boredom / happiness studies: adorno on the fetishism of suntanning & schopenhauer


An archetypal instance is the behaviour of those who grill themselves brown in the sun merely for the sake of a sun-tan, although dozing in the blazing sunshine is not at all enjoyable, might very possibly be physically unpleasant, and certainly impoverishes the mind. In the sun-tan, which can be quite fetching, the fetish character of the commodity lays claim to actual people; they themselves become fetishes. The idea that a girl is more erotically attractive because of her brown skin is probably only another rationalization. The sun-tan is an end in itself, of more importance than the boy-friend it was perhaps supposed to entice. 

   
Adorno on the evils of suntanning:

The act of dozing in the sun marks the culmination of a crucial element of free time under present conditions – boredom. The miracles which people expect from their holidays or from other special treats in their free time, are subject to endless spiteful ridicule, since even here they never get beyond the threshold of the eversame: distant places are no longer – as they still were for Baudelaire’s ennui – different places. The victim’s ridicule is automatically connected to the very mechanisms which victimize. At an early age Schopenhauer formulated a theory of boredom. True to his metaphysical pessimism he teaches that people either suffer from the unfulfilled desires of their blind will, or become bored as soon as these desires are satisfied. The theory well describes what becomes of people’s free time under the sort of conditions of heteronomy, and which in new German tends to be termed Fremdbestimmtheit  (external determination). In its cynicism Schopenhauer’s arrogant remark that mankind is the factory product of nature also captures something of what the totality of the commodity character actually makes man into. Angry cynicism still does more honour to human beings than solemn protestations about man’s irreducible essence. However, one should not hypostatize Schopenhauer’s doctrine as something of universal validity or even as an insight into the primal character of the human species. Boredom is a function of life which is lived under the compulsion to work, and under the strict division of labour. It need not be so. Whenever behaviour in spare time is truly autonomous, determined by free people for themselves, boredom rarely figures; it need not figure in activities which cater merely for the desire for pleasure, any more than it does in those free time activities which are reasonable and meaningful in themselves. Even fooling about need not be crass, and can be enjoyed as a blessed release from the throes of self-control. If people were able to make their own decisions about themselves and their lives, if they were not caught up in the realm of the eversame, they would not have to be bored. Boredom is the reflection of objective dullness.


Adorno on DIY (home improvement?):

 

‘Do it yourself ’, this contemporary type of spare time behaviour fits however into a much more far-reaching context. More than thirty years ago I described such behaviour as ‘pseudo-activity’. Since then pseudoactivity has spread alarmingly, even (and especially) amongst those people who regard themselves as anti-establishment. Generally speaking there is good reason to assume that all forms of pseudo-activity contain a pent-up need to change the petrified relations of society. Pseudo-activity is misguided spontaneity. Misguided, but not accidentally so; because people do have a dim suspicion of how hard it would be to throw off the yoke that weighs upon them. They prefer to be distracted by spurious and illusory activities, by institutionalized vicarious satisfactions, than to face up to the awareness of how little access they have to the possibility of change today. Pseudo-activities are fictions and parodies of the same productivity which society on the one hand incessantly calls for, but on the other holds in check and, as far as the individual is concerned, does not really desire at all.

 

—excerpted from Adorno’s essay “Free Time,” in his The Culture Industry: Selected Essays On Mass Culture (1991).

 

Read "Free Time," IF YOU DARE!

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the philosophy of boredom: the boredom of philosopy


boredom as a philosophical problem

Svendsen’s conclusion: “Boredom is life’s own gravity."

As a philosopher, from time to time one must attempt to address big questions. If one fails to do so, one loses sight of what led one to study philosophy in the first place. In my opinion, boredom is one such big question, and an analysis of boredom ought to say something important about the conditions under which we live. We ought not – and are actually unable to – avoid considering our attitude towards the question of being from time to time. There may be many initial reasons for reflecting on one’s life, but the special thing about fundamental existential experiences is that they inevitably lead one to question one’s own existence. Profound boredom is one fundamental existential experience. As Jon Hellesnes has asked: ‘What can possibly be more existentially disturbing than boredom?’


The big questions are not necessarily the eternal questions, for boredom has only been a central cultural phenomenon for a couple of centuries. It is of course impossible to determine precisely
when boredom arose, and naturally it has its precursors. But it stands out as being a typical phenomenon of modernity. On the whole, the precursors were restricted to small groups, such as the nobility and the clergy, whereas the boredom of modernity is wide-ranging in its effect and can be said to be a relevant phenomenon today for practically everyone in the Western world.


Boredom is usually considered as something random in relation to the nature of man, but this is based on highly dubious assumptions regarding human nature. One could just as well claim that boredom is embodied in human nature, but that would also presuppose that there is anything at all that can be called ‘human nature’ – a presupposition that seems problematic to me. Postulating a given nature has a tendency to put an end to all further discussion. For, as Aristotle points out, we direct our attention first and foremost to that which is capable of change.
By postulating a nature we are claiming that it cannot be changed. It can also be tempting to postulate a completely neutral human nature, where man has just as great a potential to experience sadness as happiness, enthusiasm as boredom. In that case, the explanation of boredom is exclusively to be found in the individual’s social environment. I do not believe, however, that a clear distinction can be made between psychological and social aspects when dealing with a phenomenon such as boredom, and a reductive sociologism is just as untenable as a psychologism. So I choose to approach the matter from a different angle, adopting a perspective based partly on the history of ideas and partly on phenomenology. Nietzsche pointed out that the ‘hereditary fault of all philosophers’ is to base themselves on man at a particular period of time and then turn this into an eternal truth. So I will make do with stating that boredom is a very serious phenomenon that affects many people. Aristotle insisted that virtue is not natural, but that it is not unnatural either. The same applies to boredom. Moreover, an investigation of boredom can be carried out without presupposing any anthropological constants, i.e., anything given independently of a specifically social and historical space. We are dealing here with an investigation of man in a particular historical situation. It is us I am writing about, living in the shadow of Romanticism, as inveterate Romantics without the hyperbolic faith of Romanticism in the ability of the imagination to transform the world.


Even though all good philosophy ought to contain an important element of self-knowledge, it does not necessarily have to take the form of a confession modelled on Augustine’s
Confessions. Many people have asked me if I undertook this project because I suffered from boredom, but what I personally feel ought not to be of any interest to readers. I do not conceive philosophy as being a confessional activity, rather one that labours to gain clarity – a clarity that is admittedly never more than temporary – in the hope that the small area one feels one has shed light on will also be of relevance to others. From a philosophical point of view, my private conditions are irrelevant, even though they are naturally important to me.


I carried out a small, unscientific survey among colleagues, students, friends and acquaintances that revealed that they were on the whole unable to say whether they were
bored or not, although some answered in the affirmative or the negative – and one person even claimed that he had never been bored. To those readers who have possibly never been bored I can say by way of comparison that deep boredom is related, phenomenologically speaking, to insomnia, where the I loses its identity in the dark, caught in an apparently infinite void. One tries to fall asleep, takes perhaps a few faltering steps, but does not gain sleep, ending up in a no man’s land between a waking state and sleep. In Book of Disquiet Fernando Pessoa wrote:


Certain sensations are slumbers that fill up our mind like a fog and prevent us from thinking, from acting, from clearly and simply being. As if we hadn’t slept, something of our undreamed dreams lingers in us, and the torpor of the new day’s sun warms the stagnant surface of our senses. We’re drunk on not being anything, and our will is a bucket poured out onto the yard by the listless movement of a passing foot.


Pessoa’s boredom is obvious – it is distinct in all its formlessness. It is, however, in the nature of things that very few people indeed can come up with an unequivocal answer as to whether they are bored or not. First, moods, generally speaking, are seldom intentional subjects as far as we are concerned – they are precisely something one finds oneself
in, not something one consciously looks at. And second, boredom is a mood that is typified by a lack of quality that makes it more elusive than most other moods. Georges Bernanos’s village priest provides us with a fine description of the imperceptibly destructive nature of boredom in The Diary of a Country Priest:


So I said to myself that people are consumed by boredom. Naturally, one has to ponder for a while to realise this – one does not see it immediately. It is a like some sort of dust. One comes and goes without seeing it, one breathes it in, one eats it, one drinks it, and it is so fine that it doesn’t even scrunch between one’s teeth. But if one stops up for a moment, it settles like a blanket over the face and hands. One has to constantly shake this ash-rain off one. That is why people are so restless.


It is perfectly possible to be bored without being aware of the fact. And it is possible to be bored without being able to offer any reason or cause for this boredom. Those who claimed in my small survey that they were deeply bored were as a rule unable to state accurately
why they were bored; it wasn’t this or that that plagued them, rather a nameless, shapeless, object-less boredom. This is reminiscent of what Freud said about melancholy, where he began by stressing a similarity between melancholy and grief, since both contain an awareness of loss. But whereas the person who grieves always has a distinct object of loss, the melancholic does not precisely know what he has lost.


Introspection is a method that has obvious limitations when investigating boredom, so I decided to look critically at a number of texts of a philosophical and literary nature. I regard literature as excellent source-material for philosophical studies, and for the philosophy of culture it is just as indispensable as scientific works are for the philosophy of science. As a rule, literature is a great deal more illuminative than quantitative sociological or psychological studies. This applies not least to our subject, where much research has focused on how the deficiency or surplus of sensory stimuli cause boredom without this always being particularly illuminative when considering such a complex phenomenon as boredom.
As Adam Phillips, a psychoanalyst, has expressed it: ‘Clearly, we should speak not of boredom, but of boredoms, because the notion itself includes a multiplicity of moods and feelings that resist analysis.’


—from
Lars Svendsen, A Philosophy of Boredom (1999)

lars svendsen on writing: “my reason for writing this book was this: i was deeply bored for a while”

My reason for writing this book was this: I was deeply bored for a while. What made me realise the importance of the topic, however, was the boredom-related death of a close friend. I came to the point where I had to agree with Rimbaud: ‘boredom is no longer my love’. Being bored was no longer merely an innocent pose or a minor infliction. Rimbaud’s complaint of ‘dying of boredom’ – later to be repeated in numerous pop and rock songs from G. G. Allin’s Bored to death to Depeche Mode’s Something to do – suddenly became real. These songs stood out as the soundtracks of our lives. I believed that this experience was not restricted to a close circle of friends but rather indicated a serious problem regarding meaning in our contemporary culture as a whole. To investigate the problem of boredom is to attempt to understand who we are and how we fit into the world at this particular point in time. The more I thought about it, the more boredom seemed to be seminal for understanding contemporary culture. We live in a culture of boredom, and A Philosophy of Boredom is my modest attempt to come to terms with that culture.


At a more academic level, I was motivated by a certain dissatisfaction with contemporary philosophy. Emmanuel Levinas describes contemporary thought as one that passes through a world without human traces. Boredom, on the other hand, is human – all too human.


This book was originally written as an essay at a time when I had planned to devote myself to leisure. After having completed a lengthy research project, I was going to relax and do . . .
nothing. But that turned out to be absolutely impossible to carry out. Obviously, I was unable to do nothing. So I thought I had better do something, hence this book. Most often, we do not have any well-developed concepts for that which torments us. Very few people indeed have any well-thought-out concept of boredom. It is usually a blank label applied to everything that fails to grasp one’s interest. Boredom is first and foremost something we live with, not so much something we think about systematically. Even so, we can attempt to develop certain concepts about boredom so as to understand better what it is that afflicts us when it strikes. This book is an attempt to develop such thoughts about what boredom is, when it arose, why it did so, why it afflicts us, how it does so and why it cannot be overcome by any act of will.


—from Lars Svendsen, A Philosophy of Boredom (1999)

wittgenstein on discerning the other’s humanity, or not


We tend to take the speech of a Chinese for inarticulate gurgling. Someone who understands Chinese will recognise language in what he hears. Similarly I often cannot discern the humanity in a man.

 

—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 1914

 

deleuze on mcluhan & the future of literature

If Literature Dies, It Will Be Murder

 

People who haven’t properly read or understood McLuhan may think it’s only natural for audiovisual media to replace books, since they actually contain all the creative possibilities of the literature or other modes of expression they supersede. It’s not true. For if audiovisual media ever replace literature, it won’t be as competing means of expression, but as a monopoly of structures that also stifle the creative possibilities in those media themselves. If literature dies, it will be a violent death, a political assassination (as in the USSR, even if nobody notices). It’s not a matter of comparing different sorts of medium. The choice isn’t between written literature and audiovisual media. It’s between creative forces (in audiovisual media as well as literature) and domesticating forces. It’s highly unlikely that audiovisual media will find the conditions for creation once they’ve been lost in literature. Different modes of expression may have different creative possibilities, but they’re all related insofar as they must counter the introduction of a cultural space of markets and conformity—that is, a space of "producing for the market"—together.

 

— Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations, 1972-1990, p. 131

 

hegel, levinas & kojève: understanding the novels of maurice blanchot

 

 

Literature, scepticism, nihilism: Blanchot after Kojève

 The opening pages of Faux Pas make it clear, then, that for Blanchot nihilism is a form of naïvety in relation to the negative that is to be radically distinguished from the experience of the negative in literature.

 That this conception of nihilism as a naïve calculation is no passing whim in Blanchot’s theorization of the literary becomes evident as soon as one turns from this 1943 text to his next major general essay on the literary, ‘Literature and the Right to Death’, first published in 1948 and then included as the final essay in the collection The Work of Fire (1949).4 Here, Blanchot establishes what will remain a fundamental distinction between two conceptions of the negative in his work. On the one hand, there is the negativity of the Hegelian dialectic; that is, negation as a power ( pouvoir) for the production of being in its meaning and truth. It is through this labour of the negative that ‘existence is detached from itself and made significant’ (Blanchot 1995: 343). The figure for this meaning- and truth-producing negativity, which Blanchot draws from the preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), is death in its possibility:

that an accident as such, detached from what circumscribes it, what is bound and is actual only in its context with others, should attain an existence of its own and a separate freedom – this is the tremendous power [ungeheure Macht] of the negative; it is the energy of thought, of the pure ‘I’. Death, if that is what we want to call this non-actuality, is of all things the most dreadful, and to hold fast what is dead requires the greatest strength. Lacking strength, Beauty hates the Understanding for asking of her what it cannot do. But the life of Spirit is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it. It wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself. It is this power, not as something positive, which closes its eyes to the negative, as when we say of something that it is nothing or is false, and then, having done with it, turn away and pass on to something else; on the contrary, Spirit is this power only by looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it. This tarrying with the negative is the magical power that converts it into being. (Hegel 1977: 19)

As glossed by Blanchot: ‘Death ends in being; this is man’s hope and his task, because nothingness itself helps to make the world, nothingness is the creator of the world in man as he works and understands’ (Blanchot 1995: 344).

Combining Hegel – read by way of Alexandre Kojève’s commentaries on the Phenomenology in his Introduction to the Reading of Hegel (1947) – with Mallarmé, Blanchot argues that this power is the negativity of language as naming, and again it is a matter of the feminine, although this time as that which is stripped of being:

For me to be able to say, ‘This woman,’ I must somehow take her flesh-and-blood reality away from her, cause her to be absent, annihilate her. The word gives me the being, but it gives it to me deprived of being. The word is the absence of that being, its nothingness, what is left of it when it has lost being – the very fact that it does not exist. . . . when I say, ‘This woman,’ real death has been announced and is already present in my language; my language means that this person, who is here right now, can be detached from herself, removed from her existence and her presence, and suddenly plunged into a nothingness in which there is no existence or presence. (Blanchot 1995: 322–3)

This negation of being effected by language goes for the speaking as well as the spoken being: ‘When I speak, I deny the existence of what I am saying, but I also deny the existence of the person who is saying it’ (Blanchot 1995: 324).

As we have seen, this Hegelian form of negation has for its end the production of being in its meaning and truth, and just such a negation constitutes what Blanchot terms one of literature’s two slopes (pentes, versants): ‘One side of literature is turned toward the movement of negation by which things are separated from themselves and destroyed in order to be known, subjugated, communicated’ (Blanchot 1995: 330). In short, negation of this kind produces ‘meaningful prose’ (Blanchot 1995: 332). In so far as it is governed by negation in this Hegelian sense, literature’s ‘only concern is true meaning; its only preoccupation is to safeguard the movement by which this meaning becomes truth’ (Blanchot 1995: 333). For Blanchot, Mallarmé is the ‘master of this art of negation’ (Blanchot 1995: 333). Continue reading

nihilism unbound: john zerzan on the spirit of our age


The theories of the anarcho-primitivist John Zerzan derive in part from the negative dialectics of Theodor Adorno, as well as concepts from other Frankfurt School theorists, including their analyses of alienation and society, art and culture, and so on. Zerzan posits for humanity a pre-historical golden age, which lasted until the advent of our original sin — the emergence of symbolic thought or “culture.” The little humanity we have left will soon be totally eclipsed by the dominance of robotic and cyborg technologies and virtual reality simulations: “Progress has meant the looming specter of the complete dehumanization of the individual and the catastrophe of ecological collapse.” (Running On Emptiness, p. 79).

The Age Of Nihilism

 

Technological mediation and separation continue on their emptying ascendancy, embodying so well capital’s impoverishing penetration of every level of life on this planet. But there are signs that an era of unchecked cynicism, engendered by this rampant advance of techno-capital, is finally being challenged. The challengers, moreover, are quickly deepening their understanding of how fundamental the challenge must be if it is to succeed.

 

With this in mind, the following comments on nihilism may well be less apropos than they would have been even a year or two ago. For the focus of this essay is passive nihilism, rather than the probing, critical variety, which is the active nihilism now emerging as a force to be reckoned with. Nonetheless, the question of how and why an enfeebling ethos of meaninglessnessand indifference came to predominate may still be of some interest.

 

In Fathers and Sons, Turgenev described the nihilist as one "who looks at everything critically … who does not take any principle for granted, however much that principle may be revered." But during the same period, Dostoevsky portrayed modern, passive nihilism in Notes from Underground. Its protagonist was merely disgruntled, and lacked the passion and conviction necessary to hold convention to the flame of critique.

 

During the following century, it appears, the sense that nothing matters became widespread. One current among others, quite obviously, but a growing one. Nothing counts more than anything else, so nothing really counts. Nietzsche had said that nihilism "stands at the door" of modern civilization, and that door opened wider as the important sources of meaning and value steadily revealed themselves as inconsequential and irrelevant, unequal to the rigors of modern life.

 

Heidegger found in nihilism "the fundamental movement of the history of the West," and what was the bane of the nineteenth century became, by the 1990s, a banality. Nihilism, in the current postmodern clime, is simply the matter-of-fact state of mind of our period—so widespread today is the attitude that little or nothing is compelling, authentic, or makes a difference. Distinctions of value or meaning and the value or meaning of distinctions are less and less persuasive. There is a cultural exhaustion in the movement through decadence into nihilism. According to John Gray, nihilism constitutes modernity’s "only truly universal inheritance to humankind."

 

That inheritance has accelerated, it seems, since the failure of the movement of the 1960s, when belief in continuous Progress had reached its peak. As utopian oases dried up, a desert of inertia and pointlessness spread. By the ’80s, with nothing to look for and nowhere to go, youth were tagged as slackers, Generation X, etc. In the summer of 1990, the New York Times called kids the generation "that couldn’t care less."

 

With young people looking ahead to a lifetime of strain and empty consumerism, it should surprise no one that teens’ suicide rate has tripled in the past 30 years. Or that network television now offers what amount to "snuff" programs for the jaded and bored, as the population in general experiences its life-world as more and more of a vacuum in every way. A melancholy escapism flowers in this Dead Zone, this Nowhere.

 

Development is a given; this cancer of a system would soon collapse without its steady onslaught. It continues its onrush into the hypermodern vista of high-tech unreality. Nietzsche saw nihilism as a consequence of the erosion of the Christian world view. But this is a superficial judgment, in many ways confusing effect with cause.

 

A deeper causative factor is the march of technology, in the direction of the complete industrialization of society. From the present apex of cultural homogenization and standardized life, this is easier to see than it was for Nietzsche more than a century ago. The hollowing out of the substance and texture of daily existence is being completed, a process intimately related to the near impossibility of experiencing the world without technological mediation. The overall destruction of experience speaks to the deprivation at the heart of both technology and nihilism,

 

With this absence of unmediated personal experience at the heart of technological progress, skyrocketing levels of stress and depression cannot be surprising. Technology mediates between individuals and nature, ultimately abolishing both. With the triumph of technology, autonomy regresses and negates itself. The promises have all been lies. One is the promise of connection, so mercilessly (though inadvertently) mocked in a recent TV commercial: "I’ve got gigabytes. I’ve got megabytes. I’m voice-mailed. I’m e-mailed. I surf the Net. I’m on the Web. I am Cyber-Man. So how come I feel so out of touch?"

 

A set-up whose essence is efficiency is already fundamentally nihilist. Technical rules are rapidly supplanting ethical norms by making them irrelevant. What is more efficient or less efficient holds sway, not some moral consideration, even as the systemic goals of techno-capital are shaped by the evolution of its technology. Production, based on mastery and control, becomes more visibly a process of humanity devouring itself.

 

When powerlessness prevails, a generalized sense of paranoia is not an illogical symptom. Similarly, a current and telling form of cynicism is technological fatalism ("There’s nothing we can do about it"), further exposing the tendency of cynicism to shade into conformity. As Horkheimer and Adorno observed, "technological rationale is the rationale of domination itself."

 

Understanding and responsibility succumb to an ever-increasing fragmentation, a division of labor that is always unequal and alienating. The only wholeness resides in the fundamental system that turns all else into parts. As the moral self recedes, it becomes harder to grasp the relationship of these parts to one another and to see what they are part of. Domination and nihilism’s crisis of meaning are inseparably entwined.

 

For Heidegger, technology constitutes the final phase of nihilism. Under its sign all talk of freedom, happiness, emancipation becomes a mockery. In fact, technology itself becomes the ideological basis of society, having destroyed the possibility of other, overt forms of justification. Engagement or belief are hardly necessary for technology’s effective rule. In this way the nagging problem of declining participation in the system can be mitigated, or deferred.

 

Technology is the embodiment of the totalizing system of capital, and media is an indispensable, ever more defining bridge between technology and the commodity system. If the high-tech information explosion cancels all meaning in a meaningless noise, the mass-entertainment industrial complex pumps out increasingly desperate diversions to a society of relentless consumerism.

 

"Infotainment" and McJournalism are the latest pop culture products of nihilism. Why bother with truth if nothing can be done about reality anyway? And yet media, like technology, is always promising solutions to problems it has created, or worsened. One example among many is the significant rise in teen smoking in the 1990s despite an enormous media campaign aimed at reducing teen smoking. Strangely enough, beefing up the media does not combat alienated behaviors.

 

In the United States, and soon to spread elsewhere as not less than a function of development, we witness the recent transition to an amusement society of commodified spectacles and simulations. The eclipse of nonmediated reality feeds still greater urges to escape an emptied everyday life. Massified culture works in favor of distraction, conformity, and culturally enforced stupidity. The consequent lack of authenticity produces a mass turn-off, not unrelated to the decline of literacy.

 

The collapse of the distinction between reality and simulation in the world of representation can be seen as the ultimate failure of the symbolic. Art, music, and other forms of symbolic culture are losing their power to pacify and console us. Simulation technologies are just the most recent steps away from lived life, toward represented life. Their failure to satisfy means that the system must turn, increasingly, to containment and control.

 

To protect the desolate society an alternative to that society is safely set up, by means of image technologies. As the social dimensions of human life disappear along with meaning and value, a consumer society in cyberspace becomes the next stage of human existence. We are moving steadily toward the goal of complete illusion—virtual life in a virtual reality.

 

Under the Juggernaut, the subject is not supposed to have any sense of social causality, structure, coherence, or motive. Virtual Reality’s merely surface experience is exactly mirrored by postmodernism’s fascination with surfaces. As the culture that can just barely still be called one, postmodernism celebrates its own depthlessness, and is thus nihilism’s essential accomplice. It comes to pervade society when too many have given up hope that they can plumb the depth and roots of the whole. Postmodern perspectives are grounded in the incapacity to specify why change might be desirable or how it might come about.

 

Postmodernism is fundamentally the collapse and refusal of the chance to understand the totality. This indeed is the postmodern boast, mirroring the fragmentation of life instead of challenging it. Its "politics" is that of pragmatism, the tired liberalism that accommodates to the debased norm.

 

Deconstruction, for example, treats every moral statement as an endlessly manipulable fragment that possesses neither meaning nor intrinsic worth. Rem Koolhaus formulates the overall PM subjugation as follows: "According to Derrida we cannot be Whole, according to Baudrillard we cannot be real, according to Virilio we cannot be There."

 

Postmodernism, it might be argued, expresses fewer illusions, but the basic ones remain unchallenged. Its exhausted, ironic cynicism is prostrate before the nihilist ascendancy. What could be more passive than critique-less postmodernism double talk—an ideology of acquiescence.

 

Falsely laying claim to the protection of the particular as against the universal, postmodernism presents no defense whatsoever against the most universalizing force of all, technology. In the guise of particularity it incarnates nothing less than the realization of technology’s universalizing Midas touch.

 

Postmodernism emphasizes plurality, accessibility, absence of boundaries, endless possibility. Just as consumerist society does. And just as speciously. Where culturally a glut of meaningless information and incoherent fragments hold sway, the glut of ersatz commodities provides a perfect economic parallel. The liberty that remains to us is essentially the freedom to choose among brands A, B, and C, and the KFC in Tienanmen Square expresses domination as surely as the suppression of human rights protesters there in 1989.

 

"Systematic consumer segmentation and micro-marketing" is the dominant model of individualism today in the nihilist ethos of listless yet restless buyers. In fact, in an overwhelmingly commodified existence, consumption becomes the number one form of entertainment. Little wonder that academic journals now seriously discuss not only the McDonaldization of society but also its Disneyization, while life is largely defined in terms of consumer styles. The cognitive and moral focus of life becomes that of consumer behavior—including, it should be noted, voting and recycling.

 

Nihilism has effectively leached out the substance and texture from the life-world in the painful progression by which capital and technology have reduced and debased everything in their way. There is no exit from the closed system except by the elimination of that system.

 

Civilization begins by myth and ends in radical doubt, to paraphrase E.M. Cioran. This may remind us that cultural radicalism, which has become such a convention, feeds the dominant system rather than undermining it. Culture, born of alienation, needs alienation to go on. We must challenge the idea of symbolic culture as well as the reality of high-tech barbarism.

 

Nihilism is not a one-way street with no return, rather a route that has revealed the ensemble of domination for what it is. There are now very visible signs of the possibility of breaking its hold, redeeming its long, dark night.

 

2000

 

—from John Zerzan, Running On Emptiness: The Pathology of Civilization (Feral House), 2002, pp. 109 – 114.