Nihilism is often defined as believing in nothing, having no purpose or loyalties and no true beliefs. For Nietzsche, who is most commonly identified with it, nihilism is the realization of the extreme subjectivity of the human existence. By this philosophy, all of the structures and beliefs we are raised with are just imposed upon us, not objective realities. In the twentieth century, nihilism is most commonly of the existential type, that is, the belief that life is purposeless and meaningless.
Existential nihilism may have been common among early pagans, but ever since the major religions took hold, life has always been thought by most to have a higher purpose: kindness to others, enlightenment, contemplation, even “making something” of ourselves. We may not think of ourselves as nihilists today: there are still a lot of people who believe in an afterlife to strive for, or the possibility of easing the burdens of others in this life.
But there is a steadily growing cynicism the Western world that approaches the limit of what humans can take and still have any hope for the future. One of the less common definitions of nihilism is, in fact, extreme skepticism. In some ways, this is just hipster culture writ large.
I was recently directed to an interesting article in Adbusters by one of my readers (thanks!) that speaks of the “coming barbarism,” an extreme anti-capitalist reaction by Gen Y that includes a wilful return to “barbaric” unreason. It is choosing to be in the dark as the antidote to, as the article quotes, “all the cant and bullshit and sales commercials fed to us by politicians, bishops and academics…People are deliberately re-primitivizing themselves.”
This is meta-post-modernism, in the sense that everything is a parody of itself, somewhere back along the line. It is an arresting idea, that there is no escape from having one’s sincerely-held beliefs turned into the backdrop of a music video or an ironic ad campaign for jeans. And it leads to a society in which the ideologies of inter-generational conflict play out almost as though they’re scripted by those in power. As the article puts it:
Unlike Gen Xers, many of whom found ways to express anticapitalist sentiment through subculture, Gen Y has nowhere to run or hide. All forms of cultural rebellion have long since been appropriated and integrated into the ideology of capital. Marketing firms and advertising agencies now enjoy an unprecedented relationship with the avant-garde, so much so that they’ve become one and the same.
By this logic, war protests are not unwelcome but expected as part of the success of a functioning democracy. Ad execs steal from hipsters in order to market jeans to their mothers. Even the existential nihilist is an identifiable brand, a beret-wearing, cigarette-smoking philosopher who takes his expected societal place even in the midst of his narrative of pointlessness.
Is this not nihilism by abstraction, this sense that we are all players in someone else’s game, with our moves predetermined and ultimately ineffective? And, it seems, the only remedy is opting out – the coming barbarism of which the article speaks. It is the willing removal of oneself from any genuine commitments or passions. And it is terrifying. With no passion, no investment – and so on in a vicious cycle.
Adbusters advocates political involvement as the solution, to “storm and occupy whatever political and economic space we can.” But I suspect this new meta-nihilism has spread to politics as well: how can one support a politician when in five years it is conceivable that he will have “crossed the floor” or possibly be found in hypocritical violation of every principle he espoused? (Former Representative Mark Foley, anyone?) Even Obama, who actually managed to turn the tide and reach those who traditionally wouldn’t care with his politics of audacious hope, seems to have let us down by not being the messiah he was purported to be. The disillusionment has spread, because if he can’t change Washington (or our world as we know it), stop climate change, end the wars, quiet radical Islam, and bridge all divides, then who can?
Still, for those who can swim against the tide of apathy, perhaps political action is indeed a cure. I can think of another: power. When (if) the members of the current generation stop listening to Lady Gaga and start to buy into (pun intended) the established structures and perks of capitalism – pensions, mortgages, SUVs, fancy titles on business cards – they will not only have more invested in making the system work, but the ability to actually effect change. And maybe then the rebellious thing to do will be just that: the gradual dismantlement of what we know and what we know is wrong with it into an uncertain future. It would be a postmodern reckoning with the structures and beliefs in which we have been raised, and an examination of whether they hold true as objective “good.”
It would be nihilism … with purpose. A new dark age indeed.