Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Man and Supery-dooperyman

(Emma's theme for next week's Disability Blog Carnival is Superman. I found it hard to connect this theme to disability, so the hurried and somewhat tardy result is a little odd. One of those it's my blog, it's up to me how silly it gets posts.)

I've never got on with Nietzsche. He is a basically a 19th century gangsta rapper; he thinks he's really hard, he's brimming over with contempt for his fellow man, but ultimately he is so inadequate that he probably thought that sportswear and chunky gold jewellery were a stylish combination (and 19th century European sportswear, the effect would be far worse). In case you are unfamiliar with his work, Nietzsche's rap would have gone a little like this;

I'm a moustachioed mother from the mean streets of Röcken,
My old man was a pastor but my faith in God got broken.
I'm not hanging in the Ghetto as I'm not too keen on Jews,
Basically, my ethics are whatever I choose.

What they call "morality" is all born out of fear,
Love and compassion can kiss me on the rear.
Human beings aren't equal; that's obvious to see,
And guess who is the best of all? That's obviously me!

I matter more than others, because I am so great,
Most people live in suffering because they're second-rate.
Whereas I am really clever and I am really strong,
And nothing that I do or say could ever be wrong.

Even if I'm violent, and shoot up all my foes,
Even if I beat up my bitch and sleep around with hos
(Although to be quite honest, my love-life is a farce,
And when I talk of women, I am talking through my arse.)

I'm sorry about the language, but foul words like arse crop up all too often in the rap music I listen to - that hardcore rural English rap as opposed to the effete American urban variety. I mean, drive-by shootings in anything that goes faster than a tractor is for sissies.

Betrand Russell said in his History of Western Philosophy in 1946 that, despite his own distaste for the chap, Nietzsche's philosophy had come into force in Europe as much as those of his liberal and socialist peers. On the positive side, Nietzsche's ideas did influence various artists and philosophers - notably the Existentialists. The assertion that God is dead was a pretty amazing one, however banal it may appear as a sentence.

However, Hitler had the hots for Nietzsche, and whilst you can't say that Nietzsche was a Nazi, he might be seen to beckon in that direction. Anyway, this was about Superman. And disability. Somehow.

Nietzsche strongly believed in hierarchy, valuing those qualities associated with being a good warrior-hero; strength of will, a certain sort of courage, physical qualities as well as ruthlessness and guile. Romanticised if not actually romantic. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a tedious rant which I recommend you avoid, he talks about the Übermensch, translated as Superman or Overman. He writes;

The most cautious people ask today: "How may man still be preserved?" Zarathustra, however, asks as the sole and first one to do so: "How shall man be overcome?"

Man is weak and we must rise above weakness. Thus begins an idea which has persisted in medical science and cultural attitudes ever since. It's not just about saving life and making life more comfortable, it is about making man himself better.

A desire to improve oneself, one's life and one's society is ancient and widespread and entirely commendable. The only controversy is about how this might be achieved. The Superman is one particular take on this; he is innately superior, without weakness of any physical, psychological or intellectual variety. He is an uncomplicated product of what we would now call eugenics and the triumph of the will which Nietzsche is always harking on about; people doing what they want to do as opposed to what they feel to be right.

This may seem a scary and radical prospect, but are these ideas so far outside our experience? Certainly there is a strong argument that much of ante-natal screening and the elective abortions that result is not about the elevation of suffering, but the elimination of (perceived) weakness. Healthy people try to make themselves better than they really are with cosmetic "corrective" surgery and treatments and self-help gurus who promise them a competitive edge in every conceivable area of life. Despite abundant evidence to the contrary, there is increasing talk of genetic "causes" for mental and physical ill health - or being responsible for "intelligence" and personality traits. Meanwhile, this is what we're concentrating in schools all the time; to be valued, one must have a very narrow version of intelligence that allows you to pass exams and which everyone will pretend you were born with.

Naturally, disabled people are left behind in this project for all manner of reasons. It is also a futile project, however seductive it has been for some. You cannot be a better person for being intelligent, or being able to run fast, or for being beautiful. These aren't things you (or your parents, or doctors or anyone) ever get to choose, but neither do they do you or those around you any favours without your own intervention.

So I have an alternative; the Supery-dooperyman (or in German, the Über-DüberMensch).

Thus spoke the Goldfish. Strength is not a thing that the Supery-dooperyman is born with, but something he develops through experience and demonstrates through his actions. Being clever or having physical advantages counts for nothing, but the Supery-dooperyman takes whatever talents or attributes he happens to have - however modest, however great - and makes the best use he can. The Supery-dooperyman realises that fear is not at the root of compassion, but often at the root of contempt; sometimes the greatest test of our courage comes in considering another person's point of view. The only valuable hierarchies are, as they are in nature, in a constant state of flux; the Supery-dooperyman understands the transient nature of all things, including himself. The Supery-dooperyman may do whatever he likes, but in order to do so, he knows he must not always do exactly as he feels - if you punch everyone who deserves it, you're unlikely to be in a physical state to enjoy more long-term interests.

If we could all manage that, we would have overcome a great deal.

Oddly enough, the only musical reference I can think of to Nietzsche is at the end of the chorus of Blur's noisy classic Song 2, when Damon Alburn sings "All of the time, 'cause I'm never sure why I need you/ 'Cause I, Nietzsche." Go listen; I don't tell a lie.


fluttertongue said...

Uber-duberMensch (mit umlaut) is officially my new favourite german word.

Anonymous said...

Your understanding of Nietzsche (evidenced by your reference to Russell's opinion of him, as well as other mistakes) needs to be updated from the English and American anti-German sentiments of the 1930's and 40's. There are too many misconceptions here to list (unless you want me to, just ask.)

The Goldfish said...

Peteronion - this is not meant to be a serious and conscientious critique of Nietzsche, who I have read myself and don't dismiss out of hand, despite my objections to his style as well as his ideas.

There are controversies over interpretation, but I would strongly take issue with the idea that my (undoubtedly flawed) understanding of this stuff is in any way anti-German; Nietzsche was German, but he is not and never was representative of Germany - a country which has produced many far greater minds, in my opinion.

I don't wish to enter a debate about interpretation, but welcome recommended reading if you think I need to look further.

Jess said...

There's nothing Nietzche couldn't teach ya 'bout the raising of the wrist.


I think it's a fascinating suggestion-- even startling, in a why-didn't-I-think-of-that-before sort of way-- that the Übermensch is still so deeply rooted in our thinking. Nor am I convinced that it's an unreasonable suggestion to make. Then again, I'm not terribly well-read in philosophy, and am probably not in much of a position to argue one way or another. Generally I find Russell more palatable. I don't know what that suggests about me. (For the record I think I'd have enjoyed that philosophy-and-politics course I took much more had the prof pointed out then that Nietzsche was a gangsta rapper.)

Anonymous said...

Goldfish - I apologize for missing the tone of your post.

I wasn't suggesting that you are anti-German, I was just suggesting that a lot of the things said (like Nietzsche's anti-Semitism, pro-Eugenics stance, and do-what-thou-wilt ethics) resemble the willful misinterpretations of the 30's and 40's Anglo-American philosophers (such as Russell)who spread anti-German sentiment as "their" part in the war machine.

Naturally I think all thinkers and thoughts are open to ridicule. However, I do not think Nietzsche is getting the attention he deserves as a thinker who thought very deeply about how to function intelligently in a morally relative age (which he called Nihilism and we should probably call the Present).

The Goldfish said...

Jess, There's nothing Nietzsche couldn't teach yer... was the other title I was considering for this post. :-)

Petersonion, I do see what you mean; I appreciate that neither eugenics nor anti-Semiitism were Nietzsche's ideas, being common not only in Germany but through Europe at the time. In fact, we're very naive about the extent to which the Nazi's merely took rather commmonly-held ideas to their violent extreme.

Personally, I don't feel that God's "death", as it were, necessarily results in moral relativism. I don't take that view of the present. However, I do concede that Nietzsche was someone who had the courage and intellect to tackle it head on, when others still wriggle away from the matter today. I just don't agree with his conclusions.

Anonymous said...

No doubt that Nietzsche wasn't a superman, but when you look at the size of his moustache you must assume he had super strong neck muscles.

Sage said...

I love that rap, but I do have to agree that Nietzsche was extraordinary in that, while the world around him was quite anti-Semitic, he strongly opposed the very common prejudice:

"The Jews, however, are beyond any doubt the strongest, toughest, and purest race now living in Europe."

He was mis-read, ideas being used out of context, by followers in the Nazi party. He certainly was influential, but it was unintentional.

And master morality isn't so much about doing what you want instead of doing what's right. We should still do what's right, but we must determine right and wrong from a position of power, not from a victim (slave) position. It's a theory that opposes that passive-aggressive "poor me" whining and the insistence that others must help us every step of the way or else they're mean, and implores us to act for ourselves, to step outside of the masses and start to think for ourselves, to take responsibility for the choices we make, instead of blaming others for every little thing.

It's not to say we can choose our starting point; obviously we can't. But we all make many choices in life that we don't fully acknowledge, then blame life for what it's done to us, refusing to recognize the part we played, not acknowledging our own power (because we mistakenly believe power is evil). That's the mentality of the slave.

We should act in our own best interest, but not cause harm in the process (which is a significant stopper to doing whatever we want). A little master/slave comparison here.

The master morality is something anyone can use. It's not limited by physical strength or intelligence, but by an unwillingness to think.

I personally believe it's a healthy attitude to take towards life. The more I take responsibility for my choices, and acknowledge the power I actually have in the world (not total power by any means, but more power than I often resign myself to), the more free I feel. There are a lot of restrictions around me that are outside my control, but never mind that. It's the false restrictions that I put on myself by blindly following social norms that require further scrutiny.

Okay I'll shut up about it now.

Anonymous said...

Hey Goldfish,

I'm trying to recruit participants to my PhD research project, tackling the politics of genetics, disability and reproductive technology. I came across your blog and wondered whether you would like to participate. I think you will be able to make a valuable contribution.

Before you decide, you should be aware what this project involves. I would like to email you with a few simple questions on the topics of my research. These questions will be sent in stages over a period of weeks, so there's no rush and it shouldn't require too much work. The project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and I am based at the University of Sheffield, in the UK.

Feel free to email me n.cimini[AT-sign-here]sheffield.ac.uk if you are interested in taking part or if you have any questions about the research.


Nicholas Cimini