Ditching Hegel: The Phenomenology of “Slum” Spirit

The professionalisation and academisation of advocacy for slum communities has furthered a construction of an abstract conceptualisation of the “slum” where the agency of the slum-dweller is dependent upon the nature of their representation by academics and professionals, making the navigation between these representations in an attempt to write a history more difficult. This begins by how academia tends to rationalise phenomena in order to fit it within a structuralist system of understanding the world, as it is through this system of comprehension that allows the academy to connect disassociated events together and justify the construction of such ideas by feeding them into wider metanarratives. A lot of the inspiration behind this method of knowledge construction comes from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit in which Hegel described the origin of knowledge as coming from the distance between an object’s essence, its being in-itself, and the acknowledgement of that object by an agent’s consciousness, this acknowledgement creating a second object, that of the being-for-consciousness.[1] Therefore, since knowledge is created by individual consciousnesses, Hegel argued that the movement from knowledge to truth comes in the mediation between an individual’s original notion regarding an object and another individual’s antithetical notion, with the eventual coalescing around a common universal notion that overcomes both notions’ limitations.[2] It is during this explanation of how knowledge is created that Hegel likens the process to a social struggle, inspiring the understanding of the actions of social agents during historical events as being the result of those individuals self-perceiving their existence as a part of a dialectical struggle.[3]


However, this understanding of historical forces can lead to the disassociation of the historical individual from being an agent during historical events, instead relying on wider metanarratives as drivers of history. This can lead to the oversimplification of the motives of agents, as Marc Askew argues exists in the historiography surrounding slums which represents slum-dwellers as participating in wider struggles against the state and capital for the historians’ normative advocacy purposes.[4] The issue that arises from this is that the increasing abstraction of the historical agent as participating within wider struggles makes the historian’s representation of the original object, the potential primary sources offered by that agent, an obfuscation of differing narratives of the objects. For instance, in Shu Mei Huang and Hyun Kyung Lee’s representation of the eviction of residents from Huaguang, the authors argue that recording the heritages of this community can help create wider geographies of responsibility which would reconceptualise the usage of state power.[5] The authors achieve this argument in a number of ways, including by connecting the symbols of national identity displayed by residents to the histories of their ancestors, by recording the viewpoints of those gathered at a student protest against the state’s seemingly arbitrary measures to achieve eviction, and the likening of the plight of the residents of Huaguang to those of residents in other slums which have experienced eviction.[6] However, these generalisations of this community’s history fail to take into account the viewpoint of the individual, instead grouping the heritages represented in the book as part of a wider discourse of the push-and-pull between collective remembering and state power, which may explain why the authors fail to explain the community’s failure to effectively organise against the eviction of individuals.[7]

While this can be seen as an example of one of Askew’s points, that normative academic work on slums tend to highlight notions of communitarianism over the reality of individual responsibility, a more pressing question as to how this community’s heritage can actually function as a platform from which academia can create a geography of responsibility is raised when reading how other sources have represented the individual agents within this community.[8] For instance, how Cheng Wei-hui, one of the community’s leaders, has been represented in the Taipei Times offers an alternative view of the residents as failing to view the actions of the state as constituting part of a wider governmentality of arbitrariness. In one article, she is said to have complained that the government destroyed several dormitory units without warning because ‘it was rude that the work took place without prior warning,’[9] the emphasis being on the failure to communicate the impending action to the residents rather than on the actual policy of destruction itself. In another article, Cheng Wei-hui is quoted as saying ‘I was taught to love my country, but I didn’t know the country I loved was like this,’ adding that ‘it gives money to big corporations and condemns us people to death,’[10] which implies that the issue is not the state’s power in enacting eviction but with the misplacement of government policies on the side of capital, again failing to criticise that the state has this ability to employ its legal and security apparatuses to enforce eviction. While these two articles do link Cheng Wei-hui’s quotations to wider critiques of the government’s policies, none of these critiques are explicitly attributed to Cheng Wei-hui, which would suggest that she does not personally frame herself as existing in a dialectical contest against the punitive state. Instead, these perspectives are implied to be the views of the author, which again feeds into Askew’s perspective on the generalisation of slum politics as robbing the individuals living within them of their agency in describing social phenomena from their own perspectives.


What both the Taipei Times’ articles and Huang and Lee’s narrative on Huaguang offer are normative positions regarding state power, but both of them fail to explicitly highlight a moment in which the individuals involved in these events perceived themselves as participating in a slum-communitarianism/state-authority dialectical struggle. It is the abstraction of these events as existing within such a paradigm that turns the agent of the slum-dweller into an object to be represented, and if academia is to serve as a normative force to direct future social development through the representation of knowledge, it would be better to accurately record the histories of the individuals in these communities from their perspectives, perspectives which these two sources currently obfuscate through their framing of them within a wider abstract metanarrative. Askew argued for the deconstruction of how these communities are represented, and so maybe it would serve best to abandon the dialectical construction of these people through the creation of a common “heritage”, and instead ask who the slum-dweller is as an exception to these generalisations, how do they live, and how do they identify themselves and the world around them. This would serve to produce articles which could be considered to better represent the historical nature of the primary sources which they use.

[1] G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Germany, 1807; 1977), 55.

[2] Ibid., 80-86.

[3] Ibid., 111-119.

[4] Marc Askew, “Genealogy of the Slum”, Bangkok: Place, Practice & Representation (Abingdon, 2002), 139-169.

[5] Shu-Mei Huang & Hyun Kyung Lee, “Disarticulation and Eradication of Dissonant Place in Replicating Roppongi Hills in Taipei”, Heritage, Memory, and Punishment: Remembering Colonial Prisons in East Asia (Abingdon, 2020), 132-146.

[6] Ibid., 135-138.

[7] Ibid., 138.

[8] Askew, Bangkok, 144-145; Ibid., 141.

[9] Rich Chang, “Demolition Work at Taipei’s Huaguang Community Begins”, Taipei Times (24/02/2013), 3, <http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2013/02/24/2003555616> [accessed: 13/02/22].

[10] Ho Yi, “Refugees ‘Squatting’ on a Gold Mine”, Taipei Times (03/07/2013), 12, <http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/feat/archives/2013/07/03/2003566212> [accessed: 13/02/22].