Let's Spit on Hegel

“Hegel is an asshole”--Karl Marx
“Hegel is an asshole”--Carla Lonzi
“Hegel is an asshole”--Gilles Deleuze
“Hegel is an asshole”--Rei Terada

Credit where credit's due for today's writing prompt: Carla Lonzi's 1970 tract "Let's Spit on Hegel," originally published by the group Female Revolt [Rivolta Femminile], collected as a book in 1974, with an English translation in Paola Bono and Sandra Kemp's Italian Feminist Thought (1991) plus a more recent version circulating online. How did Lonzi understand Hegel? And why did she want us to spit on him?

"Sputiamo su Hegel," wrote Lonzi and her comrades in the Female Revolt manifesto wheat-pasted on the walls of Rome and Milan in the summer of 1970: Let's spit on Hegel! "Hegel's dialectic does not address the liberation of women, that great population so oppressed within patriarchal civilization," wrote the feminist collective. Hegel's famous master-slave dialectic was merely the "settling of accounts between groups of men."

Picking up the sputiamo line from the manifesto, Lonzi wrote the longer text "Let's Spit on Hegel" that same summer of 1970. Lonzi's dissection of Hegel is precise and lethal. Let me reproduce the opening salvo, here in Veronica Newman's translation:

"Let us consider the man-woman relationship in Hegel, the philosopher who saw the slave as the driving moment of history. He rationalized patriarchal control most subtly of all within the dialectics of a divine feminine principle and a human masculine principle. The former presided in the family, the latter in the community. 'While the community takes sustenance only by destroying the happiness of the family and by dissolving self-consciousness in universal selfconsciousness, it produces, in that which oppresses and which is at the same time essential for it--in other words in femininity in general--its inner enemy' [Hegel, Phenomenology, §475]. Woman never goes beyond the stage of subjectivity. She recognizes herself in her relations by blood and by marriage, and thus remains immediately universal. She lacks the necessary premises for leaving the family ethos and for achieving the self-conscious force of universality through which man becomes a citizen. Her condition, which is the consequence of her oppression, is treated by Hegel as its cause. The difference between the sexes is used to form the natural metaphysical basis both for their opposition and for their reunification. Within the feminine principle Hegel locates an a priori passivity in which the proofs of male domination disappear. Patriarchal authority has kept women in subjection, and the only value recognized as belonging to them is their being able to accept it as their own nature. In accordance with the whole tradition of western thought, Hegel sees woman as, by nature, confined in one particular stage, which is given as much resonance as possible, but at which no man would ever choose to be born."

Hegelians will defend his rendering of an "enemy" female, this lady of "everlasting irony," as merely a kind of mock feminine, an effigy of woman necessarily to be overcome. Still, the logic of "one particular stage" remains particularly pernicious in Hegel, and, as we will see, it also supports his dim views on Africa and other parts of "world civilization" beyond the cozy confines of Europe.

The fact of women's structural dependency particularly riled Lonzi, within leftist movements but also more generally. "Women have always been subjected to economic dependence," she wrote, "first on their fathers, then on their husbands."

"Our message to man, to the genius, to the rational visionary is this: the future of the world does not lie in moving continually forwards along a path mapped out by man’s desire for overcoming difficulties. The future of the world is open: it lies in starting along the path from the beginning again with woman as a subject."

Carla Lonzi

Not only Hegel but Marx too was the target of her critique. She had little faith in class struggle and working class movements. "We question socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariate," went the Female Revolt manifesto, since these social structures had, themselves, so frequently omitted the woman question. "Marxism has ignored women," Lonzi observed. "Its revolutionary theory was developed within the framework of a patriarchal culture."

Indeed Lonzi spares nothing on Marx or Lenin either, calling them out for their implicit patriarchy and undercutting of women's movements. (Lenin in a letter to the German Marxist Clara Zetkin: "you seem preoccupied with questions of sex and marriage...I was told that sexual topics were also a favourite subject in your youth organization...It is particularly scandalous, particularly harmful.") This led Lonzi to a general skepticism toward political interventions in the name of "revolution" or even "equality." The "sufferings, needs, and aspirations" of women should not be "subordinated to the class problem." Rooting women's liberation in Hegel's master-slave dialectic "is an historical mistake," she wrote. "It poses the problem through the terms of men."

An autonomous feminist movement was necessary. It would have to be formed on its own, with Female Revolt as one step in the reestablishment of a new society of women. "We only communicate with women" went the finale of the Female Revolt manifesto, comunichiamo solo con donne. And for more on Lonzi I would recommend the detailed and thoughtful essay, "We Are All Clitoridian Women: Notes on Carla Lonzi’s Legacy," where the group Claire Fontaine reflects on Lonzi in a wider frame, apart from the Hegel essay, including her relationship to art and many other things. I'm reminded here how, a year later, artist Lee Lozano would reverse the strategy of "only communicate with women" in her notorious "boycott" piece. "I am boycotting women," she wrote, at the end of which Lozano was confident that "communication will be better than ever."

Kamran Behrouz, "Becoming-forest" (2018)

Yet in 2020, fifty years after Lonzi's exhortation, Hegel has never had it so good. We're in the middle of a Hegel renaissance today. Of course Left Hegelians like Fredric Jameson have been part of the discourse for a long time. And there is a small but persistent community of American philosophers working on Hegel such as Robert Pippin and Robert Brandom. I'm thinking more though of philosophers in the continental tradition like Catherine Malabou and Judith Butler who both frequently return to Hegel, and in fact co-authored a book together on the subject. Or recall Susan Buck-Morss and her 2005 book on Hegel and Haiti, the nub of which appeared earlier in article form. Or Reza Negarestani, who surprised the world--or at least surprised me--with a recent volume of Hegel fanfic. Then there is Slavoj Žižek, arguably the world's most influential contemporary Hegelian, whose outsize exposure--with no small assistance from the likes of Alenka Zupančič, Mladen Dolar, Joan Copjec, Todd McGowan, and others--has helped solidify the currently fashionable Lacan-Hegel posture in psychoanalysis, having replaced the older configuration of Freud-Marx, no doubt a political regression if not also an intellectual one.

Despite all this, I'm here to tell you that Hegel is an asshole. But how exactly? And why? Beyond Lonzi's intervention, I document two additional large problems, followed by two others more subtle in nature. First, Hegel is an asshole because he is a racist, an insurmountable obstacle for many readers. Second, Hegel is an asshole because he an idealist, also an insurmountable obstacle for many, albeit less flagrant. Third, Hegel is an asshole because he's a hysteric, a controversial epithet that I'll explain in a second. Finally, Hegel is an asshole because of his quietism, another label that will require unpacking.

Rei Terada's recent essay "Hegel’s Racism for Radicals" is an excellent way to rejoin the story, not only because she so clearly outlines "the frantic anti-blackness of Hegel’s depiction of sub-Saharan Africa" (13), but also because she makes such a dogged pitch for dismissing Hegel in and around the very virtues of progressive leftism. Hence Terada looks to Hegel's endorsement of a "radical openness to history," not the absence of openness, or to Hegel's rejection of "nature and essence," not a pernicious essentialism. "It is in these philosophical choices," writes Terada in no uncertain terms, "that I find Hegel’s specific contribution to racial capitalism" (12).

Hegel's complaint was not so much that African or Indian peoples were lesser in an absolute sense--although he thought that too--but that they were closer to matter, and hence less amenable to the sort of spiritual self-alienation obligated by Hegel's dialectic. They just won't transcend themselves, in other words, or won't as quickly or not as well. They just won't leave their condition behind, he thought, and even if they do leave it they will always return to the same place. (Recall what Lacan said in his famous Seminar 11 regarding the real: the real always returns to the same place.) What Terada describes as "Hegel’s disapproval of ‘natural’ orders" (14), a seemingly admirable stance, in fact further disenfranchises those marked as too natural to de-nature themselves. Hegel's white European emerges not so much as the one with the capacity to exert violence, to buy or to sell, to rape or dismember--although those as well--but something like the inverse, to be self-violent, to dismember oneself, "a capacity to be dismembered, and therefore formed, by the Absolute...The same ecstasis greets the torn and disarticulated historical [European] subject; its dismemberment is told and retold as a graphic dazzle" (15, 20). In this way Hegel converts "the ‘openness’ of the negative into the measure of authentic development and then uses it to generate racist images of Africans who ‘lack’ it" (16).

Marx of course was a Hegelian at a very low level, but here we might recall how and why Marx was so conflicted around the question of alienation. For the young Marx in particular alienation was a kind of terror, ontologically, physically, and psychologically. Yet throughout his life Marx kept the logic of alienation close because he knew it was so essential to the workings of modern capitalism, and, he also thought, of history more generally.

Even Hegel's ostensible rejection of slavery furnishes further fuel for the subordination of Africans. Terada explains this virtuosic inversion in the following way:

"Hegel complains that Africans ‘see nothing unbecoming’ in being connected to Europeans only through slavery. 'There is no slavery in the state that is rational; slavery is found only where spirit has not yet attained this point.’ Quite literally, for Hegel this lack of connection and its ill effect, blackness, is why Africans have to remain enslaved for a while longer" (17).

Consider also the work of Denise Ferreira da Silva who has written on how the dialectic itself, primarily in Hegel but Marx is not off the hook either, will never help to explain blackness. Concepts like negation, opposition, or contradiction, these don't work for her because they assume that "the distinction is between opposed presentations of the same form" (11n24, emphasis added). Blackness is different for her. "Blackness fractures the glassy walls of universality" (2).

The Hegelians are rightfully crestfallen here, since according to them this is precisely how the dialectic works, through strong negation. Yet I interpret Ferreira da Silva as making a distinction between the dialectical tradition and that of, say, structuralism--I'm not saying she herself would avow that label--the former with its ravenous appetite for ingesting all forms of alterity and incorporating them into the universal, the latter staunchly maintaining a point of structural exclusion necessary for the maintenance of the entire edifice.

Regardless, to get beyond dialectics, one need only to look to Fanon, Robinson, Spillers, Hartman, or Moten, since all refuse dialectics according to Ferreira da Silva:

"Though Frantz Fanon’s refusal of dialectics is the most celebrated, I find this refusal also in Cedric Robinson’s tracing of the black radical tradition; in Hortense Spillers’s figuring of the flesh as zero degree of signification; in Saidiya Hartman’s refusal to rehearse racial violence as the moment of black subjectification; and in Fred Moten’s descriptions of blackness in the scene of violence which refuse a simple reconciliation with the categories and premises of modern thought" (9-10).

To be sure, the master-slave dialectic is often held up as a kind of ideal for recognizing and overcoming difference. The good faith Hegelian will say: Even here there is mutual recognition. Whether master or slave, the one recognizes the other. They both are debilitated in this relation, and they both will be resolved. As we saw, Lonzi was skeptical of the logic of recognition and identification: "Identification has a compulsive male quality," she asserted, "it strips the bloom from existence and subjects it to the demands of a controlling rationality" (17). And I think Ferreira da Silva would say something similar: Identification is the compulsive tick of whiteness; the "Hegelian subject who recognizes" is part of the logic of racialization.

On the Africa question Hegel's defenders frequently unburden their consciences by specifying--and here Terada indicates her disapproval in a passing remark--that Hegel's Lectures on the Philosophy of History were just that, lectures...lectures mind you!...material collected afterward and not originally intended for publication, as if a new kind of morality, this one bibliographic with Phenomenology at the tip and History at the tail, might exculpate Hegel from that other more distasteful morality (European tip, African tail). The phenomenon of the "Left Hegel" versus the "Right Hegel" performs similar ideological work. Terada notes wryly that this left-vs-right distinction offers convenient cover for anyone wishing to disavow Hegel's more odious side. As she puts it, "left Hegelians often assume that anti-Hegelians are objecting to the rightist Hegel and that their own task is therefore to explain the resources that Hegel still offers to the left" (12). You have a problem with something Hegel said? Oh, that's just the bad side speaking.

I suppose the same indiscretion is committed by those Marxists, I am certainly one, who aim steadfastly to expunge the "bad Hegel" from the pages of Capital, in the hopes of resolving the idealist's mistakes by way of the materialist's corrections. Just like Althusser warned: Don't read Part 1 of Capital! There's too much Hegel there... Too bad, that's one of the best parts. But I don't apologize for wanting to be rid of him. Still, regarding Hegel's idealism I will say comparatively less, since grousing about the political shortcomings of idealism is old hat for the left. Althusser’s fraught relation with Hegel's idealism was located in the pages of Capital, but at the same time it was a proxy war against both Stalinism and Maoism. Hence the desire to "read" Marx in a new way, as well as to turn to different sources from within the history of philosophy, took on an immediate political urgency. In those years Althusser's student Pierre Macherey put the debate in sharp distinction with his unambiguously titled Hegel or Spinoza. (Despite the title, Macherey's book is a symptomatic reading of both figures, not a death match.) Yet it was ultimately Gilles Deleuze who would emerge as the most formidable anti-Hegelian of his time, himself so frequently writing under the auspices of Spinoza, and inverting Hegel's idealism into a robust materialism, as Marx had done a century before. Spitting on Hegel, Deleuze admitted once that what he "most detested was Hegelianism and dialectics" (Negotiations, 6). Hegel's noxious cocktail of negation and identity was too repellent to Deleuze, who instead fabricated his own anti-Hegelianism around affirmation and difference. (People tsk-tsk at me when I say that there is no negation in Deleuze; they cite this or that passage as evidence of the contrary, yet the spirit of it holds, that to understand Deleuze one must fully affirm affirmation.)

Let's spit on Hegel the racist. Let's spit on Hegel the idealist. These being relatively uncontroversial, next come two more articles of impeachment, Hegel the hysteric and Hegel the political quietist. Even an unreconstructed Hegelian like Žižek might agree, at least in part. As Žižek put it in a recent lecture, Hegel's Phenomenology and his Logic are hysteria at its best. In those texts, Hegel displays permanent self questioning--I am saying this, why am I saying this, am I really saying this, and on and on endlessly. (By contrast, Hegel's Encyclopedia and the text on Right are what Lacan would call "university" discourse, textbooks recounting the various known points and sub-points of an existing system of knowledge. We thus have two Hegels according to Žižek: the hysteric and the liberal.)

The notion of hysteria is bound up with pseudoscience and misogyny of course. Yet psychoanalysis also provides a technical description: the hysteric is the one who stubbornly contests the unity of the master, by "irrationally" negating that unity, by overwhelming it with surplus, by enjoying instead of obeying, by slipping from the symbolic into the real. The hysteric thus has a very special relationship to the notion of wholeness, unity, or "the One," a relation that is simultaneously both not one but also sutured into the One as a stand-in. As Lacan himself described it in his Seminar 16, "What the hysteric does is to subtract the objet a from the absolute 1 of the Other, in order to determine if it actually delivers this 1, which would act as a kind of assurance." All of which the hysteric experiences as enjoyment. Far from being disciplined or excluded by the One, and certainly not silenced or repressed, the hysteric, in a sense, takes the place of the One, and thus overflows with surplus enjoyment, but only by first creating the conditions of wanting that the One so necessarily requires. Here we see another facet of Hegel's hysteria: the only true subject is the subject wanting, and likewise the relentless logic of the want retroactively generates what we label "subject," propelling it forward. Recall that, for Terada, the problem was not that Hegel lacked a theory of "self-division, aporia, disarticulation and negativity," but precisely that he promoted those logics so relentlessly! Hysteria doesn't threaten the wholeness of the Hegelian subject. Rather, the Hegelian subject, defined as non-whole, is hysteria.

Lacan maintained that not all hysterics were women, yet for him the "not all" was an essential component of the "woman" side of the formulas of sexuation, discussed extensively in Seminar 19. "[W]oman is pas toute, not all," was how Lacan put it (89). "[S]he harbours another jouissance besides phallic jouissance. ... If woman is not all, it is because of the duality of her jouissance" (88). I will gingerly sidestep the hazards of this signifier "woman" by merely noting that there is considerable discussion in Lacanian circles about whether the labels "woman" and "man" are even necessary for Lacan's formulas of sexuation. I tend to side with people like Joan Copjec on this point: sexual difference doesn't so much stipulate "there are two sexes," which would seem to conflict with transsexuality and biological plasticity (not to mention gender performativity, which Copjec famously rejects), as it says "there are two ways in which the symbolic fails," call them other things besides woman/man if you like, call them the "mathematical" failure and the "dynamical" failure, as Copjec does.

But if you spit on Hegel are you not also spitting on women? I should hope not! Metaphysics picks its winners and losers--that's the point of it, after all--and if you spit on the system it ought not reflect on a certain structural condition, "hysteric," lodged within it. On the contrary, spitting on Hegel should offer a vast new landscape for women's liberation, as we saw by starting with Lonzi, even if she need not be the end.

The problem with Hegel's hysteria is not that it's feminized, but that it's conservative. Hegel's hysteria is a form of pathological stasis, regression cloaked in developmental clothing. "Deepen the contradiction" ends up meaning be content with your shitty lot. Recall the notorious finale of Freud's Studies in Hysteria, where he finds professional accomplishment in transforming the "hysterical misery" of his patients into what Freud called "common unhappiness." Common unhappiness! Imagine that being the best you could muster. Indeed such common unhappiness seems to be the order the day. Or year.. If not also the century that has elapsed since.

In other words Hegel raises contradiction, and for that he deserves praise, yet the "necessity of contradiction" defeats contradiction in the end, broken under the blade of necessity. This generates a particularly pernicious form of political quietism, for in a universe full of contradiction what's the use of pursuing any particular contradiction over any other? Such monotony of outlook ends up consolidating the one who looks. "The most serious drawback to the Hegelian system," admitted Jameson in a moment of candor, is "the way in which it conceives of speculative thinking as ‘the consummation of itself’ (namely, of Reason)” (Hegel Variations, 130-131). Even the master-slave dialectic, cited by some as the crux of the Phenomenology and the primary target of Lonzi's spitting, reverts to something like the Reason-Reason dialectic, which isn't a dialectic after all. Hegel is a kind of endless mirror, a hyper-mirror. The Hegelian subject looks outward, but only speculates itself. Or as Lonzi put it in her Sputiamo, "the cunning of reason will always be in agreement with power."

In the end what Hegelianism denies most--and in a different way what both Freud and Lacan also defang and deflate--is that event so commonly derided as "political modernism," that is, the heroic overcoming of the real conditions of existence. So here's a vapid slogan if you want one: Show me a Hegelian and I'll show you someone too nervous to become a Marxist. Ha! But, alas, there is always still time! Rest assured that everything you think you need from Hegel you can still get from Marx, only in an improved form. And why stop there, when we also have Lonzi, Terada, Deleuze, Fanon, and so many others.

Meanwhile Hegel is still with us and the world is still a soulless hellscape. But luckily the streets today are filled with political modernists. Just find a cop car on fire and you will feel the glow.