Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Roberto Calasso on the post-metaphysical present.
Like a Tibetan monk endlessly spinning his prayer wheel, Heidegger, with prodigious virtuosity, goes over and over the whole history of thought from the Greeks to Nietzsche, dropping down into abandoned gorges and irrevocably twisting the meanings of accepted terms. The history of metaphysics, a history that is a destiny, has never attained such terrifying clarity as in Heidegger’s analyses. It is, to be sure, a clarity gained at the price of much violence and injustice; it is a destiny retouched by a masterful cosmetician so that its line leads directly to the threshold of Heidegger's hut in the Black Forest. There he would like to take it by the hand and carefully guide it beyond itself, over "slender little bridges" to the "overcoming of metaphysics."

But even those who, with constant suspicion, follow this trail of the destiny of metaphysics must admit that it involves an original and illuminating design. No one has succeeded in reconstructing with such compelling exactitude the cage within which western thought has fatally operated from Plato to our own day, repeatedly doomed to call itself into question until all its possibilities are exhausted. This limit, Heidegger states, may be said to have been reached with Nietzsche, last thinker in metaphysics and its closing sign, who evoked that devastating and intoxicating "will to will" that governs us today. (The subtle revenge inflicted by Heidegger at this point is clear: He sends the most elusive philosopher of the West back to the garden of Armida, from which he always tried to escape; this is already a good example of Heidegger’s strong-arm tactics.)

What happens to thought after Nietzsche? Here I must return to the fundamentals of the Coca-Cola bottle, which I mentioned at the beginning. Besides being a fascinating interpreter of classical philosophical texts, as well as a surprising contriver of strings of verbal associations, Heidegger was an indispensable guide to the present. To verify this, one need only turn to two of his essays: “The Question Concerning Technology" and “Overcoming of Metaphysics.” How many congresses, how many vexed reflections on the evils and blessings of technology we have had to put up with throughout the twentieth century! How many vacuous disputes between "scientists" and "humanists"! How many recommendations of different ways of using technology! As though any of it actually depended on our will! When technology has already set its stamp on our will! Technology, to all intents and purposes, means metaphysics, Heidegger suggests. Having run off the tracks of history, the West synchronically relives the destiny of metaphysics in the eloquent silence of its own operation. It is impossible to account for the Coca-Cola bottle without going back to Plato’s Ideas. It is impossible to speak of the Coca-Cola bottle as a thing without explaining that it could only appear in a world that has already destroyed things as things.

All this may seem abstruse. But it is an attempt to approach the supreme abstruseness of what surrounds us. If very few in our midst feel the need for metaphysics (a word now almost always used in a derogatory sense), it is because everything is already metaphysics. And — ultimate joke! - philosophy has now become primarily a useful fact. Useful for what? For Ge-Stell. I will skip the usual ironic remarks about Heidegger’s linguistic acrobatics and abuses and merely specify that this word, ordinarily used in the sense of "scaffolding" as well as "bookshelf," becomes in the late Heidegger the black sun around which he arranges, in eccentric harmony, compounds of the verb stellen (to put), from the vorstellen (to represent) of classical metaphysics to the bestellen (to order, in the commercial sense) chat is heard every day in the business world. And what, finally, is Ge-Stell? Ge-Stell indicates above all the appearance of all that exists (and therefore including man) as availability, material to be used, exploited. Man becomes "the most important raw material," capable of being ravished ad libitum, and is employed such. In a vein of metaphysical irony, it then turns out that the employee is the figure corresponding in every sense to this stare of the world. And so—and it may come as a surprise to many—only Heidegger could have come up with a definition of Hitler as first among employees. And it is significant how the obscure Ge-Stell accords perfectly with the analyses of the visionary Marx in the first book of Capital which depicts the world as a "warehouse of commodities," a place of total availability and exchange.

Pp. 88-9
Michael Eldred, call your office.
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