March 23, 2015 Film ReviewsUpdates

What does it mean “to be”? How does one proceed to formulate an answer to such a question? What demands does it make on one’s self, commitment, time, and relationship with the surrounding world and its inhabitants? How should one relate to the technologies that he or she uses on a daily basis? How does one preserve meaning in one’s life within a disjointed and exponentially accelerating age?

For the philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), the history of Western thought is marked by a sustained and institutionalised forgetting of such enquiries into the meaning of Being. In one of his most important, pervasively studied and widely debated texts, Being and Time (1927), Heidegger articulates this predicament in the following terms:

Do we in our time have an answer to the question of what we really mean by the word “being”? Not at all. So it is fitting that we should raise anew the question of the meaning of Being. But are we nowadays even perplexed at our inability to understand the expression “Being”? Not at all. So first of all we must reawaken an understanding for the meaning of this question.

For Heidegger, confronting this state of affairs required firstly acknowledging how the question of Being has been overshadowed by millennia of Platonic abstract theorising and Cartesian, subject-object conceptions of the nature of consciousness, thinking and reality.

Revisiting the problematic of Being therefore required not only a radically novel approach to philosophy, but even demanded the unprecedented, patient and meticulous destruktion (deconstruction) of its entrenched, metaphysical foundations. In practical terms, Heidegger approached the task by formulating a style of philosophical writing that tested not only time-honoured and seemingly incontestable truths but, more importantly and strategically, challenged and stretched the existing limits and possibilities of language and sense.

Heidegger’s dense, evocative, tortuous and almost impenetrable prose was aligned with his emphasis that philosophy should be attuned to, and amplify, the perplexity of the world, and his emphatic assertion that ‘making itself intelligible is suicide for philosophy’.

Interpreting Heidegger, particularly for those approaching him for the first time, can therefore seem like an ostensibly daunting and perhaps impossible undertaking. But it is a task that is made less overwhelming courtesy of the numerous introductory guides and commentaries currently available on Heidegger. Other media have also played an instrumental role in providing a point of entry into his challenging and horizon-expanding philosophy.

Film is a case in point. In his vast, engaging and powerfully affecting documentary Being in the World (2010), director Tao Ruspoli assembles a diverse group of professionals, including philosophers, musicians, entertainers, architects, chefs and athletes, to explore the myriad dimensions of Heidegger’s thought, its relationship to the history of Western philosophy, and its relevance for understanding life in an increasingly globalised, consumer culture.

Drawing upon his seminal treatise Being and Time (1927) and other key writings, Being in the World navigates many of Heidegger’s most important contributions to philosophy, including his insights on authenticity, conformity, care, commitment, moods, time, the world, the question of technology and the hidden history of Being.

‘It’s a film that uses philosophy as a way of describing and celebrating human skilfulness, and mastery, and craft in different disciplines, from cooking to carpentry to music’, Ruspoli explains. In deploying this cross-disciplinary scope and incorporating the wisdom and voices of masters and philosophers from diverse social, cultural, linguistic and socio-economic contexts, Being in the World discloses the pertinence of Heidegger’s philosophy in relation to the different worlds that these individuals inhabit and traverse, and the parameters within which they negotiate their work, existence, and pursuit of creative freedom.

It is an approach that resonates with the spirit of a philosophy that underscores the inter-temporal, interconnected and protean dynamic of human existence. Ruspoli’s journey into Heidegger’s thought advances via segues and detours into debates surrounding artificial intelligence, the power of improvisation in Jazz and Flamenco music, the primacy of time in Japanese carpentry and experimentation in New Orleans cuisine, and the efficacy of rethinking the rules of the game in adrenaline-pumping athletics and high-powered speed-boat racing. ‘In the film’, Ruspoli remarks, ‘we go back and forth between these philosophers who talk about these ideas and then people who are living them’.

In effect, this veritable shuffling between viewpoints and lives can leave the viewer pondering his or her own world, the things that they value and care about, the constraints that condition their actions and possibilities, the goals and objectives that motivate them, their connectivity to other entities, and the indeterminate and unforeseeable future that they nevertheless anticipate, envision, project and strive towards. ‘We have to combat passivity. If I have one message, it’s that: active involvement in our world’, Ruspoli muses. ‘What we have to do is find these parts of the world that still are rich with structure and meaning, and see if it resonates with us, and then have the courage to follow that path, as risky as it could be’.

What emerges in Being in the World is the formidable challenge of negotiating the forces at play in our attempts to exert our agency and stake a path for ourselves in the particular milieu in which we reside, move and work. ‘The movie makes the big argument that risk is an essential part of mastery’, Ruspoli reflects, ‘and if it’s all gonna be according to plan, again, it looses some of that meaning that comes from outside of you. If something calls you, take that calling seriously’.

Such tensions are, interestingly, inseparable from the filmmaking process per se, particularly for a documentary that promotes itself, according to its tagline, as ‘a celebration of being human in a technological age’. The irony that marks this assertion and, by extension, inscribes Ruspoli’s undertaking is not lost on the director. ‘So here’s like, you know, making a film celebrating craft and appreciating it on this highly technologised media. I like this kind of tension there, and keeping that tension alive’.

In a zeitgeist that is labelled posthuman by some philosophers and cultural theorists, living and working with this inextricable relationship between “tradition” and technology, “individuality” and homogeneity, is one of Heidegger’s enduring legacies and, perhaps, one of the inescapable tests of the twenty-first century. Channelling Heidegger’s own preference for questioning as the essence, dignity and pathway of thought, Ruspoli poses a query that provides ample food for reflection: ‘How do we use technology without letting it dehumanise us? How does skilful behaviour open up a space for us to have a memorable meaning?’

– Dr. Varga Hosseini