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Landscaping Heidegger

3:AM: You wrote a very cool essay about Heidegger, geography and politics where you confronted in a very subtle and fascinating way Heidegger’s Nazi politics and his place-orientated thinking. You related his thought to other environmentalists like Jakob von Uexkull, Friedrich Ratzel and Paul Vidal de la Blache, whom I guess most readers won’t have heard of. You point to a contradiction between commitments to deep ecology, on the one hand, and Nazi commitments to subjectivism and deterministic biology. Can you tell us something about all this? And is your thought here that the issue of environment and place in Heidegger is not tainted by his Nazism because he was just philosophically muddled as to how it could connect with his politics?

JM: One of the key points of the essay to which you refer concerns the crucial difference between the place-oriented thinking that is to be found in Heidegger, as well as in Ratzel and Vidal de la Blache, and the racially-oriented character of Nazi ideology. The thinking that takes human being to stand in an essential relation to place, and to be constituted in and through that relation, is a mode of thinking that cannot allow the sort of simple, ‘internal’, biological determination’ of the human that is to be found in Nazism. Significantly, von Uexküll, whose work is often cited in ecological and environmental circles, and whose ideas are sometimes compared to Heidegger’s, was not only personally sympathetic to Nazi ideology, and especially its biologism and racism, but his thinking is itself biologistic and subjectivist in character. Thus, the sort of topological and topographic thinking exemplified by Ratzel, Vidal de la Blache, and Heidegger, is actually positioned in opposition to the thinking exemplified by von Uexküll and by Nazi ideology (contrary to the, to my mind, rather dishonest allusions that Agamben makes in his book The Open).

I do certainly do not think that Heidegger’s thinking on environment and place is tainted by Heidegger’s Nazism. But I think this for a number of reasons: because I think that the connection between a thinker’s political and philosophical commitments is often much less straightforward than we assume (whether any particular commitments held by a thinker are related by implication, and even whether they are consistent, is always something open to question); because I think it is unclear exactly what Heidegger’s commitment to Nazism actually was (and there have been all too few serious attempts to address this question); because I think that the explicit thematisation of place in Heidegger is actually part of his attempt to extricate himself from the entanglement with Nazism (and so becomes part of his criticism of it), rather than being in any way a consequence of it (thus the explicit focus on place becomes increasingly important in the period after 1933/34, not before); because I think, contrary to many commonplace assumptions, that the concept of place, and the notions that come with it, is itself fundamental to the possibility of any form of humane or genuinely democratic politics – the fact that place, along with ideas of justice, truth, the good, and the right, is made use of by authoritarian politics shows something about the fundamental nature of the concept rather than anything about its essentially conservative or politically regressive character (it also shows something about the way all politics aims to appropriate what is most fundamental). I think there is no doubt that Heidegger was muddled about his politics in the 1930s – although I think muddlement is too weak a term – intoxication might be better. Like many philosophers, he was highly vulnerable to the prospect, when it seems to be offered, of his ideas being politically realized and made effective, and it was that prospect that seduced Heidegger into the ‘mistake’ of 1933-34. Whenever a philosopher falls victim to the seductions of power in this way, the result is almost always unfortunate – at best, embarrassment, at worst, humiliation, philosophical diminishment, and even self-destruction. We also expect philosophers to be more questioning, and so more resistant to such temptations and the vanity and pride on which they feed. Unfortunately, philosophers, like all of us, are merely human, and so prey to the faults and flaws that come with such humanity. That was certainly true of Heidegger.

3:AM: You call Heidegger’s pupil Hans-Georg Gadamer ‘the decisive figure in the development of twentieth century hermeneutics’. He’s another figure you connect with Davidson, don’t you? As well as Wittgenstein. C.G. Prado notes that Davidson resisted some efforts to connect his work with Gadamer but later changed his mind somewhat, which suggests some ambivalence about the connection in his mind at least. I think you are less ambivalent aren’t you that there is a fruitful connection? I think you argue that just as Davidson rejects a way of thinking about agreement that grounds it in an essentially subjective, even shared structure prior to any encounter, which is how some readers read Davidson, you think Davidson reads Gadamer in the same way, and so mistakes his project in the same way others have mistaken his. Is that right? Can you say why you find him so impressive and does he add to what we get in Davidson? Are they coming to the same conclusions via different routes or are there subtle differences that make them both worth studying?

JM: I am not sure what Prado has in mind here other perhaps than the fact that Davidson was cautious about the extension of his work into domains with which he was unfamiliar, and so there were occasions when he expressed skepticism about some attempts to develop his work in certain directions. Yet in my own conversations with Davidson, he never showed any resistance to his work being connected with Gadamer’s (and Gadamer was someone we discussed on a number of occasions), but rather curiosity about such a connection. Moreover, both thinkers seemed to have a genuine admiration for one another corresponding from at least the time of Davidson’s award of the Hegel-Prize (a prize awarded to Davidson at Gadamer’s instigation). It was also through Davidson that I made my own connection to Gadamer in the late ‘nineties and then had the opportunity to talk to Gadamer in Heidelberg about Davidson’s work. I don’t recall any change in Don’s views about Gadamer, although he did try to read Gadamer’s Truth and Method as preparation for his essay in the Library of Living Philosophers volume, and I think he found it a difficult read (I never felt that there was much to be gained by Davidson trying to read Gadamer as it seemed to me that there was too great a gulf in terms of their respective philosophical cultures – they were always likely to misread one another, as is shown by the Library of Living Philosophers exchange ).

I don’t think either of them had any deep understanding of the other’s work – I think that they felt an affinity, even though they were never able to articulate that in any detailed fashion. Of course there are differences between Davidson and Gadamer, as there are between any thinkers of worth, and the value of their work is that they do indeed bring different perspectives because of their different backgrounds and approaches. Yet they both seem to me to adopt an essentially hermeneutic and topographical approach. One of the reasons Davidson is significant is because of the way he works out a topographic approach from within an analytic frame., thereby also setting up a certain critique of the analytic. Gadamer is significant, in part, because he is such an insightful and illuminating reader of Heidegger and also because he is such a key figure in the history of hermeneutics – contemporary hermeneutics is probably unthinkable without him. In this respect, Gadamer is one of the most underappreciated figures in the history of twentieth century thought, just as Davidson is himself one of the most misread and misappropriated.

3:AM: You say that Davidson, Heidegger and Gadamer do not ground understanding in some element or single source, “not Dasein, nor Spirit, not Life, nor even History” but rather “in the complex dialogical interplay between speakers and their world,” an interplay that is within language and tradition but “never held captive by them”. Here you show an impressive ability to connect the dots between thinkers usually not discussed together with such authority. So what’s the basic argument and significance of this?

JM: The short answer is that the basic argument is grounded in my account of place, and in the fundamental role of place in thought and experience (essentially the ideas alluded to in some of my earlier responses), and this is significant in that it involves a basic reorienting of philosophy so that philosophy comes to be seen as essentially topology or topography. The longer answer involves a rethinking of the concept of ground that understands it not in terms of some underlying foundation or principle, but rather through the exhibiting of the topological or topographical unity of the domain whose grounding is in question. This rethinking of ground, and with it the clarification of notions of unity and limit, is indeed a rethinking of philosophy, but also entails a rethinking of the human and of the human relation to world that has implications for ethics as much as for ontology or epistemology. The central role I give to place here is also quite different from most previous attempts in the history of philosophy to give priority to some one idea or principle. One of the characteristic features of the philosophical treatment of place has been the tendency to discard the notion as vague, unclear, derivative.

In this respect, place has many of the characteristics that Heidegger argues are typically attributed to ‘being’. Certainly, place resists attempts to turn it into anything substantive – it is an essentially open, bounded structure (its openness and boundedness are tied together) in which resides the very possibility of any sort of presencing (of both appearing and not-appearing). Of course, in emphasising place here, I am suggesting that what is at work here is some abstract topological structure – place itself appears only in terms of specific places, and so too is presencing always a presencing of the here and now – it occurs only and always in the singular concreteness of existence. The world, in its inexhaustibility, is opened up only in and through the singular places in which we find ourselves – places that are characterised by a specificity of geography and history, of landscape and narrative, of the human and that which goes beyond the human. The boundlessness of world thus opens up only within the boundedness of place. The opening of the boundless within the bounded is also what lies at the heart of language, of tradition, of finitude.

3:AM: In last year’s The Place of Landscape you place a philosophical, conceptual investigation at the heart of the book. What is the general thesis and does it connect with the isues of place, identity, hermeneutics and ontology that have been your themes for many years?

JM: The general thesis is that landscape is to be understood through place. My own contribution argues against the diminished conception of the visual – a conception that treats visuality as essentially displaced – that I think dominates in much contemporary thinking. It also argues for the continuing significance of landscape even as it acknowledges those problematic aspects that have often dominated in the literature.

To some extent, my essay can be seen as a continuation of Ed Casey’s inquiries into landscape – notably in his Representing Place – but Casey also has an essay of his own in the volume, and it is an essay of special interest to me because of its focus on the idea of the ‘edge’ of landscape. A number of the essays in the first section of the volume, including mine and Casey’s, take up these sorts of conceptual issues as they inform thinking of landscape, and so also inform the thinking of place. While the first part of the book focuses on conceptual issues, the second part takes up landscape as it arises in particular contexts, and in particular forms, and the third part includes what might be thought of as particular landscape studies. The aim of the volume was to look at landscape from a range of [perspectives, and I think the volume certainly does that. In so doing, I think it also demonstrates again the importance of place in contemporary thought – and not just in philosophy or geography, but in art, environmental studies, photography, history, literature, garden design, and elsewhere.

3:AM: I’ve left it until the end to ask you about Heidegger and topology in more detail because I needed to be able to grasp the significance of topology for philosophy. You argue that, although rarely explicit, it is a theme that runs through all or most of Heidegger’s work, don’t you? He didn’t see place as an objective Cartesian geometrical space, but kind of thinks of it as an ‘event.’ This can be confusing as it seems to change the subject. So can you explain what Heidegger meant by space and topology and why it is approached as it is in his work?

JM: The claim I make in Heidegger’s Topology, and elaborated in Heidegger and the Thinking of Place, is that all of Heidegger’s thinking is, to be understood as topology – as he himself says, it is a saying of the place of being (Topologie des Seyns). Heidegger only begins to articulate the idea of place in his works after Being and Time, and this is partly a result of his increasing engagement with Holderlin (although it also develops out of his earlier thinking). Place is certainly not to be based on any idea of Cartesian spatiality, but is rather that bounded opening emergence in which things come to presence, in which space spatilaises and time temporalises. In this respect, place stands in a close relation to what Heidegger calls the Event (das Ereignis) which must itself be understood topologically rather then temporally or spatially. Place encompasses space and time (which is why Heidegger sometimes talks of the play of time-space (Zeit-Spiel-Raum).

3:AM: It is through understanding his ideas of topology that we get to grips what he means by technology. Again, this sometimes sounds like he’s not using the word to mean what we thought technology means (roughly, tools and machines). Can you explain this: is technology the thing that threatens ‘dwelling’ – a ‘…loss of concealment, the loss of finitude and boundedness – the loss, one might say of the nearness to the holy, of a proper ethos, of a proper place”.

JM: Technology is not tools and machines, but a mode of ordering of the world, specifically a mode of ordering that orders purely for the sake of ordering. Its most powerful current instantiation is the globalised form of bureaucratic-economism that now dominates most of the Anglo-Saxon world and is steadily infiltrating everywhere else – technological devises are themselves merely elements within that larger frame, and are determined by and dependent on it (your mobile phone, for instance, is useless without the economic and organisational system within which it operates, and within which you are as much an element as is your phone). Within this ordering of the world, everything is understood in term of quantity, in terms of boundless transfer and flow, in terms of constant relation and inter-relation. Within this ordering of the world, everything is taken up within the same homogenising structure, reduced to the same quantifiable measures and means. Things themselves lose their identity, submerged into the larger technological framework, subsumed under the logo, the brand, and the trademark. Everything becomes its own uncanny double, but in such a way that there is no longer even the possibility of distinguished the double from what it doubles. All is representation, image, simulacra. Central to this mode of ordering is the way in which it obliterates spatial and topographic differentiation. Technology presents the world as simply a network of connected sites or locations, none of which are intrinsically any different from any other, and all of which are connected by transfer and flow. The loss of concealment of which Heidegger speaks is a loss of the sense of the proper boundedness that alone allows things to appear – where such appearing involves both concealment and unconcealment. To dwell is to be in the world in a way that is attentive to such appearing, to the concealing/unconcealing of things, and so to maintain an attentiveness to boundedness and finitude. It is just such attentiveness, and with it a recognition of human fragility and the world’s transcendence, that I think is at issue in Heidegger’s talk of the holy. Yet precisely this is what technology refuses. Perhaps surprisingly, the way technology appears and represents itself, – technology’s obsession with connection, flow, globality, and unbounded relationality – is not only reflected in the language of contemporary corporate capitalism, but also in the language of much contemporary humanities and social science research. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that contemporary universities have allowed themselves to be so overtaken by the bureaucratic-economistic model – it seems they have already abandoned any position from which they could contest even the intellectual framework of the technological.

3:AM: You disagree with Heidegger about whether we’re doomed never to return to ‘dwelling’, don’t you? You think Heidegger just exaggerated the contemporary situation. Is this right? And are you hopeful that we can turn things around, or are you saying we don’t need to because actually things aren’t that bad and technology not so pervasive or corrosive of the ‘gathering of space’?

JM: I am not sure that I have ever said that I disagree with Heidegger about being “doomed never to return to ‘dwelling’”. Where I do disagree with him on the question of technology is his tendency to overlook what seems to me to be the boundedness of technology itself. In the Parmenides lectures Heidegger describes technology as an ‘obscuring cloud’. What it obscures is its own character and part of what that means is that technology hides its character as a mode of framing of the world – a mode of ordering. Thus technology appears everywhere as if it were transparent to us, as a means simply for us better to live and manage our lives – as if technology were merely there at our service. One result of this is that technology hides its character as a mode of ordering even of the human (so that we become mere resource for contemporary managerial and economic systems – as subjects of organisational and governmental control or components in structures of consumption and commodification). At the same time, however, technology also presents itself as if it were all-encompassing and unassailable in its ordering of things, and yet technology is no less immune to breakdown and limitation as is any other frame of ordering. Technology is thus bounded and yet cannot represent that boundedness to itself. This means that technology cannot represent the possibility of its own failure, even though technology is constantly failing – and failing not only in the mundane sense that technological devices fail, but because is very nature creates the condition for its own breakdown. Technological systems, in their constant move to encompass more and more, also give rise to more and more tension, interference, and disruption.

The argument for this conclusion is one that I set out some time ago in a paper with Gary Wickham called ‘From Joe DiMaggio to Michel Foucault; On Governance and the World‘, but it is also an argument that I reprise in Heidegger’s Topology and elsewhere. I do think that Heidegger sometimes seems to be in the sway of an idealised view of technology (rather like his sometimes idealised view of Nazism) that misses the failing character of technology. Thus, on many occasions, he writes in ways that seem to take technology’s own self-representation as all-encompassing and all-controlling as true of technology itself, whereas his own account ought to commit him to the view that technology is itself deluded as to its own nature – and that means that it must be deluded about precisely its capacity to encompass and to control.

On other occasions, I think he is well aware of the failing character of technology, and that what he intends is merely to depict technology’s self-representation as clearly as possible. Certainly, Heidegger’s comments about the saving power and the importance of small things suggest that he is well-aware of the way technology carries its own failure within. Like Heidegger, I do not think we can turn things around (just as technology can save us from technology), but one always retains some small hope that things might turn around for us – but, in Heidegger’s terms, only a god could enable that hope to be realised. My own guess is that, if we are ‘saved’, it will only be as a result of near catastrophic collapse of the current system of the world – which may turn out to be no form of ‘saving’ at all.

3:AM: And finally, are there five books (other than your own which of course we’ll be dashing away to read straight after reading this) which will help us further understand your world?

JM: My world or my work? Maybe they aren’t so different. The five books I would recommend are (and being restricted to five is tough – so there is an inevitable degree of arbitrariness in this choice): Albert Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays; Donald Davidson, Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective; Martin Heidegger, Identity and Difference; Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time (if that is too daunting, try Georges Poulet, Proustian Space); Hans-Georg Gadamer, Gadamer in Conversation. I could have added many other works by these thinkers and others – including (besides thinkers such as Aristotle and Kant) Gaston Bachelard, Andrew Benjamin, Edward Casey (of course), Guy Debord, Michel Foucault, Juhani Pallasmaa, Kathleen Raine (on Blake), Edward Relph, W. G. Sebald, Iain Sinclair, Simone Weil, Kenneth White, Peter Zumthor, and at more of a remove, Emmanuel Levinas, Knud Løgstrup, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. I would also mention one other writer who has been important to me, but is probably not someone your readers may know: the Swiss theologian, Heinrich Ott. One of Ott’s essays (‘Hermeneutic and Personal Structure of Language’, in J. J. Kockelmans [ed], On Heidegger and Language) was a powerful early influence, and Ott’s other writings are also significant for me if only because of their strongly hermeneutical reading of Heidegger as well as their topological sensitivity.

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, February 26th, 2013.