Interpretations of Nihilism: Destructive vs. Active


'Nihilism' is an often stigmatized word in our culture.

   But there is the argument that nihilism, functionally, can act as a dialectical tool to level incoherent precepts about the nature of reality down to constituent parts. Of course, people can take this too far to where even the constituent parts are done away with altogether, which leads one ultimately to the position that one can act as though no negative consequences to one's actions matter. This, however, is not representative of the wider implications of nihilism as a conceptual project but is rather more in line with Sartre's contention that 'existence precedes essence;' a claim with revolutionary connotations which doesn't say anything about the nature of meaning, in that it relies on a linear conception of essence formulation that is, from the outset, only grammatically determined with the fulfillment of its self-created object in mind.

   Nihilism 1.0 - Nothing has an essential nature.

   Nihilism 2.0 - Nothing has inherent value.

   In 1.0, it could never be clear at what point something ever could have an essential nature later, for if it could develop one, it would be a contingent nature by definition. But then we're in a paradox, in that we're dealing with a concept that essentially lacks essence. To essentially lack essence, one is left only with becoming, for which Nietzsche's remedy is to embrace the innocence of this essential lack whose face and sign is becoming itself. One is then a faceless object acting upon that which acts upon it in kind and calling this surrender and communion a willed relationship. For Nietzsche, meaning is a possibility of living and thus subordinate to living, regardless of the actual essential nature of anything occurring within life which might grant it any correlative meaning.

   In 2.0, the claim that something has no inherent value presupposes a subject already residing within a correlative framework in which constituent parts create a formula for utility. It assumes the essence of constituent parts but grants that essence can also follow the existence of other objects with respective essential natures.

   A confusion between 1.0 and 2.0 creates what  Nietzsche called 'destructive nihilism': people take even those values born from formulas with constituent essences as meaningless as the result doesn't have any value in isolation from its formula. This is the thought process behind people  who make a complete stop in any argument at the term 'social construct,' which can honestly be applied to almost any transaction in the phenomenal world.

   The contradiction enters in when people reject both the consequence of a formula of constituent essences but then want to create a desired result by simply endorsing the arrangement of new constituent essences to suit their ends. By what mechanism does one go about selecting constituent essences to achieve value? It is largely done arbitrarily, or rather, by unchecked psychological mechanisms of preference, which were responsible for most values to begin with.

   In other words, a preference or a 'desire' determines the condition for the leveling/essence-negating quality. Nihilism hides the power one wants to exert in the name of one's desire, the object of which has been essentialized as having a use value. It goes in an endless circle. By their very nihilism, nihilists dominate, whereas morality would dominate them in the name of some other object. Functionally, we witness here that morality and nihilism, respectively, both act as means to an end. The question is, what is the purpose of saying, in either case, that something does or doesn't posseses inherent value or essence? It possesses none to me, the subject, insofar as I stand only as a configurative witness.

   To remain the configurative witness frees one from all responsibility, as it atomizes one's role in relation to outside phenomena. This form of destructive nihilism could be equated with solipsism, and is destructive on account of the very fact that it is not a thorough enough form of nihilism.

   An active nihilism, in the Nietzschean sense, would be to push one's skepticism even further into the realm of depersonalization. One acknowledges oneself in a hyper-historical (hermeneutic) register which betrays linear personalization, not only in the name of contextualizing and thus measuring the weight of one's own nature, but in the name of determining one's place within nature (a determination which marks the very event of a historical transvaluation).

   A crude reduction:

   Destructive nihilism exerts power by creating limits.

   Active nihilism exerts power by testing limits.

   In an active form of nihilism, power is recognized in its nature as a surplus, the diffusion of which coterminates whatever essence latched onto the configuration responsible for its manifestation. The revelation of the limit is the point of power's greatest intensity, after which it has no choice but to dissipate, entropy leaving behind only a shadow, a memory of God. The tragic nature of this philosophy comes with the instruction to forget - which is in keeping with the death of a moral god, so that a new god, which represents a new value just as the old represented an outworn value, can be heroically affirmed.

   Nietzsche's ultimate project to transvaluate all values, along with his extreme depersonalization, can be seen as an extreme counter measure against the increased atomizing tendency one finds in systems of value (whether moral or economic) today. Atomization favors quantity over quality; disparate parts can be arranged to fit the basest use for a task, mitigating distinction where it occurs (sin), but little to offer in terms of acquiring abundance. The quest for abundance is ultimately the goal of an active nihilism: limits are tested, the unknown is made known, weaknesses are exposed and, ultimately, one is hardened toward degenerative elements in life (resultant features of atomization which die after having outworn their short-lived use). Active nihilism then becomes the ultimate awareness of one's place; the ability to command and the ability to obey, both experienced in one domain of subjectivity.

   Nietzsche is a thinker whose reputation often overreaches his actual work. Often associated with extreme individualism, it would be more accurate to say that Nietzsche's work is ultimately a philosophy of self-cultivation; a philosophy whose major transvaluation lies precisely in the fact that it depends on an intense degree of awareness, both of oneself and of the scale in which one can even be identified, and where one stands within that scale. Only in consideration of such a scale can one determine just to what degree one is 'free' or of this type or that type of person. To say that Nietzsche's work is hierarchical is not a mere statement about his elitism. It speaks to the very meaning of a Nietzschean freedom which is measured in every way differently from any moral measurement of freedom we could consider today under atomizing ideology/thought structure. His sense of hierarchy is the very space in which truth can come to be understood, not as a law, but as a space of intensity, of what it is possible to be, as becoming has turned into being.

   The warring of various definitions of nihilism and different nihilistic projects is ultimately a war of power and its allocation. It ultimately becomes a matter of using power in such a way that it destroys or in such a way that it creates. Both destruction and creation are their own types of squandering in the universal economy marked by the will to power.