The Opportunity of Nihilism

“The nihilist’s capacity to act is increased (what Nietzsche calls “spiritual vigour”) when the goals or missions that once directed you are no longer suitable; the nihilist begins as an existential exploration: discover your own challenges.”
– Dr. Glen Fuller

It is long overdue that we begin to understand and present the advent of nihilism as an opportunity for human emancipation. These are interesting times, and we need not remain complacent in activating the latent possibilities emanating from such ambient disorder.

The liberating and invigorating spaces of reasoning opened up by operant negational attitudes are multitudinous. Instead of remaining content to reiterate centuries old maladaptive semiotic commitments and social enactments we would do better in the task of living, relating and thinking to toss aside the lazy interpretations of those contemporaries who seem more interested in protecting the supposed sanctity of transcendental logos and virtue than coming to grips with the end of certainty.

To be sure, ‘nihilism’ has never existed as a unified objective condition or psychological mood, but rather as loosely organizing constellations of affects and references expressing a growing awareness of the dissolution of various claims to truth, methodological faiths, social institutions, political regimes and cognitive orientations. Truth ain’t what it used we might say.


The delegitimization of doxic modes of cognition and belief enacted in the wake of the corrosive effects of nihilistic intelligence – with its acceptance of scientific methodologies over semantic habits, and discursive relativity over soothsaying bravado – has afforded our species a range of potentially rewarding neurally instantiated possibility spaces for experience and cognition.

Nihilism is coded intellectually and emotionally in us as a growing awareness that there is no escape from the material, kinetic and non-human force of the Real, both without (in the great outdoors) and within our embodied matrix (the ‘nonhuman-in-human’). The myth of pure representation as mediator of the Real predicated on an assumed split between cognition and nature, between thought and world, died with natural science right alongside the supposed laughing Gods. Ecology trumps Cartesianism; and every experience we have with limit, decay, death, causality, affordance, affect, and necessity confirms the practical taskscapes that structure all that we are or aspire to be.

So if we cannot escape reality ignoring what it has to teach us about our own constructed and cherished commitments and values is to remain lost in confusion and self-assuring naivety. The reality of embodied ecological life cuts through our narratives and disrupts our strategies in ways that fundamentally challenge us. Nihilistic maturity is thus the translating of an awareness of the limits of signification and futility of certainty into a conceptually open willingness to end the various games of detached self-enchantment that keep us from enacting healthier and more creative lives and worlds.

Nihilistic thought forces us to start over, and remake our commitments, and accept the immanent challenges and opportunities of embodied ecological life. Therefore nihilism also always immediately leads us into positions of post-nihilist possibility. The post-nihilist position is inherently given to possibility. Whereas nihilism as a reactive negational realization entails destruktion, the post-nihilist outgrowth as an active possibility space necessarily affords creation. After deterritorialization necessarily comes reterritorialization, endlessly.

Cultural commitments that have bound us to our current ecologies of practice can now be swept away in favour of more collaborative and context specific forms of inquiry and action. The practical advantages and adaptations of exploring such possibilities are too important to be explained away. The possibility of salvaging and remaking whole fields of knowledge, methodology, discourse, participation, and praxis to more adaptively align with our social and ecological needs and goals is at stake. There is an urgency with which we must respond to challenges of Anthropocene life.

The nihilist insights leading to any post-nihilist will to empowerment can be conceived as a type of ‘coming to our senses’: motivated by the deemphasis of representation and semantic association in favour of a reengagement of embodied knowing and appreciation of the visceral intensities of life. The post-nihilist reactivation of explicit copings-with the pre-conceptual plane of immanent consistency offers a kind of zero-point realism that renders thinkable an auto-affective matrix within which all praxis operates. And praxis is what always sustains us. ‘Knowing how’ to find or way in the world and continue to existence has demonstrably more traction than ‘knowing that’ (often mistakenly) things are they way we organize them schematically.

“God is dead”, and yet we remain intoxicated by the idea of gods. We continue to drink the electric kool-aid of ideology and concoct potent cocktails of compromising certainty. Culture-shocking drunkards stumble from town to city, from field to forrest, slurring our media with toxic information and distracting images.

The nihilist-to-post-nihilist move is an evolutionary and cognitive mutation of a species that has been too drunk by its own desire-infused semiotic feedback loops for far too long. We have been intoxicated by all the stories and the successes they allowed since the beginning. Now excess and abuse of those same stories and practices can finally help us hit rock-bottom and confront the consequences of our addiction to ourselves. We can now change. We can mutate and become immune to our ideological successes in order to confront our practical failures.

Those of us no longer hung over from God’s colossal wake are content only in forging new worlds while others seek new intoxications that might allow them to cling to their principles, axioms and nostalgia. Our species does not need more ‘isms’, even if its coated in the soothing logic of norms and predicates. What we need is a perpetual disillusionment that fosters brave new pragmatisms and animal becomings. What we need is post-nihilist praxis.

13 responses to “The Opportunity of Nihilism

  1. “That’s just it; the economics of higher education now prevent the kind of interdisciplinary vision that I’m describing. I think that a literary critic’s work would only be enhanced by a more sophisticated sense of, say, evolutionary paleontology, or molecular biology, or cognitive science, or cosmology. We want to be able to ask answerable questions, but we also want to be able to situate those answers in a broader geography, an engagement of the larger human questions. And that’s how my books work; they work by saying you cannot understand a person minimally, you cannot understand a person simply as a function of his inability to get along with his wife, you cannot even understand a person through his supposedly causal psychological profile. You can’t understand a person completely in any sense, unless that sense takes into consideration all of the contexts that that person inhabits. And a person at the end of the second millennium inhabits more contexts than any specialized discipline can easily name. We are shaped by runaway technology, by the apotheosis of business and markets, by sciences that occasionally seem on the verge of completing themselves or collapsing under its own runaway success. This is the world we live in. .”

  2. Pingback: The Opportunity of Nihilism  | syndax vuzz·

  3. Wonderfully written, Michael! I wish I could follow you on this, and I know I garnish the appeal of my own position by appealing to the possibilities of reinvention post-intentional thought promises, but this is way too Promethean for my sensibilities. The thing to remember about the madness of intentional philosophy is that it *falls organically* out of intentional cognition. Freeing ourselves of this madness does nothing to change the fact that we are being wrenched inside out, situated in a way strangles our native sense-making capacities. There’s no boot-strapping, here, no overcoming, and certainly no liberty apart from the theoretical (useless) kind. To be honest to nihilism, I think, is to be honest to horror, abjection, and turmoil.

      • The way to test is simply: are any such language games and practices (modes of existence) conducive to life (survival and continuance), and a “good” (pleasurable, fulfilling, joyous) life at that? Let us not forget the insights of the Greeks, Confucius, etc. Life has its own basic imperatives that can be enhanced and tweeked. Hook this basic priority of living into an awareness of the existence of our our circuits of empathy (and how they too mix in with a “good” life) and the knowledge that stability only occurs within balanced and moving equilibriums and you get a full suite of social-ist, communalist priorities as well.

        There are various practices and strategies for coping and living from the ruins that can be deployed. Permaculture, co-opts, earthships, transition villages, guerrilla gardening, group therapeutics, solarpunk tactics, psychedelics for cognitive health, polyamory, local markets, etc, etc, etc – many of which have been posted here too. I plan on featuring more practice solution-focused coping stuff here as we go along, but the tools already exists to life the “good” life, we just have to start using and enacting them.

      • seems to lack context, literally I mean, there is no exit from the titanic collapses of our times, so how to bear them?

      • I’m not sure what you mean about a lack of context? The context is anywhere humans exist. Our species always seeks to survive and increase pleasure.

        I mentioned some ways to bear life within collapse: drugs, permaculture, collaborative art projects, local food production, re-vitalization of communal living spaces, polyamory, weaponry, etc.

        Maslow gave us the broad outline long ago.
        1. survive
        2. grow
        3. thrive

        Building up the necessary capacities and situational scaffolding for coping – say in your town or home or individual life – must be stacked via 1-2-3.

        The question we must ask is do our language games and practices afford the stacking from 1 to 3 inclusive of imperatives operating at the biological, social and existential registers?

        The difference in coping-styles between pre-nihilist modes like religious fundamentalists or neo-liberal capitalists and a post-nihilist praxis is a) in the level of commitment to extra-logistic principles (ideological cognitive anchors like “freedom” or “duty” or “race”) which drive behavior in terms of dispositions towards acceptance of perspectives or information, or willingness to act, communicate, and b) an ability to deliberately revise both thought and actions according to the open responsiveness of our bodies and the agencies of nonhuman assemblages, both in our immediate awareness (phenomenology) and the extended perceptions via tools (techno-scientific methods). In a word, humility. Humility supplemented by deliberate inquiry in the service of enacting nonzero outcomes.

        What are you looking for exactly in terms of context and tools?

        Give me a situation where actual humans are having to cope with actual collapse and we can identify strategies and available resources for coping in that context. Let’s do a case study!

      • I’m asking how one avoids the degradations under and poisonous excretions of the powers that be, platform capitalisms, anthropocene, etc. Humility might keep me from banging my head against a wall but not from the wall falling on my head.
        Pick anyone you like finding reasonable housing, food, work, healthcare, etc.
        A case study would be good might give me some sense of how what yer suggesting works.

    • Thank you Scott. I’m confused why you think its too Promethean when it seems to me that your whole model is about re-cognizing our limitations for some sort of subtle personal intervention into our own mental life and actions; to use our illusions differently.

      Of course I agree there is no escaping the intentionality inherent to enunciationary cognition. Every expression or statement is an over-code, or an informatic game embedded within other games. We can no more escape this “wrenching” than we can do without it at this point in the life of our species. Sapience is hooked to how our difference-engine-brain’s use our token-able capacities to navigate affordance-scapes.

      Yet, what I think the explicit post-nihilist move can do is shift the cognitive emphasis – and thus our action-orientation interests – from the products of intentional-symbolic expression (with all the manifest images) to the process of coping, adapting and living. Nihilism is simply the emotional and intellectual (and cultural) symptom of the collapse of doxic semantics. Post-nihilist pragmatics/praxis (PNP) mutates intentional thought by rebooting and then building a strain of perpetual negation into its very deployment. If we can stabilize PNP in various discourse regimes, in whatever form, then we can reform our existential and social priorities in ways more conducive to more adaptive flex-low communications and coordinations of praxis.

      With every dissolution (nihilism) comes reformation (post-nihilist) necessarily. This is just how nature (as one-in-all) seems to work at the most basic ontic level. We need to incorporate our awareness of this process in our ways of being and knowing. We can either evolve (in the classical adaptivist sense) our ways and learn to enact our being and becoming differently or we can attempt dwell in one particular mode and stagnate and fail to adapt. Nihilism is but a mode of apprehending and coding the incomplete, impermanent, finite, differance, chaotic, “empty”, and perpetually changing nature of things. But unless we are all going to commit suicide then we must live after nihil, and with it, and in its possibility spaces. We are already post-nihilists as soon as we acknowledge the horror and turmoil inherent to Being and then still decide to keep living. Choosing to dwell in the emotional and intellectual modes of nihilist thought is choosing to be attached to yet another doxic psycho-semiotic complex. Instead, PNP advocates a radical break with doxic cognitive habits towards open experimentalist orientations to living that deintensify our psychological dependence on certainty (closure) and ideological commitments, while intensifying our bodily and adaptational (open) engagements with the world. Such enacted open orientations are animated by a pre-ideological concern with the self/species-justifying projects of survival, connection, joy production, and communal flourishing.

      The take-away here is the difference between operating as human agents in a closed mode or in an open mode. PNP operationalizes the insights of nihilism for the local and non-transcendentally justified project of living in more open and adaptive modes. Nihilism is an opportunity for becoming different and not an end in itself.

      • I’m not appealing to “progress” nor dialectics Dirk. I’m taking a broader ecological view here. Species come and go but their absence creates opportunity for a new species to flourish. Re-formation happens in a new way. I’m not saying humans will survive the various collapses, what I’m saying is that biological life itself evolves and adapts. Life’s imperative or inherent tendency is to perpetuate and adapt not remain static. Death, dissolution, disassembly are all events and the evental and flowing nature of energy and matter never stops. Any theory or position that privileges dissolution as finality is a theology of death, a thantanologistic rejection of the basic knowledge of how matter and energy never cease to flow and assemble and disassemble in various ways. We don’t actually know where the universe is heading in terms of the longest trajectory, but I have never encountered a natural system that just vanishes without somehow enriching its local environment with its remnants allowing a reterritorialization by other means.

      • That caveman strategy stuff is great too. PNP can never be committed to a particular aesthetic or suite of tactics for living. Acceleration to techno-utopia (zoom) or complete collapse (doom) are both possible, as is so much mangle in between. Definitive answers are set aside for working out (salvaging, creating, designing, etc) what works for any given assemblage of humans, things, and flows to perpetuate. The values we assign to any of it can only follow from life-imperatives mixed with a negotiation our adopted secondary interests.

        Of course, much of the discussion of strategy or values hinges on a consideration of the complex role empathy plays in our animal personality structures re: our seeking towards eudaimonia, and thus political posturing.

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