NVC Reading notes #3

Reading Chapters 1 and 2 of NVC we come fully and squarely up against the peculiarity of Klossowski’s text.  The discussion interprets and does so using a swathe of textual evidence but the interpretation is not a gentle teasing out of an argument, a kind of ‘efficient paraphrasing’, rather it is a positioned interpretation.  That is, it offers a reading of Nietzsche that attempts to articulate a position with regards the body of Nietzsche’s work.  That is to say, it both suggests a reading of Nietzsche that is a ’cause’ (ie; what Nietzsche says ‘comes first’ and our understanding is the effect of this) and it offers a reading of Nietzsche that makes Nietzsche an ‘effect’ of the reading (such that the reading ‘comes first’ and only through this reading do we come to understand Nietzsche).  This curious ambiguity means that the reading is offering a ‘way of reading’.  It is, as it were, intended to make us see Nietzsche’s work in a particular way.  The danger, of course, is in distorting (‘doing violence to’) the Nietzschean corpus.  The question is, what are we to make of Klossowski’s reading?  If we were to assess it simply on its textual accuracy, whether it is that ‘efficient paraphrase’ so beloved of secondary academic texts (Introductions to …) then we would miss the performative aspect of Klossowski’s reading, the way in which he wants to do something with the corpus and make it do something anew.  Of course we have to allow that Klossowski has a desire to bring some truth to light rather than assume he is trying to mislead us or merely ‘read Nietzsche for his own purposes’ but to do so we have to acknowledge that in some way it is only through making Nietzsche into his own that Klossowski can reveal something interesting about Nietzsche.  It is because of this peculiar reciprocity between Nietzsche’s corpus and Klossowski’s reading of it that we should perhaps speak of the ‘Klossowskian-Nietzschean’ (K-N) account offered in NVC rather than think of the book as merely an ‘interpretation’ of Nietzsche in the weak sense of paraphrase.

What is it that Klossowski pushes to the fore then?  There is a distrust of thinking as a pure and moral capacity within Klossowski that he wishes to draw out of Nietzsche and pursue.  This is grounded in a tension between the individual as thinker and the society of which they are a product.  The terms Klossowski uses are the gregarious and the singular (NVC: 4) where the gregarious is the name given to the social aspect and the singular the name given to that which opposes or comes into conflict with the social.  The social is above all formed in the context of language, or the ‘code of everyday signs’ and the tension can be understood as one between an immediacy located in the ‘singularity that we are’ and a mediation of that singularity in the ‘code of everyday signs’.  Roughly speaking we might think of this as a situation in which we are somehow trapped in language.  Each time we try and think or express something, in particular each time we try and express our ‘depth’ (present the ‘true self that we are’, though this phrase is highly troublesome) we are betrayed by language.

This way of presenting things of course assumes that there is some way in which we are which can be betrayed.  It would suggest, for example, that there is a real or true (we might say, following Heidegger, an ‘authentic’) self which we cover over and betray (fail to express) simply because any act of expression mediates the immediate.  We might want to fall back on means of expression that aren’t linguistic and suggest that art, perhaps, is a means of authentic expression of the immediacy that is our depth precisely because it isn’t caught within the ‘code of everyday signs’.  If we do this, however, we need to be careful to avoid an obvious problem  – if we ‘read’ an artwork as expressing something more truthfully, and this ‘something’ is taken to be a meaning, then for Klossowski-Nietzsche it looks like we will fall back into the code of everyday signs because the code of everyday signs is not simply language but meaning itself.  Meaning is mediation and any search for meaning falls into the position of betraying our depth which is outside of any meaning.  Klossowski-Nietzsche claim that “our depth is unexchangeable because it does not signify anything” (NVC: 31).  Are we not left at a dead-end then?  Can we simply not say or express anything since there is no meaning?  This would amount to a form of quietism, of a giving up in the face of a nihilistic understanding of life and the social.  This, i think, would be a mistake and a mis-reading of K-N because it would make it difficult to understand the ‘combat’ which it seems is central to the ethical drive of NVC.

The first chapter, in which we find the ‘Combat against Culture’, supposes that there is something of interest in the conflict between the unexchangeable depth of the singular and the gregarious leveling of the social.  If the social is a form of indoctrination, an imposition of a morality that commonly makes thinking and the thinker / philosopher into little more than lie-makers that produce ways in which the social can reproduce itself to the detriment of the singular, then where does the impulse or force of the singular come form.  Do we posit something like an original singularity to each ‘subject’ which is then swallowed up in the social?  Where did this singularity come from, what produced it?  It would be a mistake, I believe, to attribute some ‘original subjectivity’ to K-N.  Instead we will find the ‘depth’ described as chaos, as a flux or soup of impulses, a chaos that is formed into a singularity.  The ‘formation’ of this singularity is what we need to investigate and what K-N will do so through the concept of ‘formations of sovereignty’ found later in NVC.  Roughly speaking, the singular is nothing other than a formation of sovereignty in which one impulse (drive, force, instinct are all analogous concepts although not identical) triumphs over another.  The “affects are enslaved by other affects – and not (at least not initially) by the affects of other individuals but by those within the same individual” (NVC: 10).  It is not the social that ‘imposes’ itself on the singular but rather the singular that trains itself into becoming a ‘reasonable, rational and competent individual (member of society)’.  We train ourselves to be slavish, we are not trained and imposed upon by some ‘oppressive’ force from outside.  Consciousness triumphs over desire and we become reasonable people (NVC: 10).

(more on Ch 1 and 2 to come)

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philosopher and filmmaker from brighton, currently teaching philosophy at the Free University of Brighton

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