Amor Mundi: September 25th, 2016

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.

A Better Way To Hear People

gavin_hamilton_-_coriolanus_act_v_scene_iii_edit2Jo Guldi argues that the Brexit vote and similar anti-elitist political movements need to be understood as more than simply a form of economic populism. While it is true that many Brexit and Trump voters are part of a working class milieu that has been excluded from the benefits of a global cosmopolitan society, these voters are motivated by more than economics. Guldi rightly sees that the rise of the anti-intellectual and anti-elite voting blocs is rooted in an ancient discord between the elites’ claim to justified mastery over the masses.

“Brexit in fact belongs to a centuries-old contest between expert rule and participatory democracy. In order to make sense of the possible directions that overall policies might turn, we need a longer history that puts into perspective the notion of an underclass exacting revenge against an elite. The story of that contest in Britain, stretching back to the eighteenth century, provides a corrective to both the enthusiasts and the cynics. It shows the deeply entrenched impediments to greater local control even within a national tradition at the same time that it furnishes models for new forms of participatory engagement.”

Teaching Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Coriolanus this week, I was struck by the powerful sympathy the bard finds in his hero’s extraordinary elitism. He has contempt for the people. He refuses to flatter them, to say they deserve grain won in conquest, to even profess to love and value them. Yes, Coriolanus goes too far, he lacks discipline, and he does not understand that a statesman must moderate his extreme character. But his claim that the best should rule and the best should rule for the good of the commonwealth resonate in the tragedy. Should not those who sacrifice the most for the public good receive the largest shares? Coriolanus is a tragic hero for Shakespeare because that unfiltered claim for nobility is both recognized as a virtue and piteously taken too far.

The play is popular today because of the obvious parallels with present politics. Many see the rise of authoritarian figures like Donald Trump in Coriolanus. But actually, Trump is closer to a Sicinus and Brutus, the cynical and power hungry Tribunes of the people. Where the play reflects politics today is in the extremity of the positions taken by both sides, Coriolanus who refuses to respect the people and the people who react with blood in their eyes. What both sides forgot is that the side also is comprised of good people seeking the common good. This is a lesson that Thomas Jefferson knew well, as he wrote to Abigail Adams in 1804:

“Both of our political parties, at least the honest portion of them, agree conscientiously in the same object: the public good; but they differ essentially in what they deem the means of promoting that good. One side believes it best done by one composition of the governing powers, the other by a different one. One fears most the ignorance of the people; the other the selfishness of rulers independent of them. Which is right, time and experience will prove.”

What statesmanship and politics require is to understand that the other side – at least the honest portion of them – are also good people who simply disagree about the path to the good of the public. The other side is not simply a “basket of deplorables” or a bunch of effeminate elites. What Shakespeare teaches is that amidst the eternal political divisions of the elites and the masses, there is above a need to discipline our feelings and learn to see our political adversaries as also our political allies in a common struggle.

Guldi’s essay is insightful in reminding us that the revolt of the masses is not simply a call for better jobs, although it is surely that in part. It is also a call for respect and participation in the democratic practice of self-government. After fifty years of an extreme rise in elite governance and bureaucratized rule, large majorities of people in Europe and the United States are concluding that the global and cosmopolitan world is not one that values them. To respond that all they want is better jobs is to refuse to listen to what they are saying, all of which is made easier by the charge that they are racist and xenophobic.

It is easy to advocate democracy in the abstract. When the people actually seek to claim what they want is when democracy becomes challenging. The hard work is to truly listen to the so-called deplorables, to work with them, to seek to forge a common good that allows all sides to thrive in accord with their visions of the good. This happens best when there are multiple and active institutional means for the people to voice their opinion in public. But with the nationalization of power in the United States and the rise of multi-national governance in Europe, there are increasingly few such means. As the elites govern in bureaucratic castles, the danger is the rise of tribunes of the people who trumpet the most dangerous populist fantasies.

Guldi writes that the past offers a helpful path forward:

“A proliferation of new models for democratic participation thus appeared throughout the twentieth century, many linked to the rethinking of expert rule and bureaucracy itself. Patrick Geddes criticized the bureaucrat as well as the university-based book learning that formed a part of the professional economist’s education. Through the 1960s, student and worker movements protested for greater inclusion of their agendas into politics, and British radicals such as Colin Ward theorized what self-government on the local level might look like, drawing inspiration from worker-owned cooperatives and the self-built public housing schemes of Sweden. But only a limited number of these ideas actually received the state support necessary to see them replace an expert-run welfare state with a welfare state run by neighbors. The Mass Observation movement of wartime Britain used mass participation, rather than expert bureaucracy, as a model of anti-spy surveillance. From the 1980s forward, Britons experimented with participatory mapping as a means of performing regional planning where everyone could take part, but their results were mostly limited and trivial.

Brexit is a recrudescence of this ongoing struggle between experts and citizens—a showdown between the ideal of state and capitalism forged in the eighteenth century and ideas of participatory democracy articulated in the early nineteenth century, fought for in the twentieth century, and still unrealized at present.”


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By Sage Ross - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


By Hans Teerds

“Speech and action reveal this unique distinctness. Through them, men distinguish themselves instead of being merely distinct; these are the modes in which human beings appear to each other, not indeed as physical objects, but qua men.”

–Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Within architectural theory, the debate on public space has been highly affected through an ideal beyond these spaces: the ideal of encounters between strangers and the exchange of ideas, convictions, and beliefs. This ideal is linked to an ideal Western Democracy: the ideal of citizens discussing together things that matter, exchanging positions and through that developing a public opinion and ideally also making decisions. This of course is the ideal of the Agora in the Greek and Roman Polis, the Townhall meetings as were familiar to the American citizens.

Within architectural theory this idealized encounter of citizens finds its theoretical underpinnings in Jürgen Habermas 1962 book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. The translation of this book in English in 1989 actually provoked the debate around public spaces amongst architects and architectural theorists, specifically through a pessimistic reading of the rise of gated communities, shopping malls, and theme parks. These new typologies in the urban landscape were understood as the concrete outcomes of the opposite movement in society: the urge to exclude strangers from the immediate domestic and leisurely environments.

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Amor Mundi 3/13/16

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

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Politics of the Deal

Arthur Goldhammer understands that Donald Trump is hardly Hitler and The Art of the Deal is no Mein Kampf. The Trump phenomenon may feed on racial tension, but it is not founded upon fascism, racism, or authoritarianism. Recognizing this is important because lazy criticism can be worse than the failure to criticize, as it only solidifies the sense of righteous anger in those are unfairly targeted. Calling Trump and his huge numbers of supporters racist or fascist may make a small group of intellectuals feel morally superior, but it will hardly convince those voters. The Trump phenomenon is powerful and potentially dangerous and it needs to be understood. What it promises is something new, the anti-politics of “the deal”; Trump outlines his philosophy with clarity in his book The Art of the Deal. Goldhammer is one of the few critics who pay attention.  “Some observers have argued that Trump exemplifies the authoritarian personality, who answers his supporters’ craving “for order and a fear of outsiders,” but that is not the right way to think about Trump. He is not an authoritarian but a celebrity. The French historian Antoine Lilti has described “the invention of celebrity” in the late 18th century. For Lilti, celebrity is a phenomenon of fusion. The relationship of admirer to celebrity is a mediated one, but in the mind of the admirer the mediation disappears: She becomes one with the object of her devotion, his desires becomes hers, his fulfilments as well. What he detests or fears, she detests or fears. One sees this urge to identify, to erase critical distance, in this video of a group of young women being shown around Trump’s penthouse. One sees it in his assumption that the things (and women) he collects are what everyone else covets as well. One sees it in his followers’ belief that no opposition will be capable of resisting him, because he has mastered “the art of the deal.” “The deal,” ultimately, is the trumpenproletariat’s answer to the potential for paralysis that the Founding Fathers built into the American Constitution to allay their fears of faction and tyranny. To prevent a faction or a tyrant from seizing power, they installed checks and balances into our system of government and sought to ensure that no individual or group would likely be able to control every possible veto point. But in recent years this veto-ridden system has shuddered to a halt. Immobilized, the great engine of government has failed to respond to the needs of many groups of citizens, not just those who see their salvation in Trump. With celebrity and the illusion of omnipotent wish-fulfillment it bestows, Trump now promises to slice through this Gordian knot. He has made a career of portraying himself as a man who gets things done, who builds buildings, beds women, pummels opponents, hires and fires apprentices. His followers want things done and, having identified with his self-presentation to the point of fusion, they have convinced themselves that with him their wishes, no matter how contradictory, will all be fulfilled. They mistake their man’s celebrity for the kind of power and mastery needed to unfreeze the system. And why shouldn’t they? As Thomas Hobbes put it, “Reputation of power is power.” Thanks to his reputation of power, Trump’s ignorance of government, of foreign policy, of economics counts in his favor, because as Hobbes also said, knowledge “is small power,” since the truths it contains are evident only to “such as in a good measure have attained it.” Ignorance cloaked in celebrity appeals to the many, while knowledge, with its frustrating acknowledgment of difficulty and of incompatible goods, does not please crowds.”

To understand Hitler, it helps to read Mein Kampf. Similarly, those who would understand Trump would do well to stop psychoanalyzing his supporters and look at what he wrote. The Art of the Deal is Trump’s manifesto. When Trump says that building a wall is the beginning of his negotiations with Mexico and that he will have to negotiate a final deal, you can hear his words written 40 years ago: “My style of deal-making is quite simple and straightforward. I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing to get what I’m after. Sometimes I settle for less than I sought, but in most cases I still end up with what I want.” When Trump responds to insults with invective and anger, you can hear his self-analysis in The Art of the Deal. “Much as it pays to emphasize the positive, there are times when the only choice is confrontation. In most cases I’m very easy to get along with. I’m very good to people who are good to me. But when people treat me badly or unfairly or try to take advantage of me, my general attitude, all my life, has been to fight back very hard. The risk is that you’ll make a bad situation worse, and I certainly don’t recommend this approach to everyone.” And when Trump shoots from the hip, seeming both uninformed and flippant, one should recall his well-established strategy of deal making: “Most people are surprised by the way I work. I play it very loose. I don’t carry a briefcase. I try not to schedule too many meetings. I leave my door open. You can’t be imaginative or entrepreneurial if you’ve got too much structure. I prefer to come to work each day and just see what develops.” And finally, when one listens to Trump joking, needling, and provoking, one should hear the resonance with his philosophy of life:  “I don’t kid myself. Life is very fragile, and success doesn’t change that. If anything, success makes it more fragile. Anything can change, without warning, and that’s why I try not to take any of what’s happened too seriously. Money was never a big motivation for me, except as a way to keep score. The real excitement is playing the game. I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what I should have done differently, or what’s going to happen next. If you ask me exactly what the deals I’m about to describe all add up to in the end, I’m not sure I have a very good answer. Except that I’ve had a very good time making them.””

There is an unmistakably racial undertone to many of Trump’s rallies and remarks. I’ve written about that here. But it is important to recognize that Trump’s focus on illegal immigrants, protectionism, the wall on the Mexican border, and the terrorist danger posed by Muslims transcends race. Illegal immigration is a problem in a society governed by the rule of law. Free trade does hollow out the jobs that have for generations sustained the working class. And while not all Muslims are terrorists and not all terrorists practice Islam, the rise of international Jihad and ISIS are inseparable from contemporary Islamic movements. Trump could and should make these distinctions clearer than he has. But it is hardly racist or fascist to take the positions he has. Indeed, both Democrat candidates have been supporters of a fence in Mexico and rigorous screenings of Muslim refugees. The difference between Trump, Clinton, and Sanders is one of rhetoric and degree, hardly of policy. And as Janell Ross has recently written in the Washington Post, Bernie Sanders’ supporters have pushed the limits of racial propriety as well. The real difference is that Sanders has shown a willingness to condemn excesses by his supporters while Trump has not. That shows a difference of character that’s is considerable and important. It shows Trump to be low class. It hardly makes Trump a racist.

For those who think this is quibbling, distinctions and definitions are not arbitrary and they are important. First because we should all try to speak with a clarity that allows others to understand us. Second, distinctions allow us to speak with those with whom we don’t agreed. To call Trump a racist is to score points amongst your friends, pile up “Likes” and “Loves” on Facebook, and win Twitter followers. But it will not persuade those with whom one disagrees because it does not truthfully engage with their reality. Politics, Hannah Arendt taught, is not about truth, it is about opinion. When Trump refuses to condemn violence or when his rhetoric is excessive, he should be called on it. When he makes up facts, he should be shamed. But too often the vitriol against Trump comes from a belief that his supporters have illegitimate beliefs. To delegitimize political beliefs with charges of racism and fascism is to drive a deeper wedge between the liberal and conservative elites who self-righteously condemn Trump and the bi-partisan working class Americans who have turned to Trump after decades of Republican and Democratic refusal to respond to their interests. The hope that a narcissistic deal-maker can save the country may be a shallow and desperate hope. But the worry that our political class is not up to the job is born from experience. -RB


Georg Diez writes about the anger of Jürgen Habermas and his newly empowered fight against European elites. We live at a time where western representative democracy has lost its legitimacy because it has ceased to be either representative or democratic. Habermas calls this post-democracy.  “”Zur Verfassung Europas” (“On Europe’s Constitution”) is the name of his new book, which is basically a long essay in which he describes how the essence of our democracy has changed under the pressure of the crisis and the frenzy of the markets. Habermas says that power has slipped from the hands of the people and shifted to bodies of questionable democratic legitimacy, such as the European Council. Basically, he suggests, the technocrats have long since staged a quiet coup d’état. “On July 22, 2011, (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel and (French President) Nicolas Sarkozy agreed to a vague compromise — which is certainly open to interpretation — between German economic liberalism and French etatism,” he writes. “All signs indicate that they would both like to transform the executive federalism enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty into an intergovernmental supremacy of the European Council that runs contrary to the spirit of the agreement.” Habermas refers to the system that Merkel and Sarkozy have established during the crisis as a “post-democracy.” The European Parliament barely has any influence. The European Commission has “an odd, suspended position,” without really being responsible for what it does. Most importantly, however, he points to the European Council, which was given a central role in the Lisbon Treaty — one that Habermas views as an “anomaly.” He sees the Council as a “governmental body that engages in politics without being authorized to do so.” He sees a Europe in which states are driven by the markets, in which the EU exerts massive influence on the formation of new governments in Italy and Greece, and in which what he so passionately defends and loves about Europe has been simply turned on its head.”

For so many today, the failure of democracy leads to pessimism and cynicism. Not for Habermas. As Diez writes, “Habermas truly believes in the rationality of the people. He truly believes in the old, ordered democracy. He truly believes in a public sphere that serves to make things better.” Hannah Arendt also rejects pessimism. Never afraid to look reality in the face, Arendt confronts the undemocratic element of representative democracy and the corruption of a citizenry that prefers acquisition and luxury to self-government. But Arendt also insists that we not only face up to reality, but resist it. Resistance for Arendt does not embrace the fantastic ideal of the “rationality of the people.” Such mythic ideals are an avoidance of reality. Instead, we must develop institutional incentives and constitutional institutions that habituate people to the joys of acting and speaking in public. Arendt shares Habermas’ optimism, but not his rationalist fantasies. What is needed, she suggests, is a wide-eyed confrontation with the way individuals can act and speak in ways that inspire new the ideals of citizenship, new institutions, and new ideals. The first step toward such action is a willingness to say what is and speak one’s opinion with vigor and newness. And that requires bold and provocative thinking that is out of step with public opinion. New political opinions will frequently be unpopular. But only new and even shocking opinions are those that can make others take note and talk about them. Only when truly new and surprising actions and opinions enter the public realms is there a real chance to create new ideals and new institutions. But new opinions will most often be attacked rather than embraced. That is why Arendt calls courage the first political virtue. -RB

The Public Safety State

Thinking about the rhetoric and legal bases of the War on Terror, Kade Crawford differentiates between kinds of public safety and, in turn, kinds of public good: “Both Democrats and Republicans justify Terror War abuses by telling the public, either directly or indirectly, that our national security hangs in the balance. But national security is not the same as public safety. And more: the things the government has done in the name of preserving national security-from invading Iraq to putting every man named Mohammed on a special list-actually undermine our public safety. That’s because, as David Talbot demonstrates in The Devil’s Chessboard, his revelatory Allen Dulles biography and devastating portrait of a CIA run amok, national security centers on “national interests,” which translates, in the brand of Cold War realpolitik that Dulles pioneered, into the preferred policy agendas of powerful corporations. Public safety, on the other hand, is concerned with whether you live or die, and how. Any serious effort at public safety requires a harm-reduction approach acknowledging straight out that no government program can foreclose the possibility of terroristic violence. The national security apparatus, by contrast, grows powerful in direct proportion to the perceived strength of the terrorist (or in yesterday’s language, the Communist) threat-and requires that you fear this threat so hysterically that you release your grip on reason. Reason tells you government cannot protect us from every bad thing that happens. But the endlessly repeated national security meme pretends otherwise, though the world consistently proves it wrong.” The confusion of national security with public safety is a theme of Arendt’s work; she insists that what we justify in the name of national security is rarely about the security of the nation and frequently in support of economic or imperialist adventures. And the turn toward public safety furthers the tenuous connection of our national security state to any meaningful connection to the security of the nation. The debate is really between personal freedom and personal security; the question is whether the seemingly unique unlimited human desire for security will corrupt the essential republican freedoms of free speech, free assembly, and free protest that are at the root of our constitutional freedoms.

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 Art in Dark Times

aleppo-wsj-amor-mundiUrsula Lindsey visits Egypt’s literary elite and, through their struggle with the country’s repressive, but secular, military government, tells a story of its history since Tahrir: “Cairo has always had a lively literary scene, which since the early 20th century has been anchored in the bars, bookstores, offices, and smoke-filled cafés of Downtown. The district adjoins Tahrir Square, a belle epoque wonder created by Khedive Ismail Pasha in 1865 to rival the glory of Paris. Its elegant apartment buildings, old palaces, and passages have slipped into charming dilapidation, but it remains the city’s cultural epicenter. In the novel The Yacoubian Building, a best seller during Mubarak’s twilight years in power, Alaa Al Aswany indicts the regime’s corruption and describes its repercussions on the lives of the residents of a historic Downtown building. Merit published the first edition. Two years after Mubarak’s downfall, Hashim and his friends were in the street again. In 2013, they backed the protests against the Muslim Brotherhood’s post-Mubarak government and the military intervention that ousted Mohamed Morsi from the presidency that July. Headed by Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has since become president, the regime outlawed the Brotherhood and arrested thousands of its members. When security forces cleared Morsi supporters from Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in August 2013, they left at least 1,000 people dead. As an Islamist insurgency grew in the Sinai Peninsula and the country’s economy faltered, the Sisi regime’s repression expanded in every direction, driving a generation of young activists into prison, exile, or silence. Egyptians are still dying regularly in police custody or being kidnapped and held for weeks or months on end in a secret, parallel prison system where torture is rampant. The authorities harass media outlets, human-rights groups, universities, civil-society organizations, and cultural institutions-anywhere citizens might congregate, reflect, and express themselves. In the entrance to Merit’s office hangs a tattered, framed gray sheet of paper covered in signatures. At the top is written i was in tahrir. So many waves of violence, fatigue, disappointment, and confusion have swept over Egypt since the uprising five years ago that these days, one almost forgets, or doubts, it ever took place. Sisi’s regime wants not only to rewrite the past-it insists the Arab Spring was a conspiracy hatched by the West and Islamists-but also to forbid any honest accounting of the present crisis and to disable the capacity to imagine alternatives. To the government, the motley spirit of defiance displayed by institutions like Merit is unacceptable.”

The Rise of the Social

Emily Bell takes stock of the new media landscape: “Something really dramatic is happening to our media landscape, the public sphere, and our journalism industry, almost without us noticing and certainly without the level of public examination and debate it deserves. Our news ecosystem has changed more dramatically in the past five years than perhaps at any time in the past five hundred. We are seeing huge leaps in technical capability-virtual reality, live video, artificially intelligent news bots, instant messaging, and chat apps. We are seeing massive changes in control, and finance, putting the future of our publishing ecosystem into the hands of a few, who now control the destiny of many. Social media hasn’t just swallowed journalism, it has swallowed everything. It has swallowed political campaigns, banking systems, personal histories, the leisure industry, retail, even government and security. The phone in our pocket is our portal to the world. I think in many ways this heralds enormously exciting opportunities for education, information, and connection, but it brings with it a host of contingent existential risks…The reintermediation of information, which once looked as though it was going to be fully democratized by the progress of the open Web, is likely to make the mechanisms for funding journalism worse before they get better. Looking at the prospects for mobile advertising and the aggressive growth targets Apple, Facebook, Google, and the rest have to meet to satisfy Wall Street, it is fair to say that unless social platforms return a great deal more money back to the source, producing news is likely to become a nonprofit pursuit rather than an engine of capitalism. To be sustainable, news and journalism companies will need to radically alter their cost base. It seems most likely that the next wave of news media companies will be fashioned around a studio model of managing different stories, talents, and products across a vast range of devices and platforms. As this shift happens, posting journalism directly to Facebook or other platforms will become the rule rather than the exception. Even maintaining a website could be abandoned in favor of hyperdistribution. The distinction between platforms and publishers will melt completely.”

The Common Turtle Pile

Diane Ravitch, citing a certain couplet loving children’s author, takes stock of the divide between educators and the people who write education policy: “In New York State, 220,000 students refused to take the state tests in 2015. This is called “opting out” of the test. A survey conducted by the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents sixty-eight urban districts, reported that the average student takes 112 standardized tests from pre-kindergarten to the end of high school, most of which are mandated by the federal government. The new online tests for the Common Core require children in grades three to eight to sit for fifteen to twenty hours over a two-week period to measure their reading and math skills. National opinion polls showed that a majority of parents thought there was too much testing in schools. In response to such expressions of parental opposition, the Obama administration announced in late October that it was taking action to reduce the burden of standardized testing. Secretary Duncan issued a statement saying that testing was consuming too much instructional time and “causing undue stress for students and educators.” The one concrete proposal in the Obama “Testing Action Plan” was advice to states and districts to limit tests to no more than 2 percent of class time. Since most schools are in session 180 days a year for at least six hours a day, the limit translates to twenty-one hours of testing time. In other words, the 2 percent “limit” merely confirmed the status quo, while giving the appearance that the administration was making genuine changes. Nothing in the administration’s plan allowed states to drop the failed practice of evaluating the quality of teachers by the test scores of their students. In early December, Congress passed and President Obama signed a new federal law, replacing Bush’s No Child Left Behind. It is called the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which is another way of saying “no child left behind” (why Congress feels the need to put an unrealistic prediction into the title of legislation is baffling). Like NCLB, the new law requires annual testing of students in grades three to eight in reading and mathematics, but it turns this responsibility over to the states. ESSA prohibits future secretaries of education from meddling in states’ decisions and contracts the federal role in education. It also eliminates federal punishments for schools and teachers with low test scores, leaving those decisions to the states. What is not abandoned is the core belief that standardized testing and accountability are the right levers to improve education. The best metaphor for education reform today is Dr. Seuss’s children’s book Yertle the Turtle. Yertle, the master turtle, forced all the other turtles to pile themselves into a very high stack so that he could survey his kingdom. From where Yertle sat, perched on top, everything looked grand and glorious. Those on the bottom were not experiencing anything but pain and frustration. When the pile collapsed, Yertle was brought back to earth and got his comeuppance. This will likely be the fate of the politicians, economists, and business leaders who decided to reform the nation’s schools, at a distance, without consulting working educators.”

1798 ---  by William Holland --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Action and Interaction

By Hans Teerds

“Action and speech create a space between the participants, which can find its proper location almost any time and anywhere. It is the space of appearance in the widest sense of the word, namely, the space where I appear to others as they appear to me, where men exist not merely like other living or inanimate things but make their appearance explicitly.”

— Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Hannah Arendt was, as far as I know, the first to introduce the idea of the public realm in a political-philosophical context. She introduced the concept in The Human Condition in 1958. A few years later, in 1962, the philosopher Jürgen Habermas also investigated the idea, this time in the German language with the term Öffentlichkeit. According to the Turkish-American political theorist Sheyla Benhabib, a little reference in Habermas’ first chapter reveals he did know about Arendt’s attempt. In fact, their investigations were totally different, a fact which came to the fore in the English translation of Habermas’ book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1989). Between brackets, the publishing of this translation caused a wave of pessimistic reflections within the American discourses on philosophy and political theory (with titles like The Phantom Public Sphere) as well in architectural theory (characterized by narratives like The End of Public Space). What certainly is remarkable is that the translators chose to use the term “public sphere” as a translation of Öffentlichkeit. Here we recall that Arendt in her own translation to German uses Öffentliche Raum. This choice reveals that Arendt’s concept is at least partially more spatial and tangible than Habermas’, whose public sphere seems more ephemeral. As a frame of reference, the quotation above captures the spatiality of Arendt’s thinking.

I do not mean to dismiss the perspective of Habermas. (And for a non-philosopher like me, this is a bit of a tricky trajectory.) Nevertheless, drawing on my observations in the preceding paragraph, I want to stress why I would challenge the impact of Habermas on architectural theory. Like Arendt, Habermas (re)discovers public space and the public sphere as a central question of modernity, and he connects the idea of the public sphere to different aspects of humankind’s activities. The difference, however, is that Arendt distinguishes between three activities–labour, work and action–while Habermas makes a distinction between only two: labour and interaction. The leaving out of ‘work’ is telling, I would suggest. Continue reading

theodor w. adorno

Theodor W. Adorno on the Meaning of Thinking

“Thinking no longer means any more than checking at each moment whether one can indeed think.”

— Theodor W. Adorno

Thedor W. Adorno’s Biography

Theodor W. Adorno was one of the most important philosophers and social critics in Germany after World War II. Although less well known among anglophone philosophers than his contemporary Hans-Georg Gadamer, Adorno had even greater influence on scholars and intellectuals in postwar Germany. In the 1960s he was the most prominent challenger to both Sir Karl Popper’s philosophy of science and Martin Heidegger’s philosophy of existence. Jürgen Habermas, Germany’s foremost social philosopher after 1970, was Adorno’s student and assistant. The scope of Adorno’s influence stems from the interdisciplinary character of his research and of the Frankfurt School to which he belonged. It also stems from the thoroughness with which he examined Western philosophical traditions, especially from Kant onward, and the radicalness to his critique of contemporary Western society. He was a seminal social philosopher and a leading member of the first generation of Critical Theory.

Unreliable translations hampered the initial reception of Adorno’s published work in English speaking countries. Since the 1990s, however, better translations have appeared, along with newly translated lectures and other posthumous works that are still being published. These materials not only facilitate an emerging assessment of his work in epistemology and ethics but also strengthen an already advanced reception of his work in aesthetics and cultural theory.

To read additional Thoughts on Thinking, please click here.

Featured image source from Meta Liberia. Biography sourced from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


Death and the Public Realm

**This article was originally published on May 13, 2013**

“There is perhaps no clearer testimony to the loss of the public realm in the modern age than the almost complete loss of authentic concern with immortality, a loss somewhat overshadowed by the simultaneous loss of the metaphysical concern with eternity.”

–Hannah Arendt,  The Human Condition Continue reading

Death and the Public Realm


“There is perhaps no clearer testimony to the loss of the public realm in the modern age than the almost complete loss of authentic concern with immortality, a loss somewhat overshadowed by the simultaneous loss of the metaphysical concern with eternity.”

-Hannah Arendt,  The Human Condition,

Hannah Arendt was one of the first to remark upon the loss of the public realm, or what Jürgen Habermas called the public sphere.  As indicated by the terms realm and sphere, along with related phrases such as public space and public sector, we are referring here to a kind of environment, or as Arendt puts it, “the world itself, in so far as it is common to all of us and distinguished from our privately owned place in it” (p. 52). The private realm, the subject of a previous post of mine (The Deprivations of Privacy) is defined in relation (and opposition) to the public, but both are differentiated from the natural environment according to Arendt.  Both are human artifacts, human inventions:

To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it: the world like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time. (p. 52)

The table is an apt metaphor, as it has the connotation of civilized discourse, and a willingness to sit down for peaceful negotiation. Indeed, it is much more than a metaphor, as the table does create a shared space for individuals, a medium, if you will, around which they can communicate. But the table also keeps individuals separate from one another, establishing a buffer zone that allows for a sense of safety in the company of individuals who might otherwise be threatening.  Sitting at a table restricts the possibilities of sudden movement, providing some assurance that the person seated across from you will not suddenly spring at you with sword or knife in hand, especially if both parties keep their hands visible on the table top. No wonder, then, that as the practice of sitting around a table for a meal emerges in the Middle Ages, it becomes the focal point for what Norbert Elias refers to as the civilizing process.


The table is a medium, an in-between, as Arendt puts it, and each medium in its own way serves as a means by which individuals connect and relate to one another, and also are separated and kept apart from one another.  In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan expressed the same idea in saying that all media, meaning all technologies and human innovations, are extensions of some aspect of individuals, but at the same time are amputations.  As I have explained elsewhere, the medium that extends us into the world comes between us and the world, and in doing so becomes our world. Or as I like to put it, with apologies to McLuhan, the medium is the membrane.

The public realm then is a shared human environment, a media environment. As Arendt explains,

everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity. For us, appearance—something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves—constitutes reality. (p. 50)

Paul Watzlawick has argued that our reality is constructed through our communication, rather than mere reflected or represented by our messages. And this means that our reality is shaped by our means of communication, our media.  It is through publicity that we create the public realm.  And for the public realm to exist, there must also be the possibility for some communication to take place privately, in a context where it cannot be seen and heard by everybody, where there are barriers to people’s perception and their access to information, what Erving Goffman referred to as the back region.

The public realm is not a media environment we typically associate with tribal societies, where the distinction between public and private is, for the most part, non-existent.  Rather, it is strongly tied to the city as a human environment (and a medium of communication in its own right).  Lewis Mumford insightfully observed that cities are a type of container technology, indeed the container of containers, and what they contain includes great concentrations of population.  As settlements evolved into the first urban centers in the ancient world, they gave rise to the first true crowds and mobs, and also to audiences made up of people who do not necessarily know one another, or have strong social ties to each other.

These new kinds of audiences required a new form of communication:  public address.  They required new kinds of physical environments:  the agora, the forum, the marketplace.  And they required new forms of education:  the art of rhetoric.

The invention of writing is intimately bound up in all of these developments.  Without reasonably well-developed systems of notation, human populations were not able to handle the complexity of large populations. In tribal societies, as population increases, groups split up in order to keep their affairs manageable.  Writing, as a container for language, whose primary form is the spoken word, develops side by side with the city as container, and allows for the control and coordination of large populations and diverse activities.  And writing, in allowing language to be viewed and reviewed, made it possible to refine the art of public address, to study rhetoric and instruct others in the techniques of oratory, as did the Sophists in ancient Greece.  It is no accident that the introduction of the Greek alphabet was followed by the first forms of study, including rhetoric and grammar, and by the first forms of democracy.

Writing also has the peculiar effect of introducing the idea of the individual, of breaking people apart from their tribal, group identity. The ability to take one’s thoughts, write them down, and observe them from the outside, made it possible to separate the knower from the known, as Eric Havelock put it, which also separated individuals from their traditions.


Written law, beginning with Hammurabi and Moses, took judicial matters out of the concrete realm of proverbs and parables, and reasoning by analogy, opened the door to the view that everyone is equal, as an individual, before the law.  The fact that literacy also facilitated increasingly more abstract modes of thought also was of great importance, but the simple act of reading and writing alone, in isolation, had much to do with the genesis of individualism.

The origin of the public realm is closely tied to the medium of the written word, in highly significant but limited ways. Script gave us the civic public, rooted in rhetoric, but it was the printing revolution in early modern Europe that made the public intro a national, mass phenomenon. As McLuhan noted in his preface to The Gutenberg Galaxy,

Printing from movable types created a quite unexpected new environment—it created the PUBLIC.  Manuscript technology did not have the intensity or power of extension necessary to create publics on a national scale.  What we have called “nations” in recent centuries did not, and could not, precede the advent of Gutenberg technology any more than they can survive the advent of electric circuitry with its power of totally involving all people in all other people. (p. ii)

A reading public is quite different from a listening public, as readers are separated in time and space from one another, and this form of mediation also had the effect of making individualism a ruling ideology.  And yes, Habermas did place a great deal of emphasis on people gathering in public places like coffee shops to discuss and debate the issues of the day, but they did so based on what they read in print media such as newspapers, pamphlets, and the like. Moreover, historian Elizabeth Eisenstein explained in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, the printers’ shops were the first places that people gathered for such intellectual exchanges, long before they gravitated to the coffee shops and taverns.  The point is that the content of these discussions were based on typographic media, the mindset of the discussants was shaped by print literacy, and both were situated within the print media environment.  Within such an environment, a population of individuals could gain common access to ideas and opinions through print media, which in turn could provide the basis for political action; in this way publics came into being.

Publics were formed by publicity, and publicity was achieved through publication.  As much as books, pamphlets, catalogs, calendars, periodicals, and all manner of ephemera were the products of the printing press, so too, as McLuhan observed, was the reading public.  Print technology gave us our first form of mass communication, characterized by wide and relatively rapid dissemination of multiple, identical copies of the same text, a democratizing process, as Walter Benjamin observed.

But printing also created a new sense of immortality, of the author’s words living on through the ages, and of posterity as the ultimate judge.  Elizabeth Eisenstein explains that the very multiplication of texts, however perishable any single copy might be, established what she referred to as the preservative powers of print far beyond anything previously known.  This idea of immortality goes hand in hand with the rise of a new kind of historical consciousness, which also emerged out of print culture.

Eternity, by way of contrast, is situated outside of historical time, within what Mircea Eliade calls sacred time. It is a time that looks back towards the moment of creation or a golden age. Through ritual, we can step out of the profane time of everyday life, and in enacting the myth of eternal return enter the sacred time that intersects with all of history—in this sense always a part of it and yet at the same time apart from it.

Traditional cultures look backward to creation or the golden age as a time superior to the present, a time they strive to reclaim.  Oral cultures are particularly associated with a cyclical understanding of time.  The invention of writing makes possible first chronology, then historical narrative, and this opens the door to the idea of progress. The shift begins with the biblical narrative in ancient Israel, and the secular history writing of ancient Greece and Rome.  But a complete reversal in orientation from looking to the past as the ideal towards anticipating the future as a continual process of getting better, perhaps culminating in utopia, is closely associated with the printing revolution and the modern world it gave rise to.  This is, in turn, superseded by a present-centered orientation brought on by the electronic media, as I have discussed in On the Binding Biases of Time.  The instantaneity and immediacy of electronic communication not only moves our focus from history and futurity to the present moment, but it translates the remembered past and the anticipated future into the present tense, the now of the computer program and digital simulation.

Arendt’s insight that the loss of a concern with immortality is intimately bound up with the loss of the public realm implies a common denominator, specifically the electronic media environment that has superseded the typographic media environment. If literacy and print go hand in hand with citizenship, civics, and the public realm, what happens when these media are overshadowed by electronic technologies, from the telegraph and wireless to radio and television now to the internet and mobile technology?


We still use the word public of course, but we have seen a great blurring of the boundaries between public and private, the continuing erosion of privacy but also a loss of the expectation that dress, behavior, and communication ought to be different when we are in a public place, and that there are rules and obligations that go along with being a part of a public.  And we have experienced a loss of our longstanding sense of individualism, replaced by an emphasis on personalization; a loss of citizenship based on equality, replaced by group identity based on grievance and all manner of neo-tribalism; a loss of traditional notions of character and personal integrity, replaced by various forms of identity construction via online profiles, avatars, and the like; the loss of separate public and private selves, replaced by affiliations with different lifestyles and media preferences.

As consumers, members of audiences, and participants in the online world, we live for the moment, and we do so with disastrous results, economically, ethically, and ecologically.  Arendt suggests that, “under modern conditions, it is indeed so unlikely that anybody should earnestly aspire to an earthly immortality that we probably are justified in thinking it is nothing but vanity” (p. 56).  Along the same lines, Daniel Boorstin in The Image argued that the hero, characterized by greatness, has been replaced by the celebrity, characterized by publicity, famous for appearing on the media rather than for any accomplishments of historical significance.  Heroes were immortal. Celebrities become famous seemingly overnight, and then just as quickly fade from collective consciousness. Heroes, as Boorstin describes them, were known through print media; celebrities make up the content of our audiovisual and electronic media.  These are the role models that people pattern their lives after.

Arendt explains that a public realm ” cannot be erected for one generation and planned for the living only; it must transcend the life span of mortal men” (p. 55). And she goes on to explain,

It is the publicity of the public realm which can absorb and make shine through the centuries whatever men may want to save from the natural ruin of time. Through many ages before us—but now not any more—men entered the public realm because they wanted something of their own or something they had in common with others to be more permanent than their earthly lives. (p. 55)

Without this concern with a public realm that extends across history from the past into the future, what becomes of political action based on the common good, rather than private interests?

With the loss of any concern with immortality, have we witnessed not merely the erosion, but the irrevocable death of the public realm?

And perhaps most importantly of all, without the existence of a public, can there still exist, in something more than name only, a republic?

-Lance Strate

Habermas on Arendt’s Conception of Power

Jürgen Habermas sees Arendt as usefully placing emphasis on the origin of power as opposed to its means of employment. In contrast to Max Weber, who understands power in terms of particular individuals seeking to realize a fixed goal, she separates power from the telos (end), developing what Habermas calls a theory of power as “communicative action”. This formulation gestures towards his own conceptual language (see Theory of Communicative Action, 1981) and in Arendt he names plurality as the condition for communication, quickly moving from distinctness to connection:

“The spatial dimension of the life-world is determined by the “fact of human plurality”: every interaction unifies multiple perspectives of perception and action of those present […]”

Perceptively-and provocatively-Habermas compliments this description of the spatial dimension of the world with a temporal one:

“The temporal dimension of the life-world is determined by the “fact of human natality”: the birth of every individual means the possibility of a new beginning; to act means to be able to seize the initiative and to do the unanticipated.”

In this description, we see that a kind of conceptual past allows something new to happen in the future. Further, the reference to the past is singular (“the birth of every individual”) but allows action between people. So in natality, as Habermas describes it, we go from the past to the future and the individual to the group. The very emphasis on the origin of power, however, raises the question of how it is to endure over time. The phrase “temporal dimension of the life-world” points to this problem: how to use power in the future when, as Arendt writes in the Human Condition: “power cannot be stored up and kept in reserve for emergencies.”  This citation helpfully emphasizes that power shouldn’t be seen as capital that can be deployed at the time that a ruler or executive wishes. Arendt suggests instead that it cannot be virtualized, that it always exists in a one to one relation with opinion as it shifts.

Habermas ultimately accuses Arendt of a sleight of hand in taking refuge in the idea of the contract to solve the problem of her radical conception of action. In ending his article with an emphasis on the “contract theory of natural law”  however, he overlooks the difference between a promise and a contract in Arendt. The promise offers individual stability of one’s identity over time in the same way that the contract offers consistency to group action and both in a sense win consistency through the virtual. In both cases the reality of identity comes into being only over time. However, there is a different kind of “storage” in the model of the promise than the one we imagine with capital. Arendt suggests the contract as a way to make a short term structure that retains flexibility that the idea of stockpiled power does not.

-Jeffrey Champlin

The Progeny of Teachers

San Jose State University is experimenting with a program where students pay a reduced fee for online courses run by the private firm Udacity. Teachers and their unions are in retreat across the nation. And groups like Uncollege insist that schools and universities are unnecessary. At a time when teachers are everywhere on the defensive, it is great to read this opening salvo from Leon Wieseltier:

When I look back at my education, I am struck not by how much I learned but by how much I was taught. I am the progeny of teachers; I swoon over teachers. Even what I learned on my own I owed to them, because they guided me in my sense of what is significant.

I share Wieseltier’s reverence for educators. Eric Rothschild and Werner Feig lit fires in my brain while I was in high school. Austin Sarat taught me to teach myself in college. Laurent Mayali introduced me to the wonders of history. Marianne Constable pushed me to be a rigorous reader. Drucilla Cornell fired my idealism for justice. And Philippe Nonet showed me how much I still had to know and inspired me to read and think ruthlessly in graduate school. Like Wieseltier, I can trace my life’s path through the lens of my teachers. 

The occasion for such a welcome love letter to teachers is Wieseltier’s rapacious rejection of homeschooling and unschooling, two movements that he argues denigrate teachers. As sympathetic as I am to his paean to pedagogues, Wieseltier’s rejection of all alternatives to conventional education today is overly defensive.

For all their many ills, homeschooling and unschooling are two movements that seek to personalize and intensify the often conventional and factory-like educational experience of our nation’s high schools and colleges. According to Wieseltier, these alternatives are possessed of the “demented idea that children can be competently taught by people whose only qualifications for teaching them are love and a desire to keep them from the world.” These movements believe that young people can “reject college and become “self-directed learners.”” For Wieseltier, the claim that people can teach themselves is both an “insult to the great profession of pedagogy” and a romantic over-estimation of “untutored ‘self’.” 

The romance of the untutored self is strong, but hardly dangerous. While today educators like Will Richardson and entrepreneurs like Dale Stephens celebrate the abundance of the internet and argue that anyone can teach themselves with simply an internet connection, that dream has a history. Consider this endorsement of autodidactic learning from Ray Bradbury from long before the internet:

Yes, I am. I’m completely library educated. I’ve never been to college. I went down to the library when I was in grade school in Waukegan, and in high school in Los Angeles, and spent long days every summer in the library. I used to steal magazines from a store on Genesee Street, in Waukegan, and read them and then steal them back on the racks again. That way I took the print off with my eyeballs and stayed honest. I didn’t want to be a permanent thief, and I was very careful to wash my hands before I read them. But with the library, it’s like catnip, I suppose: you begin to run in circles because there’s so much to look at and read. And it’s far more fun than going to school, simply because you make up your own list and you don’t have to listen to anyone. When I would see some of the books my kids were forced to bring home and read by some of their teachers, and were graded on—well, what if you don’t like those books?

In this interview in the Paris Review, Bradbury not only celebrates the freedom of the untutored self, but also dismisses college along much the same lines as Dale Stephens of Uncollege does. Here is Bradbury again:

You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James? They may like John Irving, for instance, who’s the bore of all time. A lot of the people whose work they’ve taught in the schools for the last thirty years, I can’t understand why people read them and why they are taught. The library, on the other hand, has no biases. The information is all there for you to interpret. You don’t have someone telling you what to think. You discover it for yourself. 

What the library and the internet offer is unfiltered information. For the autodidact, that is all that is needed. Education is a self-driven exploration of the database of the world.

Of course such arguments are elitist. Not everyone is a Ray Bradbury or a Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz, who taught himself Latin in a few days. Hannah Arendt refused to go to her high school Greek class because it was offered at 8 am—too early an hour for her mind to wake up, she claimed. She learned Greek on her own. For such people self-learning is an option. But even Arendt needed teachers, which is why she went to Freiburg to study with Martin Heidegger. She had heard, she later wrote, that thinking was happening there. And she wanted to learn to think.

What is it that teachers teach when they are teaching? To answer “thinking” or “critical reasoning” or “self-reflection” is simply to open more questions. And yet these are the crucial questions we need to ask. At a period in time when education is increasingly confused with information delivery, we need to articulate and promote the dignity of teaching.

What is most provocative in Wieseltier’s essay is his civic argument for a liberal arts education.  Education, he writes, is the salvation of both the person and the citizen. Indeed it is the bulwark of a democratic politics:

Surely the primary objectives of education are the formation of the self and the formation of the citizen. A political order based on the expression of opinion imposes an intellectual obligation upon the individual, who cannot acquit himself of his democratic duty without an ability to reason, a familiarity with argument, a historical memory. An ignorant citizen is a traitor to an open society. The demagoguery of the media, which is covertly structural when it is not overtly ideological, demands a countervailing force of knowledgeable reflection.

That education is the answer to our political ills is an argument heard widely. During the recent presidential election, the candidates frequently appealed to education as the panacea for everything from our flagging economy to our sclerotic political system. Wieseltier trades in a similar argument: A good liberal arts education will yield critical thinkers who will thus be able to parse the obfuscation inherent in the media and vote for responsible and excellent candidates.

I am skeptical of arguments that imagine education as a panacea for politics. Behind such arguments is usually the unspoken assumption: “If X were educated and knew what they were talking about, they would see the truth and agree with me.” There is a confidence here in a kind of rational speech situation (of the kind imagined by Jürgen Habermas) that holds that when the conditions are propitious, everyone will come to agree on a rational solution. But that is not the way human nature or politics works. Politics involves plurality and the amazing thing about human beings is that educated or not, we embrace an extraordinary variety of strongly held, intelligent, and conscientious opinions. I am a firm believer in education. But I hold out little hope that education will make people see eye to eye, end our political paralysis, or usher in a more rational polity.

What then is the value of education? And why is that we so deeply need great teachers? Hannah Arendt saw education as “the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it.” The educator must love the world and believe in it if he or she is to introduce young people to that world as something noble and worthy of respect. In this sense education is conservative, insofar as it conserves the world as it has been given. But education is also revolutionary, insofar as the teacher must realize that it is part of that world as it is that young people will change the world. Teachers simply teach what is, Arendt argued; they leave to the students the chance to transform it.

To teach the world as it is, one must love the world—what Arendt comes to call amor mundi. A teacher must not despise the world or see it as oppressive, evil, and deceitful. Yes, the teacher can recognize the limitations of the world and see its faults. But he or she must nevertheless love the world with its faults and thus lead the student into the world as something inspired and beautiful. To teach Plato, you must love Plato. To teach geology, you must love rocks. While critical thinking is an important skill, what teachers teach is rather enthusiasm and love of learning. The great teachers are the lovers of learning. What they teach, above all, is the experience of discovery. And they do so by learning themselves.

Education is to be distinguished from knowledge transmission. It must also be distinguished from credentialing. And finally, education is not the same as indoctrinating students with values or beliefs. Education is about opening students to the fact of what is. Teaching them about the world as it is.  It is then up to the student, the young, to judge whether the world that they have inherited is loveable and worthy of retention, or whether it must be changed. The teacher is not responsible for changing the world; rather the teacher nurtures new citizens who are capable of judging the world on their own.

Arendt thus affirms Ralph Waldo Emerson’s view that “He only who is able to stand alone is qualified for society.” Emerson’s imperative, to take up the divine idea allotted to each one of us, resonates with Arendt’s Socratic imperative, to be true to oneself. Education, Arendt insists, must risk allowing people their unique and personal viewpoints, eschewing political education and seeking, simply, to nurture independent minds. Education prepares the youth for politics by bringing them into a common world as independent and unique individuals. From this perspective, the progeny of teachers is the educated citizen, someone one who is both self-reliant in an Emersonian sense and also part of a common world.