Saturday, March 19, 2005

The Young Hegelian

The real Young Hegelian has apparently concluded his blog. (Presumably the author hob sich auf and vanished in a puff of logic.)

However, some remarks by Charlotte Street give me occasion to speculate crudely on New York and its suitability for Hegelian philosophy. The immediate topic is the difference between thought and experience, or between representations of the future and the lived present, starting with a quotation from Bergson.
"No matter how I imagine in detail what is going to happen to me, still how inadequate, how abstract and stilted is the thing I have imagined in comparison to what actually happens! The realization brings with it an unforeseeable nothing which changes everything."

Bergson, The Possible and the Real

Scragg, a small animated acquaintance who was once mistaken for a marmoset by a child in the street, reports on her recent visit to New York –‘It was exactly as I imagined it, exactly.’ ‘Oh, come on,’ I replied, ‘nothing is exactly like you imagine it, not even the next room, isn't this the very mark of reality, that it always exceeds our imaginings?’ ‘No’, she insisted, obviously not having read Bergson, ‘I'm telling you it was just the same as the image I had of it.’ I wasn't prepared to grant this at all. ‘The only way it could have been exactly as you imagined it, I retorted, was if you'd imagined that it would exceed your image of it,’ at which point she disappeared in a puff of logic.
Charlotte Street’s metaphysical claim is probably correct. As Kant might put it, our kind of understanding is discursive—it operates by means of concepts—but our experience of the world has a non-intellectual, sensuous component that is given only in perception. This sensuous component is the empirical counterpart of the category of “reality”—that’s the upshot of the “Anticipations of Perception” chapter of KdrV. Only a deity could enjoy intellectual intuition—the spontaneous presentation of objects that are both fully empirically determinate and fully amenable to conceptual manipulation. And Scragg probably isn’t this sort of being.

But if we can resist the urge to recast Scragg’s speech in an obviously unintended philosophical register so that we are finally able to put our learning to use and procure the philosopher’s buzz of robbing an ordinary speaker of their right to think—if we can resist this, we may recognize something important in what Scragg said.

The surprise that New York (well, Manhattan) is quite a bit like what one had imagined is not grounded simply in the subject. New York is uncannily like the idea of itself—so much so that through contemplation of its example I began to feel as though I understood Hegel. New York feels like the most real city because it is the most cognizable city; it is the ideal made real; it is the source of the real, as well as its symbol. It is schematized in advance to translate well into abstract representations; its urban array is as suited to our powers of knowing as, say, the alphabet, geometrical figures, or rhythms in 4/4.

In New York you feel as if you were walking around in your own mind, as if its contents were made concrete and visible, available for examination in three dimensions. The reasons for this are many and varied. The city’s narrative templates and Benjaminian character types are well-rehearsed in popular entertainment, and since the agents on the ground who reproduce these templates are also guided by them, they are able to play their parts well. Money itself conveys a sense of reality, and the massive sums required to sustain the city’s knowability are inscribed everywhere. The best restaurants, the best music, the best movie theaters, the best (new, though not used) bookstores, etc. give us what we’d always desired but couldn’t find elsewhere, or could only find in crumbling, simulacral versions; they are the immanent forms from which the shameful replicas in lesser cities derive. As many have noted—and some quite conspicuously—the city is the ultimate product of our capitalist age. It is a powerful demonstration of the value of hyperbolic accumulation of wealth and the power of semi-coerced labor. In it we feel the deepest tendencies of our form of life confirmed and justified.


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