DFW, Heidegger, and the Current Age

I had a lot of fun at my seminar yesterday, and got a lot of interesting comments from the students.  The goal of the session was to contrast Heidegger’s account of what’s needed in the current age with David Foster Wallace’s.  You can listen to the recording here.

The proposal I tried out is that the very phenomenon that Heidegger diagnoses as the central danger for the age is the one that Wallace wishes we could manage to achieve.  In particular, whereas Heidegger thinks that the central danger of the age is that it constantly challenges us to treat everything, including ourselves, as controllable and orderable resources, Wallace feels that the main challenge of the culture is that it continually distracts us and keeps us from our task, and that if we could only manage to focus long enough we’d finally be able to control ourselves and the meanings we project on the world.  What Heidegger thinks we must avoid, in other words, is precisely what Wallace wishes we could have.

This is a stark contrast, and it’s no doubt wrong in some of its details.  We had a great discussion in the seminar about it, though, and I’d be happy for it to continue here with anyone who wants wants to catch up through the podcast.  Comments welcome!

About Sean D. Kelly

Sean Dorrance Kelly is the Teresa G. and Ferdinand F. Martignetti Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University. He is also Faculty Dean at Dunster House, one of the twelve undergraduate Houses at Harvard. He served for six years as chair of Harvard's Department of Philosophy. Kelly earned an Sc.B. in Mathematics and Computer Science and an M.S. in Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences from Brown University in 1989. After three years as a Ph.D. student in Logic and Methodology of Science, he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of California at Berkeley in 1998. Before arriving at Harvard in 2006, Kelly taught at Stanford and Princeton, and he was a Visiting Professor at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. Sean Kelly's work focuses on various aspects of the philosophical, phenomenological, and cognitive neuroscientific nature of human experience. He is a world authority on 20th century European Philosophy, specializing in the work of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He has also done influential work in philosophy of mind and philosophy of perception. Kelly has published articles in numerous journals and anthologies and he has received fellowships or awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEH, the NSF and the James S. McDonnell Foundation, among others. Fun fact: He appeared on The Colbert Show in 2011 to talk about All Things Shining. Sean Kelly lives at Dunster House with his wife, the Harvard Philosopher Cheryl Kelly Chen, and their two boys, Benjamin and Nathaniel.
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3 Responses to DFW, Heidegger, and the Current Age

  1. Britt Z. says:

    I think Heidegger and Wallace actually have the same diagnosis, and, from what you have described on the podcast, the same prescription for our current epoch. (I’m still staying up all night reading Wallace.) It takes a couple of leaps to get there… I hope it works:
    In “QCT,” Heidegger, as you say, focuses in on the danger of everything becoming Bestand in the mode of Gestell; however, we need to ask why. What do we get out of this style of ordering, of mass production, where humanity is nothing but an exchangeable part of the assembly line? Every phenomenon embodying a sense of challenging-forth has one aim and purpose: “maximum yield at the minimum expense.” In terms of people and their everyday, factical life, it eliminates, or at least attempts to do so, the very difficulty of life, giving way to both nihilism and boredom. It is easier to be a “protean-like-being,” lacking serious commitments, always distracted and dispersed in a pool of choices, than a being that gathers/chooses/wins itself and makes the primal decision in an augenblick. I know it sounds strange, a rereading of later Heidegger through early (heavily Kierkegaard-influenced) Heidegger, but I think it will ultimately tie Heidegger and Wallace together.
    The project of early Heidegger is an investigation of factical life (I’m thinking specifically, at first, of “Phenomenological Interpretations of Aristotle”). He describes life as having the tendency, the inclination, to be too absorbed in business of the world, eradicating the distance between itself and the world; there is no longer a world lying before me (in B&T and FCM embracing, seeing through, anxiety and boredom can recreate the needed distance). Such absorption causes life to be distracted and scattered; it lacks focus. Always seeking to make things easier (I think this has always been the real danger for Heidegger, early or late), we have a tendency to set ourselves adrift in an excessive ocean of possibilities. We get a sense of security by attaching ourselves to every passing fad, to always having our attention averted – avoiding our deep insecurity by covering it. The disposability and minimum expense – lack of risk and danger, which is the greatest danger – created by our technological understanding of being, the purpose of all that ordering and taking everything as a resource, makes never focusing our attention, or ourselves, easily achievable, thus doing away with arête, with difficulty.
    The issue becomes how to press ahead out of our current predicament; it requires movement, kinesis, what Heidegger coined as Wiederholung (retrieval) and Kierkegaard Gjentagelese (repetition). Each of these notions tries to gather and establish a self from the disseminating, dissipating effects of the present age. An important distinction needs to be made, I think, on the nature of ordering. The technological understanding of being does order everything, but it does it to the point of complete flexibility and interchangeability – zero meaningful differences. So it does order but in such a way that it makes the possibility of unifying and organizing ourselves (I think Wallace would come in here), by making a choice and abiding by it (a resolute commitment), impossible; we are continually diverted and scattered.
    Much of B&T is devoted to Heidegger discussing how Dasein does not resemble any sense of unity but is something fractured amongst Das Man. However, all of that seems to change when we reach Heidegger’s section on “Care & Selfhood” (364), a section relying on the Kierkegaardian notion of the self as something to be “won” (E/O II 167), chosen, otherwise it will be cast off into the diversions of “half hour works” (202). Winning the self requires both openness and movement. Dasein has to be open to the call that will bring Dasein back upon itself from the lostness of Das Man, where it is preoccupied and tranquilized. The existential structure of the call is resoluteness. In resoluteness, Dasein seizes, gathers itself, by taking up its own potentiality for being. The difficulty in factical life is Dasein’s ability to unify itself, to maintain its identity, in the rush of everydayness, filled with mindless pop culture and advertisements (this seems like Wallace again). Wallace’s sense of ordering and gathering seems to fall into the kinesis of Heidegger and Kierkegaard – taking a step back from absorption in the world to collect yourself.
    In the mode of the Gestell, Wallace’s “solution” is something increasingly marginal in our culture, and the greatest difficulty lies in what marginal practices can even make his solution sustainable, in terms of Erwiderung (you put up a quote once where he discusses resuscitating, or keeping alive, certain aspects of our culture.) I liked the example in your lecture about gardening. The combining of both physis and poiesis really reveals the difficulty of a practice that focuses on bringing forth, compared to the easiness, almost amateurishness, embodied in challenging-forth. Bringing-forth demands so much out of us; it demands a commitment, the ability to win and gather one’s self. It’s a return to the difficult. We have to avoid being closed off and caught up with what is easy and simply just around us. The repetition of marginal practices, in factical life – something increasingly difficult to perform –acts as a breakthrough, something revolutionary and liberating, opening what was previously closed off; in terms of temporality, it pushes us forward, beyond the desolate boredom of the present, of presence, into future possibilities (the possible is in higher regard than the actual). For our epoch, the desired possibility to be realized and opened is resoluteness and steadfastness (authenticity). Heidegger’s appreciation of openness and movement, listening to the call of something other, is precisely what allows for Wallace’s notion of order and focus ( aka resoluteness and steadfastness). On the other, Heidegger’s sense of technological ordering causes the self to disseminate into lostness, which all three, Heidegger, Wallace, and Kierkegaard, want to resist.


  2. geoffrey says:

    I’m curious, knowing nothing about DFW, as to whether what you describe as his diagnosis of the modern world as unable to concentrate has any family resemblance to Pascal and his concern for what he sees as our ‘fleeing’ from our condition? (I’m not sure that Pascal historicizes it, apart from ascribing it to our post-Fall condition, however, so in that case it certainly differs, but such pronouncements that he makes as ‘I have often said that man’s unhappiness springs from one thing alone, his incapacity to stay quietly in one room’, as well as his numerous mentions of our need for ‘diversion’ certainly resonate with what I know of your account of DFW.)

    Loving the podcasts and cannot wait to purchase the book!

  3. V. says:

    Not sure that I entirely agree with your analysis that DFW disagrees so much with Heidegger on this point. Consider DFW’s essay “Shipping Out.” He argues that by trying to control our environments to achieve an infantile dream of comfort, we are therefore controlled by our infantile desires. This, to me, seems in perfect harmony with Heidegger’s dasein. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.

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