Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Separating Nietzsche’s Tongue From His Cheek

“A description for this result is not available because of this site's robots (37.8M results)

The problem is perhaps how to embrace the incommensurable, i.e., without keeping accounts.

In Debt – The First 5000 Years, David Graeber describes a baseline communism as a component underlying much human activity (if only we would be more aware of this and openly celebrate it!), at home, with friends, even within the most profit-driven corporations. That is, when I’m at my day job, with my co-workers, I don’t keep accounts of how much B owes me & vice versa – e.g., I loaned him a pencil last week, and I helped him out in a pinch... but B is not going to become my debt peon for this.  There is an element of “from each according to her abilities to each according to her needs” that goes on.  Other metaphors used for this involve carrying ones own weight – not for oneself but for the “team” or (ugh) “for the good of the order.”

In this light, the assertion that “communism knows no debt” shouldn’t astonish us. It’s just outside of the rules of exchange -- refusing to keep accounts, which in an ethnographic context makes sense, that is, as a descriptor of behavior but not necessarily an ideal.

Graeber has an intriguing discussion of Nietzsche’s historical argument in Genealogy of Morals (in Debt starting at ~page 78), in brief that N accepts and runs with Adam Smith’s presumptions about human nature, about humans as calculating machines.  Per Graeber, Nietzsche & Smith anticipate “Levi-Strauss’s famous argument that language is the ‘exchange of words.’”

Graeber “think[s] Nietzsche helps us... to understand the concept of redemption. Niezsche’s account of “primeval times” might be absurd, but his description of Christianity – of how a sense of debt is transformed into an abiding sense of guilt, and guilt to self-loathing, and self-loathing to self-torture – all of this does ring very true.”

Graeber has a very telling footnote where he suggests that Deleuze was naive to accept N’s historical argument, which was really just an “imaginative exercise.”

I think G is being way too nice to Nietzsche here, even if this reading of N does help G’s argument.  And even if G is right, the smokescreen and cynicism of such an exercise – and the fact that it has duped generations of readers – can’t be easily forgiven (or maybe I should say "forgotten," to avoid the redemptive).  In any case, this is one of my favorite passages in Graeber's book. I find myself revisiting it.

“…for Nietzsche, starting from Adam Smith’s assumptions about human nature means we must necessarily end up with something very much along the lines of primordial-debt theory. On the one hand, it is because of our feeling of debt to the ancestors that we obey the ancestral laws: this is why we feel that the community has the right to react “like an angry creditor” and punish us for our transgressions if we break them.…"

"There is also every reason to believe that Nietzsche knew the premise was insane; in fact, that this was the entire point. What Nietzsche is doing here is starting out from the standard, common-sense assumptions about the nature of human beings prevalent in his day (and to a large extent, still prevalent)-that we are rational calculating machines, that commercial self-interest comes before society, that “society” itself is just a way of putting a kind of temporary lid on the resulting conflict. That is, he is starting out from ordinary bourgeois assumptions and driving them to a place where they can only shock a bourgeois audience.

It’s a worthy game and no one has ever played it better; but it’s a game played entirely within the boundaries of bourgeois thought. It has nothing to say to anything that lies beyond that. The best response to anyone who wants to take seriously Nietzsche’s fantasies about savage hunters chopping pieces off each other’s bodies for failure to remit are the words of an actual hunter-gatherer – an Inuit from Greenland made famous in the Danish writer Peter Freuchen’s Book of the Eskimo. Freuchen tells how one day, after coming home hungry from an unsuccessful walrus-hunting expedition, he found one of the successful hunters dropping off several hundred pounds of meat. He thanked him profusely. The man objected indignantly:
“Up in our country we are human! “ said the hunter. “And since we are human we help each other. We don’t like to hear anybody say thanks for that. What I get today you may get tomorrow. Up here we say that by gifts one makes slaves and by whips one makes dogs.”
The last line is something of an anthropological classic, and similar statements about the refusal to calculate credits and debits can be found through the anthropological literature on egalitarian hunting societies. Rather than seeing himself as human because he could make economic calculations, the hunter insisted that being truly human meant refusing to make such calculations, refusing to measure or remember who had given what to whom, for the precise reason that doing so would inevitably create a world where we began “comparing power with power, measuring, calculating” and reducing each other to slaves or dogs through debt.”

No comments: