What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.
Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago, il, 1998), p. 5.
In this episode of Hannah Arendt: Between Worlds, Samantha Rose Hill and Ken Krimstein discuss the art of storytelling, ecstatic truth, and the pleasures of the archive.
Hannah Arendt: Between Worlds is a coproduction of the Goethe-Institut and the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. This podcast is part of Hannah Arendt: Thinking is Dangerous, a project for thinking with Hannah Arendt about our world today.
Hannah Arendt was a storyteller. Her first biographer Elizabeth Young-Bruehl once remarked that she was always quick to overlook the facts for the sake of a good story. Anybody who has dug through Hannah Arendt’s footnotes surely knows this to be true. For Arendt storytelling is a way of creating meaning from our experiences so that we can begin to understand the world. Like Penelope, she sat, laid smoking, day after day, weaving, and unweaving everything she thought. In this episode, I talk with fellow Hannah Arendt biographer, Ken Krimstein about the art of storytelling, digging through the archives for those gems, rich and strange, the color green, artistic judgment and ecstatic truth.
Ken Krimstein: (02:15)
You know, well, the amazing thing that vexes me as an artist and a maker and a fan is that how does truth seep into art and make it good? I mean, that's just a question and I don't even know if I don't even know if that's right, but I tend to think that that's right in practice.
Samantha Rose Hill: (02:34)
It was a special pleasure for me to have this conversation with Ken, because he just might be the only other living person I know who has spent years carrying around all of Hannah Arendt's life and work in his head, wrestling through the facts and details of her cinematic life. Trying to figure out a way to give form to this extraordinary political thinker. For Ken and myself, and we get into this a little, Arendt has been a mirror pushing us to continuously rethink the world anew and challenging us with one of her hardest concepts, amor mundi. How can we love the world and not just love the world, but create meaning in the world that we share together?
Ken Krimstein: (03:31)
If you're in the business of making stories and you care. And you're lucky enough to try and do what I'm doing, which is try and tell true stories. I think you have to have a gauge in your head that says, oh, that was getting too easy. That was, mm, you know, was it really like that? Uh, that seems a little fake, you know, uh, eh, people willl lose people all of a sudden there, you always have to kind of be asking yourself, did I really take that to the limit of where it could be?
Samantha Rose Hill: (04:01)
Ken Krimstein is a cartoonist and the author of The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt, which won the Bernard J. Brommel Award for Biography and Memoir. It was also a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. Please join me in welcoming Ken to think with Hannah Arendt about storytelling. [Music] Ken Krimstein welcome to Between Worlds.
Ken Krimstein: (04:42)
Hi, nice to be here. Thank you.
Samantha Rose Hill: (04:45)
Hi, it's nice to see you, Ken and it's nice to be talking with you in the early days of of 2022. Now I wanna talk to you about storytelling. And when I was thinking about Arendt and, and storytelling, there's a quote that immediately came to mind from Men in Dark Times Arendt’s essay on Isak Dinesen. And so I was just, I'd like to read it to you and then maybe just get, you know, you can talk about what this quote means to you and how you've engaged it.
“It's true that storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it, that it brings about consent and reconciliation with things as they really are, and that we may even trust it to contain eventually by implication, that last word, which we expect from the day of judgment.”
Ken Krimstein: (05:41)
Well, the first part of that quote, storytelling reveals meaning without actually defining it or without defining it. I think I, I painted that on the wall over my desk as I was working on my biography. I keep that in mi- uh, uh Hannah Arendt, I keep that in mind all the time, that quote is so important to me. And then the second part where, and I actually have to be honest, I haven't read the Dinesen one in such a long time it was nice to hear you do the end part of it because the rec-, I think she says reconciliation. [Samantha: Yes] And, you know, recently there's been a lot of stuff about the Bishop Desmond Tutu who passed away. And I heard some interviews with him and one of the big things, and you could argue maybe in a political sense, that Tutu was very Arendtian in terms of the reconciliation, and the way they dealt with that. Ah, you know hearing that in that quote reminds me that he said, when people told their stories, when people told their stories, this allowed this kind of public forgiveness that Arendt speaks of, and this this Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is kind of a monumental example. So it's amazing how those two gigantic things came together in that quote, but that quote about storytelling revealing meaning without committing the error of defining it, it resonates, you know, as a storyteller, as a story maker so much because, you know, on a personal level, as both a reader, and as a writer, creator, that's the magic. I mean, I can't get completely thrilled about two plus two equals four. I mean, yeah. Okay. That's, it's all right, I guess. But, um, you know, Cinderella was this sort of good girl with these horrible stepmothers, or whatever stepsisters, and she put her foot, you know, in a glass slipper and this happened and that happened, and I can hear that story over and over and over again.
Samantha Rose Hill: (07:51)
You know, it's funny, I was reading Notes from Underground by Dostoevsky yesterday for the first time. I've never read it before, and there's this brilliant passage where he says, if we ever get to two plus two equals four, then there'll be no point left to living. We might as well just resign and lash ourselves for entertainment.
Ken Krimstein: (08:11)
Yeah, yes. I think because, you know, life is so much more uh complicated and and challenging and uh that's why this action, you know, the other thing, you know, story kind of recreates action at its best, and we experience it like we experience events and the best stories. We, you know, the ones that are told over and over and over again, whether it's, uh, Oedipus or, uh, Casablanca, you know, you, you, you, you can never figure it out
Samantha Rose Hill: (08:51)
As a storyteller, what drew you to Hannah Arendt?
Ken Krimstein: (08:56)
Great story. I mean, she had a great story. Part of my practice is that I learn about things as I write them. And that allows me to kind of re-express them, but I come with a certain amount of knowledge. So I had a certain amount of knowledge about Hannah Arendt, and it was sort of the main quotes, the main, you know, punchlines or whatever. But as I started to look into her biography, her life story, the events of her life, not surprisingly, well, or maybe surprisingly, cuz I don't know how she packed so much into one life and with so many people. I mean, and then it, it kind of impacted a lot of things that are my personal passions, uh, everything from sort of the Weimar culture that she was into when she moved to New York, the Cedar bar and you know, the different intelle- New York intellectuals.
Ken Krimstein: (09:49)
And, but yet she did everything in this sort of uh, you know, very, you know, I learned about it, but it's kind of like a very fiercely independent way, you know, kind of “whatever you got, I'm against it!” You know I mean, there was an attitude of contrariness or challenging. So I just thought the arc of her life was as interesting, well, the ideas are fascinating, but I was, I wanted to connect the life with the ideas. That's I think what story kind of does, at least that's what attracted me to her story.
Samantha Rose Hill: (10:24)
Mmhmm. I'm curious, you know, so we're both biographers of Arendt, but you you've also, you know, you draw her. You're an artist. I'm very curious what it's like aesthetically to engage in that process of physically bringing her to life, to connect the life with the story and the action and how you came to this imagistic portrayal of art, which I find so, you know, striking and, and beautiful. And I'm, I I'm curious about the green, cuz green seems like just the right color, but how did you, how did you end up here?
Ken Krimstein: (11:03)
Yeah. You know, again, thank you. I mean, first of all, when you were asking the question, it reminded me of another unfortunately recently passed icon, Steven Sondheim, who I believe in, Sunday in the Park with George, there's a song “I'm Finishing a Hat”. And I related to that, cuz when you're a kid, I was always the kid that could draw in class, you know, and that was, people thought that was kind of a superpower. You know, I might, I might not have been able to throw the baseball, you know, anywhere near the, uh, where it was supposed to go, but I could draw and, and it was something quite magical about it. You know, finding how to, how to interpret, Hannah Arendt’s character, through line and make her a character. And then as she grew, that was challenging. But luckily she was an extremely striking looking woman, but I had to even simplify that and I had to find out how to do that and using cartoonist skills.
Ken Krimstein: (12:03)
So you'll note that I, you know, even when she's two years old, she has big bushy eyebrows. It's just so that we could know. So it was really, really thrilling. You know, even maybe before spoken language, there were pictograms, I'm not a real scholar of this. So, you know, we picture stories are something that we, that works. Pictures can be stories too. You know, it doesn’t have to have words. So how did I come upon the color green? Well, part of it was professional utility. I love Charlie Brown. I think Charles Schultz was a genius, but Charlie Brown never aged. He was always the same age, always looked the same. Hannah Arendt in my book goes from being a little girl to an old lady, an old woman, or elderly, mature, whatever the correct term is, but she was always stunning looking, but you know, she ages and, and how do you make sure that the people know that she's the same, you know, all the time aside from a couple of those tricks. So I thought a color would be good to track her through it. And then what color, and again, when you're doing these things is you do, and I don't know if you came across this quote, but somewhere I read maybe in Weimar Germany, she favored wearing green. Really it came…
Samantha Rose Hill: (13:19)
Hans Jonas said that she was known as “the girl in the green dress”.
Ken Krimstein: (13:23)
There you go. Thank you, Hans Jonas for that! [Laughter] Because that to me was like, why not? And then I started trying it and then this raised its own issues. First of all, I didn't, I really liked it cuz it felt fresh. And it's interesting, once I finished the book, Roz Chast, who's another New Yorker cartoonist, and she interviewed me when we had a, the launch of the book in New York. And when we were sitting in the back before we went out, the first thing she said to me is, she said, Really, Ken, green, green? And artists know that green is a notoriously difficult color to work with cuz it has a certain amount of ambiguity, but I just treated it as a hue and it just happened to work. But in my own cockeyed thought process, I thought, well, you know, Hannah Arendt, really one of the things she really likes is this pursuit of new or as she calls it natality, you know, new newness, very important. So I thought, oh, that's like green, you know, spring. And then it's quite interesting when I was doing a talk once to somebody, someone raised their hand and said, well, yeah, but think about it, green is the color of natality in plants, but it's the color of decay and flesh. That even completed it more. You know, if you just think about, yeah, that there's an, maybe an example of storytelling, revealing meaning without defining it, cuz it just kind of, it was felt, I felt it.
Samantha Rose Hill: (14:56)
Yeah. There are two poems that she writes that deal with color that I, I hadn't connected to this until now. One is the first time she returns, I think to France after the war and it begins, “Green, green, green.” You know, and she's just marveling at the countryside.
Ken Krimstein: (15:18)
It reminds me of another thing when she escaped from Berlin, the course was through the green, the green mountains, uh, between Germany and Prague, the Erzgebirge, or whatever they call it. So yeah. Very interesting. Green, green, green.
Samantha Rose Hill: (15:34)
It’s, it’s interesting in a literary sense because women so often, at least to me, seem to be obsessed with the color blue. And for so long, historically, green and blue, uh, weren’t even differentiated from one another. And so here we have this other striking hue, which is complicated and difficult and one that people do often avoid, but seems so perfect here for all of the reasons that you are, are talking about. It seems to reveal something, a different kind of melancholy that perhaps is, we could say is, is more green than blue in a way.
Ken Krimstein: (16:11)
Yeah, yeah. I mean, I like, personally I like blue. It's one of my favorite colors. Green, I'm not so sure about, but it seemed to work for her.
Samantha Rose Hill: (16:21)
So one of the things that I wanted to talk about since ,in part, because you know, we live in the age of “fake news'' as they say now. There's a lovely essay by Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt’s first biographer, called “Storytelling.” And she begins the essay by saying essentially that Arendt was always willing to sacrifice the facts, to tell a good story because first and foremost, she considered herself to be a storyteller. How do you manage the facts when you're creating meaning without committing the error of defining a story?
Ken Krimstein: (17:00)
Wow well, I’m jumping up and down and shouting hooray hooray, because uh even though I’m sitting down [Laughter] because uh a) I really liked uh Young-Breuhl’s book a lot I thought it was great and I had not read that essay. But you know for some reason I love a lot of German art of a certain kind. One of my first great artistic awakenings, if you will, in terms of storytelling was going to see Werner Herzog’s movie Aguirre, the Wrath of God at a local film screening place when I think I was in college or in high school, I’d become such a big, I guess you could say fan or follower of Werner Herzog, I just follow his work and there’s an essay, well he made this, this Minneapolis declaration at the Walker Art Museum that has within it what he calls “ecstatic truth.” And that is only, I’m sure it sounds much better in German, ecstasy is a German word we see a lot from German stuff, uh “Ekstase,” whatever but um, ecstatic truth, and I dove into it a little bit deeper with Werner Herzog and it’s interesting he says something quite similar, in one of his articles or something, somebody said oh you put a quote from uh, Pascal at the end of this movie and Pascal never said it and Herzog said, well, well he should have.
Ken Krimstein (18:33)
[Laughter] You know and um, I think what this, I think what this insight that they're talking about is anytime we tell a story, we're fabricating. There's an element of, [Samantha: Yeah] it's not our immediate experience as a person. It's mediated, even if you stick a camera, I mean, I think Herzog’s thing came out as a, uh, something against, you know, Verité Cinema. People thought, oh, if you just keep a camera on all the time, it'll tell the truth. You know, I think you acknowledge that you have to find that deeper level of truth that exists. And I [Samantha: Yeah] you know, the other thing is as this thing mushrooms, you know, Walter Benjamin and his stuff on the storyteller, that great essay where he talks about this guy, Leskov, and he takes the modern novel to task because the sort of what we might call, uh, high concept, Hollywood, three-act-screenwriting, or whatever you want to call it, can be an artifice. And he says, just go to the folk tales, go to the way people just told stories from time immemorial.
Samantha Rose Hill: (19:40)
I think there's quite a few things in there. And I love the idea of this Pascal quote at the end of the film that Pascal never said and putting it there because he, he should have said it. It really raises a question about the relationship between art and storytelling and politics today. And you, you’re emphasizing a word Arendt loved: poiesis, this, to make. This activity of artificy in the world, actually making the world that we, that we live in. And the idea that truth is not perhaps necessarily what we think an immediate representation of reality is, or the demand to make art represent reality somehow one-to-one is not the truth in the way that we might like it to be, or, or want it to be.
Ken Krimstein: (20:39)
Yeah, I, I think it's poiesis and the danger is that people can fabricate stories that are very compelling that have no truth in them. And that makes it incumbent upon the person who listens to the story, or the critic, or the society to be able to have dialogue about it and say, that was fake, that was not right. They didn't think hard enough about it. It wasn't enough of a provocation. It was just ice cream with a cherry on top. And that's not what it was, what it's supposed to be. The sense of how engaged or how much should an artist uh, have to do with politics is always kind of a lightning rod, which is why I think I went back and reread her fabulous essay in Men in Dark Times about Bertholt Brecht. And I can read that thing over and over and over again for so many reasons.
Samantha Rose Hill: (21:46)
And it was a very controversial essay when it was published. There was the Brecht controversy that sprang up about it because Arendt was read as having forgiven Brecht for supporting Stalin.
Ken Krimstein: (22:00)
Oh, really? [Samantha: Yes.] See, I don't, I don't know the history of the publication of it. But in terms of reading it now a few times, I see it as she excoriates him. I think she just, I think it's the most, it's the most brutal takedown that you could ever do to anybody because basically she hits him where it hurts. She says, you became a hack. You started telling lies and your art started to suck.
Samantha Rose Hill: (22:27)
Yes. And his art, his his poetry became too political. And the punishment was that he lost his talent, that he, he turned his work [Ken: Right] into something instrumental and it lost its beauty. I agree with you. It's, it’s, you use the word, excoriating, [Laughter] and biting.
Ken Krimstein: (22:51)
Excoriating. I mean, I think it's vic-, I think it's, I think it's brutal because, again, if you look at the way, Arendt is a, is a brilliant polemicist, I guess you could say, or storyteller, whatever you wanna call it. Because if you look at the structure of the, the essay, she builds this guy up, and builds him up, and builds him up, until he's almost lighter than air, I mean, and then she just, she sinks him.
Samantha Rose Hill: (23:21)
Well, she says that poets are accorded a special place in the realm of human affairs. They're not mere mortals. They're held to a higher standard of judgment.
Ken Krimstein: (23:31)
Right. All that is, all that is something to Johve?
Samantha Rose Hill: (23:34)
What is permitted to Johve.
Ken Krimstein: (23:35)
Yeah. And, and she says, that's not right. I mean, this guy has to be held to a higher standard. And I think he is definitely a tragic figure. And I think Hannah Arendt was enough of a realist, I guess, to understand that tragedy is part of life. Joy is part of life, but tragedy is part of life. And, you know, the amazing thing that vexes me as an artist and a maker and a fan is that how does truth seep into art and make it good? I mean, that's just a question and I don't even know if I don't even know if that's right, but I tend to think that that's right in practice.
Samantha Rose Hill: (24:32)
Well, I think it's raising a question about aesthetic education, I wanna say in a way, although I think the word judgment is, is probably better than education. Can the kind of art we engage in, the form, prepare us to judge in the way that Arendt talks about thinking and judgment? And I'm reminded of a quote from her notecards on Kant where she says, the opposite of the beautiful is not the ugly, but the useful, the good for. [Ken: Hmm] And she describes truth, truth-tellers as being outside the realm of politics.
Ken Krimstein: (25:14)
Yeah, it could be. I mean, I think because I think they, they bring experience to the public square, and I think it's individual. A truth teller who puts forth an individual experience, which can then become part of the dialogue that we all have. And I think maybe also, because she saw the really bad, the deleterious effects of propaganda in a very, very close up and the person who gets to define what, what reality is, changes it to suit them. That's different than telling a truth about the world, which is sort of endlessly ambiguous. I think. I mean, it's the difference between the two plus two equals four and, and Cinderella, you know?
Samantha Rose Hill: (26:12)
One of the things I like about how Arendt treats truth is that she always modifies it. She always modifies the word truth. She doesn't talk about “the truth.” It's mathematical truth, scientific truth, historical truth. I think I compiled a list of like 30 different kinds of “truths” that she describes that there is a, there's a sense of plurality there. But I wanna go back to the kind of work of storytelling and the kind of truths about the human condition that we can get to in a way through the work. You do a lot of work around biography. You tell the stories of others that have been lost or are in archives or have been kind of hidden. And I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about that process of choosing to tell those stories? You know, maybe you've learned a bit about the human condition as it were.
Ken Krimstein: (27:12)
So, so a couple of a couple of things figure into that; one is that I think life stories, I think, Arendt, and, and she actually turned me onto this other German thinker, Delphi, who I know she read and I've looked at and they, they really privilege biography, or autobiography, life stories. And it's interesting if you think about Arendt's journey herself, one of her first major works is what you would call almost a personal biography of um, her great friend the German salon person Rahel…
Samantha Rose Hill: (27:46)
Ken Krimstein: (27:47)
Varnhagen, which was a huge, a huge connection. One of the things is that I don't need to know that Abraham Lincoln had a little beard and built a log cabin and was good at splitting logs and was tall. We all know that he's on a penny coin. I need to know parts about Abraham Lincoln, that I couldn't even imagine. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, that book. He does ecstatic truth with Abraham Lincoln and that opens up some stuff. So when you're talking about lived lives, I feel like there are parts of our collective history that have just become, as I like to say, like the penny worn flat. And I wanna go back and find out what was really going on with uh, teenagers in Eastern Europe before the Second World War, not the sort of sanctioned, blah, blah, blah, that we all have in our minds, but a kind of connection. I wanted to find out what made Hannah Arendt embrace the break in tradition and have the courage to carry on. And I think if you're trying to define what gives somebody courage, that's not a two plus two equals four kind of a thing. That's a much more complicated story. My next book, just because I found out that nobody's ever written any biographies about Albert Einstein. I thought
Samantha Rose Hill: (29:07)
There are none? There are no biographies of Albert Einstein? [Samantha and Ken overtalking each other.]
Ken Krimstein: (29:11)
Yeah. Never, never been, never been written. I'm trying to uncover an area of him that maybe hasn't made it into the public narrative. And narratives can change with time. But without lying, you know, based on a certain amount of facts, but also based on what was his day to day life like, and what was, what did it, you know, what did it matter? Another quote from Hannah Arendt that you know I just take with me all the time is that “man does not inhabit the world.” You know, capital “M” man, not man. The one, you know, man, mankind, man, you know, “men do”. And then I usually modify that to say, and women and children and dogs and cats. It's a world of specific actors, not this massive abstraction. And when you get to that, you get to stories.
Samantha Rose Hill: (30:07)
The way that you are describing this art of storytelling reminds me very much of Walter Benjamin, and specifically the metaphor that Arendt uses for Benjamin in her essay on him, which is the introduction to Illuminations about Pearl diving. That you have to dive through the wreckage of history to bring to the surface, those gems that might illuminate something about our contemporary moment, wresting them from the past.
Ken Krimstein: (30:39)
Yes. Our podcast audience cannot see me nodding my head furiously to that because I totally, totally believe in that. And that's why for myself, I love ephemera. And I love that whole notion that Benjamin talks about with the arcades. I was like, whoa, yeah, you gotta find that little busted little weird thing, you know, and that will explain, you know, that's the lynchpin and really good storytelling is about that. I mean, another thing that I've taught design and I've taught, you know, storytelling and writing and I like to say the specific is general and the general is meaningless. If you look at Charles Dickens, the specifics, like I was never, you know, a little poor kid living in London with all this soot and all that stuff, but the way he describes it, it's like, it means everything to me. But if he comes out and says like poverty was so bad. I'm like, next page!
Samantha Rose Hill: (31:42)
So the soot, um which is which so wonderful. You know one of the things that I'm thinking about is that truth, is representation and appearances. There's this great quote that Arendt puts at the top of the Life of the Mind by W H Auden and it's, “Does God ever judge us by appearances? I suspect he does.” [Ken: No] It's hard not to think about our contemporary political context, which is very politically charged. And there seems to be almost a demand for this kind of plastic truth or the repetition of facts that lead to the creation of norms and less of an emphasis on this kind of ecstatic truth that might do this Benjaminian work of illumination. I guess I'm just wondering how you negotiate that when you decide which stories to tell or how you write these stories?
Ken Krimstein: (32:44)
There's a perception that people want easy, happy. And I think we do. Until we're about three years old, at which point we actually want complication, darkness. I have a little quip that I sometimes say about storytelling in reality is, life is not Disneyland. And nobody understood that better actually in many ways than Walt Disney, because he went to the brothers Grimm and he went to many places. And where his things are most effective is where the dark side really comes out. So I think good art, or good stories, should make us feel uh, unsettled.
Samantha Rose Hill: (33:35)
And at the same time, we live in a culture that is oversaturated with darkness. I read some incredible statistic that by the time someone is, I think 18 years old, they'll have seen, I can't remember the exact number, but it's something like a hundred thousand murders on television. I mean, we're surrounded by violence and disaster and death all of the time. And one has to wonder what that's assuaging for, because it's not the same thing as what you are talking about.
Ken Krimstein: (34:07)
No, because you, you said it, we've seen a hundred thousand deaths on television, but see one in life and you'll never forget one instant about it. And we get immune to, you know, it's interesting earlier in the talk you brought up Isak Dinesen, of course, because of Arendt I had to start looking into some and I read “Sorrow Acre,” which has been in every anthology book that I've ever seen, but I never actually bothered to read it. It's monumental. It presents a sadness, which, a slice of inevitability of life that you can't countenance. It's like cutting off a limb. That's how powerful it is. Now, is that a good thing? Maybe not, maybe so. I mean, I think I got to experience a part of life that I otherwise couldn't. And I think if you're in the business of making stories and you care, and you're lucky enough to try and do what I'm doing, which is trying to tell true stories, I think you have to have a gauge in your head that says, oh, that was getting too easy. That was, mm, you know, was it really like that? Uh, that seems a little fake. You know, I'll lose people all of a sudden there. You always have to kind of be asking yourself, did I really take that to the limit of where it could be?
Samantha Rose Hill: (35:31)
I think that you are describing very beautifully, the kind of inner compass and moral judgment in a way that so much of Arendt’s work is about, especially when she's talking about the work of thinking and imagination and judgment. And can you talk a little bit about how you cultivate that inner compass, barometer, conversation, dialogue of the two in one when you're writing and making stories?
Ken Krimstein: (35:59)
Yeah, well, that's every artist, I think every writer has their own methods and their own tricks. And I think as you get more comfortable, maybe with more experience, you know, how to hold things sort of in advance, you don't, you don't judge 'em too quickly. You have to live within insecurity, I guess, or, you know, you have to just sort of believe, you know, I, I paint, I draw my, my dad used to take me and teach me painting and stuff like this. And I don't think you can fall in love with your work that much, you gotta like, hold it at a vance. And then, and then see. And sometimes, you know, and I learned this even when I was working you know in advertising and would make a commercial or something and sometimes somebody would walk in and say, what if we put the end in the middle, in the middle, at the end and blow it up. And when I was young I was like, no, no, don't touch it! You know, we spent all this money! You know what? It's just there to mess up.
Samantha Rose Hill: (36:56)
It’s there to mess up.
Ken Krimstein: (36:56)
Yeah. Well, Bashevis Singer had a great quote. He said, uh, the writer's best friend is the waste, wastepaper basket.
Samantha Rose Hill: (37:04)
That is certainly true. You brought up love. And one of the things that I really wrestled with while I was writing the biography of Arendt was falling out of love with her. I don't really talk about that often because when I talk in public people wanna hear, you know, how much I, you know, I'm in love with Arendt, but I had to really kind of fall out of love with her to write that book. The reward of storytelling is letting go, I think she says in that essay on Dinesen and I, I really felt like I, you know, suffered a loss in a way. Do you form attachments to the characters that you write about? Is there a kind of analogy there? Do you keep your critical distance? Do you allow yourself to, to fall in love with them?
Ken Krimstein: (37:55)
I do fall in love with them, otherwise I wouldn't wanna spend that much time with them. But I'm, I'm also married. And with all due respect to my wife, it isn't always flowers and you know, whatever. I had that same thing with Hannah Arendt when I was writing about her and I still wrestle with it because otherwise, I think it's interesting you mentioned it ear earlier, like then it becomes, maybe you didn't say this, but it sort of becomes like propaganda, hagiography. I don't wanna do that. And I don't think she would've approved. One thing that made it quite easy, to kind of be contrarian when I was writing about Hannah Arendt or go to places that were uncomfortable is that she kind of encourages you to do that. She doesn't wanna have acolytes and followers. She wants to make you think.
Samantha Rose Hill: (38:43)
Did she make you go any place uncomfortable?
Ken Krimstein: (38:45)
Oh there were many uncomfortable places. And I still have, I applaud like she, she clearly showed levels of, I mean, I think courage and also audacity and maybe pigheadedness that I could never countenance. I don't think I would. I don't know. Again, she raises the question. I don't know if I would sacrifice many of my closest friends for an idea. I don't know how many of us would today. I mean, here we are faced by the Buffets, and I don't mean Warren, of the Twitter-verse or whatever, the Instagram social thing. And I think it's making a lot of people, ooh, I don't wanna lose followers or whatever. You know, we go back to, I think we mentioned this before somebody had mentioned that one of her, her greatest talents was that she had a genius for friendship. You think about somebody whose genius is for friendship basically sacrificing her friends for an idea? That's, that's brave, but you know, so, but
Samantha Rose Hill: (39:52)
Can you imagine doing that or is it, is it a mirror for?
Ken Krimstein: (39:57)
I can imagine it under certain experiences of extreme duress. Because I think that people, when they're faced with contingency sometimes can act in ways that they didn't know that they could. I mean, to me, that's what storytelling is about. But, um, I don't know if I'm, getting back, it so I think there were parts of Hannah and I think I tried to wrestle with some of her questions of identity and I think, you know, perhaps, you know, you never wanna speak for her, but I think she might say, you know, look, I'm not perfect, but I'm doing the best that I can. I'm throwing it down. You could say, I guess a lot of philosophers say that her, her thinking tends to meander a little bit. It, it isn't necessarily, uh, linear. And I think maybe that's kind of that storytelling ethos that you're talking about.
Samantha Rose Hill: (40:46)
No, she was, she was definitely more of a Penelope. I've been thinking about, I've been thinking about a passage from Aristotle from the end of the introduction to the Ethics, where he talks about the work of accounting. And he talks about how there's two meanings of the term. One is the mathematical account to take stock, to add everything up, which would be the kind of linear historiography. And the other is to tell a story and to give an account. And Arendt was definitely more of a, she, she described herself as a Penelope weaving night after night, and there's no end to the work of thinking, but I think this connects back to facts and ecstatic truth, you know, we can talk about sacrificing one's friends for an idea, but I think part of the trouble in our contemporary political environment is that it's it's so, so saturated, it's difficult to say what's worth fighting for. And I don't say that lightly because I think there's a lot of, a lot of things that I would put in that column that are worth fighting for today, but there's so much noise. [Ken: Yeah.] How do we begin to clear that clutter away to find what's essential?
Ken Krimstein: (42:11)
It sounds like a cliché to say it all comes down to education. Cuz again, I would love to blow that up. I wish that Arendt, but I wish she was the secretary of education or something. And she had all power because what would her pedagogy be? I think first of all, math [Samantha: Oh god] might go a little bit to the side, uh, but she’d teach about plurality, she’d teach about listening, she’d teach about, she’d teach about, um, getting outside of your comfort zone and, and she’d teach that there are no dangerous thoughts, thinking itself is a dangerous activity. And you know, I hate to say it, but you know, for thousands and thousands of generations, human beings have lived in a really, really, really tough physical and political surroundings. And you can't just push a button and say, oh no, that doesn't, that doesn't exist anymore. Yes. There is a lot of darkness in the world, there's tons of darkness in the world, but it becomes incumbent I think for audiences, I mean not audiences, societies to be able to know the difference. And how do you do that? Well, you know, I guess it starts young. Kids actually like truth.
Samantha Rose Hill: (43:31)
I think you are talking about aesthetic education that prepares people to think and prepares them to judge. And Arendt’s notebooks in the 1960s, there are two pages of notes on the corporatization of Columbia University. I mean, I just left academia last year. I spent 14 years at three different universities teaching and I mean, we've witnessed the absolute corporatization of our universities where reading Moby Dick is supposed to be something instrumental that can help you get ahead in the advertising world or Wall Street or whatever it is that you decide to do. But the value of the experience of aesthetic experience, the Ästhetische Erfahrungen that can open us up and expand the imagination has been completely, it seems almost abandoned [Ken: Oh yeah] in colleges and universities today.
Ken Krimstein: (44:30)
Yeah. I, I don't know. I think higher education, and I just left, uh, myself, there you go. “The Great Resignation.”
Samantha Rose Hill: (44:39)
Yes, we're a part of it.
Ken Krimstein: (44:40)
But I, you know, I, uh, I think it's gonna change. When I was teaching people and they'd say like, how can I learn how to become a better advertising copywriter? I'm like stop taking advertising classes and just take a, study Hamlet. Look at Macbeth. I probably learned more about advertising from a Shakespeare class that I had, I hate to say it than at any advertising class I ever took because it's about life. It's about truth.
Samantha Rose Hill: (45:09)
I often joke that when I, when I'm teaching Adorno or Benjamin, that studying critical theory, uh, teaches you either to be a critic of some sort or to go into advertising because, because once you start to understand the human condition a little bit, you know what, you know, what people have an appetite for.
Ken Krimstein: (45:29)
Yeah. I mean, I think Arendt, and I've heard her described a little bit as sort of a, a bit of an anthropologist. And I think that anthropology is kind of what, you know, the social or the, it's definitely the social space or the public space. But I do think to get back to storytelling, and I guess this is aesthetic. And I guess for me, it's just, I look at something like Hannah Arendt or the Beatles or El Greco or Frank Lloyd Wright, or whatever, you know, and I think, oh my God, how did somebody make that? Why, how, how can I, how can? That's for me, that's what motivates me. It's like, I'm kinda like if I see it, I want it, I wanna do it. I wanna figure it out. And I also am very process oriented in that, like, you know, the only way to do it is to do it and do it again and do it again and do it again. And a lot of people, again, they say like, why can't I just take a pill and have third grade? That's what we want now, this pill and you get third grade. No.
Samantha Rose Hill: (46:33)
Earlier you described, um, you know, thinking about getting in there and opening up and, and wanting to do it, you described finding those weird things, those kind of idiosyncratic things that really bring the story to life. What things, um, have you found lately? What have you been playing with?
Ken Krimstein: (46:54)
Oh gosh, lately. Um, oh boy. Well, I've been playing with um, what kind of an insurance executive was Franz Kafka. [Samantha laughing] And you wanna know something?
Samantha Rose Hill: (47:08)
Ken Krimstein: (47:09)
Pretty good. Pretty good. As Larry David, pretty good. I read, um, a brief or something that he wrote to the [inaudible] toy manufacturers and it was great. I didn't realize that he also was a draftsman and he would it well, yeah, he did. Poor guy had to do pictures of like mangled hands and stuff. Cuz he worked for the workers’ accident insurance company of Bohemia.
Samantha Rose Hill: (47:38)
Ken Krimstein: (47:39)
So that's kind of different.
Samantha Rose Hill: (47:42)
Did he bring the same level of artistry to his reports that he brought to his short stories?
Ken Krimstein: (47:51)
Hey may have brought, he would've been fired on the spot had he done that. He was wise enough to know, but he did, uh, according, at least according to this guy, Reinhold Strach or whatever it is, the, the guy who's written three 600 page books about his life. He did bring a sense of observation. And if you read Kafka, he's a great observer. He's a great observer. So yeah, I'm thinking about that. I'm thinking about what kind of patents did Albert Einstein have to deal with in the Bern patent office? So I'm trying to look at little known parts of these people. Because last time I checked people do like everything, like we're one consistent long thing, you know? So that's been kind of fun.
Samantha Rose Hill: (48:43)
That's wonderful. I'm excited to see what you do with Kafka. I think that's a perfect place to end Ken. I'm looking forward to your future collaboration with Werner Herzog on some kind of project around ecstatic truth. [Ken: Oh I only wish] I’m hungry for that and can only begin to imagine what it might entail. This was, this was lovely. Thank you for your work on Arendt. Thank you for your storytelling. And I hope I get to talk to you soon.
Ken Krimstein: (49:07)
Thanks a lot. I really appreciate the time
Samantha Rose Hill: (49:26)
Hannah Arendt, Between Worlds is a co-production of the Goethe-Institut and Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. It was produced and edited by Lisa Bartfai. Music by Dylan Mattingly. And it was hosted by me Samantha Rose Hill. We have more episodes for you on thinking with Hannah Arendt now. Until next time.
Producer and Editor: Lisa Bartfai
Music: Dylan Mattingly
In this episode, the novelist Madeleine Thien and Samantha Rose Hill discuss loneliness, friendship, and writing.
Hannah Arendt: Between Worlds is a coproduction of the Goethe-Institut and the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. This podcast is part of Hannah Arendt: Thinking is Dangerous, a project for thinking with Hannah Arendt about our world today.
Samantha Rose Hill: (00:13)
This is Hannah Arendt: Between Worlds, a podcast co-produced by the Goethe-Institut and Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. I’m your host, Samantha Rose Hill.
Samantha Rose Hill: (01:01)
In the spring of 1955, Hannah Arendt was teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, and she was miserable. The cloud of McCarthyism hung over social life. She did not like her colleagues. There were too many students in her classes and she missed her husband. She said that she felt like she was living in a desert. And it was during this time that she revised the end of The Origins of Totalitarianism and added a chapter on ideology and loneliness, arguing that loneliness is the underlying condition of all totalitarian movements. And that totalitarianism can only come into power where people are radically isolated against one another,
Madeleine Thien: (01:51)
The crushing loneliness of destroying even the person's ability to speak to themselves within their private being. Because those kinds of things under the Khmer Rouge, let's say, were extremely dangerous. The, even the fact of having these private thoughts, which could surface in one's eyes, in one's face, in one's gestures, all that had to be so pushed down. If, if one had any hope of surviving,
Samantha Rose Hill: (02:19)
I invited the novelist Madeleine Thien on “Between Worlds” to talk about Hannah Arendt and loneliness in totalitarian states. A topic that I know is close to her thinking, but as we began our conversation, she said to me, so we're talking about friendship. And I said, yes, because friendship is the perfect counterpoint to loneliness. And because I wasn't gonna say no to Maddie. And like Arendt, Maddie also has a gift for friendship for understanding the need to create an oasis in the desert and find meaningful connection in the world. Either through the interlocutor that we carry around in our thinking that help us love the world, or in the friendships that we have with one another that carry us through daily life and help give meaning to existence.
Madeleine Thien: (03:18)
There is a real intimacy in the clarity of her writing and the fact that it feels like she is speaking to the reader directly, that she is to the best of her ability, explaining it and making it come alive for you. This thinking process that is within her at the same time. It's not that she draws you in with her personal reasoning for why she's exploring this subject. And I think as a woman writer, I found that really powerful. I didn't know how to occupy that space, where one could be intimate in one's thinking, but still remain a private self.
Samantha Rose Hill: (03:58)
Madeleine Thien is a professor at Brooklyn College and the author of four books of fiction. Her recent novels have focused on art, politics and revolution. Most notably in Cambodia and China, she's received Canada's two highest literary honors, the Giller prize and the Governor General's literary award for fiction. Her books have also been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Please join me in welcoming Madeleine Thien to “Between Worlds”.
Samantha Rose Hill: (04:48)
I knew that I wanted you on this podcast when we were putting it together because the organizing idea is people who think with Hannah Arendt, and you carried Arendt around in your thinking. And I was looking at an essay that you wrote on Men in Dark Times. And I love this image of you traveling with Arendt’s Men in Dark Times, which is about totalitarianism. It's about friendship. It's about beauty and portraits. And at the end of your essay, like if I can read you a passage and then maybe we can just jump into conversation, I'd love to hear you say more, more about this. “Often these days, I worry about my own love of literature and my belief in the writing life and Hermann Broch's acceptance of the ultimate insufficiency of literature. I hear my own doubts magnified a thousand times over. Men in Dark Times remains in me like a corridor branching off to many unlit rooms. And in each room there is a person thinking to him or herself, a person creating work, a person in constant engagement with the ideas of others. The beauty of the book is for me that we are all in these rooms and only in the discourse and the passionate engagement. Can we find our way to one another?”
Madeleine Thien: (06:24)
I'm so happy you stumbled across that essay. I'm, I was trying to think how old it is. Actually. I, I feel like it's at least a decade old. I'm not sure. Um,
Samantha Rose Hill: (06:35)
I believe it's 2014.
Madeleine Thien: (06:38)
Wow. Um, and you know, it, it's interesting that even that image of the quarters, it's, it's so fundamental to the book that I'm writing now it's eight years later, but I'm, I must have been carrying Men in Dark Times around and reading Arendt while I was writing Dogs at the Perimeter which is a novel about the Cambodian genocide. So that, yeah, no, that's not true. I had finished Dogs at the Perimeter, 2014. You said, right?
Samantha Rose Hill: (07:06)
I believe so.
Madeleine Thien: (07:07)
Which means I had finished writing about the Cambodian, or I had finished that book and was writing about the Chinese cultural revolution. Wow. Yeah, no wonder. She meant, I mean, she does, still does, has meant so much to me. It's interesting to me how much I've revisited her over the years in different forms. Some, and you know, I was just reading some of her letters earlier this morning and there were lines in there that I realized that I had been caring for 15 years and forgotten where they'd come from.
Samantha Rose Hill: (07:38)
Are there any lines in particular that you're thinking about right now?
Madeleine Thien: (07:44)
Well, the one that, that sort of made me laugh, which is actually a Mary McCarthy line in the, in her letters with Hannah Arendt. It's the one where Mary McCarthy is thinking about taking a, a commission, but she's also feeling that these years, the late forties, the, the decade of the forties and the fifties are the most transformative for a woman novelist. I'm pretty sure I read that in my twenties, but it always stayed with me that, you know, I was building towards what might be possible in my forties and fifties. And then, and then there's the Hannah’'s response, which is that precedents mean nothing.
Samantha Rose Hill: (08:22)
Precedents mean nothing. Arendt published the Origins of Totalitarianism when she was 43, I think. And that that's her first major work. That's the work that launched her career. What do you think McCarthy was getting at in terms of the writing life of women in thinking about that transformation between the twenties and the forties? Not that that's anything I'm thinking about.
Madeleine Thien: (08:45)
Yeah. I'm thinking about it so much. Cuz I'm 47 now. And, and the last 10 years I've spent writing about totalitarianism. I knew in myself that what I had done in my twenties and thirties, like the groundwork for those 10 years of, of writing, because it was almost like it's that thing of the, the craft life, experience, heartache, reinvention, you know, all those things that happen in those years and then knowing one's self well enough to find the kind of courage that makes you take a leap in your work. I think that's what I felt when I read the McCarthy and the Arendt exchange. I felt like they, that there was something in both the women that had happened in those particular decades that had, it's almost like with, you know, think. And when I think of Origins of Totalitarianism, she had been writing a lot of course, but also been sort of in such upheaval in that decade before, but the full like flowering of that book, all the ideas from the past that come together and that she kind of, and that you can see throughout the work actually that you can see in those early letters that the, those certain elements are continuously like, uh, I wanna say a system, even though she's not that kind of thinker, but she has these components that are continuously illuminating each other and she's building all these quite extraordinary bridges and branches in her description of the, of our common world.
Madeleine Thien: (10:17)
I think that that part is really broad that you can see that trajectory in, in her letters, in her essays and then in the, the works,
Samantha Rose Hill: (10:25)
The elements, the way the constellation of her concepts and ideas and distinctions foment over time. And the correspondence in particular are interesting for that because you see her talking with McCarthy about love, about reason, two plus two not equaling four, about these characters that McCarthy is struggling to write, or the, the modern condition might be.
Madeleine Thien: (10:54)
One of the reason I, I love those letters so much is because it's that conversation between a novelist and, and Hannah Arendt. And, and she gives her a wonderful sort of like conceptual, like doorways into McCarthy's thinking process. And there's an early letter where they talk about thinking itself and, and Arendt talks about that thinking is resultless that it begins with that a priori sense of a truth. And then thinking begins. I love how much that's a constant in Arendt’s work.
Samantha Rose Hill: (11:25)
So I love that you said doorways again because I think it, it, and, and I'm thinking of you use the word courage as well, and the kind of courage that one gets from life experience to kind of go through all the muck, to get to a place, uh, where you can write something like the Origins of Totalitarianism. The courage to open the doors. It seems to me in certain ways that we have these corridors, but how do we negotiate them? How do we navigate them? I'm curious, how did you discover Hannah Arendt, how did Hannah Arendt come to be someone that you, you carry around with you? And who is she for you? Who is the woman in your head?
Madeleine Thien: (12:05)
I know. Great question. Um, yeah, she really lives with me, and more than ever, because I had been working on something that she plays a much more major role as herself. Um, but I was thinking about it. I, and I think the first book that I came across was the letters between Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt. And I picked it up because I was interested in Mary McCarthy, having never read Hannah Arendt. And I know for sure it was a used book. It came from a bin somewhere. And you know, that feeling when, and I, this is my, the joy of secondhand bookstores is somehow your hand lands on something. You don't know why. You don't know why you're drawn to it, but there's something, a feeling. And that book, these letters just, I wonder if at the time I was lonely and reading the letters between these women, seeing their friendship, seeing the way they talked about so many aspects of life and of aging and of falling into and out of love, and of just terrible decisions sometimes, you know, and all sorts of, of things and also about the work and all this is ongoing.
Madeleine Thien: (13:14)
And it's sort of so fluid in these letters. I think I felt a real, I felt the joy of being in their company. And from there, the next book I read was Arendt’s Men and Dark Times. Because I knew that I had never studied philosophy as a, as a student, as an undergraduate. And, you know, the doorway again was Arendt writing about writers. It was so illuminating for me. So, you know, with Arendt and judgment and critique, but also her the way she understands the impulse underneath the writer's work and the clarity of her writing and the fact that she's continuously sort of, um, exposing something about the work and also judging. There's something very unique about the way she does it in particular that I don't, I've never really felt that kinship with that many other writers writing about writers. There's something hard to put my finger.
Samantha Rose Hill: (14:15)
Yeah. It reminds me of a story from Arendt’s own biography and a way of how she discovered Rahel Varnhagen. I don't know if you know this story, but her best friend from childhood Anne Mendelsohn was the granddaughter of Moses Mendelsohn. And, you know, they became friends in a kind of wonderful fashion where Anne had been forbidden to spend time with her because her father was a bit of a, a pariah. He was in prison and Arendt snuck out of the house in the middle of the night, took the train alone, two towns over to go wake up the whole household and, and get Anne out of bed. But after she had gone to study with Heidegger at Marburg, and she was in Heidelberg working on her dissertation on love in St. Augustine and went to a bookstore that was closing, it was, they were having a going out of business sale and she bought Rahel Varnhagen’s correspondence. And she gave to Arendt and Arendt said, you know, it's that? What, what is that ineffable feeling? You know, I think that, that you are describing approaching that this object, you can't quite explain what it is, but you're meeting for a reason. There's a meeting that's happening there. And in that correspondence, Arendt said that she had found her best friend, that this was the one woman who could understand her, even though she had been dead for a hundred years,
Madeleine Thien: (15:47)
I feel something similar. I always have a kind of, um, friction with that feeling because I feel like I recognized in her someone who could teach me, I recognized maybe a friend, but also a mentor. I think I'm drawn to certain philosophers or writers when I can feel an openness in their spirit to transmit what they know. That there's something in them that's not just about figuring it out for themselves, but they, they want to see something come, come alive in you, some spark in you. That's what I feel with Arendt. I mean, I'm of course projecting entirely on to a person I've never met. I feel this, you know, when I read Spinoza, as complicated as he is, that he is constructing his ethics in a way that if you put the time and the effort in, he feels, he feels strongly that this path is open to anyone. And the friction in me comes from like, reading so much about Arendt and also feeling I'm quite sure that if we were in a room together, she would be so bored out of her mind that she wouldn't, she would not like I would just not register in her consciousness. Cause I think she has such a wonderful, like she loves the quickness and agility of mind and a kind of authoritative intellectual presence. I, I feel that with, with her, but anyway, that's a whole other tangent.
Samantha Rose Hill: (17:12)
I don't. And I, and I said this to you and you when you said this the first time I, I disagree. I mean, I think Arendt is drawn to brilliant minds and yours is, yours is one of them. But you've brought up a few words now and loneliness and, you know, thinking about Arendt as a mentor and your first encounter with her. And I was wondering if you could just talk a little bit about that kind of relationship there, if there is one. About what it's like to be a woman, to be a writer, to, you know, you write so much about the immigrant experience about totalitarianism, about language, home. How do these, you know, if, if at all, does Arendt’s work somehow provide something in your kind of thinking, conversation there? or is there a relationship between the loneliness and the mentorship and the writing?
Madeleine Thien: (18:09)
You know, that's the first thing that sort of, that sort of, I was thinking about as you were asking the question, was how present she feels yet, how behind a vail. And, and I think as a woman, I find that really interesting because there is a real intimacy in the clarity of her writing and the fact that it feels like she is speaking to the reader directly, that she is to the best of her ability, explaining it and making it come alive for you, this thinking process that is within her. And at the same time it's not that she draws you in with her personal reasoning for why she's exploring this subject. And I think as a woman writer, I found that really powerful. I didn't know how to occupy that space, where one could be intimate in one's thinking, but still remain a private self. And I think that's something that's quite powerful in Arendt, and it's something I was thinking about with Origins of Totalitarianism.
Madeleine Thien: (19:12)
I was rereading that the last section, um, about loneliness, because one thing I've always sort of been astonished with by her description of the totalitarian condition, what it feels like for everyone who enters that toward space, or the lack of space, you know, she talks about the iron band of totalitarianism. When I read it, I think, how does she describe it so precisely, and it's not on personal terms? It's not as if I experience this and this is what it's like. It's not that it's that she understands how the system functions, what it in the end is designed to do and what it does to the human. She wouldn't use the word soul,
Samantha Rose Hill: (19:57)
No. she doesn't believe in the soul,
Madeleine Thien: (20:00)
Yes, she doesn't believe in the soul. So I'll say psyche.
Samantha Rose Hill: (20:03)
She would hate that too.
Madeleine Thien: (20:05)
Oh, psyche too? What would she use?
Samantha Rose Hill: (20:07)
Madeleine Thien: (20:09)
Condition? What is that personality within the self like that, that innate being within the per each individual person?
Samantha Rose Hill: (20:17)
Madeleine Thien: (20:19)
Being yes. What it does to the being. Because alongside reading Arendt I was reading a lot of the witnessing and the history and the, uh, the confessions that were pulled out, you know, quote unquote, confessions that were pulled out of people who died under the Khmer Rouge. And it always hurt me and astonished me and how accurately she had understood what was being done to them. Yeah.
Samantha Rose Hill: (20:50)
What had been done to the ability to think, the imagination, the resiliency of spirit. I don't know if spirit is secular enough word for being, but the, the interconnectedness, not just with others, but with ourselves, the relationship that we have with ourselves.
Madeleine Thien: (21:09)
Exactly. The crushing loneliness of destroying even the person's ability to speak to themselves within their private being. Because those kinds of things under the Khmer Rouge, let's say, were extremely dangerous. Even the fact of having these private thoughts, which could surface in one's eyes, in one's face, in one's gestures, all that had to be so pushed down if, if one had any hope of surviving. And I think a lot of people pushed it so far down that the recovery of it, sometimes it's beyond their means. People tended to reinvent or become a different person or, or just put it so into the past that she says it in Origins that they can’t, you can't return to, to the place of the living, unless you disown what you live through, because it cannot, it doesn't seem real in the, in the world of living.
Samantha Rose Hill: (22:04)
It strikes me that it is a kind of echo with what you said earlier about in writing, trying to create a sense of intimacy with a public audience or a reader while still retaining this private itself. And that seems so on the one hand, it seems, it seems really echo with what you're describing now and on the other, well, it's not even this hand or that hand, but it is so contrary to the contemporary political moment that we are living in.
Madeleine Thien: (22:42)
Absolutely. Yes. I do feel as a woman writer writing now the, the pressure to, to make one's claim on the right, to having a voice, by putting everything that is personal into the public space. As if it's the personal, the, the vulnerable, that gives us a right to be seen. I, I struggle with that a lot. On the one hand, yes, I know that, you know, speaking about myself, there are lots of things from my personal experience that, that, yes, I think could be illuminating of certain questions that we talk about in the public sphere. On the other hand, those are worked out in the, in the spirit of a person over a lifetime in the space of the self.
Samantha Rose Hill: (23:34)
The space of solitude in the self
Madeleine Thien: (23:37)
And her description of that too. And one of the conversation I have with myself of the, that solitude, not being a space of loneliness, but a place of dialogue with one, I think that was a very formative possibility for me when I first read Arendt. I don't think I had really encountered that in other, other things I had learned in my life. I mean, it's really interesting to think that you, you stumble upon a book so early in life, and it, you gives you a way to grow into yourself.
Samantha Rose Hill: (24:31)
I wanna go back to intimacy and privacy and, and loneliness and totalitarianism for a minute. Arendt draws the sharp distinction between the private realm and the public realm and it's porous. And yet it's very important for her because we have to be able to appear in the public realm for recognition, to speak and to act, to reveal who we are. And writing is a way of appearing in the public realm and the private realm where we can have that two in one dialogue with ourselves, where we can engage in a conversation with ourselves. And it's also where Arendt places intimacy and passion and love. And one of the things that I love about your writing and the story that you just published, for example, in “Lu Reshaping”, is that Lu is so sensuous. So such an has this incredible sense of intimacy. There's this incredible restraint, this incredible passion. How do you think about negotiating your characters yourself in your characters, this private life, public life when writing so, so beautifully about those intimate corners of our lives that we so often keep hidden from the public realm.
Madeleine Thien: (26:05)
You know, the it's the, the strangest thing with writing fiction, especially about when it comes to sex, sexuality, sex, intimacy, desire. I feel it's a kind of like feeling my way through the dark when I'm writing a character like Lu, because what I love about Lu is her confidence in her ability to feel pleasure. And that it's a, it's just a right of life. I think that this is very moving to me about her. And, and knowing early on that there many kinds of shame that one experiences and in a way, she, she wants to choose her own shame. She doesn't want it foisted on her. You know, it's like, I'll be ashamed of this, but not that. This is a choice that I make for myself. My body, my experience of this brief life, and I will not be ashamed. And of course we all know, one can tell myself will not be ashamed.
Madeleine Thien: (27:04)
It's not necessarily gonna stop whatever comes into our emotions. But writing about someone like her, and, and I felt this with other characters, is I always feel that they, there is something private about them that cannot be expressed in the story. That there's a, a space in which I can get to the, to a certain something that's very vulnerable about them. But on another level, they have to retain a mystery for themselves. It is a really interesting sort of, um, a space to work in as a fiction writer, because it's like, I think we feel we know her, but I think she remains there's a Lu-ness to her. Her name is Lu there's a Lu-ness to her that is just like undefinable and belongs to Lu alone. And it's interesting to me to see if that is possible in a work of fiction and in the experience of a reader to feel intimacy, but also this space that must still exist between two people where there's something that can never be known. You know, the thing that is integral to the core belongs to that person alone, but you, you kind of shrink or expand the space between me and her. If that makes sense, you can come really close, but not all, all the way.
Samantha Rose Hill: (28:23)
It reminds me. And I probably have said this to you. It reminds me a bit of my favorite Walter Benjamin passage. That's in The Origin of German Tragic Drama, a in the prologue, which is that the mode most proper to thinking is pausing for breath, returning in a roundabout way to the object of contemplation. So we can approach and we can get near, but then we have to retreat because Eros always flees before the lover who wants to possess. And I hear you describing that opacity, which is integral to having a core, to having a self, to, to the being. If we are going to submit to Arendt language in our conversation,
Madeleine Thien: (29:14)
It's hard not to submit to her.
Samantha Rose Hill: (29:19)
It’s also making me think about the intimate relationships that people form to Arendt and her life and work too. They, people become very attached to certain authors, not just characters, but authors. And the way that Arendt became attached to Rahel Varnhagen. And there are these relationships we have with people real or fictional, dead, or alive ghosts, people who are no longer with us. And that space, that opacity that you're describing is still there. That's the space that Arendt, I think is trying to guard in those last pages of Origins of Totalitarianism, that she's trying to capture that space between knowing and unknowing, about meaning and understanding about, uh, the work of thinking.
Madeleine Thien: (30:16)
It reminds me of something I think I always felt when I read her. And I felt when I was writing Dogs at the Perimeter, which is that the writing the passage, the description that believes it can capture that, that what people live through or didn't survive of totalitarianism or totalitarian regimes. The moment you think you've put the words to it, you've absolutely failed. And I think she's really getting to that reminder to us. That is what it, what this, this new form of terror is ravaging in human existence. And it's interesting that realm of the private takes on so many forms in her work. So many kinds of spaces and how malleable it actually can be. And at the point at which you, it can be kind of obliterated to nothing. You're right. I agree. Entirely agree with you. She's trying to protect at least that, that ring around a person that is so integral to that they can exist in this world with any kind of sense that of belonging at all,
Samantha Rose Hill: (31:31)
Thinking about social media, contemporary culture, thinking about the kind of space around a writer today that can or cannot exist in order to, uh, publish an essay or write a book that it seems, I think you used the word ravaged. It seems ravaged. It seems obliterated. It seems undesirable. It seems antithetical to one question that I have is, you know, what does this do to our capacity for imagination? What are the ethical implications of these trends of what's happening right now? How it strikes me that in the form of your writing, one could argue there is an ethical act that it's giving us that, that, um, opening you're not pointing. You're not telling you're inviting to thinking you're inviting to the space of intimacy and pleasure and play that can be expansive of the self, as opposed to this unmasking revelation. Look at this, look at me, look, what's happened.
Madeleine Thien: (32:43)
Yes. So interesting. I mean, it's, it's, um, I think it's why I keep going back to fiction rather than the essay. It's also just that, it's just my way of thinking. Fiction is my way of thinking. And if I, if I could do that in essays, I would, but it's not, doesn't come as naturally to me, but it's because it's about space. Fiction is a, is a kind of the creation of dimensional space in which you cannot actually pinpoint everything. You can kind of open up the possibility of this hallway or this corridor, this threshold in which they, something comes into contact. But you know, what that Arendt quote that Arendt quote has always stayed with me from the very beginning is how she says story….Oh gosh, and I'm gonna forget it!
Samantha Rose Hill: (33:31)
Storytelling reveals meaning with, without committee, without meeting, defining
Madeleine Thien: (33:35)
It, defining it. Yes.
Madeleine Thien: (33:40)
This, I, I think has been, really, has just shaped my writing profoundly. It's that possibility for the meanings that can arise and knowing that the work as it moves through time, as it meets different readers, along the way, the possibility of what can arise in that space is always going to change. And that to me is what makes, uh, fiction writing. So, so exciting. And I suspect one of the reasons she too loved literature, poetry, novels, novelists, writers. She was very forgiving of them in a, in a certain way. I mean, if she's judges, she judges,
Samantha Rose Hill: (34:20)
She's very, she's very judgmental. She accords, she, especially the poets, the writers, they are essentially demi gods in her order of the universe. They're exempt from usual human judgment and instead are judged by their talent.
Samantha Rose Hill: (34:40)
Which is cruel in certain ways. I think, you know, Arendt was first and foremost, a storyteller before a political thinker before a philosopher. Elizabeth Young-Bruhl, her first biographer, has this essay called “Storytelling”. And she opens it by saying Arendt was always willing to sacrifice the facts for a good story. And it's true. I mean, anybody who's tried to check her footnotes knows this. She thought of herself as a kind of Penelope weaving a veil through storytelling night after night, returning, pulling the thread and then reweaving it. But it's the word, the word that she uses in The Human Condition, which seems relevant here that I think about a lot is, is poesis. That writing is a form of making, poeticizing, the density, the, the, the thickness, the closeness to thinking itself that you're making you are making space. You're bringing something new into the world too, in that space.
Madeleine Thien: (35:48)
I love that because it really, it really resonates with how I feel when I'm writing a novel, a big novel that I know I'm, it's like bring into finger pads into typing.
Madeleine Thien: (36:02)
But I feel like I'm making something with my hands, like a sculptor, what I feel like that's the sensation that I have in it. And what you're saying really makes sense with what I feel when I'm reading her is that she wants me to come along. She wants to keep me with her as she unthreads this thing. You, you feel when you're reading her, like you are in the process of discovery with her, even though I know she's planned it all out and she's she, but still it unfolds with that quality, you know? And I came across something in her letters that I loved, which was that she was, I think if she was writing about The Human Condition and she was talking about how she didn't, maybe it was a different book, but I think it was, she didn't wanna get to the end. And so she was distracting herself by getting really into the footnotes so that she wouldn't have to write the end of this, the story.
Samantha Rose Hill: (36:53)
Yeah. The footnotes in The Human Condition, it might be just worth adding here, um, are, are mostly poems. She was adding poetry to the footnotes of The Human Condition. So I know that this might be a bit of an unfair question, but speaking of big novels, you are working on a new book right now that Arendt may or may not appear in, in some way. Can you talk a little bit about it? You don't, you, I know it's unfair.
Madeleine Thien: (37:23)
Yes, no. I mean, it takes up 99.9% of my brain right now. So it's, it's, it's okay. I'm writing a kind of speculative historical in which there's a place in which that has become a refuge from time. And somehow people have ended up in this building. And different hallways seem to lead down different centuries that people from different eras live side by side, without any sense that this is not possible. And one of the people living in this building is Hannah Arendt. And she's down the hallway from Spinoza. They occasionally play chess or argue, but we go back into her time. So I've been spending a lot of time with her voice and it feels, it does feel a bit like trespass. I do sometimes wonder what she would think, but, but I keep thinking she gave up some leeway to the to the artist.
Madeleine Thien: (38:25)
And I, and I think the joy for me has been with working with her and working with the other people who populate this novel. It forces me into a whole other syntax and way of thinking and different kinds of humor and different kinds of, like, responses to things. And it's been so expansive personally. I, I love being with her. I feel like I've been with her for the last five years in this building.
Samantha Rose Hill: (38:51
Can I ask you what her room is like?
Madeleine Thien: (38:54)
So all the rooms in this place are small, so she wouldn't. I don't think it would look like anything she had in New York or anything like that. More, maybe more like the little room she was living in, in Paris when she was stateless, more like that kind of room. You know, she talks about how she and Heinrich, um, elevates some of the appliances to household gods. I mean, I play a lot with the little funny little things she has in the letters, little objects that she mentions. Even like, Heinrich had a sponge for his head that she brought to him to vinegar's head. That was in one of the lists of things she brought him when he was interned. And so little things like this are popping up all in her, her room. The texture of this world is made of historical things. Um, so that's what her, her room looks like. It's a bit of a hodgepodge
Samantha Rose Hill: (39:43)
Hodgepodge. Does she get to smoke?
Madeleine Thien: (39:45)
She smokes all the time.
Samantha Rose Hill: (39:46)
That was really where my question was, was going. Yes.
Madeleine Thien: (39:49)
Samantha Rose Hill: (39:55)
You know, in The Human Condition, Arendt talks about the pleasure of small things. This kind of idea of thinginess is Heideggerian, of course. But I don't understand Arendt’s understanding of things to be necessarily or essentially Heideggerian. But she's interested in, in objects. You know, Marx was interested in the alienation of the labor from the object that was being produced in the world, that of these objects, but Arendt interested in the alienation from the perspective, not of the person, but the object. So she's talking about objects and the pleasure of small things and I'm, and I'm now, like, thinking about her record player and her, her cigarette case and her Mark Cross wallet and her initialled briefcase. And she loved objects. She loved the kind of aesthetics, the tactile, of being among beautiful sculptures, paintings, music. And I'm wondering how, what the relationship is or isn't, or might be between the kind of, you know, Arendt was a stateless refugee for almost 20 years. You know, what's the relationship between homelessness home and these objects and the way in which we think about, you know, what fills our rooms?
Madeleine Thien: (41:22)
And is it in The Human Condition where, isn't there something where she talks about that the things we make are our way to humanize the world? That we have these objects to help us belong to this place. It's a kinda interaction with the things of this world, too, that we take them into our care. It's interesting because the objects also, they come from this external world, but we invest them with our humanness that we give them, meaning we give them shape, we reshape them, reconfigure them, give them away, all those things. I think that's something I feel quite strongly with in her room that I'm imagining. Um, and just her interaction with the things themselves, you know, there's that other line that she has that I have always thought about when she talks about humanizing the wilderness of experience that feels like that it's sometimes when she talks about the wilderness, that, that that's, that image crops up here and there in different places over time. And with Arendt whatever demon she had, if she had, whatever haunted her, whatever very painful, dark, disturbing memories came back to her, they don't, she doesn't share them, I think, in her writing. And, but you feel that knows the presence of these things. And when she talks about artisan's crafts, the making of things and the humanizing of the wilderness of experience yeah. That all seems to come into, into play.
Samantha Rose Hill: (42:58)
Yeah. And I I'm thinking of when I was researching the biography, I, I stumbled across this. It was the list of items that Martha Cohen could take with her when she fled Nazi Germany. And there was a certain weight limit and she could only take one like one spoon, one fork, one knife, one watch. And it was this, it's this itemized list. That's, you know, what is it that you can pick up and take with you, or I think of a flee the Gestapo. And she had to put what she deemed worth saving in that suitcase, her poems, her marriage papers, her diploma from Heidelberg. I mean, we had, we can see what she took and with her, when she went into exile and she talks about the use value of these things, the way that, you know, we use them, that we have this relationship with them, that they, you know, for, for somebody like a, who, you know, fled through Prague to Zurich, to Paris, to Lisbon to America, you know. I can't help, but think that these things are also what we gather near us. Like our friends, our tribe, what you can take with you, but then things have this very human quality because they're made by human hands and they wear out over time. And there's this economy of relation with them in a certain way. No matter how much of ourselves we invest in them,
Madeleine Thien: (44:32)
But I seem to remember. She also, when she left Brno, Czechoslovakia, was carrying her husband's unfinished novel. Is that true?
Samantha Rose Hill: (44:39)
Yes. Yes. Disguised as a piece of bacon.
Madeleine Thien: (44:42)
Yes, that's right.
Samantha Rose Hill: (44:44)
Which was wrapped in a ham
Madeleine Thien: (44:45)
Wrapped in a ham that's right. It must have just smelled, like,
Samantha Rose Hill: (44:50)
I know. It was one of, you know, a ham like, like drawing in the attic,
Madeleine Thien: (44:54)
Some of her manuscripts of her own, she lost along the way, like, did she lose the Rahel manuscript at a certain point or other things?
Samantha Rose Hill: (45:01)
So she had one copy of the Rahel manuscript, but she dropped it in the bathtub in Paris. And the waterlogged copy, I've touched it. It's at the Library of Congress. I mean, why was she reading her? Why was she reading her manuscript in the bathtub? One can only, uh, imagine, uh, which is lovely, but Scholem sent her the Augustine and the, and the Varnhagen. So she had them.
Madeleine Thien: (44:26)
And I love that. So she carries her husband's novel, she loses her Rahel in the bathtub, but she's carrying Walter Benjamin’s last essay when she herself travels across Spain and into Portugal and then to the US. She's carrying, and I think, if I remember she and Heinrich were carrying a poem from Brecht, uh, for a while also. That they were carrying the words of others strikes me as so moving. Apart from when we talk about the things that I made, it's not just the objects and the things that have these value, but the, the written words of others, she was also carry at the same time she was losing her own in the bathroom. I think this, this reveals a lot actually about, about what she valued and what she, it is fascinating. Yeah.
Samantha Rose Hill: (46:)14
That's, that's a beautiful image.
Madeleine Thien: (46:16)
Yeah. And I do actually have her in my novel. Yes. In my novel, she does drop the, the Rahel in the bathtub and she does it because she's smoking and she reaches out to, to catch her cigarette rather than the manuscript.
Samantha Rose Hill: (46:31)
Thank you. Thank you so much. I wish we had more time and I hope to see you in person in the world of appearances,
Madeleine Thien: (46:40)
Samantha Rose Hill: (46:56)
Hannah Arendt: Between Worlds is a co-production of the Goethe-Institut and Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. It was produced and edited by Lisa Bartfai. Music by Dylan Mattingly. And it was hosted by me, Samantha Rose Hill. We have more episodes for you on Thinking with Hannah Arendt now. Until next time!
Producer and editor: Lisa Bartfai
Music: Dylan Mattingly
In this episode of Hannah Arendt: Between Worlds, the composer Dylan Mattingly talks with host Samantha Rose Hill about the need for quiet, eros, and the art of listening.
Hannah Arendt: Between Worlds is a coproduction of the Goethe-Institut and the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. This podcast is part of Hannah Arendt: Thinking is Dangerous, a project for thinking with Hannah Arendt about our world today.
- Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind “Thinking”
- Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle
Samantha Rose Hill: (00:13)
This is Hannah Arendt: Between Worlds, a podcast produced by the Goethe-Institut and the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. I'm your host, Samantha Rose Hill.
Samantha Rose Hill: (01:03)
When I began talking with the Goethe-Institut about this podcast last spring, I knew immediately that I wanted to commission the composer Dylan Mattingly to write music inspired by Hannah Arendt's conception of thinking. The music that you are hearing at the beginning and end of this podcast was composed by Dylan. I like to tease Dylan and say that he's the Walt Whitman of new music, because there's something profoundly democratic in his work. It commands the listener to stop everything else they are doing and give their attention to what it is they are hearing. And in our world today, which is so busy and full of noise, Dylan is writing compositions that demand our attention.
Dylan Mattingly: (01:59)
Thinking along, along the lines as well with the, the question about silence is that it gives you a sense of like perking your ears up to listen to something, because you immediately say, “Oh, I've never heard this before!” Like I, I mean, literally you hear a note and you're like, I've never heard that note before. That's not on my piano. It helps put you in a state of kind of extra attentiveness.
Samantha Rose Hill: (02:19)
In this episode, we talk about his composition, winter solitude, intensity, quiet, the need for silence, dialogue, and eros. We explore the erotics of thinking and the importance and need for silence to know the space between people. The music that you're hearing, in typical Dylan fashion, reflects Hannah Arendt’s axiom that we must stop in order to think, because he has composed music that cannot physically be played or appear in public space. Instead, it can only appear in the private realm and be played for a public audience.
Dylan Mattingly: (03:11)
You are, are coming to this experience. You are giving that time, that precious time that, you know, makes up the stuff of life to this experience. What do I want for you to live? The answer is, is joy. Art is, uh, it's like a fundamentally utopian like endeavor. You know, uh, you have this like capacity to create a world.
Samantha Rose Hill: (03:33)
Dylan Mattingly is the executive and co-artistic director of the New York based new music ensemble Contemporaneous. Among the ensembles and performers who have commissioned his music are the LA Philharmonic, the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, the Berkeley Symphony, John Adams, Maria Alsop, and many more. please join me in welcoming Dylan Mattingly to Between Worlds!
Samantha Rose Hill: (04:17)
When the Goethe-Institut approached me about doing this podcast, one of the first thoughts that I had was music. I really wanted to find a composer and see what they did with Hannah Arendt's conception of thinking. And that's not even really fair to say, because I specifically wanted to see what you would do with Hannah Arendt’s conception of thinking. And let me just start this conversation with a caveat; I am not a musician despite the eight years of piano lessons my parents made me take as a child. So I'm counting on you to talk us through what it is that you've done. And perhaps we can get started by hearing a bit of the music that our listeners have been hearing over the course of these episodes that you have written for our podcast. Can you play some for us?
Dylan Mattingly: (05:20)
Samantha Rose Hill: (06:23)
Dylan, can you tell us a little bit about the music that our listeners are hearing? Maybe talk a bit about the tuning and what you've done with these beautiful chords.
Dylan Mattingly: (06:33)
Yeah, absolutely. So one thing many of you will notice when you're, when you're listening to this music in the podcast is that there are lots and lots of notes that are not in the standard keyboard on the piano. And one thing that was really fun actually about writing this music is that be, cuz it was going to be something that was just for the recorded experience and not something that was gonna be performed. There were really no obligations to any sort of practicality. And so the instruments that are created for this, there are, there are eight different pianos and eight different tunings and there are eight different vibe, phones, and eight different tunings, which is not something that, I mean, maybe you could saw off the little, uh, uh, bits of the vibraphone and change their tuning, but you basically cannot possibly create eight, uh, retuned vibraphones and get them all in the same room together.
Dylan Mattingly: (07:19)
So it, it's almost something that like cannot possibly be, uh, experienced in real life and can only be heard in this way. So part of what that does and thinking, thinking along, along the lines as well with the, the question silence is that it gives you a sense of like perking your ears up to listen to something because you immediately say like, I've never heard this before. Like, I mean, literally you hear a note and you're like, I've never heard that note before. That's that is not on my piano. It helps put you in a state of kind of extra attentiveness that gives you in turn the capacity to hear things that you might already know to some degree, uh, things you might already love and hear them as if you're hearing them for the first time. And so you hear that you, your brain says, this is new.
Dylan Mattingly: (08:01)
And the other part of your brain says, I love this. And your brain doesn't say, this is old., I already love this. Your brain says, this is new and I am falling in love. And so, um, that tuning, especially with pianos and, and vibraphones where your brain already knows, like, okay, they're not playing out of tune because they've been tuned. Whereas if it was a violin, you hear a violinist play a, I know it's not on the keyboard. You're like, oh man, they, they screw it up. But you go in and you're like, this is correct, but this is totally new. And then you something that in fact you already love, and then you say, this is totally new and I love it. And so, that's the trick.
Samantha Rose Hill: (08:40)
It, well, it is a trick in a way and it's an invitation and it's also an unsettling. And as you are describing this auditory experience that you've composed, which is not possible to hear in person in the world, that can only be heard in the way that you've written it, the lines from Wallace Stevens’s “Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction” burst into my mind that it's, it is possible, possible, possible. It must be possible, right? It must be possible. And you are capturing, I think the space between the possible and the impossible, but you're giving the possible a possibility.
Samantha Rose Hill: (09:49)
Dylan, when I first heard this, and you sent it a few days ago, the first immediate word that came to mind and it, was arresting to me, was winter. Icy, blue, gray, kind of white, this kind of color palette. But then I thinking about what winter is. And I started thinking about that retreat, the space of quiet, the time to be at home, the time to be with one's self, with one's family to turn inwards, and then it started it to kind of make a little bit, sense making isn't the right word. But I started to think about the connection between that inwardness that I was hearing in the, the music and thinking and Hannah Arendt’s conception of thinking. Am I totally off? Can you tell us what you were thinking when you were thinking with Hannah Arendt and what we're listening to?
Dylan Mattingly: (10:54)
If you're listening to this podcast, I don't know exactly what time and place you were in, but right now, certainly writing this music. It is it's the beginning of winter and it can't be extricated from that temporality. I think it, you know, it is this place. It is this time. So, uh, I like the idea that that shows up in, in that way. And I also, I think you're, you're onto something definitely about the idea of that, that experience of winter, the kind of clarity of the winter clarity feeling present in this idea of stopping thinking. One of the great challenges here is I wanted to create some music. That's not descriptive of the act of thinking, you know. It’s not music that you could listen to be like, ah, yes, this is, this is about thinking! That doesn't work to the strengths of what music can do.
Dylan Mattingly: (11:37)
I would say. And the, the goal was to create something that could really help create that experience, or at least stimulate that sensation of the way that Arendt talks about thinking of that ability to remove from the, the continuity of, of everyday life. And to be able to look with some sort of perspective as you step outside. And that's a hard thing to do. And it's something I'm thinking about a lot and one that you'll hear that's very prominent in this music. And I think it's, um, it wouldn't necessarily have been the obvious move in something that's, that's short, you know, the beginning of, uh, music for a podcast a minute long, but silence is very prominent. And I think that that's really important. It's something I was thinking about as I was walking outside on these very cool winter days when everything is still after the rain. And to be in that state of kind of, uh, extreme receptivity, it requires a kind of silence for you to be able to take things in.
Dylan Mattingly: (12:39)
And so I think that that felt necessary as something to help, uh, to help listeners feel that way to be able to actually enter into that mindset is to actually feel the silence. And so the music, uh, tries to, uh, obviously it, it, it throws you in it doesn't start from silence, but that I, in some sense, I also pulls you out and as it fades away, then in those moments of silence, first, you think about what you just heard you think like, oh, like what was that? There are notes I've never heard before, and I don't recognize this and you start to think about that. And in that silence, you have, I think, at least ideally you have some of that Arendt experience of thinking. Of like hopefully compels you to this feeling of like, you wanna take out your notebook and a pencil and be like, oh, what was that I just heard? And then it happens again and it's a little bit different, but similar it's like, oh yes. Okay. Yes. Uh, I remember there's this thing and there's, uh, this line. And so anyways, that's a, that's an opening statement about the way I was imagining it.
Samantha Rose Hill: (13:36)
There's two things that I wanna pick up on there. One is, you said, this is not descriptive music. And I completely agree with that. And one of the things that I love about what you've is that it prompted me to think. It set me down on a thought path as Hannah Arendt might say. And there's something that you're doing in there that I would like to get to. And thinking about how one makes, creates music, that isn't just descriptive, but opens up a space for thinking and an experience. Because in a similar way, Hannah Arendt's work is not about what to think. It's not descriptive. It's about trying to facilitate an experience of thinking. For those of us who don't know anything about musicology or music theory can you tell us a little bit about how you approach that as a composer?
Dylan Mattingly: (14:38)
Being a composer is a, it's an interesting thing because it's like, there are things that you can practice and there are things that you can learn. There's some things that you can perhaps get better a, but you can't really, step-by-step learn. And so for something like this, like there's the, and I think this relates to Arendt, but like the, the, the part of it that, uh, the part of it that you can practice,you can, you can figure out how to translate what you're imagining into music, and you can do that better and better. There are things that you can learn. There are ways that you can approach it. Some are better than others I'm sure, but in, in general, that's something you can get better at. You can find even better and better ways to convey the thing that you want to convey.
Dylan Mattingly: (15:21)
But the other part of it is figuring out what you want to convey and that's, uh, it's difficult. And I think it is something that it specifically requires that capacity to stop and think. To be able to really look with perspective at what you're trying to do or not even yet what you're trying to do. Look with perspective at the world as it is, and it's totality. And figure out what it is that you want to create. What is the thing that makes sense for other people to experience for my life to, uh, to show and direct out of this like massive, super abundant world of, uh, tiny little idiosyncrasies? So that question is, that's a really difficult one. And in some sense, I think in the general path of composers, certainly in musicology and in the general education of, composers, it's probably talked about too little. Because my sense is the reason is, because it's really hard to teach somebody that. You can bring somebody into a class and teach them about orchestration, how to write for the various instruments. But it's really hard to teach someone how to come up with the thing that matters the most.
Samantha Rose Hill: (16:26)
Yeah. Well, I think, I think you're talking when you say with perspective and what's difficult to teach, you're not talking about skill you're talking. I think about having an aesthetic sensibility that attunes one's senses in a way to the world around them. Let's go back to silence because this is something that you were talking about in your introduction. And I think gets to this in another way, when we were listening to the music together, just now in those spaces of silence, my heart started beating a little bit faster, and these are really erotic spaces between swells of thinking. And I don't mean erotic in the sexual sense, but in the sense of eros of having eros. And there's just enough silence to begin to crave, to wonder if there's going to be a little bit more, and then you give it to us and then you take it away again. And there's that push and pull, you said it throws you in and it pulls you out. And so it's this wave. And I think in a way it's capturing what art describes as thinking out of order, but it's also centering the importance of those spaces of silence and what happens there.
Dylan Mattingly: (17:54)
Most of your life to some degree is spent in on the spectrum from silence to music it's spent in silence. I listen to a lot of music, but, uh, I would guess the most of the time there's no music playing and it is the world that is playing. And that is, uh, certainly it's abundantly not silent, but it is that feeling of non-music in some way. The goal here is to be able to create that fullness within this moments of silence. So you're not hearing it as the empty, but that somehow what the music is doing in, in this instance, is providing you with that yearning within the silence where suddenly you're listening to the same silence that was there you know, 25 seconds ago before you started hearing music, but you were hearing it with tentacles reaching into the past, into the future. And that has a lasting impact beyond what the music itself can do, because then you're hearing, hearing the world as it goes on.
Samantha Rose Hill: (18:50)
Who do you think with when you're writing? So I asked you to think with Hannah Arendt. I'm wondering who else you think with in conversation and the silent dialogue of your own imagination?
Dylan Mattingly: (19:06)
I would say that the prominent answer here is Darwin.
Samantha Rose Hill: (19:12)
You know, I should have been expecting that answer and yet I was not expecting that answer.
Dylan Mattingly: (19:19)
Samantha Rose Hill: (19:20)
Tell me more!
Dylan Mattingly: (19:21)
So he's the second book on my stack here. That's holding up my phone, my, uh, audio device. But I'm writing a big piece that has to do with Darwin right now. But I've been thinking about this question in a similar light with respect to Darwin, as I'm reading The Voyage of the Beagle right now, which is, so wonderful. Darwin is extremely receptive to the world in a way that I just find endlessly wonderful. There are all sorts of things that you can see that he's clearly missing as a, you know, 20 something year old on this, uh, on this voyage in 1833. He looks at things and sometimes they're like, oh, Charles, you've got that all wrong! But that's like a very subterranean part of the experience because what you get overwhelmingly is that Darwin is the most interested person who's ever lived.
Dylan Mattingly: (20:07)
It's just like everywhere. He looks, he is like, wow, like look at this. Uh, I, I cannot believe, uh, that I'm seeing this or whatever it is. And I've been thinking, thinking with Darwin as well about like, how do you capture that feeling, uh, and that experience and give that to other people or, or to yourself. And that felt like a very resonant question with the question of Arendt and thinking, because it, I think it is a similar sense of receptivity in that like, and that silence is, is also a prominent part of it because if Charles Darwin was, you know, walked out, walked out into Brazil and is looking at all the wildlife and there's music playing and like he's watching a movie or something like that sort of, uh, action that's being taken upon him would render him unable to look at every tiny, weird little like worm and be this blank slate. And so I think that question of like, how do you create this radical receptivity to everything in the world feels really prominent in both Darwin and Arendt.
Samantha Rose Hill: (21:07)
I think you're really getting out a fundamental distinction that Hannah Arendt draws in The Life of the Mind between knowledge and the work of understanding. Knowledge is this desire to grasp, to possess, to name. To have a knowledge that we can use about the world around us. And in many ways that accumulation of knowledge deadens curiosity, the curiosity that you're describing in Darwin's work and in Arendt’s approach to thinking, whereas the work of understanding is about how we tell stories. It's about how we create meaning. It's about opening up a space for thinking. I mean, I wanna come back to eros and I wasn't expecting to do that in a way, but I think that part of what you are describing is the ways in which music can open the mind to kind of erotics of thinking.
Dylan Mattingly: (22:13)
It is endlessly fascinating to me, the capacity that music has in that direction in relation to language, because certainly, you know, there is erotic capacity within language. Undoubtedly. There is something really interesting to me about what specifically, what music can do in that it has this physiological creative ability. And you can give people that change in feeling and you can affect their experience in a way that with language like it, it takes, it takes translation in several different ways in order to get to that spot. And music does have the ability to give you that instant feeling that can then point you towards the thing that you might think, but it, it, you're not, you're not getting there by going through linguistic comprehension first, you're there by like immediate feeling
Samantha Rose Hill: (23:04)
Arendt talks about thinking in terms of linguistics, in terms of language. She doesn't really write much about music. She doesn't mention it even in The Human Condition when she's talking about works of art and yet, and yet in her correspondence with Jaspers, she says that there is no power greater than music. That music is the greatest pleasure. And I think we often think of music as pleasure, as something that we take pleasure in, or that we turn on to escape, or to keep our mind busy while we're doing tasks or driving. But what you are describing is a different way of thinking about how we engage with music altogether. Music speaks. Music has a grammar. Music isn't about turning off thinking, it's about turning on thinking. Can you talk a little bit more about that distinction and how we form relationships to music?
Dylan Mattingly: (24:11)
Sure. Yeah. I mean, I think that, I think part of it is, is imagining a more Arendtian view of thinking than, well, you know, I guess capital T thinking in some sense than, uh, than we normally think about thinking. The musical experience does feel separate to me than the everyday thought that makes up most of the substance of our life. Mostly we live life thinking about that, you know, like I've gotta to send a bunch emails. The, the dog is hungry. You have to fed the dog. I like that sort of thinking is, uh, it's consistent and it's there and it's always playing. And I, I think that music, it does feel separate then, and maybe even separate than a, kind of like a baseline of, of reading and understanding, it does feel separate than reading an essay that makes you say like, okay, yes. Uh, good. I've I've learned now, now I know about this thing, but I think that music does feel very resonant with Arendt’s view of that capacity to disrupt, uh, with thinking to, to step outside of that straight line, that's carrying you through the day through thought and, uh, have you really truly think, and I, so I think that music, well, I think, yeah, go ahead. Yeah,
Samantha Rose Hill: (25:21)
No, I think you're capturing the ethical political dimension of Hannah Arendt’s work on thinking, which is not about the endless stream of thoughts that we have, but is about stepping out of the harsh light of the public realm into a space of solitude where we can engage in the two in one conversation that we have with ourselves. It's a space where the self consciousness can engage with the conscience. And then that opens up a dialogue in us that might change the way that we think. It might change the way that we relate to ourselves and the way that we act in the world and relate to others. And I think that's part of what I personally love about your music. It always reminds me a bit of Walt Whitman “Song of Myself” that there's this reflective space that really opens up for the listener that you are giving them through composing. Do you think about your work as having an ethical and political dimension?
Dylan Mattingly: (26:28)
Yeah, I think the answer to that is definitely yes. And definitely separating the possible ways that we could think about, uh, ethics and politics. Cause I think that very specifically my music has no capacity whatsoever to like argue for universal healthcare or make any sort of like specific political claims. Like I think if I wanted to do that, it would be in writing. I don't think my music has any special ability to do that. But I think that in terms of the cap capital P political and yes, in that ability to experience the private also, uh, as you're referencing, I think absolutely my, my music has that, uh, intention. And that, that is something that artistic experience can create. Cuz I think it can offer a window. That window doesn't have to lead towards self-reflection and doesn't have to lead towards incredible thinkings.
Dylan Mattingly: (27:17)
You know, sometimes it, it might indeed just lead towards pleasure, which I might argue does have indeed the capacity to pull you out of your, uh, everyday life. And it might lead in, in other directions. But I think that more than anything, it does have the ability, uh, like real, I guess, artistic experience with the capital E uh, as John Dewey might describe it like it does have that ability to take you out of the way that you're looking at the world and give you the chance. I don't know what you'll do with that chance, but it gives you the chance to then potentially rearrange things.
Samantha Rose Hill: (27:48)
I wanna talk about that chance. I wanna talk about the chance and I, I wanna talk a little bit more about pleasure. So according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American spends 16 minutes a day thinking. Now what people hear when they ask, how much time a day do you spend thinking, who knows? But I can tell you that people spend anywhere between three and five hours a day watching TV, and another four and six on the computer, and 16 minutes a day thinking. Your music in our age of inattention, of noise, demands attention. I'm going to say you intentionally compose music that demands attention, that demands one sit still. One opera that you're working on right now, Stranger Love, I believe is six hours. Is that right? Six hours. And the next project, which you've already mentioned on Darwin will be, I assume of equal or longer length, is that right?
Dylan Mattingly: (28:57)
Undetermined how long it'll be, but I'll certainly be outside of the norm of your experience,
Samantha Rose Hill: (29:05)
Which is what we're talking about. So can you talk to us a little bit about attention and maybe the relationship between attention, thinking and pleasure.
Dylan Mattingly: (29:17)
There are forms of art that aren't demanding in that way, which can be wonderful. I think about something like, uh, sculpture, for instance, where you could certainly see an incredible, uh, compelling sculpture and say like, wow, it's, this is, you know, demanding my attention, but for the most part, like it is there and you can walk past or not. And, uh, there's that possibility of this perfect alignment with, uh, what you're seeing and the, the feeling of your life and, and having an incredible experience with it. But it there's a kind of, what could be seen as almost a generous lack of demand from, uh, a physical object. Music is music is in time, there might be ways you can finagle that around the borders, but in general, music is a temporal experience. And so because of that, it is, I think, fundamentally more demanding than other art forms.
Dylan Mattingly: (30:05)
It is saying like, you will be here for this many minutes and throughout that time is an experience that, uh, I presumably have some imagination of what it will be like for you. And I am like putting you in that position. And so I think there is something, there's something significantly demanding about music in general. And I think that as a composer, it's a responsibility in some ways, uh, to use that, uh, to the greatest effect. And I think that at the same time, I wouldn't be a composer if I didn't wanna be. I think that there are incredible experiences that are available to you through that time. And that I, I would argue with a, you know, a six hour opera, I've heard people be like, oh man, that's so long. My counter argument to that is, what are you gonna be doing for those six hours? Like I've spent the last 10 years trying to figure out the absolute best six hours that you could possibly have. Like that's gonna be way better than whatever else you were gonna do for those six hours.
Samantha Rose Hill: (31:01)
It's a title of some future book, The Best Six Hours. That's the instrumental way to think about it, which is in many ways the opposite of what we were talking about. But I think what you are describing is an aesthetic experience and the truest sense of the term and in German, it's “ästhetische Erfahrung” and that actually has the word to drive in it. It's very much related to our drive, to our desire. And when we have an aesthetic experience, we allow the will inside ourselves to bend in a way that opens us up to transfiguration, and a great work of art can have that effect. One of the things that I'm always struck by in your compositions is the utter sense of joy. There's a kind of love, there's a kind of joy that there's not even the slightest hint of cynicism. And I was wondering if you could maybe just talk to me a little bit about the kind of affective element of the aesthetic experience that you design that you create and curate for your audiences?
Dylan Mattingly: (32:19)
That question is like, okay, you are coming to this experience. You are giving that time. That precious time that, you know, makes up the stuff of life to this experience. What do I want for you to live? The answer is, is joy. Art is, it's like a fundamentally utopian endeavor, you know, uh, you have this like capacity to create a world. It's like, okay, we're gonna enter a world. And what do you want that world to look like? They're endless answers to that question. Endless ways to think about it. I could spend a million lifetimes coming up with all sorts of different answers to that question, different music. But what is better than the absolute most joyous experience? And, uh, I think more than anything, the thing I think about is, uh, how to kind of allow people to experience the things they really love about being alive in the world. Partially because they know better than I do. So like, you know, if I, if I create a musical experience, that's like, uh, okay, I, I love baseball. Uh, like not, everyone's gonna love that piece, but if you create
Samantha Rose Hill: (33:21)
Which you've done, haven't you?
Dylan Mattingly: (33:23)
Yes. I think, yeah, to some degree I've incorporated my love of baseball into music. But if you create a, if you create an experience that allows people to love the things that they already love, then that has a lot of ability to make people happy. And, uh, making people happy seems like a really wonderful goal. Along with giving people the capacity for that perspective, to be able to see their lives and to, and to truly think these are all things that, that can help fundamentally of a life, which also gets back to your previous question about the political and ethical capacity of what I'm trying to do, which is, uh, something I think about a lot in terms of politics. This question of like, okay, you know, politics very important. Why is politics important? One of the main reasons politics is important is because politics is a, a very useful and, uh, often efficient way of improving people's lives. Universal healthcare has the capacity to make people's lives better. And while writing a piece of music entitled universal healthcare is a great idea, like it's not gonna have any effect. Politically, there is the, also the capacity for writing music that makes people's lives better. And so it, it has a, it has a similar aim. It's looking towards the same thing, doing it a different way.
Samantha Rose Hill: (34:35)
Dylan, you've created the image in my head of forcing politicians to sit in a room and listen to your music, which I might start lobbying for.
Samantha Rose Hill: (35:00)
Arendt gets criticized a lot for separating the passions from politics. From separating emotion, from politics. But one of the things that you have brought up a couple times now is love. And Arendt's first book is on concepts of love, and she talks about love and eros throughout her work. And she's not talking about petty bourgeois romantic love or the feeling of falling in love, but she's talking about what she calls a amor mundi, which is a secular political conception of love that allows us to care for one another and the world around us, this idea that we have an ethical responsibility towards the earth, which we inhabit and that we build the world in common with one another. Have you thought about love and politics and love in Arendt? And I know this is a bit of a softball to use a baseball metaphor, but I just want you to tell our listeners a little bit perhaps about some of your work and how you think about love and your music.
Dylan Mattingly: (36:07)
This is right at the forefront of most of my thinking. And as, as you said before the title of the opera is Stranger Love. That can have a variety of meetings as well, but, um, it examines love, uh, it examines love between two people. It examines that love between oneself and people with capital P and between the love of oneself and life and the universe. That question is, is really fundamental. And they, the idea of this love of the world in all of its totality is at the heart of what I'm trying to do. I think in, in general. And it, it gets also what I was saying of allowing people to love what they, what they love and to experience the things that they already truly love.
Samantha Rose Hill: (36:52)
So Hannah a wrote a letter to James Baldwin and she said in politics, love is a stranger. What would you say to Hannah Arendt?
Dylan Mattingly: (37:03)
Um, well, I, I like that. She's s quoting for my work, you know, that's exciting. I can see the sense where like political action is a stranger to the emotional capacity of love, which is not rational. I say that in the most positive, uh, term, and I think, uh, I think I'm getting this right, that, Arendt says, the opposite of the beautiful is the useful
Samantha Rose Hill: (37:31)
Is not the ugly,
Dylan Mattingly: (37:32)
But the useful, not the ugly, but the useful. And this feels like a, this feels like a related concept to me. And that, that feels also very prominent in, in imagining what art is and can do. Certainly it is not there to provide a use value. It is not something that we can quantify based on what it is doing. It is there because that is a wonderful goal of human experience is to experience this beautiful thing and to provide that sort of, uh, beautiful love of the world into the life of each individual. And so I think that you can see that in a similar way with politics where you might imagine that politics is, is separate from love in a way like that, where they are doing different things, not necessarily that like a politicians cannot love.
Samantha Rose Hill: (38:14)
It just makes me think that we live in such a moment where we are busy, 24/7. Everybody is rushing from one thing to the next. And we live in such a commodity culture where we're taught to constantly sate all of our desires and that all of our desires can be easily sated. If we don't like it, we can swipe, turn, flip, change. And this to me seems, is very, I don't know, antithetical to the kind of aesthetic experience that we're talking about. Do you think that it's possible to, I'm gonna use the word teach reticently, do you think it's possible to teach or open people up to craving more instead of trying to just sate the immediacy of whatever desire it is that they're feeling?
Dylan Mattingly: (39:11)
Yes, I do.
Samantha Rose Hill: (39:14)
I think we're in the minority.
Dylan Mattingly: (39:16)
We might be in the minority of people who are trying to do it, but I don't, I'm not sure that we're in the minority, uh, of people who would, uh, agree if they really had the chance to think about it. It feels, um, related in some sense to, to a secular culture. Like I'm an atheist. Like I, I have no real religious connection. I guess I'm technically Jewish, but like I have no connection to religious tradition really. At least on a conscious level. And yet like that really just impulse, in some sense, like the desire for transcendence, the belief that there is more to this experience than we might I initially imagine that I do think is something that is very, very common. And so to imagine that there's religious space for that in many, many communities in the world, but there is also secular space where that is perhaps like not a supported, like feeling on its own. That feels like part of this question to me. That I do feel like, you know, there, there are places, there are places that many people go for that, and they get answers to various degrees and direction in their lives, uh, that like do different things. But for a lot of us living in a secular world, that's not actually part of the framework of, uh, of what we have set up. And so I think that it doesn't get a fair shake.
Samantha Rose Hill: (40:34)
It's the longing that brings us right back to this distinction between knowledge and understanding and shifting from a mentality of thinking that we can know everything to embracing the fact of the human condition, that we can't see the future, and we're never going to know everything. And so there's always that space and maybe that's part of the space of silence. I don't think I'd quite connected those two before, but maybe that brings us back to those quiet moments where
Dylan Mattingly: (41:04)
I have been thinking about this, uh, the, these two different ways that I imagine looking at the world for the last several years where I noticed at some point that I could like walk up to a beautiful view, look out at the ocean, islands beyond. I would, I would think it's beautiful. It would be great. And I also have a part of my experience that's like, I want somehow to absorb this view. I want there to be some way that it can become a part of me, and I can just like eat it. And I feel that as a, as one possible mode of looking at beauty and I, and I wondered in that moment, like, is there another mode here, uh, that I could possibly achieve, uh, where, like, just as a witness, just like through these two, like, you know, one inch slits of visible light, I could look at that same view and be like, this is all perfect.
Dylan Mattingly: (41:56)
I am standing here as a human being who will live, uh, you know, 30 to a hundred years out of the vast history of a life. And I will see it for this one moment. And, uh, that is like the totality of this experience that I love it all in exactly this way. That question I'm like, can you experience it that way? Is, I would love to, I, I don't know exactly the answer, but it does feel like those two different ways of, uh, experiencing beauty are in some ways fighting an eternal struggle.
Samantha Rose Hill: (42:26)
There's an idea in there that perhaps making one self porous to beauty will in turn make us more beautiful, or allow us to create beautiful work. Dylan Mattingly. It has been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much! And thank you so much for accepting my, my dare to compose while thinking with Hannah Arendt.
Dylan Mattingly: (42:52)
Thank you! The pleasure was mine. I, I would do this for like 24 more hours, at least.
Samantha Rose Hill: (43:14)
Hannah Arendt: Between Worlds is a co-production of the Goethe-Institut and the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. It was produced and edited by Lisa Bartfai. Music by Dylan Mattingly. And it was hosted by me, Samantha Rose Hill. We have more episodes for you on thinking with Hannah Arendt now. Until next time!
Producer and editor: Lisa Bartfai
Music: Dylan Mattingly
Law and Philosophy Professor Anita L. Allen talks with Samantha Rose Hill about privacy, freedom, Hannah Arendt’s essay Reflections on Little Rock, and what counts as the political.
Hannah Arendt: Between Worlds is a coproduction of the Goethe-Institut and the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. This podcast is part of Hannah Arendt: Thinking is Dangerous, a project for thinking with Hannah Arendt about our world today.
- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Section II, “The Public and Private Realm”
- Hannah Arendt, Reflections on Little Rock
- Anita L. Allen, Uneasy Access
- Anita L. Allen, Unpopular Privacy
- Anita L. Allen, Why Privacy Isn’t Everything
Samantha Hill Rose: (00:59)
This is Hannah Arendt: Between Worlds, a podcast produced by the Goethe-Institut and the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. I’m your host, Samantha Rose Hill.
What do you consider to be a part of your private life? What about your public life? Are there certain things that you’d rather keep to yourself? What about intimacy? How do you decide what goes in the private column and what goes in the public column? Much of our contemporary era is defined by the collapse between public and private life today with the rise of social media in digital technology, which is always within arm’s reach
Anita Allen: (01:37)
The cultural tendencies of the last 20 years, 25 years towards disclosure, whether it's on television and traditional media or on, on, on new media, it has led to a kind of coarsening of our society. And also it's led to just plain old invasions of dignity and loss of freedom.
Samantha Hill Rose: (01:57)
When I wrote to Anita Allen, a professor of law and philosophy to talk about digital technology and privacy today, she wrote back immediately. She said, “I have very major objections to Arendt's Little Rock essay, it's awful, but her account of the origin of the public and private distinction greatly influences how I teach and write about policy.” So Anita and I talk about Hannah Arendt’s essay “Reflections on Little Rock” and the public private distinction, and the relationship between the two. For those of you who aren't familiar with Hannah Arendt’s essay “Reflections on Little Rock,” it remains her most controversial essay.
Samantha Hill Rose: (02:46)
The journal Commentary refused to publish it in 1957. And it was only published two years later by Dissent Magazine, after the critical responses had already been published. In the essay Arendt rejects to the Brown v. Board decision, which overturned Plessy versus Ferguson, and the doctrine of Separate but Equal. She argues that the federal government cannot enforce social equality because for Arendt social equality isn't a political question. She doesn't put it in her public column. Instead equality is something that has to be won person to person. And she also argues that school children should not be mobilized to fight the political battles of adults. But Anita was one of those school children. And in this episode, she talks about her experience of being a child integrating an all-white school. And I take off my Arendt hat in this episode and talk with her about Arendt's failures of imagination and judgment, and her refusal to visit the American South.
Anita Allen: (04:02)
Gay people have been severely punished for appearing, Black people for appearing, Hispanics for appearing, Chinese Americans for appearing. So many groups in the United States and elsewhere around the world are being punished for, for seeking to appear. And Arendt, she was so brilliant, could have said a lot more about the price of those appearances.
Samantha Hill Rose: (04:22)
Anita L Allen is the Henry R. Silverman professor of law and professor of philosophy. Allen is internationally renowned as an expert on philosophical dimensions of privacy and data protection law. [Music] Welcome Anita Allen. It's a pleasure to have you on Between Worlds!
Anita Allen: (04:58)
And it's great to be with you. Thank you.
Samantha Hill Rose: (05:01)
Thank you. Thank you so much for joining me today. So maybe just to start, I immediately thought of your work on privacy when I was putting together this podcast, because I wanted to dedicate an entire episode to talking about the public private distinction. And I love the response that you sent me, which was, “oh, I love Arendt but oh, she gets so much stuff wrong, too.” And could you just maybe talk to us a little bit about how you came to know Arendt’s work in your own relationship with her thinking?
Anita Allen: (05:34)
I started to wonder about the public private distinction in the 1980s. So many American scholars were deconstructing the public private distinction, arguing that it's not a distinction, that is a distinction that, in fact, the, the realm of public and private are blurred and that talking about the private sphere as if it's separate from the public sphere has just facilitated private violence in families, facilitated the neglect of people with legitimate claims or basic needs made against their government, and that we need to move beyond the public private distinction. So, I went looking for philosophical sources to illuminate me on this topic. And as you know, in the 1980s, there were still not yet a lot of things written about the public private distinction or about the right to privacy. So I found Hannah Arendt and I found her book, The Human Condition, and I found her quite interesting and excellent analysis of the public private distinction as we inherited it from the ancient, uh, Greeks and Romans.
Samantha Hill Rose: (06:37)
For those who maybe haven't read The Human Condition, Arendt draws this distinction between private life and public life. And then she also talks about the rise of the social and the private realm. The word she uses in German is raum, which means space. The private space is a space of the oikos, of the home and the public realm is, uh, where we appear before others out in the world. And we kind of don our persona, our mask of appearance. I'm curious, how do you approach this distinction in Arendt’s work, if you read it as something kind of hard and fixed or something porous? And how you think about this distinction between private and public today and in light of the technological revolution that we're living through?
Anita Allen: (07:28)
As you say, she distinguished between the public realm, which was for her a political realm, the polis and the home or the household, the oikos, the oikos being the realm, as she called it, of necessity. Whereas the political realm or, the polis, a realm of, of freedom or, or action. And the assumption in the Greek and Roman times, of course, is that there be a male head of household who would rule over wife, children, and, uh, servants, slaves even. And that the really great men, the men who were successful in their, in their private lives could become citizens and would be a part of the ruling of the entire society. And then she felt that that distinction was not adequate to capture modern life. So she added that the modern times have added a social realm. A realm which is similar to the private realm and that it, it addresses necessities, but it's governmental in its nature.
Anita Allen: (08:20)
And she was quite critical of the government entering the private realm. So what was useful to, to me about her work when I first encountered it was that it kind of suggested that it's not arbitrary that we consider sex and childrearing and marriage as private, because that's been a deep part of our, of our Western heritage and one that can be explained and even justified to some extent by our history. The thing which troubled me though, ultimately about her analysis is that she seems to disparage the idea that the government has a role in helping people to address their needs. So, you know, we need food and water and clothing, etcetera. We need a lot of things that we can't get all by ourselves, uh, based on our own private ingenuity and private resources. And so a liberal like me, you know, would find her, her disparagement of the social to be a, it's it's a conservative move. Right. You know, so there's a, there's a book that came out, think about 2012 called Hannah Arendt a radical conservative. [laughter from Samantha and Anita] And you know, this is this, this aspect of her work, I think earns her that title.
Samantha Hill Rose: (09:30)
Oh dear. Yeah. I mean, so this is, this is definitely one of the more controversial aspects of Arendt’s work. There's an interview panel that she does in 1972. It's at a conference on Hannah Arendt that she was invited to attend as the guest of honor and she insisted on participating instead. And at some point during the conversation, Hans Morgenthau says to her, “Right Hannah the social question, you don't really mean this, do you?” And she says, “Yes, of course I mean it. Let me give you an example, housing. Everybody has a right to housing. This isn't a political question.” But that's where she stops. And so she talks about rights and, and the way that, you know, the right to clean water or the right to housing, or the right to education. But for Arendt, these are not political questions, education, housing, these are not part of the political. How do you, how do you think about this when you're reading Arendt?
Anita Allen: (10:32)
I went to Arendt in part because I was interested in how to explain why abortion and birth control should be deemed private, right? Cause we've always considered childrearing and childrearing to be, to be matters of the oikos, but it turns out that her list of what's private is not my list of what's private. Her list of what's private is not John Stuart Mill’s list of what's private. In fact, John Stuart Mill would've said the government has a big role to play in child rearing and childbearing rights that we would be appalled by in most liberal democracies in the 21st century. So lesson learned, people who make the public private distinction won't necessarily classify the same things as public and private. And that means we're always gonna be having these debates about what the proper boundaries of self and other, government and citizen actually are. We're still having those debates today. And we, they recur, you know, in different iterations.
Samantha Hill Rose: (11:27)
So what is private for you? What would you put in that space of privacy?
Anita Allen: (11:32)
In the digital age? I would regard it as subjects of privacy into information that's identifying. You know, could be a person's name, their, their street address, their, um, religion, their, their trade union membership if they're in the EU. So aspects of our lives that are traditionally intimate along with information that identifies us are among the things that I think are deserving of private treatment. And we should have, I believe, good law that protects important types of privacy. And generically that would mean things like obviously healthcare privacy, health information privacy, Google records, maybe our driver's license records should be, should be private, financial records. Like that's a big one, right? For me, the bank banking records, cuz for me, actually, financial privacy is even more important than medical privacy. So those kinds of things. So, so in, in the information age, what we're seeing is that because of “big data” and algorithm use and automated decision making, things that we used to be able to hide quite easily or to hide from some people quite easily are harder and harder to maintain any kind of control over or ability to conceal at will. And so we're struggling right now to find what balance of law, self-regulation, culture, norms, what kinds of laws, privacy laws, antitrust laws, intellectual property laws can help us to, to maintain a sense of privacy. Because I think for me, and for many people, privacy does go deep into the basis of human dignity and autonomy. And these are threatened when we live in a world that's overly panoptic that sees everything, knows everything and therefore controls our lives.
Samantha Hill Rose: (13:12)
I'm wondering, you said at the beginning of our conversation that you started getting interested in the public private distinction in the 1980s, and it's the end of the seventies and the early 1980s, when antitrust laws are relaxed in this country, kind of enabling corporations to grow in certain ways. And I'm wondering if there's a relationship between those moves and the loss of privacy in part that we are experiencing today in the ways that you just talked about?
Anita Allen: (13:42)
Well, it's a common point. Uh, not one I invented, a common point, that the size of some of our big tech companies, some of our Silicon Valley companies is enormous. And some people think that only by breaking up your Facebooks of the world, right, can we begin to recover our privacy. Not so clear to me that breaking up would be the solution to privacy, but even if breaking up is a solution to other things, which is to say sort of monopolistic control over a mechanism of communication, for example.
Samantha Hill Rose: (14:14)
Do you think that people still want, want to hide things today? I mean, so on, on the one hand, you're talking about the legal side of this and certain protections or, you know, I go to my doctor's office and I'm handed 10 forms about signing over my medical information to all of these kind of technological aggregates that want to collect data or track my health, but at the same, there's this deeply human, I think, aspect of this that we're constantly giving ourselves away on social media, on forums. Is there still a desire for privacy in our world today, to hide things, to have intimate lives?
Anita Allen: (14:56)
I think, I think the answer is yes. I don't think it's as, um, global as it once was. I think that we are much more willing to talk about our personal lives and our personal selves today, which I think is ultimately, mostly a good thing. But on the other hand, it does seem to me that the cultural tendencies of the last 20 years, 25 years towards disclosure, whether it's on television and traditional media or on, on, on new media, it has led to a kind of, um, coarsening of our society. And also it's led to just plain old invasions of dignity and loss of freedom for a lot of people that our privacy is being taken away. The African Americans who suffer so greatly from over surveillance, this is a, a problem. And I think that we, we as African Americans do want to, to hide certain parts of ourselves because we are over surveilled and our information is used against us to exclude us from access to services and goods. And our information is
Anita Allen: (15:53)
used to target us for predation. And so absolutely I think people do want privacy. They still need privacy. Not everybody needs it the same ways, to the same extent, but a lot of us need a lot of it. And I'm glad that we have not only existing privacy law to protect us, but it looks like there’s some amazing new privacy regulation on the horizon. Now, as you know, California, Virginia, and Colorado have new state level privacy statutes, and many bills have been introduced in Congress in the last couple of years to create new privacy laws nationally.
Samantha Hill Rose: (16:27)
Maybe this is a good place to shift into talking about federal protections, which is something that I wanted to talk about. And maybe just to start with a general question, is there a relationship between privacy and the importance of privacy and federal protections or mandates?
Anita Allen: (16:45)
Yes. You know, and this is also a good moment maybe to, to talk a little bit about Hannah Arendt more because by the way, I, I wanna tell you how much I admire Hannah Arendt. I mean her bravery, oh my gosh. Reading her biography, her bravery, and first escaping from Nazi Germany in 1933, after being briefly jailed for trying to do some research on antisemitism and then, you know, moving on to other European countries and then ending up having to flee, I think it was Paris because she was arrested there and coming United States in 1941, what a brave, brave woman she was. And although I admire her bravery, I don't admire her views about government intervention. [Laughter] So for years I was, I cited her, her Human Condition book and, and her public private distinction analysis in I wanna say almost everything I wrote, every article, every book I was always citing. And then I came across her “Reflections on Little Rock” and I was appalled and suddenly I was less comfortable, citing Hannah Arendt in everything that I wrote. And, uh, we can talk about why. It had to do with, uh, what she says in her “Reflections on Little Rock” about African American mothers and children. Uh, shall I continue?
Samantha Hill Rose: (17:59)
You can, I'm cur I'm curious for you when you, you say mothers and children. And so that's actually not the point most people, most people make to me is not the education point first. For those of you who have not read Hannah Arendt’s “Reflections on Little Rock,” it remains one of her most contentious, if not the most contentious essay that she ever wrote. And she begins from a point of departure, kind of trying to imagine herself in the position of a Black mother being asked to send her child into an integrated school. Can you talk a little bit about how you read those lines when you encountered this essay and why that part in particular resonated so deeply with you?
Anita Allen: (18:44)
So she starts on page one saying, my first question was, what would I do if I were, were a Negro mother? And she says, under no circumstances would I expose my child to conditions, which made it appear as though I wanted to push its way into a group where it was not wanted. And then she asked the question, what would I do if I were a white mother in the South? And she says again, I would try to prevent my child's being dragged into a political battle in the schoolyard. Well, I had a Black mother and the very same year that Hannah Arendt wrote this paper, arguing against federal intervention to desegregate the schools of Little Rock, Arkansas, I was actually sent to a all-Black kindergarten in Anniston, Alabama in the basement of a Presbyterian church. It was a one-room schoolhouse. Because of segregation
Anita Allen: (19:41)
I wasn't able to go to the same school that the other children who were white on the military base, where my father was stationed, Port McLellan, Alabama, attended I had to go to a special Black school, which meant getting on a government, federal government bus, being bused to a street corner in Anniston, Alabama, where the teacher picked me up and took me to her house. And then at school time, she drove me to the church and then after school, she would drive me back to her house and back to the school bus stop. I'd get on the bus and go back to the army base. So why did my parents want so badly for me and my, my five siblings to attend integrated public schools? Answer, because there was not a system of adequate schools in the South for Black children. They were inferior schools, schools with inferior facilities, inferior textbooks, inferior sports programs, great teachers, because of course, African American teachers pretty much had to teach in the Black school. So the problem wasn't the teachers, the problem was the other resources. And so my parents were among those who put us on the front line. So as soon as they could, we were integrating school. So when I was in the seventh grade, my father dropped me off one day at a school called Forest Park Junior High School in, uh, outside of Atlanta. And I integrated the seventh grade. [Laughter]
Anita Allen: (21:04)
I think it actually was maybe the eighth grade, but I integrated the eighth grade, let's say at Forest Park Junior High School in, uh, in Forest Park, Georgia. And did my parents do something bad to me? Did my Black mother make a mistake in putting me on the front lines? I would say, absolutely not because my parents had the wisdom to know that over time, these private sacrifices and risk taken by Black families were going to reap benefits. And I would not be a graduate of Harvard Law School, of the University of Michigan's philosophy department with a PhD, had my parents not had the wisdom to be part of the Civil Rights movement and to yes, force integration on Black Southerners and white Southerners alike.
Samantha Hill Rose: (21:50)
And you use the phrase, private sacrifice, and here, maybe we see Hannah Arendt’s distinction falling apart a little bit in the way that you're reading this essay the private sacrifice for a political cause. But Arendt makes it very clear in this article that it was wrong for Black mothers to put their children on the front lines of racial integration, because for her education is not a space for politics. The schools are not a space for political battles. And we see this argument come back in her writing on civil disobedience and on violence in 1968, 1969, when she argues against the creation of Black studies programs and against the Black Civil Rights movement. And I'm wondering how this public private distinction that she wants to draw. There's two sides to it I think in, in the way that I've always read this essay. One is the kind of social, very personal side that you are talking about. And then the other side, which is the political argument that the federal government is overreaching into the private lives of citizens and that the decision in Brown v. Board is trying to force a social question that has to be won person to person.
Anita Allen: (23:17)
Yeah. So, so Hannah Arendt believed that education is an extension of family life, right? [Samantha: Yes.] And that to force a parent to send their child to a integrated school is to interfere with the family. You're, you're entering that private realm in a, in a completely unjustifiable way. And she had that view, even though the schools in question were public schools paid for by the tax dollars of Black and white citizens alike. And yet the Black citizens were unable to attend those schools. So the characterization of public schools as a private realm just doesn't make any sense. At least not to me, I sort of get the idea that education and family are deeply connected, which is why we allow for homeschooling, right? And we allow some groups like the Amish to take their children out of school at age 13 in Wisconsin, Supreme Court case held that, held that but publicly supported, publicly funded schools, North or South, are not social realms that should be left to family discretion.
Anita Allen: (24:32)
Arendt, ah, interestingly analogizes forcing your way into a public school if you're Black to her as a Jewish woman, forcing herself into a white country club. But what a telling analogy, I mean, it's sad in a way, because here's a woman who left Nazi Germany because she was Jewish and her very life was, was threatened. She comes to America and she doesn't understand that discrimination based on one's race isn't just a matter of the social and the private, that these are fundamentally important, public matters. It was odd to me that she, of all people would reach that conclusion. But putting that aside, I just think she's, you know, was sort of blind to this, the significance of first of all, education as part of preparation for democratic participation. And, and secondly, she was just mistaken about the, the hurt, the pain, the suffering that Black people endured because of segregated schools.
Anita Allen: (25:33)
She thinks it's all about, you know, oh, the, the ego, the pride, the, of a person being where they're not wanted. No, you know what, um, Samantha, when I was forced to go to, to white schools by my parents who wanted to integrate, I was, I would say welcomed by the white children, I'd say 98% of the children were extremely welcoming. I had no trouble whatsoever after a week two or three or four, making friends, being accepted on sports teams, being everyone wanted me on their soccer team. Everyone wanted me to be on part of the school newspaper. I was admired for my academic abilities. I was never, um, disparaged by my teacher. The white teachers were always very supportive of me. And so there were, yeah, there were incidents. I could cite you incidents of being called names and so forth, but that happened in the North as well. And that's okay. I mean, being called a name once in a while is okay, you can deal with that. I think that that Hannah's assumption that, that the white children, because of their upbringing would be extremely resistant to Black children or would be incapable of kindness is just, I think it's extraordinary.
Samantha Hill Rose: (26:40)
I think it's actually, I mean, I think it's a little bit, the word I was gonna use is permanent. Okay. I'm gonna, I, I, I've been wearing my Arendt hat and I, I tend to, I tend to always wear my Arendt hat. I'm gonna take it off for a second. The word I wanted to use was pernicious. I think it's, you know, you use the lovely phrase of, you know, education is, is necessary for democratic participation. And this is a wonderful, almost philosophic ideal that I think about a lot. And for Arendt, the space for education doesn't have anything to do with discrimination. She says that the classroom is like the polis in the sense that it's a place where people can apper before equals as one another. And so she understands the classroom space is this wonderful, uh, uh, tabula rasa blank slate, where people can, you know, appear as who they are and not be judged for what they are. So it's this vision of what our educational institutions are and what it is that they should do. You know, right now we're living in a political moment where our educational institutions are being incredibly politicized. It seems almost impossible to even get into this mindset about studying or education that Arendt is assuming here in making this argument.
Anita Allen: (28:09)
So having lost the battle to keep Blacks out of classrooms, some people want to win the battle to keep Critical Race Theory out.
Samantha Hill Rose: (28:39)
So that passage that, uh, we, we both had flagged in the “Reflections on Little Rock” essay. The part that has always, I guess, jumped out to me is at the beginning where she says that I should like to remind the reader that I'm writing as an outsider. And then she says, I have never lived in the South and have even avoided, I've even avoided occasional trips to Southern states because they would've brought me into a situation that I would've found unbearable. That word “avoided.” It just hangs there for me. And the argument for those of you who have not studied philosophy for a living, the argument in part that Arendt is making is very Kantian. And she's making an argument for an enlarged imagination. This idea that we can imagine the world from the perspective of another, by exposing ourselves to other people, to other ways of life, to arguments, to texts, to music and so on.
Samantha Hill Rose: (29:43)
And this idea of having an expansive imagination for Arendt is central to her understanding of the banality of evil. She says what Adolf Eichmann lacks was the ability to imagine the world from the perspective of another. And here we have Arendt not just kind of exhibiting an absence of imagination, but we have her saying that she avoided that she avoided actually interacting with the American South. And I'm just wondering if you can maybe talk to our listeners a bit about the kind of philosophical argument that Arendt’s making in her public private distinction here, but also in the way that she's approaching the Brown v. Board decision in particular.
Anita Allen: (30:29)
She's approaching the Brown versus Board decision. And then the decision of, uh, president Dwight Eisenhower to, uh, send in the guard as forms of public intrusion into private life and private disputes. As if the president had sent the army into someone's living room to help decide which television station to watch, or, you know, whether to, you know, read the Bible to the children tonight, right? It’s that kind of thing. And so, so she's making, I think a, a fundamental mistake about the nature of the legitimate boundaries on the use of public power. Now, I, I totally get that there's dangers in using public power and there's dangers in public intervention. We don't want the, the government to be having its nose stuck into all of our, all of our affairs, but this particular affair, which is to say the education of Black children is something which I think the government and the Supreme Court, not, not, not just the legislative branch, but the Supreme, or the executive branch, but the Supreme Court, the judicial branch decided, in fact, all, all parts of the federal government were aligned here, right? Rare, right. Aligned that something needed to be done in response to Martin Luther King's request, the NAACP's request. And these nine children, the Little Rock nine children who integrate. Something needs to be done to protect these children and those who came after them. So it's quite appropriate. She used the word avoid the way I read that, the way I hear that is her saying that I have a choice and I made a choice to not go to the South. Well, guess what, Hannah Arendt? I would say if she were here today.
Anita Allen: (32:14)
My great, great grandparents were enslaved people who were brought over from Africa against their will. They didn’t have a choice to avoid the South and then guess what their children and their grandchildren and their great, great grandchildren did not have the ability to avoid the South. Both my parents were born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. I am one of the few people in my family, one of the first and few to actually leave Georgia [laughter] and go to the North. My family was not part of the great migration of African Americans that moved to Chicago and other cities, Detroit and so forth during the 1930s and 1940s. So we stayed behind and a part because we were too poor to move. So not everybody had a choice, has choice about avoiding the South. The South is our home for, and some Southern cities are majority Black cities who still, you know, lived under the yoke of segregation, despite being majority Black.
Anita Allen: (33:11)
It's a luxury if you can avoid. And she was fortunate to be able to flee Germany because many Jewish women were not able to flee Germany. And she was lucky to be able to flee France because many Jewish women were not able to flee France. So this is the ugly head of privilege, right? That sometimes our socioeconomic status and our educational status actually prevent us from seeing how people who are at the bottom of the, of the heap, what they're stuck with and what they need to do in order to fix their lives from where they are stuck, where they are. Right. And she was lucky to be able to move on, to get to a place of freedom in her life, which she did beautifully. But some of us were not able to escape so easily and we're not able to avoid so easily. And so my response to your question is, you know, partly philosophical, but also partly, uh, psychological experiential.
Samantha Hill Rose: (34:07)
So Arendt draws this distinction between social equality and political equality. And in On Revolution, she writes about it as the social question. So she, she argues that there's a distinction between socioeconomic equality and political equality, which is the rights of citizens, which are afforded to them by a state. Is it possible to think social equality with political equality while still kind of safeguarding the need for privacy, see the need for a public life? And how can we think about social equality and political equality?
Anita Allen: (34:50)
As I indicated earlier, the, the problem seems to be what things are theorists like Hannah Arendt or people like me going to include in the private and what things are gonna include in the public or the social? And, um, some of the things to worry about are of course, voting rights, access to public accommodations, like hotels and restaurants, use of buses and trains and airplanes, right to marry who you wanna marry, and control over one's own body. It's implicated in issues like abortion and, and birth control. She chose to put in the social realm and in the private realm, some things that many others would say don't belong there. And from based on those premises, we move on. What was her philosophical argument for construing education as private and for construing access to whatever seat you choose on the bus as political or social, but justifiably regulated by the government.
Anita Allen: (36:04)
It seems a little bit arbitrary to me. It actually undermines her entire distinction between the private, the public and the social that I don't always see arguments good argu-, not just arguments or any argument for her placing things where she places them. She asserts and then she almost premises of assertions, she, she makes other assertions and then gets to conclusions that sometimes to me are, are very much the wrong conclusions. So, so marriage, for example, she thinks it's obvious that marriage would've been a great place to begin with the Civil Rights movement, because clearly, uh, the right to marry the person of your own choice is a decision which should be left to, uh, the individual and the government has a role there in enforcing that. But yet the Southern states say, we don't wanna associate with interracial couples. We don't wanna associate with the mongrel children who are produced by interracial couples. What's Arendt’s response to that gonna be? Because the same kinds of reasons that white people didn't want to allow their kids to attend integrated schools were the same reasons they didn't wanna approve interracial marriage. In fact, it was because interracial marriage involved close association between whites and Blacks, that the Southerners didn't want that. So Arendt’s characterization of marriage is somehow more suitable for public regulation than education. Again, I kind of get it if I put myself in her head space, but yet it's, it's kind of an arbitrary head space.
Samantha Hill Rose: (37:37)
In a way this brings us back to the question of federal regulations and mandates. And one of the thoughts that I've been turning over for the past few weeks in light of the recent Supreme Court decision around Roe has been that Arendt would have kind of resisted for the same reason that she resisted Brown v. Board. She would have argued in favor of Roe. And I don't know if that's right, kind of moving in her head space as it were, but there seems to be a marriage, gay rights abortion, which she, of course she was alive when Roe v. Wade was decided. There is a nice letter from Gloria Steinem in the archive asking her to sign, uh, a petition supporting women's right to choice and she doesn't respond. But there seems to be a kind of consistency in her thinking about the overreach of the federal government, having an impact on democracy. And there's this idea that she's, you know, kind of always moving us toward, you know, almost towards even the Jeffersonian ward system, town councils, politics at the most local level possible. So I was wondering about you read her on local politics and then her kind of anxiety about the overreach of the federal government that we see throughout her work.
Anita Allen: (39:06)
She does defend states’ rights explicitly in her work. Doesn't she? And she argues that if we give up on the regional, and the local, we're gonna undermine the very basis of our, of our society and of our, our country. So for that she's suspicious of efforts by the states to limit certain kinds of rights like the right to marry. And perhaps if you suggest the right to, uh, reproductive autonomy. But again, I think that her defense of states’ rights, especially using the discourse of states’ rights, puts her in bed with some of the most, you know,
Anita Allen: (39:45)
scary, dangerous moments in American history and some of the most, uh, right wing divisions in, in our country. So I don't know why a, uh, a recent immigrant to the United States would choose so soon after arrival to conclude that the regional and the local are critical to our nation's future. And that all this emphasis on using governmental power, federal power is dangerous, limited to certain things. And what are those certain things gonna be? Why abortion, why not school? Why not abortion? Why not schools? Why not voting? Why not marriage? Why not? All of it, you know, public accommodations, all of it. Cause all of it seems to my family to be critical to, to having a, a, just an equitable society and a just and equitable life for people who happen to be Brown. And Hannah Arendt doesn't talk about justice as much as some people who are political theorists do. She talks a lot about equality, cuz she has to, she talks about power and authority. And I think that maybe a more justice focused perspective,
Samantha Hill Rose: (40:52)
She would, she would have, I can feel her in my head kicking and screaming, “That's not, that's not political.”
Anita Allen: (40:58)
That's not political. Exactly. Just as it's some sort of private ideal or some, some utopian ideal. Great if you can get it, but it's not a a a, yeah, it's not something which government is, is, has the, has the, um, authority to impose upon people who don't, who prefer to be prejudiced and narrow minded and unjust.
Samantha Hill Rose: (41:20)
And this has always struck me as a contradiction in her conception of the political. And I think that this gets read in different ways when people are reading The Human Condition. So some people read this part of Arendt's work as wanting to defend discrimination, as wanting to defend almost a right to prejudice, or others read her as a kind of Millian, which she, she hated Mill. I think she would've protested that. But she makes the argument on, on page two of The Human Condition. She says that, “every part of life is touched by the political.” And then she draws this distinction between the private and the public to talk about the need for a private life and the need for a public life of appearance, where we can be seen in speech and action. And she says that courage is the political virtue, par excellence, and that to appear in public and to speak and to act requires courage because you have to be willing to risk yourself. But what she doesn't say is that not everybody feels equally comfortable stepping into the public because of certain forms of, uh, socioeconomic privilege, or uh, social inequality. On one hand, she gives us this ethical imperative that we all have a right to appear and to exist. But on the other hand, she doesn't, she doesn't help us get there. She gives us the kind of ideal for it
Anita Allen: (42:47)
When the price of appearing is lynching. Right. You know, I, I talked a lot about African Americans, but you know, gay people have been severely punished for appearing, Black people for appearing, Hispanics for appearing, Chinese Americans for appearing. So many groups in the United States and elsewhere around the world, the Uyghurs in China are being punished for, for seeking to appear and Arendt could have said a lot, she was so brilliant, could have said a lot more about the price of those appearances. Uh, there's a discussion she has about freedom of expression, where she argues that, well, the purpose of freedom of expression is for us to be able to persuade other people. And I thought that's an interesting take on freedom of expression, because I think that freedom of expression can be used to persuade people, but it can also be used for simply for expression [laughter] or to, you know, to, to, uh, to comment without, to want to debate or persuade anybody just to share an idea or a viewpoint.
Anita Allen: (43:49)
But that, that notion that, that these political rights we have are about ultimately about persuasion, which is, you know, this political activity is an, is an interesting take. It's almost as if she over politicizes freedom and over politicizes, uh, the choices that we make as, as human beings, as artists, etcetera. Cuz it's all tied to this marketplace of ideas and not, cuz you know, she did hate Mill, I agree with that, but this idea that, that at the public sphere is where we can come to persuade others of our viewpoints and we may or may not win, but that's, what's all about persuasion as opposed to expression, sharing, challenging without persuading, you know, eh, and making people think harder, right? Those are some of the other things that we use our free expression for.
Samantha Hill Rose: (44:36)
I like the idea of over politicized freedom. I mean, because she has a very idiosyncratic conception of what political freedom is and her concept of political freedom doesn't have anything to do with those other forms of expression, artistic creation that we engage in. She's imagining this kind of public space where we can appear before others. And we can engage in these vigorous conversations where speaking as a form of political action and we can debate. But I think it's also a reflection of how deeply the idea of conversation was to her thinking.
Anita Allen: (45:20)
That's actually one of the more interesting things about her work that I, I find quite appealing actually, her interest in conversation, which is different from persuasion, right. But it's, you know, it can, they can be related. And her interest also in love, you know, so you know, her, her doctoral dissertation was this amazing, um, book about St. Augustine and love. I mean, that was an amazing project early in her career that in some ways did not predict the direction of her scholarship all together. She was able to reflect about love at a time when maybe she didn't foresee quite how horrible things would turn in Germany or, um, or elsewhere in the world.
Samantha Hill Rose: (46:04)
No, but we, we, we get her secular conception of love as amor mundi in the dissertation on Love St. Augustine as a way of, of caring for one another, caring for the earth that we inhabit in the world around us.
Anita Allen: (46:19)
I'm a law professor, as you know, and I, I teach, uh, personal injury law, Tort law. And this idea of a duty to others duty to one's neighbor is core to Anglo American common law of torts, and I thought, boy, I, I need to think about Hannah Arendt more in connection with my teaching about tort law, because it's not only is there this sort of phenomenon of duties to others, but some of those, there's also the sense that, that, that loving others is a sort of a challenge, maybe a paradox, but a challenge of modern life.
Samantha Hill Rose: (46:49)
I wanna circle back a little bit to dignity, which is, is a word you brought up a couple of moments ago. So when we think about privacy and the need for privacy to live a fully human life, to ensure that we have a space of solitude where we can think and nourish our intimacies and relationships and retreat from the world, there is a very political side to the right to privacy. And I'm thinking of prisons and the number of incarcerated peoples in the country who are forced to live a life outside the public. Can you maybe talk a little bit about the political dimensions of privacy and how we can kind of complicate Arendt’s distinction even further?
Anita Allen: (47:40)
Before I directly answer your question, I wanted to mention that the first state Supreme Court case to recognize a right to privacy was around 1906, a case called Pavesich versus New England Life Insurance Company. And it was about a man, white man who, uh, woke up one morning and found his photograph had been used in an advertisement in the, uh, Atlanta newspaper without his permission. And the judge who heard his case invented the right to privacy and said that when a person's privacy is invaded, he is to that extent, like a slave bound to a merciless master. And I love the thought that there's a connection between privacy and slavery. And I've tried in, in recent times to do stuff with that idea in my own work. So when you raise issues about prisons and jail, and I think about African Americans and the, uh, incredible over incarceration of Black people, especially Back men, I think about this idea of privacy and slavery because Angela Davis has written brilliantly about the ways in which the current prison system is simply a continuation of slavery.
Anita Allen: (48:46)
She's, she's made that historical line between slavery to private prison systems and to the modern prison where it's all about social control of Black people, social control of people, social control of Black people. The loss of privacy that goes with prison life, the panoptic implications of prison being observed all the time, having no ability to seclude oneself and not be observed. All of that to me is like slavery. And when you think about the analogy that, uh, judge Andrew Jackson Cobb, uh, who is a white Georgia, judge, who's actually the son of, of slave holders and the nephew of key members of the Confederacy, he understood it. He saw that taking away people's privacy is like making them slaves and making people live in conditions of unprivacy like prisons is keeping people and forcing people into conditions which resemble the horrors of chattle slavery.
Anita Allen: (49:42)
So, um, that may not be quite what you were looking for, but that is one way in which I think about the connection with privacy. I've actually argued that the eighth amendment, which is our in the United States, the eighth amendment is, is a amendment, which, um, prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. I have argued that the eighth amendment should be used much more than it is to attack the unnecessary losses of privacy that go with prison life. Obviously when you're in prison, you can't have that kind of privacy you have in the, in the outside world. But I think that some prison systems and procedures unnecessarily deprive people of privacy. There's no reason why a person has to, um, you know, have, uh, as many body cavity searches and cell searches and, and phone call, uh, listen ins as they, as they do in the modern prison. On the other hand, in some ways, people in prison have too much privacy, right? The whole super max phenomenon where people are put in small cells and kept there 20, 23 hours a day, let out only one hour for a little bit of walk in a cage. That's also cruel unusual punishment. So both the isolation that goes with prison can be cruel and unusual, and the deprivations of privacy and private choice and go with prison life can be deprivations of privacy can be cruel and unusual.
Samantha Hill Rose: (50:53)
In thinking with Arendt's public private distinction I hear you really complicating what is private, what gets put in the, the private box and what gets put in the public box. And part of that complication are the very things that aren't excluded from the political. Uh, social status, race, sex, gender, and thinking about the ways in which privacy is deeply affected by one's socioeconomic racial subjectivity within the society that we live in. So for people who are reading Arendt today, where would you point them? How are you thinking with, and or against Arendt today in your work?
Anita Allen: (51:39)
I do believe that the current time, may be the perfect moment for all of us to revisit Hannah Arendt’s substantial body of scholarship and public writings. And that's because she deeply explored democratic institutions and their opposites. And we're experiencing today a profound breakdown in democratic institutions across the world, in the United States and across the, the rest of the, uh, the so-called free world. So it's a good time to visit her, uh, thoughts about totalitarianism, her thoughts about the role of government, her thoughts about the, um, the vulnerabilities of, of, um, of people who are, um, uh, left out and her lack of thought about the, the people who are vulnerable and left out. You know, if you look at some, just some of the titles of her books, you know, Men in Dark Times, well, these are kind of dark times. And I think that we could, we could definitely benefit from revisiting some of her thinking. So I would recommend Origins of Totalitarianism, The Human Condition, Eichmann in Jerusalem, and then some of her collected, um, essays as well as her dissertation, because I do think there's lots of insights in there for our times. And it's a shame that more women philosophers don't get read anyway. And I think that she's one of the more prolific and interesting and deserves more attention from scholars.
Samantha Hill Rose: (53:05)
Anita Allen, thank you for joining us today. It's been a pleasure.
Anita Allen: (53:09)
It's been a pleasure
Samantha Hill Rose: (53:24)
Hannah Arendt: Between Worlds is a co-production of the Goethe-Institut and the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. It was produced and edited by Lisa Bartfai. Music by Dylan Mattingly. And it was hosted by me, Samantha Rose Hill. We have more episodes for you on thinking with Hannah Arendt now. Until next time!
Producer and Editor: Lisa Bartfai
Music: Dylan Mattingly
Architect Hans Teerds talks with host Samantha Rose Hill about how private and public space is designed, and how the spaces we navigate shape our daily lives.
Hannah Arendt: Between Worlds is a coproduction of the Goethe-Institut and the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. This podcast is part of Hannah Arendt: Thinking is Dangerous, a project for thinking with Hannah Arendt about our world today.
- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Sections III and IV, “Labor” and “Work”
- Hans Teerds, At home in the world: Architecture, the public, and the writings of Hannah Arendt
- Hans Teerds, Table settings: Reflections on architecture with Hannah Arendt
Samantha Rose Hill: (0:14)
This is Hannah Arendt: Between Worlds, a podcast produced by the Goethe-Institut and Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. I'm your host, Samantha Rose Hill.
Samantha Rose Hill: (1:00)
At the heart of Hannah Arendt’s 1958 masterpiece The Human Condition. She writes about the distinct ancient between public and private life. For Arendt this distinction is necessary to living a fully human life where we're free to move between the private realm of the home, where we can experience solitude and the two-in-one dialogue of conversation that I have with myself, and the public space of appearance, where we can be recognized by others, for who and what we are. But Arendt worried that this distinction was being lost to what she called, the rise of the social, or what we might today call the rise of modern mass society. Arendt was worried that everything made was becoming an object of consumption to be used and thrown away. And unlike Karl Marx, who she was criticizing, who had been concerned with the alienation of the laborer, Arendt was concerned with the alienation of objects, and what she comes to call modern worldly alienation.
For Arendt all thinking moves from experience and the things and objects we encounter in the world that give structure to the spaces we move between mediate, the experiences we have. So how has space changed the way that we think? When I began curating this podcast for the Goethe-Institut, I knew that I wanted to talk with an architect to explore the dimensions of public and private space, to begin to understand how the shapeliness of the world around us is informing our thinking today.
Hans Teerds: (02:51)
Politics is imagination, how things also can be different. Well, that's, that's, that's my daily practice. That's what I do as an architect. I try to think how things also can be different.
Samantha Rose Hill: (03:02)
Architect Hans Teerds and I discuss the importance of public spaces, where chance meetings and new ideas and strangers can bump into one another. At the same time, we discuss the essential need for private space where solitude reflection and critical thinking can happen. And we talk about how that space can be made available to everyone in society today. Even the unhoused.
Hans Teerds: (03:36)
In the United States, most of these sidewalks are concrete laps, but in, uh, Europe, it's often tiles just lift a few and put trees in it below the surface. There's the beach.
Samantha Rose Hill: (03:47)
Renegade tree planting.
Hans Teerds: (03:49)
Yes. So making it more green, this appropriation of these spaces or making it ambiguous, more ambiguous is just recognizing the potentials of a particular space in it.
Samantha Rose Hill: (04:01)
In this episode, Hans Teerds and eye talk about how private and public spaces are designed and how these spaces affect our daily lives.
Hans is a Dutch architect and urban designer who has spent a lot of time thinking with Hannah Arednt about the ways in which we make the world in common. And in addition to his private practice, he is also senior scientific assistant and lecturer at the chair of the university in the theory of urban design at the department of architecture at the ETH in Zurich, Switzerland. please join me in welcoming Hans Teerds to ”Between Worlds”, to think with Hannah Arendt.
Samantha Rose Hill: (04:52)
It's nice to be talking with you, Hans. And I want to jump right in. I wanna actually read you a quote from The Human Condition that you put at the beginning of Reflections on Architecture with Hannah Arendt. She writes, “To live in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those have it in common as a table is located between those who sit around it and the world like every in between relates and separates men at the same time.” Can you talk to us a bit about how you think with Hannah Arendt and why this quote is at the beginning of your, of your journal on, on architecture and Arendt?
Hans Teerds: (05:34)
Yeah. Um, that was, um, a very enlightening, um, quote from Arendt for me. And also for, of course the other editors with one, I made this issue when Arendt is writing quite a bit about things. You already said that in your, in the introduction, but these things well, that's, that's rather rare for political field so far, I have the idea. There's not so much, at least not to my attention, political, uh, scientist that really discusses the things and how they, what our relationship with that is in relation to the political realm and political life. And then the, uh, example of the, uh, of, well first say this Arebdt does not really mention architecture much, but table, as an example is a really revealing what he is talking about to my mind. Because when I think of a table, of course, I first has a have a physical object in mind, an object where we can sit around and where the people have a particular position.
Hans Teerds: (06:39)
So that's, uh, to my mind already an image of what she’s arguing, that it unites, it collect us around the table as well as it separates us. So we have a particular position around the table. And from that position, we take part in the dinner or in the conversation. But as an architect, of course, I also, I, I think not just the table, but I think of tables indeed, a dinner table or a table for, uh, what, what you have in, uh, in a cafe or, or at home that are different tables, of course. And they invite you for different meetings. You can say, or different events can take place around, uh, that table. There's really an, an image that as an architect, you can think in several ways about it because it's the objects, it has a particular form. The form really helps you, how you sit.
Hans Teerds: (07:29)
So a table in a meeting room where you have a meeting, uh, in a more business-like meeting, let's say that's rather a different table than, uh, a cozy place in, in a restaurant. Uh, of course, but then also of course, when you of the room and you see the table and it's nicely clothed, and what is on the table that already reveals, let's say the, what, what will happen there around that, that table in a way, as well as let's say, when you leave the table, you see quite a lot of traces, of course, what has happened around the table.
Samantha Rose Hill: (07:59)
The pleasure of cleaning up after the dinner party. The debris.
Samantha Rose Hill: (08:04)
I was wondering if you could maybe draw this to Hannah Arendt's conception of plurality in thinking about how none of us exist alone in the world. We all exist with others, we're all different. And how this informs the way that you're thinking about this table and the, the way ways in which we invite people in, or prevent them from coming in or say, keep out.
Hans Teerds: (08:31)
Yeah. The, uh, in that sense, the table is of course, a very physical, uh, example, uh, the way you sit around the table. I, I really take that rather, literally, that you are sitting on a particular place when there is a conversation you actually take part in that conversation from that position. That's rather literally, but when I, when I let's say transfer that to a more intangible, let's say position it's the, the world is our, let's say arranges and organizes our position in this world that we have in common. I do think that Arendt really argues that the position where we grow up and how we are, let's say, related to the world really condition us. So that means that that's actually preparing experience that you mentioned so that our thinking come from that experience, but that experience is really related to this well to many things, of course, to what happens, but also to where you, where you live and how you from there really experience this tangible world as an architect. Of course, then I think how I actually enter the public world going from the public to the private, it, that's already a way of, um, experiencing things, common world, or preventing the, of an experience of the common world
Samantha Rose Hill: (09:48)
And how you relate to yourself and to others. I think importantly, for Arendt the, the title, The Human Condition, that word condition there is doing a lot of work for her, or it refers to the conditions under which life is given to us, this condition of plurality that we appear in the world with others. But it, she's also thinking about the ways in which we are conditioned by the world around us and the things in the world around us and how everything we come into contact with immediately turn into a condition of our experience and our existence.
I wanna just kind of follow up on, on part of what you were saying about attending to this in between space, the “interesse”, that it goes on between us, that Arendt talks about. So we're living in a time of increasing social isolation, and I'm wondering how you think about plurality when it comes to design, how do the buildings, the streets, the sidewalks, the parks, the play spaces, the tables, the kind of material artifice of the world around us. How does that affect the ways in which we relate or don't relate to one another?
Hans Teerds: (11:01)
I think it has a, a real big impact on the, on this relationship on the, on one another, the way the city is organized, the particular strong figure is just an urban street and the urban street that's of course, a common figure in Europe, more than in America, I have to say, but a street, for instance, it's of course an infrastructure space, but it really organizes a mixed, uh, use an urban space really in a, in a downtown area, has shops has indeed also public, uh, buildings. It has dwellings. It has, uh, restaurants and cafes as well, which attract quite a mix of public in a rather concise area. So it's a, a street is a rather small space, but it has a lots of function. And this attracts quite a bit of people, different people, which is, uh, then a space that you are, then you have close relationships, you have to deal with the different, or with other people in that space.
Hans Teerds: (11:58)
But when you think of the more broad spaces where actually car traffic is dominating and, um, then you see that there's actually no reason to really relate to one another less pedestrians probably over there. Uh, and there's not a, an, a pressure or a density in this space, so you can really neglect one another, you could say. It's not that in the, in the city street, you will have conversations or so, but the awareness that you see, one another, that's a figure of, of public space, I think, which is important just to know that there are others with very different ways of living or experiences or whatever. Uh, that's the importance. I think
Samantha Rose Hill: (12:38)
The public space becomes a space for recognition for being seen by others. Which is
Hans Teerds: (12:46)
For, yeah. For, for seeing and being seen. That's important for hearing and being heard. This, this is for me also a very important note of Arendt, in particularly, of course, designers like me. We often start with a real idea of public space that we will create a space where people really sit and talk to one another. And that there's an exchange of an idea, this, this real idea kind of ideal of, um, of political life. That's what we have in mind, but I think it's, it's important to already know that rather qualitative, good design of public space that people at least make use of it. Maybe not in a real conversation with one another, but the moment that, that there is a possibility to see one another, the possibility to bump into one another, that's a moment of conversation often. That's important I think.
Samantha Rose Hill: (13:38)
So I'm, I'm curious about two things here. One is the privatization of these public spaces, which is what Arendt is talking about when she's describing the rise of the social, uh, where everything suddenly has a use value. And I'm also, I'm wondering about the imagination in design. So on the one hand we have, we have use objects, the things that we use on a daily basis, whether that's a sidewalk or a coffee mug, have a certain use value for us, but at the same time, these objects that we interact with have an aesthetic quality, they can also be art objects. And I'm, so I'm, I'm wondering about this tension between consumerism functionality use, uh, and, and design.
Hans Teerds: (14:32)
Yeah, I I've at least two, uh, responses there on two levels. Uh, because of course, architects they make use objects in a way they design spaces, they design benches, et cetera. But then of course you can do that in a very limited way. Yeah. So when I think of a bench, for instance, there's many ways to use a bench. So of course you can sit on it, you can lay on it, you can use it as a skateboard, uh, uh, venue, what you of course see in the city. And this is, let's say urged by of course, more safety, uh, measures of fear. Let's say fear shapes the city quite a bit. What you of course see is that benches that they are now designed in such a way that you cannot lay on bench to prevent of course, homeless, to stay on that bench.
Hans Teerds: (15:18)
Uh, and of course also the city is really not inviting skateboarders to make use of the spaces. They make it in such a way that it's really difficult or, or even dangerous to use these kind of use objects in other ways than actually thought of for me is this is really a limitation of these use objects, the ambiguous ambiguity that the use object can have. That's I think a quality and that brings us then also, I think, to the more the artistic side, but that's actually a quote from Arendt that I always am, am also a bit puzzled about, about it. So that's she's arguing that everything has a shape of its own.
Samantha Rose Hill: (15:57)
Yes. A shapeliness, the shapeliness of things.
Hans Teerds: (16:01)
Yeah. And on the one hand that's of course that reminds me of, uh, indeed a theater looks like a theater and a coffee mug is a coffee mug. You can see it it's a coffee mug, but this doesn't prevent it. Of course, that there is coffee mugs in many colors or in many shapes, we still recognize it as a, a coffee mug. That's I think the importance, because for me, this is part of the plurality of the world, and the plurality of the people.
Samantha Rose Hill: (16:24)
The kind of other side of the, the personal imagination and intuition that the architect is bringing to the design itself is then the experience that people have with the design, once it is implemented. And there's, there's an aesthetic idea that yes, that can lead to pleasure of some kind that we can take pleasure in the aesthetic qualities of the building, for example. But I think for Arendt it, there was also the idea that the, these things, these buildings, this artifice of the world helps us to create meaning. It's a form of storytelling to, to build these objects that then we navigate in our daily lives that give form to ordinary everyday existence. Do you think that it's possible to, I guess, two questions: is it possible to separate the aesthetic quality from the functionality? Would that be, no. Hans is shaking his head, No, at me, you can't see him, but I can. Um, okay. And the other question is; So then is there a kind of, I wanna say democratic promise in the relationship between what's possible aesthetically and the functionality of the design as part of the plurality of the design itself, those benches that you were talking about that prevent homeless people from sleeping, for example.
Hans Teerds: (18:02)
I will come back on that, on that later question, but I do think also that the first question that you, uh, that you mentioned is very important in our profession, particularly in early modernism that was of course, quite a revolution in architecture. And then there was actually the idea, for instance, by the architect Corbusier, that architecture also should be like a machine so that there is a kind of logic in the architecture, and that brings the new form or how we did it was rather poetically, I think. But of course, some of the, that turned into modern architecture. Sometimes it was indeed the idea that it was just form follows function. Now that slogan never really was meant to be like that. So there was always this kind of poetic, uh, idea I think, behind, but of course when cost needed to be reduced or, or in a kind of more dogmatic way, there was the idea that I dunno, maybe the idea was that the, the poetic or the, the artistic was part of the functional.
Hans Teerds: (19:00)
However, I, I do think that we have learned, let's say that that even a slogan, like that turned quite quickly in a more stylistic, uh, program. So the, the kind of modern architecture became stylistic, uh, uh, the function was less important than the, uh, than the appearance in the end. So in that sense, there's always been an challenge there. And I do think also that now with the new computation models, as well as algorithms, that there is still an idea, or again, an idea that we can objectify in the end architecture so that you can put it in the computer and the computer makes them the design. Yeah, well, you generated, and I don't believe in that in the end. I, I believe that there's always that even in the programming of the computer, there is a moment of choice and that's more or less the moment of aesthetics.
Hans Teerds: (19:51)
Uh, then so even in the end design never will be too, uh, generated by, by a computer. I think, well, at least I would also argue we should not do that. For me that's really an important aspect because for me in design, what comes together is actually the moment of judgment. So in design, you have to value the different, um, interests of course. And so it, it can never be the interest only of the developer or the commissioner. You always have to have people that have to live there or actually live in the opposite, uh, app opposite, uh, part of the street or that walk past it every day. It has an effect on the city. It has an effect on our climate. So there is many levels that you have to make a decision on it, and you can try to objectify that in a computer, but then you cannot explain it anymore to then you lose the political aspect.
Samantha Rose Hill: (20:43)
And it, and it strikes me that it becomes incredibly dehumanizing.
Hans Teerds: (20:46)
Samantha Rose Hill: (20:48)
There's a quote that I'm reminded of from Hannah Arendt’s note cards where she writes, I think it's a little kind of memo to herself, “The opposite of the beautiful is not the ugly, but the useful, the good for.”
Hans Teerds: (21:04)
Oh yeah. Yeah. That's a nice, nice one. Yeah.
Samantha Rose Hill: (21:28)
Can I, can I read you a quote from “The Crisis in Education,” and I wanna keep talking about the home for a second and, and then maybe go back to the public. So Arendt writes, that these four walls, and she always described the home as the “four walls”, and that's also how she described her second husband Heinrich Blücher as her “four walls”. So these four walls within which people's private life is lived, constitute a shield against the world and specifically against the public aspect of the world. They enclose a secure place without which no living thing can thrive. I'm really struck by the end of that quote, this idea of an enclosure, secure place that's necessary to not just to live, but to thrive as a person. Can you maybe unpack this a little bit?
Hans Teerds: (22:21)
Well, it relates back there of course, to the kind of holiness that she, that Arendt also attaches to the private realm in, um, in the, um, condition where she's really describing the wall as preventing, uh, a moment of prevention of the private, uh, there for my mind, there's, there's at least two levels. So there's life in public. It's really, it's of course, a harsh light. She’s really valuing it and she's engaging with it, but she's also aware that a life cannot be, you lived only in public. So there is always a moment that you need to step back withdrawal from the, from the light and well go back to yourself or to the members. Let let's say that, uh, uh, you don't have to wear your mask, uh, in a, in a way I, I think this moment of recuperation of also accessing your experiences thinking, uh, is also a way of, uh, you, you need this kind of solitude, uh, for that.
Hans Teerds: (23:18)
So that's this kind of withdrawal from the public space. I do think. Yeah, yeah, no, uh, I only wanted to add to that, that Arendt also argues that this private space that is within the, these four walls, she argues that it's also the space of love and mourning and, and things that you need to go through in Soli, maybe because it's also, it's not something that you can easily describe in words, I think because the, the public domain is of, or that pays off the, of words and actions and, uh, and these things, and some of these kind of personal experiences, they are, they are, they make you speechless. So that's not part of the part of public space, and it should be experienced in the private realm, uh, there, but this needs then protection, of course, from this kind of I, the public space that makes everything transparent for me, that's really also the figure of the homeless, uh, at the unhoused.
Hans Teerds: (24:14)
It's really hard for them. I think to keep up their dignity, if you always have to be aware of that, you are not safe, that you are even in shelters, uh, and how good they, they can be. But even then you are, you are not on your own little moment. You cannot withdraw. I think it's, uh, Seyla Benhabib that writes in her book, that's, uh, homeless that this experience that they sometimes are, are ghosts in our street. It's, it's maybe part because they don't have a place where they, where there's a real stable place in their life where they can just be safe. That's I think part of these poor walls that really are needed in the world
Samantha Rose Hill: (24:52)
When you're reading Arendt in The Human Condition on, on this distinction between private and public and the necessity of both to live a fully human life. Do you read that as an ethical command in a way as a designer to build spaces that allow for both private life and public life? And I'm curious more generally about the contemporary state of architecture and the ways in which streets and parks are being designed to, or intentionally exclude unhoused peoples.
Hans Teerds: (25:32)
For me, it's, it's an important lesson that people need home. So in that sense, it's when I think ethical and I think, yes, uh, the question is here, housing, can we really make that into kind of commodity? So real estate as a speculate speculative if, um, financial instrument that's, that's really a challenge. I think because that, that makes it, uh, that makes these high private houses with all their emotional aspects into commodities and that's a difficulty. And then the other thing is, of course, when I think of the unhoused, so that will be a problem of, it's not easily solved because there's lots of, um, uh, problems coming together there for me. First, of course, it'll be a challenge to create real good, on the one hand, shelters on the, the other hand programs. And in that sense also spaces to get them into houses that really needs guidance and, and social work architects.
Hans Teerds: (26:35)
We can, we can of course design these spaces, but that it's not the end of the problem. Uh, I, I, I have to acknowledge. And then of course, I also think that the city needs spaces where those people that really cannot live in houses that, or, or one of, or the other reasons are on the streets, that they can be safe as well, that they can appropriate for a while. And so these kind of programs that when you are in house and you get a fine, because you sleep on the bench or park, or, or you have your set your tent in a kind of, uh, green space somewhere, that's not a way to go, I think because that's only creating more problems. And so of course, we need to reach out, we need to help programs, but, but there will be people that, that in the end will still on the street and they have to be able to set up their private spaces. And then of course, I think of, but that's, that's of course more in the margin of architecture, there is also ways of providing little shelters, giving them a cart that they can turn into a tent or whatever. Uh, so to make their space a little bit more stable and safe and, and, uh, and private that that's important to me, these three levels.
Samantha Rose Hill: (27:46)
Yeah. I, I think that you're, you are describing the political stakes and the political importance of having these conversations in a public space to ensure that everybody has a right to privacy, a right, to a private home where they can have these experiences that you, you were talking about before so beautifully of intimacy of solitude that's necessary for thinking and of those experiences that we can't find words for. You know, I'm reminded of in 1972, there was a panel on Hannah Arendt that she participated in. And at, at the very end of the panel, Hans Morgenthau says to her, All right, so the social question, you don't really mean that, do you, what do you mean by that? And she says, of course, I mean, it, you know, let me give you an example, housing, the question of whether or not everybody deserves a home is not a political question.
Samantha Rose Hill: (28:45)
She says, this is not up for debate, but it is a political question of how we distribute housing. And I thought that was an interesting example that she went to in particular, because she spent so much of her life as a stateless and homeless refugee, eighteen and a half years. And when she's talking about home and heimat, which is not, doesn't quite translate to home in English, but includes all of the other elements of being at home in the world, like language and comfort in one's manners and disposition, she talks about durability and the need for durability, while thinking about the fragility of the buildings and streets and lives in which we live. Can you talk a little bit about home and durability and public space?
Hans Teerds: (29:39)
Yeah. Um, sometimes I think it's also important to maybe call it now permanence because durability has, well, at least in my profession, uh, really this connotation of, um, sustainability, uh, as well. And of course it's, it's all related that's of course. Um, when I think of sustainability, then of course, I, I, I sometimes think of, of buildings that they make from, uh, from carton, for instance, paper, you can, you can have it for two, for two years and easily replace it by something else. And then you still have no waste because you can reuse it or make other, uh, boxes from it. But for me, the importance is indeed the permanence that you really can root somewhere. It starts just by little experiences. I think when you be at home somewhere, you have these kind of parts that you always walk in your house, or so that even you can walk around with blinded eyes and you still can grasp, uh, something from the, from the fridge or, or, you know, let's say how things.
Hans Teerds: (30:38)
And, and so that attaches you, I think, to a particular place. This is not only in your house, but also you have that, these kind of paths outside of your house to the bakery or to the particular cafe or to you, the Metro station, or so that's, that's, let's say ways of embedding yourself in the world. I think, uh, that's making your, also getting to know the world through your own paths. And permanence is sometimes I think, long term. But I experienced this myself as well when I was at Bard and we lived in New York and we had a, and my, my oldest son was one year old and we walked with him to the bakery every day. And just by doing that, and by, by getting to know all the shops and, uh, cafes, and, uh, in the end at the bakery, they recognized her. So of course, with the baby that happens even in New York, but that makes yourself at home. So even in a city like that, you can have these kind of, uh, paths. It's of course, extremely difficult I think in, in our current, uh, is in cities, but it's possible. I think that that's the, I think also the, that's the power of permanence that you are on a particular place and that you really try to adapt there, adapt, embed yourself in that particular place.
Samantha Rose Hill: (31:55)
And that, and that you can form habits, habits. Yes. And it's such a, it's such a beautiful example of thinking about how architecture mediates our experience of everyday life, because the design of the town or city we live in is going to give form to those walking paths, to those habits, to the bakery, to the coffee shop, to the dinner place, to the park. Do you have any advice about how to think about designing public spaces that can invigorate community while nourishing the need for solitude in privacy?
Hans Teerds: (32:31)
When I started my, uh, PhD in research, I actually thought that I would create a toolbox for architects to design public spaces. But that's of course not knowable like that. The thing is, uh, yeah, so the thing is, of course I have learned that we as architects, we can, we, we only create conditions. So the moment that we make a fantastic public space, but no one appropriates it, and it's an empty space in the end. This is of course, uh, the end of my job, you could say, because I know also really bad spaces, but since they are on the right location, they're fully occupied by people and they enjoy life there and they meet one another. And so, uh, in that sense, bad spaces can be appropriate and still a good, uh, in, in the end, it's a, it's a lively, vital public space.
Hans Teerds: (33:23)
What we can do is create the conditions so architects can create the conditions. And I do think that it's in, in that sense, I, I see quite an attention on public space right now. Meaning that there is more quality is more eye for detail. So there is when I think of public spaces from the nineties of last age, then it was all let's say on a, on a very tight budget, but there's now quite a bit of budget to create more nice spaces. The difficulty here is the moment that you create more nice spaces. Often also smoothening the public life. So these spaces are not meant. These are rather exclusive in the end. So a little bit roughness,
Samantha Rose Hill: (34:00)
The highly aestheticized places become exclusive.
Hans Teerds: (34:04)
Yeah. Yeah. So it's all, it's a fine line. Sometimes you, you need to leave it rough so that people can really appropriate it themselves. It doesn't have to, sometimes you need more, bigger spaces. Sometimes you need smaller spaces. It's, it's all, depending on the conditions on the circumstances, that's the difficulty here.
Samantha Rose Hill: (34:22)
You have me wondering how we can go out and appropriate the sidewalks for more ambiguous use?
Hans Teerds: (34:30)
Well, that's, that's of course what you see in the kind in the kind of reclaimed the streets, a movement, so that they pull out a, a few old banks in the street and they start, uh, barbecue there, or, uh, or they, or they, uh, appropriate and a parking a lot indeed with nice benches and some greenery or, uh, appropriate in the public space. It's as simple as that's a kid go out and create a painting in, on the, on the street or with chalkboard, for instance. So that's of course the, the sidewalk is, is mentioned for walking, but of course you can create, it's a converse as well, and you can put out your bench lamp and, uh, uh, you can, of course, I know that in the United States, most of these sidewalks are concrete laps, but in, uh, Europe it's often tiles. So what, what is mentioned, just lift a few tiles and put trees in it below the surface. There's the beach!
Samantha Rose Hill: (35:23)
Renegade tree planting.
Hans Teerds: (35:25)
Yes. Yeah. So making it more green. No, that's uh, so the, this appropriation of these spaces, it's, it's the, or making it ambiguous more ambiguous is, is just recognizing the potentials of particular space.
Samantha Rose Hill: (35:54)
Hannah Arendt was a very spatial thinker. And by that, I mean, she was a writer of space. She was interested in how we appear private, how we appear in social spaces, how we appear in public spaces and in The Human Condition, which was published in 1958. Uh, she talks about these different spaces that we navigate on a daily basis. And I think it's worth noting that when she's talking about these spaces, uh, the public, private, social they're in English, they're often read as sphere or realm, but when Arendt translated the book into German, she wrote raum. Raum, which means space. So in your work, you talk about turning to The Human Condition for a vocabulary of architecture. And you talk about four principles about how we think about space with Arendt. Can you walk us through that?
Hans Teerds: (36:57)
For me it has been very important that Arendt really writes space in the end. So before I started to read on Arendt, I, I was, I knew this concept “public space” of course, but also more the political side. And then I always had public sphere, public realm, public domain. So how does that relate to concrete space? And of course, I started to learn, let's say that public sphere is actually more the termed that Habermas use, but that Habermas has this, this, and the, kind of the idea of the rational and, um, that there might be a consensus in the, uh, in the end, the moment that we have a rational discourse and that Arendt has a more agonistic approach for me, that that has been very important because the, and of course we, we, I said, we only create the conditions of this kind of political life, but the idea that public space is not a space of, um, coziness.
Hans Teerds: (37:55)
And that's the common image. Of course, when you see projects, architectural projects, uh, presented, then it's, then these public spaces that, uh, people, of course they are all good looking people and they're shopping or they're dancing, or they're sitting on terrace, so all nice. But of course, this is not our experience of public space. Indeed. You can have an accident, you can bump into someone else or fall from a, from a stair or whatever. It's important to acknowledge that. But also then let's say this creates a space also of plurality for me, this kind of idea of consensus or coziness that creates this kind of smoothening, the smoothing out everything that we don't like. It's hard to say, we, we need to design spaces for in-house people or, or young people that, that want to make noise or, or do it, whatever, uh, the teenagers that say that also need their meeting spaces, but it's important to acknowledge that, that we need spaces for these people.
Samantha Rose Hill: (38:50)
And we, we don't have to like everything that's going on in the public space to acknowledge that everybody has a right to be there.
Hans Teerds: (38:59)
No, but for, for an architect, it's really hard to say that you should not design everything, because our incentive is to design everything. So, uh, to, until, until the, the final nail, uh, let's say, in the woods. So, uh, but that's, that's so we, we also need to leave room for, for things that happen that, that, uh, that might happen, but that that's really, uh, difficult design question in the, uh, in the, to do that.
Samantha Rose Hill: (39:24)
The unpredictability not
Hans Teerds: (39:28)
Unpredictability. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But then for me, what, what has been important in the end is that public space is in, is, is, um, the space of appearance. So that brought me actually to the question of the, of the threshold. So this is, this for me is the most important design question. That's where actually the private and the public touches upon, uh, each other. So that's the tension where you, where you withdraw or where you appear again. So, but this, this is a moment also, um, also a physical moment. It's, it's, it's a, it's a real line. You, you go from one temperature to the other, there it's you go from your own, uh, safe, uh, surroundings and everything, you know, into the kind of unknown. So this, this is, this is an important moment. And then I think, um, so the, the facade, often we architect, well, there's many ways to design the facade, but there's moment of, of entry. The entrance is a very, very important moment. And also the window, of course, because then, and then, but that's about be well, not being seen, but, but seeing others, uh, in, in a way you can, you can say, but so, but of course the entry is not just a door. You have a canopy, you have a stoop, uh, maybe you have an entry in whole. So yeah. The threshold can be a space in its own. Um, yeah, that, that have been, that have been real important insights. Uh, for me, uh, this transition, this moment.
Samantha Rose Hill: (40:56)
I'm really reminded here of Walter Benjamin’s quote, from The Arcades Project where he says we have grown poor and threshold experience.
Hans Teerds: (41:08)
Samantha Rose Hill: (41:09)
We've lost the threshold.
Hans Teerds: (41:11)
That's, that's also the modern, I think, in, in, in, uh, well, you, I cannot generalize it, but what you are seeing, particularly in the more poor, let's say modern architecture, everything was rather flat. So there was no room for, for an extra gesture, let's say at the entrance. Uh, so an extra canopy or, or indeed a little bit of an niche or, uh, but that's all, all really important to create this, this, this, uh, the is moments, this, this threshold experience. Yes. Uh, yeah.
Samantha Rose Hill: (41:46)
And spaces where the private can start to spill out a little of that threshold onto the street, onto the front yard, onto the barbecue on the sidewalk.
Hans Teerds: (41:55)
You can put your plants on the stoop. So that's, that's what happened. That's what's happening. Yes, yes.
Samantha Rose Hill: (42:02)
Yeah. So I have, I, I, now I have to, I have to add just one more question, because I think you're also touching on Arendt's distinction in The Human Condition between labor and work. Because there's the physical act of, of building and labor that goes into the construction of a design, but on the other is the kind of creative element that you are describing of, of imagining building of the aesthetic judgment. And do you, do you think about these distinctions in your own practice between the kind of homo favor, the hands that build and the design, do you think Arendt’s distinction holds up or do we see it collapsing in architecture?
Hans Teerds: (42:41)
Well, building is actually then the more every day, uh, uh, environment, or that was that, that what actually is, is, is, is totally, uh, justified only by economic calculations, let's say. So that's the majority of the building environment. The end is not the building, but the profit. So that's, uh, when, when I just, uh, cut, cut the, cut the corners, let's say, quickly then it's, that's the, the distinction and the current condition. Do we still have architecture, right? Is there still an architecture that is able to unite the people, or is, is this kind of economical thinking also, uh, have, have a grip now on architecture? When I take serious Arendt's idea that the environment that, that they really, that is really conditions us, then I think this, this political idea that architecture unites us and separates us as, uh, uh, well to, to refer to the table again, this is also part and parcel of our everyday environment.
Hans Teerds: (43:43)
We should not lose that. Uh, we should not leave that to the market of economics, but we should, should see how important that is politically. So I would not, uh, I, I don't agree there with, uh, well, I see the, the division, but I'm afraid of this division because, because it easily neglect the things that, that to me are really important, the every environment, but then of course, the, um, had this, this artistic or, or, or the idea of imagination for me, that's indeed bringing in the action part. The, the idea that you can, that, that this brings us really close to, to what Arendt writes about politics. And so politics is imagination. How things also can be different. Well, that's, that's, that's my daily practice. That's what I do as an architect. I try to think how things also can be different. And I hope that I can do that for the people and not against the, with regard to gentrification processes, for instance, uh, yeah,
Samantha Rose Hill: (44:47)
The world can always be other than what it is. And we have wonderful people like you thinking about these questions on a daily basis with, with people like Hannah Arendt. Hans Teerds, I think that's a wonderful place to end our conversation. And I wanna thank you so much for being with us on this podcast. This conversation could, could keep going on.
Hans Teerds: (45:12)
Samantha Rose Hill: (45:32)
“Hannah Arendt: Between Worlds” is a co-production of the Goethe-Institut and the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. It was produced and edited by Lisa Bartfai. Music by Dylan Mattingly. And it was hosted by me, Samantha Rose Hill. We have more episodes for you on thinking with Hannah Arendt now. Until next time!
Producer and Editor: Lisa Bartfai
Music: Dylan Mattingly
Hannah Arendt was a stateless refugee for nearly 20 years of her life. In this episode host Samantha Rose Hill talks with Professor Stephanie DeGooyer about Arendt’s phrase “the right to have rights,” and what it means to be a citizen in the world today.
Hannah Arendt: Between Worlds is a coproduction of the Goethe-Institut and the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. This podcast is part of Hannah Arendt: Thinking is Dangerous, a project for thinking with Hannah Arendt about our world today.
- Hannah Arendt, We Refugees
- Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Chapter 9, “The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man”
- Stephanie DeGooyer, Alastair Hunt, Lida Maxwell, Samuel Moyn, The Right to have Rights
Samantha Rose Hill: (00:13)
This is Hannah Arendt: Between Worlds, a podcast co-produced by the Goethe-Institut and Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. I’m your host, Samantha Rose Hill.
Samantha Rose Hill: (01:04)
Hannah Arendt was a stateless refugee for nearly 20 years of her life. Forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1933, after being detained by the Gestapo for eight days for conducting antifascist research at the Prussian state library, she was released by as would later come to say pure luck. She fled to Paris where she lived for the next eight years, helping Jewish youth immigrate to Palestine before she herself was forced to escape an intern camp in the south of France in the spring of 1940, with the help of the American journalist Varian Fry and the Urgency Rescue Committee, Arendt was finally able to escape Nazi occupied Europe and immigrate to New York City with her husband Heinrich Blücher in the Spring of 1941.
Stephanie DeGooyer: (01:54)
So she knew firsthand that when you're stripped of your status as a citizen and rendered stateless, that human rights, which are supposed to come in effect for you, are supposed to be there to protect you, don't. In fact, being stripped to the position of a human is an extremely precarious place to be.
Samantha Rose Hill: (02:16)
Right now over 80 million people around the world have been forced to flee their homes. Among them nearly 26.4 million are refugees. Around half of whom are under the age of 18, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
In this episode, I talk with Stephanie DeGooyer about what it means to have rights today and whether or not Hannah Arendt’s concept of the, to have rights holds up in our world now.
Stephanie DeGooyer: (02:48)
I get emails from time to time from students and from people who really want “the right to have rights,” to be a kind of progressive prescription for how those who are right-less and disenfranchised can signify or enact their rights. And it is always so hard to nuance and explain the difficulties of that. When so many people really just want a kind of quick slogan or energy or feeling to signal their anger.
Samantha Rose Hill: (03:13)
Stephanie is assistant professor in the department, English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She's the co-author of The Right to Have Rights.
Samantha Rose Hill: (03:39)
Stephanie DeGooyer, welcome to Between Worlds. It's a pleasure to have you on this podcast.
Stephanie DeGooyer: (03:44)
Oh, hello. Thank you for having me Samantha.
Samantha Rose Hill: (03:47)
So when we started planning this podcast about people who think with Hannah Arendt, I knew right away that I wanted to have an episode about rights and refugees. Arendt was a stateless refugee for 18 years, almost 20 years of her life. And that has always seemed so integral to me about her person, her politics, and her writing, and you edited and, and published a book on the right to have rights thinking with Arendt, not so much kind of diving into secondary scholarship, but really trying to wrestle with the contemporary refugee crisis today. And so I'm wondering if we can, can just start with you maybe explaining, uh, to people who aren't familiar with this phrase of Arendt’s “the right to have rights,” what the right to have rights is and what drew you to Arendt’s work on this and her and her work from the forties and fifties?
Stephanie DeGooyer: (04:45)
That is, uh, a great, huge question, but I'll start with why I came to co-author this book. The right to have rights in many ways is a phrase that's taken from Arendt in two places. She speaks of it in the ninth chapter of The Origins of Totalitarianism, which is the book she wrote after coming to America as a refugee, her first English language book. But before that, a few years before that, she had also spoken of the right to have rights in, um, a labor movement magazine called The Modern Review in a article that was called “The Rights of Man, What Are They?” She speaks about this maybe twice, three times, and then never again, in, in her work, which of course is very significant. She has written a lot, but I'd say beginning in the 1990s with a bunch of historians and philosophers and political writers, the right to have rights became significant again.
Stephanie DeGooyer: (05:45)
Um, and a lot of people started to think with it. And so when I was in graduate school, for example, we would read Judith Butler's theoretical musings on the right to have rights. She's published a bit, or, uh, Sayla Benhabib, about her writings on the right to have rights. And so it became a kind of, it, it had a kind of political theory philosophy attached to it, um, that I, I was familiar with, and it all centers around the kind of question for what is the right to have rights? And how does it work? Is it the same as human rights? I mean, is it just a kind of longer roundabout way of saying human rights or is it something different? And that was something that myself and the co-authors Leda Maxwell, Alastair Hunt and Sam Moyn, we really wanted to, um, break the phrase down and really sit with what it means for Arendt.
Stephanie DeGooyer: (06:36)
I mean, there's lots of writings on what other people think it means, but we really wanted to sort of pull it apart. And it was no easy task. What happens is, is when you begin to study it in how it appears in Arendt’s work, and then what it means within the context of that work for me, I came away and I'll speak to this in a second with a more sober realization of what Arendt was meaning when she said the right to have rights for some people. It's a kind of prescription for a positive politics or a kind of radical claim that is supposed to be enacted for people who don't have rights. But when you follow down what it means for Arendt, it becomes something that's no longer possible. And really this comes out of, as you suggested, her own experiences as a refugee.
Samantha Rose Hill: (07:31)
Stephanie, can I ask you to define positive politics for our listeners who haven't studied political philosophy?
Stephanie DeGooyer: (07:39)
Yeah. Another word, a, a word, you know, that would, would make sense here is affirmative. When you hear the right to have rights. I mean, this is a phrase that people use, you can go in to Twitter right now and type it in, and you will see people using it without any connection to Arendt. It has this sense of something's happening. It's a right for the people that have been, who've lost rights, right? So that first right in the phrase is a right upon which all else can be given. And a lot of people from detainees in Guantanamo Bay to people agitating for the right to gay marriage in Ireland have used the phrase sort of without knowing its philosophical registers. And they mean it in the affirmative sense of we deserve this right. Or these people deserve this right. And they have a right to those rights.
Samantha Rose Hill: (08:32)
It's a right that already exists, and it's a petition to also have that right?
Stephanie DeGooyer: (08:40)
Yeah. It can be, um, for some thinkers, it's a moral, right. It's a, a right. That maybe it doesn't exist in law, but it's the basis upon which rights should be made for others. It could be a kind of transcendental right. A kind of right that exists in nature or some other metaphysical source. So there's a lot of ways that the phrase has been read and summoned and thought about that I was interested in is how Arendt meant it. Because I think in the end, I came to the conclusion that when you follow down what she thinks you do get some sobering, but really important lessons that can be helpful for understanding our own moment of refugee crisis. So yeah, that was the impetus to start the project really.
Samantha Rose Hill: (09:28)
Can you say what some of those sobering lessons were? And, and I think it, it strikes me that part of what you are saying and part of what Arendt is conceptualizing with the right to have rights is a critique of what we might term “the rights of man” or “inalienable rights” or this idea that natural rights somehow exist.
Stephanie DeGooyer: (09:51)
That that's exactly right. So what happens if you take the phrase outta context, it can sound affirmative, but she invents the phrase or uses the phrase as a critique of human rights. Now she's writing this in 1949, a year after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is published. She's writing this after enduring her experience as a refugee, who is expelled from Nazi Germany and in interned in France, and only managed to escape France, not because of some grand claim to her human rights, but because a bunch of people can conspired to get her some visas and to defy the orders of their superiors. So she knew firsthand that when you're stripped of your status as a citizen and rendered stateless, that human rights, which are supposed to come in to effect for you, are supposed to be there to protect you, don't. In fact, being stripped to the position of a human is an extremely precarious place to be.
Stephanie DeGooyer: (10:54)
And that's why Arendt in Origins of Totalitarianism will say that you become human and nothing but human. And so for her, she's really critiquing the notion that being human can be some sort of place of protection, or a place upon which to base a kind of universal right. Human rights are supposed to provide relief to you when you're stripped to your most reductive state, but in her experience and the experience of millions of others, you know, 6 million Jews, for example, who were killed by the Nazis that, in fact, did not happen. And so it's out of this experience that she really wants to critique the notion of a transcendental or universal right, of belonging. Because for her, it's only when we discover that all of these millions of people have lost their ability to be members of a state that we realize the importance of something called the right to have rights.
Samantha Rose Hill: (11:55)
You know, so this starts to get into her critique of the nation state as a political institution. And the fact that nation states are exclusionary. And one of the things that she writes about is the ways in which rights are not just this affirmative thing that's granted to citizens of the state, but that rights actually become instrumental in the emergence of fascism in the 20th century, because state systematically stripped groups of people of their rights in order to exert power over them and create superfluous masses of people who had no place in the order of the world, which is organized according to states. Can you talk a little bit about this, not belonging to the world at all, and the limitations of the nation state, or how we think about the nation state and relationship to the refugee crisis today?
Stephanie DeGooyer: (12:56)
Absolutely. And, and you just touched upon something that for me, uh, in my own work and in my writings on Arendt, which I've written, I've written now in several places about this, but I'm, I'm still so interested in.It is the right to have rights is a, a way of talking about a right to be a member of a nation state, which for all right, is the most important, right? If you're not a member or a citizen of a nation state, then you're, you know, rendered stateless or you're cast out. But at the same time, for her what she's really diagnosing and which I think is worth paying a lot of attention to is what you mentioned, which is the beginning of what she calls “a regime of de-naturalization”. And I study naturalization in, in my work more generally, but the moment that states have this legal power to expel their own members, that for Arendt is the moment of collapse, right?
Stephanie DeGooyer: (13:50)
And she talks about the disintegration of the nation state system. And she doesn't mean disintegration in the sense of European Union or something. She means that in the sense of as soon as nation states become completely invested in sovereign and control of their own borders, expelling people to kind of become the scum of the earth to other states, we're in a situation where it's impossible for somebody cast outside of that state to find a home. And so that for her was really the moment of deep concern. And that can lead, as you said, it was a tool of fascism and totalitarianism; expulsion de-naturalization, and denationalization. These are the concerning movements for her that she was witnessing and, and had indeed experienced herself.
Samantha Rose Hill: (14:37)
I'm wondering if you can maybe give us an example to tie this to our contemporary political moment. Um, I can't help but think about, uh, Donald Trump, sorry. Stephanie is shaking her head and laughing as, as I'm sure many of you are. Or you know, the rise of right wing populism as it's called today is in part blamed on the current refugee crisis that's been going on in Europe for a number of years now. How do we start to put our argument about the emergence of totalitarianism in the middle of the 20th century into conversation with the rise of right wing populism in the world today?
Stephanie DeGooyer: (15:19)
Yes, this is, um, you know Arendt's work on the right to have rights has really been boosted the last few years since the election of Donald Trump. I mean the book become a kind of mini bestseller again, and there's lots of camps out there debating whether in fact, we are in a fascist moment. But I, I would say that if you look at the archive, it's a bit confusing because in Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt is really skeptical and cynical about human rights and the ability for stateless people to ever find a home. But the one place she holds out hope, or this could be possible is the United States. And to read that as a contemporary reader is to really feel an awfulness in the stomach because what we are seeing or have been seeing is the opposite of that. And indeed Arendt, when she had moved to America, the place that she did see so much hope in, she had quickly realized herself that America wasn't the great hope and savior of refugees that it could have been.
Stephanie DeGooyer: (16:27)
And she was very critical of an effort in the 1950s, or a proposal that was put forward, to denationalized communist sympathizers. And she was deeply scared that the United States would do what had happened to her in Germany. So America kind of loses its luster in her account and indeed in ours. But I will say maybe this is myself talking now since we can't really interview Arendt on, on this question is that Trump is only brazenly done what it's possible for any head of state to do. And there are no laws for the refusals of refugees. We talk about international norms, you know, you shouldn't do that, but in fact, it's always possible within the construct of national sovereignty to deny refugees a place of belonging. And the protocols for refugees in that way today resemble what the minority treaties would've been like for Arendt. They're weakly reliant on norms rather than rights. And so we still aren't.
Samantha Rose Hill: (17:28)
Can you say what that difference is? Uh, because the language of norms I know sometimes can trip people up. Sure.
Stephanie DeGooyer: (17:38)
Well, it's pretty easy to understand, um, you know, we could get into all of the political theory, but norms are, are things that are, are customary to do things that are, are the right thing to do are things that we've always done. Of course, Donald Trump was the great norm buster in so many ways as he held office and while he was campaigning. But norms are just things that we do as a country. We don't have to. And so Biden, for example, president Biden has only recently spoken of making the caps for refugees in America larger. And of course, he's only talking about restoring them a little bit past what Trump had done when he, he slashed them. We're not in a place where we can speak of president Biden as mending the damage done by Trump. In fact, they're all part of the same problem: national states prioritize their own people and their own citizens ahead of anybody else. And if they decide that, for example, president Biden did recently that in the interest of the health and safety of American citizens, that refugees shouldn't be admitted because they may infect people as we were seeing at the southern border, they, they have the right to do so because there's nobody that can enforce international norms on a sovereign state, especially a powerful one like the United States. So, um, you know, we, we, we're still in this condition that she was diagnosing.
Samantha Rose Hill: (19:05)
One of the questions that I get often when I'm teaching or, or talking about the Origins of Totalitarianism is, and I wanna ask it to you, What was Arendt’s position towards the nation state? And you brought up how, when she first immigrated to America, she thought that the constellation of the United States as a political body was a counterexample to the ethnonationalism of Europe, which she had come from. There's a great letter in her correspondence with Carl Jaspers, uh, shortly after she arrives where she says this melting pot thing is a myth. There's no melting pots here. The great part about America is that we have all of these independent immigrant communities who exist alongside each other, but she argues ultimately that the United States is not a nation state in the traditional sense. So what is her position on the state, on the nation state and how we think about human rights or rights in relationship to the political?
Stephanie DeGooyer: (20:15)
I mean, this is a complicated question, because again, it goes back to the right to have rights. And what does that phrase ultimately mean? And Arendt is basically saying that if you're not a citizen, um, if you haven't been accidentally bestowed that, right, or hasn't been taken from you, then it's very, very hard for you to find belonging in the world and to have your place within it. And she was deeply suspicious, and also not convinced in a kind of body like the United Nations that it would ever have the force to bring about a kind of universal order or international order that would ever be able to sort of put the nation state into check and to force it to deal with its own members and those whom excluded. And so that's led some historians to say that our is in many ways, kind of hawking a, a normative there's that word again, vision of the state, right?
Stephanie DeGooyer: (21:13)
And that the state is ultimately, lump it or like it, the, the nation state that is, is the body that gets to decide and how we get around that problem. I mean, again, this is still the problem we're in today is how do you force a powerful nation state to care about people? It doesn't wanna care or to bestow upon them rights that it doesn't wanna give them. And I think for her, I don't think she had faith. There was any kind of international body that could ultimately disrupt that power. Um, and that is a troubling and disappointing truth to her writing that I think, think isn't always what people wanna hear.
Samantha Rose Hill: (22:00)
When you say troubling and, and disappointing. Do you mean that it's a failure of her imagination to think about rights outside of organized political communities? Or how, what are you thinking about?
Stephanie DeGooyer: (22:13)
Yeah, no, I don't mean a failure. I, I, I think she's right if I was to, I don't think she's right on all accounts. I mean, she's not interested in social and economic rights at all. And other people have talked about that her disinterest or distrust of social welfare or policies, I'm not with her on everything she says, but I do think the conundrum she identifies is so singular and so important that even if it's a disappointing one, it's still the realest one I know, which is that, how do we force European nations, America, Canada? How do we get them to admit newcomers, especially ones who are so in need? How do we make it possible for them to become members of the state? I mean, that her question and her conundrum that she theorizes is, is still very much active and with us. Although it's very different because we're no longer in the same world she was in and we now have our own kind of neoliberal economic issues that she wasn't exactly seeing.
Samantha Rose Hill: (23:25)
The question that I was thinking about is how have the transformations of the state, and even since the late eighties, especially with the rise of globalization, as it's called technology, digital technology revolution, how has this changed the way that we, we think about answering that question, but also the ways in which states are now interacting with one another?
Stephanie DeGooyer: (23:49)
I mean, I guess I could follow this question in a couple of ways, but one thing that's interesting is when we talk and this may not be exactly what you're getting at, but when we talk about the stateless we think of a kind of refugee who has no home and who is pleading at the gates of the nation state for entrance, but there's all kinds of neoliberal, stateless capital that moves around and skirts rules and offshores itself here and buys a passport there. And that is really sort of no longer nationally bound in its
Samantha Rose Hill: (24:27)
We saw this recently with the, uh, evacuation of citizens from after Afghanistan, quite visibly, the contrast between people who were able to charter private jets and people who were clinging, uh, to airplanes as they took off on the runway.
Stephanie DeGooyer: (24:44)
Well, and in fact, that's a, that's something that scholars of refugees have long insisted upon is that the refugees who make it to your country, if they even get there most don't are among the more, you know, monied or more fortunate. Um, so many can't even can't even leave. They're not arriving. They're sort of stuck. Millions upon millions of refugees are in camps all over the world who can't even move. If anything, I think that the problems that emerge post-war are, are bigger now and certainly in numbers, they tilt that way.
Samantha Rose Hill: (25:16)
Well, I think you're, I mean, I think that's a pretty strong critique in a way of Arendt's conception of the right to have the rights in the way in which he talks about it in The Origins of Totalitarianism, where it's very much explicitly not about socioeconomic rights, which she wants to a set, as you said, a few minutes ago, completely aside from political rights, one of the things that has become more visible today is the, the extent to which we can't untie those two in our contemporary world. Socioeconomic equality and political equality.
Stephanie DeGooyer: (25:54)
Absolutely. And I think, and I think that's one of the reasons that some people have, you know, misgivings about Arendt’s larger project, which is that it is weary of or disinterested in those very basic social and economic rights. I mean, and the importance of being a, a speaker and being a speaker in a pluralistic world is of course important, but we can't just be in a place of people all speaking together and having the right to speak and the right to be members. It's about thriving and surviving, being able to access those things and to be able to move, to get them. And I think those are things that aren't, aren't best covered by her work, of course. In my writing on her, and I think Sam Moyn is similar to me in the book, we think of the right to have rights as not the thing to fix on with her, because I don't think she fixated on it. I think in some ways it's a throwaway phrase that she was using to speak of a right, to be a member of the nation and its importance. Of course, I'm brutalizing dozens of pages of work that I've done on this to be succinct. But I don't think we're meant to see it as something we should rely on in diagnosing the real problems that we face.
Samantha Rose Hill: (27:41)
A word that's come up a few times is home and thinking about whether or not this is a throwaway phrase in Arendt’s work. I, I kind of love that, especially because so much ink has been spilled over it. I think alongside this conceptualization of rights is the ways in which Arendt talks about home or heimat in German, which is not quite the same thing as home. But I wanna read you a quote from We Refugees and maybe talk about it a little bit because this quote has always really resonated with me. Well, I won't say why. I'm just gonna read it. “We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions and the simplicity of gestures.” So this is not the usual list that we might expect to attach to our idea of home. How do you understand our dealing with home when she's, when she's talking about home and her essay in We Refugees?
Stephanie DeGooyer: (28:54)
In some ways she's speaking to a world in which you matter, a world in which you can speak, a world in which you have belonging. And I, I don't think it it's territorial always. It can also just be all of those political givens that she sees as lost when you become stateless or a refugee. She sees, you know, those things. And so it's, it's a place of where one counts, to use some language from Jacque Ranciere, a French philosopher who’s also spoken a lot on Arendt’s meaning of the right to have rights. And so that's, that's how I would read it. But I would also just say, hearing you read that I love those essays. We Refugees and Stateless People, her early essays on statelessness from the early forties. I teach them all the time and they’re beautiful. If I spoke earlier of a kind of cynicalness or a, a soberness in her outlook, it doesn't mean that she didn't do an amazing job of rendering the situation and what it meant for so many people. I mean, that's what, when you read these essays, you really get that feeling for them. But nonetheless later by ‘49, I think some of her thinking in those essays has started to wither away and she's come to see that the internationalist forms of protection that may be necessary in something like a European Federation are no longer possible.
Samantha Rose Hill: (30:35)
Do you think something prompted her between 1943 and 1949 to kind of step back from this sardonic and ironic tone to deal with the loss of dignity?
Stephanie DeGooyer: (30:48)
I mean, if you really wanna explore, you know, a fascinating new answer to that question, um, Mira Siegelberg's new book on statelessness really positions Arendt as sort of less at the forefront of initiating this new reading of the world and statelessness place within it, but really kind of hawking, and as I said earlier, a kind of normative version of it. And in fact, being completely in step with some of the legal thinkers of the time. That's a separate, um, thing and I would encourage people to, to pick up that book and, and check it out, cuz it was, it was really interesting to see Arendt repositioned. But I think also she's by 49, she's read the drafts, uh, at least the drafts of “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights” and is deeply suspicious of that thinking and has more of a handle on what's happening politically around her to, to be short about it. The language and the experience. I mean, there's a reason why We Refugees is taught so often and that so many people who have had to leave their home for, for reasons that are aren't of their own choice, read that essay and, and feel so much about it. I mean, it's very beautiful and very effective, but I think it doesn't match up with the kind of political diagnosis she later gives by ‘49 in Origins.
Samantha Rose Hill: (32:21)
When you think about rights and you've been talking about refugees. There are other populations of people who are stripped of their rights in our society. And I'm thinking about the large number of people who are currently in prison in the United States right now. How do we begin to think about the racial and social aspects of criminal law and rights in the United States today? That's an easy question. This is not a big question at all.
Stephanie DeGooyer: (32:47)
No, I mean, it's a great question. I mean, firstly, it, it calls up something, we've been talking a lot about how citizenship is sort of like the, the most basic line of protection that Arendt is interested in and sees as necessary. But as we know that citizenship does not guarantee one a glorious life of inclusion and protection within one state. And incarcerated persons are certainly stripped of the right to vote. And that's frankly ridiculous and doesn't make any sense and should be changed. I mean, I don't think, I don't know how to be more clear than that. I mean, and the same thing with, with all kinds of people who, um, are kind of what we could call second class citizens with within the, the sphere of citizenship.
Samantha Rose Hill: (33:34)
Well, one of the things that I hear in your description of rights is this almost kind of Aristotelian conception of human flourishing. That when we, when we talk about rights, we have to talk about almost creating the conditions that allow people to flourish. And that to me seems to extend far beyond the limitations of the law. I'm wondering how, as a society, we, we begin to open up a broader conversation about human flourishing when there are so many American citizens who have anti-immigrant attitudes, who would absolutely disagree with you about extending the right to vote to incarcerated persons? And how do we begin to have this broader conversation about rights?
Stephanie DeGooyer: (34:27)
I mean, this, these are great questions, Samantha, and they're, they're huge ones. And they're the ones I wrestle with. Um, and I will wrestle with probably forever. I think a lot of people who are anti-immigrant, if I can just be very general for a moment, also subscribe to founding narratives about origins. They believe in that where you're born guarantees you, for example, the, the right to have more than someone who's not born here. I'm Canadian, I'm not naturalized, but to become naturalized, it would require me to demonstrate all kinds of skills, language, a history test, that if I was born here, I would never have to demonstrate, right? Because it's just as soon as you're born on the soil here, you're, you're considered to have everything you need to be a member and anyone else's not natural enough. These are stories we've been telling and propping up.
Stephanie DeGooyer: (35:25)
And sometimes you'll have people that will refer back to the constitution or to support them. But one of the things I've been doing quite recently is reading a lot of founding documents and theory from the early American Republic to think about how America was founded on an idea, Now I'm not gonna say it's open borders or anything like that, because I think that is completely unrigorous and untrue, but it was, it was founded on the idea that everybody had the right to leave. That's the exact language, the country in which they're born. If that country doesn't protect them, or they're no longer able to flourish there and to come somewhere and start a new. And that is actually the energy that drove a lot of the founders to write the documents upon which, you know, America is based. And I think a lot of people who are anti-immigrant have no idea about this history. They've grown up, up with an idea that's just not supported actually, if you look farther. So I think one, one place is that we really need to aggressively open up why we hold those ideas.
Samantha Rose Hill: (36:30)
Well so on the one hand, there's the arbitrariness of chance of birth of where it is that we are born and the rights that and opportunities that we receive as a result of that. But you know, on the other hand, I'm thinking of Arlie Hochschild's book Stranger in Our Own Land, which is a work of political sociology, where she, she talks about these kinds of anti or in attitudes as a form of line cutting is one phrase that she uses. That these political opinions are sometimes the reflection of the lack of political mobility in the United States for working class people. You know, we've had economic stagnation in this country since the early 1970s. Americans aren't moving anymore. There is absolutely no middle class. We have no functioning, social welfare state education, uh, on many counts as abysmal right now, you know, how do we also address the, I mean, I, because I think that's also a legitimate political grievance one might even say.
Stephanie DeGooyer: (37:41)
I don't have a prescription for how to talk to people who are economically oppressed or disadvantaged in America and to make them not see the immigrant is the problem. But part of them is to talk to them about how useful that narrative is for politicians, rich politicians to use. And you know, something I've been wondering quite a bit about lately, but I don't have the kind of fully formed sense of how to bring it together is we have a kind of, you know, “the great resignation'' as people are calling it. We have people leaving their jobs and droves, and we have all of these vacancies. And of course there are plenty of people, the world over who would give so much to be able to have the crummiest jobs in America, which is not suggesting that we should pay immigrants crummy wages at all, but we can't have all of these vacancies and have our borders closed and not have a conversation about how those two things work, I think. But I'm not fully vested in how I wanna bring those two together. But I think it's worth thinking about that.
Samantha Rose Hill: (38:50)
Well, I think this brings us back to home in a way, you know, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, which is, this is epic work, it's three books in one. And Arendt talks about the three underlying kind of existential conditions of totalitarianism; homelessness, rootlessness, and loneliness, or the, the German word is a sense of abandoned. That sense of making a home of feeling rooted seems essential in a way to part of what we're talking about. That there's a kind of existential crisis, not just in the United States right now, but in other countries as well around issues of identity, work. Can you unity how it is that we organize our day to day lives and how that's changed in the past 20 years or so with the rise of technology in the changing shape of the world economically.
Stephanie DeGooyer: (39:50)
Right? And maybe this is partly to explain why we see so much for resurgent nationalism and, and what the lure of that nationalism is, right? Which is to give one sense of connection that maybe they're not experiencing through their job or online. Not that I wanna explain it through such simple ways of thinking, but that could be a kind of reason, one reason,
Samantha Rose Hill: (40:15)
But this is, this is an argument we, he, on the liberal left right now on the one hand, the argument that people are prone to form cliques that they're territorial. Um, and at the same time, an argument for kind of resurgent nationalism. I'm thinking a little bit of George, what George Kateb might say to that in his work on Arendt. But I think Arendt would've been horrified by the kind of suggestion that nationalism can give us the kind of meaning that we are talking about. But I think other people might disagree with that reading. How do you account for this kind of political shift?
Stephanie DeGooyer: (40:57)
Oh gosh. I mean, why we are having a kind of xenophobic populism, resurgent nationalism, not just in America, but, but all over the place is such a huge, huge topic. But it all has to do with the ways that we could look at neoliberal capitalism, for example, is disenfranchising so many people, the ways that our towns are being erased, newer, bigger box stores being brought in. The ways our forms of connections online are becoming more abstract and full of trolls and anonymity that allows people to speak in ways that are upsetting. The norm busting of the last presidency. I think all of these have sort of opened the door for these kinds of major nationalist shifts. I personally, and just to be honest, I can't clearly account for why. I'm, I'm the kind of person that when I write and think, I really think slowly, um, and, and through a lot of things, and I wouldn't wanna throw out something to explain why I see this happening, but I do think all of these things have to do with a kind of, you know, a, the loneliness of living under the conditions of modern capitalism.
Stephanie DeGooyer: (42:16)
I mean, I know that sounds simple, but I think, I think it's safe to say that they're at heart and the rise of anti anti-immigrant narratives are not new. They didn't arrive through Donald Trump. Donald Trump was just a kind of more honest and upfront and in some ways refreshing to have somebody just say it.
Samantha Rose Hill: (42:37)
To bring it into the public sphere.
Stephanie DeGooyer: (42:39)
Rather than someone like Obama, who, who kept it kind of hidden away from the public face of his administration though we know very much that, like Clinton before him, there's been many nativist policies. And Biden certainly has them too. So in some ways Trump can interest us because he has been so overt about what other presidents and administrations have done as well with the exceptions sometimes of George Bush, which is not something people like to hear about.
Samantha Rose Hill: (43:11)
Yeah, but I think that the, the way people tend to generalize what the Democratic party does and what the Republican party does, doesn't actually align with their public policy, uh, platforms.
Stephanie DeGooyer: (43:22)
Well, I'm being, I'm trying to be careful about how I say them, because I don't wanna, you know, explain nationalism in three seconds. So that that's, these are the questions everyone's trying to answer right now. And a lot of people have easy answers and, you know, ones that are more thought out or, um, ones that are, you know, more Twitter friendly or all kinds of things. But I personally haven't found the greatest answer for myself.
Samantha Rose Hill: (f)
I mean, I'm not sure there are answers in the way that we might like to hear to a lot of these, if not most of these questions, you know, right. So right before this conversation, I was talking with Ken Krimstein about storytelling. And we were talking about the Isak Dinesen quote, “storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.” And we were talking about the difference between people's desire, just to have facts like, okay, this is why it is this way, which is probably the reason why the scapegoat theory I think, is so palatable and, and powerful as opposed to truth, as opposed to actually getting at the messy, complicated truth, which opens up more questions and hardly ever provides answers. So I have no expectations of answers.
Stephanie DeGooyer: (44:45)
Well, and I think, I think what you just said works the other way around too. I get emails from time to time from students and from people who really want the right to have rights, to be a kind of progressive prescription for how those who are, are rightless and disenfranchised can signify or enact their rights. And it is so hard to nuance and explain the difficulties of that when so many people really just want a kind of quick slogan or energy or feeling to signal or anger. And, um, it is very hard to write nuanced, thoughtful, slow, careful writing at a time when people aren't doing the reading carefully, they're just retweeting. They're just putting emotions on top of it. Um, it's really hard. And I, I can always tell when someone hasn't read what I've written, because I would know if they had. So I think that's on both sides too, that the quickness, the emotions, just the inability to sort of think. And I think that's what I do love about Arendt is that phrase, to think what it is we are doing. And her emphasis from, from Eichmann that I always tell my students about, to think what it is we are doing
Samantha Rose Hill: (46:03)
And that desire to not think to assuage that that feeling, that the, the quickness that the Twitter like is a kind of new utopianism in a way that we don't have to wrestle with these questions, if we can just kind of, you know, do away with them, which I, I don't think is, is helping the contemporary political situation in this country right now any.
Stephanie DeGooyer: (46:31)
No. And, and I, and I know from all kinds of places, there's a lot of hopelessness right now, and morale is bad and anger. We're in the midst of a pandemic. It, it is hard to write these things, right, because they're not just intellectual exercises. This certainly aren't for me. They're not just about getting tenure, and getting an academic book out, or getting a credential in a newspaper. Although those are nice. At the end of the day these aren't just debates. These are real people's lives. It can be really hard to, to read these things all the time and to think about exclusion and racism and xenophobia, um, and what we can do to make life for refugees better. I think sometimes when we get into the political theory, we, we do risk a disconnection from the many lives for whom this isn't just theory. This is a pre-lived thing. And I, I think I'm very, I try and stay aware of that and not let my cynicism take over too much.
Samantha Rose Hill: (47:35)
Absolutely. But at the same time, I'm thinking about the almost endless stream of images that were bombarded with in the news of the children and cages on the border, which feels pretty much invisible in day to day life right now. I think most people think about it, and then they don't think about it. Images of the people crossing the border, of children dying, of dead bodies, of boats overturned. It's visible. And yet, how do we, it, it seems to be a kind of absence of humanism in a way maybe that's too harsh, but it doesn't feel like it.
Stephanie DeGooyer: (48:12)
Um, I have a friend who was head of communications at Doctors Without Borders. And I heard him speak once. And I've spoken to him quite a bit about the challenges of trying to make European citizens care about these migrants being trapped in the Mediterranean and, and dying. And the kind of awful feeling it was to use pictures of toddlers and other forms of images to try and shock people into caring and the, the kind of uphill battle that more and more images ceased to shock or, and that you only have a few minutes of people's time before the issue recedes from their and how hard that work is. And at the same time, I'm thinking of Behrouz Boochani, a former detainee on the Australians in Papa New Guinea. He was a refugee and he wrote this exquisite book, a memoir of his time there. And he is just so angry at the way the media covers refugees. It's really worth returning and looking at how we make refugees faceless screen grabs for, for stories often and fail to see their individual humanity in each situation. So I think, I think images, I think media, as much as it aims to give stories to people can also just be part of the problem.
Samantha Rose Hill: (49:45)
Well, it becomes impossible to discern the difference between what's what's a entertainment, what gets consumed as an item of entertainment and what we might call news if such a thing exists anymore or something that is explicitly political, not something that we're just clicking through, scrolling through, is a news item. You know, after whatever sitcom it is people are watching. And there's a space in thinking between what it is we're being confronted with, which is real in human and where we sit.
Stephanie DeGooyer: (50:22)
And the opposite works too. You have people who are anti-immigrant and hold views that are, you know, untenable with a kind of liberal politics of openness. And yet in their communities, they will meet a refugee or an immigrant from time to time and separate that person out. So in other words, the, the lives we're living and the images we're consuming, aren't always on the same level. And that we can read stories about things, but do nothing about them in our individual lives. Or we can, you hate a nonsense on the internet and, and yet be perfectly fine with, you know, one good immigrant who lives down the street. I think it has a lot to do with the side we live in. I mean, I, I feel like I'm speaking in platitudes right now, rather than concrete analysis, but I think it's just the mood I'm in to be frank after reading and thinking so much.
Samantha Rose Hill: (51:19)
Yeah. You know, and I, I, I, I think this leads to at least the last question that I had, which is, you know, how do we begin to imagine human rights outside of political, the political or political communities?
Stephanie DeGooyer: (51:36)
I, um, this past year have have written a few pieces. I have a piece coming out in a little bit. A lot of people on the left, uh, are interested in something called open borders that no one is illegal. You'll see that slogan, sometimes borders shouldn't exist. I share, of course, a strong understanding of why we wanna critique those things. But at the, at the end of the day, I also, I think if we really wanna reimagine the conditions of entry, and of course I'm an academic, you can tell. I mean, we have to really think about what we mean by that. I think a lot of the things I read about open borders are, are more polemical and they're very under thought and very hard to understand what it would look like in practice. Although there are some very good philosophical and historical things I've read on open borders, of course. But I think we, we need to start with, you know, maybe the things that aren't as grand, but thinking about our immigration requirements. I spoke about that earlier birthright and the undocumented people here and, and why a single law or expiration date can evict them and why natural people always have the potential of being deported, where those histories are. And re-envisioning starting there before we sort of slip into a kind of open borders is where we need to head. I think we need to be really strong about what it is we want in our immigration requirements, if any, and how, how to get there. And that's the work I'm doing. And it is not very sexy some days. I'll tell you, it can be pretty dry.
Samantha Rose Hill: (53:18)
But I, but I hear you doing the important work of bringing the rhetoric back to reality and not just the idealism, but getting into the muck of what it means to reimagine immigration and perhaps even conceptualizing a new form of natality, or when thinking about birthright and, um, naturalization and the new and newcomer newcomers talked Arendt about that's needed in this political moment right now.
Stephanie DeGooyer: (53:53)
We would probably need some constitutional amendments, which are always those impossible things. And so at the end of the day, whatever we imagine is gonna run up against it's impossibility in Congress. But I think that those are the things I'm most interested in, which is one historicizing, not just for the sake of it, but to really understand where these narratives come from, how long they've persisted, not to be susceptible to the idea that, um, Donald Trump is some kind of new and rogue actor, um, representing all kinds of new things in the United States. I mean the United States has a very deep and long history of denaturalization, and in many ways inspired the Germans to do what it did. And I think, again, reading more on those histories think is pivotable. If even if I sound like that old professor who no one's gonna pay attention to, when I say that. That's the best I can do. And of course, showing up to help people. I mean, that, that sounds also kind of naive, but I don't mean it sound naive. Activism, organizing. Organizing is huge. A lot of immigrants organizations could use help. Some days I, I, I have no idea what it is I'm trying to do, but I'm still going back to the archives, so something's happening,
Samantha Rose Hill: (55:22)
Stephanie, I appreciate the work that you're doing. You're, you're in the weeds as we sometimes say, and I look forward to your work and essays on birthright citizenship, and human rights. And I hope you get a chance to again soon.
Stephanie DeGooyer: (55:38)
That sounds great.
Samantha Rose Hill: (55:53)
Hannah Arendt: Between Worlds is a co-production of the Goethe-Institut and Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. It was produced and edited by Lisa Bartfai. Music by Dylan Mattingly. And it was hosted by me, Samantha Rose Hill. We have more episodes for you on Thinking with Hannah Arendt now. Until next time!
Producer and Editor: Lisa Bartfai
Music: Dylan Mattingly
Berlin artist-duo Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock talk with Samantha Rose Hill about the work of memory, Holocaust memorials in Berlin, and Walter Benjamin.
Hannah Arendt: Between Worlds is a coproduction of the Goethe-Institut and the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. This podcast is part of Hannah Arendt: Thinking is Dangerous, a project for thinking with Hannah Arendt about our world today.
Dr. Frieder Schnock is an artist, art historian, gallerist and curator known for his documentary photography, Dr. Frieder Schnock | © F. Schnock public art and memorialization projects in Berlin. He is an Honorary Professor at the Institute of Philosophy and Sciences of Art at Leuphana University, Lueneburg, has created visual studies at the Berlin College of Technology (BHT), and also taught & lectured at Bard, Emory, Vanderbilt, Oberlin, UCLA, UB, UC, UW, GSD, Bauhaus, ZHdK. Frieder Schnock has worked as a curator in private and public collections, such as at the Museum Fridericianum in Kassel and is the co-founder of the exhibition organizations Gesellschaft für Blickschulung and Loft 44/45 in Berlin. Fellowships and awards (selection): Rockefeller Fellow in Bellagio/Italy; Freund Fellow at Washington University, St. Louis; the Obermayer German Jewish History Award and the Whitney J. Oates Fellowship at Princeton University.
Stih & Schnock joint exhibitions, museum and public art projects (selection): Places of Remembrance in Berlin-Schoeneberg (1993); BUS STOP (1994/95); Show Your Collection, Jewish Traces in Munich Museums (2008); LIFE~BOAT (2005-08); Who Needs Art, We Need Potatoes, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart (1998-2008); Lacan Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Platform L.E.S. Gallery, New York (2012); Raft With Stranded Objects, Saint Louis Art Museum (2012/13); ROSIE WON THE WAR, Boca Raton Museum of Art (2015/16) & New York University (2019). Group exhibitions and installations (selection): CTRL Space, Center for Art and Media (ZKM), Karlsruhe, Germany (2001-2002); RAF, Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art Berlin, Joanneum Graz / Austria (2005); Reality Bites, Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University, St. Louis (2008); demo:polis, Akademie der Künste Berlin (2016).
- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Section IV, “Work”
- Hannah Arendt, The Crises in Culture
- Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin
Samantha Rose Hill: (00:13)
This is Hannah Arendt: Between Worlds, a podcast co-produced by the Goethe-Institut and Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. I’m your host, Samantha Rose Hill.
A few years after the Berlin Wall came down, city officials launched a competition for a work of public art, honoring the memory of Jewish citizens of Berlin who were murdered in the Holocaust. Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock won the competition and instilled Places of Remembrance, a permanent street exhibition documenting the antisemitic laws and decree imposed by the Nazis. The exhibition is composed of 80 brightly painted signs, a fixed to lamp post throughout the city with short text to describing the specific anti-Jewish laws.
Renata Stih: (01:46)
You know, it's not offensive, but it's there. And that creates an uncomfortable feeling, including this information. And then we connected these texts with objects, objects of memory.
Samantha Rose Hill: (02:03)
In the Human Condition Hannah Arendt talks about how art is a form of work that helps to fabricate the world that we inhabit. We make the world with our hands and art can be used to help us remember the past. How do we remember the past today? How do we remember something as horrific as the Holocaust? In this episode with Renata and Frieder, we talk about what it means to make a memorial, and the work of remembering in history, and how we can create immediacy in the present moment to help understand the past, while shedding light on the present.
Frieder Schnock: (02:48)
If you are emotional, for sure you can create something in your studio and hopefully someone will react to it or buy it, whatever. But if you really want to connect to society, you really have to know what this society is about.
Samantha Rose Hill: (03:01)
The 20th century cultural critic Walter Benjamin appears in our conversation as a companion in thinking. Benjamin was a dear friend of a who also served as inspiration for Renata and Frieder’s approach to making this memorial.
Renata Stih: (03:20)
How do you build up, you know, the passersby, what do they do?
Samantha Rose Hill: (03:25)
Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock are a Berlin based artist duo. Their works deal primarily with collective memory in society. Please join me in welcoming Renata and Frieder!
So let's start in Berlin. I wanna go back to, but in 1993, you won an open competition to design a Memorial for Jewish people from Berlin who had been murdered in the Holocaust, and it's titled Places of Remembrance. Can you maybe tell our listeners a little bit about this piece and how you thought with Arendt or perhaps against her and in designing this Memorial in the Schöneberg, a neighborhood where she once lived?
Renata Stih: (04:29)
Yes. Um, well, uh, Schöneberg is a very kind of diverse area and, uh, has a huge history despite looking so boring nowadays. It hosted the West Berlin Senate until the wall came down in ‘89. And also it's the place where John F. Kennedy visited in ‘63 and spoke that really famous sentence "Ich bin ein Berliner" on the balcony of the Schöneberg town hall. And in ‘67, that's where the student revolution started because the shah of Persia came with his, secret police and they started beating up students who were demonstrating against the shah. And so, uh, it's, it's a, quite a vibrant, should I say, vibrant area when you walk around today? Uh, of course what you see is our Memorial very much so. It's an overlay over a whole urban structure and, um, uh, it's, uh, 80 signs installed on lamp posts. And on one side you see a text and on the other side, you see a picture that relates somehow to the text.
Samantha Rose Hill: (05:38)
Can you give us an example of, of what a, what one of the images and the text might be?
Renata Stih: (05:44)
Yeah, well, they are anti-Jewish laws and regulations, which we took and rewrote and put it in a snappy shortened language like headlines, and then we installed it on lampposts like, that's like a usual way of doing things with advertisement and so on. I mean, New York has that too. And in, in Berlin it was quite common turn of 19th century to have this kind of installation. And that's what we picked up and spread it out over that area. And so these 80 signs. Proof actually that there is evidence, you know, we would love to expose things in public space and say, well, this is the crime that has been committed. Nobody can say they didn't know.
Samantha Rose Hill: (06:30)
There's an immediacy to these signs. You wrote them in the present tense. So they're quite arresting when you're walking down the street and suddenly you see a sign that says, “Jews are not allowed to buy food between four and five o'clock in the afternoon.”
Renata Stih: (06:45)
That's true. That was on purpose. It was this immediate, as you say, immediacy. And I can tell you when we installed the first signs in the streets, though, we had permission it, all this, you know, or public permits, what you need, administrative permits, somebody called the police and it, it was an uproar. It was a shock to people and they thought we were putting up antisemitic slogans. And then of course the whole thing calmed down and, and the discussion started, but it came as a shock to people. And what we did with this present tense and the text was that we also said the actual date underneath when this regulation or law was released. So you have this sandwich system, that's how we call it, a double layer of things. And you can really walk this urban environment and create your own Memorial that way. Right, Frieder?
Frieder Schnock: (07:43)
Yes, it needed some days to install the signs. And our two workers were not convinced that there is a need for this Memorial and when they put up a cat and on the other side of that sign, there is a text, ”Jews are not allowed to have household pets.” And the date underneath is, um, February 15th, 1942. And, uh, someone opened the window and yelled down to us when we were installing designs, “Go away, Jewish pigs!” and our workers were completely shocked. And the date is special because it's five days before the Wannsee conference. And for sure there is one guy involved, uh, where there's a close link to Hannah Arendt because Eichmann was, uh, the guy who wrote the protocol of the Wannsee conference, um, meeting. And for sure they were talking about the so-called “final solution”. And, but Eichmann, uh, on the other hand was really involved in the whole process. Because if you have such a regulation that, uh, Jewish families can have no more dogs or cats, it means the deportation will be easier because the neighbors will not complain. If there is an animal in an empty apartment that has no food and no water because the family is gone. So first the, uh, animals have to go and then the people can be deported
Samantha Rose Hill: (09:25)
When these signs initial went up around the neighborhood, um, in Schöneberg, and it's just it, that neighbor it's, so it's so unsettling to me, Gisele Freund lived there, as you said, Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Einstein. And as we know, some of these, some of these people did not survive the war. I'm wondering how tourists, how people in the neighborhood interacted with these signs walking through the streets? Aside from the antisemitic remarks, which are, were horrifying that you received while you were installing them. But in terms of explanation of explaining the kind of logic, the slow progression of the deprivation of human rights, the daily humiliation that the Jewish people were forced to suffer, how it became a politicized act to go and buy a loaf of bread. How did you, how did you curate the conversation that unfolded after the exhibition went up?
Renata Stih: (10:30)
The Memorial when it was installed and inaugurated had its own life beyond us, you know. And that's actually what artwork does. That's what Max Beckman once says, you create an artwork and then it goes to a museum and then it's not yours anymore. It becomes public property. Of course, it's our copyright and all that. And we are continuously working on things that relate to this work. We showed it at the Jewish Museum in New York. There is also an installation with an artwork that relates to the Memorial at Princeton University, East Pine Hall. But it's also, you know, schools use it in their own way. Or Michael Moore quoted it in one of his films to kind of suggest that a similar Memorial on slavery should be done on Wall Street and so on. So these things have, people have their own thoughts about it. And I have to say that very little has been damaged, probably because it's nine feet, installed nine feet high. We should also say that there are three major map signs. We work a lot with mapping systems forever and ever. And maps is something that really interests us. And here we have a double layered map, one from ‘33 and the other from ‘93, the year of the inauguration. And so people can see also how this urban structure has changed due to war and bombing. And then it didn't get rebuilt the same way.
Samantha Rose Hill: (12:14)
So there's a dialogic element to the installation work that you do. You don't just make art objects that people look at. I'm thinking of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which is also in Berlin. A memorial I've always found very troubling. I don't like it. I'll just say that. And I mean, we can talk about taste or not, but there's, you know, when you see these signs and places of remembrance, you're taken aback, you're actually physically forced to stop and think, as Arendt might have said, about what it is that you are encountering. A familiar place becomes unfamiliar, or your work Bus Stop also is a work that is physically and mentally and psychically, emotionally engaging your audience. And so I'm wondering how you think about that process of curating the interaction between the people who are going to come into contact with these objects, um, while you are creating them?
Renata Stih: (13:19)
Conversation. Yes. I mean a dialogue. It's probably because we have to create a dialogue, Frieder and I, when we work on things. And believe me, we thoroughly disagree on many things. Yeah. And it takes a long time till we agree on this big project. So we have our own areas where we work on. And then on these kind of public activities, we have to connect our forces because it's like making a film, you need a team, you need to rethink it. And if I hate one thing, it's stupidity. I mean a lack of intelligence in something or dejavu art or, you know, these things that are just decorative and repeat themselves endlessly, like at art fairs, it's just boring. So the thing is, yes, the conversation with an audience is, of course, based on, somehow innocently, on Benjamin’s theories. How do you build up, you know, the passersby? What do they do? How do you walk? And very often I thought, of course, Frieder and I are familiar with Benjamin and very much so with his work. We live basically in the area in Tiergarten where Benjamin lived and every, like every three houses, Benjamin had a room or something. And, uh, and, and that's where we live. And many scholars come by and say, oh, wow, you live here in Benjamin's area, close by Magdeburger Platz.
Samantha Rose Hill: (14:47)
I have pictures of myself there.
Renata Stih: (14:48)
Oh, you did?
Samantha Rose Hill: (14:50)
Stalking Benjamin in Berlin. I didn't know I was so close to you.
Renata Stih: (14:54)
You. Yeah, no, definitely. Uh, and so, um, uh, and, and of course we followed Benjamin’s traces. I mean, that's what you also do, you follow throughout Europe. That's what we did. We went to Portbou and looked at the area and it's very moving. I have to say, when you think that one of the most important thinkers, for sure, an impossible person, the more I know about Benjamin, the more, I think it’s good that I didn't know him in a way. But I love what he said and what he thought. And very often, I think, what would he say about the reproducibility of things when he would see how Frieder and I work together on an image digitally that we connect from two images, one of Frieder’s, one of mine, or put other things in there and layer it over. And it’s a completely different way of working and still based on traditional painting where you also paint over layer and layer and layer. You know, it’s just this kind of process.
Renata Stih: (15:59)
And he recognized it, of course. And of course you can reproduce it a million times and multimillion times today because you do it digitally and you throw it out and the, on the web, and then people can approach it or not. So it's quite an interesting dialogue with Benjamin. But my thing about Benjamin is his memories of childhood. I had also a wonderful childhood and went for walks with my grandparents and my parents, and I loved repeating and repeating over and over the streets, the houses and everything I saw. I’m a typical town child, I would say. Nature is okay, but not too long.
Samantha Rose Hill: (16:41)
When Arendt met Benjamin in Paris, in exile. You know, of course, they were first cousins through her first marriage to Gunther Stern, but when they really met Benjamin was writing Berlin Childhood around 1900. And it's very easy to imagine them having conversations in his tiny flat about it. But I think one of the things that you're touching on that of course was very much at the center in some ways of Benjamin’s work on art in the age of mechanical reproducibility and author as producer in the storyteller and Arendt’s work on the crisis of culture, iis the commodification of art in modernity and the way in which that not only devalue experience and kind of foreclose spaces for critical engagement and thinking, but is also in a way dehumanizing and turns us away from the world that we share in common.
Frieder Schnock: (17:46)
That message on to the next generation. And that's why we picked images that have links to child book illustrations. So we wanted kids to ask their parents or their grandparents, “Why is that image there? Why is that cat up there?” And they have to come up with an explanation and the story and the same is true to the Bus Stop project you mentioned already our project for the Memorial to the murder Jews in Europe, we said people have to take their time and go to the places that are all over Europe, not only Sachsenhausen, not only Buchenwald, places of hard labor, places of death marches. And when you go on such a trip, for example, to Poland, to Gross-Rosen or to Auschwitz, you might feel the need to talk. And dialogue is back again. Because when you go together with someone, either you walk in the Bavarian Quarter, or you sit on a bus, you can talk about what you have seen, what you experienced and what you think about. And, uh, that's the background. And as you said, a dialogue is really important.
Samantha Rose Hill: (19:10)
There's also in both of these exhibitions, an element of movement. Um, and now you've put Benjamin in my mind, which is, which is, you know, and we're talking about Arendt, but Benjamin means not gonna leave now. Um, but in Arendt's essay on Benjamin, that was published in a couple of places, um, which she originally wrote in German. Um, she talks about the flaneur and both of these exhibition pieces have a lot to do with movement. , um, unlike a gallery space where you're standing in front of a painting, or you go and stand in front of a wall or a sculpture, um, these require that you, uh, walk that you get on a bus that you go somewhere. Can you talk about the importance of movement and thinking?
Renata Stih: (19:52)
Well, moving and thinking always impressed me in cloisters because you walk in squares and then you can cross and you by a fountain in the middle, and then you take another way. Cloisters are the quintessential think tanks, I think till today. Yeah, they are. And I always thought when I was sitting at school and we were sitting behind each other, I thought how stupid we should be walking in squares in a cloister and have total silence. The other thing is really silence. And I think that's why it's wonderful to walk in a park and to experience this kind of sound of trees and, you know, uh, you alone with your thoughts and these kind of movements of nature. I mean, park is civilized nature, so it's not too bad. However, it is such a thing that you walk and you think is probably something very liberating, liberating.
Renata Stih: (20:56)
It sets ideas free. Um, that was also sort of an idea for the Bavarian quarter because they wanted to have a Memorial stable, you know, a Memorial on the Bavarian square, in the middle of the Bavarian quarter. And Frieder and I looked at it and it was like a reconstructed square with mishmash sculptures and fountains and some weird old benches. After the war, you know, they redid it. And, uh, there are two subway lines. There is a noisy street and so on. And I mean, if you have such a place, why would you do that? There is already a sculpture. So why would you do that? And so we said, no, we'll spread it out. And we will make it unavoidable. Uh, you know, really directly translated from German. People will have to face it over and over again, if they want to. Because what Frieder always points out is you have to raise the head a little bit and then you see the sign.
Renata Stih: (22:08)
Any people live there for years, they, they don't see it because it's hanging a little bit higher and it's also not too large. So, you know, it's not offensive, but it's there. And that creates an uncomfortable feeling, including this information. And then we connected these texts with objects, objects of memory, if you want. They relate to a lot of stories from our friends, from our families. There is a lot of things are built in. The book has to be written about it still. But there are also banal you know, you have an ashtray, you have, whatever, a powder dose, and just things, daily things.
Samantha Rose Hill: (22:58)
These are familiar images, there's a rich materiality to them, which you've juxtaposed, perhaps in this Benjaminian, Brechtian fashion. That's very jarring. That's very political and kind of unsettles that invitation to look at these images when you encounter them.
Frieder Schnock: (23:21)
And as we found out that today most of the people are looking on the smartphones only. We are glad to have an app for, or the Memorial and with the app, it's easy for people to experience the Memorial from far away. You can use it while walking and, uh, there are translations in different languages. And, uh, so if you cannot read German, you click it and you get a translation and you can make your way.
Samantha Rose Hill: (23:52)
And you're, you're forcing people who are constantly looking down while they're walking these days to look up. If you download exactly the app. I wanna come back to dialogue for a second because Renata, you brought up silence and silence is very important to Arendt. She talks about thinking as the silent dialogue of thought. The two in one conversation that I have with myself. As a kind of space where the self consciousness can engage with the conscience. Can you maybe talk a little bit about, more about silence? I'm curious, yes, the importance of silence and dialogue and art?
Renata Stih: (24:51)
Well, I like silence cuz I'm an only child. So I think silence is wonderful though. I never have silence. I usually have three screens on two without sound and one is with sound. And then I can, you know, just to have like an overview. Media and film is one of my passions, let's say. I teach it and I write about it and we also do videos. So, uh, programs or whatever, but silence is of course wonderful. When you, when you read and when you think then you come to a conclusion. You know, we found out that, Albert Einstein who lived in Harberland Strasse number four in the Bavarian Quarter that first of all, nobody could disturb him while he was working and so on, he, they would just give him some food and he would eventually come out once and so on. But he also had some secret “chambre de bonne”, you know, rooms where he would silently meet his mistress. I think he was a sexaholic if I'm not mistaken.
Samantha Rose Hill: (25:56)
Him and Adorno
Renata Stih: (25:58)
Yes, but it's a very, it's a very interesting, uh, story about him. And, you know, you wander around the Bavarian Quarter you think, where were these rooms where, you know, Einstein would just sneak in to meet someone? No, but silence is something that comes with, as I said with thought and with creating a concept. I mean, you can't fill yourself up with images and with sound and whatever, but then when, and you come out with it, it, you have to be silent. So Frieder and I tend to work each of us in his own space. And then we come together and discuss it. And then if we don't come to a conclusion, we go to our space again. And then we come together again, it's basically like that. And sometimes I collect material on email and send it to him. Despite the fact that he's not far away.
Renata Stih: (26:54)
I mean, this are just, I think this new kind of media exchange conversation is simply made from me. I was always waiting for it to have such a multi, multiple possibilities to do things. So you can have a conversation, but in silence, you don't have to speak. You can't just think and then send it over and you get an answer. And then you, you come out and do things together.
I was also thinking about, when did I meet Hannah Arendt first? This is actually an interesting story because I think my generation, somehow Hannah Arendt was very important. Of course, we learned about Eichmann trials everywhere in Europe, you would learn that at school or everywhere in free Europe. And so I remember the Gunther Gaus’ interviews. They were shown on German public television over and over again. Maybe I didn't understand everything as a little girl, my parents spoke about it. But she smoked.
Renata Stih: (28:01)
She was a chain smoker. She smoked and Gunther Gaus smoked. And they were both in a cloud and it was like a caricature. And of course my parents being intellectuals smoked too. And so I, as the younger age, I started smoking and then later I gave it up. All my grand aunts, everybody who was thinking was also smoking. Thinking and smoking was one thing. And so years later, Frieder I think has similar memories of, of Gunther Gaus interviews. Frieder and I studied photos of German immigrants in America and believe me each and everyone was holding a cigarette. These black and white photos were always with a pose. And it was always with a cigarette not only Hannah Arendt but I'm just looking at Max Beckmann, Hedy Lamarr, Gropius and, and Mies, of course, Mies van der Rohe, and Billy Wilder.
Renata Stih: (29:09)
I mean, they all smoked in every photo. So we created a series on smoking. The series is called “Smoking Immigrants”, and that's where we connect space and place and person. And it's, uh, and of course. Hannah Arendt, we, we, we did several on Hannah Arendt because she smoked everywhere, uh, and wherever Riverside drive and yes, Riverside drive, of course, we went there and looked at the house, but, but actually, I mean, I'm sure she smoked in the park and, and everywhere. So a bunch of collectors have ordered these and, and we have even, uh, central park and, uh, written over it Hannah Arendt smoked here because I'm sure she,
Samantha Rose Hill: (29:49)
Riverside Park. Riverside park was the park where she used to go sit and watch people. She wrote a poem. She wrote a poem about it in 1943.
Samantha Rose Hill: (30:12)
I wanna talk a bit about the relationship and the tension between politics and art. And this is a, a debate that is ongoing in our contemporary society today, should art be political? And it is an often controversial conversation. I think it's in “The Crisis of Culture,” Arendt says that the common element that connects art and politics is that they're both phenomena of the public world. But the artist works alone in isolation to create and then put something in the public world while politicians, people who engage in political action, are actors and speakers who go out into the street and, and speak and act and protest. So they're, they're similar, but they're different activities in the way that she breaks them down. And I'm thinking since you were talking so beautifully about smoking, I'm thinking about how Arendt guarded her work day. You know, she wouldn't even take lunch appointments with people until she was done writing.
Samantha Rose Hill: (31:22)
She would sit in her study at 370 Riverside Drive and lay on her couch and she would smoke and think, and then she said that she wouldn't write, she wouldn't go over to her typewriter until she could take dictation from herself. So there's the relationship between smoking and thinking, but also her writing, which was very political, is happening in this kind of private space. Your work, which is very political, you're sitting alone in silence together separately in conversation. Should art be political? Does art have an ethical obligation to contribute to the public sphere?
Frieder Schnock: (32:02)
If you want to have an impact on society, you really have to know the society. You have to go out, you have to meet people. For example, the Bavarian Quarter, we did recordings with a hidden mic. We were asking stupid questions to the flaneurs, to the passers by to learn some what they know about history, what they know about the Jewish population in this area. Uh, that's one example. And for example, for The Bus Stop project, we went to the Wannsee conference’s research center and looked up the material, because during that time you didn't have Wikipedia, whatever. You really had to go, go for the books and, and look for the files and, and put, uh, the stuff together. And to have an impact on society. And you better have good data. And, um, if you are emotional, for sure, you can create something in your studio and hopefully someone will or buy it, whatever. But if you really want to connect to society, you really have to know what the society is about.
Samantha Rose Hill: (33:07)
I'm wondering if we can kind of complicate the term society because Arendt draws this distinction between society and politics. And I think part of what she was worried about in the 1960s was the socialization of political life, the kind of reduction of all art objects into objects of mass consumption. And she talks about how modern art started as a rebellion against society. Is there a distinction in the way that you are thinking about society and politics, would you disagree with Arendt’s critique there?
Renata Stih: (33:50)
Well, I think that's where we learned to do what we are doing, you know, in the sixties. I mean, they went out and did all kinds of things that were unconventional, that were new in the art world. It included performance and music, sound, all kinds of things. And also political activities. When you think of Joseph Beuys, who surely with his methods is quite crucial for our work, wouldn't you agree Frieder?
Frieder Schnock: (34:21)
Absolutely. But it was a time of pop art too. And that I guess is the reason why Arendt came to such a conclusion. But if you look at, for example, the Beatles and you think about it as, as pop, uh, there are always different side steps and, um, pop can be aggressive too. And if we look at the pop artists, um, we have, uh, different figures there and, uh, it's not always the same. They are individuals. And, uh, even if we give it a label nowadays and say, this is pop art, but, uh, some is really critical. There's a critique against capitalism and you can do it with this pop art. Absolutely.
Renata Stih: (35:08)
Absolutely. Well, uh, Rauschenberg is one of those artists, right? He's a very well educated multilayered artist who brings in all kind of issues that, uh, was, um, kind of occupying society's, uh, and that, and that you can see in his collages, in his lit lithographs or other prints, you know, so, uh, I, I think he's one of those who are very, uh, where the meaning and the political message comes before the image different to Warhol where the image comes before the political image, but still, uh, you know, if you, if you show, uh, dollar bills or if you show cans, uh, and, uh, uh, or an icon like Marilyn Monroe, it is also a political statement. I think good art is always political. I mean, if you go back to Renaissance, you see how Pier Della Francesca, how he covered up a political message inside a biblical story. And it was obvious to people who knew about, you know, the background story, but it was also a beautiful painting. Now, today it's very often not beautiful anymore. We have another definition of beauty.
Samantha Rose Hill: (36:23)
What, how do you understand the definition of beauty to have changed?
Renata Stih: (36:26)
Oh, well, it's, you know,, let's say till the 19th century, it had to be painted beautifully. Proportions had to be the exact and so on. And then shifted slowly once Impressionists took the single pixels apart in a painting and showed them. And then after that it was deteriorating more and more into shape and color, and beyond that. And then the use of photography. And the experience with war, the documentation of war that gave our art push, thing. I'm just saying that because Frieder and I took our colleagues from Berlin University to the new National Gallery yesterday, where we, which is now newly renovated, beautiful, like never before and got a whole like lifting, but the best way and has a new art installation which goes exactly into detail into topics of the 20th century. It's a museum of the 20th century. And so there are pockets and you walk into these times and see how artists react to it and all around. You have some media installations because film and photography, as I said, were so important. And nowadays it's just part of it. We are so used to running images that, uh, Pierce Brosnan, you know, the James Bond interpreter said, “I love to paint because it gives me some stability. It is something I don't have to do with many other people, like making a film.”
Samantha Rose Hill: (38:02)
But I'm thinking about the relationship between history, remembrance, the creation of art objects, which always have a shapeliness to them, an appearance in the world, and the use of public space in particular. So when we're talking about something like pop art, we're not necessarily, uh, talking about something that is telling a story about something that happened in the past or when we're talking about kitsch. Um, and I think this was part of the distinction that Arendt was perhaps trying to draw between high art in a way, and commodity culture where art and poems have the ability to record stories and give voice to human experience. And there's different kinds of experience, but for her it was about the creation of meaning.
Frieder Schnock: (39:07)
I agree completely. And, uh, because, um, when we mentioned pop art, for sure, we thought about the sixties and, uh, one of the major events in the sixties was the Vietnam War. And if you'll think about art linked to the Vietnam War you can name a lot of artists who did, uh, great stuff and brought images to the public in a different media, whether it's photography or print or film. It's something you cannot say pop art is, uh, low or whatever. They had an impact on daily life, absolutely.
Renata Stih: (39:46)
Yes. Vietnam is something that Rauschenberg also quoted in many of his collages, also racial topics. He was very, very strong about it. And then on the other hand, in, in Germany, you have Gerhard Richter who took his whole family apart and brought history into his rather realistic pictures. And I have to,
Frieder Schnock: (40:12)
Renata Stih: (40:13)
Wolf Vostell was this political, uh, artist in Berlin. You still see his sculptures with a high, uh, let's say critique on capitalism and on a lack of solidarity in society and so on. But I have to come back to Joseph Beuys who was one of the first people to track down those relationships between humans and nature pointing out that we are ruining our environment. And that was what he did at a Documenta with this project “7,000 Oaks”, which he wanted to be planted. And he managed worldwide, basically, even in Japan, they planted some. So he, you have all these different layers, maybe, I guess, Hannah Arendt wasn't so well informed. She was in academic circles, but probably not in circles with artists and also critical collectors. You have very intellectual collectors who want to have of a certain kind of art of surrounding them
Samantha Rose Hill: (41:22)
Something nourishing. You've brought up Joseph Beuys a couple of times. And I think, you know, maybe that in part cuts to a distinction that Arendt wants to insist on that I'm hearing you disagreeing with, which is that action is something that we do through speech in a public space. And it's something that we do in concert with one another. And for her, the idea of what it meant to act in the world in that way was different from what she termed “work” in The Human Condition, homo favor, what it is that we can make with our hands. And that for her includes architecture, the creation of art objects and the writing of poems. But I hear in the way that you're talking about Beuys and others, this idea that the creation of an art object is a form of action. And it's not just a form of action. You understand it to be a political act that perhaps speaks or doesn't speak. And I think that's something that Arendt would have fundamentally disagreed with.
Frieder Schnock: (42:31)
Yes, the field is much more open. Art as activity. Think about Occupy Wall Street. If you hold up a sign, if you do picketing, it's all a link to performance. Uh, so the field of art is much, much wider. It's it's not only linked to object. If it's stable, if it's like a Memorial, like the Bavarian Quarter, we are lucky that it's there. And we always hear the question, how long will this exhibition be up? And we say, hopefully forever, as we might need lamp posts for a longer while. And, uh, so it's tricky the whole issue.
Samantha Rose Hill: (43:08)
But so I wanna just ask maybe, uh, and you can, you can decline to answer this question if you want, because I know it gets into controversial political territory today. But here you created this incredibly provocative exhibition posting antisemitic statements around Schöneberg. Today in the United States, people are tearing down Civil War memorials. They're taking down statues of Thomas Jefferson. And I'm curious how you think about the contemporary conversation around memorials and what their function is, or should be, politically within society?
Renata Stih: (43:49)
This installation is a memorial and so memorials are there to be forever. That's how they are created. They are there to kind of symbolically depict a certain moment in time. Our memorial, which we created goes beyond that. It is kind of shifting. That's why Frieder said, we tried to think what would be in years, how would future generations talk to each other? And that's why we also using language in the arts. You often have just images. We didn't, we use image and text or text and image, and then you can relate to it. And as I said, evidence, we have a proof that the crime happened and it's also of course, dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust. But it is also, let's say, a synonym for other human rights issues. You can see when you thoroughly look at it, that in all parts of the world where, human rights are threatened or neglected, same laws come up again.
Renata Stih: (45:04)
I mean, we have that rather often that people, for example, at the Jewish Museum in New York, we installed this work with a video in 2003 and a guard came to us and she said, you know, my mother was from the South and she experienced this. She was Black and she was not allowed to sit on certain benches and she was not allowed to drive in the front of the bus. And we are very familiar with such laws and regulations and she reflected about it. She was a guard at the museum and it was a really valuable conversation with her. And so that, that is how she adapted to it. And she said, every day I walk in and I look at your video of all the eighty signs I am reflecting about what does it have to do with my own past and my family? And we were absolutely moved about it.
Renata Stih: (46:05)
So I think our memorial doesn't glorify a man on a horse. That is a different thing. When you look at yeah, a man on that's usually a memorial. A memorial for a writer or a poet is a man on a chair with a book in its hand, looking down and pigeons, sitting on the head of these, you know, statues and high up and so on. I love those when I was a kid, cuz I always thought, oh, what did they do there up there? And then you have those warriors who created war or fought for some cause or were sent out to do something. Many of these are questions nowadays or even destroyed. But that is of course completely different from how we approach the moment of memory. We are storytelling people. And we tell a story, not only a story, it's no imagination. We take evidence and we bring it out there in public and you can read it if you like it or not. And
Samantha Rose Hill: (47:10)
It's perhaps what Walter Benjamin might have called a dialectal object?
Renata Stih: (47:15)
Probably. And I think it is a dialectical object. Yeah, true! You know, the problem with the Memorial was it was in German and uh, installed in ‘93. Um, public art was not meant to be also a book, which we did with it and also be translated into another language, what we wanted to do English. And so, uh, this kind of, uh, reaction with the app, is we are now producing many languages. We are producing one after another and they will be, uh, uploaded and people will be able to read them. And uh, and that's actually the right thing to do. It approaches so many areas, particularly in Europe, uh, but also outside of Europe. So I think it's a good, it's a good way to do it. Yeah. The app is, is an answer. And for all these people who love to hold a device in their hand and feel lonely otherwise because they don't smoke anymore. So now they're holding this device in their hands,
Samantha Rose Hill: (48:25)
The cell phone has replaced cigarettes is what you're saying.
Renata Stih: (48:28)
Yeah. That is also something about loneliness nowadays where people feel okay if they have a machine in their hand, you know.
Samantha Rose Hill: (48:37)
But it's also turned everyone into an artist. Everyone has become a photographer. Everyone has become a portrait artist. Everybody has become a video artist. Um, and self-publishes on social media platforms. How do you engage with this kind of democratization of technology? Does it figure into your work? And now the hands are being thrown up in the air for people who can't see us!
Renata Stih: (49:07)
I mean, it's about let people be creative! People who are creative, they don't fight. People who sing don't make wars. You know, this is my answer. Let them be creative. That's wonderful. And then people,
Samantha Rose Hill: (49:21)
Hannah Arendt liked to dance.
Renata Stih: (49:23)
She liked to dance. See? Ah, yes. Good. We, uh, used to dance too.
Samantha Rose Hill: (49:28)
This was lovely. Thank you so much. Thank you. Okay,
Renata Stih: (49:32)
Samantha, it was a blast. Thank you very much.
Samantha Rose Hill: (49:34)
Yes, it was for me. Bye bye.
Hannah Arendt: Between Worlds is a co-production of the Goethe-Institut and Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. It was produced and edited by Lisa Bartfai. Music by Dylan Mattingly. And it was hosted by me, Samantha Rose Hill. We have more episodes for you on Thinking with Hannah Arendt now. Until next time!
Producer and editor: Lisa Bartfai
Music: Dylan Mattingly
In this episode, Samantha Rose Hill talks with Hannah Arendt scholar Richard Bernstein about radical evil, the banality of evil, and his personal friendship with Arendt. Hannah Arendt: Between Worlds is a coproduction of the Goethe-Institut and the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. This podcast is part of Hannah Arendt: Thinking is Dangerous, a project for thinking with Hannah Arendt about our world today.
- Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil
- Richard J. Bernstein,
- Why read Hannah Arendt now?
- The Abuse of Evil
- Radical Evil: A Philosophical Interrogation
- Seyla Benhabib (ed.), Politics in Dark times: Encounters with Hannah Arendt
Samantha Rose Hill: (00:13)
This is Hannah Arendt: Between Worlds, a podcast co-produced by the Goethe-Institut and Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. I'm your host, Samantha Rose Hill.
Samantha Rose Hill: (01:05)
In 1963, Hannah Arendt published Eichmann in Jerusalem. It remains one of her most controversial works. When Arendt heard that Adolf Eichmann, Hitler's chief logician had been captured in Argentina by agents of the Mossad and taken back to Israel to stand trial for crimes against humanity. She wrote to the New Yorker immediately and asked if she could cover the trial. She said that she wanted to see evil face to face, in the flesh. But after the first day of proceedings, she was in shock. She wrote to, or her husband Heinrich Blücher and said, the whole damn thing is banal.
Richard Bernstein: (01:48)
You know, the Woody Allen movie Zelig? I think Eichmann is more like a Zelig figure. And what I mean by that is, when you are to act like a vicious Nazi, that's what you do. When you are to act as a responsible person answering questions in a cour, that's what you do.
Samantha Rose Hill: (02:09)
From her reportage on Eichmann in Jerusalem. She coined one of her most famous concepts, “the banality of evil.” Within the world of Arendt studies, the banality of evil is often read as a contradiction to the concept of “radical evil” that Arendt comes to at the end of the origins of totalitarianism, which he had published in 1951. At the end of Origins, Arendt argues that radical evil had appeared on earth with the Holocaust stripping humans of their humanity, rendering them superfluous. So I wanted to talk with the philosopher Richard Bernstein about his work on Arendt and evil because unlike many readers, Richard Bernstein has done a lot of work to show how these two concepts –radical evil and the banality of evil– are actually complementary to one another.
Richard Bernstein: (03:09)
This talk about Arendt’s theory of this, Arendt’s theory that. Doesn't really understand, I think that she was a person of thought trains. She followed certain thought trains that would sometimes interweave and interconnect. And that's the way at which I think she thought about evil today.
Samantha Rose Hill: (03:29)
So in this episode, we talk about the relationship between radical evil, the banality of evil and how we can think about evil in our world today with Hannah Arendt now. Richard Bernstein is an American philosopher who teaches at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He has written extensively on American pragmatism, the Frankfurt school and political philosophy. He's the author of Why Read Hannah Arendt Now? Please join me in welcoming Dick Bernstein to Between Worlds.
Samantha Rose Hill: (04:19)
It's a pleasure to be talking with you about Hannah Arendt and there's so many things that I wanna talk with you about evil, judgment, Arendt on Marx, what she got wrong, what she got right. But I wanna start by just acknowledging that we're talking on March 15th, 2022, and we're in a kind of pivotal political moment. And one of the things that I have been thinking a lot about for the past two weeks is that Hannah Arendt's conception of radical evil and the banality of evil are compatible with one another. And that sent me to your work on radical evil. And I was just wondering if you could talk to us a bit about how you think about Arendt on evil today, and what you've been thinking about for the past 20 days as Putin invaded Ukraine?
Richard Bernstein: (05:16)
Okay. Uh, should I talk a little bit about the concept of radical evil and, uh?
Samantha Rose Hill: (05:22)
You can talk about whatever you want.
Richard Bernstein: (05:25)
I still think what the few remarks that she makes about the radical evil and absolute evil in The Origins are very relevant and very important. As we all know, she's most famous because of the cult of the banality of evil. And there is a famous letter in an exchange of letters that she heard with Gershom Sholem in which she says something interesting towards the end, that the one topic that we could have really talked about is evil. And she says, I no longer think of evil as radical, only as extreme. Now, many people interpret that, that somehow she rejected the concept of radical evil in The Origins itself. I don't agree with that. I think that she's talking in two different registers. I mean, there, she's talking systematically about what's going on in totalitarianism and she's making this important point, which she makes in The Origins about making people superfluous.
Richard Bernstein: (06:42)
And she says, she confesses, and she actually reiterates this in an exchange with Jaspers, I don't quite know what radical evil is, but it has to do with making human beings superfluous as human beings. Now that's an extremely telling remark in The Origins because it's a major theme. It's a theme that goes all the way back to, uh, thinking about refugees. But my view has always been that one of the things that Arendt took to be the distinctive about totalitarianism in particularly the Nazis is that it wasn't the number of people they killed. It. Isn't the 6 million. It isn't massacres. It's the fact that in the end that they systematically try to change human beings into something they are not. They systematically attempted to make them superfluous. It's got a lot of other rich themes to it. Now, if we come now to the banality of evil, then what, there she's dealing with a very different phenomenon.
Richard Bernstein: (07:55)
She really is dealing with the evil of an individual person. There's a complex issue, which we can discuss, but I won't bring it up right now. Does she have Eichmann right? I think she doesn't quite have him right. But the main point that she's trying to make is that his, as, uh, to paraphrase something she says, the deeds were monstrous, but the man was a monster. And that makes sense in terms of the Eichmann trial, because clearly the prosecutors and people thought that if anybody could do these deeds, he must be a monster. He must be sadistic. He must be vicious. He must be antisemitic. And I think Arendt’s great claim is that it’s simply not true. That he seemed to be more interested in advancing his career than in doing now. The reason I think this is so important is because with that Arendt opens up the issue that human beings can do evil, even though they're relatively normal so that anybody can be guilty of the banality of evil and this and that.
Richard Bernstein: (09:15)
I, so in some of my writings about Arendt, I talk about, make this distinction, the historical distinction about whether she had Eichmann absolutely right. And we can talk a little bit about whether that is the case. But the conceptual issue, what was she really trying to conceptually bring forth with the banality evil? And that concept strikes me as relevant today as it was when she wrote it. And the interpretation I give to the claim, I no longer speak about radical evil, I speak about evil being extreme. Arendt was extraordinarily sensitive to language. When she uses the term radical, she's referring to the Latin radix, that it has roots. And the point that she really wants to emphasize in later writings, it has no depth, it's on the surf and it can spread like our virus. So that there is no depth to evil it's there and it can spread around.
Richard Bernstein: (10:24)
Okay. Now you wanted me to speak about the relevance. I think in general that people will speak about her theory of evil, her theory of radical evil, her theory of banality of evil. I think these are, that's a misleading way of speaking about her. I don't think she had a theory of radical evil, and I don't think she had a theory of the banality of evil. I think what is really interesting, and this is something particularly if we read the [inaudible] book, the other, it was on her mind all the way through her life. I mean, after I think the war and that what she was doing is over and over again, rethinking, you know, the nuances of what evil is and that I think you have to the end of her life. So this talk about Arendt's theory of this, Arendt’s theory of that, doesn't really understand, I think, and I think you bring this out beautifully in your own book, that she was a person of thought trains.
Richard Bernstein: (11:30)
She followed certain thought trains that would sometimes interweave and interconnect. And that's the way I, which I think she thought about or evil today. It has one significant consequence for thinking about the contemporary situation. I'm, I'm sure she would think of, I mean, she would, uh, be extremely critical of Putin and I think she would have no hesitance in saying that what he's doing is evil, but strictly speaking the concept of radical evil and the concept of banality evil cannot be imposed upon this. And this again is for me, characteristic of what I think is that one of the deepest themes in Arendt, is that Arendt really did believe that with totalitarianism there was a break in tradition. And one of the things that that break in tradition meant was you couldn't simply rely on traditional categories to analyze situations. You had to rethink them. So I don't think that people who would automatically say, oh, this is an exemplification of a radical evil, this is an example… That's very un-Arendtian. I think that she would say that, look, we have to think exactly. And there are things that are of course of Putin that are common to totalitarianism, but things that are different. And our task would be to try to illuminate what's distinctive about the evil that, uh, he's engaged in. That's a long answer to a short question.
Samantha Rose Hill: (13:12)
It's, it's, it's a, it's a wonderful answer. And you are bringing up many different, you know, I think aspects of Arendt’s work perhaps first and foremost, importantly, the idea that Arendt’s work is not a procrustean frame through which to analyze our contemporary political situation.But we can think with Arendt and the way that she talks about radical evil, extreme evil, the banality of evil, and try to illuminate what it is that we are witnessing today. Arendt..
Richard Bernstein: (13:45)
And that's what you would see as our task. Yes. You know, uh, I mean, you know, uh, I think you probably have noticed this in writing a biography, that there are certain terms that are favorite terms of Arendt. And one term that keeps reappearing is “perplexity.” Perplexity. She talks about perplexity and connection with the rights of, uh, the right to have rights. And she has a beautiful statement in the, uh, essay “On Thinking and Moral Considerations” where she says, how do you teach thinking? You teach thinking by trying to infect others with your own perplexities. And that's what I think Arendt really wanted to accomplish. She was not interested in “Arendtians.” She was not interested in followers. She certainly would've abhorred the idea that you could take her ideas and simply apply 'em to a situation, but it was a call to us, the readers, to face up to the perplexities which she's bringing forth.
Samantha Rose Hill: (14:58)
Richard Bernstein: (14:58)
And that includes the complexities about evil. Yeah.
Samantha Rose Hill: (15:01)
Yeah, no, I was just gonna say that that's beautiful and it it's picking up on, I think part of what, what drove Arendt to thinking from this place of curiosity and desire to understand. Perplexity comes, and you can correct me. Perplexity comes from the Latin perplexus, which means to be entangled, to be confused, to have doubts. It's related to both the kind of the tanglement, but also the questioning.
Richard Bernstein: (15:29)
I think that's right on. And that to, to try to get the reader to share in that experience, because if the reader shares in that experience, that is the stimulus for, for the real thinking.
Samantha Rose Hill: (15:43)
So we have evil and perplexity. And Arendt thinks about evil, as you said, throughout the course of her life. She comes to it, I imagine, as a young student, first as a theological problem, when she's studying in Berlin and then, and Heidelberg with Jaspers. But evil is often entangled with thinking and trying to think about thinking in her work as well. So evil comes from a failure to think. What he lacked was the ability to imagine the world from the perspective of another. How do you think about the relationship, or I'm gonna go with entanglement now instead of the perplexity, between evil and thinking throughout the body of Arendt’s work?
Richard Bernstein: (16:30)
First, let me introduce an aside, which
Samantha Rose Hill: (16:33)
I, yes, please.
Richard Bernstein: (16:34)
I think it's relevant. Um, we know about her marvelous correspondence. And one of the great correspondences with Jaspers, okay. I mean, the early days where they reunited writing again. And Arendt at that point was talking about a crime which is greater than anything else. And Jasper tries her. He says, if you begin talking about that in that way you are mystifying the concept. And she concedes that point. She makes the point that I don't really wanna mystify the idea. And that's in his interchange, which I, I I'm so perplexed that people don't always pick it up, he says, evil has to be understood in all its banality. Now, whether that entered her unconscious or was there, it's so clear that he's making the point shortly after the Second World War that she makes of course in the Eichmann book. Now on the other issue, I mean it is, I think, one of the more, more, uh, exciting and proactive themes of the inability.
Richard Bernstein: (17:55)
I mean, to really have the imagination to see if, I mean, that's one of the reasons she loves Kant. She loves the idea of, of the imagination traveling. And she certain wants to one of the threads. And when she says Eichmann can’t, was thoughtless, was that he really lacked the capacity to imagine what it was like for his victims. That's what he really lacked. I mean there's a, I could make a reference to Hegel here, but I think that Eichman, he might have just been, he could just as well have been shipping cattle, the fact that he was shipping human beings to their death is not something that really, and really seeing things from their perspective, really imagining is something. So that's one of the major strains, I think.
Samantha Rose Hill: (18:55)
And there, I think we, we see, we see the entanglement between radical evil and the banality of evil because in order to treat these human beings as objects, essentially, they had to be stripped of their humanity. And Arendt talks about this kind of three step process of stripping human beings of their humanity; killing the juridical person in that.
Richard Bernstein: (19:25)
I've always thought that one of the most brilliant things in Arendt is the threefold thing she, she makes in total, uh, in “Total Domination,” killing the juridical, killing the moral, and then killing the spontaneity. And that fits with a thesis that I have about Arendt, which I think is now more accepted when I first was writing. And that's the, the following is that many people who begin with The Human Condition think that the whole basis of it is a nostalgia for a Greek polish that never really existed. And I'm convinced that it was really the, I mean, after all individuality and spontaneity are crucial for our conception plurality, it was a systematic attempt to eliminate plurality that really then led her, I mean, she mentions it there, that let her to of our deepest insights about action and politics.
Samantha Rose Hill: (20:36)
And that's why, and that's why she argues Eichmann has to die at the end of Eichmann in Jerusalem. It was because he violated this fundamental principle of humanity, plurality.
Richard Bernstein: (20:48)
I'm, I'm not entirely happy with that last passage.
Samantha Rose Hill: (20:52)
You're not? No? Tell me what, tell me why? Most people, most people go back to it.
Richard Bernstein: (20:56)
I mean, I think it makes the major theme that if you will that certain people disappear from the earth, that's a violation of everything I most deeply believe in plurality. Okay. Um, the reason, um, have some qualification is that, um, it lends itself to an interpretation, which I don't is a correct one, but it lends itself to it, a vengeance. That you are, that this is really a kind of vengeful reaction to what he he did. And the indeed I think if I'm correct, I may be misleading, that that's the way Judith Butler reads it. You know, now I don't think that's quite correct, but if you just read it at a context, it can sound like this is the, this is the vengefulness of the victors, you know?
Samantha Rose Hill: (22:01)
Yeah. Yeah. I don't, I don't think I quite read it like that. I read it more as Arendt’s intervention against the kind of, you know, if the first step of the process of dehumanization is to kill the juridical man, how can the juridical system hold the person accountable? It seems to be a claim about the veracity of the, the crime committed. I wanna go back. So you, you brought up the passage in Arendt’s correspondence with Jaspers, which my broken in two volume is on the other side of the room and I'm tempted to get it because the passage you mentioned is on page 65. And where shortly after the war, if people wanna go grab it! and then later Arendt’s correspondence with Heinrich Blücher, which she writes to him right after she arrives and after the first day of the trial. She writes to him her first impression and says that he's a clown in a glass cage. Right. And the whole thing is so damn banal. And then later in the Arendt-Jasper's correspondence Jaspers writes and says, I hear Heinrich gave you the concept of banality of evil and now you're the one taking the responsibility for it. So you said earlier that you don't think Arendt’s gets Eichmann quite right. What does, what does, what doesn't she get? Right.
Richard Bernstein: (23:26)
Well, the point is this, I mean, as I say, I wanted to distinguish, to conceptually distinguish the issue about whether the concept is an important concept for us today. And the answer is definitely yes, because we see this all the time. One of my favorite examples is Abu Ghraib in Iraq. Everybody immediately was very angry with the immediate officers who were making fun and so forth, et cetera. But what people did not point to is, is the administration Bush and Rumsfeld, who created the situation. They're guilty of the banality of evil, in my own way. But let me get back to what you're trying to probe me on. Historically, look, there's an irony here because I think the evidence for a correction to Arendt’s view is her own description of what Eichmann did in Hungary. You know, I mean, after all, when Eichmann goes to Hungary to Budapest to organize the councils in 1944, everybody knows that the Germans are losing the war, including him.
Richard Bernstein: (24:42)
Okay. And yet, as we also know that, uh, between March of 1944 and the fall 400,000 people were sent to Auschwitz. Now, I don't see that as simply. And indeed what he does know also is said of doing this behind the back of Himmler. Now that seems to me in my category is a bit more fanatical than just, I mean, I don't see it fits the picture of a person, just, you know, advancing himself, doing his duty and so forth. There's something fanatical about why send all these people to the death when you know that it's not serving any function. And when you know that one of the first times in your life, you are violating what you take to be higher offices. I mean the acclaim, well, that's what Hitler would want. That seems to be weak. I think that action is a little bit hard to fit with the banality of evil.
Richard Bernstein: (25:49)
You see, there's another kind of aside. Do you know the Woody Allen movie Zelig? Yes. Okay. I think Eichmann is more like a Zelig figure. And what I mean by that is when you are to act like a vicious Nazi, that's what you do. When you are to act as a responsible person answering questions in a court, that's what you do and do. So with his ability to take on different personas or different roles in different situations in a certain way a variation of the theme of the banality of evil that's real, there's no depth to him. He would do whatever he, he was whatever situation he was thrown into. What I do not accept is the thesis that some people have developed. In fact, I, even myself suggested I agreed with it, but I don't agree with it, that he was being manipulative, that he knew what he was doing, that he was just playing a role. I don't think he was self conscious. I think the Eichmann in the court is one Eichmann and Eichmann, you know, um, among his Nazi friends in his Argentina is another Eichmann and he didn't see any discontinuity. That's real
Samantha Rose Hill: (27:11)
oh, I think,
Richard Bernstein: (27:12)
But that's Bernstein. That, that's not Arendt.
Samantha Rose Hill: (27:14)
Well, that's, I'm here for Bernstein on Arendt! So how did you meet Hannah Arendt?
Richard Bernstein: (27:34)
The story of our meeting is a wonderful story and is a story that tells a great deal about Hannah. Arendt. Uh, in the early 1970s, I had written a book called Praxis in Action. Okay. At that point in my life, I was not interested in Hannah Arendt at all. In fact, I was very critical of her. I thought that her interpretation of Marx and Hagel are outrageous, and I still, still do think that they're outrageous.
Richard Bernstein: (28:10)
But I published this book ultimately with the University of Pennsylvania. But I had published an earlier book with Yale and the editor at Yale was a bit annoyed that I didn't send the book to her. And so she said, send it. I did. And she took the, uh, upon herself to send it to a reader. Even though I had made a contract already with University of Pennsylvania. The review I received is the most perverse review I have ever seen. It was clearly written by a German émigré who was indignant that I would discuss Carnap and Dewey in the same book that I discussed Hagel.
Samantha Rose Hill: (28:50)
Richard Bernstein: (28:51)
And in the 1970s the number of people writing about Hegel you could count on one hand and why didn't I cite this German source, why didn’t I cite that German? And so in my mind, I asked, this was the question: who do I know, who I think is an arrogant German émigré? It's Hannah Arendt. So I had imagined that she's my enemy. Okay. She was invited to give a lecture. It was actually the “Lying in Politics” lecture at Haverford College in 1972. I didn't invite her. It was a colleague of mine. She said, I want to meet Richard Bernstein. And I had no idea what you wanted in me, me, me for. Well, it turned out that my editor man, by the name of Frederik was a personal friend of hers and had sent her my book. And she came to tell me how much she liked the book.
Richard Bernstein: (29:43)
I mean, the mindset had to change completely, cuz I thought here's an enemy and so forth! And there's a matter of fact that led to her. She wanted me to come to the New School in 1972. It didn't work out, but she became a great supporter. Something magical happened that night. We talked from eight, or we argued from eight o'clock to two o'clock in the morning. And in one of the things I dedicated to her, I said it was erotic. I mean, in the sense that there was a kind of deep attraction and at the same time agonistic, we were fighting, arguing! And that was the beginning of our friendship. She asked me to then give a paper at the first conference that there ever was on Hannah Arendt that took place in Toronto in 1972. This is the part of the story that I like to tell. Arendtt is a very distinguished person at this point, it's after the Eichmann book. Dick Bernstein is just starting out on his career.
Richard Bernstein: (30:46)
You know, this was of no significance for her. She says, I have just reread your book and I find two reactions; those who are very sympathetic and those who are extremely critical. And then she goes on to say, you know Dick, all academic writing left center and right is conservative. Nobody wants to hear something which is new and different. It’s beautiful, beautiful. I give that passion to all my PhD students. You know, because you know, young people are faced with this all the time that they are doing. And I think that she's right. And, and she says, adds, I know this from my own experience. Uh, like, so I think it's a beautiful statement about Hannah. Always like to tell the statement, tell the story, because one of traditional views is that she's arrogant and elitist, but here she's completely open and reaches out to a young person who's got no status, who's not, not famous, not part of a New York intellectuals. And that became, I mean, the friendship was wonderful.
Samantha Rose Hill: (32:10)
How has your relationship with her changed in the past 50 years? You knew her from ‘72 to ‘75 and you've carried her around in your thinking and teaching and carrying on the philosophy program at the New School for Social Research. How has she shifted in your imagination and thinking over the years?
Richard Bernstein: (32:35)
You want me to be honest?
Samantha Rose Hill: (32:37)
Richard Bernstein: (32:38)
I'm even more impressed. You know, I can read her works right now. I'm teaching. This is my last semester of teaching before I retire.
Samantha Rose Hill: (32:49)
Is it really?
Richard Bernstein: (32:50)
Samantha Rose Hill: (32:51)
I wanna, can I come to one of your classes?
Richard Bernstein: (32:54)
It's on Zoom so you can do it. But, um, I thought I would teach two of the courses that people come to study with me; one on American pragmatism, one on Hannah Arendt. And by the way I have some fantastic students in this course. And you know, today, as a matter of fact, just before I was reading On Revolution and I began seeing things about what she had to say about [inaudible] and about rage, which I really hadn't deeply noticed before. So I'm always discovering something new. I mean, this doesn't mean, you know, you probably know that I wrote this very critical article on the social and the political. And since I gave it to my class, I thought I might reread it. I wrote that in the, at the end of the eighties, but I still think that she took a wrong turn here. I try to defend her, but I think she overdrew the distinction and not to her advantage.
Samantha Rose Hill: (33:56)
Okay. So what does our get out outrageously wrong about Marx and Hegel?
Richard Bernstein: (34:06)
Uh, yes, I think when she wants to reduce them in the last analysis, she wants to reduce them of moving from freedom to a philosophy of history and both subscribing to the idea of historical necessity. You know, now that's not uncommon in interpretations to Marx and Hegel, but it doesn't bring out the nuance. I mean, you know, Marx is not a person, I could talk about either one, but Marx is not a person who thinks that there's just a necessary thing that's rolling along and is gonna bring out freedom. I mean, that's a caricature so that I think is really wrong. I mean, it doesn't bring out, you know, what I would call the nuances in Marx. You see, let me do this in terms of critique of Arendt. It's a wonderful statement that she makes in and in, in the interview, that's in the Crisis of the Republic “Thoughts on Revolution”
Richard Bernstein: (35:09)
where she says politics is not for everyone, like the publicness, but everyone has to have the opportunity. Okay. Now I think, this is Bernstein on Arendt. I don't think she thought that out. Because if you take that seriously, then you have to think hard about what are the material conditions that are required in order for people to engage in politics. And this is not just an abstract issue. It's a very concrete issue that we're facing today because, you know, we could speak the high language of the liberation and discourse, but we’re just neglecting all those populations that really don't have the ability to do that. So you have to think more seriously about using the Marxist term, the material conditions that create the possibility that people can be political and that I don't think or Arendt did with full seriousness.
Samantha Rose Hill: (36:16)
No, she takes it for granted and her writing, I think, and kind of begins from an assumption that certain material conditions’ been filled.
Richard Bernstein: (36:26)
You see all of this comes back. I mean, to a theme that I think is where there's still a little bit of difference between us is, um, in order for politics in Arendt’s sense not to be empty or hypocritical, a word that she uses, then you have to think out what are the, I mean, in terms of not just getting away from poverty, but education, discourse to be able to enter the arena? I mean, cause mean that, um, whether we think of Indigenous movements or the Women's movement and so a lot of it was concerned about how that class of people are excluded. Not only are they legally, but are really respected in a kind of political world. So I'm a bit more radical than Arendt on this issue.
Samantha Rose Hill: (37:23)
Yeah well, so am I. What do you think made Arendt turn away from those movements aside from, aside from the ideology part, which she was adverse to, do you think there was something else that made her kind of look away from those questions?
Richard Bernstein: (37:44)
I would put it differently.
Samantha Rose Hill: (37:46)
Richard Bernstein: (37:46)
There's another wonderful exchange with Jaspers. Actually discussing the book of Rahel Varnhagen, okay. Mm-hmm and in, I mean, I'm paraphrasing a course, but Jaspers did in effect say, Hannah you exaggerate. And she answers back, Exaggeration, exaggeration. You can't think without exaggerating! And besides, look at the world out there.
Now I am convinced that in this deep desire to restore= the dignity of politics and broaden the critical standard, even today that Arendt overstates, the case, you know, that she exaggerates and for good reason, because I mean, you know, outside of an Arendtian world, we just, people are blind to what she's talking about. Mm-hmm can you imagine a politician understanding, I mean, may pay lip service, but today understanding? Well, it's got to do with opinion, exchange, discussing in the public, dealing with peers. I mean, that's almost, I think certainly, I mean, in the Trump world, that's, that that's not politics. They would say, you know, politics is politics is what she's always critical of; getting what you want! That's the idea of rulership that she's so critical of. I just love those phrases when she says that politics is a world of no rule. Sometimes there are wonderful juxtapositions in Arendt. Bureaucracy is a rule of nobody. Yes. Politics is a rule of no rule.
Samantha Rose Hill: (39:31)
And I mean, that brings us back to Eichmann in a way, but I wanna, I wanna circle go back to the beginning of the conversation and ask what you, you know, thinking with Arendt today, what do you think has kind of fundamentally and irrevocably changed about our world since 1975? What are some of the elements that we need to be attentive to now?
Richard Bernstein: (39:57)
I think she would be horrified about what politics has become. You know, say we can think of just the American situation. I don't think she would be horrified by the new authoritarianism. She feared that. You know, as some time to think that the most, uh, devastating statement in The Origins is the one that concludes the section on domination, that totalitarian means will still, you know, even when the totalitarian regimes are gone, that they will still be appeal to the people when they're, they can't deal with the issues in the civilized world. We live in that world. I mean, you know, who would've ever expected that after, after World War II, there would be massacres like Rwanda? Who would've expected that we would've not only had torture, but try to justify torture? So she's right about that. And I think part of the power of her and
Richard Bernstein: (41:04)
one of the reasons why I think that so many people are reading her is because, um, you can see, I mean, after all her analysis of totalitarianism is an analysis of subterranean tendencies in the modern world that crystallized and they could crystallize again. Okay. And that I think is, um, one of the reasons that she's so appealing because she's illuminating. Um, if I could just say one more thing about this, because I always like to counterbalance things. Um, I think that few people had a deeper understanding of the darkness of our times, remember the darkness of our times for Arend it’s not totalitarianism. It's when you know, there's no credibility when truth is trivialized. I mean, one of the, the essay that I always think could have been written yesterday is “Truth in Politics.” Okay. So, um, you know, I see that as a, uh, a deep theme relevant for us today. I also think again, in Arendtian fashion and taking seriously, um, what I call “characteristical thinking,” she said, do not use my categories just as [inaudible]. I mean, think of the easy ways in which people speak about all kinds of things as being totalitarian. Um, and that
Samantha Rose Hill: (42:42)
Everything is fascism now.
Richard Bernstein: (42:44)
Well, okay. And Arendt would object to that. I mean, the whole art of thinking is making distinctions. And you know, we're not living, there are many, many tendencies in Putin and others and the authorities, which are, you know, you can see their, their affinity with totalitarianism attends, but we're not living in a world in which people are being sent to concentration camps, being murdered, the use of terror in quite that, that sort of way. Nuance, nuance is what she calls for and nuance, requires real thinking!
Samantha Rose Hill: (43:23)
Yes. I think that's, you know, I, there were, there were two conversations I had that really, that I held in my imagination while I was writing. One was with Jerry Kohn, we met for lunch and he told me the story about Anna a, you know, jumping up on her kitchen table and lifting her skirts and dancing and singing Bertholt Brecht in German “Three Penny Opera.” And I loved that image of a dancing, which also comes out of a Günther Anders' story. And then when we met at the New School shortly before the pandemic, you really brought to life, used the word erotic earlier in that kind of true platonic sense. You really brought, I could feel the erotic energy of Arendt through you. You told me the story about fighting about Karl Marx until the wee hours of the morning and imagining, you know Arendt so engaged and lit up and vivacious.
Richard Bernstein: (44:31)
I mean, look it’s 50 years, that is my image that's with me today. Well, it's perfectly clear to you that she had special meaning as a person, in addition to her, you know, her writing and the thing, but just as a human being. Open and encouraging, interesting ideas, not worried about barriers or who, what, what your status is. I think status had no significance for her. And that is a remarkable trait. I mean, you know, this is now my personal view, but it’s also Arendt’s, that one of the greatest goods in this world is real friendship. And even though it's only a few years, that's what I had with Arendt, real friendship. And what is real friendship? Real friendship is where you can be open with the other, where you can say what you want, where you're not afraid of being criticized and so forth, you know, on ideas that you can discuss issues and still come away disagreeing and respecting each other.
Richard Bernstein: (45:40)
And I consider myself very fortunate, I've had this with a few other people, but I had it with Arendt. I mean, I've also had a relationship like that with Habermas, you know, which is also a person I know from that very year. And the way you're with a person and you feel, in the case of Jürgen and he's still alive, where you feel perfectly at home. When Arendt talks about being at home in the world and loving the world, you experience that in real, you and I, I think what's so sad is that I don't see much of that around today, that kind of friendship. There's another type of thing, which I think is, um, characteristic. I mean, Arendt is an older generation, but I consider myself very fortunate coming to, you might say intellectual life and the love of the life of the mind after the Second World War.
Richard Bernstein: (46:40)
I mean, this is a wonderful period in which you felt that ideas counted that your ideas could make a difference. You know, that, so it was, um, in fact, um, this, this is really off the topic, but I will say it, uh, two other close friends were Jacques Derrida and Jürgen Habermas, there was a famous dinner party, I say, it's famous ‘cause it's in both their biographies, that took place here where we connected. And when I found so interesting, here is Habermas growing up as a person who was just being conscious of what the Nazis has done when he's a teenager, here is, Derrida growing up in Algeria, being thrown out of school, his Dick Bernstein growing up in Brooklyn. And yet at the profoundest level, I think our whole understanding of intellectual life was something we deeply shared. And certainly that thing that I discovered in Hannah Arendt.
Samantha Rose Hill: (47:51)
Do you think that it's possible to nourish that kind of intellectual friendship today?
Richard Bernstein: (47:59)
You know, you know, let me go back to a theme, which I haven't mentioned, which I really think is important. We talk about Arendt in terms of understanding totalitarian tendencies, authoritarianism. But this is another beautiful aspect of Arendt of illumination. Of the sense in which, you know, the real belief in new beginnings and in freedom. I think that's, so I think that's tremendously important in terms of young people today, because it's so easy to become cynical, it's so easy to turn off from things, but the attitude, the belief, which I take very seriously, that we can still come together, you know, collectively act and make a difference in the world. It's a beautiful Arendtian theme. You have to be careful not to sentimentalize it, to go over it because after all she thought that most revolutionary spirit was always being killed, but she did not believe that it was killed because of necessity. So in that interview “On Thoughts and Revolution,” and she says, well, what do you think should be that former government? That's where she talks about the councils and maybe the next revolution this would happen and she says, maybe next time it would be there. So there's always the openness and the hope.
Samantha Rose Hill: (49:26)
Thank you, Richard Bernstein. Thank you!
Richard Bernstein: (49:29)
Okay. I enjoyed it! And I hope that this works
Samantha Rose Hill: (49:46)
Hannah Arendt: Between Worlds is a co-production of The Goethe-Institut Institute and Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. It was produced and edited by Lisa Bartfai. Music by Dylan Mattingly. And it was hosted by me, Samantha Rose Hill. We have more episodes for you on thinking with Hannah Arendt now. Until next time!
Producer and editor: Lisa Bartfai
Music: Dylan Mattingly