Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Nietzsche's Onion of Insanity: Where is the Abnormal Psychologist inside it?

The philosopher F. W. Nietzsche said: “Insanity in individuals is something rare - but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs, it is the rule.” What behaviors committed by groups might be considered psychotic if an individual were to perform them?

Nietzsche’s sentiment, if reversed, would suggest that in groups, parties, nations and epochs insanity is something rare but in individuals it is the rule. In my mind, human behavior is human behavior – insanity is one human perception and classification of certain types of human behavior. Insanity is as definable and concrete as is the essence of human life. If you think my behavior is insane, then I might think you insane for thinking so. I might even think your decision to not-practice my behavior is insane. If a group behaves one way and an individual behaves in an alternative manner or in opposition to the group, then the group might think the individual is insane and the individual might think the group is insane. The group has the power of its majority to, accurately or falsely, strengthen its claim of sanity; the individual has only the power of her ideas and the intensity of her devotion to her cause to strengthen her claim to sanity. Does it really matter what the behavior is if the group and the individual each believe wholeheartedly in its validity?

All ideas have the ability to be damaging or uplifting to society. Any idea in and of itself is just an idea. What gives an idea power? Consensus and action. The action of an individual is not as POWER-ful as the action of a collective, or mass, of individuals. The greater the POWER driving the idea into action, regardless of the idea, is what renders an idea transforming of (or potentially dangerous to) a society. I don’t know that I agree with Nietzsche’s comment on insanity in individuals versus groups, except in the sense that I think the power of the collective can be dangerous – and the power in and of itself can be a form of insanity and can give greater power to insanity. The individual and the commons are equally as capable of insanity, if insanity exists, but the power of the idea (or the insanity) in the hands of a mass is so much greater.

Nietzsche’s measurement of insanity is simple – one individual = 1 x insanity, 100 individuals = 100 x insanity, 666 666 666 individuals = 666 666 666 x insanity. The insanity of the masses is quantitatively greater than the insanity of the individual – but what about qualitatively. The qualitative dimension of what Nietzsche proposes is much more complicated. A dissection of the individual is a small-scale evaluation of the collective, but often the individual is a small version of the collective. One human is a microcosm of the whole of humanity. In that sense, the individual’s and collective’s insanities or sanities should consist of similar, mirroring content. Qualitatively, it would not seem that the insanity of the individual is any different than the insanity of the collective. Quantitatively, there is a difference. I cannot go beyond this without more information, though I imagine the social and environmental impact of quantitative versus qualitative differences would extend this analysis further. When you look at a mass from far away, its actions make sense and patterns seems fairy easy to draw out and interpret; yet you can only see the whole and not the parts of the whole. Only being able to see the whole provides a certain kind of picture. When you look a little closer, you get another picture – the picture of its parts. When you look even closer, you see another picture. It’s like peeling an onion.

When peeling the onion of insanity, the whole appears one way (like one powerful mass of insanity). The next layer of the onion of insanity looks less powerful but also looks different than the outside layer. With each layer you peel back of the onion of insanity, you learn more about the whole and about the layers that were peeled before – yet you still do not know about what lies in the next (yet unpeeled) layers. Within the onion of insanity are layers (not lawyers!) of insanity, and within the layers of insanity are particles of insanity. Within the particles of insanity are molecules of insanity. You can break it down until you cannot see, feel, know or understand it any longer. You can break it down until you are one with it.

This question posed requires us to look at the collectives as stereotypes. When people in a Sicilian household raise their voices, it might not be considered inappropriate to the people within the household; but outside of the household – perhaps in an English household – the behavior might be considered crude and obscene. Once I walked into a pizza shop in Northampton, Massachusetts and was startled by a man and his elderly mother throwing F-bombs (e.g., “FUCK YOU, MA”) at each other at a volume level that struck me as extreme. I felt uncomfortable and disturbed. The thought that went through my head when I walked in was that the son was some kind of psychopath. I stood in line not sure if he was crazy or if I was crazy – but I wanted to get out of that pizza shop as fast as I could. I kept picturing the guy pulling a gun out and shooting everyone in sight. I looked around to others in line and did not notice any fear on their faces so I decided to challenge myself and get the pizza despite my fear. I am Italian and I have relatives from Sicily (and I may be incorrectly stereotyping here, but I believe the pizza shop was Sicilian). My Sicilian relatives talk loudly, shout, swear in Italian and use incorrect English. I cannot generalize in good conscience and suggest that all people from Sicily are the same as my family members, especially given that the behavior in this restaurant was so disturbing and far outside of my comfort zone. I could judge and say the behavior was insane, but someone outside of my family might say the same about my family.

A woman who poses nude for an art class probably would not be considered abnormal within an art class or art department. A woman who undresses and holds the same pose in front of a grocery store, like Wegmans, would likely be arrested for the same behavior. Context is everything (and nothing). Is the naked woman posing a threat to a given society in the art classroom? How is it different in front of the grocery store? Perhaps the behavior is not different (or any more or less insane/inappropriate) in and of itself, but the way in which it is interpreted and perceived will differ depending on the context. The behaviors of people at a music concert with a pop icon in America might seem normal to those at the concert. If an individual woman were doing all of the things she did at the concert, but alone in a parking lot, it is likely that people might think she was insane. If the woman not-at-the-concert were dancing down the streets, singing to the song in her head or in her earphones, hugging and holding hands with everyone in sight, lying down on the pavement and lifting her lighter in the air –seeming to lack self-consciousness and be in a state of bliss – would you find her to be unacceptable or insane? I wouldn’t, but that’s because I’m insane! 

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