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A Comment on Malcom Bull’s Anti-Nietzsche (Verso Books, London / New York 2011)


Malcom Bull’s study Anti-Nietzsche is one of the most interesting and – as the title might suggest – provocative contemporary publications on Nietzsche I’ve come across. Reason enough to dedicate a little commentary to it.

Anti-Nietzsche is not just provocative because it’s directed against Nietzsche – but it is also directed against his prominent philosophical and unphilosophical critics of the 20th century and contemporary common sense in general. It begins by introducing the figure of the “philistine” which is presented as the worst enemy of art: A person who does not hate art (not even art in general) but who does not attribute any significance to it, who does not even comprehend the difference between art and non-art. It is common sense to polemise against him – not even the most radical critics of art would call themselves “philistines”, even the most radical (such as Dada or the Situationist Internationale) would criticise art in the name of “true art” or “true aesthetics”. Bull’s study now breaks that taboo and philosophises exactly from the point of view of the philistine.

Nietzsche is presented as the critique of philistinism par excellence. From The Birth of Tragedy to Ecce homo he wants to attack the unaesthetic (and thereby: anaesthetic) man, be it under the mask of Socrates, Plato, Jesus, the “last man”, the modern man, the slave, Kant, the nihilist, the scientist etc. pp. Modern civilisation is portrayed by Nietzsche as a culture of philistinism that supresses creativity and is therefore doomed to nihilism. Nietzsche wants to overcome that nihilism in order to establish a new culture of creativity.

Bull shows convincingly and in great detail that Nietzsche’s critique rests on a basic presupposition that is not very original: The said belief in art and its intrinsic non-moral value. It is not just not very original but is a mere judgement of taste. Bull demonstrates that all of Nietzsche’s culture criticism becomes unconvincing if you look at it from the point of view of a person that is an absolute “loser” according to its standards: A philistine that is not able to be creative in any way, that has absolutely no sense for “greatness”, no “taste”. Nietzsche’s critique only works if you follow Nietzsche’s rhetoric that suggests that by only reading Nietzsche you belong to a small cultural elite that differs from the masse of philistine rabble. Furthermore, Bull shows that all critics of Nietzsche (with Heidegger as the most prominent example) fall prey to this rhetoric at some point: They all accept the presupposition that nihilism is a great threat and we have to find a way out of it. They only criticise Nietzsche for not having articulated the right answer to this problem, they do accept it as a problem. Accordingly, they fall prey to the same kind of criticism that Bull directs against Nietzsche: At some point, in order to avoid nihilism, they have to refer to a certain non-rational standard of “taste”, certain aesthetical abilities, that form a certain community of “aesthetes” and exclude others. Even if they try, as in the case of Jean-Luc Nancy or Gilles Deleuze, to be as inclusive as possible, you can in any case construct a perspective of the excluded one, the “loser”, that lacks any sense of community, that is not able to undertake any kind of deterritorialisation, that is an animal, maybe even less than an animal, a mere subhuman. Bull accordingly calls his counter-perspective “subhumanism”.

There is now a little suspicion: Isn’t it possible to turn the same move against Bull himself? How does his criticism work from the point of view of someone who is simply not able to see himself as a “loser” (which is – as Bull admits – not very easy as it is a purely negative perspective)? Who can’t stop – despite every effort – to see himself as a “winner” (even if he may admit that there is a little “loser” also hidden within himself – but he does his best to defeat him)? Who is just too weak to be a “loser”? Who may at times feel like a “loser”, at other times as a “winner”? Isn’t Bull “reading for victory” (as he calls the perspective of normal, identifying readers of Nietzsche) too – for victory over Nietzsche and any sort of aesthetic cultural criticism? Does he – against his own assertions – really present a radical alternative to Nietzschean discourse or is he not just pushing it one step further while still remaining within it? (Possibly, because there is no way out?)

This suspicion hardens itself if we bear in mind that the perspective of the “loser” is already present in Nietzsche’s philosophy. Not just in Bull’s sense, as an object of criticism and contempt: Nietzsche in many instances identifies himself with the point of view of the “loser”. For example, in his autobiography Ecce homo he refers to himself as a “Hanswurst” 1), a zany or tomfool, not a holy man. In the same book, and on many other occasions, he constantly reminds the reader of the fact that Nietzsche himself is a victim of nihilism, that he himself is ill – and so also the reader himself should reflect not so much on the illness of others but on his own illness first. Nietzsche constantly reminds the reader of the fact that human beings are themselves animals, that the difference between civilisation and barbarity is a thin line and so on … Nietzsche constantly subverts the borderline between “winner” and “loser”: In the last instance, all human beings are “losers” as they are finite beings condemned to die someday (as humanity as a whole will end someday) – and who are not able to accept that fact but constantly fight against it vainly.2)Cf. the famous beginning of On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense.

Of course, one has to admit that this subversion has always a certain limit: For Nietzsche, the secret of “winning” lies in the insight that one has to “lose” in order to “win”, one has to be weak in order to be strong, ill in order to be healthy, nihilistic in order to be non-nihilistic, and so on. The goal is always to be positive, to be affirmative, to be creative, productive, and aesthetic in some way.3)This is the essential meaning of the famous phrase “What does not kill you makes you stronger” in Twilight of the Idols.

A completely loser would be someone that would lack any will to power, that would not even want to be a loser. Nietzsche asserts that even in the weakest forms of slave morality and ascetism there is a certain affirmation, a certain will, a certain taste at work – may it be the affirmation of negation, the will to nothingness, the taste of tastelessness. The basic assumption of his metaphysics is that the positive principle of will to power is at work in any entity (even in the non-living world) – there is no authentic negation but only the affirmation of negation which is self-contradictory as it negates itself.4)Thus the conclusion of On the Genealogy of Morals, its last sentence: “[M]an will sooner will nothingness than not will . . .” (see) From this point of view, Bull’s perspective is either impossible or inauthentic – and Nietzsche’s position is not in any sense aristocratic or elitist since anyone somehow “participates” at the will to power, no one is excluded from the quest for the “Übermensch” (thus the subtitle of Thus Zarathustra Spoke, “A book for everyone and nobody” and several other passages in the book that clearly indicate a universalist agenda that at least includes every human being5)Thus e.g. the talk of “fine sumpter asses and she-asses” (see) – the metaphor of the ass as the loser-animal par excellence also indicates Nietzsche’s loser-anthropology – and the vision of one goal that would unite humanity in a non-repressive way.  – and is even hyper-universalist and it includes even nobody as nobody is a human being insofar as every human being is an animal that permanently ceases to be a human being).

When Nietzsche speaks of weak, ill, or degenerated peoples, forces, individuals etc. this has always to be interpreted in a relative way since in the permanent war of forces there can be no ultimate winner, only a constant flux of victory and defeat – such as, as noted above, everyone is a loser in Nietzsche’s philosophy (since humanity is condemned to lose), nobody is one since every disadvantage can turn out to be a disadvantage in another constellation and vice versa, every victory can turn out to be a defeat, every defeat can turn out to be a victory. Accordingly, Nietzsche teaches that every defeat should be re-evaluated into a victory. (As mentioned above, illness should be seen as a healthiness, weakness as a strength and so on – of course not in a resentful way but in an active manner.)

Thus, I think that Bull ceases to show that Nietzsche leaves a gap in his philosophy in this respect. I have to admit that there are certain passages which might indicate the existence or at least the possibility of an absolute loser in Nietzsche’s philosophy but these passages should be interpreted in the overall frame of this metaphysics of the priority of affirmation over negation that Deleuze so clearly described in his book on Nietzsche. Even if Nietzsche describes the danger of a self-distinction of humanity under the guidance of nihilist ascetism this should be seen as a rhetorical move: On other occasions, Nietzsche clearly states that for him this nihilist self-extinction would only lead to a partly self-extinction of the weak and ill parts of humanity in order to enable a rebirth of master morality. 6)Cf. esp. the ending of the second treatise of On the Genealogy of Morals. Master morality will always win in the end over nihilist negation – Nietzsche’s philosophy is a doctrine of hope in this respect, not pessimistic or even apocalyptic but the opposite.

However, one has to view this whole issue from a political point of view. Bull’s criticism has a clear political aim although he hardly makes it explicit. He wants to criticise a whole tradition of cultural criticism which includes besides Nietzsche both thinkers from the left (Marx, Adorno, Gramsci, Agamben, and Deleuze are mentioned) and from the right (Jünger, Heidegger): It is clear that at the basis of any cultural criticism there has to lie a certain non-justifiable base, a certain taste. Even at the core of Marx’ critique of capitalist economy there lies a certain “aestheticism” that is inspired by German classicism. Bull’s suspicion is that any of these critiques thus imply certain exclusions – be it, on the left side, that of “Lumpenproletariat” or “Kleinbürger”, be it, on the right side, that of Jews or Muslims. And, in both cases, that of animals (since a locus communis of all these critiques is the worry that human beings may be reduced to mere animals in modern society – they all, even Heidegger, share a certain humanism even if their concepts of “humanity” highly differ). They all seem to imply a certain terrorism, a pure terrorism of taste that Bull seems to try to avoid by embracing radical nihilism and philistinism. This is not even postmodernism any more: It is the complete abolishment of modernity and postmodernity in one big stroke. In the background we have good old totalitarism theory: Modernity was a big fall of mankind that lead to various kinds of fascisms. Now we are wiser, the end of history is there (Bull refers here explicitly to Kojève, one of the few thinkers he seems to like) and we can enjoy pure insignificance. Isn’t that exactly Nietzsche’s dystopia? And isn’t that clearly an evaluation, a taste, a will, even if it is now re-evaluated into a utopia?

The irony is, that this point of view is, again, already present in Nietzsche’s philosophy: It is exactly that of the “last man” which is described at the beginning of Thus Zarathustra Spoke and that of the contemporaries of “der tolle Mensch” in aphorism 125 of The Gay Science. In both cases, alter egos of Nietzsche (in a first draft, “der tolle Mensch” should even be Zarathustra himself) are confronted with a crowd that does not understand them at all. In The Gay Science they do not comprehend the significance of the death of God, in Thus Zarathustra Spoke they do not understand is teaching of the “Übermensch” and take his dystopia of the “last man” as a utopia. In both cases, the protagonist ceases to convince the crowd and flees from it – Zarathustra returns into isolation, “der tolle Mensch” becomes ultimately mad. Zarathustra reflects this defeat: The crowd has a taste totally different from him – it is not possible for him to convince them even with the most elaborate rhetoric. From the point of view of the crowd, Zarathustra is a complete loser just as “der tolle Mensch” is totally insane. However, Zarathustra re-evaluates this defeat into a victory: He knows that even the people of the crowd have chaos inside them and thus someday new dancing stars will be born. Meanwhile, a temporary exodus may help not to get infected by their nihilism.

Both passages are core passages of Nietzsche’s cultural criticism, his criticism of modernity. The point about the “death of God” is that in fact it is not so much an end of metaphysics: Modern society is still shaped by metaphysics down to its essence. The problem is that this metaphysic denies itself as metaphysic and therefore blocks any possibility of critique and change. (One can find a similar idea in Marx’ critique of the fetishism inherent to the forms of capitalist mode of production and Heidegger’s critique of technique.) Metaphysics are not allowed to die properly – and thus the possibility of the birth of new metaphysics (i.e., a new order of things, a new culture, a new society, new values etc.) are blocked. This would be Nietzsche’s answer to Bull again: You are, just as the people of the crowd, still with both feet into metaphysics and your denial only supports existing metaphysics. Similarly, the dystopia of the “last man” is that of human being that becomes something less than an animal, that denies any will to power, that denies even its existence, that does not understand metaphysics anymore and believes it to be a thing of the past. He is a satisfied Hegelian. However, as the reaction of the crowd clearly indicates, they possess still a sense of affirmation – they only use it in order to affirm negation. They do not want people who have strong emotions or passions: They do not even understand them. Their aim is an eternal order of peace and boredom which would result not even in death but in an eternal state of zombie-esque pseudo-life.

To put it more concrete: What Nietzsche’s criticises is modern mass culture with its universal subjection of anyone under the laws of labour, use, “rationality”, health and so on. In this society people are not even reduced to animals but to mere machines. When he talks of “weak”, “ill”, “degenerate”, “superfluous” individuals, i.e. losers, he does not talk about those who are ill, degenerate, or superfluous in this perverted world: In opposition he despises those who are winners according to its laws. 7)See esp. the speeches The New Idol and The Flies in the Market Place in Thus Zarathustra Spoke. If it was otherwise, Nietzsche would have had to hate himself which would totally contradict his doctrines of amor fati and self-affirmation. Nietzsche himself was a total loser according to the standards of bourgeois society (he totally screwed up his academic career, he was severely ill, he didn’t manage to find a wife nor even form a lasting intimate relationship with anyone, he had few friends, he was totally unsuccessful as a writer during his conscious life, he died pampered by his mother and his hated sister who used his works in order to boost her own political agenda which included elements that Nietzsche explicitly condemned in his writings …). His whole philosophy should be read as an attempt to re-evaluate this position into a winning one without being resentful. In order to undertake this, it is crucial to show that bourgeois standards of winning and losing are completely irrelevant: According to Nietzsche we live in a totally reversed world in the sense of Marx’ “verkehrter Welt”. Those who may be seem weak in this world are in fact strong and vice versa.

What Nietzsche addresses in the two passages mentioned here is in fact a problem of any cultural criticism as it has to appeal to pre-theoretical judgements, to a certain taste, which it at the same time diagnoses to be repressed by the culture it criticises. Otherwise it would be no cultural criticism: It primary object is a culture as a whole, neither individuals nor groups. Even in Plato one can find the same problem. There can only be a practical solution for it which remains outside the realm of theory.

Of course, the means to practically solve this problem may be drastic, possibly even terrorist or fascist. In order to wake up the inner will to power of individuals in an active way one could use not only art but also violence and concentration camps. This is clearly demonstrated for example in Heidegger’s concrete political actions 1933/34 (burning books, founding military labour camps for students and teachers, giving passionate speeches …) – and on the left side measurements might only be slightly nicer: One may also after reading Dialectic of Enlightenment be convinced that the only way to break the ban of Kulturindustrie might be violent intervention in a rather immediate way. At the end of the book, the authors even state: “Die ihrer selbst mächtige, zur Gewalt werdende Aufklärung selbst vermöchte die Grenzen der Aufklärung zu durchbrechen.” 8)My translation (as the point I want to make here is a bit confused in the translations I could find on the internet): “Enlightenment itself, mastering itself and becoming a violent force, would be able to break the borders of Enlightenment.”

Thus, the question that Bull confronts us with is: Do we want the peace and order of postdemocratic postliberalism or something else – with the risk of losing this peace? It is clear that the nihilist movement of “permanent revolution” that Bull envisages is nothing else than the leveling movement of capitalist mode of production itself. For capitalism there is no true difference between a work of art, the workforce of a human being, an animal, and a piece of furniture … . Anyone can participate as long his or her (or even: its) workforce is profitable; capitalism is for everyone but not for nobody. However, put it into these concrete political terms, the cynical bigotry of Bull’s point of view should become obvious: In order to safeguard the nice, inclusive Disneyland of postdemocratic societies terrorist and fascist methods are used ubiquitously to an unprecedented degree. The only problem is that – just as the crowd in The Gay Science – we do not want to see this permanent violence, it becomes completely invisiblised. However “fascist” or “terrorist” the measurements are that might be necessary in order to change this order of things: They might be nothing in comparison to those that are used daily in order to maintain it.

Fußnoten   [ + ]

2. Cf. the famous beginning of On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense.
3. This is the essential meaning of the famous phrase “What does not kill you makes you stronger” in Twilight of the Idols.
4. Thus the conclusion of On the Genealogy of Morals, its last sentence: “[M]an will sooner will nothingness than not will . . .” (see
5. Thus e.g. the talk of “fine sumpter asses and she-asses” (see) – the metaphor of the ass as the loser-animal par excellence also indicates Nietzsche’s loser-anthropology – and the vision of one goal that would unite humanity in a non-repressive way.
6. Cf. esp. the ending of the second treatise of On the Genealogy of Morals.
7. See esp. the speeches The New Idol and The Flies in the Market Place in Thus Zarathustra Spoke.
8. My translation (as the point I want to make here is a bit confused in the translations I could find on the internet): “Enlightenment itself, mastering itself and becoming a violent force, would be able to break the borders of Enlightenment.”

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