Postmodernism's Use and Abuse of Nietzsche


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Postmodernism's Use and Abuse of Nietzsche

Ken Gemes

Department of Philosophy

Yale University

I define postmodernism as incredulity towards meta-narratives.

Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition
When the past speaks it always speaks as an oracle: only if you are an architect of the future and know the present will you understand it.

Friedrich Nietzsche, "On the Use and Abuse of History for Life"

1. Introduction1

Nietzsche is commonly invoked as a prophet of the postmodern. Both sympathizers and critics of the postmodern share this invocation. Thus Habermas, in his widely debated The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, in which he takes a decidedly critical view of postmodernism, tells us
Nietzsche appeals to experiences of self-disclosure of a decentered subjectivity, liberated from all constraints of cognitive and purposive activity, all imperatives of utility and morality. A "break-up" of the principle of individuation becomes the escape route from modernity. Habermas [1987], p. 94.

Nietzsche's perspectivism, his suspicion of metaphysics (ultimate ontology), his radical skepticism and interrogation of conventional notions of truth, have been taken to mark him as an agent of dissolution, of polyphony, a practitioner of the hermeneutics of suspicion.2 Nietzsche is cited as a model of deconstruction; for instance, his genealogical endeavors are held-up as a paradigm of disclosing the origin in opposites, the unmasking of a facade of unity that hides a congery of mixed motives. Thus Michel Haar approvingly quotes Nietzsche as saying "We are a plurality that has imagined itself a unity" [Allison, 1985, p.18]. In this vein the name of Nietzsche travels in the company of Barthes, De Man, Lyotard, Foucault and Derrida. 3 Thus Hillis Miller cites Nietzsche as perhaps "the most systematic and cogent" of "all modern deconstructers of the idea of selfhood" [Hillis Miller, 1981, p. 248 - emphasis mine].

Yet Nietzsche was careful to describe himself as an affirmative spirit, one who says Yes and Yes again to Life, an opponent of Nihilism, a would-be architect of the future. In this affirmative mode Nietzsche typically stresses the importance of finding a unitary voice, of finding a means to retell history as a pathway to one's own constructed self.
What is meant is that a people to whom one attributes a culture has to be a single living unity and not fall wretchedly apart into inner and outer, content and form. He who wants to promote the culture of a people should strive for and promote this higher unity. [UM, II, 4]
How then are we to reconcile Lyotard's incredulity of meta-narratives with its resultant polyphony of voices, and Habermas's characterization of Nietzsche as offering a break-up of the principle of individuation, with Nietzsche's insistence that we must learn to appropriate the past, construct a unifying goal and interpret the past in the light of that goal?

In the following essay I will focus on the architectural metaphor of self-construction, in particular as it occurs in Nietzsche's essay "On the Use and Abuse of History for Life", in arguing for the claim that postmodern readings of Nietzsche typically misunderstand Nietzsche's various attacks on dogmatic philosophy as paving the way for acceptance of a self, a world, characterized by fundamental disunity. The architectural metaphoric is particularly helpful because Nietzsche, as we shall see below, explicitly uses it to contrast the idea of a centered construction with that of a building of mere pieces jumbled together. Nietzsche applies these architectural tropes both to individuals and cultures and they embody a mode of thought that runs throughout his corpus, though, as we shall see, it undergoes various vicissitudes. Examining Nietzsche's architectural metaphoric is of particular interest since theorists of postmodern architecture are among some of the most prominent of those many postmodernists who take Nietzsche to be a prophet of disunity. Nietzsche's use of architectural metaphoric to emphasize the notion of unity as a goal belies Nietzsche's adoption by theorists of postmodern architecture as a disciple of an anti-essentialist decentered pluralism. In contrast to the postmodern reading it will be argued here that Nietzsche's attack on essentialist dogmatic metaphysics is in fact a call to engage in a purposive self creation under a unifying will, a will that possesses the strength to reinterpret history as a pathway to the problem that we are. Nietzsche agrees with the postmodernists that unity is not a pre-given, but where he parts from them is in their complete rejection of unity as a goal. On the descriptive side, Nietzsche and the postmodernists agree that the received notion of the unified Cartesian subject is a myth, however on the prescriptive side, where the postmodernists typically celebrate the death of the subject, Nietzsche rejects this valorization of disunity as a form of nihilism and prescribes the creation of a genuine unified subjectivity to those few capable, and hence worthy, of such a goal. The de-centered self celebrated by the postmodernists is for Nietzsche the self-conception of the nihilistic Last Man. The construction of a unified self is the goal of Nietzsche's Overman. It will be argued here that to the extent postmodernists happily embrace the role of ironic epigones they are nearer Nietzsche's conception of the Last Man than his idea of the Overman. Robert Pippen has nicely summed up the difference between the modernist and postmodernist reaction to the perceived loss of a pre-given unity as follows

Whereas in modernism, the typical modern experience that ‘all that is solid melts into air,’ or ‘the center does not hold,’ had prompted the creation of a ‘subjective center,’ an autonomous self-defining artist, for post-modernism there is no [possible] center at all. [Pippen, (1991), p. 156]
Given this way of drawing the modernist/postmodernist distinction it is here argued that Nietzsche falls on the modernist side.

2. The Rejection of Dogma

The postmodernists and critics of postmodernism who cite Nietzsche as attacking the notion of the singular subject, the unified self, are of course well supported by textual evidence. Thus we have Nietzsche's famous dictum from the Genealogy "the doer is merely a fiction added to the deed" [GM, I, 13], his observation in Beyond Good and Evil [BGE 26] "our body is but a social structure composed of many souls" and the note from the 1885 Nachlass which reads "My hypothesis: the subject as multiplicity" [KSA, 11, 650, note 490 in The Will to Power].

Much of the work of the first essay of the Genealogy centers on the claim that the slave's reality principle - his realization that he can not directly attain his desires - has led to a repression of those very desires - the desires for the very qualities and successes of the envied and hated masters. This repression leads to a splitting-off, which renders those desires incapable of direct expression and conscious access. On this model we moderns, as descendants of the slaves, have become, in Nietzsche's memorable expression "strangers to ourselves" [EH, Preface, 1]. Our deepest desires and convictions are hidden from us.

However, note that the claim that there is no doer behind the deed need not be taken as a blanket rejection of the notion of a doer. Rather the point of emphasis can be placed on the notion of a doer behind the deed. For the Christian there is behind the deed an immutable soul. It is this notion of a free choosing soul that is being rejected here, thus immediately before saying "the doer is merely a fiction added to the deed" Nietzsche says "there is no such substratum". For Nietzsche the doer is literally in the deeds.4 Below it will be argued that for Nietzsche not every collection of deeds performed by a single body amounts to a doer. The right to say 'I', like the right to make promises (more on which soon) is in Nietzsche's view, an achievement vouchsafed to a precious few. More generally, Nietzsche, against the Christian and Cartesian tradition, takes things to be defined by their relational, rather than any intrinsic, properties. Thus his dictum that a thing is the sum of its effects and his continuous valorization of becoming over being.5

While what is directly at stake in Nietzsche's attacks on the notion of a unified, self-transparent Cartesian I, are the very presumptions of unity and self-transparency, his underlying theme is often a replacement notion of unity as a goal. The Cartesian claims to know first and foremost the existence and nature of the I, posing the construction of the external world as a problem. Reversing this formula Nietzsche problematizes the existence and nature of this I. Yet in problematizing the I Nietzsche is not seeking primarily to expose some kind of metaphysical error. For such a gesture would still fall under the dominion of the Christian inspired will to truth. In offering a critique of the notion of a unified self, as in his critique of the Christian world-view that assumes this notion of self, Nietzsche is not primarily aiming to expose a deception, a metaphysical error. As he says of Christianity, "it is not error as error that horrifies me at this sight [EH, "Why I am A Destiny", 7]. That the notion of the unified self is a deception; this in itself matters only to those with a morality, which shuns all forms of deception. For Nietzsche the desire to escape all deception is another form of the ascetic ideal [cf. GM III, 25]. Deception for Nietzsche is an inevitable part of life, thus "[u]ltimately the point is to what end a lie is told". [A, 56]. The problem with the notion of the Cartesian self, the Christian soul, is that it is part of a slandering, a poisoning of

life. It slanders life in that it suggests that our being and worth is not to be found in how we act, what we achieve, in this world, but in a supposed pre-given transcendental essence which is distinct from the natural world of material being.

The notion of a transparent singular self is, of course, the cornerstone of Cartesian foundationalist epistemology and metaphysics. Now Nietzsche, as postmodernists rightly observe, is a destroyer of all kinds of foundationalisms. They are right to interpret this as the force behind Nietzsche's madman's proclamation of the death of God [GS 125]. It is not simply the Christian world-view that is at stake here but all notions of an external authority that might provide some ultimate guarantor of beliefs. But postmodernists are wrong to take this rejection of the notion of an external, transcendent authority as a rejection of all authority. The postmodern rejection of all authority, all principle of order among the competing modes of representation, presents the very Nihilism that Nietzsche predicts, and warns against, as a natural result of the defeat of dogmatism. For Nietzsche there is still room for an immanent authority, an authority that comes from within. As the Nachlass of 1888 reads,

The multitude and disgregation of impulses and the lack of any systematic order among them results in a "weak will"; their coordination under a single predominant impulse results in a "strong" will: in the first case it is the oscillation and lack of gravity; in the later, the precision and clarity of direction. [KSA, 13, 394; note 46 of The Will to Power]
It is important to recall that while the madman of section 125 of The Gay Science begins with the disappearance and then the death of God he concludes with the suggestion that we ourselves, the slayers of God, must become Gods to be worthy of the deed. The importance of the death of God, the ultimate external foundation, is not, primarily, in the revealing of a metaphysical or epistemological error; it is in the task it opens up. We must become our own guarantors.

The problem Nietzsche finds with dogmatism is not that it represents some misunderstanding of our true situation. The problem with dogmatism, including Christian dogma, is that in its current form it serves only bad ends "the poisoning, slandering, denying or life" [A 56]. The dogma of a pre-given unified self generates certain complacency and that is the core of Nietzsche's objection.6 Assuming a world of ready-made beings it allows for the suppression of the problem of becoming. In exposing, through genealogy, to what extent our motives are mixed and often beyond our understanding Nietzsche is pointing to the conclusion that a creature with a genuine center, "an animal with the right to make promises" [GM, II, 1], is something to be achieved rather than something to be taken for granted.7 Moreover, claims Nietzsche, it is something most humans, mere members of the herd as he is prone to designate them, are not capable of fully achieving. 8 To make a promise is to commit one's self for the future. Yet if one has no stable self who is it that is being committed? Consider his account of herd man; he is a mere collection of ever fluctuating, competing drives, with different drives dominating at different times. Such an animal cannot take on genuine commitments to the future, for such a being has no genuine continuity over time. There is little guarantee that the momentary configuration of drives that utter the words of promise will continue to exist up to the time when the commitment is to be fulfilled. Most humans are bound to be a mere collection of competing drives, as described by Zarathustra:

Motley, all ages and peoples look out of your veils, motley, all customs and faith speaks out of your gesture. [TSZ, II, 14]
There is in Zarathustra a pronounced voice that claims that the construction of a genuine, that is, unified, self is something yet to be achieved. Thus he says
And when my eyes flee from the present to the past, it always discovers the same thing: fragments and limbs and dreadful chances - but no men! … I walk among men as among fragments of the future: of the future which I scan. And it is my art and aim, to compose into one and bring together what is fragment and riddle and dreadful chance. [TSZ, II, 21]
The theme of modern man as a mere jumble is echoed in Beyond Good and Evil where we are told
In the present age human beings have in their bodies the heritage of multiple origins, that is opposite and not merely opposite drives and value standards that fight each other and rarely permit each other any rest. Such human beings of late cultures and refracted lights will on the average be weaker human beings. [BGE 200]
For "the vast majority who exist for service and the general advantage" [BGE, 61] such disunity is inevitable. What Nietzsche hopes to open up by exposing this disunity is a challenge applicable only to a few in each age. Nietzsche offers such a challenge to those few capable of making something of themselves, that is, of making a self of those conflicting drives they bodily contain.9 By Nietzsche's high standards not every mere human is to count as a genuine person, thus he writes in the Nachlass under the heading “The Rank-ordering of Human Values”

(b) one should not at all assume that many humans are "people". Indeed many are multiple people, and most are none. Everywhere, where the average qualities that are important in order for a kind to continue, overweigh, it would be ludicrous to demand a “person.” They are only carriers, transmission-tools.

(c) the “person” a relatively isolated fact; ….the development of a person requires isolation, a compulsion to an martial existence, a walling off, a greater strength of seclusion: and most of all, a lower degree of impressionability than the average human, whose humanity is contagious [KSA, 12, 491, translation mine]10

The potential political ramifications of such a view will be addressed in Section 5 below.

3. The Architecture of Selbst-Bildung

The creation of a self should not be viewed as a conscious purposive activity - indeed consciousness is typically viewed by Nietzsche as a weak, irrelevant force, little more than an after thought, and typically one that is an agent of, and/or expression of, dissipation.11 Rather the reinterpretation of drives, their redirection, is something that occurs at a more fundamental level. Unification is not the result of a conscious subject pruning an overly luxuriant garden of drives according to some articulate master plan. Rather drives come with their own telic structure. In most individuals conflicting drives can only express themselves through the repression of other drives. However in some individuals drives form a hierarchy which allows some drives to redirect others so that the total can form a concerted singular expression.12 The subject is not one who affects this concerted expression, rather he is the result of this expression. This notion of creating a self does not presume some voluntaristic master agent, or master drive, free from the constraints of the causal natural order. Rather it is an extraordinary case within the natural order. A striking description of this process occurs in Nietzsche's early essay on Wagner, "Richard Wagner in Bayreuth", where he says

The dramatic element in Wagner's development is quite unmistakable from the moment when his ruling passion became aware of itself and took his nature in its charge: from that time on there was an end to fumbling, straying, to the proliferation of secondary shoots, and within the most convoluted courses and often daring trajectories assumed by his artistic plans there rules a single inner law, a will by which they can be explained. [UM, III, 2] 13

The story of Wagner’s achievement of a higher unity borne from some unconscious drive is of course the story Nietzsche would repeat about himself in the dramatic section of Ecce Homo where Nietzsche elaborates the subtitle of that work “How One Becomes What One Is”:
To become what one is, one must not have the slightest notion of what one is… The whole surface of consciousness – consciousness is a surface – must be kept clear of all great imperatives…Meanwhile the organizing “idea” that is destined to rule keeps growing deep down – it begins to command; slowly it leads us back from side roads and wrong roads; it prepares single qualities and fitnesses that will one day prove to be indispensable as a means towards the whole – one by one, it trains all subservient capacities before giving any hint of the dominant task, “goal”, “aim”, or “meaning”. [EH, Why I am So Clever, 9]]
Various factors, "internal" and "external", may explain what activates, or strengthens, a drive to engage in this hierarchical organizing of other drives. One possible influence is the reading of texts, the exposure to various examples. Thus Schopenhauer was such an influence on Wagner and both Wagner and Schopenhauer similarly influenced Nietzsche himself. Indeed this question of influence to some degree explains why Nietzsche often writes and claims to write in styles and fashions that attempt to move his select readers in ways much deeper than that of mere conscious recognition. Nietzsche hopes himself to be a catalyst for his more gifted readers. But these are matters beyond the scope of the present work.14

This idea of an organizing master drive does not sit well with Lyotard's characterization, noted in the opening quotation of this essay, of the postmodern as a disbelief in meta-narratives. Now the typical function of meta-narratives is to give a sense of individuation and order, a teleology, the very thing provided by the Nietzschean idea of a non-conscious master drive. For Lyotard's postmodern man there are but a series of language games, which have no external end or principle of order and which can be combined and recombined in various arbitrary ways. Following Lyotard, theorists of postmodern architecture such as Vidler and Kolb, claim that our awareness of the historical contingency of our various language games, our realization that they lack any transcendental grounding, has left us with an ironical stance towards the various games, the various genres initiated by our more naive predecessors. Kolb, citing Lyotard, posits this ironical stance as initiating a new sense of freedom and playfulness,

for Lyotard our age is losing the total meanings characteristic of both the tradition and modernity. The central self is a myth and its pure rationality gives way to a diversity of language games and practices that are irreducible to each other. Amid this plurality we should play our games lightly, ironically, inventing new rules as we go. No one game can define us and there is no pure meta-game above them all. [Kolb, 1990, p.100]15
The language of Kolb here deliberately echoes Nietzschean descriptions of free spirits. However Lyotard’s and Kolb’s rejection of unity and their insistence on a hyper-self-conscious control of the various language games and hence ironical distance from one's own projects is the antithesis of Nietzsche’s idea of self-formation under a unifying subconscious will. While Nietzschean free spirits are, like Lyotard’s postmodern men, free of the constraints of received essentialist dogma, be it Christian, socialist, Cartesian, whatever, this is not to say that they are free of the constraint of a self imposed form. Their play is the serious play of self-creation.

In understanding the distinction between Nietzsche's rejection of a foundationalist, essentialist metaphysics and the postmodernist rejection of the notion of a unified self it is helpful to consider Derrida's attempted renovation of the notion of the feminine within Nietzsche's work.16 Derrida in Spurs correctly notes that Nietzsche attempts a positive re-evaluation of the figure of woman by configuring her as an anti-essentialist who has forgone the transcendentalist longing for a deep and abiding permanent truth and learned to revel in the world of mere appearances; this is woman as the embodiment of free spirits. Here Nietzsche has taken the traditional misogynist charge that woman has no essence, no soul, no permanent unchanging core, and given it a positive valorization. However Derrida remains silent on, though presumably not ignorant of, the fact that while Nietzsche celebrates this anti-essentialist configuration of the feminine he echoes the traditional charge that woman is a mere collection of appearances lacking any attempt at developing an even immanent principle of order. The point here is that a celebration of freedom from the stultifying constraints of essentialist metaphysics need not be identified as valorization of total disorder.

Nietzsche's essay "On the Use and Abuse of History for Life", the second of his Untimely Meditations is primarily a warning against such mislocated conceptions of freedom. For Nietzsche this type of historical, ironical sensibility divorced from any teleological drive, leaves us with a mere overwhelming sense of the accomplishments of the past with no sense of the possibility of having our own distinct voice and destiny, condemned to see ourselves as epigones free of the very illusions that gave our ancestors their creative vitality.
Close behind the pride of modern man there stands his ironic view of himself, his awareness that he has to live in an historicizing twilight mood. [UM, II, 7]
In this vein we become for Nietzsche "men of learning, the exhausted hens" [UM, II, 7] whose "buildings are carted together not constructed." [UM, II, 7]

The negative metaphor of the building as a decentered collection, as a mere assemblage of disparate materials lacking and unifying plan or form runs counter to the whole postmodern appropriation of Nietzsche. It runs counter to the postmodern configuration of Nietzsche as a prophet of an architecture of bricolage, the ironical assembling of mannered references to past genres and forms, championed by Kolb in particular. For Nietzsche the strength to achieve a natural unity, an organizing force within the competing drives, is a precondition for the appearance of genuine subjects, genuine cultures; "true culture must in any event presuppose unity of style" [UM, I, 2]. Where Kolb celebrates the notion of unrestrained pluralism, Nietzsche observes "In the end modern man drags around with him a huge quantity of indigestible stones" [UM, II, 4]. Such beings, for Nietzsche "resemble a field of ruins" [UM, III, 6]. It is the lack of integration that leads Nietzsche in the same place to claim "our modern culture.... is no real culture" and later to contrast our present situation with the ancient Greeks with the observation that "Hellenic culture was no mere aggregate.... The Greeks gradually learned to organize the chaos" [UM, II, 10].17

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