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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.

Being accountable for my PhD

My summer was, on the whole, very busy. Aside from two weeks off to watch the Olympics and two weeks over the period of my sister’s wedding, I have been holed up in the PhD office since June writing the final chapter of new material. My goal was to send my superviser the three main chapters for review by the time he comes back at end of September, and I did it.

I felt pretty good and can actually see the end of my PhD in sight. So, with my conclusion and introduction remaining, I formally started the writing up year. My superviser and I have previously discussed having a full first draft by Christmas – I said before, he suggested to use the holiday time. So not much longer to go. The trouble is, so far this month, I seem to have backslidden back into procrastination.

So today, with this blog post, I reaffirm my commitment to have a full first draft by Christmas (whatever that means). I will also be making this commitment on #phdchat and to my church homegroup. 

Being accountable for our time I have found is important. Otherwise, it is quite easy to waste time. Social pressure gets a bad wrap these days, but we cannot avoid it or eliminate it. Trust me, I’ve tried! Even Hegel – yes, him – says that true existence depends on (mutual) recognition by another person we see as equal. We care about what others think. Can you imagine what this world would be like if we didn’t?

What did Hegel do on Valentine's Day?

Thank God Valentine’s Day is over. Dont get me wrong, I don’t hate Valentine’s Day. I am pleased that there are plenty of people who can celebrate it and I hope to join them some day. I just haven’t found anyone whose into, er, group activities. Just kidding.

Even Hegel, the 18th Century German philosopher and father of the modern state, believed that love is fundamental basis of the world, it’s what makes the world go round, because it cannot be broken down any further into its constituent parts. (He also called it Recognition.) In his “Philosophy of Right”, he wrote: ‘Love is in general the consciousness of the unity of myself with another. I am not separate and isolated, but win my self-consciousness only by renouncing my independent existence, and by knowing myself as unity of myself with another and of another with me. But love is a feeling, that is to say, the ethical form of nature…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 lacking 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. Nothing is more obstinate than this scrupulosity of self-consciousness, which, though negated, I yet insist upon as something positive. Love is both the source and the solution of this contradiction. As a solution, it is an ethical union.’

Unfortunately, I didn’t have anyone to celebrate Valentine’s Day with. Well, no-one real anyway….oh wait, I have plenty of people to celebrate it with, they just don’t want to celebrate it with me.

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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.

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