“Behind the Figure of the Master Lies the Threat of Death”: How Hegel Cut into the History of Sovereignty

Interview with Mladen Dolar

“Behind the Figure of the Master Lies the Threat of Death”: How Hegel Cut into the History of Sovereignty

Interview with Mladen Dolar

In the chapter “Self-consciousness”, found in his most important work The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), Hegel presents his famous thesis on the master-slave dialectic. The relationship between the two is reciprocal as one’s self-consciousness is acknowledged only through the other’s self-consciousness. In a combat relation, one of these self-consciousness’s gives way, while the other rises from the fight as a master. The idea of a master-slave dialectic was one of Hegel’s most influential ones; most notably, it inspired Marx in his formulation of the historical struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Much later, Kojève pointed out that Marx, in his formulation, omitted a key element found in Hegel’s equation: knowledge/truth is always on the side of the slave/proletariat. This gap that influenced the great French thinkers could not have come at a better time. Following the French Revolution, the structure of sovereignty changed radically, as the new social structures required a different kind of sovereignty. Up until the times of Freud, who witnessed the last “true” monarch, Franz Joseph, the remaining powerful father figures were slowly losing their power. The disappearance of traditional authorities provoked changes in the social structure. Society became mediatized hand in hand with political populism, however, this mediatization received its antipode in modern art.

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Hegel’s declaration of the end of art does not claim that art is effectively over, rather that this is true of a certain kind of understanding art. This is a part of a given historical moment: Hegel said it exactly in the moment when art actually gained true autonomy for the first time.
Reading time: 24 min.

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