3 Negative Ecologies
7 The Great Beast
This book belongs to the many, to anybody in fact—which means, of course, that it belongs to no one.
What if the world itself were like that? For Nietzsche, the sense of the world does not lie outside the world but rather within the world, where (as Wittgenstein puts it) ‘everything is as it is, and everything happens as it does happen’. If the sense of the world lies inside the world, then the meaning of the world can only be given by the things in it—their meaning its meaning. That is another way of saying that the meaning of the world is a question of population, and that arguments about its meaning must be determined through its demography and ecology.
If the sense of the world lies within it, nonsense lies without. If the world loses meaning, then that can only be because nonsense has taken the place of sense. The nonsense of the world, too, must be determined through its demography and ecology. Nietzsche calls the process through which nonsense comes into the world nihilism and attributes it to the ‘slave revolt in morals’. Seeking to complete the process, and so bring nihilism to an end, Nietzsche describes an ecology in which the nonsense of the world is as it is forever.
The argument of this book is that Nietzsche’s solution, far from being the completion of nihilism, is merely an attempt to arrest it. By excluding any future exchange of nonsense for sense, he also excludes any further exchange of sense for nonsense. Yet if, as Nietzsche himself asserts, such exchanges are ultimately just changes in the population of the world, his particular ecology can always be undermined by one that is more negative still. Why then does Nietzsche’s nihilism still function as the limit-philosophy of the modern imaginary? This book suggests that there can be no humanist response to Nietzsche that does not augment rather than diminish the meaning of the world. Any ecology more negative than Nietzsche’s must be a subhuman one, for only where nihilism moves beyond scepticism to failure does it fall below the reach of the transcendental arguments that turn nonsense back into sense.
Positive ecologies generate their own political meanings, but a negative ecology is an invitation to political theory. As Hobbes was perhaps the first to realise, political theory is a theory of populations without meanings, needed whenever the world loses some of its sense. That is why Nietzsche himself becomes a political theorist. The corollary of this is that political theory becomes impossible without nonsense. Is there some way to let the sense escape from Nietzsche’s world? Suffocated by meanings we cannot understand, we must circle its limits looking for an opening, the crack that will let the nonsense in.
The dream of the mountaineer . . . effortless falling.
He dreams repeatedly of the same thing: ‘the pleasure found of falling in the dust, the peace of happiness in misfortune’, the pleasure of dreaming oneself ‘a child, beggar and fool’.1 It is a symptom of the will to power: those who seek after power fall asleep and dream of the opposite course: ‘Suddenly and deeply to sink into a feeling as into a whirlpool . . . For once quite without power . . .powerlessness’. But it is also the opposite of the will to power in that it is anunwilled powerlessness, an ‘effortless falling as though by the pull of gravity’. Nietzsche presents the dream as a necessary release after which ‘one is again freer, more refreshed, colder, more severe, and again resumes one’s unwearying quest for its opposite: for power’.2 And yet it must be more than that, for unwilled powerlessness is the unspoken presupposition of all will to power, and if will to power knows no limit, neither does its opposite.
Like Nietzsche, a wanderer and a mountain climber, Zarathustra has a vision of himself ascending a solitary mountain path with a dwarf perched on his shoulder. The dwarf is his devil and archenemy, ‘the Spirit of Gravity’. Zarathustra struggles on, despite the spirit trying to draw him down toward the abyss; ‘O Zarathustra’, the dwarf says mockingly, each syllable like a drop of lead poured into his ear, ‘you stone of wisdom! You have thrown yourself high, but every stone that is thrown must—fall!’3 The scene echoes the prologue, where Zarathustra watches a tightrope walker walking across a rope stretched between two towers over a market square. When a buffoon comes up behind him and jumps over him, the tightrope walker loses his balance, throws away his pole, and falls.4
Nietzsche sometimes imagines a falling free of gravity. The madman who proclaims the death of God asks: ‘Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as though through an infinite nothing?’5 Falling like this is more like flying, ‘a certain divine frivolity, an “upward” without tension and constraint, a “downward” without condescension and humiliation’.6 And with gravity? The tightrope walker falls, faster even than his pole, ‘a vortex of legs and arms’, crashing to the ground in the middle of the square.
‘Man’, Zarathustra says, ‘is a rope, fastened between animal and Superman.’ He falls because, as Nietzsche explains in the Genealogy of Morals, he ‘who believed himself almost a god’ has become ‘an animal, an animal in the literal sense’.7 As the dying tightrope walker tells Zarathustra, he is no more than ‘an animal . . . taught to dance by blows and starvation’. With gravity, man does not stray through an infinite nothing; he falls toward it: ‘he rolls faster and faster away from the centre—in what direction? Towards nothingness?’8 How far is it possible to fall? We cannot tell. The animal is the nothingness that we can see.
About the author:
Malcolm has spent his entire career at Oxford, but has also spent periods elsewhere as a Getty Scholar and a Clark Fellow, and as a visiting professor at the Courtauld Institute of Art, Complutense University of Madrid and the University of Manchester.
Recent publications include Inventing Falsehood, Making Truth (Princeton, 2013); Anti-Nietzsche (Verso, 2011); The Mirror of the Gods (OUP/Penguin, 2005); and Seeing Things Hidden (Verso, 2000). Malcolm’s research interests are in both art history and social and political theory. Ongoing projects include books on the concept of the social, and modernism and capitalism. Malcolm welcomes research students in these areas, and in the wider field of contemporary art and global politics.
Available for DPhil supervision at the Ruskin.