The marketplace of meaning

Perspectives are not merely "windows" or "viewpoints" through which the individual peers and moves on. Perspectives are lived, concerning things that matter, but whose net result is often to simplify the world and thereby create a sense of comfort within it (Granier, 1985b). Consolation is the name of the game, even when it takes a negative form, such as always seeing one's enemy in the same light. If perspectives are "occupied" there can be no meaningful separation between the observer and the observed; we all commit, in some way or another, and in so doing we are mostly committed or attached to our perspective, because it is ours.[1]

Nietzsche's (1881) parable of laughter in the market place vividly illustrates the perspectival nature of experience and the complex influence of shifting relations of desire and drive—we are animated, energised by perspective. As the parable goes, a passerby hears the sound of laughter in a crowded market place. Nietzsche contends that depending on which drive is "at its height" at the time, the significance of the sourceless laughter to the traveler will vary; there is only perspectival seeing (or in this case, hearing!). Using the graphic term inpsychation, he describes an active process by which human beings digest their experiences. Thus, one passser by would barely notice the laughter, shrugging it off as if it were a "drop of rain"; another hears it injuriously, "as he would an insult"; another is goaded and is ready to "pick a fight"; a fourth checks to see if his clothes are properly arranged, whilst another reacts benevolently, hearing the laughter as a sign that all is good in the world. In each case, the drive is "on the lookout", as it were, and so there is no simple access to "what really happened"; "the drive seized the occurrence as its prey . because it was thirsty and hungry" (p. 119). Whilst a perception is descriptively what we "see" (hear, etc.), a perspective is the hypothetical position behind the eye (ear, etc.).

Although seeing things in a particular way often occurs because it has "worked" before (e.g., the conviction that "people are always putting me down" may become automatic), the world (the world of others) is resilient and answers back (Parkes, 1994). Thus, our perspective is open to challenge, contest, and disabuse. We get things wrong, and right, all the time.

Life as literature: human beings as creative

Nietzsche rejected the view of self as an eternal soul, constant substance, or substantial identity, instead regarding self as something one becomes, a project, an invention of kinds. Perhaps his is a "bundle" theory of the self, the person conceived, using a political metaphor, as loose confederation of drives, purposes, and fluctuating forces (Hales & Welshon, 2000). Rather than supposing an objective, continuing identity of a person over time, for Nietzsche there is a multiplicity of selves. Consistent with this, he sees man as ultimate metaphorical animal, able in his labyrinthine existence to "compose" the worlds in which he lives (Parkes, 1994). There is an important double meaning in this notion of artistry and invention, in so far as "man is the clever animal" amongst species; on the one hand, cleverness refers to creativity and the inventive, and on the other, it signals potential for self-deception. Referring to the tension at the heart of self-representation, Holingdale (1995), reading Nietzsche, suggests: "We can 'know' only the simulacra of being which we ourselves have constructed" (p. 115). We are always stationed, always in position(s). So, it is suggested, the perspectivism of Nietzsche dovetails with his contingent, history-bound view of human kinds. The positive message is that, given sufficient freedom and courage, we can remake ourselves in helpful acts of self-overcoming. This can be liberating: "Nietzsche's perspectivism is, amongst other things, a technique for revealing the possibilities open to all of us" (Hales & Welshon, 2000, p. 202). The negative import, by contrast, is that we are easily ensnared and prone to repeat the conclusions that we are used to drawing, ever convinced of our own myths.

  • [1] Nietzsche's (1886) suggestion that "My judgment is my judgment; no one else is easily entitled to it ." has similarities to Freud's (1923b) "narcissism of small differences".
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