Being Affected by Nietzsche

[I tried to write something to introduce myself to the idea of writing an introduction for my prospectus. And this happened…]

You know those times when you meet someone new and pick up a certain kind of vibe from them? Sometimes, even if your encounter with them is brief and superficial, you might get the sense that you could really get along well together, or that they are someone you don’t particularly need or want to get to know any further. In some cases, you might get a weird read from them that leaves you somewhat unsettled, or maybe there is just something about them that makes you feel better, lighter, more relaxed, or even happier. It may be that you don’t even know precisely what it is about the other that resonates with you, but for whatever reason, you just have a hunch about them. Call it sheer intrigue or an insight from intuition, these experiences reflect the idea that there is something there. Even if this “I don’t know quite what” can’t be described, it sometimes suffices to say, “It’s just a feeling.”These types of experiences have been described by the late feminist philosopher Teresa Brennan in terms of the transmission of affect. For Brennan, the felt dimension of another person’s presence, how they can lift you up or bring you down, is a phenomenon that reveals something about our ontology as social subjects. More specifically, such phenomena exemplify how affects are literally transmitted among individuals and within groups. More than just sensations and “feelings,” Brennan explains that affects are themselves material. Gesturing to the role of things like pheromones, Brennan notes that they are literally “in the air.” Furthermore, affects can be understood in terms of the material, physiological, and biological changes that they engender in our bodies, which means that the affective dimension of our embodiment and such experiences of being energized or depleted by the presence of another are not just psychological in character, but biochemical. According to Brennan, there is also a cognitive dimension to affective experiences since affects are not mere sensations but rather occur at the moment of a (perhaps mostly unconscious) judgment. So even if you don’t know what it is that makes you feel a certain way, people like Brennan want to say that an affect does, in a sense, “know” on its own. The affect indicates a judgment about whether one takes in and incorporates the affects of another or rejects and deflects them.

Brennan’s analysis presents a number of important implications. Perhaps most importantly, the transmission of affect reveals that our social interactions with others affect, alter, and shape our biological bodies, for better or worse depending on if the transmitted affects are positive ones like love or negative, as in the case of anger. This is a provocative inversion of the more typical view that our social interactions are mostly guided by our biological constitution, as if one is more nurturing or aggressive because of one’s biological sex (and all that this is presumed to entail in terms of hormones and “natural tendencies”) rather than the affective atmospheres within which one engages with others. Already, then, the transmission of affect blurs the boundaries between what is social and what naturally biological and if one can actually be thought before the other.

A second implication arises in light of Brennan’s suggestion that affects are judgments, which gestures to the epistemological importance of affects. There are various and contradictory views espoused across and within numerous disciplines regarding affective embodiment and cognition, and although there is little agreement on the precise nature of the relation between cognition and affect, the sheer volume of attention dedicated to the topic is noteworthy in that, if nothing else, it reflects the social, political, and epistemological value that is already attached to what people can “know” by virtue of their affects. This is especially evident with respect to heavily value-laden social and political issues such as discrimination and oppression or the evaluation of morally right or wrong actions. In such instances, an epistemological link is often tacitly acknowledged in appeals to things like “gut instincts” about what is right or wrong, what sort of actions are viewed as disgusting or attractive, or which groups of people evoke fear, distaste, or aversion in others.

Finally, the transmission of affect and subsequent biochemical changes in one’s self that occur in light of this blur the borders between self and other. The notion of a self-contained, independent individual disintegrates. At the fundamental level of our ontology, we come to be recognized as thoroughly intersubjective beings. I (and my affects) affect you while you (and your affects) affect me. So much so that we can literally feel it when we encounter one another.

While each of these issues regarding the transmission of affect merit further analysis, I will not yet pursue them here. At this moment, I bring up Brennan’s emphasis on the transmission of affect to shed light on a specific and peculiar kind of hunch that I’ve had in the past that is different from Brennan’s analysis of the transmission of affect but that certainly shares a kind of resonance.  My hunch was about a man, but I didn’t ever meet him in person. I only read his books. But it was more than that. As I read, I was deeply affected by his words. I felt charged, giddy, and much like one on a high from a new crush, this excitement would often materialize in outbursts of laughter. Sometimes his words would make me feel uncomfortable. Not just uncomfortable because I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but really, physically, or better yet, physiologically uncomfortable insofar as considering the implications of his arguments would put my stomach on edge in ways that he often anticipated throughout his own writing. At other times, I would fall silent or even cry because his writing is just so poignant. So beautiful. It possesses such resonance. This man, of course, is Friedrich Nietzsche.

My first introduction to Nietzsche was in the fall of my junior year in college when I took a phenomenal class with an amazing professor entitled “Meaning and Truth in Religion.”  Though I really didn’t understand much about the theology we were reading, I was exposed to a different kind of philosophy, or a different way of doing philosophy; different questions, different problems, different understandings. I have since realized that this was my first exposure to what is frequently referred to as “Continental philosophy.” Although I found Nietzsche’s critical thoughts on metaphysics and ontology interesting then, I wasn’t quite yet grabbed by him. In fact, from what I had gathered in the short time that we focused on Nietzsche in class, I was more interested in making him politically palatable–the will to power seemed to be too frequently interpreted (by myself, too, at the time) in violent and forceful ways that didn’t sit well with me. I gather now that my initial desire to make him more “acceptable” reflects a good deal about my philosophical sensibilities then, but it probably also indicates that  I didn’t really “get” Nietzsche yet.

We can fast forward a couple of years ahead when I found myself in graduate school in a predominantly Continental philosophy program surrounded by other philosophers and enthusiastic new graduate students. As is probably the case in most academic disciplines, whenever philosophers meet for the first time, one of the first questions people raise to break the ice asks about what kind of philosophy you are interested in and who you study.  Having declared my major rather later in my undergraduate career, I was still relatively new to philosophy, and given that I had a mostly analytic background, I wasn’t even able to make sense of most of the names and topics with which others would align themselves and their projects. Heidegger and phenomenology were pretty empty signifiers for me then. But I do recall the moment when I started to align myself with two particular thinkers. It was within the first couple of weeks of my first semester in graduate school when I said to an older graduate student, “I don’t know for sure what I am going to do in philosophy, but I have a hunch that I will become quite involved with two figures: Nietzsche and Foucault.”

At that point, I still had a hunch, but it was only a hunch. I guess it was significant enough to act on though since, despite the fact that I still hadn’t ever read a single book by Nietzsche or Foucault, but thanks to the convenience of online shopping and the impulsiveness of my spending, I actually already owned a number of them. My guess is that my theological glimpse at Nietzsche and the references to Foucault made by feminist philosophers I read during the last two years of my undergraduate studies planted some seeds in my mind, and from those seeds, my own little library had already started to sprout even before moving to graduate school. I was probably able to anticipate my trajectory just from the things that I had gathered about them through what other people had written. But even once I recognized that I had this hunch about the two who would eventually be adoringly referred to as “my philosophical homeboys,” I didn’t want to force things. Like with any healthy love relationship, I was willing to let it develop organically on its own. Instead of making it a point to test my feelings by immediately diving into their books, I chose to let it sit as it was for however long it needed to. I trusted that there would be a time when their relevance would make itself known, and I suspected that it would be at a time when I was ready for it.

It wasn’t until the second semester of my first year in graduate school (Spring 2009) when I took a seminar on 19th Century Continental philosophy that I became fully involved in what became known to myself and others as my semester long love affair with Nietzsche. For those fifteen weeks, I truly was in love and everyone around me knew it. It even became the topic of my seminar paper. Here’s the shameless introduction:
Upon my first close reading of some of Nietzsche’s work I felt myself being wrapped up in what was to be light-heartedly referred to for the rest of the semester as a love affair.  Whether I was reading in my bed at home or at a coffee shop surrounded by other people, Nietzsche made me toss my head back in laughter and throw my hands up in awe.  Literally, there were times when I read something that would make me exclaim, “Yes, Nietzsche!”  At other parts of his texts, those that proved more difficult to swallow, I noticed my discomfort rise. And there were even times in Thus Spoke Zarathustra that made me cry.  How could I explain to my friends and colleagues the experience of my semester-long fling with Nietzsche—the way his words would resonate with me, or rather, the way they would sing? This little love affair of mine might have been aptly named at the beginning, for it had quickly turned into an impassioned exploration of Nietzsche’s pages and of my own relationship to them. I am grateful that I can continue to carry around The Gay Science even after the semester is over, yet I have been left sheepishly wondering, “Could this really be love?”

While affects are certainly at play in how and when I read Nietzsche, their presence and operation differs in important ways from the kind of transmission that Brennan discusses. Rather than being transmitted via biochemical pheromones and olfactory cues that happen when people physically encounter one another in the same time and space, my affective experiences occurred in the presence of books. Beyond mere books, however, I want to suggest that my affective experiences while reading Nietzsche indicate at least one possible way in which affects can be produced through philosophy; more specifically, through the reading of certain philosophical texts of a particular character which reach intended audiences through specialized aims.

It is because reading Nietzsche’s books has so profoundly affected me on personal, physiological, and certainly philosophical levels that I will argue that the nature of philosophy itself can be understood as an embodied practice that can, at the level of our physiological constitution, affect us in ways that produce greater health, well-being, and vitality. This claim is found in the content of Nietzsche’s own work (and it harkens back to more classic conceptions of philosophy among Hellenistic thinkers. This is something I will pick up at a later time). One of my aims is to show how an appreciation for Nietzsche’s philosophical emphasis on health and physiology, along with the distinctive style of his writing, reveals an underestimated, and so far under-explored, connection between affect and philosophy. By no means does this mean that Nietzsche is the only philosopher to have this effect on others, but I will refer to my own affective experiences while reading his work as a kind of case-study for this connection, which involves other issues around pedagogy, rhetoric, and the “ends” of philosophy. I think it may even implicate a revision of what is characteristically understood to count as “philosophy.”

This means that there are at least two distinct approaches for unpacking the relationship between affect and philosophy that I will discuss in turn. Not only are there interesting insights to be understood with respect to the philosophy of affect, that is, in terms of how we are to understand the ontological and cognitive (or not) dimensions of affect, but a greater sensitivity to the potential for affects of (or within) philosophy reveals exciting new possibilities for how we might understand, and undertake, philosophy as a transformative, even therapeutic, practice. Numerous issues surface when philosophy is undertaken as a kind of therapeutic practice that can produce such transformations, including questions about the connections between mind and body, and psyche and soma.  Metaphilosophical questions about the nature and aims of philosophy itself also become relevant. For instance, new lines can be drawn that reinterpret the classic analogy between medicine and philosophy as perhaps more than just an analogy. Furthermore, the relationships among truth, philosophy, and pedagogy can be reevaluated in terms that echo, once more, a view of philosophy as a practice, as an art of life.

Exploring the connections between affect and philosophy in both directions and raising such questions invites a dialogue of different voices and views from apparently disparate disciplines including philosophy, psychology, physiology, and neuroscience. As disparate as these fields might initially appear, on issues related to affect, emotion, and embodiment they have already been brought together in ways that reveal exciting new possibilities for health and healing. Furthermore, understanding the particular methods by which affects are cultivated, produced, evoked, or transmitted is valuable in order to better appreciate the role of affect with respect to personal well-being and political oppression or resistance. This is because, as was mentioned above, I want to suggest that not only are affects philosophically significant, but they also already operate in politically charged ways. While much of what I will explore deals with the two pronged approach to the philosophical significance of affect (that is, the philosophy of affect and affect of philosophy), this investigation is motivated by a sensitivity to the already political dimension of many affective experiences and their role in perpetuating and justifying discriminatory attitudes.

[After writing this, I went to an empty classroom with two chalkboards and sketched out a rough outline of what I think will shape up to be my dissertation.]


One thought on “Being Affected by Nietzsche

  1. Hello- I just found your blog and enjoy some of your posts thus far. If you are open to suggestions regarding Nietzsche's work, I would highly recommend Clement Rosset's _Joyful Cruelty: Toward a Philosophy of the Real_. Given your thoughts regarding Nietzsche, I think it may be of some interest.

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