Tag Archives: Heidegger

Andrew Benjamin – Art, Mimesis and the Avant-Garde (1991)

Benjamin uses art, mimesis and the avant-garde to reconceptualize the task of philosophy out of a ontology of “ontological difference,” which is a constituent component of “existence.” He transforms Heidegger’s division between Being and beings into a division or difference between various modes of being. “This shift has occurred because difference is henceforth differential rather simply marking a negation or non-relation” (3). Adorno lurks in the background. If the history of philosophy is of constantly falling prey to the trap of identification (between concepts and objects, Being and facts, etc.), then Benjamin wants to claim there is always already “plural ontologico-temporal” existing in the primacy of the already present. This temporally produced differential is crucial for Benjamin’s particular take on mimesis. For him, the artwork bears this internal temporal fracture and therefore participates, through its mimetic function, both in the “here and now” and in the past and future that exceed its context.

In chapter 9 “The Decline of Art: Benjamin’s Aura,” he uses Barthes’ theory of “significance” in “Le troisième sens” to explain his peculiar take on Benjamin’s aura. Significance refers to that which exceeds “pure information” and “symbolism.” The former is confined to the semiotics of the message, while the latter is more complex, but solely dependent on context–whose “temporality is therefore inscribed within its contextual existence.’ The third sense manifests itself in the moment that Barthes realizes, “I cannot detach myself from this image.” This “obtuse” meaning “sterilizes metalanuage (critique),” because it is indifferent to history and to the obvious meaning, and facilitates a distance from the referent” (145).  In A. Benjamin’s words, “Significance is a primordial presence occasioning, if not grounding, the possibility of the continuity of interpretation and hence of reinterpretation. Furthermore, it is a presence that can never be included within the temporality of he instance and therefore ontology of place, both of which involve the conceptions of time and being proper to context.” Therefore, “Significance is linked to survival and the capacity of the object of interpretation to live on” (146). Basically, this is what makes the photograph a work of art.

Benjamin’s reproducibility essay claims that experience is in a state of decay. He is ambiguous as to the loss of aura’s negative and positive effects. Importantly, it is not only our ability to experience, but the object of experience’s ability to “look back” that is decaying. A. Benjamin latches onto this intersubjective modality in order to claim that the primordial (which characterizes Barthes third sense) is “an otherness within presence which is part of presence itself” (149), thereby guaranteeing semiotic survival outside of the regimes of history and information.  He argues,

If the aura can be related to the primordial then the experience of aura needs to be understood beyond the melancholy interplay of nostalgia, loss and redemption. (151).

Yes! This adequately accounts for Benjamin’s point: “We define the aura of the latter [natural objects] as the unique phenomenon of distance however close it may be.” This “differential” marks the inherence of the primordial–the guarantee of semiotic survival: “The idea of life and after life in works of art should be regarded with an entirely unmetaphorical objectivity” (from Task of Translator). Which is to say, that metaphor no longer acts as the semiotic structure for understanding the enduring power of art (link to Levinas, de Man, et al). Thus the “truth content of the work of art…becomes its capacity to live on” (153). We need to better understand what this unmetaphorical living is….


Gerhard Richter – Afterness (2012)

Richter identifies his neologism afterness as a near universal trope in modern aesthetics and thought. The German word for after “Nach” gets at the dialectical nature of this temporal progression:

To live nach does not mean to emancipate oneself fully from ongoing proximity. O live nach does not mean to emancipate oneself fully from what went before but, on the contrary, to be subterraneously determined by it to a greater or lesser degree.  (10)

This afterness manifests itself in trauma, dreams, echoes and repetition. In this, way that which comes after, that which “ends” a certain moment, also acts a productive mechanism in the realms of thought and art. Quoting Hegel:

The question should rather be whether this end, incapable as it is of being an end, could possibly be the beginning of something.

Thus every discourse of “ends”–end of art, end of history, end of the human, end of taste–must always be conjoined with a discussion of the reorganization of conceptual paradigms within an emerging discourse. Using Dasein as an example, he notes how various tropes of withdraw simultaneously attempt to name the space that remains to be thought–so a leave-taking entails a conception of a future that has yet to be realized. Thus afterness, as Richter will repeat again and again, holds us in its grip. It materializes as something atemporal–as an experience that is lived.

Richter’s short chapters all take similar form. He clusters three or four thinkers around the relationship between Afterness and some other term: aesthetics, modernity, critique, etc. He uses afterness as a way to unlock the kernel of key theoretical texts, such as Negative Dialectics:

Afterness can be understood here as the affirmation of a dismantling that does not merely destroy its object, but liberates what previously had remained unthought within that object precisely through its dismantling. (52)

Adorno becomes a key figure for Richter, since Adorno so relentless theorizes the anxiety and stagnation produced by mere repetition–a sort of “bad,” ahistorical, reified afterness that is alien to all forms of authentic subjective experience. “Philosophy misses its purpose,” Adorno writes “when it already exists in the realm of repetition, of reproduction” (54). Adorno’s closing words in Mimima Moralia most famously lays out the importance of assuming a position of afterness (of redemption) in relation to the things of the world. Correct perspectives on the world can only be gained from “contact with the objects,” yes, but paired with a cognition that determined these objects as bearing the semblance of the already-redeemed. Here we begin to glimpse the elective affinities between art and thought–in Richter’s words, “the fragile promise of any negative dialectics” (69).

If this sounds like Benjamin, it’s because Richter’s Adorno is shot through not only with Benjamin’s influence, but also with the theological predilections of Heidegger, who is brought in (sometimes uncritically) as unproblematic interlocutor in almost every chapter. “Appearance” becomes a crucail phenomenological terrain for Richter’s arguemnt. Benjamin writes, “That of which one knows that one soon no longer will have it in front of one, that becomes image” (GR 143). [NB: could be linked to the genealogy of impressionism, but also to a description of life without material guarantees…where food becomes image the moment it is cognized. not sure…back to marx]. To solve the problem, Richter reads Heidegger-Deleuze to claim that the path thinking must take is one that is free of image all together–or, more precisely, an image of imageless thought, of image in perpetual withdraw. Adorno silently drops out in moments like this. Would have been nice if Richter had more clearly staged where Adorno would no longer agree with a tradition more comfortable with this passivity/fluidity/ontology/etc….

In perhaps the most compelling chapter, “Afterness and Experience (II): Crude Thinking Rethought,” Richter uses Brecht’s term “Plumpes Denken” to put forth a program for thought in the humanities today:

The task–an infinite task, to be sure–would be to engage in an articualtion of dialectical concepts and deconstructive moments of thought that would remain faithful to their radical singularity, autonomy, nd otherness and at the same time break with that fidelity to allow us to relate to the possible and nonnaive transformative reverberations of the material inscriptions that these thoughts and movements leave in the world. (174)

One feels the convergence of many realms of thought in this passage–deconstruction, marxist critique, phenomenology, psychoanalysis, Deleuzean mondaology–which is precisely what makes this book so compelling. Its lose paratactic form, familiar from Adorno’s “Essay as Form,” allows for maximum capaciousness. Derrida makes a late entrance that feels perfectly in line with the group of thinkers that current critical practice tends to pit against deconstruction. Derrida llows us to think memory as future-oriented–memory is always the memory of a future that is for us (yes, Kafka’s notion of hope is hovering here).


One also registers Adorno’s influence in the more or less paratactic, “constellated” style of Richter’s book.

Martin Heidegger – Letter on Humanism (1947)

Page numbers are from Basic Writings (Harper, 2008)

An answer to the question: Comment redonner un sens au mot “Humansime?” Heidegger will question from the start whether we should maintain the word at all. He begins by explicating, more clearly than usual, the relationship between thinking and being. Thinking is an action. The essence of action is accomplishment of what already exists (not cause-effect) as unfolding. Thinking “accomplishes” the relationship between Being and man, because in thinking, Being comes to language. “Language is the house of being.” For thinking to be real thinking, it must stay in its “element,” and its element is Being.  The quiet power of the possible is Being itself: “to enable something here means to preserve its essence, to maintain it in its element” (220).Ok, so maintaining thinking within being preserves thinking as potential.if it goes out of its element (i.e., into the public realm), it becomes mere techne.

Now Heidegger dives into this element via the notions of CARE and EK-SISTENCE, both which characterize the ways in which man “stands-out” into the truth of being,  an ecstatic quality that differentiates him from animals and all other things. Man sustains Da-sein in that he takes the Da, the clearing of Being, into care (231). That is, Dasein’s positionedness in a world becomes an element with the care-structure that determines worldly relations. I’m not totally sure how this connects with the discourse of proximity, but I’m pretty sure that this clearing is space in which man becomes being’s neighbor, as Heidegger will famously write (245). Man is “more” than merely human, to the degree that more is not additive, but more “originally”:

Man, as the existing counter-throw of being, is more animal rationale precisely to the extent that he is less bound up with man conceived from subjectivity. Man is not the lord of beings. Man is the shepherd of Being. Man loses nothing in this “less”; rather, he gains in that he attains the truth of Being. He gains the essential poverty of the shepherd, whose dignity consists in being called by Being into the preservation of Being’s truth. (245)

Ok, this links up in all sort of interesting ways to Levinas’s notion of proximity. Determining the difference should take place via temporality (time of death v. time of the other). Heidegger is basically trying to articulate the essence of the human as neither the liberal subject nor the public man. “Humanism” should be thought in terms of nearness to being.

Heidegger believes that thinking in this manner–not overcoming but “climbing down” from the heights of metaphysics to the “nearest nearest”–is the “recollection of Being,” which exists before thought divides into practical and theoretical spheres. “Such thinking has no result. It has no effect. it satisfies its essence in that it is” (259). However, this mode of thought, that which attends itself to the clearing of Being (not solely to man as the ego cogito), as surpassing all praxis:

Thinking towers above action and production, not through the grandeur of its achievement and not as consequence of its effect, but through the humbleness of its inconsequential accomplishment. (262)

Indeed, the problem according to Heidegger is “quantitative.” We need to recognize the inconsequentiality of our “accomplishment” (as the unfolding of what already is) and the limits of philosophical thought: “less philosophy, but more attentiveness in thinking; less literature, but more cultivation of the letter” (265).



Roberto Esposito – “The Philosophy of Bios” from Bios (2004, trans. 2008)

The final chapter of Esposito’s book articulates a positive biopolitics that does not immediately become the Thanatopolitics which found its most extremem manifestation in Nazism’s reduction of life to death. He does this with the concept of the “immunitary.” He claims that all societies seek to completely immunize themselves from all foreign bodies, rendering themselves completely pure; he tries to build an ethics of contamination, i.e. a Nietzschean concept of living by preserving what is foreign rather than obliterating it. The biopolitical is the tendency to flatten the political and purely biological (146), and while Nazism may have “died,” its biopolitical modalities still persevere in things like preventative war: auto-immunitary process by which an outbreak is constructed and deployed in order to prevent an outbreak ad infinitum. Starting with Arendt, and moving through Foucault, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Freud, Simondon, Spinoza and Deleuze, Esposito attempts to take the three dispositifs of Nazi biopolitics–the double enclosure of the body, the preemptive suppression of birth, and the normativization of  life–and deconstruct them so that they signify in an opposite, positive direction. How?

Arendt does not think the concept of life thoroughly enough, and therefore does not understands its political valence. Instead, she rigorously distinguishes the zone of bios (life)  from the zone of the polis (world): that which exceeds life is the political. Esposito sees an unlikely and partial “corrective” in her teacher Heidegger, who similarly draws a distinction between mere life and “Da-sein.” Life itself withdraws from the political and the philosophical realms of thought: the facticity of life is precisely that which has immanent to its self its own self-reflective form of thought. But Heid can do this by keeping “factical life” separate from biological life. Thus while Nazi biopolitics denigrates “existence without life,” Heidegger will denigrate “life without existence.” In other words, “[life] can only be deduced negatively from Dasein as that which isn’t it” (154). This comes down to the radically opposed stances towards death: while for Nazis death representes a life “emptied of biological potentiality,” for Heidegger death is the authentic mode of being that grants existence possibilities that exceed the category of bare life. Thus Heid rigorously distinguishes between humans that “create a world,” animals that are “the poor of the world,” and stones which are “without a world.” Nevertheless, Adorno’s criticisms in Jargon of Authenticity lurking in the background, Esposito sees Heid’s withdrawing of life from the category of thought as problematic: it is precisely because he politicized life too little–not too much–that Heid opened himself up to appropriation by Nazi philosophy .

THE BODY: Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the flesh rewrites Heid’s ontology of the human by assuming “the poor of the world” as part of human experience itself. He thus inscribes the threshold between man and animal as the form of phenomenological experience. We can see here, as fi in a mobius strip, the mirror image of Nazism’s reduction of the human to the animal. It is for this reason, that Lyotard, Deleuze, Derrida and Nancy are all uncomfortable with the concept of the flesh: in short, they that it cancels the concreteness of the body by placing it under a transcendental signifier fraught with the symbolism of Christianity. Esposito admits that for M-P the flesh is a-political, an excess; for this reason, its politicization opens up possibilities: “a being that is both singular and commun al, generic and specific, and undifferentiated and different, not only devoid of spirit, but a flesh that doesn’t even have a body” (167). Such is “incarnation”: not a modality that incorporates, but one that multiplies and “self-divides.” Esposito sees this “journey to the end of the body” in Francis Bacon’s portraits, which portray the flight of flesh from the body. There is an indeterminate relation between man and animal (all “one flesh”).

BIRTH: The idea of the nation is biological and political (natio). One could say that the biological was once preeminent, but the modern state prioritizes the political, even as it uses the biological to support the boundaries of the political. Birth holds the dual possibility: birthing into a political body, yes, but also introducing the unassimilable fact of existence into a body that can’t contain in it (176). In Moses and Monotheism,  Freud deconstructs the Nazi logic of origins by showing how the originary father/son is always doubled as the foreign body that the nascent nation will need expropriate. Likewise, Arendt will use “birth” to confront the bad “seriality” that marks out mere life from the political. Simondon goes further, however, by integrating birth into the process of life: “life is to perpetuate a birth that is permanent and relative” (qtd. 181). [The connection with Hegel, Darwin, and also with Agamben, should not be missed.] Life is the zone not between birth and death but between the “pre-individual” and the post- or trans-individual. Thus life could be seen as the perpetuation of preservation of impotentiality. [Return to animal, human divide and Levinas on ecstatic ontology]

LIFE: Nazism created a norm of life, not in that it adapted its policies to the demands of life, but that enclosed life within the borders of norm birthed in the state of exception/nature: a norm imposed on nature, nature imposed on a norm. Esposito wants to vitalize that norm (184). Using Spinoza, Esposito proposes to substitute for a logic of presupposition one of reciprocal immanence, where the power of “aliveness” and “action” is that from which rights are derived: “the process of normativization is the never-defined result of the comparison and conflict between individual norms that are measured according to the different power that keeps them alive, without ever losing the measure of their reciprocal relation” (187).To think life philosophically, we need, as Canguilhem argued, to open the “norm of life” to the infinite unpredictability of life. Thus “normal man” equals “normative man” to the degree that individual “mutations” are “self-legislated” [the brush with Kant should not be missed]. He turns to Deleuze’s late work and discusses the move form “the life” to “a life” in terms of Riderhood’s near-death experience in Our Mutual Friend. This depersonalization of life comes so close to that the impersonality that opened up the floodgates of Nazi violence; but here life is not submitted to a norm, but norm and life are seen in one another. The potentiality of life is given to the norm. He ends by echoing Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents:

Whether its [biopolitics’] meaning will again be disowned in a politics of death or affirmed in a politics of life will depend on the mode in which contemporary thought will follow its traces. (194)

Terry Eagleton – The Meaning of Life (2007)

A shockingly disappointing collection of armchair impressions including commentary on current Isalm vs. The West conflicts , decontextualized poaching of Wittgenstein aphorisms, and cursory reading of all of Beckett in 9 pages. That each page only contains about 50 words makes this feet all the more impressive. Spends a long time “deconstructing” the word “meaning” before turning, very briefly, to the concept of life. Unfortunately, he fails to treat life as a biological necessity, but only as the source of meaning that he has spent so much time calling into question. For Eagleton, life isn’t about preserving the body, but only about meaning-giving processes that find their fullest expression in acts of altruism or love. So the final chapter claims life = love, which is a fitting conclusion to a book that aspires to so little (or so much, which is the same  thing when dealing with these large issues).

Eagleton does usefully summarize certain philosophers like Schopenhauer, in particular, showing how the Will, as completely self-determining, is based on the model of appetite. All consciousness is false consciousness. Thus the human enterprise is much like the mole’s:

To dig strenuously with its enormous shovel-paws is the business of its whole life; permanent night surrounds it…what does it attain by its course of life that is full of trouble and devoid of please? Nourishment and procreation, that is, only the menas for continuing and beginning again in the new individual the same melancholy course. (The World as Will and Representation, 353-4)

Eagleton draws a parallel between Schopenhauer’s Will and Freud’s Desire, showing how both depend on a fundamental lack for their perpetual dynamism.  For Nietzsche, the Will to Power “means the tendency of all things to realize, expand, and augment themselves; and it is reasonable to see this end in itself, just as Aristotle regards human flourishing as an end in itself. Spinoza viewed power in much the same way” (154). This sort of parallelism is what is most helpful about Eagleton’s book: it takes, for example, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (Happiness = life, because it is self-grounded, i.e. we cannot reasonably ask why someone wants to be happy), and shows how it traces through a diverse range of thinkers. To add another to the list, Karl Marx’s master concept would be history, or the self-transcendence of the linguistic animal.

Eagleton uses Wittgenstein to both underwrite and subvert his entire project of finding life’s meaning. From the Tractatus:

We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, then problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer. The solution of the problem is seen in the vanishing of this problem. (6.5, 6.251)

Relate this to Witt’s essay on ethics, in which the final book on essays destroys all other books. How do these two images of extreme resolution fit together?

Finally, there is a curious debate stages between Heidegger and Lacan: whereas  Heidegger searches out the meaning of being, Lacan transforms the problem into meaning vs. being. For Lacan, the subject can either “mean” or “be,” but it cannot do both at the same time. In Eagleton’s words:

Once we enter into language, and thus into our humanity, what one might call the ‘truth of the subject,’ its being-as-such, is divided up into an unending chain of partial meanings,. We attain meaning only at the price of a loss of being. (91)