Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
The Public Informer
Edward Snowden writes in the New York Times that the public is finally waking up to the dangers of surveillance and the need to protect privacy. “Two years on, the difference is profound. In a single month, the N.S.A.’s invasive call-tracking program was declared unlawful by the courts and disowned by Congress. After a White House-appointed oversight board investigation found that this program had not stopped a single terrorist attack, even the president who once defended its propriety and criticized its disclosure has now ordered it terminated. This is the power of an informed public. Ending the mass surveillance of private phone calls under the Patriot Act is a historic victory for the rights of every citizen, but it is only the latest product of a change in global awareness. Since 2013, institutions across Europe have ruled similar laws and operations illegal and imposed new restrictions on future activities. The United Nations declared mass surveillance an unambiguous violation of human rights. In Latin America, the efforts of citizens in Brazil led to the Marco Civil, an Internet Bill of Rights. Recognizing the critical role of informed citizens in correcting the excesses of government, the Council of Europe called for new laws to protect whistle-blowers.” None of this would have happened if Snowden had not blown the whistle and gone public with his revelations about NSA activities. As David Cole writes this week in the New York Review of Books, “Sunsets require sunshine. That may be the most enduring lesson from the Senate’s passage on Tuesday of the USA Freedom Act, which will bring an end to the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records. If Edward Snowden had not revealed the NSA’s sweeping surveillance of Americans, Congress would have simply renewed Section 215, the USA Patriot Act provision that the NSA relied on before its expiration on June 1–as Congress had done on seven previous occasions since 2001. But Snowden’s leaking of top secret NSA documents let Americans in on the previously secret fact that their government was collecting all of their phone data, without regard to whether they had ever engaged in any terrorist, criminal, or even suspicious activity. As a result, Congress has now imposed restrictions on national security surveillance for the first time since the September 11 attacks.”
The Imagination Economy
In a wide ranging conversation with Neil Gaiman about the relevance of literary genre in contemporary writing, Kazuo Ishiguro suggests a reason why fantasy seems to be coming out of the shadows: “But maybe the stigma against fantasy is something much wider than in the fiction world. Since industrial times began, it’s sort of true to say that children have been allowed a sanctioned world where fantasy and imagination is deemed to be fine, in fact, almost desirable. But then when they get to a certain age, they have to start getting prepared to be units of the labour force. And so, society has to start getting the fantasy element out of the children, so that they can become factory workers, soldiers, white-collar workers, whatever, because it’s seen to be not useful to the overall economic enterprise to have children growing up maintaining that fantasy element. You don’t want people who are too dreamy or who are imagining things: you want them to accept this is the nitty-gritty of real life, that they’ve just got to get on with it. I’m not suggesting we’re necessarily being manipulated by some sinister government or anything; it’s just there in society. Parents will naturally discourage children once they get to a certain age from continuing with the fantasy element in their lives; schools will, too. It becomes taboo in the society at large. Maybe the reason it’s been loosening up, and the stigma is going away to some extent in the last 25 years or so, is that the nature of our capitalist enterprise has changed. We’re no longer factory workers, white-collar workers, soldiers, and so on. And with the advent of blue-sky thinking, the new tech industries that have led the way in the last two decades seem to require some kind of imagination. Perhaps people are beginning to think there is some economic use in actually allowing us to indulge in what was once deemed childish fantasy. I sound like some sort of Seventies sociology professor, but I feel there’s something in this.”
True long-form journalism in mainstream publications is a rarity, but Adrian Chen’s investigative essay on a shadowy Russian agency that fabricates stories, spreads misinformation, and destabilizes facts is proof that the medium can still exist. Chen’s tale melds geopolitics with philosophy; it unfolds slowly, but it is gripping. After a few choice examples of the way Russia ruthlessly attacks inconvenient facts and manufactures alternative realities, Chen concludes: “All of this has contributed to a dawning sense, among the Russian journalists and activists I spoke with, that the Internet is no longer a natural medium for political opposition. ‘The myth that the Internet is controlled by the opposition is very, very old,’ says Leonid Volkov, a liberal politician and campaign manager to Alexei Navalny. ‘It’s not true since at least three years.’ Part of this is simple demographics: The Internet audience has expanded from its early adopters, who were more likely to be well-educated liberal intelligentsia, to the whole of Russia, which overwhelmingly supports Putin. Also, by working every day to spread Kremlin propaganda, the paid trolls have made it impossible for the normal Internet user to separate truth from fiction. ‘The point is to spoil it, to create the atmosphere of hate, to make it so stinky that normal people won’t want to touch it,’ Volkov said, when we met in the office of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. ‘You have to remember the Internet population of Russia is just over 50 percent. The rest are yet to join, and when they join it’s very important what is their first impression.’ The Internet still remains the one medium where the opposition can reliably get its message out. But their message is now surrounded by so much garbage from trolls that readers can become resistant before the message even gets to them. During the protests, a favorite tactic of the opposition was making anti-Putin hashtags trend on Twitter. Today, waves of trolls and bots regularly promote pro-Putin hashtags. What once was an exhilarating act of popular defiance now feels empty. ‘It kind of discredited the idea of political hashtags,’ says Ilya Klishin, the web editor for the independent television station TV Rain who, in 2011, created the Facebook page for the antigovernment protests. Russia’s information war might be thought of as the biggest trolling operation in history, and its target is nothing less than the utility of the Internet as a democratic space. In the midst of such a war, the Runet (as the Russian Internet is often called) can be an unpleasant place for anyone caught in the crossfire. Soon after I met Leonid Volkov, he wrote a post on his Facebook wall about our interview, saying that he had spoken with someone from The New York Times. A former pro-Kremlin blogger later warned me about this. Kremlin allies, he explained, monitored Volkov’s page, and now they would be on guard. ‘That was not smart,’ he said.”
The Age of the Artisanal
Miya Tokumitsu, citing Frank Lloyd Wright, calls out the recent trend of marketing “artisanal” and “homemade” goods for obscuring certain economic realities: “The ongoing turn-of-the-last-century nostalgia spell, fueling contemporary markets for mustache wax and obscure herbaceous liquors–excuse me, tonics (tonics that I find delightful, by the way)–shows no sign of waning anytime soon. Yet as others have argued, this obsession with the artisanal production of yesteryear is hardly unproblematic, ignoring as it does the widespread racial, gender, and class oppression that it entailed and still perpetuates. As Rachel Laudan explains, in casting foodstuffs like handmade tortillas, traditionally pressed olive oil, and home-cooked meals as more wholesome, both nutritionally and morally, we overlook the fact that these delicacies necessitate hours of physical labor–labor that was traditionally performed by women and poorly paid agricultural and domestic workers. Nostalgia is a form of remembrance, but one that simultaneously demands willful forgetting. And that is why it is so dangerous–it always runs the risk of justifying and replicating the injustices of past eras by making them invisible.”
Onward, Poet Soldiers
Robyn Creswell and Bernard Haykel wonder at why ISIS and other Islamist groups are so fond of poetry: “It may seem curious that some of the most wanted men in the world should take the time to fashion poems in classical metres and monorhyme–far easier to do in Arabic than in English, but something that still requires practice. And these are only the most obvious signs of the jihadis’ dedication to form. The poems are full of allusions, recherché terms, and baroque devices. Acrostics, in which the first letters of successive lines spell out names or phrases, are especially popular. One of al-Nasr’s poems, a declaration of her commitment to ISIS, is based on the group’s acronym, Daesh. (‘Daesh’ is generally a derogatory label, and al-Nasr’s embrace of it is a gesture of defiance.) The militants’ evident delight in their virtuosity turns their poems into performances. The poets are making sure that we know they are poets–laying claim to the special authority that comes with poetry’s status in Arabic culture. Yet behind the swagger there are powerful anxieties: all jihadis have elected to set themselves apart from the wider society, including their families and their religious communities. This is often a difficult choice, with lasting consequences. By casting themselves as poets, as cultural actors with deep roots in the Arab Islamic tradition, the militants are attempting to assuage their fears of not really belonging.” It is worth in this context recalling Hannah Arendt’s essay on Bertolt Brecht, where she observed that “poets have not often made good, reliable citizens.” Perversity is an artistic privilege as long as it produces good art. The problem is that once poets become political, they turn their gaze from truth to persuasion. This is why Brecht’s odes praising Stalin are both politically odious and artistically sterile. It may be worth asking why ISIS members turn to poetry, but one shouldn’t confuse political rhymes with poetry.
My Institution, My Selfie
In a retrospective on the work of sculptor Duane Hanson, Douglas Coupland suggests that the selfie may come to have an important place in the art world: “In fact, could there be any work out there more selfie-friendly than Hanson’s? Technology has inverted some of the rules of appreciating art. What was once forbidden in the museum (the photo) is now encouraged. The eyeballs of Hanson’s figures no longer look out into space, but at the viewer’s camera, along with the viewer. What was once a power imbalance–the institution and the viewer–instead becomes intimate, curious, democratic and highly engaged. A new museum archive category seems to be emerging: a continuum of ‘selfieness’. At one end of the selfie spectrum is, say, the work of Donald Judd. It’s hard to imagine taking a selfie with one of his minimalist wall pieces. And at the other end of the selfie continuum, we have Hanson and, say, Jeff Koons. Selfieness is no indication of a work’s depth or anything else except, well, its selfieness. But whatever selfieness is, it’s possibly what institutions are looking for to help them navigate through the next 20 years. So maybe it’s not so odd a category after all.”
Gone Astray in Translation
Gideon Lewis-Kraus takes a look at much bemoaned computational translations and wonders if they’ll ever be any good and, for that matter, what “good” means in this context: “Though some researchers still endeavor to train their computers to translate Dante with panache, the brute-force method seems likely to remain ascendant. This statistical strategy, which supports Google Translate and Skype Translator and any other contemporary system, has undergone nearly three decades of steady refinement. The problems of semantic ambiguity have been lessened–by paying pretty much no attention whatsoever to semantics. The English word ‘bank,’ to use one frequent example, can mean either ‘financial institution’ or ‘side of a river,’ but these are two distinct words in French. When should it be translated as ‘banque,’ when as ‘rive’? A probabilistic model will have the computer examine a few of the other words nearby. If your sentence elsewhere contains the words ‘money’ or ‘robbery,’ the proper translation is probably ‘banque.’ (This doesn’t work in every instance, of course–a machine might still have a hard time with the relatively simple sentence ‘A Parisian has to have a lot of money to live on the Left Bank.’) Furthermore, if you have a good probabilistic model of what standard sentences in a language do and don’t look like, you know that the French equivalent of ‘The box is in the ink-filled writing implement’ is encountered approximately never. Contemporary emphasis is thus not on finding better ways to reflect the wealth or intricacy of the source language but on using language models to smooth over garbled output. A good metaphor for the act of translation is akin to the attempt to answer the question ‘What player in basketball corresponds to the quarterback?’ Current researchers believe that you don’t really need to know much about football to answer this question; you just need to make sure that the people who have been drafted to play basketball understand the game’s rules. In other words, knowledge of any given source language–and the universal cultural encyclopedia casually encoded within it–is growing ever more irrelevant.”
Rotten to the Core
Orin Kerr has this nugget in the Washington Post: “If I understand the history correctly, in the late 1990s, the President was impeached for lying about a sexual affair by a House of Representatives led by a man who was also then hiding a sexual affair, who was supposed to be replaced by another Congressman who stepped down when forced to reveal that he too was having a sexual affair, which led to the election of a new Speaker of the House who now has been indicted for lying about payments covering up his sexual contact with a boy. Yikes.”
HAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #10
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 email@example.com.
Friday, July 10, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm
SAVE THE DATE – 2015 FALL CONFERENCE
The Hannah Arendt Center’s eighth annual fall conference, “Why Privacy Matters,” will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We’ll see you there!
Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015
Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am – 6:00 pm
From the Arendt Center Blog
This week on the Blog, Philip Walsh discusses some of the startling conclusions Hannah Arendt arrived at with regards to moral philosophy in the Quote of the Week. French mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal offers up his comments on human nature in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we appreciate several copies and translations of “The Origins of Totalitarianism” found in the Hannah Arendt Collection in this week’s Library feature.