Beyond Good and Vile
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?