Exhibiting Contradiction – Hegel, History and Museuems

For Hegel, History is an ongoing process of System Building. Not simply collecting whatever facts interest us. History is never about casual reading. Often in History, in moments of pure intellectual intuition (something Kant prohibits) we leap to (illegal) conclusions, create a new Concept. But then we must go back and justify our seeming progress. This entails crucially discriminating the good from the bad, the useful from the junk. We look to the Past to determine how we arrived at the present. But the past doesn’t necessarily lead to the Present. Rather it is from the perspective of the Present that we look back on the Past and Reconstruct the path which lead us here. First one person leaps, miraculously, in a flight of genius to the other side of the canyon, and then he turns back and builds a bridge for everyone else.


Knowledge isn’t built up from parts, from merely collecting fragments together. First we must intuit a Whole into which the parts can be fit. This was what Kant taught us about Biology and Organism, that the Whole always precedes the Parts. And Hegel will further this idea by adding the notion of Development. Organism should not be understood always already as Wholes, but rather each organism is constantly struggle to achieve Wholeness. It has within it a Concept of its completeness which it ceaselessly strives to attain, and this always entails in the midst of changing conditions. Organism constantly destroy what they once were in order to adapt themselves to what they now must become in order to survive.

And, for Hegel, Knowledge is not only about Organisms, but is in fact the purest example of an Organism. Knowledge is not mere parts, but always Knowledge must be understood as a living, growing, developing. Organism, i.e., plants and animals, are in fact themselves forms of Knowledge; they are simply those forms of Knowledge which have yet to become aware of themselves, to become Self-Consciousness. Knowledge is not simply collecting facts, but it incorporating facts into a living body. Not simply stuffing our archives, but assimilating materials in such a way that they are integrated into the Whole. In Hegel, then, we see the passage from mere Appetite to the more spiritual concept of Nutrition.


We always attempt to flesh out an Idea we have conceived beforehand, even if for the present we can’t yet articulate it but only give it a provisional name. It is under that Name that take what are mere facts and tie them together into an organized body of knowledge. In other words (and I’m going to write this in longhand), the actual Artifacts, to use just one example, are only the merest basis of a Museum, only the most obvious instance of the totality of antecedent conditions necessary for the possibility of the existence of a Museum. And is you read Hegel on self-certainty (i.e., Obtuseness), it is always the most Obvious thing, the Self-Evident, which contains the very least amount of Truth. To say something simply is the case is immediately to arrest its development, to negate it, to turn its living complexity into a mere “vestige” (which literally means fossilized footprint).

Because Truth is not just brute immediacy, but much more than that, active engagement with a concept, mediated by contact with others, in the ongoing process of Constructing Knowledge. Knowledge is never the possession of the Individual but Always the Group. More important than the actual paintings, at least for Hegel, is the Criticism we write about them. Art is merely Life, which ends with the final stroke of the brush. Whereas Criticism is not merely objective life, but beyond that Inner Spirit which arises in the act of generating commentary. Like the Corpse in Medical Research, Art is only that which gives occasion to Culture, and it is not the material goods but rather Culture which is our true Tradition.

Tradition, that which is handed down from one generation to the next, for Hegel is always passed on in Language. Again, it is not the paintings or sculptures or temples of the past which constitute our Heritage so much what we say about them. For Hegel everything you see in the Museum is nothing but a dead body. If we do not comment and debate on the meaning of the Past, our Culture is dead, and what we consider to be a Temple of the Muses is really nothing other than a Mausoleum. (Think about that the next time you walk out of a performance of a play or a symphony; if no one is talking about what just happened, and critiquing it, then what you really just attended with not a Cultural event but rather a funeral.)

The Language of a People is its Geist, its Mind and Soul. What Hegel wants to show is that the antinomies which Kant says are merely cognitive conditions, are in fact actually social and historical conditions, and as such they can always, if only through Revolution, be resolved. What interests Hegel, as always, is Sublimation, the idea that War needs to be both destroyed and preserved, purified until there is nothing left of it but Scholarly Debate. My last point: whereas for Kant the Antinomies of Pure Reason marked the limits of thought, that place where is comes to a standstill, for Hegel just the opposite is the case. In Hegel conflict and contradiction do not stop thought but rather propel it. Prior to this, in Descartes, Spinoza and Kant, self-contradiction, or inner-conflict, was understood to cancel the existence of an entity, to make it impossible to exists. Now, however, in Hegel, self-contradiction and inner-conflict are not only permitted within an entity but are made the very soul of the entity.

Without inner turmoil and constant restlessness, any entity will remain simply what it is, and as a result, fail to adapt to ever-changing circumstances. Inner conflict is the dynamic source of all movement and change. For Hegel Existence are nothing but the constant movement of Self-Overcoming (Aufheben). Fixed Identity is Death; Alteration is Life. History, for Hegel, should never be a unproblematic mirror image. We don’t look to the Past to see a perfect images of ourselves which confirm our narcissism. Rather, they should initially frustrate our ability to identify with them. In the Museum we should find traces of the Alien, the recalcitrant Other thing which we once used to be. And it is this strangeness of this Other upon which we endlessly reflect.

This is Hegel at his most radical. At his most conservative (and there has been much recent debate over which, the younger or older, is the ‘real’ Hegel), Hegel is the dictator presented to us by Douglas Crimp, who demands that all Otherness be translated, though the writing of official History, into a variation or developmental form leading inexorably to the Same. According to this Idealist Hegel, the Museum, like the University, should indeed offer us the final version of what the past definitely was. The Museum, as well as the University are to be purveyors of Tradition, a tradition whose History can only be officially written once all creative activity has come to and end. Thus, Hegel’s famous, and for some scandalous, pronouncement that the history of art is over. The Museum, as Crimp asserts, has in fact always been a Mausoleum.

In reaction to this mentality, new Museum Studies has sought to transform museums, in a variety of ways, allowing them to confront us not with reassuring images but rather Scandals. The new museum, like the new university, is “no country for men” who want only a History which reassures. The new museum strives constantly to make us uncomfortable, to poke holes in our Knowledge. It aims to force us to continue debating the form and meaning of History, to cause us to need to write History all over again, going back perhaps as far as the very beginning. That is what Museum Studies, a burgeoning field of inquiry, is all about these days: not making the Musuem safe and pacifying for the Masses, but rather attempting, as intelligently as possible, to Keep The Museum (and The University) Challenging.

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