Who is Niezy?
by Sam Kriss
You could pretend it’s a game. Christmas is nearly here, and in the pale lazy brandy-soaked hours after dinner, you can sprawl around with your strange friends or your spiteful family and play a fun game of Who’s Nietzsche? There aren’t really any rules as such, but the game goes like this. In the first days of January 1889, the people of Turin might have one of the modern age’s greatest philosophers on the street, dashing lopsidedly between his front door and the city post office, a weird little man hurrying with his weird little letters. It’s unlikely that anyone would have recognised Nietzsche, but he wasn’t really Nietzsche any more. In some of those letters – sent to his friends, to the King of Italy, to the Grand Duke of Baden and his family, to ‘the illustrious Pole’ – the weird little man identified himself as the Buddha. The Buddha had holes in his boots. Several were signed by ‘The Crucified.’ Jesus wore a threadbare coat. In a letter to Cosima Wagner, widow of the great composer, he identified himself as her dead husband – but also as Alexander, Caesar, Shakespeare, and Napoleon. ‘What is unpleasant and a strain to my modesty,’ he wrote in another note, ‘is that in fact I am every historical personage.’ These were Nietzsche’s last written works. A few of the recipients of these letters, full of pious concern, quickly intervened: they had him carted away to a clinic in Switzerland. When Nietzsche died in 1901, it was after a decade of feverish silence.
To play the game, all you have to do is take Nietzsche at his word. Say he really was Caesar and Napoleon and all the rest of them. ‘I am Prado, I’m also Prado’s father.’ A genius, reborn endlessly through time, fated to violently remake the world in his own image and then watch as it dissolves back into goo, before he can return to mould it again. And why should the cycle have ended in 1900? Maybe Zarathustra has come back down from his mountain to preach to us again; maybe the incarnation of the living Nietzsche walks among us. If you had to identify someone as a candidate, who would it be?
There are plenty of wannabe prophets around these days, but none of them really fit the bill. We can definitely eliminate all those slovenly Silicon Valley techno-futurists, the ones waiting for a superintelligent artificial intelligence to pluck them out of their greasy bungalows and their greasy gangly bodies and the whole greasy mess of physical reality, so they can play video games forever and never have to log off. Backwordsmen, all of them. God is dead, said Nietzsche, horrified by the enormity of deicide. Who can replace Him? The prophets of the singularity want to replace Him with a big calculator. Not one of them were Caesar or Napoleon.
The same goes for all your favourite political prophets, the Jordan Petersons or Ben Shapiros, or whichever other rat-faced wimp is thrown up by the hidden telluric waves of smugness and outrage into general consciousness. Everything these people say is basically resolvable to a whine, and the content of that whine is always it’s not fair. Something has gone wrong in the last few decades; their face-stamping boot is now on someone else’s foot, and they’d like it back please. Slave morality! Smallness! Lice crawling over the corpse of modernity, as if gnawing its flesh could give over the grandeur of those bones! But it’s not any of the saprophages on the other side either, any yaas-kween clapback af woke embarrassment. True, these people tend to utterly despise the name of Nietzsche while unknowingly echoing his more brutal thoughts (‘the argument against a stupid head is a clenched fist’), which is a positive sign, and they at least speak like a master – this is mine by right, but this is not for you, Becky – but they insist on polluting it with the language of justice. If nothing else, it’s dishonest. All too human.
Maybe a better candidate is Elon Musk, who does at the very least appear to have gone genuinely mad, with some impressive delusions of grandeur, and who’s managed to cough up a few suitable weird aphorisms. ‘I would like to die on Mars,’ he once said, and it’s quite a Nietzschean sentiment, as long as you assume that the sole reason he keeps boosting Mars exploration is so he can step off his spaceship, the first man on an alien world, and then keel over on the landing ramp, instantly dead. Sadly, that’s probably not the case. All of Musk’s most quotable quotes have to do with parsimony and efficiency, energy-saving and calculation. Nietzsche had his number; he saw through the fake bluster of rationalism: ‘The objective man is in truth a mirror accustomed to prostration before everything that wants to be known.’ He’s never encountered the terror of infinite return. Besides, Zarathustra could never have shareholders. So who’s left? You? Me? Don’t make me croak bitterly into my clotted cream. The world is starved. We’re nothing. We’re the Last Men. We sit around with our belts fatly loosened, and wonder who the prophet might be, and blink.
In the end, Who’s Nietzsche? isn’t a very good game. Not because there’s no answer, and therefore no point, but because the answer is so obvious. We know Nietzsche is back; he’s been back for fifteen years, and he’s been saying so himself. How could it have ever been anyone other than Kanye West?
* * *
Kanye and Nietzsche are identical twins, stranded across time. Both love to proclaim their genius, as if it weren’t already evident. Both are propelled by a kind of expansive asexuality, both speak in quick aphorisms with barbed punchlines. Both have the same audacity of gesture, making Zoroaster an immoralist or sampling Strange Fruit to talk about insta thots. Both are in a sense unbearable – overflowing and tyrannical, as if we can’t see, as if it’s not obvious that all their grandstanding is just compensating for some private lack. Kanye spouts strange drivel, apparently oblivious to the fact that he’s not in on his own joke. Nietzsche thunders vitality with the cycles of the universe, as if we don’t know how skinny his chest is, or about his syphilis, his indigestion, his migraines, his rot. They swagger in time with one another, and with the same manic hollowness. There’s a tendency to wade into areas of which they know absolutely nothing. Kanye has his ill-judged political interventions. Nietzsche, strangely, has music. ‘There has never been a philosopher,’ he writes, ‘who has been in his essence a musician to such an extent as I am.’ (Kanye, meanwhile, has announced himself as a philosopher. Do you see now?) As a birthday gift, Nietzsche sent the sheet music for his own compositions to Richard and Cosima Wagner. You can listen to his music yourself, if you want. It’s terrible. Not the parping bombast you’d expect, but something basically sterile, imitating all of the basic features of music and sticking very carefully to the rules, music that would be strangely Apollonian if it weren’t also subtly, maddeningly wrong. Wagner had to excuse himself during the performance of his gift; he was found in another room, on the floor, laughing hysterically. Kanye should have stuck to music; Nietzsche should have stuck to not-music. But neither of them will be bounded, not even by their own talent.
If you wanted to be pedantic, you could list all the times that Kanye and Nietzsche have said the same thing – not repeating each other, but each of them saying it again and for the first time. ‘I am Warhol. I am Shakespeare in the flesh.’ Sound familiar? ‘Early in the morning,’ writes Kanye, ‘at break of day, in all the freshness and dawn of one’s strength, to read a book – I call that viciousness!’ And Nietzsche echoes: ‘I would never want a book’s autograph. I am a proud non-reader of books.’ In 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Nietzsche unveils the consummating death, the festival death, the death that comes at the right time. Clearly, he’s quoting Yeezy’s Zarathustra: ‘Now this will be a beautiful death.’ Open the book to section fourteen: ‘Be at least mine enemy! How many of us? How many jealous?’ Who challenges us to name one genius who ain’t crazy? Who knows that one must still have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star? They both chorus: ‘I am God, and this farce is my creation.’ And while they’re not the only madmen to have summarily deified themselves, for the last twenty centuries all the other pretenders have only tried to be the Judge of a trembling Abraham. Kanye and Nietzsche aren’t so tedious. They are Dionysus, the god of farce, frenzy, and screams.
What really distinguishes them is that both Nietzsche and Kanye are simply not interested in negation. They have no time for the dialectic, for opposites, for non-being: the world screams in bright colours, and everything in it must be affirmed. This is not quite the same as being positive. Someone like Hegel or Beyonce can accept the existence of evil or finitude because it’s necessary for the eventual triumph of good. That’s easy. Nietzsche and Kanye are driven to embrace everything. Not just because it marks a necessary historical stage comprehensible to absolute reason, not just because the darkness makes the light shine brighter, but in the fullness of its monstrosity. They go about this in slightly different ways. Nietzsche has eternal return, Kanye has his universal love for everyone and everything. (Not as different as they might appear. As Deleuze, who understood Nietzsche pretty well for a philosopher, puts it, ‘laziness, stupidity, baseness, cowardice or spitefulness that would will its own eternal return would no longer be the same laziness, stupidity etc. How does the eternal return perform the selection here? It is the thought of the eternal return that selects.’ And see how Kanye’s universal love functions: it transforms the world, refracting it via infinity, into something more loveable – so long as it’s met.) But they end up at the same place. Nietzsche throwing his arms over a sad dumb cart-horse, a plodding embodiment of the smallness and meekness he was supposed to despise. And Kanye, with a red hat on, embracing President Trump. So why were people so surprised? Did they really expect Dionysus to have good taste?
* * *
Kanye West’s brief flirtation with right-wing politics was many things, but it was not political. ‘I attack only causes that are victorious,’ he writes. ‘I attack causes only when there are no allies to be found, when I am standing alone – when I am compromising myself alone.’ Call it contrarianism if you want; at least it’s an ethos. And here he really did stand alone. Yes, he stood alone in embracing a political power that is, in fact, victorious, that commands the terrifying blinkered loyalty of millions, that kidnaps children, locks them in cages, and traumatises them for life, that commits regular and cowardly airborne massacres, that confronts the desperate with military calcifications against the border and chemical weapons for fleeing children – but those weren’t the terms in which Kanye embraced Trump. There are people who like the goblins of power precisely because they’re willing to carry out this violence. Kanye is not one of them. When he says he likes Trump because they both have dragon energy, he means it.
He stood alone in the White House with history’s greatest monster because while distant and silent psychopaths might enjoy his atrocities, Kanye’s doxa – that of Hollywood, hip-hop, and haute couture – is populated by a different type of psychopath altogether. Since Trump’s election, the vast culture-engine has been seized by a frenzy of contradiction. All it can do is watch what the government is doing, and scream no. (Not that there isn’t any determinate element: the hope is that if you say no to Trump loudly enough, the whole system will rebalance itself along the lines of a healthy Third Way liberalism. Good luck.) The fame factories spill huddled clouds of abstract negation. Slicks of negativity wash up against the beaches, cinders of cancellation creak and crackle over the hills. This stuff is absolutely hegemonic, even if it’s not politically efficacious – observe all the dark muttering that surrounded Taylor Swift (Kanye’s eternal Apollonian opposite) for her quite reasonable refusal to broadcast her opinions, and note how quickly she was lauded after caving in and endorsing a few right-wing Democrats like everyone else. How brave.
And Nietzsche is not interested in the negative. What he saw in Trump was a living principle of positivity, to which all the sour Puritan liberals in his new neighbourhood were glumly opposed – and there, at least, he wasn’t wrong. Look at what he actually said in the White House. ‘There was something about when I put this hat on that made me feel like Superman.’ Insurgent affirmationism; the power of flight. Or consider this: what kind of right-wing Trumpist installs himself in front of the great shit-eater himself to declare how much he loves Hillary Clinton?
The prophet always knew that he would be misinterpreted. ‘I have a terrible fear that one day I shall be considered holy.’ The fear was well-placed. At the end of October, Kanye West appeared to walk back his short flirtation with the right. ‘My eyes are now wide open,’ he wrote, ‘and now realise I’ve been used to spread messages I don’t believe in. I am distancing myself from politics and completely focusing on being creative.’ He was right; he had been used, in the same way that he had once been used by the murderous cabbage-fart dullards of the Third Reich. What could someone as magnificently sincere as Kanye West have in common with a smirking con artist like Candace Owens or the hosts of Fox News? Did his new boosters on the right really think he now supported public-sector austerity, state repression against the poor, corporate tax relief, tariffs on raw materials as a geopolitical bargaining tool, and everything else that slops along the sewer of conservative thought? He stood alone, despite these sycophants, or because of them. They can only have been cynical or deluded, and my money’s on cynical. They saw someone they could parasite themselves on, and, parasites that they are, they took the opportunity. But the left had nothing to gain from what they did. What’s their excuse?
* * *
The liberal mainstream’s attempted Dixie-Chicks-ing of Kanye West might be the most shameful and transparent moment in media history since the Iraq War. Everyone knew that when he called for the repeal of the 13th Amendment, he was talking about prison abolition – but it’s so much more gratifying to pretend to think he wanted slaves in the fields again. The worst are those who understand perfectly well what he was saying, but reserve the right to grab their pitchforks anyway, because he was being – unforgivable! – tone-deaf. Of course he was! He’s Kanye West! Why should he be subject to this ghastly new Victorian refinement? Why is it that the people who yap fuck civility at every opportunity are always the same trilling bourgeois cyber-matrons who spend their lives guarding against every potentially scandalous gesture, every fluctuation in the vagaries of tone?
But the tone has changed. See, for instance, how a popular music website – I won’t name it, because it’s no worse than any of the others, but yes, it’s obviously the one you’re thinking of – responded to his last two albums. 2016’s The Life of Pablo was – let’s be honest – a sloppy and unfinished effort, not without its frequent moments of brilliance but basically thin, thrown-together, and fallow. The reviewer manages to spin this into an act of profound Dadaist brilliance: album as objet trouvé. ‘The universe is a trick of the light, and we’re nothing but a figment in a higher being’s imagination. Nothing is as it seems, nothing is safe from revision, and nothing lasts.’ In other words, don’t you see what he’s doing? It’s not crap, it’s a statement about crapness. 2018’s ye was, by contrast, something far stronger: his Ecce Homo, a searing document of a man’s battle for recognition against himself, and a fully Nietzschean broadside against the deformation of the ideal subject in a time of scurrying smallness. ‘See, if I was trying to relate it to more people, I’d probably say I’m struggling with loving myself because that seems like a common theme. But that’s not the case here. I love myself way more than I love you.’ And what does our reviewer make of it? ‘Seven tracks he farted out to meet his arbitrarily self-imposed deadline… an album born from chaos for chaos’ sake, an album that can barely be bothered to refer to that chaos with anything more committal than a Kanye shrug.’
You may have noticed that the analysis of the two albums is identical in its particulars; only the valence has changed. Poptimsism was always a sham; you never really thought there was any actual liberatory potential in pop culture. If 2016 Kanye releases a hasty and provisional album, it’s an act of secret brilliance. If 2018 Kanye uses a photo he took on the way to his album’s launch party as its cover art, then he’s just a freewheeling asshole. What’s changed? There are plenty of plausible interpretations, but the most legible is this: it’s because Kanye went to the White House and hugged it out with Donald Trump. He took the side of the absolute negation of everything good and true, and it burned through his form. Or, to put it less charitably: in 2016 the received opinion was that he was brilliant if sometimes embarrassing, so we liked his music; now, everyone thinks he has dodgy politics, so we don’t. He’s bad now, tainted, and if we don’t wash our hands furiously enough we’ll get tainted too. (The politics of purity and contagion, it should be noted, are always deeply conservative, verging on fascist; far more reactionary than a red hat or a monologue about iPhones in the Oval Office.) What was it Kanye West said, a long time ago, about how the will to truth is a mask, about how ‘the greater part of conscious thinking must be counted among the instinctive functions’? Do these people know that they’re being dishonest? Clearly not, otherwise they wouldn’t have exposed the underbelly of panicked self-preservation that trembles beneath our system of cultural values. Nietzsche’s affirmationist contranianism might be juvenile, but the one who’s unwilling to deeply compromise themselves is infinitely worse. Here is your own dishonesty, they whimper, here it is scrubbed of difference. Please don’t kill me.
* * *
There is, of course, a second acceptable response to Kanye’s antics, which is to note that he’s clearly mentally ill, and we shouldn’t make the situation any worse by paying attention to him. This is, at least, not entirely untrue. We know Kanye West is suffering from mental illness, because he’s told us. He told us in 2016, when he mentioned that he had been prescribed Lexapro, a selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor. He told us in 2012, when he discussed suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts. In one unreleased song, he provided an extensive list of the psychiatric symptoms he suffers from. ‘Do you experience nervousness or shakiness inside, faintness and dizziness? The idea that someone else can control your thoughts. Feeling others are to blame for most of your thoughts. Feeling afraid in open spaces or in public. Thoughts of ending your life.’ We’ve known for a very long time, and the general response was to lionise him for speaking up and starting a conversation about mental health, which is now the only thing that an alienated society knows to do with its mad. We saw him interrupt live shows with bizarre rants, alienate those close to him, behave in ways that would be troubling if someone you actually knew and loved started exhibiting them – and we politely applauded. (It didn’t help that the people who had a problem with it were almost uniformly obnoxious, untroubled by fifty years of rock-star narcissism but violently upset by the same stuff coming from a black man. You don’t want to give ground to them.) But as soon as there’s the suggestion that these symptoms might take on a political dimension, the approach suddenly shifts. Disengage, block it out, seal it off, silence him, mock him if you feel like it – but make sure his madness stops speaking itself, and make sure it’s no longer heard. For his own good, of course. But why?
Possibly the most depressing image I’ve ever seen is a poster produced by the New York City Health Department as part of its ‘Choose the Best Words’ campaign. For a while, the things were everywhere in the city, plastered up like the banners of a dictatorial cult. The point is to teach people what to say and what not to say to friends who are suffering from mental health issues. Two cartoon figures on a basketball court. One is slumped over on the bench. The other says I know exactly how you feel. These are the wrong words, of course; you can tell, because they’ve been crossed out. The right words are Hey. Want to talk? Third panel, and the response: Thanks for talking, I feel better now. So what the hell happened in between? Thirty seconds of static? The right words are the vague notion of ‘talking,’ talking about talking, speaking up talkingly. The wrong words are, apparently, any actual specific instance of speech. How do we solve the mental health crisis? By feeding it to the discourse-monster, by flattening it into something that can shimmer on the surface of discursive life with all the other signifiers. Freudianism, once shucked off by psychopharmacology, returns – except now there’s no analyst, just your friends, press-ganged into the role of unpaid mental health nurse. Now, the latency that needs expression is only the empty form of latency. Now the talking-cure functions without anything ever being said.
Contemporary mental health discourse is founded on the exclusion of the particularity of madness itself; it effects a facile resolution of madness to sanity, and declares its work done in the gesture of equivalence. (It’s true, obviously, that those we call mad are just those who aren’t assimilable to the neurotic mutilation of ordinary subjects – but that non-assimilability remains.) The mad have become, somehow, an identity group. Something like race, which has no prior existence outside of the repressive and historically contingent categories of racism. A form, engaged in the differential contest of hollow forms. The mad must speak up, represent our subject-position, communicate, and be listened to. The fact that madness profoundly problematises speech and the subject doesn’t enter into it. A mania for form, a terror of content. (Online writing, it’s true, is routinely referred to as content – but all this means is that it’s a shapeless fluid, transparent and undifferentiated, whose function is only to ensure that all pre-existing forms are duly filled.) This is why mental health advocates are always calm and seemingly stable: they have anxiety or depression, but almost never psychosis, schizophrenia, any madness that might make their TV appearances too incomprehensible or too grimly fascinating.
Nietzsche, who is not a dialectician, has very little to say about form and content. What he does talk about is style. When he comes to reflect on the composition of his Zarathustra – the MBDTF of philosophy – he finds its first seeds in ‘a second birth within me of the art of hearing.’ His thought is solidified music: words and paragraphs are not a neutral container into which propositional content might be slotted and then maybe withdrawn. Styles are multiple, but the presence of one or another style is fundamental to the project; meaning is a property of what he calls ‘the tempo of the signs.’ A semiology without linguistics. (It’s probably not insignificant that parrots, the only other animals to make use of human speech, also dance for pleasure.) In Beyond Good and Evil (the first draft of 808s & Heartbreak): ‘There is art in every good sentence – art that must be figured out if the sentence is to be understood!’ See how Nietzsche’s thought limps when denuded of its style; listen to Heidegger glossing him. ‘Truth is the essence of the true; the true is that which is in being; to be in being is to be that which is taken as constant and fixed.’ Unrecognisable, pedantic, tautologous; a philosophy that’s become so gratingly German. As soon as you stop talking in dithyrambs, you no longer understand Becoming. It’s not Heidegger’s fault; he was more sensitive to the buried iceberg-weight of words than most. (Elsewhere in his seminars on Nietzsche, he argues very clearly that ‘to relegate the animated, vigorous word to the immobility of a univocal, mechanically programmed sequence of signs would mean the death of language and the petrification and devastation of Dasein.’) It’s just that attempts to translate Nietzsche into the ordinary language of philosophy always, always fail. Dumb teenage nihilists who think they’re the Overman understand him better than distinguished scholars of nineteenth-century thought, and Kanye West understands him best of all, despite never having read a word of his books. It’s in the style, the movement of it: he is his twin in the art of hearing.
(Derrida, it must be noted, disagrees. A style, he writes, is ‘a long object, an oblong object, a word, which perforates even as it parries.’ A stylus, a lance or a needle, a pen. ‘But, it must not be forgotten, it is also an umbrella.’ Style shelters that which is enclosed by it, and Derrida holds up as an instance of unstyled text a note in Nietzsche’s unpublished margins: ‘I have forgotten my umbrella.’ Meaning, it would seem, without art. Nietzsche is no longer compensating for his lacks with grandiloquence and fury, just baldly stating what is not there. That pure presence has been withdrawn from him. He has forgotten who he is, and so he scrabbles through space and time to find new answers. But what, in the end, is Nietzsche without his umbrella? A man in a clinic. Only silence.)
This was what agonised Kanye’s critics: they couldn’t separate the ‘real’ or healthy man, the part of him they were supposed to like, from the part that had gone awry. They couldn’t extricate worthy content from a maddened style. Not even conceptually; all they could do was temporalise. How did we get from ‘George Bush doesn’t care about black people’ to this? Yes, there’s been a Becoming, but he has only ever become what he is. You can’t really like his music while hating his political interventions; they’re all swirled together. Kanye’s madness refuses to play by the rules that have been set for the mad. It’s not an abstract subject-position, but something positively articulated and in the fullness of its being. And as madness usually does, all this offends the sensibilities of a bourgeoisie anxious for its moral self-preservation. So Kanye’s friends do what Kanye’s friends did all those years ago in 1889: they try to shut him up, to cart him away to a mountainous silence, for his own good.