the nihilism question

The mention of nihilism in the OOO blogosphere has prompted a kind of impromptu polling of the usual OOO suspects, each one weighing in on whether their respective positions entail nihilism. I believe it was triggered by Footnotes to Plato who has already drafted a response to the posts of Harman and Bryant. Morton and others have also weighed in. Perhaps the main reference of such a discussion is Ray Brassier (not an OOO person, admittedly), and it is in his work that one would look to see how nihilism plays out in the SR theatre. But that’s beside the point.

A couple theses:

1. Value is a human construction. 2. Value produces real effects. 3. Nihilism is the view that the world lacks value.

If each of these theses is true, then nihilism as a metaphysical position is false. Value exists. This, I take it, is not the exact problem that has arisen in the present debate, which is actually: if humans are just objects, then humans are not special. This is not nihilism, but rather a worry about human exceptionalism. It seems that people worry about exceptionalism because its absence bears a threat to human dignity (necessary for Kant’s ethics), the idea of virtue (necessary for Aristotle), and the idea that humans experience qualitatively superior pleasures (necessary for the utilitarian calculus to tip the scales in favor of decisions that protect human interests). In short, it is human exceptionalism that prevents us from treating humans in ways that we would treat objects without thinking twice. The mistake, of course, is to believe that if we finally realized that humans are not special that everyone would go around disrespecting, torturing, and killing each other. The prospect that this would not actually happen is precisely what testifies not to the superiority of the human, but to the decency and perhaps inherent compassion of humans. Levi puts the point like this:

Some might say that this leads to the incomprehensibility of why, for example, we don’t just kill and eat other people. “If there’s no transcendental ground that forbids killing and eating other people, then why don’t we kill and eat other people?” I’ve always found this line of argument rather strange. The first point to note is that those living in a framework that is naturalistic and atheist still find it wrong to kill and eat other people. Such people still find meaning and purpose in their life, still evaluate things, still think certain things are right and certain things are wrong, and so on. The fact that these phenomena persist in the absence of transcendent guarantees indicates that transcendent guarantees are not a necessary condition for finding meaning, purpose, and for values and normativity.

Even if we assume that the world is a cold, dead place, we cannot make the leap to say that this vision undermines the moral fabric of the human community or the raison d’etre of moral imagining.

It is necessary to keep separate two questions: 1. Are all objects, including humans, ontologically equal (this is the question OOO answers in the affirmative). 2. Given a flat ontology (or what Leon refers to as ‘ontological parity’), is every object just as valuable as the next? It may seem that given 1, 2 follows, but this is not the case. Because, I think, even if all objects are on the same ontological plane, this does not meant that they each bear an equal value. The language of value is what is tricky. I would argue that they bear no value in themselves at all. They are instead assigned value and this value can be repealed or scaled back or intensified, and thus the network of value (call it morality) is something dynamic, negotiated by passions, interests (of which nonhumans are capable), and transactions of pleasure and pain and destruction and preservation. This may sound like nihilism, but it would only be the kind of nihilism entailed in Spinoza’s (and Hume’s) view that good and bad are not in the the things themselves, but in how we feel about those things. So, when asked, ‘What prevents humans from killing one another in a valueless (nihilistic) universe’?, my answer is this: nothing, they just don’t.

This doesn’t sound much like OOO, as it implies that morality is the domain of humans. Let me boldly admit that, yes, morality (as value talk) is something that only humans are concerned with. Does that mean that nonhumans are immoral, nihilistic, unethical? In a sense, yes. But that does not mean that they are outside the moral community, for they have interests and feel pain and pleasure just like humans. (I recently heard an analytic philosopher speak about the interests of nonhuman animals and couldn’t help but agree with this application of ‘interests’.) Ethics is inherently ecological, given the thesis that everything whatsoever is connected (cf. Morton again, but also the causal system of Spinoza).

For me the nihilism question comes down to distinguishing between special and unique. OOO says humans are not special, a term with axiological connotation, but it does not say that humans are not unique. Every object is unique, which means–and here I am thinking about the principles backing the Endangered Species list–that every object’s existence gives us pause. I am not saying that every object should give us pause, as I am not prepared to argue for that ‘should’. Rather, I am saying that from an aesthetic perspective (and perhaps an ontological perspective), unique things capture our attention with their allure, charm, and sincerity (terms I borrow from Harman). At the aesthetic level, which my view argues is primary, we are captured by the world. Even if we ultimately destroy it, we at first find ourselves curious about or enthralled by or repelled by what we sense–and only then do we kill it. This is why we often prefer to ignore injustices and keep them out of sight. Seeing them attaches us to them; participating in them even more so.

God is nowhere in this picture, although one could certainly bring him in. And this is not an eliminative materialism, a la Brassier, a view that I am finding more and more attractive because I see it as potentially the opposite of reductive.  Let me conclude with a rejoinder to Levi’s professed inability to understand the nihilism question in the OOO context: I don’t understand the desire to ‘secularize theology’ with Whitehead (I’m somewhat randomly picking out a phrase from Footnotes to Plato). Spinoza identified God and Nature in the Ethics. Nature is God, which is to say that Nature is infinite substance. Given a ‘divine’ Nature, God becomes redundant. Why bring God back in when Spinoza so elegantly removed him?


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7 Responses to the nihilism question

  1. Pingback: More on Nihilism « Larval Subjects .

  2. dmf says:

    there seems to be a need to get an ought, or commandment, from an is. To see a moral direction in some Progress being made by the Universe and to privilege the role of consciousness in this grand unfolding. I’m with Nietzsche there is no Given morality and the universe will proceed without notice when our sun burns out leaving the earth frozen and dead. And in a limited sense with Levinas that we will continue to care, to strive, even if it makes no grand sense, because that is what life by and large does.
    Try and not care/judge in general, it just happens like it or not, all we can do is try and cultivate/sublimate these non-conscious happenings, to be as Rorty said Romantic polytheists. Dewey was on the right track after seeing the darwinian limits of Hegelian speculations on History.

  3. dmf says:

    the theologians I have known working along these lines don’t add, or come to God, after philosophizing, they started with God and crafted theologies that fit in other things that they came to believe/value.
    Wittgenstein was right that people who start with radically different assumptions/faith-commitments will be limited in aspects of their discourse. That said studying with theologians helped me to see those lingering aspects of structuralisms/vitalisms in my own thought which was a helpful bit of alchemy, and some of them are excellent readers/teachers of philosophy.

  4. Pingback: Nihilism, Theology, and the Limits of Blogging « Knowledge Ecology

  5. Tim Morton says:

    I think the key to your excellent argument here is that “before” you have an opinion such as nihilism or whatever, you have already been captured by (other) entities. The ontological shenanigans has already begun and your nihilism (or whatever) just a reaction formation to that. The fact that nihilism positions itself this way vis a vis a reality makes nihilism peculiarly self-defeating. The nihilist posits the very world that she or he denies, or shuns, or says is meaningless. I’ll say one more thing: since a pencil can give pencil-meaning to a plastic cup, there is far less meaninglessness in my universe. It’s just not “my” meaning. Was it ever?

  6. Pingback: On theism/nihilism & other things | immanence

  7. Pingback: Nihil Bound | Political Objects

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