Amor Mundi 12/13/15

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-upHostile Climates

harvard law schoolJeannie Suk writes in the New Yorker about how her willingness to criticize a documentary film might lead to her being disciplined by Harvard Law School. The film in questions, “The Hunting Ground,” is about sexual harassment on college campuses. The reason Professor Suk might end up being disciplined is the Federal Law referred to as Title IX, which requires all educational institutions to guarantee sexual equality in education. Since 2010, Title IX has been interpreted to mean that any act, speech, or gesture that contributes to a “hostile climate” connected to sexual matters must be investigated at a cost to the school and disciplined. Here is Suk’s account of how her criticism of the documentary may trigger a Title IX investigation: “But last week the filmmakers did more than understandably disagree with criticism of the film, which has been short-listed for the Academy Award for best documentary. They wrote, in a statement to the Harvard Crimson, that ‘the very public bias these professors have shown in favor of an assailant contributes to a hostile climate at Harvard Law.’ The words ‘hostile climate’ contain a serious claim. At Harvard, sexual harassment is ‘unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,’ including verbal conduct that is ‘sufficiently persistent, pervasive, or severe’ so as to create a ‘hostile environment.’ If, as the filmmakers suggest, the professors’ statement about the film has created a hostile environment at the school, then, under Title IX, the professors should be investigated and potentially disciplined. To my knowledge, no complaint of sexual harassment has been filed with Harvard’s Title IX office–though I’ve been told by a high-level administrator that several people have inquired about the possibility–and I don’t know if the school would proceed with an investigation. Precedent for such an investigation exists in the case of Laura Kipnis, a feminist film-studies professor at Northwestern University, who earlier this year wrote an article criticizing aspects of Title IX policies and culture and was accused of creating a hostile environment on campus; Northwestern conducted an investigation and ultimately cleared Kipnis of sexual-harassment charges. A handful of students have said that they feel unsafe at Harvard because of the professors’ statement about the film. If a Title IX complaint were filed and an investigation launched, the professors wouldn’t be permitted to speak about it, as that could be considered ‘retaliation’ against those who filed the complaint, which would violate the campus sexual-harassment policy.”

Over the last two months, much attention has been paid to questions of racial discrimination on college and university campuses. Many have criticized students for making unreasonable demands. At Amherst, students demanded that other students who had put up free speech posters go through a disciplinary process including training for “racial and cultural competency.” Students at Yale demanded that a lecturer who sent an email deemed offensive be fired from her position as Master of a College. And at Emory University, students demanded “that the faculty evaluations that each student is required to complete for each of their professors include at least two open-ended questions such as: ‘Has this professor made any microaggressions towards you on account of your race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, language and/or other identity?’ and ‘Do you think that this professor fits into the vision of Emory University being a community of care for individuals of all racial, gender, ability and class identities?’ These questions on the faculty evaluations would help to ensure that there are repercussions or sanctions for racist actions performed by professors. We demand that these questions be added to the faculty evaluations by the end of this semester, fall 2015.” As excessive as these and other demands may be, they harmed no one, as they were all denied by administrators. What is more, while many of these conversations and protests were difficult and some were uncomfortable, they have largely been successful, leading to measured and at times meaningful change. While there were excesses–examples of youthful exuberance–the protests were in the end simply speech that could be, and was, met by more speech. In other words, the protests around the country were not attacks on free speech so much as they were examples of the way free speech works to articulate and respond to grievances.

When it comes to campus protests regarding perceived sexism, as is evident in what Professor Suk describes above, the reality of Title IX means that speaking freely is to risk losing one’s job. We are in a strange situation in which discussions about race, as fraught as they are, are judged by standards of common sense, while speech touching upon sex or sexuality is subjected to the threat of disciplinary processes administered through a federally mandated bureaucracy. The contrast between the way race and sex are being treated is telling. What is worrisome is that student demands during the protests against racism are inflected by a desire to import the atmosphere of disciplinary threats to bear on speech and acts thought to create a racially hostile atmosphere. The better lesson is the opposing one, that free speech does work to allow students and others to make demands and influence changes on campuses without threatening others for their willingness to speak. –RB

Encryption and Morality

encryptionIn a long but still accessible academic essay, UC Davis computer science professor Phillip Rogaway discusses what he calls the moral character of cryptography and also of science and engineering more generally: “Most academic cryptographers seem to think that our field is a fun, deep, and politically neutral game–a set of puzzles involving communicating parties and notional adversaries. This vision of who we are animates a field whose work is intellectually impressive and rapidly produced, but also quite inbred and divorced from real-world concerns. Is this what cryptography should be like? Is it how we should expend the bulk of our intellectual capital? For me, these questions came to a head with the Snowden disclosures of 2013. If cryptography’s most basic aim is to enable secure communications, how could it not be a colossal failure of our field when ordinary people lack even a modicum of communication privacy when interacting electronically? Yet I soon realized that most cryptographers didn’t see it this way. Most seemed to feel that the disclosures didn’t even implicate us cryptographers. I think that they do. So I want to talk about the moral obligations of cryptographers, and my community as a whole. This is not a topic cryptographers routinely discuss. In this post-Snowden era, I think it needs to be.” Rogaway dissents from Stanley Fish, who advises new professors to do their work and not worry about changing the world. “Perhaps such amorality, however revolting, is harmless in Fish’s intellectual realm: one doesn’t particularly expect literary theory to change the world. But scientists and engineers do just that. A refusal to direct the change we do is both morally bankrupt and ingracious.” I think Rogaway misunderstands Fish, who preaches not amorality but rather humility. A teacher is to teach students what is; that includes the ethics and morality of the world. In doing so, the teacher inspires the student to raise ethical questions for themselves. It is not the teacher’s job to tell students what should be but to prepare them to pose and then decide these ethical questions for themselves. What Rogaway shows us is that computer scientists need to teach more than computer science; they must also teach students about the ethical implications of computer science. They must ask themselves basic questions, like “Is computer science not benefiting man?”–RB

Leader of the People

donald trumpMegan Garber talks about what we really mean when we call someone a demagogue: “As an insult, certainly–as an implicit invalidation of one’s political rhetoric–‘demagogue’ is a very good word. It’s slightly gentler than ‘fascist’ and slightly more dignified than ‘buffoon’; it’s extremely opinionated, and yet carries itself with the gravitas of informed objectivity. Uttered aloud–that evocative agog–it forces one’s mouth to gape appropriately. And while Trump is certainly not the only contemporary politician to be dismissed under its auspices (‘Demagoguery 101,’ Charles Krauthammer wrote of President Obama and his policies), no figure has so clearly deserved the word since Huey Long and Joe McCarthy and Pat Buchanan riled the former century. So deep has the impact of Trump’s fist-pounding rhetoric been that, at this point, there’s a metonymic circularity to the whole thing. The Economist recently published an article titled ‘The Art of the Demagogue.’ It did not need to clarify who it was about…. Today, perhaps as a response to that vague but ongoing threat of media-driven menace, ‘demagogue’ has become a term of last resort: a description–a deeply loaded epithet–that is summoned only when a particular politician or media figure or other modern people-leader has moved so far away from the mainstream that the Overton Window has receded well into the distance. It’s a word that doubles as a siren for a democratic system, directed at one person but implicating us all: Our house is on fire. It’s this sense that gave the phrase its shock value, and its lasting power, when H.L. Mencken dismissed Huey Long as ‘a backwoods demagogue.’ And when Joe Kennedy decried Father Coughlin as ‘an out and out demagogue.’ It is why American history, its terrain so widely populated with people who bluster and flatter and smarm and shout, has anointed so few actual ‘demagogues.'”  

amor_mundi_sign-upThe Human Ear

svetlana alexievichSvetlana Alexievich received her Nobel Prize for Literature this week. In her acceptance speech, she describes the importance of non-fiction to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: “Right after the war, Theodor Adorno wrote, in shock: ‘Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.’ My teacher, Ales Adamovich, whose name I mention today with gratitude, felt that writing prose about the nightmares of the 20th century was sacrilege. Nothing may be invented. You must give the truth as it is. A ‘super-literature’ is required. The witness must speak. Nietzsche’s words come to mind–no artist can live up to reality. He can’t lift it. It always troubled me that the truth doesn’t fit into one heart, into one mind, that truth is somehow splintered. There’s a lot of it, it is varied, and it is strewn about the world. Dostoevsky thought that humanity knows much, much more about itself than it has recorded in literature. So what is it that I do? I collect the everyday life of feelings, thoughts, and words. I collect the life of my time. I’m interested in the history of the soul. The everyday life of the soul, the things that the big picture of history usually omits, or disdains. I work with missing history. I am often told, even now, that what I write isn’t literature, it’s a document. What is literature today? Who can answer that question? We live faster than ever before. Content ruptures form. Breaks and changes it. Everything overflows its banks: music, painting–even words in documents escape the boundaries of the document. There are no borders between fact and fabrication, one flows into the other. Witnessеs are not impartial. In telling a story, humans create, they wrestle time like a sculptor does marble. They are actors and creators. I’m interested in little people. The little, great people, is how I would put it, because suffering expands people. In my books these people tell their own, little histories, and big history is told along the way. We haven’t had time to comprehend what already has and is still happening to us, we just need to say it. To begin with, we must at least articulate what happened. We are afraid of doing that, we’re not up to coping with our past. In Dostoevsky’s Demons, Shatov says to Stavrogin at the beginning of their conversation: ‘We are two creatures who have met in boundless infinity … for the last time in the world. So drop that tone and speak like a human being. At least once, speak with a human voice.”

Buying Power

bruce raunerNicholas Confessore recounts in the NY Times Magazine a war in Illinois between a small group of wealthy families and the entrenched politics of the state. According to Confessore, the families “have poured tens of millions of dollars into the state, a concentration of political money without precedent in Illinois history. Their wealth has forcefully shifted the state’s balance of power.” Confessore tells how Bruce Rauner was boosted into the Governor’s mansion on the shoulders of $27 million of his own money as well as $13.6 million from Kenneth C. Griffin’s family. “The rich families remaking Illinois are among a small group around the country who have channeled their extraordinary wealth into political power, taking advantage of regulatory, legal and cultural shifts that have carved new paths for infusing money into campaigns. Economic winners in an age of rising inequality, operating largely out of public view, they are reshaping government with fortunes so large as to defy the ordinary financial scale of politics. In the 2016 presidential race, a New York Times analysis found last month, just 158 families had provided nearly half of the early campaign money. Many of those giving, like Mr. Griffin, come from the world of finance, an industry that has yielded more of the new political wealth than any other. The Florida-based leveraged-buyout pioneer John Childs, the private equity investor Sam Zell and Paul Singer, a prominent New York hedge fund manager, all helped elect Mr. Rauner, as did Richard Uihlein, a conservative businessman from the Chicago suburbs. Most of them lean Republican; some are Democrats. But to a remarkable degree, their philosophies are becoming part of a widely adopted blueprint for public officials around the country: Critical of the power of unions, many are also determined to reduce spending and taxation, and are skeptical of government-led efforts to mitigate the growing gap between the rich and everyone else.”

Praising Doublethink

big brotherElijah Millgram thinks we can never be as exact as we’d like to be and that we need more hedges in our language: “Imagine you really did have a repertoire of concepts and names that allowed you to say exactly what you meant, pretty much whatever you noticed, or whatever occurred to you. Adrienne Lehrer, a linguist at the University of Arizona, wrote Wine and Conversation (2009), a book about wine vocabulary: ‘earthy’, ‘full-bodied’, ‘flowery’, ‘cloying’, ‘disciplined’, ‘mossy’, and so on. Many, many such adjectives turn up in wine commentary, though evidently not enough of them to live up to Orwell’s ideal. Imagine really having precise terms for all those flavour notes. Orwell was especially worried about capturing our inner lives, so imagine also having words for the day-to-day events that remind you of particular experiences that only you have undergone. Feeling a little swamped? It’s not simply that your mind would be submerged in conceptual clutter; it’s not just that it wouldn’t be possible to learn most of these words, or to communicate with them. In fact, Lehrer found that people don’t manage to communicate very well with their wine vocabularies; if subjects are asked to pick a wine out of a lineup on the basis of someone else’s description of it, they mostly can’t do it. Presumably this sort of talk isn’t really about communication, but it’s also something of an exception… For the most part, our repertoire of concepts and labels for individuals is important because we use it in our reasoning. Descriptions are useful in that we can draw conclusions from them. In the most basic case, you would use a rule: when certain conditions are met (for example, when you’re making the American chef Deborah Madison’s mashed potatoes and turnips), certain implications follow (an appropriate pairing would be a Sancerre in the summer, or a Cabernet Franc from the Loire in fall or winter). Your ever-so-precise mot juste might capture exactly what you see or feel but, if there’s no inference you can fit it to, then there’s nothing you can do with it. Descriptions that you can’t fold into your reasoning are useless.”

The Art of Friendship

nehamasJamie Saxon collects a series of quotations from a recent interview of Alexander Nehamas that together tell a story of a life of the mind. In one series of quotations, Nehamas says: “What a friend should do is give the other person an opportunity to become themselves. For example, if you’re making a big decision, friends can help you articulate what it is that you really want to do. My best friend at Princeton is John Cooper [the Henry Putnam University Professor of Philosophy]–we’ve been friends for 44 years. Few people can compare to him when it comes to interpreting a text. On an intellectual level, he showed me how to be a better reader than I was, how to try to hold myself to a higher standard of what counts as understanding something and having an idea. Not to go on talking without knowing what we’re saying, which is something we all do, unfortunately. I learned a lot about friendship, family and life from him. There is a deep common element behind finding a work of art beautiful, loving a person and being a friend. In all three cases, your feelings for the object or for the person are open-ended: you think that you haven’t found out everything about that person or that work or art; it’s this idea that there’s more to see, there’s more to understand, there’s more to love here. Manet’s ‘Olympia’ is a piece of art that takes my breath away. It is an amazing thing. I love, for example, that the figure is both vulnerable and very strong. I enjoy very much the fact that you can’t tell a story of what’s happening in the painting [which depicts a nude courtesan lying on a bed and a black servant]; nobody has been able to tell a story. When I was in Paris in 2014 to speak at the Princeton-Fung Global Forum, I went to see ‘Olympia’ and it was like seeing an old friend. The painting was the topic of a series of lectures I gave at Yale in 2001, and the book ‘Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art’ that came out of them, but I hadn’t thought seriously about the painting since then. When I saw it again, I realized that I didn’t understand something about the picture, something I hadn’t noticed before. She is holding a kind of silk coverlet, her hand towards the floor and you can’t tell if she’s about to cover herself with it or if she’s just uncovered herself. The moment that I saw there was something else to learn here, something else to know, my love was rekindled. I kept thinking about her the way you keep thinking about a person you have a crush on.”

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

virtual reading groupHAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #16

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

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

Friday, January 8, 2015, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm

vita activaVita Activa – The Spirit of Hannah Arendt

Roger Berkowitz, Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center, will be participating in the opening of the new film, VITA ACTIVA – THE SPIRIT OF HANNAH ARENDT, Directed by Ada Ushpiz, taking place at the Film Forum in New York City.

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 theNew Yorker magazine. Her private life was no less controversial thanks to her early love affair with the renowned German philosopher and Nazi supporter Martin Heidegger. This thought provoking and spirited documentary, with its abundance of archival materials, offers an intimate portrait of the whole of Arendt’s life, traveling to places where she lived, worked, loved, and was betrayed, as she wrote about the open wounds of modern times. Through her books, which are still widely read and the recent release of Margarethe von Trotta’s biopic Hannah Arendt (also a Zeitgeist Films release) there is renewed interest in Arendt throughout the world, especially among young people who find her insights into the nature of evil, totalitarianism, ideologies, and the perils faced by refugees, more relevant than ever. Watch the Trailer.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

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

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

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

Thursday and Friday, October 20 and 21, 2016

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

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Samantha Hill observes how the despair expressed in Rilke’s Duino Elegies is an expression of our human world and as such distills the loss we feel from gun violence in the Quote of the Week. Mao Zedong offers his thoughts on how a limited perspective can lead us to think small in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, Donna Weeks shares her personal Arendt library with us and her thoughts on studying the Kantian influence in IR in this week’s Library feature.

Where are the Public Spaces?


What are the public spaces of modern life? This is a central question raised in Hannah Arendt’s work since Arendt insists on the importance of public spaces for the flourishing of the human condition. To be human, Arendt writes, is to be free in public, which means to act and speak in ways that matter in the public world. Public freedom requires spaces where our actions are attended to, considered, and taken seriously enough to merit a response. Such spaces—the Greek Agora, the Roman Senate, the town square, the New England town meeting, the French debating societies, the Russian Soviets, the American jury, and all those civic institutions that spring up to give the power of collective action to individual citizens—are the pre-political and yet necessary conditions of democratic politics.


The problem today is that such spaces are ever more rare and in decay. Town hall meetings are largely gone or ceremonial. Local governments have ceded all real power to state or federal authorities. And even democratic elections—the most sickly form of political participation, has been corrupted by both money and size so that voting has come to be seen as so meaningless and ineffectual that few people bother to do so. As Albert W. Dzur writes in a recent essay in The Boston Review, we lack the public spaces that call us to attention and encourage our engagement in a collective civically minded world:

In our time of late modernity, the public is even more scattered, mobile, and manifold. Zygmunt Bauman and other leading social theorists write of contemporary social structures that, paradoxically, destructure common life, distance us from each other, and make it increasingly hard for us to interact with others in anything but a partial, superficial, and self-selecting fashion. Absent are the places that, in the past, helped us realize who we are as a public, as Tony Judt has illustrated in sketching the lost civic world of his childhood. We lack sufficient means today for calling ourselves to attention, for sobering ourselves up to our responsibility for the world all around.

Dzur offers a remedy for our diseased democracy. We need, he writes, to re-think the spaces and places of modern democracy.

Democracy, he writes, is usually thought a political movement and participatory democracy points to public involvement in protests, plebiscites, and public action aimed at governmental change. But democracy may also be thought of as a way of life focused on individualism and respect for the power and judgment of each person. Might it be, Dzur wonders, that the space of democracy is shifting from governmental to professional institutions?

The spaces of democratic participation Dzur has in mind are schools, prisons, hospitals, and other institutions of government bureaucracy. Such institutions too often, he writes, adopt rationalist and rule-bound ideologies that insulate them from the very people they are supposed to serve. What is needed, he suggests, is a new vision of the democratic professional administrator.

Democratic professionals in schools, public health clinics, and prisons who share their load-bearing work are innovators who are expanding, not just conserving, our neglected democratic inheritance. … Democratic professionals adapt the formal rationality of institutions to appreciate and act upon substantive contributions that lay citizens can make to a reflective legal judgment, a secure environment, or a stimulating education. And, importantly, democratic professionals bring citizens together who had not planned to be together.

In short, Dzur argues for a new vision of the professional administrator or bureaucrat, one inspired by intelligence, flexibility, and a willingness to replace rationalist bureaucratic rules with a determination to do justice by attending to particular individuals and persons.

Dzur’s vision of the new professionals who inhabit new democratic spaces is, whether explicitly or not, related to the insights of the recently popular French thinker Pierre Rosenvallon. It is always difficult to keep up with academic fashions and I only recently learned of Rosenvallon from one of our Arendt Center Fellows Jennifer Hudson, who is finishing up an excellent dissertation that addresses Rosenvallon’s vision of an intelligent and adaptive bureaucracy. In a nutshell, Rosenvallon addresses what is typically referred to as the crisis of legitimacy in representative democracy, the widespread sense on both the left and the right that government simply has become too big, too distant, and too impervious to citizen change. Rosenvallon’s answer is to empower government administrators—what we usually call the bureaucracy—to act more autonomously and freely outside of set rules and solve problems with more attention to local and individual conditions.


Dzur takes a similar approach in what is now promised to be a new series about participatory democratic politics in the typically administrative spaces of schools, offices, and courtrooms, Dzur generalizes about those who are engaged in this kind of “trench democracy”:

[Democratic professionals] take their public responsibilities seriously and listen carefully to those outside their walls and those at all levels of their internal hierarchy in order to foster physical proximity between formerly separated individuals, encourage co-ownership of problems previously seen as beyond laypeople’s ability or realm of responsibility, and seek out opportunities for collaborative work between laypeople and professionals. We fail to see these activities as politically significant because they do not fit our conventional picture of democratic change. As if to repay the compliment, the democratic professionals I have interviewed in fields such as criminal justice, public administration, and K-12 education rarely use the concepts employed by social scientists and political theorists. Lacking an overarching ideology, they make it up as they go along, developing roles, attitudes, habits, and practices that open calcified structures up to greater participation. Their democratic action is thus endogenous to their occupational routine, often involving those who would not consider themselves activists or even engaged citizens.

The attraction of Dzur’s embrace of administrative democratic legitimacy is clear. At a time when public democratic institutions are broken, it is tempting to turn to professional administrators and ask them to solve our problems for us, to not only make the hospitals work better but also to revitalize democratic attention. There is the hope that intelligent and flexible administrative rule can not only make the trains run on time, but also make the train schedules more responsive to the needs of their riders and the trains themselves more comfortable and inviting. In short, democratically inclined professionals can make our public institutions more open to citizen feedback and energy.

The turn to what might be termed an administrative or executive democracy, however, comes with potential costs. In empowering professionals, administrators, and bureaucrats to revitalize and improve democratic participation, we turn attention away from the political concern with a public world and focus, instead, on the technocratic aim of efficient administration. Given the seeming incompetence and obstructionism of elected officials in the United States and around the world, taking refuge in professional administrators is tempting. And yet, it carries the seeds of a technocratic turn that will further weaken the participation in more traditionally political institutions and activities that turn us away from our parochial self-interests and toward a common political world. In short, the worry is that the shift from democratic politics to democratic administration will trade the rarefied human activity of forming meaningful political communities with the everyday desire for institutions that work.

Dzur’s essay is well worth attending to. We will be following his future inquiries as well. For now, enjoy Dzur’s “Trench Democracy: Participatory Innovation in Unlikely Places.” It is your weekend read.


Violence, and Thinking With Others

“All thought arises out of experience, but no thought yields any meaning or even coherence without undergoing the operations of imagining and thinking.”

– Hannah Arendt, Thinking

In the wake of an extraordinarily brutal punctuation to an extraordinarily brutal year of gun violence in the United States and across the continent, the eye of American politics has finally turned back toward something it perhaps ought never have left, the problem in this country of the private ownership of the means to commit extraordinary brutality.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, public discourse around the problem has descended nearly instantaneously from fractiousness into what could now only generously be termed playground name-calling (to spend millions of dollars to publicly call one’s opponent an “elitist hypocrite” should feel extraordinary, even if it doesn’t).  There are many tempting culprits to blame for this fall.  The actors, of course, include some powerful players whose opposing ideologies so deeply inflect their understanding of the situation that it is entirely uncertain whether they are in fact seeing the same world, let alone the same problem within it.  There is the stage on which the actors play, a largely national media structure whose voracious demands can be fed most easily, if not most effectively, by those who seek the currency of political power in hyperbole and absoluteness of conviction.  Finally, there is the problem of constructing the problem itself: is it clear that private ownership of the means of extraordinary violence is so distinct a problem from that of its public ownership and (borderless) use?  Can the line of acceptability between means of extraordinary brutality really be settled by types of implements, let alone the number of bullets in a magazine?  What are the connections and disconnections between the events – Oak Creek, Chicago, Newtown,… – that have summoned the problem back onto our collective stage, and why had the problem disappeared in the first place when the violence so demonstrably had not?  There is something in all of these instincts, but before we rush to decry our national theater (more Mamet than melodrama), it’s worth remembering that the problem is an extraordinary one, and that many of the pathologies of our various reactions to it spring from the same seed as our best resources: the nature of thinking itself.

The rhetoric used in describing the problem of gun violence – formulated so readily and so intractably – coupled with the unavoidable connection of the problem with intense emotion make it tempting to suspect one’s political opponents in this arena of ceasing to think altogether.  I will admit to sometimes being convinced that there was no thought at all behind some of the words being splayed across television screens and RSS feeds (not, it should be said, entirely without reason).  Arendt, in Thinking, describes thinking and feeling as inherently mutually antagonistic, and whether or not that is true it certainly seems that the tenor and pitch of the vitriol make thinking, let alone conversing, difficult.  But that may point to a reality still more sobering than the perennially (and maybe banally) true observation that a great deal of what passes for public discourse did not require serious thought in its formulation: that when we deal with certain kinds of events, and try to engage in the process of translating them and reconstructing them into the form of a problem, we are running up against dimensions of the human experience so extraordinary that they shove us flatly against the limits of what we are able to do in thought.  Perhaps the struggle now is less against a chronic inability to think, and more with recognizing the ways in which the limits of how we can feel and see and know – and then think – have created limits not just to how we can understand the problem, but to how we can understand each others’ responses to it.

One permanent refrain in this debate is the culpability of violent media in generating cultures in which, it is said, such extraordinary brutality becomes possible (ignoring, it might be objected, that humankind has shown a rather vibrant aptitude for brutality for quite some time).  The newest variation on this theme, which in structure has changed little since its revival by Tipper Gore and Susan Baker in the 1980s, is that violent video games, by wedding the sensation of the rapid pleasures of accomplishment unique to video games with a sense of agency in apparent violence have created a generation desensitized not just to images of extraordinary violence, but to the prospect of committing it oneself.  A friend of mine who has good reason to be sensitive was so infuriated at the NRA’s release of a mobile app promoting “responsible gun use” one month to the day after the Newtown shootings that he couldn’t eat for several days.

If it is possible to set aside questions of titanically poor taste and worse (and its not clear that we should), there is something about this way of thinking about the problem of violent imaginaries that reflects what I am suggesting is an issue of pathologies arising from mental necessities.

There is little use denying that being intensively immersed in gaming environments (any gaming environments, and not just violent electronic ones) for extended periods of time can seriously, if usually temporarily, alter a person’s phenomenal experience of their own agency and the realness of the world around them (I confess this as a recovering Sid Meier enthusiast myself).  But the concept of de-sensitization is a difficult one in particular because, as Arendt points out, de-sensitization is precisely what thought does, and must do to carry out its work.  Nowhere is this more clear than in those cases in which we are confronted with events that seriously strain the possibility of thinking about them at all.

Thinking about tragedies involves a twin process that need not, and should not, lessen the experience of their terribleness…but it always can.  That twin process, as Arendt describes it, is one of de-sensation and re-sensation.  When we try to think about what has occur, we have to call it up, we reproduce it “by repeating in [our] imagination, we de-sense whatever had been given to our senses.”  In remembering, we convert the data of our senses, including our common sense, into objects of thought.  We do that in order to make them fit for the preoccupation of thought, our “quest for meaning;” in other words, re-sensation, the process of translation into narrative and metaphor by which facts become truths.

It’s not difficult to see how extraordinary brutality challenges this double operation to the point of impossibility.  On the one hand, this model of de-sensation by the reproductive imagination presumes a kind of voluntarism to the recollection, when often, and most especially in the cases like those of immediate victims where the stakes are highest, recollection comes unbidden, and far from de-sensing involves the cruel and incessant reiteration of sense that is renewed in all of its thought-destroying power.  On the other hand, extraordinary brutality by its very nature resists re-sensation in proportion to its extraordinariness: to read the trial of Anders Breivik, for example, is to watch a play of the utter failure of not only the killer’s own efforts at narrative, but those of every single speaking person involved.  It is not a surprise that these trials test the law’s own limited strictures of re-sensation to the breaking point, which often comes as nothing more than quiet acquittal (as with Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, in whose case international law was forced to confess the inadequacy of its categories).

What’s more difficult to see is how that terrible challenge presented by extraordinary brutality to our very capacity to think is simultaneously a challenge to our politics, one perhaps graver still for our hope, as Arendt puts it in her Denktagebuch, to share a world with those with whom we must live.  Extraordinary brutality makes a shamble of our narrating powers, and the failures of others to make sense of it which incite our scorn – as when, I will admit, even as someone who grew up in a gun culture, I literally cannot make sense of the suggestion that high-capacity magazines would be better combated by their increased prevalence in the school environment itself – are no less replicated by our own attempts, whether or not we can see and admit it.  Imagination’s other function, its most political function for Arendt, is to put ourselves in the place of others in order to more fully see the political world that confronts us.  If this is true, then it is not our capacity to put ourselves in the place of a killer that most threatens our political capacity to respond, whatever the prevalence of this problem in popular discourse.  This may often be an impossibility, but the stakes are much lower than that of the impossibility of putting ourselves in the places of others who are also trying – and like us mostly failing – to respond.  In trying and failing to renarrate tragedy in order to construct political problems and solutions, we come up against the limits of our imaginations, limits are themselves defined by the bounds of our prior experiences and our thought itself.  When it comes to the world of the gun (and here, I can only urge a look at the truly remarkable The Language of the Gun), we are running up against the reality that contemporary American polity covers experiences of the world divergent to such an extreme – how much, in terms of sensory experience in their personal history do David Keene and Alan Padilla share, really? – that answers truly are being constructed from worlds which, in the senses that matter to policymaking, don’t overlap.  And in an environment where that is true, the first, most critical order must be the one that is neglected most: not to analyze why our competing solutions are right or wrong, but to understand why the solutions we are proposing arise from the experiences of the world we have had, including our experiences of the tragedies we cannot re-sense.

Responses cannot be crafted out of worlds that are not shared, and tending to the former requires a kind of tending to the latter that we see vanishingly rarely, thought the torch still carried by a few radio producers and documentary filmmakers.  Absent that kind of dedicated world-making – and perhaps that process requires a time and restraint that too is threatened by extraordinary brutality – we will simply be left with what we have, an issue politics without common sense because the only sense that is common, the event, is insensible.  When they respond in ways we cannot abide, understanding our political others is an almost impossibly difficult task.  It is also one that a polity cannot possibly do without.

-Ian Storey