omnipotent human

The Delusion of the Omnipotence

**This post was originally published on June 3, 2013**

“There is a difference between a man who sets out to murder his old aunt and people who without considering the economic usefulness of their actions at all (…) build factories to produce corpses. (…) Perhaps what is behind it all is only that individual human beings did not kill other individual human beings for human reasons, but that an organized attempt was made to eradicate the concept of the human being…. And all this … arises from – or, better, goes along with – the delusion of the omnipotence (not simply with the lust for power) of an individual man. If an individual man qua man were omnipotent, then there is in fact no reason why men in the plural should exist at all – just as in monotheism it is only God’s omnipotence that made him ONE.”

— Hannah Arendt / Karl Jaspers: Correspondence 1926-1969

Arendt distinguishes two historical boundaries that separated pre-modernity from modernity and liberalism from total domination. In her books The Human Condition and Between Past and Future, Arendt discusses the profound changes that modernity brought about through technological progress and world alienation, by withdrawal from the common world into self-reflection, by division of the world into subjectivity and objectivity, by substitution of philosophy and politics with an instrumental understanding of theory and praxis, and by the loss of the interwoven phenomena of authority, tradition, and religion as guarantees for the stability of political communities. Continue reading

Arendtamormundi

Amor Mundi 12/13/15

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

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

amor_mundi_sign-upHostile Climates

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

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

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

Encryption and Morality

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

Leader of the People

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

amor_mundi_sign-upThe Human Ear

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

Buying Power

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

Praising Doublethink

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

The Art of Friendship

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

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

virtual reading groupHAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #16

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

For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at dbisson@bard.edu.

Friday, January 8, 2015

Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm


vita activaVita Activa – The Spirit of Hannah Arendt

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

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

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

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


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

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

Thursday and Friday, October 20 and 21, 2016

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


From the Arendt Center Blog

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

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Arendt on Humanity

Source: Globe Jotters

By Kazue Koishikawa

“[T]he public realm has lost the power of illumination which was originally part of its very nature.—[W]hat is lost is the specific and usually irreplaceable in-between which should have formed between this individual and his fellow men.”

— Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times

Arendt often points out that we live in a dark time in which the public realm is deteriorating. To be sure, the primal meaning of the public realm isn’t a town, city, state, or nation for her. Rather, it is a space that emerges and is sustained only when we express our opinions, views, and concerns and share them with others. It exists between us. Our sense of reality owes to such in-betweeness, and that is the reason why Arendt puts so much emphasis on the importance of the political life. In other words, “politics” and the “political” have a much wider meaning for Arendt than what we usually understand in our daily lives. Continue reading

Arendt on the Limits of Social Science

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“[Regarding The Origins of Totalitarianism] while I feel that within the necessary limitations of a historical study and political analysis I made myself sufficiently clear on certain general perplexities which have come to light through the full development of totalitarianism, I also know that I failed to explain the particular method which I came to use, and to account for a rather unusual approach [to] the whole field of political and historical sciences as such. One of the difficulties of the book is that it does not belong to any school and hardly uses any of the officially recognized or officially controversial instruments.”

–Hannah Arendt, Review of Politics, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Reply to Eric Voegelin (1953)

Arendt wrote this in defense of her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, less as a direct reply to the criticism of the political scientist Eric Voegelin than to the criticism in general which her book had received. According to this criticism Arendt got carried away by her “emotionally determined method of proceeding from a concrete center of shock toward generalizations” which “leads to a delimitation of (the) subject matter” and ignores the duties of a scientist regarding objectivity, universality and (the) validity of their research and the representation of the results of that research. There can hardly be a worse reproach against a political philosopher operating within the terrain of history and social science, and we can imagine how a still unknown Arendt would get on in our contemporary world of peer-reviewed journals with their comprehensive control that results in a kind of intellectual self-censorship.

But Arendt did not think at all to subordinate herself to the common scientific norms.  Her Oeuvre contains only a few remarks like those in her reply to Voegelin about the way she understood scientific work. They refer mainly to three aspects: critical thinking, commitment, and judgment.

1. Critical thinking: Writing her essays about the origins of totalitarianism Arendt asked herself how to write the history of anti-Semitism when you do not want to preserve but to destroy it. One answer would be: “from the perspective of the victims”, but according to Arendt this would be an apology, not historiography. So, she saw no other choice but to approach the analysis through historical concepts. This is also true for her book On Revolution, which is no historiography of the American and the French revolution either but also an analysis with historical concepts. To read these two books as works of history would miss the essential point.

Similar is the case of her writings about political phenomena. They do not either fit into traditional political science. The reason is, Arendt was a political thinker, not a scientific commentator: “The authors are auctores, that is, (they) augment the world,” she explained in a university course. “We move in a world, which is augmented by the authors. We cannot do without them, because they behave in an altogether different way from the commentators. The world in which the commentator moves is the world of books. This difference becomes visible in a person like Machiavelli. Machiavelli was interested in Italy, not in political theory, not even his own. Only the commentator is interested in political theory per se” (History of Political Theory, 1955). Therefore, Arendt was not interested in commenting on intellectual and theoretical systems like liberalism or pragmatism but rather in analyzing facts. “I proceed from facts and events instead of intellectual affinities and influences”, she declared in her reply to Voegelin.

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2. Commitment: The criticism of her book on totalitarianism repudiated her tone as too committed and emotional. Arendt replied that the style should be appropriate to the context. Extreme poverty like that of the British miners at the beginning of industrialization would provoke indignation. To describe these conditions without indignation consequently would mean to remove them from their context and rob them of one of their essential qualities. This also applies to the concentration camps; to describe them sine ira “is not to be ‘objective’, but to condone them; and such condoning cannot be changed by a condemnation which the author may feel duty bound to add but which remains unrelated to the description itself. “

It is worth reading again Orwell’s social report The Road To Wigan Peer (1937) about the misery of the British miners. Is anything as memorable being written about the refugees on their way to the borders of the EU and the US, about the feminicide in Mexico and other countries, or the living conditions in Southern Europe during the economic and financial crisis? What do social scientists think about their social responsibility when in their research they transform subjects into objects and try to represent the social conditions objectively instead of adequately?

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3. Judgment: it is very unusual for a scientist to show the limits of the sciences that common sense places upon them as Arendt did. She subdues scientific judgment to everyday understanding. In her essay “Understanding and Politics” (1952) she explains: “Knowledge and understanding are not the same, but they are interrelated. Understanding is based on knowledge and knowledge cannot proceed without a preliminary, inarticulate understanding. Preliminary understanding denounces totalitarianism as tyranny and has decided that our fight against it is a fight for freedom. … Preliminary understanding … no matter how rudimentary and even irrelevant it may ultimately prove to be, will certainly more effectively prevent people from joining a totalitarian movement than the most reliable information, the most perceptive political analysis, or the most comprehensive accumulated knowledge. Understanding precedes and succeeds knowledge. Preliminary understanding, which is at the basis of all knowledge, and true understanding, which transcends it, have this in common: They make knowledge meaningful.”

This means that the scientists can only illuminate, but neither prove nor disprove what they have preliminarily understood. And when he tries to create politics out of the results of his research he loses all common sense, “which alone will guide him securely through the labyrinth of his own knowledge”. And when he tries to make his knowledge meaningful, he “must become very humble again and listen closely to the popular language, in which words like ‘totalitarianism’ are daily used as political clichés and misused as catchwords, in order to re-establish contact between knowledge and understanding.”

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This understanding means to judge, which is to take into consideration all real or possible points of view and to pronounce a judgment. Arendt discussed this procedure in another course with the example of a slum and its inhabitants whose points of view we should know in detail to be able to judge their situation, which does not mean to be in agreement with them.

But without critical thinking and commitment this judgment remains empty.

These three aspects show that the hitherto existing characterization of Arendt’s method as “thinking poetically” or of her position as “between the disciplines” are improper. Arendt rather attunes her style to the context and moves beyond the disciplines. And for her it is just as little about the alternative scientist or public intellectual, as she was sometimes called. While this professional thinker tends to raise himself above the common citizens, it is the non-professional action and judging of ordinary citizens, which stand at the center of Arendt’s work.

–Wolfgang Heuer

World Alienation and Global Tourism

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“Before we knew how to circle the earth, how to circumscribe the sphere of human habitation in days and hours, we had brought the globe into our living rooms to be touched by our hands and swirled before our eyes.”

-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

In 1492, the same year that Christopher Columbus sailed west towards India, the German merchant and mathematician Martin Behaim constructed the first globe of modern times, the Nuremberg Terrestrial Globe, measuring some 21 inches in diameter. The temporal coincidence of Columbus and Behaim’s endeavors speaks to an important phenomenon of the modern age that Hannah Arendt analyzed in the final chapter of her 1958 study The Human Condition. Arendt argues that the unprecedented enlargement of the world through the discoveries of early modern seafarers presupposed a more fundamental shrinkage of the world through the measuring activities of modern science. When Columbus and his fellow travelers embarked on their adventures, man had already elevated himself to a theoretical vista point from which he could look at the world as “a globe to be touched by our hands and swirled before our eyes.”

Man’s success in assuming a perspective beyond his being embedded in the world around him, an unearthly perspective that Arendt calls world alienation, is one of the fundamental preconditions of objectivity in modern science. But world alienation also describes modern man’s estrangement from his immediate earthly surroundings. With the globe in our living rooms, we have the world at our fingertips, but we no longer inhabit a place inside it. The modern age has enlarged the world’s physical territory while shrinking its experiential potentiality into a measurable dataset. Swirling the globe before his eyes, the mathematical theories of Martin Behaim embody both the knowledge and the melancholia of modern man.

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Martin Behaim with his globe, 19th century painting from an unknown artist.

One of the principal ways in which western societies have responded to the condition of world alienation over the past 150 years is tourism. Alienated from our immediate surroundings, we imagine immersing ourselves as tourists into foreign lands. While the beginnings of modern mass tourism can be dated back to the second half of the nineteenth century, tourism received important new impulses during the economic growth of the 1950s. In 1957, the year preceding the publication of Arendt’s The Human Condition, Arthur Frommer’s travel guide Europe on 5 Dollars a Day appeared and introduced to the world a new movement of low budget, long distance travel. Although Arendt never mentions tourism explicitly in her book, there are important lessons to be learned from her analysis of world alienation when dealing with Frommer’s promise of cheap travel and authentic experience overseas—a promise of which we have seen countless iterations in the heap of travel literature ever since.

The problem with Frommer’s promise does not lie simply in the fact that the millions of vacationers who are touring with Frommer immediately turn the recommended off-the-beaten-tracks paths into the new highways of travel. Rather, the existence of Frommer’s alternative travel guide presupposes a world that is, in all its common and uncommon aspects, translatable in the form of a guidebook. Before anybody sets out to travel to and discover Europe for him – or herself, Europe—or Thailand or Namibia, for that matter—have already shrunk to the format of a well-indexed pocket book, easy to navigate, but impossible to inhabit.

Arendt makes us sensitive to the necessary frustration of tourism’s promise to be immersed in the world through travel: the very embarking into the world as a tourist presupposes a technological and cultural infrastructure that has already necessarily distanced us from the world. No new journey into the world can escape the shadow of Martin Behaim, as he melancholically touches the globe with his hands, swirls it before his eyes, and reminds us of the fact that the world ceased to be ours at the moment we made it our object.

-Martin Wagner, Ph.D. candidate at Yale University

The Delusion of the Omnipotence

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“There is a difference between a man who sets out to murder his old aunt and people who without considering the economic usefulness of their actions at all (…) build factories to produce corpses. (…) Perhaps what is behind it all is only that individual human beings did not kill other individual human beings for human reasons, but that an organized attempt was made to eradicate the concept of the human being”.  –  “And all this … arises from – or, better, goes along with – the delusion of the omnipotence (not simply with the lust for power) of an individual man. If an individual man qua man were omnipotent, then there is in fact no reason why men in the plural should exist at all – just as in monotheism it is only God’s omnipotence that made him ONE.”

-Hannah Arendt / Karl Jaspers: Correspondence 1926-1969

Arendt distinguishes two historical boundaries that separated pre-modernity from modernity and liberalism from total domination. In her books The Human Condition and Between Past and Future Arendt discusses the profound changes which modernity brought about through technological progress and simultaneous world alienation, by withdrawal from the common world to self-reflection, by division of the world into subjectivity and objectivity, by substitution of philosophy and politics with an instrumental understanding of theory and praxis, and loss of the interwoven phenomena of authority, tradition and religion as guarantees for the stability of political communities.

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All this opened the way to transgress traditional boundaries and to give in to the temptation to be omnipotent. The totalitarian movements transformed the nihilistic “all is allowed” into “all is possible”.

Is is precisely the same thesis that Freud, Castoriadis and others advanced: the lust for omnipotence is neither an exception nor the experience of a limited number of human beings but the general experience of early childhood. The experience of omnipotence precedes the recognition of otherness. Recognition of the other has to be learned in the course of development from the pre-social to the socially shaped human being. According to philosopher and psychoanalyst Joel Whitebook, we are thus confronted with a constant working of  “the negative” in us.

“The experience of omnipotence is significant for the normal as well as for the abnormal child, for youth and for adulthood. Examples can be found in religious, aesthetic and erotic experiences, in the state of being in love, in mass phenomena and in certain forms of psychosis.”

In this context it is worth analysing the different forms of violence and asking why and how they transgress the boundaries to omnipotence. For example, we can distinguish between hooligan crowd violence, sniper killings in wartime and the mass murder committed by the Norwegian Anders Breivik. Transgressing boundaries in the case of hooligans consists of crossing the boundary from respect for the physical integrity of the other to illegal physical injury, in the case of snipers from a ban on killing to legally controlled or uncontrolled killing of enemy combatants, and in the case of Breivik in the annihilation of all representatives of the enemy. In Eichmann’s case, as we know, the maximum transgression consisted in the endless annihilation of entire peoples and populations.

What we find in the first case, the fierce violence of hooligans, is lust for power and temporary transgression. Here a code of honour prescribes that violence should be fierce and brutal, but not fatal, that those not involved should not be attacked, that the use of weapons is forbidden and that conflicting groups should be similar in number and strength. Hooligans do not intend to destroy their opponents but merely to gain victory over them. Consequently their violence has nothing to do with delusions of omnipotence, but a great deal to do with lust for power. There is, however, an element in their behaviour that could pave the way for omnipotence. They themselves describe this as a kick, a surge of violence that can be produced instantly and only stopped on the threshold of destroying the other. In the interests of journalism, the American journalist Bill Buford socialized with British hooligans for some time and observed in himself the euphoria that accompanied each transgression, a sense of transcendence that rose to ecstasy, where the individual was completely absorbed into the crowd. “Violence is one of the strongest sensations of pleasure.” He described the vast majority of hooligans as what we might call ordinary neighbours.

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The second group are the snipers. What makes them transgress boundaries is the lust to kill enemies as defined by the state, the army or the militia to which they belong. Chris Kyle, for example, the best sniper the US army ever produced, officially shot 160 enemy combatants in Iraq, 250 in his opinion, and described killing as his job and the war as his area of work.

“When you kill someone the first time, you’re stirred up. You think: Am I really allowed to kill this guy? Is this OK? But once you kill an enemy, you realize it’s alright. You do it again. And again. You do it so the enemy cannot kill you and your compatriots. You do it until there’s no one left to kill. “

Chris Kyle became a killing machine employed by the state.

When his marriage was threatened, he returned to the United States. There too, death remained his main topic. He became an alcoholic, was involved in brawls, shot two car thieves, set up a company to train snipers and took care of traumatized veterans by accompanying them to shooting ranges. In February of this year he was shot by one of the traumatized ex-soldiers at a shooting range. Chris Kyle received numerous awards. The nation is proud of him.

The Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik represents the third form of transgression. His deed is not marked primarily by the lust for power or the lust to kill but by the ideological justification of an omnipotent action. He bombed the government district of Oslo, killing eight people, and massacred 69 participants of a social-democrat youth camp. He justified this act in a fifteen hundred page manifesto entitled 2083 A European Declaration of Independence. He claimed to represent a Norwegian and European resistance movement and to be a member of the “indigenous population” struggling against the decline of Norway due to uncontrolled immigration policies by liberals and representatives of a multicultural society.

“It is 100 percent certain that there will be a war between nationalists and internationalists in Europe. We, the first militant nationalists, are the first raindrops indicating that a big storm is coming. … To die as a martyr for his people’s survival is the greatest honour in a man’s life.”

As a single perpetrator Breivik needed a particularly strong ideological justification and defined himself as a martyr who was sacrificing his life for the ethnic community. To do this he needed to distance himself emotionally from his fellow citizens and avoid any kind of interaction for several months, which he spent exclusively playing violent video games.

The same occurs with guerrilla groups. A crucial prerequisite for their deeds is the ideologically justified dehumanization of the potential victims and the transformation of the guerrilla fighters into cold-blooded killers. It is not only permissible to kill the “lackeys of imperialism” but the murders must be carried out in the most cold-blooded manner to be effective. In his Message to the Tricontinental in 1967 Che Guevara declared:

“Hatred as an element of the struggle; a relentless hatred of the enemy, impelling us over and beyond the natural limitations that man is heir to and transforming him into an effective, violent, selective and cold killing machine. Our soldiers must be thus; a people without hatred cannot vanquish a brutal enemy.”

We tend to underestimate the ongoing existence of violence and the lust for omnipotence. When we talk about recognition we forget the disregard, humiliation and negation of the other and consider this of secondary importance. When we talk about state monopoly on the use of force, we tend to forget that violence still exists, that there are permanent no-go areas and terrorist groups, and that there is violence that is permitted, trained and paid for by the state and violence exercised by our neighbours. Whether legal or illegal – there is an irreconcilable relationship between civilized behaviour at work during the week and violent behaviour on weekends, and between a democratic family father who respects the rule of law in one country and systematically kills in another.

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When Arendt searched the origins of totalitarianism she found them in the non-totalitarian modernity (unsolved minority problems, un-political human rights concepts, administrative colonialism, nationalist concepts of politics, etc.) Violence belongs to them. It holds in itself not only the negation of plurality and freedom but also the delusion of the omnipotence.

-Wolfgang Heuer

Making the Grade

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I was at dinner with a colleague this week—midterm week. Predictably, talk turned to the scourge of all professors: grading essays. There are few tasks in the life of a college professor less fulfilling than grading student essays. Every once in a while a really good essay jolts me to consciousness. I am elated by such encounters. To be honest, however, reading essays is for the most part stultifying. This is not the fault of the students, many of whom are brilliant and exuberant writers. I find it trying to wade through 25 essays discussing the same book, offering varying opinions and theories, while keeping my attention and interest. How many different ways can one ask for a thesis, talk about the importance of transition sentences, and correct grammar? For some time it is fun, in a way. One learns new things and is captivated by comparing how bright young minds see things. But after years, grading the essay becomes just part of the worst part of a great job.

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Flickr, MacVicar

So how might my colleagues and I react to news that EdX—the influential Harvard-MIT led consortium offering online courses—has developed software that will grade college student essays? I imagine it is sort of like how people felt when the dishwasher was invented. You mean we can cook and feast and don’t have to scrub pots and wash dishes? It promises to allow us to focus on teaching well without having to do that part of our job that we truly dread.

The appeal of computer grading is obvious and broad. Not only will many professors and teachers be freed from unwanted tedium, but also it may help our students. One advantage of computer grading is that it is nearly instantaneous. Students can hand in their work and get a grade and feedback seconds later. Too often essays are handed back days or even weeks after they are submitted. By then the students have lost interest in their paper and forgotten the inspiration that breathed life into their writing. To receive immediate feedback will allow students to see what they did wrong and how they could improve while the generative impulse underlying the paper is still fresh. Computer grading might encourage students to turn in numerous drafts of a paper; it may very well help teach students to write better, something that professorial comments delivered after a week rarely accomplish.

Another putative advantage of computer grading is its objectivity and consistency. Every professor knows that it matters when we read essays and in what order. Some essays find us awake and attentive. Others meet my eyes as they struggle to remain open. As much as I try to ignore the names on the top of the page, I can’t deny that my reading and grading is personalized to the students. I teach at a small liberal arts college where I know the students. If I read a particularly difficult sentence by a student I have come to trust, I often make a second effort. My personal attention has advantages but it is of course discriminatory. The computer will not do that, which may be seen by some as more fair. What is more, the computer doesn’t get tired or need caffeine.

Perhaps the most important advantage for administrators considering these programs is the cost savings. If computers relieve professors from the burden of grading, that means professors can teach more. It may also mean that fewer TA’s are necessary in large lecture courses, thus saving money for strapped universities. There may even be a further side benefit to these programs. If universities need fewer TA’s to grade papers, they may admit fewer graduate students to their programs, thus going some way towards alleviating the extraordinary and irresponsible over-production of young professors that is swelling the ranks of unemployable Ph.D.s.

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There are, of course, real worries about computer grading of essays. My concern is not that the computers will make mistakes (so do I); or that we lack studies that show that computers can grade as well as human professors—for I doubt professors are on the whole excellent graders. The real issue is elsewhere.

According to the group “Professionals Against Machine Scoring of Student Essays in High-Stakes Assessment,” the problem with computer grading of essays is simple: Machines cannot read.  Here is what the group says in a statement:

Let’s face the realities of automatic essay scoring. Computers cannot ‘read.’ They cannot measure the essentials of effective written communication: accuracy, reasoning, adequacy of evidence, good sense, ethical stance, convincing argument, meaningful organization, clarity, and veracity, among others.

What needs to be taken seriously is not that computers can’t grade as well as humans. In many ways they grade better. More consistently. More honestly. With less grade inflation. And more quickly. But computer grading will be different than human grading. It will be less nuanced and aspire to clearly defined criteria. Are sentences grammatical? Is there a clear statement of the thesis? Are there examples given? Is there a transition between sentences? All of these are important parts of good writing and the computer can be trained to look for these characteristics in an essay. What this means, however, is that computers will demand the kind of clear, precise, and logical writing that computers can understand and that many professors and administrators demand from students. What this also means, however, is that writing will become more mechanical.

There is much to be learned here from an analogy with the rise of computer chess. The great grandmaster Gary Kasparov—who famously lost to Deep Blue— has perceptively argued that machines have changed the ways Chess is played and redefined what a good chess move and a well-played chess game looks like. As I have written before:

The heavy use of computer analysis has pushed the game itself in new directions. The machine doesn’t care about style or patterns or hundreds of years of established theory. It counts up the values of the chess pieces, analyzes a few billion moves, and counts them up again. (A computer translates each piece and each positional factor into a value in order to reduce the game to numbers it can crunch.) It is entirely free of prejudice and doctrine and this has contributed to the development of players who are almost as free of dogma as the machines with which they train. Increasingly, a move isn’t good or bad because it looks that way or because it hasn’t been done that way before. It’s simply good if it works and bad if it doesn’t. Although we still require a strong measure of intuition and logic to play well, humans today are starting to play more like computers. One way to put this is that as we rely on computers and begin to value what computers value and think like computers think, our world becomes more rational, more efficient, and more powerful, but also less beautiful, less unique, and less exotic.

Much the same might be expected from the increasing use of computers to grade (and eventually to write) essays. Students will learn to write in ways expected from computers, just as they today try to learn to write in ways desired by their professors. The difference is that different professors demand and respond to varying styles. Computers will consistently and logically drive writing towards a more mechanical and logical style. Writing, like Chess playing, will likely become more rational, more efficient, and more effective, but also less beautiful, less unique, and less eccentric. In other words, writing will become less human.

It turns out that many secondary school districts already use computers to grade essays. But according to John Markoff in The New York Times, the EdX software promises to bring the technology into college classrooms as well as online courses.

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It is quite possible that in the near future, my colleagues and I will no longer have to complain about grading essays. But that is unlikely at Bard. More likely is that such software will be used in large university lecture courses. In such courses with hundreds of students, professors already shorten questions or replace essays with multiple-choice tests. Or they use armies of underpaid graduate students to grade these essays. It is quite likely that software will actually augment the educational value of writing assignments at college in these large lecture halls.

In seminars, however, and in classes at small liberal arts colleges like Bard where I teach, such software will not likely free my colleagues and me from reading essays. The essays I assign are not simple responses to questions in which there are clear criteria for grading. I look for elegance, brevity, insight, and the human spark (please no comments on my writing). Whether or not I am good at evaluating writing or at teaching writing, that is my aspiration. I seek to encourage writing that is thoughtful rather than writing that is simply accurate. When I have time to make meaningful comments on papers, they concern structure, elegance, and depth. It is not only a way to grade an essay, but also a way to connect with my students and help them to see what it means to write and think well.

And yet, I can easily imagine making use of such a computer-grading program. I rarely have time to grade essays as well or as quickly as I would like. I would love to have my students submit drafts of their essays to the EdX computer program.

If they could repeatedly submit their essays and receive such feedback and use the computer to catch not only grammatical errors but also poor sentences, redundancies, repetitions, and whatever other mistakes the computer can be trained to recognize, that would allow them to respond and rework their essays many times before I see them. Used well, I hope, such grading programs might really augment my capacities as a professor and their experiences as students.

I have real fears that grading technology will rarely be used well. Rather, it will too-often replace human grading altogether and in large lectures, high schools and standardized tests will impose a new and inhuman standard on the way we write and thus the way we think. We should greet such new technologies enthusiastically and skeptically. But first, we should try to understand them. Towards that end, it is well worth reading John Markoff’s excellent account of the new EdX computer grading software in The New York Times. It is your weekend read.

-RB

What is a Fact?

What is a fact? Few more thorny questions exist. Consider this, from Hannah Arendt’s essay, “Truth and Politics:”

But do facts, independent of opinion and interpretation, exist at all? Have not generations of historians and philosophers of history demonstrated the impossibility of ascertaining facts without interpretation, since they must first be picked out of a chaos of sheer happenings (and the principles of choice are surely not factual data) and then be fitted into a story that can be told only in certain perspective, which has nothing to do with the original occurrence?

Facts are constructed. They are not objective. And there is no clear test for what is a fact. Thus, when Albert Einstein was asked, how science can separate fact from fiction, brilliant hypotheses from nutty quackery, he answered:  ‘There is no objective test.” Unlike rational truths that are true outside of experience and absolute, all factual truths are contingent. They might have been otherwise. That is one reason it is so hard to pin them down.

Steve Shapin reminds us of these puzzles in an excellent essay in this weeks London Review of Books. Shapin is reviewing a new book on Immanuel Velikovsky by Michael Gordin. Velikovsky, for those born since the 1960s, caused an uproar in the 1960s and 70s with his scientific claims that Venus was the result of a dislodged piece of Jupiter, that comets led to the parting of the Red Sea, that it dislodged the orbit of Mars threatening Earth, and caused the relocation of the North Pole, not to mention the showering of plagues of vermin onto the earth that nourished the Israelites in the desert.

Gordin’s book is about how American scientists went ballistic over Velikovsky. They sought to censor his work and schemed to prevent the publication of his book, Worlds in Collision, at the prestigious Macmillan press. At the center of the controversy was Harvard, where establishment scientists worked assiduously to discredit Velikovsky and stop the circulation of his ideas. [I am sensitive to such issues because I was also the target of such a suppression campaign. When my book The Gift of Science was about to be published by Harvard University Press, I received a call from the editor. It turns out an established scholar had demanded that HUP not publish my book, threatening to no longer review books for the press let alone publish with them. Thankfully, HUP resisted that pressure, for which I will always be grateful.]

For these Harvard scientists, Velikovsky was a charlatan peddling a dangerous pseudo science. The danger in Velikovsky’s claims was more than simple misinformation. It led, above all, to an attack on the very essence of scientific authority. What Velikovsky claimed as science flew in the face of what the scientific community knew to be true. He set himself up as an outsider, a dissident. Which he was. In the wake of totalitarianism, he argued that democratic society must allow for alternative and heretical views. The establishment, Velikovsky insisted, had no monopoly on truth. Let all views out, and let the best one win.

Shapin beautifully sums up the real seduction and danger lurking in Velikovsky’s work.

The Velikovsky affair made clear that there were radically differing conceptions of the political and intellectual constitution of a legitimate scientific community, of what it was to make and evaluate scientific knowledge. One appealing notion was that science is and ought to be a democracy, willing to consider all factual and theoretical claims, regardless of who makes them and of how they stand with respect to canons of existing belief. Challenges to orthodoxy ought to be welcomed: after all, hadn’t science been born historically through such challenges and hadn’t it progressed by means of the continual creative destruction of dogma? This, of course, was Velikovsky’s view, and it was not an easy matter for scientists in the liberal West to deny the legitimacy of that picture of scientific life. (Wasn’t this the lesson that ought to be learned from the experience of science in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia?) Yet living according to such ideals was impossible – nothing could be accomplished if every apparently crazy idea were to be given careful consideration – and in 1962 Thomas Kuhn’s immensely influential Structure of Scientific Revolutions commended a general picture of science in which ‘dogma’ (daringly given that name) had an essential role in science and in which ‘normal science’ rightly proceeded not through its permeability to all sorts of ideas but through a socially enforced ‘narrowing of perception’. Scientists judged new ideas to be beyond the pale not because they didn’t conform to abstract ideas about scientific values or formal notions of scientific method, but because such claims, given what scientists securely knew about the world, were implausible. Planets just didn’t behave the way Velikovsky said they did; his celestial mechanics required electromagnetic forces which just didn’t exist; the tails of comets were just not the sorts of body that could dump oil and manna on Middle Eastern deserts. A Harvard astronomer blandly noted that ‘if Dr Velikovsky is right, the rest of us are crazy.’

Immanuel Velikovsky

It is hard not to read this account and not think about contemporary debates over global warming, Darwinism, and the fall of the World Trade Center. In all three cases, outsiders and even some dissident scientists have made arguments that have been loudly disavowed by mainstream scientists.

No one has done more to explore the claims of modern pseudo science than Naomi Oreskes. In her book Merchants of Doubt written with Erik Conway, Oreskes shows how “a small handful of men” could, for purely ideological reasons, sow doubt about the ‘facts’ regarding global warming and the health effects of cigarettes. In a similar vein, Jonathan Kay has chronicled the efforts of pseudo scientists to argue that there was no possible way that the World Trade Towers could have been brought down by jet fuel fires, thus suggesting and seeking to “prove” that the U.S. government was behind the destruction of 9/11.

Oreskes wants to show, at once, that it is too easy for politically motivated scientists to sow doubt about scientific fact, and also that there is a workable and effective way for the scientific community to patrol the border between science and pseudo science. What governs that boundary is, in Oreskes words, “the scientific consensus.” The argument that global warming is a fact rests on claims about the scientific method: value free studies, evaluated by a system of peer review, moving towards consensus. Peer review is, for Oreskes, “is a crucial part of science.” And yet, for those who engage in it know full well, peer review is also deeply political, subject to petty and also not so petty disputes, jealousies, and vendettas. For this and other reasons, consensus is, as Oreskes herself admits, not always accurate: “The scientific consensus might, of course, be wrong. If the history of science teaches anything, it is humility, and no one can be faulted for failing to act on what is not known.”

Just as Einstein said 50 years ago, in the matters of establishing scientific fact, there is no objective test. This is frustrating. Indeed, it can be dangerous, not only when pseudo scientists sow doubt about global warming thus preventing meaningful and necessary action. But also, the pervasive and persuasive claims of pseudo science sow cynicism that undermines the factual and truthful foundations of human life.

Arendt reminds us, with a clarity rarely equaled, that factual truth is always contingent. “Facts are beyond agreement and consent, and all talk about them—all exchanges of opinion based on correct information—will contribute nothing to their establishment.” Against the pseudo scientific claims of many, science is always a contingent and hypothetical endeavor, one that deals in hypotheses, agreement, and factual proof. Scientific truth is always empirical truth and the truths of science are, in the end, grounded in consensus.

The trouble here is that scientific truths must—as scientific—claim to be true and not simply an opinion. Science makes a claim to authority that is predicated not upon proof but on the value and meaningfulness of impartial inquiry. It is a value that is increasingly in question.

What the challenge of pseudo science shows is how tenuous scientific authority and the value placed on disinterested research really is. Such inquiry has not always been valued and there is no reason to expect it to be valued about partial inquiry in the future. Arendt suggests that the origin of the value in disinterested inquiry was Homer’s decision to praise the Trojans equally as he lauded the Achaeans. Never before, she writes, had one people been able to look “with equal eyes upon friend and foe.” It was this revolutionary Greek objectivity that became the source for modern science. For those who do value science and understand the incredible advantages it has bestowed upon modern civilization, it is important to recall that the Homeric disinterestedness is neither natural nor necessary. In the effort to fight pseudo science, we must be willing and able to defend just such a position and thus what Nietzsche calls the “pathos of distance” must be central to any defense of the modern scientific world.

When science loses its authority, pseudo science thrives. That is the situation we are increasingly in today. There are no objective tests and no clear lines demarcating good and bad science. And that leaves us with the challenge of the modern age: to pursue truth and establish facts without secure or stable foundations. For that, we need reliable guides whom we can trust. And for that reason, you should read Steven Shapin’s latest essay. It is your weekend read.

-RB

Making an Appearance

“In contrast to the inorganic thereness of lifeless matter, living beings are not mere appearances. To be alive means to be possessed by an urge toward self-display which answers the fact of one’s own appearingness. Living things make their appearance like actors on a stage set for them.”

-Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, vol. 1: Thinking

Political theorists are likely to associate the phrase the “urge to self-display” with a characteristically “Arendtian” politics. But here, Arendt takes self-display to characterize something much more basic and fundamental—the sheer life of human beings. Despite Arendt’s imagery of the actor appearing on a stage, self-display does not seem at all to invoke the greatness of individuality or of heroic deeds. It is merely the “fact of one’s own appearingness.” What could Arendt mean by characterizing human life by the fact of appearing, and what does it mean to say that human beings, as opposed to “lifeless matter” makes their appearance?

In The Life of the Mind, Arendt describes the phenomenon of appearing as human beings’ appearing to others in a way that is subject to the particular perspective of the spectator.

“To appear,” she writes, “always means to seem to others, and this seeming varies according to the standpoint and perspective of the spectator”. In this interpretation, the fact of appearingness is a fact of the world in which we live; it is the fact of plurality and the irreducibility of perspectives that signals that men, not Man, populate the world.

But the fact of appearance also has a moral and political significance that goes beyond this almost formal description of the dual position of subjectivity and objectivity that human beings occupy with respect to one another. If we turn to Origins of Totalitarianism, a text that is not often read in connection with The Life of the Mind, we are confronted with a striking and terrifying picture of the loss of appearingness, which confronts us fully with the implications of Arendt’s characterization of human beings as beings who must make their appearance.

In Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt uses the term “rightlessness” to describe the condition of European Jews under the Third Reich. In that regime, Jews were not merely “deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law and freedom of opinion,” but made so irrelevant that “nobody wants even to oppress them”.  The ultimate expression of invisibility was the genocide in the death camps of the Final Solution. However, the effectiveness of these camps in rendering people invisible did not lie simply in the physical destruction of millions. The camps sought to destroy what Arendt called the “moral man,” or that aspect of human beings that is subject to moral judgment and valuation. This term attaches not to moral behavior, but to the presence of individual human beings in the world that makes it possible to see them as individuals in the first place.

In the camps, the boundary between life and death and between individuals was so attenuated that it was nearly impossible to distinguish any one person from another, living or dead. The invisibility of individuals this lack of boundaries engendered was so thoroughgoing that it obscured even the most heroic of deaths: “[i]t belonged among the refinements of totalitarian governments in our century that they don’t permit their opponents to die a great, dramatic martyr’s death for their convictions….The totalitarian state lets its opponents disappear in silent anonymity”. Even the most heroic of acts was disposed of simply and without regard or comment, just as those deaths that occurred daily, and both were made invisible along with the individuals in and through whom these deaths occurred.

The crucial point is not that death was made routine, but that the camps ensured that with these deaths any marker of the victim’s having ever been alive also disappeared along with him. The individual prisoner was barely distinguished from the others and seen only as one in a series in which his exact position was irrelevant. As a group, the prisoners were invisible to the world, and as individuals, they were invisible to the world and to one another as distinct people.

The result was an attenuation of the line that separates the lives of individuals as they have lived it from mere physical life and death and the elimination of the world as a stage on which individuals could make their appearance. And in the absence of this stage, death could be nothing more than a “seal on the fact that he had never really existed”.

Making one’s appearance in the world, as an actor does on a stage, is not about being extraordinary. Nor is it a merely formal description of how human beings perceive the world around them and are perceived by other human beings. Rather, appearingness is the essential condition of being recognized as a member of the community of human beings and the world and of being treated accordingly. As the events of the past century have made strikingly clear, appearingness is a condition that we could lose or of which we could be stripped. Our condition of humanity is something that we must create—create by making our appearance in the world. Arendt’s words about our basic condition of appearance alerts us to the dangers of invisibility and should make us suspicious of any situation in which people exist in a condition of invisibility.

In our own time, the Occupy Wall Street movement has helped to bring to light some of those who have been made invisible in poverty. This act of opening up a space in which an individual might make their appearance in the world is, I think, one of the movement’s greatest accomplishments. And a politics of visibility is not just about our own visibility or our own great accomplishments, but about creating stages upon which people can make their appearance and exposing and tearing down those scaffoldings that bar some from entering these stages.

If we see the OWS movement as a politics of appearance, then the albeit valid criticisms about the lack of a definite agenda and the like do seem to lose some of their force. But this does not mean that the movement is a success in Arendt’s terms. The movement has certainly brought us to the stage, but what we all—the invisible and the visible—do with this opening and how we make our appearance onto it remains the political question that only the individual actors, and not any movement, can and must answer.

-Jennie Han