Post Road Magazine #28


Zak Breckenridge
" designed for the different generations under one roof the character of their journey through time."
         —Martin Heidegger, "Building Dwelling Thinking"

Comics such as Art Speigelman's Maus, Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis draw international interest and acclaim. Comics test the limits of what can be done with the combination of text and image on the page—which can perhaps most notably be seen in the work of Chris Ware and Lynda Barry. We also, incidentally, live in a time of crisis for Heidegger studies. With the collection and publication of some of Heidegger's "black notebooks" by Peter Trawny and his new book Heidegger and the Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy, Heidegger scholars have been forced to seriously reconsider whether and to what extent Heidegger's philosophy could be contaminated by Nazism. Joshua Rothman describes a panel discussion on Heidegger and Nazism, of which Trawny was the centerpiece, as "dim, airless, and funereal," and the discussion itself as "halting and desultory." These notebooks raise the question of whether or not a person capable of holding such poisonous opinions about Jews is capable of producing any valuable thought at all. Heidegger scholars and non-scholars for whom Heidegger is an important figure, such as Trawny and Rothman, are anxious not only about what this means for the academic consideration of Heidegger, but also the damage that this does to their philosophical outlook. It seems that the received ways of understanding Heidegger are no longer sufficient and that we need new ways of considering him as a thinker.

So although the timbre of the question is radically different between the two areas of study, the study of comics and the study of Heidegger are both hungry for revision. I want to single out Chris Ware's most recent graphic novel Building Stories, which is made up of fourteen distinct pamphlets contained in what looks like a game board box and is doubtless one of the most formally innovative graphic novels ever, and a few of Heidegger's insights about space, art, memory, and teaching in order to think about the output of these two figures alongside one another. Rather than just using Heidegger as a lens through which to read Ware's work, I want to see what can be illuminated about both Heidegger and Ware by considering them side by side. Ultimately, I want to propose that in the case of these two men a distinction between "philosophy" and "art," or even "cartoons," is insufficient. Heidegger is, in addition to being a philosopher, an artist, who has to inhabit the aesthetic and poetic in order to convey his thinking to a reader. Conversely, Ware has somewhat famously stated that "drawing is a way of thinking," a quote that became the subtitle of the first edited collection considering his work. [1] This suggests that the aesthetic production of comics, at least in the case of Chris Ware, is, in addition to being an art object, a way of thinking both ontologically and phenomenologically. Hopefully this can open the way for deeper consideration of comics as a medium and Heidegger as not just a philosopher, but also as a teacher and an artist.


Heidegger's essay "Building Dwelling Thinking," originally presented as a lecture in 1951, provides a philosophical account of space in opposition to a Cartesian view in which space is described in terms of "the purely mathematical construction of manifolds with an arbitrary number of dimensions." The problem with such a view is that in it "'the space,' 'space,' contains no spaces and no places. We never find in it any locales." [2] Heidegger, through his characteristic excavation of Greek and Germanic etymology, arrives at an account of space as the primary character of man's existence in the world. He claims that the German word for building, bauen, originally means "dwelling," and claims that it survives in the first- and second-person singular conjugations for the German verb "to be," bin and bist: "ich bin, du bist mean I dwell, you dwell. The way in which you are and I am, the manner in which we humans are on earth, is buan, dwelling. To be a human being means to be on earth as a mortal. It means to dwell."[3] Space is not merely an abstract extension that surrounds us in certain geometrically describable ways, but instead sets the terms of how we experience our existence in the world. [4]

In Building Stories, Chris Ware is also concerned with people's spatial existence in the world. The title Building Stories is a pun: it is about stories that take place in, through, and around buildings, and it also asks the reader, by providing booklets but no order in which to read them, to build their own version of the story. My concern here is with the former meaning of the pun (the latter is discussed below). Many of the stories contained within Building Stories are centralized around a three-story tenement building in Humbolt Park, and shows how the contingent fact of the spatial relationship between the tenants shapes their lives. For instance, in the second page of a four-page fold-out board, Ware depicts a couple living on the second story that fights over money. The man, alone, looks down at the woman who lives above them as she walks out of the building, wonders about how she lost her leg, and fantasizes about having sex with her. Later, his girlfriend goes to the flower shop where the woman living above them works, who, upon realizing that they live in the same building, gives her a free bouquet. The final two panels, circles in the bottom right corner, depict the second-floor couple cuddling on the couch while the woman upstairs sleeps by herself. It is the space of the building that determines the outcome of the narration.

However, this page, and the other three in this series, deal with space in an even more interesting way. Not only does the narrative center around the building and the spatial life of the characters, but the actual narrative is laid out spatially. Instead of employing narration or even speech bubbles (these pages have a few speech bubbles with symbols or ideograms in them, but no text as such), Ware conveys the unfolding action and the emotional timbre of these sequences by relating objects and people on the page. On the first page, for instance, we are introduced to a handwritten classified ad, in the drawer of a side-table in the third-floor apartment, which is printed in the newspaper in the box outside the restaurant where the woman goes for the date that she has scheduled as a result of the classified ad. This is all conveyed through the spatial arrangement of images on the page; narrative and emotion come solely through this practically architectural arrangement. Ware both represents a life that is lived essentially in space, through our dwelling, and thematizes it in his use of the medium.

Text Box:

If both Heidegger and Ware are working to examine the spatially determined character of existence, space is really an intermediate step on the way to interrogating the everyday. For both Ware and Heidegger, truth speaks through the everyday, which means that understanding comes from the consideration of the everyday. Ontological thinking, for Heidegger, must proceed from the analysis of Dasein in its everydayness: "the manner of access and interpretation...should show that being as it is first and for the most part—in its average everydayness. Not arbitrary and accidental structures but essential ones are to be demonstrated in this everydayness."[5] It is by understanding the everyday that the essential structures of human being can be discovered. The pages of Building Stories are filled with depictions of sleepless nights, meticulously sliced apples, grocery shopping, balancing checkbooks, and etc.: it tries to exemplify the everyday through the form of comics. If attention to the everyday is the path toward ontological thinking, then Ware is right alongside Heidegger on that path.

Finally, Heidegger situates himself clearly within a philosophical conversation by responding explicitly to the shortcomings of past attempts at thinking space, ontology, technology, etc. Similarly, the conversation in which Ware situates himself aesthetically has to do with comics: the limits of the form, the possibility of faithful representation in comics art, and the growth of "literary" comics as a contemporary movement. However, Heidegger frequently takes recourse to poetic and aesthetic tools in order to do the thinking that he finds necessary. In "Building Dwelling Thinking" he places at the center of his argument a downright poetic description of a bridge: "The bridge gathers the earth as landscape around the stream. Thus it guides and attends the stream through the meadows. Resting upright on the stream's bed, the bridge-piers bear the swing of the arches that leave the stream's waters to run their course."[6] In "What Calls for Thinking?" he centralizes a few lines from a Hölderlin poem in order to think about signification, memory, and thinking itself. In order to make his philosophical intervention, Heidegger relies on an aesthetic method. Only by changing, and frequently, aestheticizing his mode of thinking is Heidegger able to do the necessary thinking. Placing this alongside Chris Ware's statement that "drawing is a way of thinking," both Ware and Heidegger begin to appear as philosopher-artists.


What does it mean, though, to call Heidegger and Ware thinkers? What is thinking here? This question, that of the structure of thinking, occupies quite a bit of space in Heidegger's corpus. For him, "Every questioning is a seeking. Every seeking takes its direction beforehand from what is sought." [7] Thinking thus has, to a certain extent, the character of discovery. Heidegger expands on this in a later essay, writing: "What must be thought about turns away from man. It withdraws from him...Whatever withdraws refuses arrival. But—withdrawing is not nothing. Withdrawal is an event." We, as those seeking to think, are then presented with something, an object of thought, which does not immediately reveal its essence to us. In turn, "what withdraws from us draws us along by its very withdrawal." [8] We are thus called to thinking by something that is as yet unthought; the object of thinking withdraws, inviting us to seek it. In this view, then, there is a certain passivity to Heidegger's thinking subject: it is pulled toward a concealed truth by that truth's very concealment.

However, thinking is not merely passive discovery; it also has an element of poieses, of creation. Heidegger arrives at this creative element in thought, and identifies thinking as an element of poetry, by way of memory:

Drama and music, dance and poetry are of the womb of Mnemosyne, Memory. It is plain that the word means something else than merely the psychologically demonstrable ability to retain a mental representation of something that is past. Memory thinks back to something thought....Memory is the gathering of thought upon what everywhere demands to be thought first of all....Memory, Mother of the Muses—the thinking back to what is to be thought—is the source and ground of poesy....Surely as long as we take the view that logic gives us insight into what thinking is, we shall never be able to think how much poesy rests upon thinking back, recollection. Poetry wells up only from devoted thought thinking back, recollecting. [9]

This is a dense but centrally important passage. First, for Heidegger, creation rises out of memory. Second, remembering is not simply retaining: the subject is not a vessel filled with memories. Rather, remembering is an active thinking-back, and memory watches over that which remains unthought. Thus creation finds its root in the form of thinking which is remembering. However, considering thinking as a creative act does not contradict what I have been calling the passive dimension of thinking. In order to explain the process of learning, Heidegger takes recourse to the example of a cabinetmaker's apprentice: "If he is to become a true cabinetmaker, he makes himself answer and respond above all to the different kinds of wood and to the shapes slumbering within wood—to wood as it enters into man's dwelling with all the hidden riches of its essence." [10] Through this example, we can see that both cabinetmaking and thinking are simultaneously acts of creation and discovery. This is because creation is always a proper response to an essence; it must first of all respond to that which calls it. The shapes slumber in the wood as truth slumbers in the world, but it is only creation which can bring them forth.

Considering thinking, memory and creation in this way has significant implications for thinking about Ware's work. Ware himself has said that Building Stories is "from start to finish about memory."[11] As he describes the style of drawing that he employs in his cartoons, "I want the black lines of the strip to have the same clarity as typography, because I think that a typographical approach more accurately reflects the way we remember and abbreviate reality as ideas rather than as images." [12] Ware not only works to evoke memory in the way that he draws objects and characters; he also, through the particular interplay that he creates through image and text, as Peter Sattler argues, works to evoke the experience of remembering in the reader. By stringing almost unrelated images together with a continuous memory-narrative, Ware not only represents memory but tries to recreate it as an experience in his work.[13] So if drawing is a way of thinking, memory is an essential dimension through which this thinking operates.

Let's consider more fully the particular form that this thinking takes. Ware says of his process: "I guess it would be admitting too much to say that I make it up as I go along, but that pretty much comes down to what I do. Things happen on the page that I simply would not be able to plan if I was plotting it out very carefully or scripting it beforehand."[14] Considering this alongside the fact that Ware has referred to cartooning as "memory drawing,"[15] we might think of Ware as being much like Heidegger's cabinetmaker. Rather than setting out to make something before he encounters the page, Ware sits down to discover the shapes, patterns, and stories that slumber in the page.[16] Through this process, he creates in terms of memory; he creates a process of thinking-back as he discovers the essence of the cartoon that calls him to draw.

However, thinking is never completed. Even if we are called to think, summoned by the object of our thinking, thinking does not naturally draw to a close. Heidegger writes at the end of "Building Dwelling Thinking" that "enough will have been gained if dwelling and building have become worthy of questioning and thus have remained worthy of thought."[17] Thinking as a creative act is thus not merely an activity which can be engaged in and completed, but a practice. The basic definition that Heidegger gives of Dasein at the beginning of Being and Time is that "in its Being this being is concerned about its very Being."[18] The defining character of our subjectivity is thus its questionability. I have already touched briefly on Heidegger's interest in the category of withdrawal, but I want to give this matter a bit more attention. "What withdraws from us draws us on along by its very withdrawal," he writes. "Once we are drawn into the withdrawal, we are...caught in the draft of what draws, attracts us by its withdrawal....As we are drawing toward what withdraws we ourselves point to it."[19] The object of thinking, which withdraws, opens us up to an opacity; we seek truth against the world's essential presentation of its withdrawal.[20]

Ware not only parallels Heidegger's account of thinking in his method of creation, but also thematizes this problem of withdrawal in Building Stories. In other words, Ware presents us with characters for whom their own Being is a problem, and shows this both graphically and textually. Particularly in the case of the unnamed main character, a young woman with one prosthetic leg who lives on the third floor of the tenement building, Ware gives us access to her dead time, the ways in which she second-guesses and criticizes herself. Lying on her bed, waiting for a plumber to arrive to fix her toilet, she recollects: "It was as if all my failed ambitions were closing in on me as the hours ticked by...I had to face it: I'd never be an artist, I'd never be a Text Box:  writer...I'd never be anything" [bold in original text]. Confronted, in her bored, empty time, with the fact of her mere being, she is forced to consider herself as a problem. Again and again, Ware shows us characters who are unsure, characters who are called to participate in a perpetually incomplete process of thinking.

On the graphic level, Ware works through the problem of characters' withdrawal and opacity to one another and to the reader. Sattler points out that in Building Stories Ware makes "this record of remembering one that is simultaneously inside and outside, subjective and objective." [21] Through his use of memory images, which blend objective reality and subjective distortion into a seamless whole, Ware builds a certain opacity into the drawings. This opacity is most evident in the many panels that show characters' faces turned away from the reader and/or from one another. A striking example of this is the first panel of a thin, white fold-out series of images that string together poignant memories of the main character's daughter. We see the girl's sandy blonde hair, the pink roll of a shoulder, and a hairband; her face is turned enough that we can see the edge of her lips, the tip of her nose, and the thin line of a single eyelash. The caption reads, "Momma, I don't know how I feel right now. I mean, I don't know how to say it. I'm just not happy or sad, I'm in between." The girl, as she turns away from her mother and the reader, admits that she is opaque to herself. She withdraws, and incites a seeking which is a thinking toward her as a being. As if to enforce Heidegger's comments about memory watching over what insists on being thought, this moment is lodged in the main character's memory. It is an object of thought worthy of being remembered because it points to, without fully understanding, the girl's withdrawal from herself, the girl's withdrawal from her mother, and implicitly, her mother's withdrawal from herself. This moment stays as a memory because it points to the interpretive problem that is human existence.

Thus Ware is through and through a thinker in the Heideggerian sense. His creative process pays attention to its medium and develops organically out of that medium; it is a kind of thinking-creation. Further, Building Stories represents characters for whom their own Being is a problem, and thematizes the call to thought in large part through his depiction of averted faces. Through the comparison with Ware, we also see that thinking is, even for Heidegger, a creative act. As we see the two of them puzzling over parallel problems in such radically different media, genre boundaries blur. Heidegger becomes a poet-thinker, Ware a graphic philosopher.


The focus on thinking in the work of Ware and Heidegger does not stop with the piece's completion. Rather, they invite their readers to think with and through their work. The centerpiece of Sattler's argument about memory in Building Stories is that "Ware attempts to capture and encode nothing less than the very phenomenology of memory...Ware cares less about representing the memory of an experience than about reproducing memory as an experience...'Building Stories' attempts to reconstitute memory, coaxing its readers not only to remember feelings, but to feel remembering." [22] This suggests that Building Stories is not just an aesthetic object that can be experienced and set aside; it works to create an experience in which the reader must participate. This brings us back to the second meaning of the novel's title: out of the fourteen memory-stories contained in the box, the reader has to actively build the story in his or her own way. In this sense, Building Stories is a piece of narrative which is always created anew upon every individual reading. If, then, Building Stories is essentially an aesthetic piece of thinking, it invites (calls) the reader to think and create along with it.

Both Ware and Heidegger are recognized within their respective fields for their difficulty. If we think of this difficulty as resulting, at least in part, from Ware's meticulous project of "encoding emotion" in his work, forcing the reader to participate in the work's unfolding, then perhaps Heidegger's difficulty can be thought of in a similar vein. Heidegger rejects the straightforward descriptive modes of modern philosophy in order to better grasp what is, for him, philosophically fundamental and which remained ungraspable with the previous philosophical vocabulary. Heidegger spends the very first pages of Being and Time dismantling the philosophical commonplace that Being must remain unthought:

On the foundation of the Greek point of departure for the interpretation of Being a dogmatic attitude has taken shape which not only declares the question of the meaning of Being to be superfluous but sanctions its neglect. It is said that "Being" is the most universal and emptiest concept. As such it resists every attempt at definition.[23]

In order to respond to this gap in philosophical thinking, Heidegger must create a new language to apprehend this supposedly unthinkable interpretive problem. Consider such an apparently nonsensical thought as "Dasein is a being that does not simply occur among other beings. Rather it is ontically distinguished by the fact that in its Being this being is concerned about its very Being." [24] This thought, though, is not completely obscure: rather, it merely requires attentive consideration by the reader. At the same time that Heidegger works to interpret Being, he asks his reader to interpret alongside and through his writing.

Heidegger's creation of this new philosophical language is not by any means haphazard. He is attentive to etymologies and works to find hidden essences buried within language: "It is language that tells us about the essence of a thing, provided that we respect language's own essence....Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man." [25] In much the same way Heidegger sees man as dwelling essentially in the world, he also sees man as dwelling within, rather than merely employing, language. Much as the cabinet slumbers within the wood, meanings slumber within language. If we extend this paradigm to reading Heidegger himself, his style of writing invites us to attend to the essence of his thought contained within his language. Thus we must think with, and therefore create within ourselves, Heidegger's thought.

In this sense, much like Ware's comics, Heidegger's thought is not simply a set of propositions which can be read, understood, and internalized. Rather, he works to induce the perpetually unfinished creative work of thinking in his readers. "What Calls for Thinking?" which is reconstructed from a series of lectures entitled What is Called Thinking, contains a brief reflection on teaching which is indicative of how Heidegger views the relationship between his thought and those receiving it:

Teaching is more difficult than learning because what teaching calls for is this: to let learn. Indeed, the proper teacher lets nothing else be learned than—learning....The teacher is ahead of his apprentices in this alone, that he has still far more to learn than they—he has to learn to let them learn....If the relation between the teacher and the learners is genuine, therefore, there is never a place in it for the authority of the know-it-all or the authoritative sway of the official....We must keep our eyes fixed firmly on the true relation between teacher and taught—if indeed learning is to arise in the course of these lectures.[26]

If this is the outline of a Heideggerian pedagogy, then his primary concern is not depositing information in the minds of his students but rather inciting thought in them. This is curious for a lecture course, but it means that the call to thought is actually contained in his thought itself. It provides a language through which his students can think. With both Ware and Heidegger, then, in addition to being a creative act, thinking is a collective, participatory act. The meticulous, arduous, and deep thought performed by both Ware and Heidegger is not intended to be a complete and bounded product, but instead calls us as readers to think with it and through it.

This is, of course, only the beginning of what can be said about the comparison between Chris Ware and Martin Heidegger. Much could be said about Branford Bee in relation to Heidegger's reflections on animals and boredom in his 1929-30 lectures. More could be said about their various conceptions of space, building, and dwelling. Volumes could probably be written on the history and usage of "draw," "withdrawal," and "draft" as Heidegger uses them alongside Ware's comment that "drawing is a way of thinking." The list could go on. This piece is meant to open up the possibility of considering comics philosophically and philosophy aesthetically. Perhaps comics are a philosophically privileged medium, or perhaps their philosophical potential is only now being tapped.

I wonder if thinking of Heidegger aesthetically might open up productive ways of considering Heidegger's thought that neither dismiss him out of disgust for his politics nor ignore this troubling aspect of his character. What makes Heidegger's Nazism so troubling, according to Joshua Rothman, is that "philosophy has a math-like quality: it's not just a vocabulary, but a system. A failure in one part of the system can suggest a failure everywhere." If Heidegger is capable of thinking such short-sighted and poisonous thoughts, of what value can the rest of his thinking be? I wonder if, perhaps, this view underestimates the strength of Heidegger's challenge to philosophy. If his thought is primarily creative and participatory, rather than systematic and mathematical, then breaking out of the framework that Heidegger himself created, no matter how meticulously, does not contradict his values as a thinker. I will not pretend to have solved the problem of Heidegger's Nazism, but perhaps he was a deep enough thinker that, with his help, we could today overcome some of his shortcomings.

What I hoped to show here is that drawing Heidegger's philosophy into conversation with comics not only provides ways of reading these comics, but also can furnish us with new ways of considering philosophy. On the other hand, with the serious critical and theoretical reception that comics are now receiving, the possibility that they are capable of doing substantive philosophical work is worth considering. If thinking is a creative and participatory act, then we, as readers of Ware and Heidegger, are heeding the call.

[1] Ball, David M. and Martha B. Kuhlman. "Introduction: Chris Ware and the 'Cult of Difficulty.'" The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking. Jackson: Mississippi University Press. 2010. pp. xix.

[2] Heidegger, Martin. "Building Dwelling Thinking." Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings. Ed. David Farrell Krell. New York: Harper. Harper Perennial: Modern Thought. pp. 357.

[3] "Building Dwelling Thinking." pp. 349.

[4] Heidegger's view of the subject, which he terms Dasein (literally "there-being") is also distinctly spatialized. Thus Heidegger not only disagrees with a view of space which is abstract and removed from subjective experience, but also disagrees with a view of the subject which is abstracted from the world that surrounds it. cf. Being and Time ch. 19-24.

[5] Heidegger, Martin. "Being and Time: Introduction." Basic Writings. pp. 59.

[6] "Building Dwelling Thinking." Basic Writings. pp. 354.

[7] "Being and Time: Introduction." Basic Writings. pp. 45.

[8] Heidegger, Martin. "What Calls for Thinking?" Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings. Ed. David Farrell Krell. New York: Harper. Harper Perennial: Modern Thought. pp. 374.

[9] Ibid. 376.

[10] Ibid. 379.

[11] Sattler, Peter J. "Past Imperfect: 'Building Stories' and the Art of Memory." The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking. Jackson: Mississippi University Press. 2010. 206-22. pp. 207.

[12] Quoted in Chute, Outside the Box. pp. 223.

[13] Sattler's essay is a wonderful, attentive, and creative piece of criticism to which I cannot do justice here. Further consideration of Sattler's insights would be essential, however, for continuing the comparison between Ware and Heidegger.

[14] Ibid. 229-30.

[15] Sattler. "Past Imperfect." pp. 206.

[16] For an entirely different but very illuminating consideration of comics as a kind of carving or sculpture, see Scott Bukatman's essay, "Sculpture, Stasis, the Comics, and Hellboy," in the forthcoming Spring 2014 issue of Critical Inquiry.

[17] Basic Writings. pp. 362.

[18] Basic Writings. pp. 53.

[19] "What Calls for Thinking?" Basic Writings. pp. 374.

[20] For a more complete discussion of man's openness to a closedness in Heidegger's thought, see Giorgio Agamben. The Open. Trans. Kevin Attell. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 2004. Particularly chapters 12-14.

[21] Sattler 212.

[22] Sattler. "Past Imperfect." pp. 207.

[23] "Being and Time: Introduction." Basic Writings. pp. 42.

[24] Ibid. 53.

[25] "Building Dwelling Thinking." Basic Writings. pp. 348.

[26] "What Calls for Thinking?" Basic Writings. pp. 380.

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