Great Hegel lecture

Art, science, games

CSH: Fara said, “Did smoke was.”

And I realized that once humans have economic surplus—enough food and their society is organized—they get bored. People have a lot of cognitive survival machinery. Once survival is taken care of the machinery doesn’t take a rest. Instead, it creates games, makes art, theorizes nature and tests hypotheses. The machinery is designed to solve problems, so it is always looking for mystery and difficulty.

We have surplus survival machinery, and once the animals and plants have been dominated, our machinery doesn’t just stop. The human brain did not change when we finished creating a civilization, and people are not so amazing that they can turn off their survival machinery on command.

Instead, we invented science and art:

  • Science—Our surplus cognitive power motivates us to explore nature systematically. We dig into the grain of nature to see how far human will can extend, and what the effects of human will are when we finger nature.
  • Art—Our surplus cognitive power motivates us to make things that give us pleasure to perceive.
  • Games—Our surplus cognitive power motivates us to fight.

If we are not hunting, gathering, planting, taming, or toiling, we are fighting, making art, and exploring nature.


Consider all the objects that you create and can share with other people, objects that give you pleasure when you perceive them. Of all such make-and-share objects, literature is the most potent. Why? Because the clay of literature is meaning itself. The writer shapes a whole reality and the reader takes it in, like a drug. And if the reader loves your writing, if your art-object kicks them into another reality, you feel great accomplishment.

Satisfied humans make literature. And then they reflect on their literature as if it were high art—the highest art-object of all.


Modernism is about experimenting with the tools of crafting art. This makes it different from previous stages of art history, which focused on the accuracy of figuration, or on devising newer and more interesting attributes for the figures.

Works of pre-modern painting are realistic and world-representing. They are views of things—things in space that reflect light, are sized and shaded according to distance, and so on. The asymptote of all pre-modern painting was photorealism. (This is called naturalism. And the only innovators in the photographic tradition have been De Chirico, Tanguy, Dali, and Giger. Everyone else is some brand of photographic.)

At the time of Modernism, humans had long known how to paint realistically. This had already been accomplished by the time of the Renaissance, first in 1423. And once humans learned to how to paint like a photograph, the history of (realistic) painting was over. Innovation in painting as a representative effort was finished.

Once the question of how to represent in painting had been solved, painting was finished. Modernism is the first properly philosophical mode of art production because it turned inwards and questioned its own foundation. What is painting? Modern art is philosophical in that it reflects on its own presuppositions.

Art as figuration

The point of the first (extant) paintings in the Lascaux Caves was to make the animals that ate, and so killed, and so had a special relationship with. We recognized them as peers and as life (food) and as threat. Animals are other people, people of a different kind. We recognize our consciousness in them. Even the number of limbs, hair, face, mouth. Most importantly—being sentient, they are unpredictable. We are objects for them. How do you get to know another mind? Only through close interaction. We cannot practice with them separately from the actual hunt. So we make simulations of them, stare at them, tarry with them, in a scary ritual theater. It’s like virtual reality exposure therapy.

The bison feed us like mothers while also being elusive and dangerous and agents for whom we are objects. We do well do confront them in their scary elephantine greatness.

Later, we painted for pure pleasure, but always with figuration as the regulative ideal. Of this there was two kinds: accurate figuration and stylized figuration. It wasn’t long before humans could paint so well that it looked like a photograph, or even really present (as with a trompe l'oeil).

But the human drive to make does not stop even when perfection is reached. The drive to solve problems and perfect acts of production does not stop running, and when problems or imperfection are lacking, it creates new problems by setting different goals. Once representation was perfection, the goal of production changed.

Modern art

Even when the goal is reached, the goal reaching machine doesn’t stop running. It introverts. “Goddamn it! We have this painting ability and we’ve learned how to make photograph-quality paintings and … Wait a minute. Does it have to be a photograph?”

Then you can turn on the content. Expressionism.

Then you can turn on the form. Impressionism.

Then you can even turn on the a priori structure and framework of the form, or even the meaning of the pursuit. You can blank the canvas, or cut the canvas, or hang an empty frame.

When figuration is perfection, you naturally start messing with meaning and with form.

Did smoke was.

This comes from a modernist deployment of language. Finnegan’s Wake is the art object that is supposed to be the most advanced product in the natural history of English writing—the most experimentalist-modernist.

Modernism was a period in the history of art-object production. Art is self-satisfaction by influencing objective being, stamping matter in a way self-pleasing. Art is skillful masturbation. Modernism was a period where the impulse to object-making was given broader leeway. Instead of photorealism or stylized figuration, manipulation was now applied to the medium itself. Adventurous humans stopped painting figures and started blanking or cutting the canvas, or started playing with meaning and reference. The reference of conceptual art is not a topic outside the art-object, but (say) the institution of the gallery, or the role of society is meaning-making, or the presuppositions in the observer, or the relation between observer and object rather than the object alone. And, with Duchamp’s famous Fountain (1917), what counts as art and the meaning of art.

Why did self-pleasuring through object-making evolve from reproduction to deconstruction? It’s the result of idle hands, of our surplus intelligence having nothing to work on. Our brains are wrapped in a centimeter-thick layer of future-colonizing survival fear. It’s the demon that drives us.

We will not die.

Not dying is a very serious thing. Our will not to die is the standard of seriousness. If you want to talk about Is that serious? and Is that important? For us, the most serious and important thing of all is the avoidance of death. That is what is motivating our art impulse. This is why, when our art has become representationally satisfactory, the tinkering with method didn’t just stop. Because the fear of death itself is what drives our desire to map. And so we start fucking with mapping itself.

Fara: You’re saying that we’re trying to make art into a problem?

CSH: If the mapper can’t stop running and yet has run out of objects to map, the mapper takes itself apart. Imagine a computer that has figured out everything in the world. If its nature is to figure things out, then it has to turn on itself … and it must fail.

Modern philosophy

Fara: Art is intentional failing?

CSH: No—art, being finite and consistent, can never be complete. Or: understanding can never be understood, or have itself as a distinct object.

Fara: Because then it would seize all understanding?

CSH: I don’t know, but it seems to me to be talismanic. It seems to me that all theories must end in Gödelian sentences—self-referential, self-undoing sentences. Like

The following sentence is true. The preceding sentence is false.

Those things to me are the jewels of theoretical work. All theoretical investigation ends at the horizon of the Gödelian self-referential sentence. So “Understanding can never understand itself” seems to me to be the asymptote that’s driving understanding.

What is the Holy Grail of understanding. It’s Hegelian. It’s spirit understanding itself as spirit. Spirit wakes up from the dream of being alien in nature, and it sees that nature is its own effluvia. And it falls in love with itself again, in an intellectual act of love. This is philo-sophy—you’re “loving wisdom.”

So the essence of philosophy is:

God begins by creating the puzzle, by extending himself as nature and saying Not self! And then digging and burrowing his way through that artificial otherness, until he finds the back of his own head. When you dig far enough through the wall of otherness you end up colliding with the back of your own head.

This is the final end of all drinking-in of sensation with an eye to (discursive) knowledge, or reproduction of sensation inside a system of inferentially linked (or at least consistent) sentences. (Even though these sentences might themselves be bits of mathematical formalism, these models bear on predicates of sense-objects that are accessed fully in language. This particle is … and This wave is …are examples.)

The final end of investigative theoretical work has to be circular. If your work doesn’t end up either in in a circle or a paradox, that means you are not done, you have to keep going.

Fara: Why?

CSH: Because it means that you still have more trivia yet to digest into your consistent system. When you’ve digest all trivia, which actually are children of the suppositions and axioms of your system—your presuppositions. The world you understand is constituted by the children of the axioms of your presuppositional interpretive system.

  1. You walk around the world with a filter or a grid.
  2. That grid makes objects.
  3. The objects are the children of the grid.
  4. Everything inside the system is said to be understood. Everything that has meaning (or: meaning as real) must fit inside you system. When things don’t fit into your system, you panic.

The ultimate system is the Buddhist no-system. That’s the system that contains all systems. The system that is totally complete, is in itself no system.

Grammar divides reality

So success in perfect knowing can only come through abdication of the knowing project. The only way to really grasp understanding is to relax into a kind of mysical or Hegelian self-identity. Because the effort to know something spits it out as other. So the very stance of knowing something automatically puts it away from you. You push the object of knowledge away from you in the very effort of wanting to know. Why? Because knowledge is world-bifurcating.

I know this.
I see that.

The structure of knowledge when we articulate it has the form of

I am on this side; what I know, on the other side.

There is a wall between “I” and the known. How do we get rid of the wall?

The answer is, fucktard, you made the wall when you said

I — know — this.
I — want — that.

When you speak you activity into language you have to cut it up.

And then you say, “Ok guys. Let’s try and get rid of the gap created by ‘I—know—that’.” And then Western philosophy spends 2000 years trying to get rid of the gap created by “I—know—that.”

Fara: Knowledge is “subject—verb—object?”

CSH: The desire to know alienates self. It creates the object as an object at a distance, so that you can see it. Knowledge occurs in the mode of Apollo. The joy of Apollo comes from all objects being rotatable illuminated things underneath his gaze. Everything is contained, rotatable, and revealed. Apollo is the god of propositional knowledge, because the very stance of trying to know something inside propositional knowledge otherizes it in order to turn it into an object of knowledge.

[Note also that the mode of propositional knowledge is perceptual. This shouldn’t be surprising from an evolutionary-biological perspective. Of course knowledge develops biologically not as Cartesian introspection, but as sensation processing. The grammatical subject must always be a proper subset of infinite space. The thing talked about is finite and rotatable in the imagination. Epistemic object is to consciousness as physical object is to space. There is containment.

And here’s another gift: the containment relation across the copula (in general logic) is shockingly analogous to containment in understanding (“This S(F, G, H) really is P(F)”) and this, in turn, to proper containment, which is the containment of some extended volume in 3-space. Logical containment (under the predicate) is reflective of epistemic containment (in my understanding), which is reflective of physical containment (in space). This needs to be explored.]

So the Apollonian situation is one of universal dispersal and mutual alienation—every thing is external to every other (thing). Every subject is a body, so every subject is an other for every other subject.

Is there a way back home from the epistemic-Apollonian situation of universal atomism to the primordial unity that preceded the Epistemic Fall from knowledge? Is there a Tikkkun to heal the fragmentation below the Abyss and restore consciousness to its (presumed) unity with all things? [The notion that all things are at bottom connected or one is a near universal prejudice. Why do all natural philosophies, mysticisms, and religions assume that all things are, at bottom, one? This is another interesting topic.]

The return to primordial unity

It would be elegant if the solution to the problem could be found in the problem itself—in the very basis or start of the problem itself. Happily, this is the case here. The secret way back home is acquired from the fact that knowledge is known. The structure of knowing is, in fact, knowing. It’s the paradox of analysis—the only properly true sentence is A = A. But the only informative sentence is A = B.

We want to have them both in a single sentence but we can’t. If something is true, then you are really just saying A = A—that is, you really haven’t said anything at all. If something is informative and interesting, then it really can’t be true, because such knowledge must finally be an instance of A = B.

So it is the desire to make the world interesting that forces us to make the object not identical to self, but other than self [cf. Trungpa’s rupa stage]. And once the Epistemic Fall is accomplished, philosophy (the drive for Epistemic Tikkun) spends all of history chopping away at the separation between self and the whole universe (which is itself fragmented into many parts). So knowledge (necessarily) separates us from reality, and then we chop away at the distance and try to prove that self and nature are really, at bottom, a unity.

This is the Hegelian story:

  1. God is one.
  2. He splits himself into subject and object.
  3. But in the end he comes back home again.

And the way he comes back home is by seeing how he stamps the perceived world into its familiar fragments by means of his understanding.

Seeing that reality has the shape of understanding is the first door into restorative unity. And then there are deeper doors past that. And then, with the last door, you hit the back of your head and realize Absolute Spirit.