On the Issue of a Political Party

Last weekend I went to a conference at Rice University where a number of very different people–architects, environmentalists, artists from the area–read very short papers on issues having to do with environmental problems on the Gulf Coast.  It was interesting but also frustrating for reasons I cannot completely understand, but that have to do with the fact that the very disparity of the group gave me a sense of impotence.  This links up with an issue that has been vexing me:  whether any amount of thinking the anthropocene might affect the outcome even at a political level.  Those people were smart, good, and were taking the question of the anthropocene to levels they thought they could handle: environmental justice and so forth.  As if a proper policy regarding environmental justice might solve the problem.  But the problem is not justice, not really.  And there is great reluctance to abandon the usual political commitments in favor of something much more urgent, which would be in fact a different kind of political commitment.   But–can thought move people in that direction?  Or are we doomed to spend the next generational time in the usual impasse: half the people in favor of business interests, the other half worried about what those interests are doing, with at best minor policy adjustments that some times satisfy one of those constituencies, some times the other one?  Maybe this is the source of the feeling of impotence.

If we could think of a revolution that might change things.  But can we?  The last historical time we might be in a position to refer to was the time before WWII when a sense of doom was palpable and you could cut it with a knife.   There was a brutality in the air to which people responded by moving toward fascism or toward communism.  We know how that played out.  The stakes are higher today, in my opinion.  But, today, we have no political party anywhere that is making any kind of significant move, hopefully not misguided.  Why is that?  Perhaps it is because the very sense of a not-misguided move is missing.

In 1936 Heidegger went to Rome to give a lecture.  It is hard to know to what an extent in that lecture Heidegger was mimicking submission to the Führer in Fascist Italy, licking Nazi ass, falling for opportunistic reasons into regime rhetoric.  What he brings up, though, transcends the actual political situation, and the question that opens the lecture is the question of a “transformation of historical Dasein.”  May thought transform historical Dasein? That is, may (non-ideological, non-hegemonic) thought, by definition accomplished by singular thinkers, project itself into the social in such a way that it may expect to accomplish a transformation of the social, a transformation that would have to be considered world-historical? Heidegger seems not just to assume so, but in fact to posit it. He says: everything has become questionable. “This questionability, which has not been experienced until now, does not yet necessarily signify barbarism–on the contrary, out of this questionability, those spheres of Dasein’s activity first create an essentiality that draws them out of the previous framework of mere culture-industry.” The result is, then, revolution, based on the accomplishment of “true autochtony (Bodenständigkeit).” And this, apparently, for the sake of “the protection of the European Völker from the Asiatic.” (And who are the Asiatic, by the way? The Soviets?).  That is the beginning of the enframing of the lecture, which ends with another call to the “saving of the West.” He says that such a thing “can only be accomplished by winning back the original relation to beings themselves and by grounding anew all essential actions of the Völker on these relations.”  And, he adds, so that any ambiguity disappears: “This knowing does not conflict with the will. A great will of an individual and of a Volk is only as great as the knowing that guides it is deep and essential.” I will leave aside the significance of ending his Rome lecture with Heraclitus 53, a fragment he leaves out of consideration in the 1943-44 seminars on Heraclitus.

In the seminar on Heraclitus, section 6, from 1944, consistent with the 1936 lecture, Heidegger talks about the “presumptuous mismeasurement” on which the priority of das Seiende over das Sein originates. For him already in 1936 it was a matter of reverting that priority–only a return to the question of being could operate a transformation of historical Dasein.  Heidegger quickly refers that expression, “presumptuous mismeasurement,” to the Greek hybris. Hybris is in 1944 the forgetting of Sein for the sake of das Seiende. But I wonder whether he ever came to realize that the presumption of a “transformation of the historical Dasein” of the Völker in the wake of a philosophical awakening offered by the thinker is in itself even more hybristic. Particularly when it is presented as the battle that sums up “the essence of all Beyng:” the battle “in which essentiality stands against essentiality and non-essentiality.” That is a weird formulation, but it must remind us of the difference between essential and conventional thinkers that figures so prominently in the previous seminar on Heraclitus from 1943. The battle of the thinkers: can it be directly transposed to the political? Was Heidegger the only figure in the tradition that has claimed such a thing? 

Well, Marx certainly also did it.  And it may well be the case that a political party might give us the only possibility of moving forward in that direction.  But the political party is non-existent today. 

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