Arendtamormundi

Amor Mundi 2/28/16

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.

amor_mundi_sign-upCould It Happen Here?

donald trumpIn an essay in the Washington Post, Danielle Allen invokes Hannah Arendt to suggest that we must speak out about the danger Donald Trump poses to constitutional democracy. “Like any number of us raised in the late 20th century, I have spent my life perplexed about exactly how Hitler could have come to power in Germany. Watching Donald Trump’s rise, I now understand. Leave aside whether a direct comparison of Trump to Hitler is accurate. That is not my point. My point rather is about how a demagogic opportunist can exploit a divided country. To understand the rise of Hitler and the spread of Nazism, I have generally relied on the German-Jewish émigré philosopher Hannah Arendt and her arguments about the banality of evil. Somehow people can understand themselves as ‘just doing their job,’ yet act as cogs in the wheel of a murderous machine. Arendt also offered a second answer in a small but powerful book called ‘Men in Dark Times.’ In this book, she described all those who thought that Hitler’s rise was a terrible thing but chose ‘internal exile,’ or staying invisible and out of the way as their strategy for coping with the situation. They knew evil was evil, but they too facilitated it, by departing from the battlefield out of a sense of hopelessness.” Allen knows that Trump is not the same as Hitler. Hitler had written an ideological and racist book calling for the rise of an Aryan nation and the expulsion and murder of the Jews; Trump, on the other hand, is seemingly non-ideological. But Allen does rightly see that Trump is dangerous insofar as he seems to have no respect for limits to his power, whether those limits are civil or constitutional. “Donald Trump has no respect for the basic rights that are the foundation of constitutional democracy, nor for the requirements of decency necessary to sustain democratic citizenship. Nor can any democracy survive without an expectation that the people require reasonable arguments that bring the truth to light, and Trump has nothing but contempt for our intelligence.” As first Chris Christie and now Maine Governor Paul LePage endorse Trump, it is clear that Trump is breaking down the resistance of the Republican establishment. While evangelical leaders are on record saying they will not support Trump if he is the nominee, establishment Republicans seem prepared to accept Trump as their standard-bearer.

Allen’s essay was met with a barrage of ugliness on social media. In an update Allen published, she reproduces dozens of tweets she received. Everyone should read these tweets simply to recognize the racist and anti-Semitic boorishness pulsing within Donald Trumps supporters–if not Trump himself. One tweet from DMT Trump Wizard goes “You cannot stop Donald Trump. White people are going to stop hating themselves and there is nothing you can do to stop it.” Another from War & Peace (an insult to Tolstoy) reads: “Jewish ancestry? 40%? 50%?” Another says, “You would be working a McDonalds if it wasn’t for affirmative action. What exactly are you bringing to the country?” The same person then attaches an anti-Semitic cartoon and writes, “I smell a jew.” Someone named Paul Harris asks, “why do third world people come to European ancestry countries to paracite of us? Why has the third world never created anything.” An exceedingly angry racist named Theodore Bundy sends multiple tweets including: “imagine, no more affirmative action. How will you get a job? This PC shit has destroyed a once great nation.” One writes, “My jewdar just went beep. Does the affirmative action negress have a bit of jew inside. No breaks on Trump train. Soz.” Aristides writes, “I can’t wait to see the look on your primitive monkey faces when the GOD-EMPEROR takes his throne. Go back to Africa posthaste.” And adds: “Wow, you are one butt-ugly n—er. Your face makes me sick to my stomach. Please gas yourself.” Ok, these tweets go on and on. Many are worse and call for Allen’s death. You should read them also to remind yourselves that speaking publicly takes courage.

Is Donald Trump racist and anti-Semitic? One can’t blame Trump or anyone for the opinions of his supporters. But when so many Trump supporters are so vocally racist and anti-Semitic, Trump owes it to himself and to the American people to publicly reject those vile opinions. That is a what someone must do if he aspires to be the leader of a multi-ethic and pluralistic democratic country. Not only has Trump not done so, but he has fanned the flames. Twice now he has retweeted tweets from members of white-supremacist groups, one of whose Twitter handle is @WhiteGenocideTM and whose profile tagline reads, “Get the f— out of my country.” Trump’s attacks on President Obama, his birther comments, his questioning of Ted Cruz’s citizenship, and his demonizing of Mexicans and Muslims have contributed to an atmosphere of hate that enables such racial attacks.

None of this means Trump himself is racist. He certainly does not pedal a consistent ideological racism of supremacy as Adolf Hitler and the Nazis did. There is little to suggest that Trump would attack the laws guaranteeing equal voting rights or question the equal protection clause of the Constitution. Rather, Trump is responding at least in part to decades of repressed anger where many Americans have been told they can not speak their minds, express their feelings, or state their opinion. A dishonest and calculated political correctness has enabled Trump to appear as a liberator by unleashing a pent-up anger that is a result of a political culture that has prohibited people from saying what they believe. One real and meaningful attraction of Trump’s campaign is his refusal to self-censor and his embrace of an honest if also low-class and boorish racial anger. Trump as President would likely make the USA a less tolerant and more hateful and angry country. Such a cultural transformation very well could happen here, and it is, of course, dangerous.

But the real danger of a Trump presidency may lie elsewhere. After Trump’s victory in Nevada, he hammered home his main them: Grab as much as you can. “Now we’re going to get greedy for the United States we’re going to grab and grab and grab. We’re going to bring in so much money and so much everything. We’re going to make America great again, folks, I’m telling you folks we’re going to make America great again.” What Trump hates is politics, the collective striving after common ideals of democracy and justice. What he loves about America is simply its promise of abundance, not its tradition of self-government. Freedom for Trump is not the Arendtian freedom to act and speak in public in ways that matter; it is the freedom to get rich and plaster one’s name on buildings and reality television shows.

Alongside Trump’s contempt for politics is his dismissal of the rule of law. He threatens to ban Muslims, to bring back water boarding, and to kill family members of the Islamic State, which are all violations of either international or U.S. Law. Former CIA Director Michael Hayden said recently on “Real Time With Bill Maher” that the US military should and would refuse to carry out such illegal orders if Trump as Commander-in-Chief were to issue them. Trump’s contempt for the law and all political and civil limits is part and parcel of his disdain for politics and all limits on what works.

No doubt Trump’s pragmatic and greedy America is part of America. But it is not the whole or even the best of the American tradition, a tradition that has its roots in Alexander Hamilton’s expressed hope in the first of the Federalist Papers that the United States would stand not for economic liberty but for political freedom: “It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, to decide by their conduct and example, the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” As corrupt as our political system is, the answer cannot be to simply demean and dismiss the nobility of our democratic and constitutional traditions. The danger Trump truly poses is that he seems to care only about the idea of America as a land of milk and honey and to have forgotten or simply dismissed the idea of America as a land of political liberty. And he seems ready, able, and willing to tear down our corrupt political structures with no plan or idea of how they would be rebuilt or re-imagined. Creative destruction is a classic axiom of capitalist innovation, but it rarely works so well in democratic politics. –RB

Make ’em Laugh

trump protestersMark Steyn comes as close to anyone in understanding both the appeal and the danger Trump represents. In a long and rambling account of his experience attending a Trump rally in Burlington, Vermont, Steyn writes: “And then the announcement: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the next President of the United States, Donald J Trump…’ ~THE SHOW: He’s very good at this. Very good. On the same day as Trump’s speech, Peter Shumlin, the colorless dullard serving as Vermont’s governor, came to the State House in Montpelier to deliver his ‘State of the State’ address. He required two prompters so he could do the Obama swivel-head like a guy with good seats at Wimbledon following the world’s slowest centre-court rally. Two prompters! In the Vermont legislature! And for the same old generic boilerplate you forget as soon as you’ve heard it. Trump has no prompters. He walks out, pulls a couple of pieces of folded paper from his pocket, and then starts talking. Somewhere in there is the germ of a stump speech, but it would bore him to do the same poll-tested focus-grouped thing night after night, so he basically riffs on whatever’s on his mind. This can lead to some odd juxtapositions: One minute he’s talking about the Iran deal, the next he detours into how Macy’s stock is in the toilet since they dumped Trump ties. But in a strange way it all hangs together: It’s both a political speech, and a simultaneous running commentary on his own campaign. It’s also hilarious. I’ve seen no end of really mediocre shows at the Flynn in the last quarter-century, and I would have to account this the best night’s entertainment I’ve had there with the exception of the great jazz singer Dianne Reeves a few years back. He’s way funnier than half the stand-up acts I’ve seen at the Juste pour rires comedy festival a couple of hours north in Montreal. And I can guarantee that he was funnier than any of the guys trying their hand at Trump Improv night at the Vermont Comedy Club a couple of blocks away. He has a natural comic timing. Just to be non-partisan about this, the other day I was listening to Obama’s gun-control photo-op at the White House, and he thanked Gabby Giffords, by explaining that her husband Mark’s brother is an astronaut in outer space and he’d called just before Mark’s last meeting at the White House but, not wishing to disturb the President, Mark didn’t pick up. ‘Which made me feel kind of bad,’ said the President. ‘That’s a long-distance call.’ As I was driving along, I remember thinking how brilliantly Obama delivered that line. He’s not usually generous to others and he’s too thin-skinned to be self-deprecating with respect to himself, but, when he wants to get laughs, he knows how to do it. Trump’s is a different style: He’s looser, and more freewheeling. He’s not like Jeb – he doesn’t need writers, and scripted lines; he has a natural instinct for where the comedy lies. He has a zest for the comedy of life. To be sure, some of the gags can be a little – what’s the word? – mean-spirited. The performance was interrupted by knots of protesters. ‘Throw ’em out!’ barked Trump, after the first chants broke out. The second time it happened, he watched one of the security guys carefully picking up the heckler’s coat. ‘Confiscate their coats,’ deadpanned Trump. ‘It’s ten below zero outside.’ Third time it happened, he extended his coat riff: ‘We’ll mail them back to them in a couple of weeks.’ On MSNBC, they apparently had a discussion on how Trump could be so outrageous as to demand the confiscation of private property. But in showbusiness this is what is known as a ‘joke’. And in the theatre it lands: everyone’s laughing and having a ball. That’s the point. I think it would help if every member of the pundit class had to attend a Trump rally before cranking out the usual shtick about how he’s tapping into what Jeb called ‘angst and anger’. Yes, Trump supporters are indignant (and right to be) about the bipartisan cartel’s erasure of the southern border and their preference for unskilled Third World labor over their own citizenry, but ‘anger’ is not the defining quality of a Trump night out. The candidate is clearly having the time of his life, and that’s infectious, which is why his supporters are having a good time, too. Had Mitt campaigned like this, he’d be president. But he had no ability to connect with voters. Nor does Jeb (‘I’ve been endorsed by another 27 has-beens’) Bush.”

Brace Yourselves, America. It’s Really Happening.

donald trumpMatt Taibbi sees the appeal and the danger in Trump and worries he may well win. “In Manchester, a protester barely even manages to say a word before disappearing under a blanket of angry boos: ‘Trump! Trump! Trump!’ It’s a scene straight out of Freaks. In a Trump presidency, there will be free tar and feathers provided at the executive’s every public address. It’s a few minutes after that when a woman in the crowd shouts that Ted Cruz is a p-ssy. She will later tell a journalist she supports Trump because his balls are the size of ‘watermelons,’ while his opponents’ balls are more like ‘grapes’ or ‘raisins.’ Trump’s balls are unaware of this, but he instinctively likes her comment and decides to go into headline-making mode. ‘I never expect to hear that from you again!’ he says, grinning. ‘She said he’s a p-ssy. That’s terrible.” Then, theatrically, he turns his back to the crowd. As the 500 or so reporters in attendance scramble to instantly make this the most important piece of news in the world–in less than a year Trump has succeeded in turning the USA into a massive high school–the candidate beams. What’s he got to be insecure about? The American electoral system is opening before him like a flower. In person, you can’t miss it: The same way Sarah Palin can see Russia from her house, Donald on the stump can see his future. The pundits don’t want to admit it, but it’s sitting there in plain view, 12 moves ahead, like a chess game already won: President Donald Trump. A thousand ridiculous accidents needed to happen in the unlikeliest of sequences for it to be possible, but absent a dramatic turn of events–an early primary catastrophe, Mike Bloomberg ego-crashing the race, etc.–this boorish, monosyllabic TV tyrant with the attention span of an Xbox-playing 11-year-old really is set to lay waste to the most impenetrable oligarchy the Western world ever devised. It turns out we let our electoral process devolve into something so fake and dysfunctional that any half-bright con man with the stones to try it could walk right through the front door and tear it to shreds on the first go. And Trump is no half-bright con man, either. He’s way better than average. His pitch is: He’s rich, he won’t owe anyone anything upon election, and therefore he won’t do what both Democratic and Republican politicians unfailingly do upon taking office, i.e., approve rotten/regressive policies that screw ordinary people. He talks, for instance, about the anti-trust exemption enjoyed by insurance companies, an atrocity dating back more than half a century, to the McCarran-Ferguson Act of 1945. This law, sponsored by one of the most notorious legislators in our history (Nevada Sen. Pat McCarran was thought to be the inspiration for the corrupt Sen. Pat Geary in The Godfather II), allows insurance companies to share information and collude to divvy up markets. Trump may travel to campaign stops on his own plane, but his speeches are increasingly populist as he rails against money in politics, big pharma and insurance companies. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats made a serious effort to overturn this indefensible loophole during the debate over the Affordable Care Act. Trump pounds home this theme in his speeches, explaining things from his perspective as an employer. ‘The insurance companies,’ he says, ‘they’d rather have monopolies in each state than hundreds of companies going all over the place bidding … It’s so hard for me to make deals … because I can’t get bids.’ He goes on to explain that prices would go down if the state-by-state insurance fiefdoms were eliminated, but that’s impossible because of the influence of the industry. ‘I’m the only one that’s self-funding … Everyone else is taking money from, I call them the bloodsuckers.’ Trump isn’t lying about any of this.”

Crescents

croissantsAdam Gopnik mourns the crescent croissant: “Why is a croissant shaped that way, anyway? The first truth is that they are not, necessarily. As veteran visitors to Parisian bakeries know, the superior, all-butter croissants are already commonly articulated as straight pastries–or, at least, as gently sloping ones–while the inferior oil or margarine ones must, by law, be neatly turned in. This sometimes leads those who expect clarity and logic, rather than complexity and self-cancelling entrapment, from French laws to think that the straight croissants are all butter and the curved ones are reliably not. The truth is that a butter croissant can be any shape it chooses, on the general atavistic aristocratic principle that, butter being better, it creates its own realm of privilege. One only wishes that Umberto Eco, whom we sadly lost last week, was still around to parse this issue, because Eco, long before he was king of the airport bookstore, was an emperor of signs, one of the world’s leading linguists and semioticians. The underlying logic for the croissant being a crescent, one suspects he would have said, is ‘Saussurean,’ after the great early-twentieth-century linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who glimpsed the truth that linguistic signs are arbitrary and find their meaning only by being clearly distinguished from other opposing signs. We know ‘Monday’ only because it doesn’t sound or look like ‘Sunday.’ P. G. Wodehouse, not surprisingly, showed his grasp of this rule when he had one of the Drones, on holiday in France, point out that he had been given a Continental breakfast consisting of ‘a roll shaped like a crescent and a roll shaped like a roll.’ Without the standard accompanying brioche, there would be no need for the curve; a roll-shaped roll produces a curved one, as ‘Sunday’ makes ‘Monday.’ The croissant, in this view, is curved in order to make plain what it isn’t as much as what it is. Murkier depths of meaning surely reside here, too, which would have taken Eco’s eye to plumb. Doubtless some social historian, a century or so hence, will get a thesis out of examining how, on the very verge of the threatened ‘Brexit’–the exit of England, at least, from the European Community–the mass marketers of Britain ostentatiously rejected a form seen as so clearly French that it is a regular part of that ominously named ‘Continental’ breakfast. Adding an arbitrary national shape to an established one to attempt an entirely English croissant, that future scholar will argue, is an affirmation of refusing to be one with Europe. (The crescent, moreover, is the sign of the Islamic empire, and some damp, suspicious kinds will see meaning in that, too.)”

amor_mundi_sign-upBad Habits

habitsJennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen reads the contemporary literature on habituation–that is, self-help achieved by the ritualisation of certain kinds of virtuous praxis. The topic goes back to Aristotle, and perhaps even farther, but Ratner-Rosenhagen thinks it’s missing something these days: “Much of today’s habits literature has a contemporary feeling, with its focus on time management, individual productivity, and business success, but the genre has a long history. For millennia, there has been a tradition of august thinkers writing about how healthy habits promote–and unhealthy habits undermine–self-fashioning and moral improvement. The ancient Stoics, for example, sought to understand how perfecting one’s reason by making it a habit could be the path to virtue. The Enlightenment psychologist Maine de Biran had a harder time squaring rigorous intellect and habitual practices, contending that ‘all that happens exclusively under the sway of habit should lose its authority before the eyes of reason’. Friedrich Nietzsche, too, was fascinated with habits. He had his own übermenschliche work habits, while at the same time he felt grateful to every bit of ‘misery and… sickness’ that came his way because they gave him ‘a hundred backdoors through which I can escape from enduring habits’. Gertrude Stein couldn’t have disagreed more. For Stein, the habits of ‘daily island life’–those simple, unglamorous rituals of cleaning, eating, sleeping–were the means by which people who had lived through the savagery and chaos of two world wars could orient themselves with the simple and commonplace. As ever, the habits literature of today promises order in a disordered world, but it also comes with a subtle and significant difference. The most important difference is not the forgotten art of style, though the staccato prose, exclamation points, bland generalisations, and clichéd motivational quotations of today’s literature neither stimulate the imagination nor activate the will. Rather, it is the lost promise of habits literature as a form of ethical inquiry and social commentary. Individual improvement has always been the purpose of habits literature, but the genre used to require appraising the society in which the self, and the habits, formed. Historically, thinking about habits without social contexts or ethical consequences was unthinkable. Today it is axiomatic.”

Aristotelian Safe Spaces

teamworkCharles Duhigg writes about Google’s Project Aristotle seeking to understand why some corporate teams work better than others. The answer, it seems, has less to do with intelligence, leadership, or structure and more to do with psychological safety, or what Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines as a ‘”shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.'” Psychological safety in the new corporate lingo “‘…describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’ When Rozovsky and her Google colleagues encountered the concept of psychological safety in academic papers, it was as if everything suddenly fell into place. One engineer, for instance, had told researchers that his team leader was ‘direct and straightforward, which creates a safe space for you to take risks.’ That team, researchers estimated, was among Google’s accomplished groups. By contrast, another engineer had told the researchers that his ‘team leader has poor emotional control.’ He added: ‘He panics over small issues and keeps trying to grab control. I would hate to be driving with him being in the passenger seat, because he would keep trying to grab the steering wheel and crash the car.’ That team, researchers presumed, did not perform well. Most of all, employees had talked about how various teams felt. ‘And that made a lot of sense to me, maybe because of my experiences at Yale,’ Rozovsky said. ‘I’d been on some teams that left me feeling totally exhausted and others where I got so much energy from the group.’ Rozovsky’s study group at Yale was draining because the norms–the fights over leadership, the tendency to critique–put her on guard. Whereas the norms of her case-competition team–enthusiasm for one another’s ideas, joking around and having fun–allowed everyone to feel relaxed and energized. For Project Aristotle, research on psychological safety pointed to particular norms that are vital to success. There were other behaviors that seemed important as well–like making sure teams had clear goals and creating a culture of dependability. But Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work. ‘We had to get people to establish psychologically safe environments,’ Rozovsky told me. But it wasn’t clear how to do that. ‘People here are really busy,’ she said. ‘We needed clear guidelines.'” Duhigg writes that the rise of group work in Silicon Valley is driven by research showing that profitability and worker satisfaction increase when workers collaborate. What is unremarked is the confluence between the demand for safe spaces in universities and in corporations, which offers a whole new take on the corporatization of the university. –RB

Uncomfortable Learning

adam falkWilliams College has a student organization that sponsors an “Uncomfortable Learning” lecture series that brings speakers to campus whose views are out of step with the majority opinion on campus. The group made news back in October when it first invited and then–in response to campus opposition–disinvited Suzanne Venker–a conservative woman and author of The War Against Men. Now Robby Soave reports that the group has made news again after a speaker it invited was prohibited from giving his speech by Williams’ President Adam Falk. In a statement to campus, Falk writes: “‘Today I am taking the extraordinary step of canceling a speech by John Derbyshire, who was to have presented his views here on Monday night. The college didn’t invite Derbyshire, but I have made it clear to the students who did that the college will not provide a platform for him. Free speech is a value I hold in extremely high regard. The college has a very long history of encouraging the expression of a range of viewpoints and giving voice to widely differing opinions. We have said we wouldn’t cancel speakers or prevent the expression of views except in the most extreme circumstances. In other words: There’s a line somewhere, but in our history of hosting events and speeches of all kinds, we hadn’t yet found it. We’ve found the line. Derbyshire, in my opinion, is on the other side of it. Many of his expressions clearly constitute hate speech, and we will not promote such speech on this campus or in our community. We respect–and expect–our students’ exploration of ideas, including ones that are very challenging, and we encourage individual choice and decision-making by students. But at times it’s our role as educators and administrators to step in and make decisions that are in the best interest of students and our community. This is one of those times.'” Zach Wood, a Williams student who helps run the “Uncomfortable Learning” series, explained his disagreement with Falk: “‘I think that President Falk is an analytic and deliberative leader and I respect his decision; however, I sharply disagree with his decision and if I could challenge it, I certainly would. I think his decision to cancel the speaker not only does a disservice to the intellectual character of our institution, but is antithetical to the principles of free speech and intellectual freedom that he has previously claimed to endorse. This decision is evidence of the fact that President Falk has failed to show support for student efforts to instill and promote political tolerance at Williams. I radically disagree with John Derybshire. And he has said offensive, even hateful things about minorities, things that I have a problem with. That is precisely why I was looking forward to taking him to task. If every student does not desire that kind of intellectual challenge, that is perfectly okay. But for President Falk to deny Williams students that opportunity, I believe, is not merely injudicious, but undemocratic and irresponsible.'” As I write this, I am in Saratoga Springs at a two-day retreat on how to talk about difficult questions like race and sex on campus. The conversations here are inspiring. Students come from communities all over the world with meaningfully different values and traditions, and they arrive on campus and have to figure out how to live with and talk to people whose worldviews challenge them. The students I speak with are genuinely curious and want to hear what others have to say. In most cases, then, there is a false debate between hate speech and free speech. It is not the students at Yale or the students at Williams who shut down speech. When free speech is sacrificed, it is not done by students. Rather it is cowardly administrators who fear criticism and don’t trust their students. –RB

Our Devices, Our Selves

iphone 6Cypress Marrs takes a second to think about what Apple’s devices are: “This campaign, like so much of Apple’s marketing, attempts to render potential anxieties about new computing devices irrelevant. The customer has questions, gut level concerns–how will this device impact their privacy? Their political life? How they interact with other people? How they experience their life? Apple responds to these reservations with a nod and a wink. Its marketing campaigns show individuals using Apple’s technologies toward ends that stand in contrast to the reality that consumers fear the devices will bring into being. The devices are not marketed through a catalogue of their functions but rather by conflating their functions with what they may facilitate. To do this, Apple employs our shared symbolic language… As imprecise use of these symbols spreads, it becomes increasingly difficult for individuals to think acutely about the world around them. Likewise, Apple ads are attempts to radically reshape the ways–the symbolic tools–which individuals use to comprehend the world. As personal computing devices become increasingly intimate–as they move from the desk to the book bag, from the pants pocket to the wrist–the symbolic fun-house of Apple’s marketing continues to conflate what a device does with what it might do–the device becomes the time taken for a kiss, the appreciation of the skyline, and the revolutionary impulse in an authoritarian state. Such conflations in conjunction with the constant and intimate presence of telecommunication has shrunk the distance between the personal and the public–between an experience and the image of that experience. Taken together, all of this makes it difficult to conceive of ourselves–or even conceive of conceiving of ourselves–in relation to a large and symbolically complex whole.”

Setting the Bar Low

collegeStephen J. Rose defends residential colleges against the threat of MOOCs and online education. But in so doing, Rose makes an argument for what colleges do best that is hardly inspiring and that certainly abandons any notion that college education is about learning to think with and against a tradition of intellectual, scientific, artistic, and humanist inquiry. “Higher education essentially has two functions: First, for those who reside on or near campus, it provides a period of semi-independence and autonomy in a protected environment with many social interactions; and second, it develops the workplace skills of general cognition, ability to learn, task completion, group and organizational skills, and, for many students, a field-specific knowledge base. While Carey does show the limitations of the current system, he falls very short in showing how a MOOC-based system can be scaled up and produce better results in preparing young people to enter and succeed in the labor force…. [I]n virtually all modern, industrialized societies, higher education has become the main path for preparing workers for the new service economy based in offices, health care, and education. The costs of such education in dollars and time are indeed immense–but there is a large payoff for the economy as a whole.”

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

HAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #18

vrg banner headingHAC 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, March 4, 2016

Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm


Joyce Dalsheim: Cultural Anthropologist Researching Nationalism, Religion, and the Israel/Palestine Conflict

joyce dalsheimOn Goat Surveillance and the False Promises of Sovereignty

In her critique of the Rights of Man, Hannah Arendt analyzed the problem of the “abstract” human being who was nowhere to be found. If Arendt’s political analyses stemmed from her grappling with the Jewish Question and the problems of minorities or stateless people, this talk takes a different turn. Rather than considering the outcomes of the Rights of Man for subaltern groups or refugees, this talk follows the transformation of the Jewish Question when Jews themselves are no longer a minority, but sovereign citizens in their own ethno-national state. It considers some of the many ways in which Israeli Jews struggle to be Jewish-from conversion and keeping kosher to the everyday surveillance of goats-suggesting that popular sovereignty might not be liberating in the ways we imagine.

BIO: Joyce Dalsheim is currently Assistant Professor in the Department of Global, International and Area Studies at UNC-Charlotte. She is a cultural anthropologist who studies nationalism, religion and the secular, and conflict in Israel/Palestine. She earned her her doctorate from the New School for Social Research, and has taught at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, and Wake Forest University.

RSVP to Christine Stanton at cstanton@bard.edu.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Hannah Arendt Center, 1:30 pm – 3:00 pm


Celebrating the Complete Works of Primo Levi

primo leviToni Morrison described Primo Levi’s writing as a “triumph of human identity and worth over the pathology of human destruction.” Levi is the distinguished author of decisive books such as If This Is a Man, and The Periodic Table. For the first time the entire oeuvre of the most acclaimed Holocaust survivor is available in English, after a 7-years collective endeavor lead by Ann Goldstein, New Yorker editor and celebrated translator of Elena Ferrante and Jhumpa Lahiri. Together with Goldstein, the event will feature Michael F. Moore, a most accomplished translator from Italian and UN interpreter.

For more info on Goldstein and the Complete Works of Primo Levi, view interview: HERE.

Primo Levi, (born July 31, 1919, Turin, Italy-died April 11, 1987, Turin), Italian-Jewish writer and chemist, noted for his restrained and moving autobiographical account of and reflections on survival in the Nazi concentration camps.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Reem-Kayden Center László Z. Bitó ’60 Auditorium, Bard College, 6:00 pm


Now Hiring Two Post-Doctoral Fellows for the 2016-2017 Academic Year!

1The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College announces two post-doctoral fellowships for the 2016-2017 academic year. The fellows should have a Ph.D. in political theory, philosophy, or a related field in the humanities, and his or her work should intersect meaningfully with Hannah Arendt’s thinking. In residence at the Arendt Center, the fellow will pursue his or her independent research at the Center, which includes Hannah Arendt’s personal library. The fellow will have access to Arendt’s Digital Archive through a relationship with the Arendt Center in New York City. In addition, the fellow will have the opportunity to participate in seminars, conferences, lectures, colloquia, and workshops organized by the Center.

To apply for the fellowship, please apply through Interfolio.com at: http://apply.interfolio.com/33792 with a letter of application explaining your research project and interest in the Center and a description of your teaching experience, CV, and two letters of reference.

The Deadline for consideration is Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Hannah Arendt Center, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY


Learning from the West African Ebola Epidemic: The Role of Governance in Preventing Epidemics

Learning from the West African Ebola Epidemic: The Role of Governance in Preventing Epidemics“Learning From the West African Ebola Epidemic” is a one-day conference in New York City exploring the hypothesis that building public trust in effective organizations is essential for fighting health crises such as Ebola. The conference is grounded in the Global Health Security Agenda that seeks to accelerate progress towards a world safe from infectious disease.

Specifically, the Global Health Security Agenda seeks to

  • Prevent avoidable epidemics;
  • Detect threats early; and
  • Respond rapidly and effectively.

Combining social science and political actors with leading scientists and Ebola specialists, we will explore the Ebola epidemic and its consequences as a case study to explore how educational, governance and healthcare resources can be better deployed against future outbreaks. The conference is sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center, Citizen Science, CCE, and the Ford Foundation in collaboration with the Honorable Dr. Wilmot James, South African MP and the Carnegie Council for Ethics In International Affairs.

To learn more about and register for our conference, please click here.

Free & Open to the Public

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Carnegie Council for Ethics & International Affairs, NYC, 10:00 am – 6:00 pm


Vita Activa – The Spirit of Hannah Arendt

vita activaThe Film Forum in New York City will be screening the new film, VITA ACTIVA – THE SPIRIT OF HANNAH ARENDT, directed by Ada Ushpiz, later this spring.

About the Film: A brand new documentary about one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. The German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt caused an uproar in the 1960s by coining the subversive concept of the “Banality of Evil” when referring to the trial of Adolph Eichmann, which she covered for the New Yorker magazine. Her private life was no less controversial thanks to her early love affair with the renowned German philosopher and Nazi supporter Martin Heidegger. This thought provoking and spirited documentary, with its abundance of archival materials, offers an intimate portrait of the whole of Arendt’s life, traveling to places where she lived, worked, loved, and was betrayed, as she wrote about the open wounds of modern times. Through her books, which are still widely read and the recent release of Margarethe von Trotta’s biopic Hannah Arendt (also a Zeitgeist Films release) there is renewed interest in Arendt throughout the world, especially among young people who find her insights into the nature of evil, totalitarianism, ideologies, and the perils faced by refugees, more relevant than ever. Watch the Trailer.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

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


SAVE THE DATE – 2016 FALL CONFERENCE

How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on CampusOn 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

Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Bard College, 10:00 am – 6:00 pm


From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Dawn Herrera Helphand discusses why Bernie Sanders’ appeal illustrates how widespread the political sentiments that Hannah Arendt identified as the causes of revolution are in both parties in the Quote of the Week. Marshall McLuhan comments on the power of critical thinking against automatic movement in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. We are pleased to announce the first issue of AJPA News, the official newsletter of the American Jewish Peace Archive (AJPA). Finally, we appreciate the annotations Hannah Arendt made to her copy of Montesquieu’s “The Spirit of Laws” in this week’s Library feature.

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Marshall McLuhan on Critical Vision and the Automatic

“It is critical vision alone which can mitigate the unimpeded operation of the automatic.”

— Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan’s Biography

Marshall McLuhan, in full Herbert Marshall McLuhan   (born July 21, 1911, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada—died Dec. 31, 1980, Toronto), Canadian communications theorist and educator, whose aphorism “the medium is the message” summarized his view of the potent influence of television, computers, and other electronic disseminators of information in shaping styles of thinking and thought, whether in sociology, art, science, or religion. He regarded the printed book as an institution fated to disappear.

McLuhan was associated with the University of Toronto from 1946 until 1979. He became full professor of English literature there in 1952 and was made director of the university’s Centre for Culture and Technology in 1963. He was also a popular lecturer.

In 1962 McLuhan published The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, the first of several books in which he examined communications and society. His other works include The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951), Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (with Quentin Fiore; 1967), From Cliché to Archetype (with Wilfred Watson; 1970), and City as Classroom (with Kathryn Hutchon and Eric McLuhan; 1977). McLuhan’s critical view of 20th-century society’s self-transformation made him one of the popular prophetic voices of his time.

To read additional Thoughts on Thinking, please click here.

Featured image sourced from Open Culture. Biography sourced from Encyclopedia Britannica.

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Arendt and Datapolitik

“The progress of modern science has demonstrated very forcefully to what an extent this observed universe, the infinitely small no less than the infinitely large, escapes not only the coarseness of human sense perception but even the enormously ingenious instruments that have been built for its refinement. The data with which modern physical research is concerned turn up like ‘mysterious messenger[s] from the real world.’ They are not phenomena, appearances, strictly speaking, for we meet them nowhere, neither in our everyday world nor in the laboratory; we know of their presence only because they affect our measuring instruments in certain ways. And this effect, in the telling image of Eddington, may ‘have as much resemblance’ to what they are ‘as a telephone number has to a subscriber.’ The point of the matter is that Eddington, without the slightest hesitation, assumes that these physical data emerge from a ‘real world,’ more real by implication than the world we live in; the trouble is that something physical is present but never appears.”

— Hannah Arendt, “The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man”

Reading this passage today, Arendt’s insights risk seeming dated and quaint given our current techno-political culture. Partly this is because Arendt didn’t have, or did not articulate, an ontology of the virtual, which is the sine qua non of our contemporary techno-politics. She is troubled by what the scientist calls the “real world.” This is because that world, it seems to her, does not have an apparitional character that humans can engage. The “more real,” or hyper-real, of the scientist is not experienced by humans but is registered by hyper-sensitive machines. In this passage, then, we sense Arendt puzzled and amazed by the world of quanta – of the physical without appearance. Continue reading

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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

Hiatus, Discontinuity, and Change

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“The end of the old is not necessarily the beginning of the new.”

Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind

This is a simple enough statement, and yet it masks a profound truth, one that we often overlook out of the very human tendency to seek consistency and connection, to make order out of the chaos of reality, and to ignore the anomalous nature of that which lies in between whatever phenomena we are attending to.

Perhaps the clearest example of this has been what proved to be the unfounded optimism that greeted the overthrow of autocratic regimes through American intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the native-born movements known collectively as the Arab Spring. It is one thing to disrupt the status quo, to overthrow an unpopular and undemocratic regime. But that end does not necessarily lead to the establishment of a new, beneficent and participatory political structure. We see this time and time again, now in Putin’s Russia, a century ago with the Russian Revolution, and over two centuries ago with the French Revolution.

Of course, it has long been understood that oftentimes, to begin something new, we first have to put an end to something old. The popular saying that you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs reflects this understanding, although it is certainly not the case that breaking eggs will inevitably and automatically lead to the creation of an omelet. Breaking eggs is a necessary but not sufficient cause of omelets, and while this is not an example of the classic chicken and egg problem, I think we can imagine that the chicken might have something to say on the matter of breaking eggs. Certainly, the chicken would have a different view on what is signified or ought to be signified by the end of the old, meaning the end of the egg shell, insofar as you can’t make a chicken without it first breaking out of the egg that it took form within.

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So, whether you take the chicken’s point of view, or adopt the perspective of the omelet, looking backwards, reverse engineering the current situation, it is only natural to view the beginning of the new as an effect brought into being by the end of the old, to assume or make an inference based on sequencing in time, to posit a causal relationship and commit the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc, if for no other reason that by force of narrative logic that compels us to create a coherent storyline.  In this respect, Arendt points to the foundation tales of ancient Israel and Rome:

We have the Biblical story of the exodus of Israeli tribes from Egypt, which preceded the Mosaic legislation constituting the Hebrew people, and Virgil’s story of the wanderings of Aeneas, which led to the foundation of Rome—”dum conderet urbem,” as Virgil defines the content of his great poem even in its first lines. Both legends begin with an act of liberation, the flight from oppression and slavery in Egypt and the flight from burning Troy (that is, from annihilation); and in both instances this act is told from the perspective of a new freedom, the conquest of a new “promised land” that offers more than Egypt’s fleshpots and the foundation of a new City that is prepared for by a war destined to undo the Trojan war, so that the order of events as laid down by Homer could be reversed.

 Fast forward to the American Revolution, and we find that the founders of the republic, mindful of the uniqueness of their undertaking, searched for archetypes in the ancient world. And what they found in the narratives of Exodus and the Aeneid was that the act of liberation, and the establishment of a new freedom are two events, not one, and in effect subject to Alfred Korzybski’s non-Aristotelian Principle of Non-Identity. The success of the formation of the American republic can be attributed to the awareness on their part of the chasm that exists between the closing of one era and the opening of a new age, of their separation in time and space:

No doubt if we read these legends as tales, there is a world of difference between the aimless desperate wanderings of the Israeli tribes in the desert after the Exodus and the marvelously colorful tales of the adventures of Aeneas and his fellow Trojans; but to the men of action of later generations who ransacked the archives of antiquity for paradigms to guide their own intentions, this was not decisive. What was decisive was that there was a hiatus between disaster and salvation, between liberation from the old order and the new freedom, embodied in a novus ordo saeclorum, a “new world order of the ages” with whose rise the world had structurally changed.

I find Arendt’s use of the term hiatus interesting, given that in contemporary American culture it has largely been appropriated by the television industry to refer to a series that has been taken off the air for a period of time, but not cancelled. The typical phrase is on hiatus, meaning on a break or on vacation. But Arendt reminds us that such connotations only scratch the surface of the word’s broader meanings. The Latin word hiatus refers to an opening or rupture, a physical break or missing part or link in a concrete material object. As such, it becomes a spatial metaphor when applied to an interruption or break in time, a usage introduced in the 17th century. Interestingly, this coincides with the period in English history known as the Interregnum, which began in 1649 with the execution of King Charles I, led to Oliver Cromwell’s installation as Lord Protector, and ended after Cromwell’s death with the Restoration of the monarchy under Charles II, son of Charles I. While in some ways anticipating the American Revolution, the English Civil War followed an older pattern, one that Mircea Eliade referred to as the myth of eternal return, a circular movement rather than the linear progression of history and cause-effect relations.

The idea of moving forward, of progress, requires a future-orientation that only comes into being in the modern age, by which I mean the era that followed the printing revolution associated with Johannes Gutenberg (I discuss this in my book, On the Binding Biases of Time and Other Essays on General Semantics and Media Ecology). But that same print culture also gave rise to modern science, and with it the monopoly granted to efficient causality, cause-effect relations, to the exclusion in particular of final and formal cause (see Marshall and Eric McLuhan’s Media and Formal Cause). This is the basis of the Newtonian universe in which every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and every effect can be linked back in a causal chain to another event that preceded it and brought it into being. The view of time as continuous and connected can be traced back to the introduction of the mechanical clock in the 13th century, but was solidified through the printing of calendars and time lines, and the same effect was created in spatial terms by the reproduction of maps, and the use of spatial grids, e.g., the Mercator projection.

And while the invention of history, as a written narrative concerning the linear progression over time can be traced back to the ancient Israelites, and the story of the exodus, the story incorporates the idea of a hiatus in overlapping structures:

A1.  Joseph is the golden boy, the son favored by his father Jacob, earning him the enmity of his brothers

A2.  he is sold into slavery by them, winds up in Egypt as a slave and then is falsely accused and imprisoned

A3.  by virtue of his ability to interpret dreams he gains his freedom and rises to the position of Pharaoh’s prime minister

 

B1.  Joseph welcomes his brothers and father, and the House of Israel goes down to Egypt to sojourn due to famine in the land of Canaan

B2.  their descendants are enslaved, oppressed, and persecuted

B3.  Moses is chosen to confront Pharaoh, liberate the Israelites, and lead them on their journey through the desert

 

C1.  the Israelites are freed from bondage and escape from Egypt

C2.  the revelation at Sinai fully establishes their covenant with God

C3.  after many trials, they return to the Promised Land

It can be clearly seen in these narrative structures that the role of the hiatus, in ritual terms, is that of the rite of passage, the initiation period that marks, in symbolic fashion, the change in status, the transformation from one social role or state of being to another (e.g., child to adult, outsider to member of the group). This is not to discount the role that actual trials, tests, and other hardships may play in the transition, as they serve to establish or reinforce, psychologically and sometimes physically, the value and reality of the transformation.

In mythic terms, this structure has become known as the hero’s journey or hero’s adventure, made famous by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and also known as the monomyth, because he claimed that the same basic structure is universal to all cultures. The basis structure he identified consists of three main elements: separation (e.g., the hero leaves home), initiation (e.g., the hero enters another realm, experiences tests and trials, leading to the bestowing of gifts, abilities, and/or a new status), and return (the hero returns to utilize what he has gained from the initiation and save the day, restoring the status quo or establishing a new status quo).

Understanding the mythic, non-rational element of initiation is the key to recognizing the role of the hiatus, and in the modern era this meant using rationality to realize the limits of rationality. With this in mind, let me return to the quote I began this essay with, but now provide the larger context of the entire paragraph:

The legendary hiatus between a no-more and a not-yet clearly indicated that freedom would not be the automatic result of liberation, that the end of the old is not necessarily the beginning of the new, that the notion of an all-powerful time continuum is an illusion. Tales of a transitory period—from bondage to freedom, from disaster to salvation—were all the more appealing because the legends chiefly concerned the deeds of great leaders, persons of world-historic significance who appeared on the stage of history precisely during such gaps of historical time. All those who pressed by exterior circumstances or motivated by radical utopian thought-trains, were not satisfied to change the world by the gradual reform of an old order (and this rejection of the gradual was precisely what transformed the men of action of the eighteenth century, the first century of a fully secularized intellectual elite, into the men of the revolutions) were almost logically forced to accept the possibility of a hiatus in the continuous flow of temporal sequence.

Note that concept of gaps in historical time, which brings to mind Eliade’s distinction between the sacred and the profane. Historical time is a form of profane time, and sacred time represents a gap or break in that linear progression, one that takes us outside of history, connecting us instead in an eternal return to the time associated with a moment of creation or foundation. The revelation in Sinai is an example of such a time, and accordingly Deuteronomy states that all of the members of the House of Israel were present at that event, not just those alive at that time, but those not present, the generations of the future. This statement is included in the liturgy of the Passover Seder, which is a ritual reenactment of the exodus and revelation, which in turn becomes part of the reenactment of the Passion in Christianity, one of the primary examples of Campbell’s monomyth.

Arendt’s hiatus, then represents a rupture between two different states or stages, an interruption, a disruption linked to an eruption. In the parlance of chaos and complexity theory, it is a bifurcation point. Arendt’s contemporary, Peter Drucker, a philosopher who pioneered the scholarly study of business and management, characterized the contemporary zeitgeist in the title of his 1969 book: The Age of Discontinuity. It is an age in which Newtonian physics was replaced by Einstein’s relativity and Heisenberg’s uncertainty, the phrase quantum leap becoming a metaphor drawn from subatomic physics for all forms of discontinuity. It is an age in which the fixed point of view that yielded perspective in art and the essay and novel in literature yielded to Cubism and subsequent forms of modern art, and stream of consciousness in writing.

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Beginning in the 19th century, photography gave us the frozen, discontinuous moment, and the technique of montage in the motion picture gave us a series of shots and scenes whose connections have to be filled in by the audience. Telegraphy gave us the instantaneous transmission of messages that took them out of their natural context, the subject of the famous comment by Henry David Thoreau that connecting Maine and Texas to one another will not guarantee that they have anything sensible to share with each other. The wire services gave us the nonlinear, inverted pyramid style of newspaper reporting, which also was associated with the nonlinear look of the newspaper front page, a form that Marshall McLuhan referred to as a mosaic. Neil Postman criticized television’s role in decontextualizing public discourse in Amusing Ourselves to Death, where he used the phrase, “in the context of no context,” and I discuss this as well in my recently published follow-up to his work, Amazing Ourselves to Death.

The concept of the hiatus comes naturally to the premodern mind, schooled by myth and ritual within the context of oral culture. That same concept is repressed, in turn, by the modern mind, shaped by the linearity and rationality of literacy and typography. As the modern mind yields to a new, postmodern alternative, one that emerges out of the electronic media environment, we see the return of the repressed in the idea of the jump cut writ large.

There is psychological satisfaction in the deterministic view of history as the inevitable result of cause-effect relations in the Newtonian sense, as this provides a sense of closure and coherence consistent with the typographic mindset. And there is similar satisfaction in the view of history as entirely consisting of human decisions that are the product of free will, of human agency unfettered by outside constraints, which is also consistent with the individualism that emerges out of the literate mindset and print culture, and with a social rather that physical version of efficient causality. What we are only beginning to come to terms with is the understanding of formal causality, as discussed by Marshall and Eric McLuhan in Media and Formal Cause. What formal causality suggests is that history has a tendency to follow certain patterns, patterns that connect one state or stage to another, patterns that repeat again and again over time. This is the notion that history repeats itself, meaning that historical events tend to fall into certain patterns (repetition being the precondition for the existence of patterns), and that the goal, as McLuhan articulated in Understanding Media, is pattern recognition. This helps to clarify the famous remark by George Santayana, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In other words, those who are blind to patterns will find it difficult to break out of them.

Campbell engages in pattern recognition in his identification of the heroic monomyth, as Arendt does in her discussion of the historical hiatus.  Recognizing the patterns are the first step in escaping them, and may even allow for the possibility of taking control and influencing them. This also means understanding that the tendency for phenomena to fall into patterns is a powerful one. It is a force akin to entropy, and perhaps a result of that very statistical tendency that is expressed by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, as Terrence Deacon argues in Incomplete Nature. It follows that there are only certain points in history, certain moments, certain bifurcation points, when it is possible to make a difference, or to make a difference that makes a difference, to use Gregory Bateson’s formulation, and change the course of history. The moment of transition, of initiation, the hiatus, represents such a moment.

McLuhan’s concept of medium goes far beyond the ordinary sense of the word, as he relates it to the idea of gaps and intervals, the ground that surrounds the figure, and explains that his philosophy of media is not about transportation (of information), but transformation. The medium is the hiatus.

The particular pattern that has come to the fore in our time is that of the network, whether it’s the decentralized computer network and the internet as the network of networks, or the highly centralized and hierarchical broadcast network, or the interpersonal network associated with Stanley Milgram’s research (popularly known as six degrees of separation), or the neural networks that define brain structure and function, or social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, etc. And it is not the nodes, which may be considered the content of the network, that defines the network, but the links that connect them, which function as the network medium, and which, in the systems view favored by Bateson, provide the structure for the network system, the interaction or relationship between the nodes. What matters is not the nodes, it’s the modes.

Hiatus and link may seem like polar opposites, the break and the bridge, but they are two sides of the same coin, the medium that goes between, simultaneously separating and connecting. The boundary divides the system from its environment, allowing the system to maintain its identity as separate and distinct from the environment, keeping it from being absorbed by the environment. But the membrane also serves as a filter, engaged in the process of abstracting, to use Korzybski’s favored term, letting through or bringing material, energy, and information from the environment into the system so that the system can maintain itself and survive. The boundary keeps the system in touch with its situation, keeps it contextualized within its environment.

The systems view emphasizes space over time, as does ecology, but the concept of the hiatus as a temporal interruption suggests an association with evolution as well. Darwin’s view of evolution as continuous was consistent with Newtonian physics. The more recent modification of evolutionary theory put forth by Stephen Jay Gould, known as punctuated equilibrium, suggests that evolution occurs in fits and starts, in relatively rare and isolated periods of major change, surrounded by long periods of relative stability and stasis. Not surprisingly, this particular conception of discontinuity was introduced during the television era, in the early 1970s, just a few years after the publication of Peter Drucker’s The Age of Discontinuity.

When you consider the extraordinary changes that we are experiencing in our time, technologically and ecologically, the latter underlined by the recent news concerning the United Nations’ latest report on global warming, what we need is an understanding of the concept of change, a way to study the patterns of change, patterns that exist and persist across different levels, the micro and the macro, the physical, chemical, biological, psychological, and social, what Bateson referred to as metapatterns, the subject of further elaboration by biologist Tyler Volk in his book on the subject. Paul Watzlawick argued for the need to study change in and of itself in a little book co-authored by John H. Weakland and Richard Fisch, entitled Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution, which considers the problem from the point of view of psychotherapy. Arendt gives us a philosophical entrée into the problem by introducing the pattern of the hiatus, the moment of discontinuity that leads to change, and possibly a moment in which we, as human agents, can have an influence on the direction of that change.

To have such an influence, we do need to have that break, to find a space and more importantly a time to pause and reflect, to evaluate and formulate. Arendt famously emphasizes the importance of thinking in and of itself, the importance not of the content of thought alone, but of the act of thinking, the medium of thinking, which requires an opening, a time out, a respite from the onslaught of 24/7/365. This underscores the value of sacred time, and it follows that it is no accident that during that period of initiation in the story of the exodus, there is the revelation at Sinai and the gift of divine law, the Torah or Law, and chief among them the Ten Commandments, which includes the fourth of the commandments, and the one presented in greatest detail, to observe the Sabbath day. This premodern ritual requires us to make the hiatus a regular part of our lives, to break the continuity of profane time on a weekly basis. From that foundation, other commandments establish the idea of the sabbatical year, and the sabbatical of sabbaticals, or jubilee year. Whether it’s a Sabbath mandated by religious observance, or a new movement to engage in a Technology Sabbath, the hiatus functions as the response to the homogenization of time that was associated with efficient causality and literate linearity, and that continues to intensify in conjunction with the technological imperative of efficiency über alles.

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To return one last time to the quote that I began with, the end of the old is not necessarily the beginning of the new because there may not be a new beginning at all, there may not be anything new to take the place of the old. The end of the old may be just that, the end, period, the end of it all. The presence of a hiatus to follow the end of the old serves as a promise that something new will begin to take its place after the hiatus is over. And the presence of a hiatus in our lives, individually and collectively, may also serve as a promise that we will not inevitably rush towards an end of the old that will also be an end of it all, that we will be able to find the opening to begin something new, that we will be able to make the transition to something better, that both survival and progress are possible, through an understanding of the processes of continuity and change.

-Lance Strate

The Laboratory as Anti-Environment

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“Seen from the perspective of the “real” world, the laboratory is the anticipation of a changed environment.”

-Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind

I find this quote intriguing in that its reference to environments and environmental change speak to the fact that Arendt’s philosophy was essentially an ecological one, indeed one that is profoundly media ecological. The quote appears in a section of The Life of the Mind entitled “Science and Common Sense,” in which Arendt argues that the practice of science is quite distinct from thinking as a philosophical activity.

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As she explains:

Thinking, no doubt, plays an enormous role in every scientific enterprise, but it is a role of a means to an end; the end is determined by a decision about what is worthwhile knowing, and this decision cannot be scientific.

Here Arendt invokes a variation on Gödel’s incompleteness theorem in mathematics, noting that science cannot justify itself on scientific grounds, but rather must somehow depend on something outside of and beyond itself. Perhaps more to the point, science, especially as associated with empiricism, cannot be divorced from concrete reality, and does not function only in the abstract realm of ideas that Plato insisted was the only true reality.

The transformation of truth into mere verity results primarily from the fact that the scientist remains bound to the common sense by which we find our bearings in a world of appearances. Thinking withdraws radically and for its own sake from this world and its evidential nature, whereas science profits from a possible withdrawal for the sake of specific results.

It is certainly the case that scientific truth is always contingent, tentative, open to refutation, as Karl Popper explained.  Scientific truth is never absolute, never anything more than a map of some other territory, a map that needs to be continually tested and reviewed, updated and revised, as Alfred Korzybski explained by way of establishing his discipline of general semantics. Even the so-called laws of nature and physics need not be considered immutable, but may be subject to change and evolution, as Lee Smolin argues in his insightful book, Time Reborn.

Scientists are engaged in the process of abstracting, insofar as they take the data gained by empirical investigation and make generalizations in the form of theories and hypotheses, but this process of induction cannot be divorced from concrete reality, from the world of appearances. Science may be used to test, challenge, and displace common sense, but it operates on the same level, as a distilled form of common sense, rather than something qualitatively different, a status Arendt reserves for the special activity of thinking associated with philosophy.

Arendt goes on to argue that both common sense and scientific speculation lack “the safeguards inherent in sheer thinking, namely thinking’s critical capacity.”  This includes the capacity for moral judgment, which became horrifically evident by the ways in which Nazi Germany used science to justify its genocidal policies and actions. Auschwitz did not represent a retrieval of tribal violence, but one of the ultimate expressions of the scientific enterprise in action. And the same might be said of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, holding aside whatever might be said to justify the use of the atomic bomb to bring the Second World War to a speedy conclusion. In remaining close to the human lifeworld, science abandons the very capacity that makes us human, that makes human life and human consciousness unique.

The story of modern science is in fact a story of shifting alliances. Science begins as a branch of philosophy, as natural philosophy. Indeed, philosophy itself is generally understood to begin with the pre-Socratics sometimes referred to as Ionian physicists, i.e., Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus, who first posited the concept of elements and atoms. Both science and philosophy therefore coalesce during the first century that followed the introduction of the Greek alphabet and the emergence of a literate culture in the ancient Greek colonies in Asia Minor.

And just as ancient science is alphabetic in its origins, modern science begins with typography, as the historian Elizabeth Eisenstein explains in her exhaustive study, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change in Early Modern Europe. Simply by making the writings of natural philosophers easily available through the distribution of printed books, scholars were able to compare and contrast what different philosophers had to say about the natural world, and uncover their differences of opinion and contradictions. And this in turn spurned them on to find out for themselves which of various competing explanations are correct, where the truth lies, so that more reading led to even more empirical research, which in turn would have to be published, that is made public, via printing, for the purposes of testing and confirmation. And publication encouraged the formation of a scientific republic of letters, a typographically mediated virtual community.

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Eisenstein notes that during the first century following Gutenberg, printed books gave Copernicus access to centuries of recorded observations of the movements of celestial objects, access not easily available to his predecessors. What is remarkable to consider is that the telescope was not invented in his lifetime, that the Polish astronomer arrived at his heliocentric view based only on what could be observed by the naked eye, by gazing up at the heavens, and down at the printed page. The typographic revolution that began in the 15th century was the necessary technological precondition for the Copernican revolution of the 16th century.  The telescope as a tool to extend vision beyond its natural capabilities had not yet been invented, and was not required, although soon after its introduction Galileo was able to confirm the theory that Copernicus had put forth a century earlier.

In the restricted literate culture of medieval Europe, the idea took hold that there are two books to be studied in an effort to discern the divine will, and mind: the book of scripture and the book of nature. Both books were seen as sources of knowledge that can be unlocked by a process of reading and interpretation. It was grammar, the ancient study of language, which became one third of the trivium, the foundational curriculum of the medieval university, that became the basis of modern science, and not dialectic or logic, that is, pure thinking, which is the source of the philosophic tradition, as Marshall McLuhan noted in The Classical Trivium. The medieval schoolmen of course placed scripture in the primary position, whereas modern science situates truth in the book of nature alone.

The publication of Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum in 1620 first formalized the separation of science from philosophy within print culture, but the divorce was finalized during the 19th century, coinciding with the industrial revolution, as researchers became known as scientists rather than natural philosophers. In place of the alliance with philosophy, science came to be associated with technology; before this time, technology, and engineering, often referred to as mechanics, represented entirely different lines of inquiry, utterly practical, often intuitive rather than systematic. Mechanics was part of the world of work rather than that of action, to use the terms Arendt introduced in The Human Condition, which is to say that it was seen as the work of the hand rather than the mind. By the end of 19th century, scientific discovery emerged as the main the source of major technological breakthroughs, rather than innovation springing fully formed from the tinkering of inventors, and it became necessary to distinguish between applied science and theoretical science, the latter nonetheless still tied to the world of appearances.

Today, the acronym STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, has become a major buzzword in education, a major emphasis in particular for higher education, and a major concern in regards to economic competitiveness. We might well take note of how recent this combination of fields and disciplines really is, insofar as mathematics represents pure logic and highly abstract forms of thought, and science once was a purely philosophical enterprise, both aspects of the life of the mind. Technology and engineering, on the other hand, for most of our history took the form of arts and crafts, part of the world of appearances.

The convergence of science and technology also had much to do with scientists’ increasing reliance on scientific instruments for their investigations, a trend increasingly prevalent following the introduction of both the telescope and the microscope in the early 17th century, a trend even more apparent from the 19th century on. The laboratory is in fact another such instrument, a technology whose function is to provide precisely controlled conditions, beyond its role as a facility for the storage and use of other scientific instruments. Scientific instruments are media that extend our senses and allow us to see the world in new ways, therefore altering our experience of our environment, while the discoveries they lead to provide us with the means of altering our environments physically. And the laboratory is an instrument that provides us with a total environment, enclosed, controlled, isolated from the world to become in effect the world. It is a micro-environment where experimental changes can be made that anticipate changes that can be made to the macro-environment we regularly inhabit.

The split between science and philosophy can also be characterized as a division between the eye and the ear. Modern science, as intimately bound up in typography, is associated with visualism, the idea that seeing is believing, that truth is based on vision, that knowledge can be displayed visually as an organized set of facts, rather than the product of ongoing dialogue, and debate. McLuhan noted the importance of the fixed point of view as a by-product of training the eye to read, and Walter Ong studied the paradigm-shift in education attributed to Peter Ramus, who introduced pedagogical methods we would today associated with textbooks, outlining, and the visual display of information. Philosophy has not been immune to this influence, but retains a connection to the oral-aural mode through the method of Socratic dialogue, and by way of an understanding of the history of ideas as an ongoing conversation. Arendt, in The Human Condition, explained action, the realm of words, as a social phenomenon, one based on dialogic exchanges of ideas and opinions, not a solitary matter of looking things up. And thinking, which she elevates above the scientific enterprise in The Life of the Mind, is mostly a matter of an inner dialogue, or monologue if you prefer, of hearing oneself think, of silent speech, and not of a mental form of writing out words or imaginary reading. We talk things out, to others and/or to ourselves.

Science, on the other hand, is all about visible representations, as words, numbers, illustrations, tables, graphs, charts, diagrams, etc. And it is the investigation of visible phenomena, or otherwise of phenomena that can be rendered visible through scientific instruments. Acoustic phenomena can only be dealt with scientifically by being turned into a visual measurement, either of numbers or of lines going up and down to depict sound waves.  The same is true for the other senses; smell, taste, and touch can only be dealt with scientifically though visual representation. Science cannot deal with any sense other than sight on its own terms, but always requires an act of translation into visual form. Thus, Arendt notes that modern science, being so intimately bound up in the world of appearances, is often concerned with making the invisible visible:

That modern science, always hunting for manifestations of the invisible—atoms, molecules, particles, cells, genes—should have added to the world a spectacular, unprecedented quantity of new perceptible things is only seemingly paradoxical.

Arendt might well have noted the continuity between the modern activity of making the invisible visible as an act of translation, and the medieval alchemist’s search for methods of achieving material transformation, the translation of one substance into another. She does note that the use of scientific instruments are a means of extending natural functions, paralleling McLuhan’s characterization of media as extensions of body and biology:

In order to prove or disprove its hypotheses… and to discover what makes things work, it [modern science] began to imitate the working processes of nature. For that purpose it produced the countless and enormously complex implements with which to force the non-appearing to appear (if only as an instrument-reading in the laboratory), as that was the sole means the scientist had to persuade himself of its reality. Modern technology was born in the laboratory, but this was not because scientists wanted to produce appliances or change the world. No matter how far their theories leave common-sense experience and common-sense reasoning behind, they must finally come back to some form of it or lose all sense of realness in the object of their investigation.

Note here the close connection between reality, that is, our conception of reality, and what lends someone the aura of authenticity, as Walter Benjamin would put it, is dependent on the visual sense, on the phenomenon being translated into the world of appearances (the aura as opposed to the aural). It is no accident then that there is a close connection in biblical literature and the Hebrew language between the words for spirit and soul, and the words for invisible but audible phenomena such as wind and breath, breath in turn being the basis of speech (and this is not unique to Hebraic culture or vocabulary). It is at this point that Arendt resumes her commentary on the function of the controlled environment:

And this return is possible only via the man-made, artificial world of the laboratory, where that which does not appear of its own accord is forced to appear and to disclose itself. Technology, the “plumber’s” work held in some contempt by the scientist, who sees practical applicability as a mere by-product of his own efforts, introduces scientific findings, made in “unparalleled insulation… from the demands of the laity and of everyday life,” into the everyday world of appearances and renders them accessible to common-sense experience; but this is possible only because the scientists themselves are ultimately dependent on that experience.

We now reach the point in the text where the quote I began this essay with appears, as Arendt writes:

Seen from the perspective of the “real” world, the laboratory is the anticipation of a changed environment; and the cognitive processes using the human abilities of thinking and fabricating as means to their end are indeed the most refined modes of common-sense reasoning. The activity of knowing is no less related to our sense of reality and no less a world-building activity than the building of houses.

Again, for Arendt, science and common sense both are distinct in this way from the activity of pure thinking, which can provide a sorely needed critical function. But her insight as to the function of the laboratory as an environment in which the invisible is made visible is important in that this helps us to understand that the laboratory is, in fact, what McLuhan referred to as a counter-environment or anti-environment.

In our everyday environment, the environment itself tends to be invisible, if not literally so, then functionally insofar as whatever fades into the background tends to fall out of our perceptual awareness or is otherwise ignored. Anything that becomes part of our routine falls into this category, becoming environmental, and therefore subliminal. And this includes our media, technology, and symbol systems, insofar as they are part of our everyday world. We do pay attention to them when they are brand new and unfamiliar, but once their novelty wears off they become part of the background, unless they malfunction or breakdown. In the absence of such conditions, we need an anti-environment to provide a contrast through which we can recognize the things we take for granted in our world, to provide a place to stand from which we can observe our situation from the outside in, from a relatively objective stance. We are, in effect, sleepwalkers in our everyday environment, and entering into an anti-environment is a way to wake us up, to enhance awareness and consciousness of our surroundings. This occurs, in a haphazard way, when we return home after spending time experiencing another culture, as for a brief time much of what was once routinized about own culture suddenly seems strange and arbitrary to us. The effect wears off relatively quickly, however, although the after-effects of broadening our minds in this way can be significant.

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The controlled environment of the laboratory helps to focus our attention on phenomena that are otherwise invisible to us, either because they are taken for granted, or because they require specialized instrumentation to be rendered visible. It is not just that such phenomena are brought into the world of appearances, however, but also that they are made into objects of concerted study, to be recorded, described, measured, experimented upon, etc.

McLuhan emphasized the role of art as an anti-environment. The art museum, for example, is a controlled environment, and the painting that we encounter there has the potential to make us see things we had never seen before, by which I mean not just objects depicted that are unfamiliar to us, but familiar objects depicted in unfamiliar ways. In this way, works of art are instruments that can help us to see the world in new and different ways, help us to see, to use our senses and perceive in new and different ways. McLuhan believed that artists served as a kind of distant early warning system, borrowing cold war terminology to refer to their ability to anticipate changes occurring in the present that most others are not aware of. He was fond of the Ezra Pound quote that the artist is the antenna of the race, and Kurt Vonnegut expressed a similar sentiment in describing the writer as a canary in a coal mine. We may further consider the art museum or gallery or library as a controlled environment, a laboratory of sorts, and note the parallel in the idea of art as the anticipation of a changed environment.

There are other anti-environments as well. Houses of worship function in this way, often because they are based on earlier eras and different cultures, and otherwise are constructed to remove us out of our everyday environment, and help us to see the world in a different light. They are in some way dedicated to making the invisible world of the spirit visible to us through the use of sacred symbols and objects, even for religions whose concept of God is one that is entirely outside of the world of appearances. Sanctuaries might therefore be considered laboratories used for moral, ethical, and sacred discovery, experimentation, and development, and places where changed environments are also anticipated, in the form of spiritual enlightenment and the pursuit of social justice. This also suggests that the scientific laboratory might be viewed, in a certain sense, as a sacred space, along the lines that Mircea Eliade discusses in The Sacred and the Profane.

The school and the classroom are also anti-environments, or at least ought to be, as Neil Postman argued in Teaching as a Conserving Activity.  Students are sequestered away from the everyday environment, into a controlled situation where the world they live in can be studied and understood, and phenomena that are taken for granted can be brought into conscious awareness. It is indeed a place where the invisible can be made visible. In this sense, the school and the classroom are laboratories for learning, although the metaphor can be problematic when it used to imply that the school is only about the world of appearances, and all that is needed is to let students discover that world for themselves. Exploration is indeed essential, and discovery is an important component of learning. But the school is also a place where we may engage in the critical activity of pure thinking, of critical reasoning, of dialogue and disputation.

The classroom is more than a laboratory, or at least it must become more than a laboratory, or the educational enterprise will be incomplete. The school ought to be an anti-environment, not only in regard to the everyday world of appearances and common sense, but also to that special world dominated by STEM, by science, technology, engineering and math.  We need the classroom to be an anti-environment for a world subject to a flood of entertainment and information, we need it to be a language-based anti-environment for a world increasingly overwhelmed by images and numbers. We need an anti-environment where words can take precedence, where reading and writing can be balanced by speech and conversation, where reason, thinking, and thinking about thinking can allow for critical evaluation of common sense and common science alike. Only then can schools be engaged in something more than just adjusting students to take their place in a changed and changing environment, integrating them within the technological system, as components of that system, as Jacques Ellul observed in The Technological Society. Only then can schools help students to change the environment itself, not just through scientific and technological innovation, but through the exercise of values other than the technological imperative of efficiency, to make things better, more human, more life-affirming.

The anti-environment that we so desperately need is what Hannah Arendt might well have called a laboratory of the mind.

-Lance Strate

We Create the Conditions that Condition Us

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This “Quote” of the week originally ran on May 28, 2012

“The human condition comprehends more than the condition under which life has been given to man. Men are conditioned beings because everything they come in contact with turns immediately into a condition of their existence.  The world in which the vita activa spends itself consists of things produced by human activities; but the things that owe their existence exclusively to men nevertheless constantly condition their human makers.”

-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

The human condition is the context or situation we, as human beings, find ourselves in, the implication being that human life cannot be fully understood by considering humanity in isolation from its environment.  We are, to a large degree, shaped by our environment, which is why Arendt refers to us as conditioned beings.

We are conditioned by phenomena external to us, and this may be considered learning in its broadest sense, that is, in the sense that the Skinnerian conditioned response is a learned reaction to external stimuli.  It follows that any form of life that is capable of modifying its behavior in response to external stimuli is, to some extent, a conditioned being.

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On a grander scale, natural selection, as it is popularly understood, can be seen as a conditioning force.  Survival of the fittest is survival of those best able to adapt to existing external conditions, survival of those best able to meet the conditions of their environment.  The fittest are, quite naturally, those in the best condition, that is, the best condition to survive.  Whether we are considering the effects of natural selection upon an entire species, or individual members of a species, or what Richard Dawkins refers to as the selfish gene, the environment sets the conditions that various forms of life must meet to survive and reproduce.

Such views are inherently incorrect insofar as they posit an artificial separation between the conditions of life and the form of life that is conditioned.  An ecological or systems view would instead emphasize the interdependent and interactive relationships that exist, as all forms of life alter their conditions simply by their very presence, by their metabolism, for example, and through their reproduction.  Darwin understood this, I hasten to add, and the seeds of ecology can be found in his work, although they did not fully germinate until the turn of the 20th century.  And Skinner certainly was aware of the individual’s capacity for self-stimulation, and self-modification, but a truly relational approach in psychology did not coalesce until Gregory Bateson introduced a cybernetic perspective during the 1950s.

In the passage quoted above, it is readily apparent that Arendt is an ecological thinker.  In saying that, “the things that owe their existence exclusively to men nevertheless constantly condition their human makers,” she is saying that we create the conditions that in turn condition us.  We exist within a reciprocal relationship, a dialogue if you like, between the conditioned and the conditions, the internal and the external, the organism and its environment.  The changes that we introduce into our environment, that alter the environment, feedback into ourselves as we are influenced, affected, and shaped by our environment.

The contrast between using tools and techniques in the most basic way to adapt to the conditions of the environment, and the creation of an entirely new technological environment of great complexity that requires us to perform highly convoluted acts of adaptation was portrayed with brilliant sensitivity and humor in the 1980 South African film, directed by Jamie Uys, entitled The Gods Must Be Crazy.  A good part of the documentary style opening can be seen on this YouTube clip:

The story of the Coke bottle, although fictional, follows the pattern of many documented cases in which the introduction of new technologies to traditional societies has had disruptive, and often enough, disastrous effects (the film itself, I hasten to add, is marvelously comedic, and quite often slapstick following the introductory quarter hour.)

The understanding that we are conditioned by the conditions we ourselves introduce was not unknown in the ancient world.  The 115th Psalm of David, in its polemic against idolatry and the idols that are “the work of men’s hands,” cautions that “they who make them shall be like unto them; yea every one that trusts in them.”  Along the same lines, the Gospel of Matthew includes the famous quote, “all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword,” while the Epistle to the Galatians advises, “whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap.” A more contemporary variation of that maxim is, “as you make your bed, so you shall lie on it,” although in the United States it is often rendered in the imperative and punitive form of, “you made your bed, go lie in it!”  During the 19th century, Henry David Thoreau notified us that “we do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us,” while Mark Twain humorously observed that, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  More recently, we have been told, “ask a silly question, get a silly answer,” to which computer scientists have responded with the acronym GIGO, which stands for, “garbage in, garbage out.”  Winston Churchill said, “we shape our buildings, and thereafter they shape us,” and former Fordham professor John Culkin, in turn, offered, “we shape our tools, and thereafter they shape us,” as a corollary to Marhsall McLuhan’s media ecology aphorism, “the medium is the message.”

All of these voices, in their varying ways, are pointing to the same essential truth about the human condition that Arendt is relating in the quote that begins this post.  And to pick up where that quote leaves off, Arendt goes on to argue,

In addition to the conditions under which life is given to man on earth, and partly out of them, men constantly create their own, self-made conditions, which, their human origin and their variability not withstanding, possess the same conditioning power as natural things.

The “conditions” that we make are used to create a buffer or shield against the conditions that we inherit, so that our self-made conditions are meant to stand between us and what we would consider to be the natural environment.  In this sense, our self-made conditions mediatebetween ourselves and the pre-existing conditions that we operate under, which is to say that our conditions are media of human life.  And in mediating, in going between our prior conditions and ourselves, the new conditions that we create become our new environment.  And as we become conditioned to our new conditions, they fade from view, being routinized they melt into the background and become essentially invisible to us.Let us return now for the conclusion of the passage from The Human Condition:

Whatever touches or enters into a sustained relationship with human life immediately assumes the character of a condition of human existence.  This is why men, no matter what they do, are always conditioned beings.  Whatever enters the world of its own accord or is drawn into it by human effort becomes part of the human condition.  The impact of the world’s reality upon human existence is felt and received as a conditioning force.  The objectivity of the world—its object- or thing-character—and the human condition supplement each other; because human existence is conditioned existence, it would be impossible without things, and things would be a heap of unrelated articles, a non-world, if they were not the conditioners of human existence.

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This last point is quite striking.  It is we, as human beings, who create worlds, which brings to mind the moving commentary from the Talmud:  “whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”  We create worlds, in the sense that we give meaning to existence, we attribute meaning to phenomena, we construct symbolic as well as material environments.  Each one of us, in our singular subjectivity, creates a world of our own, and therefore each one of us represents a world unto ourselves.

But these individual worlds are links, nodes in a social network, interdependent and interactive parts of an ecological whole.  The term condition, in its root meaning is derived from the Latin prefix com, which means together, and dicere, which means to speak.  And our ability to speak together, to engage in discussion and deliberation, to enter into symbolic interaction, constitutes the means by which we collectively construct our intersubjective, social realities, our worlds.

As human beings, we are conditioned not only by our labor, the ways in which we obtain the necessities of life, i.e., air, water, food, shelter, to which Marx sought to reduce all aspects of society, a position that Arendt severely criticized.  We are conditioned not only by our work, which Arendt associated with artifacts, with instrumentality and technology, with arts and crafts.  We are conditioned most importantly by action, which in Arendt’s view is intimately tied to speech and the symbolic, and to processes rather than things, to relations rather than objects.

In the end, Arendt reminds us that the human condition is itself conditional, and to be fully human requires not only that we take care of biological necessity, nor that we make life easier through technological innovation, but that we cooperate through speech and action in collectively constructing a world that is truly blessed with freedom and with justice.

-Lance Strate

Death and the Public Realm

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“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.

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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.

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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?

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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

We Create the Conditions that Condition Us

“The human condition comprehends more than the condition under which life has been given to man. Men are conditioned beings because everything they come in contact with turns immediately into a condition of their existence.  The world in which the vita activa spends itself consists of things produced by human activities; but the things that owe their existence exclusively to men nevertheless constantly condition their human makers.”

-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 1958, p. 9

The human condition is the context or situation we, as human beings, find ourselves in, the implication being that human life cannot be fully understood by considering humanity in isolation from its environment.  We are, to a large degree, shaped by our environment, which is why Arendt refers to us as conditioned beings.

We are conditioned by phenomena external to us, and this may be considered learning in its broadest sense, that is, in the sense that the Skinnerian conditioned response is a learned reaction to external stimuli.  It follows that any form of life that is capable of modifying its behavior in response to external stimuli is, to some extent, a conditioned being.

On a grander scale, natural selection, as it is popularly understood, can be seen as a conditioning force.  Survival of the fittest is survival of those best able to adapt to existing external conditions, survival of those best able to meet the conditions of their environment.  The fittest are, quite naturally, those in the best condition, that is, the best condition to survive.  Whether we are considering the effects of natural selection upon an entire species, or individual members of a species, or what Richard Dawkins refers to as the selfish gene, the environment sets the conditions that various forms of life must meet to survive and reproduce.

Such views are inherently incorrect insofar as they posit an artificial separation between the conditions of life and the form of life that is conditioned.  An ecological or systems view would instead emphasize the interdependent and interactive relationships that exist, as all forms of life alter their conditions simply by their very presence, by their metabolism, for example, and through their reproduction.  Darwin understood this, I hasten to add, and the seeds of ecology can be found in his work, although they did not fully germinate until the turn of the 20th century.  And Skinner certainly was aware of the individual’s capacity for self-stimulation, and self-modification, but a truly relational approach in psychology did not coalesce until Gregory Bateson introduced a cybernetic perspective during the 1950s.

In the passage quoted above, it is readily apparent that Arendt is an ecological thinker.  In saying that, “the things that owe their existence exclusively to men nevertheless constantly condition their human makers,” she is saying that we create the conditions that in turn condition us.  We exist within a reciprocal relationship, a dialogue if you like, between the conditioned and the conditions, the internal and the external, the organism and its environment.  The changes that we introduce into our environment, that alter the environment, feedback into ourselves as we are influenced, affected, and shaped by our environment.

The contrast between using tools and techniques in the most basic way to adapt to the conditions of the environment, and the creation of an entirely new technological environment of great complexity that requires us to perform highly convoluted acts of adaptation was portrayed with brilliant sensitivity and humor in the 1980 South African film, directed by Jamie Uys, entitled The Gods Must Be Crazy.  A good part of the documentary style opening can be seen on this YouTube clip:

The story of the Coke bottle, although fictional, follows the pattern of many documented cases in which the introduction of new technologies to traditional societies has had disruptive, and often enough, disastrous effects (the film itself, I hasten to add, is marvelously comedic, and quite often slapstick following the introductory quarter hour.)

The understanding that we are conditioned by the conditions we ourselves introduce was not unknown in the ancient world.  The 115th Psalm of David, in its polemic against idolatry and the idols that are “the work of men’s hands,” cautions that “they who make them shall be like unto them; yea every one that trusts in them.”  Along the same lines, the Gospel of Matthew includes the famous quote, “all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword,” while the Epistle to the Galatians advises, “whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap.” A more contemporary variation of that maxim is, “as you make your bed, so you shall lie on it,” although in the United States it is often rendered in the imperative and punitive form of, “you made your bed, go lie in it!”  During the 19th century, Henry David Thoreau notified us that “we do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us,” while Mark Twain humorously observed that, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  More recently, we have been told, “ask a silly question, get a silly answer,” to which computer scientists have responded with the acronym GIGO, which stands for, “garbage in, garbage out.”  Winston Churchill said, “we shape our buildings, and thereafter they shape us,” and former Fordham professor John Culkin, in turn, offered, “we shape our tools, and thereafter they shape us,” as a corollary to Marhsall McLuhan’s media ecology aphorism, “the medium is the message.”

All of these voices, in their varying ways, are pointing to the same essential truth about the human condition that Arendt is relating in the quote that begins this post.  And to pick up where that quote leaves off, Arendt goes on to argue,

In addition to the conditions under which life is given to man on earth, and partly out of them, men constantly create their own, self-made conditions, which, their human origin and their variability not withstanding, possess the same conditioning power as natural things.

The “conditions” that we make are used to create a buffer or shield against the conditions that we inherit, so that our self-made conditions are meant to stand between us and what we would consider to be the natural environment.  In this sense, our self-made conditions mediate between ourselves and the pre-existing conditions that we operate under, which is to say that our conditions are media of human life.  And in mediating, in going between our prior conditions and ourselves, the new conditions that we create become our new environment.  And as we become conditioned to our new conditions, they fade from view, being routinized they melt into the background and become essentially invisible to us.

Let us return now for the conclusion of the passage from The Human Condition:

Whatever touches or enters into a sustained relationship with human life immediately assumes the character of a condition of human existence.  This is why men, no matter what they do, are always conditioned beings.  Whatever enters the world of its own accord or is drawn into it by human effort becomes part of the human condition.  The impact of the world’s reality upon human existence is felt and received as a conditioning force.  The objectivity of the world—its object- or thing-character—and the human condition supplement each other; because human existence is conditioned existence, it would be impossible without things, and things would be a heap of unrelated articles, a non-world, if they were not the conditioners of human existence.

This last point is quite striking.  It is we, as human beings, who create worlds, which brings to mind the moving commentary from the Talmud:  “whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”  We create worlds, in the sense that we give meaning to existence, we attribute meaning to phenomena, we construct symbolic as well as material environments.  Each one of us, in our singular subjectivity, creates a world of our own, and therefore each one of us represents a world unto ourselves.

But these individual worlds are links, nodes in a social network, interdependent and interactive parts of an ecological whole.  The term condition, in its root meaning is derived from the Latin prefix com, which means together, and dicere, which means to speak.  And our ability to speak together, to engage in discussion and deliberation, to enter into symbolic interaction, constitutes the means by which we collectively construct our intersubjective, social realities, our worlds.

As human beings, we are conditioned not only by our labor, the ways in which we obtain the necessities of life, i.e., air, water, food, shelter, to which Marx sought to reduce all aspects of society, a position that Arendt severely criticized.  We are conditioned not only by our work, which Arendt associated with artifacts, with instrumentality and technology, with arts and crafts.  We are conditioned most importantly by action, which in Arendt’s view is intimately tied to speech and the symbolic, and to processes rather than things, to relations rather than objects.

In the end, Arendt reminds us that the human condition is itself conditional, and to be fully human requires not only that we take care of biological necessity, nor that we make life easier through technological innovation, but that we cooperate through speech and action in collectively constructing a world that is truly blessed with freedom and with justice.

-Lance Strate

 

Violence, Power, Technology, and Identity-Lance Strate

Last week I attended a public lecture at Fordham University given by Richard Bernstein, a philosopher on the faculty of the New School, the subject of the lecture being “Hannah Arendt on Power and Violence” and the sponsor being Fordham’s Philosophy Department.

The lecture began with some discussion of who Hannah Arendt was, e.g., German-Jewish intellectual, had an affair with Martin Heidegger when she was an 18-year-old student and he was a married professor in his 30s, wrote her dissertation on St. Augustine, escaped from Nazi Germany before things got really bad, met and became friends with Walter Benjamin in Paris, unlike Benjamin was able to escape to the United States, and famously wrote about totalitarianism, and the trial of Adolf Eichmann (architect of the Nazi concentration camps) and the banality of evil (which sums up my own previous encounter with Arendt’s thought).  Of course, that’s just a cursory summary of a rich and eventful life.

I joined a few of my colleagues from the Philosophy Department at Fordham and met with Bernstein prior to the lecture for some discussion, and he mentioned that, although Arendt was not a practicing Jew, at the end she asked that someone say Kaddish for her at her funeral.

Admittedly, it’s not all that unheard of for folks to suddenly get religion when the end is near (no atheists in foxholes, as the saying goes), and for individuals who have been disconnected from their traditions to suddenly want to reconnect.  But what I found poignant about this request is that she asked for someone, rather than someone specific, which I take to be a sign of isolation in that typically it would be the immediate family who would say the prayer.  No doubt, there were many who said Kaddish on her behalf, not the least on account of her significant work during and after World War II on behalf of Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and in general as a political philosopher with a strong sense of social justice.

And that brings me back to Bernstein’s lecture, the main part of which was a summary of an influential essay that Arendt wrote for the New York Review of Books back in 1969, entitled, “Reflections on Violence“.   And if you haven’t read it already, I do recommend it.  It’s clear that Arendt wrote the essay in response to the escalating violence occurring in the United States during the late 1960s, which included increasingly more violent antiwar demonstrations, the assassination of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the rise of militant movements especially within the African-American community, and rioting in inner city slums, which caused harm especially to African-American populations.  No doubt, the escalation of violence bore some similarity to the rise of Nazism in Germany, motivating this essay.

I won’t reproduce this rather lengthy essay in its entirety here, but I do want to note some salient points.
To begin with, Arendt thinks it’s important to distinguish between violence and power (as well as force and strength).  Violence, unlike power, is technological in nature–violence “always needs implements” so that:

The revolution in technology, a revolution in tool-making, was especially marked in warfare. The very substance of violent action is ruled by the question of means and ends, whose chief characteristic, if applied to human affairs, has always been that the end is in danger of being overwhelmed by the means, which it both justifies and needs. Since the end of human action, in contrast with the products of fabrication, can never be reliably predicted, the means used to achieve political goals are more often than not of greater relevance to the future world than the intended goals.

Now what she’s saying here is very much in keeping with the intellectual tradition known as media ecology, the type of approach associated with scholars such as Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, and Neil Postman.  Whereas McLuhan said that “the medium is the message,” for all intents and purposes, Arendt here is saying that the means is the message!

Arendt goes on to note that traditionally, violence has been seen as an instrument of power, but that technological advances in warfare (she mentions the possibility of robot soldiers!), weapons of mass destruction (especially biological weapons that can be used by small groups rather than large states), and guerrilla warfare (and what we now call terrorism) have led to a reversal of that relationship.  In many ways, this is a very prescient observation:

What all these very uncomfortable novelties add up to is a reversal in the relationship between power and violence, foreshadowing another reversal in the future relationship between small and great powers. The amount of violence at the disposal of a given country may no longer be a reliable indication of that country’s strength or a reliable guarantee against destruction by a substantially smaller and weaker power. This again bears an ominous similarity to one of the oldest insights of political science, namely that power cannot be measured by wealth, that an abundance of wealth may erode power, that riches are particularly dangerous for the power and well-being of republics.

Arendt also goes on to make a similar point about the use of violence for revolutionary aims.  Noting the leftist leanings of the baby boomer generation (e.g., the hippies), she points out:

This is the first generation that grew up under the shadow of the atom bomb, and it inherited from the generation of its fathers the experience of a massive intrusion of criminal violence into politics – they learned in high school and in college about concentration and extermination camps, about genocide and torture, about the wholesale slaughter of civilians in war, without which modern military operations are no longer possible even if they remain restricted to “conventional” weapons.

But noting the then recent shift to militancy within “the movement” (as it was known), she again invokes a key critique of the technological environment and its discontents:

Their behavior has been blamed on all kinds of social and psychological causes…  Still, it seems absurd, especially in view of the global character of the phenomenon, to ignore the most obvious and perhaps the most potent factor in this development, for which moreover no precedent and no analogy exist–the fact that, in general, technological progress seems in so many instances to lead straight to disaster, and, in particular, the proliferation of techniques and machines which, far from only threatening certain classes with unemployment, menaces the very existence of whole nations and, conceivably, of all mankind. It is only natural that the new generation should live with greater awareness of the possibility of doomsday than those “over thirty,” not because they are younger but because this was their first decisive experience in the world. If you ask a member of this generation two simple questions: “How do you wish the world to be in fifty years?” and “What do you want your life to be like five years from now?” the answers are quite often preceded by a “Provided that there is still a world,” and “Provided I am still alive.”

That sense of pessimism became very much characteristic of the 1970s, and continued into the 1980s, eventually dispelled by Reagan’s rhetoric of optimism, economic recovery, and the fall of the Soviet bloc, but also coincided with the revolution in personal computing that in turn led to the rise of the internet.  Has that sense of pessimism returned anew, in the post 9/11 decade where concern about terrorism, warfare, and the loss of liberty are still present, and especially in light of the financial disaster of 2008 that continues to affect the global economy?  Are movements such as the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street leading the way to increased freedom and justice both in the world?  Or are they a prelude to increased violence?

I think Hannah Arendt at least helps us to formulate some important questions, and reminds us that however unpredictable the ends may be, we would do well to pay close attention to the means being employed.

There is also some further common ground between Arendt and McLuhan (a point first brought to my attention by my old classmate Paul Lippert, who was also in attendance at Bernstein’s lecture).  For Arendt, violence requires technology.  For McLuhan, technology is a form of violence.  The relationship between the two is certainly worth considering, even in relation to the seemingly benign technologies we refer to as new media.  What is the violence that they do, to our political arrangements, our economic and financial arrangements, our social organization and way of life?

To return to Arendt’s essay, her essay was primarily concerned with the differences between power and violence, which she argues amounts to an almost diametrical opposition.  Arendt notes that most scholars and intellectuals see violence as a manifestation of power, perhaps its ultimate manifestation.  But they’re wrong.  And noting the connection between power and rule, Arendt makes a rather interesting aside about bureaucracy in discussing the traditional equation of power with violence:

These definitions coincide with the terms which, since Greek antiquity, have been used to define the forms of government as the rule of man over man – of one or the few in monarchy and oligarchy, of the best or the many in aristocracy and democracy, to which today we ought to add the latest and perhaps most formidable form of such dominion, bureaucracy, or the rule by an intricate system of bureaux in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible, and which could be properly called the rule by Nobody. Indeed, if we identify tyranny as the government that is not held to give account of itself, rule by Nobody is clearly the most tyrannical of all, since there is no one left who could even be asked to answer for what is being done. It is this state of affairs which is among the most potent causes for the current world-wide rebellious unrest.

Now, I’m not sure I would agree with her about bureaucracy being the most tyrannical of systems, but I would note that bureaucracy is what James Beniger referred to as an invisible technology, and what Lewis Mumford viewed as a type of machine, in some instances a megamachine.  Bureaucracy is a reflection of machine ideology, inhuman and inhumane, and inorganic as well.  So I think Mumford probably agreed with her point when he read the essay, as I assume he did, back in 1969.

Back to the point, Arendt argues that power is not simply about domination, that obedience and command go hand-in-hand, so that individuals who are willing to obey are also willing to give orders to others, and vice versa, and conversely individuals who resist obedience to authority also resist being placed in a position of authority over others.

But more importantly, she stresses the role of consent of the ruled, or governed, the centrality of cooperation to the establishment of power.  This is consonant with Kenneth Burke’s view that rhetoric is not about conflict, but rather about identification, about establishing, maintaining, and increasing common ground.  This also falls in line with Jacques Ellul’s arguments about the role of propaganda in technological societies, especially integrative and sociological propaganda, where the main goal is to establish and reinforce the legitimacy of the society, and keep people from questioning or acting in ways that work against the effective functioning of the social machine.

Some may also note the similarity of Michel Foucault’s views on power, but then there’s the question of whether he was aware of Arendt’s work and just didn’t acknowledge her influence (as he didn’t acknowledge the influence of others, e.g., Erving Goffman).  But let’s take Jean Baudrillard’s advice, and “forget Foucault” and stick with Arendt (and I would venture to predict that by the end of the century Foucault will largely be forgotten, and Arendt’s thought will still be discussed).

Anyway, all this is not to say that power minus violence is necessarily a good thing, as Arendt explains:

Indeed, it is one of the most obvious distinctions between power and violence that power always stands in need of numbers, whereas violence relying on instruments up to a point can manage without them. A legally unrestricted majority rule, that is, a democracy without a constitution, can be very formidable indeed in the suppression of the rights of minorities and very effective in the suffocation of dissent without any use of violence. Undivided and unchecked power can bring about a “consensus” that is hardly less coercive than suppression by means of violence. But that does not mean that violence and power are the same.

Consensus may be tacit, and can continue as long as the power structure is not challenged.  That is how a single master can control many slaves who outnumber him and could otherwise overpower him.  That’s how political systems in decline can still cling to power, as long as no one internally, or externally, challenge their rule.  Now, let’s hear some more of what Arendt has to say:

To switch for a moment to conceptual language: Power is indeed of the essence of all government, but violence is not. Violence is by nature instrumental; like all means, it always stands in need of guidance and justification through the end it pursues. And what needs justification through something else cannot be the essence of anything. The end of war – end taken in its twofold meaning – is peace or victory; but to the question, And what is the end of peace? there is no answer. Peace is an absolute, even though in recorded history the periods of warfare have nearly always outlasted the periods of peace. Power is in the same category; it is, as the saying goes, “an end in itself.” (This, of course, is not to deny that governments pursue policies and employ their power to achieve prescribed goals. But the power structure itself precedes and outlasts all aims, so that power, far from being the means to an end, is actually the very condition that enables a group of people to think and act according to means and ends.) And since government is essentially organized and institutionalized power, the current question, What is the end of government?, does not make much sense either. The answer will be either question-begging — to enable men to live together — or dangerously Utopian: to promote happiness or to realize a classless society or some other nonpolitical ideal, which if tried out in earnest can only end in the worst kind of government, that is, tyranny.

Arendt does acknowledge that power needs legitimacy, which brings us back to consent, and which she differentiates from justification.  Is there a difference that makes a difference here?  Perhaps. Justification requires some sort of rationale, some logic, some explanation.  Legitimacy is merely a matter of agreement, of assent on the part of the group, or the majority.  In this sense, legitimacy works on the relationship level of communication, as a form of metacommunication, whereas justification works on the content level of communication, to use the terms developed by Paul Watzlawick and his colleagues, based on the systems view of Gregory Bateson.

Given that violence is different and distinct from power, Arendt notes that violence has the potential to disrupt and overcome power, and to do so quite easily:

Violence, we must remember, does not depend on numbers or opinion but on implements, and the implements of violence share with all other tools that they increase and multiply human strength. Those who oppose violence with mere power will soon find out that they are confronted not with men but with men’s artifacts, whose inhumanity and destructive effectiveness increase in proportion to the distance that separates the opponents. Violence can always destroy power; out of the barrel of a gun grows the most effective command, resulting in the most instant and perfect obedience. What can never grow out of it is power.

So, violence can destroy power, but it cannot create power.  When governments resort to violence, it is a reflection of their loss of power.  And the use of violence to maintain or gain power has unwanted, often unanticipated effects (typical of technology, after all), boomerang effects.  Arendt notes, “the much-feared boomerang effect of the ‘government of subject races’ (Lord Cromer) upon the home government during the imperialist era meant that rule by violence in far-away lands would end by affecting the government of England, that the last ‘subject race’ would be the English themselves.”  Or as Edmund Carpenter (and Marshall McLuhan) put it, drawing on the Book of Psalms, they became what they beheld.

In keeping with the Arendtian approach, I think it’s correct to say that violence is not war, and I would say that there can in fact be war without violence. A state of war can exist without any battles actually taking place. This has been the case in the Middle East between Israel and various Arab states since Israel declared its independence. And of course it was the situation we referred to as the Cold War. War, as Kenneth Burke pointed out, requires a massive amount of cooperation within each society at war, and a certain amount of agreement on the ground rules for war (e.g., the Geneva Convention). Indeed, terrorism can be distinguished from war insofar as terrorists do not play by any rules, and do not seek any form of agreement on how to conduct hostilities. War is violence constrained by rules, therefore akin to a game, whereas violence itself knows no rules, and is no game.  McLuhan observed that war is a very effective form of education. Violence, on the other hand, teaches us about nothing except itself. Violence only teaches us to be violent, or to avoid violence.

Image by Francois Robert

Arendt also differentiates between violence and terror:  “Terror is not the same as violence; it is rather the form of government that comes into being when violence, having destroyed all power, does not abdicate but, on the contrary, remains in full control.”  Of course, this concept of terror is an older understanding of state-produced terror, the “reign of terror” as it were.  But perhaps we can base a more contemporary understanding of terrorism based on this view, with the idea that terrorists seek to destroy power, and to exert a form of control without actually taking power.  This perhaps would be a way to distinguish between terrorists and genuine rebels and revolutionaries.

So, Arendt summarizes the distinction between power and violence in this way:

Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course its end is the disappearance of power. This implies that it is not correct to say that the opposite of violence is nonviolence: to speak of nonviolent power is actually redundant. Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.

Arendt also discusses the role of rage as a cause of violence, and this leads her to consider “black rage” as it was known in the 60s, the anger expressed by African-Americans and the violent acts that stem from that anger, notably the riots that occurred in Harlem, Watts, Newark, and elsewhere.  This leads to an interesting comment on expressions of “white guilt” as a collective phenomenon:

Where all are guilty, however, no one is; confessions of collective guilt are always the best possible safeguard against the discovery of the actual culprits. In this particular instance, it is in addition a dangerous and obfuscating escalation of racism into some higher, less tangible regions: The real rift between black and white is not healed when it is being translated into an even less reconcilable conflict between collective innocence and collective guilt. It is racism in disguise and it serves quite effectively to give the very real grievances and rational emotions of the Negro population an outlet into irrationality, an escape from reality.

A controversial comment, to be sure, but one that is quite thought-provoking.  And it is an altogether basic point, coming from a Marxist perspective, that one way that those in power maintain power is via a strategy of divide and conquer, and nowhere has this been more apparent in US history than in the division between black and white in the lower classes (as well, between the German working class and German Jews that was encouraged and capitalized upon by the Nazis).

Arendt also criticizes those scholars who argue for the inherent naturalness of violence as a biological imperative, and therefore its inherently irrationality.  Instead, she notes that “violence, being instrumental by nature, is rational to the extent that it is effective in reaching the end which must justify it. And since when we act we never know with any amount of certainty the eventual consequences of what we are doing, violence can remain rational only if it pursues short-term goals.”

I can’t help but note the interesting result if we substitute technology for violence in this quote:  “technology being instrumental by nature, is rational to the extent that it is effective in reaching the end which must justify it. And since when we act we never know with any amount of certainty the eventual consequences of what we are doing, technology can remain rational only if it pursues short-term goals.”

The danger of introducing violence bring us back to Arendt’s implicit take on McLuhan’s medium is the message, that the means are the message, which is to say that the means become the ends.

Still, the danger of the practice of violence, even if it moves consciously within a nonextremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end. If goals are not achieved rapidly, the result will not merely be defeat but the introduction of the practice of violence into the whole body politic. Action is irreversible, and a return to the status quo in case of defeat is always unlikely. The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is a more violent world.

Interestingly, Arendt suggests that “the greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence.”  This returns to the point of bureaucracy as technology, that it is impersonal and dehumanizing, that you cannot question it or argue with it.  Thinking about it, what Plato criticizes about writing in the Phaedrus applies to bureaucracy quite well, at least on those two points.  Otherwise, in regard to Plato’s 3rd major point about writing, we could modify the original critique and note that bureaucracy gives the appearance of a knowledgeable and accountable government, but in fact represents the complete absence of those qualities.

In his lecture, Bernstein stated that what people want is the freedom to act, to participate.  That is what the exercise of power by bureaucracy, power without accountability, without responsibility (the key to responsibility being response as Martin Buber has insightfully stated), resists and essentially prevents.

Power based on participation is the formula for a just and stable society.  Can technology, which is arguably inherently violent, actually increase genuine participation in the establishment of a legitimate order and power structure?  Proponents of new media, such as my friend and colleague Paul Levinson, believe the answer to be unequivocally yes.  There is no question that new media are undermining existing power structures all around the world, and here in the US.  But can they form the basis of a new political order?  Arendt’s arguments cast some doubt on the possibility (and Neil Postman would undoubtedly agree), and should give us pause, as we ought to recall the unpredictability of the ends, and the overwhelming “power” of the means.

Arendt’s essay also made me think about the close association that Marshall McLuhan made between violence and identity.  According to McLuhan, violence is a response to the loss of identity, and constitutes an attempt to regain identity.  In his final television appearance, with Mike McManus at the end of 1977, McLuhan stated,

All forms of violence are quests for identity.  When you live out on the frontier, you have no identity. You’re a nobody.  Therefore you get very tough. You have to prove that you are somebody, and so you become very violent. And so identity is always accompanied by violence. This seems paradoxical to you?  Ordinary people find the need for violence as they lose their identities.  So it’s only the threat to people’s identity that makes them violent. Terrorists, hijackers, these are people minus identity. They are determined to make it somehow, to get coverage, to get noticed.

Adding McLuhan’s insight to Arendt’s commentary, we can equate identity with power, loss or lack of identity with a loss of power and impotency.  Identity not only tells us who we are, it binds us together in common cause, as a group identity.

This brings us back to Kenneth Burke’s view of rhetoric as a means to foster identification.  Through the forging of a common identity, we create the basis for cooperation and consent, and therefore, in Arendt’s sense, power.

When group identity breaks down, cooperation and consent go into decline (this sounds chillingly familiar, come to think of it), and the power of the state/government ebbs.  Violence then becomes the means to compensate for it.  On the other side of the coin, when individuals or groups do not feel that they are part of the larger group identity, and consequently may feel a loss or lack of identity in contrast to the majority, they may resort to violence as a means of compensation.

Bringing Burke back into play (and, for that matter, Alfred Korzybski), it becomes clear that power and identity are very much symbolic phenomena.  Identity typically is established by having and/or gaining a name.  When we share the same name, the same surname, or the same nationality-name, we indicate that we have a shared identity.  That is why shifts in language and also bilingualism can be seen as a threat to identity (witness the overwhelming resistance to Spanish in the US, and the problem of Quebec in Canada, which McLuhan was trying to address).  Power is a function of symbolic order, and identity is a function of symbolic assignment.

Anomie is the sociological term for lawlessness, for being an outlaw, rejecting society’s laws and rules and norms.  But it also means, in a sense, being without a name.  Being nameless grants a license to kill, or otherwise commit violent acts that violate law, ethics, and morality.  Anonymity reduces the barriers to violence, and distance aids in anonymity.  It is harder to commit violence with one’s bare hands than to pull the trigger of a gun, easier still to drop bombs from a plane, and easier still to push a button and launch a missile.  Technology creates distance (as Max Frisch observed, it is the art of never having to experience the world), and grants a measure of anonymity.

Violence is a response to a lack of power.  Technology is a response to a lack of power.  Violence is a response to a lack of identity. Technology is a response to a lack of identity.

Lacking identity, the individual may try to make a name for himself or herself.  This may involve achievement, typically through competition and success in surpassing others, which might be understood as a form of symbolic violence.  But often enough, individuals make names for themselves through genuinely violent acts.

Violence is a response to loss of power/identity, but violence cannot restore power/identity, that is, cannot restore it to its previous state of being, its positive existence.

Violence can produce a new kind of power/identity, but only a negative form of identity/power, e.g., villainy/tyranny.

Technology is a response to loss of power/identity, but technology cannot restore power/identity, that is, cannot restore it to its previous state of being, its positive existence.  Technology can produce a new kind of power/identity, but only a negative form of identity/power, e.g., villainy/tyranny.

Violence/technology/innovation is associated with the loss of our name/language/symbolic order.  Violence/technology/innovation cannot restore our name/language/symbolic order.

Only we, as human beings, can bestow a name, can employ language.  Only we, as human beings, can create an identity, can establish symbolic order.  Only we, as human beings, can create power, and we have the potential to create power in a manner that Hannah Arendt would insist on, within an ethical framework, and grounded in peace, justice, and human rights.

Violence is divisive.  Violence separates the hunters from the prey, the attacker from the target, the winner from the loser, the victor from the victim (as the saying goes, you’re either one or the other, which represents a cynical worldview, of course).  Violence is a zero sum game.  Violence performed on one’s self is internally divisive, but that’s another story.

Technology is divisive. Technology separates the user from the used, the individual from the world, the actor from the acted upon, the subject from the object (technology objectifies the world, and the others who inhabit it).

Violence/technology is an I-It relationship, to use Martin Buber’s terminology.

Power is unifying.  Power brings together the ruler and the ruled, government and citizen, in consent and cooperation.  Power binds us together (for good or for ill), in creating, maintaining, repairing, renewing, and revising the symbolic order.

Identity is unifying.  Identity is a shared sense of self, group membership, imagined community, a common ground, a common name, an interconnectedness.

Power/identity is an I-You relationship, an I-You becoming Us.

All too often, power/identity is established through some larger form of divisiveness, a shared identity among insiders in contrast to outsiders, the identification of the other against which we define ourselves.  Identity established through divisiveness is the same as power established through violence, it carries the seeds of its own disintegration, it is not sustainable.  Divisiveness corrupts because any insider group can sense that they might, at some point, become outsiders, and that the only way to prevent this is to single out some other insider group and treat them as outsiders.

The problem before us is one that we have faced throughout our long history:  How to overcome division and forge a truly unified identity.  The name for this identity is no mystery:  it is humanity.  To achieve a global human identity there must be a global human power, a symbolic order, a mutual empowerment based on consent and cooperation.

Does this sound utopian?  I am reminded of Buckminster Fuller’s remark that we are in a race between utopia and oblivion.  And even if it’s not possible to achieve absolute unity, we certainly have made some significant progress towards that goal, and it certainly seems to me that we have the potential to make a great deal more progress if we have the will to do so.

And I think Hannah Arendt would agree that this positive sense of a will to power begins with thought, I believe she would agree with McLuhan that nothing is inevitable if we are willing to contemplate the possibilities and the consequences of our actions.  And I think Arendt would say that we have to start by thinking, that it’s only when we stop thinking that solutions seem hopelessly utopian and problems become insurmountable.

-Lance Strate

Dr. Lance Strate is Professor of Communication and Media Studies and Director of the Professional Studies in New Media program at Fordham University.  He is the author of Echoes and Reflections:  On Media Ecology as a Field of Study, and On the Binding Biases of Time and Other Essays on General Semantics and Media Ecology.
Click here to visit his blog.