Hegel’s Return to Rhetoricality, and Getting High With Moses
One of Hegel’s complaints in the Phenomenology is against what he calls “picture-thinking.” If it’s not a complaint against it as such, it’s definitely a complaint about a way of thinking about the world people have used it for. A great example of this latter sort of ambiguity is in paragraph 346, where after finishing his discussion of phrenology and otherwise physiognomy, Hegel turns to a rather potent analogy (pun most definitely intended). Since his discussion of phrenology was more or less a discussion of the difference and relationship between the objective world (i.e. explicit appearances) and Spirit, and specifically in the context of phrenology the relationship between the physical skull and the Spirit, he makes a nifty point: the genitals, but more obviously the phallus, are at once the organs of perhaps the highest ecstasy natural to human physiology (Hegel actually refers to its specialness in it being “the organ of regeneration,” which is to say procreation) as well as the organs that handle some of the most nasty stuff we regularly deal with, like urination (cf. Woody Allen in Sleeper: My brain, it’s my second favorite organ!”). While not necessarily making an interpretive point about human physiology (like Freud does with the Oral, Anal and Genital stages of development, which are all sites of otherwise nasty physiological function and pleasure, which we can easily think of as organs of (re)generation if we think of the painful pleasure (jouissance) neurotics seek out of repetition compulsion), Hegel uses this duplicity to say something about how Reason can take this fact.
Brain fibres and the like, when regarded as the being of Spirit, are no more than a merely hypothetical reality existing only in one’s head, not hte true reality which has an outer existence, and which can be felt and seen; when they exist out there, when they are seen, they are dead objects, and then no longer pass for the being of Spirit. But objectivity proper must be an immediate, sensuous objectivity, so that in this dead objectivity—for the bone [of the skull] is a dead thing, so far as what is dead is present in the living being itself—Spirit is explicitly present as actual. The Notion underlying this idea is that Reason takes itself to be all thinghood, even purely objective thinghood itself; but it is only in the Notion, or, only the Notion is the truth of this idead; and the purer the Notion itself is, the sillier an idea it becomes when its content is in the form, not of the Notion, but of picture-thinking, i.e. if the self-suspending judgement is not taken with the consciousness of this its infinitude, but as a fixed proposition the subject and predicate of which are valid each on its own account, the self fixed as self, the thing fixed as thing, and yet each is supposed to be the other. Reason, essentially the Notion, is directly sundered into itself and its opposite, an antithesis which for that very reason is equally immediately resolved. But when Reason is presented as its own self and its opposite, and is helf fast in the entirely separate moment of this asunderness, it is apprehended irrationally; and the purer the moments of this asunderness, the cruder is the appearance of this content which is either only for consciousness, or only ingenuously expressed by it. The depth which Spirit brings forth from within—but only as far as its picture-thinking consciousness where it lets it remain—and the ignorance of this consciousness about what it really is saying, are the same conjunction of the high and the low which, in the living being, Nature naively expresses when it combines the organ of its highest fulfilment [sic], the organ of generation, with the organ of urination. The infinite judgement, qua infinite, would be the fulfilment [sic] of life that comprehends itself; the consciousness of the infinite judgement that remains [i.e. gets stuck] at the level of picture-thinking behaves as urination.
What Hegel is anticipating is his eventual turn back towards Christianity (now that he has just made a certain turn away from it in his ostensible critique of the Unhappy Consciousness), when by the end of the book he ends up arguing how his metaphysics is the literal truth of what is only the metaphorical truth of Christian theology. What is amazing about this move is how it restores the place of the rhetorical, or at least rhetoricality, in contrast to hundreds of years of literalistic picture-thinking qua knowledge as representation. It goes back even further if you consider Hegel’s subtle alignment with medieval Christian mysticism. What Hegel shakes loose, decades before Nietzsche was even born, is the ascetic ideal. Nietzsche is still necessary later on though, because Hegel does not really take himself seriously enough: even in Hegelianism we idealize the transitory world, which is implicitly an attempt to escape from it that Hegel never makes explicit.
The literal truth Hegel wants to suppose for his metaphysics as opposed the metaphorical truth of otherwise symbolic Christianity, which for the most part looks ludicrous when taken literally (a fairly popular approach), is a sort of lala-land that pragmatists, starting with James want to reject. I know I skip over Emerson, who in his own way rejects the foundationalist lala-land of literal meaning or abstract truth, but not only is he not exactly writing polemics like James kind of is (a good thing, on Emerson’s part, by my read), I’m in no position to distill anything interesting about that right now. What Rorty inherits from the pragmatists and Nietzsche is a love for language and its inescapability in how we talk about truth. One thing to which this leads him, much as with Nietzsche and to a lesser extent with Freud and Lacan, is a romantic view of language that argues for a return to, if not a full on valorization of poetry. For other anti-foundational thinkers, like Bloom, this linguistic turn has meant more modestly returning to texts themselves.
This was Hegel’s creative and not logical response to the philosophers of his time and before, though his thinking otherwise would prove to limit his system in the end. When he simply says (mind you, not argues) in Paragraph 82, “…call to mind the abstract determinations of thought and knowledge as they occur in the consciousness,” he is acting more like a poet than a philosopher typical of his time. In a certain sense, he takes experience in general to be a text, to which he returns us when he just starts interpreting it. The logical necessity, the truth of his project is, as Rorty says of truth in general, a compliment he pays to how well thinking this way, saying these things works for him. That it has and hasn’t worked for others since him has nothing to do with the text he produced, but with whether it has worked for them. I like this return to the text, but it the book, the speech of the analysand, or to what is there in all its stupid ambiguity and debatability.
It’s thinking of the text like this that I was pissed off by Benny Shannon. Professor Shannon, as he’s referred to in the article published in the Daily Mail about the burning-bush story of Exodus being a case of drug-use, is laughable and potentially dangerous as the religious zealot who claims Moses is really (no, seriously, really) talking to God in the burning bush. The story has the air of another Bible-story debunked, and I’m all for giving historical depth to otherwise literary documents, but there is no depth to be had by Professor Shannon’s interpretation. The Exodus, certainly the portion recounted in the burning-bush story, is on fairly shaky historical ground, in terms of outside, contemporary sources talking about it on terms outside of the deeply ambiguous and sometimes fantastic terms of the text itself. Professor Shannon wants to, like religious zealots, take this text as for serious about something that really happened, but wants to say what happened was something else. If we were dealing with a historical document, then I’d have less of a problem with this, but what Shannon is doing is interpreting the meaning (his meaning, his 21st century experimental drug-taking and academic meaning) “of the text” as what for serious is meant in the text itself.
On its face, we can take this as just another interpretation, but in its appeal to a real historical happening about which there are clear meanings, it asks to be nothing less than the word of God. I’m not a Christian or a Jew, but I find something fiendish in this, just as I find something fiendish in interpreting anything absolute in user-supplied meaning of the text. I am with Lacan in this respect, whose big beef with Ego Psychology was its insistence on interpreting the transference (i.e. the imaginary relations) rather than the analysand’s Symbolic context, which is to say the text that is the analysand’s situation. There is nothing particularly dangerous about Shannon’s interpretation, which is why my complaint may seem a bit over-blown, but neither is there anything particularly harmful about interpreting the text the way religious zealot does. What’s at stake for me is the very orientation to the text these interpretations take, or rather don’t take. Neither of them really have anything to do with the text itself, and that in itself is what is dangerous about this kind of thinking. Not having anything to do with the text, but ostensibly grounding themselves “in” it, this sort of thinking is effectively made up, but on dangerously unchecked grounds.
I think the more radically middle path would be give up both the concern for what the text really means, and to return to the text itself. When you hear people start talking about what this or that means, you can be sure as sunday that they’re in lala-land, because it is obvious that if we’re talking about this or that that it means something. It’s when they foreground their description with a statement of what we already know that we should be suspicious, like Zizek is of the Bush Administration’s to up-front talk of torture, and wonder deeply why are you saying this; what do you mean by your foregrounding of what this or that means?