Half-Life & After-Life of Postmodernism – Part 2

Enter the Postmodern: The Return of Nietzsche as Nomadic Rebel

Postmodernism and Poststructuralism took shape in an historical situation when the 1968 Uprising abated and Marxism – especially the Structural Marxism of “French Theory” – entered a crisis. The Structural Marxist Louis Althusser and his disciples had a prominent position at universities and in the public, but towards the end of the 1970s, the Althusser School went towards its own dissolution in parallel with the rehabilitated Nietzsche consolidating its position as a new type of rebel.

How did Nietzsche get this central role?

His philosophy was reinterpreted, repurposed and could thus be incorporated into this context, in a situation of decomposition and loss of meaning. Nietzsche’s ideas won the hearing of a generation of academics who had been disillusioned by the political failures of the 1960s, to paraphrase the American historian of ideas Richard Wolin.

Meister Friedrich’s great significance to French Theory in the 1960s and 1970s must also be understood in light of the distinguishing traits of French philosophy. An important role was played by the philosophical reaction to Hegel’s influence. The desire to exorcise the Spectre of Hegel lay a lot behind this Nietzschean Renaissance. Michel Foucault explained that our era is trying to “escape Hegel”, and the way to do this is to fly by Nietzsche’s wings. As a matter of fact, even the Althusser School may indirectly have contributed to Nietzsche’s popularity – and its own downfall – through its relentless criticism of competing Hegelian exegeses of Marx.

The Franco-Nietzscheans regarded Hegel as the Philosopher of Dialectics, Reconciliation and Identity. Nietzsche had to represent the opposite: a fragmentary, anti-metaphysical and anti-systematic Philosophy of Difference without organizing principle.

However, the Postmodern Nietzschean Renaissance would not have been possible without Gilles Deleuzes’ Nietzsche and Philosophy (1962), also known the “Bible of Postmodernism”. Here was laid the foundation of the French – and to some extent also American – exegesis of Meister Friedrich: Nietzsche the Yea-Sayer and Anti-Dialectician. About a decade later, Deleuze relaunched him as a “Nomad” and a “War Machine” undermining all orders and “codes”, albeit without creating new bureaucrats and institutions as per Marxism or Freudianism. Thus to Nietzsche was attributed the advantage over Marx in that he was not a political spokesman for a new state oppression.

In the 1970s, Deleuze’s war rhetoric led the thoughts to the left-wing terrorism of the time. But for him, it was not about Molotov cocktails but about a “violent” philosophical discourse and esoteric vocabulary. With this pseudo-radicalism, the Postmodern Nietzsche conquered the universities while the protests and riots of the New Left, left the streets.

Indispensable parts of the philosophical project that is Postmodernism are taken from Nietzsche. But once this has been acknowledged, one must turn Nietzsche against the Postmodernists. For Nietzsche, that supposed “nomadic rebel”, is far from any unsystematic or fragmentary thinker without a core essence. “Difference” for Nietzsche is always associated with the difference of value – what he calls the Rangordnung – between people, morals and social order. Since the Postmodernists think they can neglect – or alternatively, metaphorically reform and democratize – Nietzsche’s political ideas, they become blind to how Nietzsche practically uses his theoretical doctrines, such as that of Perspectivism, to create hierarchies. Postmodernists and Poststructuralists work for the tolerance of and respect for “the Other” but rely on a thinker who could hardly be further from these ideals.

To be continued…

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