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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.

Vive La Revolution, Vive Hegel

Just over a year ago, I wrote a post about what Hegel might say about the  Arab Spring. In light of the events of the last 12 months all over the world, I have decided to revisit it.

At the time (February 2011), I commented that we Brits need some kind of mass violent protest and riot against the authorities and a wholesale change of system. Well, in August 2011, we sort of got our riot, in the only logical way that a riot in a capitalist liberal democracy (as opposed to a dictatorship) could take place. Then a month later, we got a protest for a wholesale change of the system, through the Occupy movement.  (And, of course as I predicted, I was hiding behind the sofa for the first and ‘doing my bit’ on Twitter for the second.) Protests and electoral upsets have been continuing throughout Europe, most recently with Francoise Hollande’s presidential victory in France, the rise of non-mainstream parties such as Syriza and Golden Dawn in Greece and the return of the indignados and Occupy movements in Spain and globally respectively, not too mention months of fighting in Syria and Bahrain. What is interesting is that the  authorities in each country were opposed to the protest movements and have sought to maintain the status quo and carry on with their policies, whether austerity in Europe or repression in the Middle East.

In Hegel’s 1827 essay, The Magistrates should be elected by the People, he wrote about the need for a popular uprising in his home state of Wurttemburg (Germany).  It was a time when there is a clear groundswell of opinion and feeling that the traditional political edifice of the day could no longer be sustained.  He says that “a vision of better, juster times has come to life in the souls of men [and women], and a longing and yearning for a purer and freer destiny has moved all hearts and alienated them from the present reality.” It does almost feels as if Hegel were writing in the present. The longer that change and the “satisfaction of hopes” is put off, the more intense will become the “urge to remedy a genuine need, and any delay will make that longing eat more deeply into men’s hearts, for it is not just a fortuitous attack of light heartedness which will soon pass away.”

But it’s not just that the current “political climate” is universally and profoundly seen as unsustainable. There is also a universal anxiety that it may “collapse and injure everyone in its fall”. In Europe, this could be the collapse of the euro or the default of Greece. It’s almost as if the fear is so overwhelming, so powerful, that “it will be left to chance to decide what shall be overthrown and what shall be preserved, what shall stand and what shall fail”. Hegel argues that whatever “cannot be sustained” should be abandoned and the “dispassionate eye” of justice is the only yardstick to examine what make something unsustainable.

He says that it is “blind…to believe that institutions, constitutions and laws which no longer accord with men’s customs, needs and opinions” can be justified and sustained. Any attempt to “restore confidence” in these elements in which people no longer trust or have faith is likely to lead to a “much more terrible outburst in which vengeance will ally itself to the need for reform and the ever deceived, ever oppressed mass will mete out punishment to dishonesty”. Of course, Hegel is writing towards the end of the French Revolution which saw a change in the French political system from an absolute monarchy to a republic. One can only wonder whether we are going through a similar period. One must wonder whether attempts to regain public trust of politician, of the financial services sector and of government’s economic management in Europe and gradual reforms in Middle East will be counterproductive and that what is required is a renunciation of power, manifested by a transfer of power from the centre to the masses. “To do nothing when the ground shakes beneath our feet but wait blindly and cheerfully for the collapse of the old building which is full of cracks and rotten to its foundations, and to let oneself be crushed by the falling timbers, is as contrary to prudence as it is to honour.”

Those who are driven by the fear that something must change – those saying it is the only option – will weakly “try to hold onto everything they possess”, like a “spendthrift who is obliged to cut his expenditure  but cannot dispose with any article he has hitherto required and has now been advised to do without”, like cars, foreign holidays and centralised power. On the contrary, they “should not be afraid to scrutinise every detail…the victim of injustice must demand the removal of whatever injustice they discover, and the unjust possessor must freely give up what he possess.”

Whether Europe or the Middle East, the protest is ultimately from the people who have no jobs, less money, less subjectivity against an elite trying to hold on to what they have and trying to increase economic growth. Perhaps this should be the strongest indication that perhaps there needs to be a paradigm shift away from the status quo and demand for economic growth. A Hegelian Hegel paradigm, there is an understanding that there is always a risk of breakdown in the relationship or dialectic between entities and it is that fear of breakdown that ensures the dialectic (or mutual conversation) continues.  It’s only when an entity tries to satisfy itself only and seeks to dominate the other, without mutual recognition, that breakdown occurs.

Facebook IPO: What would Hegel do?

I am pretty sure that the investment potential of Facebook is underpinned by the theoretical knowledge of Hegel. Having studied him for the last two years during my PhD, I am pretty sure that Hegel, that German, 18th century philosopher known as the father of the modern state would not only be one of Mark Zuckerberg’s closest friends, he probably would have found Facebook. Except that he would have called it something like Recognition or Dialectic. He would be an avid blogger – quite handy when wars across Europe and/or financial hardship are making it difficult to publish – and made pretty good use of wikis. It would have been interesting to see something like the Phenomenology of Mind promoted via Twitter but I am pretty sure he would be a Networked Researcher.

So when I read Mark Zuckberberg‘s letter to potential investors as to what they should know about investing in Facebook, I could not help thinking that Hegel would be proud. Both Hegel and Zuckerberg emphasise the foundational importance of relationships. The essence of Hegel’s philosophy is Recognition, where each self-consciousness (i.e. human being) exists in and for itself in that it exists for another self-consciousness, that is ‘it is only by acknowledged and recognised’ (Phenomenology of Mind). In The Bonds of Love, the feminist psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin argues that Recognition is so central to our existence that we often take it for granted; she says that near synonyms include ‘affirmation, validation, acknowledgement, knowledge, acceptance, understanding, empathy, taking in, tolerance, appreciation, sight, identification with, find familiar with and love’. Hegel is so bold as to argue that society, though an extension of the family, starts with a unity of individual consciousnesses of oneself held together by a feeling of love. ‘The first element of love is that I will to be no longer an independent self-sufficing person and that, if I were such a person, I should feel myself lack and incomplete. The second element is that I gain myself in another person, in whom I am recognised, as he again is in me. Hence, love is the most tremendous contradiction, incapable of being solved by the understanding.’ (Philosophy of Right). It is difficult to argue that Zuckerberg would not have sympathy with that view. He describes Facebook social mission as starting small, ‘with the relationship two people':

Personal relationships are the fundamental unit of our society. Relationships are how we discover new ideas, understand our world and ultimately derive long-term happiness.

His stated aim for Facebook is to help people connect, share information and build those relationships, whether it’s with small circle or half the world. What’s interesting is that he then goes on to what appears to be an ultimate agenda of rewiring ‘the way people spread and consume information, believing that ‘the world’s information infrastructure’ resemble the social graph – a network built from the bottom-up or peer-to-peer, rather than the monolithic, top-down structure that has existed to date’. This way of transmitting information is not dissimilar to what the growing body of neuroscience demonstrates about how the brain works, points out the French Hegelian philosopher Catherine Malabou (What should we do with the Brain?). In other words, how we individually process information, neuron by neuron, would seem a logical way for how we relate to people, convey information and how societal change is achieved. A key element of a neuron though is that it does not easily connect to other neurons – Malabou calls it explosion – and bonds only become stronger gradually over time. It’s also why we take time to drop habits (The Future of Hegel). Zuckerberg says:

As people share more, they have access to more opinions from the people they trust about the products and services they use. This makes it easier to discover the best products and improve the quality and efficiency of their lives.”

Malabou develops Hegel’s notion of plasticity to emphasise the tension between our resistance to and our susceptibility to change. As can be seen from Zuckerberg’s approach, it’s a conservative (incremental) approach to achieve a radical or progressive goal of ‘a stronger economy with more authentic businesses that build better products and services’ and better government that responds to its citizens. And let’s be honest, the big problems that put us off companies and politicians is poor customer service, marketing that we just cannot relate too and products that just don’t meet our needs.
This brings me on to the ‘Hacker’ way, which Zuckerberg defines as ‘building something quickly or testing the boundaries of what can be done’. In many ways, I would argue that Hegel was a hacker. Certainly, his key text, the Phenomenology of Mind, published in 1807, was something that had to be finished quickly because of financial pressures and concerns about war. In a continent dominated by Christianity, he certainly tested boundaries, with his philosophy taking in or recognising ideas from Eastern religions such as Buddhism. Indeed, in my view, by focusing on Recognition, he is arguing in favour of seeing beyond the illusion of self and other to what connects the two.  And, studying and then writing during the French Revolution, he was always a strong liberal; however, he recognised that liberalism could not be imposed from the top-down but could only be achieved gradually, incrementally, in a bottom-up or peer-to-peer fashion, much like the ‘continuous improvement and iteration’ of Facebook’s Hacker Way. Indeed, Malabou suggests that the What Should We Do The Brain? is a critique of a neoliberalism that has distorted the science of the brain and that we really ought to be reading more Hegel. And this is of course why it’s not enough to just read one text by Hegel or even only what he wrote. Whilst his philosophy is premised on their being such a thing as perfection, he describes history as being the development of progress towards perfection. Costas Douzinas points out in The End of Human Rights that the Hegelian Spirit, which was the underlying driver of the change in the word, has never grasped the totality. It goes back and forth between this world and the spiritual dimension and each time it understands a little more about the world. Each moment of time is a little more understanding. Hegel never said that anything that’s gone before is perfect, because the Spirit won’t know perfection until it understands everything. In other words, as Facebook hackers would say: ‘Done is better than perfect’.
The original aim of this post was to argue the relevance of Hegelian philosophy to today’s world. But then, as a true believer, I would say that. More importantly, having read through Zuckerberg’s letter, I am pretty sure that there is a theoretical basis to Facebook’s mission (and social media in general). Hmm, I wonder if I should put my money where my blog post is.

The Devil Wears Prada: Le Voir Venir

Anne Hathaway

Anne Hathaway shooting on 'The Devil Wears Prada'

I’ve just watched ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ for the umpteenth time tonight. I love it when I find films or TV series that I just want to watch over and over again. What I find fascinating is that every time I watch I pick up on something I didn’t notice the first time or something that didn’t seem significant before stands out. I also find that the first time I watch something I tend to focus more on the plot because I don’t know the story. But afterwards, because I know the story and what’s going to happen, I can actually appreciate more the writing and the characters and the backgrounds and so on.

For those of you who haven’t seen the Devil Wears Prada (why not?), Andrea (played by Anne Hathaway, the best thing about the film) has recently graduated from journalism school. Her dream is to write serious journalism like the New Yorker or for a newspaper. But she decides to apply for and take a job at Runway magazine, the top fashion magazine, even though she has no interest or knowledge in fashion because it would look good on her CV. Apparently both Runway and the editor-in-chief Miranda Priestly (played by Meryl Streep) have a fair amount of kudos not only in fashion but also journalism.  After a shaky start, she actually begins to succeed to the point that she is invited to join Miranda at Paris Fashion Week. The problem is that her success seems to be at the expense of who she is.

There are many themes that come up in this film but what I saw tonight was – appropriately for a film about a fashion magazine – what the French philosopher Catherine Malabou called le voir venir. Malabou translates it as ‘To see (what is) coming’, that moment where you stop, look back from where you have come and look forward and anticipate where you are going and decide what to do. It reflects, again appropriately for a fashion magazine, the plasticity of the Hegelian dialectic between resistance and change. (Plastic being something that can be moulded and then, once moulded, resists deformation, with an explosive element).

When Andrea first starts at Runway, she makes it pretty clear she is just there to get the experience before moving on, that it’s not what she’s into and so on. But she works hard. She holds onto her sense of fashion and she pokes fun at the ‘Runway girls’ with her friends. Then, after a particularly harsh telling off, she thinks it so unfair. It is brought to her attention that actually she hasn’t trying that hard at all…she’s not really adapting to the work environment, so why should the work environment adapt to her. At that moment, she experiences le voir venir. She decides to drop her sense of fashion and seeks help. She looks back and looks forward and decides to jump. However, that moment of le voir venir was like an explosion, it didn’t just push her a little forward, it pushed a lot. And continually there is tension between the ‘old Andrea’ and ‘new Andrea’. Indeed, there were lots of moments of le voir venir.

But as she seems to be leaving her old friends behind and making new ones, she still resists losing her values. As Miranda shows more and more faith in her, she shows loyalty to Miranda. So, when she finds out from Christian Thomson, her favourite writer with whom she has just slept with, about a move to push Miranda out of Runway, she is frantically trying to warn her of what’s happening. She is then absolutely devastated when Miranda resolves the situation and protects Miranda’s career by what she considers an act of disloyalty to the creative director of Runway, Nigel. But this is what succeeding in fashion and fashion journalism is all about…continually adapting and moving forward even if it means leaving behind those to whom you are connected. (Indeed, the whole fashion industry is about what’s new not what’s old hat, so to speak.) And that is Andrea’s final moment of le voir venir in the film. But this time, Andrea resists the forward momentum in her career and turns her back on a career at Runway. In essence, she turns back from becoming more like Miranda.

At the end of the film, it appears as if Andrea has gone back completely to how she was at the start of the film. But I think that the reason why she was able to go as far as she did at Runway was because she was interested in a career in serious journalism; she was ambitious. Miranda makes the point early on that girls who knew a lot more about fashion, thinner and better dressed, gave up a lot sooner. I think this was, for those girls, about fashion rather than about publishing. For Andrea, where she came from provided the reason for going forward. She had her resume of student journalism and was heading to serious journalism. Runway was not just a blip as the editor at the New York Mirror suggested at the end, even though Andrea tried to play down her time there. It was always part of her plan. She did what she needed to do to get the experience and when she felt she had gone far enough, she left. I think this was why Miranda took her on in the first place: because she saw someone with a sense of ambition who she knew would try hard, as opposed to the usual assistants who were just about the fashion. This is why Miranda says she sees much of herself in Andrea. Of course Andrea disagrees, but Miranda was talking about her ambition and she was right; Andrea was ambitious enough to get ahead at the expense of Emily who was far more into Paris Fashion Week. So yes, on the one hand, Andrea did change and move forward at Runway; On the other hand, she resisted change and held onto her dreams and her ambition.

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