Spirit is/ain’t a bone

May 18, 2008

I did a quick search on “spirit is a bone” and found “The Greek Profile: Hegel’s aesthetics and the implications of a pseudo-science (PDF)” by Steven Decaroli.

Decaroli describes how “observational reason”, as one of the first stops reason makes on its way towards absolute knowledge, is the moment in Hegel’s dialectic which people try to make a link between appearance and essence – after having dividing the one from the other. This link is thought such that the exterior that is present to the senses is taken as a reflection of the essence of the surface under observation. And this is, of course, what phrenologists do, positing that facial features are an expression of a person’s character, their essence.

It is the phrenologists who assert that ““the being of Spirit is a bone” (page 208 of Miller’s translation of the Phenomenology) but they are wrong because spirit is dynamic, and as such cannot be found in a static thing like a bone. However, it is this incorrect assertion that drives the dialectic forward…

Based on this (which Decaroli describes in the first 5 sections of his paper), Decaroli argues that for Hegel…

Art, as no longer being relevant to human progress, ceases to be exemplary and remains only a matter of description, not prescription. One of the manifestations of this historical obsolescence is the degree to which beauty can be submitted to an explanation via quantification and measurement (117).

That is, Hegel thought that while one could not determine an individual’s character by the lumps on their skull, one could look at Greek sculpture and see a quantification, an embodiment of (rather than a reflection of inner-) beauty. As Decaroli tells the story, the difference between Hegel, the aesthetic theory of Hegel’s time, and the phrenologists is that Hegel asserts that one cannot use this embodiment to talk about a dynamic movement (i.e. the intentions of a person) or as a prescription as to how to do things.

I think that’s more or less what Decaroli is arguing, and I think it’s useful for us in a couple of ways. First is at the level of theory and practice: one can describe what’s out there, but can’t use that description as a prescription for action. That sort of knowledge must come from somewhere else – I don’t know Hegel at all, so I can’t say what the next stages of the dialectic look like. If we think about Lacan and Lenin, however, then the answer comes somwhere in the difference between doing and transmitting knowledge of doing (an idea that Lacan builds on top of Kojeve’s version of the master/slave dialectic…).

Second, this may be a germ for one way of thinking the relation between art and Zizek’s and Lacan’s (and Freud’s) use of it in terms of generating theory.My first thought is this: Movies, jokes, operas, literary stories – These arn’t ‘examples of what to do’ but embodiments of the jouissance that is produced in certain arragnements…

Decaroli’s paper is a pretty quick read. It’s shorter than it looks – I avoided all the footnotes, and there are a bunch of pages that are just drawings. Most of the stuff about Hegel’s take on “spirit is a bone” happen in the first four sections, and are taken up again in the last few. I recommend it.

Based on the lumps in this person’s skull, I would guess that they were a union-busting capitalist, prone to exploiting their labour force with a smile…

Or maybe this is an example when ‘spirit is a bone’, while at the same time ‘wealth is the self’

H.S. Harris on the relevance of Hegel today


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