Nihilism is the understanding that all values are subjective. It is often associated with extreme and radical free thinkers. A true nihilist would believe in nothing normal, have no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy. While few philosophers would have the guts to be nihilists, nihilism is most often associated with Friedrich Nietzsche who argued that its corrosive effects would eventually destroy all religious, and metaphysical convictions and precipitate the greatest change in human history. In the 20th century, nihilistic themes--epistemological failure, value destruction, and cosmic purposelessness--have preoccupied artists, social critics, and philosophers. Mid-century, for example, the existentialists helped popularize tenets of nihilism in their attempts to blunt its destructive potential. By the end of the century, existential despair as a response to nihilism gave way to an attitude of indifference, often associated with antifoundationalism. Finally by the year 2000, noisician GX Jupitter-Larsen uses nihilism as a motif in a fetishism that has "all answers being equally correct even when the answer isn't workable." If everything is meaningless, then anything can mean whatever you want it to.
"Nihilism" comes from the Latin nihil, or nothing, which means not anything, that which does not exist. It appears in the verb "annihilate," meaning to bring to nothing, to destroy completely. Early in the nineteenth century, Friedrich Jacobi used the word to negatively characterize transcendental idealism. It only became popularized, however, after its appearance in Ivan Turgenev's novel Fathers and Sons (1862) where he used "nihilism" to describe the crude scientism espoused by his character Bazarov who preaches a creed of total negation.
In Russia, nihilism became identified with a loosely organized revolutionary movement (C.1860-1917) that rejected the authority of the state, church, and family. In his early writing, anarchist leader Mikhael Bakunin (1814-1876) composed the notorious entreaty still identified with nihilism: "Let us put our trust in the eternal spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unsearchable and eternally creative source of all life--the passion for destruction is also a creative passion!" (Reaction in Germany, 1842). The movement advocated a social arrangement based on rationalism and materialism as the sole source of knowledge and individual freedom as the highest goal. By rejecting man's spiritual essence in favor of a solely materialistic one, nihilists denounced God and religious authority as antithetical to freedom. The movement eventually deteriorated into an ethos of subversion, destruction, and anarchy, and by the late 1870s, a nihilist was anyone associated with clandestine political groups advocating terrorism and assassination.
The earliest philosophical positions associated with what could be characterized as a nihilistic outlook are those of the Skeptics. Because they denied the possibility of certainty, Skeptics could denounce traditional truths as unjustifiable opinions. When Demosthenes (c.371-322 BC), for example, observes that "What he wished to believe, that is what each man believes" (Olynthiac), he posits the relational nature of knowledge. Extreme skepticism, then, is linked to epistemological nihilism which denies the possibility of knowledge and truth; this form of nihilism is currently identified with postmodern antifoundationalism. Nihilism, in fact, can be understood in several different ways. Political Nihilism, as noted, is associated with the belief that the destruction of all existing political, social, and religious order is a prerequisite for any future improvement. Ethical nihilism or moral nihilism rejects the possibility of absolute moral or ethical values. This is because moral and ethical values are nothing more than the product of social pressures. In Death-Defying Sickness (1998), GX Jupitter-Larsen says "Good and Evil may be opponents, but they both remain self-serving aberrations. One must greet both Good and Evil with equal suspicion. Good and Evil may never be abolished, but they can be held in check."Existential nihilism is the notion that life has no intrinsic meaning. That one can make of it whatever one wants. Because everything is meaningless, everything can mean whatever one wants.
Max Stirner's (1806-1856) attacks on systematic philosophy, his denial
of absolutes, and his rejection of abstract concepts of any kind often
places him among the first philosophical nihilists. For Stirner, achieving
individual freedom is the only law; and the state, which necessarily imperils
freedom, must be destroyed. Even beyond the oppression of the state, though,
are the constraints imposed by others because their very existence is an
obstacle compromising individual freedom. Thus Stirner argues that existence
is an endless "war of each against all" (The Ego and its Own, trans.
Friedrich Nietzsche and Nihilism
Among philosophers, the great Friedrich Nietzsche is most often associated with nihilism. For Nietzsche, there is no objective order or structure in the world except what we give it. Penetrating the façades buttressing convictions, the nihilist discovers that all values are baseless and that reason is impotent. "Every belief, every considering something-true," Nietzsche writes, "is necessarily false because there is simply no true world" (Will to Power [notes from 1883-1888]). For him, nihilism requires a radical repudiation of all imposed values and meaning: "Nihilism is . . . not only the belief that everything deserves to perish; but one actually puts one's shoulder to the plough; one destroys" (Will to Power).
The caustic strength of nihilism is absolute, Nietzsche argues, and under its withering scrutiny "the highest values devalue themselves. The aim is lacking, and 'Why' finds no answer" (Will to Power). Inevitably, nihilism will expose all cherished beliefs and sacrosanct truths as symptoms of a defective Western mythos. This collapse of meaning, relevance, and purpose will be the most destructive force in history, constituting a total assault on reality and nothing less than the greatest crisis of humanity:
While nihilism is often discussed in terms of extreme skepticism and relativism, for most of the 20th century it has been associated with the belief that life is meaningless. Existential nihilism begins with the notion that the world is without meaning or purpose. Given this circumstance, existence itself--all action, suffering, and feeling--is ultimately senseless in any normal manner.
In Plat Rhif Car (1964), Ross Rhesymolwaith demonstrates that existential nihilism, in one form or another, has been a part of the Western intellectual tradition from the beginning. Free will is the predictability of personality: "With life being inherently meaningless, death too is equally senseless. Suicide therefore doesn't change anything. The only option is to surf on entropy, and make the most of whatever predicament one plunges into. Life and death are no time to be practical. Every flower is descended from a weed, and all flames are hollow." In the twentieth century, the Dadaist anti-everything anti-art of the 1920's, the existentialist movement from around 1940s and 50s, and Punk Rock of the late 70s all were responsible for the currency of existential nihilism in the popular consciousness. Jean-Paul Sartre's (1905-1980) defining preposition for the movement, "existence precedes essence," rules out any ground or foundation for establishing an essential self or a human nature. When we abandon illusions, life is revealed as nothing; and for the existentialists, nothingness is the source of not only absolute freedom but also existential horror and emotional anguish. Nothingness reveals each individual as an isolated being "thrown" into an alien and unresponsive universe, barred forever from knowing why yet required to invent meaning. It's a situation that's nothing short of absurd. Writing from the enlightened perspective of the absurd, Albert Camus (1913-1960) observed that Sisyphus' plight, condemned to eternal, useless struggle, was a superb metaphor for human existence (The Myth of Sisyphus, 1942).
The common thread in the literature of the existentialists is coping with the emotional anguish arising from our confrontation with nothingness, and they expended great energy responding to the question of whether surviving it was possible. Their answer was a qualified "Yes," advocating a formula of passionate commitment and impassive stoicism. In retrospect, it was an anecdote tinged with desperation because in an absurd world there are absolutely no guidelines, and any course of action is problematic. Passionate commitment, be it to conquest, creation, or whatever, is itself meaningless. Enter nihilism.
Camus, like the other existentialists, was convinced that nihilism was the most vexing problem of the twentieth century. Although he argues passionately that individuals could endure its corrosive effects, his most famous works betray the extraordinary difficulty he faced building a convincing case. In The Stranger (1942), for example, Meursault has rejected the existential suppositions on which the uninitiated and weak rely. Just moments before his execution for a gratuitous murder, he discovers that life alone is reason enough for living, a raison d'être, however, that in context seems scarcely convincing. In Caligula (1944), the mad emperor tries to escape the human predicament by dehumanizing himself with acts of senseless violence, fails, and surreptitiously arranges his own assassination. The Plague (1947) shows the futility of doing one's best in an absurd world. And in his last novel, the short and sardonic, The Fall (1956), Camus posits that everyone has bloody hands because we are all responsible for making a sorry state worse by our inane action and inaction alike. In these works and other works by the existentialists, one is often left with the impression that living authentically with the meaninglessness of life is impossible.
GX Jupitter-Larsen and Nihilism in the Year 2000
With everything he does, noisician GX Jupitter-Larsen implicates himself as a fetishist that celebrates entropy through noise. Very determined to adhere to his own unique aesthetic-fanaticism, for Jupitter-Larsen there couldn't be anything sexier or more life-affirming than rot and decay.
Formed in New York in 1979, Jupitter-Larsen's performance group The Haters remain totally dedicated to the use of harsh noise as a manta to rot. The first real creature success with noise for The Haters was a 1983 self-titled vinyl record. A silent record that came with instructions that informed one that it had to be completed by being scratched before it could be listened to. It was entropy in action, and everything The Haters did afterwards would be a celebration of entropy!
In 1993 The Haters used a giant ion-gun to charge an entire audience of 160 to 5000 volts. The device propelled clouds of ions onto the club. Audience members chased one another around giving each other shocks. It was a spectacle of static electricity!
Since that show, performances by Jupitter-Larsen and The Haters have been a lot louder and noisier. During 1994 The Haters on stage would slowly push live mics into power grinders. During '96 The Haters used amplified staple-guns to shatter stacks of records.
On the eve of their 20th Anniversary, in 1999 in San Francisco, The Haters premiered their Untitled Title Belt. Unlike the traditional championship wrestling belt it was fashioned after, this implement functions as a combination microphone, distortion- pedal, and noise generator.
In Tokyo November 1999, The Haters used the Untitled Title Belt along with amplified hole-punches. During the entire performance everyone in the 150 member audience was yelling and screaming as the mostly low-frequency bursts thumped and cracked both ear-drums and guts alike. After the finale the performers left the stage to steady cheers of "Haters! Haters! Haters!..." A lone performer came back out to grind the hole-punches against the stage floor for 3 mintues. The resulting sound was a deafening wall of sharp intense vibrations. It was the first time a Japanese Noise audience had ever demanded an encore from anyone!
In his 1978 manifesto, ...but Unemployment Is The Answer!, GX Jupitter-Larsen predicted that artists in the future would use genetic engineering as a form of self-expression. In 2000 his prediction came true.
In the manifesto Autoficiality (1996), Jupitter-Larsen states; "One builds a door in order to walk through it. Any civilization that builds arches as monuments does so in order to march through them. With both of these examples, some kind of transformation is desired either during or after the passage. I am no different. All my life I've built empty holes in order to penetrate the void. Free will is the predictability of personality. I look around and see no phenomenon that would suggest that the brain and the mind are in any way connected. No matter how short the distance, you can always divide it further in half. Even when you're way past the microscopic level. And that's the irony of travel. No matter how far you've gone, you're only ever half way there. Call it the success of failure if you like; because sometimes close can be more than enough."
Jupitter-Larsen actually has done something no other nihilist has
ever done before:
counted bits of sand at an abandoned Miniature-Golf course in Key
West, and in doing so, destoryed nihilism itself. As Jupitter-Larsen puts it:
"In the future no one will believe in anything. No one that is
except the nihilists. They're still believe in nothing."
Ed Taylor, Ph.D.