One of the best novels I have ever read won the Nobel Prize in 1920. Written by Knut Hamsun, Growth of the Soil is a beautiful fable about modernization, self-sufficiency, love and the magic of imagination. I love and treasure this book, so imagine my dismay when I discovered that Hamsun earnestly supported the Nazis and that two decades after writing the novel he met with Adolf Hitler and Josef Goebbels. And it gets worse: at that meeting he gave Goebbels his Nobel Prize medal as a token of his esteem for the Nazi movement!
Let no one deny that Hamsun – like Ezra Pound and a number of prominent intellectuals during World War 2 – was a Nazi and a fascist. Hamsun is nonetheless deemed safe to read because he is largely forgotten and the Nazi implications of his works are considered of academic interest only. The same is not true, however, for the German philosopher Martin Heidegger.
Nearly every essay, seminar and lecture about Martin Heidegger begins with a reminder that he was a Nazi in 1933. Some anti-Heideggerians – presuming that his thought is contaminated – have taken it upon themselves to reveal his fascistic impulses, arguing that it is best to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to his corpus. The war against Heidegger has been raging for over 70 years: it began when the Nazi regime ostracized him, escalated when the postwar de-Nazification tribunal prevented him from teaching and continues today with attempts to remove him from the canon of Western thought. The interesting aspect of all this is not that Heidegger is being attacked (I take his ability to keep the debate raging even after his death as a mark of his genius), but that those in power are scared of Martin Heidegger.
We all know that power has an amazing ability to co-opt resistance. While philosophers bemoan Nietzsche’s appropriation by anti-Semites, an ideology he deplored, activists in solidarity with Palestine are aghast to see the Keffiyeh sold in malls as just another consumer item. The ability of capitalism to turn resistance into complicity is so common that we ought to pay less attention to successful appropriations and more to the failed attempts. So rarely is appropriation deemed impossible by power that when it occurs we should explore the indigestible idea. Why are we told that Heidegger must be burned? Why isn’t he being co-opted instead?
I would argue that while Hamsun has been appropriated, his books are published by Penguin Classics and sold at mega-stores, it has not been so easy to pervert Heidegger. Martin Heidegger is an essential thinker and despite some protest, his thought can never be put back in the bottle. If we wish to get rid of Heidegger, we must also rid ourselves of almost all contemporary French and German philosophy: No more Derrida, Foucault, Ronell, Badiou and Agamben. Because Heideggerian interpretations of the past abound, we would also have to do away with much of our past. Nietzsche would be the first to go because Heidegger was one of the first to take his legacy away from the Nazis.
The danger of Heidegger is that he courted power, was rebuffed and then lived the rest of his life as an outcast – an intellectual exile few would touch. Such lives are resistant to the allures of power. His experiences under Nazism, led Heidegger to develop an anti-capitalist, anti-scientific, anti-modern, anti-democratic and even anti-Nazi philosophy. Living in a hut without running water and electricity, Heidegger crafted an entirely new way of thinking that has changed the course of Western thought. Do not believe their protestations: the dangers Heidegger’s theory pose to power don’t lie in Nazi or fascistic undertones. Consumerism is scared of Heidegger because of his ability to cultivate a new relation to all that exists. That new relation is not one of power but of stewardship.
At this moment in history – when technology and consumerism are leading us toward catastrophe – Heidegger may be presenting the only way out. If the fearful reaction to his work grows, it will not be because he is evil, but because power finally faces a foe whose assimilation would be ruinous to the wasteland of consumerism.
To discover the magic of Martin Heidegger, begin with his most accessible work: “The Question Concerning Technology”.
Micah White is a contributing editor at Adbusters and an independent activist. He lives in Berkeley, CA and is currently writing a book about the future of activism. www.micahmwhite.com or micah (at) adbusters.org