Book Review by Joseph Nechvatal
The Three Stigmata of Friedrich Nietzsche: Political Physiology in the Age of Nihilism by Nandita Biswas Mellamphy
Published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, 157pp., $85.00 (hbk), ISBN 9780230282551
The Three Stigmata of Friedrich Nietzsche: Political Physiology in the Age of Nihilism is a terribly expensive but mesmerizing book of contemporary interdisciplinary theory that comes across as a chaotic-black velvety luxury item of immense merit. I read it in a dense desolate pocket in a beautiful mountain valley in Corsica this June and the setting was perfect, as Nietzsche's idea of eternal recurrence was fleshed out from top to bottom in some wonderfully dense language. While some of her political physiology left me uninfected, there is a strong affect to this work that can pierce.
For this book the author, Nandita Biswas Mellamphy, drew deeply from the French, German and Anglo-American threads of Nietzsche scholarship to connect the eternal recurrence to Nietzsche's great politics (most problematic) and his philosopher of the future (highly unlikely). This trilogy of three separate but connected idea-works-of-art, make up the three stigmata under discussion. Like art, none are given overly explicit or systematic definitions (though each stigmata is both a poison and a cure). But Mellamphy makes this puncture triptych bleed and blur even further; indeed she satisfactorily mashes-up these three concepts together in one wounded flow of psycho-physiology - which I liked. It is for this reason that I thought more about art than about philosophy or politics while enjoyably reading this thin but intense book.
Mellamphy’s emphasis on the sharp-witted French artist Pierre Klossowski’s book on Nietzsche - Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle - was sheer thrill for me. As was her deep treatment of ideas from Gilles Deleuze’s book Nietzsche and Philosophy along with dashes of Michel Foucault's Nietzsche, Genealogy, History and lighter glazes of Arthur C. Danto’s Nietzsche as Philosopher highlighted with touches of Nietzsche: His Philosophy of Contradictions and the Contradictions of His Philosophy by Wolfgang Müller-Lauter. If it sounds like I think of this book more as a delicately stroked painted portrait than an exegesis, that would be correct.
More specifically, I did find riveting her general materialist treatment of nihilism’s unvarying no as a viral-like pathology and her suggestion that nihilism’s illness - if it goes far enough - transforms a metamorphosis into an all embracing yes via the eternal return. For Mellamphy, Nietzsche reveals a surreptitious journey to the renewed wellbeing of our ever-ailing species that depends on playing nihilism out by intensifying its forces. For her, Nietzsche’s thought is thus "the greatest example of nihilism” - not the passive and thus incomplete nihilism of the forms of life Nietzsche attacks, but the “virulent and curative nihilism” that unleashes forces of life to emerge.
While some might read this book as a struggle to place Nietzsche in the realm of politics, my main interest lay in its texture of emerging claims of art-as-politics - with its emphasis on the production of individuality. This is examined through Nietzsche’s idea of a person with philosophic-artistic-political attributes (Zarathustra). It is in this framework that Mellamphy's hypothesis of a political physiology (a political function of living systems) kicks in, with a strong proposition of emergence as the key aspect. Mellamphy points out that “for Nietzsche, the philosopher is the physiological process and generative formation of an unprecedented kind of being, a being that, like all manifestations of physis (‘growth’), is subject to the formative forces of emergence.” (In philosophy, systems theory, science, and art, emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. Emergence is central to the theories of integrative levels and of complex systems.) Here she follows Bernard Stiegler on the question of the ‘political’ as the ‘viral’ - that the political “must necessarily proceed via a pharmacological perspective: we must look for the signs of health in the very illnesses of the human condition, as well as be able to recognize signs of illness in what may be considered by the majority as signs of ‘health’.”
On culture at large, Mellamphy pierces deep via Klossowski, warning that the “concept of ‘culture’ becomes implicated in the very type of problematic instability that the ‘self’ undergoes in Nietzsche’s thought: the cohesiveness of the culture/state distinction, like the cohesiveness of the ‘self/other’ distinction disintegrates with the ontological instability produced by the annihilation of the ‘real’ as distinguishable from the ‘illusory’.” To bolster her argument, Mellamphy points us towards some of Nietzsche's favorite pre-Socratic philosophers like Heraclitus (the so-called obscure and weeping philosopher) and his emphasis on flow. Indeed there is a lot of Dionysian multiplicity exhibited in the writing of this book and that, for me, worked well when stressing Nietzsche's fluxing flowing eternal return (Dionysian nature).
In that Philip K. Dick’s fictional book The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is woven deftly into the title, the beginning and the end of her book - yes, speculative imaginative art seems to me the dominant measure here when contemplating Nietzsche’s account of the completion and overcoming of nihilism. The small fact that a key question (what kind of political thinker was Nietzsche? - political, anti-political or over-political) goes unanswered does no harm to the artistic beauty of this thoughtful ride.