/ Introduction: Geschlecht III and the Problem of ‘National-Humanism’

This special issue of Política común gathers most of the papers given at a conference devoted to Jacques Derrida’s newly discovered and recently published Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity. Organized by Adam R. Rosenthal and sponsored by the Melbern G. Glasscock Center for Humanities Research, the conference took place in the Spring of 2019 (February 13-14) at Texas A&M University under the heading: “On Heidegger’s ‘National-Humanism’: A Symposium on Derrida’s Lost Geschlecht III.” Inspired by an essay Derrida published with little controversy in 1992 entitled “Onto-Theology of National-Humanism (Prolegomena to a Hypothesis),” the conference’s title proved somewhat more controversial in 2019, immediately provoking a small commotion in the already agitated world of Facebook. An anecdote might be useful here, in order to illustrate the curious status Geschlecht III enjoys vis-à-vis the contemporary reception of Heidegger after the Black Notebooks. Not long ago, Emmanuel Faye, one of Heidegger’s fiercest critics, availed himself of a public group on Facebook by the name of “Heidegger, les Cahiers noirs”—the French for “Schwarze Hefte” (Black Notebooks)—in order to indict Derrida’s Geschlecht III. A poster advertising the aforementioned conference at Texas A&M had been posted by a moderator to the group’s page. Commenting on the image of the poster or, more precisely, on the expression “national-humanism” in the conference title, Faye wrote: “This expression is an infamy” (cette expression est une infamie). Livia Profeti, who edited the Italian translation of Faye’s 2005 book Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy, went on to articulate why exactly the expression “national-humanism” seems so repugnant to some, une infamie, as Faye says:

I agree with Monsieur Faye: the way I see it, the expression “National Humanism” is an infamy because Heidegger’s name is historically and theoretically tied to “National-Socialism,” this movement of extermination that had nothing to do with any form of humanism. However, on the one hand, the title of the conference utters a blatant lie by characterizing Heideggerian doctrine as a humanism, even though it is well known that Heidegger rejected the name humanism for his ontology. And, on the other hand, this title insidiously suggests, by means of its assonance, that National-Socialism itself was a humanism. Seen as the question concerns millions of deaths, these two lies are repugnant (infâmes).[1]

If we may dwell on this Facebook anecdote just a little longer, the use of the words “infamie” and “infâme” is, in the context of this Facebook group page, overdetermined to say the least. For, one finds in the “cover photo” of the group’s homepage the German word “Schandtat”—a possible translation of “infamie” into German—being used in the plural form to designate the atrocities perpetrated during World War II. In a collage of three images—one of which displays Heidegger as Rector of Freiburg University wearing his Nazi Party pin (featuring an eagle, globe, and swastika) on his jacket lapel in 1934—is showcased, alongside another Heidegger mugshot, an image of a famous poster produced by the American Office of Military Government in 1945 in an effort to spread a sense of what Carl Jung called the German collective guilt (die Kollektivschuld) for the atrocities committed in World War II, which the poster’s slogan expresses as “diese Schandtaten: eure Schuld!” (these atrocities: your fault!) while deictically referring to seven images displaying the piled corpses of the victims of these horrendous acts for which virtually every German is responsible, “mitverantworlich” as the poster has it in bold down below.

The suggestion is obvious: Heidegger is to be blamed for these shameful deeds, and we must, highly moral scholars that we are, continue to assign guilt where it is due, pointing a finger at those who dare to read Heidegger as a philosopher, calling them out when they, too, commit atrocities and repugnant deeds. Such is the overdetermined context in which Faye indignantly repudiates the term coined by Derrida to express “the paradoxical but regular association of nationalism to a cosmopolitanism and a humanism” (“Heidegger’s Hand (Geschlecht II)” 29), which association Derrida diagnoses in a series of German thinkers, having Heidegger figure as a kind of culminating point where his hypothesis is put to the test. Geschlecht III represents, then, even more so than Of Spirit, Derrida’s most sustained effort to locate the aforementioned “national-humanism” in Heidegger’s thinking, a thinking which, as Profeti rightly indicates, “rejected the name humanism,” but not without surreptitiously and unwittingly reaffirming humanist presuppositions that go to the core of Heidegger’s nationalism, as Derrida argues. One can see the sinister irony that hovers over those “judges,” as Peter Trawny calls them, “who seem to have been personally appointed by morality itself and who wish to purify the academy of all evil” (Heidegger: A Critical Introduction vii): if Derrida is right in his hypothesis, the unabashed humanism in the name of which Faye and others denounce Heidegger’s Nazism lies at the heart of the political problematic in Heidegger, albeit in a dissimulated form that seems to have led Heidegger’s accusers to rely on the very venom they claim to be purging from “the philosophy shelves of public libraries” and philosophy as a whole. No wonder, then, why the term “national-humanism” is so offensive. It accuses the accuser of being complicit with the accused.

Such is the confusion that tends to prevail when the conversation is reduced to shaming and blaming, as though the issue were so simple as to require an equally simple, and simplistic, solution: if Heidegger was a card-carrying Nazi, why bother reading him? Why not excommunicate him from philosophy altogether? Because, argues Derrida, reading Heidegger remains one of the “essential conditions” for thinking through “this still unthought thing which Nazism is for us” (Heidegger, Philosophy, and Politics: The Heidelberg Conference 35), and it is precisely Heidegger who can help us find a language with which to describe and denounce Nazism without banking naively on the same metaphysical foundations on which Nazism rests. As Derrida puts it in a short text written soon after the publication of Victor Farías’s Heidegger and Nazism, “that in the name of which we [...] condemn Nazism can no longer, must no longer, be formulated so simply in the language of a philosophy that, for essential reasons, has never been sufficient for this and that Heidegger has also taught us to question” (“Comment Donner Raison? ‘How to Concede, with Reasons?’” 194), even if Heidegger also occasionally endorsed some of the very language—such as the word “spirit”—that he elsewhere urges us to deconstruct.

This problem of language seems to have been particularly acute around the time Geschlecht III was written. Commenting on “the French and European political situation” of the mid-to-late 1980s, Derrida identifies a certain fragility in the “social-democratic discourse” of the time:

At a moment when the destiny of Europe, as one says, is taking a certain path, when a certain political discourse dominates the European political discourse, in France, Germany, and many other Western democracies, we see a confrontation between, on the one hand, a resurgence of ideologies and comportments that are not unrelated to what one very quickly identifies as Nazism, fascism, totalitarianism; and, on the other hand, a social-democratic discourse whose values of reference are those of the human rights, of democracy, of the freedom of the subject. But that discourse is becoming conscious that it remains philosophically very fragile, that the strength of its consensus in official political discourses, or elsewhere, rests on traditional philosophical axioms that often appear problematic, and in any case uncapable of resisting what they are meant to oppose. (Heidegger, Philosophy, and Politics, 21)

“Whence a certain disquiet,” Derrida continues, “a fear, from the side of the tradition of this discourse, vis-à-vis its own fragility,” a fragility exposed to what Derrida here calls “the questioning potential” of Heideggerian thought that cannot but seem “menacing” to the humanistic tradition trying to uphold its discourse (Ibid. translation modified). This would explain why Farías’s book found so many avid readers ready to indict not just Heidegger but also those who find in Heidegger resources for deconstructing the humanist tradition. This guilt by association began with the Farías affair in 1987 and was extended to planetary proportions by the aforementioned Emmanuel Faye, who blames deconstruction for facilitating “the planetary diffusion of Nazism” to the extent that it “made it possible for Heidegger to expand to the United States and subsequently the entire world,” a sort of global infection Faye would like to eradicate in the name of humanity, in a “battle” or “contest in which the future of the human race is at stake” (Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism xxiii). Exemplifying what Derrida calls vertiginous “mirror effects,” according to which an anti-Nazi discourse resembles its Nazi counterpart, Faye’s self-elevation to the messianic status of the savior of humanity resonates with what Farías says regarding the ways in which Heidegger “always remained faithful to a whole spate of doctrines characteristic of National Socialism,” one example of which is “his belief in the primacy of his own thought [...], taken as a paradigm and guide for the spiritual development of humanity itself” (Heidegger and Nazism 7-8). That sinister irony once more: the fact that a self-declared anti-Nazi project ends up being complicit with the very Nazism it tries to oppose shows how terribly complicated this situation is. It is in this respect that Geschlecht III, insofar as it contains Derrida’s most thoroughgoing political encounter with Heidegger, has a great deal to teach us. And it was with such a daunting lesson in mind that the contributors to this special issue gathered, in the Spring of 2019, at Texas A&M University. The project then, as now, is to make manifest the full complexity of what has been called Heidegger’s “National-Humanism.” As will become clear in the pages that follow, Derrida’s long-lost Geschlecht III offers an essential piece in that puzzle.


The papers collected below each engage with aspects of this troubling configuration: the difficulty, nay impossibility, articulated by Derrida throughout the four Geschlechter, but in greatest detail in Geschlecht III, of simply attaining a point that would be outside the bio-racial discourse dangerously at play in national socialism. For, if the desire to immunize one’s discourse from this danger betrays its very persistence, then one must seek one’s starting point elsewhere. It was Derrida’s belief, as well as his lifelong practice, that given all that was problematic in Heidegger’s writings, they nevertheless remained of paradigmatic importance, first and foremost because they were multiple, non-simple, non-univocal. The multiplicity within the Heideggerian discourse of Being, the duplicity within the thought of the unitary, and the play of dissemination within the movement of gathering, become of ever greater importance so soon as one confronts the impossibility of simply abandoning these metaphysical lures. In responding to Derrida’s interrogation of this problematic in Geschlecht III, where he takes on Heidegger’s demanding and problematic Die Sprache im Gedicht (1952): Eine Erörterung von Georg Trakls Gedicht, the following essays do not shy away from the difficulties presented by such high stakes. To the contrary, they tackle it head-on, knowing full well the dangers that lurk on either side.

The essays below have been organized according to their focus within this nexus. We begin with Ian Alexander Moore, David Mullins, and Brian Irwin, each of whom returns to the Heideggerian text, in order to further work out the complexities of the philosopher’s engagement with the Austrian poet Georg Trakl. In a second moment, contributions by Alberto Moreiras, Maddalena Cerrato, and Sergio Villalobos-Ruminott explore the political dimensions of Derrida’s Auseinandersetzung with Heidegger. Taking up issues of topology and cosmopolitanism, these essays remind us why we must return to Heidegger’s work, even and especially because of the imprint of national-humanism left in it. Finally, in a third moment, texts by Armando Mastrogiovanni and Michael Portal take a closer look at the resonances between Geschlecht III and Derrida’s subsequent writings. In drawing out the critical role played by the notion of “survival,” in particular, they show how the problematic of life is already imprinted within the stamp of “Geschlecht.”

Given the difficulty of the subject at hand—the foreignness, not only of the German word “Geschlecht” at the center of it all, but also of addressing, in English, the evidently French treatment of its imprint—we thought it prudent here to pause briefly on this word, “Geschlecht,” and the contexts surrounding it, before proceeding with the volume’s contributions. “Geschlecht” can mean “sex,” “race,” “family,” “stock,” “lineage,” “generation,” “species,” “genus,” “type,” “people,” “nation,” “humanity.” The word seems to have attracted Derrida’s attention for its remarkably polysemic nature, radiating out toward semantic valences so diverse that, as he points out, “one will not so easily break through [this word] to the thing itself,” to the signified Geschlecht beyond its signifier “Geschlecht” (“Geschlecht I: Sexual Difference, Ontological Difference” 7n, translation modified). So much so that this word remarks the mark, in what ties it to the Schlag (the blow, strike, stamp, or type) of every “Geschlecht,” whose etymological ancestors “gesleht” and “gislahti” are the collective forms—still preserved in the Ge- prefix of Ge-schlecht—of the Old High German “slahti,” from which Schlag and schlagen are derived. “Perhaps it is no longer a word,” writes Derrida at the end of “Geschlecht II,” stressing that his analysis “would come down to a sort of composition or decomposition that affects, precisely, the unity of this word,” a kind of genealogy of “the Geschlecht of Geschlecht,” as he puts it (“Heidegger’s Hand” 51). Just a few pages later, Derrida comes back to this “genealogical composition of Geschlecht,” listing some of the words or “bits of words” that make up the semantic and conceptual field within which “Geschlecht” plays a crucial role in Heidegger’s second essay on Trakl in On the Way to Language, titled “Language in the Poem: A Placement of Georg Trakl’s Poem,” the essay that Derrida meticulously reads in Geschlecht III:

First, naturally, there is the word “Geschlecht” and all of its Geschlecht, all of its family, its roots, its offshoots, legitimate or not. Heidegger convokes them all and gives to each its role. There is Schlag, einschlagen, verschlagen (to separate, partition), zerschlagen (to break, smash, dismantle), auseinanderschlagen (to separate while striking one another), and so on. (Ibid., 59)

Derrida is particularly interested in what he calls “Heidegger’s manual and artisanal writing, his Hand-Werk” that remains irreducibly tied to the German idiom, more especially Old High German (ibid. 52, translation modified). In this regard, Heidegger will associate the Schlag of Geschlecht with the Old High German meaning of two important words in his essay, “fremd” and “Sinn”—meaning “strange” and “sense” respectively—which end up converging toward the German expression “den Weg einschlagen” (to strike a path). Derrida is thus committed to tracking the way in which the very idiom “Geschlecht” becomes decisive for Heidegger’s thinking of Geschlecht. To the extent that this thinking amounts to “saving” the human Geschlecht (das Menschengeschlecht) by means of the very idiom “Geschlecht”—which only one Geschlecht can say—Heidegger’s usage of this word nicely exemplifies Derrida’s problematic of “national-humanism,” according to which one nation or people (one Geschlecht, then) is said to represent or incarnate the essence of humanity (the Menschengeschlecht, then) better than other nations or peoples who do not speak the idiom of this Geschlecht that can say “Geschlecht.”

Beyond Heidegger’s literal appropriation of the word “Geschlecht,” let us examine briefly the two passages in the essay on Trakl where Heidegger attempts to define the word “Geschlecht,” concerned as he is to explain Trakl’s use of this word in so many of his poems, particularly in “Western Song,” whose expression “One Geschlecht” (Ein Geschlecht) in its penultimate verse is thought by Heidegger to “shelter the fundamental tone” of the whole of Trakl’s poetry (“Die Sprache im Gedicht” 74).[2] It should also be noted that Heidegger’s definition of “Geschlecht” tacitly relies on his broader understanding of poetic language, more especially the language of a “great poet” devoted to poetizing poems from out of a single source, what Heidegger calls the “unique poem” (aus einem einzigen Gedicht) or “the whole of the one poem” (aus dem Ganzen des einen Gedichtes), on the basis of which what we ordinarily call “poems”—the actually written poems—convey a correspondingly “singular unison” (den einzigartigen Einklang) said to emerge “from the one fundamental tone” (aus dem einen Grundton) of a poet’s unwritten poem (Ibid. 33-34; 75). Not that Heidegger’s emphasis on unicity precludes him from hearing a “polysemic tone” (mehrdeutige Ton) in Trakl’s poetry, quite the contrary (ibid. 71). Because Trakl’s poetry, argues Heidegger, “speaks from out of a transition” that “leads away from the old degenerate Geschlecht” and “into the reserved morning of the unborn Geschlecht,” its language remains tied to two essentially different Geschlechter from two distinct historical epochs, hence the “essentially polysemic” (wesenhaft mehrdeutig) nature of a poetry that is irreducibly transitional, “on the way,” as Heidegger says (ibid. 71). Never simply speaking the language of that “which it leaves behind” nor of that “towards which its departure modestly proceeds,” always caught in this between, Trakl’s poetry cannot help but speak in an “ambiguous” (zweideutig) manner that oscillates between two Geschlechter, which ambiguity, writes Heidegger, is itself ambiguous, an “ambiguous ambiguity” (zweideutigen Zweideutigkeit), as he puts it (ibid. 71). Glossing this passage in Geschlecht III, Derrida helpfully explains what Heidegger means: “in other words, there are also two ways of thinking or determining polysemia,” in the sense that the very concepts of polysemia or ambiguity are themselves caught in the transitional dynamic we have just mentioned.

Despite Heidegger’s apparently radical affirmation of plurivocity, his theory of poetic language remains wedded to a metaphysical binary that Derrida will call into question in Geschlecht III. “While recalling here that ‘Geschlecht’ is open to a kind of polysemia,” writes Derrida, “Heidegger heads, before and after all, toward a certain unity that gathers this multiplicity,” a “good polysemia” that Heidegger opposes to a “bad dissemination,” as Derrida puts it “in a nutshell” (Geschlecht III 73). This because of the following passage where Heidegger will make this problematic distinction and ground the aforementioned “polysemic tone” in a “unison” that gathers:

Trakl’s poetry speaks from out of an ambiguous ambiguity. However, this polysemia of poetic saying does not scatter into indeterminate equivocality. The polysemic tone of Trakl’s poem comes from out of a gathering, i.e., from out of a unison that remains for its part always unspeakable. The polysemia of this poetic saying is not the imprecision of nonchalance (Lässigen), but rather the rigor of a letting (Lassenden) that lets itself engage with the care of the “correct view” and that complies to this view. (“Die Sprache im Gedicht” 71)

Heidegger then goes on to concede that the borderline between great and mediocre poets is often hardly discernible, without however explaining, as Derrida points out, “why the boundary is difficult to trace nor, especially, how one may recognize it,” or “why both of these (gatherable polysemia and irreducible dissemination) resemble one another and split apart” (Geschlecht III 73). Derrida’s point here is to put pressure on Heidegger’s dogmatic assertion, challenging the view that it is possible to differentiate between good polysemia and bad dissemination as Heidegger seems to wish, however difficult that might be:

Often, we can hardly distinguish this polysemic saying, which properly belongs to Trakl’s poems and is in itself thoroughly certain, from the language of other poets, whose equivocality stems, because they lack the authentic poem and its place, from the indeterminacy of an insecurity of a poetical groping around. (“Die Sprache im Gedicht” 71)

Derrida takes this to mean that, for Heidegger, “there can be no rigorous thinking or poetic writing of dissemination,” the latter being associated with a nomadism or “errancy without homeland,” given that Trakl’s poetry, in Heidegger’s reading at least, is said to “sing the land of the evening” where the human Geschlecht can dwell as though in its home (Geschlecht III 72). As Derrida argues in Geschlecht III, it is the “absolute univocity of language” that guarantees the promise of one poem, one place in which “One Geschlecht” can dwell (74). It is in this theoretical context that we may make sense of Heidegger’s attempt to define “Geschlecht.”

Twice Heidegger pauses over the “manifold signification” of “Geschlecht” in the Trakl essay. Commenting on the penultimate stanza of the poem “Autumn Soul,” where Trakl seems to be poetizing a kind of separation that occurs between “us” and “loved ones,” Heidegger identifies the latter as “the cast of the decomposing form of the human being” (der Schlag der verwesten Gestalt des Menschen), which Schlag he then links to what “our language calls ‘Geschlecht’”:

Our language calls “Geschlecht” the human essence that has been shaped from a cast (aus einem Schlag geprägte) and cast into this cast (in diesen Schlag verschlagene). The word means humankind (Menschengeschlecht) in the sense of humanity, as well as [the plural] Geschlechter in the sense of trunks, stocks, and families, all of that struck once again into the twofold of the sexes (dies alles wiederum geprägt in das Zwiefache der Geschlechter). The poet calls the Geschlecht of the “decomposing form” of the human being the “decomposing” Geschlecht. (“Die Sprache im Gedicht” 45)

Heidegger then asks: “With what is this Geschlecht struck (geschlagen), that is to say, accursed?” (45). Here it becomes clear that a second blow comes to affect an otherwise peaceful sexual difference with dissension and discord, what Heidegger calls Zwietracht as opposed to the “gentleness of the simple twofold” (die Sanftmut einer einfältigen Zwiefalt). “Not the twofold, but rather discord is the curse,” writes Heidegger, apparently suggesting a “pre-dual” sexual difference that would not be for all that “necessarily unitary, homogenous and undifferentiated,” as Derrida had already clarified in Geschlecht I (46). Nevertheless, Derrida is suspicious of this “originary simplicity” that comes to gather all difference unto the “simplicity of the same, even in the form of the fold,” a fold without fold (un pli sans pli), as he provocatively translates Heidegger’s einfältigen Zwiefalt (Geschlecht III 72).

The second passage where Heidegger defines “Geschlecht” occurs toward the end of his essay, except that this time Heidegger will do so with a view to Trakl’s phrase “One Geschlecht” from the poem “Western Song” in which “the land of the evening is sung”:

Accordingly, the word “Geschlecht” retains here its aforementioned full manifold meaning. It names first the historical Geschlecht of humans, humanity as distinct from other living beings (plants and animals). The word “Geschlecht” names then the [plural] Geschlechter, the stocks, clans, and families of this human Geschlecht. The word “Geschlecht” names at the same time and everywhere the twofold of the sexes. (“Die Sprache im Gedicht” 75)

As Derrida remarks, Heidegger will now “make use not only of a philological decomposition but also of what happens in Trakl’s verse” as Heidegger reads it, which allows him to link the Schlag of the “One Geschlecht” to a kind of simplicity (Einfalt) that comes to gather the Geschlechter and their twofold (Zwiefalt) (Geschlecht III 125). In other words, when determining the manifold meaning of “Geschlecht,” Heidegger is already relying on a “focal simplicity” that gathers this polysemia, much like the Einfalt of the “One Geschlecht” will assemble everything “Geschlecht” means unto a gentleness that prevents a Geschlecht from being isolated from its other Geschlechter. In a manner that characterizes the way Heidegger reads Trakl, according to which the content of Trakl’s poetry—as Heidegger interprets it—ends up describing Heidegger’s own reading maneuvers, Heidegger “retains” the manifold meanings of Geschlecht gathered unto one. Trouble starts, however, when one of these meanings branches off from the family into “unbridled individuation,” a kind of “blind savagery” that Heidegger associates with the discord of sexual opposition. (“Die Sprache im Gedicht” 46)

Notes

    1. Livia Profeti, 2019, “Je suis d’accord avec monsieur Faye,” Facebook, February 7, 2019, https://www.facebook.com/groups/695823450487857/permalink/2369939759742876/ (my translation from the original French).return to text

    2. As Derrida’s French translations of passages from Heidegger’s “Language in the Poem” differ significantly from the existing English translation, we provide our own translation and give references to the German edition here.return to text

    Works Cited

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