Nietzsche’s eventual affirmation of the moral position is present in part as anticipation of what is to come. Future man, for Nietzsche, is beyond bad conscience not only in the sense that, like the lords of old, he does not hear a restrictive and self-chastising inner voice, but also because, in this respect rather unlike the lords, he is not susceptible to the cunning and subtle workings of slave morality. But we can already take action and leave ressentiment behind in the present: Nietzsche even produces a mock-categorical imperative in order to ‘filter out’ resentment. The thought of eternal recurrence provides this filter by presenting an “ethical perspective” on life (Honig 1993, 58). What does the idea of reliving one’s life have to do with ressentiment? If we consider the way Nietzsche ‘thinks’ eternal recurrence in The Gay Science, as “the greatest weight” as he puts it we are able to see the point. We are asked to imagine ourselves in the company of a demonic visitor, who tells us:

“This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy (…), all in the same succession and sequence (…), and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!” (Nietzsche 2010, par 341)

The key to understanding the relevance of this scenario is in our response to it. “Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘you are a God and I have never heard anything more divine!’ (ibid)” These two ways of responding correspond to two ways of relating to one’s past: “vengeful rage” in the mode of ressentiment, and affirmation (Honig 1993, 75). Nietzsche is suggesting that only the tremendous moment would enable us to affirm ourselves and our pasts truly. Even if we have never known such a moment, eternal recurrence functions as a test and helps us to identify which resistances, which instances of Verfeindung or Selbstverfeindung are chaining us to our past and making us its vengeful slaves. But this is not all: Bonnie Honig emphasizes the transformative nature of eternal recurrence. She compares Nietzsche’s formulation to Kant’s categorical imperative. Nietzsche notes that “The question in each and every thing ‘Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?’ would lie upon your actions like the greatest weight” (Nietzsche 2010, par 341). This addresses the function of eternal recurrence as a hypothetical situation we can confront ourselves with at all times, but particularly when considering an action. This is what an ethicist would call the ‘action-guiding’ character of eternal recurrence. Again, even if we have never known a tremendous moment of the kind Nietzsche has in mind, we can think of ourselves as having already performed a certain action and ‘run the test’ to see if we should perform it. If the action’s effect would leave us more resentful than we are now, we should abstain; if they would help us to affirm ourselves and the world, or bring about the elusive tremendous moment we should commit to it. Honig sums up the account as follows:

[Eternal recurrence] is a new kind of responsibility, the old one wrested from the hands of those who wielded it as a weapon, re-covered and turned into an expression of man’s affirmation of the world and himself as they are, as pieces of contingency (…) that sometimes become splendid, if momentary, testaments to human creativity and power. (Honig 1993, 60-61)

The reference to human creativity signifies the place of eternal recurrence within a project that is diametrically opposed to the project of making ourselves responsible subjects in the old sense (making ourselves calculable, regular, necessary). The moralist is concerned with an image of universal man as he should be. That is the realm of the general will and the categorical imperative; of universality that dreams of leaving the particular behind for good. Responsibility in that sense is the hard-won, painful achievement of being able to speak well of oneself as a moral subject. In the creative sense, however, responsibility signals the self-discipline required to fit “all the strengths and weakness of [one’s] nature” into an “artistic plan until every one of them appears as art and reason and even weakness delights the eye” (Nietzsche 2010, par 290). Responsibility now appears as a process of self-discipline serving in a creative project of self-fashioning.

To show how Nietzsche’s ‘recovered’ notion of responsibility radicalizes and thereby shatters Rousseau’s view, we need only return to the topic of theodicy. As we know, Rousseau made man a dynamic being subject to history, and in that way explained the evils of the world while still absolving God – and in the same move, Rousseau gave humankind as such the responsibility to shape their own future. In the final instance, Rousseau already knows what the future should look like: it should conform to the common good. Nietzsche puts even more weight on the shoulders of man: but this time, the weight is carried by the individual. As individuals, we each have the task of fashioning ourselves and the world so that our individual lives are worth living. As Nietzsche exclaims: “Thus do the [Greek] gods justify the life of man: they themselves live it – the only satisfactory theodicy!” (Nietzsche 2008, 43) In other words, in a Nietzschean framework a metaphysical proof that life is good should be “beside the point”: anyone interested in the question should himself “show” that life is good (Neiman 2002, 213).

In this fashion, Nietzsche bowls over Rousseau’s securing of the providential status of the world, by insisting that we need to assume the role of providence ourselves, ordering our lives according to our own artful wisdom. What we learn from Rousseau is that responsibility is possible without assuming a fixed nature of man, or a different form of necessity, to ensure that we have a real task in the world. This was secured by the speculative, historical and iterative nature of his work. What we also learn from Rousseau, however, is what is involved in positing a universal principle as the ethical finality of politics, and why this aspect of his work should be rejected. In Odo Marquard’s term, we find tendencies leading to Verfeindung at the heart of Rousseau’s work. The Emile leads us down a path to Selbstverfeindung, as I have called it: the force that opposes one to oneself. Nietzsche criticizes this further tendency as being at the heart of our status as moral beings, while continuing Rousseau’s project of historical speculations about the Herkunft, this time not of evil as a ‘given’ and reified category, but of morality itself. Nietzsche forcefully describes the moral life as one of self-hatred and self-torture. What place could responsibility possibly have in that kind of framework? As we have seen, the action-guiding character of the thought of eternal recurrence makes us appear to ourselves as ever-perfectible works of art. We said that perfectibility entails responsibility: if that is so, then Nietzschean responsibility entails the ultimate responsibility.

But, the reader may have been waiting to ask, how do we translate the complicatedly existential twists and turns of individual psychology into politics? In my view, the function of eternal recurrence can only be action-guiding because it sets the individual up as one who is in charge of his own actions. That is how Nietzsche’s lessons can take up political meaning: as an ethical appeal in favour of self-emancipation with respect to the past and (its connections to) the future under the aspect of the kind of (political) life one aspires to. An example of an application of this kind of thought in politics is what Herfried Münkler calls moratorium competence [Moratoriumskompetenz]: the competence of politics to delay a matter until it has ‘made up its own mind’ (Walter & Michelsen 2013, 19). This competence is a practical application of the notion of resistibility that we saw when considering generalized depoliticization critique, for it enables politics to resist mechanisms that would enforce a decision even in the case of acute problems, until for instance a debate has taken place that is as inclusive as possible. Moratorium competence is thus a front against the speed at which financial economics works and affects politics (having been deregulated by politics itself, Bourdieu would add). This speed often causes governments to place their trust in a small circle of experts, rather than take part in a time-intensive process like parliamentary will formation (ibid).

The foundationalist prioritizing of an (implied) ontology like economic determinism over the ‘superstructure’ of politics means, in effect, that the data that precede the political decision are elevated in such a way that they can to a large extent determine that decision itself, and hence the future course of events and politics itself. Nietzsche’s thought of eternal recurrence allows politics to emancipate itself from this kind of constraint to political decision, because affirming the past is a creative exercise that fits into an artistic enterprise of selecting, fitting, interpreting, self-fashioning. Seen from the ethical perspective of responsibility in the creative sense, the effect that the past has on the present is revealed as never unqualified. There are no ontological mechanisms, no economic determinism to make our political decisions for us. We have to do it ourselves: and we have to ask ourselves at every point whether the action we are about to take reflect the kind of politics we want to be a part of, the kind of society that we want to achieve. As is the case for the individuals considered by Nietzsche, full affirmation will probably be reserved for the ‘superhuman’ overman. But his perspective shows us what is at stake when we say depoliticization critique is an appeal to responsibility, and it shows how this responsibility can be attained while avoiding the pitfalls we have previously described as ‘the political cases against ethics’.


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