The Birth of Tragedy in the Spirit of “Jeff the Moose”

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The Martin Agency, a smart ad shop in Richmond, Virginia–of all places–has had the GEICO account for ages now, and they deserve it. Their perfectly sound strategy has been to run memorable commercials that can compete, cleverness-wise, with SNL or the Internet, then slap the GEICO logo on them. They also tend to run a few series at a time. Don’t like the caveman? How about a gecko? Like Lorne Michaels, they’ll get you one way or another.

(This is the point where people who have not worked in or near advertising–and even some people who have–say, sure, but what does it do with insurance? That anyone can ask this after the 2016 presidential election is astounding, but just in case: When you buy insurance, you think of the first insurance companies you can think of and type them into Google. What insurance company are you thinking of right now? I rest my case.)

But I want to talk about Jeff the Moose, the sticker who does not know he is a sticker, from one of GEICO’s recent ads. If you haven’t seen it, or need a refresher, here it is.

Jeff is in an existential quandary, and–based on the remarks of his stickerlocutors–it is recurrent. (“We’ve been over this Jeff,” the buffalo sticker reminds him.) In short, he does not know he is merely a representation of a moose. He believes he is a moose. Accordingly, he also doesn’t understand–or can’t understand–concepts concerning the conditions of the possibility of this representation. His quandary begins with “What’s an RV?” and ends with “What’s a sticker?!?”

Jeff’s dilemma reminded me of the Birth of Tragedy, where Nietzsche offers this baffling description of our own self-awareness.

… our consciousness of this, our specific significance, hardly differs from the kind of consciousness the soldiers painted on canvas have of the battle represented thereon.

I’ve had this quote tucked away for awhile, precisely because I find it so baffling. Why baffling? Well, for one thing, it is not the same as the similarly nihilistic–but somehow more decipherable–claim (that Dan Dennett might make?) that our “consciousness of this, our specific significance, hardly differs from the kind of consciousness a rock has.”

This would be to say that our consciousness of our “specific significance” is null, since rocks (for my purposes) have no consciousness. And, of course, the consciousness of “soliders painted on canvas” differ in no way from other non-conscious objects, like rocks or stickers. But Nietzsche did not choose a rock as an example. He chose soldiers on canvas, embedded in a network of relationships. The soldiers are representations of us, for one, and they are related to a battle, of which they are specifically unaware. The latter can only be interpreted as slightly arch, since of course they are generally unaware of everything, or–better put–have no awareness whatsoever. Here is the full Nietzsche quote, which I yanked from a public domain translation because I am too lazy to to type out the Kaufmann.

For this one thing must above all be clear to us, to our humiliation and exaltation, that the entire comedy of art is not at all performed, say, for our betterment and culture, and that we are just as little the true authors of this art-world: rather we may assume with regard to ourselves, that its true author uses us as pictures and artistic projections, and that we have our highest dignity in our significance as works of art — for only as an aesthetic phenomenon is existence and the world eternally justified — while of course our consciousness of this our specific significance hardly differs from the kind of consciousness which the soldiers painted on canvas have of the battle represented thereon. Hence all our knowledge of art is at bottom quite illusory, because, as knowing persons we are not one and identical with the Being who, as the sole author and spectator of this comedy of art, prepares a perpetual entertainment for himself. Only in so far as the genius in the act of artistic production coalesces with this primordial artist of the world, does he get a glimpse of the eternal essence of art, for in this state he is, in a marvelous manner, like the weird picture of the fairy-tale which can at will turn its eyes and behold itself; he is now at once subject and object, at once poet, actor, and spectator.

The full context, which contains Nietzsche’s famous claim that life can only be justified aesthetically–seems to answer a puzzle that the partial quote and the case of Jeff the Moose raises. Who is speaking? Who, among the dumb soldiers painted on canvas, has somehow transcended that existence in order to report the discrepancy and make the analogy? In Jeff the Moose’s case, it is the wolf and the buffalo. (Anyone who would like to build that into a comment on the fecundity of Native American wisdom is welcome to, though please don’t forget to zoom back out to the ecotourists and their casual despoliation of nature.) But this is what makes the commercial funny, rather than terrifying. There is only one solider stuck in the painting. All the slaves have the left the cave, save one, and the surmountable comedy is in encouraging him to join us.

For Nietzsche, it is practically the reverse. Our natural state is ignorance, suspended only in the figure of the genius, who–in a fit of inspiration–fuses with the (presumably non-theistic) “primordial creator of the world” and becomes Being beholding itself.

This isn’t nearly so funny.

Originally published at milesglorios.us on May 6, 2017.

Just another boastful soldier.

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