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.
Hasan Elahi started a self-surveillance art series when he was mistakenly reported to the FBI's terrorist watch list in 2001, and he's been reporting his movements online through his website every day since. But what started as a series on the way people are being watched became a series about the way we're watching ourselves: "Making the mundane details of his life publicly available became 'a very pragmatic solution to keep from being shipped off to Guantanamo.' He still faithfully updates his location every time he makes a major move--from his house to the gas station, from the gas station to his job. And he takes pictures of literally everything he does, whether shopping at the grocery store, eating at his favorite Chinese restaurant, or peeing in the bathroom. Strangely enough, Elahi says doing so has allowed him to live a relatively anonymous, quiet existence. 'I like to think of it as aggressive compliance,' he said. 'I've always been fascinated with Magellan and the concept of circumnavigation: going far enough in one direction to end up in the other.' But while the project started out as a response to state surveillance, it's become a parody of the way people now put their entire lives online for anyone--friends, stalkers, government agents--to follow. And it's remarkable how quickly it's happened: when Elahi first started photographing his meals, his friends thought it was weird. Now everyone does it, and some restaurants even have no-photo policies. Elahi doesn't think what he's doing is any stranger than if he were constantly tweeting, checking in on location apps, or posting photos on Facebook. 'These days, we're so wired 24/7 that you have to go out of your way not to be connected,' he said." All of this recalls Richard Sennett's "paradox of visibility and isolation" in his classic The Fall of Public Man. As we are ever more visible in public through cameras, data collection, and the expressiveness of clothes, tweets, and public displays of affection, there is the consequent compensation that we insist on not revealing our true selves. As Sennett writes: "Isolation in the midst of visibility to others was a logical consequence of insisting on one's right to be mute when one ventured into this chaotic yet still magnetic realm." There is a way in which we expose ourselves, but in doing so neutralize and appease those who observe us without actually revealing our true passions, hopes, and desires. The problem, as Sennett argues, is that we then begin to lose the ability to "imagine social relations which would arouse much passion...." The result is that we come to imagine a passionless "public life in which people behave, and manage their behavior, only through withdrawal, 'accommodation,' and 'appeasement.'"
Rosemary Pooler and Richard Wesley penned Turkmen v. Ashcroft, an important decision from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals this month. (h/t Alan Sussman) The decision reinstated a lawsuit against John Ashcroft and other prison and government officials. The plaintiffs are a group of eight Muslims who were arrested on immigration charges after 9/11 and who were then held and interrogated for between three and eight months. The complaint concerned discriminatory treatment based upon a policy by Ashcroft and FBI Director Mueller "whereby any Muslim or Arab man encountered during the investigation of a tip received in the 9/11 terrorism investigation . . . and discovered to be a non-citizen who had violated the terms of his visa, was arrested." The plaintiffs in this suit were arrested, sent to maximum security prisons, subjected to constant strip searches, sleep deprivation, and other harsh interrogation techniques on no evidence except their apparent Muslim faith. Pooler and Wesley, in deciding to reinstate the plaintiff's lawsuit, offer these stirring and more than appropriate final thoughts: "If there is one guiding principle to our nation it is the rule of law. It protects the unpopular view, it restrains fear-based responses in times of trouble, and it sanctifies individual liberty regardless of wealth, faith, or color. The Constitution defines the limits of the Defendants' authority; detaining individuals as if they were terrorists, in the most restrictive conditions of confinement available, simply because these individuals were, or appeared to be, Arab or Muslim exceeds those limits. It might well be that national security concerns motivated the Defendants to take action, but that is of little solace to those who felt the brunt of that decision. The suffering endured by those who were imprisoned merely because they were caught up in the hysteria of the days immediately following 9/11 is not without a remedy. Holding individuals in solitary confinement twenty-three hours a day with regular strip searches because their perceived faith or race placed them in the group targeted for recruitment by al Qaeda violated the detainees' constitutional rights. To use such a broad and general basis for such severe confinement without any further particularization of a reason to suspect an individual's connection to terrorist activities requires certain assumptions about the 'targeted group' not offered by Defendants nor supported in the record. It assumes that members of the group were already allied with or would be easily converted to the terrorist cause, until proven otherwise. Why else would no further particularization of a connection to terrorism be required? Perceived membership in the 'targeted group' was seemingly enough to justify extended confinement in the most restrictive conditions available." Plaintiff's brought this lawsuit in April, 2002, over 13 years ago. Justice can be slow. But one hopes that at least eventually it will be served.
Tom Engelhardt asks the important and difficult question--Is there a new political system emerging in the United States? His five-part account suggests that may well be. "Have you ever undertaken some task you felt less than qualified for, but knew that someone needed to do? Consider this piece my version of that and let me put what I do understand about it in a nutshell: based on developments in our post-9/11 world, we could be watching the birth of a new American political system and way of governing for which, as yet, we have no name. And here's what I find strange: the evidence of this, however inchoate, is all around us and yet it's as if we can't bear to take it in or make sense of it or even say that it might be so. Let me make my case, however minimally, based on five areas in which at least the faint outlines of that new system seem to be emerging: political campaigns and elections; the privatization of Washington through the marriage of the corporation and the state; the de-legitimization of our traditional system of governance; the empowerment of the national security state as an untouchable fourth branch of government; and the demobilization of 'we the people.' Whatever this may add up to, it seems to be based, at least in part, on the increasing concentration of wealth and power in a new plutocratic class and in that ever-expanding national security state. Certainly, something out of the ordinary is underway and yet its birth pangs, while widely reported, are generally categorized as aspects of an exceedingly familiar American system somewhat in disarray."
Thinking about global warming and environmental disasters can be numbing and depressing. But in the New Yorker this week, Bill McKibben offers a reason to hope. He tells of Mark and Sara Borkowski in Rutland, Vermont. With help from Vermont's Green Mountain Power, the Borkowski's "stuffed the house with new insulation, put in a heat pump for the hot water, and installed two air-source heat pumps to warm the home. They also switched all the light bulbs to L.E.D.s and put a small solar array on the slate roof of the garage. The Borkowskis paid for the improvements, but the utility financed the charges through their electric bill, which fell the very first month. Before the makeover, from October of 2013 to January of 2014, the Borkowskis used thirty-four hundred and eleven kilowatt-hours of electricity and three hundred and twenty-five gallons of fuel oil. From October of 2014 to January of 2015, they used twenty-eight hundred and fifty-six kilowatt-hours of electricity and no oil at all. President Obama has announced that by 2025 he wants the United States to reduce its total carbon footprint by up to twenty-eight per cent of 2005 levels. The Borkowskis reduced the footprint of their house by eighty-eight per cent in a matter of days, and at no net cost. I've travelled the world writing about and organizing against climate change, but, standing in the Borkowskis' kitchen and looking at their electric bill, I felt a fairly rare emotion: hope. The numbers reveal a sudden new truth--that innovative, energy-saving and energy-producing technology is now cheap enough for everyday use. The Borkowskis' house is not an Aspen earth shelter made of adobe and old tires, built by a former software executive who converted to planetary consciousness at Burning Man. It's an utterly plain house, with Frozen bedspreads and One Direction posters, inhabited by a working-class family of four, two rabbits, and a parakeet named Oliver." McKibben also writes of Richard Kauffman, the NY State energy czar, who cites Hannah Arendt for inspiration. "Kauffman has all sorts of plans, from a 'green bank'--to attract private-sector capital to finance extensive energy-saving retrofits--to new rules that would pressure utilities to play nicely with outside partners like Solar City. 'It's kind of a Hannah Arendt thing,' he said. 'There's not a lot of intentional evil in utilities. But we've created a golden cage for them, protected them from enormous trends.' We were on the subway again, and as it clattered back toward Manhattan Kauffman had to shout to be heard: 'Our aim is to create a policy environment that is not standing against the forces of history but is in line with them.'"
In an interview, author and ghostwriter Hilary Liftin talks about the way she interacts with her subjects: "I have a particular role: to represent the person I'm writing for and to create a voice for that person. But the other thing that I bring to it is empathy. There are certain jobs I don't take because I feel no connection to the person. But if somebody is open with me, and honest about their motivations, and has some level of self-awareness, then I'm going to understand them. The same way you'd feel if you sat down with a criminal and they told you their life story. You would probably understand the crime and forgive it. None of my clients are criminals, but to a much lighter degree that's what goes on. I hear the story, and I hear it with the level of detail that breeds empathy.... I'm not creating a voice out of thin air. Everyone has a public voice, and a lot of actors have developed sound-bitey public voices. But that doesn't translate to paper. That's why they can't just dictate a book, even if they're good storytellers. So the question is: how can I manifest the quirks and thoughts and uniqueness of their own personalities? In part, I do that by typing when they talk. I don't record. That is a way for my brain to take in the voice. My goal is that when my client reads a book they feel like, 'Hilary did something but mostly she just made it happen quickly.' I think people dismiss celebrity memoirs as unreal, contrived and maybe partially made up. But that's definitely not true for anything that I write."
Tamar Adler waxes poetic about preserves: "I have felt lucky, as a grown person, to discover that this thing I loved in innocent abstraction had real importance. Salting and drying meat and fish helped human beings to last through long winters, sea voyages and treacherous overland trails. If cultivating soil was what let us settle, it was harnessing bacterial cultures and sugar, salt, acid, fat, sun and wind to paralyze microorganisms and save food from decay that let us unmoor, discovering all the world that was not visible from our cabbage patches. Basque cider allowed seamen to cross oceans. Dutch pickled herring fueled the exploration of the New World. Vikings spread cod in the riggings of their ships to dry and stiffen in the cold wind, then traded on it as they battled through Scandinavia, the Mediterranean and Central Asia. Cheese was first a way of preserving milk; wine, of grape juice; sauerkraut, of cabbage; prosciutto, of pork. In this sense, all preserved things are additionally miraculous, in that they all are also ways of storing other things: part vessel, part content."
Tiffany Jenkins responds to the query, "Why Value Privacy?" with this answer citing Hannah Arendt. "Where privacy is as important, but perhaps less obviously so, is in relation to the development of the human person. Privacy allows us to retreat from the world, for a while, to not be 'on show' all the time, to take our face off. It is space without scrutiny and immediate judgment in which we can take time out and reflect. Here, we can be vulnerable. Here, we can experiment and try things out. Here, we can make mistakes. We can be ourselves; learning and developing what that means. And that we have some say over what others know and what they do not know, is a way to develop autonomy and self-possession. All this helps us to sure up psychological and social depth. As the writer Hannah Arendt put it: 'A life spent entirely in public, in the presence of others, becomes, as we would say, shallow.'" We couldn't agree more, which is why the Hannah Arendt Center is hosting our 8th Annual Conference "Why Privacy Matters: What Do We Lose When We Lose Our Privacy?" The Conference is Oct. 15-16. You can read about it and register here.
HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.
For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at email@example.com.
Friday, September 11, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm
The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Why Privacy Matters: What Do We Lose When We Lose Our Privacy?," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!
**UPDATE** Registration for our conference is now open! Save your seat for this exciting two-day event here!
Thursday, October 15 and Friday, October 16, 2015
Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm
This week on the Blog, Charles Snyder reflects on how dianoetic laughter frees us from the misery that arises from our constant failure to be able to converse with ourselves in the Quote of the Week. Australian philosopher Peter Singer discusses how thinking helps constitute the meaning of philosophy in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we share an image sent to us by the Goethe-Institut New York of some of Arendt's writings housed in its library in this week's Library feature.
Louis Pasteur once wrote:
I see everywhere in the world, the inevitable expression of the concept of infinity…. The idea of God is nothing more than one form of the idea of infinity. So long as the mystery of the infinite weighs on the human mind, so long will temples be raised to the cult of the infinite, whether it be called Bramah, Allah, Jehovah, or Jesus…. The Greeks understood the mysterious power of the hidden side of things. They bequethed to us one of the most beautiful words in our language—the word ‘enthusiasm’—En Theos—“A God Within.” The grandeur of human actions is measured by the inspiration from which they spring. Happy is he who hears a god within, and who obeys it. The ideals of art, of science, are lighted by reflection from the infinite.
To bear a god within is not an easy task for us mortals. The god within—even more so than the god without—demands to be obeyed. Having a god inside us—or Socrates like a daimon on our shoulder—is no recipe for happiness.
It can lead to unbearable obligation and even to martyrdom. And, if the god is a muse, it can lead to the travails of the artist.
All great art and all great artists are consumed by the infinite. As Oscar Wilde once wrote, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars.” Those are the artists, the ones who amidst the muck feel part of something higher, something everlasting, the infinite.
The great enemy of the infinite is reason. Reason is calculating. It is rational. It is logical. It insists that everything is knowable and comprehensible. Ends justify means. And means can achieve ends. Reason insists on explanation. The self—the mystery—must be made knowable.
David Brooks in the NY Times today lauds the entry of behavioral psychology into politics and policy. We want to know, he writes, how to get people to vote and how to get congress to cut the deficit. If science can tell us how what to put in their drinking water, how to frame the question, what books to read to them in vitro, or how to rewire their brains to be rational, wouldn’t that make policy all the more reasonable? Wouldn’t that be a good thing?
Science can make us more rational. That of course is the dream of people like Ray Kurzweil as well as the social scientists who insist that humans can be studied like rats. Let’s not object to the fact. We can be studied like rats and that is what university social science departments around the country and the world are doing everyday. This research is eminently useful, as Brooks rightly remarks. If we employ it, we can be made to be more reasonable.
What the rationalization of humanity means, however, is not a question science can answer. Max Weber began the study of the rationalization of mankind when he proposed that the rise of the enlightenment and the age of reason was bringing about an “Entzauberung” or a “de-magicification” of the world. Capitalism emerged at this time for a number of reasons, but one main reason, Weber understood, was that capitalism provided in the profit motive rational and objective criteria for measuring human endeavors. The problem, as Weber so well understood, is that the elevation of reason and rationality brought about the devaluation of all highest values—what Nietzsche would call nihilism. This is because reason, derived from ratio, is always a relation. All values are relative. In such a world, nothing is infinite. Stuck amidst the relations of means and ends, everything is a calculation. All is a game. There is no purpose or meaning to the game of life. As we become more rational, we also become less consumed by the infinite. That is the true danger of the rise of the social sciences and our rationality-consumed culture that insists that all human behavior be made understandable so that it can be made better.
In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt is concerned with the way that the rise of reason and rationality is challenging the quintessence of the human condition—at least as that human condition has been experienced and known since the dawn of humanity. The rise of the social sciences, she writes over and over, are subjecting the mystery and fecundity of human action to the law of large numbers. While each and every human action may in itself be surprising and mysterious, it is nevertheless true that studied in groups and analyzed over time, human action does fall into comprehensible patterns. The more we study and know these patterns, the more we come to think of humans as predictable animals rather than surprising and spontaneous selves. This sociological and psychological reduction of man to animal is very much at the heart of what Arendt is opposing in her book.
Nowhere is the rationality of our times more visible than in the victory of labor and the marginalization of art. We are, all of us, laborers today. That is why the first question we ask others we meet is: What do you do? Our labor defines us. It gives our lives meaning in that it assigns us a use and a value. Even professors, judges, and presidents now say regularly: this is my job. By which we mean, don’t blame us for what we do. Don’t hold me to some higher standard. Don’t expect miracles. It is our job to do this. We do this to make a living.
The one group in society who is at times excepted from this reduction to labor is artists. But even the artist is today is taken less and less seriously. Insofar as artists are enthusiasts consumed with the infinite, they are ignored or viewed as marginal. Art is reduced to playfulness. A hobby. “From the standpoint of “making a living,” every activity unconnected with labor becomes a “hobby.”” And those artists who are taken seriously, whose work is bought and sold on the art market, turn artistic work into the job of making a living.
Art, Arendt writes, is a process of magic. Citing a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, she insists that the magic of art is the artist’s transfiguration of something ordinary—the canvas, clay or word—into something extraordinary, an expression of the infinite in the finite world of things.
Because art figures the infinite, poetry is the “most human” of the arts and the art that “remains closest to the thought that inspired it.” The poem, of all artworks, is the most lasting because its medium is the least subject to decay. It is the closest expression of the infinite we humans possess.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose resonance with Arendt in so many things has been too infrequently remarked, agrees that poetry is the art form in which the individual artist can access and figure in the world a public and common truth. In “The Poet,” Emerson writes:
It is a secret which every intellectual man quickly learns, that beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect, he is capable of a new energy (as of an intellect doubled on itself ), by abandonment to the nature of things; that, beside his privacy of power as an individual man, there is a great public power on which he can draw by unlocking, at all risks, his human doors and suffering the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through him: then he is caught up into the life of the universe; his speech is thunder; his thought is law, and his words are universally intelligible as the plants and animals. The poet knows that he speaks adequately, then, only when he speaks somewhat wildly, or, “with the flower of the mind”; not with the intellect used as an organ but with the intellect released from all service…inebriated by nectar. As the traveler who has lost his way throws his reins on his horse’s neck and trusts to the instinct of the animal to find his road, so must we do with the divine animal who carries us through this world. For if in any manner we can stimulate this instinct, new passages are opened for us into nature, the mind flows into and through things hardest and highest, and the metamorphosis is possible. This is the reason why bards love wine, mead, narcotics, coffee, tea, opium, the fumes of sandalwood and tobacco, or whatever other species of animal exhilaration. All men avail themselves of such means as they can to add this extraordinary power to their normal powers, and to this end they prize conversation, music, pictures, sculpture, dancing, theaters, traveling, wars, mobs, fires, gaming, politics, or love, or science, or animal intoxication, which are several coarser or finer quasi-mechanical substitutes for the true nectar, which is the ravishment of the intellect by coming nearer to the fact.
I take this quotation from Emerson’s “The Poet” from an exceptional recent essay by Sven Birkirts. The essay appears in the latest edition of Lapham’s Quarterly, an entire issue focusing on the merits and need for inebriation.
As Birkirts writes:
For Emerson, the intoxication is not escape but access, a means of getting closer to “the fact,” which might, with heartfelt imprecision, be called life itself. What he means by “public power,” I think, is something like what Carl Jung and others later meant by the phrase collective unconscious, the emphasis falling on the unconscious, that posited reservoir of our shared archetypes and primordial associations—that which reason by itself cannot fathom, for it is, in essence, antithetical to reason.
Birkirt’s reflects not only on the need for inebriation in the pursuit of artistic infinity, but also on the decreasing potency of intoxicants today. For him, the rise of the mass market in art, the globalization of experience, the accessibility of all information all have made the world smaller, knowable, and accountable. What is lost in such access is precisely the portal to the infinite.
Artistically and in almost every other way ours has become a culture of proliferation. Information, perspectives, as well as the hypercharged clips and images of our global experience are within the radius of the keystroke. Nothing is unspoken, nothing is unaccounted. Every taste is given a niche and every niche is catered to. Here, one might argue, is more material than ever; here are opportunities for even greater acts of synthesis. But I am skeptical. Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” The temptation is to invert the phrases and ascribe causality: where everything is permitted, nothing is true. Where nothing is true, where is the Emersonian fact to be found? This bears directly on the artist’s task. The idea that writers can keep producing grandly synthesizing or totalizing work—that has the ring of truth, of mattering—is debatable.
Birkirt’s essay may not be the intoxicant of your choice this weekend, but it should be. It is your weekend read. And you might check out the surprising selection at the bar at Lapham’s Quarterly as well.
And for those with time to spare: Arthur Koestler, from whom I first learned of the Louis Pasteur quote at the top of this essay, was consumed with the connection between intoxication and the infinite. I have discussed Koestler’s pursuit of the infinite at length. You can read that discussion here.