[§ 1-2, p. 1-8], September, 2020.
It’s Monday night in Prenzlauer Berg, north Berlin, and I’m pretty sure I can hear the Adhan. Either that or the blood in my ears is so foamed after another day of news dispatches that it’s starting to sing, like a teapot in anxious mourning. I can’t tell if reality is fraying or if I am. Occam’s razor, if it bothered to open a history book (and check my medical history on top of that) would probably announce that the likeliest answer is clearly both. Is this language dramatic? Sure, but I can’t help it. When I read the headlines, hell, even when I talk to a friend, I have to restrain myself with increasing vigor from streaming out into the street and screaming, furiously and incoherently, at the nearest viable stream of traffic.
Let’s make one thing clear: the threat is no longer—was it ever?—just The Right. The right has usually been relegated here to the dim-witted corner of inbred-looking Hitler Youth Poster Discard Piles who make a big show of playing with symbols of the past. They were really more into cosplay than anything resembling real politics. Now, we’re entering a world whose stage has already been set by the strange virtual fuckery of the internet and populist sentiment left untreated where concepts much less noble than Truth, maybe something more akin to Common Sense, are being rapidly torn down. Vaccine conspiracy is mixing with hippy-gunk leftovers of mindfulness and healing which in turn is mixing with populist righteous hatred of the Big Guys which is mixing with strange specters of Cold War ideological straw-men which are merging together with . . . and so on, ad infinitum.1Currently trending piece of social sleuthing taking the time to unpack this delusional goulash: https://medium.com/@julesevans/nazi-hippies-when-the-new-age-and-far-right-overlap-d1a6ddcd7be4 This isn’t your Daddy’s Neighborhood Fascism; this is the groundswell of a filthy tide of floodwater that’s shooting up around our ankles and, if I’m reading the tide right, might just absolutely annihilate what dusty old profs once called Reality and Everyday Life. You ever seen a tsunami?
Enough of that fear-mongering. I’m going to read. Bury the nervous nose in a tome somewhere, slap the shutters shut on the world. What to read what to read what to—but of course! It’s so obvious, in what feels like a vaguely familiar pre-inaugural calamity, to try to hunt down that elusive specter sneaking around the back rooms of all these Theories, World-views, Ideologies, all these voices telling you to Look Behind The Curtain. Behold! A people grown disillusioned with their government. As mistrust spreads and unemployment and economic downturn threatens, all these foreigners are being shoveled in by mysterious forces at the top. Surely that’s the cause of all the problems, all the disrespect, all the Angst. After all, will no one stand up to protect our people, our daughters, our future . . . If only, if only the people had a hero, someone who had the strength to go his own path, to rebel against the universities who have become soft and coddled—and maybe find success in his own right? That’s right Volks, now introducing in the right corner, standing almost 2 meters tall, grizzled and worn, the fighter for truth from the log cabin: Jordan, B. Peters—oops. I mixed up my notes, hold on—Martin Heidegger.
That’s right, ol’ evil Martin himself. Diggy. Stuck at home in mild misery, I’ve begun the Basic Problems of Phenomenology lectures—something of an introduction into Heidegger’s thought mid-stride—and as much as I truly loathe the word “relevant,” reading such a text at such a time will inevitably arouse sentiments of the philosophical bent as much as of the contemporary, the political. This project is therefore an experiment in recording my own experiences of both simultaneously. We are talking about a textual voice of whose infamous 1933 address it was said that “at the end of the speech, the listener was in doubt as to whether he should start reading the pre-Socratics or enlist in the SA.2The Sturmabteilung (“Storm Detachment”), original paramilitary wing of the Nazi party. This is why the speech should not be judged according to one point of view alone, be it purely political or purely philosophical.”3Karl Lowith, Richard Wolin, and Melissa J. Cox, ‘The Political Implications of Heidegger’s Existentialism’, New German Critique, 45, 1988, 117 (p. 125) <https://doi.org/10.2307/488099>.
To be clear, I’m not talking here about Marty being, you know, an actual Nazi. Nor am I solely drawn to the man—who might only be explained as a trapped and vengeful Teutoberg bloodlusting bloviating Goth warrior—because of the central role his work plays in modern fascists’ philosophy, a phenomenon somehow only recently being properly talked about,4“[I]t was only in 2008 that the first comprehensive study of Heidegger’s thought in the contemporary far right was published in Italy – with no translation in English. In the past years new publications have contributed to the understanding of the role of Heideggerian thought for contemporary politics and especially in the US alt right and Russian white nationalism.” Julian Göpffarth, ‘Why Did Heidegger Emerge as the Central Philosopher of the Far Right?’, OpenDemocracy, 2020 <https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/countering-radical-right/why-did-heidegger-emerge-central-philosopher-far-right/> [accessed 24 September 2020]. perhaps suggesting that nobody actually read Adorno and just sort of nodded whenever his name was mentioned. These would be both purely sociological accounts, a sort of philosophical book-keeping meant to find the definitive link with Auschwitz or Steve Bannon in this particular work. No, I do actually think that Heidegger’s onto something (or on something) that is currently gripping our modern world with horrendously disorienting force. Something about reality itself, or at least our being in it. So, I’m turning to him partially, yes, as opposition research, but also as a real person asking for help.
At this point I’ll really ask anybody.
If you want to insist on context—which would probably be in our collective best interest—and ask, ‘Why focus on a single lecture course presented at the University of Marburg during the summer of 1927?’, the shortest answer I can give is that this is where Heidegger takes on the task of systematically facing the history of “Western Metaphysics” and, in doing so, justifies the primacy of his understanding of temporality—the titular Zeit of the iconic jam-band duo Sein und Zeit.5Heidegger’s 1927 magnum opus, Being and Time. As one introduction to an English edition of the Basic Problems of Phenomenology puts it: “Ancient, medieval, and modern ontology would have to be subjected to phenomenological scrutiny from the viewpoint of Temporality as ultimate horizon of the understanding of being. Basic Problems contains a significant portion of this destructive examination of traditional ontology.”6Martin Heidegger, The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, trans. by Albert Hofstadter, Revised Ed (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), pp. xv–xvi. Man, I already feel myself putting my stiff wannabe tenure track suck-up voice on. It’s going to be a fun struggle to take the philosophy seriously and to stay seriously grounded. At its simplest, we can head out knowing that Martin’s about to take us on a walk with this notion of phenomenology, a logic which takes the immediacy of experience as its starting point, and in doing so clash with some of the heaviest pillars of philosophy standing during this age.
Before we start, let me dart back to that quip about the venerable Doctor Peterson. One of the most perplexing facts of being psychologically literate in the late 2010s has been the simultaneous encounter with the denial of psychoanalysis at every turn while also having Dr. Beeperson—an unabashed Jungian, of all the rotten things—on the best seller shelves even here in Berlin. Without insisting for too long on the parallel, it is of interest to me that this modern pariah figure carries with him similar ideological tones which match up with the voices of, say, Oswald Spengler or Ernst Junger, for whom our Martin had high praise. These men lamented the loss of modern culture to mass indoctrination and the disappearance of a true masculinity which took action for its own sake. On the connection between Junger and Heidegger, Bourdieu wrote: “Thus the remedy to which Jünger turns is a return, and we understand why this vision of the social world is resumed in a philosophy of temporality which opposes linear, forward-moving, and ‘progressive’ time . . . in the name of a cyclical time (which ‘turns back’ the clock) that is the perfect symbol of the conservative revolution, of the Restoration, as a denial of revolution.”7Pierre Bourdieu, The Political Ontology of Martin Heidegger (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991), p. 20. Not to mix metaphors or biographies, but I think the reader might be seeing the question of modern populism arise also in the bent of more esoteric cultural forms: astrology, new-age conspiracy hippies, and inexplicable Jungian NYT best-sellers. Now to the text.
What does Marty start with? Well, for the sake of levity, the first note I had to make in the margins was when, right out of the gate, Heidegger promises to Make Philosophy Great Again:
“Does not phenomenology contain within itself the possibility of reversing the alienation of philosophy into these disciplines and of revitalizing and reappropriating in its basic tendencies the great tradition of philosophy with its essential answers?”8Heidegger, p. 3; “[O]b nicht in der Phänomenologie die Möglichkeit liegt, die Veräußerlichung der Philosophie in diese Disziplinen rückgängig zu machen und ihre eigene große Tradition aus ihren wesentlichen Antworten in ihren Grundtendenzen neu anzueignen und zum Leben zu bringen.” Martin Heidegger and Friedrich-Wilhelm von. Herrmann, Die Grundprobleme der Phänomenologie (Frankfurt am Main: V. Klostermann, 1997), p. 5.
Don’t roll your eyes. I’m trying to be serious. Isn’t this call to short circuit the system the quintessential populist rhetorical turn? ‘They don’t want you all to know that they’re not even doing Real Philosophy! It’s up to regular folks like you and me to get to the real truth. Follow me, and . . .’ Ok, maybe it’s a bit much.
The next bit is where I immediately saw the smoke in the air from the Breitbart Doctrine,9“[I]f you want to change politics you first have to change culture because politics flows from culture.” Samuel Kronen, ‘Cambridge Analytica & “The Breitbart Doctrine.” Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid.’, Elephant Journal, 2018 <https://www.elephantjournal.com/2018/03/cambridge-analytica-the-breitbart-doctrine-be-afraid-be-very-afraid/> [accessed 24 September 2020]. or, if you’re a lefty, the whole Gramscian cultural politics. At the first half of the paragraph, I thought we were safe just talking about how the personal is political, every experience is subjective, and so on:
“A world-view is not a matter of theoretical knowledge, either in respect of its origin or in relation to its use. It is not simply retained in memory like a parcel of cognitive property. Rather, it is a matter of a coherent conviction which determines the current affairs of life more or less expressly and directly. A world-view is related in its meaning to the particular contemporary Dasein at any given time. In this relationship to the Dasein the world-view is a guide to it and a source of strength under pressure.”10Heidegger, p. 6; “Die Weltanschauung ist nicht Sache eines theoretischen Wissens, weder hinsichtlich ihres Ursprungs noch bezüglich ihres Gebrauchs. Sie wird nicht einfach wie ein Wissensgut im Ge- dächtnis behalten, sondern sie ist Sache einer zusammenhalten- den Überzeugung, die mehr oder minder ausdrücklich und direkt Handel und Wandel bestimmt. Die Weltanschauung ist ihrem Sinne nach auf das jeweilige heutige Dasein bezogen. Sie ist in dieser Bezogenheit auf das Dasein Wegweisimg für dieses und Kraft für es in seiner unmittelbaren Bedrängnis.” Heidegger and Herrmann, p. 7.
It was the final sentence that kicked me in the teeth:
“Whether the world-view is determined by superstitions and prejudices or is based purely on scientific knowledge and experience or even, as is usually the case, is a mixture of superstition and knowledge, prejudice and sober reason, it all comes to the same thing; nothing essential is changed.”11Heidegger, p. 6; “Ob die Weltanschauung durch Aberglauben und Vorurteile bestimmt ist oder ob sie sich rein auf wissenschaftliche Erkennt- nis und Erfahrung stützt oder gar, was die Regel ist, ob sie aus Aberglauben und Wissen, aus Vorurteil und Besinnung sich mischt, das gilt gleichviel, ändert an ihrem Wesen nichts.” Heidegger and Herrmann, p. 7.
This, at its core, is the problem that our world of politics, of news and various media, of fact-checkers and opinion havers, of fake news and all that jazz doesn’t grasp yet. Everyone calls the other side stupid, crazy, duped, evil, somehow defective. They’re not grappling with the terrifying reality that their subjectivities are, at some brutal, deep foundational level, no different than their own. Appeals to science, while internally more coherent and rational and empirical and in this way True, do not deliver unto Caesar a more truly existing Weltanschauung than your average anti-establishment hippy or anti-semitic bellicose subway-car screamer.
Today with lunch I watched a report on some relatively recently unearthed photos from ‘44 Auschwitz which showed the camp staff in their free time, smiling, dancing, eating, and singing. The interviewed museum archivists kept stressing, in strained voices, that it was incredible—a term used to its fullest sense here—that these people could commit such atrocities and then play drinking games among themselves. These historians kept repeating that they could not understand how human beings could do this. If they meant these appeals, what shameful historians. If there’s one branch of research which most thoroughly demonstrates the human ability to combine violence with life, it is theirs. I feel it would be vulgar to cherry pick examples from my amateur knowledge of that horrendously putrid fruit basket of Human History but come on: Genghis Khan—“A civilian massacre was the almost inevitable accompaniment to a Mongol triumph.”12Stephen Richard Turnbull, Genghis Khan & the Mongol Conquests 1190-1400 (Oxford: Osprey, 2004), p. 76. Pretty much every mass military has, at some point, engaged in significant violence, even sadism, beyond battlefields. Do you think all those guards at Abu Ghraib would have not participated in something like Birkenau if they were part of its operations? How about Guantanamo? The Greek and Yugo guerillas? The Chechens? I could go on and on and on and on. Is this merely morbid obsession? Is it boys fantasising about playing soldier? If you think that’s it, you’re missing the bigger point: don’t assume what you think Human Decency or Common Sense means is more than a bit of a historical hiccup. After all, Marty reminds us:
“From the forms and possibilities of world view thus enumerated it becomes clear that what is meant by this term is not only a conception of the contexture of natural things but at the same time an interpretation of the sense and purpose of the human Dasein and hence of history.”13Heidegger, p. 5; “Aus den aufgezählten Formen und Möglich- keiten der Weltanschauung wird deutlich, daß darunter nicht nur die Auffassung des Zusammenhangs der Dinge der Natur, sondern zugleich die Deutung des Sinnes und Zweckes des menschlichen Daseins und damit der Geschichte verstanden wird.” Heidegger and Herrmann, p. 7.
You see a sentence like that and you think you’re good until just a few lines down you run by: “Our world-view is determined by environment—people, race, class, develop mental stage of culture.”14This one really doesn’t sound as innocent in the original German. The English makes it sound quite a bit more neutered. Heidegger, p. 6; “Die Weltanschauung ist bestimmt durch die Umgebung: Volk, Rasse, Stand, Entwicklungsstufe der Kultur.” Heidegger and Herrmann, p. 7. What a doozy.
Thus we arrive at the end of the first report on Heidegger at the End of the World. Now, I know that any good soul well-versed in philosophy (and somehow also reading this) may have cried out in defence of Martin, speaking for him that ‘this is not what he meant to say at all,’ that Heidegger wasn’t talking about political realities here or any ethical equivalents and I’m mixing up stuff that has no place in Good Philosophy. All in good time.
Instead of trying to cram in all the philosophical, historical, and political commentary into some sort of lecture hall introduction, I’m going to keep reading & reporting each week and thereby introduce an increasing web of context, content, and malcontents to the lecture. Some weeks will drift more astutely into the philosophical, others perhaps drift into the current events. You try writing about the later bits of Kant’s introduction to transcendental reason on eve of, say, a US presidential election. I am, after all, just another of the unwashed masses trying to get the best seats for this apocalyptic spectacle. I’ll try to keep some sort of uneasy equilibrium here. Next week we continue deeper into Heidegger’s question of what a Weltanschauung actually is and what philosophy’s relation to said thing is. Stay tuned.
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