When the Columbine massacre happened one of the first things I thought of, thanks to Hegel and Nietzsche, was the internet.The internet was just then becoming this participatory thing, for everyone, and I had the Hegel-inspired bad feeling that one effect of this new technology of self-assertion would be a nagging and widespread condition of abstract discontent. In the olden days of Aristotle summoned by Hegel in the Phenomenology, it was only rich guys, who’d proven themselves in battle and owned slaves they’d taken in battle, who had the freedom to make a huge deal about their public reputations, gild those reputations through public performance. Honor-consciousness, the willingness to kill and die for the sake of one’s name, the cultivation of an expansive self to contest with other excellent selves in this zone of assessment and esteem, was a luxury of aristocrats. The long Occidental story Hegel tells is of the sublimation of this abstract, aristocratic self-assertion through progressive immersion in, and growing understanding of, material nature – foreshadowed in this dialectic’s first moments by the (Greek) slave’s practical wherewithal and his (Greek) master’s practical heedlessness and cluelessness.
Nietzsche, of course, put his own indelible stamp on this account, calling the impulse at play between the master and slave classes the “will-to-power.” This term has several treatments in his work, but in Beyond Good and Evil he gives it a gloss that has chilling resonance for us today. It’s tempting to think of something called a “will-to-power,” and described as fundamental, as some primal appetite, a deep cause, but here Nietzsche calls it, instead, an “effect.” In this it’s related to another great Nietzschean phrase, “the pathos of distance.” In short, a strong guy, looking around and seeing relative weakness in those around him, feeling the elevation that separates him from them as he looks down, wants to realize this merely latent power difference in action. The will-to-power follows something like hydrologic principles. A subject comprehending his own superiority feels the possibility of domination flowing out of him, via this awareness of downward distance, and from this the desire to realize this possibility formulates itself. The will-to-power, as an urge or motive, is thus effect of what the self can actually do. The larger the zone of envisioned latitude, the greater momentum the subject can see itself building up unopposed, the larger the will’s appetite to expand and realize itself will be. The specter of relative weakness is an invitation, a goad
Now, as Hegel described, before Nietzsche applied his dramatic names to the dynamic, even the hungriest subject, embedded in the pressing social and material conditions of work and communal life, will see only small possibilities for its expansion, small margins of self-assertion and recognition to offer as food to its will-to-power. Common life is paltry ground for cultivating existential ambition – and so discontent. For most people throughout historical space and time, the vistas of self were short and narrow. The self, as a projection of the imagination the will-to-power might strive to realize in action, and whose disappointments tend to form in proportion to these ambitions, was small. Its ambitions were small. Its disappointments were small. The phenomenological conditions of self-assertion made delusions of grandeur not just absurd in their content but hard to formulate at all. With the demise of feudalism and the rise of liberal democracy, in the Hegelian story, abstract subjectivity was doled out in modest portions determined by both law and nature (as understood by science), and, in theory, possessed in equal measure by everyone.
The internet both apotheosizes this process, of liberally redistributing aristocratic selfhood throughout the demos, and returns it to its first moment, in which an abstract and unbounded and perhaps empty and brittle subjectivity floats free of material life. It’s brought back Aristotle’s model of subjectivity at its most elevated and abstract, the materially free Greek citizen engaged in an ungrounded textual politics of self-assertion, and it’s globalized its setting. Instead of those standing in earshot of a citizen’s voice, the subject of the internet has a theoretical audience of all of humanity. The ambitions he tends for his own recognition can have that as their measure. And the resentments and disappointments he can husband when reality mocks those ambitions can grow to global size as well.
On this reading of the history of subjectivity, Elliot Rodger’s expression of his existential and sexual ambitions and the attendant disappointments and the much-discussed meanings he assigned to them, via YouTube videos posted on an easily accessed “web” described as “worldwide,” are not incidental but inherent to their formulation, to the construction of a self from which they flowered into an aristocrat’s grand entitlement, and then into disappointment and killing.