No rest for Dasein

In Opus Dei, Agamben claims that there are two ontologies at work in the Western tradition: the ontology of being and the ontology of having-to-be or of command. In some ways, this corresponds to Heidegger’s discussion of the Greek and Christian ontological paradigms in Being and Time. The Greek ontology is modelled on non-human things and interprets Dasein through that inappropriate lens. The Christian paradigm does not explicitly raise the question of Being, but it posits an absolute qualitative distinction between the creator and the creation — and then claims that Dasein is defined above all by its tendency to transcend its status as mere creation, to exceed its own bounds.

Interestingly, Heidegger refers to this Christian paradigm as a “clue,” and the point here seems to be that Dasein does always exceed what it presently “is,” insofar as Dasein more emphatically is its potentiality, its future. What Agamben’s ontology of command allows us to highlight here is the fact that for Heidegger, Dasein’s potentiality is not an open-ended project of self-expression, but rather a very determinate demand placed on Dasein. Dasein is somehow obligated to attain to its ownmost potentiality of Being (Dasein “je sein Sein als seiniges zu sein hat,” sec. 4) — and the very fact that Dasein so often fails only serves to highlight that demand. Here we seem to have to do less with the Christian paradigm of theosis and more with that of original sin.

Even in the inauthentic mode of everydayness, Dasein is always already beset by demands. Heidegger endlessly multiplies the prefix um- in his discussion of the “Worldhood of the World” (Division One, Chapter Three) — the Welt is initially Umwelt (environment, literally world around), Dasein’s engagement with the Umwelt is identified as Umsicht (circumspection), etc., etc. This could denote the mere “aroundness” of the spatial relationships of things, but Heidegger is just as insistent that the um- is always an Um-Zu (in order to), always an Um-Willen (for the sake of). The referential structure of the world is, again, not a set of inert “relationships,” but is grounded in the structure of demands wherein all of our Zeug, or our stuff or equipment, is implied as a total structure corresponding to those demands. A reference is an assignment, a task, an Um-Zu — and so language itself grows out of the command, and indeed perhaps even (as Agamben suggests in The Sacrament of Language) out of a kind of oath, insofar as Heidegger speaks of Dasein’s Vertrauen or trust in the world.

Dasein initially encounters things within the space of its demands, as zuhanden (translated as “ready-to-hand”) and vorhanden (translated as “present-to-hand”). Things do not stand merely before (vor) us, but they exist to do stuff (zu). In fact, things that are zuhanden do not even appear as individual or separate things so much as parts of an articulated whole determined by our project — only when they break down or go missing do they present themselves, and then only in such a way as to immediately direct our attention away from them and back to our Um-Zu, which is all the more emphatic insofar as it has been disrupted.

There is no resting place for Dasein. Its initial state of everydayness is not a baseline zero-level of Dasein but already a particular way in which Dasein has-to-be. Nor is its ownmost potentiality of Being a resting place, insofar as authentic Being-toward-death only increases the urgency of Dasein’s projects. The only resting place is precisely death, which is when Dasein ceases to be Dasein. This is all rather exhausting! Hence in Agamben, the ontology of being, which for Heidegger appears as a kind of original sin of ontology, can take on a utopian dimension insofar as it represents a way of freeing ourselves from the endless series of ultimately unfulfillable demands that characterizes the ontology of having-to-be.

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6 Responses to “No rest for Dasein”

  1. reidkane Says:

    What do you mean that “the ontology of being [...] for Heidegger appears as a kind of original sin of ontology”? Do you think, at least in Being and Time, he’s trying to get back before this point? How do the two ontologies relate to metaphysics, and philosophy after Plato and Aristotle?

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I was referring, overly eliptically, to Heidegger’s claim that Greek ontology went astray by trying to interpret all entities as though they were present-to-hand things.

  3. John McNassor Says:

    Great post, Adam. I am intrigued by the new engagement with MH, especially Dasein (this after a number of years of stringent pomo critique of ‘metaphysical’ categories. I am also currently engaging William Desmond on the same). This may be a little broad, but what do you suspect is behind this?

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m not sure what you’re referring to.

  5. John McNassor Says:

    I was referring to the continued importance of, or at least interest in Heidegger, and the impossibility of evading the discussion of ‘Being’ (even when approached under other categories, such as ‘givenness’).


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