Ruptures in Walls and Language: Performative Figures between Materiality and Figurative Sense

Ruptures in Walls and Language: Performative Figures between Materiality and Figurative Sense

Holger Hartung



As visual and literary metaphors, ruptures and cracks seem almost ubiquitous in various media and genres. At the same time, however, these figures remain largely undertheorized—literally leaving a ‘gap’ in research as a topic in itself. In theory and philosophical thought, notions of ruptures and cracks occasionally come up, but here, too, they are rarely examined more closely. In this regard, the works of Jacques Derrida and Martin Heidegger present two exceptions (1). Even though neither of the two consider ‘rupture’ a key concept (2), it is closely connected to Heidegger’s idea of ontological difference and Derrida’s deconstructionist approach, and is furthermore closely linked to their discussion of metaphors in philosophy.

The following paper is part of a larger study on cracks, ruptures and tears (in German all under the term ‘Risse’) as performative figures. From a perspective of theater and dance studies, I examine ruptures as latent material movements and inquire into their performative and theatrical qualities.



(1) Another important thinker of figures of “rupture” and crack would be philosopher Gilles Deleuze; see for example Deleuze’s series of paradoxes in Logic of Sense—especially his interpretation of Fitzgerald’s “crack up” (Deleuze 1990, 154-161).

(2) Cf. (Wortham 2010) and (Inwood 2000).

 In this article, I will focus on the relation of ruptures and language, i.e. follow the question in what way linguistic and visual figures of rupture function as metaphors, or how they complicate the matter of metaphorical processes. For this purpose, I will examine figures of rupture in Heidegger’s writing, as well as in Derrida’s reading of Heidegger. With those theories in mind, I will relate their thought on rupture and language to other cultural forms of expression, both visual (Hornbach commercial, various film examples) and literary (Ovid’s Metamorphoses). In this context, I ask how ruptures can be described as cultural phenomena, how they can be theorized as metaphors and (latent) material movements, and how they might influence theoretical thinking, and vice versa. 




Scene 1: A crack in the wall


In his essay “The Way to Language” from 1959 Martin Heidegger writes: “Rupture is the same word as scratching. Oftentimes, we only know the rupture in its depreciated form, e.g. as a crack in the wall. [Riß ist dasselbe Wort wie ritzen. Wir kennen den ‚Riß‘ häufig nur noch in der abgewerteten Form, z. B. als Riß in der Wand.]” (Heidegger 1985 [1959], 240) (3)

His brief mentioning of ruptures as cracks in the wall is merely meant as a marker, a point of departure, a ‘road sign’ on his philosophical path to language, toward an ontological thinking about being of and in language, which until today remains quite abstract and difficult to access in many respects. In the example mentioned above, Heidegger does not bother to stop and explain what might have caused these cracks in the wall or what he means by their supposed depreciation. However, despite his disregard for cracks in walls, he remains generally quite interested in concrete, material examples of ruptures. He continues to introduce a more ‘fruitful’ and productive metaphor, namely the notion of “furrows in the field” (Ibid.). 



(3) My translation from German (Heidegger 1985 [1959])—compare Peter D. Hertz’ version, which instead of the figure of rupture uses the proximity of “sign” and “cut” neglecting the notion of the wall completely: “The ‘sign’ in design (Latin signum) is related to secare, to cut – as in saw, sector, segment. To design is to cut a trace. Most of us know the word ‘sign’ only in its debased meaning—lines on a surface.” (Heidegger 1971, 121).

What motivates Heidegger to make a difference between these two seemingly similar metaphors? Are cracks in the wall in 1959, especially in the German post-war era (4) perhaps still too closely related to the unrepaired damages caused by WWII, and thus reminiscent of its numerous deaths and casualties? Does Heidegger try to avoid this topic? In any case, we can assume that Heidegger performs an intentional self-reference here. The preferred figure of furrows in the field takes him back to an earlier notion of the rift or rupture, namely, the one he developed in his famous essay “The Origin of the Work of Art”, which he wrote in its earliest version in 1935. Here, Heidegger designs a specific relation between two entities, world and earth, as strife or struggle (clearly related to his notion of ontological difference). Specifying the nature of this strife between world and earth, he introduces the notion of a rift for the first time:

(4) For a critical view of the category “post-war” from a French perspective, and a further example of ruptures as a visual metaphor see Hannah Feldman’s From a Nation Torn (Feldman 2014).

The strife is not rift [Riss], in the sense of a tearing open of a mere cleft; rather, it is the intimacy of the mutual dependence of the contestants. The rift carries the contestants into the source of their unity, their common ground. It is the fundamental design [Grundriss]. It is the outline sketch [Aufriss] that marks out the fundamental features of the rising up of the clearing of beings. (Heidegger 2002 [1935], 38)


In the quote above, I would like to draw attention to how the figure of the rift enters the ‘scene’ of Heidegger’s thought.(5) It comes into play first as a negation (“The strife is not rift”), but already in its first re-occurrence or repetition it has turned itself into a positive, determined figure or image.(6) However, the precise relation between strife and rift, as well as between rift and ‘mere cleft’ remains undetermined, ambivalent, open. But through their specific differences they manage to establish Heidegger’s ‘fundamental design’, i.e. a ground plan for his philosophy of being that stems from a previously negated rift, which turns, almost by ‘itself’, into a positive, self-determined figure. In a similar manner, Heidegger repeats this strategy of an introduction-by-negation and linguistic ‘revitalization’ in 1959 with the dismissed crack in the wall turning into ‘positive’ furrows in a double sense.


(5) In a similar argumentative strategy, i.e. through a similar, ambivalent negation, Heidegger had previously introduced the strife as different from / related to a theatrical scene.

(6) The German original even reads: “this rift…[dieser Riß]” (Heidegger 1977b, 51).

The difference between the two similar but different metaphors illustrates a specific use of language, which Theodor Adorno has critiqued as “jargon of authenticity”—“words that are sacred without sacred content” (Adorno 1973 [1964], 9). Adorno criticizes for instance Heidegger’s pretentious use of rural images and peasant life: “The description of the old farmer reminds us of the most washed-out clichés in plough­and-furrow novels,” echoing a fundamental “hollowness of the jargon” (Adorno 1973 [1964], 55).


With regard to Heidegger’s argumentative strategy, Adorno remarks: “[…] Heidegger’s language blows up this negative element into that which is substantial. This, then, is the content from which was taken the stenciled model for the formal procedure of jargon” (Ibid., 152). Here, according to Adorno, a form of violence and latent fascism in Heidegger’s language becomes apparent: “In the jargon that division between the destructive and the constructive, with which fascism had cut off critical thought, comfortably hibernates.“ (Adorno 1973 [1964], 21) Today, more than fifty years later, the recent publication of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks in 2014 proofs Adorno right: they clearly reveal Heidegger’s deeply rooted antisemitism, which is latent in many of his texts—today, it can no longer be ignored or denied. (Cf. Farin, et al. 2016)


As Jean-Luc Nancy has shown, Heidegger’s antisemitism is especially reflected in his allegation of a Jewish groundlessness, of lacking an own ground, of not being rooted (Nancy 2015). From this perspective, the aforementioned furrows in the field suddenly lose all their romantic rural connotations and innocence. Even more so, as they bring violently back to mind how Heidegger, in his writings on technology, euphemistically approximated modern agriculture on the one side and killings in gas chambers on the other as being initially “the same.”(7) In later versions of the text, Heidegger deleted the utterly inappropriate comparison, simply stating: “Agriculture is now the mechanized food industry” (Heidegger 1977a, 15). However, despite (or even because) its silent ‘erasure’ the revised statement retrospectively reveals a ‘gap’ or a rift, in which the former comparison still seems to resonate.





(7) “Ackerbau ist jetzt motorisierte Ernährungsindustrie, im Wesen das Selbe wie die Fabrikation von Leichen in Gaskammern und Vernichtungslagern.” (Heidegger 1994, 27).

With this in mind, can or should we still/again read Heidegger today, or do we even have to re-read Heidegger today, to examine in what ways his latent fascism is at work in his widely influential philosophy, and in his still fascinating and therefore highly problematic language? As I have shown, figures of the rift, the rupture and the crack can help to render a connection, to make an inner logic between Heidegger’s latent fascism and his philosophy both visible and palpable. Now, the question would be: How do we ‘know’, as Heidegger phrased it, such cracks and ruptures today? How are they active, as metaphors, as images, as material, as visual and linguistic figures? Where do they materialize and how do we perceive them now? 




Scene 2: A crack in the wall, a pain in the neck


In a 2012 TV commercial for Hornbach, a German chain of hardware stores, an advertising agency created a short, slightly uncanny narrative around the double figure of a crack or rupture: At the end of a school day, a teacher is troubled by a strange physical pain, caused by, or connected to, as the editing suggests, something that is happening in or around his house, an old villa. When he rushes home, he finds a crack in the front façade. As the viewers then suddenly realize, the crack has produced a strange twin, or a kind of ‘branch’ at the back of the houseowner’s neck—a stonelike ‘wound’ that widens and narrows as the teacher breathes in and out while he is silently staring at the crack in the wall.



For several reasons the crack or rupture in this short, narrative TV commercial without any dialogue is not a ‘simple’ metaphor. Due to its double occurrence in the house and in the body, i.e. in the relation of these two twins or branches, its referential structure becomes rather complex, ambivalent, perhaps even paradoxical. Something uncanny is at work between the house and the body, through the cracks, in their relation, their being drawn toward each other. The two phenomena seem to communicate, initiating a silent exchange between two entities we usually keep strictly separate: the inanimate and the living, the house and the body. The house and the body of its owner appear as sensorial extensions of each other. A petrified rupture occurs in a place where it does not belong: in the body. It renders the body an improper place of being, strange and foreign.


Filmclip + Image 1: Hornbach campaign “Keiner spürt es so wie Du [No one can feel it like you]”, agency Heimat Berlin, 2012.
Filmclip + Image 1: Hornbach campaign “Keiner spürt es so wie Du [No one can feel it like you]”, agency Heimat Berlin, 2012.


In Freudian terms, we could call the resulting effect animistic: the inanimate house becomes slightly alive and the body becomes slightly inanimate, object-like. The figure of the rupture seems to be caught in-between, essentially split in itself – not quite an object, but a strangely vitalized, negative figure. For Freud, uncanniness is an atmospheric marker for such animisms, as remaining traces of older, primitive systems of belief. (Cf. Freud 1976 [1919], 633) Accordingly, the uncanny to him is not connected to something simply unknown, but to something deeply familiar that has been forgotten or suppressed and that suddenly returns to the surface – “for this uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression.” (Freud 1976 [1919], 634)


In this sense, the notion of ‘rupture’ in the commercial seems reminiscent of certain types of psychological film plots or even motifs from horror genres. It immediately evokes familiar stories of a traumatic experience in the past that resurfaces and troubles the mentally unstable protagonist. Here we can think of the female protagonist in Roman Polanski’s REPULSION (UK 1965), or narratives like Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina (1971, film by Werner Schroeter, D 1991). In both cases, the cracks seem to represent material manifestations of suppressed psychological conditions. At the same time, the figures fluctuate between resembling concrete/real and imagined phenomena.



In the Hornbach commercial, the occurrence of the two different cracks seems to raise similar expectations. We could easily read a psychological background story into the narrative: something traumatic might have happened in the family history, a dark secret that is kept within the walls of this old, inherited house that is now haunting its owner through the symbolic figure of the crack. Something that has been forgotten returns to the surface. However, and this is the surprising, funny twist at the end of the commercial, the crack in the wall ‘simply’ seems to refer back to itself, ‘literally’ being a structural flaw in the wall and its materiality that demands repairing, splicing, grouting, filling up the gap. There is no dark secret behind it, hidden deep in the crypt of the house—or is there? As the protagonist repairs the material crack in the house, its corporeal equivalent, the other rupture simply disappears, is gone, unexplained. Is the crack still a metaphor in this sense, and if so, what is its referent? Or is it merely self-referential? The two cracks apparently register on different symbolic levels, and in different symbolic orders. However, they remain connected through the sensing body, thus complicating the metaphorical structure. Perhaps they tell us something about metaphorical structures themselves? 


Is it possible to draw a connection between the visual, material crack in the wall/body and the rupture in Heidegger’s thought? What can a TV commercial possibly reveal in regard to Heidegger’s concept of ontology, his philosophy about Being, about ontological differences and language? Similar to how it is described in Heidegger’s texts, here, the rupture appears suddenly, unexpected, and demands full attention, while at the same time it seems to allude to something hidden that escapes simple explications, something that escapes language. The figure remains deeply ambivalent, metaphorically ‘split’ in itself. In this context, it seems important to keep in mind that Heidegger introduced another complex metaphor for language itself: 


Language is the house of Being. In its home man dwells. Those who think and those who create with words are the guardians of this home. Their guardianship accomplishes the manifestation of Being insofar as they bring the manifestation to language and maintain it in language through their speech. (Heidegger 1993 [1946], 217)


Where would we have to place the notion of a crack in the wall in relation to this ‘house of Being,’ i.e. where do we situate ruptures within language itself? And how could a completely wordless commercial bring us closer to Heidegger’s understanding of language as the ‘house of Being’ in relation to his figure of rupture? Comparing the metaphors in the visual example and in Heidegger’s essay, first and foremost reveals an obvious but invisible absence in Heidegger’s thought, a fundamental gap, i.e. the absence of corporeality in Heidegger’s concept of language. Has Heidegger forgotten about the body?  If so, do we not need a body to forget, just as we need a body to remember that we have forgotten something? How does the rupture relate to (the forgetting of) the body? Can we keep the discourse of metaphor and especially the metaphor of the crack separate from discourses around corporeality at all? According to Gilles Deleuze, we cannot:


‘Crack’ remains a word as long as the body is not compromised by it, as long as the liver and brain, the organs, do not present the lines in accordance with which the future is told, and which themselves foretell the future. If one asks why health does not suffice, why the crack is desirable, it is perhaps because only by means of the crack and at its edges thought occurs, that anything that is good and great in humanity enters and exits through it […] (Deleuze 1990, 160)


Is there a gap, a split, a rupture between the metaphor and the body? Can we speak about them as such? Can we speak about one without the other? What kinds of transfer happen between them? Keeping these questions in mind, we will now approach Heidegger’s thinking of language as metaphorical ‘house-of-Being’ again from a different angle, that is, in the sense of Derrida, we will conceive of being a as being-together, as being in relation to someone else – before we will address a specific kind of (physical) relation, neighborhood, in a final scene.




Scene 3. Retracing / withdrawing Heideggers Riß [crack]

In his essay “The Retrait of Metaphor” (1987) Jacques Derrida continues his deconstruction of “the common and commonly philosophical interpretation […] of metaphor as a transfer from the sensible to the intelligible.” (Derrida 2007, 55). Or, in other words: “Habitually, usually a metaphor claims to procure access to the unknown and indeterminate by the detour of something recognizably familiar.” (Ibid. 68).


While the full complexity of Derrida’s essay cannot be unfolded here, I would like to briefly mark some traces of arguments, which seem relevant in this context:


  • Departing from the question: “What is going on, today, with metaphor? And what gets along without metaphor?” for Derrida, the complexity of speaking about metaphors is caused by the fact, that we can only speak about metaphors metaphorically (cf. Derrida 2007, 49). From here, it becomes evident that Derrida approaches metaphors, as we might put it, performatively.


  • Following this performative logic, Derrida relates metaphor closely to forms of movement.  Keeping in mind that ‘Metaphora’ in modern Greek literally refers to public transportation (Derrida 2007, 48), Derrida examines, how language and metaphors function structurally, i.e. as linguistic shifts, movements, and withdrawals – and how they could be deconstructed, i.e. further shifted, complicated, and withdrawn. 


  • Accordingly, it becomes more important for Derrida, how Heidegger uses metaphors and how he does not use metaphors, rather than discussing Heidegger’s thesis about the metaphoric, namely “The metaphoric exists only within the boundaries of metaphysics” (Derrida 2007, 53)


  • Derrida examines metaphors in relation to the economic field from the Greek: oiko-nomia, as “law-of-the-house and the law of the proper”. In this context he asks about the role trans-fer and trans-lation between languages and within languages, i.e. within semantic families and ideas of neighborhood. (Derrida 2007, 61)


  • As an example how Heidegger uses and does not use metaphors at the same time, i.e. to illustrate the complexities and paradoxical structures involved, Derrida refers to Heidegger’s understanding, that language “is the house of Being”, from which Derrida then concludes: “Despite its resemblance or its movement, this phrasing is neither metaphoric nor literal.” (Derrida 2007, 70) He continues: “‘House of Being’ does not operate, in this context, in the manner of a metaphor in the common, usual, that is to say, literal sense of metaphor, if there is one. […] And if the house has become a bit unheimlich, this is not because it has been replaced by ‘Being’ in the role of what is nearest.” (Derrida 2007, 69)


  • From here, Derrida will slowly deconstruct Heidegger’s German term of ‘Riß’ (i.e. rupture, rift or crack in German) and replace it by his French notion of ‘trait’, and ‘retrait’, which contains multiple meanings of trace, re-tracing and withdrawal. For him such withdrawal is key to metaphorical processes: “The trait is withdrawn/re-drawn; the trait is re-trait.“ (Derrida 2007, 77)


Let us consider the complexities of Derrida’s withdrawal of metaphor, in relation to Heidegger’s ‘language as the house of Being’, which as Derrida argues has become “a bit unheimlich” and Heidegger’s avoidance of cracks in the wall in a last scene.




Scene 4: A crack in the wall between neighbors

In his Metamorphoses, Roman poet Ovid tells a story within a story of Pyramus and Thisbe, a young couple in love, separated by and connected through the walls of their neighboring homes. Here, a rift or fissure ‘enters’ the scene (or rather, a latent crack is suddenly discovered) causing dramatic developments of the story:

There was a fissure, a thin split, in the shared wall between their houses, which traced back to when it was built. No one had discovered the flaw in all those years – but what can love not detect? – You lovers saw it first, and made it a path for your voices. Your endearments passed that way, in safety, in the gentlest of murmurs.’ (Ovid 2000, 109)

While the walls of the neighboring houses to a degree represent material manifestations of their father’s decision against their relation, the crack in the wall becomes a secret connection that makes it possible for two neighbors to become intimate lovers.

Making the physical relationship possible and impossible at the same time, the crack becomes the place of rebellion against the patriarchal ‘house-rules’. We know the fatal outcome: In the end, Pyramus and Thisbe will be killed, however not by the rambling beast, the dangerous lion, but by a fatal misunderstanding, a misinterpretation of the lion’s seemingly violent traces, in the concrete form of Thisbe’s bloody and torn veil.

Image 6: John William Waterhouse, Thisbe (1909), oil on canvas, 58.5cm x 96.5cm.
Image 6: John William Waterhouse, Thisbe (1909), oil on canvas, 58.5cm x 96.5cm.

How does the story change our thinking about cracks in the wall, about the relation of ruptures and language, about metaphors and metaphoric exchanges, especially with regard to questions of corporeality? Does the crack in this story function as a metaphor, a performative figure? And what does it do? On the one side, the crack in this story does not ‘do’ anything, other than simply ‘being’ there. On the other side it symbolically foreshadows, conditions and perhaps causes the tragic development from the start. 


Could we read Ovid’s notion of the crack accordingly, through Heidegger, as an allegory for metaphorical processes within language as the ‘house of Being’ or, – read with Heidegger through Derrida –, between different languages, between different semantic families, between neighboring languages? However, the role of the corporeality of the two lovers remains ambivalent, physical and non-physical at the same time.


From this ambivalence, a rebellion secretly has started within the ‘house of language’ to escape the strict house-rules, the father’s laws, despite the threat of fatal misunderstandings. Accordingly, the ambivalence concerns not only the body but the questions of language at the same time: The rupture in the wall, as an ambivalent metaphor (or even, metaphor of ambivalence) reminds us, as Derrida puts it, that “[…] there is always more than one language in the language.” (Derrida 2007, 78)




Scene 5: An ethical poetics of crack and ruptures?

In conclusion, we could ask, what kind of knowledge is to be gained from examining seemingly ‘unproductive’ figures of cracks in walls(8) –  what could be learned from ‘ruptures' in language, from a metaphorical point of view? I would like to argue, that perhaps they could open up our view for a more complex poetics of metaphor that simultaneously takes into account an ethics of metaphorical processes. Such ethical poetics would embrace overlooked material stories and suppressed histories. It would take into account the misunderstandings, miscommunications, and ambivalences in language not as ‘uncomfortable’ side effects but as the very condition of language.


(8) As compared to the more ‘fruitful’ but in the wider context highly problematic “furrows in the field”, as mentioned by Heidegger (see above).

We could then begin to critically examine the potential as well as the actual structural violence that can be at work in language and metaphorical processes. Looking at ruptures as metaphors and metaphors as ruptures could be one creative strategy, I would suggest, to re-consider the language we inherit and to find different ‘cracks’ and openings as possibilities of a politics of resistance. What kind of a resistance would this be? It could be a form of creative resistance against the dominant, unquestioned ‘proper’ use of language, that could function simultaneously as a resistance against a structural violence within a language that excludes the physical and social realities of oneself and others, that excludes a relational thinking apart from the law of the ‘own’, as in the own family and the familiar.


Finally, a last question remains: How to come to an end with cracks, with ruptures, when they—seen not as material ‘objects’ but as movements—, always seem to suggest a possible continuation of their splitting, along with a deep uncertainty, when their inherent latent movement is going to continue? In their inherent ambivalence, their undecidable position in-between material and linguistic figures, there seems to be a chance for what we could call a poetics of difference. As we could learn from Pyramus and Thisbe, the rupture’s latent movement, its tearing apart and pulling together at the same time, allows us to discover the possible intimacy of and within neighborhood, between different ‘houses’, between and across different languages. 


As a figure of relating to each other, even as a possible ‘medium’ – the crack in the wall, the rupture in- and in-between languages becomes more than a mere ‘pain in the neck’, as the Hornbach commercial suggests. Ruptures as latent movements become openings of possibility, and, possibly, of changes and new directions in the old, familiar narratives.






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