Malcolm Christ, or the Anti-Nietzsche

Review: Malcolm Bull,
Anti-Nietzsche (2011)

Image: Photograph of
Friedrich Nietzsche (1882)


Like most ‘Marxists,’ Wolfe’s problem is that he’s really a Nietzschean. He sees everything in terms of war and winning.

— Tim Morton, author of Ecology
Without Nature
, “On Ross Wolfe”

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche once authored a virulent polemic against the Christian religion titled The Antichrist. Two years ago, Malcolm Bull offered a long overdue rebuttal in the form of his book Anti-Nietzsche. If Nietzsche = Antichrist and Bull = Anti-Nietzsche, though, it stands to reason that Bull = Anti-Antichrist. Applying the principle of double negation to this last equation, the following conclusion proves irresistible: Bull = Christ. Hence, “Malcolm Christ.”

Of the theorists and historians who have contributed to this growing body of anti-Nietzschean literature over the last couple decades, Bull is perhaps the most unique. Surveying the criticisms of Nietzsche’s work that have appeared to date, the British art scholar finds them all lacking in at least one crucial respect. He claims that in their attempt to expose Nietzsche’s “rhetorical strategy,” his critics unwittingly reuse it.[6] Their eagerness to discredit Nietzsche’s character (his ethos) or indict his philosophy as leading straightaway, by its own internal logic (its logos), to political reaction, falls prey to the Nietzschean conceit that “one must be superior.”[7] Bull proposes a completely different method of critique. Rather than attack Nietzsche himself or overmaster his arguments, what must instead be changed is the way one reads these arguments (their pathos).

Bull contends that the truly radical move is to take Nietzsche as a man of his word and accept the validity of his claims. The difference here would consist in the act of reading his texts from an opposite angle to the one its author intended. Since Nietzsche urges his readers to identify with the strong, the creative, the victorious, Bull offers an alternative: “reading like a loser.”[8] “Reading like a loser is interpreting the world to one’s own disadvantage,” Bull explains, in one of the book’s pithier formulations, “so that the interpretation results in loss to the interpreter.”[9] Here the “loser” he has in mind is not the archetypical representative of late ’90s slacker culture, however, but the forgotten, the misbegotten — in a word, the downtrodden — of history. To put it differently, we are to identify with the philistine, the subhuman, the herd-animal.[10] “Rather than being an exhilarating vision of the limitless possibilities of human emancipation,” writes Bull, “Nietzsche’s texts will continually remind us of our own weakness and mediocrity.”[11]

John William Waterhouse, Odysseus and the Sirens (1868)

John William Waterhouse, Odysseus and the Sirens (1868)

Subhuman philistines

Anti-Nietzsche begins with the figure of the philistine. For Bull, the philistine ranks among the prime avatars of privation. The philistine is to art what the atheist is to religion, the anarchist to politics, the nihilist to morality.[12] However, because Nietzsche champions aesthetic values over and against religious, political, and moral values, Bull adduces that “acknowledging a lack of ‘the primary artistic force’ must be the starting point for any anti-Nietzscheanism.”[13] Philistinism is the fundamental ground of opposition to Nietzsche. But this philistinism must be perfect — thoroughgoing, in Bull’s judgment. It cannot remain relative. It must instead be made absolute. Every aesthetic value must appear alien: “This does not just involve distancing ourselves from the rarefied discourse of traditional aesthetics; it means not being able to see the point of avant-gardist repudiations of tradition either.”[14]

Yet it is by no means clear whether declaring oneself a philistine does not just assume a pose of false modesty. This is a matter of no small importance, either. Bull is quite specific about the kind of philistine he envisions. Earlier on he contrasts the Nietzschean image of the philistine, the kind personified by Socrates in The Birth of Tragedy (1872), with the roughly contemporaneous image of the philistine offered by the British poet Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy (1869).[15] While the former is simply unable to appreciate art, simultaneously tone-deaf and colorblind, the latter is self-interestedly (willfully) disinterested in art. According to Bull, the Arnoldian philistine is therefore epitomized by the figure of Odysseus, especially as portrayed in Adorno and Horkheimer’s allegorical reworking of the Homeric myth in Dialectic of Enlightenment.[16] Bull sees the book’s “Nietzschean undertow”[17] precisely in its first chapter, in the encounter between Odysseus and the Sirens. Before sailing past the islands, Odysseus has his sailors plug their ears with wax, so as to not be enchanted by the Sirens’ song, and binds himself to the mast of the ship. He thus allows himself to experience the full force of its beauty without succumbing to its lure.[18]

Unlike Adorno and Horkheimer’s Odysseus, Bull suggests, Nietzsche’s Socrates “does not hear the beauty of the [Sirens’] song; he may not even hear the song as a song.”[19] But why would Bull find it necessary to drive home this distinction in the first place? Why is Bull so concerned to identify the philistine with those who cannot hear the music at all, the rowers on board Odysseus’ ship, rather than with Odysseus himself, who can hear the music only under conditions of restraint? For Adorno and Horkheimer, Odysseus occupied a position analogous to the modern bourgeoisie, while his crew approximated the position of the modern proletariat. It is important to note that in this model, both the bourgeois and proletarian are unfree, albeit in different ways. “The bourgeois denied themselves happiness the closer it drew to them with the increase in their own power,” the authors maintained. “The fettered man listens to a concert, as immobilized as audiences later, and his enthusiastic call for liberation goes unheard as applause.”[20]

Bull cannot for a moment entertain the idea that someone like Odysseus would be a philistine, who is so clearly a winner and member of an elite. In order for his interpretive scheme to work, the philistine can only be a loser — someone who is eminently forgettable and unremarkable. Because he divides society into winners and losers, assuming the former to be free and the latter to be unfree, Bull loses sight of the fact that both are ultimately constrained by the capitalist mode of production. The bourgeois is only able to relate to a piece of art as “a mere object of contemplation.”[21] Some of the greatest revolutionaries, it is perhaps worth noting, have suffered a fate far closer to that of Odysseus (i.e., the bourgeois) in Adorno and Horkheimer’s retelling of the story than that of his crew (i.e., the proletarian). With Nietzschean inflections, Marcuse reaffirmed: “The revolution is for the sake of life, not death…Lenin’s resolution to be incapable of listening to the Beethoven sonatas he admired so much testifies to the truth of art. Lenin himself knew it, and rejected this knowledge.”[22]

Besides philistinism, Bull’s other main point of departure in Anti-Nietzsche is the category of “subhumanism.” Here once again, he arrives at this concept only after a lengthy detour through the thought of another figure who expanded on themes originally introduced by Nietzsche: Heidegger, particularly his investigations into the problem of nihilism during his Nietzsche lectures from 1936 to 1940. The subhuman comes into view in connection with what Bull calls an “ecology of value,” in a rather peculiar turn of phrase. By this he simply means a harmonious or interdependent system described using biological terminology.[23] Philistines and subhumans both contribute to a negative ecology of value — i.e., “an ecology that minimizes the possibilities for the positing of value and so reduces the quantum of value still further.”[24] Nietzsche was interested in creating a positive ecology of values, as Bull puts it, in which value-positing superhumans thrive and proliferate at the expense of value-negating subhumans.

Heidegger ontologized this relationship, Bull alleges, by recasting Nietzsche’s ecology of value as the ecology of being. The Being for whom the world reveals itself is man, while those worldless beings for which the question of Being never occurs are animals. Interestingly, Bull points out that Heidegger’s reason for opposing the traditional humanist definition of man (as an animal rationale, following Aristotle), was that it does not grant human beings the dignity they deserve. His Letter on Humanism, far from conveying an antihumanist message — as is often rumored to be the case — is actually the humanist text par excellence.[25] Like Nietzsche, Bull continues, Heidegger was gripped by anxiety before the mortal threat posed by nihilism. Both authors saw this threat embodied in “the subhuman: the poor in spirit [Nietzsche] and the world-poor [Heidegger].”[26] Against either of these options, Bull takes a page from the Italian theorist Giorgio Agamben by upholding “subhumanism as a humanism.” But this would merely be to see nihilism through to the end, as “nihilism turns back on itself not in the human, but in the less than human.”[27]

A review of Heidegger’s (also Derrida’s) ruminations on the difference between humanity and animality[28] redounds upon Nietzsche’s earlier comparison of the subhuman to a herd of animals. The inextricably Christian core of Bull’s Anti-Nietzsche comes through precisely in his gloss on the predator/prey dichotomy in On the Genealogy of Morality. Indeed, Nietzsche supplies one of his most effective illustrations of ressentiment through the parable of the bird of prey and the lamb or sheep.[29] Mapping this distinction back onto the gulf separating humanity and subhumanity, Bull champions “subhumanism”: “Reading like losers…we may identify with man rather than superman[,]…with the herd animal rather than the predator.” In this way, “[t]he pattern of interspecific behavior Nietzsche describes will immediately strike us as terrifying. We could be eaten.”[30] But the irony of the call to identify with “the sheep” or “the lamb” cannot possibly be lost on someone like Bull; their status as time-honored symbols of Christianity precludes it. As Marx noted long ago, “the sheep-like nature of the Christian is shown in his resemblance to the Lamb of God.”[31] In the end, Bull relies on the all-too-familiar Christian reassurance from the Gospel of Matthew, that “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.”

One point deserves to be mentioned before passing on to the next section, regarding the unity of the philistine and the subhuman. “[T]he philistine and the subhuman are the same thing,” remarks Bull, en passant. “[P]hilistinism is the mark of the subhuman, and subhumanization the fate of the philistine.”[32] From this he concludes that “the subhuman and the philistine are not two forms of the Anti-Nietzsche but one.”[33] Combining these two terms into a single conjunctive pair, Bull sets the anti-Nietzschean “subhuman-philistine” up against the Nietzschean “superman-aesthete.”[34] And yet, by doing so, he acts as if Nietzsche actually believed these “supermen-aesthetes” already exist as anything more than glimmers of what is to come. He thereby misses the point, which Nietzsche repeatedly stressed, that his prose was directed “towards the men of the future who in the present tie the knots and gather the force that compels the will of millennia into new channels.”[35] Bull thus fails to recognize the larger issue at stake — the fact that inhumanity and philistinism are universal features of our age.

Caricature of Ferdinand Lassalle

Caricature of Ferdinand Lassalle crushing idols and leading Social-Democracy toward freedom (1875)

Against equality

Bull returns to the subject of music and sirens later on, laying bare the Nietzschean foundations of the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s work on “community.” The account Nancy provides of the link between “commonality”/“communion” and myth has already “been told before — by Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy.” Bull proceeds: “In Dionysian song and dance, man expresses himself as ‘a member of a higher community.’” From Nietzsche’s tragic insight, Bull thus draws the startling conclusion that “communism is music.”[36] That such revolutionary politics would be inscribed into an aesthetic medium for Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy should surprise no one, however. This work had, of course, been greatly inspired by Wagner’s essays written in the immediate aftermath of the failed 1848 revolutions. “Art and Revolution” (1849) and “The Future Work of Art” (1851) can be even seen as attempts by Wagner to realize the political goals of 1848 by aesthetic means, as certain scholars have noted.[37] “Only the great revolution of mankind,” indicated Wagner, “whose beginnings erstwhile shattered Grecian tragedy, can win us [the] artwork [of the future]. For only this revolution can bring forth from its hidden depths, in the new beauty of a nobler universalism, that which it once tore from the conservative spirit.”[38]

The revolutionary implications of Bull’s counter-reading of Nietzsche aren’t fully worked out until the final chapter. Here the issue of egalitarianism is addressed head on. “Equality has had no fiercer critic than Nietzsche,” he asserts. “His rejection of equality is unequivocal.”[39] But as Bull is quick to point out, Nietzsche was hardly the only intellectual to criticize socialist slogans of equality during this period. Marx likewise rejected the egalitarian platforms advanced by his peers.[40] Marx’s most well-known passages on the subject of equality appear in his Critique of the Gotha Program, in polemicizing against Ferdinand Lassalle’s doctrine of individuals’ “equal right” to the proceeds of society’s labor. While acknowledging the undeniable merit of this principle as a universal measure of equivalence or exchange within bourgeois society, Marx nevertheless emphasized that it “is still constantly encumbered by a bourgeois limitation… [E]qual right is an unequal right for unequal labor…It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right.”[41] It cannot, therefore, function as the bedrock for an emancipated society.

Strangely, Bull does not concern himself in Anti-Nietzsche with Marx’s critique of Lassallean notions of equality. Instead, his narrative focuses on the Marxist objection to the Babeuvian “conspiracy of equals,” and what he takes to be a fatal flaw in its underestimation of the Lumpenproletariat‘s radical potential. Adopting Bakunin’s standard line against Marx, Bull advocates a “widening” of the revolution’s base to include the “losers” of society — what many leftists today commonly refer to as the precariat.[42] In order to correct Marx’s “oversight” while remaining firmly within a Marxian frame of reference, Bull thus invokes Trotsky’s conception of permanent revolution as making up for the deficiency underscored by Bakunin: “The proletariat, in order to consolidate its power, cannot but widen the base of the revolution.”[43] Shifting gears to a discussion of the Gramscian notion of passive (as opposed to active) revolutions, by way of the late eighteenth-century Neapolitan writer Vincenzo Cuoco’s populist inclusion of a broader base of society’s “losers” — “the ‘lazy lazzaroni,’ Marx’s Lumpenproletariat[44] — in the revolutionary swell, Bull closes his book by summarizing:

The argument pivots from leveling down to leveling out…Cuoco picks up the idea of an inarticulate people absorbing the elite, and turns it into the idea of passive revolution in which the revolutionary elite absorb the people, taking on their opinions in process. In Gramsci’s hands, extending the class base of revolution is implicitly identified with permanent revolution, [which] ends by dissolving the state and with it the possibility of revolution itself.[45]

This is the way world-history ends — with a whimper and not a bang. Leaving aside the anticlimactic finale, however, the one other detail that leaps out from Bull’s text is the way it maintains a rather bland, unimaginative egalitarianism, which is immediately equated with revolutionary socialism. Still, Bull is not at all acting in bad faith here. Ironically, it is his very ingenuousness that leads him into error. By taking Nietzsche’s own (quite limited) understanding of socialism at face value, Bull naïvely treats socialism as synonymous with the political struggle for equality, since this was how “Nietzsche himself identified…the egalitarian projects of democracy and socialism.”[46]

Related reviews

Igor Stramignoni’s “Book Review: Anti-Nietzsche (London School of Economics)
C. Derick Varn’s “Review: Anti-Nietzsche (The Loyal Opposition to Modernity)
Costica Bradatan’s Anti-Nietzsche (Times Higher Education)
Decca Muldowney’s “‘Reading like a loser’ — Costica Bradatan reviews Anti-Nietzsche” (Verso Books)
David Winter’s “Reading Like a Loser” (The New Inquiry)
Keith Ansell-Pearson’s “The Future is Subhuman” (Radical Philosophy)

12 thoughts on “Malcolm Christ, or the Anti-Nietzsche

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