Nietzsche’s thoughts on Consciousness

“for man, consciousness is the smallest part of thought, the most superficial. Conscious thinking takes place in words, communication signs, and here the origin of consciousness reveals itself. In short, the evolution of language and the evolution of consciousness (not of reason but only of reason’s becoming conscious of itself) go hand in hand… our becoming conscious of our own sense-impressions, the power of fixing them and, as it were, setting them outside ourselves has increased in the measure that the constraint grew to transmit them to others by signs… The nature of animal consciousness brings it about that the world of which we can become conscious is only a surface and sign-world, a world made universal and common… with all becoming conscious there is united a great fundamental corruption, falsification, superficialising and generalisation”

– Nietzsche, The Gay Science (354)

Nietzsche identifies that consciousness emerges as a result of language, but he does not specify written language, which is a key differentiator. He does however, like Julian Jaynes, talk of consciousness as the ‘smallest and most superficial part’ of thought (Jaynes says something similar when he uses the metaphor of a man with a torch) and even touches on the idea of a varying degree of consciousness which comes with severity of need. Nietzsche here talks of this crucial ‘fixing’ of sense-impressions and ‘setting them outside ourselves’ in consciousness, which is similarly expounded by Jaynes by way of the metaphor and ‘the illusion of continuity’. This ‘fixing’ is best thought of however in terms of Lacan’s Symbolic order, established following the mirror stage during which the child affixes words or rather submerges the surrounding Real, unknowable, objective world with a reality encompassing veneer of language (Jaynes was working on emergence of consciousness in childhood before he died but did not get so far in his formative writing on this), providing  surface order in reality. A crucial missing piece here then is in the distinction between literacy and orality, as later identified by Marshall McLuhan (with astounding exactness to Jaynes, considering their vastly different theoretical approaches). Historically speaking, introspective consciousness came about at the exact same time as recorded, written language – and this was simply because this was the historic point at which humanity was able to bury enough of the surrounding Real beneath words. This ‘weakening of the auditory by the advent of writing’ (Jaynes, p. 221), that is, of orality by literacy, thus also led to, in Jaynes’s view, the ‘silencing’ of the inner voice, which was no longer necessary except for in times of greatly increased levels of stress, which is exclusively the result of a weakening on the Symbolic (i.e. the crucial stepping stone to consciousness and the entry into the ‘silent’ world of literate man). The same process of becoming conscious now occurs in all children from literate societies (i.e. you do not have the capacity for introspection pre-mirror stage which is around 18 months) and this is so fundamentally embedded into society that we know no other way (McLuhan cites somewhere a case of a boy in a tribe who learns to read and becomes literate, and experiences a seismic change in terms of his perception of reality – Carothers in Gutenberg Galaxy?). It is likely that pre-literate, ‘verge-of-consciousness’ societies underwent a seminal change in brain chemistry, which was the direct result of writing taking over the crucial function of storing memory: knowledge became externalised and able to be passed along, and so too did an extensive cache of words and so means of logically comprehending the surrounding world by subsequent generations. The key differentiator between bicameral and conscious man is the eradication of ‘trial and error’ modes of thinking.

Notably, Nietzsche also expands on this idea that consciousness is intrinsically interwoven with the herd mentality. A parallel can here be drawn between the conscious herd, which are contained by their Symbolic order, and the unconscious Ubermenschian mind, who are cast off into that abyssal unknown, and so capable of breaching Symbolic bounds, such as the psychotic who inadvertently stands outside of the Symbolic order of language in Lacanian thought (but by Oediapal structuration or Symbolic Constitution?). Nietzsche argues that consciousness evolved ‘only with regard to usefulness for community and herd.. and even those with the best will to understand himself, to know himself, will nonetheless bring into his consciousness only what is not individual in him, his ‘average’.. thought is continually outvoted by the character of consciousness’. A link is to be drawn here with Nietzsche’s discussion of evolution, which he saw not as the archetypal ‘survival of the fittest’, but rather as the prolongation of the ‘average-est’.

Nietzsche lay down and wine spilled from the seems of his mouth as he grinned. Around him were his friends, many fellow philosophers, all whom were admired and revered, but who were as mere shadows on a cave wall in Nietzsche’s almighty presence. He was the greatest among them. They rejoice and recite poetry and reflect deep into the dark night, reclining on cushions under sprawling aphoristic stars and truth shines down on their conversations which run unbridled and free as wild horses streaming over grassy hills. Close by a young man, wide-eyed and wide-eared, writes frantically anything that the prophet utters. What seems a mere jocularity to Nietzsche seems of greatest importance to the young man. He must capture it all, for in these moments of jest, in the swill of wine, his mind dances at its Dionysian zenith. Nietzsche looks up to the stars, and silence adorned those around him. A comet streaked by like the flick of a quill. Then he whispered to no-one and to all: perhaps it is only in this faithful world of myth, in all its gleeful artistry, that we can find any truth… gaze out into those vast nebulas, those abyssal straits, where all potentials of the imagination are spread out before us.. it is time to relinquish this mind-shackling obsession with the definite, and instead, all hail the infinite!


NB: featured image is Brion Gysin’s ‘Calligraphie’ (1960)


“above all, you must learn to laugh!”

“Raise up your hearts my brothers, higher, higher! Raise up your legs too, good dancers, and still better, stand on your heads! This crown of laughter, the rose-wreath crown, with it I crown myself, and pronounce my laughter holy. I am yet to find anyone else today strong enough for that. Zarathustra the dancer, the light-footed, who beckons with his wings – prepare for flight!… Zarathustra, the sooth-sayer; the sooth-laugher; not impatient; not unconditional; who loves leaps and side-leaps… To you, my brothers, I now throw this crown! And your laughter I now pronounce holy: if you aspire to be higher men, then, above all, you must learn to laugh!”

– Nietzsche, Zarathustra part IV

“if thou gazes long enough into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into thee”

“And if thou gazes long enough into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into thee”

– Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Julian Jaynes and the paranoiac infinity. The paranoiac infinity is instinct incarnate. It is the ‘trial and error’ loop which is pre-programmed into all animals including humans. But only conscious beings such as humans (‘conscious’ here used in the same sense as Julian Jaynes – generally as the capacity for introspection) are able to operate outside of instinct. Instinct is the infinitely looping continuation of inherent knowledge in all beings: the information which is stored and carried forward from generation to generation. But when humanity broke free of its reliance upon instinct around 3000 years ago, around the advent of print technology for most built-up, non-isolated societies, these instincts were buried (why store information genetically when it can be stored in the external world? In books?). These instincts are by no means extinguished, just subdued, and have  come to be known as ‘the unconscious’. So what form did these instincts take in earlier mankind before the advent of the printed word? Speech came before written language, this we know for certain. We also know that the complexity of humans meant that it was not so simple as storing simple, useful information such as the urge to bury food, or to avoid certain coloured or patterned predators. And so, according to Julian Jaynes, before the advent of the written word and its capacity to preserve knowledge, and so replace the function that instinct once served, we had the spoken word in the form of an inner voice. This voice was nothing like that which we know now, which we so easily and unthinkingly manipulate at will as we read and think routinely, but rather an autonomous, perhaps ‘superegoic’, even Godly voice which would tell us what to do, and would in a sense act as a predecessor to modern memory. Memory as we know it is only a few thousand years old, and there are those who still dwell in this preconscious, ‘outspoken’ form of memory. These are regarded as oral peoples; societies without any historic presence of literacy within their culture, and so peoples without any fully formed Symbolic order (this following Lacan, who identified the cruciality of a language-smothered surrounding world), who live in a simultaneous, instantaneous world. Marshall McLuhan in his Gutenberg Galaxy and Walter J. Ong in Orality and Literacy have come to the same conclusion from their own vastly different approaches. The paranoiac infinity of instinct is still there, lurking, and only reappears when such a so-called ‘madness’ is necessary as a rehabilitative process (Lacan labelled madness as innately restorative, recuperative, as did R. D. Laing). The return of the paranoiac infinity, dormant and yet present in all of us, can still be provoked and awakened in times of enormous stress: either when an Oedipal system is not properly organised during infancy and so does not allow for a totalising Symbolic network, or when the Symbolic universe is decimated by some seismic upheaval capable of reconstituting the Symbolic veneer placed atop reality (as in a psychotic breakdown). The paranoiac infinity is the primary source and fuel of all religion, of all human mythology. The many repetitions and echoes in myth which transcend cultures, are quite simply incarnations of this buried instinct. An echolalia of those that came before. But there are those who can gaze into the paranoiac infinity, into that deep well of instinct, and return unscathed. Nietzsche was such a man.

[nb. featured image is John Martin’s ‘day of his wrath’ (1853)]

“nitimur in vetitum: we strive for what is forbidden”

“Philosophy, as I have hitherto understood and lived it, is a voluntary living in ice and high mountains… from the lengthy experience afforded by such a wandering in the forbidden I learned to view the origins of morilizing and idealizing very differently from what might be desirable: the hidden history of the philosophers, the psychology of their great names came to light for me. How much truth can a spirit bear? How much truth can a spirit dare? Error, a belief in the ideal, is not blindness, but cowardice… Every acquisition and step forward in knowledge is the result of courage, of severity towards oneself… Nitimur in vetitum: in this sign my philosophy will one day conquer, for fundamentally what has hitherto been forbidden has never been anything but the truth”

Nietzsche – Ecce Homo

Continue reading ““nitimur in vetitum: we strive for what is forbidden””

“such pillars of fire must precede the great noontide”

Gerardo Dottori – Burning City (1926)

“Here is the great city: where you have nothing to seek and everything to lose… Here is the Hell for hermits’ thoughts: here great thoughts are boiled alive and cooked small. Here all great emotions decay… Do you not smell already the slaughterhouses and cook-shops of the spirit? Does this city not reek of the fumes of slaughtered spirit?… Woe to this great city! I wish I could see already the pillar of fire in which it will be consumed! For such pillars of fire must precede the great noontide… I offer you in farewell this precept: where one can no longer love, one should pass by…”

– Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

some thoughts on Hugo Drochon’s recent New Statesman article on Nietzsche

This is a reactionary post in more sense than one: first it is a reaction against all those who have unjustly negative views on or connotations with Nietzsche, and second it is a post which was borne out of philosophical stimulation after having read Hugo Drochon’s recent article for The New Statesman, in which he summarises the main reasoning behind common alt-right associations with Nietzsche. There was however a distinct lack of Nietzsche’s own voice in the piece, and so here I try to amend this absence. My news feeds are frequently bombarded by pseudo-intellectual articles on Nietzsche, and in the vast majority of cases you find that they are written by people who have little to no experience of actually reading any of his work, other than that which has been shared or commented on secondarily, usually with charged intent, but who still choose to voice their very limited views and readings as gospel. But there is great importance in why people so often feel implored in this way after having read anything by the great philosopher.. And so I’ll begin my own such treatise with a quote or epigraph from the great man himself: “Whoever believed he had understood something of me had dressed up something out of me after his own image” (Ecce Homo: ‘Why I am so wise’). Now that is out of the way, I can express myself freely. For this is truly a seminal statement to understanding anything of Nietzsche’s work and philosophy, and also one which practically destroys most every interpretation of his work from the very outset (yes, including mine). My approach begins here, for any discussion of him surely must.. so now to a declaration of my own: Nietzsche is only to be understood once his work is viewed as being on the same level as a work of art. How so? Put simply, he provides a metaphor and we are to attach onto it our own subjective interpretations. He once declared that “culture can only proceed on the basis of the centralising significance of an art or artwork”, and this is what Zarathustra provides; Nietzsche regarded Zarathustra as more akin to art than literature. Indeed, when discussing this centerpiece of his entire philosophy, he describes that in reading it “one no longer has any notion of what is an image or a metaphor: everything offers itself as the nearest, most obvious, simplest expression… one has to go back thousands of years in order to find anyone who could say to me, “it is mine as well”‘ (Ecce Homo: ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’). Here then one finds the root of Bertrand Russel’s claim in his History of Western Philosophy indicated by Drochon, that is, ‘that he would rather have lived in the Athens of Pericles or the Florence of the Medici than today. That he would rather live in the past than the present’ (Drochon, 2018). But Nietzsche also here indicates perhaps the primary concern of the work: to provoke that very ‘simplest expression’.. to cut to the very essence of things.. This is, quite clearly, an aesthetic philosophy, an artistic philosophy, which works at urging subjective ideas using a metaphorical potentiality. Drochon’s own observation, that Nietzsche ‘tells us more about ourselves and our times than it does about Nietzsche: when things are good we have the Nietzsche of individual self-creation, when things are bad we have Nietzsche the godfather of fascism”, only reinforces this idea in the more collective unconscious, societal sense.

“Zarathustra is a prophet!” they say. But a prophet who declares “God is dead!”? Where do we situate such a figure? Something crucial is to be found in this paradox: religion can both be a prison and a means of radical empowerment. This epochal declaration -“God is dead”- is best summarised by the controversial and yet often piercing insight of Heidegger, who reads such as the simple admission that ‘humanity must find a way of re-orientating itself in a world that has been thoroughly de-deified… [and so we should be] prepared to give our lives to a completely new kind of meaning and value’ (Heidegger’s Nietzsche, vol 1&2, 93). Nietzsche notorious antagonism towards christianity is by no means a personal but rather an ideological opposition. He sees Christianity as promoting and sustaining a ‘slave’ mentality over all that is ‘noble’ (both terms which are distinct from class – you could be a noble beggar for example), centralising its doctrines on ideas of pity, selfless devotion and submission to a ‘higher power’, at the expense of self and ego, and the potential for pushing ones’ own capabilities to max capacity. Nietzsche exposes and uproots that any society built upon such selfless laws and inhibitions will inevitably result in subjective disempowerment. But to reject such Christian views and ideals is not by any means to automatically veer into the realm of egoist, tyrannical and fascist ideas. Nietzsche expressed ‘I have chosen the word immoralist for myself as a symbol and badge of honour for myself; I am proud of having this word which distinguishes me from the whole of humanity. Nobody yet has felt Christian morality to be beneath him: that requires a height, a view of distances, a hitherto unheard of psychological depth and profundity’ (Ecce Homo: ‘Why I am destiny’). Of course devotion enables humanity to attain their very greatest heights.. but it also provides great psychological limitations where not always necessary. The unquestionable belief that killing oneself will enable for an ascension to some higher plane demonstrates a remarkable untapped power of belief in man, which only true religion and absolute belief can get at. Many of those people of the enlightened, scientific age may laugh on religion, but they are fools if they do not see that religion does not argue for any truth outside of oneself.. Of course they must also acknowledge that most all of the greatest thinkers throughout history were deeply religious. And of course, the ancient Greeks, the very founders of modern mathematical and scientific thought, the inspirational origin of much still remains a confounding mystery to the greatest minds of modernity, were of cultures fundamentally entwined with, indivisible from religion (Pythagoras himself founded a religion based on mathematics – which was furthered by the scientific truths which came to light – it was literally a religion powered by truth and scientific law). Religion gave the greeks inspiration and access to their greatest potential — Socrates was famously prone to inner voices… he was literally spoken to by his own inner God (bicameral mind theory on Socrates required… another time perhaps). I particularly love the example of the mathematical genius Ramanujan, who formed, solved and resolved mathematical problems the likes of which no Western mathematician had ever seen whilst in his destitute shanty in India under the divine inspiration of private Hindu gods. The greatest mathematicians of the age at Trinity frantically stumbled over one another to catch a glimpse at just a few lines from his thousands upon thousands of pages of notes, these profoundly brilliant unforeseen formulas which would take most others a lifetime, were for these mathematicians as close to proof of divine inspiration as anything on earth. Surely only mystical belief in its truest form can grant an individual such powers. Such then undoubtedly grants individuals higher meaning and significance, taps into some level of personal, unconscious law, superegoic law, which is situated beyond, and in no necessary relation to all reason and outward apparency. here then we locate the root of this paradox: Zarathustra is obviously a profoundly theological text – ‘everything happens involuntarily in the highest degree but as in a gale of a feeling of freedom, of absoluteness, of power, of divinity’ (EH: Zarathustra) – of course done with total knowledge and intent, without any hint of irony, this because Nietzsche is aware to the immense power religion holds over the individual, and provides perhaps the only (proven) means of tapping into it.. He once declared of Zarathustra- ‘here no “prophet” is speaking, none of these gruesome hybrids of sickness and will to power whom people call founders of religions’ (preface to Ecce Homo). Here is where the common misreadings and the misbelief that Nietzsche holds fascist ideas emanates; the crux where so many get lost and abandon faith in his thought. It is this seemingly quite simple boundary between laws that are erected by oneself and those by an outside force. great fear and anger and apprehension materialises when there is talk of ‘laws’ brought about by the inner world of an individual and not by way of some external agency. they are immediately seen as immoral, a sign of burgeoning madness, as highly dangerous individuals (this is seen as the realm of the sociopath). when Nietzsche underlines this ‘gruesome sickness’ here, he is talking of figures who are erecting ideological walls and laws which inhibit the subject in some fundamental sense (think of chastity as a simple example): Zarathustra staunchly opposes such and rather promotes individual laws, as do some religions such as Buddhism, which Nietzsche confides, ‘should rather be called a kind of hygeine, lest it be confused with such pitiable phenomena as Christianity: its effectiveness was made conditional on the victory over ressentiment” (‘why I am so wise’). In many respects that term which Nietzsche assigns such an individually empowered mentality, which has garnered particularly negative implications over time, the superman or ‘Ubermensch’, and which is very closely tethered to that other fundamental Nietzschean ideal, will to power, is nothing more than the individual ability to tap the ‘superego’, very much in a Freudian sense of the word. to escape this consigned morality and set ones own boundaries (which do not have to involve an empathic absence but more of an egoist certainty) is to be given the ability to tap the superego, to fomulate subjective laws, and so to relieve the huge weight of submission by christianity:- “overthrowing idols (my word for ‘ideals’) that comes closer to being part of my craft” (preface to Ecce Homo). In Brochon’s article, he describes psychologist Jordan Peterson’s view and seems to advocate his view of the incapacity for such a subjective ability to tap into this ‘law-giving’ state of mind: ‘Peterson agrees we are living in an age of nihilism, but rejects Nietzsche’s view that what is left for us is to create our own values – “We cannot invent our own values, because we cannot merely impose what we believe on our souls” – We have a nature that must be discovered, and we need rules for our life so chaos doesn’t overwhelm order’ (Brochon, 2018). But this again neglects the crucial driving paradox of Zarathustra… that only a religious state of mind can give the individual access to the superman.. and this is exactly what Zarathustra provides!

My stance on whether Nietzsche held fascist and pro-Nazi beliefs is I hope, by now very clear. He incessantly and vociferously attacked the German people, he also descended from polish aristocracy, and he absolutely abhorred anti-semitism. In Beyond Good and Evil, he declared ‘”LET NO MORE JEWS COME IN!”… thus commands the instinct of a people whose nature is still feeble and uncertain… the Jews are beyond all doubt the strongest, toughest, and purest race [eat that Hitler, and all you other dumb fascist fucks!] at present living in Europe, they know how to succeed even under the very worst conditions’ (Beyond…). Need you read anything else to prove that Nietzsche was in no way whatsoever aligned with Nazi ideas and ideology?? I shall end with the question with which Drochon began: “Is Nietzsche doomed to be abused and misunderstood?”. Nietzsche knew the power of his ideas, knew that they could and would be used to bolster ideals which in no way matched his own: ‘why i am dynamite: one day my name will be associated with the memory of something tremendous – a crisis without equal on earth, the most profound collision of conscience, a decision that was conjured up against everything that had been believed, demanded, hallowed so far’. there are two ways to read this: that this eerie prediction proves his philosophy dangerous and morals questionable; or that he has provided us with something with which we are not yet able to fully grasp.. the gift of a seedling philosophy so empowering and invigorating and affirmitive of human potential that we can only wish that someday it might become understood and so a real possibility for every man…

(NB: feature image is Edvard Munch’s Nietzsche (1906))