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Beyond Good and Vile

September 28, 2012

A recent WTF with Marc Maron podcast–slightly out of the normal sweet spot of Maron’s excellent interviews with comedians and entertainers–made me think of Nietzsche’s famous maxim:”if you gaze into the void, the void gazes back at you.” The quotation is frequently discussed in the context of Nietzsche’s anticipation of the development of nihilism and in connection with an even more quotable proclamation (i.e., “Nietzsche: God is dead! [God: Nietzsche is dead]”). Scholars often interpret this line of Nietzsche’s thought as concerned with the consequences of people realizing that God is dead, which means that there is no law, that there are no values positive or negative, that everything is permitted.

There is a bit of deliberate irony in the fact that Nietzsche warns about the dangers of gazing into the void while simultaneously doing so himself. As he builds his case about how a free spirit can free him/herself from the chains of contextually and historically derived perspectives and morals, Nietzsche presages the worry that radical freedom can also lead to radical relativism, which is a concern that sounds somewhat out-of-character for a self-proclaimed idol-smasher.

Predictably, my paraphrase is not quite the correct quotation; the real text provides somewhat more illumination:

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.

(Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146, Kauffman, interp.). And I’m not sure whether or not we should look at the line in the context of the aphorism, sandwiched as it is between two of Nietzsche’s relatively more misogynistic (if metaphorical) aphorisms how women’s genius is dependent on their role as secondary to men. But anyway, we’ll have to take Nietzsche for what he was.

The notion of the abyss–aside from simply connoting a lack of preordained ontological meaning and purpose (or telos)–is also a metaphor concerning human values, especially when read in the context of the actual aphorism. Nietzsche is talking about fighting monsters and and turning into them, so of course the abyss also refers to the need to embrace the full range of the human moral experience in order to be capable of surpassing or overtaking the trap presented by the abyss. In order to get from the free spirit to the philosopher of the future, one must be able to traverse the abyss. One must be able to reject old values, by realizing they come from no more authoritative a source than any other, in order to create new values for oneself. Essentially, the abyss refers to those artifacts of human endeavors that capture our curiosity, desire, morbidity, disgust, perversion, delight, whatever. Maybe it was a snuff film, maybe it was pornography, maybe it’s satanic music.

The thought of what the abyss means in today’s terms is what struck me while listening to WTF’s discussion of outsider art (much of which is hosted at the excellent nearby American Visionary Art Museum). Outsider art, it seems to me, touches on the concept of the abyss insofar as it rejects any dictation of values that result from an appeal to authority. The same can be said for a large swath of modern culture, whether you’re talking about punk or politics.

Of course, writing from the 1880s, Nietzsche didn’t have the concrete evidence of sex, drugs, and rock and roll to describe to the contours of the abyss. Nor would Nietzsche live long enough to see that the fears of nihilism colored a lot of the motivations of modern-day Christians holding the kind of bounded values he was denouncing throughout the entirety of Beyond Good and Evil. But I also don’t think that anyone has really figured out how to interpret Nietzsche’s dictum in the context of everyone’s favorite abyss: the Internet. The extent to which those artifacts are available to each and every one of us has changed dramatically in the Internet era, and now the abyss is accessible from everyone’s pocket.

As a result of the Internet, there is nothing truly sacred anymore, nothing mysterious. From a Nietzschean perspective, that might be the first step in the road to recovery from the staid values of old, or the first step of society turning into monsters. The Internet has made depravity available to all comers (e.g., 2 girls 1 cup, tubgirl, goatse, etc.), but the degree to which the Internet has made such access frivolously easy may have made that search a bit too easy. In the digital age, one need not acquire the desire to gaze into the void before the void is thrust in one’s face.

Thus, society is faced with new questions of how the Internet has affected society’s capacity to develop and grasp morality. From a Nietzschean perspective, the whole point of gazing into the abyss is to acquire a concept of how people get to the point of moral extremes. How does a person do something so viscerally horrible? What brings a person to commit a crime, and what goes through a psychopath’s mind? These are questions as old as drama, and understanding these questions has value to a philosopher, social scientist, or anyone else with a curious and ranging intellect. But now we’re asking questions like how true is Rule 34?

One might argue that the abyss does not bear understanding, only reflection. And if we are not morally equipped to withstand the abyss, as free spirits, that reflection could be dangerous; we can become the monsters we are supposed to be fighting.

Most directly, this philosophical conundrum plays out in the tension between those who value experience and education no matter what kind and those who fear the end result of moral relativism from a more paternalistic point of view. Throughout history there have been those who pressed for obscenity laws or the restriction of access to information on the grounds that it is dangerous. The Internet simply moots the question of access. Now we are left to deal with the more pragmatic moral question of how we deal with these bits of Promethean fire.

I always put my thumb on the scale in favor of free speech because I think that people should be treated as potential free spirits. Nietzsche would certainly agree that it would be a greater disservice to inhibit a single free spirit than to turn an army of adolescents into monsters. But when one asks direct questions, the answers become harder: should one be allowed to inspect nuclear schematics? Tub girl? Who’s to judge?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. September 28, 2012 9:46 pm

    This was great, Rick.

    The topic also happens to be my midlife crisis of the year: from finding life in Crime and Punishment (indeed, the ethical question of how an enterprising young individual approaches the void without having an objective measure of how successfully he or she will be able to traverse it is the counter side to this argument that I don’t think you pay enough heed, here), to believing that watching Salo was a necessary experience, to being struck paralyzed by the daunting question of how one constructs a rewarding, responsible adult life without compromising a desire for greatness.

    So I want to know: when the answers become harder, who keeps writing about them?

    • SlickRickSchwartz permalink*
      October 3, 2012 10:13 am

      Boy, that is a great way to frame a dichotomy that has been my own internal struggle of late: how one constructs a rewarding, responsible adult life without compromising a desire for greatness. That will definitely bear some exploration, both on the page and off.

      But by way of a brief answer to where (I think) you want to see this conversation progress, it seems reasonable enough to say that the void one experiences can be pushed around insofar as one goes out into the world and finds content to populate one’s values. That’s the nexus between the abyss and Nietzsche’s dictum about becoming a monster: that the world world has a deficiency of objective values does not mean that one is excused from forming what will constitute objective values for the individual.

      I think that therein lies the “objective” measure you’re looking for as well, since I think the measure can only be oneself (and one’s undeluded self at that). If you smell the bullshit on yourself to the same degree that you smell it on the others, I think you will know whether you’re actually working with self-defined values.

      More to come, especially if this is a dialogue rather than a monologue.

      • October 7, 2012 11:09 pm

        You’re all too right about the response the void requires. But just because we’re not excused from forming our own objective values doesn’t mean that it’s in any way easy or comforting (in such isolation) to do so. Moreover, this abyss that can only be traversed by the likes of an Übermensch never foreshadows its depths or expanse. We must open our minds to the emptiness in order to discover whether we are up to this task, a fundamental decision in our life that also predates our understanding its ethical ramifications.

        As with Raskonilkov’s fall, this isn’t just our life at stake, no matter how private the internet can feel. And however spectacular we may be, disaster’s always just a moment’s blindness away.

  2. Alex Goone permalink
    October 1, 2012 5:01 pm

    I really enjoyed the read!

    • SlickRickSchwartz permalink*
      October 3, 2012 10:05 am

      Thanks buddy! Glad you’re a reader.

  3. October 3, 2012 8:17 am

    I wonder why you focus as much as you do on the spectacular elements of Nietzsche’s comments. Porn and idiocy and spectacle seem only to embody a subset of the abyss. Is it not a bit more philosophical? Something more about, “that which you wish to consume shall end up consuming you?”

    It makes me think more of people like Chris McCandless, who went into the wilderness seeking some essence of freedom, and died of starvation by not properly preparing and planing for harsh conditions. He was so consumed by his desire for truth and purity, that it ended up consuming him.

    I find this abyss to be much more interesting to my own life and philosophic journey. Is this not the existentialism that Nietzsche is hinting at?

    • SlickRickSchwartz permalink*
      October 3, 2012 10:02 am

      Tyler, I agree with you, and that is exactly what I was hoping to get at, even if it was only obliquely hinted at in the closing paragraphs. My point was that the depths of the internet may appear to be the philosophical extrema for those who value absolute freedom, whether that is freedom of speech, political activity, expression, religious practice, or simply thought.

      The internet challenges that by acting as a conduit where all is permitted, including the reductio ad absurda that sometimes undermine and shake our own values and priorities. Examples of quandaries faced when facing this abyss include whether government should step in to protect minors from “obscenity” like 2 Girls 1 Cup, whether “just anyone” should be able to inspect and transmit instructions regarding extremely dangerous weaponry, and pretty much everything Wikileaks does. These quandaries are the experimental frontiers and outer reaches of what we, as a society, define as speech that deserves protection.

      The fact that “porn and idiocy and spectacle” are the things that people gravitate to is a demonstration of human bias towards sensational, but that does not render them less important topics if we are attempting to define freedom in a societal sense.

      If, as I believe you are really saying, you’d prefer to focus on the individual rather than society (as did Nietzsche, so maybe my whole point is blown out of the water), I still think that the same logic applies: one must be willing to confront oneself with the abyss (i.e., the series of existential challenges the internet can present to you) and be comfortable in the resulting habitat in order to qualify as a “free spirit” that can freely move and make value judgments even in a hyperexposed terrain without any kind of guilt or shame.

      I think the fact that, to you, most of it is garbage just shows that you’re closer to that kind of embracing freedom to be able to make a value judgment as opposed to an automatic or moralistic reaction of revulsion or distaste.

  4. Craig D permalink
    October 5, 2012 3:55 pm

    Really interesting and thought provoking stuff Rick. There’s no doubt that having the void thrust in our face without having to search for it is impactful on our development of morality and irreversible at this point. There is certainly a cost to such forceful exposure, but looking beyond the void, there are a lot of other factors to consider. One additional influence on morality may be the much freer ability for people to explore other lines of thinking and schools of thought, even if a lot of us really use the internet as echo chamber for our own predispositions. Furthermore, even if it is sometimes an overflow of information, there’s no question that the democratization of information has led to a myriad of positive influences as well, including the eminently important freedom of speech that might have been squelched otherwise in a world of such consolidated media outlets.

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