Monday, January 29, 2024

How to Do Things with Hegel: On Gray and Johnson's Phenomenology of Black Spirit


Because actual history is rarely linear, let alone teleological, I read the repudiation of Hegel before I ever read Hegel. I had read arguments and polemics against Hegel in Althusser, Deleuze, and Foucault long before I had every cracked Hegel's books. A funny thing happened once I started reading, writing, and teaching Hegel, is that I started to warm up to him. It was not the idea of spirit that appealed to me, or even the dialectic as some overarching logic, but the more limited, finite dialectics of the different figures and moments of consciousness. 

If you need an example of what I am talking about just think of the famous dialectic of master and slave, the hit single of the Phenomenology of Spirit. This passage has been separated from the progression of spirit to take on a life of its own as a way to discuss everything from desire to anti-colonial violence. However, hit singles have a way of overshadowing the whole album. I have often thought that Hegel's Phenomenology and Philosophy of Right offer more than just that famous struggle, the figures of the stoic, sceptic, unhappy conscious, the struggle of culture and alienation, faith and enlightenment, could be liberated from the development of spirit, to become ways of thinking about the current state of spirit, which appears less and less as a culmination of progress than a motley accumulation of everything every believed. 

It is for this reason that I was delighted to learn of Biko Mandela Gray and Ryan Johnson's Phenomenology of Black Spirit. One aspect of this book is an attempt to put the figures of Hegel's Phenomenology, to work; the master and slave, but also the stoic, sceptic, and unhappy consciousness become critical figures of subjectivity, and not just moments of the development of spirit. It puts these figures to work in relation to figures of black struggle and thought from Frederick Douglass to Angela Davis, reading what could be called "the black radical tradition" as something more than a series of political contestations and positions, to see it as having its own intellectual foundation and development, even as counters the trajectory that Hegel charted. 

Gray and Johnson sometimes contrast Hegel's figure with the reality and history of black struggle. This can be seen clearly in the contrast between Douglass' struggle for freedom and Hegel's concept of the master/slave struggle. As Gray and Johnson write, "The lord' and the 'bondsman,' then are logical (dis)positions, figures who are both more and less than the historical people who were enslaved and who were exercising domination. 'The slave' had names. 'The master' did, too. And these names make a difference. They make differences." Logic and history connect and part ways. In Hegel's account the bondsman condition begins with fight, a struggle for recognition, and ends in work, work providing a sense of recognition that could not be found in struggle. Douglass' history inverts this order. As Gray and Johnson write,

"With American chattel slavery, however, work was not the way out of slavery but the brutal institutions very engine. The more a slave worked, the stronger was the institution...In chattel slavery, work will never set you free. Work reinforces the chains and sharpens the sting of the whip. Douglass worked had and long, and saw himself in the fields, landscapes, ships and other objects into which he put his transforming labor. Yet freedom never came to him from work. The only way for him to set out on the path out of slavery and into freedom was to turn away from the object. on which he worked and face the master in order to fight."

Gray and Johnson's analysis here cites and joins Chamayou's discussion of slave hunts, in which the historical inquiry calls into question the conceptual logic. Work cannot function as the basis for recognition in a system based on reducing human beings to their capacity for work. It is only the fight, the struggle that can break this logic. If Douglass deviates from Hegel's figures of subjectivity other historical moments would seem to not only confirm it, but Hegel's thought provides the concept that is otherwise missing. Booker T. Washington's ideas of individual freedom, merit, and self-reliance realizes Hegel's idea of stoicism more than even Hegel. The history does not contradict the concept, but confirms it and makes a case for its relevance. As Gray and Johnson write, 

"Here is a new form of recognition. It is not the recognition of another self-consciousness, directly in the form of self consciousness, but that of future self-consciousness, a higher form of self, or perhaps the promise of being recognized by a truly fair, just, and impartial form of subjectivity, above and beyond any particular determination of race, gender, age, etc., "No man whose vision is bounded by color can come into contact with what is highest and best" ( Washington, Up from Slavery) The recognition that the stoic seeks is not simply another person's recognition, not just recognition from this white man or Black man, but a general recognition from an ideal person. It is recognition of a hard earned merit that is mine."

Reading Washington through Hegel makes it possible to see how the stoic appears not just once, as a figure of progression, but again and again, as a turn inward for recognition when the world becomes unreliable. It also makes it possible to see that Hegel's attachment to work, to work as an ethical ideal is less a matter of his own system, than the grey on grey of a philosopher reflecting the general norms of his time.  It also makes it possible to see in Washington not just a specific figure from one period, but something more of a refrain as stoicism, self-reliance, and merit, appear again and again as a conservative response to racism. The conservative attempt to reduce Martin Luther King Jr. to some future date where people would be judged only by the content of their character, to merit, is really an attempt to turn King into Washington. 

Speaking of King, it is with respect to King that we can see the real strength of Gray and Johnson's reading. As much as Hegel gives us figures of individual consciousness, stoicism, scepticism, etc., that can be seen not just once in the linear progression of history but appearing again and again, his real goal was to think something other than the individual, to think spirit as universality, sociality, or even transindividuality. In Gray and Johnson's reading of the black radical tradition this problem of collectivity appears again and again as the struggle of the individual, King, Malcolm X, and Angela Davis, to transcend individuality in their very individual struggle. This is what Hegel's unhappy consciousness makes it possible to think. As Gray and Johnson write:

"Here is where the trouble lies: sacramental work is, undeniably the individual's work, in this case King's work. Put differently although this working is supposed to deny the self and attribute everything to God, it actually reaffirms the essentiality of the finite self, while God is reduced to a superficial element. At best, sacramental work and desire is done in the name of God. The same failure to to renounce and surrender oneself also applies to labour as a form of gratitude. The 'entire movement,' writes Hegel, 'is reflected not only in the actual desiring, working, and enjoyment, but even in the very giving thanks where the reverse seems to take place in the extreme of individuality' (Phenomenology of Spirit). The reason: we are the ones working on and changing things, while God is just a fictional idea, a fancy name, that contributes nothing to our work. We are the ones working, day in and day out; we finite persons change the world; no one and nothing but us. The individual self tried to overcome itself through work, to act merely as an instrument in God's handmade plan, but it inevitably ends up emboldening itself."

Unhappy Consciousness returns from the medieval world of Christianity to become the dialectic of the modern movement and leader. The more the leader devotes him or herself in works, the more that devotion and dedication becomes the work. As Gray and Johnson argue the figures of the sixties and seventies, King, Malcolm X, and Angela Davis eventually give way to collective movements, to the Panthers, and Black Power as a new figure of reason (in Hegel's terminology), or collective consciousness, in ours. 

I have picked three moments from Gray and Johnson's book to illustrate the different relations between concept and history at work in the book, three different ways that it thinks the relation between its two different topics, Hegel and the black radical tradition. The relation between Hegel and the black radical tradition is sometimes one of negation, as the history of struggle in the case of Douglass negates the concept of struggle in Hegel; sometimes one of affirmation, as the philosophical concepts reveal and illustrate what is at stake in the political position of Washington; and ultimately it is one of transformation, as the dialectic of philosopher and history, contemplation and contestation, individual and community, pushes towards something else, pushes us to think through the limits of the civil rights era with its larger than life figures. As a last word I will cite a line that Gray and Johnson write with respect to Angela Davis' idea of coalition politics, but I think that such an idea can be used to describe the book's own strange coalition of Hegel and politics. "Difference, conjunction, and contradiction generate, rather than impede, political momentum." 

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