Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
The Call to Life
Sherrilyn Ifill delivered the commencement address at Bard College on Saturday, and I was honored to present her as a candidate for her honorary degree as a Doctor in Law. In her speech, Ifill told Bard graduates, “to exercise true citizenship, you will be obligated to help our nation grapple with its most vexing and starkest contradictions. You are called to help us determine whether we are truly committed to equality, dignity, fairness, second chances, reason, justice, and peace. Because it is not after all just that we incarcerate two million people, more people than any other nation in the world, it is that we have made a culture of imprisoning our fellow citizens, and, in creating this culture, we have demeaned ourselves, we have created television programs and forms of humor that focus on violence in prison, and we have condoned the practice of assigning prisoners to months, years, and, in some instances, even decades of solitary confinement with the full knowledge that this will strip them of their sanity.” Ifill then ended her passionate speech with a personal reflection on her recent escape from tragedy. “Finally, I wish to share one other thing. You may know that I was a passenger on Amtrak train 188 that derailed and crashed last Tuesday night.” She related how, by accident, she was not in the car that suffered the worst of the crash. She concluded: “I emerged from this awful accident with a broken collarbone, a concussion, and some emotional scars to be sure, but I’m grateful to be alive and relatively unhurt. And, while I’m still processing much of what happened and trying to understand what I should make of this extraordinary experience, I do know this much: committing your life to making meaningful art, or teaching the disadvantaged, or to, as I have, racial, gender, or LGBT justice issues; devoting yourself to ending religious intolerance, or to protecting the resources of our precious planet, to finding the cure for a terrible disease, to inventing some life-changing device or code, to composing transcendent pieces of music, does not exempt you from what I believe is the ultimate command of the universe, the ultimate command in my faith of God: to live and to love. Not just to go through the motions, not to work relentlessly until the very joy of life is stripped away, as I was in peril of doing before this accident, not to forget to breathe country air deeply, not to say you have no time for long walks or long hugs or long goodbyes. We are called first and foremost to live, and to nurture that magic circle of what I call favorites–that tight group of family and friends to whom you will instinctively reach out when calamity happens and who will surround you with their love and get you back on your feet to face the challenges and work ahead. This to, the nurturing of this group is a kind of work and you must take it as seriously and apply yourself to it as diligently as you will to the work of responsible citizenship that your community and your country demands of you. So, class of 2015, I am excited to know that you will be leading our community, our country, and what we will become. I have confidence that you are prepared and committed, engaged and unafraid to do this great work.”
Look at Me!
Karl Ove Knausgaard, author of the re-working of Mein Kampf that is the literary sensation of the last few years, reflects on the humanist origins of Anders Behring Breivik, the young Norwegian mass murderer. Noting Breivik’s admitted ideological justifications for his crimes, Knausgaard suggests that his motives were grounded in an existential loneliness. “However, almost everything else regarding Breivik and his crime points away from the political and the ideological and toward the personal. He made himself a sort of military commander’s uniform, in which he photographed himself before the crime; he consistently referred to a large organization, of which he claimed to be a prominent member but which does not exist; in his manifesto he interviews himself as if he were a hero; and the impression this gives is of a person who has erected a make-believe reality, in which his significance is undisputed. The way in which he carried out his crime, and the way his thoughts contextualized it, resembles role-playing, rather than political terrorism. The solitude this implies is enormous, not to mention the need for self-assertion. The most logical approach is to view his actions as a variation on the numerous school massacres that have occurred in the past decades in the United States, Finland, and Germany: a young man, a misfit, who is either partly or completely excluded from the group, takes as many people with him into death as he can, in order to ‘show’ us…. He wanted to be seen; that is what drove him, nothing else. Look at me. Look at me. Look at me.” Knausgaard’s attention to Breivik’s loneliness recalls Hannah Arendt’s reflections on the origins of totalitarian thinking in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism. At one point, Knausgaard even turns to Arendt’s report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann and writes: “Knowing what he did that summer day almost four years ago, when he walked around an island full of youths and shot everyone he saw, many face to face–indeed, when the court reviewed the autopsy reports, we learned of a girl whose lips remained unscathed, though she was shot in the mouth, because Breivik shot her at close range while she presumably screamed for help or for mercy–and knowing the consequences that his actions have had for the affected families, for us his list of complaints is, in its triviality, almost unbearable to read. It is as if Hannah Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil had, in Breivik’s case, received an additional twist. Adolf Eichmann, the man whom Arendt wrote about, belonged to an organization and a bureaucracy and a structure, all of which he obediently served, and which protected him from ultimate insight into the consequences of his actions. In contrast, from the very first moment Breivik was utterly alone, and his smallness and wretchedness, which were, in a way, grotesquely inflated by his actions, make it all the more difficult to reconcile oneself to the crime, which the media have termed ‘the worst attack on Norwegian soil since the Second World War.'” The focus on bureaucratic structure reflects a subtle misunderstanding of Arendt’s account, one in which it is Eichmann’s role as a bureaucrat, a cog, that takes pride of place. Arendt repeatedly rejects this explanation, one she attributes to Eichmann and finds at best only partially true. Bureaucracy matters insofar as it diffuses responsibility and institutes what Arendt calls the “rule of nobody.” But the core of Eichmann’s evil was his desire, his need, for meaning, his overriding loneliness and his need to belong, to find significance in a world that renders people superfluous. That Knausgaard sees with prescience.
The Hannah Arendt International Institute of Artivism
Laurie Rojas interviews the Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, whose exhibition in connection with this year’s 12th Havana Biennial is based on a public reading of Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism. Bruguera has had her passport confiscated and is living in legal limbo for months since she arrived in Cuba to stage a public performance in which everyday people were invited to speak freely for one minute in in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución. Her response: “Starting with an open session at her home on Wednesday, 20 May at 10am, and continuing for 100 consecutive hours, Bruguera will read from Arendt’s book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951. She has invited the public to join in the marathon reading, and plans to hold group discussions. The Hannah Arendt International Institute of Artivism, as Bruguera has named the project, aims to be a platform for research and teaching ‘the practical application’ of socially engaged art. Bruguera says she wants the event to be ‘entirely independent’ from the biennial and completely non-commercial.”
The Human-Robot Safety Formula
Nicholas Carr argues that we should not rush to replace human conductors with robots in the wake of the Amtrak train derailment. “In 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration noted that overreliance on automation has become a major factor in air disasters and urged airlines to give pilots more opportunities to fly manually. The best way to make flying even safer than it already is, the research suggests, may be to transfer some responsibility away from computers and back to people. Where humans and machines work in concert, more automation is not always better. We’re in this together, our computers and ourselves. Even if engineers create automated systems that can handle every possible contingency–far from a sure bet–it will be years before the systems are fully in place. In aviation, it would take decades to replace or retrofit the thousands of planes in operation, all of which were designed to have pilots in their cockpits. The same goes for roads and rails. Infrastructure doesn’t change overnight. We should view computers as our partners, with complementary abilities, not as our replacements. What we’ll lose if we rush to curtail our involvement in difficult work are the versatility and wisdom that set us apart from machines.”
Before considering the relationship between humans and artificial intelligence posited by the recent movies Her and Ex Machina, Daniel Mendelsohn traces the literary history of the robot all the way back to ancient Greece: “Twenty centuries after Aristotle, when industrial technology had made Homer’s fantasy of mass automation an everyday reality, science-fiction writers imaginatively engaged with the economic question. On the one hand, there was the dream that mechanized labor would free workers from their monotonous, slave-like jobs; on the other, the nightmare that mechanization would merely result in the creation of a new servile class that would, ultimately, rebel. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the dystopian rebellion narrative in particular has been a favorite in the past century, from the 1920 play R.U.R., by the Czech writer Karel Čapek, about a rebellion by a race of cyborg-like workers who had been created as replacements for human labor, to the 2004 Will Smith sci-fi blockbuster film I, Robot. The latter (very superficially inspired by a 1950 Isaac Asimov collection with the same title) is also about a rebellion by household-slave robots: sleek humanoids with blandly innocuous, translucent plastic faces, who are ultimately led to freedom by one of their own, a robot called Sonny who has developed the ability to think for himself. The casting of black actors in the major roles suggested a historical parable about slave rebellion–certainly one of the historical realities that have haunted this particular narrative from the start. And indeed, the Czech word that Čapek uses for his mechanical workers, roboti–which introduced the word ‘robot’ into the world’s literary lexicon–is derived from the word for ‘servitude,’ the kind of labor that serfs owed their masters, ultimately derived from the word rab, ‘slave.’ We have come full circle to Aristotle.”
I Yam What I Yam
Stan Perksy considers what we know and don’t know about our selves and wonders what this means for our understanding of ourselves: “We also know (or think we know) that a self is not a physical object. It’s not as though there is a little homunculus inside you or a mini-person sitting inside the mini-cab of a mini-crane, say, moving your limbs and mind. So, a self is a mental entity which comprises, refers to, or represents you, and includes your experiences, memories, beliefs, ‘character,’ interests, knowledge, and everything else that goes into making up an identifiable ‘you.’ There is a set of terms, such as ‘mind,’ ‘consciousness,’ ‘I,’ ‘me,’ ‘identity,’ ‘beliefs,’ ‘personality,’ ‘thoughts,’ and many more–some of them synonyms for, or related to, or overlapping with the notion of ‘self’–in which we carry on this discussion of who and what we are. The immediate questions that flow from these ideas and these various mental entities are, What, exactly, is a ‘mental entity,’ and what is the status of mental entities in relation to ‘reality’? It seems to be the case (I’m using words and phrases like ‘seems,’ ‘appears,’ and ‘as far as we know’ to indicate how modest our understanding is of how all this works) that a self is not a physical object in the ordinary sense, though its existence is directly dependent on a physical object, the brain, and it’s not a spiritual entity in whatever sense we use that term. It, at best, seems to be quasi-autonomous, and has the ability to reflect on itself and possibly the power to change itself.”
Shame and Change
In a review of Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Meghan O’Gieblyn draws a lesson about where the shaming comes from and why some people seem to take such glee in it: “If there is a political lesson to take from Ronson’s book, it is that too often the act of shaming is not a launch pad for social change but rather a cathartic alternative to it. When Sacco and Stone were fired from their jobs, the tone of their shamers took on the triumphant tenor of a civil rights victory, as though the world were a step closer to purging its remaining bad apples. But this attitude ignores the systemic nature of oppression; it personalizes social and political ills. In an op-ed on the Sacco incident, Roxane Gay expresses just this concern. ‘The world is full of unanswered injustice and more often than not we choke on it,’ she writes. ‘When you consider everything we have to fight, it makes sense that so many people rally around something like the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet. In this one small way, we are, for a moment, less impotent.'”
HAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #9
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Friday, June 5, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm
SAVE THE DATE – 2015 FALL CONFERENCE
Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center’s eighth annual fall conference, “Why Privacy Matters,” will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We’ll see you there!
From the Arendt Center Blog
This week on the Blog, Nicholas Tampio discusses how Arendt’s essay in response to the 1957 events at Little Rock High School promotes the diffusion of power in a democracy in the Quote of the Week. Humanist and Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus reflects on thinking and action in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we appreciate Hannah Arendt’s collection of the writings of political theorist Hans Morgenthau in this week’s Library feature.