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Two Sides of the Nihilistic Coin

Two Sides of the Nihilistic Coin


In my previous post, it will be recalled, I wrote about the emergence of the condition known as ‘nihilism’ in modern culture and society – one characterised by an awareness that things, relationships, institutions, and so on, lack the self-evident value and meaning they once unquestionably seemed to have. This sketched in the backdrop of what will be my eventual focus, to wit, the ‘cynical nihilism’ that has made a noticeable appearance since 2020. But before one can get there, what has to be added are some important distinctions on the spectrum of nihilism.

A good place to start, to be able to fathom the full range of meanings of the concept, ‘nihilism’ – which was first explored in my previous post – is (again) the writing of the prescient 19th-century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. This time it is encountered in his book (based on his unpublished notes, edited and published after his death by his sister, Elizabeth), The Will to Power (Trans. Kaufmann, W. and Hollingdale, R.J., New York, Vintage Books, 1968, p. 7-24). 

According to Nietzsche the most severe form of this phenomenon is known as ‘radical nihilism,’ which asserts itself upon discovering that everything one has always taken for granted as having value, like marriage, religion, education, having a stable job, voting in elections, or supporting the local football team, is actually nothing more than convention. What is convention? A tacit, unexamined set of assumptions about social or cultural customs that directs one’s actions and social behaviour. Radical nihilism is therefore the realisation that everything rests on nothing more than human credulity, and it therefore follows that closer examination will disclose even the most cherished institutions as having historically originated from constructive human decisions and cooperation that eventually became no more than accepted, unquestioned conventions. 

For Nietzsche (1968, p. 7), nihilism – the ‘uncanniest of all guests’ – has several faces. What does it mean, more specifically? ‘That the highest values devaluate themselves. The aim is lacking; “why?” finds no answer’ (1968, p. 9). Its manifestations include the radical nihilism already referred to, which, in Nietzsche’s formulation (1968: 9), amounts to ‘the conviction of an absolute untenability of existence when it comes to the highest values one recognizes.’ 

Depending on how one reacts to this disruptive awareness of the intrinsic worthlessness of everything previously taken for granted, according to Nietzsche, one could either prove to be a ‘passive’ or an ‘active’ nihilist. He characterises these two varieties of nihilism, namely passive (or incomplete) and active (or complete) nihilism, as follows (1968, p. 17):

Nihilism. It is ambiguous:

Nihilism as a sign of increased power of the spirit: as active nihilism.

Nihilism as decline and recession of the power of the spirit: as passive nihilism.

How are these two alternatives related to the realisation that things lack intrinsic value? The automatic reaction of the majority of people who make this disturbing discovery is denial, which amounts to passive nihilism: you catch a glimpse of the abyss of nothingness, you panic, and flee from it immediately, in search of some kind of anaesthetic to cover up its yawning void of meaninglessness. In the 19th century, this flight into denial usually took the form of returning to the church. In other words, people who lack the ‘strength of spirit’ that Nietzsche alluded to turned to (religious) convention, custom, and broadly what is fashionable, to escape from the gaping chasm of absurdity. 

As might be expected, today it is more complicated; suffice to say that the kind of behaviour cultivated by capitalism is the sphere of the provenance of passive nihilism in contemporary society, and ironically also the very thing, in all its manifestations, that people embrace to hide the axiological emptiness of their lives. What do I mean by this? Think of the phrase, ‘retail therapy’ – what does it imply? That if, for whatever reason, one feels somewhat out of sorts, unfulfilled, frustrated, and the like, there’s nothing more ‘therapeutic’ than to take off to a shopping mall and start spending money – often, if not mostly, by means of a credit card; that is, money you don’t have, but which creates a burden of debt on your part. 

On the topic of value (not only financial, but also axiological) and credit cards, I recall an iconic scene from the movie that ‘made’ Julia Roberts (as a prostitute, Vivian), to wit, Pretty Woman, where business tycoon, Edward (Richard Gere), takes her shopping for suitable (companion) attire after she was spurned by attendants at another shop because of her tartish appearance. When Edward produces his credit card, announcing that he intends to spend ‘an obscene amount of money,’ however, the shop attendants are galvanised into action, and the resemblance between the effect of the credit card and that which a magic wand has in fairy tales is too conspicuous to overlook. 

The implication? The credit card as a symbol of a virtually limitless amount of money (in principle) becomes an index of (capitalist) value for the present. I need not elaborate on the ramifications of this paradigmatic establishment of capital as the counterpart of magic in fairy tales (see my chapter, entitled ‘Pretty Woman – The politics of a Hollywood fairytale,’ in my book, Projections), except to say that, through cinema, it provides the (capitalist) setting for ‘passive nihilism’ to become normative. In this context, passive nihilism assumes the guise of ‘consumers’ – a word that aptly suggests passivity – merely drawing on readily available commodities to imbue their existence with a semblance of meaning. I used the term, ‘semblance,’ advisedly, because the kind of nihilism distinguished by Nietzsche makes it clear that true meaning lies elsewhere, namely with ‘active nihilism,’ which I shall get to presently. 

Zygmunt Bauman seems to be thinking along similar lines when he writes (in Liquid Modernity, p. 81): 

…the shopping compulsion-turned-into-addiction is an uphill struggle against acute, nerve-breaking uncertainty and the annoying, stultifying feeling of insecurity…

Consumers may be running after pleasurable – tactile, visual or olfactory – sensations, or after the delights of the palate, promised by colourful and glittering objects displayed on the supermarket shelves or department-store hangers, or after the deeper, even more comforting sensations promised by a session with a counselling expert. But they are also trying to find an escape from the agony called insecurity. 

What Bauman labels ‘insecurity’ resonates with what I prefer to call nihilism – the subliminal awareness of an axiologically hollowed-out world, where people’s lives seem to lack the previously unquestioned meaning and value of earlier times – in brief, a nihilistic psychological landscape, in need of an infusion of value. 

So what is Nietzsche’s ‘active nihilism?’ Similar to its passive counterpart, it entails the initial, disquieting realisation that everything that we value in society and culture is the historical result of centuries of living according to convention. But, unlike the passive nihilist, who cannot tolerate this truth (hence the ‘insecurity’ Bauman mentions), the active nihilist is liberated by the discovery. If nothing has intrinsic value, and is merely the outcome of human creation in the past, this opens up the exhilarating opportunity to create one’s own values. This is precisely what active nihilists do — in metaphorical Nietzschean fashion one might say that, instead of running from the abyss of absurdity and meaninglessness, they ‘dance upon it.’ An example of an active nihilist par excellence is Nietzsche himself, of course, whose philosophical work was strikingly original, and has generated a significant philosophical audience since his death in 1900. 

‘Active nihilism’ therefore marks a creative response to the awareness that things have been voided of their intrinsic value, partly because of what was described in my earlier post, with reference to Nietzsche’s diagnosis of a culture that has lost the healthy mythical foundation it once had, largely because of the hypertrophy of ‘scientism’ (and, one might add, technology, which reduces everything to nothing more than a resource). But how does one, when you possess what Nietzsche calls the requisite ‘power of spirit,’ create one’s own values? One cannot simply conjure them up out of thin air, surely?

Let me list some active nihilists, who should – given the knowledge of what they have achieved in culture and science – provide a clue to answering this question. Artists Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso, architect Zaha Hadid, and every painter or architect who has contributed to the infusion of their art with new value – not only Western ones, but all those who have shifted the boundaries of art and architecture through innovative reimagining of their artform – were, or are, by that token, active nihilists. And not only the legendary artists in the artistic canon, but even lesser visual artists, who strive to embody their experience of the world in their art through colours and forms, define themselves as active nihilists through their activities and creations. Needless to say, this goes for the other arts as well, from literature, music, and cinema through to dance and sculpture.

Here in South Africa, we have our fair share of active nihilists too, and I can think of no one more exemplary in this regard as a multi-talented and creative artist (painter), poet, writer, and illustrator than that remarkable woman, Louisa Punt-Fouché, who is also a Jungian psychoanalyst. Louisa’s paintings and books – of which we are privileged to have a number – are testament to her being an active nihilist, who not only uses traditional media, but introduces different ones into her artworks, and who integrates related themes (such as women, children, and ecological issues) in both her visual and literary art. Like all active nihilists, what she creates enhances life, and consequently it is easy to identify with the values she brings into being.   

Similarly, all thinkers and scientists who have renewed their disciplines with original (re-)conceptualisations – from Plato and Aristotle through Aquinas, Descartes, Mary Wollstonecraft, Martin Heidegger, John Dewey, and Richard Rorty to Martha Nussbaum, as well as Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and other outstanding scientists – have been active nihilists, given the way in which they have gone beyond merely employing already existing theories, by constructing new ones which have either supplemented old ones or revised them altogether. 

Although I linked passive nihilism with capitalism through consumer behaviour earlier, it is of course the case that, apart from thinkers in capitalist economics, such as Adam Smith, there have been many innovative individuals who have created the means to practice capitalism in different ways, such as the founder of Apple, Steve Jobs, and have therefore been active nihilists. Others merely use the products that were first designed by Jobs – and are in this respect passive nihilists, unless they use these as tools to create something of their own – which implies, of course, that anyone can live a life of active nihilism, as long as it is minimally creative in even the humblest fashion. I know several people who are avid gardeners, for example, and whose constructive efforts with flowers, shrubs, and trees – and sometimes vegetables – certainly pass muster as active nihilism, even if it is not in a qualitatively unique, inimitable fashion, such as the literary work of Antonia Byatt

But by now something must be apparent; namely, the tension between an individual active nihilist, who creates her or his own values, as Nietzsche would have it, and an active nihilism which presupposes such a creation of value(s) by an individual (or a group of people), but in which a number of people may participate. The former, where only one person creates, and lives according to, a set of values, is ultimately not viable – not even in a Robinson Crusoe sense, where a solitary individual lives ‘on an island’ away from a community of people, because a Man Friday may appear any day, and unless he or she can share in the values of the previously solitary person, it would prove to have been a futile exercise. 

In other words, viable active nihilism requires going beyond the values created by an individual; unless these values prove to be amenable to communal sharing, they are bound to remain solipsistically confined to the actions and beliefs of their originator. A test case proves the point: no matter how strenuously Jeffrey Dahmer may have argued that his own penchant for serial killings, regardless of the ‘originality’ of their planning and staging, comprised an example of ‘active’ nihilism, the mere fact that they could never form the basis of a community of shared values disqualifies him.  

Having mentioned Dahmer, this is a good point to make the transition to what will probably prove, with hindsight, to be the bunch of most ‘successful’ – measured by the number of people killed – serial killers in human history: those reprehensible psychopaths who planned and have been instrumental in implementing a veritable democide, mainly (so far) by means of a so-called ‘virus,’ created in a laboratory, and subsequently the rollout and administering of bioweapons masquerading as ‘vaccines.’ I inserted ‘so far’ parenthetically because their malevolent behaviour shows no sign of abating, yet.

Needless to add, we need a prodigious effort of active nihilism to combat the doings of this foul coterie of neo-fascists – which is already underway, at Brownstone, to mention only one of several centres of such creative activity. The following post will focus on their vile actions, which are a testament to their lamentable ‘cynical nihilism.’   

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  • Bert Olivier

    Bert Olivier works at the Department of Philosophy, University of the Free State. Bert does research in Psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, ecological philosophy and the philosophy of technology, Literature, cinema, architecture and Aesthetics. His current project is 'Understanding the subject in relation to the hegemony of neoliberalism.'

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