Saturday, June 2, 2007

Fatum Brutum

I have written a catalogue text for the exhibition Amor Fati, curated by Agung Hujatnikajennong at Selasar Sunaryo Art Space, Bandung. This exhibition will open at June the 17th and contributing artists are: Diyanto, Amrizal Salayan and Ristyo Eko Hartanto (also known as Tanto). The text below has been translated into Indonesian by Prof. Dr. Bambang Sugiharto and can be made available. See here for the pdf-version.

In the face of fatality: Amor Fati, Fatum Brutum

We humans are mortal beings, and Socrates tells us that “the really important thing is not to live, but to live well.”[1] Fear what happens after death is a sign of ignorance, according to Socrates, because we simply cannot know what happens after death. But what does it require to live well, to live well in the face of fatal horizons?
We will easily find consensus that happiness is our ultimate goal. Happiness as a ‘feeling good’ sentiment, though, is problematic. Robert Nozick’s experience machine could give us that required happy feeling. Hooked up to Nozick’s machine we have no need to brush paint on an actual canvas to make a painting and eventually an oeuvre, and then get the pleasure of receiving financial rewards and eternal fame. Hooked up to this machine one can get the feeling of being a successful painter. But we do not just want to get the feeling – or hallucination – of an experience, we actually want to do things, we actually want to become someone and be that person.[2]
If happiness is defined the Aristotelian way it becomes interesting. Instead of psychological states activities are valued. Activities constitute a (good) life. Living well is not merely feeling well but doing actively well according to human excellences (a talent alone does not deserve praise, but not using a potential deserves blame). Living well depends then on many factors: to have physical and intellectual resources (Aristotle goes so far as to claim that an ugly person will have a very hard time to become happy), to have financial resources, to have friends (friendship is not merely an instrumental but also an intrinsic value),[3] to live in a certain socio-political context, and, of course, to be fortunate (severe and prolonged disaster can strip a virtuous man of all the resources to live a happy life). And because of the influence of (bad) luck we can only evaluate a life when it is complete, Aristotle writes: “One swallow does not make a summer; neither does one day. Similarly neither can one day, or a brief space of time make a man blessed and happy.”[4]
Martha Nussbaum asks then: “To what extent can we distinguish between what is up to the world and what is up to us, when assessing a human life?”[5] This requires reflection upon our self-conception. Nussbaum suggests that what makes us human is exactly to be vulnerable and the need to take risks in the face of our vulnerabilities. We humans are no immortal gods. If we would banish the contingencies from our lives we would end up living an impoverished life. We also might end up with an impoverished life when we do not allow for a value scheme that does allow conflict among our valued goods, for example being an excellent painter, parent, lover, spouse, friend, neighbor, boss, colleague, employee and citizen might require too much.
Friedrich Nietzsche, the classics philologist, goes further to push this point: he claims that we are not born with a self. Not only we live in a contingent world, human agency is contingent as well.[6] We are not born with innate knowledge of who we are. The perspective of an individual self – a self as agency – needs to become established by and through acting. It not only requires activities to become happy, it is exactly in those activities that we establish ourselves.
Philosophy – for Nietzsche – is “seeking out everything strange and questionable in existence […].”[7] Nietzsche wants to question the metaphysical conceptions we have of ourselves. Nietzsche defines man as “the creature that measures values, evaluates and measures, as the ‘valuating animal as such’.”[8] Nietzsche praises Socrates for his integrity and irony, but Nietzsche asks why Socrates accepted his death sentence with such an ease, not because Socrates knew the ‘truth’, of course, because he admitted he did not know the truth. Socrates died, though, “for the right to have our opinions and to change them.”[9] And Nietzsche wants to change the opinion we have of ourselves, so we will be free to value and make values.
To become someone means that the one who one becomes does not yet exist. To become someone is an activity – not just theory. It is an activity that requires an attitude towards and consciousness of the surrounding context. It is an activity without final end, because becoming someone continues one’s whole life. For becoming someone one needs to become aware that things exist contingently, and when one becomes aware of contingency one can start relating oneself to the world. One can make values by revaluating things.
We give things value – extrinsically. We have to make interpretations to do that. And that requires a subject – a doer. The danger exists, according to Nietzsche, that we separate ourselves from our actions: “We separate ourselves, the doers, from the deed […], we have taken the will to do this or that for a cause because the action follows upon it – [as a] cause […].”[10] And he continues: “one should take the doer back into the deed […].”[11] To become oneself one needs to identify oneself with all one’s actions. A person is these actions; there is no real or authentic person behind the person as an aggregate of appearances.[12]
“An action […] depends on who performs it,”[13] according to Nietzsche. A different person acts in different ways. We are able to identify a person by his performed actions. For being able to act it is important to become aware of one’s perspective, when one is aware of one’s perspective one can set goals and try to act accordingly. To set goals and act according to one’s perspective requires interpretation, which is not just a theoretical enterprise – it is not mere reflection for the sake of reflecting upon matters. It is a matter of life, of becoming one’s own life. By interpreting things they become a part of our life: “interpretation is itself a means of becoming master of something.”[14] We set goals and we act and interpret our actions accordingly.
According to Nietzsche we cannot put all perspectives in a consistent manner together to find the one and only truth. Truth depends on a perspective. Perspectivism means that if a person wants consistency in his life then he cannot value anything, values can contradict. That such conflict can be solved by means of language – which is limited in nature – is the ideal of absolutism.[15] Anti-dogmatism is not a nihilistic denial of values – the denial of all values is dogmatic as well – but puts values within human horizons.
Nietzsche uses a formula to catch the idea that a life should be lived in an unconditional and unselective way: amor fati. This formula can only be used from one’s own perspective (I cannot tell someone else to merely accept his or her horrors and cancers).[16] Amor fati means that one reconfirms all parts of and all occurrences in one’s life to unify one’s life. It is the yes-saying attitude.[17] The yes-saying attitude means that one cannot be selective; all parts are part of one’s life to make it necessary one’s own. To live also means to choose for fate, even for brute luck – fatum brutum. Bad, boring and banal things have meaning as well, simply because they are a part of who we become. In Nietzsche’s own words (from his intellectual autobiography Ecce Homo): “one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it […] but love it.”[18]
To become oneself as an individual is a continuous process: “becoming has no goal.”[19] We have to create ourselves,[20] and Nietzsche concludes that to create a valuable life, to become one’s own life, takes a whole lifetime. In short: we – try to – create values in the face of our horizons, among other things our mortality and the impossibility of omniscience, and in the process we – try to – become ourselves within this world.[21]

[1] See p87, 47D-48E, Crito, in: Plato, The Last Days of Socrates, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971.
[2] See pp42-5, Nozick, R., Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.
[3] And because Aristotle attaches intrinsic value to friendship he is against the Platonic genius who works in solitude on his masterpiece, a life without shared joys and sorrows cannot be the good life.
[4] See p76, I.7, Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978.
[5] See p2, Nussbaum, M. The Fragility of Goodness, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
[6] See also chapter 2, Rorty, R., Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
[7] See p218, section 3, Preface, Ecce Homo, Nietzsche, F., On the Genealogy of Morals, and, Ecce Homo, New York: Vintage Books, 1969.
[8] See p70, section 8, second essay, Genealogy of Morals, idem.
[9] See section 333, The Wanderer and his Shadow (reprinted at p186 Nietzsche, F., On the Genealogy of Morals, and, Ecce Homo).
[10] See p295, section 551, Nietzsche, F., The Will to Power, New York: Vintage Books, 1968.
[11] See p356, section 675, idem.
[12] Art can then be the celebration of these appearances and their mortality.
[13] See p165, section 292; p155, section 272; and p305, section 567, Nietzsche, F., The Will to Power.
[14] See p342, section 643, idem.
[15] See pp146-7, Nehemas, A., The Art of Living, Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
[16] See also Imre Kertesz (the 2002 Nobel Prize laureate who wrote about his time in Auschwitz): “We can never start a new life. We can only continue the old one. I took my own steps. No one else did. […] Do you want all this horror and all my previous steps to lose their meaning entirely? […] Why can’t you see that if there is such a thing as fate, then there is no freedom? If on the other hand […] there is freedom, then there is no fate. That is […] we ourselves are fate.” See p189, Kertesz, I., Fateless, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1992.
[17] This reconfirming attitude goes according to Nietzsche against l’art pour l’art, because l’art pour l’art separates art from the world by trying to go beyond this world. The l’art pour l’art artist tries like Plato to detach himself from the life of appearances. It is the Platonic ideal to turn away from mortality, vulnerability, contingency, and mutability of the worldly appearances and to search for unchanging stability, clarity, and preciseness.
[18] See p256, section 10, Why I am so clever, Ecce Homo, Nietzsche.
[19] See pp377-8, section 708, Nietzsche, F., Will to Power.
[20] To make a narrative of one’s own life, see Nehemas, A., Life as Literature, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985.
[21] We are – to become – in this world: in the process we can push certain limits (e.g. genetic engineering can prolong our life, see Sloterdijk, P., Regeln für den Menschenpark [Rules for the Human Zoo], Ein Antwortschreiben zu Heideggers Brief über den Humanismus, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1999) without being able to transcend all limits. Nietzsche was a fervent critic of metaphysics and religion, because these try to show a clear picture of a beyond.

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