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  • From Desire to Fascination: Hegel and Blanchot on Negativity
  • Victoria I. Burke (bio)

And as I converse only with myself and look more deeply into myself, I will attempt to render myself gradually better known and familiar to myself. I am a thing that thinks.

Descartes 1

“But how is that possible?” cried K. “Surely I haven’t made this endless journey just to be sent back again!”

Kafka 2

Hegel denies that it makes sense to speak of the incomprehensible, or that which might lie beyond the experience of rational consciousness. The scope of Hegelian rationality is thus ostensibly comprehensive. However, the Phenomenology of Spirit traverses an itinerary whose particular determinations result from a negativity that “proceeds, as it were, behind the back of consciousness.” 3 The experience of consciousness is thus animated by a “magical power” that “converts the it [the negative] into Being” (PG, 26/PS, 19). This “magical power” [End Page 848] does not appear as an object for-consciousness anywhere in the Hegelian system. Even the Science of Logic, which purports to be the condition and presupposition of the Phenomenology of Spirit, also pre-supposes the animating power of the negative. Moreover, Hegel strenuously objected to the formalist project of delimiting this power by providing an account of the unmediated experience of negativity. In Hegel’s view, the attempt to procure an unmediated experience of this “moving principle” (PG, 28/PS, 21) is tantamount to trying to “depict actuality itself in a non-actual manner” (PG, 14/PS, 10). Hegel’s formalist predecessors, Kant and Fichte, in effect sought to formalize the conditions for the possibility of experience. But even Fichte, who attempted to do so by showing that the origin of knowledge was the self-identical self-positing ego, is subject to the Hegelian observation that the self-positing of the ego is reflected (and thus not self-identical): the self-positing self splits into a self that posits and a self that is posited. 4 Hence, from Hegel’s perspective, knowledge of the empirical content of consciousness, i.e., the shapes it traverses, is exhaustive of what can be known about it. Self-consciousness is a “unifying unity . . . the synthesizing of the manifold into the unity which sustains itself through this manifold.” 5 In other words, contrary to Fichte, self-consciousness does not have a structure that belongs to it independent of that which it unifies. To be sure, Hegel designates the negative as the “soul” and the “self” of consciousness (PG, 28/PS, 21), but this “soul” is to be known exclusively through the shapes of consciousness which it animates.

The “Introduction” to the Phenomenology presents us with an account of the movement of consciousness as it traverses its succession of shapes. Hegel calls this movement experience. Experience is the process wherein consciousness establishes and exceeds the limits of its own comprehension. Hegel writes that

Consciousness simultaneously distinguishes itself from something [the object] and at the same time relates itself to it . . . and the determinate aspect of this relating, or the being of something for a consciousness is knowing.

(PG, 64/PS, 52)

Here, knowing is the relation between consciousness and its object. Consciousness develops because it posits the truth of the object to [End Page 849] which it is thus related as an in-itself beyond its knowledge, beyond what the object is for-consciousness. Unlike the Kantian thing-in-itself, however, this in-itself is consciousness itself. Hegel calls it the concept. In his words, “Consciousness is, on the one hand, consciousness of the object, and on the other, consciousness of itself, consciousness of what for it is the True [the concept]” (PG, 65/PS, 54). The succession of shapes of consciousness in the Phenomenology is thus articulated by way of the gap between object (for-consciousness) and concept, in the difference, that is, between that of which consciousness is certain (the object) and that which it projects as the truth (beyond the object). 6 This is at once a temporal and an epistemic gap: the in-itself is projected as something that is now unknown, but that might be known in the future. The difference that consciousness posits in...

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