The Observer

In the third essay of On Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche explores the meaning of ascetic ideals, digging a tunnel straight to their very core, seeking to discover all the other channels that spring from that source, all the other manifestations of it. The typical application of the ascetic ideal lies in the priest or the monk, whether in Western Christianity or in Eastern Buddhism, who attempts to relieve the suffering and despair of life through a process of abstaining, a process of denying their impulses, a process of disconnecting from Necessity. The specific “treatments” vary across religions and cults, but the objective is the same: to overcome suffering by channeling their will into themselves, against themselves, against the one thing they feel they can control. The application of this ascetic ideal is a sort of violence towards one’s own will, twisting it, denying it, at times letting it loose, followed by a cleansing of guilt and further repression, but the result is a form of temporary, and sometimes long lasting, relief. Through such treatments a form of vegetative state is achieved that lies between life and death, a state in which one is not ready to surrender everything, but is unwilling to participate in full – a state of limbo in which one waits for a better world. Having lost control over the world around it, the will, still craving for power, turns on itself, and wills nothingness.

Having found the core, Nietzsche looks once again upwards, at the many other tunnels leading from it. Here, looking past our archetypical priest, we discover the many other manifestations of the ascetic ideal, pursuits that mask their foundation so well that they appear to have nothing to do with it. One curious example is the scientist – a role that appears to be the very opposite of the priest. The scientist has done away with religion, ripping away the mysterious facade that was covering and hiding the ascetic ideal, and in place he put up… nothing. There is no longer a facade, no longer any pretense – the ascetic ideal, placed before our very eyes, has become invisible to us, having nothing over it that might arouse suspicion and invite further investigation. The scientist pursues his work for its own ends, never questioning the existence or the meaning of that elusive Truth for which he strives. Man used to believe that the celestial bodies revolved around the Earth, yet now we’ve discovered that this is not so. Man used to believe that he was the descendant of the gods, or of God, yet now we learn that this is not so. In its work, science gives man his “place” in the world – or rather, puts him in his place – a minuscule layer of scum over a tiny blue dot in an immeasurably vast universe. Man no longer needs to will himself into nothingness, he can discover it.

Another interesting case is that of the historian. In pursuing the ascetic ideal, modern historians have done away with taking sides, have done away with forming their own judgements and writing their own critiques – now they simply observe and describe. In short, the highest aspiration of the modern historian is to become a “mirror”, a brainless apparatus for reflecting and transcribing – as Nietzsche puts it: “a sad, hard, but determined gaze – an eye which looks out, as an isolated Arctic explorer looks out (perhaps in order not to look in? in order not to look back?…)” To form judgements is to have a will towards something. Denying the ability to judge reduces the historian to a form of existence that is afraid both of death and of life. When one does not pass judgements, when one does not interpret, when one does not care which way the events turn, one gains a sense of relief – a relief from making mistakes, a relief from having to suffer failure.

I see much the same in today’s world of journalism. The journalists have erected a facade over the ascetic ideal they call “objectivity”, a way to escape having to make any judgements of their own. This is not the sort of cold objectivity employed by the scientist, merely a false sense of objectivity obtained by covering “all sides” of the story, a sort of “objectivity” one gets from using scales to weigh opposing ideas, a pursuit not of Truth – which, unlike the scientist, the journalist does not care for, the scales being more a tool to their liking than a microscope – but of equal representation. No time is wasted looking for evidence to support or disprove a hypothesis, in journalism one merely has to look for different opinions, and once they’re found, to simply present them. The work of the journalist no longer lies in finding the “truth” of the matter but in giving you the information to make up your own mind, the former being labelled as biased and undesirable. By no means should the journalist attempt to take sides – they’re there merely to report. In this way journalist is relieved of all the difficult work, of all the unpleasantries of having to pass judgements and being invested in outcomes, and, above all, of having to make mistakes, of having to fail. The scientist finds solace in the cold objectivity of evidence. The journalist, having the problem of balancing subjective ideas, finds solace in the “objectivity” of his scales.

The journalist of today has big eyes, big ears, big nose, and a big mouth, but no brain. The moment something happens all these organs come into action, pushing out endless stream of reports after reports of what is happening around them. No pause for reflection, no pause for fact checking, no pause for judgement, no pause for analysis, no pause to consider the importance of what’s being said and why it’s being said and why the audience should care about it. The journalist has a sense of what the audience wants – having been trained throughout the years by a process of trial and error – their nose can sniff out a palatable story from miles away, and, having caught a promising scent, they will engage in a relentless pursuit of their prey, until… until something else comes along, and they don’t have to wait long for that.

The modern journalist is yet another manifestation of the ascetic ideal. In reducing himself from an active participant to a mere eye, from an actor to a mere observer, the journalist elevates themselves above the world, they disconnect themselves from the world. They see, they talk, but they don’t act, for to act one must first judge, and to judge is to invest themselves in the course of events. This vegetative observer gains relief from having to suffer change – from going against change, and experiencing the misery of failing. Not wanting to be whirled around the wheel of life, they sever the rope that ties them to its spokes. They cannot restrain it now, nor push it forward, but at the very least they are no longer so tightly bound to Fate, with all the joys and sorrows it may bring. The timid spirit of the ascetic journalist resigns itself to a mellow existence, an existence that finds calm in a blinding fog of noise, suppressing their sorrows in the sea of soma they themselves produce.

August 2013