Volume 7, Number 1 (January, 2010)
The Wanderer In a Shadow: Reading Nietzsche and the Problem of Nihilism After Baudrillard
Dr. Paul O. Mahoney
The subject of nihilism is not a simple one, for a number of reasons. In part, this has to do with the varied ways in which one might approach it, and the corollary questions that arise as soon as one raises the “question” of nihilism. One might ask, for example: What does nihilism entail? Is it a coherent philosophical position, or does it really describe an attitude, a habit of character, as we would say a particular person is marked by cynicism? Does nihilism have political relevance? Is it possible to be a nihilist today, and if so, is it possible to be a nihilist in the same way as it was in the late nineteenth century, when the term was a subject of contemporary political and philosophical enquiry? The question is generally treated not in isolation, but in relation to another idea or thinker. In the former case, an idea or a doctrine is usually said to be “nihilistic” if it appears in some way sceptical about the values and methods of the tradition of enlightenment humanism. Baudrillard’s thought is habitually described as nihilistic in precisely this sense, but so, frequently, is the thought of Rorty, and in some quarters, that of Foucault or Derrida. If the question of the defining character of “nihilism” is raised, this tends to be as a historical question. There is an implicit assumption here that, whereas one can be branded a nihilist by another, one could not really, except in a provocative fashion, proclaim oneself a nihilist.
Naturally this is largely the legacy of Nietzsche. The question cannot be raised in a philosophical context – and there is scarcely another context in which it could be raised – without occasioning some engagement with his thought. In fact the term “nihilism” might have become purely a historical matter had it not, in an abstract sense, become a recurring subject of Nietzsche’s enquiries. Nietzsche raised the question of nihilism both as a personal problem and in terms of the history and destiny of Western thought and Western civilisation. His analysis then had both an historical and a trans-historical dimension. On the one hand, nihilism in various forms is a diagnosable phenomenon in Western thought, and on the other, it is an abstract problem that goes to the heart of the human condition. Today the question inevitably has an historical dimension because it cannot be entirely extricated from Nietzsche’s writing – to speak of nihilism without speaking of Nietzsche would seem like a perverse game; it would create an absence so conspicuous as to be an abyss into which one’s speech would be swallowed. Still, it is precisely Nietzsche who has encouraged the analysis of nihilism as a condition irreducible to, even if not unrelated to, the malaises of a particular historical epoch.
Baudrillard has acknowledged his debt to Nietzsche rather emphatically, as an “ingrained memory” more than a reference: “Nietzsche is...the author beneath whose broad shadow I moved, though involuntarily, and without even really knowing I was doing so” (Baudrillard 2004:2). Having read all of Nietzsche very young, so Baudrillard insists, he afterward dropped him, retaining, we could say, the spirit rather than the letter of his thought – an appropriate kind of apostleship, all things considered (cf. 2 Cor. 3:6). Baudrillard compares the place of Nietzsche in his thought to that of Brecht: “...Brecht, like Nietzsche, became part of my practice. I will never read them again, but their influence remains with me in other ways. Their effectivity is like a watermark” (Gane, 1993:180, cp. 21). Quite apart from his scattered presence by reference in Baudrillard’s work, we can gauge the lasting influence of Brecht from the surface observation that one of Baudrillard’s first published texts was a translation of Brecht’s Dialogues d’Exiles (Flüchtlingsgespräche, usually translated in English as Refugee Conversations), and one of his final texts was the series of conversations with Enrique Valiente Noailles published as Les Exilés du Dialogue (Exiles from Dialogue). This is certainly an example of fidelity to one’s early thoughts and youthful infatuations (cf. Baudrillard 2004:103); Nietzsche is similarly “annagramatized” through Baudrillard’s work (Ibid.:6), remaining as a memory he describes not only as ingrained, but as “visceral” and “aphoristic,” and as an “untimely” presence (Ibid.:1-2).
Baudrillard’s writing has frequently been attacked as nihilistic, often by critics who take him as an extreme example of the “postmodern” – for which here one might read “irrationalist” – turn in twentieth century theory. The most prominent of these critics has been Christopher Norris, but also Alex Callinicos, Douglas Kellner, and, on this particular subject, even Paul Virilio has weighed in, the latter distancing himself from Baudrillard by offering: “There’s a neonihilism in him I don’t like” (Rötzer, 1995:98). These criticisms rarely dwell on the relationship between Baudrillard and Nietzsche, or entertain the idea of a strict or coherent Nietzschean basis for what is perceived as nihilism. This is not a mystery: Baudrillard never wrote on Nietzsche, the odd thought or aphorism referred to will generally not be sourced, and often the presence of Nietzsche’s shadow over a passage or thought must be discerned by the presence of certain words or phrases (for example, the common recurrence of “vital illusion”). One such case would be the use of the word ressentiment in Baudrillard’s essay on nihilism, a short piece which names Nietzsche only once. This essay, Baudrillard’s only explicit statement on the subject (Baudrillard 1994: 159-64), is characterised by a certain reticence. His very forward profession: “I am a nihilist” seems to be somewhat qualified subsequently by his evident scepticism about whether one can still use the word in a worthwhile sense.
II. The Problem of Meaning
For now, let us take Baudrillard at his word and assume that a Nietzschean spirit animates all of his work, even if, like a mischievous daimon, it does much of its work in secret and unbeknownst to the one under its influence. We are interested not in the historical, nineteenth-century discourse on nihilism, or Nietzsche’s diagnoses of cultural nihilism, so much as in the essentials of the personal condition. If nihilism in Baudrillard’s work is to mean more than scepticism about the enlightenment tradition, and cease to be an allegation based on the absurd but widespread misunderstanding of his work that says he denies any difference between reality and simulation, then its roots must lie in his engagement with Nietzsche (an original reading, incidentally, he claims none of his examiners countenanced). If we provisionally assume this depth of influence, then we might plausibly use Baudrillard as a path back into Nietzsche, to better lay bare the fundamentals of what constitutes nihilism. Exposition of some fundamental themes shared by each will be our task in what follows, and this, it is hoped, may shed light on the question of nihilism (See also Woodward, 2008). [I am hesitant to take over Alan White’s “typology” of nihilism in Nietzsche as Woodward does, for, informative as it is, it appears like a quite rigid taxonomy, particularly as brought to bear on Baudrillard’s work, and is even suggestive of a natural progression from “religious” through “radical” to “complete” (or perfect) nihilism. Woodward encourages a quasi-Hegelian thought – that “complete” nihilism somehow represents a “sublation” of the prior forms – which does not seem tenable. I would also question whether what Woodward characterizes as traces of “religious” nihilism in Baudrillard’s work actually constitutes such].
Nihilism can be said to begin with the problem of the ultimate meaninglessness of human life – with the belief that everything comes to a natural end, and not only the individual but the species is doomed to extinction. From this perspective, all things are equal, being equally doomed. No course of action, however noble or base, will not have all memory and record of it extinguished in time. Those things by which one attempts to give meaning to a life, in which one invests hopes, and which one hopes will outlive the term of one’s existence – children or works, a legacy in flesh or in word – are, according to this melancholy thought, ultimately inconsequential. Contemplation of the non-eternity of the world and guaranteed eventual destruction of the human species, and the consequences for morality and meaning, are hardly original aspects of Nietzsche’s enquiries – the same thought is present in Lucretius, for example, and in certain “consolation” passages in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (the latter also contemplates a cyclical universe not unlike Nietzsche’s idea of the “eternal return” cf. e.g. V.13, XI.1). In fact Nietzsche does not dwell on the thought (excepting perhaps a few passages collected in the first book of The Will to Power), which one must presume to be an assumption in his philosophy. Nihilism presents itself then as a problem of value, or of how one can value what is transitory. No doubt there can be an almost juvenile quality to a problem elaborated in such terms; phrases such as “the meaninglessness of life” or “the loss of one’s values” can be almost sophomoric (it is perhaps unsurprising that Nietzsche is so often humorously invoked as the poster-boy of disaffected youth or the pocketbook for amateur philosophers). But the “vulgar” elaboration of a problem invariably forces one to confront its essence; and the melancholia induced by contemplation of the transitory is the beginning and the essence of nihilism.
This thought has the potential to paralyse. If all action is ultimately inconsequential, how can one continue to value one’s actions, or to truly value any of the “thousand and one goals” one might pursue? But one must learn to live with the thought, and to “overcome” it, as it cannot simply be banished. One must reckon with the transitory nature of the world, and grapple with the thought that truth, agency, unity, causality and such things are human creations. To deny the reality of the transitory and posit another world, a “beyond” of any kind, is for Nietzsche to succumb to another kind of nihilism, one characteristic of the Socratic-Platonic tradition, and of religions in general and Christianity in particular. This denial of life or of the reality of this world reflects a general hatred of the world, and of life – the belief that “life is a disease,” the message Nietzsche heard in Socrates’ dying words in Phaedo (see The Gay Science § 340; see also Most, 1993, and Nietzsche, 1998: II.12). Already in his Basel lectures on Plato from 1871-6, Nietzsche had attributed contempt for reality, the immediate, for “flesh and blood, anger, passions and pleasures” – for the whole realm of becoming, and anything that “inconveniences the thinker” – to Socrates, a contempt he judged had been passed on to the pupil Plato.
Le mépris et la haine de Socrate envers la réalité effective était avant tout un combat contre la réalité la plus immédiate, celle qui importune le penseur, contre la chair et le sang, la colère, la passion, la volupté, la haine: selon le témoignage de Zopyrus, il avait de fortes dispositions pour cela, et elles triomphent ici. Il transmet cette haine du sensible à Platon... (Nietzsche, 2005: 80) [The testimony of the physiognomist Zopyrus is revisited in Twilight of the Idols II.3 and II.9. Nietzsche borrows the story from Cicero’s De Fato and Tusculan Disputations, but the tale itself may be owed to a scene in a Socratic dialogue by Phaedo of Elis].
Against Plato and his Socrates Nietzsche championed Thucydides and the sophists, as those who looked at reality as it was, declining to explain or justify it by reference to a beyond (Nietzsche, 1997 § 168; and 1998: X.2 [Socrates’ dialectical method is also seen as a symptom of decline or decadence]: Ibid: II.5-7; and 1992:9). Plato’s “flight” in the face of reality, toward the ideal, is of the same kind as the Christian denial of the ultimate reality of the body, and the attendant denunciation of the passions as corrupt and ephemeral – Nietzsche in fact conflated the two, even calling Christianity “Platonism for the people” (Nietzsche, 1981, Preface; compare: 1974 § 344). Nihilism as melancholia – associated particularly with the decline of religious faith in the age of the industrial revolution, the rise of the natural sciences, and Darwinism – as well as nihilism as flight from reality to a beyond or an ideal, in the form of what was still in Nietzsche’s time (and ours) what Machiavelli called “the present religion,” would have both been prominent in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, the period of Nietzsche’s mature work. Both represent a denial of life and hence are symptoms of decadence – but they are not easily overcome.
The struggle to attach meaning to one’s actions and ultimately to one’s life is in the background of all of Nietzsche’s work. Eventually he formulated a distinction between active and passive nihilism, preserved in one of the most quoted passages from the collected notebooks published as The Will to Power; “passive” nihilism is lethargy of spirit and melancholy, while “active” nihilism seeks to create new values where the old ones failed. The distinction indicates two important things: first, Nietzsche implicitly recognises that one cannot simply pass through nihilism by any habit of thought or action – one remains a nihilist even in attempting to create new values or “transvaluate” older ones. Second, one is compelled to engage in this creation of values. Man is the valuing or value-making creature; without values he could not live. One cannot rest content with valueless life, and without engaging in the active creation of values (which confer meaning on life), the consistent nihilist would surely, like Hegel’s sceptical-nihilist, commit suicide.
The alternative in Hegel’s schema to this rationally consistent self-destruction is the refinement of slavish consciousness in Christianity. Certainly the Christian doctrine furnishes rules for living and a meaning for one’s life, but to live by it is an inadmissible and cowardly step for Nietzsche (it is also ultimately unsatisfactory for Hegel). But what form can the creation or transvaluation of values legitimately take, and how can this act confer enduring significance on created values which are, in the final analysis, quite arbitrary?
III. The Vital Illusion, Eternal Return, and Freedom of the Will
The unfortunate answer to this necessary question is that it cannot. One is fated to fail, or, to put it another way, one is condemned to illusion. Only when we understand this fact, and perhaps the yet more refined melancholy that attends it, can we begin to understand the weight of Nietzsche’s project, and how Baudrillard understood him – for it is certain that Baudrillard grasped this aspect of Nietzsche. This is perhaps best indicated by the recurrence of the phrase “the vital illusion” at various points in his work (not only, and not even most significantly, as the title of his Wellek lectures). The “vital illusion” – elsewhere expanded to or clarified as “the vital illusion of appearances” (Baudrillard 2003: 35) – is a gloss on the sentiment expressed in section 121 of The Gay Science. This is one of the most important passages in Nietzsche, a summary of the targets and motive of his critical genealogies:
Life no Argument. We have arranged for ourselves a world in which we can live – by the postulating of bodies, lines, surfaces, causes and effects, motion and rest, form and content: without these articles of faith no one could manage to live at present. But for all that they are still unproved. Life is no argument; error might be among the conditions of life [Compare § 121 with, for example, 110-12, 115, 344; also 1981 § 4. Conventional or “herd” moralities are naturally one of the most prominent of sustaining illusions, an obsession of Nietzsche’s from Daybreak on, and a subject given its most sustained treatment in On the Genealogy of Morals].
Nietzsche condemns us to illusion: the “solutions” he appears at times to offer are not solutions because they are not truths, but precisely illusions (see also Rosen, 2004). One must read the term “vital” in Baudrillard’s phrase in the strongest, most profound and most literal sense. Nietzsche’s proposal is that, literally, we cannot live without illusion. To be deprived of one’s values and fail to form new ones would compel one to self-destruction. But values cannot be proved either to be true or enduring. Error is a condition of life.
Nietzsche’s most famous, or infamous, hypothesis concerning those who can bear the burden of nihilism, and create laws and values anew, is the eternal return. It is a curious and confusing idea, and critical consensus as to its meaning and significance in Nietzsche’s philosophy has always been lacking. Outwardly, it looks like the simple idea that all things recur eternally, in the fullness of time (hardly an implausible thought), all actions and arrangements repeating themselves for the same reasons and with the same consequences. Deleuze has strongly criticised this reading, insisting: “Every time we understand the eternal return as the return of a particular arrangement of things after all the other arrangements have been realised, every time we interpret the eternal return as the return of the identical or the same, we replace Nietzsche’s thought with childish hypotheses” (Deleuze, 1983: Preface; see also “The Problem of the Eternal Return”). Still, Deleuze’s own treatment of the idea, which claims it must deny the being of reactive forces, does not adequately dispel the common doubts and confusions over what Milan Kundera called “a mad myth” (Kundera, 1995:4). Indeed there are passages in Nietzsche which might well confirm a reading that took the idea in its most vulgar sense (See for example Nietzsche, 1968b: Book IV. § 1066) [Nietzsche’s denial that the doctrine is “mechanistic” is not convincing. In “The Convalescent” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the doctrine is expressed thus by Zarathustra’s animals: “Behold, we know what you teach: that all things recur eternally and we ourselves with them, and that we have already existed an infinite number of times before and all things with us”]. We will not try and resolve such controversies here; our purposes are rather to extract the essentials of nihilism or the nihilistic consciousness, particularly as relevant to Baudrillard’s theoretical attitude.
The idea is famously introduced as “the greatest weight” or “the heaviest burden” (Das großte Schwergewicht) in section 341 of The Gay Science – originally the penultimate section of the book, which then closed with the introduction of the character of Zarathustra. There, Nietzsche imagines a demon stealing up to someone in a moment of solitude and telling him that every event of his life as he had lived it would be lived again and again, times without number. The thought, Nietzsche suggests, would crush a man or force him to transform his attitude toward his actions: thenceforth, one would measure all potential courses of action by the idea that one is willing them eternally to recur (one could say that Nietzsche plays the role of the demon in suggesting the thought to his reader). The idea recurs as Zarathustra’s “most abyssal thought,” where the imagined demon that comes to the solitary has metamorphosed into “the Spirit of Gravity.” In the section entitled “Of the Vision and the Riddle,” the Spirit of Gravity sits at Zarathustra’s shoulder and speaks into his ear, putting “leaden thoughts” into his brain. Zarathustra responds by introducing the idea of the eternal return, even repeating the motif of the spider in the moonlight introduced by the original “demon” which bore the doctrine in the previous book. To bear this thought with equanimity or even with joy, it seems, is a measure of a man’s reconciliation to his life and fate, and a road to the overcoming of nihilism. It is an affirmation of one’s life, and the embrace of amor fati – love of one’s fate, another concept introduced in The Gay Science (§ 276, the opening of part IV) and developed in Zarathustra. To say “thus I shall will it,” in affirmation of the eternal return, allows one also to say of every “It was,” “thus I willed it” (Nietzsche, 1975: “Of Redemption”). Such willing is inevitably an expression of the “will to power,” which Nietzsche placed at the centre of human life, claiming it to transcend the will to existence (Ibid.: “Of Self-Overcoming”). Will to power in a late note is related to the will to deception – and this, in turn, to the knowledge that error is a condition of life (Nietzsche, 1968b: Book III. § 616, 617) [On the will to deception, see Nietzsche, 1996: III.24-25; the former passage refers the reader to the preface to Daybreak, and to The Gay Science § 344; in the latter work see also § 107, § 265, and Kaufmann’s note on § 94; on the advancement of knowledge through error, § 37; Compare Nietzsche, 1981: § 1-4, § 291].
It is this idea – of illusion, error, as prior to truth and a condition of life – that Baudrillard takes on board. He extends Nietzsche’s critique, becoming a kind of reflexive “master of suspicion,” – to use the term Ricoeur applied to Nietzsche, Marx and Freud – work which led to a critique of the latter two, the reigning critical orthodoxies of the seventies, based on the notion of symbolic exchange (See Baudrillard 1990a: 102: “Sex – like the relations of production – was too simple. It is never too late to go beyond Marx and Freud”; psychoanalysis is characterized, in an obviously Nietzschean formula (Ibid., 144), as “the bad conscience of the sign”). In taking up the idea of the “vital illusion,” Baudrillard is automatically involved with the problem of nihilism. Whatever the rejected interpretation of Nietzsche he had as a student, Baudrillard is an astute enough reader to emphasise this crucial element, and to recognize in it something like the heart of Nietzsche’s project – again, appropriate for a “disciple” [In an interview with Dianne Hunter Baudrillard remarks: “If I have a master, it is Nietzsche” (Downing and Bazargan, 1991: 288).
From the frequent references made to Nietzsche in Baudrillard, too often without provided source, many as paraphrases, glosses or slight misquotes from memory, we concentrate on a few important references dealing with loss of truth, and “vital” illusions (For example Baudrillard 1990b: 59, quotes the phrase: “We no longer believe the truth remains once the veil has been lifted” – taken from the preface to the second edition of The Gay Science, incidentally the book that, on balance, Baudrillard seems to go back to the most). We can take as exemplary the opening two essays collected in The Perfect Crime, from where we can once more address an aspect of the abyssal thought of the eternal return, and once more approach the abyss of nihilism.
Here is considered: “A dizzying hypothesis: rationality, culminating in technical virtuosity, might be the last of the ruses of unreason, of that will to illusion of which, as Nietzsche says, the will to truth is only a derivative and avatar (Baudrillard 1996: 5)”. And toward the end of the essay: “Fortunately, we live on the basis of a vital illusion, on the basis of an absence, an unreality, a non-immediacy of things” (Ibid., 7). The substance of these sentiments is not readily comprehensible until one has consulted the Nietzschean passage on which the formula “vital illusion” is a gloss, and the related ones on the will to illusion. Why illusion? Again, because the basis for so many of our beliefs is the fact that we could not give them up and continue to live; but still, “life is no argument” – just because it would result in subjective dissolution or paralysis to give up a belief does not prove its truth or reality (an informal fallacy: argument “from life”). It is because illusion cannot be abandoned that, as Baudrillard remarks in closing the title essay: “Fortunately, the crime is never perfect” (that is, the world is never finally “realised” and purged of its illusion).
The theme is continued in the following essay, “The Spectre of the Will.” Here Baudrillard quotes Nietzsche’s emphatic statement from his posthumous notes: “[But] truth cannot be regarded as the highest power. The will to semblance, to illusion, to deception, to becoming, to change (to objective deception) is to be regarded here as deeper, more original, more metaphysical than the will to truth, to reality, to being – the latter is itself merely a form of the will to illusion” (Baudrillard 1996: 9; See Nietzsche, 1968b: 453). Here, in raising the “spectre” of the will, Baudrillard prompts us toward the deeper and perhaps more paralysing dimension of Nietzschean nihilism. The ultimate life-giving or vital illusion in Nietzsche is that of the freedom of the human will. Without this sustaining illusion, man would destroy himself, individually and collectively: were we to dispense with the idea and accept determinism, no responsibility, no morality, no apportionment of merit, could ever be sustainable.
This issue will have occurred to everyone who contemplates the eternal return: how can the hypothesis – if it were taken in its simplest sense – salvage the idea of freedom of the will? In sum: if all that occurs has occurred infinitely before and will again, the modern mind cannot escape the idea that what comes to pass is appointed by fate, or more accurately, ordained by original chance, but utterly determined. This kind of vulgar, mechanistic determinism is the fruit (or perhaps the seed) of thoroughgoing nihilism. But it is outwardly plausible in the same way as the hypothesis of an eternal return is – in fact, more so. Put simply, the admission that human beings are not exempt from the chain of cause-and-effect amounts in its extreme form to a denial of freedom of the will. How does Nietzsche treat of the idea? He is certainly sceptical about the freedom of the will, but at times does not seem ready to relinquish the idea, talking of “strong” and “weak” wills rather than freedom or unfreedom (See for example Nietzsche, 1981: § 19 with § 21). But, Nietzsche certainly contemplated the problem of the unfreedom of the will in the vulgar-mechanistic sense, and seems to have conceded it at certain moments. Perhaps the most emphatic such passage – another example of vulgar elaboration confronting the essence of a problem – runs:
…we make man responsible in turn for the effects of his actions, then for his actions, then for his motives and finally for his nature. Ultimately we discover that his nature cannot be responsible either, in that it is itself an inevitable consequence, an outgrowth of the elements and influences of past and present things; that is, man cannot be made responsible for anything, neither for his nature, nor his motives, nor his actions, nor the effects of his actions. And thus we come to understand that the history of moral feelings is the history of an error, an error called “responsibility,” which in turn rests on an error called “freedom of the will.”…No one is responsible for his deeds, no one for his nature; to judge is to be unjust. This is also true when the individual judges himself. The tenet is as bright as sunlight, and yet everyone prefers to walk back into the shadow and untruth – for fear of the consequences (Nietzsche, 1994 § 39).
Later in the same work, we get what is another example of the most basic and vulgar “cosmic determinist” position:
At the waterfall. When we see a waterfall, we think we see freedom of will and choice in the innumerable turnings, windings, breakings of the waves; but everything is necessary; each movement can be calculated mathematically. Thus it is with human actions; if one were omniscient, one would be able to calculate each individual action in advance, each step in the progress of knowledge, each error, each act of malice. To be sure, the acting man is caught in his illusion of volition; if the wheel of the world were to stand still for a moment and an omniscient, calculating mind were there to take advantage of this interruption, eh would be able to tell into the farthest future of each being and describe every rut that wheel will roll upon. The acting man’s delusion about himself, his assumption that free will exists, is also part of the calculable mechanism (Ibid., § 106).
Other scattered remarks seem to confirm the depths of this scepticism (Nietzsche, 1974: § 345; 1994: § 18, § 99, § 102; 1996: II.7; and 1997: § 116). Nietzsche rejects the idea of “intelligible freedom” (in Schopenhauer, explicitly in the passage about the “error of responsibility” above) or noumenal freedom by which Kant salvaged freedom of the will and exempted the human being (who is “phenomenally” determined) from mechanistic cause and effect (See for example: Nietzsche, 1998: VI.8). This idea he treated in much the same way as he did the whole idea of the noumenon or “thing-in-itself” in Kant, as an excrescence and a low sophistry (despite at least one lapse of his own into something like Kantian “scheme-content dualism”) Nietzsche, 1997: § 117). Nietzsche dismissed Kant, famously, as “a crafty Christian,” and labelled him “the Chinaman of Konigsberg” (Nietzsche, 1998: III.6; 1981: § 210). In the first book of his proposed “transvaluation of all values,” Götzendämmerung, Nietzsche’s scepticism concerning free will is still evident (Nietzsche, 1998: VI.7-8).
If the freedom of the will is rejected as truth but embraced as “vital illusion,” this leads to a deeper, more thoroughgoing nihilism and encourages an ironic relationship toward the world of human action and ambition. It is the great melancholy thought, and perhaps the true “heaviest burden,” or the related thought that makes the “eternal return” so great a weight. It eliminates responsibility, and therewith all blame and credit. That one could not take credit for one’s actions or achievements would be as destructive of life as the proposition that one could not be held accountable for crimes or violence. We need only apply the idea to Nietzsche himself to see this, considering his recurrent exaltation of his character, motives and work. Were one to say (as a consistent nihilist): no merit is due to anyone, for all they do is preordained, and there is no free will – and believe this – could Nietzsche’s self-aggrandisement seem anything but ridiculous (and a “flight from reality”)? If nothing is “noble” or “base,” because it is not chosen, then no idea of nobility of character is sustainable. Similarly unsustainable is the substance of the ideas of ranked human beings or the “pathos of distance,” in which Nietzsche invests so much. The non-freedom of the will, like the thought with which we characterised the beginning of nihilism above, has a levelling effect, a way of equalising all things and depriving action of meaning.
If the freedom of action and responsible agency can be contemplated as illusions (and philosophy has not yet furnished a definitive proof for their reality, while there remains a vulgar-mechanistic refutation of the idea), we are perhaps in a position to appreciate Nietzsche’s, and consequently Baudrillard’s, attention to the concept of destiny. Destiny is closely related to illusion. Destiny can be understood as a poetic hypothesis – certainly not anything in the order of a fate ordained by an external or higher power – which one is encouraged to entertain if truth, freedom and causality are considered as conditions of living, but errors. In discussing the concept as it functions in his thought Baudrillard writes: “The fateful event is not the one you can explain with causes, but the one which, at a certain moment, defies all causality, which comes from elsewhere, but with this secret destination...I could easily imagine a world that would be nothing but coincidences. Such a world would be not a world of chance and indeterminacy, but one of destiny” (Baudrillard 2003: 68-9). And elsewhere: “I don’t want to stress destiny or the fatal too much. There’s been too much confusion about this. Only the play of destiny is interesting, but it isn’t a religious fate we’re talking about...This is akin to the meaning of character for Nietzsche. More than in politics or anatomy, destiny is registered in character. It’s our specific sign” (Baudrillard 1998: 47). The embrace of destiny is comparable naturally to Nietzsche’s amor fati. A simple example of what might prompt thought of destiny is the charm exerted by a particular thinker. If I end up as an interpreter of Nietzsche, for example, it is difficult to reconstruct definite cause for the collision and collusion that leads to this; it is a matter, as with all matters of importance in a life, of taste more than of discernible reasons. Again, this is not to say there is a guiding hand in anything. Illusion comes in here; not only the contemplation of vital illusion, but the will-to-illusion of which Nietzsche speaks. “The doctrine of amor fati suggests that it is a will-to-art, or a will-to-illusion that enables passionate human engagement in a world shadowed by the death of God and the ensuing temptation to nihilism” (Picart, 1999:69). The will to illusion or art allows one “style” in one’s character (Nietzsche, 1974: § 290, 299) [In line with the “will to illusion” one might explain Nietzsche’s praise of hypocrisy under the heading of “the intellectual conscience” in 1998: IX.18; compare 1974: § 2]. We can understand Baudrillard’s use of illusion in an active sense, as a bringing-into-play, or “illuding” in a similar fashion to Nietzsche’s will-to-illusion (Gane, 1993:140; Baudrillard, 2003: 87-8). The question of fate and freedom of the will were preoccupations of Nietzsche’s from his early years; in early writings he claimed the two compatible, or two sides of the same coin, united by the concept of individuality (See the essays “Fate and History” and “Freedom of the Will and Fate,” both from 1862, in Ansell-Pearson and Large, 2006: 12-17). In the mature work the emphasis on illusion encourages one to interpret the freedom of the will as a vital illusion, a condition of life.
That this is a nihilistic solution, and a melancholy conclusion, is obvious. But it is also inescapable. We cannot entertain the thesis of our unfreedom in a straightforwardly mechanistic manner and still flourish. Baudrillard seems to endorse the idea of freedom as the most vital illusion in his apparently approving invocation of a very Nietzschean aphorism from Lichtenberg:
That a false hypothesis is sometimes preferable to an exact one is proven in the doctrine of human freedom. Man is, without a doubt, unfree. But it takes profound philosophical study for a man not to be led astray by such an insight. Barely one in a thousand has the necessary time and patience for such study, and of these hundreds, barely one has the necessary intelligence. This is why freedom is the most convenient conception and will, in the future, remain the most common, so much do appearances favour it (cited in Baudrillard 2005: 47).
Baudrillard makes reference to this fragment elsewhere (Baudrillard 2004: 42), as well as to Lichtenberg’s maxim that freedom is “the easiest solution” (Ibid., 38, 80-81, 104) – in the latter case, explicitly calling freedom and reality “a double illusion.” Baudrillard would then endorse, as the answer to the “heaviest burden,” Lichtenberg’s “easiest solution”: freedom will endure, because appearances favour its acceptance.
A nihilistic and a cynical hypothesis, but not inconsistent (and perhaps “fatalism” would better describe the attitude than cynicism); a Nietzschean scepticism is recognisable behind Baudrillard’s rather ironic attitude toward the will – for example in praising technology and artificial intelligence: “These machines are all marvellous. They give man back a kind of liberty; they relieve him of the burden of his own will” (Baudrillard 1996: 41). The same ironic relation is evident in the regard for the tale of Beau Brummel who, faced with a panorama of lakes, turned to his footman and asked: “Which do I prefer?”
Having to choose is really a bore. That’s what servants are for. In any case, that’s not what counts. Power – Knowledge – Will – let the inventors of those ideas take responsibility for them. It makes perfect sense to me that the great masses, very snobbishly, delegate to the class of intellectuals, of politicians, this business of managing, of choosing, of knowing what one wants. They are joyously dumping all those burdensome categories that no one, deep down inside, really wants any part of (Baudrillard 1987:103).
Man might not be free, but so what? Certainly we seem to be, even if we cannot entirely transcend our circumstances. We appear to be free, and it must be assumed in order to live and act, or to theorise about life and action (every philosophy could be called a “phenomenology” in this sense). Life could not endure, and man could never have flourished, if he could not accept the idea, even as “vital illusion.” Man must value, must rank – he must set apart, reward and punish, aspire and despise; and values must be based on the position of freedom of the will.
Recognition that this must be accepted might explain the indifference to the thought of the eternal return, taken as an actual hypothesis concerning the cyclical recurrence of all arrangements. Indifference, in the sense that no one after Nietzsche ever seriously took up or endorsed the idea, or seemed unduly disturbed by this “abyssal thought”. The standard sentiment here is that, if it has all already happened, still I have no memory of what would be a “former life” (the exact same sequence), and, lacking proof of such a life, it is better to believe I am free. As for the many lives to come, in which all will be repeated, well, in those I will similarly abide in blissful ignorance as to my former lives. Even if at a set and recurring time during one’s life I was informed of the truth of this thought by some demon, as Nietzsche imagines, it would in no way affect me. Where I cannot appear or act as if other than free, then I am obliged to accept my freedom.
These dwarves and demons who share or announce the thought – who remind one of the personal “demons” assigned to the eight “passions” in Evagrius of Pontus (the herald of the eternal return: the “noonday demon” and the advent of acedia) – incline one to accept the eternal return as a “formula of affirmation” before a cosmological doctrine or an ethical conundrum. In discussing Zarathustra, Nietzsche called the eternal return the book’s basic idea, the fundamental idea of Zarathustra (the protagonist), as well as “the highest formula of affirmation that can be attained” (Nietzsche, 1992: 69-70).
This interpretation (like destiny, perhaps a poetic hypothesis) posits the eternal return as a kind of test of the will, and of the rank of the one who could bear it. The idea that all things must recur would weigh upon all of one’s actions and decisions; to ask of anything, “Do I will it?” becomes to ask “Do I will it to recur eternally?” To assent to and will this recurrence is the mark of affirmation, and of amor fati. There is the same kind of resistance to this principle, however: if to will it once I am willing it eternally, does that really make any difference? And if the idea commits me to the corollary thought that whatever I will I have willed and will always have willed already many times before, one might well choose melancholy and irony over affirmation. From this perspective, the eternal return as guiding thought or formula for affirmation is inconsequential. Deleuze surely exaggerates to suggest that it furnishes a rule for the will as rigorous as the Kantian one, and Kundera is wrong to assert that because an event recurs eternally it aquires “weight” denied to the ephemeral (“Einmal ist Keinmal”). That a war between two states occurs again and again eternally is of no more consequence, from the perspective of eternity, than that a certain man gets up on Monday and again on the following Monday. In this respect Rosen’s interpretation of Nietzsche is interesting. Turning to his contention in his book on Zarathustra that Nietzsche does not believe in the eternal return or amor fati as a solution to nihilism, we note that this interpretation is present in Rosen’s earlier writings on Nietzsche. Rosen calls the element of life-affirmation and creation of new values the “exoteric” side of Nietzsche. The esoteric doctrine (can we say of a man of so many masks, so suspicious of truth, his “true” doctrine?) is complete nihilism. Rosen: “The Dionysian yea-saying to the world as it is ‘including the wish for its absolute recurrence and eternity’ is thus the point of transition between Nietzsche’s esoteric doctrine (comprehensive nihilism) and his exoteric doctrine (the affirmation of a life-enhancing creation of new values)” (Rosen: “Remarks on Nietzsche’s ‘Platonism’” in Darby et. al., 1989:159).
This reading casts doubt on Nietzsche’s commitment to any hypothesis or formula of life-affirmation, or amor fati, as anything more than an exoteric doctrine concealing an element of nihilism that is never overcome: the “doctrine” of eternal return and affirmation would then be “illuded” by Nietzsche to serve as a vital illusion for those led to nihilism. This certainly casts doubt on the efficacy – forgoing questions of the sincerity – of the doctrine. And can we imagine the consciousness for which this furnishes a rule for the will? Would it not seem absurd, paralyzing, and above all comical, for the thought of the eternal return of one’s actions to weigh on them through one’s life? Further in the “Spectre of the Will” Baudrillard writes of Nabokov:
In Nabokov, in the gracious universe of Ada, as in the tragic universe, there are never any decisions. Everything is made up of – happy or unhappy – accidents. There is neither misdeed nor remorse. Everything is immoral and, as a result, so sensual. Not just bodies, but the will itself becomes sensual and accidental. The actors do not believe in their own existence, and do not take responsibility for it. They are happy just to obey the successive promptings of their will and their desire, to respect the enigmatic incidence of these things, while observing certain rules of the game towards existence, the first of which is not to consent to it (Baudrillard 1996:11).
I use this passage to point out that what Baudrillard has described is not, except according to the most superficial idea of tragedy as depicting a protagonist at the whim of external (and internal) forces, “the tragic universe.” The universe of Ada is better described as comic, being pervaded by a stifling amorality. With its willing incest, casual suicide attempts both failed and successful, intellectual and sexual precocity and general abandonment to sensuality, it might appear grim, but is essentially comical in its very amorality, the devotion of its characters to whim, their questionable consciences and the absence of accountability. Its universe is not ours (it is not our earth, of course, but Antiterra). It is at the very least tragicomic, like its more famous older sister Lolita, where the relentless devotion of Humbert Humbert to the ideal of “the nymphet” – for which he even furnishes an aetiology in his childhood infatuation with the dearly and early-departed sweetheart Annabel Leigh – inevitably takes on a certain comic dimension, perhaps all the more because it so offends ordinary sensibilities and in “real life,” like the actions of those in Ada, would be intolerable. No one familiar with only the outline scenario of Lolita could possibly gauge how outrageously funny the novel is, and it shares the same amoral sensualism encountered in Ada. The devotion of Humbert, and the singularity of the vision around which he constructs a life and his fantasies, has by its singularity something of the order of the comical.
In conceiving of and composing Zarathustra Nietzsche tells us: “I was possessed to the highest degree by the affirmative pathos par excellence, which I call the tragic pathos” (Nietzsche, 1992: 70). But the “affirmative pathos” that adopted the thought of the eternal return as a rule of the will, and followed this rule, would not be tragic or heroic but comic. Surely this is one of the reasons the thought has not been taken up by anyone beyond Nietzsche: the idea transposed from the realm of thought to the realm of action could only define a comical character, the singularity of whose vision, and by the submission of all actions to the prior test of eternal return, would become defined by this characteristic in a comical way. To illustrate how this is essentially comical it is worth referring to Benjamin’s exposition:
At [comedy’s] center, as the main protagonist in a comedy of character, stands often enough an individual whom, if we were confronted by his actions in life instead of by his person on the stage, we would call a scoundrel. On the comic stage, however, his actions take on only the interest shed with the light of character, and the latter is, in classical examples, the subject not of moral condemnation but of high amusement. It is never in themselves, never morally, that the actions of the comic hero affect his public; his deeds are interesting only insofar as they reflect the light of character...Character develops in them like a sun, in the brilliance of its single trait, which allows no other to remain visible in its proximity (Benjamin, 2004: 205).
We can well imagine a comic dramatist of the late-nineteenth or early-twentieth century putting a devotee of Nietzsche on the stage, and depicting him as paralysed by considerations of the eternal recurrence of his willed actions. Of course, one could do the same with a comical presentation of a “Kantian,” paralysed by his recourse to the categorical imperative in every decision. Benjamin reminds us that single character traits are “hypostasized” in comedy – that character is everything, and that Molière’s L’Avare and Le Malade Imaginaire teach us nothing about avarice or hypochondria, but rather bring each phenomenon to crass extremes in the service of a character. The eternal return as affirmative formula can only be comical to us in this sense – we cannot imagine it functioning as a test of the will in real life without finding the idea absurd. Ultimately the whole scenario, particularly with a subject who asks himself in all his actions whether he would wish them eternally to repeat without change, takes on an absurd character, if only our imaginations are cruel, perhaps “Nabokovian” enough – Nabokov would say Cervantean – to actually picture this reality and abandon ourselves to its absurdity. One who learned to turn every “it was” into “thus I willed it” (or perhaps more intelligibly: “Thus do I will it to have been”) would end up, like the Tralfamadorians in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, who see in four dimensions and are bemused by the notion of free will, answering every “Why?” with “Because the moment is structured that way.”
The response is a sublime comic formula, but there is no doubt that to compare it to the attitude of Nietzschean affirmation vulgarises the latter. Still, the attitude clearly has little consequence, and can – even if insincere or merely exoteric – only seem comical. And this raises one of the problems of speaking of nihilism today. Baudrillard is a nihilist, and we hope to have given some indication of the Nietzschean colouring of this nihilism, most particularly its basis in the fundamentally Nietzschean idea of the “vital illusion.” But if the affirmative pathos can look like bathos, there is much of Nietzsche that must be left behind. Thus the inevitable ambiguity of the claim: “I am a nihilist.” Today, there is a sense in which one can and in which one cannot be a nihilist, as there are senses in which one can be and cannot be a Nietzschean. [In this respect one can go along with Slavoj Žižek’s note on the lack of shock-value in Nietzsche today: “…this holds, however, only if one reduces Nietzsche to a philosopher who professed a set of ‘opinions’ (for example, about the origins of morality, about religion, about the crisis of modernity…), and then goes on to compare him with others (like Freud), and to argue for or against him. What gets lost here is Nietzsche’s style – not what is often misperceived as the ‘pathetic’ character of his writings, but, rather, the opposite, the unbearably naïve seriousness of his most excessive statements…” Žižek, 2003:180 n. 23. No one who ignores his style – or who strictly avoids its imitation – can be called a Nietzschean].
To call oneself a nihilist, today, is not straightforward: one risks a term that can only sound strange, provocative, or in some way ironic (and not only since it was introduced, in comic fashion, to many who might not have been aware of it, through the absurd self-professed “nihilists” in The Big Lebowski). As Baudrillard remarks of other such terms: “the term ‘intellectual’ will one day disappear, just as the word ‘bourgeois’ – which now exposes only the person who uses it to ridicule – has disappeared” (Baudrillard 1994b: 24-5). This is familiar enough a contemporary phenomenon; one who today professed to being a Marxist could bargain on being met with bemusement, and assumed to be playing an ironic game (certainly this is widely assumed of Žižek’s occasionally professed “Stalinism”). There is certainly an element (and a strategy) of straight-talking provocation (not only pragmatism) in Rorty’s describing himself as being, and belonging to the class of, the “postmodern bourgeois liberal.” (Perhaps something of the same considerations prompted Virilio to use the term “neonihilism”?) Thus we can understand the reticence evident in the short (and unfortunately rather abstruse) essay in which Baudrillard describes himself as a nihilist. Still, it is the appropriate place to conclude our examination of the problem of nihilism.
The opening of the essay indicates immediately a different context to the nihilism of Nietzsche, in which the latter carries less power, terror or fascination: “Nihilism no longer wears the dark, Wagnerian, Spenglerian, fuliginous colors of the end of the century” (Baudrillard 1994:159). It accordingly contains a number of reservations concerning or denials of the possibility of nihilism, the exact context of each we must leave it to the reader to consult. For example: “...nihilism is impossible, because it is still a desperate but determined theory, an imaginary of the end, a weltanschauung of catastrophe” (Ibid., 161); and, on being a “terrorist and nihilist in theory”: “But such a sentiment is utopian. Because it would be beautiful to be a nihilist, if there were still a radicality – as it would be nice to be a terrorist, if death, including that of the terrorist, still had meaning” (Ibid., 163). We take it then that strictly Nietzschean nihilism, if not a nihilism influenced by Nietzsche, is no longer possible. That peculiar fin-de-siècle melancholy is qualitatively different to our melancholy – and apparently, we are all melancholic (Ibid., 162). It is in this light we must interpret, if we hope to make sense of, Baudrillard’s following, relatively emphatic, profession of nihilism:
I am a nihilist. I observe, I accept, I assume the immense process of the destruction of appearances (and of the seduction of appearances) in the service of meaning (representation, history, criticism, etc.) that is the fundamental fact of the nineteenth century. The true revolution of the nineteenth century, of modernity, is the radical destruction of appearances, the disenchantment of the world and its abandonment to the violence of interpretation and of history. I observe, I accept, I assume, I analyze the second revolution, that of the twentieth century, that of postmodernity, which is the immense process of the destruction of meaning, equal to the earlier destruction of appearances (Ibid.:160-61).
While he assumes both, Baudrillard here implicitly confines his analyses to phenomena associated with the second revolution; still, he claims earlier that the form of nihilism associated with each revolution hardly concerns us today, and that we have moved into a nihilism of transparency. The two revolutions in question, and their corresponding nihilisms, are described:
Romanticism is its first great manifestation: it, along with the Enlightenment’s Revolution, corresponds to the destruction of the order of appearances. Surrealism, dada, the absurd, and political nihilism are the second great manifestation, which corresponds to the destruction of the order of meaning. (Ibid.:159-60).
The “destruction of appearances” that is called the “true revolution” and the “fundamental fact” of the nineteenth century is ambiguous. On the one hand it is the rise of the sciences that contributes to what Weber called Entzauberung der Welt, here alluded to; this is clear from the implicit extension of this process to the Enlightenment Revolution. This revolution would then encompass the Enlightenment and its legacy, but also what Berlin called the “Counter-Enlightenment,” the focal point of which Berlin’s analysis places in Prussia under French rule, particularly in the philosophies of Hamann and Herder. [A good introduction to Berlin’s thesis is available at the Berlin archive online, in three essays under the heading “The Assault on the French Enlightenment” http://berlin.wolf.ox.ac.uk/lists/nachlass/index.html]. Nietzsche had spoken of German enmity toward the Enlightenment (Die Feindschaft der Deustchen gegen die Aufklärung) in the title of Morgenröte § 197, and uses the phrase “counter-enlightenment” (Gegen-Aufklärung) in the surviving notebooks of Human, all too Human from the winter of 1877. Nietzsche: “There are shorter and longer arcs in cultural development. The height of the Enlightenment corresponds to the height of the Counter-Enlightenment in Schopenhauer and Wagner. The highpoint of the small arc next to the large arc: Romanticism” (see Nietzsche (1967): 478 (22 ).
This reaction to and rejection of the cosmopolitanism of the Enlightenment, so Berlin argues, is a precursor of nationalism (although not necessarily the militant nationalisms that arose in the twentieth century) and historicism. The end of this is the radical historicism of the twentieth century, particularly that of Heidegger. This is the destruction of the idea of a trans-historical human essence, the advent of hypotheses of stronger or weaker forms of cultural or linguistic determinism. It is also the rise of individualism – of which we are reminded by the reference to Romanticism. But, as the “fundamental fact” of the nineteenth century, the most significant reference point for Baudrillard must be Nietzsche. Thus the “destruction of appearances” must be one major result of Nietzsche’s critique: not only as a forerunner of historicism (which development must constitute the abandonment of the world to “the violence of interpretation and of history”), but also his exposing of morality and the categories by which we rationally order the world as “vital illusions.” This destruction of appearances is done “in the service of meaning,” but Nietzsche’s critique is also what prepares the way for the undermining or destruction of meaning in the twentieth century. The effects of this second revolution are evident in dada, absurdism, surrealism: the ironic, the aleatory, the chaotic, the unconscious, the automatic. The end of art, or its destruction, or deconstruction: Duchamp’s “fountain,” which anticipated and already surpassed most of the century’s experiments in conceptual or self-interrogatory artworks. Political nihilism: the “aestheticisation of politics” – the play of appearances where substance or meaning is absent, and later, the advent of the “transpolitical” era, in which traditional categories, “left” and “right”, etc., lose their force and meaning and become less distinguishable.
But if Nietzsche prepared the way for the destruction of meaning, this was not the Nietzschean revolution on Nietzschean terms. The difference between Nietzschean and twentieth century nihilism is the difference between active nihilism and the nihilism of banality. The true Nietzschean revolution would have been the destruction of value as prelude to the transvaluation of values. Where values have been lost, however, this transvaluation has not occurred; nor has the decline of values or belief-systems represented the crisis Nietzsche predicted. It has occurred mostly in ignorance of the demand Nietzsche placed on the coming century, and though his name is associated with it, it is not an association with the great upheaval – precisely the transvaluation – that Nietzsche foresaw (Nietzsche, 1992: 3, 96).
That Baudrillard accepts the substance of the Nietzschean critique is clear. When he writes of belief serving rather than reflecting existence, it is understandable in the context of belief, even (or especially) erroneous belief, as a condition of life: “Belief is not the reflection of existence, it is there for existence, just as language is not the reflection of meaning, it is there in place of meaning” (Baudrillard 1994b: 92). In the same essay (“Immortality”) he continues:
Nietzsche has written magnificently of the vital illusion – not that of ‘worlds beyond’ (arrière-mondes), but the illusion of appearances, of the forms of becoming, of the veil and, indeed, all the veils which, happily, protect us from the objective illusion, the illusion of truth, from the transparent relation of the world to an objective truth, from the transparent relation of man to his own truth. This is the illusion of meaning, secreted by man when he takes himself to be the subject of history and the world (Ibid.:94).
The vital illusion is the illusion of meaning: the destruction of meaning, consequently, is the destruction of vital illusions – a destruction which takes the form of the “perfect crime,” the ultimate extermination of illusion and “realising” of the world. This is explicitly opposed to vital illusion (Baudrillard 1996: i); but fortunately, the crime is never perfect: the extermination of vital illusions would be the destruction of life. Nihilism as the destruction of meaning – this is why Baudrillard cannot be a Nietzschean, “active” nihilist, and would argue that no one could be any longer – happens without the great transvaluation:
Needless to say, this transvaluation of values of which Nietzsche speaks has not taken place, except precisely in the opposite sense – not beyond, but this side of, good and evil, not beyond, but this side of, true and false, beautiful and ugly, etc. A transvaluation folding in upon itself towards a non-differentiation, a non-distinction of values...(Baudrillard 1994b:94).
The destruction of meaning that characterises the twentieth century revolution in nihilism is the non-distinction of values. Non-distinction or collation is a form of loss, values being deprived of their singularity and so of their substance and their claim to rational allegiance. The connection of these considerations with the hypothesis of destiny is indicated by reference in the essay to Canetti’s remark on revenge (Ibid., 92), which is also invoked in the discussion of Destiny in Passwords (Baudrillard 2003: 70). But this is no more than, as mentioned, a poetic hypothesis. [This is always a question when we encounter the subject of destiny: in any particular instance, is it a genuine assertion of belief, or a poetic thought? Are we capable of understanding moira as it functioned in the thoughts of the Greeks? Did they really believe in such things as an apportionment of fate or an appointed day of death? Or were they sophisticated enough to appreciate this as part of a poetic interpretation of the world? Moira depends on the gods, and we can scarcely believe, for example, that the average Greek had to read Anaximander or Anaxagoras to question the account of the genesis of the earth and heavens as set out in Hesiod’s Theogony. Contemplating the Greeks, often one can only remember the lines from Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal: “And how one can imagine oneself among them / I do not know; / It was all so unimaginably different / And all so long ago”]. It does not resolve the issue of nihilism. The evaporation of the singularity of value as the mark of contemporary nihilism – in other words the non-occurrence of the Nietzschean transvaluation – is a point Baudrillard emphasises. The introductory remarks to the collection of interviews in Paroxysm claims:
The great Nietzschean idea of the transvaluation of all values has seen itself realized in precisely the opposite way: in the involution of all values. We have not passed beyond, but fallen short of Good and Evil, short of the True and the False, short of the Beautiful and the Ugly – we have passed not into a dimension that is the product of excess, but into one generated by lack. There has been neither transmutation nor surpassing, but dissolution and loss of distinction. We dreamt of a transgressive, excessive mutation of values. What is coming about is a regressive, recessive, involutive mutation. Diesseits von Gut und Böse. Requiescat Nietzsche. For the transmutation of values we substituted the commutation of values, for their reciprocal transfiguration we substituted their indifference one to another and their confusion. (Baudrillard 1998: 2; also compare Ibid., 50-51 with 1994b: 93-4).
The revolution or transvaluation (or “transdevaluation”) occurring diesseits rather than jenseits von Gut und Böse is again reiterated in an interview with the Frankfurter Rundschau addressing the post-9/11 scenario. [“Democracy, Human Rights, Market, Liberalism” – Interview with Frankfurter Rundschau, 28/11/05: http://www.egs.edu/faculty/baudrillard/baudrillard-demokratie-menschenrechte-markt-liberalismus.html; See also Baudrillard 2005: 13 n. 37]. It is recognizably a constant in Baudrillard’s exposition of the contemporary scenario, and perhaps marks the limit of the Nietzschean critique, the point at which its relevance and efficacy first becomes questionable: the line, in other words, which separates that “dark” nihilism which Nietzsche diagnosed, explored, experienced and sought to overcome from its successor, the banal (not even “passive,” when “active” nihilism seems no longer possible) nihilism of the late twentieth century. Like that challenged by Nietzsche, one cannot simply banish or pass through it: the nihilist is condemned, in a way, to a degree of melancholy or a melancholic consciousness. [Calling the nihilistic consciousness a melancholic or an unhappy consciousness is to echo Sloterdijk’s characterisation of the “enlightened false consciousness” of cynicism as unhappy in his Critique of Cynical Reason. This should be read in its Hegelian sense. The “unhappy consciousness” in Hegel is the one which has not overcome a contradiction in its consciousness, reasoning or existential situation. Man cannot rest content with such contradictions (the overcoming or sublation of which drives the dialectic of Consciousness), and so the cynical consciousness would be condemned to unhappiness. The “enlightened false consciousness” would be unhappy because the term represents a contradiction: what is the traditional antidote to “false consciousness” but enlightenment? The nihilistic consciousness would similarly have to live with a cleavage: I believe one thing (perhaps that truth is an illusion, or my will is not free), but I act as if I do not believe this]. But neither can one hope to carry through a transvaluation such as Nietzsche dreamed of: and to accept this is, as Baudrillard admits, to concede that one is a nihilist. Baudrillard’s nihilism is thus influenced enormously by his reading of Nietzsche, and in fact grounded in it: to understand Baudrillard’s understanding of Nietzsche is a good way of distilling the essence of the problem of nihilism for the individual consciousness.[See Coulter 2007 for Baudrillard’s references to Nietzsche]. It goes beyond Nietzsche, however, not by following him in attempting a transvaluation, but in responding to the absence and impossibility of such. Such nihilism may not wear the dark colours of the late-nineteenth century, but is arguably even more melancholic for its banality and indifference. However, in Baudrillard’s view, clearly, it is as inescapable as the form of nihilism possible in his day was for Nietzsche. Banality is the indifference, commutability and indistinction of values: put another way, the same vital illusions, but with much less vitality.
Paul O. Mahoney has taught philosophy at University College Dublin and Dublin Business School. He has published on Baudrillard and Plato. Many of the ideas and reflections in this essay were developed in correspondence with Kim Charnley of Plymouth University.
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