The Tragic Community: Nietzsche and Philosophy as A Treatise on Politics (Part I)

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(A year old paper that I still mean to return to)

“Of what account is a book that never carries us away beyond all books?”– Friederich Nietzsche

In a 1990 interview with Gilles Deleuze, Antonio Negri poses a rather interesting question regarding Deleuze’s early monographs on key figures in his personal canon: “Already in the years leading up to ‘68, in your work on Nietzsche and a bit later in Coldness and Cruelty, you’d given a new meaning to politics-as possibility, event, singularity…How should we understand this universality of the untimely?”(Negotiations, 170). What follows are close readings from Deleuze’s text Nietzsche and Philosophy, to give us a sense in which Nietzsche’s thought holds the potential for thinking through the cultural, socio-economic, and material milieu we have come to find ourselves in.

There is an unspoken assumption of my reading which needs to be made explicit: if we are to think and read Nietzsche in terms of what he has to offer the “Left,” we must search through his texts and his interpreters for potential tools of resistance to, and subversion of, Capital. Is this shift from a close reading of Nietzsche’s corpus to an emphasis on the social and political an appropriate one? Given Gilles Deleuze’s own biography, he began his philosophical career by writing texts dedicated to readings of Hume, Kant, Spinoza, Bergson, and of course Nietzsche. Even one of his major philosophical works Difference and Repetition, a post-structuralist study of ontology,  remained a close study of Deleuze’s personal philosophical canon. But given the events surrounding May/June of 1968, and his befriending of radical psychoanalyst Felix Guattari, Deleuze’s own thinking began to turn. His post-68 writings (most notably Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus) took as their subject matter society, politics, language, art, and everything in between.

Thus, I want to offer a shift in our own thinking of Deleuze’s Nietzsche and Philosophy (1962). If we are to dwell on the question of an “appropriate” way to approach this text, I only offer Deleuze and Guattari’s own words in reply: “We will never ask what a book means, as signified or signifier; we will not look for anything to understand in it. We will ask what it functions with, in connection with what other things it does or does not transmit intensities… A book itself is a little machine; what is the relation… of this literary machine to a war machine, love machine, revolutionary machine, etc.” (D&G, ATP, 4)


“There is no event, no phenomenon, word or thought which does not have a multiple sense. A thing is sometimes this, sometimes that, sometimes something more complicated – depending on the forces (the gods) which take possession of it.”(Nietzsche and Philosophy, 4). The irreducibility of sense to a unity is related to the fact that “every force is essentially related to another force. The being of force is plural,”(NP, 6) and simultaneously related to force’s own double movement: “A force is domination, but also the object on which domination is exercised.”(NP, 6). Force is that which gives the phenomena its sense. Force appropriates, exploits, possess the thing or expresses itself in it. Moreover forces determine how a thing is and thus one phenomena can have a variety of identities given a variety of forces. We can also say that force is whichever collection of material conditions the event, subject, word, or phenomena is located in: “The same object, the same phenomenon, changes sense depending on the force which appropriates it.” (NP, 3)

The example of Saussurian linguistics (while I’m well aware is not what Deleuze is after, but nonetheless presents an entry into understanding what is at stake here) is the easiest entry point into this understanding of force and its relation to sense. For Saussure, language is solely constructed of differences and nothing else. Any sign can be inserted into any series of signs to produce meaning. Likewise, signs can be rearranged, withdrawn, or substituted to produce a variety of other meanings. In this way, language produces a variety of senses (sens). Sense, in this regard, is what is created from the relation between the phenomena and the forces which constitute, appropriate, and take possession of it. So when Deleuze writes “a phenomenon is not an appearance or even an apparition but a sign, a symptom which finds its meaning in an existing force,” he is highlighting the fact that sense is constituted and derivative from a play of forces.

It is also important to note Deleuze’s insertion of ‘the gods’ in a parenthesis. If the forces are equivalent to the gods, which is what this sentence seems to suggest, it is the equivalence of the variety of forces with their respective divinities: Dionysus and Christ. A force can become either active or reactive depending on which god gets a hold of it (which force appropriates, subjugates, etc.) The active/affirming force is embodied in Dionysus who suffers from a “superabundance” of life, whereas Christ is the embodiment of the reactive/negating force for whom the superabundance of life results in an impoverished being; life is too much for Christ, but for Dionysus it is never enough.


“For evaluation of this and that, the delicate weighing of each thing and its sense, the estimation of the forces which define the aspects of a thing and its relations with others at every instant-all this (or all that) depends on philosophy’s highest art – that of interpretation. To interpret (sense) and even to evaluate (values) is always to weigh. The notion of essence does not disappear here but takes on a new significance, for not every sense has the same value. A thing has as many senses as there are forces capable taking possession of it.”(NP,  4).  To begin interpreting this passage, it would be fruitful to begin by asking about the relation between weighing and a thing’s ‘many senses.’ If not every sense has the same value, that is to say if not every object, event, phenomena, subject, etc., created from the play of forces (differences) has the same value, it is because each created phenomena is not created with the same quantity of force. Or, given the example of Saussure, we could say that each sense is not created equally since its sense is contextually determined by its sentence, text, genre, language, environment, etc.. But how does one determine (weigh) from which context an essence is derived, if every sense is determined and dependent on the series of forces (signs) which constitute it? By determining which relation(s) of the multi-sensed phenomena enhances its power the most.

One could write a formula as such: the greater in quantity of force, the more pronounced that particular relation between abundance of force and event, subject, phenomena, object, etc. is effected into an essence. Thus Deleuze writes: “Essence…will be defined as that one, among all the senses of a thing, which gives it the force with which it has the most affinity.”(NP, 4). This redefinition of essence is Deleuze asking us to think the event, the phenomena, the subject, with caution. Essence, is related to both sense and force, and by this very relation Deleuze aims to steer us away from any common notions of the term (ousia, substance, the as such, etc.). Essence, understood here, is influenced by a variety of forces but only appears as an essence as that tendency of an object to exhibit itself most powerfully.

Apollo and Dionysus – The Triumph of Active Forces

Deleuze tells us that Apollo and Dionysus are not contradictory terms but rather two solutions to the same problem. The problem, is the triumph of reactive over active forces; the triumph of ressentiment, bad conscience, and the ascetic ideal; or what Deleuze calls the suffering of individuation. What the triumph of the reactive forces means is the domination of a “utilitarian force of adaptation and partial limitation; 2) force which separates active force from what it can do, which denies active force (triumph of the weak or the slaves); 3) force separated from what it can do, which denies or turns against itself (reign of the weak or of slaves).”(NP, 61). Reactive forces means substituting chance and necessity for probability and finality, denying a force to go to it’s limit, and substitutes the affirmation of difference for its negation. Thus, Deleuze can say, echoing Nietzsche’s untimely madman that “The fact remains that we do not feel, experience or know any becoming but becoming-reactive. We are not merely noting the existence of reactive forces, we are noting the fact that everywhere they are triumphant.”(NP, 64). But even though all we have known is the force of reaction/negation, it does not necessarily imply a fatalism.

Deleuze claims that reactive forces cannot return (they have no being) since, if reactive forces were to become-active; that is to say if they were to go to their limit, it must be able to at once affirm its action (dice which are thrown) and affirm that which returns (dice which fall back). But reactive forces find their essence in the will to nothingness. The will to nothingness cannot affirm the being of becoming (eternal return) nor can it affirm becoming itself. The essence of reactive forces is negation and nihilism, for whom life is that which must be put on trial.# Reactive forces find their embodiments in Hegel and Christianity: “For Christianity the fact of suffering in life means primarily that life is not just, that it is even essentially unjust, that it pays for an essential injustice by suffering, it is blameworthy because it suffers. The result of this is that life must be justified, that is to say, redeemed of its injustice or saved.”(NP, 15). For Hegel, “the slave only conceives of power as the object of a recognition, the content of a representation, the stake in a competition, and therefore makes it depend, at the end of a fight, on a simple attribution of established values.” (NP, 10).

Christianity is the reactive force which accuses life for failing to tend to human proclivities. Hegel’s dialectics are the reactive forces that at once are incapable of affirming difference by framing life in terms of a negative movement of competition, and at the same time fail to carry out a true critical thought, which thinks both the origin of values and the value of origins. And one can only say yes when Deleuze asks us, “And what is there at the end of all this if not a subtle way of deprecating existence, of subjecting it to judgment, moral judgment and above all God’s judgment?” (NP, 20).

The solution to the problem of reactive forces (suffering of individuation) are Apollo, and Dionysus. “Apollo is the divine incarnation of the principle of individuation,” who “overcomes the suffering of the individual by the radiant glorification of the eternity of the phenomenon.” (NP, 11). Dionysus is “the affirmative and affirming god. He is not content with “resolving” pain in a higher and suprapersonal pleasure but rather he affirms it and thus turns it into someone’s pleasure. This is why Dionysus is himself transformed in multiple affirmations, rather than being dissolved in original being or reabsorbing multiplicity…He affirms the pains of growth rather than reproducing the suffering of individuation.” (NP, 13).

To think Apollo and Dionysus is non-oppositional since both are solutions of creation (willing) and affirmation (will). The Apollonian is a territorializing solution while the Dionysian is a deterritorializing one. The Apollonian appeals to the forces which constitute its essence (pain being just one constitutive force), and using this essence as its center of gravity to free itself from suffering. The Apollonian gesture is not opposed to the Dionysian, which ‘rumbles’ beneath it. Rather, in its appeal to its constitutive forces for its solution, it affirms the Dionysian excess. Thus the Apollonian is said to be territorializing since it constructs its own grounding from the Dionysian and finds its center within it.

The Dionysian solution can be said to be an extra-subjective solution which, too, appeals to the forces – flows, relations, material conditions – which constitute its essence in order to enhance its own power. It is the extra-subjective solution (deterritorial) since it finds its enhancement of power outside of itself in the very forces which constitute it. Moreover, to enhance one’s own power is not a self/ego driven enterprise, but an affirmation of the will’s relation and place within a network of forces. To enhance one’s power, in the style of Dionysus, is to affirm difference and multiplicity. The difference between Dionysus and Apollo, then, is not a difference of opposition but a difference in the expressivity and concentration# of power: the territorial and deterritorial, the crystallization of power (Apollo) and the dissemination of power (Dionysus). For Apollo, power grows at its center while for Dionysus its power grows at its limits; both affirming difference.
The Tragic Community

Beginning to think a Left Nietzsche, a thought which is a resistance and subversion of Capital, we must begin with the principle that thought is never separable from its form-of-life. That is to say, we must realize one of the greatest gifts Nietzsche offers philosophy: the understanding that the daily activities of life are not neutral. Deleuze is right to say that “affirmation is the product of a way of thinking which presupposes an active life as its condition and concomitant,”(NP, 102) and to emphasize that “evaluations… are not values but ways of being, modes of existence of those who judge and evaluate.”(NP, 1).  From this understanding of the non-neutrality of a form-of-life, we can then ask the question, what is the potential for a Left Nietzschean thought today? The answer is Dionysus and the Tragic Community.

Dionysus is the essence of the tragic and is the one who creates meaning, identity, community, by affirming the forces which constitute essences and by multiplying its own relations of constitution (its own lines of flight): “Affirmation is tragic because it affirms chance and the necessity of chance; because it affirms multiplicity and the unity of multiplicity. The dicethrow is tragic. All the rest is nihilism.” (NP, 36) Through this affirmation, which is at once gay and a multiplication, power begins to grow along every relation; the life related to which takes greater intensities (larger quantities of virtual meaning – that is to say a wider range of possible senses and values). A formula could be stated as such:

1) The more one multiplies its constituting forces, the more one enhances power.

2) The more one enhances power, the more one “overcomes the SUFFERING of the individual” since affirmation and enhancement of power entails the increase in the production of an ESSENCE and the DISSEMINATION of further power.

                    2.1) Suffering here meaning succumbing to the abyss (radical nihilism) and also  denotes    the inversion of this very process; we can name this inversion Capital.

                     2.2) The essences here being Apollo, community, territorialization

2.3) Dissemination here meaning a forces ex-propriation of force and sense

And the greater power grows along every relation a truth continually becomes exposed:

“Whatever singularity, which wants to appropriate belonging itself, its own being-in-language, and thus rejects all identity and every condition of belonging, is the principal enemy of the State. Wherever these singularities peacefully demonstrate their being in common there will be a Tiananmen, and, sooner or later, the tanks will appear.” (Agamben, Means Without Ends, p.89)

The principal enemy of Capital is community. And it is the most radical forms of community, where Capital finds its most powerful enemy. This community, is what we would call the Tragic Community. Within a Tragic Community, power grows along every line of flight and at once embodies the gesture of subversion: the crystallization and dissemination of power, the deterritorialization and territorialization of forces which constitute it. Moreover, the Tragic Community is not only in solidarity with Dionysus but also with Heraclitus who “makes existence an aesthetic phenomenon rather than a moral or religious one.” (NP, 23).

If we repeat the Deleuzean question with a slight shift, “what can the Tragic community do?”, we must reply with his own equation of “we the artists” = “we the inventors of new possibilities of life.” (NP, 103). The Tragic Community is the community which is an active/affirming force; it doesn’t suffer from the impoverishment of life but rather from its superabundance. And in this style, the Tragic Community is incommensurate to Hegel and dialectics. It does not ask for its power to be represented. How could Capital recognize values which aim to overthrow it as anything but “base,” “terroristic,” “violent,” or even better “utopian”? The Tragic Community opposes the negative values of Hegel, the moral values of Christianity, and the global-economic values of Capital. In its place, the Tragic Community only upholds aesthetic values – any creative activity which makes everything in life fuller, richer, more perspicuous and more necessary: the enhancement of force and the feelings of plenitude.# And by doing so, the Tragic Community attempts an escape from Capital’s accommodation of those desires which remain incommensurate to Capital’s essence (reactive) and values. And thus, the real question of my reading: in what sens (way? line? front? meaning? and direction?) does the Tragic Community respond?

If we can assume this language of the crystallization and dissemination of power, we must ask ourselves: What ‘form-of-life’ will the Tragic Community exhibit? How will it resist Capital? One example of the deterritorializing nature of the Tragic Community may take the form of the harassment of State power: “Harassing the police means that by forcing them to be everywhere they can no longer be effective anywhere.”(The Coming Insurrection, 127). A Tragic Community may take the form of territorialization, which is at once a crystallization and a dissemination and can be conceived as such:

“It’s not about possessing territory. Rather, it’s a matter of increasing the density of the communes, of circulation, and of solidarities to the point that the territory becomes unreadable, opaque to all authority. We don’t want to occupy the territory, we want to be the territory […] the rule is simple: the more territories there are superimposed on a given zone, the more circulation there is between them, the harder it will be for power to get a handle on them. Bistros, print shops, sports facilities, wastelands, second-hand bookstalls, building rooftops, improvised street markets, kebab shops and garages can all easily be used for purposes other than their official ones if enough complicities come together in them.”(CI, 108).

A Tragic Community can even be started by raising a question as simple as this: “We should not ask whether it is a crime to ‘steal’ a piece of property, but whether it is a crime to charge rent.” (No Trespassing, 20). And thereby a Tragic Community “super imposes its own geography over the state cartography, scrambling and blurring it: it produces its own secession,”(CI, 108-109) ushering in it’s own transvaluation of values. A Tragic Community is not afraid to establish values by destroying old ones, whether symbolically or materially, since “the creator of values cannot be distinguished from a destroyer, from a criminal or from a critic.” (NP, 87).

Simultaneously, a Tragic Community’s relation to itself grows in quantity of force. But this enhancement of force, the Community’s growth in power, is inseparable from its moment of resistance to power. Thus, thinking both powers growth and resistance at once, a Tragic Community counts “on making that which is unconditional in relationships the armor of a political solidarity as impenetrable to state interference as a gypsy camp […] “becoming autonomous” could just as easily mean learning to fight in the street, to occupy empty houses, to cease working, to love each other madly, and to shoplift.”(CI, 42). And finally, a Tragic Community does not spend time feeling guilt or doubt for any act of love, sabotage, theft, etc. because it knows, that which doesn’t kill power is killed by it.