Malcolm Bull, Anti-Nietzsche

French Theory, and by extension postmodernism, as the cliché goes, is nietzschean. Malcolm Bull’s Anti-Nietzsche attacks not Postmodern Theory, but its favorite German. Nietzsche’s popularity, as Bull has it, rests on the history of his readers believing themselves to be Supermen, the philosophers of the future. They have read as “winners.” Bull responds with a call to read as “losers,” for, as with predestination, in which “many are called and few are chosen,” so with Nietzsche. Readers have attempted to “wrest success…by making themselves the heroes of Nietzsche’s narrative” (34). Reading as losers gets at the foundation of Nietzsche’s claims, his embrace of inequality. Bull writes, “In order to read like a loser you have to accept the argument but turn its consequences against yourself. So, rather than thinking of ourselves as dynamite, or questioning Nietzsche’s extravagant claim, we will immediately think that…there may be an explosion; that we might get hurt…” (37).

Nietzsche’s claim to which Bull’s book responds is twofold: first, that “it is only as aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are justified” (Birth of Tragedy cited in Bull, 11), and second, that “Value increases when there are ‘more favourable preconditions for more comprehensive forms of domination’” (Will to Power cited in Bull, 71). In other words, the only true value is aesthetic, and all aesthetic values are a product of inequality. Reading like a loser, Bull accepts these claims, and argues that, to be free from domination, one must also be free from aesthetic valuation. The figure whom Bull presents as totally free from valuation is the philistine—the figure that is indifferent to art. Starting with the philistine, Bull works toward a call for subhumanism, or nihilism, the dispersal of all values, leading to a radical egalitarianism.

An art historian and theorist, Bull begins by attempting to recuperate the figure of the philistine as an anti-Nietzschean. He defines the philistine as one for whom “all objects are permanently aesthetically valueless….any object whose value is derived solely from its classification as an art-object is fit only for recycling” (3). This is different from one who holds high and popular culture to be of equal value, in which case one merely promotes “the transient at the expense of the durable or revalues the transient as durable” (3). Philistines “are not just opposed to art for art’s sake but have no time for the arts whatsoever” (4). Bull aligns the philistine as the latest negation in the historical series of negations: the atheists of the 16th to 17th centuries, the anarchists of the 17th to 18th centuries, and nihilists of the 19th to now. Each negates a specific mode of domination and hierarchy. This final, total negation of aesthetics (the nihilist’s  negation) allows for subhumanism—and thus for Bull’s radical egalitarianism.

Bull develops two further concepts: negative ecologies and egalitarianism. The ecology of value is “for Nietzsche, what value ultimately is—not a set of values, or even valuations, but rather a set of circumstances…” (70). “…Value is ultimately ecological, in that what is of value is the conditions that allow valuation” (45). It is for this reason that the aesthetic is valuable, for it is the social structure that allows for the Übermensch as artist-tyrant that decides what is valuable. Social hierarchy allows valuation. If the denial of value places “a positive valuation upon the negation itself” (45), then the philistine negates even this positivity by refusing to negate. In other words, the philistine does not deny aesthetic value, but ignores it. Negating Nietzsche’s ecology of value is the “ultimate negation of value itself” (47), for it negates the condition that allows for valuation, i.e. social hierarchy. Out of the negation of the ecologies of value comes a powerful theorization of egalitarianism, one developed most thoroughly in the final chapter of the present book as well as in a recent essay published in the New Left Review.1 While the essence of the argument—as well as its grounding more generally—is in Anti-Nietzsche, reference to the article helps flesh out Bull’s complex position.

Bull describes egalitarianism using the metaphor of a plateau. Traditional progressives have talked about extending the circle of equality—most notably today in terms of including certain non-human animals, such as great apes. Bull points out that to extend a plateau necessarily lowers its total height. Nonetheless, as long as the plateau remains, so too does “a community whose collective but exclusive possession is equality itself” (“Leveling Out,” 24). In other words, the plateau theory necessitates a community of the equal, on the one hand, and everyone else, on the other; one can think of the use of International Law and democratic politics in Europe to justify colonization as a civilizing mission.2

Subhumanism escapes this problematic not by figuring a new way to fit “everyone” onto the plateau, but rather by undermining the plateau itself. In other words, subhumanism levels “down and out.” The subhuman, the philistine, cannot then be considered a philosophical figure, but rather must be a political one. It is a politics of egalitarianism, one that equalizes by lowering. Rather than cramming all onto the plateau of valuation (i.e. aesthetics, civilization), the subhuman disperses all values, releasing them through a politics of entropy. He commends the Dada provocation to use the Mona Lisa as an ironing board. Taking it a step further, Bull advocates turning the Louvre into a home for Great Apes, with the Jardin du Luxembourg as their yard.

While Bull presents a key strategy for reading Nietzsche against himself, by reading Nietzsche as being against oneself, the political project implied by Bull’s egalitarianism raises important issues with which the reader must struggle – not only because of their complexity and novelty, but also because of their significant challenge politically, especially in the current conjuncture of renewed global protest for equality and political rights.

Bull’s subhuman, the philistine, can now be read as the figure of the radical horizontalism associated with the General Assemblies of the Occupy movement. His total rejection of domination and hierarchy is a claim for a radical liberatory politics. The limitation is the philistine’s necessary focus on aesthetics. While no one can deny that the field of aesthetic production is extremely hierarchical, no one can assert that the mode of domination, against which the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring rebel, is aesthetic. Bull’s achievement and limitation is his connection of aesthetic valuation with political domination. Whether or not one agrees with Bull’s call for a politics of radical entropy—the dispersal of all aesthetic values—the question is whether it lines up with his argument for “extraegalitarianism” (extraegalitarianism being “not just the loss of value…but the potential disappearance of what at the start of the process is the good being distributed—notably property, citizenship, equality itself” (167)). One could ask whether the negation of non-aesthetic values (i.e. legal and economic values) can be accomplished by the philistine. Indifference to aesthetic valuation is one thing, but surely it is not equivalent to extraegalitarian negation of economic value. One must agree with Bull that property valuation—per Marx, the creation of value through labor—arises from a form of social organization, i.e. capitalism; indifference to value does not change these values, nor does it change the form of social organization. Capitalism does not care whether we care or are indifferent. Attitudes do not change social forms, politics does.

Historicizing Bull’s Anti-Nietzsche it is helpful. It comes at a moment when the world is still flooded with fictional capital—the total value of the derivatives market is $600 trillion—and the overheated markets have suddenly cooled down into an ongoing global crisis.3 The philistine now returns as a figure of the Occupy movement, a figure that rejects non-democratic organization and representative politics. While the General Assembly and the Occupy movement are extraegalitarian—no one is unwelcome, everyone is offered food and shelter—it remains an open question to what extent this politics will affect the world more widely, a question that will be answered by our practice.

Bull’s book deserves attention both as a scholarly engagement with continental philosophy and political theory, and as a challenging intervention into contemporary left politics. Surely some will disagree with Bull’s approach, but his call deserves serious debate.

Geoffrey Wildanger
Art History, University of California, Davis


1. Malcolm Bull, “Levelling Out,” New Left Review 70 (July/August 2011): 5-24.

2. Martti Koskenniemi, The Gentle Civilizer of Nations: The Rise and Fall of International Law 1870-1960. Cambridge, 2001.

3. This is a point with which even bourgeois economists agree. See Joseph Stiglitz, “The American labour market remains a shambles,” Financial Times, 13 March 2012, 9.

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