The choice of nihilism

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Nothingness or God . . . The Philosophical Knowledge of the nothing.3

John Milbank explicitly argues that nihilism is an intellectual possibility, having successfully exposed the nihilism of a great deal of modern thought. In Milbank's book, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, nihilism is called an 'intellectual stance'.4 Because Milbank thinks of nihilism as an intellectual stance he refers to the 'possibility of nihilism'.5 It is the idea that nihilism is possible, that there is a possibility involved in nihilism, or, indeed, that nihilism is a 'possible alternative' (Milbank) which is questionable.6 This is not to disagree with Milbank's overall thesis, but merely to introduce a certain nuance.

Nihilism is the most 'uncanny of guests' (Nietzsche), so how do we approach it? How does one choose nihilism? These types of question are 'wrongheaded', because if nihilism were the case then it could not be chosen. Indeed, nihilism is the absence of all choice. But this absence comes in the form of a particular 'plenitude'. For nihilism to be 'possible' it must not be a choice, but must be, in a sense, every choice, in that every choice must be available to it. The reason for this is quite simple. Nihilism is typically characterised in terms of 'lack'. Nihilism, it is argued, is a lack of values, a lack of God, substance, horizons, and so on. If this were the case then nihilism would not amount to much. If nihilism were to be found wanting, then we could easily surmount an attack, utilising this perceived lack as the basis for such an offensive. This is wholly to miss the point. If nihilism is the case then it does not lack anything, or more accurately, it does not 'lack in lacking'. This conundrum merely points to the obvious fact that nihilism may lack God, but it also lacks this lack of God. Accompanying any radical absence is an absence of absence, and so to attribute a negativity to nihilism is one-sided. This type of accusation articulates its protestation only 'within the sides' of a metaphysical imputation, since it must presume the absence of nihilism so as to be able to accuse it. Such accusation takes the form of deeming nihilism nihilistic, and this, it is argued, need not be the case. Indeed, Chapter 10 suggests that nihilism can be read as promising us something positive.

If we are to speak seriously of nihilism we must, it seems, understand nihilism precisely to be an absence of nihilism: nihilism is not nihilistic. Indeed, it may well be best to characterise nihilism in plenitudinal, rather than negative, terms. If we realise that nihilism can be understood as a negative plenitude - what has been referred to throughout as the nothing as something - then we can realise that nihilism will not fail to provide what it is usually supposed to preclude. Nihilism will provide values, gods, and most of all, it seems, intelligibility. Indeed, as we shall see, nihilism generates an excessive intelligibility. If nihilism cannot provide something then it can be found lacking and so a space for a critique arises, precisely because it then appears as a choice, a possibility, an intellectual stance. What we can witness in the form of nihilistic discourse (which is in 'reality' the nihilism of discourse, in the sense that it is nothing to discourse), is the constant provision of 'all choices'. Nihilism is not a choice but all choices. It endeavours to be so in an attempt to avoid lack. This is 'possible' because what is provided is nothing as something. It must be understood that for nihilism it is nothing to provide something, just as being is nothing, or it is nothing to be. This is a sophistication of nihilism which surpasses the usual caricatures. What does it mean to be intelligible, to believe, to speak, to see? Nihilism can provide language, intelligibility and so on in a most refined manner. To observe this we only have to listen to any particular atheistic cosmologist. For such people provide something which would typically be considered to be beyond the preserve of nihilism, but here there is no incongruity. The cosmologist will provide a universe in the absence of creation. How, then, are we to critique nihilism? The answer may lie in rendering nihilism possible, viz., after all a choice, rather than all choices. In being a choice (the etymology of heresy stems from the word for choice, hairesis),7 then it will be a reality. In being 'a' reality it will be but a reactive discourse which is better referred to as 'sin'. After the initial critique offered here, Chapter 10 will re-examine nihilism, arguing that it can mount a challenge to the negative reading of its logic offered in this chapter. I proceed in this manner so as to develop an initial understanding of nihilism and theology, both of which will be forced by the sophistication of the other to develop further. Before a critique of nihilism is attempted, let us examine the form of nihilism, if it is possible to speak of such a thing.

The form of nihilism

In the wake of the axis fashioned, however unconsciously, by Henry of Ghent, Scotus and Ockham, that which exists was taken outside the divine essence. Consequently, that which was expelled became nothing, a nothing that allowed the invention of a priori realms, and tales of things called logical possibilities (a Scotist fantasy). It also generated a virulent synchronic contingency that led to a de-existentialised existence, as it became first essentialised, and then factualised. This in turn facilitated a methodological lateralisation, as non-existence settled alongside existence. What we find is that this expulsion of that which exists outside the divine essence permitted the emptying of existence of any inherent or, in a sense, 'natural' theology.

The lateralisation referred to renders being existentially neutral. This is indeed the advent of a given. It is a given that will soon fully immanentise itself, ignoring any pietist-voluntarist veto. In a sense it was the voluntarism of the late middle ages that conceived God's power in such a manner that creation became so little. But it is the reduction of creation, under the subjection of divine fiat, that in an inverted sense allows creation a residual independence. Creation is so little that it escapes all relations with divinity.8 Such a strange consequence is reflected in the development of logical possibilities independent of God's essence. A

veneration of the a priori follows. The nothingness of creation, which is a reflection of divine omnipotence, eludes a need for causality because it is nothing. Logical possibilities are in a sense this emptiness turned back onto, and into, itself until an immanent plenitude is composed. Aprioricity is an expression of this immanent realisation. There is now no place left for transcendence to occur (except as a private belief which is completely immanentisable). We 'moderns' continually betray the operation of a given within our discourse. It is this given which re-enacts the logic of the fall: to have a-part of the world apart from God. This given expands to include all creation and here lies the foundation for the development of a negative plenitude which issues from the sides of this virulent immanence. What this immanence effects, in its very self articulation, is an absence of immanence, in the sense that all particularity will suffer erasure, as it is made to disappear, or vanish (as we saw with both Kant and Hegel). Any description that modern discourse proffers will enact such a disappearance. Let us see why.

An example may help. If we describe a leaf, looking to modern discourse to provide such a description, we will see nothing. We will see nothing but the disappearance of the leaf as, and at, the utterance of every 'word'. The leaf will always be subordinated to structures and substructures.9 The leaf will never be seen or said. Any apparent sightings will be but nominal-noumenal formalities, that is, epiphenomenal results of concepts or ideas. (Here we witness a line running from Scotus to Descartes and from Descartes to Kant, no doubt with significant differences remaining.) The leaf is carried away through its discursive subordination to the structures and sub-structures of systems of explanatory description. By explanatory description is meant that a particular entity will be explained away by the descriptions its being suffers, for it will be reduced to a list of predicates, properties and so on. The inherently excessive nature of a being will be ignored. Chapter 10 discusses this excess.)10

Any difference we find in a being, or in the leaf, will fail to register, except at the virtual level of data. To seek to describe this leaf, of course, involves a somewhat arbitrary selection and separation. Why this leaf, why a leaf, and why stop or begin at a leaf? We must decide, somewhat arbitrarily, to separate a leaf from a branch, a branch from a tree, and a tree from all existent materiality. We will see that the nihilistic form of modern discourse will be unable to provide criteria for this selection and will be unable to provide real difference, individuation, specificity and so on. There can, it seems, only be a Heraclitean stasis which merely registers arbitrary expressions of its unitary-plurality (whole-parts). The leaf, which is there, is not a real leaf, but simply a formal distinction, arbitrarily but successfully constructed, or, more accurately, generated by systems of explanatory description. (These can be formal, conceptual, idealistic, empirical, yet they all tend to be diacritical. By this is meant that all difference is nominal, ontologically speaking.) René Guénon argues that finitude is indefinite, a consequence of which is that it remains susceptible to perpetual multiplicity. For the indefinite is analytically inexhaustible, and according to Guénon Hell is the passage of this division.11 Indeed Hell can be thought of as a bad infinite, one which is 'otherworldly', offering a false asceticism, because the object of every desire disappears into the infinite night of this multiplicity. In this way desire is forbidden 'intercourse'. And Hell is the black night of this dissolution; the very loss of the immanent under the reign of quantity.12

What would the opposite look like? It would look like the immanent -a leaf; an appearance that could not be subordinated to knowledge systems, for its visibility would be anchored in the Divine essence as an imitable example of that transcendent plenitude. It would be an imitability located in the Son, as Logos. We could then speak of cells, molecules, and so on. In nihilistic discourse even the cells of a leaf are further reduced, methodologically, ad infinitum (ad nauseum). This is the place of Heaven - a place which is one of this world, of the immanent. For only through the mediation of immanence by transcendence can the immanent be.

The form of this discourse of epistemic disappearance is analogous to the internal-external infinitude of a Spinozistic attribute. Every description literally takes the place of that which it describes; reducing it to nothing, except the formal difference of an epistemic signification. This is also analogous to the nothing which resides outside Derrida's text - a nothingness which comes within the text in the form of the effected disappearance.13 The intelligibility, the signification, rests on this internal-external nothingness.14

The aforementioned leaf is carried away by the wind of systemic description. As a result we will have nothing as something. It is possible to argue that systemic erasure is the basis of modern knowledge - in all its postmodern guises. The truth of this argument will not really become apparent until Chapter 10. For the moment let us tentatively, yet somewhat insufficiently, endeavour to develop an understanding of this disappearance; a disappearance referred to as a 'holocaust', because every being which falls under such description is lost, and every trace erased.15 Such a term is not completely satisfactory but it does help to some degree in expressing the idea being developed in this chapter. (Chapter 10 argues that the argument presented here is not wholly fair, and that the situation may actually be somewhat more complicated.)

Those who are made to disappear

What we may begin to realise is that the form of nihilism's discourse is complicit with a certain 'holocaust'. It will speak a 'holocaust'. But how can one speak a holocaust?16 We do so if when we speak, something (or someone) disappears, or if our speech is predicated only on the back of such an erasure. We have to think of those who are 'too many to have disappeared'. They must have been made to disappear; we may be able to discern three noticeable moments in modern discourse which encourage the speaking of a 'holocaust'.17

The first moment is when the systemic description effects a disappearance. This is accomplished by placing what is described outside the divine mind, rendering it ontologically neutral - a given rather than a gift. The notion of a given allows for the invention of such neutrality. That which 'is' becomes structurally amenable to experimentation, dissection, indefinite epistemic investigation.18 For the first time there is something which can render the idea of detached, de-eroticised, study intelligible. There is now an object which is itself neutral, the structural prerequisite for 'objectivity'. This 'holocaust' is the a priori of modern knowledge. The second moment comes when modern discourse describes the initial disappearance, the first moment. Consequently, the first moment, the event of disappearance, disappears. Modernity will ask us 'what can it mean to disappear'? Any 'hole' is filled up, every trace erased.19

More obviously, but with greater caution and difficulty, we see modern discourse describe the disappearance of a 'number-too-great' to disappear, in terms that are completely neutral. It is unable to describe this dia-bolic (meaning to take apart) event in a way that is different from its description of the aforementioned leaf.20 The loss of countless lives can only be described in neutral terms, however emotionally.21 But discourse is predicated on a nothing to which every entity is reduced.22 (For example, a human is reduced to its genes, while consciousness is reduced to chemicals, atoms and so on.)

Our knowledge of a 'holocaust' causes that 'holocaust' to disappear (like leaves from a tree in a garden fire: kaustos). We see the disappearance of a 'holocaust' as it is erased by its passage through the corridors of modern description: sociology, psychology, biology, chemistry, physics, and so on. All these discourses speak its disappearance.23 'Holocaust', ice-cream, there can be no difference except that of epistemic difference, which is but formal. Both must be reducible to nothing; the very possibility of modern discourse hangs on it. In this sense all 'holocausts' are modern. The structures, substructures, molecules and the molecular all carry away the 'substance' of every being and of the whole (holos) of being.

The third moment comes upon the first two. We see modernity cause all that is described to disappear, then we see this disappearance disappear.24 In this way a loss of life, and a loss of death is witnessed. It is here that we see the last moment. If we think of a specific holocaust, the historical loss of six million Jews during the Second World War, we see that the National Socialist description of the Jews took away their lives and took away their deaths. For those who were killed were exterminated, liquidated, in the name of solutions. The Jews lose their lives because they have already lost their deaths.25 For it is this loss of death that allows the Nazis to 'remove' the Jews. That is to say, if the Jews lose their deaths then the Nazis, by taking their lives, do not murder. This knowledge, that is National Socialism, will, in taking away life, take away the possibility of losing that life (death becomes wholly naturalised). This must be the case so that there is no loss in terms of negation. In this way National Socialism emulates the 'form' of nihilistic discourse. There is nothing and not even that. There is an absence and an absence from absence. (This is the form Nietzsche's joyous nihilism took.) So we will not have a lack which could allow the imputation of metaphysical significance:

The mass and majesty of this world, all That carries weight and always weighs the same Lay in the hands of others; they were small And could not hope for help and no help came: What their foes liked to do was done, their shame Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride And died as men before their bodies died.26

W. H. Auden, 'The Shield of Achilles'

The life that is lost is always lost before its death. They who lose their life are already lost in terms of epistemic description. When their life is 'physically' lost it is unable to stop the disappearance of that life, and the death of that life. So the living-dead are always unable to die; death is taken away from them before their life, in order that their life can be made to disappear without trace and without 'loss'. Thus, the living are described in the same manner as the dead. Modern discourse cannot, it seems, discriminate between them. In some sense, it takes a loss of life and a loss of death to engender 'holocaust'. For it is this which forbids the registration of any significance - any significant difference between life and death. 'Modern' description has no ability to speak differently about lost lives, because before any physical event 'dissolution' has already begun to occur (all that remains is for the bodies to be swept away). The preparation is carefully carried out so that a 'nonoccurrence' can occur.

The fundamental, and foundational neutrality in modern discourse is here extremely noticeable. Its inability to speak significantly, to speak 'real' difference, carries all peoples and persons away. In 'modern' death there are no people, no one dies. Here we see the de-differentiating effect of nihilism. Bodies come apart as different discourses carry limbs away. This cool epistemic intelligibility of a Dionysian frenzy fashions whole systems of explanatory description.

In order to give an example of nihilism's ontological myopia, let us think of nihilistic eyes gazing across a piece of land; this land upon which nihilism gazes is full of shapes, pointed configurations, odours, ratios, proportions, smells, noises and so on. Modern discourse, I suggest, cannot see or say death.27 For it cannot see pits full of bodies and twisted limbs, as there can be no loss, there being only an immanent 'plenitude'. As Adolf Portmann says, 'For pre-modern thought, death was the great puzzle of human existence; for us, today, life is the great puzzle.'28 Witness the descriptions offered by biology, chemistry, sociology, physics and so on. They provide only formal distinctions, or differences, a la Scotus. These all must have a loss of loss just to function. The immanent reductionism of their nihilistic 'form', the 'hole' with which they fill the world, cannot but cause difference to disappear. For example, when biology comes to describe what lies before it, there will not be any visibility. As one commentator puts it, we are but 'meat puppets run by molecular machines [which is] the transformation of the organism into an effect of a univocal language of life, an Esperanto of the molecule'.29 This is what Colin McGinn calls 'meatism'.30 Indeed, as one Nobel prize winning biologist argues: 'Biologists no longer study life today [because] biology has demonstrated that there is no metaphysical entity behind the word life.'31 Everything remains unseen and, in this sense, unsaid; for what difference is there, biologically speaking, between an organism that is biologically now in one way and now in another? The system of explanatory description will offer only nominal or diacritical difference because its immanent identity relies on this inability. As Doyle argues, such discourse is predicated on the ability to say 'that is all there is'.32 For as Guenon declares: 'The modern mentality is made up in such a way that it cannot bear any secret nor even any reserve . . . [This is] the suppression of all mystery.'33 (This mystery is analogous to Peguy's mystique.)34 Likewise, as Foucault says: 'Western man could constitute himself within his language, and gave himself, in himself and by himself, a discursive existence, only in the opening created by his own elimination.'35 Indeed, life, according to Foucault, 'is a sovereign vanishing point within the organism'.36 For this reason Smith argues that physicalism should adopt the ontology of nihilism: 'True, a physicalist ontology is ontologically simple; but it is another question as to whether it is ontologically adequate. The ontology of the ontological nihilist is even more economical: nothing exists at all. If considerations of solely ontological economy dictate our world making, then the physicalists are recommended to become ontological nihilists.'37 (Chapter 10 returns to a discussion of biology.)

These discourses depend upon a descriptive reduction that perpetuates a structural plane of immanence, which is but an identical repetition of the same. Biology must reduce that which it describes to nothing, that is, nothing outside its descriptive abilities (DNA, etc.). This is the 'text' which biology is, and this text has nothing outside it (recalling Derrida's aphorism).38 Indeed, George Gamow, who heavily influenced Francis Crick, describes DNA protein as a 'translation'.39 The Word has not become flesh, rather flesh has become 'words' (in an almost Hegelian manner). When biology studies life (bios), it does so on the axiomatic assumption that life does not exist. Affirming life would require a metalevel as it displays an excessive moment that breaks free of immanent description, yet validates the immanent. Biology can neither afford nor provide such a meta-level. All modern discourse, it seems, reduces that which is described to the description and its particular 'mode' (these modes are somewhat akin to Scotistic intrinsic modes which differentiate univocal being, without themselves having to be). This is the extreme erasure that has already been mentioned.

Each discourse appears to conjure up intelligibility within the nothing upon which they are predicated - returning only ever to themselves. That which is described therefore becomes only the internal logic or intelligibility of that discourse (an intrinsic mode, so to speak). The difference between that which describes and that which is described collapses, for only in this way can nihilism occupy every place and everything. As it speaks, as intelligibility is gained, the nothingness that surrounds and perpetuates this signification draws it always back to a double disappearance; a nothingness which is always within every description. Biology cannot see the loss of life. Death is never seen, again no one dies. This is to re-enact a 'holocaust'. Here in this modern world nothing happens, nothing is or is not. The 'cancer' of my body is a world unto itself. My leg becomes apart from me, it grows as it re-narrates my body, in a manner of which Kafka would be proud. Our bodies come apart as knowledge rips them asunder, even though it may keep them intact. Our very being is carted away, to live and breathe as 'humus' would. (Chapter 10 argues that the living are treated as cadavers.)

The instructive reductionism articulated above displays the 'form' of nihilistic discourse. This form is to some degree the inheritor of a legacy which has been outlined in earlier chapters: Plotinus' meontotheological constitution of finitude; Avicenna's necessitarianism; Ghent's Avicennian essences, and analogy of the concept, which, following Avicenna, places 'res' as the highest transcendental name; Scotist plurality of forms, and intrinsic modes with their univocity of being; Ockhamian cognitions that appear only within the sides of supposition, and the logical function, or performance, of propositional terms; the intensional modality of the Ockhamian-Scotist-Ghentian-Avicennian axis, with its 'extended' world of logical possibilities; the external-internal infinitude of Spinozistic attributes; the Kantian subject-object, and noumenal-nominality, which causes all phenomenality to disappear in its very appearance;40 the Hegelian absolute that is a site of a perpetual vanishing, and an ending of discourse; the Heideggerian show of Being and Time as an external-internal nothingness, that is but Death; Derrida's economy of differance.

The rest of this chapter offers a preliminary critique of nihilism before going on to articulate a theological approach that appears to speak otherwise than nihilistically.

Approaching nihilism41

How are we then to approach nihilism? We can approach it on two counts; the latter resting within the internal consistency of the former. First of all, we know nihilism must be able to provide what non-nihilistic discourse can.42 To accomplish this all that is must be nothing, but nothing as something. This is the diabolic infinite plenitude of nihilism. As we saw above, some accuse nihilism of being a lack of values and so on, but this does not succeed in saying anything significant; since nihilism removes the negative aspect of a perceived lack. In this way, nihilism does not exclude the generation of values; moralities pay witness to this. Indeed, Nietzsche's nihilism called for values so as to overcome nihilism. Nietzsche's nihilism was an endeavour not to be nihilistic, so we cannot accuse nihilism from the outset of failing to provide x or y, but what we can do is render it 'a' choice, a possibility. If this can be achieved, then, nihilism may be merely an intellectual stance, one which may be reactive.

If nihilism is to allow everything, and forbid nothing, then it must not have a particular 'form' that excludes this or that (we saw this in Hegel's positive nihilism). If nihilism is found to have a certain form it becomes identifiable, for it will display certain characteristics. These will force it to become more solid and particular. In this way it will become a choice, but if nihilism is a choice, or a stance, then to make this choice, or to take this stance, is to be somewhat reactive. It is reactive because the reasons for such a choice will be shaped by other choices and so on. One can endeavour to render nihilism a choice by comparing it with the circularity of certain forms of discourse, for example faith, in that faith is a mode of speaking with certain grammatical rules, displaying a particular form of discourse. What the structure of such discourse provides is an irreducible assertion.43 For example, if we say 'something', nihilism will cause this to disappear. But if we say something is, then a transcendental circularity will resist, if not disable, reduction.44 For an excess will be brought to the fore. This excess will both enable and elude descriptions, forcing every description to remain agnostic about its own success. This circularity will take all creation within its positive plenitude, and so re-present everything which is, as something irreducible.45

Of course the immediate appeal by nihilism will be that this is another example of metaphysical imputation, merely circular. This does not matter though, if the imputation is consistent. The problem is that nihilistic discourse cannot effect a disappearance upon the transcendental circularity of being and faith; this does not mean that faith is correct, so to speak, but simply that it manages to attain a moment of difference, by circular means.46 But the consequences of such an 'event' is to leave nihilism as a possibility and a choice, and so it is no longer nihilism. This being the case nihilism would now be nihilistic, which would mean that nihilism is for this perspective (and even in a sense objectively) but a heresy, that may only be reactively constituted; this would cause it to remain a parasitic discourse, full of metaphysical complicity. The nihilist, in this sense, will need to borrow 'faith' in order to be. Nihilism could argue that faith is imputing its significance and constructing its circularity, but this will be a position of faith on its own part. It will then be a 'this' not a 'that', a 'here' not a 'there' (this echoes the problems that faced Hegel). So John Milbank is correct to say that nihilism is 'a' possibility. The depth of this 'possibility' is examined in Chapter 10.

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