Sunday, June 23, 2013

why I am not Nietzchean / why I am Hegelian

I'm losing patience with Bataille's chapter on Nietzsche. Maybe this is because of Bataille's interpretation, but it fits with just about everything else I've ever heard or read people to say about Nietzsche, so I think what's really going on here is that I just don't get Nietzsche.

What I understand about Nietzsche is mostly what I remember from reading him as a kid. Like almost all the male philosophy majors I've ever come across, reading Nietzsche propelled me into philosophy. Raised in a fairly ordinary conformist, authoritarian, white US way, Nietzsche was subversive, a vicarious expression of my own inarticulate rage, a source of quotations to use in aggressive confrontations. He seemed to provide a way out, an alternative to the oppressive regime of God-Father-State-Capital. And maybe he does.

From what I understand, though, his alternative is an affirmation of sovereign will toward life, no matter what. This is usually taken to mean embracing the urgency of the present (and eternal) moment, with no time to reason through options. There are no reasons, and there are no options, to this embrace. Reason, as Nietzsche might himself have said, paraphrasing ironically, is always too late to the scene to provide real guidance. When we imagine that reason guides us in those moments, either we fool ourselves into believing our own post hoc rationalizations, or we let others fool us into servility to their God, Law, or System.

I can't take it seriously (and I can't take Bataille taking it seriously, seriously -- of which more in a moment). Bataille suggests there is a basic and binary choice about how to live: either objectively, for the sake of something, for which we produce and accumulate and save; or subjectively, for the sake of nothing, consuming without end, in sovereign transgression.

When I get the rare chance to talk to anyone about Hegel, I tell them that the most important thing to remember about Hegel is that for him, every dichotomy is a false dichotomy. Notice how Bataille's Nietzschean gambit lines up productivity and accumulation with servility specifically to God-Father-State-Capital, as though the only end there could be would be so external and extrinsic. (By the way, you could just as well replace Capital with Communism, which Bataille does consider an objectifying and enslaving end as well.)

The thing is, I'm with Hegel, and not just on this. Nietzsche and his progeny (hah! Take that!) declare independence from the slow, inexorable, tedious workings of a System by fiat: "God is dead" or "the king is dead" or "let's have an orgy" or whatever. But Bataille's Nietzschean concept of sovereignty is set in the context of a world of Hegelian industry. Sovereignty only has meaning in that context, in opposition to a System of production and accumulation -- it depends on it, in order for there to be anything to consume and expend. It can never be more than a momentary explosion, and not a way of life (except for that one solitary exception, who would be absolutely appalling to live with or witness).

I'm with Hegel because I believe that what I do adds something, whether or not I determine what it is, or can even tell, to the world as a whole. I'm with Hegel because I believe that reason, however late arriving, is the way the whole makes sense, not just to us but for itself. I'm with Hegel because I spend nearly every moment of consciousness and nearly every watt of my energy being productive (though that's a psychological condition, not a philosophical one).

Mostly, I'm with Hegel because I am a pessimist like he was, because I believe that this productive activity and effort of reasoning continue toward this end that they will never reach, because every current state of events and every current state of knowledge will fall to the negation of contingency, ground to dust under necessity, to become the ground of the next state, and the next. I have no choice but to produce, and what I produce will necessarily be annihilated.

From this angle, sovereignty looks like the happy child's playful destruction of toys.


A quick note on Bataille's notion of sovereignty: I see him combining Nietzsche and Hegel in a very peculiar way. Bataille's sovereignty is negative through and through, because, despite his protestations, it's clear that sovereign expenditure does work and has meaning. As he notes about the impurity endemic to all that is human, a human attempt at sovereignty would also be impure. There would be an exception to this exceptional subjectivity, a leak of objectivity and production. For instance, sacrificial expenditures by Aztecs, as he interprets them in volume one, are all in the name of and in service to gods, but the gods are also in service to something else -- the earth, sun, and moon provide for the people's needs. Despite himself, Bataille's got a system in which expenditure and production are two strokes, like systole and diastole (a metaphor he uses as well -- take that!).

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