This is the second of a great series of lectures about modern life and the post modern condition by the great Rick Roderick the Bill Hicks of Philosophy. What is great about this series is that Rick delivers it such a great way that is very easy to understand, he makes difficult concepts clear and illustrates them in a interesting and engaging way. When I first found these lectures, I had to watch all of them one after another great and I urge you to do the same. Below the film is the transcript of the talk and a summary of the main points, but please watch the lectures first as they deliver a lot. Enjoy and raise a glass to Rick Roderick who unfortunately is no longer with us.
Summary of the lecture:
- Heidegger developers a powerful account of meaning by recasting traditional talk of the self and the human into an analysis of “Dasein”, literally “being there”. He hopes to discard much of the baggage of the philosophical past in a kind of “deconstruction” that has, and continues to be, very influential with thinkers as diverse as Derrida, Macuse, and Sartre.
- We should not let Heidegger’s infamous connect to fascism blind us to his real insights. It is sad, but true, that even very bad people may have important things to teach us.
- Heidegger does not begin with a “method”. He begins by beginning. He offers a hermeneutic of Dasein, or the historical and cultural self. A hermeneutic is a narrative, a story , whose humans are always already interpreting beings and, from this, the analysis of Dasein can begin.
- In “Being and Time”, Heidegger is guided by the distinction between Being and being. The only priority of human being or Dasein is that we are the beings that ask the question concerning the meaning of Being (what does it all mean?). He is no “humanist”, rather it is Being that draws his concern toward Dasein which he proceeds to analyze across the dimension of time.
- Humans relate to the past by being “thrown” into a world. This means we are socialized and have a language and a view of the self already. Thus, it is impossible to begin without a structure of prejudices as built into our culture and our history.
- Humans relate to the present as “being at home in or not being at home in”. This means that we try to find a satisfying place view of ourselves and out world.
- Humans relate to the future as “being ahead or ourselves” or “on the way to”. This means that we formulate projects and make plans. The fundamental structure thus revealed is that humans are beings who care, who have concern. This can be seen in what they build and do even more than in what they say or think.
- Anxiety before death is the fundamental human mood, since death is the end or our projects and our concern. For Heidegger, authentic existence must not “flee from” this insight into the unthinking mass of people (the “they”), but rather use this insight to give meaning and purpose to our projects. Such projects are “free for” and “free from” the stifling yoke of conformity to “the they” or what other people think.
- Against Heidegger’s powerful account of being human it can certainly be argued that “authenticity” is too abstract as a means to measure our projects. One can be an authentic Nazi , for example, just as well as an authentic Christian. Heidegger gives us absolutely no grounds for choosing one over the other.
- Authenticity will be important in our account of the self, as will care and concern with a project, but it will not be enough to save the self under siege as the case of Heidegger himself makes clear.
Our second lecture will be on Heidegger and the Rejection of Humanism. Many of you may know Heidegger by reputation and I think that it’s always nice in a course in the self in the 20th Century to present at least one lecture by a thinker who is extremely profound and raises the issue of the self in the modern era and also happens to be a Fascist. And again – I always have to put in these disclaimers – this is not an endorsement of Fascism, but… but in a way I almost regret that I had to start with that snotty remark, because Heidegger’s account of finding meaning in the 20th Century is one of the most profound and powerful that we get in the 20th Century. Before I proceed to it, I’d like to say a few brief summary remarks about the rather scattered out first lecture.
The basic point that I wanted to set up for the rest of the course – so that we can now proceed to look at various narratives about what the self might be, or how it might be constructed in the 20th Century – was to point out that the self is under the siege of two different sorts of factors. One are the famous cultural critiques of… that were produced in the 19th Century, and this doesn’t mean that just a handful of pedants got us confused. The critiques launched by Nietzsche and Marx are certainly products of the profound changes in the 19th Century and so on, and similarly with Freud’s project.
So in a certain way what we are looking at are the problems that had been thrust upon us by modernity; modern life, and arguably – since we are speaking and will be speaking about what this means to us in the late 20th Century – about the problems of post-modern life. In any case, I wanted to show that their challenge cut to the heart of one traditional way of understanding the self; and that was the self in relation to God. But it cuts another way too. It cuts in regard to the self’s understanding of the self. In other words, it also shows us that what we think we know about ourselves may be driven by economic motives of which we are unaware consciously; by the motives of desire of which we are unaware consciously, but they appear systematically in certain contexts. We may be pushed by a certain resentment, a certain kind of deformed will that is the product of a culture of which we are not largely conscious.
In any case, I wanted to present this dark side of modernity as the kind of suspicion under which the self becomes problematic. I also wanted to present it in conjunction with some of the obvious changes. The huge and increasing flow of information. The incredible change in the complexity of social systems. The enormous and still ill-understood changes in the relation between peoples, cultures, men, women, and the planet and so on, and these changes which now here in the late 20th Century have reached the magnitude of complexity that I think leaves us stunned in our attempt to build some small place within which our “self” – our, if you will, “authentic self”; since we will be discussing Heidegger in this lecture – might dwell.
Heidegger’s account of the human situation begins by rejecting… and I said before that he was a Fascist; so now I guess all of you aren’t going to listen to me. No! See, that would be a philosophical fallacy. People who make terribly tragic political decisions and even very evil people can hold views that are interesting and can say things that are true. We call this the “ad hominem fallacy”; it doesn’t work just to go “Well that must be wrong because the ACLU is for it. That will only work with Jesse Helms. In that case the ad-hominem is not a fallacy, but otherwise it is and in Heidegger’s case I want you to withhold judgement – just because he has this… – for a while a while I’d like you to play along and follow this narrative.
I am going to attempt to do it in forty-five minutes. Now for Heidegger scholars this is an obscenity, but I mean we are trying to cover a lot of material in a short while and we are also trying to cover it in a way where… what you may call the “non footnoting public”; I don’t want to call them no scholarly, because many people read many more books than academics. Academics, when they are through with their meetings don’t have time to read, you know, let alone teach. I mean I don’t know very many people that teach anymore. So I am talking about the “non-footnoting” public; people who haven’t footnoted every article on Heidegger. We are going to try to make the account popular in that sense and I have no problem with that. I also want it to be as accurate as I can.
Heidegger attempts to recast – and he is very aware that the very term that I have used for my lecture is no longer adequate, namely the self; the human. So in his most famous work “Being and Time“; Heidegger recasts it as an interpretation of what he calls – in German – “Dasein“, and I am going to translate that now into West Texas English. That’s something like “Human being there in the world”: something like that. Now why does he coin this… in German it’s a very ordinary term, it means “Being there”. We made a movie over here about it, you know, it’s based on a novel: “Being There“.
Why did he want to reject the language of self? Because he wanted to get rid of all the baggage that I just discussed – that has come under the mark of suspicion – and give a new narrative. And you’ll have to forgive me for not using “dasein” throughout the lecture and instead talking about “the self”. Because what Heidegger is trying to do is give a new narrative of the self, but without using that term so he could distance himself from the philosophical tradition – at least the modern one – in order to give an account of the human subject.
Well Heidegger’s account has influenced… I think in some ways has been the most influential account all the way up to the late 20th Century… you may… and I will be talking about – later – the French philosopher Derrida for whom Heidegger is the most influential figure. Heidegger is a very influential figure for Sartre and many others, so we have to spend a little time with his position.
In terms of his position and philosophy, Heidegger is the one who introduces the term “the deconstruction of philosophy”. By it he doesn’t mean to – the kind of deflationary remarks I made in the first lecture – to deflate philosophy. No, he wants, as it were, to destroy its project in the way that one would, sort of, destroy a mound of junk in order to dig down to its what might be called, sort of, archaeological roots to find out if there is anything there that will help us in this project of understanding what it means to be in the world. Okay and I think I have some remarks about that that I would like to make here.
Heidegger begins in a very odd way for philosophers. Most philosophers begin by insuring their knowledge with some kind of method; or “fiat“. You know, they begin in a way by assuring you they won’t fall into error.
But along with Hegel, Heidegger believed that this fear of falling into error is error itself. So he does something very odd for a philosopher; he begins… by beginning. In other words, he starts writing, and I think that’s very nice.
He doesn’t begin with a series of methods that will give us the single and correct interpretation of the self, which is sort of an obsession that I think only philosophers really have, and I don’t want to… I mean hell, it’s what I used to do for a living so I shouldn’t rag on it too much, but it’s a kind of obsession. I mean it’s an obsession with being right all the time, and one nice thing about Heidegger’s account is that what he offers us is what he calls a hermeneutic of dasein, and now I’ll use the English equivalent; which means something like story, or narrative… of the self… a kind of story about the self.
Now the nice thing about a story as opposed to a method is that you don’t approach them the same way. You don’t… for example, about someone’s life story, if it is powerful, interesting and it grabs you and you can find meaning in it, it’s not the best question to ask about a narrative “is it true or false?”. That’s the best question to ask about an argument but believe me, I am from Texas, and when you hear a good story, you don’t go “is that true?”, because that takes all the fun out of it. I mean, the story that Heidegger has to tell has a lot of the power in it.
Well Heidegger – and again I am going to try to summarise “Being and Time” here now in about thirty minutes. In Being and Time, Heidegger wants to look at what the self is in its structure as a being that lives through a period of time, and “a being” and opposed to “being” because one of Heidegger’s central points is one that I have already been through in terms of “The Masters of Suspicion”. Classically in philosophy there was a distinction drawn between Being with a capital “B”; which is a philosophical way of writing the word “God”, or fundamental entity. Being… big “B” and beings… entities… like one among which is dasein.
Heidegger, however – and I don’t want to mislead you here because many readers have been misled – is no humanist. Heidegger looks around for what entity; what being would be the best being to interrogate on the issue of dasein; or “human being in the world”. The being that he chooses to interrogate turns out to be a sort of obvious selection. He wants to interrogate – or interpret – that being that raises the question of being, and that happens to be us; we do that. Salamanders don’t go “What does it all mean?” “Why should there be something rather than nothing?” “What am I about?”. So instead of investigating salamanders, newts or analytical philosophers, he tries to investigate human beings. I think that’s a good, sort of, reasonable place to start. His account is fascinating, and I could advise you to read it. I am going to go through it very quickly.
You take the threefold structure of dasein – it won’t surprise any of you and it’s not particularly profound – the threefold structure of the self in time is that you have a past and a present and a future. When I have said this I have made a structural remark. So I mean that’s the structure, the temporal structure of how we tell our lives. We tell about our past, about our present, about our plans, and so on. For Heidegger it is care… and this is the early Heidegger, I won’t go into what he thought later, but for the early Heidegger it is the word “care”. And many of you will like this word “care”. Concern is another word that could be used here; the German is sorge.
Care is what Heidegger interprets as what is fundamental to the being of dasein, or the self. So for example, if you want to know what was interesting to a culture; what they cared about… I have used my example; I got the chance to go to Florence, Italy, okay. It’s a great place to get a chance to go to. I got to see Florence, and you could see how powerful his interpretation is when you visit a place like that because you could see what it is that those selves; those daseins cared about by what they built.
You go “Wow! They didn’t care that their malls weren’t still open”, you know, they don’t care that the Ponte Vecchio is now run down, you know, that the Arno is all green and mucky and that the Ponte Vecchio is now just a little gold shop. They don’t care, I mean, they have got the Uffizi; they’ve got the David. They just… that’s what they care about. That shows their care; their concern, the structure of their being and so on. And this is not a bad interpretation of human beings in the world. You can look at what people construct, what they make, what they cherish… and this is supposed to be… and I think it’s not an unreasonable interpretation of “human being”.
In terms of the past, care reveals something that you all already know. By the time that you showed up here today you were already a being in the world. It’s an interesting structural feature of all of you. You were, you know, barring the possibility – which we will reach by the time these lectures are over – that at least some of you are replicants; cyborgs, that’s possible… I mean, it’s even, I think, technically possible. But in any case, barring that last little note of suspicion, the human structure as uncovered by Heidegger is “care”, and in terms of the past it shows that we are beings already in the world, which means that the philosophical project of starting without prejudices, starting without biases, starting without interpretations, would be as stupid as to have someone start speaking Shakespeare without having a language.
In a way, the deep and powerful blow that Heidegger lays against philosophy is as a discipline that could start from scratch and tell us who we are, that just starts with a clean slate and build it up… no, the way we experience our lives is we wake up, and hell, we are already here. We are in his phrase “thrown into the world”; you are born somewhere, some when, some race, some class, some gender, and all of that already comes along and from the minute you begin to speak a language and learn a culture… and learning a culture, contrary to what analytic philosophers say, is not like learning to pick out patches of blue, or being sure that this is your hand.
Learning a culture; to live in it, is more like learning how to dance the Virginia Reel than it is learning how to pick out patches of blue. Involves many complex steps before you are in one, and I mean, even in a crude and vicious culture like West Texas – that’s true, the one I come from – I mean, there is a lot of subtle machismo rituals that if you don’t know they will beat you to death. You just have to learn them. They are complex. They are much more complex than the standard philosophical examples, which are picking out patches of blues and so on.
So Heidegger says in terms of the past we are already in a world. In terms of the present, care reveals us as trying to be at home in the world. See, you may notice this, sort of, “home-y” language of Heidegger’s. You know, the fact that he turned out to be a Fascist, this has made me wary to this day of this overly home-y, sort of… that’s why I don’t like Grand Canyon; it’s too home-y as a movie… but anyway. Care reveals us as being at home among, or being among, or trying to feel that you are in the right place; you know, that you belong in a place.
In terms of the future, we are always – according to Heidegger – ahead of ourselves. Have you ever… and I think this is another profound part about the narrative of the self. In a certain way, what our plans and projects are, are not a part of our future, but a part of our present. We are always ahead ourselves, it’s like, well, you know, “Lunch later… let’s see… what do we want… ah…” Big Mac, Booyah base, it depends on your class I guess, more than anything else. And even in terms of college “What are my kids going to do for college…” “What about my retirement…”
This is a characteristic… and again – what I am telling you from Heidegger – remember we just started with a story about the self and now we are just telling one. And it’s supposed to capture, sort of, the general features of selfhood; being a self, and so that’s what he sees there in that structure. Dasein reveals itself in terms of the past as being thrown into a world, in terms of the present as being able to articulate our place within it, and in terms of the future; in terms of projecting ourself forward and so on.
Now… here’s the bad part. Heidegger realises that you can’t just simply abandon this old philosophical project and then just tell this story and hope to capture its universal features – in other words, the features that are shared by dasein wherever we happen to bump into dasein; or to the self, or selves, “being there” type creatures like us that asks these questions about “being” – without looking into what he calls “moods”.
It’s very interesting; Heidegger is one of the few philosophers to discuss something that’s very important to people: moods. I mean, most analytic philosophers have no interest in moods. It’s funny, I think this is why when you read these continental philosophers like some I am discussing today; they are considered a bit effeminate because this mood talk is not really macho, you know. Like “I am in a bad mood” “I have a headache” or… mood talk is sort of unsettling to men. Continental philosophy appears even the discourse of the profession of philosophy as being soft and so on… all these nouns that, you know, give it a certain characteristic.
But in any case it is clear to me that mood is an important characteristic when you discuss the self and what selfhood is. So… and this is I think one of the most profound parts of the analysis that the young Heidegger gives. The mood that he thinks that reveals what dasein really is – and this will connect with my first lecture about the masters of suspicion – is anxiety. That is the mood that will reveal, as it were, the formal existential character of dasein is anxiety… anxiety.
Now, when I say “mood” here, you could easily misunderstand me. All the account Heidegger is giving, while it is a story about the human self, this account of the mood of anxiety I am about to give you briefly is not the kind of anxiety for which you run to the doctor or the psychiatrist and you take a valium or talk it out and get on a twelve step program, because it is an anxiety before the fear of nothingness. It’s an anxiety in the face of death. I don’t want to make it sound, you know, too scary, but I have already said it is a democratic institution, it is something you need to deal with and again we are looking for universal structures. One of the structures of all stories about the self – even the ones we tell ourselves – no matter how disconnected they may be, they end in this rather interesting institution: death, very interesting institution.
Well, he examines the mood of anxiety then not as a mere mood that just comes upon you once in a while, but as an underlying structure of what it means to be human. In other words, if you removed this anxiety you would also remove the self. The same view Kierkegaard holds of despair. I mean, not to depress… we are not depressing people here, we are not trying to depress people, but these are structures of the selves, these aren’t symptoms that Phil Donahue or Oprah Winfrey could fix! To be asked to be cured of your fundamental despair; your anxiety, is to ask to be cured of what little self you may have. It is a stupid thing to even want in a way, because it is our anxiety that makes us look at how we came up from the past.
The way that that’s described by Heidegger is that we were “abandoned to the ‘they’”; to Das Man, to the crowd. What does he mean by that? Well he means we grew up in a place like West Texas or Cleveland Ohio or Bangladesh, where the way we grew up and the way our past is structured; we didn’t learn our moral theories from Kant or Mill, we learned them because our mamas spanked our butts, said: “Don’t steal [whap!]“, you know this… we were thrown into that. We were abandoned to those values, as it were. It’s not a scary thing, that’s how we learn. See this is a way to try to redirect our attention to the concreteness of being a self as opposed to giving a philosophical account. This was Heidegger’s attempt.
You are abandoned to “the they”, and the reason I like that phrase “the they” is you are all familiar with remarks like “Well they say” or “They say”, well that’s exactly the spirit in which Heidegger is using the concept here. You know, if you violate certain restrictions of your culture, someone is going to go “Well but you know, they say…” Well that’s the way in which Heidegger sees us relating to our past: anxiety reveals that to us. Now why is it Anxiety? Well if we want to make our lives a project – and Heidegger thinks fundamentally we do; thinks that’s part of the structure of dasein, is to want to make your story a story… a story… not just a bunch of disconnected junk and debris that happened to happen to you, but a story, a project – if that’s true, then our relation to the past is filled with anxiety because we all started from this moment – or this time – of abandonment to the values of others, to “they”. It’s not an evil thing, this is – just means – the culture around you; it means the opinion of people. Well you know, they say if you wear your hair like that it’s just… and so on. It’s not unusual stuff; this is a common way in which we are brought up.
Anxiety reveals our present state… and Heidegger doesn’t like to talk about this as either… it’s a fleeing away from… now this is where Heidegger brings in the way in which that we try to fill our life up with busy-ness, to flee away from… and I admit this can’t… I don’t think this could be universalised as an account; let me admit that right now. I just think it is an interesting… it is and interesting account… not the account. There is no such thing as the account – that’s one of the underlying themes of this course – but this is an interesting one.
Well what are we fleeing away from or falling away from? Well Heidegger thinks that – and I mean this is sort of, again, these have all become general cultural possessions of people – Heidegger thinks until we face nothingness; our own nothingness, that we tend to fill our lives with busy-ness, we flee into this and flee into that. We fall away from our own best insights about what we should be doing, and so on.
Anxiety would reveal about the future… if you could free yourself from the “they” to a certain extent, you can’t completely, and if you could stop fleeing from the present and trying to live in it… you can see why this account was popular in the sixties, right? Remember Beatniks used to like Heidegger, okay, well this is why. You try to live in the present; if you try to do that the future will begin to look like a project which Heidegger characterises as being free for and from. Being free for your projects and being free from your, sort of, attempt to get away from your self, okay.
Someone in break mentioned this to me and I think it’s true. Being free in this sense is not an easy thing to want to be. Let me just say that right away. I mean being free from the “they” is already a problem for most folks, right? I mean how many people want to live, you know, on Bainbridge Drive and have only red white and blue house. I mean, even that tiny little transgression could make some people into a nervous wreck. I mean, sure, some people are afraid of death and other people are afraid of being seen walking around with People magazine. I mean we live in a society that may be far too superficial for the account I am giving, so I am hoping to try to make some sense out of it. I mean, different things bother different people… I mean, the culture that really scares me is the one in which death has no significance for our projects. That’s the culture that… in which the self is under siege.
As long as Heidegger – when he was young – could write this narrative of the self; this rather dramatic existential narrative about “I am going to realise that I will die, then I will choose an authentic project and carry it out, and I will free as many constraints as I can from the ‘they’, I will stop fleeing from myself” He even has a word in here for what he would probably call this lecture; which is “chatter”. You know, “I am going to free myself from the chatter of everyday and go talk deep thoughts in the black forest” Well, I have, sort of, sketched the account for you and the sad part about it is it all sounds rather quaint and it would make a nice mini-series.
I mean, we are living in a situation where even these basic accounts of the self – like Heidegger’s – have become, sort of, ironies. I am not trying to put it down too quickly; I am just trying to explain why anybody would listen to it today. You would listen to it today only because it is an interesting story from a period not too long ago. I mean, after all, the Beatniks loved this account. They used to say “Oh I have read Heidegger” by which they meant they had… there was a famous little set of notes where you could pick all this stuff up without actually reading Being and Time and it was quite popular. The book itself, I only know a couple of other people who have read, who cares right? You know, they can get it from the Cliff’s Notes.
But in any case, let me give you what I think is the powerful account, and then its criticism; the final, sort of, punch line of it. With Heidegger we choose a project in full awareness that being is always being towards death. For Heidegger this doesn’t cripple our action, but it makes us see that just like if we wanted to write a beautiful poem, we would plan an incredibly grand last stanza, or whatever. When we choose a project, we want to choose one that will make of our life a complete thing, a thing with meaning; a connected story, a story worth telling. So that’s the ideas that… the recognition of one’s own nothingness and one’s own death as the ultimate possibility… this recognition and acceptance frees us for our projects.
It allows us, for one thing, to engage in a bit of what I consider… if you wanted to sum up the wisdom of the east, you know, Oriental wisdom in just one sentence, it might be something like “Don’t sweat the small stuff”. I mean, there was a real well known Buddhist who told me “I can sum up the dao and the gita; all of that for you quickly… It’s this: Don’t sweat the small stuff. You westerners, you spend all your time sweating the small stuff…” Heidegger here says “Look, if you really internalise as a part of your self story that you too will be dead, gone, nothing, that that will be a freeing and liberating experience, but you have to be able to like… “work through it”, as it were, to use a psychoanalytic phrase “To work through it”.
Well what does it allow us to escape from? Well I actually have to say that this moment in existentialism has certainly been good for me, I think. It’s been a healthy thing for me. It cut short therapy, I went to a therapist once, I went three times, and on the third visit I went “Oh by the way I have a question. Why are we born to suffer and die?” and she went [unintelligible mumble], and that was the end of therapy for me. I figured that if she couldn’t help me with my fundamental problem, she wasn’t going to do much good on the trivial problems. I mean, I had a big problem: why are we born to suffer and die? She just went [utter nonsense]… she just went “Well I can write you a prescription for some Valium”, and I said “No thanks, I drink, I don’t need it” [crowd laughter] I belong to a large club; I am a drunkard… no, anyway…
What it does it this… for me it has made it easier to talk to groups… to teach classes, and talk to groups of students and not to be afraid of cameras and stuff because in the end we are all dead. In the end Johnny Carson, his body will, you know, turn into dust and in the end the earth will shrivel up into a cinder and fall into the sun, and in the end – it’s not the big bang anymore, they call it I think the big balloon, kind of like a bad condom. The big balloon of the universe will stretch out and pop back together and poof… nothing more.
Now for me that’s kind of a kick, because that means if I screw up today, tomorrow, or right now I am not going to worry about it too much. I am going to feel free to engage in my project without worrying about what “they” told me about how I should do philosophy. So I think there is a moment of truth, or a moment of interest in Heidegger’s account. Also it’s made me rather short and sharp with smalltalk, it really does. I mean, it makes me… where people go “Oh gee, you know, the weather today is just, you know” [agitated noises] I am sorry, but I prefer conversations about sex, religion, politics, and of course being a man: sports. But if it’s not something that, you know, grabs me, I feel perfectly free to go “That’s chatter, I haven’t have time for it… be dead soon, can’t do it”
Now, the most pathetic example of “fleeing from”, sort of came up on the way to the lecture. I happen to be a smoker, I don’t advocate it for anyone in here, or watching me on the tape, I don’t advise smoking. We have a culture now where the most obvious example of fleeing from death is this utter obsession with being young until it is obscenely too late for it. Until it is… this is fleeing from yourself in such a way that its madness. Who wants to be the world’s best 111 year old person? [crowd laughter] I mean what is the point in that for God’s sakes. I just, you know, this is something that I don’t follow. I mean my grandfather was a good man, he died at 78 and I think that’s good luck and plenty long enough; suit the hell out of me.
But why do we have 90 year olds running up steps wearing Nike and dating seventeen year olds? I mean this is not working [crowd laughter] It’s not working, and I am not telling old people to go away, hell I am getting there myself. It’s ridiculous, you take thirty year olds, they are trying to look like eleven year olds. You know, it works all the way up and down the spectrum. Every forty year old housewife wants to have a baby like Demi Moore, be beautiful naked with a stomach out to here… I mean it’s just… not working for us. In a way it’s fleeing from death, and what I want to say about it is this.
You could eat all the tofu you want and jog as long as you like, and compared to geologic time your life is going to be gone like that anyway. Geologic time’s like, you know, a long time, and you could jog your butt off and you’re still going to die. That’s what I like about death, it’s democratic. It would irritate me if you could jog and live forever and I got stuck here smoking and having a good time and died over it. No, you’ll die too, you know, you’ll have thirty four more years to run up and down the stairmaster.
Now what in the world could be a better example of Heidegger’s account of fleeing from our authentic projects than to imagine some poor sap who spends three hours a day just running up and down stairs that are just… In what kind of culture? This is my question to you. Is there a human self left in a culture that produces people who run in place for hours doing nothing. Is there any reason to talk about humans like that? I mean Heidegger is old fashioned, I admit, and certainly I don’t advocate his politics. I think Fascism is a drastic solution, but the young Heidegger’s account of this “being towards death”, what it, sort of, steers you away from; this fleeing business – this stairmaster business, to make it a very contemporary example – is an authentic life. I mean this is for Heidegger what you want to achieve. You want to achieve a life with authenticity, and this is the key word for him.
An authentic life is one in which you don’t flee from your destiny, but one in which you shape it, as far as you can, and Heidegger is no romantic about it, he knows that you will be given certain historical conditions to deal with, limitations that belong to all humans, but authentic life is one which you try as best you can to make your life at least something worth talking about in the same sentence with the word “destiny”, and I think my example of the stairmaster, if you go compare that to Odysseus, you know, I mean that’s a pretty far gap for civilisation to move, isn’t it? From Odysseus, who goes, you know, from island to island and then comes home, kills a bunch of people, takes his wife back – big story – you know, killed a cyclops, made fun of gods, did all these tricky wonderful things that belong to our Western past, and I think it is interesting. But I bet Odysseus wouldn’t have had time to do that if he stayed in shape about four hours a day on that stairmaster; just wouldn’t have worked out for him. I mean the very thought shows you that the theory of evolution may not work in the case of dasein. You know, I mean, there may be creatures, and I don’t just mean the creatures in Jurassic Park, there may be other creatures that are not headed in the right direction.
In any case, this project is one to get away from empty conformity and to live authentically. Now here is its tremendous drawback, and this is the one that becomes obvious in my remarks about fascism. The trouble with leaving the account of being human this abstract, you know “We come from a culture, we flee from conformity, we try to get authentic” the trouble with leaving it that abstract is that you could be an authentic anything, you follow me? I mean, it turns out that you could be authentically a member of the Third Reich, authentically a member of Reagan administration… I’ll just leave those two together for a while in your minds… authentically a friend of Richard Nixon… no wait a minute, that’s logically absurd… no it isn’t, I think that’s possible. You could be authentically…
The trouble with this authenticity business is that trying as hard as he can to give a more concrete primordial account of what it means to be human and trying to avoid, you know, the traditional account, he has ended up giving us an abstract account again, at another level. Now admittedly – I hope – we have learned something from it. I mean, I do think there are important things in it about fleeing from our selves, but for gods sakes, I mean, we don’t want a narrative about ourselves that’s based merely on authenticity, because I mean, we know too many authentic swine, or at least semi authentic swine, to want that… so that’s, I think, a powerful criticism.
On the other hand, I want you to remember at least some of the positive things I have said about Heidegger. One is that his account of human being in the world does free us from the philosophical prejudice that we just start a project from nowhere, almost, and carry it out rationally or whatever. Heidegger has a much more concrete sense of the world and also a much more… a very important account of what it means to be fleeing from oneself, and I think that’s the important parts, so if you get a chance to read Being and Time, which I don’t entirely recommend because it is very long and life is very short, and it might be your kind of stairmaster, you know, I mean, I don’t know. There is a difference sometimes between what bores some people and what bores others, I admit that.
But in any case, Heidegger does not succeed in bringing the self out from under siege, or out of its problems, but he does point out at least one thing about it. See, if we are going to be interested in the self at all, we should be interested in it in trying to have some degree of authenticity. We should be interested in that; in having a project more interesting than getting skinny and rich and dying as the best looking 125 year old person on the block. There ought to be something – not in a strong sense – but there ought to be something more interesting to say about your life than that. “I had a nice car and I died as the best 125 year old jogger in Venice Beach, California”… I just… I hope that there is more to say, and in fact I think there is.
Being a Texan, I know… I think the people who died at the Alamo, I think they were, you know, from the standpoint of some they were imperialist swine, from the standpoint of others they are heroes, but there is one thing for sure. Their lives were an interesting story. I mean, I don’t want to always rely on the Oddysey, Davy Crockett was an interesting guy. Ran for congress, you know, got all these tall tales about him and showed up and tried to steal a lot of land in Texas and ended up, you know, fighting, and now we remember it. It would be almost fair to say of him that he had a destiny.
And as corny as that may sound, it’s not something we are going to say about David Letterman or Richard Simmons, you follow me? There has been a shift… there has been a shift. The self is under siege, and I talked about Heidegger and his rejection of a certain form of the older accounts and I’ll talk about a famous account of being human in the next lecture on Sartre, but for now that’s all except be sure, and fear death. I mean, that’s important to being human. Fear death and realise that even if you don’t smoke, and even if you jog, you are still going to die, and that should come as a great relief to all of you. Thankyou very much. [applause]
Thanks to Rick Roderick.org