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.
Haley Hudler on the FIRE website (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) writes about recent events at Yale University. Just before Halloween, Yale’s undergraduate students received a letter from the university’s Intercultural Affairs Committee advising them to be thoughtful in choosing their costumes. The letter affirmed Yale’s commitment to free speech but advised students to avoid dressing in blackface, with feathers, or in ways that might make some at Yale feel uncomfortable. In response, Erika Christakis, a Yale lecturer and the Associate master of Silliman College, wrote: “I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community. I know that many decent people have proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense. I laud those goals, in theory, as most of us do. But in practice, I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional (which is to say: bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students…. Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition.” The disagreement between Christakis and Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee could have become a productive one, leading to some thoughtful debates about civility, speech, youthfulness, and humor. That debate may still happen; Christakis and her husband are to be applauded for meeting for hours with students–at times openly hostile and angry students–to talk about their disagreements. As Hudler writes, the students demand that Christakis and her husband offer an apology for creating an unsafe atmosphere and for making Yale students feel comfortable. They are asking Christakis and her husband to resign as Masters of Silliman. Hudler concludes: “Are the students’ protests against the Christakises protected speech? Of course. But the students’ demand that the Christakises lose their jobs for their dissident opinions represents another strong example of the phenomenon Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt talked about in their September cover story for The Atlantic, ‘The Coddling of the American Mind.’ In their article, Lukianoff and Haidt argue that students are increasingly engaging in a culture of ‘vindictive protectiveness’ that seeks to control campus speech in a way that not only limits free expression and chills candor, but that can also promote distorted ways of thinking.” There are long videos on the website of discussions between Mr. Christakis and Yale students. The videos are worth watching. On one level, the debates at Yale are a sign of a healthy intellectual culture and are to be applauded. On another level, the intensity of anger over an email that simply questions whether sensitivity has gone too far is evidence of a culture of extreme intolerance for hearing contrary opinions, opinions that are no longer said to be merely wrong but traumatizing, no longer disagreeable but threatening. Which is why the 2016 Hannah Arendt Center Conference asks: “How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex, and Religion on Campus.” Save the Date: Oct. 20-21, 2016. –RB
James Gleick considers the place of the library in the digital landscape: “In the midst of an information explosion, librarians are still the most versatile information specialists we have. And the purest. In his new book BiblioTech, a wise and passionate manifesto, John Palfrey reminds us that the library is the last free space for the gathering and sharing of knowledge: ‘Our attention cannot be bought and sold in a library.’ As a tradition barely a century and a half old in the United States, it gives physical form to the principle that public access to knowledge is the foundation of democracy. The problem of libraries now–and it is a problem–involves some paradoxes, which need to be sorted out. For one thing, as Palfrey says, librarians will need to cherish their special talent as ‘stewards’ while letting go of the instinct to be ‘collectors.’ Knowledge in physical form needs to be handled carefully, preserved, and curated. But with digital information pouring into iPhones and Kindles in petabytes–via Twitter and Instagram and YouTube, not to mention Amazon’s self-publishing factories–libraries need to rethink old habits. They cannot collect everything, or even a small fraction of everything. ‘That model is already too hard to keep up,’ Palfrey says. ‘A network of stewards can accomplish vastly more than a disconnected (even sometimes competitive) group of collectors ever can.’ The packrat instinct is hard to shed. Five years ago the Library of Congress began a project that collects every utterance on Twitter, in the name of preserving the nation’s digital heritage. That is billions weekly, sucked up for storage in secure tape archives, and the Library has yet to figure out how to make any of it available to researchers. Divorced from a human curator, the unfiltered mass of Twitter may as well be a garbage heap. Meanwhile, onward streams the continually vanishing conversation in Facebook and Snapchat and whatever next year’s channels will be, along with the email of the great and small, preserved haphazardly or not at all, to the presumed dismay of future historians. What’s an archivist to do? There is no escaping the tension between real and virtual space, between the shelf and the cloud. ‘Librarians well know that the discovery of information is moving out of physical locations and into distributed spaces’–i.e. screens everywhere–says Palfrey, and this is an understatement. He recalls an afternoon in his town library in Andover, Massachusetts, when he heard a thirteen-year-old shouting into his iPhone, ‘Siri, what does “terminal velocity” mean?’ Evidently the feckless genius of the cloud had nothing to offer. Palfrey took comfort from that, knowing that any reference librarian could do better: ‘I realized that all will be well in the world of libraries, at least for a while.'”
Neil Gaiman, writing in the Guardian, defends reading, libraries, and the need for daydreams. “We all–adults and children, writers and readers–have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different. Look around you: I mean it. Pause, for a moment and look around the room that you are in. I’m going to point out something so obvious that it tends to be forgotten. It’s this: that everything you can see, including the walls, was, at some point, imagined. Someone decided it was easier to sit on a chair than on the ground and imagined the chair. Someone had to imagine a way that I could talk to you in London right now without us all getting rained on. This room and the things in it, and all the other things in this building, this city, exist because, over and over and over, people imagined things.”
The New York Times Magazine launched a new digital multimedia initiative tied to a virtual reality app. To watch the story in virtual reality, you need to acquire special glasses. We here at the Hannah Arendt Center read the story in regular old reality. It was still powerful. The Times told the stories of four children displaced by recent violence in and around their homes and sought to bring us into their lives in new places. Jake Silverstein provides an introduction: “Oleg, Hana and Chuol account for the tiniest fraction of a percentage of those 30 million children, but their experiences stand in for the whole. In Hana’s story, we see the daily trials of a refugee who now lives in a foreign country and is trying to make a provisional life; in Oleg’s, we see the difficulties of building a new life amid the ruins of the old. Chuol’s story is more grave. He is in the midst of a terrifying escape, unsure of where or when a new life might begin. As dissimilar as these three children are, they’re bound in an unhappy fellowship, not only with one another but also with the other displaced kids around the world, with the two children in the photos on my desk and with the numberless children displaced throughout history by all the world’s wars. Think of them, moving silently within the mass migrations and terrified departures, the families running away at night, the human displacements on an unfathomable scale. Aztec children fleeing the armored conquistadors. French Huguenot children crossing the English Channel with their parents. European children streaming east and west and north and south during the First and Second World Wars. Jewish children resettling all over the world. Vietnamese children leaping into boats. Liberian children riding on their parents’ shoulders down roads lined by bodies. Iraqi children running from the gigantic explosions of the gulf war. Generations of Haitian children. Generations of Palestinian children. Generations of Afghan children. See them struggling along, year after year after year, carrying the burden of ensuring our future upon their small backs.” There’s something tempting about the opportunity that the Times thinks its providing, the ability to step into the world of these children and understand them better through a “360-degree environment that encircles the viewer” and “creates the experience of being present within distant worlds.” Silverstein suggests this technology makes it “uniquely suited to projects, like this one, that speak to our senses of empathy and community.” But this feeling of community, just like the connection that he draws between these displaced children and others throughout history, is a false one. It isn’t wrong to speak of displacement as a global problem with global consequences, but it does collapse the varieties of causes that lead to displacement and the variety of experiences that arise from it; it is possible, perhaps even likely, that suffering is incommensurate, and the suffering of one person is unintelligible not only to people who haven’t suffered but also those who have. To step into the worlds of these children through virtual reality provides the illusion that their experiences can become our own, a facade that masks the transformation of its subjects into a kind of technological spectacle that enables us to feel good for being on the cutting edge even as we feel bad about displaced persons across the world. In both cases, the experience provided by the Times virtual reality app allows us to encounter the issues of our world without forcing us to reckon with them. –JK
Chi Luu considers the pun: “It turns out puns are pretty weird, linguistically speaking, given what we think we know about words and what they signify, as Saussure might have it. In communication, it’s usually desirable for meaning to be as unambiguous and clear as possible. Puns are plays on words, as everyone knows, built upon a deliberate grammatical ambiguity, whether phonological (‘Grime doesn’t pay’), syntactic (‘Our business is picking up’) or lexical (‘A proud past, a perfect present’), among others. At any given time a pun can (and indeed must) simultaneously juggle multiple meanings in one form within one expression. That’s rather precarious. According to Saussure’s famed structuralist system, in any language, meaningful words are signs consisting of a signifier (the form the word takes, such as the sequence of letters ‘b a t’ to form ‘bat’) and signified (the concept it’s representing, such as a small furry, winged animal, a bat). One signifier to one signified. Neat, simple, logical. That’s not to say there can’t be homonyms (such as ‘bat’ signifying a tool used in sport), but simply put, each sign is supposed to contain a one-to-one relation at any one time, with the mind ‘naturally discard[ing] all associations likely to impede understanding.’ But in the case of puns, ‘bat‘ must represent both a small furry winged animal and baseball gear at the same time, not to mention any other meanings relevant to the context. Two signifieds to one signifier. The signs all point to a kind of lexical rebellion that is not supposed to happen, as clear communication and understanding descend into chaos–and yet something rather special emerges from the wreckage.”
In the midst of the World Series, a Mets fan tried to find a way to exert some control over a sporting event that had nothing to do with him (at least on the field): “On July 31, the day Cespedes was traded to the Mets, I bought a Minnesota Twins hat at Target Field in Minneapolis. It was a tourist’s purchase–I was in Minnesota for a couple of ballgames with some friends. But the hat started to mean something more. That weekend, the Mets swept the Washington Nationals to tie for first place in the NL East. So I kept wearing the hat. And the Mets kept winning. The Mets went 37-22 to close out the season, and won the NL East despite a 23 percent chance of doing so when I bought the hat. (The rational readers among you will note that they also went 37-22 to close out the season after Cespedes joined the team, but, again, this is not a rational story.) Soon, the Twins hat had replaced my Mets hat. My Mets friends texted me and asked me to wear it when they were feeling nervous about a game. I nearly forgot it on a plane, and felt the Mets season slipping away until I stormed back to retrieve it. At the start of the playoffs, I went on a poorly timed vacation to India, and brought the Twins hat to ensure the Mets advanced.”
In 1962, a politically active Elisabeth Lenk moved to Paris and persuaded Theodor W. Adorno to supervise her sociology dissertation on the surrealists. Adorno, though critical of Surrealism, agreed. The Challenge of Surrealism presents their correspondence, written between 1962 and Adorno’s death in 1969, set against the backdrop of Adorno and Walter Benjamin’s disagreement about the present possibilities of future political action, crystallization, and the dialectical image. The letters offer a fresh portrait of Adorno and expand upon his view of Surrealism and the student movements in 1960s France and Germany, while Lenk’s essays and Bischof’s introduction argue that there is a legitimate connection between Surrealism and political resistance that still holds true today. Please join us at the Hannah Arendt Center for a conversation with Elisabeth Lenk and Rita Bischof to celebrate the English translation of The Challenge of Surrealism: The Correspondence of Theodor W. Adorno and Elisabeth Lenk.
Free & Open to the Public. Kaffee and Kuchen will be served!
Friday, November 20, 2015
Hannah Arendt Center, 3:00 pm
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 email@example.com.
Friday, December 4, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am – 12:30 pm
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
This week on the Blog, Jeffrey Champlin discusses how Arendt’s description of The Trial in terms of “sarcasm” raises a number of issues about the effect and intended meaning of Kafka’s writing in the Quote of the Week. Sigmund Freud reflects on the experimental and methodical nature of thought in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, Connel Fanning shares an image from his Reading for Change Book Club featuring Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem in this week’s Library feature.