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Axel Pichler, Nietzsche, die Orchestikologie und das dissipative Denken

Vienna: Passagen, 2010. 286 pp. ISBN 978-3-85165-953-5. Paper, €33.

Reviewed by Joel Westerdale

Toward the conclusion of his study, Axel Pichler likens Nietzsche’s writings to the actions of a suicide bomber, for whom fulfillment of purpose necessarily entails self-destruction. Such explosive imagery is certainly not alien to Nietzsche, who notoriously claims to be dynamite, tearing a rift between philosophy’s past and future, and when we speak with Rorty of “post-Nietzschean philosophy,” we breathe the fumes of this blast. Descriptions of this rupture have largely focused on Nietzsche’s attacks on the pillars of systematic philosophy, which tremble at his accounts of the arbitrariness of language, the unavoidably perspectival nature of all knowledge, the irreducible contingency of truth, and the potential evolutionary advantages of error. But are Nietzsche’s own writings immune from the flames of his critiques? What status do they enjoy in the new landscape he has helped shape? The question of how or whether Nietzsche can launch his critiques without himself espousing a new form of dogma has vexed scholars for decades. In his study, Pichler develops a novel reading of how Nietzsche might continue to assert the validity of his claims without contradicting his own critical insights regarding the nature of philosophical discourse.

The title of Pichler’s study highlights its innovative contribution with a provocatively unfamiliar term. “Orchesticology”? The original German is no more familiar than this direct translation. Does it connote an organized, perhaps even systematized body of knowledge (“-logy”) based on Nietzsche’s interest in music (“orchestico-”)? Thus understood, it would appear to represent a counter-impulse to the juxtaposed term, “dissipative thinking,” which suggests both a more entropic and less substantive process. Pichler suggests as much throughout his work, but he makes his reader wait until the final chapter before he elucidates his crucial neologism in detail. Nonetheless, both terms make clear that issues of method stand at the center of this study.

As one might expect from a largely unrevised dissertation (Pichler openly acknowledges his study’s origin), the book first devotes a large amount space to establishing a solid foundation in secondary scholarship. Key figures include Heidegger, Deleuze, Danto, and Derrida, but it is Foucault who plays the most prominent role in Pichler’s own reading of Nietzsche. Interestingly, it is not the later Foucault, the theorist of power/knowledge, who provides Pichler’s study with its theoretical apparatus, but the earlier Foucault of The Archaeology of Knowledge and The Order of Things. Pichler identifies in Nietzsche’s critiques of knowledge and truth a method akin to Foucauldian discourse analysis, with its concern for the conditions of expression (the subject they infer, the institutions they require, the objects they engender, the practices they embrace, the rules they perpetuate). In the wake of the death of God, truth and knowledge dissolve as objects of epistemology and emerge as discursive entities, compromising their privileged status and opening up the potential for nihilism. Nietzsche’s perspectivism both results from and provides the basis for this position, which emphasizes the interpretive nature of existence. Interpretation becomes the character of knowledge and truth, inextricable from the discourse that enables it. Building on recent work by Werner Stegmaier, Pichler explores Nietzsche’s work as a philosophy of grammar, a grammar that makes communication possible, even as it begets endless interpretation.

On this reading, Nietzsche’s writings are best understood as a discourse rather than a collection of works. Nevertheless, the form of these writings is crucial for their characterization as such. The “fragmentism” of Nietzsche’s publications reflects a mode of perspectival writing in which every passage establishes its own micro-discourse. Relations between utterances (Pichler aligns the fragment/aphorism with the Foucauldian énoncé) do not always follow the same schema; interpretation is never settled, but always open to reactivation in new discursive formations (here we see the influence of Claus Zittel on Pichler’s analysis).

Toward the conclusion of his study, Axel Pichler likens Nietzsche’s writings to the actions of a suicide bomber, for whom fulfillment of purpose necessarily entails self-destruction. Such explosive imagery is certainly not alien to Nietzsche, who notoriously claims to be dynamite, tearing a rift between philosophy’s past and future, and when we speak with Rorty of “post-Nietzschean philosophy,” we breathe the fumes of this blast. Descriptions of this rupture have largely focused on Nietzsche’s attacks on the pillars of systematic philosophy, which tremble at his accounts of the arbitrariness of language, the unavoidably perspectival nature of all knowledge, the irreducible contingency of truth, and the potential evolutionary advantages of error. But are Nietzsche’s own writings immune from the flames of his critiques? What status do they enjoy in the new landscape he has helped shape? The question of how or whether Nietzsche can launch his critiques without himself espousing a new form of dogma has vexed scholars for decades. In his study, Pichler develops a novel reading of how Nietzsche might continue to assert the validity of his claims without contradicting his own critical insights regarding the nature of philosophical discourse.

Pichler perhaps overstates the necessity of such writing, as though Nietzsche’s turn to “fragmentary” writing were required by his critiques of language, knowledge, and truth, rather than simply reflecting new possibilities enabled by them. More worrisome to my mind, however, is the manner in which Pichler’s reading brackets the chronology of Nietzsche’s writings in favor of an atemporal approach. Such an approach is not indefensible (and indeed, Pichler offers a compelling rationale), but it presents particular challenges for the reading of aphoristic or “fragmentary” works, which are especially susceptible to developments in Nietzsche’s thought. While key concepts that emerge in Nietzsche’s mature works—the will to power, the Übermensch, the eternal recurrence of the same—may not provide the elusive center upon which to erect a systematic edifice, they do exercise gravitational pull, providing points of orientation amidst works otherwise characterized as dissipative or asystematic. Such concepts are largely absent from the volumes that are arguably the most fragmentary—namely, the two parts of Human, All Too Human and Dawn (Pichler ascribes The Gay Science to Nietzsche’s mature phase, which is justifiable, as its composition post-dates Nietzsche’s discovery of the eternal recurrence). An atemporal approach fosters a sense of formal unity between the early aphoristic works and post-Zarathustra works such as Beyond Good and Evil, and, indeed, Nietzsche himself promotes such unity in the prefaces he adds to the earlier aphoristic works a decade after their original publication. He retrojects a unity upon the aphoristic works of his so-called “middle period” that is simply inconsistent with their actual production. Eliding this difference flattens out the diversity in Nietzsche’s writing that Pichler’s account otherwise celebrates.

This does not, however, diminish the value of Pichler’s most novel contribution: the notion of “orchesticology.” As we learn in the final chapter of the study, the term derives from hé orchestiké (the art of dance) and refers to the mode of writing that enables Nietzsche to criticize traditional fundamental theorems without in turn establishing his own. The metaphor of dance characterizes the alternative mode of thinking and writing enabled (though perhaps not necessitated) by Nietzsche’s critiques of language and truth. The dance demands flexibility and lightness, as opposed to the spirit of gravity that weighs down conventional philosophical discourse. Nevertheless, it is an art, a techné, that requires rigor and training. The dance is also transitory, an event, an act, a performance without duration. In Nietzsche’s dissipative-decentralized philosophy, nihilism continues to present a threat as long as one privileges stability over agility, but his experimental philosophy does not aim toward an ultimate Grund (pace Kaufmann)—rather, it revels in its experimentation and the transient insights revealed. Truth does not disappear entirely, but is transposed into a topography of multiple discourses: a Dionysian truth of art; a philological truth of reading; a critical truth of genealogy. Truth itself constitutes a crucial part of the history of discourse, but its validity, like the dance performance, is local and temporary, rather than universal and eternal. Nietzsche moves beyond the absolute opposition of true and false into “virtual ontologies” with no claim to universality (akin to Stegmaier’s notion of Zarathustra’s Anti-Lehren). Accordingly, Pichler himself offers no authoritative readings of individual passages or arguments that might rub against the position he ascribes to Nietzsche and distract from the main thrust of his study. Instead, he opts to couch his interpretation of issues such as perspectivism and the will to power in the broader discussion of method. At times, the study perhaps overstates Nietzsche’s self-critique, claiming that Nietzsche establishes and then “retracts” his claims; the possibility of multiple “virtual ontologies” does not require actual retraction. In such a performance, one need not withdraw one claim in order to advance another—one has simply shifted discourses.

In the final and most compelling chapter of his study, Pichler develops a Nietzsche-specific mode of alternative philosophizing that incorporates the valuable contributions of French post-structuralist readings, and in this regard, his contribution to the German-language discussion is perhaps more substantial than to the English-language scholarship, in which such post-modern interpretive strategies have long been operative (to the dismay of some, but by no means all). The viability of the notion of “orchesticology,” however, lies in the fact that it incorporates these perspectives without reducing Nietzsche’s works to an interpretive free-for-all. It does not demand that we balk in the face of endless interpretation. Pichler himself provides the apparatus to defuse the suicide bomber (an openly hyperbolic image). If one remains nimble enough to dance along the line separating dogmatism from skepticism, one might be agile enough to walk the wire between radical critique and self-destruction.

Smith College