Heidegger’s Eternal Triangle
On July 20, 2014, I published a small article titled “A Fight for the Right to Read Heidegger” in “The Stone” column of the New York Times. Predictably enough, given a long buildup of controversies aimed at delegitimizing Heidegger, my argument concerning a profound disconnect between his anti-Semitic prejudice and his philosophy gave rise to hundreds of comments, some of them vitriol-filled. Among these, one stood out for me, its concluding sentences reading: “Not only language but thought takes a holiday when we come to Heidegger. Beware, he still stalks the world.”
I asked myself upon scanning through these lines: Where else but on holiday—vacated of or vacationing away from pragmatic, instrumental concerns—does thought truly think and language speak? The holiday in question is not necessarily a beach vacation (and there is nothing reprehensible about taking a beach vacation!) but a more general release to and for the possible and its play, which is only the province of phenomenology insofar as it is an exemplar of thinking.
Then there is the issue of the world. It is ironic, to say the least, to accuse of stalking the world a philosopher who has given us a renewed appreciation of this originally theological term, dissociated it from “global” affairs, and handed it over to secular, existential, and ecological considerations.
Finally, a warning: “Beware, he still stalks the world!” Still—in the twenty-first century, well after his death! Beware: Heidegger is a specter, akin to the specter of communism that has made its bombastic appearance in the first lines of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto. Which world does he haunt? Or, better, whose world? That of a technocratic stricture, where possibilities are unlimited so long as they are indexed to “technological innovation”? That of unremitting calculation and quantification, insinuating the phenomenology of capital into the fabric of life (and death)? That of the expanding worldlessness, where—devalorized, leveled down, and homogenized—the place becomes a passage on the way to nowhere? (To be sure, nowhere is always the final destination, but one can travel there slowly or quickly, taking one’s time or squandering it, veering off to unexpected detours or running into it head-on, caring for the beings one encounters along the way or dragging them along indiscriminately as if in a bottom-trawling net toward an end that is not theirs . . .)
Over and above the minor episode my New York Times op-ed occasioned, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Martin Heidegger was the most controversial philosopher of the twentieth century. A polarizing figure, he had, beyond a shadow of doubt, influenced generations of intellectuals who have since become canonical in their own right, from Hannah Arendt to Jacques Derrida. Most recently, however, the publication of Black Notebooks has spawned further negative reactions to Heidegger’s body of work, with some contemporary philosophers, many among them former card-carrying Heideggerians, willing to discard his contributions in toto on account of his involvement with Nazism and the blatantly anti-Semitic statements peppering these personal-intellectual diaries. The sentiment among the liberal critics of Heidegger is the most uncompromising, as they insist that his practical political stance in the 1930s hopelessly taints his philosophy and blocks any promising ecological potential that may reside in it. They see in Black Notebooks the last nail in the coffin of the German philosopher’s intellectual legacy, to be shelved, at best, with studies in the intellectual history of twentieth-century totalitarianism.
By now the Heidegger controversy has entered something of a cyclical rhythm, extinguishing and rekindling every ten years or so. Some notable galvanizing moments in its decadal comebacks are Victor Farias’s 1987 Heidegger and Nazism; an anthology The Heidegger Controversy edited in 1992 by Richard Wolin, its publication inciting acrimonious polemics between the editor and Thomas Sheehan, on the one hand, and Jacques Derrida, who withdrew his interview from the book, on the other; and Emmanuel Faye’s 2005 Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy.
Released in 2014, the first volumes of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks added fuel to the fire of scandal, given the philosophical implications of the anti-Semitic remarks they feature. A salient example these new materials contain is the attribution of Bodenlosigkeit (lack of soil) to the figure of a Jew, “attached to nothing, making everything serviceable to itself,” (GA 95:97) in a prefiguration of modern uprooting, which eschews any and all particular belonging. The anti-ecological position Heidegger pins on “Jewry” (Judentum) culminates in the unleashing of the deadliest possibility—to make everything serviceable, disregarding the unique possibilities of the beings themselves—and a technocratic politics oblivious to the place of shared existence. While his diagnosis of the prevalent Weltanschauung and of the planetary malaise caused by a total (ontic and ontological) uprooting is germane to the self-understanding of humanity in late-capitalist modernity, the argument’s anti-Semitic trappings threaten to overshadow its critical acumen and embolden the detractors of Heidegger to pronounce his philosophy rotten to the core, with anti-Semitism infecting its very essence.
What reawakens each time with the controversy, or what reawakens it, is the desire to expel Heidegger and to expunge his contributions from the canon of Western philosophy or from what may be legitimately taught, interpreted, and discussed in self-respecting philosophy departments. But the target of these attacks, personal as they are, is not really Heidegger-the-man, much less Heidegger-the-thinker, seeing that no real effort goes into working through and understanding his texts. Instead, it is everything and everyone he is associated with, not the least posthumously, that is at the receiving end of these proxy wars: in the discipline of philosophy—the “Continental tradition,” whose “analytic” detractors delegitimize it by locating its origins in the theoretical position Heidegger took as part of his bitter 1929–31 dispute with Rudolf Carnap; and in the realm of ideology—the opposition to neoliberalism and economic, as well as cultural, globality. The labels mysticism, anti-modernism, and parochialism stick to his followers (whatever “following” someone in thinking might mean) and to the critics of the currently hegemonic political and economic regimes. And what better way to neutralize a serious threat to the status quo than to saddle it with the weight of past, pre-capitalist, almost feudal oppression, making the so-called flexibilization and mobility of the workforce look much more alluring than the need for dwelling and learning to live abidingly?
Diffracted through the prism of Heidegger’s allegedly inveterate and systemic Nazism, the ecological overtones of his philosophy are received as relics of a close-minded attitude, glorifying German nature because it stands for the environing world (Umwelt) of the national existence (Dasein) proper to the German Volk. Attachment to a locale, to a place, and finally to the earth are seen as his reactive, telluric responses to modernization, to cosmopolitanism, to Soviet and American internationalisms, and, more recently, to globalization. The occasional disparaging remarks Heidegger has made concerning Jewish “rootlessness,” akin to the one we’ve just spotted above, seem to corroborate this hypothesis.
Compelling as the contemptuous readings of Heidegger now in vogue might appear, they overlook a point pertinent both to methodological issues and to matters of substance, namely, that it is impossible to understand his philosophy without understanding his lifelong commitment to phenomenology. Indeed, Heidegger’s metaphysical anti-Semitism surfaces in those moments when the phenomenological and fundamental-ontological supports of his thinking, concentrated in the power of the question and in the primacy of possibility over actuality, are at their weakest. If so, then it is futile to reconstruct a “Nazi-leaning” phenomenology of German national existence and its Jewish “negation” in Heidegger’s oeuvre, since, at the end of such a reconstruction, we will have on our hands nothing more than the formal and crystallized theses that have been spared the impact of deformalization and critique. Regretfully, Heidegger himself failed to follow through his methodological recommendations with regard to the “Jewish question.” This failure, nonetheless, should be seen frankly for what it is: a deviation from his core philosophical commitments and the relaxation of phenomenological vigilance that is only essential to the extent that the possibility of failure is essential to existential actuality.
As is well known, the radical temporalization of thinking in the 1920s and the rejection of transcendental subjectivity, along with its constitutive analysis, distinguish Heidegger’s phenomenology from Husserl’s. The emphasis on time, born from finite existence itself, is sufficient to throw into doubt the spatially based interpretations of German, as opposed to Jewish, being. Along these lines, I argue, in the spirit of Heidegger, that national existence no longer hinges on rootedness in a given territorial domain but in a tradition, that is to say, the historical temporality of Mitdasein. Departing from and constantly circling back to the temporality of Dasein, we must therefore be more—not less—Heideggerian than Heidegger himself in order to right the philosophical wrongs scattered on the margins of his works.
More than that, Heidegger holds the conception of the environing world as a territory to be typically Roman, wrong, imperialist. Ecology is decisively non- or anti-territorial (or anti-territorialist); its view of the world is that of a dwelling place (oikos) where, in an existential a priori, one finds oneself articulated and articulating (logos) alongside and with others. In turn, neither Heidegger’s politics nor his ecological thinking should be scrutinized in isolation not only from each other but also from the phenomenological framework they are a part of. Voilà the “eternal triangle” in the title of this text—not, as some might have supposed, the love triangle, in which the thinker was caught up with his wife, Elfride, and his gifted student Hannah Arendt. To state it succinctly: Heidegger’s ecology is eminently phenomenological and political, while his politics is inherently eco-phenomenological, and his phenomenology is “genetically” politico-ecological.
Phenomenological possibility; the ecology of a site and a habitable—not for much longer, it seems—world; the politics of the possible and of place: Heidegger’s eternal triangle makes its eternal return between the lines of all the criticisms and accolades showered on his work. But this triangulation is not exclusive to Heidegger. To a much greater extent than he did, we find ourselves surrounded by its three interlocked sides mapped onto a virtual grid where possibilities, places, and political proceedings shrivel to formalism and abstraction. Although we are dealing with texts by a twentieth-century German thinker, the matter is not a purely academic one, as it pertains to what we refer to as “our contemporary situation,” the historical frame (Gestell) of being that is “ours,” regardless of all the variations in opinions and styles of existence. With periodic flare-ups, the polarization around Heidegger is symptomatic of a sweeping and heated disagreement on how to cope with this frame, how to be and to act within it, if not upon it.
So, what if “Heidegger”—not just as a controversial philosopher but, above all, as a phenomenon—were the fourth point or corner, bringing the current triangulation of being to visibility? And what if the addition of Heidegger, by throwing our ontological Gestell into sharper relief, gave us the chance to reframe this frame, to question its virtual matrix, and to bring down to earth the transcendental forms of possibility, ecological existence, and political life?
Note: This article is adapted from the introduction to Michael Marder’s Heidegger: Phenomenology, Ecology, Politics, forthcoming from University of Minnesota Press this September.