Three Nietzschean prescriptions: Create a style for yourself; Overcome yourself; Choose wakefulness over inheritance.
From Zarathustra: “This – is now my way: where is yours?’ Thus I answered those who asked me ‘the way’. For the way – does not exist!”
Create a style, overcome yourself, choose wakefulness: find your way.
There is no authentic self to guide you. No matter how quietly you sit, no matter how penetratingly you introspect, there is, at bottom, nothing. The you at the surface – and this will be a different you depending on the moment, the conditions – is the only authentic you there is, and that you is a fragmentary and more or less shifting, fickle, reflection of the multitude of drives, constraints, desires, ambitions, fears, affects, feelings, anxieties, hopes and – above all – antagonisms that you embody.
‘I’ experience myself, but in so doing am experiencing the spring-loaded responses, borne by my body, to the predictable, systematic vagaries of the social and physical world.
Am I angry? Then I’m on my bike, cut off by drivers. Am I wandering in the clouds, dreaming of possibilities? Then I’m reading Adorno or Camus. Am I amused? Then I’m surfing buzzfeed articles for 25 tweets only I will understand.
But, deeper. Am I ambitious? Then I have cobbled together some combination of desire and strategy, but without also calling up all the obstacles facing me, resources needed. Am I hesitant and anxious? Then you are handsome and confident and I need you to pass me the coffee cream or spot me while I bench press. Am I jealous and enraged? Then you are equally handsome and confident and I am lost in the conflicting urges to have you, to be you, to be wanted by you – sexually, financially, totally.
The world is fragmentary and we see it partially and partially. There are two kinds of partiality: the commitments of bias and the limits of perspective. The one is affective and pre-reflexive. The other is ontological and epistemological.
The world is contradictory and we move within that tension. Capitalist culture demands expansion of production and proliferation of consumption. Environmental limits, precarious employment, distorted income potentials place production and consumption alike out of reach. I am in culture, stimulated by culture, called to consume and – more – desire to consume, bliss out on consumption, but can neither produce nor consume sufficiently to close the gap between the authenticity the world promises and the fragmentary surface I travel.
The world is pathological. Contradiction is not merely tension, it is murderous. At limit cases it is literally murderous. Trans women, Black people stopped by cops, temp and precarious workers, women, unrepentant queers know this best.
The world is also banal. Contradiction is quotidian, stifling, distracting. It atrophies creative spring-loaded responses by triggering again and again the defensive, the jealous, the anxious.
We hold our temporal, geographical, racial-sexual and economic position within all of history in our bodies. That history – habitus – is how we perceive, gather resources, strategize, and act.
We experience our bodies and our location against all history. History exists within us and – because the world is fragmentary, contradictory and pathological – against us. That is alienation.
Alienation is why there is no authentic self to guide you, why ‘I’ is a temporary, surface phenomenon.
Alienation is what we work within and against when, following Nietzsche, we set out to create a style (but what style? from what source material?), self-overcome (but what self? with what tools?); and why the task of the great is to search out history in oneself, to understand one’s inheritance, wake oneself to it, and create – starting from how one is in the world as it is.
Our task is isolating, absolutely daunting, and potentially impossible.
Big Other will guide you. That is his seduction.
Big Other will teach you. That is his discipline.
Big Other is a balm for alienation. He soothes the existential terror wrought by biological aloneness, borne of cobbling together an ‘I’ from among spring-triggered responses to fragmentation, contradiction and death.
Beware Big Other. He is imaginary and therefore the product of ideology. He too is a reflection of fragmentation, contradiction and death. He takes many forms: tables of values, moral codes, religious injunctions, career paths, pop psychology, and above all, the well-meaning but misguided – or worse, ideological and wrong-headed – advice from the little others that make up your lifeworld.
Oh, little others. So ubiquitous. Such promise and such hardship.
Despite their overwhelmingly misguided and wrong-headed nature, our little others are not intrinsically destructive.
To Nietzsche’s injunctions, let’s add a young Marx’s vision for non-alienated life: objectify yourself in the world through your labour (just be sure to keep your objectified self from dominating and destroying you – but that’s a different story).
The material you have for creating a style out of yourself is to objectify yourself through your labour: the little others around you. Accept their otherness as precondition and opportunity. Accept them as more or less like you, but nonetheless other than you. Accept them as fragmentary and contradictory surfaces without authentic reflections – just like you – and responding, spring-loaded, to stimulus and context – just like you. Little others are so much like you, but nonetheless other than you.
If truly fortunate – and this is fortuna in the Machiavellian sense – you will find a little other who is also overcoming and making a style of themselves. A fellow traveler.
Create a style for yourself; Overcome yourself; Choose wakefulness over inheritance.
There is no authentic you, only the uneasy aggregation and intermingling of surfaces.
Overcome that uneasy integration by developing your skepticism of Big Other.
The material from which you work to create style and to overcome is the Big Other seducing you; it is the little others presenting themselves as claimants and opportunities; it is the contradictions and pathologies you embody and confront.