The University of Chicago Press
272 Page; Print, $30.00
I was rereading Andrew Cole’s The Birth of Theory at the bar one afternoon, when a stranger, visibly intoxicated, approached me and belligerently asked, “What are you reading?” Sometimes, it seems, reading quietly in a pub is the most daring form of provocation. I was revisiting the early section, in which Cole describes Plotinus’s attempt to explain “how anything at all come[s] into substantial existence,” and I had no idea how to respond. On the one hand, Cole’s book is ambitiously broad in that it marks out a genealogical thread of dialectical thought from the ancients to the Middle Ages, through to Hegel and Marx, and into the contemporary theoretical moment. On the other hand, it is a very specialized piece of Hegelian scholarship, aimed at giving the philosopher his due as the progenitor of the ideology critique so many contemporary theorists claim to practice, often against the totalizations of that old German bugbear.
Despite the fact that it seriously grapples with antiquated theological debates, The Birth of Theory is unmistakably new. With a surgical precision that is never strident, Cole charts an original path through Hegel and Marx that carefully corrects the now-standard poststructuralist account of the relationship between these two thinkers. Indeed, much of the appeal of The Birth of Theory, which is clearly situated in the worried terrain of post-poststructuralism, is Cole’s unmistakable love of his subjects. Cole, a medieval literature scholar, genuinely likes Marx and, apparently, all those poststructuralists who have bragged about taking Hegel from behind. He simply wants to point out that Hegel should not be faulted for living within his own very specific historical moment. The writing throughout most of the text is lively and precise, without ever eschewing the most complex philosophical problems, and the few unfortunate attempts to sound hip (“and Socrates, for his part, is smacked down”) are easily forgotten once we are swept up in Cole’s omnivorous appetite for all things literary, philosophical, and historical.
In desperation, I simply held up the cover, though I might have said, “It’s about how to get something from nothing.” That’s pithy, and anyone swaying with an empty pint glass in hand can recognize it as a worthwhile intellectual endeavor. It has the further advantage, my formula, of highlighting what Cole argues at the start of his book is the real kernel of the much-abused term, dialectic—namely, identity/difference, how plurality emerges from unity.
The Birth of Theory is organized into three sections: “Theory,” “History,” and “Literature.” In the first section, Cole offers a genealogy of identity and difference, in which the dialectics of Plato and Aristotle are not all that dialectical. “At most,” Cole writes, “Plato hints at the special powers of ‘identity’ and ‘difference,’” while Aristotle declares it “impossible for a thing to be its own contrary.” It is not until Plotinus, writing on the border of the ancient and the medieval, that a true dialectic of identity and difference is born. From Plotinus, the centrality of identity and difference to dialectical thought is transmitted to medieval thinkers like Proclus, Pseudo-Dionysius, and Nicholas of Cusa. Of particular interest here is Cole’s account of the latter, whose meditations on the Not-Other mark him as a neglected contemporary—just as poetic, just as beautifully and confoundingly counterintuitive, as any Blanchot or Nancy.
Nevertheless, this stuff calls for a chaser and is not likely to impress my new friend, who still thinks Kant’s first name is Genghis. And, admittedly, in an otherwise carefully written book, the sentences, along with pronouns and their antecedents, sometimes get away from Cole here. But Cole’s gloss on how Plotinus charts the movement out of unity into difference, and how this comes to form the heart of the dialectical process that winds itself out over the entirety of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), is masterfully executed:
For [Hegel], you only get the law of identity out of the failure to produce difference...