Against Culture

The struggle against the power of culture within the person was one of the most important issues of the French Neo-Nietzschean movement of which Georges Bataille and Pierre Klossowski were the undisputed instigators. Disappointed in the surrealist movement’s flirt with Stalinist communism, and in line with the focus on mysticism and myth of the same surrealist movement, Bataille examined the conditions for an anti-capitalist and anti-fascist ethics. Thereby, the continuity and the supremacy of the Kantian ‘I’ became his main object of criticism.

            In On Nietzsche (1945), written during the Second World War, Bataille proclaimed the need to ‘risk yourself’’, which he tried out by putting himself in Nietzsche’s shoes. Bataille went so far in this that he shamelessly proclaimed, ‘I am Nietzsche.’

            Before that, he had already tested the boundaries of identity in Inner Experience (1943), in which he shows how he, being the author, dissolves in a spectacular multitude of partial identities. The disappearance of his ‘I’ was the result of an ‘extreme action’ that Bataille undertook on his quest for ‘sovereignty’, i.e. a state of man that has no purpose whatsoever (and therefore is eternal ‘senseless’ in the literal sense of the word). (1)

Because the self-conscious ego, the subject (Bataille also speaks of the Hegelian ‘Spirit’), has been constructed in view of its continuity, it can only disappear when it becomes involved in events that take place outside it. Bataille was thinking here of the accident of thought and of accidental actions. His favorite was the spontaneous laughter, which he appreciated as the manifestation of an (emotional) event that we do not control. He designated this type of events with the term: slippage. Slippages also occur in situations that show deviation from a project: for example, when the joyful intention strands in an inexplicable feeling of disgust about it. Seeking out slippages, the method of Bataille was like ‘a project to slip beyond the domain of the project.’ Usually he concentrated his method to evoke slippage in the meaning of a word or an image, what he achieved by combining its high and low extremes. In Inner Experience, this way of thinking resulted in developing a language that expresses the counter-movement of identification (of words with things, and ourselves with something outside ourselves) per excellence, namely the movement of self-detachment. At the extreme limits, Bataille encounters self-hatred and absolute sovereignty - two parts of the same coin- , which function as metaphors of fission and radical dispersion of the same. Sovereignty is a state that equals self-hatred. God is sovereign because he hates Himself.  Self-hatred and sovereignty indicate a movement that is exactly the opposite to the ‘reconciliation’ of the Hegelian dialectic in which God would love Himself, and therefore would not be sovereign.

            According to Bataille, the development of a language that does justice to such a tearing apart is an endless project. On Nietzsche is the first experiment thereof. In this book we find nothing about the major themes of the German thinker, like the ‘Will to Power’ or the ‘Eternal Return’. Even On the Genealogy of Morals is surprisingly little cited in this distinctively ethical work of Bataille. On Nietzsche is not a commentary on the doctrines of Nietzsche, but rather an attempt by Bataille to describe what he recognized of Nietzsche in himself. Concepts such as ‘will to chance’, ‘risk taking’ and ‘self-risking’ indicate that he considered his relationship with Nietzsche’s doctrine to be something like a motivated senselessness. Consciously Bataille tried to go there, were Nietzsche preceded him, and he too tried to lose himself in the impulses of his mind. So far the similarity, for what concerns the relationship between identity and ethics the difference between the two thinkers is gigantic. Bataille rejected any form of action off from an ethical principle that valorized the sovereign integrality of the  (mystical) being, a being which only reveals itself in the non-operation, while Nietzsche wrote bluntly, ‘There is no being behind the doing, acting, becoming… the doing is everything’. Bataille saw this position as a serious shortcoming of Nietzsche, a regrettable flirtation with capitalist ethic. Nevertheless, the very same statement also testified of an internal rupture in Nietzsche’s doctrine, which enabled Bataille to tear it loose from the clutches of fascist interpretation and to play it off against itself. He went to correct Nietzsche, better yet; he went to push his doctrine of senselessness and impulsivity to its ultimate consequences: ‘the death of the Spirit’. Reasoning from this viewpoint Bataille qualified his own book in his preface as a deliberate gamble with madness, ‘motivating this writing - as I see it - is fear of going crazy.’


Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle of Pierre Klossowski, which first appeared in 1969, was the culmination of the first deployment of Bataille to turn Nietzsche against his fascist-capitalistic interpretation. Between the ‘self-risking’ of Bataille and the subtle ‘transformation of identity’ of Klossowski was the famous Nietzsche congress at Royaumont in 1964. Here Klossowski read parts of his book in the making to an eminent audience, including Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and Jean Francois Lyotard. We are wide of the mark, if we interpret this event in a neat way as a reception of Nietzsche. Then we see it far too intellectual and especially too academic. Let us therefore call it a rebirth, or better yet, a new embodiment of Nietzschean ground impulses. In this way, we do more justice to Bataille and Klossowski. Prior to Royaumont, already in 1957, in a lecture entitled: ‘Nietzsche, Polytheism, and Parody’, Klossowski developed his notion of parody from a thorough problematization of the concept of identity. In denying his own identity, and taking up other ones, Klossowski did not go as far as Bataille. In Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle he wrote, ‘Can we perhaps make him (Nietzsche) speak for us?’

            Klossowski was of the opinion that Nietzsche practiced a non-academic philosophy. His work was deeply rooted in his personal experiences. Nietzsche’s concept of the ‘Death of God’ that is closely related to his extreme obscure doctrine of the ‘Eternal Return’, according to Klossowski, cannot be understood intellectually because it witnesses of nothing else then the sudden transformation of the given identity of Nietzsche as a person. If we try to figure out what this doctrine is about it becomes apparent that the ‘Eternal Return’ is an incomprehensible ‘nonsensicality’. Yet we can give it a ‘sense’ by asking ourselves what this idea evokes in the heads and the lives of those who think it:          

‘At the moment the Eternal Return is revealed to me, I cease to be myself hic et nunc and am susceptible to becoming innumerable others, knowing that I shall forget this revelation once I am outside the memory of myself, this forgetting forms the object of my present willing; (…)’ (Kl. p. 58).

Klossowski suggests that after the first alteration others come, so I must now seek for other peak experiences, in order to experience them again in the future life. He motivated his idiosyncratic interpretation with a small fragment of the posthumous works of Nietzsche, which is dated 26 August 1881 and reads as follows: ‘The incessant metamorphosis: in a brief interval of time you must pass through several individual states. Incessant combat is the means. (…)’ (Kl. p. 69)

            The doctrine of the ‘Eternal Return’ is ‘nonsense’, because it is theoretically and practically impossible. Heidegger has shown that although Nietzsche communicates the doctrine in many places in his works, he never teaches it explicitly as a doctrine. Everywhere the very form of its presentation suppresses a possible content. Heidegger interprets this primacy of form over content as an intrinsic feature of the doctrine itself, and proposes that Nietzsche has focused on the very act of proclamation, be it the proclamation of an unteachable doctrine. Klossowski states however, that this unteachable doctrine is still accessible if only we approach it from its genesis. In fact the doctrine is the direct result of an ecstatic experience that Nietzsche had in Sils Maria early August 1881. The experience was composed in such a way that first there was a mood (Stimmung) and subsequently a thought. This sequence is remarkable because usually we assume that mood and thought go together. A mood may precede a thought, however, if we perceive it as a ‘fluctuation of intensity’. We may speak of fluctuation, because a mood knows heights and depths, analogous to the rise and fall of the waves of the sea. Within fluctuation, intensity is mute, just like the chaos of passions from which it originates. Intensity is in the first instance expressed by laughing and crying. It only ‘speaks’ when we assign it a meaning from colloquial language. If intensity is thus buried under a thick layer of everyday meanings and codes, it is indeed communicable, but also corrupted. We must not forget, Klossowski says, that the codes we use in everyday life, are tailored to utility, meaning, and purpose, and therefore are intentionally determined. Intentionality is the exact opposite of intensity. Exposing intensity to dominant codes means the corruption and thus the end of its pure non-intentional essence.

Within this interaction of the forces of intensity and intentionality, Klossowski situates the transformation of identity in Nietzsche. He puts the emphasis on the loss of a given identity. The ‘Death of God’ (the God who guarantees the identity of the responsible self) opens up the soul to all its possible identities already apprehended in the various moods (Stimmungen) of Nietzsche’s soul. The revelation of the ‘Eternal Return’ brings about, as necessity, the successive realizations of all possible identities; ‘at bottom every name in history is I’ – in the end, ‘Dionysus and the Crucified.’ (Kl. p. 57)

Klossowski depicts a movement that decenters and differentiates the given identity of a person. In the ‘Eternal Return’ will not return the same, but something else that also keeps changing. This fact does not alter the formal context of the identical return, but in the framework thereof, he distinguishes something extraordinarily delirious: namely a person who is simultaneously not a person anymore, because he tends to spread over thousands of fragments. The discontinuous world that Nietzsche evoked by the way he used the aphorism, provides us with a perfect image of such a scattering. Decisive to the ‘Eternal Return’ as Klossowski sees it, is not the banal fact of an eternal repetition which is continuous and rotates like a wheel, but the fact of a series of discontinuous and scattering revelations dedicated to a series of ecstatic moments, which in their turn, are affirmed by an ‘I’ set in motion by altering identities.         

            Moreover, Klossowski permeates his entire oeuvre with his conviction that we are not single, self-conscious persons. This idea is at the heart of his polemic with the theorists of modern subjectivity, particularly Kant’s theory of the ‘person’.  Following Klossowski we all possess many natures. Any suggestion of a fixed essentiality is a simulation, or better, the convulsively persisting image of an original that we suppose, but that in reality there is not.

By interpreting the enigma of the ‘Eternal Return’ with the image of a serial differentiation of identity, - or to put it in other words, with the image of the transitory subject - , Klossowski helps us to distinguish and understand the following themes in the work of Nietzsche:

First, it is a conspiracy against the reality principle, which according to Nietzsche, is the focal point of our herd mentality.

Second, it shows us how the nonsense (l’insensée) appears from delirious thinking.

Delirious thinking meets the Dionysian and yet contemplative intoxication that Nietzsche experienced in his high moods and that was the actual source of his inspiration. Delirious, and therefore intoxicated thinking, how can that be, as intoxication and thinking are so thoroughly incompatible? To understand this we must keep in mind that they contradict each other only in the eyes of a normal, everyday consciousness that clings to reality. When it comes to making a stand against the reality principle and to let reality be for what it is, intoxication can very well engage with bursts of extreme lucidity.

            Delirious thinking and intoxication - thinking beyond the constraints of the reality principle - are closely related to a concept that Klossowski has refined in Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle (1969), namely: ‘the vacation of the conscious ego’. In the state of not being aware of itself, the I (ego) loses its personal carriers and properties. It becomes impersonal in an inimitable way and therefore it becomes available for merging with strange contents in order to form a series of arbitrary identities.

            Because the ‘Eternal Return’ implies as well the loss and the transformation of identity, as the vacancy of the conscious ego and its absorption in series of identities, the danger of losing his mind after the ecstasy of Sils Maria has been vividly present for Nietzsche. In a heroic effort to counter this ‘temptation’, he produced his greatest creations. Without the wake of disappearance and the threat of metamorphosis, and without the accompanying pathos this work would not have been able to arise.

            Klossowski recorded this tension meticulously. In his reconstruction, he succeeded in blurring the conceptual boundaries between reason and madness, sense and nonsense. The concept that describes this blending, is called delirious thinking. Linguistically, delirious thinking is a mixed form, in which comprehensibility and incomprehensibility, reality and unreality, sense and nonsense intertwine with each other, and occur within each appearances and expressions. We must understand that Klossowski was certainly not interested in explaining Nietzsche’s madness and nonsensical utterings. His attention to the appearance of the nonsense from the delirious thinking had nothing to do with the construction of sequences of cause and effect that is the habit of someone who wants to explain a phenomenon, but relates instead to hermeneutics, to an understanding of the nonsense (l’insensée). Klossowski wanted to let the nonsense shine with all its mystery and to let it highlight from the sensible, intellectual discourse. In the end, he wanted to derive a strategy from it for a politics of the person and for his own writing practice.

            Klossowski himself writes about Nietzsche in such a way that any clarification produces another obscuration. All clarity and identity of the sign dissolves again in an incomprehensible darkness. Always he solves the riddle in such a way that it becomes encrypted again. In this manner, Klossowski himself thinks deliriously, with the difference however, that he has developed this form of expression artificially and that he simulates the nonsense in the plane of the text. And, where else can we see it? Beyond explaining, or interpreting Nietzsche he dedicates all his sagacity to designate and to imitate (as in the Imitatione Christi) systematically the usurpation, the flooding of the mind of the German master by the chaos if his instinctual impulses and the pathos of his moods (Stimmungen).

            Nevertheless, we must conclude that Nietzsche never expressed himself as incomprehensible as Klossowski did. The latter subjected the work of Nietzsche to the always superior and high art of distortion (détournement as the International Situationists called it) that intensified the pendulum movement between sense and nonsense of the original. Precisely in the way Nietzsche parodied Christian apocalypticism and the philosophy of Hegel in numerous passages of the ‘doctrine’ of the ‘Eternal Return’, his own work fell prey to the parody power of Klossowski.   

Who parodies keeps the secret of histrionism. The withheld ridicule and laughter of the actor or comedian who mastered this art form, serve to build a resistance against the truth, including the truth of his own speech. Nietzsche applied this rule when he parodied the great heritage of the humanist tradition. Systematically he took to task and transformed central doctrines such as the autonomous subjectivity and its freedom, the emancipation guided by an utopian consciousness and the idea that progress would deliver us into a fulfilled Time. In the ‘Will to Power’, he turned the Kantian concept of will against the perspective of life and transformed it while maintaining the tension that is typical of life. In addition, we can interpret the ‘Eternal Return’, together with the ‘Amor Fati’ and the ‘Übermensch’ as ambiguous parodies of the metaphysical time of progress and of the historical subject, which emancipates itself in view of the realization of a final state. From his metaphorically expressed doctrine of forces, Nietzsche reformulated autonomy, emancipation, and salvation together with the regulative idea of freedom that is basic to them. Already the sophisticated manner, in which he shaped his formulations, would offset every realization and every human, all too human urge to do so.

            His relationship to Kant and Hegel was made possible by the insight Nietzsche had in the aporia (Greek: aporia: a poros, no path) of knowledge (savoir). (2) Kant himself was the first who formulated this aporia, but later Hegel and Nietzsche covered it up and ignored it. The aporia is created by a structural blockade in the process of truth in the last instance. This blockade occurs because no one can contain the meaning of the formulation in which he must articulate the true statement. Nietzsche radicalized this phenomenon and aestheticized it.

            Following Nietzsche here, Klossowski has aestheticized his book too, and he managed to produce an exceptionally beautiful specimen. The fascination for aestheticization that after Klossowski manifested itself in all French Neo-Nietzscheans testifies to the above reasons for their disbelief in progress and history. They can aestheticize because they dispense with the idea their thinking would be involved in a process. Because they no longer perceive the aporia of knowledge (savoir) as an obstructive and mediating moment in a progress-oriented process towards truth, but rather see it as the starting point to express thinking in a calculated manner, the road is open to them for experimentation with the aesthetic dimension of their utterances.

            If we want to join in the footsteps of Klossowski, we must take up position as artists. Thereby aestheticization and histrionism go hand in hand. If we do not manage to achieve a certain stage of the pseudo - or of the as if - , we risk falling back into nothingness repeatedly. At the same time, this pseudo is also a weapon. Fundamental ritualists of any kind have never been able to express themselves with such a lucid ambiguity, an ambiguity that also can hide in the most reasonable reason.

In 1972, in an interview during the second Nietzsche congress in Choisy sur Sèze, Klossowski subsequently made the step to ethics. He stated that the experience of Nietzsche shows us the way to a form of combative and strategic action at the level of the individual. We should take pleasure in the fact that we can become the ‘research object’ of remedial powers, psychiatrists and other ‘policemen’ of knowledge (savoir), who monitor the condition of our common sense and reality principle. Compared to this ‘police of thought’, to whom we as architects and artists must also count the critics and the historians, we will gradually feel better in our deviation and will better dare to take progressive steps as we are in a better position to confirm ourselves in this and to make uncertain the institutional discourse at the same time. As long as scientific knowledge, institutional structures, and discursive codes, dance their round dance around the axis of consensus and dominate us in our determination of our self-image and worldview, we must continue to pay them our tribute, albeit under the happy condition that the connection will gradually be loosened.

            Histrionism grounds on the mirror game of copies and its instrument is the parody. For a good parody, it never is enough to be just a copy. With its performance it wants to twist both the original and itself beyond the point of no return. In art, this has first been the strategy of Mannerism and later of Pop Art, not to forget the International Situationists. It is striking how little architects and urban planners work with the possibilities of parody and how cramped they are about building up and watching over their identity, which they cherish as their last capital.

            To forge a workable ethics out of histrionism and parody, we must go beyond the strategy to knock the same loose from the same. Klossowski therefore insists to associate these instruments with a new understanding of conspiracy. Loss of identity has a pathological connotation. Without identity, someone soon becomes a ‘Mann ohne Eigenschaften (man without qualities)’. (3) To counter this negativity, Klossowski proposes the neutral concept of singularity, understood as non-identity. I would like add here the term singular point, defined as the point in a curve where a particularity, or better, an event occurs. The term as it has been come to use in the last decades, derives from model theory, especially the theory of dynamic simulation models. Here, singularity, or singular point, designates the extreme point where a phenomenon is on the edge of being determinated by a certain system or structure, or it indicates the place where a jump in the model takes place and the logic of one system is relieved by the logic of another. More in general we may identify singularity with a particularity, or an exception that not completely meets the requirements of a system. If we perceive the concept in relation to social psychology, it means ‘deviation’. If we perceive it as a non-identity, it means appearance. Every non-identity is appearance, because it does not ground on an equation of two terms within a structure that would make it real. Appearance is also addressed, when the non-identity comes about through the fact that the term does not fit within a system, or the system is unable to represent it, or to give it meaning.

            However much we twist and turn it, singularity remains a flowing and floating concept, going back and forth between various signification systems, to which we must also count the social system of the group and the individual, the spatial system of the city and the singular building, and the language system with its singular words and coded meanings. In relation to singularity the concept of conspiracy denotes the active formation of commonality, where it is not, or hardly present. Note that a conspiracy is forged and that someone is involved in it, or dragged into it. The word conspiracy indicates the operational dimension of a community in the making. 

            When we, like Klossowski has indicated, understand conspiracy as a community of singularities, this idea faces us with the task to imagine how such a community could be formed. From the tradition of sociology and management, we imagine a community as a whole of mutually adapted beings, or as the result of a selection process that removes the singularities and forces them to adapt. At the level of the text, the singularities are usually removed or they are systematized. A conspiracy on the other hand would be a commonality of singularities that will not let adjust themselves and that always can enter new and temporary connections. It would enable us to imagine systems of connections that do not exclude metamorphoses of the same and that do not ground on fixed individualism, or on fixed meanings. Thus, we can imagine that ever-moving groups and ever-changing compounds of buildings and texts could be formed. Let us keep in mind here that the human body with its actions and its moods, its passions and its pathos, its ecstasies and sufferings, is the only thing that points us the way to the secret center of the world.

Beyond historical fanatism and the sad compulsion towards ourselves by the market-oriented self-affirmation, brews an immense vitality, constantly being on the go to organize and arrange the thousands of parts of existence to a harmonious, or even better an aesthetic, integrality.



1 Sense and nonsense, respectively, significance and meaninglessness, are translations of concepts that descend from the French primitive ‘sens’, which means meaning, signification, direction and purpose. I have tried to choose English nouns that are close to the ambiguous meanings that range from the original French term. In English translations of Bataille and Klossowski, translators often apply synonyms like absurd and absurdity. I have avoided these terms, because the link with the original primitive ‘sens’ has disappeared here, what is never is the case in the original French.

2 Knowledge (savoir). The addition (savoir) serves to make a distinction between two meanings of the word knowledge in French, that also in Dutch and German can be translated, but not in English, namely knowledge (connaissance: kennis, Erkenntnis) and knowledge (savoir: weten, Wissen). To understand better the consequences of Bataille and Klossowski in science, I use the distinction that Foucault made in his later study The archaeology of knowledge. According to him, knowledge (savoir) does not ground on the schema of perception and memory that features the knowledge (connaissance), but on communication and transmission of meaning. Knowledge (savoir) is primary made up of enunciations and utterings instead of propositions.

3 After Robert Musil, Man without Qalities, 2 volumes, New York; Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1995 and 1999 Or. German: Mann ohne Eigenschaften (1930-1942)




This article will be published in my forthcoming book: The Riddle of the Real City (and the dark knowledge of urbanism), Amsterdam 2014  






© 2013/04/12