Nihilism in the 21st century

by Jeroen Bouterse

In a radio sketch by the British comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb, David Mitchell plays an interviewer trying to get a cabinet minister to say what he really thinks about the government’s funding cuts. At first, Robert Webb, playing the minister, says there is no disagreement between him and the cabinet, but the interviewer presses on, continually repeating the same question: “OK …. but what do you really think?”

At one point, the minister unrealistically breaks under these faux-critical questions, and admits:

“It’s all lies. I hate it, I’m against it, all right? […] That’s it, my career is over.”

You’d think that was enough. But after a pause, the interviewer replies:

-“Yes, but what do you really think?”

“Look, it’s all futile. We’re all nothing but specks of flesh going through this obscene dance of death for nothing. Everything is nothing.”

-“….Thank you minister.”

I associate nihilism with existential honesty, a recognition of truths about our world and our lives that goes beyond personal, social or political honesty, that cuts through all webs of meaning that we have spun for ourselves and sees them for what they are: vanishingly thin threads in an infinite void.  As such, nihilism seems to me very much the final word on human existence. The only thing is that it is such a transcendental, ‘cosmic’ claim that it doesn’t really connect to any aspect of our own lives, petty or heroic as they are.

Two things about my folk understanding of nihilism, then, drew me to a new book about it, by philosopher Nolen Gertz: first, its concise blurb, ‘An examination of the meaning of meaninglessness: why it matters that nothing matters’. It’s witty, but more than that, it brings the tantalizing promise that there are relevant questions to be asked after we have established that “it’s all futile” and “everything is nothing”.

Second, I had learned (here) that Gertz apparently thinks Netflix, Tinder and social media are in some interesting sense ‘nihilistic’ and that this is a problem. This caused something more like morbid curiosity: continental philosophers pontificating about the dangers of technology are one of my pet peeves. There’s a TEDx lecture in which Gertz does precisely that, which would have prevented me from buying his book if I had watched it sooner. I’m saying this because, though not buying it would indeed have spared me a lot of frustration, it would also have denied me a richer view of nihilism. I hope to convey both here.

‘Cosmic nihilism’ and what it does not imply

Let’s start by taking a few steps back from Gertz, and talking a bit about what I would take to be the commonsensical meaning of nihilism: the simple idea that “it’s all futile”. Stated in this decontextualized and unconditional manner, I will dub this species of nihilism ‘cosmic nihilism’. If we believe in this, what follows?

It is a commonplace that in a world without meaning, humans have to create their own meaning. To the existentialist, this may sound liberating and adventurous. To the nihilist, however, it is a feeble image of the real thing, whatever the real thing is. The experience of meaning is just a psychological phenomenon; a pleasure no less fleeting, from the perspective of the eternal, than any other. Any facts about the meaning of my life are rooted in contingent facts about my life or that of other mortals. Everything relevant to the meaning of my life will cease to be, in a cosmic instant. The existentialist’s best life is still a hollow, Pyrrhic victory over death.

The perspective of the eternal is the only vantage point from which this kind of nihilism makes sense. The atheist risks becoming a nihilist because she knows herself to be mortal, not because in losing God she has lost her moral compass, or her ability to rely on said moral compass – only religious apologists believe morality works that way. The question of whether morality is possible without God has been answered, and the answer is abundantly clear to be yes and obviously yes, and of course.

Humans are moral and they make claims about what they think is right or wrong that look like factual statements. I’m not saying this isn’t philosophically interesting or complicated, or that I don’t change my mind about moral realism every other month; I’m saying that morality is not the particularly vulnerable target to the nihilist that moral absolutists make it out to be. The philosophical nihilist is not out to encourage us to care less about the suffering of others, let alone to be narcissists or egoists.

That would even be paradoxical, since to the cosmic nihilist I am equally insignificant as my neighbor. After acknowledging this I might, of course, find my survival instincts and my love of life intact. The moral absolutist might fear that these would be the only things left standing and that from here on I would be an unreliable moral actor, a time bomb. But this conclusion would be unwarranted: there is no a priori reason why nihilism would affect my love of or loyalty to other people and other creatures more than my self-love.

Conceivably, in a world where I believe myself to be mortal but also believe there to exist durable things that I may influence for the better, I will be more inclined to act in the interest of those things, while if nothing matters I will be less inclined to even bother. This is conceivable, but quite fanciful. What I am saying, again, is that we should not judge nihilism, ‘as’ a claim about the world and our place in it, by its supposed merits or flaws as a source of motivation. My beliefs that it is really wrong to eat meat, or that it is really very important that a person like Donald Trump does not get into any position of leadership, are, apparently, not on a par with my belief that in some sense nothing matters, much in the same way that the two senses in which Robert Webb’s cabinet minister was forced to tell what he really thought were not on a par. As nihilistic philosopher James Tartaglia puts it, “Nihilism has no moral consequences”.[1]

Nihilism-in-practice

Gertz’s definition of nihilism is rather different. He sees it as an “ideology of nothing”, as less propositional and more practical: rather than claiming that everything is nothing, we are nihilists when our actions reveal that we believe our lives to be nothing, that they fail to motivate us to do “something rather than nothing” (6). We are behaving as nihilists whenever we watch Netflix while Donald Trump is president.

The Western philosophical canon can be interpreted as a series of attempts to identify and answer sources of nihilism, which Gertz moves on to do: Plato’s Socrates tries to wake up the Athenians from their slumber in their caves because he believes the unexamined lives they live are in some real sense not worth living. With Descartes (yes, we jump from Plato right to Descartes), we see a philosopher who does not just accuse others of nihilism, but even himself: he admits that his ‘examined life’, his radical doubt, is at odds with the comfort he draws from his “pleasant illusions” (20).

Descartes famously manages to prove his own existence, that of God, and of the world, to his own satisfaction, presumably resolving the conflict. David Hume, when plagued by radical skeptical ideas about the reality of the self, does not try to resolve the conflict between his thoughts and his happiness intellectually, but simply goes on to play a game of backgammon with his friends to distract him and cheer him up again. This is nihilism, says Gertz. He does not mean that Hume’s empiricist or skepticist philosophy is nihilistic; he means that Hume’s view of the world is such that it is impossible for him to keep looking directly at it, and that he discovers a nihilistic alternative to philosophizing. This alternative consists in evasion: in simply “yielding to the current of nature” and immersing himself in human company.

Gertz does not really do Hume justice here, and omits the fact that, like Descartes’ complaints that philosophy is hard work, Hume’s eloquent fantasizing about renouncing philosophy is not a rhetorical end-point. Hume will, as a matter of fact, keep asking questions, as he announces a few paragraphs later. “I cannot forbear having a curiosity to be acquainted with the principles of moral good and evil, the nature and foundation of government, and the cause of those several passions and inclinations, which actuate and govern me.” (Treatise of Human Nature, 1.4.7) It is a systematic sleight of hand to suggest that whoever fails to look the world in the eye continuously is thereby a nihilist. Hume is, at worst, a part-time nihilist; he is a potential ally of Gertz in observing that in different circumstances we may be more or less inclined to examine our lives.

Continuing our hopscotch through the canon, Kant, in Gertz’s reading, solves Hume’s skeptical crisis, but only by moving the real world out of our reach, thereby opening a can of even deeper sources of nihilism. And then there is Nietzsche, the philosopher that everybody thinks of when they think of nihilism. Gertz spends a lot of time around Nietzsche, whose thought he clearly admires. He translates Nietzsche’s genealogy of morality as originating in a struggle between masters and slaves to “our own early lives, as the masters are essentially jocks and the slaves are essentially nerds.” (42)

I blinked thrice when I read this sentence. As it turns out, it’s not even a slip of the tongue, for Gertz drags this insulting metaphor out for pages and pages – I mean insulting to the reader if to no-one else. He tells us that Nietzsche’s “priests” are the “rich kids”; that it is as unlikely for the slaves to defeat the masters as for “video games [to become] more popular than sports” (44); and that the priests (who have now grown up to become schoolteachers, it seems) teach us to be moral just like schoolchildren in museums learn to “look and not touch”.

Nietzsche’s fanciful genealogy and Gertz’s idiosyncratic rendition of it aside, their takeaway seems to be that we live in a civilized society, which demands some measure of self-denial of us in exchange for our survival and safety. This is presented as a problem:

“If Nietzsche were alive today, he might see our ‘civilized society’ as something like a giant bus, where everyone is sitting motionless, praying for the ride to end quickly, sitting beside a bag strategically placed to avoid sitting next to anyone else, holding a smartphone to avoid looking at anyone else, and wearing earbuds to avoid hearing anyone else.” (50)

OK, boomer.[2] A lot of motifs of Gertz’s perspective on nihilism come together here, some related to the reasons for why his book is interesting and worth reading, and some simply infuriating. Whenever Gertz tries to make his critique of nihilism relevant to our age, I find his observations to be wide of the mark. And yet, simply in providing a historicized account of nihilism (that plausibly traces it through parts of the philosophical canon), he is making a point very much worth making. Nihilism is an explicit or implicit claim about the meaning of our lives; but such a claim, all-encompassing as it may be in its reach, always derives its meaning at least in part from how our lives are organized. Nihilism as a philosophical proposition may be cosmic in scope, but ‘being a nihilist’, as a way of life, is mundane, and a potential object of cultural criticism: identifying it can be “part of a political struggle against the normalization of self-destructive practices” (57).

Screen Rant

In doing so, Gertz – with help from Nietzsche – turns nihilism into something that is “about what’s in the world, not what’s behind it” (79). And though this is a different issue from the ‘cosmic nihilism’ we discussed before, it is indeed one worth discussing, precisely because cosmic nihilism has no moral implications: from our claim that life is meaningless, it does not follow that we should or would lead our lives as if they were meaningless. So to the extent that we do, we need to look at the world we live in. Where do we find sources of nihilism?

Gertz keeps asking the right questions, and keeps giving answers of the kind only a philosopher can get away with. Nihilism is in our homes, because all our furniture is pointed at the TV screen; nihilism is in our schools, because teachers make their students look at screens with chalk or PowerPoint presentations. Nihilism is at our work, because alienation of labor. (What Marx said about workers in the 19th century can apparently be applied without significant amendment to the 21st.) And nihilism is in our politics, because we see politics as a means to an end rather than as an end in itself, as a sphere in which we can be fully human – here Gertz relies heavily on Hannah Arendt.

Our public spaces have ceased to be spaces where citizens participate in political debates, based on their own experience; instead, they are spaces where citizens vote, based on their prejudices. Our distrust of experience is tied to our reliance on scientific and technological expertise, the problems caused by which we try to solve by relying on more science and technology. We reduce reality to a logic of means and ends, and thus we are ourselves reduced – “when we seek an outlet in order to plug in a device, we do not realize that we have ourselves become a means to an end, a means to the end of the device.” (173)

As you gathered from my tone, I think this is all wrong; but rather than just giving an uncharitable summary of the second half of Gertz’s book, I should explain what I think goes wrong here.

Gertz tries to make us all complicit in a society that engenders and spreads nihilism. Mass technology becomes the vehicle for this argument: we all stream series, don’t we? We all have a smartphone? Well, there you go then. I think this is another major sleight of hand. The assumption that screens, be they smartphones in a bus or smartboards in classrooms, make us nihilistic – that very assumption is itself nihilistic: it claims that there is something you can say about us humans after which all further questions of meaning become meaningless. ‘All said and done, we are merely X’. ‘We are just animals’; ‘we’re all going to die’; ‘we’re all slaves of technology’. These things may be true (I’m skeptical about the last), but they are not the dehumanizing equalizers that bad-faith nihilists make them out to be, until they are being weaponized as such.

Another way of phrasing this, is by saying that Gertz often commits what I would dub the fallacy of nihilistic re-description. His rants against all kinds of screens probably illustrates this best:

“Staring at screens has become so commonplace that when someone asks us to look up from our screens, we often get confused and angry. This may occur, for example, when a teacher asks students to put their phones away. Though, of course, when the teacher tells students to stop staring at screens and to pay attention in class, that often means the students just need to stop looking at their screens and instead look at the teacher’s screen, at the giant screen in front of the class that everyone can stare at together.” (116)

He means it. He really doesn’t care what’s on the screen. It’s a screen, enough said. Never mind that these screens can open worlds, never mind that the teacher’s screen can help students grasp mathematical theorems, never mind that their screens help them stay in touch with the foreign exchange students they met last year. The mere fact that there is a screen in the room is sufficient proof of Gertz’s thesis, that education is oppressive because it requires students to be passive recipients of information. Apparently, once you have seen one human with a screen, you know them all. If you look from this distance, no wonder that everybody looks as if they lead lives they implicitly believe to be meaningless.

Again, I believe that Gertz is asking the right questions, and that his book has made me more sensitive to those questions: how do we, in practice, relate to the meaninglessness of life? And how are our attitudes even towards this transcendental existential question informed or mediated by the specific social institutions and technologies of our time? These questions, in bringing nihilism back to the mundane, allow us to look for answers in our everyday lives, and as such a study of nihilism can in principle serve as a starting point of cultural criticism.

However, if you want to accurately diagnose individuals or societies as carriers of an “ideology of nothing”, you need to look at them with more patience and care than does Gertz: the meaning of human actions is simply not visible from too great a distance. Rather than pointing at passengers looking at their smartphones in a bus and judging that they are clearly all sick, we might start by asking them where they are going, and what they are watching or reading. Perhaps, confusingly, they are watching Netflix on their way to a political manifestation. In that case, we can always follow up by asking what they really think they are doing.

 

[1] James Tartaglia, Philosophy in a Meaningless Life: A System of Nihilism, Consciousness and Reality (Bloomsbury 2016) 172.

[2] I don’t know Gertz’s age, but I use this phrase assuming that he is not a boomer.

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