Vaneigem om nihilism
What is nihilism? Rozanov’s definition is perfect: ‘The show is over. The audience get up to leave their seats. Time to collect their coats and go home. They turn round. No more coats and no more home.’
As soon as a mythical system enters into contradiction with economic and social reality, a chasm opens between the way people live and the prevailing explanation of the world, which is suddenly inadequate, completely surpassed. A whirlwind gets up, sucking up and smashing all traditional values. Deprived of its alibis and justifications, stripped of the illusions that had concealed it, the weakness of human beings is left naked and defenceless. Yet, inasmuch as myth was not only the shield and disguise of that weakness but also its cause, myth’s break-up opens the door to new possibilities. Its disappearance frees up an energy and creativity too long siphoned off from authentic experience into religious transcendence and abstraction. The interregnum between the collapse of classical philosophy and the construction of the Christian myth witnessed an unprecedented flowering of thoughts and actions each richer than the next. Then came the dead hand of Rome, co-opting whatever it could not destroy. Later, in the sixteenth century, the Christian myth itself disintegrated, and another period of frenetic experimentation and research burst upon the world. But this time there was an important difference, for after 1789 any reconstitution of myth was strictly impossible.
Whereas Christianity defused the explosive nihilism of and improvised a protective covering for itself from the remains, the nihilism born of the bourgeois revolution was a concrete one, a nihilism quite impossible to co-opt. As I have shown, the reality of exchange stymies dissimulation, defies all artifice. Until the spectacle is abolished, it can never be anything but the spectacle of nihilism. The vanity of the world, which the Pascal of the Pensées wanted to make people conscious of, this to the greater glory of God, is now propagated by historical reality itself, in the absence of God, himself a casualty of the shattering of myth. Nihilism has swept everything before it, God included.
For the last century and a half, the most lucid contributions to art and life have been the fruit of free experimentation in the field of destroyed values. Sade’s passionate rationalism, Kierkegaard’s sarcasm, Nietzsche’s havering irony, the violence of Maldoror, Mallarmé’s icy dispassion, Jarry’s Umour, Dada’s negativism—these are some of the impulses that have spread far and wide, investing human consciousness with a little of the dankness of decaying values; yet also, along with the dankness, the hope of a total supersession—a true reversal of perspective.
There is a paradox here. On the one hand, the great proponents of nihilism lacked an essential weapon: the sense of historical reality, the sense of the reality of decay, erosion and fragmentation. On the other hand, the greatest makers of history have been tragically lacking in a sharp awareness of history’s immense destructive power in the bourgeois era: Marx failed to analyse Romanticism and the general issue of art; Lenin was almost wilfully blind to the importance of everyday life, of the Futurists, of Mayakovsky, or of the Dadaists.
Consciousness of the rise of nihilism and consciousness of the movement of history seem curiously far apart. Through the breach between them surge hordes of passive liquidators, crushing the very values they claim to be defending under the weight of their stupidity. They include Communist bureaucrats, Fascist brutes, ideologues, shady politicians, sub-Joycean writers, neo-Dadaist thinkers, and priests of the piecemeal—all working assiduously for the Big Nothing in the name of one order or another: family, administration, morality, culture, revolutionary cybernetics (!), etc. Had history not advanced so far, perhaps nihilism would not yet seem like a general truth, a basic banality. But advanced it has. Nihilism is a self-destruct mechanism: today a flame, tomorrow ashes. Reification has imbued everyday reality with nothingness. The values of the past, now in ruins, fuel the intensive production of consumable and ‘futurized’ values marketed under the quaint label of ‘modern’, but they also thrust us inevitably towards a future yet to be constructed, or in other words towards the supersession of nihilism. In the desperate consciousness of the new generation a slow reconciliation is occurring between history as dissolution and history as construction. An alliance between nihilism and the forces of supersession means that supersession will be total. Herein without doubt lies the only wealth to be found in the affluent society.
When the man of ressentiment becomes aware that survival is a losing proposition, he turns into a nihilist. So tightly does he embrace the impossibility of living that even survival is fatally challenged. But nihilist angst is unlivable: an absolute void cannot hold. The whirlwind of past and future reduces the present to zero point. And from that still point there are two ways out, namely the two varieties of nihilism that I describe as active and passive.
Grounded in compromise and indifference, nihilist passivity combines an awareness of the collapse of all values with a deliberate, often selfinterested choice to defend one or other such discredited value come hell or high water, ‘gratuitously’, for Art’s sake. Nothing is true, so a few gestures have virtue. Delusional followers of the Fascist Charles Maurras, pataphysicians, jingoists, aesthetes of the acte gratuit, informers, O.A.S. bombers, Pop Artists—an endless parade of charmers, all working out their own particular version of the credo quia absurdum est: you don’t believe in it, but you do it anyway; you get used to it and even get to like it. Passive nihilism is a plunge into conformism.
Which said, nihilism can never be more than a transition, a shifting, ambiguous sphere, a period of wavering between two extremes, one leading to submission and subservience, the other to permanent revolt. Between these two poles lies a no-man’s-land, the wasteland of the suicide and the solitary killer, of that criminal described so aptly by Bettina as the crime of the State. Jack the Ripper is forever inaccessible—beyond the reach of either hierarchical Power or revolutionary will. An in-itself, so to speak! He gravitates around that zero point where destruction is no longer the continuation of the destruction wrought by Power but instead runs ahead of it, leaving it behind and so accelerating things that the machine of ‘In the Penal Colony’ shatters into pieces and flies apart. In the figure of Maldoror the dissolution wrought by modern social organization reaches its climax, namely self-destruction. The individual’s absolute rejection of society echoes society’s absolute rejection of the individual. Is this not the still point of the reversal of perspective, the moment of equilibrium where neither movement, nor dialectics, nor time exist? Noon and eternity of the great refusal. Before it, the pogroms; beyond it, the new innocence. The blood of Jews or the blood of cops.
Active nihilism combines consciousness of disintegration with a desire to expose its causes by speeding up the process. The disorder thus fomented is merely a reflection of the chaos ruling the world. Active nihilism is prerevolutionary; passive nihilism is counterrevolutionary. And many ordinary people, torn this way and that, dance a tragicomical hesitation waltz between the two—rather like the Red Army soldier described by some Soviet author (Viktor Shklovsky perhaps) who never charged without shouting, ‘Long Live the Tsar!’ But sooner or later circumstances are bound to draw the line, and people suddenly find themselves, once and for all, on one side or the other.
Dancing for oneself always means learning to disregard the beat of the official world. One’s demands, furthermore, must be carried to their logical conclusion, and one’s radicalism never abandoned at the first turn. As it approaches the point of exhaustion in its search for new motivations, the race for consumable items is ingenious enough to enlist the way-out, the bizarre and the shocking. Black humour and atrocity are readily incorporated into the advertising mix. There are ways, too, of flirting with nonconformity that conform to the prevailing value system. Awareness of the decay of values has its place in sales strategy. Disintegration is itself a commodity, and the vacuity of both ideas and objects, if loudly enough proclaimed, sells well. The figurine salt-shaker of Kennedy now in supermarkets, complete with ‘bullet-holes’ through which to pour the salt, should be enough to convince anybody if need be how easily the sort of gag that would once have delighted Émile Pouget and his Père Peinard is now a source of profit.
Consciousness of decay reached its highest expression with Dadaism. Dada really did contain the seeds of nihilism’s supersession, but the movement left them to rot along with everything else. As for Surrealism, its whole failing lay in the fact that it was an accurate critique made at the wrong moment. What this means is that while their critique of Dada’s aborting of supersession was perfectly justified, the Surrealists’ own attempt to surpass Dada did not go back to Dada’s initial nihilism, did not build on Dada-anti-Dada, and did not view Dada historically. History was the nightmare from which the Surrealists never awoke: they were defenceless before the Communist Party; they were caught short by the Spanish Civil War. For all their yapping they slunk after the official Left like faithful dogs.
Certain features of Romanticism had already shown, without awakening the slightest interest on the part of Marx or Engels, that art—the pulse of culture and society—was the first indicator of the disintegration of values. A century later, while Lenin deemed the issue frivolous, the Dadaists saw in an abscessed art the symptom of a generalized cancer, a sickness of society as a whole. The unpleasant in art is just a reflection of the art of unpleasure practised everywhere under the rule of Power. That is what the Dadaists of 1916 so clearly demonstrated. The only way forward from their analysis was armed struggle. The neo-Dadaist maggots of Pop Art swarming in the dung heap of present-day consumerism have naturally found better things to do!
The Dadaists, working to cure themselves and their contemporaries of the dissatisfaction of their lives—working, in the last reckoning, more consistently than Freud—set up the first laboratory for the rehabilitation of everyday life. In this respect their action went well beyond their thinking. ‘The point was to work completely in the dark,’ the painter Georg Grosz recalled later. ‘We didn’t know what we were doing.’ The Dada group was a sausage-machine taking in all the banalities and empty self-importance in the world; from the other end everything came out transformed, original, brand new. People and things were the same, but they had acquired new meanings and signs. The reversal of perspective began with this magical recovery of direct experience. In this way, repurposing—the tactics of the reversal of perspective—shattered the changeless framework of the old world. Lautréamont’s ‘poetry made by everyone’ found its full meaning in this achievement—a far cry indeed from the literary mentality to which the Surrealists eventually, and so pitifully, surrendered.
The initial weakness of Dada lay in its extraordinary humility. Think of Tzara, who, it is said, used every morning to repeat Descartes’s statement, ‘I do not even want to know that there were men before me’. This Tzara, a buffoon taking himself as seriously as a pope, may easily be recognized as the same individual who later disregarded the likes of Ravachol, Bonnot, or Makhno and his companions and joined Stalin’s herds. If Dada broke up when faced with the impossibility of supersession, it was because the Dadaists lacked the wit to look to history for those occasions when supersession was in fact possible—those moments when the masses arise and take their destiny into their own hands.
The first act of renunciation is always terrible. From Surrealism to neo-Dadaism, Dada’s original error has had ever-broadening repercussions. The Surrealists for their part did look to the past, but consider the results. Their attempt to correct the Dadaists’ mistake only made thing worse, for in lionizing such genuinely admirable figures as a Sade, a Fourier or a Lautréamont, they wrote so much (and so well) about them that these protégés of theirs won the dubious honour of mention in school curricula—a literary celebrity akin to that which the neo-Dadaists were to win for their forebears in today’s spectacle of disintegration.
For an international phenomenon today that in any way resembles Dada, one would have to consider the finest exploits of juvenile delinquents. The same contempt for art and bourgeois values. The same refusal of ideology. The same will to live. The same ignorance of history. The same primitive revolt. The same lack of tactics.
What the nihilist fails to realize is that other people are nihilists too, yet the nihilism of other people is now an active historical factor. The nihilist has no consciousness of the possibility of supersession. Remember, however, that the present reign of survival, in which all the talk about progress expresses nothing so much as despair of its possibility, is itself a product of history, itself the outcome of all the renunciations of the human over the centuries. I venture to say that the history of survival is the historical movement that will undo history itself. For clear awareness of survival and of its intolerable conditions is on the point of fusing with a consciousness of the successive renunciations of the past, and thus too with the real desire to pick up the movement of supersession everywhere in space and time where it has been prematurely interrupted. Supersession—which is to say the revolution of everyday life—will consist in retrieving all such abandoned radical seeds and injecting them with the unmatched violence of ressentiment. The resulting chain reaction of underground creativity cannot fail to demolish Power’s perspective. In the last reckoning, the nihilists are our only allies. Although they now suffer the despair of nonsupersession, a coherent theory may be expected, by demonstrating the mistakenness of their viewpoint, to place all the potential energy of their accumulated rancour at the service of their will to live. Once armed with two basic notions—the understanding of what it means to renounce radical demands and the historical consciousness of disintegration—anyone can fight for the radical transformation of everyday life and of the world. Nihilists, as Sade would have said, one more effort if you would be revolutionaries!