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Dwelling after Heidegger

Louise Sundararajan, Ph.D., Ed.D.
Rochester Psychiatric Center, NY
[email protected]

[Excerpts from Dwelling, building, and thinking: From Heidegger to habitat theory, paper presented at the International Society for Theoretical Psychology, Berlin Conference, April, 1997]

Heidegger claims that humans do not "inhabit" like animals do-- they "dwell," and that "dwelling" takes place not so much in a site or "environment" as in a "world" --animals supposedly have no "world." Contrary to Heidegger, this paper attempts to explore the wide margins of overlap and affinity between dwelling and habitat selection, and to illustrate this point with a counter example--a Taoist project of dwelling as portrayed in a fifth century Chinese landscape poem by Hsieh Ling-yün. A detailed analysis of Hsieh's poem suggests the tentative conclusion that the Taoist project of dwelling is capitalizing on a possibility that has been prematurely foreclosed by Heidegger--the possibility that there is a continuum between "dwelling, building, and thinking" of the humans and habitat selection of the animal kingdom.

. . . .

As Haar has pointed out rightly that in the Heideggerian framework, Natural beings--sun, night, trees, herbs, snakes, cicadas--which Heidegger names, among others --do not have any subsistence of their own. They occur only in a world and in relation to a human work, in contrast with it (1993, p. 59). This marginalization of Nature seems to have important consequences for dwelling--for one thing, it renders dwelling disembodied. Symptomatic of this disembodied dwelling is Heidegger's lack of empathy for our creaturely needs, as evidenced by his claim that the contemporary shortage of housing, deplorable as it is, does not constitute the real plight of dwelling (1971, p. 161). Disembodiment also renders dwelling on earth more precarious ("what is the state of dwelling in our precarious age?" asks Heidegger, 1971, p. 161, emphasis added) than it already is--in the Heideggerian framework, poetry has superseded the body as our vital connection to the earth: Poetry is what first brings man onto the earth, making him belong to it, and thus brings him into dwelling, (Heidegger,1971, p. 218). Having lost its instinctual and physical connection with the earth, the disembodied Dasein is condemned to do its pirouette in a tight circle of building and thinking, a precarious dance, which, if all goes well, may hopefully culminate in dwelling on earth. In sharp contrast is the Taoist project of dwelling, which seems to have started the whole thing in reverse order, beginning with the poet affirming his ties with the earth, as he sets out in search of a good habitat, a quest which in turn facilitates, if we recall the foregoing analysis of Hsieh's poem, building (poetry making), thinking (kind comportment toward all things), and dwelling in the fourfold of the world. In light of this active role Nature plays in the Taoist project of dwelling, we wonder whether the relationship between Being and Nature is more complex than the one way street that Heidegger has envisioned, as Haar puts it, Heidegger does not recognize nature as having power over being. Nature is in being, and not being in nature (1993, p. 6). And to question the subordination of Nature to Being is for us to question, at the same time, the adequacy of any project of dwelling, which fails to take into consideration the body and its creaturely needs.

In conclusion, our analysis of Hsieh's poem confirms Heidegger's claim that poetry is what lets us dwell, and at the same time questions the adequacy of such a project of dwelling that depends exclusively upon poetry/language for its realization. While this analysis has shown how our instinctual ties with nature can contribute to, although not necessarily constituting, our dwelling poetically (Heidegger, 1971, p. 227), it does not intend to eliminate the tension between Being and Nature. By reopening the question concerning Being and Nature, it resists any tendency to reduce the tension between the two by either making dwelling a derivative of habitat selection, or conversely, as Heidegger has done, by making nature contingent upon being. Keeping intact this creative tension between Being and Nature, we hope thereby to underscore the importance of a sustained dialogue between Heidegger and habitat theory, a dialogue which, we believe, holds the potential toward fulfilling the aspiration of Heidegger to bring dwelling to the fullness of its nature (1971, p. 161)--habitat theory may expand the lower limit of the Heideggerian dwelling by showing its continuity with habitat selection in the animal kingdom, to the same extent that Heidegger's formulations of the fourfold can extend the higher limit of habitat theory, by showing the plastic and multidimensional nature of the human habitat, which requires the satisfaction of the spiritual and the cultural over and beyond the biological needs of the species.


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[After Post-Modernism Conference. Copyright 1997.]