The Possibility of a World is a transcript of a conversation between Pierre-Philippe Jandin and the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy. The conversation, which broaches topics spanning philosophy, art history, ethics, politics, religion, community, the Bible, the French Revolution and beyond, exhibits the wide and almost unprecedented scope of Nancy’s writings. This journey through Nancy’s thought is guided by the careful and considered questions of Pierre-Philippe Jandin who, in playing an active role in the conversation, challenges and provokes Nancy with testing questions and comments. An important statement precedes the conversation: “in accordance with J-L Nancy’s wishes, we have attempted to preserve the spontaneity of oral discussion […]”. Owing to this, the reader finds herself standing “on the threshold” (to use Nancy’s phrase from an essay of the same name), observing a scene. This scene, or conversation, is composed of nine chapters, each devoted to a specific topic, and beginning with a question that dictates the direction of the discussion. However, unlike a well-planned interview, the charm of this conversation lies in its associative, non-linear (and not always well-explained) façons de parler.
In keeping with Nancy’s central preoccupation regarding the ontology of plurality as a fundamental ontology, what presides over the entire conversation is a concern with the need to rethink ethics in a “world [that] is no longer simply a cosmos, a mundus, partes extra partes (an extension of distinct places), but the world of the human crowd” (28). In other words, a world that is neither harmonious nor orderly (in the sense of the Greek ‘cosmos’), but rather an irreducible plurality of worlds. Furthermore, this claim extends beyond the argument about the plurality of worlds, since what is at issue is “the plural itself as a principle”,[i] irrespective of whether it concerns politics, the thought of community, or the plurality of the Arts. These modes of plurality, and the consequent requirement to rethink ethics, preoccupy the body of this conversation.
The Possibility of the World does not—and is not intended to—introduce Nancy’s philosophy to the “novice”. Instead, it represents a journey through Nancy’s thought, with which we are already familiar. Owing to this, the book reads as though it were a director’s cut, adding another dimension to a movie or biopic. Given the broad scope of each chapter, in addition to their associative manner, I have chosen only to elaborate on the central issues evoked by each chapter, rather than reviewing chapters in their entirety.
The conversation commences with a preliminary, autobiographical chapter entitled “Formative Years”. This concerns Nancy’s childhood until his mid 20s. On this topic, Jandin begins with a provocative and ironic question:
How did you become a philosopher? Especially since you gave a lecture in 2002 at the Centre Pompidou entitled: “I Never Became a Philosopher.” What’s this non-becoming, then? (1)
I didn’t become a philosopher because I’ve always been one. All that I’ve known, or all that I’ve experienced, took place against a background that I wouldn’t call philosophical, though it’s close to it— a background of interest in the things of thought, in conceptions. (2)
The first chapter explores Nancy’s philosophical upbringing.
Nancy’s entry into the world, as Jandin puts it, unfolds in a time of turbulence. Born 1940 in the “thick of World War II” in occupied France, the young Nancy spent most of his childhood in Baden Baden, Germany, owing to his father’s work. As a young boy, Nancy recalls finding great pleasure in “meandering alone in nature” (3), but also, if not especially, in the solitude of reading, which he experienced as “a withdrawal from the rest of the world […] which was an entrance into another world” (3). In 1951, the family returned to France and the young boy entered French school in the middle of sixth grade, which he had in fact commenced already in a French lycée in Germany. He would later on join the Young Christian Students (YCS), a youth movement oriented towards leftist Catholicism, which he recounts as providing the “initial ferment of my intellectual formation” (8):
As I realized much later, this was certainly the beginning of something for me, the beginning of a relationship with texts as an inexhaustible resource of meaning or sense [sens]. The biggest revelation that I had through this exercise was that, in a text, there is practically an infinite reserve of sense […] Basically, this is what I was trained to do: One has to interpret a text and this interpretation is infinite. (7)
While the Catholic orientation of that movement provided the adolescent Nancy with his first encounter of biblical texts and their inexhaustible fount of sense, this encounter eventually culminated in a crisis of faith:
Suddenly the mere possibility of being in what I could think of as a relationship to God— addressing him, having to recognize myself as a sinner, having to confess, having to receive the communion of the body of Christ—all of this had completely lost any substance. (9)
Thus, while the YCS, with its religious orientation, provided the initial path to social and political advocacy, the young Nancy discovered that it was not the only path to becoming socially and politically engaged. Moreover, on account of his distancing from religion, he was increasingly drawn to philosophy. The first philosopher mentioned in this long conversation is Jacques Derrida, whose writings he came upon in 1964 (at the age of 24), and on whose philosophy he writes “I felt that something was bursting open. There was a timeliness to this thought […] A new language was trying, at least, to find itself” (14). However, even earlier on he had discovered Hegel and Heidegger (an encounter that Nancy elaborates on in “Heidegger in France”).[ii]
However, above all it was Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason that formed part of the aggregation that left the strongest impression on the young Nancy. Kant’s legacy, Nancy argues, is “enormous”, and far “greater than [Hegel’s]” (18). What changes with Kant is that there is no longer a distinction between the domain of pure reason and the domain of praxis, since after Kant “pure reason is itself practical, which is why it doesn’t need a critique, but rather a critique of its use” (19). Another leitmotif of Nancy’s writings was his preoccupation with the question of the relationship between the sensible and the intelligible, around which the entire Kantian critical corpus revolves (and which is referred to within Kant scholarship as “the Nature-Freedom problem”). These concerns, deemed the one thing “that had never been thought by metaphysics” (20) according to Kant writing to Marcus Herz, were centrally important to Nancy’s own writings, as evidenced (inter alia) in The Muses, Corpus, and The Ground of the Image.
As far as Nancy was concerned, challenging the distinction between pure and practical, sensible and intelligible, constituted a project originating in Kant. Such concerns inevitably move us away from the domain of the first Critique and its study into the possibility of a priori sensibility, to the domain of the third Critique, and its study into a different mode of sensibility.
It is here that the discussion turns to art and its difference from philosophy. “I envy the artist”, Nancy admits, because they “manage to do things which are real!” while “I have a feeling that my texts are too oriented towards the conceptual”. Philosophers “are a group of people who want clarity” (21). On this point, one need only recall Descartes’ fundamental distinction between clear and distinct ideas (as opposed to obscure and confused ideas) in The Passions of the Soul. While Western metaphysics is haunted by the metaphor of light, the artist has the freedom to dwell in the shadows. “I look into the night and enter it”, Nancy quotes Bataille, “but no philosopher truly takes it upon themselves to do that because philosophers are supposed to introduce light into the world” (21). For Nancy, philosophy is not an escape from a cave towards the bright light of the Idea. Philosophy is rather a dwelling-place between light and shadow, between philosophy and poesies: it is a form of writing that encroaches upon a reality that is irreducible to the conceptual, and which, in Nancy’s words, is an ex-scription (a writing from the outside). As he remarks, “words and ideas are not only words and ideas but the circulation of the real”.
The first chapter culminates with this ethically toned remark:
Human beings no longer live in the world in the sense of Hölderlin, reprised by Heidegger, when he writes: “poetically, man dwells.” “To dwell” [habiter] means to be in the habitus, not in the habit but in the “disposition,” an active disposition. In the end, habitus is not far from ethos; what we need is an ethics of the world. This is perhaps the greatest issue of Western civilization, which has now become worldwide [mondiale], or global [globale]—to have had this will to transform the world in order to make it a human world […] This is what Heidegger meant when he introduced what we translate as “Being-in-the-world” (in-der-Welt-sein); to say that the existent, the Dasein, is essentially in the world simply means that it’s necessarily involved in the circulation of meaning or sense, which is what makes a world. (26)
Notwithstanding this Heideggerian-toned observation, Nancy ends up invoking Kant’s Categorical Imperative: “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become a universal law of nature”:
The imperative is what has been given to human beings in order to make a world, in the end, this means that what’s at stake is to make or remake a world. (27)
This world, which has become an object of knowledge “is at the same time a world where human beings’ presence […] has been pushed aside” (26). We no longer live in the world as beings-in-the-world, we flee from this existential, from this mode of being, and in doing that we flee from our essence as existence.
Nancy interprets Kant’s principle of universality as the ethical obligation of each of us to remake a world, recreating it for the type of being that we ourselves are—Dasein—in order to recapitulate the question of being and our relationship to our being through this creation.
The second conversation, entitled “The World”, picks up the question of ethics and the remaking of the world in connection to one of the fundamental concerns of Nancy’s philosophy, namely the theme of plurality.[iii] Jandin begins by quoting Nancy’s argument in Corpus:
Our world is no longer simply a cosmos, a mundus, partes extra partes (an extension of distinct places), but the world of the human crowd, the non-place of a proliferating population, “[an] endless, generalized, departure.” (28)
Today it is no longer possible to sustain thought about the world in terms of a cosmos in the Greek sense, that is, a uni-verse that is harmonious, beautiful, unified, and total. This narrative is no longer valid, not only philosophically, as Nancy remarks; it is also scientifically untenable: “today astrophysics is compelled in a way to think a plurality of worlds” (30), a multiverse rather than a universe. This thought has two repercussions: “that we no longer can retain the model of a single universe”, but additionally that:
from now on all theories of physics have to think of themselves as a construction of fictions. Moreover, in The New Scientific Spirit, Bachelard writes, in effect, that: [Instruments] are nothing but theories materialized. The phenomena they produce bear the stamp of theory throughout. […] [We] produce, we multiply new objects according to several approaches, and thus we manage to produce several worlds. It’s better to say, perhaps, in order to avoid harming the spontaneous, realistic feeling, that we produce several possibilities of worlds or even several fictions of worlds. Nevertheless, even this word, fiction, is dangerous because it could allow one to think that behind this fictional world lies the true world, when we are perhaps moving past the representation of science as an objective knowledge that comes closer to a real that exists in itself. (30)
The plurality of worlds, an expression coined by Fontenelle that Nancy appropriates as the subtitle of his essay, “Why are there Several Arts and Not Just One?: (conversation on the Plurality of Worlds)”,[iv] refers to plurality as ontological principle rather than as empirical ontic idea, which merely points to the diversity of our world. Referring to this essay, Jandin remarks:
[…] the multiplicity of the “arts” can’t be subsumed under the unity of a concept of “Art,” you insist on the irreducibility of plurality. It’s the world itself that’s plural, and plurality or space is, so to speak, what makes it shatter from the inside. (37)
This argument resonates with not only Nancy’s theme of the Singular Plural but also Kant’s definition of reflective judgment as opposed to a determinate judgment, as expounded in the Critique of the Power of Judgment. The difference between these forms of judgment can be summarized as follows: the former is a kind of judgment for which no determinate concepts are available and which is therefore cognitively unmastered;[v] the latter, by contrast, countenances the possibility of subsuming the manifold of intuition under a unified concept or law. In a similar vein, there is no concept of Art to unify the heterogeneity of the arts, “art would thus be in default or in excess of its own concept” (The Muses, 4), which is to say that there is no principle of homogenization under which to subsume the multiplicity of worlds that we inhabit as beings-in-the-world. This is, therefore, a thesis that goes to the heart of Nancy’s ontology, while sharing firm ground with Kant’s aesthetics.[vi]
What is lost as a consequence of the fact that we “no longer [live] in a cosmos […] we no longer perceive the totality of an ordered and thus beautiful world” (29), is the loss of the image of man as derived from the idea of humanitas. On the one hand, Nancy emphasizes the great emancipatory value of the Enlightenment: it freed human beings to think for themselves, and it inaugurated the moment of the “auto”. Nevertheless, today we face a different challenge, intimated by Nancy’s claim that our world today is a place of plurality, of multitude, which consequently furnishes us with a new ethical task. At issue is no longer the imperative “to think for oneself”, but rather the requirement “to think about the multiple as dis-position, as dis-tinction” (50), that is, to think of the plural itself as a principle without neglecting the singularity and particularity of each individual. In other words, we must think of plurality not in terms of the faceless masses, but in terms of co-appearances. We must think of the multiple as the new face of humanitas.
Extending the discussion of plurality and the plurality of worlds, the third chapter is devoted to the notion of community as a politically active force of resistance. Jandin begins by asking Nancy to clarify the notion of community “by differentiating it from related notions, such as, for example, crowds, which inspired Baudelaire and sparked Benjamin’s thought, or masses, classes, and the multitude” (51). Having addressed the notion of crowd, Nancy turns to discuss the notion of mass:
[It is] a word that we’ve almost forgotten about today, although it used to be very present, perhaps after the postwar period, the adjective “working” frequently accompanied it: the “working mass”, an expression that was used in a positive way, by people who were involved in the social conflict. (55)
Whereas the notion of mass has been made redundant on account of our having “given up on a certain vocabulary of struggle”, the idea of a political community remains, although it instead appears under new “modified” names. Taking the place of “mass”, Nancy argues, are notions such as Rancière’s “no part” (sans part), suggesting a political alternative: a possibility of a world in which “there’s no politics unless the ‘no part’ manifest themselves in a movement in order to claim or demand their right to have a part” (58). Thus, while the class struggle in the Marxist sense is obsolete—both in language and in praxis—in Rancière’s thought (which Nancy sees as Marxist critique within Marxism itself) we may hope for “a new distribution of the sensible”,[vii] that is, for a Dissensus (disagreement). What we lack today, indeed what is lost, as Nancy points out, is the self-interpretation of society in terms of a conflict. And notwithstanding the fact that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, Marxist vocabulary is obsolete. We no longer hear about class struggle and exploitation. Instead we are caught in the mechanism of Capitalism, which provides the language of self-interpretation. This language is that of consumption and accumulation: of consensus rather than dissensus.
In these circumstances, there is no longer any distance between the crowd and Capitalist logic. Since the “good life” is now given in term of consumption there is no longer any conflict or resistance. Thus, as Jandin notes, in our culture “the workers themselves produce the objects that they must acquire in order to live the ideal life” (59). What is lost, nevertheless, is the distance necessary for developing a critical attitude: the distance between the subject and agents of power, which Foucault elucidates by identifying the prisoner’s with the guard’s gaze, bespeaking the loss of distance between the subject and the ideology of power, which is now internalized. This marks the wholesale loss of dissensus. Nancy names this situation the “rehomenization of society”, explaining through this phrase that we are facing a new kind of (so-called) equality, whereby everyone is equal before the ideal of consumption, understood as the newfangled ‘Highest Good’.
In a society that values large numbers (and large number of objects) we see how the logic of “accumulation for accumulation sake” operates. Today everything is commodified: art, nature, universities—even the human being. The chapter concludes pessimistically: if the word ‘emancipation’ comes from Roman law, an emancipated slave becomes a free man:
[Today], on the other hand, it’s perhaps no longer possible to think about an absolutely emancipated human being […] And we’re dealing with a question that’s come up before: Who? We don’t know who we emancipate—we say it’s man, but actually, since we don’t know who man is, we don’t know who we emancipate . . . (65)
The fourth chapter, entitled “People and Democracy”, centers upon the notion of “people”. This chapter recently received critical attention in the collection of essays What is a People? (Columbia University Press, 2016), addressing the ambiguity surrounding this notion, in particular whether it is one of “political emancipation” or whether it has become a notion akin to “a group of words like ‘republic’ or ‘secularism’ whose meanings have evolved to serve to maintain the order.”[viii] To demonstrate ambivalence towards this notion the conversation begins with an anecdote that Nancy recounts of giving a talk on the notion of “people” at a conference in Cerisy, dedicated to Jacques Derrida, entitled “Democracy to Come”. After finishing his paper, Derrida approached Nancy and said to him: “I would’ve said everything you said, but not with the word ‘people’”, to which Nancy replied, “Ok then, but give me another word”. He answered, “I don’t know but it’s not ‘people’”. What Derrida expressed, Nancy tells Jandin, “through this discomfort, the discomfort of our current philosophical situation, was this: At certain moments, we lack the appropriate words” (67). Derrida’s reaction demonstrates his suspicion regarding this notion, even though there is no better word to use in its place. This is not merely a linguistic or discursive failure but rather attests to a certain reality that this notion embodies as an “indication of something that exists, that must exist” (70).
Whereas “the people” are something that must exist, it is at the same time not given, for the construction of a “people” depends on an act of self-declaration, that is, a constituting speech act. In other words, a “people” can only become a political community in this act of self-constitution. Here, then, we can see the emancipatory value of the term in acts such as the one that constituted the “French people” during the Revolution. This act of self-declaration was unprecedented:
I don’t think the French people had ever declared itself as such before through anyone; the king declared himself “King of France” and by the same token all of his subjects were subsumed under or assumed by the royal declaration. The institution of the “sovereign people,” which is not an empty expression, will probably give rise to dangerous political problems. But the “sovereign people” is perhaps first the fact that the people must be able to make a self-declaration, without any superior authority to declare it or institute it as such. (71)
It was in this self-declaration of the French people (at that time of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and of the Citizen) that the Revolution began. Henceforth, the discussion turned to the question of the possibility of singularity within the plurality that the notion “people” connotes, as well as an interesting discussion on the implications of the notion of “people” in a culture, whereby what furnishes the tone is a concern with political correctness.
The fifth chapter deals with the question of political affects, which Nancy briefly touched upon in the third chapter. This chapter is governed by questions such as: “do political affects exit?” and if so “what are they?”, and “Why must there be something from the affective realm in order for political life to be possible?”. From the outset, Nancy dismisses what might have been the obvious answer to the first question, namely that political affects are essentially fear and terror, which one would normally associate with power relations. However, these affects, Nancy argues, are insufficient to “ensure the durability of a government”. Rather, the contrary is true: force must exhibit a sense of amiability so that one can trust the sovereign. This ensures a persistent, uninterrupted flow of power. This argument is supported by historical examples such as the case of Louis XV who was named “the beloved” or the image of the King as a Father, someone who takes care of a family, “the Patriarch”, looking after his subjects/children. But even if (as Machiavelli’s example makes explicit) one encounters the “virtuous appearance” of the prince, as Nancy rightly notes, “someone who has a cruel or perverse personality must be careful to present themself in a certain way” (87).
However, despite the intimate connection between sovereignty and affect, in the era of the modern state we witness the disappearance of affect:
To return to the topic of the modern State, one can say that, on the one hand, it’s forced to constitute itself outside of the affective realm of religion if it wants to claim its full independence, which would come to be called sovereignty, but on the other hand, it would still be forced to seek to qualify itself affectively in several ways and at several moments. (79)
Apart from the historical analysis of the dynamic between Church and state, it is noteworthy that, for Nancy, the question of affectivity holds an ontological significance, particularly in pertaining to the being-with of each of us. The connection between the singularities in this plural “body politic”, the community, is formulated in terms of touch (toucher), which is one of the fundamental concepts in Nancy’s philosophy. Marie-Eve Morin argues that touch is “somewhat equivalent to rapport or sense. That is, it names what happens between singularities, right at the extra of the partes extra partes”, rather than the merging of singularities into a unified whole.
Contra both the common-sense and philosophical understanding of touch as the sense of proximity (by opposition to the senses of sight, smell and hearing, which can sense at a distance), Nancy insists that in touching, what is touched always remains outside of what touches it, so that the law of touch is not so much proximity as separation.
The sixth part of the conversation, entitled “Politics and Religion”, is a shorter discussion on the difficult question of how the philosophical, the religious and the political interconnect. The discussion revolves around two axes: first, the implication of taking a theological term and using it in a non-theological context, and second, the question of the sacred.
Nancy addresses the first part of the question by making a reference to Gérard Granel’s essay Far from Substance: Whither and to What Point? (Essay on the Ontological Kenosis of Thought Since Kant). There, the Christian notion of “kenosis” (which appears in Paul) is given “an ontological index that is no longer theological” (96). Nancy recalls approaching Granel:
I remember asking him back then: What’s this about? Can we leave the theological behind? Today, very briefly, and as a start, I’d say we can’t. When we speak about “secularization” […] what are we talking about? Is it the complete transfer of the same content but in another context? If one takes a fish and puts it in a dry place, it can no longer live. Is it a metaphorical displacement? But then what does metaphor signify if one takes an element out of religion, it may no longer have a sense. If one extracts “kenosis”6 from its context, as Gérard Granel suggested, is there any sense in speaking about God “being emptied” of its deity in order to become a man outside of Christ, who was precisely this god who joined humanity completely? More simply, can one hold on to the term kenosis outside the context of creation and incarnation? (98)
Addressing the second part of the question, Nancy turns to discuss the notion of sacrifice and its relation to the sacred. Christianity, in its beginning was considered by many to be a philosophy, he claims. However, unlike philosophy or other religious groups it had a “relationship to a higher power and a higher ability to receive the complaints and the offerings of man at the same time, that is, a power that belonged to a logic of sacrifice in one way or another. Is this not what’s at stake in Christianity, which is perhaps the sacrifice that puts an end to all sacrifices, in the words of René Girard?” Nancy sees a connection between sacrifice and the “sacred” defined in The Ground of the Image as what “signifies the separate, what is set aside, removed, cut off”.[ix] If the sacred is what is set aside and cut off, how do we bond with it? Nancy’s answer is through sacrifice:
One attempt to form a bond with the sacred occurs in sacrifice, which as a matter of fact does belong to religion, in one form or another. Where sacrifice ceases, so does religion. And that is the point where, on the contrary, distinction and the preservation of a distance and a “sacred” distinction begin.[x]
However, if religion must involve a relationship to the sacred then Christianity is a “completely desacralized religion, which in a sense has been understood by modern society because it’s secular.” (100) But questions that remain are these: Can we be satisfied with desacralizing in this way? Is Christian behavior tenable as something that completely abstains from any relationship with the sacred? Given our over-scientific technological world:
one hardly sees how humankind could simply go back to the sacred now […] Perhaps the very grasping of what we call technology, reason, rationality, and so on will be transformed, but if this is the case, I don’t think that it will be in order to go back to some form of the sacred. (101)
In the seventh chapter the conversation turns to the question of art, a concern at the core of Nancy’s philosophy. While previously claiming to envy the artist who has the freedom to transcend the sensible/intelligible dichotomy, Nancy now turns to address the ontological implications of art, which he explored extensively in The Muses. Nancy begins by arguing that art presents us with a domain privileged for being able to reveal the “ontological range of what we’re after”, provided that we insist on the “heterogeneous multiplicity of the registers or regimes of the sensible” (112).[xi] But before exploring the theme of plurality, and the plurality of the senses, the discussion turns to the situation of art today, where by “today” Nancy means “a time in which the notion of art is no longer connected with the notion of cosmos or the notion of polis” (103) but is instead concerned with what is commonly referred to as “the crisis in art”. Nancy begins by exploring the historical background to this crisis (a crisis that we can perhaps simply call ‘modern art’) and the conditions leading up to it:
The decomposition, if not the rotting or certain disrepair or disassembling of something that was held to be a cosmic and cosmetic order until our time, or perhaps until the so-called “world” wars […]. This good and beautiful order, as it was thought about from the perspective of Europe or the United States, usually presented itself in the form of the nation-state. Besides, at the time of World War I, this order of the City […] began to crumble. (104)
However, despite the historical circumstances leading to a crisis in art, it is with Hegel that the idea of the “end of art” was introduced into philosophical discourse:
Here we can’t avoid returning to Hegel, to whom one always attributes the phrase that suggests art is dead or over, but whose actual words are that art is “a thing of the past.” With this expression, Hegel wanted to say that art as a representation of the truth, as the bearer of the representation of a general layout, was over, and I think he was spot on. (104)
Nancy here evinces agreement with Hegel’s thesis that art “is a thing of the past” insofar as art is no longer a representation of truth. Moreover, for Nancy art’s power is not in its mimetic function at all. Rather, art “consists [in] the gesture of taking sensation to a particular intensity” (104). This is not to say that art is merely about intensifying sensations, but instead that art first and foremost has to do with the discovery that our sensibility does not merely serve epistemological purposes—the sensible component in the acquisition of knowledge and cognition—but rather we can use our sensibility and our senses in ways that exceed cognition and induce pleasure. On this point, as Nancy remarks: “Once a man starts playing with his voice, not just speaking, perhaps already singing, we are no longer in the realm of phenomenology” (114). It is here where sensibility departs from its cognitive function—from its contribution to the cognition of an object, as Kant would have put it in the third Critique. Owing to this, the path to discovering a different aspect of sensibility is opened. Thus, in this respect the “end of art” designates both an end of an era, but at the same time the dawning of a new way of thinking about art, which is no longer committed to mimetic purposes, such as it had been since Plato’s Republic, but is rather (in Nancy’s words in The Muses) a “teckhne of existence”.[xii] For Nancy, while art has lost its representational function, it simultaneously gained ontological power: “like being, art presents itself as a surprise. It makes something visible without reproducing anything that would exist previously”.[xiii]
Nancy employs Focillon’s distinction between form and sign to argue that in modern art, color and sound function like “form” (which, one could add, was a fundamental category to aesthetic thinking since Kant’s third Critique). These, in being forms, signify only themselves, as opposed to being signs that “[signify] something else”. Thus, in departing from its representational vocation, art is freed to explore its own medium, and to make visible its own materiality. To this end, art “[makes] sound be heard for itself as it is being produced” (108), and “[does] color for color’s sake”, a paradigmatic example of the latter being, as Nancy notes, Yves Klein’s Blue (108).
The eighth part of the conversation is devoted to an elaboration of a distinction Nancy drew between “the present” and “presence” in After Fukushima: The Equivalence of Catastrophes. Jandin begins by placing the topic in context:
[You] distinguish between two senses of the present: the present as it’s been criticized in the “metaphysics of presence” (being present to oneself, etc.) and the present that should be taken into account more seriously in the sense of what is ephemeral, in the words of Haruki Murakami, the Japanese writer you cite. In other words, has the moment come for carrying out a displacement of our thought, from a problem of time to a problem of space? (119)
J.-L.N.: Yes, a problem of space as in spacing, which may also be the spacing of time, which even our own Western tradition knows very well.
Nancy uses the term “spacing” to designate the act of the original unfolding of space as the site of the moment of the event. It is an original unfolding of spatiality that is exposed only temporally. In Corpus, Nancy describes this space as “a space which is more properly spacious than spatial, what could also be called a place”. Prior to any ontic, empirical space, it is the “ontological clearing” (lichtung) in the words of Heidegger, wherein Being is made patent. Following Heidegger’s critique on the metaphysics of presence, and the stasis, permanency and immovability associated with the thinking of being in terms of a substance, Nancy thinks being in the active transitive sense ascribed to it by Heidegger. As such being itself, presence, is always in movement which cannot be suspended:
All of us have in mind these lines from Lamartine: “O time, suspend your flight, and you, auspicious hours / Suspend your sequence on: / Let’s savor the rapid, evanescent delight / of beauty’s finest hour” — words pronounced by the woman whom the poet loves.3 It’s the request that the flow of time be interrupted, if you like, and this interruption is not a cut or an absence of continuity, but the suspension of the continuity through which it can present itself to itself. The female lover implores for the suspension of time, for spacing instead of the haste of successive moments, which end up nullifying the present moment. (119)
The suspension of continuity that the lover implores is a request to be in the present, to seize the “now”, to cherish the moment and freeze it just for a second so as to “be” in it. But this wish is of course in vain. Just as “time flies”, being is always in movement. In “Laughter, Presence” Nancy addresses the painter who paints the woman he desires, but this is “the painting of her disappearance or of her disappearing”.[xiv] If it is possible to long to paint her, it is because she has “appeared”—but “so rarely”, and “so quickly fled”. Ontologically coming and going, into presence and out of presence, is one and the same movement.
In Basic Problems, Heidegger reads a fragment of the pre-Socratic philosopher Anaximander addressing movement in terms of the “arrival and departure” of Being: the “transition from coming and going” into presence. If the standing of Being in the Open is temporal rather than static or permanent then what emerges into presence is at the same time in the movement of departing from presence. This is the temporality of Dasein as opposed to the two other types of entity Heidegger defines in Being and Time that have a different existence in time:
But in this metaphysics, presence is actually considered to be something thrown on the shores of the river of time and that remains there in a sort of abandoned immobility. This is what Heidegger calls Vorhandenheit, that is, “Being-present-at-hand” [être-la-place-devant], a dense, motionless, silent, insignificant thing, to be differentiated from something “ready-to-hand” [sous-la-main] that is available for the activity or project of an existent, or what Heidegger calls Zuhandenheit. But one could say just as well that presence in this sense, even with the distinction between the two nuances, is not present at all or is present only for the existent that has it at its disposal. (120)
For Dasein, “one can understand presence in a completely different way as being intimately connected to manifestation or appearance, as we were saying, in the same sense as when one says that someone has a “presence” or that certain actors have a particular “presence,” which means the exact opposite of a thing’s presence. In this case, this presence is a “coming” (one “comes into the presence of”), an “appearing.” (120)
In the concluding chapter “Nihilism and Joy”, Nancy returns to the theme of affects. However, at issue are not political affects but affects that Nancy defines “as an affirmation of a sense of existence”. Jandin introduces the topic by questioning:
Our—final?—question is about nihilism and joy. Can one hear in “the possibility of a world,” the expression that seals our interview, an interrogation into the hope of exiting out of nihilism, which would mean being done with this world that’s ending and which has an affective tone of, in the words of Günther Anders, both hopelessness and the desire for revolution?1 Could one consider a world of joy—I’m aware of the Christian connotation of this expression—in the sense in which you write that “ there is not much joy in the human of humanism”? Must the “retracing” of the limits of the political leave room for the opening of spheres where joy would be possible? (127)
Jandin’s definition of nihilism in terms of the absence of joy appeals to Nancy (“I like this question’s position, which I’ve never thought about”). However, the latter attributes the “disappearance of joy”, and the “loss of enthusiasm – sacrificial, ecstatic, mystical […] [that] was present in all the mystery religions that existed up until Rome” (128) to the influence of Stoicism and Epicureanism, which [privilege] logos at the expense of Eros (128). Against the prominence of logos, Nancy claims, Christianity appeared with the theme of joy, particularly through participation in the divine, thereby fulfilling a need that was sought. In the modern world since the eighteenth century, Christian joy has been usurped by the idea of “happiness’, which Saint-Just, among the ideologues of the French Revolution (and an advocate of the Reign of Terror), declared as “a new idea in Europe”.
However, at the center of the discussion is Jandin’s evocation of the notion of jouissance (French for ‘enjoyment’ and ‘orgasm’, respectively), which Nancy addressed in both his essay on Lacan L’« il y a » du rapport sexuel, as well as in Dis-Enclosure. Jouissance , the Lacanian term for negative affects which store a possibility of enjoyment, affects which consist of both pleasure and pain, and are “beyond the pleasure principle, embody the separation between instinct and drive, and between procreation and pleasure (132). Once sexuality is dissociated from the aim of reproduction, once it is determined by the logic of the drive and its modes of representation rather than biologically driven, satisfaction is achieved through multiple fragmented erogenous multiple zones.
Just as in Freud, for whom the sexual drive, which although originally attaching itself to one of the somatic functions of the body can then exceed this function (e.g., the voice that is used for singing rather than for talking, the suckling of the breast in order to eat but shortly after, the suckling of the breast for pleasure, “sensual sucking”),[xv] Nancy similarly points to the dissociation between reproduction and pleasure, between life and what goes beyond it, to the intimate connection between jouissance and the death drive. As he remarks: “jouissance is how life shows that the desire to live, which is perhaps life itself very simply, goes far beyond the desire to go on living” (133).
[i] Jean-Luc Nancy, The Muses, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 2.
[ii] Dominique Janicaud, Heidegger in France, trans. François Raffoul and David Pettigrew (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015).
[iii] See Jean- Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural, trans. Robert D. Richardson and Anne E. O’Byrne (Stanford: Stanford University, 2000), “Why are there Several Arts and Not Just One?” in Jean- Luc Nancy, The Muses, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997).
[v] An expression Rodolphe Gasché uses in The Idea of Form: Rethinking Kant’s Aesthetics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 2.
[vi] For more on this point, see Ross, Alison. The Aesthetic Paths of Philosophy: Presentation in Kant, Heidegger, Lacoue‐Labarthe, and Nancy. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2007.
[vii] Jacques Rancière. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. Afterword by Slavoj Žižek. Trans. Gabriel Rockhill. London: Continuum, 2004.
[viii] Alain Badiou, Pierre Bourdieu, Judith Butler, et al., What Is a People?, trans. Jody Gladding (Columbia University Press, 2016), vii.
[ix] Jean-Luc Nancy, The Ground of the Image, Trans. Jeff Fort (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005).
[x] Ibid., 1.
[xi] For more on this point see “Why Are there Several Arts and Not Just One?” in The Muses, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996).
[xii] Ibid., 38.
[xiii] Peter Gratton, Marie-Eve Morin (eds), The Nancy Dictionary (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015), 27.
[xiv] See Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural, trans. Robert D. Richardson and Anne E. O’Bryne (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000).
[xv] On this point see Jean Laplanche, Life and Death in Psychoanalysis, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 17: “The crucial point is that simultaneous with the feeding function’s achievement of satisfaction in nourishment, a sexual process begins to appear. Parallel with feeding there is a stimulation of lips and tongue by modeled on the function, so that between the two, it is at first barely possible to distinguish a difference”
This book is a non-updated reissue of a book published by Humanity Press in 2004. Nevertheless, the University of Toronto Press did well to pick it up, because it is an important contribution to anglophone Heidegger studies. Markus Weidler’s review of the 2004 publication in The Review of Metaphysics, 60, 2 (December 2006): 399-401, is both a straightforward summary and a clear appraisal of the main thrusts of its contents.
The book’s title suggests that it might be a sort of manual for rendering Heidegger’s difficult technical vocabulary into English. Some of this is indeed included, but it occupies only the first third of the book (15-112), which is mainly historical. The second third (113-198), which is mainly systematic, concerns Heidegger’s own theory of translation, and the final third (199-304) is bibliography.
The Preface and Part One expose infelicities and errors in translating some of the key terms of Heidegger’s technical vocabulary into English. In so doing, Groth suggests a few modifications, some of which seem more controversial than the questionable renderings which he is trying to improve or correct. For example, he translates das Seiende, which he considers “the pivotal term in Heidegger’s way of thinking” (8), as “be-ing,” then gives an unconvincing explanation of how adding the hyphen emphasizes both the substantive and the participial or gerundive nature of this word and reveals how Heidegger used sein as a transitive verb. Since das Seiende “denotes the active ongoing manifesting of an effective actuality” (8), it leads him to rather farfetched renderings such as “seienden Menschen (actual human beings)” (8). The reader is left wondering not only how he would translate wirklichen Menschen, but also whether a clumsy circumlocution such as “human beings who actively are” would be more in keeping with his analysis of das Seiende.
One of the thorniest problems in translating Heidegger is to distinguish adequately between Dasein and Existenz. A common solution is to translate the latter as “existence” and the former as either “being-there” or “there-being” or just leave it in German. Groth suggests translating Dasein as “existence” and Existenz as “life” (9-10). Some of his reasons are cogent, but his flouting of the cognate is bound to cause confusion and his bending over backwards to avoid allusions to Dilthey is unnecessary.
Groth identifies six “fundamental words” (Grundworte) from Heidegger’s technical vocabulary as indispensable in his thought, namely, Sein, Seiende, Dasein, Existenz, Nichts, and Ereignis (23). We might add a few more, such as Sorge, Gestell, Anwesen, Sprache, Alltäglichkeit, ontisch, das Man, eigentlich, Bestand, Zuhandenheit, Gelassenheit, and even the infinitive lassen. Translating these terms as accurately as possible is crucial toward developing any plausible understanding of Heidegger among anglophone thinkers. Accordingly – and wisely – Groth’s focus in Chapter One (29-94) is on the earliest receptions of Heidegger in English, starting with Ryle’s review of Sein und Zeit in 1929, in order to identify the roots of persistent misinterpretations of Heidegger among anglophone scholars. Groth apparently believes that Ryle got Heidegger completely wrong, and it would be difficult to disagree with Groth about this, especially since Groth cites to his advantage several of Ryle’s most blatant mistranslations of Heidegger’s terms, e.g., Sein as “timeless substance” (30) and besorgen as “being-about” (31). Nevertheless, despite his strong criticism of Ryle, Groth graciously gives Ryle the last word, citing to Ryle’s advantage Ryle’s 1969 partial recantation of his 1929 review (32-33).
Groth is less kind to Marjorie Grene. He is not the first to name her 1948 Dreadful Freedom (later retitled Introduction to Existentialism) as among the least helpful introductions to existentialism in general or to Heidegger in particular. Her book, which considers Kierkegaard, Sartre, Heidegger, Jaspers, and Marcel, is worthwhile only with regard to Kierkegaard, and is indeed quite pernicious with regard to Heidegger. In the preface to the 1959 edition, she not only admitted her own laziness in trying to interpret Heidegger for the first edition, but also, after claiming to have finally understood him, rejected him outright and withdrew from any serious consideration of Heidegger to wallow in her pessimistic existentialist morass. After duly citing this preface, Groth shows how Grene actually had little or no understanding of Heidegger (35-36), but obstinately tried to squeeze him into her Procrustean existentialist framework and called his thought and language “weird” or “nonsense” whenever she could not satisfactorily perform this squeeze.
Groth gives about two dozen more good examples in Chapter One of erroneous pre-1949 receptions of Heidegger. Many of these early interpreters, e.g., the theologian Julius Bixler (37), misunderstood Heidegger’s idiosyncratic use of Existenz and thus threw him in among the existentialists. Others, e.g., Paul Tillich (47-49), Ralph Harper (49, 75-76), and Vincent Edward Smith (68-69) each erred in similar ways, trying to impose Thomistic or Scholastic categories of essence and existence upon Heidegger, who uses Wesen, Dasein, and Existenz in quite different senses from how medieval philosophiers used quid est, quod est, essentia, esse, or existentia. All that these theologically or existentially inclined interpreters really show is that, despite their interpretations, Heidegger’s philosophy cannot easily be turned in a theological direction. Furthermore, Eric Unger, writing for the intelligent laity rather than just philosophers, presents Heidegger not as a serious thinker, but as a curiosity, almost a sideshow freak (57-60). Not surprisingly, he also lumps Heidegger in with the existentialists. Unger fails to recognize the ontological difference, believes that Heidegger contrasts reality and existence, and translates Seiende as “reality.” A frustrated Groth writes that “any possibility of understanding Heidegger’s notion of existence is foreclosed by Unger’s translation of Dasein as ‘human life'” (59). Many such interpretations leave us “with an overwhelming sense of obscurity and incomprehensibility about Heidegger’s so-called existential philosophy” (65). Others simply dismiss his vocabulary as impossible to fathom in English (41). For Groth, none of these writers misinterprets Heidegger more grotesquely than William Tudor Jones (70-71) and none of them comes closer to satisfying Groth’s own understanding of Heidegger than William Barrett (72-74).
Regarding Heidegger’s too often alleged connection to existentialism, Groth notes in several places (e.g., 37, 45-49, 66-67, 72, 74) that some interpreters, especially theologians, are too quick to consider Heidegger in conjunction with the radical Christian existentialist Kierkegaard, who, after all, has very little in common with Heidegger. Groth suggests that this tendency to lump the two together may arise from inadequate understanding of such terms as Sein, Dasein, Existenz, Leben, and Wesen. He complains that some translators render Dasein as “human existence” (42, 47), which he says is redundant, since Dasein only refers to specifically human existence. Even though his point is well taken, the redundancy might be necessary to convey the full Heideggerian sense of Dasein to anglophone readers.
Given her life story and especially her close association with Heidegger from 1924 to 1926, we would expect Hannah Arendt not to misunderstand him, even when she disagrees with him. Nevertheless, Groth identifies an “essential error” (51) in her reception of Heidegger, namely, that she confuses Dasein, Existenz, and Mensch. However, as a native speaker, she surely realized that what was perfectly clear to her about Heidegger’s technical vocabulary in German could not be adequately expressed in English. Also, it is not unlikely that her view of Heidegger in the 1940s was influenced by her subsequent mentor, the avowed existentialist Jaspers, and was thus pushed toward existentialism. If we look at the German text of her “What is Existenz Philosophy?” (1946) or “What is Existential Philosophy?” (1994), i.e., “Was ist Existenz-Philosophie?” (1948), we see that among her purposes is to explain, in plain German, Heidegger’s complicated German to a German audience. For example, she uses Essenz instead of Wesen. Such a purpose would naturally not translate well. But Groth considers only the first of these two English translations, does not mention her German version, and indeed seems to be misinterpreting her, alleging, for example, that she equates Existenz and Dasein when she certainly knows better than to do that. Hence we should give her the benefit of the doubt. Much of Groth’s criticism of Arendt could more properly be applied to her translators, Barrett, Robert Kimber, and Rita Kimber (87 n. 48).
Chapter Two (95-112) gives an account of the earliest translation of Heidegger to be published in English: Existence and Being (London: Vision; Chicago: Regnery, 1949). It is important to realize that this book is not a translation of a book by Heidegger, but rather an English journalist’s loosely interrelated compilation of four of Heidegger’s essays (albeit with Heidegger’s approval). In other words, there is no systematic unity to that book. Of the five who worked on it, Stefan Schimanski, Werner Brock, Douglas Scott, Alan Crick, and R.F.C. Hull, only Brock had solid philosophical credentials and none of them were qualified to interpret or translate Heidegger (109). The result was not only a misrepresentation of Heidegger, but also an internally inconsistent hodgepodge. Groth shows how these inconsistencies swirled around the usual key terms: Dasein, Seiende, Existenz, and Sein (104), as well as Befindlichkeit, Entfremdung, existenziell, etc.
The art of translation is to break a textual or literary artifact apart then reassemble it in the context of another culture. Good translating has many axioms, e.g., use a dictionary as contemporary as possible with the text to be translated; translate into, not out of, your native language; try to preserve etymological connections, puns, permutations, transpositions, rhymes, etc. Heidegger would not disagree with any of these; however, his project was different. Going back to original terms and texts was a key aspect of his deconstructive agenda, and thus of his entire philosophy. He did not trust translations, but always preferred to consult and analyze the originals, which in his case generally meant classical and scholastic Latin and especially ancient Greek. Groth notes that Heidegger believed that misunderstandings and corresponding mistranslations of five Greek terms, alêtheia, hen, logos, idea, and energeia, have largely “determined the course of Western philosophy” (19), for better or for worse.
Accordingly, Chapter Three (115-163) discusses Heidegger’s theory of translation as it evolved from 1915 to 1969. Groth has painstakingly gleaned this theory from scattered remarks in Heidegger’s vast corpus. These gleanings provide insight into not only Heidegger’s theory of translation, but also his method and agenda of philosophizing in general. This feature alone would, for both Heidegger scholars and Heidegger disciples alike, make this the most interesting chapter in the book; but Groth makes it even more interesting with the extraordinary claim (116-117) that, contrary to common sense and to traditional hermeneutical principles, thinking is not dependent upon words. Rather, Groth holds that, for Heidegger, thinking is a kind of saying (Sagen), as if there were a real difference between the spoken word and any other kind of word. After all, common sense dictates that we cannot “say” anything unless we have words in which to say it. Without words, spoken or otherwise, actual thinking is not possible, but just a flow of inchoate emotions, disconnected perceptions, and vague notions of how to proceed and survive in the world on a purely animal level.
Groth notes that other commentators have missed this counterintuitive interpretation of Heidegger, as well they might, since it is spun out of thin air and couched in equivocation. Groth even presents evidence against it as evidence for it. He cites “language speaks” (die Sprache spricht) to support his argument that “thinking is not up to the thinker” and that we do not use language, but language uses us in the service of being (117). While it is certainly true that, for Heidegger, language reveals being to us if we listen carefully; it would still be a misinterpretation to take the individual or subjective human actor out of the process of creating or presenting language in the first place. Heidegger’s optimal kind of thinking, meditative thinking (rechnendes Denken), although we may get lost in it and end up we know not where, is above all a deliberate, self-motivated, and self-motivating act, as we clearly infer from Heidegger’s 1955 “Memorial Address.” His famous assertions that “language speaks” and “language is the house of being” mean, among other things, that thought hides in words, i.e., that thought remains concealed (verborgen) in words – whether written, spoken, read, heard, or even merely dreamed – until it is disclosed (entborgen) as being. If we conceive of language in the broadest possible way, then the existence and development of language is a necessary and sufficient condition for thinking.
Despite this major misstep by Groth, other aspects of Heidegger’s theory of translation and Groth’s interpretation of it are less problematic, and generally lead to the conclusion that translating is a kind of thinking (160 n. 69).
Chapter Four (165-193) provides a detailed example of Heidegger’s “paratactic” method of translating. Parataxis means “arranging,” “arrangement,” or “array.” Groth shows how Heidegger breaks up, rearranges, and reassembles an eight-word fragment from Parmenides, using Parmenides to elucidate more precisely his own meaning of seiend-, seen in the Greek as various forms of einai. This is a reciprocal process (183); i.e., in order to bring (herüberbringen) into German the concepts that are hidden in Greek words, the German translator must first immerse himself in Greek thought and go over (hinübergehen) into the Greek so as to become capable of understanding these concepts in both Greek and German and thereby of eventually rendering them in German. Thus Heidegger reads himself into Parmenides and Parmenides into himself. Heidegger is not interested as much in the grammar or syntax of the Greek text (150) as in its particular words, syllables, and even letters, so as to disclose to himself and his readers the far-reaching allusions, etymological inferences, and deep truths that would otherwise remain hidden forever, and were perhaps even hidden from Parmenides. This method coheres well with the whole deconstructive enterprise. “For Heidegger, translating was not at all a matter of words, but of ways of thinking” (108), which suggests that Heidegger’s translation of Parmenides may tell us more about Heidegger than about Parmenides.
Heidegger’s Black Notebooks. Responses to Anti-Semitism is a collection of essays in which an impressive gathering of scholars interprets Heidegger’s statements in the now notorious Black Notebooks. The book contains the conference proceedings of a symposium at Emory University. The essays vary in length and most of them respond to Peter Trawny’s interpretation of Heidegger’s antisemitism in his Freedom to Fail. Heidegger’s Anarchy and Heidegger and the Myth of a Jewish World Conspiracy.
There is little doubt that the Notebooks show Heidegger at his worst. Most of the commentaries agree on the rather poor intellectual quality of the notebooks, packed with repetitive arguments and personal lamentations as they are. In this volume, complaints are made against the “philosophical kitsch” (40), against the “sour mood” (76) of the “man with a worldview” (92) and so on. What matters most, however, are those “unfortunately unforgettable” (134) passages in which Heidegger inserts Judaism into the grand scheme of the ‘history of being’. The ‘Responses to Anti-Semitism’ in this book vary from pointing to the extreme stereotyping with which Heidegger proceeds to trying to understand Heidegger’s argumentation and detecting their value, if any. Several of the contributors, Sander Gilman and Robert Bernasconi especially, emphasize that Heidegger was part of the long-standing tradition of antisemitism in European culture—and students of philosophy, today, should not forget that in Heidegger’s time, in Germany, it was harder not to be a Nazi than to actually be one as the majority of Germans followed Hitler and his regime.
As for antisemitism in German philosophy, one can find in the volume rather embarrassing statements of Kant, Hegel and Fichte. Philosophers, though, are seldom saints. In this regard, it is good to recall that Derrida has famously pointed to similar occurrences of denigrating Eurocentrism not only in Fichte’s work but also in Husserl’s: responding to Heidegger’s antisemitism, we will have to ponder what exactly the difference is between Husserl’s exclusion of “Eskimos, Indians, travelling zoos or gypsies” from ‘spiritual Europe’ and Heidegger’s awkward remarks about “semitic nomads” in the seminar Nature, History, State or the exclusion of the “Negros” from time and history proper in Logic as the Question Concerning the Essence of Language speaks.[i]
I will not do Heidegger the honor of repeating the passages of these Notebooks in full. Peter Gordon argues that “much of the antisemitic material found in the Schwarze Hefte”, are not “terribly surprising, since [they] largely confir[m], though [they] gave a certain added philosophical depth to, the evidence that was already available in disparate sources” (136). This philosophical depth, in a way, is what Peter Trawny calls ‘being-historical anti-Semitism’. Heidegger’s error, however, is not the insertion of a petite philosophical concept in the grander system of his history of being. Rather, it is that much of the language the Schwarze Hefte uses to describes Judaism can lend itself to the must vulgar of racisms. The Jews are said to be without world, without time, without history—everything, in short, that would make for a ‘proper’ human being. Judaism has contributed, Heidegger says, and perhaps even caused the ‘forgetting of being’ because they supposedly do nothing else than calculate and swindle. And so on. It is good to be clear, too, about how shocking Heidegger’s ontic comportment towards his fellow Jews was. These facts are known: his rectorship, addressing his audience under the aegis of the swastika, his involvement in the Gleichschaltung or nazification of Freiburg University… All these things should never stop shocking us, readers of Heidegger.
Prior to the Schwarze Hefte, it was all too common to separate the man from the thinker and his philosophy: the man Heidegger certainly has its flaws, it was said, but his philosophy by no means had a predilection toward Nazism. The reasoning was anything but flawless and the Schwarze Hefte make clear just how well Heidegger’s views of ‘world Jewry’ fit into his narrative of the history of being. Such a ‘being-historical anti-Semitism’ means that Judaism actively has contributed to the ‘forgetting of being’: its scheming supposedly makes for the fact that all we do now is reckon with beings; its conspiracy such that it is Jews only who benefit from this ‘destruction’ of the earth, the Verwüstung der Erde of which the later Heidegger speaks. Just as Christian antisemitism will blame the Jews for their Gottesverlassenheit, so Heidegger use the Jews as a scapegoat for our Seinsverlassenheit. This antisemitism would have offended almost no one in the 1920s and 1930s. What is noteworthy in Heidegger’s history of being, is that no one, apart from the Greeks and of course the Germans, could any longer ‘hear’ the ‘voice of being’ and that the Jews were forever excluded from this possibility to hear the signals, the Winke, ‘beyng’ was supposedly sending. The antisemitism lies in the fact that the ‘ontological make-up’ of the Jews is such that they are unable to come up with an ontology. For Heidegger, this was the worst indictment possible. It would mean that Jews were condemned to inauthenticity and that no voice of conscience would extricate them, even if only instantaneously, from the field of the ‘anyone’. Just as they would remain deaf to being, the ‘being-historical’ antisemitism denotes that being will remain forever deaf to them.
Trawny’s essay speaks in this regard of an “apocalyptic reduction” (5).[ii] This ‘apocalyptic reduction’ is a sort of superstructure to the ontic and ontological realm of which Being and Time spoke, although both realms are now assigned certain histories: certain ontic ‘people’ are attuned to ontology and to being more specifically. On the one hand, there’s the great Greeks who had an experience of being, phusis, that soon came to be forgotten and now, urgently, lest the earth be destructed, needs to be ‘repeated’. This repetition falls to the Germans: only the Germans can lead the other people into the sending and the spreading of being. Apart from these two people, no one and no other culture has anything proper to contribute to the question of being: not the Romans who degraded the experience of the Greeks, not the Christians who imitated and so weakened the experience of ‘Rome’, not the ontotheologically sedated Christians of the Middle Ages, not the narcissistic consciousness of the moderns, and certainly not the Americans, the English or the Russian who only contribute to the spreading (Austrag) of a very limited experience of being, namely the experience of Machenschaft and Gestell, one that can only reckon with beings and knows no longer of being.
Heidegger did sense that something was ending. Several papers in this volume seem to agree that this narrative, the narrative of a first beginning in Greece and a second, other beginning in Germany, now has to be abandoned. This, however, need not mean that Heidegger overstated the ‘end’ of metaphysics. What is needed, Peter Gordon argues, is a “critical appropriation” (149) of Heidegger’s insights concerning the “dismantling” of metaphysics (147) and the concomitant effort of “working out the ‘unthought’ in the thought of the canonical texts” (150). Bernasconi, likewise, states that the forms of oppression that slipped into the canon of philosophy should be addressed and that the impetus for this comes from Heidegger (184). Heidegger’s thought perhaps comes with its own “unthought”, or, as Michael Marder signals, with “the thoughtless […] in the midst of rigorous thought” (101).
We should be aware, as Peter Gordon argues, that “Heidegger himself chose to yoke together his complaints about the metaphysical tradition with crude and counterfactual generalizations about the Jews” (147). Just as we cannot separate the man from the thinker, so too Heidegger has ‘yoked together’ the ontic and the ontological. It is this that we must ponder (and I think this is one of the lessons of the Notebooks). We must be careful about this mix between the ontic and the ontological, for it easily leads to errors. Even if one wants to distance oneself from Heidegger or leave, like Levinas, the ‘climate of this philosophy’, this needs some “intellectual effort”.[iii] For instance, Eduardo Mendieta reads Heidegger’s antisemitic remarks about the supposed ‘worldlessness’ of the Jews into the ‘worldlessness’ of which Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik speaks (51). Yet what Heidegger denies to Judaism is not the same as what he denies to animals, for it would not be possible to attribute calculation and number to animals. There is no easy, immediate link between the antisemitic outbursts of the Notebooks and the other works. Bettina Bergo similarly seems to imply, in her suggestive but somewhat obscure essay, that Heidegger’s difference between ontological ‘dying’ and ontic ‘perishing’ might also be valid for those that came to ‘perish’ in the camps (73).
Yet we should not minimize Heidegger’s ontic failures. One must philosophize with care here, though, for the following line needs quite some elaboration: “To overcome this anti-Semitism, then, will require to overcome metaphysics” (xxv). The sentence rings well in a conference brochure, but, in print, needs some extra argument. One of the things to keep in mind, as the introduction also states, when it comes to Heidegger’s antisemitism is that we should not minimize these antisemitic passages as if these were mere ‘ontic’ slips. Even though there is but ten sentences or so amidst 1800 pages of Notebooks that are clearly antisemitic, one must state just as well that one cannot be a Nazi just a little bit. Others have argued that, even though the man Heidegger clearly had his flaws, his thinking in no way whatsoever has anything to do with Nazism (xx-xxi)—these responses maximize Heidegger’s ‘ontology’ as it were, which supposedly is devoid of anything ontic. I think the Notebooks clearly contradict the latter claim and agree with the claim that Heidegger went astray somewhere at the end of Being and Time when he started to speak of the ‘destiny’ of a people. There is in effect a bit of an army in Being and Time; Levinas was not wrong when he sensed that community in Heidegger isn’t more than marching together.[iv] If one should not exclusively focus on these ontic missteps nor, for that matter, on the ontological being-historical antisemitism, where to go then?
Trawny’s earlier book helps here: “what happens to philosophy when we attempt to exclude it in advance from the danger of anti-Semitism? […] Overcoming anti-Semitism can only succeed by drawing near to it […] The opinion that it is always others who are anti-Semites is a cop-out. It is ‘I’ who am the anti-Semite”.[v] What both of the above strategies share is in effect a sort of immunization: the ‘ontic’ approach states that these passages are so minimal that one can still read Heidegger as if nothing has happened; the other ‘ontological’ approach will state that this antisemitism was there from the start and is, in effect, everywhere, so that one does not have to read Heidegger (pretty much what they had ‘in advance’ decided). The first response to antisemitism, or to racism more generally, would therefore be not to exclude ourselves from these traditions and, second, to acknowledge that the lowest of vulgarities can mix with the highest of philosophy. This first point is present in some contributions in this volume. Bernasconi’s essay is clear that Heidegger’s “accusers feed their sense of self-righteousness” (169). There is a real (and thoroughly unphilosophical) danger of selective indignation here: why are we appalled by Heidegger’s endeavors, but not so much by Husserl’s? Why can we still read Kant even when his anti-Judaism is as offending as Heidegger’s?
Bernasconi admonishes that the ‘intellectual effort’ needed to understand Heidegger’s failings now includes “racism, sexism, and Islamophobia” so that “scrutinizing Heidegger is […] the start of a larger inquiry or whether it is being conducted merely to make us feel morally superior” (185). Richard Polt warns that the Notebooks should make us think about “Heidegger’s limitations and our own” (97). Instead of rejecting Heidegger, instead of an unjustified reverence for the grand thinker of being, I think the more sober response would be to state that no one is immune for the projection of prejudices of all kinds into one’s thinking.
The supposed history of being might have led Heidegger to tell a totalitarian tale himself. The ‘apocalyptic reduction’ was such that he felt surrounded by beings and abandoned by beyng. Polt elucidates the steps of this reduction: first, there is the description of the “catastrophe” happening to culture through forgetting being and the rule of beings, then the stress on the rescue through those few who are capable of addressing the voice of being, and finally the complete disillusionment when this narrative doesn’t sit well with what was really happening. Though the first stage might be harmless (although one must be wary of ‘apocalyptical tones’), it is in the second stage of this reduction that Heidegger went astray, even ontically: for a while there he must have believed in Hitlerism and the ‘inner truth’ of this movement to lead European culture back onto the right track (whatever that might be). Jaspers once wrote that Heidegger wanted to ‘educate’ the Führer and there is in effect a long section in Nature, History, State on who would be capable to attend to the Führer intellectually.[vi] Martin Gessmann’s essay points out that Heidegger wanted to execute the politics of Being and Time and lead an entire people, as it were, into authenticity (123). It seems the case that Heidegger himself quickly became disillusioned with National Socialism and by 1935-36 the critique of the movement grows. As Polt writes: “Heidegger loses […] faith that the […] inception can be provoked by a nationalist revolution; it becomes [an] elusive possibility to be explored by poets and thinkers” (80).
Not everyone is authentic, and certainly not the ‘anyone’ (das Man) of which Being and Time speaks: it takes a certain resoluteness and courage to take up this authenticity—even though, this ‘authentic stance’ is never permanent and, most often, bound to fail.[vii] It becomes more problematic when authenticity is reserved for this people rather than the other and certain ethnos is excluded from finding ‘its’ destiny and Heidegger forgets his admonishments in Being and Time with regard to such authenticity: ‘Germany’ now can take up, without failing, and without limit (at least thousand years!) its destiny.
Politics did make its way into his writings during his—brief but real—Nazi period. In his commentary on Nature, History, State, Bernasconi shows that “the project [known as] ‘the overcoming of metaphysics’ was initially developed in [the] context of a questioning of the Volk” because, soon after Being and Time’s Destruktion of the metaphysical tradition, this thematic will be replaced by an Überwindung of metaphysics.[viii] Heidegger entertained briefly the very ontic belief that national socialism would liberate us once and for all from metaphysics and its forgetting of being. The essence of this movement is to attune us once again to being. Whereas the Destruktion of 1927 means that one needs to work through and with the tradition in order to move forward and press into the future, the Überwindung of 1933 means that the time is ripe to overturn this tradition, to violently struggle against it, and leave it behind entirely—like many other Nazis, Heidegger became increasingly hostile to Christianity. The theme of ‘overcoming metaphysics’ stuck with Heidegger precisely because of this ontic belief in its overcoming, and the ontic role Hitler’s Nazism and Heidegger himself could play in its overturning. This has the consequence that, soon after his disillusionment with National Socialism, the movement in a sense is ‘in’ and ‘out’ of metaphysics at the same time: during his Nazi period, Heidegger believed that the ‘moment’ had come to liberate ourselves (or Germany at least) from metaphysics and that Nazism would do just this. Only a few months later, Heidegger noticed that National Socialism had, frankly, no interest in the philosophical ‘upliftment’ of humanity whatsoever, and could not but conclude that the movement itself was part and parcel of the metaphysical tradition the thinker then sought to ‘overcome’. After the ontic belief in the supposed ‘saving power’ of Nazism, Heidegger believed that metaphysics persisted.
It is, however, still Heidegger who is deciding who is in and who is out. In Of Spirit, Derrida mentions the presence of two “vibrations at the same time”[ix] in Heidegger, namely one that believed that this movement could embody the ‘spirit’ needed to tune in to being and another, more vague and more truthful use of spirit, stating that the ‘spirit’ of being remains ungraspable and absent. But this is not yet what is going on in Heidegger’s thinking here. Heidegger, when criticizing the movement, did perhaps no longer believe that this totalitarian rule awoke us to being, but he was very clear in naming instances that certainly could not incarnate the ‘spirit’ of being. This act of ‘naming’ who is in and who is out, itself, might be the mistake that led Heidegger to the gravest of opinions ontically: it is in any case ‘the cop-out’ that Trawny mentions.
Such ontic belief that philosophy could act upon the events of world history should concern us. Many of the contributors here agree that this mix between ontic beliefs and ontological viewpoints led Heidegger into error. We should ponder how such a link is to be conceived. Even in 1927 Heidegger acknowledged the ‘ontic ideal’ underlying his ontology, even when insisting on separating ontology from all things ontic. One might conceive a phenomenology that disturbs Heidegger’s neat distinction between ‘ontic’ fear and ontological anxiety for death, by thinking of ontic figures that incarnate this anxiety concretely: a terminal sickness has both ontic and ontological aspects—my death can announce itself quite concretely by this or that cancer, this or that hospital room, etc.
Yet when Heidegger links his ontology to ontic politics something goes wrong and Heidegger himself forgets that he is not immune to the things that he was warning against, namely metaphysics and instrumental rationality. Just as the ontic figures of National Socialism crept into Heidegger’s story of new beginnings, just so these figures had to take the blame for the absence of the need for another beginning. Marder argues that here “‘world Jewry’ is metaphysically deployed and loaded with the dirty work of world destruction” (99) and an utter absence of questioning becomes clear. Gessmann gestures similarly: it simply “gets scary once […] the history of Being is transformed into a ‘world-event [Weltereignis]’” (122). Yet when nothing happens, Gessmann argues, Heidegger turns to Nietzsche: a militaristic metaphysics of the will sets in around 1932. This disillusion is what we need to understand, for this history of being is such that, in becoming totalitarian, it becomes utterly detached from the actual events around Heidegger. Jean-Luc Nancy senses this when saying that all this talk about the ‘Es gibt’ of being ends up by caring very little about what is actually being given and happening.[x] Nothing that is happening will ever be able to falsify Heidegger’s history of being: it becomes totalitarian in the very precise sense that everything will fit into its grander narrative—if anything happens, say the heeding of the call of being in Germany, it will find its place in this history; likewise, if the feeling even the affliction of the Seinsverlassenheit is absent, it will similarly fit into the grander narrative of being. Heidegger always wins, but at the expense of an indifference and alienation that still needs to be understood.
For such an apocalyptic reduction puts the philosopher in the position of overseeing the world and its state of the affairs and he or she becomes the cosmotheoros. The problem with such an overseeing of world is not the least that the philosopher thinks himself able to pinpoint solution to the world’s problems. Bernasconi notes this tendency toward total understanding: “[distinctive is] the totalizing way in which his thought comes to operate. For Heidegger, almost everything belonging to Western metaphysics amounts to the same” (181). Heidegger obviously is not the first philosopher who claimed to comprehend ‘being and beings in their entirety’: it is this claim that he first condemned as ontotheology and to which he too succumbs in the 1930s. To explain this, one might consult the awkward passage (GA 94: 523)—mentioned here by Hans Gumbrecht—where Heidegger enlists the decisive moments in the “abyssal” history of Germany starting from ‘1806’ when Hölderlin went mad […] right up to “(9/26/1889)”—Heidegger’s birthday no less.
Here we once again have the (ontotheological) phantasm that one being (from within) would be able to grasp the entirety of beings (from without). We agree with Jeff Malpas’ recent reading of the Notebooks, when writing that, when disillusioned with politics, “Heidegger turns […] to the absolute primacy of the philosophical, withdrawing into a form of philosophical […] isolation […] even of philosophical alienation (a standing apart from the superficial and the mundane), in which the concern with being is given priority over everything else, including the political”.[xi]
This totalitarian way of thinking also shows itself in what Žižek calls “the obscenely pseudo-Hegelian way” (189) of Heidegger’s thought and which Polt elucidates as Heidegger’s “trope of finding sameness in oppositions” (86). The ‘intellectual effort’ required from us will be to discern when such ‘sameness’ actually was found and when it was not. This means that we need to take our distances from Heidegger’s dialectic and admit, for instance, that his wordplay is not always and everywhere convincing and that the attempt to write a ‘grand narrative’ of being perhaps is not the best his philosophy has to offer.
Several contributors point to such obscenities in the Notebooks. Žižek (on page 189) mentions Heidegger’s awkward thoughts on the “self-annihilation” (GA 97: 19) of the Jews, which in the history of being supposedly function as “a principle of destruction” (GA 97: 20). Heidegger seems to be dead serious in his victim blaming: the ones who have destroyed being will be destroyed themselves. Such ontic metaphors incite Krell to speak of an “unforgiving” tragic collapse and a “failure of thinking” in Heidegger, who often repeated that if being had abandoned us, this oblivion lay on the side of being and all beings would equally share in this abandonment.[xii] In a way, this act of name-dropping thus collapses the ontological difference between being and beings. Whether it concerns naming the ones able to attune us to being or naming those that are to blame for its forgetting, the mode of procedure remains identical. For Žižek, the ontological difference is understood as a “materialis[m] without regressing to an ontic view”, a difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ beings (200). It is to acknowledge that “reality is partial, incomplete […] and the Supreme being is the illusion imagined in order to fill in (obfuscate) this lack” (194). It is to forget that there is no final overlap between the signifier and the signified. Yet this lack is obfuscated when one turns to the divine as the ultimate signifier as well as when stating that certain people embody the call of being uniquely. The difference, one might say, is then inhabited (by a certain name) but no longer ausgehalten (in the nothing as Heidegger would say).
This ‘naming’ shows itself precisely when Heidegger ‘finds sameness in oppositions’. Marder speaks of a “complexio oppositorum” (110) that refuses to do its dialectical work. Then “international Jewry” in Heidegger becomes a ‘name’, a rigid designator that contains what cannot be contained: Judaism is worldless nomadism and yet they are cosmopolites, both pacifists that won’t fight for their country yet use a “imperialistic-warlike way of thinking” (GA 96:133) conquering the world—not unlike contemporary racism where certain people are depicted simultaneously as ‘poor’ and as ‘stealing our jobs’.
Polt mentions another example of Heidegger’s dialectic, for in these years Heidegger sees no difference between Nazi eugenics and Jewish attention to who counts as part of the chosen people. Both “reflect a calculative management of genetic resources” (86). Still later, Heidegger infamously sees no difference between gas chambers and industrial production.
I have no quibble admitting that these thoughts can be totalitarian. This does not mean, however, that this thinking cannot make us think and does in effect sometimes find sameness in opposition where one would not expect this. I similarly have no need of separating the man from the thinker and agree with Tom Rockmore’s statement that one needs to “surpass” (158) this distinction, for this philosophy is as affected by totalitarian antisemitism as the man himself was. Yet Rockmore’s argument is hardly convincing: it is not because the man and the thinker are related that this man cannot have thought great thoughts (even though, admittedly, not all these thoughts were great). Rockmore’s examples (which surfaced already in this review) to prove that Heidegger’s “being-historical anti-Semitism belongs less to the narrative about the history of being than to what one can call familiar German philosophical anti-Semitism” (163) prove exactly that—but also just that: that Heidegger was a child of his time, that he entertained a philosophical nationalism and that he too was prejudiced (as much as the next guy, I’d add). It seems Rockmore himself operates in quite the totalitarian manner: “once one admits that [anti-Semitism] is present anywhere in Heidegger’s theories, it almost immediately becomes visible […] everywhere or almost everywhere” (154). Here too some differences, between philosophy and opinion for instance, eclipse.
Heidegger’s thoughts on the enemy, which fascinates Trawny (12-13), are not particularly striking: I know of no nationalism that does not need one or the other enemy: the craving for identity of one people is always at the expense of the identity of the other. What needs to be thought is that Heidegger’s identity-politics from the mid-thirties onward also turns against National Socialism and why this critique remains unconvincing. Certainly, from the beginning of Heidegger’s relations to Nazism, people were, as Bernasconi notes, attacking him for “not being sufficiently Nazi” (177). Polt makes a strong case for Heidegger’s critique of Nazism (also in these Notebooks): Heidegger never entertains either their sheer biological racism or endorse their anti-intellectualism, their hostility to their enemies and their violent brutality (88).
Even then, Heidegger’s one and only question remains who is in and who is out when it comes to the ‘being-historical’ event of the end of metaphysics. National Socialism is now ranked alongside Christian scholasticism, Americanism and so on: stages on the way to the West’s end. Žižek states: “Heidegger’s critique of Nazism is […] a critique of the actually existing Nazism on behalf of its […] metaphysical ‘inner greatness’” (188). The mode of procedure has not changed: whereas first Nazism was deemed worthy of entertaining the question of being, now they are relegated to the many ‘still thinking metaphysically’ and cause the forgetting of being to spread. Nothing has changed: there is but one more instance that is named as part of metaphysics. For the possibility to think non-metaphysically only one being remains…
It didn’t occur to Heidegger, at this stage, that the other of metaphysics is not a property of this or that being, nor of a Volk. To turn to Derrida: if it was certain being was accessed only through language, then in the 1930s it was never questioned that this access had to happen through the German language. It is this ‘non-questioning’ that upsets Derrida, for it reveals something of an “unthought” in Heidegger: the priority of the question was never questioned itself and so misses that ‘there is language’ before one is able to question (being) at all, that language in this sense is a given. Language thus encloses being. This makes it rather uncertain why only German would pose this question. Marder relates this openness to language, this receiving of its gift, to a Levinasian form of hospitality (99). However, in Totality and Infinity this Other that we cannot ask any questions is called a Master—one is returned quicker to some kind of anti-democratic hierarchy than one expects.
What Derrida (and Heidegger, when he’s at his best) imagines is a granting and an allowance that comes with being, and which comes to us, beings, through language: “the question itself answers […] to this pledge”[xiii] and so responds to this granting. For Derrida, this concerns a “responsibility” that “is not chosen”[xiv] nor can it be answered by one people rather than another. For Derrida, it is spectral, spiritual and has a certain je ne sais quoi about it. Heidegger’s mistake was to think to be able to name this ‘I know not what’ and name it once and for all.
Such philosophical naming led to the gravest of things ontically, for Heidegger knew all too well that no one was really granted to lift the veil of this riddle of being, just as no one definitively awakens from his slumber through (ontological) anxiety and we all equally share in a certain ‘benumbedness’ by our world. In the Notebooks, he sometimes reached this conclusion: would it in effect not be the philosopher’s responsibility to “chase man through the otherness and strangeness of the essence of being” (GA 94:43)? It is too much to say that Heidegger wants us all to become ‘strangers on the earth’ but it is possible that the goal of this chase was not to rid us of all strangeness and otherness.
Only clumsy readers of Heidegger would heap together these forms of worldlessness: the worldlessness of technology is not the worldlessness of a stone. Technology is a rationality that conquers the world, but is still for Heidegger poor in world. Animals have an ‘Umwelt’ and are open to world, but are not world-forming as humans are. Benevolent readers of Heidegger will note that in Sein und Zeit (GA 2: 344), Heidegger speaks of a Benommenheit that is proper to Dasein—‘most often’ we are ‘absorbed’ by the world (first benumbedness) only to be stupefied and benumbed just as well by experiencing anxiety—whereas this Benommenheit is used only to speak of the animals’ world poverty in Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik. Can we conclude from this that Dasein is, a bit like an animal, ‘benumbed’ as well? No, perhaps. Can we conclude that these lines that Heidegger drew between the ontic and the ontological are not always as rigid as Heidegger himself wanted? Can we conclude that us mortals, in a sense, ‘have’ and ‘do not have’ world and that we are all rather bad at world-forming? I think so.
Krell explores what this ‘benumbedness’ exactly is and how it operates: it is an openness to world but not a total one. Heidegger describes it once as “essentially exposed to Other” which “introduces an essential shattering into the essence of the animal” (GA 29/30: 396). In order to survive, the animal depends on otherness, it can be by no means self-sustaining. If it ever would be able to have something like a ‘self’, it would be able do so only by virtue of such otherness. Heidegger says too little of this shattering in being, of such being exposed to otherness.[xv]
An ontic observation might add a little: at one point Gumbrecht wonders from whence the “conspicuous difference in quality between the […] Notebooks and other texts […] by Heidegger around 1930” (135), noting that the lectures were always nicely prepared and focused. Remark that Heidegger has written only one book, his other tomes are mostly seminars, speeches and notes taken for lectures. One can infer from this that the journal-like style of the Notebooks was not Heidegger’s preferred style and that for Heidegger to be at his best he needed an audience and thus others and otherness.
All this might be farfetched, but we need to admit that a thinking also exceeds the thinker and that he or she has no ownership, in a way, over the consequences of a thought. In his Freedom to Fail, Trawny claims that Heidegger speaks of a place of “originary errancy”[xvi], a non-moral space from which the thinker speaks freely of the freedom of being. This site of freedom is an-archic, as the event of being itself: it surges forward and arises out of nothing and for nothing, without a particular ‘whence or whither’. Though this is true of certain of Heidegger’s writings (e.g. Was heiβt Denken?) it is not without problems. Gregory Fried, for example, asks some poignant questions about Trawny’s approach: though it is the case that if we no longer question, we submit to authority and so end thinking. And though it is the case that we are today asking questions that were not allowed to be posed say fifty years ago—Fried mentions transgenders—and though this questioning itself seems to have “some sense of justice as their polestar”, these questions seem to presuppose some limits themselves (it is, for instance, not self-evident that someone would defend an authoritarian worldview on the basis of this free thinking). This is, for Fried, what Trawny overlooks when stating that posing limits on thinking would therefore only “play into a normative morality”. Fried argues that Trawny gives too much credit to ‘anarchic freedom’, leaving little space to criticize Heidegger’s antisemitism. Fried has an intriguing proposal:
“If thinking is errant, why can it not be a road trip that goes out [and] returns home […] to replenish what Trawny [calls] ‘the [t]enacious fabric of the everyday’? [We] must have a faith that in confronting the norms by which we have lived hitherto, we will do those norms […] justice by thoughtfully reconstructing and transforming them in the face of our lived situation […] and by leaving ourselves ever open to the question of when those norms need to be refurbished, or even discarded”.[xvii]
To conjoin free thinking and morality, we need what Being and Time calls a ‘destruction’ of tradition and not its overturning: one would be free to pose questions, question certain practices against the background of the prevailing norms and not, like in an overturning, reject them entirely. There would be some reverence for the tradition as well as the acknowledgement that the truth of these traditions might lie outside of these traditions. Not an ‘errant thinking’ that boldly goes where no one has gone before, but a thinking that seeks what is possible from within the coordinates of the tradition in which the ‘event of being’ transpires. Heidegger’s dismantling of metaphysics is less a “repeating of the past” as Rockmore argues (166)— in his thinking Heidegger was no mere conservative—but rather a “reappropriation” of this tradition that does not imply an “unblinking acceptance”, as Gordon rightly states. Needed for this is obviously a familiarity with the metaphysical tradition, lest philosophy dissolves in opinion.
Having come to this book as one who knows little of these Notebooks, but having read a fair amount of Heidegger, I’d conclude that by no means these Notebooks justify rejecting Heidegger’s philosophy entirely nor are they the first thing one should read of him—as the publishing craze around these Notebooks today seems to imply. It would be bad philosophy not to read Heidegger: this would forget the sheer force of this thinking and the way, too, it can enforce itself on its readers. It is the latter especially that one needs to think through if one wants to understand why a good philosopher can be a good Nazi.
These Notebooks could be read, not as a confession—Heidegger was not one to confess—but as a concession. One must ponder, as Žižek says, their “frank openness” (187). They are a concession, first, in the sense that he ‘lost it for a while’ in the thirties and succumbed to an ontic and ontotheological belief that, through him, the history of being became transparent. They are a concession, too, in that there was no immediate link between philosophy and politics and that any attempt to intervene in politics as for philosophy’s sake is destined to fail. They concede, not in the least, the fact that he too had submitted to this reprehensible regime’s stereotyping of racial issues and antidemocratic standards. And if it is true, as Trawny argues, that it is we who are the antisemites then the thoughts we need to take home from these concessions, knowing fully well that it was not all that easy to resist this regime and that back then it was easier to be a Nazi than not to be one, might be: would we have resisted the regime or submitted to its principle? After all: can one be a Nazi a little bit?
[i] For Derrida, see On Spirit. Heidegger and the Question (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1989), p. 120n.1. For Heidegger, respectively Nature, History, State 1933-1934 (London: Bloomsbury, 2015) and Logic as the Question Concerning the Essence of Language (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2009), p. 71ff. Reference to the book under review are in the text between parentheses, to Heidegger’s Gesamtausgabe in the texts as well as GA.
[ii] Trawny’s essay echoes his Heidegger and the Myth of a Jewish World Conspiracy (Chicago: Chicago UP, 2016), p. 71. Trawny’s book is criticized quite heavily by Taylor Carman: “Trawny […]avoids direct assertion […] by falling back on locutions that merely suggest, hint, indicate a particular passage ‘does not preclude’ this (33), ‘we cannot rule out’ that (34), and so on”, see http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/heidegger-and-the-myth-of-a-jewish-world-conspiracy.
[iii] Reference is, first, to his Existence and Existents (Duquesne: Duquesne UP, 1978) p. 4 and then to “As if Consenting to Horror”, Critical Inquiry 15 (1989) 485-488, as mentioned by Bernasconi on 168 of the book under review.
[iv] Levinas, Time and the Other (Duquesne: Duquesne University Press, 2006), pp. 99-100.
[v] Trawny, Freedom to Fail (Cambridge: Polity, 2015), p. 16.
[vi] Heidegger, Nature, History, State, p. 45.
[vii] See my Between Faith and Belief. Toward A Contemporary Phenomenology of Religious Life (Albany: SUNY Press, 2016), p. 25ff.
[viii] See his “Who belongs? Heidegger’s Philosophy of the Volk,” in Nature, History, State, pp. 109-125, p. 118-119.
[ix] Derrida, Of Spirit, p. 68.
[x] Jean-Luc Nancy, Banalité de Heidegger (Paris: Galilée, 2015), p. 51.
[xi] Jeff Malpas, “Assessing the Significance of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks,” to appear in Geographica Helvetica (2018), forthcoming.
[xii] David F. Krell, Ecstasy, Catastrophe. Heidegger from Being and Time to the Black Notebooks (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2015), p. 170.
[xiii] Derrida, Of Spirit, p. 130n.5.
[xiv] Ibid., p. 130n.5.
[xv] For this, see David F. Krell, Derrida and Our Animal Others (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2013), pp. 114-116.
[xvi] Trawny, Freedom to Fail, p. 41.
[xvii] See for this Gregory Fried at http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/freedom-to-fail-heideggers-anarchy/.