“Nihilism stands like an extreme that cannot be gotten beyond, and yet it is the only true path of going beyond; it is the principle of a new beginning.” – Maurice Blanchot
“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.
The person who declaims against nihilism does not escape it. Nihilism should not be treated as if it were something we might easily reject. Or, to put it differently, nihilism should not be treated as if it were the result of a decision, a choice that might be judged and found wanting according to a set of principles. One does not become (or avoid becoming) a nihilist by a pledge of allegiance. Nihilism is not a position that is taken against morality, against society or against politics. It is the condition we live under, and it can take many forms.
What nihilism describes are the effects of living within a collapsed universe. This is not a realm of nothingness where nothing matters and nothing makes any sense. Authority, truth and morality persist. Reason still operates. But what authority cannot gather and secure are the intellectual, affective, and bodily procedures that might render truth final, and secure its domain. Morality remains, truth remains, authorities still exist, and yet they cannot be sufficiently coordinated.
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. (Ansgar Allen)
This loss of legitimacy of both standardized norms and power structures induces a creeping awareness of the ongoing dissolution of dominant modes of doxa (claims to truth, methodological faiths, social institutions, political regimes and cognitive orientations), which then further erodes our docile acceptance of traditional semantic habits.
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 from which there is no escape: 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.
“Nihilism is not the negation of truth, but rather the truth of negation, and the truth of negation is transformative.”
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