Katrin Pahl


On her book Tropes of Transport: Hegel and Emotion

Cover Interview of March 05, 2012

A close-up

For people who leaf through Tropes of Transport, I would want to bribe the goddess of chance to let the pages part at one of the points where I discuss the effects of free indirect discourse.  For example this one, on page 196:

Then again, Hegel’s use of free indirect discourse gives him the liberty to swing all the way back to a sympathizing identification with the phrenologist. Hegel gives him credit, suggesting that the future of spirit harkens back to the phrenologist when he feels some embarrassment about his position. The thing that is the phrenologist’s mind knows embarrassment – a promising fact, one would think…

A mix of sincere identification and ironic distance characterizes all the discussions in the Phenomenology.  Philosophical texts traditionally make atemporal truth claims in the name of the author. The Phenomenology’s conceit is that we are accompanying the self-assessment of exemplary worldviews. This conceit temporalizes truth and creates a complex temporal plasticity. The Phenomenology presents its epistemes by oscillating often imperceptibly between the voice of “natural consciousness” and the phenomenologist’s voice. Hegel thus uses a philosophical version of free indirect discourse—a narrative technique that blurs the distinction between the voice of the narrator and the voice of a character.

I find it crucial to attend to the workings of free indirect discourse in Hegel because such a practice of reading brings into view the situatedness of his truth claims and foregrounds the plasticity of emotional subjectivity.  The topic of emotion is often used to buttress an unelastic first-person perspective. Free indirect discourse presents the difference between internal and external exchanges as hard to pin down. It thus facilitates an ethics of sympathy.

The fact that the Phenomenology has a protagonist (“consciousness”) and a first-person plural narrator (“we” – the phenomenologist/s) demands that the reader attend to the difference between the perspectives of the author, the narrator, and the protagonist. When Hegel discusses, for example, “feeling” or “pathos,” he doesn’t develop his theory of emotion.  Instead, he offers a critical analysis of the assumptions at work when one conceives of emotion as feeling or as pathos. Free indirect discourse thus produces distance, but at the same time it allows for identification. It creates an intimacy with commonly dismissed positions that would be precluded by a more straightforward approach.

Hegel’s voice resonates through all of the shapes of consciousness and is in none of them. That is what makes him the villain of the history of philosophy. The villain is the figure who deceives, who assumes other identities—usually to get ahead.  Hegel wears the masks of his protagonists in order to propel the development of self-consciousness. Consciousness makes its way through the phenomenological narrative by relentlessly rising above its station. All the subject positions of the Phenomenology—even the author and the reader—are villains in this sense. And the ethics of sympathy has just received a rather ironic touch.