The comic view of history in Nietzsche’s genealogy

Thiago Ribeiro                                                                                                                                                                  

Man writes down history making it objective, taking it as real as a present event. Man also tells a joke as a short story, not least historical for its comical and absurd outcomes. In fact, we organize series of events constantly: from yesterday to today, we reconstruct series of regressive causal relations in order to organize and evaluate what past is.

Let us bear this in mind - we are historicized sedimentations and we evaluate these series as real or false. We run between past and future, depositing truths, values and building up hopes and horizons. Even now, what just passed remains present. However, is this serial organization of the past real? It is what really happened? Is it always as necessary and objective as we imagine? History might be the longest joke the human being has told himself and yet, it is like any other story. A joke is a story too. A short history, though. If history and jokes are forms of storytelling, why do we take history so seriously? What is the point of history’s punch line?
"…our appreciation of history is just a Western prejudice ..." (Nietzsche, C.E, p.24) says Nietzsche in his second Untimely Meditations (From utility and disadvantage of history for life). To him, history is an issue of singular importance to any philosophical thought. Nietzsche put the question: "to what degree does life in general needs the service of history?” In addition, we may add: what does it mean, "I remember" or “let’s not forget those hard times of our grandfathers”? To Nietzsche these are crucial issues "regarding the health of a man, a people, a civilization". That the health of a man is tied-up to the relevance of history to life is not something that leaps out easily. Together with Nietzsche we should ask: "To the modern man what is the use of this ‘monumental’ contemplation of the past?"
Nietzsche understand modern man with an unprecedented historical sense [Wirkliche Historie]. To him, for the first time the past has so much presence in human life. However, this modern man carries an amount of historical stones without using that in life, he keeps those stones with him, in his interiority. Nietzsche compares this to a state of insomnia, which blocks present action. Here, happiness, defined as the faculty of forgetting, a habit of ‘moving on’, implies that “without forgetfulness it is simply impossible to live”. To Nietzsche, at this point, the modern man expresses a problematic way to consider what has passed, that is, a problematic point of view regarding life. On the one hand, the historical sense is an impulse in itself problematic: as a tendency to compose and evaluate series of regressive relations, and an attitude towards life, this historical posture separates man from all authentic creation at the present. Only a non-historical force could create and transform. On the other hand, this sense will assume two forms of valuations, almost opposite: a metaphysical sense and a bodily one. Historical sense as a metaphysical-sense was largely popular at Nietzsche’s time, especially because of Hegel. It presupposes an essential purity and, therefore, implies a search for a clean origin. It admits one "miraculous source, immediately resulted from the heart and essence of the ‘thing in itself’" (Nietzsche, HDH, § 1). Paradoxically, this metaphysical sense demands something supra-historical, perennial, which is believed appear in forms each time purer. Thereby, considering that we accesses history through “facts” as fixed objects the historical man believes that a pure science of history is possible. Indeed, from this point of view, we experience humanity as something that grows old, and every historical appreciation of the past makes a balance, an account: that kind of cultivation Nietzsche names it historical culture.
However, this critic, in fact, opens up a new path and in opposition to this Nietzsche directs the anti-metaphysic sense of genealogy - the bodily sense, giving relevance to the accident and the occasional relations among various forms. Foucault, in Nietzsche, genealogy and history, points that there are two strategic points, against metaphysical historiography, in Nietzsche’s genealogy: provenance and emergence. The inner value of the historical study reveal, not an ‘origin’, but (1) provenance [Herkunft] in the body and (2) the frame in which determinate forces emerge [Entestehung].
According to Foucault, provenance is different from a clean origin; it traces lines of composition that form an event, a civilization, as a transitory form. It allows us to rediscover a "proliferation of events" (Foucault, p. 20) inside what was consider as historical fact. The provenance is a research that "shakes what was perceived immutable" (Foucault, p. 21). Therefore, genealogy as a search for provenance seeks scars, marks, traces of different violent practices, stigmas of many events that draw the body into endless conflict through which compose different formations. In contrast to the rationalist and teleological conception of history, we see a conception of fighting forces, a “fortuitous game of dominations”. Together with provenance, emergence points to "a place of confrontation," the arrangement of scene elements, the entry of forces, as in a drama, that come into dispute. Considering these forces, Foucault defines the emergence as a scene displaying forces face-to-face. It is nothing but the space that divides them, the void through which they exchange their threatening gestures and speeches.
What is remarkable here is the fact that the historical sense of genealogy is comparable to a flexible clay, resembling an active dream, and can manipulate any series of data in order to achieve richer, deeper and plural results, freeing history from the model of memories.
As a search for provenance and emergence, genealogy, must confront three aspects of history as established by Plato: reminiscence, continuity and justice. The aim of this article is to show the first use of genealogy. According to Foucault, genealogy makes use of parody against reminiscence and recognition. (The discovery of a new intrigue, GM p. 30).


It is no coincidence that parody is the first use of genealogy: there is something crucial and extremely important in this gesture. Parody is not a copy, nor a reconstruction. It imitates and duplicates, like a mime, a set of characteristics in order to reveal discrepancies, stupid motivations, and casual events. Through a comic posture, it is possible to reveal different forces and intensions acting historical events: it reveals that basic human passions may create wars, beyond their justified and logic motivations. We may take genealogy as a job of clown.
Through parody, we can no longer identify ourselves to history. It makes any history a double, which reveals at the same time its fakeness and its unreality through several images and fantasies. Parody makes historical ghosts go away and shows that they are only pretensions and imagens of fake reasons. So, “No longer the identification of our faint individuality with the solid identities of the past, but our "unrealization" through the excessive choice of identities" (Foucault, p. 34). The supra-historical history sought an essence under various forms and mixtures, behind many variations and endless events and compositions; to give an identity to the historical subject, which we should recognize: supposedly more real and more individualized, clear and pure, which could cling to ensure its conservation and create a teleological development. However, just like there is comicality in a person dressed like a sixteenth century priest now a days, the alleged identities of the past seem unsuccessful fantasies. The parodic use of history undresses masked intensions, and shows that fantasy is the only thing left. History "is just parody" (Foucault) of herself, reappearing and imitating herself.
Nevertheless, in parody, not only values are inversed and all masks are exchanged, but also true originality is still possible as invention and creation. This is Nietzsche’s weapon against monuments, against "Egyptianism" and idols, those hanged isolated objects, those flags in the hollow of the past sky which are a way to seeking solace in memories and to find meaning in processes based on an external point of view. In resume, a way of blocking transformations and composing a sad and nostalgic way to desire time.
Parody will reinforce the attitude of all original historical sense as one "invents most of the adventure and one cannot force us to attend an event whatsoever, without being the 'inventors'" (Nietzsche, ABM, § 192). That is why falsehood, a component of every comic work, is actually man’s necessity. Not only because we fake the phenomenal world choosing reality with our categories, but also because we do it in order to take distance from suffering and death. We create a telos to believe, an end to achieve, a sense or meaning to live for; and genealogy will work to reveal it as a fable motivated by fear, hate, vanity, and so on.
As Klossowski says, fable is something that only exists when spoken, as discourse. The world as we know is something that we tell, a spoken event, an interpretation. However, this is not negative in itself; it is different from the belief in a universal illusion that hides something real; the fable has actually something that happens and keeps happening when we talk about it. Thus, the parodic man laughs because he knows that history is a story, and because he invents the story, like a God; he plays with dresses and identities in a laughable way in order to enhance himself. When Nietzsche creates his philosophical characters, as the priest, the noble, the scholar, he makes them come into play to show us that there are ridiculous figures performing history with their weird intentions. Nevertheless, the parodist himself is also dressed ridiculously and does so with a certain appetite and content; the ridiculous philosopher sees himself as comical in order to take part on history carnival. It provides an outlet for the affirmative historical impulse trapped in history, and releases it into the inventive body of present. It’s "only when history stands being transformed into a work of art and thus become pure art form," that we may find a way out of the burden of humanity old age. And again, what is the humankind old age if not the fancy of a certain morality? This is the use of parody against the weight of the supra-historical sense to destroy recognition and monuments.
At the beginning of this article we saw that the second of Untimely Meditations directly approximates historical meaning with life, with the meaning of existence. We said it was a point of view regarding life. Further, history is synchronous to the present. Our personal histories crosses with universal history. Not only to the extent that we study history, but also, and especially, in the way that a historical world is considered as immediate reality. The question: "What happened to us?" implies the superposition of different individual and collective fields. This overlapping makes one wonder if the parodic use recommended against the Platonic use of history could not also be used against what is historical about individual; reviving what was firmed as 'personal history', personality or personal nature. Such use, therefore, as a device or, in the words of Pierre Hadot, as a "spiritual technique" would be at the service of freedom and the affirmation of present and future from an individual point of view. A technique that circumvents the problem of the cult of personality; which frees us from shame of being ourselves, from the chains of memory, and determination of the past – determinations that all the psychological sciences worship as god. This opens up the body for becoming, leads to new personalities and new experiences of ourselves. A technique and exercise that would free the individual from the confines of a worldview determined by their own past, making trauma, for example, a matter for laughing, as Nietzsche does with himself early in the 1880´s. As he points out in The Gay Science: laughing at yourself is a sign of existential good health.
These are the very first consequences of the parodic gesture. We realize finally that our categorical and organizational impulse, over different series of events, can be disarmed losing the ballast of its truthfulness. To do so we should learn to laugh, as Zarathustra recommends, innovating the presence of the past with endless parodic reinterpretations, always bearing this in mind: that it is only parody. Thus, we will be able to rewrite history, our own history, as invention of the future, freeing perception from all metaphysical sense.

Main References:

F. Nietzsche

C.E. - Considerações Extemporâneas (Untimely Meditations)

ABM – Além do bem e do mal (Beyond Good and Evil)

Wagner In Beyreuth (in Untimely Meditations)

HDH - Humano Demasiado Humano (Humain, all too humain)

M. Foucault – Nietzsche, Genealogia, História. (Nietzsche, Geneology, History)

P. Klossowiski – Un si funest désir.

Published 20.6.2016

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