Josh Robinson: Adorno’s Poetics of Form

Adorno’s Poetics of Form Book Cover Adorno’s Poetics of Form
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Josh Robinson
SUNY Press
Hardback $90.00

Reviewed by: Michael D’Este (School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester)

In this addition to the venerable SUNY Series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy, Josh Robinson seeks to problematize and subsequently re-construct the concept of ‘form’ as it relates to literature – and the sphere of the arts taken in general – through recourse to both Theodor W. Adorno’s aesthetic theory at large, and to the precise and manifold studies of practitioners which Robinson gathers from a thoroughly close reading of Adorno’s Gesammelte Schriften, including the Philosophie der neuen Musik (1949), Noten zur Literatur (1958-1961) and his posthumous projects Ästhetische Theorie (1970) and Beethoven. Philosophie der Musik. Fragmente und Texte (1993).

Robinson provides many of his own translations throughout the book, seeking to preserve and amplify the nuance of Adorno’s distinct German idiom whilst maintaining readability and eloquence. Despite his – unfair – self-criticism in the introduction (22), Robinson has done an admirable job of rendering some of Adorno’s more abstruse terminology, such as erfüllen – which Robinson translates as ‘imbue’ rather than ‘fulfil’ – in ways which retain their literal meaning, whilst allowing him to comment on the tensions or ambiguities inherent in these lexical choices (69). As such, Robinson’s translations do not appear incongruous alongside his selections from Edmund Jephcott and Robert Hullot-Kentor’s work, and in some cases surpass these canonical translations in lucidity. These translations of his own are noted, helpfully, in the list of abbreviated works which precedes the introduction.

The introduction lays out the overall aims of the publication in clear detail, which is characterised by a three-fold objective. Firstly, it seeks to support the development of the ‘New Formalism’ in poetics, outlined by means of tracing the history of this emerging field as it responds to dominant trends in literary theory – the New Criticism of I. A. Richards, Harold Bloom et al., and the New Historicist studies inspired by the work of Stephen Greenblatt and others – which is perhaps best characterised through its approach to the close reading of the internal elements of the text qua historically contingent features and functions, the study of which enables a more textually-grounded literary and cultural historicism. Robinson’s support for this New Formalism comes by way of a rigorous reflection on its underlying principle of artistic form. Rather than accepting the pre-supposition that one knows what is being dealt with when we speak of certain elements of the text as instantiations of the concept of form, Robinson seeks to elaborate on precisely what the ‘formal’ elements of a literature are, and how the consideration of form is itself able to shape the analysis of literary art and artworks.

Secondly, Robinson proposes to support his more practical-critical goal outlined in the paragraph above by way of critical philology of Adorno’s writings. As an aesthetician, Adorno had a “somewhat uneasy influence […] on the New Formalism,” in Robinson’s characterisation (8). In his analyses of music, the visual arts and literature, we see a diversity of uses to which Adorno puts form—as an explication of the activity of a practitioner as they shape the lexical, physical or phonic materials out of which their art is made, as the manifestation of that shaping activity – the artwork itself – and, as the tradition or convention within which that objective manifestation is placed alongside others, the genre which draws different works together. By focusing on Adorno’s claim that form is ‘sedimented content’ in the artwork, and that artworks are “products of social labour[…],” Robinson seeks to provide a basis from which we can think of forms, and consequently what those forms might tell us about the form of life specific to capitalist social and property relations (25-26).

Robinson’s third and final aim is to lay the groundwork for a future study of specific works of art and their attendant form, what this poetics of form may illuminate in the texts and other artworks to which it is applied, and the implications of this approach for the theorising of art’s possible intervention into, and relationship with, society and the political economy.

His first chapter, titled ‘Form and Content,’ goes ahead to critically assess Adorno’s thinking of form through an analysis of the polemical rift between Adorno and Martin Heidegger, noting that although Adorno is guilty of mischaracterising Heidegger’s argument, his issue with Heidegger’s attempt to engage with the question of art is in fact a pointed critique of his method. In Heidegger we see that the question of what an artwork is cannot be answered by starting from the question ‘what kind of thing is an artwork?’ (30), whereas Adorno insists that the artwork’s thing-hood is that which enables it to be more than a mere thing—that their tangible qualities, accessible through sensory observation, simultaneously reveal elements which cannot be fully understood through that sensory observation or ‘anschauung.’ Much like Heidegger, Adorno focused a considerable portion of his writing on the lyric poetry of Johann Friedrich Hölderlin; Robinson notes, however, that Adorno’s criticisms recognise the tendency in Heidegger’s discussion of this work towards a metaphysical separation of form and content, which is then followed by the philosophical investigation of content to the detriment of any inquiry into the form of the work. This philosophical investigation into the content of the work is necessary, posits Robinson, but must begin with what is left behind after the philological analysis of form has been undertaken, in response to the “aspects that are philologically most challenging” (36).

Adorno’s rejection of Heidegger’s theorisation starts here: any separation of form and content in Adorno’s work is first and foremost a conceptual separation which is only ever temporary, and the philosophy which attempts to uncover the truth-content of the work of art thus ought to be carried out in relation to the poem as it is experienced (36) in philological analysis, a philosophy commensurate with and sensitive to the requirements of the work. Such a philosophy would side-step Adorno’s criticism of Heidegger’s method, that it would not ‘infiltrate’ the poetry with philosophy from the outside, risking the possibility that the analysis would tell us more about the philosopher’s presuppositions than the “object of enquiry[…]” (29).

Robinson carries on to clarify Adorno’s notion of form as sedimented content, whereby form is characterised as coming into being as the particular way the artist deposits content in the work:

“Form is thus the result or mark of the process by which the work of art is made, but never appears as merely subjective or arbitrary. […] What is significant for understanding the relationship between form and content is that the separation is arbitrary. […] Sedimentation refers here to a process whereby the content of what come to be artworks […] ceases to be relevant (or even exist), while the objects continue to be made with the same or similar features.” [Emphasis added] (44-45).

As such, if the critic minimises the role of form in the artwork to the emphasis of content, they disregard what the whole aesthetic content of the work is, and simultaneously miss the way in which truth-content in the work is characteristically shaped by the intentions of the artist. Form has its origins in the content of the work of art, insofar as propositional content is only one half of the picture, the other half fulfilled by the formal content in the work. Discussing Adorno’s essay on punctuation marks in the Noten zur Literatur, Robinson suggests we see a clear example of the way in which form functions and takes on meaning, as distinct from the functioning of propositional content in the work. The punctuation in a work does not signify, Adorno insists, but rather fulfils a performative function in that they direct the subjective experience of reading, in that they encourage the reader to slow down, speed up, halt, and so on—and thus the language in the work is “itself[…]” able to enter “into communication with the reader” (52).

Chapter two, ‘Form and Expression,’ continues this thread of argument, investigating the relationship between artist and expression. Form and expression, Robinson contends, are fundamentally observable phenomena in the work of art (67). If form is something which is refined by the work of the artist, as set out above, then it is also that which mediates the expression of the artist in the manifestation of the work, by way of its being imposed on the expressive impulse (69). However, if this is the case, then the observable form of the work is itself a presentation of the expressive impulse within the work; in Robinson’s words, “the form that subjugates expression itself becomes expression […]” an “immediate subjectivity that masquerades as object” in even the most stringently realist work (78-80). There is something of a reciprocity in the work of art, that is, there is a palpable subjectivity inherent in the work, even if the expression which is presented in the work is necessarily seen as an objective content. This formal mediation of expression in the work of art means that the expressive impulse outlined here is distinguishable from that of the individual artist themselves, characterised by Robinson as the ‘subject of art,’ which in Adorno’s words “speaks out of art[…]” and is not merely “presented by it” (78).

This is perhaps best portrayed by recourse to Robinson’s discussion of Adorno’s critique of Expressionism. In attempting to bypass aspects of tradition or convention – and, by extension, form writ large – by way of the ‘intensification’ of the principle of expression, aiming at an immediately “subjective expression as its content,” by means of an “unstylised recording of psychic or emotional content,” the Expressionist work appears as merely a contingent, arbitrary ‘experiential impression,’ as it is through the process of forming that “the subjective presence of the artist exists within the work,” as the subjective power to form which is distinguished from the expression of the subject of art (73-78). In Robinson’s words, through the “elimination of the objective content of expression, expression can no longer be subjective, and at once ceases to express and is transformed into objective content. […] a subject free of all mediation through the object—is no subject at all” (74-78).

Robinson’s concern in this chapter is primarily given over to the notion of mimesis in Adorno’s aesthetics; that the artworks whose realism comes closest to the world are not necessarily works of Expressionism or Realism, considered as attempts to describe the – subjective or objective – world, but rather in the works of artists such as Samuel Beckett, and particularly in the short stories and novels of Franz Kafka, as artists whose works imitate the world and as such draw attention to the process of reification, which “makes the web of delusion knowable” in Adorno’s interpretation (85). In a masterful reading of Kafka’s Das Schloss (1926) and Der Process (1925) we see our own estrangement or alienation “come to expression” in light of the author’s “rejection of the techniques of literary expressionism[…]” in the form of Kafka’s works “their realistic element crystallizes;” that is, in the ‘sober’ depiction of brutal oppression and bureaucratic absurdity alongside the ‘interior’ sensations, thoughts and feelings of his characters we see imitated our own condition of social repression, the ‘scattered shards’ of reality which compose an enigmatic, thoroughly expressive image (82-84). Mimesis, as such, is tied to the composition of artworks and how works make meaning: a specific bearing towards the work, and towards the world. Through the mediation of their particular expression by way of the formal aspects of the work, the examples of Kafka’s work briefly stated here achieve, to paraphrase Robinson, mimetic, “objective form.”

In chapter three, ‘Form and Genre,’ Robinson turns from his focus on the notion of form as it is manifest in particular works to how form is able to offer a way of thinking through the individual work to the shared character of different works. Each artwork that is worthy of the name, Robinson notes, ought necessarily to challenge and redefine the limits of its genre—and as such genre is shown to be historically contingent, characterised by its shifting frontiers. As each artist employs diverse techniques of composition in the process of creation they reconfigure the material available for future artists to shape, with consequent significance for the general category to which the work belongs. Pace Marx, Adorno suggests that artistic production is not a mere epiphenomenon of changes in industrial production, rather asserting that the means of artistic production are mediated through the relations of production, in much the same way that the means of industrial production are mediated through the relations of production. If “labour constitutes the principle means of relating to nature, at once enabling and restricting human life,” then the relations of production constitute the logic by which that labour is organised (100), and artistic labour is just as receptive to this mediation as industrial labour.

Individual developments in the particular form of art have an effect on the ‘universal’ tradition or genre within which it is placed, but this is more than a simple contribution. It is in the aspect of the individual, particular work of art which is hostile to the very notion of genre – the ‘abstractness’ and ‘limitedness’ of the concept –that this “tendency to strive against and break down the generality of the subordinating concept starts[…]”  (108-109). Robinson considers here Adorno and Horkheimer’s treatment of the products of the culture industry as illustrated in Dialektik der Aufklärung (1947), suggesting that the significance of the consideration of these products – instantiations of the ‘commodity form’ (116) – for Adorno’s wider aesthetic theory is in their instrumentalisation of art. In short, the commodity form is a means by which the work uncritically assimilates and as such supports the state of things as they are; products of the culture industry are best depicted in opposition to the ‘worthy’ artworks outlined above in that there is an absence of the tension between particular and universal which characterises the individual work of art. By way of their “fidelity to this [uncritically accepted] reality they abandon that which distinguishes them from it, renounce their claim to be different from the world,” to restate Robinson’s explanation (117). Thus it is not the products of the culture industry which are the cause of the taking-up of the commodity form; rather, it is the development of the culture industry and automated production under late capitalism which has caused the shift in socio-economic conditions and thus enabled the commodity form to function.

Of course, it is not simply the products of the culture industry which have been denigrated under this mode of production. In a case which appears as the opposite of the mimetic expression of Kafka’s work, the novel under capitalism has typically served not to draw attention to the reification of oppressive social-property relations, but to be in alliance with reification by means of a ‘realistic’ demystification of the world, an “uncritical absorption of and hence support for things as they are” [emphasis added] (118-119). The universal, generic artistic form, Robinson asserts, develops and evolves in response to the given social conditions of the historical ‘moment,’ conditions which demand a certain expression and ‘mode of address’ of the particular work, manifest in the ‘capitulation’ to a reality which cannot be transfigured under late capitalism (124-126). Those ‘worthy’ works draw attention to this state of alienation, to the “hollowing out of subject and reality,” even if they reject realism outright (125).

Chapter four, ‘Form and Material,’ sees Robinson turn to questions of the relationship between works and the materials out of which they are formed, engaging more closely with questions of technique and process. If “content, broadly speaking, is an aspect of existing artworks[…]” [emphasis added], then the material of which those artworks are created – the colours from which the painting is fashioned, the sounds from which compositions are hewn, the words from which the poem is constructed – can be understood as “in some way pre-artistic, that out of which not-yet-existing artworks are made” [emphasis added] (136). This distinction between form and material and content and material is, much like the distinction between form and content, not a metaphysical separation, but an abstract and conceptual one which again serves to temporarily allow for investigation of the aspects of art which are present in the experience of the work. In Robinson’s words:

“Material can no more be thought of as contentless than content as free from the material in which it is expressed; the meaning of a poem cannot be divorced from the words and sounds and traces of which it is made.” (136)

The physical properties of a given material do not merely lend themselves to the production of a given artwork, but, as a pre-artistic and pre-productive condition from which those particular works are fashioned, must also and to a significant degree determine the way that the particular work – and, by extension, the universal, generic form in which that particular work is placed and modifies – develops. Though these materials pre-exist the work of art, the range of material which appears available to the artist is and must be, as Adorno suggests in the Ästhetische Theorie, “historical through and through” (ÄT, 223). For how could it be any other way? To take an Adornian tack, the material available to the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, such as the stochastic or random process which he applied in his musical arrangements, pre-existed his use of them – indeed, they pre-existed our uncovering of them, considering that ‘stochastic processes’ merely delineates and enables the description of various physical and biological phenomena such as the motion of particles through space – but they were not apparent and available as an artistic material until they were theorised as being applicable in the work of composition, and they did not become part of compositional tradition until the 1957 premiere of his piece Pithoprakta. In Robinson’s terms, “each new composition not only opens up new possibilities but also[…] sets new restrictions for future musical development;” and, by extension, future artistic development in general (140).

Artistic technique and material, for Robinson as for Adorno, are mutually interdependent; technique is attentive to the constraints and “demands of the material, but also by the content of the work that is to be created” whilst the material available for use is determined by the results of prior artistic technique (144-145). Even the most oppositional technique which seeks to fight against “form’s tendency to settle and stagnate” is complicit in the creation of a new form, which will consequently be opposed by even newer forms (147). Technique is not merely an addition to working the available materials of artistic production, but is also present to the future artist as a constraint, inhering in a form which becomes material to be opposed in this future productive activity. Contingency enters into the picture here in the shape of “influences or interruptions from external factors” which destroy or modify the material available to the artist—here one could think of the potential artistic materials lost when the artist’s studio burns down, for instance (160).

In chapter five, ‘Artistic Form and the Commodity Form,’ Robinson highlights “the antagonisms that permeate bourgeois society[…]” insofar as they are reflected within the concept of form (163). In doing so, Robinson is able to bring his discussion to a close through a return to Adorno’s discussion of artworks as products of social labour, characterised not by their relationship to exchange-value through ‘commodity-producing labour,’ but rather as it refers to an activity which deliberately sets out with the “purpose of improving human existence,” the form of human labour prior to its transformation into a type of mutually-reinforcing abstract, alienated labour through the reification of social domination, hierarchy and the logic of the capitalist mode of production (168-170).

Even under the conditions of this society – our society – there exist forms of labour which are able to realise a different kind of sociality (170). The making works of art is such a process, although it is one in which the product is never wholly disassociated from the commodity form—whether that is through the techniques of mechanical reproduction which are deployed in industry before being co-opted by artists, or by the use of tools such as the internet, developed within a military context. It is in the experience of the artwork, however, in our experience of the particular work, that we see the potential of art manifested:

“Artworks[…] exemplify the actuality of a social labour that is liberated from compulsory abstraction […] in doing so they not only serve as a reminder that it is possible to resist the totalising claims of abstract value and its logic of exchangeability, but also present a kind of social labour that does not efface the particularity of the activities that constitute it. […] The artwork as we encounter, experience, and conceive it, that is, is a consequence and a phenomenon[…] of capitalist society. Absent this coercive, violent sociality, the artwork ceases to be thinkable as we think it, as both a mode of resistance and a promise of something better […] Artworks are thus a kind of clearing within a world dominated by instrumental reason, opening the way for emancipation from it.”[Emphasis added] (176-177)

Artworks, in Robinson’s final analysis, come to be defined in opposition to the logic of the capitalist mode of production, yet this is always already a definition which sustains a connection between the work of art and the society in which they were a part; in even the most radical rejection of the principles which govern that society and its mode of production one cannot wholly separate the work from its negation of the society out of which it was created—capitalist social-property relations remain in the work as a trace, or mark, or echo. Robinson’s utilisation of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) is a notably clear example of this quality of artworks: freed of the functional rationale of instrumentality in which it would have otherwise been found – in this case, the ‘mens room’ – our experience of the work nevertheless calls to mind the location and instrumental reason from which it has been freed by means of the subjective activity of the artist (179). This recursive and referential relationship to reality is reflected in the form of the work, a reality it simultaneously maintains and abandons, a reality which “form thus helps render[…] thinkable” (179). Referring back to Adorno’s demand “that life imitate art,” we see that the poetics of form which Robinson draws out of Adorno’s aesthetic theory is one which enables the reading of artworks as a means by which the possibility of a different mode of production, and thus a different kind of sociality, is not realised or actualised, but is postulated as possible. This illuminates Robinson’s claim that Adorno’s aesthetic theory is an poetics of “the wrong state of things;” that is, that his reconfiguration of the work of art “opens up the possibility of the emergence of a transformation out of the existing order[…]” and as such, the work of art effects a “formulation of the complexity of the relationship between commodity society and a successor[…] that is worth wishing for” (186-187).

In his conclusion, ‘Lyric, Form, Society,’ Robinson considers the implications of the arguments outlined here, and the elaboration of Adorno’s ‘poetics of the wrong state of things’ for the study of literature. In this study, forms are grounded as “a token or[…] a deposit for a wide range of connections between us and the worlds to which the work connects us: it lies at the nexus of these connections,” the sensitivity to which means that, through our experiential engagement with the work of art, we keep in sight the prospect of a different world, or the realisation of a different set of social-property relations in our present one (209). Robinson’s analyses indeed fulfil his goal of gesturing towards a conception of the work of art, as outlined above, in which particular works are able to intervene into the social and economic form of a given society, whilst not restricting this functional possibility to ‘political’ works of art, or the ‘revolutionary art’ which Trotsky sets out in his Literature and Revolution (1924).

Adorno’s poetics of form appears to present a means by which we can theorise the relationship between artworks and shifts in the fabric of society by imbuing those works with a kind of agency: by means of the function outlined in the discussion of chapter two, these works are able to embody “emancipatory social practice,” clearing away the reification which attends the capitalist mode of production, a means of thinking beyond oppressive social structures towards a “non-hierarchical life in the world” (218-222).

In Adorno’s Poetics of Form, Josh Robinson carries out a necessary and fruitful investigation into the way we think about art, and the potential embedded in particular works. His reconstruction of Adorno’s wider aesthetic theory – considered beyond the remit of his Ästhetische Theorie – is masterful, and establishes a strong foundation on which the thinking of literary form, and artistic form in general, can take place. It is able to stand alongside projects such as Fredric Jameson’s The Ancients and the Postmoderns: On the Historicity of Forms as setting the stage for a contemporary Marxist aesthetics, whilst being of practical value for literary critics and art theorists alike. The immediate criticism which could be made of Robinson’s publication, a choice which was no doubt necessitated by the requirements of brevity and the focus of the project, is that it perhaps gives Walter Benjamin’s arguments in support of Surrealism, outlined in a short paragraph in chapter two, rather short shrift; similarly, his discussion of labour and the creative process in chapter five would have benefitted from a discussion of Benjamin’s Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (1936). For a reader well-versed in the internal debates – both voiced and unvoiced – between the thinkers within and on the periphery of the Frankfurt School, this work was likely in mind, however, for the reader just setting out on their investigation of Adorno’s aesthetics, to understand what he was responding to in his collaborator’s work may provide additional insight into what sets Adorno’s project apart.

These minor criticisms notwithstanding, Robinson has produced a highly readable and accomplished contribution to the scholarship on Theodor Adorno’s aesthetic project as it pertains to the question of form, and a thought-provoking reformation of the Marxist theory of art.

Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy: German Philosophy: A Dialogue, MIT Press, 2018

German Philosophy: A Dialogue Book Cover German Philosophy: A Dialogue
Untimely Meditations
Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy. Edited by Jan Völker. Translated by Richard Lambert
MIT Press
Paperback $12.95

Josh Robinson: Adorno’s Poetics of Form, SUNY Press, 2018

Adorno's Poetics of Form Book Cover Adorno's Poetics of Form
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Josh Robinson
SUNY Press
Hardback $90.00

Julian Young: German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century: Weber to Heidegger, Routledge, 2018

German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century: Weber to Heidegger Book Cover German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century: Weber to Heidegger
Julian Young
Paperback £29.99

Peter E. Gordon: Adorno and Existence

Adorno and Existence Book Cover Adorno and Existence
Peter E. Gordon
Harvard University Press
Hardcover £23.95

Reviewed by: Jarno Hietalahti (University of Jyväskylä)

Peter E. Gordon has written a compelling book entitled Adorno and Existence about Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno’s relationship to existentialism. Gordon admits in the very first sentence of his book that Adorno was not an existentialist, however, according to Gordon’s analysis, Adorno was intrigued by existentialism and tantalized by phenomenology through his academic career. Gordon offers a new research perspective on Adorno’s work which has often been bypassed by secondary literature. He suggests that, although Adorno is renowned as one who challenges philosophies of existence, his position as a critic is not as straightforwardly negative as one might think.

The structure of the work begins with early ontological matters, it moves to The Jargon of Authenticity (1964), then towards Negative Dialectics (1966) and finally to salvaging metaphysics. The form and the content of the book intertwine in a spiral which lures the reader in its undertow. In a laudable manner, Gordon offers a comprehensive view of Adorno’s often forgotten and marginalized writings and lectures. All in all, the sources he refers to in support of his endeavour are well chosen for the task in hand.

Despite the complexity and depth of the subject matter, the book reads well thanks to Gordon’s skills as a writer and his philosophical acumen (for instance, his book Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos, 2010, won the Jacques Barzun Prize from the American Philosophical Society). It would have been prudent and useful to readers if an accessible list of references had been included, and not only a list of aberrations, as this would save the reader from searching through the endnotes for titles which have been referred to. This small criticism aside, Gordon conducts encompassing and convincing research to demonstrate the importance of key existentialist thinkers such as Søren Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger from the beginning of Adorno’s academic career through to the final days of his life. Gordon builds the story eloquently; he starts and ends with Kierkegaard and the structure is insightful as Adorno wrote his Habilitationsschrift (a second dissertation) on Kierkegaard, and lectured on his work during the last years of his career (a 40 year timespan).

It is not surprising that Gordon presents Heidegger as the main opponent and counterpart to Adorno’s thought as Gordon has analysed Heidegger’s philosophy in his other books and in numerous articles (e.g. Gordon 2003; 2007; 2013). In this text he tries to situate Heidegger’s phenomenological philosophy alongside Adorno’s social criticism; a daring and respectable task. Gordon argues that Adorno’s central idea about the primacy of the object is an attempt to finish what existential philosophers had sought to accomplish before him. According to Gordon, Adorno’s relentless criticism of existentialists is a redemption of existence. When Adorno argues that Kierkegaard and Heidegger failed to overcome a lurking idealism, it is because he envisions his philosophy as “the overcoming of existentialism but also its fulfillment” (145).

Gordon is clearly aware of Adorno’s repeated criticism of existential philosophers as the book examines even the harshest parts of these writings, however, he claims this is a reversal recognition. For Gordon, as Adorno’s intensive interest in existentialism and phenomenology spans multiple decades, he must see a hidden potential in these philosophical systems despite the failings he makes explicit. This speculative claim gives ground to a deeper consideration and reframing of Adorno’s critical thinking. Gordon builds on the old and accepted truth about Adorno (that if he states something, he will denounce the very same thought just a couple of pages later) to point to some neglected ironies in Adorno’s works and reminds us that it is intellectually insincere to focus on isolated critical slogans. As Adorno writes in the Negative Dialectics; philosophy should not forget its clownish traits: “Philosophy is the most serious thing, but then again it is not all that serious.” (Adorno, 1966, 14)

Counting on the aforementioned trait in Adorno’s writings, Gordon is able to turn the tables around time and time again. For instance, he notes how Adorno criticizes époché (a method of phenomenological bracketing) which is supposed to help to catch the pure oneself; a method of understanding and seeing how the world exists for one. Adorno suggests that this method fails miserably, and is basically transcendental xenophobia. Despite this straightforward crushing, Gordon finds evidence on how Adorno goes beyond a mere superficial panning, and wants to seek truth in what he has just a moment ago considered to be phenomenological untruth. Adorno, according to Gordon, does not want to refute phenomenology through negation but, instead, he is on a quest to show how this “failure bears within itself a hidden philosophical insight.” (64)

As the text proceeds, it is easy to grasp Gordon’s primary objective; to show that Adorno has an intellectual bond with existentialism and phenomenology. Gordon takes the sheer number of references provided as proof of this. However, one cannot accept that Gordon necessarily gets it right when he suggests that Adorno did not specifically reject existential philosophy just because he returned to the same themes again and again over many decades. Adorno was always critical towards authoritarianism, for example, and he never ceased to question the socially shared insanity in the Western world but it would be wrong to suggest that, because Adorno wrote so much about authoritarianism he saw a hidden promise in authoritarian thinking and movements.

The text does contain some careless formulations occasionally, e.g. Gordon considers Adorno a satirical writer who tries to pop the balloons of rigid authority with his dry and poisonous wit and it could be argued that true satirists tend to offer something to replace their ridiculed targets but Adorno does not do this. Instead, he uses bitter humour to belittle shared cultural insanity, philosophical hypocrisy and individuals who are simply wrong (according to his perspective). In his mockery Adorno rarely offers sympathy for the target of his ridicule; instead, he is sarcastic and quite often smug in relation to the way he offends others. Interestingly, Gordon includes an extract of one of Adorno’s letters to Herbert Marcuse where he belittles Heidegger’s student Otto Friedrich Bollnow after the publication of The Jargon of Authenticity (December, 15, 1964): “Ernst Bloch phoned to say that because of the ‘Jargon’ Bollnow is having a nervous breakdown. Let him.” (88). Adorno does give a charitable rationalization for his so-called satirical technique when he tries to embarrass people; he thought that once an authority is ridiculed its fragile nature is revealed (through laughter), then the followers of that authority would be keen to stop worshipping their former hero. This is the very same sociological thought on which Henri Bergson’s Laughter (1911) is based. Bergson argues that laughter is a form of social control and a tool to straighten people up from their silly habits. Sadly for Adorno, this does not justify every kind of banter, and a mere rationalization hardly turns a ruthless mockery into a more constructive form of satire.

At times, Gordon makes questionable rhetorical choices and one can identify a subtle smugness in formulations such as “Those who come to critical theory burdened with customary opinion…” (6), or “Adorno’s critical orientation can appear relentlessly negative, and many readers fail to see that his negativity still flows, however faintly, with a rationalist’s hope for a better world.” (11) If these points are to be taken literally, Gordon is suggesting that merited Adorno scholars are taking a ‘wrong’ approach and one might ask, where does this leave those who are new to Adorno’s work?

Similar accusations are present throughout the text as Gordon suggests that Adorno scholars who interpret his written works on existentialism as sidesteps and meaningless aberrations from the philosophical core do so neglectfully. Despite such criticisms Gordon himself displays intellectual lapses in relation to Heidegger as, though he acknowledges the controversies about Heidegger’s relationship to National Socialism, he claims that this should not cloud our vision of his philosophy. However, for the critical theorist truth is always historical and social circumstances must play a significant role. A shrug of the shoulders is not enough to allow one to bypass Heidegger’s engagement with National Socialism; this is a major issue of debate which has recently resurfaced due to the publication of the so-called Black Notebooks (2014a, 2014b, 2014c).

Whilst Gordon agrees that philosophical texts are part of a social whole (at least in Adorno’s case), he also claims that they cannot be reduced to this whole. It is on these grounds that he seeks to excuse the omission of any treatment of Heidegger’s relation to fascism in this text. Unfortunately, the rationale behind this omission not entirely convincing. Gordon allows himself privileges that he denies to others; he regards dubious writings by Heidegger as mere deviations (though some scholars argue that they are essential), and at the same time he claims that certain works by Adorno should not be neglected as they allow one to trace the development of his critical thinking. It is not entirely consistent for Gordon to claim that Adorno’s marginal texts are important (as one may understand them as intellectual test laboratories), but Heidegger’s marginal texts (which several scholars consider as representative of his philosophical thinking) should be considered mere sidesteps.

Gordon describes how the political and economic situation forced Adorno to emigrate from Germany to England in the 1930s, and how racial laws resulted in the decommission of his professorship. The situation resulted in Adorno having to complete a second doctorate at the University of Oxford in an intellectual environment where his enthusiasm for social theory was not shared. Gordon claims “it is against this sombre background of exile and isolation that we must understand Adorno’s readiness to bury himself in the texts of classical phenomenology.” (59) He makes a valuable point, but it again raises the issue concerning the importance of taking the social-historical situation into account when analysing the work of Heidegger.

Let us consider what remains untreated by Adorno and Existence; e.g. Gordon mentions Karl Marx twice and Sigmund Freud only once, yet both are highly influential thinkers in relation to Adorno’s intellectual development. The text concerns Adorno and existentialism so there is no need for a comprehensive study of these two critical thinkers; even so, a comparison of their influence on Adorno with that of existentialists’ would have been a valuable addition. Also, Adorno’s concept of somatic impulse (which is based on psychoanalytical thinking) is completely neglected by this text. Through this concept Adorno presents an individual with the possibility to feel that there is something wrong with the world without giving positive answers to the problem. Somatic impulse comes close to what Erich Fromm (Adorno’s former colleague and rival) calls ‘existential needs’; as they offer a dialectic but normative standpoint for both philosophy and social criticism. It would have been interesting to read about whether Gordon finds any connection between somatic impulse and, e.g. the phenomenological idea of ‘being in the world’.

All in all, Adorno and Existence is an important and insightful book as it highlights previously untreated features of Adorno’s intellectual development and his academic career. Gordon’s work presents an interesting historical and biographical study; his style concerns an original method which requires one to assemble clues that are presented through a complex story (which has not been told or fully understood before). In the style of Adorno, Gordon reminds us; that if one is to criticize something, it means that one has to make a serious and rigorous attempt to analyse the target of the criticism, otherwise the enterprise engages in nothing more than cultural chatter (a point which is well formulated and taken into account throughout Gordon’s work). It is unclear if jury will be unanimous with their verdict on this particular book as both phenomenologists and critical theorists may find the book, eventually, not entirely convincing. That said, Gordon succeeds in giving food for thought and opening up new perspectives to Adorno scholars about Adorno’s intellectual relationship to existentialism and phenomenology.

The gravest problems with the book (discussed above) lie on the meta-level and, if a brief speculation is allowed, Adorno would probably not agree with Gordon’s analysis in relation to Heidegger. Adorno, one of the sharpest critics of fascism in the 20th century, is portrayed as the saviour of Heideggerian phenomenology. Many philosophers argue (especially after the publication of the Black Notebooks) that there is an intrinsic connection between Heidegger’s philosophy and anti-Semitism. If this is the case, then Adorno himself would be rather appalled by Gordon’s conclusion: that Adorno is the one who wants to save Heidegger’s philosophical project. It is difficult to couple Heidegger (a member of the Nazi party from 1933 until the end of Second World War), and Adorno (a persecuted Jew who had to leave his motherland because of the atrocities committed by the Nazis). The historical burden is so heavy that it cannot by bypassed with a mere statement that the author does not agree with Heidegger’s fascistic tendencies but is not going to treat the question of how they are present within his philosophical works. Some scholars (e.g. Rée 2014, Losurdo 2014) argue that Heidegger’s anti-Semitic ideas taint only his person and do not impact deeply on the core of his philosophy. However, critics such as Peter Trawny (editor of the Black Notebooks) argue that Heidegger actually processed his anti-Semitic ideas philosophically. The issue of Heidegger’s anti-Semitism and its presence in Heidegger’s works should be taken seriously when discussing a critical thinker like Adorno (from a Jewish background) as it is significant in relation to understanding Heidegger’s legacy. Unfortunately, Gordon does not make such an attempt.

Referred works

Adorno, T. W. 1964. The Jargon of Authenticity, trans. K. Tarnowski and F. Will, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973.

Adorno, T. W. 1966. Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton, New York: Seabury Press, 1973.

Bergson, H. 1911. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, trans., Cloudsley Brereton and Fred Rothwell, Los Angeles: Green Integer, 1999.

Gordon, P. E. 2003. Rosenzweig and Heidegger: Between Judaism and German Philosophy. University of California Press.

Gordon, P. E. 2007. “Hammer without a Master: French Phenomenology and the Origins of Deconstruction (or, How Derrida read Heidegger).” In: Historicizing Postmodernism. New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.

Gordon, P. E. 2010. Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos. Harvard University Press.

Gordon, P. E. 2013. “The Empire of Signs: Heidegger’s Critique of Idealism in Being and Time.” In: The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger’s Being and Time. New York: Cambridge.

Heidegger, M. 2014a. Überlegungen II–VI (Schwarze Hefte 1931–1938) [Reflections II–VI (Black Notebooks 1931–1938)]. Edited by P. Trawny. Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann.

Heidegger, M. 2014b. Überlegungen VII–XI (Schwarze Hefte 1938/39) [Reflections VII–XI (Black Notebooks 1938/39)]. Edited by P. Trawny. Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann.

Heidegger, M. 2014c. Überlegungen XII–XV (Schwarze Hefte 1939–1941) [Reflections XII–XV (Black Notebooks 1939–1941)]. Edited by P. Trawny. Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann.

Losurdo, D. 2014. “Heidegger’s black notebooks aren’t that surprising.” In: The Guardian. March 19, 2014.

Rée, J. 2014. “In defence of Heidegger”. In: Prospect. March 12, 2014.

Mahon O’Brien: Heidegger, History and the Holocaust

Heidegger, History and the Holocaust Book Cover Heidegger, History and the Holocaust
Bloomsbury Studies in Continental Philosophy
Mahon O'Brien
Paperback £17.99

Reviewed by: Gregory Jackson (The National University of Ireland, Maynooth)

Martin Heidegger was one of the most influential figures in 20th century philosophy but also both a member of the National Socialist party and a committed antisemite. That such a controversy would generate a substantial amount of scholarship is not surprising, and yet Mahon O’Brien’s Heidegger, History and the Holocaust attempts to break the trends of the usual works that deal with this highly contentious issue. In O’Brien’s view, the controversy surrounding Heidegger’s philosophy is an emotionally charged debate that fails to truly get to grips with the content of Heidegger’s philosophy. This philosophy is one that he justifiably finds ‘profound’ (4), and yet he has no delusions regarding whether Heidegger was a Nazi or antisemitic. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of taking sides in the debate which in the process eclipses the critical engagement necessary to understand the nature of Heidegger’s commitments to National Socialism and his antisemitism, and the implication of this for his thinking. It is precisely this trap that Heidegger, History and the Holocaust sets out to avoid. In the discussion that follows, however, there are other traps that O’Brien leaves himself vulnerable to.

In the first chapter, ‘Re-assessing the “Affair”’, O’Brien reviews some of the scholarship surrounding Heidegger’s political affiliations in order to explore how the controversy has unfolded. He argues that those who want to dismiss Heidegger’s philosophy on account of his political affiliations (the assumption being that it is intrinsically fascist) betray a kind of ‘victor’s morality’ (12), where the everyday, banal evils and the more overt evils of both the allies and our contemporary world are ignored. O’Brien’s reminder to step back from our own historical world and draw attention to the evils we regularly participate in is not meant to condone the horrific and abysmal acts of the Holocaust. That is, the repugnancy of Nazism is beyond dispute, but O’Brien is pointing out that the people who fought against them were not ‘faultless paragons of virtue’ either (13). This position does risk diminishing the specific horror of the Holocaust, but it is utilized by O’Brien to take on scholars such as Zimmerman who argue that the Holocaust was a singular event belonging to the Germans. On the contrary, O’Brien claims that the Holocaust is a horrific but complex story that extends beyond the borders of Germany. Framing the debate in this way, he is given cause to defend one of the only statements by Heidegger on the Holocaust:

Agriculture is now a mechanized food industry, in essence the same as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and extermination camps, the same as the blockading and starving or countries. The same as the production of hydrogen bombs. (as quoted on p. 24)

Dubbed the ‘agriculture remark’, this statement has generated much controversy due to its suggestion that the horrors of the Holocaust are no different than the horrors of the mechanized food industry. This passage, written in context of Heidegger’s confrontation with the essence of technology, is the basis of O’Brien’s second chapter, ‘The Essence of Technology and the Holocaust’. On the surface, it appears as a highly insensitive claim that suggests a lack of remorse for the victims of the Holocaust. On the contrary, however, O’Brien believes that Heidegger’s work on technology should be ‘interpreted as a robust confrontation with the Holocaust’ (23). His strategy here hinges on drawing attention to Heidegger’s use of the word ‘essence’. For the claim that agriculture, the hydrogen bomb, and the Holocaust are the same ‘in essence’ is very different than saying they are identical, morally or otherwise. For Heidegger, the essence of something is ‘what holds sway within it such that it appears as what it is’ (39). This essence, for Heidegger is Gestell, or ‘enframing’, the technological deployment of the meaning of being into which we in the contemporary world are ‘thrown’. That is, Heidegger is trying to tell us something about the way in which things appear for us in our given historical epoch. Thrown into a world of Gestell, humanity succumbs to seeing things as ‘standing reserves’, that is, things (and people) are ‘revealed’ in relation to how efficient and optimized they are for our use. Hence, the specific way in which phenomena in our contemporary world is generally understood—or ‘revealed’ in Heidegger’s language—lends itself to the production of the atom bomb, the mechanized food industry, and, at its worst, atrocities such as the Holocaust.

O’Brien does not only draw from Heidegger, however, but also explores some of the memoirs of Nazi officials. In doing so, we witness the way in which the Jewish people were interpreted by the Nazis as pests to be exterminated. As O’Brien points out, the phrase the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Problem’ is particularly telling. This chilling phrasing expresses how ‘the inmates at the camp were revealed […] as practical, logistical problems that could be approached as one would approach an infestation of rodents or vermin within a factory’ (33) [1]. The Heideggerian warning is that in the age of the technological dispensation of being this way of seeing lends itself to the horrors that occurred in Auschwitz. It is O’Brien’s contention that by viewing the Holocaust as a singular event specific to the German people we miss this sinister occurrence of truth that Heidegger diagnoses as part and parcel of our historical world. He thus presents the case that far from being dismissive of the horrific treatment of the marginalized in Nazi Germany, Heidegger offers us an analysis that may not only aid us in preventing the reoccurrence of something so morally repugnant, but also give us the tools to properly resist alternate expressions of its essence in our own time.

For my own part, nonetheless, although O’Brien’s efforts to show the relevance of Heidegger’s diagnoses is thought provoking, the existential gap between a philosophical analysis of essence and the lived suffering of those who were subject to the atrocities of the Nazi regime seems problematic. As I discuss in a footnote above, even the language of ‘reveal’ [zeigen] could serve to further de-humanize the marginalized and eclipse the responsibility of those involved in the atrocities that occurred in the Nazi regime. This, of course, raises the issue of Heidegger’s silence, his refusal to offer a public apology for his support of the regime. O’Brien’s solution to this is to draw our attention to the ‘lose-lose’ (19) situation Heidegger was in. A public apology would be an admission of guilt, which in turn would eclipse the far greater danger Heidegger wanted to warn us of. Perhaps this is a moment where our commitments to an idea can cause one to lose sight of the concrete and particular suffering in the lived experience of an individual. O’Brien’s later discussion of Heidegger’s rather unfavourable character might testify to this lack of empathy (117-124).

Chapter three moves to examine the charge against Heidegger of being a dangerous ideologue, given that critical scholarship often dismisses him on the assumption that he is just another member of the German Conservative Revolutionary Movement. Here O’Brien concedes that Heidegger does borrow some of the ‘motifs’ and ‘symbolism’ (71) of his contemporaries, such as Spengler and Jünger, but he makes a convincing case that philosophically Heidegger is far removed from the reductive and simplistic, and often dangerously racist, views of these intellectual counterparts. Here, we are reminded that identity of terms is not the same as identity in concepts, that is, that just because both Jünger and Heidegger are concerned with the role of technology in our age this does not mean that philosophically their reasons and solutions to this concern are the same. At times, however, I am left wanting for greater critical engagement with why Heidegger chose to express his philosophy through the language of the ideologues of his time, and the significance of this for a thinking which differs philosophically.[2] O’Brien spends the first part of the chapter exploring the criticisms of the likes of Adorno, Bordieu and Zimmerman, showing in what way their issues with Heidegger’s conservatism fail to miss the content and significance of his philosophy. Having done so, O’Brien is free to move on to address some of the problems he sees in Heidegger’s conservatism, for he is aware that there are ‘genuine flaws’ in this ‘onslaught against modernity’ (48).

There is a great surprise lurking in this next part of the chapter. With its strong criticism of ‘will’, it is easy to assume that Heidegger’s concept of Gelassenheit is born out of his attempts to come to terms with what went wrong during the National Socialist regime in Germany. This concept is also born out of Heidegger attempts to confront the technological view of the meaning of being, and so offers us a potential way out of the force of its Gestell. O’Brien points out, however, that even as late as the 1950s this concept is entrenched in Heidegger’s idea of the ‘authentic rootedness of the people’ (72). Although the case might not be so evident by 1950, in the 30s it is clear that this idea of rootedness had ethnic ramifications, and given that the Black Notebooks show that Heidegger saw the Jewish people as the acme of a calculative thinking and this as a loss of the rootedness in the earth, the seemingly progressive notion of Gelassenheit becomes shrouded in doubt.

In the next chapter, ‘The Authentic Dasein of a People’, O’Brien returns to the roots of Heidegger’s notion of rootedness (Bodenständigkeit) through his analysis of the authentic community in Being and Time. Described as a ‘hornet’s nest’ (77), the author argues that the undeniably racist implications of Heidegger’s understanding of an authentic community rely on a number of arbitrary moves in his thinking. That is, O’Brien makes the case that Heidegger’s shameful prejudices are at odds with his own philosophy. Drawing our attention to Heidegger’s discussion of authentic community in Being and Time, O’Brien argues that in the notions of ‘leaping-in’ and ‘leaping-ahead’ (79) there is the potential for the development in Heidegger’s thought toward the recognition of the universal condition of finitude that is taken up in the particular historical situation one is thrown into. The inauthentic ‘leaping-in’ that Heidegger understands as the customary way we interact with others denies them the recognition of their finitude, whereas ‘leaping-ahead’ allows both individuals to be who they are (as finite beings toward death) in relation to the project at hand. Of course, my use of the word ‘individual’ here is problematic for this discussion rests on Heidegger’s conception of the human being as Dasein, a being which is primarily related to its self, world and others. As far as Heidegger is concerned Dasein is not an individual at all precisely because it is not indivisible from the historical situation it is thrown into and the others it shares this with, until, of course, it faces its finitude in the experience of anxiety-toward-its-own-death. Nonetheless, O’Brien exploits a strange ambiguity in Heidegger’s description of the social constitution of Dasein, where Heidegger rather bizarrely tries to argue that despite this primary social constitution Dasein is also ‘in the first instance’ unrelated to others (80). O’Brien contends that it is this ambiguity in Being and Time that allows Heidegger’s thought go awry in the 1930s. This is because in Being and Time Heidegger ends up, in some fashion at least, privileging the individual that he at the same time shows to be phenomenologically inappropriate. When his understanding of Dasein in the 30s becomes the Dasein of the nation, this privileging of the individual gets taken up as a privileging of a particular nation. Conveniently, this nation is the German one. Heidegger now thinks that Europe lies between the ‘pincers’ of Russia and America, and it is up to the Germans to save it, through a ‘repeat’ and ‘retrieve’ [Wiederholen] of the ‘historical-spiritual Dasein’, a task for the preserve of the Germans as the most metaphysical of people (85-87). Heidegger’s racism is thus not biological but spiritual, and one that O’Brien contends denies the implications in Heidegger’s thought of the shared history I have with others in my ‘cultural and intellectual milieu’ (88), a notion that an appropriate understanding of ‘leaping-ahead’ would have made apparent. Why are the Jewish people of the German nation denied their part in the historical-spiritual destiny of the German people?

O’Brien’s last chapter turns to Heidegger’s racism, and although the author’s use of the poetry of Kavanagh and Heaney gives rise to some of my favourite moments in this short work, it also seems to be the book’s most problematic chapter. It deals with a number of key seminars and works from the 1930s such as Nature, History, State and the Origin of the Work of Art. Major problems lurk in Nature, History, State, where Heidegger begins to conceive of historical Dasein as a Volk, thought of in terms of ‘mastery, rank, leadership and following’, where a Volk proper is only so in relation to the state (102/103). The ambiguity that O’Brien notices in Heidegger’s thought makes a return, however, for Heidegger also points out that wherever humans go we root ourselves in the soil. As such, the spiritual-ethnic chauvinism of Heidegger seems to briefly lift itself. Heidegger has always favoured the provincial, and through drawing on the poetry of Heaney and Kavanagh O’Brien offers a compelling case for why this provincialism is not necessarily problematic. He sees in Heaney, for example, an expression of the worlding of the world through a relationship with the earth that Heidegger explores in On the Origin of the Work of Art. These poets explore this tension between the universal and the particular, but give us the means of realizing that through our particular, historical and concrete struggles we are connected to all human beings as others who are thrown into the world and projected toward their end. This is of course the same latent possibility that O’Brien sees in Heidegger’s thought, but because of Heidegger’s insistence of the primacy of the particular over the universal O’Brien believes Heidegger’s thought went astray. People may indeed root themselves wherever they go, but in Heidegger’s account it is those rooted in German soil that are superior. The universal dimension that O’Brien finds in Heaney and Kavanagh is denied in Heidegger’s account of the artwork also, as the artwork is a purely regionally specific occurrence. Given that the work of art allows meaning and truth to emerge for Heidegger, O’Brien asks what the implications are ‘for a people [in this instance, the Jewish people] who are [according to Heidegger] worldless and without history?’ (112) O’Brien does not answer this question, but the implications are obvious and distressing.

Nonetheless, I am left wondering why the implications of this are not discussed in greater detail. Furthermore, there are some troubling moments where it is suggested that Heidegger’s friendship with other Jewish people at least somewhat obscures his commitments to his antisemitism (121, 132)[3]. Of course, dealing with antisemitism, particularly in such an important thinker, is a sensitive and difficult topic. O’Brien’s work is an important contribution to the growing debate around Heidegger’s political and ideological sympathies. However, perhaps O’Brien’s commitments to the resources in Heidegger’s thought that for O’Brien deny racism cause him to underplay at times the devastating role that Heidegger’s racism wreaks on this thinking. For, although Heidegger’s philosophy might on the one hand suggest that we should never deny someone their essence as a thrown projector, this is nonetheless precisely what he ends up denying the Jewish people. We may dismiss this as a personal prejudice that can be separated from his thinking, but this becomes increasingly difficult when, for example, passages of the Black Notebooks claim that ‘World Jewery’ is ‘grounded’ in the very calculative thinking and ensuing worldlessness that Heidegger’s notion of Gelassenheit attempts to resist.[4] Furthermore, given that O’Brien does a good job of unearthing Heidegger’s specific form of antisemitism, I am left unconvinced that this ‘spiritual’ racism is indicative of the ‘garden variety’ racism (132) that O’Brien charges him with at the end of this work precisely because such a version of racism would seem to be more deeply rooted than the version of biological racism that was more prevalent at the time.[5] That is, Heidegger does not dismiss the Jewish biology as defective as many who bought into the Nazi ideology of the time believed, but instead denies the Jewish person their Dasein. This problematizes one of the central tenets of O’Brien’s case—that Dasein is a universal condition of being human. For this is precisely what Heidegger denies in various works of the 1930’s, such as the Contributions to Philosophy. Here, Dasein is understood as a condition that we must ‘leap’ into, and we now know from the Black Notebooks that this is a possibility that for Heidegger is unavailable to the Jewish people. The troubling implications of this is not brought to the level of critical scrutiny that O’Brien shows himself capable of at other moments in this work. The sentiment that we are left with, however, is that through a proper and critical engagement with his thinking we are not de facto led to a racist ideology, although there is no doubt that Heidegger himself insists that his philosophy and politics are intertwined at some fundamental level. Thus, O’Brien’s study successfully makes the case that Heidegger’s attempt to reconcile the two is problematic.

We must not forget, however, that despite the problems in doing so Heidegger did try to reconcile the two. We can, if we wish, dismiss this aspect of Heidegger’s philosophy, but it is nonetheless a part of its legacy. I welcome O’Brien’s attempt toward a reconstruction of Heidegger’s philosophy. His project, one of critically engaging Heideggerian discourse through delicacy, warranted suspicion, but a certain amount of good will, is bound to bear fruit for Heideggerian scholarship. But I am left with the uncomfortable feeling that despite setting out to do otherwise there is an attempt in this work to find a sanitized Heidegger, as if his revolting prejudices can be weeded out of his philosophy. There is only one Heidegger, and his philosophy will (and should) continue to inspire, provoke, and propel thinking. But the man himself was an ethnic chauvinist and an antisemite, and his attempts to reconcile his philosophy with his prejudices have stained the possibilities of his thought.

[1]His emphasis. It is important to note that ‘revealed’ is not meant to invoke some sort of ‘true’ (in the usual sense of the term) reality coming to appearance, but simply the way in which the appearance is at a given time. In this view, the appearance gets its stability from a given historical movement of ‘truth’ (in Heidegger’s sense of the term), but this truth is not guaranteed or grounded by any transcendent source, such as a God, for example. As such, to say the Jewish people were ‘revealed’ as ‘pests to be exterminated’ is not meant to suggest that this revealing shows anything intrinsic (or truthful, in the usual sense of the term) about Jewishness. Instead, it is meant to suggest something highly problematic about the way in which the world reveals itself to us in our contemporary historical world, where things ‘show up’ as ‘standing reserves’ to be made efficient and optimized. Although phenomenologically justifiable, that the language used to express this (i.e. how the world ‘reveals’ itself) could be utilized to avoid responsibility is not brought under critical scrutiny in this work. That is, Heidegger, or O’Brien’s defence of his position here, has the potential to be used to justify the atrocities of the Nazi regime by arguing that it was simply the way the world was revealed to them at the time and, as such, one bears little responsibility for the horrors committed. Although this is certainly not what O’Brien intends it is a problematic worth drawing attention to.

[2]O’Brien’s discussion in a later chapter of Heidegger’s appropriation of the term Volk touches on this problem somewhat (98-105).

[3]In the first of these instances, O’Brien is quoting Hugo Ott. The second is his own, but afterwards he concedes ‘And yet […] he once insisted that there was indeed a dangerous international alliance of Jews, a belief which he expresses again in his notebooks from the 1930s.’ Although both these instances are not central to his argument, it is a dangerous and distasteful defence to bring into play.

[4]Cf., for example, GA 95: 97 (Überlegungen VIII, 5), trans. by Richard Polt in ‘References to Jews and Judaism in Martin Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, 1938-1948’, available at [last accessed 05/04/2017 at 15:39].

[5]One assumes that what O’Brien means by this is that Heidegger’s inability to reconcile his ‘garden-variety’ racism with his philosophy, one that could not so easily accept the prevalent ‘blood and soil’ ideology at the time, causes him to develop the ‘spiritual racism’ in his thinking that O’Brien does a decent job of unearthing. The problem is that this spiritual racism seems to me to be a far more profound and dangerous form of antisemitism than the more prevalent form of its time, and it is precisely the intellectuals of the era that gave credence to the horrific and base forms of prejudice (leading to the Holocaust) that were occurring, whether their versions of antisemitism or otherwise were aptly understood by the populace. As such, to dismiss Heidegger’s antisemitism as simply a ‘garden-variety’ gone astray comes too close to a Heideggerian apologetics for my taste. If we then accept that the version of antisemitism that Heidegger seems to have developed is deeply troubling, and perhaps more so than other variations of antisemitism, then an earlier defence O’Brien offers, that Heidegger criticized the philosophy of the German Conservative Revolutionary movement for its misappropriation of Nietzsche (66), becomes deeply troubling, for it is precisely this disagreement with their lack of philosophical insight and depth that leads him to develop a more profound form of antisemitism, one that he at least believed to be concurrent with his philosophical thought.