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Now the end is near and so I face the final curtain

If you reading this post, you’re probably expecting something on Frank Sinatra. I am sorry to disappoint. As I write, I have just finished the second draft of my PhD thesis (although it feels like a new first draft). Technically its not quite finished. I still have to put into the right format, tidy footnotes and get ok from my superviser but the hard bit is done. Of course I am way behind my own schedule. When I started, I was aiming for the end of my 3rd year in August 2012. This has kept being pushed back. First December 2012, then January, Easter, then i gave up on schedules.

I feel a lot happier about this draft than I did the previous one, which was more about getting it done. The irony is that I could have had a first draft sooner if I listened to orthodoxy.

Originally I had chapters of 15000-20000 words, which was normal. Then one of my contacts, whose area of research is the nature of doctorateness, suggested that I split my chapters into smaller chunks of 5000-8000 words to make them more readable to the examiner. This made sense to me. I spoke to my superviser, who did not object. So I could have had a first full draft in November. I decided to make smaller chapters. However I realised that splitting was not as simple as it sounded; each chapter needed its own introduction and conclusion something which I had already done before. So I ended up spending 2 months on restructuring before submitting to my superviser.

After receiving comments back, I ended up rewriting whole Phd and ended up back at the more orthodox-sized chapters I had originally. And I realised that, whilst there is nothing wrong with questioning tradition, it’s worth remembering that traditions don’t survive because they are inherently irrational. Indeed, following Hegel, one could argue that the negation of an orthodoxy that seems irrational is necessary in order to realise its rationlity.

So what’s my point? That there’s a time and place for doing it “my way” and its not when I am near the end.

Finally, for those of you who came to this blog post looking for Old Blue Eyes, here’s Frank Sinitra “My Way”

The Irony of Plasticity

I have always been in favour of plastic Christmas trees over real, fresh ones. My parents bought one when my sister and I were really small – I don’t remember not having it – and we are still using it 30-odd years later. That means we contribute a bit less to climate change than those who opt for a fresh tree every year and we save money by being able to reuse the same tree (although, technically, fresh Christmas trees tend to be of the evergreen variety so could be reused if cared for). As the short film, Gloop, points out below, plastic is a fantastic material because it can be formed into any shape and, once shaped, resist deformation. French philosopher Catherine Malabou adopts the metaphor of plasticity to describe the dialectic or relationship between different entities.

Byproduct of oil production notwithstanding, plastic’s adaptability has led to somewhat of an environmental revolution in that products could be made without extracting finite natural resources. However, in an economy driven by capital, the resistability of plastic has had the unfortunate, unenvironmental effect of plastic mountains on land and sea. Furthermore, in the long term, it does break down, with smaller pieces ending up as part of the food chain. The irony is that this contradiction in plasticity fits with Malabou’s description of an underlying relationship between entities that influence each other who also resist the influence.

Christmas post: It is the thought that counts

It’s the evening of Christmas Day – presents unwrapped, stomach full and I am so tired. Personally I am content with this year’s haul. However I was disturbed to see loads of tweets in my timeline this morning from people moaning they didn’t get this or that. (Apparently iphones and ugg boots were particularly desirable.)

It does not matter what present or gift you receive or how much it costs. In a Hegelian dialectic, we exist when we recognise or acknowledge others as capable of recognising us. Whilst there is mutuality to the relationslip, there is an element of co-dependence. We desire recognition from the other through something the other can provide, and vice versa. The relationship is abstract when the self becomes aware or conscious of the other as someone/thing that is not the self, but it is realised when we not only act on that thought through our body but the other accepts our action. A relationship is therefore not just something intellectual or emotional but there is materiality. Giving presents is an expression of that materiality but when we prioritise the present over the act of giving or receiving, the relationship takes on a master/slave quality. When we receive a present, we can see that the donor thought about us. The present could be rubbish for all intents and purposes, it does not matter. However, if we think it is rubbish, it is perhaps an indication that we do not properly recognise the donor. On the other hand, the same applies if we put no thought into the present and give rubbish for the sake of giving.

Christmas of course is about a gift that God gave us. He thought of us and loved us that he gave himself in human form. The gift was about as expensive as it could get: it cost him his place in Heaven and it cost him his life in,the most painful way possible at the time. By comparison, any present we give to or receive from others is always going to be rubbish and fall short of our expectations. Hegel argued that the only way we can be content is to recognise ourselves or, as Slavoj Zizek says, to change our perspective.

Media regulation: A Hegelian perspective

As I write, the town of Newtown, Connecticut, is dealing with the aftermath of an elementary school shooting, in which the shooter Adam Lanza killed 27 children. If that was not tragic enough, there has been one more victim, but this time at the hands of the media: Ryan Lanza, simply because he happens to have the same surname as the shooter.

According to Wired, various big name media outlets, such as CNN, Huffington Post and Slade, somehow identified Ryan Lanza’s Facebook page as the page of or for the shooter. This was picked up by social media and soon Ryan and even his Facebook friends were receiving, euphemistically, not very nice comments. Wired’s assessment was that in 24/7 news environment and a fast-changing story, media organisations were so hungry for information that they were not carrying out basic journalistic checks. But this is not a unique to the US. There have been plenty of incidents in Britain where the media have ignored or bent the law, in this case principles of journalism, for the sake of a story. The most obvious, recent, examples came out in the recent Leveson Inquiry, such hacking into people’s voicemails and taking personal, often intimate, information, without permission.

To me, these are clear manifestations of a Hegelian master/slave dialectic. A master entity, or entities, is only interested in its other – the slave – for what the slave can produce for it. The master’s life depends on the work of the slave. In this case, the slave is anyone from whom media organisations want information. The slave is valued according to how much information can be provided; the more open it is, the higher its media currency.  And, media organisations then value themselves against each other based on the quality of the information they provide. The problem is that they are not so much concerned with their relationship with the slave beyond its nature as an object of a story or provider of information. If the slave suffers adversely – or even refuses to work – it is considered a minor inconvenience at best, because there are others to take its place.

Sometimes the media justify their actions by pointing to us as readers, that we want to know. Perhaps to an extent that is true, but the question is whether we are interested in wrong information (what’s the point) or information that has been obtained at the expense of someone else’s suffering (if we are, then why have not used any of the Nazis’ research on eugenics? Just saying) Furthermore, one could question how much of the information that comes through media organisations is important, perhaps it is just another consumable. A further justification is that people who provide information have their own agenda for using the media and so it makes them fair game. We tend to call them celebrities, i.e. famous people. But the word ‘celebrity’ or ‘famous’ is becoming a broader and broader category. But, just as men (and probably still) would idealise women and put them on a pedestal, only to exploit them, so perhaps the media idealises celebrities.

The media acts as a master over people because it needs their information. The irony is that, as Hegel argued in his dialectic, the media is also a slave to people, because it not only depends on us for information, it also determines its value by how much we want its information. If we were to stop producing for it and then consuming what it produces, a media outlet or organisation would die. Or would it? On the one hand, a media organisation, by definition, mediates information between those who provide it and those who consume it. However, there is third party: those who fund that mediation of information, the advertisers and business owners. As long as media organisations can depend on the money – and PR – provided by commercial organisations, it almost does not matter that they do not think about their relationship with the public.  As long as they have the funds to exist, they do not need our information or our trust or love.

But I say almost. Just as there is a dialectic between the public and the media and the media and business, there is a dialectic between business and the public. After all, the business need the public to buy their products and/or to trust them. In this sadomasochistic love triangle, between the public, media and business, Hegel would argue that there is always a risk of dialectical breakdown somewhere. But it is that fear of breakdown – and the potential consequences – that prevents for the most part any one entity from pushing its luck too far. Sometimes breakdown does occur, but it is never so catastrophic that the system cannot repair it. There is also something posthuman about it in that now the public can be the media, those who work for media organisations or businesses can be people, media organisations are businesses, people have interests in businesses as employees, shareholders and future entrepreneurs, and so on.  But it is the creative tension in the system that actually ensures that – whatever else happens – everyone eventually recognises the right value of each other. If things went so smoothly, where would be the fun in (blogging or writing) about that?

The problem highlighted by Leveson and Wired is that media organisations ignore the law for sake of more and more information. However the media is regulated, the role of the law is to remind media organisations and journalists that they are in relationship to other entities and they have a responsibility to them. Whilst information is important, it is not more important than the underlying dialectic.

From Journalist to Academic: A Dialectic

As a fourth year PhD student, I am supposed to be in the position when I am ready to present my research to the department. If I were pregnant, I’d have a clearly visible bump, I’d be waddling and people would give up their seats for me on the bus. I’d also want to get the damn thing inside out of me. In a sense, I am ready to pop.

But when I gave a talk on my PhD research this week, it was as if I had only just done a pregnancy test. In fact, I was wearing so many extra layers that people could see I had put on weight but they did not know why. PhD research, like pregnancy and childbirth, suppose to be a beautiful process, but I had simplified it so much that I turned a baby, not even into a foetus but into a clump of cells.

In a former career, I was a journalist, and I now I blog and still do the occasional bit of copywriting. Like every other experience, it had shaped me in way that I was able to take useful life lessons. One of these lesson was: when communicating information, don’t assume that my reader or listener knows what I am talking about; indeed, it is generally a good idea to assume they know nothing. (Incidentally, I heard a similar version of this lesson in relation to driving: just assume everyone is an idiot.)  Of course, I don’t take this lesson to the extreme but I have always found it to be a helpful guide. I do not find it easy, it does require being extra-vigilant but generally others have complimented me on my comprehensive writing.

When I started my PhD, I continued to adopt this approach. It is possible that I have assessed academic books and papers based on how easy they were to understand and I generally prefer writing journalistically than in academese or in a managerial style. Indeed, I would argue that all writing should be journalistic. Indeed, I  have noticed that, in terms of structure, a news story, a journal article, a first class dissertation and a PhD thesis chapter are very similar. (Of course, a news story is more condensed.) My supervisor has now and again made references to my journalistic style of writing and to my alter ego as a blogger, then at our last meeting he said that I am writing more like an academic. To be honest, I had no idea what he was talking about. My undergraduate degree was in Mathematics and Computing Science,  did not have to the three years experience of writing academic essays, and then I went straight into journalism for three or four years. So when it went back to university to study law, I did not consciously write any different. I applied the skills I learnt as a journalist. A good essay was about research and analysis, as far as I could tell. So when it came to my PhD, I did not consciously think that I  had to write as an academic. I simply applied the skills and lessons that served me well, like a habit.

And so, knowing that there would be people who were not familiar with my particular theoretical framework, I decided to dumb down so to speak. I did not think of it like that, I simply wanted to make my research easy to understand. But there is a difference between simplifying in writing, where the reader has something to refer on paper, and orally, where all explanation has to come out of the speaker’s mouth, with or without the help of Powerpoint slides. Unfortunately, I found that I could not do justice to Hegel in a few slides, so I decided to speak only. Furthermore, like a journalist, I focused on one particular thread in my research. Unfortunately, this was the most unHegelian thing I could do. I ignored the dialectic between the different aspects of my research except the most basic of original Hegel and household recycling.

Throughout my PhD, there has been an underlying creative tension of the Hegelian dialectic between myself as a journalist and myself as a (potential) academic. In a sense, my PhD is a synthesis between what I knew as a journalist and what I am supposed to be learning as an academic. But, according to Catherine Malabou, that means that I was relying on a habit of journalism (what I know) and at least consciously resisting an aspect of academia. However, I was also submitting to academia as well, because I found that – by surprise – I was able to understand books in my third year that I could not understand in my first year. The dialectics between resistance and submission is plastic, in that both clearly were shaping it and it was resisting deformation . But then, there is an explosive quality to plastic as well. In my talk, I entered a situation where the need to submit was as strong as the desire to resist and I think I had a major explosion (or implosion). Perhaps I was have been applying the paradigm of journalism to situations where I should have been applying the paradigm of academia (whatever that is). Sometimes it worked and where it had not, I had put the failure down to something else. so, Thomas Kuhn argues, it was only when the conflict between two paradigms were sufficiently great that I reached a point of what Malabou calls le voir venir (To see what is coming). It was like a prophecy given by the Ancient Greek gods warning what might happen if I did not change course. The problem is how? What does say with regard to journalism and academia?

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