Bomberg, The Mud Bath

Bomberg, The Mud Bath

Twins. Capitalism is nihilism, an endless betrayal of production in favor of an infinite — imaginary — debt or Void, which implies the transcendental equivalence of all processes, their essential or characteristic meaninglessness. Indeed the hostility towards life evinced in the machinations of capitalism are strictly correlate to the heterogeneous means by which nihilism achieves its destructive victory: through a generalized deterritorialization which can barely halt before its radically external, schizophrenic limit.

Firestorm. Heidegger reminds us that despite our apparent control over the machines we create, that in fact we do not even control the desire within us which causes us to create, to use them, or to extend our control over the world through the conception and production of new machines. To this problem, indeed, there is no solution, and very likely there will never be any solutions. The mystery, the secret truth of desire, lies within the machine.

This entry was written by Joseph Weissman and published on Thursday, July 2, 2009 at 7:18 pm. It’s filed under automation, capitalism, control, desire, exchange, immanence. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

16 thoughts on “Firestorm

  1. Such solutions over controlled human desire lie within the realms of a transhumanist existentialism – one that assembles a being of both organic and synthetic appropriations.


  2. It is, I fear, a nihilist’s understanding of nihilism, to see it as primarily theoretical, and to see it as unitary, monolithic.

    It is one of Nietzsche’s key insights, I believe, that nihilism is itself plural, that the claim to be a universal antithesis is nihilism’s own evaluation of itself, a subtle deceit whereby our particular nihilism repeats the absolutisng claims of the rational systems it claims to have displaced – the last vestige of positivism hiding out in postmodernism.

    Remember, for example that he distinguishes between European and Eastern nihilism (in The Will to Power, would have to go home to find you the specific aphorism numbers)

    Thus Nietzsche’s affirming relativism: not even absolute negation is absolute. To say that capitalism is nihilism is to deny that nihilism, too, requires its own particular affirmation (even if this takes the apparent form of a total rejection) – it is to give nihilism too much respect.

    There is no absolute, necessary connection between any societal system and any theoretical one – to claim so is to reify both theory and society as clearly identifiable, rationally understandable objects that can be abstracted from human life. Nietzsche’s own multivocality (which I see you talk about elsewhere) is, I would argue, used at least in part to prevent such, by allowing the human mess of contention, contradiction and paradox to break the hard lines of reason. All theoretical exercises, I believe, must retain such a caution.

    Ah, cheers for that inspiration to argue – now I should go before I miss another train…

    -Will Vere

  3. Will,

    Thanks so much for your comment! I believe it’s towards the beginning of the Will to Power where Nietzsche gives a long, numbered list of many of the things nihilism probably is.

    Capitalism and nihilism both possess a unique significance, and I would claim even have an uncanny inter-relationship; I would also claim the relationship between capitalism and nihilism is primarily owing to that of which they are symptoms. After all, is it really not fair to say that (in terms of the universal history of the thought-life of the species) nihilism is positively momentous, that it looms like a shadow, like a storm or an army battalion approaching?

    Nihilism and capitalism are twins in the sense that they each attempt to assemble a decoding-machine, a machine upon which to deterritorialize; they are born from the pure will to decoding. They instinctively move towards the analysis and interfusion of widely varying concepts and substances. Is there not a kind of vibrant radiance, a sharp scent of rarefied air, some cosmopolitan and absolutely free glow about the notion of capital, as about the notion of nothingness? The new divinities of a human race so sickened by morality they sacrifice to God even their belief in him!

    I do not think that nihilism is the ‘ideology’ of capital — but rather precisely that they are simultaneous, symptoms of the same degenerating instinct, and at least in that sense indistinguishable. ‘Nihilism’ today certainly indicates, as you say, a plurality — but does this not mean that nihilism is comprised, at least in part, by the heterogeneous variety of mental, social and ecological strategies of resistance to capitalism?


  4. Hi Joe, and cheers for taking the time to respond!

    [This is a bit of a long one - my apologies.]

    I’m not sure that I agree, though, with the conception of capitalism as essential, as having one clear essence (which it must have, I suspect, to be diagnosed as one symptom) – I don’t believe that capitalism, as we experience it, arises from one pure rootstock, but is rather an entirely historically contingent creation.

    Nor do I think that this contingency can be understood as the very essential character it would otherwise seem to preclude; capitalism is not essentially non-essential. It is simply the social and economic character of our time (and indeed others). When it began, it was (as Weber argues) from the conditions of protestantism, and while we could see this as a case of religion devouring itself, or leading to its own devouring, the protestantism of that time was, I believe, a turn away from nihilistic devaluation. Luther called for a return to ‘the darkness of faith’ – salvation surpassed humanity’s understanding and control. Luther and his followers had read Job well: “The lord gives, the lord takes away, blessed be the name of the lord.” God’s value is beyond our evaluations of his actions.

    In other words, it was precisely the attempt to remove God from rational human questioning, to prevent the sickness of morality that arises when we believe that our morality is our salvation, that led to the formation of the particular historical conditions we attempt to unify and simplify by calling them ‘capitalism’.

    I agree, with both you and Nietzsche, that nihilism looms in our present worldview, but I do not believe that this looming should be taken at face value. Our local nihilism is simply another figure, like all the particular faiths before it, attempting to stake its claim in the thought-world. It is dressed up very cleverly in the raiment of absolute nothingness, the one absolute we intellectuals still seem to allow, but as Nietzsche put it, nihilism means: “that the highest values devaluate themselves” (WtP, 1.2). Nihilism is present only as an active negation of a particular, and therefore is itself a particular just like any other, one that must struggle for our recognition.

    When we see nihilism looming, it is this in itself that heralds its deceitfulness. It is play-acting the role of a ‘dark lord’ from some Hollywood fantasy, calling to thinkers to look its way, saying that it is the problem most deserving of our attention. True nothingness, on the other hand, does not call. It (to the extent it can be an it) is insensible to us, and thus invisible.

    This is why I am hesitant about equating capitalism with nihilism, even as were capitalism essential (or essentially plural): the threat of our our particular nihilism lies only in our believing it, and then in our looking too long into it – the will to truth-gathering is what allows for the promulgation of this nihilism’s lies, and I believe the minds of modern intellectuals, truth-seekers that we are, are where it often finds its most fertile ground.

    Even nihilism as a symptom takes it to far: I believe that we should treat this thing ‘nihilism’ not as a concept, but as a particular tradition of faith, like Yezidism, Voodoo, Islam, and so forth: we should look into it not as philosophers, but as sociologists, anthropologists, seeking not essential characteristics but the beliefs as they are acted out, asking nt what it says it is but what it has come to be.

    On a side note, you mention the sacrifice of our belief in God. The word ‘sacrifice’, of course, means to ‘make sacred’. I cannot help but feel that Nietzsche was true to his immediate ancestry, being in some sense a crypto-Christian: after all, Christianity is among those religions who not only admit to God’s death, but cling to it. God is dead, yes, a true Christian will say, and he died in becoming human (in the world through Jesus, or in our minds through the anthropomorphising of his symbol). His death was as necessary to his relationship with us as was his rebirth necessary to his own nature – as Hegel I believe said, all qualities must be open to Him, and thus the knowledge that ‘God is dead’ is always immediately followed by, ‘and yet God lives”. The nihilism peculiar to the ‘death of God’ in the western thought-world is because the corpse has been clung to, wept over, allowed to stink, with no thought of turning away and witnessing the reinvigorated deity stepping from the supposedly all-conquering nothingness.

    As Dostoevsky put it, ‘with the death of God, everything is permitted’ – and this means God, too, is unrestrained from resurrection.

    [Wish I could figure out how to italicise properly - never quite worked out html tagging. You'll have to imagine the emphasis for your self - Will]

  5. Nietzsche suggests (again towards the beginning of WTP) that nihilism, because it denies the existence of a real world, might be a divine perspective — I think this may give us a hint as to the difficulty we are having in coming to terms!

    We are clearly interpreting nihilism differently: I am thinking it as a vast operation of decoding, performed upon the various mental, social and concrete machines which organize the ‘real’ world: in short, systems and strategies of dispersal, dissolution, decomposition, leading to a complete displacement (sweeping away both the real and the imaginary — an endless approach to the terrible outer limit, absolute deterritorialization, which can never be reached since the agencies of decoding, the vectors of deterritorialization, encounter nothing which resist it entirely, the process can never be taken “far enough.”) In short these decoding flows tend towards the unwinding all flows of energy and matter in general, in a way I submit is precisely analogous to the decoding operations undertaken by capitalism. What escapes the sphere of production, what breaks free of exchange?

    I am no essentialist. I am arguing, from the standpoint of materialism, that nihilism and capitalism both consummate their operations through a precipitous unwinding of the ‘coded’ flows which hitherto “held” various flows of collective desire in check, which held certain vital forces back — both unleash what has long been waiting; certainly they were contingent, but they were also the necessary result of the assemblage of certain forces, forces moreover which had been preparing for some time. Again the question in both cases is how a decoding operation is performed upon the ‘markings’ of man and nature produced by mental and social ‘machines’. (If it helps, capitalism immediately overcodes the ‘pure being’ which it encounters in its decoding, it falls back upon the production-distribution network, manifesting itself ‘concretely’ only in the form of null tokens, to be exchanged at a precise rate.)

    [For italics, by the way, just surround the text in "em" tags. -Joe]

  6. So, both nihilism and capitalism a kinds of metaphysical Luddism?

    In fact, I appreciate your point. I certainly think that you are to some extent correct in your analysis, given the perspective; what troubles me is our shared dependence on metaphysics as a method of social analysis. Materialism is not an alternative to essentialism, but amongst its corollaries – the alternative to essentialism is, I suspect, not easily witnessed from the intellectualist perspective within which we must hold our discourse.

    One can, within this perspective, construct a particular schema of society, stretching out the character of our lives along the branches of their apparent metaphysics, but in lived fact, most people are not so coherent as to follow the logic of their condition. Even as they unconsciously work to fulfil the decoding of the value-markers of their lives, in other loci they recode values, even onto the very agents of that decoding. What appears from one perspective as the active agent of decomposition becomes from another merely the open substrate for new growths.

    (for example, the tendency to retain silver Kennedy half-dollars is a tiny coding of value onto a ‘null token’ of decoding through faceless exchange. My grandfather, a South African, gave me one he had kept. The process of alienation thus worked to alienate the very device of alienation from its own purposes – its value ceased to be entirely capitalist, at least within the narrow locus of my encounters with it.)

    I came first to Nietzsche through Wittgenstein, so I find it unsurprising that much of what we are disagreeing over is the definition of terms; it is quite possibly true that neither perspective on nihilism is reducible to the other, that both are thus equally ‘correct’, each under the auspices of its particular methods of investigation. As we are metaphysicians, nihilism is a force, a plague; as we are sociologists, it is merely another tyrant, one Stalin amongst many.

  7. Oh, and cheers for the advice on tags! – Will

  8. Pingback: A dialogue « Angry Young Centrist

  9. I applaud your last comment and think it very likely summarizes the two instincts or gestures of mind which we have here made to stand face-to-face. I also wonder whether a third gesture does not belong alongside sociology and against the all-too-human presumptions of philosophers: as we are psychologists, nihilism is a symptom of a disillusionment, spiritual weariness and oversaturation — in the most fortuitous of circumstances, the sterile forerunner of new values

  10. ”Heidegger reminds us that despite our apparent control over the machines we create, that in fact we do not even control the desire within us which causes us to create, to use them, or to extend our control over the world through the conception and production of new machines.”

    Where in Heidegger are you deriving this?

  11. Just to note I am asking more out of interest than critique (technology has betrayed the ethos of my above comment).

  12. Machines are expressions of a perspective, a model made visible. The rationalisation of design acts in both contrast with and in sync with your suggestion: If we mythologise capitalism, as a synonym for global connectivity, then it’s grand powers are the dissolving of borders and old distinctions. It is like the grease of the wheels of interaction which dissolves the wheels themselves. I wonder whether this is mythology; are the costs of smoothing for speed externalised? With each of us attempting to simplify and summarise each other as we move past them in search of our goal, which has in turn been bulldozed by someone else?

    I’m not sure this is true, there are still networks, bypasses, motorways, where the translations are localised. The world is all the same for those who live in airport hotels, but outside the doors it still changes.

    This airport hotel feeling is the same as that ascribed to capitalism; the sweeping simplification that economics obeys, where “need” and “desire” are fungible qualities. Is the growth of capitalism the growth of this? I’m not convinced it has to be. Although economics ascribes only utility and price, that very idea of an efficient “unified perspective” is actually immune to this destructiveness: An uncompromising vision designed to specification is a personal version of the old territories. Everything is re-evaluated in terms of it’s place in the pattern, meaning that price is no longer universal but split into a hundred values, like on ebay.

    And in addition to this, these visions, uncompromising though they are, are not without bridges of coherence to other visions. There is a market stratification based on human desire that is outside of human control (because desire is the foundation of human control), and so also outside of artificial simplification, where the rough is not merely stated to be rough, but sanded smooth.

    In short, simplification and generalisation of trade is not a self-fulfilling prophesy, because although you can tell people they want equivalent things, they will disagree, and get what fits their own designs.

    Or can monotony win out after all; can desire run itself out and just order “the usual”? Many jaded billionaires show examples of that, but there are creative impulses that seem to go off in their own direction, inspiring themselves over and over again. Providing those attitudes can have places to rest away from the swirling motion, there will always be differences to mediate between.

  13. Paul,

    Heidegger makes this curious point in the 1969 Der Spiegel interview. (I’ve written elsewhere about it, most importantly here.)


  14. Thanks for the explanation & link.


  15. The comments here are awesome.

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