Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Uber Alles

Nietzsche’s übermensch is my typical go-to example of poorly understood abstractions, second maybe to Adam Smith’s invisible hand or Lamarck/Darwin/de Vries’ biological evolution. I may be more inclined to give the author a pass on this point; in part because he was a raving madman by the time Thus Spoke Zarathustra (hereafter referred to as TSZ) reached its final draft, but mostly due to the capricious filter of time and the intentional distortions of partisan fanatics. Instead of a figure unbound by the conventions of tradition and duty, most folks will gleefully conjure an image of a state-sponsored superhero, all agleam in princely regalia, lording over the hoi polloi with a calm, noblesse oblige dignity, a beatific smile, and the machinery of industry crowding the scenery. The übermensch of the popular imagination is personified in comic books as the doughty paragon of virtue or in totalitarian propaganda as either the leader himself, or as is more common the yet-unidentified Heir, the Immanent Man whose glorious path is to be cleared by His dutiful servants (who just happen to wield temporal power for the indefinite future). These images are thoroughly inconsistent with the image conjured in TSZ. I assert that since the 1885 publication of TSZ, the figure that comes closest to capturing the true intent of the übermensch is modern pop singer Ke$ha.

Nazi propaganda aside, consider the context in which Nietzsche lived and wrote. The mid- to late- 19th Century saw the rise of German industry and with it the same economic and cultural turmoil that engulfed the rest of the Continent. Compared to their cousins in the New World, the European existence carried with it legacy institutions: the tattered vestiges of feudalism, the often erratic reach of the Church, the twilight of monarchy, and the caustic grip of the guilds. Combine this with an increasingly assertive labor class, and we have the necessary conditions for the emergence of a new archetype: a metonym for a man not in opposition to the wider mores, but independent of them, orthogonal to both convention and trendy philosophy. Nietzsche’s Prometheus was as unlikely to be a devout Christian as a fiery Socialist. Though the prose was challenging to untangle, even in the original German, it is clear that though the übermensch lives in the context of his times, he is not defined by his opposition to them, but his rejection of them, and ultimately his transcendence of them. Critics of the post-nihilistic aspects of the übermensch have mocked the Galtian (Galtic?)individualism implicit in the trope, perhaps misunderstanding the true nature of the character. Again, the difficulties in untangling the dense, frequently crazy prose can be troublesome, but I interpret no suggestion that the übermensch be anything but an abstraction, a model, a Platonic ideal. The disdainful rejection of Christianity by TSZ’s avatar is, at its root, not that different from Nietzsche’s recurring contempt for the ascetic aesthetic. The aversion to noble and king that permeates the text is typical of a more generalized contrariness that notes that man-in-wilderness is suffused with a vigor absent in bureaucratic arrangements. The all-too-human would be as at home in a Lockean as a Hobbesian wilderness; he bumps and grinds on the pockmarked back of Leviathan, guzzling cheap wine and taking earthly pleasure without being consumed by the Beast. To see the perilous parkour present in his pleasurable prancing on the beast’s broad back, examine the following stylized facts and see where we can find a good match.

1. The übermensch exists apart from conventional morality. In the 19th Century Germany, this was the set space defined by the intersection of the main (Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, Jewish) religious traditions, legacy feudal norms, and emerging bourgeois virtues. This is not to say that the übermensch is diametrically opposed to such morality, but divorced from it, unencumbered by either the need to obey or the desire to intentionally flaunt.

2. The übermensch is hedonistic. This is a corollary of (1), as Nietzsche’s great gripe with Christianity was the culture of self-denial. He saw no middle ground between denial and gratification; a man could either suppress or indulge his whims. If mention is made of anhedonia in Nietzsche’s works, it is almost certainly conflated with asceticism. For practical purposes, we can safely assume that the übermensch has a strictly increasing utility function in earthly pleasures.

3. The übermensch is beyond an antichrist. This is another often-puzzling neologism of Nietzsche’s design. In his world, belief in God was immaterial to the extent that belief didn’t adjudicate behavior. An antichrist reviles and rejects the aspects of Christianity that Nietzsche thinks corrupts and weakens the natural human spirit. The übermensch has progressed beyond this to the extent that he dismisses the idea of God as childish fantasy, no different than the Tooth Fairy and worship of such a deity akin to writing letters to Santa. The übermensch has drawn back the curtain on the world and found the wizard wanting. To strain the analogy, he decides to just stroll through Oz rather than douse the witch and click his heels back to the Dust Bowl.

4. The übermensch is not affiliated with the state. As with religious considerations, concerns of secular authorities lie in his null set. The übermensch will not take up arms to defend trite traditions or arbitrary political boundaries. The übermensch does not seek office, does not supplicate for rents, does not beg protection. He is his own patron, his own ward, his own tribe. This stylized fact alone restricts the head count of possible living übermenschen, since there is no escaping collective action problems without completely returning to a savage state of nature. A certain reading might suggest a bit of a paradox here: hedonism is best fulfilled with the trappings of capitalism: well-functioning capital markets, sensible legal institutions, all that jazz, but there must be a politically vested class capable of maintaining order and protecting property rights. By definition, this class cannot be populated by übermenschen, and I suspect Nietzsche sensed this contradiction, setting TSZ in the tone of the Tao Te Ching or The Odyssey, as the saga of an individual in lieu of his otherwise preferred treatise (rant, if you’re feeling unkind).

So what does the stylized übermensch resemble? These stylized characteristics leave us quite a few degrees of freedom. We have the broad strokes of a proto-Randian hero, unbound by feeble concerns for charity, perhaps a titan of industry, well-dressed and fit, striking deals, and deftly avoiding needlesome pestering by pudgy, pale proletarian bureaucrats. Perhaps we have this, but we might also have a marvelously astute arbitrageur, recklessly exploiting a narrow window of opportunity, winking through the rip in the social fabric she’s using to siphon masses of treasure from a cowed public.

TSZ really points back to the Fool of the tarot. The disconnected ciper, the Uncarved Block, the Last Gunslinger all hearken to a similar idea: the clay from which übermenschen are thrown. The final product need look no more like the Galtian paragon than a drinking cup need resemble Waterford crystal. What we’re left with is closer to a traditional maximization problem in economics, subject to some unorthodox constraints. The objective function is actually almost exactly what we start with in the textbooks: utility as a function, positive in consumption, negative in labor. The narrow calculus used to maximize this function actually makes the other stylized facts redundant: concerns over religion, charity, the state, or the brotherhood of man are all orthogonal to the utility function: they simply never enter the decision process. Our agent is optimizing the C/L ratio, nothing more. All we need to find is someone who has chosen to exploit an opportunity for self-oriented gain. My preferred candidate for exemplar of this strategy is pop singer Ke$ha.

Finding a musician who fits the stylized characteristics is child’s play. Fill an auditorium with half-baked acts and throw a dart blindfolded. You’re almost guaranteed to wound someone who doesn’t give a rip about the Church or the State. You’re unlikely to hit someone without so much as a shred of talent though. Nor are you particularly likely to puncture the sleeve of people who didn’t work their fingers to the bone to get where they are (yes, there are some pop stars who were just plain lucky, but don’t let your availability bias fool you: they’re few and far between). I would be willing to bet that if that auditorium contained people who had no discernible talent, and had exerted little effort to get where they are, you’d be looking at no more than a handful of acts. Of these, we might find the (early) Sex Pistols (though I might argue that the young John Lydon certainly paid his dues living in Thatcher’s squalor), Kris Kross, or any given reality star-turned-singer the world is likely to see. I would counter with the observation that these acts either grew into something wonderful (the Sex Pistols transcended conventional definitions of art and Lydon proved his chops definitively in PIL), amounted to mere one hit wonders, or just flopped commercially. That, or they attempted to just outright cheat (Milli Vanilli), and reaped the ill harvest of their iniquity. I can think of no other act that put forward so little effort, flaunted convention, and has managed to achieve commercial success the way Ke$ha has. I shouldn’t have to address how blisteringly insipid her lyrics are, or the Krogeresque pedestrianism of her backing tracks. True, other “artists” have relied heavily on autotune to either mask the inability to sing or to generate vocal effects otherwise impossible to reproduce using the natural voice, but none among the ranks of chart-toppers can rival her brilliant combination of aggressive stupidity, wrenching assonance, dismal profanity, and palpable ineptitude. Her music is a naked, unapologetic loogie in the eye of good taste, and she’s caterwauling all the way to her stockbroker’s doubtless tastefully appointed chambers.

More than anything, it’s the string of conditional probability that makes Ke$ha so unlikely, and probably not to be repeated. Her commercial success is proof positive that we’re living in a Hansonian Dreamtime, where our per-capita wealth is so staggeringly high that we can afford to lavish wealth on those who not only fail to provide evidence of talent, but who baldly write large their infantile spasms, in ham-fisted crayon, flatulent and troglodytic all the while. She is the anti-Banksy and our duly appointed usher into a new age.

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