Last updated: 04 November 2020

Download: Nietzsche and the Post-Modern Condition (1991) Lecture 1: Nietzsche as Myth and

Transcript: The first lecture will be an introduction to Nietzsche that I have called “Nietzsche as Myth and Mythmaker”. I’d like to say a little bit about his life because there is really not too much to say about it. It will only take a few minutes, I think, to summarise. He had a… really unexciting life. And so we need to distinguish right away two things. One is what I like to call “The Nietzsche Effect”, and I am a child of the sixties, so I am very familiar with the so-called “Nietzsche Effect”, and that’s the effect that Nietzsche has on adolescent young males who read him for the first time, [crowd laughter] and begin to name their cars “Ubermensch” wagons, and begin to quote Nietzsche in order to date women who dress in black, as I am dressed today, and the Nietzsche fascination. That characterises one’s first encounter and certainly it characterised my first encounter with Nietzsche as well.

We need to distinguish the Nietzsche Effect and also the effect of his texts from his life radically because his life is – in my opinion, you know, from what I know about it – extremely boring. Someone asked me before the class: “Well, was Nietzsche gay?”. Well, you know, he wrote a book called “The Gay Science“, but he didn’t publish it, you know, in San Francisco or anything, and it’s not about gays. Nietzsche probably only had one sexual encounter in his life. It’s likely that that encounter… that he contracted syphilis in that encounter, so this is hardly the subject for a mini series. I mean, this won’t make it to Dallas.

He was a brilliant young man who got a job teaching at a German university at a very, very young age. In fact, if you know the German university system, a remarkably young age. But because of migraine headaches and problems with faculty meetings – things that I am very familiar with – he quit and travelled and wrote books. So in a certain important sense, the books that I will be talking about – the texts that I will be discussing – are his life, and so questions about his biographical history, I’ll give you just and outline, because Nietzsche in an important sense is the last thinker of the 19th Century, and also in another important sense that I will be arguing, I hope, throughout the course, one of the most important thinkers for our present moment.

But Nietzsche was born in 1844, in Germany. Of course I only talk about Germans, I guess this is established policy now, right? To concentrate all our policy on Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union. And he was from one of those three. He was from Germany. He had a rather famous but brief friendship with the composer Wagner. That’s the most exciting thing, so… you know, I am not going to say much about it, but… he had a famous friend.

He wrote a lot of books that we will talk about. He was raised by his mother. His father was a minister – a rather sickly person – as he was throughout his life. So if any of you have had some brief acquaintance with Nietzsche and the doctrine of the affirmation of life, and all the hyperbole about health and the superman that appears in his text, it would be a shocking contrast to have met the real Nietzsche at one of the little resort towns where he used to hang out and find this dapper, rather quiet European man who was extremely ineffectual. This wouldn’t be your view of Superman, for sure.

Anyway, Nietzsche… the Nietzsche we know in the texts isn’t dead yet – the Nietzsche as writer – but Nietzsche died in 1900 on the nose, which is nice if you are a historian and you like to periodise. He died at the end of the 19th Century, but as some of you may also know, Nietzsche went mad ten years before that, much to the delight of various commentators, Christian commentators and others who argue that anyone who took some of the extreme positions – and series of positions, if one wants to attribute them to Nietzsche – about God, you know, the argument is that, you know, you’ll go mad or you’ll change your mind in a foxhole or whatever. So his madness has been a consolation to many and certainly it was a consolation to his sister who made the most obscene uses of him afterwards…

The familiar picture we have of Nietzsche as a person is… if you look at this Portable Nietzsche, which I suggest to everyone as the first encounter you should have, it was sort of designed for that. You may have seen other books in this series, the Portable so and so and so and so and so and so… well this actually is an excellent little text, but look at the sort of sketched in picture of Nietzsche with the big moustache… and well, this is the way his sister would have him wear his hair and dress him. During his life he had very short hair… very dapper… his sister had him grow this sort of prophet like beard and dressed him in a cloak and then would bring people in to show them her famous brother. This is very Germanic, it’s just strange “Here is Nietzsche”, you know… beard… cloak [crowd laughter]. So… again, I am not going to say very much about his life because his life was a pathetic ruin. His texts on the other hand have not suffered the same fate that he did as an embodied suffering human being.

To approach the text of Nietzsche is difficult and this format adds one additional paradox to the paradoxes with which we are about to begin. There are at least two sets of paradoxes that concern Nietzsche as myth and mythmaker. The first are those paradoxes that are within his writings. For example – and we will cover these as the courses go on – Nietzsche will suggest that morality has an immoral origin, that rationality has an irrational origin, that truth has its origin in fiction, and so on. So those are the paradoxes that we will deal with within the text of Nietzsche. Those are paradoxes that any interpretation of Nietzsche would have to address. Any interpretation of his work would have to address those. And my task of doing a course on Nietzsche would be difficult enough if I just had to address those. Those are tough.

The second sets of paradoxes make it even more of a problem. And that’s the paradox generated by what might be called… generated by his writing instead of the paradoxes within it. The paradox generated by his writing, by his pluralism of styles. He wrote in fragments, aphorisms, jokes, all kinds of metaphoric tropes. He also wrote treatises, and in fact in a plurality of different styles. Many of them, the most famous and most discussed ones are in these either short parables or aphorisms which are hyperbolic, exciting, brilliant, and as I say have received a lot of attention.

But the paradox generated by his writing is that the clear sense emerges from Nietzsche’s project that it is… and this will be a central issue. Now I am not saying we are going to settle this in here for God’s sakes, because I don’t know if it’s settleable. But a central issue of his writing will be the so-called impossibility of interpreting, and many of the issues we are going to discuss are going to concern interpretation. So, please don’t think that interpretation here is a special philosophical term. I want to try to bring home to you the practical importance of interpretation, and then I will return to the paradox.

We interpret all the time. I mean whether… you know… we don’t interpret in a specialised scholarly sense, but we interpret all the time. When we look in the mirror, when we dress in the morning… and you may notice that we are similarly dressed. I mean, you know, an anthropologist would notice that we share much more in common in our dress than we… than differences. There are many background conditions and interpretive conditions that go into dressing, presenting one’s persona, and so on.

There are many background conditions and interpretations that go into an act as simple as stopping at a red light. We don’t call all these interpretations up and explicitly discuss them, but there was a time when you didn’t know to stop at red lights. There is an entire set of traffic regulations, mutually adhered to, which embody all kinds of legal interpretations. And that’s the background against which even a simple act like that will be performed.

Interpretation in a more obvious sense takes place in the political realm all the time. So if you followed the Clarence Thomas hearings… and I have promised in the lectures not to go off on my political digressions, so I will try to keep this one brief. But if you followed the Thomas hearings, you will notice that questions of interpretation arose again and again in a quite practical context. By that I mean something hung on what he… both what he interpreted he had said in the past and on how he would interpret in the future. So, interpretation is very important.

This can also be made clear historically. Although we don’t make a big deal out of interpreting the Bible anymore… we adopt a kind of “live and let live” attitude, based upon our real smudgy belief in God now. That USA Today belief, you know. They ask on USA Today “How many Americans believe in God”, and 98% say “Well… yes” [crowd laughter], in the normal American factoid way of believing… it’s just… you’re asked if you do, and you don’t want to be embarrassed. “Yeah sure, you know”. There was a time in the history of western civilisation when people burned because they read a book with the wrong interpretation. I mean, I want you to understand that interpretation… a lot depends on interpretation. Because they interpreted the Bible – the Biblical text – wrong, whole groups of people might burn.

So there are stakes to interpretation. So as we discuss this throughout the course, please don’t think that this is some airy, stupid, academic dispute. In fact I would argue that the last ten years of political life have been about the attempt to kill the very desire to interpret. In a certain way… there has been a certain trajectory… a certain social trajectory which the text of Nietzsche addresses, that involves accepting surfaces and to kill the urge to interpret in anything but the most superficial way. And that will be part of the social and political aspect of the argument I will develop, okay.

Now, no… no thinker… and I am going to avoid calling Nietzsche a philosopher. The reason is that I know a lot of professional philosophers and I don’t want to sully Nietzsche’s memory in this way. Nietzsche “the writer” – we will call him, a kind of writer – is importantly engaged in interpretation that will lead us not only into these contemporary issues, and into theoretical issues, but he won’t stay with just theoretical issues, they will be profoundly, importantly practical issues.

Okay, well now back to the second paradox. Nietzsche’s work suggests that, in a certain sense, it may be impossible to find what many people think they find when they interpret: namely “the right interpretation”. One of Nietzsche’s primary targets is the notion that there is such a thing as “the right interpretation”, in general. See that’s what makes it a theoretical point. However, the paradox now is obvious, right? Because the paradox generated by his writings… is if that thesis suggested by his writings were correct then the ideal way to present Nietzsche would not be to present an interpretation of Nietzsche, but to do what he suggests in other places in his work, which is to develop a creative, brilliant performance of one’s own. That sort of created oneself in a new way and if one used Nietzsche’s name it wouldn’t matter whether one – well, it might matter, if it made the performance better – in what way one used it.

But that’s a very peculiar way to look at a book. In other words, a series of texts that suggest that there is an impossibility in getting them right. And it’s not what we standardly – I think most of us – standardly do when we interpret. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with things like Southern Baptist conventions. I don’t attend them, but they take interpretation very seriously, and when they debate it, someone’s is right. Generally the person who just offered it, arguing with someone else. But I mean, the underlying idea is that an interpretation can be the right one. Especially in regard to texts like the Bible.

This is a deep belief that also runs throughout universities, and has generated a current debate at the universities over the losses of standards and objectivity. Because according to, for example, Allan Bloom in “The Closing of the American Mind“, and according to Buckley, and many other Conservatives… now labelled “Neo”. Most of them have gotten older, and as they get older they are now they are called “Neo”. [crowd laughter]. I will drop that, I will call them “Paleo” [crowd laughter] conservatives. Paleo-Conservatives find in Nietzsche a very troubling figure, because of this effect generated by his writings. That interpretations are multiple, contestable, and might finally be judged by which end up being the most interesting. On the other hand they might be – some interpretations might be in place – simply because they are backed by the most power. A point we will get to in a later lecture. That many interpretations are in place not because they are rational or argumentatively supported, but simply because they are backed by the most power.

Well, once this spectre has been raised about interpretation in general, then it looks like we have attained a sort of insight. If we do – and we are going to follow the text of Nietzsche… for which I am just preparing us now – if we do think this is an insight and follow it out, it seems to make the university a very, you know, odd place because then when the philosophy professor puts his Plato notes on the board, or her Plato notes on the board, the student has no reason to think that’s any more interesting than their own notes based on their own readings. Apart from the institutional power of the person presenting. Apart from that.

Well this is the notion, of course, that has outraged Bloom, because this destroys “standards”. Well, whose standards? Well of course, people like him. Academics, their standards. It reminds me of the scene in Full Metal Jacket, where the drill instructor says “It’s okay to believe in God when you are in the Marine Corps… your heart can belong to Jesus when you are in the Marine Corps… we play our games, they play their little games… you know, God plays his little games… He loves marines…”. That’s not the actual line, I can’t… you know… “He loves Marines, we keep his Heaven filled with souls, so he lets us play our little games”. Well, academics are kind of like that drill instructor, and if it turned out that they didn’t have some special… This is in the Humanities in particular, but the argument might even hold across many areas of Science.

But… I hope you follow the point. If Academics didn’t hold a certain key to interpretation that their students needed to decipher and pay money in order to learn to decipher, they wouldn’t have anything to do for a living. You follow me? They wouldn’t have anything to do for a living. And I don’t want to make that sound crude, but on the other hand I don’t want to lie. It is crucially important in the political economy of the university to try to deny Nietzsche’s insight for this reason, if it is one. We will argue that. Because if it is one, it’s paradoxical because it will mean that what I am now saying and the lessons I am drawing from this insight, which is that interpretation may prove to be undecidable, or impossible, or whatever. If that is an insight, the challenge it poses is that people would have to begin their lectures by saying things like this: “I am paid a lot of money, and have tenured at a very famous place. You will now take notes.”. Instead of beginning with: “This is my methodology carefully developed over years of study”. In other words, one would begin to see then what Nietzsche suggests in text after text, which is that the origins of such a methodologies are in relations of power. That the methodological languages, however sophisticated, will in some sense instantiate those institutional powers. Traced to their origins they will themselves prove to rest upon undecidable and interpretable material, and not upon the facts themselves.

So it will be a consequence of the effect of Nietzsche’s text to make us at least question whether we can come up with the right interpretation of a text, of a situation, of a person, I mean interpretation again – to try to make it concrete and not some academic matter – interpretation is very important. For example, you have fallen in love for the first time and things have been going great. And then one night you are out and you look and the person looks and frowns for a few minutes, and a whole train of interpretations may start off that are humanly important. This is not, you know, Grad School, this is stuff you want to know about “What is this frowning business? It’s been going great, I don’t know… the frowning”. So interpretation is a rich human matter and not a theoretical matter.

Okay, now let me get back to my… starting points. The first one will have to deal with the text generated by Nietzsche’s specific positions and the work within his writings and we will do that. The second is the paradox generated by his writings. The paradox – what I call, will call – the paradox of interpretation. One which I have not spelled out his case for, but I will as we go along. And then now we come to the third and, for me, most interesting paradox which arises from my own situation here, lecturing on Nietzsche in a new medium at the trajectory of a culture that Nietzsche saw as one that was leading to what he referred to as “Nihilism”; “The last man”, the death of a certain form of being human.

And to present that… to present the first set of paradoxes, and then to try to give you a sense for the paradox generated by his work, and then thirdly to do it from this position, and in this context, and in this culture presents for me a third and deeper personal subjective paradox. Because on the one hand, I don’t want to leave the text of Nietzsche as the possession – as a sort of esoteric possession – of snooty elites. I am not happy with that. On the other hand, I don’t want it to lose its striking power, by being somehow trivialised in the process of presenting it. Which puts me in a third position, and I guess that given also the second one it also generates another problem, which is why I am here doing this instead of one of you, so I have to give and answer to that right away, and I’ll start with a blunt one. And that’s that I have probably read more of this than you have. That just… that would be the answer you would get from your mechanic about fixing a carburettor, “Well, I have read the carburettor book, I have fixed these things”. And you go, “Oh, I’ve never fixed it”, and you go, “Okay, you try to fix it this time”. So there is one analogy. And if you have read more, you can come up here now. It’s okay, I mean I won’t be offended… whatever we will have to leave that joke out, we’ll cut that one. Anyway. [laughs]

Another kind of example might be this. Doing Nietzsche might be something like housework. Just something that has to be done over and over again. Not trying to denigrate the unwaged labour under capital performed by women. That’s how I describe housework. Unwaged labour, valorising capital, done by women… unwaged. I don’t want to put housework down, because I think that it should be waged at the very least. It should have a wage. But in any case, it may be that interpreting Nietzsche will have to be something like housework, work to be done over and over again by whole series of people who read and reread Nietzsche. In other words, I won’t be up here trying to claim the authority of Nietzsche for anything. I will be making a kind of use of him. That won’t release me from the full paradox as you will see as we begin to look through his work. In fact, we’ll just have to deal with a lot of paradoxes as we look through his work.

And for people who enjoy neat and tidy lecture courses that have a lot of demonstrative arguments with conclusions that are necessary, this is really the wrong morning or afternoon for you to have shown up. Because that will not be what Nietzsche offers. What Nietzsche offers is a lot less, if you are a professional philosopher today. By that I mean a lot less meaning there are a lot less arguments that can be symbolised and then put into one of our journals which are read by eleven people, who if they were all killed on the same bus, no-one then would ever know about the journal again. Eleven people read some of these things, or twelve, if you are popular. In any case, those are the three sets of paradoxes. Paradoxes within the text, paradox generated by the reading of Nietzsche, and then the third, the paradox that belongs to anyone who attempts to present Nietzsche’s text.

Okay now that’s an introduction to what I will do. Now the first topic – and it’s listed in the lecture [title] – is myth. And one of the things that Nietzsche is, among many things… and now that I say “Nietzsche is”, the “Nietzsche” as proper name refers not to this pathetic little man, you know, and his terrible little life, but to the text of Nietzsche, okay. Remember that I have made that distinction, and I will try to explain that one too as I go along. But one of the things that we need to look at as we go through that is that myths will be one of the topics of the text of Nietzsche that’s very important. And it won’t be that Nietzsche discusses myth in detail – although frequently he does discuss myth – or that he uses myth in his writings, which he not only does, but in the case of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra“, he creates one of his own; quite beautiful, quite brilliant.

I am sure some of you have heard, at least, you know there is a famous piece of music based on it. And you are probably familiar with the prelude to it which opens 2001: A Space Odyssey. Sort of Ubermensch, overman prelude. Anyway, myth is not only, you know, used by him. He doesn’t only create one, but the topic of the relationship between myth and what some other philosophers have called “modernity”, modern life – I am sometimes tempted just to simply call it capitalism, and usually will – modern life. To try to make that come alive you need to think about films like Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times”, you know. You have a sort of pastural life – kind of pastural, farming and stuff – then all of a sudden real fast machines. That’s one way visualise modernity. Another way is in the text of Kafka. These lines of bureaucrats, faceless little Joseph K’s wandering towards an impossible justice. That’s another way of imagining it. A way to theorise it is to read thousands of pages of Max Weber, bore you to death. Boring, but it will help you theorise it.

So, modernity is connected – importantly connected – with the Enlightenment, and we will have to discuss Nietzsche as – in a certain very important sense – involved in what I will refer to as “The dialectic of Enlightenment”. He will be involved in both a critique of the Enlightenment, a criticism of it, but then he will of course make use of its insights at the same time. And the critique of Enlightenment that Nietzsche originates accounts for the title of the overall lecture series, which is “The post-modern condition”. Because if in any sense at all we are either in or headed toward a situation after modern life – or post-modern, a term that some of you are familiar with – then certainly an important figure will be Nietzsche, both for the myths that he constructed about such a life, and for the myth I just constructed that he may have had a role in constructing [laughs] such a life, because that’s probably a myth as well.

Okay, now. The importance of Nietzsche. I mean this is… Now we are going to do a little standard academic treatment here. The importance of Nietzsche. One of the reasons that I selected this course is because it’s always good to discuss a thinker who is discussed in Time Magazine and becomes the topic of routine polemics on Buckley and elsewhere. That’s important because that’s a part of our objective culture. It’s a topic for a conversation, and that makes your remarks more understandable and gives a real social purpose to doing it. So Nietzsche’s importance is – as I said – in a sense obvious.

Nietzsche is the main target in Bloom’s book. He is… the study of Nietzsche along with – I think – looking at Woody Allen films. Let me try to locate the fall of Western universities in Bloom, okay. I just… If Mr Bloom is in the crowd I am sorry, but anyway. Nietzsche, and German philosophers, but mainly Nietzsche, Woody Allen films, and the dark music from Africa that started influencing American music. Sort of… you know, we don’t want to call anyone a racist, but that sounded funny to me, when I read it in “The Closing of the American Mind”. This “Dark music of Africa”, you know, what could he be talking about? You know. Well, we all know that Mick Jagger looks like a photo negative of Little Richard, but I wondered what he was… what he was talking about [crowd laughter].

In any case, the Neo-Conservative attack – the Paleo-Conservative attack – on Nietzsche makes him an interesting topic of debate in one sense. The current debates over interpretation in areas of law, politics and elsewhere make him an interesting figure to discuss. And then there is this issue of Nietzsche’s return, which I would like to make historically contextual for you. I discussed being a product of the sixties. My first encounter with him, and many young people encountered him at the time, and it was exhilarating because as we read through these texts, we will see that Nietzsche is always valorising youth, creativity, life affirming activity, always valuing misinterpretation, polemically, hyperbolically, you know, inciting people to laugh at authority and so on.

And so there was a great exhilarating effect of Nietzsche in the sixties, which I think sort of washed out in the seventies, early-mid-late eighties, the way most things did. Kind of settled into sort of a Thirtysomething whining. I mean I don’t know the people who make that show, I am sorry, but I mean, I watched it a few times and it was just [makes pained whining noises] [crowd laughter]. It’s just you know. Suicide, please. Anything but this, you know. Andy Hoffman, whatever, anything but this whining, pathetic, pale shadow of a human life. You know it’s…

But a younger generation comes along and we have what’s called “Nietzsche’s Return”, and this began in the late eighties. And the return to Nietzsche at first was quasi-nostalgic, and then it became humorous. And I also want to bring some of that in, because there are many humorous… and I mean it would be absolutely out of the spirit of Nietzsche not to do this. There are many humorous uses for the text of Nietzsche. There was an issue of Semiotexte magazine, which I really enjoy. I don’t know how many of you have ever even seen Semiotexte, but it’s a bizarre little out of the way journal that publishes all kinds of strange esoterica on the edge of the academic discourse. Bizarre conspiracy theories, strange political theories. And they did an issue on Nietzsche that began with a box that checked off “Style of interpreting Nietzsche”. And the first one was “Shameless opportunist”, you know. The second one was “Joker who has never read Nietzsche”, third was “Serious but confused academic”, and you just checked off your box and mailed in the result of the survey to Semiotexte after having read some of the articles on “The New Nietzsche”.

And actually the thing that was most in the spirit of Nietzsche in the whole issue was that box. Because Nietzsche has a tremendous, and I mean one of the reasons that one can stand Nietzsche at his darkest moments in his text, one reason that one can tolerate looking some of Nietzsche in the face and being able to stand it, is because of these moments of incredible hilarity. I mean just absolutely hilarious. I will to try to generate some of those as we read through here, because Nietzsche does… I think as we proceed, we will see that Nietzsche isn’t a place to go for consolation.

You know, this is not a place one would go for consolation as… You wouldn’t pick it up like one of these feel good pop psychology books that I find in the airports all the time. For every group imaginable, you know. Unbelievable culture. You know, books for depressed housewives, ages 25 through 31. I mean, I didn’t know you needed a book. You have got eight talk shows, why do you need a book? [crowd laughter] Books for depressed husbands, ages 27 through 40, and so on. Just everything depressed… Nietzsche…

Well Nietzsche’s text are not a place to go for consolation along any of those dimensions. In fact one of the things that will be importantly denied in my account – it may just be mine – but in my account of Nietzsche will be the very impossibility of anything like a psychology as anything more than just one more narrative about yourself that you decide to adopt. I mean, you could do that, right? I mean, in fact, it’s disheartening today how frequently you meet someone a few years later “Oh no, I am off the Valium now, you know, and I am in Reverend Moon’s church, and I am off the Valium”. I mean, who knows, people…

Today, what Nietzsche saw as an incredible project – which was to invent oneself – now is a marketable thing. I mean at the mall, you can go The Gap and invent a persona, read a few of the right magazines that go along with the clothes you buy at The Gap and so on. So, self creation in an intensified market economy is something that Nietzsche would have had to deal with had he unfortunately lived longer, but he claimed to have lived out of season and I will claim that his view is relevant to our own times. Now, let me return for a moment to this interpretation business, and then a few quotes from Nietzsche. I think we should use a little Nietzsche to spice up the opening.

We have talked about these three sets of problems. Three paradoxes, including my paradox in trying to present this, both by doing justice to the wit, the interpretation – developing my own strong interpretation – and doing it under a changed mode of communication, which is extremely important to Nietzsche. He is a writer. A “writerly” writer.

He has been referred to as someone who wanted to play Plato to his own Socrates. Let me explain that remark briefly. And this may help introduce you to Nietzsche a little bit. Playing Plato to your own Socrates would mean this. Socrates didn’t write anything, some of you may know that. Socrates didn’t write, Plato wrote about him. So it was though Socrates sort of lived this character that comes down to us in the constructed form of Plato’s narrative, about which it has always seemed to me to be totally uninteresting to ask: “Was that really what he was like?”. For God’s sakes… we don’t even normally want to know that, really! I mean, if you have seen a great “Billy the Kid” movie, and there have been so many that a few of them have had to be good, right? And you see a really good “Billy the Kid” movie, it’s not fun to go: “Was Billy really like that?”. Who cares, you know, I mean, because that one was interesting and fascinating.

So Plato’s Socrates is such a fascinating character. I am not sure what Socrates was really like. There are reasons, I think, and Nietzsche makes some of them clear, why in principle I couldn’t be sure about that. Part of our fascination with time machines might be with interpretation actually. Maybe our fascination with time machines, you know, like “Back to the Future“, back to the past and now, “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventures” through time. Well I like some of those, but I am digressing a bit, but forgive me here.

Bill and Ted’s latest Bogus Adventure is a parody of Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal”, where they go to hell and play Twister and Battleship with the Devil, instead of Chess. That will be a symptom of a post-modern culture. See, modernist humans will be worried about death. It will reverberate in, sort of, their being. And because there won’t be a field of meaning to answer it – the problems of life and death – we will get the problem called “Nihilism“.

But when you cross a certain threshold point, a threshold point where people’s real issue is “Am I alive now?”, and that question seems radically undecidable, then you get cultural artefacts like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Where the best response seems to be a kind of giddy, silly ecstasy at the very inability to have a self. I mean, and I can’t say that I don’t share some of the fun of it, for our younger generation of quasi-cyborgs that will be raised in this post-modern culture. They will be unrecognisable, perhaps within a few generations. Everyone is going to go: “Oh, well that’s impossible”.

Let me try to generate this, kind of, historical change that Nietzsche was one of the first to foresee and to discuss. And which I will discuss throughout this course under the heading of “Nihilism”, and that will be the social and experiential side of the problems of interpretation, although they are also experiential, to me. And that’s the problem of Nihilism is the problem of finding meaning in a world that is no longer God centred.

That did not mean for Nietzsche – any more than it did for Marx or Weber or the other people who gave accounts of modern life – that there would no longer be a lot of religious people, you follow me? And it didn’t mean that there still wouldn’t be churches and believers and that there still wouldn’t be holy wars and so on. It meant that an overarching cosmological story into which you could fit, that provided a background of meaning and a place for you would be radically missing, and in its place there would be market relations. In which what you were would amount to what you do for a living.

So all that a lot of you know about me – I do have a couple of my ex students in here – but all that a lot of you know about me is that I do university stuff for a living. And see that’s… that isn’t a remark about my predilections, which is something I will talk about before this is over, my predilections. It’s a remark about my profession, but it’s more than that. Under these social conditions, it is an absolutely ontological remark about what I am.

You know, when people at a dinner party say: “What do you do?”, that is not a trivial remark. It’s a story about that culture. “What do you do”. The answer is “What you are”. Now, I know people resist this, and I enjoy the resistance. You know, at dinner parties, you go: “Well, I am a writer”. It’s sort of almost a joke if you at a dinner party in New York. “I am an artist”, “I am a performance artist”, “I am a writer”, I mean you know. And you say: “Well, what do you do?”, and they go: “Well, I drive a cab”. [crowd laughter]. “I wait tables, but I am really, you know, my third novel, I am working on it”. Yeah, you know.

This is a culture full of market relations where the construction of meaning becomes the burden of a newly constructed category. The individual. The bourgeois individual. The individual of modern life. The individual competitor on a market. In a market. No longer a member of like, the community of God in the broad sense, you know, of the feudal period. But someone who must construct the meaning of their lives in singularity. Let me say that instead of alone. With their, you know, sort of in singular with their own resources. And that is a task that Max Weber thought would overburden them. And it is a task that Nietzsche thought almost impossible, but one he undertook, as I said earlier, by trying to become Plato to his own Socrates. In other words, not to actually live an interesting life like Socrates, but to write one as though he had lived it. A kind of deferred relation, but still, to make meaning out of his own life in a context, and this… again this word “Nihilism”, I’ll… I’ll say a bit more about.

In a context where the threat was Nihilism. A culture where there was no fabric from which to construct meaning. Now, Nihilism in a certain way then won’t be used by me to describe a philosophical position. Because to the extent it does, it’s supposed to be some silly position like this: “Nihilists are people who believe in nothing”. Well, if that’s what Nihilists were, there wouldn’t be any, and that’s not what we are diagnosing. We are diagnosing a Nihilistic culture, where no enduring beliefs can provide meaning for the overwhelming majority of members of that culture. That’s the problem that Nietzsche identifies coming along with modern life. And also, not coming along as a mystification, but coming along as part of the insight of modern life. Comes along with Darwin. In other words, being demystified about our origins. It comes along with a new view of the cosmos. Being demystified about the importance of the Earth. You know, where it is, and how big it is, and in the centre of what. Being demystified concerning a whole series of things, about which earlier there were powerful, important, meaning giving myths.

Part of the work of the enlightenment was this destructive work of destroying myth. That was the work carried out by the bourgeois class and by its ideologues. You know, it’s not bad. I mean, you remember, they said you won’t have a decent world to live in until the last priest is hung on the guts of the last king and stuff. I mean, those are the mottos of the great revolutions. This is Washington D.C., right? These are the great bourgeoise revolutions. We love them, and they may be in fact a world of historic destiny. Nietzsche’s worry was that this kind of demystification – without creating new festivals, new games, new myths – would lead to a situation in which human beings willed only not to will any longer. Who wanted, sort of, only not to want any longer. And Nietzsche saw this emerging culture as one that would be inimical to human life. About which, as I said, he doesn’t have a lot of consoling things to say.

So I am going to read a little passage of Nietzsche, and try to stop there for the [end of this first lecture], to give us a frame within which Nietzsche views human beings. Now I don’t think this is all that theoretic, and I don’t want it to be. I want it to be something that you can grab a hold of and understand, because this is kind of a modern myth [that] I am about to spell out for you. In fact I may not read it, I may just gloss it. It’s a modern myth that I’d like to spell out for you that many of us believe. And lets see, after we have examined this myth if this is more or less comforting than the beautiful myth of redemption in say, for example, the Bible.

The myth is something like this: “There are billions and billions of stars. The Earth’s is a tiny one. We crawl across it for just a few seconds, and then we individually are gone, and billions and billions of eons of time before, and billions afterwards pass, and the earth eventually goes out like a cinder, and perhaps the whole universe collapses into itself. And after all that has happened, absolutely nothing will have been done.”

Now, that’s a very important myth, many of us believe that one too. But against that background, it becomes difficult as we chip away at our daily little lives – selling shoes, selling tyres, teaching class – to try to find any damn thing that means anything. So our search through Nietzsche will not be a search for dogmatic answers to that question, but to follow his quest and ours for a form of self creation under circumstances and with a background of myths that do not make it seem likely that we will have a happy result. So the end of my first lecture is that our interpretive efforts here too, are bound to fail. [applause].

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