How might self-suspicious affects “transform us in ways that disempower us even without our noticing, and that lead us to negative assessments of ourselves”? How might the affective nihilist provoke “affects that stimulate her drives in empowering ways, re-engage her with the world, and perhaps even… unify her drives and will”? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Kaitlyn Creasy. This present conversation focuses on Creasy’s book The Problem of Affective Nihilism in Nietzsche: Thinking Differently, Feeling Differently. Creasy is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at California State University, San Bernardino. In addition to her usual work in the history of 19th-century European philosophy (focusing on Friedrich Nietzsche), she has recently been working on the transformative potential of affectivity, and the socio-cultural mediation of affective experience. Her work has been published in the Journal of Nietzsche Studies, Environmental Philosophy, and anthologies in Nietzsche studies and environmental philosophy.
ANDY FITCH: First, for reconceiving Nietzschean nihilism as “a phenomenon with affective, cognitive, and socio-cultural components,” could you describe a few ways in which this multi-dimensional approach can enrich certain compelling (yet perhaps insufficiently comprehensive, or coherent) recent accounts of nihilism?
KAITLYN CREASY: Sure. In the book, I’m concerned first and foremost with doing justice to Nietzsche’s own account of nihilism, which is multi-dimensional. There are cognitive, affective, and socio-cultural dimensions to the problem of nihilism that he diagnoses. I want to get Nietzsche right, and I don’t think other accounts have managed to get him quite right on this particular topic. The illuminating accounts of Nietzschean nihilism already on offer tend either to tie nihilism too closely to one of its dimensions, underestimating the significance of the other dimensions (as Bernard Reginster does with nihilism’s cognitive dimension in his excellent book, The Affirmation of Life), or to frame the phenomenon so broadly that it becomes hard to get a handle on a substantive characterization that we can then use to identify instances of nihilism. For example, Andrew Huddleston argues that nihilists are alienated from “important, meaning-conferring values,” but does not describe those values in much detail.
In my view, the nihilist becomes alienated from the values of power (understood in Nietzsche’s sense, as growth and development) and of life (which, Nietzsche argues, just is the perpetual striving for power, or “will to power”). Notice that this alienation can happen at the level of one’s beliefs (I can adopt ideals that negatively evaluate life and existence) and at the level of one’s psychology. So, for instance, Nietzsche thinks one’s experience of certain recurring affects (pity offers a classic Nietzschean example) will diminish one’s ability to pursue personal growth and development.
But it is not only nihilists (and their mental and emotional states) who are nihilistic. Nietzsche also describes certain institutions and ideologies as nihilistic, as life-denying. In perhaps his most famous example of a nihilistic institution, Nietzsche claims that Christianity ultimately tends to quash the growth and development of those who embrace it. But Nietzsche also claims that socialism will have this tendency (I might mention that I don’t find his reading of socialism particularly insightful or compelling!). We need, then, a definition of nihilism broad enough to capture these nihilistic phenomena, yet narrow enough to really say something — to guide our analysis of those beliefs, judgments, feelings, and institutions we might suspect of nihilism. This is what my account offers.
So how might we bring together these various vantages on Nietzsche’s work by conceiving of nihilism as a mode of sustained life-denial? How might life-denial manifest through broad socio-cultural formations, through specific belief systems and epistemic tendencies and lived practices, through embodied psychophysiological states of being? And how/why should we concern ourselves with such life-denial not simply reflecting dubious assessments of life, but actively weakening forms of life — particularly by disrupting or diverting “something supremely valuable… life… as will to power”?
In this book I settle on the broad-enough/narrow-enough definition that Nietzschean nihilism is most basically life-denial. In other words, everything Nietzsche calls “nihilistic” either involves a negative evaluation of life, or gets in the way of growth and development of affirmative forms of human life (that is, individuals’ empowerment). Beliefs, values, epistemic orientations, lived practices, institutions, and psychological states become life-denying (thus nihilistic) when they obstruct growth and development by somehow disrupting human beings’ pursuit of empowering activities towards which they would otherwise be impelled. Significantly for my account, which focuses on a psychological manifestation of nihilism I call “affective nihilism,” Nietzsche makes the case that this disruption occurs most frequently through the production of affects (what we typically call “emotions,” though for Nietzsche the category of affects is broader than emotions) which diminish our capacity for striving, and obstruct courses of action that might otherwise empower us.
Nietzsche thinks we ought to concern ourselves with life-denial as weakening life because life just is striving for power (development and growth in one’s own characteristic activities), and power is good! When life gets weakened (when power gets diminished), that’s bad for the individual, and also bad in itself. Although Nietzsche believes that human beings (as living beings) can’t help but strive for their own empowerment, he also points out that we often strive (and have historically striven) ineptly. In our unconscious and misguided attempts to preserve or enhance our power, we often adopt beliefs or participate in practices that ultimately undermine our own empowerment. Learning to recognize nihilistic (life-denying) beliefs, practices, and institutions allows us to identify potential sources of harm to our well-being. While Nietzsche considers it important to notice negative assessments of life and this-worldly existence, he considers it even more important to recognize the impacts that these assessments ultimately have on our flourishing — as well as their origins in moribund psychological configurations.
How then does affective nihilism disrupt these processes of establishing goals and acting effectively in the world — weakening one’s will through suppression/diversion, or dispersing one’s will into disordered/fragmentary pursuits? How might affective nihilism operate as both an effect and a cause, amid the ongoing interplay of one’s drives, feelings, beliefs, perceptions, actions, interpersonal engagements, and broader cultural milieu?
In order to see how affective nihilism degrades and weakens the will, we need to understand how Nietzsche ties an individual’s goals and effective action (or motivation) to what he calls “drives.” According to Nietzsche, human beings are composed of many different drives — dispositions that not only motivate us to act in particular ways, but that shape how we perceive the world around us, what we believe, and what we value. It’s an essential part of our nature as driven beings that we strive to do certain things, to engage in certain activities.
For one example, Nietzsche offers the “drive to knowledge.” If this drive is active, I might be motivated to engage in intellectual inquiry. I might perceive features of my surroundings as hindering or enhancing my understanding. I might value those methods and tools that I believe will aid in my understanding (and disvalue those that I perceive as obstacles to understanding). The stronger this drive, the more I will be motivated to engage in intellectual inquiry (the kind of activity towards which this drive pushes me). The weaker this drive, the less I will be motivated to do so.
Importantly, though, Nietzsche also argues that my affects impact my drives in a variety of ways, thus influencing the goals I’m driven to pursue (those activities towards which I aim in virtue of my drives). First, my affects influence the strength of my drives: weakening and suppressing them, or strengthening and stimulating them. If I experience joy when my drive to knowledge gets activated, that drive will likely grow stronger and will impel me to further inquiry. Additionally, affects occurring alongside active drives dispose me positively or negatively towards those drives — inclining me or disinclining me to the activities towards which my drives impel me. My feelings can “turn against” my drives (motivating me to halt my pursuits of certain goals), or can facilitate the expression of my drives (motivating me to continue my pursuits of certain goals).
There’s more to these interactions, but most basically, affective nihilism describes a condition in which my affects persistently turn me against certain of my drives, with ultimately debilitating effects. It is an embodied, psychological manifestation of nihilism in which an individual is both unable to be moved, inspired, and nourished by the world in which she finds herself — and unable to find value in her world or in herself. On my account, Nietzsche thinks this takes two quite different forms. In prototypical affective nihilism, the nihilist experiences a widespread suppression of drives, as a consequence of continuously experiencing various depressive, inhibitory affects. The prototypical affective nihilist’s drives get profoundly weakened. Nietzsche calls this a “will-weakness.” Since one’s drives (through the affects they induce) shape how one values, such an individual grows unable to value. Since one’s drives motivate one to engage in certain activities, she finds herself profoundly demotivated, exhausted, unable to move towards goals in action, unable to engage with her world in empowering ways.
But Nietzsche’s account of affective nihilism also offers a secondary form, nihilism as disintegration of the will. Here the nihilist experiences mild affects, dull and flat in valence. This nihilist’s affective profile is one of detached, comfortable indifference. Though this affective nihilist’s drives remain more active, she is unable to achieve unity of the will — an arrangement of the drives required for self-empowerment, in which a drive or set of drives recruits other drives in pursuit of enhancing this individual’s form of life. Instead, these nihilists’ drives are in conflict or in a relationship of mere co-existence. These affective nihilists are comfortable but noncommittal, finding little of lasting value in the world. They also manifest a weak and fragmented agency, as they get pushed in random, haphazard directions by their scattershot drives. Nietzsche spends much less time analyzing this particular form of affective nihilism, but I find it incredibly interesting, because he diagnoses something still common today. Think of detached, aloof hipsters or consumers whose superficial happiness comes from buying this season’s newest gadget, and then disappears as quickly as it came.
These forms of affective nihilism connect deeply to nihilism’s cognitive manifestations (which include life-denying beliefs and judgments). On Nietzsche’s view, with one’s evaluations rooted in one’s drives and affects, it is no surprise that nihilistic beliefs (judging life and existence worthless or meaningless) originate in disempowered individuals possessing weak or fragmented wills. But perhaps a bit more surprisingly, cognitive nihilism itself can produce or exacerbate affective nihilism. Even empowered individuals with strong, unified wills can become infected via exposure to life-denying beliefs and judgments — internalizing norms or values that condemn existence or their particular form of life, and function to disengage them from their former pursuits and investments.
So again, if affective nihilism disrupts one’s ability to identify uplifting goals, and to act accordingly (thereby reinforcing negative valuations of life, as well as of one’s own personal capacities), could we discuss prospects for tapping, cultivating, and reinforcing an enhanced sense of agency? How, for instance, might living experimentally (with the stimulants of various new “relational networks”) provide a propulsive tonic? How might self-narration produce a practical, first-person primer on proactive valuations of (and engagements with) life? How might genealogical inquiry help us to incorporate whatever powerful forces come our way, while maintaining the conditions for our own particular flourishing?
Yes, let’s discuss strategies for combatting affective nihilism! To be clear, Nietzsche never offers a treatment plan for this condition. But he does emphasize the therapeutic and transformative power of certain strategies I outline in the book. The first strategy focuses on experimentation. By situating herself in new climates, around new acquaintances, or in the presence of new ideas, the affective nihilist might provoke affects that stimulate her drives in empowering ways, re-engage her with the world, and perhaps even orient her towards the pursuit of a goal which will unify her drives and will. New contexts inspire new affects, introduce us to varied possibilities for existence, inspire us to act and live differently. Although we may not notice it, the contexts in which we find ourselves often nourish or deplete us. In his call for readers to experiment with a variety of locales, thinkers, and relationships (perhaps to try hiking in the New Mexican wilderness, after years of walking city blocks in Manhattan’s East Village), Nietzsche invites us to explore arenas that he hopes will inspire and ultimately empower us.
The second Nietzschean strategy focuses on self-narration, as a constructive (rather than introspective) process. I’d describe it less as producing one’s own primer for how to proactively engage with life, and more as engaging in a practice that energizes me and re-engages me with life and this world. Although self-narration is a conscious, reflective practice, the changes it provokes occur below the level of consciousness. When engaging in self-narration, one presents oneself with a narrative of one’s life thus far (including reflection on significant circumstances and influences, as milestones in one’s personal development — Nietzsche, by the way, does this all the time in his own work!). As I tell the story of myself to myself, I come to “know” myself anew, to see events and circumstances in a new light. This provokes affective responses that excite certain drives and inhibit others. For one who employs this strategy, the affects she experiences hopefully can invigorate and strengthen drives that enable her to find value in her world, and that motivate her to pursue the goals (or activities) associated with those drives.
The final Nietzschean strategy I include in this book, self-genealogy, involves asking after the origins of one’s beliefs, values, and affects. As an effective self-genealogist, I would recognize that these beliefs, values, and feelings originate (at least in part) from the socio-cultural context in which I find myself. In the case of my affective life, self-genealogy helps me grasp how my affects have been infiltrated by forces external to myself. And in the case of affects that have left me disempowered (for example, if, as a woman, I experience persistent suspicion towards my drive to knowledge, as a result of internalizing norms about women’s perceived inability to engage in serious intellectual inquiry), the recognition of these affects’ external origins hopefully disinclines me away from them, freeing me from their grip. Without the persistently harmful impact of that affect, my drive to knowledge can strengthen, and so can my will. Not only will I be motivated to engage in intellectual inquiry — I will be more able to do so.
Nietzsche offers these three therapies for the affective nihilist. Importantly, however, he doesn’t guarantee the success of these treatments. Indeed, we might end up worse off after employing them. Experimentation with new climates and relationships can easily go awry (as many of us know all too well). Self-narration might lead one to get stuck in the same old self-deprecating story that further disempowers its narrator. Self-genealogy might leave one stuck in resentment, an especially dangerous and depressive affect. But affective nihilism is a tough nut to crack, and these are the best strategies that Nietzsche has to offer.
Particularly then with this book’s concluding chapter in mind (with its sketch of the reader coming to experience feelings of happiness, relief, and joy at the discovery “that what she understood as her own failing and personal defect…that felt for so long to be fated and inescapable…her disposition to disgust with herself… is, in fact, a defect bred into her by the society to which she contingently belongs”), could we close with what it might look like for Nietzschean investigations of affective nihilism to prompt feminist self-genealogy, culminating in a positive affective response with “just as much transformative force as a negative one” — helping to loosen that grip of a misogynistic culture’s (or professional field’s or intellectual discipline’s) affective hold?
Great question. For women who manifest desires, goals, character traits, and behaviors that conflict with stereotypical gender norms endemic to the cis-hetero patriarchy in which they find themselves (for women like me!), being a woman can be an existential hazard. We face exposure to norms that implicitly degrade or devalue us. We face the risk of internalizing even those norms that we outwardly and blatantly reject. We face the risk of experiencing affects that make us suspicious of, or averse towards, instincts and aims central to our own individual flourishing and empowerment (and let’s keep in mind that sexist oppression and the force of gender norms get experienced and lived differently depending on how one’s gender identity intersects with other aspects of one’s identity).
If these self-suspicious affects persist, they may transform us in ways that disempower us even without our noticing, and that lead us to negative assessments of ourselves — seeming to track our own personal defects, rather than societal dynamics of subordination and domination. In such cases, self-genealogy, as a process that can attune me anew to the oppressive extra-personal origins of certain feelings and self-assessments, can help me develop (second-order affective) aversions towards my own self-suspicious affects. It can also produce a felt sense of relief at this realization that what I’d understood as a personal failure actually points to a social and political failure (that’s the positive affective response you mention in your question). In either case, self-genealogy potentially provokes transformative affects that can reconfigure my inner life in more empowering ways, and loosen the hold of harmful external forces (again, the cis-hetero patriarchy in which I find myself) on my psyche. So feminist self-genealogy can be an exceptionally powerful and transformative tool!
But I would be remiss not to remind readers here that practicing self-genealogy (reflecting constantly on one’s own affective responses, rooting out those responses constituted in part by sexist ideas and values, attempting to abide only by those affective responses that affirm desires, goals, and values that lead to one’s empowerment) will also be exhausting. That’s one subtle, further way in which oppression, even when noticed and resisted, still functions to deplete the person oppressed. So we need to keep that danger in mind as well.