How Ferguson is teaching me Nietzsche

When Obama was elected President in 2008, I was living in Paris. When I woke up to discover he had won the election, I marched outside with a big grin on my face to encounter a dreary autumn day, with every Frenchie rushing to work as if it were any other Wednesday of the year. I wanted to tell every passerby that I was American — an urge to confess something that was typically considered shameful — just so they could understand my joy. I felt abandoned with my feelings, without a community of revelers to celebrate with.

I have a similar urge these days. Here in California, I want to tell everyone I pass by that I’m from Missouri. I grew up in the St. Louis Metropolitan area, an area that includes Ferguson, an area whose segregation between City/County, North/South, Black/White I know pretty well. I want to tell people this so they will start talking about the riots and we can help explain it together. I feel abandoned here with my feelings, away from the protestors and looters to riot with.

For the past week, all I’ve been doing is following twitter, reading updated news stories, listening to 3-minute segments on NPR, watching live feeds on-line. All while I”m supposed to be preparing to teach “Dreams, Nightmares and Fantasies,” an undergrad class at a real 4-year university that starts next week. I inherited this class from someone smarter than me who included excerpts from Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. In between Ferguson news updates, I’ve been scanning the text trying to make sense of it.

I get that why this text has been useful is because Nietzsche discusses dreams and its relation to art — of particular interest to these undergrad art students I’m hired to teach. He distinguishes between two kinds of art — the plastic and music — and their accompanying Greek Gods — Apollo, the “shining” god of dreams and illusions and Dionysus, the demonic god of ecastic joy and destruction. What I couldn’t quite make out was Nietzsche’s stance in relation to these opposing forces: Apollo seems to be the more stable of the two, but he is aligned with mere appearance; although he is a “soothsayer,” what he speaks the truth about is fantastical in nature.  “He,” writes Nietzsche, “who is the ‘shining one,’ the deity of light, is also ruler over the beautiful illusion of the inner world of fantasy.” So, how is Apollo both truthful and fantastic?

Dionysus, on the other hand, I kind of got. He’s a bestial god of raves and riots who expresses not so much what people think, but what they experience. The dionysian spirit taps into a rawness that is beyond thought. You could call this the Freudian “Death Drive,” or the Lacanian “Real,” or Ferguson “looting” and “violence” and “thuggery.” For all the reasonable discourse one could be having about race in America and the militarization of local police forces, the kind of after-curfew violence that  even the ever-vigilant Antonio French can’t calm is stemming from a place that can’t be reasoned with. In the way that I teach intro theory students — that you cannot confuse the individual CEO with the institutional “capitalist,” or the individual police officer with institutional police practices, that ideology works through but also beyond any individual subject therein — we also can’t confuse individual “looters” with this surge of violence that has found its release from the unexpected event of Michael Brown’s murder. The participants of violent expression do not care for our approval or reasonableness. Their acts — while they may be becoming more “organized” — are not any less dionysian, not any less “self-forgetful.” One forgets one’s individual boundaries and becomes caught up in something larger: “not only is the union between man and man reaffirmed, but nature which has become alienated, hostile, or subjugated, celebrates once more her reconciliation with her lost son.”

Once I started thinking of the dionysian nature of the nightly protests, Apollo started making more sense.  Stuck between their community and the police force, the local peace-keepers demonstrate an inability to find the words to convince the midnight carousers to maintain their calm. These well-intentioned, “shining” figures command, and perhaps deserve, our admiration. They are working hard to preserve calm so that we can together, as a community, find a solution to race problems deep-seated in cities throughout the country. Yet, for all their effort, they are working under an illusion: that these problems are reasonable problems, that “equality” and “justice” are words whose definitions are identifiable and universally agreed upon. Their stance is apollonian because they are both aligning themselves with “truth” — with the established, wise figures of the community and nation — while also holding onto the fantasy of America where cops protect citizens, and the problem isn’t “black and white” but “more complicated” or “human nature” or whatever; that the people on the streets who are behaving violently are “thugs” and “outsiders” and that the armed forces are being provoked; that there is a good reason — rather than very bad reasons — for why North St. Louis is a blown-out urban ghost-town and West St. Louis is a lush, green, manicured playground where people calmly sit on back decks, listening to the Cardinals game, drinking a beer, while watching the lightning bugs blink on a refreshingly cool summer evening.