Monday, April 28, 2014

Thoughts on Nihilism - Part 2

...In its original sense, nihilism was more than just a feeling of disenchantment, of profound alienation (although it was that as well); it was a "negativity" expressed as an active rejection of all previously accepted social and political beliefs. (Here one thinks of the sense in which Turgenev used the term in his novel, Fathers and Sons.) According to this understanding, we envision a  violent revolutionary bent on destruction, obsessed with exposing and gutting the rot of a dying civilization, pulling down social structures, mores, protocols, subverting the system, etc. etc. or perhaps a radical avant-garde critic railing against inherited forms and paradigms; yet this same nihilism admits of a more conventional meaning. Here one could imagine an entire generation in search of identity and purpose, in need of a context within which to strive, pining for definite goals, for a sense of direction, yet finding nothing within the tradition that is absolutely compelling, that is to say: authoritative, binding, irrevocable. This more casual or at least non-revolutionary strain provides a clue as to how nihilism has become for us a subterranean counterpart to the modern, pluralistic, democratic ideal which everyone subscribes to by default. According to this other meaning, nihilism refers to a passive acceptance of the impossibility of choosing one way of life over another as indisputably "optimum."  In the absence of some "higher  path" or "good life" per se, multiple options or alternatives present themselves as basically equivalent in value - thus indistinguishable in merit, depending upon one's outlook and situation. In such a milieu, multiple moods, beliefs, perspectives, beliefs, orientations offer themselves up for our consideration.  The old vertical hierarchy - that ranking of good and bad lives (think Dante) - now dissolves in favor of a horizontal tableau where every "life option" per se has a certain equivalency attached to it. The goal becomes one of eclectic sampling and combining, experimenting with opportunities, wearing temporary hats or identities, testing the water here and there. For the modern ego, life itself has become a make-shift art form, with experience a canvas upon which many divergent colors and textures must appear; the goal is now to produce an aesthetic outpouring, a seemingly endless work-in-progress, like a spontaneous collage effect, like some unpredictable mingling of possible identities:  athlete, artist, musician, fast-food worker, office drone, foodie, linguist, globe-trotter, etc. etc. And the end goal? Like a best-seller or a b-movie blockbuster, this ever-changing melange must hold our attention, must amuse, provoke, shock and entertain us,  preserving an open-ended, unfinished quality - holding itself immune from final judgments. The moral categories withdraw thus in favor of aesthetic ones. I mention all of this as a prelude to thinking about a recent book of popular philosophy entitled All Things Shining by Herbert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly.

Friday, April 25, 2014

First Thoughts on Nihilism - Part 1

Belief in nothing. Belief that nothing matters. Life without clear purposes, goals, directions. Nighttime of the world. Motto for the present age. Aimlessness. Disorientation. Crumbling paradigms. Loss of faith. Loss of meaning. Vanishing transcendence. The death of metaphysics. Universalism in crisis. No absolute truths. Nothing etched in stone. No unquestioned pieties. Historical consciousness. Dispersal of norms. The old rules no longer apply. History the great nightmare. The abyss in the dark night. Shifting Zeitgeists. A loosening of the bow. Relaxing of standards. Whose justice, which rationality? Enervation. Hedonism. Materialism. Medication. Drones. Automated phones. Automatic sprinklers. A lack of cohesion. Social atomism. Diminished horizons. A sense of decline... Playing tennis without a net... Anything goes. Appearances rule. Subjectivity. Amorality. Discontinuity. An end to infinite strivings. The old values de-value themselves. Instincts tell the real story. Under the surface. Nothing is real. Nothing sacred. Style is substance. Pop art. Commodities. Competing perspectives. Advertising. Planned obsolescence. Game shows, soap operas, bread, circuses, atrocities occurring between commercials. The new normal. You can't make this stuff up. You can't process it, absorb, assimilate, digest it all. Absurdity upon absurdity. Demi-monde. Dream-world. Stream of images. Impossible to take seriously. Tragi-comedy. Negation of reality. Mental illness. Inane conformities. Self-conscious mythologies. Superstition. Idol worship. Mood swings. People admiring, extolling, idolizing; people despising, admonishing, excoriating. In one fell swoop. The new spirituality. The ongoing secularization. The reform of therapy. Peripatetic self-help. Questioning. Skepticism. Anti-metaphysical postures. Against all totalizing systems. Fluctuating opinions. An equal weight to every point of view. Limited attention spans. Walking wounded. Hidden scars. Nervous breakdowns. 24/7 newsfeed. Fodder for shock-jocks. Mockery and ridicule. Oracles and revelations. Stand-up comedians. Celebrity gossip. The inability to step out of the loop. Boredom. Vacillation. Indignation. Sanctimony. Fundamentalism. Easy answers. Emotionality. Paucity of concern. Distancing via film, via tube, via social media. Watching as people are reduced to things, to impediments, to ashes. Haunting memories, half-forgotten. Nausea. Insomnia. Irony. Detachment. Half-hearted participation. Low-risk involvements. Extreme reactions. Exaggerated trivialities. Both-and contradictions. Reality television. Fictional memoirs. Paid actors. Scripted lives. Head-trauma wounds. Good Morning America! Still recovering from the last war...