Re: The Seduction of Unreason The Intellectual Romance With Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism by Richard Wolin
It’s really not an “intellectual romance with fascism” that either Nietzsche or Bataille had. There are fundamental aspects to both of their philosophical approaches that are in profound opposition to the ideology and practice of fascism. Most significantly, Nietzsche and Bataille are anti-authoritarian. They are trying to develop the individual, through encouraging exploration, self-invention and confrontation with challenges. This aspect of their philosophical approaches is about as anti-fascist as you can get. After all, a fascist is someone who has a fundamental desire for authority and want to find his or her particular place within a hierarchy of power.
“One of the crucial elements underlying this problematic rightleft synthesis is a strange chapter in the history of ideas whereby latter-day anti-philosophes such as Nietzsche and Heidegger became the intellectual idols of post–World War II France—above all, for poststructuralists like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Gilles
Deleuze. Paradoxically, a thoroughgoing cynicism about reason and democracy, once the hallmark of reactionary thought, became the stock-in-trade of the postmodern left.7 As observers of the French intellectual scene have frequently noted, although Germany lost on the battlefield, it triumphed in the seminar rooms, bookstores, and
cafés of the Latin Quarter. During the 1960s Spenglerian indictments of “Western civilization,” once cultivated by leading representatives of the German intellectual right, migrated across the Rhine where they gained a new currency. Ironically, Counter-Enlightenment doctrines that had been taboo in Germany because of their unambiguous association with fascism—after all, Nietzsche had been canonized as the Nazi regime’s official philosopher, and for
a time Heidegger was its most outspoken philosophical advocate— seemed to best capture the mood of Kulturpessimismus that predominated among French intellectuals during the postwar period. Adding insult to injury, the new assault against philosophie came from the homeland of the Enlightenment itself.
One of the linchpins of the Counter-Enlightenment program
was an attack against the presuppositions of humanism. By challenging the divine basis of absolute monarchy, the unbelieving philosophes had tampered with the Great Chain of Being, thereby undermining morality and inviting social chaos. For the anti-philosophes, there existed a line of continuity between Renaissancehumanism, Protestant heresy, and Enlightenment atheism. In Considerations
on France (1797) Maistre sought to defend the particularity
of historical traditions against the universalizing claims of
Enlightenment humanism, which had culminated in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of August 20, 1789. In a spirit of radical nominalism, the French royalist observed that he had encountered Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, and even Persians (if only in the writings of Montesquieu). But “humanity” or “man in general,” he claimed, was a figment of a feverish and overheated
philosophe imagination. “Man” as such did not exist.8
An assault on humanism was also one of French structuralism’s hallmarks, an orientation that in many respects set the tone for the more radical, poststructuralist doctrines that followed. As one critic
has aptly remarked, “Structuralism was . . . a movement that in large measure reversed the eighteenth-century celebration of Reason, the credo of the Lumières.”9 In this spirit, one of the movement’s founders, Claude Lévi-Strauss, sought to make anthropology useful for the ends of cultural criticism. Lévi-Strauss famously laid responsibility for the twentieth century’s horrors—total war, genocide, colonialism, threat of nuclear annihilation—at the doorstep of Western humanism. As he remarked in a 1979 interview, “All the tragedies we have lived through, first with colonialism, then with fascism, finally the concentration camps, all this has taken shape not in opposition to or in contradiction with so-called humanism . . .but I would say almost as its natural continuation.”10 Anticipating the poststructuralist credo, Lévi-Strauss went on to proclaim that the goal of the human sciences “was not to constitute, but to dissolve
man.”11 From here it is but a short step to Foucault’s celebrated, neo-Nietzschean adage concerning the “death of man” in The Order of Things.12″
The supposed opposition between “humanism” and Bataille/Nietzsche/Foucault/Deleuze type “irrationalism” is conceptually mistaken. Of course, this is how it has played out in history — as two distinct streams of thought, whereby one has effectively cannibalized the other, or at least it seems that way. As an aside, I went back to Zimbabwe recently and revelled in the humanistic mindset of most people there. Post-modernist post-humanism has not caught up with them, although they are very much enmired in Christianity, also. In general, it is a situational time warp that reminds one of the value of one’s fellow human being. One can love humans, again, within that context, where humanism largely prevails.
In the deeper sense of Bataille, Nietzsche and Deleuze, they are implicitly interested in undergoing a stage of madness, in order to come out the other end in a better and stronger condition. The implicit goal is to get rid of blind authoritarianism (although not necessarily recognition of authority), especially that which is linked to an idea of a god above, which maintains order. In terms of this, the means to the end is “madness”, but the goal is a superior kind of sanity to what we experience as normal and necessary, today. The whole emphasis of all three of these writers is a circular movement from everyday normality (a form of insanity in many respects), into true insanity, into a state of superior sanity. It’s a large scale historical programme which is supposed to bring “the individual” into being in a true sense, for the first time in history. The irrationality that these writers seek to expand upon is not the end goal for humanity, but merely a stage in the process of humanity’s self-transformation.
What we have today, under the rule of capitalism, is quite substantially already the “death of man”. The individual doesn’t matter. What she produces and the length of time in which she produces it (and then, ultimately, its value on the market), is all that retains meaning in this day and age.
In all, it seems to me that Bataille, Nietzsche and Deleuze were largely just messengers foretelling this ‘death of man’ and warning against the error of losing reverence for ourselves in a post-Christian era, rather than those who brought this situation into existence. That is to say, Wolin is keen on shooting the messenger.