Summer University Reboot

Sviatlana Viarbitskaya

Thinking Together in Dark Times

24-25 August

What is the price to pay for being raised apolitical and having only a relation to history in so far as this history lives almost exclusively in one’s unconsciousness? Being unable to tell your own history. Finding out one day that a silent ahistorical and apolitical existence is at least homological with the life of a carrier of the most oppressive and destructive society. Being unable to define yourself as a kind of responsibility. “Human being is responsibility” said Lewis Gordon - a scholar of France Fanon. ”What human being if not a responsibility” reads in the facebook communications with Ukrainian artists and philosophers after the war broke out. Responsibility, have you understood it? 

Thinking together in dark times” is a proposal to sit and spend some time together thinking about responsibility and the importance of thinking in the dark times of crisis. An invitation to share resources and research on the notion of human responsibility. An attempt to put personal experiences on somewhat “objective” legs. A reading session. A meeting with the Ukrainian artists and philosophers. 

Here is a little interview with myself, that I wrote to help organize my thoughts and that can be used as the basis for some future conversations. 

S: Why are Times Dark Now?

S: Yes, times are metaphorically dark for me. How to convey the sense of this personal darkness? A new war obviously already darkens times enough. It is just that this time, and for the first time in my life, there has been an ongoing surge in violence against the Ukrainian population and territory performed, to a certain extent, in my name. Or so it felt, and felt very strongly. It was an incapacitating emotion, a very dark and unhappy mix of shame and guilt pluging me in some dark place for quite a long time. During the first days of the war a lot of people with similar backgrounds as myself lost their sense of orientation in moral matters and meaning to obsolescence. Little by little, this state gave way to a slightly more enlightened darkness, the kind that you can start to explore with a torch  of thought, constructed  from whatever you might grasp onto as you try to move through the darkness. This is where I am now. Perhaps with less unfreedom and/or less mistruth I could take a more sure path.

S: Why Think More Now ? 

S: I wish I could've been thinking more throughout my life. Now, this imposition is also a welcome opportunity. Hanna Arendt writes that thinking is indispensable to prevent evil (always too late and never too late at the same time, right?). But also thinking - as a dialogue between me and myself or, if we are lucky, with another self - is the illuminating instrument we have in dark crisis times when it is difficult  to tell right from wrong.

S: Is There a Relation Between Thinking and Responsibility?

S: As it turns out, yes, though a particular type of judgment. I found it while roaming in the darkness with my fire-of-thought-lit improvised torch the last months when Hanna Arendt’s book “Responsibility and Judgment” was on hand. What she wrote about responsibility and thinking in this book forms a good basis for a conversation. And discovering the relationship between responsibility and thinking. In short, thinking is a self-reflective activity, a prerequisite for being capable of making judgements about particular things without subsuming them under the general rule of what is good and what is bad. The capacity to illuminate right and wrong is essential in the time when no such rule has no weight (nor visible existence). Thus, through judgment we actualize our own responsibilities and freedoms. Without judgment, responsibility dwells virtually in thinking but is only visible/actualized with judgment, which can be seen also as a kind of action. In this sense, without thinking, there would be no responsibility. 

S: Thinking → Judgment → Responsibility. Too Schematic?

S: The schematism is useful for me to remember logical relationships, even if it is a working logical relation. But it takes stopping and thinking in order to unpack meanings. Therefore the invitation is to sit and sift together.

S: What Responsibility are We Talking About?

S: I did not feel guilty in the sense that I knew that I could not be possibly legally held responsible for the actions of my country Belarus for the pain, deaths, destruction of infrastructure. I could not be held legally or even morally responsible for the damage to already damaged international relations. I don't feel guilty. Can't I? Don't I? Am I struggling? I can not exactly tell. 

It wasn't until reading the opening sentence of the essay titled "Collective Responsibility" that I realized I might have found what I was looking for: “There is such a thing as responsibility for things one has not done; one can be held liable for them.” Arendt formulates conditions for such a responsibility: “I must be held responsible for something I have not done, and the reason for my responsibility must be my membership in a group (a collective) which no voluntary act of mine can dissolve, that is, a membership which is utterly unlike a business partnership which I can dissolve at will.” Obviously, my belarusian citizenship and roots activated  this sense of responsibility, collective responsibility as defined by Hanna Arendt. I have been feeling these pains of the unnamed, unactualized responsibility since the first days of the war's opening. 

S: What Does It Mean To Be Responsible For Something That One Did Not Do? 

S: According to Arendt, the first step is to think. The next step is to judge. First  re-acquire the capacity to tell good from bad. If, as in the case of Belarus and Russia, and many other places, there is no free public and political sphere, one cannot expect anybody to freely sacrifice their lives for their views. But one might hope that thinking and then judging can prevent evil from propagating. Responsibility starts and stops there.  

In a free public and/political sphere, reflective judgments may bring forth something new, something that may change things. While one cannot be responsible for the effects of one’s particular judgment, one can expect to be thinking about the produced consequences sooner or later, thus incorporating them in one's thinking → judgment → responsibility loop, thus, producing new meanings, new judgements, new actions and so on - a labor of propagating responsibility and, hopefully, propagating good.