A necessary “corruption”

Andrzej Wróblewski, Abstract composition no. 1504 _ Laundry, 1950s
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By SLAVEJ ŽIŽEK*

Philosophy is much more than an academic discipline – it is something that can suddenly interrupt the flow of our daily lives and leave us baffled.

The story of a Chinese migrant worker who translated a book about Martin Heidegger, a XNUMXth-century German philosopher, from English into Mandarin went viral last month. Could ordinary people studying philosophy save the world?

Chen Zi was born in the year 1990 in Jiangxi, in the south of China. In 2008, after failing his exams, he dropped out of university, where he was studying mathematics, and wandered the country for more than a decade, working in factories to survive.

Despite having to endure grueling 12-hour days of debilitating, repetitive work, Chen, whose true passion had always been philosophy, managed to learn English and began to read Heidegger. This year, while working at a factory in Xiamen, he completed the Chinese translation of Heidegger: an introduction, book written by an American philosophy professor, Richard Polt. Having also completed some other translations, he asked online if anyone could help him get them published, as he had been told his chances of finding a publisher were slim. When the media discovered his post, it turned into a hot topic on the internet.

Is there anything liberating about your dedication to Heidegger, or is it just a false alternative? It's easy to imagine the orthodox Marxist response: workers on the production line don't need Heidegger as an antidote; what they need is to change their miserable working conditions.

Heidegger seems to have been a very poor choice for Chen, and for obvious reasons. After the posthumous publication, in 2017, of his private notes in the black notebooks, there was no lack of attempts to exclude him from the list of philosophers to be taken seriously, due to his Nazi and anti-Semitic ties.

However, for this very reason, we must insist that Heidegger remains relevant: even when we find him at his worst moments, unexpected associations open up. In the mid-1930s, he said: “There are human beings and human groups (blacks, for example, like the Kaffirs) who have no history… of the human region, history may be absent, as is the case with blacks.” (“Cafre” was, in the apartheid period, an ethnic slur used to refer to black Africans in South Africa).

These are strange phrases, even by Heidegger's standards: you mean that animals and plants have a history, but “blacks” don't? “Animal and plant life has a millennial history full of events” – but certainly not in the strict Heideggerian sense of historical revelation of the entity. Furthermore, what, then, is the position of countries like China and India, since they too are not historical in Heidegger's specific sense?

Is that it then? Should we dismiss the case of Grant Farred, a prominent contemporary black philosopher, born in South Africa and who teaches at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, as a simple case of misunderstanding?

Your little book, Martin Heidegger saved my life, was written in response to a racist encounter. In the fall of 2013, while Farred was sweeping dry leaves outside his home, a white woman stopped and asked him, "Would you like to have another job?", obviously mistaking him for some gardener paid by the family she assumed resides in that house . Farred sarcastically replied, “Only if you can match my salary as a professor at Cornell University.” To understand what happened, Farred turned to Heidegger: “Heidegger saved me because he gave me the language I needed to write about race in a way I had never written before. Heidegger allowed me to write this way because he made me think about how one thinks.”

What he found so useful in Heidegger was the notion of language as "house of being" - not the abstract, universal language of science and state administration, but language rooted in a particular form of life, language as the medium of a ever-unique life experience that reveals reality to us in a historically specific way. It is easy to imagine how such a position allows a subject to resist being swallowed up by a global universe of technological domination. However, is this the way to fight what is often called the “Americanization” of our lives? To answer that question, we need to think – and, as Farred repeatedly points out, this is what he learned from Heidegger – but not just thinking, thinking about how one thinks.

Let it be clear, I am not a Heideggerian. What I do know, however, is that we live in a unique moment that opens the way for the urgency of thinking. This is not a time of peace that offers the opportunity to comfortably withdraw from reflections on the world, but a time when our survival as humans is threatened from different sides: the prospect of total digital control that plans to invade our minds (“wired brain”), out-of-control viral infections, the effects of global warming. We are all affected by these threats – and so-called “ordinary people” are even more so than others.

Therefore, we should celebrate miracles like the one involving Chen Zi. They demonstrate that philosophy is much more than an academic discipline – it is something that can suddenly interrupt the flow of our everyday lives and leave us baffled.

French philosopher Alain Badiou opens his book the real life with the provocative assertion that, from Socrates onwards, the function of philosophy is to “corrupt youth”, to alienate it from the prevailing political-ideological order. Today, such “corruption” is necessary, especially in the liberal and permissive West, where most people are not even aware of the way in which the establishment controls them precisely at the moments when they seem to be free. After all, the most dangerous absence of freedom is what we experience as freedom.

Is a “free” populist who destroys the dense social network of customs really free? There is a famous phrase spoken by Mao Zedong in the 1950s: “May flowers of all kinds bloom, may different schools of thought clash!” Today, we must say: Let Chen Zis of all kinds study philosophy – for only then will we find a way out of our predicament.

*Slavoj Žižek is a professor at the Institute of Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana (Slovenia). Author, among other books, of The year we dreamed dangerously (Boitempo).

Translation Daniel Pavan.

Originally published on RT Portal.

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