french hegel: blanchot, baitalle and kojève

Near the beginning of Lars Iyer’s recent Blanchot’s Communism: Art, Philosophy and the Political, one comes across this nice piece of Kojèvean exegesis:

 

How, then, does it begin? How does the human being step into history? Everything begins, for Bataille, as for Kojève, with death. As Kojève explains, death permits the leap above ‘mere animal sentiment of self [Selbstgefühl]’ in order for the human being to attain properly human ‘self-consciousness [Selbstsbewu_tsein]’, which is to say, ‘conceptual and discursive consciousness in general’ – ‘the risk of life accepted without any necessity’, death as a sheer leap into the unknown. Everything begins with death. ‘The death of a human being is essentially different from the ‘end’ of an animal or plant’; the latter is merely imposed from without.5 The animal cannot assume its end, but merely unfolds innate possibilities, actualising only what it has been given by virtue of its biology. Nothing begins anew with the birth of the animal; it does not bring itself into the origin – it does not leap. The flies that circle blindly around my room this year are the same as the flies that circled last year, but the human being who struggles into birth inherits an understanding of the world, a culture, and is able to transform and to transmit this inheritance in turn. The birth of the human being is a leap. But it is so because to understand, for the human being, is also to die. For Kojève, it is death that lifts the human being from nature and grants it freedom. The human being, unlike the animal, is able to watch itself die; it is self-conscious.

How should one understand this? The human being irrupts into the field of Nature, which, for Kojève, is always merely ‘static given-Being [Sein]’, self-identical and mute.6 The human being undoes given-Being, by introducing ‘Other-Being [Anderssein]’, that is, ‘negation of itself as given and creation of itself as other than this given’.7 This is why Kojève differentiates his phenomenological anthropology, which ‘describes human existence as it “appears” [erscheint] or “manifests” itself to the very one who experiences it’,8 from a scientific one, like Gall’s phrenology. The animal merely lives, but the living human being acts. True, plants and animals develop, but that development is itself determined by what is given beforehand. As Bataille comments, the animal ‘is itself lost in nature (and in the totality of all that is)’.9 Freedom, by contrast, is the negation of human ‘nature’, which is to say, for Kojève, ‘of the “possibilities” which he has already realized’.10 Negation is an overcoming of what has already been received as a possibility and to that extent is always a leap, always the realisation of a hitherto unforeseen possibility. Action, negativity, is the overcoming of the given. It is by violently asserting autonomy with respect to nature, by making war against what is merely innate or inherited, that the dimension of history opens, understood as the ‘appearings’ of the human being and its world and hence the topic of phenomenology.

This capacity to negate, this freedom, governs the human being from the very beginning. To begin, with the human being inherits the body, a natural being. As Bataille comments, ‘Man is first of all an animal, that is to say the very thing he negates’; ‘to negate nature is to negate the animal which props up man’s negativity’.11 Thus the body is itself negated through action. But how does the human being survive the own destruction of the body? The human being is reborn from the ashes of its natural being because it is self-conscious, because it can watch itself die. The human being is a dialectical being, which means, for Kojève, that it preserves that which is originally given. Although negation is always a negation of a determined and specific identity, it simultaneously preserves this same identity. In its continuity and its progression, history always presumes the negation of the real and its preservation. As Kojève writes, ‘to describe Man as a dialectical entity is to describe him as a negating Action that negates the given within which is born, and as a Product created by that very negation, on the basis of the given which was negated’.12 Thus, the human being can preserve itself in the negation of its own natural being. The death of the body, is, in this sense, assumed by the human being such that it becomes the product of human action, of freedom. The fruits of activity, of dying, are preserved in and through the transmission of history.

Death, for Kojève, is the negation through which the human being ‘“goes beyond” or “transcends” the given-being which he himself is’.13 It is because it risks death that the human being is a dialectical being. For the animal, death is suffered as an end – it merely befalls the animal to the extent that Kojève claims ‘death does not actually exist for it’.14 The animal lives out its possibilities without negating them. As Bataille comments, ‘no doubt the individual fly dies, but today’s flies are the same as those of last year. Last year’s have died? … Perhaps, but nothing has disappeared. The flies remain, equal to themselves like the waves of the sea’.15 Kojève’s animal cannot watch itself die. It is not even finite, in the sense that it possesses a sense of its division from other animals. It belongs to what Bataille calls an ‘undifferentiated continuity’.16 Animal desire, Kojève grants, destroys what is given as nature – the animal ‘realises and reveals its superiority to plants by eating them’; and yet, by the same stroke, ‘by feeding on plants, the animal depends on them and hence does not manage fully to go beyond them’.17 Animal desire is filled by a ‘natural, biological content’.18 The animal falls back into the natural domain from which it appeared, briefly, to liberate itself. This is why the animal does not enter into becoming, time and history. No animal, even the strongest, can be more than a wave in the movement of the waters of this animality; all of them belong to the continuity as water does to water. The animal lives, but the human being acts, which is to say, dies. Death drives the human being out of the continuity of animal life. The human being, by contrast, does not enjoy a simple subsistence, but dies, and for this reason is always and already beyond the situation in which it finds itself. It runs up against the fact that it will die. Thus, Kojève writes, ‘man is mortal for himself ’; only the human being ‘can die in the proper sense of the word’.19 The human being can die, and death can become what he calls a ‘dialectical finiteness’ because the human being always dies prematurely, that is, because there are always more possibilities that it could negate.20 Whilst the offspring of the animal inherit nothing, repeating the same movement, the human being has the chance of giving birth to an inheritor, to the child who can take up the work of negation and prolong history.

 

Notes:

 

5. Alexandre Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, edited by Allan Bloom, translated by James H. Nichols (Cornell University Press, 1980), 242.

6. Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, 200.

7. Ibid., 200.

8. Ibid., 261.

9. Bataille, Theory of Religion, translated by Robert Hurley (New York: Zone Books, 1988), 15.

10. Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, 250.

11. Bataille, Theory of Religion, 15.

12. Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, 234.

13. Ibid., 256.

14. Ibid., 255.

15. Bataille, Theory of Religion, 15.

16. Ibid., 29.

17. Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, 39.

18. Ibid., 39.

19. Ibid., 255.

20. Ibid.

 

 

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