Why is Nietzsche’s style and aesthetic “jolts” so often misunderstood by postmodern academics? Indeed, Nietzsche is rendered as the postmodern philosopher of “perspectival truth,” the notion that our shifting ground of truth is characterized by an irremediable alienation from centered, communal, or even Cartesian doubting truth formation, or epistemology. There is also the Fascist Nietzsche of the high modernist literature who equate Nietzcshe’s corpus with a sort of German nationalism, and his superman and Zarathustra with the Third Reich of blood, instinct, and the will-to-power taken to its limits as a transcendence of the modern rationalist society, a digressive harkening back to some mythical state of living in accordance with the refined virtues of the superman. There is a third camp of interpretation that renders Nietzsche the first postmodern atheist. This is the camp which I fear is the most inaccurate, of course they rival the Fascist camp. The death of God when understood from the perspective of a critique of epistemology and social power is a fundamentally different notion than some naive interpretation of the death of God as meaning the death of the metaphysical presence of God. No, Nietzsche’s “death of God” is an analytical account of a particular prevailing interpretation of social power and an interpretation of values during his time. It is not a pessimistic or even nihilistic statement on the eternal death of a Judeo-Christian God. On the contrary, Nietzsche was seeking to develop a humanistic philosophy that put in context his particular era’s relationship to a distinct version of a Judeo-Christian God.
Recently, Slavoj Zizek’s Short Circuit Series – or studies in parallax readings of Lacan have come out with what I would argue is a fourth reading of Nietzsche — a reading that paints Nietzsche as a metapsychologist. After all, what does Nietzsche’s discussion of the will, the Zarathustra, Superman, and the shortest shadow teach us if anything? In The Shortest Shadow: Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the Two, Alenka Zupancic reveals a Nietzsche of the event, a thinker who’s Zarathustra is still able to speak with perfect clarity and prescience.
The Lacanian triad of the real, symbolic, and imaginary dimensions of psychic space, (a triad that Nietzsche inaugurated pre-Freud and which came to constitute the unconscious and the basis of psychoanalysis) is the mprimary avenue Zupancic follows in her treatment of the late Nietzsche. Alenka in particular sheds light on the role of the ascetic ideal –- which as we come to learn is the key to unlocking the Nietzschean corpus. From understanding what Nietzsche meant by the ascetic ideal, the predicament of good and evil, the superman, Zarathustra, and the “midday” become much more clear.
Subjectivity: A Shifting Subjectivity, But Where Does it Shift?
In avant garde manifestos such as The Society of the Spectacle, or or even in installation art, such as Duchamp’s toilet, a certain level of irony is tested to a degree that what the writer-as-activist is doing is sublating his own ego. By replacing the ego with the subject-work itself, the subject becomes the art object itself. The subalted ego into the art work is then the “event” of the subject transposing itself into the art-as-object. By “event” Alenka is referencing Badiou here who’s formulation of the event is inherently Nietzschean. As such, the event must be imminent to what it revolutionizes.
Or to put it in more precise Nietzschean terms: the event must locate the point of the inner limit of a given discourse, and activate it as the exact locus of creation.
Thus, the Nietzschean declaration of the event is exactly where the dimension of the real (in Lacan’s triad) comes about. To take an example from love: when we fall in love, the dimension of the real is the ground on which we are standing when we declare love. This is the same as the notion that Kant develops of the perspective apropos of the spectator in the Conflict of the Faculties.
In observing the French revolution, Kant recognized that the dimension of the real was not the empirical events of the beheadings and terror of the actual revolution; rather, it was the adulation for the event of the French revolution to that of the spectator.
“The recent Revolution of a people which is rich in spirit, may well either fail or succeed, accumulate misery and atrocity, it nevertheless arouses in the heart of all spectators (who are not themselves caught up in it) a taking of sides according to desires which borders on enthusiasm and which, since its very expression was not without danger, can only have been caused by a moral disposition within the human race.”
Kant from the Contest of Faculties, 1789
Zizek claims this perspective of the other as the dimension of the real will always depend on a fetishist disavowal. I’ll now move to a much more abstract level of this point which I hope stays consistent: in the moment of realization of the event, as we learn from the midday metaphor, or that which enables us to witness life in all of its radical contingency. By combining this theoretical constellation that links Lacan’s jouissance, (an extension of Nietzche’s libido) with Hegel’s philosophy of radical opposites – i.e. “the spirit is a bone” we find a very interesting parallax insight. The spirit is a bone means that there is a spirit (subject) only insofar as there is some material, inert leftover that resists a spiritual sublation/appropriation/mediation. Hence, the object is not external to the subject, it is its internal limit, and the bar by which it prevents the subject’s full realization.
The object (cause of desire) is no longer the materialization of the void as commonly understood. The object falls out of place but what happens in its wake is that the object takes the place of the missing void, it occupies the void, the missing space. This is what is called the passage a la act – which is the same process that the suicidal dialectic form follows, this is also “creative sublimation” in a late capitalist form.
The sign that all artists are seeking to fill in the sacred place is a sign that we operate in a symbolic order that is no longer active. We operate in a symbolic order where every presence represents it’s potential absence simultaneously.
In this context of a post symbolic order, we resurrect (no irony intended)Nietzche’s midday, or the event where man is given the choice to choose between the real and semblance. The midday is always a double choice, a polarity split between between embracing contingency or necessity. The messiah (as Walter Benjamin calls the moment of the midday, in all of his apocalyptic philosophical madness) is always a contemporary moment of our being. It enables us to see possible worlds.
Yet, what is at play in the Nietzschean event? It is not a radical recognition of the ego, or a sort of temporal asymmetry, rather, the subject, in experiencing the event must travel to take place as this other thing, but does not neccesarily submerge with it. It is not recognizing oneself in the other thing but it is becoming it that characterizes the Nietzschean event. Hence, the other thing is the subject itself, and this is where we see Nietzche’s distinct subjectivity, in particular his difference from Hegel’s notion of recognition of the other in the Phenomenology of Spirit.
The Logic of the Two:
Nietzsche’s logic of the two is repeated in a temporal time loop. The very core of truth consists of a temporal paradox. As Lacan says, “the truth is that which runs after truth.” This simply means that the subject will appears in her full essence in the realm of the real from which she was inaugurated at some other time. Thus, the event is always a holding together of two things at their extreme points. The realm of the “beyond of good and evil” is the edge of these two points. The very possibility of a fixed relationship implies their relationship as such.
The subject, as we explored above is the moment when there is a split. The first mention of eternal recurrence happened in Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, he appeared as a gateway called moment – a point at which two paths meet. This is eternity, or eternal recurrence. The event then is the point where the two link and become eternal. Thus, the first subject becomes a subject if and only when the second subject emerges.
Nihilism as Trouble with Truth:
What is the crisis of values? The crisis of values occurs when there is an absence of a power or mechanism for creating values. Truth is not a matter of epistemology but is concerned with courage – error is not blindness, error is cowardice. Truth is thus an ethical category that has always been forbidden. For the first time we find in Nietzsche that truth is an existential category.
Nietzsche’s philosophy should not be considered an attempt to overcome nihilism, rather his thought holds within itself the real of a different condition that has yet to be thought. Christianity as dogma was destroyed by its own moralism.
Regarding the misunderstood notion that Nietzsche is the Godfather of the notion that all truth is somehow perspectival truth: Alenka points out rightly that what Nietzsche was really after was the idea that there is a perspective out there that belongs to no particular subject. Nietzsche’s problem in this context is similar to Kant’s notion that there can only be knowledge of reality from a knowledgeable subject. What Nietzsche points out is that what an object looks like from the middle, not from its cause and effect position, that there is a decentered truth “out there.” True knowledge in the centered subject is inherently incompatible with first turning things into our images, and this predicament is similar to the problem of modern art –- how do we access the world in some other way outside of the image?
The more skilled we are at changing subjects and knowing, the more we are able to embody the event. This is an existential exercise – a la Sartre…
The way in which our subjectivity is inscribed is different than the perspective of truth that we embody. The problem is the way in which we as subjects are inscribed into the things we are seeing. Of course we can digress for hours into the Lacanian gaze, but Alenka does not overdo this parallax connection. The point of view of the gaze and our perspective do not coincide in Nietzsche.
In this sense, since the object is not whole, it could be said that the search for knowledge is like desire in the Lacanian sense. What eludes our knowledge of the object is our own gaze. Since all objects are constructed in the discourse that describes them then there is such a thing as truth that is limited to the finite discourses that construct our apprehension of the world – a la Foucault.
The Problem of Truth:
The problem of truth is nothingness as such. The central dichotomy between something and nothing is the predicament of truth. Nothingness inhabits truth, and since Christianity placed God in the place of truth, the will has been in constant struggle with nihilism. Alenka cleverly replaces will with desire in the Lacanian sense and we notice that the two or philosophy of the two is the constant splitting of two poles, the nothing and the something which form the dichotomy of the semblance and the real. The ascetic ideal then declares war between the real and the semblance.
The process for confronting the truth-appearance dichotomy is like a nihilistic machine leading to infinite regression. The nihilistic standpoint is a machine for producing nothing. As in Lacan’s corpus, to Nietzsche, the real cannot be maintained through simply consciously differentiating the imaginary/symbolic.
Nietzsche reconciles the truth/appearance dichotomy by the philosophy of the two – since life is qualified by negation, and for a force to become active, it must not be capable of affirming its own becoming. True affirmation can only be an activist, a constant becoming. We can only get to truth by eliminating that which was stated and bringing it to a higher level.
The problem lies in the predicament that truth is constitutive of speech. Hence by telling the truth we tell more than the truth. As Lacan argued, there are two dimensions to telling the truth:
1. Avering one’s enjoyment, and to tell us something that should allow us to make a judgment about the subject’s enjoyment.
2. That she should tell us as much about her perspective as possible.
It is the doubleness to truth that is the real. Truth is always a double statement. The nihilistic surplus seeks to place truth on one side and the knowledge of enjoyment surplus on the other.
At what point is beyond good and evil merely transgressing the good? we start with the will to appearances, to masks, to cloaks, this will to ignorance can actually be another will to truth, whereby truth embodies appearances itself. Nihilism is the effort to make meaning in everything even though sense cannot be found in it. Hence, one of the imperatives of beyond good and evil is transcendence beyond meaning itself. The state of nihilism is being caught between good and evil.
Truth as the Freudian thing will probably kill us, but it is this basis of truth that we should measure our courage against. Hence the phrase that truth is always a matter of courage. In the Nietzschean paradigm, we must use negativity as it is the only way that we can deduce the two from the one of truth-as-appearance.