History and Shape-shifting Across Time: Rethinking a Tutorial

 

What is history? Nobody gave a deeper answer than Hegel – Terry Pinkard | Aeon Essays

History, or at least the study of it, is in bad shape these days. Almost everyone agrees that knowing history is important, but in the United States, except at the most elite schools, the study of history is in freefall.

 

A very interesting take on the human condition. It touches on some of the things I spoke about with Jonathan in our tutorial.1

Pinkard opens with explaining how history is a process by which, ‘humanity experimentally seek[s] to understand itself in the myriad of ways in which it gives shape to itself in daily life, and also how historical change is intimately linked to changes in our basic self-understanding.’ As he puts it, shape-shifting ourselves across time. 

This is at the core of what I do across Big History. Seeing how we are indissolubly part of our origins and yet try to shake off the past, blindly, without realising that it (the past) clings onto us, embedded in our very flesh. 

In ‘What is the Difference’, the creatures shift shape as they rise the Babel-like tower, crude to refined, latent to defined, yet they bear a deep relationship woven into the fabric of life. 

Hegel’s first fundamental idea for his philosophical history, self-consciousness, corresponds to the microcosm of the act of reflection in action and the meditative holistic sense in making. His second idea corresponds with the notion of context and placement in a social space in which the first person viewpoint implies a dialectic. Further down the line, the I is separated from the individual ‘flesh-and-blood’ agent as it becomes the we in the accumulation of acts. This in itself reminds me of Buber’s philosophy of relations in ‘I and Thou’.

Hegel’s third idea refers to how circumstance largely dictates how things can go better or worse for an individual. We are all the offspring of history and constrained by the socio-familial-political and cultural environment. Although we are constrained by these factors, we also possess a greater or lesser amount of self determination, the ‘I’, that can set the way amongst the ‘we’.

All three ideas are contained within my work and the setting apart of directly human iconography is in some way the setting oneself apart from the ‘we’ whilst being in it. A toing-and-froing of the two forms which converge and diverge as do the Apollonian and Dionysian ways I spoke about in the tutorial. 

I constantly seek to reshape ideas as we do our lives, break with habits and reconcile others; shave off the animal in me whilst embracing it as my history and seeing how I cannot be without that part. 

The instability of things inherent in Hegel’s view of the world is reflected in the use of brittle, fragile material capable of resisting eons yet its form subject to catastrophic events. Porcelain is, as far as I am concerned, eternal, yet the form it is given is as fragile as the contingencies that surround it allow. 

Pinkard talks about new form of life emerging from the cultural rubble of an unbearable former one. So it is with the works I do, they look into a future as though they themselves are the past, with us absent from the scene yet we are here to witness it. This paradox, at the core of what I do, is the source of much of my difficulty in pinning down an essence. So I have reconciled with the evanescence of certainty, accepting the duality of things including my work.

Pinkard continues to talk about hierarchy and the Ancient Greek world’s moving beyond the freedom of a single person in society. This sense of democracy is implicit in what I am doing, all forms are equal and different without any containing an inherent authority over the others. They are all part of a great whole without which each would lose meaning with the loss of others.

This sense of freedom: does it pass onto me, and if I am free, am I independent? To proclaim oneself truly independent is to self-alienate, a social nothingness that negates an important function of the human self. Freedom does not lie in total independence but in the shape of agency that we assume in the context of one another and circumstance. A series of exchanges that at times result in a negative and at others a positive ‘balance sheet’. But in the end, it is the dialogue, the dialectic, that gives the ultimate fruit of synthesis and progression free from brut force, and art is only part of that but an essential component: in shaping tropes we shape ourselves; therein lies the power and danger of art.

  1. For the actual content see the conversation transcript. []