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The Prophet by Emil Nolde CC BY-NC 2.0
The Brink

Nietzsche’s Prophet, Shulman’s Prophecy

I am responding to George Shulman’s letters on Nietzsche and on prophecy. I do so by offering some thoughts on Nietzsche’s prophet, Zarathustra. In addition to considering Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra in light of Shulman’s “Political Theology” seminar, I also take illumination from Shulman’s American Prophecy: Race and Redemption in American Political Culture (2008).

In his letter on “Prophecy and Politics” Shulman asks his students to imagine prophecy not only as an office entailing certain modes of address, but also as “genre” in which political actors still partake: “Imagine that prophecy becomes a genre, that is, a convention of expression that is recognizable, that sets audience expectations for what a ‘prophet’ sounds like, forms of expression by which a prophet would be recognized in contrast to, say, a scientist or a salesman or a general.”

Shulman also emphasizes that “prophecy is not about prediction.” Rather, prophecy is a “calling for a decision that will remake the collective present and shape a collective future on different terms than the past seems to dictate. It is about decision, and the fate we co-author, not some divine decree.” 

In American Prophecy, Shulman elaborates these ideas of genre and the call to collective fateful decision to show how the prophetic register, with its “redemptive rhetoric,” has shaped and still shapes political narratives in the United States, especially in relation to race. His essential contribution is to assess the “value,” and not only the “danger,” of prophecy as “a language in and for politics” (ix).

Shulman shows how powerful critics of white supremacy—including Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison—wrote and spoke in the prophetic genre and exerted the “authority,” both compelling and repelling, of the prophetic voice.  He worries that “our aversion to authority may lead us to devalue crucial, albeit disturbing, registers of voice and essential, albeit dangerous, dimensions of politics” (xv, 31-32).

Indeed, discomfort with prophetic authority, Shulman suggests, is in part why some political theorists call for the use of public reason in foundational political debate. Public reason is pitched to a generalized audience and nominally unrooted in deep commitments and comprehensive (such as religious) worldviews.

Discomfort with prophetic authority, the phenomenon Shulman identifies, is a helpful hermeneutic for reading Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It helps further explain why, beyond his inegalitarianism, Zarathustra struggles to find those who have “ears” for his teachings.

It also helps explain some of the extra difficulty contemporary readers have with Thus Spoke Zarathustra. We likely have even more of a problem with prophetic authority. It prevents us from hearing some of the subtleties of Zarathustra’s teaching. For example, his critique of equality as a goal is perhaps relevant even to egalitarians: seeking equality can be an effort to perfect a system that merits rejection.

In order to bring insights from Shulman’s American Prophecy to bear on Nietzsche’s text, it might be helpful to say even more about why Nietzsche’s Zarathustra may have something to offer our thinking about emancipatory struggle. Let me do so with reference to one prophetic critic of white supremacy, namely Baldwin.

I take Baldwin to be engaged in a project with formal and even some substantive similarities to that pursued by Zarathustra (despite the latter’s critique of equality per se as a political goal). Zarathustra hopes to find and form potential co-creators of new world-affirming values, who could thereby help overcome Christianity’s devaluation of earthly, bodily, passional existence. He seeks change beyond mere shifts in the distribution of political power within the current regime. And he believes that genuine change can only arise from a profound acceptance of the continuing grip of the past and the way it shapes the present.

As Shulman shows in American Prophecy, there are myriad resonances between Baldwin’s thinking and Nietzsche’s (135-136, 140-141, 149-150). Like Zarathustra, Baldwin too seeks “change not on the surface but in the depths—change in the sense of renewal” (244), and insists that for such change it is necessary to overcome a fundamental revenge against the past (149). And Baldwin, like Nietzsche and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, seeks a future in which embodied existence is not devalued for the sake of an eternal and disembodied future.

We have at a least one text where Baldwin makes clear that words in Thus Spoke Zarathustra have had a profound effect upon him and speak to emancipatory struggle (“The White Problem”). Indeed, sometimes Baldwin appears to present the suffering he sees around him as the suffering of nihilism made horrifyingly worse by white supremacy and vice versa, for everyone, including whites. For example, in “The Harlem Ghetto,” from Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin writes: “Matters are not helped in the least by the fact that the white man’s world, intellectually, morally, spiritually, has the meaningless ring of a hollow drum and the odor of slow death.”

In his letter on “Nietzsche,” Shulman writes: “He does not so much answer or resolve the question of authority [as] inhabit it, by exercising his authority as author/thinker in ways that seek our freedom, that allow us to establish our own authority as readers, form-givers, meaning-makers.” This is also Zarathustra’s approach to authority, although he struggles with it.

Part of why Thus Spoke Zarathustra is subtitled A Book for All and None is that Zarathustra seeks co-creators and not mere believers seeking easy substitutes for the old God. When he asserts his authority to depict the collective predicament, he must also ask his followers to take up their own authority.  This uptake is also a responsibility, necessary for the task of overcoming nihilism.

To say Zarathustra wants his followers to take up their own authority is, of course, not to say his commitments are democratic. Not everyone has the caliber to be a co-creator with Zarathustra. Moreover, he struggles with allowing his followers to take up their own authority. He claims not to want believers but also faults his followers for not being “clean, smooth mirrors” for his “teachings” (TSZ.IV.11).

Under the condition of nihilism, where the highest values devalue themselves under the demand of objective truth, Zarathustra exemplifies the challenge facing any late modern prophet. How to make an authoritative claim where any such claim is immediately questionable?

While Thus Spoke Zarathustra is clearly within the genre of prophecy, it is also Nietzsche’s attempt to see how prophecy might work now in late modernity. Given the truth conditions of nihilism, Nietzsche asks after the possibility of a transformed prophecy. This must also be why in Ecce Homo Nietzsche denies that Zarathustra is a prophet at all (Preface §4). He is not like earlier prophets in that he invites others to rise to their own authority, even as they take responsibility for a collective fate.

Contemporary readers of Thus Spoke Zarathustra are less likely to be enthralled by Zarathustra’s authoritativeness, and less willing to relinquish their own authority, than some of Zarathustra’s followers and some of the early readers of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. While Zarathustra offers insights that  are delicate, mind-blowing, or both, the prose is often exhausting in its hyperbole and its contempt for contemporary humanity as the “rabble.” The very insistence of his prophetic prose—its overt exertions of authority and its use of biblical language—activates the contemporary democratic reader against him, even as that reader may find him compelling in some respects.

That is, our contemporary problem with prophetic authority may make us better readers of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, if only we can sustain that aversion to authority within an attempt to hear Zarathustra’s description of our collective situation and the responsibility it births.

Shulman’s treatment of Baldwin and other prophetic critics of white supremacy in American Prophecy allows us to better hear Zarathustra and read Nietzsche. Shulman observes that prophetic critics of white supremacy like Baldwin—who is certainly open to value plurality and embracing of difference—do not dilute their assertions of authority with obeyance to pluralism when making prophetic claims about the dire future Americans collectively face if they do not take responsibility for the past.

These prophetic critics of white supremacy, Shulman shows, differ from many contemporary political theorists, whether liberal, communitarian, or agonist. These contemporary theorists are always careful about respecting or even embracing difference and articulating modes of public speech, limits of law, and ethê of coexistence. Baldwin’s concern is the domination of a group right now and not the danger of future oppression that might arise from not taking all views into account. The prophet and the prophetic announce and delineate an urgent situation (239-242).

Shulman forces us to ask: do we sometimes fail to hear the prophet and the prophetic by always looking for an acceptable ethos of relating to otherness and by performing our pluralism? Without relinquishing an ethos of pluralism altogether, we should not let its absence or lack of foregrounding in a particular discourse stifle the prophetic insight.

To be sure Zarathustra is not struggling against the domination of one group by another. Yet he sees nihilism’s suffering, loss, and exhaustion everywhere and he seeks radically new values and forms of life where we do not deny the body and negate the earth. His prophetic speech is off-putting, as is his elitism. But Baldwin’s Nietzschean resonances tell us that Baldwin heard the prophetic message and was not deterred by Zarathustra’s prophetic authority.

Shulman shows how prophetic authority can allow us to hear. It can reach us in ways that exceed rational persuasion. But it can also prevent us from hearing. He helps us to hear prophets old and new, though perhaps, for some or many of us, always at a remove. We approach prophecy as “genre.” And perhaps that is the best for which we can and should hope.

Attention to genre reminds us about the ever-present danger of the false prophet. As Shulman tells his students, “there is no obvious rule to self-evidently distinguish” between true and false prophets. They “share” “a GENRE of speech” and “there is no umpire to tell us who to listen to.” The difficulty is to hear genre and also any prophetic truths, truths we might rather disavow.

I would also add, and I doubt Shulman would disagree, that despite the value of prophecy we should not seek it. Prophecy should be something that intrudes upon us, when we are unwilling.

Any trace desire for prophets to bring us, the democratic mass, to political responsibility, casts contemporary politics as constitutively deficient and can only invite an unnecessary despair.

Moreover, a prophet’s charismatic authority might awaken us but that charisma can forestall the emergence of co-creators, who are essential to sustaining any transformed world. The power of prophecy is rarely spread around (for an exception see Numbers 11:29) and it can exclude even companion voices. Zarathustra is sometimes unable to hear even his best followers because he is so fixated on whether they hear him (see TSZ IV.17-18).

Shulman raises prophetic themes in his “Political Theology” seminar, but he never presents as a “petty prophet,” as Max Weber calls those academics who try to claim a prophetic role for themselves “in their lecture rooms” (see “Science as a Vocation”).

And even as Shulman shows his students how certain religious languages still speak, he is not rummaging around old religions to assemble an ersatz one. Weber decries that tendency of “many modern intellectuals.” I dare say that this tendency haunts us whenever we—academics—attempt a political theology (secular or otherwise).

Nor does Shulman attempt to set aside his commitments, as Weber counsels, and avoid the direct appeal to his students. Like Baldwin who wrote, though prophetically, The Fire Next Time as a letter to his nephew, Shulman writes letters to his students. Shulman invites his students to respond, not so much with answers but by acknowledging their answerability, their responsibility, to the moment. Like prophets he sounds urgent, but he is also gloriously unrushed. He writes letters.

Response to George Shulman

We are all indebted to Shulman’s important delineation of prophecy’s role in American thought, especially in relation to race and redemption.

The Zeal of a Convert to Political Theology

Shulman listens for and to race. Toward these ends, Shulman writes about political theology with the zeal of a convert, which I mean as a compliment.

Between old and new gods

For the left to prevail in the war between old and new gods, we need not only prophetic discourse, but forms of mass organization capable of cohering a social bloc. In this work, religion, understood not as prophecy but as missionary work, remains a crucial resource.

To Think is to Resist: Notes Toward a Critical Pedagogy of Freedom

Shulman’s seminar unfolds a creative cosmos for pursuing new knowledges and new forms of life together.

Nietzsche’s Prophet, Shulman’s Prophecy

I am responding to George Shulman’s letters on Nietzsche and on prophecy. I do so by offering some thoughts on Nietzsche’s prophet, Zarathustra. In addition to considering Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra in light of Shulman’s “Political Theology” seminar, I also take illumination from Shulman’s American Prophecy: Race and Redemption in American Political Culture (2008).

What’s Faith Got to Do with Political Theory/Theology?

This essay reclaims the value and role of faith in Shulman’s political theology and shows why it is important for wrestling with our contemporary political realities.

Re-imagining Political Theology

For me, “political theology” thus names the study of the ways that imagination is embedded in sentient, desiring bodies, instantiated in vernacular forms of life and ordinary (ritualized) practices, and conjured in mytho-poetic metaphors, images or representations that are formalized by literary genres and assembled into scriptures.

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