Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Confessions of Minerva’s Owl: Notes on Jameson’s The Hegel Variations

Any interpretation of Hegel is its own time comprehended in thought, this little twist on Hegel’s famous dictum perhaps best describes Jameson’s little book on Hegel. This little book, mostly focused on the Phenomenology of Spirit, follows The Valences of the Dialectic and precedes a recently announced book on Capital: Volume One. Taken together the three constitute something of a return to first principles by Jameson, a return to the fundamental sources of his thought after a lifetime of combining Marx, Hegel, and the dialectic to analyze everything from architecture to science fiction novels. The brevity of this recent book is especially welcome, it reads more like a lecture, or a conversation even, than a full on book.

As much as the Hegel book constitutes a kind of fundamental, and delayed, return to first principles, it is founded, as I have already suggested, on the fundamental idea that any rereading of Hegel will necessarily confront the specters of Hegelianism: the critique of teleology, totality, and idealism that have rendered “Hegelian” an epithet more than a description. Jameson restrains much of his “shotgun style” of writing, in which a given paragraph might include remarks on Wal-mart, the general intellect, and the utopian dimension of popular culture, in order to focus on particular passages from Hegel’s text. Which is not to say that this is an attempt at some kind of immediate grasp of what Hegel “really meant,” independent of reference and shifting context, just that these references are sparse, limited to the works that have framed Hegel, Kant, Fichte, and Schiller, and Hegelianism, Kojève, Lukacs, and Honneth. Jameson recognizes that Hegel comes to us as always already read, and thus any new reading will be in some sense a negation of a reified image of Hegel. To cite Hegel himself on this matter (in a passage that Jameson refers to often, albeit not in this particular monograph):

The manner of study in ancient times differed from that of the modern age in that the former was the proper and complete formation of natural consciousness. Putting itself to a test at every point of its existence, and philosophizing about everything that it came across it made itself into a universality that was active through and through. In modern times, however, the individual finds the abstract form ready-made; the effort to grasp and appropriate it is more the direct driving forth of what is within and the truncated generation of the universal than it is the emergence of the latter from the concrete variety of existence. Hence the task nowadays consists not so much in purging the individual of an immediate, sensuous mode of apprehension, and making him into a substance that is an object of thought and that thinks, but rather in just the opposite, in freeing determinate thoughts from their fixity so as to give actuality to the universal, and impart to it spiritual life. (Phenomenology of Spirit ¶33.)

As such Jameson’s intervention is at once a transformation of Hegel and a reexamination of what his thought might mean for us today: how we view Hegel and how Hegel views us. Its particular, and focused, sites of intervention are the dialectic, collectivity, and the master/slave relation; in this case the last is understood less as a particular stage of the Phenomenology than as a particular staging of the conflict between materialism (work, action, the body) and idealism (recognition) as well as a general reflection on the meaning of the revolution against feudalism.

It is possible to say that every reading of Hegel necessarily takes up a position on the dialectic itself. First and foremost Jameson’s particular intervention/interpretation takes aim at the schema of thesis/antithesis/synthesis, stressing that not only does Hegel never use such schematic language, but more to the point, such a schema produces a kind of rigidity that the dialectical thinking is meant to fundamentally destroy. The task of the dialectic is then “to think without positive terms,” to not so much resolve oppositions into some higher order, but to constantly think between two terms, between relation and contradiction. Of course this is a sentiment that one hears a lot about Hegel, what makes it interesting in Jameson’s case is the particular way in which he reads the opening passages of the Phenomenology. For Jameson the opening chapters of the Phenomenology, most notably “sense certainty,” are to be read less as stages in some kind of progression towards Spirit than they are dialectical destructions of the eternal temptations for thought, the common sense and everyday priority of things over relations. The dialectic is less a teleological progression towards some sort absolute than an eternal battle against reification: against the primacy of things and the tendency to posit concepts as things, what Hegel called Verstand (understanding).

This sets up a tension between positing (not in the technical Hegelian sense) actual claims about reality and the necessary dialectical subversion of such claims. Jameson demonstrates this with respect to one of the boldest points he makes with respect to collectivity:

“Yes, Spirit is the collective, but we must not call it that, owing to the reification of language, owing to the positivities of the philosophical terms or names themselves, which restore precisely that empirical common-sense ideology it was the very vocation of the dialectic to destroy in the first place. To name the social is to make it over into a thing or an empirical entity, just as to celebrate its objectivity in the face of idealistic subjectivism is to reestablish the old subject-object opposition which was to have been done away with.”

As much as Jameson makes this assertion it is immediately subject to the necessary dialectical problematization through subsequent oppositions and tensions. (One of the subtexts of Jameson’s books is that it more or less argues for the superiority of the Phenomenology; a superiority that is not founded on the old opposition between dialectic form and Prussian authoritarian content, but on the unresolved nature of the phenomenology: its tendency to combine philosophical problems with historical events, fundamental problems of subjectivity with literary analysis.) The preponderance of collectivity makes an appearance twice in Jameson’s reading of Hegel. The first is in the section on sense certainy, in which attempt to give voice to the irreducible particularity of senses ends up speaking the universal. “Language is thus already a symbolic apprenticeship of Spirit as a collective reality beyond the individual; and even personal or private expression necessarily takes place within an already established collective framework and as a reaction against it.” However, that is not the only point at which the individual is made part of the collective, work does the same thing. This is a point that Hegel makes most strongly in the Philosophy of Right, but it makes its appearance in the Phenomenology as well in the labor of the bondsman and the work of culture. In work my concern with the matter at hand necessarily exceeds itself, as what I produce becomes a concern for others.

These different universalizations, different senses of collective, one founded by language and another by work, return us to the dualisms that define Hegel’s reception: idealism, materialism; superstructure and base; and master and slave. Jameson does not so much place Kojève’s reading of this final pair, master and slave, at the center of his understanding of Hegel, but recognizes that Kojève’s reading constitutes an unavoidable mediation of our reception of Hegel. As Jameson notes, with respect to the “master/slave” one splits into two: the master and slave dialectic gives us two dialectics, two recognitions, one based on the intersubjective recognition of individual to individual, and another recognition based on the slave’s recognition of self in the work of production. These two, or really three recognitions (the third being the recognition of self in political institutions that makes up much of Hegel’s philosophy), structure the post-revolutionary bourgeois world: we have the recognition of self by self in a world no longer defined by aristocracy, by official differences of birth; we have the recognition of the individual in the institutions and laws that defines democracy, these laws are supposed to be nothing other than the will of the people; and finally we have the recognition of the self in the world of work and consumption. (Although this final dialectic also splits into work and consumption, into the two sides of the commodity; one which presents us with alienation, the other with recognition, if not the constitution of identity). These three “recognitions” stretch the meaning of term, not to mention the dialectic itself, as they come into conflict. As Jameson defines the contemporary political situation:

“It is thus scarcely a distortion to posit the humanized world of consumer society as that externalization in which the subject can find itself most completely objectified and yet most completely itself. The contradiction begins to appear when we set this cultural dimension alongside the legal and political levels of late capitalism: for it is with these that the Kantian ethical citizen ought to identify himself, according to the theory, and in these that he ought to be able to recognize his own subjectivity and the traces of his own production. But this is precisely what does not obtain today; where so many people feel powerless in the face of the objective institutions which constitute their world, and in which they are so far from identifying that legal and political world as their own doing and their own production.”

There are suggestive remarks here about the current situation of late capitalism: in which people recognize themselves in the commodities they consume more than the laws and institutions that are supposedly based on their consent. (Of course it is worth noting that these laws and institutions often serve the corporations that produce the friendly egalitarian images that one identifies with). This is Jameson’s explanation of What is the Matter with Kansas? (Or, as Jameson puts it, “It is permitted to be wealthy, as long as the rich man is as vulgar as everyone else.”) However, such an interpretation remark is as limited as it is suggestive. Overall Jameson’s strategy is to combine the Maoist “one divides into two” with “two fuse into one”: Hegel’s recognition divides into two, perhaps three, recognitions; while Hegel is constantly being fused back into Marx.


  1. Anonymous1:52 PM

    two outside thoughts while reading this and maybe you have some insight into them?

    1. the vulgarity of the rich V. the self-identification of the new consumerist bourgeois seems to me to elevate the lower classes to the wealthy's stratosphere of inconsequential and limitless consumption. Or in other words, the wealthy are accepted for all their crass exploitation and mean-spiritedness as long as the lower consumer echelons are able to approximate the same endless auspiciousness. Or is that the point?

    2. how is the consumer-identity (the self in the commodities/laws/ institutions) subverted and solidified by the drug culture? Has there been a systematic critique - first of the organizing principles of the criminal drug world; second of the commodities that propel that community - paraphernalia, drugs themselves, and the flotsam of the drug culture - books, movies,various other shared "secrets" of culture.

  2. 1. I think that you are probably right. I think that capitalism has been very good a democratizing certain symbols of status, at least in the US, such as cars, houses, etc., producing the ideal of the universal middle class. (Although this is done through a credit system that is now collapsing.) The flipside of this is a kind of universalization of debt: everyone owns a house they cannot afford and so on, so everyone feels precarious and threatened. Jameson's point is the rise of a kind of cultural equality, which does not preclude other forms of inequality. He argues that this plebianization "is infused with a powerful hatred of hierarchy and special privileges and with a passionate resentment of cast distinctions and inherited cultural superiority."

    2.The drug example may be one of the contradictions I was trying to refer to at the end, a point where the recognition of self as consumer conflicts with the recognition of self as citizen. (It occurs to me know that the different recognitions that Jameson refers to can be labeled person, citizen, and worker/consumer). It is at this point that I wonder if we can productively define the tensions between these recognitions as contradictions, however, or if doing so points to the limit of a dialectical conception no matter how nuanced it might be.

  3. I haven't read the book yet, but two quick questions: does Fred make Hegel seem like Saussure ("there are only differences with no positive terms...")? Has the use made of the thesis/anti-thesis idea by various 20C. Marxists always been wrong--for example, Eisenstein's theory of montage?

  4. Shelton,

    With respect to the first question: yes, the reference to Saussure is explicit in the passage I partly quoted. Jameson goes on to write, "...it is certain that the Phenomenology is a profoundly structuralist work avant la lettre." The second question is a little more complicated. I think Jameson's strategy is to bring Hegel in relation to Marx, but to dispense with all those questions of Marx completing/critiquing Hegel, of rational kernels and mystical shells. The penultimate chapter "Religion as Superstructure" almost argues that Hegel is most useful for Marx when he is most idealist. This is what I was hinting at the the cryptic line of "one divides into two" and "two fuse into one." I wouldn't be surprised if the book on Capital contained an argument for a specifically Marxist dialectic.

  5. Just on point 1 between R.JXP and Negatron, re: home ownership. There's a great book on post-WWII Detroit by Thomas Sugrue, I forget the title, and if I remember right there's a decent discussion as well in Lizabeth Cohen's book Consumers Republic about home ownership. Among other things white home ownership created incentives for racist behavior in the absence of strongly motivated subjective racism, due to how property values were evaluated. Black neighbors moving in really did mean lower property values due to decisions by the National Association of Realtors and by financial institutions. There's this terrible quote, a white homeowner protesting a black family moving in, saying "I'm sure they're very nice people but every time I see them I see a three grand loss in the value of my home." This is extra significant given the role of homes as a sink for white working class savings and as collateral for credit.

    I say all this just on the consumerism and equality tip, how extension of equality (black mobility, and some extension of home ownership to blacks and a lot of extension to white workers) combined with longstanding inequalities helped cause explosive responses and pressures toward greater inequality. Among other things, George Wallace's presidential bid had massive support in Michigan, including Detroiters.

  6. Thanks Nate, that is very interesting (and distressing). I like the Consumer Republic book and will have to check out the other one that you mention. I find the intersections between the abstract principles, equality/inequality, and concrete practices to be interesting.

  7. Nice read Jason. Since I have been struggling with Hegel, I could not shake myself of the sensation that I was having as hard a time with the way he has been represented, as with Hegel himself. Jameson seems like a must read for neophytes like me. What really does ring for me is the anti-reification principle, that is situating things between contradiction and unity. If there was anything I could scrape from reading "On Being" in Phenomenology, it was that.