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.


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  2. I think ultimately you're saying that we have to read at a remove from the author and whatever intentions we might read into them. We can debate how successful he was, but Heidegger himself strove to think such that Saying itself speaks - which I think is just a way of saying: what matters here is how I open to the other-of-self, the hetero in the autos, or - differance.

    Also, there's quite a few spots where Derrida says that his method of reading would not have been possible without Heidegger's work - so I think we can be a little more confident on these points even than you are here.

    As for Heidegger and politics, the question to me seems infinitely fruitful, albeit hard to approach. It's funny you post this tonight as this next week I begin my systematic reading of Heidegger for EGS. Some of the questions we'll be discussing there have precisely to do with this controversy.

    Lastly, that's a great last phrase you have, but also very risky. I think the risk is important and agree with you totally. An open future is more favorable than a paralyzed present - the question really revolves around that faint border between a thinking of evil and evil acts proper - between the possibility of evil (which is ever present; and this possibility drives the categorical imperative) and its "passage a l'act" or its becoming actual. I'm obviously thinking about the recent attacks in Boston. At any rate, technology seems to mark this arena where answers come so difficult, in that it allows both devastation and sharing, and both to the extreme. Thus the important of our decisions, and the magnitude of our responsibility.


  3. It's also crucial to remember that we're talking about someone living in a different time, whose opinions about many things were not all that unpopular. We do not have to agree with them, nor does that necessarily entail discarding anything they said on any particular subject outright simply because we have, over the course of time, "evolved" into different (or "better") people. If we honestly held to this ideology, we would have to discard most of the legal and philosophical developments of Western civilization, as many of the people whose ideas influenced the West were racists, sexists, fascists, or something else entirely. The U.S. is a great example of this. Do we discard the political and philosophical thought of the Founding Fathers simply because most of them were slave owners (at worst) and simple racists (at best)? Of course not. We reconcile the contradictions by recognizing the internal and external logic of an "author's" time as reflective _of a time_ and not necessarily the "author." There's certainly a flaw to this line of thinking, but I haven't the mental capacity to parse it just now...

  4. Just a quick response: I agree with most of your post here (and I hope you didn’t think that I was discrediting Heidegger because of his political associations; rather, I was bringing up the point that I have heard others articulate: “Heidegger has some interesting points, but he was a Nazi and so how can his philosophical thought be considered seriously for thinking about the world.”). I would say that your remark that “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” is spot on, but even further I think a philosopher’s philosophical thought nearly always gets trumped by a philosopher’s political acts and thought (or at least that’s how more recent – since nineteenth century – philosophers and philosophy is addressed). And I don’t necessarily think political thought could be divorced from certain philosophical inquiries, but how/when do we focus (or know when to focus) on the philosophical inquiries as is without politics proper (and should we even do that?!)?

    Your last point in which you discuss Holocaust/Hitler/Nazism is well-put, and, as I have said before, becomes an arresting rhetoric (in contrast to a generative rhetoric). And, as you point out, I too agree that many ardent Marxists and Marxism (which are both very different from Marx) fall within a parochial paradigm (and metanarrative) that simply, and arguably, reconstructs and disseminates a binary system, furthermore homogenizing class identities. Likewise, the problem does seem to emerge in how scholars’ texts become a unified representation of their thought and/or even a unified thought (as you identify). The idea that Heidegger (or any scholar) has a unified argument, within one of his text or an intertextuality of several of his texts, limits (or even closes) possibilities for rethinking radical (not necessarily in a Leftist way) ideas. But isn’t this how representation functions? I think this might be an implicit observation you make at the end: representation (can) paralyzes the present; but it (can) also produce a novel future (and ideas for the present that move into the future). Representation is a pharmakon. Moreover, the issue of how the present moment exists – as a paralyzed present or open future or something entirely different – may draw us back to ethics and how ethics function within and against representation. Yet, I wonder if representation ought to be considered not along the lines of ethics, but of values. Of course, ethics and values are closely associated, but if we draw more attention to the (individual and collective) values that produce and get produced by representation, we could possibly better understand the possibilities for emergent futures.