Harassed Unrest. By Alberto Moreiras.

Regarding the discussion on reading Heidegger today, I was asked during it whether I could provide specific personal reasons why it would be important to keep doing it, beyond, say, merely historic-philosophical reasons or a sense of responsibility to the archive.  The context was framed by the notion that “les non-dupes errent,” that is, that reading Heidegger might also be a particular kind of (more or less) intelligent stupidity.  I thought of posting this paper I wrote once, presented somewhere, and never published, perhaps because I thought it was too personal.

Harassed Unrest. Notes on Heidegger’s “Building Dwelling Thinking”

At some point in his 1951 lecture “Building Dwelling Thinking” Martin Heidegger mentions the notion of “harassed unrest,” attributing it to the life that should not be lived and will not be lived if a proper relationship to dwelling were to be accomplished. He says: “Mortals dwell in that they receive the sky as sky. They leave to the sun and the moon their journey, to the stars their courses, to the seasons their blessing and their inclemency; they do not turn night into day nor day into a harassed unrest” (328). So I would like to start by asking you to reflect for a moment: is your life adequately qualified under the notion of “harassed unrest”?   Are you living a life of “harassed unrest”? Have you by now come to consider that state of affairs chronic and unavoidable? Have you in fact already given up on any hopes of redress?

The opposite of “harassed unrest” is not “unharassed rest.” It is not a matter of resting without the strain of harassment—perhaps that is what you do by night, when you sleep, but it is not an alternative for day dwelling. Dwelling, dwelling by day, and we will not silence the fact that dwelling is being human, that humans are by dwelling, is not resting without harassment. In fact, resting unharassed, which is what, say, the turtle does after the race with the damned hare is finally over, could be said to be a temporal condition: a point of temporal stasis, the complement to the spatial structuration of the fourfold, since the fourfold encompasses the day/night divide, the seasonal succession, the yearly cycle. But harassed unrest is, for Heidegger, a kind of space trouble. Let me suggest that it may not be simply a kind, any kind, of space trouble, but rather the defining space trouble of our time. We live lives of harassed unrest, and that is the spatial condition that characterizes what Heidegger in another essay of roughly the same years, the same period, calls the age of technology.   We’ll talk about it later.

If harassed unrest is improper dwelling, if it defines a bad way of being human, it is because harassed unrest is the condition one suffers when one is in a position of dislocated location, or if you will allow me, a dis/position. Since we want to talk about space, let’s retain three determinations of space: what Heidegger calls the abstract determination, about which more later, and then either proper location, which is determined by an appropriate relation to the fourfold (sky and earth, mortals and divinities), or improper location, which is a bad relationship to the fourfold. Dwelling is dwelling in view of the fourfold. Undwelling is fourfold trouble—a certain incapacity to letting be, to letting the sky be sky, the bridge be a bridge, death be death, or thought be thought. Your location cannot reach dwelling, you do not dwell, you undwell, rather, and in that undwelling you are deprived of proper location, of good space, you are even deprived of air: you choke, you cannot breathe, and you live a breathless life.   Dis/posed into breathless life, radically disoriented, your state of unrest comes to you not like the opposite of rest, but as a more primal condition that no rest will quench or satisfy. Is it not true that rest today is, for most of us, nothing but the attempt to suppress or put harassed unrest to sleep? If rest is for us today nothing but a distraction, hence also a dislocation, a dis/position, of harassed unrest, then unrest is not properly the negative condition of rest. On the contrary, unrest takes on an ominous positivity, and it is rest that can only be experienced as the negation of unrest, as mere displacement, as escape.

If rest defines a temporal point in our private negotiation with the deprived space of our lives, the interruption of a spatial flux, the desperate reach for the oxygen of the night, then we could say that time is today nothing but the stasis of unrest. In dislocation, in disposition, we are disposed temporally into the avoidance of harassed unrest, and the avoidance of harassed unrest is the final disposition of our lives. We are all, as it were, turtles dreaming of the end of the race, wishing for the night, for final torpor.   The Roman historian Tacitus said of his compatriots once: “they created a wasteland. They called it peace.” We could say of our ourselves: “we dream of resting. We call it a life.” This is what happens, for instance, when the vacation industry orders us to the beach for a week in the summer. Or when the entertainment industry commands us to the couch for some football watching on a Sunday afternoon. Or when the life industry prescribes fifty minutes of physical exercise three to four days a week. The interruption of harassed unrest is for us our self-disposition into a prepackaged box. Our stays in the box mark our private time, and everything else is dislocation. Private time, which also means, deprived time, lacking time, is the unavoidable consequence of harassed unrest as the defining spatial trouble of our lives.

This breathless, timeless, dislocated life we are disposed into in the age of technology, will it also be a thoughtless life? It is a life where building happens, as humans can only dwell, even in undwelling, by building, and building is also, in one of its early meanings, as Heidegger says, producing culture or even thinking about culture, as you guys do in this working group. But the fact that, under harassed unrest, building goes on, even if we only build mad castles with playing cards, and that dwelling goes on, even if only in the mode of undwelling, does not automatically mean that thinking happens. Heidegger reserves thinking for something else: it is an exception. Thinking is an event that does not have the inevitability of dwelling and building, indeed, of being, as we can be thoughtless (and more about this later), and thus build or undwell thoughtlessly. We can find the register of thinking as decisive event at the end of the essay, from which I quote:

The real [plight of dwelling] lies in this, that mortals ever search anew for the essence of dwelling, that they must ever learn to dwell. What if man’s homelessness consisted in this, that man does not even think of the real plight of dwelling as the plight? Yet as soon as man gives thought to this homelessness, it is a misery no longer. Rightly considered and kept well in mind, it is the sole summons that calls mortals into their dwelling. But how else can mortals answer this summons than by trying on their part, on their own, to bring dwelling to the fullness of their essence? This they accomplish when they build out of dwelling, and think for the sake of dwelling. (339)

Man’s homelessness: perhaps that is what Heidegger has meant all along by “harassed unrest.” It is not harassed unrest that defines our plight, our basic disposition, and it is not harassed unrest that is the fundamental plight of dwelling, the plight, Heidegger says. Rather, our plight is that we do not think of it. This is curious: our fundamental plight is that we do not think of our plight as the fundamental plight, the plight. We have forgotten to think of it. We have forgotten that we have to learn to dwell. We live in the box, and we forget things. But Heidegger announces that giving thought to our plight might save us from our plight, provided giving thought also means to prepare ourselves for the right relation to dwelling, that is, for an abandonment of harassed unrest as the thoughtless plight of our lives.

This is a delicate point, and I want to make sure we all understand it. It has to do with the function of thinking. Thinking in this essay emerges as a relationship to dwelling, hence to building. Thinking might in fact be only this relationship to dwelling: thinking is simply remembering that dwelling is the fundamental task of the human. We forget, and forgetting is our plight, our true disposition, our true dislocation. Space trouble comes not essentially from the harassed unrest of undwelling in the age of technology, but rather from forgetting that undwelling in harassed unrest is simply a bad relationship to dwelling, a bad relationship to our own human being, to our being as human. Thinking the plight of dwelling as the plight of the human is therefore being under way to proper dwelling. And being under way towards our dwelling is no longer to live in homelessness: it is “a misery no longer,” that is, it is the end of harassed unrest.

Let me now attempt two things: I would like to set this essay briefly and, I am sure, less than adequately, into a relationship with two other texts. The first is the lecture course that Heidegger offered in 1942 on Friedrich Holderlin’s Hymn “The Ister.” The second will be the lecture entitled “The Question Concerning Technology,” which Heidegger prepared in 1949 and revised in 1953. The 1942 lecture will enable us to understand just exactly what is at stake in the presentation of dwelling as the fundamental dimension of thinking. And the 1949/1953 lecture will perhaps offer us a hint in terms of understanding undwelling in harassed unrest as the radical facticity of men and women in the contemporary age.

In 1942 (and it is not any year, certainly not in Germany) Heidegger says: “Between the spatio-temporal grasping that extends toward world domination and the movement of settlement subservient to such domination on the one side, and human beings coming to be at home via journeying and locality on the other, there presumably prevails a covert relation whose historical essence we do not know” (49). Presumably, the spatio-temporal grasping of domination is a modality of what will become harassed unrest in 1951. Homecoming via journeying and locality is proper dwelling, or at least the orientation towards a proper dwelling, which is also the proper way of being human. I want to insist on the fact that the emphasis on the 1942 lectures on journeying, on being under way, which Heidegger links to the essence of the river in Holderlin’s poem, since the river is in the poem “the journeying of the human beings as historical in their coming to be at home upon this earth” (33), makes of dwelling not simply a spatial structure, but also radically historical. Dwelling is not simply location but historicality too, through the movement of the journey. Indeed Heidegger’s question, in 1942, “how to think the connection between the rivers and the path of the people” (31), is a question about history and about politics, which now appear as instances of dwelling. However, Heidegger says, the “covert relation” between an understanding of history and the political as domination over the world and the understanding of history and the political as the journeying toward proper dwelling remains hidden from us. Indeed, according to Heidegger, in order to understand this, we would need “an essential transformation in our essence” (34). What is that transformation supposed to accomplish? The end of harassed unrest, a proper relationship to the homely, the interruption of radical dis/position. Heidegger says:

This coming to be at home in one’s own in itself entails that human beings are initially, and for a long time, and sometimes forever, not at home. And this in turn entails that human beings fail to recognize, that they deny, and perhaps even have to deny and flee what belongs to the home. Coming to be at home is thus a passage through the foreign. And if the becoming homely of a particular humankind sustains the historicality of its history, then the law of the encounter (Auseinandersetzung) between the foreign and one’s own is the fundamental truth of history, a truth from out of which the essence of history must unveil itself. (49)

Unhomely lives, undwelling, lives of harassed unrest: they might be necessary, might have been ordained by a history whose essence remains hidden from us. The unveiling of this historical essence is of course what thinking must prepare for. The indication in the 1951 lecture is clear: thinking the plight of dwelling as the plight of the human already sets us under way. In 1942, in the middle of a war where German fortunes are changing, Heidegger strikes a hopeful note in the same direction:

The representations of space and time that have held reign for almost two and a half thousand years are of the metaphysical kind . . . Our thinking remains everywhere metaphysical, and this is not only because remnants of the Christian worldview remain operative everywhere, if only in terms of a reversal and secularization, but rather because metaphysics first begins to achieve its supreme and utter triumph in our century as modern machine technology. . . . Modern machine technology is spirit, and as such is a decision concerning the actuality of everything actual. . . . Nothing of the historical world hitherto will return. . . . All that remains is to unconditionally actualize this spirit so that we simultaneously come to know the essence of its truth.   When we say “all that remains” then that sounds like “fatalism,” like merely a tired surrendering to the course of things. Yet in truth this “all that remains” is . . . the first historical path into the commencements of Western historicality, a path that has not at all been ventured hitherto. (53-54)

But the return to the commencements of Western historicality, if it is true that “nothing of the historical world will return,” can only be a return towards the ground that grounds the essence of Western humanity. For Heidegger, this is the fourfold: “The essence of Western humankind, the relation to the world, to the earth, to gods and to alternative gods and false gods. This is to be human. The essence of the river relates to this” (43). We must “unconditionally actualize [the] spirit [of modern machine technology]” so that we may come to know “the essence of its truth.”   Is this what Heidegger calls following the law of the encounter, of the Auseinandersetzung, between what is foreign and one’s own? We cannot avoid to hear in this passage the sinister overtones of an ultimate justification of war. It is indeed, Heidegger seems to say in 1942, through the massive conflagration under way that the essence of history will unveil itself, and Germany and the West might find a path, their path, toward the river. What is foreign, however?   The foreign is the unhomely. It is what keeps us from homecoming, but it is also ultimately that through which homecoming becomes possible. Homecoming is of course the accomplishment of location, the accomplishment of a proper relation to the fourfold, that is, to the essence of the human. Homecoming is the end and the abandonment of the harassed unrest of our lives.

The notions of Ge-stell and Bestand, standardly translated as “Enframing” and “standing reserve” respectively, are given in the 1949/1953 text “The Question Concerning Technology” as a further clarification of unhomeliness, a further clarification of the pervading harassed unrest that marks our lives in the age of modern machine technology.   We need to realize that the question concerning technology is not simply a question about technology, but it is a question about the undwelling of our age. Our age is defined by technology to the extent that technology, as the latest and most extreme manifestation of the metaphysical arrangement of things, defines our lives. And it defines them as lives under Ge-stell, that is, as enframed lives. Enframing is the essence of technology and, as such, it is, not the essence of the human, but rather an essential determination of human lives in the age of technology. It is the determination that throws our lives into a radical dis/position, and that makes us conceive of our own spatio-temporal determination as, precisely, “a grasping toward world domination and the movement of settlement subservient to such domination.”   Through the push for world domination the world becomes Bestand, that is, standing reserve: “Everywhere everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately at hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering. Whatever is ordered in this way has its own standing. We call it the standing reserve” (17).

But dwelling or undwelling in the world as standing reserve is still a form of dwelling. There is a covert relation, unclarified, between the grasping for world domination, the enframing of the world as standing reserve, and the poetic enterprise of dwelling in a proper relation to the fourfold.   Heidegger quotes the Holderlin verse: “poetically dwells man upon this earth” (34). There are simply different historical forms of poetic dwelling. Heidegger uses the German word Her-vor-bringen for the general form, that is, to bring forth hither, of which he says: “Bringing-forth-hither brings hither out of concealment, forth into unconcealment. Bringing-forth comes to pass only insofar as something concealed comes into unconcealmente. This coming rests and moves freely within what we call revealing (Entbergen)” (11). There is an echo of this in “Building Dwelling Thinking:” “The Greek word for “to bring forth or to produce” is tikto. The word techne, technique, belongs to the verb’s root, tec. To the Greeks techne means neither art not handicraft but, rather, to make something appear, within what is present, as this or that, in this way or that way.   The Greeks conceive of techne, producing, in terms of letting appear. Techne thus conceived has been concealed in the tectonics of architecture since ancient times. Of late still remains concealed, and more resolutely, in the technology of power machinery” (337).   Poetics, technics, are forms of dwelling. “The essence of building is letting dwell. Building accomplishes its essential nature in the raising of locations by the joining of their spaces. Only if we are capable of dwelling, only then can we build” (338).

So what is the difficulty of building, of dwelling, in the age of modern machine technology? Heidegger says that poetic revealing, that is, the relationship of man to unconcealment, to truth, “does not unfold into a bringing-forth in the sense of poiesis” in modern technology (14). “The revealing that rules in modern technology is a challenging (Herausfordern),” a “setting upon,” a “challenging forth” (16). The world, under the sway of the impulse for human domination, becomes a standing reserve. Nature, and with it, life “reports itself in some way or other that is identifiable through calculation and it remains orderable as a system of information” (23). And let me quote for you what I believe is the key passage in Heidegger’s text, the passage perhaps where all the threads of this presentation will find each other:

As soon as what is unconcealed no longer concerns man even as object, but does so, rather, exclusively as standing reserve, and man in the midst of objectlessness is nothing but the orderer of the standing reserve, then he comes to the very brink of a precipitous fall; that is, he comes to the point where he himself will have to be taken as standing reserve. Meanwhile, man, precisely as the one so threatened, exalts himself to the posture of lord of the earth. In this way the impression comes to prevail that everything man encounters exists only insofar as it is his construct. This illusion gives rise in turn to one final delusion: it seems as though man everywhere and always encounters only himself . . . In truth, however, precisely nowhere does man today any longer encounter himself, i.e., his essence. Man stands so decisively in attendance on the challenging-forth of Enframing that he does not apprehend Enframing as a claim, that he fails to see himself as the one spoken to, and hence also fails in every way to hear in what respect he ek-sists, from out of his essence, in the realm of an exhortation or address, and thus can never encounter only only himself. (27)

There is then, perhaps unsurprisingly, something else, a spatial state that is worse even than the dislocation of harassed unrest. That would be what comes after the fall into the condition of absolute illocation, the condition that I will call of biopolitical life—when man has become identified with a nature, or a life, beyond objectlessness, of mere calculability and orderability, a life which is as abstract as the abstract space that Heidegger counterposes throughout “Building Dwelling Thinking” to the space of dwelling. The passage of man into standing reserve, a precipitous fall, is the passage into a generalized biopolitics—man is from then on only to be distinguished from nature as life, but to the very extent that the general procedures of human domination of the earth will now be applied to him. In biopolitical life we are ourselves standing reserve, we are the orderable and the extractable and the storable. Enframed, we are at the same time but no longer primarily the enframers, as the minimal distance that gave the human still the possibility of addressing his own undwelling as plight is now lost. Because there is no longer plight, because the plight is now terminal as mere absence of plight, biopolitical life can resolutely proceed to the final arrangement of world domination, in total subservience to it. Man now dominates himself, but no longer as man—only as standing reserve, as a pool of genes or labor force, as human resource or consuming power, as the orderable and calculable or, inversely, as undesirable dis/ponibility marked for disappearance or extermination. It is then that man encounters only himself or herself, in the mirror of natural life, believing that only his or her constructs exist.   There is no longer an outside—only a generalized field of identity, but it is an identity that has managed to surpass the condition of harassed unrest into the unharassed rest of biopolitical fixity, of biopolitical infinity.

Is this the necessary result of the age of modern machine technology, of Enframing as its essence? Heidegger only thinks of it as a danger, the “supreme danger” (26). This supreme danger is the final loss—the loss that has forgotten what it is to lose—of location, the abandonment of dwelling also in the plightful sense of undwelling. But there is another possibility, which “Building Dwelling Thinking” associates with the old notion of freedom:

Let us listen once more to what language says to us. The Old Saxon wuon, the Gothic wunian, like the old word bauen, mean to remain, to stay in place. But the Gothic wunian says more distinctly how this remaining is experienced. Wunian means to be at peace, to be brought to peace, to remain in peace. The word for peace, Friede, means the free, das Frye; and fry means preserved from harm and danger, preserved from something, safeguarded. To free actually means to spare. The sparing itself consists not only in the fact that we do not harm the one whom we spare. Real sparing is something positive and takes place when we leave something beforehand in its own essence, when we return it specifically to its essential being, when we “free” it in the proper sense of the word into a preserve of peace. To dwell, to be set at peace, means to remain at peace within the free, the preserve, the free sphere that safeguards each thing in its presence. The fundamental character of dwelling is this sparing. (327)

And sparing is letting be. From the core of the fourfold there comes a thinking that is dwelling and that, through dwelling, lets things come into their peace, into their dwelling. It is a thinking that is only that—a free relationship to space and to spacing as such, against biopolitical rapture, against the abstract, boundless, and, hence, roomless and breathless space of technopolitics.

Alberto Moreiras

September 2008

Works Cited

Heidegger, Martin. “Building Dwelling Thinking.” In Basic Writings. David Farrell

Krell editor and translator. New York: Harper & Row, 1977. 319-339.

—. Holderlin’s Hymn “The Ister”. William McNeill and Julia David translators.

Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996.

—. “The Question Concerning Technology.” In The Question Concerning Technology

and Other Essays. William Lovitt editor and translator. New York: Harper &

Row, 1977. 3-35.


2 thoughts on “Harassed Unrest. By Alberto Moreiras.

  1. I really enjoyed reading this essay, which makes the links between harassed unrest, Bestand, Enframing, etc, very clear. It indicates a problem which I’m sure Heidegger would have found all the more present and alarming today than in the 40s and 50s (though how he did not conceive Nazism as precisely this relationship with the human as Bestand is also beyond me – I guess he did not give much thought to the Final Solution). What I understand here is that, for Heidegger, the task of thinking, or the only possibility for the restoration of human thought, is one which comes back into a kind of “authentic” (a word which if I’m not mistaken Heidegger was quite fond of) relationship with the self, that is, one which “remembers” the human relationship to building and dwelling (and which is, presumably, not of techne but of poesis, but on this point this I’m not sure). I guess I see how Heidegger presents a certain problem which is extremely relevant here, insofar as infrapolitical deconstruction would seek to provide an alternative model for thinking this problem. What is less clear to me is how Heidegger presents a viable solution, and how this solution may or may not be connected with a project such as infrapolitical deconstruction…

  2. I think he did come to understand Nazism in precisely that way, and he hated it, but for the wrong reasons (he was not opposed to Nazism, he thought Nazism had betrayed itself). He abandoned the language of authenticity with Being and Time, for internal reasons–he was well aware the opposition authentic/inauthentic could not be sustained in any meaningful sense without becoming thoroughly intolerable. So he could only, after that, in view of the collapse of his own political project, try to understand the situation and point in the direction of some otherwise, to which he called the other inception, or other beginning, making it clear this was history’s making and that no decisionist or voluntaristic approach could get us there. So he offered no solution. And I think we should not try to offer one either! But dwelling on the problem, in other words, trying not to avoid the plight, being responsive to it, that is perhaps what we can do.

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