The Genealogy of Trolling

I’m teaching Nietzsche this semester. I think Genealogy of Morals is the best place to start. At least they are essays! The aphorisms of The Gay Science are the most satisfying, but they are so superficially open to a wide variety of readings, they scatter students every which way. You need people to have a better sense of what Nietzsche is about if you don’t want the aphoristic stuff to turn into just a really fun rorschach test.

Here is my thought for the day: Nietzsche basically thinks morality, good and evil, were invented to enable trolling. That is the value of this value, such as it is. When he says we are decadent, he means Western civilization has turned into an endless comment box, filled with folks trolling. No one has even read the original blog post that set it all off. Eventually the trolls start trolling themselves, for lack of any non-trolls to troll. Trolling the trolls feels like non-trolling, but it’s really just supertrolling. Untermensch als Uberzwerg! (This is Zarathustra’s penultimate insight.) There needs to be some non-trolling way to get past all trolling. The one thing no true troll truly feels is joy, hence Nietzsche’s emphasis on the need to be joyful and affirmative. Also, truth. The one thing every troll pretends to care about. The one thing no troll cares about. Which reminds me: English psychologists, what’s up with that? Are they just sealions, sealioning us? It’s fascinating to ask what truly motivates them! Are they cruel or cunning or simply clueless? Or some combination of all three! Do they know how they look? Also, derp. Philosophy is derpy. This is a key Nietzschean insight. All those footnotes to Plato amount to a flerped herp of derp. Also, the internet as shame culture. “What do you consider the most humane? – To spare someone shame.” Nietzsche would not have liked the way the internet has turned out. In fact, when he complained about democracy, he was really just complaining about the internet. Right?

The serious point here is that Nietzsche is a psychologist. He is at his best when being a shrewd psychologist. And the sorts of subterranean tics and tendencies and moves and motivations he is so preoccupied with have, to a surprising extent – just in the last 10 years or so – become common cultural currency, under the heading ‘trolling’. The internet has made people more cynical and canny and perceptive and articulate about all the sorts of psychological, pseudo-conversational dysfunction and peculiarity that Nietzsche really was, broadly speaking, the first to anatomize. (You can say Rousseau got there first, but I think Nietzsche really nails it, in a way no one ever had before.)

This makes Nietzsche fascinating but in some ways, reading through him now, a bit disappointing. When I first studied Nietzsche and sort of got it about this stuff – felt like I got it anyway – it seemed tremendously vital to me. Now I often feel that the thoughts he so cleverly and wittily expresses are often also cleverly and wittily expressed on the internet by all the many people who are pretty canny about how the internet makes people nuts. What do you think?

Oh, I also have a good idea for teaching Nietzsche via New Yorker cartoons. Basically you take any New Yorker dog cartoon and recognize that it’s, at heart, a Nietzsche joke. It doesn’t always work, but mostly. If it doesn’t work, try this. Substitute the following caption or thought-bubble for the dog: “If they don’t like it, maybe they shouldn’t have been so keen to breed an animal with the right to make promises!” That always gets a laugh!


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