Monthly Archives: July 2014

Nietzsche on Evil, Kolakowski on Change

Jacques-Louis David,  Le Sacre de Napoléon [Coronation of Napoleon] (1805-1808), oil on canvas, 6.21 m x 9.79 m.

Jacques-Louis David, Le Sacre de Napoléon [Coronation of Napoleon] (1805-1808)

In section 4 (“What preserves the species”) of The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche brings up the way in which the categories of good and evil function for the sake of encountering the new:

The strongest and most evil spirits have so far done the most to advance humanity: again and again they relumed the passions that were going to sleep—all ordered society puts the passions to sleep—and they reawakened again and again in the sense of comparison, of contradiction, of the pleasure in what is new, daring, untried; they compelled men to pit opinion against opinion, model against model. […] What is new, however, is always evil, being that which wants to conquer and overthrow the old boundary markers and the old pieties; and only what is old is good.1

Before bourgeois society, the opportunism coinciding with the status quo has no wish to see novelty arise, nor would novelty be seen as the work of subjects, but rather as aberration. With the affirmation of the status quo delivered by God himself, any change appears as heretical. History up till then is understood, and retold, as inevitably leading up to the present: “The good men are in all ages those who dig the old thoughts, digging deep and getting them to bear fruit—the farmers of the spirit”.2 Nietzsche confronts utilitarianism as a phenomenon of ethics rejecting improvement, by putting forward the idea that maintaining the world, as utilitarianism implies, could be just as dangerous as its change.

The idea of progress as improvement in the world will no doubt remind one of politics, of the distinction of the Left and the Right. Here, Leszek Kolakowski’s essay “The Concept of the Left” (1968) is helpful in defining progress: “The Left is free of sacred feelings; it has no sense of sanctity toward any existing historical situation. It takes a position of permanent revisionism toward reality, just as the Right assumes an attitude of opportunism in respect to the world as it is. The Right is the embodiment of the inertia of historical reality—that is why it is as eternal as the Left.”3

1 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974 [1887]), 79.
2 Ibid.
3 Leszek Kolakowski, “The Concept of the Left”, in The New Left Reader, ed. Carl Oglesby (New York: Grove Press, 1969), 152-53.

Isa Genzken Retrospective at MCA Chicago


For the next few days, MCA Chicago will be hosting a retrospective of the German artist Isa Genzken. I had no previous knowledge of Genzken, and went at the suggestion of my friend Emma Pavlik—an artist in Cleveland, Ohio. My experience of the exhibition initially was by looking at her most recent work first, then seeing the rest in reverse chronological order. I’m not sure which way would work better for the retrospective. It was interesting watching certain gestures or themes revert to smaller forms as time went backwards.

Photo of Isa Genzken's Kinder Filmen (2005)

Photo of Isa Genzken’s Kinder Filmen (2005)

In Genzken’s installation Kinder Filmen (Children Filming) (2005), we look upon the imagined aftermath of a crime scene, where children watched their peers assaulting one another. The wildly bright materials, along with their references to youth, like a Coca-Cola beach umbrella, give the scene an inappropriate brightness. The work is described as using these objects to also indict the state of cheaply made products throughout the world: “Like other works from this period, it relies on mass-produced, found objects that challenge accepted notions of taste, perhaps as a commentary on the cheap, easy, and disposable flow of goods and information available in the present day.” I find it interesting that the write-up would juxtapose “taste” with “cheap goods”, but it does not seem like Genzken is merely having some fun by descending to trash. It seems to me, rather, that Genzken understands that this debris is the world we live in. There is no real distinction between a “high” and “low” taste to the degree museum-goers might imagine there to be. Instead of eschewing the creation of contemporary society as something to be rejected in its entirety, she acknowledges that there is a bit of freedom about these new materials and our ability to produce them. The concept of “taste” is itself specious in our time, especially in a museum because our aesthetic experience has become aligned with the expectations mediated by the commodity form. But, even in the bleak thoughts brought to mind by this medium of detritus and toys, there is still a turning point that can be reached by the viewers. In the 1930s, Theodor Adorno perceived this characteristic in the arising production of kitsch, which we still consider today: “Even the most stupid people have long since ceased to be fooled by the belief that everyone will win the big prize. The positive element of kitsch lies in the fact that it sets free for a moment the glimmering realization that you have wasted your life”.1 By seeing through kitsch as being made not really for us, but rather as things we wish to be for us, we might better understand what must be changed for our aesthetic experience, or life in general, to be as true as it could be.

Photo of Isa Genzken's Oil XI (2007)

Photo of Isa Genzken’s Oil XI (2007)

One of my favorite pieces of the exhibition was the installation, Oil XI (2007), which is described as follows:

Oil XI is the centerpiece of a sixteen-part installation that Genzken first exhibited at the German Pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale. […] The installation and its title evoke the spirit of a world in the grips of the War on Terror, which some would argue was not only aimed at curbing global terrorism but also a militarized effort to maintain control of this natural resource. ¶ […] The installation, with its accumulation of roller-board suitcases, calls to mind a transit station that has suddenly been abandoned, perhaps due to an unseen threat. Three astronauts, identified as NASA employees by the insignia on their uniforms, float overhead as if exploring the ruins of a devastated culture.

The inclusion of several plastic molds of owls implies the scrutiny of ever-watchful security in a place like an airport or other transit stations.

Photo of Isa Genzken's Oil XI (2007)

Photo of Isa Genzken’s Oil XI (2007)

The hovering astronauts, as employees (or soldiers, even), of the U.S. government, add another level of the scope of surveillance techniques in the world, such as the capabilities of satellite imagery. Given the breadth of security measures which includes the might of the U.S. military, one is tempted to jump to the conclusion that perhaps all is lost, that the end of the world is the only way out. Today’s spokesman of cosmology, Neil DeGrasse Tyson has spoken about the unfortunate history of NASA. But just as the exploration of space and the scientific advances made from the development of space-flight came about through military endeavors, there is still a tiny progressive element in the world reflected here. One need only listen to Brian Eno’s album Ambient 1: Music For Airports (1978) to feel the channelled reverberations of hope for airports—sent out decades before Eno—washing ashore now, even if the waves are admittedly humble. There is still something to be said for the ability to fly around the world. There is potential in globalization. Only a fool would turn one’s back on that fact.

I plan on writing more about this retrospective soon, since there was so much to digest.

1 Theodor Adorno, “Commodity Music Analyzed” (1934-40), in Quasi Una Fantasia (London: Verso, 1998), 50.

Nietzsche as Philosophe on the Body

In the preface for the second edition (1887) of The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche poses the problem of the body in the wake of the high-reaching philosophical systems of his predecessors:

The unconscious disguise of physiological needs under the cloaks of the objective, ideal, purely spiritual goes to frightening lengths—and often I have asked myself whether, taking a large view, philosophy has not been merely an interpretation of the body and a misunderstanding of the body (34-35).

Using words like “ideal” and “purely spiritual”, Nietzsche seems to be referring to philosophers like Immanuel Kant, and G. W. F. Hegel, in that they appear to eschew the body in their philosophical systems which thus encourage an ascetic view of life. In this regard, it seems Nietzsche might be somewhat unfair to them. By opposing what might be called “philosophy” proper, Nietzsche, is rather a philosophe. I use this term in the way that Louis Menand uses it—in his introduction (2003) to Edmund Wilson’s To the Findland Station (1940)—to describe Marx and Engels as “philosophes of a second Enlightenment.” One could include Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the category of philosophes of the first Enlightenment, in that he too resisted what he considered philosophy affirmed the status quo. In Rousseau’s case, he was resisting the Catholic Church’s narrative that ordered all of society as determined by a great chain of being descending from God and the Church.

More on Camping and Freedom

Speaking of the wish to escape to nature, I just found a passage I recently read in Adorno’s essay “Free Time” (1969) that points to the ways in which our desire for freedom is manipulated in our non-working time. In fact, Adorno refers specifically to camping:

Camping—an activity so popular amongst the old youth movements—was a protest against the tedium and convention of bourgeois life. People had to ‘get out’, in both senses of the phrase. Sleeping out beneath the stars meant that one had escaped from the house and from the family. After the youth movements had died out this need was then harnessed and institutionalized by the camping industry. The industry alone could not have forced people to purchase its tents and dormobiles, plus huge quantities of extra equipment, if there had not already been some longing in people themselves; but their own need for freedom gets functionalized, extended and reproduced by business; what they want is forced upon them once again. Hence the ease with which the free time is integrated; people are unaware of how utterly unfree they are, even where they feel most at liberty, because the rule of such unfreedom has been abstracted from them (190-91).

Advertising “Off-Road” Vehicles

The “off-road” vehicle is advertised as a gateway to the life you wanted, however ambiguous that might be. In fact, the more ambiguous your dream-life is, the better the situation for the marketing. As a potential buyer you are meant to think, “if only I could buy this SUV and get that kayak …” The advertisement plays on the romanticized notion of nature, in which one “gets away from it all.” There’s something humorous and sad about advertisements that sell the idea of escape. People have such dreams because they feel an inadequacy in their lives, but it’s far too opaque for them to understand it. Their dreams for improvement are mediated by the same commodity form that dictates their daily lives. The phenomenon of American off-road nostalgia is merely the appearance of discontent in society. Social relations seem to have lost their essence, and all is thrown away in a regressive eschewal. If only those who run to the woods could see past the fetish that is presented to us by every commodity. Adorno saw this potential: “Even the most stupid people have long since ceased to be fooled by the belief that everyone will win the big prize. The positive element of kitsch lies in the fact that it sets free for a moment the glimmering realization that you have wasted your life.”