Forays Into the Fragment: Heidegger and Kant

Our relationship with fragments of art is one of a desiring proximity predicated upon an unfathomable and necessary distance.

Visit any collection of antiquities and you are surrounded by fragments. It is such a familiar part of our interaction with ancient art that perhaps we no longer consider what is involved in that experience. But the encounter with the fragment as an aesthetic object is, in a strong sense, an uncanny occurrence. One manner of elucidating the uncanny nature of the fragment (and indeed, aesthetic objects in general) requires a foray into some ideas raised by Martin Heidegger and Immanuel Kant.

Fragments draw us on, they ask us to approach but the more we approach, the farther they seem to recede.

When I wake in the morning to find my cat has knocked over a ceramic mug and it has broken upon the floor, I don’t attempt to use the mug again, nor do I place the mug on a shelf for others to admire. If it’s not reparable (or if I am too lazy to bother with the repair), I throw the mug away. It’s no longer serviceable as the thing it was. Its brokenness prohibits it from any longer doing what it was supposed to do in my life and thus, in an important sense, it no longer is what it was back when it was a functional mug. Strictly speaking, it’s no longer a mug as such at all.

If we are to put this in Heideggerian terms, it is no longer “equipment” and thus no longer “ready-to-hand”. For Martin Heidegger, things are “ready-to-hand” when we they are available for us to be involved with them in pursuit of a project. So a mug is “ready to hand” insofar as we use it (or can use it) as a vessel to hold liquid that will quench our thirst when we drink from the mug. The broken mug is “present-at-hand”; its presence obtrudes upon us as an obstacle of sorts: we can’t get a drink with it and it must be disposed of and cleaned up. Darn cat.

Heidegger’s project in his famous treatise (unfinished and thus itself something of a fragment) Being and Time is to demonstrate that the seemingly objective, scientific way of looking at the world as a collection of present objects is not the way in which we actually interact with the world at all. Rather, while it’s not without its uses, this way of viewing the world is actually a second-order, deficient mode of understanding. It flattens out experience by making all things equal in that they are merely present. But Heidegger insists we live in a richly textured world where some things show up to us as being more important (and thus conceptually “closer” to us) than others because of our involvement with them.

A mug from which I drink my morning tea is equipment. I don’t think about it. I use it. When my cat breaks my favorite mug, its objecthood intrudes upon my routine and momentarily hinders my project of getting ready for work. When I deal with things that are “ready-to-hand”, I am immersed in my world; I am involved. When I encounter the “present-at-hand”, there’s a momentary disruption of that immersion. I then confront the object as, in German, the Gegenstand — that which stands against me or that which is in my way.

Now at first glance, applying this to considerations involving ancient fragments of artworks seems blithely wrongheaded. As Heidegger himself points out in his essay “The Origin of the Work of Art”, the artwork is not exactly equipment but neither is it a mere object. When we look at an ancient fragment — let’s take one of the most famous examples, the Venus de Milo with its celebrated missing arms (more on that celebration below) — we don’t claim that it ceases to function as an artwork, that it somehow becomes merely “present-at-hand” and thus obstructs our projects. We might indeed be hard-pressed to determine what the function of the artwork is in the first place. Even if one were to define the function of the artwork, one would be even more hard-pressed to find general agreement.

Perhaps this involves a fairly ingrained Kantian notion of art as “purposive without purpose” or in a more humorous if slightly misguided reading “pointedly pointless”. That is to say, aesthetic engagement resides in the fact that we recognize that the object was purposefully constructed (it’s not random) but it serves no direct purpose or function. Here Kant distinguishes two forms of causality: the causa efficiens and the causa finalis. The former involves the agent bringing about a change: so the builder causes the house to be built. The latter accounts for the purpose of the thing: the house is constructed to provide shelter. It’s clear that the artist (the causa efficiens) created the artwork purposefully (thus the artwork is purposive) but its actual purpose (the causa finalis) is not as clear as it would be in the case of equipment (thus, it has no straightforward purpose).

The Venus de Milo does not fail to do what she does simply because she is missing her arms. Yet our experience of the Venus de Milo (our experience, not the experience of her initial viewers before she was “disarmed”) is predicated upon the fact that she is armless. She is not “present-at-hand” in the relatively pejorative sense that she is broken and therefore no longer functions. She is broken but her functionality as art — whatever that is, which is precisely what is at question here — is not impaired. At the same time she is not equipment and thus she is not “ready-to-hand”, either.

Of course, as we pointed out above, Heidegger insists that any artwork is neither a mere thing (although it has elements of a thingly character) nor a piece of equipment (although it involves our immersion in a world). So it is not something inherent in fragments per se, but rather in all artworks. Indeed the brilliant Heideggerian exegete, Lee Braver (in Heidegger’s Later Writings), finds this part of Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art” deeply unsatisfying in that Heidegger fails to account for this tripartite ontology of things, equipment, and artworks by examining each on its own terms (as his overall project would seem to demand). Rather, Heidegger presents them as imbricated with each other so that an artwork has within it elements of the thing and elements of equipment. While I am deeply sympathetic to Braver’s concerns, I would like to stick with this ontological fuzziness a bit longer to help support the notion of the encounter with the fragment as uncanny.

The artwork is “purposive without purpose”. To an extent, we can see Heidegger’s “mixed ontology” for the artwork implicit in the Kantian dictum. Equipment is defined by its causa finalis. The mug is not a mere object because it has a purpose. A rock ceases to be an object and becomes equipment when we put it into service as a substitute seat or a substitute hammer (presumably not the same rock in both instances unless you are very tiny or very strong). Equipment, that is the ready-to-hand, is thus purposive.

The object as Gegenstand, or as present-at-hand, is obstructive in some manner. It’s anti-equipment, and thus a hindrance. It’s without purpose. That’s what makes us stand back and objectively observe the mug once it’s broken — its fall from grace as equipment illuminates its objecthood. Or to risk a pun: it becomes an object through its objectionable refusal to serve us in our projects; it resists us and so forces us into an awareness of it. We are awakened to it.

Now there is a negative and a positive aspect to this awakening. On the one hand, we are drawn out of our project; we are thwarted and must rectify the issue to return to the matter at hand. On the other hand, the thing is revealed to us, lit up for us, in a manner that recognizes the thing as both familiar (this is the mug we have long known) and strange (it is now deprived of its mugness — its ability to function as equipment). This is the very definition of the uncanny. We come to recognize the object in a new way but part of that recognition is a realization that it cannot be fully known.

The artwork is neither equipment nor object and yet its mode of being overlaps with those other modes. Like equipment it’s purposive, but like the object it’s without purpose. This apparent contradiction is precisely what informs Kant’s understanding (and later Heidegger’s as well, I contend) of the peculiar nature of our experience with art. Kant held that we find an artwork simultaneously fitting and surprising. Everything in it seems just so, just right, and yet it strikes us with wonder. Whereas our uncanny experience of the mug involves it moving from an ontology of equipment to an ontology of object, our experience of art moves immediately within the sphere of this seeming contradiction; it’s inherently uncanny.

The uncanny is the unheimlich; it articulates the unhoused quality of our existence — always a stranger in our own home, surrounded by estranged familiarity. Artworks draw us on, they ask us to approach but the more we approach, the farther they seem to recede. Our relationship with them is one of a desiring proximity predicated upon an unfathomable and necessary distance. In this they mimic Heidegger’s account of Being in that it withdraws and draws us on after it.

The ancient fragment brings this home in a particularly compelling manner. The ancient fragment does not offer the same experience as the so-called non finito work such as certain sculptures by Rodin that deliberately seem unfinished (thus, the figure emerging, but not fully formed, from a rough block of marble). We are aware in our engagement with the ancient fragment that it used to be whole. It’s the condition of its transmission into our time, the condition of its history that has led to its fragmented state. Whatever the artist originally intended, he did not intend this partial object. The fragment is recognizable; we know that the Venus de Milo is a woman (we, of course, do not know for certain she is meant to depict Venus) and that she once had arms. And yet a large part of the allure of the Venus de Milo for a modern viewer is wrapped up in her accidental amputations.

Historians and museumgoers alike continue to speculate about what those arms would have been doing and what significance that would have. Some believe she held an apple, others a bow, others that she was leaning on a pedestal, others still that she was spinning thread. She was once adorned with jewelry and may have been painted. The latter, in particular, flies in the face of much of what viewers have traditionally held dear about the art of antiquity (an issue I will explore further in the next part of this discussion in a later column).

The fragment registers the redeeming loss we face in any confrontation with the artwork (indeed, in any true confrontation with any other thing). It is loss in that we are forever held at a distance. But this unbridgeable chasm is the price we pay for an encounter with the individual, the non-reducible, the radical other. Heidegger claimed that the artwork illuminated the world for the viewer in such a way that it articulated the rich textures of our worlded experience — what it is to live this life, engaged, involved, immersed in a manner of existence that we cannot view from the “outside” because we are in it and we cannot get back “behind ourselves” to view it objectively. The artwork for Heidegger doesn’t pretend to offer us this “view from nowhere”, but rather to assist in illuminating our worldedness from within.

The fragment, I believe, clarifies that part of the insight generated by an artwork involves our realization that we can never “see it all”. That realization is redeeming not because we are forced to accept the limitations of knowledge, and not because of the platitude that asserts “there is always more to know”. It’s redeeming because it assures us that our encounters are never finalized, never complete, that rational knowledge is not our only and perhaps not our best purchase upon the world. It’s redeeming because as dead and deadening as the world may sometimes seem, there is something in the midst of it that calls us forward, that beckons us on as a stranger in a strange land and yet always uncannily at home.