A Nihilist at the Superbowl

February 6, 2009

Kickoff

Right away there’s a problem: Exactly how do you go about saying anything at all about nihilism? Or learning anything…or simply knowing anything? The Latin root nihil means ‘nothing’, so nihilism is, quite literally, a nothing-ism—a doctrine of…well, what? The dictionary tells us that nihilism is ‘an extreme form of skepticism that denies all existence’, and ‘a doctrine holding that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated.’

No, we are never going to learn anything about nihilism—at least not from the horse’s mouth. For a dedicated nihilist must, it seems, subscribe to the idea that those who say don’t know and those who know don’t say. Even a path of pure negativity is fraught with problems: Say, A asserts something, anything: “The sky is blue.” What response do you give? A shake of the head? This is clearly not enough, but try to explain why you can’t say ‘the sky is blue’—and suddenly you’re defending the status of your criticisms. If you can’t know anything, you can’t know that you can’t know. Na, na, na na na.

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And this case-by-case approach has got to be exhausting, what with humanity gushing sentences right and left—not only is the sky blue, but the sea is green, the rose is red—and one wonders if a punctilious nihilist isn’t fast on the way to refuting his own position. Why persevere? If I think the Superbowl is just super, you might spend time showing me the error of my ways, but the case for, say, the World Cup being superior or the Olympic Games is likely to be more convincing to me than a hectoring: Hey, nothing is super, man. You don’t understand reality.

If I want to kick back, open a few beers, get a pizza, have a few friends over, buy a big screen TV, and root for, ah, whoever it is who’s playing…well, damn it, the Superbowl is super. The Giants won last year and it was a great game, a great game. Remember that catch that, ah, what’s his face, made? Unbelievable.

The claim that nihilism is inarticulate, however, should give us an uneasy pause. Just because we’re pushing at the limits of our language here, doesn’t quite mean that the Superbowl is super—because, let’s face it, we know it isn’t—and it’s not super only in comparison to the World Cup; it’s not super because it doesn’t appear to be rooted in anything. At best, it’s an epiphyte, a pretty orchard living off our dreams in a dense wood. Kierkegaard had a notion that he called the rotation method. It’s a subtitle way of distracting oneself from the realities of life; instead of focusing on one thing, you constantly rotate your distractions; it keeps us from growing bored with our empty existence. This week it’s the Superbowl, next week it’s NASCAR, and, hey, March Madness is just around the corner. Sure we have trouble talking about nihilism; so we talk about football and let that draw an outline around the emptiness. Winning isn’t everything, said Vince Lombardi. It’s the only thing. Sure coach. Sure.


There are different kinds of nihilism, as improbable as it sounds: Epistemological nihilism, ethical nihilism, political nihilism, and existential nihilism, each arguing that different aspects of reality are empty, meaningless and without value. There was a political movement called Nihilism that developed in Russia, a sort of branch of the anarchist movement. There is also, and perhaps underlying all of the above, a psychological component to nihilism: It’s not so much what actually is the case, it’s that you think life has become empty and meaningless. You’re depressed and project that depression out on to the world. Psychological nihilism could be the result of a chemical imbalance, or it could be a harbinger of a bad scenario about to play its hand. Life has come to come crashing down around you. All this talk about the Superbowl and here you are a Detroit Lions’ fan. Can’t we get Parcells in there somehow?

Macbeth is surely our most articulate psychological nihilist. A walking shadow, full of sound and fury—things have turned our real bad for him. We might draw a lesson about greed and hubris, but for Macbeth it’d pretty much over. He’s not learning anything from his newfound nihilism. Even the Superbowl is going to seem like The Hollow Bowl this year. He’s sitting slumped in front of the wide screen while Birnam Wood closes in.

Thus we have Pessimistic nihilism, at best an empty bag, a portrait of a meaningless, barren world which may not even be there, where walking shadows strut and fret for a couple of hours trying to win the big game, fueling an endless cycle of meaningless entertainment, distractions signifying nothing, junk food awakening new hungers…

Halftime

I had a friend was a big baseball player
Back in high school
He could throw that speedball by you
Make you look like a fool boy
Saw him the other night at this roadside bar
I was walking in, he was walking out
We went back inside sat down had a few drinks
But all he kept talking about was

Chorus:
Glory days well they’ll pass you by
Glory days in the wink of a young girl’s eye
Glory days, glory days

Well there’s a girl that lives up the block
Back in school she could turn all the boy’s heads
Sometimes on a friday i’ll stop by
And have a few drinks after she put her kids to bed
Her and her husband bobby well they split up
I guess it’s two years gone by now
We just sit around talking about the old times,
She says when she feels like crying
She starts laughing thinking about

Chorus

My old man worked 20 years on the line
And they let him go
Now everywhere he goes out looking for work
They just tell him that he’s too old
I was 9 nine years old and he was working at the
Metuchen ford plant assembly line
Now he just sits on a stool down at the legion hall
But i can tell what’s on his mind

Glory days yeah goin back
Glory days aw he ain’t never had
Glory days, glory days

Now i think i’m going down to the well tonight
And i’m going to drink till i get my fill
And i hope when i get old i don’t sit around thinking about it
But i probably will
Yeah, just sitting back trying to recapture
A little of the glory of, well time slips away
And leaves you with nothing mister but
Boring stories of glory days

Chorus (repeat twice)

Touchdown

You can be a good plumber—and beat your wife. You can be a competent engineer—and cheat on your taxes. You can be a superb neurosurgeon—and be addicted to gambling. You can even be one of the best tight ends in football—and do something stupid like carry a gun into a nightclub—and shoot yourself with it. You can be just about anything from hockey mom to auto-industry executive—and still be a closet nihilist—a despairing, pessimistic, repetitive, recidivist, nihilist. Glory days, well, they’ll pass you by… Glory days, glory days, glory days…

You can even be a rock-star—and be a nihilist.

Talking about ‘nothing’ sounds rather tedious, doesn’t it? Surely there is something concrete we can do with our time—I hear the infrastructure needs work. My grandfather used to ask me, ‘Do you want to grow up to be a know-nothing?’—and he meant it too. (The other career path he had for me was beatnik, but they pretty much wash out in the same laundry.) Talking about nothing, thinking about nothing, doing nothing, being nothing: it’s quite a litany, isn’t it? I’m sure he’s spinning in his grave—except he’s part of the ‘nothing’ right now himself, isn’t he? One is tempted to say nihilism wouldn’t be worth the amount of reality it describes, except on some readings it describes all of reality. Even if we sort out the exorbitant claims—you really think the sky is not blue?—we still have to wonder: is nihilism necessarily a death trip? Is it necessarily pessimistic? Is it the result of frustrated dreams and frustrated desires? Is it death against life?

A surprising number of questions tumble out of this particular void: Is nihilism the result of class warfare? Is it the result of the huddled masses yearning to be free—and not succeeding? Is nihilism the stepchild of skepticism? Is it the logical extreme of skepticism? Is it a coincidence that Shakespeare, one of the forefathers of the skeptical movement that the dominated the 17th century, was also the great poet of nihilism? Consider Iago’s pronouncement: ‘I am not what I am’. Think about that, Mr. Cogito.

Is nihilism the result of the destruction a certain narrative we’d been telling ourselves, a breaking down of Aristotelian values and virtues, a result of the fragmentation of society, the rise of industrialization, the alienation of the working class? Is it the result of the success of materialism and capitalism and liberalism? And is it the result of the failure of the religions of the world to grow and change, to maintain believability?

And, while we’re asking questions: What about post-modernism, and its supposed nihilism? Is it symptomatic of nihilism, or a cause? Could one really live one’s life in a Thomas Pynchon novel? And science, what about science? Is it only a method of finding out how the world works, or does it bring values of its own? And the family? There was a time when an extended family would take care of Uncle Joe when he got old and infirm…but we will leave institutional care for another day.

Nihilism is, at best, a query about values and the meaning of life—with a generous dollop of metaphysics thrown in. The argument is simple: we are developing a society where nihilism is running rampant. We don’t know what to do about nihilism; we’re not even acknowledging its existence. Our distractions are becoming vapid, our drugs are not working, our economy based on cheap trinkets and cheap labor is laboring and about to crash. We badly need a touchdown here, baby. We need to touch something real, and we haven’t a clue. All that is solid melts into the air, all that is holy is profaned…

Commercial Time Out

I’m working my way through a long article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on the Kyoto School by Bret W. Davis. The Kyoto School was a group of Japanese thinkers centered at Kyoto University who were influenced by among other things, Martin Heidegger and traditional Asian—Buddhist—thinking. Here’s a little bit on śûnyatâ:

In Mahâyâna Buddhism śûnyatâ refers first of all to the fact that all things come into being in “interdependent origination” (Sanskrit: pratîtya-samutpâda; Japanese: engi), and they are therefore “empty” of any independent substantial self-nature or “own-being” (Sanskrit: svabhâva). This thought is closely tied to the basic Buddhist thesis of “no-self” or “non-ego” (Sanskrit: anâtman; Japanese: muga). All beings, including the ego, are interconnected and in flux. Psychologically, śûnyatâ refers also to the releasement from all attachment to beings, from all reification and willful appropriation of them. Such attachments are both based on and in turn support the primary attachment to the fabricated ego, since the ego both strives to possess and is unwittingly possessed by its reification of beings. Awakening to the emptiness of all things, to their lack of substantial own-being or egoity (Japanese: shogyômuga), thus frees one both from an ego-centered and reified view of things, and from the illusion of the substantial ego itself.

However, if the movement of negation stops here at a one-sided negation of being (i.e., at negation of the independent substantial reality of things and the ego), and if the idea of “Emptiness” is not itself emptied,[9] then we are left either with a pessimistic nihilism or with an ironically reified view of śûnyatâ. These are what the Buddhist tradition calls “śûnyatâ-sickness” (Japanese: kûbyô). True śûnyatâ must be understood to dynamically negate the very opposition of being and (relative) nothingness… Hence, in Mahâyâna we find an explicit return—through a “great negation” of reification and attachment to being—to a “great affirmation” of a non-reified understanding of being. Emptiness thoroughly understood is nothing separate from or opposed to “being” properly understood. As the often chanted lines of the Heart Sutra put it: “[phenomenal] form is emptiness; emptiness is also [phenomenal] form; emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness”… The famous Mahâyâna Buddhist philosopher of śûnyatâ Nâgârjuna (ca. 150–250 CE) went so far as to provocatively state: “The limits (i.e., realm) of nirvâna are the limits of samsâra. Between the two, also, there is not the slightest difference whatsoever”… In other words, nirvâna is neither a nihilistic extinction of nor a transcendent escape from the phenomenal world (samsâra); it is rather an enlightened manner of being-in-the-world here and now… This radical reaffirmation of the phenomenal world was particularly stressed in East Asian developments of Mahâyâna Buddhism, where we find such remarkably affirmative phrases as: “true Emptiness, marvelous being” (Japanese: shinkû-myôu).

I’ll highlight a few thoughts:

We think of our self as radically distinct from the rest of the world. It’s a pretty easy division to make: there’s good ol’number 1, and then there is the rest of the world. In this view, my ‘self’ is the locus of reality—and the reality I locate in this way has ‘self’-nature. (God may be lurking in these clouds.) Come to doubt this picture and you find yourself in a nihilist cycle. The concept of śûnyatâ tells a different story. The self is not independent and is not the locus of the world; rather, it is connected to the rest of the world via this ‘interdependent origination’. God is not lurking in the clouds—at least not as a force of the ‘self’. Lacking this self-nature, they are empty, but this emptiness is not a lack of anything. Śûnyatâ is thus a corrective to a destructive way of viewing the world: through a self. Emptiness is a good thing. Understand this and you are not so ‘attached’ to the world. You are a part of the world.

Śûnyatâ is just a word, not a magic potion. It too must walk the path of emptiness; it would in fact be ridiculous if the one thing that was not empty was ‘emptiness’. We are talking about ‘the great affirmation of the non-reified understanding of non-being’, and the intent is to be restorative to—well—Being, to open a field where the things of this world can exist—including you and me.

Monday Morning Quarterback

Speaking of the great affirmation of the non-reified understanding of non-being, I had the Cardinals to win by three points. They were there—minutes to go—I could have won big—except for that damn circus catch. It’s infuriating. Still, it was a great game—almost as good as last year’s game when the Giants beat those oh-so-superior Patriots. That catch Tyree made…it was unbelievable, one for the history books. Football is like life, you win some and you lose some: it’s got something to do with the shape of the ball—and you never know. You drop it, the chances are you won’t get it back. I try to be philosophical about such things. That is why they play the game, right?

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