The Dash—The Other Side of Absolute Knowing
An argument that what is usually dismissed as the “mystical shell” of Hegel's thought—the concept of absolute knowledge—is actually its most “rational kernel.”
This book sets out from a counterintuitive premise: the “mystical shell” of Hegel's system proves to be its most “rational kernel.” Hegel's radicalism is located precisely at the point where his thought seems to regress most. Most current readings try to update Hegel's thought by pruning back his grandiose claims to “absolute knowing.” Comay and Ruda invert this deflationary gesture by inflating what seems to be most trivial: the absolute is grasped only in the minutiae of its most mundane appearances. Reading Hegel without presupposition, without eliminating anything in advance or making any decision about what is essential and what is inessential, what is living and what is dead, they explore his presentation of the absolute to the letter.
The Dash is organized around a pair of seemingly innocuous details. Hegel punctuates strangely. He ends the Phenomenology of Spirit with a dash, and he begins the Science of Logic with a dash. This distinctive punctuation reveals an ambiguity at the heart of absolute knowing. The dash combines hesitation and acceleration. Its orientation is simultaneously retrospective and prospective. It both holds back and propels. It severs and connects. It demurs and insists. It interrupts and prolongs. It generates nonsequiturs and produces explanations. It leads in all directions: continuation, deviation, meaningless termination. This challenges every cliché about the Hegelian dialectic as a machine of uninterrupted teleological progress. The dialectical movement is, rather, structured by intermittency, interruption, hesitation, blockage, abruption, and random, unpredictable change—a rhythm that displays all the vicissitudes of the Freudian drive.
Hegel's thought is a mark rather than a concept. A suspension rather than a conclusion. A dash rather than a full stop. Speculation is the thought that thinks its own suspension: in order to jump better—further, higher, today, tomorrow. Welcome to this book—!
It was a common tendency of recent French philosophy—Foucault and Deleuze as much as Althusser—to rise up in arms against the totalitarianism and idealism of the Hegelian dialectic. After mangling Plato, postmodern philosophy thought it would be useful to mangle Hegel too, always on the pretext of his supposed idealism. But in truth, neither Plato nor Hegel were idealists in the sense established by Kant. What Rebecca Comay and Frank Ruda have shown, quite simply by reading Hegel's actual text, is that the dialectic dwells equally in chance, in uncertainty, in the 'perhaps,' like a country path to an unknown destination. But this in no way impedes, on the contrary it entails, that the absolute is always with us, at once necessary and hard to decipher—an indispensable compass to orient us on this interminable pathway that we must forever keep retracing.
The Dash is a vibrant and engaging book on Hegel's importance for contemporary theory, emphasizing that it is the most speculative of his notions—absolute knowing—that most deserves our critical attention. There is no other book quite like this, vacillating between a meditation and a romp, pursuing Hegel's complex thought with intensity and clarity. Comay and Ruda propose that Hegel's speculative thought exposes experience to its own impossibility and that the relation between logic and The Phenomenology of Spirit will be rethought once we grasp Hegel's ultimate rejoinder to Kant: the 'beyond' of experience is immanent to experience itself. Focusing on Hegel's punctuation brings us closer to this hesitation in thought that is part of its very operation. Just as empiricism and formalism finally converge in the Phenomenology, so exposition comes to coincide with its object in both texts. The convergence, however, is fleeting. This transitory encounter with a transitory object is marked not by a name, but by a dash with performative power, one that disorients us from the accepted coordinates of everyday life only to promise disorientation. We are then left with the demand to start anew, the occasion for decision. The dash, then, as the very point of transformation, proves important for a new reading as well as a new political orientation, one that emerges paradoxically from within Hegel's metaphysics.
Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor of Comparative Literature and Critical Theory, University of California, Berkeley
Using the method that Althusser once described as 'thinking at the extremities,' two renowned Hegel scholars, one who had investigated revolutionary terror (Comay), one who had investigated the rabble of society (Ruda), gather to elucidate … what? a dash, that punctuates/punctures, joins/disjoins the two major works: Phenomenology and Logic. They split the dialectics and uncover its impossible function: to identify the speculative and the empirical, thus leaving us no place for security, neither subjective self-certainty nor objective substantiality. Only the inconsistency of the absolute, or the necessity of contingency that is our material condition. Readers, fasten your seatbelts! But also enjoy wit and intellectual dramaturgy on every page.
Etienne Balibar, Department of French & Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, Columbia University