I really enjoyed this recent article on The Guardian about Nietzsche’s underappreciated and errant extrapolitical activites (for lack of a better phrase…) — particularly his unrealised subterranean community.
It’s not news to anyone in this day and age — you’d hope — that Nietzsche’s works were misappropriated and misused by his sister after his death but I’d never heard most of the anecdotes told here to back this up.
Off the back of this article, I ended up buying Sue Prideaux’s new Nietzsche biography, I Am Dynamite! — the Guardian article being a quick gloss over a number of biographical moments discussed in her book — and I’m really enjoying it so far. It’s not a critical biography, exactly, in an academic sense, but it does place Nietzsche’s life and work in the broader historical and political context of his time, in a way that I have never read before. It’s also beautifully written which is always a bonus. It’s a very easy read.
With the book echoing around in my head, I’ve started reading Nietzsche again for the first time in ages. He was the first philosopher I “got into” when I was at school (one of my first blogs bearing the name The Wahnbriefe in his honour) and I think I’ve tweeted before about an old and heavily illustrated book called Introducing Nietzsche which I borrowed from my school’s “Religious Studies” department (which I think I might still have somewhere… Oops…) but never studying philosophy formally until I was in my mid-20s meant he only ever percolated in the back of my mind superficially. The seeds which this book planted grew out in interesting directions though, evidently, which, in hindsight, is probably the best introduction to philosophy my teenager self could ask for…
In more recent years, I’ve dipped in and out of The Birth of Tragedy and Thus Spoke Zarathustra but it’s the recent Cambridge editions of The Genealogy of Morals and Daybreak in particular that have been the best introductions to his thought proper for me. More than anything, it never fails to surprise me how alive and timeless his words are.
I’ve been left thinking a lot this week about his conceptualisation of “will” as the unconscious drive of “life” towards its outside in the past few weeks, discussed earlier on the blog via Nick Land’s The Thirst for Annihilation — Land writes: “For Nietzsche, life is thought of as a means in the service of an unconscious trans-individual creative energy” — as well as via his 1871 text “The Greek State” — an essay intended for but ultimately jettisoned from The Birth of Tragedy — in which his concept of “will” resonates profoundly, even today, especially today, with a postcapitalist fervour. He begins:
We moderns have the advantage over the Greeks with two concepts given as consolation, as it were, to a world behaving in a thoroughly slave-like manner while anxiously avoiding the word ‘slave’: we speak of the ‘dignity of man’ and of the ‘dignity of work’. We struggle wretchedly to perpetuate a wretched life; this terrible predicament necessitates exhausting work which man — or, more correctly — human intellect, seduced by the ‘will’, now and again admires as something dignified. But to justify the claim of work to be honoured, existence itself, to which work is simply a painful means, would, above all, have to have somewhat more dignity and value placed on it than appears to have been the case with serious-minded philosophies and religions up till now. What we can find, in the toil and moil of all the millions, other than the drive to exist at any price, the same all-powerful drive which makes stunted plants push their roots into arid rocks!
Of course, it goes without saying, that in saying this text has a “postcapitalist fervour” is not to claim Nietzsche for any particular political project — always a mistake — but it obviously speaks to a “will” that lies beneath (or, perhaps, above) any sense of a modern “work ethic”.
After reading this essay, I listened back to the interview I did with Meta-Nomad the other week and there was a moment where we attempted to discuss “work” as it might be thought in terms of a “post-work society”. It was a fun conversation but one I’m nonetheless left unsatisfied by. (Thinking aloud is fucking hard, especially with a brain drained by a day job, and I feel like I can only dream of one day having the eloquence which John Cussans and Nick Land have demonstrated in the later episodes of Hermitix.) Now, reading Nietzsche, I’m finding a vivid description of this liminal sense of a “work” beyond “work” that I had hoped to articulate, encapsulated by this “will” — this “drive” of existence rather than a drive towards production; a drive to (re)produce. We likewise find this in Bataille’s sense of “expenditure” — the implicitly energetic, that is energy-expending, nature of Being.
We know, all too well, that Nietzsche’s “will” was appropriated in such a way by his sister that this sense of the word was greatly reduced, forned over by her friend Adolf Hitler, into an arbeit macht frei.
For Nietzsche, in “The Greek State”, we see this “will” existing at the very heart of Greek culture without the platitudes of modern society, and we can see here how this arbeit macht frei interpretation might have come about in the minds of his fascistic countrymen. Centred around Greek attitudes towards art, Nietzsche explores (with tongue seemingly in cheek) the ways that art practices were, for the Greeks, like any other form of undignified work, like procreation and labour — as a relatively ugly means towards a more beautiful end. He writes with a euphemistic humour:
And as a father admires his child’s beauty and talent but thinks of the act of creation with embarrassed reluctance, the Greeks did the same. His pleased astonishment at beauty did not blind him to its genesis — which, like all genesis in nature, seemed to him a powerful necessity, a thrusting towards existence.
Therefore, art — or perhaps “artwork” — in itself, is, for Nietzsche, that which we as a species have always produced in our attempts to remain connected to the inherent decadence of existence, its excess. Art, and tragic art in particular, connotes an “intellectual predilection for what is hard, terrible, evil, problematic in existence, arising from well-being, overflowing health, the abundance of existence”, as Nietzsche would later write in his preface to the second edition of The Birth of Tragedy: “Attempt At A Self-Criticism.”
Existence, then, in essence, is that basis of being which, in modernity, overflows but is wasted by the limited apparatuses of capture. Capitalism’s mechanisms of capture, in this way, construct a “restricted economy” (to borrow from Bataille) in which these flows spill out onto the very ground of existence, wasted by capital’s blinkered and limited ends.
Almost 150 years after Nietzsche wrote “The Greek State” and “life” is still defined for all by an utter lack of dignity in this way: by a wallowing in the rising floodwaters of existence. Art too, today, as a world, an industry, fails to do these flows justice. Studying art, for me, rather than any other more profitable subject at university, was always seen as a way to just keep living, to perhaps forge cups in which this excess might be somehow retained. However, studying photographic art in particular, only served to mark the impossibility of such a task, “capturing” only two-dimensional and impotent glimpses of inner experience. As a medium and an industry, it is the worst avenue to wander down for this aim.
I am forever haunted by the discussions had in the last year of my undergraduate degree, the curriculum for which included such modules as “Professional Practice”, which always revolved around the financial expenditure of artistic production (whether for exhibitions or books) but never how to actually use your skills to acquire financial capital. I remember this frustrated some of my more business-minded peers, who criticised the lack of advice on how to make what we were doing profitable, and I remember one lecturer in particular, in private, noting that it was an impossible thing to teach. Making money is not something you will ever manage unless you have that innate drive to create without the prospect of reward: a child-like enthusiasm. At the time, I think I interpreted this, perhaps in the way that many of Nietzsche’s readers did, as a kind of romanticisation of work. The work itself will set you free.
This is an argument that Nietzsche himself seems to warn against, noting that art, for “we moderns”, is framed as the only acceptable laborious cul-de-sac that such an unconscious drive can be funnelled. In light of this, I’m left with that familiar ache of an “imposter sydrome”, brought on by an acknowledgement of the inherent privilege of thinking of oneself as a prospective “artist” or “professional” of any kind which attempts to curtail itself as a class betrayal. (I always felt like my teenage life choices put a wedge between the working-class side of my Dad’s family whilst my obsessions with Throbbing Gristle felt like a flight away from the petit bourgeoisie mentality of my Mum’s neurotic side of the family, compounding a sense of being adrift that I’d always felt as an adopted child, with nowhere to culturally call home.) Nietzsche writes that those who struggle with existence are most at risk of being fatally “preoccupied with the fine illusions of artistic culture, so that they do not arrive at that practical pessimism that nature abhors as truly unnatural” — that innate unnaturality that “gave rise to the need to excuse and consecrate that very greed [of the struggle of existence] ahead of the dictates of art.” He calls this a “conceptual hallucination”, as if to suggest that culture is a delusion, a societal “dreamwork”, covering over the inherent uselessness of the bourgeoisie. He continues:
Work is a disgrace because existence has no inherent value: even when this very existence glitters with the seductive jewels of artistic illusions and then really does seem to have an inherent value, the pronouncement that work is a disgrace is still valid — simply because we do not feel it is possible for man, fighting for sheer survival, to be an artist. … Such phantoms as the dignity of man, the dignity of work, are the feeble products of a slavery that hides itself. These are ill-fated times when the slave needs such ideas and is stirred up to think about himself and beyond himself!
Within our restricted economy, dignity becomes something afforded naturally to the bourgeoisie but which the proletariat must climb up towards — and this is the illusion that keeps the prole productive and the bougie preoccupied with only themselves. This is why the proletariat “must be prevented at any cost from realizing what stage or level must be attained before ‘dignity’ can even be mentioned, which is actually the point where the individual completely transcends himself and no longer has to procreate and work in the service of the continuation of his individual life.”
This is something I tried to express to Meta-Nomad in our conversation — still being hopeful that a “post-work society” might someday be attained: the scaffolding of this hope being that, without labour, work will still occur. People will still act without the prospect of rewards in the form of a careerist progression. The (unfortunate) example I gave in the moment was the figure of the mad scientist — like Rick in Rick and Morty (cringe) — mad because they produce and engineer and create irrespective of the moral genealogies of a society. Such a drive is always framed negatively in media portrayals — and within its countless canonically Gothic instantiations — because of the way it has the potential to disturb and fracture the individual and spread, affecting society as a whole. A major subplot of Rick and Morty, remember, being the ways that Rick must deal with his spatiotemporal and interdimensional fragmentations — whether in the infinite proliferation of his family’s selves (a prime example being the episode where Rick and Morty permanently leave their “home dimension”, which they have ruined, and travel to a dimension in which they have died, burying themselves so that they can cover-up their mistakes and continue to live without consequence, an experience that deeply traumatises Morty) or in Rick’s constant warring with the Council of Ricks (his various selves who live on a planet where all his proliferations live together, constructing their own state apparatuses, which he nonetheless remains outside of as the primary and most dangerous overman, always under the threat of trial and arrest by his other selves).
I think the reason that Rick came to mind was, perhaps, because his drive is, in many ways, a death drive, productively conceived. It is reckless, selfish, frequently endangering those around him. It is the very heart and soul of his being as a supreme individual, which is an interesting character trope to think about in general and certainly not exclusive to this most cursed of examples, but which is also notably cursed because of the ways that his suceeding of his self is framed as an abject bloating of his toxic individualism.
As anyone with an internet connection no doubt now knows, the “freedom” accorded by this individualism, which his character so entertainingly demonstrates, has inadvertently inspired the worst kinds of brattish behaviour in many of its biggest teenage fans, and so I find myself turning to Nietzsche again in thinking about how this drive might truly be allowed to exceed its own boundaries.
There is an extensive passage in Nietzsche’s 1881 book Daybreak which speaks to this, titled “Self-mastery and moderation and their ultimate motive”. He writes:
I find no more than six essentially different methods of combating the vehemence of a drive. First, one can avoid opportunities for gratification of the drive, and through long and ever longer periods of non-gratification weaken it and make it wither away. Then, one can impose upon oneself strict regularity in its gratification: by thus imposing a rule upon the drive itself and enclosing its ebb and flood within firm time-boundaries, one has then gained intervals during which one is no longer troubled by it — and from there one can perhaps go over to the first method. Thirdly, one can deliberately give oneself over to the wild and unrestrained gratification of a drive in order to generate disgust with it and with disgust to acquire a power over the drive: always supposing one does not do like the rider who rode his horse to death and broke his own neck in the process — which, unfortunately, is the rule when this method is attempted. Fourthly, there is the intellectual artifice of associating its gratification in general so firmly with some very painful thought that, after a little practice, the thought of its gratification is itself at once felt as very painful (as, for example, when the Christian accustoms himself to associating the proximity and mockery of the Devil with sexual enjoyment or everlasting punishment in Hell with a murder for revenge, or even when he thinks merely of the contempt which those he most respects would feel for him if he, for example, stole money; or, as many have done a hundred times, a person sets against a violent desire to commit suicide a vision of the grief and self-reproach of his friends and relations and therewith keeps himself suspended in life: — henceforth these ideas within him succeed one another as cause and effect). The same method is also being employed when a man’s pride, for example in the case of Lord Byron or Napoleon, rises up and feels the domination of his whole bearing and the ordering of his reason by a single affect as an affront: from where there then arises the habit and desire to tyrannise over the drive and make it as it were gnash its teeth. (‘I refuse to be the slave of any appetite’, Byron wrote in his diary.) Fifthly, one brings about a dislocation of one’s quanta of strength by imposing on oneself a particularly difficult and strenuous labour, or by deliberately subjecting oneself to a new stimulus and pleasure and thus directing one’s thoughts and plays of physical forces into other channels. It comes to the same thing if one for the time being favours another drive, gives it ample opportunity for gratification and thus makes it squander that energy otherwise available to the drive which through its vehemence has grown burdensome. Some few will no doubt also understand how to keep in check the individual drive that wanted to play the master by giving all the other drives he knows of a temporary encouragement and festival and letting them eat all the food the tyrant wants to have for himself alone. Finally, sixth: he who can endure it and finds it reasonable to weaken and depress his entire bodily and physical organisation will naturally thereby also attain the goal of weakening an individual violent drive: as he does, for example, who, like the ascetic, starves his sensuality and thereby also starves and ruins his vigour and not seldom his reason as well. — Thus: avoiding satiety and disgust with it and associating it with a painful idea (such as that of disgrace, evil consequences or offended pride), then dislocation of forces and finally a general weakening and exhaustion — these are the six methods…
In reading these six methods of self-mastery, we can no doubt think of a dozen different cultural manifestations of each. (Rick of Rick and Morty no doubt encapsulating the Byronic approach.) But none of these methods, which we might find at the heart of any system of ethics, address the materialist problematic that still exists underneath. As Nietzsche continues:
…that one desires to combat the vehemence of a drive at all, however, does not stand within our own power; nor does the choice of any particular method; nor does the success or failure of this method. What is clearly the case is that in this entire procedure our intellect is only the blind instrument of another drive which is a rival of the drive whose vehemence is tormenting us: whether it be the drive of restfulness, or the fear of disgrace and other evil consequences, or love. While ‘we’ believe we are complaining about the vehemence of a drive, at bottom it is one drive which is complaining about another; that is to say: for us to become aware that we are suffering from the vehemence of a drive presupposes the existence of another equally vehement or even more vehement drive, and that a struggle is in prospect in which our intellect is going to have to take sides.
It is this underlying base of forces that I find explored most profoundly by Bataille, in all of its contradictions and in all of its mind-warping complexity. Bataille’s fascination with the transgressive horror of excrement and human physiology is perhaps borne explicitly out of Nietzsche’s own, less transgressively articulated, with Bataille positioning himself consciously on the outside of established moralities in order to challenge our own disgust at the base materialism of human being. Nietzsche writes, echoing this, with his usual humour:
Whither does this whole philosophy, with all its circuitous paths, want to go? Does it do more than translate as it were into reason a strong and constant drive, a drive for gentle sunlight, bright and buoyant air, southerly vegetation, the breath of the sea, fleeting meals of flesh, fruit and eggs, hot water to drink, daylong silent wandering, little talking, infrequent and cautious reading, dwelling alone, clean, simple and almost soldierly habits, in short for all those thing which taste best and are most endurable precisely to me? A philosophy which is at bottom the instinct for a personal diet?
An enthusiastic materialist, Nietzsche’s philosophies are perhaps most inspired by the acceptance of what was then a new discovery but now a truism: “You are what you eat.” And yet, things are not so simply reduced. As Prideaux’s biography retells in ways that echo many of the Bataille biographies I’ve read, Nietzsche was deeply affected by his father’s madness and early death. His father was diagnosed, she writes, with a “softening of the mind” — a naive euphemism for what might have been considered to be, today, any one of a number of degenerative brain diseases. Prideaux writes that many of the Nietzsches likewise suffered similar ailments, with such “softenings” being hereditarily predetermined, and there may have been an innate fear in the most famous Friedrich that he would also share his father’s fate — as we know, all too well, that he eventually did.
Bataille too, many of his biographers attest, was traumatised by his father’s mental collapse — particularly one instance, retold in his fictions, in which his mentally ill father exploded in a storm of expletives, at the mercy of his own failing body and interiority. For Nietzsche, and likewise for Bataille, their lives were perhaps defined by the epiphanies that the ailing physiologies of human beings, accelerated by the indignities of industrial life, could not be curtailed by mere moral codes. The introduction to the Cambridge edition of Daybreak echoes this sentiment, quoting Ludwig Feuerbach, reviewing Jacob Moleschott’s 1850 theories of the physiology of food: “If you want to improve the people then give them better food instead of declamations against sin.”
It is surely from here that Nietzsche’s theory of the “will” develops, and likewise current U/Acc debates around “anti-praxis” — as a becoming in alignment with these unconscious forces, detached from any moralism. I’m reminded of that excellent distillation from Enrico Monacelli’s recent essay, “Applying Applied Ballardianism”, in which he writes of anti-praxis as a concept that
will make some of you smile or raise a disdainful eyebrow: have we perhaps come to the point of criticizing praxis altogether and proposing the complete abandonment of all forms of political action? Are we supposed to quit trying and wait for the end of the world? But, as everyone can easily imagine, anti-praxis is, clearly, not the complete rejection of praxis and it does not demand us to totally abandon our political activities, whatever they may be.
Anti-praxis consists of two basic principles: making political action as impersonal as possible and intensifying the actually existing processes of liberation and emancipation, without situating our actions within/against capitalism, but following those political vectors which point directly towards a possible exit.
Nietzsche’s “will” is precisely such an impersonal drive — echoing the Bataillean “evil” of base materiality and Blanchot’s unavowable — which Blanchot in particular, of course, directs towards a postcapitalist desire. It is, perhaps, Bataille’s struggle to contend with this thinking, impossible not to mediate via the superego, and these are the difficulties that remain poignant for us still today.
I have no doubt: this delirium draws out human qualities in me. But, it must be said, it leads to disequilibrium and deprives me, painfully, of rest. I burn and am disoriented and remain empty in the end. I can propose to myself grand and necessary actions, but none of them answers to my fever. I am speaking of moral concerns, of the search for an object whose value sweeps all others away!