Leo Strauss and Contemporary Thought: Reading Strauss Outside the Lines edited by Jeffrey A. Bernstein and Jade Larissa Schiff is a timely volume that contains nuanced, scholarly, and illuminating reflections on Leo Strauss and various figures in the history of contemporary thought. In this review, my goal is to offer summaries of the fourteen essays. I hope that this will be a clear guide for the reader interested in a deeper study of the Schiff and Bernstein volume.
1. “Liberalism and the Question: Strauss and Derrida on Politics and Philosophy” by Jade Larissa Schiff
Schiff’s essay opens the first section entitled the “Arts of Reading and Seeing.” Schiff observes that Strauss and Derrida diverge not only in terms of their political affinities, but also as far as their “conceptual vocabularies” (12) are concerned. Schiff writes that their differences notwithstanding, “the lack of conversation [between the two] is surprising” (12) not only because “Derrida was clearly aware of Strauss” (12), but also because both were developing hermeneutic methodologies, which are respectively, deconstruction for Derrida, and esotericism for Strauss. The critical difference, which Schiff articulates between these two methods is that for Strauss, the thinker’s genuine thoughts are “concealed,” but nonetheless, they can be gleaned from the esoteric reading of the text. For Derrida, the deconstructive movement of the text makes even the thinker subject to an unwilful repression. Thus, for Derrida, the text only beckons with an illusion of holistic comprehensibility, but in fact, the truth remains an ever-receding horizon (14-15). On the basis of the differences in their philosophical methodology, Schiff establishes a more philosophically grounded understanding of Strauss’s and Derrida’s attitude toward political philosophy, which she summarizes at the outset of “Convergences: The Activity of Philosophy and the Trace of the Author” section (18-19). Schiff concludes with an invocation of Socratic self-knowledge, which she connects, on the one hand, to the Derridean insight that the world is also a text, and on the other, to Straussian view about the significance of the historical, cultural, and social context of the text. Thus, to read thoughtfully, means to seek out the knowledge not only of the author’s, but also of our own historical situatedness and “political commitments” (22). Thereby, we allow the text to call “into question what we think we know” (22).
2. “Purloined Letters—Lacan avec Strauss” by Matthew J. Sharpe.
Sharpe finds it perplexing that given both Lacan’s and Strauss’s interest in surreptitious writing, there are no sustained attempts to put these thinkers into a dialogue. Sharpe establishes an indirect affinity between Lacan’s psychoanalytic method and Strauss’s esotericism by drawing on Freud’s model of the unconscious. For Freud, the general work of the “unconscious consists of wishes and beliefs that have been repressed as by a political ‘censor,’ since they oppose the ego’s conscious self-image” (31). Likewise, for Strauss, “esoteric techniques” allow “great writers … to avoid [political] … censorship, and to indicate their true beliefs to careful readers able to read between the lines” (31). Thus, as in mental life we experience repression, so also the esoteric writer suppresses and hides the messages between the lines in order not to fall prey to political persecution. Another affinity that Sharpe finds between Freud, Lacan, and Strauss is their interest in espying causal and intentional order even in those things that appear to be governed by chance (32). Yet another point of confluence between Lacan and Strauss is their “concern for the law, and its relationship with human desire” (33). In terms of discontinuities, Strauss, as Sharpe sees it, prefers classical political thought and “contemplative or philosophical bios” (38) to the modern, post-Machiavellian politics and post-Nitzschean “metaphysical nihilism, ethical or political relativism, epistemological historicism, and proclamations of ‘the end of philosophy’” (38). On this presentation, human beings lack not only purpose but also autonomy, and the latter point is at least partially supported by Freudian insight into the commanding power of the unconscious. And yet, Sharpe’s final pronouncement on the differences between Lacan and Strauss ameliorates this claim. Quoting Lacan, Sharpe observes that the goal of psychoanalysis has to do with the “recreation of human meaning in an arid era of scientism” (43). This aim follows closely Strauss’s interest in a return to classical humanistic values.
3. “Seeing through Law: Phenomenological Thought in Soloveitchik and Strauss” by Jeffrey A. Bernstein
Bernstein is interested in seeing how both Soloveitchik, who “became one of the foremost philosopher-theologians of American Modern Orthodox Judaism” (52), and Leo Strauss rejuvenate the readers’ attitude to law. Soloveitchik was engaged with “‘halakhah’—the body of Jewish law as expressed in the Talmud” (53). Strauss’s “investigation, in Philosophy and Law, involves bracketing the prejudices of modern thought in order to recover a specifically premodern understanding of philosophy in its relation to religion and political life” (58-59). As Bernstein sees it, “both Soloveitchik and Strauss understand law as an optic through which certain fundamental phenomena come to light. In Soloveitchik’s case, these phenomena are the figures of homo religious and (eventually) Halakhic man; in Strauss’s case, these phenomena are religion and politics (as they come to constitute the theological political problem), and the relation between the philosopher and the city” (53). Halakhah, as the body of Jewish law, gives focus to Soloveitchik’s interest in finding an “objectifying structure for accessing subjective religious experience” (62). Strauss’s path indicates a possibility of an “actualized natural situation in which philosophers find themselves.” The latter is connected to religious concerns because it makes up the “perceptual horizon of revelation” (62). Soloveitchik’s and Strauss’s positions on the place and scope of religion constitute a difference between them. Whereas, for Soloveitchik the religious world encompasses the world of law; “for Strauss,” religion “would be (at best) a partial rendition of lived experience” (65). In other words, “[w]hereas Soloveitchik construes law ultimately as religious, Strauss articulates a conception in which the political and religious constitute the primal scene in which philosophy uneasily finds itself” (68). In the final analysis, Bernstein concludes that both Soloveitchik and Strauss see the power of law to structure and guide the lives of “nonphilosophers,” and to serve as a guide in the search for truth – for the understanding of “the world and their place in it” – for the philosophically-minded.
4. “Claude Lefort and Leo Strauss: On a Philosophical Discourse” by Isabel Rollandi
Rollandi constructs the conversation between Lefort and Strauss “around the figure and the work of Machiavelli” (75). Rollandi explains that Lefort thinks that for Strauss, “the proper perspective is achieved by the reader only when we discover the permanence of the problems confronted by human thought as well as Machiavelli’s concern for addressing them” (76). Rollandi shows that Lefort’s hermeneutic approach to Strauss applies to Strauss’s writings the kinds of tools that Strauss himself applies to Machiavelli (78). In a highly illuminating interpretive turn, Rollandi shows that for Lefort, Strauss discovers the fact that Machiavelli falls prey to the same denaturalizing influence of Chrisitan religion that he sought to subvert by his philosophizing (80). The reason why Strauss arrives at this view, according to Lefort, is because Strauss, who sees himself as a perspicacious philosophical reader to whom Machiavelli’s hidden teachings become revealed, erases the “the difference between reading and writing” (84). In other words, Rollandi continues, “Strauss conceives of the author as a sovereign ruler of his discourse. And in the same vein, he conceives of the interpreter as one who can master that discourse. By doing so, according to Lefort, Strauss cannot conceive of the reach of Machiavelli’s interrogation of the political.” (84) The reason why this is the case, as Rollandi shows, is because there is genuine novelty in Machiavelli’s political thought and in the political itself. The illusion of complete mastery on the part of the reader and the author prohibits Strauss from an encounter with the truly new.
5. “A Civil Encounter: Leo Strauss and Charles Taylor on Religious Pluralism” by Jessica L. Radin
At the beginning of her essay entitled, “A Civil Encounter: Leo Strauss and Charles Taylor on Religious Pluralism,” Radin focuses on Strauss’s and Taylor’s views of religion. Taylor, according to Radin, questions the possibility of the construction of the common moral core in the world where all belief in the transcendent is absent (112). Strauss sees in religious belief a salve from “social and communal homogeneity (descent into mass culture),” but Strauss is also apprehensive of the fact that religious communities “end up rendering all other groups outliers or outsiders” (112). Moreover, on Strauss’s view, there is an inherent tension between a political and a religious community. This view, as Radin presents it, leads Strauss to posit that “genuine political equality among religions might be impossible” (114). Taylor, on the other hand, is interested in “figuring out how actual political and social institutions can balance a commitment to freedom of religion with the need for adherents of all religions to interact nonviolently and on equal footing before the state” (114). Strauss and Taylor agree about the importance of cultivating virtue (118). However, for Strauss, it is highly questionable whether there is such a thing as a genuine education en masse. For Taylor one irreplaceable virtue is “tolerance … without which it is impossible to live peacefully in a pluralistic society” (124). Likewise, “Strauss is a defender of pluralism and of difference not only because of the positive effect such a culture has for both Jews and philosophers, but because he held that homogeneity and conformity lead to the creation of a ‘mass culture,’ which is then particularly vulnerable to the linked illnesses of mass culture, political indifference, and messianic expectations” (122). The danger of mass culture, as Radin explains, is not only in its susceptibility to gruesome political injustice and violence (122), but also in the vulnerability of a homogenized population to being swindled manipulated (122-23).
6. “Care of the Self and the Invention of Legitimate Government: Foucault and Strauss on Platonic Political Philosophy” by Miguel Vatter
The focal point of Vater’s examination is the “opposition between Platonic political philosophy and democratic political life” (135). As Vatter claims, the way in which both Strauss and Foucault understand the position of the philosopher in the polis is paradoxical; because for both the philosophical person is – at once – antipolitical, but also is engaged in politics by virtue of leading a philosophical life. For Vatter, “philosophical politics is “anti-political” in two senses: … for … the many who are subject to it, philosophical politics is experienced as “government” and not as a political life that engages the best part of their lives” (136). Furthermore, Vatter posits that “[f]or those … few … who subject others to their government, philosophical politics is ‘anti-political’ either because it gives rise to a doctrine of being that is no longer ‘relative’ to humanity (Strauss) or because it gives rise to a doctrine of self or psychology that is radically unencumbered by the social relation to others (Foucault)” (136). Both for Strauss and Foucault, there is a certain understanding of the self that allow a thoughtful individual to extricate herself from a thoroughgoing immersion in the communal life with the many. Vatter’s “general thesis is that both Strauss and Foucault see in Platonic political philosophy the birth of a governmental (as opposed to political) discourse” (136). “Governmentality,” Vatter goes on to explain, “refers to the “technology of self” that produces a certain ethos or self-conduct, such that this self is then enabled to conduct or govern others, in the sense of leading them. But whereas for Foucault the Platonic conception of governmentality is centered on ethical autonomy, for Strauss it is centered on ontology” (137). In conclusion, Vatter sees a slight, but important divergence between Strauss and Foucault on the meaning of philosophical anti-political politics. For Strauss, “philosophers could not desire to rule in first [sic.] person because their main activity was that of questioning, or illuminating the (unanswerable) basic problems” (149). However, for Foucault, the self-searches of the philosopher grant her a privileged position of becoming a leader of others by first being genuinely a seeker of self-knowledge (149). This moment of philosophical self-articulation is also something that Vatter identifies with self-rule, which he sees as a prerequisite for an informed and good rule of others (148).
7. “A Fruitful Disagreement: The Philosophical Encounter between George P. Grant and Leo Strauss” by Waller R. Newell
Newell largely uses Straussian influences on Grant to interpret Grant’s philosophical program. Newell opens his piece by indicating that Grant’s study of Strauss tempered his faith in historical progress and informed his return to the ancient roots of political thinking. However, whereas “Strauss always maintained a sharp divergence between classical philosophy and revelation, Grant was a Christian Platonist who believed the two were not irreconcilable” (161). Newell develops this difference by juxtaposing Kojève’s engagement with Hegel to Grant’s engagement with Strauss. Importantly, “Kojève interprets Hegel as an ‘atheistic’ thinker” (163) because the latter further develops the project of secularized social equality; the project that was spearheaded by Hobbes and Spinoza. Thus, Kojève is calling for a “Universal Homogeneous State [UHS]” (161). However, and “paradoxically,” as Newell points out, “the satisfaction we achieve at the end of history” in UHS “is tantamount to the withering away of our most admirable or at least our most distinctive human traits” (165). “For Strauss,” as Newell continues, “and Grant appears to agree with him [i.e., with Strauss]—according to the classics, universal happiness is not possible” (165). Newell underscores that “[i]n Grant’s view, however, any argument for the superiority of classical political philosophy must come to terms with the challenge of revelation, a deeper source of the claim that compassion is more important than thought’” (167). Although universal happiness may not be possible for all, the goal is to ameliorate suffering of the greatest number. However, according to Newell, Grant holds that the equalizing power of the Christian faith that was promulgated as “secular liberalism” (181) is a double-edged sword. This is so because “the will to autonomy breaks loose from [its] … old content [and] … wants to entirely remake nature and the world in pursuit of the abstract, empty, endless pursuit of freedom” (181). Thus, for Grant, unlike for Strauss, it is necessary, but insufficient to look back to ancient origins of justice and divinity, because the modern project along with its secularizing and technologizing influence has reshaped human nature (184). In order to capture the meaning of this reshaping, for Grant, we must carry out a deep reflection not only on modernity and the classical world, but also on the meaning of religion (185).
8. “Strauss and Blumenberg: On the Caves of the Moderns” by Danilo Manca
Manca weaves together Strauss’s and Blumenberg’s accounts of the image of the cave from Plato’s Republic. Manco admits that “there is no proof of a direct influence of Strauss on Blumenberg” (187). There is also an apparent divergence between Strauss and Blumenberg on the question of the cave image. As Manca writes, Strauss identifies the Cave with a certain state of nature (187). Unlike Strauss, Blumenberg does not think that we can discern an “original horizon out of which history would have dangerously brought mankind” (187). Strauss sees modernity as being a cave within a cave. Our perspective is displaced, and we first have to find a way out of this historically, politically, and socially constructed displacement. Strauss’s ultimate position, according to Manca, is that we must find the truth by ascending from the cave. However, this is not Blumenberg’s view. The latter “is more interested in exploring the way in which the caves contribute to the acquisition of knowledge. Alluding to the prehistoric cave paintings, Blumenberg states that it was by passing through the cave that the human being became a ‘dreaming animal’” (190). In this connection, Manca introduces Blumenberg’s work on metaphor and the power of myth, which already in Plato, was constitutive of philosophical thought (190). This power continues to inform our thinking and our lives with newfound and often re-figured meanings. In conclusion, Manca states that “Strauss’s main goal is the return to the investigation of the essence of things. Therefore, historiographical investigation can be taken to be only an auxiliary, albeit integral, part of philosophical inquiry. On the contrary, for Blumenberg, historiographical research embraces the entire field of philosophical investigation insofar as it is focused on the study of absolute metaphors” (198-99). For Strauss, historical situatedness of philosophical ideas is one of the tools of investigation into the truth of the matter; for Blumenberg it lays out the entirety of the field of truth.
9. “Writing the Querelle des Anciens et Modernes: Leo Strauss and Ferdinand Tönnies on Hobbes and the Sociology of Philosophy” by Peter Gostmann
Gostmann notes that Tönnies influenced Strauss’s development and that, specifically, Strauss sought support from Tönnies when trying to publish “his essay on Hobbes’s Criticism of religion.” Gostmann concludes that “[u]nlike Strauss, Tönnies is convinced that there has never been a quarrel of the ancients and the moderns. There was, much earlier, a conflict between Old Rome and the new peoples of Europe: established groups versus wanderers, not aristocrats versus plebeians. The measure of the best possible regime Tönnies is concerned with, that is, the aim of his sociology of philosophy, is therefore a ‘natural’ synthesis between institutions suitable for continuity and the mobile elements of society” (230). Whereas, Strauss seeks to recover the ancient mode of philosophizing, on Tönnies’s reading, Hobbes – the quintessential modern thinker (217) – seeks to depart from the “contemplative” model of philosophy (213). Reflecting on this departure, Gostmann writes, “Hobbes’ pioneering act is the translation of Galilean mathematico-mechanical philosophy into a ‘moral and political’ science, based on the theory of a ‘dynamic’ mechanism of optic perception” (213). In his reading of Hobbes, Strauss concludes that despite Hobbes’ ostensible atheism, it is impossible to have a serious grasp of Hobbes’ thinking, unless one espies a certain theological bent in Hobbes. Gostmann discusses a highly interesting set of conclusions that Strauss draws from his study of Hobbes in Natural Right and History (223). For Strauss, Hobbesian thought eventuates in several substitutions of classical for modern priorities. 1) The value and virtue of contemplative life is substituted with industrious life and the rewards it allegedly brings. 2) Based on the first substitution, the governmental authority has little interest in wisdom or contemplation, and instead seeks efficiency in government. This results in doctrinal and partisan politics. Strauss concludes that these changes in social and political values necessitate a particular class of individuals responsible for “shaping public opinion” (223). The latter process, for it to be effective, must find support in the government of state. Thus, the said opinion-shapers, in turn, must see to it that in their work they uphold the interests of their government (223). As Gostmann sees it, for Strauss, Hobbes “has no profound idea of political philosophy,” which is why Hobbes produces a “doctrine that does not defend the freedom of philosophizing, but enables either anti-liberal doctrinism or liberalism without liberality” (229).
10. “Leo Strauss and Jürgen Habermas: The Question for Reason in Twentieth-Century Lifeworlds,” by Rodrigo Chacón
Chacón observes that despite the various divergences in Strauss’s and Habermas’s work there is still one definitive point of contact, i.e., the thinkers’ focus on reason (230). As far as the critique of reason is concerned, “critical thought is meant to be anti-dogmatic, yet it seems to discredit, once and for all, the traditionally philosophic use of reason” (240). This is where Strauss’s interest in “[s]ubverting the law of critique” comes in (241). Chacón writes that “Strauss argues against the view that freedom of speech and thought presupposes the public use of reason” (241). In fact, public opinion is not freely shaped by the individuals who make up that public, but rather, by a few convincing individuals who offer several pre-formulated views on any given matter (242). Nevertheless, because Strauss does not tie the critique of modes of thought to modes of production or social relations, he does not think that there is a “need to revolutionize the way we interact in order to change the way we think” (244). The one, perhaps unresolvable, “problem Strauss discovered … is the ‘theological-political problem.’ … Strauss provides no final answer to the question of whether we can acquire knowledge of the good or must rely on divine revelation to guide our lives. The result is a kind of impasse, or a productive tension, where each side in the conflict between reason and revelation challenges its opponent to articulate its position with ever greater clarity” (246). However, for Strauss, the task of philosophy is, emphatically, the quest for liberation from “religious authority” (246). In comparison to Strauss, “Habermas’s late work critique becomes post-secular. It is now aware that modernity cannot, after all, generate normativity solely on its own” (247). Thus, Strauss’s and Habermas’s thinking finds affinity in articulating this tension between religious or revealed law and discoveries about values and norms that non-religious thought may yield.
11. “Heidegger’s Challenge to the Renaissance of Socratic Political Rationalism” by Alexander S. Duff
Duff examines Strauss’s thought as “[o]ne inviting approach to the difference between Heidegger
and the Socratism,” which Strauss carries out “by looking at the following question: How does human openness relate to the fact of the articulation of the world or the whole” (261)? The reason why it is fruitful to pursue the encounter between Socrates and Heidegger from this point of view is because “Heidegger rejects or, more properly speaking, attempts to overcome the Socratic way of being. In this sense, his thought—from its earliest mature expressions to its fullest adumbration—is counter-Socratic” (260). Not only does Heidegger, according to Duff’s reading of Strauss, misconstrues the meaning of Socratic questioning, but also Heidegger misses the comic dimension of Socratic thought; thus cauterizing access to holistic Socratic philosophizing. On Duff’s presentation, Heidegger offers the following objection: “[w]e cannot understand ourselves when we take our bearings from the what is it question because, while the beings about which we are asking come into existence and pass out of existence as we do, we are aware of and concerned with our own perishing from, as it were, a ‘first-person’ perspective” (262). The orientation that attempts to align the things out there with the individuality of the inquirer has to be refigured such that the horizon of beings in their Being becomes accessible to the questioner. In turn, this questioner is placed within or along the horizon of Being. The latter, i.e., the existential horizon, is atelic, but only emerges “from deeper currents of temporality and care” (268). Duff then engages with Heidegger’s interest in the withdrawal or concealment of Being and the fruitfulness of thinking about nihilism in the context of reckoning with this withdrawal. In the face of nihilism, Duff says that “Strauss praises comedy for its attention to and preservation of the surface, opinion and convention. … Comedy punctures convention by lampooning it, but also shows the need for its preservation. Comedy forswears tragic depths not out of ignorance, but for the sake of presenting a more complete picture of the whole. Comedy is thus superior to tragedy; it transcends and presupposes tragedy” (272-73). Thus, by omitting Socratic humor, ridicule, irony, and comedy – both in Socrates’ utterances and in his deeds – Heidegger misses a critically important dimension of Socratic questioning and philosophizing.
12. “The Wheel of History: Nihilism as Moral Protest and Deconstruction of the Present in Leo Strauss and Albert Camus” by Ingrid L. Anderson
Anderson writes that Strauss’s “1941 lecture on German nihilism” shows a set of concerns that are similar to Camus’s. Both appeared to be discontented with the spread of liberal democracy, and both called for a “rediscovery of and renewed adherence to some semblance of absolute universal values, that are not created by the forces of history but identified in history as enduring and therefore fundamental” (282). Whereas Camus was a staunch critic of communism (284), “Strauss’s work on German nihilism indicates that his greatest worry was the advent of National Socialism. But he also wanted to expose what he felt were the ‘shaky foundations’ of the goals of liberalism, including its steadfast belief in the inevitability of linear progress” (286). Strauss saw German nihilism as particularly “dangerous because it is unable to succinctly identify what it wants to build in place of the present world that it aims to destroy” (288). However, on the point of Nietzschean nihilism, Strauss agrees with Camus who does not take nihilism to be a sign of a will to nothingness, but rather a will to destroy the sham values of the day (289). Anderson concludes that “[b]oth Strauss and Camus reject teleological understandings of history that posit a final cause or destination for human societies” (291). This position, if it is not nihilistic, is at least atelic, and it supports a Nietzschean revaluation of values.
13. “Who’s Laughing? Leo Strauss on Comedy and Mockery” by Menachem Feuer
Feuer gives himself a task to re-examine the place of comedy in Strauss’s work, and its significance for Strauss’s philosophical ideas. To that end, Feuer identifies “three important moments in Strauss’s reflections on comedy and humor: (1) his discussion of Aristophanes and Socrates; (2) his investigation of Enlightenment mockery and the arguments of the ancients; (3) his analysis of Nietzsche’s notion of greatness (and its relationship to mockery) and the Jewish tradition of extreme humility (and its relationship to comedy)” (297). On Feuer’s assessment, Strauss’s view of comedy allows him to think about it as both that which constitutes a relational bonding within a community and that which allows to disrupt the social and cultural horizons (296). The novelty of the worldview that comedy reveals when contrasted with tragedy has to do with the position of the comedian toward the law (political, religious, etc.). More specifically, as Feuer claims, Strauss’s key insight into the power of comedic boasting and ridicule has to do with the fact that, whereas in tragedy a hubristic transgression is punished (thus preserving divine justice), in comedy hubristic boasting is subject to comedic ridicule and to audience’s laughter. More importantly, and “here is Strauss’s esoteric twist: The real ‘boaster par excellence’ … is the comic poet himself, who after all is responsible especially for those successful transgressions of sacred laws that he celebrates in his plays” (305). On the subject of Enlightenment philosophy and the Athens/Jerusalem question, Feuer concludes that, as far as Strauss is concerned, the spirit of self-mockery, self-undermining, and of life-affirming humility is waning, but must be restored to Jewish thought. Feuer concludes his analysis by stating that, for Strauss, the “key question for Athens and Jerusalem is that of the right way of life.” (318) The answer to the question: “What kind of life is [this]?” is “that comedy and philosophy go hand in hand and that humility can, in fact, pass over from the religious sphere into the philosophical sphere. Taking this to heart, one can read Socrates as a humble comic figure who—between Aristophanes and Plato—can figure the tension between the city (community)/ poet and the philosopher. This tension,” Feuer argues, “can also be generalized and applied to the Jewish community, but in terms of prophecy and comedy” (318).
14. “Leo Strauss and Walter Benjamin: Thinking ‘in a Moment of Danger’” by Philipp von Wussow
Wussow puts Strauss and Benjamin in conversation by examining their common interest in Carl Schmitt. Looking at the three authors together allows Wussow to clarify the way in which modern religion and culture relate to the “concept of the political” (324). Wussow delineates “a number of theoretical similarities and differences. We may distinguish a few common themes: (1) the stance toward tradition and modernity and the critique of history as progress; (2) the reading of Carl Schmitt; the relationship between aesthetics and politics, and the notion of the political; (3) the stance toward theological and political concepts; namely, the concepts of messianism and redemption (to which Strauss was, unlike virtually all other German-Jewish thinkers, wholly indifferent), law (which was important for both), and revelation (which is central for Strauss, while it gradually vanishes in Benjamin’s writings); (4) a rare methodological emphasis on reading, and a strong sense for esoteric meanings hidden beneath the surface of a text that was fueled by a deep suspicion of the grand schemes of “theory”; and (5) their relationships to the two major schools of German academic philosophy. Both had a complicated relationship to neo-Kantianism and phenomenology: whereas Benjamin’s thought is closer to neo-Kantianism, Strauss is closer to phenomenology” (327-28). In so far as the relationship between politics and aesthetics is concerned, for Benjamin, an unmistakable “anesthetization of politics under fascism” takes place, on the one hand; and on the other, under communism, art becomes politicized (329). However, both ideologies are “murderous and indefensible” in the final analysis (329). Strauss’s solution to this merging of art and politics is based on his reading of Schmitt, and it proposes a return to the pre-cultural domain of law. Furthermore, both Strauss and Benjamin see great value in engaging with classical thought for the sake of gaining a deeper understanding of our times. However, this study of the tradition itself had to be repositioned. On this point, Wussow writes that “[t]radition could no longer be understood in a traditional way; in this respect Strauss and Benjamin were in perfect agreement” (335). Wussow concludes his investigation by saying that “[t]he two figures of interwar German-Jewish thought represent two different ways of conceptualizing the dialectics of modernity and premodernity; two models of viewing society and culture from outside; and two different foundations for the understanding of the political in its relation to culture” (338).
Phenomenology to the Letter. Husserl and Literature (2021), is a collection of thirteen essays that make explicit multifaceted theoretical implications between literature and Husserlian phenomenology. Volume number 7 of the collection Textologie by De Gruyter is edited by Philippe P. Haensler, Kristina Mendicino, and Rochelle Tobias.
Each of the papers making up this work present an original insight. Together they advance a common goal: a deep exploration of the immensely rich work of the father of phenomenology, tracing back what, in the words of the editors, are logical and poetological (1) implications between literature and his writing. Through the different articles that constitute it, this volume presents a broad and varied series of issues. In each essay, phenomenology and literature are presented as fields that are not a priori differentiated, but branch from diverse modes and axes of analysis.
The position the book confronts is characterized in the introduction by the editors: from the formula “to the things themselves” as key to Edmund Husserl’s proposal, phenomenology would have been accused of being “negligent” about language and other forms of mediation. Phenomenology to the Letter draws a historical line to characterize this reaction against phenomenology that has its more characteristic points in the deep oblivion of the language (abgründige Sprachvergessenheit) as proposed by Gadamer (1986, pág. 361), up to the Foucault’s accusation about the logophobie of phenomenology (1971). Moreover, this differentiation can also be read in the linguistic turn of analytic philosophy, or in the post-structuralist philosophy of Derrida. This work aggregates this accusation and highlights its incorrectness by linking Husserl with classic rhetoric, modern literature, aesthetic theory, and cultural criticism. However, the goal of the book implies a task that is not easy to solve. The response to these 20th Century accusations is not provided from a theoretical reconstruction of an exegesis of Husserlian corpus, but with a reading proposal from the collaborators of this volume that updates and explores the own limits of the phenomenologist’s task.
The logical and poetological implications of Husserlian writing are analyzed from a conjunction of literature and phenomenology. This conjunction not only revisits the inscription itself of the very same Husserlian letter as theoretical and textual corpus but also analyzes a phenomenological inscription in a wide range of literary works. Thus, this volume analyzes an implicit link between modern writers as Proust, Flaubert, Kafka, Rilke, Benjamin, Beckett, Olson, and Blanchot with certain modes of inquiry in the operations of the conscience, specifically phenomenological ones. The link between phenomenology and literature is not unilaterally constructed “outwards” from the Husserlian phenomenology towards the literary work, instead this volume draws a relation of reciprocal involvement that vindicates a literary task within the construction of phenomenology. The editors even discuss phenomenography, as they argue that for Husserl, “literature constitutes the medium in which the phenomenological analyses of transcendental subjectivity attain objective existence” (4). In this sense, literary language itself constitutes an immanent question to phenomenology as “both the method and existence of phenomenology depend upon a literary medium that cannot but be foreign to it” (5).
In its structure, the book is divided into four parts, each part addresses specific topics with a group of essays. In the first part, Husserlian phenomenology’s own language is thematized. Then, the second part discusses the relationship between experience and language, and the enrichment or challenges that the latter imposes upon the former. The third part focuses on the relationship between experience and literary works, fusing phenomenology and literature. Lastly, the problem of fiction is further explored as central to the methodological determination of phenomenology.
The first part of the book, Rhetoric and Thought: The Language of Phenomenology, addresses the issue of phenomenology’s own language in four essays that focus specifically on Husserl’s writing. The first part offers a series of explanations between Husserlian language and the developments of his phenomenology.
The first article is entitled Husserl’s Image Worlds and the Language of Phenomenology, by Michael McGillen. The author resumes the concepts used by Husserl to present his phenomenological method to establish that the technical language of phenomenology is built from a metaphorical language. McGillen suggests that the linguistic and pictorial aspects of images are briefly connected. To focus on this relation, the author resumes the theory of image consciousness by Husserl and proposes its applicability to literary metaphors. Thus, he links the experience of a metaphor with the experience of image-consciousness. In this point, it may be argued that the application of Husserl’s theory of image consciousness to metaphors or textual images requires further clarifications in light of the loss of frame (Bild) as a shared character between the object and the subject of the image. Nevertheless, this problematic parallel between metaphor and image, letter and experience, anticipates the theoretical position that guides the book proposal.
In Au Coeur de la Raison: la phénomenologie, Claude Romano claims that material a priori can only be conceived from a theory that fundamentally has an anthropological base for essential determination. In the essay Auch für Gott: Finitude, Phenomenology and Anthropology, Tarek R. Dika argues that Romano holds two mutually contradictory theses: firstly, that the negation of material a priori necessities is inconceivable and secondly, that these necessities, due to their anthropologic bases, are only conditional and therefore, their negation must be conceivable. If the Husserlian material a priori is postulated as a necessity for any kind of experience, it is done to disengage the sense of experience from the sense of language. Only then can phenomenology propose a prelinguistic sense. Dika’s argumentation in favor of a priori material à la Husserl is a reassurance for the cornerstone of the phenomenological experience: informed perception with a prelinguistic sense, described with pretension of universality.
The third essay, irgend etwas und irgend etwas: Husserl’s Arithmetik and The Poetics of Epistemology, is written by Susan Morrow, who reads Husserl’s first published monograph, Philosophy of Arithmetic, accused of psychologism as a poetics of epistemology. This work establishes a relationship between the concerns of a young Husserl, focusing on the analysis on the concept of multiplicity, to the ones of maturity, that focus on the historicity of geometry and science as such, revealing a certain consistency. This consistency allows Morrow to articulate her reading proposal from a key term for the book proposal as a whole: the status of a poetics of the epistemology is supported by a reading that traces poetological implications in the arithmetic’s justification of the philosopher that pursued a rigorous science.
The last work, by one of the editors, Philippe P. Haensler, is titled Fort. The Germangled Words of Edmund Husserl and Walter Benjamin. With great erudition, Haensler’s comparative reading between Husserl and Benjamin chases a twofold goal: on the one hand, to reveal Benjamin’s anticipation of certain Husserlian developments, and on the other hand, the essay establishes for Husserl’s phenomenology a deep interest in the question of literary translation. Haensler reads Husserl’s transhistorical concern for the foundation of sense and Benjamin’s messianic reconceptualization of the relationship between an original and its translation as “two pieces of the same vessel” (85). However, this essay is not limited to the historical reconstruction of mutual readings between Husserl and Benjamin. With the presence of Jaques Derrida as a key mediator between the two authors, Haensler evidences for phenomenology, translation as a trans-performative act, and the letter of the father of phenomenology as a subject for discussion in itself.
The second section, Phenomenology and Incommensurability: Beyond Experience is concerned with the issue of an experience possible through language, one that defies (and, in some cases, even exceeds) the limits of the described experience from a strictly phenomenological perspective.
This section begins with the work of Jean-Sébastien Hardy, Beyond Experience: Blanchot’s Challenge to Husserl’s Phenomenology of Time, who finds in the concept of disaster (desastre) by Maurice Blanchot a key for what the author calls a “phenomenology of anticipation”. Hardy maintains that Husserlian expectation has traces of an implicit prophetic paradigm and that the affectivity of protension may well be a product of an institution that is at the same time, original and historic. Meanwhile, the Blanchotian disaster as something that is “outside experience, outside the realm of phenomena” (Blanchot, 1986, pág. 9) does not answer to any expectation and constitutes a challenge for Husserl. Hardy wonders if the immanent consciousness of temporality is really as pure as Husserl desired or whether a radically different temporalization is possible (118). In line with Blanchot, Hardy concludes that our intern and immediate sense of time “is not so much constituted as it is instituted, when it comes to the anticipation of what is about to come” (130).
In the next essay, Absehen – Disregarding Literature (Husserl/Hofmannsthal/Benjamin), Henrik S. Wilberg reads Husserl’s famous letter to Hofmannsthal, retrieving the frequently exposed link between the phenomenological method and the purely aesthetic attitude, as both imply a deviation from the natural attitude. The artist and the phenomenologist share before the world the neutralization of the positionality of the objects of experience. What is new in this article is the incorporation of a young Benjamin into that dialogue. Wilberg affirms that “when the Young Benjamin first enters into the orbit of phenomenology, he does so accompanied by the same figure who – and the same text that – occasioned Husserl’s reflections on the relation between literature and philosophy” (139/140). The historical reconstruction of mutual readings between authors is at the service of the “poetized” as the foundation of the experience of reading. There is therefore a link between the Husserlian modification of neutralization with what Benjamin calls Gedichtete as the indecipherable, the unanalyzable, specific to a reading experience. Benjamin’s reading of Husserl goes beyond direct mentions and is in the notion of “poetized” where affinities with Husserl can be read, a notion used to characterize a new dimension of the poetic. For Wilberg, it is in this state or in the modification of the view of the reader towards the poeticized of the poem where the potentialities of the Husserlian modification of neutralization comes into play, transcending the explicit comments of Husserl himself.
This conceptualization of a reading experience shares its goal with the work of another editor, Kristina Mendicino. In Drawing a Blank – Passive voices in Beckett, Husserl and the Stoics, Mendicino links Husserl’s phenomenology with Stoicism on the basis of the theorization of the material aspect of language, finding the most extreme consequences of the position that both schools would share in The Unnamable, by Beckett. That concern that Beckett takes to the extreme is homologated with the Stoic notion of lékton, which characterizes the discursive instance as an ambivalent phenomenon. If the materiality of language offers an experience that surpasses the meaning of language, both for Husserl and for the Stoics, the link with Beckett can be read when he affirms that “the things that language speaks of may always be elsewhere, speeches may seduce with their movement, and words can take wing so as to fly from the strictures or comprehensive grasp” (150). Mendicino recognizes the links between Frege, Bolzano, Meinong and, evidently, Husserl, with the Stoics. However, the Beckettian way acquires a new sense within this volume. Beckett’s reference to the Stoics is made in poetological terms. In the Stoics, Mendicino traces back an importance to the thetic character within phenomenology and inherent to perception: “between sense and expression comes a moment of making sense that resists translation into categorial forms of predication and whose logical character cannot be rendered with a predicative syntax” (167). The author finds an “aphenomenal páthos of language” (171), being the use of the passive voice in Beckett the master expression of a poetology of the experience of language.
The link between literary works and phenomenology is more strongly established in the third part of the book. In Phenomenology of the Image and the text Corpus, literature appears as a corpus with which a wide group of theoretical developments of phenomenology is faced. At the same time, the link between the experience of the image and its description in a literary language is further analyzed.
The first work is Charles Olson: Phenomenologist, Objectivist, Particularist by Stefanie Heine exposes the poetry of Charles Olson as a complement of Husserl’s philosophy of language in Logical Investigations. The essay reconstructs in Olson a theoretical development inseparable from the practice of writing, taking as a starting point the work of unpublished manuscripts, transcribed or attached in this book. Even though Olson echoes Merleau-Ponty, this work shows Olson’s complement to Husserlian phenomenology, borne from his interest as a poet, of considering words as physical entities, and of taking the word as Leib before taking it as Körper in the specific moment of writing. On the one hand, is the sensible experience of words that comes at play in his “poeticness”. On the other hand, the Husserlian notion of “Wort-Leib” is revealing for the execution of Olson’s writing, where language is left behind to grasp the material sense of the physical word, the gap between words, and even shapes, and written lines that are not associated with specific words.
In the second work, Icon as Alter Ego? Husserl’s Fifth Cartesian Meditation and Icons of Mary in Chronicles of the Teutonic Order, Claire Taylor Jones examines two chronicles of the Teutonic Order: Chronica terrae Prussiae (1326) and Kronike von Pruzinlant (1340). These texts offer a narrative of the conversion to Christianism from an experience of acknowledging the suffering and spiritual agency in icons of the Virgin Mary. Taylor Jones finds in these chronicles, taken as literary corpus, issues for the perception of the alter ego that Husserl describes in the Fifth Cartesian Meditation. From artistic cultural objects, imbued in certain “saintly presence” in this case, the distinction between Leib and cultural objects must be revisited. The author finds in these texts a challenge to the Husserlian theory that demands a new description of intersubjectivity, one that does not rest in the apperception of an animated body, but recognizes this apperception of suffering, that does not require movement in order to be perceived.
Complements to Husserlian phenomenology can also be read in the cultural critique, as Thomas Pfau illustrates in the last work of this section: Absolute Gegebenheit: Image as Aesthetic Urphänomen in Husserl and Rilke. The author reads Rilke’s texts about Rodin and Cézanne’s letters, where he finds a phenomenology of image experience that would complement Husserl’s one. If, as Pfau asserts, Husserl focuses on the noematic pole of experience, it is the noetic dimension that Rilke centers his attention on when he reflects on the aesthetic experience. In the Rilkenian comments on Cézanne’s works Pfau reads an anticipation of the idea of transcendental reduction. The point here is that the epistemological contribution to the theory of image occurs, as demonstrated again and again in the volume reviewed here, in poetological terms, intended as a supplement to phenomenological description.
The funding relation between phenomenology and fiction insistently tematized in this volume finds greater depth in the fourth and final section of the book: Fictional Truths: Phenomenology and Narrative.
The section is inaugurated with The Virtuous Philosopher and the Chameleon Poet: Husserl and Hofmannsthal, by Nicolas De Warren. De Warren rereads Husserl’s letter to Hofmannsthal, in which the philosopher reveals the inspiration he received from the poet for his phenomenological method. However, De Warren’s reading examines how Husserl imagined this source of inspiration, and from that conception, offers an aesthetic for Hofmannsthal’s work. De Warren reconstructs the context of the encounter between Husserl and Hofmannsthal, the poet’s assistance to the reading of the phenomenologist, and the epistolary exchanges between these figures. The point that De Warren makes is that Hofmannsthal’s silence demonstrates that his aesthetic would have been a source of inspiration for the phenomenological method merely imagined by Husserl himself. The importance of this reading lies in putting the attention on fiction as a basis for Husserlian inspiration, while the letter could itself be read as literary fiction. De Warren undertakes this task, carrying out a detailed analysis that evidently could be described as literary, from Husserl’s letter to Hofmannsthal and reconstructing in that same letter the appearance of elements belonging to the philosophical method that Husserl would have arrived for his phenomenology.
The second paper of the section is A Now Not toto caelo a Not Now: the “Origin” of Difference in Husserl, from Number to Literature, by Claudia Brodsky. The paper draws a historical path in Husserlian thinking in which, through a series of “steps”, Brodsky explains that the understanding of the notion of number is achieved in relation to other concepts. For the author, this overlapping of theories, in a formal excursus of Husserl’s conscience, is quite similar to the developments made by Lukács and Proust. In their formal aspects, there would be common issues between Husserl and the literary theory.
The last essay of this volume is written by its third editor, Rochelle Tobías. In Gregor Samsa and the problem of Intersubjectivity, the author exhibits how The Metamorphosis by Kafka presents certain issues to the Husserlian perception of the alter ego. The challenge to the Husserlian theory is not found in the acknowledgment of another body as an alter ego, but in the recognition of another conscience like mine. Tobias’s paper does not focus on this difference of positions, but on the fiction as a privileged mode of representing other minds in the third person. Thus, what is thematized is a method for thinking based on fiction as proposed and shared by Kafka and Husserl.
As I have outlined thus far, Phenomenology to the Letter does not directly answer the concerns presented in its introduction. The aim of the book is achieved through a comprehensive reading that implies a work from the reader that does not demand little effort. On this point, it is important to highlight that each one of the parts neither offers a justification of the articles assembled therein nor a conclusion that determines an explicit conjoint thesis. To be able to answer the accusation put forward in the introduction, it is necessary to undertake a global reading that surpasses the questions posed by each essay. Thus, the enormous project proposed in this volume loses the strength of a joint individual answer. This is not however a limitation, but rather a demonstration of the fruitful possibilities of relating Husserlian phenomenology with literature, via a multiplicity of papers that address various goals and issues. This book clarifies that there is no oblivion of the language but rather that language, literature, writing, and fiction are present from the origin and during the development of the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl.
Phenomenology to the Letter is not a book about literature and phenomenology in general: there is no development of the conception of language by Merleau-Ponty or Heidegger, nor is there an offering of the problems of a phenomenological aesthetic that recovers Dufrenne’s, or an ontology of literature as Ingarden thematized. This volume focuses specifically on the Husserlian work and when links are established with other authors, they do not properly belong to the phenomenological school. The rejection of the phenomenological thematization of literature following its greatest exponent, Roman Ingarden, explains the general proposal of the book. According to the editors, Ingarden starts from phenomenology, when, as read in this volume, it is all about mutual implications between phenomenology and language, to the point of claiming a philological complement for phenomenological investigation.
While the essays contained in this book are written at a sophisticated academic level, including quotations in their original languages and detailed works in a scholar register, the volume offers something beyond a series of exegetical articles about phenomenology. Still with Husserlian phenomenology as a topic, the novelty of this volume is neither a proposal of building a Husserlian literary theory, a treaty about language theory by Husserl, nor is limited to a series of examples of Husserlian theory within the literature. To my understanding, the methodological proposal that guides these essays has an interdisciplinary character; what is pursued are the theoretical constructions in fields that are traditionally separated, without abandoning the specificities of each one.
This volume offers then, an actualization of Husserlian thinking. The philosophical importance of Phenomenology to the Letter nowadays, claim its editors, lies in its proposal facing biological and psychological paradigms that dominate praxis and current thinking. It is not only a proposal of actualization of phenomenology or the determination of an aesthetic movement, but rather a path to rethink affections, experience, and language. A proposal can be read to extend the Husserlian contributions so present today in the cognitive sciences and the neurosciences, whose approach to “the mind” confront several Husserlian warnings, as the editors state. The challenge to mind studies has its weight from fantasy and fiction as the cornerstone of the phenomenological method, both for the eidetic variation from the Logical Investigations as well as the reduction from Ideas I. In sum, the starting point for this book can be read in Husserl’s affirmation in Ideas I: “‘fiction’ is the vital element of phenomenology, as all its eidetic knowledge” (Hua III/I, 148).
In thirteen essays, Phenomenology to the Letter achieves its goal where the relationship between phenomenology and literature has been at the heart of reflection and it has not been seen as a point of arrival. The specificity of the issues that each essay addresses, together with a great variety of resources and different textual corpora does not introduce a relation between Husserlian phenomenology and literature, it simply puts it into evidence. The project proposed by the book is accomplished not by the refinement of each essay in light of the objectives established separately but rather because of the reading as a whole they offer, made possible by the excellent job of the editors. The reader is offered a collection of essays that implies an astute reading exercise, an essential task whose effort can be well compared to the reading of a literary work.
Blanchot, M. 1986. The Writing of the Disaster. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.
Foucault, M. 1971. L’orde du discours: Leçon Inaugurale au Collège de France prononcée le 2 décembre 1970. Paris: Gallimard.
Gadamer, H.-G. 1986. Destruktion und Dekonstruktion. En H.-G. Gadamer, Gesammelte Werke. Vol 2. (361-372). Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.
Husserl, E. 1976. Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie I: Allgemeine Einführung in die reine Phänomenologie, 2nd edn. Den Haag: Nijhoff.
 Following Detlef Thiel. 2003. “Husserls Phäenomenographie” in Recherches Husserliennes 19: 67 – 108.
The Impenetrable Gaze
Images and stories provoke desire. To use an example from chapter 13 by Jean-Luc Nancy of this book under review, a group of refugees after an earthquake install a television antenna in order to watch the World Cup in their tents. “The filmmaker (character) asks him: ‘Do you find it appropriate to watch television these days?’ The man answers: ‘Truthfully, I myself am in mourning. I lost my sister and three cousins. But what can we do? The Cup takes place every four years. Can’t miss it. Life goes on.’” The Soccer Cup is for him, for them, pure image: television screens, as well as soccer imagery for all those who around bad balls on terrains of fortune, while dreaming vaguely of distant fame, of the kind achieved by Maradonna.” (246) This connection between images, stories, and desire are constitutive of what it means to think about film. When desire is invoked in viewing or making a film, eros pervades the gaze (see this earlier review for discussion of the gaze). The gaze can be impenetrable—is it of the camera, the viewer, the director, or culture at large? Is it one of acceptance or critique, analyzing or to accepting the images that come into being through the eye (I)? As seen in this book, feminists Irigaray and Kristeva describe films that toe the line between different gazes, surveying through male or female enjoyment, treading on each form of impenetrability. Yet each of these chapters attempt to penetrate the gaze. The same follows for other forms of intersectionality, whether it be orientalism, class, regionalism, etc. Exemplifying impenetrability, the theory or philosophy does not easily allow the viewer (or the film-maker) their own power/ agency in viewing or understanding film. Here is where several authors, names which include Bergson, Adorno, Merleau-Ponty, Benjamin, Lyotard, Agamben, Deleuze and others, can help or deter us. This collection, edited by Christopher Kul-Want, includes the history of film philosophy in 18 chapters, and exemplifies the impenetrable gaze—all that one could desire from 20th century philosophy and cinema.
Bergson uses the term image to relate a “dynamic, interrelated, and mutually affective relations…memory, as we have tried to prove, is not a faculty of putting away recollections in a drawer, or of inscribing them in a register. There is no register, no drawer…it follows us at every instant; all that we have felt, thought and willed from our earliest infancy is there, leaning over the present which is about to join it, pressing against the portals of consciousness that would fain leave it outside.” (37) Memories are “messages from the unconscious” – our character contains the “condensation of the history that we have lived from our birth” (38) – images, poems, music. This time period can tell us something about our reality now. What Adorno shows is the absolute force culture has on our consciousness. Did this not exist in the same way in previous centuries? Certainly advertising and media did not have the same power it has now. Adorno and Horkheimer continue, “When the detail won its freedom, it became rebellious and, in the period from Romanticism to Expressionism, asserted itself as free expression, as a vehicle of protest against the organization. In music the single harmonic effect obliterated the awareness of form as a whole; in painting the individual color was stressed at the expense of pictorial composition; and in the novel psychology became more important than structure.” (88) When each art form becomes precisely that, a form of manipulation or device – that is a sellable, buyable, transferable thing – then the work of art is no longer a magical or transcendent object. Film is one powerful example of this. “Real life is becoming indistinguishable from the movies.” There is no room for imagination or reflection, they write. We are transfixed, brought into a world for which there is no escape. “[T]he film forces its victims to equate it directly with reality.” Eager to find the next fix in any film, it doesn’t matter which one, the viewer empties himself of subjectivity. Not a single artist escapes censure. Orson Welles alongside Schönberg and Picasso, Wagner alongside Mozart. These are all of a piece, to express a sound, a picture, an image that sells, is consumed, and bought and sold for a few to gain thereby. And the sad fact of the matter is that most people who consume the art are not aware that they are being manipulated so. “[T]he workers and employees, the farmers and lower middle class” are the consumers, Adorno and Horkheimer point out (91). Film may capture this better than any other medium. But film also manipulates, curves desires towards it, leaving the perceiver dumb-founded (or shocked) by the tactile. “Such an experience of shock, Benjamin says, interrupts cognition, and leads the spectator to conclude, “I can no longer think what I want to think. My thoughts have been replaced by moving images.” (8)
For Merleau-Ponty, his film work is rather brief, one essay from 1945, the same year he published Phenomenology of Perception. When he discusses Descartes’s famous passage in the Meditations in which “hats and coats” pass by me on the street, Merleau-Ponty differentiates himself from the 17th-century philosopher and classical psychology by defending gestalt theory. “By resolutely rejecting the notion of sensation it teaches us to stop distinguishing between signs and their significance, between what is sensed and what is judged,” he writes (104). While many current psychologists might not recognize this thought as their own, Merleau-Ponty held a chair of child psychology at the Sorbonne and is often misread in philosophy circles. Reading this essay helps repair his view of how film as perceptual object follows a “temporal gestalt.” He finds much meaning in cinematographic rhythm: “Since a film consists not only of montage (the selection of shots or views, their order and length) but also of cutting (the selection of scenes or sequences, and their order and length), it seems to be an extremely complex form inside of which a very great number of actions and reactions are taking place at every moment.” (107) The rhythm exists as much for images as sounds, Merleau-Ponty thinks, and what both of these contains is “expressive force.” If Bergson seems as much a biologist as philosopher and Adorno bends his analysis towards sociology, Benjamin toward literary theory (as we now call it), then Merleau-Ponty is the psychologist of the group. The sight and sound together bring a “new whole” just as reading each of these thinkers separately allows us to think about the film in discrete but overlapping ways. Cinematography gains true allies if it is to be both critiqued and appreciated, and it requires the film maker(s) as much as the audience to recognize this. These first four chapters set the stage for the whole, encompassing 1907-1945, and alongside Kul-Want’s introduction (see 108) provide us enough context to see where the rest of 20th century film analysis will go.
The next five chapters, encompassing 1970-1985, take a leap since nothing from the period of Krakauer among others is included here. Jean Baudrillard’s “On Contemporary Alienation or the End of the Pact with the Devil” (1970) contains a detailed discussion of the film, The Student of Prague (1913, 1926). When teaching this chapter in a philosophy of film class, most students really resonated with this film and analysis. The plot is a recognizable one: a student sells his image to the Devil in order to be accepted and to have pleasure. How one sees oneself in the mirror by means of commodity culture shapes one’s identity and the more we buy an image of ourselves the more we are alienated from ourselves. Baudrillard writes, “The mirror image here symbolically represents the meaning of our acts. These build up around us a world that is in our image. The transparency of our relation to the world is expressed rather well by the individual’s unimpaired relation to his image in a mirror: the faithfulness of that reflection bears witness, to some degree, to a real reciprocity between the world and ourselves.” (117) Since marketing has become so powerful, even Baudrillard thinks this modern Faustian story is outdated since there is no originary subject from which we are alienated. The bargain with the devil is so complete that there is no going back to some authentic self free of the market. “For Baudrillard, the devil in these fables can be read as the capitalist system of commodification, while the loss of the protagonists’ likenesses (in other words, their very souls) to the devil represents the alienation and objectivization of labor power in the market place, ‘the image is not lost or abolished by chance: it is sold.’” (114) The more one buys, the more one is alienated. The dramatic demonstration of this alienated human being “is a being turned inside out, changed into something evil, into its own enemy, set against itself. This is, on another level, the process Freud describes in repression.” (119) This is what drives a human or a culture to its death or to madness. But it is still possible, says Baudrillard to save one’s soul. We have dominated nature so completely, our sexual drives and human relations, “including even fantasies…is taken over by that logic…in which everything is spectacularized…there is no longer any soul, no shadow, no double, and no image in the specular sense.” (120-1) We are purely and entirely haunted by this ancestral fable, the Devil being just a filmic memory of what used to be, “there is only a shop window—the site of consumption, in which the individual no longer produces his own reflection, but is absorbed into the order of signifiers of social status, etc.” (121)
Luce Irigaray, in “The Looking Glass, From the Other Side,” achieves a new language in speaking of film, exemplifying l’écriture feminine through what Kul-Want calls “performative writing.” This chapter, originally published in 1973, becomes the first in her This Sex Which Is Not One and provides a fine-grained and profound analysis of the film The Surveyors (Les Arpenteurs, 1972). A review such as this cannot do justice to her style. Irigaray’s lyrical form, displaying women’s libidinal desire and gaze, cannot be that of the surveyor in Soutter’s film and “is rooted in a critique of patriarchy and its conception of identity as formed by means of a metaphysical, structural opposition between the One and its lack.” (124) Such thinking needs to be dissolved, says Irigaray, “conceiv[ing] of the notion of woman as a radical absence of identity—zero rather than One—for which there is no definition.” (ibid.) The point of a woman discovering herself without seeing herself through the man’s gaze:
So at four o’clock sharp, the surveyor goes into her house. And since a surveyor needs a pretext to go into someone’s house, especially a lady’s, he’s carrying a basket of vegetables. From Lucien. Penetrating into ‘her’ place under cover of somebody else’s name, clothes, love. For the time being, that doesn’t seem to bother him. He opens the door, she’s making a phone call. To her fiancé. Once again he slips in between them, the two of them. […] Does his intervention succeed? Or does he begin to harbor a vague suspicion that she is not simply herself? He looks for a light. To hide his confusion, fill in the ambiguity. Distract her by smoking. She doesn’t see the lighter, even though it’s right in front of her… (127)
The analysis of this scene of The Surveyors points to missed and captured attention, unfettered desire, and the subtleties of consent and patriarchy brought into the light. The play of characters, male and female, stand in for mirrors, front and back. Here is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland from the other side. As Kul-Want perceives,“[W]oman puts into question all prevailing economies and their calculations since ‘she’ does not possess an identity and nor does ‘she’ lack one.” (17)
Jean-François Lyotard claims that the importance of movement in cinema has two forms, a static and an excessive, and that even the gaze is not simple voyeurism. As in “gaps, jolts, postponements, losses, and confusions,” the pyrotechnics of film ensure that the “entire erotic force invested in the simulacrum be promoted, raised, displayed, and burned in vain.” (145, 143) The static movement, however, is not only immobilizing since the image “give[s] rise to the most intense agitation through its fascinating paralysis.” (149) Crucial to his line of analysis is the point of view of the director, how the director sees the thing which we wishes to represent in terms of these varied movements. Cinematography, then, captures e-motion in the way that Agamben in a later chapter will describe gesture. They are each in their own way expanding upon Merleau-Ponty’s “understanding of the genealogy of the Kantian philosophy of subsumption beyond Descartes, proposing that it underlies the very notion of identity in the West as this pertains to all aspects of subjective experience and thought.” (14) As in Žižek’s analysis below, and following Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), the “unfettered libidinal drives” and “unconscious investments—formless movements of jouissance—are denied by the culture industries in their relentless interpellation of the consumer.” (16) For the sake of space, I will not discuss the two chapters on Deleuze here, but Kul-Want’s selections and introductory material are really valuable for the student trying to approach these themes for the first time.
Philosopher, literary critic, and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva may help with some of this frustration of understanding impenetrable thoughts in her chapter, “The Malady of Grief: Duras,” taken from her book, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia (1987). Along with Cixous and Irigaray, Kristeva has done more regarding the term jouissance than almost anyone, barring possibly Lacan. “Such jouissance in these contexts is violent and painful and yet, part of the violence of this experience, its excess, is that it is also joyful and ecstatic.” (200) Grief encompasses the experience of watching a film and the “despoliation of nature” (202). Kristeva is interested in interrogating the existence of states largely overlooked: “Psychosis, depression, manic-depressive states, borderline states, false selves.” Among others, Dostoyevsky and Hans Holbein are inspirations for her work. Another person she believes to have looked into grief is Marguerite Duras, whose script for the film Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), allows one to think about postwar melancholy and the future of our emptiness as a national and global community.
Slavoj Žižek looks at Hitchcock through a Lacanian lens. He doesn’t repeat here his analysis in the documentaries, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema and Ideology, but supplements them. Hitchcock’s storytelling pervades what Žižek calls the “continuous filmic gaze” (226), that is, referring to the title of this chapter which originates in Racine’s Phèdre, “In his bold gaze my ruin is writ large.” While much of this chapter is an analysis of Psycho (1960), Hitchcock’s earlier film, The Lady Vanishes (1938), is also discussed. What Žižek tries to show, in Kul-Want’s words, is how in the latter film “the window function as a symbolic screen lining ‘diegetic reality’ and thwarting the Real, while the writing upon the screen are signifiers […] —that is, symptoms— of a subjective void that cannot be framed and represented but around which signification revolves: in this instance the vanished lady. […] As Lacan says, language speaks (ça parle, it speaks) of an absence within itself.” (220) The narrative of desire is that we are always already driven and will be forever by different objects, different stories. Curiosity for the new and the hidden accentuate this desire. When we want to see more than we are allowed to see by the gaze that is all powerful, our ruin is writ large. The reality of what we are looking at destroys us. “In the guise of the Other’s gaze,” he concludes,
Hitchcock’s entire universe is founded upon this complicity between ‘absolute Otherness,’ epitomized by the Other’s gaze into the camera, and the viewers look—the ultimate Hegelian lesson of Hitchcock is that the place of absolute transcendence, of the Unrepresentable which eludes diegetic space, coincides with the absolute immanence of the viewer reduced to pure gaze. (234)
Norman of Psycho is “the quintessence of the disembodied drive” (22), but the filmic gaze points beyond to the space between the symbolic and the Real. The themes of desire, otherness, and ideology are brought together and yet hidden from our view.
The sheer amount of analysis of film can become overwhelming. In Jean-Luc Nancy’s chapter, “And Life Goes On,” the emphasis is on “ideas of withdrawal, spacing, and separation.” (241) The film Nancy uses to show this is by the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, Life and Nothing More (1992). Following the earthquake and the men who watch football mentioned in the first paragraph above, the film reveals how the flow of life continues after mourning and catastrophe. The automobile is a major character in the film (“it moves by itself, it moves ahead, outside of itself, it carries what presents itself, toilet seat or stove, occasional passengers…” (248), as is the landscape and the rubble. In addition to human interaction, the villages have been broken by faults, both inside and between. Nevertheless, “the film remains a film, and never lets us forget it—precisely by means of its contrasts and its insistence on the framing—always the car, its windows, its doors, and the sides of the road, always on the verge of being out of focus; but also and just as well the patient arrangement of everything…[as] a document about ‘fiction’: not in the sense of imagining the unreal, but in the very specific and precise sense of the technique, of the art of constructing images.” (249) This film between documentary and fiction does not Orientalize or Romanticize. Rather, “[i]t is their simultaneous continuation and the continuation of each other: the road, the automobile, the image, the gaze” that goes on like “the vast, permanent expanse of the countryside and its people.”
The right to tell one’s story and the search for story is behind much of 20th century film and philosophy. In Contesting Tears, Stanley Cavell analyses American films from the 1930s and 1940s that concern themselves with “the female protagonists [who] desire recognition from their partners, not just in the private, domestic sphere of their lives, but in the public realm too.” (18) Unlike Laura Mulvey’s famous “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” (1975) Cavell defends the gaze as when the protagonist of Stella Dallas (1937) “watches her daughter through a window that is framed like the proverbial cinematic silver screen.” How marriage, divorce, and finding one’s father or mother can be both Freudian and reconciling in a peaceful rather than conflictual way allows one to mirror filmic selves by recognizing aspects of characters (for example, Greta Garbo in Camille, 1936) who find themselves in the film story that reinvents “love [as] mysterious, in its crossing of torture and bliss.” (268) A definition of marriage as a “meet and happy conversation” defended by Cavell through two genres of film where the distinction between desire and law in relation to the past and memory becomes elemental in understanding power relations. In one of the best passages if Contesting Tears, Cavell writes, “the struggle between the sexes can play itself out without interruption (for example, by children, or by economic need), on the sublime level of difference mutually desired and comically overcome. In the melodramas the education of the woman is still at issue, but within their mood of heavy irony, since her (superior, exterior) knowledge becomes the object-as prize or as victim-of the man’s fantasy, who seeks to share its secrets (Now, Voyager), to be ratified by it (Letter from an Unknown Woman), to escape it (Stella Dallas), or to destroy it (Gaslight), where each objective is (generically) reflected in the others…” (265) There are very few American authors on film who can measure up to many of the philosophers in this book, but Cavell can.
In the last four chapters, we are brought from the 20th into the 21st century. Jacques Rancière analyses one film in detail, Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps (1955). The film is a fable of “the bodily movements and exchange of glances that cast these schemers into always unstable relationships of inferiority or superiority.” (276) Each of the characters produces a mask to hide their own power. The way in which film is capable of reproducing this fable contrasts Deleuze’s account since for Rancière, “[film] is composed of a constant tension between classical narrative construction, ultimately derived from Aristotle’s idea of a ‘story well told’ (muthos), and its visual and sensate affects that have the potential to exceed signification (opsis).” (26) This means that cinema not only reproduces ideology, but potentially arrests it such as when “the murderer stands like a parent beside a young girl in front of a shopwindow…for a few moments, these scenes in front of shopwindow displays are not simply pauses or moments of rest in the narrative but an ‘empty time, the lost time of a stroll or the suspended time of an epiphany’ that changes the very meaning of the notion of an ‘episode.’” (272) The notion of mimesis as in any way linear is put into question. Lang inverts Aristotle. The notion of the gaze becomes a point of dissension and yet a “change from ignorance to knowledge” (in the Aristotelian sense of recognition) requires a comprehension of Oedipus Rex: “here’s the man that was the child.” (277) The lost time of the stroll and the time of projects or the time of narrative are put into opposition. The way in which “speech,” “gaze,” and “hands” operate between the camera and the living room, the murderer and the lover, the projection and maturity all come into focus, as when Rancière describes the scene: “Mobley faces the murderer as he would face his kid brother who never left the stage of intellectual and manual masturbation and of papa and mama stories, and is still wondering whether it was for wanting him that a man and a woman performed the series of movements known as making love.” (285-6) As a German emigrant to America, the scene is one of recognition and disillusionment, knowledge and loss by means of the “new apparatus of the visible that cinema as such has to confront.”
Alain Badiou, in his Cinema as Philosophical Experimentation, also believes that cinema thinks. It can challenge and prod us to move beyond – but it is also a product of capitalism and thus can equally captivate and numb. It is a question of image, time, painting, music, and novelty. All of these are equally political and ethical, since “cinema deals with courage, with justice, with passion, with betrayal.” (297) As examples of this thinking and this challenge, Badiou discusses Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin, Hitchcock’s Rebecca, Rebecca, Rosellini’s Journey to Italy, and others. He speaks here of the ‘event’ meaning radical political events such as 1968 and changes within epistemology. “Truth-event” is his word for Plato’s Idea of absolute truth, as Kul-Want points out, and yet for Badiou, “the event is true in an absolute sense because it is radically multiple, irreducible to its causes and conditions.” (292) Like many of the authors in this collection, Badiou believes cinema to have the power and the capacity to transform our fantasies. Cinema as philosophy means the love and the truth contained in its origins, and films such as Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai or Mizoguchi’s The Crucified Lovers exemplify a difference between cinema and philosophy, learning from each other through “rupture.” Cinema is a transformative ‘event’ (as Benjamin, Adorno and Horkheimer thought) “that both reinforces and reproduces the fantasies of the social imaginary.” (27) By engaging the audience in a struggle against oppression, “something almost miraculous happens when cinema manages to extract a little bit of purity from all that is worst in the world.” (306)
In Technics and Time, 3: Cinematic Time and the Question of Malaise, extracted here, Bernard Stiegler, who passed away tragically while writing this review in 2020, begins by taking up the desire for stories, which he thinks is an ancient desire. Modern society is “animated by the most complex, and most secret, of social movements.” This is precisely what Adorno and Horkheimer mean by culture industry, which now “constitute the very heart of economic development, whose most intimate power is clearly always the most ancient desire of all stories.” All of cinema and media then, for Stiegler, with their “technics of image and sound—now including informatics and telecommunications—re-invent our belief in stories that are now told with remarkable, unparalleled power.” (311) The important point here, which I cannot emphasise enough, is how Stiegler takes up the history of philosophy, including Plato, Kant, Husserl, Heidegger and others alongside Simondon and Leroi-Gourhan, and reads the history of technology, that is, the relationship of techne and episteme, and considers how it affects our consciousness, including and perhaps especially children (see his Taking Care of the Youth). He writes, “Consciousness is affected in general by phenomena presented to it, but this affect occurs in a special way with temporal objects. This is important to us in the current investigation because cinema, like melody, is a temporal object. Understanding the singular way in which temporal objects affect consciousness means beginning to understand what gives cinema its specificity, its force, and its means of transforming life leading, for example, to the global adoption of ‘the American way of life.’” (318) Consciousness, and thus the gaze, is already cinematographic, Stiegler claims, combining a form of montage through a unified flux. Stiegler’s use of films like Fellini’s Intervista, Kazan’s America, America, or Resnais’s My American Uncle are cases in point “in which memory is a dense fabric of cinematographic citations.” (324-5) Kul-Want describes this process in the following way: “for Stiegler, the flow of temporality involved in listening to music or watching a film is always a matter of ‘imaginative’ and selective recombinations of experience through what Stiegler refers to as a tertiary form of retention, that is, in actual fact, constitutive of primary and secondary forms of retention. Such shifts in consciousness depend on the important fact that memory is a process of forgetting.” (310) Our notions of consciousness are not only impacted by what we watch and take in technologically in our everyday lives, but also by what we have forgotten as when we watch a film we’ve seen before and do not remember what happens. New stories then emerge such that the “American mythmaking” or Streetcar Named Desire (1951) or Gone with the Wind (1939) become more real than reality, a “symbol of freedom and hope…by virtue of being a land of emigrants who do not have a mythical shared oriding upon which a regulated, common future can be founded.” (311) This essay by Stiegler can be compared to that of Agamben’s “Notes on Gesture”, which Kul-Want points out “is also informed by the reproducible as a singular event involving forgetting and loss.” (20) For Agamben, then, we can even unlearn gestures and bodily postures or movements due to this forgetting. A decomposition of film, as in Marey, Muybridge, or the Lumière brothers, in which 24 frames per second define movement, intersects with experimental psychology and Nietzsche’s “ballet of a humankind” (213) The image is both broken off from and includes the whole. “And when the age realized this, it then began (but it was too late!) the precipitous attempt to recover the lost gestures in extremis. The dance of Isadora Duncan and Sergei Diaghilev, the novel of Proust, the great Jugendstil poetry from Pascoli to Rilke, and finally and most exemplarily, the silent movie trace the magic circle in which humanity tried for the last time to evoke what was slipping through its fingers forever.” (213) Cinema, says Agamben, is gesture and not image, thus belonging to ethics and politics.
The final essay, by Kaja Silverman, brings us back to where we began in Bergson. When Bergson wrotes, “What are we, in fact, what is our character, if not the condensation of the history that we have lived from our birth, since we bring with us prenatal dispositions…from this survival of the past it follows that consciousness cannot go through the same state twice,” (38) the same can be said for the gaze. In Silverman’s analysis, using Proust alongside Sartre and Merleau-Ponty as well as the Belgian filmmaker Chantal Ackerman, the gaze (le regard) is transformed into ‘the miracle of analogy’. Merleau-Ponty’s word for this is chiasmus, which Silverman says is the “name for the ontological thread stitching the seer to what is seen, the toucher to what is touched, and sight and visibility to touch and tactility.” (331) This intertwining at the heart of Merleau-Ponty’s The Visible and the Invisible means that there is not an “I” cut off from another: we are touched when looking and art allows us, says Proust, “to emerge from ourselves.” (332) The entire history of film (and of philosophy) can be contained in this imagined image of the gaze, to be able to see oneself through another lens transforms the self and the other. Silverman’s use of Ackerman’s The Captive (2000), a take on Proust’s À la recherche, vol. 5, explores “non-invasive” sexual pleasure and the meaning loving a lot, or loving well. In place of possessive grasping or obsessive jealousy, the camera “relies heavily upon the shot/reverse shot formation.” (336) While this technique is typically used to construct sexual difference, concealing the presence of the camera, Ackerman uses it to reveal the fourth wall: “Ariane and Andrée are separated from Simon by the fourth wall, so they shouldn’t be able to return his look, but they miraculously do. After he acknowledges the interdependence of his desire for Ariane, and hers for Andrée, and affirms the girls’ right to say ‘je vous aime bien’ to each other, they respond by smiling first at each other, and then at him.” Ever since Ackerman’s La chambre (1972), she has proven herself as a filmmaker of extraordinary innovation and a living incarnation of the miracle of analogy; though Ackerman passed away in 2015 we may still “see” her work. “Acgkerman shows these two looks meeting at the site of Ariane’s body, like the landscape invoked by Proust, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty. If we were to translate this meeting into language, it would read: ‘je…vous…je vous.’” (337)
All of the themes of 20th century film and philosophy are contained brilliantly within Kul-Want’s collection. I cannot speak highly enough of its range and depth. Beginning with Bergson’s 1907 Creative Evolution and ending with Silverman’s 2015 The Miracle of Analogy, with Christopher Kul-Want’s aid all along, we can follow a trajectory of thinking and viewing without losing ourselves in the mindlessly numbing, not to mention impenetrable, weeds of the gaze.
“I believe that if you look at the writings expressly directed against Wagner, and especially The Case of Wagner, you could readily extrapolate what he [Nietzsche] would have said against Heidegger. And I think if you could actually perform this feat of imagination that I am proposing to you, and envisage such a Nietzschean critique of Heidegger, then for penetrating insight it would surpass anything which I can offer you with my modest powers in these lectures.” (104)
These intriguing remarks, set forth by Theodor W. Adorno in his series of lectures delivered in Frankfurt during the winter semester of 1960/61, can be regarded as the touchstone of Ontology and Dialectics. This lecture course of 1960/61 – and the three Vorlesungen delivered at the Collège de France in March 1961 – first published in 2002 under the title Ontologie und Dialektik, excels in presenting a subtle analogy between Nietzsche’s positions concerning Richard Wagner’s music as a cultural expression of décadence and his remarks on Heidegger’s fundamental ontology as a degenerate movement or tendency against Aufklärung. As presented in Der Fall Wagner (1881), the Nietzschean formulation of Wagner’s music as a “disease” affecting German culture is evoked in order to analyse the philosophical observations on Heideggerian ontology developed by Adorno in Ontology and Dialectics. According to Adorno’s incisive observations, fundamental ontology, as defined by Heidegger, manifests a specifically German posture – considered by Adorno as profoundly deplorable – against Enlightenment ideology. As Adorno asserts, fundamental ontology is a philosophical movement which can be characterized as an abominably vile counter-Enlightenment. The Nietzschean analysis regarding the infamous power of seduction involving Wagner’s music, from Adorno’s point of view, is a “Heideggerian disease” because it profoundly affects the German academic world, which represents a new philosophical movement that is intensely respected and greatly venerated. The bizarreness of this Heideggerian spell, or disease, under which the German intelligentsia seemed to succumb, is often considered by Adorno:
“[…] for in Germany there are now hardly any responsible academic positions or professorial chairs in philosophy that do not feel obliged at least to show that they are somehow worthy of what has been achieved by Heidegger and Jaspers. And even those thinkers who for political and other reasons are extremely critical of both philosophers, but especially of Heidegger, still appear to be captivated – in a way I find really hard to understand since I have never experienced this spell myself – by this kind of thinking and seem unable to sever the umbilical cord entirely in this regard.” (100-101)
According to Adorno, fundamental ontology, Heidegger’s philosophical project, can be regarded as a philosophical tendency which owes its effect and possesses its forces through opposition to idealism in general. It is an anti-subjectivism; in fact, the philosophical question concerning fundamental ontology may be stated in a variety of ways. Adorno puts it thus: fundamental ontology is essentially an anti-subjectivist. Fundamental ontology stands in contrast to a philosophy which remains essentially devoted to a preliminary question, namely the question of how knowledge is possible at all. The coarse obliteration of the philosophical reflection upon the subjective mediation of knowledge and the epistemological relevance of the conceptual thought represents the chief theoretical posture of Heidegger’s ontology as conceived by Adorno.
Fundamental ontology is unequivocally the chief subject matter of Ontology and Dialectics by Theodor W. Adorno. The relevance of such a book – essentially a compilation of 23 Vorlesungen delivered in Frankfurt in 1960/61 and in Paris, at the Collège de France, in March 1961 (we refer to the last three lectures included in the book) – can be described in accordance with the consideration that the positions expressed in Ontology and Dialectics represent as an initial discussion of the Heideggerian ontology developed by Adorno. It should be observed that Ontology and Dialectics presents a philosophical anticipation of the incisively penetrating analysis of the Heideggerian ontology which, ultimately, forms the core of The Jargon of Authenticity, published in 1964. According to the “Editor’s Foreword” included in this edition, written by Rolf Tiedemann, the book Ontology and Dialectics, which expresses the philosophical antipathy to the ontological movement emanating from the Black Forest, evokes a project which Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht had already begun to pursue around 1930, not long after the publication of Being and Time. The project they sought to pursue was that of “demolishing Heidegger” [den Heidegger zu zertrümmern]. The intention of “demolishing Heidegger” pervades Adorno’s work and thought, especially after his return from exile to Germany. As Rolf Tiedemann elucidates, within the German philosophical academic circle developed after the end of the Third Reich, during the political and social process of re-establishing democracy in Germany, Adorno was widely regarded as the pre-eminent intellectual opponent to Heidegger – and Adorno accepted this incumbency. To lay emphasis on the fact that Adorno’s Complete Writings comprise almost 600 references to the name of Heidegger (exceeded in number only by those to Walter Benjamin) is not superfluous. Clearly then, “demolishing Heidegger” was an Adornian philosophical project. Nevertheless, the Adornian critique of Heidegger is not an aggressive refutation of the fundamental ontology that is without merit, nor is it intended to chiefly condemn the political positions adopted by Heidegger. The Adornian objections to Heidegger’s fundamental ontology that are most important are those which excel in revealing the dangerous political and social implications of a philosophical tendency – developed in accordance with the refusal of the cognitive sophistication of philosophy – that, in its instauration of odd cults and bizarre interests, promoted the pseudo-ideal of pre-Socratic irrationalism.
The title of the book, Ontology and Dialectics, alludes to Adorno’ intention of presenting a philosophical contrast between Heidegger’s fundamental ontology and Adorno’s own conception of dialectical thought as negative dialectics. This intention is subtly illustrated in a story involving Gustav Mahler and his literary taste.
“It is well known that Gustav Mahler was passionately interested in Dostoyevsky, who stood for something quite different in the years around 1890 than he does of Moeller van den Bruck. On one occasion, during an excursion with Schoenberg and his pupils, Mahler is said to have advised them to spend less time studying counterpoint and more time reading Dostoyevsky. And Webern is supposed to have responded with heroic timidity: ‘Pardon, Herr Direktor, but we have Strindberg’.” (1)
As Adorno explains, this story is probably apocryphal; nevertheless, this episode involving Gustav Mahler’s literary taste is mentioned by Adorno as a witty elucidation of the relationship between the new fundamental ontology of Heidegger (or, we might say, Dostoyevsky’s new literature) and the tradition of the German dialectic thought (or, we might say, Strindberg’s thought). However, the emphasis upon the philosophical opposition between the new fundamental ontology and the traditional dialectic thought does not form the heart of Ontology and Dialectics. It is pertinent to observe that this series of lectures, published under the title Ontology and Dialectics, precedes the three lecture courses which form the book Negative Dialectics, Adorno’s masterpiece, published in 1966. The thorough theoretical presentation of such a philosophical project – the delineation of the philosophical singularity and distinctiveness of the negative dialectic thought – is indeed the chief subject matter and the central line of thought developed by Adorno in Negative Dialectics, written between 1964 and 1966. It is worth noting that Ontology and Dialectics, which precedes Negative Dialectics, is especially devoted to the philosophical condemnation of Heidegger’s fundamental ontology.
At any rate, as Adorno conceives it, the concept of Being, in Heideggerian terms, is not actually a concept at all. In fact, according to Adorno’s reading of Heidegger’s ontology, the concept of Being is not supposed to be the highest abstraction, the supra-concept reached by omitting all particular individuation, all particular determination. In approaching such a philosophical account of Being, Adorno intends to lay emphasis upon the fact that the Heideggerian ontological positions should be sharply distinguished from other kinds of ontology – such as the concept of ontology introduced by Husserl, the ontological project developed by Nicolai Hartmann, or the ontological positions advanced by the neo-scholastic tradition. The relentless obliteration of the conceptual dimension of Being defines the decided difference between Heidegger’s fundamental ontology and the traditional ontologies. As Adorno clearly explains, Being, in Heideggerian terms, is supposed to be what is utterly prior and primary, that which is highest and most constitutive. The question regarding Being – over against the highest regions, the highest and most universal concepts of all possible classes of beings – is what is decisive here, precisely because it involves the problem of the possibility of ontology as such, namely whether such a pure doctrine of being can be thought as such independently of the doctrine regarding the order of beings. From Heidegger’s point of view, those doctrines devoted to the ontological delineation of the order of beings – those doctrines which totally disregard the benedictory ontological difference between Being and beings, those ontologies of the ontic developed in accordance to systems of blind conceptual categories, fundamental principles and axioms – it is these doctrines imply an ontological questioning in the naïve sense. They do not represent, as Heidegger insists, the essential task of ontology understood in the radical sense – and this is precisely what fundamental ontology is.
The cult of the concept of absolute originality, the cult of the Firstness, is one of the philosophical oddities bound up with the persistent assertion of such an ontological questioning in the radical sense, as advanced by Heidegger. According to fundamental ontology and, especially, according to its chief claim concerning the ontological difference between Being and beings, any approach which does not involve the priority of Being with respect to beings is already rejected ab ovo and defamed as inferior, as a failure, as a betrayal of the real question. As Adorno asserts: “we are constantly presented with the same invocation, variation or repetition of this premise, namely the priority of Being with respect to beings” (22). Consequently, in repudiating the conceptual sophistication of the traditional philosophical thought (and of the philosophical ontologies), Heideggerian ontology fails to consider that the concept of Being itself is not the original question which fundamental ontology would have us believe. As Adorno attempts to explain – this is, unfortunately a very laconic explanation – the concept of Being deserves to be regarded philosophically as a concept of reflection in the sense of those concepts subjected to criticism by Kant in his “Amphiboly of the Concepts of Reflection” when they are hypostasized – in other words, when they are treated as an expression of true beings as such. On this view of things, the concept of Being is not something very ancient but something rather late and, correlatively, developed in accordance with the conceptual sophistication of critical philosophical thought. It should be observed that, from Adorno’s point of view, the concept of Being is a result, a historical result, attained only through a process, which, in turn, can be characterized as a conceptual and critical philosophical process. The concept of Being, in Adornian terms, is, in fact, understood philosophically as a concept – the highest abstraction, understood in accordance with the development of the conceptual sophistication of philosophical thought. It is not properly a Kantian perspective. This concept of Being as the highest abstraction is already present in Plato and in Aristotle, as Adorno claims, despite the brevity and the laconism of his elucidations.
It is certainly worth noting that Adorno’s reading of Heidegger excels in presenting a collection of problems, ambiguities and contradictions which profoundly involves fundamental ontology. According to Adorno, Heidegger’s fundamental ontology comprises a double refusal: in effect, fundamental ontology is a philosophical tendency developed in accordance with its emphasis upon the rejection of both conceptuality – it is pertinent to mention the delineation of the concept of Being as a non-concept – and reality – and it is convenient to consider the celebrated ontological difference between Being and beings. Fundamental ontology can be described, as Adorno suggests, by its attempt to escape both from mere conceptuality and from any reality simply or immediately accepted as such. This double approach, this double front against a philosophy of concepts and against a philosophy of reality, is precisely what characterises the efforts of fundamental ontology. However, as Adorno elucidates, Heidegger incessantly fails to attain these philosophical intentions.
The Heideggerian cult of language, or the fascination with language, has tremendous significance for Heideggerian ontology. Language as a mediation of Being, or language as the possibility of aletheia and the unveiling of Being, is not philosophically compatible with a coarse rejection of conceptual thought. As Adorno proposes, Heidegger continuously disregards the fact that the concept of Being, in terms of its origin and its legitimacy, is directly bound up with the categorial structure of language. Heidegger’s ontology perniciously explores such a quid pro quo involving Being as a concept – Being as an element of language, entity, and even Being as a non-concept – which cannot be expressed through mere meanings insofar as it is not exhausted by conceptual terms nor by subjectively instituted concepts, and is cut off from conceptual thought. Nevertheless, such a remarkable ambiguity between Being as concept and Being as a what-is-beyond-concept is not acknowledged by fundamental ontology as a deficiency at all, as Adorno explains. On the contrary, it is chalked up as a positive and counted as credit. Why? The enigma, or the touchstone, underlying Heidegger’s pernicious ambiguity is taken as a venerable philosophical position that proceeds from a peculiar account of language that is incessantly proposed by Heidegger: the idea that language as a true, pure and absolute entity, or the idea of language as the domain of the unveiling of Being, is that of an immediate medium, organon or ‘complexus’ of truth that is deprived of any conceptual elements or aspects – and, as Adorno elucidates, also deprived of subjectivity and historicity. Hence, the concept of Being – in accordance with such a conception of language – deserves to be inexorably regarded as an entity beyond mere conceptuality.
In presenting this Heideggerian ambiguity, Adorno reflects more closely upon fundamental ontology as an anti-subjectivism by apparently overcoming subjectivism and the spurious claim that philosophy has somehow escaped its imprisonment within subjectivity (and within conceptual and categorial thought) through this new ontological project. This is intimately bound up with the Heideggerian quid pro quo, acknowledged and presented by fundamental ontology as an element of apparently higher dignity, as “one of the strongest seductions of this philosophy” (46), which arises from “that wavering, negative and inarticulate character of this talk of being itself” (46). Regarding the Heideggerian refusal of reality and the abandonment of the empirical dimension – a claim which involves and justifies the celebrated ontological difference between Being and beings and, correctively, the hypostatization of the word ‘Being’ (by supressing the dialectic of Being and beings) – Adorno draws attention to a conspicuously Heideggerian philosophical posture: the act of ontologizing the ontic; the repeated ontologising of ontic beings, namely, the human being itself. The anti-subjectivism which involves fundamental ontology is, in effect, the central axis treated by Adorno – that of the ontological conception regarding the human being as Dasein, which permits an elimination of the subjective character, now turned into a determination of Being. As Adorno explains, the ontological interest is profoundly incompatible with the subjective reflection itself. The subjective dimensions of reflection, spontaneity, consciousness and self-consciousness, and, by extension, the subjective dimensions of critical, conceptual and discursive thought, are all totally avoided and obliterated in order to sustain an ontological conception of Dasein as a ‘mode of being’ or, in a developed sense, a “shepherd of being”, where the latter serves as a primitive agrarian metaphor set forth by Heidegger in Letter on Humanism, and serves as an amusing object of Adorno’s attention.
According to Adorno, Heidegger sets out to extirpate subjectivity by transforming it into the scene or arena of ontology. In effect, this ontological kind of thinking, for which Being appears or manifests itself in Dasein, naturally evokes something related to subjectivity; but, at the same time, it loses what was so decisive for this subjective form of thought – in other words, it loses that moment of subjectivity that appears in Kantian philosophy under the name of ‘spontaneity’ and in Hegelian philosophy, under the name of ‘labour’. In fundamental ontology – and this is, as Adorno explains, the phenomenological legacy of the doctrine which Husserl had already developed, namely the idea of the pure intuiting of the thing in question – subjectivity is actually introduced as a kind of pure receptivity; subjectivity becomes that to which Being manifests itself, yet without that moment of activity, or that ‘function’, as Kant also occasionally puts it, properly being acknowledged. Consequently, a philosophical relevant determination of the Heideggerian project consists in “taking up that moment of reflection and subjectivity which is directly opposed to the ontological approach and integrate it into his original project by turning it into a mode of objectivity, turning ‘existence’ into Seinsweise, or ‘mode of being’” (82). It is the absolute precedence of Being over beings, the total precedence of Being over human existence, that concerns us here. This structure – that a particular being is itself ontological – is the defining and distinctive touchstone of the doctrine of Dasein, and it implicitly expresses Heidegger’s intention of avoiding the conflation of his own analysis of Being with the ‘philosophy of existence’ associated with Kierkegaard or Jaspers. Ultimately, as Adorno suggests, this ontologizing of the ontic, this reduction of the ontic being to Being, promotes, in an unexpected and ineluctable way, the superfluity and the dissipation of the celebrated ontological difference, which gives rise to the absolute hypostatization of Being. Indeed, Adorno’s acute reading of the Heideggerian analysis of Dasein deserves an extended treatment, for it excels in considering the anti-subjectivism manifested in fundamental ontology. Nevertheless, we venture to say that Adorno disregards the philosophical relevance of the Heideggerian notion of Befindlichkeit as a singular determination of human being, which cannot be reduced to any subjective or discursive determination developed by critical thought.
The Adornian emphasis upon the anti-subjectivist turn introduced by Heidegger’s fundamental ontology represents a crucial element of Ontology and Dialectics. According to Adorno, this “pseudo-revolutionary form of thought” (121) – which incisively repudiates the axes of modern critical form of thought, declaring itself to be a pre-critical return to naïve realism – expresses “a reactionary mentality” (121), which can be characterized by its philosophical intention of destructing the subjective mediation of thought, the critical moment of thought, in order to extirpate Enlightenment and rational thought. In Adorno’s words, Heidegger’s ontological project imposes itself as a pernicious philosophical tendency which can be described as irrationalism, counter-Enlightenment and, ultimately, return to myth, return to barbarism. In rejecting the question of the mediation of Being, and in repudiating the critical relevance of the thinking subject and the subjective determination of knowledge, Heidegger’s philosophical project, developed in accordance with the veneration of a truth fallen into oblivion (namely Being), expresses an odd return to myth and to fate that elaborates a philosophical project that denigrates philosophizing in favour of a particular relationship to language – an archaic language – that is totally devoted to what is primordial, original or authentic, and, supposedly, purified of conceptual determinations. The analysis of a collection of poems written by Heidegger – characterized by its “inferior character” (162) and “wretchedness” (162) – is an integrate part of Adorno’s emphasis upon the conspicuously archaic moment of Heidegger’s fundamental ontology: the spuriousness of Heidegger’s philosophy and poetry resides in its veneration of an archaic kind of thinking, which manifests an intention to suppress historical and social determinations inextricable to the act of philosophizing.
Regarding Adorno’s remarks on Heidegger’s poems, it is perhaps not superfluous to draw attention to an important aesthetic essay dedicated to Hölderlin’s late poetry: the essay entitled “Parataxis: On Hölderlin’s Late Poetry”, written by Adorno in 1963, which is fundamentally devoted to condemn Heidegger’s approach to art, namely to Hölderlin’s poetry; interestingly, according to Adorno, the Heideggerian commentaries on Hölderlin’s poetry reveal the total absence of aesthetic sensitivity towards the poetic object – the lack of an aesthetic organ (Mangel an ästhetischen Organ), as set forth by Adorno in his essay.
It is convenient to take into account the centrality of the concept of Schicksal in Heidegger’s ontology, for it clearly illustrates the intention of supressing the critical dimension of the act of philosophizing in order to establish a reversion to fate and a revocation of rationality and, ultimately, of freedom. In Adorno’s words,
“the concept of fate or destiny here ascribed to ‘being’ is that of a blindly entangled will – for what is ascribed to ‘being’ in this context bears all the marks of irrationality. In other words, ‘being’ is characterized as something utterly obscure that may somehow be intimated and venerated, but about nothing substantive can ever be said. In the first place, you should clearly observe how this very passage moves directly to the concept of Schicksal or fate, and how this concept of fate, even if it is indeed indexed historically, is furnished with that blind and ineluctable character which belongs to the ancient and traditional notion of fate” (117).
The Heideggerian emphasis upon the concepts of time and historicity is actually designed to deceive: the concept of Schicksal – regarded in its philosophical affinities with the concept of Hörigkeit, or ‘obedient hearkening’, a hearkening to Being which sounds like blind submission – defines and determines Heidegger’s form of thinking. It’s worth noting that Schicksal and Hörigkeit represent Heidegger’s condemnation of the critical thought – the critical labour of the conceptual, as Adorno puts it, according to Hegelian positions – regarded by fundamental ontology as a process of philosophical degeneration. Heidegger annuls critical labour, as if philosophy could assume a historical standpoint beyond history; although, philosophy is enjoined to obey history, which is then, like existence, itself ontologized.
The philosophical purpose of Ontology and Dialectics, as announced by Adorno in the first lectures, consists in throwing light upon the philosophical discrepancies, contrasts and oppositions between fundamental ontology and negative dialectics. We conclude that Adorno leaves untouched a philosophical intention of forming the heart of negative dialectics in Ontology and Dialectics, for Adorno passes in silence the chief lines indicative of such a philosophical intention. In the context of Lecture 23, the last lecture of Ontology and Dialectics, there is a philosophical concept under the name “negative dialectics” that is described theoretically by fundamental determinations, but, interestingly, in order to offer a precise theoretical description of negative dialectics, Adorno proposes to consider the most relevant philosophical condemnations advanced against Heidegger’s fundamental ontology, especially the disapproval concerning Heidegger’s project as a philosophical tendency intended to perpetuate mythical thought. Dialectical thought, in its turn, is described as a philosophical attempt, “by means of cunning, the oldest medium of enlightenment” (240) to dissolve the mythical context of nature, to transcend the immediate context of nature without imposing its own domination, the domination of reason – in other words, dialectical thought “attempts to transcend nature without incurring that sacrifice and rage which would merely perpetuate the same context of nature” (240). As Adorno argues, dialectical thought excels in being the acne of enlightenment – the culminating point of conceptual thought – presented in its critical potential to extirpate the mythical context of nature. In accordance with these observations, it is worth noting that Adorno considers the mythical context of nature under the conception of identity – or, identity principle. Indeed, the idea of such a negative dialectics, as delineated and described by Adorno, implies a critique of identity – a critique of mythical forms of thought. It is the philosophical purpose of negative dialectics to abolish the circle of identity and the correlative identity principle. According to negative dialectics, the philosophical procedure of conceptualization is devoted to the determination of the non-identical; the negative element of thought which cannot be entirely tolerated under the identity principle. Such a principle – the identity principle – does not recognize the prominent prerogative of subjectivity or subjective mediation, which consists in determining the non-identical, the negative element of thought, without extirpating it under the logic of conceptual hypostatization.
In conclusion, it is important to lay emphasis on the logic of conceptual hypostatization. As Adorno argues – and this forms the core of the book Negative Dialectics (1966) – negative dialectics attempt to contradict any positive and unconditionally total dialectic elaborated under the identity principle. To distinguish negative dialectics, Adorno’s own philosophical project, from the Hegelian model of dialectics is, indeed, the theoretical axis of Negative Dialectics: the Hegelian elaboration of the supreme concept of Geist as a philosophical bizarreness which, as Adorno states, implies the pernicious sovereignty of the identity principle and its aspiration for (false) totality. Interestingly, in Negative Dialectics, the Hegelian dialectics – regarded as a model of dialectical thought, and not as the dialectical thought par excellence – there is treated by Adorno a degenerative dialectic, which succumbs to the hegemony of the identity principle and, consequently, to the annihilation of the preponderance of the negative elements of thought. According to Adorno, the hypostatization of the concept of Geist as a superlative entity, developed as an absolutization of the concept of subjectivity, clearly illustrates the process of decline of the Hegelian dialectics – a process of decline due to the assumption of the identity principle. It is not, perhaps, philosophically irrelevant to consider a subtle affinity between Hegel’s Geist and Heidegger’s Sein (advanced by Adorno as against the philosophical intention of elaborating supreme concepts, supreme conceptual entities which subsume the ontic or individual elements or realities under an aspiration for total identity), as an incisive disapproval of both Hegel’s dialectics and Heidegger’s fundamental ontology. The chief purpose of Adorno’s negative dialectics consists in presenting the philosophical prerogative of subjectivity: subjective mediation as an act of spontaneity devoted to determine the non-identity and the negative elements of thought in order to destroy – through the critical labour of the concept – the identity principle (a mythical principle) which governs conceptualization itself.
Is it possible to abolish the identity principle through the labour of concept? Is it possible to extirpate the supreme conceptual entities, such as absolute subjectivity, or Geist, through the act of subjective spontaneity? To present and consolidate the fundamental lines of thought of negative dialectics with conviction represents a philosophical tour de force developed by Adorno. But, as with all tours de force, we are confronted with confusion, perplexity and uncertainty: How philosophically convincing is negative dialectics, Adorno’s philosophical project? The response should be found not in Ontology and Dialectics, but in Negative Dialectics.