Events without distinction

Notes on Heidegger – ITM (polemos, deinon and the gathering of distinction)

war is the father of all and the king of all, and it has shown some as gods and others as human beings, made some slaves and others free” (Heraclitus, Fragment 53) – it is also worth noting something similar is said in Fragment 80, though this is not mentioned by Heidegger.

Heideggers’ translation takes this seemingly socio-political statement and reads it in terms of his central problematic of emergence and appearance.  “Confrontation is indeed for all (that comes to presence) the sire (who lets emerge), but (also) for all the preserver that holds sway.  For it lets some appear as gods, others as human beings, some it produces (sets forth) as slaves, but others as free” (ITM 471)

The war, the polemos, Heidegger contends, cannot be a mere socio-political fact since this is merely a human fact and it is necessary for the polemos under question to be prior to the human.  To ‘show some as gods and others as human beings’ the polemos to which Heraclitus directs us “must hold sway before everything divine and human” (ibid).  Polemos is not mere human war, it is the distinguishing event that brings forth the human as distinct from the divine.  Polemos is thus also not mere divine conflict but prior to the divine as much as it is prior to the human.  Polemos is the ground of immortal mortality.

For anything to emerge, appear or ‘unfold’, in effect for distinction to arise, there must be struggle.  It is war that is the ground of the real, if we take ‘the real’ here to mean something like ‘distinct things’.  The real, that which is encountered as real, is distinct.  “In confrontation, world comes to be [Confrontation does not divide unity, much less destroy it.  It builds unity; it is the gathering (logos).  Polemos and logos are the same.] ” (ibid).

Heideggers claim here is remarkable, not least in that it is, on the surface, straight-forwardly incompatible with the concept of gelassenheit, letting-be or submission2.  If we are admonished to overcome our linguistic strictures, our forgetfulness of being, in the strategy of letting-be then we might find this equation between polemos and logos to be rather contradictory.  The polemos, however, is not mere violence but is given that Heideggerian adjective of supremacy – “the struggle meant here is originary struggle … it is not mere assault on the present-at-hand” (ibid).  If this type or ‘originary struggle’, war or polemos, is the ground of distinction then what of the distinction of the ground?  The originary struggle – which is being read here as something continuously contemporary to any emergence, any distinguishing – is the primary event of the real and yet this primary event is an event without distinction.  This ground, this event, as the event, has no background, no context, no history.  It is not an event in time since time is of the world and it is through the event of struggle that “the world comes to be” (ibid).  Neither, for the same reason, can it be an event in the world nor outside the world.  The difficulty lies in trying to think this originary struggle in its belonging, a difficulty we encounter in relation to the ambivalent genitive in the phrase ‘event of distinction’ (that is, the ambivalence we can find or install in the ‘of’ in the phrase ‘event of distinction’, as either or both subjective and objective genitive, with the subjective genitive referring to a source of origin as in ‘ownership’ clauses, in which case the event would belong to distinction as the music of Beethoven would belong to Beethoven and we might talk of “distinctions’ event” as we would of “Beethoven’s music”, whilst the objective genitive works to determine limits or as a descriptive, as in ‘a notice with a limit of two weeks’ which in English we might more commonly find expressed as ‘two weeks notice’, in which case the event we would be speaking of would be only one of many possible distinctions that could be made and we might talk of).  In the ‘Letter on Humanism’ the ambivalent genitive is crucial to the call for a renewed emphasis to be placed on the meaning of being before we rush headlong into an account of being human.  The genitive problematic there is centred on the being of beings, this peculiarly productive and troublesome distinction produced as the ontological difference.  Does the ambivalent genitive of the ontological difference map directly onto the ambivalent genitive of the event of distinction.  If it were to do so then one thing might become closer to our thought, which is that the idea that being might be understood as the event without distinction.

  1. References are to the Tale Nota Bene edition and marginal page numbers
  2. cf. Conversations on a country path for an example of this concept at work, a text written between 1944 and 1945, barely ten years after ITM and no doubt written in the context of the coming end of Nazi rule

Article written by

philosopher and filmmaker from brighton, currently teaching philosophy at the Free University of Brighton

Please comment with your real name using good manners.

Leave a Reply