work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

anthropologist lost in lebensraum

06.24.2013 · Posted in Uncategorized

Tim Ingold’s (1993) notion of a ‘continuity of culture’ has (I think: rightfully) been hailed as a powerful challenge to ideas of insurmountable difference between “cultures” – a notion that reconciles diversity with universality. Which makes it ever so difficult to understand (and quite upsetting – hence apologies for the emotionally charged tone of the following) why he thinks it’s a good idea to dabble in Nazi terminology – even if pulled from a Nazi theorist who (for reasons to be analysed elsewhere) has been issued a free-of-charge indulgence by the collective of eco-conscious left academics: Martin Heidegger. Ingold musters up – of all the verbal smoke grenades Heidegger’s got in his arsenal – the concept of Lebensraum in order to make a case for his outdoorsy notion that ‘to show that to inhabit the world – rather than to occupy it – is to live life, as we say colloquially, “in the open”’ (Ingold 2008). Somehow the word “space” is still too indoorsy and urban, so something more earthy, something more chthonic, something more…  Germanic should do the trick. Raum, not space. What’s the difference? It is this:

‘To appreciate the difference, you have only to compare the English “living room” with German Lebensraum. For English speakers the “room” is simply an interior compartment of a house, while “living” comprises a suite of everyday activities that residents would undertake in it. In the notion of Lebensraum, by contrast, the meaning of life comes closer to what the philosopher Martin Heidegger  identified as the foundational sense of dwelling: not the occupation of a world already built but the very process of inhabiting the earth.’

I immediately asked myself: Does he not know what role the concept played in Nazi ideology – and particularly in the justification for the assault on Eastern Europe where the ethnic Germans were to be reintegrated into an all-encompassing Germany, the Slavs were to be enslaved and the Jews to be murdered (see Neumann 1967, pp.138ff.) to make space for “Aryan” colonist to “dwell” that part of the world? It instantly turns out that he does:

As a space, the clearing is open, but as a place in the world, it is enclosed. It was this duplicity, Olwig argues (2002, page 7), that allowed Nazi propagandists, in the run-up to the Second World War, to seize upon the notion of Lebensraum as justification at once for the unlimited expansion and for the bounded self-sufficiency of the German nation. Somewhat complicity in this enterprise himself, Heidegger was nothing if not equivocal on the matter. For having insisted that clearing, as “making room”, extends to a boundary, he promptly went on to characterise this boundary as a horizon, “not that at which something stops but … that from which something begins its presencing” (1971, page 154, emphasis in the original). Far from being hedged around by as yet uncleared land, the inhabitant now appears ensconced in a world that extends as far as the eye can see. (ibid)

Somewhat complicitly? From 1933 Heidegger was a card carrying Nazi – and forget about the myth (manufactured by Heidegger himself) that he had given up on the Partei very soon after his short spell has brown-shirted leader of German academia 1933f. In 1943, with German troops defending their furthest advances into the Russian steppe, also the year Lebensraum was extended into the depths of the Warsaw Ghetto, St Martin writes a justification of the bio-imperialist concept:

“Erhaltung und Steigerung kennzeichnen die in sich zusammengehörigen Grundzüge des Lebens. Zum Wesen des Lebens gehört das Wachsenwollen, die Steigerung. Jede Erhaltung des Lebens steht im Dienste der Lebenssteigerung. Jedes Leben, das nur auf Erhaltung beschränkt ist, ist schon Niedergang. Die Sicherung des Lebensraumes z.B. ist für das Lebendige niemals das Ziel, sondern nur ein Mittel zur Lebenssteigerung. Umgekehrt erhöht wiederum das gesteigerte Leben das frühere Bedürfnis nach Raumerweiterung.” (Heidegger 1977: 229) ‘Preservation and heightening are characteristics of the associated principles of life. The will to grow, heightening, is part of the essence of life. All preservation of life serves the heightening of life. All life that is limited to its preservation is already in decline. Securing Lebensraum [living space, i.e. habitat], for example, never is the aim of the living but only a means to the heightening of life. And heightened life, in turn, increases the initial need for the expansion of space.’ [my translation – “Steigerung” given as “heightening”, but also can imply “increase”, “expansion”, “enhancement” and “acceleration”]

This is nothing but a philosophical justification for the völkisch “war effort” in which one people’s Lebensraum was another’s graveyard. But let’s, for a moment, adopt the benevolent naivety of the critical intellectual and act as if Heidegger’s apparent Nazism wasn’t enough of a reason to be careful with anything coming out of that school of “thought”. It’s still plain wrong. I’ve always been slightly annoyed by that blanket assumption that anything that comes out of a German dictionary must be deeper and more meaningful than anything that the allegedly shallow, globalised and always already commercialised language that is English has to offer. In most cases it’s just the result of linguistic mistakes. It is, at least, in this case. Raum and room are merely cognates that hardly ever translate into each other – although translations never achieve full congruence, room is pretty synonymous with Zimmer while Raum is correctly translated by, yes, the despised space. Outer space, in German is “Weltraum”, and living room is Wohnzimmer… the room where you live in. Simple as that. To juxtapose Lebensraum and living room in order to demonstrate the limitations of English to capture what it means to be a living being inhabiting the world is to suggest that while the English live in houses, the Germans live in the woods… Lebensraum is best translated into habitat – as that denotes what the German concept in most cases means. It is a biological concept denoting the geographical area where a given species is found – and that (not its alleged magical ability to simultaneously encapsule boundedness and expansion)  is why it’s been so easily integrated into Nazi ideology. If you think of humanity as a set of biologically distinct races locked into a planetary fight-to-the-death for survival, then it’s all about the defence and expansion of habitats. No pseudo-philosophical exegesis needed here. (and of course, as habitat, Lebensraum is something you do occupy and not just dwell in) The question remains: how could this happen? Is it just a slightly embarrassing, but otherwise not very significant, instance of misplaced deification of German as the language of deep thought and of the lamentable but inconsequential fact that the ‘writings of this reactionary thinker [Heidegger] now have the status of sacred texts, which are the subject of much exegesis by scores of admiring acolytes.’ (Morris 1997: 323)? Or is it symptomatic for an overemphasis on immersion and dismissive disdain for professional distance, going hand in hand with a hypostasis of the rural and the wild and contempt for the urban that counteracts the cosmopolitan recognition of the continuity of culture that (for me) is the main attraction of Ingold’s approach? I can’t help thinking that in his (2008b) Heideggerisand proposal of an anthropology that is constituted by a “thinking-with” as opposed to “thinking about” runs the danger of denying the professional distance of the researcher (which is more than the occasional sideways glance he  suggests as key to original insight) and risks deleting one crucial aspect of what enables the aimed-for sociological imagination (he makes reference to C Wright Mills…). The autonomous imagination (Stephen/Suryani 2000) appealed to in form of Ojibwa dreaming (Ingold 2008b: 84) as paradigm for the sideways glance is forgetful about the fact that, commonly, the autonomous imagination from Sufis to shamans to hermeneutic social scientists does involve practices of distancing (retreat, travel, isolation) as well as immersion.   In the end an anthropologist sitting in an armchair who is conscious of the continuity of culture may be in a preferable position compared to one indulging in a false intimacy of an “full immersion” and who forgets their own non-identity (as well as everybody else’s). Doing your “philosophy in the open” can make you forgetful about the fact that you also belong to the privileged group of cosmopolitan ‘frequent travellers’ (Calhoun 2002) which induces false identifications along the lines of that one philosopher-in-the-open who mistook himself for a Black Forest peasant. (Heidegger 1934)   Calhoun, Craig (2002): ‘The Class Consciousness of Frequent Travellers: Towards a Critique of Actually Existing Cosmopolitanism’, in: Steven Vertovec/Robin Cohen (eds): Conceiving Cosmopolitanism: Theory, Context and Practice, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.86-109. Heidegger, Martin (1963) [1934]: ‘Schöpferische Landschaft: Warum bleiben wir in der Provinz?’, in: Martin Heidegger: Aus der Erfahrung des Denkens 1910-1976, pp.9-13 Heidegger, Martin (1977) [1943]: ‘Nietzsches Wort “Gott ist tot”‘. In: Martin Heidegger: Holzwege, Gesamtausgabe 1.Abt, 5.Bd, Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, pp.209-67 Ingold, Tim (2008): ‘Bindings against Boundaries: Entanglements of Life in an Open World’, in: Environment and Planning A, Vol.40, pp.1796-1810 Ingold, Tim (2008b): ‘Anthropology is not Ethnography’, in: Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol.154, pp.69-92 Ingold, Tim (1993): ‘The Art of Translation in a Continuous World’, in: Pálsson, Gísli (ed.): Beyond Boundaries: Understanding, Translation and Anthropological Discourse, Oxford: Berg, pp. 210-30 Morris, Brian (1997): ‘In Defence of Realism and Truth: Critical Reflections on the Anthropological Followers of Heidegger’, in: Critique of Anthropology, Vol.17, No.3, pp.313-40 Neumann, Franz (1967): Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism 1933-1944, London: Frank Cars (orig. 1942/44 Oxford University Press New York) Stephen, Michele /Suryani, Luh Ketut (2000): ‘Shamanism, Psychosis and Autonomous Imagination’, in: Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, Vol.24, pp.5-40   PS Talking about Raum – it should be noted that Heidegger contrary to popular belief does not source his concepts from common, authentic, rooted language but, as Bourdieu points out, from the bureaucratic vocabulary of the public administrator. Bourdieu shows this for the notion of Sorge (“care”), but it can be equally shown for the notion of “dwelling” “wohnen”. A living room (as Ingold conjures up that notion as something very limited that should be abandoned for the open Raum of the tundra) is, as stated above, a Wohnzimmer and the correct translation of wohnen  is to live as used in “I live in London”, “I live in a terraced house” etc. The only occasion where the verb comes up in ordinary language is in exchanges like: “Where do you live?” “I live in…”. There is no activity wohnen – so the sentence “Ich gehe jetzt nachhause und wohne ein paar Stunden bevore ich ausgehe” (I’m going home now to live a couple of hours before going out”) does not make any sense. Bureaucratic German, in contrast, has quite a lot of use for the concept – and as the translation of Lebensraum as habitat suggests, they are mostly about inhabiting in the sense of (legitimately) occupying (an inhabitant/resident of a town is an Einwohner, the government office where you have to register every change of residence (Wohnsitzwechsel) is the Einwohnermeldeamt (“inhabitants registration office”). Bureaucrats are interested in the number of Bewohner (inhabitants again) of every residential building etc etc. So the earthy notion that we bewohnen the world (dwell in the world…) is already fraught with an imperialistic claim to ownership and a drive to administrate and govern… Heideggerian vocabulary, it seems, is a convenient vehicle to lay claim, simultaneously, on a caring, attentive, understanding academic innocence and on governmentally administered research funds, teaching positions … power.   Bourdieu, Pierre (1996): The Political Ontology of Martin Heidegger, Cambridge: Polity.

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