I marked the 250th anniversary of G. W. F. Hegel’s birth by holding a conversation with Mladen Dolar. Over the years, Dolar has become one of the most notable Slovene philosophers who has written several books that revitalise Hegel’s work and interpret it in relation to other great minds, especially Freud and Lacan. The conversation we held one early autumn morning kept referring to the single idea from The Phenomenology of Spirit that probably reverberated in contemporary philosophical thought louder than any other theoretical construction Hegel came up with. The master-slave dialectic has influenced countless philosophers and reformed our understanding of the structure of domination in Western culture. Those encountering Hegel’s excellent reflection on domination for the very first time will be hard pressed to envision the sheer reach and scope of his concept. In the hope of making this easier, the interview was conceived as a kind of resonance spectrum that will position Hegel’s idea into its historical context. After all, it is through contextualization that we are able to attain a firmer grip on the slippery slope of philosophy and at least a semblance of stability. The interview offers a historic overview of the master-slave dialectic in which the key emphasis was placed on Hegel.
Luka Savić (LS): Since our discussion is planned as a kind of theoretical stroll through the history of the idea of dominance and as this year marks the 250th anniversary of Hegel’s birth, I would like to start by asking you to provide a general theoretical overview of the master-slave dialectic.
Mladen Dolar (MD): Hegel’s master-slave dialectic is a short excerpt consisting of a mere ten pages; however, it is one of the most frequently mentioned pieces in the history of philosophy. It became famous because with this text Hegel attempted to reconsider the very origin of dominance and the minimal structure of domination. Hegel’s innovation was to attach this dialectic to the structure of self-consciousness embedded within the broader story of The Phenomenology of Spirit. The Phenomenology of Spirit discusses the progress of ordinary natural consciousness towards philosophical knowing and ultimately absolute knowing, significantly through the self-formation of consciousness.
At this, we can notice two of Hegel’s principal theses: firstly, we can only be self-conscious together, i.e. it is not about introspection, rather it is an intersubjective structure. The condition for self-consciousness to exist is that there need to be at least two self-consciousnesses that reciprocally acknowledge each other as self-consciousness. Hegel’s second thesis that applies in this case is that self-consciousness is not merely a matter of self-reflection and knowing, as it is preconditioned by the idea that two individuals engage in a fight for life or death. It is a matter of action that demands one to be prepared to put their life on the line. Human beings are human as we desire to transcend the given. A desire is not satisfied by an individual object, since the one true object of desire can only be another desire. This results in a struggle. This is a struggle for pure prestige and not for any material goods or anything of the kind. The struggle is about proving that one is more than just the sum of his individual qualifications and interests, more than merely striving to survive. The result of this struggle is paradoxical: if they destroy each other there is no other self-consciousness left that would make self-consciousness possible. In order to prevent this annihilation of the very possibility of self-consciousness, they must reach a pact according to which the master lets the slave live, while the slave, rather than risking his life, acknowledges the other as his master. This is the minimal cell of the pact: out of fear for their lives, one of the two gives in to the other and becomes a slave: in The Baptism on the Savica Črtomir chooses death over slavery; however, this is the position of the master. Hegel argues that death is the absolute master, however this is not real death; it is the threat of death that, in the final instance, hides behind the figure of the master.
LS: Hegel’s discussion of the master-slave dialectic in The Phenomenology of Spirit is a part of the chapter on self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is a major philosophical topic and many philosophers consider it the very foundation for proving the existence of the subject. As regards the understanding of self-consciousness throughout the history of philosophy, Kant established a huge milestone by arguing that it was the things within this world that adapted to our mental mechanisms rather than the other way around. Virtually everybody who followed Kant continued to develop this subversive idea in one way or another. But how does Hegel’s concept of self-consciousness fit into the arch of the development of German classical philosophy? What did Hegel’s concept of the master-slave dialectic add to the work of his predecessors, Kant and Fichte?
MD: Kant did not start from the problem of self-consciousness, let alone the problem of intersubjectivity or dominance. Instead, he started with the problem of transcendental subjectivity, the horizon shared by all of us representing the foundation of cognition. Kant considered political philosophy to be closer to a supplement, thus his political philosophy cannot be found in his three critiques: Critique of Pure Reason, Critique of Practical Reason, Critique of Judgment. Kant believed political philosophy is positioned somewhere close to the end. On the other hand, Hegel believed that the embryo of political philosophy is contained already within the master-slave dialectic, which in perspective poses the problem of how to derive the structure of the state, legislation, etc., that is applied equally to everyone, from this minimalist cell consisting of two entities. According to Hegel self-consciousness contains the germ of politics. Kant had a relatively different reasoning. He presupposed a universal transcendental subjectivity within the horizon of which self-consciousness essentially appeared as a problem of epistemology. On the other hand, Hegel saw this problem as intersubjective and practical, a problem of activity and action. Hegel thus continued Fichte’s work which is aimed at the relationship between the I and the not-I and other which is as the very core of the I. Fichte represented a necessary step in the direction of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. After all, Hegel proved his devotion to Fichte by insisting that he is to be buried next to him. Kant addressed the notion of transcendental unity of apperception. Apperception is a term derived from Leibnitz that explains how we, besides the perception of reality, also preserve the moment of self-consciousness which is at the same time already inscribed into perception itself. This was Kant’s classical approach to developing Leibnitz’s thinking on the epistemological question of self-consciousness, whereas Hegel’s basic question as regards the intersubjectivity of self-consciousness was yet to arise.
LS: Nowadays, it is almost impossible to talk about Hegel without mentioning Marx – after all, Marx supposedly “turned Hegel upside down”. Does Marx’s relationship between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie refer to Hegel’s master-slave dialectic in any way?
MD: The master-slave dialectic is Hegel’s most popular idea. It still remains the object of reference and invocation. However, in the case of Marx this comes as a surprise. The continuation of the master-slave dialectic lies in the thesis – so far, I have only spoken about the beginning – after becoming the master, the master indulges in enjoyment as he has placed the slave between himself and the world of things and made the slave do all the work. Enjoyment is the master’s lot, while work is the slave’s. By working, the slave serves the needs and desires of the master and through this he re-shapes nature, not only the external nature but also his internal one. The slave comes into his own through work, he forms and educates himself. He must confront the obstinacy of objectivity and re-shape it. In the end, the outcome of this dialectic is that the truth is on the side of the slave. In the continuation, the master – who had won the first round – becomes uninteresting. There is no further dialectic on the master’s side. All dialectic takes place on the side of the slave who transforms all the resistance of reality with work. Work is the truth of the dialectic. Those who work should be victorious in the end and ought to become the master of their master. This turn that Hegel added to the master-slave dialectic, namely that in the end the slave comes out victorious, should have pleased Marx. However, he never once mentioned the master-slave dialectic directly.
LS: Kojève pointed out that Marx overlooked Hegel’s insight that knowing is on the side of the slave. Some understand the relationship between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie as a re-formulation of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. Do you believe that Marx really simply overlooked this, as Kojève suggested?
MD: Based on this, Kojève extrapolated the triumph of the proletariat as a historical subject. However, I believe Marx essentially held a completely different view. He proceeded from the notion of work as work forms man. Various kinds of dominations, including class domination, arise from the alienation of the work process. So, first there is the process of work, unalienated in itself, which in a given historical moment becomes subject to the division of labour, class struggle and private property. According to Marx, work existed first and alienation only took place at a later point, through which the originally unalienated work became alienated and turned into a means of domination. However, Hegel believed that work itself is a consequence of alienation. At first slaves were dominated over, as they had to work because they have given in and accepted the domination. Essentially, Hegel’s view differs from that of Marx. In Hegel’s view dominance comes first, framing the very notion of work, and it is only within such a framework that work can become the agent of emancipation. Between 1934 and 1939, Kojève delivered a number of fascinating lectures on Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit in France that were attended by all of the future French intellectual elite: young Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty, Lacan, Raymond Queneau, Georges Bataille and others. They were all there, attending Kojève’s lectures and they were all completely taken in by his sheer presence. He held a particularly strong sway over Lacan, Sartre and Bataille. Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel is quite subjective and extravagant. Today no serious interpreter, with the possible exception of Francis Fukuyama, would follow Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel. However, regardless of how one-sided, misguided or even exaggerated this was, it nevertheless led to great consequences. In the history of philosophy there are far more interesting things than an adequate interpretation. Even an inadequate interpretation might trigger exceptionally productive results. Had Aristotle made an adequate interpretation of Plato there would be no history of philosophy to speak of. Aristotle did not understand Plato and look at what emerged from this! What I am trying to say is that Kojève also failed to understand Hegel, however, this misunderstanding led to important consequences. As far as Lacan is concerned, I have to say that his reading of Hegel was unfortunately completely embedded in Kojève’s paradigm and he consequently never produced an autonomous reading of Hegel. What we (the so-called Ljubljana School of Theoretical Psychoanalysis) tried to demonstrate was that there are certain points that were made by Hegel, and usually these are his most radical points, which completely bypass Kojève’s paradigm, but are nevertheless much closer to psychoanalysis, or rather, Lacan.
LS: What about that which lies beyond the immediate resonance of Hegel’s thought in the line of philosophers following him: how does Hegel’s dialectic fit into the context of dominance or rather the perception of the history of dominance?
MD: In a way Hegel’s concept of the genesis of the master is a digression from traditional approaches to dominance. Similar to the very beginnings of political thought, Aristotle’s Politics sees the father as the natural model of authority. In the same way as a father governs over the oikos, over the family and its private economy, the soul should be the master of the body and a ruler should be the master of the polis. Thus, paternal authority was perceived as a kind of a paradigm of dominance. In order to become a subject, the child required guidance, i.e. the natural authority of the parents. This represented spontaneous authority provided by nature. With Hegel it is particularly interesting that he does not refer to anything that would be naturally given in his genesis of dominance. This means that Hegel’ does not see the father as the master, as he believes that dominance needs to be derived from the very structure of self-consciousness, without invoking any naturally given privileges. Throughout the pre-modern era the foundation of dominance has been founded in transcendence. Aristocracy, kings and rulers were given authority according to god’s will and they were always able to refer to its foundation in the divine order. Hegel’s approach to understanding dominance is modern precisely in the idea that he eliminates transcendence as well as nature. The individuals involved in a life-or-death struggle have no social or natural designation, nor have they a transcendental designation. The moment of modernity lies in this structure of acknowledgement, in the genesis of dominance from self-consciousness and acknowledgement: not taking anything for granted, instead, we attempt to derive the very cell of domination on the basis of the structure of self-consciousness itself. Hegel is thus inscribed within the great dividing line.
LS: Thus, Hegel represents a drastic change in the understanding of the structure of dominance. The dividing line that emerged with Hegel was surely also one of the reasons why Hegel’s thoughts resonated to such an extent. Where can one position this dividing line in the socio-historical sense?
MD: The symbolic dividing line can be found in the French revolution. Feudalism, during which Hegel was born, represented the last offshoot of the pre-modern society. At the outbreak of the French revolution Hegel was a nineteen-year-old student, and together with Schelling and Hölderlin, his roommates in the Tübingen “Stift”, they planted a tree of freedom in honour of the revolution. They saw the French revolution as a fundamental event, a turning point that immediately preceded them as well as inspired them. I used to think that this planting of the tree was their original idea, but I discovered later on, that there was a kind of epidemic of this across Europe. Young people who sympathized with the revolution were unable to express this publicly. And this led to the idea of the trees of freedom which they planted throughout the major cities in all European countries. Hegel was thus positioned precisely at the breakpoint. The French revolution was the moment that led to the point in 1807 when Hegel wrote The Phenomenology of Spirit – it was in view of the historical moment of the French revolution that he was able to pose the question of absolute knowing.
LS: And what was Hegel’s inner breakthrough?
MD: In this sense Hegel was the last metaphysician who summarised the entire history of metaphysics. All of the great metaphysical questions converge in his system. On the other hand, he was the first modern philosopher, the first philosopher to be appointed the post of the paradigmatic professor at the first modern university, i.e. the Humboldt University in Berlin. All other universities and their traditions reached back to the Middle Ages. But Humboldt’s University was established as a modern university in 1810 and has served as a model for all modern universities ever since. Actually, Fichte was the very first professor, but he died soon after, thus Hegel was appointed in 1818. Not only was Hegel the last metaphysician, but he was also the first modern professor. This modernity represented the basis for the proposed solutions to the problem of dominance in his 1821 work Elements of the Philosophy of Right. At firstsight his solution might appear conservative, after all, he even returned to estates and monarchs which were pre-modern institutions. However, this gesture was the result of both Hegel’s exaltation with the French revolution as well as its criticism, since the revolution was unable to bestow a firm and lasting structure upon the newly found freedom. Instead, it was drowning in a fury of negativity. How to secure a social structure in which this newly found freedom could exist permanently? Hegel returned to estates and monarchy, because he believed that old structures needed to be harnessed in order to guarantee the success of the new modernistic project.
LS: The conceptual formulation of master and slave might appear alien to a contemporary reader as they have both disappeared in their original meaning of the word a long time ago. However, the relationship arising in this dialectic is still very much alive and relevant. As you have already mentioned, in order to resolve the Enlightenment project, Hegel – in his Elements of the Philosophy of Right – resorted to what appeared to be a conservative solution for the very first time. But how did society respond to the new rudiments of the French revolution?
MD: What followed Hegel led to contemporary democratic societies in which the function of symbolic dominance disappeared. The traditional reliance on paternal authority was lost. The caesura of the French revolution led to the fall of the monarchy and religious transcendence as well as the paternal authority itself. In his theory on the monarchy, Hegel attempted to deactivate dominance by attempting to reduce dominance to an empty signifier, the empty signifier of the monarch who no longer has the power to reach decisions, but simply provides his signature, the final touch. However, it is this signature that allows for its symbolic effectivity. This means that what is maintained is merely the signifying form, the symbolic form that has constituted dominance from the very beginning. The master rules with a sign, through a sign and in the end, that sign is all that is left. As Lacan once said: it is harder to make people work than to work oneself. This is something that a master never does, for all they do is they give the sign and everyone starts running. This sign is the master-signifier (which Lacan designated as S1, the signifier in the position of the exception). Hegel does indeed wish to preserve the function of the monarch, however he completely deactivates it and thus allows for the rule of the people who are actually capable and in possession of knowing.
LS: The fall of paternal authority represented a new milestone in the history of domination. What turned up in response to the problem of the loss of the father?
MD: This was the moment in which psychoanalysis emerged. Why is it that the name of the father plays such a central role? It is because fathers have lost both their real and symbolic power. Franz Joseph was the last father figure in our lands. With his moustache, he was the last monarchic father figure, a ruler whose rule spanned over 68 years. I think the only two who were in power longer than him were Elizabeth II and Louis XIV. As a monarch, he was the epitome of fatherly stability. I am bringing all of this up because Freud was born during the reign of Franz Joseph and turned 60 at the time of his death. He spent most of his life under the yoke of the last monarchic father figure. Let me refer to Freud’s visit to the Škocjan caves (Slovenia) in 1898. In his letters he described the descent into the abyss of the caves as a descent into hell and compared his experience to that of Dante. At the very bottom of this abyss, this inferno, he chanced upon Karl Lueger who happened to be visiting the caves on the very same day. At the time, Lueger was the mayor of Vienna who got elected on the grounds of his populist antisemitic rhetoric. Thus, we could have witnessed a confrontation of two different types of authority. One was the populist authority which used antisemitism as the driving force of its agenda. On the other hand stood the old authority of the father-monarch Franz Joseph who was appalled by this newcomer, this parvenue, “trouble maker”, constantly stirring the enthusiasm and fury of the masses. The emperor first refused to inaugurate him as the mayor, but later he had to submit to the will of the people. Freud and Lueger thus met in the Slovene underground – this encounter between Freud as the paradigmatic Jew and Lueger as the paradigmatic anti-Semite could never have taken place in Vienna. Two additional points made Lueger even more controversial. Firstly, if you read Hitler’s Mein Kampf, you will learn that prior to World War I Hitler spent some time in Vienna where he viewed Dr. Karl Lueger as his idol. He claimed that he learned everything he needed to know about anti-Semitic propaganda from him. This means there is a direct line between the two. Hitler mentioned Lueger several times in Mein Kampf, always as a brilliant mayor. Secondly, Lueger was described as a populist even back then. The notion of populism emerged in connection to American populist parties around 1890. However, the term was also used to designate a new type of leader who was in direct opposition and conflict with the old monarch Franz Joseph. With this we witnessed the birth of a new type of master who was no longer a father figure. Instead, they achieved their success on the back of the downfall of the father figure. They were rebels of sorts. This is a common trait shared by all populist leaders. Later on, psychoanalysis had to pose the question of how to understand Hitler – was he a master in line with the paternal model? Many opposed this interpretation. They argued that Hitler represented the figure of a rebel against paternal authority. And populism has preserved this pose to this very day: i.e., the struggle against the so-called deep state, what does it mean? The populist leader presents himself as a rebel against the alleged father who is pulling the strings from somewhere deep within, but now the time has come for us, transgressive rebels, to confront this authority.
LS: So far, we have mostly discussed the symbolic role of the master. But what about voice? While I was preparing for this interview, I recalled your book O glasu (On Voice) in which you quote the example of the depiction of His Master’s Voice that also gave the name to the company. The famous image on the cover of your book represents the dog standing in front of a record player. It is extremely fascinating that the dog was able to recognize his master’s voice even after the master died.
MD: The voice can act as the agent of dominance. Ever since the beginning of philosophy we have the so-called acousmatics. The term was derived by the Pythagoreans. The disciples who came to study under Pythagoras were not allowed to see the teacher for the first five years as he gave lectures from behind a curtain. The goal of such a dispositive was to separate the voice from the body. The longer they were unable to see him, the more his voice became the bearer of authority. “His Master’s Voice”. The acousmatic voice is a voice the origin of which cannot be seen. And this lack of origin imbues it with the traits of omnipresence and omnipotence. One could say that all contemporary media are acousmatic. Today this seems rather trivial, but at the time the telephone, gramophone and radio were introduced, this technology had a rather uncanny effect. People were wondering how was it possible for voices to be heard when there was no visible source. Until that point in history this had been the privilege of gods alone. This is also connected to populism – consider Hitler, whose status was based on the aura of the master’s voice in which technology played an essential role. He was the first to use modern media in this way. Hitler’s populist movement relied heavily on radio and loudspeakers, in other words, on the teleportation of sound, with which voice became independent of its carrier.
LS: But did the master not lose some of his power to modern media?
MD: The immediate effect of modern media at first appears to cause a deflation of dominance, aura, etc. After all, this is the foundation of Walter Benjamin’s text on reproducibility – technical reproduction destroys the aura. In contrast, Adorno was able to see that it was this very loss of the aura that could be used as a kind of supplemental aura – a synthetic aura which in some perfidious way can become even stronger than the real one. In a way, this aura is perverse and can have far-reaching effects. This opens up a big question on dominance and the media – in the 20th century we were witnessing the mediatization of reality. Nowadays we are no longer dealing with reality, instead we are embedded in media representations from the very beginning. In the wake of the modest early mediatization, Hegel prophetically argued that nowadays (i.e. in 1820) reading the morning newspaper has taken the place of morning prayers. This comparison had far-reaching consequences: religious ceremonies that united the community were replaced by reading newspapers. At the time this was still a rather innocent phenomenon, after all, we are talking about the early 19th century, but even at that time Hegel was able to see that mediatization had penetrated the institution of social relationships. Radio and television have completely mediatized our perception of reality. By the 21st century we have thus reached a situation characterised by the internet, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram in which mediatization has been transferred directly to each individual. Once upon a time it went like this: a select few appeared on television, while others were watching. Contemporary media are different: we are all constantly both appearing on a ‘private’ TV and watching it at the same time. There is no more difference between performers on the one hand and the audience on the other. This also represents fertile ground for the growth of populism; social networks have greatly shaken and weakened the function of the public and public media.
LS: So, Hegel had an incredible insight into the changing of social structures. But even more famous than his insightful remark on the role of the media in 19th century society was his declaration of the end of art from that same period. How did Hegel perceive this “ending”?
MD: 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. The motto “l’art pour l’art”, art for art’s sake, was first formulated in 1819 by Victor Cousin, Hegel’s French student. The declaration of the end of art thus came about at the moment it was established that art ought to take place for the sake of art itself, in its utter autonomy. Hegel was historically correct: first, as art came “into its own”, no longer subject to religious or social auspices, this did spell its ending. Hegel argued that after this the idea of the end of art became the very object of art and that ever since that moment art has been unfolding by annihilating itself in the process; i.e. it has become obsessed with self-negation. This is an excellent definition of modernism. Art that functions as a negation of art is what distinguishes it from the art of the previous periods; it has become art that feasts on its own demise. And through this it gained more critical potential that it has ever held before.
LS: You often talk about modernism. Most notably in your book Strel sredi koncerta (A Shot during a Concert), in which you describe the magical year of 1913 in which modern art was born. Is there any potential left in modernism today?
MD: One of the paradoxes of modernism has to do with the growing mediatization which Adorno dubbed the culture industry. This is not culture as such, rather it is a branch of industry, namely the entertainment industry. Modernism perceived itself as a critical gesture, but it was becoming increasingly limited to the elites. High modernism is opposed to mediatization, which makes it impossible to reach the masses. This represents the junction of its power and impotence. It holds up a critical mirror to the world, but it cannot reach beyond the culture of highly educated people who are ready for what it has to offer. This became clear already with Schönberg, who was exceptional by all means, but as Adorno argued that art used to mean having a rest after work and then enjoying an artwork or so, it is now the other way round: today you can work all day but then you have to toil even harder in order to understand art – modernist art calls for greater effort than work itself. Art thus became more demanding work than the alienated world in which it emerges as a blemish, a stain of incomprehensibility in the middle of a world that appears comprehensible. However, it is also true that there are several aspects to modernism. It is possible to find high quality achievements that took the masses by storm within commercial culture. The end of modernism can be pinpointed to a precise moment. In 1989 Samuel Beckett died and, in my opinion, he was the one who pushed modernism to the very edge, to its extreme. 1992 saw the death of Olivier Messiaen, one of the greatest French modernist composers, and merely one day later, Francis Bacon, one of the most important modernist painters, passed away. John Cage died merely aa few months later. The deaths of the heroes of modernism, who also happen to be my heroes, as I grew up during the time of this great tradition, mark the end of a certain possibility of art. All of them left a mark that was inscribed into the spirit of the time. Even though Beckett is very hard to read, everyone knows that he exists as a parameter with which we have to measure the relationship of either time or spirit. Beckett’s characters appear to be living completely outside time and space, which makes them strongly embedded into the historical moment of the late 20th century. Messiaen, whom I like very much, is an unusual figure in modernism: as a devout catholic he was well aware that the joke was over and that Christianity could only be saved by radical means. He despised anyone who considered saving religion by resorting to old values and traditional formulas. It is only by being prepared for a radical overhaul of its values and means that we might find the strength to keep art’s critical edge alive. What has been going on during the last thirty years after Beckett, Bacon, Messiaen, Cage, etc., died remains a mystery to me. Even though there are many excellent art products and praxes, there is nothing that could match their ambition or power. This also holds true for philosophy and for the crises of all critical thought – and this calls for dauntless engagement.