Jean Luc Nancy’s The Banality of Heidegger (Fordham, 2017) is yet another contribution to the ongoing debate on Heidegger and Nazism, in the wake of the publication of the Black Notebooks in recent years. Originally delivered as a conference on Heidegger and the Jews in 2014, Nancy’s brief essay expounds on other contributions on the topic, such as those by Peter Trawny, Donatella Di Cesare, and the Heidelberg Conference of 1988 (now also available) between Georg Gadamer, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, and Jacques Derrida. Nancy’s intervention in the debate is important for several reasons; one of them being that the essay maps the strange career of the ‘banality of antisemitism’ into philosophical discourse. And not just any philosophical discourse, but Heidegger’s discourse, which remained ambitious, as we know, in unleashing a destruction of Western metaphysics for the recommencement of thought. Moving beyond Arendt’s own characterization of banality, Heidegger, in Nancy’s view, is not an administrator that followed the categorical imperative immunized by a bureaucratization of moral judgment. The banality of antisemitism in Heidegger is the displacement of the juridical register into the proper philosophical one (Nancy 2). This is why, for Nancy, the catastrophe of Heidegger’s philosophical antisemitism is a failure that also happened to us in thought, and that it is still very much open as a possibility for us today (Nancy 62). In a certain way, Nancy’s essay also reads as a timely warning for anyone wanting to commit to thinking at all.
Nancy’s point of departure shares Peter Trawny’s hypothesis elaborated in Heidegger and the Myth of a Jewish World Conspiracy (2015) that the Jew possesses absent historiality that does not allow for destinial movement towards soil, decision, and people (Nancy 25). The technical term for historial, as Jeff Fort reminds us in the Preface, corresponds to weltgeschichtlich, and could also be translated as “world-historical”. This provenance explicitly thematizes the banal anti-semitic myth coming out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but also from Theodor Lessing’s “Jewish Self-Hatred” published in the 1930s. It is hard to know how Heidegger would have not known these works, although harder is to think how they arrived as such a central place in his philosophy. In fact, this is the ‘knot’ of the banality of antisemitism in philosophical thought. The Jew in Heidegger’s thinking becomes metonymic for machination and gigantism, democracy and Americanism. In fact, according to Nancy, Heidegger’s anti-jewish trope might have fallen into what he has called the principle of general equivalence, in which humanity is flattened out by generalities of particular traits that come to represent the total abendland or decline of the West. Nancy writes, rehearsing here arguments from his previous Truth of Democracy and After Fukushima:
“But the machination that gives rise to such a naturalist principle leads in the direction of a complete ‘deracialization’ of a humanity reduced to the undifferentiated equality of all, and in general of all beings. It is interesting to note that the argument is not very far removed from the one in which Marx qualifies money as a “general equivalent” in which productive humanity is alienated from its proper existence and therefore from its value or meaning…[..]. The Jewish people is the identifiable agent, property identifiable (or more properly, a bizarre notion that must no doubt be recognized), of what at the same time is a broad composition of masses and identities, America or Americanism, communism and technics, French, English, Europeans, Germans, even, and “Abendland”, evening, decline, collapse. At bottom, the “decline of the west” is a pleonasm.” (Nancy 15-18).
The consequence of such operation is clear: the principle of general equivalence entails an extreme and unprecedented form of evil. Hence, Nancy concludes, rightly so, in my opinion, that no generality can contain or exempt a true opening from its system. Then, we must assume that there is really no authentic “letting be” in Heidegger’s thought. In fact, the exclusive-inclusive status of Judaism in heideggerianism is hyperbolic to the disastrous limitations of the ‘letting be’ in his philosophy. This will also be consistent with Giorgio Agamben’s reservations in L’uso dei corpi (Neri Pozza, 2014) of the gelassenheit as shorthand for the logic of the political ‘ban’. The philosophical status of the Jew in Heidegger, starting in the thirties onward, is marked by the assumption that the Jew is the main figure (and its gestalt, meaning that is also giving shape) of Western decline. This formulation is only possible from the standpoint of the condition of equivalence. The kernel of equivalence in Nancy’s Banality of Heidegger is the strongest critique, as far as I am aware, directed against Heidegger’s anti-semitism. I say this for two reasons, which are connected to Nancy’s argument, but that I will try to push towards a different direction.
First, if antisemitism is integrated in the principle of equivalence, this allows for thinking the problem of democracy, not abandoning it. This implies that the principle of democracy is not surpassed by Heidegger’s own convergence of the term as identical to the event of the “masses”, “people”, “race”, or “technical development”. Nancy asks the question in light of the “Jew”, but one could also alter the term by asking for the status of “democracy” in Heidegger’s thought. In fact, Heidegger’s politics in the Black Notebooks advance a strong position for a metapolitics of the people, which Nancy does not get to discuss in such a brief essay. This is consistent with Heideggerian emphasis on ‘original beginnings’ (in the Greek sense, which Nancy does overtly emphasize), amounting to a rhetoric of reversibility. In fact, Heidegger’s position on the Jew is equally grounded in what I would call a metapolitics of reversibility, that is, a firm belief that capitalist democracy is reversible and that there is a, or some, originary beginnings. Heidegger’s antidemocratic metapolitics points to his most extreme failure, since democracy as a practical political arrangement in the name of the singular is always fissured, evolutionary, and opened to contingent configurations in its divisions of power without reassurance for the destinial . This is also why only democratic republicanism can be a politics without metapolitics and without arcana. Heidegger’s thought in the Black Notebooks and elsewhere is anti-democratic as much as it is anti-semitic, or it is anti-democratic because it is anti-semitic.
My second reason: any talk of the past presupposes a sense of history of the human. At one point in the essay, Nancy rightfully points to something not always discussed in Heidegger: “It was important to him [Christianity], therefore, above all not to retain the traces of other beginnings throughout the history of the West, and especially not at the points of its most perceptible inflections (Christianity, Renaissance, the industrial and democratic revolution). At the same time, the rejection or exclusion of the Jews by Christianity aims to reject and exclude something could complicate even disturb the strict Christian initiality” (Nancy 56). Nancy concludes that in Heidegger’s work there was never an attempt to flesh out the differences between Christian dogmatics and non-apologetics, the Church and its forms of communizations. Thus, Heidegger remained oblivious to the survival of Christian forms. In the indiscriminate package ‘Judeo-Christian onto-theology’, the equivalence surfaces as yet another form of emphasizing the course of the destinial sending of the West, while leaving aside a more complicated history proper to the human. Also, since destination was always thought as an aftereffect of errancy, Nancy suggests, following Rigal, that the Heideggerian errancy never abandoned the arcanum of an originary proper beginning and a possible recommencement. This is even stranger if we are to consider Judaism’s provenance in errancy without territory.
But this slight neglect is the place where Heidegger is closer to the doctrinal philosophy of Hitlerism. Since, as historian Timothy Snyder has shown, Hitler believed that the Jew was a vicarious agent of technology and capital, lacking territory and place, which only after its destruction could the notion of the ‘struggle of the species’ reappear in truth and proper light . It does nothing to the argument to respond that Heidegger remained detached from the racial or biological assumptions of Hitlerism. It only matters that he shared the belief of the destruction of the Jewish people, and the Jew as one of the ‘oldest figures’ (sic) of self-destruction.
The essay concludes with Nancy’s two pleas to continue thinking with and through Heidegger: first, to break away with the historical mode of progress as a world conquest made by man with “exponential finalities” and second, to reject any substantial intromission into a new “ontology”, while opening errancy against any destinial metapolitics (Nancy 58). One wonders to what extent the late Heidegger came to subscribe the second position, or if the Ereignis is the continuity of thought in banality and bad faith (Nancy seems to think the latter). It is much harder to accept the rejection of the idea of progress. Although, this is the common ground that both Nancy and Heidegger share as reject sons from the project of the Enlightenment. Yet, as we remain alert to ways of questioning its irreversibility, we know that this is still today a strong antidote against common banalities.
- I sympathize with José Luis Villacañas’ critique of Heidegger’s return to the Greek beginning in his Teología Política Imperial: una genealogía de la división de poderes (Trotta, 2016).
- Timothy Snyder. Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. New York: Tim Dugan Books, 2016.