Saturday, February 2, 2013

On arrogance.

Today's thoughts:

This is being written at 3am, and will as such be written at the corresponding level of intellectuality. Apparently that's actually a word.

As I compiled my last post (just now) I re-read it and thought "well, it would be only too easy to construe this - and, from there, everything else on this blog - as incredibly arrogant and unreadably self-satisfied". Oh, so "unreadably" isn't a word?

I wanted to acknowledge that, indicate that I was aware of it and hopefully show that it isn't actually the case. First of all, I like to write with florid prose. Almost all of my writing, whether it's this blog or university assignments, is created with myself as the primary audience member. Not so much for the content, but for the pleasure of what is being said - and believe me, I do enjoy being that audience member. Jimmy Carr quips that when people ask him who his favourite comedian is, he says "me... I know it sounds arrogant but on the other hand, it is exactly my sense of humour". I'm hardly my favourite writer, but I take huge pleasure in developing and honing the ways I communicate, and I find writing is the best way to do that.

Second, and this is probably more important - as time has progressed I have become more jaded and more cynical with intellectual debate. Whilst in the past I bent over backwards to acknowledge opposing viewpoints and different interpretations, which I still think is a necessity when writing polemic (for exactly the reason that this post is about), I have found my beliefs and assertions calcifying as I've tired of fruitless and unproductive back-and-forth. Time for a long-winded tangent.

Take, if you would, the allegory of the blind men and the elephant: three blind men encounter an elephant; each one tries to comprehend the creature based on the limited data they have available (one feels the trunk, one the legs, one the tail). This is often presented as an explanation for the overabundance of religions in the world today - many minds all experiencing different facets of the divine. However, this allegory falls apart when one points out that the blind men could simply pool their data and by working together comprehend the elephant. That's obviously an corollary for science, not the ecumenical movement.

The reason I brought it up, though, was to provide an example of the kind of people who have taken the wind out of my fair-minded sails. Assuming that we are all blind and groping at the elephant of existence (I've danced around myriad opportunities for crass humour ever since I brought the bloody animal up) the people I've run out of time for are those who won't participate in the collaborative process. Who aren't willing to shift their position, who aren't willing to even question it. Please believe me when I say no one judges my beliefs more harshly than myself, and that by abandoning the convention of politeness - it makes for a good editor - I know that I've removed a potential barrier against this kind of regressive certainty.

I'm working on it, but in the meantime and in my own space, I'm not going to stop calling things as I see them , just like Christopher Hitchens taught me.

Mr Gabriel Syme fights Nietzsche's battles for him.

Today's thoughts:

I was fossicking around on Facebook and found this picture a friend had put up last year. At the time it prompted a most remarkable outpouring of hate from a most remarkable bell-end, which in turn prompted me to respond in kind. It's a good summary of his works - I think - regardless of how unnecessary and pretentious it is to argue Nietzsche for several hundred words on Facebook.

Some samples of the intellectual offerings, first of all: well as the charming assertion that "I'm not sure you could describe Nietzsche's later works as "thinking". They're completely unintelligible to even the most experienced of minds!"

Ha. Well. We know better than that, don't we?

I replied:

For someone who considers Nietzsche's work "unintelligible", you certainly seem to think you know it better than the man himself. It may alarm and surprise you to learn that not everyone merely attaches themselves to a dogma - perhaps the benefit in Nietzsche is not blindly following his writings but contemplating what they mean. Trying to understand what at face value seems so utterly alienating and repellent is a practical intellectual exercise that raises our consciousness and strengthens us as individuals.

I couldn't help myself, and came back a little while later with the following. You can see how overzealous I'm getting by my first sentence:

Since I can't stand the butchery of Nietzsche's incredible and revolutionary philosophy, I'll offer my own interpretation:

Nietzsche's view of reality is that no objective moral standards exist. There is no metaphysical authority and no meaning to our own lives. Our perceptions, our values and our desires are all subjective, and therefore to shape the world as we wish it we are required to inflict this subjectivity on others (this can take some contemplation to understand, but it's well worth the time). This is what Nietzsche called "will to power".

Moralities are ways of harnessing and restricting this will to power. When you tell people to repress their desires - we're not attaching a "good or bad" label to such an action at this point - in favour of following a set code of ethics and meaning, you are restricting their own agency, freedom and individuality. Perhaps this is necessary to create a functioning and cohesive society, perhaps not - at this point, it's just an observation.

"Slave moralities" like Christianity are so called because they do not allow individuals to enact their will to power. Everyone is a slave of the overarching system which has been set in place. Like a piece of clockwork, the system of morality has been fashioned and then set in motion, and everyone becomes a slave of its beliefs and dictates. A "master morality", which Nietzsche himself preferred (but we do not have to), is one where individuals rise above the system and create their own moralities. Nietzsche did like the idea of the strong and exceptional - those who could think for themselves - being freed from moral constraints, but to equate this with Social Darwinism and presumably thus Nazism is to miss the point so far that I suggest no one need listen to you on this topic until you've shown yourself capable of anything more than pointless, ad hominem ranting.

And then a few minutes later:

You know, I felt bad about my rather angry closing remark, but on re-reading this whole discussion I think anger is the right response.

Free-thought cannot be stifled by doctrine, no matter how "insane" they may be considered by their peers - references to Galileo at this point seem very apt. We can't read Nietzsche if we're conservatives, because any attempt to question the status quo must be quickly suppressed.

If we're name-dropping philosophers, everyone should read Hannah Arendt's lecture "Thinking and Moral Considerations". In it, she shows that heinous crimes such as the Holocaust are not the result of dangerous thinkers, but by the masses of people who *fail* to think. Please, for the love of whatever banal and unoriginal god you may insist on following, spend as much time as you can questioning everything and everyone. And if you don't agree with me... good. Why not?

No replies after that. So, I guess I.. won? Arguing on the internet, Special Olympics, all that.

By the way, if anyone wants to plagiarise this for some school/university essay, go ahead. Formal attribution is not required. And yes, high schools do teach Nietzsche. I supervised last year's VCE Philosophy exam, amongst others, and the big N was most prominent on the paper. Surely Year 12 is the last period of someone's life you want to spend dissembling their hierarchies of structure and meaning.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Opium of the Elite

It would not be remiss to say that I hold no piece of writing in higher regard than Karl Marx's dissertation on the "opiate of the masses". Frequently misquoted, and even more frequently misunderstood, this examination of the religious impulse expresses the essence of what I feel makes the "comfort of faith" the charismatic poisoner that it is. Here is the quote in full, as it was used by Christopher Hitchens - who first brought my attention to its true meaning:

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people...

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.

Karl Marx, A Contribution to Hegel's Philosophy of Right

From this we see just what kind of opiate religion is to the poor and suffering in the world - not heroin, some immature and taboo indulgence, but rather morphine, a painkiller taken in response to the unbearable conditions they are subjected to. When a pain cannot be borne, one has two options: to dull the senses and escape to the realm of fantasy, or to exist in the real world and remove the source of that pain. Medical science wins victory after victory against these sources, eliminating our tormentors, and yet invariably it is the fantasists, the religious, who seek to block this progress.

In a similar way, the religious impulse has been used throughout history to prevent insurrection and to make those without happy in their lot. Moses the Raven from Orwell's Animal Farm is the essence of this trope. Christianity specifically preaches against the questioning of authority and empowerment in earthly matters. "Render unto Caesar", anyone?

But that's not what I actually want to talk about here. Reflecting on the claim that "faithadds meaning to our lives", I thought I saw the manner in which religion inveigles itself into our modern, affluent culture. It is astoundingly similar to that of impoverished and opressed cultures, and disempowers us in just the same way.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Mercenaries and Just War Theory

Today's post is particularly out of left field (and particularly long-winded), as it is word for word my final essay for the subject Ethics of Global Conflict. Having never really considered the use of mercenaries in warfare, or even what the phrase "just war" even means, this was a thoroughly educational and interesting exercise. Though the essay itself is incredibly slapdash, the facts and ideas contained within are really quite fascinating if I say so myself. Do try and read to the end...

Though there are many moral issues concerning the discussion, nations that wish to adhere to Just War theory should feel free to employ mercenaries and private security/military contractors. The issues that exist around employing these groups as combatants stem largely from a misattribution of responsibility between states and private corporations, and the failure of international legislative bodies to adequately understand and respond to the changing role of mercenaries in contemporary politics.

Similarly, many of the moral issues surrounding mercenaries and PMCs derive from the (often implicit) belief that only soldiers are justified in engaging in combat, and that non-military combatants are essentially a moral transgression because they do not share this justification. This essay will endeavour to show that these moral objections are baseless and that mercenaries and PMCs are not strictly the “whores of war” that they have been called.

The definition of “mercenary” is a particularly contentious one. Because of the long history of mercenary groups and the vested interests inherent in creating a definition, a workable understanding has proved difficult to produce; this in turn has impeded attempts to regulate the activities of mercenaries in the present day. A comprehensive definition is that proposed by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which divides mercenaries into three broadly distinct groups:

1. Soldiers of fortune and “volunteers” that enlist to fight on behalf of a cause or power for financial gain, and may possibly have an ideological motivation.

2. Servicemen enlisted in foreign armies, such as the Gurkhas and French Foreign Legion. Governments can recruit foreign nationals either temporarily or permanently to serve in their armed forces – this is a practice that predates the modern concept of a national standing army.

3. Private Military Contractors (PMCs) which provide a range of security and military services to both state and non-state groups. PMCs have become increasingly relevant to modern warfare and its ethical considerations since their rapid expansion in the 1990s.

Private military contractors have their roots in the condottieri of Renaissance Italy and the Free Companies of France, who acted as independent military forces which fought for states on a contract basis. The industry experienced a surge during the 1990s and PMCs have been deployed from Papua New Guinea to Angola, though they are most infamous for their deployment in Iraq following the 2003 invasion. Though private military contractors are popularly understood to provide combat personnel, they far more commonly serve a support role for their employers. This can take the form of advice or training, as well as logistics support and security operations – however, this does not preclude them from fighting as “the distinction between combat and non-combat operations is often artificial”.

A criticism commonly levelled against mercenaries is their “mercenary” motivation for fighting: the problem of combining “financial motivation and military force”. This leads to a distinction between soldiers and mercenaries, and in the case of PMCs, between commanders and businessmen. The argument put forward in favour of national military personnel over mercenaries is that soldiers are fighting for a single cause, which they presumably view as just, and that they in some way share in the state’s vested interest.

Mercenaries, on the other hand, fight for whoever holds their contract and will employ lethal force for financial gain rather than for furthering a national cause. This distinction seems jarring, though, when one considers that proper, altruistic motivation is not a requirement for soldiers and militaries often present themselves in terms of careers and financial gain when recruiting. Furthermore, a combatant who falls under the definition of “mercenary” may very well be ideologically motivated and could conceivably have a greater vested interest in the outcome than a soldier.

Pattison objects that rather than mercenaries lacking a suitable motive for fighting, the problem is “the presence of an unsuitable one”. He asserts that financial gain is an immoral motive for fighting, and one which is particularly highlighted when mercenaries offer their services to unjust causes such as drug cartels and dictators. However, though this is intended as a response to the claim that soldiers and mercenaries may share motivations and ideology, it fails to overcome this claim. His assertion that soldiers serving these groups are more justified stems from the questionable belief that these soldiers are motivated primarily by “misguided patriotism” and that mercenaries are fundamentally seeking “private gain”, and goes on to explain why the latter motive is unacceptable. However, he fails to address the underlying argument that soldiers as well as mercenaries can act with self-interest and the desire for private gain, and that therefore his all-important separation between the two becomes meaningless. To argue that soldiers have an acceptable motive simply by being soldiers is pointlessly circular and lacks the necessary supporting evidence.

Contrary to the popular concept of mercenaries as excessively violent and unrestrained combatants, Lynch and Walsh posit that employing fighters who are essentially neutral in a conflict can have positive moral effects. They argue that nationalism, xenophobia and revenge – all very realistic motives for war – are likely to be absent in third party combatants brought into a conflict, and that profit as a motive is far more conducive to rationality than national pride or other “higher” ideological motives, which can often lead to dehumanising the enemy and a “search for transcendental personal glory”. They cite Machiavelli, who accused Renaissance condottieri of lacking the necessary desire to slaughter the enemy and sacrifice their own lives for the Republic, and question the assumption that mercenaries, by their (purportedly) immoral and unsavoury nature, are more inclined to cause destruction and suffering than their soldier counterparts.

Just War theory is the conflation of two principles concerning warfare: firstly, that there exist a numbers of conditions that, when met, justify a declaration of war; and secondly, that there are proper principles to abide by when in a state of war. The first of these is referred to as ius ad bellum (“right to war”) and the second as ius in bello (“right in war”). Ius ad bellum (IAB) is principally concerned with the declaration of war and the legitimacy of the war itself; the conditions that must be met are:

Just cause – exactly what constitutes just cause is contentious, but common examples are self-defence against an unjust war or assisting an ally in similar circumstances. More controversially, causes such as humanitarian intervention and pre-emptive war have been considered “just” with regard to IAB.
Legitimate authority – this requires that military force only be utilised “if it is authorised by a political body that is widely recognised as having this power”. Again, it is contentious whether this allows for sub- or super-state national groups to legitimately wage war, or whether all states should be afforded this power regardless of their moral record.
Right intention – this stipulates that the war must be fought with the primary objective of fulfilling the just cause. If the just cause is, say, defending an ally from an unjust war then their defence must be the primary consideration while waging the war. Similarly, if a pre-emptive war is launched then the primary objective must be preventing the enemy’s capacity to launch the intended unjust attack.
Last resort – Military force is not permitted before other non-violent alternatives have been exhausted. These can include diplomacy or international intervention and adjudication. Without these prior steps – “within reasonable limits” – the war cannot be considered just.
Reasonable hope of success – this again refers back to the just cause: this time, the objectives laid out must be reasonably achievable and should not require great sacrifice or suffering on either side, especially with regard to non-combatants.
Proportionality – this simply demands that the harms caused by the conflict should not greatly outweigh the benefits.

Jus in bello (IIB) is concerned with the conduct of military forces within a war, and it stipulates that combatants must observe:
Discrimination – combatants in a war must discriminate between other combatants and non-combatants, and only target the former. Similarly, collateral damage involving non-combatants is to be considered when pursuing military objectives.
Proportionality – unlike the IAB definition of proportionality, it here means that force must be within proportion to the objectives being pursued and that “destruction beyond what is necessary to reach a military objective is morally suspect”.
Benevolent treatment of POWs – enemy forces which have surrendered and been taken into custody cease to be considered “engaged in harm” (though are still combatants and to be detained). Thus they should be treated with “benevolence” and not mistreated.
No means mala in se (“evil in themselves”) – this bans the use of weapons and tactics which are considered too destructive or immoral, such as mass rape, ethnic cleansing or weapons of mass destruction.

The use of private military contractors is most contentious when examined from the perspective of ius ad bellum. The first condition of IAB is just cause, and here is seems that PMCs must fail because “material gain” is specifically the kind of motive that the just cause stipulation is designed to guard against. This, however, is much like the issue of legitimate authority – the question is whether PMCs have the authority to open hostilities with those they are employed to fight. Those against the use of PMCs indicate that the corporate structure has no place in the contemporary understanding of legitimate authority.

This equivalence in authority between military and corporate, however, is misattributed; the contractor is not declaring war. Pattison writes “the employment of PMCs is largely consistent with the principle of legitimate authority... since states – not PMCs – tend to authorise the use of force”. Ultimately, this principle applies to all the points of ius ad bellum, since IAB is concerned with the declaration of war and PMCs do not actually declare war – the responsibility of adherence to IAB lies with those who employ the mercenaries.

The principle of ius in bello in a more troubling for PMCs since it has direct relevance to their activities in combat. However, though contemporary examples may surface of companies such as Xe Services (né Blackwater USA) violating the principles of IIB, this does not prove that PMCs inherently violate JWT any more than the historic excesses of national militaries prove that nations themselves violate JWT. The distinction that needs to be made is that many current PMCs and mercenaries are not subjected to the level of regulation and oversight that is necessary to ensure military forces comply with IIB.

Advocates of PMCs such as Malliard and contractor Triple Canopy’s CEO Ignacio Balderas argue that the industry needs far more stringent regulation from employers to ensure that the standards of Just War theory can be met by states employing mercenaries and contractors. None of the particular points of IIB are relevant to this discussion, since with sufficient regulation from states there is no reason for non-military combatants to commit any more egregious transgressions than soldiers themselves.

Despite arguments to the contrary, private military contractors and other mercenary groups do not, simply by their existence and deployment, violate the tenets of Just War theory. As a result, states which employ PMCs should not be considered to defy JWT. Though there are legitimate objections to the use of mercenaries from the perspective of JWT, most opposition is due to the conduct of contemporary contractors rather than what they fundamentally represent. States wishing to conform to the principles of Just War Theory should feel justified in employing mercenaries, especially with regard to the principle of ius ad bellum. However, these contractors should be subjected to strict regulation and oversight, especially with regard to ius in bello.

TL;DR - This one was particularly L, but hopefully it was R by a few people. Essentially, mercenaries cannot be considered to violate the concept of Just War by their very nature, and those who claim they do (which happens to be most people writing on the subject) are guilty of intellectually disingenuous scholarship. Cop that!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

rammstein pussy feminism

Today's thoughts:

I know, right? Less than three weeks have elapsed since my last post! What is this?

Well, it has been brought to my attention that I'm getting a good percentage of my traffic (more a reflection on how little traffic I get, rather than how much) from Google searches of "rammstein pussy feminism". This is bringing people to an old post I wrote which just happened to contain references to both Rammstein and feminism, back when my posts were the slightly demented collation of my hypomanic thoughts.

Since this was clearly an injustice to those who wanted a simple analysis of the song, I've decided to write one, right now, off the top of my head. So without too much further ado, here is the clip. I should advise that this is just about the most explicit film-clip ever.

Rammstein Pussy Explicit 2009 by superzerocool

So! Starting with the song itself:

Is this song sexist?
Possibly. The song is extremely objectifying, with the protagonist making it fairly "explicit" that he's only interested in sex. Other considerations must come second to the fact that "you've got a pussy". That said, I've made it clear before that I do not see a necessary and inescapable link between objectification and sexism. I'm far from claiming that I do understand the relationship - rather, I think it warrants a lot of discussion, instead of the knee-jerk association everyone bestows upon it.

Thus, I don't think the objectification here makes it sexist. The man wants sex, and has clearly been deprived of it for some time. Unfortunately for him, it takes two to tango and here he's found a possible partner. Good for him! Is he dominating or coercing her? No - he's extending an invitation for fun because it's something they both want.

So why did I say it was "possibly" sexist? Well, in a stunning blog-plot-twist, I think the argument could be made that this song plays into an gross stereotype/caricature of men. Though the song is satirical (I'm getting to that) it's satire based on the idea of men as desperate and childish where sex is involved. I don't personally think it's particularly sexist, but it's still worth bearing in mind.

Is this Rammstein's own view of women?
This song has generated a lot of controversy since it was released, mostly thanks to the knee-jerk morons I mentioned earlier (did I not mention that they were morons? They are). What they are utterly failing to get is that this song is taking the piss. Rammstein rarely write songs expressing their own views - instead, they like to get into the mind of other people and explore their thoughts. They didn't write a song about eating people because they liked eating people, they wrote it to understand the mindset of both parties involved in the Armin Meiwes case.

In the instance of Pussy, the clue that it's not meant to be taken completely literally is that so much of it is written in English. They've only done that once before, in the blatantly satirical Amerika - if a band with six albums almost wholly in German suddenly starts writing in English, you can bet they're doing it for a reason.

Here, it's because the song is about sex tourism. He "can't get laid in Germany" so he's gone abroad, speaking his pidgin English and making suggestive remarks in commonly understood German. It's quite deliberate that he uses words like "autobahn", "bratwurst" and "blitzkrieg" - they're German words that everyone knows. "Fahrvergnügen" ("driving pleasure") was used in Volkswagen's international advertising. Instead of being a childish song about euphemistic naughtiness, the song is actually painting a picture of a lonely, desperate man who's trying to get laid. As I said before: just because the band sing in first-person doesn't mean they enthusiastically endorse the song's message. Wiener Blut would get them arrested otherwise.

But wait! What about the clip itself?
Well, this is part of a larger discussion. You can hear director Jonas Åkerlund himself talking about how the clip is based on clichés from 70s porn. I'm not especially interested in launching into an examination of gender roles in pornography, but I think it's pretty clear that Åkerlund wasn't deliberately putting women in subservient roles (maid, secretary, etc.) - rather he was lampooning the male-centred fantasies of porn culture.

I see. So is there anything at all that disappointed you about this song?
I'm glad you asked! This film-clip actually entails one of the two disappointments I have ever had from Rammstein (ongoing failure to see them live notwithstanding). Here, it's the fact that they used body doubles for the actual sex scenes. That just seemed such a cop-out given their usually exacting standards of boundary pushing and general hardcoreness. For shame.

TL;DR - Links! So many links!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Jesus Stole My Classmates; or, Why the fundies were right about atheists wishing violence towards believers, but for the wrong reasons

Today's thoughts:

Uni's back! Amongst the three subjects that make up my delightfully paltry timetable, I find myself studying a subject called God, Freedom and Evil. Its outline presents it as a unit which seeks to understand how the concept of God can interact with the seemingly contradictory notions of freedom and evil. Duh.

So in signing up for GFE, I was excitedly anticipating a subject in which we could definitively demonstrate that faith is both self-refuting and an undesirable and destructive facet of our society. In my wildest homework-related fantasies (which are entirely a fiction, I can assure you) I imagined printing off these very blog posts and submitting them to an admiring (and, somewhat irrelevantly, buxom) tutor.

But as you have no doubt concluded, dear reader, this was not flawlessly imitated by reality. Instead, I found myself in an oversized class of some twenty-five drips who at no point during their mindless pontificating stopped to question what they or anyone else was saying. Imagine, if you would, a discussion on the nature of the Easter Bunny. As with any unfalsifiable hypothesis, we have absolutely no evidence as to what traits God - sorry, the Easter Bunny - could possibly have. So what did we do? Spent the hour making shit up and treating it as if it was self-evident fact, whilst everyone else nodded sagely at just how self-evident it was that the Easter Bunny works in ways too mysterious for his creation to contemplate but can choose to reveal wisdom to certain humans to counteract the evil that he did not create, obviously, but, like, somehow allowed to slip in because we can't comprehend what God's intentions and actions are. Which we know. Because we don't.

Lest at this stage you think that I'm simply assuming God's non-existance to be a foregone conclusion, and not giving believers a chance to sway me with their no doubt superior knowledge of religion and its apologies, let me give you an example of how much of a shit this lot gave about any viewpoint besides their own foregone conclusions. The tutor asked whether anyone knew anything about concepts of God outside of Judeo-Christian traditions. I asked whether Islam counted (it does; both Islam and Christianity are Judaic sects) and was told it doesn't, which made me the only person in the class with knowledge outside of the J-C paradigm.

And what made it worse was that there were a couple of atheists in there with me. However, they spent the whole time nodding along with everyone else and declaring how important it was to respect people's faith and that everyone's opinion is valid and true for them. Well, it's not and it's not. Furthermore, people's opinions and beliefs are not private, regardless of whether they proselytise or not. Quite apart from the day-to-day interactions which are going to be shaped to a lesser or greater extent by those beliefs (the further away from reality they are, the more they are obviously going to impact me), we happen to live in a democracy. That means that these beliefs are directly shaping the society in which I and others who do not share the beliefs live. Don't like gay marriage? Put people in power who will prevent it from happening. Enjoy disenfranchising minorities? Vote for the party that endorses it (the Liberal Party).

My ultimate frustration with this subject - and here I will admit that I may be judging too early, only one hour into the entire course as I am - is that it exists in a place of learning and human betterment, yet seems to promote and encourage those social forces which would undo these cornerstones of our society. Nihilist that I am, I place great store by society and thus the foundations which hold it up. It's all that stands between us and oblivion. The acute rage I felt yesterday after class had ended was at the moronic beliefs that are thrown around all too freely; the ones that are basically concerned with the right to invent any crap you like and subject your fellow citizens to your self-satisfied ignorance and prejudices.

If anyone wishes to disagree with my assertions, I'm all ears. Challenging ideas and acknowledging intellectual failures is a great way to keep us out of the dark ages.

TL;DR - One tutorial in and I already hate my classmates. I've gone into a subject at uni anticipating a rationalist's paradise and come out saying

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Nietzsche Primer

Today's thoughts (but mostly thoughts from about two weeks ago):

Given my desire to write about Nietzsche (I'm still writing that proper essay in my head) I thought it best to share this synopsis of his philosophy. Obviously, given how complicated he is, it's not a full explanation of his work but just a basic description of some of his ideas. It's exercepts from an essay I wrote for uni, from which I've removed the political analysis and just left the more descriptive elements. I know it's not as readable as my usual work (which I've previously admitted is not very readable) but bear with it.

In Nietzsche’s The Gay Science,* it is a madman who proclaims “God is dead”. He is searching for God in a marketplace and is mocked by the atheists who congregate there, but he rounds on them and accuses them all of being God’s murderers. He concludes that he has “come too early” since none there understand the meaning of his words; none can see the implications of their deicide. What Nietzsche refers to here is not the physical death of any divine being, but the secularism and atheism that had arisen primarily as a result of the Enlightenment. To Nietzsche, “belief in the Christian god has become unbelievable”. Humanity is left without “transcendental principles or forces to guide them” and have thus lost the foundations of their morality and meaning; these in turn are the foundations of society, politics and order. Such a complete destruction of our systems and institutions, Nietzsche believed, constituted the “greatest recent event” in human history.

However, like the atheists in The Gay Science, secularism has not yet come to terms with the death of God. Our secular politics and governments are still based on the ideas of morality and meaning, only without God or a metaphysical to give these ideas any basis. Nietzsche calls this the shadow of God: “God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown. - And we - we still have to vanquish his shadow, too.” Without their source, these shadows are no longer philosophically tenable, but Nietzsche understands that it will be a long time before we acknowledge this.

In God’s place, Nietzsche sees only what he calls “will to power”. This is not an ideology or a morality – the death of God has brought an end to such things. Will to power is rather what is left after God has passed: the only truth in a world now devoid of truths. He writes "... do you want a name for this world? ... This world is the Will-to-Power — and nothing besides! And you yourselves are also this will-to-power and nothing besides!" It is crucial to understand that the will to power is an observation, not a creed – the pleasant blindfold of order and meaning that God represented has been stripped away, and we are left with the truth: will to power. The need to emphasise the disparity between will to power and previous understandings of the world arises because this dichotomy is so important to Nietzsche’s writing.

Will to power is, to Nietzsche, the constant desire for life to expand its influence and exercise its strength. This is not strictly about dominating others or seizing “power” in any political sense, but rather enjoying agency over one’s actions. Nietzsche writes that not just humanity but any “living thing seeks above all to discharge its strength — life itself is will to power”. Nietzsche viewed any morality as an attempt to limit the will to power of the individual, and so was firmly opposed to its constraining influence. He saw a world “beyond good and evil” and the death of God laid it bare.

Ultimately, Nietzsche’s works suggest an observation that morality and the politics that necessarily spring from them are baseless after the “death of God”. Both behoove humanity to act in a particular fashion, but in a secular society they lack the metaphysical foundations that lend them any credence and are thus doomed to dissolve once the “shadow of God” is finally banished. Nietzsche presented no specific idea of what post-morality society would look like, although there would be no state and no morality to limit the free exercise of the will to power, because “where the state ceases… [there are] the rainbow and bridges of the Übermensch” who discharge their strength freely. The impact of the death of God on politics is to destroy its foundations and herald its demise, and reveal the truth of will to power.

Outside of Nietzsche’s own writings, the secularism that “death of God” describes still has profound political impact – whether or not one accepts will to power as “life itself”, the observation that without a metaphysical we no longer have any basis for a universal morality is particularly resonant in our contemporary “slave morality” democracies.

* Oh, grow the fuck up.