What is human?

Note: This essay was my contribution for an issue of the Turkish publication Sabah Ülkesi on the very broad topic “What is human?” Knowing the text would be translated, I aimed for a simple style, but readers of Turkish will have to judge how much I facilitated the translator’s work.

When philosophers and theologians attempt to define what is human, they almost always end up talking about what is not human. That is to say, most definitions of the human proceed via contrast or negation. So one might say that a human being is not simply an animal, nor is it a god, an angel, or a jinn. In this procedure, we learn that animals are lower than us, and gods, angels, and jinn are higher—but what we actually are remains a mystery.

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A feature, not a bug: Agamben on Heidegger and Schmitt

This utterly phoned-in article on the continuing hand-wringing about Heidegger reminds me of a theory I’ve been developing about Agamben’s use of Heidegger and Schmitt — namely, that he’s not using them despite their Nazism, but because of it. After all, one of the key theses of his project in the Homo Sacer series was that the West was always bound to wind up producing something like the concentration camp. For thinking through the internal logic of that move, it helps to have two interlocutors who are absolutely steeped in the Western tradition, who are creative and brilliant, and who embraced Nazism.

I haven’t systematically gone through the works to verify this, but my sense is that the two are treated differently. Schmitt is more or less treated purely as the Nazi archetype. Schmitt features hugely in the critical portions of the Homo Sacer series but completely drops out in the constructive portion. (I am delighted to share that his name does not appear a single time in The Use of Bodies, for instance.) His postwar work does not really figure in, and to the extent that it does, Agamben is dismissing it as an evasion — most notably in his claim that the concentration camp, which Schmitt utterly ignores, is the true “nomos of the earth.”

Heidegger’s role is more ambivalent, because Agamben acknowledges that he was drawn into the Nazi endpoint of the West but also gives him at least some credit for trying to think past that impasse. That attempt is not fully successful, and it seems clear to me that Agamben attributes a good deal of that to the inertia of the paradigm that led him to Nazism. Agamben is always oblique about it, but sometimes it’s very obvious, as in a passage in The Use of Bodies where he says that Heidegger may have been able to make more progress if only he had ever seriously engaged with Spinoza — and then all but nudges the reader to say, “But we all know why he wouldn’t go there, don’t we?”

Silent partners

Someone once told me that Foucault recommended that everyone should have a thinker they’re always reading but never write about. When I heard that, it struck me that mine is Foucault himself. I started reading him in college, and I’ve been reading and rereading steadily ever since. When I’d gotten through most of his published works, the lecture series started coming out. I kept up with those at first, but as I started falling behind, I started teaching Foucault. Now I’m in a reading group on The Order of Things, which I somehow skipped before.

In sum, Foucault is probably in my top five for authors I’ve read most. Yet it never occurs to me to write on him. I might use him here or there — for instance, I’m planning to do something with him in The Prince of This World — but I’d never sit down to write something thematically on Foucault.

A big part of this is my perception that Foucault is a scholarly mine field. There are so many controversies over his development and the appropriate way to periodize his work that I can already anticipate people dismissing what I have to say with the scholar’s deflationary “it’s much more complicated than that.”

The same goes for another figure I’ve spent a lot of time on but never formally written on: Heidegger. There, however, it’s more a question of not having plowed through as big a proportion of the vast material available. I know that there’s probably some text or seminar — preferrably a late one, judging by the more popular secondary works in recent years — that completely changes everything and shows that I don’t know what I’m talking about.

What about you, my dear readers? Do you have any silent partners of the kind Foucault describes?

Rilke on visual art: An executive summary

Cezanne - Mme Cezanne in Red ArmchairIn Shimer’s fine arts class, we typically do a unit on Cézanne that includes a selection of Rilke’s letters written after a particularly vivid encounter with an exhibition of Cézanne’s art. Out of curiosity, I picked up Rilke’s more formal study of Rodin, which was published at about the same time he was writing the Cézanne letters. Both texts are beautifully written, passionate responses to artworks that Rilke had not only studied closely, but felt deeply. In them, Rilke displays a profound sympathy for both artists as artists and as human beings. I strongly recommend you read both if you’re into that kind of thing.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that an unsympathetic reader could conclude that Rilke is, in the last analysis, simply praising both artists in exuberant terms without providing much in the way of concrete tools for thinking through the nature of Cézanne and Rodin’s particular artistic achievements.

This reading, though plausible, is in my opinion ultimately wrong. What Rilke is saying about each artist is simple and yet challenging and profound. In his letters on Cézanne, the point he returns to again and again is that Cézanne makes his paintings out of color. In his book on Rodin, he repeatedly emphasizes the fact that Rodin makes his sculptures out of planes.

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The Broken Hammer

It is something of a commonplace in Heidegger interpretation that the famous example of the broken hammer provides us access to the present-at-hand (as opposed to ready-at-hand) and hence to the scientific stance toward things. When my class read the relevant section in Being and Time, therefore, I expected them to see this in the text — and yet they obstinately refused to do so. In fact, I think my insistence on this common interpretation hobbled our understanding of Heidegger’s actual account of the scientific attitude through the rest of the semester.

The actual point of the broken hammer example is to give us access to the world as such. When I confront a broken hammer, I don’t immediately reflect on the raw materials (except insofar as they might account for its brokenness, its unsuitability for its purpose) — instead, I reflect explicitly on the network of purposes to which the hammer belongs. Our ordinary absorption into our tasks does not allow for such reflection; only when the world “stops working” do we have the necessary distance. (Heidegger’s account of animal life in Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics helps to clarify this aspect of our relationship to the world by contrast. The animal’s disinhibitor ring never “stops working” in such a way as to allow room for explicit reflection.)

This distance from the world might lead one to reflect further that the world of human products and purposes is not infallibly effective, hence that the beings we encounter do not exist solely for us. This gives us access to the present-at-hand (beings in their brute existence abstracted from any human purpose), but merely viewing things as present-at-hand is not yet the scientific attitude. (Basic Problems of Phenomenology has an interesting section that traces the origin of the Greek ontology to the experience human production, which accounts for the ontological privilege of the present-at-hand as what something “really” is, before receiving a human-imposed form.)

As he clarifies in chapter 4 of division 2, the shift to science takes place when we project upon beings in a new way — above all, when we project the present-at-hand as belonging to a total system called “nature,” which is defined by its mathematizable laws. This projection leads to a “project” in the normal sense of the word, which requires considerable practical labor and technical apparatuses (i.e., science is not about abstracting from the practical in order to get at the theoretical). And this aspect of projection is why Heidegger needs to wait until this late in division 2, because he needs to have the “future-first” temporality structure in order to account for the unique scientific form of projection.

When I brought this interpretation up with my handful of Heidegger tutorial students (who spent the spring semester following up on Being and Time by reading several of his seminars from that period), they all seemed to think it made a lot more sense. I apologize to the other students for misleading them and promise that I’ll do better next time. I also apologize to any readers for whom this was always painfully obvious.

A Unified Theory (A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature book event)

A unified theory — though not a theory of everything. Not philosophy of, with all its implications of dominance and omnicompetence (a philosophy of religion, of law, of fashion are all equally plausible), nor even simply philosophy and — but a unified theory of philosophy and some science. What is the status of this “theory,” this strangely undefined entity that is not a philosophy (or is it a non-philosophy?) and that seems strangely comfortable asserting the dread philosophical omnicompetence, indeed in an exaggerated form that claims not simply to account for the facts adduced by some other discipline but to provide the means precisely of unifying them?

Anthony’s book gives us a unified theory of philosophical theology (a pre-packaged combination that I won’t quibble with, given that I live it every day) and ecology. It adopts the “stance” of ecology, which is a thinking from the Real guided by the ecosystem concept. Within this unified theory, we learn that philosophies have varying degrees of biodiversity. Badiou’s particular ecosystem, for example, has room for four primary species of truth-procedures, but is dominated by mathematics. Thoughts occupy niches and respond to their environment. Sometimes the claims are very concrete and empirical, and sometimes they seem more or less metaphorical. Sometimes we are at the very physical level of needing to eat in order to think — and sometimes it turns out that the scholarly literature on given figures represent narrow niches. Yet none of these claims, we are assured, are mere metaphors. It is not a metaphor to say that books of philosophy are dead thoughts that need to be consumed to produce living thoughts, any more than it’s a metaphor to say that human thought is situated within a wider ecosystem or that the academic publishing industry produces certain over-specialized populations with narrow niches.

In a unified theory, then, we are not dealing with mere metaphor. I grant this. What I would like to ask, however, is precisely what we’re saying when we say it’s not a mere metaphor. Continue reading “A Unified Theory (A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature book event)”

On Heidegger’s Anti-Semitism

A couple days ago, I posted a confused series of tweets on the revelation of Heidegger’s anti-Semitism in the recently published “black notebooks.” It was exceptionally unwise to attempt to address this issue in that format, and so I thought I would try to post some more coherent reflections here.

I’m not one who is inclined to explain away Heidegger’s reactionary views in general. Even some of his greatest works, like The Origin of the Work of Art, clearly include proto-fascist elements. I’ve never been convinced that he joined the Nazi party out of mere conformism — it’s clear that he had very firm ideas about how to reform the German university and jumped at the chance that (he thought) the Nazis offered him to carry out those reforms.

What makes me suspicious about the furor surrounding the notebooks is the notion that they are a decisive revelation of some kind. The remarks in his notebooks may be uglier and less guarded than we would anticipate, but it cannot possibly be a surprise that a provincial Roman Catholic with reactionary views (including a distrust of the rootlessness of modern society), views that made him very comfortable with Nazi affiliation and unwilling to unambiguously renounce it later in life, would also be personally anti-Semitic.

There are of course very serious questions to ask about Heidegger’s politics in relation to his thought, but the most creative and influential interpreters of Heidegger’s works have always been asking those questions. Aside from people who are pure expositors, there is literally no one in the post-Heideggerian tradition who has taken over Heidegger’s views wholesale — indeed, it would be more accurate to view the post-Heideggerian tradition as a tradition of critiques of Heidegger than as a mere continuation of Heidegger’s project. I don’t think anyone can claim that Derrida, for instance, accidentally imbibed fascist principles in the course of his deconstruction of Heidegger’s project.

And here we come to the contemporary political stakes. I understand that journalism by its very nature seeks out newness and exaggerates its importance when it finds it. Even taking that into account, however, I can’t help but see the coverage of these notebooks as part of a broader trend in the English-speaking world of trying to use Heidegger’s disastrous political commitments as a way to discredit continental philosophy and literary theory. In short, the ongoing journalistic “controversy” over Heidegger’s politics is part of the broader culture war polemic against “postmodernism.” And the irony is that the culture warriors who have such an eagle eye for the Nazi influences of their opponents invariably advocate for nihilistic militarism and simplistic nationalism every chance they get — without offering us anything close to the creativity and fruitfulness of Heidegger’s radical reworking of phenomenology and innovative rereading of the history of philosophy.