After Nietzsche: Heidegger

Nietzsche (chaste syphilitic) was father of the moderns, precursor of a future man—proclaiming that he (that Zarathustra) was not that (over-) man but was sent to bear witness of that man.

Of course Nietzsche was not father of the moderns and not even precursor of the future (though Zarathustra perhaps was), but father-murderer. He murdered not God (God was dead) but Plato. Nietzsche made us orphans. After Nietzsche we had to father ourselves.

Heidegger’s response to the rupture in the paradigm was not to forge ahead, but to go back to the beginning. Among the ruins of Western philosophy he found the Phoenix embers of a pre-Socratic order and breathed them back to life. The decision was whether (1) to submit to the onrushing currents of so-called history or time, of technology, of a scientistic “progress” negligent-to-contemptuous of its human way (i.e., the choosing-shaping of leading questions), of perhaps the fatal abandonment of human destiny; or (2) to take hold: resolutely and with human violence to break open new paths, guided, however, not by arbitrary or capricious whim or by appetite, drive; not by principle nor by formal or logical systems; but by the Event of Being. The apprehension of such an event required nothing less than the re-viewing, -thinking, -saying of every thing. Thus the works of Heidegger open up a new “way,” based and guided and historically going-on outside or prior to the history of transcendental metaphysics, and they at the same time recover by re-vision the discredited Western philosophic tradition (Gadamer 229-30; Caputo 259-60).

Some of the habits of thinking that Heidegger’s thinking supersedes are: (1) analysis as cutting-up, -apart, things that never exist in such compartmentalization, things that are always with- or toward- each other—e.g., mind and body, subject and object, human and world; (2) categorization according to genus-species; (3) concepts of time and space as discrete, linear, and objective; (4) atomistic or organic grounding concepts; (5) formula or formalization as methods of understanding (form-content, process); (6) language as representation: grasping, capturing—and reducing and dominating the entity inscribed, described; and of course (7) an entire metaphysical tradition—Being as presence, as essence, as totality, as unity (Heidegger reuses all of these words but their former meanings are rejected or erased), truth as adaeguatio, correspondentia, convenientia; (8) in short: rationality as the nature, the way, and the limit of thinking-toward-truth.

The complaint brought most often against Heidegger is that he did not escape transcendental metaphysics (that his Being is the old metaphysical Be-All in a new arrangement of terms), that he occupied himself with philosophy and, of all things, ontology, when the possibility of both had passed below the horizon. The problem in reading Heidegger is that one must go with him, follow him, into his thinking. One cannot draw his thinking or its insights back into the framework of the past or present day. Every thing and its site and its ground must be addressed in a new way; afterwards it is not that one must find new language (all languaging language is new) but that “language” too has been changed; it is re-charged with new “meaning” (and “meaning,” of course, means something new). Much opposition to Heidegger’s thinking is not opposition at all (it has never stood before it), but a declining to follow.

I shall address here, briefly, two aspects of the opposition of one of his most formidable critics, Jacques Derrida, addressing thereby some problems of reading Heidegger and some central issues in his thinking.

The opposition of Derrida is essential, for Derrida’s thinking comes through, by way of, Heidegger’s thinking to stand, as he says, on the horizon of Heidegger’s ontico-ontological difference.1 Since Derrida’s radical deconstruction of all historico-ontological “meaning” wields a dominating influence on the positions and the direction and tone of institutional thinking today, a brief preview and comparison of his thinking and Heidegger’s may clarify the position and the direction and the tone of the work I am offering below in my readings of modern novels.

Derrida takes as the ground of his thinking the subverted Western metaphysical paradigm, for there is no other ground today; “ground” is a matter of fact for us, not choice. All the language and the systems of thinking extant in the West belong to, partake of, carry in them, this now untenable founding logocentrism. It was Nietzsche who undermined the base, and it was Heidegger who uncovered, for Derrida, the nexus of the predicament.

The path of deconstruction makes its way into the interior of a thinking-work, seeking its very foundations (Of Grammatology 60). Each work of deconstruction is another exposure of the inner and inter- structures of Western logocentrism and the void that functions as its center. Perhaps never before has rational thinking been given such a rigorous rational examination. Powerful Western thinking and thinkers are exposed in Derrida’s readings as inconsistent or contradictory, as forgetful or disingenuous.

Derrida uses the kinds of thinking he finds ready-to-hand, not systematically, yet with unrelenting logic; he is something like his version of Levi-Strauss’ bricoleur dreaming toward an engineering (Of Grammatology 138-9; “Structure, Sign, and Play” 256). In many respects his way is a quasi-Heideggerian scouting around on the chance that something will show up;2 something does. The contorted shapes his thinking takes are experimental and difficult and arresting: he goes where he may not go; he makes new paths as he goes (61). This going, making, too is a Heideggerian wresting of being from nonbeing3 (compare his view of the futility of desire’s desire to wrest meaning from language, below). He thinks in such shapes as shadows: “as-though … ,” but not. He thinks under erasure (as Heidegger did), in parentheses, hoping to exhaust the faulty paradigm (60), hoping to force (like rabbits in the brush) the future.

Since Derrida takes as his point of departure the ontico-ontological difference of Heidegger, above, I will first compare their elaboration of this point, with particular reference to passages in Derrida’s Of Grammatology and Heidegger’s Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, works that examine a priori structures of human understanding, preconditions for experience.

In Of Grammatology the moment of différance is the movement of the trace, a production of difference.

It is not the question of a constituted difference here, but rather, before all determination of the content, of the pure movement which produces difference. The (pure) trace is différance. (63)

Différance does not belong to the constitution or the content of different entities. The trace is not an event in clock time. It is a pre-“experience” process producing the possibility, the precondition of, the predisposition toward, language—which can afterwards produce for itself a (non-) origin (the trace as trace).

… its [the trace’s] possibility is by rights anterior to all that one calls sign … , concept or operation, motor or sensory. This différance is therefore not more sensible than intelligible and it permits the articulation of signs among themselves within the same abstract order … or between two orders of expression… . (62-63)

The trace, not sensible, founds sensibility, makes possible the sensible plenitude of presence; not intelligible, founds intelligibility, makes possible the conceptual (metaphysical) oppositions of, for example, “the sensible and the intelligible, … signifier and signified, expression and content, etc.” (63), the articulation of differences: writing (60). The trace as the movement of an arche-writing, arche-synthesis, is the a priori production and constitution of human understanding.

The trace marks the mind with an imprint, engramme, that is not physiological, that does not exist in time or space, “neither in the world nor in ‘another world,’ which is not more sonorous than luminous, not more in time than in space, …” (65). The mark is an effect, a change, a producing of a differ-ing/ence. An evolution occurs, not physical, in a worldless “zone,” an event which is the “temporalization of a lived experience.” Out of nowhere, in the movement of a temporalizing process we can not follow, “differences appear … produce elements” as such, which are the elements of the writing of differences that will constitute forms—“the texts, the chains, and the systems.” “The trace is the differance [sic] which opens appearance [l’apparaître] and signification.” All forms are founded in the non-stuff of the trace/engramme. This movement is “the absolute origin of sense in general. Which amounts to saying once again that there is no absolute origin of sense in general.” This moment or movement or trace of differing differentiates “the ‘world’ [appearing] and ‘lived experience’ [appearance].”

This point of différance, the very prerequisite and precondition for human experience, is under erasure.

[Différance] can … be thought of in the closest proximity to itself only on one condition: that one begins by determining it as the ontico-ontological difference before erasing that determination. The necessity of passing through that erased determination, the necessity of that trick of writing is irreducible…. (23-24)

This “trick of erasure” is in one sense the trick of making deliberate (aware, careful) use of a fiction.4 There is no possibility of discovering or determining an “origin”—but it is necessary to posit one as a functional point of departure, as a means of setting-forth, beginning or going on. In a second sense, this “trick of erasure” may be the trick of wriggling out of an old skin. It is something of a new birth, a moment of evolution, determined in this case by human will. Perhaps différance eventually is the difference between Zarathustra and the over-man. We pass from an era of parousia, receptivity-reading, into a new day of pure writing. This notion is not new with Derrida. Heidegger reading Kant states that it is divine creation that does not receive or perceive (read) ob-jects but e-jects (writes) them (30f.). Heidegger joined with Nietzsche in his annunciation of an over-man who in overcoming himself “comes into his own full nature” so that he becomes capable of assuming dominion over the earth (What is Called Thinking 57f.).

We compare a similar moment in Heidegger’s reading of Kant’s explication of the a priori in Critique of Pure Reason. Heidegger-Kant describes a pre-ontological structure. It too founds all differences; it too is elaborated as a pre-experience activity which provides the preconditions and the pre-structures for the sensibilization and the articulation of essents. It too describes something of a process—though it is not so much an economic notion as a structural. But the dissimilarities are essential. The a priori structuration is not a prior event, for it is always already occurring. It is not a structure under erasure afterwards. Bringing the structure to light is not the artificial invention of an origin necessitated by a guilty error of perspective that we are not free yet to free ourselves of, and not a track by which we track our history out of a dark metaphysical forest. The “genesis” of pure reason that Heidegger traces in Kant’s work is an originating (not an origin, not a non-origin) of the a priori ontological structures that ground human orientation toward entities. It is a radical re-vision of human being, not a strategic re-creation.

Heidegger characterizes this reading as “‘analytic’ in the broadest sense of the term” (Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics 45).

The term “analytic” as it appears here does not signify a dissolution in the sense of a reduction, i.e., as if it were a matter of reducing pure finite reason to its elements. Rather, the term signifies a “dissolution” which loosens and lays bare the seed [Keime] of ontology. It reveals those conditions from which springs an ontology as a whole according to its intrinsic possibility. In Kant’s own words, such an analytic “is brought to light by reason itself;” it is that which “reason produces entirely out of itself.” This analytic, then, lets us see the genesis of finite pure reason from its proper ground. (46)

Analysis in this sense does not dissolve a thing into elements. It sets free and brings to light the founding structures (seeds) of, in this instance, pure reason—the preconditions which determine its “intrinsic possibility.” In Western metaphysics the core of entities (as presence), their essence, is grounded and articulated in pure reason. Heidegger in this reading, however, delves through essences, past reason, beneath metaphysics, to a ground of a different kind. (Ground is not cause, is not organic mother.)

The ontological structures of human understanding are delineated in terms of Kant’s analytic of pure reason. Heidegger critiques and completes Kant’s Critique, meanwhile developing his own analytic of structures and forestructures proposed previously in Being and Time. (According to Walter Biemel, Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics is a part of the work originally outlined but never published as the second division of Being and Time.) He is examining the very pre-ontological structures that Derrida takes as his point of departure, the moment of différance that differentiates, in Derrida’s terms, “lived experience” from “the world.”

For Heidegger-Kant, human understanding (for Kant an “act of representation of unity,” Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics 78) is indeed a secondary, finite horizon already predetermined in its structures and its modes by a primary pure horizon projected by the pure imagination. The original ground of the conditions and possibilities of, first, pure understanding and, second, finite understanding is temporality. Time in the modes of its temporalization underlies and shapes the pre-ontological unifying structures of human understanding; provides the site of ob-jectivity—the site for the meeting, the inter-encounter, inter-course of human understanding and essents of whatever kinds; determines the possibilities in the structures of beings and of experience. Time (not Kant’s series of now’s) is a primordial pure horizon of existence. All beings “are” and may be “known” in and according to temporality. (The categories express modes of temporalization, 110.) Heidegger has opened up beneath the metaphysics of reason a ground fertile enough to support more or other forms of specularity. The pure pre-ontological and the finite ontological structures delineated here show the character of unifying-synthesizing the manifold of intuited objects, betray a necessary predisposition for rules, for conceptual regulating (thinking), and bring their own a priori horizons and modes of experience. Now for Kant, as for Derrida, these structures which mediate between human being and entities-in-themselves also separate them. Beyond human understancing Kant conceptualizes an unknowable something, a unity beyond the manifold intuited sensibly. Kant designates this projected entity as “X.” But Heidegger reappropriates this X as the nothing, as “pure horizon” (127-8), the very condition for the possibility for the rising “appearing” of the object in the first place (Derrida’s passivity of sensibility) and for its apprehension (Derrida’s writing). Beyond or in the phenomenon is not an unknowable essent, but an ontological horizon against or upon which the essent may come into view and into purview. The ontological structures which for Kant and Derrida mean exile from reality constitute the ground for the possibilities of reality for Heidegger. The turning-from (differing, deferring) in Derrida’s différance is Heidegger’s turning-toward, which provides the horizon for the experience of ob-jects (74ff.). The difference between the ontic and the ontological, between entity and being (Of Grammatology 22) is Derrida’s point of departure from Heidegger’s ontico-ontological unity.

There are important points of agreement. The a priori structures in the Heidegger-Kant study resemble Derrida’s: (1) in their site: the non-site of a no-place in pure (thematically undifferentiated) temporality and non-space; (2) in their activity: the constitution and production of essents/elements, of all texts, chains, and systems, and (3) in their prior grounding function: “The unheard difference between the appearing and the appearance … is the condition of all other differences … [and, as trace, is] ‘anterior’ to all physiological … or metaphysical problematics …” (Derrida, Of Grammatology 65). These structures provide the preconditions for and the intrinsic possibilities of sensibility and intelligibility—for human experience and for a world.

There are other interesting points of comparison. Compare, for example, the motivating and structuring function of temporalization; compare Derrida’s originary (ontological) passivity (of language, of sensibility) with Heidegger-Kant’s originary (pre-ontological) intuitivity, receptivity; compare Derrida’s arche-synthesis that underlies so as to permit differences with the primary synthesis in Heidegger-Kant that underlies and mediates between intuition and thinking; compare Derrida’s spacing, the other-than-experience, the dead time interrupting what could otherwise be taken for presence, with Heidegger-Kant’s X, nothing, pure horizon, where essents can appear; and compare the secondary appearance or production of subjectivity or apperception in both.

There is some surprising (but not essential) agreement in their accounts of pre-ontological structures, the point of ontic-ontological difference (prewriting). There is (essential) agreement as to the fact that an epoch is passing, is now being defined, totalled, and negated, and that a new one is emerging in such works as theirs; as to the necessity of the “trick” of erasing an epoch from the inside.

In a later discussion of the founding difference between what can and what cannot be “known” (“On the Origin of the Work of Art”5), Heidegger describes this point which Derrida will articulate as différance—where what we know and what we do not know meet, where understanding abuts the “unknowable” other or the nothing—as a “world”-“earth” confrontation. The world is the lighting where beings are appearing.

The world is not the mere collection of the countable or uncountable, familiar and unfamiliar things that are just there. But neither is it a merely imagined framework added by our representation to the sum of such given things. The world worlds, and is more fully in being than the tangible and perceptible realm in which we believe ourselves to be at home. World is never an object that stands before us and can be seen. World is the ever-nonobjective to which we are subject as long as the paths of birth and death, blessing and curse keep us transported into Being. Wherever those decisions of our history that relate to our very being are made, are taken up and abandoned by us, go unrecognized and are rediscovered by new inquiry, there the world worlds. (44-5)

Earth belongs to a chaotic “emerging and rising in itself and in all things” (phusis) as “that on which and in which man bases his dwelling.”

We call this ground the earth. What this word says is not to be associated with the idea of a mass of matter deposited somewhere, or with the merely astronomical idea of a planet. Earth is that whence the arising brings back and shelters everything that arises without violation. In the things that arise, earth is present as the sheltering agent. (42)

All beings have the earth-thing character of remaining in concealment, sheltering-over, hiding. There is a continuous power struggle going on between being and not being (and between originating appearing and false or dissembling appearance) in and among all beings that inhabit and constitute the world. Beings are appearing when human beings (essentially poets and thinkers) are seeing them in such a way as to set them free as the things they are and are appropriating language (essentially works of art)—or vice versa—to hold open the space where they are appearing. In such a space appears the primordial conflict between earth and world, between chaos and law (law as Nature or as form). Never and nowhere is the conflict resolved. Each combatant is as original, as necessary, as the other. The burden of the human, world, word, art, is to wrest mastery over not the earth but the yoke that binds the concealed and the unconcealed together in their striving. In Nietzsche, Volume I; The Will to Power as Art, Heidegger describes this essential opposition between earth and world as it occurs in classical art (Nietzsche’s “grand style”):

But the fundamental condition is an equally original freedom with regard to the extreme opposites, chaos and law; not the mere subjection of chaos to a form, but that mastery which enables the primal wilderness of chaos and the primordiality of law to advance under the same yoke, invariably bound to one another with equal necessity. Such mastery is unconstrained disposition over that yoke, which is as equally removed from the paralysis of form in what is dogmatic and formalistic as from sheer rapturous tumult. Wherever unconstrained disposition over that yoke is an event’s self-imposed law, there is the grand style; wherever the grand style prevails, there art in the purity of its essential plenitude is actual. Nietzsche 1: 128.

Concealment is the condition of the possibility of unconcealment; the “jointure” (“Aletheia” 115) of this mutual necessary opposition delineates again the Heideggerian site of Derrida’s différance.

According to Heidegger’s earth-world schematic, beings come into and remain in historical Being when and as human understanding lets entities be and holds them (and is thereby held) in Being. The way whereby human being makes way for Being, and vice versa, is the way of Saying.

Language is a problem for moderns and postmoderns: (1) thematically as to its nature and its function and (2) systematically as its problem infects the thinking of every other problem—all systems have become forms of language, signifiers cut off from signifieds. The idea of representation undermined, the Nietzschean-Derridean world of pure play threatens pure relativity. And whatever the intrinsic character of language, there is the problem of origin, originality, genealogy, the suspicion of repetition, secondariness, the Don Quixote principle of multiple-mirror distortions of reality, entanglement in the labyrinth. Yet Heidegger sets up his “abode” in language.

To compare the language theory of Derrida and of Heidegger, we consider in detail a summary passage, a pair of images from Of Grammatology, and contrast to it a brief synopsis of Heidegger’s thinking.

It has become necessary, Derrida writes, to characterize the total field of the disappearing historico-metaphysical epoch as “language” in order that it be deconstructed, in order that it may eventually come to be taken as a “writing,” a writing capable of moving beyond the limits of so-called language via pure play which is—and has always been—its element. Derrida posits, as we have seen above, the notion of a pre-writing (precondition of writing, predisposition to write) that founds what has been taken for a “primary writing” (7), for a primary signified (an original text of God’s or Nature’s to be deciphered, interpreted). All instances and accounts of human being are and have always been inscriptions, writings, subject only to the “law” of pure play, have been and shall remain free writing: signifiers signifying signifiers.

In the beginning of his book he sketches the problem:

[The epoch “must determine as language the totality of its problematic horizon,” he has written.] It must do so not only because all that desire had wished to wrest from the play of language finds itself recaptured within that play but also because, for the same reason, language itself is menaced in its very life, helpless, adrift in the threat of limitlessness, brought back to its own finitude at the very moment when its limits seem to disappear, when it ceases to be self-assured, contained, and guaranteed by the infinite signified which seemed to exceed it. (6)

In this image is posited a first-order human “desire.” Desire desires to “wrest” from language its object, desires to wrest its object from and by way of the “play” of language. But the object, “all that desire had wished to wrest …” (reappropriation of presence, as Derrida often puts it; the signified), “finds itself” a prisoner of the very play of language it has taken for its source and its instrument, finds itself to be bound to, restricted to, mean-ing, signify-ing—playing (writing).

We examine the characters in this drama. “Desire” is separate from and precedes all encounter with or use of language; desire is groundless here—it simply is—but not object-less; the play of language holds something that desire has attempted to wrest from it. In transcendental metaphysics this object is “meaning.” Desire-for-meaning wrestles with language. The ground of meaning is the play of language. Since play as play is ungrounded, meaning too is groundless. Language is the ground of the play of language, is the source of and the means by which human desire seeks meaning. Language too is groundless here. It just is, is where desire can reach it and use it. Perhaps it belongs to desire, perhaps to itself or to something else.

In a second image “living” language is undergoing an identity crisis. On one side it is threatened by finitude; gone or disappearing are the “real” signifieds that used to seem to secure and guarantee the identity and the integrity of functional elements of language. On the other side it is threatened by limitlessness, this revelation like the revelation of finitude grounded in Saussure’s setting signifiers free from signifieds, setting them against each other instead, in boundless play of differences. (The ontic-ontological difference occurs here as a desire-language distinction and alienation.)

Thus in two images the predicament of our epoch is depicted and its cause hinted—a conceptual error, delusion by over-hasty, self-absorbed desire. In the event narrated—psychological or historical—an unmotivated transformation occurs. Desire, which searches and uses language to find and enjoy its object, seems to engender or to become its own object—meaning, meaninglessness; for what else in this drama but desire could “find itself”? That is, we know that meaning does not “find itself,” for meaning does not exist in itself (there are no signifieds; that is the realization achieved here), and since only desire preceded language (and language is a source, instrument, and snare), it must be desire-become-illusion or -paranoia that awakens, correctly aware (strangely enough, since Hegel should be erased here) that it is a prisoner of language, and that language is in trouble, adrift …. Paranoid selfconsciousness recognizes its “true” condition or position as captive to the play of language. Meanwhile the “true” nature of language appears—whether to desire or to itself somewise in some absolute realm is not clear: play, essentially incapable of producing the desired signified.

The moment of crisis identified, named as such, and articulated in its structure and its event (and in its portent, meaning, significance) here is the movement of différance, discussed above. Desire-for-meaning has engendered or become meaning, has become selfconscious, and is becoming aware of its (true) meaning: meaninglessness. The image resembles the psychoanalytic unconscious-conscious difference, especially Julia Kristeva’s more recent representation of a translinguistic material process in which subjectivity is secondary to instinctual drives (which belong to a material negativity) and in which language has a similarly useful function without “real” relationship to “real” signifieds.

The entities that I claim, above, are “groundless”— desire, language, the transformation of one to the other, the validity of the thematic issuing from this groundless consciousness in and by means of groundless language—are grounded in this work, I suppose, in the man Derrida’s “desire” (he posits them) or in some unessential desire of some unessential spirit of the episteme (the kind of ghost that irrupts into, disrupts, history for Nietzsche and Foucault). Of course they all belong to modernist Western theorizing. Desire is post-Freudian psychoanalytic theory; language theory has developed from Saussure’s linguistics; the transformation of one to the other has been given a structure in psychoanalysis. Derrida starts with or uses these ready-to-hand products of thought. He claims repeatedly the same—that we begin in the middle on ungrounded ground, and that there is no alternative. It is a popular theme now. (It is a Heideggerian theme.)

The problem is that the image above reveals an unmotivated suicide. The “meaning” it conveys is destroyed by the meaning it conveys. The fundamental question is the validity of the self-revelation of this paranoid desire. And it is that “revelation” that declares the meaning paranoid. The undermining is only as good as the underpinning; it is good only if the underpinning is good. Foothold? On a tar-baby.6

Meaninglessness and limitlessness themselves are in fact the empty paranoid. These “meanings” take their meanings from “meaning” and “limit.” In themselves they assert nothing positive; they simply negate the meanings of “meaning” and “limit.” They depend on the meanings of these lost or absent entities for any significance of their own. Inherent contradictions, they are suicide words.

It was Saussure’s linguistics that unhinged language, that set it adrift. But language is adrift only as it appears in relation to old discounted signifieds. If those signifieds—things-in-themselves, the “truth” of things, of a world of actuality—are set free too, then this free language is the very, the only, language that could “say” such things, such a world, reality. Language is no longer adrift from reality, but is freed to it. Everything is “adrift”—unfixed, not static, not truth or being or presence. Not only language but life is a writing. Both are boundless and finite.

But neither has disappeared. Neither is nothing. Reality is an actual writing of actual living. And all has not become abstract relativity. In and among the immediate upsurging, things are; essents emerge into being and are held in the open (or not) by the human word. Things are things. Not the former present essences, but temporally finite being and presencing things—“manifold validity” (Nietzsche, Volume I 148)—and, at least for the length of the epoch of history,7 they are being and presencing in human writing.

What if meaninglessness and limitlessness—those seeming-abysses into which meaning and limit fall—are pseudo notions that conceal the very abyss from which meaning and limit spring. In Heidegger’s thinking “nothing” is the horizon of Being; Being—what-is—is projected in opposition to it. Meaning is not an illusory answer to a paranoid riddle. Language is not a substitute (supplement) for nothing. Being negates nothing—opposes, “differs from,” and “arises” from the nothing (“What is Metaphysics?” 353). “Meaning” does not rely upon something beyond things; language does not imply signifieds standing behind things—there is nothing transcendent or metaphysical in the old sense (Heidegger invests these words with new, finite significance).

In his account of language—and his work as a whole is this account—Heidegger describes the fundamental originating function of language, the function of a Saying, which includes (1) a thinking-questioning (Kant’s orientation-toward), setting things free in their own being; and (2) a language/word/poetry-making Saying—by which essents are disclosed in the world and by which or by lack or forgetting of which they do not appear. In such a questioning and Saying, not only are beings established in being, but human being too is established in being as language/world/history-maker (poet).

In Heidegger’s early thinking beings come into being on the pre-ontological (pure) horizon of human orientation-toward Being, as we briefly noted above. But a being is not an entity-as-presence whose essence must be brought to light. It is the event of an appearing, which appears according to the relationship occurring between (and beneath and around and in) it and human being—and this relationship exists in and according to language.

… we added that here the relation between thing and word comes to light, and further that thing here means anything that in any way has being, any being as such. About the ‘word’ we also said that it not only stands in a relation to the thing, but that the word is what first brings that given thing, as the being that is, into this ‘is’; that the word is what holds the thing there and relates it and so to speak provides its maintenance with which to be a thing. Accordingly, we said, the word not only stands in a relation to the thing, but this ‘may be’ itself is what holds, relates, and keeps the thing as thing; that the ‘may be,’ as such keeper, is the relation itself. “The Nature of Language” 82-3

Is not the word itself a “thing”? No, nor is it a nothing:

Neither the ‘is’ nor the word attain to thinghood, to Being, nor does the relation between ‘is’ and the word, the word whose task it is to give an ‘is’ in each given instance. But even so, neither the ‘is’ nor the word and its Saying can be cast out into the void of mere nothingness. What, then, does the poetic experience with the word show as our thinking pursues it? … (87)

We say not that the word “is,” but that it “gives”: gives Being:

The word, too, belongs to what is there—perhaps not merely ‘too’ but first of all, and even in such a way such [sic] that the word, the nature of the word, conceals within itself that which gives being. If our thinking does justice to the matter, then we may never say of the word that it is, but rather that it gives—not in the sense that words are given by an ‘it,’ but that the word itself gives. The word itself is the giver. What does it give? To go by the poetic experience and by the most ancient tradition of thinking, the word gives Being…. (87-8)

“Word” is displacing Kant’s “Reason” as the pre-ontological rule (schematism) that governs aspect.

The word’s rule springs to light as that which makes the thing be a thing. The word begins to shine as the gathering which first brings what presences to its presence.

The oldest word for the rule of the word thus thought, for Saying, is logos: Saying which, in showing, lets beings appear in their ‘it is.’ “Words” 155

Words, language, brings beings into Being. Entities thus disclosed appear in the lighting, belong to world, though their being is always in every way in dispute from the concealing-sheltering earth.

Such a concept of Being can be conceived as non-metaphysical only if the fecund possibilities in Being are granted in (1) the human imagination (as Blake had it) or in (2) a concept of being-in-the-world freed from traditional essential and substantial limitations. The latter is Heidegger’s way. The world and things in it, as appearing that lingers, endures, is such a realm as poets explore best. This is Heidegger’s (poetic) account of the realm of concealing/unconcealing, as he discovers it in early Greek thinking (Heraclitus):

… It is the abode wherein every possible ‘whither’ of a belonging-to rests. Thus the realm, in the sense of μη δυνσν ποτε is unique by virtue of the extent of its gathering reach. Everything that belongs in the event of a rightly experienced revealing grows upward and together (concrescit) in this realm. It is the absolutely concrete. But how can this realm be represented as concrete on the basis of the foregoing abstract expositions? This question appears justified only as long as we fail to see that we must not precipitously assault Heraclitus’ thought with distinctions like ‘concrete’ and ‘abstract,’ ‘sensuous’ and ‘nonsensuous,’ ‘perceptible’ and ‘imperceptible.’ That they are and have long been current among us does not guarantee their supposedly unlimited importance. It could very well happen that Heraclitus, precisely when he utters a word which names something perceptible is just then thinking what is absolutely imperceptible. Thus it becomes obvious how little we profit from such distinctions. “Aletheia” 115

The world, the “event of lighting,” is described:

… we have seen that never entering into concealment is the enduring rising out of self-concealing. In this way does the world fire glow and shine and meditate. If we think it as lighting, this includes not only the brilliance, but also the openness wherein everything, especially the reciprocally related, comes into shining. Lighting is therefore more than illuminating, and also more than laying bare. Lighting is the meditatively gathering bringing-before into the open. It is the bestowal of presencing. (118)

Heidegger’s first question (Being and Time), ultimately the question of the nature of Being in general, addresses the structures of human being. Throughout his life Heidegger’s thinking moves ever closer to the ever more compelling question of the being—and the Saying and finally the Event—of Being. Dasein’s resoluteness and domination give way to the greater initiative of Being. The language of Being (and past Being Ereignis, Appropriation, “The Way to Language”8) more and more initiates and dominates the Saying. Being is not God. This strangest upsurgence is the very life we stand-toward; and the most irreal of joyful-tragic possibilities are as-yet-possible ways of human being.

Derrida and others object to a “fundamentality” (Of Grammatology 19, for example) in Heidegger’s thinking. “Ground” is an onto-theological notion, Derrida warns. There is indeed a “founding,” “grounding,” in Heidegger’s thinking, but ground is not first cause, not prime mover; ground is topos, field, region—where things are, and are together, not randomly or arbitrarily. Here things (not present-in-their-essence) are brought-into-presencing, into appearing, into Being, in reciprocal perspectival-perceptual relationship with human seeing, thinking, saying. “Ground” is something like “relationship”; it is Heidegger’s way of thinking Derrida’s (the age’s) “differences,” estrangements.

But ground itself is groundless. In, especially, “On the Essence of Truth”9 the nothing from which being arises is described as “freedom” (cf. Nietzsche’s “jouissance” and Derrida’s “free play”). If ground is “fundamental” the abyss underneath it swallows all hopes (or charges) of fundamentalism.10 If “ground” is taken in the rational sense as basis, foundation, cause, reason, then there is no ground grounding Heidegger’s Being, and Derrida’s claim is refuted. If ground is thought outside metaphysical notions, distrust of fundamentalism becomes moot.

The latter is the appropriate thinking. Heidegger’s “world” is not conceived according to nor does it attain to any model; it is disclosed, searched-out, found—seen, thought, said. The disclosure is not the old totality, Truth, and it is not disclosed once for all. This thinking, saying, seeing is way. Concealment remains prior to unconcealment and is always contesting it, while unconcealment is not fixed or final.
Seeing is multiple-levelled polyvision.

A dialogue of Plato … can be interpreted in totally different spheres and respects, according to totally different implications and problematics. This multiplicity of possible interpretations does not discredit the strictness of the thought content. For all true thought remains open to more than one interpretation—and this by reason of its nature. Nor is this multiplicity of possible interpretations merely the residue of a still unachieved formal-logical univocity which we properly ought to strive for but did not attain. Rather, multiplicity of meanings is the element in which all thought must move in order to be strict thought. To use an image: to a fish, the depths and expanses of its waters, the currents and quiet pools, warm and cold layers are the element of its multiple mobility. If the fish is deprived of the fullness of its element, if it is dragged on the dry sand, then it can only wriggle, twitch, and die. Therefore, we always must seek out thinking, and its burden of thought, in the element of its multiple meanings, else everything will remain closed to us. What is Called Thinking 71

The ways to see, think, say, are, as Derrida has it, boundless and finite.

What Derrida, Heidegger, and the rest of us desire of language is some genuine issue. With Derrida and the age, Heidegger finds most language to be dead and deadening language—language as representation. Representational language stands for entities, stands between human seeing and entities (not entities-as-presence, but as being), blocking and distorting their appearing. All language taken as representation is already containing and controlling, inscribing, circumscribing, the entities it represents, not setting them free as they are. All assertions or propositions have by the taking of a position, perspective, dimmed-down the appearing of the entity they purport to disclose.

And language, even living language, dies if it is not lived in. It endures in works of art, which hold open the space where a world-earth conflict is taking place. But it endures in works of art only when we continue to stand in the space they open up. If we fail to do so, the space closes and the being is lost to Being (“On the Origin of the Work of Art” 74-5; “Holderlin and the Essence of Poetry” 282-3).

To follow Heidegger’s thinking is to change the traditional meaning of reality, but not our “sense” of reality. It is this elusive unsaid sensing-experience that opens itself to our thinking as we follow his way. Works of art—without philosophical or scientific respectability—have been our most direct route to these unthematized realities, our most effectual saying of what there is to say. Modernist literature discloses the historical experience (Heidegger’s historical having-been) of the moderns, primarily their confrontation with the spectre of meaninglessness, their task of creating worlds on crumbling foundations. In the readings below, guided by the thinking of Heidegger, I shall investigate especially the nature of language, the function/power of language to write the world, and the effects of writing the world in terms of a subject-object dichotomy (the Cartesian-Kantian paradigm). These subjects are not dissociable. I will attempt to follow each work as and where it leads, with special regard to these issues.


  1. Ref. this moment in Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics 118, 128, and Being and Time 32-35.

  2. 0r “announce itself in the filigree of some margin” (Margins 61).

  3. Compare Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Ralph Manheim (New Haven: Yale UP, 1959) 110.

  4. Joseph N. Riddel describes Derrida’s use of the term “erasure” in a footnote to his article “Metaphoric Staging”: “To put a concept ‘under erasure’ means to submit it to a rigorous questioning in a manner that reveals the figuration of the concept, that it is grounded in a reference that is no less metaphorical, and so on. The erasure of a concept (or crossing it out) nevertheless leaves an imprint or trace of it, so that far from simply negating or vanquishing the notion to the status of a fiction or false idea, erasure reemploys the concept as a problematic or illogical notion, a functional nonconcept, a splitting or pluralizing of its illusory univocity or its singular, referential meaning…” (355).

  5. See also Part 4, “Aletheia (Heraclitus, Fragment B 16)” 102-123.

  6. In a characteristic “trick” of thinking, Derrida claims that his “designation” of the “impossibility” of metaphysical contraries has eluded “the language of metaphysics only by a hairsbreadth”; he continues, “For the rest, it must borrow its resources from the logic it deconstructs. And by doing so, find its very foothold there” (Of Grammatology 314).

  7. One urgent Heideggerian theme is the challenge of modern technology as enframing, especially as the essence of human being is asserted or is subsumed. See esp., “The Question Concerning Technology” and What is Called Thinking.

  8. See also On Time and Being.

  9. “On the Essence of Truth.” Existence and Being. Trans. W. B. Barton, Jr., and Vera Deutsch. A Gateway Edition. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, Fifth Printing, 1967. 305.

  10. John D. Caputo presents a powerful, dark synopsis of this groundlessness, which he calls “the danger of Heidegger’s path” (245-54).


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