Interview with Clayton Crockett on Hegel and the Insurrections Series

HegelDr. Clayton Crockett, associate professor and director of Religious Studies at the University of Central Arkansas, is co-editor of the Columbia book series Insurrections: Critical Studies in Religion, Politics, and Culture along with Slavoj Žižek, Creston Davis, and Jeffrey Robbins. His interview sheds light on the series’s forthcoming volume Hegel and the Infinite: Religion, Politics, and Dialectic. This book will be a pivotal work that sparks debate among scholars about Hegel’s relevance to our century and current political situation. It is slated for publication in spring 2011. For more on the book you can read Zizek’s preface.

Question: What brought Creston Davis, Slavoj Žižek and you together to start this project and co-edit this book?

Clayton Crockett: It was Creston’s idea, really, he wanted to put together a special issue for a journal focusing on new readings of Hegel in relation to religion and politics, and it really grew from there. Once we started the Insurrections Series at Columbia (the three of us along with Jeffrey W. Robbins), we realized that was the perfect place for the book.

Q: From the title we know this will be a tour de force on Hegel; what debates do you want to spark among readers?

CC: In Theology and Religious Studies, there’s been this return to Paul, sparked largely by Badiou’s book Saint Paul. We wanted to help mark a similar return to Hegel. The major issue has been the stereotypical postmodern view of Hegel as a totalizing thinker who suppresses all differences. But this interpretation of Hegel has been shown to be problematic by thinkers like Zizek and Catherine Malabou. We wanted to include people and positions that were closer to the original postmodern suspicion of Hegel as well as bring in the more recent views.

Q: On his blog Creston Davis wrote about the book, “This volume argues among many things that Hegel needs to be reclaimed in order to break out of the deadlock of our political situation.” What is timely about Hegel’s work and how could his perspective help the current state of politics?

CC: It’s really Zizek who has put Hegel to work in terms of politics in a post-Marxist, post-Lacanian context. It was Hegel whose philosophy enabled Marx to really understand the workings of capital. And even if some aspects of Hegel’s political views and life seem bourgeois, he’s much more radical than is often appreciated—for example, Susan Buck-Morss has shown how Hegel’s reading of newspapers about the Haitian Revolution directly informed his master-slave dialectic in the Phenomenology of Spirit.

Part of the problem with managerial capitalism—this is in business, government and academics—is the hyper-specialization that occurs and the micro-segmentation not only of markets but problems and ideas as well. Gillian Rose wrote a great book, Hegel Contra Sociology, where she shows how so much of twentieth-century understanding is done from a neo-Kantian framework that completely misses the radicality of what Hegel (and Kant) grappled with. This neo-positivist, neo-Kantian framework still holds sway in so many ways, and Hegel’s philosophy is one way (although not the only way—there’s the Hegel-Lacan-Zizek-Badiou tradition and then there’s the Spinoza-Nietzsche-Deleuze-Negri tradition, among others) to challenge all that.

Q: Scholars and supporters of Hegel’s dialectic feel that he has been marginalized and misunderstood; what about his philosophy has been misconstrued and how will your book set the record straight?

CC: After World War II, Hegel was cast as the thinker of totality in European thought, and a genuine philosophy of difference had to break with Hegel—this is the perspective of Deleuze, Derrida and Levinas. Of course, this is a simplification and distortion of Hegel, as Zizek and Malabou, among others, have shown. The logic of the dialectic has been read as progressive and accumulative, it’s this engine that swells up and subsumes all distinctions, differences and singularities. Malabou and Zizek, influenced by deconstruction and post-structuralism, have convincingly demonstrated that the Hegelian dialectic “works” by not working, by breaking down and exposing the gap that persists between reality and our ideals. It’s not that the dialectic gets reality to become our ideal; it’s that the dialectic shows how reality IS the irreducible gap within our ideals themselves.

Q: Was it a difficult task to compile a group of Hegelian scholars who wanted to contribute to the volume? And did you and your fellow editors have any say in what your contributors submitted?

CC: It wasn’t difficult, although we asked a couple of people who just were not able to contribute. Most of the people we invited were tremendously receptive to and generous with the project. We asked contributors to write on the general topic of Hegel, religion and politics, but we did not want to overdetermine their individual essays. Of course, we were thrilled with the result.

Q: What are the most important aspects of Hegel’s philosophy, and how do they relate to religion and politics?

CC: It’s a question of how the dialectic works and what are the roles of religion and politics and how they relate to the movement of philosophical thought. The standard critique is that the dialectic is this accumulative, subsumptive process that overcomes and swallows up differences in a totalizing whole. The religious criticism is that religion is just picture-thinking that has to be overcome in abstract, conceptual thought. The political reading is that Hegel simply justifies the political status quo, and his Philosophy of Right ends up reifying the State. We think that it’s much more complicated than this, and that what the dialectic does is show us the split between what religion promises in an ideal way and what it can actually accomplish, as well as the gap between the actual state of political affairs and what the political is theoretically supposed to accomplish. This gap is internal to philosophy, to religion/theology, and to politics itself. And the Hegelian dialectic is the process that propels us to think about these problems in a complex, historical, contextual, abstract and concrete way. But we have to free ourselves from the modern progressive view that Hegelian Absolute Knowledge simply overcomes the Kantian antinomies AND the postmodern critique of Hegelian Absolute Knowledge as this devouring monster. We never escape the interrelated nexus of problems that we call philosophy, religion and politics, and we need to return to Hegel to understand this nexus, but we never return to Hegel in any simple or positivistic fashion.

Q: How does this book differ from other books on Hegel?

CC: It’s a co-edited book that gathers together some of the greatest thinkers working today, including some of the greatest philosophers influenced by Hegel. In addition, it combines philosophers with theologians and scholars of religious thought to produce an extraordinary set of essays, focused on the engagement of Hegel’s thought with contemporary issues of religion and politics. And as I said, we’ve included scholars who are extremely critical of Hegel, such as Negri and Desmond, as well as scholars who want to rehabilitate and celebrate Hegel.

Q: How does the book fit into the overall aims of the series in which it appears?

CC: We founded Insurrections in 2007 with the intention of changing the field of theoretical religious studies, and we are confident that we are doing so. The intersection of religion, politics and philosophy is a vital edge that Jeff, Creston, Slavoj and I are committed to extend in a critical, nonsectarian and nondogmatic but not anti-religious manner. We believe that this edited collection sets a new bar for serious reflection about Hegel.

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