Dialectic Thinking and the Study of Contradictory Abstractions

Hegelian Synthesis by Maria L. Berg 2023

Last week, while thinking about the first of my new calls to action “To find the truth in deceit and the deceit in truth; either deceive the truth, or unveil the deceit” (I now think reveal works better than unveil), the idea of deceiving truth, along with the blues songs I’ve been studying, got me thinking about cheaters and love triangles. I started thinking of imagery that represents a union of two wholes which made me think of the yin yang (itself a joining of opposites), and then an invisible triangle, the secret third party: the opposite of truth and the bringer of conflict.

Modernist Dialectic Thought

As I’ve mentioned I’m taking a course I found on coursera.org through Wesleyan University taught by Michael Roth called “The Modern and the Postmodern (Part 1)”. Last week, in the section called “From Enlightenment to Revolution,” we were assigned a bunch of Karl Marx to read, but for me the most interesting part of the week was the lectures on Karl Marx’s teacher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Though Wikipedia disagrees with itself whether Hegel actually used the terminology of Hegelian dialectic thought, I’m going to go ahead and talk about what excited me and how it inspired me this week.

Here’s how I understand Hegelian dialectics: every thought or idea (thesis) gives rise to its opposite (antithesis) and through conflict comes to synthesis. The whole process he called negation.

[Wikipedia says “For Hegel, the concrete, the synthesis, the absolute, must always pass through the phase of the negative, in the journey to completion, that is, mediation.” Seems similar enough to me.]

For Hegel this concept of an idea and its opposite coming to synthesis isn’t a fun thought experiment or art project (like me), it is his explanation of how the world works, and how the present reality interacts with history.

How does Hegelian philosophy change anything I’m doing? It brought up the idea that the image I’m searching for is the Synthesis, the end result of Negation. And when I find that, do I get to make up a new term: a word that means both truth and deceit for instance, and what would my process be for finding that term, making up that word, making a new term that means both and neither? That should be fun, and make for good image titles.

Does it really change how I think about my study of contradictory abstract nouns? A little. As I take my photographs, I may be seeing how the world works, actually documenting a more real reality than if I were taking photos of the mountain, lake, birds, and kitty. I’m getting close to photographing truth and reason, or at least seeing a path to documenting images of truth and reason.

How might this affect my process? If I am finding the truth in deceit and the deceit in truth, I come up with a shape or symbol that I think can embody both somehow. I can create it and it’s opposite (not exactly opposite, but the form upside down and backwards) at the same time. I can even make those two shapes or symbols interact, but is that an image of synthesis? Has my image gone through negation? How would I study that?

There is no simple symbol of truth and deceit, however, I was playing with the idea of two joined shapes=the yin yang and the secret triangle for the deceit. So if I take that symbol and its opposite (upside-down and backwards) will it make a synthesis of truth and deceit?

In the pictures I put in this post, I think the one with the shape upside down and backwards (the antithesis) creates the conflict Hegel talks about, and I think the one without the antithesis (top of post) creates a new form through synthesis. What do you think?

Talk About Synthesis:

The craziest thing happened last night. After free-writing about what I wanted to say about dialectic thinking. I went to bed and opened up Abstract Art: A Global History by Pepe Karmel, and right there in the introduction, right after saying “Critics argued that the abstract art made between 1915 and 1970 mattered deeply because its development unfolded according to laws of historical necessity. In contrast, even if individual painters and sculptors chose to go on making abstract art after 1970, their work did not—could not—belong to a meaningful historical narrative.” he says:

“The modernist theory of abstraction, with its reductive narrative explaining both the birth of abstraction and its ineluctable death, derived from Hegel, who tried to uncover an inner logic to history, replacing a chronicle of random events with a coherent narrative of significant actions. . . . modernists thought that, since abstraction had arrived at its essence, there was nothing meaningful left for modern artists to do. Painters might not have hung up their brushes, but ‘post-historical abstract painting’ was condemned to insignificance.”

So is Pepe saying that the process of Negation: thesis-antithesis-synthesis leads to the end of abstract painting? Or that “modernists” thought that? I don’t think that’s a reasonable conclusion. As I see it, the synthesis, that residual after the conflict lives on, or as the circles within circles of history, the process repeats and repeats.

What I’m finding inspirational for creating abstract art, Pepe Karmel sees as the end of abstract art. Though we obviously are in thesis and antithesis with no synthesis in sight, it’s still fun to see the connection.

Negation by Maria L. Berg 2023

Next Steps

I’m going to continue to dive into the philosophy of dialectic thought while I move to my second call to action “To find the ugliness in beauty and the beauty in ugliness; uglify the beautiful, or beautify the ugly.”

Another statement that came up in The Modern and the Postmodern class, “beauty hides the truth” is in stark contrast to Keat’s statement in Ode on a Grecian Urn “Beauty is truth, truth beauty . . .” so there’s a lot to explore there.

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