So the other day I’m watching CNN and they have a panel of multi-billionaires that contribute significant amounts of money to charities that they tightly control. The whole time the interviewer is gushing about how great this is because, well you know, since billionaires are so great at investing money, they must be absolutely fabulous at charity work! Here, of course, we see how American ideology responds to Plato’s question of who the good statesmen or shepherd of men is. The business man because knowing how to make money entails that you are just awesome at governing!
Now I have my problems with Heidegger (honestly I’ve had a sort of visceral reaction to him since midway through grad school; at that point it became hard to read a single word of him), but here’s a place I think he’s genuinely valuable. But first the reasons for that visceral reaction. Part of that distaste arises from a sort of “reaction formation” to something I once loved intensely. There was a time in my life in which I was all Heidegger all the time. Indeed, I chose Loyola for grad school so that I might study with Thomas Sheehan (and Andrew Cutrofello). I suppose I reached a point where I felt as if I was ever to think anything of my own– and don’t get me wrong, I doubt I’ve yet to think anything of my own! –I had to get free of that obsession. There’s a strange way in which you can end up drowning in Heidegger, never to escape. As for the subsequent reasons, I absolutely detest all his talk of “woodland paths”, Volk, pious thinking, and so on. In my view, philosophy is a uniquely urban phenomenon, a form of thought that arises in response to the encounters with difference that take place in the city as a result of the absence of shared custom and tradition people can appeal to in interacting with one another. The idea of a “rural philosophy” is an oxymoron (and politically dangerous or, at least, reactionary). Then there’s all that talk of “western metaphysics”, “sendings of being”, the “destining of being”, and his suggestions that maths and science don’t think. What’s up with that?
Nonetheless, he’s on to something with his talk of the withdrawal of beings in their use. Most of us who got the Heidegger fever were impressed by what he had to say about the “worldhood of world” as a totality of relations of significance or meaning where every element referred to every other (my understanding of a spatula already presupposes an entire network or set of relations between equipment to be found in a kitchen, as well as certain live projects), his pre-propositional concept of truth or aletheia as revealing/concealing (the topic of my undergraduate thesis), his analysis of equipment or the “ready-to-hand” as opposed to the “present-at-hand”, and above all his account of withdrawal. Then, of course, there were his gorgeous analyses of attunement, “being-in”, or affect. These, at least, were the things that hooked me. Heidegger, it will be recalled, argued that in our “day to day dealings” with things, their tendency is to become invisible (withdrawn). When I’m cooking the tools that I use recede into the background, becoming almost like extensions of my body. What I attend to is not the spatula or pot that I’m using, but rather whatever goal I’m aiming at at the that time. If I’m making gumbo, I attend to the roux that I’m making, the holy trinity of celery, green pepper, and onion that I’m sauteing, and so on. The tools that I’m using disappear into the background.
Heidegger marshaled this analysis of “activity in its everydayness” to critique the manner in which traditional philosophy poses questions in a representational and contemplative fashion. Where, in our everydayness, Heidegger says, the things with which we deal tend to be more or less invisible by virtue of the fact that our activity is directed at a set of goals or aims we’re directed at, philosophers approach things in a disengaged and contemplative attitude that merely “looks at things”, wondering about their properties, their essence, and so on. In Heidegger’s view, this leads to a highly distorted understanding of being as it manifests itself to us in our day to day being. Where in our day-to-day engagement with the world, we encounter things in terms of their “in-order-to” (their use or aim) and their “for-the-sake-of-which” (the goal undertaken with these things), all of this gets erased in the contemplative attitude of the disengaged philosopher. As Heidegger notes, things are revealed or disclosed in quite different ways depending on the “for-the-sake-of-which” that directs our action. For example, a spatula is revealed or disclosed in quite different ways depending on whether we’re cooking dinner or, if you’re an authoritarian parent, dealing with an unruly child. Moreover, in each case, other possible “in-order-to’s” of the spatula are concealed when it is approached in one way or another.
Finally, in our day-to-day dealings, Heidegger contends that we only encounter things as “present-at-hand” in the manner of contemplative, representationalist philosophers– without goal, use, or telos –when something breaks down. When my wrench breaks, it’s no longer a smooth extension or prosthesis of my body, but rather I encounter its alien thingliness as a being divested of purpose and use. Here I sit with this broken wrench in my hand, suddenly becoming aware of its use, how it can’t be reduced to a use, but also to the entire network of meaningful relationships to which the wrench refers. Suddenly, like lightning bugs revealing their position in night, the network that was before invisible to me comes into relief precisely because a vital element in that network is no longer available.
So what does this have to do with annoying CNN interviewers who smugly argue that business men make the best Statesmen? Heidegger’s analysis of equipmentality teaches us about blindness. There are perhaps three types of blindness. The first sort of blindness is the blindness that results from a distinction we employ in our thought in activities. As Spencer-Brown argues, in order to indicate or refer to anything, we must first draw a distinction. Through a distinction, I bring a marked space into relief; yet every marked space also creates an unmarked space where other things become invisible. For example, if I’m practicing semiology, the marked space consists of linguistic signs and texts. These are what I indicate or attend to. But as a consequence, non-linguistic signs as well as things become concealed. I am not attending to them when I am attending to linguistic signs. If I now put non-linguistic signs and things in my marked space, linguistic signs now fall into the unmarked space and I’m no longer attending to them. Such is the irreducible finitude of all use of distinctions and any act of indication.
The second form of blindness would be that of the “foreign”. There’s a strange way in which the foreign is that which no one can ever discern. Take Temple Grandin as an example of the foreign for many people. Her foreignness consists not in coming from another country or ethnicity, but rather from how she cognitively and affectively encounters the world about her. She does so “differently”. For many, Temple Grandin is “indiscernible”. They attribute their way of cognitively and affectively encountering the world to her, and then see her actions as an immoral breach of social norms. For example, when she was in college she constructed a device for herself, not dissimilar to devices used to contain cows that press upon the torso of their bodies, that she kept in her dorm room. Her roommate reported her to the university for engaging in perverse activities and she was almost expelled. Here we encounter an example of the indiscernibility of the “foreign”. Temple Grandin’s cognitive and affective universe is indiscernible in the sense that it is not encountered by her roommate. She can only imagine the sort of things that would motivate her to do such a thing (perverse S&M type activities), not the sort of things that would motivate Grandin (reducing the sense of being overwhelmed by environmental information so as to achieve calm). Entering into the universes of others– whether human or animal –second-order observation (observing how observers observe), or alien phenomenology (exploring how others encounter the world) is one of the most difficult things in the world and is never, of course, entirely successful (though also not entirely impossible).
The third sort of blindness (and maybe there are others I’m missing) is that described by Heidegger: the blindness of the familiar. This is the blindness that arises from the networks in which we dwell functioning well and therefore being invisible to those who dwell within them (like fish are probably unaware of water). For example, academics in the humanities probably tend to interpret the social world and power in terms of beliefs, ideologies, norms, and whatnot, precisely because they generally have a fairly stable economic existence, and thus have a difficult time recognizing how their own social existence is dependent on an entire material infrastructure revolving around regular meals, transportation, washers and dryers, electricity, computers, the internet, etc. Because these things are so readily available, we overlook the role they play in sustaining a particular type of existence. Like the roommate that explains Grandin’s actions in terms of what would make sense to her, we then explain social formations in terms of what would make sense to us (given the particular material network within which we dwell), ignoring how different material infrastructures might generate particular forms of life and issues. In other words, we give a moralizing and discursive analysis (which isn’t entirely misguided), rather than attending to material circumstances that might perpetuate certain power relations. The sort of blindness of the familiar arises from something being so close that we don’t notice it. Here I hasten to add that for me power always involves both signifying components and material components that interact with one another and influence one another in all sorts of complicated ways.
That blindness that arises from the familiar entails that self-reflexive analysis is a necessary moment in all social and political analysis. However, this self-reflexive analysis is a paradoxical form of reflexivity, for it refers not to something that is given to consciousness and discursive thought, but precisely to that which is withdrawn from such thought because it functions so well as a prosthesis for thought and propositional attitudes that we don’t even notice how our forms of thought depend upon it. This moment of material reflexivity would be a propaeduetic to the analysis of the foreign in other social assemblages, thereby opening us to forms of causality where power is concerned that help us to blunt our knee-jerk tendency to explain social formations entirely in terms of ideologies and beliefs. For example, in response to Deleuze and Guattari’s question “why do people will their own oppression”, one might answer that they don’t and that only a rather privileged position could lead one to the conclusion that they do, but rather that they have no other choice.
And in case the point wasn’t entirely clear because I lost track of the CNN interview while writing this as I was having three additional discussions elsewhere while writing, the ultra-wealthy aren’t in a good position to grapple with our social problems because the material infrastructure of their world is structured in such a way that they aren’t in the position to discern what the real problems are for most people. Exhibit A would be Romney talking about how much him and his wife struggled during college because they had to live off the interest of his trust fund. He simply can’t imagine what a world is like for people who don’t have such things.