Joseph Lawless: Feeling Hearing Seeing: Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Affect

By Joseph F. Lawless

From the mid-1930s to 1961, Martin Heidegger found himself particularly entangled in an intimate and tempestuous relationship with the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. The partial culmination of this fraught affair was the 1961 publication of Heidegger’s Nietzsche, a four-volume collection of lectures and essays representing Heidegger’s attempt to suspend Nietzsche within the galactic orbit of his own intellectual pursuits. Though there is no dearth of scholarly commentary on the tight philosophical and relational nexus binding the two thinkers together, lacunae still remain. For example, in lieu of an investigation of Heidegger’s failure to reconcile his work with Nietzsche’s, one might instead inquire how the critical and theoretical movements executed by both Nietzsche and Heidegger (and, more importantly, in Heidegger’s analysis of Nietzsche) might illuminate productive avenues for contemporary critical inquiry.

It is this nodal point of inquiry – one which focuses not on the irreducible theorizations of each thinker but instead on the mode of critique that allows for their dialogic engagement – that animates the intellectual project of Nietzsche 13/13. Throughout this yearlong seminar, an intellectual community will sustain a conversation that will seek to understand not only Nietzsche’s corpus and the work inspired thereby but also to understand the critical-intellectual modalities that allowed for such inspiration. It is our hope that the identification of these methods of critical appropriation and deployment might reorient us to new kinds of fertile, critical engagement.

As Professor Bernard E. Harcourt stated in his own reflection on Nietzsche 1/13, which brought together the writings of Nietzsche and Heidegger, there is a conceptual impasse at the heart of Nietzschean and Heideggerian thought that may be insurmountable. For Nietzsche, one’s will – the will to power that drives and galvanizes – is characterized as a state of dynamic potentiality and unfolding. One is always in the process of becoming because one is always in the process of willing, and in the process of willing one is always striving to become better than one once was. Heidegger, however, wishes to answer the “question as to what being is,” thus seeking “the Being of beings.”[1] Heidegger thus identifies the point of differentiation between himself and Nietzsche as dependent upon two of philosophy’s most central inquiries, which Heidegger names philosophy’s grounding question and guiding question. Heidegger describes the latter as questioning what a being is, whereas the former “inquires into the ground of beings as ground, inquiring at the same time into its own ground and in that way grounding itself.”[2] In the absence of this question, philosophy will never reach its moment of unconcealment, its alētheia, its truth. Per Heidegger, this grounding philosophical question “remain[ed] as foreign to Nietzsche as it [did] to the history of thought prior to him.”[3]

It is not to be doubted that in these statements alone there is a tremendous richness to be mined. Indeed, the interventions offered by Professor Babette Babich [17:24] and Professor Taylor Carman [37:06] carve open myriad points of inquiry, and it would not be feasible to consider the layered nuances of their commentary without significant time and attention. Professor Jesús R. Velasco, the third intervener, was equally relentless in his mining of Heidegger’s analysis of Nietzsche, and it is upon Professor Velasco’s exegesis on Heidegger’s exploration of passion and affect [68:28] that I would like to dilate. Although it is difficult to select among the many critical junctions, I believe that Heidegger’s exploration of affect and Dr. Velasco’s analysis thereof express a consonance with the “turn to affect” that has become a vital aspect of critique.[4] Specifically, Professor Velasco queries how Heidegger’s account of affect may undermine a normative framework that inseparably tethers bodily sensation and ontic assumptions that would otherwise force a fissure between the physical body and the emotional psyche [73:26].

Heidegger turns to affect to provide substance to the concept of the will to power. Nietzsche describes all affects (per Heidegger) as “‘configurations’ of will to power” while also maintaining that will to power represents “the original affect.”[5] Heidegger notes that Nietzsche’s terminological clarity is here lacking; what Nietzsche offers, per Heidegger, is a tautology, circling together affect and will to power as metonymies. To properly understand the relationship between affect and will to power, Heidegger insists on pursuing a philological clarity that would better differentiate the three terms Nietzsche casually (and synonymously) registered – “affect, passion, and feeling.”[6] Setting aside Heidegger’s claim regarding the study of affect as one location of an access point for “true knowledge” (which, if a question of Being, should engender skepticism rooted in the oxymoron that would symbolize the conjunction of truth and knowledge),[7] I turn instead to the text that Professor Velasco also highlighted as of particular importance:

We cannot deny that the things physiology grapples with–particular states of the body, changes in internal secretions, muscle flexions, occurrences in the nervous system–are also proper to affects, passions, and feelings. But we have to ask whether all these bodily states and the body itself are grasped in a metaphysically adequate way, so that one may without further ado borrow material from physiology and biology, as Nietzsche, to his detriment, so often did. The one fundamental point to realize here is that no result of any science can ever be applied immediately to philosophy.[8]

Heidegger offers clarification on this point through reference to anger and hatred. Anger is characterized as an affect, as anger “comes over us, seizes us, ‘affects’ us . . . [its] seizure is sudden and turbulent.”[9] Anger, as opposed to hate, displaces agency through its effectuation of a doubling of the subject – a person is rendered “beside himself” with anger, the affect forging a multiplicity and thus disembodying the subject through its mimetic creation. Heidegger suggests that such a definition would be consonant with Nietzsche’s conception of the will, as “we can be beyond or outside ourselves in this way or that way . . . [because] we are in fact constantly so.”[10] Indeed, this displacement through doubling “is only possible because will itself–seen in relation to [man]–is seizure pure and simple.”[11] On Heidegger’s reading, it is Nietzsche’s commitment to the perpetual state of willing in characterizing the subject that allows for the merger of affect, as a seizing, spiraling, and turbulent force, with willing.

Passion, however, operates differently. Continuing his explication of affect and passion vis-à-vis anger and hate, Heidegger notes that hate’s capacity for unexpected and entropic willing is possible “only because [hate] has already over taken us, only because it has ben growing within us for a long time, and, as we say, has been nurtured in us.”[12] Passion calls for perspicuity and a constant refining of the modes of its pursuit; quite unlike affect, passion is adhesive and constructing, undercutting the instability of the subject by offering a ground of coherence. Passions are routes to self-mastery, elements of discipline equally vital in the exercise of will to power.

Prior to proceeding to Heidegger’s discussion of feeling, which I believe is an attempt to synthesize what Heidegger has defined as disparate, I would like to consider the implications of the terminological maneuvers Heidegger makes in his discussion of contrast between passion and affect. Heidegger asserts that the carelessness with which Nietzsche invariably employs the language of affect, passion, and feeling indicates “how unconcerned Nietzsche is about a unified, solidly grounded presentation of his teaching.”[13] The evidentiary basis for this claim appears to be Heidegger’s desire to retrospectively schematize Nietzsche’s thinking for purposes both known and unknown, suggesting that the proposition itself is more speculative projection than accurate reflection. Further, it seems that passion and affect must remain binaristically separated through linguistic description and terminological attribution for Heidegger to achieve such schematization. For example, whereas affect explodes the subject into fragmentary sites of multiplicity, it is passion that coheres the subject into a state of unity and self-enlightenment. While affect is that over which the subject can express no control – indeed, per Nietzsche, it is affect that “acts,” in the sense that a subject would act upon an object – passion is that which the subject cultivates and nurtures, an endowment that transforms the subject’s capacity for agentic self-realization. This hermetic separation reads questionably, however. Can it not be said that the ongoing internalization of hatred and malice often results in fragmentation and the very absence of perceptual cohesion? Is one not said to be “blinded by hatred” as much as one is described to be “overcome by anger”? Is it necessary to be so resolute in our classification of anger as affect? Heidegger appears to endorse a notion of affect that deals in an unexpected excitation by a stimulus. Excitation is itself a sudden heightening, an unexpected departure from one’s affective homeostasis and is thus as much an affective question as a temporal question; once excitation lifts and affect allows for the discharge of energy, an affective decline begins, returning the body to its prior state of (dis)affect. If hatred might act as a trigger for anger, or if anger’s arbitrariness lends credence to the false notion that hate was “implanted” and could therefore be nurtured, this acute division is rendered rather specious.

Heidegger is not unaware of the discordance that his analysis engenders. It is for this reason, I believe, that he turns to the concept of feeling, as “feeling” provides the requisite linkage between passion and affect that transforms all three into elements partially constitutive of the will to power. In feeling, Heidegger notes:

[W]e find ourselves in relationship to beings, and thereby at the same time ourselves. It is the way we find ourselves particularly attuned to beings which we are not and to the being we ourselves are. In feeling, a state opens up, and stays open, in which we stand related to things, to ourselves, and to the people around us, always simultaneously.[14]

To feel is to allow for the unfolding of an aperture that situates the self in relation to those who surround the self; it is to suspend the latitude of that aperture so as to bring the subject into being through the relations of sociality that constitute subjectivity. It is telling that Heidegger does not name “a feeling,” i.e., does not provide examples of emotional states that may be properly characterized as feeling. Feeling is, in effect, willing; the openness that feeling engenders mirrors the “resolute openness . . . [through which] will discloses itself to itself,”[15] as it is will that “has the character of opening up and keeping open.”[16]

Heidegger would go on to emphasize that to characterize will to power as merely an act of feeling would prove reductive, and, with this analysis, I would agree. Instead of moving forward with Heidegger’s thinking on will to power, I would now like to focus on Heidegger’s critical engagement with Nietzsche’s conception of will to power. Heidegger’s meticulous meditation on affect, passion, and feeling, a byproduct of his engagement with Nietzsche’s writing, yielded an absolutely radical conclusion. If passion, affect, and feeling must be reduced solely to the language of the biological, the thesis that feeling creates an aperture within which the self is constituted through its identification with others – a mode of social constitution – would need to be denied. This would require Heidegger to abandon his analysis of feeling and to dissolve the analogue he draws between feeling and willing. Heidegger refuses to do so, as such a monolithic claim would transform scientific knowledge into an imperial power; instead, Heidegger identifies the plasticity of affective and impassioned states by situating them within the productive fissures that flourish through feeling. If Heidegger claims that passion and affect are tied together within feeling and that feeling opens the space within which the self is relationally and socially constituted, Heidegger’s claims organize an ephemeral moment that telescopes an interpretation of Nietzsche with the unsuspected vision of affect theory.

As the structure of the above argument and commentary has likely indicated, I propose the following thesis. Heidegger’s (attempt at) harmonizing the putative discordance of Nietzsche’s thinking can offer shimmers and ephemera that bear intelligible resemblance with the contemporary “turn to affect.” At the outset, I neither pretend to have nor herein offer a definition of “affect” that presupposes its normative singularity. To borrow the language of Gregory J. Seigworth and Melissa Gregg, I prefer to think of affect as the ongoing “in-between-ness” that is core to the simultaneous capacity to act and to be acted upon.[17] As the two eloquently state:

Affect is an impingement or extrusion of a momentary or sometimes more sustained state of relation as well as the passage (and the duration of passage) of forces or intensities. That is, affect is found in those intensities that pass body to body (human, nonhuman, part-body, and otherwise), in those resonances that circulate about, between, and sometimes stick to bodies and worlds, and in the very passages or variations between these intensities and resonances themselves. Affect, at its most anthropomorphic, is the name we give to those forces . . . that can serve to drive us toward movement, toward though and extension, that can likewise suspend us (as if in neutral) across a barely registering accretion of force-relations, or that can leave us overwhelmed by the world’s apparent intractability.[18]

In reading this text, it is difficult not to hear the faint echoes of Nietzschean thought, of the will to power as an ongoing intensity and potentiality and of the eternal recurrence of the same that transforms experience into sedimentary intractability. Affect is, in many ways, the necessary acknowledgement of the fusion of soma and psyche that philosophy must accept in order to shed the residual markers of the Cartesian impasse. Affect is captured in the above not as monumental but instead as miniscule, as subtle, and as circulatory. The affective can be indexed along gradients of bodily registration, where the very intensity, relationality, and temporality of affect turn on a physiology of discursive constitution and neural reaction. The methodologically rich approach to be gleaned from Heidegger’s engagement with Nietzsche is his unwillingness to privilege the “biological” over the “social” as much as he is unwilling to privilege the “social” over the “biological.” Heidegger instead pens an affective cartography that requires the blurring of those lines while simultaneously depending on their (albeit muddied) existence. Indeed, what Heidegger’s reading of Nietzsche may demonstrate is the precarity and contingency still embedded within linguistic reductions such as “body” or “mind,” no matter how insistent we may be on their interconnectedness. Perhaps, then, these questions may be placed in suspended orbit until Nietzsche 4/13, where discussions of Gilles Deleuze may suggest that the concept of assemblage – defined as “every constellation of singularities and traits . . . selected, organized, stratified [in] such a way as to converge (consistence) artificially and naturally; an assemblage, in this sense, is a veritable invention.”[19] No matter the conclusions we may draw, the time we spend exploring and identifying the rich tensions recorded in the writing of the Nietzsche and the thirteen thinkers who would think through his work can and will prove invaluable.


[1] Martin Heidegger, 1 Nietzsche: The Will to Power as Art 7 (David Farrell Krell trans., Harper & Row 1991) (1961).

[2] Id. at 67.

[3] Id.

[4] Ruth Leys, “The Turn to Affect: A Critique,” 37 Critical Inquiry 434, 434 (2011) (documenting and critically analyzing “the general turn to affect” across myriad fields within the social sciences that have demanded an integration of the science of neuro-emotion with their theoretical claims). For an example of the burgeoning state of literature involving questions of affect, see Gregory J. Seigworth & Melissa Gregg, An Inventory of Shimmers, in The Affect Theory Reader 1, 2 (Melissa Gregg & Gregory J. Seigworth eds., 2010) (“In [the] ever-gathering accretion of force-relations (or, conversely, in the peeling or wearing away of such sedimentations) lie the real powers of affect, affect as potential: a body’s capacity to affect and to be affected.”) (emphasis in original).

[5] Heidegger, supra note 1, at 44.

[6] Id. at 45.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id. at 46.

[11] Id. I have excised from Heidegger’s statement the word “essence,” because its connotation and holism are contrary to my own critical projects and may prove reductive in understanding the Nietzschean conception of will to power.

[12] Id. at 47.

[13] Id. at 50.

[14] Id. at 51.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Seigworth & Gregg, supra note 2, at 1 (emphasis removed).

[18] Id.

[19] Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia 406 (Brian Massumi trans., University of Minnesota Press 11th ed. 2005) (1980).