Last updated: 3 October 2023

Download: Nietzsche and the Post-Modern Condition (1991) Lecture 8: Nietzsche’s

Transcript: The last lecture on Nietzsche is quite a challenge since one of Nietzsche’s arguments are there are no “lasts”. There are no last interpretations, there are no last desperate moments, in fact it’s a little remark about history that I might begin this so-called last lecture with. It’s that the spirit of danger and catastrophe we may feel ourselves in today is in a sense profoundly ahistorical. I have a feeling that in a certain way perhaps every moment of history has seemed at least to some of its participants to be a profound moment of danger, and certainly if one looks back over the trail of history it’s much easier to see its barbaric ruin than its rational progress.

In any case, I am going to try in this last lecture – which will not, as I systematically indicated, be a last lecture or last interpretation – to evoke again that postmodern space to which the text of Nietzsche leads us and try to move us a bit beyond that by discussing Nietzsche’s progeny. Now Nietzsche’s progeny, as I said, is already – for me – a joke, because Nietzsche had no legitimate children. He’s had many illegitimate theoretical children, and in fact I think that in a certain way, if Nietzsche’s text is in any sense a success – and by that I mean given its paradoxical nature it was written to fail, but in certain interesting ways – I think that if it’s a success in any other stranger sense, it is in the multiple and bizarre progeny which have taken the text up, used it, misused it, abused it, twisted it, turned it in a thousand different interesting ways. And if I have succeeded in suggesting a few of those, I’ll be more than happy to have so perverted something that was perverse to begin with.

In any case, I would like to close with… or return to our postmodern scene, and try to make a little clearer what I mean by that with something more than indirection. I have already indicated one of the things that marks off the post-modern, or the postmodern situation from what might be called a modern situation is the televisual telecommunicational network and the saturation of modes of information, surveillance and control at a level and intensity where the quantity of them qualitatively changes the nature of our experience. That’s as brief a way as I could describe the trajectory; that the very quantity of information, the very quantity of the images and their global scope – you know, I mean Bonanza all over the world, television… ubiquitous and so on… – that their very quantitative enhancement has changed our situation in dramatic ways.

And to give this very broad point away quickly, let me say this. If for example… and this is to leave Nietzsche for a moment and discuss not one of his progeny, surely, although a certain bizarre reading of a kind of anarchistic Marx is the progeny of Nietzsche. That’s odd since Marx wrote first, but nevertheless, why should parenthood be that linear kind of thing… child, I don’t know, anyway… nevertheless…

One of the ways I like to characterise this broadly will be to discuss a certain, sort of, overview Marx might take on the situation. One way to think of the nineteenth century is to think of the massive forces of production; like steam, power, the factory railways and all of those massive new forces of production in the nineteenth century, among which one helped to create the very class to which I belong – the “intelligentsia” – namely, the invention of mass ways of disseminating books which create the possibility of mass markets of readers, and the possibility then to develop an expert culture of readers to talk to the other readers.

See, there are conditions for the possibility of all of us being who we are and doing what we do, and sometimes they are as bloody and as ordinary as economics. In this case I am though trying to make the point that in the nineteenth century these massive new forces of production; one of their primary things that they were directed at was replacing manual labour with mechanical labour. This is obvious; an obvious point.

One of the big stories of the nineteenth century was the extent to which the new technologies developed by capital replaced in massive quantities – in massive amounts – manual labour with the labour of machines. It would have been unthinkable – the technological accomplishments of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – would be unthinkable without that large transference. So in a certain way to look at that transference in the nineteenth century – Nietzsche’s century – I have argued he was ahead of his time and ahead of himself, in fact maybe that’s why he talked about “the wanderer and his shadow”, because he thought that in a certain way he had come in an untimely way. Well maybe anything this interesting may be untimely, I don’t know.

In any case, if we look at the nineteenth century that way – as that being at least one of the big stories – then certainly one of the big stories of the mid to late twentieth century would be the incredible increase in the switch from technologies which concentrate on increasing the intensity and the power of manual labour to those which tend to replace mental, intellectual labour. By that I mean not just computers, but the whole array of devices intended to replace – for lack of a better word – human experience; subjective human experience. Television is an instrument of production, in my opinion, designed – whether it was with this in mind or not… functioning in any case – to replace, largely, subjective human experience. Computers designed sometimes for the direct technical function of replacing intellectual experience.

In other words things like adding, multiplying, dividing, subtracting… really difficult now to get a child in the second or third grade to bother to learn to do that, and for obvious reasons. They have three keys they know how to punch, why should they do that with their minds? Why waste that labour? Well I am not saying that in a cynical way because it’s like asking after you have built a steam engine why you should take a toothpick and knock over a mountain instead of using a steam drill. You know, I am not saying our children are wrong, maybe they should say “Well geez, you know, you invented all this stuff to replace intellectual labour and now you are asking me to do that? Give me a break” It would be like asking you in the early nineteenth century to knock over a mountain and forget those new steam drills.

This replacement however of, as it were, the other part of the human equation – if you think of the human equation as being something about humans as embodied, and then humans as intelligent and subjective and rational, then we will see that, as it were, the advance of society has tended to replace both the human attributes that belong to mechanical skills – manual skills – as well as intellectual skills.

One of the reasons we value sports so much now is that the replacement of the labouring body required for the development of our society can be vicariously enjoyed when we see Michael Jordan dunk, and we remember, quasi-nostalgically the beauty and the pleasures of the body, although of course now deferred into an image. Because the secret of the postmodern society is that everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation or an image. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation or an image, so that we, as it were, enjoy the vicarious pleasure of a flying body, we hear the jingle “Be like Michael, Be like Michael”. We participate vicariously in the beauty of the body, but this time as an image… as an image. This is a different – I am arguing – a different trajectory for culture. That people that come after this time will be different subjectivities; if we still want to use that word, it will be debatable… it will be debatable.

Nietzsche still lived and wrote in a time when the problem of theology was the believer, or the non-believer; how to respond to the non-believer. The problems in theology and philosophy today – when they are posed at their highest levels – are not the problems of believers and non-believers, but of humans and the non-human. You see, until you have a certain subjective framework, the issue of belief doesn’t even arise. The issue arises about “Are the people to whom we address ourselves still human?” And then it will be interesting again to discuss gods, their powers, magic, mystery, murder and the rain and so on, once we have determined the deeper question about whether a society that first replaces, sort of, physical labour and then later begins to replace mental labour, as it progresses does not efface the human entirely.

I have argued that it already has begun to move in a way into a representation, or into an image. Well this possibility is the possibility of what I would like to call – in the spirit of Nietzsche – nihilism technologically realised. That’s scarier than Nietzsche’s nihilism as a form of belief, which would bring an end to this atmosphere within which the world was still mendacious and magical; this would be the technological realisation of nihilism. Let me try to make that clear to you by explaining something I think we all know as a familiar example. There are great apocalypse stories, you know, like in The Bible… has a pretty good apocalypse story, right? I mean, “Boom”, Revelation, and certain preachers really like to do that one – and it is – it’s exciting and there are riders and thunder, and you know…

The fact that apocalypse was technologically achievable, and that we could set up all the technical necessities for it is now very old news, isn’t it? Am I wrong about that? Or isn’t the fact that we have technologically achieved the ability to construct a real apocalypse… I am not now talking about a biblical myth, but an apocalypse on a high order. I mean we… now that the Soviet Union is breaking up, and that particular myth is fading into other myths and other stories and other narratives, this possibility may not seem as real, but it’s important to see that people born into a culture in which apocalypse is now a technological possibility that will be carried out by faceless people in little silos and guys carrying little briefcases, punching little buttons is an incredible distance from these intricately constructed myths in the Old Testament… I mean, in the New Testament. It’s a different kind of apocalypse because this one is a technological achievement.

Similarly, I am arguing that Nietzsche’s nihilism was still a matter of the drying up of a certain kind of subjectivity and belief formation and Nietzsche’s hope was the creation of new ones: subjectivities; new, radical, autonomous subjectivities. And again, because he doesn’t belong to the dogmatic tradition in philosophy – not necessarily, or not at all – perhaps subjectivities like his own.

But a possibility that I think Nietzsche himself did not face was that nihilism – the belief in nothing, the will to nothingness, the end of subjectivity; of human powers – would itself become technologically realisable. So I hope that my example of the development of weapons of so-called mass destruction, which from our postmodern perspective I have argued already seems giddy and utopian, and now we look back on that and we see those old atomic war movies, and I have watched the audiences and they just love the blow-up scenes. No kidding, you know “Wow! Look at that! The trees are flying off!” and already that’s a nostalgic moment. It was perhaps our last chance to realise a decent end to our species, one that would have been worthy of it. Now we may just trod endlessly, solving one little technical adjustment after another to the finely tuned eco-machines that we used to call our bodies.

Someone asked me earlier – perhaps it was on a break or something – someone asked me “What about the ecology movement?” We live in an environment where its most famous spokesman is the McDonalds Corporation. I mean the possibilities for radical subjectivities arising under these conditions become exceedingly bizarre. Now, you go “Well, this is too much, I mean, this is too postmodern, I am lost now, this is… I can’t…” Well, believe me that again, the development in the late twentieth century and the trajectory of it shouldn’t be underestimated. It really shouldn’t, and I don’t want it to be necessarily. In fact it cannot – because of other necessary conditions – be a moment of despair, since that is long over with.

The example I gave of that was we all know that existentialism… what we used to think Nietzsche was, right? An existentialist? Kierkegaard was an existentialist… very shallow way to understand them, and that’s been over a long time. Now if you want an existentialist – as I said earlier – you’ll see Bill and Ted’s Bogus Adventure, you know, playing twister with death. That moment’s over a long time ago. I even had a professor who said the only reason it ever was so big is that a lot of professors found it to be a very convenient way to meet people, and so on [crowd laughter], saying “I have been so worried about dying” “So have I”, and then you strike up a conversation [crowd laughter]. Like one of Woody Allen’s movies, you know, the joke was “Can we go out on Saturday night?” and “No, I am committing suicide on Friday” Woody Allen says “Well, what about Thursday then?” [crowd laughter]

Well, clearly the technologies that are coming – and I’ll mention a few of them – virtual reality suits. You’ll go well “Oh, now he’s flipped, virtual reality suits…” No, they were actually developed for a quite sensible reason. They were developed for long space flights back in the days when NASA thought they were going to go on long space flights. Now we understand that there is no need to, because we can go to Epcot Centre and experience one, so we don’t need it for the consuming public, because we can already experience a long space flight at Epcot Centre.

Just like we don’t need to go to Switzerland anymore. We can go to Busch Gardens where the Swiss food is even more Swiss, you can buy a Swiss clock, and we can avoid all the problems connected with travel… and experience Switzerland! You know, the thing is, I am not even joking, because when you go to Switzerland there will be the same stuff, and McDonalds will be there too, the television will be on the same channels, the Holiday Inn will be open and the room will look just like the one does here, and so on.

This postmodern space is not a dream of theorists; it is becoming our culture and way of life. I am just describing it; I don’t even know how to denounce it. This is not a criticism. Some parts of it make me feel giddy and kind of excited, because virtual reality suits – if we let our imaginations go for a moment – could have endless fascinating possibilities, right? Right, sure. I mean you could [do], you know, lots of things that human powers couldn’t accomplish, right? In the nineteenth century, lots of things that couldn’t be accomplished by human power were accomplished by steam power and so on. Well maybe our imaginations are limited in that the machines we build now will be able to on the spur of the moment to accomplish incredible things in that way.

But anyway, the virtual reality suits – I’ll talk about them just for a minute, and then we’ll move onto something else – were created so that on a long space flight our space traveller wouldn’t become disoriented in space, but would be able to put on this suit and thus feel earth bound for a while to reorient himself – or herself – on their space flight. Well now the virtual reality suit is being… they are working on marketable versions, and that means ones that are cost effective, which means we are still living in relations of capital, because that means somebody wants to make a dollar. Which is okay, so do I, so do you; there is no reason in [not] recognising a necessity. No matter how cruel the necessity is, you gotta recognise it sometimes.

In any case, the virtual reality suits will be marketed and they offer this interesting technological possibility. You have always wanted to go out with Mel Gibson, or ah – let me make sure I don’t commit a gender crime, so I’ll get everyone in – Mel Gibson or Kathleen Turner, or any combination of men, women, animals, and/or whatever necessary in order to avoid committing a sexist crime, gender crime. Whatever combination you imagine, since under these conditions of virtual reality, whatever transgressive gender you have, you will be able to live it out perfectly – in a perfectly commodified way – with a virtual reality suit anyway. Well, if you want to go out with Kathleen Turner, you just plug in and press the “Body Heat” module, and the next thing you know, you are right in the screenplay, William Hurt‘s out, you’re in, she walks in the door and its all great. Now that’s a product we will want to buy. Many of us, it’s a product we will want to buy.

The problem with this advancing culture is that that is buying – just like in an earlier period of capital – when you bought the wage-labour of someone to work for you, now what we are buying are instruments and equipments that do the experiencing for us. That was a part of my critique of all these instant therapies, is to buy a life story for yourself immediately that can be swallowed painlessly, you know. And when you buy a virtual reality suit, or what I call virtual reality eyes, which is television, if we look at virtual reality, it provides you a pre-packaged experience; one that is already coded for you. In other words, designed with your mind in mind.

Now if you want a… another way to check out this new emerging terrain – this nihilism realised – what you might call Nietzsche’s nightmare squared, okay. If you want to look at this, you might look at what advertisements go with what normal channel TV programming. So for example, if you have The Cosby Show, you’ll have advertising for upscale African-American families mixed with the younger yuppie audience that it draws. Thirtysomething, which is now off, mercifully – if I can say that without getting sued – because I am sorry, I watched it, but I got… the whining… the whining got to me. Sorry, yeah, just… whining. But in any case, the advertisements followed the story very closely. You know, you’d have a little moment with one of the characters… would sort of wistfully stop whinging, and look around, and the next thing there will be an ad for an Infiniti car. Sort of answers that need to overcome the wistful desire, “Well, I am wistful, and I have whined, but if I was in my Infiniti…” An Infiniti… an automobile. Well that’s not just a way to get around now, is it?

You see, commodities are no longer just things of use. They have become part of what we are, and we need to recognise it. I mean that’s one of the lessons that I am trying to drive home here today, is that if there will be battles over this new terrain, and on it… many of them will be fought on the terrain itself; television, radio, magazines, as I have called it, the obscenity of the saturated communicational culture. Saturated with information, obscenely oversaturated… information up to your neck, beyond your elbows.

Now of course I could be wrong about all this. Let me just stop and say that for a moment. This postmodern trajectory I think hasn’t arrived… hasn’t yet fully realised itself and I could be wrong about the direction in which we are moving, and perhaps Nietzsche’s nightmare won’t come true. I don’t know. I know that none of us is beyond surprising. So I am not a dogmatist, really I am not. None of us are beyond surprising. For that, we are just not capable of so perfect an irony. And yet none of us are capable of refusing to subject our occasional surprises to further analysis. And for that we are not nearly simple enough. So I could be wrong… could be wrong. And whether I am or not, though – this is the nice part about an argument like this – whether I am or not, time will tell. Except that here if it tells one thing it won’t have mattered, as you may have guessed, since I won’t have told it to anyone, because if I am right, my argument has the peculiar characteristic that it will not have mattered. It will only have mattered if what I said turns out to be wrong in ways that my argument has effected.

Now I want to return… back off from that current moment – the trajectory of the postmodern – back to Nietzsche for a second. Since we are trying to end Nietzsche, and yet I see how impossible that is now. Perhaps we won’t be through with the reading of Nietzsche, perhaps even once the world has been fully turned into replicants – you know just skinjobs, replicants, robotics, cybernetics – maybe then they will have a certain class of them programmed to interpret Nietzsche in ways yet unthinkable, right? Who knows, but certainly why not?

I mean, now I want to defend my general, kind of, descriptive procedure here briefly. On of the things that philosophers do as part of an anxiety complex is to try to prove they weren’t wrong, so I am going to do that very briefly. And I am going to do it here by aligning myself with Nietzsche for at least a moment again, pulling back from the horror… I don’t know if its horror, some postmodern theorists view it as ecstasy. At a certain level of pain and strangeness it’s difficult to distinguish the two anyway. That may be a remark only about my personal pathologies, I am not sure.

But in any case, Bertrand Russell once said, and I don’t remember where, but it was an irritation over philosophers who cannot be refuted according to the normal rules of truth and falsity and the empirical verification of their propositions and so on. It was a very irritating thing to him, he named – among others – Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and so on, and he thought that they were connected in some deep sense to the growth of unreason in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Which from my view of history is to get things backwards. I have always thought that this strange paleo-conservative desire to blame intellectuals for things is odd. We talk about the Enlightenment, you know, loosely in universities as though four pedants could make an age of the world.

You notice I haven’t given an analysis of the Enlightenment but of modernity, of modernisation, of the advance of capital, because four pedants don’t make an age. And two or three weird philosophers don’t give birth to a century of unreason. You know, Nietzsche didn’t, you know, from his drawing room give birth to a century of cannonade, slaughter, concentration camps, CIA subterfuge, the raping and the murdering of nuns, the bombing of continents, the despoiling of beaches and the ruin of a planet! Four or five pedants do not have that much power, and never have. That’s just a sort of bugbear. They didn’t “unleash unreason on the world”… Jesus… how crazy can some people get. I mean, even in the postmodern world you shouldn’t be that crazy, to say that three or four pedants invented this stuff. And don’t think that when I talk about the postmodern condition that three or four pedants invented that description. I mean, what makes these descriptions necessary is what goes on all around us in our daily lives as we begin to feel distant from ourselves in bizarre ways.

Nevertheless, Russell said well look, this unreasonable approach… he thought was connected to Hume‘s – I have mentioned Hume before – to Hume’s destruction of empiricism. What he meant [was] Hume destroying the self and various other rational accounts. Russell thought the horrible consequence that followed from the multiplicity of interpretations, the many ways in which we can deploy the word “truth”, the shifting context in which we can interpret, the many narratives that we can tell. He thought the horrible consequence that followed from that was “unreason”. And by the way, I do like Russell in many respects – don’t get me wrong – especially Russell as a person, much more interesting than Nietzsche as a person. Certainly had better politics as a person. But on this point I disagree with Russell.

Russell says look “If there is no intellectual difference between sanity and insanity” – I mean he gets this extreme with it; Russell doesn’t usually talk that extremely – “If there is no intellectual difference between sanity and insanity, reason and unreason, truth and falsity, then the lunatic who believes he is a poached egg is to be condemned solely on the grounds that he is in the minority. This is a desperate point of view, and it must be hoped that in some way we can escape it”

That’s all Russell has to say about that point of view in his History of Western Philosophy, that’s all he has to say about it. Because acute man that he is and logician, he knows there is no reasonable and logical way to establish the authority of reason over unreason, to distinguish sanity from insanity. So it looks like what we are left with is what a culture comes up with to decide. That frightened Russell, and I have to admit that I have a bit of Russell’s nostalgia. It would be nice if we could rely on something more than, you know, a majority feeling a certain way.

Unfortunately the negative force of my argument is this; is that those attempts have failed and been discredited utterly, as a result of our own culture and its development. We cannot – with reason – defend the distinction between reason and unreason, and that puts me in a strange position right now, defending my analysis to the extent that I want to defend it. I will at least defend this much of what Russell says about it. It is a desperate point of view because it does put you in the position of saying to those who disagree with you that “Well, geez, I don’t think we are poached eggs…” and someone – one of you perhaps – afterwards says to me “I really am a poached egg, I am so glad you mentioned Russell mentioning poached eggs because I have always felt like a poached egg” And you expect me to have a great argument, I may just say “Well, I don’t feel like a poached egg, and we’ll take a brief survey around here and see how many other poached eggs there are”, but imagine my embarrassment – now to return to the postmodern condition – if I am in a mall and I begin to feel like I am in a loony bin.

Perhaps I am not alone in feeling this way. I am in a mall and I get what I call “mall fever”, where I just begin to look at the shoppers and shopping frenzy and all the glass and the swirling and the twirling things, and I get mall fever and I have to get out and I begin to feel like I am a crazy man, and yet I have no ground on which to stand being in the minority in that feeling at that moment, because that passes for sanity. What could be more sane than to spend some leisure time – as opposed to free time, something we don’t have any more of: free time – leisure time in the mall? I mean, that’s sane. Why do I get mall fever? I must be crazy.

Well, I mean, I can’t defend myself any more than the person – with reasons, I can defend myself in other ways, but I can’t with reason – any more than Russell can defend the distinction between insanity and sanity, madness, unreason, with other reasons. Of course that should have been obvious, and it would have been, without perhaps some of the bad lessons that I have worked against in this course on Nietzsche, drawn from the dogmatic tradition of philosophy which I really think have been a mistake. Namely that if reason is to be anything, it had better be my damn reasons you agree with: my reason; in this case, Western reason.

Nothing could be harder, after this postmodern fable – if you want to consider it yet another fable, that’s fine with me – nothing could be harder than to distinguish that fable… that fable from its non-fable aspects; its real aspects. I mean, that’s like asking the question in our culture about anything, whether it really occurred or not. And it can be something that’s happened to you. After you think about it a while and have seen a few movies and the best way you can remember it is through its similarity with the TV and movies you have seen. My conversation here has reflected how many movie and TV examples I have used. If that becomes the way in which you process your experience, issues like truth versus reason… I mean reason versus madness, truth versus falsity… will simply fall away. They will fall away because the anchor for those issues raised by Nietzsche was that very tension between what might be reasonable and what might be mad. What might be a truth that might be life affirming for us, and what might be a lie that would not be good for us. Those distinctions would fall away. So I don’t know how to put a happy twist on this story. In fact I feel much in the position that William Gibson does in his magnificent novel “Neuromancer”. I recommend it all to you.

Gibson’s novel… you know, how many novels begin with sentences describing the sky and the landscape. There are so many. It’s a standard novelistic beginning. Gibson begins his novel Neuromancer with the following sentence, and I consider it the best first sentence in 20th century American literature. I hate to use the word literature about this stuff. Neuromancer being a work of what I call “near future fiction”. A work that projects, as does the movie Blade Runner, the near future of possible social development based on very close analysis of current trends. In any case, the first sentence of the novel goes like this: “The sky above the port was the colour of television tuned to a dead channel”. Marvellous. Sets the tone for an incredible book. Short. Tough. Interesting. Brilliant.

That sentence frames for me a description of the postmodern trajectory. And to distance that sentence… and there is a massive… you could distance it from the sentences of Zarathustra, from The Gay Science. You could distance it from the first sentences of novels such as “Call me Ishmael“… Moby Dick. That’s a pretty well known first sentence in a novel. “Call me Ishmael”. Referring all the way backward to a biblical text, and all the way forward to a new adventure. A new American adventure. In living a life that would allow for difference and community, it would allow for freedom, and the recognition of necessity. That project ends, in my view – or at least the dawning of the end – in Gibson. In that wonderful first sentence. “The sky above the port was the colour of television tuned to a dead channel”.

The fights that remain, the living antagonisms and our possibilities to construct ourselves in anything like free and autonomous ways will have to be fought across that barren, strange landscape. That unthinkable cultural future of deferred and indifferent pseudo-experience. And across that terrain, the struggles for even moments of authentic lived experience – “authentic” in quotes, who knows – of lived experience. To feel something for god’s sakes – anything – will be the locus of struggle, one would hope.

Here I will call to your mind a scene from Blade Runner, where before the replicant dies (Roy Batty), he slams his hand on a nail (and many of you may not know this), but when Batty does that in the film, it’s a reference to an action that Sartre has a character perform in “Roads to Freedom”. In “Roads to Freedom”, the Sartre character slams his hand onto a nail to prove that he is free. Because he chose to do it. It hurt like hell, but he chose it. I put my hand on that nail, and that shows I am free, because just as a calculus of deterministic pleasure I would never have done it. It’s a philosophical demonstration. A painful and stupid one in my opinion. But by the time we get to Blade Runner, the replicant slams his hand onto a nail just to feel anything. Just to feel anything. So don’t worry about the communists or the capitalists. Fight to live and feel anything. Thank you I have enjoyed it very much. Thank you.

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