Sense and Function

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MARCH 8, 2012 12:45AM

Understanding Heidegger's Origin of the Work of Art

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A friend asked me: "What is going on in Heidegger's Origin of the Work of Art?" This is my rough response.

In general, one of the virtues of Heidegger's philosophical work is that it forces us to de-compartmentalize our concepts and activities. Things that normally appear to be quite different are shown to be internally related to us. The ordinary and rather shallow interpretation of  building and speaking would associate them externally, by sort of adding them together, or attributing causal relationships between different entities: I told the architect what kinds of things I wanted in my new house, and then he interpreted those and drew up some blueprints. 

Instead, Heidegger forces us to think through how speaking is actually a form of ‘home-making’ activity and ‘being-a-home’ is a kind of articulation or speech. At very least, talking with friends and family around the dinner table makes my house feel actually like a home: it brings the world into the home, and relates the home to the wider world. From the other direction we can see that the house expresses or articulates who its occupants are, and what they think of themselves, and it determines in part how they fit in the rest of the natural and social world. To understand fully these together is to think them as being the same kind of event. This is why Heidegger takes both to be a kind of disclosing of the world. To oversimplify the meaning of this phrase: they both reveal, limit, and shape the possibilities of action and understanding that are available to us.

Furthermore, supporting the identity of these two in this case is that Heidegger defines logos, or speech or thinking (through etymology) as gathering, on the one hand, and on the other hand, as thinning out, spacing, parting (lichtung=Da-sein/being-there). Language/speech is already a place: it is the ‘house of being.’

Off the top of my head, I can think of two things that can help with interpreting the Origin of the Work of Art essay, one thing I have huge trouble with, and a point about the broader context of the essay that might help get into it.

First, it’s important to ask about what the word ‘work’ is doing in the title. It’s not just an extra word that supports or is folded into the word ‘art’: it’s not (only) referring to an object. The ‘of’ goes both ways (a double-genitive): the work of art is the art object produced by work, and something else, namely: what is the being-at-work of the art object? What is the work that the art-thing accomplishes? Obviously, this is a very Aristotelian question. Answer: like speech, the work of building or dwelling, and the object that is built, are a single event in which the world is disclosed in a certain way, that is, the work of art is the being-at-work of truth, the activity of opening up the world by shaping/creating its possibilities. Truth is what is happening in the work of art, what being an ‘artwork’ essentially means.

Reliable equipment. Not pictured: what is really at stake in the Origin of the Work of Art Next, take what you can from it, and leave the rest for meditation. There is a lot of speculation about what on earth Heidegger means by the ‘fourfold,’ and probably nobody really knows what he is after there. There is more consensus about what the gods are doing in all of that, but articulate explications of the idea take the gods to be a metaphor. We have good reason to think that he would resist the idea that we can reduce the godly character of gods to some structural feature of appearing. The same, incidentally, is true of the words earth and world, which I’m about to reduce to features of appearing as a way to gain entry into the concepts/event that they are.

The most useful ideas, it seems to me, are the concepts of earth and world. This is an attempt to revise or replace our ideas of matter or materiality, and its usual opposition to form. Heidegger is attempting to conceive of them purely through the concept of appearing, and through this, he tries to reach all the way to a reinterpretation of substance or being (thus, the four causes may be the source of the concept of the fourfold?). So earth is the closing-off of appearing, which by its very nature is a dis-closing of something. This is an attempt to show what comes before or below the concepts of material and form (these are inseparable anyway, though for other philosophers analytically distinct). This is more interesting to me as a problem (how do we actually make that distinction anyway?) than as a solution. But interestingly, earth has a different ‘other’ than material does, namely the spaciousness of world, the realm of appearing and meaning. On the other hand, he is trying to preserve the principle of strife or opposition or violence, which he gets from Heraclitus, because (I think) he takes change or motion to be essentially violence, negation, destruction (which I think is deeply wrong). Back to this in a second.

John Sallis is perhaps the most lucid interpreter of this essay that there is, in case you want to do further reading! I challenged him on the idea of earth and world and his answer was something like this: earth and world are totally inseparable. They are neither of them things, and they are not really distinct principles. They are complementary aspects of a single event: the event of appearing. To oversimplify: nothing appears at all if there is no earth; we can’t say there is world/spaciousness without any appearing. And on the other hand, if everything is earth, then nothing could appear either, since there would be no space for it to do so. But actually this way of working into the problem is a false abstraction, because neither can exist on their own, because earth is essentially a-closing-off-that-discloses, and it can’t be earth without world, etc.

My objection: The war or strife of these things is why the breaking of ground, the ploughing of the earth is Heidegger’s most primal metaphor here. But this is not the most fundamental event or act. In fact, the scarification of the earth, maintaining bare open wounds in the earth wherever we sow our food, the idea that you must destroy to create and sustain the human world, is deeply problematic—it leads to and is part of the conception of human beings as essentially uncanny (unheimlichkeit), homeless, unnatural. That has profound consequences for the idea of architecture and dwelling: the only way to be at home is to be foreign to it, alienated from it. I think here we see the limits of the principle of appearance as an account of being and nature—things seem to appear to us at all/more when they are shocking, disruptive, foreign. And while it is true that what is familiar (e.g. neuroses, the idea of air as ‘emptiness or spaciousness,’ etc) is the least understood in the sense of ‘grasped in the mind,’ it is also true that we understand it profoundly in another way: by living it (here I think of Nietzsche’s argument that knowledge is the least developed part of the human organism).

The problem with my objection, which Sallis pointed out, is that it risks substituting the word ‘nature’ for the word ‘earth,’ and it’s unclear if this is really possible. Wouldn’t nature be the whole event of earth and world? This might be true, but if so, it is easily possible that Heidegger himself made the mistake of associating them, and misinterpreted his own discovery.

There is a lot more to get into regarding the content of the essay, of course—in particular, turning the discussion even more exactly back to what could be useful for architecture—but I hope this helps a bit for now.

Finally, the context of the essay: the idea of this Heidegger essay is required by the whole of Heidegger’s later work. One way to see it is that where politics and history used to stand in his earlier work as the things that shape the world/the possibilities of thought, in his later work, he wants to put poetry, and art. There are a lot of reasons for this, not least that art/poetry is non-reductive the way politics can end up being (after all, some argue, he got burned by placing his hopes in National Socialism), because it continuously unfold new possibilities of interpretation over time (while limiting and shaping them at the same time). He wants to found worldhood on something that resists the attempt to reduce a thing to a single interpretation or story or narrative (as the Nazis tried to do!). This is a very wise decision, and he has found a good candidate in art.

Art also gives him the ability to appeal to the source of inspiration of art—art is a response to being, a response to something greater even than it: the interpretation of the world we inherit is a response to a beyond it does not and cannot master, but can only be inspired by. Thus, the elevation of art to the status of the founding of and opening up of a world or epoch of understanding, while it seems very strange, is actually an attempt to save us from the shallow world of technological mastery.

I actually think this is right, but only partly. He experienced firsthand the reduction of people to single-meaning entities that fit into the Nazi machine. I don’t have that experience, and I don’t think that this reduction ever truly gets accomplished, and that it is our duty, in the midst of those experiences, to see how this isn’t actually happening. Doing this would keep open our awareness of ethical action and constitute a resistance to something like war or holocaust (how can a person you can talk with be merely an animal? How is it possible that someone I might be attracted to is incapable of actually feeling pain, as some Nazi scientists argued was true of Jews).

To do this, though, Heidegger has to collapse the distinction between poetry, poiēsis, and art/techne, which is very problematic. Now, poetry/poiēsis normally means action, as in political deeds and words, and comes to be associated with the art that expresses/re-enacts it (in Greece, epic and tragedy in particular). So Heidegger has to say that what poetry basically is, is a kind of making or fabrication, production. The reduction of poetry/action to techne/production risks being more technological than the thing he is opposing. He, as it were, tries to make up for this by undoing the apparent independence of the object produced, and returning it to the act of working from whence it came and the being-at-work which it gives rise to or accomplishes (i.e. disclosing truth). But is that sufficient?
The artistic core of Heidegger's essay on the work of art seems to have been written already by someone else: Paul Klee’s book On Modern Art may be the best expression of what Heidegger was after in The Origin of the Work of Art. I think that in some ways Klee presents it better because it’s more concise, on the one hand, and done with real knowledge of the activity of creating art and architecture, on the other. He also leaves out some of the more mystifying parts of Heidegger’s attempt.

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