The Poetics of Psychoanalysis: Towards an Ethics of Expression

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art / cruelty / difference / language / love / metaphysics / morality / nature / Nietzsche / Politics / rigor / science

Introduction: Rationality and Affect

The lofty prize
Of science lies
Concealed today as ever!
He has no thought
To him it’s brought
To own without endeavor!

Goethe, Faust (1st part, 2567-2572)

Intelligence is a moral category. The separation of feeling and understanding, that makes it possible to absolve and beatify the blockhead, hypostasizes the dismemberment of man into functions. Praise of the simpleton has an undertone of anxiety lest the severed parts reunite and put an end to the derangement. ‘If you have understanding and a heart,’ a verse of Holderlin’s runs, ‘show only one. Both they will damn, if you show both together.’

Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia 197 (“Wishful Thinking”)

In The Gay Science, Nietzsche expresses his desire for independent thinkers to reflect on the origins, and speculate on the future of science and art. On the one hand, he draws attention to the conditions for their invention: in order for scientific thinking and art to have begun at all, a wide variety of physiological and psychological faculties (whose effects are quite different without the framework imposed by artistic or scientific rigor) must become strong enough to overpower their “opposing” functions. For example, in order for science to begin, the impulse to doubt must overcome the impulse to believe, just as the impulse to wait must overcome the impulse to simply make something up and move on, and so forth. On the other hand, Nietzsche reminds us that the divergence between the aesthetic and scientific experience tends to fracture humanity’s spirit, pushing it both further from and closer to reaching itself than ever. At the very moment determinate thought emerges as a unity, science finds itself foreign to itself, incompletely digested. Its great distance and inhuman coldness oppose it to both practical wisdom and to art.

One passage in particular — “On the doctrine of poisons” — exemplifies Nietzsche’s correlation of the future possibilities of science and art with the conditions required for their original development:

Many hecatombs of human beings were sacrificed before these impulses learned to comprehend their coexistence and to feel that they were all functions of one organizing force within one human being. And even now the time seems remote when artistic energies and the practical wisdom of life will join with scientific thinking to form a higher organic system in relation to which scholars, physicians, artists and legislators — as we know them at present — would have to look like paltry relics of ancient times.
[Nietzsche, “The Gay Science,” Book 3, Section 113]

Nietzsche’s vision of a higher organic system uniting science, art and wisdom in concert seems distant indeed. Today’s science appears, by contrast, nothing more than a peculiarly modern cruelty, and at the least grossly indifferent, uncomfortably alien to the humanity it serves. Nonetheless, the future dawn which Nietzsche glimpsed in spite of his time also has given birth in ours to a family of curious hybrids, a flock of syntheses of formerly-disparate functions. Why, then, despite these mutations, does a genuine organic system bridging science, art, and practical wisdom seem as far away as ever? The reason, at its ugly root, is that a melancholy science — the “positivist” law of gravity — has so far tended to reign supreme. “The common consent to the positive is a gravitational force that pulls all downwards,” writes Adorno. [Minima Moralia 118, “Downwards, ever downwards.”] Divergent thoughts are minimized, a superficial convergence deified.

The break between the humanities and the natural sciences repeats itself within every discipline, even perhaps within every experiment. It is itself a minor repetition of the ancient war between art and science. Today practitioners of both art and science discover their specialization narrowing, as though all following some imperceptible signal to think smaller. Any particular branch of science today, any given artistic field, discover its task suddenly to be both overspecialized and excessively abstract. A kind of anti-production masquerading as production is made of intellectual and aesthetic pursuits, any actual “work” in these fields having been long ago been reduced to a narrow repetition.

What is left over (with a few important exceptions) hardly deserves the name of either “art” or “science,” against whose memory these images are like the disturbing shadows of dead gods. What remains, in other words, are an art and an science equally devoid of thought or feeling. In fact, this is a symptom of a more general social condition wherein all dimensions of life are reduced to a purely formal space — a generic task in a total machine.

In a paradoxical way, this process of reduction also yields a kind of emancipation. Despite appearances, all of this evident degeneration is still a positive expression of life: terrified, sickening life, but life nonetheless, whose forced behavior and faux automatism belie the subtle elegance of its co-ordinated movement and expression — not to mention the inner, experimental movements of the mind.

This, in short, is the story of how the real spiritual conditions of science — of the scientist — were concealed. For beneath a calm veneer of scientific rationality, we discover, unsurprisingly, an engaged and energetic spirit. Without this energy, and without this facade, science could not exist. Nevertheless, this intermingling of the “passionate” and “dispassionate” reaches a critical moment within the modern era of science. Mathematics supplants poetry as the language of disclosing being. The most subtle, rare and beautiful symmetries can now be explored, even rigorously constructed. However, we can also discern new, and possibly dangerous hybrids.

Perhaps the most unfortunate and idiosyncratic tendency today is an unreflective combination of empiricism and transcendentalism, yielding, depending on the believer’s base disposition, a vain idealism or vulgar materialism. These function, in general, as impediments to thinking. The predominant tendency is to package them uncomfortably alongside a facile moral relativism and callous economic determinism. It could be added that this symptomatic reductive tendency is unsettlingly widespread today, regardless of the author’s political orientation or whether the author’s department ostensibly devotes itself to “cognitive science” or “cultural studies.”

That there have been many misunderstandings from both shores regarding their schism can make the necessary dialogue appear difficult, and war virtually inevitable. But in our eyes, the friendship between art and science, and again between the sciences of man and the sciences of nature, remains of ultimate importance. Behind the ancient war of philosophy and poetry, there is a brotherhood — a cosmic fraternity. Socially oblivious, reductive materialism on the one hand, and all-too-clever “postmodern” posturing on the other, are superficial symptoms of the severance of this real connection. The only permanent solution to this pregnant impasse is also the most difficult: patience, respect, compassion, and open dialogue are the tools for the transformation of enemies into allies.

Rigorous expression is the essence of this emancipatory reunification. What we want to understand is the following: how has this process of subdivision and divergence failed so often to produce thoughts and subjects opposed to the separation between disciplines — a separation exacted finally as a nullification of both emotion and judgment? My proposal consists essentially in a return to Nietzsche. He demonstrates that a genuine crossing between the two shores is not impossible. It requires more than narrow, mechanical interaction. It requires, precisely, slow reading and discernment. We stand in desperate need of a genuine, thoughtful reunification — perhaps too desperate. My goal is to question the desire for an unlimited unity of wisdom. I wish to ask instead what concepts are equal to the task of resurrecting art and revitalizing science.

Art and science can and must move forward together. Poetry and mathematics need not deny one another’s reality. The motivation is clear enough — perhaps too clear! While we cannot abide this artificial reduction of science to two simple, unconnected spaces of thought, we also cannot abide the direct reduction of either space to the other. We must resist interpretation, and begin to listen. The notion of ‘rigor’ embodies the transversal movement of scientific or artistic or practical thinking, not a robust and formal conjunction but a delicate, fragile synthesis. Translation is the key to this transformation. We have dire need for alliances across the unfortunate schism between poetry and mathematics, the humanities and the natural sciences — today more than ever before. To reflect upon this boundary is already to transform it.


Everybody must have projects all the time. The maximum must be extracted from leisure. This is planned, used for undertakings, crammed with visits to every conceivable site or spectacle, or just with the fastest possible locomotion. The shadow of all this falls on intellectual work. It is done with a bad conscience, as if it had been poached from some urgent — even if only imaginary — occupation. To justify itself in its own eyes it puts on a show of hectic activity performed under great pressure and shortage of time, which excludes all reflection, and therefore itself.
Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia (from p. 138, “Vandals”)

A major theme of Adorno’s masterpiece, Minima Moralia, is the symptomatically frenzied lifestyle of the modern professional intellectual, with its evident, and apparently calculated, exclusion of speculation. How is it that we stop thinking, in order to justify our jobs as thinkers? Adorno argues that a profession which demands solitude and reflection cannot comfortably co-exist with a lifestyle totally dominated by the sphere of exchange. Books by the pound, but never looking around. Intellectual work done in such an unreflective way produces a bad conscience. Thus are the most dangerous kinds of contradictions allowed to preserve themselves. Merely an innocent, or at least harmless corruption? We might add there also neatly corresponds to this lifestyle an all-too-familiar maniacal fixity, itself co-extensive with the mechanical self-organization of production. Divided and conquered.

Work usurps thought, in the end overtaking life itself: everything must look like a job, even our life itself must resemble a project. Hyper-specialization. The not-so-hidden downside of this is that everything which does not conform is condemned to be systematically isolated and extracted. Thus the false resemblance of life and work functions to conceal whatever is still, or not yet, directly regulated by the sphere of exchange — the ever-burgeoning body-without-organs of capital. Consequently Adorno believes his trepidation about professional intellectuals reflects a much deeper problem:

“The unconscious innervations which, beyond thought processes, attune individual existence to historical rhythms, sense the approaching collectivization of the world. Yet since integral society does not so much take up individuals positively within itself as crush them to an amorphous and malleable mass, each individual dreads the process of absorption, which is felt as inevitable.” (MM 139)

A world-historical struggle is unfolding to which our private, internal experiences bear profound and characteristic witness, precisely because this struggle affects everyone as well as every dimension of human life. The ever-recommencing “integration” of society affects us unconsciously as a terrifying threat of subsumption. Paradoxically, in resisting the danger of a negative reunification, we reproduce the threat itself. A critical sociology can “read” the near-universal adoption of hectic, frenzied modes of life, already commonplace, even cliche, even at the dawn of the 20th century, as unconscious attempts on the part of individuals to construct a “counter-irritant” — Adorno’s term for an active and urgently subjective transformation in response to the growing threat of totalitarianism. Far too often, we resist the transformation we unconsciously fear by submitting to the system in advance for fear we might submit “all too late.”

This is the universal delirium about which everyone is completely silent. Terror is not only a form of social intimidation, but also has a profound philosophical and psychological meaning. For terror is that operator of passage, that parasite by which we submit to our nightmares. It propagates, in isolated silences, like a viral unconscious agent. It distorts threats and advantages; it distributes weakness, lack, resentment; it “protects” us from a specific threat only by drawing attention to something even more terrifying — an unlimited threat. The specifically modern experience of terror has been shaped by the death of God, the explosive revelation of the subject’s secret finitude. Without the absolute limit of the limitless, nothing again can indeed appear from without to harm us again. Absolute domination becomes imperceptible: like a nightmare we carry within us, a coup from the inside. We create nightmares to protect us; we become the terrifying parasite. Michel Foucault is acutely aware of this dimension of the contemporary experience. In his “Preface to Transgression,” he declares:

“By denying us the limit of the Limitless, the death of God leads to an experience in which nothing may again announce the exteriority of being, and consequently to an experience which is interior and sovereign. But such an experience, for which the death of God is an explosive reality, discloses as its own secret and clarification, its intrinsic finitude, the limitless reign of the Limit, and the emptiness of those excesses in which it spends itself and where it is found wanting. In this sense, the inner experience is throughout an experience of the impossible (the experience being both that which we experience and that which constitutes the experience.) The death of God is not merely an “event” that gives shape to contemporary experience as we now know it: it continues tracing indefinitely its great skeletal outline.
Michel Foucault, “Preface to Transgression” from “Language, Counter-Memory-Practice,” p.32

The contemporary experience is only superficially empty; but in fact it consists in erasing external bounds to power and replacing them with internal constrictions. This exacts its price on the very experience of living; life is poisoned and quickly grows sick. Before the need for terror, cruelty stands as the only solution, a determination and rigor which pierces the real. Cruelty is the price for knowledge.

A decision protects our experience by limiting its intensity. Without limit, without form, experience itself becomes unsayable, imperceptible, and finally even unthinkable. What founds our new faith is not fear but courage, even in the event of our inevitable capture. But what of the impossibly distant, tantalizing hope for real emancipation?

We have now determined why the philosophers stopped thinking, and perhaps how life becomes unlife: how life became sick, and haunted by unfulfillable desires. How people became obsessed with work and appearances, and from whence came the terror and uncannily symptomatic frenzy characteristic of modernity. The masses are individually terrified of being swallowed up by an infinite force promising only oblivion, and so combine to become this force.

Hope is a cruel device, a spur: not only do actions intended to minimize a threat ironically end up bringing it about, but faith makes us insist upon our slavery without even being asked first. We fight for domination harder than for freedom — believing we are fighting for freedom. In adopting a frenzied lifestyle, we manage even to outdo the danger itself. We use the hours apparently left to freedom to coach ourselves in becoming a member of the herd. Adorno declares: “The further the individual and society diverge in later periods through the competition of interests, and the more the individual is thrown back on himself, the more doggedly he clings to the notion of the moral nature of wealth.” (Adorno, Minima Moralia 119, “Model of virtue.”) Wealth is not essentially moral, but it does tend to corrupt morality. Against this omnipresent and negative universality, the identity of virtue and money, determinate production itself must be reclaimed as the essential procedure of both art and science. Furthermore, needs and desires must also be re-conceived as positive forces, not as principles “lacking” an object.

Psychoanalysis, in particular, must be urgently reclaimed and rethought as a tool for protecting, revitalizing and amplifying desire. No longer ought we attempt simply to normalize desire. For we thereby only succeed in crushing it once and for all.

The Poetics of Psychoanalysis

Almost always the books of scholars are somehow oppressive, oppressed; the “specialist” emerges somewhere — his zeal, his seriousness, his seriousness, his fury, his overestimation of the nook in which he sits and spins, his hunched back; every specialist has his hunched back. Every scholarly book also mirrors a soul that has become crooked; every craft makes crooked.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science 336 (“Faced with a scholarly book”)

The comfort that flows from great works of art lies less in what they express than in the fact that they have managed to struggle out of existence. Hope is soonest found among the comfortless.

Adorno, MM 223 (“In nuce”)

We turn again to the most basic question of method, the problem of style. A style may be identified with a minimal integrity of experience, or rigor. The “laws” of form are something like pure movements, intensities, qualities — moving through, against, and above history. Style consists in a saturation of smooth spaces, the delicate articulation of a discovery, a deft and graceful construction by combination and elimination. It discovers an original and clever device, a diamond-spur: “Bite, my hook, into the belly of all black affliction!” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “The Honey Offering”) Style is the only response which exceeds expression itself, unfolding the form of the question.

A style emerges as such in the affirmation of positive distances, spaces, openings. Alternation, repetition, break. A style is always military, but it is also always sexual; it is the abstraction which allows an essential perception — that all is in flux. Style affirms a genuine divergence. Even though through it all questions are articulated, style answers only to the questions how and how much. Style appears, at first, as a supplement to an unquestioned — and even unconscious — answer. A movement is timeless, without history. And whether we drink it down as a stultifying antidote or sip it as a hypnotic love potion, a grandiloquent gesture never fails to enrapt.

Style is the essence of power, the minimal condition of command, the medium of the law itself. It is pure terror and absolute joy. Only through the reduction to a small set of generic commands or operations — a common language — could rigor itself come to impose its rule upon men. Only through such an inversion, too, does taste registers its own, impossible pleasure in a new style. This may indeed be the uncanny sense in which Adorno declares all works of art to be uncommitted crimes. We would add that great crimes are often cover-ups for greater crimes. Behind the hollow, booming, and explosive laughter of violent humanity, we can still discern the terror of a frantic prisoner. (And even in the innermost recesses of humanism, there rages a Fascist who wishes to turn the entire world into a prison.) We should not be surprised that Zarathustra’s words again ring out loudest here: “One man runs to his neighbor because he is looking for himself, and another because he wants to lose himself. Your bad love of yourselves makes solitude a prison for you.” (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “Of Love of One’s Neighbor”) The neighbor, as solace, comforts the fear of loneliness, the nightmare of our own minds. (Yet from the greatest distance, do we not suddenly discover the neighbor as the first medium of relation and the first true operator of determination? –that is to say, bifurcated, both the first guest and the first parasite?)

Towards a healthier narcissism, a more joyous paranoia: after all, what are the ethics of style but the “anti-laws” of transformative aesthetics, that is to say — internal, residual, continuous movements? The first power is that of making evaluations: mapping the sensitivities of resistances, encoding a certain relationship between expression and experience. The essence of domination, the conquering spirit, is thus experienced as a moment of the problem of style. Is “free expression” a singular point or an operator of passage? The elemental form of the signal is a break, a gap, a mark diverting a celerity. The parasite invents eloquence, grammar prose: style is a passage which transforms by resisting transformation. The real itself is but an inflection of this basic operation, an atom of relationality.

What is the crux of the ethico-political problem of style? Resistance to variation: there is no pure form of the law, only this abstract imperative. A given style must be allowed — that is, we ought to want it simply to be allowed — to answer for itself, in its own voice and on its own terms. To simply cease interpretation, to refrain from crisis-crossing with grids and axes, is not enough — or already too much. For we must also actively resist the threat of over-interpretation. This is, in many ways, the most difficult thing for a mind to do, the true measure of its agility.

Style is a kind of resistance which is also the resistance to thought itself, even the resistance to resistance, a kind of spiritual or internal movement we should not immediately attempt to reduce to moral or aesthetic terms. Rather: can we not finally, at this very moment, discover the law itself as a supplement, determined by the minimal gap between thinking and feeling? Poetry thus at last appears entirely a question of economy, of “spacing”: a rigorous lunacy expressed through a stuttering eloquence. Scientific experimentation is in essence no different — through individually meaningless intensive variations, a procedure is derived. Style poses the problem, the question as such, by introducing a minimal shift, increasing the speed, difference, complexity, or simply the distance to be crossed — all solely so that it may be that much more joyously traversed.

Terror and Lucidity

I do not systematically cultivate horror. The word “cruelty” must be taken in a broad sense, and not in the rapacious physical sense that it is customarily given. And I claim, in doing this, the right to break with the usual sense of language, to crack the armature once and for all, to get the iron collar off its neck, in short to return to the etymological origins of speech which, in the midst of abstract concepts, always evoke a concrete element… From the point of view of the mind, cruelty signifies rigor, implacable intention and decision, irreversible and absolute determination.

Antonin Artaud (from the first of the “Letters on Cruelty,” dated Sept 13, 1932)

Ambiguity is transformed not by reflection or speculation, but by determination. Poetry clarifies by imposing style, repeatedly cutting through layers of metaphor — a stratification which disarticulates, a war machine bursting holes through knowledge. Its reasons are arbitrary and accidental; but, in another sense, so is rationality itself. Lucidity opens resistances with greater resistance. It consists in a kind of holding-back which reveals. The divergence between art and science renegotiates its difference as clarity.

Nevertheless the question will always remain whether we have try sounded the depths — or whether a bloated, hollow sound rings out from within. Let us consider a certain effect of the clarified production of expression. In evoking the horrific and the grotesque, expression pierces a pure recurrence which silences expression. It is not so strange that horror is the characteristic mode in which stylistics functions as a critique of lucidity itself. Silence and darkness here are the primordial equivocation. My question is simple: how is it that we find healing in a deception?

Only (and this is what stylistics resists understanding about itself) by drugging an already poisoned subject. (This is sometimes called today, in better moods, “religion” or “psychoanalysis.”) Aristotle once called it catharsis; today its offspring have burst parasitically onto the surface of every possible expressive medium, providing the driving force behind the creation of these new fields of expression. The development of style is at once a major step towards and away from great health. Cruelty is the condition for the development of judgment, but also for its corruption. Style produces the capacity for both critical and clinical decisions — both, accordingly, a question of timing.

The faculty style develops is judgment, an agile and rigorous spirit which constitutes the integrity of both artistic work and scientific experiment. Style is the medium of power, possession, and praise: twisting language for its own ends, it transforms the world by transforming our spirits. In fact, cruelty is a positive and even “moral” force: the very force in morality itself. The event is undecidable, thought is split into pieces: the world is impossible to either “simply” unify or separate. Styles are evaluative genres. A code must be imposed, planes marked and delineated. We should not be surprised a certain degree of cruelty is critical in awakening the artist’s taste, as well as the scientist’s curiosity.

The Void and its Repetition

Subjection to morality can be slavish or vain or self-interested or resigned or gloomily enthusiastic or an act of despair, like subjection to a prince: in itself it is nothing moral.

Nietzsche, Daybreak 97 (“To become moral is not in itself moral”)

Horror consists in its always remaining the same — the persistence of ‘pre-history’ — but is realized as constantly different, unforeseen, exceeding all expectation, the faithful shadow of developing productive forces. The same duality defines violence as Marx demonstrated in material production: ‘There are characteristics which all stages of production have in common, and which are established as general ones by the mind; but the so-called general pre-conditions of all production are nothing more than… abstract moments with which no real historical stage of production can be grasped.’ In other words, to abstract out historically unchanged elements is not to observe neutral scientific objectivity, but to spread, even when correct, a smoke-screen behind which whatever is tangible and therefore assailable is lost to sight. Precisely this the apologists will not admit.

Adorno, Minima Moralia (“Don’t exaggerate”)

Horror is glimpsed in the similarity of the dissimilar: it transfigures the cosmos itself, grotesquely and constantly realizing its formlessness in innumerable new forms, and at its limit exceeding form itself. Science as extraction of universals enters a dimension of pure horror; science as placing into variation touches upon a joyous celerity whose cruelty is more terrifying than any nightmare.

Art also exposes this hard divergence: beneath the static nausea of horror, we feel the immersive atmosphere of dreams, and the deep voice of midnight: a primordial, formless, obsessional terror which is not merely a symptom of paranoia, but the profound meaning of identity. It is, to be more precise, an extraction of the essence or internal movement of production itself — what, after Marx, we should call the transhistorical abstract machine, perhaps even the amoral or non-subjective diagram of history. Cruelty, as an organizing principle, reaches a critical point of divergence precisely under the limiting conditions of style. It thus comes into its own, as courage, and invents the art of distinction.

The future is sculpted from the void which communicates the boundaries of events. Following in the wake of this untimely intervention, thought diverges from itself. This much-confused moment, which is not a moment, appears within the lifting of the prohibition which had pretended to limit — and to give form to — desire. This sudden and irreversible change is both birth and extinction, twilight and daybreak.

The creation of the law.

Not knowledge but determination, inexorable and indefatigable. Morality becomes distinct only when its foundation is cruelty.

It is easy to mistake harshness for simple bad taste. But I do not curse that which I do not love, nor rebuke for not loving sufficiently. On the contrary. I declare, loudly, how joyous the earth is, but also how joyous it could be; how light, but — but can you hear me yet? — how much lighter!


They shout at stones, as a man might argue with a doorpost. They have understood so little of the gods.

Heraclitus, Fragments

The morality which assesses itself according to degrees of sacrifice is morality at the half-savage stage. Reason here gains only a hard and bloody victory within the soul, powerful counter-drives have to be subdued; without such cruelties as the sacrifices demanded by cannibal gods this victory will not be won.

Nietzsche, Daybreak 221 (“Morality of sacrifice.”)

Why is everyone annoyed when a philosopher claims he is not a skeptic? Nietzsche suggests in Beyond Good and Evil this is because one would “like to ask, to ask so much” of them, that listeners become skeptical of their own desire for truth. According to him, this is also the reason that among “timid listeners,” such a philosopher is considered so dangerous: “It is as if at his rejection of skepticism, they heard some evil, menacing rumbling in the distance, as if a new explosive were being tried somewhere, a dynamite of the spirit, perhaps a newly discovered Russian nihiline, a pessimism bonae voluntatis [of good will] that does not merely say No, want No, but — horrible thought! does No.” [Beyond Good and Evil 208, from “We Scholars”] The skeptic acts like a policeman or priest, who is terrified by the subterranean “No!” and scorns it since he finds it terrifying. So he cries at it to be silent, even though in its whisper he must also faintly discern the new dawn.

Man shouts at stones and pleads with vortexes. But that the whirlwind, and sublime cruelty of stratification, terrifies the delicate — in other words, those terrified all too easily — is not, in itself, a moral affair. “His conscience trained to quiver at every No, indeed even at a Yes that is decisive and hard, and to feel as if it had been bitten. Yes and No — that goes against his morality; conversely, he likes to treat his virtue to a feast of noble abstinence, say, by repeating Montaigne’s ‘What do I know?’ or Socrates’ ‘I know that I know nothing.’” [ibid.] Thus the hard-boiled skeptic consoles his agony: through obfuscation, denial, doubt, he avoids the truth of his own condition by what he will claim is “objectivity.” The entire question of spirituality requires clinical re-evaluation.

Nietzsche loves to remind us that skepticism is both spiritual and physiological, a dangerous hybrid, whose sickliness and nervous exhaustion reflect a deep lack of balance, the absence of a center of gravity. Skeptics are playing a role wherein they are helpless victims, innocent, ignorant — but wiser than everyone else. Their doubt, as exemplified by Descartes, is as sick and paranoid as their secret belief. “But what becomes sickest and degenerates most in such hybrids is the will: they no longer know independence of decisions and the intrepid sense of pleasure in willing — they doubt the ‘freedom of the will’ even in their dreams.” [ibid] Skepticism cripples our ability to decide and even to desire, by paralyzing our capacity for judgment. A bad conscience, a morality sick of its own will, is especially vulnerable to this kind of sickness — especially in its more charming guises:

What I wanted to say is this: the partial loss of utility, decline, and degeneration, the loss of meaning, and purposiveness, in short, death, also belong to the conditions of a real progressus, which always appears in the form of a will and a way to a greater power and always establishes itself at the expense of a huge number of smaller powers. The size of a “step forward” can even be estimated by a measure of everything that had to be sacrificed to it. Humanity as mass sacrificed for the benefit of a single stronger species of man — that would be a step forward . .

I emphasize this major point of view about historical methodology all the more since it basically runs counter to the very instinct which presently rules and to contemporary taste, which would rather still go along with the absolute contingency, even the mechanical meaninglessness, of all events rather than with the theory of a will to power playing itself out in everything that happens. The democratic idiosyncrasy of being hostile to everything which rules and wants to rule, the modern hatred of rulers [Misarchismus] (to make up a bad word for a bad thing) has gradually transformed itself into and dressed itself up as something spiritual, of the highest spirituality, to such an extent that nowadays step by step it is already infiltrating the strictest, apparently most objective scientific research, and is allowed to infiltrate it. Indeed, it seems to me already to have attained mastery over all of physiology and the understanding of life, to their detriment, as is obvious, because it has conjured away from them their fundamental concept, that of real activity. By contrast, under the pressure of this idiosyncrasy we push “adaptation” into the foreground, that is, a second-order activity, a mere re-activity; in fact, people have defined life itself as an always purposeful inner adaptation to external circumstances (Herbert Spencer). But that simply misjudges the essence of life, its will to power. That overlooks the first priority of the spontaneous, aggressive, over-reaching, re-interpreting, re-directing, and shaping powers, after whose effects the “adaptation” then follows. Thus, the governing role of the highest functions in an organism itself, the ones in which the will for living appear active and creative, are denied.. ..

[Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals (Essay 2, Section 12)]

We have far too long glossed over the profound meaning of both parasitism and narcissism: by defining life as purposeful adaptation to the external world, what happens to power? What happens to the will? But we should have already guessed. And if it still must be said: they are both extinguished. Fear is not the origin of science, but courage. Cruelty, not paranoia, is the beginning of judgment. Daybreak is not long now — closer than ever before.

Our courage yearns for the stern joy of high places, for the hardness of solitude, distant horizons and silence — but most of all for that rosy clarity which may yet crown the day when humanity no longer needs martyrs to save it from itself.

Conclusion: The Politics of Madness

I employ the word ‘cruelty’ in the sense of an appetite for life, a cosmic rigor and implacable necessity, in the gnostic sense of a living whirlwind that devours the darkness, in the sense of that pain apart from whose ineluctable necessity life could not continue; good is desired, it is the consequence of an act; evil is permanent. When the hidden god creates, he obeys the cruel necessity of creation which has been imposed on himself by himself, and he cannot not create, hence not admit into the center of the self-willed whirlwind a kernel of evil ever more condensed, and ever more consumed. And theater in the sense of continuous creation, a wholly magical action, obeys this necessity. A play in which there would not be this will, this blind appetite for life capable of overriding everything, visible in each gesture and each act and in the transcendent aspect of the story, would be a useless and unfulfilled play.

Artaud (from the second letter of the “Letters on Cruelty”)

There stands a great artist: the pleasure he anticipated in the envy of his defeated rivals allowed his powers no rest until he had become great — how many bitter moments has his becoming great not cost the souls of others!

Nietzsche, Daybreak 31 (“Refined cruelty as virtue.”)

Science owes an unacknowledged, incomprehensible and ancient debt to poetry: mathematics, its spiritual condition and “universal language.” Rigorous and determinate expression is both the essence of stylistics and its characteristic cruelty — the evocation of a positive obscurity, a veil which elevates only by deceiving. Even though a style may indeed be judged in terms of its inherent expressivity, its characteristic mode of resisting expression can also be read, psychologically, as a symptomatic field. A determinate, fruitful ambiguity.

The experience of expressive freedom is not discovered in the declaration of equality of interest, but on the contrary, in leadership itself: the experience of decision-making — in other words, evaluating, making rules, giving orders. The law is thus the greatest of adventures, the final and thus most aesthetic of pursuits. Crime is simply not a moral matter in itself; it is law which gives crime its privilege. It is difficult to exaggerate how frequently freedom is overturned, made arbitrary, simply by a further permutation of spiritual taste. A matter of style, that is, of space.

The criminal is nothing more than out of place — a stronger type in gloomy and unfortunate conditions. A more fruitful, less ambiguous composition was possible. The gaps in our knowledge about our abilities, our talents, point towards a better and more effectively organized system — in short towards a future re-organization. Today our most urgent task is to de-stratify prejudice, and thereby correct a long miseducation. In particular, thought must disabuse itself of several dangerous notions about truth. Truth is not interpretation; it names the movement of creation, the impetus of a decision beyond thought and even beyond feeling. “Truth” expresses the lost origin of the highest law, the empty repetition at the basis of every language, the perfect gap — that characteristic symptom of our painful isolation from each other and ourselves.

In reality, then, truth is simply the source and emission of sound: a deception whereby the one whose commands’ deafen cause us to take our place. But, to say it once more, the point is not to integrate everything, to force all else to submit; rather, on the contrary, the goal is to liberate creativity through developing restraint. Do not only reconcile differences peaceably, but go further, and resist cooperating with hatred and fear. Cultivate excellence, courage and judgment. Struggle not only for the pedagogy of the “oppressed,” but also for your own.

That the stronger force has systematically driven out the weaker — or brought them to heel — gives reflection faith that a leap forward is possible. For what is a history but the sum of shifts in a differential system of power? Spreading out before our gaze, the rosy dawn of a bright future — a future, perhaps, where difference can at last be entirely and joyously affirmed — draws ever clearer and closer. Michel Serres addresses the full depth of our problematic when he writes, in his extraordinarily insightful work The Parasite:

“Knowledge is paid for. Of course, it is positive, favorable and asymmetrical; otherwise everything would be blank; there would be no science. But something must be put on another level. Tartuffe, they say, makes the error of loving Elmire — that is an error, a trap, an investment, an experimental rigor. Nothing would have happened without this love, this heat, this fire, that comes by and suddenly flares up. Without this light, we would perhaps have seen nothing.
[Michel Serres, The Parasite 210, “Midnight Suppers”]

Our question is that of refreshing desire within the over-arching framework of late capitalism. My answer, in one language: intensely reclaiming love in its positive spiritual movement. And in another: transforming hatred, resentment and fear into courage, creativity and love. The age is again ripe for an abandonment of cowardice, an emboldening.

– Joseph Weissman, April 2008

Works Cited

Antonin Artaud

  • Anthology
  • First and Second of the “Letters on Cruelty”

Michel Foucault

  • “Preface to Transgression” from Language, Counter-Memory, Practice

Michel Serres

  • “Midnight Suppers” from The Parasite

Friedrich Nietzsche

  • Daybreak
  • Genealogy of Morals
  • The Gay Science
  • Thus Spoke Zarathustra
  • Beyond Good and Evil

The Author

mostly noise and glare


  1. hey joseph (and taylor),
    thanks for this very strong post, there would be a lot to comment on, esp. because I’ve just finished Adorno’s MM, and I wish I had more time now to do it. i promise to come back to it later… but until then, I must say this gives good food for thought.
    all the best…

  2. Ah – I didn’t read all your post; but on first glance a mentions of Max Ernst (I think), Nietzsche, love and creativity – there’s a leap away from the value dragon which is definitely an act of courage… I’m like the other guy on top – will come back and read more…

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