Cole, Andrew. 2014. The Birth of Theory.
Bookstores might have a difficult time deciding where to shelve Andrew Cole's The Birth of Theory, but an eclectic range of sources and methodologies is just part of what this engaging study offers. Like Paul Strohm's Theory and the Premodern Text (2000) and Bruce Holsinger's The Premodem Condition: Medievalism and the Making of Theory (2005), Cole's project is a groundbreaking work of medievalism that subverts commonplace ideas about the medieval, the modern, and the periodizing tendencies that force their separation. Cole argues that Hegel's dialectic "emerged from the philosophical practices of medieval thinkers" and that his innovations "ultimately lead to what in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is called 'theory'"(x; xi). Although the importance of dialectics in the history of philosophical inquiry has long been a critical commonplace, Cole's focus on this method as the origin of contemporary critical theory is contentious, to say the least. Besides accounting for the diversity of approaches produced in the name of "theory," especially after the influx of French structuralism and post-structuralism in the 1960s and 1970s, Cole also faces the issue of settling on a definition of dialectics that will suit its antique, medieval, and modern versions. A description of this mode in Hegel's writing would demand a book-length exposition, space Cole simply does not have, and so readers must accept Cole's conception of the Hegelian dialectic if they want to follow the rest of his argument.
Hegel's renovation of dialectics is a special case because, as Cole points out, Germany in the eighteenth century was "fundamentally still a medieval world" in which feudalism dominated as the organizational hierarchy structuring relations between the aristocracy and a peasant class (xiii). Thus, Hegel's appropriation of medieval concepts of the dialectic, as well as the Hegelian play between identity and difference, stem in part from similar historical, cultural, and social circumstances. However, as Cole makes clear, along with the persistence of feudal practices that hearkened back to former centuries, Hegel's Germany was also host to an incipient modernity, and the resulting socio-economic turmoil provides the context for intellectual transformations, not least Immanuel Kant's "Copernican revolution." While Hegel's critique of his time and place draw on the past, his concern is with the present and future. He rejects the isolation of the Kantian subject, locked into the static categories of a priori knowledge, and posits a dynamic view of human history and experience that revolves around dialectical confrontations. The Marxism that features throughout the rest of the book emerges here, with Cole acknowledging that his own "thinking about history is rooted" in a Marxian hermeneutic (xiii). Thus, another of his project's aims is to show that Hegel is "presciently Marxist in his critical thinking" and that the former's concept of the dialectical dynamic between identity and difference, contrary to contemporary critical consensus, would prove influential for Karl Marx's writings on economics and history (xvii). In investigating this genealogy, Cole illustrates the various legacies of Hegelianism as this dynamic appears not just in those acknowledging their debt to Hegel but also in renowned "anti-dialectical" writers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Gilies Deleuze (xix). Admitting the difficulty of this reconciliation, Cole nevertheless insists, "theory, as we have known it and practiced it for a century or more, finds its origin in Hegel--and Hegel himself finds his theories, his dialectic in the Middle Ages" (xiii).
Cole's investigations unfold in three parts, "Theory," "History," and "Literature," with each part divided into two chapters. Chapter 1 starts with The Birth of Tragedy in order to show how Nietzsche was "deeply and imaginatively dialectical," although he has been unfairly handled in this regard by critics, especially Deleuze (3). Cole's key analysis here juxtaposes Nietzsche's description of the birth of the tragic artist with the Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus's writings on the Intellectual Principle and the One to illustrate that both episodes revolve around an identity/ difference dialectic (6-8). In chapter 2, Cole presents a "new, even if partial, history of the dialectic" to contextualize Hegel's unique appropriation and adaptation of the medieval paradigm, itself inherited from the Greeks primarily through Plotinus himself (24). Cole moves adroitly through over two thousand years of intellectual history, highlighting various models of the dialectic used by Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Pseudo-Dionysius, Nicholas of Cusa, and Hegel. Chapter 3 continues forward chronologically and explores the materialist foundations of Hegel's master/slave dialectic to underscore Marx's borrowings from Hegel's example of historical critique. The inherent binary of desire and recognition at the heart of the feudal dialectic, Cole asserts, is a restatement of the medieval focus on identity and difference. In chapter 4, Cole suggests that Hegel had developed a sacramental theory of fetishism concerning the Eucharist that was "right at the center of Marx's lasting contribution to the critique of capital" (86). Figuration supports both of these dialectical endeavors, however, and Cole pursues this development in chapter 5. Here he establishes an affinity between dialectics and literature by providing examples of Hegel's reliance on the Middle Ages "as a repository of genres through which to rethink and critique the modern" (108). In chapter 6, Cole labels the Hegelianism in critical literary studies "the dialectic of figure/concept" and proceeds to trace Hegel's inspirations as well as his legacy (161). Cole ends the chapter with an assertion of dialectical interpretation's usefulness as a hermeneutic model that mediates the future and past of critique in contemporary life.
While The Birth of Theory is original in its scope and aims, its content and methodology owe something to Frederick Jameson and Slavoj Zizek, both of whom Cole cites at the conclusion of all but one chapter. Cole's ambitious title exemplifies the confidence that characterizes the styles of these latter-day Marxists, and his project is a suitably bold one that spans epochs, continents, and ideologies. If Cole's project has a weakness, it is this very ambition, which occasionally leads the author astray from a chapter's stated theme. In chapter 3, for example, the "medieval" and "dialectic" are occasionally neglected in favor of "Marxism" and "figuration," ancillary concerns that, while no doubt valuable, distract readers from the book's primary objectives. Nevertheless, even at these moments it is clear Cole is pursuing with creativity and with some compelling evidence a rapprochement between the traditionally alienated fields of contemporary critical theory, philosophy, and medieval studies. One of the mainstream views Cole is attempting to disrupt is periodization, an academic tendency to segregate historical periods and their key players at the expense of identifying the continuities and innovations that link the far past with the immediate present. Under the guise of periodization, medieval scholars in particular have attempted to separate modern modes of criticism from historically distant cultures and their texts, claiming that forcing the medieval into categories established by contemporary interests and values can only warp the truth. Using Hegel and dialectics, however, Cole successfully shows how periodization itself distorts reality. Advanced undergraduates, graduate students, and specialists in a wealth of disciplines--including medieval studies, critical theory, philosophy, and intellectual history--will find Cole's investigation of the medieval roots of Hegel's famous dialectic an exemplary work in the growing sub-genre of academic studies that link the medieval with the modern.
University of Tennessee, Knoxville
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2015|
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