Nietzsches aphorism as a new web tool

On: October 15, 2007
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About Rikus Wegman
Rikus is a student New Media on the university of Amsterdam. He has a bachelor degree in Social Science and a broad interest in the social and cultural implications of New Media. Rikus is interested in the development of New Media in Africa. He has a minor in cultural studies with a broad interest in youth culture.


This weeks assignment in our Masters of Media class was to take a quote from Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche’s work and try to analyze a new media object using this quote. Because I personally wasn’t familiar with Nietzsche I started searching the web hoping to find an appropriate quote to use in this post. When looking for quotes I found that they weren’t hard to find in Nietzsche’s case. Nietzsche was known for his fondness for aphorism in the many critiques he wrote on religion, morality, contemporary culture, philosophy, and science. This distinctive style of using aphorisms intrigued me. According to The Oxford English Dictionary an aphorism is a short pithy sentences that contain a truth of general import. When reading about aphorisms I couldn’t help making a connection between these short sentences Nietzsche uses to trigger his readers and the way people collect little bits and pieces of information while surfing the Internet and using web 2.0. That’s why I chose not to take one single quote from Nietzsche butt look at the role aphorisms in general ‘could’ take in new forms of media and the Internet.
nietzasche available for reprint

Nietzsche uses rhetorical violence to overthrow and seduce the readers of his work. Logic, according to Nietzsche, is subordinate to the rhetoric; it is part of a much broader strength field that in the human communication leads to persuasion and convincing others. For this persuasion and to convince other people with his ideas Nietzsche uses a lot of aphorisms. “The period from 1878 to 1886 can be seen as a aphoristic period.” (translated from Dutch wikipedia) I will first try to draw a picture of how an aphorism works and then I will debate how it could be used as a tool on the Internet and web 2.0.

Next to the English Dictionary translation I also found the following definition of Aphorism in a text from Murray S. Davis:

“The finest thoughts in the fewest words.”

By using an aphorism to define what an aphorism is the author gives a good insight in how aphorisms work. Originally the word descends from the Greek word aphorizein witch means ‘define’. In form, aphorisms are always terse and trenchant, demonstrating maximum comprehension in minimum expression (Davis). In other words: By using aphorisms authors try to persuade and convince their readers by using short and catchy sentences. By reading these aphorisms readers are able to quickly grasp the meaning of the point the author tries to make. Aphorisms give readers a quick and basic idea of what the author is trying to say and challenges the reader to think about the authors ‘content’.

When we look at the way information is collected on the Internet the aphorism has some aspects that could make it serve as a good tool to help internet users. Because some of an aphorisms characteristics are similar to the specific demands internet users look for in the tools that help them filter certain content. In Davis article “APHORISMS AND CLICHÉS: The Generation and Dissipation of Conceptual Charisma” he points out that a thoughtful aphorist could be seen as someone who helps out his readers by already taking the readers notes from an article. Even the best of articles are filled with superfluous words, when read a reader points out the highlights. The aphorist saves readers this trouble by already pointing out these highlights for them.

“Each aphorism swings the mind from outside to inside a topic, whereas a category of aphorisms swings it from side to side across their common topic—stimulating the mind to fill in the empty conceptual space between points of clarity.” (Davis)

The functions an aphorism could be compared with the functions of tagging or using abstracts while searching for information on the web. On a lot of Internet sites the content is being organized by using short tags or abstracts of the whole to make searching the databases and archives easier. The way tags and especially abstracts work resembles the way the aphorism could work. Although aphorisms do not have some of the specific functions that tagging has such as linking tags from different sites it could in my opinion help organise and structure some of the (especially scientific) databases on the internet. In some cases using tags to store your content might be a little superficial. The complexity of a theory could be impossible to capture in a couple of twinge words. In these cases authors normally start using abstracts to summarize their articles. “Most abstracts, however, are merely carelessly written afterthoughts rather than carefully conceived forethoughts.”(Davis) For a short introduction into an article a list of aphorisms could serve as more off a trigger than an abstract. It draws peoples attention because of the catchy way it’s formulated and the way it challenges its readers.

When we look at the role abstracts take in modern day web searching, and the large amount of people that read these abstracts, I find it strange that many authors putt seemingly little thought in these abstracts. A well written, though through, stylish aphoristic abstract could become more influential than the article it abstracts. A good example of an article abstract constructed from aphorisms could be found in Davis introduction to his text. I will now show the first three sentences to give a brief idea of how a collection of aphorisms looks:

“We chase the interesting, which continually eludes us; we are chased by boredom, which continually catches us.

The first criterion by which people judge anything they encounter, even before deciding whether it is true or false, is whether it is interesting or boring.

The truth of a theory is not even the main criterion of its acceptance, for an interesting falsehood will attract more followers than a boring truth..” (Davis, 1999)

Although this introduction does not cover the entire content of the article it does give a clear view into the authors thinking process. It challenges the reader to think about how truth is being constructed. Evoking this ‘challenge’ in my opinion can be seen as a tool capable of gasping a readers attention. When we look at the way the internet and the media is structured it seems more and more imminent to get people’s attention, or….to speak in a aphorism:

“News is only news when it’s on the news.”

The importance of drawing peoples attention is bigger than ever in our modern world of mass media. “Science dominates the world view of our high technology-based civilization, but it is the fight for attention which dominates its everyday culture”. (Franck pp.3). According to Davis “the aphoristic form is well suited to the discontinuities of postmodern society. Its shortness can help postmodern audiences fill their many small splinters of empty time. Its conciseness can make aphorisms appropriate for the “sound bites” that fill postmodern media’s brief time slots for news. Its modularity can adapt aphorisms to postmodern culture’s collage, in which items originally invented for one purpose are frequently used for another, for ‘a truth of general import’ can be easily transported between contexts.” (Davis, 1999) In a world where attention is becoming a new sort of commodity it is important to develop new tools to attract this attention. Aphorisms could serve as one of these tools.

The aphorism is known for it’s ability to challenge people into thinking about the short statement that is made within this catchy sentence. In today’s postmodern society it could be capable of serving as a trigger to seduce people into reading certain articles of texts. The aphorism, in a postmodern society that according to Franck is dominated by a fight for attention, could serve as an inspiration tool to sparkle this attention. It could provide that little bit of ‘in depth interest’ that the shallow internet environment at first glance sometimes misses.

Georg Franck, ‘Introduction to The Economy of Attention’, in: Georg Franck, Die Ökonomie der Aufmerksamkeit, München: Hanser 1998
Murray S.Davis, ‘Aphorisms and clichés: The Generation and Dissipation of Conceptual Charisma’, in: Annual Review of Sociology, Vol.25, pp. 245-269, Augustus1999
Dutch wikipedia on Nietzsche:

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