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Nietzsche's Animal Philosophy: Culture, Politics, and the Animality of the Human Being (review)
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Reviewed by
Vanessa Lemm. Nietzsche's Animal Philosophy: Culture, Politics, and the Animality of the Human Being. Bronx: Fordham University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-8232-3027-3. Cloth, $65.00. ISBN 978-0-8232-3028-0. Paper, $24.00.

This is a highly original study with fresh insights into many aspects of Nietzsche's corpus, ranging from the second untimely meditation on history and the unpublished "Truth and Lies" essay to On the Genealogy of Morality. The aim of the book is to provide the first systematic treatment of the animal in Nietzsche's philosophy. The author wants to show "that the animal is neither a random [End Page 82] theme nor a metaphorical device, but rather that it stands at the center of Nietzsche's renewal of the practice and meaning of philosophy itself" (1). This involves Lemm in a wide-ranging treatment of key motifs in Nietzsche's corpus, including illuminating his views on culture and civilization, morality and politics, history, forgetfulness and memory, and truth. For her the human being is part of the continuum of animal life, and, in part, she takes her inspiration from the pioneering work of Margot Norris in her book Beasts of Modern Imagination. In Norris the author finds a new approach to culture that is "biocentric," that is, it is thought from the perspective of "life." For Norris there is a biocentric tradition of thought that includes Nietzsche and in which these thinkers—Kafka is another example—do not create "like" the animal or in imitation of it but, rather, "as" the animal, with their "animality" fully alive and speaking. As Lemm acknowledges, this is a contentious approach to problems of culture and civilization simply because it is contesting the widespread Enlightenment and humanist view that what makes culture distinctive is the way it separates the human from the animal and sees culture as the task of civilizing the human animal into a moral and rational one. With this focus, however, on "life," this privileging of humanity over animality is reversed and the human is given back its repressed animality.

The critical question to ask is whether this is indeed an "enlightening" move to make and whether it accurately captures what is taking place in Nietzsche's philosophy with respect to questions of humanity and animality. Lemm is aware of the dangers of her perspective and endeavors to steer an approach that avoids the main ones, including the "biologism" of a materialist approach and the anthropomorphism of a spiritualist approach. For her the error of a biologistic approach is that, while taking into account the intimate relationship of human and animal life, it fails to provide an exegesis of the meaning and significance of culture except in terms of survival and self-preservation (not core values in Nietzsche, as is well known). The spiritualist approach cannot do justice to the physiology of life, and here Lemm contends that Nietzsche's reliance on physiology does not denote a crude scientism—the application of mechanical or chemical causality to inert matter—but, rather, requires a genealogy that is able to capture the "spiritual historicity" expressed in physiology.

Throughout the work Lemm skillfully negotiates these various antinomies and shows herself to be an astute and mature reader of Nietzsche. There is an abundance of genuinely fresh insights running throughout the text, and even when she deals with seemingly all-too-familiar material, such as the second untimely meditation or the "Truth and Lies" essay, she has novel and arresting things to say. This also extends to her appreciation of the figure of the "sovereign individual" in GM, which provides one of the best readings of GM II:1-2 I have come across in the recent literature. As she notes, the promise of the sovereign individual has traditionally been understood either as antipolitical or as nonpolitical with the emphasis on individual perfectionism. Contra these readings, Lemm seeks to show that in the figure of the sovereign individual Nietzsche provides an idea of freedom (as responsibility) that intimately concerns the political life of human animals. For her the primary feature of human development is the antagonism and agonism between human and...