Friday, November 01, 2013

What Would Hegel Do? Preliminary Remarks on the Problem of Action in the Phenomenology of Spirit

If one dispenses with all of the various reified and received ideas that frame almost any reading of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit then it is perhaps possible to see to what extent the idea of action repeats throughout the text as something of a refrain.

I am referring not just to the well known meditation on the tragedy of Antigone's action, or even the labors of Hegel's slave; what I am referring to is much more persistent albeit inchoate. It shows up even in the opening section on "Sense Certainty." In that section Hegel begins with the naive idea of sense certainty, the belief that that one can have unmediated knowledge of the world simply by perceiving it. Hegel demonstrates that such knowledge is actually the opposite of what it claims, its richness is actually the poverty of simply saying "This" of the act of pointing. This dialectical reversal is made possible by the act of writing. As Hegel writes, 

"In order to put the truth of this sense-certainty to the test, a simple experiment will suffice. We write down this truth; a truth cannot be lost by being written down no more than it can be lost by our preserving it, and if now, this midday, we look at this truth which has been written down, we will have to say that it has become rather stale." 

Writing may not seem like action, at least in any political sense of the word, but it sets up a fundamental relation that is repeated throughout the Phenomenology: action exceeds its intention. Of course, this is just another formulation of the cunning of reason as "sense certainty" says more than it knows. This is especially the case if one focuses on the role of language, that the truth one utters is the universal "now" or "this" underlying the formulation "Now is night," albeit an abstract and empty one. However, if one turns from the universality of the enunciation to the materiality of inscription, it is possible to arrive at another reading. In this case it is less the cunning, the universal actualizing itself in and through the particular, than it is of an action that discloses more than its intention.

This is merely the first instance of what could be called a "underground current" of the materiality of the dialectic. Other moments would include the aforementioned Master and Slave dialectic, especially the way in which work functions as a different path to recognition than that of intersubjectivity; the "matter at hand" as an active engagement with the world and others; and, of course, Antigone. Some kind of action, from the writing down of words to the tragic action of politics, appears at nearly every point along the way in Hegel's Phenomenology, and it is the putting into act which discloses the limit of a particular way of viewing the world. I guess one could consider this a dialectic, or maybe just an opposition, of theory and practice, as practice discloses something more than the theory which guides it. However, I am looking for something a little less banal, asking the question (along with such new readings of Hegel as Jameson and Balibar) of what would happen if we read Hegel not for the overall trajectory, the telos, but for the moments of transition, especially for the active and material aspects of those transitions, the way they exceed thought. What would it mean to read Hegel in a materialist way? This is just a preliminary question, and answering it would more thought and research, reading Franck Fischbach's book on action in philosophy, for example.  Of course this might be just another way of approaching the first of Marx's Theses on Feuerbach, of understanding the active dimension of idealism as action.

The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism – that of Feuerbach included – is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence, in contradistinction to materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism – which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such.

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