Sunday, January 15, 2012

On the Edge of the History of Being: Assessing the Terrain

I apologize for my absence but life does intrude from time to time and I have been rather busy developing several of the projects I am juggling. For the outcome of one such project, check out Existentia 2011 Volume XXI in which my paper "Discourses of Excess and the Excess of Discourse: On Georges Bataille's Lasting Influence Upon Foucault" was just recently published. Most of my time, however, has been focused on rewriting and expanding my book in preparation for sending it out to potential publishers. 

I want to take the time to fill you in on where some of my recent thought has been gravitating, specifically towards proposals that seek to reveal the limits of Heidegger's History of Being. This had already been an overt interest of mine, one that I pursued in my paper "What Homer Can Teach Us About Seynsgeschichte" which I presented at the 2011 meeting of the Heidegger Circle. In this paper I offered my own suggestion for how Heidegger's project might be extended through the resources made available to us in a focus on the transition from orality to literacy in Ancient Greece. It is a work I am still developing. Recently, however, I have been looking at often more critical engagements with his project that suggest either ways to correct and expand the project or ways to reveal its supposedly fatal inadequacies. It is this terrain I would like to begin mapping for you now in preparation for later posts in which I intend to consider more fully some of the hints or attacks I will mention here. I would like, then, to discuss (often small) parts of five books; Levinas' Totality and Infinity, Derrida's Specters of Marx, Marion's Being Given, Agamben's Homo Sacer and the collaborative work of Vattimo and Zabala Hermeneutic Communism.   

I have selected these books and authors for several reasons, but not least of all because of the rich web of influences which exist between them. Let me warn you that this will be a lengthy post, so feel free to read it in segments. I hope I will be forgiven for the extent to which what is to follow is primarily expository and preparatory for more extensive interpretive engagements to come.

Levinas' Totality and Infinity

"Being, which is without the density of existents, is the light in which existents become intelligible. To theory as comprehension of beings the general title ontology is appropriate. Ontology, which reduces the other to the same, not allowing itself to be alienated by the other. Here theory enters upon a course that renounces metaphysical Desire, renounces the marvel of exteriority from which that Desire lives." Totality and Infinity p. 42

"To affirm the priority of Being over existents is to already decide the essence of philosophy; it is to subordinate the relation with someone, who is an existent, (the ethical relation) to a relation with the Being of existents, which, impersonal, permits the apprehension, the domination of existents (a relationship of knowing), subordinates justice to freedom." Totality and Infinity p. 45

In a sense Levinas' project is surprisingly Heideggerian. One aspect of Heidegger's general criticism of both epistemically driven philosophy and what Heidegger understands as Husserl's theoretical stance is the claim that epistemology, built on the model of the human condition offered by Descartes, smuggles certain ontological assumptions into the epistemic problematic. It is only assuming that humanity is primarily subjective consciousness in relation to, but separated from, objects that the epistemic problem arises in the forms we find it in the idea of epistemology as first philosophy. In response to this situation Heidegger suggests we first look at the experiences from which epistemic questions arise in order to locate what the ontological nature of the entities in question actually seems to be. Doing so reveals Being-in-the-World, an unproblematic primordial unity of subject and object from which the epistemic picture only arises as a theoretical fantasy and distortion. Phenomenology and the ontology it gives rise to are, then, first philosophy and epistemic philosophy only shows up on the scene after we have already, generally implicitly, made certain decisions as to the ontology of subjects and objects.

Levinas' work in Totality and Infinity follows the same general strategy to assert that ethics, not ontology or epistemology, is first philosophy. He arrives at this assertion through a transcendental method of argumentation in which he attempts to show that Truth of any sort is founded on the already determinative relation of subjects to an Other which transcends them and any totality they might posit. Just as epistemology was founded on a, distortive, disclosure of subjects and objects for Heidegger so disclosure is founded on the primordial relation of Justice. "Consciousness then does not consist in equaling being with representation, in tending to the full light in which this adequation is to be sought, but rather in overflowing this play of lights - this phenomenology - and in accomplishing events whose ultimate significance (contrary to the Heideggerian conception) does not lie in disclosing... The welcoming of the face and the work of justice - which condition the birth of truth itself - are not interpretable in terms of disclosure." (Totality and Infinity p. 27-28) 

Despite the Heideggerian strategy in his work, Levinas is also rehabilitating an element of Cartesian philosophy which epistemically driven philosophy tends to dismiss. Specially the idea that any answer to the problems of epistemology must already be based on the discovery within the subject of a relation to an infinity it does not and can not produce. The primal relation, Levinas' urverhaltnis, is the relationship between a subject and an Other which always overflows and escapes the subject's grasp. This relationship is also described by Levinas as a Metaphysical Desire upon which any search for truth is founded since the search for truth begins first as a passion to achieve union with an Other that surpasses me. Similarly, Levinas suggests, the very existence of significance presupposes the radically Other from which such significance arises. "To comprehend a signification is not to go from one term of relationship to another, apperceiving relations withing the given. To receive the given is already to receive it as taught - as an expression of the Other." (Totality and Infinity p. 92) Ultimately however the fullest manifestations of metaphysical desire for the Other are, rather than the achievement of disclosure or adequation between thought and thing, acts of justice in relation to the face of the Other. 

As should now be clear, the villain in Levinas' story is the totality which traditional philosophy has always posited. Philosophy becomes, from this view, an ongoing attempt to annul the Other through an act of totalization in which the Other can become the same as the self. For Levinas this shows up particularly strikingly in Hegel. It also shows up in Heidegger's own dedication to the concept of worldhood as a relational totality within which alone things can show up as meaningful. Against this Being and Time era assertion Levinas would insist that the meaningfulness of the totality of worldhood arises from an always already experienced relationship to an infinite Other that is always exterior to all other relations and deflates any posited totality. 

Derrida's Specters of Marx   

"Let us call it a hauntology. This logic of haunting would not be merely larger and more powerful than an ontology or a thinking of Being... it would harbor within itself, but like circumscribed places or particular effects, eschatology and teleology themselves." Specters of Marx p. 10

Derrida's work constitutes, among other things, an investigation of spectrality understood, briefly, as the presence of the non-present. It is worth noting, in relation to Levinas' claims concerning the dependence of significant language upon a passionate relation to the Other, that Derrida understands the model of meaning we derive from written language, which he suggests is the model of meaning we deal with in general, as a form of this spectrality. What makes a word, sentence or utterance meaningful, its meaningfulness, is its ability to be meaningful independent of the presence of the speaker, the context in which it is original formulated or the addressee. This also makes meaning undecidable, for something to be meaningful it must be able to be detached from speaker, context and addressee but to the extent that it is so detached we can not anchor the utterance's meaning at all. The condition of meaning's possibility is also the condition for its impossibility. Meaning, then, arises as a specter, the presence of the non-present. From this view, interpretation and the attempt to understand is always a type of mourning constituted "in attempting to ontologize remains, to make them present..." (Specters of Marx p. 9)

It is hauntology as the study of spectrality that is more powerful and larger than any attempt to think Being. If this is so, it can only be because our relation to being is itself always a relation of mourning. Being, as the always non-present upon which presence is predicated, is something of the ultimate specter. We see the influence of Heidegger's later work particularly in Derrida's interest in the sense in which the specter always withdrawals precisely in the manner of Being in much of Heidegger's work.

The characteristic of spectrality is to show up in any relationship between two things, "What happens between two, and between all the 'two's' one likes, such as between life and death, can only maintain itself with some ghost, can only talk with or about some ghost. So it would be necessary to learn spirits. Even and especially if this, the spectral, is not. Even and especially if this, which is neither substance, nor essence, nor existence, is never present as such." (Specters of Marx p. xvii) It is worth noting in passing the relation here to Levinas and Heidegger both. Certainly the relation to the specter seems to be similar to Levinas' desire for an Other that always escapes any totalizing positing. Similarly, however, the spectral is precisely defined in terms of its non-existence. In the same sense that Heidegger's Being is not a being, the specter is not. Nowhere is the relation to Levinas more obvious, however, than in the striking passage with which we shall end this contemplation of Derrida. There it is made clear that mourning, the relationship to the presence of the non-present, the specter, is justice and most specifically a justice in relation to the Other. (Provocatively when Derrida later attempts to address the thinking of this justice beyond the realm of law, right and vengeance it is to Heidegger's interpretation of Anaximander and the concept of jointure that he turns, even if to suggest that a lack of jointure, Hamlet's "the time is out of joint", is more basic.) Derrida's Other, however, will not be Levinas' experience of the Other, even the Infinite Other, which for Levinas must be a real but non-totalizable experience. Rather, for Derrida we deal with the specter through an experience of the non-experience of the Other. Here is a justice founded on absence.  Derrida will also suggest that the thinking of this justice is indeed a politics. In this discussion we can already see the outlines of the way in which Derrida uses Heidegger to think against Levinas and uses Levinas to think against Heidegger while attempting to expand the thought of both especially through the call for a politics based on the specter. As we will see, the attempt to work Heidegger's thinking of Being into a politics will show up again in Agamben and the work of Vattimo and Zabala, the later two of whom overtly summon forth the specter of Derrida's Specters of Marx and attempt to make more concrete what we might call a spectral politics.

"To live otherwise, and better. No, not better, but more justly. But with them. No being-with the other, no socius without this with that makes being-with in general more enigmatic than ever for us. And this being-with specters would also be, not only but also, a politics of memory, of inheritance, and of generations. If I am getting ready to speak at length about ghosts... it is in the name of justice... No justice - let us not say no law and once again we are not speaking here of laws - seems possible or thinkable without the principle of some responsibility, beyond all living present, within that which disjoins the living present, before the ghosts of those who are not yet born or who are already dead, be they victims of wars, political or other kinds of violence, nationalist, racist, colonialist, sexist, or other kinds of exterminations, victims of the oppressions of capitalist imperialist or any of the forms of totalitarianism. Without this non-contemporaneity with itself of the living present, without that which secretly unhinges it, without this responsibility and this respect for justice concerning those who are not there, of those who are no longer or who are not yet present and living, what sense would there be to ask the question 'where?' 'where tomorrow?' 'whither?'" (Specters of Marx p. xviii)

Marion's Being Given

"Heidegger and Husserl thus proceed in the same way and to the same point. Both in fact have recourse to givenness and espouse its function as ultimate principle - by which they attest it and, at the same time, their respective geniuses. But, one of them, in ending up at objectness, lets givenness escape, while the other, by assigning beingness to the Ereignis, abandons it." Being Given  p. 38

Marion's project is an attempt to correct what he sees as the limitation of both Husserlian and Heideggerian phenomenology in their failure to make the reduction to pure giveness the main goal of phenomenology. In the course of his argument he also comes to terms with both Derrida and Levinas, revealing their influence upon his work but also attempting to move beyond either of their positions.

As we can see, Marion believes that Heidegger's move to thinking Ereignis, a move which is arguably the central element of his History of Being, is a fall from a pure thinking of Being to the extent that Ereignis has the characteristic itself of beingness. To arrive at this view Marion draws on Heidegger's focus upon the idiom "it gives". In Being and Time Heidegger insists that time and Being are different from things to the extent that while we can say that "things are" we can only say of time and Being that "it gives time" and "it gives Being". Indeed, as we mentioned earlier in relation to spectrality, Being does not exist in any normal sense since to assert such a thing would make Being a being which falls within Being. Only beings, then, are while Being is not. Heidegger also asserts that the "it gives", much like our phrase "it is raining", must not be thought in terms of a specific "It". Rather, asserts Marion, with the "it gives" we are thinking givenness itself which withdrawals behind what it gives. This type of giving which disappears behind what it gives is understood as "sending" by Heidegger. According to Marion, Being is understood within Heidegger's work as precisely this sending which is given only by means of its withdrawal behind what it gives. This fits Marion's project and, he feels, reveals that it is givenness and not Being that is primary to the extent that even Being is thought against the horizon of givenness and not vice versa.

Heidegger's move to Ereignis, however, represents a break with Heidegger's earlier implicit prioritizing of giveness to the extent that the "enigmatic It" of the "it gives" is now defined as Ereignis, the "advent" or "event of appropriation" etc. On this point Marion is united with scholars like Thomas Sheehan who understand Heidegger's turn to Ereignis to be a turn away from Being to something Heidegger thinks gets behind or beyond Being. Other thinkers, such as Richard Capobianco, suggest this understanding of Ereignis is based on a misreading and instead Ereignis should be understood as a name for Being which emphasizes Being's event nature. For a discussion of this idea see in particular Capobianco's Engaging Heidegger.

To summarize Marion makes two contentious claims. First, Heidegger's original thinking of Being locates Being within givenness such that givenness itself is beyond Being. This suits Marion's project. Second, Heidegger's later thinking of the Ereignis proposes that both Being and givenness are dependent upon Ereignis. This contradicts Marion's project and, he believes, contradicts most of Heidegger's thought as well. "In other words, the first move - reducing presence (Being) to a gift appropriate to givenness - is completed (and also annulled) by a second - abolishing givenness in the advent. Heidegger acknowledges givenness beyond or outside Being only to immediately misconstrue it by supposing that it still only gives (itself) on this side of the Ereignis and under its aegis." (Being Given p. 37) As Marion develops his project it also becomes clear that he thinks not only that givenness is more basic than Being but also that we can speak of givens that are not understood in terms of Being. Heidegger's focus on Being and beingness, let alone his turn to Ereignis, is a dramatic limitation of the phenomenological project.

Briefly I would also like to mention Marion's connection with both Derrida and Levinas. First, Marion is deeply indebted to Derrida and, while he understands his project as one that is more basic than deconstruction, it nonetheless draws heavily upon Derrida's insights. Marion's analysis of givenness directly mirrors our earlier discussion of Derrida's analysis of meaning independent of speaker, context and addressee. Indeed Marion draws on Derrida's own work to discuss the necessity of arriving at givenness by thinking it independent of giver, given and givee. In this sense the thinking of givenness is a thinking of the spectral.

It is this very Derridian heritage that also leads Marion to reject Levinas' prioritizing of ethics. To the extent that the given can be thought independent of either a giver or givee the Other in Levinas' sense falls victim to Marion's new phenomenological reduction. "The givenness of the gift does not depend on ethics, but inversely, ethics no doubt supposes the givenness of the gift." (Being Given p. 88)

Giorgio Agamben's Homo Sacer

"And it may be that only if we are able to decipher the political meaning of pure Being will we be able to master the bare life that expresses our subjection to political power, just as it may be, inversely, that only if we understand the theoretical implications of bare life will we be able to solve the enigma of ontology. Brought to the limit of pure Being, metaphysics (thought) passes over into politics (into reality), just as on the threshold of bare life, politics steps beyond itself into theory." Homo Sacer p. 182

Agamben's project is an attempt to think the role that the figure of the homo sacer and what he calls "bare life" play in the history of western political thought. Bare life shows up in the Ancient Greek context as zoe, natural bodily life which all living things share, in contrast to bios, the form of life appropriate for specific types of beings. From the perspective of Aristotle, for example, the bios of humanity is a political one, the way of life found in the polis. To live outside of this framework is to live as zoe, i.e. in the way which would make one indistinguishable from the animals, or as some sort of god. The foundation of ancient politics seems to be, in this sense, the expulsion of bare life from politics.   

The other theme within the project is that of homo sacer. Homo sacer, or the oddly named 'sacred man', is someone who has been declared killable without punishment but not sacrificable. Anyone may kill homo sacer but this type of life can not enter into official ritual, it is a form of reducing someone to bare life while they nonetheless remain within the city. As Agamben discusses it, the figure of the homo sacer is the political structure's containing of its outside within itself, zoe within bios. The creation of this figure shows up, however, in the declaring of a state of exception which places someone outside of the political structure while keeping them within it. Later Agamben will connect this to the figure of the refuge and the role played by such horrors as the Nazi concentration camp.

This same liminal figure also shows up, however, in the form of the sovereign and sovereign power. The sovereign mirrors the homo sacer in the sense of existing both inside and outside of the political structure through the sovereign power to declare a state of exception. This is also exemplified in the founding of a nation, in which case a special force external to any political structure acts to create the realm of politics. So sovereignty exists outside bios, founds bios, and can suspend bios while existing within it. It is the internalized outside of politics.

When moving into the contemporary context Agamben analyzes the inclusion of bare life within the political realm as the motivating factor for the rise of biopolitics as Foucault discusses it. This same development, whereby politics extends further and further into the governance of bare life, shows up as well in the basing of modern political states on sets of fundamental rights. Rights are, in effect, the appearance of bare life within the modern context and modern politics both legitimates itself in terms of them while, at the same time, continually endangering them through declared and undeclared states of exception.

We can see here important connections with the thought of both Levinas and Derrida. The theme of the liminality of sovereign power clearly draws on elements of spectrality. This is made particularly clear when Agamben discusses the double body and double death of the sovereign. The connection with Levinas is not as apparent until we look at Agamben's proposals in other works, such as Coming Community, for how to develop a society that escapes from biopolitics. There we find the hope that "...if humans could, that is, not be-thus in this or that particular biography, but be only the thus, their singular exteriority and their face, then they would for the first time enter into a community without presuppositions and without subjects..." (Coming Community p. 65) Here, connected with the dilemmas of the internalized externality of homo sacer, we see that Agamben moves within Levinas' framework of the drive for totality giving rise to the danger of the erasure of externality while externality remains the necessary presupposition of the incomplete failed totality. It is an existence as the face of singular externality, indeed a community without commonality of such singulars, that Agamben proposes.

Beyond the previous, admittedly very general, sketches the quotation with which I started this section makes clear Agamben's proximity to Derrida's project in Specters of Marx. The thinking of Being must be a political thought and political thought, driven to its end, becomes a thinking of Being. Agamben suggests that the nature of this rethinking of Being and politics will have to take the form of a rethinking of the nature of possibility and actuality.

Vattimo and Zabala's Hermeneutic Communism

I must confess that, reading this book on its own, I would not have necessarily considered it amongst the texts that I have described here as thinking on the edge of the History of Being. However, in the light of Derrida and Agamben asserting the necessity of a thinking of Being that becomes a thinking of politics its role as a concrete answer to these challenges becomes clearer. This connection is all the clearer when we witness the authors' assertion that they locate their work directly within Derrida's project as presented in Specters of Marx. 

Hermeneutic Communism attempts to demonstrate that hermeneutics as found in Nietzsche, Heidegger and Gadamer is political precisely because hermeneutics deflates the pretensions of metaphysics in the form of totalizing descriptions of reality. It is the metaphysical descriptive position which is the primary defense of the political and economic status quo that would present the status quo as the most rational, historically developed, or most adequate to objective reality of various political possibilities within our world. Hermeneutics, on the other hand, follows the Nietzschean dictum that all that we have are interpretations and even this observation is an interpretation. Such a view locates the purpose of such interpretations not in faithful theoretically distant descriptions of the world but rather in the achievement of lived projects. Even supposedly objective descriptions are uncovered, then, as motivated political and social maneuvers. In this way hermeneutics is seen as a political act necessary opposed to the political regimes supported by descriptive metaphysics and its highest manifestation, science. 

Communism, in turn, draws close to hermeneutics when we follow Derrida in recognizing its spectral nature. Communism is not, from this view, the correct objective description of the economic forces which structure history but rather is a utopian model and Kantian regulative ideal towards which opposition to economic dominance and inequality drives. We end up, then, with an always deferred communism to come in line with Derrida's democracy to come which motivates the reinterpretations of social life that undermine the dominance of neoliberal capitalism. Hermeneutic Communism, the authors hope, offers a form of "weak thought" which avoids both the metaphysical claims of traditional communism and its reliance on revolutionary violence for change. Instead they hope that such "weak communism" can develop by means of democracy as, they assert, it has in Latin American countries such as Venezuela.


This offers, then, a brief survey of some key points on the terrain which constitutes philosophical thinking on the edge of Heidegger's History of Being. I hope, in some future posts, to discuss in more detail what I consider to be the strengths and weaknesses of some of these engagements as well as the nature of their readings of Heidegger. It is striking, for instance, that where Levinas' Heidegger is totalizing the Heidegger found in Hermeneutic Communism is a major enemy of totalization. Between these two Heidegger's we find the Heidegger of Derrida, to whom Derrida turns in order to begin thinking justice free of law and vengeance. However, if we are convinced by Levinas' prioritizing of justice and reject Marion's conception of givenness prior to justice, Marion's Heidegger who prioritizes Ereignis and its related jointure (dike) may begin to look far more amenable to Levinas' thought in general. Much will depend on what thinking of Heidegger we can offer in response to those we have mentioned here.         



  1. with regard to Marion: would you say, in his phenomenological reduction of the Other, that Marion posits some new totality? some new Same? Your conclusion makes it sound as if you think so, but what is this Same?

    These expositions are quite insightful and really helpful to me.

  2. Thanks for your question West. It's an exceptionally difficult question and I am not sure there is a straight forward answer to it. In any case it is too large a question to answer adequately in a string of comments, so I am going to write another post right now attempting to come to terms with the question.