On Civilised Progress and Barbaric Regress

One simply cannot conceal from oneself what all the willing that has received its direction from the ascetic ideal actually expresses: this hatred of the human, still more of the animal, still more of the material, this abhorrence of the senses, of reason itself, this fear of happiness and of beauty, this longing away from all appearance, change, becoming, death, wish, longing itself—all of this means—let us grasp this—a will to nothingness, an aversion to life, a rebellion against the most fundamental presuppositions of life; but it is and remains a will!… And, to say again at the end what I said at the beginning: man would much rather will nothingness than not will…[1]

When Freud created the concepts of life drive and death drive he was influenced not only by Nietzsche, but also by Darwin’s theory of evolution and the neuroscience of his day. In the light of the recent developments in neuroscience Freud’s drive theory may appear to have lost its relevance, and yet this does not mean that it cannot be affirmatively recreated and put to use in the critique of contemporary cultural products and the psychoanalysis of the world in general. The use of these concepts should not mean that I am reducing being human to a dualistic vision of life, for I am not ignoring the existence of other drives such as the drive to play, but trying to show that many cultural products still operate at the level of a Freudo/Cartesian dualism, and are based on the production, exploitation and/or oppression of the life drive and the death drive.   I situate the concepts of the life drive and the death drive in the context of philosophy and rethink these concepts in relation to immanence and transcendence, affirmation and negation. It would, however, be too simplistic to equate life drive with transcendence and the death drive with immanence. That, precisely, is not the case in this essay. To my mind the life drive unifies the multiple by transcending death and the death drive splits the given unities by transcending life. So life/death drives are both transcendence and negation oriented, whereas immanence and affirmation signify and are signified by life/death without unconscious drives, but conscious desiring. This form of being in relation to the concepts of life drive and death drive enables me to see these drives not as unchanging constituents of human nature and life, or as solidly defined concepts constitutive of a certain kind of knowledge about human nature and life but as modes of being and forms of thinking produced and projected onto human nature by cultural products. In the light of this, I propose that these concepts can be used as components of a mobile and dynamic critical apparatus targeting the works in and through which the myths of life drive and death drive are not only produced, but also exploited and/or oppressed.I attempt to show how the life drive is exploited as the death drive is oppressed in some literary and filmic texts, while the death drive is exploited and the life drive is oppressed in some others. The condition of possibility for the oppression/exploitation of the life/death drives to take place is sustained by a manipulation of the ambiguous relationship between these two; they can easily change roles and disguised as their opposites, the life drive and the death drive become enemies working in the service of destroying the subject whose life, with the advance of global capitalism and the increasing abuse of the recent developments in technology, has literally become an oscillation between them. For instance, the subject takes on the characteristics of Eros as his persona, becomes a virtual Eros in a chat-room on the internet, but has to act like a Thanatos at work, and becomes someone who pretends to be a Thanatos in ordinary social reality, when in fact he prefers to be a descendant of Eros, or inversely. My aim in this study is to look for traces and investigate the implications of this paradoxical situation in particular works of philosophy, psychoanalysis, cultural and critical theory, literature, and cinema produced during the twentieth century. At present this situation in which the subject finds himself-herself has become not only imposed on the subject but also willed by the subject. As I already said, while in some cases the death drive becomes the target of exploitation/oppression, in some other cases the life drive becomes this target. I use texts from, cinema, literature, philosophy, and psychoanalysis in order to explicate this theory of the emergence of the new forms that power, embodied by and embodying the Big Other, takes. Unless one splits the past and the present, the self and the other, the theory and the practice, the life drive and the death drive, the subject of enunciation(conscious desire) and the enunciated content(the unconscious drive), the critical and the clinical, it becomes impossible to create a space out of which a new and practical truth emerges, and hence the conditions of existence cannot be developed.  All these binaries are separate but contiguous to one another, they are always already reconciled but the only way to actualize this reconciliation is to introduce a split between them which unites them as it exposes the gap inherent in their relationship. We are in the process of realizing this precisely because we have started to see that if theory is not practical it serves nothing. This realization should bring with it a will to split theory and practice, for their unity means the destruction of both of them; already before the beginning of the process of becoming one they start destroying one another. Their oneness is their death, for one dies as much, more than one live as such. For me theory aims at developing practical ways of practicing freedom, and its goal is to sustain the conditions for the possibility of its own destruction. On this both Adorno and Foucault agree. In the light of the result of my investigation I propose that a practical theory of progress based on an interaction between deconstruction and affirmative recreation is not only possible but is also already at work within the contemporary psychosomatic and sociopolitical realms of experience.

There are two distinct forms of the will to nothingness. The first one is the death drive and the second one is the life drive. As we will see, I used Freud’s drive theory to split Nietzsche’s will to nothingness, or what might be called nihilism, into two separate but contiguous forms. These two forms of nihilism, that I distinguish using Freud and Nietzsche under the guiding hand of Melanie Klein, are perpetually in conflict with one another. At times they put on one another’s masks and costumes; they take one another’s roles, and they keep the show business going on.Perhaps what was at stake was the confrontation between Eros and Thanatos, the yet to be discovered life drive and death drive within him, when Nietzsche proclaimed himself Christ and Dionysus at the same time in one last cry. In this light I see the life drive and the death drive as the two constituent parts of the will to nothingness, two driving forces behind the will to nothingness, which give birth to the two different forms of contemporary nihilism: “Civilized progress” and “barbaric regress.”But that I don’t find the resolution of the conflict between them satisfying does not mean that I am dreaming of a higher form of reconciliation. What I mean is that these two are always already reconciled, and yet that the only way to actualise this reconciliation is to think their separation through introducing a difference between them that unites them as it splits them. I see the failure of the relationship between civilised progress and barbaric regress as something becoming increasingly relevant for an analysis of cultural and natural transformations of life. The ongoing conflict between what we started to understand from civilized progress and barbaric regress after Hegel and since his three different applications to the study of culture, embodied by Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud, does not seem to have been a sufficiently fruitful one. As Foucault put it in his essay Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, with these three thinkers a new form of interpretation emerged in three different practices. Following Nietzsche, Foucault asserts that the dominant discourse of the classical period is “the history of an error.” According to Nietzsche this is a history written by the ones who hold the power but who are at the same time “the weak.” Nietzsche says that these have a slave mentality and this mentality subjects them to being reactive forces that multiply themselves by contaminating the others who are treated as inferior but are in fact “the strong.” In pursuit of escaping from that history of an error written by the slaves and which is a product of slave mentality, Foucault attempted to practice a new way of reading history which he, borrowing the term from Nietzsche, calls “genealogy.” In Foucault’s words from another essay in the same compilation,

Genealogy does not oppose itself to history as the lofty and profound gaze of the philosopher might compare to the molelike perspective of the scholar; on the contrary, it rejects the metahistorical deployment of ideal significations and indefinite teleologies. It opposes itself to the search for “origins.”[2]

Where the soul pretends unification or the Me fabricates a coherent identity, the genealogist sets out to study the beginning—numberless beginnings, whose faint traces and hints of colour are readily seen by a historical eye.[3]

Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud are they who set the task and determined the objective. This task is to learn from the past and sustain the conditions of impossibility for suffering to repeat itself. In other words, the task is to supply the subject with practical tools for living a long, healthy, and happy life. But the health of the subject is not separable from the improvement of the other’s conditions of existence. Horkheimer and Adorno, and Marcuse followed this line of thought. Writing for different reasons, in a different way, and in a different context, the solutions of the past are my problems. My aim is to show that what seems to be a liberating attitude turns into its opposite and becomes a restrictive and paralysing theoretical approach. In other words, the symptom which is the non-reason inherent in reason turns into the cure when in fact it is the manifestation of the illness. This dynamic of viscious cycle will be the major object of this study.To stay alive in a state of conflict what one needs to learn to do is to write and rewrite a law for oneself as one goes along the way; a law that is permanently in touch with the others within and without. One is to become capable of imagining another world and still live in this world in such a way as to turn life into a movement towards a new life. Death as Law is interior to the subject as much as it is exterior to it.

The Satyr, at his first sight of fire, wished to kiss and embrace it, but Prometheus said, “You, goat, will mourn your vanished beard,” for fire burns him who touches it, yet it furnishes light and heat, and is an instrument of every craft for those who have learned to use it.”[4]

At the root of every progressive movement Nietzsche sees a traumatic incident, and for that reason the real is always touched through a surface event. Nietzsche sees progress as an effect of regress and regress as an effect of progress. Nietzsche confuses causes and effects. For Nietzsche the event that manifests the change of roles between cause and effect always takes the form of a conflict between the causes and effects of regress and progress on/of one another. This unrepresentable and unnamable event, which, for Nietzsche goes beyond the gap between the psychic and the somatic, is itself the cause of a traumatic effect the transcendence of which is at the same time a process of passing through the state of being governed by a superior and yet unknown force, death, which is interior and exterior to the life of the subject at the same time. For me this process involves passing through the walls of one’s wound rather than being caught up in an endless process of climbing over it and falling back in again.  Slavoj Zizek points out that Lacan calls this process of passing through “traversing the fantasy.”[5] Deleuze would have said, it is, at the same time, traversing the symbolic, in that it is a passage across the field of affective intensities and partial objects where there remains no gap between fantasy and reality, psychic and somatic, part and whole, organ and body, self and world, transcendental and empirical. Traversing the fantasy is the process of becoming in and through which Nietzsche feels himself to be “all the names in history.” Where transcendence and immanence become one, there one experiences a sublimation of sublimation, and learns to affirm life as it is by affirming the negative contact, and lives on as pure immanence surviving psychic death. All this, of course, requires a realization that the external forces, having become interior to the subject, themselves create the conditions of negative contact, and yet the affirmation of the negating subject is itself constitutive of the affirmative contact. Nietzsche had failed in surviving this process of realization. The confrontation with the unconscious, the Real forces of the outside, had become so intense that a spiralling of his thoughts into nothingness became inescapable. His painstaking process of writing against himself caused a turning against itself of his desire to immerse himself in the chaos of the Real. When this condition of impoverishment and exhaustion coincided with his will to write he found the strength to say what he may: “And, to say again at the end what I said at the beginning: man would much rather will nothingness than not will…”[6]

 Reference Matter

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, On The Genealogy of Morality, transl. Maudemarie Clark and Alan J. Swensen (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998), 118

[2] Michel Foucault, Nietzsche, Genealogy, History, from “Essential Works vol.2: Ethics,” ed. Paul Rabinow, trans. Robert Hurley and others (London: Penguin, 1998), 370

[3] Foucault, 374

[4] Plutarch, Moralia Vol.2, transl. F.C. Babbitt (Harvard University Press; Cambridge, 1971), 8-9

[5] Slavoj Zizek, The Ticklish Subject (London: Verso, 1999), 51

[6] Friedrich Nietzsche, On The Genealogy of Morality, transl. Maudemarie Clark and Alan J. Swensen (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998), 118

Cengiz Erdem, Norwich, 2005-07.

5 thoughts on “On Civilised Progress and Barbaric Regress

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