This book explores the significance of human animality in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, and provides the first systematic treatment of the animal theme in Nietzsche’s body of work. Vanessa Lemm argues that the animal is neither a random theme nor a metaphorical device in Nietzsche’s thought. Instead, it stands at the center of his renewal of the practice and meaning of philosophy itself. Lemm provides an original contribution to ongoing debates on the essence of humanism and its future.
At the center of this new interpretation stands Nietzsche’s thesis that animal life and its potential for truth, history, and morality depends on a continuous antagonism between forgetfulness (animality) and memory (humanity). This relationship accounts for the emergence of humanity out of animality as a function of the antagonism between civilization and culture.
By taking the antagonism of culture and civilization to be fundamental for Nietzsche’s conception of humanity and its becoming, Lemm gives a new entry point into the political significance of Nietzsche’s thought. The opposition between civilization and culture allows for the possibility that politics is more than a set of civilizational techniques that seek to manipulate, dominate, and exclude the animality of the human animal. By seeing the deep-seated connections of politics with culture, Nietzsche orients politics beyond the domination over life and, instead, offers the animality of the human being a positive, creative role in the organization of life.
This book will appeal not only to those interested in Nietzsche, but to anyone interested in the theme of the animal in philosophy, literature, cultural studies, and the arts, as well as those interested in the relation between biological life and politics.
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Culture and Civilization
This chapter investigates the formations and transformations of human life and culture through a reevaluation of Nietzsche's discourse on culture and civilization. The key to this discourse is to understand culture and civilization as antagonists: "Civilization and Culture: an antagonism" (KSA 13:16). In my view, the antagonism between culture and civilization has not been emphasized enough in discussions of Nietzsche's philosophy of culture. One reason for this is that commentators have interpreted the significance of the dualism of culture and civilization only within the context of its nationalistic use in the German academic and political debates of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which discussed Germany's self-understanding as a Kulturnation. As a result of this debate, the notion of Kultur became discredited in the latter part of the twentieth century because of its appropriation by conservative and reactionary thinkers. Another reason is that Nietzsche's notions of culture and civilization have often been collapsed into one another. An analysis of their antagonism is crucial, however, because it is through such an analysis that Nietzsche puts forth a critique of civilization that does not imply a "return to nature" but, instead, predicts the eventual rule of culture over civilization.
My argument begins by showing that the antagonism between culture and civilization reflects an antagonism between human and animal life forces. In this antagonism, culture is defined as cultivation and is distinct from civilization, which is defined as taming and breeding. Whereas civilization distinguishes itself as the forgetting of the animal and of animal forgetfulness, culture distinguishes itself as the memory of the animal and of animal forgetfulness. The process of civilization aims at the moral and rational improvement of the human being. In contrast, the task of culture is primarily a critical one: Its function is to show that rationalization and moralization are techniques of domination directed against the animality of the human being. Culture, in its critical function, reveals that the "improvements" of civilization are "false overcomings." The second task of culture is that of liberation: Its function is to overcome the domination of civilization. The challenge of culture is to bring forth not forms of life that are forms of power over life, but forms of life that are themselves full of life, overflowing with life. I argue that culture recovers this fullness of life in the dreams, illusions, and passions of the animal. The chapter ends with a discussion of Nietzsche's figure of the Umgekehrte (the subverted and subverting one) as an example of such a fullness of life. This chapter also discusses other figures in Nietzsche's work that reflect such a fullness of life, such as the overhuman and the genius of culture.
The Antagonism of Culture and Civilization
In Nietzsche's work, the formations and transformations of human animal life and culture are characterized in terms of the fundamental antagonism between culture and civilization (KSA 13:16). A note written during the Spring–Summer of 1888 illustrates this idea:
The highpoints of culture and civilization lie far apart: one should not be misled by the abyssal antagonism between culture and civilization. The great moments of culture have always been, morally speaking, times of corruption; and conversely the epochs of willed and forced animal taming ("civilization") of the human being have been times of intolerance of the spiritual and most bold natures. What civilization wants is something different from what culture wants: maybe the opposite [etwas Umgekehrtes]. (KSA 13:16)
Nietzsche underlines the difference between culture and civilization as not only a difference in their opposing aims but also a difference in their high-points. The highpoints of culture and of civilization alternate. In their continual competition only one of them may rule: When culture is at its height, it rules over civilization; conversely, when civilization is at its height, it rules over culture. Nietzsche conceives civilization as a moral and, therefore, as a forced and willed project. At its height, civilization manifests itself in the violence directed against the animality of the human being and, also, in its intolerance toward "the spiritual and most bold natures." That civilization sees its enemy in animal as well as in spiritual and free natures reveals the intimate affinity Nietzsche sees between the freedom of the animal and the freedom of the spirit. In contrast to civilization, culture is explicitly immoral and corrupt. What defines culture is freedom from moralization, from the "willed and forced animal taming" of civilization, and from its intolerance toward "free spirits." When culture rules over civilization, what rules is the freedom of the animal and of the spirit.
The antagonism between culture and civilization is also reflected in the claim that "error has transformed animals into humans" and in the question that Nietzsche poses as to whether "truth is perhaps capable of returning humans into animals" (HH 519). In this antagonism, civilization represents the perspective of error that turns animals into humans, while culture represents the perspective of truth that turns humans back into animals. Whereas civilization claims that the truth of the human being consists of its moral and rational nature, culture shows that this truth is part of the set of errors that has turned animals into humans. From the perspective of civilization, what gives rise to error and illusion is the forgetfulness of the animal. Civilization understands itself as the process of improvement of the human being through the imposition of its truth as a corrective to its animal forgetfulness. Civilization corrects the human being's animal nature through the breeding of a specific kind of memory, a "memory of the will" (Gedächtnis des Willens) that remembers the truth of civilization and all its moral and rational norms and forgets all the rest (GM II: 1). While civilization reflects the domination of the human animal through the imposition of another, supposedly morally superior, nature upon it, culture reflects the resistance to and the liberation from the oppressiveness of civilization.
From the perspective of culture, the imposition of the truth (memory) of civilization on the human animal is itself based on error and illusion (GS 121). In contrast to the memory of civilization, culture brings forth a "counter-memory" that unveils the illusory character of the truth of civilization. This counter-memory undoes the memory as well as the forgetfulness found in civilization. Under the rule of culture, the human animal forgets the moral and rational norms of civilization, and this animal forgetfulness, in turn, brings back to the human being the forgotten freedom of the animal and of the spirit. The liberation of the human animal through culture defines what Nietzsche calls cultivation in contrast to the taming and breeding that define civilizational practices. The practices of taming and breeding are primarily characterized by the desire to impose a form on human animal life. Instead, the cultural practice of cultivation reflects a desire to embrace life in all its forms: "Give me life and I will create a culture out of it for you" (HL 10). The practice of cultivation is, in this sense, a practice of hospitality, receiving and giving life. Rather than imposing one universal form on life, culture as cultivation is directed toward the pluralization of forms of life that are inherently singular and are irreducible to each other.
The imposition of memory on the precivilized animal functions as a corrective to its forgetfulness and irrationality. But, ultimately, this process of so-called improvement succeeds only because of forgetfulness — that is, because of the forgetting of the human being's animality. Despite the attempt by civilization to set itself apart from the forgetfulness of the precivilized animal, it reveals these very same features: forgetfulness, bad reasoning, error, and illusion. The memory of civilization cannot hide the "bestiality" of its forgetting of the animal. Nietzsche turns the prejudices of civilization against civilization itself and shows the alleged distance between civilization and animality to be a mere pretense. From the perspective of the animals, the illusion harbored by the human being that it is a moral and rational being does not make this animal any more moral, rational, or human, but only more prejudiced:
'Humanity'. — We do not regard the animals as moral beings. But do you suppose the animals regard us as moral beings? — An animal which could speak said: "Humanity is a prejudice of which we animals at least are free." (D 333)
The task of culture is to free the human animal from the prejudices of civilization — that is, to lead the human animal beyond a moral and rational conception of its becoming toward the affirmation of life as inherently amoral, a-rational, and innocent. The innocence of life is an expression of its fullness: Life emerges and overflows, indifferent to the rationality and morality of its forms and, hence, powerful in its generosity and creativity (WP 1027).
Nietzsche's conception of human becoming and self-overcoming is incompatible with the optimism found in the project of civilization. More precisely, it conflicts with the belief that the human being's progressive emancipation from the animals will lead to greater freedom and autonomy. Nietzsche defines his own position as inherently pessimistic, claiming that true liberation can be achieved not through the overcoming of animality but rather through the overcoming of all-too-human forms of morality and of rationality as vehicles of civilization. Nietzsche confirms [feststellen] the human being's animality, and, in an attempt to restore their "animal common sense," he places humans back amid the other animals.
We have learnt better. We have become more modest in every respect. We no longer trace the origin of the human being in the "spirit," in the "divinity," we have placed it back among the animals. We consider it the strongest animal because it is the most cunning: its spirituality is a consequence of this. On the other hand, we guard ourselves against a vanity which would like to find expression even here: the vanity that human being is the great secret objective of animal evolution. The human being is absolutely not the crown of creation: every creature stands beside him at the same stage of perfection. ... And even in asserting that we assert too much: the human being is, relatively speaking, the most unsuccessful animal, the sickliest, the one most dangerously strayed from its instincts — with all that, to be sure, the most interesting! (A 14)
Nietzsche denies the modern belief in progress without advocating anything like a "return to nature" and dismisses the romantic longing for a return to a "higher" and more "human" origin as this belief is exemplified by Rousseau (TI "Skirmishes" 48). In contrast to the optimistic view that, at the beginning, one finds "good nature" (D 17), beauty, innocence, and harmony, Nietzsche holds the pessimistic view that every return to the beginning is a return to the cruel and the crude (PTA 1). These overly optimistic and naïve positions, one returning to the past and the other progressing toward the future, are symptomatic of weakness and of a denial of life. They reject life in favor of another, supposedly better life, projected either into the past or into the future. In opposition to this, pessimism reveals strength, health and ascending life, which result from embracing life here and now, affirming it in all its forms: human, animal, and other ("An Attempt at Self-Criticism" 2).
The antagonism between culture and civilization is manifest in the agonistic "crossing" of Dionysus and Apollo in The Birth of Tragedy. In this crossing, the Apollonian reflects the perspective of civilization, with its illusions of a rational and moral (also political) world order, and the Dionysian reflects the perspective of culture, seeing the world as an abyss with no orderly structure, no ultimate ground. The Dionysian vision of the world as chaotic, irrational, and purposeless triggers vertigo in those who contemplate this vision, which is disconcerting, unsettling, and terrifying. However, the destructive force that the Dionysian directs against the Apollonian order is not merely destructive, for it also gives rise to the creativity and freedom associated with culture. Depending on whether the Dionysian or the Apollonian perspective of life prevails, the human being understands itself as either an artistic and creative or a rational and moral being and conceives of culture as either tragic and Dionysian (which is the sense I give to the term "culture") or scientific and Apollonian (which is the sense I give to the term "civilization").
The hegemony of one perspective over the other requires a form of forgetfulness. Under the rule of Apollonian illusion and dream, the human being forgets itself as animal and as creative. Under the rule of Dionysian frenzy (Rausch), the human animal forgets the moral and rational settings of Apollonian illusion: "The Individual, with all his limits and measures, became submerged here in the self- oblivion of the Dionysian condition and forgot the statutes of Apollo" (BT 4). Nietzsche privileges Dionysian forgetfulness because it is more fundamental than Apollonian forgetfulness, just as he privileges animal forgetfulness over the civilizational forgetfulness of the human being. Although Nietzsche praises the healing force of the Apollonian dream as it transfigures the unbearable vision of the world as an abyss, ultimately what reconciles humans with life, nature, and one another is the "magic of the Dionysian":
Not only is the bond between human beings renewed by the magic of the Dionysian, but nature, alienated, inimical, or subjugated, celebrated once more her festival of reconciliation with her lost son, humankind. (BT 1)
Under the impact of Dionysian magic, the human animal affirms and celebrates its animality as a source of life and culture. Only when surrounded by the Dionysian myth can the Apollonian dream preserve itself and be given a direction (BT 23). The Dionysian (culture) leads the Apollonian (civilization) just as the animal leads the human being, giving the human being an aim: to produce the genius of culture, or what Nietzsche eventually calls the overhuman.
The affinity between the figure of the genius of culture in Nietzsche's early work and the figure of the overhuman in his later work is expressed, first, by their constituting the aim of culture and, second, by their achievement of this aim through an overcoming of the human: "[N]ot 'humankind' but overhuman is the goal!" (WP 1001). Examples from Nietzsche's early and late work confirm that, throughout his work, he holds on to the idea that it is the animal in the human which promises the further refinement of culture. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche draws on the image of Zarathustra, who is led by the animals toward the overhuman — that is, toward the overcoming of the human (Z: 10 "Zarathustra's Prologue"). In accordance with this image, a citation from Nietzsche's early work suggests the same idea, namely that culture means, first, a following of the animal and, second, an overcoming of the human:
If we speak of humanity, it is on the basic assumption that it should be that which separates the human being from nature and is its mark of distinction. But in reality there is no separation: "natural" characteristics and those called specifically "human" are grown together inextricably. The human being, in its highest, finest powers, is all nature and carries nature's uncanny dual character in itself. Those capacities of it that are terrible and are viewed as inhuman are perhaps, indeed, the fertile soil from which alone all humanity, in feelings, deeds and works, can grow forth. (HC)
Weighing the "human" against the "inhuman," Nietzsche asks whether priority should not be given to animality over humanity, as that is the aspect of the human being which provides the most favorable ground on which to foster greatness and virtue. Nietzsche returns to the Greeks, the "models of all future cultured nations" and the heralds of agonistic competition, in order to gain further insight into the relationship between animality and culture (HL 10). The genius of Greek culture is contained in its knowledge of how to preserve and entertain a fruitful relationship with animality. In the "cruelty" of the animal, the Greeks see not a lack of justice or morality but rather, a stimulant to agonistic competition and to the refinement of culture: Thus the Greeks, the most humane people of ancient time, have a trait of cruelty, of tiger-like pleasure in destruction, in them. ... Without envy, jealousy and competitive ambition, the Hellenic state, like Hellenic man, deteriorates. (HC)(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Nietzsche's Animal Philosophy"
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Table of Contents
Introduction: The Animal in Nietzsche's Philosophy,
1. Culture and Civilization,
2. Politics and Promise,
3. Culture and Economy,
4. Giving and Forgiving,
5. Animality, Creativity, and Historicity,
6. Animality, Language, and Truth,
Conclusion: Biopolitics and the Question of Animal Life,