Nietzsche, Revolutionary Subversion and the Contemporary attack on Music - Stuart Wise

nietzsche playing the piano

On Nietzsche, music, motherfuckers and insects. From December 2007. Originally published on the Revolt Against Plenty website.

Submitted by Fozzie on May 26, 2024

The following is fragmentary critique - there have been a few minor alterations since - that was sent to a young American woman who is hopefully putting together a re-appraisal oriented around the activities of Black Mask and the Motherfuckers rescuing them (and others?) from the repression and calumnies brutally foisted on them in the United States. It is a grim picture typified by an account of their activities plus relatively recent interview with Ben Morea conducted by an appalling, sneering Harvard professor, name of John McMillian1 .

For American Rebecca (A young student who recently contacted us)

I am surprised Black Mask and the Motherfuckers are less well known than King Mob and the French Situationists in the States. Have you seen the recent book by Peter Doggett There's a Riot Going On, published by Canongate (Edinburgh, New York, London) that deals with the 'revolution' in music, the title taken from Sly Stone's album of the same name? There are three pages on Black Mask and the Motherfuckers. Basically the guy deals with the Fillmore East intervention against hip entrepreneur Bill Graham together with pop group MC5 and John Sinclair. Although factually reasonably accurate, Doggett is essentially a musicologist living in Hampshire, England and he just hasn't a clue re wider, world-turned-upside-down perspectives managing to make historically important subversive incidents into very dull reading indeed. It's as though he can make no comment or take sides! The uniqueness of Black Mask / Motherfuckers was they forthrightly attacked all the most advanced ultra-modern representations of capital that recuperated real living aspects of general creativity emanating from those who wanted to live completely different lives ranging from cultural mausoleums like the Rockefeller Center / Museum of Modern Art, hip police chiefs like Captain Fink and cutting edge pop musicians from Ed Sanders & the Fugs to MC5. It was a form of subversion unique in dissident 'other' America and has never been repeated there or its potential remotely fulfilled. My brother David was involved in the Ed Sanders attack just after the Fugs had brought out that record that became a hit with the lyric: "Art is nothing, nothing, nothing" turning living contestation into acceptable, saleable commodity. It meant Sanders quickly figured on the cover of Time magazine. A few days after this Black Mask inspired attack, David bumped into that first remarkable eco anarchist, Murray Bookchin on a street on New York's Lower East Side and Murray eagerly grabbed him saying "Ed Sanders is crying saying he's sold out and can't forgive himself". David laughed gleefully. It must also be clearly understood that Ben and co were the first to prioritise the role of pop music attacking its pivotal fulcrum in the vista of contemporary alienation especially the music that specifically said it was on the side of the revolution or indeed was the revolution itself, rightly pointing out it was merely hip performance which, in reality set itself against clued-in intervention from the street and the route that could clearly go somewhere definitively overthrowing the audience / performer estrangement blocking all paths to social / individual emancipation.

These facts in themselves also point to something else and a wider historical memory or historical subconscious as modern interventions like that outlined above didn't just come from nowhere. So, apropos of music and your interest in Nietzsche, I am increasingly of the view the Nietzsche contra Wagner polemic is a seminal document of modern times and of massive importance as regards the present musical panorama - for that is what it is - a visual, wrap around panorama of artistic enactments that endeavours to become all encompassing and that strives, through the aid of the increasingly sophisticated minimalist gadgetry of quantum mechanics, to encompass all of life and eventually become a substitute for life, a 'second life' (or 'skin', for quantum mechanics via computing and Craig Venter is on the verge of creating a replicant biology in tandem with implant engineering) - compensating for the absence of the first. Essentially however it has its (primitive) origins in Wagnerian stage craft that aimed at a similar total immersion having its roots in the gesamtkunstwerk prefigured by German philosophical idealism and the importance it granted to art and the intuitive imagination as a parallel making of society which had to escape the confines of art for it to become a real force (though it was never stated quite as bluntly as this, all the elements are there that allow one to do so) as well as being a response to the revolution of 1848 and in some subtle, unremarked measure and one never given the slightest credence by musicologists influenced by Bakunin and revolutionaries of the same ilk whom for a short time Wagner befriended. In place of the twilight of the gods, the gotterdamerung, there arose the god of music as exclusively masterminded and choreographed by Wagner, that demiurge that Nietzsche denounced as being unable to save music though without taking his insight to the its most extremes it patently cries out for. As you probably know the young Nietzsche idolised Wagner and would embarrassingly abase himself in front of him and for several year was his step 'n' fetch it before turning on Wagner with a vengeance, and which turned out to be the most painful blow ever to land on Wagner.

Above: Fredrich Nietzsche and Richard Wagner

Nietzsche's first book The Birth of Tragedy brimming with all the naïve verve of youth was effusive in its praise of Wagner. Debord rated the book highly, a fact I have only recently become aware of and indeed one can see how some of its concepts shaped Debord's theorising. In later introductions to this book penned by Nietzsche it becomes apparent that Nietzsche's aversion to Wagner has become unbearable though brilliantly obsessive with Nietzsche worrying over every detail of Wagner's music, life and the influence of the man himself who now, in Nietzsche's eyes, could not do right for doing wrong. As I recall the intros' stress the immediate background - the Paris Commune of 1871 - though Nietzsche refers to it as the Franco-Prussian war, unawares that this signal event in the history of class struggle had perhaps affected his profound enquiry into the nature of Greek drama and its codicil, the apotheosis of Wagner as a contemporary recreation of the spirit of Greek drama. In the decade long interval between the two intros something had happened for Nietzsche by now finding the auditorium and the company of performers / singers /actors - "miming maniacs" - suffocating, glad to be away from it all in the clean air of mountain passes humming with the sounds of insects in which he finds a new innocence beyond the Judaic Christian morality that Wagner has become a declining and interminable prisoner of, not least because of his belief in total artistic envelopment as a panacea possessing the power to cure the catastrophic alienation of man under capitalism. In so far as he once could accurately diagnose alienation, it has to be said that Wagner was closer to Marx than Nietzsche ever was, though neither Marx or Engel's (the latter especially seeing he was contemporaneous with Wagner's greatest triumphs) could even begin to contemplate engaging on a critique of Wagner or even see it as essential. Here Nietzsche, as a reluctant 'communist' even indeed Situationist, increasingly alive to the decay of artistic form, definitely had the drop on both of them.

In any case the growing theatricalization of music, the triumph of the means of production over performance goes back to Wagner though no one, but no one has the wit today to compare the Live 8 nonsense and Live Earth gore with the sound / performance orgies emanating from Bayreuth, the latter's obvious influence on the Nuremberg rallies and their gradual morphing into today's pop spectaculars with a penetration amounting to billions of viewers that Wagner and Hitler would have died for.

I also think it unfortunate Nietzsche never had much to say about Hegel. Though describing him somewhere as a "brother genius" (the other brother being Schopenhauer) I am inclined to think he had only cursorily dipped into Hegel much preferring Kant. And it is Kant's philosophy that we see peering through the shades of The Birth of Tragedy time and again, particularly the importance Kant grants to the "thing in itself" and the limitation such a concept imposes on scientific knowledge. As such Nietzsche looks to destructive, galvanic "creativity" (as prefigured in the drunken Dionysian hordes out of which Greek drama sprang and which is also a mythologisation of the Indo-European migration that, reading between Nietzsche's lines, posed the key question of quiescence - Buddhism - or action) to provide meaning in preference to the knowing - and passive - distance of science, though I think it entirely false to claim that Nietzsche repudiated science and that his entire philosophy was a repudiation of reason (as for instance George Lukacs wilfully alleged) in the name of an altogether different epistemology ultimately derived from a defeated religion and renascent 'art', though one conceived as a principle of life. For instance he followed with considerable interest Helmholtz's investigations into quicker-than-thought reflex actions and he was much taken with Nageli's researches into amoebal life forms, the latter in particular prompting thoughts on alimentation and the psychology of hunger that many years later were to knock Freud sideways. However Nietzsche's claim that these amoebal forms show a rhythmic, aesthetic propensity goes well beyond Kant even if Nietzsche's assertion that "life can only be grasped as an aesthetic phenomena" is indebted to Kant - though it clearly transgresses the restricted sense Kant grants to the aesthetic as alone able to bridge the otherwise unbridgeable antinomy of pure and practical reason.

As you are probably aware both David and myself are fascinated by insects particularly butterflies and moths and have been since we were in short trousers.

Rereading The Genealogy of Morals after a time span of thirty years I was particularly struck by the number of references to insects (there is a distinct buzz to the entire book) even going so far as to list the number of occasions insects are mentioned - and never unfavourably. To my mind it is an altogether less strained work than Thus Spoke Zarathustra (and that reflects Nietzsche's jealously as regards Christianity never entirely able to overthrow the myth of the saviour) where biblical images of eagles and serpents abound, insects rarely appearing in the bible other than negatively, like the plagues of locusts for example. Nietzsche as an entomologist? Why, I even wrote a few lines on the subject several years ago with a eye to the founding fathers of modern entomology like Hooke, Leevanhoek, Ray, Schwammerdam all four coincidental with the rise of Protestantism (described by Marx as "religion's self-criticism") - and capitalism, insects acting in various ways as living picture writing and one that by emphasising the astonishing formal variety of insect morphology and range of insect behaviours implies a critique of the growing uniformity of life under capitalism. Though, to begin with, this admonition is far from obvious in the work of the aforementioned individuals, by the time Keats came to write his Ode to Psyche it certainly was. To my mind Nietzsche in The Genealogy of Morals and in other stray references throughout his oeuvre had taken the subject a stage further by impishly, and perhaps involuntarily, linking entomology to a rejection of the past and a rebirth of wonderment, innocence and a freedom from guilt. And, it should be added, to the abolition of money for there is a nascent critique of political economy in The Genealogy of Morals evident from the attention Nietzsche pays language, pointing in particular to the verb deber meaning both to owe a sum of money and to do ones amoral duty. Need I say more? It certainly goes some way in helping elucidate the extraordinary hold entomology has over the both of us twins. And could the increased interest in insects we see appearing everywhere be a basis for a deeper, more larval, and yet soaring critique of capitalism and which will help this downtrodden, desperately saddened humanity to eventually take wing and become inspired? That Nietzsche was a proto-ecologist is also never noticed. He arraigned industrial capitalism in the 'Genealogy' for its hubris in full expectation of the nemesis to follow: "Our whole attitude to nature, our violation of nature with the help of machines and the heedless ingenuity of technicians and engineers is hubris". In the next breath he describes god as some putative spider, that spider taking the place of Kant's categorical imperative and forever weaving a web of deception in terms of final causes we must combat and which is our categorical imperative. This is the only time arthropods, as far as I can recall, are treated, if not in a wholly negative manner, then certainly ambiguously in the 'Genealogy'. Otherwise to be in the presence of insects is an ennobling experience, and beyond good and evil as these 'opposites' have hitherto been conceived.

Nietzsche's final work written when he was 'mad', correct me if I am mistaken, was Ecce Homo. It is a work not easy to come by in this country or in America - and not because it is sacrilegious but because it is vain glorious, especially so to English ears. To me it stinks of religious envy and to my mind it would have made more sense to have written a work entitled Ecce Arte - behold the artist or art. Its consequences could have been, would have been, far more profound - and relevant. Zarathustra sought to be a creator of life, of people, rather than art but unfortunately he comes across as something of a crank prophet obsessed with replacing Christ though unable to do much more than emulate what he was striving to overcome. And with nothing like the equivalent degree of success - in fact when all is said and done Zarathustra is not much more than a ridiculously still-born literary figure. Hegel also made Christ out to be an artist in his Philosophy of the Fine Arts but Hegel, despite paying lip service to Christianity for career reasons, was a less religiously obsessed man than Nietzsche and it never detracted for one moment from his main task which was to historicize the forms of art, a stupendously productive enterprise and which willy-nilly influenced Nietzsche and everyone else who subsequently has given a moment's thought to art's history. And though now conveniently forgotten that is what Hegel wanted to do: make art history.

But to get back to Nietzsche as a critique of art rather than art critic. Would for instance that Nietzsche had been able to update his critique of music with a consideration of Debussy for example, that other founding contemporary musical influence almost on a par with Wagner and whose importance grows by the minute with each commissioned piece of nature schmaltz especially composed to accompany yet another wild life TV programme. Though often dazzling solely on account of the photography they still leave the viewer feeling empty, who, even in this moment of direst emergency, is only ever there to be entertained. Nothing unsettling, like incisive critique which could be a prelude to changing nature (i.e. restoring it), must ever be allowed to intrude upon these nature spectaculars. Debussy like Wagner also anticipates filmic modes, the endless melodies of his tone poem perfectly lending themselves to the minute, never-ending variations required by the serial production of nature films on an industrial scale that caters to a market demand that is now global. Under the weight of formulaic nature recitatives that aspire to outlive nature and narratives both spoken and unspoken that do not have to be anthropomorphic in order to falsify content, nature becomes essentially a fictionalised nature. Without barely a word said in protest, nature ends up succumbing to art long before it is finally destroyed by capitalism and climate change. Considering just how trenchant Nietzsche's critique of Wagner is, and one that is capable of effortlessly spanning the 120 year gap in between, I have often wondered what he would have heard in Debussy that would resonate down to our own times. The sound of silence? For that is more than likely in a musician in which the sounds of nature have a tendency to take over, the medley of rustling leaves continuing where Debussy left off and finally leading to an artistic crisis of vast proportions and consequence.

When did the reclaiming of Nietzsche for the revolution begin and by whom? I think that ultimately we have the Frankfurt School to thank for that, particularly Herbert Marcuse in his book on Freud entitled Eros and Civilization. This book dotted with numerous references to Nietzsche certainly changed the way I thought about Nietzsche and led me on to unearth yet more Freudian anticipations in the nooks and crannies and highways and byways of Nietzsche's thoughts than those cited by Marcuse. Though I was then inclined to think that without the scientific grounding that Freud supplied, Nietzsche's intuitions, like his notion of the primal crime on which civilization is based, would forever remain inspired guess work, I also never wavered in my conviction that civilization and its discontents was experienced in an altogether more razor like and total manner by Nietzsche than it ever was by that respectable bourgeois, Sigmund Freud.

Did Georges Bataille help reclaim Nietzsche for the radical revolution envisaged by the International Lettrists, the Situationist International, King Mob and the Motherfuckers and others in America? All three volumes of his The Accursed Share were some of the most influential books of the post war years, though ones that were hopelessly vitiated by a conception of communism that owed everything to Stalin and next to nothing to Marx. To this arid Russian soviet alternative Bataille counter poses Nietzsche though recognising that Zarathustra's revolt is also doomed to failure, as fascism has in a sense demonstrated, though he never once unequivocally insists that Nietzsche would have unhesitatingly rejected Hitler with the same vehemence as Marx would have done Stalin. It showed how much Bataille was affected by the ruling discourse and more's the pity that he did not see fit to attend the seminal discussions around Rouge et Noir and the nascent Socialisme ou Barbarie group who were then beginning to develop a theory of state capitalism. Had Bataille understood the tenor of what they were saying it could have fundamentally changed everything regarding his reworking of Mauss's Essai sur le Don and what society did with its surplus and which gave humanity its sovereign purpose? This fundamental category, and until Bataille, ignored category of political economy, and which is so resistant to analysis in terms of labour value and the reproduction of labour power, took the 'science' well beyond the realm of necessity and mere survival - though it is questionable if Bataille ever really understood what was meant by the abolition of political economy. My history is hazy here and I'm unable to say exactly how Bataille's study of the potlatch contributed to a deeper understanding of the first violent, spontaneous revolts against consumer society and its inevitable corollary - work itself. Or to what degree he influenced Lettrisme then International Lettrisme and finally the Situationists. It is a hidden history and one that could do with being exposed to the clear light of day, particularly in the English-speaking world. The Bataille that comes down to us, and that is so big both here and in the States and has such a market appeal, is the one that justifies art (e.g. the Chapman Bros, Genesis P-Orridge etc) and is mired in the aestheticisation of De Sade and Lautreamont turning them into erotic novelists and instigators of a sadoporn art genre. Also Bataille cannot escape the charge that he helped prepare the sewer of post modernism, particularly so in Michael Foucault's case. Though Bataille was hostile to academia, his writing often suffers from a typically academic lack of directness and thus prefigures the get-out clauses post-modernism is littered with. Following the Second World War and reflecting the rise of social democracy whether in a 'right' or 'left' form, there was a huge increase in higher education establishments, their baneful influence doing much to weaken and finally destroy revolutionary theory. It is more imperative today than ever to keep clear of academic institutions, even if only for the sake of one's mental health.

Finally there was also a post war Stalinoid rehabilitation of Nietzsche led by Louis Althusser who was in turn much influenced by the philosopher of psychoanalysis, Jacques Lacan, who in the manner of the philosophes attempted to reduce Freud to a series of algebraic equations. However even Lacan drew back from carrying out a similar mathematical diminution on Nietzsche, though Thomas Mann's fictionalised portrait of Nietzsche in the person of Adrian Leverkuhn in Dr Faustus has him steeped in the mathematical relations of music. A more un-Nietzschean preoccupation cannot be imagined and to think, as Mann obviously does, that Nietzsche would have been an aficionado of Schoenberg is completely mistaken to my mind. No matter whether tonal or atonal, the musical score per se would have come under the philosopher's hammer.

And as to the Stalinoid rehabilitation of Nietzsche ---- I have my own personal story to relate. I doubt if you have heard of Dick Pountain but suffice to say he is now worth around a cool million quid or so and is the business partner of Felix Dennis, currently one of the top richest people in Britain worth just this side of £1 billion though formerly one of the editors of Oz magazine. (The same company that made Notting Hill is presently making a film of the Oz trial entitled Hippie, Hippie Shake in Notting Hill). Dick in his earlier days hung around with King Mob before abandoning libertarian critiques to embrace 'scientific Marxism' as preached by Louis Althusser. To mark his conversion he pinned up a photograph of---Friedrich Nietzsche! Casual visitors mistakenly took it to be a photograph of Stalin for by this time Pountain had begun to relate to BICO (British and Irish Communist Party) who were engaged among other things in reprinting transcripts of the Moscow Trials to prove that Stalin was right and that e.g. Bukharin was a running dog lackey of capitalism after all! He was. But so was Stalin though under another form that 'bent' the law of value so to speak and suppressed the internal market by bringing commerce completely under the control of the state. (Mark my words this beast is due for a revival). Louis Althusser had built his entire life around the concept of the 'epistemological break' (though 'brake' would more accurately describe this dead-end) to explain the moment Marx definitely broke with Hegel and on the slenderest evidence from that time forwards purportedly dropped any mention of dialectics as idealist and pre-scientific. Pountain had intended inscribing his pin-up of Nietzsche with the words "Hegel is dead, killed by Nietzsche" believing him to be a thorough going determinist. But so in a sense was Hegel who was no stranger to the hidden hand of history, of forces operating behind people's backs. Indeed he could be said to have 'invented' the idea, for it was a notion that was central to his entire system.2

Looking back this latter-day adulation of Nietzsche from a Russian soviet perspective could be said to herald the break-up of the nomenclature and marked a transitional stage prior to some members of it becoming filthy rich from Yeltsin's reckless privatisations of state companies. Wallowing in regret - and money - Pountain now lashes himself for ever having supported the soviet system and crying foul whenever the operations of the free market are obstructed. Now both Hegel and Nietzsche are dead - killed by money!

Strange to say Nietzsche's reputation has rarely been higher than it is today whilst Freud's star continues to decline. He is rated highly by Daniel C. Dennett (Darwin's Dangerous Idea) and, given that Richard Dawkins has a great regard for Dennett, no doubt also by Dawkins, who in turn has no time at all for the 'soft science' of either Freud or Marx. According to Dawkins the god delusion can only be dispelled through rigorous scientific demonstration and the notion that religion is the alienated essence of man is a complete anathema to him. Thus he cannot begin to understand the hold religion has over mankind. The only way to abolish religion is to abolish the conditions that give rise to religion, and that prevent every last one of us from experiencing fulfilment. To Dawkins capitalism is not a problem, never mind the problem and the very last thing Dawkins wants to see is the drawing down of heaven to earth, as took place in the Paris Commune of 1871. And so we are back to where we more or less started in the discussion of Nietzsche, the Paris Commune of 1871 and before that in a few remarks on Black Mask and the Motherfuckers, on a developing total intervention against a growing total alienation that demands total revolution. Do we ever really get away from these momentous events, events that will inevitably return to haunt the last days of mankind if we don't finally succeed in overthrowing this goddamned system?