Poster accompanying an essay on the aesthetic of being supercanny.
“All beings so far have created something beyond themselves. Do you want to be the ebb of that great tide, and revert back to the beast rather than surpass mankind? What is the ape to a man? A laughing-stock, a thing of shame. And just so shall a man be... to the Superman: a laughing-stock, a thing of shame.” said Nietzsche famously in his book ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’ published in 1885.1 I believe we’re on the edge of man, unable to move to Superman. Technological innovations have given us the opportunity to surpass mankind, but structures in our societies, such as class differences and money – or lack thereof- keep us from falling over the edge to become our destined Superman. However, by means of the internet, man has created a new realm. This realm can be designed to allow man to surpass mankind because we live in an image-based world that manifests online. We watch television, scroll through our Instagram feed and send pictures of our day to our ‘friends’ on Snapchat. This is man’s opportunity to create something more than himself. But are we ready to become a Superman living in a virtual world?
Hannah Arendt was an American-German philosopher in the 20th century. She said: “It seems that a man who is nothing but a man has lost the very qualities which make it possible for other people to treat him as a fellow- man.”2 Thus a man is not defined by being a man, but by what he has and everything which he associates himself with. Flaws in these ‘human’ qualities can be concealed through technology. Voices can be changed, looks can be modified and even personality disorders can be medicated. What happens when we encompass all human qualities? That’s the moment that we become what Nietzsche called a Superman. But only for those that have access. For all the other man, the list of qualities they need to possess to be considered human will grow longer. They will turn into the laughing-stock of our modern society, because we’ll not be able to view them as human. Which is also the reason why mankind will be unable to move to Superman, because we’ll not be able to move to this stage together.
This aesthetic manifests on social networks, like Instagram and snapchat. It’s powered by filters, photoshop and apps like Facetune. It found its origin in photoshopped models in advertisements and on the cover on magazines. Instagram feed can be seen as a virtual representation of mankind. Through the use of filters and editing tools, we’re creating a space where a person loses their human flaws and enters into the realm of something that surpasses the capabilities of mankind. The exponential growth of social media in our daily lives over the past decade enabled this aesthetic to take root.
The consequence of this new aesthetic can be found in our own physical reaction to the development of the online Superman. Much like the emotional experience when we watch a humanoid enact human behaviour on Youtube, can be found when we encounter an Instagram page created with filters and photoshop. It manifests in a creepy, uncomfortable and wrongly familiar feeling. It’s the experience of chills down your back and sweaty palms, because something seems not quite right. This emotional experience is called the uncanny valley. Stephanie Lay wrote that: “The uncanny valley might occur at the boundary where something moves from one category to another,”3 In this case we’re experiencing the movement of mankind from its place in the physical world to the virtual world.
According to Nietzsche, we will – like every other species – move from man to something bigger than us; Superman. It seems inevitable with our natural desire for excessive use of social media, but we’ll not be able to reach this stage together. So, for now we’re stuck in Supercanny. This is the question we should ask ourselves though; do we want to lose our human flaws and become Superman in a world based on technological innovation and modification? Or do we want to be a laughing-stock?
1 Nietzsche, F. W., & Common, T. (1908). Thus spake Zarathustra. Edinburgh: T. Common.
2 Linfield, S. (2012). The cruel radiance: Photography and political violence. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
3 Lay, S. (2015, November 13). Uncanny valley: Why we find human-like robots and dolls so creepy | Stephanie Lay. Retrieved May 15, 2019, from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/13/robotshuman-uncanny-valley