I Am Metabolism

One of the great moves Nietzsche makes in "Ecce Homo" is to introduce the figure, the function, of metabolism. His view of metabolism is not limited to the digestion of food. Books, events, art, people: these are all things that we take up, that we consume, and that we metabolically distribute: we use this part, not that, at this or that speed, in this or that manner.

Our very selection of things — friends, recreation, location, literature — stems from our appetite, from our taste. ("Stems" is not quite right because it suggests there is a self before taste, which is not quite right. We are our taste; or our taste makes us; or we are our tasting.) Each of us desires — and needs — different things. We are drawn to different things. The strong, according to Nietzsche, are those who instinctively desire those things that fortify health, that enliven, that strengthen. The weak — the decadent — are those who choose things that make them sick and tired, that make them weak (a tautology? No: the weak are, well, weak — they perpetuate their weakness).

We know these people (usually in our families or jobs). We know this weakness in ourselves — we find ourselves doing things that are shitty. I don't mean things like drinking and fucking and getting high; I don't mean shitty in a moral sense. I mean shitty in the sense of how it affects our fundamental health. (A certain amount of booze, and certain booze, fortifies me for sure. There is a line between alcoholism and a certain metabolic need but this line can, at times, become confused by some.)

This, to me, is what's so troubling about watching someone absentmindedly eat through a bag of Doritos or a pack of cigarettes or a bottle of Jim Beam. Of course, there is the rare person for whom such things are in fact enlivening. But these are rare people. Witnessing such flagrant displays of bad instinct is painful (especially in oneself). It's watching someone — sometimes oneself — die badly.

We eat the world and, in so doing, make ourselves: a productive consumption. And metabolism sits at the juncture of self and world (along with taste — taste is the tongue and fingers of metabolism). We take in the world and make sense of it within the elaborate engine of our being, an engine that includes intestines and moods, erections and dreams, burps and ideas. Metabolism is the function of taking in and spitting out the world, of distributing the world in a particular manner, at a particular speed, making sense and making self.

All things have some kind of metabolic function. A rock, for instance, takes in sun and dirt and earth and bugs and rain in its own way. Different rocks do it in different ways and certainly in ways that are different than what you or I do — although certain people have rock-like metabolisms (not a bad thing, mind you).

We choose books, we choose recreation, we choose work, we choose friends and lovers just as we choose food. It's all a matter of appetite, taste, and metabolic distribution.

From time to time I like to pause and look at my life, at how I make my way through the day, through the week, through the year. I consider how often I find myself in distasteful situations — fighting with friends, with co-workers, with family members, cursing at cars (I never fight with friends — perhaps because I don't have any friends. Which may be why I don't have any friends. But I'm always surprised to learn that people do, in fact, fight with friends. This seems odd to me, But many things are odd to me). These are signs of a sickly metabolism at work and is a call for change.

According to Nietzsche, the strong are those who discipline themselves, who train their instincts (another great move Nietzsche makes: we can train our instincts!). The strong work themselves over like a piece of art, like a sculpture, chipping away the poor instincts, strengthening the strong ones.

To consume this life well — and hence to make oneself well — is an on-going negotiation. Of course, metabolism is itself the act of negotiating — which makes negotiating one's metabolism tricky. But such is this Mobius life: a hammer making itself with a hammer.


drwatson said...

I almost think that instead of us choosing the big things that they sort of choose us - not in some lofty kind of way, though.

I remember being in a junk shop when I was about 11 and wanting this guitar - like being bratty about it, until finally my mom told me to shut up and that she'd let me play her guitar, when we got back home. I quickly became obsessed and spent hours - I probably played 3-4 hours a day from the time I was 11 until I quit a classical guitar program in college. What's always so weird to me when I think about that event, certainly the most influential moment in my life most likely, is that all the power seemed to be in the object, not in the subject.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Excellent point. I suppose that's what I was after when I talked about "need": a metabolism needs this or that (I need tequila.) And need is really an object beckoning a subject. But you put it more powerfully and effectively. "Choice" is not the right word....

what the Tee Vee taught said...

Fighting with friends is something to behold: the loneliest people in the world, friend fighters are... wild and defensive, eating hurriedly with one arm extended — stay back!

I'm blended Nietzsche's instinct training with pieces of your Speech for Graduates (you wrote that well, such range and flexibility... I couldn't decide "how" to read it, but it was a hit) to my 8th grade class today.

Rather hilariously: at this middle school,the 8th grade class does not graduate... oh no, they use a different term: which properly captures the new position in hell that waits for them. They are "promoted". They had a Promotion Ceremony. Fuck. That sucks dude, you're a slightly older underling, and they call that a promotion? That's just aging.

A ceremony for aging?

Anyhow, it rivaled your Toy Story takedown (which these kids gobbled up) in terms of getting the kids to laugh and discuss, while I gaze out the window, thinking about how I can't believe I'm at school.

Adieu, Daniel.



drwatson said...

This is one of a handful of places I check, basically daily - and today I ended up on the thoughtcatalogue site - as from time to time I get curious about comments. I had stopped going there for at least a month or two because I just got infuriated with the nonsense that people were saying - hardly anybody was conversing: they were responding - and usually with a bucket full of angst. But then with this last post - everyone was just agreeing and applauding - and don't get me wrong - it was a nice post; they always are - but that was just as boring. I'm just getting started on this whole blog thing, but what I'm looking for is conversation - the way Gadamer talks about it - he says the best conversations are the ones that "have us" - we don't have them.

What is worthwhile to me tonight - just got home from a long gig and it's like 3 am here, so pardon any incoherence - in terms of thinking is that my take on responses have nothing to do with agreement or disagreement. What I want from a response - and maybe none of us can give this all the time- is a chess move, well maybe that's not a good metaphor either - because I don't want to win, but what I want is a move that changes, alters, or even just pokes the conversation in a slightly different direction. (I'd eliminate some of the dashes if it was 3 in the afternoon - but at 3 in morning they will have to stay.)

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Vee: I want to be in your 8th grade class! Fucking lucky ass kids. Make their heads spin every which way.

As for the whole friends fighting thing, it's a mystery to me — although it's not a mystery because Nietzsche nailed it: there are people who enjoy being eaten away, who enjoy misery.

@ Dr: Yes yes, of course of course. On TC, I prefer being called a pretentious piece of shit to the amens. Well, not really because they're the same thing. It's all about the move.

drwatson said...

Just out of curiosity what is your Toy Story takedown? I had a long lecture on Wall-E last year - nothing particularly revelatory - just that it's a big long Apple commercial and is training kids to become consumers and buy Wall-E dolls and what not, while pretending to be exactly the opposite. (That might not be exactly fair. It was also nice to watch - especially the silent part in the beginning.)

Also, in terms of Wall-E, I'm sort of sick of the "Hey we're all a bunch of dumb, fat Americans" critiques. I don't think that's correct - I mean it's tough - we are fat, and we're dumb, in some ways, but not in others. I teach so many "rednecks" (the last racist/classist term that is accepted by liberals) and while they might not be good at complex economic theory, their ability to manipulate objects is amazing - and working on an engine blows my mind. These are exactly the people that get called "backwards."

So many of the Wall-E style critiques also do that thing that is so popular in our discourse - make the critique that somehow magically excludes the critiquer. (that should be a word.) "Americans are all fat and dumb and brave-new-worldy, but not us - we're somehow able to recognize all of this." The way Fox news is able to criticize "Main stream media" while being the most popular news channel in our country." And it's also sad that MSNBC has basically copied their format, just with one person who is smarter - Maddow. I don't have much time for the others on that channel either, but that's sort of a different subject all together.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Dr: my Toy Story spin: http://hilariousbookbinder.blogspot.com/2009/10/how-pixar-and-toy-story-got-it-all.html

And my Wall-E rant, akin to yours:

As for those news show, I can honestly say I have never seen either...The "news" is anything but. Same old drivel. I gave up when I was 19 and saw "All the news fit to print" on the NYT. Such hubris! Haven't read or watched the news since. Which means, often, I have no idea what people are talking about. Which sometimes makes dating odd.

drwatson said...


This is from Jaron Lanier - I've changed one of my texts in my technology and society class from Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death to Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget. He's a really interesting guy - no degrees, but was on the ground floor during the invention of AI during the 80's. He's very critical of Web 2.0 and the direction the web is going but he doesn't come off like a technophobe as Postman often does. (This came from thinking about WallE - sometimes my tangents aren't as obvious as I think they are.) Also if you just google his name you get to see him play these insanely old musical instruments and talk on lots of interesting programs - I believe including DemocracyNow.Org - which is the one political news show that I will defend.