I’m feeling much better now, thanks to nihilism. Recently, I have felt, shall we say, “less than inspired” at work, but a strong dose of meaninglessness and existential skepticism has really improved my attitude.
This week, during my lunchtime run on a steamy hot day when I was feeling despondent about work, I dialed my iPod to an episode of Radiolab, a radio show/podcast I highly recommend, entitled “In The Dust of This Planet,” borrowed from the book by Eugene Thacker. As the author of several philosophical polemics on nihilism and pessimism, Thacker said the family joke is that he writes books for no one. Being, similarly, not a best-selling author, I was intrigued.
Thacker’s book – subtitled “The Horror of Philosophy” – is an analysis of how nihilism is expressed in horror films and black metal music. Whenever I hear a reference to heavy metal in the mainstream media, my inner radar pings, especially when that reference is specific to a metal sub-genre as darkly obscure as black metal – a metal scene born in Norway and known for extreme music and extreme criminal behavior. My running pace quickened as my interest grew.
The angle of the podcast was not to focus on the book so much as how the cover of the book began to appear as a fashion accessory for celebrities. Actress Lily Collins was seen with an “In the Dust of This Planet” t-shirt, and Jay Z wore a leather jacket with the book’s cover art silkscreened on the back in a music video. This obscure work of philosophy was appearing as a symbol of cool, and the author had nothing to do with it. He hadn’t licensed the title or the book cover for clothing. He was as surprised as anyone. I thought about my own post on the subject of pop celebrities wearing metal-themed t-shirts and wondered if Lily and Jay Z had any idea what the book they were advertising was even about.
The reporter spoke to other thinkers who delved into the difficulties of our reality. Watching the news can be an exercise in pessimism. During the Cold War, it was noted, life was scary, but simpler because we knew who the enemy was. Now the enemy is ISIS and the young man who shot eight people at a prayer meeting in South Carolina. The enemy is climate change, for which the experts have begun to shift their language from prevention to adaptation. That is, it’s getting worse, and we can’t undo the damage done. These are not even enemies so much as harsh realities. I reflected on my personal frustration with the political gamesmanship in my work, a game for which I have no affection.
You might think I found this all mind-numbingly depressing, but, in truth, I was energized by what I heard and how it related to my feelings about work and life. It was like listening to the Blues as a way to feel better. The darkness was illuminating.
The host of Radiolab, Jad Abumrad, described the relationship between a nihilistic view of existence and what is considered “cool” in pop culture, whether horror movies, black metal, or Jay Z’s leather jacket. To summarize, he said,
All this pop nihilism around us is not about tearing down power structures or embracing nothingness. It’s just, “Look at me; look how brave I am.”
If the world is really as awful as it seems, then I have nothing to be upset about, and I can be brave. I can face it without fear, and I can choose to be positive and productive in spite of it all. And just at the moment I was finding strength in meaninglessness, I turned on the news and saw the confederate flag sagging in the wind and health care and marriage for all. It’s been a good week for harsh reality.
And so I amend my motto: be who you are, like what you like, do cool stuff…and be brave.