Did the Turn to Theory Fail? On Re-reading Being and Time

Jeremy Tambling

October 6, 2022

The French and German theory which began appearing as part of what Rorty called the 'linguistic turn' in the 1960s are still being published. One of these is Derrida's Heidegger: The Question of Being and History 1964-65, which was first published in 2016. Reading that text now is not quite like witnessing the primal scene, but it changes our perception of texts which have already been read. Critical theory, to use a phrase which is in danger of monologising its different strands - involving poststructuralism, psychoanalysis, feminism, and Marxism - has been discussed in countless 'introductions' to theory, whether as taught in Universities, or as published by various publishers, but there is a difference between teaching theory to students, in a way which practically de-fangs it, because it makes it assimilable to more traditional and humanistic approaches to literature, and inhabiting that theory. Further, re-reading leads to asking, in a period which is seeing the decline of its impact, how much the turn to theory has in fact changed things?

Did the turn to theory fail? A theory whose anti-humanism set it off from then - and now - dominant arguments about the relationship between the author and their work. It contained such extraordinary and irreplaceable texts as Lacan's Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, or Anti-Oedipus, or Glas, or Maurice Blanchot's The Madness of the Day, or The History of Sexuality, or Camera Lucida, or Powers of Horror - the list of titles of texts which are theory and literature at once, which could be doubled easily - plus texts which were part of a Marxism which translated Benjamin, and Adorno. Who could not regard Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth-Century, a text appearing as it were for the first time in 1973, as a new adventure in thought - or the Marxism which produced 'the society of the spectacle'? And then there were the debates which changed the sense of what realism is, and what representation in art and language means, an issue for Derrida and Lyotard, and the pluralising of discourses around gender and sexual difference, in Hélène Cixous, and Luce Irigaray. It may be too early to say what that theory has meant, as an event. But the present dominance of the right plus a polarisation running through Europe and the USA indicates a push-back against some of its non-specific effects. This necessitates questions about whether the turn to theory has failed, or is having its effects deferred.

We should not stop reading and re-reading this theory with the sense that it said more than could be paraphrased, or which was paraphrasable, or could be put into an 'introduction to critical theory'. Insofar as that theory was German, it had the contexts or Marx, of Nietzsche, and Freud. Insofar as it was French, it had the poetry of Mallarmé behind it, and the name of Sade. Britain has had no Mallarmé, which has not helped with the reception of this theory here: and Britain has neither been good on translation (a topic for critical theory) nor on comparative literature, and perhaps not even on film. Indeed Britain has engaged much less with the implications of the modernité Baudelaire speaks of.

In July 2022 I finished a book-project comparing Dickens, as perhaps the writer I would most want to associate with such a modernité, with Derrida, considering both of them, separately and in comparison, on the death-penalty, Dickens in novels, Derrida in two years of seminars (1999-2001). The lack of interest in Derrida amongst readers of Dickens made it necessary to think how to present his work and its scope, and that necessitated thinking more about Heidegger, and to the decision to spend August reading systematically, and giving a month to, Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927), fundamental for so much theory, even to Badiou's Being and Event, and which I had taught, but never read through completely. I used Joan Stambaugh's 1996 translation, alongside that by Macquarie-Robinson (962) which was full of my old notes: time to read freshly, and make new notes. Both editions give page-references to Heidegger’s 1953 edition of the text, and these appear in quotations from Heidegger.

I specifically wanted to consider Heidegger on time, a subject inseparable from his impact upon critical thinking, as with Benjamin (on Jeztzeit - now-time), and Derrida. The question also had to asked, and could not be bracketted off: what of Heidegger’s Nazism, which always remains problematic. Is Heidegger's thought inherently fascist, as Adorno claimed? An interesting letter by Blanchot in Critical Inquiry 15 (1989) 475-480 is uncompromising on Heidgger's Nazism. Reading meant not foreclosing on the question. Being and Time was clarificatory, less hard to read than anticipated, though the prose lacks the springiness of Nietzsche, and its abstractness seems an obstacle, even though Heidegger recognises the problems, and says that this philosophising cannot think in terms of telling a story (6), because that would mean finding an origin, which is what his work opposes, and must also find another grammar (39).