Heidegger and The Last Jedi

Van Gogh, Pair of Shoes, 1886                the-last-jedi-theatrical-poster-film-page_bca06283

Before I get into it, here’s a relevant passage from Heidegger’s The Origin of the Work of Art in which he describes one of Van Gogh’s studies of peasant shoes (One finds oneself in a dangerously forgiving mood when reading philosophy written this beautifully.) :

A pair of peasant shoes and nothing more. And yet…From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth. In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field swept by a raw wind. On the leather lie the dampness and richness of the soil. Under the soles stretches the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls. In the shoes vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quite gift of the ripening grain and its unexplained self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field. The equipment is pervaded by uncomplaining worry as to the certainty of bread, the wordless joy of having once more withstood want, the trembling before the impending childbed and shivering at the surrounding menace of death. This equipment belongs to the earth, and it is protected in the world of the peasant woman. From out of this protected belonging the equipment itself rises to its resting-withing-self.

This passage was on my mind as I left the movie theater last week, having finally given Star Wars: The Last Jedi a go. It’s hard to overestimate the impact Star Wars has had on the worldview of what is now three generations of Americans, including my own. Unlike many of my compatriots, however, it’s never been a religion for me. Or at any rate, I’m an apostate. I, for one, thought the prequel movies were jolly good fun. I had no real expectations of those movies, nor for The Force Awakens. But since I was such a fan of Rian Johnson’s Brick and Looper, I’ll admit I might have set the bar a little too high for The Last Jedi. In the end, it was no better or no worse than the last four movies. Nothing gained, nothing lost. But it was apparently a real let down for the faithful because the expectations of this one were that it would dig deeply into Jedi mythology and lay down some canonical law for any future fan fiction. For me, the film’s pronounced lack of substance was actually kind of thought-provoking. I couldn’t help but think about what fantasy tells us about the truth function of art about which Heidegger is speaking in his essay.

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I wanted badly to touch it.

Toledo has seen better times. But it does have an art museum left over from its glory days that can go toe-to-toe with just about any museum in the country. Seriously. Come and see it if you can.

I was there yesterday with my department to look at the new Shakespeare exhibit and, as a side trip, to show off some of the Etruscan and early Roman work we had been discussing in my lecture on the history of the alphabet.

But there was a wonderful surprise waiting for us. A new installation from Gabriel Dawe called Plexus no. 35.

The work is doubly exposed because there’s no behind to it and because it’s just bundles of thread attached from floor to ceiling by little, open hooks. Destroying the whole thing would be the work of a moment.  There were two museum attendants at all times to make sure no one–child and adult alike–gave in the the temptation to run their hands along the threads. For my own sake, I’m glad they were there.

Plexus no. 35 is a pretty thing. And I suppose when we come across a pretty thing, the other organs get jealous of our eyes. It’s natural to want to touch, if not taste and smell it. I put a lot of things into my mouth as a child.

But standing in front of Dawe’s work was extra frustrating. It isn’t a light show or a new media work in any sense we’re use to. But it’s clear that light is the object. The light isn’t affecting the thing; the thread matter is there to affect the light. So that even if you did give into the burning temptation to run your hands along the thread, it wouldn’t satisfy. Perhaps the museum attendants weren’t there to keep us from destroying the work, but to save us from the disappointment. You can’t touch something that creates its own spatial frame.

The point of Harmanian object withdrawal is that there is always something in reserve which reason and sense cannot touch. But standing in front of a Dawe installation, repressing the toddler’s urge to touch it or to put it in your mouth is about as close as you can get to seeing what withdrawal looks like.