Saturday, January 18, 2014

Hipster Hegelianism: The Purpose of Life and the Aesthetic Dialectic of the Commoditization of Experience

Experience and the meaningful life
The Horn’s Pavel Nitchovski talks about the wrong way to make life meaningful
By Pavel Nitchovsky

Despite the prevalence of the American Dream™ as an idea partially constituted by consumerist practice (think white picket fence surrounding a pink Cadillac), most people have given up on the idea that vacuous consumption is sufficient for a meaningful life.

We have come to realize that whatever promises advertising companies may make about our consumer habits, it’s not the purchase of toothpaste or bowel-regulating yogurt that will make your life meaningful. To put it another way, we have partially emancipated ourselves from viewing commodities as magical idols worthy of unquestioning reverence—we have stopped viewing consumerism as a fetish.*

Though it is a great thing that we no longer view commodities through the lens of fetishism, this demystification leaves us in a predicament: if the consumption of commodities - the practice that our mode of life circulates around - is not constitutive of the meaningful life, then what is?

For some people, this rightful rejection of consumerism has served as a sign that we need to revert to tradition and religion. That’s fine for those people who feel comfortable in retreat, but for those of us who find the post-mortem of that famous German philosopher** convincing, return to conservative values will never be satisfactory.

So what’s the alternative? The most common answer given is that if it’s not commodities - those plastic, decaying, material objects - that make life meaningful, then it must be their foil—the ephemeral, internal, special thing that can never be seen, quantified, or sold that plays that role. Most people call it ‘experience’.

By 'experience' I don’t mean the pedestrian sense in which we all experience one thing or another—it’s not the experience of taking out the trash that is to play the role of the meaningful in place of the commodity (if that were the argument I’m not sure that we would be in a better position than we would be by fetishizing gold watches). Rather, by 'experience' I mean the sense in which the word is used in tacky phrases like “Let’s have an experience!” or “Experience life!” Roughly, that sense translates to something like ‘something that you wouldn’t normally do.’
This sense of experience as a candidate for the building block of the meaningful life is all too common—especially in youth culture.

Traveling to China is an experience; taking ecstasy is an experience; couch-surfing in Seattle to play bongos is an experience, etc. ad infinitum. All experiences as such are seen as valuable in and of themselves*** by the majority of us. And not only so, but also cumulatively valuable in the sense that an increase of quantity of experiences had leads to an increase in meaning in life.

What we fail to notice in cases where we take this stance is that we haven’t really made any progress in providing a deeper insight into the meaningful life. In a twist of tragic irony we’ve simply moved the goalposts of fetishism from the commodity to the experience. We’ve simply attributed the meaningful life to experience by fiat, without explaining or justifying why experience should have value in the first place.

The very question of justification strikes a lot of people as odd. Why would the value of experience have to be justified? It just is valuable! But that explanation won’t do any better than if we were just to insist that owning a PlayStation just is what makes life meaningful without offering any justification.

From what I’ve seen, such justification, when it’s offered, is lackluster.

With justification is just lazy. Taking ecstasy just lets you see the world in a different way (let’s ignore that this only pushes the question back). With other experiences the justification takes form in pseudo-religious rhetoric: to experience China is to understand the human condition (let’s ignore the imperialist preconditions that make traveling through the second and third world possible); to experience couch-surfing is to understand life without excesses (let’s ignore that it’s only people with excesses that take vacations from them).

And with others still it’s boiled down to something that’s supposed to be self-evident—happiness or contentment—or dogmatic (“if you had the experiences I had, you’d know why it’s valuable”).

The upshot of these failed justifications is that they either fail to explain why happiness or contentment should be valued, or, alternatively, they forces us into the deplorable agnostic stance where we’re unable to make a judgment between the claim that PlayStations make me happy and are thus valuable and the claim that volunteering makes me happy and is thus valuable (or "if you had the PlayStation I had, you’d know why it’s valuable"). Usually at this point the free-spirit attitude is taken and the specter of relativism takes over the conversation.

Now, I’ll grant that for some people this shifting of goalposts is sufficient to establish some (what I would consider artificial) meaning. Certainly enough people must find this worthwhile if saccharine articles (like this one) are published daily about what makes life meaningful for 20-somethings (spoiler: it’s having lots of experiences and doing whatever you want). But it’s not a satisfying solution for everyone and I venture to guess that the people who find this unjustified shifting of the goalposts meaningful would have found meaning in owning fur coats and PlayStations as well.

So here’s the challenge I pose for anyone concerned with creating a meaningful life on the basis of experience: explain
and justify it. Certainly, the meaningful life isn’t created by consumption, but we have to take seriously the possibility that it also isn’t created just by its negation, and this might mean that we have to do something other than doing whatever we want.

*Most people associate fetishism with the sexual, Freudian sense of the word, but the way the term is used here is the exact sense in which Freud used it in the first place. The shoe fetishist is someone for whom shoes represent an object exerting autonomous power over the libido.

**Nietzsche famously wrote that "God is dead."

***Within socially acceptable limits even horrible events are warped through its lens—grandpa’s funeral is not an experience but your appendix almost bursting can be. In the most extreme form, it even smacks a bit of Christian apologetics where experiences factor into explaining the intricacies of the world.

This Article has been Re-Posted from:


Hipster Hegelianism:
The Purpose of Life and the Aesthetic Dialectic of the Commoditization of Experience
 An Essay in Response
by Ryan Haecker

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this latest article. I was particularly pleased how you described the commotization of the aesthetics of 'experience.' Please allow me to offer an analysis and some objections to the essay.

The American Dream™ is defined as the idea that "vacuous consumption [of commodities] is sufficient for a [good] meaningful life." In reaction to consumer culture, Americans have "partially emancipated" themselves from the fetishization of commodities, and therewith rejected the idea that sufficient goodness may be found in and with the American Dream™. This rejection provokes a Kierkegaardian dilemma and anxiety to discover a new object of the good life to direct the individual and collective purposes of our wills. One answer to the dilemma might be found in the reversion to "tradition and religion", but you reject the putative necessity of this answer because it feels uncomfortable, unconvincing and unsatisfactory due to Neitzsche's sociological proclamation that "Gott ist Tott" (Die fröhliche Wissenschaft). Another answer to the dilemma is that, if a retreat to religion is unnecessary and unsatisfactory, then perhaps, in opposition to the quantitativeness of consumer culture, the unquantifiable interior aesthetic quality of experience may serve to direct the purpose of our lives. However, in what I take to be the central insight of the essay, you accuse this aesthetic of experience to be merely a qualitative form of the old consumer culture, in which interior aesthetic experiences have become objectified, socially evaluated, and thereby commodified, just as thoroughly as the physical commodities that altogether constituted the American Dream™ had been.

In opposition to universal public consumer culture, people seek experiences which are special, private, and individual, yet as this individual activity becomes a collective activity, all that is private and individual become public and universal once again, divesting the experience of all of its speciality, and thereby reducing it to the very generic commodity in opposition to which it had been sought to begin with. This is how the search for the individual aesthetic of 'experience' comes to practically contradict itself, for what is searched for becomes what is not searched for in the very activity of searching for it. Following Immanuel Kant's description of the antinomies of aesthetic judgment in the Critique of Practical Reason, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel described this aesthetic dialectic in the The Phenomenology of Spirit when he wrote:

(PhG §488) The spirit of this world is spiritual essence permeated by a self-consciousness which knows itself to be directly present as a self-existent particular, and knows that essence as an objective actuality over against itself. But the existence of this world, as also the actuality of self-consciousness, depends on the process that self-consciousness divests itself of its personality, by so doing creates its world, and treats it as something alien and external, of which it must now take possession. But the renunciation of its self-existence is itself the production of the actuality, and in doing so, therefore, self-consciousness ipso facto makes itself master of this world. To put the matter otherwise, self-consciousness is only something definite, it only has real existence, so far as it alienates itself from itself. By doing so, it puts itself in the position of something universal, and this its universality is its validity, establishes it, and is its actuality...

(PhG §489) This individuality moulds itself by culture to what it inherently is, and only by so doing is it then something per se and possessed of concrete existence. The extent of its culture is the measure of its reality and its power... But purpose and content of the self belong to the universal substance alone, and can only be something universal. The specific particularity of a given nature, which becomes purpose and content, is something powerless and unreal: it is a “kind of being” which exerts itself foolishly and in vain to attain embodiment: it is the contradiction of giving reality to the bare particular, while reality is, ipso facto, something universal. If, therefore, individuality is falsely held to consist in particularity of nature and character, then the real world contains no individualities and characters; individuals are all alike for one another; the pretence (vermeint) of individuality in that case is precisely the mere presumptive (gemeint) existence which has no permanent place in this world where only renunciation of self and, therefore, only universality get actual reality.

(PhG §490) The process in which an individuality cultivates itself is, therefore, ipso facto, the development of individuality qua universal objective being; that is to say, it is the development of the actual world. What seems here to be the individual's power and force, bringing the substance under it, and thereby doing away with that substance is the same thing as the actualization of the substance. For the power of the individual consists in conforming itself to that substance, i.e. in emptying itself of its own self, and thus establishing itself as the objectively existing substance. Its culture and its own reality are, therefore, the process of making the substance itself actual and concrete. - Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the Phenomenology of Spirit, C: Free Concrete Mind: (BB) Spirit, B. The Spirit in Self-EstrangementI. a. Culture & its Realm of Actual Reality (

For those who seek the spiritual aesthetic - the Hipster Hegelians - the "self-existent particular" self-consciousness stands opposed to the spiritual essence of the world, as an "objective actuality over against itself", which, however depends upon the very particularizing activity of self-consciousness, through which individuals create their own worlds of aesthetic experience. Yet, ironically through the very activity of alienating itself from the legal world of consumer culture and particularly creating its own aesthetic experience, the self-existent particular or individual self-consciousness re-establishes the same universal essence of the objective world from which it had initially been estranged and opposed. The practical contradiction of the aesthetic dialectic is thereby exposed as individual experience seeking to become precisely what it opposes, namely the universal essence of the objective world. The moment in which the goal of aesthetic experience is fulfilled is also the moment in which it becomes self-contradictory and absurd. The absurdity of the aesthetic dialectic produces a new dilemma: it may either be endlessly reiterated, as in hipster culture, or reduced in thought to a vicious cycle that ought to be overcome in and through a new idea of a practically realizable spiritual goal.

Having presented an analysis, please entertain an objections.  In answer the unreflective commoditization of aesthetic experience, you challenge aesthetes to provide a 'justification' or sufficient reason for "why experience should have value in the first place."  As you keenly described, "[t]he very question of justification strikes a lot of people as odd" because the requirement of a justification or reason is not explicitly constitutive of the search for aesthetic experience, which moves between and towards private individual intuitions rather than public universal concepts or reasons.  More emphatically, the opposition of aesthete to the objectified essence or reason of the world is also an opposition to the discursive activity of reason-giving and this very requirement for justification. The meaningful goodness of both an aesthetic judgment and the whole spiritual goal of aesthetic experientialism is assumed by the aesthete to be constitutive of the judgment and the goal itself, so that "[i]t just is valuable", as an intrinsic good, rather than some reason that comes from without, from the extrinsically opposed essence of the reasonable world.

However, in assuming the Socratic position that demands justification, you judge all assertions of intrinsic meaningfulness and goodness to be "lackluster" and no justification at all.  What is worse, the aesthetic experientialism seems to be no better than the unsatisfying retreat to "tradition and religion", in which the norms and mystical aesthetics, are unquestionably assumed to be inherited as "self-evident—happiness or contentment—or dogmatic" full of grace, goodness and truth. No justification can be given, and the result is either dogmatism or relativism which equally abandons any responsibility for reasonable justification of the purpose of our lives. In response, you Socratically challenge your readers to "explain and justify" the purpose of their lives for "an unexamined life is not worth living."

The central objection that I wish to raise is that the Socratic challenge to justify the purpose of a meaningful life is neither constitutive of nor entailed by the aesthetic dialectic of the consumer culture of experiences that you have described, but is, to the contrary, either discursively prior, in a Platonic response to the Sophistic challenge of Callicles, or posterior in a Kierkegaardian choice to live an ethical life. In the Gorgias, Callicles challenged Socrates to give a justification for why it was better to pursue a just and virtuous life. The Challenge of Callicles is reiterated in the Challenge of Thrasymachus in Book One of the Republic, so that the whole theological-political enterprise of Platonic philosophy can be understood as an attempt to proffer a justification for the intrinsic goodness and rightness of a life of virtue and justice.  The answer given in Plato's Middle Dialogues, namely the Phaedo, Republic, and Symposium, is that the justification of a life of virtue for its own sake lies in the self-exemplification of the Ideas of Goodness and Justice themselves: we are obligated to conform our lives to what is good, right and just simply because it is through the very practice of a virtuous life we incrementally instantiate the Idea of Goodness.  The purpose of life is then to exemplify the Idea of the Good, which justifies itself as it exemplifies all goodness in and of itself. Middle and Late (Neo) Platonists identified, at the behest of some suggestive remarks by Plato, the Idea of the Good with the One God of Zeus, and later with the God Jahweh of Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Friedrich Nietzsche then accused this Socratic requirement for the justification our lives' practices and purposes with summoning the spirit of God into the Greco-Roman world. With Nietzsche and Heidegger, contemporary aesthetes reject the Socratic requirement of justification as a retreat to the "tradition and religion" of Christendom, in which ultimate justification (meant in both its normative and soteriological senses) was to be found in the transcendent norms of Platonic Ideas, the One God, and the atonement of Jesus Christ. Hence, it can make no sense to the discursive self-understanding of modernist aesthetes to simultaneously reject the discursively prior traditional Socratic-Platonic-Christian metaphysics and also demand what amounts to a metaphysical justification for life that transcends the immanent immediacy of private aesthetic experience.  

The aesthetic dialectic develops, as Hegel described of his own time in the Romantic Era, from an opposition to the legal regime private property, commodity exchange, and the concomitant consumer culture. Ancient Roman Epicureanism may be observed to be the first instance of this phenomenon that developed in response to Ancient Roman legal personhood and agrarian-capitalism. The search for private individual experiences is, then, only possible as an individual self-particularization from the objectified essence of the world of commodity consumerism. Yet, Hegel showed that all attempts of individual self-particularization merely re-establish the same objectified universality from which they had initially estranged themselves, so that the entire aesthetic dialectic becomes practically self-contradictory and absurd.  For Hegel, the aesthetic dialectic of romantic self-particularisation, that is Hipster Hegelianism, results in a further opposition of faith and reason which culminates in the Enlightenment, Utiliatarianism and the Terror of the French Revolution. The resolution of the antithetical opposition of the individual self-consciousness and the objectified rational essence of the world is, then, sought in the ethical life of Kantian deontology, conscience, and ultimately in the Romantic vision of beautiful mutual recognition and forgiveness that is uniquely justified by the religion of Christianity. The great existential choice is then, in our time just as it was for Hegel and his successors, to decide how, posterior to the aesthetic dialectic, to resolve and subsume this paradox into a new practice and purpose. Kierkegaard similarly answered, in Either-Or, that since the lifestyle of the aesthete was "emptily self-serving and escapist" and deceptively fails to "acknowledge one's social debt and communal existence", it must be annulled and preserved within the ethical and religious life, which fulfill the Socratic demand for a reason-giving justification of our lives' practices and purposes:

[W]ith Kierkegaard's pseudo-dialectic: the aesthetic and the ethical are both annulled and preserved in their synthesis in the religious stage. As far as the aesthetic stage of existence is concerned what is preserved in the higher religious stage is the sense of infinite possibility made available through the imagination. But this no longer excludes what is actual. Nor is it employed for egotistic ends. Aesthetic irony is transformed into religious humor, and the aesthetic transfiguration of the actual world into the ideal is transformed into the religious transubstantiation of the finite world into an actual reconciliation with the infinite. - William McDonald, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Article on Kierkegaard: Aesthetics (

For Hegel and Kierkegaard, the answer posterior to the discursive aesthetic dialectic; that in our time has resulted from the Nietzschean-Heideggarian rejection of philosophical science, speculative metaphysics, and the sociological 'death of God'; is a progress rather than a retreat to the metaphysical justification of normative practices and teleological purposes that is exemplified in the Platonic Idea of the Good, which is, as Nietzsche described, simply the traditional Absolute Idea of God for religious consciousness. The Socratic answer to the sophistic Challenge of Callicles and Thrasymachus was, prior to the discursive aesthetic dialectic, the Platonic Idea of the Good, just as the Hegelian answer, posterior to the discursive aesthetic dialectic, is the Absolute Idea of God, and the dialectically progressive 'retreat', or better resourcement, of the theological-philosophical tradition of Christianity.

1 comment:

David Florez said...

I agree that certain people could see all of this coming already. Civilization, will it truly go to another level or will corruption become totally usurping this time around?

I normally talk about those things in my blog:

Hope to hear from you there.