Archive for March, 2014

Nietzsche and the Theory Group

March 11, 2014 Leave a comment


 I belong to a very new group, a “theory reading group”. There are seven of us, four women and three men. One of the women is in her forties, but the rest of us are over 60. It was organised by one member, and the others quickly fell into place, via a network of friendships in the rural valley in which we all live. Although I personally knew all the members, this was not the case with the others. We don’t really know what exactly we mean by “theory”, but so far, we have not bothered to clarify this. Mind you we have not really reflected much on the structure of the group either, we muddle along. We have chosen several books to read, but have realised that some of us don’t have time for long books, and so are slowly narrowing our choices to chapters of books or long articles. Five of the seven people have been or in the case of the youngest, are, academics. So far we have read David Graeber, Debt, Lewis Hyde, The Gift, and Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals. Soon we do Steps to an Ecology of Mind, or some short sections of it.

 Quick note: I realised upon re-reading that I have lost, if I ever had it, the knack of being disciplined, structured and succinct. Nevertheless, I feel like sharing my thoughts and feeling upon reading Genealogy (which I often misspell). I am still thoughtful and have feelings when I read.

 So Nietzsche. No longer being an academic and not having much time for purely idle “theory reading”, I tend to be demanding of my theory. I can easily accept something that says exactly what I would say, about something I don’t know much about. With something like that, which I can recognise quite quickly, I can relax and learn. If the writer thinks a bit differently here and there, I can enjoy that in a relaxed manner. Sometimes I read something that is just plain new, a mode, a view, a perspective, a notion that I just have not heard before. Like when I spent loads of time being able to understand Situationists, cybernetics, Japanese Politics, even immigration and laicite in France. I pretend I am always open to such new views and new information, so I feel proud when I struggle with that new stuff. There there is another reaction, for example to Fred’s writing (easier to write than Nietzsche).

 Clearly the guy has a way with words. Clearly some of his sentences are ones that make me suffer a wee bit (in Zarathustra quite a bit), before I can pass on. This is a good thing in this context. I remember reading Thus Spake Zarathustra twice before in my life. I could not get more than 20 pages into it, I just kept stopping, reflecting. It was very dense, and very moving. But quite exciting as well. I am certain I share with this rather bizarre seeker of truth in the further reaches. I like reading him. He is quite the theorist. BUT …

 He is just way too nineteenth century, high class bullshitter, male, German, without any displayed knowledge of any religion outside European traditions (except the odd remark about Jews), depressive, lonely male. I doubt I would want to hang out with him, although what he would look like in the modern world is a very intriguing imaginative exercise. Certainly in our reading he does not mention even Eastern Orthodox, and often lumps all Christians together to make his wacky over statements. It is clear he is not troubled by much anthropological knowledge, fair enough, it didn’t exist yet. He also uses a kind of philological type argument (I assume), which I find interesting but hardly convincing about anything. What are the roots and meanings of words, and how do they compare with other languages? I take this to be something Philological. His remarks about “primitive society” are just embarrassing. He sounds like a racist, but probably is simply ignorant. The question then follows, what sense can I make of this guy? Or even, is he useful to me in terms of some kind of action in the world I inhabit? If he says these embarrassingly ignorant things, why should I trust anything he says, and why should I continue to read his work?

 Let me give a couple examples. Admittedly I am appalled by one or two, and simply embarrassed by others.

 “… for our organism (body) is on an oligarchic model…” 29

We humans apparently have a “desert home”. 55

We humans apparently have had a “violent breaking from his animal past”. 55

“Undoubtedly the bad conscience is an illness, like pregnancy is an illness…” 57

“…cruelty constituted the great joy and delight of ancient man…” 37

 He offers not much evidence for any of this, except sometimes a wee historical story which is based on nothing much more than his assertions. During my lifetime, we have realised there are many kinds of religions. Some pretty interesting given the obvious poverty of the Judeo-christian tradition shared by most people I have known. We probably came from the savannah, but maybe that is desert for Fred. Nearly all socio-cultural-economic changes are not usually “a violent break”, and certainly is not taking place at the same time everywhere. There were mostly like many delights in ancient life, and the body has a much more networked model. Above all I believe quite strongly that being a totally dependent baby, a pregnant woman, an old person, for example, are not illnesses, but temporarily normal states which change over time. The idea that pregnancy is an illness just seems silly to me, says more about Fred than about illness, women or pregnancy. It and all the other annoying statements are something a nineteenth century male academic might think up. I have read translation of the Tao Te Ching by nineteenth century German males (in English) and they have this way of thinking as well. They just have limits, that I don’t have. I have others. So why should I read such an “out of it” guy? I don’t have a syllabus to follow or an exam to pass. If I made a sudden change of heart and knowledge to agree with Fred on those and other questions, I would be very surprised. Although it is possible.

 But he has some quite good qualities. I rather enjoyed reading his attempts to keep himself loose, flowing, dialectical, playful. Although I thought he was very much writing for an elite academic cultural intellectual audience (What? Maybe 35 people?) and is limited by that. Later I am going to try to re-read Zarathustra, see if that format lets him loosen up a bit.

 I guess I wish I read German, but the only translation I have will have to do. One always wonders what his notions of “will to power” means, and “superman”, things like that are words which have no resonance with me at all. When he talks of Good and Evil, I keep wondering why Good and Bad and Something as strong as evil and Evil are not more suited. Why is Good and Evil the pair? Good is a way wimpier than Evil. It is like reading a bad translation of the Tao Te Ching, where words like God appear, or where the name for the wise figure who does things right is strange to my ear. Teacher, Master, Saint, Leader, Guru, Enlightened Being, and so forth litter some kinds of translations. There is a sentence where he actually says what he might mean by WillTo Power, which essentially the innate desire to be free.

 So I am a bit easier with that concept, whatever it is in German. If I can’t figure out how to be comfortable with some of Fred’s concepts, he will annoy me a lot and won’t want to read what he writes. Especially if the annoying words are ones that I think I understand in my context. Exactly what a word might have meant a hundred or even thousand years ago to some group of people somewhere is interesting, but not very powerful as theory. Back to that old problem of do I really want to shake myself off and dive deeply into Fred’s work when I think I have perfectly useful and even fairly deep understanding of what I want to understand about living and dying.

 One thing that annoys me about the guy is that he is a little bit too careless with his use of the Unity of the Single Actor. Goes with being a creator of poetry and ambiance, not a rigorous analyst. Like Religion. Jews. Women. Germans. (Nearly) Everyone. It is clear to me that occasionally dipping into the use of such single words summing up everyone, is useful and fun. But it has to be in a context where the reader knows very well that elsewhere there is serious reflection on the fragmented and complicated nature of such single categories. A complexity that merits as much attention as the playful use of the single actor and the simple story. To go fast and far, one has to do what Fred does. It seems to me one has to simplify to move quickly. “Taking everything into account” in its complexities, always leads to a form of inaction, paralysis, depression, loneliness and so forth. One has to be able to delight in “humanity” now and again, rather than explore the less joyful aspects of our his/herstory(s) all the time. However, sometimes I find Fred a bit simplistic, and that stops me from following his emotionally sustained trips. Admittedly, I am getting older and grumpier, and perhaps have left behind the playful days of previous decades. When I read him I don’t get much of love, wow, joy, friendship and so forth. Such things exist for me. To ignore them as he seems to do is just a very high class grumpy, lonely, German man.

 One might say that some of my comments or preferences are not fair. How could a German guy be anything but German and so forth? I agree. But when I look at and read William Blake (many years ago) and I was not so immediately and irremediably reminded constantly that he is an 18th-19th century, English male, although one could tell. But Fred was so ignorant of the things he wrote about, which is not altogether his fault. I am hoping in Zarathustra he will write about things he knows about. Fred knows nothing of how primitive people lived, and yet he offers us many statements based no how they lived, how they thought, men and women, people from the ice, the forest, the jungle, the Fertile Crescent, Wales, China, Peru, all of them seem to easily fit into a single category. And their life was fairly brutal according to Fred. Obviously he was not alone in thinking this. Everyone probably thought this. But in what we read, two essays in Genealogy, it popped up all over. Sometimes I even think it is the trained social scientist in me creeping out on automatic. You can’t just say things were like this if you have no bloody evidence. You just can’t. And you can’t draw all that much from how a word changed or didn’t change its meaning as the notions wandered from culture to culture over the centuries. Nice philology I guess, but so what. I am supposed to believe what he says, especially since sometimes the Greek or Latin or Chinese characters for that matter, remain untranslated into English, when I am reading the rest in English. What kind of sad academic code is that? If you can’t compare Greek and German expertly you just have to take his word for it?

 I do like his critical tendencies, even his extremist tendencies. But, he does not draw me in. I do remember vaguely my experience with trying to read Zarathustra, and the more high quality difficulties I had than with his half ass, more academic oriented philology. Then he says of Zarathustra “Take for instance, my Zarathustra; I allow no one to pass muster as knowing that book, unless every single word therein has at some time wrought in him a profound wound, and at sometime exercised on him a profound enchantment: then and not till them can he enjoy the privilege of participating reverently in the halcyon element, from which that work is born, in its sunny brilliance, its distance its spaciousness, its certainty” (p. xxiv). Superb, arrogant writing, and totally right, I know for sure. When he writes “philology” I just find myself saying he is simplistic, speculating without knowing all that much about the world, and in some cases could appear to be racist, sexist and worse. But he is fearless, I will give him that.

 He certainly does have a rather nasty and creative go at “the English psychologists” at the beginning of the first essay. I think that is what he is best at, a irrefutable, but sadly not true, go at anyone and everyone. I certainly would not ever read ANY of those English psychologists, although I have no idea who he actually means. “Having a go” seems to be his strong point. Sometimes when he finishes with a slagging off of someone he does not like much, you wonder why you or even he should waste any time at all on those people. I wonder if he can do that spontaneously, those cutting remarks, or if he has to work on them.

I like his notion of “joyful wisdom” as the reward for “protracted, brave, laborious and burrowing seriousness”. Nice turn of phrase.

In the end I don’t understand why he might be so focussed on pity as being a problem related to morality and emotion. He does not much mention compassion, empathy, and love, which might make his task a little bit trickier. My intuition says these emotions might also be important for a decent discussion of morality. Maybe he does not think these emotions exist and only pity is crucial, but I doubt it. He must know about these things, but he does not deal with them in thee essays when they seem (to me) to have something to do with morality.

In addition his notion, based on no evidence that I was able to find, that “the good themselves, that is the aristocratic, the powerful, the high-stationed, the high-minded, who have felt that they themselves were good, and that their actions were good, that is to say of the first order on contradistinction to all the low-minded, the vulgar and the plebeian.” And beyond that, he does not explain anything. The rulers were good, so they invented goodness. Never mind that few of them were high-minded, and many of the lower classes were quite good indeed. Never mind that the subject does require the odd bit of historical analysis, which he claims he is totally fond of, but then we don’t see much evidence after that. Just a silly abstract argument. Never gets any better than that. In the end I figured it must be some kind of subtle parody that I didn’t get. Joke that I failed to find funny. And I carried on enjoying his turns of phrases. Way more stimulating and challenging than his actual argument.

I do not like writing which uses loads of words I cannot even read, let alone translate, let alone understand. I find it totally off-putting and the translator at least should have done something about this. Appalling. I don’t read Greek, therefore …. Who does the publisher think is going to be reading the book?

As I read Fred, I noticed that he failed to mention capitalists. In relation to good, bad, guilty conscience, never mentioned them. Then again, he never mentioned the market or commodification. I can’t help but think they should have got a mention. For that matter he ignored science too. I don’t blame him for not dealing with quantification or arms and armies, although he could have done that too. He really just bullshits. Classy bullshit though, for an academic essay.

The Jews apparently are responsible for the revolt of the poor and the weak and the lowly (p 9-10). They (which might include all Christians too) won the battle against the strong, the rich, the aristocratic. I don’t even know what to make of that. Is he saying they are really quite clever and powerful? Is he saying they have destroyed the “real good”? I just have no idea. From Jewish hate, grew Jewish love, the post profound and sublime. The people have triumphed. A mystery to me. “Judaised, Christianised, vulgarised (what is there in the words?)” (p 11)

“The revolt of the slaves in morals begins in the very principle of resentment (stupid word, wonder what the German word is and if there is a better way to say it?) becoming creative and giving birth to values – a resentment experienced by creatures who, deprived as they are of the proper outlet of action, are forced to find their compensation in an imaginary revenge”. At the end of the long diatribe against the revolt of the slaves, he ends up with the conclusion that really we are tired of man. All humans are, I guess. This is quite logical as he has portrayed the masses as worthless scumbags who know nothing, care about nothing and destroy the goodness which belongs to the aristocrats. Maybe he is right. It is logical, if the people are such awful beings. There ARE times when the stupidity and tastelessness of the “masses” utterly appalls and scares me. Many people think this. But in the end, after reflection, I see a wider picture and basically I would trust most of the people I have known, far more than any of the cultured aristocrats I have read about. I see no particular value in some of these lying, stupid, arrogant, exploiting jerks I want nothing to do with. Also rich. It really is an unappealing story he tells. For me anyway. Based on what appears to be a colossal ignorance and grumpy mind. What an intelligent, creative writer, and what a miserable one-sided geezer. If he only had a few mates he might have been a little more mellow sometimes. Maybe it would have dulled his prose.

After using a story about a bird of prey and a lamb, to indicate the naturalness, the normality of the bird killing the lamb, he says, “To require of strength that it should not express itself as strength, that it should not be a wish to overpower, a wish to overthrow, a wish to become master, a thirst for enemies and antagonisms and triumphs, is just as absurd as to require of weakness that is should express itself os strength.” I find this an appalling, simple interpretation of a story that is empirically true. My guess is that Fred did not know much about nature, natural life and probably didn’t walk in the countryside much. I bet he never went on a canoe trip on a river in his life. You can find better and more fascinating stories about natural behaviour now, I suppose. He would have probably still watched videos of lions killing gazelles.

Passage on Romans vs Jews, p 25 Load of complete nonsense. Jews and Christians are the same thing. Total Anti-Christian Church which has triumphed everywhere.

He often takes two portions of life, like the primitive and the aristocrats, one pretty much hopeless, the other the embodiment of high values. Clearly this is so simplistic it is wrong, except as poetry or as political polemic. No one who is serious can think that among the masses there are no positive qualities or that amongst the aristocrats there are not bad qualities. Its obvious he is not being dialectical, seeing in one the seed of the other, and of change being constant. Besides, once he sees the good qualities he never spends any time on them, he is a negative grump, not a real dialectician. “Without cruelty,no feast: so teaches the oldest and longest history of man-and in punishment too there is so much of the festive.” I would rather read someone who talks about the festive, aware that there is cruelty.

Here is a passage I noted (p.39), on suffering and blacks as primitive humans (ironically quite correct by current knowledge). Could some see this as racist? In fact, exactly what can one make of it? “Perhaps in those days (this is solace to the weaklings) pain did not hurt so much as it does nowadays: any physician who has treated Negroes (granted that these are taken as representative of the prehistoric man) suffering from severe internal inflammations which would bring a European, even though he had the soundest constitution, almost to despair, would be in a position to come to this conclusion. Pain has not the same effect with Negroes. (The curve of human sensibilities to pain seems indeed to sink in an extraordinary and almost sudden fashion as soon as one has passed the upper ten thousand or ten millions of over-civilised humanity, and I personally have no doubt that, by comparison with one painful night passed by one single hysterical chit of a cultured woman, the suffering of all the animals taken together who have been put to the question of the knife, so as to give scientific answers, are simply negligible.) Is this real, or ironic, or sarcastic or did he just make it up?

Would ANY anthropologist accept that the oldest and most original personal relations were buyer and seller, creditor and owner” (p 41) Does anyone think this any more? Fred is even an “economic” determinist, a market freak. Maybe he is right. Who could ever tell? But I doubt it. I should leave this point as having read a couple of decent stories about ancient times, and even about debt in ancient times, Fred is just writing from his head.

Having just read and corrected this massive essay, I can see it is time to stop. Post it, silliness and all. Certainly I came to understand myself a bit more by reading Fred, while I did not, reading our previous books. So in some way, Fred is my kind of theorist, but more of the self than of the world. So I remembered that I just can’t help asking for good evidence when someone makes statements about real people. It is not my choice, I just ended up being a professional social scientist and theoretician of sorts. Trained. You gotta know what you are talking about, you just can’t make it up. And if you are talking about internal persona matters, you need to have looked deep into internal beings, like oneself. If you talk about primitive people or women or young people or whatever, you have to have some knowledge and experience. He is similar to French people who declare confidently that something is “normal”, meaning both expected and OK. For people from another culture, the event or process is obviously NOT “normal”. It is simply French normal, for some or all French people. Its only when he spaces out that Fred is of much interest. As a historian or a sociologist or a psychologist, I find him annoying. As a theoretical spaceman, I find him fascinating.

Whew, glad that is done, taken me three weeks to write it. Back to the more mundane. Sorry about the length, I needed to get it out of my system. How often does one read a guy like Fred?