Post scriptum (2022, week 12) — Being between worlds, a hinge of history, and why we should read Hannah Arendt
In May 2021, I wrote what would be my last Reading notes, a weekly curation of the things I had read, watched or listened to. It began with a few lines from a poem by Mary Oliver (‘Don’t Worry,’ published in Felicity, 2016):
“Things take the time they take. Don’t worry.
How many roads did St. Augustine follow before he became St. Augustine?”
Many weeks have passed while I couldn’t sit myself down to write. But now, perhaps, it’s time to start again. I’ve promised myself not to worry too much about ‘form.’ It will come, or not. Let’s take one post scriptum at a time.
In this first edition of Post scriptum: We are in a historical moment of transformation; Ben Rhodes recalls meeting a group of Russian writers in a small room in the West Wing; how Hannah Arendt speaks directly to our own age; the uncertainty of our memories; machine consciousness; how much is too much meritocracy?; Scott Berry Kaufman and the science of transcendence; the disappearing structures on the northern European coastlines; and, finally, wise words from Simone de Beauvoir.
Being between worlds
Emerge published an interview with Zak Stein, a futurist, educator and the author of several books, including Education in a Time Between Worlds, a series of essays on the future of schools, technology and society. He is also co-founder of The Consilience Project.
According to Stein, we are in a historical moment of profound transformation, in which the old world is passing away, and the new world hasn’t emerged yet. A time between worlds, as he calls it. “This relates to the idea by the historian and economist Immanuel Wallerstein, who saw broad historical patterns of what he called ‘world system transformations’, in which the whole modality of human existence, from economics to culture, changes. One recent example would be the Enlightenment, and the democratic revolutions that overthrew the ancient regime in Europe and moved us from a certain mode of economic production and cultural thought to a completely novel one,” Stein explains.
“There is a coming transformation of human existence in all areas, in the economic, political, governmental, cultural, and personality systems. Just as in the transformation from ‘archaic’ or pre-modern humans into the modern human. We’re in another major world-historical moment of transformation, in which the old world is passing away, becoming increasingly dysfunctional, and the new world hasn’t emerged yet. We don’t know yet what will need to be created to stop us from all dying as the old system runs down. The complex dynamical open systems, in which we are living, have a high throughput of energy as we move through this phase transition. We’re in a period of chaos, the old forms of order no longer hold, the new forms of order have not emerged. We’re at a moment when we can think about design parameters, about systems that would allow for emergence of new forms of order, a re-worlding, if you will. That’s why it feels like such a potent time, both dangerous and exciting. […]
So, given the enormity of this change, I was trying to find the right phrase. The notion of being between worlds has the power to name this transition we are in.”
When asked about the capacities we need to abide in this uncertainty or in this time between worlds, Stein breaks it down to three broad categories that characterize ontogeny — or the evolution of the individual.
“First, we find the development of cognitive complexity and the capacity for skilled behavior. Then we find dynamics of personality maturation, or ensoulment, which means the psychodynamics of dynamics of emotion and interpersonal relationships. And thirdly, we find phenomena of transcendence, which means consciousness, awareness and the capacity to be emotionally self-regulating. All these three are important: development, ensoulment, and transcendence.”
According to Stein, “we need to boost all three of those domains. If we boost any one of them without boosting the others, we are messed up. If you just boost developmental complexity and ignore shadow and the capacity for contemplation, then you just get what we have: a bunch of nerds running out of control with high IQs and great technical capacity, but no heart and no sense of transcendence. If you just boost personality and ensoulment, then you’re endlessly ‘circling’ and doing shadow work and can get stuck in the tragic. We then misunderstand the importance of science. And, of course, you can engage in spiritual bypassing by focusing just on the domain of transcendence, meditating your way out of the global catastrophe into oneness.”
“Today, we’ve become so self-aware. The complexity sciences and the social sciences are increasing telling us that a transition point is coming where we need a truly novel and spontaneous emergence to occur. But at the same time we have become neurotically avoidant of giving up control over important elements of our lives. Now we come back to human development. As we become aware that we can’t really predict or control the future, and that it is all very risky affair, many psychological defense mechanisms and biases being to kick in.
One response is to say that humans are different from the natural world, which is unpredictable and chaotic. We need to design our future to be predictable and ordered, transcending nature. According to this view we should not have faith that the self-organizing processes that created us will continue to sustain us. We should not believe that we’re part of a self-organizing process that could usher us into the future. Instead, humans are understood to be in control of all the variables and to have an obligation to predict the future by creating it.
The other response comes from learning the lessons of the complexity sciences and therefore stepping back from ambitions of omniscience and omnipotence. This means working to position ourselves within a stream of self-organizing processes that we’re just faintly aware of.
This view requires ‘negative capability’ — the ability to look at a problem, not know the answer, and be fine with that. It’s the ability to hold not-knowing and uncertainty.”
A hinge of history
Out of the righteous rage of this moment, perhaps a new world can be born, Ben Rhodes writes in We Have Reached a Hinge of History. Rhodes is the author of After the Fall: Being American in the World We Made — “nostalgic for certainties,” Julian Borger wrote in his review for the Guardian — and the former speechwriter and deputy national security adviser to Barack Obama.
“In early 2016,” Rodes writes, “I met with a group of Russian writers in a small room in the West Wing. It was one of those meetings that broke up the monotony of my days, that peculiar opportunity you have, when serving at high levels of government, to choose to meet with a group of interesting people. In this case, it was a handful of writers sponsored by PEN, the organization that supports journalists and authors facing oppression around the world. I remember the familiar feeling of meeting with a group of people whom I could not possibly seem to help. Throughout the meeting, I was distracted by the fact that one of the women looked uncannily like my mother, which led my mind to wander and wonder just how far east my family’s journey had begun before the pogroms drove them across Poland and then to America. I asked the writers if they had any concerns about being affiliated with an American organization like PEN, or about meeting with people like me. No, they answered. It was their choice. What they wanted was not so much help as the simple opportunity to share their experience and perspective, which is, after all, a starting point for writing itself.
One of the writers in that 2016 meeting was Maria Stepanova. Maria had come of age in the ’90s and had established herself as one of Russia’s leading poets, in addition to being a novelist, a journalist, and the publisher of a crowdfunded website on news and culture. In the spring of 2020, I noticed an interview in which Maria spoke about the dark humor of being Russian, the realization that everyone has two identities: the one put forward in public and political spaces, and the private life lived behind closed doors. I thought she could help me make sense of the ways in which politics and identity in our two countries had blended in such a disorienting way.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Maria told me, ‘Russia had become a country that has forgotten what it means to have a history, a country that has fallen out of history.’ It had become a country with a history filled with ghosts — the enormous suffering of the Soviet years, along with the sense of loss that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union. And it was ripe for something to fill that vacuum.
When Putin retook the presidency in 2012, Maria sensed a shift in him. From my perspective, this reflected the political calculation of a man who could no longer count on high oil prices to lubricate his corruption and consolidation of power, a man in need of legitimacy who turned to a convenient nationalism. But to Maria, Putin’s shift also reflected a man who felt politically and personally wounded at home when his return to office was met by huge demonstrations led by the likes of Alexey Navalny. ‘These were beneficiaries of his reign,’ Maria said, referring to the middle-class Muscovites who protested in the streets, ‘people that he was identifying himself with in a way.’ Perhaps Putin was like Russia — a man who felt himself falling out of history. Perhaps the cold, corrupt logic of power was not his sole source of motivation — to a man like Putin, falling out of history can engender its own rage.
After his reflection, Putin gave a speech to an enormous crowd in Moscow in which he quoted the great Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov. In one of Lermontov’s most famous poems, he wrote about the Napoleonic Wars, the first of two crises when Russians put aside their differences to repel an enemy at the gates. ‘We shall die before Moscow, as died our brothers. To die we swore, and our oath of fealty kept on the field of Borodino.’ When Putin read these lines, Maria recalled, he had tears in his eyes. Putin saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing tide of globalization as another advance on Moscow, embodied in those 2011 protests led by Western-oriented Muscovites.”
“With his attacks on Ukraine in 2014, Putin rejoined history — the history that has dominated most of humanity’s time on the planet, when nations fought wars over territory and reconquered places that had been taken away. Blood and soil. Of course, Putin framed that conquest as necessary to stop another enemy at the gates of Moscow. Like everyone else I talked with, Maria noticed the omnipresence of a virulent patriotism inseparable from the person of Putin. But she also noticed a broader effort to reshape the consciousness of the nation. ‘I noticed the difference in the amount of violence around you,” she said, “on television, social networks, etcetera. It is violence you feel in the air. But the level of actual violence was quite low.’
Compared with the battles of Russia’s past, the actual fighting in eastern Ukraine was a small endeavor affecting mainly the people there and the few thousand Russians sent furtively across Ukraine’s borders. But there was something brutal and infectious about the propaganda that went along with it. I noticed it at the time. In memes that anticipated American conspiracy theories such as QAnon, Russia’s enemies were cast as pedophiles, sexual deviants, and diabolical criminals. This ability to manipulate and mobilize the national psyche while keeping the stakes relatively low represented a breakthrough for Putin, making easy use of America’s unregulated and sensationalizing social-media networks. ‘People are happy to be violent in the social networks,’ Maria said. ‘In that space, there has been rhetorical violence in Russia for the last 10 years, through the discourse of hate on social networks.’
Maria observed that the discourse was now ‘tracking something in the unconscious from the dystopia of the 20th century.’ For Russia, that included everything from Stalin’s purges to its war in Afghanistan to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even the violence of Chechnya, the terrorism of the early 2000s, the murdered children of Beslan, still lingered. Whether it was out of conviction, for political convenience, or — more likely — some mix of both, Putin knew how to make Russians feel that they were reentering history. The assassination of Boris Nemtsov and the poisoning of Alexey Navalny can be seen as an extension of that trauma, actions that keep history alive.
Maria volunteered that if she had the opportunity to vote for Navalny for mayor of Moscow again, she would do so. But while his single-minded focus on corruption represented a needed change, she did not think it was sufficient. Instead, she said, a more radical shift had to take place. To her, this was the other side of the coin from Navalny’s interest in upending a corrupt cabal: the simple notion that politics and government had to be rooted in truth. ‘People are yearning for a sense of truth, for a certain sense of reality that is always being distorted. People are asking for something that is based on an ethical frame.’
The danger of the other path is catastrophe. The history that Putin had reentered was the older kind, which inevitably leads nations down rivers to the heart of darkness, borne on the currents that gave rise to fascism and communism, Hitler and Stalin, two men who caused the deaths of tens of millions of Russians. When history appeared to come to an end at the conclusion of the Cold War, the specter of another world war was lifted, and with it some of the sense of drama that Putin had tapped into. And while wars fought online were not often tied to actual violence, a dizzying array of narratives recirculated those old 20th-century forces in new packaging — in particular, a creeping and sometimes casual fascism that suited Putin.
As a Russian, Maria knew how this kind of history could hurt people, in ways that Americans, too often, do not. Every Russian had been touched by World War II. Every Russian family had suffered in some way through the Soviet times. This was the main thing she had to tell us Americans, I realized — this warning. She felt the return of history. ‘I am afraid of some catastrophe that is going to happen,’ she said to me in 2020, referring to her state of mind the past few years. ‘I feel it in my bones. I am sharing this with my compatriots: There is going to be a new war, World War III, or the gulags, or the trials.’”
Why we should read Hannah Arendt now
“Never has our future been more unpredictable, never have we depended so much on political forces that cannot be trusted to follow the rules of common sense and self-interest — forces that look like sheer insanity, if judged by the standards of other centuries.” — Hannah Arendt, from the preface to the first edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism
Originally published in 1951, Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism has much to say about a world of rising authoritarianism, Anne Applebaum argues in her introduction to a new illustrated edition of Arendt’s ground-breaking work, published by The Folio Society.
“Once again, we are living in a world that Arendt would recognize, a world in which it seems ‘as though mankind had divided itself between those who believe in human omnipotence (who think that everything is possible if one knows how to organize masses for it) and those for whom powerlessness has become the major experience of their lives’ — a description that could almost perfectly describe Vladimir Putin on the one hand and Putin’s Russia on the other,” Applebaum writes.
“The Origins of Totalitarianism forces us to ask not only why Arendt was too pessimistic, in 1950, but also whether some of her pessimism might be more warranted now. More to the point, it offers us a kind of dual methodology, two different ways of thinking about the phenomenon of autocracy.
Precisely because Arendt feared for the future, much of The Origins of Totalitarianism was in fact focused on an excavation of the past. Although not all of the research that lies at the heart of the book has held up to modern scholarship, the principle that led her down this path remains important: To grapple with a broad social trend, look at its history, try to find its origins, try to understand what happened when it last appeared, in another country or another century. To explain Nazi anti-Semitism, Arendt reached back not only to the history of the Jews in Germany but also to the history of European racism and imperialism, and to the evolution of the notion of the ‘rights of man’ — which we now more commonly speak of as ‘human rights.’ To have such rights, she observed, you must not only live in a state that can guarantee them; you must also qualify as one of that state’s citizens. The stateless, and those classified as noncitizens, or non-people, are assured of nothing. The only way they can be helped or made secure is through the existence of the state, of public order, and of the rule of law.”
“The last section of Origins is largely devoted to a somewhat different project: the close examination of the totalitarian states of her time, both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and in particular an attempt to understand the sources of their power. Here her thinking is equally useful, though not, again, because everything she writes matches present circumstances. Many surveillance and control techniques are much subtler than they once were, involving facial-recognition cameras and spyware, not merely crude violence or paramilitary patrols in the street. Most modern autocracies do not have a ‘foreign policy openly directed toward world domination,’ or at least not yet. Propaganda has also changed. The modern Russian leadership feels no need to constantly promote its own achievements around the world, for example; it is often satisfied with belittling and undermining the achievements of others.
And yet the questions Arendt asks remain absolutely relevant today. She was fascinated by the passivity of so many people in the face of dictatorship, by the widespread willingness, even eagerness, to believe lies and propaganda — just consider the majority of Russian people today, unaware that there is even a war going on next door and prevented by law from calling it such. In the totalitarian world, trust has dissolved. The masses ‘believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.’ To explain this phenomenon, Arendt zeroes in on human psychology, especially the intersection between terror and loneliness. By destroying civic institutions, whether sports clubs or small businesses, totalitarian regimes kept people away from one another and prevented them from sharing creative or productive projects. By blanketing the public sphere with propaganda, they made people afraid to speak with one another. And when each person felt himself isolated from the rest, resistance became impossible. Politics in the broadest sense became impossible too: ‘Terror can rule absolutely only over men who are isolated against each other … Isolation may be the beginning of terror; it certainly is its most fertile ground; it always is its result.’
Reading that account now, it is impossible not to wonder whether the nature of modern work and information, the shift from ‘real life’ to virtual life and the domination of public debate by algorithms that increase emotion, anger, and division, hasn’t created some of the same results. In a world where everyone is supposedly ‘connected,’ loneliness and isolation once again are smothering activism, optimism, and the desire to participate in public life. In a world where ‘globalization’ has supposedly made us all similar, a narcissistic dictator can still launch an unprovoked war on his neighbors. The 20th-century totalitarian model has not been banished; it can be brought back, at any place and at any time.
Arendt offers no easy answers. The Origins of Totalitarianism does not contain a set of policy prescriptions, or directions on how to fix things. Instead it offers proposals, experiments, different ways to think about the lure of autocracy and the seductive appeal of its proponents as we grapple with them in our own time.”
In the margins
“In the moment between reading a phone number and punching it into your phone, you may find that the digits have mysteriously gone astray — even if you’ve seared the first ones into your memory, the last ones may still blur unaccountably. Was the 6 before the 8 or after it? Are you sure?
Maintaining such scraps of information long enough to act on them draws on an ability called visual working memory. For years, scientists have debated whether working memory has space for only a few items at a time, or if it just has limited room for detail: Perhaps our mind’s capacity is spread across either a few crystal-clear recollections or a multitude of more dubious fragments.
The uncertainty in working memory may be linked to a surprising way that the brain monitors and uses ambiguity, according to a recent paper in Neuron from neuroscience researchers at New York University. Using machine learning to analyze brain scans of people engaged in a memory task, they found that signals encoded an estimate of what people thought they saw — and the statistical distribution of the noise in the signals encoded the uncertainty of the memory. The uncertainty of your perceptions may be part of what your brain is representing in its recollections. And this sense of the uncertainties may help the brain make better decisions about how to use its memories.”
From: Neural Noise Shows the Uncertainty of Our Memories, by Veronique Greenwood (Quanta Magazine).
“In 2016, Alan Winfield [a professor of robot ethics at the University of the West of England, in Bristol, co-founder of the Bristol Robotics Lab, and the author of Robotics: A Very Short Introduction] gave an IdeasLab talk at the World Economic Forum about building ethical robots. ‘Could we build a moral machine?’ Winfield asked his audience. Behind him, pictured on a flatscreen TV, was one of the bots Winfield used in his experiments — a short, cutesy, white and blue human-like machine. Just a few years ago, he said, he believed it to be impossible: You couldn’t build a robot capable of acting on the basis of ethical rules. But that was before he realized what you could get robots to do if they had an imagination — or less gradiosely a consequence engine, a simulated internal model of itself and the world outside.
Winfield showed clips of his experiments at the Bristol Robotics Lab in England. In one, a blue robot saved a red robot from walking into a danger zone by (gently) colliding with it. In another, two red robots were heading for danger zones and the blue robot can only save one — an ethical dilemma that endearingly caused it to dither between the two. ‘The robot behaves ethically not because it chooses to but because it’s programmed to do so,’ Winfield said. ‘We call it an ethical zombie.’ Its reasoning was completely transparent. ‘If something goes wrong, we can replay what the robot was thinking.’ Winfield believes this will be crucial for the future. ‘Autonomous robots will need the equivalent of a flight-data recorder in an aircraft — an ethical black box.’ This ethical black box, Winfield believes, would allow us to understand the ‘what if’ questions the robot was asking itself.”
Winfield: “Although it’s deeply mysterious and puzzling, I don’t think there’s anything magical about consciousness. I certainly don’t agree with those who think there is some unique stuff required for consciousness to emerge. I’m a materialist. We humans are made of physical stuff and we apparently are conscious, and so are many animals. That’s why I think we should be able to make artificially conscious machines. I’d like to think that the work we’re doing on simulation-based internal models in robots and in artificial theory of mind is a step in the direction of machine consciousness.”
From: Robots Show Us Who We Are, by Brian Gallagher (Nautilus)
In his review for The Times Literary Supplement, Ferdinand Mount writes:
“The trouble is that the cognitive elites soon begin feathering their own nests and marking their own homework. Each new meritocracy has a way of hardening into a new aristocracy. Wooldridge reminds us that England’s most famous schools were founded to give poor scholars a leg up — not just Eton, Harrow and Winchester but the great grammar schools of Edward VI and Queen Elizabeth. But having been colonized by the upper-middle classes and plutocrats, these schools are today the destination of choice for the new Asian elites. As I am writing this, in today’s Times I see Eton College advertising the fact that no less than half the King’s Scholarships this year have been awarded to Chinese boys educated at expensive English prep schools.
Meritocracy is an admirable principle but it is not the only game in town. Businesses thrive on competition but they also depend on intricate networks of co-operation. Societies flourish not just on capitalism’s famous waves of creative destruction but also on the steadiness provided by the rule of law and by institutions that strengthen the sense of community. These other values are not ‘alternative,’ as Wooldridge calls them, but complementary and intertwined. Unless you want a ruthless rat race, equality of opportunity cannot rule on its own without going hand-in-hand with other sorts of equality, of access to justice, to healthcare and education, social arrangements designed to suit us all as we are, not merely as vehicles to speed the fortunate few to their proper destination. Wooldridge quotes Donald Trump’s boast, ‘I love the poorly educated,’ which is creepy and cynical, especially coming from someone who regularly denounces those who disagree with him as ‘losers.’ All the same, the thought does offer something of a challenge to the self-absorption of the meritocrats. If you can’t love the losers, why should they love you?”
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In this impactful conversation, Scott Barry Kaufman, a pioneer in the field of human potential psychology and the author and editor of several books, the latest of which is entitled Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization, talks about his extrapolation of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — what it means to engage a growth trajectory, self-actualize, and live a transcendent life, the importance of self-worth, connection, purpose, and peak experiences, the malleability (or lack thereof) of personality and the problematic nature of defining authenticity, and much more.
From: Scott Barry Kaufman: The Science of Transcendence (Rich Roll, episode 669)
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British photographer Marc Wilson traveled 23,000 miles across 143 locations in four years, documenting the eerie concrete monuments that are featured in his emotive series and publication The Last Stand.
“The Last Stand aims to reflect the histories, stories, military conflict, and the memories held in the landscape itself. Many of these locations are no longer in sight, either subsumed or submerged by the changing sands and waters or by more human intervention. At the same time, others have re-emerged from their shrouds,” Wilson tells.
From: In Marc Wilson’s The Last Stand, Relics Of War Sit Crumbling On Northern European Coastlines, by Steph Wade (Ignant).
Photography by Marc Wilson.
“We must stop cheating: the whole meaning of our life is in question in the future that is waiting for us. If we do not know what we are going to be, we cannot know what we are … it is harder to adopt than falsehood, but, once reached, it cannot but bring happiness.” — Simone de Beauvoir