Issue #62 May 2023

Vital Signs: Capitalism, Aspiration, and Intensity

Bridget Riley, Study for Painting, (1965)

I don’t want to be a lawyer. I largely disdain the corporate existence. I wish on the whole to avoid complication and drama in my personal life. I am rather pain averse. My day-to-day routine is stable and fairly unchanging, and I am happy with this.

No matter how convinced one is of such stances, they are never unassailable. In particular moments, confronted by particular images and performances, they come unstuck, show their fragility. A foreign power or opposing current takes hold. Sometimes the cause is another person, whose charismatic self-conviction pulls you in. Other times it involves an artwork or media artefact, encountered at a gallery or in front of the television.

The personal susceptibility I wish to investigate here takes this latter form. The Split is, as the title alludes to, a show about divorce lawyers, but it is also a show about family: three sisters (Hannah, Nina, Rose), a mother (Ruth), a long-departed father (Oscar), an unfaithful husband (Nathan), and three children (Liv, Tilly, and Vinnie). In other words, it is a show about work and life, although any distinction between the two proves illusory from the first moment of the first episode. The notion of a ‘family firm’, the fact that Hannah and Ruth often find themselves opposed in court, or that Nathan acts as their barrister, not to mention Hannah’s fraught romantic history with co-worker Christie Carmichael, all ensure that legal business becomes a conduit for the examination of personal life, mediation of emotional conflicts, or settling of scores. All the while, the lawyers are nonetheless expected to perform at the highest level in front of clients, exemplified by boss Zander’s injunction to ‘save it and make hay while the sun shines’. Late into the evening, once stacks of paperwork are finally eluded and clients have stopped calling, the protagonists somehow find the time for family dinners, dates, weddings, bust-ups, and tearful cuddles.

What results from this prickly tangle of pressures and performances is a series in which there is never nothing happening: something big, something meaningful, is always on the cards. There are, of course, particular emotional highs. Yet on the whole The Split succeeds in making six hours of television feel like a constant unrelenting crescendo, changing instrument—joy, despair, heartbreak, stress, then back again to joy—but never register. Not only this, it succeeds, even if just for a second, in making desirable a life filled with pain and complication, presided over by the all-seeing two-headed demon of lifework, to someone whose every theoretical conviction and practical intuition stands in staunch opposition to this. I watch not with disgust but fascination, imagining that my life might turn out the same, rendering me a combatant for whom fighting never ends nor energy run out. What magic is at play here, what ideological sleight of hand? How is it that I come to yearn for such glamour, suffering, in a word: intensity?


· · ·


That Hannah and her sister Nina—Rose is somewhat of an exception—are glamorous is evident from the start. We see Hannah rifling through her closet until pulling out an unworn royal blue skirt, which, paired with a crisp white blazer, establishes the show’s business superwoman dress code. But glamour goes further than clothing or makeup. As an aesthetic phenomenon, it involves an overcoming of the boundary between fake and genuine, performance and reality. Features and characteristics which in sober or cynical moments are easily seen through come to exert an irresistible influence. This influence is decidedly ambivalent. As the German cultural critic Diedrich Diederichsen has noted in his book Eigenblutdoping,1placeholder the glamorous person always wields the ‘threat of the real world’. Capable at any point of admitting their illusions, they possess the ability to strip themselves of their own fetish character. Thus, Diederichsen proposes, the ‘glamorous situation’ branches into two options: either that ‘the glamorous person makes herself available to me and my projections or—on the contrary—names these projections and withdraws from me’.2placeholder The entranced observer pre-emptively overcompensates, frantically working to uphold their fantasy, a pattern of deception made especially common through pornography and OnlyFans.

Spellbound, we affirm the ideological character of ideology, in the same way that the artificial construction of advertisement, known to all, hardly diminishes its persuasive power. For this is, in part, what The Split’s protagonists are: walking advertisements for a particular mode of life. Not because the producers intended to produce a straightforward paean to contemporary corporate existence. Not even (or not only) because the medium of the TV show reinforces this element of spectacle, hinting that our lives too could be worthy of prime-time televisual confirmation. But because Hannah and Nina serve as paradigmatic exemplars for the aestheticization of life as a broader phenomenon. This shift both—as the sociologist Andreas Reckwitz has outlined—establishes a chimera of artistic and entrepreneurial practices as a socioeconomic ideal and makes possible the conceptualization of an individual as artwork and product alike, in a manner totally alien to classical aesthetics.3placeholder

Such a convergence is the latest, and highly successful, effort of capitalism to recruit aesthetic and emotive force in its own interest. These efforts have not been without their contradictions. As Diederichsen notes, bourgeois society is based in the ability to name ‘even the price of the priceless’, whilst still insisting on a ‘realm of the priceless, […] in order to bear its own venality’. One symptom of this tension has been the topos of the ‘dignity of the whore’, whereby the prostitute, a would-be expert in pinning a value to the invaluable, emerges as still and indeed particularly capable of genuine romantic connection.4placeholder The divorce lawyer serves a similar function: a figure engaged full-time in the bureaucrat legislation of feeling and its death, specializing in its quantification via prenuptials and settlements, but seemingly possessed of these abilities on account of an especially profound empathy and emotional understanding. This ‘best of both worlds’ situation goes a long way in explaining the efficacy of The Split as an advert for 21st-century capitalism. Tugging the heart strings and filling the coffers go hand in hand, with no hint of discrepancy between the two, a capitalist utopia where money really is a universal language.


· · ·


Pain, then, appears in the case of Hannah and Nina’s clients always open to smooth translation into financial and legal compensation. All it takes is sufficient charisma and creativity, and that’s what Hannah and her clan are paid for. But it would be wrong to think that The Split presents pain as an unquestionable negative, something which needs to be escaped at all. Watching the show, I realized with some discomfort that moments of suffering often exerted a greater pull of attraction than those of joy. From the absurd hours—self-proclaimed work addict Christie is regularly shown slaving away until the small hours of the morning—to the countless shots of Hannah lying motionless, head on pillow, staring out at the moon or the morning sun, The Split manages again and again to suggest the desirability of the eminently undesirable.

One reason this succeeds has again to do with glamour: nothing is sexier than pain. Reframing this truism of celebrity culture as a psychological thesis, we might also suggest a linkage with masochism. As early as the 1930s, in the early essay ‘Zum Gefühl der Ohnmacht’ (‘On the Feeling of Powerlessness’), then in greater depth in 1941’s Escape from Freedom, Erich Fromm began to examine the ways in which capitalism induced masochistic tendencies as a coping mechanism for the suffering it caused. Since then, masochism as a psychoanalytic paradigm has enjoyed ever stronger cultural confirmation, with pathological side-effect transmuted into performative ideal. Think of the popularity of the Nietzschean maxim ‘what does not kill me makes me stronger’. This may, on the face of it, appear more stoic than masochistic, and the ascetic rigour of the former has also made it a fitting complement for contemporary capitalism. But investigating Nietzsche’s stance beyond one clichéd quote reveals his extensive critique of stoic ethics, which helps to delineate the two.

Nietzsche rejects stoicism for a number of reasons, all of which have had important consequences for our present ethical landscape. The first of these is its effacement of human difference. By flattening out all of experience into one terminal hum, it levels everyone down to a common denominator, rather than letting different individuals seek out and experience both different pleasures and different pains, those particular to them. This is, as he stresses in Beyond Good and Evil, a feature common to all moral systems which ‘generalize where generalization is not authorized’, rendering them ‘grotesque and absurd in their form’.5placeholder Rather, in The Gay Science, Nietzsche suggests an Epicurean ideal of high and fragile taste, enacted by one who ‘seeks out the situation, the persons, and even the events that suit his extremely sensitive intellectual constitution’.6placeholder Social media, through its algorithmic power, outsources this process, offering a personalized feed which epitomizes the contemporary ethic of ‘curationism’ identified by David Balzer.7placeholder

If this is the passive, receptive side of social media, there is also an active, performative aspect. It is thanks to this that neo-stoic posts about 5am wakeups, merciless diets, and stacked schedules have proved so endemic. This too finds prescient condemnation in The Gay Science, where Nietzsche observes that the stoic ‘likes to act out his insensitivity before an invited audience’.8placeholder Arrogance and deception are both at play here. Serving as an excuse not to express one’s genuine feelings or as a way of hiding one’s inability to express emotion in a healthy manner, the stoic’s posturing discloses either desire for repression or incapacity for sublimation. In both cases, the verdict is one of inauthenticity.

His critique of performative stoicism sees Nietzsche offer a humorous precursor to the ‘Sigma Male Grindset’ memes doing the rounds as a mockery of hustle culture. Where these memes offer ironic daily routines suggesting one ‘shower with liquid nitrogen’, ‘shave with a large hunting knife’, and eat for breakfast ‘six eggshells and four banana peels’, Nietzsche imagines a stoic who ‘trains himself to swallow stones and worms, glass shards and scorpions without nausea’, since ‘he wants his stomach to be ultimately insensible to everything the chance of existence pours into him’.9placeholder Stoicism serves an essentially prophylactic function, with the possibility of sudden horrendous suffering seen as necessitating the elimination of all feeling in advance. It aims to manage the contingency of life as a kind of psychological insurance.

For all the anxious appeal of this safety mechanism, can such a sacrifice really be worth it? Nietzsche’s ultimate reason for rejecting stoicism picks up on a structural parallelism of our mental experience: namely, that ‘pleasure and displeasure are so intertwined that whoever wants as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other’. For excesses of positive emotion, debilitating nadirs of negativity had to be accepted; the two only came together. It was this recognition which enabled Nietzsche to call for ‘as much displeasure as possible as the price for the growth of a bounty of refined pleasures and joys that hitherto have seldom been tasted’.10placeholder It is the same recognition which makes genuine stoicism intolerable to contemporary capitalism, reliant as the latter is on the exaggeration and manipulation of all our emotional states, both positive and negative. The last century in particular has seen the transformation of this impulse to unquestioningly maximize all forms of emotionality and cognitive experience into an ethical ideal, which enjoys ever more success. The name of this ethic? Intensity.


· · ·


If there is a single word which best encapsulates the lives of Hannah, Nina, and the rest, it is intense. Not ‘extreme’ per se, perhaps in some sense ‘hardcore’, but certainly ‘intense’. As they work, dance, cry, laugh, come together, and fall apart, they do so intensely, with the whole and at the limit of their beings. One thing is particularly striking here: the bourgeois worker, especially the bourgeois woman, has traditionally and not without reason been considered intensity’s antipode, its exact negation. As the French philosopher Tristan Garcia notes in The Life Intense, his recent book on the subject, the bourgeois was for centuries seen as the ‘social embodiment of the averagely average’, a ‘settled, sedentary, married’ figure who ‘holds tight to a cookie cutter plan that guides her life’.11placeholder Conformist; spatially, emotionally, and ideologically immobile; generally boring—surely this is all the lawyers of The Split are not?

Opposing the bourgeois triad of priest, magistrate, and professor, Garcia picks out three central archetypes in his genealogy of intensity: the libertine, the Romantic, and the adolescent rocker. The Marquis de Sade is paradigmatic in the first of these cases. We find him proclaiming that ‘we wish to be roused, stirred […] it is purely a question of exposing our nervous system to the most violent possible shock’. Whilst de Sade is of course more sadistic than masochistic, and he deviates from Nietzsche’s more balanced view by insisting that ‘we are much more keenly affected by pain than by pleasure’, he is crucial in paving the way for an ethic which values intensity above all else.12placeholder John Berger’s G, whose eponymous protagonist accomplishes the marvellous feat of falling in love at the age of five, offers a similar model of libertine erotic intensity, even if this does—at the price of death—eventually give way to political consciousness.

Characterizing the Romantic, the next stage in intensity’s journey to being our dominant form of subjectivity, is a movement from city and salon out into wilderness. The Romantic mind, epitomized by Novalis, Goethe’s Werther, or Sturm und Drang poetry, finds its natural correlative in the storm, a constantly moving conglomerate of chaotic energy, ready at any moment to unleash a lightning strike. Of chief importance for the Romantic is the feeling of self, of aliveness, linked with an organic holism which contributes to intensity becoming a ‘way of designating whatever presents itself as a whole without being the sum of several distinguishable parts’.13placeholder Nietzsche, after all, praised Goethe in Twilight of the Idols as one who ‘aspired to […] totality’, ‘fought against the separation of reason, sensation, emotion, and will’, and ‘disciplined himself into wholeness’.14placeholder

Finally, jumping forward to the 20th century, there is the teen rocker, immortalized by Kurt Cobain or Alice Cooper. Throughout his genealogy, Garcia intertwines the formation of intensity as an ethical ideal with the domestication of electrical current. At the outset, he recounts with delight the 18th-century tale of the ‘Leipzig Kiss’. A beautiful young woman, her lips lacquered with a conductive substance and insulated in advance, would, as their faces met, propel a male volunteer violently back through the strength of the discharge. A more carefully controlled form of the same intent, Garcia suggests, powers the electric guitar, in the hands of a rebellious rocker driven by the ‘hormonal thrashing of puberty, the desire to make love, shout, and bellow’.15placeholder That this outlook has become particularly compelling for artists of all stripes is made clear by Charlie Fox’s This Young Monster, a rollicking enthronement of the enfant terrible as today’s prevailing artistic disposition. From Rainer Werner Fassbinder to Leigh Bowery, Diane Arbus to Larry Clark, the contemporary artist emerges as one who wants before all else to make their audience’s hair stand on end, as though electrified.

Bridget Riley, Study for Polarity, (1964)

Libertine, Romantic, and rocker—all united in their valorization of intensity, all united also in their condemnation and mockery of the bourgeois for their lack of this all-important quality. German sociologists Sonja Engel and Dominik Schrage offer a helpful shorthand for this rejection: the ‘Spießer verdict’, the former term denoting narrowmindedness and passivity, conformity and conservatism.16placeholder This too has gone through various incarnations. Engel and Schrage begin with late 18th-century Romanticism, and its self-definition against philistinism, a concept which started its career designating those inhabitants of a university city who were not themselves students, then expanded to more symbolic meaning. Clemens Brentano provides a helpful expression of this contrast: ‘All, then, who were not students were called philistines’, he noted, ‘taking the word student in the broad sense, as one who studies, one hungry for knowledge, who has not yet sealed up the house of his life like a snail, who are the true philistines, one engaged in the study of the eternal, science, or God’.17placeholder

It is a truly apt metaphor, the snail, suggesting one who both keeps in (money, resources, emotion) and keeps out (progress, excitement, alterity). Far from being squishable under a shoe, these snails are vast bastions of obstinate retention, towering above the streets and blocking out any space to move or breathe. This equally applies in the latter two examples of the ‘Spießer verdict’: Marx and Engels’ lamentations regarding the petty bourgeoisie; and the bohemian artist’s defection from middle class into lumpenproletariat, seeing in these criminals, beggars, and prostitutes figures excluded by rigid conformity just as stringently as them. Whilst Engel and Schrage name anarchist Erich Mühsam as their bohemian par excellence, one might also look forward in time to the 1960s in all its countercultural frenzy for countless further exemplars of this social type. Hip and square, locked in the same Mexican standoff.

Two connected observations. Firstly, that such verdicts invariably emerge as a result of a cleavage within a particular class or social group, a usually generational product of self-disgust or cognitive dissonance which sees one faction charge at the margins and the other batten down the hatches. (The immediately post-war generation in Germany had this especially easy; Oedipal revolt found itself handily buttressed and legitimated by rejection of the Nazi past.) Secondly, that—following various developments in post-Fordist capitalism—the efficacy or legitimacy of any such verdicts nowadays seems decidedly questionable. No longer is the bourgeois ethos one of turgid conformity and unthinking passivity. Rather, intensity, authenticity, and flexibility are the order of the day. What initially appeared, through mechanization and relentless reproduction, to sound intensity’s death knell, has come to resurrect the figure of intensity as its own servant, dubbed by Ishay Landa, with Nietzsche in his crosshairs, the ‘overman in the marketplace’.18placeholder Romantic anti-capitalism has morphed into capitalist Romanticism. The Split—or, alternatively, the post-epiphany Mr Williams in Oliver Hermanus’s recent film Living)—might serve as a proof of concept.

Garcia does give some hint of this shift, but his treatment of bourgeois intensity is strikingly limited, admitting only the ‘promise of the entertainment industry, nickelodeon, movies, and theme parks’ as possible outlets.19placeholder Merely listing a few hackneyed leisure activities prevents him from giving any account of the central role intensity plays in contemporary capitalism or, crucially, how this came to be. To understand this, we must look back to the heady theoretical excesses of a generation coming of age in the 1970s and 80s.


· · ·


In 1978, the influential underground publisher Merve Verlag released in Berlin a collection of translated pieces by the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, under the title Intensitäten (Intensities). Amongst these essays was ‘Notes on the Return and Kapital’, a central text in both French postmodernism’s reception of Nietzsche and European youth culture’s embrace of intensity. Here, we find Lyotard mining Nietzsche’s work to establish what a philosophical ‘discourse at the maximum level of intensity’ would look like, an idiom staunchly opposed to the ‘production of concepts’ and their ‘representation’. These latter modes of philosophizing are ‘weakness’, ‘loss of intensity’, and the refusal to recognize the radical break Nietzsche himself represents is, in Lyotard’s eyes, ‘nostalgic depression’.20placeholder The solution, then, is to ‘raise or maintain intensity at its highest level in order to obtain as strong […] an energetic metamorphosis as possible’.21placeholder So far, so abstract. But at the end of ‘Notes’ Lyotard gives concrete social form to this discourse of intensity. First, he offers a list of activities: ‘Holding up production, uncompensated seizures (thefts) as modalities of consumption, refusal to “work,” (illusory?) communities, happenings, sexual liberation movements, occupations, squattings, abductions, productions of sounds, words, colors, with no “work of art” intentions’. Then, a corresponding rogue’s gallery of intense subjects: ‘marginals, experimental painters, pop, hippies and yippies, parasites, madmen, binned loonies’—all those who filled bourgeois society with morbid anxiety.22placeholder

Lyotard’s text is not, in actuality, a straightforward celebration of bombastically disruptive punk or hippie intensity. He carefully establishes his preference for ‘rigorous exquisite form’ over the ‘cry’, and the Apollonian formal serenity of John Cage over thrashing metal.23placeholder The German cultural critic Karl Heinz Bohrer passed a similar judgement in his 1984 article ‘Intensität ist kein Gefühl’ (‘Intensity is Not a Feeling’), resisting the equation of cool and controlled intensity with flailing subjective emotionality.24placeholder Discussions of intensity since then have, however, paid little attention to the finer points of especially Lyotard’s argument. Readers can hardly be blamed for this, given the clarion call which concludes ‘Notes’, referring once again to idealized madmen and marginals: ‘One hour of their lives offers more intensity and less intention than three hundred thousand words of a professional philosopher’.25placeholder For all intents and purposes, Lyotard ends up offering another iteration of the ‘Spießer verdict’, aligning himself with the lumpen underclass and using them as a stick with which to beat bourgeois academia.

Those who proudly imagined an equivalent alliance as they read Lyotard’s words could not stay young forever. Sooner or later, the dreaded spectre of ‘real life’ collides with even the most firmly constructed theoretical edifice. Sometimes, as in my viewings of The Split, it whispers the siren song of bourgeois ideology, tempting with shameful and unexpected longings. Philipp Felsch, in his brilliant book The Summer of Theory, tells of a reconnaissance mission by the Merve publishing collective to the city of Wolfsburg, where thousands of Italian migrant workers had been enlisted to assemble Volkswagens. In the midst of this attempt to instantiate a proletarian public sphere and promote Operaist organization, one member of the Merve team had a dramatic confession to make: that ‘he secretly dreamt of having a family and a little house and garden’.26placeholder (Horror of horrors!) Other times, the need to earn money or participate affirmatively in society arrives rather more forcibly, owing to poverty or familial compulsion. Practical considerations fall out of step with theoretical convictions. Rarely is this a clean break. There may be bouts of dissonance, retreats and re-affirmations, painstaking reconciliations to ensure one can look in the mirror without disgust. Steadily, and differently for each individual, the regrettable confrontation comes to a head, with unpredictable results.


· · ·


It is this kind of story which must be told when it comes to intensity. Diederichsen begins his article ‘People of Intensity, People of Power: The Nietzsche Economy’ by drawing a contrast between the night in and the night out as modes of social interaction. If the former is an immensely precise labour, a keyhole surgery weighing up friends’ present existences against all their past incarnations, the latter is an explosion of chaotic potentiality, a whirlwind of fleeting yet incredibly concentrated interactions, fuelled and smoothed out by drugs or alcohol. The key for the night out-networker, Diederichsen stresses, is to ‘get high on the potential of so many contacts that can never be realized or translated into actual collaboration, using this high in turn to leap to the next encounter’.27placeholder In this ecstatic communion of freedom and interconnection, anything seems possible, even the most fanciful of projects. The morning after, however, they come crashing inexorably down to earth, not mourned but fondly remembered in the knowledge that, when the next night out arrives, they will be magically reanimated.

For Diederichsen and the hip young milieu he is describing, such experiences were the essence of intensity. Lyotard bolstered this equation, arguing that in states of high intensity ‘a singularity is connected with many others’, such that ‘far from a representing, it consists in an associating’.28placeholder Unlike the retentive permanence of representation, this implied that intensity could—and indeed had to—come to an end when rapture receded and taut association loosened, making it a decidedly wasteful condition. This was no bad thing. Referencing works like Jürgen Teipel’s novel Verschwende Deine Jugend (Waste Your Youth), Diederichsen hearkens back to an era—decidedly alien to today’s ecological sensibilities and hustle mindset—in which wastefulness could still be seen as an ideal to be celebrated. An intense night out was the epitome of this. The young punk wakes the next morning bathed in the pathos of empty beer cans, used condoms, and vanished dreams, and smiles.

That was the 80s. The paradoxical development with which Diederichsen is concerned is the ‘revaluation of this wasteful way of life as a form of work that is not merely productive, but a model of productivity’.29placeholder In the 21st century, he suggests, the clubland excitement of non-committal interaction has devolved into a ‘permanent networking imperative incumbent upon middle management and executives as well as academics’.30placeholder The Split provides ample evidence for this. Recurrent work drinks and parties see Hannah and her brood whirling from contact to contact, making charismatic wisecracks and serious business propositions alike at each station. Our lawyers swim in a potential borne of excess: excess of money, of choice, of work. High-stakes social performance allows the appearance of reciprocal collectivity even in a room of essentially self-serving operators. Here, to be sure, no comment is throwaway, and any waste is briskly disposed of. But the transfiguration of intoxicated club chatter into an ideal mode of business, a shift facilitated chiefly by the discourse of intensity, is undeniable.

Garcia does clearly profile this social type: they are a ‘heroic subject capable of enduring a world of differences, variations, fluctuations, bursts of energy, and power plays’, one who is prepared to ‘relinquish stable identities, eternal ideas, and any hope of respite’.31placeholder In line with the structural transformations of capitalism, its new prioritization of flexibility, resourcefulness, and social proficiency above sheer hours at the desk, we see the emergence of figures designed to navigate uneven power differentials and thrive in highly unstable environments. What Garcia fails to recognize is the shadow lurking behind the creative capitalist: that of a young man in a colourful shirt and baggy trousers, laughing and fantasizing with a stranger in a bar, making plans for a trip to Peru or the occupation of an abandoned old build down the street, before breaking off, having spotted another acquaintance, another possibility.

One must pack light when travelling from youthful radicalism to functional compromise. Much of the weightier baggage—calls for expropriation, mass redistribution of wealth, genuine socioeconomic change—won’t make it through the scanner. But intensity is a little ball of quicksilver, darting and dancing faster than the eye can see. As Diederichsen argues, this transformability allowed intensity to persist into both post-1968 political disillusionment and reluctant post-leftist conformity. Through intensity, something of those former dreams could be ‘salvaged and maintained even if the better world the movement foresaw could never be realized in this life’.32placeholder Nietzsche proved crucial here; the interpretive openness of many of his central concepts meant that he could be used one day to justify commune-dwelling and drug-fuelled partying and the next to fuel capitalistic participation as an entrepreneurial monster of creative productivity. Indeed, Diederichsen notes that those who managed to ‘wholly transform their old waste-your-youth leftist Nietzscheanism into a pragmatic Nietzscheanism of efficiency’, combining leftist disdain for the state with vitalist disdain for bureaucracy and enthroning themselves with genuine power, offered something of an ideal for that generation.33placeholder Only by throwing themselves into labour, choosing to ‘project [themself] as a holistic total self […] identical to [their] work’, could the aging leftist ‘regain the intensification, the force, the power of [their] early years’.34placeholder Even in the betrayal of all other convictions, that one continuity proved enough.

Faced with such personalities, the ‘Spießer verdict’ in its traditional form no longer functions. The bohemian has changed stomping ground from squalid urban backstreet to open-plan office, their renegade innovations sublimated not in lyric poetry but advertising and tech. Without giving up their six-figure salary or inherited property, the young bourgeois is at pains to perform a studied non-conformity, flouting standards of dress or sexual conduct and cultivating an unapologetic authenticity. Those unable to fulfil these new imperatives—for lack of money, time, or sheer desire—are themselves branded conformist, regressive, boring.

As an example by Diederichsen makes clear, these new snails, to return to Brentano’s metaphor, are none other than the working classes. He uses as his stage the customs office in Berlin’s Schöneberg district, where online purchases arrive from abroad and duties must be paid. Here, eccentric buyers, hobbyists, and wannabe entrepreneurs meet daily with polite wage labourers, who calmly and dispassionately carry out their job’s bureaucratic requirements. If Diederichsen is to be believed, such figures are a dying breed: the ‘last people to distinguish between private life and work’, for whom absenteeism, unreliable colleagues, or stolid working environments still exert an influence.35placeholder The excesses of self-realization they are confronted with daily seemingly leave them unimpressed; they are surely already looking forward to locking up and heading home.

Such conscious distinction between facets of one’s life is, in today’s climate of intensity, viewed with no small amount of suspicion. We find this in The Split above all in the character of James, youngest sister Rose’s husband. Rose is the only one of the three siblings not to have become a lawyer, and the lack of opportunity to process her family traumas through workaholism inspires instead a pull towards normality and stability. Although James works in banking, we are given to believe that he and his family are the chief conduit of this, and they are often called upon for helpings of comic banality. James comments, for example, that ‘she doesn’t like my parents, thinks they’re too normal’, whilst Rose expresses her confusion that ‘at times [James’s] dad is a little nice—too nice’, adding that ‘he’s kind, all the time […] it’s weird’. Simplicity and predictability of character become disconcerting—something must be afoot.

In The Split, this disjunction does prove more than just a gag, almost leading their engagement to be called off. But the most damaging forms of this inverted ‘Spießer verdict’, which sees the working classes recast as stultifying normal and repressively conformist, are found in contemporary politics. The successes of populism across Europe and America have created a discourse fraught with polarization and confusion, its members unable to acknowledge their differences in terms which are anything other than pejorative. ‘Deplorable’ redneck faces off against infantile ‘social justice warrior’, breeding resentment on both ends. Coming decades will see the consequences of this inversion.


· · ·


Stripped of its political contexts, the issue at hand here is the difficulty in accepting human difference while still holding normative ethical or political convictions of one’s own. All too often, the judgement ‘they are different’ becomes, more or less explicitly, ‘they are worse’, ‘I am better’. This is only natural, but hopefully it is not inevitable. One task of political theory and ethics alike is working out which forms of difference are acceptable and which are not. In recent times, great attention has rightly been given to the set of traits known as protected classes—age, sex, race, and so on—against which any form of discrimination is illegal (even if in many ways this egalitarian dream is being increasingly checked by an insistence on the need for differentiated treatment). Far less clear is how we should engage with subtler but still normatively charged forms of ethical or behavioural difference: that, for example, marked by intensity and its associated traits, or their lack.

Contradictions soon start to emerge. For all they may critique the values promoted by capitalism, no one really wants to argue in favour of moderation, devitalization, dullness, and mediocrity, if only because it so often runs the risk of appearing backhandedly elitist. Arguments defending mediocrity or boringness are always in danger of implying a self-distancing: it’s okay for you to be those things, but I don’t—or can’t, as with bohemian fixation on the lumpen—include myself in your group. British theorist Malcom Bull, in his Anti-Nietzsche, at least follows to its logical conclusion his quest to find a form of negativity through which to escape Nietzsche’s spell, rejecting aesthetic value and offering a paean to the philistine loser with neither artistic sensibility nor power.36placeholder (The irony in a history of art professor singing the philistine’s praises was not lost on one reviewer, who wondered if the whole book was one big joke.)37placeholder

Garcia is more contradictory: given his framing of routine as the opposite of intensity, one would expect him to treat it positively, as a possible liberation, or at least explore its potential virtues. But his verdict is scathing; routine ‘destroys feelings of variation and feelings of progress’ through its ‘dulling sensation’.38placeholder Even if he recognizes its dangers, Garcia’s evident personal preference for intensity over routine prevents him from escaping it fully or critiquing it effectively. In the end, his verdict is one of unrepentant pessimism: ‘our ethical consciousness is trapped between a rock and a hard place’, meaning that ‘maybe our condition is a dead end’.39placeholder

Such comments are decidedly unhelpful. But are there more constructive suggestions? In the momentary nature of my attraction to The Split’s protagonists, I am lucky. Brief excitement soon relaxes into relief—a tempting fantasy to play with, but thank goodness that isn’t my life after all. In this respect, I too have my cake and eat it. For many, the fantasy remains, becoming fixation and unfulfilling reality. Montaigne, in his essays ‘Of not communicating one’s glory’ and ‘Of husbanding your will’, provides genuine advice for those who need it more than I. In the former piece, picking up on the same tensions as those faced by Garcia, he notes that ‘even those who combat [glory] still want the books that they write about it to bear their name on the title page, and want to become glorious for having despised glory’.40placeholder Montaigne recognizes that combating these temptations—to glory, to ambition, to intensity—will never be a clean break, but a war of attrition, a keeping in check. If we can convince ourselves of this, rather than, as Garcia suggests, trying to ‘find intensity in the experience of resistance’, we may yet find a middle path between rock and hard place.41placeholder

Jack Graveney graduated 2022 with a Starred First in History and German from the University of Cambridge, and will soon be heading to Oxford for a Masters, writing his thesis on labour, happiness, and community in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche. His work has been published in German Life and LettersThe Oxonian ReviewThe Cambridge Journal of Law, Politics, and Art, and the Cambridge Review of Books.

Works Cited

David Balzer, Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else, London 2015.

Karl Heinz Bohrer, ‘Intensität ist kein Gefühl’, Merkur, vol. 38, no. 2, 1984, pp. 138-144.

Malcolm Bull, Anti-Nietzsche, London 2014.

Diederich Diederichsen, Eigenblutdoping: Selbstverwertung, Künstlerromantik, Partizipation, Cologne 2008.

Diedrich Diederichsen, ‘People of Intensity, People of Power: The Nietzsche Economy’, e-flux journal, vol. 19, October 2010.

Sonja Engel and Dominik Schrage, ‘Das Spießerverdikt. Invektive Umordnungen des Sozialen seit der Romantik’, Berliner Journal für Soziologie, vol. 31, 2021, pp. 159–187.

Philipp Felsch, The Summer of Theory: History of a Rebellion, 1960-1990, Cambridge 2021.

Tristan Garcia, The Life Intense: A Modern Obsession, Edinburgh 2018.

Ishay Landa, The Overman in the Marketplace: Nietzschean Heroism in Popular Culture, Lanham 2009.

Jean-François Lyotard, ‘Notes on the Return and Kapital’, Semiotext(e), vol. 3, no. 1, 1977, pp. 44-53.

Michel de Montaigne, ‘Of not communicating one’s glory’, in Donald M Frame, ed., The Complete Essays of Montaigne, Stanford 1958, pp. 187-189.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gut und Böse. Vorspiel einer Philosophie der Zukunft, Stuttgart 1988.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, Indianapolis 1997.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Cambridge 2008.

Andreas Reckwitz, The Invention of Creativity: Modern Society and the Culture of the New, Cambridge 2017.

Werner Stegmaier, ‘Anspruch, Wert und Zukunftsaussichten von Nietzsches Philosophie in aktuellen Publikationen’, Nietzsche-Studien, vol. 42, no. 1, 2013, pp. 346-367.


This reference to the sporting practice of autologous blood doping is chosen by Diederichsen as he sees in it a perverse encapsulation of the contemporary imperative to be authentic: more of the same, more of the self—ideally intravenously.


Diederich Diederichsen, Eigenblutdoping: Selbstverwertung, Künstlerromantik, Partizipation, Cologne 2008, p. 137.


Cf. Andreas Reckwitz, The Invention of Creativity: Modern Society and the Culture of the New, Cambridge 2017.


Diederichsen, Eigenblutdoping, p. 149.


Friedrich Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gut und Böse. Vorspiel einer Philosophie der Zukunft, Stuttgart 1988, §198.


Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Cambridge 2008, §306.


Cf. David Balzer, Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else, London 2015.


Nietzsche, Gay Science, §306.


Nietzsche, Gay Science, §306.


Nietzsche, Gay Science, §12.


Tristan Garcia, The Life Intense: A Modern Obsession, Edinburgh 2018, pp. 82-3.


Quoted in Garcia, The Life Intense, p. 68.


Garcia, The Life Intense, p. 44.


Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, Indianapolis 1997, Raids of an Untimely Man §49.


Garcia, The Life Intense, p. 76.


Sonja Engel and Dominik Schrage, ‘Das Spießerverdikt. Invektive Umordnungen des Sozialen seit der Romantik’, Berliner Journal für Soziologie, vol. 31, 2021, pp. 159–187.


Quoted in Engel and Schrage, ‘Das Spießerverdikt’, p. 170.


Cf. Ishay Landa, The Overman in the Marketplace: Nietzschean Heroism in Popular Culture, Lanham 2009.


Garcia, The Life Intense, p. 84.


Jean-François Lyotard, ‘Notes on the Return and Kapital’, Semiotext(e), vol. 3, no. 1, 1977, pp. 44-5.


Lyotard, ‘Notes’, p. 49.


Lyotard, ‘Notes’, p. 52.


Lyotard, ‘Notes’, p. 45.


Cf. Karl Heinz Bohrer, ‘Intensität ist kein Gefühl’, Merkur, vol. 38, no. 2, 1984, pp. 138-144.


Lyotard, ‘Notes’, p. 53.


Philipp Felsch, The Summer of Theory: History of a Rebellion, 1960-1990, Cambridge 2021, p. 76.


Diedrich Diederichsen, ‘People of Intensity, People of Power: The Nietzsche Economy’, e-flux journal, vol. 19, October 2010, pp. 1-2 (of PDF).


Lyotard, ‘Notes’, p. 52.


Diederichsen, ‘People of Intensity’, p. 3.


Diederichsen, ‘People of Intensity’, p. 6.


Garcia, The Life Intense, p. 66.


Diederichsen, ‘People of Intensity’, p. 3.


Diederichsen, ‘People of Intensity’, p. 8.


Diederichsen, ‘People of Intensity’, p. 7.


Diederichsen, ‘People of Intensity’, p. 7.


Cf. Malcolm Bull, Anti-Nietzsche, London 2014.


Werner Stegmaier, ‘Anspruch, Wert und Zukunftsaussichten von Nietzsches Philosophie in aktuellen Publikationen’, Nietzsche-Studien, vol. 42, no. 1, 2013, p. 359.


Garcia, The Life Intense, pp. 110, 113.


Garcia, The Life Intense, p. 129.


Michel de Montaigne, ‘Of not communicating one’s glory’, in Donald M Frame, ed., The Complete Essays of Montaigne, Stanford 1958, p. 187.


Garcia, The Life Intense, p. 144.


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