Dead Ends: The Undoing of Hegel’s Comedy

klee comedyPaul Klee, Comedy (1921).

The recent history of philosophy has been marked by a series of non-events. From Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of the end of history to Benjamin Bratton’s recent comments on the ‘revenge of the real,’ the tenor of philosophical fashion has turned from the revelation of new modes of thinking to the delimitation of thought within the rapidly shrinking space of possibilities of the present moment. Time, we are told, is running out, and all notions of human history are being jettisoned to make way for the great cancelation of history itself. In a pithy remark on the coming apocalypse, Bruno Latour summons Hegel’s Geist to stand once more for the sum of humanity’s endeavours, when he writes that “the breath of Spirit is now overcome, surpassed, aufgeheben, intoxicated by carbon dioxide!”[1]

Meanwhile, the apparent death of Spirit is mirrored by the emergence of an unorthodox Hegel, whose writing is no longer understood as the marker of a supremely rational, teleological, and humanist moment in philosophy. Instead, as Spirit chokes on greenhouse gases, the return to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit now reveals an altogether more sombre picture: a fragmented narrative, an anxious absolute, and an aimless movement through the graveyard of Spirit’s precursors. As Gillian Rose once remarked, contemporary philosophy supplanted Hegel’s comedy with a mourning-play without transcendence or resolution—but now this melancholy extends even to recent readings of Hegel himself. To take seriously the loudly proclaimed death of Spirit—as this paper intends to do—it will be necessary to run through these re-evaluations of Spirit, to understand the ramifications of Spirit’s confrontation with its own demise.

1. Mishaps and Mourning

Let’s begin with the end of Hegel’s Phenomenology, where Spirit achieves its maturity in the self-aware and self-acting knowledge of its own being. In the Phenomenology’s brief final chapter, absolute knowing is presented as Spirit’s inheritance of the problems which had been unconsciously explored in in its earlier stages, now made legible as the necessary steps in its development. Far from being an ethereal or supernatural force, Spirit in its fulfilment is nothing except the concrete existence of the rational human community brought to self-recognition. Reflecting Hegel’s statement in the Preface of the book, that the education of Spirit entails the reduction of once world-historic conundrums to the status of exercises for schoolchildren, Spirit in its state of absolute knowing grasps the solemnly interred shapes of its history as the foundational lessons upon which its present being rests.[2] Absolute Spirit reaches its fulfilment in an immanent revelation, which does not point to a higher, transcendent realm, but reveals the divine potential instantiated in the human community.[3]

This revelation retroactively alters the significance of the events and stages which make up the bulk of the Phenomenology, which are now cast as moments in Spirit’s grand journey toward its completion. The narrative movement of Hegel’s work comes into focus only at its climax, when Spirit reaches an awareness of its own follies and the drama of misrecognition which has propelled it on its path. It is for this reason that Gillian Rose declares Hegel a comedic writer, whose work is

“A ceaseless comedy, according to which our aims and outcomes constantly mismatch each other, and provoke yet another revised aim, action and discordant outcome […] Reason, therefore, is comic, full of surprises, of unanticipated happenings, so that comprehension is always provisional and preliminary.”[4]

As adulatory as Rose’s description may be, and as evocative as her description of the power of the comic is, it is worth emphasising the uncertainty and the restlessness of Spirit throughout its journey. Although comic in the last instance, every moment of Spirit is defined not by satisfaction but surprise, nearly always in the form of a negative shock of realisation that shakes Spirit out of its convictions.

Comedy can be cruel, and the comedy of absolute spirit is propelled by moments of absolute cruelty, in which Spirit and its constituent moments are broken down, revealed in their foolishness, and shown to collapse upon themselves in total bereavement for their loss of self-certainty. Hence Hegel’s famous turns of phrase concerning the tribulations of Spirit, such as when natural consciousness reaches its breaking point and loses itself in an unanswerable doubt that leads it onto “the path of despair”—or the experience of acculturation, in which consciousness feels “that every moment of its existence, every bone in its body, has been broken on the wheel.”[5] Let us not forget that these are comic scenes! Like a slapstick actor, Spirit is virtuosic in its spraining of limbs and breaking of bones in pursuit of a more fully realised performance. If this exertion rises to the level of torture, crushing Spirit in its despair, it gleefully cries out with each added pound: “More weight!”[6] History is, of course, what hurts, but perceived from the standpoint of absolute knowing the pain of history is redeemed as the pain of self-discovery and self-transformation that is the product of each misrecognition and misunderstanding.

For Rose, the comedy of absolute spirit is therefore the comedy of an “inaugurated mourning.”[7] Although marked in each of its stages by negativity, despair, suffering, and even death, Spirit in the state of absolute knowing is able to look back over its previous shapes as if they were shades in a “realm of spirits” or images in “a gallery of pictures,” and recognise itself as the inheritor of these exhausted husks.[8] The comic ending of the Phenomenology is therefore not a return to some imaginary wholeness or a reconstitution of an immediate experience, but a recognition of the successive failures that make up the very existence of absolute Spirit. Spirit’s successful mourning of the wounds inflicted upon it entails the symbolic healing of a history which remains broken; the wounds which stung before now sing, as Spirit rises to its Golgotha, and in truly comedic fashion the promise of the new is borne out of the devastation of the old.

2. Dead Ends

Hegel’s comedy is by no means an uninterrupted tale, moving from point A to point B without pause, and has for this reason provoked no small amount of uncertainty as to the coherency of its narrative. As has already been suggested in Rose’s account, the comedy of absolute Spirit is defined by the provisional and changeable nature of its existence. Each stage of Spirit believes itself to be at the end of its journey, settled into an unimpeachable position of access to truth. But every one of these stages is in turn revealed as one-sided or incoherent and is led into a state of dissolution that begets a new form of consciousness. It is little wonder, then, that the conclusion of the Phenomenology has been the subject of scrutiny for any trace of repetitions, disturbances, or other remnants which may yet divert Spirit from its terminus. As Ellen Brinks has noted, the Phenomenology comes to a close not in a state of rest but one of utter disruption: the power of absolute Spirit lies in its absolute negativity; that is, its freedom from any final determination. As Brinks writes:

“The Phenomenology’s ongoing labor consists in the freedom to reject, compulsively, each memory of its history: to forget each appropriation and investment in a particular discourse, one whose subject is destined to fall victim to the revolutionary terror of his own negative capacity.”[9]

Absolute Spirit is the final stage of the Phenomenology not because it brings the work to completion, but because it is radically and irresolvable unfinished, never arriving at a position upon which it may safely stand and survey its domain. Like Benjamin’s Angel of History, Spirit is thrust onwards by the storm of progress, barely grasping the ruins of its own past before the storm buries them beneath further heaps of bones and dust. Unlike the Angel, however, Spirit commands its own negativity to reshape itself and its relation to its past, by erasing and rewriting the narrative of the shapes which preceded it.[10] The end is not an end, because the narrative of Spirit is told anachronistically, out of step with itself and always in danger of revision.[11]

The purely negative power of absolute Spirit poses further problems for its apparent conclusion. Although the shapes of Spirit appear to grow more complex with each iteration, expanding from simple consciousness to self-consciousness to understanding and reason, these expansions in Spirit’s capabilities are made by the contractions and privations of the more rudimentary modes of these capacities. All recourse to presuppositions, to immediate experience of the world, or to unambivalent access to truth, are crushed by doubt until only a purely negative capacity remains. As Rebecca Comay and Frank Ruda suggest, in the final chapter of the Phenomenology:

“[Hegel] invites us to reread the entire Phenomenology as an immense procedure of subtraction: the story as a whole tells of the gradual divestment of every last shred of unelaborated positivity confronting, blocking, and frustrating (but also seducing, placating, and narcotizing) thought […] Hegel’s final purge, at the end of the Phenomenology, takes self-consciousness to the brink of extinction.”[12]

This procedure of subtraction takes place throughout the Phenomenology, but its conscious enactment is learned by Spirit appears quite late in its journey, when it encounters the meaningless death of the French revolutionary Terror. In Hegel’s eyes, the Terror manifests “the destructive energy of the death drive” which annihilates all social life in the name of maintaining the absolute freedom of that life’s participants.[13] Even when the Terror comes to its end, the unity of absolute freedom and absolute negativity remains as the freedom which Spirit experiences as it turns this negativity upon itself.

The negative, subtractive process which propels the entirety of the Phenomenology is in the book’s conclusion made into a conscious act on the part of absolute Spirit, which may willingly sever or distort any part of itself. But this does not necessarily redeem the meaningless death from which Spirit learned of its negative capacity, which haunts absolute Spirit as the foundational violence necessary for its ultimate triumph. Comay goes so far as to say that Hegel “essentially defines history as transgenerational trauma,” in which “there is no beginning that is not already a repetition, no repetition that is not the retrieval of a beginning, no action that is not also the theatrical reenactment of an erasure.”[14] Lacking a capacity to grieve the wounds that compose its being, Spirit repeats the violence which it once unconsciously experienced, repeating endlessly an attempted erasure of itself.

3. A Futureless Hegel?

Is the narrative of the Phenomenology still comic, or is it something else? Or, as Comay and Ruda put the question, “is Hegel a mourner or a melancholic?”[15] In posing this question, Comay and Ruda come to no clear answer, although their interpretation of the Phenomenology indicates an insoluble ambivalence at the heart of Hegel’s text, which has not escaped the attention of other commentators. Indeed, their re-evaluation of the Phenomenology’s narrative has its parallels in other contemporary readings of Hegel’s work which attempt to complicate the comedic tale that Hegel sets for himself. Perhaps the most notable of these are those of Catherine Malabou, whose notion of ‘plasticity’ prioritises the transitional moments of the Phenomenology over its apparent ends, and of Fredric Jameson, who insists upon the ‘organisational problems’ that undermine those same transitions from one chapter of Hegel’s book to the next.[16] Similarly, the emphasis upon the textual structure of the Phenomenology found in the accounts of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Katrin Pahl works to reveal the subtlety of Hegel’s use of language, but also undoes the narrative force of the work as a whole, subordinating the journey toward absolute knowing to the virtuosic performance of Spirit at each stage of its journey.[17] The Phenomenology is on the one hand brought to life as a living, restless text, but on the other hand is undone as a narrative with a discernible end. The price of its ongoing relevance is never letting it come to a close, perpetually repeating its moments without the assurance that they will add up to something approximating Spirit’s absolute knowing.

Here it may be of some use to return to the commentary of Rose, who sees in the unresolved dramas of twentieth-century philosophy a dark counterpoint to the comedy of absolute Spirit. Turning her gaze toward the anti-Hegelian intellectual movements of post-structuralism, Rose sees a resolutely anti-comic impulse in the post-structuralist refusal of all resolutions to and redemptions of Spirit’s chronic misrecognitions. Having misunderstood Spirit’s absolute knowing as “teleological and final,” thinkers such as Derrida and Deleuze set themselves against Hegel by insisting upon the irresolvable contradictions and indissoluble differences that haunt Hegel’s supposed attempts to bring philosophy to a fixed conclusion.[18]

However, these gestures toward the non-teleological and the interminable do not so much escape Hegel’s universal comedy as they sink into a universal anti-comedy which Rose identifies with the trauerspiel—a form of German baroque drama which best translates into English as ‘mourning play’ or ‘funeral lament.’ Most notably theorised by Walter Benjamin as a form of failed, modern tragedy, the trauerspiel is a genre defined by its lack of transcendence, being concerned primarily with the bloody struggles of a creaturely life abandoned by the divine. Crucially for Rose, the trauerspiel’s narrative charts a failure to mourn. Because the violence and deception of the trauerspiel’s plot lacks a transcendent standpoint of redemption:

“It remains baroque melancholia immersed in the world of soulless and unredeemed bodies […] There can be no work, no exploring of the legacy of ambivalence, working through the contradictory emotions aroused by bereavement.”[19]

It is this work of mourning which gives Hegel his comic impetus and which is lacking in contemporary theory, making the trials of reason interminable, the pains of misrecognition untreatable, and imposing the terrors of the trauerspiel upon all thought.

If Rose was able to identify at the end of the twentieth century a division in philosophical impulses between the comedy of a continued Hegelianism and the trauerspiel of new theory, today this sombre genre has embraced Hegel himself. The re-evaluations of the Phenomenology produced in this century have largely sought to uncover the irresolvable and interminable elements in Hegel’s narrative, but have also obscured the intent of Hegel’s work, which examines and explicates the painful course of history so that each broken moment can find its place in a redeemed whole. The act of mourning for history which Hegel undertakes is therefore aberrated and made impossible to complete, condemning his project to the same melancholia that afflicts the theory of our time.

In this respect, these re-readings of Hegel are symptomatic of the present theoretical conjuncture, which sees in history an endless procession of foreclosures on thought, action, expression, and history itself. If today Hegel is either to be rejected as a thinker of a failed modernity or salvaged as a writer of interminable mourning, it is only because the absolute comedy that he proclaimed has grown so unimaginable in our sullen historical (yes, historical!) moment of stasis, inevitability, and extinction. The failure to mourn the horrors of the twentieth century which Rose diagnosed in contemporary philosophy is today compounded by a pre-emptive melancholia, which sees in the future an inevitable sequence of disasters and in the present a heap of fossils in the making.

Setting aside the apparent hopelessness of our today’s prevailing philosophies, we may still modestly ask: Can the comic in Hegel be retrieved? Turning to Rose, the solution to this impasse must not be a simple return to the triumphant vision of Hegel and neither may it be a persistence in aberrated mourning. What is required is a reading of Hegel which inaugurates mourning—which finds its comic ending through its seemingly interminable wanderings, not against them. But this would mean finding a way beyond the frame of present philosophy and its naturalisation of unredeemed death in the form of the ends of philosophy, humanity, and history. And yet, as Hegel well knew, only in despair, even a despair unto death, may the hard work of absolute comedy be made.


[1] Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge: Polity, 2017), 39.

[2] G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. Terry Pinkard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), §28; §808.

[3] “The Divine here in its community, as the substance and aim of human individuality, brought into existence as something concrete, summoned into action and put in movement.” G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on Fine Art, trans, T.M. Knox (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 1162. See also Gillian Rose’s discussion of this passage in Mourning Becomes the Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 64.

[4] Rose, Mourning, 72

[5] Hegel, Phenomenology, §78; §538.

[6] “The Phenomenology emphasizes repeatedly that the formation, or Bildung of the subject means ‘the loss of its own self’ […] The subject in despair loses its head, every bone is broken, it self-digests, [but] every time it is crushed, it cheerfully starts anew.” Katrin Pahl, Tropes of Transport (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2017) 141.

[7] Rose, Mourning, 71.

[8] Hegel, Phenomenology, §808.

[9] Ellen Brinks, Gothic Masculinity (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2003), 40.

[10] Walter Benjamin, Selected Works, vol. 4, eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Belknap, 2003), 392-3.

[11] As Brinks puts it, “in Hegel, the subject’s efforts to write a legitimizing history are doomed. The heir creates his precursors retroactively from what he no longer is” (41).

[12] Rebecca Comay and Frank Ruda, The Dash (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2018), 83.

[13] Rebecca Comay, Mourning Sickness (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 146.

[14] Comay, Mourning, 86; 148.

[15] Comay and Ruda, The Dash, 70.

[16] Catherine Malabou, The Future of Hegel, trans. Lisabeth During (London: Routledge, 2005), 193; Fredric Jameson, The Hegel Variations (London: Verso, 2010), 6-26.

[17] Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Hegel’s Dialectic, trans. P. Christopher Smith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976). For the full citation of Pahl’s Tropes of Transport, see footnote 6.

[18] Rose, Mourning, 72.

[19] Rose, Mourning, 69; 70.

2 thoughts on “Dead Ends: The Undoing of Hegel’s Comedy”

  1. It’s good to read something from you again. A rare elegance and lucidity, as always. I’ll be sending this to one of my professors, as you both seem to share philosophical commitments. I did have a question about you second to last sentence — “But this would mean finding a way beyond the frame of present philosophy and its naturalisation of unredeemed death in the form the ends of philosophy, humanity, and history” — is there supposed to be an ‘of’ between ‘form’ and ‘the,’ as in, naturalized death takes the form of proclaiming the end of philosophy, humanity, and history?


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