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  • Nietzsche as Postmodernist
  • Robert C. Holub
Clayton Koelb, ed. Nietzsche as Postmodernist: Essays Pro and Contra. Albany: SUNY P, 1990.

Since his death in 1900, Friedrich Nietzsche has been associated with almost every major movement in the twentieth century. No other writer has succeeded as well as Nietzsche in impressing such an array of subsequent thinkers. Putatively opposing ideologies have competed for his patronage; traditions that otherwise admit nothing in common find Nietzsche an ally in their endeavors. On the political front he has been considered a promoter of anarchism, fascism, libertarianism, and—despite his pointed polemics against the most modern manifestation of slave morality— socialism. In the realm of culture he has been viewed as an inspiration for aestheticism, impressionism, expressionism, modernism, dadaism, and surrealism. In philosophical circles he has allegedly influenced phenomenology, hermeneutics, existentialism, poststructuralism, and deconstruction. This remarkable record of affinities and effects may be less a tribute to the fecundity of Nietzsche’s actual oeuvre than to the resourcefulness of his various interpreters. Nietzsche touched on a wide variety of topics over the two decades in which he wrote, and the manner in which he expressed himself, the elusively suggestive and vibrant style in his mostly aphoristic oeuvre, has been obviously seductive for succeeding generations of intellectuals. Postmodernism is thus only the latest movement to claim Nietzsche as its spiritual progenitor, and it is to the credit of Clayton Koelb that in the volume under review here he has collected fourteen contributions that explore various and often antagonistic aspects of this possible affiliation.

Actually, most of the essays in Nietzsche as Postmodernist have less to do with postmodernism as an artistic or general cultural phenomenon than with “postmodern theory,” i.e., contemporary philosophical and theoretical tendencies generally subsumed under the rubric of poststructuralism. In this regard there are three recurrent strategies for connecting Nietzsche with recent French and Francophilic tendencies. The first of these is heavily reliant on Paul de Man’s essay on Nietzsche and rhetoric found in Allegories of Reading (New Haven: Yale, 1979, 103–18). De Man focuses his attention on a particular phase in Nietzsche’s career when the young classical philologist at Basel was preparing a course on rhetoric for the winter semester in 1872–73. Citing fragmentary lecture notes for this course (which had only two students in attendance) and the unpublished essay “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,” which was likely composed at about the same time, de Man presents us with a Nietzsche sensitive to the undecidabilities of language. The instability of all linguistic utterance becomes for the deManized Nietzsche his seminal philosophical insight. Since according to de Man Nietzsche establishes that all language is inextricably bound to figures and tropes, the traditional notions of the philosophical heritage—identity, truth, causality, objectivity, subjectivity—can no longer be trusted. As de Man writes, “the key to Nietzsche’s critique of metaphysics . . . lies in the rhetorical model of the trope, or, if one prefers to call it that way, in literature as language most explicitly grounded in rhetoric” (109). This reading thus situates Nietzsche at the source of a deconstructive enterprise culminating in the work of Derrida and de Man.

The problem with interpreting Nietzsche’s philosophy in as “postmodernist” is that it compels us to valorize one small portion of his work over almost everything else that he wrote and then to ignore most of his mature philosophical work. Indeed, as Maudemaire Clark demonstrates in her essay “Language and Deconstruction: Nietzsche, de Man, and Postmodernism” (75–90), de Man’s notions about language and rhetoric were not Nietzsche’s, and if in his early writings Nietzsche did in fact flirt with such propositions, he quickly abandoned them as unsatisfactory. Clark argues convincingly that de Man’s assertion that all language is figural is incoherent, and that his confusion of literal meaning with word-for-word translation leads to an unnecessary divorce of truth from all utterance. Relying on Donald Davidson’s holistic view of language and meaning, she shows that de Man’s appreciation of the “inscrutability of reference” is not accompanied by a sufficiently developed notion of truth conditions. Unlike Nietzsche, therefore, whose early views...

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