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Amor Mundi: The World in the Middle

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.

The World In the Middle

Nelson Schwartz looks back on the financial crisis of 2008, which is now a decade in the past. While the economic scene is “eerily calm,” Schwartz argues that the financial crisis has undermined the middle class.

“The most profound of these is that the uneven nature of the recovery compounded a long-term imbalance in the accumulation of wealth. As a consequence, what it means to be secure has changed. Wealth, real wealth, now comes from investment portfolios, not salaries. Fortunes are made through an initial public offering, a grant of stock options, a buyout or another form of what high-net-worth individuals call a liquidity event.

Data from the Federal Reserve show that over the last decade and a half, the proportion of family income from wages has dropped from nearly 70 percent to just under 61 percent. It’s an extraordinary shift, driven largely by the investment profits of the very wealthy. In short, the people who possess tradable assets, especially stocks, have enjoyed a recovery that Americans dependent on savings or income from their weekly paycheck have yet to see. Ten years after the financial crisis, getting ahead by going to work every day seems quaint, akin to using the phone book to find a number or renting a video at Blockbuster.”

The Economist has a similar spin on anemic wage growth since the financial crisis on a more global level:

“The world is still in recovery mode fully ten years after the financial crisis of 2008-09. Inflation-adjusted wages grew by an average of 27% in the decade before the crisis in the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries. In the ten years since, real wages have increased by just 8.4%, on average. Ten OECD countries experienced real-wage growth of 30% or more in the ten years to 2007. And in the ten years since, just one OECD member, Lithuania has enjoyed such heady growth. By contrast, real wages have fallen by a fifth in Greece, a country that is still saddled with enormous government debt.”

Hannah Arendt did not write much about class and she was not a foe of some economic inequality. People are different and inequality in income and lifestyle is natural; but political equality is a human achievement and is absolutely central to Arendt’s idea of freedom, that every person has the capacity and the right to be part of a political community in which he or she can act and speak in public in ways that matter. To matter is, in the end, the most human of rights, and the guarantee of the right to matter comes from living in a political community with laws that set limits and protect a space where all people can appear as equal citizens.

The equality Arendt cherishes is the equality to appear before others and to matter in the world we all share. Such equality rests on “nothing but the confidence of their equals, and this equality was not natural but political, it was nothing they had been born with; it was the equality of those who had committed themselves to, and now we’re engaged in, a joint enterprise.” The joint enterprise names the common world, the world we share in spite of our differences.

The danger of the loss of the middle class is that when the abyss between rich and poor comes to be too large, the very fact that we share a world loses its factuality. Amidst our ideological, political, religious, and other differences, we as citizens of a state or a country share common roads, monuments, rituals, and experiences. Without the middle class, however, the world that binds us all together rips apart. What is more, without a common world in which we appear, politics is transformed from an act of free citizens to the management of an economic system of infinite growth. It is the imperialist intrusion of economic demands for unlimited growth and expansion into a necessarily limited realm of political freedom and equality that Arendt argues set the stage for totalitarianism in the 20th century.

-Roger Berkowitz

On The Anniversary of the Global Financial Crisis


In 2009, the Hannah Arendt Center hosted an international conference on The Intellectual Origins of the Global Financial Crisis in partnership with The Levy Economics Institute and the Human Rights Project at Bard College. Over the course of this coming week, we will be featuring essays from the conference by Roger Berkowitz, Tracy B. Strong, Jerome Kohn, Sanjay Reddy, Robyn Marasco, Liah Greenfeld, Miguel de Beistegui, and Taun Toay. Visit our Arendt Center Medium Page over the coming week to find the essays.

The Danger From Big AI Companies

Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler have written a long and intricate exploration of the “material resources, human labor, and data” that are the “three central, extractive processes that are required to run a large-scale artificial intelligence system.” Beginning with the Amazon Echo, Crawford and Joler interrogate the image of a sleek, efficient, and democratic technological revolution in information. Instead, they argue that a few technology companies are building secret and proprietary systems of artificial intelligence that give them enormous and unchecked power over our social, environmental, and political worlds; there is, they suggest, “a new form of extractivism that is well underway: one that reaches into the furthest corners of the biosphere and the deepest layers of human cognitive and affective being.”

“Large-scale AI systems consume enormous amounts of energy. Yet the material details of those costs remain vague in the social imagination. It remains difficult to get precise details about the amount of energy consumed by cloud computing services. A Greenpeace report states: “One of the single biggest obstacles to sector transparency is Amazon Web Services (AWS). The world’s biggest cloud computer company remains almost completely non-transparent about the energy footprint of its massive operations. Among the global cloud providers, only AWS still refuses to make public basic details on the energy performance and environmental impact associated with its operations.”

As human agents, we are visible in almost every interaction with technological platforms. We are always being tracked, quantified, analyzed and commodified. But in contrast to user visibility, the precise details about the phases of birth, life and death of networked devices are obscured. With emerging devices like the Echo relying on a centralized AI infrastructure far from view, even more of the detail falls into the shadows.

While consumers become accustomed to a small hardware device in their living rooms, or a phone app, or a semi-autonomous car, the real work is being done within machine learning systems that are generally remote from the user and utterly invisible to her. In many cases, transparency wouldn’t help much – without forms of real choice, and corporate accountability, mere transparency won’t shift the weight of the current power asymmetries.

The outputs of machine learning systems are predominantly unaccountable and ungoverned, while the inputs are enigmatic. To the casual observer, it looks like it has never been easier to build AI or machine learning-based systems than it is today. Availability of open-source tools for d”oing so in combination with rentable computation power through cloud superpowers such as Amazon (AWS), Microsoft (Azure), or Google (Google Cloud) is giving rise to a false idea of the ‘democratization’ of AI. While ‘off the shelf’ machine learning tools, like TensorFlow, are becoming more accessible from the point of view of setting up your own system, the underlying logics of those systems, and the datasets for training them, are accessible to and controlled by very few entities. In the dynamic of dataset collection through platforms like Facebook, users are feeding and training the neural networks with behavioral data, voice, tagged pictures and videos or medical data. In an era of extractivism, the real value of that data is controlled and exploited by the very few at the top of the pyramid.”

Google: The Censored Version

Jack Poulson is one of about five Google employees to resign in protest over Google’s decision to develop a search engine in China that censors content the Chinese authorities deem politically sensitive.

“In his resignation letter, Poulson told his bosses: ‘Due to my conviction that dissent is fundamental to functioning democracies, I am forced to resign in order to avoid contributing to, or profiting from, the erosion of protection for dissidents.’

‘I view our intent to capitulate to censorship and surveillance demands in exchange for access to the Chinese market as a forfeiture of our values and governmental negotiating position across the globe,’ he wrote, adding: ‘There is an all-too-real possibility that other nations will attempt to leverage our actions in China in order to demand our compliance with their security demands.'”

The Singular Intellectual

Dimiter Kenarov does a deep dive into the question of whether Julia Kristeva was or was not an agent for the Bulgarian State Police during the 1970s. Kenarov believes she was, at least briefly. More interesting is his exploration of the way Kristeva developed her own ideas of independence and the requirement that intellectuals be singular and free from politics. In her later essays, Kristeva is preoccupied with the idea of “singularity,” “the idea that each of us should strive to acquire a unique psychic life; that the rights and experience of the individual precede collectivist agendas, regardless of ideology; that human freedom ‘is conjugated in the singular.'” It is in her fierce commitment to the independence of intellectual thinking that Kristeva recalls Hannah Arendt, who styled herself a conscious pariah, one who stood apart from social movements to gain the freedom to think and view the world impartially.

For Kenarov, it is likely that “Kristeva’s evident status as a collaborator, even one who mostly took advantage of intelligence agents who were not as intelligent as she was, threatens her own cultivated image of intellectual singularity.” It is also possible that she developed her idea of the singular intellectual against the background of her work for the Bulgarian state. Kenarov points to an interview Kristeva gave to suggest that her interest in intellectual independence was tied up with her complicated relationship with the Bulgarian state.

-Roger Berkowitz

“One of the last items preserved in Kristeva’s dossier is an extensive interview titled “What Is the Function of Intellectuals?,” which she gave to Le Nouvel Observateur, in 1977. It was translated into Bulgarian-twenty typewritten pages-by State Security workers. It is one of Kristeva’s best interviews. She discusses her largely romantic flirtation with the French Communist Party and Maoism, and how she outgrew and rejected both. She defends the independent position of the intellectual as a dissident who shouldn’t serve political parties, ideologies, or collective agendas, and should preserve “strangeness, oddity, and distance.” At the end of the interview, alluding to Freud’s book “Totem and Taboo,” Kristeva says, “In the current situation, when an intellectual cannot honestly hide himself, the only thing he could do is to preserve the Freudian truth, according to which every society is created on the basis of a collective crime. We need to search for this crime in all societies, with a maximum degree of honesty.” The State Security officer who read the interview thickly underlined the passage.”

Aristotle in the Army

Aristotle was the tutor for the young Alexander the Great. Now Reed Bonadonna, retired Marine Corps infantry officer and field historian, argues that military officers should study the humanities.

Along with (and to a degree contrary to) officers’ extreme focus and discipline is their need for a wide lens encompassing history, language, psychology, and culture. The military culture of discipline and obedience can be the enemy of clear thinking. In fact, as I have argued elsewhere and will here again, the military profession may be considered a branch of the humanities, as a profession requiring lifetime learning and habits of reflection. History offers many examples of officers who expanded their range of capabilities through broad reading and reflection, often on their own. While serving as commandant of the U.S. Army infantry school, George C. Marshall hosted an after-hours discussion group. J. Lawton Collins (like Marshall, a future Army chief of staff), recalls the group addressing subjects that “ranged from geopolitics to economics, psychology, or sociology.” During my tour as a field historian in Iraq, I interviewed a company commander who was holding discussions with local leaders about establishing democracy in the town that was occupied by his company in the weeks following the invasion. He told me that he had been reading a biography of John Adams on the ship prior to the invasion, and that his reading had given him both inspiration and practical advice about building a new democracy. …

I will briefly discuss three areas of study that would help to make officer thought more self-conscious and subject to development. The first is a consideration of the intellectual virtues, as outlined by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle’s explication of the five virtues of art, science, prudence, wisdom, and intuition provides an excellent text for a discussion of the diverse types of thinking required of officers. This could be furthered by moving on to the consideration by Thomas Aquinas of military moral prudence. Aquinas argues that military command is not an art (as many have argued or assumed) but that it is more properly understood as an act of moral prudence combining the intellectual and the ethical, reuniting disciplines often left to different people and departments.

A Mystical Intensity

Wyatt Mason profiles the psychiatrist and fiction writer Daniel Mason (no relation) and writes that “[Daniel] Mason manages to capture a state I haven’t felt so powerfully before in fiction: solitude, the space in which a thought can grow as organically as a cell, in which the real loneliness and boredom of intellectual work are eclipsed by the ecstasy such work can yield. Moreover, Mason shows how solitude is a kind of suffering that the human animal, if it is to achieve what only our species sometimes can, must – and will – endure.” For Wyatt Mason, Daniel Mason’s writing matters because it allows the mystery to remain mysterious even as it is plumbed to its fullest.

“The information we reveal to others about ourselves isn’t, of course, the exclusive province of psychiatrists; it’s the regular texture of human interaction. How much or how little we let the door of the self open can be a matter of intractable temperament or malleable habit or, at certain moments, life and death. What I’ve found most remarkable about Mason’s fiction is the quality of his revelations, his ability to unveil temperaments, habits, natures. His stories are mysteries, albeit not in the genre sense: When you come to the end of a Mason story, an explanation or solution to the puzzle of a person doesn’t punctually arrive. The unknown remains unknown; the unexplainable remains unexplained. There is, instead, an intense quality of revelation – a mystical intensity – of the sort described by the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in his “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus”: “There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.””

Posted on 20 September 2018 | 10:28 am

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