5.11.2012

The Ethics of Aesthetics, or Judging the World by its Cover


"At this point I cannot suppress a sigh and a last hope. What is it that I especially find utterly unendurable? That I cannot cope with, that makes me choke and faint? Bad air! Bad air! The approach of some ill-constituted thing; that I have to smell the entrails of some ill-constituted soul!" — Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals.

When I was a kid and getting sick, my mother would ask me to breathe on her. I now do the same thing with my kid. Why? Because sickness stinks. There are times in my life when my odor changes and, yes, I find myself stinky (others may, and do, find me stinky all the time). And then I know that something is off, that's something's wrong. We know the world by its stench. 

(Watch a dog who's outside. His nose bends and twitches to the steady flow of odors both familiar and not, making sense of the world as it comes to him. His ears, too, lean this way and that. This is the animal thinking and it's beautiful.)

In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche writes, "What is it, fundamentally, that allows us to recognize who has turned out well? That well-turned-out person pleases our senses, that he is carved from wood that is hard, delicate, and at the same time smells good." 

This is such a deft move that reverses Platonism swiftly, mercilessly, and hilariously — there is something fundamental but it is not hidden, not obscured by the flesh. On the contrary, we are turned out, visible to the world, our entrails hanging out for all to see: we are as we appear.  We are how we make sense of the world, how we digest it. We are metabolic engines, taking in the world, processing it, playing it back. What we choose to take in, how we metabolize it, what we shit out and what becomes our flesh is who we are. (I was always suspicious of rabid Hegelians: what happens to a person who digests all that?)

So when it comes to "The Problem of Socrates," well, "We know, we can still see for ourselves, how ugly he was. But ugliness, in itself an objection, is among the Greeks almost a refutation. Was Socrates a Greek at all? Ugliness is often enough the expression of a development that has been crossed, thwarted by crossing. Or it appears as declining development." (From Twilight of the Idols, if you care.)  Nietzsche dismissed Socrates for being ugly — yes, for his face being ugly, but Nietzsche does not separate this from the ugliness of Socrates' thinking, his relentless negation. (Nietzsche, of course, also loves Socrates — which is why he even feels the need to address him.)

When Nietzsche turns the world inside out, he does not merely reverse priorities making the beautiful moral and the ugly, sin. No, the logic of reversal is the logic of morality, the logic of opposition.  So when he turns morality upside down and human being inside out, he erases opposition, as well. This is a reversal that inaugurates a fundamental reordering.

Nietzsche is not privileging the outside over the inside. He is not the classic aesthete bored with politics and such and just wanting to get his manicure and absinthe. No, Nietzsche gives us something much more thorough, much more devastating: he eliminates the inside all together. There is no inner you. You are what you do, how you go, how you smell. Accidents don't happen to you. You are everything that happens to you.   

This is not shrugging off of all ethical obligation. On the contrary, your responsibility has become total. No more saying, "Why do these things keep happening to me?" They keep happening to you because of how you go. Maybe you can discipline yourself to go differently; maybe you can't. But it's not you doing it to you (as there is no inner agent acting on you); nor is it the world doing it to you. It is just you and how you go in the world — which is redundant as you are how you go in the world. 

Nietzsche's aesthetics is his ethics. His mode of aesthetic assessment is his ethical assessment. He does not judge actions by their principles but by their behaviors, by what they actually do in this world. Consider all those who stand out on street corners with clipboards asking you for money for this or that cause: they may feel ethical as they represent a so-called good cause but, by aesthetic-ethical assessment, they are nudges. (Of course, there may be other ways to conceive standing out there with a clipboard other than morality vs. nudge — it pays, it's social, etc.)  

The entire critical apparatus shifts: not only does Nietzsche introduce aesthetics as his ethics, he critiques ethics aesthetically. That, in fact, is the whole On the Genealogy of Morals — an aesthetic critique of Judeo-Christian morality.  Where it claims superiority, he finds ressentiment, self-loathing, ugliness. He does not assess morality by its claims but by its actions. And they stink

To make sense of the world, to make one's way, does not demand a rigorous moral code, a so-called moral compass. It demands a refined sense of smell.

3 comments:

zero reference said...

Awesome post. I really like this. Don't read much Nietzche, but whenever I do, or when I encounter him interpreted, like here, it is illuminating in the manner which first attracted me to philosophy.

TomG said...

But ugly old Socrates, besides seducing Nietzsche after all, got the prettiest boy.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Zero: Thanks. Read more Nietzsche ± he's hilarious, amongst other things.

@ Tom: A perfect retort. And, as a big nosed ugly Jew — which, to Nietzsche, describes Socrates — I am rooting for Socrates. And am continuously seduced by his mode of seduction — even without his amorous successes.