My colleague Axel Gelfert just launched a bold book review-type literary thing, The Berlin Review of Books. And he kindly invited me to review a big fat book, Jan Tschichold: Master Typographer: His Life, Work and Legacy [amazon], for his grand opening. So here is my review. It’s a long one. My main pivot is around one quote from the master, from 1959:
In the light of my present knowledge, it was a juvenile opinion to consider the sans serif as the most suitable or even the most contemporary typeface. A typeface has first to be legible, nay, readable, and a sans serif is certainly not the most legible typeface when set in quantity, let alone readable … Good typography has to be perfectly legible and, as such, the result of intelligent planning … The classical typefaces such as Garamond, Janson, Baskerville, and Bell are undoubtedly the most legible. In time, typographical matters, in my eyes, took on a very different aspect, and to my astonishment I detected most shocking parallels between the teachings of Die neue Typographie and National Socialism and fascism. Obvious similarities consist in the ruthless restriction of typefaces, a parallel to Goebbel’s infamous Gleichschaltung (enforced political conformity) and the more or less militaristic arrangement of lines.
As I point out in the review, it seems a bit silly to conflate militant fascism with minimalist fastidiousness. But that’s not really the point of the review, overall. (By the by, I found a nice, short book – but, egad! out of print and overpriced! – on that whole what-fonts-did-the-Nazis-outlaw? question. Remember?) But you know what Crooked Timber really needs, to get the comments perking along? An open thread to discuss the NY Times piece on the new Emmanuel Faye Heidegger book, Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-1935 [amazon], that’s what.
I’m curious to hear about previously unpublished seminar material. I have every faith that Heidegger will not come up covered in glory. But surely Faye’s denunciations are so over the top that nothing really edifying can come of from the book’s main thesis, as I understand it. (Not that I have much at stake personally. Heidegger just seems murky to me. I get impatient. I don’t feel compensated for my pains, wandering through this Black Forest of Being. But … well, Bert Dreyfus was my teacher. Lots of my friends seem to think this stuff is pretty important. I dunno. Heidegger’s Nietzsche lectures were sorta ok. Of course he got Nietzsche wrong … ) Faye, from the NY Time article: “I’m merely saying that we should know more about the ideological residues and connotations of a thinker like Heidegger before we accept his discourse ready-made or naïvely.” Yes, but no one has ever advocated ready-made, naive Heideggerianism, per se. And we’re off! waffling between an absurdly weak complaint and the absurdly strong threat of the book’s title, I anticipate.
Part of the problem – here’s a point we can focus on, maybe – is this sort of thing: “’You cannot read most of the important philosophers of recent times without taking Heidegger’s thought into account.’ Mr. Rorty added, however, that ‘the smell of smoke from the crematories’ will ‘linger on their pages.’” I think this is too much. The problem with Heidegger is not that you can smell the smoke from the crematories through the vaguely mystical ‘primordialness’ of it all, but that you can’t. Heidegger is so attuned to the alleged dangers on the other side (problem of technology, all that) that he’s just oblivious to the ways in which his own position could betray a person into … inauthenticity, and that’s just for warm-ups. Heidegger never seems to me to be personally concealing some primordial pit of hate or resentment, anger or suppressed violence – not him, not in his writings. I doubt the seminars are going to change my mind. But he seems disappointingly clueless about the risk that evil-spirited stuff could work its way out through stuff that sounds like stuff he thinks will save us. So obviously the stuff he thinks will save us needs to be handled with a different sort of care than it occurs to Heidegger to take (and lord knows he takes care, in his way.) So I guess I think it sounds flatly preposterous to say that Heideggerian philosophy is fascist. It’s just that the Heideggerian immune system, so to speak, is particularly bad at fighting off something like fascism. That’s not what it’s built to do. Which is a very bad thing. A lot worse than Jan Tschichold thinking maybe he was a bit of a type authoritarian in his exuberant youth. That’s fine, because it was just letters and shapes. Heidegger’s case is also obviously a lot worse than, say, Frege’s. You can separate the logic from the anti-semitism. The fact that Heidegger’s philosophy betrayed him into deep ethical inauthenticity is not something Heideggerian philosophy can shrug off, lightly. (We philosophers are always saying you can abstract arguments and positions from their authors. But Heidegger can’t say that. He’s not ‘we philosophers’, after all.) Still, Heidegger’s is not essentially a Nazi philosopher, surely.
My good old dissertation advisor, Hans Sluga, did a good job in Heidegger’s Crisis: Philosophy and Politics in Nazi Germany [amazon], I think. The book has a lousy title (blame the publisher, I’m sure), because it’s really about academic philosophy’s crisis, under the Nazis. How the field failed. (Not that this is, or is intended to be, some sort of excuse for Heidegger’s sorry personal showing in time of crisis.)
I’ve still got to find the time to write that long piece I’m gonna write about how Tschichold is weirdly exactly like Wittgenstein.