Dialogue with Babette Babich

Lana del Rey (Wikipedia CC BY 4.0)
Lana del Rey (Wikipedia CC BY 4.0)

Babette Babich is an American philosopher and a founder of the New Nietzsche Studies.

Could you tell us the meaning of what David Allison calls the New Nietzsche 

David Allison coined the title term, the ‘new Nietzsche’ to express a distinctively European, specifically: ‘continental’ Nietzsche. This reflected Martin Heidegger’s Nietzsche as this influenced a wide range of French interpreters. This range or profusion was the most remarkable thing about Allison’s book collection translating these French voices, foremost among whom for Allison and myself was Jean Granier, author of a massive book on Nietzsche and truth (still as yet unavailable in English) in David’s pathbreaking collection. Thus, this slim volume — and David loved ‘slim volumes’ — altered the landscape of Nietzsche interpretation.  David’s book also featured Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Pierre Klossowski, Michel Haar and Paul Valadier, Maurice Blanchot, and Sarah Kofman, in addition to David’s personal favorite —mysterious to me as David was a dedicated atheist — Henri Birault.  For Anglophone readers who had been brought up on the mind-numbing limitations of analytic accounts of Nietzsche, The New Nietzsche was everything something dubbed ‘new’ really ought to be: it was really new, this was not just publisher’s hype. What is interesting is that this book appeared forty years ago, ushering in a bunch of imitators, the new this and the new that. To this day, just because analytic philosophy has only tightened its death grip on the field, the new Nietzsche remains fruitful for scholars. Indeed, it was so valuable that when David wrote his own book he highlighted the same orientation: Reading the New Nietzsche. The journal New Nietzsche Studies was founded in 1996 to express an explicit openness to non-analytic readings and it remains a unique voice in a sea of ‘grey’ scholarship as Nietzsche would speak of it.

Would you say Simone de Beauvoir’s feminism was a Nietzscheism ?

Certainly! But at the same time, de Beauvoir was very wide ranging and she, like Sartre and like Merleau-Ponty, was influenced by Husserl and especially Heidegger. Yet Nietzsche’s gift for seeing through overlayers of culture suffuses de Beauvoir — as a scholar with a breadth of reading and focus to match Nietzsche’s own, de Beauvoir draws on antiquity, anthropology, history, literature, political economy in addition to psychology and sociology.  And she almost echoes Nietzsche’s trenchant observation: “It is men who need to be educated better.”  In that spirit, de Beauvoir although her focus was on women never did lose sight of a kind of non-Hegelian but Nietzschean dialectic attunement, looking not only at women but at the dynamic with the ‘other.’  This was Nietzsche’s variation on the master-slave dialectic and it foregrounded what de Beauvoir called women’s complicity and the very grave dangers to woman’s being in the world, existentially expressed to be sure, as de Beauvoir, before Hannah Arendt already paid attention to the dynamic of lived life in all the dimensionalities of a human lifetime, from birth to death. The American de Beauvoir scholar, Debra Bergoffen captures one aspect of the Nietzschean focus on educating men better, as she remarked on The Hallelujah Effect where I speak of the great Leonard Cohen regarding his often-observed womanizing, to point out that women were not what his focus was about: it was for Cohen as she noted the point I made about self-absorption, not ultimately misogynistic because Cohen’s focus was always Cohen.

Lana del Rey, who studied Metaphysics at Fordham University attends an hommage concert to Leonard Cohen in november, in Quebec. What is the Hallelujah Effect you compared to the Empedocles Effect (Gaston Bachelard’s concept in Psychoanalysis of Fire) ?

I wish this concert were in NY! Today, on the sabbath after Yom Kippur in the subsiding days of awe as you frame your question, I am as astonished as ever by the wonder of Cohen who, as the Germans say, trägt seinen Namen zu recht: a priest for all of us.  Anyone in doubt of this might listen to his song written at the end of his life, You Want it Darker.  Stephen Freedman, Provost of Fordham University — and a native of Montreal — told me that Cohen’s own congregation spent some time with that very song, even before Cohen’s own death.  But that song, such reflections, do not constitute the ‘Hallelujah Effect.’

The ‘Hallelujah Effect’ is the power of song as a song deliberately composed, orchestrated, calculated to work on us — what Rolling Stone and many others call a mix of sex and religion. The focus is on erotic power, obscurity and desire, including and not less the very same male-female dynamic of sex and love, affirmation and shattering, that is also the reason I pay attention to k.d lang, even when everyone tells me, sometimes unbidden, that they prefer not even Cohen’s own version or John Cale’s orchestration, say, but Jeff Buckley, an almost universal favorite or Rufus Wainwright. Thus any talk of k.d. lang is a ringer and most of us, quite in spite of the over-suffusion of Hallelujah covers in our culture, return again and again, to a certain favorite, which favouring or ‘liking’ is a direct result of programming. The ‘Hallelujah Effect’ is effected, deliberate, this is where Adorno matters even more than Nietzsche, although Adorno also learns from Nietzsche, via the constant repetition and plugging of specific songs what H. Stith Bennett the sociologist of rock music calls ‘recording consciousness,’ where what our minds know more than the song is the very precise or exact sound of a specific track: this, the effect of market branding or priming, is your brain on Hallelujah.

I love your allusion to Gaston Bachelard’s ‘Psychology of Fire’!  Yet I would also say that Hölderlin’s poem Empedokles captures the allure and heroic danger of the ‘Empedocles effect. Perhaps as one can imagine this might have struck Cohen himself, as Empedocles chronicles the succession of love and strife, of lover’s quarrels as these echo the raging and waning of desire, to use Cohen’s final word, like Sophocles, on desire: the wretched beast is tame.

A poet like Cohen, Hölderlin wrote of Empedocles:

Life you sought, seeking, and welling up and gleaming

from the depths of earth, for you a divine fire,

And you, aquiver with desire,

Hurl yourself down into Aetna’s flames.

Thus what Cohen calls ‘the holy and the broken Hallelujah’ echoes one of the oldest poetic dreams of ancient Greece. This is the lover’s idea of dancing on the volcano, dancing, for Cohen, ‘to the end of love,’ including the naked consequences of what it is to be, like Hölderlin, like Cohen, ‘head-drenched in fire.’

I read it that way but media moguls have other ideas and from the beginning of the book Adorno called the ‘current of music,’ the ‘radio effect’ — i.e., your brain on YouTube — hijacks your consciousness, brands you with one song, and sends you in a spin of both attention and disinterest. That branding, that mind-hack, is the ‘Hallelujah Effect,’ and it’s all around us, no need to read Hölderlin’s poetry or Cohen’s poetry or any other kind of poetry.

I asked Peter Trawny about the collusion between German academy and the ideology of AFD extreme right members that recently joined the Bundestag. What could you add on this subject ?

Peter’s insights are always excellent, if disturbing. To my mind, the current constellation is a frightening one, especially as I write from the United States where the extreme right has arguably never had more influence. Indeed and this is perhaps the most alarming, the extreme right has become so utterly ‘banal’ in Hannah Arendt’s phrase, that it seems that this is what political danger looks like, for those who live in dark times.

To this, I would add a point that Peter rarely notes for his own part, as most academic philosophers in the US and in Germany rarely note it, but that I myself cannot help but emphasize as the Reiner Schürmann did before me: that is the key detail of the culture of the academy, that is: the dominion of ‘analytic’ philosophy (I use this as a generic term), as a political fact, of academic, university life.

The turn to analytic philosophy, complete with university level instruction in English, has watered down the German academy — and this affects funding for research and university appointments — just to the extent that this is the kind of philosophy currently taught in Germany  and not Adorno, not Heidegger, certainly not Nietzsche.  When these thinkers are taught they are taught in analytic ways….

In Germany, dating back to the 1970s and 1980s when I was there, analytic philosophy was deliberately, even conscientiously brought in or ‘imported’ in order to distance the German academy from the likes of Heidegger and not less from Nietzsche, thanks to Lukàcs and again via Habermas. For this reason, for one example, Nietzsche scholarship in Germany is dominated by literary scholars and features an overweening focus on his sources but not the implications of his thinking, especially not his critiques of epistemology, of science, of morality (unless via analyticized Foucault), judgment, etc.

This perhaps would simply be a matter of the internecine woes always endemic to the academy but as it turns out, analytic modalities in philosophy seem to be singularly inept at ‘thinking,’ to use Heidegger’s terminology (although this is also the way Adorno speaks, as it is also Arendt’s terminology). For its part, analytic philosophy seeks to be like the natural sciences. As a result, an unquestioning scientism seems to be the legacy of analytic philosophy but this same scientism is not without its problems for the academy as natural scientists repay this admiration by dismissing philosophy as ‘dead’ or else as having nothing to offer. (Note just to be clear, that scientists are not dissing Heidegger — he’s not at the center of philosophy — but their university colleagues in analytic philosophy who write on physics thought experiments and neuroscience and so on, just where analytic philosophy, especially analytic philosophy of science, aspires to tell science what to do).

Nietzsche has long been unread in philosophy departments in both Germany and in the United States, just as the Frankfurt School under the leadership of Habermas and Honneth turned away from the original founders of Critical Theory, Adorno and Horkheimer. Today, the kind of philosophy we do at university is ‘analytic’ in Germany as in France and the UK, as in the US and Canada, etc., a way of doing philosophy which — quite apart from the Heideggerian question of whether it can or cannot think — seems demonstrably incapable of raising a challenge to the far right.  Thus the challenge Peter raises is exacerbated by the nature of philosophy, as it increasingly defines itself in the academy.

About the Author
Alexandre Gilbert is the director of the Chappe gallery.