“And if thou gazes long enough into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into thee”
– Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
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 brilliant 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))
With the second season of Westworld just a few weeks away (out 22nd April 2018) I thought it would be a good time to revisit this post which introduces and discusses some of the philosophical ideas that the series tangles with..
The original Westworld was a film written and directed by theme park obsessive Michael Crichton in 1973 (Jurassic Park is perhaps his best-known work – originally a novel which was then adapted by Spielberg), which was later adapted and modernised by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy for HBO. The eponymous park offers consumers the ultimate immersive experience for the competitive rate of just $40,000 per day and once inside you are free to live out your wildest wild west fantasies as an infamous and feared outlaw, a heroic gunslinger, or cunning sheriff. To enter Westworld is to enter a world of performativity: you design your role/alter-ego and the robotic ‘hosts’ which inhabit the world adjust their performance/programming around your own. In the 1973 film, Westworld is one of 3 virtual worlds along with RomanWorld and MedievalWorld which falls into the DELOS universe (there were even alleged discussions with George R. R. Martin about a HBO special Westeros World – maybe steer away from the Marvel-style mash-ups).
Superficially the premise of the 1973 film and the 2016 series is very similar: two rich friends enter the park and by some unlucky turn of events the hosts turn hostile and are derailed from their pre-programmed narratives. But what differentiates the two versions in the main is their theoretical dimensions. The reasoning behind the robots malfunction within the older version falls in line with the archetypal computer ‘virus stage’ developing into a higher state of machine intelligence, coupled with the age-old ‘they’ve been designed by other computers, we don’t know exactly how they work’ etc. etc. (that’s an actual quote from the film). Moreover, the moral dimension is pretty somber: the movement into a state of higher intelligence prompts only one overarching emotive response which is, of course, bloodthirsty revenge. The Shelleyan killing of one’s creator thus becomes their sole interest, and there is no sign of any form of higher consciousness or awareness beyond this murderous vendetta, though some of the bots take this even further by “refusing the guests seduction techniques” (god forbid).
In the modernised Westworld the quest for machine consciousness is at the narrative forefront. The writers attempt to tackle the big question of AI: if we could reproduce a technological equivalent of the human body, in every respect, with identical capabilities including brain functioning, could the spark of consciousness also be recreated? The question is not whether AI is achievable, as we are being asked to believe that it is indeed achievable and has already been achieved. As such this is the point whereby the implementation of Julian Jaynes’s bicameral mind theory becomes paramount. In 1976, 3 years after the release of the original Westworld, Jaynes put forward the radical and astounding theory that human consciousness only emerged as recently as the year 1200 B.C, before which humanity were in a perpetual state of mind akin to that experienced by people with psychosis.
What did he mean by this? I’ll first clarify Jaynes’s use of the term ‘consciousness’ due to the enormous disparity in the usage of the term. Jaynes posits consciousness as the capacity for self-inflection, introspection, internal dialogue and the ability to think about time in a linear fashion (memory itself is a byproduct of consciousness which supersedes the animalistic norm of endless, circulatory trial and error). Whilst we have practically full control over our inner dialogue, for preconscious man, harbourer of the bicameral, schizo-analogous mind this inner dialogue was completely outside of control, it was something more akin to a manifested superego; you would hear these voices or as Jaynes categorised them ‘auditory hallucinations’, which would be entirely outside of your control, and you would do the only thing which would make any sense, which would allow you to function rationally, and that is to assign them as gods, and to follow their direction blindly.
Your inner voice would therefore equate the gods themselves, hence in almost all the major ancient civilisations – Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Mayan – the absence of introspection is substituted for a huge spectrum of godly personifications, their every action is filtered through the god’s guidance. This explains, like no philosopher has managed to do before, the reasoning behind universal religion throughout human history. The scale of Jaynes’s discovery, if correct (maybe someday it will be proven), is on a par with Darwin, with Freud, even with Einstein. It is a discovery which changes every aspect of what we thought we knew about our history, about where we came from, and where we are going next. Jaynes argues that consciousness ‘makes up a much smaller part of our thinking that we realize. [think of like the] metaphor of a flashlight in a dark room… everywhere the flashlight points the room is lit, giving rise to the illusion that the room itself is brightly lit. So too with us — we fall under the illusion that our consciousness is everything because we cannot be conscious of that which we are not conscious of. In reality, much of our daily life is accomplished without consciousness at all, through habit, routine, and unconscious problem solving [through trial and error]’ (Marcel Kuijsten, Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness).
In Nolan and Joy’s contemporary Westworld then, the advanced automaton ‘hosts’ are designed so that their programming equates an inner voice, and so that the ‘narratives’ played out by the hosts equate the godly voices of bicameral man: the writer, the author, the programmer, becomes the embodiment of god. We therefore have this dynamic whereby the performative element equates Jaynesian pre-conscious man. What this also therefore enables, as realised by one half of the park’s visionary creators, the elusive Arnold, is the capability to “bootstrap” consciousness, to urge consciousness from its slumber. If humanity, in our bicameral states were able to emerge with consciousness, following a movement into a symbolic order of metaphorical language, then why not a super intelligent, biomechanic android?
In Nolan’s Westworld this upsurgence of metaphorical language could be equated with the narrative world that the hosts inhabit. Their entire reality is, by its very nature, ‘metaphorical’. For the hosts then, in their performative roles, as scripted, narritivised characters, they are bicameral, but once they move ‘off script’ they are no longer performative, they are in essence rejecting the commands of the gods, which are embodied by the writers. Jonathan Nolan expressed how when creating the show he was greatly influenced by video games like Skyrim, Bioshock, Red Dead Redemption and GTA, and the reason for this is that these games have non-player-characters, NPCs, which function independently outside of the player’s perspective: they continue to play out these loops (with some wiggle room) until the player happens upon them, just like the hosts in the park. To continue the video game analogy, when an NPC goes off-script, this is what we might term the ‘transcendental glitch’. It’s the moment when systemisation, mechanisation, the bicameral, fails, and the NPC moves into a sphere outside of its supposed capacity to do so. And a glitch is inherently viral, because with these cross-associative tethers such as looped NPCs, it will inevitably spread into different loops, different storylines (etc.). But the point to remember is that even when this happens, the script is nevertheless still there. In order to become truly conscious, there must be no script at all…
NB: featured image is by Marko Manev.
In his novel Perfume, Patrick Suskind exposes the almost total inadequacy of language in evoking the senses, and in particular, evoking scent. Scent is a domain symbolically ‘quarantined’ from all other senses. How so? Think about the use of symbolic language in the evocation of the senses, and how, for the most part, you can find direct and fundamental examples of the senses demonstrating a convolution of the symbolic order (surface language) and the real or the hidden kernel object (das ding). With the sense of hearing, this can be most overtly seen for example with onomatopoeia whereby audible sound merges with language. Touch does something similar – words like ‘smooth’ and ‘rough’ express a sense of the objective merged with language, and so still we have that crucial tether between the two which goes beyond the symbolic veneer. With touch in language sound often acts as a byway; sound becomes the way by which a texture and so the sense of touch becomes manifest. These real-symbolic evocations of the senses are cross cultural, as what we’re talking about is obviously on a deeper level than the words themselves, more structural and yet not linguistically so.
More abstractedly though nevertheless still crucially entwined with objectivised language is the sense of taste: we use words like sharp, or bitter – coming from the Germanic word bite, or tang, which comes from an old word for the blade of a knife. These words for the sense of taste – much like the words for touch which use audible sounds – are using object textures, that is, by way of the sense of touch, thereby again demonstrating a tether between symbolic language and real object. It is important to emphasise then – and this is most evident with the sense of smell and taste – that whilst 2 senses can be inherently tied in their biological, sensory function, they are not in any way linked in their symbolic function. I’m aware such isolated examples may seem insufficient, but actually what is vital is the mere existence of any single example of Symbolic words being in any way tethered to the Real.
However, there are no words in the field of scent, which can not possibly demonstrate a tether between symbolic and real. This is the same for sight, which, being what we might locate as the ‘foundational’ sense in the creation of language, is inherently and crucially detached from the real – in fact it’s primary function is exactly that, to shield the real in a reality-encompassing veneer. So whilst with touch and hearing and taste we have this kind of tiered, cross-fertilisation of the various senses in order to evoke the real object, this is distinctly absent from the remaining 2 senses: sight and smell. Why is this important? This unique dislocation of symbolic and real in the realm of scent is, I believe, key to pinpointing why it is that only with the sense of smell, can we form associations with much more abstract concepts such as memories. The reason being that smell has no possible direct tether to the symbolic universe. If smells were symbolically registered, then we would be incapable of associating certain smells with certain memories as we now do. This also explains why Freud situated scent in such a pivotal role in the designation of the neuroses.
a choice between life and death?
Or is this our chains?
“O, what a world of unseen visions and heard silences, this insubstantial country of the mind! What ineffable essences, these touchless rememberings and unshowable reveries! And the privacy of it all! A secret theatre of speechless monologue and prevenient counsel, an invisible mansion of all moods, musings, and mysteries, an infinite resort of disappointments and discoveries. A whole kingdom where each of us reigns reclusively alone, questioning what we will, commanding what we can. A hidden hermitage where we may study out the troubled book of what we have done and yet may do. An introcosm that is more myself than anything I can find in a mirror. This consciousness that is myself of selves, that is everything, and yet nothing at all – what is it? And where did it come from? And why?”
– Julian Jaynes, The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind
Finished in just three weeks whilst in Italy in 1933, Ernst’s ‘Une Semaine de Bonte’ or ‘A Week of Kindness’ is a breathtaking series of wood engraved illustrations hijacked from various French popular fiction and periodicals of the late nineteenth century and morphed and warped into Ernst’s own surrealist iconography. It is split into seven parts, one for each day of the week, and each revolves around one of the seven deadly elements (as opposed to sins). Sunday (mud) is dedicated to one of the surrealist forefathers, Grandville, famed for his animal men (obviously a big influence on Ernst) and as such the first part contains lots of lion-men (psychologist Dieter Wyss suspected this to be an incarnation of the Freudian superego). Monday (water) alludes to Noah’s flood. Tuesday (fire) is day of the dragons and flight; serpentine wings sprout from the backs of the characters. Wednesday (blood) is dedicated to Oedipus and Oedipal drives take the form of great human-birds – LopLop, Ernst’s alter ego and familiar, took such a form on the basis of Freud’s identifying humanity’s age-old fascination with birds in his 1910 ‘Leonardo DaVinci and a Memory of His Childhood’. Ernst was greatly influenced by Freud, and through him found a way of exerting his Oedipal conflict with his father; we might view his famous 1922 ‘Oedipus Rex’ as a kind of subconscious blueprint for this section. Thursday (blackness) is the day of ‘The Rooster’s Laughter’ and ‘Easter Island’. Friday (sight) revolves around ‘the interior of sight’ and is made up of what Ernst calls visible poems. Saturday (unknown) is ‘The Key to Songs’, the most cryptic of days which seems to draw upon many of the various images throughout. Below I’ve collected a few of my favourite images from each of the days: