Avram Alpert is a writer, educator, and organizer working to understand what values we can live by in a world as connected, chaotic, and potentially catastrophic as the present. He is currently researching for a new book about what it might mean to be wise in such a world. He has written three previous books on these themes, including most recently The Good-Enough Life, an argument for why appreciating our limitations (we are only ever good enough) should lead us to ensure decency (goodness) and sufficiency (enoughness) for all. He has also written for publications including Aeon, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Truthout, and the Brooklyn Rail. Currently, he is Lecturer in the Writing Program at Princeton University. With Rit Premnath, he is co-editor and co-manager of programming for Shifter Magazine. With Meleko Mokgosi and Anthea Behm, he is co-founder of the Interdisciplinary Art and Theory Program at Jack Shainman Gallery. And with Danny Snelson and Mashinka Firunts, he is a member of the academic-artist collective, Research Service. He has held fellowships from institutions including the Mellon Foundation, the Fulbright Commission of Brazil, and the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program. At THE NEW INSTITUTE, we will be welcoming Avram Alpert to work on our programme "The Foundations of Value and Values".
- "The Good-Enough Life", Princeton University Press, forthcoming 2022
- "A Partial Enlightenment: What Modern Literature and Buddhism Can Teach Us About Living Well without Perfection", Columbia University Press, 2021
- "Global Origins of the Modern Self, from Montaigne to Suzuki", State University of New York Press, 2019
What gives you hope?
There’s a curious moment in Hesiod’s Works and Days when he relates the story of Pandora’s jar. When Pandora opens the jar, all the evils of the world escape save one – hope. I find this very strange and hard to interpret. Is it meant to be another curse from Zeus, trapping the one thing that might help us through our situation? Or is it a blessing signifying that not being hopeful is the only way for us to soberly face our present? Philosophers tend to divide on these grounds, either seeing hope as the force that sustains us in the face of the terrors of life, or as a distraction that places faith in an unknown future when what we really need is to bear down and face the present. I tend to go back and forth between the two, and so find the question of what gives me hope hard to answer. I worry deeply that vague hopes—like that technology will save us—are in fact making things worse. Maybe that’s some of the ambivalence of Hesiod’s brief parable. It’s hard to say what kind of thing hope is. But I also think, on a more positive note, that there’s another way of interpreting why hope stays in Pandora’s jar. It suggests that a lot of what passes for hope is actually not hope—it is simply another evil masquerading as hope. The name pandora means “all gifts.” But hope is the one gift that is actually not given. That means hope is not a passing thing or a generic feeling that things can get better. It’s a real activity, a labor, to find where the jar is hidden and open it. So what gives me hope is (pardon the paradox) that hope is not given. It is an achievement, often made by people working together, to find a reason to believe that the evils loosed from the jar will not be the end of the human story.
How does change happen?
I would really like to have a clear and causal answer for this question. I would love to have a blueprint that says if we do these things in this way, we will get the results we want. But change works in mysterious ways. It is a combination of things, and what those things are will vary wildly by historical context and scale. Personal change happens differently than political change, and each affects the other. Moreover, any kind of change will require different things for different people or societies. Experience matters. Resources matter. Leadership matters. Organization matters. Will matters. Elites matter. Social movements matter. Luck, perhaps more than we would like to admit, matters. No one ingredient will get us there. But in a way this is in itself inspiring. The haphazard processes of change mean that even seemingly abstract and removed activities can have revolutionary potential. I think of Edmund Husserl spendings years investigating the nature of consciousness and how objects appear to the mind. He never could have guessed that within a few decades his ideas would help inspire the revolutionary pedagogy of Paolo Freire teaching literacy to peasants in Brazil. But Freire, in turn, did not just succeed by chance. He organized; he mobilized; he worked with others; he used institutions and publications to spread his ideas, and he gained institutional power. And in spite of all that, he then lived much of his life in exile because of an authoritarian government, and Brazil has come dangerously close to returning to this kind of government today. Change in itself has no specific values; it can promote the best and the worst of our human capacities. And change is a trickster—it can convert the best into the worst, and the worst into the best. What we can do, and I think it is part of the work we are doing at TNI, is to get some clarity on what we think is valuable change; what exactly “good change” looks like. And then we must, knowing full well that fortuna may undo all that we have done, set about to creating the kinds of institutions and ways of thought that at the very least can give those values a chance to embed and prosper.
What is the best advice you ever got?
To prepare myself for the fact that even If I do everything right, things may still not work out as planned.