A Report on the Arendt Circle Conference 2017
Dates: Thursday 30th March – Saturday 1st April
Host: Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities, Bard College, NY
I have just returned from a most engaging and challenging conference. Scholars from around the world contributed to two and a half days of intense engagement with Hannah Arendt’s vast body of work at this year’s Hannah Arendt Circle conference. Presentations ranged from a critique of Arendt’s treatment of science to the historical analysis of the holocaust, and from placing Arendt into conversation with her contemporaries to uncovering her treatment of judgement, disgust, and political experience. Papers found solace in both contemplation and empiricism, and elicited debates that covered, amongst many other topics; Orwell’s treatment of the English language, Arendt’s controversial account of Little Rock, the challenge of ‘populism’ today, the correct translation of the Denktagebuch, and Arendt’s stance on the role of the nation-state.
The conference began on Thursday 30th March with two informal working groups. The first group considered ‘Arendt and her contemporaries’, with particular focus on 20th-Century liberalism. The second group then hosted a discussion with Kathleen B. Jones, prompted by her New Political Science article “Queer(y)ing Hannah Arendt, or What’s Hannah Arendt Got to Do with Intersectionality?”. The intimate setting of the seminar room at the Hannah Arendt Center – a space where Arendt spent time herself – was fantastic for fostering wide ranging enquiries and comments, and allowed for some truly outstanding scholars to contribute to the debate. It also bore witness to some comical impasses and a brilliant display of wit on the part of some contributors.
The conference attendees were then treated to a short ‘Q&A’ session with the President of Bard College, Leon Botstein – a former student of Hannah Arendt. I put ‘Q&A’ in inverted commas as a more accurate description of this event would be a performance of personal recollections by Leon Botstein. Recounting through mellifluous monologue, President Botstein entranced his audience with some of the intimate memories he had of times spent with Hannah Arendt; a very memorable and unique moment for all present.
On Friday, the conference kicked off with its dense packing of paper presentations and invited panel discussions. Opening the day was a session on ‘The People, Populism, and Collective Responsibility’ with papers by Angela Maione (Harvard University) and Phillip Nelson (Stony Brook University). Angela provided a timely critique of the notion of ‘populism’, challenged our response to populism today, and opened a necessary conversation between Arendt and Ernesto Laclau. Phillip then took us on an interesting journey into the question ‘what is the end of government?’; challenging any ideas we had of political responsibility.
The second session of the day looked at ‘Arendt in Dialogue’, starting with Fanny Söderbäck (DePaul University) who instigated a fascinating debate on Arendt’s potential convergence with the writings of Adriana Cavarero. From Fanny’s paper, contrasting natality and birth, the position of ‘women’ was explored to introduce a relational dependency to Arendt’s notion of natality and politics. The second paper, by Shmuel Lederman (University of Haifa), then provided the entire audience with a convincing discussion as to the impact that Arendt and her husband Heinrich Blücher had upon each other’s intellectual enterprises. Drawing fresh insight into many of Blücher’s lecture scripts, Shmuel’s paper was greeted with furious note-taking by many in the audience. Shmuel also put forward his conviction that Arendt was in favour of a ‘participatory democracy’; inviting a great deal of discussion and clarification when questions were invited from the audience.
After a generous lunch, the papers turned to some ‘Historical Connections’ in Arendt. Karen Robertson (Trent University) began this session with a complex exploration of Hegel and Arendt, focusing on the nature of political agency. This was followed by Anandita Mukherji’s (Boston University) account of Arendt and Rousseau on the notion of Pluralism. A distinction was provided by Anandita between ascribing to Pluralism and centralizing plurality in one’s theories. This was developed with a discussion on common sense and a useful thought exercise on the idea of debating with possible, or absent, others.
We were then treated to a session on ‘Forgiveness in Politics’ moderated by Jana Schmidt, a fellow of the Hannah Arendt Center, whose insightful introduction to the session showed the depth of her own engagement with the topic and nicely set up the final paper session of the day. On the topic of the ‘Common World’, Tal Correm (Allegheny College) gave us a challenging introduction and contrast between forgiveness and reconciliation in Arendt’s work. In this discussion, Tal provided reference to some key works published by Roger Berkowitz (Director of the Hannah Arendt Center), and raised necessary challenges to our sensibilities on the process of reconciliation after a conflict (an interesting question was also posed by Normah Musih about the question of reconciliation prior to conflict resolution). The other paper in this session was by Thomas Wittendorff (The European University Institute). Thomas’ paper provided the perfect introduction to the Special Book Panel which was to follow. By inviting the conference participants to join him on a deep journey of textual analysis, Thomas explored the notion of forgiveness as it emerges and evolves through various entries in Arendt’s Denktagebuch.
To finish this intensely thoughtful day, the conference guests were treated to a Special Book Panel on ‘Artifacts of Thinking: Reading Hannah Arendt’s Denktagebuch’. Both of the book’s editors were present – Roger Berkowitz (Bard College) and Ian Storey (Harvard) – as well as three of the contributors to the content. These speakers included Wout Cornelissen (Vanderbilt University), Thomas Wild (Bard College), and Anne O’Byrne (Stony Brook University). Each speaker provided a useful synopsis of their contribution and, no doubt, led to most conference participants – myself included – ordering their copy of the book online afterwards. Of particular note, Anne O’Byrne managed to present her contribution to the book by making reference to all of the paper contributions that had been heard already that day; emphasizing the great flexibility of her thinking and her evident commitment to performance.
The final day of the conference kicked-off early at 8:30am with a paper session on ‘Politics in Dark Times’. David Antonini (Southern Illinois University-Carbondale) opened the session with his paper looking at the rise of Donald Trump in the US political system, evidently emerging from David’s background in Political Science, and made comment on the worth of political demographics in understanding this rise. This paper was followed by Simas Celutka (Vilnius University) who presented on the common ‘reality’ of Trump and Putin, and the destruction of common sense and coherence in politics. Simas made fascinating comment on journalism in his paper, and explored the role that journalists and academics currently play in reasserting the importance of truth in a supposedly ‘post-truth’ era.
Participants were then introduced to Robert Crease (Stony Brook University), an invited speaker, who gave a paper on the Authority of Science in Politics, with critical reflection on Arendt’s treatment of science. Robert provided a wide ranging consideration of key scientific thinkers, especially those of quantum theory beyond Heisenberg, and made an argument about the place of politics in the workshop/lab practice of science today.
To finish a busy morning of presentations, a session on ‘Rights, Place, and Memory’ was held before lunch. The allusion to ‘place’ particularly excited the geographer in me, and the session did not disappoint. First, Norma Musih (Indiana University) gave a presentation from her activist background in Israel, and considered the place of memory making and memorializing as part of political action envisaged by Arendt. Then Yasemin Sari (University of Alberta) presented a fascinating paper on the position of the refugee in Arendt’s political thought and drew extensively on the notion of a ‘right to place’. This brought out some intriguing references to borders and bordering in the formation of refugee political appearance.
After lunch, the conference concluded in the style that it had begun; with a great deal of enquiry jam-packed into a tight schedule. Three paper sessions were included in the final afternoon under the titles ‘Disgust in Politics’, ‘Thinking through Eichmann’, and ‘Political Experience’. The first session witnessed a paper by Vilde Lid Aavitsland (DePaul University) on the Failure of Judgement. Vilde gave an expert account of Arendt’s notion of judgement, and picked up upon Kant’s contrast between beauty and disgust. There was also reference to Arendt’s article for Dissent magazine on Little Rock, which provoked much comment from the conference participants. Despite this session having only a single speaker, the quality of the paper presented by Vilde meant that the moderator, Samantha Hill (Hannah Arendt Center), still had to call a halt to the great number of audience questions when the time was up.
The next session on ‘Thinking through Eichmann’ began with a historical paper by Robert C. Kunath (Illinois College). Robert gave an uncomfortable and rich account of Nazi officer’s deliberations around the extermination of a Jewish community during WW2; speaking directly to Arendt’s most infamous work, Eichmann in Jerusalem. Then, in a somewhat different direction, Glenn M. Hudak (University of North Caroline at Greensboro) opened up a necessary and challenging account of autism, using the condition as a potential counterpoint to much Arendtian understanding of thinking. The celebrated notions of plurality, being seen and being heard were expertly unsettled by Glenn’s wide ranging discussion that drew upon fascinating historical reference and personal experience.
The conference closed with the session on ‘Political Experience’ featuring papers from Norma Moruzzi (University of Illinois at Chicago) and Ari-Elmeri Hyvönen (University of Jyväskylä). Norma offered a chapter from a wider project that she is involved with, which looked at the ethical commitment of theorising politics. There was a unique correlation drawn between Arendt at the Eichmann trial and Michel Foucault on the Iranian uprising. Through this comparison, Norma demanded conference participants confront the dilemma that both scholars must have felt when they moved from contemplation to empiricism and faced their own political judgements. Then, to conclude the conference, Ari-Elmeri used his paper to turn our attention back in on ourselves, considering ‘Reflective Encounters with the Visible’ and extrapolating from his reading of Arendt an understanding of political encounter – with particular focus on some of Arendt’s published lecture notes. This paper was followed up with a fascinating contribution by Lee Cooper, one of the conference participants, who revealed that he had been present during Arendt’s actual lectures upon which these notes were based. Lee’s insight into Arendt’s thought on Lenin and her interaction with Joseph Heller (Catch 22 author) in the lecture series, was uniquely fascinating; a fitting end to the endless fascinating revelations that had emerged throughout the conference.
I think now, and in the weeks and months to come, all of us involved with the 11th Annual Meeting of the Hannah Arendt Circle will digest and mull upon our thoughts, hopefully enabling our creativity and imagination to crackle into life. I anticipate some exciting contributions to emerge in the scholarly milieu in the near future. Obviously I cannot wait for next year!
Julian Shaw (King’s College London)
I would like to make a special mention of thanks to Jennifer Gaffney (Gettysburg College) who organized this year’s Arendt Circle Annual Conference. Jennifer’s energy and dedication in bringing people together for the event, and her fantastic contributions throughout the 3 days made this a memorable and priceless experience. I would also like to thank the Hannah Arendt Center for Humanities and Politics at Bard College who hosted the conference, and made some key scholarly interventions throughout. It was great to feel so welcome in a space so important to all Arendt scholars.