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Being and Surrounding

A Review of Gianni Vattimo

The imminent end of most life on Earth due to environmental catastrophe is no longer a matter of mythological prophecies or science fiction flicks, but a scientific fact. Yet few scientists speak freely about it as their careers usually depend on external corporate funding. What is needed in the face of such a threat is urgent political action on a global scale; which is unlikely to take place as voters and politicians around the world are being bullied into compliance by the advocates of the ‘natural’ laws of the global market. On top of that, as we have suspected all along, we now also have the certainty that ever since social media entered our lives with the promise of bringing free and undistorted communication to all, our personal data has been open to misuse for the purpose (among others) of political microtargeting. [1] These are only recent pieces of news that reflect the general picture of the world at a time of rising xenophobia and precarity.

But what does all this have to do with Heideggerian ontology, Christian theology, or philosophical hermeneutics? Everything. Notwithstanding its wide philosophical scope — stretching from the presocratics to the most recent developments in contemporary philosophy — Gianni Vattimo’s latest book, Being and Its Surroundings, is first and foremost a passionate call for action spurred by a timely reflection on the ‘general condition of the world’. To lure us along, Vattimo’s claims are as original as they are provocative: the Catholic Church must find its communist vocation; Heidegger must be revalued as a Christian thinker (especially after the publication of his highly controversial The Black Notebooks); Zionism is but the inheritance of the Holocaust; communism must turn hermeneutic; etc.

The thirty one essays contained in this volume are not meant to unfold in a systematic fashion but they do converge towards a central claim: to interpret the world is to change the world. The Marxian resonance in such a claim is not unintentional as Vattimo has already shown that in postmodern times the communist dream of emancipation can only acquire meaning when qualified by an antifoundationalist hermeneutics (see his 2010 Hermeneutic Communismco-authored with Santiago Zabala). The time for grand utopian designs fueled by objective descriptions of the world has long passed; what we now need, after the ‘death of god’ — that is, after all claims to universality have become obsolete — is to acknowledge that all we have left is the multiplicity and diversity of world views. There is no ‘principle text-book’ to go by and hence the way we respond to the here and now will always be provisional and revisable, yet no less responsible and engaged. The revolutionary reach of hermeneutics does not necessarily reside in elaborating radical, long lasting alternatives to the status quo, but rather in constantly undermining and altering any established structure that tends to take possession of the truth and then impose it worldwide.

Contrary to the knowledge-based faith in truth that we have inherited from the Enlightenment and has since been the mantra of science, for Vattimo knowledge is never neutral and the only truth that matters is that which brings about freedom. Under this light, it is not difficult to detect what Vattimo calls the ‘terroristic’ vein of hermeneutics. Any form of authority will try to legitimize its existence and preserve its power metaphysically: that is, by invoking some sort of natural/divine order or hierarchy that structures human relations. For Vattimo, metaphysical ideals (e.g., the human rights) can only be justified as long as they help fight oppression and achieve freedom. Otherwise, any metaphysical compulsion leads necessarily to violence and domination.

The issue nowadays is that our ‘global village’ is deeply ensnared in the web of the ‘Market God’ who rules over everything while being backed by technocratic governments that are supposed to ‘neutrally’ administer our democracies. Any failure to comply to the Western model is being sanctioned – peacefully or not – by a call to order draped in a rhetoric of stability and progress. We are caught under the sway of a pensée unique infecting every structure of society (including universities which have, for the most part, lost their critical function [2]) and whose only purpose is to keep things as they are. We have thus reached the culminating point of Western metaphysics – a complete lack of emergency upheld, somehow paradoxically, by a logic of growth according to which everything and everyone is ‘enframed’ as calculable and manipulable entities ready for use.

In Heideggerian parlance, this amounts to the total oblivion of being (Sein) in favor of beings (Seiende) under the imposition of the technological organization of the world (Ge-stell). We are caught up in this framework but also contribute to its workings. Nothing else can emerge, nothing other can be. Vattimo works through Heidegger’s ontological insights to put forward his own view of philosophical practice as a kind of militant hermeneutics. Thus the focus shifts on the more engaged vein of Heidegger’s ontology. We are always already within the scope of being, in its surroundings (hence the title), but we are not destined to a passive, inauthentic existence. Change is indeed within our reach insofar as we radically assume our historicity and establish a productive dialogue with the past as Gewesen — that is, the past as a realm of open possibilities that can give us guidance in our dealings with the present and the future.

It is in this spirit that philosophical hermeneutics can only be understood and understand itself as an ontology of actuality – that is, as a practical philosophy always critically engaged with the historical context from which it emerges. Instead of fossilizing into a harmless, conciliatory academic exercise, the hermeneut’s labour is rather bound to disturb the waters by enabling opposition and conflict. No wonder Vattimo has also found inspiration in Pope Francis recently urging the young to ‘hacer lío’, to cry out and show their discontent.  The point, for Vattimo, is to address the problems of the times through a call for a permanent revolution akin to what Roberto Unger calls high-energy democracy. Left wing populism is thus to be welcomed as long as its charismatic figures are supported and kept in check by bottom-up political participation. Hence Vattimo’s overt predilection for the Latin American Left. In times such as these — as some philosophers proclaim the end of history [3] – our task should be to produce more history by acknowledging the ‘losers’ of history, the excluded, the voiceless.

As the founder of pensiero debole (weak thought), Vattimo has therefore been compelled to move towards a pensiero dei deboli (thought of the weak). At a time of impending ecological disaster, increasing social exclusion, and with no real prospects in sight, the only project of emancipation we can take seriously must be born out of the sheer indignation of the oppressed. The humanist ideal of dialogue and cosmopolitan cohabitation has failed to bring justice and turned instead into new forms of colonialism. New narratives must emerge in order to empower the excluded and bring them into (political) existence.

Being and Its Surroundings takes the reader on an intellectual roller coaster: Christians will find it blasphemous, atheists will convert, scholars will turn into activists, scientists into hermeneutic philosophers. Vattimo has never quit the ‘fight’; he has stayed true to the conversational spirit of his philosophy by also engaging with contemporary philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Roberto Unger. Moreover, it is now possible for professors and students all over the world to take a look behind the scenes of his latest work by consulting the Gianni Vattimo archives which are housed at the Pompeu Fabra University (Barcelona).

Gabriel Serbu is a PhD candidate in Humanities at Pompeu Fabra University (Barcelona). He holds an MA in Modern Languages and Literatures from the University of Turin (Italy).

Gianni Vattimo, Essere e dintorni, Milan: La nave di Teseo, 2018; 425 pp., € 22, EAN 9788893445313; language: Italian. The book will soon be available in English under the title Being and Its Surroundings.

 


[1] See the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

[2] Cf. Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-CenturyAmerica (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1998), 82.

[3] Cf. Fukuyama, Francis, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: The Free Press, 1992).

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