Stephen Houlgate. Journal of the History of Philosophy. Volume 34, Issue 1. January 1996.
A glance at the texts of Jacques Derrida (in particular Glas) and at the texts and lectures of G. W. F. Hegel indicates that Hegel and Derrida are extraordinarily different thinkers. Hegel is clearly what Derrida would regard as a philosopher of presence, working toward the point “where knowledge no longer needs to go beyond itself, where knowledge finds itself,” where consciousness is present to itself as it is in itself. Derrida, on the other hand, suggests that everything that is present, here, now, at this moment, bears within it, as constitutive features of itself, the marks or traces of what is irredeemably past, and that, consequently, we can never talk of entities such as ourselves being simply or wholly present to themselves. Derrida claims in Positions that he tries hard to distinguish “differance” from Hegelian “difference,” indeed that “differance” might well be defined precisely as “the interruption, the destruction of Hegelian sublation [releve] wherever it operates”; and, to judge at least from the look of his texts, he would seem to have succeeded in making the difference between his project and Hegel’s unambiguously clear.
Yet, Derrida also admits in Positions that his thinking of “differance” is located “at a point of almost absolute proximity to Hegel” and that the difficult work of clarifying his relation to Hegel will remain “in a certain way interminable.” Perhaps, then, the differences between Hegel and Derrida might turn out on closer reading not to be quite as obvious as they appear. Part of what I wish to suggest in this paper is that there are indeed many more similarities between Hegel and Derrida than has generally been acknowledged.
These similarities begin to become apparent when we examine, for example, their respective attitudes to death, both metaphorical and literal. In his essay “From Restricted to General Economy: A Hegelianism without Reserve” in Writing and Difference, Derrida notes that Hegel considers the readiness to risk losing oneself and one’s life-specifically in the life and death struggle in the Phenomenology of Spirit-to be a crucial moment in the emergence of free self-consciousness. However, he also notes that Hegel resists the idea that the struggling consciousnesses should actually “rush headlong into death pure and simple … [and so] risk the absolute loss of meaning,” since this would deprive each consciousness of the recognition it was hoping for from risking its life. This suggests to Derrida-as it does to Georges Bataille, whom Derrida follows closely here-that Hegelian consciousness is after all not really ready to risk death, to risk losing itself altogether, but is in fact hoping for a return on its risk, namely, recognition and a new-found freedom in life. What happens in the life and death struggle is not that consciousness dies, Derrida points out, but that “through a ruse of life, that is, of reason, life has … stayed alive” (WD, 376; 255). Despite his apparent openness to death and negativity, therefore, Hegel shows that he is still a philosopher of presence for whom the goal is not to lose oneself and die, but “to maintain [one’s] certainty of [oneself]” (WD, 393; 268). Accordingly-and again following Bataille-Derrida describes Hegel as having a restricted, economic view of death and negativity: that is to say, Hegelian consciousness “reappropriates all negativity for itself, as it works the `putting at stake [of life]’ into an investment,” an investment from which it hopes to profit (WD, 377; 257). In other words, Hegelian consciousness only risks death because it already knows and anticipates what it hopes to gain and earn from this risk, namely, renewed life.
In Derrida’s judgment, Hegelian consciousness does not really risk death, does not really risk losing itself and its understanding, because it always makes sense of death, gives death significant work to do and an intelligible role to play, within the history of consciousness. “It does not suffice to risk death,” Derrida writes, “if the putting at stake is not permitted to take off, as chance or accident, but is rather invested as the work of the negative,” invested, that is, as something from which one anticipates some meaningful return (WD, 383; 261). The only way to open oneself to death, therefore, and so break the hold of the metaphysical desire to be present to oneself, would be what Derrida calls “an absolute renunciation of meaning” (WD, 376; 256), a renunciation reflected, perhaps, in a style of writing, such as Bataille’s, which allows words and concepts to “slide” (glisser) beyond one’s control and beyond intelligibility (WD, 400; 272). Such a writing would “assure us of nothing, … give us no certitude, no result, no profit” (WD, 402; 273), would not give us clear, determinate meanings to understand, but would subject concepts to “a mutation of meaning” or a “loss of sense” (WD, 392; 267), and to that extent would frustrate the metaphysical desire for mastery through understanding. Viewed in this light, Derrida’s own readiness to let various semantic, phonic, and even graphic associations between words resonate and play in his texts can perhaps be seen, not as a mark of self-indulgence, but as a readiness to let meaning and understanding be lostor at least be rendered enigmatic-in the process of writing; indeed, it could be said to indicate a readiness on Derrida’s part to risk a certain “death” of meaning and understanding in the production of his texts.
Derrida recognizes that Hegel also emphasizes the importance of risking death throughout his work. However, he insists that the Hegelian “economy” ultimately restricts itself to the conservation of life and meaning, and that the role of death within that economy is controlled by the structure of Aufhebung, which he defines (in Glas) as the “absolute reappropriation of absolute loss.”
Derrida thus appears to agree with Heidegger that Hegel’s thinking of death (and time) is governed and circumscribed by a predetermined idea of the way reason works and of the goal of reason. And he suggests that what is presupposed by Hegel is the idea that any loss or death will always be “reappropriated,” for its own benefit and development, by a self which ultimately remains what it is-remains “close to itself”-all the time (Glas, 30a; 22a). For Derrida, therefore, Hegelian consciousness can only be said to “develop” in so far as it becomes more fully, or returns more closely to, what it always already is. “Spirit,” Derrida writes in Glas, “is always-already-free as spirit, but it remains for spirit to be what it will have been [ce qu’il aura ete]: … to appear to itself as such, to free itself, to free its freedom” (Glas, 34a; 25a; see WD, 399; 271). Derrida’s use of the future perfect in these lines shows that Hegelian spirit does have a future in his view, but only as becoming what it always already is, and has been, in advance. Indeed, we are told that what calls itself spirit is quite simply that which “in advance interiorizes all content” (Glas, 30a; 22a).
The problem with this interpretation of Hegel is that it assumes that death, loss, and negativity are given meaning and value by a spirit or consciousness which essentially already is what it is prior to the loss. It assumes that spirit finds a role for death within a development or history whose structure is already prefigured and anticipated in what spirit is, in what spirit always already will have been. This interpretation does not, however, allow for the possibility that spirit could actually come into being, could actually emerge, through opening oneself to death and loss; that is, that spirit can become, not what it always already will have been, but something new, something constituted only through opening oneself to death and loss. But if, as I have argued elsewhere, what Hegel means by spirit does indeed only come into being through the readiness to let go of oneself and die, then this suggests a greater similarity between Hegel and Derrida than Derrida himself perhaps realizes.
Hegel tells us in the Phenomenology that the depth of spirit is only “as deep as it dares to spread out and lose itself in its exposition” (als er in seiner Auslegung sich auszubreiten und sich zu verlieren getraut) (Phen., 18; 6); that the path of consciousness described in the Phenomenology involves consciousness’s “loss of itself” (Verlust seiner selbst) (Phen., 72; 49); and that the life of spirit is precisely not the life “that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation” (Phen., 36; 19). If one then moves into the Science of Logic and notes that the concept is described as “free love” (freie Liebe), and if one also recalls that in the Philosophy of Right love is held to entail “giving up my beingfor-self” (Aufgebung meines Fursichseins), one realizes that a powerful case can be made for the proposition that Hegelian spirit is every bit as prepared to lose hold of itself as is Bataille’s “sovereignty” or Derridean deconstruction.) This similarity between Hegel and Derrida (and the differences between them) will become considerably clearer, I believe, if we now turn our attention to their thoughts about one particular kind of death, namely, the “death” or loss of meaning in mindless, mechanical activity.
At the end of his essay “The Pit and the Pyramid: Introduction to Hegel’s Semiology” in Margins of Philosophy, Derrida draws attention to the fact that, in the preface to the Phenomenology, Hegel recognizes the value and necessity of the very forces to which living, spiritual consciousness is fundamentally opposed, namely, “formality, the mathematical, the negative, exteriority, and death.” He then notes that among these fundamentally unspiritual, but nevertheless valuable forces Hegel counts calculation, the machine, and mute writing. In noting this, Derrida is reminding us that, despite his generally dim view of the “mechanical” as something merely external to the life of spirit, as something dead, Hegel always acknowledges the pedagogical value for consciousness of abstract mechanical activities such as repetitive mathematical calculation and rote learning. However, Derrida suggests that Hegel’s willingness to allow consciousness to engage in abstract, indeed alienating, mechanical mental activity is limited by his desire to overcome alienation and return consciousness to true spiritual life. Or, to put it another way, Hegel welcomes mechanical mental activity only to the extent that it contributes to the education of, and so has meaning for, a spirit whose fundamental mode of activity is not thought to be merely mechanical, that is, only to the extent that it can be reappropriated, aufgehoben or releve into the dynamic, organic life of spirit.
As in his other work on Hegel, Derrida insists that Hegel’s thoughtindeed all philosophical thought-is characterized by the “structural incapacity to think without releve” (M, 126; 107). But he suggests that Hegel’s desire to derive spiritual meaning or “profit” from everything, including even the most unspiritual things, such as death and empty mechanical repetition, encounters a problem precisely when it tries to invest in the mechanical itself. For, he asks, “at the moment when meaning is lost, … when spirit is absent from itself,” as in purely mechanical mental activity, “is the return on the operation [le rendement] certain?” (M, 125; 107). Hegel may believe that spirit can always profit from mechanical mental activity, but Derrida confronts Hegel with the following questions: Is not the Aufhebung of alienation and the return to spiritual life precisely what can never be the assured result of mechanical activity, what can never be a calculable, mechanical certainty? Are there not machines that just work, “without working in the service of meaning,” without contributing to the ends of spirit and life (M, 126; 107) And cannot human mechanical activity be quite meaningless and spiritless in precisely this way? Is not Hegel’s willingness to invest in the mechanical a lot more risky and precarious than Hegel ever realized (or admitted to himself), and should not this make him suspect that not everything can be successfully put to work in the service of human self-consciousness and self-presence?
Derrida’s suggestion is that Hegel’s structural incapacity for thinking without releve, without finding spiritual meaning in the world, prevents him from being open to this possibility that machines could just function, without meaning, and without profit or return for spirit: “what Hegel, the relevant interpreter of the entire history of philosopher, could never think is a machine that would work. That would work without. .. being governed by an order of reappropriation” (M, 126; 107). More importantly, what is also implied by Derrida’s remarks is that, in common with the whole metaphysical tradition, Hegel cannot accept the possibility that the human mind could actually become, or already be in some sense, a purely functioning repetitive machine, without meaning and without purpose.
Derrida cites lines from Hegel’s Science of Logic which show that Hegel can conceive the idea of the mind as a machine in so far as he recognizes that some of his contemporaries want to stretch the mind on the rack of abstract calculation “in order to perfect it as a machine.” But, according to Derrida, these lines also show Hegel repeating-a little too mechanically perhaps?-the “‘living’, ‘thinking’, ‘speaking’ protest against repetition” with which we are familiar from his other texts (M, 126-27; 107-108; see also Logic, I, 249; 216-17). They thus confirm for Derrida that Hegel himself does not think that the mind is fundamentally something that can or should ever be merely, meaninglessly mechanical.
The Hegel who emerges in the last pages of Derrida’s article always remains a philosopher of presence who finds a place for “dead” mechanical activity within the life that spirit already knows that it has, within the process of spirit’s becoming what it will always have been. This Hegel-together with Derrida to whom this Hegel belongs-does not, therefore, understand a new form of consciousness, which could not be anticipated, to come into being through meaningless mechanical activity, that is to say, does not understand that relinquishing meaning and becoming mindlessly repetitive and mechanical for their own sake are themselves precisely what cause a new form of self-consciousness, a new form of self-presence to arise. It seems to me, however, that Derrida’s assumptions about Hegelian consciousness are not altogether correct.
The place where Hegel discusses mechanical mental activity is in the section on memory (Gedachtnis) in the 1830 Encyclopedia. Gedachtnis, we are told, has three stages or levels: retentive memory (or the memory which retains names), reproductive memory, and mechanical memory; and it is with this latter that we shall be concerned for the rest of this essay. Why does Hegel describe mechanical memory as “mechanical”? Because the form of memory that he has in mind here is one which connects words, or names, in a purely external manner. Such memory pays no attention to the meanings which could provide associative, imaginative, or conceptual connections between words, pays no attention to whatever sense the words might have, but simply memorizes and then recites-without any understanding, like a machine-a string of wholly unrelated words and sounds. Hegel is quite insistent that the value and marvel of such memory is that the mind evacuates itself of all sense and understanding and becomes utterly machine-like.
As we know, a composition is only then properly known by heart, when one attaches no meaning to the words [wenn man keinen Sinn bei den Worten hat]. The recitation of what is known by heart is thus of course without accent. The correct accent, if it is introduced, suggests meaning; but the meaning, or representation which is called up disturbs the mechanical connection and easily throws out the reciter. The faculty of being able to retain by heart series of words with no intelligible connection or which are already in themselves meaningless [die schon fur sich sinnlos sind] (such as a series of proper names) is so supremely marvelous because the essence of mind is to be at home with itself [bei sich selbst], whereas in this case the mind is exteriorized in itself and its activity is that of a mechanism (Enc. III, 281; 222 ).
On the basis of this passage, then, it appears that Hegel can think of a machine that functions without working in the service of meaning, and that he is quite open to the possibility of the mind becoming just such a machine. Indeed, Hegel thinks that it is essential that the mind learn to become merely mechanical by memorizing and learning strings of meaningless words, because such mechanical memory is the indispensable condition of, and transition to, the activity of thinking (see Enc. III, 282; 223 ).
However, does not this reference to the role that mechanical memory plays in the emergence of thinking imply that Hegel is not in fact allowing the mind to function outside the service of meaning after all, but rather is appropriating the mechanical for consciousness, giving the mechanical a place within the irreducibly spiritual life of the mind; that is to say, that he is understanding mechanical memory to be a moment in the process whereby the mind goes more deeply into itself, into what it is and always already will have been? Derrida interprets spirit as that which “in advance interiorizes all content” (Glas, 30a; 22a), that which takes everything it posits or encounters back into itself as a moment of itself and its own development; and is it not the case that mechanical memory for Hegel is in fact, as Derrida would claim, just another such interiorized and interiorizing moment, another stage in the progressive interiorization of the enduring self? There are indications that this could indeed be the case.
Hegel makes it clear that the mind has its own sphere of interiority-the realm of representation and imagination-prior to any activity of rote learning in which it may engage. Mechanical memory could thus certainly be understood as the process whereby the already existing mind takes series of meaningless words into itself, and brings them forth again, as part of a process of developing and refining its own inner space. Furthermore, Hegel tells us explicitly that “intelligence as memory [Gedachtnis] … runs through the same activities of interiorizing remembrance [dieselben Tatigkeiten des Erinnerns]” as does representation (Enc. III, 277; 219 [^^461]). Indeed, he describes the activity of mechanical memory as itself the “highest Erinnerung” of representation (Enc. III, 281; 221 ). Learning lists of words by heart, we are told, is the process of internalizing words so that they can be brought forth from within (von innen heraus), from the deep pit of the I (Enc. III, 279; 220 ). Thus, as David Krell puts it, what memory shows is that “even extreme abstraction, even free-floating signs, can be interiorized and then externalized mechanically at will.”
It seems, then, that mechanical memory can be interpreted as a further act of interiorization by an enduring, living spirit. But does such an interpretation get to the heart of what Hegel is saying? Is memory simply the power to interiorize and externalize signs and words “at will”? Does Hegel simply regard mechanical memory as the process whereby an already living mind learns to go more deeply into itself? This reading cannot just be dismissed, but it seems to me to miss what is most important in Hegel’s account.
The main problem is that this reading implies that the mind never really loses itself, never becomes truly mindless or spiritless, in mechanical memory. Rather, by suggesting that mechanical memory is a stage in the process whereby the interiorizing mind passes on to thought, it suggests that the mind is in fact preserved as the enduring power of interiorization all along, that, to cite David Krell once more, “true memory preserves … the interiority of intelligence itself.” But Hegel’s claim seems to be that memory only becomes genuinely mechanical once the mind loses the interiority it first has as recollection, imagination, and signifying intelligence. Indeed, Hegel suggests that the very process of interiorization, at work in recollection, imagination, retentive memory and reproductive memory, is itself what causes the interior world of images, representations, and meanings, which the mind has enjoyed up to this point, to vanish: for “the more familiar I become with the meaning of the word, the more, therefore, that this becomes united with my inwardness, the more can the objectivity, and hence the determinacy, of meaning vanish [verschwinden] and consequently the more can memory itself, and with it also the words, become something bereft of mind [etwas Geistverlassenes]” (Enc. III, 28o; 221 [462 Addition]). (The more I repeat the words ‘dialectic’, ‘Aufhebung’, ‘Hegel’, or ‘Derrida’ to myself, therefore, the less I know what to understand by these words.) It is certainly true that mechanical memory arises as the result of a continuing process of interiorization; but what is crucial for Hegel is that in the course of that process the character of the interiorizing subjectivity is changed; indeed what initially gives that interiorizing subjectivity its distinctive inner richness is lost. What is lost, of course, is meaning. The inner realms of imagination, retentive memory, and reproductive memory are animated by meanings (Bedeutungen), which are themselves derived from the representations and interiorized images of Vorstellung. Memory only becomes properly mechanical when those meanings are so internalized that they are lost altogether and the mind’s activity consists in nothing but connecting series of words which are completely sinnlos. At this point, the mind as we know it in imagination and recollection-that is, the mind animated by meanings-disappears, and the mind becomes a simple, mindless, spiritless machine.
In Voice and Phenomenon Derrida claims that metaphysics has always been the desire for presence and that “absolute self-presence in con-sciousness is the infinite vocation of full presence” (VPh, 115; 102). What is remarkable about Hegel’s account of mechanical memory, however, is that it shows a metaphysical philosopher extolling the virtues of a mode of mental activity in which the mind is not present to itself, in which-to quote Derrida somewhat willfully out of context-we must speak of “an irreducible non-presence… having a constituting value” (VPh, 5; 6). Indeed, if we take what Hegel says in the Encyclopedia together with what he says in the Logic, one might almost have thought that he expected Derrida one day to read him: for in the Encyclopedia he tells us that mechanical memory is “the transition into the activity of thought” (Enc. III, 282; 223 )-an activity which we know he regards pretty highly-but in the Logic he reminds us that “a mechanical style of thinking, a mechanical memory, habit, a mechanical way of acting, signify” (precisely) “that the peculiar pervasion and presence of spirit [Gegenwart des Geistes] is lacking in what spirit apprehends or does” (Logic, II, 410; 711, my italics).
Hegel also anticipates what Derrida writes at the end of “The Pit and the Pyramid” when he says that the value of mechanical memory is missed if we regard it as justified only “through its utility, its indispensability perhaps for other purposes and activities of the mind” (Enc. III, 282; 222 ). The whole point of mechanical memory, for Hegel, is that the mind empties itself of all other meanings and purposes and simply concentrates on holding together meaningless words, for no other purpose than holding those meaningless words together. What Hegel demands of the mind, if it is really to become mechanical, therefore, is that it become the very thing Derrida said Hegel could not think, namely: “a machine defined in its pure functioning, and not in its final utility, its meaning, its result, its work” (M, 126; 107). Perhaps, then, Hegelian consciousness is prepared to do precisely what metaphysical philosophers, according to Derrida, are not supposed to want to do: namely, “lose itself, lose consciousness, lose all memory of itself and all the interiority of itself” (WD, 389; 265), and perhaps it does so by becoming the sheer exteriority of mechanical memory.
And yet, am I not being somewhat disingenuous in saying this? After all, consciousness does not lose itself altogether in mechanical memory-it does not actually cease to exist-and it does not lack all interiority either. Indeed, as we have seen, it achieves the “highest Erinnerung of representation” precisely at the moment of its highest exteriorization, at the moment of becoming simply mechanical and spiritless (Enc. III, 281; 221 ). Moreover, as I have noted, Hegel regards the interiority achieved in mechanical memory as the indispensable condition of all thought. The question to be considered, however, is this: does mechanical memory merely preserve and deepen the interiority which intelligence already has as imagination and recollection, and which it always desires to hold on to, albeit in further “developed” forms; or does it make possible a new interiority which is not presentindeed which cannot be conceived or anticipated-prior to such memory, and which can only come into being through the emptying of the mind and the loss of imaginative, meaningful interiority involved in mechanical memory? To put it another way: is mechanical memory simply reappropriated by a spirit which anticipates, and “in advance interiorizes,” all content (Glas, 3oa; 22a) as a moment of its continuing, ever meaningful life; or does mechanical memory-pace Bataille and Derrida-bring with it a new form of interiority which cannot be anticipated because it can only come about through the loss of interiority and the loss of meaning in mechanical memory? If the latter is indeed what Hegel has in mind, then this would mean that the claim that Hegel has a restricted, economic view of death, self-loss and the mechanical, as only ever yielding an anticipated return, would have to be revised; and Derrida would also have to revise his assumption that no selfconsciousness or self-presence, except one that is enigmatic and “deferred,” is possible for a thinking (such as his own or Bataille’s) which is prepared to lose meaning and lose itself. However, to show that a new, unanticipated and unanticipatable, self-present interiority does arise through the loss of meaning in mechanical memory, we must look a little more closely at Hegel’s arguments.
Prior to the stage of mechanical memory, for Hegel, there is intelligence and there is interiority, an inner self. Indeed, representation is precisely the process of taking the content of intuition and feeling into the mind’s inwardness, into “its own space and its own time” (Enc. III, 258; 203 ), and producing internal images of things seen and experienced. The content of representation and imagination-what the mind is aware of-is thus made up of images and representations formed by the mind, together with the representations referred to by signs, namely, meanings (Bedeutungen). According to Hegel, as well as being aware of its content, the imagining, representing mind is also aware of itself, is “present to itself.” However, it is only aware of itself as the activity of connecting the images, representations, and meanings which it draws and forms from its experience. As Hegel puts it in the addition to 456 of the Encyclopedia, images have a sensuous-concrete content “whose connection with another such content I am” (dessen Beziehung auf anderen solchen Inhalt ich bin) (Enc. III, 266; 209). Thus, as imagination and representation, I am indeed aware of myself, I am “for myself”; but what I am for myself is simply the connecting, associating, and relating-either directly or through signsof the specific experiences, images, and representations which constitute the material of my world. I have no sense of myself apart from those images and representations whose connecting I am, apart from the specific, concrete experiences I have had and what I have made of them. There is no distinct consciousness of myself as a pure “I,” as interiority, as subjectivity, as such.
In mechanical memory the situation is different. In memorizing meaningless words, I connect and hold together-or better, I am the connecting and holding together of-words and sounds which have no relation to my previous experiences, emotions, and memories. That is to say, I connect words and sounds which have no relation to the specific images and experiences, the connecting, associating, interiorizing, and reproducing of which is all that I have hitherto understood myself to be. In mechanical memory, I thus cut myself off from and lose the very things which have constituted my subjectivity and inner life so far. Indeed, to the extent that I concentrate wholly on memorizing words and sounds that have no meaning for me (say, in a language that I do not understand, like Latin), and lose sight of what has animated and given meaning to my words up to now, I cease being who and what I have previously experienced myself to be. And yet, although I now am, and know myself to be, nothing of what I have always been, I am still aware of myself-namely, as the activity of mechanically connecting and retaining what means nothing to me and is nothing of me. Indeed, that is all I now know myself to be: the “empty bond” (das leere Band), as Hegel puts it, which holds nothing but meaningless names together in “firm order” (Eic. III, 281; 222 ). I am thus aware of myself as simply the abstract activity of connecting as such, as what Kant understood as the formal unity in all synthesis of representations, namely, “transcendental apperception.”
But, of course, it is not true to say that I am still aware of myself as this empty bond, because I have not been aware of myself as such an empty bond prior to this. And this, I take it, is why Hegel regards mechanical memory as so important: for it is only by cutting myself off from the specific experiences and meanings which have constituted myself for myself up to this point, that I can come to what is in fact a new consciousness of myself as simply the abstract, mechanical power of connecting, or “abstract subjectivity.” And, as Hegel makes clear in 464 of the Encyclopedia, it is only this new abstract consciousness of myself that makes it possible for me to pass on to pure thinking.
Now, it is true that in becoming aware of myself as purely abstract subjectivity, as simply the power of connecting or “synthesizing,” I am in one sense becoming explicitly aware of what I have always been implicitly, since I have, after all, always been the activity of connecting the representations that have made up the furniture of my mind. But I have never yet actually been, or been aware of myself as, the purely abstract, mechanical activity of connecting alone. Indeed, I have never had any idea that I could be something purely abstract, because my consciousness of myself has always been my consciousness of my connecting, associating, and reproducing concrete images and representations from my experience. I could not therefore have anticipated such abstract self-consciousness or looked forward to it as the expected return on my investment in mechanical memory. I may have known or been told that mechanical memory would enable me to be conscious of myself as something “purely abstract,” but I could never have understood what that would mean, and so could never have invested in such memory as something that would guarantee to me the return of life and meaning as I understand it and have always desired it. For I can only discover what such abstract consciousness is and means by going through the process of actually losing myself in what I have to regard as utterly meaningless, mechanical mental activity.
In engaging in mechanical memory, as Hegel conceives it, I am not engaging in a process of self-alienation through which I hope to gain a reward I can conceive and anticipate; rather, somewhat like Bataille’s “man of sacrifice,” I am losing hold of what I have always taken to be meaningful and am operating in ignorance of the ramifications of what I am doing (see WD, 378; 257). And yet it is precisely this activity, in which I am unable to see any meaning, which grants me a new unimagined consciousness of myself.
What we have here, then, is something that Derrida would appear to regard as an impossibility, namely, the emergence, through the loss of oneself, of a form of self-consciousness and self-presence that can never have been the anticipated result of an investment in mechanical memory and death. If I were to regard such abstract consciousness as the projected return from such an investment, then I would consider it something useful or beneficial to me as the living spirit that I already am (prior to mechanical memory) and always will have been, and so I would never really lose myself in mechanical mental activity that cuts me off from everything that I have regarded as meaningful up to now. But, in that case, I would never become the wholly abstract consciousness of myself from which I hoped to draw a return.
Hegel’s account of mechanical memory shows that what he means by pure thinking is a form of self-awareness or self-presence that not only cannot exist prior to, give meaning to, and so put to work, spiritual death, but can only come about through spiritual death, namely, through the spiritual death of mechanical memory. It is true that in thinking, as Hegel construes it, we will “return” to a more concrete understanding of ourselves, namely, as rationally self-determining beings (and indeed recover the whole realm of imaginative experience which we lose in mechanical memory). But, in fact it is not really accurate to say that we will simply return to ourselves in thinking; rather it is the case that we come into a new consciousness of ourselves that we have never had-and could not conceive-in quite that form before.
This, I believe, is what Derrida misses-or at least underemphasizes-in his interpretation of Hegel. For Derrida, spirit may lose itself in death or mechanical memory, but it always returns thereby to what it always already will have been: Hegelian spirit is for him a spirit that follows “the circular path of a return to self,” a “spirit that returns to itself through its own proper product, after it lost itself there” (Glas, 38a; 28a). But this overlooks the fact that spirit’s “return” to itself is actually not a return, not a repetition of itself at a “higher” level, but a turning into itself, a coming to itself (Zu-sich-selbstKommen) (Logic, II, 571; 841, my italics), in which, through emptying itself of what it has always regarded as meaningful, it comes to be what it has never actually been before.
It must be said then that Derrida appears to misread Hegel. But that does not by any means deprive his interpretation of value. Indeed, it seems to me that Derrida indirectly alerts us to an aspect of Hegel’s thought which, without his work, we might well have overlooked: namely, Hegel’s appreciation of the importance of the passage through the loss of meaning-through what Nietzsche calls “nihilism”-in becoming free, self-conscious, self-present beings. One of the distinctive features of Derrida’s work is the attention he has turned to what he regards as the “the baselessness of the nonmeaning from which the basis of meaning is drawn,” that is, his belief that “meaning is a function of play, is inscribed in a certain place in the configuration of a meaningless play” (WD, 378, 382; 257, 260). Derrida’s project is not, however, to destroy meaning altogether; he would regard such an enterprise as foolish and impossible to achieve. His project is rather, within meaningful, intelligible discourse, to open himself to the necessary possibility, inherent or “inscribed” in all such discourse, of losing meaning-what he calls the “absolute loss” of sense (WD, 383; 261)-by drawing attention to the incoherences, repetitions and traces of nonmeaning which have always structured (and deconstructed) what we regard, and will always regard, as intelligible. Derrida pursues this project, as I understand it, in order to render meaning and intelligibility just a little more enigmatic than they have hitherto been held to be, and so to frustrate somewhat the will to power which he sees as guiding the traditional pursuit of meaning.
This, as I see it, is Derrida’s project; but it is not quite Hegel’s, and I do not propose that we lose sight of the differences between the two philosophers. Hegel, after all, is not so much concerned with merely rendering intelligibility enigmatic, as with showing how new forms of self-consciousness and freedom emerge from the breakdown of previous forms. However, if we move from Derrida’s work to Hegel’s we must surely be struck by Hegel’s “quasiDerridean” attentiveness to the importance of the passage through meaninglessness for the emergence of self-consciousness and freedom. Indeed, it might almost be said that Hegel, too, is aware that a certain kind of meaning has its ground only in the “baselessness of … nonmeaning.” We note, for example, that the Science of Logic, which begins with the category of pure being, also begins with the “empty word” (leeres Wort) ‘being’ (Logic, 1, 79; 78). We note that in the Phenomenology of Spirit, the unhappy consciousness frees itself from the deceptions of the “grateful” consciousness by “representing and speaking something quite foreign, something that is quite meaningless to it” (namely, Latin) (etwas ganz Fremdes, ihm Sinnloses vorstellend und sprechend) (Phen., 175; 137). And, of course, we note the importance of mechanical memory.
Unlike Derrida, Hegel is a philosopher who champions, rather than seeks to render enigmatic, self-consciousness (though I should point out that Hegel actually has a much more socially mediated conception of self-consciousness than I have indicated in this essay). Hegel also differs from Derrida in not being a transcendental, or rather “quasi-transcendental or rather “quasi-transcendental,” thinker. However, there are some instructive similarities between the two thinkers as I hope I have shown in this essay. Some will no doubt suspect that the Hegel I am describing never actually existed and that, like Nietzsche, he has only been born posthumously (with the considerable help of an albeit unwitting Derrida as midwife). I do not, however, believe that the Hegel I describe is quite as unfamiliar as one might think. Indeed, my conviction is that reading Hegel in light of Derrida’s work-albeit against the grain of Derrida’s own interpretation of Hegel-merely enables us to see more clearly than we otherwise might have done what Hegel himself “always already” was and is.