Who is Foucault’s Heidegger? An introduction to transformative philosophy

Foucault

A new species of philosopher is appearing: I venture to baptize these philosophers with a name not without danger in it. As I divine them, as they let themselves be divined – for it pertains to their nature to want to remain a riddle in some respects – these philosophers of the future might rightly, but perhaps also wrongly, be described as attempters. This name itself is in the end only an attempt and, if you will, a temptation.

–Friedrich Nietzsche

Martin Heidegger (1888-1976) and Michel Foucault (1926-1984) are two of the most important philosophers in the history of twentieth century European thought. There is clearly much that divides them. Heidegger devoted his life to a single question, the question of being. Foucault was mercurial in the transformability of his questions, which ranged from madness, literature, discourse and knowledge, to power, sexuality, ethics and truth (roughly in this order). Heidegger was a political conservative – notoriously, a member of the Nazi Party through the 1930s and until the end of the war. Insofar as Foucault can be positioned anywhere on the political spectrum, he is most accurately associated with the anarchist left. Heidegger was a thinker of primordial origins and world-historical recommencements, and saw the present as a unique moment in time in which history has come to an end and stands the chance of beginning anew. Foucault defended a Nietzschean genealogical approach to history that emphasizes radical historical breaks while refusing to assume that the present is any more significant than yesterday or tomorrow.

Given these and other differences, it is hard, on the face of it, to see how Foucault and Heidegger might be related in the manner suggested by the title of this post. It seems improbable that there would be any relationship between these philosophers at all. The fact remains, however, that in his final interview, in 1984, Foucault claimed that Heidegger was an ‘essential philosopher’ for his work. This statement took Foucault scholarship by surprise. Foucault is usually seen as France’s primary Nietzschean export. While Foucault concedes that Nietzsche was ultimately the most important philosopher for his work, he insists that his ‘whole philosophical development’ was determined by his reading of Heidegger. Foucault’s final remarks on Heidegger have provoked much disagreement among readers of Foucault. Many readers prefer to ignore these remarks entirely. Those relatively few attempts to productively engage the question of Foucault’s debt to Heidegger have produced little by way of conclusion and much in the manner of debate.

This post will not attempt to close these debates. Rather, it seeks to place them on a new footing. Foucault and Heidegger’s work, I argue, reflects a common vision of philosophy as a transformative exercise. To understand Foucault’s debt to Heidegger, we need to read these philosophers on the level of transformative practice. [Read more…]

Heidegger in Silicon Valley: technology and the hacker way

Racing-with-machines‘Software is eating the world!’ US tech investor Marc Andreessen claimed in 2011, on the eve of launching his venture capital firm, Andreessen-Horowitz. This extraordinary claim has become the mantra of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, codifying a new philosophy of tech entrepreneurialism and kickstarting a bold new era of creative destruction. Decoded it means: software engineers are world-builders – so look out! Bored with building apps, games, and websites, the latest generation of tech entrepreneurs are creating social operating systems for the societies and economies of the future. Reconfiguring the relationships between goods, consumers, and service-providers, these new social operating systems are swallowing whole marketplaces at a time, eating up business that was previously enjoyed by recruiters, cab companies, hotel chains, and estate agents.

Take the sharing economy startup Airbnb, for instance (recipient of $112 million in funding from Andreessen-Horowitz in 2011). Andreessen claims:

Airbnb  makes its money in real estate. But … Airbnb … has much more in common with Facebook or Google or Microsoft or Oracle than with any real estate company. … Airbnb is building a software technology that is equivalent in complexity, power, and importance to an operating system. It’s just that it’s applied to a section of the economy.

An operating system is low-level software that runs on a computer and directs its operations. Andressen’s application of this idea to a company like Airbnb speaks volumes about the ambition of the new startup entrepreneurs and their world-building philosophy. Just as a computer operating system organises the hardware resources of the computer unit, creating a functional machine, social operating systems refigure the ‘hardware’ of human reality, connecting people and things in new and productive ways. Airbnb puts people with spare rooms to rent in touch with travellers seeking short-term accommodation. Uber and Lyft put passengers looking for a ride in touch with drivers looking for a fare. TaskRabbit links people to a universe of micro-entrepreneurs who are ready to run their errands, clean their houses, and mow their lawns for a fee.

This is creative destruction on a grand scale. The social and economic strata constructed over decades is being rapidly redesigned by plucky young geeks in the shadow of the Google campus.

[Read more…]

Be with me: Heidegger in the age of the smartphone

It is early morning. A chorus of birds filters through an open window. A young woman lies in bed with her boyfriend. It is a quotidian scene, almost perfect, yet something is off. The boyfriend is checking his smartphone, a web-enabled device. In this moment, his attention is elsewhere. Cut to the outdoors: the couple are getting ready to go jogging. The boyfriend is still caught up with his phone. She waits while he chatters to a friend. Cut to the woman lunching with friends of her own. There is real social chemistry here, a buzz of laughter and conversation. But the others soon start thumbing through screens, engaging with their phones. The young woman has forgotten hers. Her expression, as she looks about the table, is worried as much as reproachful.

Where are you, my friends? Why can’t we just be together?

‘I Forgot My Phone’ is a gem – a softly ironic and resonant statement about life in the smartphone era. It is not a polemic. It features people who are clearly enjoying the connectivity and functionality that their phones provide. The genius of the film is to let us see the world through the eyes of a character who lacks a phone, and is looking for human connection. In this way, it focuses our attention on what happens when we introduce smartphones into social situations.

The protagonist in ‘I Forgot My Phone’ wanders through a set of strangely ‘deworlded’ social events. People co-occupy physical space – sharing a bed, sitting about a table, congregating in a hall – yet their attention is directed away from the people around them to a greater or lesser extent. They exist alongside one another, as opposed to ‘with’ one another, in a psychological and existential sense. Everyone is enjoying private experiences mediated by their smartphones that never add up to something unified and common. A couple enjoy a private event on a public beach; a group of friends at a bowling alley sit hypnotised by their glowing screens; people at a concert engage the show through their video apps, as if they were elsewhere, watching the action unfold. The atmosphere is dead. The experience is so individuated, you could scarcely call it a crowd. [Read more…]

Hour of the mayfly: life and death the Existentialist way

thinredlineEver stared death in the eye? If you’ve not had the pleasure, like Pfc. Don Doll here in this shot from Terence Malik’s Thin Red Line, I recommend a thought experiment. Imagine that, right now, you are teletransported to the heart of a military conflict. Ker-bang. One moment you are surfing the internet, next moment you are knee deep in the mud with bullets hissing through the elephant grass about you. An explosion thows you down. Shit is real. You could be dead in an instant.

You want to run, cry, call for your mother. But there is no escape. You crouch low in the grass, taking deep breaths. Yout heart is booming in your chest. You are alive – for the moment. This simple truth has enveloped your entire consciousness. How strange it is that you didn’t reflect on this before, you think. Why, all your life, you’ve been stumbling about as if in a dream. Now, all you can think is: I’m still here! Life is not an abstract concept. You are living it, right now.

Death is in the moment too. Amid the explosions, shots and screams, the truth of human mortality is shockingly clear. Death is not something that lies far off in the distance, like the closing scene of a movie or the final chapter of a book. Death can come anytime, anyplace. The bullets are in flight, the bombs are descending. The hand of death may be on you now.

This is the truth of human mortality. Face this truth and it will change you.

[Read more…]

Stop talking about philosophy and do it

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‘Empty is that philosopher’s argument by which no human suffering is treated. For just as there is no use in a medical art that does not cast out the sickness of bodies, so too is there no use in philosophy unless it casts out the sickness of the soul.’ ~Epicurus

I started studying philosophy because I thought it would answer my questions about life. I was young and confused and in a hurry to figure things out. Other people I knew took their parent’s advice and enrolled in practical subjects like law, engineering, or business and economics. I thought I was clever by diving in at the deep end. I figured that once I’d answered the big questions of life (like ‘What is goodness?’ What is truth?’ ‘How do I know I’m not living inside the Matrix?’), the other subjects would be easy. First things first, right? Aristotle would have been proud. My parents, who’d never read Aristotle, were not so impressed.

But I persisted. I soon realised that I’d been wrong about philosophy. Not that it didn’t tackle the big questions of life. It was just that it didn’t produce many answers. Philosophy offers lots of theories, but these only seem to create more questions. Semester by semester, year by year, I watched my philosophy buddies and fellow seekers give up in frustration. I kept on. After a while, I had an epiphany. I realised that philosophy isn’t about answers at all. Philosophy is about asking the right questions. It is unlike other disciplines, which focus on communicating knowledge about the world. Philosophy isn’t really about anything. Nonetheless, it is a practical discipline insofar as it teaches us to step back, zero in on this or that aspect of life, and ask: why? [Read more…]

Be human: Heidegger and online authenticity

Bay-Holiday-Display-Blue-WomenThis is the second post in a series on online authenticity. The first post, Beyond ‘brand you’: reflections on social authenticity, points out a challenge for anyone who seeks to brand themselves on social media. It is easy to fall into the trap of defining oneself through shares and retweets. This sets up a shiny wall of themes and memes surrounding your brand, but it can make it impossible for friends and followers to access the real you. To define an authentic presence on social media, you need to tap into the unique person that you are offline. An authentic presence requires that you creatively represent the best version of who you are.

What do you have to give to the world? Take the best version of who you are and give it to the crowd. I call this: creative self-affirmation. Creative self-affirmation is authentic self-expression.

US management guru Tom Peters has an uncompromising view of creative self-affirmation. The key to self-branding online, Peters claims, is to become ‘extraordinarily/noticeably good at something of use/significance’ in the real world and brand that. This is easy enough for a management guru to do – but what about the rest of us? This post dips into the philosophy of Martin Heidegger to define a reflective approach to personal authenticity online that is both easier and more natural than the path Peters suggests.

Authenticity shouldn’t be a chore. Being authentic is simply being human.

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What does it mean to be you – the real you – online? Is it possible or desirable to express your real thoughts and feelings if you are developing a commercial image, or brand? Many people argue that, when it comes to online branding, commercial imperatives trump authenticity every time. The watchword of social media PR is caution: stay on message, avoid equivocal turns of phrase, keep the brand strategy in mind at all times. The upshot is that branded social media content often lacks a human voice. Like manikins in a store front window, branded content strikes a pose that reminds us of authenticity, but is incapable of offering up the real thing.

What about self-branding online? If cultivating a personal brand is subject to the same market imperatives as corporate PR, we should expect social media to be full of plastic people robotically spouting on point messaging. Some commentators argue that this is the way that things are headed. Geoff Livingstone, for instance, argues that ‘[t]he commercialization of the social web has reduced most communications to simply corporate or marketing initiatives’. Perhaps genuine authenticity is an outmoded virtue, as quaint as chivalry and just as absurd.

I don’t buy it. Every brand benefits from a human touch, no matter what product it’s selling. My thesis is that the best branded content online speaks of human values and experiences. It speaks of a human world, or set of worlds, and it makes us want to inhabit them.

[Read more…]

Beyond ‘brand you’: reflections on social authenticity

Twitter   tom_peters   Brand you  is a big  duh   ...When I read this, I laughed. It rings true. I retweeted it because I wanted to put my stamp of approval on the idea. One thing that I love about about Twitter (and other forms of social media) is that you can affirm your own values and intuitions by affirming someone else’s. This is a good thing, but it can also be a bad thing. It enables us to speak in other voices and say things that we agree with but might not have the courage, art, or nous to say for ourselves. It also enables us to speak without thinking too much, which is the bad thing. It is easy to get caught up in the process of RTing and sharing and wind up ‘passing the word along’ and not saying very much.

Tom’s tweet got me thinking about personal authenticity online. It is not easy being authentic on social media. If the philosophers are right, it not easy being authentic anywhere.

The tweet resonated with me for a bunch of reasons. I am currently working into a book some of the material that I’ve posted recently on this blog, namely the posts on Foucault and the ones on social media as gift culture. In the course of this work, I’ve come to see that the perspective on online identity-formation (or ‘creative self-affirmation‘) that I developed in these posts is too cursory and glib. It needs specification, at least. Creative self-affirmation is not spin. It is not the kind of shallow self-branding that Peters (who knows more about branding than most) is aiming to contest. What I call creative self-affirmation is a matter of affirming your unique, personal value. Peters is right: the key to self-branding online is to become ‘extraordinarily/noticeably good at something of use/significance’ in the real world – to become something and brand that. All the online self-affirmation in the world – through tweeting, posting, pinning, +1ing, following, liking, favoriting, and sharing – won’t make you worthy of branding unless you are someone of worth. So be the best version of who you are. We all have our superpowers – what are yours? [Read more…]

Five books that shaped my thinking

My thoughts are shaped more by life than books. The world is a book that we read implicitly. If the problems of the world do not engage us and inspire a response, a book will do nothing for us.

The following books have played an important role in guiding my work in the past decade. I have read many good books in this time, but these five stand out. The common factor is that they inspired me to break with ideas that I had become comfortable with and seek out new lines of inquiry. As Thoreau said: ‘A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting’.

1. Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (Harvard University Press, 2001)

I read Empire in 2001, in the final year of my doctoral research. I was writing on the relationship between Martin Heidegger and Michel Foucault, two of the most important European thinkers of the 20th century (some years later I published a book on this topic, Foucault’s Heidegger). Meanwhile, I was following the progress of the anti-globalization protests that erupted about the world after the Battle in Seattle in November 1999, participating where I could. Empire provided me with a theoretical perspective on these events that shaped my research output between 2002 and 2008 and fed directly into the script for Coalition of the Willing.

Hardt and Negri’s argument in Empire is that neo-liberal economic globalization should not be understood as a kind of imperialism (where a hegemonic power invades other countries to capture their resources), but a new form of empire that tolerates no external limit and seeks to incorporate all life within its order. This empire employs the internet to organize the global multitude into a productive force; yet as it does so, it enables the multitude to form swarm-like pockets of resistance that coalesce across borders to challenge the status quo. Hardt and Negri propose that the multitude will eventually realize its collective power and establish a new political order based in the productivity of the commons. [Read more…]

Future-casting: from memory to destiny

Luke Skywalker stood on the dune at the edge of his uncle’s compound and gazed wistfully at the twin moons of Tatooine. If only the future looked as grand as those giant orbs. Luke had been raised by his aunt and uncle, who were moisture farmers on the remote desert planet. When Luke looked into the future, he saw nothing but boredom and toil. Luke’s heart brimmed over with longing for adventure. But life hadn’t given him any resources that might enable him to realize his dreams. Luke’s dreams remained precisely that – dreams. He was destined to work the harvesting systems on his uncle’s farm for the rest of his days. His excitements would be limited to racing his landspeeder through the desert canyons and haggling with the Jawas for droids.

All this changed the day that Luke stumbled upon a hologram of a beautiful princess calling for help. He sought the assistance of a desert hermit, Ben Kenobi, who turned out to be a Jedi Knight, practically living on his back doorstep. Soon Luke was consorting with pirates, hot-dogging through the stars and fighting space battles with Imperial forces. All the while, his knowledge and experience was rapidly increasing.

Luke was too modest to admit it, but his sense of destiny was expanding at an equal rate.

[Read more…]