Monday, March 5, 2012

Bohemian Rhapsody

Marvin stood at the end of the bridge corridor. He was not in fact a particularly small robot. His silver body gleamed in the dusty sunbeams and shook with the continual barrage which the building was still undergoing. He did, however, look pitifully small as the gigantic black tank rolled to a halt in front of him. The tank examined him with a probe. The probe withdrew.
"I'm afraid," said Marvin, "that I've been left here to stop you."
"What are you armed with?" roared the tank in disbelief.
"Guess," said Marvin.
"Errmmm ..." said the machine, vibrating with unaccustomed thought, "laser beams?"
Marvin shook his head solemnly.
"No," muttered the machine in its deep guttural rumble, "Too obvious. Er ... how about an electron ram?"
This was new to Marvin.
"What's that?" he said.
"One of these," said the machine with enthusiasm.
From its turret emerged a sharp prong which spat a single lethal blaze of light. Behind Marvin a wall roared and collapsed as a heap of dust. The dust billowed briefly, then settled.
"You're thinking along the wrong lines," said Marvin, "You're failing to take into account something fairly basic in the relationship between men and robots. I'll tell you what they gave me to protect myself with, shall I?"
"Yes, alright," said the battle machine, bracing itself.
"Nothing," said Marvin.
There was a dangerous pause.
"Nothing?" roared the battle machine.
"Nothing at all," intoned Marvin dismally, "not an electronic sausage."
"Hell that makes me angry," bellowed the machine, "think I'll smash that wall down!"
The electron ram stabbed out another searing blaze of light and took out the wall next to the machine.
"How do you think I feel?" said Marvin bitterly.
"I think I'll shoot down their bloody ceiling as well!" raged the tank.
It took out the ceiling of the bridge.
"That's very impressive," murmured Marvin.
"You ain't seeing nothing yet," promised the machine, "I can take out this floor too, no trouble!" It took out the floor, too.
"Hell's bells!" the machine roared as it plummeted fifteen storeys and smashed itself to bits on the ground below.
"What a depressingly stupid machine," said Marvin and trudged away.
-Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe [edited]

In case you haven't noticed, I've spent the last few months wrestling with the work of John Milbank for a dissertation chapter, and I still haven't recovered. I may never recover. This is the wonder of Milbank. His regular whipping boys are the apostles of what he calls "postmodern nihilism." Basically, for him, all those postmodern/poststructuralist thinkers in the wake of Nietzsche, all those darlings of cultural studies -- Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, Deleuze (especially), and even Levinas -- they're nihilists.

They're like the robotic tank in the above passage: having lain waste to everything, they have nothing left to stand on, no purchase for undertaking any kind of radical politics -- never mind the extent to which they get employed in the service of such a politics. It won't work, Milbank feels, and in characteristic fashion he tells us that orthodox Christian theology is the only thing that will. It's a little more complicated than that, and more of the story can be found in the chapter "Ontological Violence" in Milbank's Theology and Social Theory.

I bring this up because it is Milbank who has convinced me that I am a nihilist, and it is my love/hate relationship with Milbank and his project that has goaded me into embracing that with something akin to enthusiasm. I want a T-shirt that says "I'm the postmodern nihilist Milbank warned you about." 

(Or maybe not.)

What I'm trying to do is accept Milbank's premise -- yes, this is in fact a kind of nihilism, and we should admit that -- without accepting his conclusion that we should therefore either embrace orthodox Christianity or just give up and acquiesce to capitalistic excess. This strikes me as a much more sophisticated but nevertheless equally spurious version of the argument that atheists, having abandoned God and therefore any basis for morality, should just become axe murderers and call it a day.

But if Milbank is correct that this is a form of nihilism, he's also correct that it is difficult to get a coherent politics out of it. I'm critical of Milbank not because I think there's a better way to arrive at a radical politics (or any politics for that matter) but because I don't think Milbank's project is going to work. It's very interesting theology, and has made quite a splash, and that's good for Milbank but I don't think anyone in the political world is going to make a hearty go of it and I don't think it would produce the desired results anyway. Of course, since it won't be tried we'll never know. Or as I like to say: history might prove me wrong, but I don't think it's that motivated. Nihilism FTW.

Milbank's articulation of a postfoundationalist milieu in which the apology for Christianity is its ability to stave off nihilism cannot, no matter how earnest Milbank's belief itself might be, fully escape the irony of the postmodern nihilism he laments. At that point it's already too late. Postfoundationalism is a nihilism, not in the sense of abandoning meaning altogether (as if that were possible) but in the sense of being forced to recognize that our attempts to create meaning don't rest on anything solid, and can't. If it's hard to get a politics out of this, then Milbank is in the same boat. On one hand, he's done it -- but then we should be able to recognize that others can, too. On the other hand, well, see above.

This might seem depressing, and that makes sense to me, but strangely I find it all invigorating. In fact, embracing that has been what I think has been a very helpful response to my own depression. This keeps coming up lately. Once again, there are three witnesses, three conversations that on their own might have made me think, and have demanded my attention all the more by ganging up on me with the rule of three.

The first conversation came on the heels of my last post: in the midst of various cross-postings and roundups I was introduced to another blogger. His work intrigued me, especially inasmuch as he was offering a bit of a critique of mainstream atheism mainly, it seemed to me, on the basis that it didn't fully own up to being a nihilism. This intrigued me, since that's my critique of a lot of things. But when I brought it up, the conversation fell apart on two levels.

First, my interlocutor felt that my attempts to connect him with schools of thought familiar to me constituted a form of rhetorical violence and that I was failing to see past those associations and engage the real person. This apparently warranted a bit of lecturing on his part. Second, he didn't feel I was taking the conversation seriously enough, and that I was treating his own seriousness as something to be mocked. He approaches such conversations, he told me, as if everything was at stake, and faulted me for approaching it as if nothing was at stake and this was just fodder for making snarky jokes. Which is true.

To the extent that the bit about labels was a critique of representation I'm quite sympathetic; there is a kind of rhetorical violence involved. But think rhetorical violence is only the issue if by naming something we assume we are identifying its essence and thereby gaining some sort of mastery over it. I don't think there is an essence to name. I just rather automatically look for associations and connections; what I am identifying is not an essence but a possible family resemblance. His earnestness surprised me coming from someone whose writing evinced what I thought was nihilism, so maybe I was wrong about that. But I don't know why he couldn't have just said "no, I don't think this is nihilism, and here's why."

As for the other, well -- guilty. I apologized for this, but pointed out that I did admit to being a nihilist, and as problematic as the label might be for him, I might have meant something by it. It's like the swordfighting scene between Jack Sparrow and Will Turner in Pirates of the Caribbean: Turner says "you cheated!" and Sparrow shrugs and says "Pirate...."

I tend to not take things seriously, I admit. Humor is my default. I'm a cynic, but I'm a happy cynic. Even when I'm curmudgeonly it's all schtick. My blogger friend wrote that if everything wasn't at stake, suicide would be preferable. I confess this baffles me. Suicide just doesn't seem that interesting.

The second conversation came during an independent study. One of our graduate students is doing some work with anarchist theory and wanted more background, so the department gave me the go-ahead. This has been fun because it's given me a reason to dig into to some of the history, and especially some primary sources, that I'd neglected up to this point. We've been chomping at the bit, however, to get to the postanarchist stuff. This is the intersection of postmodern/poststructuralist thought and anarchist theory, and we're geeked out about it.

Todd May is my favorite, but he has trouble arriving at a specific politics, even though he tries to do so and he wrote a whole book on practices. Still: what does a postanarchist actually do? That seems to be a difficult question. My counterpart, frustrated with May (and me sometimes), prefers Saul Newman. So I'm May and she's Newman. "We should develop a comedy skit based on that," she told me, "Except only three people would get it...and they're in the UK."

Newman's politics is more promising, but he gets there by sneaking some universals in the back door. I think this really is the central aporia: in a world where nothing really matters, what is politics? Does it do any good to critique the philosophy that tells us there is no starting point for not being a good starting point? To me, the problem is ticklish. To my grad student friend, it's a bit depressing, though she's hardly suicidal.

The third conversation was with a friend of mine who, like me, is sometimes visited by depression. We have similar personalities and wrestle with similar issues, but he has a more developed sense of justice than I do and greater sense of affront when that justice doesn't present itself.  I'm more cynical, but I don't want to take  that sense of justice away from him and I don't presume my own path to be normative. He's tempted to think that things might not be worth it without meaning or justice; he's actually had some suicidal thoughts.

I want to take that seriously, but at the same time it's a part of his experience I can't relate to. I chalk it up to narcissism: my own life is so interesting to me that if I ended it on purpose I'd be missing out on what happens next. Hey, it works: don't hate me. I also think it's precisely my nihilism that leads me to have lower expectations of the world and thus less chance for disappointment (and depression). Defense mechanism? Sure. I don't think that is unusual.

It's a long story, but I discovered in the midst of a disastrous life crisis that my narcissism can't be trusted with intrinsic meaning. I'm a nihilist for the same reason a recovering alcoholic doesn't drink. At this point you can dismiss my perspective as an artifact of my personality issues, but then I'd just point out that your perspective does the same thing for you, and we're back to the same place. Nihilism FTW again.

But who am I to say that my friend's sense of justice is misplaced or misguided? He might be led to actually do something. I don't think nihilists can go around prescribing what can and can't be done. It's just that we know it's ultimately ironic (particularly in the sense that Rorty calls "ironism"). Simon Critchley is not sending me Christmas cards.

Another friend put it to me this way, describing my nihilism as a double bind: "you feel compelled to treat other people seriously on their own grounds, allow them to define themselves to the extent that it is possible, but you also believe, so to speak, in nihilism: you feel that despite their protestations you know 'what's really going on' even if it's precisely nothing that is going on."

What I ended up telling my friend is that maybe between suicidal despair and a nihilistic cynicism is way of narrating that sense of justice as a call that can never be fulfilled but is nevertheless generative. There are shades here of Derrida's "democracy that is to come" or a kind of Levinasian ethical call; we can respond to that call but we cannot answer it. Can we get a politics out of that? Not a universal one, certainly, but I don't think that should stop people from acting on their desires for a better world. I'd just point out that those desires are always already constructed from choices we've made or choices that have been made for us.

I'm also a lot of fun at parties.


nathan said...

I’m wondering if a taxonomy of nihilism, similar to what Critchley does with passive nihilism and active nihilism, would be helpful. It seems to me that perhaps we should be thinking in post-nihilistic terms and looking at the range of nihilism’s various forms, while distinguishing one from the other. On one end, there’s the nihilism that Cornel West takes up in _Race Matters_ as “the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness.” This causes a shift towards an apathetic mindset and moral nihilism manifesting itself through crime and violence. He’s speaking specifically about the nihilism in Black America, but it has a more global application amongst subaltern communities of exclusion that lack political representation. He could also be speaking to subaltern communities in nearly any post-colonial nation.

But on the other end of the spectrum, there’s a nihilism that affirms life as you mention through your social justice friend. It denies and/or disregards the metaphysical grounding of meaning and ethical obligation, but focuses instead on the radicality of the human demand that faces us (as you say via Levinas). It requires a shift in deducing our ethical groundings from metaphysics to embracing a phenomenology of ethical experience by the demand placed on us by the alterity of the Other.

Ted Troxell said...


I think you're right -- the taxonomy goes back to Nietzsche, who was turning the charge of "nihilism" back on Christianity. The true nihilism, in his mind, was that which shrinks from life in all of its contingency. Milbank seeks to re-reverse that, whereas I'm making a different move that affirms both nihilism and life.

But it's a strategic move that I'm not sure has lasting usefulness. It's not like "being a nihilist" is that much of a thing for me. It's fun to trot out, though.

nathan said...

I like your strategic move. This may not be what you're doing, but it reminds me of what Homi Bhaba refers to as "splitting" in a passage from _The Location of Culture_:

"Splitting constitutes an intricate strategy of defense and differentiation in the colonial discourse. Two contradictory and independent attitudes inhabit the same place, one takes account of reality, the other is under the influence of instincts which detach the ego from reality. This results in the production of multiple and contradictory belief. The enunciatory moment of multiple belief is both a defense against the anxiety of difference, and itself productive of differentiations. Splitting is then a form of enunciatory, intellectual uncertainty and anxiety that stems from the fact that disavowal is not merely a principle of negation or elision; it is a strategy for articulating contradictory and coeval statements of belief. It is from such an enunciatory space, where the work of signification voids the act of meaning in articulating a split-response – ‘Ouboum’, ‘true time in two longitudes’—that my texts of colonial nonsense and imperial aporia have to negotiate their discursive authority.”

He builds off of Fanon, but the idea also share a similarity with with Dubois' Double Consciousness in that it's both a coping strategy to deal with the every day and also an attempt to deal with two contradictory things within the same space without transcending or repressing the contradiction.

He talks about how the return of the language (but it could be another device such as the Roman Cross in Xtianity) in a slightly altered state often destroys the calculations of the empowered, while simultaneously allowing the disempowered to form their own resistance through the revelatory mechanics of oppression used by the empowered.

Maybe it's not that sustainable, but it does seem like its fun. Also, both Gayatri Spivak and Saul Newman talk about employing unsustainable (or deconstructable) forms of resistance as viable tactics. Spivak gives an example of "strategic essentialism" where varied groups organize around a temporary essentialist position, often temporarily essentializing themselves, in order to mobilize social action.

So if it's not sustainable...whatever. I honestly think it carries more weight and way more fun than chopping the world up into groups of Nihilists and Neo-Platonists.

Ted Troxell said...

Well, that makes me sound a lot more interesting than I thought I was! :)

You're the only person who's ever quoted Homi Bhaba to me. You rock.

nathan said...

Homi's the shiznit. I want a t-shirt that says "Homi is my Homey"