Cole starts his book with Hopkins and Melville and ends with Hegel and Marx; such literary-philosophical breadth more-or-less defines the ingenuity and scope of his project. The Birth of Theory asks many questions: was Hegel really the mere idealist of so much criticism? Is he a philosopher whose concerns can be reduced to dialectical head-games divorced from material reality, to say with Althusser that “Marx’s discourse is in principle foreign to Hegel’s” (“From Capital to Marx’s Philosophy,” 51)? Did the post-Marxist Left, the one with which most people are familiar today — the Left often associated with Foucault and Deleuze — really short circuit and overcome dialectics (that is, Hegel), move critical analysis away from class and toward more nebulous, but also more far-reaching, categories? In other words, Cole proffers answers by way of, surprisingly, a sort of genealogy of dialectical thought, one that privileges medieval thinkers, that refuses to see a clean break (if one at all) between the medieval and the modern, and therefore between us and Hegel.
Given these many concerns (and the fact that this book is merely number one in an as-yet-incomplete trilogy), hundreds of reviews have been, and could be, written of The Birth of Theory. My purposes must thus be narrower if they are to be helpful. To my eyes, Cole’s book accomplishes something unexpected: a readable history of the dialectic that demonstrates how Hegel and the medieval mystical tradition haunt contemporary social and theoretical conditions. The text refuses to sever the ties between thought and matter, philosophical problems and lived experience. And, in doing so, reminds us that history — even the distant medieval, seemingly opposed to the illuminating modernity of Hegel — cannot be shaken so easily. Attempting to do so creates obstacles to thought, false dichotomies over which to stumble.
Before its content can be laid out, however, some notes on its context seem proper — if only to make clear why talking about Hegel matters at all. These days on the Left (as differentiated from center-Left liberalism) there are often accusations made of “class reductionism” and “identity reductionism.” One side, seeing itself as grounding social analysis in more explicitly-Marxian terms, emphasizes economic class, capitalist exploitation of workers, etc. This does not preclude analysis of race, gender, sexuality, etc. — the other analytics often associated with the Left — it just sees them as impossibly embedded in class dynamics. Asad Haider, founder of Viewpoint Magazine, himself a Pakistani American, has expressed this view and helped clarify why it is not what most understand as “identity politics”:
I think you have to draw a clear distinction between movements in the past that targeted a structure defined by racial oppression — the Civil Rights movement and the Black Power movement are the most obvious examples, but they stretch all the way back to the roots of American capitalism, really — from a much more recent development in which politics is not about a social structure, but the recognition of an individual or a particular group’s identity. And talking about politics in terms of the pair of “race and gender,” as if they were both different forms of the same substance, is a newer phenomenon. I would argue it arises from what is essentially the neutralization of truly revolutionary movements against an entire social structure defined by racism and capitalism.
One thing that happened was that a governmental system which was once defined by the exclusion of people of color on the basis of legal forms of white supremacy, now suddenly was altered by the successes of the Civil Rights movement. It became possible to have a ruling class that incorporated people of color. In that context, taking away the structural challenge that was posed by the Civil Rights movement and Black Power movement, suppressing that in favor of a kind of politics that is entirely about the recognition of individuals abstracted from their class positions, that became a very convenient position for members of the ruling class to take. (“A Marxist Critiques Identity Politics”)
Criticisms of this perspective are likely better known to readers. “Identity politics” can take vulgar and sophisticated forms; it tends to be associated with “immaterial” concerns like cultural appropriation, the use of specific words and phrases — in short, with forms of what we think of as “postmodern” discourse. By changing discourses (and material realities), we undo capitalism; there is no nexus of issues surrounding the kernel of capitalism; rather, all political issues and identities intersect, hence terms like “intersectional feminism.”
What does all of this have to do with Hegel, or even Cole’s book? This latter sort of Leftist often finds his inspiration in “anti-Hegelian” thinkers like Nietzsche, Foucault, Deleuze, Guattari, and Althusser. Words like “bodies,” “interpolation,” and “discourse” are ubiquitous. Marx is looked to for his insights into consciousness of specific social groups; “class” is simply one among many, and is insufficient to understand the myriad dimensions of contemporary power and oppression. Marx is, in short, to be rescued from Hegelian systematizing, from tarrying with negativity and totalizing philosophical speculation. Instead, his insight ought to be fractured and dissected in the name of more trenchant social analysis. Fredric Jameson presents the literary-analytical version of the position thus:
It is, for instance, increasingly clear that hermeneutic or interpretative activity has become one of the basic polemic targets of contemporary post-structuralism in France [not coterminous with what I define above, but related], which — powerfully buttressed by the authority of Nietzsche — has tended to identify such operations with historicism, and in particular with the dialectic and its valorization of absence and the negative, its assertion of the necessity and priority of totalizing thought. (The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, 21)
In other words, Hegelian dialectics, if implicitly, stands at the center of a major political divide within the contemporary Left: totalizing thought in history (centered around class/capitalism) or myriad discourses and identities intersecting and vying with one another within the realm of ubiquitous power (and, if desired, formally linked to capitalism)? The Birth of Theory suggests a bridge over this gap, saves Hegel, and reminds us of the weight of history in the process.
To this end, Cole splits the book into six chapters, themselves split into three sections. The first section traces the history of dialectics through Plotinus, Pseudo-Dionysius, and Nicholas of Cusa to Hegel and Marx. The second concentrates on the relationship between these final two thinkers, specifically emphasizing the historical and material nature of Hegel’s investigations, protecting him from charges of mere Idealism. The final section deals with literary interpretation in Hegelian terms, arguing that everyone owes their debt to Hegel, whether they be Heidegger, Althusser, or Deleuze, that, at bottom, Hegel can’t be so easily dismissed.
For Cole, “dialectics” is not merely thesis-antithesis-synthesis, that familiar Fichtean formula made famous by Hegel and now taught in Continental Philosophy and Theory courses the world over. Instead, dialectics is the more basic question of conceiving identity and difference together, contradiction in unity — holding seeming contraries together. Properly understood, dialectics thus emerges from the problem of identity/difference, specifically in the post-Platonic tradition. Another way of stating the issue is to ask how transition occurs, how one thing becomes another. For Plato, difference is one of the famous Forms. Thus difference is itself a category, not something dynamic, but a mere state outside of time. As Cole puts it, “[o]nly a conception of identity and difference, real and abstract, could help Plato with this logical, temporal, and narrative task of transition. Lacking such a conception, he simply says that a transition takes place in ‘no time.’ And when you exclude time, you exclude becoming” (14). Dialectics only exists when becoming is understood dynamically as a movement between something’s being itself even as it becomes something else. Think, perhaps, of the fact that one is always seemingly identical to oneself and never completely in control; to ask what mediates this reality is to entertain a dialectical understanding of identity and difference.
Though he begins the first full chapter with Nietzsche, presumably to foreground the dialectical thinking of a non-dialectical thinker, Cole’s first real task is to trace this proto-Hegelian logic to late-antique and medieval thinkers like Plotinus, Proclus, Pseudo-Dionysius, and Nicholas of Cusa. In the first instance, Plotinus is important for Cole because he has to provide a non-Christian account of how nothing became something, specifically how, in his cosmology, the One (totally self-sufficient, not an intellect because there would be nothing to know, not motion because it would be wholly in-itself, etc.) can become “Not-One.” Note the number of negatives in the last sentence. This foregrounding of negativity is precisely what is dialectical in Plotinus; it is a privileging of difference and begins to direct us toward locating difference in identity itself. In other words, Plotinus gives us some of the first tools to think contradiction in unity, of difference within something seemingly one, and thus of transition. Proclus, who deserves his due on Cole’s reading, essentially takes this insight from Plotinus and, instead of relegating identity/difference to the abstract (“the One,” “the Not-One”), begins with the mixture of likeness and unlikeness in the things of the world:
Like and unlike exist together at the level of sense-perception, but we want to see their interaction also in the intelligible world. This is the desire that Socrates is uttering, dismissing the mingling of visible things, and ascending to the communion of intelligibles, and Parmenides accepts this as [an] expression [of] the sentiments of a notable and magnanimous soul. (quoted in Cole 42)
Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite pushes this dialectical phenomenology (it is a phenomenology insofar as it deals with phenomena, appearances, etc.) even further by emphasizing “dissimilar similarities” (Cole 45), that is the likenesses and un-likenesses intrinsic to the world. In this Christian reception of the dialectic (mediated by Proclus), God is Himself a unity of differences, not merely a tame, self-sufficient One, but the containment of all the world’s various distinctions. The soul opens itself to seeming paradoxes through a process later called Gelassenheit by Meister Eckhart (and Heidegger after him), a radical receptivity to the reality of contradictions that do not disappear upon analysis, but that actually allows the Christian’s soul to ascend to God (where the distinctions find oneness), the only true unity in all the world of difference.
Cole’s last pre-Hegelian example is Nicholas of Cusa, whose De Li Non-Aliud applies this principle of identity/difference to the Christian Trinity itself, trying to uncover how thought can comprehend what is the source of being, above being, one, and three, all at the same time. Nicholas does so by coining the term “Not-other” as a simplex of identity/difference: all things are “not-other” to themselves, that is, they are themselves and are not themselves all at once, just as the Trinity is Itself one and not one, other to Itself and yet Itself. If I may quote him at some length, I think his language betrays both the beauty and the difficulty of his task:
“Not-other and Not-other and Not-other” — although [this expression] is not at all in use — the triune Beginning is revealed most clearly, though it is above our apprehension and capability. For when the First Beginning — signified through “Not-other” — defines itself: in this movement of definition Not-other originates from Not-other; and from Not-other and the Not-other which has originated, the definition concludes in Not-other. One who contemplates these matters will behold them more clearly than can be expressed. (quoted in Cole 48)
Even at the grammatical level — an emphasis on negativity, for example — one can see something of Hegel here, a point that will be important when Cole investigates Deleuze’s work later.
And this, of course, brings us to Hegel, specifically the medieval Hegel that Cole wants us to uncover. Not only was Hegel influenced by each of the thinkers noted above (who developed the way of thinking that he would make famous) but he was himself awash in feudal institutions — the medieval was not yet dead in 18th- and 19th-century Germany. Germany was not even yet Germany, but a collection of principalities; Hegel himself was initially trained as a theologian (the premier premodern career), and effectively feudal political and social arrangements remained in many facets of life. The import of this particular portrait of Hegel is its relationship to material circumstances, a fact that Cole uses to connect Hegel to Marx (and thus, if obliquely, to contemporary Left discourse).
Hegel’s appropriation of medieval dialectics, however, does not end merely at the logical and the historical levels; in fact, it finds its fullest expression, according to Cole, in the material nature of his dialectical analysis. As an example, he points to what is often called the “Master-Slave Dialectic,” which Cole argues would better be termed “the Lord-Bondsman Dialectic.” But, before investigating why this name change is of significance (for a “medieval Hegel”), we must get straight what this dialectic is. Cole turns to Jean Hyppolite for the basic definition: “[I]t consists essentially in showing that the truth of the master reveals that he is the slave, and that the slave is revealed to be the master of the master” (quoted in Cole 67).
The process is better termed “Lord-Bondsman,” because, as Cole shows, the dialectic is, at the lexical level, consistently between the “Herr” and the “Knecht”; the word “Sklave” (slave) is never used in this context. The former two words are distinctly medieval in flavor, an important point because it highlights the fact that the dialectic is about possession as such, about a struggle over the goods produced by the bondsman (or serf) for the lord. It drives home the material (and, frankly, medieval) concern of Hegel’s dialectical investigation.
Cole moves from this “materialist” Hegel to Marx, who appropriates Hegel’s understanding of the Eucharist to theorize the relationship between exchange-value and use-value under capitalism — in short to theorize the commodity, a central object of inquiry in Capital. Cole’s exegesis fascinates, culminating in his explicitly tying together Hegel and Marx (with a dash of Žižek): “Essence becomes appearance, subject becomes accident, and Christ’s crucified flesh, once invisible, is now visible. Likewise, Coke is that Real Thing, but it is also the sacramental, Hegelian thing — to be consumed and fetishized in ways that are ceremoniously medieval” (100). In short, Cole manages, in around 100 pages, to draw a meaningful, logical line from Plotinus through medieval mystics like Cusa, all the way to Hegel, Marx, and the Diogenes of Ljubljana.
I could recommend the book for this brevity and depth alone, this ability to trace and guarantee the legacy of medieval and mystical thought in places and in politics often assumed to be wholly unrelated. But, in truth, it is Cole’s final couple of chapters that bring his investigation full circle by drawing out how even anti-dialectical thinkers have been unable to escape the previously-traced history of dialectics. Specifically, he notes how truly dialectical thought that combines abstraction and material reality (as Pseudo-Dionysius begins to do and as Hegel brings to perfection) always treats figures and concepts dialectically, using figuration to expand conceptual horizons and conceptualization to burst open figures. This style is “philosophical exposition [that] takes the point of view of the concept, just short of personifying concepts” (156). Even anti- and non-dialectical thinkers (and Cole quotes Deleuze and Guattari to make his point) cannot escape this figural-conceptual grammar within philosophy; their language bursts with it. Cole wraps up his point thus:
There’s something to this stylistic project, too, which (as we’ll soon see) points up a real irony about the supposed agon between dialectics and Deleuze and Guattari. We are talking about figures again. That both philosophers insist upon the motility of concepts — the ways in which concepts live and breathe in a lush, episodic prose — betrays their effort to think of concepts as already figures for everything else in the “Deleuzian” worldview. (158).
Dialectical style has itself entered the grammar of philosophy, where omniscient narrators rub together and explode concepts and figures again and again — in this sense, the dialectic, with us from the Middle Ages, cannot be shaken off.
What this suggests is what I noted above: that the antagonisms developing within the contemporary Left may ignore a unique debt to Hegel, whose style saturates certain ways of speaking, whether people realize it or not. The Left, even in its “post-dialectical” or “post-Marxist” phase is not yet done with Hegel.
And there is a corollary to this: it is not yet done with the medieval. Cole’s book manages a difficult task — an intersection between medieval mysticism (or, if you want, say Neoplatonism) and contemporary philosophy and politics. History haunts us in a way our contemporary discussions allow us to ignore. We remain unconscious of the fact of Hegel’s medievalism, just as we ignore the vestiges of our own past haunting the digital and material present, rife with upheaval in a moment of supposed change.
It is impossible, given that Cole’s book is only the first in a trilogy, to know if his project will “succeed,” but it is certainly adequate to the task of forceful remembrance: the dialectic — history itself some might say — is not going away.