Archive for Nietzsche

Laughter in Deleuze

Posted in Body and Affect, Deleuze, Foucault, Nietzsche with tags , , , , , , on May 17, 2012 by immanentterrain2

One of my favorite quotations from all of the media studies program—and I can’t put my finger on why, precisely, but I often find its final four words bouncing into my thoughts unannounced—comes from Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment: “The culture industry replaces pain, which is present in ecstasy no less than in asceticism, with jovial denial” (112). Reading Deleuze, I’ve encountered at least two other moments where laughter comes into play, and not the pathetic laughter of the denial of the dominated, but another form of unexpected laugher, bizarre good humor given the circumstances.

In the chapter of Deleuze’s book on Foucault about Discipline and Punish, that seminal and terrifying book on the surveilling Panopticon and the theater of punishment, Deleuze opens nearly sadistically: “The Divine Comedy of punishment means we can retain the basic right to collapse in fits of laughter in the face of a dazzling array of perverse inventions, cynical discourses and meticulous horrors. A whole chain of phenomena, from anti-masturbation machines for children to the mechanics of prison for adults, sets off an unexpected laughter which shame, suffering or death cannot silence” (23). Expressing laughter seems to suggest an interior that may be affected by outside events but that will not be fully subsumed by them. Even darker, though resilient, is how Deleuze calls this laughter “a great joy which is not the ambivalent joy of hatred, but the joy of wanting to destroy whatever mutilates life” (23).

Another example comes in “Nomadic Thought,” in which Deleuze attributes Nietzsche’s unlikely but essential laughter to the unbounded joy of revolution in the face of atrocity. Laughter is positive and creative, an uncontrollable escape from restraints of imposed logic and morality. Laughing at the traumatic, as Deleuze prescribes for readers of Foucault, at least flies in the face of a morality instated by transcendence. There is a war between those who seek to control and those who seek to liberate action and maximize potential for individuals to enter into productive and creative relations that have not been imposed upon them. And on the fighting side there is still a path to happiness, often found in subversiveness of minor literature. The philosophers championed by media studies tend not to fall into despair; no matter how dire their findings on control societies or bodily torture, something keeps them bouncing up. Whether we’re being denied autonomy, as in Adorno, or coming “face to face with something sickening, ignoble, disgusting,” as Deleuze describes the provocation for Nietzsche’s laughter in “Nomadic Thought” (258), there’s always something to laugh about. Isn’t that funny?

-Duncan Cooper

Deleuze, Gilles, and Seán Hand. Foucault. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1988.

Deleuze, Gilles. “Nomadic Thought.” Desert Islands and Other Texts, 1953-1974. Ed. David Lapoujade. Trans. Michael Taormina. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2004.

Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Continuum Pub., 1972.

Nietzsche and the Over-Man

Posted in Deleuze, Nietzsche, Phenomenology with tags , , on February 7, 2012 by immanentterrain2

(Reprint: Snow Day Lecture #2)

As some of you already know, Nietzsche is considered an influence not only on “post-structural” philosophers, like Foucault and Deleuze, but also on the movement that came to be known as existentialism that precedes post-structuralism by a couple of decades. (The most recognized face of existentialism at the time was, of course, Jean-Paul Sartre.) Deleuze, for his part, would argue that existentialism does not live up to the challenge of Nietzsche’s thought, since it presumes a transcendent subject with a power to choose this or that action. In other words, existentialism remains a philosophy of transcendence. Indeed both existentialism and phenomenology can be understood as the latest developments in a legacy that begins when Descartes utters the formula cogito ergo sum. As Todd May notes, in his explication of Deleuze’s philosophy, “It is not simply a question of how we human beings might go about creating our lives, of what we might decide to make ourselves into” (“How One Might Live” 23). This is Sartre’s question. It is still insufficient or inadequate because it prioritizes being over becoming, identity over difference. It presupposes that there is an identity, a self, who chooses their existence. Deleuze rejects the emphasis placed in Sartre on agency, on self, and, more importantly, the emphasis placed on the human. “Deleuze,” May writes, “tries to pry us away from humanism by focusing on a difference that need not be human difference and a one that need not be a person.” Humanism is to understood here as a form of anthropomorphism. Humanism commits the “error of believing that the proper perspective for understanding the world is centered on the viewpoint of the human subject” (ibid. 24). Humanism places man at the center of the universe, since man is its principle or exclusive concern. Deleuze places his emphasis on life; on the becoming of the entities that populate our world. These entities are not pre-determined; nor is their future known once and for all. To stop at the human would be to presume that the goal of life were the creation of man. (Which, of course, is what Christian theology says.) It would be a mistake to argue (and some have done so) that this “anti-humanism” is an expression of contempt for mankind. How could this be so since mankind is part of world? At the same time, we cannot fall into the trap of thinking too highly of ourselves. Since everything is becoming – everything is in process – so too is man. Man is becoming, in and with the world. This, Deleuze will claim, is what Nietzsche means when he coins the term übermensch (the “over-man” or “super-man”). We are in the process of overcoming ourselves, and there is no certainty that our evolution will not take us elsewhere, even beyond man. At least, man as it is known today.

As Deleuze says to his interviewer, in “On Nietzsche and the Image of Thought,” the goal of contemporary philosophy is to attempt to rethink the questions of existence without the constraints of either God or Man – which is to say, without the constraints of transcendent being. And the value of Nietzsche is that he “was trying to uncover something that was neither God nor Human…” which he called Dionysos or the over-man (139).


What does it mean though to say that there is no identity or self who chooses this or that existence? And how might this be squared, for example, with the thought-experiment known as the Eternal Return? (Does not the Eternal Return seem to presuppose choice?) This is where Nietzsche gets tricky. Consider here his concept of Will-to-Power, which he views as the “noblest” of values. Will-to-Power is misunderstood if we imagine an individual who exerts his or her will on another entity or thing. For Nietzsche, there is no separation between a will and what is willed. They are one and the same. There is no pre-constituted subject who wills this or that act. No, the act (what is willed) and the subject (who wills) are constituted at the same time. (The error of separating out one from the other is precisely what we find in Descartes: Descartes assumes that a thought, the act of thinking, requires a subject who performs this action. Nietzsche would deny this hierarchy or priority: the subject doesn’t precede thought but is constituted in the act of thinking.) Put more simply, we can say that the subject is immanent to its expression. The challenge then is not to fall back on a notion of substance or install an agency at the origin of an activity or an expression of Will-to-Power. The use of terms like “object” or “thing” or “entity” is an example of how language misleads us into seeing solids (autonomous, pre-constituted beings) when there are only fluidities, only relations. The artist’s relation to their artwork is a good demonstration of this: the challenge from a Nietzschean perspective is not to be misled into seeing the artwork as an expression of the artist’s will. There is not an entity we call an “artist” who decides to will a painting into existence. Rather, the activity of painting itself is the expression of a will to power that produces both the painting and painter at the same time: the painter as such emerges through the activity of painting, and not once and for all, not through the painting of this or that painting, but over the course of years or decades and in conjunction with a body of work. What then is the difference between an artist and an oeuvre? There is none in terms of Will-to-Power: they are an expression of the same force, the same will. The artist accumulates an oeuvre and, in the process, a self.



Deleuze, Gilles. “On Nietzsche and the Image of Thought.” In Desert Islands and Other Texts, 1953-1974. Ed. David Lapoujade. Trans. Michael Taormina. New York: Semiotext, 2004.

May, Todd. “How Might One Live?” In Gilles Deleuze: An Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.