Rilke on visual art: An executive summary

Cezanne - Mme Cezanne in Red ArmchairIn Shimer’s fine arts class, we typically do a unit on Cézanne that includes a selection of Rilke’s letters written after a particularly vivid encounter with an exhibition of Cézanne’s art. Out of curiosity, I picked up Rilke’s more formal study of Rodin, which was published at about the same time he was writing the Cézanne letters. Both texts are beautifully written, passionate responses to artworks that Rilke had not only studied closely, but felt deeply. In them, Rilke displays a profound sympathy for both artists as artists and as human beings. I strongly recommend you read both if you’re into that kind of thing.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that an unsympathetic reader could conclude that Rilke is, in the last analysis, simply praising both artists in exuberant terms without providing much in the way of concrete tools for thinking through the nature of Cézanne and Rodin’s particular artistic achievements.

This reading, though plausible, is in my opinion ultimately wrong. What Rilke is saying about each artist is simple and yet challenging and profound. In his letters on Cézanne, the point he returns to again and again is that Cézanne makes his paintings out of color. In his book on Rodin, he repeatedly emphasizes the fact that Rodin makes his sculptures out of planes.

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The Broken Hammer

It is something of a commonplace in Heidegger interpretation that the famous example of the broken hammer provides us access to the present-at-hand (as opposed to ready-at-hand) and hence to the scientific stance toward things. When my class read the relevant section in Being and Time, therefore, I expected them to see this in the text — and yet they obstinately refused to do so. In fact, I think my insistence on this common interpretation hobbled our understanding of Heidegger’s actual account of the scientific attitude through the rest of the semester.

The actual point of the broken hammer example is to give us access to the world as such. When I confront a broken hammer, I don’t immediately reflect on the raw materials (except insofar as they might account for its brokenness, its unsuitability for its purpose) — instead, I reflect explicitly on the network of purposes to which the hammer belongs. Our ordinary absorption into our tasks does not allow for such reflection; only when the world “stops working” do we have the necessary distance. (Heidegger’s account of animal life in Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics helps to clarify this aspect of our relationship to the world by contrast. The animal’s disinhibitor ring never “stops working” in such a way as to allow room for explicit reflection.)

This distance from the world might lead one to reflect further that the world of human products and purposes is not infallibly effective, hence that the beings we encounter do not exist solely for us. This gives us access to the present-at-hand (beings in their brute existence abstracted from any human purpose), but merely viewing things as present-at-hand is not yet the scientific attitude. (Basic Problems of Phenomenology has an interesting section that traces the origin of the Greek ontology to the experience human production, which accounts for the ontological privilege of the present-at-hand as what something “really” is, before receiving a human-imposed form.)

As he clarifies in chapter 4 of division 2, the shift to science takes place when we project upon beings in a new way — above all, when we project the present-at-hand as belonging to a total system called “nature,” which is defined by its mathematizable laws. This projection leads to a “project” in the normal sense of the word, which requires considerable practical labor and technical apparatuses (i.e., science is not about abstracting from the practical in order to get at the theoretical). And this aspect of projection is why Heidegger needs to wait until this late in division 2, because he needs to have the “future-first” temporality structure in order to account for the unique scientific form of projection.

When I brought this interpretation up with my handful of Heidegger tutorial students (who spent the spring semester following up on Being and Time by reading several of his seminars from that period), they all seemed to think it made a lot more sense. I apologize to the other students for misleading them and promise that I’ll do better next time. I also apologize to any readers for whom this was always painfully obvious.

A Unified Theory (A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature book event)

A unified theory — though not a theory of everything. Not philosophy of, with all its implications of dominance and omnicompetence (a philosophy of religion, of law, of fashion are all equally plausible), nor even simply philosophy and — but a unified theory of philosophy and some science. What is the status of this “theory,” this strangely undefined entity that is not a philosophy (or is it a non-philosophy?) and that seems strangely comfortable asserting the dread philosophical omnicompetence, indeed in an exaggerated form that claims not simply to account for the facts adduced by some other discipline but to provide the means precisely of unifying them?

Anthony’s book gives us a unified theory of philosophical theology (a pre-packaged combination that I won’t quibble with, given that I live it every day) and ecology. It adopts the “stance” of ecology, which is a thinking from the Real guided by the ecosystem concept. Within this unified theory, we learn that philosophies have varying degrees of biodiversity. Badiou’s particular ecosystem, for example, has room for four primary species of truth-procedures, but is dominated by mathematics. Thoughts occupy niches and respond to their environment. Sometimes the claims are very concrete and empirical, and sometimes they seem more or less metaphorical. Sometimes we are at the very physical level of needing to eat in order to think — and sometimes it turns out that the scholarly literature on given figures represent narrow niches. Yet none of these claims, we are assured, are mere metaphors. It is not a metaphor to say that books of philosophy are dead thoughts that need to be consumed to produce living thoughts, any more than it’s a metaphor to say that human thought is situated within a wider ecosystem or that the academic publishing industry produces certain over-specialized populations with narrow niches.

In a unified theory, then, we are not dealing with mere metaphor. I grant this. What I would like to ask, however, is precisely what we’re saying when we say it’s not a mere metaphor. Read the rest of this entry »

On Heidegger’s Anti-Semitism

A couple days ago, I posted a confused series of tweets on the revelation of Heidegger’s anti-Semitism in the recently published “black notebooks.” It was exceptionally unwise to attempt to address this issue in that format, and so I thought I would try to post some more coherent reflections here.

I’m not one who is inclined to explain away Heidegger’s reactionary views in general. Even some of his greatest works, like The Origin of the Work of Art, clearly include proto-fascist elements. I’ve never been convinced that he joined the Nazi party out of mere conformism — it’s clear that he had very firm ideas about how to reform the German university and jumped at the chance that (he thought) the Nazis offered him to carry out those reforms.

What makes me suspicious about the furor surrounding the notebooks is the notion that they are a decisive revelation of some kind. The remarks in his notebooks may be uglier and less guarded than we would anticipate, but it cannot possibly be a surprise that a provincial Roman Catholic with reactionary views (including a distrust of the rootlessness of modern society), views that made him very comfortable with Nazi affiliation and unwilling to unambiguously renounce it later in life, would also be personally anti-Semitic.

There are of course very serious questions to ask about Heidegger’s politics in relation to his thought, but the most creative and influential interpreters of Heidegger’s works have always been asking those questions. Aside from people who are pure expositors, there is literally no one in the post-Heideggerian tradition who has taken over Heidegger’s views wholesale — indeed, it would be more accurate to view the post-Heideggerian tradition as a tradition of critiques of Heidegger than as a mere continuation of Heidegger’s project. I don’t think anyone can claim that Derrida, for instance, accidentally imbibed fascist principles in the course of his deconstruction of Heidegger’s project.

And here we come to the contemporary political stakes. I understand that journalism by its very nature seeks out newness and exaggerates its importance when it finds it. Even taking that into account, however, I can’t help but see the coverage of these notebooks as part of a broader trend in the English-speaking world of trying to use Heidegger’s disastrous political commitments as a way to discredit continental philosophy and literary theory. In short, the ongoing journalistic “controversy” over Heidegger’s politics is part of the broader culture war polemic against “postmodernism.” And the irony is that the culture warriors who have such an eagle eye for the Nazi influences of their opponents invariably advocate for nihilistic militarism and simplistic nationalism every chance they get — without offering us anything close to the creativity and fruitfulness of Heidegger’s radical reworking of phenomenology and innovative rereading of the history of philosophy.

How useful is Heidegger’s Origin of the Work of Art for art criticism? (Part 1)

van Gogh - Starry Night Over the RhoneThis week in my humanities course, we’re following up the music unit with a unit on visual art woven together with Heidegger’s Origin of the Work of Art. It’s spread over three days, and I pre-distributed some scans of paintings to them — day one is Van Gogh (for obvious reasons), day two is a mix of pre-modern and modern paintings (including a couple more or less totally abstract ones), and day three is Picasso.

In part I am doing this as an experiment to see how useful Heidegger’s theory is for the analysis of concrete artworks. One’s initial impression may not be promising, since it seems as though Heidegger is stuck at the level of the representational content of the work — his description of the Van Gogh painting at the beginning mentions nothing about more formal aspects aside from the abstraction of the background. Yet I think that the earth vs. world distinction and his claims for the way that the work reveals the strife between the two might open a space for more nuanced attention to the expressive content of the work on all levels. In Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone, for instance, our discussion revealed the ways that his brushstrokes in the water and in the sky both contributed to a feeling of calm enclosure, as though the sky was almost a human-made dome. This shows a kind of momentary victory of world over earth, though the small couple in the lower right corner, standing as they are on uncertain footing, reminds us that the uncontrollable earth may surge forth at any moment.

van Gogh - Starry NightThe effect is just the opposite in another famous Van Gogh painting of a starry night, where the earth definitely has the upper hand over the small outpost of the human world. Here the swirling brushstrokes seem to present us with a natural world that has its own coherence and priorities that do not correspond to the ways we conceptually map it out — above all in the enigmatic plant that towers over the city. Our very perception of foreground and background is skewed, as the plant seems implicitly to be very close to us, and yet relates primarily to the swirling patterns of the sky.

The first painting uses a technique that is familiar from Cézanne, who often opens up a kind of “zone of indistinction” where individual brushstrokes belong to both foreground and background and thus begin to assert their own autonomy. Here portions of the waves could appear to be part of the masts of the ship. It seems that highlighting brushstrokes can reinforce the harmony of earth and world or else their strife — but I don’t want to suggest that the painterly technique is simply an indifferent tool that can be deployed at will. What I really want to consider are the implications of the fact that the artwork’s very materiality, which art as art always necessarily highlights, are a kind of upsurge of the earthly element. If a brushstroke calls attention to itself in seeming to refer at once to the ship’s mast and to the river’s waves, then it also calls attention to the earthly element in that the apparatus of the ship is a means of navigating the dangers of the waves.

One might see a similar priority of earth in the disproportionately thick brushstrokes in the sky of the first painting. Here we cannot help seeing paint, very emphatically — and in the squareness and the excesses around the edges, it can almost seem as though human beings have “bricked over” the sky. The nautical context highlights this, because it is most especially at sea that the stars — those brilliant balls of gas millions or billions of miles away — have been “re-purposed” by human beings as a navigational tool. Behind this bricked-over sky, though, in the very roughness of the surface of the painting, one can sense the unmediated earth vaguely threatening to break through, in parallel with the implicit though understated threat to the ambiguously positioned couple.

(I have ideas about how the other paintings I’ve chosen might play out in this scheme, but I don’t want to give it away in case one of my students is reading this. Hence I label this post Part 1, with the proviso that there may be no Part 2….)

Two questions on Heidegger translation conventions

  1. Dasein — the convention of leaving this term untranslated seems to be the single most consistent trait across all English translations of Heidegger. It does have the disadvantage that leaving foreign words untranslated can make them seem like mysterious occult terms, and it can also make it seem as though Heidegger virtually created this term. I wonder if translating Dasein as “the existing being” might have been a better idea, all things considered. It makes it clearer, for example, that Heidegger is using a common term in the region of “being” in a narrower terminological way. It’s admittedly clunky, but it’s also clunky to leave a German word constantly untranslated, particularly when you then also need to leave it in German in Heidegger’s quotes from previous philosophers who used the term more broadly.

  2. Germanic and Latinate synonyms — the convention of distinguishing a pair of Germanic and Latinate synonyms (zeitlich, temporale) by capitalizing the latter is probably the least bad option in many cases, but I wonder if enough of an effort was made to find and perhaps even coin synonyms. Obviously one wants to avoid the worst excesses of the first translation of the Contributions, but would “timely” and “temporal” be so hideous, for example? I’m at a disadvantage because I only really know philosophical German, but my understanding is that many of the terminological usages of “common” German words ring foreign for German readers as well.

These are small points, since anyone who wants to study Heidegger’s texts at a detailed level is going to need to read the German in any case. But what do you think?

Teaching Heidegger

My course over Being and Time is nearly complete. On our last remaining day, we will be reviewing the introduction as a way of reviewing the whole — this week, we finished the final chapter and did one last “review day” over the last two chapters. Overall, I think it went well. Though Being and Time hardly ends with a bang, there’s no substitute for working your way through a major work of philosophy in its entirety. I’m now hoping that I’ll be able to offer a “big book in philosophy”-style elective every couple years or so, both because I think students should have the opportunity to do that kind of intensive study and because it really benefits me as well — at this point, I’ve read Being and Time more thoroughly than I’ve ever read almost any single book before (including reading it all the way through in the original).

I could have probably tweaked the pacing somewhat. Most notably, I included “review days” after every second chapter, which worked well in Division One but was a little more artificial in Division Two — perhaps going by threes would have been better in that case. I may have also considered going a little more quickly in Division One, which is more intuitive and accessible, so that I could have slowed down a bit in Division Two. But in general, the concept of a “slow and steady” crawl through the whole thing was sound, and I think it could be duplicated even with more difficult works like the Phenomenology of Spirit.

Over the last few days, I’ve started to think of it almost as a language class, where there normally aren’t huge epiphanies — just a slow build. The students did get good enough at Heideggerese to make successful jokes, which is a crucial step. More than that, though, I think there’s a sense in which Heidegger is gradually teaching his reader how to read the book, and by the time you get to Division Two, that provides a crucial grounding for his more esoteric investigations of authenticity.

In many ways, my students replicated the history of Heidegger’s reception, finding Division One the most convincing and the discussion of authenticity the most fascinating. We were still working through questions surrounding authenticity during our discussions of the later chapters on temporality, which seem dry and dull by comparison. Thankfully, though, on our review day over the final two chapters, we were able to “buckle down” on the temporality issues in a way that advanced my understanding at the very least. It was far from the first time I walked out of class feeling I’d grasped something more firmly — while I always learn from my students, the kind of sustained and detailed attention we were giving to the text allowed for many more opportunities for that.

It’s the diagrams that stand out to me the most, though. I’m an inveterate underliner, but I normally don’t draw up diagrams or tables when I read a work of philosophy myself. In the classroom, though, it proved invaluable to chart the ways Heidegger’s concepts fit together, because that really showed how tightly argued the book is. I made several attempts to map out the whole project (up to the point we had reached), including one “review day” where I created a truly imposing diagram with arrows crossing over each other from multiple directions. Looking back, I regret not asking the students to take responsibility for drawing on the board sometimes, though they did often argue against my presentation and tell me what should go where. And of course, the fact that our most carefully constructed diagrams could be erased at any moment by the next group to use our classroom was a great metaphor for Being-toward-death.

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