Thinking Against the Grain: an Interview with David Wood
Interviewed by Darren Hutchinson, Fall 2000
DH: What have you been recently working on?
DCW: Last Fall I wrote a new preface to the 2001 edition of my book The Deconstruction of Time which Northwestern University Press have just put out. I'm finishing up a collection of papers entitled Time and Time Again. This book brings together a whole range of things that I've written in the past few years about time. I'm finishing another book called Thinking After Heidegger - that's been in the works for a long while. I'm just completing the last chapter on Heidegger's Beitrage. And when those various projects are complete, I'm going to get to work on a crazy sort of book called Things at the Edge of the World, which is about the strange sorts of things that populate our universe and yet which are not merely located within it, but open up other dimensions, ways of seeing, ways of thinking. They have a kind of double spatiality - occupying a place in this world, and yet open up other dimensions. It's a kind of Alice in Wonderland of things, with lots of rabbit holes and disguises. One of the points of this book is to undermine the idea of the world as any sort of continuous space. Many of the things we find in the world actually open up other worlds. This offers a much more fractal understanding of space and time.
DH: What are some of the things at the edge of the world? And what puts these things at the edge of the world rather than merely being conventional objects within the world?
DCW: I'll give you two examples: Take a work of art, for example. You could say: "There it is, just hanging on the wall. It's a painting, and a painting just occupies this two by three space on a white background." You can locate it, you can send it through the mail, so obviously it is some sort of a thing, an object. But sometimes you get the sense that the painting itself looks out onto the world, that the painting is not just in the world but it actually opens up a world. It reveals a whole way of thinking and seeing and experiencing. That's a version, obviously, of Heidegger's account of the work being done by a work of art. And it shows how you can find a space within a space - or perhaps a different dimension of spacing located within what looks like a mostly plain old domesticated space. The question of the work of art is in all sorts of ways very critical for philosophy, but there are other examples. Something similar can be said, in a different way, of another object, one that's up in the sky, one we call the sun. What is the sun? On the one hand the sun is a very large, very hot ball in the sky, it's just a thing in our universe - it's only special because of its size, its heat. And yet the sun not just a thing in the universe, it's the condition of my sitting here and talking to you. It's a condition for there being any life at all on this planet. It's a condition for Shakespeare writing his plays. It's a condition for anything that ever means anything to us happening, because the sun is this extraordinary, constant reservoir of heat and of light. Imagine the universe without the sun; there would be no light, and we wouldn't see anything. If we existed, which is extremely unlikely, we wouldn't think about knowledge in terms of light at all. There being a constant source of energy is something that need never have happened. What interests me here is that the sun is on the one hand just a thing, an object, a very hot, a very luminous object. And on the other hand it's the material ground of our very being. The sun often embodies these two different dimensions at the same time. And in our relation to the sun, we grasp it in both these dimensions. People say you can't look at the sun, for long, or you will be blinded. Now of course it is literally true, that the sun can blind you physically. But in another sense there is the thought that if you were really to grasp the meaning of the sun you would be, as it were, turned inside out. You would come to realize that you were looking at something that you couldn't comprehend. Looking at the ground of our very being, of course that makes one start to wonder about the origin of religion, in what Hegel called natural religious consciousness, which would include sun worship. So those are a couple of examples of things at the edge of the world - a work of art and the sun. Another example would be 'the animal', such as my cat lying on a chair within stroking distance.! It doesn't take much brain to realize that you have really no idea of what you're looking at when you look at your cat. This thing-creature in my world is also in some sense an entirely other universe. So you have again this sort of double vision, a double experience of the thing that is part of the universe and yet even as it is part of the universe it, as it were, explodes my sense of space and time.
DH: This project sounds weirdly phenomenological. I know that you've recently written a paper called "What is Eco-Phenomenology?" - what is your relation to phenomenology these days and do you think that it is undergoing a sort of return?
DCW: I wrote a paper a few years ago called "Deconstructive Phenomenology," (it was published in the British Journal of Phenomenology). It was an attempt to argue for the continuity between phenomenology and what we might call deconstruction. What it does is to track the reappearance of a word which went out of fashion for a while, and that it is the word "experience". And the idea of experience seems to me central to phenomenology, even though phenomenologists rarely use that word to talk about consciousness. In my view experience is a much better word for the whole complex relation we have to the world as conscious beings. What I am trying to do in this paper is, as I say, to track the way in which for people like Heidegger, Derrida, and Blanchot, the word experience has had a kind of come back. Though it's not as if it is coming back in an uncomplicated way. Derrida talks about the experience of impossibility, and links it to the impossibility of experience. Blanchot will talk about the experience of disaster. The basic idea is this: we once assumed that experiences typically had to have an integral, integrated, positive content. And what's interesting about these returns to experience is that experience has become a site for the dramatization of the limits of experience, and the breaks within experience, the fragmentation of experience, the negativity of experience. And of course you could say "Should you really include this within phenomenology?" and the answer to me seems absolutely clear-- that it's only within something like experience that these limits appear, that they arrive at all. What I'm arguing for is an expanded sense of phenomenology, one that moves a long way away from the idea of phenomenology as some adjunct to traditional epistemology. It's not only a means of knowing, it's also a way of registering and responding to the complexity of our condition. And it's one that allows for and indeed registers paradox, breakdown, interruption, and limitation within our experience of ourselves and others in the world. So, what is eco-phenomenology? It's a deliberate attempt to repeat and to mimic Merleau-Ponty's introductory chapter in Phenomenology of Perception, called "What is Phenomenology." "What is Eco-Phenomenology" is an attempt to think through how phenomenology might be transformed if it ceased to think of itself in opposition to nature. And the reason I put it like that, is that I think in the work of Husserl, who invented this subject, phenomenology appears as an antidote to the world of vision and the world of natural sciences - the world in which causality is king, in which essentially things have external relations to one another. Phenomenology comes along and says that these are not the only kinds of relations, there are also relations of intentionality. The slogan that phenomenology invented here is, "All consciousness is conscious of something". And this "of" relation is completely different from the relationship between a billiard ball and another billiard ball. There's no "ofness" there, there's just one thing hitting another. Whereas if I'm aware of the billiard balls hitting each other, that awareness is not anything like another billiard ball, it's a different order of relations. And that's the sort of thing that phenomenology is trying to get at. Now what I am trying to do is to say that the natural sciences have no monopoly over nature and over our relationships in nature. We need to rescue nature from being possessed by the natural sciences, and if we can do that then phenomenology's opposition to nature - phenomenology's understanding itself as opposed to causal relations that it takes to be constitutive of nature - would itself have to be changed. So I try to work through two central topics within this 'new continent' - a new old continent. First of all I talk about what I call the invisibility of time and the way in which present experience is predicated on a huge 'subterranean' temporal continuity, that it only rarely sees or grasps. Time then becomes a fundamentally invisible dimension of experience. And the second issue I talk about is the way in which different things have (and some relate to) boundaries. I try to argue that, for example, when David threw a rock at Goliath he didn't throw just a handful of sand, he threw a rock. Those particles all were very strongly stuck together and they all arrived at Goliath's forehead at the same time - which made him a not happy Goliath. The rock, in other words, has a certain kind of limited integrity. On this version of the Great Chain of Being, an animal has a lot more integrity and so even does a tree. The tree for example will heal its wounds by exuding resin and gum. So the tree has very specific kind of relationship to its boundaries, it is not aware of them but it preserves them. An animal has or begins to have a relationship to its own boundaries. A human represents those boundaries in all sorts of ways, and a lot of what we call the psyche, the consciousness, is tied up in representation of boundaries. So I'm trying to provide an account of two fundamental dimensions of the natural world, and show how fundamentally what's involved in each case are complex relations: whether they are relations between present and 'subterranean' temporality on the one hand, or on the other, relations between inside and outside, the complex ways in which beings relate to one another. It is through these kinds of descriptions we can forge a middle ground between phenomenology and natural science, and we can provide a prolegomena to an eco-phenomenology.
DH: Earlier you mentioned the phrase "the limits of experience" and you were talking about time in relation to these limits. How has your understanding of time developed since your early work, The Deconstruction of Time, and how do your reflections on time fit into your newer phenomenological projects?
DCW: Well, the basic idea behind The Deconstruction of Time was my dissatisfaction with Derrida's claim that time (or any very concept of time) was inextricably tied up with metaphysics, which leads him to say that there could be no non-metaphysical conception of time. I found that discouraging and disconcerting and puzzling because there were even places in Derrida in which he talked about pluri-dimensional time, and it struck me that he was pretty clearly promoting new ways of thinking about time. It would be hard to see how he could favor them if they were simply further examples of the metaphysical conception of time, so I thought there might be a problem in Derrida's formulation. Now one of the conclusions that I have come to since I wrote The Deconstruction of Time, is that some of the verdicts that I came to, particularly about Heidegger who plays an essential role in it, were prematurely formulated. I claim in that book, for example, that there was some sort of lull in Heidegger's interest and concern with time after, between the works of the twenties, which include Being and Time and Basic Problems of Phenomenology and Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, and then in 1962, this little essay "Time and Being," as if Heidegger had, in some sense, forgotten the question and then returned to it. And I've now come to the conclusion that that's misguided. Heidegger, in a sense, is always thinking about this issue, but often he's not using or focusing on the word "time." What happens is that the question of time is rethought in other terms. When he's talking, for example, about Nietzsche, he's concerned with Nietzsche's account of the eternal return. He's concerned for example with Nietzsche's linking of ressentiment to the attempt to use the will against the past. If you read the Beitrage, which was written about 1935/6, you realize that the question of linking time to space or thinking fundamental dimensionality is right at the heart of Heidegger's work. And so I have come to the conclusion that whether it's under the title of time or whether it's approached indirectly, Heidegger's concern with time is unabating throughout his career. I articulate this much more clearly in my new preface to The Deconstruction of Time and also in the two other books: Thinking After Heidegger and Time and Time Again. Can we really do justice to what we might call time? Should we really any longer talk about time or should we instead be talking about time-space, or about some particular processes or series, or ways in which time is embodied.
I've come to the conclusion that to the extent that it's worth talking about time (and I would argue separately that that it's unavoidable), that there really are at least two different and discrete concerns. The first of these concerns actually began as the working title of The Deconstruction of Time and finally got displaced. I was planning on calling it The Structures of Time. I am interested in time as structuration, time as an organizing principle. Whether you think of a football match or a piece of music or a conversation or a narrative - each of these exhibit a fundamental, temporal structure, and are unthinkable not just without the passage of time, but without time organized in a certain way. This structuration of time I take to be a kind of pole, one pole of this tension. The other pole I would describe as time as event - time as the creative emergence of something new, an instituting time, a time or a sense of time in which something emerges that hasn't existed before. I don't think that it's possible to reduce one of these to the other, or to think one without the other. But each of these poles or dimensions of this tension, can be thought of separately, and can be developed separately, and can be explored and theorized separately, even though you eventually come to see these two as very much tied together. Events don't just happen, they don't just come from nowhere. They may be made possible by convergences, as Foucault describes in his genealogical thinking, by various factors coming together and making the emergence of something new possible. So what I'm doing in this new preface is to press the necessity for both of these dimensions of time, and in a sense keeping open a 'space' that's opened up by these two poles: time as structure and time as event.
DH: I know that last summer you participated in the Collegium Phenomenologicum where the topic was Heidegger's Beitrage. Do you think that the Beitrage is going to be of profound significance within philosophy in the coming years? What do you think that the role of the Beitrage will be in terms of the reassessment of Heidegger's philosophy and in terms of its contribution to future thinking in philosophy?
DCW: The Beitrage is an astonishing work. Anyone who has not read it has a one-sided view of Heidegger. It is the most dangerous, adventurous, risky, puzzling work of Heidegger's that I've ever read - and indeed of many other philosophers. It is said that it was a book written for himself, rather than for publication. It only recently came out in German, let alone in English. And it's a book that he wrote at the same time as he was lecturing on Nietzsche in the middle of the Thirties. And I think you can see in the Beitrage a continuation of a theme and a problem, which obsessed Heidegger throughout his life, and is becoming increasingly an issue for other philosophers today. That is the problem of the relationship between the meaning and the content of philosophy and the way it proceeds. In other words, thinking as content and thinking as an activity. That may sound like a classic metaphysical opposition, but there are many other ways of putting it. Clearly, what Heidegger is obsessed with, in the Beitrage, is a continuation of the orbit of Being and Time. There he adopted the language of fundamental ontology as a kind of expedient, and yet what he was trying to do was to undermine the very idea of a grounding ontology. And he got into a lot of trouble with a lot of people misunderstanding what he was trying to do, as if it was some traditional metaphysical text organized in terms of first principles. Heidegger precisely wasn't trying to do that, and yet got himself involved in a form, in a mode of presentation that looked as if that's what he was doing. In the Beitrage he says he's trying to think, as he puts it, from Ereignis, vom Ereignis. Ereignis has been translated in all sorts of ways: appropriation, event of appropriation, and the translators of the Beitrage finally offer us enownment. Heidegger says he's trying to think from, well we would say, from the point of view of ereignis, but of course it's not a point of view, nor is it quite a 'lived' position. Heidegger is trying to think from this position as opposed to thinking about it. He is trying as it were to produce a mode of philosophizing that escapes from the genre of thinking about something else, representing something, presenting something. He's trying to perform something, rather than just to think about it. Were it successful, it would overcome what we call the constant danger of performative contradiction in philosophical writing. The Beitrage, I think, is an extended attempt to avoid such a contradiction, one in which the very way or mode of philosophizing would contradict what one was trying to say. Suppose one were to attack metaphysics and yet produce another metaphysical system in the process. Heidegger is trying to cut through that danger and avoid that situation. And the Beitrage seems to me, to be the most powerful attempt in this direction. However, it is a bit like a romantic or tragic movie in which you can just see from the beginning that the lovers are fated to die, that this will not end well. For the Beitrage cannot actually succeed. In part it can't succeed because, of course, Heidegger is never just writing for himself, even if one could write for oneself, even if one could be identical to oneself when one is with oneself. And of course that isn't the situation that he's in, he's writing for people to read it, and readers have to interpret, they have to rework what's being said. And so the closed circle of performativity gets broken open by reading, especially reading in the light of a completely different historical context, and so on. So I see the Beitrage as a sort of beautiful experiment that is bound to fail. Now there's another aspect to what's going on in the Beitrage, which I think, is really fascinating. And that has to do with the role of the Call, and of Holderlin. One of the kinds of critical stances one could take on philosophy is a critique of its attempts at a kind of closure or totalization of knowledge, and the post-Hegelian attempt at representing the whole. Now one of the interesting things about Heidegger, in the Beitrage, is that he's saying that philosophy or certainly the philosophy that he's engaging in, is really a response to the call of Holderlin, a call originally made to the German people. What I find fascinating here is that Heidegger is not working within and kind of working out some internal problematic, rather he is trying to make philosophy worthy of a certain vision or prophecy or a call from the poet. It is in that context that Heidegger will talk about the gods, about the last god - about possibilities that are unrepresentable, that have not yet come. Of course this very much echoes Nietzsche's sense of writing for a generation to come, one that will appear maybe one day, sometime, writing for another generation, for new ears, Recall: "they have ears but they cannot hear, they have eyes but they cannot see". But if Heidegger is writing for an audience who doesn't exist, that might one day exist, this only increases the riskiness of his venture. So yes, we spent three weeks in Italy trying to make sense of this book, and also, I think it would be fair to say, trying not to make sense of it, that is trying to keep it at a certain distance, trying to allow it to continue to work on us. Because, of course, the temptation in reading the book, or any book, even the Beitrage, is to come out at the end of the day saying, "This is what it's about," and to the extent that I've done that I may have mislead you. And the real trick, in some sense, is to keep it intact, keep it operating at a distance, so that we don't just reduce it to something that we've known all along. So the Beitrage I think is a real challenge for all of us who try to read it.
DH: Next question: Heidegger's philosophy was never very friendly to animals. As you know, for instance, he says that animals are weltarm, poor in world. What do you think about Heidegger's conception of the animal and what are you doing to redress his mistreatment of animals, if I may put it that way, within his philosophy?
DCW: The problem I see with Heidegger's treatment of the animal is that it seems impossible for him to think about the animal in ways that don't reflect what it is he wants to say about the human. In other words, when Heidegger talks about animals as being weltarm, as having no world, or being poor in world, it's hard not to see this as a comparative judgment. It's hard not to see Heidegger as saying "compared to humans' relation to the world, animals lack this or that or they have only a partial or poor relation to the world." Now Heidegger insists that he's not making these comparative claims, but perhaps what that suggests is that Heidegger recognizes he should not or does not want to be making those kinds of claims, but it's hard not to see that that's exactly what he's doing. And in that respect I think there is a real anthropocentric, teleological dimension to the task of thinking. Just like Hegel, Heidegger wants to tie humanity to truth and to freedom, and the idea of 'world' - by world he doesn't just mean environment, he means a space within which one can be free - and animals don't occupy the world in that same way. They, as it were, move in and out of the light, they move in and out of truth and freedom, whereas humans, arguably, have a more reliable access to it. Of course that is itself problematic because Heidegger also wants to say that human beings are very often blind to the very things that make them human, which would make humans a lot more like animals - a puzzling outcome. The charge that Heidegger is being anthropocentric is important for two reasons. One is that Heidegger's whole philosophy seems to be centered on trying to avoid a certain kind of humanism, a certain kind of tradition of humanism, and yet the treatment of animals as conceptual metaphysical stepping-stones to the human - the thinking human - is an incredibly traditional position. So it looks as if you've got something like an unconscious repetition of a tradition here, which Heidegger would not be happy to acknowledge. But the second thing, and it takes us back to my using the animal as an example in talking about things of the actual world, is the challenge that the animal presents to phenomenology, or to an attempt at a genuine response to the alternative of the animal. When we say "the animal" of course we're already going down a blind path. There isn't such a thing as "the animal"; there are many different kinds of animals, different individual animals, and so on-- so part of what we would have to do going down this path is to undo this, and talk about every different species of animal, every creature, and we would have to try to ask ourselves what non-comparative concepts what-- how can we respond more effectively to the singularity of an animal organism that is not us, without using these kinds of comparisons-- talking about animals being "less in world" or "poor in world." So I see this not as an opportunity to show how Heidegger got it wrong or to show how he failed, but actually an opportunity to ask ourselves the most difficult kinds of philosophical questions. And to say something about the value of phenomenology. Phenomenology does not just teach us the importance of experience or just describe horizons of appearances, as if that were some sort of an aim in itself. The value of phenomenology is in encouraging us, in deeply problematic ways, to venture into areas in which we don't quite know what to say. In other words we haven't got all the concepts ready made. If you try and think about what it is to relate to your cat, you can do this in certain kinds of ready-made ways, traditional methods and ways-- but in some sense this is the antithesis of thinking, it's the antithesis of actually trying to experience what's going on. Now I don't mean by that that in order to relate to your cat you can throw all your concepts away and just look at the raw cat, as it were, what I'm saying is that phenomenology allows the drama of difficulty to happen, the drama of not knowing what to say. And it's there that I think Heidegger falls down, because Heidegger knows all too well what to say in advance. And yet in his displacement of the Cartesian subject into something like Da-sein, there is a really radical externalization or a radical dehiscence of the traditional subject into a whole set of constitutive relations. In that move Heidegger actually opens up the possibility - he doesn't tell us exactly how to do it, but he opens up the possibility - of a way of thinking about what animal life might mean. He doesn't himself pursue this in a radical enough manner. So my view is that the question of the animal in Heidegger is actually a wonderful opportunity to reopen the possibilities of phenomenology of trying to think in a place where our concepts don't quite work. And it's also a moment at which Heidegger's own attempt at reworking, rethinking humanism is checked, is brought into question.
DH: There seems to be a lot of ethical concern driving your resistance to Heidegger's account of the animal. What's the role of the ethical in your philosophy?
DCW: Strangely enough I have a lot of sympathy with Heidegger's own response to that kind of question. Heidegger's general view of ethics is that any worked-out ethical system or ethics in that sense, in some subsequent philosophizing, it would have to rest on an account of "being in the world" would have to rest on the kind of descriptions that he gives in the existential analytic of Being and Time. And subsequent versions of this thinking would, in a sense, replicate that same sort of structure. In other words, that any ethical scheme presupposes some account of what it is to be human, what it is to be Da-sein, which needs to be filled out satisfactorily, otherwise you just have empty schemes. Of course what Heidegger wants to say is that what we call ethics is derivative from something we might call ethos, the manner of our dwelling, the kind of communities that we find ourselves in, the ways in which we relate to the earth, the way we relate to each other. And ethos would not be, as it were, a license to prescribe in this or that way, it would be a ground for any evaluation, any kind of valuation at all. So Heidegger is getting close to talking about something that Wittgenstein would call a "form of life," as a precondition for subsequent ethical reasoning or systematization.
Now my take on this is similar in the sense that I think -- something, some aspect of the animal, or some dimension of the animal, goes all the way down. It's not something that appears at a certain point in our thinking. And you can find a nice example of this in Husserl. We do not usually associate Husserl with the ethical. Yet one of the crucial concepts that Husserl insists on when he's describing what phenomenology is all about is responsibility - responsibility to the phenomena. In other words, there is a moment, a recurrent moment to which phenomenology continues to return, in which what is at stake is our capacity to respond adequately to the experiences that we have, to the encounters that we have, to the engagements and interactions that we have. And those engagements, interactions, and circumstances are human and they are non-human, they're animate, they may involve relations to streets, to landscapes, to works of art, and so on. So what Husserl means by responsibility here is extraordinarily, at this point, not particularly ethical, or epistemological, or metaphysical. It's as it were a condition for any of these things to have any kind of value, and in that sense is an ability to respond. It's not anything like the kind of guilt to which Nietzsche would attach responsibility - but a willingness, a desire, a capacity to respond, and to respond to the ways in which things escape from the concepts that they are supposed to capture. That seems to me to be a fundamental philosophical work, which grounds our ends, and grounds indeed many of what we take to be philosophical virtues. So my answer to "Where does ethics come in, on [your] account of things?" is that it was always there even if it's not always obvious. We need to realize that it's always there, that responsibility, in the sense of an ability and capacity to respond, is a condition for philosophizing, and if you take it away you end up lost, detached, and out of touch.
DH: Recently you've taken an interest in earth art. What does earth art have to do with philosophy? What does earth art say to philosophers?
DCW: There are two different ways into this. One would be to try to think about what Hegel said about art, and the end of art. And the second would be to take up, again, the idea of philosophizing happening, most interestingly for me, at the point where concepts break down. In his lectures on aesthetics, Hegel said always that "in terms of its highest destiny," it's important that these words be included in this quotation because they're usually forgotten, "in terms of-- as far as its highest destiny was concerned art remains, remains a thing of the past." Now I find that a deeply challenging point, because it's not just a claim about art, it's also a claim about philosophy. And I take it that what, when Hegel says that art in terms of its highest destiny remains for us a thing of the past, he's lining himself up with Plato. I think he's saying that just as Plato ended up voting for Socrates rather than for Homer the same is true for us. Art can no longer cut it, art can no longer deliver a vision for a people that will inspire them, hold them together, give them some sense of who they are, and so on. For Heidegger in the Beitrage, Holderlin was the man for such an occasion. Holderlin's call to the German people was a dramatic event, one to which Heidegger is responding. And at the same time he is responding both to Hegel and to Plato, proposing that in Holderlin's writing poetry would cease to be a thing of the past and actually open up the future for us, a powerful alternative. Hegel is not just saying that in terms of its highest destiny art remains a thing of the past; he is saying philosophy is what we now need. Remember that in his early theological writings, Hegel had thought that it wouldn't be philosophy that would bring to a community its highest hopes, inspirations, ambitions, and so on, it would be primitive Christianity. So Hegel is working through art, religion and finding them wanting, and just as Plato had seen in Socrates the possibility of a new way, a new way of cultivating the soul, I think Hegel saw in philosophy this possibility. What I take it he thought was wrong with art was art's one-sidedness, its continuing pact with semblance, and the trouble with semblance is that it doesn't have the power to synthesize, it doesn't have the power to embody the idea, the notion, a sense of the whole. Whereas philosophy (once you understand it dialectically, which is Hegel's great achievement and certainly what he thought was his big discovery), embodies within itself the prospect, the possibility of presenting a vision of a whole to a people, to a community. Philosophy, not art. Now this is one way of explaining why I'm interested in earth art. And the question might have been, "Well, how does earth art, as it were, stand in relation to what Hegel says about art?" Now the second way into this, of getting to this very edge of this illustration would be this: when I look at these pieces, Robert Smith's "Spiral Jetty" or Nancy Holt's "Sun Tunnels," I find myself standing in front of these things, or looking at them in books. My jaw drops and I don't know what to say about them. Earth art, then, is presenting me with the very problem that is philosophically interesting - the inability to straightforwardly apply concepts to these things, and to capture them. In other words, these things challenge me, challenge my capacity to think. Can we bring together these two points of entry? The first way would be to ask whether Hegel's claim about art being a thing of the past was vindicated or challenged by earth art. Whether earth art is saying something to us. And the second is treating the occasion of experiencing these works of art as a breakdown of sorts, a breakdown of our capacity to conceptualize and capture something. I would bring these two thoughts together in he following way: there is a fascinating passage in Derrida's famous essay on Levinas "Violence and Metaphysics" in which he writes (talking about philosophers), that the only kind of community possible for us today is the community of the question of community. In other words we can no longer take seriously the idea of community founded on some single shared first order idea. What 'we' share is the problem of who 'we' are We are those who cannot close the idea of community, can't find one idea. And are troubled by that, and talk to each other about that, and think about that. Now having said that art, in its highest destiny, were now a thing of the past, suppose you asked "but what is the highest destiny of art, what would it be, what are we looking for art to do? Are we asking art to provide a guiding idea that will knit together or integrate a community?" Hegel's probably right, that in that sense art is still a thing of the past. But it could be replied: "Well, that's not actually what we need art to do." If the only kind of community possible for us is a community of the question, what if a certain kind of art could pose that question, could make it public, could stimulate and in a sense concentrate the minds of those who are asking the question of community? Couldn't art, in a sense, have a communal role, a kind of upside down response to Hegel? Art here would not produce an idea of community, it would produce a problem for community that could, as it were, constitute community, precisely by opening up its problematic nature. And that is the strong thesis about what earth art is about. There are three reasons for making this claim. One is that this work is public in an important way. It's outside the gallery, it's not tradable, it's very hard to buy and sell a spiral jetty, it's open to the public, it's accessible in that sense, even though some of these works are very remote, you can actually go there and see them without buying a ticket. So in some sense these works are both in public spaces, and they serve to reconstitute public space. And secondly-- they're not like the usual art objects, and in that sense not just part of the commercial art world - they were commonly defiantly opposed to that. Obviously this is a complicated issue - artists take photographs and sell them, they use these events for the purpose of self-promotion. There is a sense both of being at a distance from a certain kind of organized community, and yet challenging it. And the third aspect of earth art that interests me is that earth art sets up a conversation with the cosmos - it demonstrates that the human community is not self-enclosed, that its problems may not be soluble, as it were, internally. They may not be soluble unless we accept and recognize that we as humans, we as inhabitants of this planet, actually have a relationship to the sky, to the gods, to the forces of nature that we cannot control, and so on and so on. So I see earth art as in these various dimensions dramatizing the question of human community on earth. That's why it interests me. And just to fill out that last point: I find trying to think about them enormously challenging, a challenge to me as a philosopher. One of the questions I end up asking in that paper is: Are these works of art just grist to the philosophical mill? Am I just using them? Do they help philosophers to think? Or can art think itself? And that is a question I want to answer in the affirmative. I think art thinks, and that philosophers can learn an enormous amount by trying to enter into what's involved in the creation and the living through, the working through of works of art.
DH: A final question: What sort of questions do you think will be driving philosophy in the continental tradition in the opening of the 21st century? What sort of questions do you think younger students should be asking? And in what direction should they be going?
DCW: Well, when I was a philosophy student, I began as an analytic philosopher. I was really fascinated by the relationships between concepts. But I moved away from that because I came to the conclusion that even if it didn't become a game, that it was a version of philosophical activity in which clever people would always win, whether or not they cared particularly about the question they were dealing with, and whether or not they had much sensitivity to the gap between their thinking and what it was they were thinking about. And I started reading phenomenology because it held out a promise, the promise that that gap might in some way be filled, or better acknowledged and left open Now I've obviously followed quite a trajectory since then, through structuralism and post-structuralism and later reading Levinas, Deleuze, and others. But my hunch is that there will always be people attracted to philosophy because they like solving puzzles. That's not illogical; I don't think it's a crime to find that interesting. But for me at least the excitement in philosophy is in the struggle with what you're not sure you will be able to articulate adequately. And, now you might think that this gap, like the problem of articulation, is eventually and with hard work going to go away, and that when we accumulate the results of people bashing their heads against the wall there'll be less need for other people to bash their heads against the wall. I don't think that's right. In my view the future of philosophy lies in its development of the capacity to continue to think, even where there are no longer any rules for thinking. A lot of these opportunities arise - challenges not just opportunities - at what we can call boundaries, thresholds, uncharted territory. Not only is philosophy itself - and we are talking here about philosophy itself - uncovering more of these boundaries even by thinking about its own grounds or conditions of possibility, to the extent that philosophers are getting more and more interested in other disciplines (like psychoanalysis, psychology, artificial intelligence, environmental studies), when it gets interested in these other areas it finds itself having no choice but to confront these boundary issues, having to deal with material that is, in some sense, foreign to it. So I suppose you could say that philosophy's Other, philosophies relation to its Other, is a flourishing site. This relation is in part 'internal' to philosophy because there are all sorts of conditions for thought, which are not just the property of philosophy. And there are all sorts of objects of interest and concern that philosophy comes across which other disciplines have already taken an interest in. So I see philosophy as putting itself over and over again in positions in which it's not in control, not in authority, has no mastery and yet it's challenged by - and feels it has to respond to the challenge presented by - these other subjects, these other questions. To put it in another way, I don't see philosophy just as solving problems. I see philosophy quite as much as creating difficulties and keeping difficulties alive, keeping the difficult alive, keeping the complex from being reduced to the manipulable, what we can handle, constantly rubbing the cat the other way, constantly challenging and unsettling what we have made of life, so that we can continue to think.