By Mugees Ul Kaisar
The contemporary overarching paradigm that we breathe in today is what some thinkers have referred to as “metaphysics of violence”. It has roots in post-Aristotelian Western philosophy where (organic/holistic/dynamic) Reality is broken down into static fragments/“things” to be arrested by categorical thought in order for the humans to dominate & exploit “nature”. This metaphysics – which sees reality as pulverised static entities/things – in tandem with modern humanism led to metaphysics of violence i.e. human being perceives reality as arrestable resources to “catch”/prey for the sake of human domination. This has manifested in modern scientific exploitation of nature resulting in catastrophic environmental crisis.
Modern humanism perceives humans to be ontologically disjointed from nature rather than being grounded in it and sustained by it. In Heidegger’s terms, technology is not mere “technique” but rather a proper ontology (worldview, to use a popular word) under which Reality is revealed through the category/lens of “resources”. Everything is reduced down to a mere resource/“use”. Human beings cannot live without some ontological posture under which Reality reveals or unconceals itself through one category or the other. A tree, for example, reveals/unconceals itself to a scientific laboratory through a particular category i.e. resources, chemicals, atoms, etc whereas the same tree reveals itself totally differently within the ontology of a poet – constituting realities such as wonder, mystery, beauty, life, etc.
The popularized version of objective scientific reductionism which is often posited at such an occasion, although may be problematized by Philosophy of Science and Sociology of Science, nevertheless becomes irrelevant if we take the scientific reductionism to its logical end conclusion. If someone says that colours, sounds, perceptions, emotions or experience in general is nothing but chemical reactions then one may proceed and ask as to what these chemicals are; if we say that the chemicals are nothing but atoms and molecules reacting with each other, we may consistently continue our reductionism and ask further as to what these molecules and atoms are? The expected reply would be that the atoms are nothing but sub-atomic particles which in turn are waves of possibilities. We may continue our reductionism and ask further as to what these waves are? If we say that they are manifestations of physical fields or energy, the question doesn’t stop there as per the logic of reductionism. One may continue further and ask as to what these fields are or what this energy is in its essence? Finally, at the end, one inevitably arrives at the dead end of mystery anyway. Science, particularly contemporary physics, therefore, arrives at “mystery” which the poet fundamentally registers at the very beginning in his very first step.
Moreover, reductionism is yet another feature of the same metaphysical posture that we have pointed out above i.e. reducing complex qualitative systems/wholes down to quantitative simplicities such that “control” becomes easy. Capitalism also finds itself at home within this contemporary dominant paradigm because it too is obsessed with “numbers” such that manipulating/controlling customers becomes easy in order to churn out more & more profit.
Coming back to our main subject matter, Reality reveals itself through multiple categories. In our times, the dominant category is “resource”. To paraphrase Iain Mcghilchrist’s words, the contemporary scientific worldview is dominated by left (brain) hemisphere perspective wherein “detail” is of primary importance to get hold of specifics while as larger background context is largely missed or ignored which is the job of the right hemisphere. Poetry can help us redeem the mystery and larger/wider complexity of the world at hand. This richer lens which unconceals/reveals reality in a more organic/natural way (instead of forcefully channelizing reality through the filter of “resource”) can redeem both us & our world.
The contemporary paradigm of “resource” gives rise to “instrumentalist” mentality which gradually creeps into our own personal lives and the larger cultural milieu as potently argued by the Frankfurt school. Everything becomes an “instrument” of use. Human relations begin to be eaten away by instrumentalism. Every affair becomes transactional. This is what capitalism then feeds upon. An old pen of school days belonging to oneself or one’s grandparent, for example, or an old cup or an old photograph or an old garment is not a mere object. There is always a “remainder” beyond use. This poetic interface with the world in which we all participate every now and then when we look at an old cup or a pen or a photograph i.e. when we come out of instrumentalist ontology and register deeper mystery of the magic of experience/existence per se, we instantly drop the attitude of exploitation of nature.
Objects of experience become existential ruptures to “sublime”/Transcendent which escapes reductive language. Scientific reductions of experience into objects/matter/atoms/things do not take anything away from the sublime/mystery. Materialist reductionism is anyway a scientifically false paradigm because phenomenal reality is nothing but a “process” & the abstract (mathematical) universals and “intelligibles” are beyond physical reductionism. There are no material “things” out there in the universe as understood by classical physics but dynamic processes which are in relationship to each other. Their essence/origin/source (what we may call Godhead or zaat) ultimately remains a mystery to individualistic dualistic Cartesian cogito.
Art/poetry always has this remainder which escapes “exploitative” thought. The aim of “thought” is to essentialize/capture/define/arrest/locate in order to create a certain controllable “use”. Art has no instrumental use. Art is, instrumentally, useless. Art attends to the mystery/sublime aspect of anything and everything which is its real essence. Let us look at few insights from Heidegger on art to substantiate our point.
Heidegger once referred to Von Gogh’s painting of an old pair of tattered shoes of a peasant woman to make his point on art. Please note that there has been a heated discussion on this painting amongst Heidegger, Meyer Schapiro & Derrida which is beyond the scope of this article. We will primarily be focussing on Heidegger’s take here. For better comprehension, readers might consider looking at the painting by searching it online before reading the article further.
The first feature of art is that it de-contextualizes a “thing” such that its absolutely unique irreducible “Being” is revealed without the mediation of any instrumentality. Within normal perception, for example, any pair of shoes is not even registered. We use shoes to walk and that’s it. This mundane unreflective attitude towards the world wherein things are reduced down to mere instruments to be used – inevitably creates a dehumanized posture towards the world. By plucking out a pair of shoes from its mundane overarching/overshadowing context, Van Gogh is able to show the deep meaning of otherwise unsubstantial pair of shoes. The painting of an old pair of tattered shoes tells a whole story of its own. It is brought to life on its own. The painting lays bare the day to day suffering of an old lady; the immediacy and concreteness of daily struggle. Heidegger writes in The Origin of the Work of Art, “From the dark opening of the worn inside of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth. In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field swept by a raw wind”.
Art brings out the pure irreducible “thingliness” (Being) of a thing which otherwise we fail to see in “things” from an instrumentalist mentality. By de-contextualising things from their contexts where things are “concealed”/overshadowed, art unconceals the Being/“thingliness” of things. Art is a ground which is open to the rupture of Being such that unconcealment happens. Being “happens” in art. Art, therefore, is a rupture of Being. It, therefore, presents the actual nature of reality in itself wherein Being/existence ruptures (or comes) into being from behind/mystery/void. This is the important alternative vision of Reality as an “event” (that happens) as opposed to a “present at hand” static things/material to be captured by static categorial thought.
Art, therefore, teaches us to remain open to Reality/revelation which happens. This is why “thinking”, for (later) Heidegger, means waiting for reality to reveal itself rather than calculating its arrest through prior manipulations. This poetic attitude can de-fang our technology-based-culture which cannot now be materially reversed by turning back the wheel. It is the “poetic” attitude – which does not reduce Being to “things”/resources – that can save us. One recalls here, Heidegger’s student, Gadamer’s pertinent message to the world by which we conclude, “I would say that it will remain a task for humanity to see the limitations of the great legacy of our scientific culture. Because otherwise, we will surely kill ourselves one day … we cannot eliminate the risks which lie in misuse. And yet, I believe that we have to run the risk that the power that has been placed in the hand of mankind will become increasingly strong, increasingly great, and therefore, increasingly dangerous for self-destruction. This is a monumental task if humanity is to be able to survive; and this will only be possible if we overcome this one-sidedness of the will to dominate and mastery of doing by cultivating other powers, such as that involving suffering & compassion, or to speak with a poet, if we learn to honor again the human soul’s ability to dream”.
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