Reading Like a Loser

Rushmore, 1998

Sometimes it’s said that we’re all Nietzscheans now. From cultural studies to continental philosophy, Nietzsche's ideas aren’t so much studied as presupposed; they’re part of the deep grammar of those disciplines, part of the furniture. These days, disquieting Nietzschean insights like, say, perspectivism (the idea that there are no facts, only interpretations) have come to seem commonplace. At the same time, we’ve surely lost sight of what makes much of Nietzsche's thought politically unpalatable. Nietzsche is often repackaged as a radical thinker by an academic establishment a little in love with its own notions of radicalism. Yet ideas aren’t widely lauded as radical until they’ve already undergone a degree of diffusion, even dilution. In Nietzsche’s case, the paradox plays out like this: We’re only too eager to make Nietzsche a name that connotes “opposition,” but as a result we fail to formulate any opposition to him. We celebrate Nietzsche for being anti-everything, but why is there no anti-Nietzsche?

Malcolm Bull’s new book aims to answer this question. To do that, Bull argues, first we must ask why it hasn’t been asked. What is it about Nietzsche’s work that rules out resistance? How has his thought come to function as, in Bull’s words, the “limit-philosophy” of our time? Bull’s book makes the brilliant move of locating this limiting quality less in some abstract aspect of Nietzsche’s thought than in his rhetoric. We all know how Hollywood movies induce us to identify with their heroic protagonists. Nietzsche’s rhetorical strategy likewise invites us to occupy a position that’s utterly artificial but made to appear irresistible. Consider, for instance, the well-known quote from Ecce Homo: “I am not a man, I am dynamite.” Who, asks Bull, when reading these words, “has not felt the sudden thrill of something explosive within themselves?” Who hasn’t appropriated some of that spirit, that energy that Nietzsche attributed only to himself?

This is how we read when we read novels; in Nietzsche’s case we make the mistake of adopting it as an approach to philosophy. Indeed, Nietzsche’s philosophy is structurally similar to fiction, since it relies on eliciting the “right” response from its readers, by making that response its own rhetorical reward.

So Nietzsche plays on our narcissism. His writing wants us, as Bull puts it, to “read for victory.” Nietzsche always admired the Homeric “hero,” set on a circular journey of self-discovery. Yet the reader is the real hero of Nietzsche’s narratives, enticed into seeing him or herself as uniquely receptive to their radical arguments. We want to be just like Nietzsche, and Nietzsche knows this, which is why he encourages us to join him in enjoying fictional forms of strength, superiority, and self-expression.  Faced with a choice between man and Superman, we naturally want to relate to the latter, even if Nietzsche’s Übermensch is as unreal as any literary character.

But if that’s the case, how can readers resist the temptation to take Nietzsche’s bait? As Bull rightly warns, rejecting Nietzsche is never easy. The problem is this: If Nietzsche’s golden rule is “one must be victorious” (one must, like Nietzsche, be dynamite, be beyond good and evil) then surely to read Nietzsche critically would still be to read for victory, only this time over Nietzsche. That is, critique can’t help but be circular; all our attempts to abandon Nietzsche simply bring us back to him.

Bull’s solution, and the central claim of Anti-Nietzsche, consists of a startling statement: One can only sidestep Nietzsche’s strategy by “reading him like a loser.” Here Bull begins a sort of thought experiment, although it’s far from an arid theoretical exercise — at times its tone approaches that of Swiftian satire. To read Nietzsche like a loser, Bull reasons, is not to reject his arguments but to accept them, even at their most reprehensible. If Nietzsche wants to write about rising above the herd or enslaving the weak, then he’s welcome to. Only, in following his flights of fancy, we’re not to fall into the trap of identifying ourselves with his fictional victors. Rather, Bull says that we must “make ourselves the victims” of these texts. We should side with the slaves, the sick, the defeated, at all times turning Nietzsche’s arguments against ourselves. In this way we can depart from Nietzsche “without having to meet him again,” reading for victory neither with nor over him but only ever over ourselves. To read like a loser is to refuse to collude in a fiction of dominance.

If we take Bull's advice, though, reading Nietzsche will make us feel like dirt, reminding us of our “weakness and mediocrity ... our irremediable exclusion from the life that is possible only for those who are healthier, and more powerful.” For Bull, this self-defeating endeavour is more than a masochistic game, however; it’s a fruitful starting point for a revolutionary “politics of failure.” The idea here is to “justify and protect the herd of human failures.”  And not just the human ones but all those “lower” forms of life that stand to lose from Nietzsche’s philosophy. In Nietzsche’s system, Superman is to man as man is to ape. So if we want to undo Nietzsche's philosophy of superiority, why not make apes of ourselves?

Opting out of Nietzsche’s offer to make us more than human, we should strive instead to become something less. This is why Bull’s book is swarming with animals. Sometimes it reads less like straight philosophy than creative conte philosophique; it’s a fable full of dogs and rats and even, at one point, an “autonomous simian group” whom Bull suggests should be housed in the Louvre: “the long galleries could be used for sleeping and recreation, the Jardin des Tuileries for foraging.”

But beneath such satirical speculations there’s a serious aim. For Bull, Nietzsche’s hierarchical placement of species plays into his broader conservatism, his elitism, even his fascism. This is because his “social ecology” is meant to maximize value by restricting the range of entities entitled to enjoy it. Put simply, the substance of Nietzsche’s account of animal life is that it is valueless, meaningless. For him, humans alone heroically make sense of the world, remaking its meaning in their own image. Bull shows how this line of thought feeds into later philosophies, like Heidegger’s, where humanity is held aloft as the “shepherd of Being” and the driving force behind the fate of civilization. One only has to look at Heidegger’s own political fate to see how this conceptual exclusion of the “subhuman” can create disastrous consequences. A progressive politics, Bull suggests, will be one which refuses to segregate humans from animals. Against Nietzsche’s claim that humans are the source of all meaning, the best countermove we can make is to side with the subhuman, “extending the boundaries of society to let other species in.” To do so is to see how politics can be “a species-changing practice.”

What’s more, to extend the limits of society is also to stretch those of culture. For Bull, the cultural counterpart of the subhuman is that much misunderstood figure, the philistine. Here it’s worth remembering that “receptivity to the aesthetic is the ticket to privilege in Nietzsche’s world.” From The Birth of Tragedy onwards, Nietzsche’s attitude to art is elitist to say the least. The ability to create and appreciate art is the surest sign to Nietzsche of social mastery. Nietzsche’s elite must be, as George Santayana once put it, “cruelly but beautifully strong,” where beauty and strength are essentially one and the same.

If we’re to live like losers, then, we really ought to get art wrong. By putting ourselves in the place of those who can’t grasp the aesthetic, who clumsily fail to evaluate art, maybe we’ll find a way out of Nietzsche’s order of cultural value. Apes that we are, let’s not be afraid to embarrass ourselves in front of the connoisseurs. The real revolutionary move is to claim a position not outside of culture but beneath it. More boldly still, Bull insists that this “annihilation of art” mustn’t merely pave the way for new aesthetic practices; instead, philistinism beckons us “beyond art altogether.” It invites us to imagine a world after art — a future in which aesthetic appreciation has “disappeared,” clearing our field of vision and maybe disclosing “a new horizon.”

Bull’s book is full of such counterintuitive insights. In the end though, its brilliance lies less in its eloquent defences of failure and philistinism than its subtle tactic of tracking Nietzsche’s arguments in ways that work against them. Anti-Nietzsche advocates an egalitarian practice of “leveling out”: a lowering of standards whose goal is to equalize everyone, including those “below the existing threshold.” But Bull asks us to do more than just abandon our conceited sense of strength and beauty. His book remodels revolutionary politics as not a Nietzschean act of revaluation but an experience of radical, runaway entropy.

Of course, this corrosive force was already known to Nietzsche, whose name for it was “nihilism.” But Bull shows that where Nietzsche wrote of “overcoming” nihilism, his real investment was in arresting it. Nihilism is just a word for the way modern life propels us toward new forms of equalization; it’s an entropic process which, once unleashed, can’t be put back in the box. Seen in this light, Nietzsche’s longing for inequality may really have been a last-ditch attempt to reterritorialize nihilism. Thus, Anti-Nietzsche pursues Nietzsche’s logic but pulls out all the stops. Nietzsche’s mythical heroes stabilize society by exercising their individual wills; by positing values. What Bull does is call for us to fall short of such values, losing our wills, not individually but collectively. In this sense our shared loss could bring us together to become “less than we might otherwise be.”