Reversed Unshieldedness and True Rationality
Abstract: The following essay attempts to understand vulnerability as inexplicitly portrayed in Martin Heidegger’s “What are Poets for?” In Heidegger’s piece, he draws on the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin and Rainer Maria Rilke to explain what appears to be vulnerability, although Heideggerhe does not use the term. Reading deeper into his tract, with the help of Professor Brené Brown’s Ted Talk “The Power of Vulnerability,” helps us better understand vulnerability—not only our resistance to it, but also the safety it brings. Furthermore, using the ideas of Heidegger, the poets, and Brown, this essay seeks to explain what Heidegger terms “unshieldedness,” and why “reversing unshieldedness,” becoming vulnerable, offers a counter-intuitive safety, as it allows one to have true relationships with other people.
Recently, someone referred me to “The Power of Vulnerability,” a Ted Talk by University of Houston Research Professor Brené Brown. In the talk, Brown began a story about her discovery of vulnerability by explaining her attitude as a researcher. Her education taught her that “if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist”; she made it her life goal to eliminate discomfort, to “make [messy topics] not messy,” to calculatively deconstruct these topics so that everyone could understand and conquer them. However, as Brown set off to “deconstruct vulnerability,” she soon found not only that vulnerability flew in the face of her calculative approach, but also that vulnerability possessed an extraordinary power. In fact, Brown’s discovery of the power of vulnerability illuminates a theme in Martin Heidegger’s “What are Poets For?” Although Heidegger never explicitly uses the world “vulnerability,” he describes its power when he indicates that an ironic reversal of “unshieldedness” is the birthplace of true relationality.
II. All Beings are Unprotected
In order to understand Heidegger’s concepts regarding vulnerability, we must first examine the nature of the venture and the draft as the uncontrollable progression of existence. The venture, writes Heidegger, is “the unheard-of center of all daring, the eternal playmate in the game of Being.” The draft, on the other hand, is the force that draws beings towards the venture. All beings are subject to the draft towards the venture, like the “flow” in the cliché “go-with-the-flow.” The venture, and the draft that draws everything towards the venture, comprise the inevitable progression of existence.
Going with the draft into the venture, however, leaves beings dangerously unprotected. “Nature ventures living beings,” Heidegger writes as he quotes poet Rainer Maria Rilke, “and ‘grants none special cover.’” Beings, all following the draft of the venture to some extent, are unprotected. We are exposed to the possibilities of losing loved ones, suffering physical ailments, being emotionally hurt, getting our hearts broken. Further, the venture includes “flinging into danger.” As Brown herself said in her lecture, everyone acknowledges, “Life is messy.”
To elaborate, it is perhaps the balance of the venture that renders the venture dangerous. Heidegger writes that the venture holds what is ventured in balance. He also indicates that in the Middle Ages, the same word, die Wage, meant both balance and risk. Thus, the balance of the venture intrinsically involves danger. The venture balances death and birth, pain and pleasure, punishment and reward, failure and success; death makes way for birth, feeling greater pain lets us feel greater pleasure, the reality of punishment makes us appreciate rewards, understanding failure makes us appreciate and yearn for success. The “bad sides” of the balance—pain, death, punishment, failure—are constant dangers for us, but again, all part of the balance.
III. Unshieldedness: Man’s Unique Unprotectedness
Heidegger explains that while neither animals nor humans are protected from these dangers, their difference in being causes them to “differ in their unprotectedness.” Man’s distinctness of being, Heidegger suggests, comes from the way that he is ventured. Heidegger cites Rilke, whose poetry thinks of a man as the being who is ventured into a willing, the being who, without as yet experiencing it, is willed in the will to will. Willing in this way, man can go with the venture in such a way as to set himself up as the end and goal of everything. Thus man is more venturous than plant or beast. Accordingly, he also is in danger differently from [plant or beast].
Here, Rilke (and thus Heidegger) indicates that the venture that takes man gives him a will. In other words, man himself does not make a will, but rather is given one. However, human will has a propensity to make its owner the only end goal; man usually wants to do everything for his own ultimate benefit. Thus, a man’s will may render him “more venturous.” It is not enough for the man, as a willing being, to go with the draft into the venture; he must also will it himself. With this will, he may try to take action against the “bad sides” of the balance—again, pain, death, punishment, failure. However, at the end of the quote above, Rilke ironically suggests that having such a will actually puts man in a different kind of danger, demonstrating man’s unique unprotectedness.
Further, man’s unique unprotectedness, which Heidegger calls “unshieldedness,” is found in the way that man’s will objectifies. Man’s willing, Heidegger writes, is “production, placing here, and this in the sense of objectification purposely putting itself through, asserting itself.” In willing, man asserts himself specifically through objectification. For example, Brown sought to “organize [life and its messiness] and put it into a bento box; she wanted to understand the messy topics, “[hacking] into these things that [she] knew were important and [laying] the code out for everyone to see.” Brown, like many, hung her hat on “research,” the definition of which, she says, is “to study phenomenon for the explicit reason to control and predict.” In fact, when she learned through interviews that what “underpinned [shame] was excruciating vulnerability”, she claimed that she sought to “beat [vulnerability] back with a measuring stick” so that she could control, predict, and thus possibly prevent shame. Perhaps this research could help her and others escape the dangers of the balance, in particular those associated with shame. In this way, Brown attempted, as many of us do, to willingly assert herself by objectifying nature. However, Heidegger writes that objectification by willing does not actually protect man— it makes him “unshielded.” As unshielded, “[man] himself and his things are thereby exposed to the growing danger of turning into mere material and into a function of objectification.” Unshieldedness, found in willing objectively, is by nature dangerous.
IV. Reversing Unshieldedness
Now, Heidegger has presented us with a dilemma: no beings are protected in the balance of the draft as they are subject to the dangers of the balance, but man is still dangerously “unshielded” through his willing against those dangers. Danger of some kind is inescapable.
Therefore, Heidegger’s solution comes from an excerpt from Friedrich Hölderlin’s poetry: “But where there is danger, there grows also what saves.” There is no safety, Heidegger suggests, apart from danger. Such a loop-hole would seem like the only possible solution, if the problem is how to escape inescapable danger.
Thus, Heidegger suggests that safety comes not in eliminating unshieldedness, but in reversing it. “What keeps safe is unshieldedness in reverse,” he writes. With apparent absurdity, Heidegger does not suggest that any type of shield or protection will keep us safe. Rather, unshieldedness itself saves us. However, it is not just any unshieldedness—it is unshieldedness in reverse. Such a reversed unshieldedness, Heidegger calls a “conversion.”
Heidegger elaborates on the meaning of this conversion: it is a shift between the interiority of the “calculating consciousness” to the “true interiority of the heart’s space.” He writes, “If the unshieldedness…lies in the objectification that belongs to the invisible and interior of calculating consciousness, then the natural sphere of unshieldedness is the invisible and interior of consciousness.” Thus, the interior of our consciousness is where we have become calculative, objectifying creatures, and thus unshielded. However, “it may well be that the turning of our unshieldedness…must begin with this, that we turn the transient and therefore preliminary character of object-things away from the inner…producing consciousness.” Thus, reversing unshieldedness moves past the calculating consciousness. This is a dangerous process, as it leaves behind the objectifications that organize life and make it less menacing. Heidegger then goes on to say that this process of turning unshieldedness moves “toward the true interior of the heart’s space.” He quotes Rilke, who writes that “‘our task is to impress this preliminary, transient earth upon ourselves with so much suffering and so passionately that its nature rises up again ‘invisibly’ within us.’” Again, this process does not seem safe. To be “impressed,” to feel “suffering” and “passion,” to have the world rise within us—these are to let the world alter us deeply, in our deep interior.
V. What Reversed Unshieldedness Offers
Yet, in the conversion towards the interiority of the heart, safety comes in a sense of freedom in our relations with one another. Heidegger writes, “only in the invisible innermost of the heart is man inclined toward what there is for him to love: the forefathers, the dead, the children, those who are to come.” Here, the conversion that saves us moves past the interiority of calculating consciousness to a deeper interiority of the heart, where relationality, the capacity to love, is born. In fact, Heidegger writes earlier that when things “can be at rest within themselves…they can rest without restriction within one another.” Together, these quotes suggest that the interiority of the heart allows us to rest within ourselves, so that we can be at rest with one another. In fact, when Brown talked about the people she found with a true sense of connection, she found that “they had connection as a result of authenticity. They were willing to let go of what they thought they should be in order to be what they were.” Here, as people allowed penetration through their own objectifying walls into their true hearts, they found freedom, and therefore, perhaps, a unique safety.
To clarify, because “what we are” is always unshielded, it is authentic unshieldedness—or rather, unshieldedness in reverse—that saves. To be who we truly are is to be unshielded, so to be safe may not be to escape unshieldedness. However, a distinction should be made between normal unshieldedness and reversed unshieldedness. Normal unshieldedness tries (and fails) to objectively will against danger and create “shieldedness.” On the other hand, reversed unshieldedness does not try to be shielded and is thus ironically a more authentic unshieldedness. Reversed unshieldedness does not say, “I will put up calculative walls to protect myself from the world.” Rather, it says, “I acknowledge that I am unshielded: that I am afraid of the ‘bad sides’ of the balance and desire to protect myself from them, but I will willfully go with the draft into the potential danger nonetheless.”
In fact, Brown’s discussion pointed towards this reversed unshieldedness and appropriately termed it “vulnerability,” where we find the ability to safely connect with others. When Brown talked to people who experienced the most relational “sense of love and belonging,” she discovered the following about them:
They talked about the willingness to say I love you first…to do something where there are no guarantees…to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out… And now, my mission to control and predict had turned up the answer that the way to live was with vulnerability, and to stop controlling and predicting.
These people who felt the most sense of connection were vulnerable. They subjected the interiority of their hearts to the dangerous risks of possible rejection, uncertainty, or failure—whatever the balance of the venture threw at them—and hence were authentically unshielded. Their behaviors did not try to control or predict. Indeed, that these people felt more “love and belonging” than others flew in the face of Brown’s controlling and predicting. Thus, controlling and predicting—or Heidegger’s objective willing—puts one in danger of not experiencing connection and belonging. As Heidegger might say, unshielded, objective willing turns one away from the interiority of the heart. Vulnerability, as an ironic reversal of unshieldedness, is therefore the birthplace of relationality.
Let me provide an overview what we have discussed. As beings are taken up in the draft towards the venture, they suffer the dangers of the balance. Pleasure is balanced by pain, success by failure, reward by punishment. All beings live a dangerous existence. But as humans try to protect themselves from pain, failure, punishment, etc.—the “bad” sides of the balance—they live an even more dangerous existence. This attempt at protection, brought about by objective and calculative willing, actually makes humans unshielded, in a unique type of danger. As danger of some kind is now unavoidable, the only safety must come from some type of “loop hole,” and such is what Heidegger suggests. To be safe, we must reverse our unshieldedness. This reversal takes the form of a conversion from the “calculating consciousness” where we objectify the world in an attempt to protect ourselves from it, to the “true interiority of the heart,” where we may be changed in frightening ways, but where we may also love others. To clarify, in the reversed unshieldedness, one does not get rid of one’s unshieldedness. Thus, this reversal is to acknowledge that one is unshielded and has a desire to protect oneself from the dangers of the balance, but nevertheless to go willfully with the draft into the potential danger. Again, when we reverse our unshieldedness, our hearts may be changed; we will be vulnerable. But, we may also truly and meaningfully relate with other people, and this relation is the safety found in vulnerability.
Brené Brown, “The Power of Vulnerability,” Ted video, June 2010, http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability?language=en.
Heidegger, Martin. "What Are Poets For?" In Poetry. Language, Thought, 91-134. New York: HarperCollins, 1971.
Hölderlin, Friedrich. Sämtliche Werke. Munich: Hellingrath, F. Seebass, & L.v. Pigenot.1913-1916
 Brené Brown. "The Power of Vulnerability," Ted video, 1:50-3:10, June 2010, http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability?language=en.
 Ibid., 5:45-5:55.
 Martin Heidegger, “What Are Poets For?” in Poetry, Language, Thought (New York: HarperCollins, 1971), 102.
 Ibid., 100.
 Brown, 2:15-2:30
 Heidegger, 102.
 Ibid., 101.
 Ibid., 100.
 Ibid., 112.
 Ibid., 108.
 Brown, 2:20-3:10.
 Ibid., 10:45-11:00.
 Ibid., 5:00-6:00.
 Heidegger, 113.
 Friedrich Hölderlin, Sämtliche Werke (Munich: N.v. Hellingraph, F. Seebass, & L.v. Pigenot, 1913-1916.), IV, 190, quoted in Martin Heidegger, “What Are Poets For?” in Poetry, Language, Thought (New York: HarperCollins, 1971), 115.
 Heidegger, 119.
 “But if the unshieldedness is the parting against the Open, while yet the parting lies in the objectification that belongs to the invisible and interior of calculating consciousness, then the natural sphere of unshieldedness is the invisible and interior of consciousness.” I omitted the portion about the “Open” because I have not explored it in my essay, and in effect, the logic of the sentence is not altered if I omit “The Open.”
 Heidegger, 124.
 Ibid., 127.
 Ibid., 125.
 Ibid., 127.
 Brown, 9:20-9:35.
 Although “authentic” here is partially borrowed from Brown, Heidegger uses “authentic” extensively in Being in Time, so I found it appropriate to use here.
 Brown, 10:15-11:15.