Tag Archives: nihilism

we’re all gnostics now

At tQ, scathing words from Darran Anderson on the ongoing rehabilitation of Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber:

… there is no group anywhere on the political spectrum that is not gnostic now. By which I mean, that every single position from furthest left to ‘moderate’ centre to furthest right believes they are the sole possessors of hidden conspiratorial knowledge, and that every other position are dupes. All are anti-establishment now, including the establishment. All are mavericks and rebels, especially those who prop up the status quo. That’s not to say that there is moral equivalence across the board but when every party believes it has uniquely awoken or been [insert colour]-pilled, we have to accept that the Spectacle has absorbed the very idea of escaping the Spectacle. To put it another way, we escape Plato’s Cave and are celebrating our liberation in another cave, perhaps one where we make the shadow puppets but a cave nonetheless. Or to put it another way again, as the sideshow trick goes, the most credulous marks are the ones who think everyone else is a mark.

I find it hard not to agree with Anderson, here, though that troubles me for two reasons. The first is that while I deplore his methods, I can understand Kaczynski’s choice of path, and have some sympathy with Evan Malmgren’s recent piece at Real Life, which I think does a better job of getting at why Kaczynski retains his cultural cachet than does Anderson:

Popular media accounts try to have it both ways, condemning Kaczynski’s terror campaign while elevating his otherwise derivative critique of technology, all while leaning into the bombings as an audience draw. In retreading Kaczynski’s story again and again, they merely underscore his provocative contention that violence was, in fact, an effective means of getting industrial society’s attention.

While Anderson is scathing about the manifesto as well as about the methods, he’s still caught in the cycle Malmgren identifies: deplore his methods as we might, indeed as we must, that we are obliged and driven so to do remakes Kaczynski’s point, which is that violence cuts through the Spectacle in a way that nothing else does.

My second concern is that Anderson seems to be taking aim at specific nihilistic positions from a more generalised nihilism, which is (as I understand it) a contradiction inherent to leftist readings of Nietzsche—which is not to say that Anderson is drawing on Nietzsche here, so much as to say I recognise something of Anderson’s “everyone now claims to be a rebel, and it is by pointing this out that I implicitly become the true rebel and transcend the dialectic” vibe in my own thinking, as well as in ol’ Friedrich. It also feels like the flipside, or at least a phenomenon closely connected to, the paradox of tolerance, which is bugging me in the context of a book I’m reading for review, and the more general issue of epistemology, not so much in the specific Foucauldian sense of the term, but in the more general sense that it’s being used in the literature on teaching and learning in higher education that I’m encountering in an ongoing course.

All of which may amount to little more than the pattern-imposing lobe of what passes for my brain doing a more active job than usual at trying to make connections between things that I just so happen to be encountering at roughly the same time… but there may be something more to it. I guess we’ll see what (if anything) falls out here over the days ahead.

Fables of the deconstruction: Salmon (2020), An Event, Perhaps

Nice little biography of Derrida, this. A more manageable size than many of the man’s own books, it does a neat job of relating the philosopher and the philosophy, without being a hagiography in the case of the former, nor a full-bore “reading” in the case of the latter. Which makes it perhaps the ideal introduction to Derrida’s thought for someone (such as myself) who has read fragments here and there, and has a vague idea of where ideas like deconstruction sit (both philosophically and pop-culturally), but who has yet to actually tuck in to the texts themselves. Core ideas and themes are situated in the context of Derrida’s life and times, and of twentieth century philosophy in general; that these are simplifications is inevitable, particularly with a thinker as gordian and self-referential as Derrida. But that seems a fair price for what might stand as a rough map to prepare oneself for the exploration of a vast continent of ideas whose originality (and threat) are still manifest in the fear and loathing associated with his name—despite, as Salmon patiently explains, the complete absence of the relativist nihilism which is supposedly sourced in his work. This particular passage provides a succinct rebuttal to such accusations:

Of all the accusations, what seemed to sting most of all was the notion that his thinking was relativist, anything goes, and thus nihilistic. ‘Deconstruction’, he had reiterated in Memoires: For Paul de Man, ‘is anything but a nihilism or a scepticism. Why can one still read this claim despite so many texts that, explicitly, thematically and for more than twenty years have been demonstrating the opposite?’ Nihilism is an ontological claim that there is no truth. Deconstruction has no opinion on this. Nor does it on, say, pink elephants. What it does say is that we cannot know whether there is truth or not, which is an epistemological claim. So any assertion that there is truth is unprovable, and therefore whatever truth is offered should be analysed for the reasons why it is being offered.

Chapter 9, “Before the Law”

That these accusations were established by small groups of conservative academics in rival schools of philosophy and scholarship is a reminder that, for all their arguably increased intensity, the monstering of challenging ideas so prevalent in the present is not new, and nor are the methods thereof. One is tempted to suggest that the hazard to rationalist and analytical hegemony presented by Derrida’s ideas offers an explanation for their repeated misrepresentation—though as Salmon notes, and as my limited experience in the academy also suggests, misparsings based upon shallow readings, or indeed upon no readings at all, may be a significant part of the problem, too: to paraphrase Salmon, dismissing Derrida as a prolix relativist charlatan saves one the challenge of actually trying to read him.

I was particularly intrigued by the thread of Derrida’s work which aimed to demonstrate that “philosophy” is to some extent a generic form of writing—which is not at all to dismiss or denigrate it, nor to elevate, say, literature to a higher plane, but rather to argue that style and rhetoric are inextricable, and that metaphor is the root of all discourse. The parallels between analytical philosophy’s insistence on a very limited notion of truth in language and the “academic style” of writing (which, to belabour a point, is not a style which is taught, but rather a culture that is inculcated through osmosis, and just as opaque and frustrating as Derrida’s to anyone who has not normalised and internalised it) are notable; a doctrinaire positivism masquerading as a principled refusal to dirty one’s hands with “theory” or epistemology. While I plan to go to the source for the full experience, Salmon’s exploration of this theme has served to validate my prior attempts to push against (if not actually avoid) the “academic style”, and encourage me to bring more literary techniques to bear in my work to come. That’s unlikely to make things easy for me, of course… but hey, nothing worth doing is ever easy. Salmon’s story of Derrida—which, as he points out in Derrida’s own terms, is partial, in both senses of that term—doesn’t gloss over the difficulties and missteps (such as the De Man defence), but that serves to underline a consistency and fidelity which I find admirable, and worthy of some effort to emulate.

(I’d like to imagine I could emulate his terrifying levels of productivity, too, but, well, yeah, no. I wonder if that would even be possible now, to develop that sort of utter immersion in one’s work while being caught between on the one hand the relentlessness of the attention economy, and on the other the neoliberalisation of the academy? The sheer privilege of having the time to study deeply, without interruption from the demands of self-documentation and bureaucratic hoop-jumping, from the ubiquitous business ontology of modern scholarship… well, things are what they are, and one ends up where—and when—one is, and I’d do well to remember that in many respects I’ve rocked up to the plate with plenty more privilege than Derrida had when he started. The attitude is the thing to emulate, I guess, rather than the results.)