Blog Post

Hegel, Ecology, Aesthetics

...this is part of a talk I'm going to do at Queen Mary University in London in a few weeks, at the conference Emerging Critical Environments with Kate Soper and Tim Clark (and others). I already posted the opening on my blog.  

Ideas, for Hegel, have a structural instability that I also attribute to objects: they have an intrinsic difference from themselves, reflected in the rift between an idea and the attitude it codes for. Ideas are also archaeological evidence of the existence of at least one thing that is not an idea: people who have those ideas. Ideas don't float in a void, but are lived, phenomenologically—which is why of course Hegel calls his history of attitudes that ideas code for The Phenomenology of Spirit.

Now there are ideas humans have about art. And these ideas code for attitudes. And these idea–attitude bundles are structurally unstable and teeter forwards, opening up the future. So Hegel's history of aesthetics is the history of how human ideas about what art is code for attitudes, setting up unstable constructs that collapse into new ideas and fresh attitudes.

Hegel's history of art basically goes Symbolic–Classical–Romantic. Now we can track this history, argues Hegel, according to how humans have developed attitudes towards the objects of art: the painting, the canvas, the cave wall, the pen, the subject matter, all of it. Ideas concerning these objects code for attitudes, the spiritual inside of art, as it were. In a nutshell, Hegel's history of aesthetics is the story of the eventual release of this spirit from the very materials that it used to understand itself, and the subsequent surpassing of art by philosophy, when spirit becomes too heavy for objects to embody it.

(In this talk I'm going to use the terms spirit and spiritual rather than subject and subjective. First because Hegel uses them. Secondly, because I think those terms are interestingly provocative right now. And thirdly because subject is itself a kind of cheapening or reification of what we are aiming for here, which is more like an analysis of the withdrawn essence of things versus their manifestation for others, or for the other.)

Now here's a word of warning: I'm not a Hegelian, in the sense that I'm not a teleological thinker. I don't believe that the history of what Hegel calls spirit has an end, even a predictable end point. And I'm not endorsing Hegel's viewpoint concerning the defects of the Symbolic, Classical and Romantic phases. Indeed, I am doing a bit of a Hegel with Hegel himself, since I'm interested in the fact that Hegel, as a Romantic philosopher, is a very contemporary philosopher, insofar as we are still inside the Romantic period—or were, until about two weeks ago, more on this later.

How can we tell we're still in the Romantic period? The fact that we are still in the Romantic period is why Slavoj Žižek can write an essay called “What It Means to Be a Hegelian Today.” Why this title makes sense, even remotely.

The Hegelian thinking of art, in other words, has an unconscious that is only now coming to light. This coming to light signals the collapse of the Romantic period—the long march of the isms, the most encompassing of which is consumerism, since the late eighteenth century, accompanied by the advent of modernity, the upsurge of industrial capitalism, and the subsequent geological shift we now call the Anthropocene: the fact that we have now entered a geological period in which humans have a direct affect on the substrata of their earthly reality. The Anthropocene has a very definite beginning indeed: 1945, when a thin layer of radioactive materials was deposited in Earth's crust. The new period we enter, I claim, is an ecological one, which I call the time of hyperobjects, for reasons I will make clear. In this period, a new phase of art, unpredicted, and indeed I shall argue, unpredictable, by Hegel, comes about.

Timothy Morton's picture
Timothy Morton is Professor of English (Literature and Environment) at the University of California, Davis. Professor Morton's interests include literature and the environment, ecotheory, philosophy, biology, physical sciences, literary theory, food studies, sound and music, materialism, poetics, Romanticism, Buddhism, and the eighteenth century. He teaches literature and ecology, Romantic-period literature, and literary theory. He has published nine books and sixty essays, including The Ecological Thought (Harvard UP, 2010) and Ecology without Nature (Harvard UP, 2007).