Dasein in Drag and Diamond Dust Shoes
29 September 2023
Martin Heidegger at his hut in Todtnauberg; Image credit: avvenir.it
The philosophy of Martin Heidegger and the art of Andy Warhol aimed to steer humanity down two very different paths: while Heidegger sought for reconnections with the earth and a return to an authentic way of life, Warhol sought for disconnections and celebrated ruptures, superficiality and simulation. In this article the opposition between Heidegger and Warhol is analyzed through the two men´s shared and great passion for shoes, albeit two very different types of shoes: Heidegger who loved his peasant shoes and found so many promises of a return in them – Warhol who adored pumps and stilettos because of the promises they made of a playful, detached and inauthentic life. It is the purpose of this article to show how this fashionable question fashions two separate walks and how these walks, in turn, relate to the contemporary existential dilemmas and bifurcations at which we stand.
Martin Heidegger and Andy Warhol had at least two things in common: they were both passionate about shoes and they both liked to dress up. Heidegger enjoyed to put on his rustic clothes and to play the role of a German farmer; Warhol enjoyed to put on wigs, makeup and dresses and to play the role of a big city femme fatale. Both were, in a sense, cross-dressers although what they wanted to cross were two very different things: while Heidegger sought to cross from inauthenticity to authenticity and to find a way from modernity back to the earth, back to the ground of Being, Warhol sought an escape from nature and to free himself from all natural and biological bonds. The result was two very different kinds of cross-dressers, two separate types of drag queens: a German drag queen of authenticity and connectedness versus an American drag queen of disruptions and disconnections. Both were great performers, both were able to put on a splendid show and to seduce and enthrall their audiences, but their very different, if not opposite, goals made for two distinct paths, two distinct walks – and two distinct choices of footwear: Heidegger´s obvious choice was peasant shoes. We know his passion for peasant shoes in reality as well as in representation and art. (1) They were to bring him home to an uncorrupted beginning. Every walk was made with this purpose in mind: to return, to go back, to come home, to stop walking in order to dwell instead. Warhol´s choice of footwear was, not surprisingly, more luxurious and glamorous. He loved his pumps, his colorful stiletto heels. They had been with him from the beginning of his career: in his very first job as a shoe designer for I. Miller shoe company and as an illustrator for Harper´s Bazaar and Glamour. (2) He would return to pumps and stilettos several times in his life. Perhaps, most famously in his work Diamond Dust Shoes (1980) which showed a chaos and jumble of women´s shoes, set against a black background sprinkled with glitter and diamond dust. The very personal significance and character of this work was underlined by Warhol who stated: “I´m doing shoes because I´m going back to my roots. In fact, I think maybe I should do nothing but shoes from now on.” (3)
So there we are – or rather: here we go, balancing in two very different types of footwear, both signaling a sort of return, both promising a way back to some roots and some origin, however incompatible these roots and origins may be. The question for us is how to truly step into these shoes and how to follow Heidegger and Warhol on these walks. It is a difficult exercise for several reasons: not only because, as the saying goes, these are very “big shoes to fill”, but much more acutely and tangibly because none of the shoes offered appear very easy or pleasant to wear. One may even wonder if they are wearable at all? If this question has significance beyond matters of comfort and more or less aching heels and toes it is because Heidegger and Warhol each propose their own direction for the future through their shoe images and choices of shoes. Frederic Jameson has already managed to take quite a stroll in these different shoes, wearing first Heidegger´s/Van Gogh´s shoes and then Warhol´s shoes along the borders between modernity and postmodernity. (4) Jacques Derrida has made a different but no less interesting journey wearing in turn Heidegger´s, Van Gogh´s, and, at times, the art historian, Meyer Schapiro´s shoes. (5) What we would like to propose here is a different kind of walk, a journey more focused on the question of technology and abstraction and a journey to be undertaken in the company of another great thinker of feet and footwear, the French anthropologist and philosopher, André Leroi-Gourhan.
If humanity has reason to be proud of its feet, it is because it only has two of them. All footwear – the fact that they come in pairs and not in four – reflect our human uniqueness and repeat the message we never grow tired of having repeated about our special position within the animal kingdom. To André Leroi-Gourhan not only tool-making and technology but also language and speech are the direct consequences of our erect posture, of our two feet, freeing both the human hands and mouth from the functions of gripping and grasping. (6) Articulate speech and cave paintings, language and technology are thus born side by side as our distant forefathers began their peculiar bipedal journey. This is according to Leroi-Gourhan the journey that has enabled humanity to both question and transform its surroundings. It is the beginning of all representations and manipulations of the natural world. With human concepts and abstractions, humanity set itself free from the limits and laws of nature. With language and tools it set itself above and beyond the fixed conditions of the animal world. This is, however, also a journey that Leroi-Gourhan predicts will soon be coming to an end. Not only because of the ecological disasters that await us – or which has, indeed, already begun – but also because of the pure level of abstraction and detachment that our newest technologies produce. As robots and automation increasingly take over the spheres of human labor and production, humanity itself is losing its last ties and connections to the world. In the words of Leroi-Gourhan:
The loss of manual activity and the reduction of the human physical adventure to a passive one will cause… serious problems… We must therefore expect a completely transposed Homo sapiens to come into existence, and what we are witnessing today may well be the last free interchanges between humans and the natural world. (7)
What threatens humanity today is, in other words, something more than its usual aloofness but the point where this aloofness turns into complete disconnectedness – or, to put it in Heidegger´s terms: the point where the concepts of both ready-at-hand and present-at-hand will be obsolete since the human hand will be rendered altogether superfluous. What awaits us is a nothing-to-handle and a nothing-at-hand as robots and machines will be handling everything for us. It is the death of both human praxis and theory – it is the crumbling and disappearance of all relations and Heideggerian “as-structures” (8) which, at the very least, demanded the possibility of some kind of exchange and reciprocity. The question, however, is not only what awaits us but also how Leroi-Gourhan´s transposed humanity will be entering the stage – and wearing what or whose shoes?
If Heidegger´s peasant shoes are good for working in the fields and well-suited for long walks in the lifeworld – for discovering and rediscovering connections between humans and their environment – they seem, however, much too old-fashioned and hopelessly out of style on the stage and catwalk of Leroi-Gourhan. The situation is, however, quite different and much more favorable when it comes to Warhol´s shoes: for do we not in his shoes – especially his Diamond Dust Shoes – find a very clear example of completely detached footwear? Of shoes that are, in fact, not so much shoes as an abstraction of shoes, a pure image of shoes – shoes not to be worn but only imagined and desired – shoes that will lead us nowhere since they are to be used and worn by no one and thus destined from the outset for a loss of destination? Several things in Warhol´s Diamond Dust Shoes seem to point us in this (non)direction: the pure chaos and disorientation of stilettos in the pictures, lacking any anchoring in a concrete and palpable space; the darkness that everywhere surrounds them, penetrates them, empties them and make them float like colorful, unmanned spaceships across the picture; that the shoes are not presented in pairs but alone, one by one, each missing its partner, its companion, its minimal anchoring and safety in the other, and that even the most basic reference to an actual use has thus been eclipsed in favor of this image of uselessness and useless imagery – a uselessness that even prevents more fetishistic uses since these stilettos are hardly the protectors and guarantors against any form of lack. But perhaps even more important is the fact that this series of paintings is, strictly speaking, not paintings at all but prints made on the basis of Polaroids taken by Warhol and re-worked into works resembling paintings. (9) These images are, in other words, highly technical images in which Warhol´s working and painting hand has already receded, has already been taken out of the equation, rendering the old-fashioned idea of an artistic praxis and an artistic material “adventure” highly questionable. We could also put it in another, more colorful way and describe these photos as photos in drag, photos dressed up as paintings, as something they are not, sprinkled with diamond dust like a drag queen in full makeup. And yet, to say that these images are dressed up as “something they are not” is already to presuppose a referent, an authenticity, a reality outside the pictures – an idea Warhol has already rendered questionable, if not obsolete. What would this “truth” be that is no longer an image and the result of imagination? Surely, not a Heideggerian truth of either authenticity or unconcealment. Here is no ground or origins to be found beneath or beyond the pretenses. Dasein is a drag queen and she has no hidden truth. She and her surface is one and the same thing – or, as Warhol famously said: "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it." (10)
If Leroi-Gourhan clearly regrets the lost connections to the natural world, Warhol appears to embrace and celebrate them instead. His drifting shoes mirrors a drifting hand, set free to become pure ornament and decoration: posture and artifice instead of toilsome work, “paintings” produced without a single brushstroke. The very detachment that Leroi-Gourhan fears is to Andy Warhol the possibility of a completely superficial existence and he will use all the new technologies and media available to produce and multiply the disconnections. It is a colorful world with colorful Marilyn Monroes and colorful Elizabeth Taylors looking both as desirable and unattached as Warhol´s stiletto heels. These colors are no longer anchored in any reality or suggesting any connection to a reality beyond the pictures. Rather they drift over the faces of movie stars like so many colorful clouds or colorful spots that are constantly ready to move on, already anticipating the next set of eyes and lips to shine on. Warhol´s colors are, in other words, not the attributes of someone or something, they are no longer qualities belonging to particular people or things, but free-moving tones and sparks of light that effortlessly travel from one celebrity to another. In the essay, Our Images, the Brazilian philosopher, Vilém Flusser, gives the following description of such new and free use of colors:
Our world has become colorful. The majority of surfaces that surround us are colorful. Walls covered with posters, buildings, shop windows, vegetable tins, underpants, umbrellas, magazines, photographs, films, and TV programs are all in resplendent technicolor. Such a modification of the world, if compared to the grayness of the past, cannot be explained merely aesthetically. The surfaces that surround us shine with color because above all they irradiate messages. (11)
Whether Flusser had Warhol in mind when writing this passage can only be pure speculation. We do know, however, that almost all of the colorful surfaces mentioned by Flusser are surfaces on which Warhol at one point or another had worked during his career: from shop windows and posters to magazines, tins, films and TV programs. Warhol had played an active role in coloring, modifying and transforming them all. If, however, these transformations are not only to be regarded as purely aesthetical transformations, as Flusser says, but are transformations that irradiate messages as well, one must wonder precisely what these messages could be – and how to begin looking for them in the first place? Warhol has given us shoes but no ground to stand on and directions in a directionless space.
There are a few shoes in Warhol´s oeuvre that seem to be reaching for some sort of ground and appear in search for a kind of direction. One of Warhol´s very first print series was called À la recherche du shoe perdu (1955) and featured a variety of the shoe designs he was then designing for shoe manufacturer, I. Miller. (12) Warhol was thus returning to shoes at a point in his life where he had not yet had the chance to leave them and could not possibly have lost them. The allusion to Proust and to the Proustian tours and detours through memories of the past are thus dressed up very differently. Not only because the past is not so much the past as, indeed, the present but also because the walk down memory lane is turned into a somewhat limping affair: as always Warhol gives us only one of each pair of shoes to walk in. And each of these shoes is presented in complete isolation: no ground, no milieu, no environment to situate or ground the shoe but every shoe exhibited on a completely empty background. If memory for Proust is a web of connections where every image links to multiple others, where cakes and childhood, church bells and faces communicate across distances in time and space, Warhol´s “memory” offers no such constellations and presents no linkages between people, spaces and time. Whereas Heidegger´s peasant shoes are, in this sense, very Proustian in their emphasis on connections and in their creation of constellations – but without ever referring to Proust – Warhol´s shoes seem almost anti-Proustian but are anti-Proustian by referring specifically to Proust. The concretization of memory in matter and the materialization of thinking in lived experiences and praxis are substituted by images of pure abstractions – images completely disconnected from the world. One may, of course, ask what it means to be a shoe designer in the first place? Is it not to create abstract walks for abstract people? Is every shoe not, by necessity, a groundless shoe? A shoe yet to come into existence, yet to find its material form – yet to find its magazines, its shop windows, its buyers? And isn´t it precisely in this abstract space and gap between what is and what might be that Warhol finds and creates all his images? Isn´t this the unreal quality of Warhol´s work – a lack of reality, however, that does not long to become “real”, that is without desire for any final form and concretization beyond the final form and concretization of the image? When Warhol much later, in regard to his Diamond Dust Shoes, announces yet another desire to return and says: “I´m doing shoes because I´m going back to my roots. In fact, I think maybe I should do nothing but shoes from now on” (13), both the idea of a return and of the roots themselves therefore appear highly questionable. Surely, it is not the material praxis of drawing by hand that he misses. He is not going to return to such material connections. If anything it must be nostalgia for the very clear image of disconnectedness that his shoe designs had offered – the picture of a groundless existence that had, in and by these shoes, found its starkest expression. What is, after all, more perfectly unreal and unattached than the drawing of an empty shoe hovering in empty space?
In a sense, Heidegger was also a shoe designer in his own right. As the art historian, Meyer Schapiro, has pointed out, the Van Gogh shoes used by Heidegger to make a return to the fields and the earth were highly re-fashioned and re-designed by Heidegger to serve this particular purpose. In fact, as Meyer Schapiro argues, the peasant shoes used by Heidegger were not peasant shoes at all but Van Gogh´s own city boots. (14) Heidegger´s path to authenticity thus makes a peculiar stop in the inauthentic to lead us there – if, indeed, it can be said to lead us there at all? If Warhol is the designer of disconnections then Heidegger only becomes the designer of connections by disconnecting the “peasant” shoes and by making his own “authentic” copies. It is a forgery in the service of authenticity, a fake pair of shoes to be worn in the philosophical search for truth. While Warhol simulates because he loves simulation, Heidegger simulates because he loves authenticity and truth. What is, in the end, most authentic: Warhol´s disconnected diamond dust shoes or Heidegger´s stolen city boots? What is, in the end, most true: A male artist dressed up as a woman in the service of superficiality and simulation or a philosopher dressed down as a peasant in the service of authenticity and depth? It is a strange and awkward question. It leads us nowhere. But this impasse and awkwardness is itself an image – a stolen image! – of the more general awkwardness and lack of orientation that confronts us as we are trying to find foothold in a world of quickly changing conditions and in a reality increasingly disconnected from old, material ties. It is a special bipedal problem, as both Warhol and Heidegger clearly understood. And as such it concerns our hands as much as our feet. If André Leroi-Gourhan is right, we must anticipate a future shoe sale as well as glove sale of universal proportions.
1. Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, New York: HarperCollins, 2013.
4. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.
5. Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.
6. André Leroi-Gourhan, Gesture and Speech, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2018.
7. Leroi-Gourhan, Gesture and Speech, p. 407.
8. Martin Heidegger, The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.
11. Vilém Flusser, Post-History, Minneapolis: Univocal Publishing, 2013, p. 91.
14. Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.