Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Heidegger and today’s ‘everydayness’

“Everydayness” (“Alltäglichkeit” in German) is a concept associated with the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century. In the English-speaking world, many “academic philosophers” (or what Arthur Schopenhauer dubbed “bread-thinkers” and Robert Pirsig called “philosophologists” in Lila, the marvellous sequel to his earlier masterpiece Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) never forgave Heidegger for his short-lived flirtation with national socialism in Germany under Hitler, but there have always been those, myself included, who can forgive another fallible human being his or her mistake – we all make them.

Whatever Heidegger’s political mistakes may have been, his philosophical legacy is a powerful one. Although susceptible to criticism, like all philosophy, the secondary literature that it has generated and still gives rise to, is astonishing. His first (some would say still most) important work Being and Time (Sein und Zeit, which appeared in 1927 in German) is a difficult but illuminating work in which Heidegger formulated his “fundamental ontology” of what he called “Dasein” (“being-there”), his term for human being(s), because we just find ourselves to “be there”, in the world, and afterwards try to account for it in religious, metaphysical, psychological or political terms.

Needless to say, it is impossible to summarise the argument (and fine phenomenological analyses) of the book in a blog post, but I want to focus briefly on just one aspect of his phenomenological examination of what it means to be human, namely “everydayness”, because it has struck me how much contemporary ways of living exemplify this condition. To be sure, not only in the present, but in every era people, or Dasein, are subject to what he calls “everydayness” (which would manifest itself in a way that is peculiar to that age). It is just that our media-besotted era displays the features of this commonly prevailing condition, to which we are all subject, very graphically.

Because Heidegger’s philosophical language is quite difficult to decipher, I shall try to stick to accessible English here, and refrain from trying to reconstruct the architectonic of the text as a whole. First, one could say that Heidegger approaches the ontological (being-) structure of humans by pointing out that Dasein is “thrown” (German: “Geworfen”), “project” (“Entwurf”) and is subject to “falling” (“Verfallen”). This means, first, that humans inescapably find themselves (thrown) in the world, without rhyme or reason (which they compensate for, of course, by finding all kinds of explanations for this fact in religion, other ideologies, or in science).

Secondly, Dasein (humans) have the inalienable capacity to find a way of living that is, more or less, satisfying; that is, all of us have the ability to “project” a future for ourselves, although not everyone is equally successful at it. In fact, we are such a “project” (the Afrikaans word, “ontwerp”, corresponds nicely with the German “Entwurf”). But, in the third place, we are all inclined to “fall”; not in the Biblical sense of “the Fall”, although it does resonate with that religious meaning, but in the sense of “falling” back into conventional ways of “being-in-the-world”.

This is where “everydayness” comes into the picture (although I am skipping over large parts of the meticulous analysis in Being and Time). The realm of conventional morality, custom, current affairs, and so on, is what Dasein tends to “fall” back upon, despite the fact that every Dasein is in principle or potentially her or his own “project”. Falling into convention entails being immersed in everydayness, to the “project” that is imposed on one by what Heidegger calls the “they” (in German “das Man”, instead of “der Mann, for “the man”):

“We take pleasure and enjoy ourselves as they [man] take pleasure; we read, see, and judge about literature and art as they see and judge … we find ‘shocking’ what they find shocking. The ‘They’, which is nothing definite, and which all are, though not as the sum, prescribes the kind of Being of everydayness,” according to Heidegger’s Being and Time.

“Everydayness” is recognisable by other conditions: by “idle talk” (“Gerede”), “curiosity” (“Neugier”) and “ambiguity” (Zweideutigkeit”). “Idle talk” (which is marked by “ambiguity” and “curiosity”) is the kind of talk, or conversation, where many possible meanings of events and developments are endlessly discussed, without anyone really becoming any wiser. The present topic of idle talk that probably overshadows every other topic in South Africa is the Oscar Pistorius trial. Wherever you find yourself – in a lift, in a tearoom at work, in a coffee shop – people are fervently discussing everything surrounding the trial. One person observes that “he is as guilty as hell; just think of the fact that witnesses first heard a woman’s voice and a man’s voice engaged in an angry exchange, and then only did you hear the shots – it was a lovers’ quarrel, and that’s that!”

Another counters: “Yeah, but who says they were arguing? Oscar probably suspected that there was an intruder in the apartment – they might have been talking excitedly about that!” A third chips in: “But what do you think of the cricket bat evidence – did he first break down the door or only after the shots had been fired?” And so it carries on – excavating every ambiguity, driven by curiosity, and remaining nothing more than idle talk.

By “curiosity” as something that is woven into the very fabric of everydayness, Heidegger means that in this sphere one is swept along by an endless, unsatisfiable quest for what is new. You know, for example, that Miley Cyrus bared all in her music video for Wrecking Ball, but this very item of information has a built-in “must-know” momentum towards “more” and “still more” novelty, with the result that one never reaches a point where you feel satisfied that you know “everything”, despite which you are impelled by a desire to “know everything”. (Nor is it accompanied by the philosophical acceptance that one cannot, in principle, know “everything” anyway.)

This is intimately connected with “ambiguity” – in the sphere of everydayness people are always exchanging information about what is “must-know”, fashionable, or “newsworthy”, but this is done in such a way that these exchanges never reach a conclusive point. Everything is ambiguous; for example, when one is discussing the latest developments in South African politics, one agrees, at one point in a conversation, that many people are likely to vote for the Economic Freedom Fighters because of their disenchantment with the ANC’s “lack of delivery” to poor people.

And yet, a minute later you also agree with someone else observing that people would continue voting for the ANC because, despite their protests about lack of service delivery, they still, incongruously, see the ANC as the party of liberation, including “economic liberation”.

This applies at every level of what Heidegger calls everydayness. What does seem to me to differentiate between the present and other eras, when everydayness also, unavoidably, prevailed, is the pervasiveness of electronic media-communication today. Unlike past societies, where everydayness manifested itself in ordinary verbal exchanges when people met at restaurants or at home, idle talk is today carried on with heightened volume via cellphone texting, Facebook and Twitter exchanges, emails and every other kind of electronically mediated information-exchange imaginable, driven (as before) by curiosity and marked by ineradicable ambiguity. In the past one depended on personal contact for information-exchange about what caught one’s fancy; today it is everywhere available, visible, accessible, exhorting you to participate in idle talk.

Although Heidegger locates everydayness in the sphere of “inauthentic” existence, this does not mean that any one among us can escape being immersed in it, first and foremost. “Authenticity” is attainable for Dasein, but only from within everydayness, which no one can escape, by becoming aware of a certain “silence”. That is a topic for another post.

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    • fabian rainers

      I love Hiedeggers thoughts… Forgave him for being temporary Nazi long ago… Also what I find interesting is that this everydayness is being archived… Twitter Facebook email are in being stored on retrievable records … superficial ambiguity does not fade into nothingness it is stored, it lives on … everydayness in 2014 become an actual thing that can be observed, cannot really be destroyed and lives remotely from us usual on a server … the idle becomes something… our prison perhaps?

    • Maria

      My word! This post resurrects vivid memories of the course we did with Karsten Harries on Being and Time back in the 80s. There was an aura about that class, of which everyone was aware, and it had a lot to do with Karsten being German-American, and knowing Heidegger’s work so well. Did you see that he’s got a book out on Heidegger’s Origin of the Work of Art?

    • Richard

      It has always struck me that human discourse is simply a way of comforting ourselves as we rush headlong towards oblivion. Technology is simply a way to amplify that discourse, really one of Freud’s Palliative Measures (“Civilisation and Its Discontents”) that distract us. Most conversation falls into this realm, with received opinion simply being the emphasis of the day. People voice these current opinions simply because they are proof of their engagement in the present, to show that they are relevant, thus enhancing their procreation potential, itself an escape from death. None of this is really to any greater end, as is proven by the existence of such nonsense (what I always call “fake-speak”) throughout history. Like eddies in a current, it simply moves around objects thrown in its path, perhaps pushing them aside, or wearing them out, but always heading ultimately to the sea. “Real” discourse actually aimed at something always only attracts a tiny audience, sometimes enlarged if it is couched in terms of “everydayness”. However, even that is in reality simply a more sophisticated version of distraction. I wonder, should humanity ever reach the point of immortality (like the aliens implied in 2001: A Space Odyssey, “First their brains, and then their thoughts alone, they transferred into shiny new homes of metal and of plastic”) what will be left to talk about? Will we simply fall silent, since the impetus of trying to avoid death is no longer there to spur…

    • Richard

      Will we simply fall silent, since the impetus of trying to avoid death is no longer there to spur us on?

    • J.J.

      Mass media is a mass disseminator of mass everydayness, everywhere.

      Everydayness as a constant current general disposition with conformity lived as a religion. Mass mediocrity at its finest,

      For Carl Jung it was more important for people to became aware of “the self” (not to be confused with “the ego”…).

      This is where a person would find his/her her true authenticity. Now… if we can only tear ourselves away from tabloid media (general media), social media, gaming, prawn (pron), social media, social media and social media, we might just be able to find the time to start looking for it…

    • http://paulwhelanwriting.blogspot.com Paul Whelan

      @Richard – It’s odd, this intuition that there is something inauthentic about life, some ‘greater end’ that we are missing and always try to express by speaking of real life, but always putting the ‘real’ in inverted commas because we ‘really’ haven’t the faintest idea what we mean by it.

      It must be a religious prompting, or the residue of religion, a way to suggest to ourselves there is another place, something else, a hope even of Eternity, which we are far too sophisticated to put it in such terms anymore.

      Me, I like everydayness: I really do not want to run out of days and the idle round – the only comfort being that when you do, you won’t be here to know you have.

      In the meantime, I wonder if this intuition, this prompting, will turn out to be no more than a chemical short in the brain, a starvation of oxygen, as they suspect death and out-of-body experience are in those who are certain they have had them.

    • J.J.

      Bert, in relation to:

      “Everything is ambiguous…”

      That is because we live in an age of moral relativity (in the West /Westernized parts of the world). We do not (have the capacity) to distinguish between right and wrong (anymore). Morality has become a dirty word.

      So, anything goes… we are not meant “to judge”. Another no-no. (How dare we assume to have the moral high ground to judge, is the reasoning).

      Of course if we (choose to) live in moral relativity we do not have a “rudder” so to say, and we are open to influences from all sides, constructive or destructive.

      “We” (society in general) choose moral relativity by choosing conformity and rejecting independence of thought and **independence of being**.

      There is always choice. Many people would rather go with the flow, whatever that flow is. Making choices implies having to take responsibility and if there is one thing that is more constant than virtually anything else in this “modern age” we live in, is that we are resistant to responsibility.

      (The South African context this can especially be observed in how people constantly blame and shame others).

      In a nutshell – we refuse to grow up – or to grow out of infancy as a species.

      Growing up would necessitate distinguishing between right and wrong.

      It’s our choice as a collective.

      This moral relativity is not necessarily present in all countries and regions – in that sense The West has regressed.

    • Richard

      @Paul, I think there are likely many evolutionary causes that explain the philosophical urge, as there must be for all other intellectual endeavours. To varying degrees, these no doubt increase our fitness to survive, offering some advantage over not having these propensities and predilections. However, why we have them is not the same as what we do with them, and doesn’t diminish their efficaciousness. It is rather like appreciating the intricacies of a game of chess, even though we know it is a game: meaning and pleasure exist within the application of the interstices of rules and interpretation. I think looking for “reality” beyond what we see is to some extent one way of bringing to consciousness of that mental processing.

    • Bert

      Wonderful comments here!

      Paul – Lest you got the impression that Heidegger claims we can somehow eschew everydayness, be assured that we can’t. Most of the time when we are engaged in conversation, this is where we are, and only sometimes does our conversation move towards the quickening current, to extend Richard’s water metaphor, away from the ‘eddies’ that he so eloquently employed to grasp what is going on here. But the impulse, to find something more ‘edifying’ (to use Rorty’s term) in idle talk does exist in some of us, even if, as Richard suggests, it is ultimately only a more ‘sophisticated form of distraction’ from the thought of our own mortality. Heidegger would agree, I think, because it is precisely the rare ability to embrace this mortality that leads to something more ‘authentic’. He got this from Nietzsche, who articulated it differently, in terms of overcoming the ‘spirit of revenge’ against time.

      It is also interesting to think further about the particular manner in which everydayness manifests itself in our society, as Fabian and J.J. have done here. Perhaps it is the case that some of the structural features that Heidegger discerned are more conspicuous today than ever before, but that could also be because we live in the ‘thick’ of it, and once made aware, can step back and focus on it better than we would be able to regarding times past.

      Maria, yes, I do know about Karsten’s new book, and would like a copy, but it’s very…

    • http://www.joneslanglasalle.co.za/southafrica/en-gb/Pages/Home.aspx Robert Walsh

      Hi Bert

      I really enjoy your insights.

      Have you encountered these young upstarts?

      Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium by Reza Negarestani;

      In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy vol. 1 by Thacker, Eugene

      Zero Books – http://www.zero-books.net/

      Regards

      Robert Walsh

    • Bert

      Hi Robert – No, I did not now about Zero Books – what a find! I have just read some of the reviews, and I shall certainly investigate some – probably many – of them, starting with The Neoliberal Undead. Thank you so much for this info.