Saturday, April 20, 2013

Philosophy and Autobiography: On the Heidegger Question

A good friend of mine who has just started seriously reading Heidegger (Sein und Zeit) asked me if my reading of Heidegger changes when I consider his fascist politics-- to the point that  it may discredit his thought! Related to this, I've seen a few posts by one ardent blogger who is obsessed with the argument that because Harman respects Heidegger, Object Oriented Philosophy is inherently fascist -- its an absurd argument. Anyway, at the time (maybe I was just in a bad mood) I said "absolutely not." I justified this statement in several ways. First, I said that I no more feel that Heidegger's thought is discredited than I feel Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Knut Hamsun, are somehow discredited. The idea that literary artists get a pass (or at the very least are less condemned than philosophers) on their personal lives or politics, but philosophers do not is silly to me. Philosophical work such Heidegger's has influenced an entire new way of thinking. What's the difference between Nietzsche's texts which were appropriated in the service of Fascism and Heidegger's texts which one might rightly say have passages that resonates with fascism? True, Heidegger participated in a cruel system and should be held responsibile for this, but all this says something about the texts and helps contextualize them, in no way does it mean that they somehow should be ignored or discredited. The sheer power of Heidegger's works shines through by itself; Derrida, an Algerian Jew, could not help but be captivated by Heidegger's thought! Some might try and explain this through Derrida's biography and to say that somehow deconstruction is not really "essentially" concerned with the challenge of phenomenology. But without Derrida' encounter of Heidegger -- how would his thought be different? Would we have deconstruction? We can never know.

Derrida brings us to an interesting point, since Derrida is famous for weaving "autobiographical" aspects into his work, going so far as to say in a documentary that he wished philosopher's would talk about their sex lives. However,  Derrida also puts autobiography into question -- the very possibility of an 'auto-' biography ties to critiques of presence-to-self. It is tied to the question of whether we do not also have an other-of-oneself inside oneself (a theme of philosophy since Socrates' daimon). For my purposes, this is to say that we can never divorce Heidegger from his politics and his life; however, at the same time, believing that we cannot separate these events from his texts does not imply that his texts can be explained by his politics -- as if his philosopher were some allegory of his seduction by fascism. This would be just as reductive as exculpating him from responsibility. We find a similar situation, deftly navigated by Derrida in a lecture, with Paul de Man's participation in a fascist journal. On top of that, we have Derrida himself saying that deconstruction is not in itself "left" or "right" on the political spectrum, but can be appropriated for either end.

My argument boils down to the idea that of course Heidegger's texts can be appropriated or read through his fascist politics. However, as Derrida also reminds us with regard to Marx in Positions, Heidegger's 'text' is not a unified corpus, but multiple. Heidegger is the proper name that gathers these texts, sure, but they are and are not essentially tied to them.

This post was actually inspired by reading Bernard Stiegler's long essay Acting Out in which he reflects on how he came to become-a-philosopher. For Stiegler, accident plays a large role in our becoming. I personally agree, as I find myself reading encountering texts seemingly at the "right" time which structure the way I attune myself to the world. For Stiegler, the very development of what we call the "human being" was an accident, an encounter with a "what" that constituted a who. This is why I ask: Would deconstruction exist if not for Derrida's encounter with phenomenology? What drew Derrida to Husserl, to Heidegger? Does it even matter? Yes. It matters in the sense that it will have been the case that all accidental encounters produced the possibility of deconstruction as we know it now through Derrida's disseminated texts.

My final point is one that I suspect will infuriate some, but I think is warranted. In America, the Holocaust/Hiter/Nazism has become our de-fault relay for everything. We use it as an example of the very worst parts of history. Please let me be clear: there is no doubt that the Holocaust is unjustifiable (and anyone 'justifying it' would terrify me and I hope any of my readers). However, why do we assume that everything that came out of Fascism is thus unequivocally bad? For goodness sakes, how much art has been inspired by the events. This is not a justification, it is an observation. An attempt to get away from our obsession with Hitler -- a call for a new reading, an invention of new concepts and new ways of thinking. Consider the Futurists: a fascist lot if there ever was one (and mysoginist to boot) but would we ever consider never speaking of them again or dealing with their challenges to the status quo? This is the same logic conservatives use against anyone speaking the name of Lenin, Stalin, or Trotsky positively as serious writers and thinkers. Hearing the name is anathema to those who don't read -- or who believe that everything produced by an individual associated with a political party or programme to which we disagree is useless (this cuts all ways you Dogmatic Democrats and Militant Marxists!).

But as Heidegger's lover, Hannah Arendt, tells us: evil is banal. As Derrida tells us following Kant, the radical opening to the (im)possible future also opens us to radical evil.

 I'd rather have an open future than a paralyzed present.