I recently started doing research for my next book. I like to use Google Trends so that I can get a vaguely useful sense of the extent to which people will are interested in learning about a certain subject. I am always fascinated—but never so much as recently—as to what makes it possible that interest in Justin Bieber should endlessly tower over Nietzsche, Foucault, and Aristotle.
Bieber himself has recently become a typical meme-cliché that writers use in their laments about American decadence. Now, I would never argue that certain aspects of American culture do not reek like death. But the point that one should read a serious philosopher, e.g., Nietzsche, Foucault, or Aristotle, rather than listen to Bieber sounds so trite and overused that it is embarrassing to think about making it.
What is philosophy, and why does it matter? Or, what was philosophy, and why does it not? How is it that so many Americans adore role models who are historically insignificant? Is this a ‘bad’ thing?
If this trend is not a concern, then it is at least a question.
I should make the argument that by definition the American celebrity makes a dreadful role model. This is because the celebrity-fan relationship is unidirectional. The fan remains invisible. The American celebrity makes its living by creating a world that seems worth fantasizing about and then selling morsels of the same fantasy it just created. The celebrity naturally gives the impression that the creator of the artwork actually knows something personal about the person who enjoys it. But its song and image are monolithic and so only contain at best a fragile truth.
The celebrity is not necessarily the one who is infatuated, who procures the self with an idol, though many celebrities do idolize themselves. But the celebrity simply creates a framework—one that includes auto-idolatry or does not—according to which they can extract capital from the dubious tendency of many to believe that what they really need is a glimpse at someone else’s way of life. That is key to the transaction. So, what is the expense?
It is no insult to say that most celebrities do not pay close attention. The failure to engage with history and that absorption with their own minor era marks their lack of attentiveness. If no one were self-important, then there would be nothing special about the truth? But why is there something special about the truth? The point of consuming a celebrity is often not to learn something but to feel something—something else.
Would it be wise for philosophers to enter into a dialogue with the Biebers of the world? Plato engaged with his Biebers rather destructively. Why is it that the American public does not hold its philosophers accountable in the same way that the continent does? What are the consequences that philosophy stays so far away from any direct interference with widely accepted social norms?
The upshot of this avoidance is a) the stable, consequentialist ideology and b) the tyranny of the American idols. The consequentualist ideology only has stability because empty idols own it. Who knows what would happen if Nietzsche replaced Bieber. Or even more disturbing, if they mated and spawned a Biebtzsche. Are philosophers too late?
Is this a tyranny? If so, then in what ways can philosophy—particularly academic philosophy—be held responsible for the tyranny of the American idols? What more could the academic journals that so few read possibly have done? On the other hand, what good comes from a mum academy? …and what does the desire to interrogate the idols say about the questioner?
One possible Nietzschean answer is that the questioner feels réssentiment. This French word, Nietzsche appropriated in order to describe a certain emotion that moves marginalized members of a social group to invent new ideals that invert the existing social norms. In our world, the Bieber is the overman—the Biebermensch. What this implies about the American culture that determines the Biebermensch is certainly a striking question. But think of a world in which it were normal for a Bieber-like individual to be an object of universal shame and horror. That could only happen if people—usually outcast moralists—invented schemata according to which certain Biebhaviors were seen as shameful.
I shall say more about Nietzsche’s concept of réssentiment in my next book. It is natural to look askance at the Biebermensch and its devotees and initiates. But would Nietzsche philosophize against the American celebrity with a hammer? Or would he rather challenge the very idolatry that makes it possible to look upon the Bieberish skeptically?
Did Nietzsche live in a world that thought quite as highly of its own accomplishments? Or one that overstated the value of the bygone? How is our world different? How is it similar or the same? An interesting question, one that presumes that the point of philosophy for Nietzsche is not to ‘come to a conclusion’ but to ‘correct an imbalance’. What kind of philosophic medicine—if any—does today’s world require? Is this age too Nietzschean—too Biebtzschean? Are its philosophers serious enough about the consequences of consequentialist self-infatuation?
I don’t know. But it seems important for American academic philosophy to ask itself: what responsibility, if any, does the academic philosopher have to the public? Should the Biebermensch maintain its aurous aura and remain unchallenged?