In the history of ideas, it is usually taken to be unacceptable to trace an idea’s origin to a specific point. However, this is due to academic niceties and the desire to cover your ass from embarrassment. Hence I have no trepidation when I say that Nietzsche originated “wokeness”—ye need look no further, not even so far back as Kant and Hegel. In fact, I can even trace the idea to a specific book.
By “wokeness” I mean the man who says, “Before we begin, I’d just like to foreground that I’m a white cis-het man (pronouns he/him); and I’d like to acknowledge that we’ve folks here today from many and diverse backgrounds, meeting here on occupied Cree Nation land—and what I’m here to do is to facilitate and participate in a safe space in which you can narrate your lived experience, so that we can create vibrate discourse about today’s topic. Just remember, everything’s on a spectrum—indeed, some people say I’m on the spectrum ha-ha (seriously, if you’re on the autistic spectrum we’re ready to facilitate your needs today)—so don’t feel shy, there are no right or wrong answers here. Please, if you have any issues just wiggle your fingers and I’ll offer you the microphone right away—and we particularly want to hear from trans men today, because that’s a voice that’s been excluded from the discourse for a long time…”
As a secondary consideration, before we tuck into the meat (and very juicy meat it is, it practically oozes water studded with fat globules), I’d like to note that when I say “Nietzsche originated wokeness” I do not mean it as most people who say this do. When people say this they usually mean—so far as I have ever experienced—that Nietzsche was a dirty cultural relativist, a historicist, whereas they stand for “rational Western science and the Enlightenment legacy”. As an aside, this makes little sense—Nietzsche venerated Voltaire, the Enlightenment’s epitome.
The people who characterise Nietzsche in this way really defend progressive liberalism: they do not fear the egalitarianism found in wokeness, rather they fear that wokeness contains a hidden inegalitarian danger. Hence “woke fascism”—“the woke are the real racists”. The assertion is usually used to hitch Nietzsche to Hitlerism, although this makes little sense: Hitler was primarily influenced by Wagner, and Nietzsche broke with Wagner. Anyway, when I say “Nietzsche invented woke thought” I do not say so in this spirit, in the spirit that Nietzsche was an enemy to “objective Western science and rationality” (indeed, in some works he almost makes a religion from science).
The meat: the specific book in question is among Nietzsche’s least read works, Morgenröte (Morning Redness—or, in more pedestrian Anglo-Saxon, Daybreak). In this work, Nietzsche asserts that primitive man arbitrarily attributed a gender to objects and phenomena—so that “the sun” is female in one language and masculine in another (die Sonne, sol). From this linguistic jumping off point, Nietzsche goes on to assert that all dichotomies conceal reality: good/bad, honest/dishonest, true/false—and, though he does not make this extension, male/female.
Nietzsche claims that these dichotomies were invented by men like Socrates, resentful decadent men who bewitched us with dualities. In actuality, life is “on a spectrum”—no man is “brave”, since there was that one time at college when we hid behind the sofa with the lights out and surprised “brave John”, hero athlete of the campus, and he jumped out of his skin. Therefore, at most, we can say that there is a “bravery spectrum”—“brave John” is more like “generally brave John”. In fact, we might have to put “brave” in scare quotes every time we write it to highlight the false dichotomy that blinds us to reality (yes, that is where it comes from).
Nietzsche was a fertile mind, so that Foucault’s entire academic career was built off a few sentences where Nietzsche intimated a need to study the history of crime and punishment; similarly, within the paragraphs above you have the entire woke worldview fully encapsulated. Indeed, I have even seen woke people on Twitter quote Nietzsche’s assertions, without attribution, about how primitive man arbitrarily “gendered” different objects and hence “gender” between males and females does not exist—probably they saw a bullet point summary paraphrase in a university seminar and now repeat it as Gospel.
The only addition the woke have made is to assert that the dichotomies represent an oppressive and exploitative structure developed by white Christian men—Phallocentric Western reason, as they used to say in the ’80s. The irony here is that Nietzsche’s ideas have become a vehicle for the very thing he disdained—the resentful. His attempt to overcome what he saw as a form of resentment, as embodied in Socrates and his decadent dichotomies, has provided the tools for the resentful to tear down what Nietzsche would have seen as noble and beautiful (“brave John” from the campus rowing team). Hence Nietzsche can only be the grandpapa to wokeness, since his ideas have married Marxism—and yet the meat behind it remains Nietzschean to the core.
Nietzsche made two mistakes in his assertions in Morgenröte. In the first place, he thinks it is easier to invent words than it really is. This is perhaps because his philosophy gives a special role to the poets, “the namers”—and yet this is more high-faultin’ talk than actuality. It is very hard to invent words, as the churn of slang demonstrates—today’s teenage slang will look “cringe” in a mere decade; already, after a few years, it looks “cringe” to say “it’s cringe” (in a decade what you mean by “it’s cringe” will be as obscure as if you said “hey-hey, daddio” today). Hence if a word like “brave” has survived down the ages, as it has done, we can be pretty sure, contra Nietzsche, that it adequately covers reality—so that if I say “John is brave” then, so long as we assume I am being fair about it, we can take it to mean that John has a brave character. Language has evolved and as with any evolutionary process words that do not describe reality adequately have been winnowed.
The other reason why Nietzsche finds it difficult to credit that words can describe a person via a simple duality is that he holds that a person’s character is a constant flux—a person’s character is radically unstable and can undergo (must undergo, Nietzsche would say) “bustings forth” from the proverbial Victorian corset. Except, in my experience, a person’s character is very stable—I am basically the same person I was at ten (albeit with more experience); and the people I have known for decades have remained the same characterwise since forever—indeed, if I spoke to their old parents their parents would probably say, “He was like that from the day I brought him home from the hospital”.
Hence this need for “a spectrum” disappears—or largely disappears; for sure, you can finesse John’s character if you wish but this does not change his general character—even if he did jump out of his skin that one time. For the most part, such precision amounts to pedantry; and, of course, Nietzsche was a trained scholar—a trained pedant. He never escaped his scholarly inclinations. And so this assertion “everything’s on a spectrum” is today used to pedantically point out that because there are exceptional intersex people or mixed race people therefore there is “no such thing as male/female or black/white”—no “oppressive dichotomies”.
Nietzsche thought that a person’s character was radically unstable because his own character was very volatile. He was impecunious from his youth, he moved around a lot—he shifted his position a lot. His health was bad, very changeable—he was suddenly crippled with headaches and vision loss and nausea. For Nietzsche, it probably felt like “your character” was a very unstable thing—his own body was in constant rebellion against him, reducing him to dry heaves one moment and ice-pick headaches the next. No wonder he thought “all is flux”.
However, he generalised from his specific condition without being conscious that he did so. Actually, there is a recognisable “Nietzsche character” from his teenage years: spendthrift, changeable, constantly sick—not very sociable, hard-working. This notion that a person’s character undergoes radical flux—not growth through experience but radical change—also contributes to the contemporary trans movement: the idea that I can and should “bust forth” from the corset (into the corset) and undertake radical transformation, since character is all total flux (Nietzsche is also reduced to this proposition because he denies the soul—he forever wonders “what is this ‘I’” within me, suggests it is all flux…).
Nietzsche also went wrong with his proposition that primitive man “arbitrarily” gendered objects—notably, the sun. From the position of the old philosophy, as practiced in ancient Egypt, the gods are the same everywhere and yet appear in different forms to different tribes and peoples. Hence it is perfectly possible to have one tribe that has a female moon goddess and another a male moon goddess; it is not necessarily arbitrary, as Nietzsche thinks. Nietzsche assumed that the language was “gendered” in an entirely arbitrary way—it is unlikely it was so. Yet the assumption that the designation is arbitrary, particularly with regards to gender, feeds into today’s gender politics—for what is arbitrary is likely to be unjust, and so from Nietzsche we can take the idea that gender binaries are unjust.
Hence wokeness is recognisably Nietzsche’s grandchild. The great irony is that Nietzsche’s attempt to assault resentful decadence, as instantiated, in his view, in Socrates and his dichotomies, has been hi-jacked by the resentful to assault those values, to carry out a transvaluation of values, that Nietzsche himself admired. Indeed, is not the whole “trans movement” itself a self-referential nod to Nietzsche—to the transvaluation of all values?
The attack on dichotomies has come in many waves; for example, Robert Anton Wilson, the popular esotericist (somewhat an oxymoron) from the 1970s, used to make the same Nietzschean point except dressed up in the clothes of General Semantics and quantum physics. We have soaked in the bath for a long time—so that even as a teenager in the 2000s the idea “sexuality is on a spectrum” came naturally to my lips, though I did not know where from (it is just the normative media view, actually). The unfortunate thing is that the movement that is in contention with wokeness, that would dub it “postmodern neo-Marxism”, is itself a levelling democratic movement—and also resentful.