There is no doubt that we live in a nihilistic age — probably, as far as pervasiveness goes, the most nihilistic age in history. Nihilism is the cultural condition, or the psychological state, where nothing is experienced as having any intrinsic or inalienable worth, or value — which has nothing to do with saying that something has no monetary worth, of course. What is at stake here is the question whether a garden, a beloved pet, a beautiful necklace, a profoundly moving novel, or film, or even a person, has value in itself, or him-/herself, with the proviso that this value “in itself” is always, inescapably, placed in relation to someone who values it.
In its most severe form, according to Nietzsche (in the 19th century), it is called “radical nihilism”, which follows the discovery that everything that one has always taken for granted as having value, like wearing the latest fashionable clothing, or sporting the most up-to-date smartphone, is actually nothing more than convention — a tacit, unexamined set of assumptions that directs one’s actions and social behaviour. Radical nihilism is therefore the realisation that everything rests on nothing more than human credulity, and closer examination will show that even the longest-standing, most cherished institutions (like the church, education, business, marriage, and so on) originated from constructive human efforts that eventually became no more than conventions.
Depending on how one responds to this awareness of the intrinsic worthlessness of everything, according to Nietzsche, one could either be a “passive” or an “active” nihilist. The knee-jerk reaction of most people who make this unsettling discovery is denial, or passive nihilism: you glimpse the “abyss” of nothingness, and flee from it immediately, seeking some kind of anaesthetic to blot out its yawning maw of meaninglessness. In the 19th century this assumed the form of people running straight back “into the arms of the priests”, according to Nietzsche. Today it is more complicated, as I shall argue below.
So what is an “active nihilist”? Like its passive counterpart, this also entails the initial, startling realisation that everything that we value in culture and society is the historical result of centuries of conventional practice. But, unlike the passive nihilist, who cannot tolerate this truth, the active nihilist is liberated by the discovery. If nothing has intrinsic value, having been created by humans sometime in the ever-receding past, surely this opens up the opportunity to create one’s own values. And this is precisely what active nihilists do — as Nietzsche puts it, instead of fleeing from the abyss of meaninglessness and absurdity, they “dance” upon it.
But if everyone were capable of such axiological creativity, surely this would lead to a chaotic situation where everyone would conjure up new values (something valuable to themselves) out of thin air, and the confusion of Babel would reign? Sure. Which is why, when one reads Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra (his attempt to provide the modern world with a sustaining new myth) carefully, it is clear that he realised the need for a “community” of sorts to accept and elaborate on the new values that one has created.
This is true, I believe, for all innovative cultural creations, in whatever field this may happen, from psychology (think of Sigmund Freud’s invention of psychoanalysis), through education (Paulo Freire’s influential critical pedagogics comes to mind) to something like computer science, design and marketing (who can deny the creative impact of Steve Jobs’s work in this domain?). What 99% of the world’s consumers take for granted, has been the result of some creative spirit’s work, which they simply use every day.
So why do I claim that today we are witnessing the most pervasive nihilistic age in history, if there is a lot of creativity around (with the bulk of humanity, admittedly, just tapping into the fruits of such creativity according to conventional “rules”)? It has to do with what Karl Marx and Frederick Engels described evocatively (in The Communist Manifesto of 1848) as the effects of capitalist economics, namely, that “all that is solid melts into air”, and what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari characterise (in Anti-Oedipus of 1983) as capitalism’s process of “deterritorialisation” — that is, the way that it constantly seeks out new areas for profit-taking, so that no stable cultural or social domains exist any longer.
This is already an indication of creativity of a certain kind — ceaselessly inventing new products — so that one might say the inventors are active nihilists, while consumers are passive nihilists, who, through their willing consumption of all novel commodities, demonstrate in concrete terms that “all that is solid melts into air”. That is to say, no product lasts forever in a given form; innovation also means no stability, no durability. Value ascribed to a certain model car or smartphone today is annihilated by an “improved” model tomorrow.
But this is not the worst thing about it. The French philosopher Bernard Stiegler is renowned for his trilogy of books on Technics and Time, where he explores the implications of accepting that technology is co-extensive with being human. More recently, in For a New Critique of Political Economy (Polity Press, 2010), he argues that what we are witnessing in this era where advanced technology feeds the mill of what is distinctively “consumer” capitalism (as opposed to the productive capitalism of the 19th century), is the incremental “proletarianisation” of consumers (turning them into uncreative slaves of the culture industry and of the technicisation of ways of living), in the wake of the proletarianisation of workers (turning them into mere, uncreative labour force) in the 19th century. In a wide-ranging interview with Pieter Lemmens of the journal Krisis (2011, Issue 1: 3), Stiegler elaborates on this issue. According to Lemmens, Stiegler
“ … talks about today’s processes of proletarianisation and addresses some of the pernicious consequences of capital’s exploitation of the technical milieu of the mind, among them the many psychopathologies and addictive behaviour patterns that agonise ever more people, especially since the rise of the purely speculative, short-term based finance capitalism invented by the neoliberals and the neoconservatives. By subjecting technological innovation completely to the logic of the market, the so called “conservative revolution” led by Thatcher and Reagan has engendered a cultural and spiritual regression of unprecedented magnitude, transforming the whole of society into a machine for profit maximisation and creating a state of ‘systemic carelessness’ and ‘systemic stupidity’ on a global scale.”
This will probably be somewhat opaque to people who don’t read Stiegler, but let me make it more concrete. Technological innovation serves the market, and vice versa. While previous eras witnessed high levels of literary literacy — as opposed to the mere, basic ability to “read” (in a fashion), today even most students cheerfully admit that they don’t read what is not “necessary”. If you ask them whether they have read Elizabeth Gilbert’s marvellous novel, Eat, Pray, Love, the standard response is that they haven’t, but they have seen the movie. Which in itself testifies to Stiegler’s claim about cultural regression: the book represents a woman’s quest for meaning and value (active nihilism) after a debilitating divorce; the movie reduces this to the kitschy Hollywood formula of a woman’s quest for a man, promoting formulaic passive nihilism.
And because, largely, students do not have any literary knowledge of the Bildungsroman-kind, which consists in discovering that meaning in life often depends on suffering, they lack the knowledge of cultural value; hence “systemic carelessness” — you don’t know that you don’t know, and hence “care” evaporates. Furthermore, “systemic stupidity” is so ubiquitous that it is in your face: everyone “knows” (technically) how to operate a smartphone to get to websites with the “right information” (externalised memory), but very few have “knowledge” in the form of “internalised memory”.
The clearest example of this is the fact that students depend on spell-checking programmes; they don’t “know” how to spell any longer, let alone being able to read a paragraph from a complex text like Stiegler’s Technics and Time with a modicum of comprehension. Sure, there are still some, but they probably represent a miniscule percentage of global populations. To sum up, the passive nihilistic use of advanced information technology is proportional to the decrease in the ability to recognise what is valuable, let alone create it as active nihilists. Passive nihilism reigns, manipulated by capital-driven psycho-technology.