(This comes as a response to a question from Nate Zuckerman that really tugged at the core of my projects, a quest ion that s tarted about the differences between “anomaly versus reproducible structure,” but eventually rephrased itself in my mind as the distinction between humanity and superhumanity. I realized in responding to Nate that I could not do it justice with in the context of Hotmail in a sloppy-offhanded way, so I posted the answer online, in a sloppy, off-handed way.)
Let’s start with the question of inclusion— who’s in and who’s out. I’ve always thought that both populism and elitism are cracked outlooks, both doomed to disappoint the outlooker. Disappointment inevitably follows misplaced faith, that includes faith in the Everyman as well as faith in the Overman. It is better, in these situations, to replace faith with hope (borrowing t erms from Richard Rorty). I cannot, in all honesty, be a true populist. The problem with populism is that 67.3 percent of the United States population has absolutely no interest in epic life-transformations, Gestalt shifts, or anything outside the meanings they inherited from their aunts and uncles and favorite AM talkjocks…
“Why on earth would I want to sleep in a port-a-potty, Brandon?”
This disappointment occasionally gets depressing, and my depression occasionally sours into revulsion. This is the same revulsion that led the black-humor Dadaist Francis Picabia to tell his audience, bluntly, “You only like the things you’ve seen many times before, you pile of idiots.” For that 67.3 percent, the world would suffice, if they only had a little bit more of it. More cash-in-hand, power, beachside real estate, claims-to-fame, pussy galore, prestige, fair weather friends, or just more reasons to get up in the morning. This is the same 67.3 percent that funds sequels like Speed II, believes that sin affects wea ther patterns, and inhumanely forces its children into unisex sailor outfits, and otherwise mangles their fledgling identities into their grandmother’s Easter Sunday ideals, all in the name of the “Perfect Family Portrait.” I identify with these people about as much as I identify with a garden gnome. I like to think that the “human nature” common to both me and the guests of Sally Jesse Raphael remains threadbare. Don’t get me wrong— I am the firmest champion of human dignity, freedom, and justice, which this 67.3 percent fully and unconditionally deserve. I may not believe in being fully human, but I do believe in being universally humane. I love my neighbor, I just do not understand what makes them tick (and sometimes suspect that they might not either).
The beauty is: you never know where you’ll find the other 32.7 percent. This is why I could never be an elitist, or one of the many, many reasons. The best do not appear in predictable ways, in self-defined groups or classes or regions or causes or echelons. Quite the contrary, the worst people are very often found in those groups whose “exclusive self-definitions” shepherds its members into the notions of “purity” that the best of us are better off without. This is something that Whitman, Emerson, and Dewey, as prophets of the radical democracy I subscribe to, know in the very fruit and fiber of their being. The best people, those susceptible to the deep-breathing beauty of existence, often come by surprise, since they are often over shadowed by the snobs and horn-blowers in the self-described aristocracies. You bump into the real gems in the express check-out line, at the plasma bank, or crawling into the carpet-dryers at the local laundromat— delivering their heroics without playing for prizes. And as a bell-tolling proponent of human potential and plasticity, I do not feel the first 67.3 are not beyond all hope, just beyond dependability. The only reason my disappointment can hurt so deeply is because I know that every man, woman, and child, on s ome level, is capable of the impossible. It’s all just a question of will and inertia, a question of irresistible forces against immovable objects—
“How much sweat and strategy will it take to show these couch-bound individuals the difference between a pinnacle experience and a Blockbuster Night?”
I would not rely on the Everyman to live up to any expectations, anymore than I would rely on self-proclaimed Overmen to exceed them. I hedge my bets, keeping one eye on the lumpenproletariat and one on the fireball ubermensch. Though I prefer to frame this distinction in terms of “humanity versus superhumanity.” At the beginning of last summer, for the first time in my life, I became intrigued by the ostensibly human; casual conversations, petty motives, and psychological portraiture. I could introduce myself, cross my legs, and divine the sparkle in anyone. But the feeling passed, very suddenly, on the train to Schipol Airport, Amsterdam. With my forehead to the glasspane, I hiccupped a laugh from the well of my Being. The resulting bubble floated up to the Sun and burst into a thousand pieces. From then on out, only the dazzlingly superhuman, or the starkly inhuman, could hold my attention for more than a glance.
And, you know, after it all, I still never really understood the man-in-the-streets, or the man-about-town, or the anxiety over color coordination. I mean, I could throw an explanation together- two parts psychoanalysis, three parts female intuition, peppered liberally with empty truisms- but I could never quite complete the circle with any genuine identification. I grew up watching The Wonder Years and Family Ties, listening to the whispers of middle-school lockertalk, scouring stories and novels for kindred spirits, but I always fell short and never quite understood the source of their hopes and anxieties. I had always wanted defiance, not definition. I wanted to circumvent rather than circumscribe the “essence of Man.” I was more interested in the superhuman urge— groping in the direction of weirder and wilder liberties, working to spite human nature— than I was in demonstrating my allegiance on Prom Nights and Wedding Days. But what can you do?
I remember a philosophy professor once lashing out at my shoulder-shrugging circumventions of “human nature.” Stroking his beard, he continued in his curt British accent- “…I do not understand this problem you, and others, have with ‘human nature.’ I think a proposition such as ‘Man is not made of fire,’ is undeniably a part of our human nature. Or, when you say, that, given a 100,000 years, we may not recognize our descendents by our current notions of human nature. I cannot imagine what these people would be like…” Likewise, before the Enlightenment, a proposition such as “Man cannot fly” would have been an obvious attribute of “human nature,” but we showed them a thing or two or three. Ofcourse you cannot imagine what Man will be like after 100,000 more years of civilization! That’s the whole point. If 100,000 years of human progress could not exceed the imagination of a twenty-first century mind, I would be hesitant to call it progress at all. Are the limits of our imagination equivalent to the definition of man? Why can’t man be made of fire? And what would you even do with a phrase like “man is not made of fire?” It’s best to bear in mind that the science of man is in some ways the science of exception; because Man is a freak of nature. He is the only piece of the universe capable of changing his mind.
Superhumanity is the segment of the population who would like to exaggerate this freakishness, this tangent to the circles of life and cycles of Nature. They’re eager to witness a man made of fire, or a man made of silicon, or a man made of Fruit Loops, and are already busy working out the details. They prefer the excitement of exception to the security of consistency. They prefer high actions, judged in small bundles, that clash with the chorus of praxes, or practices. Actions that leave large dents in the world. Actions that produce the unrecognizable. These beautiful, freakish, anomalous actions are always three of four steps ahead of the rest, just as the clever and superhuman will always be three or four steps ahead of the slower moving animals. But, life is not so bleak for that 67.3 percent. They are not forsaken, only bound by common sense and the daily grind. My thought is that, perhaps on a good day, when their blood is feeling light, they can borrow a bad idea from the other side.