Strange Wonder
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Strange Wonder

The Closure of Metaphysics and the Opening of Awe

Mary-Jane Rubenstein

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Strange Wonder

The Closure of Metaphysics and the Opening of Awe

Mary-Jane Rubenstein

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Strange Wonder confronts Western philosophy's ambivalent relationship to the Platonic "wonder" that reveals the strangeness of the everyday. On the one hand, this wonder is said to be the origin of all philosophy. On the other hand, it is associated with a kind of ignorance that ought to be extinguished as swiftly as possible. By endeavoring to resolve wonder's indeterminacy into certainty and calculability, philosophy paradoxically secures itself at the expense of its own condition of possibility.

Strange Wonder locates a reopening of wonder's primordial uncertainty in the work of Martin Heidegger, for whom wonder is first experienced as the shock at the groundlessness of things and then as an astonishment that things nevertheless are. Mary-Jane Rubenstein traces this double movement through the thought of Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Jacques Derrida, ultimately thematizing wonder as the awesome, awful opening that exposes thinking to devastation as well as transformation. Rubenstein's study shows that wonder reveals the extraordinary in and through the ordinary, and is therefore crucial to the task of reimagining political, religious, and ethical terrain.

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Dawn points, and another day
Prepares for heat and silence. Out at sea the dawn wind
Wrinkles and slides. I am here
Or there, or elsewhere. In my beginning.
—T.S. Eliot, “East Coker
1. REPETITION: Martin Heidegger
Metaphysics’ Small Difficulty
If, as Heidegger maintains, metaphysics cannot think the “being” that gets it going, then “overcoming” metaphysics will be a matter of going back to its roots. The attempt to propel thought into “another beginning” is, in other words, always inextricably bound up with the attempt to think the unthinkable “first beginning.” This is the reason, despite numerous efforts to the contrary, that post-Heideggerian philosophy or theology cannot simply proclaim itself unmetaphysical by listing the ontotheological tenets to which it no longer adheres (essentialism, Cartesianism, theism, atheism, etc.). “Metaphysics cannot be abolished like an opinion,” Heidegger tells us; “one can by no means leave it behind as a doctrine no longer believed in and represented.”1 Thinking must, to the contrary, continually retrieve metaphysics in its very essence, and only in beginning again from its beginning can it open the possibility of beginning differently. For this reason, even as he proclaims the “end” of the tradition they began, Heidegger hits the philosophical ground and returns to “the Greeks.”2
As opposed to Hegel, Heidegger claims it is his task not to think the totality of thought as the self-unfolding of being, but rather to think that which has not been thought as the self-withholding of being. As philosophy has “progressed,” he insists, it has not moved dialectically closer to its ur-condition; rather, it has fallen ever farther from it. Even more disturbingly, philosophy cannot simply elect to return to “being-itself,” for being is no object that sits where it “was” at the beginning of things, waiting for thinking to come around to it. In an age when beings can only be recognized insofar as they can be objectified, the unobjectifiable event of being itself has become absolutely unthinkable. Far from lying in wait for us, much less from being progressively realized in history, being is no longer accessible to the very beings it brings into being. In fact, it has fled from them. What keeps Heidegger closer to Hegel than he might like to imagine, however, is his conviction, haunted by Hölderlin, that thought’s greatest distance from the truth of being might ultimately give onto its greatest nearness to it: “But where danger is, grows / That which saves also.”3 At its most abandoned, Heidegger ventures, thinking might finally be able to confront its own being-abandoned, and by extension, might be projected into a thinking of the event of being itself. Holding itself in the most extreme danger, thinking might be delivered through this danger into the truth of being’s self-withholding donation.
Insofar as this inscrutable event of being constitutes not only the truth of being but also truth itself, it is not surprising that philosophy’s inability to think being is accompanied by a truth-obstructing concept of truth. The Greek word for truth is alêtheia, a word we have already seen in the alêthes doxa, or true opinion, of the Theaetetus. Heidegger translates alêtheia as Unverborgenheit, or “unconcealment.” In its most original form (which is to say, in accordance with his often creative readings of Heraclitus and Parmenides), truth for Heidegger means emergence from hiddenness. Truth as unconcealment designates the revealing of the concealed, which means both the revealing of that which is concealed and the revealing that concealment does. Beginning with Plato, however, Heidegger claims that this movement of unconcealment has been slowly overtaken by an understanding of truth as the static correspondence between a “subjective” representation and an “objective” thing. The early modern philosopher Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716) consolidated this idea of truth, which would come to be encompassed under the doctrine of the “adequation of reality and thought” (adequatio rei ad intellectum). To say that truth is adequation means that truth is truth only insofar as it presents itself to the human, representing subject. This representing subject, or “monad” for Leibniz, thus becomes the fundamental unit of being—as Protagoras would say, the measure of all things. Other beings come into being only insofar as they can be represented by autonomous human subjects.4
Heidegger reads this Leibnizian monadology as the culmination of the gradual eclipse of being at the hands of beings. By taking being into their own hands, beings stage an ontic revolt that, Heidegger claims, is as complete as it is self-defeating. With escalating fervor, the Western philosophical tradition has codified its “objective truths” at the expense of truth itself, covering over every absence with presence and every mystery with the certainty of full representation. By attempting to incorporate everything in its path, however, philosophy has only pushed the unassimilable event of being and/ as truth farther away, thereby severing from being the very epistemological subjects and objects it purports to secure. Of course, it must be granted that calculative-representational thinking “works”: it gets airplanes into the sky, medicine into our veins, and food on the table—at least for those who have access to the mechanisms of calculation and representation. And Heidegger concedes as much. Sounding like Augustine in his fourth-century critique of the astronomers, Heidegger does not deny the effectiveness of calculation. He affirms that “the unconcealment in accordance with which nature presents itself as a calculable complex of the effects of forces can indeed permit correct determinations.”5 But just as Augustine’s astronomers fail to acknowledge the source of their wisdom, calculative-representative thought forgets that “adequation” is only one kind of truth—one particular form of unconcealment. But because calculation cannot calculate unconcealment, it risks shutting itself off from truth itself: “the danger may remain that in the midst of all that is correct the true may withdraw.”6
Again echoing Augustine, Heidegger partially attributes the simultaneously self-aggrandizing and self-defeating ascent of the representational subject to curiosity.7 Provoking a desire to know all the wonders of the world, curiosity constitutes for Heidegger “the origin of all scientific investigation of beings.”8 Curiosity is responsible for humanity’s technological advancement because it encourages beings to reveal themselves as potential objects of scientific observation and experimentation and then seeks to calculate them as quickly as possible.9 The benefits of this curiosity, from modern medicine to information technologies, are clear. The limitation of this sort of curiosity, however, is that it necessarily misses everything that cannot be understood by means of a formula, which is to say “in advance.” It is not curiosity per se that is at issue here, but rather curiosity to the extent that it seeks to understand everything by objectifying everything. In this case, curiosity only moves faster and faster away from the unobjectifiable truth of being. In Being and Time, Heidegger characterizes curiosity’s frantic self-sabotage as a persistent “not-staying”: a state of ontic dispersion resulting from the attempt to conquer all difficulties.10 Rather than dwell with the incalculable, curiosity at its most irresponsible skips from one marvelous phenomenon to the next, “resolving” each puzzle as quickly as possible in order to possess it—materially or epistemologically—and move on to something newer and more bizarre. Accelerating toward a state of perpetual distraction and departure, curiosity eventually becomes “the inability to stay at all.”11
This representational (ego-)mania is perhaps most clearly instantiated in the early modern European cabinets of curiosities. The not-staying to which such collections attest is almost parodically expressed in one of Leibniz’s essays entitled “An Odd Thought Concerning a New Sort of Exhibition.” Very odd indeed, this stream-of-consciousness musing sketches a hypothetical academy in which absolutely everything in the universe would be displayed. Leibniz imagined that such an academy would be a fiscal magnet for wealthy men and society ladies who, in the spirit of Descartes, Bacon, and Philip the Good, would become marvels themselves by virtue of their possession—or at least financial backing—of such wonderful things. Leibniz therefore compiles a haphazard catalogue of all the wonder-bestowing wonders this institute would possess, including “fire-eaters, horse ballerinas, Hindu comedies, Magic Lanterns … artificial meteors, all sorts of optical wonders; a representation of the heavens and stars and of comets; a globe like that of Gottorp at Jena; fire-works, water fountains, strangely shaped boats; Madragoras and other rare plants … naval combats in miniature on a canal. Extraordinary Concerts. Rare instruments of music. Speaking trumpets. Counterfeit gems and jewelry.”12
As one might learn from actually trying to walk through a collection of everything, however, and as one senses even trying to make one’s way through Leibniz’s syntactical riot, the sort of totalizing curiosity that flits from wonder to wonder does not illuminate any of them as such, but rather eclipses them all, rendering them mere elements in a long list of weird things. Here one sees enacted the tragic flaw of metaphysics: its tendency to push away the truth it seeks by encapsulating it within collectible objects of representation. Always looking to add more “truths” to its ontic cabinet, a calculative curiosity can only prevent thinking from staying with the truth itself, which cannot be physically or conceptually secured. To think beyond and before the ascendancy of truth-as-adequation, thinking must therefore find another mood—one that resists the flightiness of curiosity by remaining in the uncertainty and irresolution of what reveals itself. To attune itself to unconcealment, in other words, thinking will have to go back—and forward—to something like wonder.
Wonder and the “First Beginning”
In Being and Time (1927) Heidegger briefly distinguishes the curiosity driving modern thought from the wonder with which it is frequently conflated: “curiosity has nothing to do with the contemplation that wonders at being, thaumazein, it has no interest in wondering to the point of not understanding. Rather, it makes sure of knowing, but just in order to have known.”13 For Heidegger, then, insofar as it can withstand uncertainty, wonder is oriented to being-itself. After thus attributing wonder the capacity central to Being and Time, however, Heidegger does not mention the mood again, concentrating instead on the ontological attunement of anxiety.14 It is not until his Freiburg lecture series in 1937–38 that he addresses the question of wonder at greater length, affirming thaumazein as the “basic disposition” of the first beginning over against the curiosity that obscures it. If Socrates had named curiosity as the origin of philosophy, Heidegger suggests, then thinking might be justified in trying to explain (away) the whole world. However, “the reference to thaumazein as the origin of philosophy indicates precisely the inexplicability of philosophy, inexplicability in the sense that here in general to explain and the will to explain are mistakes.”15 At this point the distinction between curiosity and wonder is absolutely crucial for Heidegger, because, again, finding another beginning for thinking depends on thinking through the first one. Curiosity, he insists, can only lodge us more deeply within the calculative confines of metaphysics. Wonder, on the other hand, could be the disposition that “transports [thinking] into the beginning of genuine thinking.”16 Heidegger therefore spends a good deal of time in these lectures trying to get wonder right.
Reserving the term Erstaunen to translate thaumazein, Heidegger proceeds to set it apart from four other wondrous moods with which it might be confused: Verwunderung, Bewunderung, Staunen, and Bestaunen. Similar to the curiosity just described in Being and Time, Verwunderung craves, marvels at, and collects novelties, leaping from one fascinating phenomenon to another like children in a natural history museum. It does not ultimately dwell anywhere, but rather is perpetually “carried away by something particular and unusual and hence is an abandonment of what in its own sphere is particular and usual.”17 Bewunderung also occupies itself with that which is unusual, but, unlike Verwunderung, it always maintains a certain distance from the object of its admiration. It is perhaps helpful here to note that, in the second Critique, Kant confesses that the two things that fill him with Bewunderung are “the starry sky above me and the moral law within me.”18 In the third Critique, Kant commends such Bewunderung, “an amazement that does not cease once the novelty is gone,” over against Verwunderung, which fades as soon as it understands the unusual object before it.19 Heidegger, however, suggests that even Bewunderung falls short of thaumazein because it remains grounded in the known even as it gazes upon the unknown, while wonder makes the known itself unknown. Bewunderung, Heidegger says, is ultimately marked by measurement, comprehension, and self-affirmation and therefore has very little to do with the constant dispossession of thaumazein. Finally, Staunen and Bestaunen, while prisoners neither to Verwunderung’s flightiness nor to Bewunderung’s myth of self-mastery, lose themselves completely in a sort of stupefied amazement (think here of Protagoras’s disciples), abandoning the ordinary in favor of one particularly extraordinary thing.
As it turns out, each of these moods amounts to an inadequate interpretation of thaumazein because of its failed relationship to the everyday. Whether forgetting it in favor of the newest craze or standing firmly in it to examine the highest attainments of rocket science, each of these forms of intrigue takes for granted what is most usual of all, holding the great unknown against the drab (and therefore perpetually uninterrogated) background of the known. In Erstaunen, on the other hand, the source of wonder is the everyday itself: “precisely the most usual whose usualness goes so far that it is not even known or noticed in its usualness—this most usual itself becomes in and for wonder what is most unusual.”20 And, as readers of Heidegger will doubtless leap ahead to ask, what is more “usual” than being itself? What, therefore, is more deserving of wonder? “For manifestly you have long been aware of what you mean when you use the expression ‘being.’”
Heidegger does not, however—at least not in any straightforward fashion—call Erstaunen the mood appropriate to a thinking of being. Despite his momentary designation of thaumazein in Being and Time as “the contemplation that wonders at being,” he is not willing to go this far ten years later. Or, insofar as he is, it is only because his understanding of “being” has shifted: in later works, Heidegger will declare that what he had called “being” in Being and Time was still lodged within a metaphysical understanding of being as “beingness,” or “the being of beings.” So, while Erstaunen may be the fundamental mood of the first beginning, it will not ultimately suffice for the second. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Almost immediately after naming wonder in the 1937–38 lecture series as the mark of philosophy’s fundamental “inexplicability,” Heidegger goes on, astonishingly, to explain wonder. In thirteen bullet points, he lists wonder’s various attributes, eventually abandoning it as an unregenerately ontic attunement. One might say that Heidegger, packaging and rejecting philosophy’s vertiginous origin in this manner, displays a modified—but nonetheless familiar—metaphysical ambivalence toward thaumazein. The first bullet point promisingly declares that wonder reveals the strangeness of the everyday: “In wonder wh...

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