[[ THIS IS AN EVOLVING TEXT – EXPECT FREQUENT MUTATIONS ]]
“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 and acting opened up by operant negational attitudes are multitude. It is therefore long overdue that we begin to understand and present the advent of nihilism as an opportunity for human emancipation and more adaptive living.
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 our lazy interpretations of the contemporary, and reject those soothsayers who seem more interested in protecting the supposed sanctity of transcendental logos and virtue than coming to grips with the end of certainty.
But 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 affects and references resulting from the de-legitimization of certain forms of knowledge and life, and with it a growing awareness of the dissolution of various claims to truth, methodological faiths, social institutions, political regimes and cognitive orientations. In many respects Truth ain’t what it used to be we might say.
The delegitimization of doxic modes of cognition and belief was in part an effect of scientific methodologies and conclusions demonstrating their practical and technical value and eroding the docile acceptance of traditional semantic habits. We know how the story goes in this regard. Naturalism and the success of technology made older dogmas obsolete.
In the vacuum several nihilistic intelligences arose that afforded our species a range of new potentially rewarding neurally instantiated possibility spaces for novel experience and cognition, and so too action and accommodation.
Nihilism thus coded intellectually and emotionally a growing awareness of the limits of belief and the futility of grand narrative gestures, which in turn allowed us to become more aware of our proximity to that which exceeds the symbolic – that which there is no escape from: the 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.
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 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)