1988: This is not a Review, it is a Call to All to Read “The Heidelberg Conference.”

Jaime Rodríguez Matos

[I do not post this as the general view of anyone doing work on infrpolitics, but as a personal engagement with perhaps the most intimate tradition linked to the emergence of infrapolitics.  It remains for those engaged in this work to point out to what extent infrapolitics is not simply a restatement of the French reading of Heidegger.  For my part, only after there is a concept of post-hegemonic infrapolitics can one begin to think through the political determination of the groundless calling, just as it is only after there is a concept of infrapolitical post-hegemony that it becomes possible to think thought the responsibility of deconstruction without ceding an inch on the philosophical insights that deconstruction has bequeathed us.  In the final analysis, however, the issue here is not whether infrapolitics is a novel endeavor regarding deconstruction (I believe it is simply a more radical continuation, even if this has to be done in tandem with deconstrunists such as they exist today and are academically sanctioned as such), but whether we are or are not better equipped to deal with the possible fascism that Trump and others incarnate today.]

  1. Are we more prepared today than we were in 1988 to deal with the possible resurgence of fascism? Almost thirty years on, there are some significant differences.  On the Left: it is no longer the case that Marxism is in retreat.  The word Socialism has gotten a new wind, even in the USA.  Elsewhere, leftist populisms have appeared (and perhaps also disappeared).  And in academia, a new breed of political theorists, wearing their radicalism on their sleeves, has found support from prestigious research institutions.  On the Center: it is no longer the case that the discourse of the rights of man and multicultural political correctness holds unquestioned power.  It is also no longer the case that the neoliberal agenda that underwrote much of what passed for such things goes without saying.  Hillary Clintons’ failure to secure the presidential seat gives one pause when considering the fate of neoliberalism, even as it is absolutely not a rupture with its most basic structures that we are attending to.  On the Right: a resurgence of a vitriol and violence imagined to be things of the past has left many in a state of deep shock.  The Right defined by a sort of cultural conservatism has given way to a Right of coded and not so coded racism, sexism, homophobia, and all around hate for all things not low or middle brow.  The attack on intellectual life, and education in general, has had profound effects on all facets of higher education, to the point where it is no longer even possible to discern the logic behind decisions made under the false pretense of efficiency and excellence.
  2. In 1988 Alain Badiou published Being and Event. He was, then, a virtually unknown professor (at least on a world-wide scale) with links to a Maoist French militancy.  Today he is undoubtedly one of the central master thinkers of our time.  In that book, and in its more accessible follow-up, Manifesto for Philosophy, Badiou made the case that it was in part due to the influence of Heidegger-inflected thought that the world had lost its way, or more precisely, that the left had lost its way, or, even more to the point, that philosophy had gone awry in so far as it was linked to politics.  The diagnosis had its appeal.  (Slavoj Zizek made a good part of his career on this one claim.)  It is perhaps hard to remember the complete rejection that first greeted this stance.  It was, then, almost a provocation to speak in the name of universality.  At least, one had to assume that doing it would lead directly, and very fast, to accusations of Eurocentrism.  Conjuncturally, however, it was a very astute way of framing things.  The naïve all over the world soon found themselves saying: “finally!, someone is here to legitimize my inability to actually delve seriously into deconstruction, poststructuralism, Being and Time, Spivak’s footnotes, the whole issue of the undecidability of the to-come that nevertheless is a step that has to be taken so that there can be something like my responsibility,” and so on and so forth.  Badiou’s Being and Event went on to go largely unread, or even dismissed as his own fall into the complacency of the Heideggerian deconstruction of metaphysics.  His “philosophy for militants” turned out to be the real draw.  Be that as it may, one thing is absolutely clear today: to claim that the world (any world, even Putin’s under the influence of Dugin) is somehow dominated by Heidegger-inflected thought is a claim that only the question-begging, straw-man-building, preachers-to-the-choir can entertain seriously.  In any case, even if we go back to the situation such as it was in 1988, it turns out that things were more complicated than they seemed from the point of view of (former) Maoists doing academic high theory in order to re-commence Marxism.
  3. In France (and one could say in Europe in general, even if most of the information was already known to anyone who cared enough), the publication of Victor Farias’ book on Heidegger’s ties to Nazism dominated 1988 from the start. And Heidegger inflected-thought, or more generally, the “thought of 1968” in France, was under attack from the simplifying world of media culture for allegedly not having denounced forcefully, or clearly, or loudly enough, Heidegger’s disgraceful involvement with the Nazi party.  The recent publication of the Heidelberg conference, which saw Jacques Derrida and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, together with Hans-George Gadamer, in a visit to Germany, gives us a clear glimpse of the complexity of the issue at hand.  For, in a world that was supposedly at the beck-and-call of deconstruction what emerges is the picture of an establishment that was only too glad to breath in relief at the opportunity of finally dispensing with the difficulty of Heidegger’s questions, and of the reading that some of his most committed French readers had endeavored to put forth since the 1960’s.  It became clear in 1988 that, because of the apparent novelty of Farias’ findings and the mediatic reaction to it, the surprise in question what not simply the result of an uninformed layman who happened to be a journalist, but that the journalists were following in the footsteps of an academic and supposedly informed audience who had taken it upon themselves to simply ignore the work that had been done regarding Heidegger and his ties to Nazism—a work that not only readily accepted the difficulty of assuming his political error, but which also brought to light an even more radical difficulty regarding the possibility of thinking Nazism precisely by reading Heidegger against the grain of this error.  In 1988 Derrida concluded that the Farias’ affair ultimately exposed not anything related to a novel and deal-breaking link between Heidegger and Nazism, for all of it was already known, but the complicity between a hegemonic neoliberal media apparatus and a university which ignored the same information only because the way it was framed, up until Farias’ book, was not only more difficult, but also put in question some of the most cherished assumptions that underwrote the social contract that it sought to uphold.  Derrida: “there is a certain field where one finds united the hegemony of the university, the powers at work in the university, and a structural hegemony of intellectual power that finds expression in the press.  An analysis, and not only a sociological analysis, should be applied to the articulation of these two domains.  It is there that the responsibilities of everyone are called” (77, emphasis in original).
  4. Once again I ask, how are we better prepared today to deal with a possible reincarnation fascism?
  5. In 1988 what was clear was that the political ideology that was supposed to have made fascism impossible was itself very weak. (And no one would seriously question this claim today: for what is at issue is not a strong political stance but the discourse of human rights, the ethics of respect for the other, and the weak claim that capitalist-democracy is the only way to safeguard freedom.)  This weakness was due to the fact that it relied on some of the very same concept that fascism took as essential to its discourse.  Now, it is true that the phrase “the political ideology that was supposed to have made fascism impossible” is still a very vague formulation.  Yet, it remains, for some, a fact that we do have certain positions that, if it were the case that fascism triumphed, would have to assume responsibility regarding the failure to have stopped it.  It is in this regard that Zizek states (citing Benjamin) that every fascism is a failed revolution (152).  [Zizek’s own endorsement of Trump complicates matters somewhat, as it entails that, for him, Trumpism is not yet, or not quite, a fascism, but an acceleration of world history so that contradictions fall into a place where it becomes visible (quicker) what needs to be done (in all its Leninists overtones).  The very idea of a possible acceleration of history should be critiqued, as it entails a very questionable teleological matrix.]
  6. Derrida, 1988, once more: “a certain disquiet, at this point even a certain fear, on the side of the tradition of this discourse—a fear regarding its own fragility and regarding a potential for questioning that is stronger in Heidegger’s work than in many others …” (21).
  7. And further: “… the discourse that dominates European institutions is no longer capable of holding up, and those who put forth this discourse know this in an obscure way. You know that one of the violences to which the people who pose this kind of question are exposed … is that when one says that ethics, that the way that we define ethics today is shaking on its lack of foundation, or when we say that we no longer know very well what it means to be responsible, the violence to which we are exposed is that one says to us: so you are putting forth a discourse that is immoral, an irresponsible discourse!  I maintain, on the contrary, that deconstruction today [early 1988] … is of course not an abdication of responsibility; it is … the most difficult responsibility that I can take.  And to trust in traditional categories of responsibility seems to me today to be, precisely, irresponsible” (24).
  8. And yet, the definition of responsibility cannot be a theoretical act (49). The issue here is not a theoretical voluntarism or decisionism.  Oddly enough, the Marxist and the deconstructionist find common ground on this front.
  9. Deconstruction, in 1988, and in spite of the university ignoring its work almost entirely, had spent a long while looking closely at those concepts that were supposed to have prevented the holocaust. And it had come across the evidence that subjectivity, intention, good will, etc., were not only not sufficient when it came to putting a stop to what from our present point of view is an absolute horror, but that these concepts were also, as it turns out, in complicity with that which they were supposed to have prevented.  Derrida, 1988: “… it is not because deconstruction deconstructs a received concept of responsibility that it is irresponsible.  On the contrary: I believe it is an exercise of responsibility to remain vigilant before the inherited concepts of responsibility.  And it is a fact that the … metaphysical concept of responsibility, such as it was formed throughout the history of philosophy, notably in its Kantian moment, as it was inscribed in the rights of man, in the democratic axiomatic, in Western morality and politics, that these concepts, European concepts, did not prevent Nazism.  And even that, very often, Nazism, Nazi discourse, used the very axiomatic that one opposes to it….  There was, in discourses, in people’s heads, something for which the theoretical concept and the form of injunction of that responsibility were not sufficient. …  [W]hat gives us all a bad conscience today … is that this concept of responsibility is not sufficient.  That all the categories it implies, that of the subject, of intention, of good will, are not sufficient” (50-51).
  10. In contrast to an explanation of Nazism that would place the blame on a “natural” inclination toward conformism—thus exculpating and inscribing Nazism as the natural unfolding of the human thing (see Gadamer’s comments in the appendix, pp.79-80)—Derrida and Lacoue-Labarthe attempt a more Heideggerian response to the issue of responsibility and of a responsibility to Nazism. This is the singular contribution of the French, and their reading of Heidegger in so far as it assumes that there was a Nazi commitment on the part of the great thinker.  In what follows I do not intend to give a learned account of it, or to even pay tribute to those who have already understood this.  I simply take the opportunity to alert the reader to the opportunity presented by the transcription of the Heidelberg conference to get a glimpse of the far-reaching consequences that reading Heidegger against the grain can have for us today, thirty years on.  (Though it also goes without saying that taking heed of the work of those who have been careful not to ignore all of this must become part of what we acknowledge as our responsibility.)
  11. Derrida sketches what is at stake by way of the issue of the “question of the question.” As he explains it, for some time Heidegger thought the question as piety (Frömmigkeit)—as beyond science and philosophy.  This piety beyond metaphysics went together with the motif of the quest, of a search for principles or an investigation into first causes of foundations (66).  This piety is later (in Unterwegs sur Sprache) linked, in reference to the Greeks, to the fact of being “already docile; docile means he who listens, who is obedient. … questioning is already a listening—a listening to but also of or from the other.  I do not have the initiative, even of the question, even in this piety of thought that is the question” (67).  Before the question, logically and chronologically, before it, there is an acquiescence (Zusage): “this consent to die Sprache without which there would not even be a question” (67).  The issue becomes how to deal with die Sprache: “this attunement to die Sprache—which one cannot translate … neither by ‘language [langue]’, nor by ‘speech [parole]’” (67).
  12. It would be a question of moving too fast if one were to say that die Sprache was language as the house of being. One has said yes even before questioning—but to what?  To whom? This question mark undermines the authority of the question itself.  And this opens another path to access responsibility.
  13. This is the decisive step. Derrida, 1988: “Heidegger spoke all the time about responsibility, responding to the call of being: there would be no responsibility if there were not, already, the call of being that is not the call of someone, of a god ….  I am, even before responding in terms of moral conscience, I am accountable, responsible for a call that comes to me, I know not from where.  It is not God; it is not another consciousness or conscience.  I am imputable.  Dasein is a responsible being, that is, a being that must respond to a call that already constitutes it.  But from that moment, which is the moment of Sein und Zeit and of the years that followed it, under the authority of the question, at the moment of the Zusage, there is already a displacement of the motif of responsibility. …  I am responsible before even knowing for what, or before whom.  It remains for me to know to what, to whom the Zusage will be determined.  It is there that the political risk of the Zusage is very serious.  …  [I]t is one thing, then, to recognize in this yes an absolutely originary responsibility, which I cannot escape, and it is another thing then to determine to what and to whom I say yes when … I accept being responsible for this or that, before this or that instance of authority.  It is there that the matter is determined politically: between the Zusage in general and then the acquiescence to this or that juridico-political instance for this or that act….  There is a step, and this step is the step of what we call ‘juridico-political,’ which is at once ineluctable and undecidable: because it is necessary to traverse the moment of undecidability.  …  There is no possible responsibility that does not undergo the ordeal of this undecidability, and of this impossibility.  I believe that an action, a discourse, a behavior that does not traverse this ordeal of the undecidable, with all the double binds, all the conflicts …, is simply the tranquil unfolding of a program….  The program can be Nazi, democratic, or something else … but if one does not traverse this terrifying ordeal of undecidability, there is no responsibility” (67-69).
  14. Aware of the complexity of the point, Lacoue-Labarthe explains: “[Heidegger] was conscious of the leap he was making between, let’s say, something like the call of being and the leap it was necessary to take in order to become committed” (69).
  15. The example of Heidegger is an extreme one. His work opens the way to think the ungrounding of his own political error; but this is only possible by reading him in a certain way (which is the singular achievement of, principally, Derrida, Nancy, Lacoue-Labarthe).  Heidegger opens the way toward thinking the originary call (of politics), which is not yet political.   When his commitment to the Nazi party is used as a name for the political as radical evil, it is adduced in order to side step or leave unthought the secondary status of the political determination of the call.  The yes is not originarily a yes to God or to a necessary authority.  It is a yes to we-do-not-know-what.  And this not-knowing is nothing less than the ungrounding of the political determination that follows.  This ungrounding is the very possibility of responsibility, for responsibility is only possible if we are able to step back in order to assume that there is no absolute authority that demands obedience in order to assign the call (of politics) to the juridico-political instance of this or that apparatus, whether it is the Nazi apparatus or any other political formation.  Heidegger’s yes is only secondarily a yes to Hitler, and this is not to say that there could have been a primary or primordial yes to a “right” form of politics, but to illuminate that every political determination is always secondary, and can therefore never be absolute.  That is, the militant, or the philosophy for militants, whether it is Heidegger or Badiou’s, can never know if its political determination of the calling, in this or that instance of authority, is the right one.  Responsibility, means, then, not justifying why one is right, but assuming, not that one could be wrong, but that no absolute necessity has ordained that any one particular determination is right.
  16. Are we more prepared today than we were in 1988 to deal with the possible resurgence of fascism? Not at all.  If anything, we are in a more precarious position.  Today what we are witness to, as a possible stop gap to fascism, is the reemergence of a radical militancy that wants nothing more than to declare and “demonstrate” its political determination as the right one.  To the extent that this oppositional force is the only stop gap we have at our disposal against the forces available to figures like Trump, it seems unlikely that we will be able to witness a revolution capable of preventing a new form of fascism.  It remains to us, up to all of us, to interrupt the irresponsibility that enables the efficacy of all the forms of fascist discourse.  This includes our own fascist will to political correctness.
  17. Now, what this entire exposition also exposes is that there has been a recent massive response to a political call, which only by means of an irresponsible denegation of the unnecessary assignation to the juridico-political conservative, and even reactionary, determination, is able to image that what is at issue at the present time has something to do with the plight of the white and rural working class. The populist, or the hegemonic, way to master this circumstance has been traditionally assigned to the role of managing equivalential chains of signification.  Yet, what the gap between call and determination points to is that this choice could have more to do with unacknowledged and ignored ways of being in the world than with the effects of neoliberalism on middle class America.  This does not only point toward unacknowledged visceral racism, it also entails thinking through the rejection of politics that typically lies at the heart of conservative populist movements.  (The recent desire to extricate Trumpism from populism is a wild herring effect of our current nihilist era.)  The rejection of politics should not be met with more politics, even less with morally upright politics.  The people, even according to the old Marxist axiom, have reason.  Even if for the wrong reason.  They have reason in intuiting, in heeding the call of being, which claims abeyance regarding politics as the totalizing discourse of our era.



Books cited

Badiou, Alain. L’Être et l’événement. Paris: Seuil, 1988. Print.

____. Manifeste pour la philosophie. L’Ordre philosophique. Paris: Seuil, 1989. Print.

Derrida, Jacques, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe. Heidegger, Philosophy, and Politics: The Heidelberg Conference. Trans. Fort, Jeff. New York: Fordham University Press, 2016. Print.

Farias, Victor. Heidegger and Nazism. Trans. Burrell, Paul. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991. Print.

____. Heidegger et le nazisme. Paris: Verdier, 1988. Print.

Žižek, Slavoj. Living in the End Times. New York; London: Verso, 2011. Print.


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