Yunus Tuncel on Nietzsche’s ongoing relevance to contemporary society

The second in our series of short articles marking Nietzsche’s birthday comes from the pen of Yunus Tuncel, co-editor of the Nietzsche Now series and editor of Nietzsche and Transhumanism: Precursor or Enemy? Yunus co-founded the Nietzsche Circle, based in New York City, USA, and currently serves on its Board of Directors and the Editorial Board of its electronic journal, The Agonist. He has been teaching Philosophy at the New School, New York, since 1999, as well as New York University’s Liberal Studies Program since 2001. His interests include, beyond Nietzsche and the history of philosophy, twentieth-century French thought and recent artistic, philosophical, and cultural movements, including postmodernity and post-humanism. Here, he reflects on what Nietzsche can teach us about the cultural and technological milieu within which we all live…

Since Nietzsche died in 1900, much has been said and done in his name, sometimes close to his spirit, sometimes not. Many say it is all about interpretation and many readers thus plundered Nietzsche’s texts for their own personal or ideological agendas without careful attention to their and the author’s spirit. All of this notwithstanding, Nietzsche’s significance to today’s world and its problems remains alive, and Nietzsche still provokes many careful readers to think. What follows below is a reflection on areas of human society where Nietzsche’s relevance stands out.

One topic that stands out in Nietzsche’s works is the necessity for arts and creativity in a culture and artists or creators who produce works that become exemplary models in the chain of creation. For Nietzsche, art is not to be understood in the limited sense of creation of works of art, but rather broadly as it encompasses all creative deed. Art, then, ties into the formation and care of the self and, therefore, to education. In our age when ideologies and belief systems, which treat human-beings as cattle, reign supreme, Nietzsche’s teaching of the overhuman and “Dionysian individualism” becomes especially important. The overhuman emphasizes perpetual self-transformation towards one’s higher self, while the latter highlights connected individualism. Individual struggle need not be construed as egoistic or anti-communitarian. No doubt, all individual struggles are related to education, understood in the broad sense, as cultural formation. Nietzsche’s ideas on this topic shed much light on the current crisis of our academic institutions and our stagnant way of viewing education.

Much of the creative process entails preservation, destruction, and creation. Nietzsche looks at this process from different perspectives, as he understands the power of plasticity, the role of history and historicizing trends, and in terms of types and states of being, by using the symbols of camel, lion, and child. He reminds us that we stand in relation to the chain of great works of culture and yet we need not be crushed by this chain, but rather be inspired, and based on our own needs and inclinations, create greater works. In this way, we would be in tune with these cycles of creation and destruction, which he later understands conjointly as the eternal return of the same. Time moves cyclically, but history so far is construed linearly.

Another theme that speaks across all generations from Nietzsche’s writings has to do with his insights on affect and power. Here the crucial question is whether human beings, individually and collectively, exercise active or reactive forms of power and disseminate active or reactive affects. By ‘active’ Nietzsche means ‘life-affirming’ and by reactive ‘life-negating’ or repressive. All things exert power, but human-beings exert power through their values, hence the will to power. To understand the kinds of power we exercise and their affects, we have to question our values and transvaluate them.  This is easier said than done; often those who are reactive resort to all sorts of measures to retain their power; hence, the connection between reactivity and nihilism which is anchored in the “anything goes” mentality. Our age is entrenched in such reactive and nihilistic trends.

We live in a highly technological age and many of today’s problems stem from our use of and disposition to technology. We often forget that technology is a human invention, which is based on a specific type of metaphysics, and which stands in relation to many other values created by human beings. For instance, if technology is destructive of nature and other life forms, it is because human beings, according to this metaphysics and value-system, consider other beings and nature as less worthy and hence subject to the reactive power of humanity.  What needs to be done is to infuse active forms of power into technology, without either embracing it blindly or demonizing it. Although Nietzsche, who lived during the height of Industrial Revolution, has little to say on technology directly, much of what he says on modern science and scientific rationality can be applied to a critique of technology of our age. This subject has been at the center of recent debates on Nietzsche and transhumanism.

Nietzsche’s ideas on psychological introspection, human emotions, the unconscious, and the self have also influenced psychoanalysis and opened new vistas for the understanding of the human soul. This new soul is no longer a unitarian entity connected to the after-life; it is rather a this-worldly soul embedded in the sensations, feelings and instincts of human beings, as they emerge in the interactions of human beings with their environment. It is through such psychological introspection that we can understand ourselves and work on our problems, which demands the painful dissection of the human soul.

Lastly, Nietzsche’s views on the body, and in particular his critique of the repression of the human body, expose millennia old superstitions and beliefs. The body has been an unknown, unchartered territory which we have taken for granted for too long. Nietzsche is one of the first thinkers to break down this taboo and reveal the many manifestations of this denial of the body, which he calls “ascetic idealism.” Although religions have codified it, ascetic idealism or bad conscience has been the illness of human civilization, the beginning of which is older than the major world religions known to us today. Nietzsche’s insights on the human body opened up new horizons for a variety of “body workers” from performance artists to modern dancers and this somatic field still remains an open sea.

Many of Nietzsche’s ideas and insights that are critical of his age, 19th century Europe, have much resonance with what goes on in our age. However, this does not warrant us to follow his teachings verbatim, but rather incites us to re-fashion them in order to meet the cultural needs of our times and elevate ourselves to higher realms of being. If not, mass rule and populistic demands will dictate their terms and bring down humanity. It is high time for free spirits to take the rein.

Yunus Tuncel, New School, New York

As part of our celebrations of Friedrich Nietzsche’s birthday, we are offering a 50% discount on five of our most important recent titles on the enigmatic thinker. Please click here to see more.

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