The future is subhuman

Malcolm Bull, Anti-Nietzsche, Verso, London & New York, 2011. 256 pp., £14.99 hb., 978 1 85984 574 5.

This is an intriguing book, and its principal thesis is highly provocative. My reaction to it is an ambivalent one: there are aspects of the book that are to be greatly welcomed, such as its exposition of Nietzsche as a deeply anti-Left thinker and of what is required to resist Nietzsche; but there are other aspects that are regressive, including some of the methods the author deploys to execute his exposition. For Bull although there have been an abundance of post-Nietzscheans keen to appropriate Nietzsche for their own agendas, there have been few post- Nietzschean anti-Nietzscheans – ‘critics whose response is designed not to prevent us from getting to Nietzsche, but to enable us to get over him’. Everything depends, according to the author, on how we position ourselves in relation to Nietzsche’s reactionary agenda. For Bull it is clear that Nietzsche is the enemy of the Left, and of the progressive forces of socialism and feminism. His core argument is that Nietzsche does not solve the problem of nihilism and bring it to a point of completion – Heidegger’s thesis, which construes Nietzsche as the fateful last metaphysician of the West – but rather merely arrests it. How do we understand the ‘sense’ of the world? Surely it must reside in it, as when Wittgenstein says, as cited by Bull, that ‘everything is as it is, and everything happens as it does happen’. If the sense of the world lies indeed in it, then, argues the author, the meaning of the world can only be given by the things in it. For Bull this means that ‘the meaning of the world is a question of population, and that arguments about its meaning must be determined through its demography and ecology’.

Why the emphasis on nihilism? Because, the author contends, nonsense has taken the place of sense and we have a condition where meaning is located outside the world as it is. For Nietzsche this is due to the ‘slave revolt in morals’, and results, as he puts it in the first essay  of On the Genealogy of Morality, in a situation where the sight of the human now makes us tired and weary. This is nihilism. For Bull the task is not to save Nietzsche or ourselves from the need to work through nihilism, so as eventually to conquer and overcome it, but to make thought as negative as possible and to do so by espousing the cause of what the author calls ‘negative ecology’. Bull thus contends that Nietzsche’s ecology ‘can always be undermined by one that is more negative still’. The innovation of the book’s argument is to suggest that there is no good reason why the nihilism of Nietzsche should continue to function as the limit-philosophy of the modern imaginary. Moreover, a humanist response to what Nietzsche exposes and provokes is inadequate, necessitating the move to a negative ecology that is subhuman, and in which nihilism moves beyond scepticism and toward failure.

Bull follows Geoff Waite in holding that the main impediment to the development of an anti- Nietzscheanism is that readers trust him. Nietzsche offers his readers an identification with the ‘masters’ and so an imaginative liberation from the social, moral and economic constraints that usually confine individuals. Most readers are thus reading for victory, ‘struggling to wrest success from the text by making themselves the heroes of Nietzsche’s narrative’. Did Nietzsche not want future ‘masters of the earth’, and have not the majority of readers, including those of a left persuasion who are so denigrated in Nietzsche’s texts, taken themselves to be such masters? Bull proposes a drastic alternative to the established strategy: to read Nietzsche like a loser. The task is to read for victory against ourselves, to make ourselves the victims of the text in which we don’t accept the argument but turn its consequences against ourselves. We do not, then, conceive ourselves as dynamite but regard ourselves as getting hurt from an explosion and so feel, as readers, powerless and vulnerable. So, when we read Nietzsche excoriating the victims of life, the downtrodden and broken ones, we will think primarily of ourselves. Rather ‘than being an exhilarating vision of the limitless possibilities of human emancipation, Nietzsche’s texts will continually remind us of our own weakness and mediocrity’. Instead of identifying ourselves with hard creators, we will identify only with the fragile creature in the human being. And, perhaps most perversely, we will regard ourselves as philistines unable to appreciate the so-called aesthetic dimension of life. The task in life, then, is to fail and to affirm the failure. In contrast to Nietzsche’s fantasies about species perfection and purification through selective breeding, we will position ourselves not only outside contemporary culture but outside the human species altogether. If the superhumanization of man fills us with dread, then the dehumanization of man into a herd animal strikes us ‘as offering a welcome respite from a cruel predator and opening up new possibilities for subhuman sociality’. In short, the ultimate task is not to become more than human but to become less than human.

The heart of Bull’s book is to be found in chapters 3 and 4, on ‘Negative Ecologies’ and ‘Subhumanism’ respectively. Here the author shows himself to be a skilful and instructive reader of the problem of nihilism. As he rightly notes, Nietzsche transforms a recent neologism into a world-historical category. Bull further contends that Nietzsche’s interest in nihilism – whose writings on it are largely confined to his Nachlass, as the long opening part of The Will to Power testifies – needs to be viewed in the context of a wave of international anxiety evident at the time; one which can be compared to the fascination we have seen since the start of the new century with Islamic terrorism. Again, he rightly notes that Nietzsche is novel in locating the origins and causes of nihilism not on some remote steppe (the Russian nihilists) but deep within the course of European civilization itself, namely in the Christian-moral interpretation of the world and the entire morality of compassion that he sees as heading towards a European Buddhism. (Here, I would add to Bull’s account: is Nietzsche not guilty of, according to Schopenhauer’s metaphysics, a worldhistorical significance it hardly merits?) Bull notes well Nietzsche’s difficulty in responding to European nihilism: how does one find a way out that is not itself nihilistic? If nihilism is yet to be completed, then attempts to bring it to an end may serve only to perpetuate it. Nietzsche is not the only thinker in the latter part of the nineteenth century to be perturbed by growing pessimistic suspicion towards the human animal grounded in statements on the futility of human existence. In a remarkably progressive text of 1887, which Nietzsche read, The Non-Religion of the Future, Jean-Marie Guyau reflected critically: ‘If all is vanity, nothing, after all, is more vain than to be completely conscious that all is vanity.’ However, Nietzsche is the only philosopher I know of this time to welcome nihilism and actually embrace it. In one sketch he conceives nihilism as a tremendous purifying movement in which nothing could be more useful or more to be encouraged than a thoroughgoing practical nihilism (also conceived by him as a contagious nihilism). Furthermore, he castigated all attempts to avoid a confrontation with nihilism, holding that such developments only served to make matters worse. As a form of ‘incomplete nihilism’, he included socialism in his list of such nihilisms. For Nietzsche, socialism is a teaching addressed to transient individuals who devote all the energies of existence to living a solely ephemeral life and a life of socialization. It aims at a this-worldly solution to the problem of existence that is designed to pacify, placate and make things as easy as possible. Because it seeks only to preserve life, a socialist society would have to be one that is anti-life. Socialism has its roots in life, as it must do so, and yet it would cut off its own roots. Although it aspires to create the secular counterpart to Jesuitism, in which everyone is to be a perfect instrument, the purpose and the wherefore of existence have not been ascertained.

As Bull notes, Nietzsche’s most fundamental project is the revaluation of all values. He contends that this can be regarded as an ecological project on account of the fact that it recognizes the interdependence of values and considers the question of value in biological terms, specifically from the standpoint of conditions of both preservation and enhancement for complex forms of relative life-duration within the flux of becoming. In particular, the ecological task for Nietzsche, according to Bull, is one of cultivating – or ‘breeding’, in more sinister terms – a master species that will enslave the rest of the world (since the higher type is only possible through the subjugation of the lower). Bull cites from The Will to Power where Nietzsche outlines the task of a new aristocracy that is based on the severest selflegislation as one of employing democratic Europe as a pliant and supple instrument ‘for getting hold of the destinies of the earth, so as to work as artists upon “man” himself’.

Bull deals explicitly with the question of whether his own anti-Nietzsche programme of negative ecology amounts to little more than the most perverse of dystopian agendas. He thinks this would be to commit a hasty judgement. He sees Nietzsche himself already dealing critically with a burgeoning negative ecology in his own time, centred on the influence of Rousseau (whom he wrote contra), the French Revolution (which he was decidedly anti), and the abolition of slavery (which he regarded as undermining the values and happiness of a different and higher human type). Nietzsche’s ecology of value is a specific one, and here Bull seems to me to capture it accurately: ‘Only if society is detotalised and redivided into the community of the strong and the undifferentiated mass of the weak can the conditions for value creation be sustained.’ Or, as Nietzsche himself wrote, society should not be allowed to exist for the sake of society but rather as the foundation and scaffolding on which a select type of being can raise itself to a higher task and higher state of being (see Beyond Good and Evil, section 258). As Bull astutely notes, this makes Nietzsche a profoundly antisocial thinker: ‘The boundaries of society must be constricted in order to sustain the flower of value. For the anti-Nietzschean, however, the argument will go the other way. The boundaries of society must be extended in order to decrease the possibility of value.’

A number of criticisms could be made of the book. The opening of chapter 2, entitled ‘Anti-Nietzsche’, is perhaps typical of the author’s approach to his subject. He begins by noting that although Nietzsche was opposed to everyone, he himself has been met with remarkably little opposition. Furthermore:

Of course, the monster had to be tamed, and Nietzsche’s thought has been cleverly reconstructed so as to perpetually evade the evils perpetrated in his name. Even those philosophies for which he consistently reserved his most biting contempt – socialism, feminism and Christianity – have sought to appropriate their tormentor. Almost everybody now claims Nietzsche as one of their own; he has become what he most wanted to be – irresistible.

Here one can note a number of rhetorical exaggerations, as well as ill-informed judgements. First, what does it mean to say that Nietzsche was ‘opposed to everyone’? Does this extend to the likes of Goethe and Napoleon, typically presented as heroes in his writings but also not immune to criticism from him on occasion? And, of course, Nietzsche has met with a great deal of opposition since the Nietzsche cult began at the end of the nineteenth century, including from Marxist critics such as Lukács, who regarded Nietzsche’s fundamental doctrine of eternal recurrence as a piece of monumental triviality. (Indeed, Bull even mentions some of his recent critics, including, in North America, Geoff Waite writing on Nietzsche’s corpse, and, in Europe, Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut’s text entitled ‘Why We Are Not Nietzscheans’.) At the same time, Bull makes no efforts in this book to understand why generations of socialists and feminists have found Nietzsche’s texts an appealing source of novel and emancipatory ideas.

Overall, Bull is in the habit of writing as if it was still an earlier moment and the massive intellectual engagement with Nietzsche that has taken place in recent decades – with critical studies on almost everything from Nietzsche on Christianity to Nietzsche and Darwinism – had not taken place. Tellingly, he refers to very few critical studies in the course of the book. Instead, Bull seems to want to frighten readers away from Nietzsche, and so goes in for shock tactics; writing, for example, that Nietzsche’s vision of the future included provision for the extermination of vermin, when there is nothing in the texts to support such a claim. At least in these respects, his book can only be described as a regressive exercise – something much in evidence in his overreliance on The Will to Power. Elsewhere his efforts to provoke the reader are a little more nuanced, as when, for instance, he cannily describes Nietzsche as a thinker who would have made a not uncritical Nazi: Nazism would have been too limited for his taste, being vulgar in expression, parochial in ambition and too petty in its cruelties.

Bull’s book is intellectually courageous in seeking to deal with Nietzsche’s anti-Left agenda – something rarely done in the literature, and which was a source of evasion in the appropriation of Nietzsche that marked ‘radical’ French philosophy in the 1960s and that gave rise to the so-called ‘continental’ Nietzsche or ‘new Nietzsche’ of the 1980s and 1990s. However, the book does not, of course, tell the whole story of Nietzsche. It is deliberately biased in favour of the late Nietzsche, and, as I have indicated, the Nietzsche of the Will to Power, which is the most questionable part of the corpus bequeathed to us: questionable as a text of Nietzsche’s and questionable as anything one could label as providing a reliable guide to his thinking. In addition to the late and largely polemical Nietzsche, there is also the progressive Nietzsche of the middle period, the author of highly neglected texts such as Human, All Too Human and Dawn or Daybreak. With a few exceptions Bull rarely refers to these texts. If he had done so he would not have been able to claim some of the things that he does, such as when he asserts that although Nietzsche came to distance himself from his earlier work – such as the artist’s metaphysics of his first book, The Birth of Tragedy – he never abandoned the idea that art was the only truly redemptive value in the world. This is not true. In his middle period (1878–82) Nietzsche explicitly signals the end of art and sets out to undermine many of the claims made on behalf of art. For the Nietzsche of Human, All Too Human, a future humanity may no longer require the forces upon which art depends, such as pleasure in lies, in imprecision, in the symbolic, in intoxication and in ecstasy. The critique of intoxication (Rausch) is extended in Dawn to states of the self, where the desire to lose the self is regarded by Nietzsche with tremendous suspicion, and in which those who live for sublime and enraptured moments are to be regarded as wretched and disconsolate souls, even half-mad fantasists. Here Nietzsche has decisively abandoned his youthful commitment to Dionysian ecstasies in favour of a newfound existential sobriety. Indeed, this middle period Nietzsche attacks all superhuman pretensions to self-invention and self-creation, fundamentally challenging the Oedipal fantasy of existing as one’s own mother and father. For this Nietzsche, human beings are essentially unknown to themselves, lacking in the most important knowledge: that of the limits of the human. Anticipating Freud, Nietzsche argues that we are not masters in our own house, let alone masters of the earth. Indeed, it is the desire for mastery that must be given up. The middle period Nietzsche has, in this way, a progressive agenda of moral and social transformation. It is, admittedly, far from being revolutionary (it goes in for small doses and slow cures), but at the same time it has unmistakable ‘radical’ aspects, as, for example, when Nietzsche calls for disarmament of Europe’s military machine and appeals to a democracy to come: ‘To disarm whilst being the best armed, out of an elevation of sensibility – that is the means to real peace.’ Moreover, ‘The tree of the glory of war be destroyed only at a single stroke, by a lightning-bolt: lightning, however … comes out of a cloud and from on high’ (The Wanderer and His Shadow). That which now calls itself democracy differs from older forms of government solely in that it drives with new horses: but the wheels are the same old wheels. Therefore, we can only posit as our aspiration a ‘democracy yet to come’, one that has excluded the vested interests of democracy as currently practised (the indigent, the rich and the political parties), and that has liberated itself from the closed interests that have taken hold of it and perverted it.

I would liked to have learned more about Bull’s motivations in writing this book. Why ‘anti-Nietzsche’ now? What reactionary forces and groupings centred on Nietzsche are at work at present, and, more than this, concertedly working against the progressive forces of the Left? I know of none. Nietzsche’s current influence is most in evidence in work in analytical philosophy – he appears to have ceased being a major influence in continental philosophy – and as far as I know there is no political movement or activity at work in this field of intellectual labour (the focus is largely on Nietzsche’s moral psychology and centred on topics such as Nietzsche and the drives). I concede that there is a highly obnoxious Nietzsche, but this seems a Nietzsche that now looks decidedly dated by his nineteenth-century context and by fantastical discourses on breeding and selection, and who is unlikely to exercise any serious influence on contemporary critical thinking. In spite of this set of criticisms, Bull’s book is a fascinating provocation, and one that will unsettle anyone schooled in Nietzsche through the so-called ‘continental’ tradition of philosophy or who has the ambition of being a master of the earth.