In his editorial of last week, Malloy Owen presents US history as one of opposed cultural forces. One force is Christianity, which pushes us to put others first, and the other is a kind of liberal Nietzscheanism, which asserts almost the opposite, encouraging each person to realize themselves so long as doing so doesn’t impede others. As religiosity declines, Owen suggests that its moralizing effect will less and less constrain the American-Nietzschean push to self-actualize. The resultant conditions, he suggests, will encourage the growth of more ethically unrestrained individualists like Spencer.
This frightening historical narrative seems to impel the following political conclusion: we should restore Christian values in order to prevent an unchecked Nietzscheanism from tearing us apart. When I spoke to the author, it became clear that he agreed with my initial objection to this conclusion: that an increase in American church participation would not likely translate into an increase in genuine Christianity. Greater church attendance would not instill more Americans with the integrity to fight white supremacy and other rising threats. The church’s history is, we agreed, too spotty on matters of race (or, for that matter, real faithfulness) to support such a conclusion. Owen writes from a place of pessimism, and said that the piece may not actually have a political conclusion.
But I also objected to his diagnosis of America as a thoroughly Nietzschean country, where the majority or even a sizeable number of citizens are meaningfully committed to the self-assertive projects that Nietzsche describes. The feeling of foreignness that greets us when we encounter Nietzsche’s Greeks should indicate the degree to which we are not pervasively Nietzschean.
Our average citizens do not live as did his beloved aristocrats, who relentlessly identified themselves, as individuals, with the good. Rather, most of us seem to be driven by something that perhaps looks like Nietzscheanism. America may have had a genuine, almost Nietzschean moment in the sixties, when post-war conformism (documented so well in novels like Revolutionary Road) gave way to a vaguely Nietzschean radicalism, but it seems to have quickly transformed into something else.
Adam Curtis documents the transformation of this spirit in his documentary Century of the Self. In it, he recounts how American corporations, desperate to reach these new anti-corporate individualists, realized they could tie the project of self-actualization to consumption of a range of products of historically unparalleled diversity. Advancements in small-scale production, as well as increasingly lifestyle driven advertisements, allowed manufacturers to link individualism with the consumption of a wide variety of products that people could identify with.
Now, a teenager’s desire to realize his or her self oftentimes translates into, or in the worst case, means nothing more than, a sale for Hot Topic. On the other end of the manufactured personality spectrum, it is a sale for Vineyard Vines, or later in life and at the University of Chicago, for Herschel backpacks. When this happens, when self-expression is identified with consumption, Nietzscheanism dies a little. For at this point, one is no longer engaged in a project of self-assertion and self-development, but instead, partaking in small variations of a homogenous activity controlled largely from above, by executives producing a narrow range of tainted images.
Rather, I think that Nietzscheanism takes on two limited forms in America; his thought well describes a small and powerful elite whose criterion for politics seems genuinely to be whether it pleases them, and also the small, precious counter-cultural movements which die once incorporated into our market. Each of these forms represents what I take to be a real and distinct danger of Nietzscheanism in a thoroughly un-Nietzschean country. One is an inward directed danger and the other outward.
Skateboarding and Vogueing, two extraordinary, beautiful Nietzschean movements die or are in the process of losing their spirit because they lack the political strength to resist destruction from without. They will die, in a certain sense, the way that the Greek polis did; as the political theorist Hannah Arendt describes in her book The Human Condition, the Greeks’ pervasive Nietzscheanism prevented them (as it continues to prevent skateboarders and vogue artists) from developing the sort of permanent political structures that permit individuals to continue asserting themselves in the midst of others. All three of these groups represent precisely what is beautiful about pervasive Nietzscheanism, the beauty of assertive and expressive individualism in the midst of others engaged in similar projects, along with its inherent instability.
The other danger is its inverse. As Owen rightfully points out, an unspecified call for the assertion of the self can take on the form of domination, which precisely what I think we see with Spencer and profiteers unconcerned with the consequences of their sales. The specific danger of Nietzscheans is not, however, that there are so many of them, but rather so few. Many people, lacking a sense community and a sense of self, cling to or bow to such figures out of a kind of sad, structural weakness that Nietzsche would have hated. If more people were self-assertive, it is hard to imagine a single amoral Nietzschean, or really anyone for that matter, gaining power.
This image is licensed under the Creative Commons, the original image can be found here.