Thursday, October 27, 2005

Week 10, Hegel

General Notes on Hegel’s “Master-Slave Dialectic” from Phenomenology of Spirit and Lectures on Fine Art

Dialectic. In Plato’s dialogues, it’s easy to see that “dialectic” (root: dialogos,dialogeo) is a linguistic process whereby two speakers reason their way to the truth of some subject—or in Plato’s case as often as not and especially in the early dialogues, they pursue the object to the point where they realize they’ve said what they can say and haven’t arrived at the truth, even if they think there is a truth to be attained. The ancient contrast is between dialectic as a truth-retrieval process and rhetoric, language employed as means of praise or of persuasion in, say, a law-court as “forensic rhetoric” or in the assembly as deliberative rhetoric—what should we do? etc.

Rhetoricians may be concerned with truth, but all those jokes about lawyers should tell us that they may not necessarily be after truth first and foremost. Hegel’s version of the dialectic can be read in different ways—anthropologically or in terms of strife within an individual’s consciousness (as in deconstructive readings that don’t accept Hegel’s belief in the processive evolution of consciousness to higher and ever higher stages). What he’s trying to do in the Phenomenology of Mind, in the standard reading that it’s best to employ here, is to explain how individuals become fully conscious of themselves as rational and spiritual beings and how they come to understand that their individuality can only be brought out within a genuinely social setting. We need an objective realization of spirit in the good society.

Dialectic’s modern form is a way of arriving at philosophical “Truth” while accounting for a complex and dynamic world and individual consciousness, and for the interdependence between one human consciousness and others. In the Master/Slave Dialectic, we read about an unsatisfactory stage in the development of consciousness. But in this discussion we can see the makings of modern concentrations on the play of power, on struggle as central to social and political development, and on the need to place the individual in a dynamic relation with the others we collectively term “society.” Hegel isn’t trying to describe a disembodied, bloodless self; he’s trying to deal with the reality of human existence as something lived, felt, and experienced in subtle and ever-changing ways. One major point is that labor turns out to be central to human life: we “produce” ourselves through labor. Marx derived his ideas about the status of work from Hegel. Because of his sophisticated dialectic and refusal to oversimplify the processes of thought, Hegel remains central to philosophy and theory—in other words, we can’t just talk about individuals and events or historical periods in total isolation from everything else, formalist style.

Ideological Critique. Hegel articulates the question of form and content, and he also relates individual consciousness to the political or ideological realm. For instance, the first kind of consciousness, historically, would have been “desiring self-consciousness”—just being aware that one has needs. All those desiring people got into many a scrape, and so we move to master/slave consciousness—which is hardly a satisfactory state of affairs societally or individually. The slave consciousness works out strategies for coping with servitude—namely stoic self-consciousness and its concern for work and virtue, which of course tend to result in punishment since, as the saying goes, “no good deed goes unpunished”; and then skeptic self-consciousness (cynical disbelief and resignation, disdain of care for others). Skepticism leads to the unhappy self-consciousness: ascetic rejection of the world, etc. But the unhappy self-consciousness at least gets some sense of the power of free will. That leads to idealist consciousness, which makes Ideas the sole reality. That notion is ultimately untenable—it excludes nature, and we must come to terms with nature. So Rational Consciousness leads to Empirical Consciousness. But then the Empirical Consciousness can’t see itself as other than animal, with reality as something outside itself.

Ideological critiques are, of course, a mainstay of modern criticism and literary/cultural theory. One might say that ideology consists in the linguistic and institutional rules that inform our actions and beliefs and make us think there is a stable world and a place for a stable “us” in it. A different definition would be that it consists in a fundamental confusion: the attempt to confound words and the world. Language, according to some modern critics, simply doesn’t work the same way physical nature does, and you can’t just “use” it to describe the world as if there were a close fit between the workings of language and the workings of natural processes. People are constantly eliding the fact that words, no matter how well you arrange them, don’t describe reality and are not “the same as” reality. To think otherwise is to be mystified and to think that words and the world correspond or even reduce to the same thing.

It’s easy enough to understand that the word “tree” isn’t the actual thing out there in the park, but at a broader level we tend to assume that our language is operating on the world in substantive ways. We naturalize our linguistic tricks to the point where the tricks seem like nature itself. So today theorists tend to focus on the constitutive and ideological role of language and not on arriving at philosophical certainty about events and things by means of it. Perpetual demystification might be a good way to describe this process, except that demystification tends to presuppose that there is an unmystified final state we can get to. Hegel thinks he can account for the world and consciousness as a dynamic totality, or at least that it would be possible to arrive at an intelligible perspective on that totality.

Page-by-Page Notes on “The Master-Slave Dialectic” from Hegel’sThe Phenomenology of Spirit

Introductory remarks. Immanuel Kant tends to assume that we are self-contained units, and he depends upon the sameness of our faculties in dealing with our activities and customs, and with aesthetic perception, ethics, and so forth. For Hegel, the self is founded upon confrontational moments—risk, contradiction, dread. The self is established by struggle for recognition and certainty, which entails withholding recognition from others. Hegel is an idealist who finds progressive states of consciousness embodied in certain historical moments. History is teleological, and labor is central to subjectivity and purpose in life, to social formations. Humanity’s relation to objects is central to life.

630-31. “Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when... it so exists for another....” To attain self-consciousness, we must first set boundaries. Emerson describes this as distinguishing between “me/not me.” Exclusion and separation are necessary to the founding of the self. The earliest stage is desiring self-consciousness. But then the situation becomes confrontational: a pair of self-conscious individuals confront each other as objects. They are not yet authentic in their self-consciousness.

632-33. “The individual who has not risked his life they will be recognized as a person, but he has not attained to the truth of this recognition as an independent self-consciousness.” Abstract self-consciousness must risk itself, must risk death to move towards genuine self-consciousness. Each side must try to annihilate the other. Something more active than exclusion is needed—recognition, a kind of incorporation/destruction of the other. But death would be negation, not a step forward. Therefore, a person needs recognition, but resents this need. Life implies limitation, negotiation, mediation. A different kind of relationship emerges from the struggle. The struggle shows a need for a mediated relationship. The Lord and bondsman both relate not directly to each other but rather to the thing.

The Lord consumes and negates objects, while the servant is forced to labor upon those objects—that is not the same thing as consuming them. But this is still unsatisfactory—the Lord only gets recognition from a non-essential and unequal other. The bondsman’s recognition cannot give the Lord a true grasp of himself or his relationship with others.

633. Paragraph 190. “The Lord relates himself mediately to the bondsman through a being [a thing] that is independent....” The thing becomes the locus of necessary mediation, part of the bargain struck to stave off death. However, as Karl Marx understood, this thing/being is also the site of great confusion in our relationship to things and, through them, to one another.

634-35. “The object in which the Lord has achieved his lordship has in reality turned out to be something quite different from an independent consciousness…. he is, therefore, not certain of being-for-self as the truth of himself.” The Lord is in effect the slave of his slave and of the objects upon which the slave works. Moreover, the slave withdraws into himself and becomes independent. See 635 on this matter. Fear throws us back upon the body’s confines, and the servant-to-be shrinks into “absolute negativity.” Service allows him to realize that he is an individual. Work allows him to work at recovering a sense of his independent selfhood. We produce ourselves by means of work.

636. Hegel goes on to describe the movement from stoicism to skepticism to the unhappy consciousness. The point is that the movement grasps increasingly the unsatisfactory nature and contradictoriness (divided consciousness) of the servant consciousness; and therefore of the whole lord/servant relationship. The movement is supposed to be towards freedom, which will require genuine reciprocity. Marx will exploit this exposure of contradictions. The keys to this selection are 1) intersubjectivity as the foundation of the self rather than positing an autonomous ego, which is no more than an effect; 2) contradiction as teleological process; 3) the centrality of labor.

Page-by-Page Notes on Hegel’s Lectures on Fine Art

639-40. “What is man’s ‘‘need’’ to produce works of art?” Why do we need art and adornment? We think ourselves, represent ourselves to ourselves. (This point will be appropriate when we come to Baudelaire as well.) Perspective and identity imply a going-out-of-self. You cannot see something or grasp it mentally unless you get far enough away from it: “the universal and absolute need from which art (on its formal side) springs has its origin in the fact that man is a ‘‘thinking’’ consciousness....”

We make the journey in two ways—theoretically, through acts of self-consciousness, and practically, through practical activity like ordinary labor and artistic creation. We set objects before us and shape them, we embody imaginative acts in sensuous form.

And in the product, we see ourselves. So labor is self-production, spiritual process. A central human need is to transcend what we are, and to ‘‘get’’ somewhere.

A similar idea occurs in the master/slave dialectic—our sense of identity is not left to solidify on its own. It is a product of social interaction, a product that involves risk and confrontation. We confront another person, see ourselves in another person, and seek to annihilate or dominate that other person. Notice that Hegel often shows contradictions emerging in systems—competing, incompatible demands generated within the same system. Marx will describe capitalist economics the same way, especially when he discusses how overproduction crises lead to cycles of boom and bust.

639 bottom. “In the second form of art....” Adornment is natural—we turn nature into a means of self-reflection. Nature is useful as a springboard for successive acts of self-consciousness. However, this process is destructive and violent—what ought to be respected is annihilated or interpreted out of existence. Compare the Westerner’s “I have conquered the mountain” to the Buddhist’s claim, “the mountain has befriended me.” Hegel’s march of the spirit could be a violent and destructive series of aggressive acts against others. Marxism tends to advocate an outright struggle between humanity and nature for supremacy. We might even connect this attitude towards nature with Baudelaire and his fellow decadent authors on the need to reject nature in the name of artifice and variety.

640-41. “The first form of art is therefore rather a mere search for portrayal than a capacity for true presentation....” Symbolic art is a search to embody a vague ideal in matter. This kind of art achieves an asymmetrical yoking together of idea and material. The two roughly correspond but do not fit together well. Symbolic art also shows the foreignness of ideas to matter. It reaffirms striving as one of the keys to humanity, and it also encourages respect for the sublime, the mysterious, fermentation, and movement. It is a necessary stage in human experience—we must be foreigners in our own territory. Symbolic art is expressive of mystery.

641 (bottom) - 642. “In the second form of art which we will call the classical, the double defect of the symbolic form is extinguished.” Classical art is the second stage. Greek statues would be the perfect example. Greek sculpture achieves an adequate embodiment of the ideal. The human form expresses spirit determined as particular and human. The problem is that to do this, the sculptor must bring spirit down to the level at which it can be adequately represented or embodied. That is unacceptable since spirit is “the infinite subjectivity of the Idea” (643).

643-44. “The romantic form of art cancels again the completed unification of the Idea and its reality....” The third stage is romantic art, the perfect form of which is music. In romantic art, striving comes to the forefront again. Music is freest of material limitations. Romantic art seeks to transcend itself through itself, and we rediscover, as in the earlier stage of symbolic art, the incommensurateness of material to spirit. The problem with romantic art is that it triumphs over matter. The idea can only achieve perfection within itself. We see that we cannot simply fix spirit in stone or on the canvas, or even in a succession of notes on a page. William Blake understood well, for instance, that media are necessary but also liable to become traps. Romantic art is by no means comforting. It does not satisfy the individual’s sense of his or her own cognitive powers, the ability to render events intelligible, as in Immanuel Kant’s aesthetic theory.

Edition. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York : Norton, 2001. ISBN 0393974294.