Renting textbooks is a popular option for frugal students, but one company has for years -- and without notice -- erroneously sent students to collection agencies, in some cases demanding hundreds of dollars in replacement fees.
Every few years, somebody notices that Martin Heidegger was a Nazi -- and it all starts up again: the polemics, the professions of shock, the critiques of his philosophy’s insidious role in the humanities. At times the denunciations have a rather generic quality, as if a search-and-replace macro had been used to repurpose a diatribe again John Dewey or Jacques Derrida. Calls for a boycott of Heidegger’s writings are made, issued by people who cannot name two of them.
The Heidegger bashers tend to be the loudest, but there are counterdemonstrators. Besides the occasional halfhearted search for mitigating circumstances (the Weimar Republic did not make for clear thinking, after all, and the man’s thought was normally pitched at stratospheric levels of abstraction rather than the grubby domain of party politics) there is the sport of itemizing the anti-Heideggerians’ lapses in scholarship. Every line of argument on either side of the dispute was established during the controversy provoked by Victor Farias’s Heidegger and Nazism (1987), yet l’affaire Heidegger has been recycled on at least three or four occasions since then. It’s as if the shock of the scandal was so great that it induced amnesia each time.
The most recent episode (Heidegger Scandal 5.0?) followed the publication in Germany, last year, of the first batch of the philosophical and political musings that Heidegger began recording in notebooks from 1931 onward. An English translation is forthcoming, so count on the outrage to renew in about six months. In the meantime, let me recommend a sharp and succinct overview of the Heidegger matter that may be of interest to anyone who hasn’t caught the earlier reruns. It appeared in the interdisciplinary journal Science & Society under the title “Notes on Philosophy in Nazi Germany.” The author, V. J. McGill, was for many years a professor of philosophy and psychology at Hunter College. “In the midst of the disillusionment and insecurity of postwar Germany and emerging fascism,” he wrote:
“Heidegger saw in care (Sorge) and anxiety (Angst), the basic substance of man. Instead of offering a rational solution of some kind he devoted himself to fine-spun philological distinctions, to an analysis of the pivotal concept of ‘nothing’ and to a subtle exploration of ‘death’ of which he says that we experience it only in the mode of ‘beside’ -- that is, beside death. History, culture, freedom, progress are illusory. He finds our salvation in the recovery of a primordial sense of coexistence with other beings, that is, a bare feeling of togetherness, deprived of all the amenities and hopes which make social life worth while ….
“The hundreds who flocked to Heidegger's very popular lectures in Freiburg learned that anxiety is the final, irremedial substance of man, and left with such esoteric wisdom as their main reward. Heidegger's philosophy was not distasteful to the Nazis, and when he was made rector of the University of Freiburg, he gave an address praising the new life which animated German universities. In recent years a rift has occurred. But philosophers can fall out with the Nazis on other grounds than their ideas and doctrines.”
McGill’s article was published in 1940. Over the intervening three quarters of a century, additional details have emerged, including documentation that Heidegger was not just an ally of the Nazi Party but also a full member from 1933 to 1945. And interest in his work on the part of several generations of philosophers who never showed the slightest bent towards fascism has meant much debate over the validity of reducing Heidegger’s philosophical concepts to their political context. But for all the anger that simmers in McGill’s discussion of Heidegger as an academic lackey of the Third Reich, his account is matter-of-fact and nonsensationalist, and little of the recent commentary can be said to improve upon it.
The Black Notebooks, as Heidegger’s private ruminations are known, sound ghastly on a number of fronts. The volumes published so far cover the years 1931 through 1941. Those covering the rest of the war years are being edited, and Heidegger is reported to have continued keeping the notebooks until his death in 1976. Richard Polt, a professor of philosophy at Xavier University and a translator of Heidegger’s work, identifies 19 passages (out of about 1,200 pages) that attack Jews in terms that might as well have come from an editorial by Joseph Goebbels. After the war Heidegger claimed to have become disillusioned with the Nazis within a couple of years of joining the party -- and the notebooks show this to have been true, strictly speaking. But his objections were to the boorishness and careerism of men who didn’t share his lofty understanding of Hitler’s ideology.
As with the anti-Semitism, this does not come as a revelation, exactly. His reference to “the inner truth and greatness of National Socialism” in a lecture from 1935 remained in the text when he published it in 1953. Beyond defiant, it was a gesture indicating a certain megalomania: Heidegger hadn’t betrayed the Fuhrer’s vision, the Nazis had!
But as David Farrell Krell, a professor emeritus of philosophy at DePaul University, suggests in a recent issue of Research in Phenomenology, the Black Notebooks reveal not just disappointment with the regime (combined with perfect callousness towards its brutality) but levels of rage, bile and despair that keep him from thinking. Heidegger cannot challenge himself, only repeat himself. “From day to day and day after day,” Krell says, Heidegger “entirely forgets that he has written the same things over and over again with the identical amount of dudgeon.”
Heidegger loathed Freud and psychoanalysis, which only makes it tempting to subject him to a little armchair diagnostics. But Krell's point, if I understand him correctly, is that the repetitiveness is more than symptomatic; the Black Notebooks document Heidegger not as a philosopher seduced by totalitarian politics, but as someone who has quit blazing a pathway of thought and instead become trapped in a maze of his own fabrication. Unfortunately, he is not the only one so trapped:
“At least part of the allure of the ongoing Heidegger scandal,” writes Krell in a passage that lights up the sky, “is that it distracts us from our own appalling national stupidities and our galling national avarice -- our own little darkenings, if you will. It is so much easier to fight battles that have already been decided and so lovely to feel oneself securely moored in the harbor of god’s own country. Not the last god but the good old reliable one, who blesses every stupidity and earns interest on every act of avarice. … The irony is that Heidegger’s Notebooks themselves reflect this dire mood. Perhaps by condemning him and them, we hope to gain a bit of space for ourselves, some impossible space for ourselves? That is the shadow these Notebooks cast over those who are so anxious to condemn. And that would be the Notebooks’ most terrible victory: it is not that the last laugh laughs best, for there is no joy and no laughter in them, but that their helpless rage recurs precisely in those who rail against them.”
Remember that next spring, when the controversy starts up once more.
When downloading an app or approving a software update, I now usually hesitate for a moment to consider something the comedian John Oliver said early this summer: a software company could include the entire text of Mein Kampf in the user agreement and people would still click the “agree” button.
“Hesitates” is the wrong word for something that happens in a fraction of a second. It’s not as if I ever scrolled back through to make sure that, say, Microsoft is not declaring that it owns the copyright to everything written in OneNote or Word. The fine print goes on for miles, and anyway, a user agreement is typically an all-or-nothing proposition. Clicking “agree” is less a matter of trust than of resignation.
But then, that’s true about far more of life in the contemporary digital surround than most of us would ever want to consider. Every time you buy something online, place a cell phone call, send or receive a text message or email, or use a search engine (to make the list no longer nor more embarrassing than that), it is with a likelihood, verging on certainty, that the activity has been logged somewhere -- with varying degrees of detail and in ways that might render the information traceable directly back to you. The motives for gathering this data are diverse; so are the companies and agencies making use of it. An online bookseller tracks sales of The Anarchist Cookbook in order to remind customers that they might also want a copy of The Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla, while the National Security Administration will presumably track the purchase with an eye to making correlations of a different sort.
At some level we all know such things are happening, probably without thinking about it any more often than strictly necessary. Harder to grasp is the sheer quantity and variety of the data we generate throughout the day -- much of it trivial, but providing, in aggregate, an unusually detailed map of what we do, who we know and what’s on our minds. Some sites and applications have “privacy settings,” of course, which affect the totality of the digital environment about as much as a thermostat does the weather.
To be a full-fledged participant in 21st-century society means existing perpetually in a state of information asymmetry, in the sense described by Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum in Obfuscation: A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest (MIT Press). You don’t have to like it, but you do have to live with it. The authors (who teach media culture and communications at New York University, where they are assistant professor and professor, respectively) use the term “obfuscation” to identify various means of leveling the playing field, but first it’s necessary to get a handle on information asymmetry itself.
For one thing, it is distinct from the economic concept of asymmetrical information. The latter applies to “a situation in which one party in a transaction has more or superior information compared to another.” (So I find it explained on a number of websites ranging from the scholarly to the very sketchy indeed.) The informed party has an advantage, however temporary; the best the uninformed can do is to end up poorer but wiser.
By contrast, what Brunton and Nissenbaum call information asymmetry is something much more entrenched, persistent and particular to life in the era of Big Data. It occurs, they explain, “when data about us are collected in circumstances we may not understand, for purposes we may not understand, and are used in ways we may not understand.” It has an economic aspect, but the implications of information asymmetry are much broader.
“Our data will be shared, bought, sold, analyzed and applied, all of which will have consequences for our lives,” the authors write. “Will you get a loan, or an apartment, for which you applied? How much of an insurance risk or a credit risk are you? What guides the advertising you receive? How do so many companies and services know that you’re pregnant, or struggling with an addiction, or planning to change jobs? Why do different cohorts, different populations and different neighborhoods receive different allocations of resources? Are you going to be, as the sinister phrase of our current moment of data-driven antiterrorism has it, ‘on a list’?”
Furthermore (and here Brunton and Nissenbaum’s calm, sober manner can just barely keep things from looking like one of Philip K. Dick’s dystopian novels), we have no way to anticipate the possible future uses of the galaxies of personal data accumulating by the terabyte per millisecond. The recent series Mr. Robot imagined a hacker revolution in which all the information related to personal debt was encrypted so thoroughly that no creditor would ever have access to it again. Short of that happening, obfuscation may be the most practical response to an asymmetry that’s only bound to deepen with time.
A more appealing word for it will probably catch on at some point, but for now “obfuscation” names a range of techniques and principles created to make personal data harder to collect, less revealing and more difficult to analyze. The crudest forms involve deception -- providing false information when signing up with a social media site, for example. A more involved and prank-like approach would be to generate a flood of “personal” information, some of it true and some of it expressing one’s sense of humor, as with the guy who loaded up his Facebook profile with so many jobs, marriages, relocations, interests and so on that the interest-targeting algorithms must have had nervous breakdowns.
There are programs that will click through on every advertisement that appears as you browse a site (without, of course, bothering you with the details) or enter search engine terms on topics that you have no interest in, thereby clouding your real searches in a fog of irrelevancies.
The cumulative effect would be to pollute the data enough to make tracking and scrutiny more difficult, if not impossible. Obfuscation raises a host of ethical and political issues (in fact the authors devote most of their book to encouraging potential obfuscators to think about them) as well as any number of questions about how effective the strategy might be. We’ll come back to this stimulating and possibly disruptive little volume in weeks to come, since the issues it engages appear in other new and recent titles. In the meantime, here is a link to an earlier column on a book by one of the co-authors that still strikes me as very interesting and, alas, all too pertinent.