The Genealogy of the Unconscious: Evolution, Awareness, Creativity

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affirmation / creativity / Dionysos / drives / evolution / human / libido / metaphor / morality / Nietzsche / reality / relation / truth / unconscious / will

“What does man actually know about himself? Is he, indeed, ever able to perceive himself completely, as if laid out in a lighted display case? Does nature not conceal most things from him — even concerning his own body — in order to confine and lock him within a proud, deceptive consciousness, aloof from the coils of the bowels, the rapid flow of the blood stream, and the intricate quivering of the fibers! She threw away the key.” (On Truth and Lying in an Extra-moral Sense, Part 1)

“To calm the imagination of the invalid, so that at least he should not, as hitherto, have to suffer more from thinking about his illness than from the illness itself! –that, I think, would be something! It would be a great deal! Do you now understand our task?” (Daybreak 54)

A Simple Theory of the Unconscious?

There is no simple theory of the unconscious in Nietzsche’s work. This is because the unconscious is complex, a site for transformation and not a singular ‘object’ of analysis. The unconscious would be everything which accounts for image-object-thought associations, and therefore that by which we could explain relations between thoughts and activities. However, Nietzsche clearly recognized that we cannot simply analyze the unconscious as a thing in-itself: it was very important for him that we should not be taken in by the idea that our explanations for things are adequate expressions of an underlying reality. Because in fact there is no necessary relation between human beings and reality; rather, we artistically create the mode in which we confront and understand the world. Thus there are no longer any laws of nature for Nietzsche: “…what is a law of nature as such for us? We are not acquainted with it in itself, but only with its effects, which means in its relation to other laws of nature — which, in turn, are known to us only as sums of relations. Therefore all these relations always refer again to others and are thoroughly incomprehensible to us in their essence.” (Truth and Lying, Part 1) We cannot reach the essence of a relation except by being deceived into thinking they are simple; like the will, which we are apt to conceive as a pure simple essence of participation, an ‘inclination,’ when it fact it may be the most complex phenomena in the entire world.

It is only when we forget, that is, when we take our metaphors too literally, that we think that our artistically created images of the world are congruent with the actual one. This error is the foundation of our social consistency and feelings of security; it is also the origin of epic fables, the power of an intellect which has broken free of its enslavement and can now celebrate with exotic festivals of the imagination, as it now can deceive without ‘actually’ injuring. This active, creative turn in deception itself allows the intellect to fly: “it is never more luxuriant, richer, prouder, more clever and more daring.” (Truth and Lying, Part 2) The formation of metaphors is then a primary human drive; the animal which dissolves images into concepts, into expressions, is this already a rigorous thought of the human?

The drive toward the formation of metaphors is the fundamental human drive, which one cannot for a single instant dispense with in thought, for one would thereby dispense with man himself! (On Truth and Lying)

Hence, this drive to create metaphors is not itself a metaphor! It indicates on the contrary a material capacity for human beings to creatively transform their relation to the world. This drive is the invention of new metaphors, which surely happens not only in metaphor. In a sense, the world of metaphor and thought never touches upon the real world; except unconsciously, that is, when we err and fall into believing and acting by them.

For Nietzsche the ‘unconscious’ would be this material assemblage of forces and drives which ‘command’ our feelings, and our thoughts; most importantly, the unconscious is a site for potential transformation. The will is a diverse collection of drives, only much later idealized into a central and singular ‘cause’ of activity. For Nietzsche the unconscious is structured creatively, even morally; it is the site of transvaluation, the position from which we recreate ourselves, overcome an old relation to reality in favor of a new and more healthy mode of living. Memory is constantly decaying; but it is capable of transforming itself. The unconscious is not a singular entity, rather it is a multiplicity of drives, a new mode of relation in becoming. The unconscious is a medium, it mediates artistically between two unconnected regions of being:

Between two absolutely different spheres, as between subject and object, there is no causality, no correctness, and no expression; there is, at most, an aesthetic relation: I mean, a suggestive transference, a stammering translation into a completely foreign tongue — for which I there is required, in any case, a freely inventive intermediate sphere and mediating force… (On Truth and Lying)

Hence, again we return to relations, we must confront this matter of creative metaphor, and of poetry; for stories are not just in the sense of an epic or tragedy, but even and especially the everyday stories: “We want to be poets of our life — first of all in the smallest most everyday matters.” (The Gay Science, 299) The structure of the human relation to the world and ourselves are capable of transformation; the unconscious would be composed ultimately of the same elemental psychic forces which Nietzche calls ‘drives’. They represent the libidinal forces which rush through our bodies, and compose our bodies, including our will. In this sense, the will to life is the most real and the most structured form of energy, it is the most absolutely affirmative form of energy. It is a negative force turned upon itself, transformed into a positive and anti-dialectical becoming: “What is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.” (BGE aphorism 153)

One of the most important ideas here is the ever-present possibility for difference, that though change has risks, living dangerously and affirming chance is more interesting and more healthy than becoming dependent and enslaved to a single idea or way of being. From the many ways you can choose, affirm chance, will a new becoming. The most important idea we can have when studying the character of the unconscious in Nietzsche’s work is the idea of sensitivity to differences. Not only do we have many and more subtle senses than we are aware, even awaiting to discover (“post-human” body modificiations, etc.); but more: we possess non-human senses, a sense not grounded in language and a value not grounded in the social. Instead, value is grounded on life and sense is grounded upon non-sense. A science which can really understand this has not even yet thought to be born.

Another important idea often associated in Nietzsche’s with a theory of the unconscious is a lack of hesitation, a spontaneous sensitivity to differences that goes much deeper than conscious awareness. “One has attained to mastery when one neither goes wrong nor hesitates in the performance.” (Daybreak 537) Not only do we have many and more subtle ‘senses’ than we are aware, but that these are always passively being synthesized, creatively, in order to allow us to participate and even artistically control some continuous transformation (whether of matter, of sound, etc.) Our active thoughts and five dimensions of sensation give only a superficial impression of the depth of moral computation taking place “behind the scenes,” especially where the will to life is concerned.
Now, as soon as we begin discussing drives we cannot be pure materialists in the sense of believing in singular bodies, localizable in space and time. Rather, we should understand materialism to mean that we are not going to magically find the “unconscious” by examining neuronal circuity and physico-chemical reactions. However, the question of the unconscious is quite empirical, and while it may be beyond modern biological science for the foreseeable future, we must concede the question of drives is decidable, it is a question about the real structure of human activity, and the capacity for human transformation.

The question of the drives cannot be integrated into social science until we abandon the division between nature and culture, which currently functions as a wedge, forcing our virtual psychic bodies and material physical bodies further and further apart until we can no longer see clearly their creative interaction. We must move beyond the theoretical continuum which runs from idealism to realism; it is the thread upon which the theatre of the modern is hung. Nietzsche constantly plays with the division between man and the animals, man and what will someday overcome man. The question of evolution, biological or otherwise, is at the center of his thought and the concept of the unconscious. Evolution is not dialectical, only “after a fashion”; it affirm synthesis only as it also affirms a counter-synthesis, an anti-synthesis which involves neither the thesis nor the anti-thesis but introduces a new intuition as though from nowhere. There is no ‘system’ in evolutionary development, genealogy follows a non-dialectical path of differentiation. The problem, again, is believe that any system is adequate: “I mistrust all systematizers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.” (Twilight of the Idols, “Maxims and Arrows” 26)


It nearly goes without saying that the underlying dynamic of Nietzsche’s thought is affirmative. As belabored as this point has become, it remains important to realize and reflect on his thought in this way — because it is, after all, a thought of mutation, of becoming, and, I shall argue, of libidinal production. Evolution as the model, but not in the Darwinian sense; rather, almost the opposite: in order to account for the eternal return, we must accord libidinal intensity as simultaneously the molecular, biological and cosmic model. “Libido” would not, of course, be intended here in the metaphorical (“structuralist”) sense; but rather in its primary sense, as meaning active or transformative. He urges decaying systems on towards theirs specific catastrophe; but also towards transfiguration.

His method is anything but mystical; rather his work is best understood as a cold and clinical evaluation. The libidinal for Nietzsche is method and situation: the drives are real and they overflow the real, expressing and forming the real. He writes “the will to life” as though it could be possessed by a singular individual; but life names a process of becoming which transforms the situation and the organism. The libidinal drive is not a singular point of transformation, or even the silent space between echoes; libido is creation and transvaluation. In other words, the sexual and psychic intensities at work in Nietzsche’s text are not just critical and stylistic, but (also) materialistic and clinical. His text is meant not only to be read (and unread,) but also materialized and counter-actualized. Plug the book in to see whether it works; you can’t tell just by interpreting.

Nietzsche’s analysis eventually compels us to concede that a given machine can be plugged into many and quite different assemblages; even, perhaps especially with those which it may not seem to compose ‘well’ — and all this quite independent of our good sense and logic and faith. The world no longer obeys rational structures, or rather, we can realize it never did, that the point of rejecting sovereignty was never rationality but desire; in order words, that social forces and natural forces are one and the same — libidinal forces.

We can attempt to pinpoint his psychological break with modernity: Nietzsche’s libidinal intensities resonate most strongly in his affirmation of life’s Dionysian inexhaustibility of will. Consider the classical feeling of tragedy conceived of as negative in itself but cathartic, as serving only to rid us of a deeper negativity. For Nietzsche it was clear this cycle would only plunge us deeper into a bottomless negativity, send us hurling into nihilism. But — and this is the really important idea — there is a point of transformation where negation finally turns around and begins to question itself; that is, a point where it becomes affirmation.

Nietzsche has changed the structure of affirmation; or even better, he has caused us to actually look at reality and recognize that no structure is automatically present, no tiny ‘causes’ stretching towards tiny ‘effects’ to make them occur. This is not a mystical revelation; quite the contrary. When a top is wobbling and spinning, or dominoes are crashing into one another — yes, there is a structure and a pattern, of course; but only if there is also and already a convergent flow of energy — a fluent process, coordinating both active and passive forces in a turbulent struggle, thereby producing a continuous discontinuity of position, stability and momentum. Structure and multiplicity: both are lies insofar as they are abstraction. Insofar as they converge with reality, they are real. Nietzsche is effectively saying nothing more than that we need to affirm the real. He merely makes this charge political, that is to say, personal. He explains that human beings aren’t real, or anyway, aren’t the final products of evolution, but produced only in order to be overcome — and not by some transcendent creator, but by matter and energy itself, immanently, through a real historical and genealogical process of evolution.

The Author

mostly noise and glare

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