Friday, November 19, 2021

Hegel's Split.

Are you a reasonable person? A faithful, humble and patient servant of reason? If so let me tell you about something that should delight you; a Hegelian split. We’ll wade through some philosophy to get there but I think it’s worth it.

Hegel was born in the Duchy of W├╝rttemberg a reformist hold out from Catholic France, in 1770 and died only 61 years later in Prussia having seen the rise and fall of Napoleon. In my opinion, Hegel is a far more influential philosopher than he is given credit for. Given that he is already super famous I’m making a bold claim here. I think a lot of the ideas of the 20th century across most of the world, both good and bad, can be traced back to his way of thinking. Marx for example called his ideas dialectical materialism and he got the dialectical part from Hegel. I’ll leave it to you to put Marx in the good or bad column.

Hegel’s dialectic is a type of reasoning. You might be thinking “there are types of reasoning? Well that’s no good.” because it does somewhat undermine reasons promise to discern truth, to think that two reasonable people mightn’t even follow the same process. Such is our human condition, I guess.

Moving quickly on from that grief, let’s remember what reasoning is. A lot of reasoning helps us determine between two mutually exclusive theories. Either the butler killed Mr. X or they didn’t. Either God exists or they don’t. Either the cheese toastie is healthy due to its calcium or the doctor was right and it’s mostly fats. This sort of reasoning produces conclusions from premises and those conclusions either must be right or must be wrong or if our reasoning is inconclusive may be right or wrong. Generally we use reasoning to sort ideas into those three boxes ; necessary, impossible or possible. A successful run of our internal reasoning program will complete this sorting process.

Hegel’s dialectic describes a process when two ideas that both contain some good and some error bash up against each other and what emerges is a new idea with the good from both and the error from neither. This process tends not to produce any sort of definitive answer. The old answers and the new answer are all called theses. The new thesis has it’s own errors revealed by the emergence of it’s own anti-thesis and the dialectical process continues.

Hegel saw this dialectical process as the process by which history occurs. Hegel also saw society in terms of ideas rather than individuals or even nations. For Hegel, Napoleon represented a set of ideas particularly about how society should be run and Napoleons’ real opposition was therefore other ideas about how society should be run. Through the dialectical process it was unlikely that one idea would crush all others with it’s absolute truth. Rather Hegel expected that society would vacillate between opposing ideas until it resolved that ideological conflict, probably by absorbing insights from both into a new concept and then history continues from a new floor so to speak.

A few things are worth noting. While Hegel was disillusioned by both the excesses of European Romanticism and Napoleons’ dictatorship he was still optimistic to the point of arrogance by today’s standards. As a citizen of reformed, enlightened Prussia, Hegel believed that his society was much further along the progress of ideas than that of “primitive” people around the world. Post World War 2, the rise of Stalin and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with human extinction a real possibility from climate change, it is a lot harder to have Hegel's upbeat view of human progress, especially one which views European society as superior to all others. Secondly, Hegel had no access to the ideas of evolution. Hegel’s idea of human progress was towards a transcendent truth that drew us towards it and the relative relativism of a society adapting to its conditions like an organism evolving, just wasn’t an idea Hegel would have contended with.

Thirdly, Hegel was pessimistic about our ability to use a dialectical method to predict or imagine the step beyond us. For Hegel, we stand in our time and place belonging to a certain set of ideas. The synthesis of our current ideas and their opposites is not available to us as a thought and certainly the dialectical outcome of that new concept and whatever anti-thesis to it that emerges is completely unfathomable to us. We might be able to guess that the next fashion trend will be a combination of small badges and large earrings or French-Korean fusion cuisine served in bamboo boxes but we’d mostly be lucky to get that right and what comes after that is anyone’s guess. Hegel was not a futurist, rather he thought the sole purpose of the dialectical process was to uncover the past history of ideas. By using the Hegelian split, a good natural philosopher, could uncover the ideas of the past that produced our own.

A Hegelian split is a division of an idea so perfect that everything on one side of the cleave is on that side and everything else is on the other side. I wonder if you are thinking, “That’s nothing special.” and I really don’t know if I have the words to describe the sheer delight of a genuinely perfect cleave in the realm of ideas. Let’s look at the example of liberty as a political concept.

Freedom is a political idea that is banded about a lot. The people who demand freedom as a political good don’t usually mean total freedom. They might for example want the freedom to discriminate against others which impacts on those other people’s freedoms. Or they might want to be free to marry who they want but happy to obey the speed limits while driving. They might want to be free to smoke but able to compel doctors and nurses to treat them if they get sick. If we want to understand the type of thing they are talking about and that we ourselves might mean by freedom we can separate the idea into two competing opposites.

On the one hand there is total absolute freedom. On the other hand there is restraint, control and regulation. The freedom that people demand in our politics is a synthesis of these two ideas; a sort of freedom that incorporates a level of restraint that is itself regulated and subject to correction. This isn’t to say that everyone is arguing from this synthesised idea of freedom. Some people generally might mean that they want zero restraint while others might want for a system where those in control are never questioned. But if we want to have a more sophisticated conversation about the freedom most people are talking about we need to see it in the dialectical process from which it emerges and we do that by uncovering its preceding ideological opposites.

When we make a Hegelian split we end up with everything on one side or another. Lots of distinctions are much more messy than that. European and U.S. culture is not a neat split. A character like Charlie Chaplin’s hobo is both quintessentially U.S. and arguably French in every way but geographically. Talking in terms of European and American cultures will throw up numerous messy overlaps like trying to cut a pizza so that one slice only has ham and the other only pineapple. We can name this “a shitty distinction” and point out how a phenomenon may lie across this distinction rendering it useless in its regard. Hegel encourages us to keep looking for the better distinction.

I am not entirely sure Hegelian splits are real things. They live in the realm of ideas and belong to a model of history that has it’s own robust anti-thesis at it’s throat. One thing I desperately want to express is the intellectual pleasure of them. For that I should probably just link to similar pleasures like watching things perfectly fit. Or if you want to know what I think a perfect Hegelian split audibly sounds like then enjoy Wu Tang Clans’ Da Mystery of Chess Boxing. You don’t have to own an authentic katana to know what I am talking about but I do think anyone who does will be nodding at this point.

The other point I want to mention is that by making this perfect split so central to doing philosophy and history well, Hegel does something very important. Hegel values precision of language. In a way this is a critique of all reason because precision of language is not simply present or not present. Instead we are only ever more or less precise. To speak in idioms, precision is an art rather than a science. (What a shitty distinction that is by the way; art and science.) We feel pleasure when we achieve some measure of precision and we lack that pleasure when our distinctions are sloppy and incomplete but solving a lack of precise language is not something that running a logical program in our heads can overcome. We may even lack the words in our current language. The frustration this creates only amplifies the sweetness when we find or coin the words to make the slice perfectly.

Full confession; I'm not a Hegelian scholar. This blog post draws on vague recollections of having read very little of  Hegel's writings and other people's descriptions of his ideas. I may have misrepresented him terribly and I'd appreciate comments that describe his ideas differently. Googling Hegelian split doesn't indicate anyone else on the internet using the term. I didn't invent it just for this blog post though. It's a concept that I have valued, rightly or wrongly as Hegel's, for a very long time.




Sunday, November 14, 2021

Who's winning?

A poster with Culture War in large font rests against a wall, promoting an event people are lining up for.

I am on Facebook. If you are not I suspect you have much more of your humanity intact than I do and I don’t want to encourage anyone to follow me into the beast. I mention this merely to lead into how one page I subscribe to on Facebook is titled “We have murdered satire and sit on it’s throne”. It’s a repository for news mostly from the U.S., that sounds like it should be satire but isn’t. Often these are reports of obvious racism or homophobia. The sentiment is very “If I saw this in a script it would be unbelievable but here it is and yet they tell you there’s no white or straight privilege anymore.” Commentators on these stories have been trending more and more over it and angry and less just smug face-palming. Why wouldn’t they when, just like me, their Facebook feed is full of how people often motivated by fundamentalist religion and self-entitlement are making life drastically worse?

An example of the sort of articles featured on this page include the decision by a Virginia school board to remove LGBTIA books from public school libraries. The boards greatest outrage is reserved for a book which they say promotes a relationship between an adult male and a teenage boy. That refers to “All about me” in which the author recounts how at 17 they had a brief relationship with a 24 year old boarder at his fathers house in 1980’s Italy. I haven’t read it but the reviews are great. Saying it promotes what sounds like pedophilia is like saying the gospels promote divine child rape because Mary is barely 15. More importantly though, “why do I care?”. I’m not Virginian. Sure I’m angry about censorship of 1980's closeted queer experiences but it’s fair to say I do seem to be wolfing down that rage with a spoon if I have to go to Virginia, U.S. to find it. It’s just, you know, these conservative Christians seem to be raising their blood soaked crosses everywhere. Poland is even worse. So my “research” tells me.

Meanwhile the winner of the Australian Christian book of the year award in 2021 (you can evaluate its bona fides for yourself here) is a book about how Christians face oppression and exclusion in official and unofficial ways across what once was Christendom. It’s a sermon preached to the choir because increasingly Christians who are plugged into the conservative and evangelical media sphere are convinced that they are the ones on the back foot. The sort of phrasing you can find from the winning author, Stephen McAlpine, is that the “sexular culture” is “hunting” for them. This same culture that is getting its books banned in Virginia, U.S., is actually more commonly, prosecuting and punishing everyday Christians who express doubt about our post hetero-sexist social norms. While the Australian federal government still preserves religious chaplains in public schools this can only be a stop gap measure until working in public schools requires an acceptance of gender diversity and homosexuality at odds with Christianity. That is the overwhelming direction of culture the book illustrates.

This world view is reinforced once you enter the worlds of right wing facebook and twitter. Orthodox Christians are cautioned not to think they can maintain a private faith quietly. Publicly they should expect to be fired without recourse from an increasingly “woke” world. Those against them are called “elites”, “cultured despisers” or some other handy pejorative that inflates their power. Politicians suggest that just calling yourself a Christian is under threat from these apparatchiks. The LGBTIA movement in particular is a monolithic monster that knows no limits and can’t be trusted on any level. Christians who question these statements are accommodating the culture. They are collaborators and suckers.

Even if we accept that some of this is a propaganda war we desperately want to know who is actually winning. Is it the Queer movement? Is it Conservative Christianity? Who is the oppressor? Who is the underdog? Each side fearing no mercy from the other makes a pre-emptive strike against the others freedoms. That strike is held up as proof of how horrible they are by their opponents justifying an overreach in return. I wonder if the people in Virginia sat down to read about the politician in Finland who has been investigated for hate speech for traditional Christian views about sexuality before they return voted to ban gay books. News that confirms our biases is not limited by mere geography for either side. Your favourite site will hoover it all up for you and leave contradictory evidence behind. I honestly believe, without wanting to suggest that these are not important issues, that this is how they are getting us to ignore climate change. This culture war is the preferred topic for elections by the true moneyed elites.

I had a go at disrupting this march to war. I held a talk at my church (my old church I guess) about Queer History. It was both an unfortunate and a wonderful experience. I had someone come to my house pretending to represent more official consensus than they did, to make sure it wasn’t promoted beyond the church and to stress their discomfort if anyone who wasn’t an adult came. I still hear in my head how others let that happen because the topic was “fraught” after all. Fraught was where I thought we walked. It has shattered my illusion that this church is non-hierarchical or even that it can put listening for God before the churches inter-church reputation. This is hard for both sides. Christians judge Christians as queers judge queers, who are soft on the enemy. Am I this churches enemy? Are they mine? I did not think so.

I’ve let covid lockdowns give me the excuse to stay away from church. It had stopped being a place I could go with my guard down and started being just one more cultural battlefield. I guess despite all the good works it does, it didn’t feel like God was there. Or it felt like it was going to be harder work than I thought to find God there. Maybe it was fraught work? Maybe I also don’t really do fraught. Facebook doesn’t ask me to that’s for sure. There I never have to see any indication of my sides power and every indication that we are the true rebel alliance.

The Queer / Conservative Christian conflict is not the only space this is happening in. I have seen articles, and YouTube videos, in my Facebook feed that tell me Kyle Rittenhouse’s trial is rigged for him and against him. So, depending on what side your feed is on and the verdict, you will either be sure some racist cracker judge let a murderer off or that woke liberalism chose to ignore clear facts because it didn’t suit their narrative. Maybe one of those sides is true and needs to be told in which case not paying attention is a moral crime. Maybe both are true and false equally and the deeper truth is we are all being played, in which case not paying attention is the only righteous act. Probably something is true but its more complicated than we think. Seriously how would I know? Maybe I am ultimately being encouraged to switch off and watch endless superhero based entertainment instead and staying rage filled and “informed” is my civic duty. I don’t know. Remember this is a criminal trial in another country. Or forget that because that's not important. I don't know.

I do believe that anyone who refuses to acknowledge the power they wield either alone or in concert with others is destined to abuse that power. Atheists, Buddhists, Baptists, Jehovah Witnesses, Non-binary punkrockers, adult male bronies, socialist feminists, any of these groups can pretend to be only holding underdog cards in their hands. Always on the back foot and always righteously defensive is good for survival. It’s terrible for accountability.

We have also been rendered powerless in the path of a simple virus. We have compromised in our homes and made concessions with those in our bubbles assuming we have had secure housing and other people in our bubbles. The great soft food of capitalism is on sale this Christmas again with its promise that we deserve something; an overdue holiday, a new car, a reward for all our sacrifices. Somehow this deservedness is only deepened if we profited through this pandemic like God's nod to the winner of a coin toss. Forget if we were incredibly lucky. We are tired, we are scared, we are lonely, we are good people. Don’t tell me I have power when I feel so crushed. Tell that to them. Your them of course. No point, it seems, in being fraught.