Hannah Arendt and the Arts

Today I received notice from the Hannah Arendt Center Academic Director, Roger Berkowitz, that the videos of Bill T. Jones's dance, Floating the Tongue, and of the conversation following the performance between Bill T. Jones and Roger had just been posted on the Hannah Arendt web site. I was excited by the collaboration that had developed between Jones and the Arendt Center, a collaboration that was the result of Jones's residency, now in its second year, at Bard College, and his work with the performing arts community there. And eager to watch the dance and listen to the ensuing dialogue. And, since I studied dance for so many years, this particular event is especially important to me as an artist and a thinker. Bill T. Jones at Bard College: Floating the Tongue from Hannah Arendt Center on Vimeo. Bill T. Jones and Roger Berkowitz: A Public Conversation from Hannah Arendt Center on Vimeo.

Both of these "documents" indicate to me something of the extraordinary breadth of associations being made to Arendt's work.

"Is it really possible to show the 'internal landscape' [the mind's interior?], while performing?" asks Bill T. Jones. And how might this be different in different art forms, I wondered? What, for instance, about thinking do we externalize in the written word? The visual art object? And how do these engage differently (or not?) those who observe or interact with these objects?

As Roger Berkowitz engages in dialogue with Bill T. Jones, we can begin see the difference between what Arendt called 'thinking' and the process of 'cognition' that she associated with the brain's activity. Thinking and meaning-making go hand in hand. And they are not automatic, mechanistic processes. If they become automatic, they become something else. "Thinking stops us," Roger says, paraphrasing Arendt. "But that is one of the great problems with thinkers like Arendt," Bill responds. "Did she live in her body?"

All of which raises the question, important for us to consider, what is thinking as an embodied activity? And did Arendt give enough consideration to thinking as embodied activity? Interestingly, passages in The Life of the Mind about the role of the senses might open up new avenues to explore in Arendt in relation to these questions.

While pondering these topics, I came across an article by Tony Judt in the New York Review of Books. Judt was an historian and trenchant critic, who recently died from complications caused by Lou Gehrig's disease. "The vocal muscle," wrote Judt, "for sixty years my reliable alter ego, is failing. Communication, performance, assertion: these are now my weakest assets. Translating being into thought, thought into words, and words into communication will soon be beyond me and I shall be confined to the rhetorical landscape of my interior reflections."

I hope to explore some of this issue of embodied thinking in future writing. and perhaps, also, in performance.