Review: Malcolm’s Bull’s Anti-Nietzsche (Verso, 2011)

In reading Nietzsche, one would never have thought to find Adorno pitted on the side of Nietzsche, but this is what one sees in the very first section of “Anti-Nietzsche” was a condemnation of the aesthetic as an attempt to defend other privileged but arbitrary notions of value. Anti-Nietscheanism is predicated first on seeing the manifestation of the aesthetic as a means of returning to “value” and defining power as the sovereign value over power. Bull’s thesis then proceeds wildly from there, but it is based on four premises that many readers of Nietzsche have wanted to avoid: that the “Will to Power” was a legitimate text despite the editorial hand of Nietzsche’s sister, two that we should take Nietzsche at his word at all times (like Italian scholars like Domenico Losurdo do), three that the reason why there are no anti-Nietzscheans is that both the Heideggerian readers of Nietzsche (Luc Nancy, Jacques Derrida, etc) and the other left readers of Nietzsche (who are rarely, if ever mentioned despite their influence such as Foucault, Bataille, Klossowski) apparently miss, and, four, that we need a leveling “negative” ecology that favors the Nietzsche’s positive ecology that privileges embracing the sub-human.

While well-written and interestingly, if idiosyncratically argued, Bull can’t seem to focus on his thesis long enough to fully develop what it means to read against Nietzsche to read as a sub-human. Not just to reject to Nietzsche’s vision of excellence, but to reject the domain of excellence itself. It seems like Bull cannot establish what this would mean except for a quip about letting the animals retake the art museums, or embracing the teaming mass of life under purely extra-utilitarian grounds, embracing the great beast and falling towards humanity. He briefly hints that some of this is implicit in Gramsci, and the idea of passive revolution (which Gramsci saw as tending either fascist or, as Trotskyists would put it, Bonapartist) as a means of embracing the non-heroic. The implications for this Bull doesn’t seem to be willing or perhaps able to articulate: What would such a political program look like? Is this a very complex restatement of the idea of the noble savage? Is this embracing a kind of Marxism beyond the proletarian to the bestial? It’s hard to say, and Bull doesn’t necessarily.

Yet hitting on the relationship between aesthetic value and economic value seems to be an articulation that is stated much more clearly and less abstractly in Pierre Bourdieu idea’s around social capital, but Bourdieu’s work doesn’t have the hints of an nihilistic, philistine, and hyper-egalitarianism with the non-human. Perhaps Peter Singer’s idea of the expending circle of empathy to all of life may apply here too, but then there is still a value there, so that isn’t as radical as Bull seems to want the negative ecology to be either. Oddly, so sub-humanism seems too demanding for even Bull to completely articulate.

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Posted on June 16, 2012, in Reviews. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Sounds interesting. You know, I read an interesting piece by Bull recently reviewing Stephen Gardiner’s latest book on climate change in the London Review of Books. He laid out a conceptual schema which, while almost surely too simplistic, I still found quite interesting and helpful.

    Bull uses three great political figures as exemplars of different political temporalities. It goes like this:

    1. Edmund Burke (conservatism): The tyranny of the past over the present and future. The authority of convention, tradition, respect, dignity, aristocratic virtue, etc.

    2. Thomas Paine (liberalism): The tyranny of the present over the past and future. The ability of every generation to decide for itself what to make of its existence, without honoring age-old irrational institutions or unfathomable future developments.

    3. Vladimir Lenin (radicalism/Marxism): The tyranny of the future over the past and present. The subordination of all means transmitted from the past (dead labor), and historical actors working in the present (living labor), toward the creation of an emancipated society.

    Obviously, this is a bit too neat. But again, it’s an interesting way of looking at things.

  2. Bull seems brilliant on ecology, but frankly a little just, well, trying to hard on philosophical applications of said ecology. He’s a truly good writer though, and I enjoyed the book despite the severe criticism of it.

    That Bull piece you cite is FAR more concrete than this Anti-Nietzsche book, and actually, quite a bit clearer. It’s helpful. Thanks.

  3. Also, Bull’s typology is similar to mind when I call liberalism “the current traditionalism” but perhaps, I should actually call it, “the traditionalism of the current” in that is both the dominant position in society, even as society moves right-ward, and it is tradition favoring the current as a orientation.

  4. Bull’s anti-liberalism gets the better of him here, because it means conflating conservatism and Leninism/futurism!

  5. See the discussion of Nietzsche by members of the Frankfurt School at:

    http://platypus1917.home.comcast.net/~platypus1917/nietzscheneed_frankfurtschool_constellations8_1.pdf

    Adorno says,

    “As with Nietzsche’s pathos, his concept of longing has for us something enigmatic about it; it is like a blind spot, as is the case with Ibsen. There is an element of art nouveau ornamentation with Nietzsche. As a precondition of the discussion we must acknowledge that Nietzsche’s entire discussion occurs in the realm of ideology. We must thereby ascertain the real motives that lie hidden beneath the ideological motives. Nietzsche’s critique of culture has, despite his categories, identified certain aspects of the social problematic that are not given per se in the critique of political economy. He has developed certain critical intentions farther than they have been elaborated in the post-Marxist tradition. We need to decipher Nietzsche in order to see what kind of fundamental experiences lie behind his approach. I believe that one will then arrive at things which are not so separate from the interest of most people. . . .

    “I believe that a dialectical relationship exists here. When all human beings have enough to eat, they will not be a mass of petty bourgeois philistines; the idea of being a petty bourgeois philistine would itself die out. Here precisely lies the motive that binds us to Nietzsche. Nietzsche stands in relationship to Bebel only in the sense that he uses him to specify those things that in reality are ideology. One can pinpoint in Nietzsche those elements where his theory is true. He perceives that not only democracy, but also socialism has become an ideology. One must formulate socialism in such a way that it loses its ideological character. In certain critical respects, Nietzsche progressed further than Marx, insofar as he had a greater aversion vis-à-vis the bourgeois. . . .

    “I would not wish to appropriate from Nietzsche concepts such as love and longing as positive correctives. Nietzsche does not reproach existing society with insufficient love, but its critics. To me this seems to contain a hint in the direction of something that goes beyond what is merely cloudy and vague. Nietzsche realized that the idea of socialism is tied to a concept of praxis that is not merely a reflection of contemporary society. Marx could say that it is naturally a reflection of society. On the other hand, it seems that already in Nietzsche’s day the whole nexus of concepts like praxis, organization, and so forth, showed a side whose implications are becoming only apparent today. Nietzsche withdrew from the demands of the day for the sake of advancing a number of the categories in question. He understood that, in and of itself, the concept of praxis is inadequate to differentiate between a barbarian and a nonbarbarian world. Precisely the point where he refused to provide his philosophy with prescriptive instructions is its moment of truth. All-inclusive, all-defining praxis has a tendency to continue to reproduce the form of domination over and above domination as such. The introjection of domination within persons means that they no longer have needs other than those prescribed by invisible domination. Nietzsche’s aversion for all questions having to do with man’s material existence certainly has its negative side, but it also shows that he understood that there is something bad about the concept of total praxis. Nietzsche places the whole question of the relationship between communism and anarchism in its second phase. Thus the seriousness of culture. Otherwise one runs the risk of transforming socialism into a pragmatism magnified to planetary dimensions.”

  6. The question would be not conservatism+Leninism/futurism contra liberalism/presentism, but rather liberalism/presentism+Leninism/futurism: how the liberal “tyranny of the present” actually opens onto an emancipated future. That’s what Bull (like the rest of the pseudo-”Left”) cannot grasp today. But it is Hegel’s question of “philosophical history” according to the struggle for freedom, which Marxism inherits.

  7. It seems obvious to me Chris that you are right that mere anti liberalism doesn’t hold. In fact, it ends up completely incoherent, or unspeakable, but what I don’t know is how one negatively cuts the way through the decline in liberal outcomes and thinking over time.

    On Adorno’s reading of Nietszsche, it’s pretty telling that Bull reads Adorno as unable to articualate a response to Nietzsche/Heideggar but then does not discuss the text quotes at all.

  1. Pingback: Malcolm Christ, or the Anti-Nietzsche | The Charnel-House

  2. Pingback: Notes to “Twilight of the Idoloclast? On the Left’s recent anti-Nietzschean turn” | The Charnel-House

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