Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Philosopher for Everyone and No One

Despite all the varying interpretations, however, a general trend holds true: whatever Nietzsche was, he is not easy to categorize politically. In fact, it seems that it is precisely because of all these different Nietzsches that the only consensus that can be manufactured out of this diversity is that Nietzsche must be regarded, in some sense, as uncategorizable. Nietzsche is obviously not a socialist, nor a leftist in any conventional sense, nor certainly not a liberal, and, of course, Nietzsche is not a conservative.

Or is he?

Dunh-dunh-dunh! Thus begins the latest round of "Pin the Ideological Tail on Nietzsche." Personally, I would recommend against playing that game. It's an awful lot of motivated reasoning to go through for very little payoff in terms of genuine understanding. Besides, I think a trifling website like Salon has a trademark on these kinds of "Historical Figure X would totally have voted for Y" cotton-candy essays; you might find yourself slapped with a lawsuit for infringing on intellectual property rights.

Averbeck notes that both right and left seem united in agreement that Nietzsche, whatever else you want to say about him, was not "conservative" in any meaningful sense, but rather than taking this as a strong hint that her tendentious revisionism should just be allowed to die in the crib, she chalks this up to some sort of academic elitist stranglehold on the Nietzsche-interpretation industry. Well, as I've said many times, I'm just a nobody with a high-school diploma, and I'd also place this concept in "not even wrong" territory. Was there anything cautious, sober and restrained about his writing? How many examples would suffice to illustrate his incompatibility with conservatism's major themes? Hell, is there really any usefulness in proceeding as if "conservatism" has always meant the same thing, been concerned with the same issues, whether in late-18th-century Britain, late-19th-century Germany, or early-21st-century America? Or does "conservative" mean little more than "here there be dragons" on this particular intellectual map? (Actually, given Corey Robin's fatuous roster of conservative all-stars approvingly quoted by Averbeck, that might not be too far off; more on that in a moment.) Like Brian Leiter said, he was primarily concerned with questions of value and culture. Political considerations per se were simply absent from his work.

Anyway, whatever. People who consider taxonomy more important than context and understanding aren't worth the trouble to argue with. Besides, I've had a lingering cold for a couple weeks and don't have the energy to get exasperated over this.

So, I outsourced the exasperation to my buddy Arthur:

Where to start? How could you even begin to un-fuck this piece of U.S. Intellectual History twaddle? First of all, taking seriously, even if in the case of Nietzsche taking exception to, (Corey) Robin’s book, which states at the outset: “I seat philosophers, statesmen, slaveholders, scribblers, Catholics, fascists, evangelicals, businessmen, racists and hacks at the same table: Hobbes next to Hayek, Burke across from Palin, Nietzsche in between Ayn Rand and Antonin Scalia, with Adams, Calhoun, Oakeshott….”

Burke, champion of the American Revolution, bitter enemy of Colonial exploitation in the person of Warren Hastings, champion of the Irish, the man who prophetically saw the seeds of totalitarianism in the Jacobins with their template combination of violence and propaganda, is seated at the same table with the intellectual powerhouse, Sarah Palin, and with “the fascists," "slaveholders," and "scribblers"? ("Scribblers" really sets the tone here: we're obviously on the intellectual high ground.)

Surely this book is a parody, a joke? No one would seriously sit down and write a simple-minded hyper-PC piece of propaganda and mean it, and get it published, and receive po-faced reviews? And surely this article is meant as a Nietzschean joke? The author is reluctantly compelled by intellectual honesty to conclude that Nietzsche is “still some kind of conservative.” Note the rigorous qualifier, the crucial philosophical nuance… Some kinda...

Who the fuck are these people, who don’t even feel the need to define “conservative”? They just utter it like the most self-evidently damning imprecation, like a Calvinist crying, “Satan!” The simple-mindedness is breathtaking.

And how carelessly do you have to read The Closing of the American Mind to come away with the idea that Bloom viewed Nietzsche “as a threat that had to be vanquished”? How many times in that book does Bloom express the deepest respect for him as a great philosopher, perhaps (with the exception of Heidegger, in his view) the last great philosopher? His whole point is to contrast the gravitas of Nietzsche announcing the death of God and the consequent un-groundedness of values with the shallow, glib nihilism of his American successors and soi-disant disciples, who take the death of God to mean the world is a shopping mall where you mix-and-match any old values that catch your consumerist fancy?

And the idea that Nietzsche was primarily concerned with culture and the seriousness of the esthetic aspect of life is just not on the table—all estheticism is bourgeois estheticism: case closed. “The birth of the Reich [1870] was the death of German culture.” Nietzsche despised politics in general. Apolitical? Does not compute. You’re either a faux-Leftist or a cartoon-devil Conservative.

Here's the late, iron-lunged Deleuze:

It is his [aphoristic] method that makes Nietzsche’s text into something not to be characterized in itself as “fascist,” “bourgeois,” or “revolutionary,” but to be regarded as an exterior field where fascist, bourgeois, and revolutionary forces meet head on. If we pose the problem this way, the response conforming to Nietzsche’s method would be: find the revolutionary force. The problem is always to detect the new forces that come from without, that traverse and cut across the Nietzschean text within the framework of the aphorism. The legitimate misunderstanding here, then, would be to treat the aphorisms as a phenomenon, one that waits for new forces to come and “subdue” it, or to make it work, or even to make it explode.

Never mind the fact that I’m no fan of Deleuze anymore, and find his use of the word “revolutionary” absolutely facile, as it is with all modern Leftists except those who "seriously" advocate the violent overthrow of Capitalism, etc., and then you’re talking about a clown named Zizek, who I’m sure secretly—or not so secretly—laughs at his own huxterism and the ease with which he puts it over on the Lumpen-Left. (He's a Communist, says Eagleton proudly. What, you mean he spouts Communist rhetoric, that makes him a Communist? Of course, the world is just one big talk show, and Zizek's act is "I am a Communist.")

But it’s also Deleuze who includes Nietzsche in a trinity of thinkers who have been crucially influential on modern thought, along with Marx and Freud. The reason Nietzsche still has a future, while Marx and Freud belong to the past, he points out, is that Marx and Freud were obsessed with building institutions, with indoctrinating people with their ideas, and in doing so they mummified those ideas into dogma suitable for creating simplistic movements and schools—which proceeded to discredit ideas that were already self-discredited by their own dogmatic arrogance. Nietzsche’s thought, on the other hand, never dogmatized itself, was and remains mercurial and up for grabs. Yet there is a fundamental gravitas, an anguished human concern and an awareness of the stakes, that keeps him from being a dilettante—as Bloom illustrates brilliantly, in my view.

Then there’s the last little bit of twaddle—so it’s elitist of the academic elite to adjudicate whether or not Nietzsche was conservative? VIRTUE-SIGNALING ALERT. HYPOCRISY ALERT. That’s what makes sanctimonious liberal puritans continually feel like they’ve stuck their finger in a light socket when they read Nietzsche. He, unlike them, is avowedly an elitist. Nietzsche never tells lies, never uses euphemisms, never tries to win points for being good.  He never sugar-coats, in fact, delights in putting his case in the most extreme, provocative way. That’s the scandal, not his imaginary connection with the Nazis or, much more seriously, Loughner! (It’s also God’s fault that thousands have murderers have claimed He told them to pull the trigger, right? God is very conservative.)

And Nietzsche, after all, was trying to transcend all values, right?

Uh, wrong. First of all, Nietzsche very deliberately used the word “overcome” to avoid the religious baggage that “transcend” carries. Second, he did not propose “transcending” all values, anything but. “Man is the value-making animal.” We can’t help creating values. We would rather will nothingness than not will at all. The point is that we have to be courageous enough to posit values in the absence of any metaphysical grounding or sanction from God. We have to commit ourselves to those values while knowing that they are just that—values and not eternal verities, Platonic Ideas existing somewhere outside of this world. And for Nietzsche some values are obviously better than others: life-affirming values, including the ultimate affirmation of one’s existence that wills its eternal return.