“Hegel’s Logic Today” Conference Summary

by David Rambo, PhD Candidate, Duke Graduate Program in Literature


November 5, 2015

Fredric Jameson, “Hegel and Marxist Literary Criticism”

Jameson began his talk with reference to Adorno’s remark: we can never be sure of Hegel’s object, what he is discussing. So, we need an imaginary strategem by which to read the Science of Logic and, hopefully, by which to recognize Hegel’s merit in present philosophy. For we know today that Pierre Macherey’s question, Hegel or Spinoza, is no longer a question. They are at once the same and different: two systematic visions of total immanence founded not on a transcendental subject or categories of mind, but on reason. Idealism, Totality, Negativity: from the perspective of immanence, Hegel is innocent of these our contemporary perspective’s three great sins. The strategy Jameson proposed is to consider the Logic, the book, as a language experiment with narrative as its common form. Narrative’s sense of happening subsumes the beginning and end under a unified idea. It gives an order to an external temporality of indifferent moments. In the autopoiesis of categories, we witness a narrative of something we might want to call Logos.

Since it is neither (or not yet at this stage, in this first “circle of circles”) Nature nor subjective consciousness, can we take Hegel’s Science of Logic behind the Anthropocene as young philosophers are doing today? Like the Big Bang of our cosmos, Hegel’s Logic begins with a logical big bang, a decision that effects pure thought and from which the categories develop themselves. This cosmological analogy, Jameson pointed out, helps to avoid characterizing the Logic as a hierarchy of forms. We can think of the more than 120 categories in terms of the first three minutes of the Big Bang: highly compressed and also a process. Whether they are synchronous or successive is indiscernible, yet still an open question. And as has been emphasized by today’s working philosophers, the origination of the physical universe can only be thought, not pictured in accordance with our vague experience of sensuous reality. Just so, the cosmological analogy of the Hegelian Begriff in its process of self-determination takes a narrative approach by privileging the transitions as what constitute the heart of the book. This narrative does not get underway until the category of becoming arises beyond the vanishing point of Being and Nothing’s non-relational transition into one another. Verstand, the Understanding, believes these two can mix, and so it fails to arrive at a truly new category that would sublate Being and Nothing. But Vernunft, Reason, as the self-determining process of the categories, proceeds through a genuine sublation, or Aufheben, beyond the reifying strictures of Verstand. The opening therefore is not yet a narrative, for it is an unproductive vanishing. With the Concept’s intervention into its own ceaseless floundering in picture-thinking, the Logic begins to present determination, however nascent. Hegel’s narrative begins with the initiation of determination after the indeterminate immediacy of Being and Nothing.

In his next example, Jameson framed the sequence in the Doctrine on Essence—from difference and identity through diversity and opposition to contradiction and falling to ground—in terms of social mobilization. Consider liberal politics’ tolerance for multiculturalism: this is diversity. But then it runs into contradiction, such as when class disrupts feminism. From a punctual contradiction, the various factions may fall to their ground—culture in general, let us say—and move into an entire social transition. For Hegel, Grund is foundation and cause. To fall to ground means to break apart, to dis-integrate, to fall to pieces. Mephistopheles has a line in Faust that, said Jameson, “Hegel must have relished”: everything that comes into existence must have enough value to deserve to go out of existence.

As for Marxist aesthetics, the inevitable deficiency of all such readings occurs when passing from literary analysis to a presentation of context—like the ending of The Wizard of Oz with its bathos of unhappy revelation. Referring to his recent essay on William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Jameson asked whether Hegel’s Logic might redirect our attention away from the literalization of picture-thinking that is cyberspace and simstim. Both of these cyberpunk technologies transcend human phenomenology in the context of global finance. Cyberspace, especially, depicts a second-order abstraction, one that abstracts from the already abstract exchange relation of commodities and monetary commensurability. What is the ground for this novel? When ground turns into condition, “Essence must appear.” So too with all the conditions out of which Neuromancer appears. In Hegel’s text, the thing appears and with it the further development of the categories necessary for the thing’s determinations. Narrative’s material, then, is not the stuff of picture-thinking, but the apparition of all of its conditions in their reciprocal reflection. It possesses as sublated its own ground-relation of grounded and ground in the unity of the text, and continues with the work of determination. We could say that narrative proceeds beyond a mere reflection on its conditions, since in order to appear its conditions have already fallen to ground and bequeathed a further determination: appearance. Neuromancer, Jameson proposed, is not a mimesis of our situation, but of our symptoms.

Mladen Dolar, “Being and MacGuffin”

A note on the title: a “MacGuffin” is a term popularized by Hitchcock. It refers to a nothing or a nobody in a film that nevertheless moves the plot in many ways.

Dolar gave us a sharp meditation on the beginning of beginning in Hegel’s Science of Logic, which leads in a very roundabout manner to the indeterminate immediacy of beginning, of Being. Paradoxically, the four preliminary texts claim to dispense with preliminaries. These textual pieces that precede the first page of the Science of Logic proper, as if Hegel were procrastinating, testify to the difficulty of starting. Before beginning, Hegel tells us that we cannot presuppose anything, for thought must give itself its own object, and the method will work itself out concurrently. Why provide such preliminaries at all? And how can one begin, let alone write a preamble, if one is always underway? The preliminaries are unnecessary, and yet they must be done. Absolute necessity therefore parallels absolute superfluity. Thought has always already begun, yet there must have been a start.

We see this circularity in the Phenomenology, which Rebecca Comay helpfully characterizes as an anti-Bildungsroman that is not an accumulation but a destruction of experience. Absolute Knowledge circles back to sense, having realized that the truth was produced along the way. Or as Kojève puts it, Absolute Knowing is non-sense: there is nothing else there in the truth since the antecedent process dissolved experience altogether. This sets the stage for the Science of Logic, which begins with a cut that effectively—and, again, paradoxically—eliminates all that led up to it.

Hegel, like Spinoza, starts with answers and only then follows up with questioning. Yet one of the preliminary texts is titled with a question: “With what must the science begin?” A question, even in self-questioning, “barricades itself,” said Dolar, and cannot question its own position. Being, however, is not an answer to a question. Hegel calls Being “an empty word.” It is an anti-hero, meaningless. Any predication is too much. The Logic can begin with a positive, Being, only via negation: it is indeterminate and immediate. One must therefore start thinking undialectically, in an act of isolation. “In its indeterminate immediacy it [Being] is equal only to itself. It is also not unequal relatively to an other” (Miller translation, p.82). By calling Being indeterminate, Hegel opens a third way between positive and negative judgements. “Being, pure Being,—” is a repetition; it cuts the sentence into two and forecloses predication.

But this fails—for by saying nothing more, Hegel does say more. The minimal rhetorical device of repetition is the addition of nothing more. Being insists, it stammers, without, or prior to, being. So Hegel says the same of Nothing: “Nothing, pure nothing: it is simply equality with itself, complete emptiness, absence of all determination and content—undifferentiatedness in itself” (82). So the same repetition is repeated twice, and they repeat each other. But since it stops at two, it is not quite a repetition. Perhaps because “Nothing” in the original German has a definite article where Being does not, we might wonder whether this is an incipient movement towards determination. The content is the same, but the form has changed. A split has been introduced into the same absence of determination, which marks the insubstantial indifference of Being. Contrary to Miller’s translation, Hegel treats “being and nothing” as a singular, not plural, subject: “Pure being and pure nothing [is], therefore, the same” (82). Hegel refuses the proper grammatical subject, which at once states and erases the difference between the two subjects.

At this point, Dolar began to gesture beyond this beginning’s transition between Being and Nothing, a transition that does not establish a relation. The present is always based on an accomplishment already provided. Finally, we discover that the immediate is the passage into mediacy, into becoming. It has already dissolved itself. As was the case for the preliminaries, explanation at this stage is unnecessary and can only come too late, after what it seeks to explain has run its course. This makes sense given that at this earliest of stages in the Logic, the Concept is prior to determinate negation. Relation, or determinateness, arises only after this initial stage of “abstract immediate negation.” And yet, the beginning ultimately cannot be superseded. We never get rid of this undialectical and unanalysable beginning. It is unsublateable and unsuppressible. Thought itself fittingly mirrors this inception of a science of pure categories: the decision to think must already have taken place prior to beginning to think, and yet what is a more conscious act than such a decision?

Rebecca Comay and Frank Ruda, “The Dash—The Other Side of Absolute Knowledge”

What happens between the two dashes: one at the end of the Phenomenology after a modified quote from the poetry of Friedrich Schiller; the other in the first section of the Science of Logic. Through this question, Comay and Ruda proposed a new reading of the relationship of these two books as a non-relation, a relationship that is neither continuous nor discontinuous, and that privileges neither text over the other. Typical accounts of the Phenomenology’s relationship to the Logic explain their relation away. For example, to deem the Phenomenology a practical or applied version of the Logic suppresses the differences in content and in form in favor of a unified, indeed identical, work extending across two texts. Their relation thus disappears into an external fixing of both texts into a single body.

The traditional reading of Hegel focuses on internal laws of rationality. Whereas the contemporary reading views Hegel as a philosopher of human practice, for which the Logic provides the rules of all normativity. Yet both accounts mistake the Science of Logic as if it were written by Kant. For Left Hegelians, one must go back to real life as depicted by the Phenomenology. There cannot, according to Feuerbach, be an Entschluss (a resolve or decision) without practical consequences. He notes the anonymity of this resolve, but labels it a problem. Habermas similarly criticizes Hegel for lacking actual historical actors. For Right Hegelians, only the rational is Real, not the seemingly real of phenomenal existence. They seek to defend all that is attacked by the left wing. They thought of philosophy as another branch of positive science, and whose object is “what is.” This is always historical insofar as the Logic, for the right wing, is a formal tool and prerequisite for the real sciences: the philosophies of Nature and spirit. The Entschluss, for instance, has its historical and political example in the arbitrary resolve of the monarch.

Comay and Ruda propose a non-relation between the two books as a speculative relation or proposition: Phenomenology as subject and Science of Logic as predicate that do not go together. They are two without being dyadic, and are to be read as a Möbius strip. As one reads the Logic, one also continuously engages the dissolution of experience effected by the Phenomenology. Contrary to what is usually called Hegel’s mystical shell and deemed regressive, the intense abstraction of Hegelian philosophy that follows on the heels of the Phenomenology is actually his rational kernel and the most radical element of the system. The self-closure of the Phenomenology is opened up doubly: first, by a suggestion in that text of Spirit’s evacuation from the sphere of appearance; second, by another resolve to begin in the Science of Logic.

This brings us to the dash: a pause in and for thought; an interruption in thought; a suspension of thought’s engagement, but beyond the confines of phenomenological appearance. “Being, pure Being,—”: the dash is meant to take thought to the impossibility of experience. It combines hesitation and acceleration, correction and confirmation (though not necessarily in the same instance). Hegel shifts from language’s graphical and lexical/semantic overdetermination—from the polysemy of certain German words that Hegel celebrates—to the performative asemy of the dash. It is not an elementary corpuscle, but an indefinitely divisible (hence multiplicable) punctuation mark. Unlike other punctuation, the dash may be unitary or paired like a parenthetical aside. Comay and Ruda argue that this ambiguity of one and two marks the difference between Phenomenology of Geist and Science of Logic.

With Absolute Knowing, Spirit rises from the ashes of figurate thinking’s destruction. Why close the Phenomenology with Schiller’s poetry, specifically the formless image of foam? Consider how Hegel modifies these two lines. He removes an invocation of divine lack as well as the typographical gap between God and men. Schiller’s verticality: “Foams up to him—infinitude” is smoothed over by Hegel: “foams forth for Him his own infinitude.”

We can think the dash in terms of subtraction: Phenomenology as a giant dash that ultimately eliminates consciousness. Or the dash as a hyphen: not “logy” but “-logy.” From this perspective, the Science of Logic functions as a suffix treated independently of further qualification.

The dash invokes a resolve to begin; it embodies the movement from “Being” to “pure Being.” It generates and interrupts that process of generation.