Friday, December 21, 2012

The Fool's Cap by Friedrich Nietzsche and Avital Ronell

In science convictions have no rights of citizenship, as one says with good reason.  Only when they decide to descend to the modesty of hypothesis, of a provisional experimental point of view, of a regulative fiction, they may be granted admission and even a certain value in the realm of knowledge – though always under the restriction that they remain under police supervision, under the police of mistrust. - But does this not mean, if you consider it more precisely, that a conviction may obtain admission to science only when it ceases to be a conviction? Would it not be the first step in the discipline of the scientific spirit that one would not permit oneself any more convictions? [The Gay Science, 344]

Once a conviction is let out onto the scientific field of inquiry, it passes beyond its character as conviction.  The conviction ought to pass beneath the level of its formerly inflated stature. When humbled to the level of a hypothesis, it is on parole and must answer to the officers of science who are watching it. Still, to the extent that we are policing our convictions, no matter how much furlough we grant them, we still have to deal with the fact of ex-convictions, namely, the ex-cons that hold up our scientific impulse to this day:

- But you will have gathered what I am driving at, namely, that it is still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests- that even we seekers after knowledge today, we godless anti-metaphysicians still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by a faith that is thousands of years old, the Christian faith which was also the faith of Plato, that God is the truth, that truth is divine. – But what if this should become more and more incredible, if nothing should prove to be divine any more unless it were error, blindness, the lie – if God himself should prove to be our most enduring lie?

Still taking his fire from then Platonic-Christian regions of faith, the Nietzsche seeker starts up the process of disabling the metaphysical machine to which he remains attached. Absolute detachment is out of the question. The gay scientist has to appeal to other means in order to fuel an experimental engine capable of unmasking abiding lies.

The incredible counterforce comes from the realm of art.  This is not new for Nietzsche, but he comes at it from a different angle and with renewed resolve.  Gay science assumes a relation to scientificity that is linked to art and play. It at no point derives its authority from institutional divisions or scientific hegemonies but draws the possibility of its vitality strictly from art. Art introduces a vitality capable of hosing down the strictures of morality.  The necessarily subversive force of art and play challenges the stability  of morality as we know it, and when in concert with science, repels those recodifications slavishly beholden to moralistic descriptions.

Platonic and Christian perspectives on morality block the scientific impulse for a number of reasons.  Among these, Nietzsche cites the fear instilled by Plato and the Christians of falling (into sin, error, shame), which, to his mind, has petrified our brain power.  Given this restraint, which is palpable even today, Nietzsche asks that we consider the over-severe demands we place on ourselves.  We have become “virtuous monsters and scarecrows.” The stiff upper lip has stiffened the mind’s native plasticity, weighing us down.  With the fool’s demotion in the life of thought, play was banished and art was sent to its room. The rest of humanity was left stranded and anxious, pinned to hardened places.

We should be able also to stand above morality – and not only to stand with the anxious stiffness of a man who is afraid of slipping and falling any moment, but also to float above it and play. How could we possibly dispense with art – and with the fool? – And as long as you are in any way ashamed before yourselves, you do not belong with us.

Importantly, that which opposes slipping and falling is not figured as standing erect – this would set us up only to get cut down, goading us so far as only to see ourselves plunged into the abyss of endless reversal. Nietzsche opposes slipping with floating and playing.  The liberatory exhortation marks the end of Book Two, when the gay scientist acknowledges “Our ultimate gratitude to art.” From where Nietzsche sits – rather, from where he floats –there would be no science without art, in part because we would have all committed suicide.

Art trains us for science, making its scandalously uninhibited observations palatable.  Art has given us a taste for science..  These developing taste buds are important since without them science’s collaboration with the untrue would provoke severe nausea:

If we had not welcomed the arts and invented this kind of cult of the untrue, then the realization of general untruth and mendaciousness that now comes to us through science – the realization that delusion and error are conditions of human knowledge and sensation – would be utterly unbearable.  Honesty would lead to nausea and suicide. But now there is a counterforce against our honesty that helps us avoid such consequences: art as the good will to appearance.

Under the notion of invention, Nietzsche places the cult of the untrue, which he welcomes in its appearance as art.  If art was invented for us, it was in order to heal us from the persistent wounding of necessary error and delusion.  Art cooperates at a level of inoculation by administering general untruth in order to immunize us against untruth. As a time-released protection against nausea and suicide, art is not so much dead, but its truth – the realization of general untruth – now gets retransmitted through science which, hardly opposed to art, was prepared for by the arts.  In sum, without the inoculation that art has prepared for us, science would kill us.  Thanks to art, Nietzsche suggests, we can now genuinely welcome science the way one welcomes the future.  Hence, to cap it off:

Nothing does us as much good as a fool’s cap: we need it in relation to ourselves – we need all exuberant, floating, dancing, mocking, childish, and blissful art lest we loose the freedom above things that our ideal demands of us.

The Test Drive by Avital Ronell; University of Illinois Press, 2005

1 comment:

  1. At times we need a rest from ourselves, says Nietzsche, turning sharply into an obligatory bend: “We must discover the hero no less than the fool in our passion for knowledge; we must occasionally find pleasure in our folly, or we cannot continue to find pleasure in our wisdom.” The dumb interiors of the creature, man, will provide a respite from the heavyweight champions of self that lean on us, draining all passion from genuine knowledge-questing. Knowledge requires the pleasure of folly. . .the humbling trip-up is what sends us on our way en route to endless tryouts in an effort to create a place on and, above all, off the maps of cognition.