This is the fourth in a series of posts on postmodernism. It follows a post on the politics of Nietzsche.
The leading lights of postmodernism politely overlook the vileness of Nietzsche’s far-right politics, or explain it away, because his philosophical ideas furnish them with ammunition against Marxism and other theories of human liberation. Like them, Nietzsche wanted to undermine the moral value and practical possibility of socialism; they draw heavily on Nietzsche’s interlinked attack on humanism, human reason, and materialism (the idea that a material world definitely exists, and we can know true things about it; this will be the subject of a future post).
Nietzsche’s hostility to materialism
Nietzsche denied the existence of a social or even natural reality beyond the surface appearances of nineteenth century German capitalism. “The ‘apparent’ world is the one and only: the ‘true’ world is only a mendacious gloss.” (quoted Lukacs Destruction of Reason*) He tied the philosophy of materialism to Christianity: he ridiculed what he called the Beyond, in which he equated the kingdom of God, socialism, and a definite, knowable material world. Thus we cannot identify trends beneath the surface of events that might show us how to transform society. In fact, social change takes place only within the closed circle of “eternal recurrence”: there will be a return to barbarism and slavery, but never equality.
The will to power
The potential for solidarity amongst the working people is another illusion. The collective interest is at best an unstable by-product of individual rivalry. For the heart of reality is the capitalist marketplace, where everyone competes with everyone else, but which is now pumped up into a grand philosophical concept: the “will to power”.
My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (-its will to power:) and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement (“union”) with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they then conspire together for power. (Will to Power 636*)
The “herd” can never reach the collective understanding of society that would be required for democratic, revolutionary change. We are all trapped within “perspectivity” or “perspectivism”: everyone’s perception, and hence their reality and truth, are different. Reason, the Enlightenment’s great weapon for social change, is no good either. Truth and falsehood are indistinguishable. Logic does not allow us to grasp reality, because logic consists of static categories, whereas reality is fluid.
In order to be able to think and draw conclusions, it is necessary to acknowledge that which exists: logic only deals with formulae for things which are constant. That is why this acknowledgment would not in the least prove reality: “that which is” is part of our optics… The character of the world in the process of Becoming is not susceptible to formulation: it is “false” and “ contradicts itself”. (WP 477, 517).
None of this need paralyse the forces of right wing reaction. They need only a pragmatic, whatever-works-for-us concept of reality, and that is just what Nietzsche offers. Activity, Nietzsche says, does not just reveal but actually creates truth: “we can only take cognisance of a world we ourselves have made”. One truth prevails over other only be dint of superior force behind it. And a belief may be “pragmatically ‘life-preserving’ and still be false: (WP 483, 495). Indeed, some false ideas are pragmatically necessary. “Truth is that kind of error without which a certain species of living beings cannot exist” (493, 520). Myth on the other hand has an operational value and is therefore real. The Goddess Eris “spurs even the inept to work… neighbour competes with neighbour… one potter will resent another, one carpenter the other, beggar envies beggar and singer envies singer” (quoted Lukacs Destruction of Reason)
For Nietzsche the will to power also neatly solves an uncomfortable ambiguity in the concept of bourgeois individualism. For while individualism has the benefit of cutting across worker solidarity, it also leads to notions of personal worth that can only be a nuisance in the heads of “slaves”. The human subject, Nietzsche says, is a “fiction”, an incoherent bundle of drives and forces “whose interaction and struggle lie at the bottom of our thought and our consciousness in general” (485, 490). Only a great will – a man of power, or a great artist can weave these threads together, in an act of self-creation; members of the herd cannot.
Ditching personality as a general human characteristic, Nietzsche focuses on the body: “the richer, more distinct, and more tangible phenomenon” (WP 489), a later focus for Foucault and other postmodernists.
Nietzsche and postmodernism
References to “slaves” are embarrassing to the postmodernists. These people are not driven, like Nietzsche, to bring on a bestial, unbridled attack on the workers’ movement. They just wanted arguments to bring down theories of human liberation, to supply a philosophical rationale for the political retreat of the late 1970s and 1980s, which ushered in the neoliberal era. This is where Nietzsche’s rantings delight them. There is nothing to be oppressed, nothing to liberate. There are no solid truths to support a challenge to the whole social system, just the eternal prison of the will to power. We can choose small issues to fight over, but the big picture will never change.
The other main theoretical underpinning to postmodernism was the structuralist theories popular in the early to mid-1960s, and these will be the topic the next post in this series.
*The Will to Power is a long list of numbered epigrams. Since these stay the same between different editions of the book, they are handier to use than page numbers. The exact wording changes, of course, between different translations. The epigrams quoted above were taken from an old edition, TN Foulis London 1910. The Will to Power was published posthumously by Nietzsche’s sister, leading to allegations that she meddled with the text to advance her more explicit racism and more focused commitment to German imperialism. The text of The Will to Power is however consistent with the rest of Nietzsche’s works.
**Lukács published The Destruction of Reason in 1952. The book traces the history of the major irrationalist currents of thought over the preceding two centuries,up to the rise of Nazism. In the early 1920s Lukacs made important contributions to Marxist theory through books such as History and Class Consciousness. Afterwards he bent the knee to Stalin. The Destruction of Reason is nonetheless one of the most useful I have come across for understanding the background to postmodernism. Fortunately the chapter on Nietzsche is available free online