Vol. 1 No. 1 (2012) Aesthetics After Hegel

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Mandy-Suzanne Wong and Joanna Demers

Introduction (pp. 1-10)


Angela Hume

(Rescuing) Hegel’s Magical Thinking (pp. 11-38)

In this article I ask: how to rescue “magical thinking” (a notion I inherit from Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno) in and from Hegel and imagine its possibilities for posthuman society, ethics, and aesthetics? To address this question, I read Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit through Horkheimer and Adorno, who argue that Enlightenment’s program is “the disenchantment of the world”: with the end of magical thinking and the beginning of enlightened thinking came chasm and disparity between subject and object and, for Horkheimer and Adorno, the onset of barbarism. Hegel himself speaks directly to the danger of failed recognition between two consciousnesses, a failure followed by a duel to the death, in which the two figures leave each other indifferently, like things. After reading a distinctly “magical thinking” into the shape of Hegel’s dialectic, I show how contemporary posthumanism and ecopoetics make use of Hegel’s thought in order to reimagine subject‐object relations in and as response to ecological crisis. I discuss how Donna Haraway, following in the traditions of Hegel and Adorno, magically thinks her way toward new models for relating more ethically (to borrow Haraway’s own terminology) to human and other‐than‐human others in the new century. Then, I look at how such models are being adapted in and by aesthetic practice — specifically, in the experimental ecopoetics of contemporary poet Brenda Hillman. In the end, I argue that contemporary posthumanisms and ecopoetics in fact need magical thinking in order to reimagine both the social and the ecological in a time of crisis and resuscitate a devastatingly enlightened world.

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Jason Miller

Collision:  The Death of Art and the Sunday of Life:  Hegel on the Fate of Modern Art (pp. 39-47)

While recent aesthetic theory has put forth considerable effort to make sense of Hegel’s provocative claim that art has come to an end in the modern era, it devotes relatively little attention to the various ways in which art might continue to play an affirmative, even redemptive, role in disclosing the basic normative structures of a particular way of life. Whether we condone or condemn the so‐called “end of art” thesis will turn, I argue, on the more basic question of what Hegel takes to be the primary task of modern art. Focusing specifically on Hegel’s analysis of Dutch genre painting in the Lectures on Aesthetics, I argue that Hegel regards modern art, not as a failure to convey the deepest interests of a culture or society, but as a welcome liberation of art in which it comes to reflect the diversity and complexity of human experience.

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Shannon Mussett

Irony and the Work of Art:  Hegelian Legacies in Robert Smithson (pp. 48-76)

In the Lectures on Fine Art, Hegel warns of the dangers of irony in art because it challenges the sanctity of rationality, truth, and morality. Over a century later, Robert Smithson — most famous for his earthwork, Spiral Jetty — openly embraces irony in his art and philosophical writings. In this paper, I employ Smithson as a direct response to Hegel’s conception of irony. I contextualize irony within Hegel’s critique of the abstract and selfabsorbed Fichtean ego as it is found in the ironic artist. Following this, I utilize Smithson’s philosophy as a kind of counterpoint — rather than refutation — to many of Hegel’s convictions on the nature and function of art in world historical spirit. Despite their seeming incommensurability, Smithson utilizes his own formulation of the dialectic that is deeply indebted to and in dialogue with Hegel’s dialectical interpretation of the work of art. Smithson directly challenges the Hegelian primacy of the inherently rational and anthropocentric nature of art’s highest themes by creating works that reveal the unstable and transitory nature of existence. Despite the fact that Smithson rejects the Hegelian attitude toward rational progress, he finds that this perspective alleviates the potentially tragic insight into the meaninglessness of existence and provides a way of avoiding a nihilistic attitude toward the crises that confront us in the modern era.

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Joanna Demers

Collision:  The Ethics of Apocalypse (pp. 77-84)

Apocalyptic scenarios in science fiction often represent the end as a horrible possibility – something we, the audience, should think would be absolutely terrible. But what about artworks that depict apocalypse as something desirable? Is such a desire ethical? I want to pursue these questions as they apply to Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Possibility of an Island (2005), in which ecological and biological misdeeds lead to the extinction of human civilization and the emergence of asexual, anti‐social “neo‐humans.” I argue that Houellebecq’s vision of the future, with its starkly beautiful descriptions of an overheated, polluted, and geologically ravaged Earth, aestheticizes annihilation, making collapse seem not only inevitable, but attractive. My essay then makes the case for a metaphor likening Houellebecq’s apocalyptic scenarios to G.W.F. Hegel’s “system,” his overarching philosophical model that accounts for everything from individual consciousness to governments, art, and natural phenomena. This metaphor is borne out by the fact that Hegel’s system contains a few apocalypses of its own, namely the famous “end of art” and “end of history.” Critics of Hegel’s system (e.g., Gianni Vattimo) accuse it of squashing freedom, of demanding that everything eventually be sublated into a static unity that tolerates nothing outside itself. Proponents of Hegel’s system (e.g., Catherine Malabou), however, regard it as an organic mechanism that allows for change, contingency, and difference. I argue that Houellebecq’s apocalypse can be understood as a system analogous to Hegel’s, and interrogate the ethics of such a system. Is the choice to represent environmental catastrophe as both beautiful and preordained (qualities that Hegel attributes to his system) one that ultimately denies the importance of the individual, of difference? Or, can there be room for freedom and chance in narratives of unavoidable doom?

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Mandy-Suzanne Wong

Hegel’s Being-Fluid in Corregidora, Blues, and (Post-)Black Aesthetics (pp. 85-120)

In Hegel’s system, all identities are unstable. Beings and concepts continually become their others in order to remain themselves. This notion of being‐fluid powers Gayl Jones’ novel Corregidora, in which the protagonist’s personal identity comes from the identities of others with whom she interacts – including her ancestors, who suffered the cruelties of slavery. Blues music, by which Jones’ novel is inspired, also embodies and performs the presence of enslaved ancestors, and of the African‐American community as such, in present‐day African‐ American individuals. This article therefore offers Hegelian readings, based on his theory of identity as fluid, of Corregidora, the blues, and the African‐American identity performed in these artworks. Through these readings, I propose, following Hegel, that all identities be denied fixed definitions, in favor of fluid ones that allow for change and the sublation of otherness – even Hegel’s identity. With Paul Taylor, whose theory of post‐black aesthetics relies on the fluidity of racial classifications, I argue for Hegel’s relevance to African‐ American aesthetics, despite his just classification as a white racist.

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Timothy Morton

Art in the Age of Asymmetry:  Hegel, Objects, Aesthetics (pp. 121-142)

In this essay I argue that we have entered a new era of aesthetics. This new era is possible to predict using Hegel’s lectures on aesthetics. But for reasons that I outline, Hegel himself would not have predicted it. The Hegelian thinking of art has an unconscious that is only now coming to light. This coming to light signals the collapse of the Romantic period — the “long march of the isms,” the most encompassing of which is consumerism, since the late eighteenth century, accompanied by the advent of modernity, the upsurge of industrial capitalism, and the subsequent geological shift we now call the Anthropocene: the fact that we have now entered a geological period in which humans have a direct affect on the substrata of their earthly reality. The Anthropocene has a very definite beginning indeed: 1945, when a thin layer of radioactive materials was deposited in Earth’s crust. The new period we enter, I claim, is an ecological one. In this period, a new phase of art, unpredicted, and indeed I shall argue, unpredictable, by Hegel, comes about. This phase of art I call the Asymmetric Phase.

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