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Vanessa Lemm, Nietzsche’s Animal Philosophy: Culture, Politics, and the Animality of the Human Being

Fordham University Press, 2009.978-0-8232-3028-0 Paper ($24.00) 978-0-8232-3027-3 Cloth ($65.00)

Reviewed by Keith Ansell-Pearson

This is a highly original study with fresh insights into many aspects of Nietzsche’s corpus, ranging from the second untimely meditation on history and the unpublished ‘Truth and Lies’ essay to the Genealogy of Morality. The aim of the book is to provide the first systematic treatment of the animal in Nietzsche’s philosophy. The author wants to show ‘that the animal is neither a random theme nor a metaphorical device, but rather that it stands at the center of Nietzsche’s renewal of the practice and meaning of philosophy itself’ (p. 1). This involves Lemm in a wide-ranging treatment of key motifs in Nietzsche’s corpus, including illuminating his views on culture and civilization, on morality and politics, on history, on forgetfulness and memory, and on truth. For her the human being is part of the continuum of animal life, and, in part, she takes her inspiration from the pioneering work of Margot Norris in her book, Beasts of Modern Imagination. In Norris the author finds a new approach to culture which is ‘biocentric’, that is, it is thought from the perspective of ‘life’. For Norris there is a biocentric tradition of throught, which includes Nietzsche, and in which these thinkers—Kafka is another example—do not create ‘like’ the animal or in imitation of it, but rather ‘as’ the animal with their ‘animality’ fully alive and speaking. As Lemm acknowledges, this is a contentious approach to problems of culture and civilization simply because it is contesting the widespread Enlightenment and humanist view that what makes culture distinctive is the way it separates the human from the animal and views culture as the task of civilizing the human animal into a moral and rational one. With this focus, however, on ‘life’ this privileging of humanity over animality is reversed and the human is given back its repressed animality.

The critical question to ask is whether this is indeed an ‘enlightening’ move to make and whether it accurately captures what is taking place in Nietzsche’s philosophy with respect to questions of humanity and animality. Lemm is aware of the dangers of her approach and endeavours to steer an approach that avoids the main ones, including the ‘biologism’ of a materialist approach and the anthropomorphism of a spiritualist approach. For her the error of a biologistic approach is that, whilst taking into account the intimate relationship of human and animal life, it fails to provide an exegesis of the meaning and significance of culture except in terms of survival and self-preservation (not core values in Nietzsche, as is well-known). The spiritualist approach cannot do justice to the physiology of life, and here Lemm contends that Nietzsche’s reliance on physiology does not denote a crude scientism—the application of mechanical or chemical causality to inert matter—but rather requires a genealogy that is able to capture the ‘spiritual historicity’ expressed in physiology. Throughout the work Lemm skilfully negotiates these various antinomies and shows herself to be an astute and mature reader of Nietzsche. There is an abundance of genuinely fresh insights running throughout the text and even when she deals with seemingly all-too familiar material, such as the second untimely meditation or the TL essay, she has novel and arresting things to say. This also extends to her appreciation of the figure of the ‘sovereign individual’ in GM, which provides one of the best readings of GM II, 1-2 I have come across in the recent literature. As she notes, the promise of the sovereign individual has traditionally been understood as either anti-political or as non-political with the emphasis on individual perfectionism. Contra these readings, Lemm seeks to show that in the figure of the sovereign individual Nietzsche provides an idea of freedom (as responsibility) that intimately concerns the political life of human animals. For her the primary feature of human development is the antagonism and agonism between human and animal life forces. The restoration of animality to humanity is liberating: ‘When humankind defines itself against its animality or denies its animality a productive role, forms of political life emerge based on domination and exploitation of humans by humans’ (p. 5). One of the striking features of the work is the extent to which it seeks to divorce Nietzsche’s thinking from being an advocate of an authoritarian politics (of the domination and exploitation of humans). Chapter four is a riveting and remarkable chapter, on giving and forgiving, in which Lemm brings Nietzsche into rapport with the links of Hannah Arendt and Jacques Derrida on the gift-giving virtue. Here she is at her best, showing the extent to which Nietzsche’s politics are one of generosity and hospitality in which the ‘other’ is not reduced to being a mere permutation of the self.

Lemm does not pursue a chronological approach in her appreciation of Nietzsche, and for me this is one of the weaknesses of the book. She starts with GM and culminates with chapters on the second untimely meditation and the essay on TL. Her approach has a tendency to collapse into one seamless whole the different and disparate parts of Nietzsche’s corpus in which there are real and serious tensions, as well as reversals and overcomings, sometimes within the same block of writings (for example, the free spirit trilogy I would contend). Lemm reads as unproblematic, for example, Nietzsche’s position in Human, all too Human that because everything is necessity then all is innocent. However, I would contend, it is possible to see in this position a certain nihilism that the later Nietzsche was concerned to overcome. In HH Nietzsche advises us not to judge but to be just (to imitate Christ, in effect); in the 1886 preface to the text, however, he recognises that injustice is inseparable from life and the task of justice thus becomes that much more difficult and a question of perspectivism. I am also troubled by the way Lemm divides ‘civilization’ and ‘culture’ with the latter being concerned with cultivation and education and the former with taming and breeding. Where civilization aims to morally and rationally ‘improve’ the human animal, culture for her aims to bring forth new forms of life and which are not forms of power over animal life but overflowing with life. This is incisive, but neglectful it seems to me of the positive role breeding plays in Nietzsche’s late philosophy. Lemm sees in Nietzsche a ‘politics’ and a philosophy of spontaneous animal energies, vital forgetfulness, and exuberant life, all of which is seen to work against a politics of control, calculation, prediction, and engineering. This, however, underestimates one important aspect of Nietzsche’s late thinking on culture and politics, namely the need to take control of the future and to engineer it—see for example his remarks on what could be bred in BGE 203 given the proper masterful conditions of philosophical hegemony and political legislation.

Finally, what of the plausibility of the reading of Nietzsche’s philosophy as animal philosophy? I have to say I am not convinced ultimately that Nietzsche is as remote from Enlightenment and humanist traditions as she thinks. Here one could point to the middle period Nietzsche where he clearly thinks the liberation of the human being requires an emancipation from its animal ancestry (see, for example, WS 350). One could also lay stress on what Nietzsche says in Schopenhauer as Educator (of which Lemm is a first rate reader). On the one hand, the human feeds productively on its own animality (for example, animal vigour and the power of forgetting); on other hand, it enjoys a supreme advantage over the animal in that it is able to understand its existence metaphysically. The animal by contrast is the site of ‘senseless suffering’ since it is subject to hunger and desires without having any insight into the nature of this mode of life: ‘To cling so blindly and madly to life, for no higher reward, far from knowing that one is punished or why one is punished in this way, but instead to thirst with the inanity of a horrible desire for precisely this punishment as though it were happiness—that is what it means to be an animal’ (UM III 5). Surely, this is a highly lamentable and dreadful condition humanity has the evolutionary potential to transcend or overcome? Lemm is aware of this section in SE and reads around it (see p. 52). She tries to ingeniously interpret the passage not as indicating a removal of humanity from its animal heritage but rather as a specific reference to the animality of the civilized human being or an animal defined by its attachment to a life of mere self-preservation. I am not convinced by this. This does not deny, of course, her ensuing insight that Nietzsche also prizes throughout his writings the return of an animality that is overfull with life.

In conclusion, let me stress the rich and richly instructive character of this book. I have greatly enjoyed and admired the author’s essays on Nietzsche which she has been publishing in recent years. Now with this book she consolidates her reputation as one of Nietzsche’s most original, attentive, and lively readers. It is quite simply a superb book and one of the most thought-provoking I have read for some time. It is both lucid and engaging, and can be highly recommended.

University of Warwick