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  • The Regime of the Page: Reason, Perspective, Exegesis
  • Davide Panagia
Diego A. von Vacano, The Art of Power: Machiavelli, Nietzsche, and the Making of Aesthetic Political Theory. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007. 215 pages. $29.95 (cloth). ISBN 978-0739121931 (cloth).

The surge that forms the great waves of modernity is called aesthetic political theory. This is the central thesis that Diego A. von Vacano reads between the lines of modern political thought in The Art of Power. Von Vacano takes on the tradition of political thought in order to establish its foundational rift: between reason and perception. In contrast to a normative political theory grounded in the universalist claims of “(logical) reasoning,” (5) von Vacano wants to show the value of an aesthetic political theory rooted in “the perspectivism of particular experiences.” (5) But more than that, the aesthetic political theorizing that von Vacano draws from Niccolö Machiavelli and Friedrich Nietzsche (the two principal exponents he examines at length and closely) pursues themes of representation and imitation, emotion and form, expression and creativity.

Both Machiavelli and Nietzsche not only wrote political and philosophical works, he explains, but also literature (Machiavelli’s The Ass and Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra) and it is “in this personal decision to write that they choose a style that is not at all one of cold, methodical logic, but rather one peppered with figures of speech, colored with awful scenes, and rife with emotion.” (4) An aesthetic mode of political reasoning, in this contestable and under-theorized account of it, thus stems from a commitment to creativity that not only informs the political ideas of Machiavelli and Nietzsche, but is also the key to understanding them.

The fervor with which von Vacano pursues his thesis is at once striking and at times arresting. The book is divided into three parts; Part I, for example, is dedicated to Machiavelli’s works and, specifically, to The Ass and The Prince. Rather than treating The Prince as the sine qua non of Machiavelli’s political theory and as the aperture into modernity, von Vacano argues The Ass “is a work of art (a poem) that has significant insights both into the nature of political life and of the human condition” and that further, “through exegesis we can see its message and find that it is a central text in Machiavelli’s oeuvre” (37). Indeed, that message summarizes Machiavelli’s philosophy of life: tragedy and human mastery are in constant tension with one another, and it is this productive tension that comprises Machiavelli’s understanding of the human condition. But most importantly for von Vacano, The Ass is a work that plays out proto-typical human antinomies (“male-female, man-boy, man-divinity, and man-animal,” 37) where no one binary presides over the others. This, in the end, is one of the characteristics that will permit von Vacano to link Nietzsche to Machiavelli: the overturning of values is as much a lesson that we learn from Machiavelli as it is one that Nietzsche’s philosophy offers us.

The themes of inversion and indistinction implicit in his analysis are also the basis for von Vacano’s reading of The Prince. Chapter Two, “Tragic Machiavelli: The Agon of the Heroic Prince,” plays on the liminal figure of Cesare Borgia, a Spaniard by birth and culture who lived and operated in Italy, a “man of the cloth” who abandoned his religious affiliations in order to “shape himself as above common morality” (49). In this respect, Borgia is Machiavelli’s archetype of heroic virtü. This literary key permits von Vacano to trace the three crucial themes, or “human domains,” of The Prince: independence, acquisition, and appearance (the three sub-sections of this chapter). More to the point, however, the value of Borgia lies in his capacity of transvaluative self-fashioning. This, in the end, is the basis for the Borgia myth, “a rhetorical device useful to Machiavelli in his attempt to both personify the ideal character of the political leader and to express key aspects of his philosophy of life.” (65) In partaking of this act of myth-making that finds its basis in the literary and rhetorical re-articulation of...

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