Jean-Pierre Faye has for the most part and, to his credit, remained on the margins of Parisian fashion. In 1972, his massive Langages totalitaires, the prior volume of the work under consideration here, fell into an unreceptive climate. This earlier work was an attempt at the exegesis of key concepts of German political and cultural thought from 1890 to 1933, showing a profound “oscillation” between the language of the Konservative Revolution, begun by Nietzsche, and Marxism, up to the triumph of National Socialism. Faye showed the remarkable trajectory of certain words, up to the extreme “oscillations” of 1923, where the KPD’s “Schlageter turn” led it to work with the Nazis agalnst the Versailles treaty, and 1932, when Communists and Nazis again worked together to bring down the Social Democrats in Prussia. Since this review is concerned with the sequel, dealing with the period from 1933 to 1990, it can only refer the reader to a masterpiece which unfortunately received little enough attention in France, and next to none in the English-speaking world.
There are many reasons for this silence. Faye’s work is definitely part of the larger “linguistic turn” of French thought since the 1960s. but Faye’s theory of language is very much sui generis. Further, what distinguished Langages totalitaires from the great majority of contemporary attempts, in France and elsewhere, to understand society and politics through a theory of language, was that Faye’s book was based on minute, detailed reconstruction of a vast array of German ideologies over four decades, and very much tied to a theory, and critique, of political economy. In contrast to much fashionable theory, in which the unmasking of the “gendered subject” at the most abstruse literary or philosophical level is presumed to explain whole historical epochs, Faye masters his material in the manner of an empirical historian without ever losing sight of a theoretical framework, whatever its problems. In the last instance, Faye too seems to see history unfolding at the level of language but, in reading him, one never senses the kind of trifling with the complexities of reality one finds in representatives of the postmodernist vulgate such as Hayden White or Dominick LaCapra.
Nearly two decades separate La raison narrative from its predecessor. While its focus is on the impact of the work of Martin Heidegger, particularly in post-1945 France, it has a far wider range than the earlier book. Written in 1989-1990, and therefore in the immediate wake of the Parisian “Heidegger affair” of 1987-1988, it draws on a far larger time frame, one adequate to a full assault on Heidegger and the French Heideggerians, and Jacques Derrida in particular. Faye draws on elements as initially dispersed as Homer, the new archaelogy of the history of writing in the ancient Near East, the broader context of Western epic narrative from Gilgamesh to Cuchulain, possible Indian influence on Greek philosophy through Alexander’s march to the Indus, Jewish haggadah, the Arab moment in the recovery of Aristotle by the medieval West, Cervantes, and Rabelais. It is, to this reviewer’s knowledge, one of the most far-flung critiques of the whole project of la pensee francaise as it has been exported, over twenty years, by Derrida in particular.
The core of La raison narrative, however, remains a very precise sequel to Faye’s earlier history of German ideology in the 1890-1933 period. Its focus is on Martin Heidegger’s evolution in the crucial period from 1927 to 1952, (a period that was “not just any quarter of a century,” as the author puts it), and how his transformation was understood, and internalized, particularly in France after 1945.
The dominant version of this story, as told by la pensee francaise, prior to its explosion in 1987 (in particular by French Heideggerians from Beaufret to Derrida), was as follows: Heidegger’s main involvement with Nazism was in 1933-1934, when he accepted the rectorship of Freiburg University, from which he resigned after understanding that Nazism was not what it seemed in the first flush of its “revolution of the existence (Dasein) of the German people,” as Heidegger put it in one of his famous speeches as rector. (Heidegger had sufficient courage of his convictions to republish unchanged, in 1952, his 1935 essay Introduction to Metaphysics, which refers to the “internal greatness” of the National Socialist movement, which he saw as a first attempt to come to terms with human fate in the era of “planetary technique.”) Most French Heideggerians ultimately regarded Heidegger’s brief involvement with Nazism (shown by Victor Farias in 1987 to have been not so brief) as a “detail,” as Jean Beaufret put it succinctly, but interpreted this detail within a complex framework of damage control that moved quickly from Heidegger’s admittedly vicious actions as rector to the much more abstruse level of his philosophy. Faye is hardly content with confronting this debate on the level of further detective work concerning Heidegger’s administrative role in 1933-1934, although he does turn up some remarkable items generally overlooked by post-1945 Heideggerians. (One of these is the text of Heidegger’s November 1933 speech, “Bekenntnis zu Adolf Hitler und dem national-sozialistischen Staat,” roughiy, “Declaration of Allegiance to Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist State,” a speech that had attracted far less attention than Heidegger’s May Day 1933 speech to the Freiburg student labor brigade. In the midst of the French “Heidegger affair” in 1988, Francois Fedier managed to translate this speech into French under the title, “Appel pour un plebiscite“) Faye shows that as rector Heidegger was no passive Nazi, permitting, for example, the takeover of the Jewish student association building by an angry mob and the detention of the Jewish students by the SS. But Faye’s book operates on a whole different level from that of Farias, which launched the “Heidegger affair” and which primarily detailed such actions and Heidegger’s active membership in the Nazi party through the end of the war. Faye, unlike Farias, takes on Heidegger at the jugular of his famous “redescription” (the term is Rorty’s) of the history of Western philosophy as a history of “nihilist metaphysics.”
The more philosophical side of the story told by la pensee francaise after 1945 centered on Heidegger’s Kehre, or turn, of the 1930s and 1940s, expressed in a series of essays, culminating in the 1946 “Letter on Humanism” addressed to former Resistance officer and philosopher Jean Beaufret. In this Kehre, Heidegger recognized that all Western philosophy from Parmenides through Nietzsche up to the Heidegger of Being and Time had been trapped in a “metaphysics of presence” (essentially, understanding truth as representation), and that this metaphysics of presence had as its essence a “will to power” of a “subject” aimed at the “planetary domination of technique,” which had been the essence of Nazism. Heidegger, in this interpretation, from the Kehre until his death in 1976, turned to the project of the “deconstruction” (in German, Abbau or Dekonstuktion) of this Western metaphysics of presence.
The great power of Faye’s La raison narrative is not merely to take on this whole interpretation of Western thought, which has become almost an ineffable mood in the postmodern academy, but to show as no one else has done its origins in the same seamy party politics emphasized by Farias. What Faye shows, in short, is that forty-five years of postwar French philosophy (for starters) were dominated by a problematic, and a vocabulary, first articulated in an attack on Heidegger by a party hack philosopher and future officer of the SS, Ernst Krieck. Prior to this attack, Heidegger had never called the Western metaphysical tradition “nihilist”; thereafter, through a detailed evolution, marked by further difficulties with Nazi ideologues from 1933 to 1945, that characterization moved to the center of his project. (1ndeed, in his famous 1966 interview with Der Spiegel, published upon his death ten years later, Heidegger once again praised Nazism as the first attempt to rethink the human relationship to technology.)
Further, Faye shows that the famous word Dekonstruktion was first used in a Nazi psychiatry journal edited by the cousin of Hermann Göring, and that the word Logozentrismuswas coined (for denunciatory purposes) in the 1920s by the protofascist thinker Ludwig Klages. In short, sections of French and, more recently, American academic discourse in the “human sciences” have been dominated for decades by a terminology originating not in Heidegger but first of all in the writings of Nazi scribblers, recycled through Latin Quarter Heideggerians. Faye zeroes in with surgical skill on the evasions of those, particularly those on the left, for whom the “greatest philosopher” of the century of Auschwitz happened to be–as a mere detail–a Nazi.
But there is more, much more. (No short review can do justice to the multiple levels of this book.) Faye argues that the evolution of Heidegger’s thought from 1932-1933 to 1945 can be understood essentially as a response to the party attacks, by Krieck and others, and Heidegger’s (apparently successful) attempts to distance himself from what Krieck called the “metaphysical nihilism” of the Judenliteraten (i.e., Jewish litterateurs) which he claimed to find in Heidegger’s pre-1933 work.
Faye shows that after 1933, under pressure from Nazi polemics, Heidegger began to characterize the prior Western metaphysical tradition as “nihilist” and worked out the whole analysis for which he became famous after 1945: the “fall” in the Western conception of Being after Parmenides and above all Aristotle, the essence of this fall in its modern development as the metaphysics of the “subject” theorized above all by Descartes, and the evolution of this subject up to its apotheosis in Nietzsche and the early Heidegger ofBeing and Time. Between 1933 and 1945, this diagnosis was applied to the decadent Western democracies overcome by the “internal greatness” of the National Socialist Movement; after 1945, Heidegger effortlessly transposed this framework to show nihilism culminating not in democracy but…in Nazism. In the 1945 “Letter on Humanism” in particular, Western humanism as a whole is assimilated to the metaphysics of this subject The new project, on the ruins of the Third Reich, was to overthrow the “Western humanism” that was responsible for Nazism! Thus the initial accommodation to Krieck and other party hacks, which produced the analysis in the first place, passed over to a “left” version in Paris, barely missing a step. The process, for a more American context, goes from Krieck to Heidegger to Derrida to the postmodern minions of the Modern Language Association. The “oscillation” that Faye demonstrated for the 1890-1933 period in Langages totalitaires has its extension in the contemporary deconstructionists of the “human sciences,” perhaps summarized most succinctly in Lyotard’s 1988 call to donner droit de cite a l’inhumain.
Faye is tracking the oscillation whereby, in 1987-1988, it became possible for Derrida, Lyotard, Lacoue-Labarthe, and others, to say, in effect: Heidegger, the Nazi “as a detail,” by his unmasking of the nihilistic “metaphysics of the subject” responsible for Nazism, was in effect the real anti-Nazi, whereas all those who, in 1933-1945 (or, by extension, today) opposed and continue to oppose fascism, racism, and antisemitism from some humanistic conviction, whether liberal or socialist, referring ultimately to the “metaphysics of the subject”-such people were and are in effect “complicit” with fascism. Thus the calls for an “inhuman” thought.
It is perhaps here that the “linguistic” level on which Faye operates achieves both its greatest success and reveals its weakness. Because, quite apart from philosophy and language, there is no shortage of examples in which liberalism, Social Democracy, and Stalinism, to take three major sorts of forces that have been enlisted in antifascism, have been complicit with fascism itself. In Germany, before 1933, it was the liberal parties of the center that melted away, losing their base to Hitler; the German Social Democrats outdid themselves, even after January 1933, in attempting to carve out a role as a loyal opposition to Nazism (right up to May Day 1933, the date of both Heidegger’s rectoral speech and of the banning of the SPD); as for the Stalinist KPD, it is the case in point of Faye’s “oscillation.”
In the last decade in France and in Germany we have seen moderate right and moderate left parties, in classic fashion, moving to accommodate the demands of the new racist far right. Faye, writing in the now forgotten democratic euphoria of 1989-1990, feels free to use terms such as “democracy” and “human rights” in a completely unexamined way, whereas such terms have also been sullied in the mouths of the likes of Francois Mitterand and Jacques Attali, not to mention Bernard-Henri Levy and Alain Finkielkraut. Faye is absolutely right to show where the full force of the Heideggerian project comes from and to what moral bankruptcy it leads: Heidegger, in three decades after World War II, could never bring himself to condemn Auschwitz, and in a 1952 essay mentioned concentration camps in the same breath with the mechanization of agriculture as comparable examples of “nihilism”. Faye is also right to show how Heidegger and the Heideggerians, in their “redescription” of Western thought, have distorted everyone from Aristotle to Spinoza to Nietzsche, the last of whom virulently denounced German anti-Semitism and who described himself as “at one” with Spinoza, whereas for Heiegger Spinoza was a Fremdkörper–a foreign body–in philosophy. There is a deep critique to be made of Heidegger, the French Heideggerians, Foucault and Derrida, and their latter-day bastard progeny the postmodernists, and Jean-Pierre Faye has made a major contribution to it. Western thought will be extricating itself from the effects of their “redescription” of the tradition for a long time. Nevertheless, this project cannot be carried through to completion without a critical examination of the way in which many “democrats” and defenders of human rights, by their hypocrisy and double standards, have themselves contributed to the malaise over the positive meaning of such concepts, through the most remarkable emigration of words, of the ideas of Ludwig Klages, Dr. M.H. Göring, and SS officer Ernst Krieck.