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Thoughts on Visiting the Supreme Court

December 10, 2011

I’ve been reading Heidegger’s “Introduction to Metaphysics” (1953), a text that Heidegger helped edit together from a cycle of lectures he delivered in 1935. These days there are over a dozen of such seminar texts available, even in English, but this was the first to be published. This was in part because Heidegger judged the text useful as a companion—perhaps even as something of a corrective—to his unfinished masterwork, “Being and Time” (1927).

Among the innumerably interesting elements of the new text, one particularly infamous strain involves its references to politics.Heidegger joined the Nazi party in 1933 and served the Führer as rector of the University of Freiburg for a year. Critics of Heidegger’s politics have to do a little work to find evidence of incipient Nazism in “Being and Time,” but they don’t have to read between the lines when it comes to “Introduction to Metaphysics.” Immediately after the text’s publication in 1953, one of Heidegger’s students, the young Jürgen Habermas, wrote in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of his outrage that Heidegger could publish, without redaction or comment, a text that references “the inner truth and greatness” of National Socialism. A shitshow ensued, in which Heidegger himself ultimately wrote to the paper to clarify that by “truth and greatness” he meant historical gravity, not rightness or value. New objections were raised, new defenses mobilized, old questions reawakened, and the general controversy continues more or less unabated to this day.

I’m fascinated by this stuff, but I have a hard time articulating precisely the object of my fascination. For some, there’s a critical disjunction between Heidegger’s philosophy and his politics that calls for reconciliation and judgment. The question centers on “Heidegger’s silence,” his failure after the war to admit his responsibility. The argument has many forms. There’s a recent book out on it by an American forensic psychologist. I prefer the arguments that question the issue the way Heidegger might have tackled it. These arguments go something like this: Was Heidegger’s silence merely an accidental personality defect, as it were, added on top of his work as a brilliant thinker? Or was his silence, rather, the utmost manifestation of an essential silence that characterized his entire mode of thinking? A good question, but it’s one that, I believe, should make us think about the philosophical dimensions of a political silence as much as it makes us think about the political dimensions of a philosophical silence. This is not an easy task. An important text for the discussion would be Heidegger’s “Letter on Humanism” (1947), an open letter in which Heidegger responds at length to an inquiry about the relationship between ontology and ethics, paying special attention to Sartre’s manifesto, “Existentialism is a Humanism.” And since a key moment in the letter is Heidegger’s eminently questionable interpretation of a Heraclitus fragment (#112: “ethos anthropoi daimon”), somewhere along the way we would have to figure out what constitutes “ethical” reading. Only then could we begin to read the ethical dimensions of Heidegger’s work without doing the task an injustice.

Some of all of this occurred to me yesterday, as I sat on a park bench in Foley Square, beholding the magisterial New York City Supreme Court building: the hundred steps up to its octagonal façade; the Corinthian columns holding up the allegorical frieze; the two flagpoles crowned with gold eagles, forefronting the structure’s regal dome: the flag of the nation, and the flag of the state. I had just walked back down those steps after settling some business about my civic obligations. My summons had been on account of a missed jury duty: failure to show up to the office within twenty days could result in a five hundred dollar fine and thirty days in prison. I showed up after a few days. I passed my jacket through the x-ray machine, and gazed up at the painted panels of the dome of justice until my vertigo kicked in: Hamurabi, the Egyptians, Moses, Solomon, the Greeks, the Romans, Luther, the Frankish, the colonialists, the founding fathers, Hamurabi, the Egyptians, Moses. In a disarmingly plain Jurors Office, a man called me over almost immediately. He looked over the summons and apologized for having called me Alan. So Elan, what’s goin’ on, man? you missed Jury duty. I explained that it had been my mistake, I had been at school, and that I would gladly attend jury duty on the date printed on my summons. He looked at me suspiciously. You would? Yes, I said. I’m excited to. He said, well we’re giving out February, March, and April now. I said, February works fine. Friday, February twenty-seventh? I said, sure. He scrutinized me. This is an agreement, he said, waving the paper. I said I understood. He showed me where to sign.

As I left the building, I felt moved just to sit and look at the place and think for a while about what had just happened to me–what I had just been involved in, and what is happening all the time and involving everyone. I had made an agreement! If I should breach the agreement then I could be liable to a fine and thirty days imprisonment. I don’t think about politics with ease. The last time I had been in Foley Square was a few months earlier, with the first big Occupy Wall Street march. The square then had been flooded by a crowd of ten thousand people—and I among them, trying, failing, to get into the spirit. I remember the four microscopic helicopters, stationary in the sky for a time, and then reconfiguring in unison as the march slowly made its way like cattle amid the skyscrapers. Now the occupation was gone. The movement had moved underground. Zuccotti Park was gone, and here, in Foley Square, only a few tents stood.

I sat and thought about imprisonment, and cops. I remembered the video of the UC Davis protesters getting pepper sprayed. So that was force, I thought. Politics involves force. Of course I already knew this. After all, I once had to spend the night in one of these buildings, in a cage with twenty other people. But somehow now it all seemed a little different. I was reminded of a powerful thought that I had struck me after seeing my grandfather’s corpse: I could not deny that he was dead, if only because soon the body would begin to rot. Here it was much the same. As decomposition is to death, imprisonment is to politics. In the light of this thought, the court began to seem like a sort of hospital. A hospital is a site of birth and death, of “intensive care,” and in this way it illuminates the whole sphere of biological life. Likewise, the Supreme Court is the site of the city’s most critical juridical functions, and thus pumps the blood that courses through the city’s courts and law offices, its law schools and the police stations, and finally through the spines of the people who heed or cross the thresholds of the law.

At this point, feeling very much like Plato, I turned my thoughts back to Heidegger. I recalled the reading of Parmenides that lays out midway through “Introduction to Metaphysics.” Parmenides is confusing for everyone, but most people agree that the Goddess speaks only of two paths: the path of being and the path of not-being. What truth, opinion, and persuasion have to do with these paths is up in the air, but it’s relatively incontrovertible that there are only two paths. Not so for Heidegger. He says that there are three paths: Being, Not-Being, and Seeming. For him, Parmenides sheds light upon one corner of the fundamental dynamics of everything, which emerge from the fourfold binaries of (1) Being and Not-Being, (2) Being and Seeming, (3)Being and Thinking, and (4) Being and the Ought. It seems to me now that the final pair may finally touch on some of the concerns that preoccupied me yesterday. I’ll find out in a hundred pages. In any case, I sat there feeling the absence in Heidegger’s thought of anything resembling the physical forcefulness that I understood to animate the political sphere. I asked myself what sort of fundamental binary my idea might function within. Being and Time… Being and Nothingness… Sex and Death… All or Nothing… Truth of Dare? Yes, that’s it: Truth or Dare. Here indeed we have an allegory of politics in its most fundamental aspect. Speak the truth of what is, or else bend to my will! Why would anyone consent to play this game? There are many interesting answers to this question, and I leave it to my readers to explore them, but I want to suggest one: Truth or Dare permits the play of desire on the condition of a pre-established, consensual law. Consider its opposite: the torture of a prisoner for information. Truth or Dare resolves the inevitable clashes of will that lead to situations where someone has to exert force upon the body of another in order to get what he wants, and it does so by instituting a set of rights: the game grants its players the right to silence on the condition that they waive their rights not to follow orders. (Did Heidegger play???)

Consider the foregoing discussion a casual reflection on the topic of politics through the lens of Force and Being. I will end with an anecdote that justifies the theorization of the lens of Force and Seeming. I mentioned before that the only visible remnant of the Occupy Wall Street movement was a small cluster of tents in the park across from the court building, just behind where I sat ruminating. On my way back to my bike, I walked through the park to check out the occupation and noticed some white plastic signs around the perimeter of the campsite, which read: On the morning of Friday, December 10th, Foley Square will be closed for the filming of Law & Order: SVU. I had stumbled upon an Occupy Wall Street simulation. In disbelief, I inspected the camp: four or five tents, a tarp that would house the kitchen, a shelf of books by Al Franken. The crew asked me if I wanted a book, and I declined, saying that I was just comparing with the Zuccotti library that I had seen a few weeks earlier. They asked me if I had occupied, and I said no. Come on, man, you’ve got to get with it! I laughed. Were you there? I asked. Nah. I wish, but I had to work.  The punchline of the story comes courtesy of The Village Voice, who really needs someone with a Baudrillardian sensibility on their staff. Their story ran, “Fauxcotti Park: OWS Visits Law & Order: SVU.” As it turns out, last night at midnight around seventy-five members of the Occupation-in-exile staged an impromptu occupation of the fake occupation, which basically means they stood around and raided its kitchen. At 12:30AM, the NYPD arrived and announced that the city had rescinded NBC’s filming permit and that the protestors would have to vacate the park on pain of arrest. In the videos, you can hear a protestor ask an officer whether he’s a real cop or a tv-cop.

One Comment leave one →
  1. December 11, 2011 10:13 pm

    What an experience! The people outside of court buildings are always a fascinating combination of lawyers, criminals, the wrongly accused, and the supposed-everyman of the jury. I hope you enjoyed the people watching.

    That’s pretty fantastic about the occupy movements and Law & Order SVU.

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