Well, I fell short of my stated goal from this summer by one and a half books. Still, I applaud my effort. Now, my Sisyphean task resumes with another stack. And like Camus (the subject of “A Life Worth Living”, in the middle row) said, one must imagine Sisyphus happy. Yes, yes, I am.
A Philosopher for Everyone and No One
Despite all the varying interpretations, however, a general trend holds true: whatever Nietzsche was, he is not easy to categorize politically. In fact, it seems that it is precisely because of all these different Nietzsches that the only consensus that can be manufactured out of this diversity is that Nietzsche must be regarded, in some sense, as uncategorizable. Nietzsche is obviously not a socialist, nor a leftist in any conventional sense, nor certainly not a liberal, and, of course, Nietzsche is not a conservative.
Or is he?
Dunh-dunh-dunh! Thus begins the latest round of “Pin the Ideological Tail on Nietzsche.” Personally, I would recommend against playing that game. It’s an awful lot of motivated reasoning to go through for very little payoff in terms of genuine understanding. Besides, I think a trifling website like Salon has a trademark on these kinds of “Historical Figure X would totally have voted for Y” cotton-candy essays; you might find yourself slapped with a lawsuit for infringing on intellectual property rights.
Averbeck notes that both right and left seem united in agreement that Nietzsche, whatever else you want to say about him, was not “conservative” in any meaningful sense, but rather than taking this as a strong hint that her tendentious revisionism should just be allowed to die in the crib, she chalks this up to some sort of academic elitist stranglehold on the Nietzsche-interpretation industry. Well, as I’ve said many times, I’m just a nobody with a high-school diploma, and I’d also place this concept in “not even wrong” territory. Was there anything cautious, sober and restrained about his writing? How many examples would suffice to illustrate his incompatibility with conservatism’s major themes? Hell, is there really any usefulness in proceeding as if “conservatism” has always meant the same thing, been concerned with the same issues, whether in late-18th-century Britain, late-19th-century Germany, or early-21st-century America? Or does “conservative” mean little more than “here there be dragons” on this particular intellectual map? (Actually, given Corey Robin’s fatuous roster of conservative all-stars approvingly quoted by Averbeck, that might not be too far off; more on that in a moment.) Like Brian Leiter said, he was primarily concerned with questions of value and culture. Political considerations per se were simply absent from his work.
Anyway, whatever. People who consider taxonomy more important than context and understanding aren’t worth the trouble to argue with. Besides, I’ve had a lingering cold for a couple weeks and don’t have the energy to get exasperated over this.
So, I outsourced the exasperation to my buddy Arthur:
Where to start? How could you even begin to un-fuck this piece of U.S. Intellectual History twaddle? First of all, taking seriously, even if in the case of Nietzsche taking exception to, (Corey) Robin’s book, which states at the outset: “I seat philosophers, statesmen, slaveholders, scribblers, Catholics, fascists, evangelicals, businessmen, racists and hacks at the same table: Hobbes next to Hayek, Burke across from Palin, Nietzsche in between Ayn Rand and Antonin Scalia, with Adams, Calhoun, Oakeshott….”
Burke, champion of the American Revolution, bitter enemy of Colonial exploitation in the person of Warren Hastings, champion of the Irish, the man who prophetically saw the seeds of totalitarianism in the Jacobins with their template combination of violence and propaganda, is seated at the same table with the intellectual powerhouse, Sarah Palin, and with “the fascists,” “slaveholders,” and “scribblers”? (“Scribblers” really sets the tone here: we’re obviously on the intellectual high ground.)
Surely this book is a parody, a joke? No one would seriously sit down and write a simple-minded hyper-PC piece of propaganda and mean it, and get it published, and receive po-faced reviews? And surely this article is meant as a Nietzschean joke? The author is reluctantly compelled by intellectual honesty to conclude that Nietzsche is “still some kind of conservative.” Note the rigorous qualifier, the crucial philosophical nuance… Some kinda…
Who the fuck are these people, who don’t even feel the need to define “conservative”? They just utter it like the most self-evidently damning imprecation, like a Calvinist crying, “Satan!” The simple-mindedness is breathtaking.
And how carelessly do you have to read The Closing of the American Mind to come away with the idea that Bloom viewed Nietzsche “as a threat that had to be vanquished”? How many times in that book does Bloom express the deepest respect for him as a great philosopher, perhaps (with the exception of Heidegger, in his view) the last great philosopher? His whole point is to contrast the gravitas of Nietzsche announcing the death of God and the consequent un-groundedness of values with the shallow, glib nihilism of his American successors and soi-disant disciples, who take the death of God to mean the world is a shopping mall where you mix-and-match any old values that catch your consumerist fancy?
And the idea that Nietzsche was primarily concerned with culture and the seriousness of the esthetic aspect of life is just not on the table—all estheticism is bourgeois estheticism: case closed. “The birth of the Reich  was the death of German culture.” Nietzsche despised politics in general. Apolitical? Does not compute. You’re either a faux-Leftist or a cartoon-devil Conservative.
Here’s the late, iron-lunged Deleuze:
It is his [aphoristic] method that makes Nietzsche’s text into something not to be characterized in itself as “fascist,” “bourgeois,” or “revolutionary,” but to be regarded as an exterior field where fascist, bourgeois, and revolutionary forces meet head on. If we pose the problem this way, the response conforming to Nietzsche’s method would be: find the revolutionary force. The problem is always to detect the new forces that come from without, that traverse and cut across the Nietzschean text within the framework of the aphorism. The legitimate misunderstanding here, then, would be to treat the aphorisms as a phenomenon, one that waits for new forces to come and “subdue” it, or to make it work, or even to make it explode.
Never mind the fact that I’m no fan of Deleuze anymore, and find his use of the word “revolutionary” absolutely facile, as it is with all modern Leftists except those who “seriously” advocate the violent overthrow of Capitalism, etc., and then you’re talking about a clown named Zizek, who I’m sure secretly—or not so secretly—laughs at his own huxterism and the ease with which he puts it over on the Lumpen-Left. (He’s a Communist, says Eagleton proudly. What, you mean he spouts Communist rhetoric, that makes him a Communist? Of course, the world is just one big talk show, and Zizek’s act is “I am a Communist.”)
But it’s also Deleuze who includes Nietzsche in a trinity of thinkers who have been crucially influential on modern thought, along with Marx and Freud. The reason Nietzsche still has a future, while Marx and Freud belong to the past, he points out, is that Marx and Freud were obsessed with building institutions, with indoctrinating people with their ideas, and in doing so they mummified those ideas into dogma suitable for creating simplistic movements and schools—which proceeded to discredit ideas that were already self-discredited by their own dogmatic arrogance. Nietzsche’s thought, on the other hand, never dogmatized itself, was and remains mercurial and up for grabs. Yet there is a fundamental gravitas, an anguished human concern and an awareness of the stakes, that keeps him from being a dilettante—as Bloom illustrates brilliantly, in my view.
Then there’s the last little bit of twaddle—so it’s elitist of the academic elite to adjudicate whether or not Nietzsche was conservative? VIRTUE-SIGNALING ALERT. HYPOCRISY ALERT. That’s what makes sanctimonious liberal puritans continually feel like they’ve stuck their finger in a light socket when they read Nietzsche. He, unlike them, is avowedly an elitist. Nietzsche never tells lies, never uses euphemisms, never tries to win points for being good. He never sugar-coats, in fact, delights in putting his case in the most extreme, provocative way. That’s the scandal, not his imaginary connection with the Nazis or, much more seriously, Loughner! (It’s also God’s fault that thousands have murderers have claimed He told them to pull the trigger, right? God is very conservative.)
And Nietzsche, after all, was trying to transcend all values, right?
Uh, wrong. First of all, Nietzsche very deliberately used the word “overcome” to avoid the religious baggage that “transcend” carries. Second, he did not propose “transcending” all values, anything but. “Man is the value-making animal.” We can’t help creating values. We would rather will nothingness than not will at all. The point is that we have to be courageous enough to posit values in the absence of any metaphysical grounding or sanction from God. We have to commit ourselves to those values while knowing that they are just that—values and not eternal verities, Platonic Ideas existing somewhere outside of this world. And for Nietzsche some values are obviously better than others: life-affirming values, including the ultimate affirmation of one’s existence that wills its eternal return.
I Turn My Feelings Off, Made Me Untouchable for Life
I am arguing that even many people who describe themselves or their goals in invulnerablist terms do not actually live or seek to live that way. The official doctrines, the ones that offer ultimate peace with oneself, a place of stillness that cannot be shaken, are in most cases a misrepresentation of what people are like or even what they want. Instead, something else is happening, something that involves some of the insights of invulnerabilist doctrines but does not embrace them in what I’m calling their official form.
…It seems to me that Taoism, Buddhism, Stoicism, etc. work not by making one invulnerable but rather by allowing one to step back from the immediacy of the situation so that the experience of pain or suffering is seen for what it is, precisely as part of a contingent process, a process that could have yielded a very different present but just happened to yield this one. This, of course, is not the official doctrine either, especially for Stoicism, for which the unfolding of the cosmos is a rational one. (Buddhists will periodically refer to the contingency of the cosmos’ unfolding; however, the concept of nirvana bends that contingency toward something more nearly rational, or at least just.) But it does seem to me to capture their common insight that there is so much about the world that we cannot control; seeking to master it is an illusion. We must learn instead to live with the process in all its contingency, even where we hope to change it for the better. And we must understand that for most of us suffering is inevitable. We can recognize all this and take solace from it without having to take the step of removing ourselves from the desires that lead to suffering.
That’s an interesting take on it — people, as usual, don’t really know what they want, and if they could actually achieve the invulnerability they think they want, they’d be unhappy in a whole new way. Fortunately for them, by aiming for invulnerability, they will inevitably fall short, but the effort itself will serve as a functional coping mechanism and the result will be good enough. Saved by their own confusion. In fact, perhaps too much clarity and self-awareness here could dispel the illusion and be detrimental to one’s mental health.
You’re In the Grip of the Controller
I watched the documentary Dear Mr. Watterson the other day, in which Stephan Pastis said something interesting:
This leads to my theory of what it is that Watterson might be doing, and I suspect that some of it is about control. Comic strips are all about control. It’s the one art form where you have full control. It’s not collaborative like a film. It’s not collaborative even like a book, where your editor changes things. I really don’t even have an editor. It’s just me. It’s not collaborative like a tv show. It’s not collaborative like a record album. It’s you — it’s just you.
When you wander into licensing, it becomes a collaboration. Somebody at your syndicate has to approve it. Somebody at your syndicate gives suggestions. Somebody at your syndicate says,”You know, that’s nice, but it’d be better if he smiled on the package, right? Smiling sells more.” Then it gets in the hand of the designer. The designer has their own ideas how the character should look. The designer knows what material sells. The designer knows what materials are safe. Then there’s the designer’s boss, who may have different ideas, ’cause they gave it to the salesman, and it didn’t sell well.
So I’ve just introduced seven people into my life that weren’t in my life before. I don’t particularly like any of them. They’re not my kind of people. They’re commercial people, and they make your stomach hurt when you’re with them. So I’ve introduced an element into my life of a whole bunch of people I don’t like. I’ve got to overcome them all, even if it’s so much as just saying, “I don’t think we should do this,” and they say yes, I still have to do that to seven people. And that’s all a loss of control, a loss of control that I never had before, right?
And imagine if he started licensing. The first lunchbox would have sold nine billion, right? The minute that happens, everybody is gonna be on him for all the more, like this, that, and the other — all represents a loss of control. Then they all sit in your head. Rather than go, as he probably did, and walk through the forest that day, he took six phone calls that he didn’t want to take. They interrupted his day. They’re floating around in his head. That’s all bad. You know what I’m saying?
And that’s control. That’s not about artistic purity. No, no. That’s about control.
This is my attitude toward blogging, toward ambition. I don’t pretend to be doing anything artistically, let alone culturally, significant here, but this is still an important space for me, where I can write for the pure enjoyment it gives me. A few people have suggested that I could or should make a living by doing some sort of writing, but my response is always the same — making this into a paying job would destroy everything that makes it enjoyable. It would be death by a thousand cuts. Keeping it “pure” isn’t about snobbery and status, it’s about having something in your life that isn’t subject to mercenary considerations.
Fortunately, I’ll never be offered a spot writing at Buzzfeed or the like, where I would have to make those sorts of compromises, so I have to admit it’s easy for me to say that. I am truly in awe of the fact that Watterson was looking at potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in merchandising and still held to his principles. Would I absolutely refuse to write clickbaity headlines about trivia and gossip if doing so meant I never had to work a real job again? I’d like to think so, but…
No Time Left for You
The problem of a society undergoing acceleration is that people crave an ever greater variety of social experiences out of the sheer sense that they must “keep up.” The semantics of contemporary life suggest obligation: “I must read the newspaper”; “I ought to play the piano more”; “I really need to keep up to date.” Both TV and the internet deliver a sense of experiencing a lot very quickly, with abandon, in a way that becomes loathed as much as desired. Time spent watching TV feels rich in stimuli — the joy of Game of Thrones is not just that its characters are dispatched with regularity, but that the show is punctuated by the occasional thrilling bloodbath — but poor in its lasting effects. “TV,” writes Rosa, “apparently tends to leave behind tired, hardly recuperated spectators who are in a bad mood.” The internet, too. What they also leave behind are people whose lives are full of frenetic activity, but impoverished of a sense of lasting experience — flat individuals, nodes or nerve endings in a network that stretches out endlessly in a shrinking present.
Sooner or Later It All Comes Down to Fate
The Stoics themselves believed in gods, but ultimately those resistant to religious belief can take their Stoicism the way they take their Buddhism, even if they can’t buy into such concepts as karma or reincarnation. What the whole thing comes down to, distilled to its briefest essence, is making the choice that choice is really all we have, and that all else is not worth considering. ‘Who […] is the invincible human being?’ Epictetus once asked, before answering the question himself: ‘One who can be disconcerted by nothing that lies outside the sphere of choice.’
A couple weeks ago, while reading a book on the history of aphorisms, I came across one from Seneca: “There is nothing the wise man does reluctantly. He escapes necessity because he wills what necessity is going to force on him.”
Sounds slightly disingenuous when put that way. But it also sounds like someone whose famously critical words for the Stoics Wallace mentions in the essay, namely, Nietzsche and his concept of amor fati. It occurs to me that if one wanted to be a little bit mischievous and sarcastic, one could sum it up like:
|Shorter Nietzsche and the Stoics: I meant to do that!|
Ask Not for Whom the Bell Curves
See for example this recent Xenosystems post about a Twitterer claiming The Bell Curve has been “well-refuted”. There are definitely a lot of people who have written books, articles, and papers arguing that The Bell Curve is wrong, often in very strong terms. There are also a lot of people who have written books, articles, and papers saying that the first set of books, articles, and papers are wrong and The Bell Curve is right, also in very strong terms. To say that the first set is a “refutation” or “debunking” is as basic a mistake as saying that the new rape study is a “refutation” or “debunking” of the earlier rape study.
(albeit a mistake likely to be made by exactly the opposite people)
There are certainly things that have been “well-refuted” and “debunked”. Andrew Wakefield’s study purporting to prove that vaccines cause autism is a pretty good example. But you will notice that it had multiple failed replications, journals published reports showing he falsified data, the study’s co-authors retracted their support, the journal it was published in retracted it and issued an apology, the General Medical Council convicted Wakefield of sixteen counts of misconduct, and Wakefield was stripped of his medical license and barred from practicing medicine ever again in the UK. The British Medical Journal, one of the best-respected medical journals in the world, published an editorial concluding:
Clear evidence of falsification of data should now close the door on this damaging vaccine scare…Who perpetrated this fraud? There is no doubt that it was Wakefield. Is it possible that he was wrong, but not dishonest: that he was so incompetent that he was unable to fairly describe the project, or to report even one of the 12 children’s cases accurately? No.
Meanwhile, The Bell Curve was lambasted in the popular press and by many academics. But it also got fifty of the top researchers in its field to sign a consensus statement saying it was pretty much right about everything and the people attacking it were biased and confused. Three years later, they re-issued their statement saying nothing had changed and more recent findings had only confirmed their opinion. The American Psychological Association launched a task force to settle the issue which stopped short of complete agreement but which given the circumstances was pretty darned supportive. There are certainly a lot of smart people with very strong negative opinions, but each one is still usually met by an equally ardent and credentialed proponent.
One of these two things has been “well-refuted”. The other has been “argued against”.
I’ve only been reading Alexander regularly for a few months. I don’t know for sure what his politics are, but I have the impression he’s basically liberal. He strikes me as being impressively dedicated to logical thinking and empirical fact-finding, and that, in addition to the obvious pains he takes to explain himself clearly and thoroughly, makes me trust his perspective unless given strong reasons not to. So, it could be that I just basically identify all those characteristics with being “liberal”, and thus provisionally apply the label to him.
What makes this bit interesting to me is the fact that, assuming I’m right in my guess about his political outlook, this is the first time I’ve ever seen a liberal suggest that The Bell Curve was anything other than maliciously-motivated racist pseudoscience. I mean, I’ve been aware of the book for almost my entire adult life, and I have never once encountered anyone who wasn’t, shall we say, predictably conservative, suggesting that the book’s thesis may have been mostly accurate. Even Freddie deBoer and Andrew Sullivan, with whom I wholeheartedly agree that even dangerous, wrong ideas should be confronted openly and honestly, seem to take for granted that the book is clearly wrong. “True but largely irrelevant” doesn’t seem to be an allowable option. If it’s not declared “completely false and dangerously pernicious”, there might be terrible consequences.
I haven’t read the book, and even if I were interested, I’m not in a position to judge any of the impressively-credentialed authorities who take a stand one way or the other. True or false, I can’t see how it would change the way I behave or think. My only point is that I find it somewhat scary that I, who like to think of myself as being fairly inquisitive and independent-minded, could have been living in a tightly-sealed liberal filter bubble for so long. How many things do I take for granted as being obviously true, not because I know, but because I’ve just never heard a reputable source say otherwise? How many arguments are not about the truth or falsity of the subject, but rather about the fear of what it might mean for the subject to be true or false? We like to think that the epistemological floor beneath our feet is solid stone, but we might look down to see that we’re standing on a rickety rope bridge instead.
Moloch Demands Fresh Blood to Maintain the Appetite of His Mechanical Heart
Which means that it’s not a coincidence that the worst possible flagship case for fighting police brutality and racism is the flagship case that we in fact got. It’s not a coincidence that the worst possible flagship cases for believing rape victims are the ones that end up going viral. It’s not a coincidence that the only time we ever hear about factory farming is when somebody’s doing something that makes us almost sympathetic to it. It’s not coincidence, it’s not even happenstance, it’s enemy action. Under Moloch, activists are irresistably incentivized to dig their own graves. And the media is irresistably incentivized to help them.
Lost is the ability to agree on simple things like fighting factory farming or rape. Lost is the ability to even talk about the things we all want. Ending corporate welfare. Ungerrymandering political districts. Defrocking pedophile priests. Stopping prison rape. Punishing government corruption and waste. Feeding starving children. Simplifying the tax code.
But also lost is our ability to treat each other with solidarity and respect.
Under Moloch, everyone is irresistably incentivized to ignore the things that unite us in favor of forever picking at the things that divide us in exactly the way that is most likely to make them more divisive. Race relations are at historic lows not because white people and black people disagree on very much, but because the media absolutely worked its tuchus off to find the single issue that white people and black people disagreed over the most and ensure that it was the only issue anybody would talk about. Men’s rights activists and feminists hate each other not because there’s a huge divide in how people of different genders think, but because only the most extreme examples of either side will ever gain traction, and those only when they are framed as attacks on the other side.
People talk about the shift from old print-based journalism to the new world of social media and the sites adapted to serve it. These are fast, responsive, and only just beginning to discover the power of controversy. They are memetic evolution shot into hyperdrive, and the omega point is a well-tuned machine optimized to search the world for the most controversial and counterproductive issues, then make sure no one can talk about anything else. An engine that creates money by burning the few remaining shreds of cooperation, bipartisanship and social trust.
Verily, Verily, I Say Unto Thee (5)
Have you ever wished you could drop some change in a tip jar here, or buy me something off an Amazon wish list in appreciation for all I do to stimulate and entertain you? Well, I appreciate the thought, even if I invented it on your behalf, but I’d rather urge you to put that generosity toward a more worthy cause. Scott and Mary’s shitty autumn has gotten a whole lot shittier, and they could use your help. I kicked in some of the extra money I earned this week, because I wouldn’t ask people to perform charity that I’m not willing to do myself.
Scott gave me one of my earliest blogroll links, which has brought me at least a few of my most dedicated readers, and he’s a better and funnier writer under extreme duress than I am when completely relaxed and carefree. Plus, here’s a bonus fun fact: of all the blogs I was reading back in 2003, World O’Crap is the only one that is still worth reading today. Go make good things happen to good people for a change.
Not About the Thing Observed but About the Observer
The Czech novelist Milan Kundera made a famous observation. “Kitsch,” he wrote, “causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!” Kitsch, in other words, is not about the thing observed but about the observer. It does not invite you to feel moved by the doll you are dressing so tenderly, but by yourself dressing the doll. All sentimentality is like this – it redirects emotion from the object to the subject, so as to create a fantasy of emotion without the real cost of feeling it. The kitsch object encourages you to think, “Look at me feeling this – how nice I am and how lovable.” That is why Oscar Wilde, referring to one of Dickens’s most sickly death-scenes, said that “a man must have a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell”.
“Look at me tweeting about this — how nice I am and lovable.” Seriously, this old concept gives me a whole new way to think about the way people perform on social media.