Did the Turn to Theory Fail?

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The French and German theory which began appearing as part of what Rorty called the ‘linguistic turn’ in the 1960s are still being published. One of these is Derrida’s Heidegger: The Question of Being and History 1964-65, which was first published in 2016. Reading that text now is not quite like witnessing the primal scene, but it changes our perception of texts which have already been read. Critical theory, to use a phrase which is in danger of monologising its different strands – involving poststructuralism, psychoanalysis, feminism, and Marxism – has been discussed in countless ‘introductions’ to theory, whether as taught in Universities, or as published by various publishers, but there is a difference between teaching theory to students, in a way which practically de-fangs it, because it makes it assimilable to more traditional and humanistic approaches to literature, and inhabiting that theory. Further, re-reading leads to asking, in a period which is seeing the decline of its impact, how much the turn to theory has in fact changed things?


Did the turn to theory fail? A theory whose anti-humanism set it off from then – and now – dominant arguments about the relationship between the author and their work. It contained such extraordinary and irreplaceable texts as Lacan’s Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, or Anti-Oedipus, or Glas, or Maurice Blanchot’s The Madness of the Day, or The History of Sexuality, or Camera Lucida, or Powers of Horror – the list of titles of texts which are theory and literature at once, which could be doubled easily – plus texts which were part of a Marxism which translated Benjamin, and Adorno. Who could not regard Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth-Century, a text appearing as it were for the first time in 1973, as a new adventure in thought – or the Marxism which produced ‘the society of the spectacle’? And then there were the debates which changed the sense of what realism is, and what representation in art and language means, an issue for Derrida and Lyotard, and the pluralising of discourses around gender and sexual difference, in Hélène Cixous, and Luce Irigaray. It may be too early to say what that theory has meant, as an event. But the present dominance of the right plus a polarisation running through Europe and the USA indicates a push-back against some of its non-specific effects. This necessitates questions about whether the turn to theory has failed, or is having its effects deferred.


We should not stop reading and re-reading this theory with the sense that it said more than could be paraphrased, or which was paraphrasable, or could be put into an ‘introduction to critical theory’. Insofar as that theory was German, it had the contexts or Marx, of Nietzsche, and Freud. Insofar as it was French, it had the poetry of Mallarmé behind it, and the name of Sade. Britain has had no Mallarmé, which has not helped with the reception of this theory here: and Britain has neither been good on translation (a topic for critical theory) nor on comparative literature, and perhaps not even on film. Indeed Britain has engaged much less with the implications of the modernité Baudelaire speaks of.


In July 2022 I finished a book-project comparing Dickens, as perhaps the writer I would most want to associate with such a modernité, with Derrida, considering both of them, separately and in comparison, on the death-penalty, Dickens in novels, Derrida in two years of seminars (1999-2001). The lack of interest in Derrida amongst readers of Dickens made it necessary to think how to present his work and its scope, and that necessitated thinking more about Heidegger, and to the decision to spend August reading systematically, and giving a month to, Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927), fundamental for so much theory, even to Badiou’s Being and Event, and which I had taught, but never read through completely. I used Joan Stambaugh’s 1996 translation, alongside that by Macquarie-Robinson (962) which was full of my old notes: time to read freshly, and make new notes. Both editions give page-references to Heidegger’s 1953 edition of the text, and these appear in quotations from Heidegger.


I specifically wanted to consider Heidegger on time, a subject inseparable from his impact upon critical thinking, as with Benjamin (on Jeztzeit – now-time), and Derrida. The question also had to asked, and could not be bracketted off: what of Heidegger’s Nazism, which always remains problematic. Is Heidegger’s thought inherently fascist, as Adorno claimed? An interesting letter by Blanchot in Critical Inquiry 15 (1989) 475-480 is uncompromising on Heidgger’s Nazism. Reading meant not foreclosing on the question. Being and Time was clarificatory, less hard to read than anticipated, though the prose lacks the springiness of Nietzsche, and its abstractness seems an obstacle, even though Heidegger recognises the problems, and says that this philosophising cannot think in terms of telling a story (6), because that would mean finding an origin, which is what his work opposes, and must also find another grammar (39).


As all commentaries state, Being and Time asks about being, as opposed to beings, i.e. entities. As a first thought, ‘being’ (Sein) as a term could be thought of in comparison with with the langue of Saussure, or ideology in Althusser, or discourse in Foucault or even Lacan’s ‘symbolic order’: i.e. it has to do with the unconsciously held conditions which allow utterance to happen (and disallow utterance, too). Being is never defined, obviously cannot be if we think of the conditions whichallow things to be said, but which are not themselves said. But ‘being’ has been forgotten, because beings, entities, are thought of as all that there is, and are assigned a permanent status (which is what Heidegger means by ‘metaphysics’). Going beyond Being and Time, Heidegger argues that beings, entities, are not things, having a nominal status, but events, i.e. they eventuate, they have an existence in verb-form: things (noun) thing (verb) as events. We say ‘it rains’, but there is no ‘it’ which rains, no subject of which ‘rains’ is the predicate.


Being and Time speaks of Da-sein, henceforth not hyphenated, as the place where to look for being: Da, like an X, marks the spot. Dasein is the being which concerns itself with being: as human, this apparently excludes the animal, and Dasein is ungendered, and seems disembodied. Dasein is not fixed; at one point Heidegger identifies Dasein with speech (349). It relates to time; indeed, Heidegger nearly, and really, says that being istime, and since Dasein is spoken of as being stretched out, it can only be seen throughout a lifetime, and perhaps not even a single lifetime.


First, he argues that Western philosophy gives a privilege to the subject and to identity, and to ‘presence’, and a related privilege to time as the present, to time as a succession of ‘nows’ (329). Time as past, present, and future, accords a privilege to the present, past and future being derived from it. Identity and the present moment are alibis for each other. If I think of myself as in the present, then ‘I am’, in the Cartesian sense of that term. Humanist, or bourgeois criticism, when it talks about the work of art is apt to find it ‘timeless’, the product of ‘genius’, which means that it need not situate it inside time; it occupies an eternal present and its values can be called universal. Heidegger’s critique of that idea of presence (and of the present) has been integral to theory, and his greatest contribution, perhaps, affecting Bataille, Blanchot, and Levinas, Klossowski and Deleuze, Foucault and Derrida. With them, there can be no single subject, identity being split; identity can neither know itself, nor comprise a single, knowable entity. The imposition and embrace of single identity has been a disciplinary work effected within modern western societies. Heidegger shows his indebtedness here to Nietzsche. Beyond Heidegger, the loosening of claims to single identity has both created a new identity-politics, and has caused a reaction against the theory which helped create it. The critique of ‘the metaphysics of presence’ in Heidegger contends against what he takes metaphysics to be: the belief in sure and unchanging entities, which he sees as consolidated throughout the history of post-Socratic philosophy.


Aristotle, definingly so for Western thought (26), sees the future as what the present will become, so giving priority to the present. Contrastingly, Being and Time sees the future as what Dasein directs itself towards. As I am ‘thrown’ into the world, every activity anticipates (projects) itself future-wards, and that directedness Heidegger characterises as ‘care’ (Sorge); in other words, consciously or unconsciously I anticipate the future, which, however, contains my death, which is real and an image for a nothingness and a gap in knowledge which pervades everything. The writer making the most developed use of this, Blanchot, writes in a short récitcalled The Instance of my Death (1994), of being subjected to a firing-squad in occupied France in World War II. He finishes with the lightness that he feels, with ‘the instant of my death always in instance’, always impending, always inside him, hanging fire, insisting, like the insistence of the letter of the unconscious, as Lacan describes this, in the title of one of his Ecrits. The phrase ‘in instance’ refers to a law-trial: we talk about ‘the court of final instance’. Blanchot’s narrative is an allusion to Kafka’s The Trial, where the point is that the trial is always in process (Der Prozess is Kafka’s German title). Guilt is always to be presumed, and death is to be included in a sense of the future. Kafka and Blanchot here both radicalise Heidegger’s insight.


Yet Heidegger’s sense of the future is not negative. Though he speaks of guilt, it is not in the Freudian sense of a guilt which is always there, and which keeps me uneasy, the central argument of ‘Civilisation and its Discontents’ (1930). For Heidegger, guilt means recognition of responsibility, i.e. accepting that I am thrown into a situation which I must sign up to. Responsibility remains Derrida’s key-word, Derrida being, as a Marxist friend told me once, ‘only a footnote to Heidegger’. Responsibility to the ‘other’ comes from Levinas, once Heidegger’s student; Levinas, and Derrida, and Blanchot, insist on the future as openness to the other, not just to my death. The keyword becomes ‘yes yes yes yes yes’ (the quotation is from the end of Ulysses), where ‘yes’ inherently responds to, and accepts the call of the other. Or it means saying ‘come’ to the future, a term which marks the end of Blanchot’s récit, Death Sentence (Arrêt de mort) or Derrida’s essay Of an Apocalyptic Tone Recently Adopted in Philosophy’ (1984). For Derrida, politics must be future-oriented, hence he speaks of a ‘democracy to come’.


In Heidegger, the future is revealed in ‘temporality’, which ‘temporalises’; that is, it has the force of an event, and has an ‘ecstatic’ effect. Dasein’s being is uncanny, in not being at home in this world; nonetheless everyday life and ordinary events and conversation keep a sense of everything as familiar. The experience of Angst (anxiety – see 186-187, 344), which Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety calls the experienceof the moment, is for Heidegger the sense of the uncanny re-awakened, of Dasein’s sense of ‘not being at home’ (188). Obviously the connection with Freud’s ‘Das Unheimlich’ must be made, but Heidegger’s analysis has no room for psychoanalysis, though it certainly influenced Lacan.


When temporality ‘temporalises’ (328-329), its ecstatic effects are to waken to the future, but to destroy the everyday sense of past, present, and future as being separate. Thus ‘having been [or ‘beenness’] arises from the future in such a way that the future that has been [‘the beening future’] releases the present from itself. This unified phenomenon of the future that makes present in the proces of having-been [‘beening’] is what we call temporality‘ (326). By this, the past is to be understood as what was in the future. The present is the past of a future. Or, taking Derrida’s 1965 paraphrase from the Seminar already cited, ‘the past [is] is a future having been, as a future having presentified itself’ (174). To be jerked into an ecstatic state (which is anxiety-ridden, uncanny) means standing outside a normative narrative whose grammar assigns a past, a present, and a future, and thus finds an origin for events. It makes the future the always-already. In temporality, ‘the moment’ (the ‘Augenblick’ – the time of the twinkling of an eye, and a moment of vision) becomes an ecstasy taking the self out of its fantasised autonomy. In the moment, plural possibilities meet, and constitute the differance which Derrida discusses as that which prevents single, punctual meaning emerging. Benjamin speaks of ‘now-time’, in which ‘the dialectical image’ reveals the potentiality of contradictory images in one moment. Yet now-time cannot be read ‘now’. it awaits deferred reaction, which Freud calls Nachträglichkeit, or it shows itself in the future anterior tense (‘I will have been’). The present discloses possibilities which are dispersed and differentiated, not to be seen in ‘the present’, but which will have been seen in the future.


The ecstasis of temporality discloses the running-ahead, anticipating, repetitive moment of vision; repetitive, because the future is discovered as marked by repetition of a past which means that the future is older than the past, ‘always already’. Repetition, then, is the third emphasis to be drawn out here. It is frequently discussed by Heidegger (e.g. 385,and 386, where ‘repetition neither abandons itself to the past, nor does it aim at progress’). A theory of repetition is integral to Kierkegaard, to Marx, to Nietzsche, and to Freud, and Lacan, as well as to Heidegger, and if we say that being is time, as Heidegger apparently wishes to argue, then time is being defined as repetition. The effects of this idea are both terrifying and life-changing. In Nietzsche’s The Gay Science section 341, the demon proposes the idea of the eternal return, that everything comes back as before. Freud followed Nietzsche here, in his essay on ‘The Uncanny’, and to Beyond the Pleasure Principle seeing life as unconscious repetition. Nietzsche, and Klossowski, and Deleuze, in their commentaries, attempt to show that there can be no eternal return, because there is no present moment to which things can return, so that what must return, and what is repeated is always the different. Did Heidegger get the idea of the absence of presence from Nietzsche? It has now become a way to read Nietzsche.


In a book I wrote 20 years ago, Becoming Posthumous (2002), I argued that Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo says that one becomes what one is (the subtitle of Nietzsche’s book) by writing a new book – i.e. Ecce Homo. But that book summarises texts Nietszsche has already written, while pointing up their significance. Is identity always futural, the result of the next book, or is it repeating what has already happened? Heidegger seems bland, or worse, in supporting tradition which may be oppressive when he thinks of the past as a positive heritage which is ‘good’ (383-386); here we need Freud to argue that the past repeats as the return of the repressed. Derrida (Dissemination 268), using Freud on unconscious repetition thinks that the fear of repetition may launch the castration-fear, i.e. the dread that the self has no autonomy, rather than the way that Freud argued: that the castration-fear (i.e. the need to become socialised according to the ‘law of the father) launched repetition, taking the form of one form of substitution replacing another, all the time, as the secret agent within life.


How fantasies of fear of absence construct the language of the fear of castration, and support patriarchy, and how the language of substitution plays itself out in commodity-fetishism, are questions in critical theory which arise from Heidegger. Belief in the present, as part of a continuing steady stream moving from past to present and called progress, supports individual and national single identity, and appears in fetishised forms which operate as substitute for the absence Heidegger intuits as being within anything of presence, or the present. These points must be considered in dialogue with the Marxism, psychoanalysis, and feminism of the 1960s onwards. How the radical implications of Heidegger’s work, compromised fatally by a nostalgia for lost national power, affected his theory remains a warning, but means that the theory cannot date, since it not only develops what is positive in Heidegger, but holds that which would critique the moves he made.


You can listen to an interview with Jeremy on Sublation Media about the history of theory and capitalism here.