The Nihilist’s Notebook is a collection of essays, stories and comics that I published in 1996. It is currently out of print, and so I have been asked if I would scan and post it online. I am going to try and do so in the near future, but in the meantime here is a comic to whet your appetites:
The Existential Files is a fun and lively podcast hosted by doctors Louie Savva and Matthew Smith, two psychologists from the UK who conduct interviews and discuss issues ranging from positive psychology to the existence of God.
The podcasts can be found on iTunes, Sticher, Youtube, Cast Crunch or on The Existential Files website.
For a dose of refreshing despair and futility, you should also check out Louie Savva’s blog, Everything is Pointless.
Mathew Smith’s blog also features lots of interesting tidbits.
It is widely claimed, both by its supporters and detractors, that existentialism is an unsystematic philosophy. I recall one of my own advisors in graduate school disparaging the “moodiness” of existential thought as “adolescent” because she found it lacking in rigor. In it she saw something resembling a dark “perspective” or “attitude” ruled by emotions and feelings rather than a coherent, rational philosophy consisting of clearly articulated and integrated claims about the nature of reality. Walter Kaufman, on the other hand, praised and admired what he saw as the passionate unruliness of existentialism, characterizing it as a healthy and exciting revolt against traditional philosophizing. The “unsystematic” nature of existentialism, thus, might be thought of either as a flaw or as a virtue depending on one’s attitude toward “systems” in general.
British philosopher David E. Cooper is a supporter of both systems and of existentialism. In his book Existentialism he presents a reconstruction of the philosophy as both coherent and logical, rejecting what he calls the “silly” view that it is at best a version of psychology and at worst a joke. Instead, Cooper contends that existentialism in fact constitutes a “movement of thought that, as our century closes, is increasingly perceived as the distinctive direction of that century’s philosophizing.” (p. viii) [This second edition of the book was published in 1999.]
The reason why it is so common to characterize existentialism as something other than a coherent philosophy stems from a number of sources, according to Cooper. For one thing, those thinkers commonly labeled as “existentialists” disagree about quite a bit; including whether or not they are indeed existentialists! Most centrally, Cooper highlights the friction between the ideas of Heidegger and Sartre (in fact devoting an appendix at the end of the book to this topic) in order to show the real problems involved in trying to square the ideas of two thinkers who, by any account, must be included in a book about this subject. Secondly, since key figures such as Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus were novelists, there is a tendency to rely very heavily on their fiction, rather than their philosophical texts, in trying to reconstruct existentialist ideas. But fiction is very rarely intended to be systematic, and so this may be more of a distraction than an aid in ferreting out a coherent existentialist philosophy. There is also the problem that some thinkers – like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche – are central to the development of the existentialist tradition, however they are more like precursors or influences than they are existentialists in the sense of Heidegger or Sartre. The overall problem, then, is that when we use the term “existentialism” to refer to thinkers, we lack clear criteria by which to categorize them, perhaps mistaking superficial differences between thinkers for deeper philosophical differences, conflating philosophical ideas with fictional narratives, and confusing influences on thought with the content of the thought itself.
Cooper’s project, then, is to clarify the meaning of “existentialism.” He does this by imagining an “ideal existentialist” who “embodies the best wisdom … to be gleaned from actual existentialist writers.” (p. 10) By scrutinizing the ideas of a variety of thinkers associated with the tradition, Cooper focuses in on the common center of those ideas, funneling and solidifying them into a figure he calls the “Existentialist.” While the ideal Existentialist – like the ideal Christian, or Scientist, or American – may not exist as a flesh-and-blood person, this figure nonetheless embodies the core tenets of what Cooper claims to be a systematic existentialist philosophy.
The initiating issue that serves as the starting point of this philosophy, according to Cooper, is an engagement with the problem of human alienation and the explication of a strategy for its overcoming. In this regard, Cooper roots the existentialist tradition in the same issue that concerned Hegel and Marx, both of whom diagnosed human alienation as the result of historical conditions. However, unlike Marx, the Existentialist does not hold that alienation is a recent historical problem, but one that is “spiritual.” In this, the Existentialist agrees with Hegel, who also sees alienation as a step in the direction of the development of self-consciousness. But unlike Hegel, the Existentialist does not agree that the human mind is an extrusion of some greater, self alienated cosmic mind. It is the individual, human mind itself – not universal Geist – that experiences alienation, according to Cooper’s Existentialist.
This individualized conception of human thought is related to the Existentialist’s preoccupation with phenomenology. Since alienation grows out of our own uniquely human ways of thinking, its overcoming requires that we examine and mend those patterns of thought that have brought us to our alienated situation. Existential phenomenology, in attending to the unfolding of lived, mental experience, helps to construct a description of the structure of inner human consciousness. In this description, the Existentialist comes to reject the idea of the “self” as a substance. Humans are not “things” determined by the influences of cause and effect, but conscious, non-substantial processes that strive freely toward goals and aspirations of their own making. The “self” of the Existentialist is a freely choosing and ongoing project. Additionally, the Existentialist also embraces the phenomenological concept of “intentionality,” which holds that all of our conscious experience is experience of something. We never just “think” in an empty vacuum. Rather we always think about something, and thus there must always be an interconnectedness between the thinking “self” and the things that “self” is consciously oriented toward. Our understanding of ourselves, thus, must always be developed within in a context of engagement with other things and other consciousnesses. (p. 47) We are, as conscious beings, always already “thrown” into relationships with others.
The recognition of our “thrownness” into a world with others is a fundamental part of existentialist philosophy, according to Cooper. Phenomenologically, we are “beings-in-the-world,” already connected to others by the ways in which consciousness itself operates. We are not mere spectators, but actors embedded within lived, concrete contexts and relationships. It is our engagement in these relationships that brings meaning to existence. Humans are not substances that “exist in splendid logical isolation from anything else.” (p. 75) No, humans create themselves by choosing to interact with the “things” that they consciously encounter and confront. This is how we build our lives, making ourselves into “writers, criminals, cowards or whatever.” (p. 76) In contrast to the Cartesian notion of the mind as an isolated, nonphysical substance sitting apart and separate from the rest of the physical world, the Existentialist describes human consciousness as something that does not exist at all without the world it inhabits. This particular point is one that Cooper thinks has been obscured by Sartre, who, in Existentialism is a Humanism, referred to the Cartesian Cogito as his starting point. This assertion inspired a hostile response from Heidegger, who in his Letter on Humanism, rejected Sartre’s “dualistic” position, which he claimed made a false distinction between the worlds of mind and matter. But, as Cooper rightly points out, in Being and Nothingness, where Sartre gives a much more detailed account of consciousness, it is clear that he does not differ so radically from Heidegger at all, but rather concurs in the characterization of consciousness as a “nothing” or a “clearing” within the very fabric of Being rather than as a substance existing separately from the rest of the world. Human consciousness is like the hole within a doughnut, which cannot exist apart from the dough itself, but which is also distinct from the dough as a kind of “lack” or clearing in the dough. Similarly, human consciousness is like a clearing within Being itself, and so is not a substance determined by the causal laws governing the physical universe itself. Consciousness is a “nothingness” sitting within the physical world, free to construct its own perspectives and interpretations on the world into which it has been thrown (or torn?). When regarded as we actually are phenomenologically, human beings are not mere objects, separate and aloof from the rest of Being. According to the Existentialist, human consciousnesses are more like clearings within Being. Within consciousness, thought unfolds freely, and thus it is always actively involved in choosing how to comport itself toward the world it inhabits.
This is logically related to the existentialist concepts of authenticity and inauthenticity according to Cooper. Because of our freedom to choose, we experience an unsettling sense of responsibility for the course that our lives take while being-in-the-world-with-others. This sense of responsibility may at times feel overwhelming, and so there is a recurrent tendency for humans to lapse into inauthentic ways of life. We become tempted to lie to ourselves, and to claim, falsely, that we are substances among other substances, subject to the same push and pull of external forces that determine the movements of mere physical things. By lying to ourselves in this way, we experience relief from what can often be experienced as a crushing sense of guilt. After all, if the course of my life is determined by forces outside of my control, then I cannot be blamed for my failures or shortcomings. Rather, blame may be placed on my economic condition, or my upbringing, or my genetics, or my psychological constitution. While all of these factors may be a part of the pre-given world that my consciousness has been thrown into, none of them necessarily determines what I am going to do with my life once I exist within the world. Even a poor person, for instance, has to choose how to live with or react to poverty. When living in a state of inauthenticity, a human being forgets this, instead falling prey to the delusion, for instance, that the world of poverty determines a specific way of life, rather than recognizing that it is the human actor who determines what to do when thrown into a life of poverty.
The inauthentic way of life is encouraged by our absorption into the “They”; the society of others who seek to use us as means to their own ends. This is part of the ambiguous nature of our relationship with others. On the one hand, we need others in order to situate ourselves, to react against, and to see ourselves reflected. It is in relationship with “them” that we discover our own power of choice by way of negotiating a place within the world. However, in this there is also a temptation to fall prey to “them,” forgetting of our own power of choice, allowing ourselves to become cogs in the social machine. For instance, it may be tempting for a person living in poverty to view himself or herself as a victim of economic circumstances, and thus fall prey to others who offer rescue while promoting some sort of economic or political agenda. In abandoning one’s self to the interpretations and schemes of others, a human being can lose sight of their own powers of interpretation, and instead of authentically taking hold of life, act like a passive pawn in someone else’s game. When we think of ourselves this way, be become inauthentic.
Inauthenticity is a form of thinking that covers over the truth of existential freedom, and for this reason, the term is loaded with normative/ethical connotations. As Cooper points out, this is one of the issues that seems to divide Heidegger and Sartre. While Heidegger emphasizes authenticity and inauthenticity as states of Being, neither good nor bad, Sartre tends to cast inauthenticity (or bad faith) in moral terms as something that is unethical. Cooper suggests that there may be something a bit disingenuous about Heidegger’s insistence that a word like “inauthentic” is not intended to have any normative connotations. Consequently, in Cooper’s characterization of the ideal Existentialist, he highlights the ethical importance of striving toward authenticity in one’s self and in others as a part of the existential philosophy. Existentialism, thus, is non a form of “amoralism,” but contains an essentially ethical message: Our own freedom is dependent on recognizing the freedom of others. “Only if I regard and treat others – or better, regard them through treating them – as loci of existential freedom will I receive back an image of myself as just such a locus.” (p. 187) The ethical message here is articulated as what sounds like a version of egoism insofar as the grounding of Cooper’s existentialist morality lies in the desire for the individual to be treated as free, and not in some sort of altruistic desire to make others free. In other words, it is only because I want to be recognized as free that I treat others as free. Indeed, this focus on individual liberation, according to Cooper, imbues the Existentialist with a degree of elitism, since in pursuing personal authenticity, the focus is on “private perfection” (p. 193) rather than the more “grand,” democratic project of perfecting the world for everyone. And yet, in the end, the outcome may be the same. If I do unto others as I wish them to do to me, it may not matter that my motivation is egoistic. Others will still benefit.
Nonetheless, Cooper does suggest in the closing paragraphs of his book that there may be a more “grand” kind of existentialism that can be found in the very practice of philosophy itself. He points out that while philosophy is in one sense elitist – being pursued by a small group of people who withdraw from the mainstream of society in order to devote their lives to reflection on the human condition – as a discipline, it is nonetheless devoted to making contributions to culture as a whole. The collective lessons learned by those who have withdrawn from the “They” in order to become “authentic” in turn flow back to society, giving guidance to others in search of their own authenticity. Perhaps, then, this is the final step in the Existentialist’s overcoming of alienation. By first withdrawing from, but then returning to, the They we may find the closing of a circle that is part of the ongoing rhythm of existential thought. Alienation is overcome when, after first resisting the world around us, we come to understand that such resistance is dependent upon our antecedent thrownness into that very same world that we find ourselves bristling against. Our reintegration is accomplished by authentically embracing the totality of the existential struggles that are part and parcel of being-in-the-world-with-others.
My criticisms of Cooper’s book are few, and mostly related to his strategy for constructing the ideal type of Existentialist. While I find very little to complain about in terms of the final “system” of existentialism that Cooper ends up with – it pretty much encompasses what I always took to be the major doctrines of the philosophy – I do question some of the choices he makes along the way. For instance, early on in the book Cooper insistently excludes Albert Camus from his consideration of existentialist thinkers. His reason for this exclusion is that “unlike the rest of our writers, it is not at all his aim to reduce or overcome a sense of alienation or separateness from the world.” (p. 9) But this makes it appear as if Cooper has already settled on a definition of “existentialism,” and rather than considering all of the evidence at hand, he has decided to leave out thinkers, like Camus, who don’t fit his a priori conceptions. While I personally question whether it is true that Camus really is unconcerned with the alleviation of human alienation (his essay The Myth of Sisyphus is focused precisely on this topic), could it nevertheless be the case that some existentialists while not necessarily offering a solution to alienation could, in a more general sense, simply be concerned with the issue of human alienation? If Cooper’s definition was broadened in this way, then he could include the insights of Camus, a thinker who, like Heidegger, seems to me centrally important to an understanding of existentialism. The exclusion of Camus is especially strange as later on in the book Cooper, in various places, draws on the ideas of Iris Murdoch, a thinker only peripherally connected to the tradition, in order to shape his definition. Including Murdoch, but excluding Camus, is a very odd decision indeed.
A less serious criticism has to do with Cooper’s repeated denigration of certain subcultures – like beatniks, hippies, and punks – as misrepresentations, or hollow examples of, the lessons of existential philosophy. Cooper never gives much of a justification for these repeated attacks, which I presume are rooted in his assumption that the members of these groups are themselves shallow and unphilosophical. This is, of course, a sweeping generalization. I suspect that Cooper has not really studied these subcultures in depth, and so his comments in this regard are probably best just to throw away. However as someone who still has a bit of the punk rocker in him, I personally found such repeated insults annoying.
As a whole, I really admire the work that Cooper has put into Existentialism. I suppose there are those, like Walter Kaufman, who would object to the entire project of trying to delineate a systematic philosophy of existentialism. I don’t share such an objection, however. The philosophy articulated in this book is clear, sensible and – even if I don’t agree with all of its tenets – very attractive in its general contours.
I’ve signed a contract with Edinburgh University Press for the publication of a collection of essays to be titled Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings. The completed manuscript is due to the publisher by the end of January 2017.
The peer review process has so far been quite rigorous (and sometimes stressful!), but I think this has helped to shape and clarify the aims and purposes of the book. I’m excited about the result.
The collection consists of essays addressing nihilistic themes in an international variety of popular films. Some of the essays have previously appeared in journals such as Film and Philosophy, Film International, Screen Bodies, The Journal of Popular Culture, and The International Journal of Scottish Theatre and Screen. Other pieces new to this collection include an introductory essay addressing the philosophical history of nihilism and its relation to film; an updated and revised treatment of nihilistic themes in George Romero’s Dead films; an essay on Fight Club; and an essay exploring the nihilism of Yukio Mishima.
Part of the fun of working on this project includes selecting screen grabs from the various movies discussed in the book as illustrations. I also get some say in the cover design. Currently, I’m thinking that the image above, from David Cronenberg’s 1983 film Videodrome, would make a great cover!
I first learned about the 1953 novel Limbo sometime in 2003 after reading an account of the book in a history of science fiction. The short description of Limbo’s bizarre plot was enough to ignite my curiosity, and when I finally did obtain a used and tattered copy of this 400 plus page novel, I was immediately and totally absorbed.
I just finished rereading Limbo, and my original impressions have been reconfirmed. Hilarious, terrifying, and profound, Limbo is a political allegory that is still chillingly relevant to our current world conditions.
The plot of Limbo is unique and bizarre. After the Third World War much of the population of both the US and the Soviet Union has been destroyed by nuclear bombs. As a reaction against the horrors of the war, a philosophy of pacifism sweeps the globe. Called “Immob” – short for “immobilization – this philosophy holds that all of the world’s problems result from aggressive human activity. The solution, according to Immob, is passivity and non-action. To accomplish this change in human life, people are encouraged literally to disarm themselves through voluntary amputation of their arms and legs; a practice called “volamp.” The greater the number of limbs a person removes, the higher their status in society rises. Amputeeism thus becomes a visual marker of prestige.
A schism develops among the proponents of Immob. On one side there are the “anti-pros” and on the other the “pro-pros.” The anti-pros reject the development of prosthetic limbs to replace removed arms and legs while the pro-pros argue for the use of prosthetics. Because of the heroic sacrifice of amputees, pro-pros hold that they should be honored with state-of-the-art artificial arms and legs that give them the ability to become more physically dexterous than ever. The amputees adhering to this interpretation of Immob range from uni- to full quadro-amps who strut around in fashionable short sleeved shirts and short legged trousers in order better to show off their high-tech replacement limbs. The anti-pros remain fully immobile, lying passively in baskets while being catered to by attendants and displayed like babies in store windows. In this, they see themselves as morally pure exemplars of absolute passivity.
The pro-pro position is adopted by the new governments of the US and the Soviet Union, who compete in yearly Olympic games, demonstrating their aptitude with newly designed and engineered prosthetics. Little do the citizens of either country realize, however, that secretly both governments have been developing weaponized “arms” just in case another conflict between nations erupts. Among their arsenals are flame-thrower arms, rifle arms, and helicopter arms, all of which can be mounted on the stumps of amputees, making them into super-cybernetic warriors; the very opposite of pacifists. Despite the removal of limbs, it appears, the aggressive death drive remains just as strong as ever and human nature is unchanged despite Immob philosophy.
The story begins in Africa, where the narrator, Dr. Martine, has fled in order to escape western civilization. He is a deserter from the US military, having stolen an airplane at the very beginning of World War III, escaping the cataclysm and landing in a small, primitive island village where he has taken a wife and fathered a child. Here he acts as the village’s medical doctor, conducting lobotomies on those who are overly aggressive or violent; a procedure called “Mandunga,” one of the traditional practices of this African culture. An unintended side effect of Mandunga is that in addition to making people passive, it also eradicates the sex drive. Sex and aggression, it turns out, are intimately connected with one another in the very structures of the brain. Remove one and the other is also affected.
The entire culture of this African village revolves around being passive and nonaggressive. Anyone who exhibits any form of belligerence or hostility is considered insane. In fact, the history of this people is rooted in their migrations from the mainland in order to flee, rather than fight, against oppression and victimization by other tribes. These migrations have landed them on an isolated island where they have settled into a comfortable and docile way of life. Villagers drink “rota,” which drugs them into a passive state, and they eat smooth, soft tapioca; another symbol of their blandness. The surgical procedure of Mandunga has been developed in order to correct any reisidual signs of aggression in the inhabitants.
Martine becomes increasingly troubled by his own participation in all of this, and so he finally decides to leave, going back to the US in order to see what has become of his home. Back in the US, he is shocked to discover that his own notebook, left behind when he deserted the military years before, has become a sort of Bible to both the Americans and the Soviets. In this notebook he had offered the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that the amputation of people’s limbs was the solution to war. Without limbs, people could no longer fight one another. They would become passive and do no more damage to the world. All of this was intended as a joke. However, in his absence a man by the name of Helder – who was once Martine’s team mate in the military and is now the leader of the US – has interpreted Martine’s notebook literally and unironically, footnoting and annotating it in order to develop the philosophy of Immob, which has replaced all other ideologies. Martine, in returning to the US, finds that his own words have been the twisted inspiration for a new totalitarian philosophy of pacifism.
“Dodge the Steamroller!” This is the slogan of the new world order. The steamroller symbolizes all things that threaten to flatten and destroy the individual, such as war and exploitative governments. A statue prominently displayed in front of one of the main government offices depicts an enormous steamroller crushing a man beneath its wheel, his arms frantically raised skyward. This image replaces the cross or the flag as a reminder to citizens of what their cultural values are. Violence, aggression and belligerence crush the individual. Yet, in the very process of trying to avoid the steamrolling effects of external, violent forces, society has produced yet another form of oppression. The emphasis on pacifism taken to an extreme has ironically come to crush and distort the natural, aggessive part of human nature. By pushing down the urge for violence, this urge has popped back up in perverse and distorted ways. Over the course of the story, Martine endeavors to expose and subvert the misrepresentation of his writings, ultimately fleeing back to Africa, where his own son is also engaged in a rebellion against the passivity of the village culture.
The main theme that permeates Limbo has to do with the ambiguity of human existence. Referencing Nietzsche, Freud, James and many others throughout the story, Berhard Wolfe consistently emphasizes how any attempt to eradicate this ambiguity is doomed to pervert and distort human life. It is the struggle between the animal and the spiritual that makes us who we are; or as Wolfe puts it, the battle between “dog” and “God.” The juxtaposition of these palindromes highlights how the beastly and the elevated are just different sides of the same human coin. We are both dog and God rolled into one, and whenever we try to cleave off one or the other side of this contradiction, we become deformed and disfigured. What is perhaps most perverse is that we take pride in our own disfigurement, and like the characters in the world of Limbo, we trumpet it as an improvement on nature. Early on in the story, before leaving the African island, Martine sums up the book’s main point:
Rule: every blob of protoplasm teems with ambivalence, yearns at one and the same time to freeze and to blow up. A community committed to stupor might decree all excitants to be illegal, drive them underground and force feed their devotees with sedatives and anesthetics, but riot will out. In a sense these two loggerheadstrong plants were only symbols of the two linked psychic poles: the Dionysian, the blowtop, the oceanic, headed for abandon and the ultimate in sensation and all-engulfing consciousness: and the Apollonian, bedded down in mildness and limit and order and even-tempered restraint and a certain programmatic heavy-liddedness. (p. 33)
Humans are a contradiction. The Dionysian side wants wild abandon, disorder, activity and passion. The Apollonian side wants restraint, order and control. Without Apollo, all becomes chaos, and we destroy ourselves. Without Dionysus, all becomes static boredom, and we likewise destroy ourselves. Apollo and Dionysus, Eros and Thanatos, pull us in different directions: toward oneness and connection, on the one hand, and toward separation and disconnection, on the other. This is the human struggle. We are who we are because of a tension between opposing forces inside of us, and as Wolfe writes, “Short of the final achievement of inertness there was to be no real inertness, no untainted ease, no indivisible peace.” (p. 257) The mistake of all forms of utopianism is that they seek to perfect humankind; but in perfection humankind ceases to exist.
It is thus fitting that Limbo ends with with the conclusion that we should not seek to resolve human contradiction, but that we should embrace it and live within its confines. The book begins with an emphatic “NO,” printed in letters large enough to take up a whole page, but it ends with an equally emphatic “YES” that also takes up an entire page. The attempt to unite “no” and “yes” is the task of the narrator as he tries to accept that humans are both no-sayers and yeah-sayers: “I am the original no-yesman. Name should have been NOYES.” (p. 388)
In the end, Martine decides that the only appropriate way to honor the absurdity of human nature is to laugh at it. In laughter, Martine tells another character, there “is a sort of short-circuited sob” (p. 384) that at once recognizes the irresolvably incongruous nature of the human condition while also demanding joy from it. It is a response that is both passive and active all at once: saying “yes” to the absurdity of life, accepting it for what it is, while also saying “no” to false promises and final solutions.
Today the media is filled with an enormous number of shrill voices claiming to possess final solutions to the world’s problems. This is nothing new. In every generation, there are arrogant demagogues and know-it-all leaders, and there are always masses of people willing to put their faith in them. One of the pernicious dangers that humankind constantly faces is the delusion that we are so much more advanced than those who came before us, and that we are are no longer prone to the same faults of past civilizations; that we are on the verge of some major breakthrough that will finally, once and for all bring about heaven on earth. This is the sort of nonsense that Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo warns against. It is a hilariously frightening parody of extremist thinking and our attraction to it.
My wife and I were at the anarchist collective Bound Together Books the other day when I overheard a guy talking about nihilism to his friend. Stepping out front, I was pleased to see that my book, The Nihilist: A Philosophical Novel, has been put on display in their storefront. These anarchists obviously have good taste!
Roshni Nair writes about the International Day of Happiness from a nihilist perspective for the Indian newspaper Daily News and Analysis. My full interview appears on the website.