The Kernel of Negativity or Hegelian potpourri


/1/ – Hegel’s schoolroom

Hegel has had more than a fistful of detractors (Nietzsche, Heidegger, Kierkegaard) and even his apparent supporters (Marx in particular) are heavily critical of both the major tenants and minor details of his philosophical system. It is well noted how Marx believed that Hegel was ‘standing on his head’ when it came to his concept of dialectics. Marx criticized Hegel for putting the ideal before the material, for stating, in a pseudo Platonic way, that the material was simply a poor reflection of the ideal, of the spirit. Furthermore, Marx argued that ultimately material situations determine the cause of revolutions, and not some pseudo spectral force.

Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s outstanding film Half Nelson has, at its core, the question of dialectical change. What forces are required for change to occur, how is change possible? How does the new or novel appear?

Half Nelson

Dan is a half burned out high school teacher of history in the Bronx. To the dismay of the school’s principal, instead of focusing entirely on ‘the civil rights folder,’ he tries to teach his students that the dialectic is the engine of history.

We learn immediately that Dan has a serious cocaine problem that wavers from occasional to chronic. The driving tension of the film is when his favorite student Drey (played amazingly by Shareeka Epps) discovers him holding a crack pipe in a toilet stall so intoxicated he cannot even stand for more than a moment. The film interrogates the idea of influence, particularly on a child, as Drey has a drug addicted teacher/coach/mentor (Dan) and a drug dealing father figure (Frank) while her mother is absent because of having to constantly work double shifts. In an odd way both Frank and Dan vie for control of Drey though at the same time both are aware that neither one should be telling her what to do.

Alongside the battle for Drey we also get a fairly brief but painfully telling view of Dan’s family life. One terribly upsetting moment is when at dinner Dan mentions that he is teaching his students dialectics and that ‘it’s a theory of change’ his father looks at him coldly, already half drunk, and says “Tell me about change Dan.” The whole scene radiates with the how their non-relationship is mediated through substance abuse that neither one seems willing to admit.
(The question of whether people can actually change is brought up again and again and comes up often when discussing addiction.)

To return to Drey, the forces in her life are questionable, half absent, and, as people, seem unable to change themselves despite the consequences that they experienced (Dan ruins his relationship with his girlfriend, is killing himself and Frank continues dealing drugs despite the fact that it put Drey’s brother in jail). Individual people are rarely, if ever, considered in terms of dialectical forces. More often than not dialectical forces are assumed to be large social forces and do not waste time with individuals.

The question of large scale dialectics is discussed in the film as well Throughout Half Nelson Dan’s students give short reports on various historical incidents such as prison uprisings, the assassination of Harvey Milk, race riots and so forth. But a close look at these events, as well as Dan and Frank’s limitations, shows that the circumstances themselves do not explain revolutionary change. In regards to the limitations of Marx’s dialectic theorists, most notably Althusser, brought in psychoanalysis to attempt to explain one’s draw to fascism over revolution, of painful political quietism over work for the better. There is a split consensus whether psychoanalysis lives up to the task.

/2/ – ‘Assume the mistake to the end!’ or Leonard Cohen as Hegelian

The discombobulated documentary Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man contains a few interesting biographical moments intermixed with other artists performing their versions of Cohen’s songs. (The end of the film is particularly strange where, in an almost Lynchian way, Cohen performs with U2 as his backup band). In one of the few interviews with Cohen he discusses a particular passage from the Bhagavad Gita where just before the battle the one leader is told, as he sees his teachers standing across from him, that he could not control the circumstances that led him to this point that he is making manifest the will of the deity Later on Cohen makes the comment about how the attempt at the masterpiece is the masterpiece.

In addition to his short remarks, several of his songs contain lyrics that themselves have Hegelian overtones. In the song “The Traitor” Cohen sings

“The judges said you missed it by a fraction
rise up and brace your troops for the attack
Ah the dreamers ride against the men of action
Oh see the men of action falling back”

Such a passage resonates with Žižek’s assertion in regards to the common misunderstanding of Hegel’s conceptualization of spirit. The passage can be read as validating the radical materialism of the dreamers, of the dream. By way of Hegel Žižek seeks to undermine the classic opposition of idealism and materialism and ends up with a kind of theological materialism.

Thinking in terms of ‘the attempt is the masterpiece’ one can take a brief look at Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit when he discusses phrenology in relation to spirit. The strange notion of production of one’s nature, in man ways, speaks to the strangeness of spirit and Žižek’s theological materialism. In the latter pages of the ‘Observing Reason’ section of the aforementioned text, Hegel discusses the complex relationship between the actuality of being and the self consciousness of being. Hegel writes: “since the individual is at the same time only what he has done, his body is also the expression of himself which he has himself produced; it is at the same time a sign, which has not remained an immediate face, but something through which the individual only makes known what he really is, when he sets his original nature to work” (p. 185-186). Hegel, later articulating this point through phrenology, is attempting to articulate the materiality of spirit, that spirit is only ever material.

Now, to bring us back onto topic, Hegel is not simply (seemingly contradictorily for most) the superiority of the material, because, as he points out, pure being is death, and that that death, as the unconscious act, as the very negativity of being (p. 270). It is not difficult to see how Žižek draws a connection between Hegel and Lacan and in particular the notion of death drive. But more important than this is the concept of minimal difference, that almost imperceptible gap between the materiality and spirit which is central to Žižek’s theological materialism.

/3/ – To dreams…

To bring things back to the smaller dynamics of dialectics, as mentioned in the above section on Half Nelson, one could take a look at Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep. In several ways the film seems to embody the concept of minimal difference – the difference between the main character’s names (Stéphane and Stéphanie) all the way to the near pointlessness of the 1 second time machine. The strange concept of ‘Parallel Synchronized Randomness’ connects this directly to the concept of the sexual relationship and Lacan’s ‘There is no sexual relationship’ which is epitomized by the film’s ending. When Stéphane has decided to return to Mexico, he makes one last final stop to say goodbye to Stéphanie. In an act of sad desperation he throws himself on her bed and refuses to leave. In one last dream sequence, Stéphane pictures the two of them riding off on Golden Boy (they horse she created and that he animated with an engine, think back to Hegel’s spirit) and then sail away together. Essentially the movie refuses either the happy or sad ending, but instead points to the difficulty of any sense of ending or permanency.

One might be inclined to bring up a stereotype about the different views of sex according to a feminine vs masculine conception. The story goes that women would rather have their partner think of them while physically sleeping with another whereas a man would rather posses the body while his partner’s mind wanders, dreaming of another. The film as a whole plays with the interplay of dreams and ‘reality’ pointing out the necessity that one has for the other. The synthesis of the two, if there can be said to be any, is not the naive Hegelian view of a fusing but a highlighting of the universal that binds them together – a kind of radical negativity. There is a kind of reverse side to this stupid romantic determinism too that is often attributed to a masculine kind of disposition. The extreme version of this might be best found in the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup where Groucho’s character says over the radio:

“Calling All Nations! Calling All Nations! This is Rufus T. Firefly, coming to you through the courtesy of the Enemy. We’re in a mess, folks, we’re in a mess! Rush to Freedonia! 3 men and 1 woman are trapped in a building – send help at once! If you can’t send help, send 2 more women! Make it 3 more women!”

Alenka Zupancic’s brilliant reading of Molière’s Don Juan in her text Ethics of the Real can further this odd logic of excess and negativity. In regards to his limitlessness as a seducer she writes “Don Juan points out that the change he seeks is not a new woman but a ‘new conquest.’ The identity of the object of this conquest is of minor importance here” (p. 131). So if it is not the unique characteristics of each woman that Don Juan is essentially ‘collecting’ then what is it that he is ‘adding up?’ Following Lacan, Zupancic points out that since ‘Woman doesn’t exist’ Don Juan is attempting to appreciate a sliver of the non-existence of woman as a form of being. As Zupancic discusses, it is not Don Juan’s former lovers who hate him or come after him but the men. Don Juan makes ‘symbolic ghosts’ of the women because he refuses to acknowledge the shame of an unwed woman committing sexual acts.

Zupancic’s point is not only that Don Juan sees women as women, instead of their particular symbolic configuration (mother, daughter, nun etc), but that he sees something inherently valuable in the generic being of woman. This is what makes him a threat to patriarchal society, because that form of being is something that must be disavowed for patriarchy to sustain itself.

/4/ – To return to us…

To return, finally, to the question of the new or novel, one should already see the Hegelian/Žižekian answer. The novel appears essentially by ‘stacking’ negativity, by amplifying the very empty negativity of being, a kind of nuclear pile of negation. The only actions by which we make a radical difference occur when we act for seemingly no reason, or it is caused by an excess of the supposedly material conditions which cause change a la Marx. The incredibly painful difficulty of Half Nelson is simply the why of action and how of change when it comes to a single individual. Dan cannot contemplate the gap between his own existence and the grand machinery of historical change that he endlessly praises.

Such a jump can only be possibly through the awry look, the acknowledgment that it is the emptiness of things that allows for a kind of creation, that all creation is essentially ex nihilo. The only way for change, whether it be on the micro or macro scale, necessitates a certain ‘clearing of the field,’ a certain destruction or subtraction (to validate Badiou’s term) in order for the novel to pierce through the foggy mess of the ordinary. And such a destruction, such a subtraction requires that one not become too enamored by the mesmerizing clank of history’s engine.

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