Wachsmann. Knoll has written articles on illegal photos, homosexual prisoners, contemporary Nazi press coverage of Dachau, etc, and contributed to the International Tracing Service’s first scholarly yearbook. He has also organized international workshops on the gathering of data on all categories of National Socialist victims.
Invitation Only. RSVP Required. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Monday, October 26, 2015
Bard College Graduate Center, 38 West 86th Street, New York, NY, 6:30 pm
HAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #14HAC 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 email@example.com.
Friday, November 6, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm