“The absolute melting-away of everything stable” Pt. I

Readers of the “Lordship and bondage” chapter of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit have generally focussed on the concept of mutual recognition (eg. Kojève, Brandom [pdf]), but there is another important concept that hasn’t been discussed as much: the fear of death as “the absolute Lord”, which reveals the essence of consciousness as “absolute negativity” (§ 194). Here is the whole passage:

 For this consciousness has been fearful, not of this or that particular thing or just at odd moments, but its whole being has been seized with dread; for it has experienced the fear of death, the absolute Lord.  In that expererience it has been quite unmanned, has trembled in every fibre of its being,  and everything solid and stable has been shaken to its foundations. But this pure universal movement, the absolute melting-away of everything stable, is the simple, essential nature of self-consciousness, absolute negativity, pure being-for-self, which consequently is implicit in this consciousness.

In the preface (§ 32) Hegel identifies the activity of dissolution with “analysis” as a “power and work of the Understanding”, and explains it as the ability to take an “accident as such”, ie. “what is bound and is actual only in its context with others” and give it “an existence of its own and a separate freedom”. The action of separating a previously dependent aspect of a thing or unbinding what is bound is in fact the same action as that of giving it independence. When we “bring fixed thoughts into a fluid state”, they “become Notions, and are only now what they are in truth, self-movements, circles, spiritual essences, which is what their substance is” (§ 33). So the entire movement involves: 1) a fixed thought ; 2) its dissolution or unbinding into moments ; and 3) the unification of the fixed thought and its dissolved moments into a circling that encompasses them both. (Cf. §§ 18, 53, 55.)

The “melting-away” described in the “Lordship and Bondage” chapter is therefore a preliminary, as always with Hegel. He wants to make thoughts fluid only in order to make them circulate. A circle is a movement that  “presupposes its end as its goal, having its end also as its beginning” (§18) or appearance as “the movement of the life of truth”, “the arising and passing away of what does not itself arise and pass away, but is ‘in itself’ (§ 47). The circular life of the Spirit, or “the suffering, the patience, and the labour of the negative” is at the same time a life of “untroubled equality and unity with itself, for which otherness and alienation, and the overcoming of alienation, are not serious matters” (§ 19). A straightforward criticism of these passages would be to say that the movement of the for-itself, returning to the in-itself as it was at the beginning, is simply pointless and illusory, but since we’re dealing with Hegel, our criticism will have to be a bit more devious. For Hegel, the opposition between the for-itself as “mere appearance” and the in-itself as the real is itself cancelled/overcome in the circular movement; the “actual whole” of a philosophy is not just the result, “but rather the result and the process through which it came about” (§ 3).

This more devious criticism takes us back to the passage from “Lordship and Bondage” (§ 194). Hegel tells us that death (or the fear of death?) is “the absolute Lord”, and that by facing it, the servant is able to free himself from natural existence (at least implicitly). But this experience of the fear of death is hardly an “absolute negativity”: it retains the fearful subject as something positive and to be preserved. The servant is afraid for himself and acts to preserve himself by turning away from death. The life of the Spirit, insofar as servitude is one of its moments, is in fact, despite Hegel’s protests, a “life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation” rather than a life that “endures it and maintains itself in it” (§ 32).

(In Part II, I will explain why this is not simply a momentary lapse by Hegel, but why the life of the Spirit must keep itself untouched by devastation: essentially, because it is a life. I will try to use an experience of “absolute horror” taken from Lovecraft and Ligotti to separate Hegel’s spirals into a “circle of life” and a “vector of truth” that are necessarily hostile to one another, as a first step in answering, Yes there is.)

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