The answer to the question is only the final result of the last step of a long sequence of questioning steps. Each answer remains in force as an answer only as long as it is rooted in questioning. —Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art”
Let’s admit it: “Is this all there is?” is a strange question. What does it even mean? Which is to say (or ask), what does it ask? As the conveners of this forum, Courtney Bender and Nancy Levene, noted in their call for submissions, the question leaves the “this” unspecified. It’s as if the question isn’t posed about anything in particular. This fact itself raises a question: Can a question be posed about nothing in particular? Is this a question? How would one answer such a question? Can one?
In the epigraph, Heidegger makes one of his characteristic observations about the relationship between questions and answers. Answers have force, he says—that is, they have impact, they affect us, they elicit from us our conviction—when the answer is rooted in what he calls questioning (Fragen). Not all questions (Frage) are questioning. A question, for Heidegger, seeks merely an objective answer (What color is grass?), the answer to which does not depend on our conviction, whereas questioning is the articulation of some obscurity about the world, and therefore about our being in the world. Questioning thus equally implicates, and so questions, the questioner.
“Is this all there is?” then, is not a question, or is more than one, and that is part of its slowly surfacing profundity. About nothing in particular, it does not ask after anything objective, anything object-like. Instead, it asks about our relation to the world, about some problem among us. But what about our world and us, and what problem? In its colloquial sense, “Is this all there is?” has a tone of disappointment and pessimism. It bespeaks a discontent with what is. This is it? There’s nothing more? However one answers, it forces a reflection on what is, on the present, and thus on the times in which it is posed, as Bender and Levene also convey in their call.
In this way, this call recalls a famous historical one, famous because one of the answers to it has remained in force ever since. I’m thinking of the call issued by the eighteenth-century Prussian magazine the Berlinische Monatsschrift under the title, “What is Enlightenment?,” famously answered by Immanuel Kant in an essay whose full, not un-Heideggerian title is “Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?” (1784). Michel Foucault rightly observed in his parodically entitled essay, “What is Enlightenment,”1Michel Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?” trans. Catherine Porter, in Ethics, Subjectivity, and Truth: The Essential Works of Foucault, Volume I, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York, NY: The New Press, 1997), 304–305. that Kant’s essay is the first published instance of a philosophical reflection on “contemporary reality,” which makes it something of a prototype for this forum.
The magazine issued the call because “enlightenment” was a buzzword at the time. The term spoke of some newly emerging and changed relationship to the world. What’s more, the fact that this questioning of the term was posed at the time reflects also a new and changed temporal self-understanding. What are we now?, it asks. And, indeed, Kant’s answer to this questioning itself reflects this changed temporal self-understanding. Enlightenment is produced, he argues, when reason is given the freedom to critique institutions, a critique that therein takes place in the present and leads to progress in the future. As he writes, “If we are asked, ‘Do we now live in an enlightened age?’ the answer is, ‘No,’ but we do live in an age of enlightenment.”
Ever since the Romantics, we have grown accustomed to a certain skepticism about Enlightenment progressivism and its enduring variants. As a result, one may be wary of my linking it to our present questioning and condition. Consider, however, three points.
First, progress (optimism, hope) and disappointment (pessimism, doubt) are conceptually interdependent. If progress is based on the possibility of the critique of the present, then progress is grounded in some kind of disappointment with the present, since to engage in a critique of the present presupposes some perception of a problem with it. “As things now stand,” Kant writes, “much is lacking which prevents men from being, or easily becoming, capable of correctly using their own reason in religious matters with assurance and free from outside direction.” On the other hand, if Kant, like the voice in our question, feels disappointed with how things now stand, that can only be because he, like us, had hoped for more. Disappointment arises from the failure of someone to keep an appointment, and appointments, being futural yet not causally determined, are acts of hope, trust, and faith. Is this all there is? Is this merely what our hopes have amounted to?
Second, how should we think about this more we have hope in? The most common, most engrained, and so most tempting way to think about “more” is in a quantitative manner, where “more” refers to an amount greater than what is. What’s more, such a mode of thinking is intrinsically also a spatial mode, since whatever is more than what we have here must be posited as extending into a space beyond. This spatiality is captured in the related word transcendence, which literally means “to climb beyond” (from Latin trans [across, beyond] and scandere [to climb]). The link between these quantitative and spatial senses is evident in the legacy of Platonism in some forms of Christian theology, where God is often conceived according to a maximalist metaphysics as omnipotent, omniscient, the summum bonum, and so on, and consequently is posited as existing in some other, superior world, in the non-worldly place of a utopia (from Greek, ou-topos, not-place).
But these quantitative and spatial senses of “more” are misleading in our context. The sense of more or transcendence presupposed in our question has, rather, a qualitative resonance. The experience of disappointment or unhappiness suggests that we are operating in a register of value. “More,” then, does not refer to a larger version of what is, in some other (non)place, but to something judged better than what prevails. But what makes something better is not necessarily the amplification or elevation of what is, but, rather, the alteration of it, a different way of thinking, doing, and being in the here and now. The disappointment with what prevails is a disappointment with the way things are. To hope for more is to hope for a different way of being in the world, an othered world rather than another world.
Such a hope for an othered world—and this brings me to my third point—imposes limits on the kind of optimism and faith we may have. In Kant’s Enlightenment essay, the chief obstacle to enlightenment is uncritical religiosity, precisely the kind of religiosity that might claim to know the future (progress). This is why in his later, related essay, “An Old Question Raised Again: Is the Human Race Constantly Progressing?” (1798), he is explicit that although the question of progress demands something like prophetic vision to answer—let’s say a kind of transcendental point of view—it is equally true that “the prophetic history of the human race must be connected to some experience”—let’s say to an immanent point of view or frame. Viewing human history from within an immanent frame, Kant nevertheless prophetically sees grounds for optimism: in 1784 in the enlightened despotism of Frederick the Great, and in 1798 in the French Revolution. I don’t want to dwell on these examples as much as on Kant’s idea that the transcendence of (his) optimism does not take us beyond the world. His is a kind of immanent transcendence, a more that is not something additional to, or outside of, what is, but is a different way of inhabiting it.
These issues, wrestled with by both Kant and this forum, take us to the heart of our times, the heart of the saeculum (Latin, “age”). In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor argues that the defining characteristic of modern secularity is not the absence of religion as much as a new relationship between immanence and transcendence that he calls the “immanent frame” (from which this blog takes its name). The immanent frame is an implicit framework that accounts for experience in humanistic and natural terms without recourse to transcendental elements like spirits, gods, or cosmic forces. Rather than foreclose a relationship to all forms of transcendence, however, it renders such a relationship optional. What’s more, since all of modern experience takes place in an immanent frame, he contends, transcendence today is conditioned by it, too. Taylor does not say much about how to conceive this immanent transcendence, because that is not his goal in A Secular Age, but it is hard not to want to imagine it.
I have already observed that transcendence literally means to climb above; immanence, by contrast, means “to dwell in” (from Latin in [in or into] and manere [to dwell]). So, the combination—immanent transcendence—suggests some perplexing idea of climbing above while dwelling within. But what could this possibly mean? One exemplary place where this has been profoundly explored is in the work of contemporary British-Indian artist Anish Kapoor. Contemporary art is not usually thought of as a hospitable venue for such questions about religion and secularity, as James Elkins has shown. But Kapoor himself notes that, while “spirituality” is a “taboo subject” among “those who write about art,” actual “artists have dealt with it.” He makes clear that, in his view, spirituality is not merely an “idea,” but an integral part of human “experience.” As such, he is adamant that his role as artist is not to convey didactically his personal ideas about spirituality via the medium of the artwork, but for the work itself, and its experience by the viewer, to somehow materialize spirituality. The successful work will give us—will be—transcendence in immanence.
Kapoor’s Mother as a Void (1988) is, in my judgement, such a work. This sculptural piece—roughly 6.5 feet cubed, made of fiberglass, covered in cobalt blue pigment—is a kind of hollowed-out, intact half-eggshell. Spheroidal and slightly larger than the average person, the viewer cannot get an encompassing view of the work, which appears dramatically different from different angles. From its back or closed side, the work appears a deep blue orb and is thus suggestive of the Earth (mother), a subject of several Kapoor works. We are being given a view of the world, as if we are removed from or above it, in some kind of transcendental point of view. Almost oppositely, however, because our upright position makes it difficult to see the orb’s base, it appears almost to float just above the floor, making this world seem to transcend our own. Of course, we and this blue fiberglass object both exist in the same (real) world, but Kapoor’s piece is altering how we experience and so think the latter.
If one moves around the piece, one can view its opening and internal space. In the shadowy hollow of it, the cobalt blue darkens to midnight blue and blue-black, the colors of outer space as seen from Earth. What’s usually seen beyond the world is here found inside it. Space is, we say, infinite, the most common epithet for transcendence, and when one gazes into the opening of Mother as a Void, one cannot, as with many Kapoor works, fathom its depth. At first, the infinity one sees would seem necessarily to exceed its enclosure within the orb’s bounds. And yet, it is obvious that this is a paradoxical infinity which is conditioned and even created by limitation: remove the surface and you remove the infinity. What’s more, the infinity seems, in turn, in the infinitizing thrust of its depth, to push out and so to hold up its rounded surface, as if creating the orb. This object could not be the object it is in our world if it did not contain this infrastructural infinite void. This object—the world—is thus created out of the nothingness that it itself contains.
As thereby generative, Kapoor names this ovular object a mother. Commenting on his related piece, Madonna (1989–90), which he says alludes to the Madonna of Torcello, who is a “cosmic mother, some originator,” Kapoor explains that he analogously uses the “void as a potential space . . . rather than a non-space” and therefore as “a condition of beginning rather than of end.” In Kapoor’s work, the creator of the world—the supreme figure or instance of transcendence—is found within it.
If, in light of Kapoor’s work and our previous discussion, we now re-pose our original question—Is this all there is? Is there not more to the world?—the answer must be yes and no. Kapoor, like Kant and Heidegger before him, has no illusions about showing us something outside the world. His, like theirs, is an immanent vision. But Kapoor’s work, like theirs, aims at disclosing in the world the very potentiality or possibility of the world. This potentiality, not equivalent to what exists, in a sense is beyond the world, more than it. However, because possibility is disclosed in the world, its continuing presence there means that the possibility of a further engendering also endures there, which could only mean an othering of the present world. In the end, then, we have nothing more than this world—and there looms the chance of disappointment or worse. But what makes this world possible exists along with it, and this fact also makes possible new worlds, or new configurations of the old one. The fact that we are disappointed with what is reveals, ultimately, that there are grounds to hope for more.