Arendtamormundi

Amor Mundi 12/6/15

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-upThe Rojava Commune

rojavaWes Enzinna has an extraordinary essay in the NY Times Magazine on the utopian, anarchist, military experiment of Rojava, a small, quasi-autonomous territory in Syria that a part of the Kurdish PKK is trying to turn into a secular and liberal homeland. Enzinna traveled there to teach a class in free speech. He describes some of the surprising aspects of life in Rojava: “In accordance with a philosophy laid out by a leftist revolutionary named Abdullah Ocalan, Rojavan women had been championed as leaders, defense of the environment enshrined in law and radical direct democracy enacted in the streets.” The territory is governed by the PKK, which includes “an all-female force called the Y.P.J., or Female Protection Units. These forces have become key American allies in the region.” Turkey considers the PKK terrorists. But many others have a different view. “…[T]o sympathetic Western visitors, Rojava was something else entirely: a place where the seeds of the Arab Spring promised to blossom into utopia. ‘What you are doing,’ said Raymond Joliffe, a member of Britain’s House of Lords, during a trip in May 2015, ‘is a unique experiment that deserves to succeed.’ A Dutch professor named Jan Best de Vries arrived in December 2014 and donated $10,000 to help buy books for Kurdish university students. David Graeber, a founder of Occupy Wall Street, visited that same month and wrote before his trip that ‘the autonomous region of Rojava, as it exists today, is one of few bright spots–albeit a very bright one–to emerge from the tragedy of the Syrian revolution.’ In May, I saw an announcement on Facebook for the Mesopotamian Social Sciences Academy, a new, coed university in Rojava’s de facto capital, Qamishli. This in itself was revolutionary. For years, Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafez, forbade many Syrian Kurds to study. In ISIS territory just 15 miles away, Kurdish girls were routinely tortured for being Westernized heretics–sometimes tied by their ponytails to car bumpers and dragged to their deaths. In Rojava, they were being educated. When I sent a message to the academy’s Facebook page, requesting more information, I received a reply from Yasin Duman, a Kurdish graduate student living in Turkey. He had taught several courses there, he said, and when he found out I was a writer and professor in New York, we discussed a journalism class. Duman explained that Rojava’s youth had little experience with the idea of free speech. Perhaps I could teach them: ‘A free people has to have freedom of speech,’ he said. It would be a cultural exchange. I would teach writing, and my students would show me what life was like in Rojava. We decided that I would spend a week in July giving a crash course in journalism basics: how to report, how to interview and how to document the war raging around them.” The people in Rojava have a near-fanatical loyalty to Abdullah Ocalan, the charismatic founder of the PKK who sits in jail in Turkey. Enzinna notes that Ocalan “looms as a Wizard-of-Oz-like presence in Rojava.” He also points out that amidst a horrific war, the PKK-based government in Rojava has committed war crimes and fallen short of the ideals it was charged to uphold. But overall, Enzinna offers an incredible glimpse into a unique and hopeful social experiment in the midst of the hell that now is Syria.

Learning How to Love

deeyah khanRosamund Urwin writes about Deeyah Khan, creator of the new film Jihad: A British Story. For Khan, recruiting young Brits into ISIS is a matter of teaching them about love. “Khan feels frustrated about the media debate after the Paris attacks. ‘One guy will say, “it’s all about Islam”. The other will say, “it has nothing to do with Islam”. I want to throw something at the TV! What are we doing about it? We don’t have time for douchebags in suits to be pointing fingers at each other. Of course Islam has something to do with it–people are doing it in the name of Islam–but it’s also about human vulnerabilities–needs that get filled somehow.’ IS, she notes, spends hundreds of hours recruiting each fighter. It builds an intimate connection on Skype: finding out who this person is, their dreams. ‘IS takes the yearning, the sadness, the anger, preys on that and draws people into becoming cannon fodder.’ Perhaps because we’re sitting in a Canary Wharf restaurant, Plateau, surrounded by Savile Row suits, I suggest IS may be the ultimate headhunters. Khan nods. ‘They are. It’s also like grooming. They find out what all your needs are, they build that loyalty and love.’ Love, she acknowledges, seems a strange word to use when we’re talking about a hateful ideology. ‘It doesn’t start with hate. It starts out as a human need that is not being met, and with love and loyalty between the recruiter and the follower.’ Those radicalised by former über-recruiter Abu Muntasir describe him as the father they wished they had had.”

Good Cop, Bad Cop

steve lockSteve Locke writes about how he was stopped and questioned because he fit the description of someone who had committed a crime. After he was let go, he went back to his office on his way to teach his class: “My colleague was in our shared office and she was able to calm me down. I had about 45 minutes until my class began and I had to teach. I forgot the lesson I had planned. I forgot the schedule. I couldn’t think about how to do my job. I thought about the fact my word counted for nothing, they didn’t believe that I wasn’t a criminal. They had to find out. My word was not enough for them. My ID was not enough for them. My handmade one-of-a-kind knit hat was an object of suspicion. My Ralph Lauren quilted blazer was only a ‘puffy coat.’ That white woman could just walk up to a cop and talk about me like I was an object for regard. I wanted to go back and spit in their faces. The cops were probably deeply satisfied with how they handled the interaction, how they didn’t escalate the situation, how they were respectful and polite.” The cops probably were deeply satisfied with their performance. The vastly different reactions different people will have to this account are themselves many reasons it should be read.

Owning a Vermeer

art criticIn an interview, Teju Cole makes a case for the critic in the age of a bloated art market: “[W]hen someone pays $160 million for a Rembrandt or a de Kooning… I don’t even know what’s going on there. Is it only acquisitiveness? I don’t know what kind of feeling they have for the art… Maybe the question should be: someone who privately owns a Vermeer, there’s some in museums, they’re very nice. Some of it can be in private ownership, it’s okay, it’s part of the circulation. What it’s our job to do [as critics] is to help create and sustain value for overlooked work… So to do the kind of writing around that work, the celebration of that work, to give an account of how that work functions in the world: to say, here’s this photographer from Mali, here’s this sculptor from Nigeria, here’s this Honduran filmmaker, we’re doing this festival of Brazilian film. You know! Those things. I’m talking about this not as a fiction writer but as a critical writer. Some of our work is to look at the overlooked, to draw attention to those worthy things. The question is not always about what people are paying $50 million for, but the stuff that is only fifty thousand, only ten thousand, and getting that stuff into the museum space and have it be what it needs to be, to write books about it, to get it in the syllabus.”

amor_mundi_sign-upGiving to Charity

mark zuckerbergIn the wake of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement that he will donate 99% of his stock in his company to charity over the course of his lifetime, John Cassidy considers the present and future of philanthrocapitalism: “It’s not just the size of the donations that the wealthy are making that demands attention, though. Charitable giving on this scale makes modern capitalism, with all of its inequalities and injustices, seem somewhat more defensible. Having created hugely successful companies that have generated almost unimaginable wealth, Zuckerberg, Gates, and Buffett are sending a powerful message to Wall Street hedge-fund managers, Russian oligarchs, European industrialists, Arab oil sheiks, and anybody else who has accumulated a vast fortune: ‘From those to whom much is given, much is expected.’… People like Zuckerberg and Gates, by virtue of their philanthropic efforts, can have a much bigger say in determining policy outcomes than ordinary citizens can. (As Matthew Yglesias pointed out on Vox, one of the advantages of registering the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative as an L.L.C. is that it can spend money on political ads.) The more money billionaires give to their charitable foundations, which in most cases remain under their personal control, the more influence they will accumulate. And relatively speaking, anyway, the less influence everybody else will have. Some Americans–not all of them disciples of Ayn Rand–might say that this is a good thing. I have already cited some of the Gates Foundation’s good works. Isn’t Michael Bloomberg, with his efforts to reform gun laws, promoting the public interest? Isn’t George Soros, through his donations to civil-rights organizations, lining up on the side of the angels? In these two instances, my own answers would be yes and yes; but the broader point stands. The divide between philanthropy and politics is already fuzzy. As the ‘philanthrocapitalism’ movement gets bigger, this line will be increasingly hard to discern.”

Physical Media in a New World

shar-e-nawJ. Malcolm Garcia profiles a bookseller in Afghanistan: “She walks without hurry, somewhat stiffly, sore, a diminutive woman unnoticed, burdened, using her chin to clamp down on a column of books she holds against her chest. Thin paperbacks most of them, a few hardcover. All written by her husband. The books appear worn as she does. Her tired eyes, lined face. Her forehead wrinkled into streams. Maybe from long, nightly exposure to the humid, grainy air, the white smoke rising from kabob grills wafting around and powdering her with ash. Maybe from seventeen years of selling her homebound husband’s books. She does not know, does not really consider her fatigue any more than she reflects on how she sees and breathes. Block by block she maneuvers through the teeming sidewalks of Kabul’s Shar-E-Naw shopping district until she enters Ice-Milk Restaurant, stops at tables. ‘Would you like to buy a book?’ she says. The twentysomething customers talk to one another staring at their iPhones and ignore her. Outside, more young people gather, dressed in tight blue jeans and dazzling, multicolored shirts reminiscent of the disco era. They talk loudly, with an air of We are special, laughing, hurrying past storefronts promoting Mastercard Premium, Marco Polo Garments, Alfalah Visa, United Bank, Body Building Fitness Gym, New Fashions Kabul Shop. Their shadows converge and fade into the glow of so many green and blue and red blinking lights dangling from awnings, unfolded above advertisements for pizza and club sandwiches and chicken fingers, and those same shadows cross a boy standing in the middle of the sidewalk and leaning on crutches, his left leg gone, his right hand out for money, and the young people swerve around him as if he were standing in the center of a traffic roundabout, and amid this confusion the book lady leaves Ice-Milk Restaurant without having sold one book and stops at another restaurant, Fast Food Pizza and Burger. The West’s influence can be seen throughout Shar-E-Naw in the kaleidoscopic displays of consumerism and high prices that for a moment render the decades of ongoing war here as obsolete as the donkey-drawn carts plodding next to black Hummers stalled in traffic. But the sight of a maimed begging child, injured, she presumes, by a mine, reminds her that beneath the sequined mannequins and suggested affluence and rush to catch up with the Twenty-First Century, Shar-E-Naw is still Afghanistan.”

Amazing and Boring

putinRebecca Solnit reports from Paris’s conference on climate change: “It was amazing to be in that room with Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, and Barack Obama–quite possibly the four most powerful people on earth–along with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Framework Convention Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, and dozens of other world leaders. It was amazing and often also boring. The statements were largely positive, predictable, vague, and repetitious. Of course, world leaders have to be graded on a curve. Putin’s statement at least recognized the reality of climate change and suggested that we should do something about it, which is an improvement over his record of denying and dismissing the problem. Obama spoke of his summer trip to Alaska, whose melting permafrost and burning tundra are ‘a preview of one possible future’–though it’s the present, not the future, for Alaska. Still, Obama did acknowledge one of the central facts of the day: ‘We know the truth that many nations have contributed little to climate change but will be the first to feel its threats.’ Given this fact, it’s no surprise that things got real when some of the less famous world leaders took their turns. Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi noted that Africa is both the continent that emits least per capita and the one that faces the gravest consequences. Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, the president of Djibouti, itemized the ways his region would be destroyed, and is being destroyed now. ‘It is clear that if nothing is done,’ he said, ‘the peoples of East Africa will find it impossible to survive.'”

Independence and Liberation

happyChris Lebron in the The Stone writes about what a certain kind of unhappiness means, one that comes when one realizes that independence does not yield liberation. “My first serious life lesson in those promising and formative adult years was that independence and liberation are not the same thing. Indeed, they work at different levels. Independence is local. The powers that be take a step back from managing your life. Liberation is still far away. You believe you will step into the space opened up to steer your own life, and you do step in, but find that you are shackled from the inside. But you did not place those restraints there. Rather, you inherited them. Maybe from your father’s sad face. More likely from the very ways of the world that placed that sadness in him–those beatings in the street, unfair treatment by employers, and his precarious stewardship over the local young women and men whose own young lives could still be saved from the inheritance their own parents most likely had ready for them. You may later look in a mirror and wonder where the lightness of being in your own face went. Then, one day, your son begins asking you: ‘Daddy, are you happy?’ And you resolve to cut him out of the bum will handed down over the generations. You think, this is an heirloom he can do without…. I spend most of my days on the campus of Yale University, one of the world’s most elite, respected and powerful, where I try to contribute knowledge to a world in need of viewpoints like mine, but surely not only mine. This, and all other college campuses, are supposed to allow for, among other things, the flourishing of hope. College students are meant to be spending their time formulating the meaning of their newfound independence and discovering how to convert that independence into liberation. For many, it goes as planned. But a great many black and brown students nationally find themselves instead subject to a corrupt and perverse set of manners. They find that some person, some institution, some history, malignant ignorance or benignly neglectful force intends for them to mind their shackles. They are reminded that their independence is comparatively worth far less than that of their white counterparts, never mind their liberation. These students sense that they do not want their own kids asking: ‘Are you happy?’ Critics have dismissed the nation’s student protesters as mere coddled young people in a rage over some nonsense having to do with costumes or fraternity parties or whatever else the headlines say is the matter. I can tell you that none of these really is at the root. Rather, these and similar events are the catalyst for a revelation–that the rage and sadness these students inherited have been there for years, waiting to make themselves known. The inheritance of disaffection can only really come into its own with the maturity of social consciousness.”

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

images of surveillanceImages of Surveillance: The Politics, Economics, and Aesthetics of Surveillance Societies

Roger Berkowitz, director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities, will be a participant at the interdisciplinary symposium: Images of Surveillance: The Politics, Economics, and Aesthetics of Surveillance Societies. The symposium is presented by the Goethe-Institut in New York, NY December 4-6, 2015.

The symposium will combine lectures, panel discussion, artist talks, and presentations to explore the topic in its various political, economic, and aethetic dimensions and open new ways to think about surveillance in the 21st century. At the heart of Images of Surveillance is the recognition that surveillance as object of study is far too complex to be grasped from any single point of view and thus requires us to combine multiple perspectives into a fuller picture of what surveillance might be. Such an approach rejects both disciplinary boundaries and post-modern indeterminacy in favor of a concerted effort to create overlaps and conceptual chains across a wide variety of practices and discourses.

To learn more about the symposium, schedule, and participants visit goethe.de/ny/sensitivedata.

Friday, December 4 through Sunday, December 6, 2015

Goethe Institut, 30 Irving Place, New York, NY 10003


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 dbisson@bard.edu.

Friday, January 8, 2015

Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm


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, Jennie Han explores the concept of “home” with respect to our discussions of the ongoing student protests on American college campuses in the Quote of the Week. Madame Swetchine draws a metaphor between thinking and nature in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, in a special feature, Jerome Kohn remembers Hannah Arendt on the 40th anniversary of her death.

hannah arendt - among friends?

Hannah Arendt — Among Friends?

By Jerome Kohn

Hannah Arendt died forty years ago today, December 4, 1975.* Recalling her death somehow brings to mind Socrates, who died more than two thousand years before.

Socrates’ friends, some of whom were present at his death, were for the most part worldly, intelligent, and respected citizens of Athens, confident in their ability to define ideas, suprasensory entities, such as knowledge, justice, piety, courage, and friendship. Often Socrates opened their discussions by distinguishing the chosen topic from what it was not, as in separating friendship (фῐλία), for example, from love (ἔρος), a distinction that may have been easier for Greeks than barbarians — then as now — to overlook. Here we must wonder: if not love, what is friendship? Is it the aid given a friend in need, as the old adage “a friend in need is a friend indeed” may imply? Or as Aristotle more subtly suggests, is friendship the need that calls for aid from a friend? Or does speaking of friendship in terms of needs and aids somehow degrade it? Does not the idea of friendship transcend any and all concerns that might be considered utilitarian? Continue reading

to be at home in the desert

To Be at Home in the Desert

By Hans Teerds

‘The danger lies in becoming true inhabitants of the desert and feeling at home in it.’

Hannah Arendt – ‘The History of Political Theory’ (1955)

This warning is actually taken from a conclusion of a lecture Arendt delivered in 1955 at the University of California (Berkeley), which has been added by Jerome Kohn as an ‘Epilogue’ to the collected writings of Arendt under the title The Promise of Politics. An epilogue it is, I think–to the collected thoughts on politics in this volume. Continue reading

sunset playground

The Promise of Action

By Hans Teerds

“Wherever men come together, in whatever numbers, public interests come into play.… And the Public Realm is formed. In America where there are still spontaneous associations, which then disband again – the kind of associations already described by Tocqueville – you can see this very clearly. Some public interests concerns a specific group of people, those in a neighborhood or even in just one house or in a city or in some other sort of group. Then these people will convene, and they are very capable of acting publicly in these matters – for they have an overview of them.”

— Hannah Arendt, “What Remains? The Language Remains” [interview with Günther Gaus]

In a neighborhood in Amsterdam where we lived, a group of neighbors joined forces in order to halt a little playground’s deterioration. The playground had been maintained for decades by the public services of the municipality. However, in the last decade, due to budget cuts and a changing perspective on the role of a municipality within urban society, the playground slowly but surely went into decay. Despite the closing of the fences, the playground was still in heavy use. So the neighbors decided to do something. A committee was set up, a list of volunteers formed, and a letter to the municipality written. And it succeeded: the municipality in the end embraced this initiative and was able to push aside all formalistic and bureaucratic procedures. The neighboring committee was allowed to open up the playground on Wednesday afternoons for when the kids arrived home from school. On the weekends, they were also allowed to operate a cabin next to the sandpit, from which they could loan buckets, shovels, and small bikes to the kids; sell coffee and tea to comfort the parents; and on hot-summer days provide ice cream to be enjoyed by all. A new spirit has also run through the playground: the playground equipment has been refurbished and new materials have been bought. Today this place is very popular – the sandpit almost overcrowded – and there are enough volunteers to fill the schedule of keeping an eye on the playground and to lend out materials. Continue reading

transparency

Video Archives – “Lying and Politics: Democracy and Lying” (2011)

Friday, March 4, 2011: “Lying and Politics: Democracy and Lying”

Participants:

George Kateb, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics, Emeritus at Princeton University.

— Jerome Kohn, Director Hannah Arendt Center The New School for Social Research

George Kateb is a prominent political theorist who has written on Arendt before, including in his book Hannah Arendt: Politics, Conscience, Evil. In his 2011 talk at Bard’s Graduate Center in New York City, Kateb speaks at length on the effect of an imperialistic foreign policy on the state of a democracy. He frames his lecture around the ideal of governmental transparency. Most fundamentally, Kateb argues against reliance on what he calls “untruth” in politics: secrets, propaganda, exaggeration, denial, and outright lying.

Continue reading

Flag 1954

The Reason For Being Is Freedom

“The raison d’être of politics is freedom.”

— Hannah Arendt, What is Freedom?

How can we know about freedom? What do we know about the relationship between freedom and politics? There are no clear-cut answers to these questions. When we talk about freedom and politics, multiple associations resonate, as Arendt once remarked in her lecture “Freiheit und Politik”/”Freedom and Politics.” Some have to do with traditions of political thought, others with historical memories sedimented in our language, and others still with our own contemporary experiences. Continue reading

Arendtamormundi

Amor Mundi 10/19/14

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.

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The American Nightmare

Janet YellenChair of the Federal Reserve Board Janet Yellen made waves this week by giving a speech arguing that the unprecedented rise in income inequality in the U.S. may be incompatible with American values (she should have been a speaker at last week’s Arendt Center Conference “The Unmaking of Americans”). The American dream, the idea that all Americans of whatever economic or racial group can succeed through grit and perseverance, may no longer be true, the Federal Reserve Chairwoman admitted. She writes: “The extent of and continuing increase in inequality in the United States greatly concern me. The past several decades have seen the most sustained rise in inequality since the 19th century after more than 40 years of narrowing inequality following the Great Depression. By some estimates, income and wealth inequality are near their highest levels in the past hundred years, much higher than the average during that time span and probably higher than for much of American history before then. It is no secret that the past few decades of widening inequality can be summed up as significant income and wealth gains for those at the very top and stagnant living standards for the majority. I think it is appropriate to ask whether this trend is compatible with values rooted in our nation’s history, among them the high value Americans have traditionally placed on equality of opportunity.”

An Act of Courage

Harvard UniversityThere is an undeniable and too-often unacknowledged problem with sexual violence on college campuses and in our society at large. Too many women are raped and subjected to unwanted sexual acts or abuse. But instead of having an open discussion about the issue, activists have mobilized an obscure Federal guideline to create an alternative legal system outside to deal with sexual crimes without the protections and transparency of the law. Now a group of Harvard Law School professors is fighting back. They published an op-ed in the Boston Globe in which they “call on the university to withdraw this sexual harassment policy and begin the challenging project of carefully thinking through what substantive and procedural rules would best balance the complex issues involved in addressing sexual conduct and misconduct in our community.” As the professors write, in part: “As teachers responsible for educating our students about due process of law, the substantive law governing discrimination and violence, appropriate administrative decision-making, and the rule of law generally, we find the new sexual harassment policy inconsistent with many of the most basic principles we teach. We also find the process by which this policy was decided and imposed on all parts of the university inconsistent with the finest traditions of Harvard University, of faculty governance, and of academic freedom. Among our many concerns are the following: Harvard has adopted procedures for deciding cases of alleged sexual misconduct which lack the most basic elements of fairness and due process, are overwhelmingly stacked against the accused, and are in no way required by Title IX law or regulation. Here our concerns include but are not limited to the following: the absence of any adequate opportunity to discover the facts charged and to confront witnesses and present a defense at an adversary hearing; the lodging of the functions of investigation, prosecution, fact-finding, and appellate review in one office, and the fact that that office is itself a Title IX compliance office rather than an entity that could be considered structurally impartial; and the failure to ensure adequate representation for the accused, particularly for students unable to afford representation.” 

Parlez-Vous

Malcolm XTa-Nehisi Coates on what it means to communicate well, in a second language, with a native speaker of that language: “I am approaching the end of my third year studying French. This was the first time I’d had a complicated conversation with a native French speaker who I did not know, and managed to follow along. This means more than is immediately apparent. Before I began studying I did not understand that comprehension comes on several levels. It is one thing to understand someone whom you know and speak with regularly. It’s still another to understand a stranger. And another still to understand a group of strangers who are talking about something of which you have no knowledge. So this small conversation was a moment for me-like the novice yogi going from bridge to wheel. And there again I felt one of the revelation, the discovery, the neurons firing, stretching, growing.”

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Cruel and Unusual

Mass Incarceration on TrialIn a review of Jonathan Simon’s Mass Incarceration on Trial, Jessica Pishko points to his understanding of dignity in the law as the source of his optimism for the future of the prison system: “Simon ultimately argues that American society is entering a new age of dignity-based policies, a ‘dignity cascade’ in his words, based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Plata, where Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority, ‘Prisoners retain the essence of human dignity.’ He traces Kennedy’s logic to other Supreme Court decisions that suggest that the Eighth Amendment should be read to protect ‘dignity’ as an important individual right, albeit one not mentioned in the Constitution. (This is, of course, no real bar, since many well-established rights are not in the Constitution.) Dignity-based policies are an evolution that allows for a broader understanding of the Eighth Amendment, rather than relying on the civil rights arguments of the past. The 1972 Supreme Court case Furman v. Georgia first raised the idea of human dignity as a value worth protecting, something beyond physical sustenance, when it invalidated the death penalty as it existed in every state for being too broad. Justice Brennan wrote in his concurring opinion that the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause forbids punishments not just because they are painful but also because ‘they treat members of the human race as nonhumans, as objects to be toyed with and discarded.’ Dignity-based rulings would allow for invalidation of mass incarceration as a practice because it treats people as cogs in the machine. This is where Simon focuses his efforts – he wants his readers to believe that the problem with current incarceration practices is that they treat inmates as something subhuman, and that this can be stopped. He suggests that American courts look to European laws, which have long held that humans should be treated with dignity even if they have committed crimes.” For more, read Roger Berkowitz’s essay on “Dignity Jurisprudence.”

Not Accepted

reconcileNick Smith considers the state of the public apology, now that it’s been taken up by corporations and state institutions: “Once divorced from blame, apologies emerge as a tactical defence. Attorneys can deploy them as what they describes as an ‘attitudinal structuring tactic’ in order to ‘lubricate settlement discussions’. Southwest Airlines in the US employs a full-time ‘apology officer’ who sends out roughly 20,000 letters – which all include his direct phone number – to dissatisfied customers per year. At best, apologies are now a standard customer satisfaction tool: ‘We’re sorry for the inconvenience,’ but frankly we’re not admitting blame nor will we change. At worst, they become wolves in sheep’s clothing, preying on a deep-rooted spiritual desire to reconcile.”

 Childhood Writ as Beauty and Terror

Tove JanssonSonya Chung takes up the way that author and Moomin cartoonist Tove Jansson considers children, even in her work for adults: “Jansson respected the fine tuning of a child’s sensibilities: children know better than anyone – better than they do as adults – that the world is a dangerous, beautiful, terribly alive place. And a place – as in stories like ‘The Storm’ and ‘The Squirrel,’ featuring female characters whose conflicts are waged within their own minds – where one must work things out for oneself, often in pained solitude. I knew all this as a lonely child, and when I finally found literature, those truths were reflected back to me, and I found comfort. Am still finding it. And very much so in Jansson. Thankfully, art may be slow, but never too late.”

The Exceptionalism of Corruption

American_progressRoger Berkowitz recently gave the opening lecture at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference “The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Ideas Worth Fighting for?” The conference, held at Bard College, included talks by David Bromwich, Anand Girdirhardas, Kennan Ferguson, Jerome Kohn, Ann Lauterbach, Lawrence Lessig, Charles Murray, George Packer, Robert Post, Joan Richardson, Amity Shlaes, Jim Sleeper and Kendall Thomas. You can view the conference in its entirety here. For this week’s Weeekend Read, we provide an edited transcript of Berkowitz’s speech: “American Exceptionalism: What Are We Fighting For?”

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Featured Events

One Day University Film School Presents: “Robot and Frank” and a Discussion with Roger Berkowitz

Robot and Frank explores the depths of friendship and even love between a robot and a man. Though the film is a comedy, the underlying questions it raises are both timely and serious. What is friendship? Can a machine love? More importantly, what happens when humans fall in love with machines?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Manhattan Movement and Arts Center, 2:00 pm – 5:00 pm


Yasemin SariLunchtime Talk with Yasemin Sari

An Arendtian Recognitive Politics: “The Right to Have Rights” as a Performance of Visibility

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Hannah Arendt Center, 1:30 pm

 

 


humanitiesRediscovering the Humanities: Humanities Advocacy in the Digital Age

The Fall Experimental Humanities Mellon Lecture

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Jim Ottaway Jr. Film Center, 5:00 pm – 7:00 pm


Alexei GloukhovLunchtime Talk with Alexei Gloukhov

Arendt and the Question of Positive Freedom

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Hannah Arendt Center, 12:30 pm – 2:00 pm

 

 


From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Jeffrey Champlin explores Arendt’s writings on humanity and the models of self-awareness it commonly uses to understand its earthly existence in the Quote of the Week. We observe Hannah Arendt’s 108th Birthday. Horace Walpole provides this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. In our Video Archives, we look back on a 2011 discussion between Roger Berkowitz and David Matias on the origins of the 2008 financial crisis. We appreciate Arendt’s varied note-taking methods in our Library feature. And Roger Berkowitz reflects on American exceptionalism and what we’re fighting for in the Weekend Read.

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American Exceptionalism: What Are We Fighting For?

Roger Berkowitz recently gave the opening lecture at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference “The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Ideas Worth Fighting For?” The conference, held at Bard College, included talks by David Bromwich, Anand Girdirhardas, Kennan Ferguson, Jerome Kohn, Ann Lauterbach, Lawrence Lessig, Charles Murray, George Packer, Robert Post, Joan Richardson, Amity Shlaes, Jim Sleeper and Kendall Thomas. You can view the conference in its entirety here. For the Weekend Read this week, we provide an edited transcript of Professor Berkowitz’s speech: “American Exceptionalism: What Are We Fighting For?” Continue reading

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Our 100/10 Membership Challenge Ends Tomorrow!

Dear Friend

If you look forward to the Hannah Arendt Center weekly Amor Mundi newsletter; if you are excited by our annual conferences, which this year will feature Lawrence Lessig, George Packer, Roberto Unger, Zephyr Teachout, Norman Rush, and many more; if you want to support our post-doctoral fellowship program that sponsors three young scholars to do research and teach at the Arendt Center each year; and if you believe as we do in the importance of promoting engaged and worldly humanities discourse in the spirit of Hannah Arendt, then do we have an opportunity for you.

Roger Berkowitz

One day this summer, I spoke about Hannah Arendt’s essay “On Violence” and her views on the use of violence in politics to a group of 20 international diplomats visiting the United States as part of an exchange sponsored by the State Department. Then, later that same afternoon, I spoke to 50 Masters of Fine Arts students about Arendt’s insights on the importance of art and the artist in the modern world. I am continually amazed at how provocative and meaningful Arendt’s work remains on the most diverse of themes. The Arendt Center is committed to deepening the public discourse by continuing the kind of engaged humanist thinking about politics that Arendt so brilliantly exemplifies.

Tomorrow ends our 2014 Summer 100/10 member challenge: 100 new members in 10 days. Please click here and become a member of the Hannah Arendt Center. If you are already a member, we would ask you to renew your membership now. The Arendt Center relies on your support. Learn more about membership here.

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“Scholars, students, and teaching fellows at the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College seek meaning in their own lives and to share that meaning with others. In this sense, communication orients the activities of the Center. Since the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities exists solely or the good of the public, it surely deserves to be supported.”

–Jerome Kohn, Trustee, Hannah Arendt Blücher Literary Trust

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We have a number of exciting contests that will wrap up our challenge! Two in particular, our $100 Challenge and our Recruiting Challenge, offer entrants the opportunity to win Hannah Arendt’s Library, a beautiful artist book by Heinz Peter Knes, Danh Vo, and Amy Zion. To learn more about the book, click here. To read about our contests, please click here.

New members who purchase during our challenge will receive the inaugural issue of HA: The Journal of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College. At the same time, all members who purchase or renew at the $100 level or above will receive Volume 2 of HA , which was just mailed to our Arendt Supporter Members. The journal includes a special section with essays by Jeffrey Tulis, Tracy Strong, Ann Norton, and Roger Berkowitz from our Conference “Does the President Matter.” There are also a number of excellent essays by Philippe Nonet, Jennifer M. Hudson, Grace Hunt, and Bill Dixon.

Additionally, all members and a guest get free admittance to our 7th Annual Conference “The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Values Worth Fighting For?” which takes place on Thursday and Friday, Oct. 9-10. You can register here.

As many of you know, we are in year 4 of a five year National Endowment for the Humanities Matching grant. Tomorrow, August 1st is our deadline for this year to report $350,000 in matching funds. Memberships are an important part of our efforts and I deeply appreciate your support.

Sincerely,

Roger Berkowitz
Academic Director
Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College

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

Is Hannah Arendt a Jewish Thinker?

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Is Hannah Arendt A Jewish Thinker? On one level, the answer is obvious. Arendt was indeed Jewish, raised in Germany during the first three decades of the 20th century. True, Arendt was non-religious and in much of her writing was deeply critical of Jews and Jewish leaders. Yet she was arrested twice as a Jew, once in Germany and once in France, escaping both times. If one is attacked as a Jew, she said, one must respond as a Jew. That she did. She led Jewish Youth to Palestine and wrote essays during the war calling for a Jewish army. She attended the first meeting of the Jewish World Congress. She worked for years for the committee for Jewish Cultural Reconstruction. Her first two books—Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of Jewess, and The Origins of Totalitarianism—are deeply infused by her understanding of the Jewish question. So too is her best known book, Eichmann in Jerusalem. It would be folly to deny that her thinking is influenced by her experience of being a Jew.

But to ask if she was a Jewish thinker is something else. It is to ask whether her political thinking is inspired by or in some way quintessentially Jewish. The question is posed this way often by students hoping to find something in Arendt with which they can identify. Others ask it in the hope of redeeming Arendt from the perceived sins of her book on Adolf Eichmann. And the question of the Jewish influence on Arendt is also a scholarly question.

For some Arendtian scholars, her thinking is a distillation of the work of her first teacher and youthful lover, Martin Heidegger. Others trace the source of her political ideas to her dear friend and mentor Karl Jaspers. She is often said to be an Aristotelian; one super-intelligent recent Ph.D. argued to me last week that the decisive influence on her work was Niccolo Machiavelli. A recent article argues that Arendt’s Denktagebuch proves that her most influential interlocutor was Plato. And then there is of course a Jewish reading of Arendt, one first explored in depth (and in its complexity) by Richard Bernstein in his book Hannah Arendt and the Jewish Question.

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In all such arguments seeking Arendt’s true source, there is painfully little tolerance for letting Arendt be Arendt, for recognizing her to be the original thinker she is. Contextualizing is the scholarly obsession. At some point, however, we must stop and admit that Arendt represents something new—which means only that any effort to claim one privileged influence upon her work will be incomplete.

The impact of her Jewish experiences on Arendt’s thought is most visible in the distinction she makes between the social and the political realms, which runs through her entire body of thought. As Leon Botstein has written, “Arendt’s basic theoretical claim, the separation of the social form the political, originated in her understanding of the Jewish problem as decisively political rather than social in character.” Arendt sought in her early Jewish writings to make a space for Jews to preserve their social aloofness (their being separate and living according to their own laws) while at the same time engaging in political action.

At the same time, Arendt’s distinction between society and politics is infused by her reading of Carl Schmitt as well as by her rejection of the Western philosophical canon that elevates contemplation over action. In The Human Condition, where Arendt first fully develops her distinction between the social and political, Jewish concerns are absent. And yet, the roots of that distinction are explored in Antisemitism, Book One of The Origins of Totalitarianism. It would be “irresponsible,” as Jerry Kohn has written, to doubt the importance to her thinking of what Arendt experienced as a Jew. Still, it would be saying too much to call her a Jewish thinker. Arendt is, quite simply, an original. She is impossible to compartmentalize or box in. She is neither liberal nor conservative, neither Jewish nor universal. Of course she is a Jewish thinker—and so much more.

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I raise these reflections in response to Jewish Memory and the Cosmopolitan Order, an important new book by Natan Sznaider. Sznaider visited the Arendt Center last week and in two public presentations made his case for two theses: First, that Arendt’s mature political thinking has its roots in her Jewish experience from the 1930s through the 1940s; and second, that she has helped articulate a uniquely Jewish perspective on human rights conveyed and concretized through catastrophe and memory around the holocaust.

The foundation for Sznaider’s argument is an exceptional archival reconstruction of Arendt’s until-now little-known work for the committee for Jewish Cultural Reconstruction (JCR). Arendt was the research director for JCR in the 1940s, when she was hired by Salo Baron, a specialist in Jewish history at Columbia University. Baron hired Arendt and gave her what was her first paid position in the United States. As research director of JCR Arendt was thrust into post-war Jewish politics. Based on fruitful work in the Salo Baron archives at Stanford, Sznaider develops an account of the close intellectual, personal, and political relationship between Arendt and Baron, based on a shared belief in what he calls a “hidden Jewish tradition.” Against the mainstream Jewish tradition of victimhood and withdrawal, Arendt and Baron shared a belief in a vibrant and glorious tradition of Jewish political activity.

In her work for the JCR, Arendt compiled inventories of Jewish cultural artifacts. Relying on a network of Jewish refugees around the world, she published lists with titles like: “Tentative List of Jewish Cultural Treasures in Axis-Occupied Countries.” Sznaider makes the case that these lists “are among her important publications on Jewish matters” and should be considered part of the Arendt canon. Working from these lists, Arendt then traveled to Europe and negotiated with German, Israeli, and U.S. military authorities to determine the fate of Jewish cultural treasures that had been stockpiled by the Nazis or saved by European communities.

Arendt’s work at the JCR was importantly an opportunity to engage in Jewish politics as a representative of world Jewry. She was one of the few unelected Jewish leaders tasked with deciding how the salvaged cultural heritage would be distributed to Jewish communities around the world. A large part of her work was convincing the U.S. military to depart from settled international law, which required that these treasures be returned to the communities from which they came. As there were no Jews left in these ravaged European Jewish communities, Arendt and Baron, along with Gershom Scholem in Israel, argued that the Jewish cultural heritage should be distributed to new Jewish communities in Israel, America, and around the world.

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According to Sznaider, Arendt saw herself as an emissary of the Jewish people. “Arendt believed that the JCR would be the representative of the Jewish people as a collective and not of Jews as citizens of their respective countries.” Through her work for JCR, Arendt came to believe in the possibility of a Jewish politics outside of traditional nation states. It is in this context, he argues, that Arendt distanced herself from Zionist circles. She was, he writes, convinced that “the only viable answer for modern Jews is politics—not necessarily Zionist politics, but collective politics of some kind.” In lieu of the security of a national state, Arendt hoped for a “federal principle of political organization, not only for Jews but for all European peoples.” It is in this sense that Sznaider argues that Arendt’s political thinking as it emerges in her later writing is deeply indebted to her experience of Jewish political action.

Sznaider has many aims in his book and one is to enlist Arendt as the progenitor of what he calls “rooted cosmopolitanism,” a modern politics that is both rooted in particular identity and also open to the modern demand for equality. Another is to argue that there is a particular Jewish perspective on human rights that is rooted in the Jewish experience of catastrophe. Human rights, he argues leaning on Arendt, does not have a philosophical ground. But Jewish history and the memory of the holocaust offer a non-metaphysical ground for human rights in fear itself.

You can watch Sznaider’s  lecture  here. I recommend you do so. Then buy a copy of Jewish Memory and the Cosmopolitan Order. It is your weekend read.

-RB

New Book from the Hannah Arendt Center

The Hannah Arendt Center’s latest book, The Intellectual Origins of the Global Financial Crisis, is now shipping. We had forty advance copies at the conference last weekend and they all were sold. As the financial crisis lumbers into its fifth year, this book looks at the deeper cultural, philosophical and moral foundations for the crisis.

Here is a short excerpt from Roger Berkowitz’s Introduction:

When this crisis hit, I happened to be teaching Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. Two of Arendt’s insights struck me as having particular relevance to our present situation. First, Arendt confronted a similar phenomenon in which the crisis of totalitarianism was being normalized. The world has long known dictators. Hitler and Stalin, so it was said, were proof positive of the continuity of human frailty. Against this view, Hannah Arendt argued that it was mistaken to understand totalitarianism as simply the latest form of tyranny. Indeed, one should not understand totalitarianism, for to understand it is to normalize it and to desensitize ourselves to the fact of its extraordinary evil.

Against the effort to understand, Arendt counsels comprehension. By comprehension, she means, “the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality—whatever it may be.” The factual reality of totalitarianism, as Arendt comprehended it, was that in our world today any and every evil is possible and can even be rationally justified by otherwise well-meaning people. What is needed, she argued, was that we face up to the fact that totalitarianism, genocide, and administrative massacres were now ever-present dangers in our times. Originally titled “The Burden of Our Times,” Arendt’s book The Origins of Totalitarianism seeks not to explain totalitarianism but to face up to its singular actuality. Arendt’s passion was, as she later wrote, “to think what we are doing.”

Crises offer particularly good opportunities to think what we are doing. A crisis “tears away façades and obliterates prejudices” and thus allows us “to explore and inquire into whatever has been laid bare of the essence of the matter.” When she discusses the crisis of education, Arendt affirms that the essence of education is natality—the fact that, born into a preexisting world, human beings must be educated both to fit into and also to remake that world. What we need to ask amid our contemporary crisis is: What is the essence of economics today that the crisis lays bare?

Surprisingly, since she is rarely cited as an authority on economic affairs, Arendt offers an original and thoughtful road map to think through the financial crisis, one that begins with the insight that the essence of economics is unlimited growth. In her telling, the seeds of the financial crisis are not in economics itself, but in the importation of economics into politics, or rather the dominance of infinite growth—an economic principle—in the realm of politics, where it does not belong.

Arendt develops her thesis about the dangerous subordination of politics to economics in The Origins of Totalitarianism. She argues that imperialism is the most important intellectual foundation of totalitarianism. At the root of imperialism is the transfer of the economic principle of unlimited growth to politics. Imperialism has its economic roots in the “realm of business speculation”—specifically the bursting of an investment bubble in the 1870s. As national entrepreneurs sought new markets, they enlisted state support for economic expansion. “Expansion as a permanent and supreme aim of politics is the central idea of imperialism.” The rise of imperialism, Arendt argues, means that politics becomes subservient to economics.

 Arendt fears the confusion of economics and politics and especially the elevation of economics over politics. Since politics demands the imposition of limits and “stabilizing forces that stand in the way of constant transformation and expansion,” she argues that imperialist expansion brought with it a grave and destabilizing threat to the political order. When politics under the sway of economic imperatives is forced to expand on the world stage, political leaders must offer ideologies that give meaning to an ever-larger, undefined, disconnected, and homeless mass, a population that replaces a citizenry. Under the economic imperatives of growth, politics becomes world politics.

The book contains essays by Tracy Strong, Jerome Kohn, Antonia Grunenberg, David Callahan, Alex Bazelow, Sanjay Reddy, Hunter Lewis, Dimitri Papadimitriou, David Matias, Sophia Burress, Liah Greenfeld, Robyn Marasco, Olivia Custer, Miguel De Beistegui, Drucilla Cornell, Taun Toay, and Roger Berkowitz, as well as fascinating interviews with Paul Levy, Vincent Mai, and Raymondo Magliano Filho.

Hannah Arendt & Contemporary Art

Intellectually, though not socially, America and Europe are in the same situation: the thread of tradition is broken, and we must discover the past for ourselves that is, read its authors as though nobody had ever read them before.

Hannah Arendt, Crisis in Culture

Last spring, I received a call from the director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard asking if I would have lunch with two Swedish artists in town to see the campus and its museum. The artists, part of the YES! Association, a self-declared feminist separatist association for art workers, not only visited the Arendt/Blucher gravesite—a common “attraction” for campus visitors—they sat in on a class at the Hannah Arendt Center, visited Stevenson Library where Arendt’s library and related materials are housed, and began planning ways in which they could interact with the Arendt Center and produce artwork about Hannah Arendt. Åsa Elzén and Malin Arnell, the two representatives from the YES! Association, were not the first visiting artists or curators or other cultural figures who have requested introductions to the Arendt Center and Archives and they certainly won’t be the last. Indeed, there will be a dedication ceremony for the new Hannah Arendt Smoking Porch at the Hannah Arendt Center on October 25th, 2012, a porch that is being designed by YES! Association.

Installation view: Smoking Area (2012) by the YES! Association in “Anti-Establishment”: June 23, 2012 – December 21, 2012. http://www.bard.edu/ccs/exhibitions/anti-establishment/

The art world interest in Hannah Arendt is growing. There are numerous documentary films made and being made about Hannah Arendt and a new bio-picture by Margarethe von Trotta will premier next month at the Toronto Film Festival. Arendt is regularly quoted and invoked at international biennial exhibitions. Hannah Arendt, it seems, is becoming an important figure in contemporary art.

I say “becoming”, because Arendt is not a name historically associated with the practice or scholarship concerning contemporary or even modern art. Although she does write about art in her essay, “Crisis in Culture: Its Social and Political Significance”, from which I excerpted above, and she did consort with figures such as the famous Modernist art critic, Clement Greenberg, it is only recently that artists, curators, and critics have taken an interest in both her and her scholarship.

I am not concerned about why or how this happened (for instance, is it the result of a more general “political turn” in contemporary art, the interest in art’s political dimension over the past decade? Or is it simply the relevance of her scholarship at this particular moment in time?). Rather, I will reflect on how different cultural producers (artists, curators, critics, etc.) are engaging with her work and take my own opportunity to consider the ways in which her scholarship can be useful for understanding contemporary art that does not directly engage with Arendt or her ideas. The question of judgment will also loom over these posts, that is, how do we assess works of art when we have lost our measures, when we are without a banister?

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This idea is echoed in the quotation that was at the start of this post, “the thread of tradition is broken.” Arendt insists upon a distinction between “tradition” and the “past.” Tradition, as a thread that runs through the past, connecting specific events in a sequential manner (as Jerome Kohn puts it so eloquently in his introduction to Between Past and Future), is what has been lost or frayed. The past is not lost. It is up to us to look back again, but in a different way. Not coincidentally, the banner on the YES! Association’s website reads, “We are the world’s darkest past, we are giving shape to the future. We will open a new front.” And so it is time to read Hannah Arendt through the lens of contemporary art, and to read Hannah Arendt as a lens onto contemporary art.

I will post regularly about art being produced in and around the Hannah Arendt Center, as well as artwork, exhibitions, and publications relevant to Arendt’s ideas, including a more extensive post on work by the YES! Association.

 -Amy Zion

Hannah Arendt, Israel, and the Middle East

During a conference organized in her honor in Toronto, Hannah Arendt was asked by Hans Morgenthau, to categorize herself as such: “What are you? Are you a conservative? Are you a liberal? Where is your position in the contemporary possibilities?”

Arendt replied: “I don’t know and I’ve never known. And I suppose I never had any such position. You know the left think that I am conservative, and the conservatives think that I am a maverick or God knows what. And I must say I couldn’t care less. I don’t think that the real questions of this century will get any kind of illumination by this kind of thing.”

It is precisely in this spirit that one should read Jens Hanssen’s recent paper “Reading Hannah Arendt in the Middle East: Preliminary Observations on Totalitarianism, Revolution and Dissent”. 

Hanssen offers in his paper a rather detailed survey of how Arendt has been read – and misread – by the Middle East, beginning with Kanan Makiya’s World Policy Journal article (2006) “An Iraqi Discovers Arendt”, all the way to Israeli revisionist (and evidently critical of Israel) scholars such as Idith Zertal and Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin.

The particular examples he brings up are paradigmatic of this already established tradition of appropriations of Hannah Arendt that though emerging from her political thought, have much to do with politics and little with thinking.

For example, the case of Kanan Makiya is interesting if only because of his controversial – and rather maverick – position in the landscape of Iraqi politics. This Marxist engineer-turned-neo-conservative political advisor (in Hanssen’s telling) is apparently credited with being the first Arab author to apply Arendt’s phenomenology of totalitarianism to Baathist Iraq.

Makiya makes a case for Iraq as a totalitarian regime in Arendt’s terms, drawing a straight line from anti-Semitism and intellectual support for Saddam Hussein to comparisons with Nazi Germany. Though his book The Republic of Fear stands for many Iraqis as the greatest testimony to the sad state of affairs under Hussein, the analysis is at best a misappropriation in many respects and seems to fall within the line of warmongering that Arendt so vehemently criticized as McCarthyism: To use totalitarian means to fight – real or imagined – totalitarian enemies.

The most interesting reading he brings up however is Vince Dolan’s course at the American University in Beirut, “Contemporary Philosophical Reflections on the Use of Political Violence”, in the spring of 1983.  Dolan tailored the course to polemicize Arendt’s distinction between power and violence – perhaps the most difficult in all of her thought – by first exposing  students to Habermas’ evaluation of Arendt’s project and then bringing her into conversation with Popper, Adorno and Horkheimer.

While this practice is common among liberal academics, the integration of Arendt into the corpus of critical theory has been time and again debunked by serious Arendt scholars, of which I might bring only two salient examples:

First, Dana Villa (Arendt and Heidegger, 1996, p. 3-4) argues that although Habermas called Arendt’s theory of political action “the systematic renewal of the Aristotelian concept of praxis”, there is no one that would argue more vehemently against Aristotle (and the whole project of critical theory) than Arendt.

According to Villa, critical theory has immensely profited from Arendt’s renewal of Aristotelian praxis as opposed to the instrumentalization of action in order to highlight the intersubjective nature of political action, when in fact this renewal is a radical reconceptualization whose renewal is nothing but a renewal in order to overcome rather than to restore the tradition of political thought of and since Aristotle.

Second, Fina Birulés insisted in an interview from 2001 that there is a wide gap between Arendt’s radical theory of democracy and Habermas. According to Birulés, though Habermas is deeply indebted to Arendt, his theory of communicative action is hardly political at all and he reduces the concept of plurality to some sort of ideal community of dialogue.

Doubtless Hanssen is correct in pointing out that Arendt did not provide a concise definition of totalitarianism. Definition is a privilege of theory that Arendt’s story-telling didn’t embrace and she “merely” listed phenomenological elements. However he also indicates how Arendt insisted that only two forms of totalitarianism existed: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. This distinction is crucial to understand the rest of his paper.

Nowadays totalitarianism – as much as the banality of evil – is a slogan in newspapers and politics, often lacking in meaning and intention and this brings to mind the whole post 9-11 discourse in philosophy and politics in which Islam and Islamism – among other things – take the place of the “old” totalitarian movements.

While it is true that in phenomenological and structural terms nothing since the collapse of the Soviet Union can be called strictly totalitarian, there is no doubt that there are totalitarian elements in many movements and policies not only in the Middle East today, but also in the democratic West.

Among other – far less influential readings of Arendt – Hanssen lists the translations into Arabic and Persian, providing crucial information about how and why Arendt informed certain – mostly – Arab authors.

Lastly there is an elaborate discussion on the use – and again, abuse – of Arendt by Israeli scholars since her “rehabilitation” in Israel that coincided with the rise to prominence of certain revisionist scholars.

Though Hannah Arendt wasn’t exclusively concerned with Zionism or the Jewish question, it is undeniable that her entire work was informed by her status and experience as a Jew in the Europe of the early 20th century.

There are many Hannah Arendts and to this effect Jerome Kohn writes in the introduction to her “Jewish Writings”: “In 1975, the year she died, she spoke of a voice that comes from behind the masks she wears to suit the occasions and the various roles that world offers her. That voice is identical to none of the masks, but she hopes it is identifiable, sounding through all of them”.

Something that is identifiable in her entire work – but not identical anywhere, is her concern with the young State of Israel in spite of the controversies into which she became trapped later on.

While it is true that Arendt was very critical of the Zionist establishment and of the course that Israel had taken, it is also important to remember that her writings (“The Crisis of Zionism” and “Peace or Armistice in the Middle East”) were anchored in an intense anxiety over the Jewish people regaining control of their own destinies and entering the realm of politics.

Julia Kristeva expressed this best in her speech upon receiving the Hannah Arendt Prize in 2006, making it clear how for Arendt the survival of Israel and the refoundation of politics in the West was part of one and the same task:

Thirty years after her death, added to the danger she tries to confront through a refoundation of political authority and which, as they get worse, make this refoundation increasingly improbable, is the new threat that weighs on Israel and the world. Arendt had a premonition about it as she warned against underestimating the Arab world and, while giving the State of Israel her unconditional support as the only remedy to the acosmism of the Jewish people, and as a way to return to the “world” and “politics” of which history has deprived, she also voiced criticism.

But Jerome Kohn writes also in the introduction to the Jewish Writings, “Already in 1948 Arendt foresaw what now perhaps has come to pass, that Israel would become a militaristic state behind closed but threatened borders, a “semi-sovereign” state from which Jewish culture would gradually vanish” (paraphrased from her “To Save the Jewish homeland”).

In her piece “Peace or Armistice in the Middle East,” Arendt laid out what is in my opinion a foundation for what could be the ideal of Arab-Jewish cooperation in the Middle East – including even a surprisingly rare background on Arab personalities that had lent support to the possibility of a Jewish settlement from Lebanon and Egypt – but the element of religious fundamentalism and anti-Semitism that have crystallized now in the Middle East couldn’t be foreseen by Arendt, or at least not to the extent that they were articulated by Kristeva:

Although many of her analyses and advances seem to us more prophetic than ever, Arendt could not foresee the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, nor the havoc it is wreaking in a world faced with the powerlessness of politics to respond, and the apolitia, the indifference created by the omnipresent society of the spectacle.

Hanssen concludes from reading Arendt on totalitarianism, revolution and dissent in the Middle East that “one of the most powerful (in Arendt’s sense of power as consent-based), non-violent movements coming out of the Arab World today is the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestments campaign that Palestinian civil society groups have called for in 2005 and has now become a global counter-hegemonic phenomenon” and raises the question whether Hannah Arendt would have supported Palestinian BDS movement to bring about the end of Israeli occupation.

On the one hand he argues that “the intellectual merit of BDS campaign from an Arendtian standpoint is that it is not based on old and invalid hyperbolic equation of Israel with Nazi Germany.”  On the other hand, he also says:

There is certainly ample room for this kind of non-violent action in her writings. For one, she supported the economic boycott of German businesses in the 1930’s and was furious when Zionist Organization in Palestine broke it.

Leaving the associations with Nazi Germany asides, it is vital to recall that it was Arendt who said that not even in the moon is one safe from anti-Semitism and that the State of Israel alone wouldn’t come to solve the Jewish question.

It is clear by now that BDS campaign has blended elements no doubt altruistic of non-violent struggle with elements from the old anti-Semitism, in which there’s little distinction made between Israelis and Jews.

BDS has come to include not only boycott to the settlements (as has been articulated with great intelligence by Peter Beinart and his book “The Crisis of Zionism”) but also academic and cultural boycott. In extreme cases, there have been boycotts of products not for being Israeli or produced in the settlements, but merely out of being kosher products produced in Britain and the United States.

While it is more than clear that Arendt saw and foresaw the risks and dangers to which Israel polity was exposed by its leaders, she also articulated with clarity that it wasn’t  the Jews alone who were responsible for this sad state of affairs and whether or not Hannah Arendt’s ideal of a binational state is at all realizable at this point – bearing in mind the complexities of Arab Spring – what is clear is that an ideology fed on old anti-Semitism and prejudice as much as on uncritical views of Arab and Palestinian history is very unlikely to produce the Arab-Jewish councils (at the heart of her theorizing on revolutions) upon the basis of which a secular and democratic state might be founded.

-Arie Amaya-Akkermans