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Philostones: A Hegelian Take on Obama’s Liabilities Heading Into the Upcoming Election

“What seems to have been lost, then, is only the principal moment, viz. the simple fact of having independent subsistence for consciousness. But, in reality, self-consciousness is reflection out of the bare being that belongs to the world of sense and perception, and is essentially the return out of otherness. As self-consciousness, it is movement. But when it distinguishes only its self as such from itself, distinction is straightway taken to be superseded in the sense of involving otherness.”

–Hegel

It appears that Obama occupies a political plane that’s distinctively oppositional to four years ago. In the last election, the notion of “change” coincided on various levels with real changes in both promise and appearance: the prospect of a new tone for Washington politics, of the first African-American president, and of some key reforms constituted the campaign of change and hope. But the relationship between change and hope retained an elusive quality that never transcended this dialectical entanglement. Was it the hope for change, or was the change in the hope itself?

Four years ago, one may have assumed that the ideas of “change” and “hope” coalesced well in a new promise, and would therefore have felt reluctant to perform a Hegelian interrogation. Now, it appears that the current Obama campaign is no longer gliding along the continual, coalesced axis of “change” and “hope,” but rather on an oppositional relation of “difference.” In other words, the campaign has returned to the rhetoric of “we” and “they.” The campaign has fallen from the self-conscious reflexivity/reflection of “let’s be bipartisan,” of abiding to a dialectical principle of transcending oppositions and opposites.

Obama’s inability to exercise self-conscious reflectivity in order to transcend the partisan politics of difference is not so much the result of his own inability as it is the result of a real change that occurred in hope: in 2008, the Republicans maintained the cardinal and insane hope that something catastrophic would happen if Obama were elected, while the equally delusional Democrats hoped that Obama’s election would usher into existence a miraculous new world.

Neither “hope” was fulfilled. But change itself, namely the dynamics of change, have continuously changed and kept changing. And so, thanks to the way in which we’ve staged political discourse as a horizon that converges on “politics as usual,” we’ve come to the “return out of otherness”: a fractured and disjointed politics of “selves,” a politics through which actual differences of view recede into mere fluctuations between Us and Them, or worse, disappear into a kind of counter-reality with no promise for changing the political system, despite the real changes occurring in the world.

Adam Berg is an artist and holds a PhD in philosophy. He teaches in the Liberal Arts and Sciences department at Otis College of Art and Design and at the School of Critical Studies at the California Institute of the Arts. His work and writing focus on the intersection between art and science.