Nietzsche and Foucault – The Challenge of Genealogy and Revolutionary Practice (optional reading blog post)
In a 1975 interview, Michel Foucault breaks his self-imposed silence on his relationship with the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche. Foucault underscores Nietzsche’s importance in the history of philosophy, stating “[it] was Nietzsche who specified the power relation as the general focus […] of philosophical discourse.” (1) Regardless of Nietzsche’s historical and contemporary primacy, Foucault nevertheless “prefer[s] to remain silent about Nietzsche” given his intellectual fatigue with scholars “studying him only to produce the same kind of commentaries that are written on Hegel and Mallarmé.” (2) In passing, Foucault gestures toward a different approach to engaging with Nietzsche “the only valid tribute to thought such as [his] is precisely to use it, to deform it, to make it groan and protest.” (3) Not unlike the methods of his friend Gilles Deleuze, Foucault proposes a sort of philosophical enculage that does not necessary respect all the hermeneutic intricacies of traditional historical philosophizing.
Despite Foucault’s ostensible exhaustion with the platitudes of contemporary Nietzsche scholarship, I would also like to suggest a more urgent political concern that motivates this comment regarding a possible re-appropriation or rethinking of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Historically, this interview comes only a few years after the tumult of May 1968 in France as well as contemporaneous to then still ongoing events in Italy’s Autonomia movement. Globally, this was also a pivotal time. For example (among many I could cite), only a few months previous to the interview, the American military forces had fully withdrawn from Vietnam and, just across the border, Cambodia was in the throes of its own massive social revolution. This list could be extended much further, but in short, it is crucial to note that both in Europe and on the global scene, it was an incendiary time for revolutionaries and activists, a time when success of leftist politic practice was truly at stake.
Hence Foucault proceeds with caution with respect to Nietzsche, alluding to a possible re-appropriation instead of a direct acceptation of Nietzsche’s teaching. Foucault seems to hint at the desire to find tools in Nietzsche thinking that could move against the traditional way in which Nietzsche might be read or marshaled with respect to political aims. Indeed Foucault knew quite well of the potential danger in Nietzsche’s thinking with respect to revolutionary thought and, writ large, the overall goals of the left. Nietzsche himself admits something quite similar in his auto-biography: “I know my lot. One day my name will be connected with the memory of something tremendous—a crisis the earth has never seen […] I am not a man, I am dynamite.” (4)
It is doubtlessly Nietzsche’s polemic against ‘slave morality’ which stands as the most controversial and problematic bulwark to any sort of leftist or socialist appropriation of his thinking. Nietzsche retraces genealogically the concepts of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ back to their source in the advent of Christianity. Although not the sole slave revolt in history, Nietzsche declares that the emergence of Christianity marks a veritable inversion of the classical (as in Greek, Roman) hierarchy of values by which ‘good’ and ‘evil’ transform into their opposites in becoming ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Nietzsche locates two distinct senses of good, one which corresponds to ‘master morality’ (good/evil) and the other which designates ‘slave morality’ (good/bad). Moreover, the impetus that motivates such an overturning is of significance:
“The slave revolt in morality begins when ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of natures that are denied the true reaction that of deeds, and compensate themselves with an imaginary revenge. While every noble morality develops from a triumphant affirmation of itself, slave morality from the outset says No to what is ‘outside,’ what is ‘different,’ what is not itself[…]” (5)
The triumph of the slave rebellion in morality furnishes a new optic through which values and their various distributions become articulated: thus what was formally good, that is strong, noble, active, becomes bad, and correspondingly, what was formally evil, namely the base, weak, poor, sick and underprivileged, become good in the slavish or ‘Christian’ sense of the term. The force which drives this reconfiguration is, as Nietzsche claims, ressentiment, that is, a reactive and vengeful manifestation of a will that turns against life. Nietzsche reminds us that, on his account, this sickly will enacts this revaluation via a leveling of all hierarchies. Ressentiment abolishes difference insofar as it seeks to neutralize and equalize orders of rank in virtue of its own seizure of power. The slave paradoxically attains a superior position through the collapse of all differential structures of power.
This genealogically ascertained portrait of the history of Western morality leads Nietzsche, especially when referring to his own historical conjuncture, to statements and dispositions that are outright antithetical to the position of leftists or left-leaning philosophers of revolution. In the Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche espouses:
“The Christian and the anarchist – both are decadents. But when Christians condemn, libel, and denigrate ‘the world,’ they are motivated by the same instinct that moves the socialist worker to condemn, libel and denigrate society: even the ‘Last Judgment’ is the sweet consolation of revenge – the revolution that the socialist worker is waiting for, only a bit further off…” (6)
For Nietzsche, the socialist revolutionary appears to repeat the gesture of the Christian: she enacts a revenge against the world, a bitter reactionary violence aimed at the conditions of her suffering and thereby against the social hierarchies that supposedly produce them. It should be noted that Nietzsche’s vision of anarchism and socialism appears to lack critical nuance inasmuch as he lambasts rather generically a certain vulgar version of socialism and utopianism. Moreover, it seems that all revolutionaries effectuate a reactionary, and thereby slavish political practice since even the French Revolution, the bourgeois revolution par excellence, fails to escape Nietzsche’s scorn. Nietzsche in fact abhors “[the Revolution’s] Rousseauean mortality—the so-called truths that give the Revolution its lasting effectiveness, attracting everything flat and mediocre. The doctrine of equality!” (7)
Despite a straw man rhetorical approach, as well as his reductive use of the historical category of revolution itself, Nietzsche’s condemnation of slave morality within his own historical situation does not in fact constitute a second order reaction, that is, an attempt to take revenge on the vengeful reactivity of slaves (workers and socialists) themselves. Nietzsche, on the contrary, urges his contemporaries, given the moral decay that he perceives both in socialism and the Revolution, to push affirmation to its extreme limits: “we have to go forwards, and I mean step by step further into decadence (– this is my definition of modern progress) …” (8) Thus according to Nietzsche’s diagnosis the way out is also the way through: “You can inhibit this development and even dam up the degeneration through inhibition, gather it together, make it more violent and sudden: but that is all you can do.” (9)
Two intertwined poles of Nietzsche’s inherent danger become evident at this point: on one hand, we have a caustic critique of socialist or revolutionary practice which leaves practitioners with, to say the very least, the sting of bad conscience, and on the other, a clarion call for an affirmation of the standing order with all its injustices, its hierarchies and its expanding social inequalities, in short, a sort of accelerationist solution that ends up intensifying the violence and the relations of domination in society.
Circling back to Foucault’s remarks, one can better make sense of his silence on Nietzsche as well as his implicit suggestion that one cannot, tout court, take up the mantle of Nietzsche’s thought without the proper caution, circumspection and, moreover, a strategy for politically redeploying Nietzscheanism with an entirely different inflection. Nietzsche himself drew these problematic conclusions from out of the practice of his genealogical method, one which Foucault himself employs in Discipline and Punish. Foucault constructs a genealogy of Western penal institutions as well as juridical and social confinement in general, and thus puts genealogy to work investigating different networks of power relations and in virtue of very different ends.
Foucault divulges his intentions at the end of first chapter, denying that he is strictly interested in the “past” but instead concerned with “writing the history of the present.” (10) Elsewhere, in one of his few explicit essays on Nietzsche, Foucault contrasts genealogy with the metaphysics of traditional history: “… [genealogy] rejects the metaphysical deployment of ideal significations and indefinite teleologies. It opposes itself to the search for origins” (11). In order to fully grasp the material conditions and embodied power relations of the present, genealogy turns to the past, reworking it by charting hidden, silent and forgotten relays of power and ways in which such power inscribes itself on the body. Genealogy discloses the present by peeling away metaphysical patina of historical idealization, the result of the “long baking process of history,” (12) and consequently shatters the empty sepulchers that conceal the micropolitical plays of forces that undergird historical representation.
Crucially, the temporal structure of genealogical activity entails a reworking of the past in order to open the present to a multiplicity of potential futural vectors. Placing an emphasis on the temporality of genealogy at the outset, it seems that Foucault wishes to strip this methodology of its accelerationist and aristocratic inflections. He proffers it instead as a powerful implement to rethink the historiography of social change. The site of this reworking is the very material of history, a place composed of language, of bodies and of the complex web of power in which they appear. Thus genealogy performs what I would like to propose as means by which revolutionary practice, always tied inexorably and necessarily to the practice of thinking and writing history, might radically re-conceive itself.
(1) Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other writings 1972-1922. P. 53-54
(4) Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols and Other Writings. P. 143-144
(5) —. On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo. P. 36
(6) —.. The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols and Other Writings. P.209
(7) (ibid.) P. 221
(8) (ibid.) P. 217
(10) Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. P. 31
(11)—. Counter Memory, Language, Practice. P. 140
(12)(ibid.) P. 144