Brown – The Art of the Concept


This article was first published in The Art of the Concept--a 2013 special issue of the journal Frakcija--following a symposium of the same name held in June 2012 at MaMa in Zagreb. The 2012 conference was the third in an ongoing series, Conjuncture, coordinated by Brown and Peter Milat. Republished with permission of the author. Citation info below.


The Art of the Concept
Nathan Brown, 2013

Let me begin to approach the topic of this symposium with the name of a concept: the Eternal Return. In What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari give us a theory of philosophy defined as the creation of concepts. And if ever there were a concept that were truly created, surely it is the Eternal Return. Nietzsche invented it. He produced it. And indeed, the concept presents itself to us as a test of our capacity to recognize its originality, its singular novelty: to approach it merely as Nietzsche’s engagement with pre-Socratic philosophy or the fatalism of the Stoics is to fail to think its conceptual specificity. This concept is specific, or rather singular, because all of Nietzsche’s oeuvre, his corpus, prepares its ground by creating the peculiar conditions of a problem to which the doctrine of the Eternal Return becomes an enigmatic solution. For example, the terms “perspectivism” and “will to power” exercise a demand to be made relationally consistent within the Nietzschean text, a demand which partially articulates the complex conditions of under which the Eternal Return will have to be thought. These conditions of consistency compose a fragmentary demand for a synthetic doctrine, thereby creating the singularity of a specifically Nietzschean concept of eternal recurrence, a concept that undergoes an uneven genesis in Nietzsche’s letters and notes after 1881, shadowing its inchoate development in his published books.

But we know, because Nietzsche tells us and because Pierre Klossowski reconstructs this telling, that “the Eternal Return” is also the name of an experience. It is something that happens to Nietzsche. Something that “overtakes” him. It emerges, as a concept, through a mood or Stimmung that gives way onto the experience of a thought, the experience of thinking itself – perhaps even an experience of the identity of thinking and being. Thus, while we can say that Nietzsche “creates” the concept of the Eternal Return we can also say that he discovers it, that he happens upon it, since it happens to him. And because it happens to him, Nietzsche becomes the name of this discovery, of its Event: the event of the conceptual occurrence of the Eternal Return. “Nietzsche” is the name of the taking-place of a concept in the history of philosophy, just as it is the name of he who creates the concept by articulating the conditions of its consistency.

But when does the Eternal Return take place. And where? We are in a position to respond to these questions with answers that are at once exact and ambiguous, answers which are “clear-confused” or “distinct-obscure,” as Deleuze might say. We could say, first of all, that the event-concept of the Eternal Return takes place, in and through Nietzsche, in August of 1881 at Sils-Maria. Here Nietzsche undergoes an experience which “puts him in advance of other men,” he says. The intensity of this experience makes him shudder and laugh and weep with joy – and it gives rise to the idea, he says, that he is living an extremely dangerous life, because he is “one of those machines which can EXPLODE.” At Sils-Maria, in 1881, the experience of the Eternal Return brings Nietzsche to the brink of an explosion which he does not yet undergo. And thus he remains Nietzsche, the thinker who now fears and desires the creation of a concept, and who begins to outline its contours, if only in the most elliptical fashion. He is the author of Zarathustra, for example.

But we could also respond to these questions – when does the Eternal Return take place, and where? – by saying January of 1889, in Turin. That is when and where the experience of the Eternal Return truly overtook Nietzsche, where it well and truly occurred, and it is because this finally happened that he was no longer able to remain “Nietzsche.” Then and there, he became an other, unknown to himself and to us, dissolved into the insoluble labyrinth of a concept he could not find his way out of. Or, to return to a different metaphor, the machine had exploded.

So the problem of the Eternal Return, the evental taking-place of the concept, is displaced in both space and time. It has the structure of a trauma, dislocated between two events that destabilize and dislodge the principle of identity according to which we could assign the creator of the concept a name: Nietzsche. The discovery or creation of the concept is the disjunctive synthesis through which Nietzsche at once becomes who he is and who he is not, through which he becomes who he cannot be. The condition of thinking the concept is the destruction of its thinker. The incoherence of the thinker is the condition of the coherence of the concept: this is a paradox which Nietzsche recognized as soon as he began to think the Eternal Return.

For the philosopher named Nietzsche, thinker of the Eternal Return, this was first of all a pedagogical problem – a problem of transmission which was also the rhetorical mime of a real danger: that of psychosis. Nietzsche could not really teach the doctrine of the Eternal Return, and indeed he could only speak of it in hushed tones, hiding its real consequences for thought even as he tried to convey them. In other words, philosophy could not quite include the concept of the Eternal Return. Only in Klossowski’s extraordinary book do we begin to find a proper determination of the concept, and this is not quite a work of philosophy but rather one of commentary. Here we are not concerned with the “creation of concepts” but rather with commentary upon a concept already created or discovered. So again we are confronted with a paradoxical situation: a commentary upon the concept precedes its production. It is the torque of this paradox that lends Klossowski’s book its incredible force, which is hard to assign a genre. To be sure, Nietzsche’s oeuvre constructs the conditions of possibility for Klossowski’s articulation, for his strange book whose true topic is not Nietzsche’s philosophy, but, as he tells us, Nietzsche’s brain. The thought of the Eternal Return traversed a physiology and found itself lodged within an organ that could not ultimately accommodate its visitation. Nietzsche’s body becomes the unstable host of a dangerous parasite: the concept of the Eternal Return. In this case, then, the paradoxical condition of conceptual production is that the corpus of the philosopher must “create” the parasite of which it is the host. And this is what Nietzsche could not quite do – although, nevertheless, it somehow seems to have happened.

The concept is a parasite upon the corpus of philosophy. This is what the history of the concept of the Eternal Return, written by Klossowski, makes clear. The philosopher can only create the concept on the paradoxical condition of already having become its host. Isn’t this what Hegel is telling us about the relation of art to the concept, when, in his Lectures on Aesthetics, he describes the work of art as “a development of the Concept out of itself, a shift in the Concept from its own ground to that of sense,” through which the Concept becomes “the power and activity of canceling again the estrangement in which it gets involved.”

So: is philosophy the only medium that can host the concept, which can host its creation? In the case of the Eternal Return, the brain proves too fragile a medium to sustain this creation. And the language of philosophy proves an inadequate medium for its transmission. The doctrine of the Eternal Return could not be transcribed, in philosophy; it could only be related as a kind of history, histoire, a story, told by Klossowski. The conceptual doctrine gives way to narration, philosophical commentary in the mode of detective fiction, or perhaps that of a cautionary fairy tale called Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle, like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

To return to art, to the art of the concept, perhaps it is possible that the story of this concept can be told in a different way, given other names and even assigned another protagonist. This is what happens in Bela Tarr’s final cinematic masterpiece: The Turin Horse. The title already gives us a clue as to how the film will handle what Deleuze calls conceptual personae. The title of the film seems to present a subject and a predicate – a horse from Turin – but it turns out that this is not really the case. All the descriptions of the film say: in 1889, Nietzsche saw a horse being beaten in Turin, broke down in tears, flung his arms around the horse, and subsequently went mad. And now Bela Tarr has made a film not about Nietzsche, but about the horse! But then it turns out that the people in this film are speaking Hungarian, not Italian. This is the Turin Horse, but it is not a horse from Turin. Indeed, the house and the stable in which the bulk of the film takes place was built by the crew. Which is just to say that, after all, we are watching a movie.

So The Turin Horse is not really the name or the description of a horse. It is the name of an episode: the famous story of something that happened, both to a horse and to Nietzsche. It is the name of an event which has been related to us as a story: the story of the consummation of the thought of the Eternal Return in human madness, which is also the story of the beating of an animal by the driver of a handsome cab – an iconic bourgeois conveyance – in the streets of a Northern Italian industrial city. Abstracting from this horse, or this city, perhaps we could say that it is a story about the incommensurability of the city and the animal, the incommensurability of capitalism and the animal, of modernity and the animal – an incommensurability mediated not only by money but by man and his destiny, madness. The eponymous episode of 1889 is precisely contemporaneous with the first commercial production of the automobile, which will replace the horse and buggy. And it is precisely contemporaneous with the inaugural films shot with a motion picture camera. The episode situates us on the cusp of the twentieth century as its proleptic thinker, Nietzsche, is undone by a spectacle of cruelty that somehow manages to be at once transhistorical and characteristically modern.

How does Tarr relate what he draws from this episode? Frame by frame, first of all, as cinema must: a concatenation of still images thrown into time and projected: the formal iterability of difference and repetition. Film, not philosophy, becomes the veritable medium of the Eternal Return, the circular temporality of which it cuts up, selects, distributes, draws out on a line and coils into a reel, split, staggered, and synthesized. The film begins with a virtuosic long take: a horse running, whipped, pulling a wagon carrying a man. The horse gnaws at a metal bit and it wears blinders, so that if it looks to either side it sees black. This is how cinema charges through time.

In addition to the horse, the film has two main characters, a man and a woman, who live in a simple stone house. The virtually wordless representation of their daily gestures is punctuated by a single monologue: that of a visitor who offers a pessimistic commentary upon the animal called “man”: a worthless creature dominated by greed and vanity, who degrades everything he touches. In other words, the sort of commentary upon man we might find in Nietzsche’s oeuvre. Man, animal, and money, the last term determining the relation between the the first term and the second: this is the implicit system of a scenario (a man who owns a cab drawn by a horse) which implicates us in two stories: first, the cruel exploitation of the animal by man; second, the cruelty, stupidity and meaninglessness of capitalist modernity, which comes to determine man’s differentiation from the animal as a disaster.

These are the two stories conjugated by the episode called The Turin Horseof which Nietzsche was at once the witness and the protagonist. Their conjunction is what he encounters in Turin. The affirmation of this encounter – of every event which leads to it and follows from it – is what would have to be affirmed in order to affirm the Eternal Return: the differentiation of man and animal, which opens onto thought, and the nihilism of capitalist modernity, which ends in catastrophe. Did Nietzsche go mad because he achieved this affirmation, or because he was incapable of it at the decisive moment? This is admittedly a ridiculous question which can never be answered and should probably not be asked – which is why we have to return not to “Nietzsche,” the philosopher, but to “the Turin Horse,” the Event.

This is the return performed by Tarr’s film, which does not narrate the event but rather its implications. The narrative moves across a number of days, each one given its own inter-title: The First Day, The Second Day, The Third Day, The Fourth Day, The Fifth Day. And the film gives us a lesson in perspectivism. Each day, we watch two people eat two potatoes at a table with four sides, and the camera moves around the sides of the table, one each day, until we have viewed the figures eating from all four angles – plus one, a repetition. The cameral is a perspectival machine, and this differential repetition of the same scene across five days from four different angles, plus one return to the same angle, is a unitary structural principle through which it is emphasized that these five days are included in one film or one form, and that the “day” is merely a narrative fiction of the medium, of its content. And indeed, by the end of the film it seems that the sun has burnt out, or at least, it is no longer shining. Sometime during The Fourth Day, darkness falls once and for all. The word “day” names a cyclical relation of the earth to the sun. But from the perspective of the sun, after all, there is only one “day,” and now that day is over. And sub species aeternitatis, the cyclical division of time has no significance at all. The film ends in darkness, since not even the lamps will light. The laws of nature have changed, the horse has stopped eating, the well has run dry, and there is no longer any fire with which to boil the potatoes. Now the temporal repetition of one frame after another returns us to the same image, which is not really an image nor the negation of an image, but the sensible absence of an image: black, black, black, black, like horse trying to look sideways through blinders. This is how the film ends.

Having traversed Nietzsche’s brain – a machine that can explode – the inchoate concept of the Eternal Return is transferred, after the explosion, onto celluloid and transmitted as a complex image. Just as Deleuze says, philosophy is the creation of concepts and art is the creation of percepts and affects, of sensations. Except that the Eternal Return – precisely the concept which Deleuze, after Nietzsche, tried to think – shows us that philosophy is not quite sufficient to create the concept, but somehow both hosts and inaugurates its concatenated historical production.

It would be going too far to say that the thought of the Eternal Return, or its explosion in Turin, is a proleptic anticipation of cinema. But it would not be going too far to say that the production of that dangerous machine, Nietzsche’s brain, and of the cinematic apparatus share the same historical conditions of possibility, and that the destruction of one and the creation of the other converge around 1889. It is also the impossibly complex affirmation of all the conditions of possibility which produced this convergence which would have to be thought in the name of the Eternal Return. It goes without saying that no single apparatus, organic or mechanical, philosophical or cinematic, is capable of that. And this is the impossibility which Nietzsche suffered.

It is The Turin Horse, Tarr’s film, which tells something like the story of this impossibility in the most occluded fashion, just as Nietzsche whispers his doctrine to those who can barely hear it and who mistake it for what it is not. When Hegel tells us that art is conceptual, and that philosophy and art are indeed opposed, but only insofar as they are two differential grounds upon which the Concept pursues its productive articulation through the sublation of their opposition, he is telling us that the Concept produces itself as thought and sensation, though it is differentially included in art and philosophy.

To think the art of the concept is to think the problem of this differential inclusion and to understand its ground – which is the necessary insufficiency of any discrete apparatus to include the whole of the concept: an insufficiency which Hegel’s philosophy also runs up against and which the concept of the Eternal Return makes clear.

Luckily for us, that insufficiency allows us pursue the productive coarticulation of philosophy, literature, music, film, and visual art – and to do so in what I am sure will be very different ways over the course of this weekend.


Brown, Nathan. “The Art of the Concept,” in The Art of the Concept. Edited by Nathan Brown and Petar Milat. Frakcija 64/65 (2013): 6-10.