Finitude, Death and the False Gods of Creation: Power and the Subject in Nietzsche and Althusser

I. Individuation in the Abyss of Infinity

“Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman—a rope over an abyss.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra.

“Everyone is the other and no one is himself.” – Martin Heidegger, Being and Time.

Caught in becoming, the subject never becomes. The animal, sunken in immanence, knows only existence as species-being. As a philosophical concept, the animal represents reproduction, the infinite repetition of the same; immanency as a life merely sustained; instinctual drives unquestioned. Marriage, children, a stable job—these are signs of bestial immanency. For Arendt, every birth is an event of pure freedom, for it is the addition of something new into the world, something unpredictable. As actions can be performed and interpreted in infinite ways, they are much like births. Action, then, is the basis of freedom. Nietzsche, however, questioned the origins of such actions. The bad instincts he regarded in the Genealogy of Morals were not simply animal instincts, but instincts accumulated across historical time. These bad instincts, similar to the Marx and Engel’s concept of false consciousness, suppress the will to power. Both regarded common sense as ideological—a constructed framework masquerading as real, eternal and true. For Nietzsche, however, the apparent world can never be fully captured nor understood for it is a flowing totality and every interpretation reduces its becoming to being. The subject is a finitude failing to capture the infinite in itself—an infinite that it itself is a part of. Every interpretation, then, is an epistemologically violent act—an imposition of knowing upon unknowable reality. None are ever truer than any other, but some can be more authentic to the subject.

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If the animal is ideological immanence, then the Übermensch (Superman) is existential godhead. Unlike Arendt, Nietzsche did not see action itself as an expression of freedom, for action floundering in immanency is merely the expression of someone else’s will to power. Universal frameworks offered by religion, science or metaphysics supplant the subject’s own will with one that although was once visible, has now faded from view. Values come to be seen as intrinsic to reality, rather than subjectively constructed. As will fades, God arises. All subjects express a will to power, and whether this will belongs to them or not is how freedom can be discerned. The Übermensch is one’s escape from immanency, a transcendental force that transvaluates all values through the overthrow of God/bad instincts. It is the dialectical negation of the animal, the self-negation of the rope that is the subject, through contact with the abyss of the infinite. What the Übermensch offers, then, is a reaffirmation of one’s own will to power—the chance to reconstruct the world. The subject strives to become the Übermensch so it can kill God, however, through the death of God, the subject becomes God—the Übermensch must then kill the subject.

The exertion of power always involves self-annihilation, for the reconstruction of reality necessitates, first of all, its destruction. The subject is a rope, for it is stretched between the processes of unification and annihilation, being and nothingness, Apollonian and Dionysian. The chaos nothingness introduces, however, must surge from beyond the subject—it must arise from the abyss below the rope that is both reality and infinity. Through contact with the unknowable, the finitude of the subject is revealed to be a lie, a false unification, mythical compartmentalisation of the infinite. Nothingness disintegrates the individual structure of existence, inevitably leading to death. It is only through reconstruction, the animal/Apollonian force of unification, that the subject is regrounded into finitude. The animal, then, is not simply a negative constraint on the subject, but a necessary process to subjective existence.

If becoming the Übermensch is coming into contact with the uncanny horror of infinity, then the will to power could be seen as the ultimate expression of non-freedom. One may choose to dance near the abyss, but it is the abyss that violates and overwhelms the subject, revealing their utter lack of power and knowledge over reality. They are reconfigured, not through any framework of their own, but through their contact with Otherness. They become the totality of Otherness contained as Self. Such a reading, however, may lead one to believe it is better to remain within the safe, but illusory, confines of the animal—to exist within endless variations of the same. Reality, however, is forever becoming. It flows and floods, surging through itself, perpetually. Though the subject may feel ideologically secure in ascetic retreat, they fall into the risk of Camusian absurdity—of being violently confronted, under no will of their own, to unknowable reality. If the subject cannot accept this, they may retreat even further into immanency, forsaking the will to a lonely death.

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What both scenarios fail to problematise are their definitions of freedom. Both consider freedom as a state to be reached; however, in a world of becoming, there are no states, only actions. What the will to power grants is an ungrounding of the subject from their past—a breakdown of the symbolic order that had limited the possibilities of knowing. Freedom becomes the movement of self-annihilation—the enactment of will through subject and abyss. It is only because the contents of the event-advent cannot be predicted that there is a movement of self-overcoming. If the subject were to act and know precisely their action’s consequence, they would remain within ideological immanence. By approaching the abyss, however, the subject is reconfigured and the horizon of possibility widened.

The will to power, then, is much like Freud’s death drive. The subject annihilates itself, over and again, through contact with the abyssal womb of reality. Though the ultimate fate is a return to preconscious absence, the death drive does not simply seek destruction, but a destruction of its own choosing. Ultimately, all life dies; for the subject to navigate their own path towards death, then, is a life-affirming act. The subject embraces their finitude knowing that in the end they will return to an unconquerable infinity. Because the will to power seeks the constant reconstruction of subjectivity, it must exert itself over greater and greater expanses of reality, thereby bringing it ever closer to Dionysian death. The finitude of the subject expands until infinity—complete disintegration—is reached.

It is easy to read such a statement as nihilistic. Much like the abyss, however, I make this point to disintegrate traditional understandings of freedom and power. If the will to power brings unease, confusion and death, it is easy to dismiss it as contradictory and nonsensical, for how could power and freedom be equated with one’s increasing awareness of lack and artifice? Does such a philosophy not paralyse one into inaction and despair? One must remember, however, that for Nietzsche, freedom and power are performative acts. The subject itself is neither powerful nor free—rather, the subject exerts freedom through the will to power. The subject is created out of their actions, as a fiction of finitude.

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II. How the Will Interpellated the World into Being

“ideology has always-already interpellated individuals as subjects” – Louis Althusser, Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.

“Hell is other people.” – Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit.

So far, I have explicated a conception of the will to power from the standpoint of the subject; however, the subject is inescapably confined by facticity. The material and ideational constructs that surround the subject embed them in a matrix of possible interactions, and no matter the amount of ideational subversion, if the subject cannot actualise their will through action, they remain at the mercy of another’s will to power. Through an Althusserian framework, the subject can be seen to be dominated by both Ideological and Repressive State Apparatuses—sites and systems of institutionalised will. While repression acts on the subject, ideology works through them. At the most basic level, one individual hails another through discourse. This process requires interpretation of the Other, and therefore, construction of their subjectivity. The process of hailing, then, is an exertion of the will to power. If the Other responds, they have accepted the subject position offered and the ideology framing the act; they have entered the world of myth and being.

The world of myth relies on the stable relations of a society reified beyond change. It requires the mutual understanding of the world as it is and always has been, rather than the world as always becoming. The neutrality of communication is a lie, for every social act expresses an interpretation of the world, a desire towards something, and therefore, an assertion of value. Hailing, then, is always evaluative for it is an act of will—an expression of power. The issue here is not ideology, however, for one can never be free of it, but rather, whose ideology, for whom does it benefit, and for what purposes? Ideology, after all, is simply the will to power resituated in the social. The continued reproduction of certain ideologies elevates some subjectivities above others, constricting the matrix of possible actions. Self-overcoming, then, requires more than a transvaluation of one’s bad instinct, for these bad instincts propagate through institutions of will. The subject must challenge these institutions themselves if they are to overcome Apollonian stasis.

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The state, law enforcement, commerce, disciplines, work procedures, traditions, family hierarchies, schooling, mass media, street culture, counterhegemonies—all consist of actions connected through a web of expectations, rewards and punishments. Society remains coherent through one’s knowledge of social etiquettes. Actions at a certain time or place; one’s role in a workplace or cultural festivity; the parameters of discussion—to know and to enact one’s knowledge is to identify as a subject under an institutionalised will. Ideology is insidious for it relies on the subject’s internalisation of shame, deviancy, and normality. Though ideology grants identity and recognition, it is always at the price of freedom. The subject becomes dependent on the Other and alienated from themselves.

This is Sartre’s famous gaze. More than simply a look, it is the awareness of a presence other than one’s own—a presence that frustrates and terrifies. In Being-for-Others, the subject desires positive recognition from the Other—they exist solely through the Other’s gaze; but because the Other is also a subject, this gaze can never be fully controlled. The subject becomes dependent on an unpredictable force of affirmation, a force that may transgress the institutionalised will at any moment. One cannot self-overcome in such a state, for the basis of one’s existence demands ideological stability (i.e. comprehension). At any time, however, there may be multiple gazes—multiple ideologies hailing the subject into existence. Stability can never be attained for one’s relations are never permanent nor stable, only existing in the moment of interaction. Discursive contradictions arise in the lacunae between identities—abyssal instabilities that collide and fracture the subject. One is a student, worker, child; anarcho-vegan feminist, social deviant of the highest order; gendered, racialised, abstracted into the bioinformatic cloud of genetic dismemberment. These subjectivities do not adhere together flawlessly, their symmetries are warped; imperfect collusions birth contradictions in one’s mind. One day the subject realises: one is not oneself.

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The breakdown of the subject coincides with the breakdown of hegemony (though, not to the same degree), for through self-overcoming one reorders one’s relations to the world. The subject is transfigured into a vessel of abyssal nothingness, and this nothingness infects all it touches. The rules of engagement lose form; Otherness floods the false stability of the world; the legitimacy of ruling ideologies falls into dispute. Consciousness arises through the encounter with lack and contradiction; social significations that no longer coincide with material reality; bodies of order imitating neutrality across territories of knowledge and power; the rupturing of myth.

The will to power, then, is the dialectical process through which revolution unfolds. This existence is precarious, for the subject presents a challenge to the greater systems of domination. If the subject does not gain support they may be suppressed by the state or ostracised from the community at large. It is vital for self-overcoming to move beyond the Self. Through the concept of contradictory consciousness, Gramsci proposed that although most subjects absorb ruling class ideas uncritically, their lived experience often clashes with those ideas. These contradictions generate a second consciousness that more authentically represents the subjects’ relations to reality. Though in both cases, ideology in the Althusserian sense (material reproduction of social relations) has not changed, this second consciousness provides the awareness for change. The goal of the revolutionary, then, is to expose contradictions so that the subject may exert their own will to power and revolutionise the world. The subject embraces Otherness to unite Others. They are merged into a greater body of finitude. The gaze becomes a source of enlightenment, a site of subjective death. The uncanny is captured as revolutionary fervour. Discourse breaks and remakes itself, a formless orgasm, violent intersection of ideational dislocations, accelerated dialectic. Streets flood, workplaces halt, geist unfurls. The impassioned will shatters ossified ideology, and in this shattering, exerts freedom.

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Section I:
Kouba, Petr. “Weak subjectivity, trans-subjectivity and the power of event.” Continental Philosophy Review 43 (2010): 391–406. DOI: 10.1007/s11007-010-9150-9.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “Thus Spake Zarathustra.” In The Friedrich Nietzsche Collection: 22 Classic Works. Online: Waxkeep Publishing, 2013.

Section II:
Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” trans. Andy Blunden. in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Online/New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971. Accessed 4 November, 2016.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. No Exit. Online: archive.org, 2011. Accessed 17 February, 2017.

End My Life:

Hitherto men have constantly made up for themselves false conceptions about themselves, about what they are and what they ought to be. They have arranged their relationships according to their ideas of God, of normal man, etc. […] They, the creators, have bowed down before their creations. Let us liberate them from the chimeras, the ideas, dogmas, imaginary beings under the yoke of which they are pining away. Let us revolt against the rule of thoughts. […] existing reality will collapse. – Karl Marx, The German Ideology.

Additional Sources:
Arendt, Hannah “What Is Freedom?” In Between Past and Future: Six Exercises in Political Thought. London: Faber and Faber, 1961.
Barthes, Roland. “Myth Today.” In Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers. New York: The Noonday Press, 1991.
Berlin, Isaiah. “Two Concepts of Liberty.” In Liberty: Incorporating “Four Essays on Liberty.” Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Burr, Vivien. “What Is A Discourse?” In An Introduction to Social Constructionism. London/New York: Routledge, 1995.
Camus, Albert. “An Absurd Reasoning.” In The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, trans. Justin O’Brien. Online/New York: Vintage, 1991.
Cauchi, Franceca. “Hegel and Nietzsche on thought, freedom, and ‘the labour of the negative’.” Journal of European Studies 46, no. 2 (2016): 110-125.
Cheek, Julienne. “Foucauldian Discourse Analysis.” In The SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research, ed. Lisa M. Given. California: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2012. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781412963909
d’Entreves, Maurizio Passerin. “Arendt’s Theory of Action.” In Hannah Arendt, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Winter 2016 Edition, ed. Edward N. Zalta. Accessed 30 November, 2017.
de Beauvoir, Simone. “Ambiguity and Freedom.” In The Ethics of Ambiguity, trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: Citadel Press, 1949.
Diprose, Rosalyn. “Nietzsche, Ethics and Sexual Difference.” Radical Philosophy 52 (1989): 27-33.
Eagleton, Terry. “From Lukacs to Gramsci.” In Ideology. London/New York: Longman, 1994.
Engels, Friedrich. “Engels to Franz Mehring” In Marx and Engels Correspondence. Online/New York: International Publishers, 1968. Accessed 19 February, 2017.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books, 1978.
Freud, Sigmund. “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” In On Metapsychology, trans. James Strachey. Middlesex: Penguin, 1987.
Hall, Stuart, Lumley, B. & McLennan, G. “Politics and Ideology: Gramsci.” In On Ideology. London: Hutchison, 1978.
Hanson, Jim. “Searching for the Power–I: Nietzsche and Nirvana.” Asian Philosophy 18, no. 3 (2008): 231-244. DOI: 10.1080/09552360802440017
Harman, Chris. “Gramsci, the Prison Notebooks and philosophy.” International Socialism 114 (2007): 105-119.
Hynes, Maria. “Indifferent by nature: A post-humanist reframing of the problem of indifference.” Environment and Planning A 48, no. 1 (2016): 24-39.
Lackey, Michael. “Killing God, Liberating the “Subject”: Nietzsche and Post-God Freedom.” Journal of the History of Ideas 60, no. 4 (1999): 737-754.
Mackenzie, Catriona. “Simone de Beauvoir: philosopher and/or the female body.” In Feminist challenges: social and political theory, eds. Carole Pateman & Elizabeth Gross. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1986.
Montesquieu, Charles de Secondat. “Seraglio Sequence from the Persian Letters.” In The Political Theory of Montesquieu, eds. Charles de Secondat Montesquieu and Melvin Richter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “First Essay. “Good and Evil,” “Good and Bad.”.” In The Genealogy of Morals. Online/Gutenberg: Project Gutenberg, 2017. Accessed 19 February, 2017.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense. Online: University of Debrecen. Accessed 19 February, 2017.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “The Four Great Errors.” In Twilight of the Idols, or How to Philosophize with a Hammer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Rayman, Joshua. “Will to Power as Alternative to Causality.” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 30, no. 3 (2016): 361-372.
Salih, Sarah. ”Gender.” in Judith Butler. London: Routledge, 2002.


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