Ghosts, Fetishes and the Living Dead

Marco Senaldi

«Everything is recent/

Like a wake-up call»

Pasquale Panella, Tubinga

At the slaughterhouse of the Spirit

There is a “fetish” which assails today’s philosophy of history – the fetish of History itself. There is no historian, no intellectual, no school textbook, that is not hypersensitive to any view that even just hints at a “modernist”, “hierarchical” and “verticist” stance. Through a sort of (culturally) conditioned Pavlovian reflex, as soon as one hears talk of History in a universal, deterministic and linear sense, the dogs of “epistemic pluralism” begin to drool. Hypersensitivity becomes allergy, allergy repulses, repulsiveness repulses, to finally turn into a conclusive condemnation without appeal.

The condemnation of the crime goes hand-in-hand with the identification of the culprit – the philosopher more than any other responsible for this distortion of the disordered and anarchic flow of events – i.e. Hegel.

It is symptomatic that the scoffing at the “empty logical-dialectical schemes” from which the “worst theologising providentialism” supposedly derives was not, at the height of the decade of reflux, an aficionado of postmodernism such as Jean-François Lyotard. Rather, it was the thoroughbred Crocean (and Gentilean) Guido Calogero, who pens such a judgement in the Note to the present translation of Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of History (Vorlesungen über die Philosophie des Geschichte), dating from a truly “historic” year, 1941. [1].

At first glance, Hegel’s responsibilities in this matter seem beyond denial. It was in fact Hegel himself who, in the Lectures on the Philosophy of History, now retranslated and recast in the Philosophy of Universal History, ventured to reiterate that above the individual events of humanity stands “philosophical universal history” – in such a way that the vicissitudes of humanity unconsciously aim at the stage in which “spirit grasps itself”.[2].

However, to call this stage a “theologising providentialism” (or perhaps a “verticising” phallogocentrism) seems not only absurdly reductive, but pathetically misleading.[3]. In the Lectures, dating from the semester of 1822-1823, two centuries ago, Hegel was in fact inflexible in his emphasis on the difference between History and Spirit: the latter is not the “subject” of History, for the simple reason that by “subject” we must not mean the “first” moment, “what is merely initial and immediate” as if at the beginning there were already a Someone who “knows everything”: on the contrary, “the true” is in fact only a secondary moment, “a being that returns into itself”. And, anticipating any criticism of a “linear” conception of History, he adds that whereas “when we speak of a return, we ordinarily picture a departure from a place and a return to a [vada in un luogo e poi ritorni]prior location”, ‘we must “reject” this’[4].

There is no one to guide any other, no one who knows the way, no Manzonian providence; but nor is there any “great proletarian”, any nomadic subject, any rhizome, any multiplicity so cunning as to escape its destiny. And what would its destiny be? Precisely this is the question-catastrophe that Hegel asked himself in the face of what he himself, in a famous but little-understood page, bluntly called “the butcher’s bench of history”. “As we look upon history as this slaughterhouse in which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of states, and the virtues of individuals are sacrificed, our thoughts are necessarily impelled to ask: to whom, to what final purpose, have these monstrous sacrifices been made?” [5]».

Hegel’s question resonates with the bitter taste of blood and scorn[6]. For paradoxical as it may be, this philosopher, considered to be the champion of “absolute historicism”, was the first to ask such an appalling and disconcerting question: what sense does History have if there is no “return”, if there is no “home”, if the Spirit is a mass of misfortunes, negations, massacres, and if History itself, far from being a “work of art”, is “one of the most terrible paintings”? The Spirit is not a dove carrying an olive branch in its beak, but a zombie proceeding senselessly, even when you decapitate it, like the living-dead sailors of the Flying Dutchman in Pirates of the Caribbean.

Histoire(s) de l’art

If Hegel recognises that in order to understand the history of a period or a people, it is necessary to know its art[7], this means that Art is also a form of the Spirit, but only in the sense of a power that “dissolves” and “tear[s] apart … the members” of which ethical life is composed [8]. The definition of “slaughterhouse” should therefore also be applied to art: it, too, is something “spiritual” in the “catastrophic” sense: “the [[artistica]artistic] action is the violation of the peaceful earth, the trench which, animated by blood, evokes the departed spirits and these, thirsting for life, receive it in the action of self-consciousness”[9]. It is thus inevitable that we should conceive of history as a work of art and intertwine the history of peoples, events and cultures with that of art – provided that we keep well in mind what we have to accept under the definition of Art.

It would be interesting to note that it was precisely Hegel’s most subversive readers, including Georges Bataille, who intuited that the only answer to historical negativity is the “unusable negativity” of art[10]And perhaps only contemporary art, emancipated from the sensible to the point of reaching heights of “dissolving self-consciousness”, is today able to adequately reflect this extreme point of view. Indeed, when it rises to a broader vision of itself, and touches upon the historical becoming, it presents itself as an ensemble that is in no way “harmonious” or resolved, but precisely as an ensemble of undead spirits/spectres [Geister].

The case of Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma is emblematic. Initially conceived as a TV series, they constitute a vast and complex work, articulated in four sections, each subdivided into two parts, covering a total duration of almost nine hours; they were not screened as a single film but “exhibited” for the first time in an artistic context (Documenta 10 in Kassel in 1997), then re-released as a DVD and later as a volume. Composed of hundreds of fragments of other films, interpolated by pieces of text with the director’s own words, they resemble a huge Situationist collage more than a completed masterpiece. In this sense, although they have attracted the attention of professional historians, such as François Furet [11]they are “thoroughly” contemporary: as Godard confessed, they try to “encompass everything” since “History is the work of works”, which is to say, “a work of art, which is not generally admitted, except by Michelet”.[12].

The reference to Jules Michelet, pupil of the Hegelian Victor Cousin and progenitor of French historiography in the nineteenth century, is no accident. The Histoire(s) aspire to the representation of historical totality, in the Hegelian sense: the totality of which they speak is not a positive set containing all possible elements, but a “negative set”, a whole that paradoxically excludes itself from itself, surviving as fragment and lack. [13].

For these reasons, the Histoire(s) are something radically different from all documentaries and “classic” histories of cinematographic art[14]. In them, Godard repeatedly appears at work with meta cinematographic tools (recorders, computers, video cameras) and often uses fragments of cinema, video and found footage. The material amalgamation of cinema emerges above all in the unexpected use of the moviola to disarticulate passages of famous films, with the result not only of slowing down their images (in the manner of Douglas Gordon), but also the pieces of text and the sound, obtaining almost three-dimensional, tactile, physical distortions; in certain moments, the director’s own body serves as the screen for the images, symbolically offering itself “as food” for History and its representations. [15].

Is this not the present-day realisation most similar to the Hegelian image of the “departed spirits” of History, who try to come back to life through self-consciousness?

Catastrophes and superimpositions

History and Art, or rather history and the history of art, instead of still being conceived as two sets of which one encompasses the other, or as acephalous pluralities that occasionally intersect, should be understood in relation to this phenomenon of “reactivation” of the past: “when we have to do with the past … spirit finds itself in need of a present … [that is] ageless and enduring”.[16].

About twenty years ago, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s statement that the Twin Towers bombing of 11 September 2001 was a “work of art for the whole cosmos” caused quite a stir.[17]Re-reading his words carefully, however, we find no trace of insult; on the contrary, we can see how the composer intended to place the historical event and its artistic counter-effectuation in an inextricable relationship. In other words, Art is not at all the set of representations of events, which is to say, the description of things done. On the contrary: “things” would not be “done”, events would not be such, without the direct exposition of the “butcher’s bench” in which History consists. Through a sublime coincidence, which it would be foolish to attribute to mere chance, Stockhausen was so right that, in the agitated days following the bombing, a few people realised that indeed it “had already become, to all intents and purposes, a work of art”. In September 2001, Wolfgang Staehle had organised a solo exhibition in the Postmasters Gallery in New York, consisting of live video projections of cityscapes. Projected on a large scale (270 x 660 cm), as if they were panoramas that, instead of being painted, were simply filmed by live-cam, the images concerned Berlin, Coburg and, fatally, the Manhattan skyline. The camera pointed at the skyscrapers therefore faithfully recorded the disaster at the Twin Towers live. Although the exhibition was closed at the time of the attack, the gallery owner Magda Sawon, who had been alerted by the artist, was able to observe the tragedy within what was until then only an “innocent” work of art. [18]But neither Art nor History are ever “innocent”: History and Art here literally overlapped, or rather – to use a photographic term – were superimposed one upon the other, generating the universal “present” in which the past is revitalised, resurrected, “repeated” and is with us, albeit always in an unresolved, enigmatic and ghostly form. These superimpositions, where the two lines of History and Art counter-determine themselves, or superimpose themselves in reverse, are the only authentic “present-in-absence” from which we can begin to learn. They should prompt us to rewrite the famous adage attributed to George Santayana, according to which “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, in a new version: “those who do not want to relive the past must repeat the present”.


[1] G.W.F. Hegel, Lezioni sulla filosofia della storia, vol. I, La razionalità della storia, trad. it. a cura di G. Calogero e C. Faita, La Nuova Italia, 1941, p. XIV.

[2] Id., Filosofia della storia universale. Secondo il corso tenuto nel semestre invernale 1822-23, a cura di K.H. Ilting, K. Brehmer, H.N. Seelmann, ed. it a cura di S. Dellavalle, Einaudi, 2001, p. 85.

[3] On this point, see Subject Lessons. Hegel, Lacan, and the Future of Materialism, ed. by R. Sbriglia, S. Žižek, Northwestern University Press, 2020, p. 23.

[4] Ibid., p. 28.

[5] G.W.F. Hegel, Lezioni sulla filosofia della storia, vol. I, cit., p. 68.

[6] Le invettive di Calogero sarebbero assai più adeguate quindi all’Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrés de l’esprit humain di Condorcet (1795); o alla Storia economica e sociale dell’Impero romano di marxisti come Rostovtzeff (1933); o ai romantici ideologi del ‘ritorno’ come Novalis; o persino a letture che vorrebbero essere pluraliste, e finiscono nel liberalismo più ‘teleologizzante’, come quelle di Isaiah Berlin.

[7] G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, cit., p. 81.

[8] Ibid., pp. 48 e 53.

[9] Id., The Phenomenology of Spirit, Clarendon Press, 1977, p. 441.

[10] B. Baugh, French Hegel. From Surrealism to Postmodernism , Routledge, 2003, pp. 74-75. Bataille speaks of “négativité sans émploi” in a letter to Alexandre Kojève, the author of the famous Paris lectures on Hegel, on which basis he published Introduction à la lecture de Hegel, Gallimard, 1947: in English, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, Cornell University Press, 1980.

[11] F. Furet, Lettre(s) à Godard [1997], «Cahiers du Cinéma», 2000, 6, pp. 6-9. Furet (1927-1997) was one of the greatest historians of the French Revolution.

[12] J-L. Godard, Y. Ishaghpour, Archéologie du cinema et mémoire du siècle. Dialogue, Farrago, 2000, p. 25.

[13] Or, in the words of Bertrand Russell – called to comment on the paradox that bears his name – History is the “set of all sets that are not members of themselves”.

[14] For instance M. Scorsese, M.H. Wilson, Scorsese on Scorsese, Cahiers du Cinéma, 2011.

[15] With reference to Histoire(s), Giorgio Agamben has spoken of “the power to interrupt”: see G. Agamben, Difference and Repetition: On Guy Debord’s Films, in Guy Debord and the Situationist International. Texts and Documents, ed. by T. McDonough, The MIT Press, 2002, pp. 313-320.

[16] G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, cit., p. 137. One impressive case of “reactivation” was the re-enactment of the storming of the Winter Palace staged in Moscow on 7 November 1920, three years after its “real” storming in 1917; see S. Žižek, Revolution Must Strike Twice, in London Review of Books, vol. 24, n. 14, 25 July 2002. 14.

[17] «Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung» and «Nando Times», 19 September 2001: “Composer Karlheinz Stockhausen said in a German radio interview Monday that last week’s attacks on the World Trade Center were ‘the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos. Minds achieving something in an act that we couldn’t even dream of in music, people rehearsing like mad for 10 years, preparing fanatically for a concert, and then dying, just imagine what happened there’”.

[18] While this episode has a touch of the miraculous about it, it is still waiting for a “philosophy of history” and of art up to the task of interpreting it; for a provisional analysis, I refer the reader to my essay Il Ground Zero del godimento, in Scrivere sul fronte occidentale, ed. by A. Moresco, D. Voltolini, Feltrinelli, 2002, pp. 124-137.