Nihilist Pop Culture: Consumed by the Insignificant

What I am now going to relate is the history of the next two centuries. I shall describe what will happen, what must necessarily happen: the triumph of Nihilism. (Friedrich Nietzsche, Will to Power)

One of my goals for the course is to render students incapable of watching TV and film in the passive, mildly vegetative state to which they are accustomed. […] The inability of people to be affected by things like that, a general apathy with regard to things happening outside their immediate frame of reference, is terrifying. This class is about a society consumed by the insignificant. (Thomas Hibbs, Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from ‘The Exorcist’ to ‘Seinfeld’.)

We need more nihilist popular culture

Writing in Havard’s undergraduate student newspaper about the film Se7en, David H. Goldbrenner, argues that nihilistic popular culture is damaging:

This is why nihilistic pop culture and art are so detrimental.  They help perpetuate the most damaging and destructive attitude that a free and democratic society can hold:  that life is not worth living and that all our efforts will eventually lead to pain and disappointment.  The most frustrating aspect of this is that often such thought is not expressed genuinely but rather because it will shock and entertain and earn a profit.

This is born of common (and often religious) interpretation of nihilism; that it is a state of social being without transcendental values; transcendental values include ‘objectivity’, ‘morality’ and various political manifestations. I suggest everyone reads Nietzsche’s Will to Power, in particular the first sections on nihilism, for two reasons. Firstly, for critics of nihilism, Nietzsche is clearly the primary enemy. Secondly, ‘nihilism’ is not some fantastical apprehension of existential meaninglessness; or it is, but this observation has become banal. We cannot escape from nihilism. Therefore, it is necessary to go to war or fall in love, at least in an existential sense.

To help contemporary audiences when reading Neitzsche, I suggest that you imagine you are reading a blog of someone who you suspect to be mildly insane.

For Nietzsche, as he writes in the preface, nihilism is a historical passage of development through which future societies shall necessarily pass. This is not like Marx’s historical determinism; Nietzsche is instead suggesting it shall be born of its own advent. That is, there shall be an intuitive or qualitative leap whereby the European Nihilist (aka Nietzsche) “has already outlived the Nihilism in his own soul — who has outgrown, overcome, and dismissed it.” Neitzsche’s Will to Power should therefore be read as a guide: How To Survive Nihilism.

The species of nihilism that Neitzsche wrote about in the late-nineteenth now has siblings. To think nihilism as an event (of society, of social relations, of the mind and in bodies) is to appreciate how it can be repeated in different ways. I want to explore the contemporary nihilism evident in popular culture and the culture of the popular. I want to think through both meanings of the phrase “society consumed by the insignificant”: a preoccupation with the trivial and the consumption of society itself.

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The Birth of Expectation

To appreciate the repetition of nihilism means to aske the question, from where does nihilism emerge? Before nihilism, there are only transcendental values. Transcendental values serve as an antidote against practical and theoretical nihilism. In Nietzsche’s era these were primarily Christian values of morality (WtP, pages 8-9). I don’t think this is the case anymore.

Now it is a more complex question, worthy of our developments in the sciences and arts, of predictive extrapolations from the present (algorithmic or otherwise)[1. Witness the 2012 US Presidential election and the battle of data-driven expectations between the two major parties. One was governed by providing the correct answers and the other by asking the correct answers. In both cases the future was furnished with a certain kind of expectation that governed the present.] and governed by expectation:

  1. Transcendental values bestow an intrinsic value upon the world, including the values of humans and anything else. Liberal humanism is a derivation of this.[2. It is what Helen Razer is writing against, in part, in her piece about feminism.] It means you only have to believe and not do any work in appreciating structures of valorisation that everday life enters into as a kind of ritualised gladitorial combat. Everyday our values slay the meaninglessness of its own battle first and then every other violence posed by the question.
  2. There is an unthinking simplicity to the perfection produced by transcendental values. The perfection here is of a particular order. It is not the perfection of neoplatonic forms.[3. For example, there is no such thing as ’roundness’ or a ‘curve’. A circle is a series of points equidistant from another point. There is no ‘circle’ to represent the perfection of ’roundness’.] The purest expression of this in the contemporary state of affairs is the utter stupidity of justification via expectation: “What else do you expect?” This is ironically lampooning of the use of ‘shock’ in journalistic headlines: “Politician in Lying Shock” or “Celebrity in Sex Scandal Shock”. None of these are actual shocks. I’d be shocked to find someone shocked by them. The superposition of expectation introduces the same teleological inevitability once granted solely to Good and Evil. Beyond the Expected and Unexpected!
  3. The persecution of reality by transcendental values approaches its apogee through knowledge that ‘everyone’ knows. Everyone does not know it, but ‘everyone’ does. Here, expectation of something expectedly shared annihilates difference; that is, the differentials of culture that actually produce meaning. Entire fields of knowledge are organised around bestowing an adequate perception of these most important things, whatever they are, to the everyday innovators of expectation (through Ideas Worth Spreading). Everyone has the ‘right’ to participate in the glorious pursuit over expectation, where we truly value your ‘voice’ because it ‘matters’.[4. An excellent test to carry out before you say or write anything is what difference is being made (if any) or what difference are you attempting to reproduce by governing the future.]
  4. Neitzsche argued that the transcendental values of Morality were a measure of self-preservation, to prevent ‘man’ from despising ‘himself’ as ‘man’. Knowledge, he argued, could drive a ‘man’ to despair. Indeed. After the death of God, what possible hope is there? Well, hope itself; hope in hope. Hope is the handmaiden of expectation. Hope bestows expectation with a robustness that only a nihilist would seek to liquidate. Hope prepares humanity to attend the future; both to be present and to worry over it. A future governed by expectation. If the transcendental values of Christian Morality confected the righteous in Nietzsche’s era, then it is now hope itself that fills ‘man’ up when self-awareness empties ‘him’. The awesome power of contemporary predictive algorithms to ‘recommend’ a given passage of action (this book/food/elected official is an appropriate choice) is built over the heads of ‘men’ as though they were the will of ‘himself’ and, at best, a hope of a world to come. Hence, the future itself has become the operative outside of expectation.[5. It is the future that serves as the ‘authority’ of expectation, to use Nietzsche’s terms, this authority “would know how to speak unconditionally, and could point to goals and missions” (WtP, pages 19-20). For Nietzsche these goals and missions are simulacrum populated by Christian Morality, I am suggesting the constellation of relations represented by ‘expectation’ is captured by the ‘point’ action itself.]

In the contemporary era, expectation is a mobile constellation of relations, unburdened by the tradition of tradition.[6. Except, of course, when tradition is inverted, like a demonic cruxifiction, to project a field of possible futures. Witness the way all people enduring a healthy sense of the ethical grind their teeth when having to live in countries with inhospitable policies of migration. The ‘nation’ is hoisted like wet laundry upon a clothes line in the backyard of banal expectations: not in my backyard. ‘My’ and ‘mine’ is an ‘adequate perception’ of ‘ours’ backformed from a possible future governed by the ‘nation’.] Like Nietzsche’s Christian Morality (WtP, page 9), this mobile constellation of relations are fuelled by the despair of ever freeing ourselves from them. Hence, we crawl out of the slums of our expectedly shared telos, grappling with the zombie bodies and minds of the otherwise disaffected who can’t go on, but nevertheless go on. This is the stage of the transvaluation of all values.

Neitzsche only had to contend with the differential repetition of one set of transcendental values, but now the constellation of relations between elements in the present, but also through relations to the past and future, that manifest this teleology of expectation broken from its traditional transcendental mooring; it has become Mad Max surveying the wasteland of tomorrow — an immanent mobile force forever pursuing the fuel that will propel it on, on, on. Hope. Are you a student of opportunity?

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Anchors of Affect

There is an aesthetics of nihilism. (Are you excited? What are you excited about? I am very excited… but I don’t know why.) The comically stupid interpretations of nihilistic culture appreciate a nihilistic aesthetic to be one of violence, sex, depravity and so on; essentially, anything resonant with a moral wasteland that expresses the loss of transcendental values (such as Christian Morality).


An aesthetics of nihilism is one that appreciates the “long waste of strength, the pain of ‘futility’, uncertainty, the lack of opportunity to recover in some way, or to attain to a state of peace concerning anything — shame in one’s own presence, as if one had cheated oneself too long…” (WtP, page 12). The goal of all expectation is that something be attained: what is the return on investment? Are you excited? What are you excited about? The nihilistic appreciates that even with a return, nothing is attained. Pure waste, but of degrees.

Like a future threat governing the present through technics and an apparatus of ‘risk’ [7. See Brian Massumi’s Future Birth of the Affective Fact], the relations of the present to the future pass through various systems of expectation. The future is anchored in the present through affect. How we feel about the future. ‘Hype’ does not simply bestow meaning upon some expected innovation, but on the innovators of expectations, and an entire apparatus of valorisation (‘optics’, targeting entire populations targeting ‘achievements’; now crowdsourced ‘likes’) through the felt-tendency expectedly shared through expectation with others. Are you excited? What are you excited about? You are already targeting the present under remote control from the future: celebrate the autoaffection of drones!

Measuring the “worth of the world according to categories that can only be applied to a purely fictitious world” (WtP, 15) produces an inevitable revulsion. Life itself is vulgarised (WtP, page 23). Coke does not sell us a drink, but a world within which the drink exists. [8. See Maurizio Lazzarato’s Struggle, Event, Media: The corporation does not generate the object (the commodity), but rather the world in which the object exists. Nor does it generate the subject (worker and consumer), but rather the world in which the subject exists.] We consume entire worlds. Quench your thirst and your appetite heralds entire worlds. You command this power to connect with entire systems of existential midwifery. Are you excited? What are you excited about? Was Nietzsche wrong to suggest that nihilism is premised on recognising there is no truth? Satisfaction terminates in the purpose of your appetite; this is the belief and truth of expectation.

Appetite here is of the body, but it is animated with the banal majesty of the future-present of meeting expectations. “Does what it says on the box.” “As advertised.” The consumer is entirely disenfranchised of dignity when following this trivial proscriptions. Hence, the manifest disgust when you begin wallowing in the consumption of this world projected by the futurity of “desiderata” (WtP, page 17). Alone with your excitement and the promise of world to come. I am very excited …but I don’t know why. “Give me a target!” demands the drone of futurity.

Is your excitement active or passive? Or, to ask this question another way, did you inherit your excitement? What were the conditions by which this excitement circulated? What are the vectors of its propagation? If you didn’t inherit this excitement, then how was it manifest? Is it part of a burning fury? Did your excitement bubble up through you? Nietzsche proposes two kinds of nihilism (WtP, page 21):

1. Nihilism as a sign of enhanced spiritual strength: active nihilism.

2. Nihilism as a sign of the collapse and decline of siritual strength: passive nihilism.

The nihilist’s capacity to act is increased (what Nietzsche calls “spiritual vigour”) when the goals or missions that once directed you are no longer suitable; the nihilist begins as an existential exploration: discover your own challenges. If you go on even when you cannot go on and subsume you own challenges according to the proscriptions of expectation, then your randomised playlist soundtrack will always and forever play cynicism. This is a passive nihilism, and the cynic’s capacity to act is diminished, like a fast food patron holding up the drive-thru line paralysed by indecision when choosing from the menu. Exhaustion should be welcomed as the inability to possibilise a future and transient zero-degree of nihilism.

If there is no truth, then first there cannot be appetite. The nihilist does not believe his or her own appetite[9. This is what Nietzsche calls the philosophical nihilist, one who “supposes theat the sight of such a desolate, useless Being is unsatisfying (…) and fills ‘him’ with desolation and despair” (WtP, page 30).]; hence, truth as the satisfaction in the termination of appetite fails to manifest. You feel it in your body; you reject entire worlds. Rather than grappling with the existential dimension of the abject, this is the abject on an existential level.

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Cultures of Nihilism

There are varieties of self-stupefaction manifest as attempts to escape nihilism. I think this is where most critics of nihilist popular culture fall short. They think they are critiquing nihilism, when they are actually critiquing the attempts to escape nihilism (not unlike the scene from Jurassic Park where the intrepid humans wonder at the grace of the stampeding herd and, just before they are almost wiped-out by the excited herd mentality, enters a species of monstrous hunter: ‘Nihilism’). Nietzsche isolates a few examples of such stupefaction:

  1. Rising above the malaise through emotional intoxification: this includes popular culture (‘music’), in scandal (‘cruelty of tragic joy of ruin of the noblest’), in blind enthusiasms (‘hatreds’).
  2. Escape by falling into an oppressive regime of documenting small joys. This includes attempts “to work blindly, like a scientific instrument” (WtP, page 24) or, as I suggest, a drone.
  3. Another form of stupefaction has developed in the ‘so-called’ networked society (the use of ‘so-called’ should signal that I am using a derivative of an ‘expectation’ that governs a certain discourse; the sheer fact that every who reads this knows to that which I am referring is proof). This is the stupefaction of belonging.

Imagine there is a global media culture. There isn’t a global media culture.

There is a global logistical network for the distribution of a limited number of cultural products that audiences imagine belong to a ‘global culture’. There is no outside point of reference for these audiences to gauge whether the cultural products are global or merely appear as global. This is not unlike the way a larger neighbour will dominate the everyday media culture of its smaller neighbour, but this presence is not reciprocated (US to Australia, Australia to New Zealand, and so on). The presumption of participatory relevance is premised on the material conditions for the distribution of culture and the speed with which audiences access these cultural products (such as a mass-synchronised ‘opening’ or ‘release’ that seduce audiences into believing they share the text, which they do not; they simply belong without possibly knowing what it is they belong to).

Of course, irrelevant participation does not preclude localised audience-based interpretations that produce the meaning of the cultural products — that is, the ‘text’ of the cultural product — that blossoms into a deep existential meaning for the audience. It is just such deep existential meaning is utterly irrelevant beyond a limited cloister of like-minded aficionados. The feeling of belonging to a mass cultural event, such as a mass-synchronised ‘opening’, is more of an expression of global culture than any normatively-considered, audience-produced meaning of the ‘text’. [10. There is a paradox here of rendering the audience irrelevant just as media companies mistakenly attempt to resuscitate their businesses by focusing on the audience; not unlike a lifeguard rescuing a drowning victim, while they are actually still drowning on barely remembered past success milked as they fellate their own decaying corporate bodies.]

Besides shared irrelevance, all that is left is a shared disdain. To produce belonging therefore requires a constant involution of immanent modes of belonging.  Shared disdain is another modality of the pessimism that heralds nihilism. Nihilism as the autoaffection of pessimism.