Jeff Malpas. Heidegger and the Thinking of Place: Explorations in the Topology of Being. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012. 388pp. $44.00. Hardcover.
Cover from publisher’s website.
Reviewed by W.C. Bamberger
In casual conversation and low-engagement thought, we all tend to think of place as simply a somewhere. The truth, of course, is much richer. Place is origin, haven, point-of-view, springboard, sustenance—the site of many complex energies that flow in and out of us in more ways than we can know. Jeff Malpas’ book, a collection of essays with German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s thought at their hub, considers some of the philosophical approaches to and implications of place’s role in being.
Malpas holds that Heidegger took space as one of his foundational ideas, and that he used topological terms and images throughout his writings. Malpas’ own place in the essays here is between two mirrors: he uses Heidegger to illuminate the idea of topology in a philosophical sense (rather than the geometrical sense that has broken into popular culture—all those candy-colored diagrams of toruses), while simultaneously using topology to let some light into the always dense thicket of Heidegger’s thought and writings.
In Malpas’ view, place at its most basic establishes relations of inside and outside:
To be located is to be within, to be somehow enclosed, but in a way that at the same time opens us, that makes possible (2).
This impacted, noun-lean language—”that makes possible”—is necessary, to avoid letting the discussion slip back into the static concept of place beyond which Malpas is trying to help us move. Because these essays are topological explorations, Malpas asks that readers be willing to participate in their peregrinations, their journey through the subject, and this includes the dense and abstract language that is the place of precise thinking.
Malpas shows us how, if we recognize the primacy of place in our experiences, our involvement in the world, then we can see how it shapes philosophy. Place, as understood in these essays, is not a simple position, somewhere we stand or be. Rather, it is a dynamic system made up of “an essential mutuality of relation at every level,” and is “both unitary and multiple” (4). Place is that out of which thinking itself emerges, its origin, “that out of which something comes to appearance. [To begin] is to begin in and from out of place.” (14). Philosophy, for its part, “has its origin in any and every place” (15), and considers the place from which its questions arise as “a place that is also the place of our own being” (21). That is to say, philosophy, wonder and being can be considered as one.
This is not a new idea, and has been stated in a multitude of ways. And as Malpas proceeds through his essays the multiple definitions and explications of this idea via Heidegger’s thought can come to resemble the shingles of the nude in Duchamp’s famous painting—overlapping, expanding, shaping. We read, for example, “a place is precisely that which opens up to allow room for what belongs within it,” and in the same paragraph, “The return to place is this the turning toward that which allows for, that which gives room, but also that which withdraws” (19). This intellectual parallax helps us better grasp the points Malpas wants to make.
*Heidegger and the Thinking of Place *isn’t an ecological text in the simple sense, but Malpas’ reminders to us that philosophical inquiry and being can be considered synonyms means that many of the ideas can justifiably be read in relation to wider ecological concerns. Reading an abstract (topological and ontological) statement such as this—
Circularity, mutuality and multiplicity of elements, rejection of any form of reductionism—these are the key features in any thinking, any form of questioning, that addresses and is attentive to its own placidness (21).
—as being about one’s involvement with the physical environment (which, of course, doesn’t negate its relation to the idea of Being itself) can help us consider on-going pragmatic questions from new angles.
Considering philosophies of space and origin in relation to Heidegger adds a historical tension: Heidegger was a Nazi sympathizer, and can in places be read as having very similar ideas about people (“das Volk“) and their deep ties to their homeland. Race and land and destiny were Nazi touchstones, and Heidegger wrote extensively about these, as well. The essay here that most directly addresses these questions is “Geography, Biology and Politics” (137–157). Here Malpas reminds us how a love for and deep identification with one’s environment, one’s place, can be tied to a politically conservative, even Fascist philosophy, something to which most of us in this time and place give very little thought. He surveys some of the major historical currents and thinkers—including Friedrich Ratzel, who emphasized the role of the physical environment in shaping a culture, and Jakob von Uexküll, who believed that the biology of those living in an environment shaped their perceptions, a stance Malpas believes fed into anti-Semitism. This survey and discussion serves, in the end, to remind us of how interdependent not just physical man and his environment have always been, but, even more so, that our view of our relationship to our environment can shape political and even racial beliefs.
Malpas goes deeply into Heidegger’s thought to try to show that Heidegger was never so simpleminded as to totally embrace National Socialism’s most extreme views in this area. But Malpas is more concerned with (and convincing when) looking into Heidegger’s post WWII philosophical evolution. Malpas identifies an important shift in the later works: whereas in early Heidegger there is a belief in an underlying structure that unifies, he later comes to believe that the underlying truth of our Being in the world—and the world itself—is “a single structure that is unified in and through the mutual belonging together of its components” (27). This is a shift that has definite parallels with modern ecological theory.
Malpas details several unexpected implications Heidegger felt this new view produced:
The later Heidegger’s apparently weary insistence on the limits in our ability to change the course of the world … follows directly from a recognition of the essentially placed character of human being, and the limitation and fragility that follows inevitably from it” (69).
This implies, among other things, that social and political organization can come about only through “recognition” of what is, rather than through “purposive” action. These examples handily illustrate both the subtleties in Malpas’ arguments and the difficulties we have in trying to both redefine ourselves relative to our being in the world and in succeeding in our deliberate attempts at effecting changes to right the wrongs we see being done around us. But if we credit the idea that the nature of our thinking and our very being consist of the ways we find of mutually belonging together with the rest of being, then working through the ideas here would be a useful step in attaining that difficult goal.
About the Author
Jeff Malpas is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Tasmania. He is the author of Heidegger’s Topology: Being, Place, World (MIT Press, 2007).
About the Reviewer
W. C. Bamberger is an author, editor and translator. Recent essays have appeared in Palaver (University of North Carolina), The Quint (University College of the North)* and *Verse (University of Richmond). His translation of two novellas by Paul Scheerbart is forthcoming in the fall of 2015. His most recent novel, A Light Like Ida Lupino, was published in December of 2014. He is currently working on a study of Samuel R. Delany’s American Shore, and an eco-themed novel to be titled *Just Another Mirror of Heaven. *He lives in Michigan.
“A brilliant job….This book constitutes another impressive achievement by Jeff Malpas in reconsidering the importance and sense of place, not only Heidegger’s work, but also more broadly in philosophy itself.”—Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews
“Jeff Malpas’s Heidegger and the Thinking of Place *is a powerful companion volume of essays to his earlier *Heidegger’s Topology, but can also stand alone as an introduction to the crucial theme of place in Heidegger’s work. Especially powerful is the triptych of essays in the third part on nostalgia, death, and truth, which move from the thinking of place to thinking through place. Malpas’s ongoing dialogue with Heidegger goes to the heart of both thinker’s concerns, and demonstrates Malpas’s ability both to discuss complicated questions clearly and to show the complications in what previously appeared clear.”—Stuart Elden, Professor of Political Geography, Durham University
“Heidegger and The Thinking of Place not only confirms Jeff Malpas as a central interpreter of Heidegger, it reinforces his position as one of the most significant philosophers writing on the concept of place today. Henceforth it will be impossible to work on either ‘topos’ or ‘place’ without talking Malpas’s writings as the point of departure. Malpas works between and across traditions. If philosophy is to have a future that lifts it beyond the confines of commentary on the one hand or political posturing on the other then it is work by a philosopher such as Jeff Malpas that will show the way.”—Andrew Benjamin, Professor of Critical Theory and Philosophical Aesthetics, Director Research Unit in European Philosophy, Monash University
“Almost single-handedly, Jeff Malpas has created a new philosophical topic, that of ‘place’. Heidegger and the Thinking of Place far exceeds the bounds of Heidegger exegesis. It is a major work by the most original philosopher working in Australasia today.”—Julian Young, Kenan Professor of Humanities, Wake Forest University