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Hegel & History

Hegel On The Future, Hegel In The Future

Slavoj Žižek says Hegel doesn’t need to be a prophet to point us to a better tomorrow.

The claim I want to defend is that Hegel is the philosopher most open to the future precisely because he explicitly prohibits any project of how our future should look. As he says towards the end of the Preface to his Philosophy of Right (1820), philosophy can only paint ‘grey on grey’, and “The owl of Minerva begins its flight only with the falling of dusk.” That is, philosophy only retrospectively translates, into a ‘grey’ (lifeless) conceptual scheme, a form of life which has already reached its peak and has entered its decline – which is becoming ‘grey’ itself. To put it simply and brutally, this is why we should reject all those readings of Hegel which see in his thought an implicit model of a future society reconciled with itself, leaving behind the alienations of modernity. I call those readers the ‘not-yet-Hegelians’.

With his most recent masterpiece The Spirit of Trust (2019), the American philosopher Robert Brandom asserted himself as perhaps the most prominent ‘not-yet-Hegelian’. For him, Hegel outlines an ideal which we have not yet reached:

“The principal positive practical lesson of Hegel’s analysis of the nature of modernity, the fruit of his understanding of the One Great Event in human history, is that if we properly digest the achievements and failures of modernity, we can build on them new, better kinds of institutions, practices, and self-conscious selves – ones that are normatively superior because they embody a greater self-consciousness, a deeper understanding of the kind of being we are.” (p.456)

Along these lines, Brandom proposes three stages of historical ethical development. In Stage One – traditional societies – we get Sittlichkeit (a Hegelian term meaning a customary moral order accepted as a fact of nature) but no subjectivity in the modern sense (or as we might call it, individuality). In Stage Two, we get alienation : modern subjectivity gains its freedom, but is alienated from the ethical foundations of its society. Finally, in Stage Three, which is apparently on the horizon, we get a new form of Sittlichkeit, compatible with free subjectivity:

“As he is writing the Phenomenology, Hegel sees Geist [the World Spirit] as beginning to consolidate itself at Stage Two. The book is intended to make possible for its readers the postmodern form of self-consciousness Hegel calls ‘Absolute Knowing’, and thereby to begin to usher in Stage Three. The new form of explicit philosophical self-consciousness is only the beginning of the process, because new practices and institutions will also be required to overcome the structural alienation of modern life” (p.458).

Really? So what about Hegel’s insistence that philosophy can only paint ‘grey on grey’, since, like the owl of Minerva, it only takes off at dusk – meaning that it can only understand history after it has happened? Here Brandom talks not like Hegel but like Marx: Absolute Knowing is for him like the singing of a Gallic cock in the new dawn (as Marx put it about revolutionary thinking). It ushers in a new social age, when “new practices and institutions will also be required to overcome the structural alienation of modern life.”

Brandom’s three stages are generated along two axes: Sittlichkeit or no Sittlichkeit and modern free subjectivity or no subjectivity. That gives traditional society (Sittlichkeit without free subjectivity), modern society (free subjectivity without Sittlichkeit), and the forthcoming postmodern society (Sittlichkeit with free subjectivity). Brandom immediately raises the question of the status of the fourth possibility, which fits none of these three stages: the situation with no Sittlichkeit and no free subjectivity. He asks, “What is wrong with the idea of premodern alienation?” (p.458).

But why does he automatically read the absence of free subjectivity as ‘premodern’? What about a properly postmodern option of losing free subjectivity and nonetheless remaining alienated from society’s morality? Is this not what totalitarianism is about? And is this also not the state we are approaching with our digitalized authoritarianism? Would this not be a real Hegelian insight into a dialectics of modernity? We want to overcome the gap between a society’s morality and a free subjectivity which no longer recognizes the morality as its own; but instead of bringing them together in a kind of higher synthetic unity, we lose both. For instance, did Stalin not promise to implement a synthesis between a strong communal spirit and free individuality, promising actual freedom? And wasn’t the result the loss of freedom itself, in conditions of total alienation?

Offence & Forgiveness

Brandom sees the key to the Third Stage of society – free subjectivity integrated with morality – in the notion of ‘forgiving recollection’ deployed by Hegel towards the end of the chapter on Spirit in his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807). The gap that alienates the acting subject from their ‘severe judge’ is overcome through reconciliation, achieved not only by the agent confessing his sin but by the judge also confessing his participation in what he condemns, since, as Hegel says, “Evil is also the gaze which sees evil everywhere around it.”

Brandom’s notion of forgiving recollection is especially useful today. It enables us to see what is false in some of those who advocate ‘tolerance’ and reject ‘hate speech’. Is not a Politically Correct person who sternly condemns those who are accused of practicing ‘hate speech’ an exemplary contemporary case of a rigid moral judgment? We all know how swift and cruel such judgments can be – one wrong word, one joke considered inappropriate, and your career can be in ruins. Remember what recently happened to the film critic David Edelstein. Apropos the death of Last Tango in Paris director Bernardo Bertolucci, Edelstein made a rather tasteless joke on his private Facebook page, accompanied by a still of the film’s most notorious scene with Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando. He quickly deleted it – before the public outcry broke out, not as a reaction to it! But the actress Martha Plimpton immediately tweeted to her followers, “Fire him. Immediately.” – which happened the next day: Fresh Air and NPR announced that they were cutting ties with Edelstein because his post had been “offensive and unacceptable, especially given Maria Schneider’s experience during the filming of Last Tango in Paris.”

So what are the implications of (or, rather, the unstated rules to be understood from) this incident? Laura Kipnis notes that, first, “there’s nothing inadvertent about inadvertent offence” (The Guardian 22/12/18). In other words, such things cannot be excused as momentary mistakes; rather, they are to be treated as revealing the true character of the offender. This is why just one such offence is a permanent mark against you, however apologetic you might be: “One flub and you’re out. An unthinking social media post will outweigh a 16-year track record.” The only thing that might help is a long process of self-critical self-examination: “Failure to keep re-proving it implicates you in crimes against women.” You have to prove it again and again since, as a man, you are a priori not to be trusted (‘Men will say anything’).

What would ‘recollective forgiving’ mean here? The accusers would not just have to forgive the offender the ‘hate speech’ act for which he was responsible; they must also confess and renounce their own hatred. And great hatred is easily discernible in such inexorable Politically Correct demands for swift punishment – in this case, definitely more hatred than in the condemned act itself. A paraphrase of Hegel’s dictum about Evil fits perfectly here: ‘Hatred resides in the gaze which recognizes hatred everywhere’.

Much hate speech definitely displays patronizing arrogance, brutal irony, and so on, but only rarely pure hatred. It is against this that harsh PC condemnation misperceives itself as a well-grounded exercise of justice. Such condemnation doesn’t bother to reconstruct the reasoning that guided the offender. Edelstein, for instance, maybe perceived his Facebook post as a tasteless but not offensive display of humor. This means we get a duality: of how things were for the offender’s consciousness, and how they were ‘in themselves’ – meaning, in the eyes of the judge or person offended. The same gap is also at work in the PC judge’s condemnation itself, although here it is a gap between how things stand for her consciousness (‘I am just passing a righteous judgment’), and how they are ‘in themselves’ (a display of hatred aimed at destroying the life or career of the offender).

Let’s take another example. In December 2016, upon learning of the sudden death of Carrie Fisher, Steve Martin tweeted: “When I was a young man, Carrie Fisher was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen. She turned out to be witty and bright as well.” There was an immediate backlash. Martin was accused of ‘objectivising’ Fisher, of focusing on her physicality instead of on her talents or her impact – one user on Twitter replied: “I think she [ought to be] apprised to be something higher than just being pretty. How do you want to be remembered?” So Martin deleted his tweet… But it’s easy to reconstruct Martin’s reasoning here: he wanted to show his respect for Fisher beyond her beauty: he locates his fascination with Fisher’s beauty in his first encounters, then immediately moves in ‘witty and bright’ – the whole point of his tweet is that she was more than just beautiful. A ‘recollectively forgiving’ stance would reprimand him for not taking into account the effect of his tweet, but still forgive him, demanding of him only that he should ‘sublate’ (a Hegelian term) his homage to Fisher by formulating it in a more appropriate way. Nothing like this happens in the quick condemnation which sees in his tweet just a male-chauvinist objectification of women.

The Limits of Forgiveness

But there are clear limits to the notion of forgiving recollection. Again to be brutally simple: can we ‘recollectively forgive’ Hitler? And if the answer is no, is this because Hitler cannot be forgiven, or because we ourselves are not yet at a high enough level of ethical reflection to do so? The only way to do so which avoids regressing to the position of a ‘beautiful soul’ who passes judgement from a position of disinterested separateness, is to endorse the second option – that our castigation of Hitler as evil must be a reflexive determination of the evil that persists in ourselves – that is, it shows the non-reflective state of the position from which we pass judgments.

Let us note that many far right revisionists today do try to enact a recollective forgiving of Hitler. Yes, they say, he made terrible mistakes; he committed horrible crimes; but in doing this he was ultimately just fighting for the good cause (against the capitalist corruption embodied in the Jews), albeit in a wrong way. Revisionists also try to balance responsibility in a pseudo-Hegelian way: were Hitler’s crimes not mirrored in the one-sidedness of the Jewish position – their exclusive stance, their unwillingness to integrate themselves into the German nation? Yet it’s easy to construct a more rational, non-Rightist-revisionist version of how we who condemn Nazism should also ask for forgiveness for the evil in our own perspective. For example, ‘not only was anti-Semitism by no means limited to Germany, it was very strong in the nations which were at war with Germany, including our own’; or, ‘the obvious injustice of the Treaty of Versailles – an act of revenge against the Germans defeated in WWI – contributed to the Nazi rise to power’; or, at a more general level, ‘fascism grew out of the dynamics and antagonisms of Western capitalism’. While we should totally reject this line of reasoning, the solution is definitely not to draw a line between sins that can be recollectively forgiven and those sins that are too great to forgive. Such a procedure introduces a duality totally at odds with Hegel’s approach. What we should do instead is to change the very notion of recollective forgiving: to deprive the notion of any echoes of ‘you are now forgiven, you are no longer really bad’.

Brandom, of course, raises this problem:

“Some things people have done strike us, even upon due reflection, as simply unforgivable. In these cases, though we might try to mitigate the consequences of evil doings, we have no idea at all how to go about discerning the emergence of a governing norm we could ourselves endorse” (p.716).

His immediate response to this is:

“But now we must ask: Whose fault is it that the doing, or some aspect of it, is unforgivable – the doer or the forgiver? Is the failure that of the bad agent or of the bad recollector? Is whose fault it is a matter of how things anyway just are? Or is it at least partly reflective of the recollector’s failure to come up with a more norm-responsive narrative?”

But, again, in the case of the Holocaust should we “acknowledge at least equal responsibility on the part of the unsuccessful forgiver” (p.717)? And should we also claim with Brandom that “one must trust that this recollective-recognitive failure, too – like the failure of the original, inadequately forgiven doer – will be more successfully forgiven by future assessors (who know more and are better at it)” (p.718)? Furthermore, what about cases such as female genital mutilation, or torture, or slavery, which we today experience as horror, but for which it is easy to reconstruct the thinking which makes these things acceptable not only to those who perform them, but sometimes even to their victims? And what about cases where the retroactive view makes actions more unacceptable than they were in their original context? If we sternly judge such cases, we not only make new norms and impose them onto the past acts, in some sense we also find that such acts were always unacceptable, even if they appeared acceptable to the agents. Slavery is an obvious example where this applies.

Let’s again take the example of Hitler and the Holocaust. The way to deal with it is perhaps indicated by the biblical story of the prophet Habbakuk, the most poignant expression of what one might call ‘the silence of the gods’ – of the big question addressed to God from Job onwards: ‘Where were you when that horror happened? Why were you silent, why didn’t you intervene?’ Here are the words of Habbakuk’s complaint:

“How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.” (Habbakuk Ch.1)

How does God answer? One should read the reply very carefully: “Look at the nations and watch – and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.” This is no simple ‘teleological’ justification in the style of ‘Be patient; strange are the ways of the Lord; your suffering serves a purpose in the wider divine plan that you cannot grasp from your narrow, finite standpoint.’ Indeed, from a Christian perspective, to say that the Holocaust (or similar suffering) serves some higher purpose unknown to us, is an anti-Christian obscenity, since the point of Christ’s compassion is unconditional solidarity with those who suffer. Rather, to use Giorgio Agamben’s expression, one should gather here a full ‘courage of hopelessness’. So what does it mean, that we should be ‘utterly amazed’, and that something will happen that we would not believe, even if we were told? The unbelievable thing is plausibly the return of the Jews to the Promised Land, which, one might surmise, would not have happened without the Holocaust. Perhaps then only with regard to the existence of Israel, which his crimes contributed to creating, could Hitler be retroactively forgiven. But, again, one has to be very precise here: this in no way justifies the Holocaust as ‘the sacrifice the Jewish people needed to pay for the return to their land’ (the thesis of some anti-Semites); neither is it the claim that the Holocaust was part of a secret divine plan to make possible the return of Jews to their homeland (the thesis of some other anti-Semites). It just means that the founding of Israel was an unexpected, unplanned consequence of the Holocaust. It also says nothing about other injustices that resulted from this set of acts. For instance, the land to which the Jews returned has for a long time been inhabited by other people, and cannot be so simply designated as ‘theirs’.

The main trap to be avoided here is holistic teleology. This is the idea that something which appears to us as a horror can, from a larger perspective, be an element which contributes to global harmony, in the same way that a stain on a large painting contributes to its beauty if we look at the painting from a proper distance. The legacy of Job, who did not receive from God an explanation of his suffering, prohibits us from taking a refuge in the standard idea of a transcendent God as a secret Master who knows the meaning of what appears to us as a meaningless catastrophe – the God who sees the entire picture, in which what we perceive as a stain contributes to global harmony. When confronted with an event such as the Holocaust, or the more recent death of millions in the Congo, is it not obscene to claim that these stains contribute to the harmony of the Whole? Can there be a Whole which can justify and thus redeem an event such as the Holocaust? Christ’s death on the cross means rather that one should drop without restraint the notion of God as a transcendent caretaker who guarantees the happy outcome of our acts – the guarantee of holistic teleology. Christ’s death on the cross is the death of that God. Rather, it repeats Job’s conclusion, by refusing any ‘deeper meaning’ that obfuscates the brutal reality of catastrophes. Even a strong version of this logic – the idea that forgiving does not mean the erasure of the particular content, but the recognition that that particular content is necessary for the actualization of universal good – is not strong enough.

Parsing the Past

Recollective forgiving remains an ambiguous notion. In the ethical sphere it can be read as ‘trying to understand what appears to us as evil’ – that is, reconstructing a hidden positive motivation which got expressed in a perverted way. However, retroactivity implies a much more radical dimension of contingency: that things are not what they are, they are what they ‘will have been’. Their truth is decided after they have happened:

“Concrete practical forgiveness involves doing things to change what the consequences of the act turn out to be. For example, one might trust one’s successors to make it the case that one’s inadvertent revelation, one’s sacrifice, or the decision to go to war, was worthwhile, because of what it eventually led to – because of what we made of it by doing things differently afterward. Something I have done should not be treated as an error or a crime, as the hard-hearted judge does, because it is not yet settled what I have done. Subsequent actions by others can affect its consequences, and hence the content of what I have done. The hardhearted judgment wrongly assumes that the action is a finished thing, sitting there fully formed, as a possible object of assessment independent of what is done later… the role of a given event in the evolving plan depends on what else happens.”
(The Spirit of Trust, p.602)

At the level of immediate facts, things are what they are. In the Holocaust millions died. Nothing can retroactively change that. The past can only be changed at the level of its symbolic mediation – what it means to people thinking about it. But here, things get complicated. What about the case evoked by Hegel himself, in which an agent acts with the best intentions, but the unpredictable consequences are catastrophic? How does recollective forgiving work here? Can the judge construct a partial forgiving by proving that the most probable consequence would have been benevolent, and that the catastrophe was due to unpredictable accidents? And what if we introduce a third level on the top of the duality of my subjective intention in performing an act and the actual outcome of my act – the unconscious motivations? This third level should in no way be limited to considering base motives as the concealed truth of the publicly-professed noble motives – for instance, when a person who claims to perform an act out of a sense of duty was actually motivated by revenge – it should also include the opposite case – for instance, while I thought I acted out of some private pathological inclination, a deeper sense of justice actually motivated me.

If we concede that the actual significance of an act is what it ‘will have been’, we touch here a paradoxical nerve of morality, which was baptized by Bernard Williams ‘moral luck’ (Moral Luck, 1981). Williams evokes the case of the painter Gauguin, who left his wife and children and moved to Tahiti in order to develop his artistic genius. Was he morally justified in doing this, or not? Williams’ reply is that we can only answer this question in retrospect, after we learn the outcome of his risky decision: Did he develop into a genius artist, or not?

Exactly the same holds for Immanuel Kant for the legal status of a rebellion: the proposition, ‘What the rebels are doing is a crime which deserves to be punished’ is true if pronounced when the rebellion is still going on; but once the rebellion wins and establishes a new legal order, this statement about the legal status of the same act, now past, no longer holds.

Here is Kant’s answer to the question, ‘Is rebellion a legitimate means for a people to employ in throwing off the yoke of an alleged tyrant?’:

“no injustice befalls the tyrant when he is deposed. There can be no doubt on this point. Nevertheless, it is in the highest degree illegitimate for the subjects to seek their rights in this way. If they fail in the struggle and are then subjected to severest punishment, they cannot complain about injustice any more than the tyrant could if they had succeeded…” (Perpetual Peace, 1795, p.4).

Does Kant not offer here his own version of ‘moral luck’, or, rather, ‘legal luck’? The legal status of a rebellion is decided retroactively: if a rebellion succeeds and establishes a new legal order, then it brings about its own vicious circle: it erases into the void its own illegal origins as it enacts the paradox of retroactively grounding itself. Kant states this paradox even more clearly a couple of pages earlier, where he writes: “If a violent revolution, engendered by a bad constitution, introduces by illegal means a more legal constitution, to lead the people back to the earlier constitution would not be permitted; but, while the revolution lasted, each person who openly or covertly shared in it would have justly incurred the punishment due to those who rebel.” One could not be clearer: the legal status of the same act changes with time, and what is, while the rebellion goes on, a punishable crime, becomes, after a new legal order is established, its opposite. More precisely, the crime simply disappears, as a vanishing mediator which retroactively erases itself in its result.

Such retroactive interpretations consistently happen in the dimension of the symbolic order. When I say or do something, my words or acts never just express my inner intention. Rather, their meaning is decided retroactively, through their incorporation into the big Other. Italo Calvino’s story, ‘A Beautiful March Day’ (1993) focuses on the unintended consequences of the act of killing Julius Caesar. While the conspirators wanted to kill a tyrant and thereby restore Rome to its republican glory, their act abolishes the very conditions which sustained its intended meaning. As Molly Rothenberg writes, “The very world in which it made sense to get rid of Caesar also vanishes with those dagger strokes – not because Caesar held that world together, but because the assassins could not foresee that their act would also transform the way the act would be judged. They could not factor in the historicity of their action: neither they nor anyone else could predict or govern how the future would interpret the assassination. Put another way, we could say that there simply was no way for them to take into account the ‘retroversive effect’ of future interpretations” (The Excessive Subject, 2010, p.7).

Let’s take an extreme case of a ‘forgiving recollection’ (without too much forgiving – more with retroactive attribution of responsibility and guilt). Someone makes the perspicuous observation that most sex, till sometime around the early or even mid twentieth century, would count as rape by today’s standards – and says this is a definitive sign of some kind of progress…

What we encounter here is the key feature of the Symbolic: it displays the fundamental ‘openness’ the Symbolic introduces into reality. In other words, once we enter the Symbolic, things never simply are, they all ‘will have been’: they as it were borrow part of their being from the future. This decentering introduces an irreducible contingency. There is no deeper teleology at work here, no secret power that guarantees the happy outcome.

Robert Brandom
Robert Brandom clearly happy at mastering the struggle with Marx for the title of ‘Biggest Beard in Philosophy’
Portrait © Barbara Wendefiorm Brandom

Due to his knowledge of Hegel, Brandom has to admit this retrospective aspect of the nature of historical progress: “The progression is retrospectively necessary. It is not the case that a given stage could have evolved in no other way than as to produce what appears as its successor. Rather, that successor (and ultimately, the final – so far – triumphant, culminating conception) could not have arisen except as a development from the earlier ones. Necessity is always retrospective in Hegel: the Owl of Minerva flies only at dusk” (p.608). So far so good. But Brandom continues, “The passage closes with Hegel’s expression of trust: his summons to the next generation to do for its time what he has done for his: to take on the forgiving recollective labor of explication that makes a rational history.”

I find this jump to the future, this faith in progress, totally unwarranted, and at odds with Hegel’s basic metaphysical stance. Why? Because it implies a gap between two levels: between Hegel’s actual thought (constrained to the knowledge of its time; painting grey on grey), and a view which locates Hegel’s thought in a progressive series – which Brandom styles a “recognitive cycle of confession, trust, and recollective forgiveness, followed by confession of the inadequacy of that forgiveness and trust in subsequent forgiveness of that failure” (p.610). And what Hegel did for the entire past up to his time (‘recollecting’ it into a rational totality), Brandom himself tries to do to Hegel (paraphrasing his thought in contemporary terms, etc); and he invites his future readers to do the same with his work. We are back to what Hegel called ‘spurious infinity’.

There is another aspect to the inconsistency. If historical necessity is always retrospective, what legitimizes Brandom to read Hegel’s idea of Absolute Knowing as going well beyond ‘painting grey on grey’ and pointing towards an emancipated social future beyond the antagonisms of alienated modernity – towards what Brandom calls the ‘Third Phase’? He says, “Hegel’s astonishing aspiration is… [to] guide us to a new age of Geist whose normative structure is as much an improvement over the modern as the modern was over the traditional” (p.614). But wouldn’t a proper Hegelian move be instead precisely to leave the space open for a retroactive realization that this bright(er) future, this Third Phase, brings out new, unpredictable antagonisms and forms of violence? Furthermore, what if we should be forgiven for exactly this – for the illusory hope that we can do more than just ‘paint grey on grey’ and instead outline the basic contours of a new future epoch of full emancipation where progress will go on? Would it not be much more in Hegel’s spirit to presuppose that this phase will also somehow go terribly wrong, as it did with Fascism, Stalinism, and so on? For example, it’s not enough to play the usual game of how Marx’s noble vision was misused, and of how he shouldn’t be held accountable for this misuse. Rather, what Marx needs to be ‘forgiven’ for, is that he remained blind to how his vision of Communism could inspire new forms of oppression and terror.


So, to conclude: should we not turn around Brandom’s motif of the ‘spirit of trust’? Is not the deepest feature of a true Hegelian approach a spirit of distrust? That is to say, Hegel’s basic axiom is not the holistic teleological premise that, no matter how terrible an event is, in the end it will turn out to contribute to the overall harmony of the world and of history. Rather, his axiom is that no matter how well-planned and well-meant an idea or a project is, it will somehow go wrong: the Greek organic community of the polis turns to fraternal war; the medieval fidelity based on honor turns into empty flattery; the revolutionary striving for universal freedom turns into terror. Hegel’s point is not that this bad turn could have been avoided – say, if only the French Revolutionaries had constrained themselves to realize concrete freedom for various estates instead of trying to realize abstract freedom and equality for all, the bloodshed could have been prevented. Rather, we have to accept that there’s no direct path to concrete freedom; that our ‘reconciliation’ resides instead in the fact that we resign ourselves to the permanent threat of destruction which is a condition of our freedom.

Hegel’s vision of the state is that of a hierarchical order of estates held together by the permanent threat of war. So what if we consider a progress which goes further than that – towards a post-Hegelian liberal democracy? It’s easy to imagine the glee with which Hegel would have analyzed how a liberal society leads to Fascism, or how a radical emancipatory project ends up in Stalinism. It would also have been easy for Hegel to point out how the unheard-of carnage of the Great War emerged as the truth of the nineteenth century’s gradual peaceful progress. THIS, indeed, is the task of us Hegelians today.

© Prof. Slavoj Žižek 2020

Slavoj Žižek teaches Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana and is international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities of the University of London. His latest book is Hegel in a Wired Brain, published by Bloomsbury.

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