Véronique M. Fóti: Merleau-Ponty at the Gallery: Questioning Art beyond His Reach

Merleau-Ponty at the Gallery: Questioning Art beyond His Reach Book Cover Merleau-Ponty at the Gallery: Questioning Art beyond His Reach
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Véronique M. Fóti
SUNY Press
Paperback $31.95

Reviewed by: David Collins (McGill University)


There are at least two approaches to what may be called ‘applied phenomenology’: one involves performing a phenomenological analysis of one’s own by closely attending to, describing, and critically interrogating one’s first-personal experiences of some phenomenon; the other involves applying existing phenomenological theory—i.e., the results of another’s, or one’s own, prior phenomenological analysis—to some phenomenon in order to understand it in phenomenological terms. (These are not the only approaches, of course, and they need not be mutually exclusive.) With respect to art and aesthetic experience, the first approach can be seen in Mikel Dufrenne’s The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience (1973) and in Samuel Mallin’s Art Line Thought (1996). (For an example of an analysis of a painting that employs Mallin’s body phenomenology, see Crippen 2014.) The second approach is more common, not only in phenomenological reflections on art but in applied phenomenology generally. Done well, it is a matter of putting some phenomenon into dialogue with an established phenomenologist so as to explore how his or her theory can inform and enrich our understanding and, ideally, our experience of the phenomenon—and, reciprocally, how the phenomenon can clarify, challenge, or modify the theory. (For an example of such a dialogue between Merleau-Ponty’s thought and art, see Hacklin 2012.) However, there is a risk of merely translating our pre-existing understanding of the phenomenon into the language of the theory in a way that adds neither to our understanding nor to the theory, but merely fits the phenomenon into the theory’s framework.

Véronique M. Fóti’s new book, Merleau-Ponty at the Gallery, takes the second approach, promising to put Merleau-Ponty’s reflections on visual art—along with other elements of his philosophy—into dialogue with the work of five 20th century artists in a way that will shed new light on these artists’ works and practices while illuminating, and in places challenging, Merleau-Ponty’s thinking. Unfortunately it does not live up to this promise or to the precedent set by Fóti’s previous work on both Merleau-Ponty and the phenomenology of art (see, e.g., Fóti 1992, Fóti 1996), which includes her recent volume exploring the notion of expression in Merleau-Ponty’s aesthetics, ontology, and philosophy of biology (Fóti 2013). This is not to say that Fóti’s new book is not interesting or valuable, only that it is not as valuable as it might have been. It will interest readers familiar with Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception but who are less familiar with his aesthetic reflections or his late ontology, since one of the strengths of the book is Fóti’s explications of these elements of his thought. Another strength is her discussion of the works and practices of the artists she has selected and her use of them to illustrate Merleau-Ponty’s ideas. In this respect, Fóti’s book is valuable for showing how well his ideas fit the work of artists beyond those he himself wrote on. Fóti’s research here into and engagement with art historical and critical work on the artists she considers is admirably thorough.

That being said, it is not clear that Fóti’s framing of these works and artists in terms of Merleau-Ponty’s thought reveals aspects of the works and practices that are not already noted in the art historical and critical scholarship she cites; the discussion often amounts to Fóti noting similarities or convergences between some aspect of an artwork or an artist’s practice and something Merleau-Ponty wrote, or showing how existing interpretations of these works can be put in his terms. Similarly, it is not clear that this book will offer many new insights into Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy for readers already familiar with his work and the secondary literature on it, since his thought is not significantly complicated, questioned, supplemented, etc. in the ways one would expect from a genuine dialogue. Nevertheless, Fóti’s discussion and descriptions of works by artists who—with the exception of Cy Twombly—are under-attended to in philosophical aesthetics will interest philosophers of art, and her explication of Merleau-Ponty’s ideas will be useful for art historians and critics with an interest in phenomenology or a wish to ground their work in an amenable ontology. Fóti’s final chapter, which considers the disavowal of beauty in much 20th century art and art theory, and suggests what she calls ‘strong beauty’ as a way to reclaim the notion while avoiding its purportedly problematic aspects, is worth further consideration—and perhaps further development in a future work—, although this chapter feels somewhat disconnected from the others since it draws significantly on only one of the artists from the preceding chapters, with the significance being minor.

With these six chapters, plus introduction and conclusion, coming to 112 pages before endnotes, bibliography, and index, this book is on the short side, which makes it easy to read and to refer back to, e.g., for locating particular examples of artworks. However, the lack of any illustrations is unfortunate: this is a book that calls for high quality colour reproductions of the works discussed. (To be fair, the choice to omit illustrations may not have been Fóti’s but an editor’s. There are also a number of minor typographical errors that hopefully will be corrected in future printings, e.g., parenthetical comments with the second parenthesis misplaced or simply missing, which leaves the reader to intuit where the comment ends and the sentence into which it is inserted resumes.) As mentioned, chapter 6 sketches a theory of beauty that is meant to avoid worries about links between the idea of beauty as traditionally understood and the morally troubling practices it is sometimes thought to support. Fóti draws on Merleau-Ponty to develop this theory but goes beyond his writings which, as she notes, contain a “near-silence concerning beauty” (95); this chapter is where most of Fóti’s original ideas can be found.

Chapter-by-Chapter Synopsis

In the introduction, Fóti outlines her approach to applying Merleau-Ponty’s aesthetics and details the common threads or convergences to be found between his thought and the works of the artists she has selected for her focus. She notes twin tendencies in the scholarship on Merleau-Ponty’s aesthetics: “to focus predominantly on the very same artists or artistic movements with which he himself engaged,” such as Cézanne, Klee, Matisse, Rodin, and post-impressionism and cubism, and “to concentrate on the issues that he himself discusses in his aesthetic writings, rather than engaging directly with artworks and the practices of artmaking” to bring them “into dialogue with Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology” (1-2). She is right that a tendency to repeat the same examples that ‘big-name’ philosophers have used is limiting and can be a sign of a lack of original understanding or a lack of familiarity with the range of phenomena from which the usual examples are drawn, and that it would make for better scholarship to engage directly with a new range of artworks and examples. It would also lead to better phenomenology, since it would make the results of individual phenomenological analyses less likely to be reified as universal claims about the nature of art when these results may have been specific to those examples.

The choice to focus on artists who, except for Morandi (whose was a near-contemporary of Merleau-Ponty’s), were part of an artworld slightly after his time avoids these limitations and lets her test whether Merleau-Ponty’s views map onto works and practices from a later period in visual art’s history with new developments, directions and styles. However, as noted above, the work of these  artists is not always brought into mutual dialogue with Merleau-Ponty’s thought,  or at least the claim that her consideration of these works “did not simply confirm [his] analyses but also … deepened or complicated them or introduced critical perspectives” (3) is not reflected in what is said about each one in the subsequent chapters. Instead, the areas of convergence that she finds between these artists’ works and Merleau-Ponty’s ideas are often presented by noting similarities between what an artist does and an observation or a view of Merleau-Ponty’s, where these similarities are not always clearly explicated and where more could be done to explain how a particular work exemplifies or embodies Merleau-Ponty’s claims. These convergences are: ‘interweaving dualities’, i.e., the collapsing of binary dichotomies between figuration and abstraction, subject and object of perception, etc.; the relation between image and writing, including the nature of written texts as both visual and linguistic; the ‘thingness’ of artworks, i.e., their in-between status as more than ‘mere’ things but distinct from tools or equipment for use, and their relation to materiality; the question of the artist’s historical situatedness and the ‘timeliness’ of their work. The biological need for beauty is also listed as a convergence, but it is not clear how this counts given Merleau-Ponty’s (and some of the five artists’) relative lack of concern with beauty.

Chapter 1 focuses on Giorgio Morandi, whose work Fóti sees as converging with Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy with respect to his explorations of vision and visibility and his refusal to draw a hard-and-fast distinction between figuration and abstraction. The suggestion is that Morandi’s still lifes of ordinary objects such as bottles and vases work to subtly defamiliarize these objects while keeping them recognizable; as Fóti puts it, they “unhinge things and their configurations from customary identification without, however, treating them as mere pretexts for painterly innovation” (17). This is linked to the idea of suspending or bracketing ‘profane’ vision to leave room for ‘primordial’ vision, which idea is fundamental to Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of phenomenology and his notion of visual art’s ability to disclose and thematize this primordial vision and its workings, and thereby to “rende[r] visible what could not otherwise be so” (14). In other words, the claim is that the familiar character of the objects Morandi paints, e.g., bottles, is placed in the background (rather than being removed entirely) so that their character as visible, or things-that-appear, and the ways in which they appear to us, can be brought to the fore.

This is a fertile point of convergence between Morandi’s painting and Merleau-Ponty’s thinking, although it would be nice if how Morandi’s paintings do these things were explained rather than it being just asserted that they do. The concrete, practical details of the paintings or Morandi’s process that Fóti describes do not sufficiently explain this; instead, not all of these points are clearly relevant to the rest of the discussion, e.g., noting that Morandi often uses “a rich and subtle palette of grayed earth tones, siennas, golds and whites, or earth greens and muted violets [which] is restrained, with a somewhat melancholy echo of classical antiquity” (16). This works well as a description of Morandi’s use of colour, but it does not obviously relate to or explain how “things constellate and configure themselves in space” in his paintings, as Fóti claims (Ibid.). Seeking out and viewing Morandi’s paintings does not help to make these claims concrete in the same way that one can easily see the fittingness of what Merleau-Ponty says about, e.g., Cézanne’s paintings from looking at them. There is a nice description of Morandi’s Still Life with Yellow Cloth, but what this painting is described as doing is not significantly different from what Merleau-Ponty already describes Cézanne’s still lifes as doing, such as the absence of a fixed perspective; moreover, it is unclear how this description relates to the point about the “mutual precession” of seer and seen that follows it (18). Since what Fóti is claiming about Morandi’s paintings here is much the same as what Merleau-Ponty claimed of Cézanne’s, it would have been helpful if more attention had been paid to the ways in which Morandi’s work differs from Cézanne’s and the implications of these differences for Merleau-Ponty’s thought.

Another theme that is discussed in this chapter is the place of ‘thingness’ in Morandi’s work, given his frequent depictions of commonplace objects in ways that emphasize both their materiality and what Merleau-Ponty would call their ambiguity or ‘perceptual nonresolution’. However, most of the discussion of this theme is done in relation to Heidegger and not Merleau-Ponty; while it is true that Heidegger dwells more on the nature of ‘thingness’ (i.e., the being of things qua things), it feels somewhat disjointed for the focus to switch to Heidegger so early on in a book that is meant to be primarily about Merleau-Ponty.

Chapter 2 turns to Kiki Smith, whose work is linked to Merleau-Ponty’s thought insofar as she is concerned with the body and its vulnerability, organic nature and animality, and exploring our relations to the usually invisible insides of bodies by opening them out to view. As with the chapter on Morandi, the main convergence discussed here is the intertwining of dualities; however, where the dualities that were found to be intertwined in Morandi’s work have to do with perception and with painting as an expression of vision, those in terms of which Smith’s work is discussed have to do with the overlap or blending (‘inter-being’/Ineinander) of conceptual categories such as humanity and animality, life and elemental nature, nature and cosmos, in their “ecological coexistence” (27).  This is seen in examples discussed of works in which Smith defamiliarizes not the visual appearances of objects but the themes and symbols of traditional folklore, such as her sculpture Daughter, which presents Red Riding Hood as a wolf-girl.

The connections Fóti draws between Smith and Merleau-Ponty are more tenuous than those drawn between the philosopher and Morandi in the previous chapter. There is, for example, an extended discussion of play and imagination as the transcendence of a fixed perspective on actuality (33-34), but this is not linked to Smith and instead the discussion moves from this to some remarks on her work’s relationship to ideas of beauty. Also, just how each one handles the common theme of our corporeality is not discussed in a way that adds to or informs our understanding of either. Instead, the discussion often takes the form of noting a theme in Smith’s work, describing an example or two of particular works that explore this theme, and then noting what Merleau-Ponty says about that theme. For instance, Fóti mentions that pregnancy is a recurring theme in Smith’s work and that Merleau-Ponty used the concept of pregnancy as a metaphor (29), but nothing more is made of this and it is not shown why the fact that both explored this metaphor is important: how do the ways in which they explored or employed it compare or differ, and what can this tell us about either their work or the concept itself? Similarly, Smith may have linked her concern with the body to her background in Catholicism, and Merleau-Ponty, sharing this background, may have written about the importance of the body and the idea of incarnation to Christianity (31), but—at the risk of being blunt—so what?

Without saying more to connect these themes in their work at more than a superficial level, what is meant to be a dialogue between their work and ideas fails (ironically) to intertwine the two: their work and ideas are not put into the sort of ‘inter-being’ that is found between, say, humanity and animality in Smith’s work, and instead the discussion becomes something closer to a listing of similarities that keeps these similarities side-by-side, rather than a dialogical exchange in which they are made to commingle. At the end of the chapter there is a passage suggesting how Fóti thinks Smith’s work might inform and supplement Merleau-Ponty’s ideas, where she writes that “[a]lthough Merleau-Ponty speaks of the elementality of flesh, he does not develop or concretize his understanding of elementality beyond pointing to the ancient (Presocratic) provenance of that notion,” whereas “Smith’s art allows the elements to come to presence … in their everyday and easily overlooked modalities of presencing” (41). This is the kind of point that I would like to see explored and developed further, and even given a central place in the discussion, since it points to the kind of dialogue that was promised.

Chapter 3 considers the work of Cy Twombly, focusing especially on those of his paintings that incorporate writing to explore both the visual qualities and the historical resonances of particular words, sentences, and fragments of text, which allows Fóti to bring Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of language to bear on the discussion. Fortunately, the convergences or points of connection between Twombly’s work and Merleau-Ponty’s thought are less tenuous—or at least are better explained—than those claimed in the previous two chapters. Here Fóti links the relation between image and text to the relation of materiality to ideality or meaning in order to analyze Twombly’s use of writing (and ‘quasi-writing’) in his visual art through a Merleau-Pontian lens in a way that does more than just note how something Twombly does resembles or is an example of one of the philosopher’s ideas. This gives us a way of attending to, understanding, and appreciating the art that goes beyond what is available from looking at it without this lens. Moreover, it involves Fóti making points that Merleau-Ponty did not already make himself about a different artist, as is the case with the points about Morandi in the first chapter and Merleau-Ponty’s remarks on Cézanne.

Of particular interest here is what is said concerning the ways in which the incorporation of writing in Twombly’s work exemplifies, or rather, enacts, Merleau-Ponty’s questioning in works such as “Eye and Mind” (1960) of any ontological separation between visual and verbal artforms. By bringing the visual form of written language to our attention, whether this is in the form of actual letters and words, or in the looping lines in Twombly’s ‘blackboard’ paintings that show up for us as writing-like—while remaining illegible since they are not actual writing but what Fóti calls ‘quasi-writing’—, Twombly defamiliarizes writing and introduces a multidimensional or ‘diacritical’ field of meanings and associations that go beyond mere semantic or literal meaning. This treats words and letters as figures rather than as signs, which highlights both the gestures involved in writing certain letters or words and the materiality of the sign itself, which illustrates the embodied grounds of language and expression. Additionally, Twombly’s attention to the trace left by the act of writing and his erasures, effacements, and concealments of words in his paintings, along with the deferral of meaning this produces, are informed by reading this practice in the light of Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the “invisible of the visible” (48).

Unlike the other chapters, here Fóti does explain how considering Twombly’s work in relation to Merleau-Ponty’s ideas can complicate and inform the latter’s philosophy. For example, Twombly’s questioning of the separation between the visual and the verbal lends weight to Merleau-Ponty’s suspicion of this dualism in “Eye and Mind” over his apparent endorsement of this separation, viz., his distinction between painting as (or as allowing) ‘timeless meditation’ vs. literature as tied to its historical situation in “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence” (1952). As well, Fóti considers whether Twombly’s practices of drawing in the dark and with his non-dominant hand in order to disrupt the habitual connections between hand and eye, and between painting and vision, might pose a challenge for Merleau-Ponty’s thought. She concludes that they do not, arguing that dissociating hand, eye, and mind only introduces a problem for what Merleau-Ponty calls ‘profane’ vision; however, it is not clear why drawing ‘blind’ would lead to a more genuine or ‘primordial’ kind of vision, although it does plausibly allow for an element of embodied expression, which always underlies the act of drawing or painting, to be foregrounded. While these points about the relation of Twombly’s work and Merleau-Ponty’s thought are in keeping with what was promised in the introduction, the rest of this chapter—e.g., the descriptions of Twombly’s series of paintings about the Trojan war—is far less clear as to the connections being made or their importance.

Chapters 4 and 5 consider the art of Joan Mitchell and Ellsworth Kelley, respectively. The chapter on Mitchell consists mostly of descriptions of her paintings and practices, her thoughts on her work, and biographical details. These descriptions are well-wrought and thoughtful and the details are interesting; together they work to give us a good sense of her art. Fóti explores the ways her non-figurative expressionist paintings combine disintegration and turbulence with order and balance, how her paintings explore ambiguities between figure and ground, and the tension in her practice between spontaneity and deliberation. However, not much of a link is drawn between her work and Merleau-Ponty’s ideas: Mitchell’s interest in how colours combine and interact is mentioned alongside Merleau-Ponty’s remarks in “Eye and Mind” about colour as giving us visual textures and as supporting identities and differences, but these two concerns about colour are not obviously the same and their relation is not made clear. Fóti does note that Mitchell’s relationship to colour can be compared to what Merleau-Ponty says about Cézanne’s use of colour, but just how they compare or why this is a substantial convergence between her art and his thought is again not made clear. Similarly, Fóti discusses how Mitchell seeks to capture the felt ‘essences’ of experience in abstract forms and through colour, and notes that Merleau-Ponty is critical of the traditional quest for essences in philosophy but makes room in his thought for ‘carnal’ rather than ‘pure’ essences. However, it is not clear that Mitchell and Merleau-Ponty mean the same thing by ‘essence’ here; if they do not, there is no conflict, so it is again unclear just what relation between the artworks and philosophy is being drawn.

The chapter on Kelly focuses on his plant drawings and their relation to his better-known colour field paintings, where Fóti suggests they were a step on the way from figuration to abstraction in his work. The chapter also looks at Kelly’s artistic practice in terms of the interrelation of hand, eye, and mind and the involvement of memory in perception, and discusses Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of nature and biology, although Kelly’s work ends up mainly illustrating rather than informing Merleau-Ponty’s ideas. The discussion of the plant drawings is similar to the points made about Morandi’s work, with the claim here being that these drawings disclose a ‘primordial’ vision by abstracting from the familiar appearances of ‘profane’ vision. As in the discussion of Mitchell, the notion of art’s ability to disclose the essences of things is prominent here: by concentrating on lines that capture the shapes and visual rhythms of plant life and eschewing three-dimensional representation, colour, etc., Fóti claims that Kelly’s work is able to present “the very essence of the plant” or its “genuine essentiality” (75-76). Despite the decisiveness of these claims, it is unclear why we should take Kelly’s drawings to do this rather than to foreground an aspect of the plants he draws; this seems to involve what we might call a ‘reductionist bias’, i.e., presupposing that the ‘essence’ of a phenomenon will be a pared down or simplified version of it rather than thinking that essences could be as rich—as complex, messy, and muddled—as phenomena themselves. Not only is it unclear in what sense stripping away three-dimensionality and colour, and abstracting a linear form from its background or context, presents us with “what the eye sees” (77), but this seems to be in tension with the importance Merleau-Ponty places on colour, background, and, especially, depth.

The sixth and final chapter on beauty is identified as a version of a lecture given at the 2019 meeting of the International Merleau-Ponty Circle, which makes sense of its disconnect from the first five chapters, i.e., the lack of any substantial relation to the artists discussed therein, except for a brief discussion of Kelly and passing mentions of Morandi, Smith, and Mitchell. Here Fóti’s aim is to offer a theory of beauty that rescues it from “[t]he critique and eclipse of beauty as an artistic aim and ideal” in much 20th century art and art theory (93), and she does this largely by elaborating on a remark made in one of Merleau-Ponty’s lecture courses (see Merleau-Ponty 1996), viz.: “By the disintegration of the figurative, one finds a Beauty which is sought by painting’s internal exigency, and which no longer hides pain and death, being the profound sensitivity thereto” (quoted by Fóti, 61). Her suggestion is that ‘strong beauty’ avoids the worries behind the 20th century discrediting of beauty—especially post-WWII concerns about beauty’s potential complicity with evil—because totalitarian projects are based on worldviews where everything is taken to be fully present to view and completely determinable, and because strong beauty necessarily involves acknowledging the invisible in its interrelation with the visible. In other words, the idea is that works with strong beauty cannot be (mis-)used for ideological aims because they cannot be totalized or objectified but are opaque and enigmatic, whereas an ideological appropriation and use of art cannot tolerate ambiguity.

Since strong beauty is characterized in terms of enigma and opacity is it perhaps not surprising that Fóti never quite tells us exactly what it is. We are told that strong beauty: is not merely external attractiveness but is intrinsic to a work’s meaning; is not related to pleasure but rather to feelings of intensity, is not opposed to ugliness or abjection; is a character not of objects but of events, and so is not a representation but a revelation; involves being open to the universe rather than wanting to impose one’s own vision onto it; must have an “uncompromising ethicality” (Ibid.); must refuse ‘absolutization’ by remaining enigmatic and unforeseeable, always “exceeding one’s spectrum of preformed possibilities” (99). This is all rather vague, and we might expect that examples of particular artworks that manifest strong beauty would make this clear, especially given Fóti’s concern throughout the book to illustrate her more abstract points by way of presenting detailed and concrete descriptions of works. Unfortunately, the works of art that are mentioned as examples of strong beauty—such as Chinese and Japanese calligraphy, and some of the works of Kiki Smith, Lucian Freud, Narvar Bhavsar, and Agnes Martin—are merely asserted to have this character without explaining what it is in virtue of which they have it.

There is a worry here that what Smith is describing departs from what is customarily or traditionally called ‘beauty’ to the point where by changing the definition she in effect changes the topic while continuing to use the same label. There is also a worry that building a moral component into the idea of strong beauty by requiring its ethicality is only done to make it immune from the worries about beauty’s compatibility with evil by merely asserting their incompatibility. Nevertheless, despite these worries and the vagueness of Fóti’s explication, her comments on strong beauty and the experience of our encounters with it, as well as the implications of these comments for the relation between art, morality, and politics, are worth further exploration.

Concluding Assessment

This book offers a fairly enjoyable and interesting read, but one that will be of limited use to those who are already familiar with Merleau-Ponty’s aesthetic thought and late ontology other than as a resource of examples that illustrate his ideas. Readers looking for this, however, will find the book valuable: Fóti’s close descriptions of particular artworks are eloquent and informative, and the details she provides about the lives and practices of the artists whose work she considers are intriguing and show a deep familiarity with the art-historical and critical literature. Although Fóti successfully explicates many ideas that are of central importance for Merleau-Ponty’s thought post-Phenomenology of Perception, this will mainly serve as summary for readers with their own background knowledge of Merleau-Ponty rather than adding anything new to what readers can gain by reading works such as “Eye and Mind”. (For readers seeking this, Fóti’s 2013 Tracing Expression in Merleau-Ponty is recommended.) Moreover, these ideas are explained in a way that likely will be too advanced for readers who do not already have a background in Merleau-Ponty’s thought, or in phenomenology and 20th century continental philosophy more generally, and readers who come to the book from a background in art history or art theory will need to supplement their reading in order to grasp the ideas of Merleau-Ponty’s that are presented here. Ultimately, while Fóti’s knowledge of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy and of art history are enviable, this book does not obviously make a significantly new contribution to either Merleau-Ponty scholarship or to the art-historical literature on the artists discussed, except for the first half of Chapter 3, where she analyzes Twombly’s combinations of image and writing, and Chapter 6 with its suggestions for a theory of beauty that hopefully will be clarified and developed further in future work.


Crippen, M. 2014. “Body Phenomenology, Somaesethetics and Nietzschean Themes in Medieval Art.” Pragmatism Today, vol. 5, no. 2, pp. 45-50.

Dufrenne, M. 1973. The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience. Translation by E. S. Casey. Northwestern University Press.

Fóti, V. M. 1992. Heidegger and the Poets: Poiesis, Sophia, Techne. Humanities Press.

Fóti, V. M. 1996. Merleau-Ponty: Difference, Materiality, Painting. Humanities Press.

Fóti, V. M. 2013. Tracing Expression in Merleau-Ponty: Aesthetics, Philosophy of Biology, and Ontology. Northwestern University Press.

Hacklin, S. 2012. Divergencies of Perception: The Possibilities of Merleau-Pontian Phenomenology in Analyses of Contemporary Art. PhD thesis. University of Helsinki. Retrieved from https://helda/helsinki.fi/bitstream/handle/10138/29433/divergen.pdf.

Mallin, S. B. 1996. Art Line Thought. Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Merleau-Ponty, M. 1952. “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence.” Revised translation by B. Smith. In The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader, G. A. Johnson (ed.), pp. 76-120. Northwestern University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M. 1960. “Eye and Mind.” Revised translation by M. B. Smith. In The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader, G. A. Johnson (ed.), pp. 121-149. Northwestern University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M. 1996. Notes de cours, 1959–1961. Edited by Stéphanie Ménasé. Gallimard.

Günther Anders: Schriften zu Kunst und Film, C.H.Beck, 2020

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Hardback 58,00 €

Matthew Sharpe, Maciej Kałuża, Peter Francev (Eds.): Brill’s Companion to Camus: Camus among the Philosophers, Brill, 2020

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Hardback €150.00 $180.00

Phillip Zarrilli: (Toward) a Phenomenology of Acting, Routledge, 2019

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Paperback £26.39
304 pages | 51 B/W Illus.

Richard Westerman: Lukács’s Phenomenology of Capitalism: Reification Revalued

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Political Philosophy and Public Purpose
Richard Westerman
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Hardback 80,24 €
XVII, 308

Reviewed by: Clémence Saintemarie
(University College Dublin)

By offering a reinterpretation of the Hungarian Marxist philosopher’s 1922 essays ‘What is Orthodox Marxism?’, ‘Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat’, and ‘Towards A Methodology of the Problem of Organization’, Richard Westerman’s first monograph sheds a welcome new light on György Lukács’s theory of reification in History and Class Consciousness. While Lukács’s ‘Reification’ essay characterizes reification as the distinct and totalizing form of alienation in modern and post-modern capitalist societies, in a close reading of Karl Marx’s theory of class consciousness, alienation, reification, and commodity fetishism, and through G.W.F. Hegel’s dialectical understanding of history, Westerman’s monograph stands out for exploring, and stressing the importance of, the under-acknowledged and multifarious influences of Lukács’s aesthetic manuscripts at Heidelberg (1912-1918), in the years leading to the redaction of his first explicitly Marxist opus. Among these influences, the reader gains deeper insight about and discovers Lukács’s early project of a phenomenological aesthetics and his engagement with the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl’s Logical Investigations via the neo-kantian formalist aesthetics of Emil Lask, the art history of Alois Riegl and Konrad Fiedler, not to mention Lukács’s uptake of the social theories of his mentors: Georg Simmel and Max Weber.

Westerman proceeds by way of a phenomenological reappraisal of reification and a historicization of Lukács’s understanding of the proletariat’s role, and indeed its failure, as the supposedly preeminent revolutionary agent for the overcoming of capitalist social reality. His addition to the scholarship on Lukács is timely since 2019 marks the centenary of the unsuccessful German Spartacist and Hungarian revolutions that took place in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution and the end of the First World War in 1918, both of which motivated his reflections in History and Class Consciousness. Most urgently, ours is a political and social context that witnesses the resurgence of fascism and authoritarianism in its populist guises in the US, Europe and Brazil; not least, it is Westerman’s contention, as well as that of many Marxian thinkers, due to the 2008 economic and financial crisis, which has undermined trust in the (neo)liberal policies pursued by Democrats and Conservatives, Tories and New Labor, alike. Chapters 5 and 6 specifically address the relevance of Lukács for these contemporary issues. Therefore Westerman’s original and minute reconstruction of the impact of Lukács’s Heidelberg philosophical aesthetics on his critique of capitalism contributes to, and supplements, the renewed contemporary interest in Lukács before and since 2008, from Frederic Jameson to Andrew Feenberg and regretted Mark Fischer. The relevance of, and contemporary engagement with, Lukács is furthermore manifested in recent or forthcoming conferences dedicated to his legacy: one held by Historical Materialism in June 2019, and an upcoming conference in Paris, in November 2019.

Beyond the fact that it comprises a welcome reappraisal of the philosophy of history and proletarian revolutionary consciousness developed in the ‘Reification’ essay, the originality and value of Westerman’s monograph lie in its meticulous historical and philosophical reconstitution of the influence of Lukács’s Heidelberg aesthetic manuscripts on his phenomenology of reification. The famously influential essay from History and Class Consciousness characterizes reification as the transformation, typical of the bourgeois capitalist model of production and exchange, of human and social features, actions and relations into independent and autonomous thing-like entities abstracted from their human and social origin, rationalized into their quantifiable exchange value. It is the aim of Westerman’s reinterpretation that reification is the very fact and mode of social and personal experience in capitalism, rather than an ideological camera obscura obfuscating an underlying social reality that would be truer or more authentic to it. Referring to the Werke and using his own translation of the ‘Reification’ essay and Heidelberg manuscripts, Westerman reformulates Lukács’s key concepts of social totality, reification, class consciousness, the proletariat, and the party. This allows him to convincingly respond to Lukács’s detractors and critics in the Marxist, Marxian and Critical Theoretical tradition via, by his own admission, more or less successful parallels and speculations drawn from his close reading and exegesis of Lukács’s Heidelberg years.

Within 300 pages, Westerman takes his readers on a journey that brings us back to Lukács’s aesthetic works at Heidelberg from 1912 until 1918 and his conversion to Bolshevism. As soon as the preface and the introductory first chapter, Westerman frames the terms of the ‘Lukács Debate’ in Critical Theory and lays out the main criticisms and misunderstanding of Lukács that his monograph aims at dispelling or nuancing, namely: the suspicion of neo-romantic anti-capitalism that allegedly permeates his earlier work and informs his concept of labor and the proletariat as mythical agents of historical development; his philosophy of reification which would relaunch a Fichtean philosophy of freedom and its bourgeois antinomy of the subject and object; last but not least, a theory of social totality and a theory of the party, qua the instance of representation of proletarian interests, which would lend itself to the accusation of Stalinism and totalitarianism.

The book comprises three parts, which progress from the precise and detailed historical presentation of Lukács’s works around those years and justifies the genealogical weight of his phenomenological aesthetics on the 1922 essays of History and Class Consciousness (chapters 2 and 3). The second part proposes a ‘phenomenology of capitalism’ from the ‘Forms of Social Reality’ (chapter 4), in which reified subjectivity is described as a ‘split consciousness’, and which poses the problem of the proletariat’s ‘interpellation’ as a subject and its historical agency (chapter 5), while requiring the re-evaluation of its self-understanding as a class and the party as its organizational form (chapter 6). The third and final part seeks to highlight the influence and relevance of a phenomenological reading of Lukács beyond the implications, for proletarian revolution, of the ‘Reification’ essay.

Part I takes us on ‘The Road to Reification’, offering an intellectual history of Lukács’s development at Heidelberg as well as a justification of Westerman’s phenomenological reading of History and Class Consciousness in Lukács’s own terms. Lukács’s aesthetics, Westerman tells us, was concerned with the artwork as a subject-independent and self-enclosed meaningful totality. In his Phänomenologische Skizze des schöpferischen und receptiven Verhaltens, or ‘Phenomenological Sketch of Creative and Receptive Attitudes,’ Lukács philosophically systematized the non-representational and depersonalized theories of Fiedler and Riegl through a neo-Kantian reading of Husserl’s concept of intentionality that was emulated by his friend and mentor Emil Lask.

Chapter 2 deals specifically with Lukács’s neo-Kantian and phenomenological systematization of Fiedler and Riegl towards his own theory of the autonomy of Art. Supplementing Fiedler with Riegl, the artwork is a non-representational social activity giving form and meaning to the shapeless and incoherent sensory reality of one socio-historical epoch’s relation to its environment. The artwork thus produces its own reality rather than representing and referring to an objective external world. In Lukács’s reading of Riegl’s art history, the meaningful coherence of the artwork is neither provided by the creator or the receiver’s external point of view, but from a depersonalized, non-psychological standpoint that is incorporated into the work’s formal organization, and which produces the disinterested aesthetic experience we have of it.

According to Westerman, Lukács supports this artwork-centered account of aesthetic experience with a phenomenological aesthetics largely influenced by Lask and his neo-Kantian reading of Husserl’s Logical Investigations and Ideas. Lask’s interest in Husserlian intentionality focused on the intended object, or noema, rather than the noesis, the subjective pole of mental acts. In his and Lukács’s idiosyncratic reading of Husserl, it is intentionality as sense-bestowing, and the meaning of the noema detached from any thesis of existence or reference to an external reality, which matters. Following the Logical Investigations, intendings are described and analyzed in their semantic and logical structure, and the meaning-validity of artworks stems from their own internal formal-semantic logic and the cohesive relations of parts and whole; not from their representational consistency with an external reality, nor from the universal validity-form of aesthetic judgments.

It is worth-noting that this noematic reading of Husserl does not eliminate the subject altogether, but gives it a minor and auxiliary role in the constitution of the artwork and in aesthetic experience. Having recourse to Husserl in Heidelberg and in the ‘Reification’ essay, Lukács also seeks to overcome the antinomic separations of form and content and of subject and object: artworks are a case in point where the formal meaning of the whole cannot be entirely detached from its parts and where the artwork’s inner formal standpoint invites the subject in its sphere of meaning. Because of this, Lukács argues that, grasped from this standpoint, not only artworks achieve utopian perfection, but they also offer a unique instance where subject and object are brought together. The artwork is thus not fully autonomous. Furthermore, by striving to account for artwork’s intrinsic meaningfulness, Lukács moves away from a subjective and neo-romantic conception of the artist as a genial creator and the main source of the artwork’s meaning.

Granted that Lukács’s theory of the autonomy of Art is at odds with his later historicization of artworks within socio-historical wholes, Westerman contends that Heidelberg manuscripts are concerned with aesthetic experience and the logical possibility of subject-independent artworks that are not entirely incompatible with socio-historical interpretations. Rather, they prefigure and form the basis of Lukács’s analysis of social relations and of social being as a realm unto itself, analogous to art insofar as it, too, is governed by its own immanent logic and types of subject-object relation. Furthermore, Lukács’s conception of the ‘artwork as totality’ does not exclude its being part of a larger whole. Totality and reality are here synonymous with one another and with logically valid coherent wholes which posit their own meaning, rather than with an all-including totality. Last but not least, reification operates precisely against the unity of form and content, and of subject and object, reducing particular, and thusly deemed irrational contents, to the rationalized form of the commodity.

Westerman convincingly shows how the Heidelberg drafts contextualize Lukács’s Marxist essays. To the extent that, in the former, Lukács progressively realizes the impossibility of the total autonomy and isolation of Art such that it could actualize its promise of utopian perfection, as a fully self-enclosed meaningful totality, the latter turns to practical social change in the aftermath of the 1919 revolutions. Chapter 3 expounds Lukács’s return to the 1912-1918 manuscripts in the three 1922 essays of History and Class Consciousness, which further justifies Westerman’s reappraisal of Lukács’s social theory and his concepts of social totality, (class) consciousness, and organization, in light of his Heidelberg phenomenological aesthetics.

Chapter 3 traces the intellectual and political evolution of Lukács from Heidelberg and his conversion to Bolshevism, in 1918, to 1923 and the publication of History and Class Consciousness. Lukács’s turn to Bolshevism is described as a leap-of-faith that can be explained by his earlier romantic anti-capitalism, as well as the critique, common among the intelligentsia, of modernity and bourgeois capitalist values. Westerman focuses on the Heidelberg drafts to locate the philosophical origin of this conversion, marked by a messianic eschatology inspired by Kierkegaard and his work on Dostoevsky (see chapter 5).

Most note-worthy, 1922 marks a significant return to Heidelberg as Lukács tries to explain why the proletariat did not join in the 1919 revolutions, and how a revolutionary consciousness can nonetheless arise in the future to overthrow capitalist domination. Here, consciousness does not amount to epistemological knowledge, but to a meaningfully structured realm of being. Fundamental to achieving this definition, notwithstanding his phenomenology of reification, is his critique of the antinomy of subject and object in bourgeois society. If subject-object relations define society as a totality, and if reification—as the single explanatory principle of capitalism—turns human activity into objects independent of it, not only does capitalist reality appear as fragmented, but consciousness itself is reified.

Reification is thus a total social phenomenon, extending beyond the economy to all social institutions and relations, which reduce subjects to an abstract universal form, and isolate them as passive spectators, granting them only limited participation in society. Philosophically, Lukács identifies the roots of the problem in German Idealism, which starts with the subject constituting the world around it and assumes its separation from the object from the outset, a separation in which the subject is isolated from the object and can only retrieve it by subsuming it under abstract universal categories, without remainder. For Lukács, however, the proletarian standpoint eschews this a priori separation: its situation in social totality and reality is not isolated and it can come together to change society by changing social relations and practices. Proletarian consciousness is not simply the ‘true’ or ‘false’ epistemological standpoint on its real social situation in the system of production: it is meaningful and appropriate, be it true or false, in relation to the reality of this coherent and self-validating social system.

Epistemological inaccuracy and ‘false consciousness’, therefore, are not primary to causally explaining the lack of proletarian participation in the 1919 revolutions. Consciousness is first and foremost a social activity, and the form of that activity depends on the organization of its practices, which only partially depend on a more or less accurate knowledge and understanding of capitalism. In Lukács’s view, the ‘Party’ is one such organization of proletarian social practices and one possible source of epistemological correction (see chapter 6). ‘Consciousness’ is used to describe society’s own immanent structure: reification is a structure of consciousness since capitalism’s total structuration of society produces the structure of consciousness. It follows that consciousness is reified and the subject is defined as a reified subject in terms of the structure of consciousness, which governs its orientation and relation to objects.

The second part proposes a ‘phenomenology of capitalism’ building on and refining the dense conceptual apparatus revisited in part I. Taking the later Lukács’s self-critique at face-value, Westerman repudiates the charges that Lukács’s ‘Reification’ essay upholds the proletariat as the transhistorical and preeminent agent of social change, able to overcome capitalism from without thanks to the free exercise of its subjective will.

Chapter 4 focuses on the ‘Forms of Social Reality’, which, on the contrary, locate the proletarian standpoint within the social totality, as immanent to it. Freely borrowing from Martin Heidegger’s terminology, Westerman identifies three levels at which, for Lukács, reification operates: phenomenological, ontic and ontological. Phenomenologically, the structure of consciousness mirrors that of the commodity: the latter divorces the object’s exchange-value from its origin in labor and its practical value; the former is a ‘split intentionality’ in which the forms of social reality are divorced from their content. The problem of capitalism lies not only in commodity fetishism’s reification of human labor but also in the reification of consciousness, and therefore of social reality as a whole. Ontically, the reified forms of social reality, determined by the relative value of commodities, separate the social existence of the subject, and its product’s, from its material existence. Since the commodity form governs social reality, holding together heterogeneous social elements only in formal rational and quantitative relations, the working subjects, and any social relations not subsumed under the commodity form, are excluded from this rational formal system.

Ontologically then, reification is the single organizing principle of the total social reality, it does not mask the social reality productive activity, it is its very form: commodity becomes the only imaginable form of being and reification the only imaginable coherently integrated whole, the only possible reality. Like the work of art, social reality is a totality organized by a standpoint, in this case: the ‘split intentionality’ of the proletariat; i.e., the self-enclosed social totality needs the rationalized labor of the proletariat for the production of commodities which in turn demand the exclusion of its personal, irrational, subjective, and practical input and needs. Social reality is made in the image of the commodity.

The immanence of the split standpoint to social reality crucially informs Lukács’s theory of inertia and social change, and chapter 5 poses the problem of the proletariat’s historical agency within this reified totality. Westerman responds to the skepticism of Critical Theorists Adorno and Horkheimer—who undermined Lukács’s alleged faith in the self-liberating action of the proletariat in the face its passivity towards Nazism and his totalitarian embrace of the Stalinist Communist Party—by reformulating his theory of subjectivity, the party, and history. First and foremost, Westerman dispels the accusation of ‘Fichteanism’, according to which social reality would be at once the projection, and what is overcome, by the proletariat as an omnipotent subject. Revisiting Lask and Lukács’s reading of the later Fichte, he aptly demonstrates that neither of them thinks of the subject outside of its relationship with particular objects, themselves recalcitrant to the superimposition of a universalizing category, be it labor.

In fact, Lukács expresses little concern with labor, and his analysis of the subject-object relationship is once again formal and informed by his reading of Husserl’s phenomenology at Heidelberg: if stances have both an objective and subjective pole, subject and object were never separated in the first place; rather, the formal structure of the objects organizes the type of stances that can be had on them and, in turn, various stances produce different noema. It follows that the relationship of the two poles depends neither on the knowledge of the object, nor on their intrinsic properties. Lukács’s subject is thus primordially relational and the standpoint in relation to which parts of the object are disclosed. In the same way that the formal structure (size, details…) of an artwork requires that the subject adopts an adequate standpoint towards it (taking a closer look, stepping back to embrace the whole…), the subject is interpellated by the forms of social reality.

Westerman’s description of this ‘interpellation of the subject’, a term controversially borrowed from Louis Althusser – a fervent opponent of Lukács, refers to the intentional attitudes that the subject is summoned to adopt by the formal structure of social reality, the commodity structure, if, as the organizing standpoint of that totality, social reality is to function as a valid, meaningful and coherent whole. Yet, if the ‘janus face’ of the commodity (i.e. its irrational and private use value versus its rational and public exchange value) produces the ‘split consciousness’ of the proletariat, such formal interpellation of the subject can misfire, and meet contradiction and dissatisfaction.

It is from this formal contradiction and fracture that the proletariat’s self-consciousness and self-awareness as an agent of social change arise, and not from the contradiction of antagonist class interests. Agency is thus thinkable as ‘a structural component of social forms’. This eventually leads Westerman to discuss Lukács’s theory of the party as a bottom up, inclusive social form which, against the commodity principle’s warranting of the internal cohesion of capitalist social reality, purports to dissolve the ‘split intentionality’ by producing an external cohesion, one which does not exclude the ‘irrational’, ‘personal’ or ‘subjective’ of social being. The party is thus not deemed exogenous to the proletariat, instructing it or commending its strategic actions from without. Westerman stresses that Lukács indeed warns against the bureaucratic or strategic tendencies of instances, such as the party, which focus on expertise and organization at the cost of the exclusion and consequent passivity of the proletariat. In this light, he offers a rapid but incisive explanatory comment on the defeat of the Democratic Party in the 2016 US elections.

Nonetheless, neither the proletariat’s contradicted position, nor its achievement of self-consciousness in its formal and practical organization as a party, provides the moral or historical grounds on which reification or capitalism should be overthrown. Westerman illuminates Kierkegaard’s influence on Lukács’s response, further highlighting the fact that the revolutionary situation opens unexpected future possibilities which compels revolutionary subjects to take responsibility for them. The necessity of a decision stems from the social configuration of the revolutionary moment, but also from the formal requirement, for the organizing standpoint, to transform it, in order to maintain a continuous meaningful, coherent social whole. Lukács’s philosophy of historical agency is thus attuned to the moment and accommodates the fluidity and plasticity of social norms that may command historical decisions towards emancipatory change. At the same time, he maintains that change is demanded and triggered by the formal requirement for a self-validating meaningful whole.

While Westerman does not find Lukács’s appeal to the above-outlined ‘imperatives of history’ convincing, these normative demands are further evaluated, in chapter 6, in terms of the concrete identity and self-understanding of the proletariat as a class and collective subjectivity; and in terms of the party as its shared consciousness and collective identity. The core normative issue of Lukács, hence perhaps his insistence on art and social reality having to be meaningful self-validating coherent wholes on their own terms, is the meaninglessness of experience under capitalism. Turning to Lukács’s view of the individual consciousness which, like the Husserlian Ego, transcends the momentary acts of consciousness in the temporal continuity of retentions (past), just now (present) and protensions (future), meaningfulness is approached from a personal perspective rather than that of a depersonalized standpoint. Personal experience is reified to the extent that it is divided in fragmented and discrete, isolated experiences. The structure of experience thus mirrors the fragmented reality of capitalism. The experiential alienation, in which the seamless temporal continuity of the Ego’s experience is divided and split, is crucially manifest in the rationalization of labor, where time itself is a measurable and monetizable standard.

Westerman thus re-introduces Lukács’s theory of the subject-object relationship from the individual’s perspective to make sense of the experience of alienation implicated by reification. The very cracks and fractures of individual identity induced by reification would be, still following Lukács, the site wherin reification as a structure itself starts to crack. However, if this important take is consistent with Lukács’s definition of consciousness as social reality, it appears less plausible, when scrutinizing individual consciousnesses. The fracture and disconnection experienced in wide-spread and all-too-common workplace depressions, burn-outs, bore-outs, or suicides, while they can certainly be construed as indirect and passive forms of sabotage of current productivism, hardly produce the impetus for strikes, or any potent forms of collective actions against it.

This is why Westerman reassesses the necessity, for Lukács, that individual discontent take shape in the ‘party’, neither as a formal requirement for organizational form, nor, with critical comparisons to Rosa Luxemburg’s ‘revolutionary spontaneity of masses’, as an organic process. Westerman reasserts that the party, contra the Marxist-Leninist ‘vanguard’, is not the extraneous cause of class consciousness but is that very consciousness, i.e. the collective manifestation, in practice and everyday experience, of “the situation and position of the proletariat” (226). The party is class consciousness to the extent that it is self-organization without representation, thus eschewing over-optimist reliance on the spontaneity of the masses.

One the most important lessons, drawn by Westerman, is that class, as a group identity, is fluid and open to revision. Moreover, thus reinterpreted, Lukács’s theory can and should encompass collective struggles intersecting class identity and other social forms that he over-looked—like gender, race, and religion—in his quest for a single governing principle of capitalism as a social totality. For this purpose, the third and final part of Westerman’s monograph seeks to highlight the influence and relevance of a phenomenological reading of Lukács beyond the ‘Reification’ essay and proletarian revolution.

Responding to Lukács’s critics within and outside Marxism and Critical Theory, chapter 7 reconsiders Lukács’s alleged neo-romantic divide between the social and the natural, and social and extra-social realities. The problem of the subject-object relationship is brought to its climax, in an analysis which spans Lukács’s entire oeuvre. In dialogue with Andrew Feenberg, Westerman contrasts History and Class Consciousness with The Ontology of Social Being, in which the category of labor is critically used against capitalist, and, incidentally, early Marxist tendencies, to see nature as an exploitable resource. Thus, the domination and exploitation of nature is problematized, not in line with a romantic and ‘Rousseauist’ celebration of its difference to social reality, but as one shaped by labor in its alienated and reified as well as reifying guise. This significantly echoes motifs in Husserl’s Crisis of the European Sciences, but also Heidegger’s critique of the techno-scientific Gestell in The Question Concerning Technology. In turn, Lukács is also concerned with how social phenomena are legitimized and reified as ‘natural’. Finally, and in agreement with Feenberg, Westerman accepts Lukács’s ‘consciousness’ as a conceptual avatar of ‘culture’ or ‘nurture’, that is not antinomic with ‘nature’, but, as in Art, stands in a non-coercive relation to it.’

In Chapter 8, Westerman concludes with self-critical remarks on his reassessment of Lukács’s fluid social and phenomenological categories and stresses the value of these revisited concepts for a better understanding of our postmodernist and late-capitalist condition. As for the latter, he gives credence to Jameson’s critical analysis of postmodernism in art and is consistent in his Lukácsian understanding of Postmodernism not only as the Kunstwollen of late capitalism, but also as one consistent with the vagueness of our social reality’s signifiers. Correspondingly, he provides further grounds for his interpretative recourse to, and focus on, the Heidelberg drafts—over and against a Hegelian or Marxian re-reading—for his revaluation of Lukács’s reification. Most importantly, he enthusiastically argues for the complementariness of Lukács’s social theory for political and social theorists and phenomenologists working with the important insights of Alfred Schütz, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, particularly as far as the study of habituation and the sedimentation of social meanings are concerned.

One should not shy away from characterizing Westerman’s monograph as a remarkable historical demonstration of and phenomenological reinterpretation of Lukács. His monograph displays the author’s sensitivity to the practice of closely reading Lukács’s texts and Critical Theoretical debates in their contexts of production and reception. Nonetheless, his pedagogical and scholarly attention to a progressive and methodological reinterpretation of Lukács’s 1922 Marxist essays—through the lens of his aesthetics—addresses audiences beyond the tradition of Critical Theory: from scholars with an interest in the complicated but complementary dialogue between phenomenology and Critical Theory, to anyone interested in the historical and philosophical relationship between aesthetics and politics, art theory and social theory.

Phenomenologists will find the progressive elaboration of Lukács’s engagement with Husserl—through an idiosyncratic neo-Kantian lens—particularly interesting, as well as its impact on the former’s theory of the artwork as a self-enclosed totality different but comparable to the self-enclosed and rational totality of capitalism. Moreover, phenomenologists and Critical Theorists alike should take heed in Westerman’s invitation to combine the insight of Lukács’s social theory with the social phenomenology of Schütz, Berger, and Luckmann.

Notwithstanding the virtuosity of Westerman’s reconstruction of Lukács’s phenomenological aesthetics and his novel approach to Lukács’s theory of reification, this monograph is also an invitation to relaunch a phenomenological inquiry into social alienation. It allows us to see phenomenology’s potential for understanding our contemporary situation, alongside, why not, contemporary Critical Theory.

Paul Crowther: What Drawing and Painting Really Mean, Routledge, 2019

What Drawing and Painting Really Mean: The Phenomenology of Image and Gesture Book Cover What Drawing and Painting Really Mean: The Phenomenology of Image and Gesture
Paul Crowther
Hardback £115.00
168, 8 Color Illus.

Andrew J. Mitchell: Heidegger unter Bildhauern. Körper, Raum und die Kunst des Wohnens

Heidegger unter Bildhauern. Körper, Raum und die Kunst des Wohnens Book Cover Heidegger unter Bildhauern. Körper, Raum und die Kunst des Wohnens
Heidegger Forum 15
Andrew J. Mitchell. Aus dem Englischen von Peter Trawny
Paperback 24,80 €

Reviewed by: Giovanna Caruso (University of Koblenz-Landau)

Die Rolle des Raumes, der bislang in Heideggers Denken neben jener der Zeit bzw. der Zeitlichkeit kaum wahrgenommen wurde, ist in den letzten Jahren immer häufiger in den Fokus der Forschung gerückt worden. Es wird dabei betont, dass vor allem die kleinen Schriften über die Kunst, die im Laufe der 1960er Jahre anlässlich von Heideggers Begegnung mit einigen zeitgenössischen Künstlern entstanden sind, von einem starken Interesse Heideggers am Phänomen des Raumes zeugen. Denn diesen Texten lässt sich eine Raumauffassung entnehmen, die im Vergleich zur Räumlichkeit des Daseins in Sein und Zeit oder auch zur Konzeption des Raumes als Wohnen in den 1940er und 1950er Jahren neue Verhältnisse zwischen Raum und Zeit, Raum und Dasein, Raum und Körper und nicht zuletzt zwischen Raum und Welt entstehen lässt. In diesem Forschungskontext, der der Spur des späten Heidegger auf der Suche nach seiner revidierten Raumauffassung folgt, verortet sich auch Andrew J. Mitchells Heidegger unter Bildhauern. Körper, Raum und die Kunst des Wohnens. Wie der Titel bereits verrät, stellt Mitchell Heideggers Konzeption des Raumes in seinem Verhältnis zum Körper und zur Kunst – insbesondere zur plastischen Kunst – dar. Zu diesem Zweck untersucht und interpretiert er in Anlehnung an Heideggers Denken die Werke der Bildhauer Ernst Barlach, Bernhard Heiliger und Eduardo Chillida, denen er jeweils ein Kapitel widmet.

Der erste Satz des Buches fasst implizit seinen Ausgangspunkt und sein Ziel zusammen: „Die Bildhauerei lehrt uns, was es heißt, in der Welt zu sein.“ (9) Eine fragwürdige, sehr allgemeine und sogar tendenziöse Annahme – könnte man denken. Auch die Erklärung, die der Autor kurz darauf vorschlägt – „In dieser Welt zu sein heißt stets, einen materiellen Raum von Strahlung zu betreten.“ (9) –, bleibt erklärungsbedürftig. Wenn man aber die Ungenauigkeit dieser Annahme vorläufig akzeptiert und sich von ihr durch den Text leiten lässt, wird im Laufe der Lektüre verständlich, dass dieser vermeintlich unverständliche Ansatz das Programm des gesamten Werkes Mitchells zum Ausdruck bringt. Denn dem Schlüsselbegriff ‚Grenze‘ folgend, will der Autor in seinem Buch zeigen, dass Heidegger durch eine Auseinandersetzung mit der Bildhauerei eine Raumkonzeption entwickelt, auf Basis derer der Unterschied zwischen Raum und Kunst aufgehoben wird. Mitchell zeigt darüber hinaus, dass, indem Raum zur Kunst und Kunst zum Raum wird, Heidegger ein neues Verständnis des Verhältnisses des Daseins zu seinem Wohnend-Sein bzw. zu seinem In-der-Welt-Sein entwirft.

Um die Entwicklung und zugleich die Ergebnisse der Heideggerschen Auseinandersetzung mit dem Raum-Begriff von den 1920er bis zu den 1960er Jahren darstellen zu können, gliedert Mitchell sein Werk in fünf chronologisch aufeinanderfolgende Teile. Auf eine lange Einleitung, die von Sein und Zeit (1927) über die Kunstwerksabhandlung (1935) bis zu den späten 1960er Jahren durch die bedeutendsten Etappen das Verhältnis von Dasein, Kunst und Raum im Denken Heideggers rekonstruiert, folgen drei aufeinander aufbauende Kapiteln, die die Zusammenhänge zwischen dem Denken Heideggers und der Kunst Ernst Barlachs (1.Kapitel), Bernhard Heiligers (2. Kapitel) und Eduardo Chillidas (4. Kapitel) untersuchen. Das dritte Kapitel hingegen ist einen Exkurs über Heideggers Vortrag Die Herkunft der Kunst und die Bestimmung des Denkens. Eine Darstellung dieser Abschnitte wird im Folgenden jene Aspekte fokussieren, die Mitchel zufolge für die Entwicklung des Denkens Heideggers in Bezug auf das Verhältnis von Raum, Kunst und Mensch eine besonders wichtige Rolle spielen.

Statt den Leser in das Thema des Buches einzuführen oder einen systematischen bzw. historischen Hintergrund zur Orientierung zu umreißen, versetzt die Einleitung ihn sofort ins Zentrum der Betrachtung. Durch eine Sprache, die deutlich eine starke Beeinflussung durch Heideggers Stil erkennen lässt, gewinnt der Leser einen unmittelbaren Zugang zur Thematik des Werkes: das neue Verhältnis von Körper und Raum, das sich deutlich in den Vorträgen und kleineren Schriften Heideggers der 1960er Jahre zeigt. Schon die ersten Seiten des Werkes entwerfen eine innovative Interpretation der Entwicklung der Raumauffassung im Denken Heideggers. Denn Mitchell stellt keinen Bruch zwischen der Raumauffassung von Sein und Zeit und jener der späten 1960er Jahre fest. Er vertritt vielmehr eine Kontinuitätsthese: Die in den 1960er Jahren von Heidegger entwickelte Auffassung des Raumes und seines Verhältnisses zum Körper „schreitet“ laut Mitchell „auf einem Denkweg durch Sein und Zeit zur Abhandlung über ‚den Ursprung des Kunstwerks‘“. (10) Damit bestreitet Mitchell jedoch nicht, dass sich die Raumkonzeption Heideggers im Laufe seines Denkens deutlich verändert hat. Er plädiert aber für die These, dass Heideggers Werke der 1920er und 1930er Jahre den Kern seiner späteren Raumauffassung bereits in sich tragen. Eben diese kontinuierliche Entwicklung des Heideggerschen Raumverständnisses wird von Mitchell in der Einleitung auf kurze und prägnante Weise dargestellt. Er zeigt zuerst, dass die Auffassung des Raumes in Sein und Zeit Grenzen aufweist, die seiner Analyse zufolge dadurch entstehen, dass Heidegger die Räumlichkeit des Daseins „vom daseinsmäßigen Nutzen des Zeugs (des ‚Zuhandenen‘) her“ (13) denkt. (Vgl. 11–17) Aufgrund dessen bleibe der Raum in Sein und Zeit ausschließlich ein funktionaler Raum, dessen Existenz vom handelnden Menschen abhängig ist. (Vgl. 17) In einem zweiten Schritt zeigt Mitchell, wie Heidegger die Auffassung eines funktionalen Raumes überwindet und im Kunstwerksaufsatz eine Konzeption entwickelt, die auf einem vom Dasein unabhängigen Raum basiert. (Vgl. 17-24) Diese neue Idee eines autonomen, „anti-utilitaristischen“ (21) Raumes wird Mitchell zufolge im Kunstwerksaufsatz im Schlüsselbegriff ‚Erde‘ expliziert: „Erde nennt eine exzessive und abgründige Phänomenalität, eine Erscheinung, die auf keiner unterliegenden Substanz beruht.“ (19) Auf dieser veränderten Auffassung des Raumes, die nun von Heidegger als Erscheinung bzw. als Lichtung der Wahrheit (vgl. 21) verstanden wird, basieren Mitchell zufolge die Veränderungen in Bezug auf das Verhältnis von Körper und Raum, die sich in Heideggers Denken in den 1960er Jahren anlässlich seiner Auseinandersetzung mit den Plastiken verschiedener Künstler äußern.

Vor dem Hintergrund der dargestellten Entwicklung untersucht Mitchell im ersten Kapitel seines Buches (vgl. 31-48) den Zusammenhang zwischen dem Spätdenken Heideggers und der Kunst Ernst Barlachs. Der Begriff der Seinsverlassenheit bildet dem Autor zufolge das Bindeglied zwischen Heideggers Denken und Barlachs Kunstwerken. In diesem Zusammenhang deutet Mitchell Verlassenheit als „Weg, Sein als weder völlig präsent (es hat Seiendes verlassen) noch als völlig absent zu verstehen“ (33) und somit das Seiende als „etwas Offenes, das in die Welt ausgeschüttet ist“, (34) zu erfahren. Die stark metaphorischen, fast poetischen Züge der Sprache Mitchells beeinträchtigen bisweilen ein systematisches, eindeutiges Verständnis des Textes. Dennoch lässt sich Mitchells Interpretation der Werke Barlachs in Bezug auf Heideggers Denken erkennen: Indem die formlosen Körper-Skulpturen Barlachs ein Seiendes ohne bestimmte Grenze bzw. ein offenes, nicht abgeschlossenes Objekt verkörpern, stellen sie laut Mitchell die Spannung zwischen Präsenz und Absenz dar, die der Seinsverlassenheit eigen ist, und werden somit als Ausdruck der „Unbestimmtheit des irdischen Lebens“ (43) gedeutet. Außerdem betont Mitchell, dass eine implizite Kritik an der Welt der Technik und am Formideal des Nationalsozialismus als deren Konsequenz vorgenommen wird: „Barlachs Skulpturen sind mehr geformt als jeder Nazi-Körper es sein könnte, gerade durch ihre Weigerung, Form zu verdinglichen oder zu kristallisieren und sie von ihren sie ermöglichenden Bedingungen abzuziehen.“ (47)

Dieses Verhältnis von Raum und Körper, das die formlosen, offenen Skulpturen Barlachs bereits implizit thematisieren, wird zum Hauptthema in Heideggers Rede Bemerkungen zu Kunst-Plastik-Raum, die er 1964 anlässlich seiner Auseinandersetzung mit den Kunstwerken Bernhard Heiligers gehalten hat. Auf Basis dieses Textes zeigt Mitchell im zweiten Kapitel seines Buches (vgl. 49–72), dass Heidegger das Verhältnis von Kunst und Raum eindringlich untersucht, dass er grundlegende Fragen über die Möglichkeit einer Auseinandersetzung mit dem Raum für den Künstler aufwirft und dass dabei auch das Verhältnis von Körper und Raum zunehmend an Bedeutung gewinnt. Bei dem Versuch, dieses Geflecht von Verhältnissen, Bezügen, Verweisen und Zusammenhängen zwischen Kunst, Raum und Körper zu entwirren, entwirft Heidegger laut Mitchell eine neue Auffassung des Raumes, die dazu zwingt, auch seinen Bezug zur Kunst und zum Dasein neu zu denken. Gegen die klassische Raumauffassung, die die Definition des Raumes mit den Körpern verbindet, zeigt Mitchell, dass Heidegger den Raum vom Raum und nicht vom Körper her denkt. Auf dieser Weise definiert Heidegger den Raum als Räumen. Dies ermöglicht, „Raum nicht länger abstrakt und homogen, sondern selbst schon sich versammelnd und furchend und ausstreckend und zurückschnappend in Gebiete, Fernen, Richtungen und Schranken“ (58) zu denken. Diese neue Raumauffassung fordert, dass auch das Verhältnis von Dasein und räumendem Raum vom Raum her gedacht wird – und nicht mehr wie in Sein und Zeit vom Dasein her. Aus dieser Perspektive neu gedacht, lässt sich Mitchell zufolge das Verhältnis von Dasein und Raum als ein sich gegenseitiges Durchdringen und Prägen verdeutlichen. (Vgl. 60) Entsprechend heißt In-der-Welt-Sein, dass das Dasein durch die Welt geprägt ist und dass sich die Welt konsequenterweise, wenn auch verdeckt, in jedem Dasein zeigt. Eben dieses unsichtbare Verhältnis des Menschen zur Welt und zugleich die unsichtbare Präsenz der Welt in jedem Menschen werden laut Mitchell von Heidegger in Heiligers Kopf-Werken zum Ausdruck gebracht: „Wenn der Künstler einen Kopf modelliert, so scheint er nur die sichtbaren Oberflächen nachzubilden; in Wahrheit bildet er das eigentlich Unsichtbare, nämlich die Weise, wie dieser Kopf in die Welt blickt, wie er im Offenen des Raumes sich aufhält, darin von Menschen und Dingen angegangen wird.“ (61) In diesem Verhältnis von Welt und Mensch kommt den Begriffen des Zwischen, der Bewegung und der Relationalität in der Argumentation Mitchells besondere Relevanz zu. (Vgl. 63–67) In Anlehnung an den kurzen Dankesbrief, den Heidegger nach einem Besuch des Heiligers Ateliers schrieb, (vgl. 63) und auf Basis einiger Bemerkungen Heiligers, der selbst seine Skulpturen als Kunstwerke in Bewegung bzw. als etwas Offenes, in dem Offenheit waltet und Welt erscheint (vgl. 63), beschreibt, deutet Mitchell die Welt als Zusammengehörigkeit von Menschen und Dingen bzw. als ein geheimnisvolles Dazwischen. (Vgl. 65–66) Dadurch will Mitchell an den Werken Heiligers zeigen, welche Deutung von Welt und Mensch sich aus der Heideggerschen Auffassung des Raumes als Räumen ergibt. Der Versuch Mitchells, diese Idee der Welt als Zwischen und ihre Bedeutung für den Menschen zu verdeutlichen, wird jedoch durch seine literarische Sprache, die das Verständnis erschwert, ausgedrückt: Mitchell schreitet an dieser Stelle seiner Betrachtung durch intuitive Verbindungen zwischen den Sätzen, er bedient sich metaphorischer Bilder, die schnell aufeinanderfolgen und die intuitiv aufeinander verweisen. Der Diskurs scheint existenziell poetische Gedanke hervorrufen und das Terrain des philosophischen Argumentierens bzw. der Kunstkritik verlassen zu wollen. Diese existenzielle Richtung verstärkt sich im nachfolgenden Paragraph ‚Artikulation 2: Verfall und Erosion‘. (Vgl. 67–72) Mitchell betont, dass die Kunstwerke Heiligers, die die Relationalität zwischen Mensch und Welt ausdrücken, „die Tatsache [attestieren], dass Bewegung ein Abnutzen ist“. (67) In diesem Sinne expliziert der Autor weiter, dass „ein Werden hin zu etwas […] ein Werden weg von etwas“ (67) ist. Eben dieses Thema der ‚Distanzierung von etwas‘ wird von Mitchell in seiner Deutung der Werke Heiligers betont, weil er darin den Ausdruck einer grundlegenden Weise des In-der-Welt-Seins sieht. Ausgehend von dieser Deutung der Werke Heiligers bringt Mitchell einen anderen Wesenszug des Verhältnisses von Mensch und Welt zum Ausdruck. Denn die Welt wird nun nicht als etwas verstanden, das den Menschen prägt, sondern als etwas, das uns verbraucht bzw. „erodiert“: (68) Insofern Mensch und Welt sich gegenseitig durchdringen und prägen und sich daher in einer ständigen Bewegung bzw. einem ständigem Werden befinden, das nicht nur ein Werden zu etwas, sondern auch ein ‚Weg von etwas‘ ist, verbraucht die Welt den Menschen. Mit den folgenden Worten drückt Mitchell diesen Gedanken in all seiner Radikalität aus: „Wir sind durch Welt verwittert, erodiert im Zwischen. Unsere Absprache besteht darin, gemeinsam zu erodieren.“ (68) Indem die Skulptur den Menschen in diesem Zwischen hält – so Mitchell weiter – und Verbindung zwischen Mensch und Welt stiftet und daher Mensch und Welt verändert, erweist sich die Skulptur für diesen Erosionsprozess des Menschen als mitverantwortlich. (Vgl. 71)

Bevor Mitchell auf das Verhältnis des Heideggerschen Denken und der Kunst Eduardo Chillidas eingeht – ein Verhältnis, das dem Autor zufolge eine weitere Entwicklung des Verhältnisses von Raum, Körper und Kunst im Denken Heideggers darstellt –, setzt sich Mitchell in einem kurzen Exkurs mit Heideggers Die Herkunft der Kunst und die Bestimmung des Denkens auseinander. (Vgl. 73–81) Mit der Interpretation Mitchells, die ausgehend vom Blick Athenas auf die Steingrenzen (vgl. 77) darauf zielt, die Zusammengehörigkeit von τέχνη und ϕύσις im Denken Heideggers zu begründen, ist die Heidegger-Forschung längst vertraut. „Der Ruf der ϕύσις ist“, schreibt Mitchell, „für die menschlichen Werke also eine Einladung die Welt zu prägen, doch zugleich auch sich selbst von der Welt prägen zu lassen.“ (80) Besonders interessant und originell ist dagegen der Gedanke, dass das Bas-Relief in einer ausgezeichneten Weise diese Zusammengehörigkeit von ϕύσις und τέχνη bzw. von Natürlichem und Künstlichem zum Ausdruck bringt. (Vgl. 80) Diesbezüglich weist Mitchell darauf hin, dass es vielleicht kein Zufall ist, dass die drei Bildhauer, mit denen Heidegger sich auseinandergesetzt hat, im Relief arbeiten. (Vgl. 80)

Im vierten Kapitel seines Werkes stellt Mitchell den letzten Schritt und daher das endgültige Ergebnis der Auseinandersetzung Heideggers mit dem Raum und dem Körper dar, das Heidegger laut Mitchell 1968 anlässlich der Begegnung mit den Kunstwerken Chillidas entwickelt hat. (Vgl. 83–109) Der grundlegende Gedanke dieses Schritts und der Wandel im Verhältnis zur vorherigen Raumkonzeption Heideggers besteht Mitchell zufolge darin, dass, indem Heidegger eine physikalische bzw. metaphysische Auffassung von Raum explizit ablehnt, jeder Unterschied zwischen Kunst und Raum aufgehoben wird. Wenn daher die Werke Barlachs und Heiligers noch von einer Trennung von Raum und Kunst zeugen, die auf unterschiedliche Art und Weise überbrückt wird, konstatiert Heidegger anlässlich der Begegnung mit den Werken Chillidas, dass eine solche Trennung und konsequenterweise eine Überbrückung der Lücke zwischen Kunst und Raum überhaupt nicht denkbar ist. (Vgl. 84–86) Denn Kunst ist keine „Besitzergreifung des Raumes“ (84), sondern sie ist schon immer ein räumender Raum, ein Ort gewordenen Räumens. Diese radikal neue Konzeption des Raumes und seines Verhältnisses zur Kunst bewirkt – so Mitchell – Veränderungen in der Auffassung des Verhältnisses von Raum, Werkzeug und Kunstwerk, von Raum und Menschen, von Raum und Sprache und von Raum und Körper. In Bezug auf das Werkzeug behauptet Mitchell, dass die Funktion des Werkzeugs als Medium zwischen Künstler und Materie in Frage gestellt wird. (Vgl. 91) Denn es gibt keine Leere mehr zwischen den beiden, die durch Werkzeuge gefüllt bzw. überbrückt werden muss. Mitchell verdeutlicht des Weiteren, inwiefern sich auch der Bezug des Daseins zum Raum ändert: Das Dasein verliert sein Privileg als Handelnder, der Räume bildet, stiftet, eröffnet oder ermöglicht. Vielmehr wird das Dasein vom Räumen des Raumes gedacht und ist daher schon dem All des Seienden zugehörig. (Vgl. 100-104) Inwiefern sich auch das Wesen der Sprache in Bezug auf diese neue Raumkonzeption verändert, wird von Mitchell nicht ausführlich erklärt. Er stellt in Heideggers Versuch, den Raum etymologisch zu erhellen, lediglich eine „Betonung der Sprache“ (105) fest. Diesbezüglich sagt er sogar: „‚Kunst und Raum‘ bringt uns dazu, eine Zwiefalt zu denken: dass Raum sprachlich und Sprache räumlich sei.“ (105) Leider erklärt Mitchell nicht, wie genau diese von ihm behauptete Zusammengehörigkeit oder sogar Identität von Raum und Sprache zu verstehen ist. Erklärungsbedürftig bleibt bedauerlicherweise auch die Verbindung, die Mitchell in den letzten Sätzen dieses Abschnittes zwischen Körper, Raum und Wahrheit herstellt. (Vgl. 108–109) Außerdem ist auf eine Irritation zu verweisen, mit der sich der Leser bei der Lektüre dieses Kapitels konfrontiert sieht. Im dritten Teil dieses Kapitels mit der Überschrift ‚Setzen Bringen Zusammenarbeiten‘ (94–99) setzt sich Mitchell mit dem Unterschied zwischen dem ‚sich-ins-Werk-Setzen‘ und dem ‚ins-Werk-Bringen‘ der Wahrheit in der Kunst auseinander. Der Autor macht darauf aufmerksam, dass – wie Heidegger selbst im ‚Zusatz‘ zu Der Ursprung des Kunstwerks bemerkt – in der Entwicklung des Heideggerschen Denkens ein Wandel vom Setzen zum Bringen stattfindet. (Vgl. 94) Dieser Wandel wird jedoch von Mitchell darin identifiziert, dass ‚Setzen‘ ein Moment von Gewalt mit sich bringe, während ‚Bringen‘ etwas Weicheres darstellt, indem es eine Begleitung und nicht eine Gewalt betone. (Vgl. 97) Aus diesem Grund erklärt der Autor: „Die Wahrheit des Werkes erscheint daher in ‚Kunst und Raum‘ weniger insistent als in ‚Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes‘.“ (97) Dabei übersieht Mitchell aber den bedeutendsten Unterschied zwischen den beiden Ausdrücken, der darin besteht, dass der erste (sich-ins-Werk-Setzen) reflexiv ist und der zweite (ins-Werk-Bringen) eben nicht. Und dies bewirkt eine grundlegende Veränderung des Verhältnisses von Wahrheit und Kunst und konsequenterweise auch eine Veränderung der Rolle des Künstlers. Denn während die Wahrheit im Kunstwerksaufsatz als die ‚sich-Setzende‘ aktiv im Kunstwerk erscheint bzw. geschieht, gewinnt der Künstler in den späteren Auffassung Heideggers eine viel stärkere Rolle, indem er die Wahrheit ins Werk bringt.

Das abschließende Kapitel fasst die Ergebnisse der vorhergehenden Kapitel zusammen und zeichnet dadurch den Weg, auf welchem Heidegger ausgehend von der Begegnung mit den formlosen Körpern Barlachs über jene mit den Köpfen Heiligers bis zu der Auseinandersetzung mit den Vögeln Chillidas seine Raumauffassung in den 1960er Jahren entworfen hat. Vor dem Hintergrund dieser neuen Raumkonzeption versucht Mitchell auf den letzten zwei Seiten, den Menschen in den Mittelpunkt der Betrachtung zu stellen und sein Verhältnis zu sich selbst, zu den anderen, zu seinem In-der-Welt-Sein und zur Wahrheit neu zu konturieren. Leider zeichnet sich auch dieser Abschnitt durch eine sehr kryptische Sprachverwendung aus. Aufgrund dessen bleibt es schwer nachvollziehbar, inwiefern Mitchell das aus der neuen Raumsauffassung entstandene Verhältnis von Mensch, Plastik und Raum als eine Aufforderung für den Menschen, sein Leben zu ändern, versteht. (Vgl. 114)

Abgesehen von diesen Unklarheiten der Darstellung trägt das Buch zweifellos zur Klärung der in der Heidegger-Forschung tendenziell vernachlässigten Thematik des Raumes bei und ergänzt diese um interessante Überlegungen und Denkanstößen. Denn Mitchell unternimmt in seinem Buch den gewagten Versuch, auf Basis sehr kurzer und zuweilen unsystematischer Texte des späten Heidegger eine systematische Raumkonzeption darzustellen. Es gelingt Mitchell jedoch nicht immer, die Schwierigkeiten zu umgehen, die ein solches Vorhaben unvermeidlich mit sich bringt. An einigen Stellen erweckt der Text den Eindruck, als ob der Autor, indem er in Anlehnung an die Texte Heideggers und mithilfe seiner Begrifflichkeit die Werke der drei Bildhauer deutet, ihnen Inhalte, Bedeutungen oder Verweise zuspricht, die diesen Kunstwerken andernfalls nicht zukommen. Eine andere Schwierigkeit, auf die bereits hingewiesen wurde, ist die Sprachverwendung. Oft wird eine sehr poetische Sprache verwendet: Einige Zusammenhänge und Verweise werden intuitiv aufgebaut und daher bleiben einige Gedanke erklärungsbedürftig. Auf Grund dessen entsteht der Eindruck, als habe sich der Autor nicht immer bemüht, seine Überlegungen zu erklären, und es stattdessen vorgezogen, á la Heidegger mit der Etymologie der Worte zu spielen und seinen Diskurs durch intuitive Verbindungen aufzubauen. Dies macht einige Textpassagen auch für den Heidegger-Kenner sehr schwer verständlich. Ob und inwiefern die Übersetzung Trawnys zu diesen Schwierigkeiten beiträgt, bleibt unklar. Außerdem lassen sich einige Ungenauigkeiten in der Auslegung der Texte Heideggers feststellen.

Trotz dieser kritischen Anmerkungen ist der Versuch Mitchells lesenswert. Denn der Leser erhält durch das Werk nicht nur einen Überblick über die kontinuierliche Entwicklung des Denken Heideggers über den Raum von Sein und Zeit bis zu den späten 1960er Jahren, sondern dem Leser werden darüber hinaus zahlreiche interessante Deutungsperspektiven des Heideggerschen Denkens angeboten, die sich als originell erweisen und über die Betrachtung Mitchells hinaus für eine Auseinandersetzung mit den Themen Raum, Dasein, Welt und selbstverständlich auch Kunst im Rahmen des Spätdenkens Heideggers fruchtbar gemacht werden können.

David Farrell Krell: The Cudgel and the Caress, SUNY Press, 2019

The Cudgel and the Caress: Reflections on Cruelty and Tenderness Book Cover The Cudgel and the Caress: Reflections on Cruelty and Tenderness
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
David Farrell Krell
SUNY Press
Hardback $95.00

Jean-Luc Nancy: The Possibility of a World

The Possibility of a World: Conversations with Pierre-Philippe Jandin Book Cover The Possibility of a World: Conversations with Pierre-Philippe Jandin
Jean-Luc Nancy, Pierre-Philippe Jandin, translated by Travis Holloway and Flor Méchain
Fordham University Press
August 8, 2017

Reviewed by: Nikolaas Deketelaere (Balliol College, University of Oxford)

A reader looking to make their first entry into Jean-Luc Nancy’s work is bound to feel intimidated by the extraordinarily vast and varied nature of this particular French philosopher’s oeuvre. As it spans over dozens of books, hundreds of articles, and engages with almost every major modern thinker, one would be forgiven for feeling somewhat at a loss in deciding where to start. This is why the set-up of the interviews collected in The Possibility of a World is full of promise: guided by Pierre-Philippe Jandin, who shows himself both knowledgeable of how Nancy thinks and skilful in driving the conversation to cover as much ground as possible, Nancy is made to reflect on the entirety of his career in fluent and conversational language: the interviews provide both an accessible articulation of all the major themes of Nancy’s thought, if sometimes only implicitly, for those who are new to it; as well as a valuable insight into how Nancy relates to his own thinking and writing, for those who are already familiar with it. The present translation of these conversations by Travis Holloway and Flor Méchain generally captures Nancy’s playful use of the French language well, adding clarifying footnotes where necessary, and makes for a very fluent read in English that only falters occasionally when confronted with a particular French idiom or colloquialism.

Before delving into the conversations themselves, it is perhaps worth noting that, in my view, Nancy is a philosopher perfectly suited to be approached in this dialogical way: not just because it takes the sharp edges of his sometimes frustrating writing style; but also because the dialogical form – which, as Nancy notes, “has always been associated with philosophy” as the expression of “the free life of thinking” (Nancy 1982, 46-47) – embodies the very logic he wants to describe, namely the infinite circulation of meaning. Even when Nancy writes like any other philosopher would, he always does so under the guise of an engagement with someone else’s thinking: his own thinking exists in a dialogical interaction with that of others, to the point that it becomes hard to discern which ideas belong to which conversation partner, and that is exactly the point. Thus, in reading Nancy, we are always reminded of one fact: “without dialogue, no thinking, and no philosophy” (Nancy 1975, 330). In the case of the present text, we have the interesting opportunity to witness how, as prompted by Jandin, Nancy engages with himself, dialogues himself.

The first section of the book is dedicated to Nancy’s “formative years.” What the reader will not find here is a description of how Nancy sees the development of his own thinking throughout his life, for, as he admits elsewhere, he is “not somebody who is very self-aware, I don’t really have much of a conception of my own historical trajectory” (Nancy 2003, 45). What he does do in this section, however, is discuss the various “moments”, both anecdotal and more substantive, that would later prove important for his intellectual development. These anecdotes are really quite delightful. There is, for example, the very early memory of walking past a fence that “had these elaborate patterns.” Already betraying a theoretical orientation at that very young age, Nancy relates how he would “get lost in speculations about the necessity or non-necessity of all these adornments” (2). Then there is the story of his discovery of Heidegger: apparently the reason Nancy first engaged seriously with Heidegger was to play a trick on François Warin, by writing a text on Comte in a parody of Heidegger’s style that managed to convince Warin that it was actually penned by Heidegger himself (17-18).

One of the more informative moments he relates is his reading of the Bible together with the Young Christian Students when he was a teenager: for Nancy, this was “the beginning of a relationship with texts as an inexhaustible resource of meaning or sense (sens).” What he learned there was above all that “One has to interpret a text and this interpretation is infinite” (7). This can still be seen in what we could call the hermeneutic logic that governs all of Nancy’s writing and sits alongside a critique of the specific hermeneutics formulated by Ricoeur and Gadamer. This interest in the texts of Christianity, however, soon became detached from a “properly religious relationship” (8). It is this religious orientation, together with a taste for social and political activism, which he sees as “the initial ferment of my intellectual formation” (8). Nancy then goes on to discuss his initial discovery of Derrida, who he saw at the time as ushering in a profound intellectual upheaval (14, 22). Finally, it is worth mentioning how he looks back on his early work on Kant, undertaken when he was preparing to take the agrégation, for it sets the stage quite well for how he would later develop his own thinking: “What Kant taught us is that (…) pure reason is practical in itself.” Hence, he continues, “in our desire for the unconditioned, in our desire for sense, we’re practical, we act in the world, and so, a priori sensibility (…) is praxis. In every case, I am in action” (19). It is this notion of the sense of the world consisting in our action within it that sets Nancy up to articulate the idea that is at the core of, and indeed guides, his entire philosophy: “Images of the world must be substituted for a dwelling (habitation), a life of the world, in the world. (…) The world is a possibility of sense or meaning’s circulation and we have to make a world, to remake a world” (26).

This allows for a seamless transition to the second section of the book, which deals with Nancy’s understanding of world. Indeed, one of the strengths of these interviews is that they show very clearly how all of Nancy’s thinking hangs together quite closely. Regarding the world, he again takes up his starting point as it is formulated elsewhere (see Nancy 1997, 4): declaring that “There’s no longer a cosmos, there’s no longer a mundus” (38), by which he means that the world no longer appears to us as a coherent totality that is unified by some kind of inherent order. The world that we are to think “no longer has a sense, but it is sense” (Nancy 1997, 8), exists in a circulation of meaning. This leads him to formulate his relational ontology, where the meaning that is the world exists in what happens between entities, in how they relate to one another. It is this question of relation, central as it is to Nancy’s thinking, that he sees as never having received serious philosophical attention (48). Nevertheless, “What is the world,” he wonders, “if not precisely the possibility of the ‘between’?” (47). For, if meaning is not inherent to any single entity, it can only exist in how that entity relates to other entities. In that sense, it is the between, not the self-enclosed singularity of an entity, that comes first. It is only because of “the relation between the two, that is, the ‘between’ the two, which relates the one to the other and separates it from the other at the same time” (47), that something can be anything at all: thing A can only be thing A because it is separate from thing B, because it is-not thing B; because of a separation that constitutes thing A as thing A. It is only because of this between that there can be something, or rather, some things. Being, for Nancy, even when it is singular, is always plural. Indeed, it is only within plurality that there can be singularity. The world is then the totality of sense or meaning that is created by the constellation of different entities in their relation to one another (133). Nancy has coined the term transimmanence to describe the nature of the meaning constituted in this way: neither fully immanent, nor transcendent; but an immanence pointing outside of itself to the between that would be collapsed by full immanence (93).

Ultimately, this thinking of the between is a critique of self-sufficiency: the self does not constitute itself, but must go outside of itself in order to find itself. This opens up an entry into Nancy’s social and political thought, for this impossibility of self-sufficiency “is true for both the collective and the individual,” he notes, “the idea of ‘community’ quite clearly implies (through communitarianisms) the danger of shutting oneself off in self-sufficiency” (49). Indeed, the subsequent three sections deal mostly with Nancy’s handling of questions concerning community and politics. Political questions are essential for Nancy, as long as this is understood in a broad and nuanced way: for him, the French word politique means both “the organization of common existence (…), conjoining antagonistic interests,” as well as expressing “a sense or truth about this existence” (94), and as such has clear ontological significance. Most of the discussion revolves around Nancy’s (relatively) recent engagement with questions concerning identity in relation to the notion of the people, formulated polemically in reaction to the French government’s attempt to have a debate on national identity in 2009. Just like the world no longer has meaning, but is meaning; so too, the people no longer have an identity, but are an identity (Nancy 2015, 29-32). That is to say, their identity is not inherent but exists in their action within the world, their life of the world in the world: the people in themselves are not sufficient for the constitution of their own identity. Hence, speaking of the people always risks understanding this plurality inauthentically as absolute, coherent, self-sufficient singularity: “What allows one to make sense out of numerousness is the people,” Nancy says, “which gets expressed in forms that themselves are no longer numerousness, but suggest a ‘substantial’ unity (‘one’ people, ‘one’ nation)” (73-74).

The sixth section deals with Nancy’s understanding of religion, Christianity in particular. For Nancy, “in the depths of Christianity, there is something like the germ of the disappearance of the sacred” (99). What this means is that Christianity is the religion through which the West is able to leave the religious modality of thought behind. It is the religion that allows the West to emerge from its metaphysical closure, which Christianity is nevertheless at the same time also responsible for. Nancy traces this historical development in his two volumes on what he calls the deconstruction of Christianity (Nancy 2008; 2012). In doing so, he takes up various Christian concepts – God, creation, grace, etc. – and uses them to think atheologically: not necessarily against theology, but in any case against onto-theological metaphysics; in order to put on display how Christianity and the West are opening themselves up from their metaphysical closure. In doing so, these concepts come to describe the way in which we inhabit the world, our dwelling in the world: for example, “creation is the world existing,” Nancy says. “In another sense,” he continues, “one could say that within this lies an opportunity to recover the possibility of admiring, of adoring that the world exists, and the fact that I exist, that you exist” (102). That is to say, these concepts not only function within the (a)theological register, but also take on a much broader existential and ontological meaning.

In the same way, Nancy can be seen to charge the notion of art with ontological and existential significance in the seventh section of the book. There he explains how, given that we no longer live in a cosmos, a world that is unified in its display of a certain inherent order, art is in crisis: what is its role if it can no longer represent this order now that it has collapsed? Let me quote Nancy at length here: “It’s like another creation, a recreation of the world and when there isn’t actually a creator or organizer of the entire world anymore, then this gesture becomes detached for itself, but this gesture has always been the gesture of art, of opening the possibility of an ordering. And I think that one can say that the human being is the one who has to bring out a world, both as a form and as sense, or as language” (106-107). Here Nancy is first of all saying that when art is without ground it fulfils a truly ontological role: in the absence of an order or truth preordained by a creator, art is no longer in the business of merely representing this truth; rather, it performs the gesture of the opening of the possibility of an order, expresses the movement in which the possibility of a world exists, by exposing the void at its origin as “the complete absence of beauty, that is, what points out or indicates beauty” (105). Art exposes what Nancy calls the patency, the opening or the transimmanence of the world: that the world is possible even in the absence of a unifying cosmic order, for it is patently already there in our engagement with it. Art exposes that the world is possible, that the world straightforwardly or manifestly makes sense to us, without the need for a unifying and ordering cosmology or metaphysics. As such art is, as Nancy puts it, “the presentation of presentation” (Nancy 1996, 34), of the infinite circulation of sense that is the world. All we need to do is greet the world in its thereness. Art thus embodies the very gesture of the world as it is constantly coming to be in our engagement with it, in our dwelling within it. When Nancy then says that human beings bring out a world, he means that “the human being is both the expression of the world and the world’s expression,” that is to say that it “is the inhabitant of the world, but at the same time, it transforms the world deeply through its technē, its technology, what in Latin gets translated as ars, its art” (115).

The discussion on art, the presentation of presentation, makes for a smooth transition to the final two sections of the book, dealing with presence and joy. Nancy here reprises, albeit in a more metaphysical way, the analysis of presence that he already formulated in his essay on sleep (see Nancy 2009). According to him, there is never full presence, indeed absence is at the heart of presence: just like the self needs to go outside of it itself in order to find itself; so too he understands presence generally as the continual arrival, or birth, of non-being into being. Here Nancy makes this clear by talking about how when we fall asleep, we at the same time descend into nothingness as well as fall into ourselves and the world. “Every morning,” he says, “one comes back to the world after being truly absent during sleep, which is connected to this poor, physiological, biological truth: Without sleep, one can’t live for long” (121). Though this does not come through particularly clearly in these interviews, for Nancy joy (jouissance) is the moment or experience of being on the limit shared between those two opposites – being and non-being, inside and outside, presence and absence, etc. – through which meaning comes-to-be as the sense that is-about-to-be, to come, through one’s being-outside-of-oneself. “Joy, jouissance, to come,” Nancy says, “have the sense of birth: the sense of the inexhaustible imminence of sense” (Nancy 1993, 5). As such, joy is the experience of ek-sistence as it “strives toward (…) the world and Being-in-the-world, that is, toward the possibility of making sense” (133). Knowing that these interviews were conducted in 2013, Nancy’s thinking of joy here seems to anticipate the conversations with Adèle Van Reeth he would have on the subject not long after, conversations that were published in 2014 under the title La jouissance and translated into English in 2016 as Coming (Nancy & Van Reeth 2014; 2016). It is perhaps unfortunate that the translators do not make a note of this, as one of the strengths of this book is that otherwise, whenever a particular aspect of Nancy’s work is broached in the interview, it comes with a series of useful footnotes that direct the reader to the relevant texts by Nancy or indeed his interlocutors.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that some of the most interesting reflections Nancy articulates over the course of these interviews are often the result of him briefly going off on a tangent. For example, he perhaps shows himself the present-day Kierkegaard or Nietzsche – albeit with a decidedly less capricious personality – when he recounts how he envies the painter and the writer of literature and poetry, since their mode of expressing themselves might be more suited to what Nancy is trying to do. The relationship between philosophy and literature has been a central topic of Nancy’s thinking since the start of his career, and indeed continues to be to this day: “I have the feeling that my philosophical texts aren’t philosophical enough,” he says, “that they need to be more philosophical, but in order to be so, they need to no longer be philosophical, but something else” (23). Hence, Jandin describes Nancy’s writing strategy very accurately by saying that we “aren’t in the coincidentia oppositorum, nor are we in a dialectical logic; we are trying to go ‘between’” (124). The possibility of a world rests entirely on this notion of the between that is explored by Nancy’s writing. Therefore, Nancy’s writing itself must be understood as similarly structured as the world it is trying to shine a light on, to uncover, to stage; a world that is “centrifugal, erratic, open” (134).


Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘“Our World” an interview’, trans. by Emma Campbell in Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, 8:2 (August 2003), 43-54.

Jean-Luc Nancy, Le partage des voix (Paris: Galilée, 1982).

Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘Le ventriloque (À mon père, X.)’ in Mimesis: Des articulations (Paris: Flammarion, 1975), 271-338.

Jean-Luc Nancy, The Sense of the World, trans. by Jeffrey S. Librett (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

Jean-Luc Nancy, Identity: Fragments, Frankness, trans. by François Raffoul (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014).

Jean-Luc Nancy, Adoration: The Deconstruction of Christianity II, trans. by John McKeane (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012).

Jean-Luc Nancy, Dis-enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity, trans. by Bettina Bergo, Gabriel Malenfant and Michael B. Smith (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008).

Jean-Luc Nancy, The Muses, trans. by Peggy Kamuf (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996).

Jean-Luc Nancy, The Fall of Sleep, trans. by Charlotte Mandell (New York: Fordham University Press, 2009).

Jean-Luc Nancy & Adèle van Reeth, La jouissance: Questions de caractère (Paris: Plon/France Culture, 2014).

Jean-Luc Nancy & Adèle van Reeth, Coming, trans. by Charlotte Mandell (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016).

Jean-Luc Nancy, The Birth to Presence, trans. by Brian Holmes et al. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993).