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Acampora, Christa Davis. Contesting Nietzsche.

ACAMPORA, Christa Davis. Contesting Nietzsche. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2013. xvi + 259. Cloth, $35.00.--The role of contest or agon in Nietzsche's philosophy has received significant attention in recent years, especially from political theorists. Christa Davis Acampora, who is not a political theorist, has now written an original and thought-provoking book that thoroughly explores Nietzsche's reflection on this concept and his multifarious applications of it in his philosophy as a whole. She begins her study, logically enough, with an analysis of Nietzsche's early unpublished essay "Homer's Contest," using it to lay out what she takes to be Nietzsche's criteria for productive, life-enhancing competition. Chief among these criteria is the idea that winning consists in excelling over one's competitor rather than destroying him, thus leaving the field of contestation open for future overcomings. Nietzsche finds this idea of competition exemplified in Homeric Greece, where the agon creates conditions for continual value generation and allows "people to forge significant attachments among individuals and groups and between people, the city, and the powerful forces of the gods." Acampora's distinctively positive approach to Nietzsche's conception of the agon is evident from the outset. Whereas other scholars have emphasized the critical and disruptive aspects of the agon, Acampora emphasizes its productive or creative aspects. For her the agon is not simply a means for challenging hegemonic power but "a model for the production and proliferation of values"; and she claims that this "link between agonism and meaning-making" is the dominant theme of her book.

Acampora goes on to trace how the productive model of the agon Nietzsche found in Homer came to be challenged first by Socrates, and then by St. Paul and Christianity. According to Nietzsche's account in The Birth of Tragedy, Socrates replaced the Homeric agon--which continued to inform Greek tragedy in the form of the tension between the Apollinian and Dionysian tendencies--with the dialectical contest. In doing so, he introduced a destructive dimension to the agon and displaced it from the public sphere to the psychic realm, thus eroding its communal benefits. This spiritualization of the agon was further developed by St. Paul and Christianity, leading to a form of struggle that, unlike the Homeric agon, disabled, enervated, and debilitated those who participated in it.

All of this leads Acampora to explore Nietzsche's attempt to overcome the enervating and debilitating effects of Christian morality by questioning the central tenets of its moral psychology: intention, responsibility, guilt, and so forth. It must be said that Acampora's discussion here sometimes ranges far from the theme of agonism, focusing more on issues arising from the debate over Nietzsche's naturalism, but it is not without interest. She begins by taking up Nietzsche's famous depiction of the "sovereign individual" in the Genealogy of Morals, arguing against other scholars that it does not represent Nietzsche's ideal but, rather, remains stuck in the prejudices of the subjectivistic moral psychology he is criticizing. Nietzsche's postmoral future does not involve the self-domination of the sovereign individual but a conception of "agency and action in which we think of ourselves as in our deeds rather than behind our deeds as freewheeling masters." Here she takes up another famous passage in the Genealogy--the one about the lightning and its flash that concludes with the line "das Thun ist Alies"--engaging and ultimately challenging Robert Pippin's interpretation of it in terms of an expressivist conception of agency. Finally, she provides an elaborate account of how one becomes what one is by organizing the multiplicity of drives that make up the self but without presupposing a subject behind the organizing or ordering activity. Here she tries to develop a model of agency that is more fluid and dynamic, less fatalistic or deterministic, than that found in Brian Leiter.

There is much that is good about Acampora's book. It is well-written, well-grounded in the secondary literature (especially on Nietzsche's naturalism), subtle, and thought-provoking. As mentioned before, it offers a very positive image of Nietzsche's philosophy, and one sometimes wonders whether Acampora goes too far in this direction. Though she claims at the outset that she is "quite mindful of the problematic temptation to try to tame or soften Nietzsche's ideas about power," her argument about the value-generating and community-building aspects of the agon tends to do just that. Apart from vaguely hinting that her study of Nietzsche's agonism "yields conceptual resources applicable to ... strands of radical democratic theory" and may even contribute to the development of "alternative forms of political organization and meaningful political discourse," she does little to explore the political implications of Nietzsche's ideas. Perhaps we will hear more about this in the future. On the basis of this book, that would be something to look forward to.--Paul Franco, Bowdoin College
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Author:Franco, Paul
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2014
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