ISSN 1466-4615



Marc Furstenau

The Superficial Aesthetics of the Postmodern




Mark C. Taylor


Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1997

ISBN: 0-226-79159-9

354 pp.


I. Pop Philosophy


Mark C. Taylor's new book, _Hiding_, is at once fascinating and infuriating. Fascinating because he considers a wide range of cultural phenomena -- from television, the cinema, and virtual reality, to architecture, fashion, and tattooing -- and writes about these in an often engaged, enthusiastic prose, suggesting that such cultural ephemera has philosophical significance, that the products of popular culture might be understood philosophically, and that philosophy might benefit from a serious consideration of popular culture. Infuriating because that very promise, the promise that links will be made between popular culture and philosophy, that a dialogue might be established between two realms that have historically remained isolated, apart from one another, is never fulfilled, except in the most tentative way. This is the result, I think, of the fact that the philosophical aspect of Taylor's work is so weak and therefore not able to rise to the very challenge he sets when he suggests the potential philosophical value in the phenomena of popular culture.


Those of us who participate in the _Film-Philosophy_ salon can agree, I suspect, that the task of thinking about, in our case, cinema and philosophy, and about philosophy and popular culture generally, is undertaken in a sometimes hostile environment, or that the project is at least met with a certain indifference. Philosophers are often notoriously aloof from pop culture, skeptical that there is anything of any clear philosophical value in what appears to be trivial and fleeting, while cultural analysts, who, I think it can be fairly said, could benefit from the sort of rigour that a philosophical method could bring to their analyses, often resent the implication that the apparent triviality of their objects of study belies a lack of seriousness in their approach. Stanley Cavell, a philosopher who has devoted a good part of his career to establishing links between the philosophical and the popular, suggests as much when, in an address at the Kennedy Center, sponsored by the American Film Institute, he begins with this observation: 'It must be the nature of American academic philosophy (or of its reputation), together with the nature of American movies (or of their notoriety), that makes someone who writes about both, in the same breath, subject to questions, not to say suspicion'. [1]


The burden for those of us who want to think philosophically about the popular, and who want to take philosophical lessons from popular culture, is to allay such suspicions, to establish a method that is at once inflected by the popular yet doesn't succumb to a trivialization. This is the fine line that Mark Taylor walks. His book is important to the degree that it takes seriously the task of engaging philosophically with a popular culture that is ever more ubiquitous, and that more and more sets the terms of any discussion about it. Taylor clearly understands that in order to establish a critical position in a culture that is capable of accommodating and appropriating even the harshest critiques, a new strategy is necessary -- that in order to respond critically to a culture that has become profoundly superficial there may be a necessity to become, as he would have it, superficially profound. This , he argues, is the main lesson of the twentieth-century avant-garde, whose strategies are only now achieving their proper significance. In our postmodern, postindustrial society, we are confronted more and more with the mere appearance of things, with an image of reality that stands in for that reality -- life, in other words, has become aestheticized. 'The postmodern world of images translates the modernist project of dematerialization from the world of art into sociocultural processes. In this way, the culture of simulacra becomes the ironic realization of the avant-garde's dream of bringing art to life' (127). The critic and the philosopher, in the face of such irony, has, then, to draw out the avant-garde potential that necessarily exists in such an aestheticized culture, to identify and make manifest its ironic consequences. This task would seem to be most fruitfully approached through continental philosophy which, I think it can be fairly said, is concerned with the question of our relation to phenomena, with the production of knowledge in our engagement with the phenomenal world, and with questions of appearance and reality, and it is indeed a consideration of Hegel and the Hegelian legacy with which Taylor begins. This is all the more promising given that there is a preponderance of analytic philosophy in much, if not most recent work on the relation of film and pop culture and philosophy (in response to and in reaction to, it must be admitted, the continental tenor of most postmodern approaches to the popular). Still, a return to some of the basic issues of continental philosophy is, I think, a necessary move as we try to contend with certain postmodern facts of life. An understanding of Hegel is especially crucial if one wants to make sense -- as far as that's possible -- of our postmodern predicaments, the roots of which lie in the post-Hegelian legacy. All in all, then, Taylor's book appeared quite promising, but that promise very quickly evaporated.


Taylor embarks upon his task by considering those phenomena of popular culture that are most explicitly superficial, those that exist almost exclusively as surfaces: tattoos, fashion, architecture, film. Rather than merely offering a critique of the superficiality of such phenomena, he tries to approach them on their own terms -- indeed, any other strategy, he suggests, will necessarily fail. His account of fashion, for instance, endeavours itself to be 'fashionable'. Tracing the movements in modern art from the abstract expressionists -- Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, who sought always to produce something 'original' -- to the ironic and knowing 'fakeness' of the pop artists -- Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein especially -- fashion is explained according to the degree to which it similarly discarded notions of originality, in the form of a haute couture, in favour of a constant process of cultural recycling, rejecting, like the pop artists, any notion of a 'genuine culture', reveling instead in the surface pleasures of popular culture, playfully reinscribing and refiguring, and finally confounding the very notion of a genuine culture. 'This endless play of appearances', Taylor argues, 'brings us back to the question of fashion in a way that creates the possibility of a fashionable consideration of fashion' (204-5). He continues:


'Fashion is always in some sense nonsense; it is a matter that is not and does not matter. In its immateriality, fashion remains a matter of facing. Every attempt to fashion is an effort to save face by repeatedly facing reality. Facing reality, however, is never simple, for every face turns out to be an interface that falls between opposites that once seemed fixed. Along this interface, every view is an Interview. As the site or nonsite where self meets other and body touches world, fashion is neither subjective nor objective but is liminal -- irreducibly liminal. The liminality of fashion de-signs the architecture of interpretation by subverting the opposition between significance and insignificance' (205).


Each of the various phenomena Taylor considers is subjected to a similar strategy, as he endeavours to reveal their philosophical implications despite their ostensible superficiality. His efforts are guided by his conviction that the surface of things, rather than an external masking of a more significant and profound interior, is itself the site of the significant. The very notion of a distinction between the outer and the inner, between surface and depth, between the superficial and the profound, is brought into question by Taylor, who encourages his reader to attend carefully to the world's exteriors rather than attempt to penetrate them in a vain search for what is supposedly hidden beneath. The grounds for such an approach, however, are derived from a rather peculiar reading of Hegel that, on the one hand, left me puzzled, and, on the other, is never thoroughly elaborated so that it remains merely suggestive. Moreover, in his reflections on the questions of surfaces, of the sensible, of the sensuousness of our experience of the world, he gestures towards what I take to be perhaps the most important philosophical problem in a consideration of contemporary popular culture, namely an accounting of the significance of our being embodied consciousness in a world that increasingly valorizes the disembodied, the immaterial. The question of embodiment is there in Hegel, and is certainly pursued by those who have come after Hegel, so I'm left wondering why Taylor seems to give Hegel, and the Hegelian legacy, such short shrift. In an era when things have become so insubstantial the lessons of Hegel may well be worth considering again, yet Taylor fails to make the case for such a reconsideration.



II. Surface Significance


The notion of the significance of the surface is manifested in both Taylor's argument and in the presentation of that argument -- each of which depends upon the other. Taylor has attempted to produce a work that displays, in its very appearance, the themes that are under consideration. Lavishly illustrated, the book plays with the arrangement of text, varies the size of fonts, interrupts the text with splashes of colour, and so on. It is, in a sense, a very superficial book, interesting mainly in its surface qualities. But it is the surface of things that Taylor is concerned with -- not, as his title might suggest, with what's hidden, but rather with the hide, the skin, an exterior covering that suggests an interior, that suggests depth, but which in fact goes all the way down, confounding any notion of a clear distinction between surface and depth, inner and outer, superficial and profound. 'In the end', he begins, 'it all comes down to a question of skin. And bones. The question of skin and bones is the question of hiding and seeking. The question of hiding and seeking is the question of detection. Is detection any longer possible? Who is the detective? What is detected? Is there anything left to hide? Is there any longer a place to hide? Can anyone continue to hide? Does skin hide anything or is everything nothing but skin? 'Skin rubbing at skin, skin, skin, skin, skin . . .'' (11).


Skin, Taylor tells us, is much more than the hide that covers our body. It consists of both epidermis and dermis, layered so that the human organism, the body, should be understood as 'nothing but strata of skin in which interiority and exteriority are thoroughly convoluted' (12). Each layer of skin conceals beneath it only more skin: 'Hide hides nothing but more hide, which hides nothing . . . nothing but other hides' (12). Even the body's foundation, its skeleton, the bones that support it, Taylor is at some pains to insist, is nothing but another dermal layer, the mesoderm, which, with the endoderm and ectoderm, comprise the whole of the organism. We are, he would like us to imagine, a container that, paradoxically, contains nothing but itself. Any consideration of the body, then, reveals nothing but more of the same, a physiological fact that -- and this is the key to Taylor's 'argument' -- has profound philosophical and epistemological consequences. 'When nothing remains . . . nothing but skin and bones, when bones appear to be nothing . . . nothing but layers of skin, what once was called 'reality' becomes not only unbearably light but impossibly thin' (12).


The postmodern experience appears to be grounded, then, in a fundamental corporeality. The facts of our bodily existence are what provide us with the means to understand the real significance of that experience. Postmodern skepticism, the loss of faith in the possibility of 'detection', is foretold in the primary mystery of our own bodies. 'If the question of skin and bones is the question of hiding and seeking, and if the question of hiding and seeking is the question of detection, then might the question of skin and bones be the question of the possibility and/or the impossibility of knowledge and self-knowledge? What if, upon investigation, the question of skin and bones turn out to be nothing . . . nothing less than the question of reason?' (13).


What if indeed? The difficulty, though, is that while Taylor asks a number of provocative questions, posed in the sort of elliptical style displayed in the quotes above, no answers are immediately forthcoming -- at least, no explicit answers. The rest of the book is, in its very form, in the subjects it considers, in its presentation, an implicit answer to the questions that have initiated it. I'm not sure, however, that this is enough. Given the philosophical significance that Taylor grants to the body, I expected to find some discussion of, say, the importance of the embodiment of knowledge, of the phenomenological character of knowledge and perception. I'm thinking specifically of the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and of others in the phenomenological tradition -- perhaps even Henri Bergson and certainly Gilles Deleuze, and even Charles Peirce -- whose insights have been picked up recently by a growing number of scholars considering the problem of the postmodern, and who stress the significance of the fact of embodiment to any consideration of the problem of knowledge, and whose work is thoroughly informed by the post-Hegelian legacy. Instead, we're offered a sort of metaphorical equation between the dermal structure of the human body and the similarly structured phenomena of a superficial popular culture. Having proposed the equation, Taylor then suggests a method for the consideration of the 'skin' of culture, a method that he understands to have overcome the contradictions of a Hegelian philosophy -- or, more precisely, to have accepted and mobilized those contradictions that have, he suggests, been maintained in the Hegelian legacy. It is at this point, though, that Taylor's strategy needs to be considered in some detail. Since the rest of the book lives or dies according to the success of this opening gambit, it's necessary to judge whether it's in fact successful or not.



III. A Cultural Phrenology?


Taylor begins by directing our attention to a rather obscure section of Hegel's _Phenomenology of Spirit_, entitled 'Observation of the Relation of Self-Consciousness to Its Immediate Actuality: Physiognomy and Phrenology', a sub-section within the larger very important section on 'Observing Reason', a section concerned precisely with the question of the possibility of knowledge, and self-knowledge, that arises for an embodied consciousness. Taylor presents us with what he would like us to believe is more than merely a historical coincidence, namely that at the same time Hegel is writing his _Phenomenology_, in Jena around 1806-07, Franz Joseph Gall and his student Johann Christoph Spurtzheim are delivering a series of lectures in Karlsruhe explaining their newly founded science of phrenology. As Taylor insists, phrenology experienced a certain vogue in the early nineteenth-century, noting that 'in its day [it] enjoyed greater credibility than the emerging fields of geology and botany' (13). While eventually dismissed as a particularly crude pseudo-science, Taylor wants to remind us of the attractiveness of the basic notions of phrenology at the time, arguing that, given the contemporary philosophical preoccupations, which were presented most systematically in the work of Hegel, the insights of phrenology seemed especially apposite. In order, Taylor insists, to grasp the full significance of Hegel's project -- and, moreover, to understand its value today -- we need to acknowledge the value of phrenology within the Hegelian system. 'One of the most puzzling aspects of the _Phenomenology_ for present-day readers', insists Taylor, 'is the pivotal role that phrenology plays in the argument' (14). I would submit, however, that this is *not* the most puzzling aspect, and that this is demonstrated by the general tendency to understand the section on phrenology as a satire of the pretensions displayed by physiognomists and phrenologists who assumed that an unthinking application of the principles of the natural sciences to the questions of human agency, behaviour and subjectivity would yield anything but the most mechanical and unsatisfactory explanations.


The very real value of Hegel, pursued by followers as significant as Marx, Sartre and Adorno, among many others, is that such questions need to be approached from a position of self-reflexiveness, and that the first and most fundamental fact of being that must be reflected upon is that it emerges historically, over time (and that a key aspect of embodiment is the lived experience of time, of history). As a result, the project of explaining human consciousness, agency, and subjectivity must be premised on the fundamental historical contingency of existence, and the various other contingent components of existence that consequently emerge. Hegel's basic methodological insights, regardless of whether or not one agrees with his specific application of them, must nevertheless be understood as having provided the cornerstones for most of the various humanistic disciplines that have emerged subsequent to his efforts. As Jon Stewart notes, in the Introduction to a recent collection of essays reappraising the significance of the _Phenomenology_, 'Hegel represents one of the most important figures in the European intellectual tradition. Most all of the major schools and movements of contemporary thought such as phenomenology, existentialism, Marxism, critical theory, structuralism, pragmatism, and post-structuralism have their origins in his work. In addition, a number of disciplines such as intellectual history, sociology of knowledge, and hermeneutics find in Hegel an important forerunner'. [2] Hegel's critique of the pseudo-sciences of physiognomy and phrenology needs to be understood as an important moment in the elaboration of the self-conscious disciplines of the humanities, which not only incorporated the principles of self-reflection stressed by Hegel, but also understood themselves as distinct from the natural sciences. The necessity for such a distinction -- for an autonomous 'human science' -- is what is made explicit in Hegel's critique of the pretensions of physiognomy and phrenology, of their presumption that a crudely positivistic, 'objective' analysis of the features of individuals would produce any real knowledge.


Taylor, however, offers a rather different reading of the section, describing the legacy of Hegelian thought in terms of its failure to adequately understand the essentially phrenological character of the project. Taylor characterises the responses to the section on physiognomy and phrenology as dismissals, and is led to critique the post-Hegelian legacy as a failure to understand the implications of the value Hegel supposedly accorded to phrenology and physiognomy. 'The tendency of critics', he argues, 'to dismiss Hegel's reading of phrenology as a historical curiosity not only obscures its place in his overall analysis but ignores the broader issues raised by the question of skin and bones' (14). The broader issues are the relationship, on the one hand, of consciousness and self-consciousness, which are united by reason, and the actualization of this relationship in the physical body which is subject to observation by such 'sciences' as phrenology. Phrenology is concerned with an analysis of bone, of the specific contours of bone, especially the skull, that *express* the spirit, since spirit is understood to impress itself on matter. 'Inasmuch as the outer is an *expression* of the inner', Taylor explains, 'the body is a sign that can be deciphered by those who know the code . . . This is the central insight captured, albeit impartially and inadequately, in the doctrine of phrenology' (15). The phrenological significance of bone is what Taylor argues is at the center of Hegel's project. Taylor tells us that: 'Consciousness and self-consciousness, Hegel argues, meet in a bone that is the incarnation of spirit' (15). He then quotes Hegel, who indeed appears to be making such an argument.


Having described the brain as the inner aspect of consciousness, Hegel then turns to a consideration of the outer aspect: 'But the other aspect of self-conscious individuality, the aspect of its outer existence, its *being qua* independent and subject, or qua 'thing', viz. a bone: the *actuality and existence of man is his skull-bone* . . . The skull-bone does have in general the significance of being the immediate actuality of spirit' (15). Hegel's next move, Taylor insists, is to generalize from this specific instance of actualization. Taylor writes, quoting Hegel: 'This coincidence of subjectivity and objectivity anticipates 'the general rational principle that the outer is the *expression of the inner*', which constitutes the very foundation of Hegel's speculative enterprise' (15). Hegel's project, then, is properly understood as a philosophical phrenology, which would allow the world to become effectively transparent. 'By peeling away the skin of the world, Hegel's speculative gaze renders transparent the skeletal essence of every thing and every body. When fully deployed, Hegelian philosophy involves nothing less and nothing more than a thoroughgoing explication of phrenology' (15).


Well, if this were the case, then it could probably be discarded in its entirety. Yet Taylor insists on characterizing it as little more. He then pursues what he sees as the fundamental contradiction in such a philosophy, the consequence of thinking about the external as an expression of the internal, which he argues necessarily turns in on itself. 'Hegel and those who directly or indirectly follow the course he charts resist drawing the most important conclusion to which their investigations inevitably lead. The dialectical reversibility of opposites subverts the very hierarchy upon which detection depends and thereby renders meaning undecidable' (17). In a neat deconstructive moment, then, Taylor identifies the contradiction inherent in Hegel's metaphysics, and at the same time sets the stage for his analyses that will follow which play with the indeterminacy of inner and outer, and which understand the very distinction to have been radically subverted. 'If the principle of dialectical reversibility is applied to the binary surface/depth, then surface is depth and depth is surface. Upon closer investigation, what appears at one level to be depth supporting surface turns out to be another surface. In phrenological terms, bone and even mind are invaginated layers of skin. Peel away skin and you will always find more skin: . . . ectoderm . . . mesoderm . . . endoderm . . . mesoderm . . . ectoderm . . .' (18).


The difficulty with Taylor's deconstructive strategy, however, is that it is based on a rather drastic misrepresentation of Hegel's position on phrenology, and thereby of his philosophical project. The passage Taylor quotes from Hegel is in fact a characterization of phrenology, *not* Hegel's own position. Even a cursory reading of the section on physiognomy and phrenology will provide the reader with a sense of the derisiveness of Hegel's account of these pseudo-sciences. While Hegel certainly thinks we can learn something from a consideration of such doctrines -- there is always, for Hegel, an element of truth in even the most misguided of efforts -- they are, nevertheless, radically deficient accounts of the dialectical relationship between inner and outer. An adequate portrait of Hegel's philosophy, and of its profound legacy, requires that the role of his critiques of such deficient projects be understood -- for they're not inconsequential, providing, as they do, the necessary grounds for establishing a viable philosophical project. But it must be admitted that the task of interpreting Hegel is never easy. As Alasdair MacIntyre has noted, the _Phenomenology_ was a hastily produced work, and it 'is notorious that one outcome of this is that arguments are compressed, that the relation of one argument to another is often unclear, and that paragraphs of almost impenetrable obscurity recur. The commentator is therefore liable to feel a certain liberty in reconstructing Hegel's intentions; and the exercise of this liberty may always be a source of misrepresentation, perhaps especially when Hegel's arguments are relevant to present-day controversies'. [3] It's important, then, that some care be taken in any interpretation of Hegel, especially when brought to bear on contemporary issues.


MacIntyre, in fact, is concerned precisely with Hegel's critiques of the 'bad' sciences of physiognomy and phrenology, a proper understanding of which is necessary if one is to grasp the significance of Hegel's commitment to the elaboration of a 'science of experience' that is not based upon the model of the theoretical or natural sciences which necessarily isolate the individual from the contexts of action and history. This tendency is especially extreme in the pseudo-sciences, but it is the case even in a legitimate science such as anatomy which, despite its very real explanatory value, can never fully explain the human organism. This, MacIntyre insists, is still an important insight today when the natural sciences are concerned to explain human behaviour more and more in physiological terms. The Hegelian project of describing the conditions for the attainment of self-knowledge and self-consciousness, which emerge in history, and which are manifested in an embodied consciousness, necessarily distinguishes between an adequate account of such an emergence, and the consequences it has for our being in the world, and an inadequate account. 'It is in fact just because our history constitutes us as what we are to so great an extent', explains MacIntyre, 'that any explanation that omits reference to that history, as did and do the explanations of phrenology and neurophysiology, may explain the aptitudes and conditions of the human body, but not those of the human spirit'. [4]


For Hegel, phrenology was incapable not only of providing an explanation of the human spirit, a task it endeavoured to fulfill, but even the 'aptitudes and conditions of the human body' were beyond its reach. The fundamental mistake of physiognomy and phrenology is that they take the outer to be a mere expression of the inner without considering the full complexity of the relation between the two, and in failing to reflect on the significance of the activity of the observer in the establishment of that relation. As Michael Inwood has noted, 'Hegel . . . held that the inner of a fully developed entity such as nature cannot differ from its outer . . . If we suppose that nature has an inner that differs from its outer, we find on reflection that its postulated inner lies in *us*, the external observer, i.e. that . . . the inner is external to nature to a degree corresponding to its supposed depth within nature'. [5] The key here, I think, is the word 'supposed'. For Hegel the notion of depth is inadequate to explain the relation of inner and outer, since the inner finds 'expression' in the outer as a result of our observation. The relation between the two is, as a result, radically ambiguous and contingent, since it emerges in the self-conscious activity of observing ourselves. The 'effect' of an inner and an outer is what such observation produces, an effect that provides us with a fundamental conceptual framework with which we understand the world. The relation between inner and outer is far more subtle and complex in Hegel than Taylor suggests, and it is its very subtlety that has provided those who have come after Hegel with the means of addressing issues such as interpretation, embodiment, and the production of knowledge and self-knowledge.


In the passages immediately following those quoted by Taylor, Hegel is unequivocal in his rejection of the pseudo-sciences. Physiognomy is described as 'the over-hasty judgment formed at first sight about the inner nature and character of [Spirit's] outer shape'. [6] In its attempts to provide purely causal explanations for the outward expression of the inner, physiognomy offers its 'objective' observations, which are in fact merely opinions, based, as Hegel insists, on the existence of a *presumed* inner which, according to this mechanistic model, must find outer expression. But there is, for Hegel, no such causal certainty. Judging the truth of a statement by assessing the *earnestness* expressed in a man's face, for example, depends upon our sense that in his face we will see an expression of an inner disposition to tell the truth. But we cannot rely on this. The man's face is 'indeed an expression, but at the same time only in the sense of a *sign*, so that the particular way in which the content is expressed is a matter of complete indifference so far as the content itself is concerned. In this appearance, the inner is no doubt a *visible* invisible, but it is not tied to this appearance: it can be manifested just as well in another way, just as another inner can be manifested in the same appearance'. [7] Hegel then quotes another contemporary critic of physiognomy, Lichtenberg, who, in his _Uber Physiognomik_, suggests the degree to which expression is the result of volition: 'Suppose the physiognomist ever did take the measure of a man, it would only require a courageous resolve on the part of the man to make himself incomprehensible again for a thousand years'. [8] The project of determining with certainty the outward expressions of inner dispositions fails to understand the crucial role that such volition plays, and fails, moreover, to distinguish between the inconsequential features of a body, the shape of a forehead or the length of a nose, which bear no relation to the qualities of an individual, and the specific deeds in which such qualities are in fact made manifest. 'It is not the murderer, the thief, who is to be recognised', insists Hegel, 'but the *capacity to be one*'. [9] Finding the 'meaning' of an individual by reading the expressive outer code of his features is a backwards movement: one begins with the presumption of an inner disposition which is then correlated with external features, in a manner that belies the actual contingency of external appearance. Hegel writes:


'The *laws* which this 'science' sets out to find are relations between these two supposed aspects [inner and outer], and hence can themselves be nothing more than empty subjective opinions. Also, since the objects of this supposed way of knowing, which takes it upon itself to deal with the reality of Spirit, is just the reflection of Spirit out of its sensuous existence back into itself, and a particular [physical] existence is for Spirit something indifferent and contingent, this kind of knowing must be directly aware that the laws it has discovered tell us nothing, that, strictly speaking, it is idle chatter, or merely the voicing of one's *own* opinion . . . As regards their content, however, these observations are on par with these: 'It always rains when we have our annual fair,' says the dealer; 'and every time too,' says the housewife, 'when I am drying my washing'.' [10]


Moving from the ancient science of physiognomy to its contemporary counterpart, phrenology, Hegel is equally unequivocal. The phrenologist's emphasis on the skull-bone, as the legible manifestation of an individual's inner dispositions, is discounted by Hegel as a result of the failure to understand that such legibility would require a stability of meaning, and a straightforward correspondence between disposition and its expression. Taylor ends the passage he quotes with Hegel's observation that the 'skull-bone does have in general the significance of being the immediate actuality of Spirit'. He does not, however, quote the mitigating statement that directly follows: 'But the many-sidedness of Spirit gives its existence a corresponding variety of meanings'. [11] Hegel emphasizes the *contingency* of the significance of an object such as the skull, a contingency that is the result of our granting it a significance beyond its existence as an *immediate* actuality. As Hegel insists: 'The skull-bone is not an organ of activity, nor even a 'speaking' movement. We neither commit theft, murder, etc. with the skull-bone, nor does it in the least betray such deeds by a change of countenance, so that the skull-bone would become a speaking gesture. Nor has this *immediate* being the value even of a *sign*'. [12] The skull-bone simply exists as a thing or, more precisely, it simply exists. As a mere existent -- even insofar as it may be understood as the immediate actualization of conscious being (that is, that consciousness is necessarily embodied) -- the skull-bone possesses no inherent significance. 'What merely *is*', Hegel tells us, 'without any spiritual activity is, for consciousness, a Thing, and, far from being the essence of consciousness, is rather its opposite; and consciousness is only *actual* to itself through the negation and abolition of such a being. From this point of view it must be regarded as a complete denial of Reason to pass off a bone as the *actual existence* of consciousness; and it is passed off as such when it is regarded as the outer being of Spirit, for the outer is just that reality which merely *is*'. [13]


This is not to say that a Thing cannot be made to mean -- this in fact is what we typically do, even in the case of a skull, but the meaning granted to a Thing arises from our speculative activity, as Hegel himself very elegantly explains by reference to Shakespeare: 'A variety of ideas may well occur to us in connection with a skull, like those of Hamlet over Yorick's skull; but the skull-bone just by itself is such an indifferent, natural thing that nothing else is to be directly seen in it, or fancied about it, than simply the bone itself'. [14] H. S. Harris, in his account of the section on physiognomy and phrenology, stresses the significance of this example. He writes: 'All of rational consciousness must lie in the grave and become a skull. But when we take the skull from the hands of the real F. J. Gall and give it to the imaginary Prince Hamlet, the miracle of resurrection happens. Instead of an absurd science, we have Yorick, that fellow of infinite jest and most excellent fancy, who gave the Prince his first lessons about life'. [15]



IV. Conclusion


I've devoted the bulk of this review to responding to Taylor's consideration of Hegel for two reasons: first, to show the extent to which Taylor has constructed a straw man, his resistance to which provides the foundation for his subsequent analyses; second, to suggest the actual value of a careful consideration of the notions of inner and outer, surface and depth, meaning and expression, which in Hegel, and in post-Hegelian thought, have been subject to the most subtle consideration. The rather crude representation of Hegelian philosophy as merely an elaboration of the implications of phrenology obscures so much of what is still valuable in the Hegelian legacy, especially today. Taylor, in each of the various chapters of his book, makes essentially the same point, namely that in a world where reality has been virtualized, where the real is the virtual, and the virtual real, the traditional distinctions between surface and depth, the superficial and the profound, are no longer functional. Yet the basis for his claim that we may no longer pursue a significant depth beneath the superficialities of our virtualized culture is so flimsy that his argument fails, finally, to carry any weight. By failing to provide an adequate account of the concepts of inner and outer, depth and surface, reality and appearance, so necessary for the sort of project Taylor is undertaking, he is able merely to repeat his claims without ever really substantiating them. Taylor is, as a quick glance at any of his previous books will attest, resistant to the idea of a clearly formulated argument, preferring instead to work suggestively, gesturing at ideas rather than making assertions. Nevertheless, one still needs to be careful to maintain some sort of fidelity to the concepts that are being critiqued. A more thorough consideration of the degree to which Hegel in fact *confounded* our notions of inner and outer, and the degree to which those who have come after Hegel have had to contend with that confounding, would have provided a far more fruitful basis for an analysis of the sorts of pop culture phenomena that Taylor considers. Rather than merely insisting that the outer is inner and the inner is outer, and that reality is virtual and the virtual real, these contentions could have been substantiated in a more compelling manner.


Having said all this, I must admit that I enjoyed much of the book, and that I'm sympathetic to Taylor's project. The various chapters, which actually read more as a series of relatively distinct essays, were full of interesting details and insights. While not always wholly original -- the chapter on tattooing, body mortification and body art, relied almost exclusively for its examples and historical detail on an issue of _Re/Search_ magazine on modern primitivism, and the final chapter on virtual reality and cyber-culture read more as a synthesis of Baudrillard and Haraway combined, rather curiously, with Daniel Dennett -- Taylor has managed nonetheless to link a variety of phenomena in quite suggestive ways. Considering the fiction of Paul Auster and the television work of Dennis Potter, the architecture of Las Vegas and the architecture of Bernard Tchumi, the developments of virtual reality and the future of cinema, the slippage of postmodern identity and the structure of the world wide web, Taylor establishes a number of very suggestive links. I just wished that what was so suggestive about these links had been pursued more vigorously, and had been established along more satisfactory lines than as an elaboration of the phrenological contradictions of Hegelian philosophy.


Those links would have been considerably stronger, and far more productive, if Taylor had not simply dismissed Hegel, but had rather taken seriously the Hegelian problem that has been bequeathed to us. Moreover, the contemporary manifestations of that problem are probably best seen in the sort of pop culture phenomena that he considers, a more subtle philosophical account of which could prove enlightening. But Taylor's treatment of Hegel is disappointing, especially for those of us who are endeavouring to make the sorts of links that his work suggests are so important. Hegel's critique of the pseudo-sciences provides the basis for a very subtle account of the concepts of inner and outer, concepts that arise from our very activity in the world as historically embodied entities endowed with the capacity for rational observation. A reconsideration of the questions initiated by Hegel in light of the dilemmas of postmodernism seems a worthy project. Hegel's confounding of the concepts of inner and outer seem particularly a propos in this age of the superficial, of the immaterial, of the virtual. So too Hegel's insistence on the fundamental freedom of the subject to generate meaning, to make the world significant, an insight that has allowed us to experience the world as at once radically contingent yet amenable to interpretation.


One is left wondering, finally, where Taylor positions himself within the post-Hegelian legacy and how he really understands his own project. A critique of Hegel has been at the centre of most of the significant intellectual endeavours of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and they have been based on a far more substantial and penetrating reading of Hegel than Taylor provides. One wonders, then, what the point of Taylor's critique is, especially once one considers that it might in fact be a useful and productive move to return to the problems, which Hegel originally elaborated, in this era of postmodern doubt and skepticism, at a time when a project like structuralism, and semiology, has appeared to have failed in its attempt to supersede and supplant philosophical reflection. It may now be particularly useful to return to some of the original philosophical questions that had prompted the structuralist endeavour, for instance, and see if a more productive relationship with the history of philosophy might be established. To do so, though, will take more of an effort than that mustered by Taylor, whose book, based on the weakest of foundations -- on the notion of a valorized exterior, a programmatic superficiality -- ends up feeling merely superficial (especially when read in contrast to that other formally experimental text on Hegel, Derrida's _Glas_). Taylor has offered a useful challenge -- it seems as though it will be up to others, however, to meet it.



McGill University, Canada






1. Cavell, _Themes Out of School_, p. 3.


2. Stewart, 'Introduction', p. 1.


3. MacIntyre, 'Hegel on Faces and Skulls', p. 213.


4. Ibid., p. 224.


5. Inwood, _A Hegel Dictionary_, p. 143.


6. Hegel, _Phenomenology of Spirit_, p. 192.


7. Ibid., pp. 190-191.


8. Ibid., p. 192.


9. Ibid., p. 192.


10. Ibid., p. 193.


11. Ibid., p. 200.


12. Ibid., pp. 200-201


13. Ibid., p. 205.


14. Ibid., p. 201.


15. Harris, _Hegel_, p. 54.





Cavell, Stanley, _Themes Out of School: Cause and Effect_ (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).


Harris, H. S., _Hegel: Phenomenology and System_ (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1995).


Hegel, G. W. F., _Phenomenology of Spirit_, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Clarendon Press: 1977).


Inwood, Michel, _A Hegel Dictionary_ (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992).


MacIntyre, Alasdair, 'Hegel on Faces and Skulls', in Jon Stewart, ed., _The Phenomenology of Spirit Reader_ (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998).


Stewart, Jon, 'Introduction', _The Phenomenology of Spirit Reader: Critical and Interpretive Essays_ (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998).




Marc Furstenau, 'The Superficial Aesthetics of the Postmodern',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 6, February 1999 <>.


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