Working from newly available texts in Heidegger’s Complete Works, Krzysztof Ziarek presents Heidegger at his most radical and demonstrates how the thinker’s daring use of language is an integral part of his philosophical expression. Ziarek emphasizes the liberating potential of language as an event that discloses being and amplifies Heidegger’s call for a transformative approach to poetry, power, and ultimately, philosophy.
About the Author
Krzysztof Ziarek is Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at SUNY-Buffalo. He is author of The Force of Art.
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Language After Heidegger
By Krzysztof Ziarek
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2013 Krzysztof Ziarek
All rights reserved.
Event | Language
Was ist dann, wenn das Seiende und dessen je nachgetragene Seiendheit (das Apriori) den Vorrang verliert? Dann ist das Seyn. Dann wandelt sich das "ist" und alle Sprache wesentlich.
— Heidegger, GA 66, 337
What happens then, when beings and the beingness (the a priori) that is always appended to them lose their preeminence? Then beyng is. Then, the "is" and all language transform themselves essentially.
—Heidegger, Mindfulness, 300–301 (modified)
Event and the Folds of Language
The key role of language in Heidegger's thinking after the "turn" of the mid-1930s comes from his recognition, already hinted at in Contributions to Philosophy, that the question of being that spans the trajectory of his work is essentially the question, or more precisely, the way, of language. This may be why the last section of Contributions to Philosophy is titled "Language (Its Origin)" (CP, 401), as it outlines briefly the guiding threads of Heidegger's emerging signature approach: language and the event; language as unfolding from silence; language and the clearing, world, and history; language as strife and rift (Riss); language as both "the first and most extensive humanizing [Vermenschung] of beings" and as the opportunity for the dehumanization or, more emphatically, dishumanization (Entmenschung) of the human being away from its status as "an objectively present living being and 'subject'" (CP, 401). These concerns index the reciprocity between the Destruktion of the metaphysical manner of asking the question of being and the problematic of language. Just as much as Heidegger's repeated rephrasing of the Seinsfrage influences his writings on language, so do the evolving understanding of language and its reflection in Heidegger's writing practice impact the reformulations of the question of being from the initial prism of the ontological difference to the history of being—with Heidegger increasingly using the older German spelling Seyn—and the event. One of the markers of this shifting approach in the texts from late 1930s is the way Heidegger vacillates between writing about the overcoming (Überwindung) of metaphysics and about the need of an admittedly more radical twisting or torsion (Verwindung) that would bring metaphysics to a turning point. Recognizing the fact that the call for the overcoming of metaphysics remains essentially metaphysical, since it aims to open a further zone of thought "beyond" metaphysics and has a ring of finality to it, Heidegger begins to explore instead the possibility of pushing metaphysics to its edge in order to induce a turn within it that would release thinking from its metaphysical foundations and perhaps let it think otherwise, or at least allow thought to transform its own relation to thinking. In the much later "Time and Being," Heidegger goes as far as to speak of the need to cease all overcoming and to leave metaphysics to itself (OTB, 24; ZSD, 25).
This shift from overcoming metaphysics to bringing it to a turning point is also reflected in the well-known remarks from "The Way to Language" about the need for a transformation of language.
In order to think back to the essence of language [Sprachwesen nachzudenken: to think after and in accordance with], in order to reiterate [literally, aftersay, nachzusagen] what is its own, we need a transformation [Wandel] of language, a transformation we can neither compel nor concoct. The transformation does not result from the fabrication of neologisms [neu gebildeter Wörter] and novel phrases. The transformation touches on our relation [Verhältnis] to language. (BW, 424-425; GA 12, 255–256)
Overcoming metaphysics would be tantamount to an impossible invention of a new language, and thus to a forcible change, which would not necessarily touch at all upon that from which the transformation in question could and, in Heidegger's estimation, should spring: namely our relation to language, that is, the way we hold ourselves to and experience language's work. This is why Heidegger points instead to a shift in our relation to language that could issue in the transformation of language, a transformation that cannot be 'simply' forced or invented. What would literally issue and manifest from this turn in our relation to language, is precisely the "origin" of language, its essence or essential occurrence (Wesen as used by Heidegger is its verbal resonance of coming to be rather than in the substantive sense of 'essence,' hence also the frequently used derivative Wesung) as coming specifically from the event. Approached this way, the essence of language forms the original pronouncement (Ur-Kunde) of the event. "For the event—owning, holding, keeping to itself—is the relation of all relations" (BW, 425, modified). Therefore, language needs to be experienced and considered in its specific issuing, its Wesung or essential occurrence, from the event: not with regard to beings, humans, or life, but to the always singular (einzig) and one-time (einmalig) clearing, that is, the coming open, of the event. Because language is (or issues) in this manner, the change in our relation to language reverberates within the event as "the relation of all relations," changing the way we think and take part in how the event unfolds. The very possibility of bringing metaphysics to its turning point, its Verwindung, and turning with it also the way we experience the question of being, hinges on such a transformation of language. For this transformation means a critical change in how thinking unfolds; instead of being guided by conceptual grasp and definition, it is steered and molded by what listening to language discloses, by what insights and avenues it opens. In such changed thinking, what language itself opens up or initiates comes to be amplified in writing so that it quickly acquires a transformative role with regard to thinking, in a way dictating, that is, "saying," its moves and developments. In Heidegger, this "saying" marks its turns in thought most often by way of hyphenated words and word series or constellations, through etymological connections or the networks of prefixes and the new resonances they lend to established words and concepts. In short, without transforming our relation to language, of our experience of what language is and how it guides deliberation, thinking will not be able to change, and no amount of talking about radical critique, postmodernity, or postmetaphysics, will force or manufacture the transformation at issue in Heidegger.
This transformation, more critical than the linguistic turn in philosophy, points to a necessary shift from the metaphysical ways of understanding language, based on the notion of zoon logon echon, that is, on the concept of the human as an animal endowed with language. This dominant approach results in language being locked within the matrix of physiological, biological, and anthropological presuppositions and determinations that produce various types of metaphysical discourses "about" language—its conceptions or theories — rather than make room for an experience with and a thinking through language Heidegger is interested in. Included in this perspective is the philosophy of language, which Heidegger calls in Zum Wesen der Sprache und Zur Frage nach der Kunst, "metaphysical thinking 'about' 'language' (language philosophy)" (GA 74, 141). The fact that the German terms for about and language both appear in quotation marks in the original indicates the intrinsic objectification of language as a target of study and reflection, as though it were possible to turn language into an object and construct a meta-discourse in language 'about' 'language.' From the start, Heidegger's singular way with language calls into question and reframes the approaches to language based on physiology or biology and, today, neurobiology. Putting these determinations of language in question does not in any way invalidate these views of language. In fact, Heidegger himself would be quick to say that these conceptions are certainly correct –in accordance with the scientific paradigm of objectivity and correctness—and allow us to learn a great deal about the neurobiological processes involved in language and cognition. Yet their correctness does not mean that they lay bare the "true" way of language, as 'truth' for Heidegger is simply not graspable in terms of correctness or adequation. This is why Heidegger does not tie the origin of language to either the organs of speech or writing, just as he does not explain it with regard to the cognitive capabilities of the human brain—in fact not with regard to the human being to begin with—instead, he decisively shifts the inquiry into the domain of the event.
For the same reasons, he also distances himself from the notion that language operates as expression, turning ideality (the nonsensible) into the sensible by way of sounds and letters, since this notion relies on both the idea of the human being as the 'subject' and on the paradigm of representation. Most important, this critical stance evinced in Heidegger's texts pertains as well to the underlying anthropological assumption that language is a possession of human beings, that "man 'has' language," as Heidegger often puts it, paraphrasing the Aristotelian zoon logon echon. To counter this prevailing metaphysical framing of language, Heidegger inverts this phrase and repeatedly states that "language 'has' man" or "the word 'has' man." "Das Wort, was den Menschen (Dasein) 'hat' (Wesung des Wortes), gründend—ab-gründig" (GA 74, 100)—"The word, that which 'has' man (Dasein) (essencing of the word), grounding—abyssal." And in another place, "Der Mensch hat die Sprache, weil die Sprache im Wort entspringt, das Wort aber als die Sage des Seyns den Menschen hat, d. h. bestimmt in seine Bestimmung" (GA 74, 122) —"Man has language, because language arises in the word; the word as the saying of beyng, however, has man, that is, defines him in his determination." The notion that human beings 'have' language assumes that language is primarily a tool, an informational instrument, which can be owned, used, and manipulated, and that as such a tool, it can be adequately described and understood through linguistics, philosophy of language, or (bio)informatics, or perhaps by the combination of the three. The fundamentally Aristotelian understanding of language is based on the conception of logos and reason, whose origin in what Heidegger calls "the attentiveness to beyng capable of holding still" (stillhaltende Achten auf das Seyn), remains uninterrogated and unexperienced. As a result, instead of approaching language through attentiveness to being, reason (Vernunft) and language become mistakenly conceived as a special capacity attached to animality (Vermögen im animal), which renders inaccessible language in its originative relation to being.
The formulation "language has man," which occurs repeatedly in the texts on language from Zum Wesen der Sprache und Zur Frage nach der Kunst, bespeaks the key point in Heidegger's thinking of language. This point has not been given enough attention in responses to Heidegger's reflections on language, even in poststructuralist approaches, which are often sympathetic to at least the fundamental orientation of Heidegger's critique of metaphysics: Heidegger's continuous insistence, beginning perhaps with Contributions to Philosophy, that the originative moment of language cannot be explained with regard to living beings. This is the crux of the already mentioned final section of Contributions to Philosophy, in which Heidegger, noting the humanizing power of language, its overwhelming and pervasive Vermenschung, points out that, when finally experienced in its essential occurrence, language instead can "dishumanize" (Entmenschen) the human being, that is, break the hold that the notion of an objectively present living being continues to have on the understanding of the human. The prefix ent- is employed here by Heidegger in its positive sense of liberating and releasing from the ossified construal of the "human," as it is juxtaposed with the negative resonance of ver- in Vermenschung, which indicates a false turn in understanding the human and the expanding detrimental effects of such anthropomorphization. It is crucial to note that this positive, "dishumanizing" momentum of language, when it is experienced simultaneously from the event and as being of the event, does not pertain simply to the concept of the subject but, more broadly, to the notion of the living being. In other words, its import is not circumscribed or exhausted by the critique of the subject as a unitary being or as an effect of language, produced, constituted, or performed by and in it. For Heidegger, the decisive moment of dishumanization (Entmenschung) has to do with questioning the notion that the human being can be explained as essentially a living being who, as distinguished from other animals, is also endowed with language. It is this different understanding of language, especially its originative relation to the event, that guides how Heidegger proposes to rethink the human and thus sets the stage for his critique of reason and of the notion of life. In other words, Heidegger's attempt to transform language, and through it thinking, lends its force to his critique of power, technology, and life, which began to come into focus in the late 1930s.
To consider the human being nonmetaphysically requires displacing the notion of the living being into the "wake" of the event, after and according to the event's 'language,' which means that what makes humans "human" is not their status as specifically determined living beings, as human animals, but instead their idiomatic relatedness to being. This is why Heidegger prefers to write instead in his late texts about "mortals"—written, as far as I am aware, always in the plural, die Sterbliche,—because the designation "mortals" sets the primary determinants with regard to language and finitude, that is, the event and its finite spatiotemporal span, and not with reference to life or living beings. What decides the scope and shape of the experience of mortality, and thus orients and forms its participants, the mortals, is the finite and historical relation they (can) have to being, that is, being-there or Da-sein. This relation transpires by way of the event's coming to word, that is, as language, and decides mortality with regard to the nothingness (Nichts) intrinsic to the unfolding of being, which means that neither mortality nor the nothingness at issue here can be reduced to or explained in terms of life and its end. In this way, Heidegger appears to lend the word "dying" (Sterben) a thoroughly idiomatic sense: not the end of life (Verenden) or demise (Ableben), but a singular attentiveness to the nothingness pulsing—in the more active sense of Nichtung—in being, to its wordless imprint on the event-like experience of time and space. Death thought of with regard to life understands or rather misunderstands "being" in terms of life's coming to its inevitable end and therefore does not do justice to the nothingness as the "silent force of the possible" enabling and reverberating in being.
As Heidegger explains in GA 74, "Das Wort 'hat' den Menschen (nicht das Lebewesen), sondern den Menschen als den Vernehmer des Seienden—vor-stellend, ver-nehmend (planend), besorgend" (143)—"The word 'has' man (not the living being), but man as the perceiver of beings—re-presenting, perceiving (planning), concerned." Language "has" the human being because it is the word that calls forth, carries, and determines mortals as always open to deciding, as Da-sein, and thus as guardians of the truth of being (see 143). Translating the phrase zoon logon echon as "man 'has' [possesses] the word," Heidegger emphatically declares that his rephrasing, "the word 'has' man," which he calls the beyng-historical (seynsgeschichtlich) maxim, does not simply reverse the metaphysical conception of language, because metaphysics, defining language through zoe leaves everything undecided, especially with regard to the mortal relation to being. By contrast, the possibility of being mortal and existing as Da-sein, that is, as entering and holding stance (Heidegger's term is Inständigkeit) in the clearing of the there (Da)—that is, in the midst of beings open to their deciding—is essential and more fundamental to what it means to be 'human,' specifically with regard to being, than living is, and it is so precisely no longer in the metaphysical sense of fundaments and essences. We must remember that Heidegger's perspective, from Being and Time onward, is focused on the question of being and not of life, which places the emphasis on the understanding of mortals, who, as capable of Dasein, of being-there, fit and respond to the Seinsfrage in ways inaccessible and incomprehensible in terms of life or with regard to humans defined on the basis of living beings.
Excerpted from Language After Heidegger by Krzysztof Ziarek. Copyright © 2013 Krzysztof Ziarek. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
List of Abbreviations
1. Event % Language
2. Words and Signs
3. Poetry and the Poietic
4. Language after Metaphysics
What People are Saying About This
Nonpareil in its nuance, scholarship, and reach, Language After Heideggershows how fundamentally Heidegger thinksthroughlanguage, the clearing for words that are not (yet) signs, in an attempt to transform our attunement to the thoughtfuleventof language. Ziarek's crisply-written study is a "must-read" for anyone grappling, not only with the pivotal role of language in Heidegger’s thinking, but also critically with its creative–indeed, "feminine"–promise.
In this thoughtful book Krzysztof Ziarek presents an incisive and original account of Heidegger’s thinking about language and poetics, one that largely departs from poststructuralist interpretations of Heidegger’s work. Accordingly, Ziarek’s book will be of interest both to readers and scholars of Heidegger and the demurrals of his poststructuralist interpreters.
This is an original contribution to the task of thinking language in-and after-Heidegger. With eloquence, rigor, and a keen ear for language Krzysztof Ziarek has shown us what Heidegger means by the need to "think poetically."