Amor Mundi: January 29th, 2017
Turning Ourselves Into Outlaws
Manifest from the SS Guiné, which sailed from Lisbon to NY on May 10, 1941 and arrived in New York on May 22, 1941. Johanna Bluecher (Hannah Arendt) is listed as “wife” after Heinrich Bluecher who is listed as “writer.”
Hannah Arendt arrived in France as a refugee in 1933. After escaping from Gurs internment camp she once again narrowly escaped arrest in Marseille and made her way—with the help of Varian Fry and my Bard colleague Justus Rosenberg—to Lisbon with her Husband Heinrich Blücher. Her friend, Walter Benjamin, was not so fortunate. Stopped at a border crossing in the mountains between France and Spain, Benjamin committed suicide.
Berthold Brecht wrote this poem “On the Suicide of the Refugee W.B.”
I’m told you raised your hand against yourself
Anticipating the butcher.
After eight years in exile, observing the rise of the enemy
Then at last, brought up against an impassable frontier
You passed, they say, a passable one.
Empires collapse. Gang leaders
Are strutting about like statesmen.
Can no longer be seen under all those armaments.
So the future lies in darkness and the forces of right
All this was plain to you
When you destroyed a torturable body.
(quoted in Ermut Wizisla, Walter Benjamin and Berthold Brecht)
Arendt and Blücher left Lisbon aboard the SS Guiné on May 10, 1941. They carried Benjamin’s manuscript “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” which Benjamin had given Arendt in case something happened to him. Arendt and Blücher reportedly read Benjamin’s “Theses” to other passengers on the Guiné as they crossed the Atlantic.
The SS Guiné, the ship that carried Arendt and other refugees to New York.
Arendt and Blücher arrived in New York in May, 1941. They were stateless refugees. Not all refugees, of course, were so lucky. The infamous ship the St. Louis limped around the Atlantic in 1939 with over 900 German Jews on board. The United States and Cuba both refused refuge to the refugees. Eventually the ship returned to Germany and most of the passengers on board were eventually killed during the Holocaust.
In 1943, Arendt wrote an essay “We Refugees” that was published in Menorah, a small Jewish Journal. The essay begins, “In the first place, we don’t like to be called “refugees.”” She is painfully aware that the word “refugee” is a deadening word. The word, refugee, flattens a person and a people marked by loss and vulnerability. Having lost their home, their language, their friends, and their families, refugees live in camps, in public; they experience the rupture of their private lives and their public visibility as only a mass. The refugee is transformed from a person with a history and world into a pitiable figure. We can have compassion for an individual, look into their eyes, touch their shoulder, and feel the humanness in their pain. But faced with masses of refugees hands open, seeking refuge, compassion is too often replaced by pity (if not by fear).
Against this flattened view, Arendt seeks to remind us what refugees actually are:
Scott Adams gets it, that Trump thrives on outrage overload, all of which deflates his opposition and give the appearance that he is doing exactly what he promised: Outraging the elites and fighting for the little guy.
“At the moment there are so many outrages, executive orders, protests, and controversies that none of them can get enough oxygen in our brains. I can’t obsess about problem X because the rest of the alphabet is coming at me at the same time.
When you encounter a situation that is working great except for one identifiable problem, you can focus on the problem and try to fix it. But if you have a dozen complaints at the same time, none of them looks special. The whole situation just looks confusing, and you don’t know where to start. So you wait and see what happens. Humans need contrast in order to make solid decisions that turn into action. Trump removed all of your contrast by providing multiple outrages of similar energy.
You’re probably seeing the best persuasion you will ever see from a new president. Instead of dribbling out one headline at a time, so the vultures and critics can focus their fire, Trump has flooded the playing field. You don’t know where to aim your outrage. He’s creating so many opportunities for disagreement that it’s mentally exhausting. Literally. He’s wearing down the critics, replacing their specific complaints with entire encyclopedias of complaints. And when Trump has created a hundred reasons to complain, do you know what impression will be left with the public?
He sure got a lot done.
Even if you don’t like it.”
So Close and Yet...
“Peter was one of the brightest students in the class, and certainly the sweetest. He liked to wear overalls to school—and on the last day, in a gentle tweak of the instructor, a red “Make America Great Again” baseball cap. A devout evangelical, he’d preferred former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee at the start of the primary season, but was now behind Donald Trump.
One day the students spent three hours drafting essays about the themes we’d talked about in class. I invited them to continue writing that night so the next morning we could discuss one of their pieces in detail. I picked Peter’s because it was extraordinary. In only eight hours he’d churned out eight pages, eloquent and sharp.
When I asked him if I could discuss his essay in this article, he replied, “That sounds fine with me. If any of my work can be used to help the country with its political turmoil, I say go for it!” Then he sent me a new version with typos corrected and a postelection postscript: “My wishful hope is that my compatriots will have their tempers settled by Trump’s election, and that maybe both sides can learn from the Obama and Trump administrations in order to understand how both sides feel. Then maybe we can start electing more moderate people, like John Kasich and Jim Webb, who can find reasonable commonality on both sides and make government work.” Did I mention he was sweet?
When he read the piece aloud in class that afternoon in October, the class was riveted. Several of the black women said it was the first time they’d heard a Trump supporter clearly set forth what he believed and why. (Though, defying stereotypes, one of these women—an aspiring cop—was also planning to vote for Trump.)”
In the end, however, Perlstein concludes that Peter is racist. Peter had written: “One need only look to the Civil War and the lasting legacies of Reconstruction through to today’s current racism and race issues to see what happens when the federal government forces its morals on dissenting parts of the country.” Perlstein reports that when he read this line, he “shuddered.” He wrote Peter and said: “”A lot of liberals, even those most disposed to having an open mind to understanding the grievances of people like you and yours, will have a hard time with [your words].”
Peter’s answer was striking. He first objected (politely!) to what he saw as the damning implication behind my observation. Slavery and Reconstruction? “I was using it as an example of government intrusion and how violent and negative the results can be when the government tries to tell people how to think. I take it you saw it in terms of race in politics. The way we look at the same thing shows how big the difference is between our two groups.”
From this interaction, Perlstein has this conclusion: “Liberals must listen to and understand Trump supporters. But what you end up understanding from even the sweetest among them still might chill you to the bone.” That an effort by one of the self-described elite to understand a sweet and smart Trump voter leads to a confirmation of his justified contempt, shows just how far apart the country remains.
Thinking Like a Magpie
Stuart Hall is newly relevant because of his essay “Authoritarian Populism” in which he seeks to describe the Thatcherite and Reagan revolutions. I’ll be teaching Hall this semester in a course called “Trump and His Antecedents.” James Vernon turns to Hall whose definition of Thatcherism “represented a new type of politics, one that had mobilized a populist revolt to Make Britain Great Again by running it like a business and stopping immigration. It is strangely unnerving to read it again now.” (RB) Vernon considers the legacy of the Anglo-Caribbean writer and cultural theorist Stuart Hall:
“Familiar Stranger, like the two volumes in the series already published by Duke, remind us that for Hall thinking historically was essential to understanding ourselves and the conditions in which we live. The distinction between history and theory, like that between intellectual and political work, made no sense to him. Theory was not about arranging thought in abstract and systematic patterns, it was about engaging with the messy reality of the present. One could not understand the politics of the present without thinking both theoretically and historically. History ensured that the terrain of politics, and therefore of theory, were always changing. To be a historian and theoretician of the present one has to be a magpie.
This was not a position welcomed by any on either the old or the new left who thought politics and theory were about adherence to unquestioned articles of faith. They accused him, mistakenly, of being a modish follower of fashion. Yet, Hall believed, the intellectual’s task is to understand how each moment of our lives—each conjuncture, as he put it following Althusser and Gramsci—remains freighted by complex and contradictory combinations of old and new forms of capitalism, social formations, ideological forces, and affective relations. The ground we stand on is always shifting, so, he implored us, we must draw on every theoretical tool that helps us to make sense of each conjuncture and to build the politics necessary for its transformation.
Hall’s capacity to remind us that it was no less possible to think Britain without its empire than it was the colonies without the metropolitan “motherland” was a product of the changing conjunctures in which he lived his life. It was the quickening pace of decolonization, together with the escalation of the commonplace racism and racial violence against people of color in Britain in the mid-1960s, that pushed the legacies of colonialism to the forefront of Hall’s work. The last colonial could only slowly decolonize his own thought.”
Our Numbers, Ourselves
Massimo Mazzotti trains his gaze on the algorithms that rule our lives even though we can’t see them and we usually forget they’re even there:
“The image of the algorithm-as-doer certainly captures a salient feature of our experience: algorithms can alter reality, changing us and the world around us. The Quantified Self movement, which promotes “self knowledge through numbers,” is a prime example of how subjectivities can be reshaped algorithmically — in this case, by monitoring vital functions and processing data relative to lifestyles; “the quantified self” engages in data-driven self-disciplining practices.
Algorithms do not just shape subjectivities. The world of our experience is pervaded by code that runs on machines. In the current, expanded sense of the word, algorithms generate infrastructures — like social media — that shape our social interactions. They don’t just select information for us, they also define its degree of relevance, how it can be acquired, and how we can participate in a public discussion about it. As media scholar Ganaele Langlois aptly puts it, algorithms have the power to enable and assign “levels of meaningfulness” — thus setting the conditions for our participation in social and political life.
The fact that algorithms create the conditions for our encounter with social reality contrasts starkly with their relative invisibility. Once we become habituated to infrastructures, we are likely to take them for granted. They become transparent, as it were. But there is something distinctive about the invisibility of algorithms. To an unprecedented degree, they are embedded in the world we inhabit. This has to do with their liminal, elusive materiality. In sociological parlance, we could say that algorithms are easily black-boxed, a term I used above to describe how Cold War rationality disappeared into computers. To black-box a technology is to turn it into a taken-for-granted component of our life — in other words, to make it seem obvious and unproblematic. The technology is thus shielded from the scrutiny of users and analysts, who cease seeing it as contingent and modifiable, accepting it instead as a natural part of the world. At this point the technology can become the constitutive element of other, more complex technological systems. Historically, black-boxing has been particularly effective when the technology in question depends on a high degree of logical and mathematical knowledge. Granted, black-boxing does not happen because mathematics is obvious to the general public, but because of the widespread assumption that mathematics consists of deductive knowledge that — as such — is merely instrumental. A technical project like that of a freeway system is, by contrast, saturated with interests; no one would argue for its being economically and politically neutral. But manipulating strings of numbers, or code, according to formal rules? What could possibly be social or indeed biased about that? Aren’t these operations purely technical, and therefore neutral?
Evan Osnons spends time with the increasing number of the 1% who are preparing for the end of the world:
“Survivalism, the practice of preparing for a crackup of civilization, tends to evoke a certain picture: the woodsman in the tinfoil hat, the hysteric with the hoard of beans, the religious doomsayer. But in recent years survivalism has expanded to more affluent quarters, taking root in Silicon Valley and New York City, among technology executives, hedge-fund managers, and others in their economic cohort.
Last spring, as the Presidential campaign exposed increasingly toxic divisions in America, Antonio García Martínez, a forty-year-old former Facebook product manager living in San Francisco, bought five wooded acres on an island in the Pacific Northwest and brought in generators, solar panels, and thousands of rounds of ammunition. “When society loses a healthy founding myth, it descends into chaos,” he told me. The author of “Chaos Monkeys,” an acerbic Silicon Valley memoir, García Martínez wanted a refuge that would be far from cities but not entirely isolated. “All these dudes think that one guy alone could somehow withstand the roving mob,” he said. “No, you’re going to need to form a local militia. You just need so many things to actually ride out the apocalypse.” Once he started telling peers in the Bay Area about his “little island project,” they came “out of the woodwork” to describe their own preparations, he said. “I think people who are particularly attuned to the levers by which society actually works understand that we are skating on really thin cultural ice right now.”
In private Facebook groups, wealthy survivalists swap tips on gas masks, bunkers, and locations safe from the effects of climate change. One member, the head of an investment firm, told me, “I keep a helicopter gassed up all the time, and I have an underground bunker with an air-filtration system.” He said that his preparations probably put him at the “extreme” end among his peers. But he added, “A lot of my friends do the guns and the motorcycles and the gold coins. That’s not too rare anymore.””
The post Amor Mundi: January 29th, 2017 appeared first on Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at Bard College.Posted on 29 January 2017 | 9:00 am
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