“A Conqueror’s Freedom”: A Hegelian Interpretation of Kanye West’s Breakdown

Something about Kanye West’s latest breakdown (or “breakthrough” as he puts it ) made me think of Hegel. In Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit, forms of consciousness attempt to make themselves Absolute, to give themselves a basis for knowing and acting that isn’t relative to some other being, to win freedom. The book, in a very abstract and hazy way, tracks the course of history: from primeval struggles for domination to Greek tragedies to witty conversations of 18th century salons to the guillotines of French Revolution to Romantic artists losing themselves in ironic detachment and moral narcissism. In each stage, human consciousness’s attempt to ground and understand itself breaks down because of an internal contradiction, which in turns leads to the next stage.

Two things reminded of the Phenomenology in this episode: First, Kanye’s flailing attempts to think himself outside of his context and his age, to “think freely,” as he put it; it’s always consciousness’s fundamental conception of itself that is at stake, and those conceptions are gradually revealed to be self-contradictory. Second, the fact that Kanye’s driving motives seem to revolve the issue of recognition, which is what self-conscious beings desire most in Hegel; the struggle for recognition is the motor force of human history. Kanye harbored wounds about recognition refused to him by authorities like the fashion industry and Barack Obama.

I couldn’t quite pin down which shape of consciousness Kanye was the closest to: was he more like the Stoic of the late Roman empire, who tries to escape from the harsh reality of a declining world by retreating into the (spurious) freedom of pure thought. (During his interview with Charlamagne, he said something like human beings would become an “ultralight” beam of pure thought in the future, hinting at a realization of freedom from the constraints of the material world.) Or was Kanye, more like the Romantic artist, who wants to be recognized by his peers as a genius, following only the dictates of his own god-like creative whims, hovering ironically above the norms of his era. Was it, in fact, all a big performance to show that he was superior to the media maelstrom, superior in fact to his own image, because he didn’t care what happened to himself? But of course that contains a contradiction, too: in his TMZ interview, when he asks the staff there, “Do you feel that I’m thinking free, and I’m being free?” He constantly reveals that he still desperately needs recognition as a genius, as free subjectivity. He is not independent of the world after all.

I couldn’t quite figure it out and come up with a coherent picture until Ta-Nehisi Coates’s piece came out in the Atlantic that highlighted the importance of race. I read this section and it started to come into clearer focus:

West calls his struggle the right to be a “free thinker,” and he is, indeed, championing a kind of freedom — a white freedom, freedom without consequence, freedom without criticism, freedom to be proud and ignorant; freedom to profit off a people in one moment and abandon them in the next; a Stand Your Ground freedom, freedom without responsibility, without hard memory; a Monticello without slavery, a Confederate freedom, the freedom of John C. Calhoun, not the freedom of Harriet Tubman, which calls you to risk your own; not the freedom of Nat Turner, which calls you to give even more, but a conqueror’s freedom, freedom of the strong built on antipathy or indifference to the weak, the freedom of rape buttons, pussy grabbers, and fuck you anyway, bitch; freedom of oil and invisible wars, the freedom of suburbs drawn with red lines, the white freedom of Calabasas.

A conqueror’s freedom, of course! Some (white) people were offended by the concept of “white freedom” in this passage, but it’s not really about race as a biological category, some essence, but as a social status and a certain historical experience.

The earliest stage of self-consciousness in the Phenomenology and the basis and background for all the subsequent human struggles for recognition is the struggle between Lord and Bondsmen, or Master and Slave as it’s sometimes translated. In that section, self-conscious subjectivity wants to realize itself as a free being, determining its own wishes and desires, he becomes sure of himself, but we always need others to confirm our self-conceptions. To quote form Terry Pinkard’s commentary,

The agent takes himself to be an independent agent only in taking himself to be recognized by another as independent. In being recognized as independent, his self-understanding (his being-for-self) is affirmed for him as being true, as being in line with what he really is (his being in-itself).

In what looks like a very abstract outline of human history, like a cartoon or an underpainting, a self-conscious being encounters another self-conscious being, and they fight over whose desire is truly paramount and free. One self-consciousness subjugates the other, who now has to serve the subjective desires of the “Lord.” So the self-satisfied lord feels confirmed in his self-conception as a free being, but this self-satisfaction is ultimately unstable and contradictory: of course, it still relies on the other who he has subjugated. As a result, the self-consciousness of the “Lord” is kind of shallow: he’s just a negativity, consuming the labor of the other, and demanding things, he has “freedom without responsibility.” The Lord thinks he’s free and self-determining, but his status depends on the lower status of the Bondsman. (Eventually, Hegel thinks this shape of consciousness breaks down and gives rise to a new shape of consciousness, the “free thought” of Stoicism, where the mind is able to partially deny the reality of the world to establish its own freedom and both Lord and Bondsman find a common ground in philosophical reflection. This is also unstable and breaks down, etc. etc.)

So what I took TNC to be saying was that Kanye’s effort to establish himself as a free consciousness, is that he doesn’t acknowledge the fact that in our unequal society that sort of “freedom,” to be have no responsibility to others, to consume and dominate at will, to change one’s identity at whim, is of course built on a structure of domination. It is actually the denial of the freedom of others, and as such, is a sort of pseudo-freedom, because in denying others it again proves its dependence. Against it, TNC contrasts this with the more complete notion of freedom, “which calls you to risk your own,” which involves recognizing that the other’s freedom is your freedom.

That’s my sketch of a Hegelian interpretation of Kanye and TNC’s article. Ultimately each stage of consciousness contains and integrates the previous ones, so if what Kanye is experiencing is really a reflection of the spirit of the age, there are probably all the previous stages of human consciousness to be excavated in it.