Desiring Hegel

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Book Review: Subjects of Desire, Judith Butler (Columbia University Press, 2012) and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit Stephen Houlgate (Bloomsbury, 2013)


Originally published in 1987, this new edition reflects the renewal of interest in Hegel and the overcoming of the obstacle that has for so long bedevilled an appreciation of his tremendous philosophical achievement. The obstacle is the label that has attached itself to Hegel as the omnivorous philosopher of totality, the thinker who espouses the holy grail of a final and all-encompassing state that unites thought and reality. The rejection of this prevalent view is the basis for Butler’s understanding of Hegel as a philosopher of antagonism who recognises the impossibility of a grand and harmonious reconciliation between knowledge and the subject. Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit details the journey of the subject attempting to reach a point where its sought-after plenitude and knowledge of the world are at one, but this is a journey defined by its failure.  The absolute is the recognition of failure and of the inherent antagonism that robs being of the oneness that it would wish to embody.  The satisfaction that is sought is kept at bay by the restless play of negation.

What, though, is meant by the negative, where does it reside and why cannot the subject find a final satisfaction for desire? Reality as we understand it has to be seen as a construct in the sense that Kant propounded – shaped and given form by our conceptual apparatus — but there is no solid kernel resting in the background behind our horizon of meaning. There is only what Žižek describes as a ‘chaotic non-all proto reality’, the virtual multiplicities and proliferating pluralities that are evoked in the language of quantum physics. It is reality itself that is out-of-synch, riven with gaps and discontinuities, and its non-unity is the ultimate ground and truth behind the assertion that ‘there is no big Other’.  Butler, writing two years before Žižek’s first major book in English (The Sublime Object of Desire) appeared on the scene, does not acknowledge or rely on such an ontology in her introductory chapters in Hegel but it helps in understanding why she lays out the ground in the way she does.

Butler might not state it explicitly but there is a clear sense in her account that a felt rupture in being is a consequence of the emergence of a subjectivity that reflects on its own existence vis-à-vis a world of alterity. I am conscious of my self as a self that is part of the world but also, peculiarly and perplexingly, this self seems capable of a detachability from it, able to think about the contents of the world as if they are there outside of me. Well of course the world is there outside of me, no one is denying that simple truth, but just as certainly the physical matter that accounts for my self-consciousness is at one level the same physical matter that accounts for the external world. Where Butler and Zizek agree is in recognising the importance of the gap between the self and a world external to the self but a gap that at the same time is just as much an internal split, one that arises because the subject is a part of this world. To say that the subject finds itself in a world and is constituted by this prior relatedness means that self-consciousness is mediated by this relatedness.  Such a mediation, in turn, means that it has to find itself through what appears to be different, for only by constituting itself through reflection can it come to self-understanding.

To descend from what might appear to be the philosophically sublime to the recognisably mundane, do we not define ourselves through what is different from us — by what we wear, decorate our rooms with, choice of friends – and what, after all, is left of us were all this to be bracketed away? Our idiosyncrasies, passions, private thoughts and such like would be left, surely, but it is hard to think how these could sustain themselves were differences to be extirpated. It is only in the process of finding itself through reflection, a reflection that relies on difference, that the subject is constituted.  In Hegel’s inimitable prose:

I distinguish myself from myself, and in doing so, I am directly aware that what is distinguished from myself is not different from me. I, the self-same being, repel myself from myself; but what is posited from me, or as unlike me, is immediately, in being so distinguished, not a distinction for me. It is true that consciousness of an “other,” of an object in general, is itself necessarily self-consciousness, a reflectedness-into-self, consciousness of itself in its otherness.

He begins here by expressing what we sense when our consciousness of self is felt to be somehow outside of, or different in some vitally important respect, from the rest of our body while obviously remaining a part of it (‘I distinguish myself from myself’).  Self-consciousness allows us to view ourselves as distinct even though we are equally aware that this observing belongs to what is observed (‘aware that what is distinguished from myself is not different from me’). The second sentence now slides into an extension of this, encompassing whatever particulars we attribute to and observe in the world: the positing of something as different to us, not-us, is a negative (‘repel myself from myself’) but, in a way that would seem to undermine this, it is also a positive (‘in being so distinguished, [is] not a distinction for me’. The conclusion to this apparent paradox is drawn in the final sentence: in articulating a difference between consciousness and a world this difference is not purely a matter of what is external because there is an internal relation which implicates consciousness in what is observed to be different. One part of matter, what we call self-consciousness, reflects on itself – i.e. matter – both differentiating itself from it while recognising it is a part of itself (‘a reflectedness-into-self, consciousness of itself in its otherness’).

What place does desire have in this? On the face of it, desire has an arbitrary and animal dimension and the philosopher would like to think it can be domesticated, gentrified by rationality, so that it serves to enhance appetite without the dangerous unruliness that lurks within. Desire is often thought of as a threat to moral conduct — and not just because we may desire to act in a way that is not good.  For even where conduct is morally correct its substance may amount to little more than the successful repression of a desire to act otherwise. If this is the case then it is only the effectiveness of strenuous authority that ensures morally correct conduct. Interesting territory no doubt but desire in Hegel is something else altogether. Desire is the subject seeking to overcome and repair the breach that has opened up through self-consciousness and the means to this is the assimilating unto itself of what is other. In this way, what is different will accrue to the self and become an immanent part of the subject. Desire is self-consciousness seeking identity and knowledge by trying to align things with the subject’s wishes. Were this to be achieved, the breach would be healed because in the movement of desire self-consciousness, as Hegel puts it, ‘destroys the independent object and thereby gives itself the certainty of itself’.  Satisfaction comes from making what is external its own, consuming it, and thereby the subject is sufficient to itself. But such satisfaction is short-lived, it demands renewal and gives rise to further desires.

Desire does not occupy much space in The Phenomenology of Spirit and this makes it all the more extraordinary how it caught the interest of later thinkers and influenced them in so many different ways. The sub-title of Butler’s book – Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France – indicates clearly her concern with how the theme of desire was taken up in France by pre- and post-war thinkers, principally Kojève, Lacan, Hyppolite, Sartre and Foucault, and reworked by them to orientate their own philosophical trajectories. In their different ways, Butler shows, they wrestle with desire’s impossible ambition to unite what is discrepant and thereby attain a lasting harmony.  To take one general example, consider how language articulates desire but also defeats it. The word intervenes between subject and object, murdering the thing as Hegel put it, dissociating the object from its rich entailment within the world by elevating and endowing parts of it with the illusory status of autonomy and self-sufficiency. Desire thus translates into loss and estrangement; something is awaited that remains buried within negation and which is incapable of appearing. Desire is never spoken but only makes itself felt in language’s gaps and interstices; Lacan  identifies this space as one of ‘metonymy’ — ‘ It is there that what we call desire crawls, slips, escapes, like the ferret’ – because of the subject’s restless analogizing of something lost with an object that nostalgically comes to represent it. This is object little a and for Lacan it promises deliverance for the languishing desire of a lost body:

What am ‘‘I’’?  ‘‘I’’ am in the place from which a voice is heard clamouring, ‘‘the universe is a defect in the purity of Non-Being’’.

Lacan developed his account of desire in a way that at times rhetorically opposes itself to what he mistakenly sees as the self-transparent subject found in Hegel. Butler corrects this misreading, pointing out how the subject in Hegel does not know what it wants, while also showing what Lacan acknowledges as his lasting debt to Hegel.

Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit Stephen Houlgate (Bloomsbury, 2013)

Butler’s book assumes a certain level of acquaintance with Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and for the reader who lacks this acquaintance there is the difficulty of following her exposition. The real difficulty, then, is where to turn for a useful introduction not necessarily to the whole of Hegel but certainly to the early chapters of the Phenomenology and in particular the paragraphs there that deal with desire.

Given that we are talking here only about a few paragraphs, the ideal guide will focus on the early sections of the Phenomenology, pay due attention to a discussion of desire and assume no prior knowledge of Hegel. Up until now, such a guide has been hard to find for even though there are good introductory guides like Robert Stern’s in the Routledge Philosophy Guidebook series they do not always maintain the level of close reading, one that resists straying into broader issues of interpretation and/or historical background that a newcomer is seeking.

Stephen Houlgate’s guide is undoubtedly based on years of patiently guiding students through the Phenomenology at Warwick University and this pedagogical intent is its great strength and virtue. It concentrates on the first four chapters of Hegel’s book and succeeds admirably in setting out how the logical nature of the arguments unpack themselves. This allows the reader to concentrate on the task of following what Hegel is saying in particular paragraphs without having to grapple with larger questions of interpretation. Learning how to read and follow Hegel is a challenge in itself and Houlgate recognises this by setting out clearly what is being said and how, having said something, Hegel then proceeds to undermine it by unpicking aspects of the previous argument. Readers tend to be either fascinated or repelled by Hegel’s prose: tortuous and elusive to the point where every reader will at some stage throw his work aside in exasperation, the only way to proceed is slowly and with fortitude; and by containing the field to that of desire, and with the help of Houlgate, one can turn to Butler with some confidence.

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One Response

  1. sonofstan

    March 26, 2013 6:04 pm

    Interesting. I remember liking Butler’s book, but not being able to give enough time to it – much get it out again. Have you read Gillian Rose on Hegel at all?