Emancipating Hegel: Synthesis, History, and the Example of Whitman
For a fellow disciple of what, in my estimation, is the single most important tradition informing Todd McGowan’s Emancipation After Hegel, that of the Ljubljana School, many possible responses to the book present themselves. One could, for instance, point out all of the ways in which McGowan’s book constitutes what, to date, is the most ambitious attempt at articulating precisely the type of “Hegelian critique of Marx” that Slavoj Žižek long ago called for. Indeed, one need look no further than McGowan’s contention that Marx is a “rightist deviation” from Hegel – a reading sure to raise some eyebrows – to realize that Adrian Johnston’s claim that “McGowan forges an unprecedented type of Left Hegelianism” is in no way hyperbolic. Another potential avenue of response would be to point out all of the ways in which McGowan’s book constitutes what, to date, is the most subtle attempt at achieving another of Žižek’s career-long aims, that of “reactualiz[ing] Hegelian dialectics by giving it a new reading on the basis of Lacanian psychoanalysis.”3 I say “most subtle attempt” because though McGowan devotes an entire chapter to the topic of “Hegel After Freud” – a chapter in which he argues that Hegel came “almost a century too soon,” for it is only with the advent of Freud and psychoanalysis that we get an adequate language for articulating the primary aim of the dialectic: namely, “to sustain and extend contradiction” – Lacan is conspicuously absent, yet nonetheless present, virtually nowhere, yet simultaneously everywhere, throughout the book, a (more or less) silent partner. Or, to give one final example, one could respond to the book by pointing out all of the ways in which the ontology of Hegel’s that McGowan lays out therein – an ontology according to which epistemological impasses and contradictions are not to be abandoned as precluding true ontological inquiry, but are instead to be viewed as symptoms of contradictions in being itself – offers a much needed corrective to the object-oriented ontologies underwriting the various new materialisms and realisms currently en vogue throughout the humanities and social sciences. Whereas these object-oriented ontologies are all marked by a desire to bypass the subject and return philosophy to the pre-Kantian aim of “thinking substance” as it is “in itself,” to regain, in the words of Quentin Meillassoux, access to “the great outdoors, the absolute outside of pre-critical thinkers,” McGowan demonstrates with devastating clarity that, from the vantage point of Hegel’s ontology, insofar as substance is ineluctably also subject (i.e., non-self-identical, divided against itself), such a great outdoors, as Lacan says of the big Other, simply does not exist.
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