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Ereignis: the thought

We are expanding the Library of our Ereignis website. Recently we added some more detail to our approach to what the term Ereignis might mean. Does it ring true or interesting to you? We’d be very interested in hearing your views!

Ereignis is a way to understand technology and our everyday world, an approach to life, and a distinct philosophy. We begin by unpacking the multiple meanings of the word; we then go on to identify a vision, an obstacle, and a new reality. In the end we ask to what service Ereignis can be put to enable us to become who we are.

1. The meaning of Ereignis

Ereignis is a complex and intriguing word, even in the German. As a noun (an Ereignis) it basically means an unusual or special event, or, simply, something that has happened. However, when we investigate further we realise that there are vast arrays of potential meanings to this term. Synonyms suggested by the dictionary include occasion, interlude, opportunity, experience, happening, thing, and an event. At the etymological root of Ereignis we find that this is an event that is derived from the verb ereignen, designating something that plays itself out, as if by destiny.

One influential interpreter sought to distinguish the prefix er- from the stem eignen. It is when we consider eignen as a cognate of Augen that we get a sense in which ereignen is intimately connected to our vision, to what we see or have in our view. In German, the derived zueignen and aneignen means to acquire and appropriate respectively, and the verb eigen simply means to own. If an event only truly occurs when it is seen or observed, then what has happened can only be determined with by referring to what observers have called it to themselves, their interpretation, or appropriation, of the event.

To er-eignen, then, seems to mean to make something one’s own, in by appropriating it, acquiring it’s key meaning, or giving voice to its sense. This is important, because at the core of the eigen lies eigentlich, designating an event’s underlying cause, or its reality. In other words, what something really is, or what actually happens, can only come out through appropriation, of by distinguishing what it was that we experienced. This event, then, does not only refer to the happening itself, but crucially also to the act of making the event one’s own.

2. Philosophies of Ereignis: Heidegger, Schirmacher, Badiou

Ereignis is an experience and an approach to life. Our technological understanding of the world can bar us from this experience. Opening up for the multiplicity of reality we can rediscover the world as a sacred place.

2.1 Heidegger: nearness

There is no doubt that it was the game-changing philosophy of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) that brought the term Ereignis onto the stage of modern thought. In an essay on the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin Heidegger described how it feels to descend from the mountainous Alps, the returning and homecoming, and in this essay he associates this descent with a mystical experience of Ereignis.

Heidegger gave the term Ereignis the task of connecting Being, or the divine, with our lives. To Heidegger Being reveals itself as a light which enables it to become visible to itself. Being, or the divinity, gives, sends, or destines beings, such as ourselves, in an ongoing unfolding of self-awareness. Heidegger thought of this double movement as Being alternately disclosing or refusing itself, or, in a word, as a “clearing-concealing.” Ereignis is a term to describe this sense in which Being is self-giving or self-refusing, or what Heidegger mystically referred to as the “Ereignis of presencing.”

To be present, then, or to experience a presencing, is in Heidegger’s terminology to be in the nearness of Being. When Heidegger held that this nearness nevertheless can never be fully present he began from the assertion that the German phrase Es gibt, there is, not merely points to an empty placeholder “Es,” it/there, but that it serves to highlight the giving of the Es, rendering the phrase as literally “It gives.” In so far as the “It” here refers to Being, the giving that is provided by it is its own presence. However, even Heidegger acknowledges that this “It” is inaccessible to ordinary thinking; therefore we should turn to the poets, and particularly the recollective verse of Hölderlin, to be brought into “It’s” nearness.

2.2 Schirmacher: metaphysical technique

Now, what is the reason that we find ourselves removed from Being, at a distance from our own existence, in our daily lives? Heidegger was quite clear on this, referring to the reduction of the world from a place of transport and enchantment to an experience where we are oblivious to the things themselves as Gestell. Rather than a world revealing itself as a holy place, and the things within it as radiant, sacred beings, Gestell reduces things to mere resources that can only serve as means to ends. Wolfgang Schirmacher, a philosopher of technology, continues Heidegger’s thought to name this blockage “metaphysical technique,” a complex expression of attempts to dominate life by technical mastery, a technological fix which we often think of as either technological optimist, or utopianism.

Governed by an “instrumental prejudice,” Schirmacher writes, the metaphysical technique is an “ingenious expression of a technology of survival” where all objects, everything we encounter, are regarded with suspicion, as “potentially hostile.” This is why the dominant metaphysical technique seeks to bring the entirety of our external world “under control under all circumstances and by all means.” It is this naïve belief in technological supremacy which leads to the present explanation of all our shortcomings as a “lack of technology:” when our world is gradually brought to an end and destroyed with the aid of modern technology the often misunderstood response is to claim that it is not modern technology, or, rather metaphysical technique, that has brought this upon us, but the wrong use of instruments or an insufficient determination of their purpose; in this view our current fix is due to an incorrect application of technology. When metaphysical technique encounters failure its answer is to stubbornly pursue the same path with even more determination, and to explore and exploit further its beaten path of domination by technical knowledge.

Against this Schirmacher holds that the destructive effects of metaphysical technique cannot be defeated on its own ground, i.e. by further pursuing an accumulation of data, or positive knowledge. Technology, or, more precisely metaphysical technology, serves to conceal the world to us, and more knowledge of this kind will not reveal the world anew. In the words of Schirmacher:

If the concealment of technology is not revealed by knowledge, but paradoxically rather strengthened, only ignorance can help. Ignorance does not only mean the absence of knowledge, but indicates the Socratic admission of ignorance, which is to say a knowledge that deprives knowledge of its self-evident right.

What Schirmacher prescribes is the ancient philosophical cure: truth telling, but not as a simple mechanism to verify positive knowledge, but, rather, the Socratic model as an approach to life. Truth of this kind cannot ultimately be found by testing hypotheses, but emerges from a technique in which “facts are shown as they are conceived by us.” Against metaphysical technique with its “emptiness artfully filled with an abstract language of evidence and justifications,” truth technique makes the world in its entirety appear in a glimpse, and yet as if eternally.

To overcome metaphysical technique it is required of us to pose an entirely different subject, or I, so that we again can enter into an essential and poetic relation to the world. Overcoming metaphysical technique does not mean that we leave modern technology behind, but that we abandon its use as “denizens of the night-time,” and instead treat machines and practice the sciences behind them as “dwellers of the radiant world of the Ereignis.”

Somewhere along this path we join in with others who have abandoned the cage of metaphysical technique, fellow travellers who seek to give up on exploitation and abuse so as to become guardians, custodians, and nurturers of beings, and, by implication of the Event itself. Our question is how we are going to conceive of Ereignis in this sense.

2.3 Badiou: the new reality

One way to approach this seminal Event is suggested by the philosophy of Alain Badiou. Here, the event is a way to understand how reality intrudes into our everyday experience. To Badiou reality is a void grounded in an inconsistent multiplicity, a structure which cannot ultimately be upheld in any social or personal totality. Therefore, countless elements of this reality are excluded from the totality we perceive as our everyday existence, and it is when any of these elements imposes itself upon us, engendering a complete shift in our structure of perception, that we truly can talk about an Event in Badiou’s sense.

To Badiou the event opens up our everyday appearance of normality, enabling a sudden opportunity to rethink our lives as a whole. Since the event can be compared to a ripping open in the fabric of established reality it offers exhilarating possibilities for participants that can nevertheless be experienced as demanding for those who are tasked with assimilating the event. In Badiou’s view a real event generates not only new ways of thinking about the world, but also new truths. What previously didn’t count, Badiou writes, comes to interrupt the continuity of determinism, thereby generating something completely new.

An utter reformulation of prevalent prejudices and assumptions cannot be programmed in advance. Rather, Badiou holds that a true event can only be grasped retrospectively, and that it cannot have a presence. The event, in effect, suspends the chronology of time, becoming ubiquitous: at the moment of the event it is everywhere and nowhere. In other words, we cannot really realise an event until after it has passed, when we try our best to assimilate it into an opportunity we couldn’t have lived without.

3. Becoming who we are

Ereignis is about approaching the clearing, letting things stand out as they are, and the festive experience, i.e. the sense in which we let the world reveal itself as a sacred place. When we overcome metaphysical technology, an approach to life that only allows the world and others to appear as instruments or means to an end, we can again be brought into the nearness of a Being that gives and reveals itself. By returning to telling the truth we can experience the void of an inconsistent multiplicity that constitutes reality, and out of this void we can begin to rethink our lives and generate an entirely new reality.

It is when we regain this new ground we can begin to realise and become who we truly are. Thus is the experience of Ereignis.

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Philosophers at a distance

Justin Weinberg, the editor over at The Dail Nous (pronounced /nu:s/) has committed a witticism, and it is worth quoting at some length. How do philosophers respond to being told they have to “social distance” and avoid leaving their homes?

Zeno of Elea: “Don’t worry, I can never reach anyone anyway.”

Plato: “Okay everybody, change of plans: stay inside your caves!”

Hume: “Look, just because social distancing worked before doesn’t mean it’s going to work now. And I’m in the middle of a backgammon game!”

Descartes: “I doubt anyone else is around.”

Kant: “It may be bad if we don’t social distance but that’s irrelevant, for if we imagine as a universal law of nature everyone staying six feet apart in order to survive, then we immediately see a contradiction, as humankind would have long gone extinct, and so would be unable to follow such a law.”

Berkeley: “Can we all just not give this virus another thought?!”

From “Philosophers Respond to Social Distancing” by Justin Weinberg.

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Žižek on the pandemic

In his new intervention Slavoj Žižek (“Monitor and Punish? Yes, Please!”) advocates international solidarity in the face of the ongoing epidemic, on the grounds that such solidarity is “the only rationally egotistic thing to do.” He refers to such international coordinated action as communism, and, to be clear from the outset, this would be a very different iteration than the one experienced by Žižek and millions of other Eastern and Central Europeans in their youth:

We, ordinary people, who will have to live with viruses, are bombarded by the endlessly repeated formula “No panic!”… and then we get all the data that cannot but trigger a panic. The situation resembles the one I remember from my youth in a Communist country: when government officials assured the public that there was no reason to panic, we all took these assurances as clear signs that they were themselves in a panic.

But panic is not a proper way to confront a real threat. When we react in a panic, we do not take the threat too seriously; we, on the contrary, trivialize it. Just think of how ridiculous the excessive buying of toilet paper rolls is: as if having enough toilet paper would matter in the midst of a deadly epidemic…

Interestingly, Žižek then goes on to compare the being of a virus to that of the spirit, our soul:

To quote a popular definition …: “viruses are considered as being non-living chemical units or sometimes as living organisms.” This oscillation between life and death is crucial: viruses are neither alive nor dead in the usual sense of these terms. They are the living dead: a virus is alive due to its drive to replicate, but it is a kind of zero-level life, a biological caricature not so much of death-drive as of life at its most stupid level of repetition and multiplication.

Is human spirit also not some kind of virus that parasitizes of the human animal, exploits it for its own self-reproduction, and sometimes threatening to destroy it?

The virus, then, like the spirit is an indivisible remainder of our own being, a remnant we cannot, finally, expel, but with which we, nevertheless, have a parasitic relation:

When nature is attacking us with viruses, it is in a way sending our own message back to us. The message is: what you did to me, I am now doing to you.

In this sense it is as if the pandemic urges us to reconsider the universality of the golden rule. It is, we could argue, in our rational self-interest to do onto our neighbour what we would do onto ourselves when the way we act upon others returns to us, if nothing else, as a virus.

The entire text is available from The Philosophical Salon.

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Roger Scruton, the grateful philosopher, departs

Roger Scruton, a friend of Central Europe, author, teacher, and philosopher, has passed. In what surely must be one of his last living publications Scruton declared in The Spectator that 2019 gave him much to be joyous about, such as

  • learning from Wagner’s Parsifal that “our highest aspirations grow from our darkest griefs, and that the gate to fulfilment stands on the way of loss”;
  • his reinstatement as chair of the British government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, and the plentiful letters of support he received, making Scruton think that he was “listening to the speeches at my own funeral, with the unique chance of nodding in agreement”;
  • receiving Poland’s Order of Merit, and also “with an added touch of Polish humour” the Ministry of Culture’s prize for architecture, making Scruton leave with “a heart full of gratitude for another country where I would be welcome as a refugee.”

Read his full 2019 retrospective.

Scruton’s obituary in The Daily Nous.

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On Jon Fosse

Jon Fosse (1959-) is translated from his native Norwegian (he writes in nynorsk), to more than 40 languages. He is widely acclaimed as a pivotal voice in contemporary fiction. Since his debut with the novel Raudt, svart [Red, Black] in 1983, Fosse has published many novels, poetry, essays, children’s stories, and plays. It is perhaps as dramatist he is most widely known internationally.

His plays include Og aldri skal vi skiljast [And we’ll never part] (1993), Nokon kjem til å komme [Someone will arrive] (1996), and more than 30 other texts. Fosse became internationally recognised as dramatist with French director Claude Régy’s staging of Someone Will Arrive in Nanterre in 1999. The following year the Berlin theatre Schaubühne with their director Thomas Ostermeier performed Namnet [The Name] at the Salzburg Theatre Festival, ensuring Fosse’s reputation as one our age’s most important playwrights.

Fosse holds a Master of Arts (cand.philol.) in Comparative Literature from the University of Bergen, Norway, an institution which has since awarded him an Honourary Doctorate. He has won a long series of awards, such as the International Ibsen Award (2010), Pope Benedict XVI’s honourary medal (2009), and the Swedish Academy’s Nordic Award (2007). He is a Commandor in the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav, and was made a Knight in France’s National Order of Merit in 2007. In 2015 he won the prestigious Nordic Council’s Literary Award for the trilogy Andvake [Insomnia], Olavs draumar [Olav’s Dreams], and Kveldsvævd [Evening Web].

In 2011, as Norway’s Poet Laureate, Jon Fosse moved in to the official Honourary Residence for artists, after it’s previous occupier, the cherished and innovative composer Arne Nordheim had passed away. This dwelling is situated on the grounds of the Royal Palace in Oslo, and was first owned by the poet Henrik Wergeland in the early 19th Century. In recognition of this honour Fosse crafted a series of poems that take Wergeland’s lyrical treasure as their starting point; “Two angels” and “It is cramped under the arch of heaven” are from this collection (2016).

Fosse is married, and has five children. Today he lives in Oslo, Bergen, and Hainburg, Austria.

See also:

Translations from Jon Fosse, Poesiar [Lyrics] (2016):

two angels met us in the door

blind austerity
and blind satisfaction

but now they fly back to
heaven
to collect dreams
for our sleep

*

it is cramped under the arch of heaven

so I must stoop under the clouds —
I had to escape
but no further
than to beneath a woman’s hair
since there it was, the wind
that blended it all together

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Mackie, the subject of philosophy

Another graduate from the Lit Hum programme at Oxford, J.L. Mackie turned celebrity philosopher on his claim that there can be no objective foundation to moral values:

Meticulous, courteous, industrious, with a degree of devotion to duty striking in one who held that moral values lack any objective foundation, [J.L. Mackie] was universally admired as an outstandingly capable and committed philosopher’s philosopher. An undoubtedly apocryphal anecdote captures his character: while Alasdair Maclntyre, P. F. Strawson, and Mackie were Fellows together at University College, the authorities circulated a memorandum asking all dons to keep a record for a week of the proportions of their working hours spent on research, teaching, and administration. Maclntyre sent back a blistering missive instructing them not to waste his time. Strawson looked at the form, wrote ‘One third, one third, one third’, and went back to what he was doing. J. L. Mackie went out and bought a stop watch.

From Graham Oppy and N. N. Trakakis (eds), A Companion to Philosophy in Australia & New Zealand.

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Kissinger, 95, on AI: wisdom is overwhelmed

Our new world order is one in which “information threatens to overwhelm wisdom”: Henry Kissinger has certainly made his mark on our contemporary world, having advised Nixon and masterminded the end of the Cold War. Now Kissinger’s concern is Artificial Intelligence. In an article in The Atlantic Kissinger makes some remarks about a potential divergence between hyperactivity in the social media and art:

Inundated via social media with the opinions of multitudes, users are diverted from introspection; in truth many technophiles use the internet to avoid the solitude they dread. All of these pressures weaken the fortitude required to develop and sustain convictions that can be implemented only by traveling a lonely road, which is the essence of creativity.

In the end, as a man of Kissinger’s wit and intelligence would, he cannot accept a simple adoption of the term Artificial Intelligence. It could be a misnomer, he says, because while

these machines can solve complex, seemingly abstract problems that had previously yielded only to human cognition[,] what they do uniquely is not thinking as heretofore conceived and experienced. Rather, it is unprecedented memorization and computation. Because of its inherent superiority in these fields, AI is likely to win any game assigned to it. But for our purposes as humans, the games are not only about winning; they are about thinking. By treating a mathematical process as if it were a thought process, and either trying to mimic that process ourselves or merely accepting the results, we are in danger of losing the capacity that has been the essence of human cognition.

A statesman, a scientist, a thinker: Henry Kissinger.

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New poem by Tomas Tranströmer in translation

The creature with cemented eyes who wants to be hurled current-wise into the waterfall throws himself forward, without a shiver, in a furious hunger for simplicity.

Read “Along the river” by Tomas Tranströmer and other poems in translation here: https://torgeirfjeld.wordpress.com/2018/02/19/tomas-transtromer-along-the-river/