Subject Emerging from the Will to Power


[Wenzel Hablik's Sunset, Mont Blanc]

In the second book of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche has life confide to Zarathustra:

Behold, [. . .] I am that which must always overcome itself. Indeed, you call it a will to procreate or a drive to an end, to something higher, farther, more manifold: but all this is one, and one secret.[i]

This, in effect, is the secret of life. This is what explains Zarathustra’s observation that “whatever lives, obeys,” that “he who cannot obey himself is commanded.”[ii] Life to Zarathustra (Nietzsche’s mask) is about obeying and/or commanding. This is “the nature of the living” that, despite taking on many different forms (as life points out above), is the defining feature of whatever has life.[iii] While encompassing a seeming variety, in other words, life, Nietzsche claims, is fundamentally about a single phenomenon/process. This phenomenon/process is none other than what Nietzsche, in more general terms, refers to as the will to power—of which all other phenomena, everything else—such as the will to procreate, the drives to different ends, the goal to become something higher, etc.—are but specific instantiations.

What exactly does this mean? What is the will to power? What does it mean to will to power? What does it mean to have, to undergo—to be(come)—(a) will to power? After all, if this is in fact the way that Nietzsche wants to paint the world—i.e. if the will to power is the “ontology” that he offers—then shouldn’t everything in the world, or at least that which has life, that which lives, be reducible to or at least explainable by it? This holds true even if, for Nietzsche, ontology does not mean what there is (an absolute, all-encompassing claim) but simply the way that he wants to look at the world (to be able to do something to it, give it meaning, make it make sense to serve his purposes). In both senses of ontology, life—everything in the world that has life, including the human being—has to be accounted for by the will to power. How does Nietzsche (or someone following Nietzsche) do this?

In order to shed light on this question, I propose to look at the notion of the subject and measure it against the demands and presuppositions of an ontology defined by the will to power, tracking down if such a notion is therein possible. I purposefully choose the notion of subjectivity because, at least in its metaphysical rendering, the concept seems diametrically opposed to and is certainly one of the notions most critically undermined by Nietzsche’s ontology. To measure the validity of the will to power as ontology, then, it seems fitting to ask whether subjectivity is explainable in it.

In order to do this, first I attempt to clarify what the will to power is by looking at Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra and secondary literature by “new Nietzsche” scholars. It becomes clear after the exposition, however, that the subject is only vaguely delineated in Nietzsche’s ontology. This is consistent with the fact that Nietzsche himself does not bother much with the question, paying attention to what subjects do rather than how one is so constituted. This, of course, does not mean that Nietzsche had no concept of the subject, but it does necessitate further resources in trying to more explicitly extricate a theory of subjectivity from the will-to-power ontology.

As a second step, then, I briefly set Nietzsche against Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault, two philosophers that I argue are good Nietzscheans in their ontology even as they more explicitly (if not obviously[iv]) articulate the position of the subject in the world. Deleuze does this by doing what Nietzsche seems expressly to avoid: he translates the notion of force constituent of the will in Nietzsche into what he calls desiring-machines. Foucault, on the other hand, focusing on the second part of Nietzsche’s ontology, finds the subject not in the will but as a mere product of the exercise of power. In both cases, the ontologies offered, I argue, remain Nietzschean, even as a place is left for the subject therein emerging.

Will as Struggle of Forces

As Nietzsche (by way of Zarathustra) hints at above, the will to power (as underlying phenomenon or ontological structure) has something to do with obeying and/or commanding. Consistent with life’s intimation, it is described as a mechanism coexistent with life, extending to all of it. As Zarathustra says, “Where I found the living, there I found will to power.”[v] The will to power is thus at work wherever and whenever there is life, with whatever that has life. All things that have life experience the will to power in some form or other, either as the one that obeys or the one that commands, and both roles in different circumstances (according to one’s position in the relationship) and simultaneously (as in a dynamic relationship, such as one has with oneself).

The will to power, in Nietzsche’s characterization, is also not constrained to or possessed by a particular individual (or group of individuals). As Zarathustra claims, “even in the will of those who serve [those who are thought to not have power] I found the will to be master [i.e. the stirrings of the drive towards power].”[vi] This provides the possibility for shifts in power, for those who are unable to exercise it now to be able to wield it later on, or at least to desire it. Power in Nietzsche is thus not a possession, not something that one has (permanently), but is something that is simply willed, craved for, something towards which one is moved.

The will to power, moreover, is not exhausted by its endpoint. It is not reducible to the state of things that results from the movement towards power, for example the triumph or loss that may attain. As Zarathustra observes, “Even the greatest still yields, and for the sake of power risks life.”[vii] Not a possession, the will to power is thus also not a state (of things) or a mere goal. On the contrary, all those designations are but temporary static points that, as it were, the will to power lands on (nouns that temporarily capture, as it were, the verb that will to power is). The will to power, in fact, is that for the sake of which those temporary static points are left, broken, betrayed—for something other, something new (which is why “the greatest still yields”).

The will to power is thus that which moves—is the movement itself—onwards, towards, there (to something else, something greater). It is thus both the motivation and mechanism of life—for which, in fact, even life gives itself up (or is made to willingly give up itself), itself discloses (or is itself made to willingly disclose), “Life sacrifices itself—for power.”[viii]

At this point, it becomes apparent that the phenomenon/process of obeying/commanding (by which Zarathustra describes the will to power) is but the aftereffect of the more originary fact of movement that the will to power is. In other words, the mechanism of obeying/commanding, the struggle for power (i.e. the movement), is itself secondary (i.e. comes after) to the motivation for that movement, i.e. the will to become higher, become greater. Yet even the motivation still refers to the to power part of the will to power. After all, life talks about its motivation to sacrifice itself by saying that it is “for power,” thereby equating motivation (along with the movement and the phenomenon of obeying and commanding that comes after it) to to power.

What then is will? What act is it that launches to power, brings one to a position of more power (leading one to become higher, greater)? What is it that moves to power? What is it that, as it were, wills to power? What is this verb, and, if transformable, what noun will this verb take? What does it mean to will and what is will?

In “Nietzsche and Metaphysical Language,” Michael Haar argues that the will to power (as a locution) “is designed first of all to destroy and eliminate the traditional metaphysical concept of the will.”[ix] Refusing to call the will to power a concept (which in metaphysics implies permanent fixity and absolute determination), Haar means by this that Nietzsche’s term and its performance (one of which is the ambivalence as to whether will is a verb or a noun) seeks to turn away from the conception of will as a “metaphysical substance,” if not “a faculty of the subject.”[x] This is because in both cases, will is turned into or connected to something substantive and thereby fixed, taken to be the “cause and source of [. . .] actions” that attempt to lead to power, and assumed to be “a unity, an identity.”[xi] This, Haar implies, are hallmarks of metaphysics, which is precisely what Nietzsche is trying to undermine when he invents the non-concept, as it were, of the will to power.

If not a concept, can we speak of will (as a noun) then? Haar quotes Nietzsche in saying that “there is no such thing as a will.”[xii] In the context just cited, what Nietzsche means is that there is no metaphysical (unified, self-identical, fixed) substance from which to power comes. This applies both in Schopenhauer’s sense of the Will as something “unique and universal [behind the phenomena that] constitut[es] what things are in themselves” and the conception of the subject as an ego who manifests wills according to its volition (as when it says “I will”).[xiii]

Nietzsche’s critique of such a thing as a will thus has its stress less on will than on a. In other words, what Nietzsche is critiquing is less the will taken as a noun as the characteristics that is assigned to it by metaphysics once it is taken as such: namely, it being defined as primary (the cause and source of actions), unified (either as one universal substance or as manifested by a unified subject), conscious (thus it or the ego that has it by its own volition wills), self-identical (the I and the will thus reflect each other, whether they be subject and object or the universal and the particular; the motivation and goal is thus representation), fixed (once a version is chosen, i.e. either Schopenhauer’s universal will or the willing ego, the will stays as such, i.e. it has one form, from which it cannot and does not change), and absolute (the will that is substantive and which has one form defines everything else, e.g. what it does, its actions, and what there is in the world).

What underlies the above-mentioned qualities is the assumption that there is only one will—a will—that then—as the (definitive, determinant, absolute) will—serves as the foundation of the world. This distorts the very essence of what the will is (the here in the weak sense, i.e. to merely designate a noun, and a mere placeholder at that), which, according to Nietzche (as read by Haar), is “plurality and complexity itself, [. . .] is derived,” is “only the symptom and not the cause.”[xiv]

The term will is thus but a shorthand, transformed into (functioning as) a noun by virtue only of convention and out of need so as to be able to designate (i.e. be able to talk about) what Nietzsche is hitting upon (because there is no other way to communicate). In other words, Nietzsche accepts (because he has no choice) the will functioning as a noun, a substantive, but the individual must not forget that what s/he calls a will (his or hers) is, in Haar’s words, “a plurality of instincts and impulses in constant battle with one another to gain the upper hand,” and the will “in reality [but] a complex and belated sentiment: one accompanying the victory of one impulse over others, or the translation into conscious terms of a temporary state of equilibrium intervening in the interplay of impulses.”[xv] If we thus take will as a noun (which we may have to, in certain cases, especially since we have no choice if we want to designate it with some fixity, our meanings to have some stability), we, in effect, are back at the level of to power. To be more precise, the part of the will to power we would be hitting upon if we take will as a noun (which allows us to talk about and have some understanding of it in the first place) would be analogous to the landing points mentioned above where the will to power assumes some permanence and solidity (by being taken as a possession, state, or goal).

What then is will? If we want to stay at its primal level (even though we may have to concede to metaphysics at certain points (e.g. by taking will as a noun), which we will have to, if we want to talk about it in the first place), what snapshots of will do we get? Staying true to Nietzsche, Haar writes,

There is no will, [. . .] no fixed and defined center (the center is always shifting and it cannot be grasped), but rather a plurality of elementary ‘wills’—which is to say unconscious impulses, forever in conflict, alternately imposing themselves [as when they command] and subordinating themselves [as when they obey].[xvi]

In other words, if we are to take will as a noun, we have to define it not as some sort of large-scale universal Will (as in Schopenhauer), but as the diversity of small, molecular wills (not of a unified subject but) of various types that include “unconscious impulses,” “impulsive movements” (which Haar equates with “bodily movements”), the will to procreate and drive to an end that Zarathustra talks about above, the push towards a goal, interior movements—as Haar describes above, plurality and complexity itself.[xvii] These molecular wills are then congealed into the word will (as a noun) when we talk about it (which is then assigned by metaphysics absolute characteristics that reduce the complexity of the wills from which the will derives). There is thus a way in which we can talk about the will as a noun—so long as (unlike metaphysics) when we do, we refer to one of the molecular wills and not the large-scale will that they congeal into (much less that which is assigned metaphysical values).

This is the way in which I want to talk about the will, i.e. the will taken at its “primal” level (i.e. before it is congealed). When I talk about the will, then, what I am doing is (for communication’s sake) taking one of the molecular wills that Nietzsche is hitting upon as a representative of what those wills are in order to shed some light on the whole picture of Nietzsche’s ontology. This move is, of course, also a congealment, but it is, I argue, necessary to be able to talk about will at all and to gain some understanding of it, while it is able to avoid the metaphysical shortfalls that Nietzsche criticizes.

Nietzsche’s will then is more primal than metaphysical will (which is also the will referred to in everyday conversations). Both the formulations “I will” and “The (universal) Will wills” are, as Haar argues, but symptoms and fictions developed by consciousness that merely follow (i.e. come after) the molecular level of wills that Nietzsche hits upon in the locution will to power. Metaphysical will (in both variants) is thus secondary to (is but the congealment of) Nietzsche’s molecular wills, i.e. the level of impulses, drives, instincts, interior movements . . .—forces, if we want to use a word for them; since coextensive with life: the life-force itself.

What is a force? Alphonso Lingis, in “The Will to Power,” defines the will to power as that which is “behind [. . .] essences, [. . .] senses, [. . . and] interpretations, [. . .] that account for them.”[xviii] “It is,” he continues, “an instance rather than a substance or a substrate; it is the force behind all forms.”[xix] Force, Lingis implies, is one of the modes in which the will to power can be described. It is something that constitutes the will to power. It is, as in the assertion I made above, part of what the molecular will is. As Lingis points out, force is something underneath metaphysical will (i.e. something that exists on the level of molecular will) and all other metaphysical concepts (such as essence) that claim permanence and absoluteness, which in fact account for that permanence and absoluteness, i.e. the status of concepts as metaphysical, in the first place. Force then—what constitutes will—is a throbbing, urging, thriving substrate, which, as Lingis points out, is less a substrate (with its substantive connotation) than an instance, since it is not fixed or static. Force, then, to be more precise, is the throbbing, the urging, the thriving itself—which is what underlies everything there is in the world, everything that has life—which metaphysics tries to reduce to its neat and static concepts.

Lingis is quick to point out, however, that “the will to power is not just power or force, but will to power: always will for more power.”[xx] Thus the will, although constituted by it, is not just force (does not merely mean force), but rather force as always moved, always moving, to a certain direction, which to Lingis, preserving the destructive force of Nietzsche’s philosophy, is the

Continual sublation of all telos, transgression of all ends, production of all concordant and contradictory meanings, interpretations, valuations. [The will to power] is [thus] the chaos, the primal fund of the unformed—not matter, but force beneath the cosmos, which precedes the forms and makes them possible as well as transitory.[xxi]

It is not only the direction to which it is moved that causes movement in force, however. In a very real sense, force is in perpetual movement because, never alone, it is inevitably in relation with other forces, which (from the beginning, before a direction is even determined) causes movement. As Lingis describes, “Difference is constitutive of the original being of force: force is in its quantitative difference from another force. Force cannot exist in the singular.”[xxii] In other words, as with will (which force is a constituent of), there is not just force but rather forces—which, by virtue of them relating with each other, keeps force always in movement.

This dynamic between forces is of course inseparable from the other dynamic that moves force onwards, i.e. towards power. As Lingis continues, “And force from its origin is different from itself: power is of itself always will unto more power. Force does not exist in self-identity, but only in the discharge—that is, in the surpassing of itself.”[xxiii] Thus force—always already in relation to other different forces—and always moved and moving towards power—is, in a double sense, in perpetual movement.

Force is thus never by itself, i.e. never exists alone and/or without a direction toward which it tends—but is always in a struggle (with other forces and with itself (to go beyond)), which leads to movement. If we are to refer, then, to the will in terms of force, we have to invoke not force as it stands on its own as a substantive (which in the picture that Nietzsche paints is impossible) but rather the struggle of forces. The precise formulation, then, is not the equation of will with force (even though force is part of what constitutes the will) but will as the struggle of forces (both because force does not exhaust will and because force does not stand alone).

Haar, in the article cited above, makes the same point. He writes,

Rather than naming these forces taken in themselves as new metaphysical substances of the sort that Nietzsche rejects as fictitious, the will to power names the polarity that orients them, structures them, and defines their meaning: not an absolute meaning, nor a univocal direction, nor any finality whatsoever, but a multifaceted meaning that takes its shape from the moving diversity of perspectives. [. . .] The will to power [thus] designates a deployment of forces that is non-finalized but always oriented.[xxiv]

In other words, will is not force per se but is the struggle of forces in differential relations with each other at the same time that each force is directed towards power, a push whose precise direction, moreover, is itself uncertain, as it may put force in the position of either command or obedience. This is precisely the reason why Lingis does not define will as force but instead writes:

Will is force that commands. [. . .] The will, in will to power, is the differential element of force. Difference is enacted not in a reiteration of the same, but in the self-affirmation of a force exercised against another force.[xxv]

Will, in other words, refers not just to the forces taken in themselves (as substantives, as nouns) but rather to force that inevitably commands, i.e. to the constant struggle that forces sustain with each other and with themselves. Thus will (as a noun) refers not to a thing but to a phenomenon, a process (a verb). It is in this sense that will is the noun of a verb, a substantive designating what is a process, in other words, a verb-noun, which is also a noun-verb since when we see Nietzsche use it as a term, we don’t stay with the substantive that will is, because there is no substantive will. Instead, we are immediately reminded of and brought back to the level of process, the verb: the forces and their struggle.

The said struggle, of course, as hinted to above, is directed by power. After all, what Nietzsche talks about is not just will, but will to power. The two parts will and to power, in other words, are inseparable (separated only for the purposes of clarification and discussion). In explaining the will, Haar thus quotes Nietzsche in saying, “To the concept of force must be attributed an inner will, what I refer to as ‘will to power,’ i.e., as an insatiable demand for the demonstration of power.”[xxvi] Similarly, in trying to elaborate on what the will is, Lingis necessarily invokes power. After saying (as quoted above), “Will is force that commands,” Lingis continues:

Will exists originally in relationship, but not in relationship with the involuntary. [. . .] It is not a force that is simply transmitted to passive matter; it is exercised on another will. [. . .] To Nietzsche what is unformed is not matter, but force, is not passive, but chaotic. Power, then—domination, ordering—cannot be conceived except in original contention, in polemos. Will exists in the relationship between a commanding will and an obeying will—one that obeys always, more or less—for in order to be able to obey, it is necessary to be able to command oneself.[xxvii]

This, then, is Nietzsche’s ontology. That is to say, in Nietzsche, life is constituted by varied, irreducible forces that constantly struggle with each other and with themselves for power (which does not, however, necessarily put every force in positions of more power). Thus, to will to power means to be constituted of these forces—which everything that has life is—and hence to be immersed in the economy where one—since constituted by forces—is constantly struggling for power. This struggle for power is, in turn, to Nietzsche, the only common feature that defines all that has life—the only “essence” (if it can still be called that) predicable to life.

Translated into a noun, the will to power refers to this phenomenon of struggle, the process (a verb), taken as an ontological structure (a noun). It would be the temporary stabilizing of the verb into a noun, the congealment of what is by its essence a verb into a substantive designation that only temporarily captures the dynamic, differential process that the will to power is, a congealment that may be necessary (for example, for the sake of discussion) while not having to be metaphysical (with all the qualities that metaphysics associates to its concepts).

As Nietzsche has life confide above, this—the will to power (a noun-verb) (now more concretely described as the constant struggle of forces for power)—is the secret of life, the ontological structure that underlies all that has life. As such, will to power being at work everywhere, everything that has life is constituted by forces and are subject to the power economy. As Haar elaborates,

[The will to power] applies to every possible kind of force: it does not at all refer uniquely to the forces that underlie psychic phenomena—i.e. the impulses of the body—but rather refers to all the phenomena of the world. [This at the same time that the will to power] applies more precisely to the inner dynamism of these forces, to the orientation that qualifies them. [. . .] Every force, every energy, whatever it may be, is will to power—in the organic world (impulses, instincts, needs), in the psychological and moral worlds (desires, motivations, ideas), and in the inorganic world itself—inasmuch as ‘life is just a special case of the will to power.’ Every force participates in this same essence. ‘It is one and the same force that one expends in artistic creation and in the sex act; there is but one kind of force.’[xxviii]

For Nietzsche, then, the basic ontological unit is force, and it may not even be possible to take it as a unit since force is not a thing, not a substantive (not a noun), but is more like a charge (of energy) immediately in (inextricable from) a power economy, which makes it unclear where one “unit” ends and another begins (compare to atoms). Nonetheless, it is clear that the ontological unit is not the universal Will or the ego manifesting will on its own volition (as in metaphysical conceptions). If there is a subject in Nietzsche’s ontology, then, it would not be primary but is instead (like everything else that has life) a mere composite of these more primal forces that make up the will to power. Nietzsche himself, however, did not explain how this could be. Nietzsche did not explain how exactly, from such an ontology of force, a subject is constituted.

Force as Desiring-Machine

Due to the indetermination of the basic unit (i.e. force) in Nietzsche’s ontology and the nature of the will to power less as a substantive than a process (i.e. a noun-verb; which is part of what makes it really hard to talk about)—i.e. since there is no basic noun we can take hold of in Nietzsche’s ontology—it can be said that the defining feature in the ontology is a process (a verb). That is to say, what is common to everything in Nietzsche’s world (by which we can explain everything using his framework) is not a substantive (some basic clear-cut material of which everything is composed) but a process, a dynamic lending definition and meaning to the surface phenomenon that we experience. It is in this way that the univocal feature in Nietzsche’s ontology is not the basic unit (i.e. force, which, as established above, cannot be delimited, taken in isolation, and separate from its differential dynamic) but the process that those charges and everything made up of them undergo.

While following Nietzsche, Gilles Deleuze takes a different approach. While Nietzsche leaves the notion of force as something amorphous, varied, and undetermined—i.e. vague for a purpose, since Nietzsche refuses to find a common metaphysical feature that would define these basic molecular units, which would reduce and subordinate what are varied forces making up the diverse world into a universal unity—Deleuze, in his own ontology (based on Nietzsche) defines forces (the material underlying surface phenomena) as desiring-machines. This is no mere translation since what is intentionally vague is transformed into something somewhat determined and specific, thereby giving it (and everything else that it defines, i.e. everything that has life in the world) specific conditions and qualities.

What are desiring-machines? Like forces in Nietzsche, desiring-machines are the basic units that compose everything that has life, in fact in Deleuze, everything there is in the world. Desiring-machines are more specific than forces, however, because, as Deleuze and Guattari explain in Anti-Oedipus, they work in a certain way (hence their specific name in contrast to the more general and abstract forces). Desiring-machines, just like Nietzsche’s forces, are involved in a differential dynamic with other desiring-machines and with themselves, which, by virtue of their differential position in the network of other desiring-machines (Deleuze’s influence in this regard is less Nietzsche than Saussure’s structuralist linguistics, to which Nietzsche as a precursor had no access), gain some character and identity and are thus able to serve a function in the network.

As the name implies, however, desiring-machines have a specific goal or purpose: less the movement towards more power (which they are not always able to do) than simply (as in Marx) to produce (which in Deleuze’s ontology, everything does), i.e. to do or make something. It is in this way that, in a very real sense, Deleuze’s basic units are machines. As Deleuze remarks in the beginning of Anti-Oedipus, “Everywhere it [not id] is machines—real ones, not figurative ones: machines driving other machines, machines being driven by other machines, with all the necessary couplings and connections. [. . .] We are all handymen: each with his little machines.”[xxix]

These machines are desiring because desire is the motivation for production. In fact, desire is what provides energy—the force—to be able to produce, what drives production. This desire, however, (as in psychoanalysis), far from being manifested consciously by the willing ego, is the result of unconscious processes. There are three steps to this process, what Deleuze calls the three syntheses of the unconscious. Briefly, first desiring-machines (or a set thereof, as combined in an individual body, e.g. a human being) connect/couple with other desiring-machines, making all sorts of connections undetermined by some central autonomy (i.e. by the mind of some active ego). Second, due to different reasons (either because a desire was frustrated, turned off, or satiated), desiring-machines unhook, making a record of the previous connection (what psychoanalysis calls the unconscious) while either moving on to other ones or refusing to connect (usually only temporarily but sometimes altogether), thereby repressing desires. Third, from the previous two processes, some amount of pleasure is consumed/consummated by some body (a set of desiring-machines), which, however, is, due to the second process, but a mere fraction of all the energy produced in the first.[xxx] Nonetheless, the desires that drove the syntheses produced all sorts of material things (other desires, physical acts, new organisms (e.g. the birth of a child), material writings, works of art, etc.), whether these are consummated or not.

By drawing from other resources (e.g. Saussure, Marx, Freud), then, Deleuze is able to go a step further than Nietzsche in univocalizing not only the process that everything that has life in the world undergo but also the basic unit of which they are made. By collapsing the process and the unit to each other, Deleuze is able to evade the traps of metaphysics at the same time that he is able to comply to the demands of a Nietzschean ontology. After all, desiring-machines, the defining feature of Deleuze’s ontology, are, like Nietzsche’s will to power, differential (relational), dynamic, non-self-identical, non-unified, unfixed, unconscious, and have no primary stable source that cause them and do not absolutely determine universal meaning (instead, concrete meanings arise from particular instances of the unconscious syntheses). Thus Deleuze complies to the demands of a Nietzschean ontology—except for the fact that the basic unit, force, is specifically defined—thereby univocalizing the composition of everything there is in the world—as a desiring-machine.

A consequence of the specification of the basic unit (and not just the process) of the ontology (that is then made univocal, i.e. everything is thought to be composed of that basic unit) is that, in contrast to Nietzsche’s more amorphous picture (where everything at the level of force seems mixed), in Deleuze the constitution of the subject is more concretely defined. In Deleuze, on the third syntheses, after a residual energy is consummated, a subject is formed. This subjectivity emerges based on what a body (a set of desiring-machines) just consumed and what it found pleasurable in that consummation. Thus a subject emerges that says, “Oh, so that’s what I wanted,” “So, that’s how I like it,” “That’s what I want,” “That’s what I am able to produce,” thereby giving characteristics to this body, delimiting it from other desiring-machines, giving it some identity, turning a set of desiring-machines into a subject that can identify itself as such (though not necessarily a conscious ego). This subjectivity, however, is not permanent, since further repetitions of the three syntheses are experienced by it, changing how it thinks of itself, how it identifies itself as a subject, perhaps even giving rise to other subjectivities within the same set of desiring-machines (manifested in the extreme in the case of multiple personalities). Nonetheless, from an ontology that complies to the demands of the will to power, subjects—i.e. specified individuals that can consciously (albeit only belatedly) and actively take responsibility for what happened to them (due to the dynamics of will to power)—emerge.

Constitutive Power

Michel Foucault, like Deleuze, starts out from a Nietzschean ontology. In explaining how a subject is constituted, however, unlike Deleuze, Foucault focuses less on will than on power. That power is not a possession, a state, or a goal (as explained above) are all Nietzschean principles that Foucault’s own ontology subscribes to.[xxxi] There is a difference in emphasis between the two conceptions, however. Haar describes the notion of power in Nietzsche:

[Power] is precisely the intimate law of the will and of all force, the law that to will is to will its own growth. The will that is will to power responds at its origins to its own internal imperative: to be more. This imperative brings it before the alternatives: either it is to augment itself, to surpass itself, or it is to decline, to degenerate.[xxxii]

This is the same thing that life talks about in the quote above. In the utterance to Zarathustra when life reveals that life is will to power, what is stressed is not only the different wills that life mentions (subsumed, as explained above, in a single will: the will to power) but what the will is directed to: as life says, will to power is the will to always overcome itself, in Haar’s phrasing, the will to be more.

There is a sense, then, that in Nietzsche, power (although inseparable from it) is not there to begin with but is something towards which what there is—will, i.e. the struggle of forces—moves towards (although this does not guarantee that a particular force does in fact get to a state of more power). Deleuze follows Nietzsche in this in stressing in his ontology the desiring-machines. Although power is in fact what makes possible the movement to (more) power in the first place, there is nonetheless in Nietzsche and Deleuze the irreducible will that plays a crucial role.

For Foucault, on the other hand, power is primary. Power is not only, as something willed, a potential later (albeit intermediary, since there is no finality) state or the motivation for movement, but is the fact of life itself, its starting point. Foucault’s ontology posits individuals immediately (before anything else, even before desire, as in Deleuze) in differential relations (as in Saussure’s structuralism) with each other, relations that are, to Foucault, inherently power relations. In fact, Foucault defines power as “a relationship between partners,” i.e. “a way in which some act on others” which (i.e. power), to Foucault, is the relationship itself.[xxxiii] A relationship between two individuals, in other words, is always configured or arranged a certain way, with regards to who or what gets his/her way, who obeys whom, etc. (which, however, does not mean that it is always configured in the same way, i.e. the power dynamic shifts, but, again, there is always a power dynamic). In a relationship, an individual (and/or both) is necessarily going to act on the field of possible actions of another, either limiting it, controlling it, or modifying it in some way. Power is thus always exercised, which is the performance of “an action upon an action, on possible or actual future or present actions,” to influence—sway somehow, point to some direction—another’s actions.[xxxiv] Power is thus the first act of relationships, which, in turn, is the first fact of everything that has life.

The individual, the basic ontological unit in Foucault, is a version of Nietzsche’s force that, from the beginning, i.e. from the time that it wills (in Foucault, from the time that it exercises power), is itself subjected to the same process, i.e. subjected to the exercise of power (by another individual). In this dynamic, impermanent, and unstable struggle to exercise power, the subject, i.e. the individual with some identity or sense of self or relation to others and the world, is constituted. The subject, thus, in Foucault, is the result not, unlike in Deleuze, of desiring-machines forming (out of desire) an assemblage, but of the exercise of power. In other words, for Foucault, power, not desire, is what constitutes a subject.

In a way, Foucault has a more pessimistic theory of the subject, a pessimistic view of how the identity that individuals give to themselves is formed (or, at least, is used). More specifically, for Foucault, subjectivation means the process by which an individual—by virtue of the exercise of power by another (usually a larger individual, e.g. an institution)—is treated as an object of knowledge (i.e. something that is examined, learned, attempted to be known) so that it can be classified, identified, defined (i.e. made into a subject that can be studied), which, in turn, allows more things to be more easily done to it (i.e. subjects it).[xxxv] For Foucault, the subject is thus—through the mutually-reinforcing dynamic that he calls power/knowledge—what becomes of the individual as soon as s/he is in a relationship, which makes him/her more easily disciplined, regulated, and controlled, so that more of the power that (through knowledge) subjectivated it to begin with can be exercised on it.

Thus the “will” of an individual to be something, to have an identity, to become a subject, while providing for the possibility for it to exercise power, also puts the individual in a position such that more power is exercised on it—made possible in the first place (through subjectivation), it must be remembered, by the exercise of power. (For Foucault, the exercise of power is, of course, by no means necessarily something “bad.”) In a way, for Foucault the exercise of power itself—with no guarantee of the same being true for the subject exercising it—is what becomes more.

Non-Metaphysical Subjects

As demonstrated by Deleuze and Foucault, it is possible to theorize the emergence of the subject in a Nietzschean ontology that stays true to the will to power and avoids the traps of metaphysics. This was accomplished, as explained above, by modifying the assertion that life is will to power in some part or other.

Nonetheless, the question remains as to whether a theory of the subject is possible without deviating from Nietzsche. Since Zarathustra is the mask by which Nietzsche speaks and reveals the will to power as ontology, can we perhaps consider Zarathustra as Nietzsche’s subject? What are the characteristics of this subject? Does it stay true to the demands of Nietzsche’s own ontology—which Zarathustra himself (with life) lays out? In other words, if Nietzsche had a subject and Zarathustra were it, what does Zarathustra look like?


[i] Friedrich Nietzsche, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking Penguin), 227.

[ii] Nietzsche, 226.

[iii] Nietzsche, 226.

[iv] See, for example, Gayatri Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?”

[v] Nietzsche, 226.

[vi] Nietzsche, 226.

[vii] Nietzsche, 227.

[viii] Nietzsche 227.

[ix] Michael Haar, “Nietzsche and Metaphysical Language” in The New Nietzsche, ed. David B. Allison (Cambridge: MIT University Press), 9.

[x] Haar, 9.

[xi] Haar, 9.

[xii] Haar, 9.

[xiii] Haar, 9.

[xiv] Haar, 9.

[xv] Haar, 9.

[xvi] Haar, 10.

[xvii] Haar, 10.

[xviii] Alphonso Lingis, “The Will to Power,” in The New Nietzsche, ed. David B. Allison (Cambridge: MIT University Press), 37.

[xix] Lingis, 38 (my emphasis).

[xx] Lingis, 38.

[xxi] Lingis, 38.

[xxii] Lingis, 40-41.

[xxiii] Lingis, 41.

[xxiv] Haar, 10.

[xxv] Lingis, 41 (my emphasis).

[xxvi] Haar, 10.

[xxvii] Lingis, 4.

[xxviii] Haar, 10.

[xxix] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 1.

[xxx] See the first part of Anti-Oedipus and also the second part of Eugene Holland’s excellent Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: Introduction to Schizoanalysis.

[xxxi] See for example Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality.

[xxxii] Haar, 11.

[xxxiii] Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” Power, ed. James D. Faubion, Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984 series 3 (New York: The New Press, 1994), 340.

[xxxiv] Foucault, 340.

[xxxv] Foucault, 326.

3 thoughts on “Subject Emerging from the Will to Power

  1. Partly understood. However, where is the will to power of one that commits suicide? My dialogue would begin: How can we permit the ‘narrowization’ of the act of suicide as a “concept”? The plain fact of experience cannot deny that many human beings decide to end their existence. The observations of Nietzche as to what constitutes a drive or will to power does not provide absolute proof that these “motives” are final and absolute to all human beings. Here I must deviate from Nietzche or global theories of the human being, as there is no ultimate proof that one (or several) motives underlie all actions in a human being..

  2. This is the first decent explanation of the “will to power” I’ve seen. I’m reading it in terms of the subject emerging as a self-organizing encompassing of the various competing, interacting, cooperating, etc. forces (perhaps we could call them “desires”) that make up a person and/or their life — a melding of those forces into the purposes and projects of that person. It seems to lead to the subject as a conceptual unity, or the possibility of it, producing outputs from various applications, but not a clear and distinct concept, more a messy organism, and a subject that evolves in ongoing purposes and projects, but a conceptually mediated experience nonetheless.

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