Modernism and Nihilism by Shane Weller
To consider the concept of nihilism, Simon Critchley once remarked 1, is to take up the trail of ‘Ariadne’s thread’, a theoretical route through the labyrinth of history. For Critchley, the story of nihilism is the story of what it means to be modern, and to read the philology of nihilism, of the nihil, is to look through a lens at modernity’s underside. Shane Weller’s survey of the web of relations between Modernism and Nihilism proceeds from the same supposition. His book unpicks the thread where it’s at its most knotted, in the high modernist literatures of the early twentieth century. For Weller, what’s at work in the works of the modernists – from Tzara to Kafka to Cioran – is a discursive puzzle for which ‘nihilism’ would seem to be the key, the master term that could unlock and make sense of the modern. Yet the thrust of his thesis is the fact that it fails to do so; the way that whatever it touches is rendered resistant to interpretation. So, on the one hand, thought and talk about ‘nihilism’ is ubiquitous across modern culture: wherever the modernist moment is, nihilism sits alongside (or inside) it. On the other, modernism proves unable to reduce nihilism to its propaedeutic, its explanatory toolkit. Rather, nihilism is what haunts modernism, as its ghost or double, a tense co-presence forever unsettling its meanings.
This disruptive quality of nihilism, as a kind of thought that casts its own surroundings into doubt, is dramatised in the very title of Weller’s book. Here the pairing ‘modernism and nihilism’ is intended to imply both modernism ‘as’ nihilism and, at the same time, modernism ‘versus’ nihilism. That is, aesthetic modernism needs to be seen both as a counterforce to the nihilism of modernity, and as its definitive embodiment. The challenge will then be to hold both terms of this antithesis in one’s mind at once, without letting either dissolve the other. The paradox here may best be understood as a dialectical energy residing within the concept itself. As Weller demonstrates, the canonical theorists of nihilism (not least Nietzsche and Adorno) have all, in their own ways, taken pains to paint nihilism as the engine of its own ‘self-overcoming’. For Weller, this ambivalence may even mean that nihilism is conceptually incoherent, or at least unavailable to any known mode of analysis. As he puts it, ‘there is no nihilism as such; there are only specific deployments of the term.’ In this sense, his research doesn’t search for the ‘meaning’ of nihilism. Instead, it reconstructs such ‘deployments’ within their discursive contexts, crafting a comparative account of nihilism’s many modern disguises.
In doing so, this short book builds a powerful body of evidence for the centrality of the nihil, however diversely conceived, to the projects of many if not most of the twentieth century’s major novelists and philosophers. Almost no one is spared. Writers on the right (Jünger, Heidegger, Benn) and the left (everyone from Camus to Benjamin) are all shown to be invested in their own, and each other’s, conceptions of nihilism as what we could call the grundstimmung, the grounding attunement of modern life. There are differences between the ways they operationalise the concept, yet the concept itself is omnipresent. For them, nihilism is always already there at the scene of writing, whether resisted or embraced; made an object of consent or critique. Weller’s attention to this ‘both / and’ logic is what enables him to render the full density of nihilism as a philosophical (and historical) problem. For example, the propensity of each deployment to posit its own version of nihilism’s history does not discourage him from ‘thinking these histories together’. Indeed, to do so is crucial if one is to understand nihilism as what complicates its own history, always disproving itself, dismantling all claims to origins. This is why, Weller argues, to write an authoritative ‘history of European nihilism’ would be ‘impossible’.
Of course, most of the standard histories (and Critchley’s gloss, among others) do point to a single formative moment in nihilism’s intersection with philosophy: Jacobi’s Open Letter to Fichte of 1799. While the word ‘nihilism’ can’t be claimed as Jacobi’s coinage, his is the first full summation of what it will later come to mean, in the continental tradition at least. Jacobi deploys the concept in the course of an early articulation of ‘modernity critique’: his attempt to paint Fichte’s system as the terminus ad quem of an Enlightenment reason that has run away with itself. For Jacobi, Fichtean nihilism marks the high watermark of the Aufklärung, appearing at the precise moment when reason gives way to a reflexive abyss. It’s the sign of a severance of subject from object, and of humanity’s subsequent ‘choosing of nothingness’, its opting out of the lifeworld and into the unlived life of the naked ego. From here it is only a short step, a reading of the ‘Letter’ would suggest, to the mathematisation of the environment, the implosion of ‘man’, and, in short, the advance of that ‘disenchanted’ world picture of which the likes of Weber later warned us.
Yet there are several things wrong with this picture. We should distrust any trusted version of events, especially one this well-rehearsed by much of the mainstream of ‘modernist’ thought. When working in retrospect, it’s all too easy to get swept up in the rhetoric of disenchantment. After all, the rubric can be made to encompass everything, from Pascal’s terror at the silence of the stars, to Vico’s analysis of the modern age as a ‘barbarism of reflection’. To work out why this is so, it’s helpful to return to literature. One of the many great quotes in Weller’s text comes from a lecture by Paul de Man: ‘the literature of nihilism is not necessarily nihilistic’. That is, modernist literature may thematise a set of received or invented understandings of something called ‘nihilism’, yet this thematisation never quite touches the thing itself. It’s the same with philosophy, and with intellectual history – or with the intellectualising of history as nihilism’s eruption into the world: nihilism as what makes the world ‘modern’. Nihilism is not a historical process. We can peer at history through the prism of nihilism, but nihilism is not something that happens ‘inside’ history, nor is it something that ‘has’ a history, in any intelligible way. Rather, as Heidegger says, ‘nihilism is history’, and that ‘is’ is what marks the truth of nihilism as something radically different from any thematic deployment of the term.
There are positive and negative valorizations of nihilism, then, but each, in its own way, misses the point. For instance, we might seek an evaluative counterweight to the disenchantment story in Ray Brassier’s Nihil Unbound2 which boldly endorses the nihilistic potential of Enlightenment, aiming to exacerbate that demystification of ontology opened up by ‘the annihilating vectors of science and capital’. There are echoes there of Hegel’s ‘labour of the negative’, but also, more revealingly, of the 1918 Dada Manifesto as quoted by Weller: ‘there is great destructive, negative work to be done’. Brassier’s claim that lived experience should not be protected from erosion but exposed to it is an exhilarating one, but it’s also, in a way, a familiar modernist move. In this sense it’s debatable whether even his version of nihilism escapes the epistemological weaknesses of ‘deployment’, as Weller delineates them. Once one falls into the trap of an enthusiasm for nihilism, it’s only too tempting to forget that, as Weller accentuates, ‘nihilism may be precisely that concept which cannot simply be co-opted in the interests of critique’, even a critique of its own co-optations.
Yet Brassier’s book does remain one of the most valuable accounts of nihilism to the extent that it defamiliarises the concept, putting it to work in ways that are alien to our common (or, he would say, ‘folk-psychological’) understanding of it. That is perhaps the only productive scholarly work that can be done on the subject. A comparably valuable dislocation is performed by Michael Allen Gillespie’s Nihilism Before Nietzsche3 which disembeds the nihil from its modern historical context, driving it back before the Enlightenment altogether, to fourteenth-century philosophical Nominalism. Again, another discursive rendition, another deployment, but the point is that those deployments that distort or distantiate their object the most are those that glimpse its ungraspable truth. If nihilism can’t be thought, perhaps it’s possible for thought to hold up a mirror to nihilism, provided it’s broken in all the right places.
In the literary field, Gabriel Josipovici has reached a similar insight in his What Ever Happened to Modernism?4 the crux of which seems, at first glance, to be a familiar reading of modernism and modernity in terms of Weberian Entzauberung, nihilist disenchantment. Yet where Josipovici turns this narrative on its head is his insistence that the moment of disenchantment defies periodisation. Counterintuitively, but, as it turns out, truly, Josipovici claims that ‘modern’ disenchantment is ‘not dependent on external events’ (Protestantism, the French Revolution, and so on), but is an ongoing, unfinished project, just as modernist art is an art that is always on the cusp of ‘coming into awareness’ of itself, endlessly, to quote Pound, ‘making it new’. In the same way that Gillespie casts doubt on nihilism’s correlation with its presupposed ‘period’, so Josipovici places aesthetic modernism in a transhistorical light, resetting its clock as early as Rabelais, and thus putting forward a modernism that is never ‘clearly defined and safely behind us’. What we need, he suggests, is a definition of the modern, with all its attendant disenchantments, as a condition that can’t be pinned down to a time in our past, but is ‘always with us,’ synchronically, as long as we are able to sense and respond to our place in a changing world. The tense of modernism, and of the nihilism we find it entwined with, is therefore always ‘the present tense’. (Or better yet, perhaps it’s the tense of Beckett’s Molloy: ‘My life... at the same time it is over and it goes on, and is there any tense for that?’) 5
In any case, it's clear that the categories in question are qualitative, not chronological. What this means is that nihilism can’t be contained in a narrative, even a modernist one. Nihilism is radically non-narrative, and where Weller weighs up its modern narrators’ mistaken beliefs that it could be ‘mastered’, we can recognise the same mistakes reproduced in critical theory today. In this light, if it was naive for Lukács to denigrate modernist art as the ‘spontaneous product’ of capitalist nihilism, it was equally so for any one of his opposite numbers to inflate its stakes in the poetics of resistance; to make it the mule of critique. Weller’s book is at its best when it upsets the terms of these old debates, using nothing other than those terms themselves. For him, ‘nihilism’ is the word that throws both language and history into disarray, and what he calls, after Nietzsche, its ‘uncanniness’, its spectrality, marks his insight into its real revolutionary energy: the way it is driven not only to damage its own deployments, but to undercut the historical time of its utterance, throwing that time out of joint, scrambling any scaffold of sense we could hope to enclose it in.
What then can be said of the persistent theme of the ‘overcoming’ of nihilism? For thinkers from Nietzsche to Nishitani Keiji 6 the process here, as mentioned above, is best understood as a self-overcoming, a method that nihilism makes available to itself, by means of its own internal dialectic. On this account, the nihil is always on the way to swallowing itself whole, in a motion produced by its own contradictions. This is the threshold or poetic volta that echoes across the literature of nihilism, as in the title of Jünger’s famous article, Across the Line, or in Benjamin’s letter on Kafka, where, Weller quotes, the writer is read as one who works ‘on the nether side of nothingness, in its inside lining, feeling his way toward redemption’. As should be clear, this mode of movement is not to be misunderstood as a historical trend or tendency, even less as a model of ‘progress’. Perhaps it is most closely comprehended as a lived ‘undergoing’ of nihilism, a willed suffering of it (in that way, a pathos), as when Nishitani reads Nietzsche as a modern man who made himself the locus of nihilism, not recording its history but embodying it, ‘experimenting with history within himself’. One can say that something like this goes on in modernist writing. However, the lesson of Weller’s text is not to take what one says too far; not to take nihilism at its word, for to do so is to underrate its true corrosive force as both threat and promise: a word that can burn the books it is written in.
Shane Weller, Modernism and Nihilism, Palgrave, 2011
1. Simon Critchley, Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2001
2. Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction, Palgrave, 2010
3. Michael Allen Gillespie, Nihilism Before Nietzsche, 2nd edn., University of Chicago Press, 1996
4. Gabriel Josipovici, What Ever Happened to Modernism?, Yale University Press, 2010
5. Samuel Beckett, Molloy, Faber & Faber, 2009
6. Nishitani Keiji, The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism, State University of New York Press, 1990