The Last Laugh: Hegel’s Catastrophic Comedy

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Francisco de Goya, Loyalty (c. 1816-19).

I. Introduction: An Absolute Comedy of Spirit?

Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit has long been described as a work of comedy, propelled by misunderstandings that lead gradually and painfully to the reconciliation of its warring parties in a higher unity. In the book’s opening chapter there is the farcical situation of ‘natural consciousness,’ which believes itself in possession of an immediate, sensuous certainty about its reality, is repeatedly embarrassed, and is made to stumble from one mishap to the next on its path of despair. Throughout the chapters on ‘Reason’ and ‘Spirit’ we encounter paired figures—such as the heartful and the conceited, the virtuous and the cynical, the faithful and the enlightened, the beautiful souls and those they accuse—who are set at odds with one another, voice their right to condemn one another, and speak past one another until they happen upon some hidden, happy truth that unites them as one. The entire chapter on ‘Religion,’ with which Hegel ends his narrative, might be described as a retelling of human history in the mode of a divine comedy, in which the holy spark is revealed not on high but in the human community “as something concrete, summoned into action and put in movement.”[1] As Gillian Rose remarks, the Phenomenology functions as an “absolute comedy” for the modern era, which seeks out the necessary steps by which the sufferings of history can be redeemed.[2] For this comedy to be absolute it must be capable of accounting for the whole range of historical phenomena, both good and ill, granting them a place in a narrative that progresses by way of its bad turns just as much—if not more so—than its good ones.[3]

To describe the Phenomenology as a comedy is for this reason not an unambiguous designation of its genre, as it bears directly upon the philosophical stakes of the work and the sort of world that Hegel purports to describe in its pages. Indeed, we should not let the comedic course of the Phenomenology obscure the deep ambiguity of comedy itself in Hegel’s narrative of world history, in which it appears at two significant moments of historical rupture. The first of these is presented in the Phenomenology when Hegel describes the end of classical life, when the laws of the city and the gods had become laughable, and the arts of comedy and satire stepped in to salve the wounds of a dying culture. The second is found in the Lectures on Fine Art, in which comedy is presented as the last of the modern, romantic arts, and signals the end of art itself as an independent field of work. In both cases, comedy is positioned at moments of crisis, when the substance of a culture has become insubstantial, when the old ways of thinking and living have become defunct, but into which no new form of life has yet emerged. As we will see in more detail in a moment, rather than a sign of a flourishing, living culture, comedy is for Hegel a marker of cultural exhaustion.

The repeated moments of comedy—one ancient and one modern—cannot but disturb, because they direct us toward the rift at the core of Hegel’s account of modernity, which is at once ancient and incomplete. In respect to its antiquity, modernity for Hegel can only have begun two millennia ago, with the end of the classical era and the death of its ethical form of life. In the place of the ancient ethical life, as Hegel tells it, emerged the dominion of abstract law, propped up by the invention of the legal person, which has continued down from the Roman empire to the present day. In this respect, our modernity is already ancient, and to draw a phrase from the subtitle of Gillian Rose’s Broken Middle, Hegel’s comedic project is one which must draw us “out of our ancient society” and into the light of a new historical epoch.[4] As regards its incompletion, Hegel’s modernity is one which has never truly taken place. The past two centuries have not seen the realisation of philosophy’s promise but its ruin, and the delay of a properly modern age, usurped by the reign of an unconscious, unquenchable capitalism.[5]

Hence, with the doubleness of comedy in mind, there is still more to be said about Hegel’s own comic tale, which, this paper argues, is not only a narrative of misunderstanding and reconciliation, but also the ruin of all forms of life that have become exhausted and therefore laughable. Continue reading “The Last Laugh: Hegel’s Catastrophic Comedy”

The Sea of Memory and Forgetfulness: Inherent Vice and the Figurations of Fossil Capital

courbet the-beach-at-trouville-at-low-tide-1865-1 (1)
Gustave Courbet, The Beach at Trouville at Low Tide (1865). 

Inherent Vice (2009) is a novel which, despite the overriding nostalgia of its setting and the hardboiled trappings of its plot, is decidedly contemporary in its dual preoccupations with globalised capital and environmental destruction. The Golden Fang, the mysterious organisation which occupies the centre of the novel’s mysteries, appears as a figuration of global networks of exchange, influence, and domination. The specifically trans-Pacific operations of the Golden Fang recall Pynchon’s early preoccupation with the sublimity of the ocean in V. and The Crying of Lot 49, but whereas those novels saw the Pacific and the Mediterranean as sites of pre-human nature, in Inherent Vice the sea is a space of transit for the forces of empire and a territory ensnared in global capital.

Throughout the novel, this global dimension is repeatedly posed against the hippie myths of Lemuria and Atlantis, which are said to have been destroyed for their transgressions against nature, and specifically for their use of fossil fuels to gain dominion over the earth. Through these myths, Pynchon expands the spatial dimensions of the novel into the deep temporalities of history, to ask not only how the global structure of capital manifests within the limited perspectives of individuals such as his protagonist, but also what fate awaits a world wracked by ruthless extraction and financial accumulation. With reference to Andreas Malm’s concept of ‘fossil capital,’ this paper aims to show the necessary link between Pynchon’s figurations of global capitalism and ecological disaster, which are entwined and expressed in the novel’s recurrent conspiratorial themes of international exchange, financial speculation, and imperial expansion. Continue reading “The Sea of Memory and Forgetfulness: Inherent Vice and the Figurations of Fossil Capital”

The Subterranean Imaginary: A Dictionary of the Descent (SPLM 2021)

splm scan

Find a PDF copy here.

My contribution for SPLM: Society for the Propagation of Libidinal Materialism, edited by Vincent Le and Audrey Schmidt, and published in 2021 (details here). “Subterranean Imaginary” maps the motifs and symbols that describe the process of descent and the spaces of the underworld. The journey into the depths entails all manner of transformations: the unearthing of secrets in time as well as in space, the loss of distinctions between fictive, theoretical, and ecstatic writing, and the charting of limits across which neither our senses nor faculties may venture.

Between Absolute Spirit and the Angel of History: On Walter Benjamin and Hegelian Marxism

Atropos_o_Las_ParcasFrancisco de Goya, Atropos (c. 1819–1823).

The late writings of Walter Benjamin are renowned for their attempt to rethink the stakes of historical thought and for their critique of the ideology of progress. In Benjamin’s “Theses on the Concept of History” (1940), especially, history is made into the site of a class struggle over the inheritance and remembrance of the dead, while the belief in progress is criticised for its reduction of historical time to an automatic and unthinking mechanism. In part due to their incompletion at the time of his death, Benjamin’s comments on history and progress have produced divergent readings, with a tendency to view his version of historical materialism as a move away from the Marxist origins of the term, toward a messianic politics of divine intercession in human affairs. Likewise, his critique of universal history has been placed in opposition to the universalising tendencies of Hegelian thought, with its task of grasping world history as a totality.

The goal of this paper is to put pressure on these received readings of Benjamin as a half-hearted Marxist and an implicit anti-Hegelian, by re-examining his late historiographical work in light of his interest in contemporaneous and unorthodox figures within Hegelian Marxism. I will argue for the centrality of the Marxist critique of bourgeois philosophy to Benjamin’s work, and especially the influence of György Lukács on Benjamin’s formulations of universal history, mechanical time, and the ideology of progress. Via Lukács, Benjamin’s commonalities with Hegel’s philosophy will also be elucidated, from their shared suspicion of bad infinities to the contingency that they place at the heart of universal history. Continue reading “Between Absolute Spirit and the Angel of History: On Walter Benjamin and Hegelian Marxism”

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. Continue reading “Dead Ends: The Undoing of Hegel’s Comedy”

Apocalypse Never: Walter Benjamin and the Deferral of the End

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Paul Klee, Fermata (1927).

“This time, then once more I think, then perhaps a last time, then I think it’ll be over, with that world too. Premonition of the last but one but one. All grows dim. […] I’ll manage this time, then perhaps once more, then perhaps a last time, then nothing more.”[1]

With these words from Molloy, Samuel Beckett evokes a curious sense of temporality. The end has already come, yet never seems to arrive; the world appears in its final dying form, but it is only the first of an endless precession of death masks. The end of time doubles back on itself, replaying its last moments like the skipping of a record player.

What appears in Beckett’s novel as a narrative at the limits of the sensible is perhaps no longer so rare an experience. Today there is no shortage of proclamations on the end of days, either in the mode of imminent catastrophe or in the grim acknowledgement that it is already too late to change our fate. It is said that our actions on this planet have inaugurated a new geological epoch—the Anthropocene, the era of humanity—and that this epoch also marks our doom, as an era of inevitable catastrophe and extinction. The concept of the Anthropocene carries within it a temporal ambiguity, as it signifies both “that there will not be complete annihilation but a gradual witnessing of a slow end, and that we are already at that moment of witness, living on after the end.”[2] To call this situation apocalyptic or even post-apocalyptic would be a misnomer, because the catastrophe is one without a moment of revelation, much less a redemptive relation to the history that preceded it. The end is embedded in the earth itself, and made into something always already present, as a simple fact of the human era.

It is the argument of this paper that this vision of an end to human history that is at once finished and unfulfilled is not an innate fact of our ecological predicament but is rather symptomatic of our present historical juncture of late capitalism—which is itself interminably caught on the verge of global climate catastrophe but seemingly without alternatives. To attribute the ecological disasters of a historically novel economic system to the geological epoch of humanity itself risks reifying that system into something ahistorically innate to human nature, and therefore without changeability or recourse. The narrative of the Anthropocene is thus characterised by a mournful order of time—which shrinks from historical consciousness and envisages humanity as fossils in the making.

To make sense of this melancholic disposition, I will turn to the works of Walter Benjamin to give a typology of the forms of time available to us. Specifically, I will examine Benjamin’s early writings on Baroque drama, which stages a model of history in which all human action sinks into the mute eternity of the natural world. This form of time will also be compared with Benjamin’s more famous formulations of industrial capitalism’s homogeneous, empty time and the Messianic time which marks the moment of historical fulfilment. Having examined the temporalities of natural history, mechanical time, and Messianic fulfilment as they are drawn by Benjamin, the final part of this essay returns to the present predicament of the Anthropocene and the possibility of reading this new epoch according to Benjamin’s typology of temporalities. If, as per Benjamin, the funereal vision of nature’s eternity is a mark of historical failure, we are today confronted with a failure of world-historic proportions that threatens to sweep up even the most critical minds in its tide. Continue reading “Apocalypse Never: Walter Benjamin and the Deferral of the End”

“This is not your world:” Extinction and Utopia in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

This paper was originally presented for Gothic Nature III: New Directions in EcoHorror and the EcoGothic, in October 2020. 

For nearly forty years, Hayao Miyazaki’s post-apocalyptic animated film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) has stood as a preeminent work of ecofiction. Set a thousand years after the destruction of civilisation by industrialised warfare, on an earth now covered by a toxic mushroom jungle, the film follows Princess Nausicaä as she attempts to bring an end to a war which threatens both her agrarian community and the future of humanity itself. The critical reception of Nausicaä has tended to read it as an eco-fable, depicting what Donna Haraway describes as the earthly salvation of “peace between humans and other-than-humans.”[1] What this reading ignores, however, are the far darker themes of the manga series upon which the film is based, in which the film’s dreams of natural harmony swiftly give way to the nightmares of mutation, manipulation, and extinction.

As I will argue, the Nausicaä manga (1982-1994), continued by Miyazaki in the decade following the film’s release, systematically undoes the utopianism of its cinematic adaptation.[2] While the film ends with Nausicaä’s messianic rebirth as the mediator between humanity and nature, the manga continues on to disturb the very notions of an independent ‘humanity’ and an undisturbed ‘nature.’ Nausicaä discovers not only that the ‘natural’ world of the mushroom jungle is itself an anthropogenic creation meant to purify the earth, but that the pure earth would be uninhabitable for she and her fellow ‘humans’—because they too were altered to live in a toxic environment. As the monsters of the antediluvian world emerge from their crypts to destroy the earth once more, Nausicaä battles to save a world without a future.

As a tale of extinction rather than salvation, I argue that Nausicaä functions less as an eco-fable than as a work of ecological Gothic. Specifically, this paper aims to show that the moments of horror in Nausicaä are built upon the utopian expectations of ecological fiction, and the abject ruin of those expectations in a world in which the very conceptions of humanity and nature are no longer tenable. I will begin by delineating some of the differences between the film and the manga, before moving on to examine the decidedly Gothic character of the latter text, and the complex interplay of utopia and anti-utopia found within it. Continue reading ““This is not your world:” Extinction and Utopia in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind”

Outside of Time: Sloth and Melancholy in Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon

The topic of time and temporal order is not new to celebrated novelist and recluse Thomas Pynchon. In a now largely forgotten essay published in 1993 in the New York Times Book Review, Pynchon puts forward an account of modern time that is at once idiosyncratic and in clear conversation with his magnum opus, Mason & Dixon, published four years later in 1997. What is curious about this essay, titled “Nearer, My Couch, to Thee,” is its focus not directly upon the social structuration of time but the possibilities of moving against and hindering those structures by way of the mortal sin of Sloth. Sloth, or acedia, was once the sin of indolence and laxity which drew the faithful from their duties to God, but in Pynchon’s account the term has since been secularised to describe a sin not against God but against a more earthly order. Not only is Sloth secularised as a worldly rather than spiritual indolence, it is also given a profane meaning as a sin against an economic rather than theological order. In this new regime, writes Pynchon:

“Spiritual matters were not quite as immediate as material ones, like productivity. Sloth was no longer so much a sin against God or spiritual good as against a particular sort of time, uniform, one-way, in general not reversible—that is, against clock time, which got everybody early to bed and early to rise.”[1] 

If Sloth has a new meaning and a new use in the modern era, it is because it has become detached from the divine and integrated into a new perception of time which marches to a mechanical beat. More than anything else, Sloth has been borne into the modern era as a sin against the time of productivity—the time of work—as a drag against the motion of production and the ever-accelerating pace of modernity.

Continue reading “Outside of Time: Sloth and Melancholy in Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon”

Underground Intensities: The Gothic Marxism of Deleuze and Guattari

Boris Kustodiev, “Vampire” (1905).

Within the pages of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s collaborative works recur images of the most unsettling kind. Writing of capital’s endless thirst for living labour, they remark that it “is no longer the cruelty of life, the terror of one life brought to bear against another life, but a post-mortem despotism” or the despotism of the vampire (AO 228). Of the State’s manufacture of pliable subjects they write that it “makes the mutilation, and even death, come first. It needs them preaccomplished, for people to be born that way, crippled and zombielike” (ATP 425). Of their own virulent politics they demand that “we oppose epidemic to filiation, contagion to heredity, peopling by contagion to sexual reproduction. […] Bands, human or animal, proliferate by contagion, epidemics, battlefields, and catastrophes. […] The vampire does not filiate, it infects” (ATP 241-2). For all their purported joyousness, and the assorted “vital materialisms” which today claim filiation from these dubious parents, the two volumes of Capitalism & Schizophrenia are undoubtable compendiums of darkness and terror.

And yet, it is apparent that Deleuze and Guattari’s most morbid imagery appears primarily in their most political statements: when they recall Marx’s account of capital’s “vampire thirst for the living blood of labour” (1976, 367), when they revile the monstrosities of state subjugation, or when they posit a viral infiltration of the very arteries which feed state and capital alike. With this in mind, the object of this paper is to examine the radical politics of Deleuze and Guattari by way of their occulted images and monstrous figures. Specifically, and with reference to Margaret Cohen’s study of the phantasmic Marxisms of Walter Benjamin and André Breton, I wish to propose a “Gothic Marxist” approach to Deleuze and Guattari’s work.

Continue reading “Underground Intensities: The Gothic Marxism of Deleuze and Guattari”

Metabolic Monstrosities: Vampire Capital in the Anthropocene

masson - the seeded earth
André Masson, “The Seeded Earth” (1942).

Paraphrasing a passage from Marx in the Grundrisse, Stavros Tombazos remarks that “every economy is in the end an economy of time” (2014, 13). This is to say that the productivity of labour, the accumulation of wealth, and the circulation of goods and resources which make up an economy in its broadest sense are all components of a particular organisation of time. Changes to this economic organisation are therefore felt not only in the transformations they effect materially, but also in the order of temporality and the rhythms of life possible under a particular economic system. This fact that the passage of time, which is so often taken for a given, is in actuality conditioned by the material and economic conditions in which we live is nowhere more apparent than in our present moment of climate change and ecological catastrophe.

Two long centuries of industrial capitalism have left us with a perception of time which is no longer adequate to the material conditions now reshaping our lives. The ecological historians Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz typify this old order of time by its dependence on the extraction of fossil fuels: “The continuous time of industrial capitalism,” they write, was “projected onto cultural representations of the future, conceived as a continuous progress unfurling to the rhythm of productivity gains” (2016, 203). The shock of our present moment is that this steady and linear increase in productivity, conceptualised as the natural progress toward a tomorrow greater than today, was only ever the product of a temporary influx of energy from a diminishing resource. As Rob Nixon writes, “in this interregnum between energy regimes, we are living on borrowed time—borrowed from the past and from the future,” with the continuation of the status quo only accelerating us “toward an abbreviated collective future as fossils in the making” (2011, 69).

In the twilight years of fossil capitalism we see the emergence of a new organisation of time in which the present is no longer able to fuel itself at the expense of the future, and the accumulated destruction of the past returns at a planetary level. To address this disjunction between the time of capital and the temporalities of nature upon which it feeds, I will offer an account of the metabolic rift theory of contemporary ecosocialists and attempt to expand this metabolic account into more monstrous territory by way of Marx’s own characterisation of capital’s vampiric thirst. Consequently, I wish to suggest Walter Benjamin’s approach to history, nature, and capital as a potential bridge between the metabolic account of capital’s planetary depredation and the project of ideological critique required to lift the haze of our temporal stasis and dispel the vampire’s curse for good.

Continue reading “Metabolic Monstrosities: Vampire Capital in the Anthropocene”