Samantha Demby

Shed Skin

ISSUE 7 | LIES | AUG 2011

I’m smoking out the window of my little box of a room on the fourth floor of Sewall Hall. Four is the blue floor—not to be confused with the red, yellow or green floors of this college dormitory that’s some kind of cross between a hospital on acid trip and a riot-proof nursery school for toddlers with delicate dispositions.

Three books by the same philosopher remain open on my desk. I am going to kill this philosopher:

To posit such an alternative is to be too quick to take as read what is in fact in question: identification of the discussion proper to political rationality and to its manifestation of what is just and unjust with a certain speech-act situation. The rationality of dialogue is thereby identified with the relationship between speakers addressing each other in the grammatical mode of the first and second persons in order to oppose each other’s interest and value systems…

But then I am not really going to kill this philosopher. Because I’ve already exhausted my final brain-unit of investment in text, and so I’m no longer really capable of resenting the empty abstraction of these words. These words hardly reach me. All I can think is: not this.

At some point in college, I lost touch with whatever meaning political theory once held for me. From my present vantage point, it’s easy to characterize this sense of loss as really the birth pangs of an interest in urban policy. But at the time I was aware only of an inability to respond to ideas intelligently in a way that had once defined me. Before identifying myself with a new way of seeing—before articulating the limitations of a perspective I’d once held dear—I became lost in the negative, no longer able to access any aspect of my self-concept, not yet able to consider the prospect of affirming a reworked identity anew. Often, it is only much later and from a position of detachment that we can piece together some notion of our development. Ascribing an arc to experience retroactively, we circumscribe negative moments within a broader narrative of positive identity.

Now something that you formerly loved as a truth or probability strikes you as an error: you shed it and fancy that this represents a victory for your reason. But perhaps this error was as necessary for you then, when you were still a different person—you are always a different person—, as are all your present “truths,” being a skin, as it were, that concealed and covered a great deal that you were not permitted to see. What killed that opinion for you was your new life and not your reason: you no longer need it, and now it collapses and unreason crawls out of it into the light like a worm. When we criticize something, this is no arbitrary and impersonal event,—it is, at least very often, evidence of vital energies in us that are growing and shedding a skin. We negate and must negate because something in us wants to live and affirm, something that we perhaps do not know or see as yet! — This is said in favor of criticism (246).

— Nietzsche, The Gay Science, §307

In college I may have felt that every last ounce of my energy was being channeled into a broad renunciation of academia, yet my self-contained impulse to negate had already begun to set future affirmations in motion. The shedding of one skin is a sign that a new skin has already begun to grow. The image of skin—one Nietzsche invokes several times throughout The Gay Science and in his other works—provides a rich metaphor for the category of truth in the context of identity. I don’t think the terms “truth” and “error” have to point to any super-specific content here. I take Nietzsche to mean negative and affirmative postures of selfhood, which contribute to the way we think about ourselves and represent our thoughts and actions to others.

When we distance ourselves from an idea, activity, or relationship we once held dear, there is a tendency to affix a logic to this process in retrospect. Perhaps we declare our former beliefs to have been simply the residue of naïveté, a product of immaturity, an upshot of immersion in the wrong context. And yet there is no guarantee that—not even an apparatus for measuring whether—the past perspectives we shed are false, while the new ones we affirm are true. While Nietzsche’s aphorism is written in favor of a critical posture that enables ever-new selves to be born, he by no means equates criticism with the linear progress of the self.

Shedding a skin that “concealed and covered a great deal that you were not permitted to see” enables one to see something new,1 but this doesn’t mean that one is always seeing something better or more true than what came before. Each skin at once reveals and conceals anew. At the center of any “truth” lies a core of subjective sightlessness, blind both to the truth which preceded it and to the new way of seeing into which it will eventually unfold. More basically, what a good truth conceals is its nature as a skin—as a way of seeing the world that can and will be shed. In this sense, each truth conceals our potential to love any number of other truths, to exist in the world in any number of other ways.

In drawing out Nietzsche’s aphorism, it becomes clear that the process of skin-shedding always involves both gains and losses. At the same time that one is gaining new perspective, one must lose immediate, subjective access to some former way of being in the world. Sure, if you once identified yourself as a fiction writer but no longer do, you can still experience a great love for fiction writing. Yet the valence of this love will be different from that of an identification; the relationship you construct between the desire to write and your self-concept—between the act of writing and the way you present yourself to others—will not be the same.

To have experienced life within one skin and then to no longer exist and engage with the world from within that skin—such a loss can only be perceived obliquely, from the too-late horizon of nostalgia. By the time we’ve put enough distance between ourselves and the past to judge it as error, we’ve probably already lost touch with the “feeling of real” a truth once held for us, as an aspect of our identity. In the end, identity is itself neither more nor less than a skin: it is a layer which defines the irreducible containment of our inner lives at the same time as it represents our surface area for engagement with the external world in a particular time and place.

It is through negative moments of criticism, which know only how to pronounce the errors of the past, that ever-new selves are born and identity remains dynamic—this is said in favor of criticism. And yet the very form of this rejection reproduces the static streak in identity. It is precisely the terminology of error and truth, affixed to processes of negation and affirmation, which enable us to be so blind to the infinity of other ways in which it is always possible to define identity. Ultimately, the dynamism of identity is always tied up with its tendency toward stasis; the very movement by which identity contracts, expands, and shifts is never distant from its wish to be fixed, from its definition as a process of fixing.

Negative, critical, and narrative postures all contribute to the suspension of identity between dynamism and stasis, to its defining tension between radical and conservative tendencies. On the one hand, the retroactive imposition of a logical narrative obscures the messy process of negation and covers over the uncomfortable posture of self-critique. Reason, swooping in after the fact, distances identity from the erraticness of everyday life. Negations and affirmations which shift over the course of a day or week are thus written off as merely the spasms of pesky necessity: that you are so susceptible—to hormones and weather and degrees of caffeination and t minus the impetus to do laundry—is tolerated, but ultimately transcended.

A radical critique of static identity would then seem to open out from the negative posture, which reacts against the status quo so as to grope boldly toward unknown parts of the self. Only by “tarrying with the negative” can we let go of our compulsion to narrate progress, with its attendant pressure to hold on to anything definite. And to the Hypocrite Readers who think their critical capacity renders them less susceptible to some bullshit mythos of Progress: I have a hunch that our ways of thinking, speaking and acting are motivated by narratives of Progress toward a True Self more often than we’d like to think.

From a different angle, however, the process of retroactive narration also unsettles identity. When you find yourself in a new city, on a new drug, surrounded by new people, you need not force unfamiliar experiences to fit within the bounds of your present self-concept. Rather, definitions shift to incorporate new phenomena over time. In this way, the retroactive assignment of meaning actually challenges static identifications.

Ultimately, the dynamic process of criticism whereby one is always a different person can't be sundered from the invention of a reasonable self, which transcends shifting negations and affirmations so as to narrate progress from above. There is no domain of selfhood that transcends the process of skin-shedding, yet neither is there any iteration of the self which escapes this desire for transcendence.

1 See also Aph. 143, “The greatest advantage of polytheism”: “In polytheism the free-spiriting and many-spiriting of man attained its first preliminary form—the strength to create for ourselves our own new eyes—and ever again new eyes that are even more our own: hence man alone among all the animals has no eternal horizons and perspectives.”

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