Amor Mundi: On Progress
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.
By Roger Berkowitz
Hannah Arendt was critical of the Enlightenment notion of progress, which promised freedom through reason, scientific and mathematical discovery. For her, progress in these terms signaled a radical turn in modernity, which moved us away from trusting our own experiences in the world. Experiences essential for thinking, meaning, and being. In a 1974 interview she said: “The law of progress holds that everything now must be better than what was there before. Don’t you see if you want something better, and better, and better, you lose the good. The good is no longer even being measured.”
For Arendt, progress as a belief overlooks the distinction between truth and meaning. We may know more, but that does not translate into a more meaningful life, the life of the good. With the rise of science, for example, the appearance of an Archimedean point promises mastery, but it also brings with it worldly and earthly alienation, the feeling of loneliness and superfluity that is the fertile ground of totalitarianism. Arendt notably begins the preface to the The Origins of Totalitarianism by warning: “Desperate hope and desperate fear often seem closer to the center of such events than balanced judgment and measured insight. The central events of our time are not less effectively forgotten by those committed to a belief in an unavoidable doom, than by those who have given themselves up to reckless optimism.” Optimism and despair both turn us away from facing the world as it is.
Steven Pinker, the new apostle of progress, recently reflected upon the reception of his work Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, on the one year anniversary of its publication for Quillette, and this week Anthony Gottlieb takes issue with Pinker in the New York Review of Books, criticizing what Pinker fails to see in his appraisal of the Enlightenment:
For Pinker, the reason why human life changed for the better in the past two centuries is simple: “The Enlightenment has worked—perhaps the greatest story seldom told.” He construes the Enlightenment broadly, to include not just its core in the last third of the eighteenth century but a quarter of a millennium of European history, from the intellectual pioneers of the early 1600s to liberals in the first half of the nineteenth century. What these thinkers had in common, according to Pinker, was a belief that we can and should “apply reason and sympathy to enhance human flourishing.” As a slogan for the long Enlightenment, this is apt enough, though we get few further particulars. Pinker is thumping a bible that he rarely opens. And when he does open it, he mainly sees a mirror.
Mythmaking and Intersectionality
By Roger Berkowitz
Cathy Young writes about a panel at Columbia University “Mythbusting Intersectionality.” “It was an evening with many informative moments and engaging speakers. But two important things were missing: any debate or engagement with critics of intersectional theory, and any substantive exploration of how that theory operates in the real world. The fact is that important events and institutions—from the Women’s March and the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings to the academy—are increasingly shaped and influenced by ideas associated with intersectionality, and while some of those ideas are sound, its track record is decidedly mixed.” Specifically, Young worried that the panel did not adequately address the way that intersectionality has become embroiled in charges of antisemitism:
The tense relationship between intersectionality and Jews was the main focus of panelist and Lilith magazine digital editor Sarah Seltzer, whose comments on the subject were a striking example of reality avoidance. Seltzer asserted that the numerous articles published in the last year or so about intersectionality’s Jewish problem were partly “provocations that started on the right,” though some people later joined in in good faith. (The collage of headlines projected overhead to make her point included an article in The Forward by Batya Ungar-Sargon, who is anything but right wing, and Benjamin Gladstone’s Tablet essay arguing that intersectionality should include Jews—one can only hope that these writers at least got the good-faith presumption.) Seltzer mentioned “disagreements” surrounding the Women’s March and talked about the challenges of coalition-building. But anyone listening who didn’t know what these “disagreements” were about—serious allegations of anti-Semitism against several Women’s March leaders as well as the organization’s extensive links to the virulently anti-Semitic and homophobic Nation of Islam and its leader, the Rev. Louis Farrakhan—would have remained entirely in the dark.
Seltzer acknowledged that trying to fit American Jews into the intersectional framework was complicated, given that they “benefit from white privilege” but may also face violent bigotry; but, she added breezily, “that doesn’t mean that [they] can’t fit in at all.” (How reassuring.) She also sarcastically remarked that many of the people “trashing intersectionality” were in fact doing intersectional work by asking, for instance, how their Jewish identity interacts with their feminism or progressivism. The “gotcha” moment wasn’t really a gotcha, though, since quite a few or those critics have explicitly said that they agree with intersectional analysis as such and simply want it to include Jews.
By Roger Berkowitz
Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration released their proposed revision to the Title IX of sexual harassment in educational institutions. Jeannie Suk Gerson offers a review of the revisions in The New Yorker. Perhaps most importantly, the proposals require that all schools apply the same standard of evidence for claims of sexual misconduct as they do for other misdeeds. The result, Suk Gerson predicts, is that for public relations purposes, most elite schools will level down to the preponderance of the evidence standard for all campus inquiries.
The truth is that there is much to criticize in DeVos’s proposal but also much that would help to make schools’ processes for handling sexual misconduct fairer to all parties. Schools would now be required to employ a presumption of innocence, explain the specific allegations to both the complaining and accused parties, and give both parties access to all the evidence directly related to the allegations. The new regulations make clear that favoring or disfavoring either party would make a school vulnerable to a finding of discrimination on the basis of sex.
DeVos also proposes to give each school the choice of using the “preponderance of evidence” standard, which was mandatory under the Obama Administration, or the higher “clear and convincing evidence” standard. If a school chooses preponderance for sexual misconduct, it must adopt the same standard for non-sexual misconduct as well. The argument in favor of using preponderance (meaning, more than fifty per cent) in Title IX-related cases is that any higher standard is tilted in favor of the accused and therefore inconsistent with equality. On the other hand, the higher standard may appropriately reflect the possible seriousness of the sanction of the accused. In any event, DeVos is right that there’s no good justification for using a lower evidentiary standard for sexual harassment than, say, racial harassment, though schools would prefer to retain the flexibility to do so…. In response to the rule change, it seems likely that most schools will implement the preponderance standard for both sexual and non-sexual cases, in order to avoid the public-relations cost of levelling up or uniquely disfavoring Title IX complainants.
The Amor Mundi Podcast: Martin Gurri
This weeks marks our inaugural episode of the Amor Mundi Podcast. Roger Berkowitz, academic director of the Hannah Arendt Center, interviews author Martin Gurri on his book, The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium. First published in 2014, the book has now been updated for the Trump era. Click the button below to listen now or download for later.
Quote of the Week: Hannah Arendt and the Miracle of the New
Ken Krimstein is a writer, cartoonist, and instructor at DePaul University in Chicago. His most recent book, “The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt – A Tyranny of Truth” is published by Bloomsbury. You can find more of his work at kenkrimstein.com. This essay was originally published in Amor Mundi on November 23, 2018. Due to its popularity, we are republishing it this week.
The new always happens against the overwhelming odds of statistical laws and their probability, which for all practical, everyday purposes amounts to certainty; the new therefore always appears in the guise of a miracle.
— Hannah Arendt, “The Human Condition”
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with making new things: paintings, drawings, comics, cartoons, ads, stories, trumpet solos. I’ve put bread on my family’s table by figuring out new ways to tell the story of, for example, why people should protect themselves from the sun, why they should purchase Duracell batteries or use the American Express Card or by finding fresh, new, unexpected ways of making people laugh at a cartoon image of a man stranded on a desert island. That’s why Hannah Arendt’s observation on the magic of the “new” struck such a chord. (The opening chord of The Beatles “A Hard Day’s Night?”)
But, at the same time, a lifetime’s experience working in the mines of what people call “being a creative” has taught me two major things: One, it’s really hard to come up with new ideas and, two, although everyone says they want fresh, new creative ideas – they really don’t.
New ideas are scary. Being confronted with the “new” makes the little hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Newness isn’t warm and fuzzy. That’s all because new ideas fly in the face of Darwinian survival instincts. By their very definition, truly new ideas do things “wrong,” (at first at least.) On the contrary, in order to survive, most people have been wired to play the safe game. The percentage game. Defense.
But not all people.
Because, just as much as we are afraid of the new, it also enchants us. New things sing a siren song, shine a light, keep the wolves we can’t always see or hear at bay. Want proof? Try this. If you really want to quiet a room and command attention, if you want to see people lean in, repeat after me. The next time you’re in a meeting, or at dinner with friends, or with family, say, “I’ve got an idea.” All eyes and ears will fall on you.
Ideas are currency. Ideas, new things, unexpected stories provide people with irreplaceable clues for living.
And Hannah Arendt understood the double-edged sword of the new completely. She sometimes referred to this phenomenon as natality. St. Augustine, a key inspiration for her, said “”That there be a beginning, man was created before whom there was nobody.” Rather than defining life by death, Arendt saw life as a sequence of births — of people, of thought, of action, of newness.
For her, this ability to make new stuff is the essential product of freedom. And freedom is the stuff of newness. They feed each other. That’s why she so abhorred stale, clichéd thinking. True, doing things the way they’ve always been done, without “thinking,” without “making,” is easy. It’s not scary. But, without the challenge of making things anew, clichéd thinking often devolves into stupidity. Or worse.
What’s more, coming up with new things isn’t only scary, it’s hard work. The “new” is elusive.
Say I’m working on a cartoon. Or a new chapter. The minute I alert my brain that I’m setting out to come up with an idea, the idea knows it. And it runs and hides. The surest way not to come up with a fresh idea is to try harder to do it.
Only by indirection, indiscretion, and dare I say it, sometimes even inebriation, will the elusive gnome known as an idea peek out from the shadows. Consider this, most common question posed to cartoonists is “where do you get your ideas?” The best answer I’ve ever heard to that one was by the legendary early twentieth century writer and cartoonist Milt Gross when he responded, “If I knew where, I’d be there right now getting them!”
With all due respect to Mr. Gross, Hannah Arendt put it much more elegantly and poetically when she said, “they come in the guise of a miracle.”
I must confess I was taken aback when I read this kind of reasoning coming from so sharp and unsentimental a mind as Arendt’s. “Miracles” are not the usual province of virulently truth-telling political philosophers. But her phrase reminded me of something I once read in an interview with the great film director Stanley Kubrick; “A great story is a miracle.”
A great story works in spite of statistical odds. A great story bypasses our fear, and satisfies our desire for novelty, for natality. And a great story does the legerdemain of “revealing meaning without committing the error of defining it.”
Without the kind of “miraculous” new ideas, no matter how scary they might be, we are frozen in time, and in place. We are like those tiny gnats from prehistoric times, caught in amber.
One of the things I’ve learned from working on cartoons and stories and my recently published comics biography of Hannah Arendt is how much humans are defined by what I call geography. Our setting, the physical space we inhabit, forms us. So much so, I’ve coined the phrase, geography is destiny.
But so is human creativity; our scary, miraculous, uneasy, but eminently satisfying capacity for coming up with “the new.” In the face of that, I’ve come to understand that the messy business of being a creative is even more critical than, say, a way for me to pay the rent. Everyone must be a creative, and I would argue, everyone is. The fact that you’ve dodged Darwinian extinction to sit at your desk (or stand on the subway) and read this proves it. New ideas are what we human beings use to navigate our way through the geography we inhabit. To realize our world, as we want it to be. To live.
Journal Feature: Technology Is Destroying Our Inner Lives
by Carol Becker
This essay was first published in the HA Journal volume IV.
Several years ago, I started using the Kindle app on my iPad to read those big heavy biographies and novels that I had been lugging around the world for some time. I wasn’t reading dense philosophical reference books on it, but nonetheless I was glad to discover, by chance, the underline function.
While immersed in Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness, underlining as I read, I was completely unnerved when a message popped up to announce, “You are the 123rd user to underline this same passage.” Shocked by this intrusion, I threw the iPad onto the bed and nearly out of the window. A sickening feeling came over me. Then I became afraid. Someone was reading over my shoulder. Not a real person, but a Program, calculating what I found important in the text. Was I supposed to feel validated to learn that a passage I was underlining many other readers had also liked? Was I supposed to feel banal? Rather, I was mortified.
When I told friends about this Orwellian incident, some were equally hor- rified. Others were surprised that I was upset. “Just shut off that function,” they said. But to me the privacy inherent in the act of reading had been irrevocably violated. I had felt just as invaded, psychically, when my phone was tapped 40 years ago. I was running the local lettuce and grape boycott for the United Farm Workers union in San Diego, so I understood the reason why. This incident was worse—I hadn’t known this invasive program existed and didn’t understand why anyone would care what I liked or did not like about a book.
The idea of surveillance, in the abstract, has not bothered me nearly as much as it probably should. Like many others, I have acclimated to the notion that everything we do is findable, knowable, and, marketable forever, except, I believed, our deepest thoughts. This is why the intrusion on my contemplative reading affected me so dramatically. Reading is my refuge from the world, and now it too had been violated.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, many of us feared local authorities, the CIA, and the FBI’s COINTELPRO—and there was a reason. We had an agenda to change the world. The authorities knew we were subversive to the existing system, not just in our actions but, more significantly, in our thoughts, which terrified them. But that was then.
In a 2011 article in Time magazine, digital rights attorney Lee Tien conjectured that, in the past, we were “private by default and public by effort.”(1) At one time it was difficult to discover information about people, and just as difficult to get information about ourselves out into the world. Now, Tien says, we are “public by default and private by effort.” But how much effort does it take to sustain a sense of inviolability? We can be found almost anywhere in the world at any time, through our own devices (pun intended). The constant intrusion is ubiquitous and omnivorous.
Most of us are addicted to these systems of connection. That’s what humans do: we get addicted to our inventions. People expect an answer, and they expect it now. At times the ability to work depends on an immediate response. We have internalized these time/space obligations and do not know how to step away from them. If we do not make a Herculean effort to remain balanced within this imbalance, we feel fragmented and, often, unhappy. What would it mean if the species were to lose altogether the need and desire for privacy, solitude, time, and focused attention? What if we were the last humans to be bothered by the intrusion on our privacy? What would it feel like if our species evolved out of the need for an inner life?
I may sound like what social media scholar danah boyd calls “a techno- fretful parent.”(2) Perhaps I am, but I have a public self as a university dean and a private self as a writer. The writer self has a deep need for solitude (or rather, I have a deep need for solitude, which is probably why I write). My longing for quiet and solitude comes from another urgent need––the need to think. And thinking requires having no intrusions, at least for a time.
As political theorist Hannah Arendt noted, thought is essential to understanding our human condition.(3) In order to perform the task of nonutilitarian thinking and to produce work that tells the stories of human experience—inner and outer experience—writers, artists, and others need solitude, or the illusion of solitude, and time. As a result of our “always-on” ethos, we have neither time nor space within which to lose ourselves in reflection. There is always something outside the self, robbing the self of the self.
When Thomas Merton, author of The Seven Storey Mountain, entered the monastery, his decision appeared to be unexpected.(4) Not so long before, he had been the editor of a student humor magazine at Columbia University. Merton left the world to become a Trappist monk not because he did not love the world, but because he needed to deeply engage his spiritual life. The choice was not to move away from the world, but rather to move toward himself.
If, as a species, we spend most of our time projecting ourselves into the world instead of developing ourselves, are we not living in what social theorist Guy Debord described as “the spectacle,” “a social relationship between people that is mediated by images”?(5)
For Debord, what is dangerous about this identification with the spectacle is that it usurps authentic activity. It creates an inverted relationship to reality, in which projection of the self and the addiction to this projection are more real and significant than human interaction, which potentially can lead to social change. What could better describe our contemporary situation than to say that all has become simulacra, that the public sphere is no longer a place for collective action but rather a place primarily redesigned to publicize the self, to make the self visible to ourselves and to others?
In The Human Condition, Arendt wrote, “It seems to be in the nature of the relationship between the public and private realms that the final stage of the disappearance of the public realm should be accompanied by the threatened liquidation of the private realm as well.”(6)
Perhaps we have overadapted to being watched, to having little time and little of ourselves that is not projected out into the world to be “posted,” “liked,” or “deleted.” At what moment does our humanness, as we have known it, become unrecognizable to us. Or have we already passed that point?
Arendt wrote that were humans ever to leave this planet, to live on another where the contingencies of life were all man-made, then everything we have theorized about our humanness on Earth, our adaptation to our natural conditions and to our physical relationships to each other, would cease to make sense. “Yet,” she wrote, “even these hypothetical wanderers from the earth would still be human; but the only statement we could make regarding their ‘nature’ is that they are conditioned beings, even though their condition is now self-made to a considerable degree.”(7)
I often feel that we might already have “de-planeted” to a bionic, virtual world, even though gravity still binds us to this one. Many are pleased to imagine living outside our body natures and the intimacy of our physical selves, to imagine the prospect of “de-bodying” or “uploading” the brain as a way to help us escape the anxiety of mortality, the weight of individuality, and the obligations of human interaction. All such preoccupations should concern us deeply and alert us to how the species is evolving. To counter this frightening trend to over-externalize the self, we need to look to those spaces that encourage access to intuition, dreams, the unconscious, the metaphoric, and the symbolic: the worlds of literature, art, film, and creative forms of thought. In the practice of making art and in receiving it, we can understand that if we go deep enough, we will find our most compassionate selves, capable of communicating across cultures, distances, and differences. We need to take the time and psychic space to protect these arenas of contemplation that are so essential to our collective well-being.
1. Joel Stein, “Data Mining: How Companies Now Know Everything About You,” Time, March 20, 2011, http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2058205-5,00.html.
2. danah boyd, “Participating in the Always-On Lifestyle” in The Social Media Reader, ed. Michael Mandiberg (New York: New York University Press, 2012), 72.
3. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 168–171.
4. Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain: An Autobiography of Faith (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1948).
5. Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1995), 12.
6. Arendt, The Human Condition, 60–61.
7. Ibid, 10.
Video Feature: The Revolt of the Public
Martin Gurri spoke at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference “Crises of Democracy” in 2017. He is also Roger Berkowitz’s guest on the first episode of the Amor Mundi Podcast, which you can listen to here.
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