Risatti and Craft After Heidegger’s Critique of Traditional Ontology Part 2

This post is a continuation of Risatti and Craft After Heidegger’s Critique of Traditional Ontology.

II. Risatti’s Problematic Conceptions of Intentionality and Meaning

Risatti’s discussion of craft unfolds in a philosophical space provided essentially by four philosophers: Immanuel Kant, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Hans-Georg Gadamer. It is not my intention to trace the entirety of Risatti’s utilization of these philosophers and their ideas. Nor do I mean to recount Risatti’s complete theory of the craft object. Instead I want to focus on those areas in which Risatti most problematically attempts to synthesize the views of Kant and Husserl with those of Heidegger and Gadamer without fully acknowledging the difference between their theories. Ultimately, Risatti’s answer to the question “What is a craft object?” is unsatisfactory because it does cannot fully overcome the differences between what I will call a “subjective” approach and a “post-subjective” approach to finding meaning in the work of art.

Risatti clearly has what I will—perhaps crudely—describe as a loyalty to (“respect for” might be a fairer way to put it) a Heideggerian post-aesthetic, post-subjective, and therefore post-modern, philosophical approach. Beginning in his introduction, Risatti draws upon Gadamer’s analogy to the game as a way of describing the tans-subjective event that occurs in understanding (5). Throughout the book, Risatti repeatedly returns to this notion—the way in which, in understanding the work of art or craft, the work itself makes a demand on us, and we must allow ourselves to be open to that demand if we are to receive the meaning that is there. Likewise, Risatti is clearly drawn to Heidegger’s assessment of the way works of art can lose their “world” in the absence of preservers and gradually transform into no more than aesthetic objects gracing the halls of museums (Risatti 84). In the same vein, Risatti seems to be drawn to Heidegger’s notion of (non-objective) “meditative thinking” (as opposed to “calculative thinking”), and in fact Risatti seems to base his model of aesthetic contemplation on Heidegger’s meditative thinking (264-5). He does so, however, only after a detour through Kantian and Husserlian characterizations of perception, and therefore cannot fully pin down how he wants the viewer to encounter the work of craft.

While Risatti clearly wants to explore the regions opened up by Heidegger’s attempt to overcome aesthetics, he is also drawn to a Kantian model of the aesthetic experience and a Husserlian model of intentionality. Put briefly, the problem with Risatti’s characterization grows out of the fact that he wishes to grasp the craft object at both ends, so to speak. He wants to describe its creation by the craftsperson using a Husserlian intentional model, and at the same time to facilitate our encounter with it using a fusion of Kant’s aesthetics and Heidegger and Gadamer’s post-aesthetics. The task that Risatti has set himself is immense, and we can certainly sympathize if he fails to achieve entirely clear and satisfactory results in terms of offering a theory of what the craft object is. He nonetheless raises important questions about art historical (and craft historical) method, not the least of which is how tenable it is to investigate the phenomenon of art from the point of view of the creator and in the same breath from the point of view of the viewer.

I have said above that Risatti fails essentially because he cannot synthesize a view which is premised upon the subject-object division with a view that fundamentally wants to move beyond that distinction. Let me explain the former view, and how Risatti depends upon it. Risatti is concerned with the meaning works of art/craft have for us, and how we might appropriately open ourselves to that meaning. For a description of how the work receives its meaning, Risatti proceeds from a telling description of Kant’s “purposive objects” and the contrasting “free play of the maker’s imagination” that characterizes the creation of works of “fine art” (220-1). Risatti does this in part, undoubtedly, because he wishes to avoid the association between craft and function, an association which has led theorists to view the creation of craft objects as a process totally governed by the ultimate use to which the object will be put. So, from the start, Risatti is concerned to show that there is some freedom, and thus some meaning, in the activity of homo faber when he makes craft objects. Risatti says: “To mean is to signify, and for an object to signify something…two things must be present. One is that its formal demands must be such that they allow for manipulation on the part of the maker in the name of expression; and two, this allowance for expression must be intentionally exploited by the maker in a desire to express something” (221). Now that Risatti has used the word “intentionally”, he needs a way to describe this intentionality, and to do this he turns to Husserl.

For Husserl, meaning comes from “the intention to mean”: “Intention to mean is just as important as the possibility of meaning,” as Risatti summarizes Husserl’s position in the Logical Investigations (221-2). Husserl sees all perception—and thus relation to the world—as intentional. For Husserl, and for Risatti, one cannot think without thinking of something, one cannot perceive without perceiving something, and—and this is Risatti’s development of Husserl—one cannot make without making something (252-3). Risatti thinks he is avoiding Cartesianism in his Husserlian proclamation that “the act of making can never be empty; always it must be directed beyond itself to an intentional object” (253). Risatti thus treats the craft object as the intentional object of the craftsperson, whose intention causes meaning to reside in the object. He then proceeds to call upon Heidegger’s “meditative thinking” and Gadamer’s characterization of understanding to explain the attitude that would allow us as viewers to open ourselves to the meaning placed into the craft object by the maker.

Here Risatti does an injustice to both Husserl on the one hand and Heidegger and Gadamer on the other. Risatti seems to overlook precisely the fact that Heidegger’s meditative thinking—a term the later Heidegger used to distance himself from fundamentally metaphysical philosophizing—is meant to transcend the subject-object dichotomy. In his characterization of the craft object using the ideas of Kant and Husserl, however, Risatti has already firmly rooted himself in this metaphysical tradition, and he cannot overcome it by simply switching to Heidegger’s point of view.

What do I mean when I say that Risatti’s Husserlian model is rooted firmly in metaphysics? Simply this: that it depends on the division between a knowing/perceiving/creating/meaning-giving subject and a known/perceived/created/meaning-receiving object (of craft). In fact, Risatti reveals this prejudice in his very first sentence when he says that he wants to discover what a craft object is (xiii). One might say that this is simply an unfortunate choice of terminology, but in fact Risatti can never escape the traditional conception of an aesthetic object to a more post-aesthetic conception, such as Heidegger’s characterization of the work of art.

The easiest way to think about how Risatti’s interpretation of craft adheres to metaphysics is to see how it is rooted in Cartesianism. While Risatti wants to dispense with an intentionality of function (in which the function is the only “goal” of creation), he nonetheless replaces it with what we might call an intentionality of expression. In doing so, he sees himself as preserving the freedom of the craftsperson in creating the object. Perhaps this is so, but he is also characterizing the meaning of the work of craft in a metaphysical way. Basically, Risatti conceives of meaning “getting into” the work craft object thanks to the craftsperson’s metalistic/subjectivistic prior intention to express something. For Risatti, there can be nothing more basic than this relation between free intention to mean and the object wherein the meaning is fixed by the maker. Risatti, following Husserl, does not want to fall into the Cartesian trap of a subjectivity that knows only itself (Risatti 253). But in “escaping” this Cartesianism, Risatti no doubt does Husserl justice. However, Risatti’s path leads him to a point at which—in his struggle to show how we can find works of craft meaningful—he must struggle with the idea of transcendence.  Since Risatti is tied to his concern with the “sign as expression”—his citation of Peggy Kamuf makes this clear—he is forced to try to explain transcendence on the basis of intentional subject-intended object. In other words, he has to explain how meaning gets from one to the other, and the how it might get to us on the other end. Here, Risatti comes up against a problem with a long history in philosophy: “How do experiences and that to which they direct themselves as intentional, the subjective in sensations, representations, relate to the objective?” (Heidegger 62).

In other words, Risatti (like Descartes and Husserl after him) places the division between the subject (the creating craftsperson) and the object (the object of craft) at the center of his theory of craft.  This was, as Heidegger notes, the “new beginning” which Descartes instituted: an ontology of being which takes its first steps from the ego, the subject, the res cogitans (Basic Problems 123-5). As I said above, this model is perfectly sufficient from one point of view. It is quite plausible to adopt a model in which the subject, the craftsperson, confronts the raw, meaningless material of the world with an idea to be realized and sets about putting that meaning into form in the object of the crafting process. Meaning is given by the intention of the crafter to mean, as Risatti and Husserl agree. We can follow Risatti this far.

The problem is that Risatti has not fully accomplished the task he sets himself. Characterizing the process of creation from the point of view of the creator is not (entirely) Risatti’s aim. Risatti also wishes, put bluntly, to raise the status of craft objects. This is what I might call his ideological goal, although this sounds perhaps disdainful. Risatti wants to be able to ask the question “What is a craft object?” and he means to create the space in which it can be asked by giving us, the viewers, access to the craft object. To do this, he cannot of course rely on his Cartesian model.

Why not, we might ask? Because, as I noted above, Risatti has raised the problem of transcendence, and he cannot overcome it from his current position. Even if we agree that the craftsperson is somehow able to make meaning appear from nowhere, or take it “from somewhere out in the stars” and invest it in the craft object, how is this meaning to become accessible to us? And more importantly, what meaning is supposed to become accessible to us? The pure meaning of the author’s intention? A meaning totally divorced from any intention of the author that somehow comes from outside the object and the maker? Risatti rejects both of these kinds of meaning (254-5).

Risatti looks to Kant for a way to describe how we appropriately encounter the work of art (or craft). In doing so, he is being consistent in his adherence to the subject-object division, since this division is fundamental in Kant as well. However, in discussing how we can break away from the “steady stream of data through our senses” and confront the object disinterestedly as Kant described, Risatti cannot avoid the implicit question he has raised—the question of how the meaning of the isolated object standing in itself can reach me, the subject of perception (266). This is a question which resounds through the history of philosophy, as Heidegger describes in Basic Problems of Phenomenology. Heidegger’s solution, briefly put, is to show that the problem only exists in a certain context: the context of a philosophy which takes the division of subject and object as the most basic distinction, and which regards the character of beings as present-at-hand for that subject (including even the subject itself).

Risatti does not seem concerned with this question, because he thinks that he can simply switch to a Heideggerian, post-subjective point of view and transcend the problem. This is true, to a certain extent. More is necessary, however, as I shall explain below. The easiest way to see how Risatti still struggles with the question, despite ignoring it, is to note the amount of effort he expends trying to “give us access” to the craft object. Having described how meaning “gets into” the craft object through intentionality, it would seem fairly simple to follow Kant’s model of intentional perception and summarize how we in turn understand the meaning in the object. Why detour through the New Criticism and Barthes at all, as Risatti does? Is Risatti simply being intellectually polite? On the contrary, Risatti perhaps senses that his model is still open to criticisms from these schools of thought because he has not yet said anything truly convincing about how the maker’s intentional meaning gets to us. He has posited a making subject and an object. Now he must posit a perceiving subject and an object. But, of course, it has to be the right kind of object—the kind worthy of the attention of art critics and art historians and the rest of us. It must be meaningful, meaning to Risatti that it must inspire in us an aesthetic experience. Here Risatti seems to shrug his shoulders: “[what matters] is that viewers are able to aesthetically behold the work of art as a contemplative, meditative object”, he says (261). Agreed, but this does not tell us how we, as subjects, are supposed to transcend our subjective sphere (the same sphere that, in the case of the craftsperson, gave meaning to the object through intentionality) and be open to the meaning which adheres somewhere in or around the object.

Having explained some of the difficulties inherent in the relationship between Risatti’s clear goals and the theoretical model of creative intentionality that he has chosen, I would next like to discuss Risatti’s attempts at adopting a Heideggerian stance. I intend to show how Heidegger and Gadamer offer a real alternative to Husserl and Kant, and why Risatti is unable successfully apply their views to his theory of the craft object.

Cited: Howard Risatti, A Theory of Craft: Function and Aesthetic Expression, University of North Carolina: Chapel Hill, 2007.

Martin Heidegger, Basic Problems of Phenomenology, trans. Albert Hofstadter, Indiana , Bloomington: 1982.

This post will be continued in Part 3.–Raino Isto

Risatti and Craft After Heidegger’s Critique of Traditional Ontology

I. Introduction

Howard Risatti’s excellent book, A Theory of Craft: Function and Aesthetic Expression, raises a number of thoughtful and pressing questions about the status of craft in relation to fine art, and indeed about the status of art as an object of culture and perception. Risatti’s goal is to answer the question “What is a craft object”—or at the very least to provide an art historical space in which the question can be meaningfully asked (xiii). The task is certainly not a simple one, and Risatti marshals an array of philosophers—principally Kant, Husserl, Heidegger, and Gadamer—whose theories he brings to bear on both our encounter with craft objects and our broader conception of the work of art. While Risatti’s investigation of craft through the lens of phenomenology and phenomenological hermeneutics certainly brings to light important questions about how art historians and cultural critics often approach craft objects, I believe that Risatti’s model of the craft object—and indeed of the craft object—is flawed.

In this essay, I want to examine the problems that I see as inherent to Risatti’s treatment of art and craft using the philosophers he chooses. In the first part of the essay, I will show how Risatti—in developing a model for encountering the craft object—essentially swings back and forth between a Kantian/Husserlian model and a Heideggerian/Gadamerian model. That is to say, he cannot seem to make up his mind between a radical post-aesthetic approach like that favored by Heidegger and Gadamer, and a more traditional approach based on the subject-object division, such as that of Kant or Husserl. The two most problematic ideas upon which Risatti bases his account are those of intentionality and aesthetic contemplation. Ultimately, while Risatti draws on what I will call a post-aesthetic account of the meaning of the craft object (in terms of the notion of understanding meaning as an event), he repeatedly falls into Kantian/Husserlian models when he attempts to pin down how we grasp the craft’s meaning. The primary reason for this confusion is that Risatti does not fully appreciate the radicality of Heidegger’s critique of the subject-object division and the a priori character of being.

In the second part of the essay, I would like to discuss how Risatti’s approach can suggest ways in which we might move beyond its shortcomings. I will show how Risatti’s model might change to reflect a more firmly Heideggerian/Gadamerian approach to the matter of craft. A Heideggerian model of phenomenological inquiry (as opposed to a Husserlian one) opens up a number of productive ways to consider the meaning of the craft object, particularly from the point of view of the craftsperson—a point of view that Risatti clearly feels is important. Finally, I will suggest the ways in which the works of certain contemporary thinkers of the Heideggerian school (such as Dreyfus and Kelly’s book All Things Shining) offer us a way of thinking about meaning that speaks to our encounter with art in general and especially with craft.

I would like to make one final point clear: in discussing the problems inherent in Risatti’s reading of the philosopher’s in question, I do not wish imply that the Kantian/Husserlain approach is “wrong” and that Risatti could “get things right” by switching completely to a Heideggerian/Gadamerian way of theorizing craft. Both approaches clearly have their own merits. Rather, I wish to show exactly how different the approaches are, and thus to demonstrate why Risatti fails to synthesize them and thus to arrive at a satisfactory answer to his question “What is a craft object?” Risatti’s failure reveals exactly what is at stake in comparing—and contrasting—these two radically different ways of conceiving of the work of art (or craft) and its meaning. My purpose is not to dismiss Risatti’s conclusions, but to argue how his account lays bare the difficult ground that faces contemporary art—and craft—theory and history.

Cited: Howard Risatti, A Theory of Craft: Function and Aesthetic Expression, University of North Carolina: Chapel Hill, 2007.

This essay will be continued in subsequent posts.

Barrel Firings After Gadamer’s Conception of Art as Festival

On May 19, 2012, roughly 30 people gathered at the Isto residence in rural Douglas County, Oregon, for the fourth annual Barrel Firing, an event which occurs every spring and brings together a number of local ceramics students and teachers of all ages for a day. Starting at about 10:00am, students and teachers loaded bisque ware into two large barrels (and one impromptu “barrel” enclosure built of firebricks on hand), surrounded them with sawdust, wood, and cardboard, and fired the pieces over the course of the day, ending at around 5:30pm.


The firing raised several questions in my mind, some of which I would like to briefly lay out here. These questions are, for the most part, quite specific to the events of that day, and are not meant as such to raise fundamental questions about art or craft or community. Nonetheless, they are questions which in many ways respond to common theoretical debates regarding the relationship of community to the creation of arts and crafts.

1)      In what ways does the process of creating art create community? This question seems quite pertinent in response to the prevailing tendency to examine art in terms of the community that works of art create, sustain, or—potentially—threaten. While certain forms of art (performance art being the most obvious example) certainly raise questions about how community is (per)formed through the creation of art, it seems to me that the question of how the “production” of more traditional forms of art (sculptures, paintings, pottery, etc.) shapes community is seldom examined in depth. The case of a barrel firing—a process which certainly does not demand the participation of a large group of people but which certainly allows for it—raises very interesting questions about how art creates a community and about how that community exists in a temporal sense.

A group of people are drawn together for a day. They are drawn together outside the strict confines of any “institution” (although of course some of them are students, others are teachers, and others are simply interested in ceramics. They are drawn together by a mutual interest in the art that will eventually come from the firing; each person has at least one piece of art in the firing and therefore has a stake in the outcome of the day. Likewise, each person brings something—food, drinks, a piece for the firing, experience, conversation—to the community that is formed around the process of firing the kiln. Thus, everyone participates in some way, even if each person may not actually take part in loading the barrel kilns, stoking them, etc. Each person has a stake, so to speak, not just in the how their individual work will come out, but in fact in the totality of the outcome of the process. Barrel firing—as one of the more uncertain methods of firing ceramics—inevitably yields mixed results. Some techniques for decorating the surfaces of pots will work, others will not. Those who participate are held together by their interest in seeing how all of the works will emerge from the firing, not merely their own. It is not just the outcome which brings the participants together, however. The firing happens in a sense for its own sake, and not simply for the sake of a particular product.

2)      It seems to me that this way of looking at the barrel firing as a foundation for the emergence of a particular, temporary community bears a strong resemblance to Hans-Georg Gadamer’s discussion of the “festive” character of art in his essay, “The Relevance of the Beautiful”. How does Gadamer’s discussion of the festival relate to the example we have here, of a group of people coming together for a barrel firing and a potluck lunch in spring in the country?

Gadamer introduces the example of the festival to his discussion of art for several reasons. First, he wishes to emphasize how the festival is “meant for everyone”. He explains, “[festivals] allow no separation between one person and another. A festival is an experience of community and represents community in its most perfect form” (39). In this way, Gadamer sees the festival as a perfect example of a situation (like that of the game, which he also draws upon in his discussion of art) in which we are prevented from “falling into…private, subjective experiences” (40). The festival “gathers” us, in the same way that Gadamer thinks the work of art gathers us—in such a way that we are not “subjects” directed at some perceived or intended “object”, but rather exist first in the relation set up by the festival or work of art. Gadamer’s discussion in aimed at revealing something about the being of the work of art, but the analogy with the festival certainly seems to speak to the situation of the communal barrel firing. Here again, we have an example of an experience which is both “meant for everyone” and which does not allow for us to be “separated” into different subjectivities.

This may seem like a very straightforward point, but it certainly challenges one common way of conceiving of the “process” of creating art, the view which sees the creating artist as an isolated subject imposing a particular psychological or existential meaning upon the work she creates. Here instead we have, first, a (part of the) process of creation which is communal. Furthermore, this “communal” character is not to be conceived as some sort of joining of subjective intentionalities towards a common goal. Rather, the event of the process itself is such that it first gathers the participants and only having gathered them and given them a common stake in the process, allows them to be individual subjects which particular goals, roles, skills, and so forth. We might add to this the element of chance which is always present in firing ceramics, particularly when using methods such as barrel firing. There is no question of “total control” over the process. Rather, there is a healthy balance between experiment and skillful receptivity to the situation. The outcome is not something known ahead of time which guides the process; the process guides the participants in the direction of the outcome, and the “success” of the outcome is not something held in mind before hand, but something that comes naturally out of how the participants engage in the process.

3)      Gadamer’s comparison of art with the festival is also meant to highlight something unique about art’s temporality.  Gadamer wants to contrast one way of thinking about time, which sees time as something that is simply “at our disposal”, with the kind of time he thinks is characteristic of the experience of the festival and of art. The time of the festival is a special time, a time which “only arises through the recurrence of the festival itself.” He goes on to say, the festival happens “in its own time and at the proper time” and in this ways “fulfills every moment of its duration” (41-42). This “autonomous temporality”, as Gadamer calls it, is also what he sees as characteristic of the existence of the work of art. That is, the work has a unity which determines itself and calls upon us to respect and engage with that unity. Like the festival, the work of art only comes to have its meaning when we venture to take part in it, but the meaning is not simply something projected by us; it is found in the “autonomy” of the work (49-50).

How does the temporality of the festival relate to the kind of temporality we might associate with the barrel firing we are discussing here?  Like the festival, the barrel firing is something that recurs. It happens every year at a particular time of year (though not on a particular day). It has, as we say, “become a tradition”. In becoming a tradition it has taken on those same temporal characteristics which Gadamer attributes to festivals. It occurs “in its own time”, and this time is something quite different from individual participants simply “spending time” on the production of art. The barrel firing stands outside of the “everyday schedule” of the colleges and studios where the participants usually create their works. While one could certainly create a “schedule” for the barrel firing (it happens on such-and-such a day, beginning at such-and-such o’clock, with a break at such-and-such o’clock for lunch, and so forth), in another, more important sense, it is an event which happens “in its own time”. This time is not simply part of a schedule, and the participants participate precisely insofar as they step out of what might be considered their ordinary “schedules”. As with any firing which relies on human participation, the “schedule” which one might project ahead-of-time must be flexible, and the event itself determines what must happen when. Likewise, what is called for from the participants is not control, but responsiveness to what is called for by the event.

It seems we are left, then, with several general questions which may be raised about the process of creating art. Certainly, what we have said about the community formed during the barrel firing may not hold true for the creation of all types of art, for all kinds of communities involved in the creation of art. However, we may ask: Can Gadamer’s analogy between the festival and the work of art also be broadly applied to the process of creating works of art? Is the process of creation something which, like the festival, draws us, gives us our place, transcends our everyday conception of time, and overcomes our subjectivity? Is the process of creation “pre-subjective” in this way even if the artist is alone? Does the individual artist ever really approach the creation of the work of art as the shaping of an object, or is she always drawn into a particular sort of relationship which elicits the receptive response of the artist to the situation of creation? Is there a way to generally conceive of the relationship of art and community without focusing on the relation of artist and community or the relationship of the community to the finished work, but rather focusing on the way that the work gathers a community in the event of its creation? Are we “preservers” of the work of art even before it is “complete” and before it takes on a tangible “significance” in its completeness? What kind of “unity” might be found, not in the completed work of art, but prior to it: in its inception, its gradual birth, the unexpectedness of its final form? Does the artist ever stand beyond the “unexpected” quality of the work of art, or is she in fact always the first to be drawn in by what is fundamentally new and previously unrecognized in the work of art?

All citations from Hans-Georg Gadamer, The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays, Trans. Nicholas Walker, Cambridge University Press, New York: 1986.

Toka Jone After Technology

The Toka Jonë monument stands overlooking the central square of Lushnja, in central Albania. It looks west, gazing over a relatively small brick plaza. To its right: the municipality and prefecture. To its left, a short distance away, Lushnja’s central park, and the town’s main boulevard which spills out into the plaza. Before it, beyond the plaza: a line of souvenir and jewelry shops, banks, currency exchange windows, and cell phone stores. Behind Toka Jonë: a conglomeration of apartment buildings, some completed and some still mere concrete shells. Further back: the hills of Lushnja, covered in olive trees, farmland, the reservoir.  To the north and south of Toka Jonë, Lushnja—a long narrow city—stretches out parallel to the national highway. Beyond the highway: the fields of the region once known as Myzeqeja. Further still to the west and north: the lagoon at Divjaka, forests, the sea.

Toka Jonë—“Our Earth”—is composed of three bronze figures, mounted atop a round stone base. The central figure is a woman, raising a bundle of wheat to the sky, her body rigid and her gaze fixed. She is flanked by two men, bearing the tools of harvest, who stand slightly lower than her. One man stands relaxed, the other tense and at the ready. Below, far below, ringing the lowest level of the stone base, are the symbols of industrial and agricultural progress: a bulldozer, factories, wheat, tools of measurement, the star of communism. All of this speaks to us about the earth, the land—but what does it say?

In the following enquiry, we will attempt to confront two questions:

1)      How does the Toka Jonë monument participate in the laying bare of the earth and what has its place within the earth?

2)      How does the monument participate in the preservation and sheltering of what has its place within the earth?

This is to say: we will try to find our way to the question of Toka Jonë’s fundamental tension. This tension is to be found in Toka Jonë’s unity: its unity with the city in which it stands and its unity with the earth upon which it stands.

Toka Jonë speaks to us with an ambiguous message. On the one hand it celebrates bounty of the earth; it honors the earth’s sacrifice and glorifies the people who live close to the earth and work it for their livelihood. At the northern extreme of Lushnja, at the Martyrs’ Monument, a female partisan soldier holds up her child. So the woman of Toka Jonë offers up the harvest’s yield. As Lushnja’s fields and hills offer their bounty, so Toka Jonë offers itself to us even as it is swallowed up by looming apartment complexes, by forgetfulness, by “development”.

However, the monument also speaks, in its very name, of the possession of the earth. The notion of “Our Earth” or “Our Land” speaks of the working of the earth as both what is cherished and what is exploited and economized.  Just as the brick factory beyond the northern edge of Lushnja transforms the earth into the building blocks of progress and development, so Toka Jonë at once inherits the gift of the earth while already stretching man’s gaze over the earth beyond its reach. Anyone who knows the history of the swamps that once covered much of Myzeqeja—covered what is now farmland—and how they were drained by prisoners to enable agricultural production cannot stand in Toka Jonë’s presence without feeling the ecstatic triumph over the earth’s hiddenness, the exposure of the earth for production.

True—Toka Jonë “possesses” the earth, the land, as something kept safe, cherished as a secret beneath the surface.  Toka Jonë retreats behind Lushnja’s development, behind Italian grocery stores and offices, behind cell phone stores and German cars driving by. It retreats behind gleaming multicolored lights at New Year’s, behind bumper cars, behind fireworks. It even retreats on warm summer evenings when citizens take their xhiro up and down the main boulevard, drifting aimlessly and talking. When we say “retreats”, we do not mean merely that Toka Jonë is hidden or outshone by taller, flashier buildings, or that its grandeur is ignored on the occasion of certain cultural festivals. Rather, we mean that in all these situations Toka Jonë hides itself in its utmost being simply part of the city and part of the earth upon which the city stands.  Toka Jonë shows itself more and more as simply a landmark in the city, as a remnant of the city left from an earlier time, as the past. In doing so, it simultaneously prepares us for the nature of its revealing.

Toka Jonë retreats in its manifestness as simply another piece of the city, and ultimately as something which is there to be discovered. In its retreating, Toka Jonë makes way for our discovery of it, it leads us to it and in doing so leads us to what is most manifest about the earth—its usefulness to us and our optimization of it.

In this sense Toka Jonë is “about” technology as Heidegger uses the term: it is “about” the complete laying bare of the earth and its subsequent transformation into something which exists primarily in its usefulness for us through its productiveness. This is the tension of the monument: it retreats as the earth retreats—into “sheltering concealment”—yet at the same time it reveals itself and in doing so reveals the total “unconcealment” (to stay with Heideggerian language)of the earth through production and development.

Perhaps most ironic—and thus most striking—is the way that Toka Jonë speaks about the bounty of the earth and its use for man out of the context of the destitution of communist Albania. In a time of great hardship, the yield of the land is a great apprehension for the people—this can be seen in the concern with proper nourishment of the youth that is documented in children’s magazines from the communist period, it can be heard in the stories of Albanians who remember days of eating only bread and salt. Yet this yield—which is in such hard times a blessing—is wrenched from the earth in Toka Jonë. It is leveled, processed, maximized to sustain us and also to sustain its own continued production. Its continued yielding.  The bulldozer, the tool of measurement, and with them the bold gaze into the distance—these are the forces that make the earth pliable, and with it make us into the pliable tools which work the earth. The connection to the land, the glorification of those who work the land, is here revealed as the glorification of the yield of the earth in the fullest meaning of “yield”.  That is to say, the land does not offer up its bounty but yields it to us, as we in turn yield to the force of production which works the land.

What we are looking for here is not simply the irony of Toka Jonë’s depiction of pride and plenty even in the comparative poverty of the reality of communist Albania. Nor are looking for Marxist connotations of the plight of the worker in the system of production, nor even for the stark contrast between the socialist impetus of Toka Jonë’s origin and the capitalist context in which it now stands, outshadowed. We are seeking the questions we posed at the outset: how does Toka Jonë lay bear the earth and how does it shelter it and preserve it? We have given the simple answers to these questions. That is to say, we have discussed the ways or means by which Toka Jonë accomplishes its ambiguous revealing and concealing.  However, if we have listened closely to what Toka Jonë has to say to us, we have also seen the value of asking how it is possible that Toka Jonë speaks to us thus ambiguously.

It does so out of the fundamental tension of that which conceals and that which reveals, of that which preserves and that which gives itself up wholly. It is only in this tension that Toka Jonë can “confront us itself”, as Gadamer says. Toka Jonë “confronts us itself”, and has its revelatory capacity, in its hidden revealing. This is not simply playing with words, but expresses the way in which Toka Jonë first retreats from us, and then, in coming forth before our attention, shows us not something which was merely hidden but rather the systematic and continual laying bare of hiddenness itself. That is, Toka Jonë shows us the earth not as revealed but as hidden from us in the way that we are engaged in totally revealing it. The monument brings near our own “nearing” of the earth, our project of making it completely available to us. This is what hides in “progress” and “development” as they appear in Toka Jonë and around it in the city of Lushnja, and it is this concealed nearness of availability that Toka Jonë shows to us. Thus, it is only through what can still stay hidden and preserved that the truth of “laying bare” can come forth and issue its warning to us. Its warning speaks of the exploitation of the earth, of the exploitation that walks together with the bounty of the earth and takes that bounty without remembering what calls to be sheltered and concealed.

Piramida After Heidegger

Hoxha’s pyramid in Tirana, the capital city of Albania, presents a curious problem. It stands as a symbol of something that many want to forget, for many reasons. Many have called for its destruction, as a symbol of a past that Albania and its people must move beyond. Others have called for it to be preserved, as an integral part of that history—good or bad. The debates surrounding the pyramid suggest the dangers of both remembrance and forgetting. Can the pyramid bear witness to the past without glorifying it? Can the pyramid be forgotten without losing the lessons of the past? These are among the questions the pyramid raises. But do these questions really touch upon what the pyramid is? When we ask these questions, are we really asking about the work of architecture itself, the pyramid?  Do these questions reach the heart of what the pyramid says to us? This is what we must discern. So, let us do what Heidegger does and “go to the actual work and ask the work what and how it is.”

The pyramid is located at the corner where the ring road and the national boulevard intersect in Tirana. We would say, it stands there.  The pyramid stands. On what does it stand? It stands on concrete, hard and flat. And beneath that, it stands on the ground. The ground is what it stands on, what holds it up. At the same time, the pyramid reaches upwards, or it rises.

We are not emphasizing so much the way in which the pyramid might tower over us as we draw closer to it; this association, however, is certainly a rich one. It reminds us of what the pyramid was, of the dictator’s towering over his people.  It reminds us of the pyramid as an artifact meant to commemorate the dictator after his death, to tower over his people in perpetuity and bear witness to his deeds. Still, these associations draw us towards the pyramid as a symbol and as an object. Acknowledging the power of this attraction, let us not allow ourselves for the moment to be drawn to the pyramid as a symbol and instead return to the pyramid as it shows itself to us.

The pyramid towers (though certainly not in the same way as the skyscrapers that surround it and hem in its horizon), and in its towering it reaches. What does it reach for? The sky, or skies. All this seems absurdly simple. What about the skyscrapers around the pyramid, the Raiffeisen bank tower, the Citibank and Banka Popullore towers? Don’t they too reach for the sky and reach even higher? Don’t they scrape it—or, as the Albania word rrokaqiell implies, don’t they grasp it? Why are we pondering some pyramid which reaches for the sky and does not even reach as high as what surrounds it? In this way, the pyramid already looks like another kind of symbol: though it towers, it does not tower as high as the new towers which have sprung up around it. The dictator’s intended museum cannot even stretch beyond the grasp of a collection of bank towers. But here again, we speak about the pyramid as object and symbol.

The pyramid rises and with it our gaze rises—to the sky. The pyramid brings us from the ground (on which it stands) to the sky. The pyramid gathers. Here we touch upon this notion of which Heidegger is so fond, the idea that the thing gathers “in its thinging” as he says. The pyramid, in being a pyramid, gathers. What does it gather? It gathers people. If we stand in the vicinity of the pyramid and look around, on a sunny day in Tirana, we will see other people: young couples, a police officer at the corner, a man selling newspapers at a kiosk. We see ourselves reflected in the broken mirrored glass of the pyramid’s windows. We are gathered, along with these other people. The graffiti covering the surface of the pyramid attests to the presence of others who have gathered there. We see photographs of the pyramid, of people gathered in protest, of overturned burning cars. A place where tourists gather, where youth gather, where protesters gather: the pyramid is all of these. In each case, however, the pyramid retreats again behind itself as symbol. A symbol of decadence; a symbol of strength; a symbol of culture; a symbol of culture squandered.

The “indignant” individual who draped a sheet across a sculpture near the pyramid—upon which a message was scrawled demanding to know why the pyramid had risen in the heart of the city when other “cultural” centers were forgotten—seems to have had just this symbolic nature in mind. We say “symbolic nature”, but this implies that the nature of the pyramid is that it is a symbol. Is this true? We must ask: does the pyramid gather us because it is a symbol, or is it a symbol because it gathers? If the former is true—and we may very well decide that this is so—then we must admit that the pyramid is fully dead to us, and to the people of Tirana. It is dead precisely because people do not “hear its calling” (as Heidegger would say) as a pyramid, in being a pyramid. However, we must first examine the possibility that the pyramid can only stand as a symbol because it first of all stands and gathers.

We have said that the pyramid gathers us. What else does it gather? It gathers the ground it stands on. We are not speaking about the way the flat expanse of concrete upon which the pyramid rests seems to blend with the somewhat expressionless façade of the pyramid in its rising up, the way in which the expanse of concrete distinguishes itself from the trees and grass nearby by virtue of the pyramid’s ugly gray prominence. Nor are we talking about the pure geometry of a pyramid, which rests on a wide base and culminates in a point. The very ground upon which the pyramid stands is gathered in its standing and taken up in its rising. All this happens regardless of what is inside the pyramid: whether it is the dictator’s museum or an empty edifice with graffiti and broken windows, the pyramid rises and with it its ground. That is to say: regardless of its symbolism, the pyramid gathers and rises.

Where does the pyramid reach in its rising? We have already said: the skies. So, the pyramid gathers the ground, the earth, and reaches upward towards the sky. At the same time, it gathers us to the sky. It gathers our gaze to the sky as it towers; in the same way it gathers the youth who climb over its surface and slide down to the ground again. It gathers us to the sky in conjunction with its ground, the earth, which is also our ground.

At this point, some of those listening to us are really upset. They insist: here you are, just picking and choosing a whole slew of Heideggerian vocabulary like “gathers” and “rises” and “earth” and “sky”, but if you jettison all that, where are you? You are just making the pyramid mystical, and therefore contributing to the symbolism you claim you want to avoid. At the same time, you are making a dangerous mistake in forgetting the historical actuality of this pyramid, which Hoxha had built to be his museum and tomb, so the people would have this huge symbol of him forever. You have reduced the pyramid to just some concrete triangle without a history, and I suppose now you are going to ask, Why destroy a triangle? Isn’t it pretty, rising up into the sky on the corner in that little park? And with that, you have gotten rid of everything objectionable about the pyramid, so who cares?

How are we to respond? First, let us admit that yes, we have been using a lot of Heideggerian words (or at least what passes for Heideggerian jargon in English). But would it really matter if we said the pyramid “rests” where it does, and “brings” the “concrete and asphalt” along with “all the people standing around” up into the “smog and clouds hanging over Tirana on this winter day”? We are still talking about the same thing: what the pyramid does in being the pyramid, and how it can do that. If the pyramid reminds us of the dictator, of the time of communism, of ugly architecture, it does so only because it first stands there and gathers us together with the earth upon which it stands. The pyramid can only “rise in the heart of the capital city” (as the banner draped in protest notes) because it gathers and rises.

Here we are going to say something else which will, no doubt, further enrage those who insist that we too are treating the pyramid as a symbol, as a symbol of Heidegger’s opaque mysticism about the work of art and the thing. We can say, after Heidegger, that the pyramid “juts up”, bringing the “earth”, its ground, “into the world”. Now we are on dangerous ground, so let us move slowly. The pyramid juts up. This, we can agree upon. We can even say that what makes the pyramid seem ugly is precisely this “jutting up”. The pyramid juts up into a flat expanse of concrete, into trees and grass, into the boulevard, into the traffic, into the surrounding towers which it cannot surpass in its jutting. In its jutting up, all those other things take their place around the pyramid. This does not mean that the pyramid defines them in some way by being the remembrance of the dictator’s power over all. It means that the horizon which the skyscrapers hem in, is a horizon because the pyramid raises its concrete foundation up to meet the open sky. It means that the trees which give shade, the yells of the furgon drivers departing for Elbasan, the police officers directing traffic turning onto the ring road—all these are in the opening that the pyramid sets up between earth and sky. The pyramid participates in the setting up of the world in which it can then come to be an object in a location and a symbol.

Only because of the way the pyramid does this gathering of earth up to sky could we ever interpret the pyramid as the presence of the bygone communist years, as the continuing presence of the communist system of power controlling the capital city. If the pyramid did not make this space, it could never then be seen to dominate it, nor could it recede from domination in being crowded out by the proliferation of bank towers and shopping malls.  The horizon that the pyramid breaches in its reaching up is part of the horizon of the city’s being this city.

Here we return to the question we asked above, about whether or not the pyramid was a symbol and thus dead to us. We agreed then that we might ultimately decide that yes, the pyramid was indeed dead to us. Now we have come to that point again, but we see that the pyramid’s being dead to us in no way comes from its being the symbol of the dictator and of communism. In fact, this being dead comes from the fact that we can see only the symbol of the pyramid (as a symbol of this or that ideology or era), and not the pyramid itself as it is the pyramid. What is necessary to “hear the calling” of the pyramid is not to give credence to this or that ideology, nor to value the pyramid as a lesson about the past or an object of culture like any other, but rather to see that these estimations can come only from the pyramid being what it is. What it is is the work which opens the space for its being, among other things, the symbol of the dictator. If we see only this symbol, the pyramid is dead to us long before it can be dead to us as this symbol.

What we have discovered about the pyramid does not negate the historical fact of its being constructed by the dictator and its intention to bear witness to his glory, nor does our discovery attempt to explain away the possibility that this bearing witness continues into the present, bringing the communist years to presence in its gathering. These interpretations of the pyramid are entirely accurate; they reflect the genuine cultural significance of the pyramid. Nor has our discussion been an effort to say: well, yes, that is one way of seeing the pyramid, but others have different views and for that reason perhaps it should not be destroyed. Rather, the richness of meaning associated with the pyramid can come only from something “deeper” so to speak. If the pyramid still speaks to us, it does so on the basis of its gathering and raising, its opening the space for horizons. Out of these horizons spring the interpretations of the pyramid and its “cultural” manifestation.

Here we may stop short of speaking about the “happening of truth” in the pyramid, as Heidegger would say. It will suffice to understand how the pyramid might still have something to say to us. To stand in the presence of the pyramid is not to stand before a cultural object and perceive a meaning invested in it by the communist dictator, or even the vestige of that meaning. To really stand in the presence of the pyramid involves hearing the myriad voices of the earth, which it gathers up and delivers to the skies. We are gathered with them, but we need not fear that somehow we are gathered by nostalgia for bygone times, or by fascination with communist history, or by morbid aesthetic interest in the pyramid’s architecture. We are gathered by what the pyramid is as a work, and we really see it jutting forth only when we allow ourselves to be in the presence of the pyramid as work.

The task of our thinking has been to see just this as the ground of what the pyramid is and how it is, and thus to understand that insistence that the pyramid should be destroyed is not the refusal to hear a call that should not be heard—the nostalgic calling of the dictator’s power resounding today—but rather the failure to hear a call that must be heard—the richness of the earth’s calling us to be gathered in its meaning.