n Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe - “Reaksionêre nihilisme” in die huidige era - research

Volume 59 Number 4
  • ISSN : 0041-4751



“Reactionary nihilism” in the current era This paper is predicated on the demonstrable belief, that no former society has ever been as nihilistic (denying value or meaningfulness, especially as shown in the way one lives) as the global society of the present, and that the latter therefore faces the enormous challenge, to employ the available means – including the arts and education – to articulate the possibility of a meaningful existence. As point of departure Friedrich Nietzsche’s characterisation of two types of nihilism – namely “passive” and “active” nihilism – is briefly noted as two divergent ways to respond to the realisation that value is radically absent, being merely the result of historically established conventions. For example, valued institutions, such as education, religion and science lack inherent justification; they are mere conventions. Nietzsche’s “passive” nihilism consists in recognising the axiological abyss of radical nihilism, and shrinks from it, finding refuge in the anaesthetising belief that nothing has changed, and affirming the value of conventions in a reactionary manner. “Active” nihilism, by contrast, while similarly witnessing the chasm of non-meaning, represents a “dancing” on the abyss in the sense of the creation of new values (which can be shared in a community). While recognising the value of Nietzsche’s distinction between these varieties of nihilism as countervailing responses to the realisation that value rests on convention alone, they are replaced by “reactionary” nihilism and “resourceful” nihilism respectively, because of the fact that ostensibly “passive” adherence to convention still requires some kind of (reactionary) axiological behaviour, and because no “active” nihilism is capable of creating values ex nihilo; instead, it can at best be resourceful in revitalising intrinsic values, such as love, friendship, nature, communication, and so on, although this is never unproblematical, given cultural and individual differences. The thoroughgoing argument of this paper is that today one is witnessing an alarming increase in “reactionary nihilism”, insofar as consumer capitalism encourages and cultivates such a reactionary affirmation of conventional economic practices, instead of the “resourceful nihilism” of constructing new, shareable values in a time that sorely needs them. As an instance of the collapse of values, the work of Erich Fromm in the 1940s on the “loss of the self” in the context of what he called “automaton conformity” is briefly examined, before turning to Bernard Stiegler’s penetrating examination of contemporary society in terms of what he – following Marx’s diagnosis of worker “proletarianisation” in the 19th century – terms the “proletarianisation” of contemporary consumers. According to Stiegler the latter process marks the loss, on the part of consumers, of their savoir-faire (know-how) as well as their savoir vivre (knowledge of how to live creatively), and he attributes this to the way that consumer capitalism employs mnemo-technical devices such as smartphones, not only to market products, but more fundamentally, to impose “pre-formatted templates” for living on them. Moreover, Stiegler shows, the social and cognitive sciences are complicit in this process through market research, specifically concerning so-called “neuro-marketing”. The implications of these developments for the growth of reactionary nihilism are clear, given the economically conventional behaviour inculcated in consumers under these circumstances, and they are reinforced when one scrutinises Stiegler’s interpretation of Donald Winnicott’s psychoanalytical notion of “transitional objects” and the role they play in the development of infants. “Transitional phenomena” (including objects) such as toys and the songs children sing to themselves when they go to sleep have the function, Winnicott argued, of establishing an “intermediate space” between the mother and the infant, and which Stiegler interprets ontologically as an “immeasurable” space of “consistence” (as opposed to existence), within which the child can find protection, and through which the mother is constituted as mother, and the child as her child. Importantly, this space, inaugurated by transitional objects, is “pharmacological” because such objects constitute a pharmakon (poison and cure), which implies that the transitional object – for example a teddy bear – can either function as a “cure”, or as a “poison”, depending on whether it functions, with the mother’s help, “transitionally”, or whether the child becomes over-dependent on it. The point is that the first transitional object, as well as the intermediate space inaugurated by it, is generative of value (as well as of all subsequent transitional phenomena in a person’s life), which explains why Winnicott and Stiegler attribute to it a foundational role in the emergence of the arts, which similarly function as transitional spaces and endless sources of value – as Immanuel Kant clearly realised in the 18th century when he wrote about the “aesthetic ideas” embodied in artworks as never-ending sources of meaning and value. It follows from Stiegler’s understanding of Winnicott, and the fact that he links transitional objects to the origin of all the functions of “the life of the mind or spirit in all its forms, and thus of adult life as such” (Stiegler 2013: location 208-220), that mnemotechnical devices such as smartphones count among the transitional objects people use today, which are subject to the laws of the pharmakon – that is, are potentially “cure” and “poison”. In light of evidence from sources such as Kate Pickert indications are that, today, they are predominantly a “poison”, given the excessive dependence of users on these technical devices. Finally, the far-reaching work of Laurent de Sutter (2018) on “narcocapitalism” is consulted to cast further light on the theme of reactionary nihilism today. De Sutter’s findings are nothing less than disconcerting: he establishes an undeniable connection between the industrial (and illicit) distribution of narcotics (and their use) such as cocaine, the large-scale use of antidepressants like Prozac, the inseparability of financial capitalism and the cocaine trade, as well as the fact that the subject, today, is one that has been so thoroughly anaesthetised – at all conceivable levels – that he or she is largely incapable of desire and enjoyment. This state of affairs, where humans are increasingly devoid of desire, constitutes an enormous challenge to society, given that an awareness of value(s) presupposes the capacity to desire. Unless society were to find ways – such as through the arts and education – to re-invigorate people’s capacity to desire, and hence make value judgements, “reactionary nihilism” of the worst kind (in the light of the pharmaceutical subversion of desire) will be the rule, rather than the exception. It is up to people to use the arts and education as sources for the revitalisation of intrinsic values through instances of “resourceful nihilism”.

Die uitgangspunt van hierdie artikel is dat geen vorige samelewing in die geskiedenis vergelykenderwys al ooit so nihilisties soos die huidige was nie – waar “nihilisme” die radikale ontkenning van alle intrinsieke waarde beteken. Gevolglik word die samelewing met die enorme uitdaging gekonfronteer om middele, soos onder meer kuns en opvoeding, te vind en te benut om die moontlikheid van ’n sinvolle bestaan oortuigend te artikuleer. Daar word aandag geskenk aan twee soorte nihilisme – reaksionêr en vindingryk – gevolg deur ’n blik op die werk van Erich Fromm oor die verlies aan die “self”, asook die werk van Bernard Stiegler, om wat reeds vasgestel is, verder te nuanseer in terme van sy benutting van Donald Winnicott se psigoanalitiese ondersoek na die funksie van “oorgangsvoorwerpe”. Stiegler toon aan dat Winnicott se insigte ’n mens in staat stel om die huidige obsessie met mnemo-tegniese apparate soos slimfone te evalueer betreffende hulle dubbelsinnige pharmakon-rol as “oorgangsvoorwerpe” – hulle kan naamlik enersyds as “gif”, maar andersyds as “geneesmiddel” funksioneer. Daar word verder na die onlangse werk van Gil Germain oor tegnologie en “begeerte”, sowel as Laurent de Sutter se begrip “narkokapitalisme” verwys, waarvolgens daar ’n grootliks onsigbare, maar wydverspreide verband tussen die globale dwelmhandel (veral in kokaïen), die gebruik van antidepressante en verbruikerskapitalisme bestaan. De Sutter se verreikende navorsing bring aan die lig dat ’n grootliks “verdoofde” samelewing nie in staat is om waarde-oordele uit te voer nie; vandaar die haas-volledige houvas van reaksionêre nihilisme op die huidige samelewing, wat met vindingryke nihilisme die hoof gebied moet word. Ons woon vandag in wat waarskynlik die mees radikaal-nihilistiese samelewing in menslike geskiedenis is. Nihilisme in die mees verreikende vorm is die psigiese en kulturele “toestand” waar niks of niemand as intrinsiek waardevol ervaar word nie. Die kwalifiserende term, “intrinsiek” is belangrik hier, omdat dit geldelike “waarde” uitsluit. Terselfdertyd is dit reeds ’n aanduiding van die wortel van tydgenootlike nihilisme: ons woon in ’n tyd van die triomf van neoliberale kapitalisme, en kapitalisme is die ekonomiese stelsel waar geld, as kwantitatiewe indeks van ekonomiese waarde, die abstrakte maatstaf is waartoe alles herlei word – kommoditeite, mense (sokkerspelers en Formule 1-renjaers), en lande. Vandaar geld se funksie van wisselwaarde (“exchange value”). Intrinsieke waarde, daarenteen, verwys na die waarde wat onafskeidbaar met iets of iemand verweef is – die waarde van jou ou, verweerde leerbaadjie, wat jy met jou mondigwording van jou ouers ontvang het, die onskatbare waarde van ’n mens se troeteldiere, en natuurlik van jou geliefdes. Dit is dus voor die hand liggend dat die herleiding of reduksie van dinge of lewende wesens tot geldwaarde (soos leeus wat vir groot bedrae geld op teelplase geskiet word as veronderstelde “trofeë”) “nihilisties” is vir sover alle intrinsieke waarde wat hulle mag hê deur bloot-kwantitatiewe “waarde” vervang word. Hulle word, in filosofiese taal gestel, aksiologies “genihileer”, tot “niks” gereduseer, in die plek waarvan slegs die Midas-waardeindeks van geld, metonimies-gesproke, oorbly.

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