The Opportunity of Nihilism

by Michael James

The Opportunity of 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.”

– Glen Fuller

The liberating and invigorating spaces of reasoning, acting and becoming opened up by radical negational cognition are multitude. Instead of remaining content to reiterate centuries old maladaptive semiotic commitments and social enactments the advent of radically nihilistic thought violently breaks with contemporary assumptions and social norms. It is therefore long overdue that we begin to understand and present the advent of nihilism primarily as an opportunity for emancipation, experimentation, and creativity in the search for more adaptive living.

To do better in the task of living, relating and thinking we can continue to annihilate the dominant heuristic interpretations of our time, and reject those soothsayers who seem more interested in protecting the supposed sanctity of transcendental logos than coming to grips with the precariousness of life and the unreliability of all available maps to mitigate or guide it.

We might then ask, “how can nihilism activate the latent possibilities opened by the current ambient disorders?” To be sure, ‘nihilism’ has never existed as a unified objective condition or psychological mood, but rather as loosely organizing constellations of attitudes and references resulting from the large scale de-legitimization of certain forms of knowledge and practice viz. the rise scientific knowledge and methods, and the ongoing reality of corruption by both church and government.

This loss of legitimacy of both tradition and power afforded a creeping awareness and acknowledgement of the dissolution of the dominant modes of existing doxa (claims to truth, methodological faiths, social institutions, political regimes and cognitive orientations) which further eroded the docile acceptance of traditional semantic habits. Naturalism and new technologies have made older dogmas obsolete.

Nihilism is thus intellectual and emotional code for a growing awareness of the limits of belief and the futility of grand narrative gestures. And in the vacuum created by the subsequent retreat of ignorance, tradition, and doxic certainty our species is afforded a wide range of novel and potentially rewarding neurally instantiated possibility spaces for more adaptive cognition and communications – and so too for action, accommodation, and creative praxis.

Nihilism provides an opportunity to develop an awareness of our proximity to that which exceeds the symbolic – and that which there is no escape from: the non-human forces of the Real, both within the embodied matrix of self (as the ‘nonhuman-in-human’) and without (in “the great outdoors”). The myth of pure representation as mediator of the Real predicated on an assumed split between cognition and nature, between thought and world, died with natural science right alongside the supposed laughing Gods.

With the decline of doxa as a general mode of cognition the various clouds of symbolic projection begin to lift, affording us opportunities to become better acquainted with the deeply visceral and more directly consequential (pragmatic) aspects of the real. Embodied experience and sensibility become reinvigorated and open up as radical sites for self-organizing being and becoming differently in the world.

The first great pitfall from which such a radical standing by experience will save us is an artificial conception of the relations between knower and known. Throughout the history of philosophy the subject and its object have been treated as absolutely discontinuous entities; and thereupon the presence of the latter to the former, or the ‘apprehension’ by the former of the latter, has assumed a paradoxical character which all sorts of theories had to be invented to overcome. Representative theories put a mental ‘representation,’ ‘image,’ or ‘content’ into the gap, as a sort of intermediary. Common-sense theories left the gap untouched, declaring our mind able to clear it by a self-transcending leap. Transcendentalist theories left it impossible to traverse by finite knowers, and brought an Absolute in to perform the saltatory act. All the while, in the very bosom of the finite experience, every conjunction required to make the relation intelligible is given in full.

– William James, ‘A World of Pure Experience‘ (1904)

We are reminded in every experience we have with finitude – with trauma, limit, decay, death, causality, affordance, pleasure, joy, and necessity – of our ontological embeddedness and kinship with-in those practical realms of affect, materiality, and subsistence which structure all that we are or aspire to be. The reality of embodied ecological life cuts through our narratives and disrupts our strategies in ways that fundamentally challenge us, while simultaneously affording us opportunities for existence. Ecology has triumphed over all varieties of Cartesianism.


The new openness and flexibility in thought afforded by the rejection of all forms of dogma and doxic cognition allow us to acquire and evolve new sense-abilities and skills for building from the ruins of our past failures and develop more adaptive ways to survive and generate joy.  After nihilism we achieve deeper intimations with the real.

In the clearing enacted by nihilistic thought life and thought goes on. We must cope and make our way in the world even in the absence of all transcendent truths. We must consume and release energy and matter; we must shelter ourselves, cooperate, and procreate; we must make sense of, communicate, and navigate the world. In short, existence continues according to its own natures even in the absence of explanation and “absolute” signification.

The post-nihilist reactivation of explicit copings-with the pre-conceptual plane of immanent consistency offers a kind of zero-point realism that renders thinkable an auto-affective matrix within which all praxis operates. This matrix is the hyperreal ecological context of facticity that both pre-exists and survives all human desires for oversignification as well as the deflationary advent of nihilism.

“The fact that human cognition is heuristic, fractionate, and combinatory means that we should expect koans, puzzles, paradoxes, apories, and the like. We should expect that different systems possessing overlapping domains will come into conflict. We should expect them in the same way and for the same reason we should expect to encounter visual, auditory, and other kinds of systematic illusions. Because the brain picks out only the correlations it needs to predict its environments, cues predicting the systems requiring solution the way they need to be predicted to be solved. Given this, we should begin looking at traditional philosophy as a rich, discursive reservoir of pathologies, breakdowns providing information regarding the systems and misapplications involved. Like all corpses, meaning will provide a feast for worms.” – R.S. Bakker

There is no escaping reality. And the consequences of ignoring what it has to teach us about our own constructed and cherished commitments and values would just breed more ignorance and keep us trapped in the confusing logic of self-assuring naivety. Nihilism operates here as constant reminder and corrective to any tendency to rebuild our imaginaries, logics, and commitments in ignorance of this pre and non-discursive life.

Yet “nihilism” is still primarily just another code; it is a phantasy thrashing out signals hoping for some semblance of contact with the non-symbolic flesh of the world. Nihilism at it’s worst is a poetics of defeat and epistemic inaction, and at its most useful a temporary semantic and aesthetic placeholder allowing us to gain some traction towards integrating and synthesizing the dark insights of finitude, incompleteness, difference and ontological intimacy. Such insights force us to loosen our existential and conceptual grip on the ideological baggage following from centuries of ill-constructed narratives and begin to more readily accept the immanent challenges and opportunities of embodied ecological life.

So it is that nihilistic intelligence allows us to radically deconstruct our commitments and interests, leaving us to remake those commitments and interests in thick collaboration with the immanent (hyper)Real of pre-discursive life. The important corrective of perpetual negation and constant re-emphasis (via new sensory and cognitive registers) must be retained, however, if those makings are to provide a qualitative difference for developing more adaptive modes of existing-coping.

“‘positive unbelief’ – a provisionalizing of any reality frame in the name of pragmatic engagement rather than epistemological hesitation…” (CCRU)

Such post-nihilist sensibilities (sense-abilities) render us more capable of attaining awareness of and registering the possibility spaces that open as the various flow systems and assemblages, at both epistemic and structural levels, continue to collapse and/or transform. Nihilistic maturity is then a translating of an awareness of the limits of signification and futility of certainty in a radically disordered world-context into a conceptually open willingness to end the various games of detached self-enchantment that keep us from enacting healthier and more creative lives and worlds.

So if we cannot escape reality what are we to make of it? What are we to do after the advent and acceptance of nihilistic wisdom? That is, how are we to live as post-nihilists?

Initially, the way seems too dark to proceed. Absolute knowledge is replaced by a (more or less) confusing but immediate familiarity with wild complexes of multi-scaled forces, assemblages, and flows. Contentious temporal consensus and solidarities replace certainty, truth, and institutionalization. We find ourselves in translation and thrown into material and cognitive fields of probability and precariousness. We post-nihilists are forced to begin anew halfway upon the journey of our personal, epistemic and collective lives.

However we do so not in isolation. We are forced to move forward in the ruins of old dogmas and cultural illusions, of broken institutions and arbitrary practices, and among the scattered debris of an aberrant civilization. As we limit our dependence on and deployment of the doxas and fantasies of pre-nihilist life the retreat of superflous intentional thought and expressions, and the ideological commitments they anchor, opens up emergent possibilities for cognition and praxis.

The nihilist insights leading to any post-nihilist will to empowerment and praxis is also enacted as a type of coming to our senses: motivated by the deemphasis of representation and semantic association in favor of a re-engagement of embodied knowing and appreciation of the visceral intensities of life. And as we begin to reconcile with the Real – with the tangled creeping flesh and intensive flows of transcorporeality – we may forge new productive and enriching alliances with the potencies, affordances and opportunities of ecological life.

Whereas nihilism is a reactive negational realization entailing destruktion and dissolution, the subsequent post-nihilist move is an active attitudinal disposition and set of practices that necessitates creation. After deterritorialization comes reterritorialization – everywhere and endlessly. In order to survive and thrive the post-nihilist position is thus inherently sensitive to possibility and creation.

The practical advantages and adaptations of exploring such possibilities are too important to be explained away. Cultural commitments that have bound us to our current ecologies of practice can now be exchanged in favor of more collaborative and context specific forms of inquiry and action. The possibility of salvaging and remaking whole fields of knowledge, methodology, discourse, participation, and praxis to more adaptively align with our social and ecological needs and goals is at stake. There is an urgency with which we must respond to challenges of Anthropocene life.

“God is dead”, and yet even as many of us celebrate this development we remain intoxicated by the idea of gods. We continue to drink the electric kool-aid of ideology and concoct potent cocktails of compromising certainty. Culture-shocking drunkards stumble from town to city, from field to forest, slurring our media with toxic information and distracting images.

While others seek new intoxications that might allow them to cling to the old certainties, principles, axioms and nostalgias, those of us no longer hung over from God’s colossal wake remain content only in forging new worlds. Our species does not need more toxins, ‘isms’, nor cathedrals – even if they are coated in a soothing logic of norms and predicates.

Praxis is what always sustains us. Knowing how to find our way in the world and continue to exist has demonstrably more traction than knowing that things are they way we organize them (often mistakenly) schematically. We have been intoxicated and impaired by a unchecked commitment to the myriad of motivating and dictating stories (and all the minor and unequally distributed successes those allowed) since the beginning of sedentary culture. Now excess and abuse of those same stories and practices are finally collapsing, allowing us to confront the consequences of our addiction to ourselves. And with that change becomes possible.

The nihilist-to-post-nihilist move is an adaptive mutation of a species that has been dangerously and delusionally distracted by awkward patchworks of desire-infused semiotic feedback loops for far too long. We can mutate and become more sensitive to the myriad of ways we can better equip ourselves to resist our own ideological successes in order to confront our practical failures. What we need is a perpetual disillusionment and self-intervention that fosters brave new pragmatisms, technic supplements, and animal becomings. What we need is post-nihilist praxis.


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