Your complimentary articles
You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.
You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please
Nietzsche and the Feminists
John Mann reviews Nietzsche, Feminism and Political Theory, edited by Paul Patton.
The horrifying collision between Nietzsche and feminism contained within these pages is the philosophical equivalent of a nuclear reactor. A collision which perhaps the contributors hope will produce a raw, dangerous energy. How can Nietzsche and feminism embrace?
Luce Irigaray’s book Marine Lover, described by Irigaray as “not a book on Nietzsche but with Nietzsche, who is for me a partner in a love relationship”, causes Frances Oppel to ask “what is a subtle feminist, who until this point stressed the pleasures of lesbian love-making, doing in a relationship of amorous sexuality with a moustachioed misogynist like Nietzsche?” This book is intense.
The reason for the difficulty is clear. There are two sides to Nietzsche which appear almost irreconcilable: as a radical he is a romantic adventurer, writing powerful modern myths and aphorisms challenging all authorities with his ‘D eath of God’ doctrine that there is no more centre, no more ground for truth, no more ‘real’; yet as a conservative he appears misogynistic, militaristic, aristocratic and elitist. The Nazis obviously found the latter teachings useful and ignored the radical Nietzsche, yet throughout the twentieth century Nietzsche’s radical philosophy has appealed to socialists, existentialists, theologians and now increasingly feminists - all of whom are confronted with Nietzsche’s explicit rejection of their teachings.
All of the articles in this book recognise the difficulty of Nietzsche’s misogynism, quoting the passage from Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “Are you visiting women? Do not forget your whip!” (the book’s cover interestingly contrasts this by showing the infamous photo of Nietzsche being whipped by a woman), and respond to it generally in three ways.
Firstly some view it as an error that can be overlooked. The problem is accepted, then it is argued that we shouldn’t let the nasty bits of Nietzsche stop us from appreciating his genuine insights. Secondly it is argued that Nietzsche’s content is irrelevant - it is not what he said but how he said it. Thirdly some psychoanalyse Nietzsche, asking why he felt this way towards women - surely not an example of Nietzschian ressentiment?
These are all valid responses and the articles themselves provide many valuable discussions of Nietzschian themes - in particular of Nietzsche’s metaphors and symbols (Frances Oppel’s article ‘Irigaray with Nietzsche’ and Cathryn Vasseleu’s ‘Not Drowning, Sailing’ stand out here), however they fail to examine the philosophical relationship between the radical and conservative Nietzsche.
Surely it is because Nietzsche analysed the world as foundationless and without gravity that he proposed the aristocratic and authoritarian ‘Superman’ – the only person whose values could survive in such a valueless world. It is up to those who disagree with his conservatism to show that these conclusions do not follow from his radical analysis.
So let us now turn to his analysis. The idea that the Death of God (loss of belief in the transcendent) results in a revaluation of all values has found a following throughout this century, but particularly since the collapse of Marxism Nietzsche has been the major figure in continental philosophy. In the 1970s the poststructuralists cited Nietzsche as a major influence and he has continued to retain this importance amongst postmodernists and deconstructionists in the 1980s. Whatever Nietzsche’s other merits, this importance has been a disaster for political theory.
Nietzsche suits the mood of modernist alienation – those who are searching for something else, who find the old certainties (whether Marxism, the Market or God) are no more, and feel themselves upon a sea of uncertainty. Invariably these searches, whilst artistically exhilarating, do not produce political theory (supposedly the third angle of this book).
Politics is at least about empirical data – a politically correct society does not depend on interpretations of interpretations, but simple statistical fact: what are the statistics for childcare facilities, for domestic violence, for poverty, crime, unemployment, environmental pollution? Political debate today needs to be about presenting options, debating society’s values and requirements, looking at trends, opportunities and threats. The problem with Nietzschian ‘political theory’ is that it does none of these things. The following is typical:
“Poetry is ‘revolutionary’; it is capable of subverting the monological discourses of authority, law and ‘truth’ as one and unified, and of liberating the heterogeneity of desire” (p. 93)
I’m sorry, but ‘revolutionary’ means overthrowing privilege and injustice and whatever its many merits, poetry is not the vehicle to achieve this.
Nietzsche is fine for philosophy, art, culture and spirituality – but next time forget the politics.
Nietzsche, Feminism and Political Theory ed. by Paul Patton is published by Routledge. Paperback £12.99 (0 415 08256 0) Hardback £35 (0 415 08255 2)
© John Mann 1996
John Mann is a Software Designer and lives in Hadleigh, Suffolk