Marginalia on Radical Thinking: Conversation between Douglas Lain and I about Hegel and Negativity of the Dialectic
Douglas Lain is an author, blogger, and podcaster, whose two much recent books are “Wave of Mutilation” and “Pick Your Battle,” his memoir on Marxism and urban foraging. You can find Doug’s blog yourself and listen to his podcast. This conversation took place over a few days, and partly inspired this episode of Doug’s podcast and this post on my blog. This conservation is partly inspired by Doug’s recent philosophy workshop. See his podcast for details on how to participate.
Skepoet: You have been going through Phenomenology of Spirit in a workshop form? What have you seen in Hegel that has surprised you?
Douglas Lain: What’s surprising about reading Hegel is how familiar his ideas are. For instance, I’m currently rereading the beginning of Lefebvre’s Production of Space in order to put together a podcast on that subject, and I’m finding Lefebvre is echoing Hegel even as he is trying to perhaps distinguish himself from Hegel. Hegel appears to me now as the central figure of contemporary thought. I see him everywhere. He’s my new tootsie roll.
S.:Do you think Hegel was the first philosopher to really articulate what was emerging at the end of the Enlightenment in a positive sense?
D.L.: I can’t answer that because I don’t know all the philosophers well enough, nor do I quite know what you are pointing at when you talk about something emerging from the Enlightenment.
S.: Fair enough: It seems like Hegel is really the beginning of the divide in philosophy: both the divide between systemic and anti-systemic thinkers in continental philosophy and the divide between continental and analytic philosophy itself. But I see Hegel as beginning to really apply dialectical thought to movements of history. So do you think that Hegel can be an introduction to thinking about the way system’s develop over time?
D.L.: Yes. However, what is tricky for me to remember is that thinking systemically is not merely a case of trying to account of all the different causes but also to recognize how the whole context determines or is necessary for the particular set of causes to arise.
But, I’m currently reading the Philosophy of Mind, and so what I find most interesting about Hegel is his approach to consciousness and self-consciousness, and how for him the process of developing self-consciousness is an objective and historical process.
S.: Why do you think self-consciousness is viewed so highly individually now?
D.L: Margaret Thatcher convinced the entire Western World that there is no such thing as a We?
S.: I was thinking that exactly. What about Ayn Rand? Or blaming Hegel for fascism? Do you think these are kinds of avoidance Mechanisms?
D.L: For me the obviousness of our collective identity, the inherently social nature of my sense of myself, rules out Rand. As for blaming Hegel for Fascism, that’s a stickier widget maybe. If I understand you correctly the problem with Hegel is that he pushes reality into the open or points to how it is visible as appearance. This seems to indicate that the mere fact of a given social order’s existence is enough to verify it as true or justified. However, the opposite is also true with Hegel. That is, this missing Cogito, this empty spot, is also required. My take is that right wing Hegelians reject both the social nature of reality and the emptiness of their own position. I tend to side with Faust. Which is to say, I tend to believe that we can face the abyss and come to some sort of interesting arrangement with it.
Also, I am beginning to wonder if you pose as right-wing with these rightist just as you pose as left-wing with us. And, I’d point out that Zizek’s description of the difference between right and left, that the left admits that the split is built into social life from the beginning while the right believes there was once a whole, is my personal favorite definition.
S.: It is interesting to turn the interrogation onto the interviewer. So let’s deconstruct the question and the implied assumptions. So asking that if I “pose” as left-wing as I also “pose” as right-wing would imply that I hold a position other than either, which I suppose would be merely calling me a liberal. It also implies that I think being ”right-wing” would be coherent enough for me to adopt a false posture to accomodate to what going on, but actually I don’t think that. I think the left is more or less currently in a zombie state, but has a coherence in the sense that being mostly a moral position removes it from any historical consciousness. The right would be mostly based on a myth of alienation from an organic whole, but then so would most of the left. They share similar assumptions from the position of modernity as a whole. They are part of the same contradictions within the same totality. I prefer to see those contradictions either sublated or accelerated so a new, if temporary, cohension can emerge.
So what do you think Zizek’s injection of Lacan into Hegel does for your thinking?
D.L: Well, as far as it goes I suppose we’re all practicing liberals in the US and even when transplanted.
As to Zizek’s injection of Lacan into Hegel, I think the opposite is what has happened. That is, Lacan learned of Hegel through Kojeve. But, all of this is just variations on name dropping.
S.: What do you see as the violence in Hegel? The necessary of a rupture? Do you think such violence is there?
D.L.: Your question sent me back to Hegel and to thinking. The violence in Hegel is the force or work of dialectical dissolution, and I see why this is a problem for those of us who want to emancipate humanity. My next podcast for Diet Soap will explore this violence and on it I defend the movie Fight Club on Hegelian grounds. It turns out that self-destruction is the ultimate act of self consciousness. We have to shoot ourselves in the face in order to free. This flies in the face of Orwell’s conception of freedom as the freedom to say that 2+2=4. Instead, freedom is to follow the bouncing ball from the universal to the particular until you find that you are the nothingness, the all seeing, all dancing crap of the world. So I see how dissolution and dialectics risks violence. Anything goes if nothing is real, yeah? Of course, Zizek and Lacan can refute that…partially.
S.: You seem to be critical of Zizek’s conception of violence here, or am I misreading you?
D.L.: I am critical of it as a means to understand it. Also, I actually don’t think Zizek is perfect (although I often pretend to think so on Facebook) and so I actually bet that he may be missing a piece of the puzzle. Zizek is not, as far as I know, a Marxist in the vein of Marxist Humanists like Kliman and Freeman, but I think he probably ought to be.
Do you see how reading (or charitably misreading) Hegel can lead to an Orwellian situation? Frankly, I take it as a kind of progress that I’m beginning to see Big Brother’s side of the argument, however, I don’t want to sit here on his side for very long.
S.: Why do you this perspective shift is important as highly comfortable?
D.L.: I think it’s important to move through these oppositions and to see how one position implies the other. For instance, the idea of a natural or sacred social order is often thought of as antithetical to the idea that people are radically free, on the other hand radical freedom is itself a burden and a force.
S.: Wouldn’t this be just classical dialectics?
D.L.: ”Just” as in fair and right or “just” as in common and debased?
S.: Just as in pure and simple, actually. Such as “it’s just water” (not cyanide).
D.L.: What is the opposite of this pure dialectic I wonder. Can you really get water without cyanide in it? Seems like there is always a trace amount of poison.
S.: There’s the Zizek’s sneaking back in: I suppose you can have your dialectics without the negation of negation.
D.L.: Which is what happens in the movie the Game I think. Did you get a chance to listen to my podcast on this yet? You are mentioned.
S.: I did listen to it. I was wondering if you thought Fight Club is sort vulgar of “Negative Dialectic” a la Adorno–but ending withthe break down of negation into infinitude which leads on to nihilism and a destruction of the self. In seems like both the right-wing Hegel and the absolute left Hegel lead back to Big Brother. Is there a dialectical passage way through these kinds of dialectics?
D.L.: Could you outline Adorno’s take on Hegel a bit more thoroughly? How is the bread down of negation different from the negation of the negation?
S.: Negative dialectics does not assume a subject therefore it is agnostic on if sublation is possible–the subject is seen as not devouring its object, but actually devouring itself. Politically it means that one cannot identity a working class subject anymore nor assume it, but in practice it would mean devouring identity as a sort ur-form of ideology. Does this sound like what you were describing with Fight Club?
D.L. Let’s return to Orwell for a moment. Here’s an excerpt:
” There is a Party slogan dealing with the control of the past “, he said. ” Repeat it, if you please. “
” Who controls the past controls the future : who controls the present controls the past “, repeated Winston obediently.
” Who controls the present controls the past “, said O’Brien, nodding his head with slow approval. ” Is it your opinion, Winston, that the past has real existence ? “
Again the feeling of helplessness descended upon Winston. His eyes flitted towards the dial. He not only did not know whether ” yes ” or ” no ” was the answer that would save him from pain ; he did not even
know which answer he believed to be the true one.
O’Brien smiled faintly. ” You are no metaphysician, Winston “, he said. ” Until this moment you had never considered what is meant by existence. I will put it more precisely. Does the past exist concretely, in space ? Is there somewhere or other a place, a world of solid objects, where the past is still happening ? “
” Then where does the past exist, if at all ? “
” In records. It is written down.”
” In records. And – ?
” In the mind. In human memories. “
” In memory. Very well, then. We, the Party, control all records, and we control all memories. Then we control the past, do we not ? “
” But how can you stop people remembering things ? ” cried Winston again momentarily forgetting the dial. ” It is involuntary. It is outside oneself. How can you control memory ? You have not controlled
mine ! “
O’Brien’s manner grew stern again. He laid his hand on the dial.
” On the contrary “, he said, ” you have not controlled it. That is what has brought you here. You are here because you have failed in humility, in self-discipline. You would not make the act of submission
which is the price of sanity. You preferred to be a lunatic, a minority of one.
Now, if Winston had read Hegel how would he have answered O’Brien? Would he agree that the subject can control the present? Wouldn’t he instead point out that the present is a universal concept that is always slipping away? On what basis does O’Brien claim the authority to set Winston’s memory right? Certainly not a positive basis, but only based on his sure knowledge that force or power is its own justification, but how does this force or power act and move?
Forgive me for not following this line all the way out, but I suspect that a Winston Smith who’d read Hegel might be able to turn the tables on O’Brien, and show him how Big Brother stands in the way of self-consciousness, in the way of the absolute, precisely in so much as he must be taken to be real and substantial in order to function. I believe Big Brother needs Winston Smith.
S.: Well, that’s the thing about an un-sublated dialectic, it’s like a co-dependent relationship based on contradictions with a totality. I suppose it’s almost like a form of bad relationship: the parties involved mirror each other in the worse way. The question is the way out. I mean, let’s not assume that way out is totally un-alienatedor without its own contradictions. Let’s not assume we can reach an absolute, but in a specific context: consciousness would be like seeing a way to move a relationship out a repetition compulsion. What do you think about this, Doug?
D.L.: Which of the two of us is smarter? And don’t say you don’t know.
S.: Well, you’re slightly older and have come to a conclusion like Adorno’s on your own. So I didn’t do that. However, I asked the question that got you to think about it. As a positive intelligence, probably you. As a negative intelligence, probably me.
D.L.: Hmmm… I quite like that answer because, while it is a cop out (you’ve said that we’re both smarter) it is also completely logical and right in this context. I look forward to tackling the master and slave portion of the Phenomenology.
Listen though, I’ve had a run in with an Adorno fan who suggested that we should look to the brain damaged for help because they’re closer to the body and nondualist thinking. What do you see as the limits to Adorno’s critique?
S.: Well, for one thing, I don’t know that absolute totality, the totality without contradiction, is actually understandable in anyway except as complete annihilation. Adorno seems to think that too, but he’s easy to misread if one isn’t being careful. Totality can’t make for a politics and, like I said, I don’t think that is what Adorno means or intends. But it is easy to misread, or perhaps over-read, him in that way. Your thoughts?
D.L.: My main thought is that I want to read Adorno after I’m done reading Hegel’s Phenomenology. I’ve reiterated Adorno without knowing does that mean that my confusion about the Absolute, my hesitation to make a definite claim about where Hegel might lead, is also Adorno’s confusion?
S.: I think so. It’s clarifying confusion.
D.L.: Maybe we’ve reached the end of this round of questions and answers?
S.: I believe we have. We’ll probably chat again soon.