Nietzsche and the Unconscious: Ethics, Desire, Politics

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daybreak / desire / difference / ethics / freud / joy / Nietzsche / Politics / style / text / unconscious / Zen

Cy Twombly, Untitled
Cy Twombly, Untitled [1970. Oil-based house paint and crayon on canvas. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Photo: © 2004 Matthew Septimus]

Granted that nothing is ‘given’ as real except our world of desires and passions, that we can rise or sink to no other ‘reality’ than the reality of our drives – for thinking is only the relationship of these drives to one another: is it not permitted to make the experiment and ask the question whether this which is given does not suffice for an understanding even of the so-called mechanical (or ‘material’) world? … Granted finally that one succeeded in explaining our entire instinctual life as the development and ramification of one basic form of will as will to power, as is my theory; granted that one could trace all organic functions back to this will to power … one would have acquired the right to define all efficient force unequivocally as: will to power. The world seen from within, the world described and defined according to its ‘intelligible character’- it would be ‘will to power’ and nothing else. (Beyond Good and Evil)

My goal in this paper to develop a theory about the role of the concept of the unconscious in Nietzsche’s later writings. Many commentators have decided there is not one, but many functions of the unconscious in Nietzsche’s work. As it often is, the question about Nietzsche is his polyvocality: he speaks from so many voices, which one is “his”? We have needed for a long time to show definitively his continuity of intensity throughout the multiplicity of adopted perspectives. It is not his position on this or that problem which “makes” him Nietzsche; it is his subtle ability to jump in and out of problems, his refinement of spirit which accepts no resentment, no guilt, no shame — nothing but affirmation. We do not have space for such a broad rediscovery of the body of Nietzsche. In this paper I want to focus narrowly on what would be a necessary part of such a rediscovery. I shall try to demonstrate the complex relationship which Nietzsche describes between the unconscious and the political. Exploring this relationship will allow us to show the inter-relations in Nietzsche’s text between the functions of desire, ethics and sexuality. In particular, we will read Daybreak and The Gay Science for a theory of the unconscious as it relates to these themes.

My hypothesis is this: I believe there is a moment of pure ethical insight in Nietzsche’s work. In some sense, it is recursively encoded throughout each of all the various voices and postures he assumes. A protean style for the most specific instruments; or, univocity through polyphony. On this hypothesis, we should hope to find a specific constellation of concepts and functions associated with the unconscious in Nietzsche. Without regarding these as a condensed whole, we should be able to divide without separating, to explain by translation, and not a mere resurrection.

As Eric Blondel has shown (at length,) for Nietzsche, the text is a body. The text is nothing without being engaged; like the body, like the world, it must be activated, interposed, asked a leading question, even manipulated or caressed, in order to release the compartmentalized intensities of and beneath the flesh. The future must be spurred on; we must show a different text is possible, already present. And just as theory cannot help becoming seduction the moment it comes into proximity with desire, thought cannot help becoming nihilist (which is to say: religious!) the closer it approaches the pure textual symmetry of the unconscious. Reality has the structure of a language? Only because of our passion to decrypt; but this is an intellectual error, based on faith in grammar. Nietzsche writes that grammar is a remnant of faith in the divine. A desire for static, a static desire.

Against grammar: in this we must see an affirmation of universal chaos, pure noise, pure difference, the spontaneous self-differentiation of meaning. Evolution of intensities, and meaning follows its own grammar anyhow; we shall never be rid of it entirely. But rigid grammatical structures constrain the recording and consumption of desire. They force us to remember, to encode our desire before enunciating. Psychoanalysis segments the origin, avoids the source of the production of our desires; it arrests the decoded, decoding origin of dreams. The smooth space of the therapeutic situation is not enough; although we shall have to mention both Freud and Lacan on the basis of certain clear theoretical symmetries, we must encourage a singular reading of Nietzsche which does not (immediately, anyway) place him in dialogue with Freud or his students. His subversive power is of another order entirely. One of the goals shall be to show that Nietzsche provides a unified theory of the unconscious.

We shall try to show that his theory of the unconscious is centered around a multiplicity of paths of transformation, wherein a feeling of power exerts itself, eventually degenerating into its antithesis, a feeling of enslavement. We must constantly seek out new paths or lines of continuous transformation, try to construct lines of light or equilibrium. Ethical responsibility is founded upon a specific gesture of conciliation, a discursive non-linearity which founds a new discourse. These moments are epitomized in the style of the aphorism, they are deeply pedagogical, highly disciplined meditations. It is a style of distilling, or better, cultivating wisdom. The pull is their weight of experience, condensed into piercing observations. I have shown before they are not altogether unlike Zen koans.

In closing, we shall try to show that in Nietzsche style is a unity, unifying, through and beyond difference. Style is the non-dialectical evolution of new problems, new machines, and new concepts. But before we say: “We don’t need to limit styles; we need as many new styles as possible,” we need to remember our higher politics. One of our questions about the unconscious shall be the biological one: what is the connection between action and thought for Nietzsche? We think he has been represented as being an almost- perfect counterpoint to Marx, a simple reading of Marx where the body of society was divided by unjust marks, segments of cruel exploitation, which follow from technological relations to production and play themselves out in the ideological divisions, even within the distinctions made by ideologies. But Nietzsche is really not concerned with ideology at all. And in reality, Marx isn’t either. The social concept, the social text cannot be meaningfully isolated from the social body. They are divided without being separated.

If we change our concepts, we change our vantage upon the actual, we open potentially infinite new lines of escape from closed systems. Nietzsche contributes many different voices, many different problems, many different machines; this is his gift, and we should be grateful for it. His work, his style is a mysterious and subtle thing: it is not where we think it is, it is already where we have forgotten it was. The power of free thinking, the concept of liberation literally breathes with the work; it establishes its rhythm, its motor, its many centers of growth and exploration. Nietzsche’s style is nomadic empiricism/imperialism — the style overcomes itself in becoming a relationship. It is a metaphysical aristocratism, a morality of patience.

Yes, it can be brazenly patronistic, mysogynistic. But the affirmation of difference in Nietzsche is deeper than any outmoded resentment. Joy is deeper than hate. But hate, hate runs deep within all spirituality. There is ever a new question of power, of developing a stronger capacity for revaluation: this task consumed Nietzsche. In a sense, it consumes us all. But we can recover from anarchic amnesia, it is possible to escape, to awaken. Revaluation is the situation now. And we have to snap out of the dream, the dream it is possible to close revaluation down. All systems experience turbulence, everything flows, escapes, finds new rhythms, soars out on a thousand golden pathways. Chaos is infinite rhythmic symmetry; we simply can no longer follow the order. But we should not misread the presence of force in the universe: the power and presence of rhythm is not unconscious; it is that intensification, that augmentation, which is found in joy. As David B. Allison writes in the New Nietzsche, “[rhythm] deconceptualizes reality.” For every instant a new beginning, a new symmetry. Rhythm pulverizes awareness, excites it beyond reason. There is no finality, this is the disillusionment which truly reveals. For daybreak occurs, after all.


[book] Paul-Laurent Assoun. Freud and Nietzsche. Published 1980 by Presses Universitarie de France. [Does a good job of comparing the two thinkers. A somewhat imbalanced portrait, comes from psychoanalysis background.]

[book] Iva Popovicova. Woman, Sexual Difference and the Dance of Undecidability in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Dialectical Anthropology — Volume 25, Numbers 3-4 / September, 2000 (article) [Explores issues in gender politics related to Nietzsche’s writings.]

[book] Frances Nesbitt Oppel. Nietzsche on Gender: Beyond Man and Woman. University of Virginia Press, 2005. [More feminist perspectives on Nietzsche, argues Nietzsche tries to show us how the idea of woman is an outdated ideal.]

[book – anthology] Kelly Oliver, Marilyn Pearsall. Feminist Interpretations of Friedrich Nietzsche. Penn State Press: 1998 [an anthology of various feminist explorations of the work of Nietzsche.]

[book] Derrida, Jacques. Spurs (tr. from Esperon) [Explores the role of woman in Nietzsche’s writings.]

[book] Jameson, Frederic. The Political Unconscious. [Discusses Marx and Nietzsche in light of the current political and theoretical climate.]

[book] Deleuze, Gilles. Nietzsche and Philosophy. [Covers a wide variety of topics in Nietzsche studies, including the will to power, ascetic ideals and Nietzsche’s method.]

[article] Rosalyn Diprose. “Nietzsche, Ethics and Sexual Difference” from Nietzsche: A Critical Reader, hrsg. Von Peter R. Sedgwick, Oxford/UK & Cambridge/USA 1995 [More gender theory on Nietzsche.]

[anthology] The New Nietzsche. Edited by David B. Allison. Published by MIT Press 1985. [An excellent selection of critical essays in recent Nietzsche studies.]

[article] Jamolych, Nina. “Nietzsche’s Concept of Consciousness.” International Studies in Philosophy 17.2 (1995): 69-77. Treats the origin of consciousness and its specific goals, along with a discussion of how Nietzsche claims that the problem is to learn how to dispense with it.

[article] Vattimo, Gianini. “Nietzsche and Contemporary Hermeneutics.” Nietzsche as Affirmative Thinker. Ed. Yirmiyahu Yovel. Dodrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, 1986. 58-68. Situates Nietzsche’s thought among Heidegger, Derrida, Foucault, Ricouer, and Gadamer, among others.

The Author

mostly noise and glare


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