Givenness: Book I, sections 4-6, "The Act of Coming Forward"

At the end of section 3 (book I), Marion has said that his task is to define givenness on its own terms. Before digging in to Marion’s analysis, it is helpful to review a bit of Heidegger. According to Heidegger, we only have access to Being (Sein) through beings (Seiendes). That is, we have to take a being as our starting point. What does it mean for a human to be, or an animal, or even God? Heidegger says that in the history of Western philosophy the Presocratics “got it right.” However, with Plato and especially Aristotle, philosophy took a wrong turn. E.g., in Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Zeta 1, we are told that our inquiry has no other object than being. According to Heidegger, Aristotle’s question, “What is being?” is the same question as, “What is a substance?” For Heidegger this is where we have gotten off track—this is the forgetfulness of being. When we speak of substance and accidents, we are no longer asking about being. In order to analyze Being, we have to go through beings; however, we should not forget about Being.

In the same way, we might ask, “What is givenness?” That is, when we look at something that is given, we must not forgot about the givenness. With this, Marion begins his analysis of givenness with his discussion of a painting. Marion appeals to art because art escapes the trappings of philosophy in terms of metaphysics. In order to properly understand the painting, we must see it as given—not as a being or an object. This is not to say that the painting is not a being, nor an object, nor ready-to-hand. So first we might ask, “Why is saying that the painting is an object not a sufficient analysis?” Marion answers that an object does not change simply by being placed by the artist and called art (e.g., a urinal is not art, just because the artist calls it a work of art). Second, “Is a painting something that is just a ready-to-hand?” (“Ready-to-hand” is Heidegger’s term and speaks of things that exist and are used in everyday life. E.g., desks in a classroom—they are absorbed in a network of useful things associated with the classroom (books, tables etc.), but when the desk is pointed out, it becomes an object, a ready-to-hand. Third, what are to make of Marion’s claim that the painting is not a being? This does not mean that a painting doesn’t have existence, but rather his point is that if you analyze it simply as a being, you still have not talked about it as a painting. In other words, it is not merely being. What Marion wants to get at is a characteristic that is more fundamental for understanding the painting. It is not just an object, nor merely a being, nor simply a ready-to-hand. So what is it? That is, “What then appears in the phenomenon of the painting if neither its subsistence nor its usefulness or its beingness reach the phenomenality proper to it?” (48)

As Marion explains, the painting has an “effect.” That is, “to different degrees but always, the painting (like every phenomenon) does not show any object nor is it presented as a being; rather, it accomplishes an act—it comes forward into visibility” (49). In other words, what I miss by saying that the painting is a mere being is the act, the coming forward, the dynamic aspect—being does not capture this. As Marion continues to explain the ways in which givenness is other than being, he is also presenting a critique of Western metaphysics, viz., the traditional philosophical “story” has frozen reality instead of understanding it as a dynamism. With Plato, we have “real” reality in the static forms. Likewise, with Aristotle we have forms which make things to be what they are. Thus, in his analysis of givenness, Marion is trying to re-capture the act of coming forward in visibility. Givenness is the effect. Givenness is not an agent who brings the painting forward.

In section 5, we enter into various objections raised against Marion. Here the question is asked as to whether nothing and death are given as well? Keeping with his theme, Marion answers that even death and nothingness are defined by givenness. Recalling Heidegger, Marion says, “nothing is given by means of the fundamental mood of anxiety” (54). Neither can death escape givenness because it gives itself on its own. Thus, “death does not steal from givenness that which (or he who) could receive it; it inscribes it (or him or her) forever within the horizon of givenness” (59). In Section 6, Marion again seeks to emphasize the dynamism in our experience that we tend to gloss over. Speaking of the “fold of givenness” as articulating a process with a given, nonetheless the given cannot give the given as it gives itself (68). In other words, the givenness is not available in person—it is the self-hiding process (recalling Heidegger and his understanding of aleithia or unconcealment) that makes the giving available. In sum, we might say that givenness is not something in addition to the given, nor is it the cause of the given, rather “givenness is […] discerned at the very heart of the given” (64).