It may have come as a shock to many of us that the field of relevancy in the Republican primary for President was expanded to include Egyptology, and not substantive policy positions on any number of issues. And yet, on November 4th, 2015 this is exactly what happened: Dr. Ben Carson, then the leader in the Republican primary in both national and Iowa polls, took a stance on why the Egyptian tombs were built and what they were used for, even as he avoided taking positions on issues as diverse as climate change, US foreign policy, and what his tax code would actually look like (beyond being Biblically inspired).
Carson’s position on the Pyramids defies the broad consensus among Egyptologists that they were constructed as religious tombs for the Pharaohs. Rather, Carson believes:
My own personal theory is that Joseph built the Pyramids to store grain. Now all the archeologists think that they were made for the pharaohs’ graves. But, you know, it would have to be something awfully big if you stop and think about it. And I don’t think it’d just disappear over the course of time to store that much grain.”
It would be easy to read these comments as pure non-sense, the utterance of a man professionally trained as a neurologist who has found himself deeply enmeshed in the radically unfamiliar environment of politics, under stress and simply saying what comes to mind without regard for fact. This reading (however factically accurate it may be) is closed off and unproductive: instead of this reductive reading, I want to introduce the possibility of another reading. The Pyramids containing the dead corpses of Pharoahs were a significant aspect of Hegel’s understanding of the history of Western art. In his Lectures on Aesthetics he wrote:
Then above ground there are built in addition those amazing constructions amongst which the Pyramids are to be counted the chief. On the purpose and meaning of the Pyramids all sorts of hypotheses have been tried for centuries, yet it now seems beyond doubt that they are enclosures for the graves of kings or of sacred animals, Apis for example, or cats, the ibis, etc. In this way the Pyramids put before our eyes the simple prototype of symbolical art itself; they are prodigious crystals which conceal in themselves an inner meaning and, as external shapes produced by art, they so envelop that meaning that it is obvious that they are there for this inner meaning separated from pure nature and only in relation to this meaning.”
The Pyramids – and specifically the fact they are tombs containing the dead corpse of the Pharoah – for Hegel represent an important moment in the historical dialectic of Spirit. The “symbolical” stage of art for Hegel is the point at which the Spirit becomes aware of its status as an interior with an exterior: the possibility for the exteriorization of Spirit emerges, and the subject begins to understand that his subjectivity can be received back from the objective world. The Pyramids are an architectural representation of this process. The exterior of the Pyramid is formed as a symbolic representation of what is interior, which is what’s immortal in man, even as the basis for the representation is basically arbitrary. (What does the immortal soul have to do with the shape of a Pyramid?) Thus Spirit as the possible identity between the in-itself and the for-itself is first opened as a possibility, but not yet properly recognized as such – that will only come when Hegel pens The Phenomenology of Spirit. The Pyramids are therefore a finite stage in the universal world-historical dialectic of Spirit: it presents the emergent possibility of true rationality and absolute knowledge, and is located absolutely in relation to that absolute possibility but is not yet the full recognition of the subject in the object and vice versa. Hegel leverages the symbolism of the Pyramid-as-tomb to locate the Pyramid within the historical dialectic and man’s emerging consciousness. The symbol of the Pyramid is a dynamic but historically necessary stage in Western history that leads dialectically to the emergence of absolute knowledge.
For Jacques Derrida, the Hegelian philosophy of history presents Western metaphysics in “their most systematic and powerful form, taken to their limits.” In a typically Derridean move, in his essay “The Pit and the Pyramid: Introduction to Hegel’s Semiology,” Derrida deconstructs the sign and symbol at the center of Hegel’s dialectical understanding of history as radically undermining itself and revealing an economy of the sign immanent to the history of Western metaphysics which necessarily exceeds itself. As sketched above, Derrida reads the sign as the moment within the Hegelian system when Spirit returns to itself through its otherness. The symbolic stage, represented by the Pyramid, where the subject externally indicates something internal is the stage of metaphysics where production and intuition meet, where the ground for absolute knowledge is prepared. But if the Pyramid is the dialectical hinge that produces the possibility of self-identity and Spirit’s self-recognition, it is at the same time a tomb and the site of death. The sign therefore becomes “the monument-of-life-in-death, the monument-of-death-in-life” But this step, to use the sign/Pyramid as the hinge of the dialectic consigns theory to “the death of desire, death in desire, if not the desire of death.”
This Derridean move that reveals Hegel’s Pyramid as a masochistic desire of death while at the same time the movement of that desire itself (precisely not death) demands the conceptualization of an architecture (the creation of a sign) which would oppose the absolute necessity of Hegel’s Pyramid to freedom and indeterminacy. Enter Denis Hollier’s reading of George Bataille’s Labyrinth. Hollier depicts Bataille’s Labyrinth as a space that opposes the strict Hegelian dialectic to an understanding of textuality that deconstructs the Western metaphysical rational subject:
Language makes man into a relationship to, an opening to; it prohibits his withdrawing into utopian self-presence, cuts off his retreat toward closure. It dispossesses him of his origins. Language is the practical negation of solipsism. The impossibility of finding a basis within oneself. ”
Against the Hegelian dialectic, where the architectural representation of man’s unfolding freedom is precisely to be found where man determines himself as such, Spirit’s self-identification, theory as the desire of death, Hollier asserts the Labyrinth and the way it is negotiated as the site of freedom that does not deny, but supplements and is co-originary with, the Hegelian Pyramid. The Pyramid and the Labyrinth are two approaches to man which allows his determined essence to be constituted by what is undetermined:
These two uses of ‘to be’ are in constant rivalry: a systematic and lexical reading that, by analogy, has words participate in the “last word;’ beyond words (a pyramidal reading); and a metonymic reading where it is the interplay of combinations, agreements, and splits that is brought to light (a labyrinthine reading). Although it has always been disturbed and tormented from within; writes Jacques Derrida, ‘the fusion of the grammatical and lexical functions of ‘to be’ has, no doubt, an essential relationship with the history of metaphysics and with all of its coordinates in the West.'”
The Pyramid is therefore the way out of the Labyrinth just as the Labyrinth is the way out of the Pyramid: the Labyrinth as Hegelian irony, Bataille’s accursed share, the particular that refuses sublimation, and the Pyramid as the always already possibility of rationalizing that space and producing an “Icarian” view of the Labyrinth which necessarily collapses back into the radical indeterminacy of the Labyrinth. Hollier can ultimately be read as arguing that the Hegelian absolute system is co-constituted by the particular that refuses sublimation and determination within the logic of history, even as that particular is precisely revealed only by Hegel’s dialectic: in short, origins only through différance.
At this point I want to return to Dr. Carson’s assertion that the Pyramid is precisely not a tomb. Replacing the corpse with grain amounts to asserting that the largest architectural constructions of the Egyptians referred back to the market’s dynamism, rather than man’s death. This displacement of the centrality of death and stillness in favor of a dynamic, circulating, economy that is itself ahistorical amounts to asserting that the market, not the tomb/sign, is the hinge of the Hegelian dialectic. The place at which external and interior realize themselves in mediation is the place of trade and the circulation of commodities. Hegel’s dialectic, rather than a moving system approaching a stillness – history progressing towards its end – is now a still system (there is not such thing as a history that leads to capitalism: as soon as there was history, there was also capitalism) that is fully movement, but movement that must ultimately return to its essential status. There is no art that can exceed the limits of the market: art can only refer back to the market. What Carson has done is taken the Hegelian system and corporatized it.
Putting this Carson-Hegel dynamic into dialogue with Hollier reveals the resulting ideological horrors: now, rather than the indeterminate Labyrinth giving way to determinacy and that determinacy collapsing back into indeterminacy, the indeterminacy is already contained within the logic of the Pyramid, and it is precisely for this reason that nothing like a historical progress is possible. Two notions of progress and freedom have emerged from reading Hegel, Derrida and Hollier on Pyramids: first, the strictly Hegelian understanding as Spirit’s coming to self-consciousness as itself, an identity which results in freedom. Second, a post-structural reading of Hegel where the Hegelian dialectical is counterposed with its radical opposite, creating space within its determined structure for freedom – this represents historical progress insofar as the post-structural realization is predicated upon a moving economy of ideas and arguments, where Hegel’s deconstructive reading is immanent to Hegel himself but only possibly realized through the vehicle of Western philosophy’s history. But Carson-Hegel first refuses to admit the possibility of the ultimate identification of Spirit with itself (which would inaugurate the welfare state) and sees identification only between man and market. This identification destroys the possibility of finding a space between the Pyramid and the Labyrinth: history does not even occur because there is no alterity in Hegel, only a dynamism that cannot exceed itself. The possibility of either a rational organization of a society predicated upon the freedom of Spirit (a left-Heglianism) and the possibility of an existence which is both Pyramidal and Labyrinthine, and which discovers freedom in the interstices between the two are both obliterated – there only is the market, dynamic and moving but only ever referring back to itself, a sort of nauseating present which always already contains both past and future and at the same time is the only possible motor of history, the only possible site where man can go to understand himself as such.
- Derrida, Jacques. Margins of Philosophy. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1982. Print.
- Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. G.W.F. Hegel: The Oxford University Press Translations. Electronic Edition. Hegel’s Aesthetics: (Lectures on Fine Art: Volume I). Trans. T. M. Knox. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.
- Hollier, Denis. Against Architecture: The Writings of Georges Bataille. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1989. Print.
 Hegel, Lectures on Aesthetics, 356
 Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, 73
 Derrida, 79. The sign as the point of mediation where intuition and production are co-originary is immanent to Derrida’s reading of Husserl and Saussure, Derrida, 82.
 Derrida, 83
 Derrida, 92
 Denis Hollier, Against Architecture, 65
 The possibility for a neo-Hegelian argument, which would understand this step as integrating Hegelian irony within the Hegelian dialectic, is opened up here.
 Hollier, 66
 This understanding of history as without telos but as economic is found everywhere in Derrida, perhaps most legibly in his examination of the discourse of anthropocentrism itself being anthropocentric: that is, Derrida’s philosophy has emerged from the history it attempts to deconstruct and in this sense is both determined by, and trying to un-determine, that history.
- Photo of Ben Carson from the New York Times.
- Photo of Pyramids from WitR/Shutterstock.
- Image of Hegel courtesy Lewis and Clark.
Jordan Ecker is a writer based in Washington, DC.