12 Jun

Philosophical Beauty and the Black Forest Beast – Heidegger and the Media

Posted By Politybooks

paultThe German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) was not someone you would like to have around for dinner and might seem to some an unlikely subject for a book about media. For David Gunkel and I, the striking mismatch that exists between Heidegger’s intellectual status and contemporary profile provoked us into writing Heidegger and the Media. Heidegger is generally acknowledged amongst philosophers to be the pre-eminent thinker of “being”.

However, despite the fact we live in a time of unprecedentedly mediated being, his work is largely ignored in the field of media and communications studies. The standard explanations we have encountered for the field’s avoidance of Heidegger rely upon one or both of two key themes

  1. Heidegger’s Nazi past makes him philosophically untouchable. Undoubtedly, the most unappealing and controversial aspect of Heidegger’s life was the 12 month term he served as the first Nazi rector of the University of Freiburg (May 1933 to April 1934) which led to his official classification as a Nazi Mitläufer, or ‘fellow traveller’, in March 1949 by the State Commission for Political Purification as part of the post-war de-Nazification process.
  2. His work is (in)famously unintelligible. According to Bertrand Russell, Heidegger’s ‘philosophy is extremely obscure. One cannot help suspecting that language is here running riot.’

These themes raise important wider issues about the fate of philosophy in a media age:

Shakespeare’s second best bed syndrome – The fact that Heidegger was a deeply unpleasant individual bears little, if any, relevance to the powerful implications of his work. Just as pained discussions of Shakespeare’s lack of generosity to his wife in his last will and testament bears no meaningful relationship to his genius, so, as Wagner also demonstrated so powerfully in the realm of music, there is no unambiguous correlation between the quality of a person’s creative output and their personal “goodness”.

The cult of the individual –Tabloid-like fixations upon personal biography (the sort that risk turning Walter Benjamin into the James Dean of cultural theory) is ill-suited to the life of the mind and creates a practical problem. If Heidegger is forbidden territory, do we disingenuously overlook his undeniably powerful influence upon a number of more “morally good” thinkers: Derrida, Sartre, Arendt, Marcuse, to name but four?

Questioning Heidegger’s intelligibility – The “common sense”, Campaign for Plain English-type call for clear expression is frequently used as a poor alibi for anti-intellectual prejudice. Certainly, Heidegger is not an easy read, but then again academics should aspire to produce something more challenging than journalism by another name. Heidegger himself suggested that ‘making itself intelligible is the suicide of philosophy’, but I prefer to highlight another of his typically resonant statements: ‘Questioning is the piety of thought’. Seldom has such a noble sentiment come from such an impious man but perhaps the truth of his thought still lives on because, not despite, the esoteric form of its expression, as Arendt put it in Mass Culture and Mass Media: ‘there are many great authors of the past who have survived centuries of oblivion and neglect, but it is still an open question whether they will be able to survive an entertaining version of what they have to say.’

In Batman Begins Rachel Dawes tells Bruce Wayne that, ‘It’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you’. When it comes to Heidegger, too many academics are trapped in this sophomoric, anti-philosophical mentality. In Heidegger and the Media we hope to show that outside Hollywood the relationship between philosophical thoughts and personal deeds is a more complicated matter than judging the personality of a fictional man renowned for dressing up as a paramilitary bat.

Paul A. Taylor is, with David Gunkel, the author of Heidegger and the Media, a new title from Polity Press that published in May 2014