hpd – Hegelian Interviews: Rocío Zambrana

We are happy to continue with the series Hegelian Interviews, started on the occasion of hegelpd’s fifth birthday and specifically designed for our blog. Professor Rocío Zambrana, whom we sincerely thank, answers some questions about the path of her philosophical education, the topic of philosophy as a form of critique, the influence of Hegel’s thought on her work, the increasingly global dimension of research, and the advent of new technologies.

Rocío Zambrana is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Oregon. She has been appointed 2018 Edith Kreeger Wolf Distinguished Visiting Associate Professor at Northwestern University.

Her work examines conceptions of critique in Hegel, Marx, Frankfurt School Critical Theory, Marxist Feminism, Decolonial Thought and Decolonial Feminism, and Latinx, Latin American, and Caribbean Feminisms.
A large part of her research was dedicated to exploring the potentiality of Hegel’s thought for critique. Her current work concerns coloniality as the afterlife of colonialism, considering the articulation and deployment of race/gender issues as crucial to the development and resilience of capitalism.
Amongst her several publications in renowned academic journals and volumes, we would like to remind her two books: Hegel’s Theory of Intelligibility (University of Chicago Press, 2015), and Colonial Debts: The Case of Puerto Rico (Forthcoming).


Your first book Hegel’s Theory of Intelligibility has received great attention and has made you one of the most interesting Hegelian interpreters on the international scene. We would like to start this conversation by asking you about the pathways that led you to this volume: what were the most important steps and how did your interest in Hegel begin?

I came to philosophy quite late during my undergraduate studies at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, which is also my hometown. I was initially a psychology major, but through a friend of a friend took a course in ethics with Anayra Santory-Jorge. We read Arendt and Foucault and studied cases of institutional violence in Latin America. This was the most significant experience of my intellectual trajectory. Santory-Jorge did not introduce me to a philosophical “canon,” which reproduces a linear view of the history of philosophical texts and problems. Such development is implicitly or explicitly geographically and demographically indexed. Rather, Santory-Jorge’s class introduced me to the power and value of philosophy to generate concepts that problematize the present. I read Hegel only once at the UPR – within a course on modern and contemporary philosophy. Ironically, I recall referring to his texts as “unintelligible”. At the UPR, I undertook two projects that at the time I understood as fundamentally disconnected from Hegel’s thought: a BA thesis on Foucault’s views on power seeking to elucidate the transition from Spanish to US colonial rule. The thesis intervened in debates about the political instability of nationalist discourses in Puerto Rico at the turn of the century. I was also part of an interdisciplinary group that produced a comparative study of gender disparity in children of El Salvador and Puerto Rico from a Foucaultian perspective.
I read Hegel seriously and found his thought generative at the New School for Social Research. Initially, I went to the NSSR to continue to work on power and colonialism as a MA student. I enrolled in Jay Bernstein’s year-long lecture course on Hegel’s Phenomenology and my view of Hegel changed fundamentally. Bernstein’s reading of the text – his emphasis on action and his reading of Hegel’s reading of Antigone – were decisive. Hegelian negativity became an indispensable resource for thinking questions of critique and normativity implicit in my work on Foucault and Puerto Rico. I wrote a MA thesis on Hegel’s notion of Anerkennung in which I began to explore what I came to call “normative ambivalence” in my PhD thesis years later. Late in my PhD studies, I became convinced that everything I found compelling in Hegel’s early work and in the Phenomenology required an understanding of Hegelian Negativität as a logical category. Angelica Nuzzo’s essays on dialectics, Karin DeBoer’s work on Hegel and Derrida, and Gillian Rose’s Hegel Contra Sociology became indispensable. Rather than writing a PhD thesis on the Phenomenology, I wrote on key moments in the Logic, arguing that the discussion of negativity interrupts assumptions about normativity helpful for calling into question core aspects of Habermasian and post-Habermasian conceptions of critique. The thesis sought to develop conceptual tools for specifying the work of critique via Hegel in light of “normative ambivalence,” where the instability of critical language is heightened by and folded into the logic of neoliberal capitalism.
Hegel’s Theory of Intelligibility elaborates key strands of the work on the Logic that I had merely begun in the PhD thesis. In many ways, it also continues to explore themes from my work at the University of Puerto Rico as well. The notions of normative precariousness and normative ambivalence developed in the book assess the limits and possibilities of critique in light of the instability of critical thought and practice. The book, however, left behind an explicit consideration of the consequences that follow for notions of critique in Critical Theory as well as Post- and Decolonial thought and practice. I developed the latter in essays and book chapters.


One of the central aspects of your philosophical proposal concerns the conception of philosophy as a form of critique, which conceives the present, on the one hand, as the result of the affirmation of specific historical dynamics, and, on the other, as just a partial and “ambivalent” realization of their underlying instances. This makes it possible to identify “spaces of resistance” for the building of a better future. Why do you think that Hegel’s thought more than others would allow us to acquire such a critical perspective with respect to the present?

How we name phenomena matters. Philosophy has the power to generate and assess concepts that name phenomena here and now. In that sense, it is fundamentally a critical practice. It can name phenomena, however, in better or worse ways. It can, in fact, elucidate just as much as obfuscate reality. For this reason, philosophy is necessarily a pluralist practice and must understand itself as subject to the same fate as the phenomena it names. When philosophy fails to consider marginalized voices, for example, or to understand the instability of critical language it neutralizes its transformative potential as well as its relevance.
This view of philosophy is at odds with Hegelian actualization as it is understood in conventional readings of Hegel. Critique does not “affirm” historical dynamics, nor is the ambivalence of actualization a matter of “partiality of underlying instances.” These characterizations are closer to readings of Hegel that tend to stress the revisionist or ameliorist aspects of his texts. The aspects of Hegelian actualization that I believe are worth recovering have to do with externalization. The easiest way to understand the stakes here is to think of action. As Robert Pippin has argued, Hegel understands action as the inseparability of an intention and the performed deed. To act is to attempt to express an intention publically. But this means that the determinacy of an action is not fully up to the agent. It is a matter of its externality – its “publicity,” for instance. Action is a form of self-negation, then. The determinacy of deeds, moral worth, even intentions can only be established in light of the temporal extension and intersubjective character of action, hence in light of misfires, competing interpretations, unforeseen consequences, incongruent normative expectations, and so on, that exceed the intentions of the agent. An action as well as an intention is thus the result of a process of actualization that necessarily exceeds it. Along these lines, spaces of resistance, as well as philosophy as a critical practice, are always subject to normative instability, co-option, to coextensive positive and negative meanings and effects. This is what I call “ambivalence.” This means that any material or discursive gain against systems of oppression is fragile, “precarious,” in need of being maintained, even radically transformed in light of new material and historical conditions.
Hegelian negativity has allowed me to develop conceptual resources for thinking the ways in which ambivalence constrains – both restricts and makes possible – critical praxis. Rather than contradiction, which is irrevocably tied to linearity and a discourse of progress, negativity has provided me with ways of speaking of the promise and perils of critical praxis here and now. However, Hegel’s thought is not better than others for developing these resources. I sometime characterize my relationship to Hegel’s thought as a form of “appropriation” (in “Boundary, Ambivalence, Jaibería, or, How to Appropriate Hegel”). I am aware that this might seem problematic, but I aim to resist the view that there is something inherent in Hegel’s thought ready to be “applied.” Whether implicitly or explicitly, applications resist contamination. They resist a dialectical understanding of concept and case, whereby each fundamentally modifies the other in their encounter. This is, of course, a Hegelian lesson, and perhaps what makes Hegel’s thought available for critical praxis. Yet, what I call ambivalence and precariousness is perhaps better thought via Marx and some Marxisms, Feminisms, and Decolonial thought and praxis with their emphases on material conditions, the intersection of multiple systems of oppression, and liminality.


The field to which you have applied your conception of philosophy as a critique most extensively is that of decolonial thought, which combines the analysis of the experience of a colonial past with the examination of race, gender and class hierarchies. Why do you think Hegel’s philosophy is so effective in this context?

My work on critique has, more and more, explicitly centered on the notion of “coloniality.” I have explored coloniality as the afterlife of colonialism, considering the articulation and deployment of race/gender as crucial to the development and resilience of capitalism. Increasingly so, I have explored the ambivalence of critical thought and practice in neoliberal and colonial contexts. I have sought to track the coextensive positive and negative meaning and effects of critique at the intersection of capitalism, colonialism, and cisheteropatriarchy. As I mentioned above, I do not see this as a work of “application.” There is an undeniable relation between my thinking of Hegelian negativity and my views on a critique of coloniality and decolonial praxis – specifically around the normative instability of praxis. Yet, I would want to resist characterizing my work on the latter as distinctively “Hegelian.” There are many aspects of Hegel’s thought that undermine the project and aims of decoloniality. There is an undeniable Eurocentrism, to name just one problem, in Hegel’s thought that cannot be reconciled with the intersection of decoloniality, critiques of political economy, and feminist critiques of cisheteropatriarchy that my current work explores.


Your interpretation of Hegel emphasizes the role of negativity in the determination of reality as Wirklichkeit, the dialectical – and therefore necessarily precarious and ambivalent – nature of any form of determination. You have highlighted the emancipatory potential of these aspects of Hegelian philosophy by making them interact with the decolonial debate. However, these aspects are elaborated in the Phenomenology of the Spirit and above all in the Science of Logic, while it is evident that other parts of Hegel’s philosophy, paradoxically those in which Hegel has considered the present more closely, move from definitely Eurocentric and colonialist assumptions. How should one deal with these parts of the Hegelian thought today? Is it necessary to accept a rigid distinction between parts that can be made contemporary and those that cannot, or is there in any case a line of continuity between the emancipatory elements of Hegelian thought and the other parts, which allows us to save at least some aspects of it? If yes, which ones?

I engage this crucial question in my “Hegel, History, and Race.” The relation between the form and content of Hegel’s text is key. One cannot assess the power of Hegelian concepts without considering their relation to the disturbing content – concerning race and gender – found throughout his corpus. Form and content are distinguishable but not separable, in my view. Thus, I don’t think that deflationary or revisionist readings of Hegel should ignore deeply disturbing passages. I agree with Robert Bernasconi that academic philosophy is disproportionately white and male partly because research and teaching practices tend to downplay the racism and sexism of canonical figures and texts. Calling attention to these passages and exploring if and how they are part of the logic of the positions distinctive of a text or corpus is necessary to the critical reception of any text.
I do not do this enough in Hegel’s Theory of Intelligibility, but I have in “Hegel, History, and Race” and in a recent text that has not yet appeared in print, “‘Bad Habits:’ Idleness, Critique, Interruption in Hegel.” In “Hegel, History, and Race,” for example, I track the connection between Hegel’s Anthropology and Philosophy of History in order to map the continuity of a racial hierarchy in both. In “Bad Habits,” I track assumptions about productivity in the context of Hegel’s view of habituation in order to problematize recent work on embodied normativity in Hegel. Hegel’s assumptions are also connected to his deeply disturbing views on race. Drawing attention to these aspects is key to considering the implications of contemporary readings of Hegel, especially when we seek to specify not only the limits but the promises of his texts.


In recent decades, the horizons of every person have widened to take on an undoubtedly global dimension. What has such a change of perspective meant/what does it mean in your experience as a scholar?

I take it that the reference here is the advance of neoliberal capitalism, and one would need to include its mutations in light of the 2008 financial crisis. Since its inception, capitalism has been a global phenomenon. Its development depended on expropriation and exploitation across the globe. We have various bodies of critical thought and practice that have elucidated such development – from Post- and Decolonial thought, to Critical Black Studies, Marxism, and Feminisms. If contemporary neoliberalism has “widened horizons” in recent decades, I would argue that its failures – indeed its forms of violence from extreme economic inequality, environmental degradation, deepened race and gender hierarchies – have generated critical perspectives that seek to “decolonize” thought and practice. If there is any “widened horizon,” then, I would argue that it only counts as “widened” insofar as it is based on an awareness of the continuation and intensification of coloniality. An example of such a widened perspective would be an international new wave of feminisms that draw links between femicide and economic degradation, racisms and sexism, ecological catastrophe, and so on, thereby calling into question the meaning and effects of the neoliberal project. The failure of such a project, however, has also fueled the rise of xenophobia, racism, nationalism, and other far right phenomena, eroding political gains for marginalized and oppressed populations. This context is crucial to my thinking, writing, and my responsibilities within and beyond the academe. In a time when feminist, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist gains are fragile, it matters a great deal what and how we write, teach, and participate.


We are facing a real technological revolution that permeates all aspects of our lives. How do you assess this change in the field of academic studies? Has the introduction of new information technology had a significant impact on the way you practice research and define teaching?

Connectivity has allowed me to reach texts and discussions that would have otherwise been difficult to access from afar. Despite the ways in which it has been utilized to undermine key political gains, and despite its shortcomings when it comes to being materially accessible to all, I believe it retains critical potential. I won’t say much more about this because I believe we are still trying to understand the phenomena and there are people thinking and writing on the topic that have far more informed things to say.


Finally, we would like to ask you to list at least five books or contributions on classical German philosophy that have been crucial to your education.

Specifically on Classical German Philosophy and indispensable for my work on Hegel:

  • Gillian Rose, Hegel Contra Sociology
  • Angelica Nuzzo, Memory, History, Justice in Hegel (initially, her essays “Dialectic as a Logic of Transformative Processes” and “The End of Hegel’s Logic”)
  • Rebecca Comay, Mourning Sickness (initially, her essay “Dead Right”)
  • Karin DeBoer, On Hegel: The Sway of the Negative (initially her essays, “Différance as Negativity” and “Tragedy, Dialectics, and Différance: On Hegel and Derrida”)
  • Robert Pippin, Hegel’s Idealism and Hegel’s Practical Philosophy

[Interview by Giovanna Miolli and Elena Tripaldi].

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