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February 17, 2004

Two Souls, Alas, Within My Bosom Dwell...


Thanks for sending me Mark Lilla’s book, “The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics.” I was particularly intrigued by the story of Alexander Vladimirovitch Kojevnikov, better known as Kojeve, who took a single notion out of Hegel and built himself quite a career around it. (Apparently, Kojeve’s writings were the inspiration for Francis Fukuyama’s "The End of History and the Last Man" of 1992 which I certainly heard about but never read.)

Kojeve’s hypothesis, derived from his reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit while teaching a tutorial in France during the 1930s, was that the central motor of history during the past two centuries has been the struggle by self-conscious minds for recognition from other self-conscious minds. According to Mr. Lilla:

One step in [humanity’s] developmental ladder is the moment of “self-consciousness,” when the mind first becomes aware of itself as an active force, which realization leads to a bifurcation between simple consciousness and reflective self-consciousness. Hegel describes this moment allegorically as a struggle between two figures: a master (Herr), representing simple conciousness, who rules over and demands recognition from a servant (Knecht), representing the new self-consciousness. The relation between master and servant is necessarily one of conflict because, Hegel explains, it is in the nature of the self-conscious mind to want recognition from other such minds; this is its overriding desire. [emphasis added]

According to Kojeve, the world, or at least its laboring and oppressed masses, achieved Hegelian self-consciousness during the French revolution. The Napoleonic wars then spread the bacillum of self-consciousness throughout Europe. According to Kojeve, there haven’t been any world-historical events since the Napoleonic wars. Post-Napoleonic ‘history’ has merely been the struggle of various self-conscious humans for mutual recognition. Hence, we are in a period considered considered by Kojeve to be ‘the end of history.’

Hey, don’t laugh at this little theory; it actually got Kojeve a long lasting gig as a postwar advisor to successive French governments. In position papers written for the French government immediately after World War II, he posited that the U.S. and the USSR were simply left- and right-wing variations of the same underlying world-historical trend. That is, they were both evolving toward technocratically administered egalitarian societies, because that is the type of society most conducive to the real action--the struggle for Recognition by other Self Conscious Minds. Hence, France could feel conveniently agnostic about who would ultimately win the Cold War, and, in fact, could legitimately create a third alternative to both in Europe. Kojeve actually seems to have played an influential role in the creation of the Common Market.

Philosophically I have no idea if Kojeve’s reading of Hegel’s theory is on the money or not. To tell the truth, I've never been able to decode Hegel for more than a sentence or two, so I’m not the man to ask. (Are there any Hegel scholars out there willing to weigh in on the accuracy of Kojeve’s interpretation?)

I obviously have a weakness for grandiose nuttiness like this. That's how it came to pass that one night at home I was mulling over Kojeve’s theory in my mind when I happened to glance at the cover of the March Vanity Fair. On the cover was Gwyneth Paltrow. A Kojevian (Hegelian?) light went on.

Ms. Paltrow Illustrating The End of History

It occurred to me that Ms. Paltrow could serve as a contemporary example of what it must be like to receive Recognition from Other Self-Conscious Minds at a firehose rate. That is, she has very, very hot shares on the ‘Self-Conscious Recognition’ Stock-Exchange, which are bid up by the apparently countless readers of the celebrity and fashion press—oops, I’m being a bit redundant there. Hey, admit it—she stands nobly on the Vanity Fair cover as the converging spotlights of Recognition pick her out from the crowd: rich, beautiful, talented, a fashion icon, able to conduct her sex life solely with other celebrities, etc., etc.) Suddenly it dawned on me that Kojeve’s theory, or Hegel’s theory, despite its rather baroque theoretical underpinnings, contains a genuine observation about contemporary life.

Celebrity culture, in which maximizing the value of one’s shares on the Recognition Stock Exchange becomes the true goal of life, no longer just seems to be a career issue for ambitious actresses. Celebrity has become a force that plays an increasingly large role across today’s society. For example, how many people nowadays, having gotten rich by taking their company public, immediately quit and go fishing—forever? Not many. It seems as if we no longer struggle for our leisure, or to ensure our children’s leisure, but for Recognition. Hence we must continue to work, continue to pile up the dough no matter how much we accumulate. (What rational reason does Bill Gates have to keep working? I mean, come on, wouldn’t it be cooler if you were him to create a real-life version of “The Millionaire” and go around anonymously handing out checks for a cool million to deserving schmoes in trouble?) Indeed, one suspects that in our Recognition-mad society that the chief torment of being poor is not so much material deprivation, but rather the sense of being denied one’s rightful Recognition, of being faceless in society.

But having granted that this struggle for recognition is real—and I think it is hard to deny it— the question remains: is getting such Recognition really all that gratifying? I speak, by the way, as one who is not above the fray; I’m quite ferocious about seeking my own forms of recognition—from blogging, among other pursuits. (I also intend to leave at least one museum quality painting around when I go.)

But having received in various small ways some amounts of Recognition…(far less than I deserve, but Recognition nonetheless, no matter how paltry), a part of me continues to wonder if the whole self-consciousness thing is all it’s cracked up to be. My more enduring gratifications seem to spring from the old ‘simple’ consciousness of Hegel’s schema: the consciousness that’s focused more on being a link in a very long chain, rather than striving to be seen as the crown and apex of all creation. My childhood was, in a lot of ways, not all that happy, but as an experience it was surely intense and 100% mine; being around while my children build their own lives up also continues to gratify me all out of rational proportion. And these things don’t exhaust me the way that my ever needy self-consciousness seems to do.

In fact, I wonder if many of 2blowhards’ continuing themes, like a dislike of authoritarian modernism, an interest in evolutionary biology and a tendency to notice of how often something that can only be described as religious pokes its head out of the warp and woof of our contemporary lives, aren't more unified than they seem. To wit, they're all reactions against the tyranny of modern self-consciousness and its imperious quest for Recognition. (Not that I don't deserve more of it, mind you.)

How do you see the role of Recognition in contemporary life? (“Ah’m fur it. No, wait, ah’m agin’ it. No, wait, I jus’ can’t live without it, goldarnit!”)



posted by Friedrich at February 17, 2004


Wow! I think you're right. I think Recognition Shares have diminishing marginal returns though (ha! how's that for remembering some econ vocab?); you certainly need some of it, but to get much of a buzz from it after a certain point it must become an ever-increasing jolt by and ever-more-specific group. A seventh grade boy is thrilled if the girl who sits next to him says yes to the Valentine's Dance. Donald Trump needs ever-younger models with a particular inseam length to get the same thrill. And then another. And then needs to executive produce a show which he has a leading role in. And then... So, the fact that it is "exhausting" does seem to be true. Michael Blowhard once discussed the value of "enjoying the fabric of life" and I think that---along with your link-in-the-chain analogy---has something to do with the antidote---just as long as you've got a few Recognition Shares in the bank!

Posted by: annette on February 17, 2004 11:36 AM

Hilarious explanation of Kojeve -- frankly, it sounds right to me. Ever thought about writing a pop-culture analysis of contemporary philosophy, Friedrich? Those Recognition shares'd go right through the roof!

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on February 17, 2004 12:34 PM

I believe it was Adam Smith (who was possibly quoted in End of History by Fukuyama -- it's been a while since I read it) who said that the real tragedy of poverty wasn't the lack of material resources but rather its anonymity.

Recognition rears its head at the opposite end of the spectrum.

Posted by: vinod on February 17, 2004 6:43 PM

Kajeve sounds like Hegel-meets-Warhol to me. Which may mean he was a genius, for all I know.

It all makes me muse, Hmmm. Looking back on our lousy educations, doesn't it seem as though what they were about was heightening, increasing, making ever more acute our degrees of self-consiousness? I sometimes feel as though I've spent all too much of the decades since shedding some of that self-consciousness, as well as wondering why anyone would ever think it's a good on-principle idea to inflict a hyper degree of self-consciousness on anyone. Are they trying to cripple their students? Or maybe crush 'em?

But maybe Kojeve's got the answer. Our lousy university was determined that its charges should succeed bigtime. Such was its mission -- to send kids out there who'd conquer the world (and then presumably send in a lot of donations). And maybe laying scads of self-consciousness on them was a way of heightening their need for recognition. Make 'em super-self-consciousness, and they'd have no choice but to go succeed (and then send it tons of donations).

But this is the first time this has occurred to me. Think there's anything to it?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 18, 2004 2:21 PM

Systems of socialization tend to be self-perpetuating. If your professors were self-conscious to an absurd degree, it's very likely that they encouraged you to be self-conscious to an absurd degree. This encouragement may occur by design, but it's far more likely to occur unintentionally and indirectly.

Since parents are the ones who actually, you know, pay for a student's college education, I'd suspect that absurd self-consciousness would fall by the wayside if parents weren't somehow delighted with it. (Then again, this seems already to have happened in the average State U.)

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on February 18, 2004 6:22 PM

I think our Lousy Ivy teachers regarded the heightening of our self-consciousness as an essential part of our education. They certainly went about it methodically and without apology; clearly they thought that people without such self-consciousness were pretty much ignorant rubes.

A few weeks ago a woman professor expounded at length in an op ed section on how slack universities had gotten about indoctrinating their female students in feminist ideology--she regarded such consciousness-raising as an essential service for young women, who would otherwise be reactionary dupes or something.

And people wonder why the humanities have sunk so far in the popular estimation.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 18, 2004 7:19 PM

Just more evidence of how the upper middle class American mentality f***ks everybody over. Go be "successful." Ummmm...and that is

Posted by: annette on February 19, 2004 8:05 AM

Hmm, "recognition" as relief/respite/deliverance from the (presumably) pain of self-consciousness ...? Something like that? Very provocative.

As for our lousy college education: I marvel that anyone would think that inflicting a massive amount of self-consciousness on anyone else could be anything but painful, destructive and burdensome. Helping open someone up to a larger awareness of things -- that I can see as OK, although I'm not sure how I feel about forcing it on anyone, at least past a certain point. But self-consciousness ... Sheesh. It's like putting a noose around someone's neck and pulling it ever tighter, saying, "Now you're really aware of what a pulse is, right?" And pretending that's a good thing. Between you and me, I'm kinda proud of the way I've managed to shuck off a fair amount of that self-consciousness... Or so I like to fool myself into believing. Maybe it's just that with age, the neck grows thinner and it becomes easier to leave the noose behind...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 19, 2004 11:57 AM

I grew up on the edge of the WASP establishment in New York. I was raised in Darien (rhymes with Aryan), went to a New England boarding school and Harvard.

That world is gone, and I'm happy with the new one. But we're having some problems with the transition phase, and those are worth talking about.

First of all, while we've had show-biz celebrities for quite a while, it's only recently that we started thinking they, rather than FDR, should be our leaders. Or thinking it's normal that half the entertainers most respected by our kids publicly advocate illegal behavior, including murder.

The old Establishment was taught that with privilege came responsibility. Some of our new leaders, like Michael Bloomberg, think that too. But Sisqo and The Donald don't (even though The Donald went to Hill and Penn), and there no longer is an establishment saying this is right and that is wrong.

The WASPs were far from perfect, but they were the most Liberal (in the Classical sense that both Progressives and Neo-Cons can support) ruling class in the history of the world. They believed in democracy and social progress and abdicated their power in a sincere attempt to be more egalitarian.

Having lost that top-down system, and gained the everyone's equal "swarm" of the internet, we're still learning how to deal with our new situation.

In my field, town planning and urban design, that means we have lots of public meetings but often a shortage of judgment. I think this is one of the reasons for the New Urban emphasis on the public realm and the common good. We're trying to leave the plain ol' ignorance of NIMBYism and political correctness behind and move on to a more enlightened public process.

In the meantime, we have the strange idea that Britney, Justin, Paris and Snoop Dogg are people that adults are supposed to care about and look up to.

Posted by: John Massengale on February 29, 2004 2:07 PM

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