Monday, May 09, 2011

Cutrofello, Andrew. Review of Rebecca Comay, MOURNING SICKNESS. NDPR (May 2010).

Comay, Rebecca.  Mourning Sickness: Hegel and the French RevolutionStanford: Stanford UP, 2010.

Rebecca Comay's insightful study of Hegel's philosophical reflections on the French Revolution clarifies Hegel's conception of the temporality of absolute knowing. On her account, absolute knowing is neither an atemporal intellectual intuition of the absolute nor the immediate self-presence of a persisting subject. It is, instead, a conceptual elaboration of the ubiquity of delay. This is not to say that thought is discursive in the Kantian sense of requiring the performance of temporal syntheses. The delay of the concept registered in absolute knowing is not due to the fact that concepts are second-order representations that succeed or postpone intuitions of objects. Absolute knowing represents thought as essentially belated (subsequent to events never apprehended and so unavailable for synthesis) and premature (prior to events whose essential, and therefore irreducible, futurity again makes them unavailable for synthesis). Acknowledging itself to be a Johnny-come-lately-and-early, spirit abandons previous conceptions of itself as a gathering subject of retentions and protentions (Self-certainty), or the gathered Da of a three-fold temporal ekstasis (Sittlichkeit). Terror, not anxiety, has taught it that time is out of joint. The moral impossibility of setting right a time disjoined by terror is brutally summarized by Lady Macbeth: "What's done cannot be undone." Despite the definitiveness of this hard, if banal, lesson, Hegel allows the confession of un-undoable evil to be answered -- not without a crucial delay (123) -- by an act of forgiveness that purports to undo past crime (146): "The wounds of the Spirit heal, and leave no scars behind" (129). This response marks, for Comay, the advent (in every sense of the term) of absolute knowing. Whether Hegel succeeds in reconciling Lady Macbeth's thesis with his own antithesis -- a veritable antinomy in Comay's juxtaposition of the two -- is the difficult question posed by Mourning Sickness.

As the title of her book indicates, Comay represents Hegel's philosophical response to the French Revolution in the vocabulary of psychoanalysis: trauma, repetition compulsion, mourning, melancholia, introjection, incorporation, etc. This approach is justified by the fact that the Phenomenology of Spirit prefigures (both conceptually and lexically) psychoanalytic descriptions of the experience of loss (96). Comay does not seek to psychologize Hegel's dialectical analyses of shapes of consciousness, but rather to bring out their "normative" significance (6). As she says of her guiding concept: "by 'trauma,' I don't mean anything psychological. . . . My interest is philosophical: to explore trauma as a modal, temporal, and above all a historical category" (4). This raises the stakes, inviting us to wonder not only about the philosophical significance of psychoanalytic concepts, but about what it might mean to absolve them of psychological significance. . . .


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