Monday, July 18, 2011

Origins Essay and Heidegger

Today, I am concerned with Heidegger's Origins on the Work of Art. In this blog post, I specifically want to concentrate on why poetry is extolled over all other art forms at the very end. In Origins, he writes:

Art, as the setting-into-work of truth, is poetry. Not only the creation of work is poetic, but equally poetic, though in its own way, is the preserving of the work; for a work is in actual effect as a work only when we remove ourselves from our commonplace routine and move into what is disclosed by the work, so as to bring our own essential nature itself to take a stand in the truth of beings.
The art of essence is poetry. The essence of poetry, in turn, is the founding of truth. We understand founding here in a triple sense: founding as bestowing, founding as grounding, and founding as beginning. Founding, however, is actual only in preserving. Thus to each mode of founding there corresponds a mode of preserving... (186).
Now, this just might come across as confusing Heidegger-ese, but I think there is more to this lecture than meets the eye. First, the fact that Heidegger had always adapted his German to the phenomenon in question is notable, especially for adopting the phenomenological attitude that seeks to pay attention to experiences as they unfold in lived-experience. Such an attitude of reflection must adapt language to the purpose of the phenomenon in question and here Heidegger is describing the work itself without presupposing anything about the work itself. For the uninitiated, this is the basic phenomenological dictum in action "to return to things themselves" but only with Heidegger, the application of phenomenology brings into relief our existential relation to a phenomenon. In this case, both Gadamer and Heidegger pay attention to the movement of the text or work itself. The thought is an art work gains a life of its own, even after the artist created the work. The agency of the artist, however, doesn't matter if a particular life or strand of interpretation takes over the work.

I picked this passage since Heidegger specifically invokes poetry as the chief art form par excellence. Moreover, in choosing poetry, Heidegger's choice reveals his reluctance to regard language as a system of cohering statements that correspond to the world, or any formal structural criteria in language at all. For him, "all language is, in essence, poetry." In fact, he uses the word "poesy" which comes from the older poesis. It can mean the art of composing poetry, but in its sheer meaning "poesy" designates "creativity." This brings us to the opening of the passage above: "Art, as the setting-into-work of truth, is poetry. Not only the creation of work is poetic, but equally poetic, though in its own way, is the preserving of the work." It should be understood that Heidegger is trying, again, to put us back into the texture of lived-experience where we experience the work itself. As such, to say that art sets into motion the work of truth indicates the work has something to say, some meaning relevant to our participation with it, yet it does not arise solely from us like some noncognitivism. Instead, the art work creates meaning. Thus, we can understand why poetry is chosen. In poetry, there is no structure, no set or established rules to communicate or convey its message. Often, poetry is short, concise and plays at the boundaries of what we think the structure of language could be, and it still achieves to produce meaning. In producing meaning, the work also preserves the truth it set into motion. This is especially true if a work has a longstanding persistence in the imagination of those belonging to a tradition and the work returns again and again thematizing itself what truth it preserves. But again, this preserving of meaning is a creative force itself. If a work has a longstanding tradition to be taken a certain way, there is no anchoring that interpretation, the work is the locus of meaning-production.

To say the work is the locus of meaning-production sounds too technical. First, Heidegger has in mind a primordial interpretation of an art work. He is attempting to strip the layers down and in peeling away all these different layers we get to the most fundamental being of the work. This is why the "actual effect" of the work requires "we remove ourselves from our commonplace routine and move into what is disclosed by the work, so as to bring our own essential nature itself to take a stand in the truth of beings." Given that the work preserves truth and puts the meaning of truth into contact with us, we cannot help but participate. Otherwise, we make culture inert, and our routine life in which the expectations we make for ourselves are not challenged by art or anything at all. Instead, routine is commonplace and deadens us to receive, welcome and see anew the world disclosed by the art work. A world in which we are closed off from the creative forces, the very forces that beckon us to come forward and "take a stand in the truth of beings" is a world made comfortable by the ease of technological production and mass culture. It is a safe world, but as Heidegger's own shortcomings reveal, human life can get swept up very easily by forces outside one's own routine.

I was not too subtle there. I made a distinction between those that are dead to the creative forces of the world and those capable of an exchange with the world and the art work. I politicized this distinction since namely we are undergoing something of a mass deadening in our ability to receive, articulate and interpret meaning in this culture. This shows itself anecdotally in higher education and in our political imaginary. At your fingertips, you can just "google" an art work, find what someone else wrote about it, and put that into your paper. You can do this in 20 minutes if you really want, and the art history professor overburdened with a 4/4 teaching load might miss it, or not care. He might know its the standard interpretation. Like any mass movement, higher education promotes a level of this passivity on a massive scale, even though it is perhaps the most necessary of institutions for democracy in training informed citizens.

The Tea Party is even worse. The Tea Party while constantly resistant to thematization has at least some beliefs they do cluster around. In this cluster, it is safe to say that some gravitate towards originalism or what Justice Scalia has called textualism. This is a very naive engagement with the constitution in which originalists/textualists think that by looking at the historical legislative intent of a law, or precedent that we can be guided by this force as if history was entirely independent of our coming upon the law to say nothing of a tradition and the demands of the living-present. If we had the ability to take a stand in the production of meaning of the text of the US Constitution, we could see how the text through its historical manifestation has meaning for us. It is not the case that the text had the meaning there the whole time, and that we simply discovered it. In fact, for Heidegger, these meanings constitute our relation to the text for us now. Art works and cultural works more broadly effectuate in their present situatedness--that is, where the art work is encountered they literally produce meaning. Thus, the interest in the ideology of the Tea Party wants to constrain the possibility of what the Constitution might mean for us today by substituting its own interests as the only possible "meaning" of the text. This is what happens when ideology takes over our capacity to receive and stand in a disclosive relation with works (and tradition more generally). It is within maintaining and preserving an openness to

While I have maintained some measure of politicization with Heidegger's passage above, let me now return to the important philosophical messages. There are, namely, two. First, I have already gestured and explained how it is that the work takes its own fluidity, its own event-like life in which the art work constitutes meaning by its sheer force of allure and indeterminateness. It is indeterminate because there is no fixivity to what meaning can be produced. Heidegger tries to give us the analogy to the poetic side of language that sustains and preserves this fluidity. For there are many examples of deadening discourses that stifle those concepts that ought to be about more than just their logical implication or propositional truth. In Descartes, God is that which we can be absolutely certain, yet God is de-personalized into an ontological principle of organization and certainty. It is God's divine veracity that guarantees the intelligible order of the world even to the point I can have a clear and distinct idea of the existence of an external world. God would never allow my senses to be wrong about that! By contrast, look at Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard shows how committed one must be to God as absurd. He articulates the lively manner in which the requirements of faith must be affirmed (if you think he has described faith's structure accurately).

Secondly, the constitution of the work involves an active relation of a community of those that engage the work. This is the work of the language of founding, and I've already hinted at this through the example of the Tea Party. To found something denotes a multiplicity of senses to the "founding of truth", and Heidegger separates them for us. Founding-as-bestowing means to present, as in to make manifest for the participant in relation to the work. The language of bestowal has a Husserlian ring to it. Husserl speaks of the constitutive function of intentionality as "sense-bestowal." This is to say that it is within consciousness access through the reduction I will get at the core of the structure. Since this structure is intentional, it is always relational. There is never just a subjective awareness and an object. They are conjoined into one field in which the subjective and objective poles may be gleaned, even separately but never without emphasizing how they fold into each other.

Next, the art work literally creates and opens up a horizon of the world. It "grounds truth" by founding it.  This is an ontological realization of meaning. Literally, the art work grounds the possibility of the world to have meaning in the first place. Consider the United States. If the United States has a political narrative from the inception of the Republic all the way until now, then such a political narrative can only take shape if we consider the writings of Jefferson, the Constitution, the Gettysburg address, the Greco-Roman emulating architecture of Washington DC, the immortal images of General Washington crossing the Delaware River and the photograph of Iwo Jima all come to converge. Now, I want to be clear that the grounding function of founding is an establishing of meaning and while we might think of the experience of attending the museum or exhibition at a gallery, it is not a solitary experience. The grounding is necessarily intersubjective, and the political example serves to drive home the sense this grounding has when an entire tradition of art and cultural works converge together and engender meaning.

The last sense is founding as beginning. In the beginning, an event can rupture and ripple outward like a maddening disease. It can create a fervor, and the indeterminate nature of works does not help the situation. The meaning of a work cannot even be foreshadowed by its author or artist. However, while it certainly can be abused, the concept of a beginning is also a hopeful and liberating one. The work points to the future, and in the future, no one can control the indeterminate nature of the work. There are some that may try, suppress and control intensely what may be said, written, or thought. However, the phenomenological structure of the art work itself cannot help but be indeterminately open, world-creating and unfolding before others.

A commitment to this relation requires that all three senses of founding be preserved. Without which, human life would be boring, stale and utterly without meaning. I interpret Heidegger as thinking all three senses of founding manifest simultaneously. Moreover, they co-penetrate or complement the whole of the work in question. The political example of America proves all too easily. To be without works is to be in a world without wonder. If society gets to that point, we are dead already. Luckily, there are those that still engage with works. This engagement cannot be measured by typical art works alone, but means any work that sufficiently arouses our engagement and prompts us to be aware, to be in relation with the work's hold over us and the self-understanding accompanying it. Thus, I come to my last and perhaps dangerous conclusion. To be open to art as poetry is also to be a citizen open to the world.

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