Episode 25 – Nihilism
When I first started thinking about nihilism is was with the simple goal of finding a way to talk about anarchist freedom (as opposed to constitutional or new age) from the Western project of Enlightenment and the specific socialist imagination about what anarchism is. I wanted to make the historical case that there was an anarchist story to tell that passes through the New People of Russian and not through the Paris Commune and its utopian yearnings. I wanted to make the case that the story of anarchism as a set of ideas wasn’t as fixed as the typical story goes. Finally I wanted to use the open signifier of nihilism as one we could reclaim to describe the openness of the most anarchic of freedoms, the most hostile of anti positions, and the blackest of black flag positions.
In hindsight there were some successes and some failures. Yes we have declared our revulsion of Eurocentric notions like rights, social laws, and the polite society that anarchism used to be. But nihilism was not the open signifier I wished it was. It attracted a lot of exactly what got called out “edgy boys who didn’t have enough experience working with people to pretend to have an opinion about it either way” and even a kind of performative variety of evil that reminds me of Marilyn Manson or even a lot of Venom with the difference being that performers seem to recognize they are joking and these so-called political nihilists do not.
So Nihilism has become another label used by the label factory to express, aggressive, just how anti a person is and how deeply and sincerely they mean it but in our current “hot take” culture the consequences of such ferocity, shallow hostility, isn’t examined or reflected on at all. I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe, Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.
I watched C-Beams glitter in the dark
Near the Tannhäuser Gates.
All those… moments… will be lost in time,
Like tears… in… rain.
Time… to die…
but it is the consequences that is the interesting part. There have been rock and roll bad boys for nearly 100 years (more if you count dada), it was always about how you live with it that mattered. Are you a pre-aging-rock-star or a bloated Russel Crowe telling us about buying and selling dinasaur bones? Or are you just trying to figure out how to get your needs met while wishing that everything would burn.
Probably the place where the anarchist nihlist conversation failed hardest was around identity. Nearly everything that used to be called radical politics is now some version of an identity conversation. As soon as someone referred to themselves as a nihilist as a preface to talking about how other people were doing it wrong is basically when I started to say “I am not a nihilist.” Especially if it means arguing about who gets to define the terms. This is true for every value: anarchist, nihilist, person of color, woman, or special individual snowflake.
Last word. I draw a distinction between my lite nihilism defined as “resigned to living in a world where revolution is not possible” and an existentialist position, a pessimistic one, or a hard philophical nihilism. I get that all of these positions are in a family or constellation of ideas but I use anarchism as a frame because it still allows for the possibility of meaningful activity. I don’t think that the impossibility of our capacity to freedom doesn’t mean we shouldn’t yearn, try, and fail. I still have desires and find those who are in the family, but have lost desire, not all that interesting.