Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at Bard College
3Jan/16Off
Quote of the Week

The Delusion of the Omnipotence

omnipotent human

**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.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
20Dec/15Off
Amor Mundi

Amor Mundi 12/20/15

Arendtamormundi

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-upHuman Rights vs. Reality

paris vigilMichael Ignatieff in the New York Review of Books writes that the refugee crisis in Europe and the Middle East has proven Hannah Arendt right about the inevitable failure of human rights declarations in the face of political crises. "The Paris attacks make it easy to forget a scandalous fact: 3,329 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe so far this year. Still more are drowning every week. They are drowning in sight of the island of Lesbos in Greece or off the Italian island of Lampedusa. Others are dying trapped inside refrigerator trucks on the roadside in Austria; they are dying inside the Channel Tunnel, trying to reach Great Britain; as the winter darkens, some may die of exposure on the trek up through the Balkans. Later generations will ask how European leaders let this happen. Hannah Arendt, exiled in 1933, stripped of her German citizenship in 1937, later taking flight from Vichy France and finally reaching New York in 1941, also wondered how Europe had betrayed the stateless in her own time. In 1948, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, she observed that it was citizenship that gives human beings the 'right to have rights.' As for stateless persons, she concluded, they ought to have rights simply because they are human, but her own experience had taught her a different lesson: 'If a human being loses his political status, he should, according to the implications of the inborn and inalienable rights of man, come under exactly the situation for which the declarations of such general rights provided. Actually the opposite is the case. It seems that a man who is nothing but a man has lost the very qualities which make it possible for other people to treat him as a fellow-man.' The passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the Refugee Convention in 1951, and the European Convention on Human Rights in 1953 was supposed to give the stateless the right to have rights. States who signed these documents were not allowed to let stateless people drown in their waters and were not supposed to send them back home if they were likely to be tortured; they were entitled to a hearing to make their claim to stay. Anyone, in the words of the Refugee Convention, who fled a 'well-founded fear of being persecuted' had a right to claim refuge in any country that ratified the convention. Thanks to the human rights revolution after 1945, Europe thought it had proven Arendt wrong. Now that we have seen a dead toddler face down, washed up on the gravel of a Turkish beach, Arendt may have been right after all. The Refugee Convention of 1951 has been overwhelmed by the reality of 2015."

The Roots of the Migration Crisis

migrant crisisWalter Russell Mead in the Wall Street Journal has a different read on the refugee crisis, which he rightly calls "one of the worst humanitarian disasters since the 1940s." For Mead, the refugee crisis has its roots in the failure of two civilizations: "What we are witnessing today is a crisis of two civilizations: The Middle East and Europe are both facing deep cultural and political problems that they cannot solve. The intersection of their failures and shortcomings has made this crisis much more destructive and dangerous than it needed to be--and carries with it the risk of more instability and more war in a widening spiral. The crisis in the Middle East has to do with much more than the breakdown of order in Syria and Libya. It runs deeper than the poisonous sectarian and ethnic hatreds behind the series of wars stretching from Pakistan to North Africa. At bottom, we are witnessing the consequences of a civilization's failure either to overcome or to accommodate the forces of modernity. One hundred years after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and 50 years after the French left Algeria, the Middle East has failed to build economies that allow ordinary people to live with dignity, has failed to build modern political institutions and has failed to carve out the place of honor and respect in world affairs that its peoples seek.... In Europe and the West, the crisis is quieter but no less profound. Europe today often doesn't seem to know where it is going, what Western civilization is for, or even whether or how it can or should be defended. Increasingly, the contemporary version of Enlightenment liberalism sees itself as fundamentally opposed to the religious, political and economic foundations of Western society. Liberal values such as free expression, individual self-determination and a broad array of human rights have become detached in the minds of many from the institutional and civilizational context that shaped them." While Europe is trying to maintain humanitarian values, the embrace of absolute values is bringing Europe to a breaking point: "Under normal circumstances, the rights-based, legalistic approach can work reasonably well. When refugee flows are slack, the political fallout from accommodating them is manageable. But when the flow of desperate people passes a certain threshold, receiving countries no longer have the will (and, in some cases, the ability) to follow through. Ten thousand refugees is one thing; 10 million is another. Somewhere between those extremes is a breaking point at which the political system will no longer carry out the legal mandate. To pretend that this isn't true is to invite trouble, and Europe is already much closer to a breaking point than Brussels or Berlin would like to admit." For Mead, the great mistake that Europe and the West have made is to insist on a noble and idealistic program of human rights while being singularly unwilling to embrace the corollary of such a platform. This includes their willingness to use military force to prevent countries like Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan from failing and thus sending an untenable number of migrants into Europe. A humane refugee policy, Mead argues, can only work if the West takes up its responsibility to help guarantee the security of people against ruthless tyrants and "the brutal fanaticism and nihilistic violence of groups like Islamic State."

A Public Voice for the World

snowy hac 2Listening to so many electioneering voices talking about how "I would solve the Mid-East crisis," "how I would handle terrorism in this country," "how I would solve the immigration problem," "how I would reverse an economic downturn," (etc. etc.) one may be startled to hear that in politics it is not the self that matters but the world. In a sense, all great political thinkers and actors have known that, but it was Hannah Arendt who most forcefully articulated it. We live in a world that is more densely populated than ever before and whose bulk has shrunk through the instantaneity of electronic communication. These are the conditions of political dangers of the first order, as we see daily, all over the world. Yet where do we find public voices with world views? Neither among the candidates nor the people. When Arendt writes that "Courage liberates men from their worry about life for the freedom of the world," she says that the imagination of and preservation of the common world is of greater meaning that our individual lives. And when she continues, "Courage is indispensable because in politics not life but the world is at stake," she reiterates that all who engage in politics must strive to act in ways that elevate the glory of our common world above ourselves. One reason to keep returning to Arendt's writing and thinking is because she so forcefully reminds us that the public world is always endangered and in need of political actors with the courage to act and speak in ways that are surprising, captivating, and unnerving. The Hannah Arendt Center is dedicated to bringing Arendt's bold and provocative style of thinking about important political and ethical questions to a broad audience. You can read about what we do here. Please consider becoming a member and supporting our work.--RB

The Death of Persuasion

political divideJoseph Epstein writing in the Wall Street Journal relays a basic truth of our time: meaningful civic discourse has been replaced by hardened opinion. "In 1952, during the first Eisenhower-Stevenson election campaign, I asked my father for whom he was going to vote, fairly certain of the answer (Adlai Stevenson). He surprised me by saying that before making a decision he was waiting to see which way the columnist Walter Lippmann was going. Lippmann, though he would have much preferred to lunch with Stevenson, went for Eisenhower. He did so because he thought the great war hero had a better chance than Stevenson of closing down Sen. Joseph McCarthy's Communist witch hunt. Is there anyone today waiting to see what a newspaper columnist thinks before deciding how to vote? Is there a political columnist in America not already lined up, his or her leanings unknown and unpredictable? Is there anyone in the country, period, not intransigently locked into his or her opinions? What would it take for any of us to make a Lippmann-like move, rising above personal preference and partisanship, to cast a vote for the good of the country instead of against people we loathe? Maybe it doesn't matter. After all, we have only our national civility to lose." At a time when candidates from all parties and all affiliations patter on about their poll-tested political truths, I would vote for nearly any candidate who in the midst of a debate stopped, looked at one of his or her colleagues, and said: "You know, you're right. You've convinced me I was wrong." What I would give for politics to return to being about persuasive speech instead of stale truths.--RB

amor_mundi_sign-upGoing Home

ethiopiaDinaw Mengestu writes of his exile from a country he never knew: "My father, of course, eventually stopped with the stories. He might have done so because we no longer asked him to tell us them, or because we were old enough to read on our own, or because it was the mid-1980s, and Caterpillar, where my father worked, was going through a round of layoffs that would bankrupt my parents' plans of buying their first home. Or perhaps he stopped because suddenly, everywhere we turned, Ethiopia, or one tragic version of it, was staring back at us. There it was on the evening news, dying of hunger, and there it was in the well-intentioned questions of strangers who must have been baffled to hear my father declare that he was a political exile, one who had fled a civil war, the same one that was helping cause the famine. I became conscious around then of my father's politics and that growing consciousness meant eschewing childish things. I saw how he read and watched the news with an almost religious devotion. I remember him voting for Reagan as a newly minted US citizen, because Reagan, like my father, hated the communists, both in Russia and the ones who had taken over Ethiopia. I remember staying up past my bedtime to watch the news of the US bombing of Libya. It was a strangely celebratory mood in our apartment--my father applauding the president as he spoke from the Oval Office, and then, later, calling the White House to share his overwhelming, wholehearted support. The Libyans weren't communists, but Gaddafi was a tyrant, just like Ethiopia's Mengistu Haile Mariam. On the scale of things, Tripoli wasn't that far from Addis Ababa, and now, after that evening, who knew where in Africa America's bombs might land next. My father was certainly a political man before fleeing Ethiopia in 1978 while on a business trip to Italy. He came from a prominent family, had a good corporate job working with Ethiopian Airlines, and had imagined himself in politics once he was more established. He told me that when he left Ethiopia, he always imagined it wouldn't be for long; he expected the communist government that had taken over in 1974 to quickly fail, and when it did, he, like thousands of other refugees in exile the world over, would rush back home to save the country. When my mother, sister, and I arrived in Peoria in 1980, he must have already begun to learn to live by a different narrative. We were digging our heels deeper into America, but time and even distance were irrelevant when it came to the politics of home. By the time we moved to the suburbs of Chicago seven years later, I had thoroughly absorbed my father's secular faith. At nine years old, I considered myself a conservative, a Reagan-loving Republican. I wore sweater vests to school and on Sunday mornings sat through the morning news shows as American foreign policy, which was what my father loved most, was debated. In the evenings, my father and I developed a new bedtime ritual. We traded in the amoral, mischievous monkeys for issues of US News and World Report. I read about foreign and domestic policy over my father's shoulder, ignoring what I didn't understand, trying hard to commit to memory what I did."

On Violence

violenceNatasha Lennard and Brad Evans wonder at the relationship between violence and our smart phones: "It is certainly right to suggest the connections between violence and media communications have been a recurring feature of human relations. We only need to open the first pages of Aeschylus' 'Oresteia' to witness tales of victory in battle and its communicative strategies--on this occasion the medium of communication was the burning beacon. But there are a number of ways in which violence is different today, in terms of its logics intended, forced witnessing and ubiquitous nature.... One of the key arguments I make throughout my work is that violence has now become the defining organizational principle for contemporary societies. It mediates all social relations. It matters less if we are actual victims of violence. It is the possibility that we could face some form of violent encounter, which shapes the logics of power in liberal societies today. Our political imagination as such has become dominated by multiple potential catastrophes that appear on the horizon. The closing of the entire Los Angeles city school system after a reported terrorist threat yesterday is an unsettling reminder of this. From terror to weather and everything in between, insecurity has become the new normal. We see this played out at global and local levels, as the effective blurring between older notions of homeland/battlefields, friends/enemies and peace/war has led to the widespread militarization of many everyday behaviors--especially in communities of color. None of this can be divorced from the age of new media technologies, which quite literally puts a catastrophic world in our hands. Indeed, not only have we become forced witness to many tragic events that seem to be beyond our control (the source of our shared anxieties), accessible smart technologies are now redefining the producer and audience relationships in ways that challenge the dominance of older medias. A notable outcome of this has been the shift toward humanized violence. I am not only talking about the ways in which wars have been aligned with humanitarian principles. If forms of dehumanization hallmarked the previous Century of Violence, in which the victim was often removed from the scene of the crime, groups such as ISIS foreground the human as a disposable category. Whether it is the progressive liberal, the journalist, the aid worker or the homosexual, ISIS put the human qualities of the victims on full broadcast."

Too Cool

academic critiqueLisa Ruddick wonders at the contemporary state of academic writing: "Is there something unethical in contemporary criticism? This essay is not just for those who identify with the canaries in the mine, but for anyone who browses through current journals and is left with an impression of deadness or meanness. I believe that the progressive fervor of the humanities, while it reenergized inquiry in the 1980s and has since inspired countless valid lines of inquiry, masks a second-order complex that is all about the thrill of destruction. In the name of critique, anything except critique can be invaded or denatured. This is the game of academic cool that flourished in the era of high theory. Yet what began as theory persists as style. Though it is hardly the case that everyone (progressive or otherwise) approves of this mode, it enjoys prestige, a fact that cannot but affect morale in the field as a whole. The reflections that follow focus largely on English, my home discipline and a trendsetter for the other modern language disciplines. These days nothing in English is 'cool' in the way that high theory was in the 1980s and 1990s. On the other hand, you could say that what is cool now is, simply, nothing. Decades of antihumanist one-upmanship have left the profession with a fascination for shaking the value out of what seems human, alive, and whole. Some years ago Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick touched on this complex in her well-known essay on paranoid reading, where she identified a strain of 'hatred' in criticism. Also salient is a more recent piece in which Bruno Latour has described how scholars slip from 'critique' into 'critical barbarity,' giving 'cruel treatment' to experiences and ideals that non-academics treat as objects of tender concern. Rita Felski's current work on the state of criticism has reenergized the conversation on the punitive attitudes encouraged by the hermeneutics of suspicion. And Susan Fraiman's powerful analysis of the 'cool mal' intellectual style favored in academia is concerned with many of the same patterns I consider here. I hope to show that the kind of thinking these scholars, among others, have criticized has survived the supposed death of theory. More, it encourages an intellectual sadism that the profession would do well to reflect on. Why has it been hard for this community to shift away from norms that make ruthlessness look like sophistication, even as dissenting voices are periodically raised and new trends keep promising to revitalize the field? The reflections that follow, in proposing some answers, touch on the secret life of groups." The "critical barbarity" Ruddick describes bears a close resemblance to the joy in destruction that Hannah Arendt describes in the war-time German elite. Both are born from what Arendt calls the "justified disgust" at a decadent public world. And yet when that disgust allows itself to find joy in destruction rather than a will to repair, there is a chance for what Arendt calls the alliance of the elite with the mob. Which is why amongst the criticism of the mob-like elements in politics so many of the elite can barely restrain a smile, proof that they are right in their disdain for our world.--RB

Politics in the Cafeteria

oberlinIn The American Interest, Walter Russell Mead reports on the politics of college cooking: "The horror of 'cultural appropriation' has struck Oberlin, where dining hall staff have apparently offended the sensibilities of students by mixing various types of ethnic food. The New York Post reports: 'Students at an ultra-liberal Ohio college are in an uproar over the fried chicken, sushi and Vietnamese sandwiches served in the school cafeterias, complaining the dishes are "insensitive" and "culturally inappropriate." Gastronomically correct students at Oberlin College--alma mater of Lena Dunham--are filling the school newspaper with complaints and demanding meetings with campus dining officials and even the college president. General Tso's chicken was made with steamed chicken instead of fried--which is not authentically Chinese, and simply "weird," one student bellyached in the Oberlin Review. Others were up in arms over banh mi Vietnamese sandwiches served with coleslaw instead of pickled vegetables, and on ciabatta bread, rather than the traditional French baguette.' Doing horrible things to foreign dishes is an authentic and time-honored American tradition."

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

vrg banner headingHAC 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 the New Yorker magazine. Her private life was no less controversial thanks to her early love affair with the renowned German philosopher and Nazi supporter Martin Heidegger. This thought provoking and spirited documentary, with its abundance of archival materials, offers an intimate portrait of the whole of Arendt's life, traveling to places where she lived, worked, loved, and was betrayed, as she wrote about the open wounds of modern times. Through her books, which are still widely read and the recent release of Margarethe von Trotta's biopic Hannah Arendt (also a Zeitgeist Films release) there is renewed interest in Arendt throughout the world, especially among young people who find her insights into the nature of evil, totalitarianism, ideologies, and the perils faced by refugees, more relevant than ever. Watch the Trailer.

Wednesday, April 8, 2016

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, Richard Barrett reflects on Arendt's understanding of authority and depth in the Quote of the Week. Aristophanes discusses how one can escape the entanglement of a baffling thought in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Kate Bermingham shares her love of Arendt's ability to both love and break from political theory tradition in this week's Library feature. Finally, we encourage everyone to make a year-end contribution to the Hannah Arendt Center.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
17Dec/15Off
Library

Arendt and Breaking with Tradition

ArendtLibrary

Kate Bermingham, a graduate student in political theory at the University of Notre Dame, recently shared an image with us of her personal Arendt library. Please see below:

Arendt and Breaking with Tradition 1

Here is what Kate has to say about her image:

"I work primarily on Arendt and the Frankfurt School, but--a la Arendt--my interests span the history of political thought. Right now, my questions are especially focused on the interaction between theories of modern alienation, civic belonging, and aesthetic experience. Other areas of interest include critical feminist theory and politics and literature.

Arendt and Breaking with Tradition 2"This bookshelf contains most of my political theory collection from Homer and the Greek tragedians (political through and through) up through Rawls and Habermas. Arendt is prominently placed on the top right (along with Heidegger, Benjamin, and Adorno). (See Right.)

"I didn't start reading Arendt's work seriously until graduate school, but as soon as I did, I felt I understood what Heidegger must mean by "a clearing"; for me, Arendt brought a world into view. More than any other thinker I've read--even more than Machiavelli or Nietzsche who can be so scathing--she seems to breathe life into the tradition, a tradition she clearly loves even as she breaks with it (and breaks it).

"Stylistically, I admire the vitality and confidence in Arendt's writing. I also admire her for being a thinker who confounds categories, drawing on and recovering perspectives sometimes so far afield from her own."

Want to share pictures of your own Arendt library?

Please send them to David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at dbisson@bard.edu, and we will feature them on our blog!

For more Library photos, please click here.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
1Dec/14Off
Quote of the Week

Experience as an Anchor for Thinking

experience

"[T]hese are exercises in political thought as it arises out of the actuality of political incidents (though such incidents are mentioned only occasionally), and my assumption is that thought itself arises out of incidents of living experience and must remain bound to them as the only guidepost by which to take its bearings."

-- Hannah Arendt, “Preface,” in Between Past and Future

One of the enduring sources of inspiration in Hannah Arendt's political thought is her exceptional capability of tying together reflections on concrete worldly events with in-depth philosophical, historical, and cultural insights. Her thinking never prioritizes abstract theorizations and never uses the incidents of the political world only as “examples.” Instead, for her the activity of thinking is about making sense of the events of the time. Whenever Arendt – against her habit – assumes a self-reflective position with regards to her own way of doing political theory, her emphasis is on the experiential nature of thought. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, she insists on facing the “impact of reality and the shock of experience” in all their force without succumbing to either reckless pessimism or optimism. The call to “think what we are doing,” as she puts it in The Human Condition, is indeed the primus motor underlying all her works.

Ari Elmeri Hyvonen
Ari-Elmeri Hyvönen is a PhD candidate in Politics at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. He received his Master of Social Sciences from the University of Tampere, Finland (2012). From 2012-2014, he worked as a visiting researcher at Tampere Peace Research Institute. His current research focuses on the worldly and temporal aspects of Arendt's thought as well as its relevance in the contemporary context-both political and theoretical.
15Sep/14Off
Quote of the Week

Walter Benjamin and “Drilling” for Pearls

walter_benjamin

“Walter Benjamin knew that the break in tradition and loss of authority which occurred in his lifetime were irreparable, and he concluded that he had to discover new ways of dealing with the past. In this he became a master when he discovered that the transmissibility of the past had been replaced by the citability and that in place of its authority there had arisen a strange power to settle down, piecemeal, in the present and to deprive it of ‘peace of mind,’ the mindless peace of complacency.”

–Hannah Arendt, “Introduction” to Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations

Hannah Arendt was a capacious thinker. She tackled topics such as totalitarianism in Fascist and Stalinist forms, the tradition of Western political philosophy, the human condition, international law and human rights, and the destruction of the world in an atomic age. Moreover, as her former students and current readers can attest, her range of knowledge is daunting as she moves with ease among languages, time periods, historical detail, and philosophical abstraction. Yet Arendt was also invested in fragments, moments, poetry, and individuals as a way to remember the past and speak to present political needs. One place where this is well-represented is in her introduction to Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations.

Laurie Naranch
Laurie Naranch is Associate Professor of Political Science and director of the Women’s Studies Minor at Siena College, NY. She has published in the areas of democratic theory, gender theory, and popular culture. Her current research is on debt and citizenship along with the work of the Greek-French thinker Cornelius Castoriadis and democracy.
14Jul/14Off
Amor Mundi

Amor Mundi 7/13/14

Amor Mundi

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.

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The Unknown Within Ourselves

inner_selfOn the New Yorker blog, Joshua Rothman explores Virginia Woolf's idea of privacy. Unlike the "citizen's sense of privacy," which is concerned with the divide between public and private life and the need to keep some things unseen by other people, Woolf's novels allude to another, deeper kind of privacy that "preserves the melodies otherwise drowned out by words, stories, information." Concrete and experiential rather than political, Woolf's notion of privacy recognizes an inner core of self, a soul, that must be kept safe from one's own compulsion to examine and analyze. Writes Rothman: "Woolf often conceives of life this way: as a gift that you've been given, which you must hold onto and treasure but never open. Opening it would dispel the atmosphere, ruin the radiance-and the radiance of life is what makes it worth living. It's hard to say just what holding onto life without looking at it might mean; that's one of the puzzles of her books. But it has something to do with preserving life's mystery; with leaving certain things undescribed, unspecified, and unknown; with savoring certain emotions, such as curiosity, surprise, desire, and anticipation. It depends on an intensified sense of life's preciousness and fragility, and on a Heisenberg-like notion that, when it comes to our most abstract and spiritual intuitions, looking too closely changes what we feel. It has to do, in other words, with a kind of inner privacy, by means of which you shield yourself not just from others' prying eyes, but from your own. Call it an artist's sense of privacy." Read more on the Arendt Center blog.

The Frogs

emily_dickinsonAlexandra Socarides takes some time to (re)think Emily Dickinson's poem "I'm Nobody! Who are you?," which is usually read as a praise of the nobodies and against being somebody. Socarides finds an ode to something entirely different: "This fall I was asked to volunteer at my sons' elementary school, where the fourth graders were writing poetry and needed a little guidance. Despite having once gotten an MFA in Poetry and having taught poetry writing in the years after that, I have almost no memory of how to guide people in the ways of making poems. So, instead, I mostly sat with the students and watched them as they attempted, in their very best moments, to write something beautiful and strange. It was then, watching these kids shift in their prepubescent bodies, hungry and tired and mostly bored, that I found myself saying, over and over again in my head, just as the strangers in my basement had said to me: 'I'm Nobody! Who are you?' This was before I learned about Dickinson and frogs, before I pulled up the manuscripts, tracked down the letters, and returned to Walden to stand, metaphorically speaking, neck-deep in the pond with Thoreau. At this moment the poem simply functioned as an articulation of the alienation that I felt each and every one of those fourth graders knew intimately. To find a friend, and to locate some shared aspect of identity in that friendship, would be to find refuge from all the frogs croaking out on the playground."

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Being and Time

boyhoodIn an interview, filmmaker Richard Linklater describes what it was like to make his upcoming Boyhood, for which he worked with a group of actors a few days out of the year for twelve years. The film tracks the growth of a young boy over the same span. Like the boy, Linklater says, he's the same person now as when he started making the film, but there are important ways that he's changed too: "I feel like the exact same person, but I've got twelve more years under the belt. I've got two more kids I didn't have then, I got a bunch more films. I got a bunch more life. This thing was such a life project, it's been a real wonderful demarcation thing, all along the way. Every year you had to ask yourself these questions, you had to really study the world and see it in a new way. I think we should all take on these life projects that just make you - whatever the final result is - pay attention. That's what I like about the arts, that they make you see the world in a way you might not be attuned to. Every film is so much work the subject matter better be something you find infinitely fascinating. If you can just explain it and be done with it, you shouldn't be making it. Every film I've done I'm really feeling my way through that subject - what don't I know, what do I want to discover? And usually in the process of making the film I feel I do get to know what I was after. This, with a twelve year commitment, had to be about something inexhaustible. And that was about growing up, parenting, the culture around it, the world changing. I knew that well would never come close to going dry. And it didn't. It didn't. You had to stay so in touch with these people as they changed, and not just the kids but also the adults. You do that as a parent, you do that as a friend, but it was interesting to see that refracted through this one work of art, that you're trying to take Eller and Lorelei and Ethan and Patricia and you're taking what's going on in their lives and I'm trying to take what went on in my life at that age and my own role as a parent - it was an all-encompassing refraction of the world. It was an incredible collaboration not just amongst us but also between our own parents and the unknown future. But that's the life metaphor here - we're all collaborating constantly with a future we think we're trying to control, but we only can to a certain degree."

Art and Public Space

art_publicRiffing on big public installations by artists Jeff Koons and Kara Walker, Jillian Steinhauer wonders what public art even is: "If you take it to mean a work of art widely available and accessible to the public, then yes, a big sculpture in the middle of Rockefeller Center works fine; if, however, you think about public art as a work that engages with the public, draws them into a conversation - well, then the primary difference between the Walker and the Koons becomes clear. In her book Public Art: Theory, Practice and Populism, art historian Cher Krause Knight cites critic Patricia Phillips and her conception of how art 'becomes fully public': 'it is public because of the kinds of questions it chooses to ask or address, and not because of its accessibility or volume of viewers,' Phillips says. Knight then offers her own addendum: 'To this I would add that art's publicness rests in the quality and impact of its exchanges with audiences.' This extends to the way Koons and Walker approach their subjects: Koons began with a personal object (as many of us do), added a neat formal twist ... and then stopped. Walker's art has long sprung from her identity as a black woman, but she focuses on a place where private narratives overlap with public histories. A Subtlety is no exception. Koons's failure to take this leap speaks to his white male privilege, or his lack of imagination as an artist, or both."

Education as an Introduction to Wonder

daniel_godinezJoseph Miller tells the story of Daniel Godinez, a young man from California who found a program designed to groom first generation college students dreary and boring, until he was given the opportunity to do something otherworldly.  Since having started to work with a high tech telescope, Godinez has received "county and state science-fair awards; a research mentorship at the University of California, Santa Barbara; a paid teaching assistantship as astronomy tutor at Santa Barbara City College; and a planetarium operator gig at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, which eventually led to a staff position as astronomy programs assistant there." He's also earned a Distinguished Scientist Scholarship to Bard College, where the Arendt Center is located. Godinez's story shows the power of education that allows students to find their own home in the world, of education that excites and interests young people in what is out there in the world, and beyond.

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Featured Events

conference_14SAVE THE DATE - 2014 FALL CONFERENCE

October 9-10The Hannah Arendt Center's annual fall conference, The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Values Worth Fighting For?, will be held this year on October 9-10!

Registration is now OPEN! You can register here!

Learn more about the conference here.

 

 

 


This Week on the Hannah Aendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Martin Wagner uses Arendt to help us appreciate the value of tradition in the digital age in his Quote of the Week. Spanish philosopher and essayist José Ortega y Gasset provides this week's Thought on Thinking. We remember our 2011 Lunchtime Talk with Robert Pogue Harrison on "passionate thinking" in our Video Archives. And Roger Berkowitz reminds us of the importance of privacy in the Weekend Read.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
7Jul/14Off
Quote of the Week

Google Books and the Problem of Tradition

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“Kierkegaard, Marx, and Nietzsche are for us like guideposts to a past which has lost its significance.”

--Hannah Arendt, “Tradition and the Modern Age”

The general outlines of the Google Books project are simple in principle and stunning in size. Collaborating with major libraries around the globe, Google has undertaken to scan all known existing books and to make them accessible to the electronically connected public. Started a decade ago in 2004, Google has already digitized roughly a quarter of the estimated 130 million books available worldwide. The completion of the collection is scheduled for 2020.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
24Jan/14Off

Loneliness and Expansive Writing

ArendtWeekendReading

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt asks after the “elements” of totalitarianism, those fundamental building blocks that made possible an altogether new and horrific form of government. The two structural elements she locates are the emergence of a new ideological form of Antisemitism and the rise of transnational imperialist movements, which gives the structure to her book: Part One (Antisemitism) and Part Two (Imperialism) lead into Part Three (Totalitarianism). Underlying both Antisemitism and Imperialism is what Arendt calls metaphysical rootlessness and metaphysical loneliness.

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Totalitarian government, Arendt writes, “bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.” The loneliness of modern humanity is multifaceted. It is “closely connected with uprootedness and superfluousness which have been the curse of modern masses since the beginning of the industrial revolution and have become acute with the rise of imperialism at the end of the last century and the breakdown of political institutions and social traditions in our own time.” The image of the factory worker laboring repetitively on a conveyor belt is forever associated with Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. In his 1950 classic The Lonely Crowd, David Reisman describes how middle class Americans had lost their meaningful connections to religion, to class, and to family. They take their values increasingly from a mass culture and they become malleable and subject to the influence of propaganda and advertising.

“Metaphysical rootlessness,” Arendt argues, is both the “basic experience” of modern society and also the generative impulse behind ideological racisms (which Arendt distinguishes from older non-scientific versions of racism). Without a core of personal and collective identity, the lonely mass man is “the common ground for terror, the essence of totalitarian government, and for ideology or logicality, the preparation of its executioners and victims.” Racism is based in hatred of a world in which lonely and rootless people are confronted with their meaninglessness, their belonging to no place, and their superfluousness. It is these masses that seek to build an imaginary and coherent togetherness based on race. Thus is rootlessness characteristic of all racism and all totalitarianism.

In her most pregnant attempt at a definition of totalitarianism, Arendt writes: “Totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated, individuals.” Totalitarianism depends upon “the masses [who] grew out of the fragments of a highly atomized society whose competitive structure and concomitant loneliness of the individual had been held in check only through membership in a class.” Shorn of family and national and class connection, the modern atomized individual becomes a mass man. “The chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness, but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships.”

The question underlying so much of Arendt’s work is how to respond to what she calls “the break in tradition,” the fact that the political, social, and intellectual traditions that bound people together in publically meaningful institutions and networks have frayed beyond repair. The customs and traditions that for millennia were the unspoken common sense of peoples can no longer be presumed. Stripped of these meaningful institutions of transcendence, mass men turn to racism or consumerism to give their lives meaning. Both are dangerous in different ways. Arendt ask repeatedly, how are we to make life meaningful, how are we to inure individuals from the seduction of ideological movements that lend weight to their meaningless lives?

If metaphysical loneliness is the basic experiences of modern life, then it is not surprising that great modern literature would struggle with the agony of such disconnection and seek to articulate paths of reconnection. That, indeed, is the thesis of Wyatt Mason’s essay “Make This Not True,” in this week’s New York Review of Books. Modern fiction, Mason argues, struggles to answer the question: How can we live and die and not be alone?

In the guise of a review of George Saunders Tenth of September (a 2012 finalist for the National Book Award), Mason suggests at least three paradigmatic answers to this question “How do I die?” The answers are represented alternatively by three of the greatest contemporary writers, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Saunders. In brief, Wallace combats the loneliness and inattention of the distracted masses by writing prose that is so seductively difficult that it demands attentiveness and thus membership in a community of readers. Franzen seeks the antidote to loneliness in palpable scenes of connection amidst the wreckages of modern relationships. For both Wallace and Franzen, connection is to be found in the cultivation of quintessentially modern relationships.

Flickr - Manky M.

Flickr - Manky M.

Saunders is notable for pursing a different path through the wilderness of contemporary isolation. Instead of external connections, Saunders is a master of the inward journey we must make alone. For Mason, there is an important link between Saunder’s Buddhism and his writing:

In Buddhist practice, through sitting meditation, the mind may be schooled in the way of softness, openness, expansiveness. This imaginative feat—of being able to live these ideas—is one of enormous subtlety. What makes Saunders’s work unique is not its satirical verve or its fierce humor but its unfathomable capacity to dramatize, in story form, the life-altering teachings of such a practice. … [I]f fiction is to continue to exert an influence over a culture that finds it ever easier to connect, however frailly, to the world around them through technology, Saunders’s stories suggest that the ambition to connect outwardly isn’t the only path we can choose. Rather, his fiction shows us that the path to reconciliation with our condition is inward, a journey we must make alone.

Mason’s essay is subtle and profound. It is your weekend read. And if you have the time, read Saunders’ masterful short story, "The Falls", which Mason discusses at length in his essay. Best of all, order Tenth of December. I spent a few rapturous days reading Saunders’ stories this summer. They can warm your January as well.

-RB

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
7Nov/13Off
Book Review

Arendt on the Declaration of Independence

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"Declarations of Independence: Arendt and Derrida on the Problem of Founding a Republic"
Bonnie Honig
The American Political Science Review, Vol. 85, No. 1 (Mar., 1991), pp. 97-113

Arendt often emphasizes the ramifications of the modern loss of authority for politics. Without faith in traditions or gods, humanity now continually faces the problem of legitimacy in government. To put it more concretely, in the modern age: “[t]hose who get together to constitute a new government are themselves unconstitutional, that is, they have no authority to do what they set out to achieve” (Arendt, On Revolution, quoted in Honig 98). In this article Bonnie Honig, professor of Political Science at Northwestern University, argues that in her work on the American Revolution Arendt goes beyond pessimism to recast the question of founding the state by distancing it from higher powers.

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Arendt points out that the Enlightenment thinkers of the American Revolution were surprised by the novelty of their actions, which quickly outstripped their conception of political reform as restoration (the classical definition of revolution). As they sought to theoretically ground their deeds, they faltered at the ramifications of their radically secular act and inserted references to essentialist elements such as “self evidence” and a higher power. Arendt regrets this because she sees the true advance of the American Revolution as the insight into the role of argument and persuasion between people in the absence of a higher standard of truth.

Using the terminology of speech act theorist J.L. Austin, Honig argues that for Arendt the Declaration of Independence succeeds as a “performative” act that creates a new institution that does not rely on the “constative” truths of gods or tradition. In the text of the Declaration, Honig places particular emphasis on Arendt analysis of the phrase “we hold these truths to be self-evident.” Using the term “we hold” indicates a creative moment very different from a simple statement of fact along the lines of “these truths are self-evident.” Through this creative priority, the American Revolution changes the very conception of revolution. It does not simply seek to refound authority in the classical sense, which would be impossible in this age. Indeed, trying to go back to tradition at gods is in Arendt’s view the cause of the failure of so many 19th and 20th century revolutions. Honig writes that:

Only the modern conception of authority is viable for modernity because it requires for its sustenance not a shared belief in particular deities or myths but a common subscription to the authoritative linguistic practice of promising (102).

People choose to accept the promise of the new social contract when writing the constitution and this shared orientation alone grounds the government. Honig notes though that Arendt does not sufficiently discuss the hidden commonalities that allow people to make such promises. In other words: the promise is a structure, even a ritual, that one must be trained to rely on. She turns to Derrida’s article "Declarations of Independence" to look at this precondition of the promise. While Arendt focuses on the “we hold,” Derrida focuses on the “we” of “we the people. Rather than accepting the promise as an answer to the problem of founding, he sees it as a moment of a leap in which the community of the “we” itself first comes into being. In its rhetorical form though, this “we” also seems like it must have already been there and therefore creates an undecidable moment between the constative and performative.

From the point of view of Derrida’s analysis, Honig sees Arendt as unjustifiably longing for a “pure performative” that would start the new state. Her point is complex and surprising, since Honig in effect accuses Arendt of going too far away from reality and reference. Derrida, who is more often associated with the supposedly relativistic meme “there is nothing outside the text” actually insists in this essay that there has to be an obscure moment in which the “we” both preexisists the Declaration and comes into being with it.

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As strict as Honig’s opposition between Derrida and Arendt is at this point, at the end of the article she notes that Arendt’s “we hold” also has a constative moment that should be acknowledged. In this context, and in the broader scope of Arendt’s challenge to metaphysical ideas such as God, natural law, etc., she proposes the concept of “resistibility” as an Arendtian way of approaching Derrida’s concept of “intervention.” For Honig, both thinkers work within a challenge to authority rather than simply seeking to escape it.

While Honig stays with the difficult structure of the founding moment of modern politics, from a narrative perspective her article also suggests that the confusing undecidability of the “we” might also offer a way to perceive a change in the status of “the people” over the course of the founding of the state. To this extent, the “we hold” that Arendt discusses could actually work just as well, since it indicates a new subjective orientation of the framers: with this formulation they virtualize, in other words put some distance, between themselves and truth. This distance, perhaps no less mysterious than God or truth, but more open to debate, ‘grounds’ the modern state.

-Jeffrey Champlin

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
17Sep/13Off

Arendt in Contemporary Art: Lyln Foulkes at the New Museum

ART

Arendt in Contemporary Art: Lyln Foulkes at the New Museum

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Margarethe von Trotta’s film Hannah Arendt is only the latest appearance of the political thinker in popular culture. This summer, the New Museum's Lyln Foulkes retrospective provided an opportunity to examine an appearance of Arendt in contemporary art. Completed in 1991, The New Renaissance employs materials and motifs reminiscent of pop art and post-modern collage to create a vibrant but mysterious self-portrait.

The setting of the painting, Santa Monica Bay, reminds us of the early paintings modeled on post cards that first brought Foulkes critical attention in the 1960s. The face of the painter, traditionally the center of subjectivity in Western painting, has been disfigured in a style that Foulkes employed since the 1970s. While facing, if not exactly looking, west though, the painter seems to reach out to the East, painting the Chinese character “humanity.” The words written on the painter's brain list a series of concepts and problems, the pallet has a wide mix of colors, but on the canvas it seems that the painter is able to get a clear sign of the picture he wishes to express. Foulkes also uses what looks like real wood for the telephone pole, further satirizing the process of art as creative mediation.

At the viewer's left, Arendt’s book The Human Condition appears in the hands of Foulkes’s wife. She stands behind him in black and white outline, unfinished or highlighted by lack of color. One might conjecture that she reads Arendt to attempt to make sense of the work of art before her. In this case, we might imagine that she's immersed in book 4, where Arendt calls works of art "the most worldly of all things." Foulkes's work leads us to ask how contemporary art creates a human world by telling a story. What kind of "durability" does it create, given that it often challenges understanding rather than simply marking an event (like a monument), or even recounting an recognizable story?

The “HUMAN” in all capital letters of the title makes its way from the book through the painter to the Chinese character on canvas. West meets East here through different cultural symbols. In a similar manner, the ghostly, electric image on Christ on the telephone pole suggests a striking confrontation of the modern age with the imagery of the biblical tradition. Whether or not one thinks that Foulkes succeeds in contributing to the durability of the world with these combinations, we can see them as the kind of attempt to confront the challenges of the present with resources of the past that Arendt advocated and practiced.

-Jeffrey Champlin

 

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
26Aug/13Off
Amor Mundi

Amor Mundi – 8/25/13

Arendtamormundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor MundiLove 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.

Peter Maass on the Surveillance State

lauraHow does the rise of a secret, inscrutable, and unaccountable security bureaucracy in the United States impact law-abiding citizens? This is a crucial question as many of us struggle to understand the domestic spying programs unveiled by Edward Snowden. In one such program, Xkeyscore, low-level NSA analysts are permitted to “mine enormous agency databases by filling in a simple on-screen form giving only a broad justification for the search. The request is not reviewed by a court or any NSA personnel before it is processed.” It is arguably true that the government needs to be able to act in extraordinary ways to protect the country at a time of world terrorism. It is equally true, however, that once such information is available and held by the government, it is likely that it will be abused. Information is easily transferred. If the government collects and holds data on citizens, that data will eventually be misused, whether by the government or others. One case in point is Laura Poitras. In Peter Maass’ must-read cover story in last week’s New York Times Magazine, he tells how since 2006 Poitras has been on government watch lists because of rumors falsely spread about her. While winning awards and producing lauded documentaries, she was repeatedly detained, met with armed guards, and had her computers and notes taken, searched, and held for weeks—because of secret and ultimately false rumors. And all before she got involved with Edward Snowden. Now Poitras—who has helped to bring Snowden’s revelations about the illegal excesses of government surveillance to light in a responsible manner—may never be able to enter the United States again without being harassed and arrested. It is important to balance the need for security against the rights of citizens and the essential American right of free speech and meaningful dissent. But how did it happen that the Attorney General of the United States of America had to write to the President of Russia assuring him that if Snowden were extradited to the U.S. he would not be tortured? As Daniel Ellsberg has pointed out, when he turned himself in after publishing the Pentagon papers, he was freed on bond pending trial. Would the Obama administration’s justice department have treated Snowden that way? There is in the end a fine line separating the surveillance of terrorists and the harassment of citizens. Maass’ article sheds light on the surveillance state through the personal story of one woman. Wherever you come down on the question of national security surveillance, it is an essay that you should read.

"In America, It is Always a Paranoid Time"

truthersLaura Miller reviews Jesse Walker's new short history of American conspiracy theories, For Walker, the conspiracy theory is a kind of national past time, with some conspiracy or another widely discussed within many disparate demographics. Miller delves into why this might be: "As Walker sees it, our brains are predisposed to see patterns in random data and to apply stories to explain them, which is why conspiracy theory can be so contagious. Although conspiracies do exist, we need to be vigilant against our propensity to find them whether they are there or not. The most sensible outlook would appear to be that of Robert Anton Wilson, who concluded that “powerful people” could well be “engaged in criminal plots” but who found it unlikely that “the conspirators were capable of carrying out those plots competently.” Or, I would add, of covering them up effectively."

Snowballing Assessments

metricsPresident Obama gave a speech this week promising to take on university tuition. It is a worthy goal at a time of skyrocketing student debt. But the devil is in the details and here the details include a universal assessment board that will rank how well schools prepare students for employment. The idea is to allow students and parents to know which schools are the best return on their investment and to shame colleges and universities into cutting costs and focusing more on preparing students for gainful employment. There are many questions that could be asked, including whether we are better served spending money to make college more affordable or by actually turning high school—which is already free and mandatory—into a meaningful experience that prepares students for work and citizenship? But philosophical questions aside, does such assessment work? Not according to Colin Macilwain, writing in the Scientific Journal Nature. Discussing “Snowball,” a system designed to assess British Universities, Macilwain writes: “A major problem with metrics is the well-charted tendency for people to distort their own behaviour to optimize whatever is being measured (such as publications in highly cited journals) at the expense of what is not (such as careful teaching). Snowball is supposed to get around that by measuring many different things at once. Yet it cannot quantify the attributes that society values most in a university researcher — originality of thinking and the ability to nurture students. Which is not the same as scoring highly in increasingly ubiquitous student questionnaires.” As assessments become a way of life, it is important to recall their unintended ill-effects.

The Young and the Rebellious

iranIn an essay about the ways that Iran's regime has used the deaths of "martyrs" to political advantage in the past and how opponents of the regime used that same rhetoric to push the opposite way following the death of Neda Agha-Soltan in 2009, Mehdi Okasi describes his own youthful push back as an American-Iranian visiting Tehran as a teenager: "I ignored my family’s warnings, and carried my copy of The Satanic Verses with me throughout Tehran: to coffee shops, internet cafes, even the park. I held it in my hand as I walked around the city, placed it on tables as I ordered in restaurants, or on the counter at the local bakery where my sweet tooth was placated daily by cream pastries layered with jam and rolled in crushed pistachios. I even made a point of opening it in view of police and soldiers. But to my disappointment, no one paid me any attention. When I visited the many bookstores around Engelob Square, I asked booksellers if they had a copy squirreled away. My question didn’t inspire rage or offense. They didn’t gasp in disbelief or chase me out the store with a broom. Instead, in a rather bored tone, they informed me that the book wasn’t available in Iran. When they learned that I was visiting from America, they added that I could probably find a copy at so-and-so’s bookstore. Like anything else that was forbidden, you only had to know where to look and how to ask for it."

An American Speaker in Paris

parisTa-Nehisi Coates has spent part of the summer learning French in Paris. His continuing education in a foreign tongue, and his decision to pursue that education in a place where that language has spoken, has revealed to him the arrogance of native speakers of English; Coates tells his friends that he wishes more Americans were multilingual and "they can't understand. They tell me English is the international language. Why would an American need to know anything else?" For his own part, Coates seems to have been dissuaded of that particular notion simply by venturing into the world outside of his door; humility and empathy have been his prizes. "You come to this place" he says "and find yourself disarmed. You see that it has its own culture, its own ages and venerable traditions, that the people do not tremble before you. And then you understand that there is not just intelligent life in outer space, but life so graceful that it shames you into silence."

Featured Events

smallfailingOctober 3-4, 2013

The sixth annual fall conference, "Failing Fast:The Crisis of the Educated Citizen"

Olin Hall, Bard College
Learn more here.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
29Jul/13Off
Quote of the Week

Hannah Arendt’s Denktagebuch

Arendtquote

Futility of action = need
for permanence—
Poetry or body politic
Natalität

-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch,  October 1953 (volume 1, p. 61)

Arendt's Thought Diary (Denktagebuch) contains fascinating reflective engagements that span the history of western thought from Plato to Heidegger. The form of the entries is as striking as their content: Arendt employs not only the conceptual mode of inquiry that one expects from a philosopher, but also brief narrative accounts (stories) and poetry that highlight the literary dimension of her thought.

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The quote above comes from a section that is unique even within this context of the varied forms of the Denktagebuch. The full entry has two columns of text side by side comprised of key terms, punctuation, and additional operator markings such as arrows and equal signs. In their spatial division, order of terms, and employment of symbols, these two columns offer a compelling challenge to readers of Arendt who seek to discover specific insights of the Thought Diary that may go beyond those of the her published work.

Each column is headed by a German term easily understandable to English speakers: "Pluralität" and "Singularität." The positive movement that builds earlier in the right hand column through "Pluralität," "equality," and "thought" breaks down on “futility.” We can go at least two directions with this interruption. It might just be a blip in her run of thought, a speed bump, so to speak. I will pursue the more promising thought that Arendt considers an objection, acknowledging the fact that the boldly announced “action” remains threatened by disappointment. This voice contends that practical failure leads to a metaphysical need for stability.

“[N]eed for permanence” aligns with “body politic.” Traditionally, political philosophy uses the body to describe a principle of stable organization. This was already true for Aristotle, who insists on the analogy between mind / body and ruler / subject. As Ernst Kantorowicz famously demonstrated, Medieval political theology argues for the continuity of the ruler with the idea of the two bodies of the king: a physical body that passes away in the death of the king, and one spiritual body that doesn't change. Most importantly for modern thought, Hobbes describes individuals in the state of nature who cede their individual power to the ruler, resulting in a single body that the famous front piece of The Leviathan pictures as a giant composite of smaller people.

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Linguistically, “body politic” has unique currency in Anglo-American thought. “Staatskörper” does not have the same reign in German discourse, where the mechanistic “Staatsapparat” (“state apparatus”) predominates. Rousseau employs “corps politique” in On the Social Contract but it never takes a central place in French debate. Arendt takes on a specific concept in a specific language and tradition, but one that she opens to an unexpected future. From the medieval period to the 20th century, these theories of the body politic share a common emphasis on unity and an organic principle of stability that points to a metaphysical “need for permanence.”

With this background, one might not be surprised that other figures of birth in the Thought Diary relate not to change, sudden or otherwise, but to consistency and integration. However, the way Arendt describes this maintenance of the social world provides the uncircumventable basis for the ultimately radical energy that she grants action. In the “or” of Arendt’s “Poetry or body politic,” she compels us to consider an alternative to a fixed organic structure. Indeed, the very form of the entry tends towards poetry, and in its spacing and rhythm challenges standard modes of conceptual analysis.

Reading a few key entries around the same time in the Thought Diary shows that the world (i.e. the common realm of living together) needs to be sustained; it doesn’t just exist by itself. In this regard, the phrase “Poetry or body politic” indicates that the political body does not just last by itself but needs to be continually renewed. This renewal has both a conservative aspect and a potential for radical change in action. Each new body does not just fit the higher state-body, but continually maintains the social structure.

The column ends with “natality” (“Natalität”), Arendt's only use of the term in the Thought Diary in the years leading up to her major explication of the idea in the Human Condition. The entry, taken precisely in its note layout and read together with nearby entries that employ figures of birth, shows Arendt criticizing a political metaphysics of the body through an alternative corporeality. Precisely because the state lacks a higher principle of stability, the common world can change its entire political structure because it brings with it the possibility of starting something wholly new.

-Jeffrey Champlin

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
21Jun/13Off
Weekend Reading

Defending the Humanities While Trashing Them

ArendtWeekendReading

Leon Wieseltier, the longtime cultural editor of the New Republic, dedicated his commencement address at Brandeis last month to a defense of the humanities. He asks, “Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were cherished less, and has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were needed more?” It was a rhetorical question, and Wieseltier offers a full-throttled defense of teaching and studying the humanities. The culprit, he writes, is technology.

For decades now in America we have been witnessing a steady and sickening denigration of humanistic understanding and humanistic method. We live in a society inebriated by technology, and happily, even giddily governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency, and convenience. The technological mentality that has become the American worldview instructs us to prefer practical questions to questions of meaning – to ask of things not if they are true or false, or good or evil, but how they work. Our reason has become an instrumental reason, and is no longer the reason of the philosophers, with its ancient magnitude of intellectual ambition, its belief that the proper subjects of human thought are the largest subjects, and that the mind, in one way or another, can penetrate to the very principles of natural life and human life. Philosophy itself has shrunk under the influence of our weakness for instrumentality – modern American philosophy was in fact one of the causes of that weakness -- and generally it, too, prefers to tinker and to tweak.

The machines to which we have become enslaved, all of them quite astonishing, represent the greatest assault on human attention ever devised: they are engines of mental and spiritual dispersal, which make us wider only by making us less deep. There are thinkers, reputable ones if you can believe it, who proclaim that the exponential growth in computational ability will soon take us beyond the finitude of our bodies and our minds so that, as one of them puts it, there will no longer be any difference between human and machine. La Mettrie lives in Silicon Valley. This, of course, is not an apotheosis of the human but an abolition of the human; but Google is very excited by it.

I too value the humanities and have dedicated my life to them. I agree with Wieseltier about the distracting influence of technology and also the danger of scientism.

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But I do wonder why it is that Wieseltier did not ask also what the humanities might have contributed to the fact that nationally now only 7% of students choose to study the humanities. Even at Harvard, only 20% of students are majoring in the humanities. Are all these students eschewing the humanities out of evil or ignorance? Or is there something wrong with the way we are teaching the humanities? 

The truth is that too much of what our humanities faculties teach is neither interesting nor wanted by our students and even by our colleagues. It is an amazing truth that much of what academics write and publish is rarely, if ever, read. Even by other academics. 

The standard response to such whispered confessions is that scholarship is timeless. Its value may not be discovered for centuries. Or that it is like basic research, useful in itself. The problem with these arguments is that such really original scholarship is rare and getting ever more rare. The increasing specialization of academic life leads to professors knowing more and more about less and less. This is the source of the irrelevance of much of humanities scholarship today.

As Hannah Arendt wrote 50 years ago in her essay On Violence, humanities scholars today are better served by being learned and erudite than by seeking to do original research by uncovering some new or forgotten scrap. While such finds can be interesting, they are exceedingly rare and largely insignificant.

To say that excessively specialized humanities scholarship today is irrelevant is not to say that the humanities are irrelevant. As I have written elsewhere,

The humanities are that space in the university system where power does not have the last word, where truth and beauty as well as insight and eccentricity reign supreme and where young people come into contact with the great traditions, writing, and thinking that have made us whom we are today. The humanities introduce us to our ancestors and our forebears and acculturate students into their common heritage. It is in the humanities that we learn to judge the good from the bad and thus where we first encounter the basic moral facility for making judgments. It is because the humanities teach taste and judgment that they are absolutely essential to politics. It is even likely that the decline of politics today is profoundly connected to the corruption of the humanities.

One might think that given his concern with technology changing and threatening our humanity, Wieseltier might find an ally in Hannah Arendt.  Hannah Arendt is one of the most articulate defenders of the connection between humanities learning and political and an engaged political life. For her, politics depends upon the stories and actions that preserve the traditions and the institutions that give meaning and sense to our common lives. The crisis in the humanities is, Arendt understood, deeply connected to our political crisis.

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Wieseltier has never been a fan of Arendt’s writing, which of course is fine. But with the opening of the new movie “Hannah Arendt” by Margarethe von Trotta, he seems to have decided to establish the new New Republic as ground zero of irresponsible Arendt bashing. Under his guidance, the New Republic has published not one but two scathingly critical reviews of the film, each riddled with errors. I wrote already about the glaring factual mistakes plaguing Stanley Kaufmann’s review last week, in a post on the Febrile Imagination of Arendt Haters. I only recently became aware of a second attack by Saul Austerlitz.

The Austerlitz review is given the subtle title “A New Movie Perpetuates the Pernicious Myth of Hannah Arendt.” Austerlitz calls Arendt a “threadbare hero,” and complains that the movie eschews “serious consideration of the sustained critical response to Eichmann in Jerusalem.” That is strange given the prominence in the film given to Arendt’s critics, including Kurt Blumenfeld (who also utters damning words written by Gershom Scholem), Charlotte Beradt, Norman Podhoretz, and, most forcefully, Hans Jonas. Undoubtedly the film comes down on Arendt’s side. But when Jonas turns away from Arendt after her lecture, the moral clarity of his accusation of arrogance weighs on through till the credits.

Some of Austerlitz’s criticisms hit home. For example, he worries, as I have, that the encounter between Siegfried Moses and Arendt is too one-sided, even if he does not know that the actual encounter was much different.

But mostly Austerlitz just follows the herd by attacking Arendt not by engaging her work (he never once cites Arendt), but by quoting from others. Mostly Austerlitz chooses to cite Deborah Lipstadt, author of a revisionist account of the Eichmann trial in which suggests without any reason or supporting evidence that Arendt defended Eichmann (something she certainly did not do) in order to excuse or please her former lover Martin Heidegger. Such contentions would be laughable if they weren’t then adopted uncritically by others as fact. In any case, here is what Austerlitz writes about Eichmann in Jerusalem (giving no indication whatsoever whether he has read it):

The book makes for good philosophy, but shoddy history, as many have asserted in the decades since its publication. As historian Deborah Lipstadt observes of Arendt in The Eichmann Trial (2011), “The only way she could have concluded that Eichmann was unaware was to give more credence to his demeanor and testimony at the trial than to what he actually did during the war.” 

One wonders, upon reading such a paragraph, what Lipstadt was saying Arendt was unaware of? Since Austerlitz’s preceding sentence accuses Arendt of believing that Eichmann, “bore the Jews no special animus, intent merely on carrying out his duties to the utmost,” it suggests that Lipstadt is arguing that Arendt is unaware of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism. But if one goes back to Lipstadt’s book itself, she is in fact arguing that Arendt said that Eichmann was unaware that he had committed crimes.

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Whether or not Eichmann was aware that he committed crimes is an important question. It certainly cannot be decided as Lipstadt does by appealing to but never citing the memoir Eichmann wrote while in Argentina. Over and over in that memoir, Eichmann asserts his belief that he was justified in doing what he did and that he violated no laws in doing so. Indeed, Arendt herself argued that Eichmann’s pleas of having a “clear conscience” were made questionable by “the fact that the Nazis, and especially the criminal organizations to which Eichmann belonged, had been so very busy destroying evidence of their crimes during the last months of the war.” And yet Arendt, trying to take Eichmann’s statements in Argentina seriously, recognized also that the destruction of evidence 

proved no more than recognition that the law of mass murder, because of its novelty, was not yet accepted by other nations; or, in the language of the Nazis, that they had lost their fight to “liberate” mankind from the “rule of subhumans,” especially from the dominion of the Elders of Zion; or, in ordinary language, it proved no more than the admission of defeat. Would any one of them have suffered from a guilty conscience if they had won? 

Whether or not Eichmann was or was not possessed of a guilty conscience may be open for debate, but the claim that Arendt was unaware of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism is folly.  As is Austerlitz’s also unsupported claim that “Eichmann bore the Jews no special animus.”  I realize others have pedaled such trash before, but repeating falsities does not make them true.

There is irony in Wieseltier’s condemning the decline of the humanities even as he oversees publication of two irresponsible reviews about a movie that, whatever its failings, is the most significant attempt to bring a major humanist to the screen in a thoughtful and respectful way. I am not asking for cheerleading, but serious engagement would be welcomed.   

Ignore the reviews and instead read Wieseltier’s commencement speech celebrating the humanities. It is your weekend read.  And then review my own defense of the humanities here.

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".