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Философия и гуманитарные науки

Hegel’s Enlightenment and the Dialectics of the Vulva

syg.ma team 🔥

Jean-Honoré Fragonard “The Swing”, 1767

Jean-Honoré Fragonard “The Swing”, 1767

This essay is based not on academic research but on the sum of personal, collective, political, and philosophical experiences that in some way relate to the reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, developed during the seminar that I have held in St Petersburg for several years. From a young age, reading Alexander Kojève, I dreamed of being a lecturer on Hegel, and I used the first opportunity I had to to fulfil this ambition. My seminar begun in 2015 as part of a university program for which I read authoritative commentaries and prepared introductory lectures, although I was never trained enough for such instruction: my command of German was close to zero, and my competence in German idealism rather basic. The seminar gradually became less and less academic, until it eventually detached from the university and acquired an autonomous existence. As a kind of amateur salon, students, artists, poets, and other members of the public gathered, and with the meetings’ regularity and exclusive social atmosphere, it also became an informal circle of friends.

The seminar was held in a private apartment used as a small home gallery and cultural space by its owner, Marina Maraeva, and her now late Labrador, Guidon. The site’s name — Labradory ‘Intimnoe mesto’ — translates as a play on words from the Russian as both ‘intimate place’ and ‘private parts.’ From the very beginning, then, we felt a strong feminist impulse from such an infrastructure. The Hegel seminar developed into something between an intellectual salon and an underground reading group, similar to those historical workers’ study circles Lenin and his comrades had been involved in, in our city, before the Russian Revolution over a century ago. While the Revolutionary workers were reading Marx and Engels, we returned to Hegel, reading Phenomenology very slowly, line by line, trying to understand every sentence independently of the already-existing scholarly interpretations. What we worked out, then, was a ‘naïve’ reading, mediated not by a teacher’s authority or that of a university discourse, but solely by the force of collective discussion, which at times could run absolutely wild. We applied Hegel’s chapters to our everyday practices and explained it to each other using examples that are comprehensible to anyone in our cultural environs.

Enlightenment addresses every consciousness in a kind of straightforward manner: ‘Listen, just discard prejudices and think for yourself!’

The main characters in Phenomenology, that is, the various form of consciousness, were put before new historical challenges. Leaving aside the history of philosophy and taking the risk of being incorrect or even totally wrong in our spontaneous interpretations, we discovered that Hegel’s Phenomenology provides terms and tools for a real critical analysis of the present in its various aspects and different levels, from private to social and political lives. ‘What would Hegel say to that?’ was our banner for the 1 May demonstration in 2017, when a group of Hegelians marched against political repressions and social inequalities. What would Hegel say to the Russian president Putin and his repressive police apparatuses? What would Hegel say to Tinder and Instagram? To the Me Too and BLM movements? To COVID-19 and the restrictions introduced by the governments of nation-states? To artificial intelligence and smart technologies? To climate change? Such contextual shifts indeed betray Hegel’s letter, but at the same time remain faithful to it, passing its crucial elements through the filters of contemporaneity.

Reality itself and the current news feed thus began to provide us with case studies that amazingly seemed to correspond to the passages from Phenomenology that we were reading, as if the same characters were being played by new actors. In fact, this both was and was not a coincidence: in accordance with the spirit of Hegel’s book, there is a dialectics between consciousness and reality, for which every coincidence is a case study. What Hegel teaches us is a method: whenever you apply it, the object finds its concept, and vice versa. Thus, just as the WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic in March 2020, we reached the sixth chapter of Phenomenology, ‘Spirit,’ its central section on the Enlightenment, and paragraph 545 on infection.

Labradory ‘Intimnoe mesto’

Labradory ‘Intimnoe mesto’

Remarkably, at the same time and half the world away, Rebecca Comay was reading the same chapter with her students. In her wonderful lecture, ‘Enlightenment as Infection,’ Comay reminds us about this chapter’s historical context, namely the French Revolution and its cultural conditions, and she makes three very important arguments: First, that the infection motif persists in the Phenomenology, first emerging in the fourth chapter on master-slave dialectics, where self-consciousness is produced through self-alteration and mediated by the fear of death. Second, that every level of consciousness is a pair of opposites, with the truth of every self found in its opposite, in the other to itself, such as mastery and slavery, honesty and deception, nobility and baseness, or Enlightenment and superstition. Third, that every ‘I’ is always already ‘we’, such is the viral nature of language — communication itself is contagion. [1]

The referred passage stages a historical drama that Hegel defines as the struggle between Enlightenment and superstition. This is an ideological battle in which the old system of cultural values — first of all, religious belief, which corresponds to the estate structure of social hierarchies — is replaced by the new one, known as the Enlightenment. The spirit of Enlightenment is described here as an infection that literally spreads in the air and contaminates it with what Hegel calls ‘pure insight.’ It begins with education and the distribution, popularization, and democratization of knowledge. The open secret of this drama — which is also the open secret of Enlightenment’s final triumph over religion, resulting in the French Revolution — is that faith and pure insight ‘are essentially the same,’ they belong to the same element, namely ‘pure thinking,’ or the world of ideas. The difference between them is that the faith is positive, in a logical sense, providing a certain imagery of an absolute essence, or God, whereas pure insight, through which the Enlightenment virus is spread all around, is negativity: it does not have its own objects, so to speak, but parasitizes the images of faith, which it negates. Such negation is possible, however, precisely because pure insight is inherently allied to faith. Due to this alliance, faith is already receptive to pure insight and, intruded by its elements, cannot develop proper immunity against them:

‘For that reason, the communication of pure insight is comparable to a peaceful diffusion of something like a scent in a compliant atmosphere. It is a pervading infection and is not noticeable beforehand as being opposed to the indifferent element into which it insinuates itself; it thus cannot be warded off. It is only when the infection has become widespread that it is for consciousness, which had carefreely yielded itself to it, for what this consciousness received into itself was precisely the simple essence, which was equal to itself and to consciousness but which was at the same time the simplicity of negativity taking a reflective turn into itself.’ [2]

Put simply, Enlightenment addresses every consciousness in a straightforward manner: ‘Listen, just discard prejudices and think for yourself!’ Indeed, this strategy does not work directly but it ultimately wins, insofar as every consciousness is capable of thinking for itself, and in this sense is already inherently infected and ready to give itself to pure insight with a minimal resistance:

‘As soon as pure insight thus is for consciousness, this insight has already made itself widespread, and the struggle against it betrays the fact that the infection has already taken hold. The struggle is too late, and all the remedies taken only make the disease worse, for the disease has seized the very marrow of spiritual life, namely, consciousness in its concept, or its pure essence itself. For that reason, there is no force within it that could prevail over the disease.’ [3]

The paragraph ends with a famous scene of the old idol’s bloodless replacement with a new one. Hegel quotes Diderot Rameau’s Nephew and complements his metaphor with a telling image of a serpent that renews its skin:

‘Rather, now that it is an invisible and undetected spirit, it winds its way all through the nobler parts, and it has soon taken complete hold over all the fibers and members of the unaware idol. At that point, “some fine morning it gives its comrade a shove with the elbow, and, thump! kadump! the idol is lying on the floor” — on some fine morning, where the noontime is bloodless and when the infection has permeated every organ of spiritual life. Only then does memory alone still preserve the dead mode of spirit’s previous shape as a vanished history (although exactly how it does this nobody knows), and the new serpent of wisdom, which is elevated for adoration, has in this way painlessly only shed its withered skin.’ [4]

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I reveals secret snake: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/arts_and_culture/8550119.stm

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I reveals secret snake: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/arts_and_culture/8550119.stm

The figure of the serpent perfectly illustrates the crucial element of Hegel’s dialectics, namely, Aufhebung, usually translated in English as sublation. The Russian language offers an interesting word for it — snjatie — which derives from the verb snjat’, which means not only ‘to abolish’, ‘to suspend’, ‘to withdraw’, to ‘relieve’, or ‘to transcend’, etc., but also, in everyday language, ‘to take off’ (a dress) or ‘to shoot’ (a film). In my perspective, Hegel’s Aufhebung keeps something of all these meanings. Say a camera focuses on the object of faith — which is the absolute essence, or God — and shoots. ‘Cut!’ — says the director. In Russian, this would be ‘Snjato!’, which a Hegelian philosopher unaware of the context could mistakenly translate as ‘Sublated!’ And she would not be totally wrong about it, for what is a film shot if not a determinate negation of a certain positive essence that it cancels while simultaneously preserves as sublated? There is no real flower in the film shot, but there is an image of it, produced by the camera’s negativity. There is no God in the film of Enlightenment, but there is a notion of God: just think about Voltaire’s ‘Si Dieu n“existait pas, il faudrait l”inventer’ (‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him’) [5]. Another nonobvious meaning is taking off: I take off my raincoat, my blouse, my skirt, and my bra; these gestures are indeed determinate negations that expose the new naked body of the serpent of wisdom.

An important aspect of this process already emphasized above is the affinity between negation and what it negates, or, in paragraph 545, between the infection and what it infects. There is no identity without alterity: the infection seems to come from the outside, but it does so only insofar as it is always already inside; a self’s inner truth is the other to itself, and consciousness is this split between the other and the self. Therefore, the disease is not an accident that could be easily avoided, but a necessity, both historical and logical. There is no development without it. Yes, as any infection, Enlightenment seems to come from the outside, from some external bearers, like the Encyclopedia edited by Diderot and d’Alembert and published in France between 1751 and 1772, which aimed to change the ways of thinking, the general worldview. But the element of thinking is shared by faith and pure insight, and the serpent of the latter already sleeps within the former as it turns retroactively and discards the old dress of superstition.

Historical necessity is such that the Enlightenment does the Revolution’s groundwork, which will do away with absolutism. With the Revolution, which in Hegel appears as the form of consciousness called ‘Absolute Freedom,’ comes terror — but this is another story. I will instead smuggle this discussion on superstition, Enlightenment, and infection from one historical context to another: let it be a Hegelian contraband.

Such contextual shifts indeed betray Hegel’s letter, but at the same time remain faithful to it, making its crucial elements pass through the filters of contemporaneity

My country, Russia, has the historical experience of the Great October Socialist Revolution of 1917, which, as already mentioned, was preceded by educational activities such as underground workers’ Marxist reading groups, among many other activities. Educational work was extremely important to the revolutionary struggle before it became a real armed struggle: people had to learn about the connection between the pure conditions of their lives, social inequality, and the state of monarchy, which rested upon the institutions of the police and clergy taking control of the suppressed population. As with the French Revolution, which it took as its model, the Russian Revolution was followed by terror, and then there was some 70 years of an attempt to build a socialist state. After its failure and the collapse of the Soviet Union, we nearly regressed to the previous state of absolutism, which, just like a century ago, relies on the police and the priesthood; the only difference now being that instead of hereditary monarchy we have a formal presidency. Formal, because the mechanism of power transfer is broken: one and the same president and his people have already retained state power for more than twenty years, and they intend to keep it further.

To afford the acting head of state Vladimir Putin with a lifelong presidency, for the last ten years legal changes have been constantly implemented, with the entire system of social regulation transforming literally every day. Thus, in summer 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, the authorities initiated the process of rewriting the constitution. To modify the supreme law, they held a national referendum for which even the quarantine restrictions were suspended in spite of the growing number of cases. This election was indeed a sham, with the results fixed well in advance. Many citizens nevertheless risked their health and safety, put on their face masks and gloves, and went to their voting stations just to state their opposition to the actual law being rewritten in the interests of those who otherwise simply violate it.

On the referendum’s final day of voting, on July 1, Putin, too, came to vote for himself. He did not wear a protective mask. When journalists asked his spokesman to comment on this, he replied that Putin fully trusted the voting facilities’ sanitation. This was to say that the president did not wear a mask because he was not afraid of getting infected. The reverse scenario— that he himself could infect someone—was out of the question. The voting facilities were considered good enough to protect the president from the people, an anonymous infectious crowd in masks.

Shortly before the referendum an emblematic episode took place: a number of activists organized an demonstration in support of a political prisoner, the young artist Yulia Tsvetkova from Komsomolsk-on-Amur in the Russian Far East. This was one of the series of show trials based on a fabricated criminal case: Yulia was accused of peddling pornography. What was labeled as pornography was in fact her educational, body-positive drawings, including allegorical images of female sexual organs. Over thirty people, mostly women, were arrested for supporting Yulia and charged according to the protocol with violating sanitary norms and disrupting the quarantine restrictions. This case shows what the police really considered sanitary norms. It was not the spreading of COVID that they were trying to prevent. The infection for them was the people, the protesters, their slogans, the drawings, and especially a flower-like, multicolored image in which someone discerned a vulva.

‘What’s a vulva?’, a police officer asked another Russian artist, activist, and feminist Darya Apahonchich* in January 2021, during a very brutal house raid. The police surprised Darya at her apartment, spent seven hours there and in front of scared children turned the home upside down, withdrew all devices and other items, found posters protesting Yulia Tsvetkova’s case, and asked this question. Referring to Article 51 of the Russian Constitution, expressing the right not to incriminate herself, Darya refused to reply to the police officer’s question and explain what a vulva was. However, three months after the raid, she recorded a video in which she explains what a vulva is to an imagined policeman, in the form of a fairy tale, using some comic figures cut out of paper. The video was published online with the note:


Darya has had to publish this comment alongside all her public statements, posts on social networks, remarks and comments since December 2020 when she was declared a foreign agent. In Russia, this status is usually applied to NGOs, cultural institutions, and media that receive funds from abroad. Symbolically, a foreign agent is supposed to be the one who functions in the interests of foreign countries, meaning, against the interests of the Russian state. It is a stigma, comparable to what, in Stalin’s time, was called ‘the enemy of the people.’ Foreign agent status imposes multiple legal and bureaucratic procedures that enormously complicate work and life in Russia, with the basic aim of making it unbearable. Darya was one of the five people to receive this status not as an institution, but as an individual. Apparently, the reason for this repression was her engagement with feminist ideas.

Darya Apahonchich, ‘What’s a vulva’, 2021

Darya Apahonchich, ‘What’s a vulva’, 2021

Darya’s fairy tale has a multilayered structure. The first narrative is an alleged dialogue between Darya and the policeman. Without answering him directly about what a vulva is , she tells the story of a dinosaur who complains to a sea cow that all his friends disappear whenever he is going to have dinner with them, and the sea cow advises him to ‘start reading about the world and its problems, about injustices, have a look at theory, and make friends who are also interested in these things,’ as well as to ‘completely abandon meat and eating living creatures.’ [6] The dinosaur follows this advice, but he keeps complaining because what he had learned about the injustices of the world made him sad. The cow tells him another story — ‘of a jellyfish who quarreled with everyone,’ but then had an interesting discussion with another jellyfish, who told another story — of a bee and a caterpillar… The series of narratives returns to the policeman’s question. ‘So, you mean that in all these stories, the characters achieved their goal, thinking that they were doing something different, but they were disappointed because it is better to have a theory than not having one?’, he asks, and Darya replies: ‘Yes, you’ve got it quite right, comrade policeman.’ Finally comes the explanation: ‘The vulva is a sexual organ, and many organisms have one. But feeling shame over the vulva is the starting point of our misogynous culture, while the movement towards respect, towards understanding that the vulva is an organ of a living person who has the right to know about their anatomy is a process. Therefore, the vulva is the path from shame to respect.’ [7] In the end, Darya’s narrative structure resembles a vulva itself.

When Darya published her video online, amendments were suggested to the so-called educational law — a recent legislative initiative that puts multiple restrictions on various educational activities, such as public lectures, seminars, discussions, and other forms of theoretical and cultural interventions. The amendments imply, for instance, that such activities require special permissions from the Ministry of Education, cannot be undertaken by people without a certain educational qualifications, or by foreign agents. One would probably ask me at this point how stories of Russian artists, Putin’s fake votes, protests, vulvas, foreign agents, and educational activities are connected to the theme of Enlightenment in Hegel. The answer is simple: in the Russian language, there is only one word for the historical Enlightenment and various educational activities; they have the same root — ‘light.’ In this sense, Yulia’s drawings of female sexual organs, as well as Darya’s video instruction for the policeman, are the intrusions of Enlightenment that shatter the system of superstition and prejudices, upon which the existing system of social inequalities and suppression is based. The new Russian absolutism thinks that this intrusion is a disease that comes from the outside — from Europe, from America, from leftists and liberals who propagate dangerous values such as feminism or human rights, alien to Russian culture — and tries to undertake prophylactic measures to prevent the infection from spreading. The good news is, however, that the element of pure insight is already inherent in every consciousness, including the policeman’s, and the logical necessity with which it will spread and eventually win the day is just a matter of time. This is how Hegel’s theory can be used in practice, without going deep into theoretical debate, in foretelling the future: another Revolution in Russia is to follow.


[1] Comay R., Lecture #2, Enlightenment as Infection, 24.03.2020, URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DgbIgfUYAxk&t=71s

[2] Hegel G.W,F., Phenomenology of Spirit, tr. Terry Pinkard, p. 3

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. 317.

[5] Voltaire, The Three Impostors, https://www.whitman.edu/VSA/trois.imposteurs.html

[6] Darya Apahonchich, ‘What’s a vulva’, https://therussianreader.com/2021/04/27/darya-apahonchich-whats-a-vulva/?fbclid=IwAR0TBONg9Ed3fex6cPHMOKjXGFvEphdBPoG1oaWLoChjvgrJoKl1q4lEvT4

[7] Ibid.


Oxana Timofeeva is a Professor at the European University at St. Petersburg and a member of the artistic collective Chto Delat.

This text will be published in the journal Praktyka Teoretyczna, issue number 1/2022 ‘The Return of Hegel. History, Dialectics and the Weak.

*По решению Минюста РФ, Дарья Апахончич включена в реестр физических лиц, выполняющих функции иностранного агента (7-ФЗ «О некоммерческих организациях»).

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syg.ma team
syg.ma team