Nov 7, 2013

Radio Show Guest Spot: Hegel and (Mis)Education in America

Last month, I appeared as a guest on Patrick McCarty's internet radio show, Insight Radio, along with a bright young high school student, Rohan Macherla, who has already developed a strong interest in an understanding of the daunting, difficult thought of G.W.F. Hegel.  The segment was to start out discussing the section "Self-Consciousness" from the Phenomenology of Spirit (famous for the portion called the Master-Slave Dialectic), and then go off in whatever directions seemed fit to us.

As it turned out, our conversation (the full recording of which is available here) ended up focusing more and more on the conditions of contemporary education, and in particular with the effects -- good or bad, aimed at or unintended -- of recent, and in some ways ubiquitous, technological innovations have had on education and culture.  Since our recording session, I've been mulling over certain unfinished lines of thought we outlined during the conversation.

Hegelian Context: Self-Consciousness, Master, and Slave

Early on in his Phenomenology, Hegel shifts the course of study away from the original task of following out and along with the dialectics of Consciousness -- the myriad movements in which consciousness attempts to completely grasp, to develop truth and certainty about, its objects, only to find them slipping away, revealing new unaccounted for sides, dimensions, and relationships.  The core of his philosophical project in that work is to chart out these progressive transformations -- not only of the objects being studied by the human being, but also how the human subject is altered through these processes of knowing, learning, investigating -- and acting, consuming, desiring.

When Hegel explicitly moves on to examining Self-Consciousness, he sets out from an insight that had become underappreciated, to say the least, in modern philosophy (prior to his work) -- there is no self which does not already exist as such in relation to its other, which is in fact another self, which in its turn reciprocally exists as such only in relation to an other.  To be a human being -- the determinate manner of being which is proper to human beings -- means, like it or not, existing in relation to (or really, in all sorts of relations, plural) to an other and to others.

Another way of putting this would be to say that the very structure of self consciousness transports the meaning, the essence of any single human being outside of themselves and into others.  Hegel in effect follows out some of the implications of Aristotle's insights in the The Politics, that an isolated human being is like a single piece on a gameboard -- not really much of anything, except in its relations with the rest of the pieces and the game itself (and also, that the human being who can in fact exist all on his own escapes the realm of the human, either by transcending into that of the divine, or falling into that of the merely animal).

So, to be a human being is to experience a lack, a negativity, within oneself, which is matched and measured, realized and remedied, by an other, another human being, from whom we can gain recognition, learn who and what we actually are, enter into relations.  It is also to experience the force of desire -- desire not only for external objects, but desire for another human being.  This generates, at least for Hegel (and at least at the start of the dialectic), a tragic and necessarily conflict-laden situation.

When a self-consciousness encounters another self-consciousness, it recognizes the other as being like itself -- and it desires recognition, on a higher level, from that other.  It is no longer sure and certain of itself -- its meaning and truth has passed over into the other to whom it realizes itself as vulnerable.  In effect, the self-consciousness not only finds itself confronted with an other, it also realizes that it has become other to itself -- and, to switch away from Hegel's metaphysical language to a more common idiom, that is a very uncomfortable state to find oneself in.


More Hegelian Context:  Master and Slave

It's never quite clear just what sort of process or condition Hegel should be taken to be describing in this portion of the Phenomenology.  Is it supposed to be an account of the dynamics and development of actual slave-holding societies and practices?  Or does it represent something less historical, more archetypical, a structure of consciousness marking or conditioning all human beings on some level?  Should it fall somewhere in between these -- a set of moments early on in the dialectical development of human consciousness and society -- a simpler state and set of relations which have been, not left behind so much, but incorporated into more and more complex configurations?

Whatever answer one gives to that question of interpretation -- and commentators on Hegel do vary considerably on that matter -- at least the dialectical progression, what happens with the master and the slave in the story Hegel is telling, is relatively straightforward.  You might say, with respect to both of them, that there's good news . . .  and then there's bad news.  It's easy to say, from a non-dialectical perspective, who's on top, who the winner is.  It's clearly the Master, right?  They get to call the shots, boss the slave around, obtain the satisfactions that human beings desire, which include exerting power over others, obtaining recognition, and enjoying the fruits of labor.

Or, perhaps, from a first encounter with dialectics, it's obviously the Slave who ends up winning.  After all, while the master luxuriates in enjoyment, failing to develop any further, the slave is forced to undergo processes of transformation, including self-transformation, painfully becoming other to him or herself for a space, but ending as having become a more highly developed being than the master.  Isn't that the case?

The longer I read and think about Hegel, the less simple of a verdict I find within this passage.  Hegel definitely describes a process of development on the part of the slave -- but just how effective is this in addressing the real problem which self-consciousness encounters: the experience of being alienated or estranged from one's own self, the realization that one's identity and meaning lie vulnerably within the hands, eyes, and desires of another, the hunger to conquer or steal back a sense of wholeness and assurance that one never really had but nevertheless nostalgically yearns for?  After all, the experiments with Stoicism, with Skepticism, with the Unhappy Consciousness -- replicated along so many other lines, if we follow along the lines Hegel himself describes and details -- follow the section on Master and Slave.  Those responses by the dialectical subject, the slave who remain unsatisfied, are just as equally shapes of Self-Consciousness, are they not?  For, after all, Hegel placed them within that section.  Should we not perhaps view the Unhappy Consciousness as the end-point of that process of development and unfolding?

Other problems of interpretation assert themselves as well.  Hegel insists that the development of the Slave requires, not as something optional, but as an essential condition, that the slave undergo the fear of death, something that jars and shakes the unfortunate in his or her very being, rendering them pliable to be reworked by the Master's will and command, by the Object upon which labor is set to work, and by the Slave's own internalization of that triad: Fear, Command, Work.  Without this experience, Hegel maintains, the will of the Slave never rises above stubbornness.

In the discussion with McCarty and Macherla, I suggested that we must interpret this "far of death" less literally, if we mean to incorporate the Master-Slave dialectic into our own experience, culture, and situations.  "Death" must be understood more broadly, as something akin to loss or destruction -- or stripping, deprivation of meaning -- not just of physical life.  Meaning can come in many forms, shapes, sizes, and in any of them it can be threatened, at least until the person has become entirely sure of their meaning and its relation to other meanings -- and that requires quite a bit of development to occur, a kind of mastery of one's own acquired either through finding power, on the one hand, or the apprenticeship of labor on recalcitrant (and thereby tutelary) objects on the other.

Technology:  Are We Masters Or Slaves?

One of the key topics to which our conversation turned -- one which I'd like to explore more in a further entry -- is the degree to which the human development and deployment of technology has actually catapulted so many of us into a position akin to that of the Hegelian Master -- the one who is able to enjoy the fruits of the Slave's labor, who feels assured of him or herself in some sort of identity, the one for whom the Other exists and works, producing and providing. 

This becomes an issue which is prefigured again by a much earlier discussion, again one with its roots in Aristotle's classic work, the Politics, in which Aristotle infamously justifies a certain kind of servitude -- one based upon a master who genuinely deserves mastery, and a slave incapable of governing him or herself well -- and writes of the slave as an "ensouled tool".  He muses about the possibility of tools which would perform their tasks without requiring immediate human direction, for example, shuttles that would move themselves through the loom.

If you have no idea, or just a vague one, or even a purely conceptual one of what a shuttle and loom do, produce, or involve, there's good reason for that -- we're disconnected, and we have been disconnected from those processes of productions, even while enjoying an incredible range of products that would make Aristotle's patron, Alexander the Great, puzzle over the once-kingly wealth readily available to residents of our times.  That's because we do have self-moving tools - technology. We have tools that guide and move and produce other tools , which then guide and produce, and move. . . .

So, in some sense we do occupy the position of the Hegelian Master.  True, most of us also have to work for a living -- and we're not yet at a George Jetson, 1-hour, button pushing workday.  In fact, the increases in efficiency in our economic activities and concerns have occurred in large part by requiring more in some respects of those engaged in various forms of productive activity.  We educators tell our current students (and politicians mouth mantras) that if they're to find remunerative work in a tougher, tighter, leaner economy, they need to work smart, be ready to make more commitments and sacrifices.  But, at the same time, we now live in a society that is -- at least in terms of material prosperity -- a leisure society.

As consumers, we're increasingly placed into the position of Master.  As employees -- even as employers or managers -- we're also, many of us, set into positions at times resembling those of the Hegelian Slave.  Perhaps not so much in terms of the "fear of death" -- though meaning, prestige, status, security, those are all up for grabs.  But in terms of the internalization of command -- something I'd like to write more about in another post?  Certainly.

And, more germane here -- what about being set to work on objects, and thereby having to labor upon not only them, but on and within oneself?  Division of labor has certainly narrowed the range of recalcitrant reality external to the self that one must work upon in one's profession, career or job. But, we do indeed learn by doing, by acting, by making, by reconfiguring. . . . at least those of us who bring to the locus of work a kind of curiosity, or drivenness, or even desperation.

To what degree, though, does technology, layer after layer, mediate this contact?  It depends considerably upon the kinds of skills, products, interventions.  Food production still requires that one get one's hands -- the "tool(s) of tools" in Aristotle's dictum -- into the mess.  Service professions require a different sort of often painful adaptation.  And, some work on the technology directly, servicing machines, reconfiguring them, even innovating and inventing.

The big question -- one which we explored in our discussion -- is this:  What about education?  And, that's one, after having thrown all these points out for consideration, I'm going to just leave open for the moment, and revisit later this month in a further post.