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Limits of Disenchantment

Limits of Disenchantment



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Published by Chris Hughes
Peter Dews - NLR September/October 1995
Peter Dews - NLR September/October 1995

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Published by: Chris Hughes on Oct 17, 2008
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Peter Dews
In a passage from
The Case of Wagner 
Nietzsche affirms that ‘Hegel is ataste.—And not merely a German but a European taste.—A taste Wagnercomprehended—to which he felt equal—which he immortalized—heinvented a style for himself charged with “infinite meaning”—he became the
heir of Hegel.
—Musicas “idea.”—
Nietzsche’s virtuoso attack on Wagner’smusic for its portentous depths and sham reconciliations, traits which he seesas inherited from Idealist metaphysics, but which here mask egoisticcalculation and a manipulation of emotion which violates aesthetic form,marks the emergence of a distinctively modernist sensibility. For this newoutlook, philosophical and aesthetic attempts to restore meaning to adisenchanted universe are in deep collusion with what they seem to oppose.As Charles Taylor has recently reminded us, by the late nineteenth century:‘Victorian piety and sentimentality seemed to have captured the Romanticspirit. For those who saw this whole world as spiritually hollow and flat,Romanticism could appear as integral to what they rejected as instrumenta-lism was. It merely offered trivialized, ersatz, or inauthentic meanings to
The Limits of Disenchantment
compensate for a meaningless world.’
Astutely, Nietzsche suggests that‘transposed into hugeness, Wagner does not seem to have been interestedin any problems except those which now occupy the little decadents inParis. Always five steps from the hospital. All of them entirely modern,entirely
Against such mystification, the newaesthetic of modernism strove for a coldness, remoteness and impersona-lity which Nietzsche already anticipates when he invokes against Wagner‘the great logic, the dance of the stars’.Since the time of Nietzsche’s polemics, this suspicion of depth andmeaning—of any mode of significance which cannot be relativized to aspecific practice, framework or perspective—has recurred throughouttwentieth-century art and philosophy. One might have thought that thedisenchantment of the world classically described by Max Weber, thecollapse of belief in a cosmic order whose immanent meaning guideshuman endeavour, would be a trauma of such magnitude that philosophycould do little other than struggle to come to terms with it—and indeedthe shock waves of this collapse have reverberated throughout nine-teenth- and twentieth-century thinking. Yet there have also been manyphilosophers who appear to have registered no turbulence at all. On thecontrary, they are eager to drive the process of disillusionment further.Richard Rorty, for example, advocates a ‘philosophical superficiality andlight-mindedness’ which ‘helps along the disenchantment of the world’and which, he believes, will ‘make the world’s inhabitants morepragmatic, more tolerant, more liberal, more receptive to the appeal of instrumental rationality.’
It is arguable, however, that Rorty can thinkthus only because he assumes that we can take
meanings which weknow we have created, and which flimsily veil the indifferent universe of physicalism which Rorty—for all his hermeneutic gestures—regards asthe ontological bottom line. Other recent thinkers have been intolerant of even this residual soft-heartedness. They have considered it their job totrack down and eradicate those last traces of meaning which adhere to thehuman world, to dissolve any intrinsic significance of lived experienceinto an effect of impersonal structures and forces. The impulse here is stillPromethean: for meaning, as Adorno emphasized, implies
—it issomething we encounter and experience, not something we canarbitrarily posit, as Rorty and others too quickly assume. And this verygivenness seems often to be regarded as an affront to human powers of self-assertion. It is for this reason, no doubt, that so much recent Frenchthought has raised the question of whether, as Herbert Schnädelbach hasput it, ‘man himself has become, after God and nature, an anthropomor-
*This essay forms the introduction of Peter Dews’s book,
The Limits of  Disenchantment. Essays on Contemporary European Philosophy
,to be published byVerso in
Friedrich Nietzsche,
The Case of Wagner 
The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner 
,trans. Walter Kaufmann, New York
, p.
Charles Taylor,
 Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity
, p.
The Case of Wagner 
, p.
Richard Rorty,
 Philosophical Papers Volume I: ‘Objectivity, Relativism and Truth’
, p.
And while contemporary Critical Theory in Germany hasinsisted on preserving that island of human significance known as the‘lifeworld’ from deconstruction, there are serious questions, as we shallsee, about how reliable the insular dykes and defences might be in holdingback the tide.
Tracing the Reduction of Meaning
The dominant paradigm of hostility to meaning in recent Europeanphilosophy has undoubtedly been deconstruction, which initiallyappeared on the scene as a radicalization of Heidegger’s overcoming of metaphysics. The thought of the early Derrida is marked by adetermination to go beyond Heidegger which focuses on his mentor’srefusal to abandon the philosophical quest for meaning, in the form of 
—the question of the ‘meaning of Being’. In his lectures onNietzsche from the late thirties and early forties, Heidegger argued thatNietzsche’s doctrine of the ‘will-to-power’ represents both the culmina-tion and the definitive exposé of the subjectivism of Western metaphysics.In its equation of ‘being-ness’ [
]with makeability or manipula-tion [
],it announces the ‘age of completed meaninglessness’ inwhich ‘meaninglessness becomes the “meaning” of entities as a whole’.
But at the same time the very extremity of this experience of the collapseof meaning opens the way for a questioning of the meaning of Being assuch, as opposed to that of entities, a meaning which the history of metaphysics plunged into oblivion. Thus for Heidegger the
isapost-Nietzschean question. It is distinct from the various interpretationsof the totality of beings, and of the being of entities, which a metaphysicsfixated on the objectifying notion of presence has offered over the pasttwo thousand years. These interpretations culminate in the Nietzscheandoctrines of the eternal return and the will-to-power, which finally givethe game away.But, as is well-known, Derrida refuses to recognize this distinctionbetween Being [
]and beings [
]as Heidegger proposes it. In hisearlier writings, he takes Nietzsche’s part against Heidegger, claimingthat Nietzsche’s distinctive
of writing has contributed to the‘liberation of the signifier from its dependence or derivation with respectto the logos and the related concept of truth or the primary signified.’
This is because ‘Reading, and therefore writing, the text were forNietzsche “originary” operations...with regard to a sense that they donot first have to transcribe or discover, which would not therefore be a
Herbert Schnädelbach, ‘The Face in the Sand: Foucault and the AnthropologicalSlumber’, in Axel Honneth et al, eds,
 Philosophical Interventions in the Unfinished  Project of Enlightenment 
,Cambridge, Mass.
, p.
Martin Heidegger,
 Nietzsches Lehre vom Willen zur Macht als Erkenntnis,Gesamtausgabe
, vol.
, Frankfurt am Main
, p.
 Nietzsche: Volume
: TheWill to Power as Knowledge and as Metaphysics
,trans. Frank A. Capuzzi, JoanStambaugh and David Krell, San Francisco
, p.
 Jacques Derrida,
Of Grammatology
,trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak,Baltimore
, p.

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