Heidegger and Co-ops: Ever Learning to Dwell?

Recently I’ve been returning over again to late Heidegger’s thinking, partly for ecological reasons, as an attempt to cope with the climatic disasters we’re approaching. But environmental collapse aside, there are good reasons for me to do this: as I shifted away from philosophy to focussing on co-ops, I never really sat back and reflected on what Heidegger or Merleau Ponty would say about co-op living. Virtually nothing has been written on this (aha – an opportunity for personal development!), but after re-reading “Building Dwelling Thinking” the connections are so apparent I want to invoke the cliche “hidden in plain sight”:

“The real dwelling plight lies in this, that mortals ever search anew for the nature of dwelling, that they must ever learn to dwell.”

The argument for this position in the essay is strange, largely based on etymologically-derived insights, and almost certainly would be rejected as “invalid” by nearly everyone. But by this time (early 50s), Heidegger is no longer interested in “doing philosophy”, it’s almost better to think of him as a mystic, like Alan watts or the Dalai Lama. Anyway, he’s saying something very obvious – that the plight of humans is that we constantly forget how to live, that we must constantly re-learn how to live. It’s almost an implication of the fact that for us, living is building, thought in the broad sense that includes construction and cultivation. Especially construction, we build our lives, but then lose ourselves in the lives we build for ourselves (not to mention the buildings). I recently listened to the 99% invisible podcast on the Bijlmer in Amsterdam. Heidegger would probably make more sense to more people if he was taught in context of critical histories of modernism.

The point of this is not to get to some cheap anti-utopianist post-modernism. The modernist visions were a great dream, but the problem is they lack the iterative quality found in the most hopeful utopian projects. Iterative does not mean “constantly re-inventing itself”, this permanent liminality leads to quick dissolution. Instead, iterative means containing the liminal within a process, re-evaluating and, where appropriate, re-inventing practices and structures, in an orderly, repetitive way, in response to problems. The extent to which this is possible depends on scale – projects larger than a few hundred have a very difficult time avoiding strong alienation between most participants and decision makers, making the re-evaluative process more a function of the identity of the leadership than a genuine exercise in distributed cognition.

Co-ops are social machines for ever-learning to dwell.

But where are we currently living? Certainly most of us do not live in co-ops. In fact, increasingly humans in Canada are living alone. In every age group except for over-65, a greater proportion of Canadians are living alone in 2016 compared to in 1981. The greatest increase is in young adults, who are also shouldering the highest rates of unaffordable shelter costs due to the lack of economies of scale involved in living alone, as well as the high cost of housing in urban centres. In addition, social problems associated with social isolation are likely to increase as living alone becomes more common in our society.

I’m interested, though, in why young adults choose to live alone rather than with family, friends, or partners? I suspect negative experiences of living with roommates in college is crucial – I’ve long suspected this is an example of counter-education experienced as young people attend universities, and it’s a reason why I’m passionate about co-operative living, as I strongly suspect people who have positive experiences with co-op living are less likely to want to live alone and therefore are less likely to suffer the harmful effects of social isolation due to “freely made” choices later in life.

More research is required, but I think the problematic can be described simply enough: we are apt to become isolated from each other by choosing not to dwell alongside one another when we decide that we no longer have to “learn” to live with one another. Negative experiences with co-dwellers, when we reduce them to some kind of negative facts about others, become in-grown truths (although no more truthful than in-grown toenails). There are no doubt ideological reasons why we respond to problems with living with others by living alone, but not to problems with work by becoming anti-capitalists.  Still, I don’t think arguments on the level of ideology can do much good in responding to these situations – what is effective is the demonstrative power of successful co-operative and co-living arrangements, people successfully caring for the semi-private commons together, living together with good spirit, with kindness, and most importantly with an ever-open willingness to continually learn to live – together.

2 thoughts on “Heidegger and Co-ops: Ever Learning to Dwell?

  1. Nice! Excellent writing. I’m curious about your response to Heidegger’s involvement with Nazism? This is something I struggle with, as a lefty anti-capitalist and anti-racist with a philosophy degree. I’m reading Gadamer these days. Thanks in advance for your response. -David

  2. Hi David, thanks. These days, I’m thinking of Heidegger’s involvement with Nazism as an expression of the tendency of highly intellectually active folks towards conspiracy theory, or conspiratorial thinking in general. So, I see it in continuity with “tankie” leftism, leftists who are advancing “edgy” lockdown-skeptical views. To be clear, this is a structural comment, and I don’t mean to create a moral equivalency between Heidegger’s involvement with the Nazi movement and some tankie’s defence of Stalin or Assad. What all these views have in common, I think, is a belief that the “real” conflict is taking at a level which is removed from everyday experience (and by implication, any kind of on-the-ground organizing that one can participate in). In a sense, all of Heidegger’s “political” thought is conspiratorial – both the middle period, and the late “un political” period. But I think there’s an important difference that thas to do with what he calls in the 30s the relationship with the ‘other beginning’, or what we might more broadly call, the relationship with the unknown/the relationship with transformation taking place at the level of the unknown. What makes Heidegger’s thought in the 30s fascist, in my view, is that he thinks you can operationalize the relationship with the unknown, with the transformation of being – this drives his thinking into a kind of occultism, that puts him in continuity with other occultist nazi academics of the time. He pulls away from this quite quickly though, but the 4th Nietzsche course (1940 or 1942, I can’t remember), he has already moved away from this. I definitely agree with Heidegger’s self-assessment in the Der Spiegel interview about the Nietzsche courses being his pivot away from his engagement with Nazi politics. But of course none of that excuses any of it, and it’s deep impotence in Heidegger’s personality that he’s not able to come to any kind of terms with what he’s done. The letters with Marcuse are brutal – he actually equivocates between the experiences of Jews and the experiences of Germans displaced from Eastern territories.

    I guess I do think that Heidegger’s late thought can function as a salve against the tendency exhibited in the middle thought, although you could argue this is nonsense because it didn’t enable Heidegger the person to come to terms with himself. I think the remark about how he was going to refer to the gas chambers alongside mechanized farming, but then retracted it when it upset people, is deeply telling. Heidegger experienced the dislocation of ge-stell on humanity in, it would seem, a profound way. However, that experience seems to have covered over, distorted, “concealed” any possibility of having a reasonable human experiential reaction to the horrors of the holocaust. Maybe this is similar in some ways to hardcore vegans who are so traumatized by the ongoing destruction of sentient non-human life, that they find crimes like the holocaust to be, not insignificant, but also not particularly surprising or extreme in comparison.

    Anyway, not sure if those thoughts are worth anything. I hope it’s clear that I’m not defending Heidegger’s middle period, or his participation in the Nazi party, or arguing that on a personal level anything he did after the war “made up for” his moral and political errors. Certainly I don’t think those errors justify throwing out his work. And I think that’s a fairly common view, even from those who were disgusted with him as a person. Marcuse, for example, I don’t think remained friendly with Heidegger after exchanging letters in the late 40s. However, he still referred to his work, for instance, the reference to the Technology essay in One-Dimensional Man.

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