26 February 2007

That Obscure Object of Desire

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 4:00 pm

Continuing Hegel’s “Lordship and Bondage” discourse, the focus of attention moves from the individual to the dyad. Now this movement of self-consciousness in relation to another self-consciousness has in this way been represented as the action of one self-consciousness. Hegel says that the relationship of self-consciousness to self-as-other parallels the relationship of self to other.

Two independent self-consciousnesses encounter one another. Each is a self in relation to an other. When one self A observes the other B as object, B is also a subject observing A as an object. Each sees the other do the same as it does: A is aware of B as an object under scrutiny and also of B as subject scrutinizing A. A comes out of himself to encounter B in the world, but A also pulls back into himself, bringing B in as an object under scrutiny, as a thing that exists for A’s sake. And vice versa. The two selves mirror one another; self is doubled in the other. But each self is also an autonomous agent, wholly separate from the other. This movement of diversity into unity and back again Hegel calls Force. This bidirectional movement of selves objectifying and dominating one another can be recognized as an abstract Force characterizing all selves in relation to all others. Attaining this abstract awareness is a formidably difficult achievement, and it results only from a prolonged struggle.

At the same time as the two selves are interacting with each other, each self is trying to resolve its own internal self-distancing, with self-consciousness trying to assert dominance over self-as-object (discussed in yesterday’s post). But self-as-object is also self-as-other. Self-consciousness externalizes the inner struggle, trying to assert dominance over the other in order to achieve autonomy as a self. So A tries to dominate B, tries to get B to acknowledge A as the reason for B’s existence. And, again, vice versa. Each self knows that it is trying to dominate the other; each knows that the other is trying to dominate itself. They recognize themselves as mutually recognizing one another.

At first, for the individual A, everything and everyone else are objects that exist only for the sake of A’s own self. So too for B encountering A. Each is indeed certain of its own self, but not of the other, and therefore its own self-certainty still has no truth. And what is the truth? That each other self is certain of its own self. If I am A, I can reach that truth only when I realize that, for B, I am the object that exists only for B’s sake. That to the other I am an object under scrutiny and domination.

In order for me to achieve successful autonomy as a self-consciousness, then, I have to objectify and dominate the other without letting the other do the same to me. In other words, in order to achieve my own self-autonomy I have to kill the self-autonomy of the other so that the other lives only for my sake. And vice versa: each seeks the death of the other. In order to kill the other’s autonomous selfhood, though, I have to stake my own life. Why? Because I have to engage the other, and I know that the other is trying to kill me as well.

Thus the relation of the two self-conscious individuals is such that they prove and each other through a life-and-death struggle. They must engage in this struggle, for they must raise their certainty of being for themselves to truth, both in the case of the other and in their own case. And it is only through staking one’s life that freedom is won… The individual who has not risked his life may well be recognized as a person, but he has not attained to the truth of this recognition as an independent self-consciousness. Similarly, just as each stakes his own life, so each must seek the other’s death, for it values the other no more than itself; its essential being is present to it in the form of an ‘other,’ it is outside of itself and must rid itself of its self-externality.

We recall that, in Hegel’s analysis, the self-consciousness equates the other with the self-as-object. Trying to kill the other is equivalent to trying to kill the externalized, objectivized self in a generalized desire to subsume all selves under the mastery of self-consciousness. But, says Hegel, this trial by death is futile, because to kill the other consciousness is to kill all consciousnesses, including one’s own, turning them into mere objects. The two do not reciprocally give and receive one another back from each other consciously, but leave each other free only indifferently, like things. Seeking the other’s death is equivalent to attempting suicide.

In order for self-consciousness to achieve autonomy, it must subsume all selves — one’s own as well as the other’s — in such a way as to preserve and maintain what is superceded, and consequently survives its own supercession. In this experience, self-consciousness learns that life is as essential to it as pure self-consciousness. Consciousness must survive the struggle with self-consciousness, living to serve self-consciousness as a bondsman serves his lord. The bondsman isn’t a rival to be killed, but rather something to be desired — desired for its subservience, for its acknowledgment of the lord’s lordship, for its existing for the lord’s sake and not its own.

Ultimately A doesn’t want to keep B at a distance, as a separate object. A wants to satisfy his desire, to enjoy B as a thing, to absorb B’s value into A. But, says Hegel, A takes to himself only the dependent aspect of the thing and has the pure enjoyment of it. The aspect of its independence he leaves to the bondsman, who works on it. In other words, A enjoys the subservience and acknowledgment that B provides to A, thereby reinforcing A’s sense of autonomy. But A preserves B alive, so that B through working for A can continually provide that which A desires: subservience, recognition, a sense that every self lives for the sake of A’s self-consciousness. In so doing A has divided B in two: the consciousness of the bondsman who serves, and “that obscure object of desire” — the intangible sense of subservience that B continually provides to A.

More than enough for today, I fear. Tomorrow: how the bondsman becomes the lord — assuming I can figure out what Hegel is saying.


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