“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.”
– Glen Fuller
The liberating and invigorating spaces of reasoning, acting and becoming opened up by radical negational cognition are multitude. Instead of remaining content to reiterate centuries old maladaptive semiotic commitments and social enactments the advent of radically nihilistic thought violently breaks with contemporary assumptions and social norms. It is therefore long overdue that we begin to understand and present the advent of nihilism primarily as an opportunity for emancipation, experimentation, and creativity in the search for more adaptive living.
To do better in the task of living, relating and thinking we can continue to annihilate the dominant heuristic interpretations of our time, and reject those soothsayers who seem more interested in protecting the supposed sanctity of transcendental logos than coming to grips with the precariousness of life and the unreliability of all available maps to mitigate or guide it.
We might then ask, “how can nihilism activate the latent possibilities opened by the current ambient disorders?” To be sure, ‘nihilism’ has never existed as a unified objective condition or psychological mood, but rather as loosely organizing constellations of attitudes and references resulting from the large scale de-legitimization of certain forms of knowledge and practice viz. the rise scientific knowledge and methods, and the ongoing reality of corruption by both church and government.
This loss of legitimacy of both tradition and power afforded a creeping awareness and acknowledgement of the dissolution of the dominant modes of existing doxa (claims to truth, methodological faiths, social institutions, political regimes and cognitive orientations) which further eroded the docile acceptance of traditional semantic habits. Naturalism and new technologies have made older dogmas obsolete.
Nihilism is thus intellectual and emotional code for a growing awareness of the limits of belief and the futility of grand narrative gestures. And in the vacuum created by the subsequent retreat of ignorance, tradition, and doxic certainty our species is afforded a wide range of novel and potentially rewarding neurally instantiated possibility spaces for more adaptive cognition and communications – and so too for action, accommodation, and creative praxis.
Nihilism provides an opportunity to develop an awareness of our proximity to that which exceeds the symbolic – and that which there is no escape from: the non-human forces of the Real, both within the embodied matrix of self (as the ‘nonhuman-in-human’) and without (in “the great outdoors”). 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.
With the decline of doxa as a general mode of cognition the various clouds of symbolic projection begin to lift, affording us opportunities to become better acquainted with the deeply visceral and more directly consequential (pragmatic) aspects of the real. Embodied experience and sensibility become reinvigorated and open up as radical sites for self-organizing being and becoming differently in the world.
The first great pitfall from which such a radical standing by experience will save us is an artificial conception of the relations between knower and known. Throughout the history of philosophy the subject and its object have been treated as absolutely discontinuous entities; and thereupon the presence of the latter to the former, or the ‘apprehension’ by the former of the latter, has assumed a paradoxical character which all sorts of theories had to be invented to overcome. Representative theories put a mental ‘representation,’ ‘image,’ or ‘content’ into the gap, as a sort of intermediary. Common-sense theories left the gap untouched, declaring our mind able to clear it by a self-transcending leap. Transcendentalist theories left it impossible to traverse by finite knowers, and brought an Absolute in to perform the saltatory act. All the while, in the very bosom of the finite experience, every conjunction required to make the relation intelligible is given in full.
– William James, ‘A World of Pure Experience‘ (1904)
We are reminded in every experience we have with finitude – with trauma, limit, decay, death, causality, affordance, pleasure, joy, and necessity – of our ontological embeddedness and kinship with-in those practical realms of affect, materiality, and subsistence which structure all that we are or aspire to be. The reality of embodied ecological life cuts through our narratives and disrupts our strategies in ways that fundamentally challenge us, while simultaneously affording us opportunities for existence. Ecology has triumphed over all varieties of Cartesianism.
The new openness and flexibility in thought afforded by the rejection of all forms of dogma and doxic cognition allow us to acquire and evolve new sense-abilities and skills for building from the ruins of our past failures and develop more adaptive ways to survive and generate joy. After nihilism we achieve deeper intimations with the real.
In the clearing enacted by nihilistic thought life and thought goes on. We must cope and make our way in the world even in the absence of all transcendent truths. We must consume and release energy and matter; we must shelter ourselves, cooperate, and procreate; we must make sense of, communicate, and navigate the world. In short, existence continues according to its own natures even in the absence of explanation and “absolute” signification.
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. This matrix is the hyperreal ecological context of facticity that both pre-exists and survives all human desires for oversignification as well as the deflationary advent of nihilism.
“The fact that human cognition is heuristic, fractionate, and combinatory means that we should expect koans, puzzles, paradoxes, apories, and the like. We should expect that different systems possessing overlapping domains will come into conflict. We should expect them in the same way and for the same reason we should expect to encounter visual, auditory, and other kinds of systematic illusions. Because the brain picks out only the correlations it needs to predict its environments, cues predicting the systems requiring solution the way they need to be predicted to be solved. Given this, we should begin looking at traditional philosophy as a rich, discursive reservoir of pathologies, breakdowns providing information regarding the systems and misapplications involved. Like all corpses, meaning will provide a feast for worms.” – R.S. Bakker
There is no escaping reality. And the consequences of ignoring what it has to teach us about our own constructed and cherished commitments and values would just breed more ignorance and keep us trapped in the confusing logic of self-assuring naivety. Nihilism operates here as constant reminder and corrective to any tendency to rebuild our imaginaries, logics, and commitments in ignorance of this pre and non-discursive life.
Yet “nihilism” is still primarily just another code; it is a phantasy thrashing out signals hoping for some semblance of contact with the non-symbolic flesh of the world. Nihilism at it’s worst is a poetics of defeat and epistemic inaction, and at its most useful a temporary semantic and aesthetic placeholder allowing us to gain some traction towards integrating and synthesizing the dark insights of finitude, incompleteness, difference and ontological intimacy. Such insights force us to loosen our existential and conceptual grip on the ideological baggage following from centuries of ill-constructed narratives and begin to more readily accept the immanent challenges and opportunities of embodied ecological life.
So it is that nihilistic intelligence allows us to radically deconstruct our commitments and interests, leaving us to remake those commitments and interests in thick collaboration with the immanent (hyper)Real of pre-discursive life. The important corrective of perpetual negation and constant re-emphasis (via new sensory and cognitive registers) must be retained, however, if those makings are to provide a qualitative difference for developing more adaptive modes of existing-coping.
“‘positive unbelief’ – a provisionalizing of any reality frame in the name of pragmatic engagement rather than epistemological hesitation…” (CCRU)