C. Heike Schotten. Nietzsche's Revolution: Décadence, Politics, and Sexuality.
New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-230-61358-4.
Reviewed by Michael McNeal
In Schotten’s “unabashedly … Left Nietzschean project” she maps Nietzsche’s thought onto the topography of a contemporary American partisan political binary, pitting the “progressive” dimensions of his thought against the “reactionary and conservative” ones (8), arguing that “the essence of Nietzsche’s thought is contradiction” (9). The theme of contradiction pervades the book, and it is contradiction that trips Schotten’s own argument at key points, for instance where she does not adequately account for the rhetorical role of hyperbole in Nietzsche’s philosophical approach to the problems of modernity. Many will find her peculiar objective of “queering Nietzsche” jarring. Aiming to “queer” Nietzsche’s thought in order to conscript it in the service of the current sexual and gender liberation movement, she argues that “Nietzsche himself authorizes contemporary queer politics” (9). While significant features of his thought may be said to do so, the desire to appropriate Nietzsche’s thought to these ends, which he “would almost surely have rejected and even found contemptible” (9), seems to originate in a projection of contemporary insights on the social-construction of gender (and of the politics to which they have given rise) back onto Nietzsche’s texts. This is especially strange as it was Nietzsche’s revolutionary thought that, via post-structuralist thinkers, conditioned the possibility of such critiques in the first place, aspects of which Schotten explicitly acknowledges but implications of which she misses. For instance, she suggests that “[f]rightened by the ‘unnatural’ bodies his own revolution might make possible, he defensively calls for a return to a naturalized gender hierarchy to save a décadent modernity from nihilism and death” (8). However, the book argues that Nietzsche fails (at least consciously) to recognize this revolutionary potential arising from his thought (so how could he be “frightened” by it?), and it is incorrect both to state that he calls for a return to a gender hierarchy whose deterioration he recognized and acknowledged, and that he aims to “save” modernity. Rather, he seeks to provoke free spirits to conquer modernity—which is inherently and irredeemably décadent (which she also acknowledges on p. 95) and the road to the passive nihilism of the last man—via the down-going and overcoming of “the species man.”
Schotten interrogates important themes in that literature (e.g.: on the bad-conscience , on will to truth , on racism [45, 54, 94]), but not all of them directly apply to the central arguments she challenges. Certain of her criticisms may therefore strike some as feminist-charged caviling. Nevertheless, the book offers some penetrating insights into the problems generated by Nietzsche’s self-referentiality, rehearsal of misogynistic prejudices, and his politics (at odds in important ways with his epistemological, psychological, and ontological insights), even if Schotten’s proposed resolutions, as such, are not as illuminating. Critical of his insistence that his declarations are his truths rather than universal ones or a “valuation standard on everybody else,” she suggests that “Nietzsche’s philosophy looks like one big paean to masturbation” (125). Reading Nietzsche’s texts narrowly, especially where one may interpret him as an earnest misogynist or reflexive racist or secret anti-Semite, Schotten––who is convinced he is all of these things and that these “failures” debilitate his revolutionary, inherently political project––aims to read his advocacy of transformation via self-overcoming against his apparent promotion of tradition. However this is a false dichotomy based on an undue emphasis on individual becoming over his recognition that the traditions constitutive of a vital culture condition the possibility of such becomings (HH 96; D 9; BGE 260). The former (radical individualist) emphasis, ever popular with the counter-cultural left, follows from Schotten’s political reading: unfettered becoming (understood as “self-creation”) is positive, whereas “restrictive” traditions, social customs and mores are inhibiting and therefore to be opposed. However, this risks conflating Nietzsche’s famous exhortation to “become who you are” with the jejune notion that authentic difference entails rebellion against social norms. The task of giving style to ones character is hardly reducible to the posture of rejecting tradition.
Out of concern for the body and gender Schotten challenges Nietzsche scholars to seriously engage the significance of gender and sexuality in his oeuvre. She engages the relationship between Nietzsche’s apparent views of sex and the gender role-playing expectations of his era to explicate the political economy of Nietzsche’s thought, which she thinks crucial for recognizing the gendered character of Nietzsche’s vitalist politics and power ontology in order to appropriate it for progressive Liberal notions of equality and self-creation. It matters little to Schotten that Nietzsche might have opposed both gender equality and the abolition of repressive gender roles that constrain our becoming, and while she considers that Nietzsche may have invoked gender stereotypes as a rhetorical means of demonstrating the décadence symptomatized by their social problematization, she thinks his abiding misogyny invalidates this explanation of them in his works. In Nietzsche’s view the controversial status of formerly efficacious gender norms that had previously constituted a healthy European social order illuminate important aspects of his décadent age (BGE 232, 238). This underscores the difficulty of mapping Nietzsche’s thought onto the partisan political debates animating America’s culture wars. Principally concerned with epistemological, ethical, and ontological questions Nietzsche did not understand sex and gender as problematic in the way post-structuralist/feminist critiques have demonstrated them to be since Foucault, if not de Beauvoir. Nietzsche cannot be blamed for having failed to be clairvoyant, nor reduced to a caricature. See for instance, HH 425, Women's period of storm and stress, which may best distill Nietzsche’s view of women and their future prospects for liberation. Furthermore, his optimistic views of sexuality and gender difference (HH 98, Pleasure and social instinct) have largely eluded Schotten’s attention.
Schotten says that Nietzsche’s political method of philosophizing (70) and overtly political philosophy (71) culminates in his revolutionary call to overthrow an irredeemably décadent Christianity and its secular outgrowth—liberal-modernity—which has thoroughly corrupted and diminished European man and civilization (72). She argues that this world-transforming appeal is sabotaged by Nietzsche’s own inability to pursue its radical implications to their ultimate end, asserting that combating the illness of décadence, “is the […] impetus for his attempt at [a] therapeutic transformation of modernity” (42). However, unless by “transformation” Schotten means “overcoming” this is a strange claim, given that Nietzsche sees modernity as an irredeemably nihilistic, and decadent, secularization of Judeo-Christian values driven by Enlightenment rationality. Christianity was overthrown before Nietzsche observed that “God is dead” and elaborated the consequences of this event for European societies, which nevertheless remained afflicted by secularized Judeo-Christian values (a point Schotten aptly relates to sex and gender on p.174). Nevertheless, she states “that [Nietzsche’s] corporeal rhetoric of will to power is crucial to understanding a philosophy that treats modernity as itself a body, diagnoses its […] diseases, and offers […] a revolutionary therapeutic treatment” (91). This misses the point that Nietzsche sought to hasten the down-going and ultimate overcoming of the species man––not to restore an incurably décadent modernity essentially at odds with the health of his futural ideal.
Engaging a range of controversies in the secondary literature, including debates over Nietzsche’s views of women (232, fn. 16), Schotten rejects all but those advanced by F.N. Oppel in her 2005 book Nietzsche on Gender. Schotten also musters numerous textual citations from primary sources to substantiate her points, but she occasionally overreaches to provide the support she needs. For instance, what is it about BGE 272 that suggests that Nietzsche is a racist, as she asserts in footnote 86 on p.57? In the next lengthy footnote (fn.87, on p.221) she directly challenges Moore’s take on Nietzsche’s broad meaning of the term Aryan, tendentiously straining to demonstrate that, despite Nietzsche’s inclusion of Homeric heroes and Arabian and Japanese nobles in his use of the concept (GM I:11), she states that “conscious or otherwise” it demonstrates his “investment in the ideology of Aryan/white superiority” (57). Schotten fails to persuade her reader that this was indeed the case––a considerable weakness when making such a contentious claim. This failure illustrates a larger problem with the book, which is her consistent employment of a progressive “critical” orthodoxy through which she seeks to “unpack” the genuine meaning and deeper significance of Nietzsche’s misogyny, and putative racism and anti-Semitism, while reading Nietzsche against himself. Given the excellent—and more objective—work already done on these subjects, the possibility that Nietzsche was so prejudiced is ever more difficult to make interesting, especially to Nietzsche scholars. Schotten’s assessments are therefore likely to rouse her reader in ways she did not intend.
It is also possible—and long considered in the secondary literature—that Nietzsche invokes the sexual chauvinisms of his day to rhetorically provoke his reader to (re)consider the value of those chauvinisms, and esoterically indicate the way in which their attitudes slavishly adhere to unexamined prejudices. Such an esoteric reading, or an unintentionally compelling implication of his assertions, might, without justifying a “conservative reading” that “closeted by reactionary readers—of various political dispositions”— … refuse[s] the possibility of Nietzsche’s leftism,” (188) actually evince it. By appealing to popular chauvinisms of his day to highlight the absurdity and arbitrariness of sexual/gender stereotypes, it has been argued that the décadent modern Nietzsche adopts a mask to subvert confidence in their naturalness and prompt his reader to question the order of things in a declining age. This possibility leads one to ponder whether or not Schotten faults Nietzsche for not having been explicitly as radical a thinker as he in fact was. Either way, she is on to something important when she states that Nietzsche (indeliberately?) “presents us with […] the necessity of [conducting] a revaluation of sex, sexual difference, and gender hierarchy” (188).
Schotten examines “how revolted Nietzsche is by […] gender and sexual ‘mixing’,” (196) his anxiety with the emasculation of European men and his conscious repudiation of feminism, which constitutes a no-saying denial that is at odds with the radical yes-saying to which he aspired. This contradiction conflicts with core precepts of his thought and implicates him in the cultural décadence of his time. Nietzsche’s psychological insights into the problems of his age leads Schotten to expect him to recognize this (for her key) feature of his décadence, but this apparent contradiction corresponds with the opposition between his advocacy of self-creation and amor fati, a radical affirmation of the world as it is (197). Nietzsche’s revolutionary appeal should not disappoint those concerned with the politics of gender liberation because he may have been a misogynist or omitted specifics about the character of the future free spirits he envisaged—the ‘lucky strikes’ that would hasten the down-going and overcoming of humankind. Doing so would have counter-productively undercut Nietzsche’s aims: the re-naturalization and overcoming of the corrupt type man via the agonistic becoming of such free spirits. Other than positing rugged “Hyperboreans,” uncompromising “masters,” and the allegorical Übermensch, he leaves it open. It is not surprising then that the specifics he does provide erotically evoke masculine power via references to becoming hard, along with a variety of “metaphorical penis surrogates” (sticks, whips, the hammer, etc.,) as indications of optimism and life-affirmation, nor that he associates effeminacy, castration, and emasculation with the décadence he abhorred (109).
Schotten’s book is worth perusing for its assessment of scholarly engagements with Nietzsche’s views on women, sex, and gender, and those views themselves, which is not to affirm their accuracy. However, it is a testament to the difficulties of fusing Nietzsche’s “incorrigible revolutionary tendencies” with his perspectivalist epistemological stance to adduce support for praxis of “progressive” social change (199). While her critical appraisal usefully brings diverse views together and illuminates some broad debates among them, perhaps its greatest paradox is that while she reads Nietzsche against himself in order to employ his thought in her partisan cause (queer politics/liberation), she advances a reading of Nietzsche that, for all its sophistication, may reduce to a form of naïve realism. Both for what she misses and by evincing the décadence of our late-modern age (the ethos of which Nietzsche’s signature philosophical and psychological insights expressly anticipated) via her aims, Schotten’s thesis affirms Nietzsche’s vitalist politics and power ontology. Nietzsche did not imagine the possibility that his work would be utilized as a therapy for hastening humankind’s overcoming of all-too-human gender role-playing stereotypes, but his thought does contain such potential, in a straightforwardly discernible way via his perspectivalism, which she gives indications of comprehending (125, 197) but inconsistently applies to Nietzsche’s views on women, sex, and gender. Realizing this “revolution” need not invalidate the desires of individuals for whom “heteronormative” gender role-playing expectations are pleasing and who may attain their maximal flourishing through them. Nevertheless via the feminist and LGBTQI rights movements, the global sexual revolution is overcoming repressive patriarchal norms, indicating that a rich “soil of sexual interest” exists in disparate places that may serve to facilitate future cultural renaissances (TI “Skirmishes” 23). But while Nietzsche’s thought may serve as an instrument in those libratory movements, Schotten does not convince her reader that he should be read as an earnest misogynist and frustrated heterosexual, or even that those movements need his support. Schotten is correct that Nietzsche’s revolutionary insights and oeuvre tacitly “authorizes contemporary queer politics (9),” but she fails to answer some fundamental ‘so what’ questions. Nevertheless, her book prompts reflection on the essentialist sexual dimorphism from which conventional gender roles/identities emerge, and upon the possibility that some form of Nietzschean praxis may enable us to overcome its psycho-sexual/socio-political impediments to becoming and hasten humankind toward a post-human, post-heterosexist future.
Metropolitan State University of Denver