Monday, June 29, 2009

Heidegger and the American Dream

I've been struggling through Heidegger's Being and Time for six months now, with varying degrees of success. The book is nearly impenetrable in its early chapters, even though the second half of the book is almost readable. One of Heidegger's most appealing and resonant ideas is that there is no such thing as a break with one’s history; such an idea is built on the notion that a person is only what he is at the present time—or even that one is what one chooses to be today. No, says Heidegger, a person is what he has always been, including things that happened to him before he had any kind of real agency, that is, his birth and his upbringing:
The “between” which relates to birth and death already lies in the Being of Dasein. On the other hand, it is by no means the case that Dasein “is” actual in a point of time, and that, apart from this, it is “surrounded” by the non-actuality of its birth and death. Understood existentially, birth is not and never is something past in the sense of something no longer present-at-hand; and death is just as far from having the kind of Being of something still outstanding, not yet present-at-hand but coming along. Factical Dasein exists as born; and, as born, it is already dying, in the sense of Being-towards-death. As long as Dasein factically exists, both the “ends” and their “between” are, and they are in the only way which is possible on the basis of Dasein’s Being as care. (374)
Such a notion flies directly in the face of the American dream, which is, after all, built on the idea that at any time a person can remake himself into anything he would like to be. We see this in the early history of America—or at least the modern popular conception of it—in which the colonies make a clean break with their mother country, forming something new and beautiful and pure. We see this in the conception of America as the “New Eden,” a completely new society with new rules and new life. We see this in the American idea of the “self-made man,” typified in Benjamin Franklin, who throws off the shackles of his upbringing in Boston to become a cosmopolitan Renaissance man.

(On another note, think of the famed American pasttime, baseball. It's sometimes called a "game of redemption" because a player can strike out three times, but he's newly made a hero if he hits a home run to win the game. Baseball may be the ultimate pop-culture expression of the American idea of secular rebirth.)

Problem is, as everyone knows, that Franklin lies all throughout his autobiography, fashioning himself as self-made when he was anything but. No one escapes his past—you are always what you were, even as you add to that at every moment. Indeed, Heidegger suggests that man is the sum total of his experiences—those that “happened,” those that “are happening,” and those that have “yet to happen.” Dasein does not so much exist in history as it is itself history: “In analyzing the historicality of Dasein we shall try to show that this entity is not ‘temporal’ because it ‘stands in history,’ but that, on the contrary, it exists historically and can so exist only because it is temporal in the very basis of its Being” (376). Just look at his stern face up there, as if he's wordlessly telling all us Americans that we're deluding ourselves.

I realized this long before I read Heidegger, when, at the age of 21 or so, I was preparing to leave the South in which I was raised, the South in which my entire family was raised. I had fashioned myself as cosmopolitan, as a person outside my region, outside my upbringing. Then I went to a family reunion, looked at the “hillbillies” around me. (Fun story: My last name is Farmer, and my maternal grandmother’s maiden name was Hicks, so my family literally started where the Farmers met the Hicks.) I realized that no matter how hard I tried, I would never free myself of this background. I am to some extent my family, which means, I suppose, that I am ontologically (on some level) a hillbilly.

This was to some extent a freeing realization. It freed me from the burden of trying to escape this past—an impossible task, as Heidegger points out. And when I moved to Nebraska, I began to realize in a practical way exactly how Southern I am. But I shouldn’t over-simplify, since after all I am to some extent a Nebraskan as well, after spending three years or so as one. And my own children will have all of this in their Dasein—they’ll be a Farmer and a Hicks and a Georgian and an Alabaman and a Nebraskan; they’ll be from the suburbs of Atlanta, like me, and the small towns of South Georgia, like my wife. And they’ll be whatever we make them, wherever they are born, and whatever they make themselves.

I think all of this jives completely with the Christian notion of original sin, which after all posits that people are their ancestors, that the sins of the fathers will be passed on to their sons. It jives less well with the Christian notion of the New Being, of Christ’s deliverance of man into a second creation, a second and fuller humanity, one in which the sins of the past no longer hold sway over us. But it’s important to note that we have not quite received that New Being—as Paul Tillich says, we glimpse it only Now and Then, and as St. Paul says, we have received only the first-fruits of the New Creation. So we’re still grounded in time, at least in this life.

What the American dream attempts, in my opinion, is a secular version of the New Creation without waiting until after death. The country reinvents itself apart from England (and apart, depending on whom you ask, from any redemption through God, even as the Founding Fathers couch their ideas in religious language). Heidegger is right to reject this notion, even though Christians have to reject his assertion that there’s no way out of historicality. It just requires something outside the circuit, and even then the circuit will not be broken in this Zeit.


Nathan P. Gilmour said...

I think the worldliness of Dasein might help to account for the difference between the Heideggerian/postmodern use of "authentic" and the way that the fellow on Christ the Center uses it.

Granted that some folks use "authenticity" in a flaky and ultimately consumeristic manner, still there's something to be said for living as one's self, historically constituted, rather than claiming to be either some sort of ahistorical icon or, even worse, a message whose messenger's Dasein, with all the rejections-of-past and advancements-of-past that go along with it, is entirely transparent and irrelevant to the ideology at hand.

Michial said...

With that in mind, is it fair to say that Heideggerian authenticity is akin to recognizing what you really are--your limitations included?

Nathan P. Gilmour said...

So long as "included" remains the organizing framework and "limitations" an element within that framework, I'd say that's a pretty good way to take it. Self-disclosing-to-self seems to require a knowledge of limits on one hand without a bad-faith (I know I bummed that from Sartre) denial of one's ownmost potential on the other.