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Is it Still Possible to be a Hegelian Today?

The recent announcement that Žižek’s book on Hegel is coming in April has, appropriately, generated, at one of the same time, excitement and hesitation over the prospect that we might finally get a systematic, focused work on Hegel by the Slovenian philosopher, but one that might nonetheless be strewn with the well-known Žižekian rabbit-trails of cultural anecdotes. (Some of the feelers are out: here and here and here). My own estimation is that the book might, while approaching a tome in page-count, read similarly to his recent piece in The Speculative Turn, to which I rearticulate in what immediately follows.

In the piece entitled ‘Is it Still Possible to be a Hegelian Today?’, Žižek perturbs the ridiculous caricature of Hegel as the ‘absolute idealist’, which has been thoroughly scrutinized after the break with traditional metaphysics, presenting instead a new figure of Hegel that is congenial to materialism. The main feature of Žižek’s alternative use of dialectical reason is the “weird certainty” that “things will always ‘go wrong’”, that “the only ‘truth’ is the very endless process of ‘generation and corruption’” (p. 211). As Žižek continues on the same page, that each position “will generate an excess which will augur its self-destruction” implies “a consistent all-encompassing meaningful story” is only ever told after the fact. Or, to use a slightly different formulation, as Žižek likes to say, necessity itself is contingent.

In the course of the dialectical development the open-contingent process of real suffering and antagonisms generate new forms of life. On this view it is inaccurate to “impute to Hegel the standard teleological notion of a hidden Reason which pulls the strings of the historical process”, what is typically referred to as absolute Knowledge (ibid.). History never follows a plan established in advance. The historical process is itself undecided. What we have rather are a multitude of unexpected moments that threaten the stability and cohesion of established social and cultural norms that were hitherto guaranteed. Such momentous turns thus shatter all established forms and enforce new orders.

Once again, a new state of a situation “is a little better outlined” only in retrospect, once the sound and fury halts and the course of history is recollected by those who look at it backwards. Revolutionary breaks from the past are exactly that, impossible unforeseen ruptures, but, once what took place is conceived retrospectively, to the lay mind it is a linear, miraculous progression. The conditions for humankind in ape, for instance, are easily discerned retroactively but astonishing if we begin from the necessity of human life. This is why the “Strong Anthropic Principle” in cosmology accounts is false:

we start from human life, which could have evolved only within a set of very precise preconditions, and then, moving backwards, we cannot but be astonished at how our universe was furnished with precisely the right set of characteristics for the emergence of life—just a slightly different chemical composition, density, etc., would have made life impossible… (p. 216)

For all that, it would be misguided to imply that Spirit is a positive force “which gradually breaks and shines through the inert natural stuff”, as though it were some kind of Agent underlying and directing the historical process itself (p. 219). Spirit, for Žižek’s Hegel, is nothing but the incessant movement of upheavals and twists. It cannot therefore be said of Hegel that dialectics has a perfunctory mechanical character, indifferently swallowing historical antagonisms and “delivering them packed in the same triadic form” (p. 222). This critique of Hegel is complicated by Žižek who for pages fights with this quite orthodox angle, contending on the contrary that the only assurance for Hegel is that “every social reconciliation is doomed to fail” (ibid.)

But rather than assessing the endless ‘really real’ process of generation and corruption as ‘ontological shit’, as some incorrectly advocate Žižek doing (see here for a contemporary run-down), the overwhelming power of destruction is its own reward. In pure Hegelese, catastrophe is itself triumph. No effective reversal of negativity into positive greatness is necessary. The reconciliation of historical thought proper is the radically changed meaning of miserable reality itself: in a purely formal shift, which perceives and relates to negativity as the only greatness there is, one should, as Hegel insists, “recognize the Rose in the Cross of the present.” Or again, we do not have to change reality but our perspective, presenting defeat as victory.

If Žižek’s reworked understanding of the Hegelian dialectical process in The Speculative Turn is anything to go by, Less Than Nothing promises to be a robust engagement on the materialist side of diagnosing the false stability of our organized lives and advocating the emergence of the radically New, a prospect I am strongly looking forward to.


The paradox of politics in the works of Deleuze

In the polemical piece ‘Molecular Revolutions’ in Deleuze and Politics, Isabelle Garo correctly argues that a Deleuzian mode of politics retains a paradoxical character, an insurmountable aporia between engagement and disengagement. This is in part due to the fact that Deleuze’s conception of the economy is as a philosopher. No doubt Deleuzian theory gives ample attention to the economy and the market, but at no point does Deleuze deal with economic issues from a tradition of scrupulous historical and economic research. On the contrary, Deleuzian economic analysis is situated on the ground of an ontology of flows and becoming.

The privileged ontology of Deleuze, as we all know, in the words of Garo, “presents itself as a heightened form of attention to the concrete diversity of things as a respect for their constitutive multiplicity” (p. 57). This is chiefly done through the concept of desire, characterized by flows or exchanges of energy, which Deleuze and Guattari famously describe as belonging to the infrastructure itself. The vague expression of flows is considered to be the most important consideration of Deleuzian philosophy, constituting “the heart of an ontology that is vitalist in inspiration” (p. 58). On this view the conventional Marxist distinction between base (the domain of production) and superstructure (the realm of culture) is eschewed, leading to the leftist conclusion that everything is political.

The thematic of flows demonstrates the conviction that the dimensions of the real are indistinct but at one and the same time effectively sidelines political mobilization. This is so because while the notion of flows celebrates destabilizing movements, small events and molecular contestations, it nonetheless evacuates all content out of politics as such. The strictly formal exposition of politics, on the other hand, is “reduced to repressive state practices of surveillance and control”—that is, the maintenance of the normal state of affairs. In short, political specificity is canceled out in favor of a nebulous dispersion of abstract, deviant flows while a more traditional idea of politics is relegated to the intransigent State apparatus and its constitution. Inherent to the Deleuzian approach and its particular politics then is an underlying tension or aporia between the miniatruization of politics on the one hand and the relatively autonomous sphere of State politics on the other.

To be more precise, the State sphere plays a specific role under capitalism. For Deleuze and Guattari, capitalism has “haunted all forms of society as the vital flow which tirelessly seeks to throw off all constraints” (p. 60). Capitalism, otherwise stated, is nothing more than the dissipative, regressive or decomposing tendency inherent to life itself. This systematic deterritorializing or decoding movement, in the parlance of Deleuze and Guattari, seeks at all times to overcome obstacles and barriers to its dynamic self-expansion, embodied par excellence in the flows of commerce and trade under capitalism. The State, consequently, “is nothing other than that which opposes limits to these flows” (p. 60). In other words, the State apparatus is burdened with the responsibility of managing capital flows and blocking them from becoming uncontrollable.

So how does one conceive of the end of capitalism, the momentous abrupt turn in history away from the market and its so-called ‘laws’ and towards, say, socialism or communism? From this perspective, since regulating the flows of capital is crucial to its very functioning as per the State, “the only thinkable and even desirable possibility is to go to the limits of the present system” (p. 61). Shockingly, this definition of ‘politics’, the pursuit and acceleration of mercantile flows, is an entirely liberal approach: a process that finds its clearest expression in economic and financial deregulation. Indeed, this analysis comes closest to the liberal thought of such thinkers as Hayek, a far stray from Marx to be sure.

Although Deleuze is without a doubt indebted to Marxist ideas, if the scattered remarks on Marx that haunt Deleuze’s work is anything to go by, he is ultimately making use of a quite heterodox Marx. By constantly reworking borrowed Marxian concepts as “a momentary support in order to move off in a new direction” or in an effort “to produce something new”, Deleuze never provides a precisely elaborated coherent commentary on Marx (p. 63). What Deleuze offers instead is a smattering of spectral, allusive and indirect remarks on Marx, which are, we might add, notoriously anti-Hegelian and dialectic-adverse in character.

At the same time, the notion of revolution is renewed by Deleuze (and Guattari), but with a twist. The only real means of radical chance henceforth are ‘micro’: “politics is no longer a privileged sphere of authority”, its is rather the deployment and expansion of diverse deviant practices (p. 63). Revolution, in sum, is no longer the unraveling of an historical logic of development, but rather is redefined as a counter-culture.

In the eyes of Garo, and this is crucial, this thinking is ultimately reflective of a post-May ’68 renunciation of any project to change the current politico-economic conjuncture. For Garo, “with the rejection of any participation in the institutional game of parliamentary democracy as well as with the global critique of this form of governance”, the only potential cadence of change are minorities and their private forms of rebellious spontaneity (p. 64). Revolution itself, situated on the ground of a vitalist ontology, comes to stand for fleeting moments of individual upheavals that nevertheless leave the rhythm of capitalism fully in tact. Or, to use a slightly different formulation, private gestures of rupture are celebrated at the expense of the political unification of social struggles. On this line of argument, a Deleuzian political stance goes along with a position of withdrawal, a declared indifference with regard to any form of political activity.

For these reasons, my own assessment for how we imagine things being otherwise is, surprisingly, Žižekian. In Badiou, Žižek, and Political Transformations Adrian Johnston, as the title would suggest, analyzes the processes of transformation within given sets of circumstances, noting that for both Badiou and Žižek the “slow-moving inertia of status quo realities” is shattered by revolutionary events or acts, respectively, that abruptly shift the established run of things (p. xxix). But while it can be maintained that the Badiouian event and the Žižekian act both essentially entail positing a stark discrepancy between the structure of a situation and the sudden impact of alteration, there is (at least one) decisive difference between the two.

For Badiou, the state of a situation is suddenly interrupted disruptively by a mode of “politics-without-the-partystate, based on the purported disjunction between explosive events of subversive political ‘truth’…and reified regimes of institutionalized statist ‘knowledge’” (ibid.). In Žižek’s view, on the other hand, the stasis of repetition of a given situation is ruptured through “endorsements of strong socialist part-state apparatuses (justified by the need to ‘re-politicize’ the deceptively depoliticized economic sphere)” (ibid.).

In the opening of In Defense of Lost Causes Žižek presents an accurate assessment of the postmodern response to the current politico-economic conjuncture, a position we should now be quite familiar with:

the era of big explanations is over, we need ‘weak thought,’ opposed to all foundationalism, a thought attentive to the rhizomatic texture of reality; in politics too, we should no longer aim at all-explaining systems and global emancipatory projects; the violent imposition of grand solutions should leave room for forms of specific resistance and intervention (p. 1)

Although I have just started working my way through the text, it should be observed that Žižek is not sympathetic to this political bent. On the contrary, reality-shattering shifts are the work of mass-movements or, as he calls them, ‘grand solutions’. Indeed, this approach, though one I once pushed beyond the pale, increasingly sounds right, especially when the celebration of small events ends up confirming the dynamic of capitalism rather than undermining it.

An earlier version of this post was published @ Indigenous Ink

Badiou, Žižek, and Political Transformations

The current political conjecture, after a long-running string of defeats for the Left, conveys an oppressive, immobilizing pessimism. According to Adrian Johnson in Badiou, Žižek, and Political Transformations, the innovative experiments in emancipatory politics of the 20th century have not fared well. Given this scenario, “the era of revolutionary politics certainly looks to be over” (p. xiv). It is therefore difficult not to see capitalism nowadays as the only game in town; “the sole viable option available for organizing humanity’s multiple forms of group coexistence” (p. xxvii). How likely is it then that today’s political circumstances will remain imperious to abrupt ruptures and turns in history?

Given the established run of capitalism, Johnson detects two pitfalls to the present-day political situation: complacent quietism and hubristic utopianism. The first danger is overconfidence or the belief in historical teleologies proffering guarantees “to the effect that socialism can’t fail eventually to succeed” (p. xvi). In the view of economism, “the flow of sociohistorical trends inevitably will carry one effortlessly to the shores of a post-capitalist paradise” (p. xv). The dialectics of history, in other words, unambiguously point to a utopian society beyond capitalism.

This tall tale messianism, the sanguine faith in historical eventualism, however, has been steadily discredited by the lengthy string of losses suffered by the Left. The alternative response, what Johnson describes as the cheap-and-easy option, is underconfidence; that is, lapsing into total cynical despair and weariness given the ongoing series of disheartening defeats. The temptation of comfortable discouragement “fundamentally accepts that the partnership of liberal democratic state apparatuses and poorly regulated free markets indeed is here to stay” (p. xvi). The representatives of underconfidence therefore urge people to passively accept the unsurpassable enveloping limit of what remains historically possible and “resign themselves to refining what merely exists as already established” (p. xvi).

The third alternative to overconfident economic determinism and immobilizing despair is revolutionary ruptures, what Badiou calls an “event” and Žižek an “act”. For Badiou and Žižek global capitalism is not an inescapable enclosure. They plead for this acknowledgment on the basis that “the apparently impossible happened in the past [and] it will occur again in incalculable, unforeseeable forms in the future too” (p. xvii). Such reality-shattering shifts cannot however be anticipated by diagnosing already-present socioeconomic tensions, as traditional Marxist analysis would have it. On the contrary, they irrupt unexpectely and rewrite the rules of what is and isn’t possible. Acts of insurrection, Johnson argues, are “untimely interventions that appear possible only after the fact of actually transpiring—and before which such interventions are impossible qua unimaginable in the eyes of the popular political imagination” (p. xviii).

Insomuch as Žižek delineates this untimely development of accidents avec Hegel, it is a quite new, heterodox understanding of the dialectic. The alternative use of the notion of dialectics posits history as a series of unexpected upheavals and twists, rather than a zigzagging but ultimately linear progress: “Žižek’s Hegelian Geist is an illusion of perspective floating atop a volatile historical-material mixture of contingencies and retroactions” (p. xix). To the lay mind there is much in the long-running cadence of variables and accidents that must appear miraculous, but the momentous abrupt turns of history are the non-miraculous outcomes of “unexpected and specific combinations of forms of struggle and alignment of forces” unfolding throughout time (p. xix).

One can be excused for thinking that such explosive, subversive events that break away from and shatter the slow-moving inertia of status quo realities is altogether unrealistic and utopian, but it remains the case that buying into the notion that today’s established run of things is impervious to incalculable factors and unforeseen occurrences to come is the most utopian sentiment of all. In short, the conviction that the surprises around which historical times take shape are not exhausted is less naïve than the belief that our given situated reality is here to stay permanently.

This post simultaneously published @ Indigenous Ink

Revisionist resistance: A lesson from Don Quixote

There are two known ways to overturn moral law. One is by ascending towards the principles: challenging the law as secondary, derived, borrowed or ‘general’; denouncing it as involving a second-hand principle which diverts an original force or usurps an original power. The other way, by contrast, is to overturn the law by descending towards the consequences, to which one submits with a too-perfect attention to detail.

–Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, p. 5

Following on the heels of my ‘Socio-economic activism updated!’ post I’d like to take another look at how Deleuze confirms a politico-economic solution exterior to withdrawal, subtraction or cynical hostility. As observed previously, Deleuze discovers a revolutionary path not in resisting the movement of the market but in the opposite direction, accelerating the process of capitalist competition and profiteering. Again, in the quote cited above from an earlier and single-authorship work, Deleuze seems to anticipate the same. That is, one does not challenge the law by denouncing it as arbitrary or inadequately reflecting a higher universal moral law, but by following it to absurd exactness.

As we all know, Deleuze is characteristically anti-Hegelian, which renders this concept utterly baffling coming from Deleuze, given its unquestionable Hegelianism. According to Hegel, the proper nature of dialectic is to reveal how finite categorizations negate themselves and pass into their opposites all on their own accord. The Dialectic’s aim, in other words, involves unmasking the self-limitations of a term and unraveling the self-contradictions therein. Or, what is the same, it discovers the other horn of the same term and thus points out the potential exaggerations internal to understanding. In the Logic Hegel writes of the Dialectic in this way—“But by Dialectic is meant the indwelling tendency outwards by which the one-sidedness and limitation of the predicates of understanding is seen in its true light, and shown to be the negation of them” (§81).

It follows that the Dialectic, by studying things in their own being, reveals the natural finitude, instability, and transience of understanding. By this Hegel does not mean that the Dialectical stage merely introduces confusion and wavers between competing arguments, rather it shows that every fixed proposition of thought inevitably and naturally turns about into its contrary. In this way, the result of the dialectical process is far from purely negative, that is, what Hegel distinguishes as mere skepticism. The Dialectic, in contradistinction to negation pure and simple, is not satisfied to continue with skepticism alone but simultaneously witnesses a positive effect emerge out of the negative.

Perhaps one of the most illuminating examples of this in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is Cervantes’s Don Quixote, the “knight of virtue” who engages in a “sham-fight” trying to resurrect the bygone virtue of the knight-errant in seventeenth century Spain (§386). In effect, Don Quixote, the knight of the rueful figure–as called by his squire Sancho–is so faithful to the code of chivalry to the point of the journey becoming utterly ridiculous. Thus, Cervantes in his prophetic satire, overturns the moral law that was exceedingly popular at the time not by challenging it directly but by submitting to it with a too-perfect attention to detail, ironically the same strategy the anti-Hegelian Deleuze advocates. Granted, this may involve tilting at windmills on occasion.

The art of space clearing gestures, or why hipsterism is a crackpot opposition

Existentialism is a space clearing movement. Well…sort of. In effect, existentialism is “a label for several widely different revolts against traditional philosophy” (Kaufmann, Existentialism from Dostoevesky to Sartre, p. 11). This umbrella term was of course not accepted by most of the usual suspects that occupied it, but, making wide sweeping generalizations, it typically fits that said thinkers were markedly critical. As many argue, perhaps the label should be abandoned altogether given the disparate revolts it attempts to link by similarity. As I will argue, however, following Kaufmann, existentialists are primarily preoccupied with considered dissent and protest.

The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and especially of systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic, and remote from life—that is the heart of existentialism (p. 12)

Kierkegaard, at a glance, confirms this hypothesis. As is well known, Kierkegaard consistently rejected the belief in eternal verities in addition to the trust in reason, a common staple of traditional philosophy to be sure. For Kierkegaard it is not ethics or rationality as such that are of crucial importance, but the need to make decisions—and, in this case, wholly uninformed and irrational leaps of faith.

The reasoning is as follows: the haughty tradition of theology, ethics, metaphysics and so on have completely absolved us from the need to make decisions. This is so, according to Kierkegaard, because philosophy has given us prefabricated categories of truth, justice, etc. which defer the responsibility of making philosophical demonstrations ourselves. Doubtless, this would hardly be as troubling as it is for Kierkegaard if it was not for the fact that, as he sees it, philosophy is “a kind of whistling in the dark” or sever “self-deception” (p. 17).

In the worldview of Kierkegaard, we must behold the full spread of our possibilities, what we most certainly experience as the “dizziness of freedom”. Or again, as Kierkegaard says, we are forced make choices in “fear and trembling”. However, with Kierkegaard the matter falls between the cracks of a dualistic thinking separating reason and faith. In short, in the words of Kaufman, “Kierkegaard rashly renounced clear and distinct thinking altogether” (p. 18).

Nietzsche shares this radical negativity towards Western philosophy also, but not quite at the expense of reason as we witness with Kierkegaard. As such, Nietzsche does not rebel against traditional philosophy and Christianity because of its rigid rationalism, but quite the opposite: together they are precisely the archenemy of reason, a barb in the flesh of authentic living.

The great mistake of philosophy, then, is its proclivity to shirk from uncomfortable objects of encounter. Specifically in regard to university professors, as state employees, philosophers have an invested motive to “justify the moral prejudices of society” (p. 23). In contradistinction to the sin of traditional philosophy, Nietzsche presents a philosophy of the future that forces us to think the uncommon, the novel and the uncomfortable. In other words, he wants to kindle a thought that forces his readers to think, wrestling with thoughts that are not easily repeatable. Or again, insights that do not allow us to remain inert of passive after the fact.

What Nietzsche does, indeed, is to move or invite his readers to become dissatisfied with all previous statements and presumptions.

Of course, we can attribute the same sort of strategy to Socrates: whoever came in contact with the infamous gadfly of Athens quickly became uneasy with their previous way of life. Stated otherwise, Socrates “was an incarnate challenge to their way of life and thinking, an exemplary personality, the embodiment of a new ethic” (p. 25). The underlying point of revolutionary acts, such as Socrates’, is that we can never go back to business as usual; some values must be repudiated and, furthermore, we require new attitudes to model ourselves on. As the best existentialists claimed in varying rhetoric, “You must change your life”!

But, and this is the significant point, this challenge to change one’s own life is indirect only and shored up by a more substantial claim regarding a better way to model ourselves off of–that is, a more critical, reflective and rational pattern of life. So while these two philosophers, in particular, re-describe and re-valorize “irrationalism”, this certainly does not disprove their competence as guides for a new positive way of being. On the contrary, it is the very inversion of priorities that retouches misery, melancholy and the wretched as the highest good.

Existentialism, in brief, is anything but self-deception. It is the very encounter with the ugly facts of existence itself. No serenity at all remains. What remains in its place is a wallowing in human depravity, an uncompromising concentration on the dark side of humanity—its inner life in particular.

In my recent post on Black Swan I made the unsubstantiated claim that Aronofsky’s films are of a “space clearing” character, clear-cutting our habitual forms of thought. Moreover, I argued that Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers, in Black Swan, fulfills artistic perfection at the cost of her own physical and mental collapse, but that this is not to be considered self-destruction in itself, for it is only regarded so in the previous regime of common sense. In a genuinely original transvaluation of state of affairs, Nina’s horrifying metamorphosis is precisely an honest and perverse point of view of existence—the very counternarrative of and considered protest against the neat and cordial scheme of things.

In what follows I hope to present an illuminating yet brief explanation of how or why space clearing gestures work at certain times and not at others (or how they might be repeated?) in reference to Žižek’s presentation of Mao. I do not think the crucial element is wholly unlike the strategy of existentialism, as Kaufmann found. To anticipate the argument, a compelling and vitriolic statement of Žižek’s, which sums up the demonstration in short, is begging the question:

It is only this reference to what happens after the revolution, to the ‘morning after’, that allows us to distinguish between libertarian pathetic outbursts and true revolutionary upheavals: the former outbursts lose their energy when one has to approach the prosaic work of social reconstruction – at this point, lethargy sets in. (p. 25)

The point is, as I read it, as follows: the first moment of any revolutionary gesture is radical negativity, a stage of reduction or subtraction that violently and painfully sweeps away the old world as the necessary precondition for the reconstruction of something otherwise. However, this act is nothing without the second. With Žižek the case is stated in this way—the first moment of subtraction is entirely for the purpose of “clearing the space and opening up the way for a new beginning” (Zizek Presents Mao, pp. 21-22). To put it in the simplest of possible terms, space clearing gestures are not negative in themselves but merely make space for the invention of new life or new social realities. Or again, as we saw with existentialism in general and Aronofsky’s Black Swan in particular, the abrupt discontinuation of any previous way of life is transposed “into a truly new positive Order” (p. 21). This, however, is truly the most difficult stage. It is very easy to tear down idols, after all. It is much more difficult to create new ones.

Indeed, this notion collates into some pithy and profound statements on Žižek’s part that present the full flavor of revolutionary fervor, albeit in Hegelian steeped vocabulary:

Those who oscillate, those who are afraid to take the second step of overcoming this form itself, are those who (to repeat Robespierre) want a ‘revolution without revolution’… (pp. 16-17)

…those who advocate qualitative change without struggle of the opposites really oppose change and advocate the continuation of the same; those who advocate change without qualitative jumps really oppose change and advocate immobility… (p. 14)

Why revolution at all, if we do not think that ‘the customary order of things should never be restored’? (p. 21)

This is doubtless not the first appearance of a custom revolutionary dialectic on the part of the Hegelian scholar Slavoj Žižek. In spite of my hesitation of over quoting, I shall conclude this section by embedding perhaps one of my favorite quotes penned by the Slovenian:

…the Nietzschean passage from Lion to Child: it is not yet possible for us, caught as we are in the web of the reflective attitude of nihilism, to enter the “innocence of becoming,” the full life beyond justification; all we can do is engage in “self-overcoming of morality through truthfulness,” that is, bring the moralistic will-to-truth to its self-cancellation, because aware of the truth about will-to-truth itself (that it is an illusion of and for the weak). We “cannot create new values,” we can only be the Lion who, in an outburst of active nihilism, clears the table and thus “creates freedom for new creation”; it is after us that the Child will appear who will mark “a new Beginning, a sacred Yes”. (Parallax View, p. 43)

In my estimation, hipsters easily fit this bill. They (we?) are the caustic rebels who, in strong negative form, senselessly abuse modern social evil. Unquestionably accurate, hipsters possess “a bottomless well of impassioned scorn”, as Stuff Hipsters Hate recounts. Gold star plus 2 points for the postmodern subculture! As much as a sure thing, hipsters recognize that traditional metaphysics–right along with its values, aesthetics, etc.–lies in ruins. By their tongue-in-cheek space creating gestures, hipsters clear the table, so to speak, of false illusions and make room for something original and positive to be posited. But in agreement with Bruno Latour and those I encounter while traveling who confess they frequent less economically developed countries more often than not for the fact that they do not have enough discretionary surplus as of yet to develop hipster subcultures, all the flash-pan denunciation of hipsters has gone stale. In this sense, hipsters only prolong a long standing critique against all the usual -isms and -ologies. Hipsterism, in other words, is not a fresh solution.

I am not as comfortable bombastically lampooning other once-popular rebel-clique groups that I do not currently occupy, but I venture to guess that the same sociology of critique could apply to the beat generation, hippies, punks, grunge rockers, scenesters and so on. In most all cases, apathy and indifference set in overnight, and the once-rebellious movement quickly turned into a commodified and marketed, diasporic identity for big-business. The measured dissent, in the end, was nothing but a pathetic outburst. What is missing and what truly counts, in Žižek’s words, is the “morning after”–the beginning of a new order of things. In other words, protests are only worth the breath if, after destroying the established state of affairs, they provide positive alternatives beyond the status quo. Thus, Kaufmann is absolutely spot on when he notes that genuine philosophical challenges to our way of life are only secondary to the jihad of revealing an original and positive way of being in the world. I find it telling then that Herbert Marcuse, a German philosopher and political theorist who was a radical activist of the student movement in the 1960s, wrote in 1941 that “the dialectical contradiction”, what happens after the revolution, “is distinguished from all pseudo- and crackpot opposition, beatnik and hipsterism” (Reason and Revolution, p. xi). Case in point.

Hegel’s Dialectic

According to Hegel, logic is divided threefold between (a) the Abstract, (b) the Dialectical, and (c) the Speculative. His doctrine for these three sides is also termed (a) understanding, (b) negative reason, and (c) positive reason. These three stages or “moments”, as Hegel puts it, are internal to logic itself.

To begin with, (a) Understanding is the abstract universal, opposed to the particular of sensation and perception that are too narrow. It provides the fixity and accuracy of theory and practice that can be reproduced in any given circumstance. Moreover, these universal identities are discoverable by comparing and isolating figures in order to pin them down in their specificity. This applies, in extension, to the character or integrity of persons. For instance, to gain understanding requires a limitation to one’s pursuits and interests. This form of devotion and narrowness is, for example, requisite as part of any training. We might think of this in terms of purity of commitment. In this sense, understanding is finite and narrow. “A state, for example, is imperfect, so long as it has not reached a clear differentiation of orders and callings, and so long as those functions of politics and government, which are different in principle, have not evolved for themselves special organs…” (Hegel’s Logic, 115). Philosophy’s aim, moreover, is like that of the state. Its requirement is to be precise, allowing nothing to “remain vague and indefinite” (ibid.).

The second stage of Hegel’s logic is (b) the Dialectical which is characterized by unmasking how any given term will always pass into its opposite. Doubtless, this can easily become skepticism if it is mere external opposition that introduces confusion to arguments, but the true and proper nature of the Dialectical stage is to reveal the indwelling negation of understanding itself. In other words, Dialectic discovers the self-limitations to understanding rather than its external oppositions. Moreover, the Dialectical involves unraveling these self-contradictions. It goes without saying that Dialectic’s purpose is to demonstrate the finitude of understanding. As Hegel comments, “it really serves to show that every abstract proposition of understanding, taken precisely as it is given, naturally veers round into its opposite” (p. 117). More concretely, then, the extreme of any form inevitable passes into its opposite. Hegel gives a few examples to illustrate this point: “[I]t is a vital principle in conduct that I should be subjectively free, that is to say, that I should have an insight into what I am doing, and a conviction that it is right. But if my pleading insists on this principle alone I fall into Sophistry, such as would overthrow all the principles of morality” (p. 117). And again, “In political life, as every one knows, extreme anarchy and extreme despotism naturally lead to one another… Every one knows how the extremes of pain and pleasure pass into each other: the heart overflowing with joy seeks relief in tears, and the deepest melancholy will at times betray its presence by a smile” (p. 118). This, of course, is in contradistinction to skepticism—which is purely negative—because the result of the Dialectic is to always absorb the negative and positive into itself as part of its nature. 

Lastly, (c) “The Speculative stage, or stage of Positive Reason, apprehends the unity of terms (propositions) in their opposition—the affirmative, which is involved in their disintegration and in their transition” (p. 119). The Speculative stage, otherwise put, rises above the oppositions revealed between the Understanding and the Dialectical. In Kantian terms—contrary to popular opinion, Hegel does not use such terminology himself unless referring to Kant—we could call it a synthesis of thesis and antithesis. In short, positive reason unifies what was previously separated. In all truth, I have the most difficulty comprehending Hegel’s Speculative stage. Following Žižek, I think of it best in terms of coming to peace with incommensurability itself. Whether or not this shows fidelity to Hegel himself, I’ll leave the reader to decide. I will, however, conclude with a quote of Hegel elucidating the meaning in dispute: “But, as we have seen, the abstract thinking of understanding is so far from being either ultimate or stable, that it shows a perpetual tendency to work its own dissolution and swing round into its opposite. Reasonableness, on the contrary, just consists in embracing within itself these opposites as unsubstantial elements” (p. 121).

Agency according to Hegel

What does it mean to be a free individual? Conceptualized negatively, freedom is the ability to do whatever one desires, the absence of impediments. For the libertarian, freedom is conceptualized entirely different. We are only free when we are released from the desires that control us. Hegel, on the other hand, understands freedom entirely different. For him, one is free only when the self is in harmony with society. According to Hegel, the human individual is free insofar as the self has internalized and absorbed the culture of his or her time; including the mores, traditions and ideals of society. In other words, the more one is identical with the society in which he or she lives, the more he or she is free. In this manner individual freedom is not defended in opposition to society—as with an abstract, negative ideal of freedom—but is included within it.

There is, therefore, no such thing as freedom apart from a good society. If one were to live in a corrupt State the individual would never be free to conform to the fabric of society. Thus, “[I]ndividual freedom is valuable to the extent that it permits one to engage in and identify with a common, public life” (Richard Lichtman, An Outline of Marxism, pp. 28-9). Simply put, there must be harmony between the individual and the collective; congruency between the oikos and the polis.

An abrupt quagmire, however, surfaces when we begin addressing the concept of agency in resisting counterfeit States. Clearly, following Hegel, an individual is no longer free when he or she is no longer able to conform, in good conscious, to the spirit of the age. The trouble with Hegel becomes conceiving “just how one gets outside the state, absorbs it, and transforms it” (p. 26).

Reconciling this impasse is not limited solely to Hegel but is encountered in most critical thought. We encounter the same form of deadlock, for instance, with Hauerwas: “our freedom is dependent on our having a narrative that gives us skills of interpretation sufficient to allow us to make our past our own through incorporation into our ongoing history” (Stanley Hauerwas, Community of Character, p. 147). For Hauerwas, freedom is the ability to recognize oneself in a community and narrative that the self has learned to make one’s own. But this freedom is particularly dangerous in societies that inhabit the worst forms of evil; the same difficulty that befell Hegel’s understanding of the State.

This parallel between Hauerwas and Hegel is, however, not an anomaly. Although Hauerwas fails to acknowledge his dependence on the modern intellectual traditions of Hegel and Marx, Jeffrey Stout has not overlooked this significant connection (Democracy and Tradition, p. 138). In fact, Stout looks to Hegel himself to find a way out of this Gordian knot: the Hegelian paradigm of discursive, dialectical exchange where individuals are able to articulate their deepest commitments in reasonable argumentation, thus enabling citizens to modify situations they inhaibt. In this instance, at least, we can look to the same philosopher who inflicted the wound of incommensurability as the one who can potentially cure it.