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with intellectual spears & long winged arrows of thought

Blake/Hegel/Derrida: A response to Nelson Hilton’s review of Blake, Hegel and Dialectic

I found Nelson Hilton’s review of my Blake, Hegel and Dialectic quite a surprise,11 See Blake / An Illustrated Quarterly, 17, (Spring 1984), 164. chiefly because it lifted the theoretical level of the discourse well beyond the book’s own plane. Hilton did this, of course, by establishing and concentrating on a significant absence (one of many): the absence of Derrida. And in adopting this procedure, he therefore carried out precisely a Derridean maneuver: by begin page 59 | back to top focusing on my relatively unconceptualized term “writing” and unpacking the evasions and condensations which striated it. It should be said that with most of Hilton’s criticisms I have no quarrel, except for some specific points taken up below. But in the main, it seems to me less helpful to respond through a new detour through the book than by trying to take the argument on through the new context Hilton suggests. But for this, I must begin from the review.

The early allusion to “predictable references to Herbert Marcuse and N.O. Brown” does indeed point to the historical moment of Blake, Hegel and Dialectic, and clearly this is sharply counterposed to the moment referred to a little later under the sign of the “disappearance of man.” I take it that this latter reference is to the “modern Copernican revolution”22 See, e.g., Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice (London, 1980), pp. 130-37. ; to the supposition that the revelations of, roughly, Althusser, Lacan and Derrida have in effect produced a situation where, at least (and perhaps only) at the level of theory, the fictions of subjective centrality and original coherence have been dispelled. I shall take up the question of the “ghost of teleology” later; but it does seem to me that even here, in the heartland of deconstruction, the spectre is difficult to banish, even if it has to appear in the form of a poststructuralist paradise where material forms have dissolved away, leaving only the shadows of intricate relational structures presiding over a blank landscape.

In fact, Hilton conjures the “spectre of a theology, a teleology” as an implicit criticism of my attempt to distinguish between, approximately, cyclical apprehensions of historical process and historiographies which involve some concept of “progression.” I think that the major question this raises, however, is precisely one suggested by Derrida among others: namely, who is the writer of the text Blake, Hegel and Dialectic. I have no wish to descend into the coy dialectical gameplaying evident in so much deconstructionist criticism (notably, I would say, even in Spivak’s authoritative introduction to Of Grammatology33 See, e.g., Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. G.C. Spivak (Baltimore, Md., 1976), p. lxxxvii. ); nonetheless, there is a question of historical imagining involved, and I think the real problem Hilton points to, throughout my book, is one of historical distance and immersion in the object. In other words, the distinction I try to draw, which does indeed imply a teleology, is, or so I am claiming, intrinsic to the writing about (within) which I am writing, intrinsic, that is, to the fragments of the social text which we refer to as the works of Blake and Hegel; the danger of adopting a form of deconstruction which would dissolve away that particular shape of historical embeddedness is that at the same time it dissolves history, leaving the texts bare, naked of the baroque excrescences which are the signifiers of history.

Thus also Hilton goes to some lengths to suggest that my view of Hegel is eccentric, and his evidence comes from modern studies which see Hegel as an “Absolute Idealist.” He cites, for instance, Sarlemijn: “Because of its theory of sublation of everything finite, Hegel’s philosophy is an absolute idealism. Every moment of the whole is denied separateness, independence, reality and finitude.”44 Andries Sarlemijn, Hegel’s Dialectic, trans. P. Kirschenmann (Dordrecht, 1975), p. 49. I fully admit my text’s ignorance of Sarlemijn’s work, but that does not prevent me from feeling that this comment, at least, is precisely the kind of idealist recuperation of Hegel which Hilton elsewhere attributes to me. Consider, for instance, Hegel: “ . . . each moment possesses its own specific nature as something unchallengeably valid and as a firm reality vis-à-vis the other. . . . The soul of this fixed being, however, is the immediate transition into its opposite. . . .”55 Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford, 1977), p. 299. The discursive relation Hegel/Sarlemijn here appears to me to be neither interpretative nor deconstructionist, but dialogical: to Hegel’s writing, another writing is counterposed which enacts a stance—“you (Hegel) cannot feasibly have meant what you have written, because it is contradictory; therefore you must really have meant this.”

The important question which arises is therefore about the nature of the recuperation; and by “nature,” I mean the force within the political unconscious which produces this linguistic shape. What is the will which seeks to reduce Hegel to an “Absolute Idealist”? It is, I would suggest, the will which seeks a renunciation of the concrete, and as such it is manifested also in Hilton’s own writing (such a will, I take it, could also be connected to Thanatos, and it is at that point that the banishment of Marcuse and Brown by the power-effect of Hilton’s own text again becomes important):

Hegel’s choice of “Aufhebung” as the characterization of dialectic makes the point precisely: the synthesis or product or dynamic he wishes to name—the identity of apparently opposite effects—can happen only in language/writing; moreover, it can happen only thus because language/writing is ineluctably constituted (“always already”) through the play of differences or, to stretch the point, contraries.
That “because” is the crucial word; it does not actually guarantee a syntactically necessary relationship, for which Hilton would have to demonstrate that there is no other structure or effect which is “ineluctably constituted . . . through the play of differences.” In Derrida’s surprisingly unitary world, this would be difficult to do, since it would necessarily involve a move into the extratextual and this cannot be sanctioned by the canons of grammatology.

The banishing of the real is, of course, an activity which needs to be surrounded by ritual and ceremony, because it is precisely the field of magic (and I have, in my book, commented on the importance within the history of ideas of Giordano Bruno’s attempt to work on the fractured interface between magical and practical labor66 See my Blake, Hegel and Dialectic (Amsterdam, 1982), pp. 28-38. ); and it is this ritual and ceremony which we are made to experience in Derrida’s dazzling unpacking of the sign (the box of tricks). Yet magic has other implications, too: historically it has served as savior of a weakening hold on power, and I cannot help suspecting that this is what is happening within the magical process of deconstruction.77 I am thinking here, for instance, of the relations between magic and élites suggested by such latterday writers as Yeats and Crowley. Hilton, for instance, suggests that “if one wishes to argue that after the ‘real change,’ ‘social progress,’ revolution or begin page 60 | back to top what not that we will write a new language (BASIC?), then obviously one can’t say any more.” His main point, I take it, is to hold up terms like “real change” and “social progress” as examples of the teleological and therefore the inadmissible, but I would say that there is considerably more in this writing. There is, for instance, a magical banishing of the female; it would be a very partial view indeed of the social text which had not noticed that it is precisely a new language that the feminists are talking about, and that within this constellation BASIC figures not as novelty but as the reduction to a knotted strength of residual patriarchalism. Very basic indeed. But Hilton’s sentence turns back on itself in other interesting ways: if we are to “write” a new language, then we shall not be able to “say” any more. But perhaps, indeed, that could be put another way round: in a social formation in which an intelligentsia is denied the means of “saying” (access to the media, societal credibility, reinforcements across the age and gender barriers), it is very likely indeed that such an intelligentsia will turn to the massive valorization of writing, of its own esoteric craft, as a last resort against the strategies of the state.88 Cf. my “Politics, Pedagogy, Work: Reflections on the ‘Project’ of the Last Six Years,” in The Politics of Theory, ed. F. Barker et al. (Colchester, 1983), pp. 79-83.

And there can be little doubt that in Derrida it is the esoteric which is at stake; nobody has less use for the “vulgar” concept of writing, or makes such imperialist claims for its “sophisticated” conceptual counterpart. Derrida’s recapture of/by Rousseau marks a precise circle: that circle has the security of a well-defended onanism, as though the unconscious posture Derrida represents is the withdrawal of the phallus (realization having dawned that penetration is no longer being received as painlessly as in the past) so that patriarchal power, by appearing to castrate itself, may be hidden safely from those who wish to do it real damage.

But of course, in my book there is little writing which addresses itself to these structures. Where Hilton engages more directly with the themes of the book, however, the underlying shape is symmetrical: “within the differential system,” he claims, “to speak of ‘social progress,’ ‘struggle,’ ‘progress,’ and especially ‘labour’ and ‘work’ is only to engage in further idealization and semantization.” There are, logically, two alternatives. We speak of these matters in some sense “outside” the differential system, but to a theory based on textual primacy this is a nonsense. Or, of course, we cease to speak of them at all.

It seems to me precisely this conclusion, the temptation not to speak of social progress, struggle or labor, which is to be resisted. I am aware that this is, if you like, a partisan statement; I am aware also, as I tried to mention above, that this partisanship is in a continuous relationship with my writing of Hegel and Blake. But the obverse is partisan too, and that is because the political unconscious, strung as it is between the poles of primary process, has no choice but to be partisan, and to discover itself from time to time enacting erotic or thanatic wishes. It is a version of the writing of the erotic which Jameson describes as dialectical self-consciousness: 9 Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form (Princeton, N.J., 1970), pp. 340, 336.

. . . dialectical thought is in its very structure self-consciousness and may be described as the attempt to think about a given object on one level, and at the same time to observe our own thought processes as we do so: or to use a more scientific figure, to reckon the position of the observer into the experiment itself. . . . dialectical thinking is doubly historical: not only are the phenomena with which it works historical in character, but it must unfreeze they very concepts with which they have been understood, and interpret the very phenomena in their own right.9
The wish enacted in deconstruction is the wish to render unnameable (which is, I would contend, precisely a theological wish); and of course the social desire, at the present time, to wish away the awkward categories of labor and struggle is very strong. We now have various elections to prove it.

Hilton, however, sees the retention of such categories as a vain attempt to cheer ourselves up, to try to forget the Copernican loss of integrated subjectivity (forgetting that, thus far, it is largely only intellectuals who have thus lost their souls, mainly because the state and financial exigencies of publishing luckily serve to protect the masses from this dread revelation). To Hilton they are fictions, and their purpose is to persuade us, wrongly, that “you get to remain you.” A probably apocryphal story about Jack Lindsay relates that, on a visit to the U.S.S.R., he was moved to a disagreement with his hosts, and was as a consequence solemnly declared a non-person. Years later, he was surprised on a birthday by a visit from a Soviet official, who announced that he had come to tell him that he had at last been recognized as a person again. Upon which the irreverent thought comes “Which person?”

What threatens me with not remaining me is not some internal dynamic within the history of ideas; if there are developments there which do indeed pose perplexities for the constitution of the subject, then these developments are closely related to the actual course of history and to the political unconscious which is manifesting itself in that course. Primarily, there is fear: fear, for the British, of winddown and decline, a fear which prevents revolt and instead forces people into an uneasy acquiescence in the depersonalizing processes of the late capitalist state. “ ‘Différance,’ we might say, is the name of dialectic without psychologizing, without idealizing, another name for a system that cannot, by its nature, enable us to see beyond ‘self-annihilation,’ ” writes Hilton. Indeed it is; and the very terms of this argument force upon us the proximity of a theory (or an antitheory) which talks in terms of endless and pointless productivity and a social situation which speaks of imminent annihilation of life. It is not a concentration on the problems of labor and struggle which comes to cheer us up; far from it. It is, rather, the proffering of a fantasy world within which there is no prospect of ending (as there is, conveniently, begin page 61 | back to top no memory of beginning and thus no initial trauma to “initiate” the process of painful rememoration), a world where each word, if unpacked sufficiently, can lead us down to eternity and salve our souls while we forget our dying bodies, which performs a cheering-up function; lost in the mazes of Derrida, it is indeed true that the category of the concrete can be wished away.

Yet Hilton can also claim that “ ‘différance’ is an inherent condition of human life, so the attempt to transcend it—for better or worse—is inhuman.” Here, surely, we have Urizenic terror: the insistence on building nets and webs farther and farther back into the cave in case, otherwise, we should be tempted to look—or step—outside it. What is most bizarre, of course, is the ready acceptance that “différance,” presumably merely because of its own oddity, is a word somehow exempted from the general process of “semantization” which appears, according to Hilton, to inflect all other terms—but particularly those terms which have to do with work. Hilton quotes me as saying that “the formation of Albion can be discussed in precise historical detail, as a past, present and future labour”1010 Blake, Hegel and Dialectic, p. 139. , and adds: “what we have here is an idealization and semantization of ‘labour’: just another literary/critical category, more material of/for writing: a pseudo-transcendental signified which is imagined to stand behind, beyond writing.” Just, I would say, like “différance.”

But this is mere bickering. The principal point I am trying to labor (sic) is that, within the recesses of Derrida’s writing, there lies a hidden desire for an accommodation with power. It is as though that writing enacts a forestalling of the death of culture (whether by government fiat or by bomb) by proclaiming that, after all, we, the literati, can do our own hatchet job; we can sever our own slender lines of communication, if that will allow the authorities to permit us to carry on with our harmless and humble occupation. Blake and Hegel, I believe, did not say this. It is probable, of course, that in composing their own very different answers to the implicit censor they too invented fictions about present and future; but that is inevitable, since the future is shaped precisely by such fantasies on the surface of material constraint.

But I have as yet said very little about Blake; I would like to conclude by offering a reading, which I believe to be germane to the arguments above, of “The Tyger,” which is, I take it, a poem about “writing”—or, as I would prefer, inscription. Where the lamb at one level represents unified symbolic interpretation, the fantasized state before rift, the tiger stands for shattered and discrete perception, the bounding and tangential details of an undescribed experience. The lamb produces us as readers in the guise of selves-as-comfort, selves at home, gambolling; the tiger produces us as selves yet to be achieved, and goes one step further than that, asking us whether indeed the production of a unified self should actually be considered to be the goal of human development. The questions which structure “The Tyger” are directed at the tiger itself; but they are also designed to interrogate the perceiving self, to challenge the reader with a receding vision of unity, and to invite us to question the nature of the thirst or desire which leads us farther and farther into the jungle.

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

The flames of the first line, the stripes on the tiger, remind us that we are here in the fire-world, the world of constant transformation: “fire is process,” says Hegel, meditating on Heraclitus; “fire is physical time, absolute unrest, absolute disintegration of existence, the passing away of the ‘other,’ but also of itself.”1111 Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, ed. E.S. Haldane, 3 vols. (London, 1892-1896), I, 287. Just so the tiger challenges the reader with the sloughing off of imposed unitary and originary meaning, and presents itself precisely as an object for human work, or interpretative endeavor, the endeavor of framing a “symmetry.” Yet this symmetry is ambiguous: it is that quality of fixity or stasis which, so Blake believed, is always a function of our first efforts to apprehend, the effort to hold in place the shifting image on the retina; yet it is also that more complex symmetry formed by stripe and tree trunk. The tiger and the forest are inversions of each other, light in darkness, darkness in light, the word on the shadowed page; to frame that symmetry, verbally or visually (“hand or eye”), is, for this narrator of experience, an “immortal” task, one impossible of achievement because the flames of living energy will burn the edges of the inscribed page of canvas, will challenge the artist or the perceiver with the existence of “absolute unrest,” and may thus lead him or her to the realization that that absolute unrest is also a function of the individual’s own life, but one repressed into the distant and the dark. It is from this realm of the imagined depths that the tiger comes:

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes!
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare sieze the fire?

The tiger belongs, I would say, to a world before sublimation; he exists now as a haunting, flickering image of a dangerous world of instinct. It is only in these lines, which relate to the genesis of the tiger, that the beast itself is not blind, has “eyes”; only then that the urges which the tiger represents were aligned with the senses. Now we have exiled the beast, and our eyes are used to keep him at bay, to bind him within an aesthetic symmetry, a denial of difference; and if our efforts are not enough, we must invoke the “Immortals” as further protection against danger. And, by exiling the tiger, we enter ourselves into the pure but helpless state of the immortals: we endeavor to remove from ourselves the fear of “physical time,” “absolute disintegration of existence,” but in making this attempt we only frighten ourselves the more. Thus the abrupt change halfway through this stanza, a retreat from the threat of the repressed into an “experienced” begin page 62 | back to top vaunting of the power with which we supposedly tame the tiger, or build for ourselves gods which can do the job for us, can “sieze the fire” and thus draw together in a protecting hand the severed threads of our lives. There is matching of distances: as we perceive the shadow of the tiger, deep in the jungle, the rising to the surface of an unassimilable energy, the writing which has no beginning, so we invoke that other distance, and rise to the heavens, to escape, but also in the mistaken “experienced” belief that through globalism or overview we can make sense of the tiger, draw him into our scheme. Confronted with the fact of the tiger, we make him into a convenient participant in an eternal struggle—he is here being set up as a demonic figure in battle with an angel, with a hovering vanquisher in which we irresistibly see the outlines of that part of ourselves which seeks to reduce all things to reason, and to “cope with” desire.

But this attempt to mobilize the power of reason against the threat of energy produces the effective shattering of the body.1212 Cf., e.g., Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I” and “Aggressivity in Psychoanalysis,” in Écrits, trans. A. Sheridan (London, 1977), pp. 1-7, 8-29. Already there is some ambiguity about the “wings” and the “hand”; in the next stanza, this ambiguity increases:

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
“Dread,” of course, is the perfect word here for Blake’s purposes, blurring as it does the boundary between active and passive, inscriber and inscribed; the tiger is “dread” in the simple sense of being feared, but the apparent owner of the “dread hand” and “dread feet” is both feared and fearful. There is a solemn terror here at the presumption of the artist or writer: but the controlling imagery is of physical fragments, the shoulder, the sinews and the heart, and what is revealed is a struggle in which the body itself is unable to resist the strain of this coming together of supernatural forces. For here, it seems, two quite different fantasized moments are being described simultaneously: the moment of the tiger’s inception, considered as the work of a being who may or may not be an incarnation of the human imagination; and the moment of life-or-death battle, a battle not only of strength but also of “art,” which supervenes immediately on that inception, creating a single palimpsest. Creation passes immediately into struggle between creator and created; the birth of the howling infant passes without break into a struggle for mastery.

But the “art” and the twisting of the sinews remind us that, insofar as this is a creation, it cannot be considered a natural one, and this is reinforced in the next stanza:

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dares its deadly terrors clasp?
The broken parts of the body are now paralleled by the fragments of a proto-industrial world: this tiger, this polymorphous babe, is not born afresh, not created like the “Little Lamb,” but, himself a creature of fire, has been forged in fire, beaten into shape: even this image of the unconscious bears the marks of the conditions which produced him. The self which the tiger represents is not a pure invasion from the outside but, I would say, a product of labor, a transformation of base material. Thus we produce our own “terrors”; to put it another way, we are responsible for our own desires, for if, as Boehme puts it, “fire is the life of all principles,” then fire is identical with desire in “the world of souls and spirits.”1313 Jacob Boehme, Six Theosophic Points, and Other Writings, trans. J.R. Earle (London, 1919), p. 40. Can we, therefore, find a way of conceiving of the human in a way that will allow us to own to “writings” which are otherwise repressed—can we find room in our dialectical conception of humanity, not only for the answerable questions of “The Lamb,” but also for the continuous and unsatisfied interrogatives which come to us “In the forests of the night”?

The other question raised by this stanza concerns the acceptance or rejection of change. It would be all too easy to claim that only the lamb represents the “natural,” that the world of hammers, chains and anvils is a different kind of thing altogether; but that way, according to Blake, lies the cessation of change, the acceptance of experience in its binding sense, as imposition. The fact that the tiger is born of labor does not solve our problems by enabling us to classify it as somehow supererogatory: but it does challenge us to recognize that labor is a primary means of transformation, and that we are all the products of a world more complicated than the lamb can or needs to know.1414 See also Morton D. Paley, Energy and the Imagination (Oxford, 1970), pp. 55-56.

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
It is the tiger, as the unacceptable face of desire, who threatens our smooth notions of a divine plan, an ordered universe, a fully present text, and thwarts our belief that, in the end, pain and terror can be put down to supernatural whim. The “stars” themselves, symbols of the overview, are unnerved by this making; they would like to believe that creation is not coterminous with destruction, that the gentle process of reproduction can proceed without the intervention of a humanity which is constantly evolving its own specialized forms of making.

What is scandalous about “The Tyger” becomes clear in that ironic “smile,” for Blake has used the floating symbol of the tiger to couple worlds which are taboos apart: the world of the artist, the world of the instincts, but also the world of technical making. The writing and engraving of the Songs was of course, to Blake, a kind of work: not that this is in itself an improbable thought, but what scandalizes the stars and makes them throw in their rather elegant trowels is that for Blake this work, this apparatus of the writer and engraver is not a substructure, to be rejected or concealed in the name of ideal perfection begin page 63 | back to top of form, but is the architecture itself, the vital symmetry around which the flesh of the living beast forms.1515 See also James Hazen, “Blake’s Tyger and Milton’s Beasts,” Blake Studies, 3 (1970-71), 167. In the world of experience, everything is an operation on nature; but then, Blake implies, art has always been that, and we increase its dignity by making its structure visible. At another level, art is represented in this poem as a transformation of instinctual energy, but what is to be striven for is a nonrepressive mode of inscription or transformation, whereby the structure of the poem becomes an edifice from which the tiger may leap rather than a prison-like structure designed to keep the tiger in place. The tiger will not be kept in place anyway, any more than we can refuse the manmade gifts which the hammer and the anvil will inevitably offer us:1616 Cf. John Beer, Blake’s Visionary Universe (Manchester, 1969), p. 111; Kathleen Raine, “A Note on Blake’s ‘Unfettered Verse,’ ” in William Blake: Essays for S. Foster Damon, ed. A.H. Rosenfeld (Providence, R.I., 1969), p. 391; and my “Blake: Social Relations of Poetic Form,” Literature and History, 8 (1982), 182-205. thus the path of manifesting energy lies not away from or round but through the jungle of developing human powers.

Tyger, Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

The only word which has changed here, of course, is “Dare,” which in the first stanza was “Could,” but the change is vital. From an indefinite tense, which might pertain to the past or the future, we have been moved to the present; and from a fear-ridden doubt about our ability to control the tiger, we have been moved to a challenge to produce the tiger. And the change of verb affects also the meaning we place on the word “immortal”: from a word descriptive of otherness, of an imaginary deity, it has become a word we ponder in relation to ourselves. It is not that we ask who “else” might we call on, but that we ask what force there might be to be found within ourselves to match the exiled tiger; and the answer, of course, is that the tiger is within us, and the challenge is about whether we have the strength to permit a disruptive incarnation, or the vision to see that this incarnation might be taking place all around us in the concrete development of human resources and powers.

Hilton mentions—and I entirely agree with him—that the “topic of Blake/Hegel—last poet/philosopher of the book and the first artist/thinker of writing—could sustain the labor (writing) of a generation,” and perhaps this kind of analysis might be a place from which to start. But it is precisely the attempt to banish the transcendental signified which must be seen as the continuous yet revolutionary labor of history, and we cut ourselves off from the text if we do not attempt to identify the boundaries which from time to time circumscribe that attempt. The myth is surely to believe that the “ghost of teleology” can ever be thoroughly exorcised; what is important is to continue to construct the catalogue of shapes which the ghost has manifested, so that we can come to sense the better his hovering presence within our experience and within writing.

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