Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Disposable objects: The roots of global nihilism today

I have written on nihilism here before, and am returning to it now in light of a striking analysis of its causes by Bernard Stiegler in What Makes Life Worth Living: On Pharmacology (Polity Press, 2013, Kindle edition). While not ignoring the diagnosis of nihilism in western culture by Nietzsche, Stiegler takes its roots back to the invention of the printing press in the West around the Renaissance, when this new technology (that played a major role in the Reformation’s religious conflicts; think of Luther’s translation of the Bible into German) essentially contributed to a novel configuration of the “spirit” (in the sense of “mind”), and with it, the cortico-cerebral system of the body.

This constituted a phase in the history of what Stiegler, extending Derrida’s work on “grammatology” (the science of writing), calls “grammatization”, that is, the history of the ways in which human memory becomes “exteriorised” in technological form, from writing to recording and electronic communication devices (Stiegler, in For a New Critique of Political Economy, Polity Press, 2010, p. 29-36). In simple language, humans who learned to read printed works also learned to think and perceive differently (which means that the body is unavoidably also affected); in the same way as today, when most of us use the internet with its combination of text and images, people have learned to think and perceive things differently from those who did (or do) not have such experiences.

Concomitantly with the effect that printing had on the spread of reading abilities, together with its religious and educational implications, something else occurred: the development of accounting techniques (around the beginning of capitalism), which was a function of the emerging modern reduction of nature to a sphere of calculability. In short, reason no longer meant only the ability to think and reflect, but also to calculate (something that Heidegger also pointed out). Here one witnesses the transition from the medieval conception of divine “logos” to secular “ratio” (Stiegler 2013, location 1648), which henceforth would not only mean “reason”, but “calculation” too.

For Stiegler this is indispensable for understanding the nihilism that has become pervasive today. He (2013, location 1649) detects a graphic indication of the shift in values, from the time before the printing press to the time of the founding of America, in the changed meaning of an earlier “belief” or faith in God, as registered in what the later inscription on the dollar bill (the “unit of accounting”) signifies, namely “In God we trust”. The latter inscription – on paper money – is an index of the changed relation to what is regarded as being fundamentally of value; no longer is it a matter of “faith” in an otherworldly power, but of “trust” in the secular power that has replaced it.

Small wonder that Nietzsche remarked (in The Gay Science of 1884, referred to by Stiegler, 2013, location 1664) on the “long time” that would elapse before “those who murdered God” would understand the nihilistic consequences of their actions. Needless to stress, what the “death of God” proclaimed by Nietzsche represents, is not any literal “death”, but the collapse of a system of values (with the advent of calculating reason around the Reformation) condensed in the word “God”. Similarly, Kenneth Clark (in his television series, Civilization), standing in New York, framed by the iconic Manhattan skyscrapers, remarked that these buildings, unlike the Gothic cathedrals of Europe, had been built in honour of the god of money, Mammon.

Stiegler (2013, location 1664) believes that it is only today that one can perceive the full extent of the “ordeal” of nihilism that Nietzsche diagnosed, and that it is perceptible in what the 2008 financial crisis really signifies, namely the collapse of the consumerist economic model. If this is difficult to comprehend, think of what the fraud perpetrated by Bernie Madoff around that time implies. Madoff’s Ponzi scheme masqueraded as a legitimate, reputable investment company for years, during which he was chairman of the Nasdaq in New York, before he was arrested for fraud. This, Stiegler (2013, location 1677) points out, meant nothing less than a fundamental change in the meaning of fiduciary (that is, trust-based) relations, and it does not stop there either.

To show what is at stake here, in the way that nihilism is playing itself out today in the very relations between humans and the objects around us, Stiegler (2013, location 1677-1715) resorts to Freud and Lacan’s concept of “the Thing”, which stands for “fullness of being”, and therefore means that which everyone has lost through birth, but still lurks (at an unconscious level) behind everything we, as humans, desire. For Lacan, the “objet petit a” (any object, like a favourite dress, or cherished painting, eg) is a trigger of one’s unique desire, but these “little other objects” are metonymies of “the Thing”, or the “profound lost object” that must be presupposed by any desire we have. To be able to live a meaningful life, Stiegler (2013, location 1688) points out, one has to enjoy a relationship with the things around you where you can – and do, first as an infant – invest a certain trust and intrinsic value in them when they become objects of desire. Stiegler refers to the psychoanalytical object-relations theorist Donald Winnicott, who argued that infants establish such relations with objects like toys, which then function as “transitional objects” instantiating irreplaceable worth – children become so attached to these things that they become indispensable, as every parent knows who has had to deal with the emotional trauma caused by the unexpected loss of a child’s toy, or favourite blanket (remember Linus?).

The relevance of this is that, under the “short-termism” of neoliberal capitalism, better known as consumerism, people have been robbed of the opportunity to establish these relations of fidelity with objects – objects are replaced so rapidly by “better upgrades” that no one has a chance to do so any longer. In Stiegler’s words (2013, location 1688-1701):

“ … these thingly supports of everyday life, which supported the world and the making-world [of production] essentially grounded in and through this making-trust [in things that lasted], have become disposable and structurally obsolescent as capitalism has brought into being what Schumpeter theorized … namely, the chronic obsolescence of industrial products henceforth furnished and swept away by a permanent innovation leading to an inevitably self-destructive short-termism. Today, it has become perfectly normal to see objects disappear into garbage disposals and garage sales as quickly as they appear on the market …

“Generalized disposability, which has today been imposed throughout the world, and which affects human beings and businesses as much as the objects they produce, along with the ideas and concepts these objects incarnate and disincarnate, has installed a systemic infidelity orchestrated via marketing, and through which intergenerational relations have been inverted: children now dictate to parents how to behave – that is, what to buy.”

The result of this state of affairs has been that the desire (for things to which people used to become attached, but also for other people, who seem to become “disposable”, too) has been “short-circuited and destroyed” (Stiegler 2013, location 1714). It does not require a genius to grasp the fact that this process of a systematic destruction of the relatively enduring value of things amounts to nihilism – the disappearance of value from everything. Like the “Nothing” in the film, The NeverEnding Story (directed by Wolfgang Petersen, 1984), nihilism is slowly but surely expanding its suffocating reach across global societies. It is up to humanity itself to re-infuse things with value; to rediscover the joys of life beyond consumerism and acknowledge our bond, first and foremost, with the earth and with one another, instead of being mesmerised and possessed by disposable, instead of durable consumer products.

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    • Richard

      The rise of the disposability culture is in no small measure the result of massification, and the notion of equality.

      Think, for instance, of a night at the opera or the theatre. In years gone by, this would have entailed the donning of a dinner suit, for instance, the investment in which would have entailed a fair expenditure. At some point in the 1960s, this notion was replaced with the “I’m as good as you” school of thought, which merged with, “I’ll dress as I like” and so people began appearing in casual clothing, to show how “radical” they were, and that they refused to wear the old black-and-white uniform. As this massification increased, dinner suits appeared less and less, but it was still necessary for a clothing hierarchy to embed itself, and this was achieved by frequently changing fashions. If you could afford to keep up with the frequency of change, you were part of the new elite. Wearing last season’s colours showed you weren’t at the top of the heap. Where previously fashions lasted a long time – dinner suits were invented by Poole & Sons in London in the 1860s, and then taken to the US and called “tuxedos” after the venue in New York, and worn unchanged for decades – it now became necessary to change very frequently. As this process continued, and capitalism allowed for cheaper production, the prices of these new clothes decreased. And so you now have the situation where some clothes actually fall apart after a few wearings, so that their owners can replace them with other styles quickly, and without much investment. What is the use of spending a lot on something you’re only going to wear a few times?

      It is no coincidence that this mentality now pervades everything, with changes in design and fashion in all things, from motor-cars to refrigerators, leading to the situation where we now talk about built-in obsolescence.

      The notion that all things should be affordable to all people, and the elimination of “elitism”, has had this curious effect. If the time should come that production is no longer so cheap (the result, perhaps, of a scarcity of the materials used, or rising labour costs) people will re-establish a older type of relationship to goods, and they will have some intrinsic value lacking at present.

    • michael

      I think it was G B Shaw that said that fashion is something so utterly ugly that it has to be changed every six months.

    • UncleB

      Disposable objects the root of nihilism? only a materialist can understand this strata of logic?

    • Bert Olivier

      Regarding disposable objects of a different kind – the world, or rather, the big coffee companies, are obviously NOT interested in combating waste-accumulation – have a look at this rather disturbing article on the growing mountain of coffee-cartons in the UK and elsewhere. Our children’s children will curse this thoughtless generation of today: