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.
Abdelkader Benali has a revealing first person account of his own brush with Islamic extremism. For Benali, Islamic rage may be misplaced and horrific, but it is understandable. He is right: there are many horrific things in the world that we must nevertheless try to understand. As Hannah Arendt writes, we must strive to face up to, and also to resist, reality, whatever it may be. Benali’s essay is one good place to begin our process of facing and resisting Islamic radicalism: “What happened last week is not about lack of humor, or a failure to understand caricature. Nor is it about hatred of the West. It’s about anger taking a wrong turn. What makes us human and creative is our doubt. But doubt on its own can turn into anger and fundamentalism. As the French writer Michel Houellebecq said in an interview: ‘People cannot live without God. Life becomes unbearable.’ The terrorists found their God in a godless society. Charlie Hebdo mocked their God by declaring him nothing more than a cartoon. They came back to rescue their God and left 12 dead behind. They fell prey to a powerful delusion. It was the same delusion I felt as a teenager: that by attacking the messenger your anger will disappear and you will be victorious. But the only way to conquer your anger is to understand where its roots lie. For me the freedom to doubt, to not choose sides and to feel empathy for characters and people with whom I disagree, was liberating. Today I still embrace my Islamic background, but without the dogma, repression and strict adherence to ritual.”
Zygmunt Bauman has important insights about the meaning of the Charlie Hedbo attacks and what they say about political violence in the 21st century. “There were two aspects of the Charlie Hebdo murders that set them apart from the two previous cases: First: on 7th January 2015 political assassins fixed a highly media-visible specimen of mass media. Knowingly or not, by design or by default, the murderers endorsed–whether explicitly or obliquely–the widespread and fast gathering public sense of effective power moving away from political rulers and towards the centres viewed as responsible for public mind-setting and opinion-making. It was the people engaged in such activities that the assault was meant to point out as culprits to be punished for causing the assassins’ bitterness, rancour and urge of vengeance. And second: alongside shifting the target to another institutional realm, that of public opinion, the armed assault against Charlie Hebdo was also an act of personalized vendetta (going back to the pattern set by Ayatollah Khomeini in his 1989 Fatva imposed on Salman Rushdie). If the 11 September atrocity chimed in with the then tendency to ‘depersonalise’ political violence (following the pour ainsi dire ‘democratisation’ of violence by mass-media publicity that divided its attention according to the quantity of its–mostly anonymous and incidental–victims, and the volume of spilt blood), the 7th January barbarity crowns the lengthy process of deregulation–indeed the ‘de-institutionalisation’, individualization and privatisation of the human condition, as well as the perception of public affairs shifting away from the management of established aggregated bodies to the sphere of individual ‘life politics’. And away from social to individual responsibility. In our media-dominated information society people employed in constructing and distributing information moved or have been moved to the centre of the scene on which the drama of human coexistence is staged and seen to be played.” The attacks, Bauman argues, are neither traditional political assassinations of political leaders nor the depersonalized terrorism of 9/11. They are, instead, opening sallies in a general revolt of plebians of many ideological views from established democratic systems that are losing their legitimacy and support. In short, Bauman sees these attacks as moving hand-in-hand with the anti-democratic National Front movement in France as well as increasing radicalism around the world.
In the wake of last week’s shootings in Paris and the subsequent rallies that revolved around the need to protect “freedom of speech,” Teju Cole considers the state of that freedom and of Western civil religion on the whole: “Rather than posit that the Paris attacks are the moment of crisis in free speech–as so many commentators have done–it is necessary to understand that free speech and other expressions of liberté are already in crisis in Western societies; the crisis was not precipitated by three deranged gunmen. The U.S., for example, has consolidated its traditional monopoly on extreme violence, and, in the era of big data, has also hoarded information about its deployment of that violence. There are harsh consequences for those who interrogate this monopoly. The only person in prison for the C.I.A.’s abominable torture regime is John Kiriakou, the whistle-blower. Edward Snowden is a hunted man for divulging information about mass surveillance. Chelsea Manning is serving a thirty-five-year sentence for her role in WikiLeaks. They, too, are blasphemers, but they have not been universally valorized, as have the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo. The killings in Paris were an appalling offense to human life and dignity. The enormity of these crimes will shock us all for a long time. But the suggestion that violence by self-proclaimed Jihadists is the only threat to liberty in Western societies ignores other, often more immediate and intimate, dangers.”
Filmmaker Ava DuVernay has caused a controversy with her film Selma. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Elizabeth Drew writes: “By distorting an essential truth about the relationship between Lyndon Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King over the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Selma has opened a very large and overdue debate over whether and how much truth the movie industry owes to the public. The film suggests that there was a struggle between King and Johnson over whether such a bill should be pushed following the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, signed into law in July of that year. The clear implication is that Johnson was opposed to a voting rights bill, period, and that he had to be persuaded by King. This story has now been propagated to millions of viewers, to the point where young people in movie houses boo Johnson’s name. But there was no struggle. This is pure fiction.” As movies and YouTube videos replace books as the way people acquire history, how much artistic license should they have? I was asked this question often when Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt came out last year. The film took liberties, turning Arendt’s good friend into her secretary and putting the words of Gershom Scholem into the mouth of Kurt Blumenfeld. These struck me as legitimate examples of artistic license. But when the film made up an encounter with a threatening group of Israeli Mossad agents who spring upon Arendt and demand she stop the publication of her book, that struck me as too much. Such a fabrication suggests an official Israeli response to the controversy that did not exist and creates a false image of Israel, one that fits with and confirms many uninformed narratives. Similarly, it does seem that Selma goes too far in its efforts to lionize Martin Luther King Jr (who needs no lionization). On Twitter, DuVernay has responded to the criticism: “Bottom line is folks should interrogate history. Don’t take my word for it or LBJ rep’s word for it. Let it come alive for yourself. #Selma.” Well yes, folks should interrogate history, but history also has facts. When those who gather and present those facts as historical narrative change the facts, it poisons the world. Politics does mean having different opinions about facts, but when we all have our own facts, politics becomes impossible. In our age of technological reproduction, facts are easily manipulated, and untruths are widely dispersed as truth.
Reading has traditionally been a solitary experience. Francine Prose wonders how the practice of reading is changing in the world of ebooks and big data. “Solitude is and has always been an essential component of reading; many children become readers in part to enjoy the privacy it offers. And in an age in which our email messages can be perused by the NSA and our Facebook posts are scanned for clues to our habits and our desires, what joy and a relief it is, to escape into a book and know that no one is watching. But now it turns out that someone or something may have been reading over my shoulder, that I haven’t been quite so alone as I’d imagined, that Becky and I and her circle may have had some silent, unsuspected, uninvited company. Largely because I’ve been traveling, and because my volume of Thackeray weighs several pounds and is printed in a typeface that borders on the microscopic, I’ve been reading the novel on my e-reader. According to a recent article in The Guardian, e-book retailers are now able to tell which books we’ve finished or not finished, how fast we have read them, and precisely where we snapped shut the cover of our e-books and moved on to something else. Only 44.4 percent of British readers who use a Kobo eReader made it all the way through Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, while a mere 28.2 percent reached the end of Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave. Yet both these books appeared–and remained for some time–on the British bestseller lists.” There are few more frustrating experiences than reading a book and being told by Amazon that 67% of readers have underlined the following sentence. Does the rise of hive-reading mean the loss of another private space? That is one of the questions we’ll be asking at the Hannah Arendt Center 2015 Fall Conference: “Privacy: Why Does it Matter?“
Ed Levine dives into the ontology of the American diner: “People talk about Starbucks reintroducing the notion of what sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the ‘third place’ in American life: spaces where we gather besides home and work to form real, not virtual, communities. Starbucks and more high-minded cafes that followed in its wake have surely succeeded on this point, but long before 1971, when the first Starbucks opened in Pike Place Market in Seattle, diners were already serving that invaluable function for us, along with the corner tavern. And that’s why we need to cherish our local diners, whether it’s a mom and pop or a Waffle House or a Greek coffee shop. They’re some of the few cheap, all-inclusive places to eat and hang out and laugh and cry and stay viscerally connected with other folks. A few days ago I asked my server at a diner if I could order a patty melt, even though it wasn’t on the menu. ‘Sure,’ she replied with a half smile. ‘Just tell us what you want and if we have the fixin’s we’ll make it for you.'”
Jeet Heer considers John Updike’s affection for comic strips: “tingling prose, where every idea and emotion is rooted in sensory experience, owes much to such modern masters as Joyce, Proust, and Nabokov, but it was also sparked by the cartoon images he saw in childhood, which trained his eyes to see visual forms as aesthetically pleasing. Indeed, the comparison with Nabokov is instructive since the Russian-born author of Lolita was also a cartoon fan. The critic Clarence Brown has coined the term bedesque (roughly translated as ‘comic strip-influenced’) to describe the cartoony quality of Nabokov’s fiction, including its antic loopiness, its quicksilver movement from scene to scene, and its visual intensity. I think one reason Updike felt an affinity for Nabokov is because they both wrote bedesque prose.”
In a long ode to Merriam Webster’s ongoing attempt to update its Unabridged dictionary, Stefan Fatsis considers the future of the dictionary: “But while the Internet has upended a publishing model that dates to Robert Cawdrey’s 1604 A Table Alphabeticall, it also has strengthened the feeling among lexicographers that the public cares deeply about language–and that there is still a place for the dictionary. For Merriam specifically, the potential of digital lexicography, a belief that people crave guidance and trust authority, and its own historical place in American letters have combined to convince it of the wisdom of rolling the dice and redoing the Third. ‘Creating a new Unabridged Dictionary gives us the opportunity to revisit the biggest questions of all,’ Morse says. ‘What is it that ought to be said and shown about the words in the dictionary? What should we talk about when we talk about words? The Unabridged provides the platform to present the fullest explication of words and hence the opportunity to say what it is that ought to be said. And the answer shifts from generation to generation.'” The pleasures for word nerds abound here, though, bleeding into the dictionary’s history and into the nature of the way it updates itself. Pair it with David Foster Wallace’s “Authority and American Usage” for a different perspective on a different kind of dictionary.
The Hannah Arendt Center announces three post-doctoral fellowships for the 2015-2016 academic year.
To learn more about the fellowships, including how to apply, click here.
Application Deadline: Thursday, March 5, 2015
Courage To Be: Lecture and Dinner Series, with Eyal Press
The Courage To Refuse
Monday, February 9, 2015
Kline Faculty Dining Room, 6:00 pm
Courage To Be: Lecture and Dinner Series, with Keith Haring Fellow in Art and Activism, Jeanne van Heeswijk
Monday, February 16, 2015
Kline Faculty Dining Room, 6:00 pm
Courage To Be: Lecture and Dinner Series, with Uday Mehta
Putting Courage at the Centre: Gandhi on Civility, Society and Self-Knowledge
Monday, March 30, 2015
Manor House Cafe, 6:00 pm
Property and Freedom: Are Access to Legal Title and Assets the Path to Overcoming Poverty in South Africa?
A one-day conference sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, the Human Rights Project, and the Center for Civic Engagement, with support from the Ford Foundation, The Brenthurst Foundation, and The University of The Western Cape
Monday, April 6, 2015
Bard College Campus Center, Weis Cinema, Time TBA
Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center’s annual fall conference, “Privacy: Why Does It Matter?,” will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015!
This week on the Blog, Thomas Wild and Anne Posten discuss how we need to read Hannah Arendt in the plurality of her languages in the Quote of the Week. Bertrand Russell provides this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. And we appreciate Arendt’s interest in the Gnostics in our Library feature.