Jan 22, 2011

Still not thinking
A 9th blog anniversary post

Martin Heidegger has a great metaphor about how thinking, in some ways, in not an act of will, not something we do because we want to or have decided to, but is something we have to do. Something we are drawn into.

Imagine, he says, a withdrawal. Imagine a great thing in the air, an airplane or something even faster, receding away at great speed. It would create a draft: behind it, sucked along after it, you would find birds and bits of litter drawn irresistibly after that draft. It's not a perfect metaphor, Heidegger says, but thinking seems to be something like that. Like that being drawn. "What withdraws from us draws us along by its very withdrawal, whether or not we become aware of it immediately, or at all," he says in his '51, '52 lecture series, Was Heist Denken?, which translates as "What is Called Thinking?" or "What Calls for Thinking?."

"We are -- albeit in a way different from migratory birds -- caught in the draft of what draws, what attracts us by its withdrawal."

I have found myself drawn, recently, to Heidegger's thoughts on thinking. I keep coming back to his statement, in that lecture, "what is most thought-provoking in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking."

I'm finding that, in many of my diverse projects and my many esoteric interests, what I'm really interested in, my ultimate concern, is the ethical struggle to think.

I'm writing, right now, for example, about the 2008 bigfoot hoax that I broke and covered as a reporter. My paper is a criticism of the way that story was reported in the media, but really, it's about how we erect and maintain structures of thought that prevent thinking. As I've been digging into Wittgenstein again, and looking at photography, and teaching basic paper writing, and getting interested in David Foster Wallace and experimental fiction, I find this is, in the end, my subject. As I look back over my 9 years of blogging, next week, I think that even with all my different incarnations, this might be the guiding theme, the overall project.

Heidegger's turn of words, about how thought-provoking our not thinking is, has become, I guess, a kind of slogan for me as I return with regularity to this question, a motto for me as I think about this ethical effort. I differ from Heidegger, though, in that he trusts that which is withdrawing. It is, for him, something ontological. It's God, or Being, or a metaphysical magnetic field or something like that that calls us while turning away from us, that recedes from us, pulling us along in its wake. This is why his question -- the title question -- is aimed at the object, the "what?" "What is it that calls us, as it were," he says, "commands us to think? What calls us into thinking?" He says it's not our fault that we're still not thinking, not due to some lack of will or effort that we have failed to think. He says it's in the ontological make-up of things, this that pulls us.

I question that trust, though. That assumption of a benevolent, ontological force. Most thinking is misthinking, or thinking that insures us against serious conclusions, and this thinking happens almost exactly as Heidegger describes it, not as something we have decided to do, but something we fall into. It's as if the ditches have already been dug, and we, our thoughts like water, flow the easy way.

Consider, as an example (not the example, but an example, and common enough to be an important one), how philosophy so often falls into the rut of the political.

The political is a rut that forecloses thinking, that contains it into well-worn paths, for the most part. The political means a severe limitation as it guides thought, I think, to certain ends, giving those ends a priority over thinking. The political has it's place. It can be a way of alleviating social problems, protecting rights, etc. It can have a practical or pragmatic effect, but there's a certain limitation upon the possibilities of the political. Some things can't be conceived there, can't be worked out there: there are assumptions that have to be accepted, dogmas that can't be question, realities that just are and always will be.

Yet, often, when philosophers are taken "seriously," what this means is that they're taken politically. This foreclosing happens, and philosophy flows into this ditch.

Europe, for example, is normally understood to be "a place where ideas are taken seriously." When I asked Jonathan Franzen what he had gained from his time as student in Germany, that's what he said. He said it was good for him and eye-opening for him, especially being from that American background where thinking is done by people you don't take seriously and there's his epistemological populism, to be somewhere where thinking was assumed to be serious. This is America's idea of Europe and Europe]s idea of Europe (to the extent that there really is such a thing as a self-identified "Europe"), but, when you look at it, it seems that in practice, what "serious" has meant, really, is political.

Consider Jacques Derrida's reception in France. It has sometimes been said (by American Continental philosophers) that Derrida wasn't really respected in France because familiarity breeds contempt, or (by those opposed to American Contintental philosophers) because they could see he was a charlatan and an obfuscationist. The first biography of Derrida, though, shows how, as one French review put it, "C'est son engagement politique qui le fait mieux connaître du grand public en France ... En France, l'homme public est connu, le philosophe encore mal reconnu," ("It is his political engagement that it better known to the general public in France ... In France, the public man is known, the philosopher poorly recognized"). He was, in France, regularly dismissed and attacked for his perceived political consequences, not the actual content of his thought. As the Guardian review of the bio put it, there was a "tide of hatred," directed at his perceived politics, and Derrida was understood by a sequence of negative political terms: "from around 1987, as [Benoît] Peeters points out, he was successively depicted as an anti-democratic nihilist ... then as an extreme leftwinger .... Finally he was accused of being a Nazi."

Or consider Niklas Luhmann. He had one moment of real attention, public attention, and it was when he debated Habermas. There were a number of imporant issues at stake in that debate, as I understand it, including the quesiton of rationality and the possibility of the Modernist project of reason, and in response to the debate, Luhmann's big, dense book became, for a moment, a best seller in Germany. This never would have happened in the US, and is a classical example of what we think we want to happen, and what we think happens when ideas are taken seriously. But really it was that rut, that drawing draft. All that attention, all that taking him seriously, amounted to taking his thinking as political: Habermas was understood as defending the philosophical ground of neoliberalism and Luhmann was understood as opposing it in some new way. That was the extent of anyone's interest.

Both men's projects were, in that attention, taken as nothing more than the sum of their assumed political ends. The thinking was sucked into the wake of the political, and pulled along, not by a benevolent, ontological withdrawing, but by the political.

This mistake, whereby philosophy "taken seriously" is taken politically, is taking philosophy seriously, too, even as it mis-takes it. There's a deadly seriousness to it. Look, for example, at how this young man in '72 seriously misunderstood Jacques Lacan:

I know '72 was a very different time, but it's hard to imagine any American radical taking an intellectual so seriously, granting an intellectual the kind of authority that would need to be opposed. It's so d'rigueur to just dismiss "thinkers," in the US, that even those who basically make a living at it seem basically bored by the move. I wonder, though, if you're a thinker, if it's not better to be ignored.

The dismissal is so incredibly casual, normally. When it's done as more than a passing dis at "eggheads," it's accompanied by great exaggeration and over-acting. Glen Beck, for example, gets all excited in his attack on "The Coming Insurrection," and how it reveals the "true left," but then he admits, in the end, that he hasn't read the book, and is relying on the publisher's synopsis for his critique. To take it "seriously" requires furniture-chewing theatrics, but then even that is undercut, in the end, as he slips in the admission, essentially, that the book is a prop, and he hasn't taken it seriously at all.

Compare that, though, to how the same book is critiqued in Germany. Johannes Thumfart critiques the anonymous manifesto as bearing the marks of German thinkers who were complicit with Nazism, including Carl Schmitt, who was something like Hitler's John Yoo, and Heidegger, whose relationship to Nazism is a bit more complicated.

There are a lot of particular reasons for each particular philosopher and each particular case being taken seriously the way they are, but, being here, getting a sense of it, I've had to wonder if it's not better not to be taken seriously. For there's this draft, this undertow, this pulling, and unless one's thinking can actually break the force of that, can actually liberate people from the thinking that they're doing -- this thinking that is so rigorously ensuring that we're still not thinking -- then one might have done better to have not been considered at all.

There's something about the political, or about the public, the res publica (perhaps), the commenting masses, that sucks thinking in, that pulls it into its preexisting framework, its structure. We are still not thinking, here, because when we begin to think, when we take it "seriously," that thinking is drawn into the draft that overpowers it.

Whereas Heidegger might trust that which pulls thinking, that which draws thinking in a way that thinking cannot resist, I think that it's these overpowering drafts -- be they the political, or something else, are I really do think the political is just one example, an an example that doesn't even attempt to get at the question of why -- that prevent thinking. The ethical struggle could be described as the attempt to liberate thinking from the irresistible draw. It seems to be to struggle against the natural flow of thinking, which flows in these preexisting, rutted paths, to recognize, first, that one's thinking is caught in these structures, to be thought-provoked by the way in which we are still not thinking.

The philosopher Richard Rorty, criticizing Heidegger for his entanglement with the Nazis, said -- and I thought this was really insightful -- "he stumbled into a situation that he didn't have the character to get himself out of."

Is that not, though, what we all do? That's the nature of being us. That's exactly what happens with our thinking. That's the struggle, I think, right there. As I write about media, as I try to teach basic composition, as I look at the ethical questions of narrative structures of crime stories, this is what I'm always coming back to. There has to somehow, I think, in thinking, be possible some moment of liberation. There has to be possible a thinking that acts, apocalyptically, as an interruption of our not-thinking.

Which is why I keep coming back to Heidegger's weird, self-reflexive statement, being drawn to it, and taking it as a slogan: "What is most thought-provoking in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking."