January 19, 2012

Malcolm Bull's latest work is not a book about Nietzsche but one with Nietzsche; if it had had a subtitle, "Nietzschean Variations" might have been a good choice. For this is exactly what the book does: it plays with Nietzschean topics and themes; it experiments with them by undermining, inflating or taking them to the extreme; in order either to validate or invalidate them, it systematically pushes them to a breaking point. All this is done both mockingly and seriously, and although it is not always clear whether one or the other tone is intended, that's surely to be expected of a truly Nietzschean approach.

The work's intimacy with Nietzsche is disclosed - playfully, how else? - in its opening sentence: "This book belongs to the many, to anybody in fact - which means, of course, that it belongs to no one", in an obvious reference to Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None. But Bull offers more than a conventional discipleship. Or, if he is a disciple, he is one in a profoundly Nietzschean sense, which means that he is obliged to rebel against his master. Hence the ambitious "programme" of the book: "Postmodernity spawned plenty of post-Nietzscheans anxious to appropriate Nietzsche for their own agendas, but there have been few post-Nietzschean anti-Nietzscheans - critics whose response is designed not to prevent us from getting to Nietzsche, but to enable us to get over him."

This programme is carried out across seven chapters that may well work as individual essays in their own right, from "Philistinism" to "The Great Beast". Throughout, Nietzsche is made the centre of a vast web of topics (philistinism, nihilism, "ecology of value", "the subhuman", "the Superman", "the Last Man", "the Muselmann", "will to power", powerlessness, sickness, failure) and figures including Socrates, Matthew Arnold, Schopenhauer, Marx, Durkheim, Heidegger and Giorgio Agamben. Sometimes Bull allows himself to depart from his main focus, but he always ends up somewhere in Nietzsche's proximity, as if to answer one of the questions he explicitly raises here: "is it possible to distance yourself from Nietzsche without having to meet him again?"

Bull is an excellent writer of philosophical prose. His style is economic, efficient and witty, as in this aside: "Dictionaries of theology contain entries on atheism, and dictionaries of politics provide information about anarchism, but dictionaries of aesthetics contain no entries on philistinism." More remarkable, however, is his sophisticated art of reading. For example, in chapter two, he distinguishes between different approaches to reading Nietzsche. Say you come across Nietzsche's famous statement "I am not a man, I am dynamite." Faced with these words, you can adopt a "reading for victory" approach ("Reading these words, who has not felt the sudden thrill of something explosive within themselves...?"), but alternatively you can read it "like a loser". For Bull, "reading like a loser" is a distinct form of reading, if not an entire worldview. When we decide to read Nietzsche's statement "like a loser", we start to behave like one: we immediately think that "there may be an explosion; that we might get hurt; that we are too close to someone who could harm us. Reading like losers will make us feel powerless and vulnerable."

One may not agree with all the points Bull makes, nor follow him on all his speculative trips, but it is hard to deny the boldness of his thinking or the seductive force of his writing.


By Malcolm Bull. Verso, 224pp, £14.99. ISBN 9781859845745. Published 21 November 2011

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