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  • Out of the Spirit of the MedievalAndrew Cole’s The Birth of Theory
  • C. F. S. Creasy (bio)
A review of Andrew Cole, The Birth of Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014). Cited in the text as bt.

We all might have our own personal Hegel, but Andrew Cole invites us to reach out and touch faith and knowledge: his brisk but dense The Birth of Theory contends that the real Hegel is an essentially medieval thinker. Cole, a professor of medieval literature and literary theory at Princeton University, argues that Hegel’s continued virtue and relevance for contemporary theory and criticism lie in the way his thought comprehends its present in the tension between modernity and a medieval “historical remainder” always persisting in the modern (bt, 84). The book, apparently the first part of a three-volume study of dialectics, draws on Nietzsche’s notion of the “untimely” to reconceive Hegel’s dialectics and show how it subtends “theory” broadly—from his detractor’s The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music all the way to the generation of a French “generalized anti-Hegelianism” and the wealth of contemporary theory inspired by it (and particularly by Deleuze).1 The book’s ambitious argument—pitched in a key blending philosophical erudition and nonspecialist accessibility akin to the one Žižek marshaled—is thus twofold. The first claim is laid out most fully at the outset and conclusion of the [End Page 161] book, but it subtends the more specific engagements of the bulk of the text. It is that, in a phrase Cole adopts from Lacan, in modern theory everyone is “Hegelian without knowing it” and that there is a consequent need to counterbalance ahistorical and anti-dialectical theoretical lineages stemming from Nietzschean polemics and their codification for contemporary thought by figures like Foucault and Deleuze. The second claim is that this can be achieved only by historicizing the ways in which Hegel’s engagements with the medieval lend his dialectics such importance, supplementing or correcting the image of the philosopher held even by his legatees (Cole situates himself particularly with respect to thinkers like Marx, Bakhtin, Adorno, Jameson, and Žižek).

“The medieval” is here a rather capacious concept, naming several aspects that Cole wants to recover in Hegel’s thought in several different ways, organized in three sections each comprised of two chapters. In the first section, “Theory,” the medieval names something philosophically post-classical: Cole’s Hegel thinks through a formal or logical dialectic of identity and difference inherited neither from Plato nor from Aristotle (nor even from Heraclitus) but from a Neo-platonist tradition inaugurated by Plotinus and more or less coming into its own with Nicholas of Cusa. The focus of the second section, “History,” is the medieval as an economically premodern reality: for Cole, the Phenomenology of Spirit meditates on historically specific feudal lordship and bondage, not on ahistorical abstractions of mastery and slavery. In this section as well as the third, titled “Literature,” Cole uncovers the generative potential in Hegel’s engagements with late-medieval culture. For him, Hegel puts to work the temporal unevenness inscribed within the onset of modernity: early Reformation sacramental doctrine grounds his phenomenology of feudal land-ownership, while medieval literary conventions offer an untimely literary model both for a critique of an emergent modern political economy (one that is Hegelian because it is Marxist before Marx was born) and for a dialectics of history and of aesthetics. Ultimately, as the third section argues, these different medieval aspects yield a version of Hegel’s dialectics that is suppler than its detractors would admit, and that indeed can rejuvenate a contemporary theoretical landscape [End Page 162] that Cole finds overrun with anti-dialectical attitudes inherited most directly from Deleuze.

For Cole, Hegel’s philosophical medievalism—the focus of the two chapters in the “Theory” section—is signaled by the primacy given to a logical dialectic of identity and difference inherited from the Neoplatonist tradition. As he rightly points out, Hegel breaks with that all-important “law of thought” so central to classical Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle—the principle of noncontradiction, that is, “Not (a...


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