Klossowski’s Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle*

by Beth Metcalf

Deleuze encounters Klossowski’s reading of Nietzsche.  In my summary of Klossowski’s book, I will sometimes substitute, or parenthetically add, Deleuze’s terms where I think that encounter is revealed.  Nietzsche’s ‘Eternal Return’ is, in Deleuze’s terms, ‘univocal being’.     

In his introduction, Klossowski tells us that his book exhibits an unusual ignorance.  He neglects the exegeses that had recently been written about Nietzsche.  He wants to hear Nietzsche speak directly.  His study of Nietzsche will be false from the point of view of the traditionally accepted authorities.  As he sees it, Nietzsche’s thought revolves around an axis of delirium.  But Klossowski does not call Nietzsche’s delirium pathological.  He sees Nietzsche’s thought as extremely lucid.  Nietzsche's delirium only seems pathological from the perspective of the authorities of culture who are chained to the identity principle and the reality principle.  Nietzsche’s ‘Eternal Return’ cannot be understood under the usual categories of thought because being is not equivocal.  Being is univocal. 

Nietzsche’s experimentation challenged the modern world with a new act of thinking.  He experienced a tension between the lucid and the obscure.  But this tension, far from reaching a synthesis, oscillated around an axis of delirium.  Nietzsche experienced an affective “tonality of the soul”.  This tonality became an “obstacle” in making itself thought.  In trying to express his experience to others, the obstacle became muteness.  This resistance was in reaction to the language of culture with its principles of identity and reality.  Nietzsche identified with this mute obstacle of affective intensity in order to think that which is, according to the authorities of cultural knowledge, unthinkable.  He discovered that the principles of identity and reality had never been anything other than the configurations of subjective moods.  His experience of the mute obstacle could only be sustained by resistance to culture and its authoritative knowledge.  The gregarious generality of culture is the obverse of the singular soul’s intensity. 

Klossowski’s Nietzsche says that, for a long time, the philosopher of culture was the man with the greatest experiences according to the received knowledge of science or the exalted values of religion.  This philosopher condensed knowledge and morality into general conclusions suitable for the maintenance of social norms.  The philosopher claimed to speak of truth when it was really an impulse that spoke through him.  One impulse, in becoming dominant, came to be called ‘truth’.   And ‘morality’ was only the gregarious criterion for Good versus Evil.  But Nietzsche saw the need to go beyond the morality of Good and Evil --- beyond any general system of thought or action.  For Nietzsche, the philosopher must become a singular event through which an unconscious impulse is able to speak.  That is, the philosopher must renounce the generality of what is communicable in order to speak of the singularity of lived experience.  Thoughts of the philosopher must not merely reflect the general authoritative opinions of culture. 

For Nietzsche, the knowledge of what is true or false and the morality of what is just or unjust are questions that should be posed in terms of sickness (gregarious generality) or health (singular cases).  The problem is that intensive-active forces, throughout history, have been enslaved (become reactive).  Singular difference is cancelled.  And this triumph of reactive forces happens in individuals and gregarious society.  The reactive slave (Christian morality) is now the master of culture. 

Morality promotes the illusion that culture should have no inequalities when inequality and struggle is what makes cultural creativity possible.  Morality promotes the illusion that Good and Evil, or sickness and health, are opposites inside a generalizing structure.  However, Nietzsche’s singular forces of disparate affective intensity cannot be mediated by gregarious oppositional relations of elements.  There is no maintenance of conceptual identity.  There is only dispersion that changes nature.  

Under a condition of physical suffering and mental despair, Nietzsche conducted experiments into the source of thought and morality.  He endeavored to listen to the immediate forces of his body in order to understand the origin of his thought.  He interpreted his suffering as intense energy.  He willed his suffering (the disequilibrium of the impulses) because it developed into the joy of “voluptuous lucidity”.  He asked whether thought, when not connected to physical suffering, can be real.  Klossowski says Nietzsche put consciousness and its categories of thought and language into question.  In doing so, he was released from gregarious categories of guilt.

Nietzsche observed that his bodily impulses were in conflict with the mental relations of consciousness.  His suffering seemed to be the distress signals of a brain in pain.  A language of unconscious impulses was trying to make itself heard.  He discovered a need to destroy the resistance that was his ego in order to become aware of a language of bodily impulses.  His pain revealed the need for a lucid extinguishing of gregarious thought in order to reach the experience of a delirium of impulses.

Nietzsche experienced intense degrees of excitation between pain and pleasure.  The body uses a language of intensive signs that are misrepresented by consciousness as the unity of a code.  The code inverts the active signs and falsely deciphers the body as the product of thought.  The body, as thought by consciousness, is dissociated from its impulses.  The body becomes an instrument of consciousness.  It becomes the ego.  Conversely, without unity of thought, the body no longer belongs to an ego.

Klossowski says (NVC 26), “Nietzsche did not speak on behalf of a ‘hygiene’ of the body, established by reason.  He spoke on behalf of corporeal states as the authentic data that consciousness must conjure away in order to be an individual.  This viewpoint far surpasses a purely ‘physiological’ conception of life.  The body is a product of chance; it is nothing but the locus where a group of individuated impulses confront each other so as to produce this interval that constitutes a human life, impulses whose sole ambition is to de-individuate themselves.”

Self-identity seems to depend on a history of linkages (like Deleuze’s strata of intensive coupling).  Unconscious impulses modify the body.  Only with the triumph of reactive forces does the person become fixed into a gregarious unity.  The body produces its own cohesion as personal self.  This cohesion seems irreversible. 

Consciousness is a deciphering of impulses.  Meaning is due to habits that form the extensive reference frame of gregarious norms.  Nietzsche observed the oscillation of bodily impulses that form cohesion between thought and the impulses that corporealize (actualize) thought.  But Nietzsche’s problem was how to remain lucid while trying to observe the locus of consciousness in its very unconscious process of formation.  Isn’t this the problem of Theseus?  Ariadne’s thread leads through a labyrinth of impulses.  How can the experience of the multiplicity of impulses be retrieved without losing that experience in an interpretative meaning?  Nietzsche’s reasoned concentration of thought was itself the obstacle to his willed goal.  As long as he tried to communicate his experience, he built an obstacle to the experience.  His muteness was interpreted by the authorities of reason to be madness.

Klossowski says that Nietzsche suspected that, beneath the supposed unity of self, there are subterranean bodily impulses in combat.  A willed intention is formed on the surface.  Thought is only a cohesive surface effect.  We think continuity on the basis of this fixed code of language that covers discontinuous states.  Philosophers have imagined a cohesion of impulses that totalizes all consciousness.  But Nietzsche discovered that meanings and goals are fictions.  They are not real.  The gregarious categories seem to be given.  But the ‘given’ is not one form of universal generality.  There are intensive subterranean bodily impulses --- that by which the given is given, disparately.  (See Deleuze’s Difference & Repetition p222.)   

Deleuze’s repetition with difference is the intersection of two types of singular multiplicities.  There are multiplicities of intensive relations among active and reactive impulses that create disparate individuation.  These intersect with multiplicities of collective uses of temporary surface effect.  Consciousness is an agreement between invented signs and what they are supposed to represent.  Consciousness gives impulses an aim.  A reactive unity has been invented that represents a passive system of the conscious self in formation with a gregarious generality.  The intensive impulses are reduced in an abbreviating (reactive) system that forms the intentions of a supposed unity of self in society.  The conscious intellect is merely the resistance to anything that would threaten the unity of the representational code.  Thought is the result of relations of power among impulses that dominate (active forces) and impulses that are dominated (reactive forces).  When a relation among forces becomes fixed and rigid, there is a triumph of reactive forces. 

The intellect fixes the categories of consciousness.  But these categories are not real.  They are interpretations.  Consciousness of meanings and goals leads only to maintenance of conformity.  Therefore, since we cannot renounce our categories of meanings and goals, we must evaluate them differently.  Nietzsche re-evaluates through his discovery of the Eternal Return and its new interpretation of the Vicious Circle.  This Vicious Circle is grounded in forgetting.  Ever-new continuities are produced.  This is real difference of the singular.  It is not the conceptual identity of consciousness totalized in gregarious generality.  Nietzsche’s Eternal Return has nothing to do with repetition of the generality of the particular (as it has often been misunderstood).  It is repetition as universality of the singular.  The Eternal Return reaches the experience of One-All.  It is not to be confused with the many that constitutes one unity.  All really distinct singularity is ontologically one and said as same.  This is Deleuze’s multiplicity of univocity. 

Forgetting is the condition for the transformations of the Eternal Return.  The Eternal Return is loss of a given identity.  It is open to all possible singularities of real difference.  A new will de-actualizes self-identity to pass through all possibilities.  In the experience of the Eternal Return, I cease to be myself here and now to become all others.  The fortuitous moment of the experience was revealed as sign of all past, all that is happening, and all that will ever happen.  The Eternal Return must have already appeared in innumerable forms but was forgotten in a new state that threw me outside myself to make ‘self’ a different nature.  Eternal Return of Same is event for everything that has ever happened, is happening, and can ever happen.  I take this to be what Deleueze calls the multiplicities of ‘Aion’ as intersecting with the multiplicities of ‘Chronos’.  It has nothing to do with equivocal subjectivity or totalizing generality.  It is singularity in all varieties of multiplicity. Nietzsche wanted to reach a triumph of active forces that Deleuze calls the intersection of two types of multiplicities.  This would suppress limits between inside and outside.  It would suppress limits between time of here and now (Chronos) and time of the Eternal Return (Aion).

A system of signs is an everyday code that corresponds to a unity by which the self is constituted as thinking.  The will seems to be enslaved by irreversible time that has been spatialized by consciousness (what Deleuze calls ‘Chronos’ without experience of ‘Aion’).  The experience of the Eternal Return is unintelligible to conscious thought, but this unintelligible experience is offered to the reflective intellect by the conscious will.  How can re-willing of all past be creative?  Only by self-forgetting can there be real creative difference.  Only a self-returning as ‘other’ can reach real creative difference.  To re-will the non-willed past in all its really distinct possibilities is the ‘will to power’.  However, Nietzsche wants to go beyond that.  Nietzsche seeks change that is not determined by conscious will, but the Eternal Return under conditions of the Vicious Circle. 

The Vicious Circle of the Eternal Return reaches a new experience of a brief interval of time.  I take this to be what Deleuze calls ‘the empty form of time’ or ‘Aion’.  The empty form separates the spatialized time of Chronos from the eternity of the Eternal Return.  This is the re-willing of metamorphosis of multiplicity.

In the words of Deleuze and Guattari (Anti-Oedipus p. 21), “The subject spreads itself out along the entire circumference of the circle, the center of which has been abandoned by the ego.  At the center is the desiring-machine, the celibate machine of the Eternal Return….It is not a matter of identifying with various historical personages, but rather identifying the names of history with zones of intensity on the body without organs; and each time Nietzsche-as-subject exclaims: “They’re me! So it’s me!””  

This is not the will of the irreversible time of Chronos.  This is a new reversibility of time that includes Aion.  It is ‘Will to Power’ of creative Eternal Return.  To re-will this Vicious Circle is to re-will all experience and action as no longer those of my ‘self’.  There is no ‘self’ that could intend a purpose or meaning.

Klossowski says, (NVC 72) “The feeling of eternity and the eternalization of desire merge in a single moment: the representation of a prior life and an after-life no longer concerns a beyond, or an individual self that would reach this beyond, but rather the same life lived and experienced through its individual differences…..At the level of consciousness, meaning and goal are lost.  They are everywhere and nowhere in the Vicious Circle, since there is no point on the Circle that cannot be both the beginning and end.”

All will is ‘will to power’ without meaning or goal.  It has nothing to do with equivocal subjective will.  Being itself is univocal. 

How can the notion of health be restored to the singular when health has usually been attributed to gregarious norms of language and exchange?  Is the singular always condemned to disappear?  Are active forces always cancelled in the triumph of reactive forces?  Or, does the singular have its own health?   Is it true that gregarious health is in opposition to singular morbidity?  Or, is that just the way it appears according to the gregarious norms Deleuze calls the ‘Representational Image of Thought’?  Traditionally the weak have been judged as healthy and the fullest have been judged as morally lacking.  Master and slave have been reduced to oppositional relations of reactive Christian morality.  Shouldn’t we question whether this gregarious Moral Image is really healthy?

If we are to discover a new health of the inessential singular, we must recognize the muteness of the inessential as unintelligible to gregarious language.  Is there something which, according to the generalizing essences of gregarious selection, is being excluded?  How could we include the inessential singular case while still including essential intelligible norms?  In Deleuze’s terms, it would require the paradox of ‘vice-diction’.

Vice-diction (DR 263) “consists in constructing the essence from the inessential…”  And again, (DR 47) “The inessential includes the essential in the case, whereas the essential contains the inessential in essence.”

The singular case requires healthy forgetting.  Whereas a fixed Image of Thought excludes the inessential that cannot be assimilated into its essential generality, the health of forgetting includes the inessential singular.  In order to go beyond the oppositions of Good versus Evil, there cannot be equilibrium in a fixed hierarchy of reactive forces.  A reactive system is arbitrary interpretation.  It is not will-to-power of intensive-active forces of singularity.  Will-to-power is interpreted by gregarious society as violence because intensive-active forces are a threat to the preservation and equilibrium of the species and the individual agent.

An individual could never re-actualize all the disparate singular doublings of random impulses that lead to consciousness.  Only that which is open to all fortuitous cases (nomadic distribution of Aion) leads to the revelatory moment of the Vicious Circle.  However, this must not be an instance of religious unity of purpose.  Rather, strength and health are the life affirming value beyond the Good and Evil of gregarious morality.  There must not be an equivocal distinction between sickness and health.  Inessential meaninglessness is the violence that overthrows the Moral Image of Good and Evil. 

Nietzsche feared that, in having the experience of the Vicious Circle, he must be mad.  He had to prove a paradox.  The loss of lucid self-identity, that is usually taken to be madness, is the act of greatest lucidity.  To prove he wasn’t mad, Nietzsche tried to demonstrate his lucidity by appeal to science.  But doesn’t science lack a creative force? Science reduces cause and effect to an equivalence that is maintained throughout all its variable changes. It lacks that force Deleuze calls ‘disparate intensity’.  How could appeal to mechanistic science reach the source of real change in nature?  Nietzsche’s ‘will’ is not one general form that develops into many forms while maintaining equilibrium.  Nietzsche’s will-to-power is a principle of disequilibrium, an asymmetrical synthesis.  There is discord between the excesses of the will-to-power and the human well-being that is the goal of scientific knowledge.  Whereas science is a means in the conservation and preservation of the species, the Vicious Circle reveals life inventing creative change in nature.  Whereas science goes by the reality principle, the Eternal Return is becoming without a prior principle of reality or identity.  The will-to-power suspends the reality principle.  Oscillations of intensity change the nature of reality.  Intensive forces increase or decrease and, in so doing, must change in nature.  Will-to-power never maintains equilibrium.     

The will-to-power never has a goal toward the well-being of the species as science does.  The lived intensity of the Eternal Return casts the agent outside its ‘self’ and changes its nature.  There is no stable condition of equilibrium.  ‘Thing’, ‘self’, and ‘law’ are fictions.  The subject separated from its own object of action is not real.  However, Nietzsche is not against science.  He affirms both science and the simulacra of will-to-power.  For science, there are stable laws.  Material objects and bodies exist.  Logical norms can determine the difference between true and false.  Nietzsche criticized only a science of the general form of representational correspondence between perception and language.  We think in unities that we borrow from the concept of self by which we invent the concept of ‘thing’.  Scientific functions express a constant variability, but there are unconscious subterranean (sub-representative) forces of intensive inseparable variations of the philosophical concept.  Deleuze sees science and philosophy as two types of multiplicities that are in need of each other. 

Nietzsche’s will-to-power does not have the goal of self-preservation or human well-being.  But how can we think the experience of the Eternal Return without goal or meaning?  Nietzsche’s answer seems to be that the intensity of the high tonality is thrown outside its ‘self’ and in the forgetting of the self, changes the nature of any goal or meaning.  All intention is thrown outside its identity.  Variations of intensity are inseparable because, when forgetting separates them, they necessarily change in nature.  There is no self-identity.  ‘Intensity’ is, as Deleuze says, “the properly qualitative content of quantity” (Difference & Repetition 222).  It is the active force of will-to-power.  Ordinal combinations in hierarchies of disparate singularity may rise to the surface as fragile and temporary effects.  Yet these intensive differences may be cancelled in the triumph of reactive forces.  Then the subject is fixed in a gregarious Image of Representational Thought. 

Power, at the level of societies, gives meaning to history.  Sometimes there is the triumph of active singular forces over reactive subservient gregarious forces.  Sometimes there is triumph of reactive forces over the healthy active forces.  The former are what Deleuze and Guattari call ‘subject groups’, and the latter are what they call ‘subjugated groups’ (See Anti-Oedipus 280).   But, in either case, doesn’t this imply one rigid hierarchy that would reintroduce a fixed goal and meaning?  Since power must will more power, how can it grow without any goal?  But Klossowski’s Nietzsche says that, with intensive forces, equilibrium can never be maintained.  No goal could ever absorb all energy.  Energy itself is the goal.  All real difference is ontologically singular multiplicities. 

Intensive forces have no meaning or goal.  They are perceived as violence against the gregarious extensive elements that would maintain meanings and goals in a fixed state of power.  Subject groups, where active forces are dominant, cannot present meaning or goals, and (NVC 120) “enslavement moves in the opposite direction”.  The active-singular forces of the subject groups may become dominated by the reactive-gregarious forces of the subjugated groups that use violence in service of a goal or meaning.  This is the triumph of reactive forces.

What we think of as our natural state is really a state of servitude.  It is necessary to dismantle our usual state, but also to reconstruct a new one.  But isn’t this a new subjective goal?  Or, is what we sometimes interpret as willed by our subjectivity merely nature realizing itself?  Nietzsche saw the Eternal Return as the way being explicates itself.  History leads to nihilism that calls for revauation of values.  There is need for new criteria of selection.  The Eternal Return is the repetition of the difference that Nietzsche calls ‘will-to-power’.  It is selection without intervention of a subjective will.  It is the dice game of being and it is univocal.  Yet uses of this selective will are actualized in subjects.  To think this Return (repetition with difference) is to think the alternation between the movement of intensive energy and the exhaustion of actualized states of rest.  How can repetition remain open to multiplicities of singular difference?

Sometimes philosophers are experimenters, sometimes imposters.  The philosopher-imposter repeats without forgetting.  Then, there is only maintenance of the same state.  But the experimenter-philosopher carries out a test according to the selective process of the Vicious Circle.  The experimenter is not the agent of selection.  Being itself is the dice game of the creator-experimenter who actualizes something that does not yet exist.  Nietzsche wanted to go beyond the reactive-slave system of Christian morality.  To create, according to Nietzsche’s Vicious Circle, would mean to break the gregarious habits of the pre-existing state of meanings and purposes.  To create would mean to do violence to the states that maintain identity and security.  To create is to will a new real.  The remedy for the sickness of morality is to create new conditions of life.  The true, the good, the reasonable, the beautiful are invented powers.  But Nietzsche wanted to reach a positive notion of the false. 

Two wills collide – gregarious science and singular philosophy.  Isn’t this what Deleuze calls ‘two types of multiplicities’ that intersect?  Science is the means of achieving the gregarious goal of human well-being.  It tends to cancel singular difference.  But the imposter philosopher, as Deleuze says, leaves out the intersection of two types of multiplicities.  Then philosophy is confused with science.  The simulacrum is confused with the scientific function that preserves a constant relation of variability within a reference frame.  The simulacra merely reproduce pre-existing phantasms.  But Nietzsche pointed toward a new human species which begins to act without intention --- a creative becoming beyond the Good and Evil of morality.

Nietzsche foresees a future toward new conditions for a higher species.  Society is already in the midst of transformation.  I take this to be what Deleuze calls the ‘already’ and ‘not yet’ of the empty form of time (Aion) --- the present without thickness.  It is the past of waiting (what is going to happen?) and the future (what happened?).  Unless thought rises to the surface nothing happens in the present (Chronos).  This is the dice game without meanings or goals.  But a triumph of reactive forces tends to cancel this creative difference.  Societies tend to exclude those who live outside the generality of the exchangeable and the communicable.

From Nietzsche’s perspective, the strong are the singular cases of real difference that have usually been eliminated.  Nietzsche’s ‘selection’ is different from that of science and morality.  It is unintelligible, subterranean depth of a dice game.  Useless active impulses must dominate the useful reactive ones.  This means we can’t have already formed criteria of what is true and what is false.  The principles of reality and identity (the gregarious norms of the intelligible and the exchangeable) disappear.  Meaning and goal change with experimentation.  Changing rules of the dice game depend upon singular cases that never maintain identity.  Nietzsche envisions a future super-human singular case that ushers in a super-human species.  This is not the generality of a particular.  It is the universality of the singular.  It is what Deleuze calls ‘univocal being’.

Klossowski notes the temptation for Neitzsche’s career to be understood as either leading to an abyss or preparation for apotheosis.  But Klossowski sees these alternatives to be inseparable.  The void (Deleuze’s ‘empty form of time’) is the inseparable nature of reason and madness.  Disparate forms or uses of reason are created from the abyss.  Nietzsche’s muteness was interpreted by the authorities of gregarious reason to be madness.  However, what criteria can be used to distinguish between reason and madness?  How can it be assumed that gregarious norms can be the criteria for judgement about sickness or health?  Gregarious norms merely maintain their own generality.  We must discern between what is useful to the well-being of the species and an inessential surplus that changes the nature of the ‘useful’.  Nietzsche’s experience of dispersion destroys the identity principle.  His self-identity disappears.  There is only the real difference of all individuation said as singularity, ‘Nietzsche’. 

The Eternal Return is insignificance outside any principle of identity or non-contradiction.  It is intensity of the singular lived experience that passes through all really distinct individuations of singularity.  In trying to communicate the experience, it became obscure because it could not be received by a gregarious understanding.  The experience never resembles its expression.  The discrepancy between designation and designating affect (or in Deleuze’s terms ‘content’ and ‘expression’) constitutes meaning.  But meaning has continuity of affect only for an agent.  That subject-agent fluctuates as it modifies its designations in accordance with receptivity of other subject-agents.  Every impulse has a need to dominate other impulses, as active and reactive forces in disparate perspectives evolve into some gregarious system of intelligibility.  Intelligibility and morality must find a foundation in the gregarious unity of forces.  But there is no totalizable unity in the forces that oscillate between conservation and dissolution (Deleuze’s intersection of two types of multiplicities). 

Nietzsche discovers a subterranean domain in flux.  But in order to speak of this substratum he had to adopt gregarious habits of speech.  His intellect had to adopt habits that constrain the impulses.  He experienced competition between free impulses and the constraint of the intellect.  What discourse could reconcile these two sides?  How can arbitrary freedom be transformed into intellectual constraint?  What discourse can express the discontinuity between coherence and incoherence?  The intellectual concept is not formed at the level of the intellect.  Rather, discontinuity intervenes to re-interpret the concept.  Nietzsche discovered this paradoxical discourse in the form of the aphorism.  To read without interpretation makes possible a revaluation of values --- to escape maintenance of identity, signification, or subjectivity.  Nietzsche’s ‘death of God’ comes with the death of a self-identical ego.  The intensive forces are below the surface to rise as disparate temporary surface effects or fragile ‘uses of representation’.  It is the recombining intensities of ‘sense’ that intervene.  Discontinuities of real difference intervene to be ‘said’ as new continuities.  Nietzsche’s aphorism resists interpretation.  The aphorism reflects the impulses outside the categories of understanding.  The aphorism is discourse without subject, prior meaning, or purpose.

Klossowski believed that, if Nietzsche had not experienced “premonitory vertigo”, he may have risked confusing the Eternal Return with an immutable system.  But Nietzsche overcomes the traditional opposition between true and false.  Only what is useful to human well-being is intelligible and communicable.  However, the incommunicable singular is without goal or use.  Nietzsche’s problem was how to reach an inverted will --- how to will without goal or use.  How can the will be the only object or goal of itself?  His answer seems to be that without ‘self’, the actor takes on the necessity of a mask.  The actor is the double of an ‘other’ into what we are becoming.  As Deleuze says (Logic of Sense 150), “The actor belongs to the Aion…”  The singular becomes multiplicities of univocal being.  God and Self are dead.  It is not Theseus, but Dionysus, who rescues Ariadne.  Dispersion is reassembled in disparate uses.  There are ever new correspondences of phantasm and simulacra.  Being is saying, and it is univocal.   

*Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle, by Pierre Klossowski, translated by Daniel W. Smith, University of Chicago Press, 1969. 

Return to Home Page