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Needs and crisis

Discussing the word ‘groundwork’ in our interview, Catherine Malabou asks,

So undoubtedly for you if you want to ground something, it is because you feel the need for re-grounding of something – out of a crisis, out of a lack. Is it a lack of something which needs to be grounded? Or is it a lack inscribed within grounding itself? I don’t know, but you have to interrogate yourself. I am returning the question to you. What is it you want to reground?

Heidegger attends to just this question, in his 1929-30 lecture course, at the end of his analysis of boredom:

Are we affected by a need, does any such need concern us? More than one, we will retort: everywhere there are disruptions, crises, catastrophes, needs: the contemporary social misery, political confusion, the powerlessness of science, the erosion of art, the groundlessness of philosophy, the impotence of religion. … In keeping with this, it is not only individuals that are at work everywhere, but groups, associations, circles, classes, parties – everyone and everything is organised to meet such needs and every organisation has its programme. … This bustling self-defense against these needs precisely does not allow any need to emerge as a whole. … Not this social misery, not that political confusion, not this powerlessness of science, not that erosion of art, not this groundlessness of philosophy, not that impotence of religion – the need in question is not the fact that this or that need oppresses in such or such a way. Rather what oppresses us most profoundly and in a concealed manner is the very absence of any essential oppressiveness in our Dasein as a whole. (p.162-3)

This plurality of needs, of crises, resonates for our contemporary situation. Just within the political and social spheres: which crisis grasps us most completely? The workfare scandal, Atos’ fitness to work tests, the loss of legal aid for asylum cases, the creeping privatisation of the NHS, the marketisation of Higher Education? Or is this all too parochial, so: Syria? West Africa? Global inequality and poverty? Governments know that by exacerbating the divisions between the ‘interest groups’ Heidegger talks of, they can diffuse anger and undermine coordinated protest. Middle England wins the fight on selling off the forests, and then takes its eye off the next round of cuts aimed at the young, the old and the poor.

‘The sole target is neoliberalism’ one could respond. But neoliberalism isn’t a ‘thing’ outside of Government and trade bloc policies, people’s mindsets, the actions of businesses. One cannot take direct action against neoliberalism itself. Furthermore, can we follow Heidegger in his last sentence quoted above: is the most profound oppression the ‘absence of any essential oppressiveness in our Dasein as a whole‘? The lack of a single, essential oppression in Dasein is the ’emptiness as a whole’, Heidegger goes on to say. We can only follow Heidegger so far, but let’s stick with him for a while:

For in all the organising and programme-making and trial and error there is ultimately a universal smug contentment in not being endangered. This contentment in the ground of our Dasein, despite all the many needs, makes us believe we no longer need to be strong in the ground of our essence. (p.164)

With this ‘strength’, we are perhaps at the limit of how far we can go alongside Heidegger. He will continue to say that we must call for ‘someone capable of instilling terror into our Dasein again’: a terrifying statement itself in the context of Heidegger’s politics (why someone?) (p.172). So let’s backtrack from terror and strength – but we have still made significant progress. Our crisis is the lack of a single crisis in our Dasein. Instead of attending to our Being-there and our fundamental absence, we are smugly content in our grounds. As I read it, this point reached by Heidegger opens out into contemporary philosophy’s investigation into the processes of subjectivation. What are the forces, both immanent and external to the subject, that shape it in the grounds of its being? How are we – all of us, in different ways – constituted, prior to our thoughts, our desires, our political engagements; and how can our attunement to this constitution effect an engagement with the manifold crises in which, in every case, we are to some extent complicit?

By Steve


3 comments on “Needs and crisis

  1. Tim M
    September 27, 2012

    A stimulating route into what is surely the most critical set of questions. I have the same sense that the progress Heidegger makes is precisely the cue for the ethico-political thrust of post-structural thought, broadly construed: as Foucault simplifies it, “how to live if I must face up to the fact that ‘nothing is true’?.”

    I am intrigued by how we begin to answer your last question. Attunements to our groundlessness, to the death of God and our Euro-centrism (say), seem mostly to have spawned two or more generations of Foucault’s “sad militants” or Sloterdijk’s devitalised cynics. Perhaps this is an unfair or misdirected diagnosis. If it is not though, I wonder, then, if the political subject who is to engage with our contemporary predicament may need to be re-thought or re-fashioned prior to such engagement? Or rather, perhaps, the horizon of politics might appear somewhat differently to an inoperative subject or community? I take this to be one of the imperatives Catherine Malabou hints at towards the end of the interview. I keenly anticipate how these enquiries move forward through the year.

    • Steve
      October 7, 2012

      Hi Tim, thanks very much for your comments. I’m interested by your hint at the significance of Nancy to the questions here, and I’ll look into this further. You expand ‘inoperativity’ from Nancy’s community to the inoperative subject – is the latter your own coinage, or has this move been made by others?

      Your point about sad militants/devitalised cynics is a good one (I don’t know Sloterdijk at all though). I completely agree that attunement solely to groundlessness is empty unless accompanied by a focus on the re-fashioning of subjectivity from this position of attuned groundlessness. I suppose I’d just take minor issue with your wording regarding re-thinking/re-fashioning the political subject – the way you put it might suggest this is an external force operating *from* a neutral, active rationality *onto* a separate, passive subjectivity. As you’ll know, with Foucault, what is important is to stress that this is all immanent: we are all the political subjects who are/should be re-thinking and re-fashioning ourselves; would you agree?

      Thanks again, and I’d be really interested to hear any of your further thoughts.

  2. Pingback: Synecdoche, NYSE (FTSE, NASDAQ…) « Groundwork

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This entry was posted on September 20, 2012 by in Philosophy and tagged , , .
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