Two primary modern conceptions of power – of how it operates in society and in the individual – are offered by Marx and Freud, respectively. Nietzsche also developed ideas about what power is and how it operates, and my previous post rather deemphasized his ideas about “the will to power” and instead drew a humanist or perhaps nostalgically post-humanist picture of his vision of Dionysian “joy” arising in tragedy, a picture akin to that presented by Walter Kaufmann and even by Walter Benjamin, say in “Fate and Character” with its image of the tragic form – where “the head of genius lift[s] itself for the first time from the mist of guilt…and becomes aware that he is better than his god” (but as a result is exiled from ordinary language by the very structure of language, of society’s laws and condemnation by the gods).
In Nietzsche's conception of power, the sublimity “beyond good and evil” achieved by the tragic hero (as he confronts the gods' imposition of guilt) is not merely a matter of sublimation or a careful cultivation of his newly realized power. In much of Nietzsche’s exposition of “the will to power,” the hero’s “sublimity” is rather a product of engaging a war-like gauntlet of strengthening possibilities ranging widely from destructive cruelty to fertile creativity, a “saying yes to life” in its destructiveness and its creativity. According to “A Genealogy of Morals,” the will to power at its most primitive involves a brutal purgation of the “ugly,” hypocritical, resentful, self-suppressing, life-rejecting slave morality imposed, in Nietzsche’s view, by the Judeo-Christian religion on humankind. The improvisatory, even perverse intensity of Nietzsche’s condemnations and enthusiasms make his version of the modern dialectic of power seem more unstable and provocative than the more soberly analytical versions offered by Marx and Freud.
Yet their ideas in their own right shake the foundations, and they are in a sense more encompassing, and certainly more modern, for both Marx and Freud employ a modern ‘technological’ language, the mechanistic abstractions of industrial processes, grown massive as the nineteenth century issued into the twentieth. Here is an example from Marx’s early “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts:” “The alienation of the worker from his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power of its own confronting him…as something hostile and alien,…turning him into a machine” and condemning him to the privation, sheltering “hovel,” and deformity of the “mediocre.” And in “The Communist Manifesto” he and Engels write, there is in modern society “no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’…[which] has resolved personal worth into exchange value” (here and in “Capital,” the abstractions of “political economy” seal the argument – exchange value, use value, surplus value, etc.).
As in Nietzsche’s work, the power of the Marxist revolution would destroy the “alienated” negating structure of human relations and – in a sort of double negation akin to the notion “death, thou shalt die” – would clear the field in order to create a new structure of relations in its place. The dialectical struggle between the bourgeoisie or owning class and the proletariat or working class is even more total in encompassing society as that combat Nietzsche imagines between the quasi-aristocratic “overman” (who self-consciously overcomes his own weaknesses and mediocrities) and the masses (who stew in resentment and/or content themselves with cretinism). The ideal result of Marx’s revolution would be (by means of the negation of private property) the proletariat’s just and no longer alienating appropriation of the bourgeoisie’s negative space of constant technological change and consumption. There is a double destabilization occurring here: the drive toward continually increasing productivity in which “all that is solid melts into air” confronts the drive to erase capitalist ownership and finally to yield the synthesis of a classless society – or in the western democracies, to spread the capacity for ownership widely among the working masses (which Marx, of course, considered a liberal deception and betrayal of workers’ interests). The Marx-Engels Reader (Second Edition)
Marx’s contributions to the modern include this template for the use of power and revolutionary change, the resulting assumption of radical destabilization, and an orderly mechanistic analysis, which paradoxically underpins the program for wiping away, in Marx’s time, the entire economic system of the western world. Related qualities characterize much modern thought across the arts and sciences, from the “paradigm shift” in physics to musical dissonance’s subversion of the harmony based on the conventional diatonic scale. And these qualities – modeling radical change, assuming destabilization, and proposing an alternative order – are equally characteristics of Freud’s thought, with its assignment of rational power to the ego, its recognition of the unconscious irrational flux of the id, and its analysis of a three-part mechanism operating in our minds, comprised of the ego as reason, the id as the erotic drive, and the super-ego as the death instinct or “thanatos.” Freud will be the subject of my next post.
About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art
A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and reconfigures and edits) my blogs on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I'm now circulating to publishers. My novel The Fall of the Berlin Wall, completed a year ago, is about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. Five years ago, my 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, which I sometimes circulte. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962, which is as yet unpublished. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]