by JIM KNIPFEL
July 31, 2016
Listening to scattered and random snippets of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, I was kicking myself. Not simply because those press credentials I’d requested never materialized, but also for not yet having written that damned book I’ve been thinking about.
For over a decade now I’ve been gathering notes for what would have been, to my mind anyway, a culmination of my life’s work. I had about a dozen potential titles floating around, but hadn’t decided on one yet. I just referred to it as “my big nihilism book.” I have a complete chapter breakdown and detailed outline, hundreds of pages worth of notes and references and quotes and stories. Just haven’t been able to set aside the time or muster the energy to write a fifteen hundred page book, too busy with the scramble to maintain any kind of income at all. I’d likely never be able to sell it anyway, which is too bad. Not to be presumptuous here, but it was going to be not only the most incisive critique of the culture since Spengler’s Decline of the West, but also THE fundamental self-help book of the Twenty-first century, though I knew from the start it would be grossly misinterpreted. Listening as the stages of the nation’s two major political conventions were overrun with sublebrities, racists, zealots, the unabashedly corrupt, simply godawful cover bands, thugs, the power mad, the shameless liars, and the willfully ignorant, and noting the streets around the Philly and Cleveland convention centers were hardly turning into the Chicago ’68 we’d been promised, I knew it was too late to get to work now.
Hearing all those roaring cheers and ugly chants from the mobs in attendance, realizing that millions of voters throughout the primaries consciously and willingly—willingly!—left us with the choices before us filled me with a kind of giddy and gleeful despair for the coming years. No matter how they might deny it, this really is what the American people wanted and deserved. Good job, assholes! I couldn’t be prouder of you!
I’m not being cynical or ironic when I say that, either. I really mean it. I’m all aflutter with delight at the coming apocalypse.
Let me back up here a second to be boring for a bit.
The term “nihilism” was first coined as an insult hurled by Eighteenth century German philosophers, mostly in the direction of Immanuel Kant. Kant’s argument that all human knowledge arose out of our experience with the phenomenal world seemed to imply that all we knew was subjective, so we could therefore never have access to anything approaching a pure, direct and immutable objective truth. To his critics, this was a hopeless thought, implying all human knowledge was meaningless, and that the objective world might just as well not exist at all. Hence the derogatory term nihilism. German philosophers were always getting into petty little spats like that, which are pretty funny in retrospect.
In his 1862 novel Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev took the term and ran with it in a different direction, giving it far more practical and political connotations. The novel’s main character, Bazarov, is a medical student and revolutionary who refers to himself as a nihilist. He’s cold, rational, arrogant, and argues for the complete obliteration of the decaying and rotted social order maintained by the older generation. He believes in nothing—not god, not government, not family or tradition—and believes in it something fierce. He is the future, he believes, the next stage of human evolution. “Negation,” he says at one point, “is the most important thing of all.”
Turgenev had clear affection for Bazarov, certainly more than Dostoevsky did. In the years after Fathers and Sons was released, Dostoevsky began dropping impudent and violent young nihilists into his own novels like The Brothers Karamazov and Demons, though in far less glowing terms. In the end it was Bazarov who inspired thousands of Russian student radicals to take up the banner, declare themselves Nihilists, and begin raising some minor anti-establishment hell. For the most part they fell in pretty neatly and comfortably with the proto-communists and other left-leaning radical groups of the era, but in the 1870s the label took a more extremist turn. In their pamphlet The Catechism of a Revolutionary Russian anarchists Mikhail Bakunin and Sergey Nechayev said that while destruction was a creative and important impulse, it wasn’t an end in itself, but only a means. Nihilists, those hearty souls who actively believed in nothing and rejected everything, were the necessary terroristic shock troops, the first wave of soldiers in the coming revolution, the ones who would charge on ahead to destroy all institutions, all belief systems, everything anyone held sacred, essentially burning society to the ground in order to clear the way for the revolutionaries behind them to rebuild it again, properly this time.
Well, Bakunin did his darnedest, gotta say, but no, it didn’t exactly happen as planned. Then about a decade later Nietzsche came along and revamped the definition again. Things would get complicated and contradictory throughout his writings, but at heart and in simple-minded terms, a nihilist was an extreme individualist with the strength to live beyond institutions and human emotion and archaic and artificial human constructs like “good” and “evil.” In a way he combined both the German and Russian definitions into a new and complex way of understanding the world.
Then along came Hitler and the NSDAP in the Nineteen Twenties, simultaneously picking up on some bowdlerized passages from Nietzsche and unwittingly hearkening back to Bakunin, disguising nihilism in a cloak of extreme and unquestioning Belief. Believe you me, it’s the most insidious and effective way to spread the word.
Almost a century later, and the definition has shifted again, thanks not to a singular thinker like Turgenev or Bakunin or Nietzsche, but to the simple bovine historical trajectory of the culture itself. As I’ve probably said before, I’m firmly convinced a solid ninety-seven percent of the population consists of active nihilists who simply don’t know they’re nihilists. You no longer need to go to the trouble of burning down churches or bombing government buildings to be a nihilist. Those things are done by people who believe in shit. People who believe in shit are the most dangerous people on earth. No, all you need to do is watch TV, root for your favorite sports team with a violent religious zeal, pretend you believe with all your heart in one candidate or another, accept as true what you hear on the news, numb yourself with booze and pills and distractions just to get through it all without killing someone, and most important of all stare at that hand-held device of yours sixteen hours a day. The whole of the Twenty-first century has become a reality show network, nothing more. Just a cheap and ugly entertainment with occasional thrills and chuckles and mild, shallow outrages, but one we can’t turn off. It’s just show after show after show. Someone shoots up a gay nightclub in Florida, so we gather around the office water cooler and talk gun control and gay rights for a week, until a cop shoots another unarmed black man, which is all we talk about until someone kills a bunch of cops, which is all we talk about until someone drives a truck through a crowd in France, which is all we talk about until cops shoot another unarmed black man, which is all we talk about until someone shoots up a shopping mall in Germany, and during the commercials we take occasional breaks to crack wise about the presidential candidates’ hair and clothes until the next show comes on. It’s all just fleeting entertainment. Nobody really gives a good goddamn about it, they’re just making do until the next distraction comes along. It’s just too bad the network decided to cancel those proposed shows about the bloody and fiery riots in Cleveland and Philly, but I guess no one cared enough.
We (no, YOU) are poised and anxious to elect a man president not because of any presumed or perceived qualifications, and in fact despite his ongoing habit of saying things that would have gotten any other standard candidate pilloried, but simply because you recognize him from TV, and you find him entertaining. What could be more nihilistic than that?
Forty years on now, and Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay for Network seems more prescient with each passing week. Just take another look at that last forty-five minutes. We’re living in an era in which marketing analysts run the show, determining not only what products you will be compelled to buy, what music you’ll hear, what movies you’ll see, and what books you’ll read (whoops—scratch that last one), but government policy, what counts as “news” (increasingly little more than celebrity gossip and funny online videos), what various religious sects do or don’t believe, and what is and isn’t true. The goal is to make things as simple and convenient as possible to relieve consumers of that arduous burden of having to think or make choices or develop opinions—a state most people are delighted to embrace.
Look at the resurgence of insane and across the board religious extremism (which is admittedly more entertaining and easier to understand than Kierkegaard’s leap of faith). Look at the spike in random street-level violence and the ongoing war between cops and the civilians they’ve been sworn to protect. Edward Snowden releases reams of hard evidence proving our government is spying on all of us all the time, and people shrug and change the channel, too preoccupied with spying on themselves and posting it on Instagram and Facebook. Look at the number of high-profile celebrities who are celebrities for no discernible reason anyone can point at, but lawdy how beloved they are. And more than anything else, look at those hand jobs! Never before in history has alienation been so clearly and thoroughly personified. Everything the situationists said in the Sixties has come true in spades, apart from their sad insistence on clinging to stale Marxist doctrine. We (well, again, YOU) are living your lives wholly through screens, wandering onto freeways and off cliffs while playing Pokémon Go or taking selfies. Once VR helmets become as ubiquitous as headphones (and it’s going to happen), the whole fucking game is over. Yes, of course each generation throughout history has been convinced things have never been as bad as they are at that particular moment, and the blame can be placed squarely on the generation that followed them. But you know what? All those people have always been right—it’s been nothing but a hollow spiral into the dark void of a celebrated meaninglessness for millennia. Now as never before we’re utterly divorced from any contact with real direct experience. It’s like taking Kant one big step further backward into the self-absorbed ether. Which of course brings everything back around.
See what I mean? We’re living in a mad and absurd circus of the damned. Everything I’ve been wanting to write about has become more insanely real and true and ridiculous than I could have imagined, and more so. Guess I’ve missed my chance to be ten minutes ahead of my time again.
Maybe it’s for the best. In an interview long after the fact, author William Gaddis said that when he set out to write his debut novel, 1955’s The Recognitions, his goal was to reveal everything that was artificial and false and empty in the culture—all those things Jean Baudrillard would later call simulacra—but after seven or eight hundred pages, he realized it was futile. There was simply too much, the job was too big. And maybe it was all too obvious anyway.
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