In this early 1956-1957 lecture previously unavailable to the public, Gilles Deleuze takes his students through a tour of the history of philosophy by using the red thread of the notion ‘grounding.’ What Is Grounding’ is unsurprisingly insightful and sweeping in scope, explaining the general thrust of many canonical philosophers and how the concepts of each prepares the way for the philosophers that follow them, forming a single story. The big attention-grabber for these lectures for those well-read in Deleuze’s oeuvre is that finally a published work in which he “positions” himself with respect to other famous philosophers of his day or era, especially Martin Heidegger. We also get a discussion of Hegel and his placement within the history of philosophy. But emphasis on this common thread of ‘Grounding’ has much more to reveal about the obsessive work of European philosophers than taking names and claiming lines of affiliation. Continue reading “‘What Is Grounding?’ Deleuze’s Journey through the History of Philosophy”
The second essay of On the Genealogy of Morals begins tellingly as we immediately get a reflection on the act of promising, memory and forgetfulness. Before the topic of guilt, morality, the bite of conscience, and even the blunt trauma of punishment, Nietzsche writes:
“[t]o breed an animal with the right to make promises – is not this the paradoxical task that nature has set itself in the case of man? is it not the real problem regarding man? … Forgetting is no mere vis inertiae as the superficial imagine; it is rather an active and in the strictest sense positive faculty of repression… a little quietness, a little tabula rasa of the consciousness, to make room for new things, above all for the nobler functions and functionaries, for regulation foresight, premeditation… that is the purpose of active forgetfulness, which is like a doorkeeper, a preserver of psychic order, repose, and etiquette: so that it will be immediately obvious how there could be no happiness, no cheerfulness, no hope, no pride, no present without forgetfulness… Man himself must first of all have become calculable, regular, necessary, even in his own image of himself, if he is to be able to stand security for his own future, which is what one who promises does!” (GM,1).
The ownership of one’s future and the ingrained memory of oneself throughout the course of dynamic time are here the conditions of possibility for the contractual relationships in legal and business matters. The problem pinned down right at the outset of the essay is that of memory and forgetting – how could we have attained such complexity in economics and exchanging goods (as well as continually run into “the individualist” problem in theorizing) without first remaining stable inside of one’s person, one’s name? The problem of humanity in distinction with the rest of the earth animals is how we could come to be seen as the same over time, as individuals, when clearly we undergo changes, learn new tricks, and generally grow and decay in the course of our tumultuous lives. To fashion a memory and a running narrative along with it, closely connected to the body but not necessarily so, is the opening problem that leads us to guilt, bad conscience, and resentment but also the act of promising that brings us into the world of equivocal relationships and indebtedness. In forgetting, Nietzsche allows a moment of tranquility and respite amidst the maze of confusion surrounding business calculations, and the morality of debt. The act of forgetting, active forgetting, is a glimpse into the strong forces emerging from the bounds of the text, joyfully casting off the burden of duty towards one’s past.
What follows is gruesome. From here on, after section one, the second essay of The Genealogy of Morals will take the reader through a long narrative about the emergence of God and feeling of guilt (bad conscience) He brings along with him: a narrative that is mostly a parody of histories of morality that abounded in Nietzsche’s day and which he fought vigorously against. He plays along with the idea for twenty-or-so sections, interjecting every so often to remind us that violence, force, and subjugation are at the root of the order of things. As written above, when tracing a history and giving an account of how we arrived at the present composition of things there is an overwhelming tendency to project the order of the day backwards and export the common, victorious terms of one’s predominant discourse into the past. The contractual relationship viewed from both Nietzsche’s society and ours could not have had an origin in moral sentiments – this notion of reciprocity, the equivalence between two individuals itself is a moral notion and does not persist throughout all times. This would lead us to posit a universal standard across all cultures and societies without much evidence for the inner workings of these people’s or their environments, a standard essentially and undeniably conjoined with immoral and destructive institutions of harm (here the bourgeois, European imperial history and its systemic plundering). The demand to “right” a situation by bringing to a common level the relationship between disputing individuals is no pre-given; it takes a highly active and critical perspective shared by both Nietzsche and Graeber to wade through the axioms and assumptions lingering in the air of one’s culture to provide a counter-narrative.
There is a constant equivocation of origins with violence. Throughout the second essay, legal terminology is dotted with coarse words evoking brutal pain and torture: “it was in this sphere then, the sphere of legal obligations, that the moral conceptual world of “guilt,” “conscience,” “duty,” “sacredness of duty” had its origin: its beginnings were, like the beginnings of everything great on earth, soaked in blood thoroughly and for a long time” (GM,6). The moral feelings that bind us to harmony have a perverse underside: the pain and trauma inscribed into the memory of the body directly. The origins of moral concepts have are in this passage legal issues and obligations, but just a few pages later he switches to the creditor/debtor business relationship:
“…the feeling of guilt, of personal obligation, had its origin, as we saw, in the oldest and most primitive personal relationship, that between buyer and seller, creditor and debtor: it was here that one person first encountered another person, that one person first measured himself against another.” (GM,8)
Bear in mind Nietzsche’s ambivalence concerning origins. This is the parody side of the essay, the one which Graeber correctly identifies as playing along with a bourgeois audience only to shock them with the necessary horrors that they would not have acknowledge in their elegant theories, sitting in the quiet rooms of study where they wrote their treatise. Seeking the origin of a phenomenon like morality or debt is only to mislead and confuse the reader, even when done rigorously and scientifically. To do so anyways would neglect an incomprehensible amount of forces vying for their subsistence and growth; the only way to avoid this is to play along with the attempts of others and use their reasoning against them in an ironic distance. The emphasis on violence, destruction, and assault is a ploy to link together those cool, calm, and collected observations into the essence of things with that which they forget: the forces we must tarry and battle with constantly. This excessive memory of secure individuals writing books, the memory that recollects so much of the fine details or holds an idea firmly and dearly throughout the wide length of their lives, is unable to perform the act of forgetting – an active forgetting. Origins reappear constantly in all ages (as we already posited with Nietzsche in part 1) and stick into the memory of its actors. Just consider the endless repetition of nationalist beginnings and their moments of triumph, their grand significance that lives on in the cultural memory. What bloody battles and rampant slaughter they leave out! Nearly every “great” historical moment has an obscene underside with violent undertones that we parse out for the sake of a comfortable narrative. The teaching of this narrative coupled with the mandatory schooling for a nation’s youth means a institutional replication of a memory of origins. The “grim realities of war” line that accompany these histories spotted with dates of wars gloss over the suffering and deep misery they bring to the people caught up in them.
Both Graeber and Nietzsche understand this, but morality is tricky; Graeber employs this unveiling technique in his great-grand historico-anthropological treatise of his own with disdain. The essential goodness of communities is always contrasted with the violence of the state and the violence of cold financial transaction. Nietzsche keeps a extremely acute eye on the subtleties of morality and develops a style that is critical of its inner-workings, all the while maintaining a creativity that is essentially positive and non-judgmental. Tellingly, the next chapter in *Debt after dealing with On the Genealogy of Morals is “A Brief Treatise on the Moral Grounds of Economic Relations”, where a new theory of human relationships (the real question of foundations) and their grounding in humanity is asserted “from scratch”. In the next essay of On the Genealogy of Morals, the religious ascetic life is closely examined and the ascetic emerges not in shambles but transformed into a boiler-room of creativity in a hope for the “man of the future” that will overcome it. To merely denounce violence and take a moral stance against those things that Nietzsche makes abundantly clear that he despises would be to get caught up in the logic of that which plagues him so. Challenging Christianty by moralizing would not escape the moral logic he wishes to get rid of; to escape we cannot simply negate but must launch out from that which we are forced to endure. The vital energies that these abhorrent systems and logics have imbued in us are the places from which to transform ourselves and create something anew.
But the tension between these two writers can be heightened even further: Nietzsche takes shots at the anarchism that Graeber ascribes to for shrinking away from the power implicit in the will, the ever-expanding will that dominates and without remorse. Having come from the common place of brutality behind origins, the divergence is sharp:
“…the cause of the origin of a thing and its eventual utility, its actual employment and place in a system of purposes, lie worlds apart; whatever exists, having somehow come into being, is again and again reinterpreted to new ends, taken over, transformed, and redirected by some power superior to it; all events in the organic world are a subduing, a becoming master, and all subduing and becoming master involves a fresh interpretation, an adaptation through which any previous “meaning” and “purpose” are necessarily obscured or even obliterated.” (GM,12)
Breaching origins and causes does not bring us back to a baseline communism here; the disruption of origins and the deconstruction of treatise on the nature of economics, morality, and the like are themselves manifestations of a new interpretation taking shape, a new force burgeoning outward. Beneath or behind these origins and statements here lies a contested ground. On the one hand, there is the common decency of people together sharing; what is untouched by laws, contracts, and money; or Graeber’s communal humanity “refusing to make such calculations, refusing to measure or remember who had given what to whom” (Debt,79). On the other hand, there are bare forces mixing and jockeying in a basically non-human contest for power. Ever the astute historian, Graeber will point to the dominant quality of societies to explain why hierarchies and embattled parties engage in struggle for power: heroic societies of honor and commercial societies with their markets have “slipped” into their respective class relations. The social arrangements are depicted as the cause for leading astray the basic, common, human element. These societies could only ever appear as aberrations – a mistake in the development from “the foundation of our humanity”.
What a great number of mistakes there have been throughout the coarse of humanity! A comprehensive collection of examples of the ways humanity has been corrupted by deviant social organizations would be staggering (a discussion on anti-civilization primitivism will have wait for now) and Graeber’s book does come off in many instances as a very long series of travesties staining a core humanity. One might wonder if man is more commonly conniving in its history and whether we should take Nietzsche’s opposite parody version of man as the “calculating animal” as more sound. Man for Nietzsche is something that must be overcome rather than retrieve from the immoral structures that have laid their “terrible claws” upon it; it is in this sense that what comes after man and the state must be more intense, more affirmative than what history has provided hitherto. But what of man’s pre-history? there pretender origins appears again! Historians surely select there topics according to their wishes and their social training (and so the values of a particular society are drawn out of them), as Nietzsche would agree. But could this not be explained as a force willing itself into the past to triumphantly assert its existence as either the culmination of the story or as its own hidden, untold greatness? How are we to think of pre-historical humans or even the neighboring species of chimpanzees from which we evolved but from the present moment in which we now conduct our research? The thought of “origins of the human” must dominate any look into pre-history considered by anthropology but not, for instance, biology or ecology – for ’human’ is right there in the name (anthro-) and therefore presupposes its common attributes. It becomes hard not to imagine the forces pushing back on these (perhaps non-human or not-yet-human) communities fearing for their survival and the solidarity born out of the difficulties of tribal-level reproduction.
The will expressed in Graeber is clearly a critical spirit actively preventing logics of domination imposing themselves all around it. Actively engaged in political organizing himself, his grand work has anchored many seeking another world (forcefully). A work like this is an extremely potent force, but one that can sink into moralisms that reintroduce an ideal into an otherwise brilliant work of historical anthropology. Take this passage for example:
“Sometimes people’s “abilities” and “needs” are grossly disproportionate. Genuine egalitarian societies are keenly aware of this and tend to develop elaborate safe-guards around the dangers of anyone – say, especially good hunters, in a hunting society – rising too far above themselves…
Communes or egalitarian collectives in the United States often face similar dilemmas, and they have come up with their own safeguards against creeping hierarchy. It’s not that the tendency for communism to slip into hierarchy is inevitable – societies like the Inuit have managed to fend it off for thousands of years – but rather, that one must always guard against it.” (Debt,115-116)
The activity of safeguarding an ideal is something that Graeber seems to be almost explicitly endorsing. Vigilance toward conformity is itself a powerful force: a reactive force that sees the actively dominant force pouring outside itself and quickly cuts it down (to employ Nietzsche-speak). “Keeping things commie” must entail checking the forces of growth that sprout up one at a time; a leveling force is required to counter act the repeated transgression. This seems to have functioned smoothly in a few societies on the earth – a few. The repetition of preserving a social form and actively preventing others from disrupting that form must be thought as just that: an active that is performed over and over again to keep it in place. The only thing that stops us from calling such a conformity oppressive at this point is by alerting people to the “fact” that our very essence as human is being threatened. The force of dogmatism functions in ways beyond that of simply the state, organized religion, the market, racism, and patriarchy. Keeping a lid on deviancy could be described this way, especially when an ideal is attempted to be held in one’s securely hand – trying to escape.
One could argue, on the contrary, that this Nietzschean force-philosophy is merely the product of a deranged man reared in a social environment of austerity and militancy. The question then would be if this reduction of the work to the surrounding society from which it came is not reemploying the idea of origins as a cause, whether the philosophy is over-determined by its time and place. This brings us to one of the big differences in their style: while the social forms determine the type expressions a culture will take in Graeber, a more intensive forces/power play is operating in Nietzsche. One observes the social-historical with more scientific research at his disposal, the other collapses nature and culture into a single plane of cosmic or planetary fluctuations of power. This seems a legitimate decision one must make regarding just how much one’s social structures define the possibilities and limitations of one’s imagination, and how much is dependent upon more physical forces of the earth/cosmos: a decision that cannot be merely spontaneous but must be a matter of degrees.
Moving along with expanding the tension between the two, Nietzsche makes his own attacks on the spirit of reactive safeguarding impulse very obvious:
“The democratic idiosyncrasy which opposes everything that dominates and wants to dominate, the modern misarchism (to coin an ugly word for an ugly thing) has permeated the realm of the spirit and disguised itself in the most spiritual forms to such a degree that today it has forced its way, has acquired the right to force its way into the strictest, apparently most objective sciences; indeed, it seems to me to have already taken charge of all physiology and theory of life – to the detriment of life, as goes without saying, since it has robbed it of a fundamental concept, that of activity.” (GM,12)
That hatred of rule in “misarchism”, its gaining entrance to science by acquiring the “right” is something despicable for the way in which it subverts the will to power – life’s penchant for activity. The “essence of life” for Nietzsche is primarily about (he will say later in the same paragraph) the “spontaneous, aggressive, expansive, form-giving forces that give new interpretations and directions” (GM,12) during its brighter moments. But does the essence of anarchism necessarily run opposite of this active force? Do they not, and Graeber among them, work tirelessly at creating action-events by willing themselves ever forward against monumental odds and fighting oppression with a counter-force of their own – wherever it rears its ugly head? The impossible demands and slogans of direct action participants like “another world is possible” seem to perfectly suit Nietzsche’s criteria of making new interpretations and expanding the vitality of the scope of the imagination. This is undeniably so in the moments of contention with the state and its “terrible claws”, but also in the networking or solidarity building activity that “grows the movement”. What Nietzsche is railing against is not this em-powering work but the use of back-door strategies of obtaining rights and hearings from the big-bad state. When the tide is diminished and activity wanes, the reactive forces that get sucked into the comfortable subordination of the state or the marketplace machine are the type that are so deplorable. Appealing to dominant power’s inner-moral-feelings and accruing concessions is exactly the result of an approach that focuses on “rights” and the contractual relationship. The two writers considered here understand this very well: human rights and reciprocal fairness remain within a logic of ethical conduct that presupposes the religious institutions set up inside of the state/market form. This is the direct action strategy that Graeber endorses and practices: setting up alternative structures to the state/market model and then ignoring the state, standing guard against capital circulating through it (Capitalist-free zones). The difference is that Nietzsche resists the humanism that fits within that state-market-morality form as well, with Graeber retaining a primal humanity he believes exist apart from it. I add the primal to his more explicit humanism, considering the anthropological nature of his investigation into the common threads found in humanity as a whole and the basic congenial relatability he posits in it.
Looking back to Graeber’s Debt with this covert morality of primal humanism in mind, we’ll next come to some of the insightful findings of the ethnographic study and infuse Nietzsche’s emphasis on active forgetting and forces so as to refine Graeber’s anarchism.
The idea of a common communal humanity in baseline communism coursing throughout Debt is an alternative moral foundation to the ’rights’ discourse, which it ruthlessly uproots – particularly in in the chapter “Honor and Degradation: or, on the foundation of contemporary civilization”. Here we get definitions of slavery (“the ultimate form of being ripped from one’s contexts, and thus from all the social relationships that make one a human being.”), and honor (“surplus dignity” p.168). These definitions are contestable. But the real clincher in this chapter that is worth spending the most time on is the discussion of how ancient civilizations and their discourses on legal and religious norms have persisted, coloring our own talk in the vast majority of the public realm. From the heroic societies like Greece and Rome that passed down their terminology and social structures underpinning them, we have received dilemmas that last to this day: property rights and, more generally, the idea of possessing rights at all. The ethical conundrums that rise from this (and these issues, it should be noted, arise in market and war based states) have defined entire subsequent traditions that make up both the convoluted system of laws that are supposed to mete out justice and the roots of patriarchy.
Here again the assertion of the nature of a society – it’s covering-over of communism with some selection of debt logics, equalization, hierarchies, and violence – produces a more-or-less well categorized type of people and set of issues with which the society must struggle to find solutions to. The social forms that overtake the community indicate the moral problems that take shape. Cultures of war and commerce tend to become confused and concerned by the rising indebtedness of large amounts of its population and the powerful individuals inside of it tend to feel threatened by money, taking drastic measures to make it publicly known that there honor is beyond the equivalences brought on by the universal value of money. Graeber argues convincingly (with plenty of footnotes and scientific backing) that the phenomenon of money and debt, together with the organized violence of the state and its warriors, prefigures the emergence of a tradition of ethics/morality found in the academies, the laws, and the religions – traditions whose base of words and ideas have persisted into our present day and have extended around much of the globe from the Mediterranean civilizations (namely, Rome).
In short, as trade began expanding in Greece, money became central to the daily life of the citizens of the cities. Aristocrats and warriors wanted to ensure that their estates were not subject to the equalizing power of money. So as “money introduced a democratization of desire” and everybody needed it for the basic necessities of life (p.190), one’s honor became a measure of how far one could keep themselves from the vile dictates of the marketplace. With the widespread appearance of coinage in a marketplace that seemed to envelope the entire society, making-do without recourse to commerce and trade became a status symbol. Rather than flaunting one’s wealth, the honor of the warrior was measured by how far he could distance himself from wealth in the eyes of his fellow citizens: “money, then, had passed from a measure of honor to a measure of everything that money was not. To suggest that a man’s honor could be bought with money would be a terrible insult -” (p.188). Eliminating risk and making a secure financial future for oneself ran counter to these warriors’ ideals. The extravagance of the wealthy is in stark opposition to “martial honor”: “A warrior’s honor is his willingness to play a game in which he stakes everything. His grandeur is directly proportional to how far he can fall.” (p.189). It was the mass market that sprang up in the Mediterranean cities along the coasts that made the circulation of money more fluid, spreading the equalizing transactions of minted coins for goods that occupied the previous system of credit and debt. The heroic warrior mentality had to morph into the struggle to remain above this ubiquity and to retain the cherished greatness that comes from the risk and victory of battle. This became keeping a tight hold on their house, lording over their property: “This extreme fear of dependency on others’ whims lies at the basis of the Greek obsession with the self-sufficient household.” (p.190). One could say that the warrior’s penchant for conquest and glory (codified by the honor and renown placed on him by his neighbors) was domesticated (quite literally) by money and markets, or even captured by the colonial machine.
Transitioning from Greece to Rome, property becomes the central theme of the complex laws that were drawn up in order to settle disputes in Ancient Rome. These basic concepts of property ownership have since been translated into the more idealistic notions of freedom, liberty, and rights as being “possessed” or “owned” by individuals from a legal-contractual point of view. The Roman Empire it seems most effectively conquered the world through its laws, for “Roman law has come to provide the language and conceptual underpinnings of legal and constitutional orders everywhere.” The hang-up of Roman law, its dilemma that caused difficulty in formulating particular laws was that “[i]n Roman law, property, or dominium, is a relation between a person and a thing, characterized by absolute power over that thing. This definition has caused endless conceptual problems.” Considering, as Graeber does, that property laws are not about people in relation to things but “an understanding or arrangement between people concerning things” (p.198), one can see how slavery fits in so easily in Rome: when the law is based on ownership of things in a society with much commerce and conquest, supposedly equal relationships with people can fall very quickly into master and slave.
“In creating a notion of dominium, then, and this creating the modern principle of absolute private property, what Roman jurists were doing first of all was taking a principle of domestic authority, of absolute power over people, defining some of those people (slaves) as things, and then extending the logic that originally applied to slaves to geese, chariots, barns, jewelry boxes, and so forth – that is, to every other sort of thing the law had to do with.” (p.201)
As the structures of the state and the markets that developed between and inside them became more stable in the empire that was Rome, the laws also became more important in clearly defining when and where someone could fall into slavery and what control the city had over the people. The house-hold became the place where the male citizen could exercise his dominance over everything within it. Graeber notes how ’dominate’ and ’domestic’ have the same root in the Latin ’domus’. It was in Imperial Rome then that property was inscribed in the laws as a *right that one *has, so as to provide the space where the citizen could still lord-over in a world dominated itself by the twin pincers of commercial exchange (coinage, profits, debts, etc.) and outright war.
This is the hidden underside of the noble and ideal notions that circulate (as if they had the currency of a coin) in the discourse of so many communities, cities, and nations to this day: owning one’s freedom, saying “I have rights” is a derivative of Roman property law that codified the transition from master to slave within the empire. To have rights or own liberties also means that one can sell them. We are free to give up our freedom so to speak; given the predominance of markets and the need to make money to stay afloat in necessities of life, this was bound to happen. When freedom takes on the characteristic of property and rights are owned, we presuppose the individual person – as isolated and naturally independent – and sort of commodify it, as if we could take this thing that we own (our freedom) and sell it, or buy someone else’s.
“At this point we can finally see what’s really at stake in our peculiar habit of defining ourselves simultaneously as master and slave, reduplicating the most brutal aspects of the ancient household in our very concept of ourselves, as masters of our freedoms, or as owners of our very selves. It is the only way that we can imagine ourselves as completely isolated beings. There is a direct line from the new Roman conception of liberty… to the strange fantasies of liberal philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, and Smith, about the origins of human society…” (p.210)
These concepts have worked their way into our collective consciousness by way of translated texts that could travel along the Roman-built roads and the continuity of the Christain Church afterwards. The ownership of rights and liberties as property of individuals extends from Rome to western Europe to the American colonies to the rhetoric of protesters seeking redress for the pain and torment inflicted by this model of imperial warfare. With increasingly efficient war machinery and the capture of territories by the creation of markets and indebted nations, the lexicon of those who resist is for the most part still colored by the Roman heritage of the colonizers. Demands and ideals for redress of grievances or assertions of autonomy take the form of already having the right to self-determination (at best) or seeking to gain rights and the respect from the greater countries (worse). Graeber will labor on and on about the violence behind this, as if the whole edifice was held together by the brute threat of beating people up or killing them at the bottom of it, or else the violence done by demanding equivalent repayment for one’s monied debts (perhaps with interest). He seems to want to constantly remind us of this in order to draw on our moral affectations, which he has provided a ground for in baseline communism. Appealing to these sentiments is a strategy that invokes a desire to be rid of the entire structure of civilization, states, and money so as to allow for the primitive-communistic allocation of needs to all in our closest proximity (tribe maybe). So, unearthing the origins of our tarnished present turns out to be an exercise in replacing them with new origins: those of humanity.
But what happened to the honor of the Greek warrior obsessed with remaining outside the money system? If we are not to overdetermine the behavior of these warriors by pointing to their society of origin, then we can say that they were a form (albeit a privileged form) of resistance to the logic of money and markets. The reverence for honor that develops in response to the rise of markets and the moral conundrums they produce could be described as a safeguarding of one’s greater force from the flattening out a population of people. The public displays of one’s non-monetary worth in extravagant gift-giving is here reactive to the burgeoning influence of money in their cities and towns; but as to the origins of the warrior ideal itself, we do not receive from Graeber any explanations besides “violence” – which is clearly meant to have shock value and offend the reader’s sensibilities. The state and the forced imposition of symmetry in repayment assume the entirety of the blame for the violence of war and the desire of the honor-bound.
We need not resort to a social-determinism to explain why cultures become violent. On the other hand, we cannot assert that people are violent “by nature”. This simple dichotomy of contingent social forms/natural certainty (nature/nurture or “social construction”/essence) is precisely the quagmire that Nietzsche helps us get over in casting off and poking-fun at the narrative of origins. An origin-story must be retold over and over again to the young student, molding the subject and its soft, sculptable body for it to survive the flow of time. An origin can only ever live on in the memory of a body-politic and the narrative it communicates to itself; to be *forced into remembering the violence of the origin, its obscene counterpart to the glossy coating, does not get us beyond the logic of states, debt, or ’human rights.’ Understanding the forces bearing down on these bodies-politic does. For instance, the harsh mountainous geology of Greece made cities more isolated from each other, its close geographic proximity to the Persian Empire, sticking out into a sea with a history of once established civilizations and favorable wind patterns, and, yes, the rise of coinage and markets all contributed as *forces to a heroic society of war (See John Protevi, ’Geophilosophy: War and Earth’ in *Life War Earth: Deleuze and the Sciences). But to take the origin-search this far would be to analyze so much detail as to take us out of the strictly social realm and into the earth-physical forces that always intermingle with the unique social structures of any given group of people. Nietzsche’s force-philosophy can’t take us their, for the advancement of the sciences had not allowed him to. But dissolving the attachment to origins rhetorically and reminding us to forget them so as to deal with what is in front of us in the near future is something at which Nietzsche was masterful. His diagnoses were restricted to the metaphors and scientific advancement of his time, but he could look past the symbols containing social currency and find other forces at work.
The alternative history of an idea we get from Graeber with the beginnings of human rights discourse in Roman property laws (and the domesticated warrior shrunk into his house, while the Empire expands) serves to reevaluate the entire progressivist terminology. The ideals that get in the way of a true communistic autonomy turn out to be the ones that get used by people supposedly on its side. Demanding rights isn’t a radical alternative to the existing order of things, but merely a demand for access to it: a seat at the table in global dominance. “Most of our most precious rights and freedoms are a series of exceptions to an overall moral and legal framework that suggests we shouldn’t really have them in the first place.” (p.210). But it takes little more than a cover-to-cover reading of Debt to see that the alternative moral framework proposed is a primitive humanism, where periodic debt cancellation was normal in order to stave off deserting citizens and rebellious mobs. This does differ qualitatively from pretty much all of the dead-end strategies and rhetoric of contemporary (pseudo-)resistances to Capitalism, but it merely reverses the progressive faith in the future socialist state that tames Capitalism by growing bigger than it with a harkening back to a time of innocence. Rather than everyone gaining rights and owning a well-defined property/territory that separates them from an exploitative market or state military-force (aka the police), a community “before violence” asserts itself underneath the layers of intrusive social organization. The reversal is similar to Nietzsche’s “reevaluation of all values” but stops short at his search for “the overman” that would go beyond man. Essentially, if we strip down to the base(line) community, we would get to live out the goodness of each other’s company without any aggressiveness (just keep the exceptionally skilled one’s from gaining any distance!).
The progressivist humanism of rights accumulation differs from the primordial humanism of communization, but still remains a humanism. Lacking a nuanced understanding of the potential forces awaiting actualization, strategic maneuvering against something as powerful as the state or the market thought as totalized wholes relies on their negative moralization. We do not get beyond this moral framework (humanism) by singling out the violence of the state and the logic of debt and sticking all of the blame on them. This merely perpetuates the weak position of the pure, human resistor knocking at the great big castle doors of the corrupt state. A counter-power that frees itself from the grip of the state might not have to become conscious of itself as a force until the moment it faces real forceful opposition, but repeating the morality of the oppressors indefinitely will keep the counter-power to a limited scale. Movements must be able to grow and foster the expanding, aggressive impulse that marks a vital body.
While Graeber gives us the opposing ethic of the primal anarchist against the progressivist ethic of a more equitable, inclusive future, Nietzsche simply wouldn’t have made this distinction – he observed in the texts of revolutionaries manifested during his life a hatred of rule and a despising of what he thought to be most essential to the forces of life. Mutual aid, solidarity, and communal living can be incorporated into the Nietzschean affirmation of creative forces unkept by weakness and resentment, but today – I would contend – only as a movement or campaign. People are constantly asking each other about the next move, the next event during the course of struggle. How to keep moving on and whether the group is growing or dying, strengthening or weakening, or waxing or waning (if the previous two are too dramatic) is always being assessed by participants of a campaign or an emerging body with a political agenda.
Graeber perhaps too easily selects his own version of anarchism without picking out precisely what in anarchism remains philosophical-moralistically progressive. On the flip side, his access to vast historical records allows him to build a convincing argument about social-historical change from the (moral) ground up. Science itself, however, has a clearly visible progressivist streak that someone as sensitive to triumphalist narratives like he would do well to look into, that is, regarding an historical telos. The early revolutionary theorists of Europe were heavily influenced by Hegel and the progressive model historical change. A flow of history recorded in the archives and redeployed in massive (usually nationalistic) volumes made for a sentiment that the movement of time was getting better and better, eventually to reach an ideal state, or absence thereof. It is precisely this mixture of metaphysics (in the classic sense of causation and beginning/ends in nature; not physics) and history that Nietzsche could only bear with rage:
“The evolution of a thing, a custom, an organ is this by no means its progressus toward a goal, even less a logical progressus by the shortest route and with the smallest expenditure of force – but a succession of more or less profound, more or less mutually independent processes of subduing, plus the resistances they encounter, the attempts at transformation for the purpose of defense and reaction, and the results of successful counteractions. The form is fluid, but the “meaning” is even more so.” (GM,12)
But Graeber does not take the progressivist stance of his predecessors. He believes his work to be proceeding along lines beyond that of classical anarchism, but doesn’t want to ascribe to anything but anarchism. Anarchism is only but a practice and kind of verb to him and he rejects to serious an affiliation with the classical figureheads of Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin. Recent work has been done by people like Todd May, Duanne Rousselle, and Saul Newman among others in mixing Nietzschean, post-Nietzschean, or postructuralist philosophy with anarchism in a body of literature provisionally titled “post-anarchism”. Graeber himself has written about the “new anarchists” and I think would benefit from engaging with post-anarchism. But anarchists often have a hard time getting over the French-wave of intellectual celebrity in the later part of the twentieth century and reading some damn Foucault. In fact, much of the general thrust of my argument can gleaned from his essay Nietzsche Genealogy History.
The reason for bringing all of this progressivism up is to remind us of some of the pretenses from which a great deal of the revolutionary action comes from and from which the massive work of anthropology in Debt doesn’t so much remain in line with as reverse. Debt does this by grounding itself and advocating a return to debt jubilee, but such an action of canceling all the debts could only be accomplished by a sovereign whose moral authority is robbed by a baseline communism. Is Graeber using a primitivism morality to try and convince a state authority to relieve the peasants, so that we could do it all all over again? Or is he demonstrating the necessity of a debt cancellation prophetically? I doubt it would be either of these; he is pointing the way towards resistance and I am trying to give it more oomph.
The force that would bring about something new must also forget the past of origins and be strong enough to do so, and perhaps must also be strong enough to create new origins.
Let’s return to Nietzsche. At the culmination of Nietzsche’s parody-narrative of debt and legal contracts as the origin of morals and guilt, we get the most odd twist of logic produced from carrying out a bad thought to its consequences. If debts are at the heart of ethics and business transactions are the first instance of men’s measurement against each other, the valuations found in Christianity and other similarly monotheistic religious doctrines must be too. As tribes advance to greater strength, each time more deeply indebted to their ancestors, to the gods, then finally to the ultimate God of pure credit for bestowing the whole universe (with a more personal touch), the debt becomes the heaviest burden imaginable – an all knowing, all seeing, all powerful whole to complement the hole in one’s soul. An individual’s relationship with such a being could only raise the stakes to epic proportions.
“…suddenly we stand before the paradoxical and horrifying expedient that afforded temporary relief for tormented humanity, that stroke of genius on the part of Christianity: God himself makes payment to himself for the guilt of mankind, God sacrifices himself for the guilt of mankind, God himself makes payment to himself, God as the only being who can redeem man form what has become up redeemable for man himself – the creditor sacrifices himself for his debtor, out of love (can one credit that?) out of love for his debtor!” (GM,21)
It is a truly ridiculous story in which God does all the accounting work for a weak and sinful lot of people. The great God-Creditor sacrifices his son to pay off a debt not to anyone else but to himself. As Graeber repeatedly notes, people actually would sell off their children onto slavery or otherwise to pay off debts, but this is no debtor paying back a loan, it is God paying back himself for someone else’s debts: the ineradicable sin of mortals. One cannot rid oneself of original sin, yet God sent his son to die for us anyways and rid Him (the great Creditor) of His (nonexistent) debts. Hence the precisely effective meme that spreads like a virus amongst people with anything resembling a market: “Jesus died for your sins.” The great creditor in the sky is said to have sacrificed his own son the way a debtor would, but only to pay himself back. All of us sinners remain in debt in essence but are unable to top God’s sacrifice – we remain infinitely in debt.
A good reader will focus on the immediately preceding section 22 and see that this is a fable and not the full picture of debt and morality. This talk of debt and credit has reached its limit and we must come down from heaven to meet the pangs of forces:
“You will have guessed what has really happened here, beneath all this: that the will to self-tormenting, that repressed cruelty of the animal-man made inward and scared back into himself, the creature imprisoned in the “state” so as to be tamed, who invented the bad conscience in order to hurt the more natural vent for this desire to hurt had been blocked – this man of the bad conscience has seized upon the presupposition of religion so as to drive his self-torture to its most gruesome pitch of severity and rigor. Guilt before God: this thought becomes an instrument of torture to him.”
The man of bad conscience that Nietzsche describes is not the debtor but the one kept from its own outward expression and the conquering impulse by training, punishment, fear, and the state. These techniques and formations are what prevent the will to life from its fulfillment; this is what is “really” going on here. The religious garb is a spiritual cover to feelings of internalized oppression:
“All instincts that do not discharge themselves outwardly turn inward – this is what I call the internalization of man: this it was that man first developed what later was called his “soul.”” (GM,16)
Nietzsche’s real is contrasted with Graeber’s real: the forces of internalization that scare and push back against the body vs. the foundations of our humanity in communal affection.
The extent to which a foundational humanism can be swallowed up by the forces of resentment that Nietzsche diagnosed is determined by the way such a humanism is deployed against the reprehensible systems and statues of the state, the pastorate, the corporations, etc. If they only work so as to reinforce the power relationship by taking hold of the moral logic of the master and attempting to use it against power (when it was perfected and deployed as an art of subjugation), then we will only get caught up in the same loops that plague the (human) “rights” discourse. Graeber can see through the contractual rights framework but not the humanism of the pastorate.
So where does this leave us? If something like a jubilee that Graeber suggest at the end of Debt is going to happen, then I think some of the intellectual work done by Nietzsche and his predecessors would be well taken by other anarchists and Debt Strikers. To put the active back into the name activist, those feelings of joy, empowerment, and expansion should take precedence over moralizing and the pining for the communistic purity of human decency. The strategy of appealing to a moral sense of community does indeed have a role to play, but it can only take one so far. In the ancient civilizations that Graeber would have us look back on and learn from, a great deal of people had to flee their homes en mass and, if that was not enough, form militias to sack the capitals to challenge their indebtedness and their banishment:
“The pastoral fringes, the deserts and steppes away from the river valleys, were the places to which displaced, indebted farmers fled. Resistance, in the ancient Middle East, was always less a politics of rebellion than a politics of exodus, of melting away with one’s flocks and families – often before both were taken away. There were always tribal peoples living on the fringes. During good times, they began to take to the cities; in hard times their numbers swelled with refugees – farmers who effectively became Enkidu once again. Then, periodically, they would create their own alliances and sweep back into the cities once again as conquerors.” (Debt, p.183)
We could always try and implore the sovereign to take pity on our destitution, but when they listen almost exclusively to financiers and the businesses that have ascended into their position as big market players, the chance of that working is going to be small. Politicians tend to make decisions based on the pressures surrounding them, the ones that got them into the position they are in and could remove them very soon. If we revert back to the early forms of civilization, then resisting debt would have to eventually take the form of a counter-force of people who feel as if they had no future – as if the only option available to them was too escape. However, to assemble a new body-politic with enough force and vitality to withstand the pressures from the established forced bearing down on it with its debt-inducing machines would be another option that skips the exodus altogether. The only escape would be right into the middle of the political by doing the most political thing one can do in times of crisis: assembling as a collective body in those places where public assembly could still happen. There we would find the force to back up the demand for debt cancellation.
Which isn’t to say that such a force would be explicitly a collection of debtors or take the fulfillment of a particular demand against debt as goal. People have their critiques against the refusal of repayment, and the reciprocal-contractual morality of the market weighs heavily on the people as subjects. Both Nietzsche and Graeber are in agreement here. The new community of people that springs forth from that assembly in all of its force and vivacity is also something whose relevance and power is hard for anyone to disagree on. But, in attempts to make more than merely a semantic point, that body will need to recognize itself as a force to be reckoned with at some point and not just a rekindling of a humanity long lost on a social atmosphere permeated by the immoral, unjust, or otherwise hated prospect of war and financial solvency.
When people are organized (however loosely) together horizontally in these common places, what is produced is no mere static entity but a vibrant body that cannot help itself from expanding and growing large. The emergent body cannot be separated from its force – the power and ability the body has in influencing surrounding forces. A major and perhaps defining feature of such a body is the potential to act out of its own vitality as well as reproduce itself. The attributes of such a body are always context specific, but the immediacy of a rupture in the fabric of power relations is felt throughout all bodies affected.
Running through Nietzsche’s essay we have found that the memory calling upon the individual to keep tabs on oneself and keep account of its contractual affairs with others is not only a laughable way to speak of morality but pernicious. When taken to its extreme, it displays the weakness of the line of reasoning and the weakness it induces in creating the person of “bad conscience” or resentful one who cannot express their emotions outwardly, keeping them harbored so as to let them fester and render one more or less impotent. The priest of the church and the confession booth work on the subjection of of the individual so as to “force” a retreat back inside of itself. In the realistic-forceful take on morality, the symbols of worship and the ideas of “original sin” are merely the surface of a more docile population of self-regulating bodies. This same morality is taken up by Graeber although in a primal humanist manner in his baseline communism. Such a “baseline” suggests that no debt burden or criminal act could fall below it, for we are all humans at the bottom line.
More important than discovering a steady foundation for humanity, a collective political body must actualize itself as a force to rework the financial and political constraints on us as individuals. Casting off the memories burned into us through institutional training and actively forgetting the past rather than bringing us back to them (here as moral foundations) would be mark of strength.
In examining debt it becomes very hard not to dwell on morality. As a promise of one party to another, the debtors obligation demands an “owning up” to that promise – or else risks being negatively valued in the community at large. This ’negative value’ clings to any extended look into the situation of indebtedness, so to conceptualize debt and any logic accompanying it must bring its value aspect along with it. The debtor, under this pervasive logic, is charged with making the creditor empty until repayment sets the relationship aright. Before the moment of re-harmonizing both creditor and the debtor, the debtors are stripped of their moral authority and rest firmly in the negative of a binary relation.
We can find help in Graeber’s definition of debt as an obligation that has not reached completion or a relationship of equality that has been skewed – to become equalized or “righted” in the future. Equality and reciprocity are clearly presupposed in the creditor/debtor relationship, which is then complicated by the duration of time between the two transfers: one from creditor to the debtor and the other from the debtor back to the creditor. To borrow from one side of an equation without setting the equation back in balance in the future would be labeled unfair; a promise extends the relationship ahead of time sometimes indefinitely and sometimes scrupulously marked off in advance. But this mathematical formulation doesn’t cover over the issue entirely. The value aspect of debt reaches even as far as the nature of individuals under consideration (sovereign individuals consistent through time): does not the very ability to repay some time in the future (and so “own” one’s debts) or demand a repayment for a past agreement (without which one will be wronged) require a valuation itself? Can one prescribe a valuation on the performative action of own up to the deeds performed in the past and project them into the future?
To put it in other words, doesn’t the ability to make the promise to repay, as the element of “ownership” of one’s contractual agreement across time, presuppose the positive valuation of consistency through the individual’s life? Is it debt that forces us to pledge ourselves to remain the same going forward into the future, or, conversely, does the consistency of the individual come first and set up the room for the contract? We tend to assume that a person be responsible for all of their deeds throughout their life, holding them in a monumental memory and etching them into the very nature of the person. A value hides under this assumption, buried by a gluttony of memories. A reversal of debt-valuation could find a key ally in “paying” attention to a perhaps deeper valuation: that one remain the same throughout their life. A different logic could be at play, one that if made explicit might sever the us from the binds of debt-morality. A newfound strength in an active forgetting – what could be more opposed to the pernicious effects of moralistic debt-logic?
Both Nietzsche and Graeber give strangely similar accounts of debt, morality, and history when examined side by side, though they diverge in a few key spots. You probably wouldn’t see it at first, because *Debt* tries to set its relationship to Nietzsche on its own terms in an isolated chapter. Graeber summons Nietzsche to briefly assist him in recounting some myths parading around as science. The chapter of Debt called ‘Cruelty and Redemption’ examines Nietzsche’s second essay in On the Genealogy of Morals titled ‘”Guilt,” “Bad Conscience,” and the Like’, but much is overlooked in that monumental essay. Highlighting the differences between the two will give us a deeper look into each’s respective normative views, while the commonalities that have been passed over by Graeber will help us to more precisely locate the logic of debt (and all of its moral and religious implications, in all of their violence). The two have basically the same approach to debt, but differ in what one could call a moral sense: Graeber is much more communally minded and has disdain for the forces of violence he believes “rips people from their contexts”, whereas Nietzsche does not shy away from the active forces of the “strong types”. Eventually we will arrive at a crossroads where humanity will attempt to be retained by Graeber and superseded by Nietzsche. Despite groundbreaking inquiries into the nature of debt on both accounts, both writers bring in opposing, not-so-subtle judgments that point in completely different directions.
Having recently uncovered the nationalistic pretensions of primordial debt theories of money, Graeber continues in his quest to dispel theories that lead into myth. When money is treated as a “debt-token” or a mere measure of debt, what we are indebted to and where debt can be extended into in our social relations becomes fuzzy. If the universal store of value that is money is determined to be nothing but a measuring device, the debts we have with each other appear to be everywhere. Again, when all that money is is a measure of value – eventually it seems like we are indebted to just about everything in our community and the cosmos (parents, ancestors, gods, etc.). Our whole lives turn out to be a long list of things that we are indebted to; a sentiment that is particularly susceptible to despotic nationalism, where the state is seen as the guarantor of all of these debts and the only entity big and grand enough to do so. This was covered in my last post on money as caught between to myths.
Graeber seems to think that Nietzsche is recounting something like this primordial debt theory when he begins musing on the creditor-debtor relationship and its place as the origin of measuring one person against another: the origin of values. This is seen as another state-of-nature story like Adam Smith’s barter economy that spawned the more efficient money based exchange system (in other words, a retrospective creation myth for money). Quoted in Debt but with a different translation than here, Nietzsche writes:
“…the feeling of guilt, of personal obligation, had its origin, as we saw, in the oldest and most primitive personal relationship, that between buyer and seller, creditor and debtor: it was here that one person first encountered another person, that one person first measured himself against another. No grade of civilization, however low, has yet been discovered in which something of this relationship has not been noticeable. Setting prices determining values, contriving equivalences, exchanging – these preoccupied the earliest thinking of man to so great an extent that in a certain sense they constitute thinking as such: here it was that the oldest kind of astuteness developed; here likewise, we may suppose, did human pride, the feeling of superiority in relation to other animals, have its first beginnings. Perhaps our word “man” (manas) still expresses something of precisely this feeling of self-satisfaction: man designated himself as the creature that measures values, evaluates and measures, as the “valuating animal as such.”” (GM,8)
In Graeber’s summary of Nietzsche’s plan with his essay, (that guilt, debt, and those sentiments that follow morality are the result of a person-to-person, buyer-seller or creditor-debtor relationship, with community developing only afterwards) what he
“is doing here is starting out from the common-sense assumptions about the nature of human beings prevalent in his day (and to a large extent, still prevalent) – that we are rational calculating machines, that commercial self-interest comes before society, that “society” itself is just a way of putting a kind of temporary lid on the resulting conflict. That is, he is starting out from ordinary bourgeois assumptions and driving them to a place where they can only shock a bourgeois audience.” (Debt,p.78)
There is a split character in Nietzsche’s essay. On the one hand, he is parodying those backward-looking excursions into “primeval times” and taking them from their “origins” (about which Nietzsche is not so concerned) to their logical conclusion as nationalist myths demanding sacrifice to the great creditor-ancestors of the past. On the other hand, Nietzsche is offering the reader his own understanding of God-less forces in the course of weaving through the simple-minded and triumphalist narratives trumpeting around in his time. The primordial debt/nationalist story continues along with our indebtedness level rising in tandem with the power level of society – as though the greatness of a tribe, become a community, become a nation, become an empire had increased the debt to each of its members as it rose up to each level. To add to Graeber’s portrayal of this side of Nietzsche (the parodying side):
“The fear of the ancestor and his power, the consciousness of indebtedness to him, increases, according to this kind of logic, in exactly the same measure as the power do the tribe itself increases, as the tribe itself grows ever more victorious, independent, honored, and feared… If one imagines this rude kind of logic carried to its end, then the ancestors of the most powerful tribes are bound eventually to grow to monstrous dimensions through the imagination of growing fear and to recede into the darkness of the divinely uncanny and unimaginable: in the end the ancestor must be transfigured into a god.” (GM,19)
If the story seems coherent it is from a purely didactic viewpoint. When indebtedness is a condition that is universal across one’s society (in the market and religion alike), as well being as entrapped by a large state-apparatus, then the tendency is to imagine such a condition in one’s “pre-history” before documentation or “official history” was bestowed (perhaps by the great creditor/documenter?) into existence. The story of a debt-maximizing God’s rise to prominence through a chain of more and more powerful social arrangements (for Nietzsche) and nationalist primordial debt theories (for Graeber) is rightly labelled as creation myths and not truthful accounts for the history of any societies nor money. That the debt level rises in lock-step with the power of a community or tribe is no where in evidence (as if the feeling of indebtedness is ubiquitous across a “whole society”!). The ridiculousness of these stories is owed to the dream-land of pre-history taking the place of an historical explanation of the arrival of the present situation. In looking for the origin of money or our moral sentiments, our most analytic thoughts and well-documented studies get convoluted and confused because we are predisposed to imagine similarly to what is right in front of us or all around us.
But I would argue that the other side of Nietzsche, who weaves his own affirmations and denouncements through the fake origin stories, is missed by an author rushing on to the rest of real history and real humanity. After stating that “there is also every reason to believe that Nietzsche knew the premise was insane; in fact, that this was the entire point” on one page, in the next has one, Graeber has one subtle and one giant leap that a close reading of Nietzsche’s essay will show is problematic. “It’s a worthy game and no one has played it better;” he goes on, “but it’s a game played entirely within the boundaries of bourgeois thought. It has nothing to say to anything that lies beyond that.” (Debt,p.78-79) Nietzsche is now locked up in this chapter for lack of any further evidence of these days of old. Moving on up in *Debt we will get lots of facts anthropological and historical on the road to mapping out the logic of debt across the ages, but we will also get a recurring terminology in which a humanist morality is snuck in. The values that Nietzsche puts forward are done bluntly and with great enthusiasm – a point that he wants to hammer into his readers’ heads. He writes about unavoidability of a conceptual “prehistory”: “(this prehistory is in any case present in all ages and may always reappear)” (GM,9) – suggesting that origins incessantly pop up and reassert themselves in even the most conscientious societies. Is not the principle of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need” of a baseline communism behind hierarchies and exchange a form of foundationalism that peels away the negative systems to find a romantically good core at the heart of humanity, the origins of sociality?
But Graeber’s approach is more casual and anecdotal – he takes it as a matter of fact that people experience communism as he defines it in our everyday life and that decency between people is as common as the air we breathe. It is only through encroaching hierarchy on the one hand and the demand to make our relations equal on the other that this basic humanity becomes tarnished. New categories papered over with lots of history, however, do not prove those categories more scientific. The non-scientific compartmentalization of social forms in hierarchy, exchange, and common decency (communism) aren’t essentially provable as comprehensive throughout human history and are heuristic categories to make Graeber’s humanistic-moral point easier to grasp. This territory of morality, humanity, and religion is precisely what must be dwelt on further if we are to find our way through the labyrinth of political economy and understand the logic of debt.
Nietzsche will spend more of the space on his pages with thoughts on memory, guilt, and punishment – the violence of inscription onto the body of the individual so as to train it to behave, and behave in docility over an extended duration with a conscience. It is these physical acts of punishment, the tremendous pain inflicted on the body, and the techniques that redirected human emotion inward that will drive the critique. The violence of the state that anarchists like Graeber never tire of pointing out (rightfully) is also pointed out by Nietzsche as a clear bringer of misery:
“…the wielding of a hitherto unchecked and shapeless populace into a firm form was not only instituted by an act if violence but also carried to its conclusion by nothing but acts of violence – that the oldest “state” this appeared as a fearful tyranny, as an oppressive and remorseless machine, and went on working until this raw material of people and semi-animals was at last not only thoroughly kneaded and pliant but also *formed.
I employed that word “state”: it is obvious what is meant – some pack of blond beast of prey, a conqueror and master race which, organized for war and with the ability to organize, unhesitatingly lays its terrible claws upon a populace perhaps tremendously superior in numbers but still formless and nomad. That is after all how the “state” began on earth: I think that sentimentalism which would have it begin with a “contract” has been disposed of.” (GM,17)
As always, Nietzsche digs deeper than moralistic and pious colleagues did (and most other writers have done since he died). He tears through the glossy surface that morality places over the victories of struggling forces, but not to find a basic human existence but ever more forces. Both ethical historians (one a genealogist, the other an anthropologist) are not impressed by the justifications that predominant powers give for their existence, but Nietzsche doesn’t fall for the next myth in line: the myth that human communality was all well and good before the state bore its way into the earth. Despite the terror of the state and the cold calculating law of the markets, another technique deserves our attention in the effects of repeated punishment and the formation of memory. The processes of ingraining a conscience into people also has a history drenched in blood and torture and did not simply exist before the rise of states, markets, and nations. We do not return to a more communal and warmly uncalculating relationship with other people when we remove the state, this would be to replace one myth with another. As we will see, the greater emphasis on techniques of punishment and inflicting pain in the development of a memory will play an important role in making us stand up for or own our debts through time. We own our debts and make contractual obligations through a more subtle and less noticeable coercion than the violence of the state and the equalizing demands of the market; although the history of this coercion is also the result of similarly reprehensible amounts of pain.
The drawing up of Nietzsche’s own primordial debt theory in *Debt is done briefly, but is done solely to assist in dispelling a bad myth. But Nietzsche always takes the game farther. The imaginary, “bourgeois” play with origin mythology is not for him something that when peeled back, we will get our humanity back. Graeber asserts this much about the fun Nietzsche is having with his audience, but this wild-mustached ghost never seems to find its proper place. The “real” that Graeber turns to immediately is a humanistic one oriented by a common community standard:
“in any real-life situation, we have propensities that drive us in several different contradictory directions simultaneously. No one is more real than any other. The real question is which we take as the foundation of our humanity, and therefore, make the basis of our civilization.” (Debt,p.79)
That’s a lot of “reals”! We have a positively real situation, then a multiplicity of contradictory forces (all real), and finally a real question: “what is the basis of our humanity/civilization?” Humanity takes center stage now in Debt, and the history that will follow in the second part of the book is done to tell us how the baseline reality of humanity has been disfigured by exchange and hierarchy. It is actually an extremely profound geo-history of political forms, economic systems, and religious dogma that all seem to compliment each other when attention is payed to all of them. But I am not disputing historical facts here – I’m getting after some contrasting ways of understanding morality in conjunction with debt. Remaining at this phase in the story for longer than Graeber did will strengthen much of his over-arching argument if we allow Nietzsche a louder voice: both are aware of the insidious logic of debt but Nietzsche’s inquiry more carefully focuses on those “reals”. The call for debt cancellation or resistance and a clean slate to reorganize society upon (found at the end of Debt) is prescient, but without dwelling longer on morality and those unexamined “reals”, the effort could be stifled by mental roadblocks. Like it or not, that ghost born posthumously is still hanging around.
The next part of this essay will be published shortly and go into more detail the differences in the theories of Nietzsche and Graeber. The role of memory and forgetting, history and origins, resistance and progress, and morality and resentment will receive further attention.>
Mark Fisher has done radicals a service by writing this thoughtful piece: Exiting the Vampire Castle.
He begins with a blunt statement and fuses the personal with the political in a way that is honest and engaging. Recounting a horrifying experience with twitter and a cheerful one at a rally headlined by a mainstream leftist political figure, we are introduced to his thought process in an emotional-affective way that is bound to evoke memories of events and heated conversations the reader has more than likely had themselves. The visceral reaction to his main enemy in the piece is fear: the “moralizing left” labels and dismisses its selected opponents in an outrage that he sees as counterproductive to the left’s own goals. Before getting into the analysis and appraisal of ‘the left’, morality, identity politics, and class, I’d first like to note the importance of mixing affects with the greater political game of positioning, aligning, and advising from an academic. He does a good job of making the reader feel the affect permeating the social field – the desperation, disdain, and dejection afflicting anti-capitalists searching for a way to combat this beast. More importantly than tightly argued essay is the proactive or inactive feeling that comes off of it upon reading (when the value of taking action is considered above guiding one on a given path) and is all-too-often ignored in political writing. Being sincere about how another’s words and deeds affect oneself produces an air of openness that is only challenging to negative attitudes. It is easy to get lost in a web of criticisms and forget the more important task of radical organizing and alliance building. This kind of criticism aimed at other anti-capitalists can get sour fast and is probably the least “critical” action one can engage in if done in the spirit of resentment (snide moralizing vs. constructive dialogue).
What Fisher gets right is the harmful and de-spiriting sentiments that comes from the aptly termed ‘moral left’. The twitterstorms that railed against certain figures on the left came off on him as a crowd-sourced-bullying that kept him from participating. I don’t even know what the content of these twitterstorms were about but I believe him when he says the effects were silencing and depressing. An angry outburst can be uplifting and even empowering – when the right target is picked out. And there ain’t nothing wrong with catharsis. It is when the expression reeks of resentiment that the alarm bells should go off. When internalized hatred festers and grows without a means to overcome the obstacle in its way or create something new, we get resentiment. At its worst, resentiment fetishizes its weak position and drags everything around down in a spiral of self-destruction. This is perhaps the biggest lesson to learn from reading Nietzsche.
Though a reclusive philosopher relentlessly attacking every facet of European culture and not strictly a revolutionary anti-capitalist himself, Nietzsche’s emphasis on health, vitality, strength of will has enraptured rebels since his death. His confrontational stance towards morality and all that hinders the growth of the body – its ability to act and achieve ever greater feats – has spurred scholars, youths, artists, and free-thinkers to dig deeper into the forces at work beyond symbolic attachments and fixed identities. One could say he went much farther than the revolutionaries of his time in uprooting the foundational values of colonial empire, remaining a source to draw one’s theoretical arsenal from. Emma Goldman found much to like about Nietzsche, despite his crude misogyny.
In present political games, positionings, and movements, the affective/vital is far too neglected. The general tone and comportment of individuals is not only telling of their own state but a larger collective sentiment based on the limits of their ability to act (as artificial or illusory as those limits may be). As a body not of individuals but masses, forces – ‘the movement’, however defined – the expressions that pop up in large part reflect the environment that conditions it. The ruthless bickering that often passes for legitimate critique is little more a distressed outcry of impotence. It is when this distress loops backward into the body that we get the resentment Nietzsche so despised. The church perfected these techniques of internal repression like the confessional and in so doing created new values that ensnared whole peoples under their control. Good and bad becomes good and evil, whole worlds of pure goodness and pure evil were created that “infinitized” our affections and locked people inside their minds. As Foucault has elucidated in his history of sexuality series, practices, techniques, disciplines, and regiments ingrained in social rearing all accompanied these ideas. The question now becomes: “what are the techniques that instill a biting negativity in us?”
Fisher gives us an image to play with here that sticks out: the Vampires’ Castle. Sucking the life out of its subjects and enslaving them apathetic dejection, the Vampire stalls an active body and weighs it down with imperatives to “break free”, “be yourself”, and “go forth.” The rebelious individual, who believes in freedom and maintains a supposedly self-styled edginess, is the real victim of the Vampire. While never so easily identifiable, Vampires trap bodies inside a soul with purportedly profound critiques meant to help but stifle directed action. Vampires could be media advertisers, reactive critics merely latching onto a project to foreclose on its potential for emancipation, or any other nay-sayers draining the force from a movement. An amalgam of the “priest”, the “academic-pedant”, and the “hipster”, the vampire latches onto what is politically new and intriguing only to tie it up nicely, put a stamp on it, then toss it away. They discourage curiosity infused excitement. Now it seems they have a castle.
The problem that the Vampires’ Castle was set up to solve is this: how do you hold immense wealth and power while also appearing as a victim, marginal and oppositional? The solution was already there – in the Christian Church. So the VC has recourse to all the infernal strategies, dark pathologies and psychological torture instruments Christianity invented, and which Nietzsche described in The Genealogy of Morals. This priesthood of bad conscience, this nest of pious guilt-mongers, is exactly what Nietzsche predicted when he said that something worse than Christianity was already on the way. Now, here it is …
One can imagine a gothic cathedral towering like a mountain over surrounding neighborhoods… only covered with brightly lit billboards urging subjects to consume. That last bit is a projection of my own gripes (for a funny take on the media parasites blocking collective action that is definitely not resentful, check out Lee Camp’s rant).
Criticism has a very pointed power behind it that can be used positively or negatively. Constructive critique comes off as strategic, whereas negative critique condemns makes people feel awful for even giving it a go. A collaboration of the kind Fisher desires in a Left, based on class unity and solidarity, demands analysis/commentary that carries an affect of provocation *in the right direction*. This positive/negative qualification of critique is a fine line to straddle, but when anti-capitalists are putting each other down from their computer chairs and no current projects are suggested, something is wrong. Of course, there are irresolvable differences of the kind typified in the Communist/Anarchist debate about state power and the ethics of resistance. But these ideological differences are exasperated when rebels handle their dismay over being weak compared to the Neoliberal apologists for Capital by saving their vicious attacks for each other. This anger without a place to go, circling its way back from where it came, prevents alliances against a more powerful foe. One can learn from Foucault’s practice of not engaging in polemics: Polemics, Politics, and Problematization.
How does all of this affective-based criticism vs. the Vampires’ Castle relate to identity politics? The worry is that focusing on identity, establishing a safe ground in one’s identity from which to launch criticism, feeds right into the logic employed by the Vampires’ Castle and we are left with disparate camps clearly marked by race, gender, or privilege fighting with each other (passive-aggressively) instead of taking on the Capitalists in a joint collaboration. Many would argue that the left needs a clear-cut identity and everyone needs to get on board to actually overthrow Capitalism and save us from the terror that is neoliberalism. Much of leftist discourse is relegated to this question of “who are we?” plus “look how awful conservatives are!”. Fisher argues for class as being the rallying cry which will unite and challenge the capitalist system most effectively, but (as I will eventually argue) class can fall into similar problems of identification. Also, the top-down hierarchy of unions, which the working class people traditionally look to for organization, fails to tap into the potential energy of the social field. I understand the benefits that can come from a mix of horizontal and vertical like the kind Fisher found in the assembly kicked off by Owen Jones: this is perhaps an example of the rhizomatic alliance making that would be constructive. Unions, however, for the longest time have subverted popular rage to the benefit of only their membership. Such exclusivity occurs when groups crystallize and encode subjects – again, not necessarily a negative thing. This is the larger issue of identity based organizing and even, simply, discourse.
A black person in America does not have to demonstrate to anyone the effects of living in a racist society and the oppression that they feel on their body. That it is lived and felt is enough to warrant outrage and action. Organizing around this common experience of being harassed, over-policed, under-payed and excluded is of an immediate necessity and a matter of empowerment. The positive benefits of organizing based on race are clear. The same goes for gender and anyone else feeling the effects of the most comprehensive imperial force the planet has yet seen. The only problem as I see it is when identities and the organizations representing those identities get in the way of an even further empowerment in-between these assemblages. Not knowing when to welcome and share resources and strategies is a hindrance. Organization only based on common affects excludes a great swath of people that would like to chip in. Those without that shared feeling still have something to offer. When these people arrive, one slip can tip the delicate scales of a conversation on identity slightly in the wrong direction and have disastrous consequences for personal and collective relationships.
The interaction between identities would ideally pivot around the kinds of help individuals and collectives could offer each other. The principal of mutual aid can be a guiding light here. When a preexisting organization cannot accommodate a different identity than its own, help can still be offered and support can still be given. It is a matter of what we can do for each other. This is diametrically opposed to using one’s status as an assault on another’s. The degree of oppression, the amount of privilege, should be a way to inform each other on what each other can do in the greater struggle against capitalism and imperialism. Checking one’s status (and another’s) is undoubtedly useful in gathering the best from each identity and swiftly casting off the Vampires sucking out our capabilities with the bite of guilt. One can retain their identity in whatever amount of privilege it has or oppression it faces so long as a common enemy (to come along side-by-side with the common affect) to connect with others: the Capitalist, the Imperialist. We now have a shared feeling, the common affect, on one hand, and the mutual support, the common enemy, on the other.
The big problem is not so much the ground-up organizing around identity, but the entrapments of continual privilege discourse.
For more on these issues and some of the dead ends of privilege politics, see The Problem with Privilege by Andrea Smith.
Here the problem is put very well: announcing one’s privilege just doesn’t help. A person reflecting on their status as privileged performs the same logic of the colonist they seek to be rid of. It turns the white person into a confessing subject in front of the brown (in this case) people, encasing them in their identities. To be sure, acknowledging one’s privilege has led to greater and more considerate engagement; then it is time to get on with the project together, or else wander off in reflections of “who am I really?” The privilege discourse helps set the scene and should stop there before it gets into elaborate confessionals. The confessional is the technique that helped Christian empires conquer the Earth and it will continue to conquer-by-division if it is all we have to talk about.
A perfect example of pluralism of identity in politics is found in this study done by James Owens Occupy Wall St.’s Precarious Pluralism. He found that there has been a divide between predominantly white and affluent (that is, secure) activists and poorer people of color in the focus organization. It is the white affluent activists that attempt to build mass protests and build large-scale actions while poorer people organize around single-issue campaigns. Clearly there are narrower issues that affect poor communities much more directly, making it easier to come together around a shared experience of anger. The affluent turn to their more established organizations and networking capabilities to build something big. These are differences observed for the sake of bringing to light the powers and abilities of separate groups rather than set one against the other in combative opposition.
The study was not done randomly and only selected a few groups and projects from New York City, so the results can hardly be universal. But the gist of the report is proactive: with a plurality of identities out there in the observed world, who is doing what? And, how can each compliment the other? Differences in identity can be respected if identity based organizing is a necessity and our contrasting powers can be mutually exchanged. This is something like the spirit of mutual aid and pluralism wedded together.
Another case in point is the Stuart Brand interview that went viral: http://youtu.be/3YR4CseY9pk.
Mark Fisher again nails the ridiculousness of the responses on the left to Brand’s exciting call for a revolution on a mainstream television program. He was passionate, articulate, and matched his suited host word for word beautifully. Yet, what kind of a reaction do we get from leftists? Brand’s “branding” as a misogynist or a power-grabbing leader of a revolution – like he was Lenin or something. A call for a revolution that makes its way into a mainstream audience is something to cherish – but anti-capitalists sure do love to replay old historical narratives. A leak in the spectacle allows people from outside the milieu an opportunity to speak about a politics beyond the canned, lose-lose party politics that is force-fed down our throats by the corporate media. Yeah, he works for MTV. Yeah, he’s a celebrity. Yeah, he’s talking about a revolution. Is this an opportunity to speak openly about radical alternatives to politics-as-usual or drown ourselves in the same old ironical half-critiques? This is an opportunity, so use it wisely. The “not-my-leader” and “rich-white-man privilege” refrains have their time and place and are not catch-alls.
But things get even more interesting. Further on down the piece, Mark Fisher goes after what he terms the “neo-anarchist position”. With some quick psychologizing, neo-anarchists are pegged as “depressed” and “overwhelmingly young”. They do little more than online commenting, protesting, and occupying instead of the tough labor organizing work that “real anarchists” do. Neo-anarchists are without the grit that labor organizers have to get their hands dirty in the mainstream and prefer to be dismissive and ironic. But the weakness of this characterization is obvious: if neo-anarchists aren’t doing the proper work for the coming revolution, it is because they are young and inexperienced. Nobody has taught them how to “organize the prols” like the great figures of the past – “kids these days… Am I right?” As my old anarcho-hippie friend always tells me, there is no institutional memory with radicals and it hurts. Every generation needs to relearn street politics and basic organizing skills while the cops are ten steps ahead each time. Perhaps if unions and other labor organizations had found a way to pass on their wisdom, we wouldn’t have these problems to begin with. I suspect that Fisher is fishing for help from a young and energized audience to breath some life into labor organizations that have done little more than contract after the Reagan/Thatcher assault. He could just only have access to this new anarchist milieu via the internet himself… But I also suspect that the centralized union structure prevents such adaptability. If more community outreach had been sought out instead of clutching to what waning power the unions had, there could at least be a thin network to link generations of activists together.
The problem does not lie with the recently politicized, online youth. In America, the left has done very little to combat neoliberalism in recent history and now is fully consumed by it. Anyone who does not tow the party line is “left” aside if they aren’t going to garner any votes. Outside of party politics, radical labor organizations have done even worse at recruiting young people and staying up on the latest cultural shifts. It is those with knowledge and experience who have the onus to pass that on to the bright-eyed “fuck the system” youngsters. This lack of networks and meshworks has got radicals wondering why they are even identifying with the left at all anymore. I just pulled this essay from an online search and it is at the least tight and coherent: Post-Left Anarchy. I’ve never even read Bob Black, but if alliances are going to be salvaged between these divergences, we’re going to have to do better than just telling kids to read Marx.
My concern and critique of Fisher and Brand is the adherence to a politics that squarely places class in the center of the struggle, and ‘the left’ as the explicit milieu from which to build that class unity upon (moving towards the center, in a strictly visual sense). Instead of looking to rebuild that good-old proletarian army, I think the greater emphasis should be on milieus and a more diffuse blending of the many, diverse identities already in existence. The more interesting and empowering theoretical work comes from going over and beyond class as the standard of analysis. Something new emerges when the right place is taken and the willing players enter. The kind of enjoyment and indisputable positivity of gathering in the pleasure of each other’s company is the common affect that occupy channeled into a potent force. It was spontaneous (with do respect to the early organizers’ choices), had revolutionary potential, and was both local and global. Hell, if you didn’t like the name just call it something else in your city (Occupy Oakland almost switched to ‘Decolonize Oakland’). The greater point I’m trying to make here is the act of commoning in public is what must be fought for rather than who is going to be the revolutionary agent.
Fisher writes: “The Vampires’ Castle was born the moment when the struggle not to be defined by identitarian categories became the quest to have ‘identities’ recognised by a bourgeois big Other.” What better example of the former do we have recently than the people who came out and occupied their city centers and refused to make demands or take a single message? What stronger force can we reasonably expect in the present/near future than when we retook public space for a short time, and built something so big and so fast that the White House ordered they all be cleared at once out of fear of their own people? Every mayor of an occupied city (that’s all the big ones) was summoned by the Capitol to conference call, and all of the camps were cleared in less than a week. [link]
Unity has never really been my thing. Gathering the masses into a single force inevitably means there will be a representation of the mass to an other. It comes from above rather than as an event. The argument always seems to pivot around who will ‘represent the working class’ and gets consumed by squabbling. Or worse, allegiances solidify and back-stabbing occurs. Even if we got beyond that stage, the NSA would be so quickly on top of this grand union it would be over before it started. The power imbalances are so staggering now and the American military so ruthless in pursuing any dissent that any working class organization seeking a revolution would be rendered impotent or broken up immediately. Neither of these option is the obvious favorite, but nothing else is either.
Fisher gave a great critique of the traps of identity politics but then reintroduces his own familiar one: class. Am I missing something here, or is this not an identity itself? Why make a fuss over identity politics only to harken back to times “when the working class was the working class” and the lines were clearly drawn between proletariat, bourgeoisie, and capitalist?
The thing about milieus is that they are malleable, adaptable, and will not go away – so long as there is any shred of human sociability left in culture. Sure, they aren’t all radical nor impervious to infiltration, but a careful attunement towards milieus accounts for the ebb and flow of social movements. Together with existing networks and alliance making, a powerful machine can be built in the likes of the occupy movement without the central bureaucracy and the threat of corruption. Occupy might not reemerge step for step with how it occurred in late 2011/early 2012, but I believe that the blueprint is there. A bigger, tighter activist network plus a growing population of the poor won’t lay dormant for long.
The performance of gathering in public, of assembling in public space and occupying the commons can happen in a powerful way while simultaneously remaining diffuse. This is an instance of a Deleuzian multiplicity: to be a force of destratification while not losing consistency. Everything linguistic about the Occupy movement can be reworked: the important thing is the common affect of a public assembly, what the spirit (minimally) of the 1st Amendment is all about. It’s all about the Common Notion.
Here is a link to a video of Simon Critchley at the European Graduate School. His talk begins with Nietzsche on the problem of Nihilism and moves on towards his meta-ethical schema of the infinite demand.
Some take-away notes:
– In thinking with Nietzsche we have lost belief in the world. The final moment of nihilism is the understanding that the true world of being is an illusion and there is only “the reality of becoming”.
– the Christian will-to-truth has been inverted. What was true has been found to be false and meaninglessness sets in: “”why?” finds no answer.”
– Nietzsche is not a nihilist according to Critchley but develops his philosophy as a counter-movement to nihilism.
– Nietzsche’s eternal return is the ultimate a test of endurance. It is the most burdensome thought one can have and one’s ability to endure the eternal return is a measure of one’s strength.
– Critchley interprets the eternal return as an ethical thought, and Nietzsche as a “super-Kantian” who gives a moral law without any metaphysical guarantee. He acknowledges that there are other competing interpretations. “Nietzsche is like the Talmud”.
– the response to nihilism has taken on a split between active and passive forms.
Passive nihilism being a withdrawal from the world that has been lost: give it all up, it’s gone.
Active nihilism being the project of destroying the old world and creating a new one.
– this distinction is a mere model though, alternatives and mixtures between the two could be devised.
– Kant’s categorical imperative is an autonomous choice of a subject, an internal agreement with the Universal moral law.
– Levinas’s ethics is a heteronomous confrontation of the face of the other that is transformed in his later work into an movement that invades the subject and divides it. The dividual, schizo-subject is torn between itself but by an external other that demands its commitment.
– Critchley believes that ethics is by nature an infinite demand that splits a subject in two and internalizes the ethical responsibility to the other. This is a “Meta-Ethical” schema of
– Critchley is holding out for the formation of an Hegemonic body-assemblage composed of ethical subjects centered around a name (LGBT, Migrant, Worker, etc.).
– he is vocally unconcerned about an internalized self-hatred. Nietzsche is very concerned with it, and takes great pains to diagnose the resentment of the slavish weakness of morality vs. ethics.
– **Critchley does not make a hard distinction between Ethics and Morality**
– his Meta-Ethics is the Logic of Debt.
This is especially interesting in his engagement with David Graeber in the end of his book Infinitely Demanding. Since then, the greatest force for social change in my view has been the occupy movement of which Graeber has played a big role in. The Strike Debt movement similarly has a wide reaching potential to completely transform the world-economy and rescue us from this prolonged Capitalist crisis. But here is a series of very weighty questions that arise form this debate:
Will a revolutionary movement today come from a hegemony of dividuals committed to an ethical principle and organized around a name? Or is the logic of indebtedness – individuals perpetually behind on their internalized responsibility to pay back their borrowed value – precisely what is to be challenged?
Would a post-nihilist ethic still necessarily involve this Meta-Ethical structure or would it be possible to reinterpret debt as the basis for social cooperation instead of a theological skeleton?
A one point in his The Faith of the Faithless, Critchley says “To be is to be in debt.” In a Heideggerian exegesis on the structure of belief. The subjective ethical demand is and remains based on an ontology still tinged with the image of thought that can be rooted in the (subject-object) distinction.
Later in the lecture, Critchley misinterprets Foucault’s work on the care of the self as an ethics that he subscribes to, rather than a genealogy of the subject as it was formed in the long history of Greek-Roman-Christian technologies. Couldn’t we imagine a revolutionary practice that does not take the form of a moral subject?
Perhaps one way to respond to nihilism would be to refuse the ethical demands that are placed on one and resolutely declare: “I am not in your debt anymore”. Perhaps Striking at Debt would be a viable post-nihilist praxis. One way or another, getting past nihilism is only the beginning.
Just got out of a lecture that I snuck into at Stanford by the author of one of my favorite books and the best recent commentary on Nietzsche (Nietzsche: Life as Literature), Alexander Nehamus. It was one of a series on education and his was centered around self-fashioning and teaching without commanding. Instead of coercing students into following their thought and copy their style, Nehamus emphasized the kind of teaching that inspires a student to fall in love with something or someone, creating differences that make a difference. The distinction he makes is one between teaching by training – by molding students through technique from the master – and teaching about Goodness and how to live well. This comes from the Plato-Protagoras debate where Plato famously charged Protagoras with, beyond teaching his students to be successful (i.e. wealthy and skilled at persuasion), lacking the ability to teach the virtue which makes one a good citizen. Do academies teach success or virtue? This debate rages on today in other forms (here in America most of my friends from the old hometown think of college as a stepping stone towards a higher paying job; this is practically endemic to the culture though, and the college student debt might bring the financial system down *again*), and Nehamus drew attention to the embarrassing fact that the academies do not really make people less corrupt but do widen the scale of their crimes to a massive scale. Think of the institutionalized economic tradition that legitimates the criminal practices of financial institutions by claiming itself as a science when it is closer to moral philosophy… more on that later.
The Plato-goodness-virtue vs. Protagoras-success-corruption opposition is far too simplistic though since Plato himself set forth a program with the vision of a perfect Republic. He believed himself to be teaching his students to become good citizens in a good republic, the concepts of which he found by using the character of Socrates to discover them by reason. Socrates’ persistent questioning forms the base for reason which in turn provides the base for an objective and always-everywhere the same concept of Goodness. This gives him the authority to instruct his students at the Academy on how to be a good citizen where Protagoras cannot since he does not *know* the good. The knowledge of the good that Socrates-Plato demand in order to be good allows them to inspire curious students but it also tricks them into pursuing way of life set forth by Plato-Socrates while claiming they are after something greater in the eternal Form. Plato is merely replacing Protagoras as the educator while claiming that his program does more than either of them could: to know what goodness is.
The rote training by drill vs. education through an understanding of what is right cannot be a hard and fast distinction because one always has their own, or societies have their own, concept of what good is and claiming to teach. The good could easily wined up a more complete method of persuasion and attraction. Nehamus will reject both of these options and shift the role of the teacher into cultivating a uniqueness that is exceptional and different than what is thought by the teacher. His version of a good education will be one in which the teacher indirectly cultivates an interest of the student which goes beyond the thought of the teacher, sending the materials and tools one is provided with in unforeseen directions. There is a pluralism here of increasing styles and encouraging variety. Indeed I caught a quote of his while taking notes as saying that there is “an inherent value in multiplying styles”.
But being different itself is not enough to provide value on his account as he goes on to talk about “differences that make a difference” or differences that we notice and latch onto. Good teaching is not simply a matter of provoking one to be different for its own sake, but of challenging that difference to be distinct, admirable, and continue the provocation of thought. He made reference to the Greek word agon which means competition so as to emphasize the elevation brought about when contrasting forces come together and struggle with each other. The agonistic relationship contrasts with the commanding relationship of the authoritative teacher and the subservient student, the former supposedly drawing out the propensity to excel in both actors instead of keeping them in a fixed place. The hierarchy which results from the attachment to titles and labels keeps the bright-eyed incoming student on the path of their instructor and restricts their capacity for increasing differences, whereas a more horizontal relationship between supposed equals will inevitably lead to contestation – an increase in difference.
Perhaps it is the pre-existing differences inherent in the actors which are allowed to become luminous in a non-hierarchical relation. The competition that follows would then be the result a leveling off of peoples by removing institutionalized barriers that stabilize their identities. The pre-institutional, pre-individual fluctuations of different forces are allowed to be played out and played off of each other when the social influences of prestige and title are removed. Such an ideal situation of social equality and fair competition smells awfully close to the claims of meritocracy though, and this dream of relationships without hierarchy can turn easily into a trick like the one Plato used to convince his students they are all within the grasp of the Good, Truth, Beauty, etc. by following his program. Not to say Plato was willfully deceiving his students or anything, but the differences that Nehamus and I both wish to invoke – the ones that charge people up into exciting alternatives that are exceptional to the disastrous status quo – can be claimed when in effect the difference makes no difference, it does not *matter*. Obviously, the difference that Plato made was immense and way up there on any list of the most influential factors in Euro-Occidental-Western (ugh) culture, but we also might have reached a time when the difference is not producing a great enough effect.
It is all too easy for a revolutionary idea to be subsumed and repeated ad nauseum while the motion meant to stir things up sends us around in circles, leaving the center firmly in place. When a teacher sets out to inspire their students instead of command them, the traps of irony can snap the whole situation back into the inconsequential “difference without a difference” scenario. Just consider the isolation of the academy, the expenses leaving graduates in debt-topia, and the corporatization of the universities. What substantial effect could a non-authoritarian teacher have on the the landscape when it is enclosed by the academies which function on a business logic? It often feels futile to operate on the Platonic model when everywhere around you Protagoras’s treat higher education as a job factory, and its hard to blame individuals when the world demands you make money or get kicked out on the street like so much disposable waste.
Nehamus did not ascribe to either model: he used it to highlight the vast gap between the two that we find in the world of education today and how the same problems keep repeating themselves throughout history. The work he’s done on self-stylization and making one’s life into a work of art that drew me to his talk can be captured by marketers urging us to be “rebel consumers” if we don’t also do the tough work inter-subjectively, namely, arguing and contesting each other’s thoughts and beliefs. In order to avoid the trivializing of our differences there has to be an element of competition and not just a respect for the obvious differences between each other that make us all unique. Yes we are all unique, so what? Without the agonistic work of defending, attacking, and critiquing, those differences become indistinguishable after just one step back in perspective.
Nietzsche left academia in disgust to pursue his individualist journey (after making a name for himself within it) and this allowed for a fruitful life of writing. The self-stylization characterizing great works with a great impact might not find their audience and make the connection to the outside world(s) if mired in academic enclave. It is wonderful to find a good professor which pushes you into new and empowering directions. But great works require great problems too no? The escalation of skill in the agonistic relationship must start with actors on a similar footing, the same stage if you will. But it must also be allowed to spill over into other avenues of life or else risk obscurity.
It is with these thoughts that I contemplate grad school. Will it inspire and connect me to a greater network or comfort me in seclusion? Not to mention burying me in crushing amounts of work and debt. Help. Mutual agonizing anyone?