Ian Angus: Groundwork of Phenomenological Marxism: Crisis, Body, World

Groundwork of Phenomenological Marxism: Crisis, Body, World Book Cover Groundwork of Phenomenological Marxism: Crisis, Body, World
Continental Philosophy and the History of Thought
Ian H. Angus
Lexington Books
2021
Hardback $155.00 • £119.00

Reviewed by: Talia Welsh (University of Tennessee Chattanooga)

Introduction

Ian Angus’ Groundwork of Phenomenological Marxism: Crisis, Body, World is not a light book, both literally and figuratively, at 537 pages of dense analysis of two of the most discussed thinkers in the last few hundred years. Not many contemporary works have tried to integrate Marxism and Husserlian phenomenology. While perhaps everything in the life of the mind is ultimately connected, the project laid out by Husserl and that by Marx seem to point in quite different directions with very different methodologies. Subsequent works by famous thinkers who were influenced by both, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Herbert Marcuse, and Jan Patočka, did not seem to penetrate deeply into the scholarship of the side they are less famous for—that is, contemporary theorists of Marx do not go to Merleau-Ponty to discuss Marx, nor do phenomenologists routinely discuss Marcuse. Angus’ book truly does provide a groundwork to facilitate more work that does not neatly subsume the thoughts of one thinker under that of the other. While Angus notes his main textual supports will be Husserl’s Crisis and Marx’s Capital I, he also embraces a range of scholarship.

One generic challenge to phenomenology is that it struggles to critically engage with complex structures in our societies that exceed examination from the first-person perspective. Perhaps we are not just molded by our social, cultural, economic, and historical place in time, perhaps even what the idea of subjectivity is itself merely a momentary reverie and thus there is no ground from which to properly phenomenologize. A generic one to the Marx of Capital I-III is that the force of his understanding of capitalist logic creates a world in which things are happening with or without individual investment. We are all swept up in the force of history. Not only does the critic point out what Marx thought would come from capitalism has not transpired, but the idea of a self-enclosed system that will either end in ruin or revolution seems to ignore the manifold possibilities that have arisen, for better or worse, as capitalism spreads over the world. While both critiques can of course be argued against as misrepresntations, I bring up these challenges as a way to situate Angus’ impressive text as taking seriously both the analysis of capitalist logic as well as the importance of subjectivity. I read him as arguing that one can do a critical phenomenology in a capitalist world without reproducing bourgeois sentiment in a new form. In particular, his use of the idea of fecundity, ecological thinking, and Indigenous thought help explore places where capitalist logic fails to entirely dominate the lifeworld and places from which we might consider a robust contemporary phenomenological Marxism.

Overview of the Book

Part I: Phenomenology and the Crisis of Modern Reason & II: Objectivism and the Recovery of Subjectivity

In the first two chapters, Angus lays out the crisis of the modern sciences in order to set the ground for his later discussion of the lifeworld. The crisis of the sciences frames the entry into Husserl’s phenomenology and its relevance for the integration of Marx’s work. Husserl asserted that the crisis of the sciences is that they have become abstracted from their origin in human life, and thereby lost their meaning for humanity. The development of the modern sciences initiated the institution of the mathematization of nature. While mathematization of the modern sciences is not called into question as wrong, Angus notes that the issue becomes when the mathematization becomes “sedimented” and sciences assume “their validity has become an available tradition that further researchers use without investigating.” (43) Sciences thus use their symbolic systems, such as mathematization, as if it were full of human value even though it, by necessity, is abstract from human meaning. If we come to assume that only that which is objectively demonstrable by mathematization is “real,” then we are adrift in a world with reality devoid of meaning. The human world of intuition, tradition, sensuous nature, language, culture, and embodied experience cannot be mathematized. When objectivity found from abstract mathematization becomes “true” and subjectivity mere opinion, we find a crisis of reason. “This is the crisis: reasonproceeds without meaning for human life, while value loses its sustenance in reason.” (46) Angus says that the “healing power of phenomenology” is how phenomenology can uncover this historical sedimentation of mathematical reason and recover value.

Chapters three takes up the idea that one aspect of the crisis is the instrumentalization of the lifeworld. To begin, Angus uses Herbert Marcuse’s discussion of Husserl and deepens the manner in which the crisis of the sciences affects the lifeworld. Marcuse, like Husserl, is concerned with the manner in which instrumental reason cancels out the validity of subjective experience. What Angus draws out is how Marcuse draws attention toward the way in which the lifeworld becomes, under the reign of instrumentalism, merely a thing to be used by various techniques and technologies. It is natural to use technologies and associated technical practices to obtain ends; it is only when we have no other means to think of our lives that they become “emptied out.” “The emptying-out that treats a type as a formal ‘x’ removes the technical end from any relationship to other ends as experienced in the lifeworld and theorizes it strictly formally, that is to say, without any consideration if such an end is valid, good, or just.” (101) If human life is merely how we can as living objects use technologies and techniques to obtain certain pre-determined ends, say more money, more production, we merely become things. Moreover, we become things that cannot determine value ourselves since we are seen only as a means to a pre-determined end.

In chapter four, the discussion of technology is drawn into the 21st century. Angus considers how our contemporary digital technological culture is an extension of the instrumentalization of the lifeworld. While digital culture pervades our lives and determines the character of our self-understanding, we do not actually experience the digital itself. We receive information on our computers, tablets, and phone instantaneously (120). Here Angus develops briefly the idea about the importance of silence and delay which will be more developed in chapter nine. As digital culture transmits its information instantaneously, we have no space from which to take a pause from it given how quickly we are presented with new content. Yet, while the lack of any pause or delay can cover up the capacity for bracketing the digital, Angus states that “this absorption can never be complete” for the subject registers this information with a certain “intensity” or “valence” that is dependent upon other investments within the lifeworld (125). These other investments can produce a delay or lack of circularity of the system of digital culture and thus potentially ground a recovery of reason and value.

Chapters five develops further how value is both lost and potentially can be recovered and draws Marx into the picture to understand how abstract labor separates us from value. We do not encounter things in the lifeworld as value-free and then intellectually add value to them some x-value. Such a move would follow from the model that the instrumentalization of the lifeworld suggests. We have both social valuations that come from a determinate time and culture as well as subjectively personal valuations based on our own experience. Here Angus connects Marx and Husserl, reading both as concerned with the manner in which formal sign-systems are unable to address individual objects of value (139). In commodity fetishism, social relations are systematically concealed, similar to how in a “scientific” view of objectivity, one is unable to return to the value that grounds subjective experience. Moreover, because the system of exchange is hidden in object fetishism, self-knowledge is eluded. “This systematic absences of self-knowledge in social action is reproduced in an apologetic scientific form in political economy such that it produces a systematic lack in the social representation of value.” (143) Angus believes in the value of self-knowledge, but also importantly in the idea of a universalization that will permit escape from both a valueless scientific or economic system and from value being relative to particular cultures. In the fourth part of the book, this idea is sketched out more fully.

Part III: The Living Body and Ontology of Labor

Chapters six and seven productively develop stronger connections between the phenomenological project and the Marxist one. One the most developed discussions coming out of phenomenology’s approach to experience is developments that surround the consequences of understanding ourselves as first and foremost living bodies. We do not first consider the world consciously and then judge it, but are first born into a complex cultural, historical, and economic world and our embodied experiences with that world come to shape our judgements by sedimentation, not by conscious deliberation. Hence the lifeworld is not seen as “a” lifeworld, but simply what is, including the values and norms that our society has educated us in to see certain things as real or valuable when it might be just as conceivable that others things might be more deserving of value.  The living-body is “the root-experience of the lifeworld” but we are always being with other beings; we are always part of a human, not just an individual, experience. (157) Angus separates out two features of our shared human experience: the positive “we-subjectivity,” the community in which we live, work, and commune with others, and the other and self as “objects” that either benefit or hinder any individual project (157).

Angus then turns toward Marx’s ontology of labor as the foundation of what it is to be human and what shapes human history. Certainly we need labor to live, but Marx argues that labor is also how we constitute our identity and the world in which we live (162). In Husserl’s work, the living body’s motility grounds subjectivity and Marx’s ontology of labor helps develop one way in which this subjectivity is formed. Angus agrees with Jan Patočka and Ludwig Landgrebe that early Marx’s view on labor lacked, unlike Husserl’s, a full account of subjectivity. However, as Angus will point out the Marx of Capital I presents us with a more complex view of labor. Here we see the sketch of much of the rest of the book—how an ontology of the lifeworld, in particular labor and its relationship to subjectivity, permits an understanding of the structures of that world. In order to connect the ontology of the lifeworld to a phenomenology of the living body, what Marx would call a critique, one must go beyond the “evident” nature of the lifeworld to question its current form and status.

Marx’s mature ideas of an ontology of labor as “a phenomenology of the role of human activity in nature” will shape much of the rest of the section’s discussion (180) While largely sympathetic with Marx’s focus on labor, Angus argues that Marx’s interest in technology as history determining cannot make sense without a better account of the surplus productivity of labor that allows such technology to form itself. I think it beyond the scope of this review to examine this critique—that is, is it really the case that Marx failed to understand the necessity of surplus productivity’s relation to nature?—but rather to take Angus at his word, and examine the interesting idea of fecundity that Angus will develop throughout the remainder of the text (187). The logic of capitalism of collecting commodities to be exchanged can appear to have circular and enclosed perspective. We work to produce things that can be sold to obtain money to buy or produce other things, ad infinitum. One can think here of Hannah Arendt’s dismissive view of labor as this endless need of human work to survive without the possibility of anything new coming from it, other than more survival and thus more labor. Angus writes that what actually happens, and what can be thought to perhaps undermine the capitalist project, is that labor exceeds what is needed to complete the next circuit—what is “the fecundity of nature.” (187) Here one is too reminded of Michel Foucault’s interesting ideas of how any regime of power/knowledge creates subjectivities that are not just docile, but also then have the means to creatively exceed that structure. Later Angus will develop the idea of fecundity to argue for an interesting ecological view of our current situation. Herbert Marcuse’s work helps underscore the emancipatory possibilities inherent in human activity outside its insertion merely into the logic of capitalism as labor. The event of any human activity is not subsumable entirely to the motivation that preceded it. One example is that the excess that labor can create produces not just things for survival, but culture as well. Culture then creates new forms of organization that exceed strict capitalist production.

Chapter eight is one of the densest chapters in the book. It takes up the idea of abstraction and its relevance for labor and value and concludes with how to revive value in the lifeworld. Abstraction in Marx’s theory is complex, there is the abstraction where individuals are only understood as significant insofar they play a role—say laborer or capitalist. Abstraction can also be where one analyzes the core features of capitalism and sets aside the actual concrete form. In this sense, abstraction comes close to a phenomenological reduction. Finally, there is abstraction in the sense of addition—“When we consider any only single factor, such as labor, there are a number of historical and imaginary, or logically possible, forms in which that labor could be organized: capitalist, trial, state, cooperative, etc.” (237) This groundwork lays the foundation for the most important abstraction in Marx’s text, to be later complemented by Angus’ formulation of abstract nature: abstract labor. Abstract labor is not illusory, it is real in the that is produced in the system of exchange of commodities. Workers, as individuals, are now just understood in abstraction as nothing but laborers qua commodities—things that can be bought. The commodity hides the relationship between humans, we do not encounter or know those whose products we purchase hence we tend to assume the value lies within the product—what is commodity fetishism. Laborers themselves becomes a thing as their labor-power is just another unit of exchange. Moreover, abstract labor operates as value—abstract labor has a certain value in the system of exchange and can be taken without consideration of the particular work the laborers are performing. As Husserl wrote about in the Crisis, one consequence of modern science has been the mistaking of the method of mathematization for actual truth and meaning. Marx’s understanding of the abstract labor likewise performs this move in a system of value (256). If only abstract labor is considered valuable, one has lost any footing the real world of humans, as individuals and also as communities in their culture and their history.

The lifeworld is able to recover reason as the place in which one can situate the historical nature of abstract labor and account for how its excess cannot be contained within capitalist reason. Excess productivity produces culture and also draws from the fecundity of nature which is never completely exhausted by capitalism. Nature, individuals, and communities produce excesses but given the particularities of the concrete spaces in which such productivity exists, there is no “unitary source” and thus they do not produce uniform products. Hence, “the proletariat has never acted as a unitary subject as Marxist politics has expected.” (277) Angus develops from this work on abstraction to an idea of abstract nature as critical to his phenomenological Marxism, pointing out that Marx, by not having a concept of abstract nature, is unable to explain just what abstract labor is to be performed upon. Briefly, Angus points toward ecology as a way exit the limitations of capitalist and modern scientific thinking and integrate nature and humanity. “The task of transformation would be to recover nature as the source of meaning and value, human labor as the giving of a specific form to that source.” (286) Ecology works from the connections between nature and cultures and can provide a method to get beyond our reductionistic thinking.

Technology is the theme of chapter nine which develops further the way in which the regime of capitalist value homogenizes production. While Marx and Marcuse’s views on technology are important to underline that there is no simple nature unchanged by humans nor humans apart from technical extension, it is Gilbert Simondon’s work permits us to consider our contemporary lifeworld more fully. Simondon is critical of Communist Party Marxism, arguing that the development of more technological societies with machines as central to production creates a particular kind of alienation where “both the worker and the industrial boss are alienated insofar as they are either above or below the machine.” (303) Hence, some Marxist views of technology as liberating are false. Angus draws our contemporary situation as another crisis because contemporary digital culture “approaches a pure transparency without delays or silences that could initiate emergent meaning” as discussed in chapter four (319). The speed of transmission of information and the lack of spaces in which to not be presented with such information reduces the capacity for the kind of productive excess that permits a possible exit from capitalist logic. One striking feature of our own society dominated by the capacity to share on the internet is how information is exploited much like physical labor. Cognitive capitalism is “neo-mercantilist” as a socio-economic form with the important element of “decay”—that is, the value of the digital form reduces over time (324). Thus, new digital products have a very short lifespan where they produce surplus profit and must be constantly produced by tech workers. As with his earlier discussion of technology, Angus argues that instead of transforming such digital spaces, “the struggles of the working class in such industries would not necessarily be to transform them as such, but to exist to become an independent, self-defining enterprise.” (324)  Technology itself does not liberate workers if they do not have the means to define its value.

Chapter ten lays the groundwork for the recovery of the concrete grounds from which to critique the mathematization of science and the abstractions of capitalism. Husserl himself celebrated biology in its connection to the living body as a means to connect the lifeworld in experience and the sciences of life. However, Angus points out that, as Marx shows us, bodies can be abstracted in labor and creates a closed system of understanding bodies that does not permit a true phenomenological investigation. Angus’ idea of abstract nature is added to this critique in order to point out that it is not just labor, and thus humans, that are abstracted in capitalism, but nature as well. Angus writes, “abstract nature if the fundamental critical category of our phenomenological Marxism that can be counterposed to the discovery of natural fecundity as an excess that underlines all human productivity and culture.” (345) Again, Angus draws attention to ecology as a way of thinking since it considers the connections between life-forms and the worlds in which they live, something biology does not do. This is a concrete starting place instead of the abstraction required by the sciences or capitalism and can think of communities instead of only abstract systems.

Part IV: Transcendentality and the Constitution of Worlds

Chapter eleven and twelve deepen Angus’ ideas of the phenomenological project and the need for an intercultural self-responsible phenomenology. Emphasizing the intersubjective nature of any lifeworld and the plurality of them helps underline how the need for the phenomenological view to complement Marx’s work. In Marxist thought, there is the tendency to see subjectivity as rather uniform amongst classes. Angus takes up the question if Husserl’s commitment to seeing Europe as central makes phenomenology not just Eurocentric, which I would think is hard to deny, but also fundamentally invested in an implicit view of European superiority. Angus develops a fascinating perspective on America, here understood as the Americas, rather than simply the United States, as the kind of example that makes any kind of European view limited. America is not a repetition of Europe; America is shaped by the “conquest-disaster” of its origins as well as by the Indigenous traditions and thoughts that also continue to shape it. The conquest-disaster begins “an ongoing institution that remains with us to this day and points toward some sort of resolution of final goal (Endstiftung). We live within this institution and its assigns us a task.” (399) The task is to see this lifeworld as it is, not as Europe’s, but with its own shape and demands. Angus argues this broader view of the historical nature of cultures helps expose the need to respond not just to the scientific and economic crises, but also to our “planetary crisis.”

This planetary crisis refers to the reason understood as technology that is based on formal-mathematical science as the origination of crisis and phenomenological reason as the renewal of meaning and value through a recovery of relation to the lifeworld. Meaning and value must be generated, not simply from looking back to prior institutions, but from events constituted by the planetary encounter of culture-civilizations that motivate an appeal upward on step toward great universality. (403)

What is needed is intercultural-civilizational understanding that moves toward universality. This might seem a bit strange, after all typically calling for greater intercultural understanding can be seen to call for something particular and non-universal. Angus develops not a particular kind of universality, say something like “Europe,” that should be taken as the goal, but rather a certain kind of community living together. While we live in a world saturated by calls for cultural understanding, one might rightly see them as a kind of buffet model—a little of this one and a little of that. This can be seen as how scientific-technological civilization renders all traditions as local and particular to the universality of its enterprises, so culture becomes like a disposable addition upon “real” understanding which is of course that which can be reduced to either scientific models or capitalist logic. This can also be seen as expressed, in a much different fashion, in relativist philosophies where one can affirm the other, but is left in without any means of overcoming differences. Angus takes up an approach where what the phenomenological tradition can guide for intercultural understanding is by pursuing not a “truth” that then can add various cultural views, like clothing, nor a set of discrete truths which cannot communicate, but a center-periphery logic where different assumptions in culture-civilizations can be upended by each other in discourse and attention to practices. Angus looks to build:

A philosophy that would be ecological, in the sense that it would focus on the concrete relations that construct a Whole; that would be Marxist, in the sense that is would criticize a social representation of value that relies on commodity price; and that would be phenomenological, in that it would ground value in the lifeworld in action and intuition, is a possibility that would enact this hope. (441)

Chapter thirteen spells out just what intercultural-civilization phenomenology could be. By using place-based knowledge, such as Indigenous thought, we can displace the tendency of planetary technology and capitalism to homogenize by abstracting individuals and nature. Like ecological thinking, Indigenous thinking starts from relationships and from thinking from community instead of thinking of individuals first. Yet of course, any community might not be compatible with another, so in order to move from the value of community to the kind of universal investment needed to combat the crises of our age, Angus appeals in chapter fourteen to Charles Taylor’s notion that “each cultural group can find its own reasons for belonging in a higher unity, that the reasons do not have to be identical for each group.” (453). Hence, the intercultural dialogue would consider crises that face us all, but not require that each group form a new identity but rather that each group understand their share and investment in the problem. The final chapter of part IV considers how philosophy can work to restore the fecundity of nature, of human labor, and of community investment. Natural fecundity is found not “outside” human experience in the environment as a thing, but rather within a cultural heritage’s manner in which it takes up freedom. Indigenous thought and ecological thinking help show ways in which cultural heritage and cultural understanding are not limitations to “proper” science or economic systems, but important ways in which to understand relationships and value.

Part V: Self-Responsibility as Teleologically Given in Transcendental Phenomenology

The final section of the book develops the idea that philosophy in the manner outlined above cannot be first and foremost about rule-following. After all, if we are to take seriously intercultural dialogues and the heritage of communities, we cannot find a common set of ethical rules that must guide them all. Moreover, any lifeworld unexamined appears to us “how it is” and thus its “rules” are unexamined as they seem natural. The separation of meaning and value caused by the mathematization- mechanization of the world by the modern sciences and the forced abstraction of humans from their bodies and nature in capitalism requires both an analysis of its origins as well as a responsible call to action to try and guide a method for the renewal of meaning and value. Angus appeals to the idea of responsibility as a method of living by inquiring. “Self-responsibility is the ethic of philosophical inquiry and its practice in confronting the rule-following inherent in lifeworld practices.” (489) This is both a responsibility toward humanity and to the individual. Angus finds that Husserl remains too embedded in the tradition of knowledge “for its own sake” and thus remains unable to articulate a call to action. Instead, learning should be drawn into the strife of the world “with eyes wide open” and to search for justice. (499)

Conclusion

In the preface to the French edition of Capital I, Marx chides the “French public” who are “always impatient to come to a conclusion” that they might not wish to labor through the early chapters. However, he writes “There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.”[1] While I have nothing to say about if this characterization of the French public of 1872 is deserved, I do want to qualify my comments below as that perhaps they are testimony more to my challenges with the book’s steepness than the text itself. No book can serve all possible audiences, but I did wish the book were more readable for someone who was versed in one or the other tradition and curious about the possible connections. As it is, I would find it quite challenging for someone to read who didn’t already have a good command of Husserl’s phenomenology and at least an understanding of the critique of capitalism in Marxist thought. While Angus does provide an extremely detailed discussion of the main points he wants to draw from each, and thus this could act as a kind of summary, he does not explain for the reader the general frame in which to understand these very detailed summaries. This is particularly so for the phenomenological discussions. I cannot see someone who was well-read in Marxist thought making much sense of the phenomenological project herein since the discussion assumes a certain understanding of phenomenology’s language. I could imagine a reader unfamiliar with Marxist thought, but familiar with phenomenology understanding better the discussion of abstract labor and nature, so central to the book, since capitalism so defines our current reality and even someone who has not read Marx would be familiar with the idea that there might be problems with capitalism.

I wonder if the book began not with Husserl’s thought, but instead with a shorter discussion of ecology that appears very late in the text. This would provide a kind of framework and directionality to the text in which to work through the crises of science and labor. While the ultimate longer analysis of ecology rightly should follow his analysis at the end of the book, any reader would be familiar with our current environmental crisis and could help understand that this book would help elucidate this crisis and provide some ideas for action. In addition, more framing of phenomenology’s method might aid in reaching a wider audience. I also wondered at the conclusion, so exclusively considered with phenomenology where it would have seemed to my mind obvious here to appeal to the call to action in Marxist thought. In the discussion of communities, one could also think not just of communities qua historical cultures, but also communities such as labor unions, political groups, and religious groups.

However, this is a “groundwork” not an introduction to phenomenological Marxism and as such perhaps it is a text that is rightly directed toward an audience who can follow its density and read further as need be. It is a welcome addition to our intellectual life and provides an important way in which to address the manifold contemporary crises our world faces. In particular, Angus presents a compelling model wherein we engage with Indigenous and community-based thinking not to simply affirm the “otherness” of this thought, but to see it as an important interlocutor with European phenomenology and Marxism. The crises we face are not culturally located, but planetary, and as such require a universalizing, but not totalizing, response.

[1] Karl Marx. 1976. Capital Volume I, 105. London: Penguin.

Jacques Derrida: Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation

Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity Book Cover Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity
Jacques Derrida. Edited by Geoffrey Bennington, Katie Chenoweth, and Rodrigo Therezo. Translated by Katie Chenoweth and Rodrigo Therezo
University of Chicago Press
2020
Cloth $27.50
168

Reviewed by: Harrison Lechley (University of Brighton)

Introduction[i]

For someone so enthralled by ghosts, it seems fitting that a ‘long-lost’ manuscript should appear within Jacques Derrida’s oeuvre posthumously. Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity (University of Chicago Press), a text produced from the ghosts of Derrida’s archive, constitutes the third instalment of Derrida’s four essays on Geschlecht – a word which has no equal translation in English nor French but refers to sex, nation, race, generation, humanity, lineage in ambivalent measure. This posthumous reconstruction is based on: Derrida’s 1984-1985 seminar on philosophical nationalism (Ghost of the Other) at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS); and an ‘incomplete’ version of its seminars 7-8 distributed to participants at Loyola University, Chicago in March 1985 where Derrida had intended to present this manuscript (titled Geschlecht III) but instead presented Heidegger’s Hand (Geschlecht II). As such this volume comprises two parts: the first being the ‘unfinished and incomplete’ Geschlecht III manuscript; the second, Sessions 9-13 of Ghost of the Other.

Despite the impossible task at hand, the volume is perhaps as ‘faithful’ a reconstruction as Derrida scholars could hope for. The editors have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure as much of Derrida’s original material has been kept intact: where necessary Derrida’s own French translation is kept alongside Heidegger’s German, the original French translation and now their English translation; and ambiguous or illegible words (much has been transcribed from Derrida’s hand-written notes) remain and are marked out. As far as possible attempts have been made to ensure this reconstruction preserves the polysemy of the text and ensure no interpretation is foreclosed through editorial procedure.

That the lost should re-appear is a fitting place to start. It would be tempting to classify the publication of this text as a missing puzzle piece that completes the Geschlecht-series jigsaw and answers long-standing questions. David Krell (2007; 2012) has become a leading authority on this lost piece and poses the following: (a) ‘what sense are we to make…[of this] tranquil childhood’ (p. 178, 2007) or peaceful division of Geschlecht that Heidegger demands?; (b) the importance of animality (and its refusal) in the fundamental ontology of Dasein and Geschlecht; and (c) that ‘gathering is always a privileged signifier for Heidegger’ which ‘protects the unborne’ (p. 180; p. 189, 2007). It would be a mistake to argue that Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity reveals hidden answers that remained entirely elusive until now. The idea of a singular location which resolves disparate issues is precisely the problem Derrida targets here. This volume does provide crucial answers – but these answers are not entirely absent from Derrida’s other works. Nevertheless this is crucial reading for those interested in Derrida’s thought on the dangers of gathering as a privileged signifier; the ways in which polysemy remains distinct from dissemination for Derrida; and, finally, the problems of demarcating any characteristics as proper to the human. In sum, Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity threads these together in order to demonstrate a nascent political thought propelling Derrida’s earlier works which remain more radical than his later ‘political’ writings such as Rogues (2005).

Geschlecht III

Derrida opens Geschlecht III by drawing the audience’s attention to Heidegger’s interpretation of the German poet George Trakl in order to determine to whether a ‘Heideggerian reading’ succeeds in destroying or ‘extend[ing] beyond’ the ‘metaphyisco-aesthetic representation’ (p. 4), or whether it walls up to and becomes entangled and caught within its snare. In short, the entire volume centres around this singular question – how can Heidegger’s position be understood through his Trakl interpretation? – and Derrida’s dismay at this position. This should come as no surprise to those who have read Krell (2007; 2012): he suggested as much of Geschlecht III.

To begin Derrida analyses two pairs of literary criticism terms that Heidegger employs when interpreting Trakl’s poetry: Gedicht (poetic style or essence, oeuvre) and dichtendes Sagen (poetic speech, poetic expressions, poems); Erläuterung (elucidation, clarification) and Erörterung (situation but also contextualisation, discussion, debate) – rooted in the German Ort (place; location). Heidegger names Zwiesprache (dialogue) as the relation between Gedicht and dichtendes Sagen: ‘a two-way speech, exchanged here between Denken [thought] and Dichten [writing]’ (p. 23). It is thus a case of translation. Writing is exchanged for thought. For Derrida, this institutes a propriety to speech. To delimit Zwiesprache as the ‘most appropriate’ form of speech – that which defines the ‘Greatness’ of the Great Poet – is to situate (situation; Erörterung) thought as the Ort (place) where Greatness resides: Gedicht.

For Heidegger, the wandering path of Fremd (the root of stranger (Fremder) and the strange (das Fremde)) is a symbol in Trakl’s poems for accessing Gedicht. Following the Stranger leads to difference but not conflict. This is the Greatness of humanity that Heidegger envisions: peaceful difference. This path distinguishes the ‘thinking animal’ from bestiality for him. It marks the ‘tranquil childhood’ Krell (2007) implored us to make sense of. For Heidegger, humanity (Geschlecht) must follow this path, but designation or inauguration of a new Geschlecht (humanity, generation) is a two-step process: ‘there are…two blows, two strikes [Schlag], two stamps’ (p. 46) of Geschlecht. The first mark (Schlag) is discord or difference and the second is the inscription of that discord in grapheme as conflict or decomposition. The former attempts to mark the neutrality of Dasein without effacing the differences that comes with being-in-the-world.  The Stranger is a return to this first step and enables peaceful difference as humanity’s salvation.

This wandering path and its facilitation of difference evokes an erratic drifting which refuses the propriety of any direct path. Derrida argues this is an illusion: ‘the wandering of [this] Stranger we won’t call “nomadic”: he is not “countryless” or “destinationless”’ (p. 29). This gathering of heterogeneous elements can always be traced back to a singular Ort (place): the first step of Geschlecht. The desire to return to the origin, to find ‘the true’ (wahre) and safeguard (verwahren) it, is troubling for Derrida: it is an attempt to gather ‘our primitive language and we are not far from Fichte here’ (p. 17). Obliquely, Derrida infers the political implications of such a philosophical position: the expansionist logic of the nation and the exceptionalism that propels it. These themes of Ort, nationhood (Geschlecht) and gathering are, as the rest of the volume illustrates, caught within a politics of propriety.

Session 9

Geschlecht III thus seems to provide an overview of Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity with Sessions 9 to 13 each further elucidating an aspect of this overture. Session 9 focuses on: the role of Platonic-Christian metaphysics in Heidegger; the role of the untranslatable idiom and the importance of place (Ort); and finally, the difference between polysemy and dissemination. It is this last part which most demonstrates the difference Derrida wishes to institute between his own work and Heidegger’s. I would argue that it is this distinction which marks the difference between a politics of propriety and a politics which attempts to displace propriety and the violence it authorises.

First, Derrida proposes that Heidegger’s emphasis on the unicity of place (Ort) fails to be reducible to Platonic-Christian metaphysics, and yet also remains unable to think beyond it. Krell (2007) argues that Heidegger thinks of himself as offering a ‘reversal and overcoming of, or coming to terms with, Platonism’ (p. 184). Here we see Derrida dismiss the idea of any ‘reversal’ and argue instead that Heidegger’s emphasis on the unicity of Ort reveals a foregrounding to Plantonic-Christianity: a ‘more-originary’ place which is non-temporally ‘before’ or ‘prior to’ the Platonic-Christian ontological oppositions. Gedicht is not a spiritual place but a place of the material world, a place in-the-world. It is only the poems written (dichtendes Sagen) which enables the possibility of accessing the unspeakable Gedicht. Despite this, Gedicht gathers these ‘material’ polysemic poems into a singular and univocal, that is a proper, understanding. In sum, Derrida argues that Heidegger destrukts (not deconstructs) the metaphysical opposition of spiritual-material and reanimates it to think it differently. Yet, he merely tethers them to another singular site of origin (Geschlecht, Being or Dasein).

Second, Derrida focuses on the role of the untranslatable idiom in the ‘second step’ or second blow/mark (Schlag) which institutes division and, as Krell (2012) argues, ‘magnetises’ Derrida. Here, Elis, a young boy in Trakl’s An den Knaben Elis (‘To The Boy Elis’), is introduced alongside the Stranger which, for Heidegger, also promises salvation and the new Geschlecht. Both enable the possibility of resisting the conflict of the ‘second blow’ by returning to this ‘pre-originary’ first step: peaceful difference. Derrida argues this ‘pre-originary’ foundation is not neutral. The figures of Elis and Stranger can only be understood through the ‘Old and High, secret, idiomatico-poetic’ German (p. xxix) – not everyday German. Elis and Stranger are not universal nor ahistorical conceptions but deeply historical ones: they are impossible to translate, and only a deep, rich understanding of this history and its linguistic connotations allows for the possibility of their comprehension. Consequently, Derrida is concerned that Geschlecht, this new humanity, is delimited by the propriety of Old and High German as the proper thought of any ‘thinking animal’. Contingent characteristics are here made proper, neutral and universal. The Geschlecht that can salvage humanity must properly apprehend and understand this idiomatic and untranslatable history and be part of it.

This brings us to the third part of Session 9 and to the heart of Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity as a project (perhaps even the entire Geschlecht series itself): the gathering and untranslatability of Ort as ‘a difference between polysemy and dissemination’ (p. 52). Polysemy is not a word Heidegger himself uses. It is Derrida’s own translation of mehrdeutig (ambiguous) which aims to: a) capture the multiplication of difference that Being inaugurates; and b) to differentiate from his own conception of dissemination which, unlike Heidegger’s mehrdeutig (ambiguous) or polysemy, does not gather these differences into a singular unicity. For Heidegger, difference is coterminous with singularity but the former must converge or gather in a singular place: for instance, poems and Gedicht do not efface or annul one another, but the former are possible because of the singular Gedicht. For Derrida, this is highly problematic. It privileges this singular, idiomatic place above all others as the necessary starting point for humanity’s salvation from decomposition. Dissemination then is difference tout court; perpetual deferral and displacement. Any attempt to gather or locate is always a violent imposition. As Noah Martin (2015) wryly comments: ‘the kind of dissemination [polysemy] that is not in opposition to gathering is a watered-down dissemination’ (p. 3). A polysemic conception of difference continues to institute a proper place amongst perpetual difference. It is a violent and always unjust imposition which installs boundaries of propriety: moving from the metaphysical origin to the ‘pre-originary’ Being. What is proper to humanity’s salvation then is a thinking animal contingent on the boundaries of Old and High German: others can exist but the future begins here.

Session 10

If Session 9 is critical of Heidegger’s polysemic gathering, which privileges a contingent historical Ort (place) as proper to humanity, then Session 10 explores the violent implications of this boundary demarcation. Derrida argues that this privileging of historical place (Ort) enables a quasi-nationalism, one tied to myths of a discreet language, land and history, to overwhelm Heidegger’s account of the new Geschlecht.

Session 10 opens with a clarification: Gedicht is not something other than the Dichtung (poetry). Gedicht is rather the fundamental tone (Grundton) of the Dichtung; it is a silence that marks what is really being said when we speak. Grundton is not elsewhere with regard to the poems of Dichtung; it is the unspokenness of these poems. Gedicht is the unspoken, ‘true’ meaning of these poems. Heidegger finds this unspoken meaning by metonymically linking of words and phrases from everyday German to Old and High German. Gedicht, like Being, is always an essence of becoming: made through poems but not existing outside them. This negotiation means that the supposed neutrality of Gedicht and Being is then always marked by a discreet linguistic history: Old and High German. Derrida here summarises the fear that has stalked his reading of Heidegger thus far: it is not merely a form of nationalism, but a propriety of Being dependent upon these contingent, historical conditions and something far more delimiting in its scope. Session 10 argues then that just when Heidegger is at his most radical, he stutters, redoubles back on himself and imposes a quasi ‘philosophical nationalism’. This ‘proper thought’ of Erörterung, the thinking animal and Geschlecht act as necessary pre-conditions for humanity – reaffirming the propriety of those who can have access to it and can enter subjectivity. Anything less is bestiality or non-human. In this singular move, some humans then become sub-human and this marks the ultimate danger of any politics or philosophy of propriety.

Session 11

If Session 10 outlines the violent implications of delineating Geschlecht as a proprietary foundation for humanity’s salvation, then Session 11 hammers these home. First, Derrida situates the Stranger and Elis between and against two concepts of modernity and German Idealism: cosmopolitanism and humanism. Second, Derrida argues that Heidegger’s conception of the Occident (Europe, the West) is integral to this positioning. Moreover, Derrida argues that a Geschlecht which retains the Occident as its home is a dangerous form of proprietary violence which radically excludes.

The Stranger and Elis, unlike humanism or cosmopolitanism, refuse the human being as the foundation for the human experience: ‘what throws [the throwing, das Werfende] in such projection is not the human being but being itself, which sends [schickt, which destines] the human being into the ek-sistence of Da-sein that is his essence’ (p. 97; my italics). Heidegger turns to Holderlin’s Heimkunft (‘Homecoming’) to designate Heimat (homeland) as this thrownness [das Werfende] of Da-sein. Yet this homeland, Derrida argues, must be thought, not nationalistically nor patriotically, but rather ‘in term of the history of being’ (p. 98). Moreover, for Heidegger this history, this Heimat, must be understood as Abendland – a phrase Trakl uses in his oeuvre to denote the Occident and which literally translates as Land of the Evening. Heidegger eulogises that the evening prepares and clears the way for the morning and the new to come, just as Being is a site (Ort) which prepares and clears the way for the unborne Geschlecht to come. For Derrida then, Heidegger’s assimilation of Holderin’s Heimat and Trakl’s Abendland announce the limits of the new configurations that can emerge from Being (that pre-originary place) and which can resist the decomposition of the second step, the bad Geschlecht. The Heimat’s “countrymen” are not the citizens of the German nation; countrymen refers to those who inherit the history of being. In other words, it is those who retain ‘a belongingness to the destiny of the West’ (p. 98) – those who understand this history and inherit through Old and High German. Consequently, Derrida argues this move to steer clear of nationalism only violently reaffirms the propriety of ‘the West’ as the origin of Being thus destined (Geschickt) as the future of humanity’s salvation.

Session 12

Session 12 sees Derrida, in knowingly provocative fashion, name this discourse a ‘revolutionary promise’. The new Geschlecht, inheritors of Old and High German and descendents of Abendland, and thus destined (Geschickt) by virtue of this unique place (Ort) they hold in history, is this singular subjectivity – it may spawn others but this is where it all begins. Derrida further argues that Heidegger’s emphasis on the “Ein” (one) in Ein Geschlecht promises the possibility of a ‘completely other experience’ (p. 128): peaceful difference. Yet he concludes that it is this very demand for the Ein, for the singular and the securing of it, which ‘guarantees the ultimate foundation of every nationalism’ (p. 132) and thus reanimates the possibility of exclusion, dispossession and violence that Ein Geschlecht promises to release us from.

The new Geschlecht appear through Schlag – a mark or strike which clears the decomposition and inaugurates the unborne Geschlecht of Abendland. Two things remain important for Derrida. First, this mark (Schlag) is not only a singular mark. It announces the singularity of Being and the differences of all beings which might emerge from this singular Geschlecht. There is both Einfalt (oneness) and Zwiefalt (two-fold). Singularity does not efface difference; differences are maintained alongside the singular place (Ort) even as they are gathered into it. Second, Schlag, as strike or mark, does not merely mean destruction but operates as ‘an opening and a path-breaking’ (p. 130). This makes sense given singularity does not efface difference for Heidegger and it is the Schlag which clears decomposition for a new Geschlecht to break forth. It is for this reason that Derrida argues Schlag is untranslatable from German because any translation fails to carry over Schlag’s inextricable relationship to Weg (path). The mark of the singular (ein Geschlecht) is thus a pathway to multiplicity wherein all the new, unborne Geschlechter of the future gestate.

Schrijvers (2017) proposes that Derrida hopes for a unisexuality, a singular Geschlecht which ‘resists (even his) deconstruction’ (p. 2). However, Session 12 demonstrates that even this polysemic, path-breaking (Weg) Schlag, which promises difference alongside singularity (Ein) and a future of possibility over closure, ‘remains a path of return’ (p. 131).  Derrida argues, the pathway (Weg) of the Schlag (the mark) and the Ein (the one) ‘gives way to the more ancient, the more matutinal of the night before’ (p. 131). That which is closest to the most Ancient civilisation (this ‘first’ civilisation) – Ancient Greece, the West, Abendland –  structures Geschlecht (humanity, species, races, sexualities) and can be considered proper to the future to come of humanity and its true descendants. Proximity to Heimat determines Ein Geschlecht. Thus, this account of Being, for Derrida, remains an act of enclosure within the field of difference. Schrijvers misses what Derrida always targets: enclosure, the demarcation of boundaries and propriety. His hope, if one can exist, is to resist unjustified enclosure.

For Derrida, Heimkunft (homecoming) organises Heidegger’s thought on the proper and commands and enables all possible forms of nationalism and nationalist claims. The polysemic differences of Geschlecht are organised through the singularity of Heimkunft. Derrida understands Heimkunft as a ‘return to the source [which] can be a withdrawal or preparation for a new morning or new leap…this nationalist circle’ (p. 132). The homecoming is then a ‘path-breaking step’ which clears the way forward for national and colonial exploitation to operate. It is a harkening back to the ‘most original’ in order to justify venturing forth and appropriating all that is ahead. It is not simply then that those improper differences outside the singular propriety of Heimkunft (i.e. those other, non-Western Geschlecht or ‘races’, nations, ‘species’) are eviscerated – they are eviscerated through their interpolation into this ‘most original’ logic of Being. The Other is only understood through the terms of the self – ‘neutralising’ any sense of Other-ness. This propriety of self therefore eviscerates the Other by appropriating it into the self and this ‘most original’ logic.

Session 13

Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity’s final session, Session 13, provides the clearest indication yet of what decomposition means for Heidegger: modernity. It is against this backdrop Derrida argues, that the new Geschlecht of the Stranger and Elis must be understood as an arche-origin. Derrida claims that Heidegger’s differentiation between Historie (history as representation), Geschichte (history as that which happens but also tale or narrative) and Geschick (destiny) demonstrates how he constructs a certain history of Old and High German, descended from Abendland, as the arche-origin of humanity (Geschlecht). In naming the new Geschlecht as an arche-origin Derrida forcefully shows what has been latently pointed to throughout the book: this new Geschlecht as Stranger and Elis are proprietary claims, which replay in dissimulated fashion the metaphysical trap it seeks to escape.

In Die Sprache im Gedicht (1953) Heidegger rallies against those who argue that Trakl’s work is ahistorical because it does not contain ‘historiographical objects’ (p. 149). For Heidegger, there is no need for these when dealing with history of the ‘highest sense’ (p. 150). Failure to understand this is a ‘modern and metaphysical objection [which] stems from this objectivism and this philosophy of representation that is the mark of post-Cartesian philosophy’ (p. 149).  The distinction between Historie, Geschichte and Geschick is then Heidegger’s attempts to return to the past and articulate a different account of history altogether – one that Trakl apparently pronounces perfectly: ‘his poem is Geschichtlich [historical] in the highest sense’ (p. 149-150). Geschichte literally translates to history, story, tale, narrative, saga. Trakl’s poetry may not name historical objects, but it does mark Stranger and Elis; symbols of the new Geschlecht, the bearer of history and the future, and the destiny (schickt/Geschick) of the history of ‘the West’. Like the path-breaking Schlag (mark), these symbols carry history forth – continue its story – by returning to the ‘most original’ mark of humanity (Geschlecht) and making way for the future.

For Derrida, reanimating history cannot mean a return to an origin. This ‘movement toward the future is a return toward the arche-origin’ (p. 153). There is no undecidability nor uncertainty regarding this future. It is rather determined by the false construction of an originary moment which then legitimises ensuing violence. Here the ‘arche-origin’ legitimates Ein Geschlecht as both (a) the historical and proper subject of Abendland and ‘the West’, which has always existed; and (b) the one which is also its future and can act as its salvation. Derrida argues that Heidegger’s circular account of history only serves to ‘save what is proper to man’ (p. 152). It designates and delimits a Geschick (destiny), Ein Geschlecht, to ‘give humanity its proper stamp and make it come into itself, into its essence, saving it from what it is not or must not be’ (p. 152). This may be an essence of becoming: the future Geschlecht enables the fulfilment of this promise of history. Nevertheless, this future and this promise are always premised upon a return that is not ‘accidental or supplementary predicate of dwelling or the homeland [Heimat], it is the essential movement that originarily constitutes the homeland or country as a promise of dwelling. The country begins with the promise of return’ (p. 153). As such even an ‘arche-origin’ of becoming such as the Heimat of Ein Geschlecht (like all arche-origins) is an act of ownership over the future, which denotes what can appear within it by demarcating a past and a future (Abendland, ‘the West’ and the Occident) which do not exist. This demarcation and delimitation of the future thus marks its proper bounds. It institutes what does and does not count.

Conclusion

After reading Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity some might be tempted to argue that if gathering, even in the polysemic fashion Heidegger suggests, is so problematic, it must be avoided at all costs such that nothing is ever united. As responses to Spectres of Marx (1994) demonstrated, some will affirm then that deconstructive politics is no politics at all. Others would lament the lack of overt references to sex and sexuality, which Krell (2007; 2012) promised were the ‘proper subjects’ of Geschlecht III. Both responses would be short-sighted. In refusing the propriety of gathering and affirming dissemination as a form of anti-proprietary politics, Derrida argues we cannot rely upon the histories and systems we inherit. Gathering is possible; it happens all the time. But, in ‘protecting the unborne’, it will necessarily exclude, and failure to acknowledge any ‘arche-origin’ as contingent is fundamentally dangerous. Reading sex and sexuality through this lens disavows the imposition of boundaries that binary logics of sex designate. Male and female must be understood as limits which govern the propriety of bodies, determine our political horizons and authorises violence (be it the absence of appropriate and socialised healthcare or vigilante attacks) against those who defy these limits. These borders always overlap and coalesce with those of the human, race, nation, lineage to institute forms of propriety. This is the reason, it seems, that Derrida is so intrigued by Geschlecht – a phrase which points to these intersecting forms of properness and cannot be reduced to any single one.

Derrida’s concern throughout Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity is that Heidegger replays a metaphysical trick. A ‘Heideggerian reading’, Ein Geschlecht, Elis, Abendland cannot be reduced to the metaphysical, but neither do they entirely escape that metaphysical inclination for propriety: a proper way to write, a proper way to read the poem, a proper path to follow and more significantly a proper locale of Being – a properness to humanity. It is this propriety which threads each of the sessions in Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity as Derrida elucidates the violence which is authorised by any stalwart defence of propriety to humanity:  be it thought (over animality), a race, a sex, a sexuality, a nation, a lineage and so forth. Dissemination is positioned as the perpetual displacement of any attempt at gathering or enclosure and, as such, the perpetual disavowal of any propriety. It is therefore the possibility of resisting rather than replaying the violences of racism, colonialism and sexism (but also heteropatriarchy) (and so forth), which attempt to designate the kinds of bodies that are proper and improper. What is most interesting then is not necessarily what this volume  says about Heidegger (nor Derrida’s reading of him) but the dormant political force which  Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity and other earlier works (1978; 1982; 1992) reveal – that most radical energy which becomes more cautious in texts such as Rogues (2005). It is that energy that Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity provides today and it is this Derrida we cannot forget and must inherit.

References

Derrida, Jacques. 1978. Writing and Difference. Great Britain: Routledge.

Derrida, Jacques. 1982. Margins of Philosophy. Brighton: Harvester Press Limited.

Derrida, Jacques. 1992. “Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority.’” In Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, edited by Drucilla Cornell, Michael Rosenfeld and David Gray Carlson, 3-67. New York: Routledge.

Derrida, Jacques. 1994. Spectres of Marx. New York: Routledge.

Derrida, Jacques. 2005. Rogues: Two Essays on Reason. California: Stanford University Press.

Heidegger, Martin. 1953. “Die Sprache im Gedicht.” In Unterwegs zur Sprache (On the way to Language). 1982. Harper Collins.

Krell, David Farrell. 2007. “Marginalia to Geschlecht III: Derrida on Heidegger on Trakl.” The New Centennial Review 7, no 2 (Fall): 175-199.

Krell, David Farrell. 2012. Phantoms of the Other. Albany: Suny Press.

Martin, Noah Gabriel. 2015. “Review of ‘Phantoms of the Other: Four Generation of Derrida’s Geschlecht.’” Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.

Schrijvers, Joeri. 2017. “Review of ‘Phantoms of the Other.’” Phenomenological Reviews.


[i] My thanks to Viktoria Huegel for help with editing and proofreading, and for being kind to my butchering of the German language.

Jacques Derrida: Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity, University of Chicago Press, 2020

Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity Book Cover Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity
Jacques Derrida. Edited by Geoffrey Bennington, Katie Chenoweth, and Rodrigo Therezo. Translated by Katie Chenoweth and Rodrigo Therezo
University of Chicago Press
2020
Cloth $27.50
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