CCR 633: Thinking through Things, Dwelling, and Fourfold

This past weekend, my parents and I attended a concert at a Anyela’s a winery just outside of Skaneateles. From our seats, we saw lanes of grapes, stretched out like topography along the hills. Behind the stage, the lake reflected back the setting sun in bleeding reds and oranges staining the the once-blue water.  The stage rose up like a wooden ark, seeming to sit becalmed amid the people, trees, lake, and grapevines. And the musicians–a motley collection of strings, brass, harpsichord, and players–played as the sky dimmed through stirred-up rainbows into muted black.

In time, crickets chirped amid bow-strokes and the temperature fell. Under-dressed for the cold, I buttoned up my cardigan and sipped at my Cabernet Franc–its living brethren growing on the hills nearby.  When the sky was a steady darkness, fireworks perched over the shoulder of a distant hill, occasionally sneaking a muted rumble into the music.

At one level, these noises and sites–combined with our distant seats–got “in the way” and impeded the “piece” of Vivaldi or Sufjan Stevens from reaching us, “the audience.” Vivaldi may have pulled out his (wig) hair imagining how fireworks, crickets, and someone tripping over a stair in the dark would fit is double cello concerto.

This is what my parent’s thought. But the whole time I kept thinking about Heidegger and Rickert’s ambient rhetoric, thinking how this particular concert was incredibly ambient, even down to the fourfold of Heidegger’s dwelling. How the crickets and the cold, the sloped earth and changing sky, fit together, indeed “spoke together.”

Connected to the text, the concert was a “thing.” Or, as Heidegger and Latour trace through Norse and Old German, a “thing” is like an assembly, a bringing together of people for parliament. In this way, “we do not just gather things in our existence; we are gathered by things,” says Rickert (225).  We are “be-thinged” as Heidegger says, gathered together.

But this gathering isn’t just of people. As Rickert describes “[Heidegger] wants to grant to the thing, as opposed to the object, the ability to manifest what he calls the fourfold (das Geviert)” (224). Of this fourfold, we have mortals, sky, land, and divinity, and while I want to delve a bit more in this, I think it worth stressing, as Rickert does, that “dwelling with things entails not just recognizing them as actants . . . but in addition that things make claim on us” and this claim affects “our very ways of being in the world” (229). In other words, recognizing the role of things–and by extension, the fourfold–isn’t just a matter of inclusion, as Latour argues in “Dingpolitik,” but is a matter of ontology and the ontic understanding of our own (human) being-in-the-world-with-others.

Getting at this last point–how things “be-thing” or “make claim on us”–Rickert made the most sense to me when he explained Heidegger’s (in)famous Black Forest farmhouse, by saying, “Who built the farm house? Dwelling built the farmhouse, not the peasants per se” (243). While dwelling includes the raw task of human building, it is “conditioned by the land and the things of the world. Location in regard to the spring and the mountain, the weight of the snow, the severity of the weather, mortality. . . ” (243). In this way, humans built the house, but they build this house, with its particular roof, architecture, materials, etc., through the ambience of the “things of the world.” And here, as Rickert clarifies throughout, “world” constitutes the “meaning and material” that both inform and get informed by language and the vitality of matter, the ecologies threaded with symbolism and material informing and being informed by the doing and being of actants. To go to Heidegger, the “for-the-sake-of-which” of cold necessitated a fireplace. Perhaps, a Muslims culture may create a material mihrab to point toward Mecca.

But, the question of the fourfold remains, this vague expression of divinity, mortal, earth, and sky. I confess that this fourfold always baffled me, but Rickert helped a lot when he situates Heidegger in the more ancient outlooks on architecture, earth, and sky and the symbolic, divinely linked math used to entwine these elements (231). This was also clear in his critique of Harman, who sees this fourfold as abstracted, not knit into the essential and disclosing properties of many lives, unified through things like ritual and song, as Rickert sees it (233).

Regarding this, Rickert writes, “[T]here is nothing mystic in Heidegger’s fourfold. Rather it speaks to the historically attuned intensification of rationality away from efficiency-driven abstraction and back into living and being in the world–which is to say, dwelling” (232).  Regarding dwelling, then, I see it as a sort of humble attunement to what “is” within a given situation as it is, as best as I can. Almost like Bogost’s alien phenomonology, I don’t know what a computer or tree is like, and though Rickert doesn’t go here, as I read, I think one could include standpoint theory and outlooks of disability. Often, to get more pointed, the rhetoricity of certain human beings gets curbed, erased, or unacknowledged because “the world” of material and linguistic relations enframe or ignore the ontology of some modes of Being.

Thus, if things also be-thing, we can’t just change situations by changing our human actions or direction. This is part, but not all. This touches on Rickert’s eighth chapter. Here, I see the value in the arguing he proposes in the Islanders case-study, the need for the Islanders to go beyond “logics” (252-53) or the ontologies folded into terms like “uses” (257) and to move to “enlivening: making their unique way of life real, palpable, and valuable to others and themselves” (259).

But, and perhaps I missed this, rhetoric is a two-way street, both expressing and listening, and I wonder about the listening of the local government–or the larger ecology of being, tool-use, culture, and practices that do use terms like “use.” Moving forward, this is my lingering question: How to more broadly and deliberately stitch (conscious) attunement into communication?

[Featured Image: “Our Cabin” by Henri Bergius via Creative Commons]

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