Eleven thinkers help us rethink what it might mean to
be human in the 21st century
Writing in the late 1960s, Hannah Arendt conjured the term “dark times” to address the legacies of war and human suffering.
Arendt was not simply concerned with mapping out the totalitarian conditions into which humanity had descended. She was also acutely aware of the importance of individuals who challenge with integrity the abuses of power in all their oppressive forms. Countering violence, she understood, demands sustained intellectual engagement: We are all watchpersons, guided by the lessons and cautions of centuries of unnecessary devastation.
Over the past year, we have engaged in a series of discussions with prominent and committed intellectuals who are all concerned in various ways with developing a critique of violence adequate to our times.
Sadly, many of the warnings offered have become more pressing than ever. Across the world, it is possible to witness the liberation of prejudice, galvanized by the emergence of a politics of hate and division that plays directly into the everyday fears of those seduced by new forms of fascism.
The mission of The Stone is to explore issues both timely and timeless. Violence is evidently such a phenomenon, demanding purposeful and considered historical reflection. But here we immediately encounter a problem: If fighting violence demands new forms of ethical thinking that can be developed only with the luxury of time, what does this mean for the present moment when history is being steered in a more dangerous direction and seems to move more quickly every day?
Perhaps one answer is that any viable critique of violence will not arrive from any singular, sovereign academic who might offer reductive explanations of its causes and propose orthodox solutions. Such a stance leads to the domestication of thought, often in the politicized service of a select few. Instead, we need to have a serious conversation among thinkers, advocates, artists and others that leads to a new textual borderland of open inquiry, where poetry slips into the demands for human dignity and the importance of transdisciplinary conversations are not simply focused on revealing the crises of contemporary political thought but encourage a rethinking of what it might mean to be human in the 21st century.
With this in mind, it is useful to revisit the articles in this series to draw out some of the more important common threads, insights and shared concerns. While not in any way exhaustive, the various conversations we have already undertaken present us with a possible framework in which to begin a better discussion of the problem of violence and to imagine more peaceful relations among the world’s people. So here are 11 lessons worth considering:
1. All violence has a history. Simon Critchley began this series with a powerful call to recognize our shared histories of violence and how we can still make use of the past to better understand the present moment. Understanding the cyclical nature of violence is crucial if we are to gain a tangible grip on its contemporary manifestations and look to engage in the difficult and fraught process of breaking the cycle. Violence in this regard should never be thought about in the abstract. It is “a lived reality,” as Critchley writes, with a very “concrete history” that is wedded to that tradition we call human tragedy. Indeed, it is precisely by projecting a tragic light on history that we humans are able to imagine a world beyond suffering and neglect. This is why the arts are crucial to developing a civic response to violence.
2. Violence is all about the violation of bodies and the destruction of human lives. For that reason, violence should never be studied in an objective and unimpassioned way. It points to a politics of the visceral that cannot be divorced from our ethical and political concerns. We encountered this head on in the personal testimony provided by George Yancy. In direct response to Yancy’s previous column on race], he received a number of violent threats, which revealed how the politics of racial persecution is tied to the psychic life of violence. Violence concerns the anti-intellectual conditions in which the persecution of “the Other” can be normalized and become part of the everyday fabric of existence. Words in this regard can literally wound a person.
3. For violence to take hold, there is a need to suppress the memory of historical persecution. This weaponization of ignorance, as Henry Giroux explains, points to the violence of organized forgetting. We see this being played out in the contemporary moment. Demands for a return to “greatness” represent what Walter Benjamin would have identified in his “Critique of Violence” as being a naked appeal to mythical violence, born of the desire to create a false unity among people by actually creating the most pernicious divisions. Education in this setting, as Giroux argues, is precisely where effective counterterror strategies begin. Education is always a form of political intervention, which at its best produces critically minded individuals who have the courage to speak truth to power and stand alongside the globally oppressed, because they remember violence that the oppressors would prefer to forget.
Please continue this article here: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/23/opinion/humans-in-dark-times.html?smid=fb-share