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The South Atlantic Quarterly 103.2/3 (2004) 375-395



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Dead Right:

Hegel and the Terror

Endlessly debated and redrafted in the fateful summer of 1789, the first version of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was abruptly finalized by the Assemblée Nationale on August 27. The draft was published in its truncated form with an explicit decision to suspend further discussion until the more urgent task had been achieved of "fixing" the French Constitution to which the Declaration itself was nonetheless to supply both the prefatory context and the integral first chapter.1 In a perfect illustration of the logic of the supplement, the Declaration was declared provisional pending the completion of a constitution that would itself in turn be incomplete without it insofar as the presence or absence of such a manifesto would mark the "only difference" between a radically new constitution and the prolongation of preexistent tradition.2 Released separately, in their unfinished forms, both the Declaration and the eventual first version of the Constitution to which by 1791 it had attached itself were nonetheless invested from the outset with a biblical authority conveyed by numerous iconographic allusions to the tablets of the law handed down at Sinai—by 1792 the Legislative Assembly decreed [End Page 375] that its members would wear a tricolor ribbon bearing a medallion in the shape of two round-headed tablets inscribed with the words "Droits de l'Homme" and "Constitution"3—an association that would in turn predictably provoke a Mosaic violence directed against the threat of the law's own inaugural self-betrayal during the repeated revision of both documents throughout the revolutionary period. In May 1793 a copper tablet of the by-then obsolete first version of the Declaration of the Rights of Man was exhumed from its burial place in the foundation of a projected—never to be completed—monument on the site of the demolished Bastille. By order of the Convention the embalmed document was ritually mutilated and its broken fragments deposited for perpetuity in the National Archives as a "historical monument."4 The archive had come to congeal destruction itself as a lasting memorial to its own powers of reinvention, and as a reminder, too, of unfinished business.

The incident is compelling for a number of reasons. Aside from illustrating the general paradox of revolutionary negation—the insistent reinstatement of tradition in and through the very erasure thereof—and quite apart from the overdetermined pathos generated by this unburied corpse and relic, it raises a very specific question regarding the status of the revolutionary discourse of rights: the defaced tablet here carries the entire burden of the tabula rasa. Does the damaged body of the text hint of an irrreparable fracture within the law itself, and does the museification of such a breach in turn acknowledge an interminable mourning for an unfinished past? How does the modern liberal idiom of human rights intersect with the political-theological legacy of Bourbon absolutism at the moment of the latter's disinvestment? What is the connection between the revolutionary caesura created by the radical humanization of the law and the fundamentalist logic it would interrupt?

Hegel's analysis of the dialectic of secularization places terror itself at the very heart of the modern political experiment.

Between Revolution and Reform

Hegel both reiterates and almost overturns the standard German ideology according to which a revolution in thought would, in varying proportions, precede, succeed, preempt, accommodate, comprehend, and generally upstage a political revolution whose defining feature was increasingly thought to be its founding violence: the slide from 1789 to 1793. According [End Page 376] to this ideology, from Schiller to Thomas Mann, Germany could simultaneously domesticate and dispense with political revolution by virtue of a spirituality that would have already achieved the rationality to which the French only clumsily, violently, impatiently, through their precipitous acting out, could only aspire. Having already been there in theory, Germany could put off until doomsday the grab for practical fulfillment—the infinite task.

Having undergone its own Reformation...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-8026
Print ISSN
0038-2876
Pages
pp. 375-395
Launched on MUSE
2004-06-10
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived 2004
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