Postmodern Subjectivity: the Problem of the Actor (Zarathustra and the Butler)

Paul Patton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Paragraph 361 of The Gay Science begins with Nietzsche's blunt declaration:
"The problem of the actor has troubled me for the longest time" (Nietzsche 1974:316). In order to approach this problem and to see why he was troubled by it, we should recall that the figure of the actor is one of the principal metaphors which he uses to characterize a pervasive modem European experience of self: " ... where the market-place begins, there begins the uproar of the great actors ..." (Nietzsche 1961:78). For Nietzsche, Modern European culture is distinguished by its historical sense, which means among other things its taste for the whole gamut of styles and sensibilities which have characterised previous cultures. The modern European is therefore a hybrid character, who requires a costume and who "needs history as his storeroom for costumes" (Nietzsche 1973: 133). But how does modernity give rise to an experience of the self as actor, and why should this pose a problem? Nietzsche's answer to this question, I shall argue, offers a valuable perspective on the (post) modern experience of self, moreover one that sets him apart from much of what is taken to be the postmodernist conception of subjectivity.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)32-41
Number of pages10
JournalSocial Analysis: The International Journal of Anthropology
Issue number30
Publication statusPublished - Dec 1991


  • Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, 1844-1900
  • Self
  • Actors
  • Modernity
  • Postmodernism


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