culture, habit, history, institution, Nietzsche, pleasure, Serres, universal politics

Nietzsche’s Historical Chemistry and the International Scene


“Departure requires a rending that rips a part of the body from the part that still adheres to the shore where it was born, to the neighborhood of its kinfolk, to the house and the village with its customary inhabitants, to the culture of its language and to the rigidity of habit. Whoever does not get moving learns nothing, Yes, depart, divide yourself into parts. Your peers risk condemning you as a separated brother. You were unique and had a point of reference, you will become many, and sometimes incoherent, like the universe, which, it is said, exploded at the beginning in a big bang. Depart, and then everything begins, at least your explosion in worlds apart.” —Michel Serres, The Troubadour of Knowledge

From the start of Human All Too Human, Nietzsche sets up the task of burning the corpse of God and religion, along with its bastard son, metaphysics. To do this, Nietzsche not only raises the challenge to philosophy to become thoroughly historical and historicizing, but also challenges science to develop “a chemistry of the moral, religious and aesthetic conceptions and sensations, likewise of all the agitations we experience within ourselves in cultural and social intercourse, and indeed even when we are alone” (12). This chemistry and history would be directed especially toward the way in which the reason and imagination function together to produce metaphysical images that overcode the natural world. In other words, Nietzsche argues that because we impose moral, aesthetic and religious demands on the world, we have recreated it in light of these demands—this happens insofar as “it is the human intellect that has made appearance appear and transported its erroneous basic conceptions into things” (20).

This not only applies for these three specific overcodings. Even mathematics produces metaphysical illusions insofar as number imposes a false unity with arbitrary units of measure; however, it is only because these units are imposed with constancy that pure multiplicity can be subsumed under a number or set as a unity and still retain any utility. An example of an illusory unity is custom, defined as “the union of the pleasant and the useful” (52). This plurality exists as a unity insofar as custom is grounded in habit, which produces pleasant sensations because they integrate us within a collective. Custom takes on its power through the investments and productions of herd pleasure. It acts as a sort of arbitrary unifier—it forms a set of the multiple ways in which the social field produces a rhythm that corresponds with habits that legitimate themselves as useful. However, we can unfold or disentangle utility and any criteria relating to pleasure if we are able to create truly vital thought experiments that construct new ways of grouping together different values of the useful and pleasurable—maybe to the detriment of one or the other for the developing cultural forms that this sort of experimentation may produce. The question of the chemistry of social groups would consequently be concerned with the large molar aggregates of custom (representation) and the selection of the molecular flows of pleasure and utility that (de)compose custom and culture at large.

This is one path for this potential chemistry, but it is insufficient by itself because it presupposes a macropolitical view of situations and thus already relates our criteria to a pre-existing social body already pervaded with a dominant culture. On the micropolitical level, we could ask how to create along with this chemistry a physics of mortal and transient customs. Nietzsche sets this task for the free spirits to come so that they may continue the process of the auto-liberation of thought. As he reminds us, “The less men are bound by tradition, the greater is the fermentation of motivations within them, and the greater in consequence their outward restlessness, their mingling together with one another, the polyphony of their endeavours” (24). Nietzsche believes that to create this polyphony, we will have to move “beyond the self-enclosed original national cultures” (24). Nietzsche proposes a historicizing philosophy linked to the natural sciences that can analyze standards for a generic culture, along with the political situations that they entail, and that can act as a constructive milieu for thought. In fact, he challenges us to discover “knowledge of the preconditions of culture as a scientific standard for ecumenical goals. Herein lies the tremendous task facing the great spirits of the coming century” (25). Ecumenical has (at least) two significant meanings here: general and universal on the one hand, mixed and motley on the other. With this we can tease out a physics along with this socio-historical chemistry. For if we couple Nietzsche’s proposal for a chemistry of aesthetic, religious and moral concepts and sensations with his injunction to discover the preconditions of culture from a universal point of view, then we start to connect a series of thoughts that point toward a social science that can address the question of generic and universal cultural construction that grounds itself in a physics of the interaction between molecular beliefs and desires (affects) and the corresponding cultural formations (custom) that result from the bindings of the former to a metaphysical image. The historicizing process, then, must deal with the evolution of habit and the institutions of the state that stratify custom within the social field.

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