You are on page 1of 10

THE OVERCOMING OF MAN: NIETZSCHE, CARIBBEAN PHILOSOPHY, AND

THE CREATIVE (R)EVOLUTION OF HUMAN BEING


Stephen D. Seely, Department of Womens & Gender Studies, Rutgers University
SPEP, Annual Meeting, New Orleans, Oct. 2014
There is, perhaps, no more sustained assault on the European philosophy of Man than that of
Friedrich Nietzsches writings on the bermensch (overhuman).1 And like other dimensions of
Nietzsches thought, the bermensch has been subject to an extraordinarily diverse range of
interpretations. Some readers, most infamously the Nazi Party, render the bermensch as the product
of a form of artificial selection or eugenic breeding that results in a higher race of humans.2 The
bermensch has also been popularly read as the ideal of a heroic individual, or superman, who is a
perfect specimen of humanity.3 Already in Ecce Homo, however, Nietzsche had explicitly rejected the
idea that the bermensch has anything to do with any higher sort of humanity.4 More recently, the
bermensch has been claimed as a precursor to both posthumanism and transhumanism:
posthumanism being, generally, the conceptual deprivileging of the human in the face of the
collapse of European humanisms categorical distinctions, and transhumanism as the philosophical
movement which seeks to perfect the human condition through technological innovation.5
While there are, perhaps, some resonances between these latter two trajectories and Nietzsches own
The figure of the bermensch first appears in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883) and is mentioned in each of Nietzsches
subsequent texts, including the late notebooks (1888) published posthumously. The term bermensch has been
translated a number of ways, most commonly superman or overman (as in Walter Kaufmanns standard English
translations). Recent translations render it as overhuman because the German word mensch generally does not only
refer to men, but to mankind in general. The relation of the bermensch and sexual difference, however, is a
complicated one: see Z, On Little Old and Young Women and Luce Irigaray, Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche, trans.
Gillian C. Gill (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991). As such, I leave the term untranslated.
2 See Rdiger Safranski, Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, trans. Shelly Frisch, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2003. In
The Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche explicitly opposes the project of racial breeding (specifically in terms of the Indian law
of Manu and the caste system) for oppressing the lower castes in order to improve the Aryan race (Improvers).
3 Both the individualism of Ayn Rand and the Superman comic series were inspired by Nietzsches bermensch.
4 Other scholarly cattle have suspected me of Darwinism for this reason; or even read into it the cult of the hero that I
condemn so bitterly (Why I Write Such Good Books, I).
5 For posthumanism, see N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and
Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); Cary Woolfe, What is Posthumanism? (Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 2010); and Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Malden MA: Polity Press, 2013). For transhumanism and
Nietzsche, see Nietzsche and European Posthumanisms, a special issue of The Journal of Evolution and Technology vol. 21,
no. 1 (2010) http://jetpress.org/v21/blackford.htm.
1

work, in this essay I would like to creolize the bermensch, if you will, by reading it alongside the
unique form of humanism found in the Afro-Caribbean philosophers Frantz Fanon and Sylvia
Wynter.6 In Fanon and Wynter, humanism becomes a sort of ethical and revolutionary praxis in
which the relentless struggle against colonialism and capitalism itself creates a radical mutation of the
species.7 Through Nietzsche, Fanon, and Wynter, I suggest that it is the same hegemonic
philosophy of Man that underwrites nihilism, colonialism, and capitalism and that the struggle
against them requires the overcoming of Man. Thus, the creation of the bermensch becomes a
project of creative (r)evolution that is simultaneously philosophical, scientific, and political insofar as
the invention of new and more just ways of being human also brings about a transformation in our
species being. We do not know what the bermensch might be, but Afro-Caribbean humanism offers
a vision of how Mans overcoming might lead to a more just mode of life.
The figure of the bermensch must be understood within the context of Nietzsches war
against the decadent nihilism that pervades Europe in the wake of the death of (the European,
Christian) God. Indeed, many readers seem to forget that, for Nietzsche, the death of God was not
only the occasion for celebration, but also brings a profound challenge. To recall the first
pronouncement of the death of God in The Gay Science:
God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How can we console ourselves,
the murderers of all murderers! The holiest and the mightiest thing the world has ever
possessed has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood from us? With what
water could we clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what holy games will we have
to invent for ourselves? Is the magnitude of this deed not too great for us? Do we ourselves
not have to become gods merely to appear worthy of it? (GS 125).
Here, we are tasked with what Nietzsche will later term the transvaluation of all values, his final,
uncompleted project. According to Nietzsche, from at least the time of Plato a transcendent figure
Creolization is a term widely utilized in Caribbean philosophy to describe the unpredictable mixings of European,
Africana, and Caribbean thought. See, for example, Jane Anna Gordon, Creolizing Political Theory: Reading Rousseau through
Fanon (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014).
7 Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox, (New York: Grove Press, 2004); Sylvia Wynter, Human
Being as Noun? Or Being Human as Praxis? Towards the Autopoetic Turn/Overturn: A Manifesto, 2007.
6

has served as the guarantor of all values, manifest most explicitly in the form of the Christian God.
After Gods murder following the rise of Renaissance and Enlightenment humanism, however,
Europeans lose their belief in any values at all, culminating in the loss of belief in the value of
humanity itself. Thus, Nietzsche sees nineteenth-century Europe rotting in a pervasive nihilism in
which the highest values devaluate themselves. The aim is lacking; why? finds no answer (WP
#2). The bermensch, then, is the hope for the future of humanity, the creator of new values who
can restore a faith and joy in life itselfa kind of becoming-divine of humanity insofar as it makes
humanity worthy of the death of God and is able to provide both a meaning and a goal to humanity
and to the earth without recourse to eschatology or a belief in an-other world beyond this one.8
Of course, the ascendancy of the European philosophy of Man and the death of God did
not have their most devastating effects inside Europe itself. As Sylvia Wynter argues, it is the
population group classified as Negro by the West who would be made to pay the most total
psycho-existential price for the Wests epochal degodding of both its matrix Judeo-Christian identity
and [its] projection of Otherness.9 For Wynter, the invention of Man as the de-supernaturalized
genre of being human, which underwrote the European conquest of the Americas and the genocide
of its indigenous peoples, the African slave trade, and the servitude of Asia, proceeded in two stages.
The first, which Wynter calls Man1, is the reinvention of the human as Rational Man, the
political subject of the State who uses the God-given faculty of Reason to elevate himself above the
Subrational Other. The second stage, which I am more concerned with in this short paper, is
what Wynter terms Man2, or the biohumanist homo oeconomicus in which the descriptive
statement of human being becomes a purely natural organism perpetually engaged in the
Behold, I teach you the overman. The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be
the meaning of the earth! I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth and do not believe those who speak to you
of otherwordly hopes! (Z, Zarathustras Prologue 3). Could you create a god? Then do not speak to me of any
gods. But you could well create the overman (Z, Upon the Blessed Isles).
9 Sylvia Wynter, Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its
OverrepresentationAn Argument, The New Centennial Review, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Fall 2003), 304.
8

evolutionary struggle for existence. Through the rise of the biological sciences, this specifically
European bourgeois ethnoclass genre of the human has been overrepresented to the point of
becoming identified with humanity itself, and its attendant concepts of race and species have
become the a priori answers to any question of who or what we are.
Building on Fanons concept of sociogeny and the work of Michel Foucault and Gregory
Bateson, Wynter demonstrates that all genres of being human give rise to specific epistemi, in which
all ways of knowing the self, the other, and the world function as adaptive truths-for that serve to
produce/reproduce that particular mode of being human. This adaptive function of cognition, or
the way in which we actually fabricate our selves and our worlds, is, however, forgotten as we come
to identify it with objective reality. As Wynter demonstrates, it is the Western sciences, with both
their belief in objective and universal truth, as well as their vast geographic reach, that have become
most identified with knowledge itself. As such, Western scientific epistemology serves as an
adaptive truth-for not only Western Man, but for all of humanity, and discounts all other modes of
knowledge and experience, as well as the value these might have for life itself. Indeed, Nietzsche
had already alluded to this problem in 1888, when he wrote:
Man has repeated the same mistake over and over again: he has made a means to life into a
standard of life; instead of discovering the standard in the highest enhancement of life
itselfhe has employed the means to a quite distinct kind of life to exclude all other forms
of life, in short to criticize and select life.i.e., a certain species of man treats the conditions
of its existence as conditions which ought to be imposed as a law, as truth, good,
perfection: it tyrannizes (WP #354).
In other words, the overrepresentation of European Man shuts down what Nietzsche sees as the
wondrous plurality of forms life takes by equating one form of life with life itself and then using that
form as a standard by which to critique, select, and tyrannize all other forms.
Here, we arrive at both Nietzsche and Wynters contention with the Darwinian theory of
evolution: for both thinkers, Darwinism naturalizes a particular genre of being human (i.e., the
biocentric homo oeconomicus) as life itself, and gives all agency to an extra-human, quasi-supernatural
4

force called Evolution or Natural Selection. In Darwins readers from Herbert Spencer on, the
criteria of success in capitalist competition becomes identified with that of social success in
general and, moreover, becomes the selection principle purported to apply to all of life. This not
only reifies a colonial hierarchy in which the dominance of white, bourgeois European Man is
naturalized, but more problematically for Nietzsche, it contributes to the reactive nihilism of
European life. If evolutionary transformation only occurs, as Darwins theory suggests, through the
gradual accumulation of random variations preserved through the super-natural force of Natural
Selection, then there is no longer any reason for humanity to struggle to overcome itself. In other
words, there is nothing humans could do to actively bring about evolutionary change and all value of
life is determined exclusively by its success in the economic and biological struggle for existence.
The bermensch is thus an explicit intervention into the Darwinian theory of evolution, which renders
human life nihilistic and passive, insofar as the bermensch is what restores value to life itself and is
the creative struggle of humans to go beyond themselves. Let us listen again to Zarathustras first
prophecy of the bermensch:
I teach you the [bermensch]. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to
overcome him? All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; do you want
to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man?
(Zarathustras Prologue, 3).
If Nietzsche accepted the Darwinian version of evolution in which random mutations contribute the
only evolutionary transformation, then this challenge (what have you done to overcome man?) would
not make sense. Instead, for Nietzsche, life itself is nothing but constant and creative selfovercoming and the only force of evolutionary transformation is the will to power, present in every
element of existence (organic and inorganic) as it struggles to express and overcome itself and create

something new.10 What Nietzsche wants us to see, in other words, is that to truly live requires a
perpetual struggle to overcome ourselves and to invent new values and modes of being.
Indeed, Nietzsche admired the French evolutionist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck much more than Darwin
because, for Nietzsche, Lamarck better understood evolutionary creativity as immanent to living
forms themselves, rather than attributing that creativity to a quasi-supernatural agency.11 As it is
popularly presented, the difference between Lamarckism and Darwinism is as follows: for Lamarck a
giraffes long neck is the result of a striving to overcome its previous form in order to have access to
higher trees, while for Darwin the long neck was the result of a random variation which happened to
be advantageous to that particular giraffe in the struggle for existence.12 In Lamarck, the impetus for
evolutionary change is thus not competition (as it is for Darwinism), but creative self-overcoming.
Importantly, for Lamarck, characteristics acquired during an individuals life can be passed on to
future generations, while for orthodox Darwinism, especially after the discovery of genetics, this is
not possible due to the so-called Weismann barrier which prevents transformations accrued during

And life itself confided this secret to me: Behold, it said, I am that which must always overcome itself.Only where there
is life is there also will: not will to life butthus I teach youwill to power (Z, On Self-Overcoming). The
influence of external circumstances is overestimated by Darwin to a ridiculous extent: the essential thing in the life
process is precisely the tremendous shaping, form-creating force working from within which utilizes and exploits external
circumstances [i.e., will to power] (WP #647). The will to power, in which I recognize the ultimate ground and
character of all change provides us with the reason why selection is not in favor of the exceptions and lucky strokes
(WP #685).
11 The degree to which Nietzsche was actually familiar with Darwins writings, as opposed to the popular reception of
Darwinism, is debated. Elizabeth Grosz compellingly argues that Darwins theory is much more creative than Nietzsche
makes it out to be, placing Darwin and Nietzsche in a lineage with Henri Bergson as thinkers of creative evolution. See
her The Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution, and the Untimely (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2004). An analysis of
Darwins theories themselves is beyond the scope of this essay; however, to be clear, the only critique this essay offers is
of neo-Darwinism, rather than of Darwins own writings.
12 Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet de Lamarck, Zoological Philosophy: An Exposition with Regard to the Natural History
of Animals, trans. Hugh Samuel Roger Elliot (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011). Charles Darwin, On the
Origin of Species, (New York: Penguin Books, 2009). As Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb have pointed out, this version of
the difference between Lamarck and Darwin is wrong in many respects: it is wrong in making Lamarcks ideas seem so
simplistic, wrong in implying that Lamarck invented the idea that acquired characteristics are inherited, wrong in not
recognizing that use and disuse had a place in Darwins thinking too, and wrong to suggest that the theory of natural
selection displaced the inheritance of acquired characteristics from the mainstream of evolutionary thought, Evolution in
Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life (Cambridge MA: The MIT Press,
2006), 13. Less than the actual debate between Lamarckism and Darwinism, I am interested here in why Nietzsche
would prefer one theory of evolution to the other.
10

an individuals life from crossing over to alter the genetic code.13 Indeed, neo-Darwinism makes
what Wynter calls Man2, as a particular genre of the human, molecular insofar as neo-Darwinists see
the evolutionary drama playing out solely among genes.14 While it has long been the consensus that
Lamarck was refuted by Darwin, recent developments in biology, including the theory of
symbiogenesis and the field of epigenetics, have called for a reconsideration of the inheritance of
acquired characteristics. One need not accept Lamarcks theory, however, to acknowledge that the
most recent biology vindicates Nietzsches thesis that there is a creative dimension of evolution,
insofar as transformations occurring during the lifetime of individuals and populations are
intergenerationally transmitted and, thus, alter the forms of species being.15 In fact, geneticists Eva
Jablonka and Marion Lamb suggest that not only genetics and epigenetics, but even cultural and
symbolic forms play a major role in the biological evolution of life and species.
While Nietzsche scholars have vigorously debated the degree to which he could be identified
as Lamarckian, Sylvia Wynter inadvertently helps to demonstrate why such a debate fails to grasp
the most radical dimensions of Nietzsches contribution to the theory of evolution.16 This debate,
which is decisive in how the bermensch is interpreted, ultimately hinges on which theory of
evolution Nietzsche upholds: on the one hand, the Darwin-compatible bermensch is seen as the
overcoming of European Man, in which Nietzsches creative evolution is a purely cultural
phenomenon that has no effect on human species being, while on the other hand, the Lamarckcompatible bermensch is an evolutionary mutation in the human species, where creative evolution
Specifically, the central tenet of Weismannism is that heritable characteristics move only from germline cells (what
later becomes known as genes) to soma cells and never the reverse. August Weismann, The Germ-Plasm: A Theory of
Heredity, trans W. Newton Parker and Harriet Rnnefeldt (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1893).
14 For a paradigmatic neo-Darwinist argument, see Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press, 1990).
15 For symbiogenesis, see Lynn Margulis, Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution (New York: Basic Books, 1999). For
epigenetics and the reassessment of Lamarck, see Jablonka and Lamb, Evolution in Four Dimensions and Edward J. Steele,
et al, Lamarcks Signature: How Retrogenes are Changing Darwins Natural Selection Paradigm (New York: Basic Books, 1999).
Nietzsche anticipates these developments when he writes that In every judgment of the senses, the whole pre-history of the
organism is at workIn the organic realm, there is no forgetting (KSA 11:34[167]).
16 See Richard Schacht, Nietzsche and Lamarck and Maudmarie Clark, Nietzsche Was No Lamarckian, in The Journal
of Nietzsche Studies, vol. 44, no. 2 (Summer 2013): 264-296.
13

transforms the species itself through an inheritance of acquired characteristics. Yet, as Wynter
clearly shows, human species being in the form of homo sapiens is itself the overrepresentation of a
particular genre of European Man, naturalized as a purely biological (and now genetic) being. In
other words, homo sapiens is European Man himself writ biological; the philosophical conception of
Man and the biogenetic entity homo sapiens are two faces of the same genre of the human. Thus, any
mutation in our forms of being through creative evolution, such as the overcoming of Man, must
have an effect on human species being.
Wynters own reading of Fanons concept of sociogeny shows precisely how this might take
place. In Black Skins White Masks, Fanon famously argues that alongside phylogeny and ontogeny,
there is also sociogeny.17 In a simple sense, what this means is that beyond the principles of species
genesis (e.g., Natural Selection, Evolution) and individual genesis (e.g., Freuds psychosexual stages
of development), our forms of being are socially generated. According to Wynters brilliant gloss on
Fanons argument, which recasts it as the sociogenic principle, if conscious experience were a
purely genetic or biological process, then it would be impossible for an individual to have an
experience of self-aversion of the type so painfully articulated in Fanons chapter on The Lived
Experience of the Black.18 In other words, it would be evolutionarily maladaptive for an individual
to experience itself as inferior and thus, as she puts it, besides the neural firings which
physiologically implement our reflex responses of aversion or attraction, there must be something
which determines the terms in which those neural firings will be activated and thus the
phenomenological experience [that follows].19 The production/reproduction of our genres of
being, then, produce individuals socially, psychically, and biologically. As such, any transformation in
Frantz Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2008), xv.
See Sylvia Wynter, Towards the Sociogenic Principle: Fanon, Identity, the Puzzle of Consciousness and What It is
Like to Be Black, in Mercedes F. Duran-Cogan and Antonio Gomez-Moriana (Eds.), National Identities and Sociopolitical
Changes in Latin America (New York: Routledge, 2001), 30-66 and David Scott, The Re-Enchantment of Humanism: An
Interview with Sylvia Wynter, Small Axe 8 (September 2000): 118-207.
19 Quoted in Scott, The Re-Enchantment of Humanism, 189.
17
18

the mode of sociogenesis literally creates new modes of being human and new species beings. This
is precisely why, for Fanon, decolonization is the production of new humans, an evolutionary
transmutation brought about by humans themselves.20 Because the struggle to overthrow
colonialism and capitalism must necessarily involve the revolutionary overthrow of the genre of
human (Man) that subtends these projects, it brings about new ways of being human both ethically
and ontologically.
The real leap, as Fanon reminds himself and us, consists in introducing invention into
existenceI am part of being to the degree that I go beyond it.21 And for Nietzsche, the
introduction of invention into existence is an introduction of invention into life itself and is thus a
project of creative evolution. What Nietzsche calls the bermensch, then, is precisely the introduction
of invention into human life. Yet, such an evolution entails both destruction and creation insofar as
the creation of new values and new modes of life simultaneously requires the destruction of
previous ones. And this is where the Nietzschean project of creative evolution necessarily becomes
one of creative revolution. As Fanon and Wynter show us, the genre of Man that Nietzsche so
desperately wanted to see overcome results not only in a decadent European nihilism, but also in the
violence and horror of colonialism and advanced capitalism. As such, any overcoming of Man, any
introduction of invention into life, any creative evolution demands the destruction of the genre of
Man (now as a biogenetic entity) and the atrocities it upholds. However, these thinkers also allow us
to see that any such transformation is fundamentally a mutation in the human species itself. By
creolizing the bermensch, we are presented with a vision of a future beyond Man that neither
dispenses with the category of the human nor reduces the bermensch to a technologically enhanced
human that merely replaces the primitive/Man dichotomy with a human/posthuman one. Against

Decolonization is truly the creation of new men. But such a creation cannot be attributed to a supernatural power:
the thing colonized becomes a man through the very process of liberation, The Wretched of the Earth, 2.
21 Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks, 179.
20

this, I suggest that Caribbean philosophy offers us a more compelling version of the bermensch by
centralizing the importance of creating a more just world and recognizing that such a struggle
transforms what it means to be human at the deepest levels. Surely, one cannot but imagine
Nietzsche smiling at Fanons urgent plea: For Europe, for ourselves, and for humanity, comrades,
we must make a new start, develop a new way of thinking, and endeavor to create a new man.22

22

Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 239.

10