I had a heavy semester. I studied Foucault, and Foucault makes points that are distressing. (That is about all that I have the energy to say. It was wild.)
His philosophy is difficult to describe and describing it is not my point. But here I am. Foucault teaches that the world has flaws and then says that one can’t call those flaws flaws. Calling flaws flaws is a grave kind of flaw. So, the question is not only: What does one do with a flawed self in a flawed world? It is also: What does one do with the impossibility of knowing that a flaw be a flaw? What does one do with that? Don’t answer.
Foucault intends to show—I think in both his genealogical and ethical works—that the flow of power has unacceptable consequences. All ethical (subjectivating) and epistemic claims have an inherent objectivating potential. But he leaves the reader without ample recourse to technologies that can counteract those ‘systems’. Or without any possibility of self-exculpation. His ethics creates more problems—problematizations—than it solves. That freedom condemns the reader to wander not a wanton wasteland but a dark and desolate earth of ethical dearth.
This problematizing of the ethical subject produces several epistemic riddles and paradoxes. Those riddles frustrate the ὄρεξις τοῦ εἰδέναι—the desire to understand. The Foucauldian parent framework is that no framework is possible. And what is the nature of thought when incoherence is one’s logical principle of reality?
Now, there are many Foucaults. I do not ask him who he am, I do not ask him to remain the same. As Charles Taylor says, Foucault disconcerts. I have spent the last several months in a state of perpetual disconcert—both ethical and epistemic. Foucault implores readers to recognize the way power transforms and diffuses itself and then denies that there is a parent epistemology, or at least one that can be disconnected from those systems of power. What does one do with this? Other than weep. Other than accept that reduction of any system either to evil or aporia mere. Foucault shows that the world qua approached systematically is a kind of lie, just as many philosophers do, but then does nothing to dissolve the riddle. He just keeps riddling.
He is no redeemer, ille Foucault. This is why it feels like he shorted his readers, though perhaps this came about due to his ‘premature’ death, if such a phrase makes any sense. Would Foucault have redeemed? Or better, did he know how? Nietzsche quotes in the Twilight of the Idols:
increscunt animi, virescit volnere virtus.
Spirits thrive, virtue prospers by the wound. Foucault and Nietzsche both resolve to make war on their readers so as to heal—to instill virtue by wounding. But this itself borders on incoherence. There are two related questions that are difficult to pose because of the irony in the notion of wounding as a benefit.
If wounds heal, then the pillowed complacency that the wound disrupts must be the ‘real’ wound. Fine: not being wounded, that is the spiritual wound. That means that what is being wounded—a sort of psychological softness that keeps a person from character-building experiences—must be inherently ‘bad’, or else a wound would straightforwardly be a kind of damage. And damage to the self is ex vi termini a bad thing. So, the first question is, How is it that a wounding can be ‘good’? And even if the wounding defeats that paradox and is good, is it really likely that the surgery be so precise that the wound itself will only heal? Would not a wounding require another form of healing on top of the original treatment? What about the wound itself? One would assume that, depending on its size, it ought to be stitched.
Many believe that infection with syphilis precipitated Nietzsche’s mental collapse. Another physician debunks this claim as an anti-Nietzschean smear campaign but supplants the syphilis theory with the claim that Nietzsche had a form of neurodegenerative dementia. Both ends of the spectrum reflect a narrow form of materialist fetishism. On both these theories, knowledge about Nietzsche’s mental collapse can only ever be grounded in certain physical states of Nietzsche’s body and brain. It is always ‘defects in the brain’ that produce madness and that produced Nietzche’s madness. The madness only ever arose because of that original physical disorder.
Perhaps this is right. But do ideas not have that same potential? It seems intuitive enough that ideas can drive a person mad. So, couldn’t Nietzsche’s beliefs have played a role? For his wars on organized systems of thought never ended. And in an attempt to heal himself he focused all his attention on the ugliest and most distressing truths he could produce—an important one being that all moral claims have their basis in a sort of Darwinian will to outsex the universe. Moralists, on Nietzsche’s view, are not as concerned with ‘goodness, beauty, and justice’ as they are with simply dominating and destroying the ‘kinds of people’—and these kinds, too, are fictitious—that they despise.
For Nietzsche, moral concepts simply express this desire to dominate or the ‘will to power’ in a crooked and self-deceptive way: one that labels as ‘the highest ethical ideal’ what is at bottom murderous revenge. It takes little imagination to see that a nietzsche, who genuinely believed that all moral claims could be reduced to mere expressions of the will to power, who believed that the general attitude toward these moral claims holds them up as ‘the noblest possible ideals’ when they were really forms of murderous revenge that sought petty consequentialist ends, might lost sleep
Nietzsche himself says in Twilight of the Idols:
Even the bravest among us only rarely has courage for what he really knows . . .
I should call into question whether Nietzsche’s moral skepticism is a sustainable life-strategy. The answer is obvious: pure, ‘wounding’ genealogy is as much a ‘medicine’ as blood-letting is. Plato, for example, despite that he ends up going infinitely too far, offers solutions immanent in human experience that don’t involve becoming completely unable to function.
What if Nietzsche’s beliefs about moral claims contributed to the changes late in his life? Even just in part. Perhaps he at least partially carried the moral skepticism of the Genealogy to its logical conclusion: the world is so backwards and mad that one is conscripted into becoming as mad and backwards as it. This is an oversimplification, but so are the physicalist theories that take Nietzsche’s recorded behaviors as a transparent window into his brain. Even if there is truth to the physicalist theories, how can it be right to ignore the profundity of what Nietzsche uncovered in his ethical explorations?
If it is true in any way that Nietzsche’s beliefs contributed to his mental collapse, then there has to be a medicine for the medicine he self-administered. But perhaps the metaphor of medicine will only mislead. Nietzschean genealogy helps readers see a basic and rather obvious insight that a moral concept can be misapplied: just because someone performs an action ‘for me’ under the pretense of ‘doing-me-a-solid’, that does not mean that that person has necessarily done me a favor. All I know is that they are claiming credit for having done me that solid. It takes more acuity to distinguish between the concepts that generally surround a certain set of ethical behaviors and other concepts that might apply.
The observation really consists in an everyday insight that Nietzsche globalizes. Perhaps someone else’s ‘doing-me-a-solid’ is really a way to exert some form of control. E.g., now I owe them an indeterminate ‘one’ and the variable total on that invoice can come due at any moment. And that is just one feature. Even more incisively, why is that favor a favor at all? Who determines that it be so? A person might have actually invented the notion that that favor is in any way a favor at all.
Returning to the problem of the medical metaphor: Nietzsche simply opens his reader to the possibility of asking questioning whether or not a moral claim is inherently good. But those questions themselves create serious confusion on two fronts: one, what are the features of a trustworthy source of an ethical claim? Two, how can I know anything at all? Where Nietzsche provides answers, Foucault provides problems.
To the point of the article: I want to explore the possibility that the right kind of laughter offers another more felicitous alternative, one that can counteract the sicknesses of spirit—the forms of despair—that arise from taking Foucauldian and Nietzschean genealogy seriously. To heal kinds of trauma was the point of Greek laughter, as the myth of Demeter and Persephone shows. This, I shall soon explore further.