Author Archives: Aliosha Bielenberg

What is the world for Hannah Arendt?

Hannah Arendt once wrote that to grasp Heidegger’s philosophy one needed to properly explicate the place of the world in his writings. One could say much the same about Arendt. Arendt draws on Heidegger’s understanding of the world as developed in Being and Time. For Heidegger, “the world” at first means quite simply the environment, that is what is around us. He writes that:

The answer to the question of the “who” of everyday Dasein is to be obtained by analysing that kind of Being in which Dasein maintains itself proximally and for the most part. Our investigation takes its orientation from Being-in-the-world — that basic state of Dasein by which every mode of its Being gets co-determined. … In our ‘description’ of that environment which is closest to us — the work-world of the craftsman, for example, — the outcome was that along with the equipment to be found when one is at work [in Arbeit], those Others for whom the ‘work’ [“Werk”] is destined are ‘encountered too.’ (153)

This is quite intuitive to grasp, really — our world consists of not just other objects but other subjects, too. Our mode of being with these other subjects is very important for Heidegger’s own project, which is to answer the question of Being (the Seinsfrage). Our mode of encountering Others is different than how we encounter Things:

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Forest History of Southern New England

The following analysis uses data published in W. Wyatt Oswald et al., “Subregional Variability in the Response of New England Vegetation to Postglacial Climate Change,” Journal of Biogeography 45, no. 10 (2018): 2375–88, The spreadsheet I used is available upon request.

Key points:

  • High-resolution data permits reconstruction of Holocene forest cover changes
  • Initial forestation after deglaciation in 12 000 BCE led by birch and pine
  • Dramatic decline in forest canopy between 1630 and 1708; almost complete recovery by 2001

Berry Pond is an unimaginatively named site north of Boston, Massachusetts (figure 1). Its low elevation (42 m), regular precipitation (1236 mm per year), and soil (mostly glacial till) make it a site typical of southern New England. The authors of this study present an impressively detailed pollen count stretching back to 16 000 years before present (BP), or 14 072 BCE. The sampling gives us data at a very high resolution. This data is freely available through the Neotoma Paleoecology Database. I downloaded this data and here present a brief analysis and interpretation with an eye to tracing the Holocene forest history of New England.

Figure 1

The graph tells a remarkably coherent story of the forest’s response to disturbance (figure 2). The canopy tree count includes species such as maple, chestnut, hickory, oak, and hemlock — characteristic trees of a well-established forest in southern New England. In this category, I also included pioneer trees, namely pine and birch. These trees like open canopy, so they are the first to “pioneer” an area that has no other trees in it. Thus we see that the initial response to deglaciation at 12 000 BCE is a steep climb in the percent of canopy trees, from 56% to 97% in less than 2 000 years. This dramatic increase in forest cover is led by birch and pine, which rise to their all-time high of 75% in 10 800 BCE. Over the next 11 500 years, the relative pollen counts stay pretty similar, with canopy trees at 95–100% and the percent of flowering grasses (indicators of open land) below 5%. In other words, the landscape that native people of New England encountered was mostly forest, without much open land (at least in the area of Berry Pond).

Figure 2
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A sparrow is a domestic alien

A sparrow is a domestic alien:
Its thoughts are not betrayed in its mien.
The place of its inscrutable soul
Is not in the chirrups I hear;
Nor in the birds feeding around the bowl
That flock together but scatter when I near;
Nor in the incessant chatter of these omnivores
That makes observing them, to me, something of a chore.

And yet, in communing, we find common
Sense in what we might dismiss as solemn.
Breaking bread, sharing food: a sacral act
That smacks of incense and insincerity.
Yet sitting at a table, exercising common tact,
Is how we make a world from commensality.

With thanks to Don McKay’s “Adagio for a Fallen Sparrow.”

Hannah Arendt and World-Making

In three weeks, I will begin my last year at Brown. There are many things that are bittersweet about this moment; one of the sweetest is my anticipation for my senior thesis. I am especially excited to be working on my project with the support of an undergraduate fellowship from the Cogut Institute for the Humanities. This means that I will be writing and thinking in the company of many other people doing wonderfully exciting things, from documenting LGBTQ movements in Cambodia to exploring the rights of non-human species in the Yukon.

The famous 1507 Waldseemüller map, the first to depict the Americas separate from Asia.

So, what will I be up to? My thesis is primarily concerned with Hannah Arendt. She offers, I argue, the resources to think differently about world-making. To understand what I mean and why I think this argument is important, it helps to illustrate some of the background. World-making intrigues me because of its double meaning: what in French one might mark by distinguishing globalisation and mondialisation. Arendt is attuned to both these processes. On the one hand, she is an astute reader of Karl Marx, who tells us about the crude expansion of horizons forced open by capital. This same process of globalization in the early modern world also led to the Enlightenment. Kant and Hegel developed the principles of rights and cosmopolitanism that are still hegemonic in liberal circles today. It is these rights that Arendt critiqued in a masterful chapter of The Origins of Totalitarianism entitled “The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man.” She says that the experience of the Jews gives the lie to the Rights of Man. Not only are the Jews denied basic rights because they do not belong to any government, but they are precluded from the very right to have rights: the right to make a community.

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A Neglected Thinker of the Black Atlantic

Anténor Firmin in 1889. Photograph by C. Liebert.

Too few people today know of Anténor Firmin, a Haitian writer, anthropologist, and politician. He is important not just as an early anticolonial figure, but also as a thinker of what he himself termed an anthropologie positive. Firmin wrote his most famous work in 1885, De l’égalité des races humaines, a refutation of the classic 1855 racist tract by Arthur de Gobineau entitled De l’inégalité des races humaines. Firmin’s work is truly remarkable for its rigor and forethought. Scholarship over the past two decades has brought to light many of Firmin’s qualities, not least by issuing new editions of Firmin’s book and its first translation into English. Recent articles have also highlighted his surprising relationship to then-nascent Egyptology; his place in contemporary debates over Darwinism and polygenesis; and his philosophical heritage as traced back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The earliest of these was Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban 2002 article in the American Anthropologist, where she notes that Firmin provides a coherent challenge to race-thinking in anthropology decades before Boas. I want to delve a little deeper into Firmin’s work by highlighting a few passages that I think are particularly exceptional.

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How Do Ice Ages Happen? Exploring Paleosalinity and Thermohaline Circulation

Fill a glass of water from the sea and try to drink it. You gag and your lips pucker. After all, dissolved in that liter of the ocean are around 35 grams of salt. Now, imagine you tried to do this same thing 1 million years ago, 10 million years ago, 100 million years ago, even 500 million years ago. Would you ever be able to drink the water — or would it ever be as salty as the Dead Sea today? These are the questions that investigating paleosalinity helps us answer. We can use a variety of methods — from rough estimates based on our knowledge of the earth system to direct evidence from water droplets preserved in old rocks — to determine how salty the ocean was throughout Earth’s history.

Figuring out how ocean salinity has changed is important not simply because it helps us fill pages in our history book. Changing salinity affects ocean circulation, which in turn has a huge impact on climate. For instance, recent studies have suggested that changes in thermohaline circulation are part of how the Earth cycles between glacial and interglacial periods. In other words, ocean circulation may be the missing link between orbital variations that we know are linked to the cycle of ice ages and the huge swings in CO2 and temperature that are directly responsible for plunging us into glacial periods. In short, tracing paleosalinity helps us understand just how the Earth’s temperature can change so drastically.

This paper is therefore driven by the question: How can paleosalinity help us understand climatic variation, especially that caused by changes in thermohaline circulation? To begin to answer this question, I will present two methods of determining paleosalinity: first, by making an inventory of evaporites; and second, by looking at fluid inclusions. I then turn to the effects that these changes in salinity have on climate, especially by looking at models of how thermohaline circulation would differ and past cases where similar things occurred (for instance, in the Younger Dryas).

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The Life of a Hat from Luzon

A version of this object biography was published in the Spring 2019 issue of Contexts: Annual Report of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology.

This hat is a product of — produced by and traded through — colonialism. Its resting place today is the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology in Providence, Rhode Island in the United States of America. There it lies mostly undisturbed; whether dormant or dead is hard to tell. But it was once part of daily life. The hat shielded its owner from the sun and from hazards both natural and man-made. It was also a handy bowl when flipped upside down — quite literally a vessel for life, though even this framing underestimates the hat’s vitality. After all, it has a nose, eyes, and an ear, not to mention some impressive hair. It is more of a head than a hat, in fact. There is something particularly compelling to telling the life story of such an object — from its beginnings in the early twentieth century in Ifugao, a province of Luzon (an island in the Philippines); to its “collection” by an American official in 1912–14; to its acquisition by the Haffenreffer at an auction in 1988.

Say you were to reinvigorate the object. Pick it up (it’s so light!); turn it upside down; feel the contours on the bottom of the bowl; drag your thumb across the tightly woven rattan brim; note how the light glistens off what seems like its polished metal exterior. When you’re done with the physiognomy, try moving your head closer and breathing in. The smell of the wood can’t help but evoke memories, fantasies, even disturbing thoughts. After all, its military past is ingrained in the pores of the wood and the basketry of its brim. What has the hat seen? What has it heard, touched, smelled?

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How Salty Has The Sea Been Over the Past 541 Million Years?

Take a bottle of water from the sea and try to drink it. You gag and your lips pucker. After all, dissolved in that liter of the ocean are around 35 grams of salts (mostly sodium chloride). Now, imagine you tried to do this same thing 1 million years ago, 10 million years ago, 100 million years ago, even 500 million years ago (that is, throughout the Phanerozoic eon). Would you ever be able to drink the water? Alternatively, would the sea ever have been so salty that today’s ocean creatures would not have survived? A 2006 article by Hay et al. helps answer precisely these questions. The authors tracked variable chloride levels to demonstrate how salinity has changed throughout the Phanerozoic, noting a significant overall decline. These changes have had important effects on ocean circulation and on plankton levels — and possibly contributed to the explosion of complex life in the Cambrian, 541–520 million years ago. Continue reading

Teleology, Hegel, and King

A critique of teleology is well-worn and is articulated particularly clearly by Thomas Trautmann and Dipesh Chakrabarty. Both contrast the “theory-deadness” of the Orient with the the centered dominance of Europe. This can be glossed as a teleology: theory is the telos. This is what Hegel is saying, too, in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History:

That world history is governed by an ultimate design, that it is a rational process – whose rationality is not that of a particular subject, but a divine and absolute reason – this is a proposition whose truth we must assume; its proof lies in the study of world history itself, which is the image and enactment of reason.

In other words, world history is

the rational and necessary evolution of the world spirit. This spirit [is] the substance of history; its nature is always one and the same; and it discloses this nature in the existence of the world. … World history travels from east to west; for Europe is the absolute end of history, just as Asia is the beginning.

In a very simple sense, reading Hegel is weird. The idea of progress is so unfashionable that it is hard to take Hegel seriously. Surely he doesn’t mean a world-spirit in a metaphysical sense. Surely he doesn’t really mean to put Europe above everything else (and thus provide an easy justification for colonial violence). This immediate reaction, once tempered by the considerations outlined earlier, becomes a question: what can we recuperate from Hegel?

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