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Stubbornly, Hegel keeps returning. Just when we think this notorious philosopher, or any of the numerous Hegelianisms spawned in his name, have had their day, Hegel keeps coming back. And today he is back with a renaissance as considerable as any. Why is this case?

One might argue it is because Marx keeps coming back. And every time Marx returns, Hegel is always lurking in the shadow, or lurking precisely as the shadow, the negative inverse of what Marx had championed in the name of a dialectical materialism, that is, a direct challenge to capitalism’s political economy by means of a confrontational critique of its ideology and a revolutionary reaction on the ground. Certainly, one need not go far to find a Marxist resurgence somewhere in motion. But Hegel is not Marx. Nor is Hegel always an inverted Marx, or perhaps we should better say, nor is Marx always an inverted Hegel. If Marx keeps returning as some form of a critique, directed against a hegemonic power or against the injustices of an economic system, Hegel is far less outspoken, far less confrontational. In fact, he is still often perceived, politically, as Marx’s very antithesis, a champion of the right and the conservative, or at least of an ideal form of political thinking that favours the establishment.

And yet despite this gross misreading, Hegel keeps returning. One way to think about this insistence of Hegel, before or beyond Marx, is to think about the very driving force behind Hegel’s thought. For many, this has been called the “dialectic”, a kind of triadic movement by which two opposing forces collide with each other to produce a third force, one that keeps elements of the original two oppositions, but raises them to a higher and more productive level, thereby preserving and negating them at the same time, in a new reality that is wholly unique, but also one that fully comprehends what it has just accomplished.

Yet recent thinkers, especially from Continental Europe, have begun, over the last decades, to ask a more fundamental question: what drives this process itself, the process of the dialectic? And here they alight upon something that was previously considered as only one side of the dialectic, or just one of the original oppositions: negation. But how could negation be seen as the driving force of the process in which it is one of the elements? How could it stand both within and without that process simultaneously? Is not this a bit like saying that what makes chess work as a game are the black pieces? They are necessary, to be sure, but not, as the philosophers say, sufficient. Or perhaps less crudely, is it not like contending that the process of pollination for certain plants is driven by bees? The bees are certainly crucial for the process to work, but they hardly impel and determine by themselves the overall process. That role, we say, is taken by “mother nature”, working to unite both sides.

This problem of contradiction (both within and without) gets to the very nub of why Hegel remains such a potent figure for the modernity in which we presently live. If Hegel really taught that negation was a prime motivating force, and that nothing moves or has life without this force – and this is what he is really saying, with all its paradoxical implications – then what does this say about the modernity we have inherited not only from Hegel but from his modern forebears?

The problem is inherent to modernity itself. If we characterise this modernity as a fundamental shift in our understanding about the nature of origin, and origination, then we might better grasp our dilemma. Now why has modernity has been so obsessed with rethinking origin – everyone from Darwin to those working on the Hadron Collider? The pre-modern understanding of origination was grounded upon a Creator God, who brings all things into being, at their origin, and who is thus Origin itself, as eternal origination. This meant that we looked back for the ground and authority of our being. But the origins of modernity are based upon a break from this way of thinking, in an attempt – religiously by the Lutheran reforms and philosophically by Descartes’ revolution – to free us from the abuse or uncertainty such authority was deemed to have institutionalised. This break called us to look forward to the ever new, rather than to the established. (Hence the term “modern”, based on the Latin “modo” – “just now”.)

But in order to free our being to the ever new, a new ground was needed – a ground of freedom. This modernity found in consciousness, and more specifically, in self-consciousness. And here we need to see consciousness not merely as matter of awareness (as it is most generally understood), but also as a matter of origination, originating the very individuality of our selves through the freedom of self-determination.

But in making this move, we instigate an internal split. For self-consciousness requires that we be both subject and object to ourselves at the same time. What I am conscious of, as a subject, is myself, now as an object. If in this process consciousness brings the self into existence through its own internal freedom – no other higher Origin necessitates my being; it is my own freedom that allows me to be who I am, even if I later choose to embrace that higher Origin – then at the heart of this consciousness is a contradiction: I am who I am (subjectively) only by negating myself (turning myself into subject’s opposite – an object). We can see this very phenomenon in a common experience of romance: “I didn’t realise I loved her until she left me!” The realisation is predicated upon its very absence.

Now Hegel, I contend, was the first philosopher to properly seize upon, not this internal contradiction per se, but its most potent solution. Negation must not be seen as a force that, first and foremost, eradicates or takes away (one side of a dialectic). Negation must be seen as a primordial force that brings into existence. And what it brings into existence (just like the new modern self) is, first and foremost, itself!

As long, therefore, as modernity is beholden to a notion of consciousness as freedom and of freedom as consciousness – and this continues to be confirmed to us in virtually every sphere of our contemporary experience, whether political, aesthetic, judicial, relational, etc. – then Hegel will keep returning, because Hegel challenges us to embrace a negation at the very core of our modern self-understanding and self-identity, and, in effect, to negate it, by turning it into something productive. But we can only do that, ironically, through negation.

Negativity is everywhere in our globalised world today. We don’t have to work hard to find it, nor to justify its existence. Modern media incessantly shows us the rampant ills of our present state. But if we want to convert that negativity into something positive, or, dare I say, into something positively negative, then we need to appeal to Hegel. And this is why Hegel returns. But such an appeal is not to invent a new Hegelianism. On the contrary, it is actually to outstrip Hegel, and any system that might be built in his name, by being most consistent to his thought. Paradoxically, we are truest to Hegel when we go beyond him in his own name. This is what keeps Hegel original – and I mean this in the most original sense of the term “original”. The origins of Hegel and his thought are in his own negation, which, Hegel taught, we must now make our own.