Monday, October 18, 2010

Thomson, Iain. Review of Santiago Zabala, THE REMAINS OF BEING. NDPR (October 2010).

Zabala, Santiago.  The Remains of Being: Hermeneutic Ontology after Metaphysics.  New York: Columbia UP, 2009.

Postmodernism isn't what it used to be. As a meaningful philosophical movement (rather than a vague term of disparagement), "postmodernism" primarily designated a diverse series of Heidegger-inspired attempts to situate and guide our late-modern historical age by uncovering and transcending its most destructive metaphysical presuppositions. Ironically, however, the only major contemporary philosophers still willing to call themselves "postmodernists" have renounced that "utopian" quest for a philosophical passage beyond modernity. From their perspective, the definitive Heideggerian hope for a "postmodern" understanding of being looks like a retro-futuristic fantasy, a quaint image of what the future might have been, which (like the Jetsons or Steampunk) has now been rendered obsolete. Unfortunately, when self-described "postmodernists" abandon the attempt to identify and transcend the distinctive problems of modernity, they empty the philosophical movement of its primary meaning and purpose, allowing the label to degenerate into a vague shorthand many philosophers use merely to deride and dismiss "that-relativistic-and-trendy-nonsense-they-read-in-other-humanities-departments-instead-of-studying-real-philosophy."

The philosophers who best fit this paradoxical description -- "postmodernists" who no longer seek to get beyond modernity -- are Richard Rorty and Gianni Vattimo. One of the two leading Italian Heideggerians (Heideggerianism being the philosophical mainstream in Italy), Vattimo is probably most famous for being an openly gay and Catholic member of the European Parliament. But Vattimo's philosophical work is no less incongruous: Vattimo seeks to show that his own anti-foundationalist, post-Heideggerian hermeneutics (which he proudly calls "weak thought" and even "nihilism") provides the strongest possible foundation for a liberal-democratic political order. As a political philosophy, Vattimo's provocative work is surprisingly convincing and so deserves more critical attention in the English-speaking world. As an interpretation of Heidegger, however, Vattimo's hermeneutics suffer from a serious problem. The issue is complicated, but to put it simply: Vattimo ends up treating the "nihilistic," Nietzschean position Heidegger opposes (namely, the reduction of being to nothing but becoming) as if it were Heidegger's own view and one we should all adopt (thereby becoming proud "nihilists" ourselves).

Santiago Zabala appropriates and extends Vattimo's Nietzschean interpretation of Heidegger in his new book, The Remains of Being: Hermeneutic Ontology after Metaphysics. That Zabala takes Vattimo's view as his own starting point is not surprising; Zabala is Vattimo's student, occasional co-author, and frequent editor. Indeed, as the editor of such translations of Vattimo's work as Nihilism and Emancipation: Ethics, Politics, and Law (2004), The Future of Religion (a dialogue with Vattimo and Rorty, 2007), and Art's Claim to Truth (2008); as well as of secondary volumes on Vattimo such as Weakening Philosophy (2009) and Consequences of Hermeneutics (with Jeff Malpas, 2010), Zabala has already become a leading exponent of Vattimo's thought. The Remains of Being is a relatively small book (the main text takes up only 125 5x7 inch pages), but it is far from introductory: Zabala rarely explains technical terminology, defends his views, or criticizes the views of others. The Remains of Being remains quite lively, nonetheless, for it is written in an energetic and dynamic style, with all the apparent conviction of an apostle of a new philosophical movement and with the excesses typical of such philosophical evangelism.

Zabala's book is a good example of the "Whig history" Rorty praised and practiced, that is, a narrative told so as to empower the narrator and "place rival canons" (as Rorty put it), in Zabala's case by trying to co-opt the views of other schools of post-Heideggerian philosophy. The Remains of Being is incredibly ambitious in this respect. For example, Zabala claims that the particular hermeneutic approach he advocates ("the ontology of remnants") "is the only way to philosophize" (16, my emphasis). Similarly, he holds that:
In the globalized world, where rapid ecological and political changes have been implemented by . . . scientific applications, in order to increase social divisions that favored two world wars (today we call them oil wars), the problem of Being becomes essential, because it is the only way to seek the ground of these issues. (34, my emphasis)
Here Zabala adopts a much simplified version of Heidegger's view that the most pressing problems facing the contemporary world stem from the "forgetting of being." Because Zabala does not seem to understand the details of Heidegger's critique of metaphysics as ontotheology, however, he goes so far as to call for us "to overthrow the metaphysical and scientific traditions that have concealed the ontological nature of Being in favor of the ontic nature of beings" (39, my emphasis). Zabala thinks "science . . . is involved in the abandonment of Being" (33) because "The scientist . . . works out solutions to problems that are objectified, timeless entities" (44). That is not Heidegger's view, however, and makes little sense of such leading scientific endeavors as the search at CERN for Higgs boson particles (theorized to last for only a small fraction of a second, and so hardly "timeless entities"). Heidegger's view is that physics has taken over the metaphysical tradition's ontotheological quest to secure both the innermost core and the outermost horizon of intelligibility. (The work at CERN, when coupled with other major scientific endeavors such as the Hubble space telescope, reinforces Heidegger's view of the persistence of ontotheology. Even Stephen Hawking's recent charge that "philosophy is dead" unintentionally acknowledges that physics and cosmology have adopted metaphysics' traditional ontotheological role.) Zabala's anti-scientific view rests on a misunderstanding of Heidegger.[4]

To be fair, Zabala warns readers that his "interpretation of these philosophers, including and most of all Heidegger, does not pretend to be a faithful interpretation of their thought" (xv). According to Zabala's simplified version of Heidegger's critique of metaphysics, our "rational way of looking at the world . . . has made unavoidable the alienated, unhoused, persistently violent state of modern technological human beings" (34). The biggest surprise here is that for Zabala (his revolutionary rhetoric notwithstanding), "overthrowing" the metaphysical tradition allegedly responsible for alienation, homelessness, and violence does not mean "overcoming" it but, instead, "learning to live with it" (45)! As Zabala succinctly puts it: "overcoming metaphysics from within" means "recognizing that it cannot completely be overcome" (22). This paradoxical idea is at the heart of Zabala's The Remains of Being, and it is something Zabala takes over from Vattimo. . . .

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