The totalizing rationalism of nihilism

Perhaps the most prolific advantage of pluriform investigation–what I am trying to achieve in this blog–is being able to listen in to both sides of dialogue when it comes to certain issues. I believe this is particularly important because cynics are often the most accurate observers of reality precisely on account of their hostility. Is this not the particular attractiveness of philosophies of finitude: a permanent suspicion of meaning and motives? Developed through to its full consequences in Continental Philosophy this means reason must turn against itself and overthrow its own sovereignty. The renunciation of rational mastery and the critique of illusory metaphysics are such instances. Nihilism, the breakdown of ultimate meaning and absolute truth, is however respectable in that it honestly assesses that there is no fixed frame of reference: humanity is always already embedded and thrown in a particular environment that colors our perception of the world. Nevertheless, our contingency upon history in the form of language, culture, society and so forth means that we are the makers and keepers of our own socio-symbolic existence, one order no less arbitrary than another. That is, unless language is believed to reflect meaning as much as it creates it.

With everything cast into doubt this way it is no wonder that postmodernism has been the harbinger of resistive, subversive and disruptive strategies to undermine common assumptions, destabilize conventional customs, and show that things can be otherwise. Past these negative gestures of sabotage it is to the latter positive task of imagining and forming new worlds that philosophy must also turn to with its newfound abyss of freedom and unpredictable results. This is finally the contemporary predicament: either accept the loss of truth altogether and limit oneself to “the interplay of multiple meanings” or revalue and transform the current vacuum of values by establishing a new balance to society. This deadlock can be seen through many famous complimentary opposites that haunt philosophy: scientism/obscurantism, absolutism/relativism, transcendence/immanence, law/transgression. It seems then that the real test of philosophy today is to bridge such gaps.

It is the same tension anyone faces who opposes or struggles against global capitalism and a continuing leitmotif that shows up in most of my writings, that is, we always belong to the system we criticize. Using conservative concepts in any revolution is inevitable after all, but their limits can be exposed at the same time. The capitalism machine on the other hand functions precisely due to its misfirings and contradictions thus rendering futile the exhaustive efforts in exposing our contingency and unraveling inconsistencies. All the frantic activity (read activism) that has gone into breaking apart the hegemonic global social order that poisons nature and gives certain individuals clear advantages over others has been in vain oftentimes and has instead actually fueled the violent social organization to grow. In fact it appears as though nihilism fits in quite well with capitalism: it can justify nothing so it tolerates everything and antagonistic games are allowed to continue as usual. Is there then any solution on the horizon today? With lack of resolution and a long list of failed attempts and misfired intentions it is no surprise that the modern subject, myself included, has come to peace with incommensurability and indecision itself.

A similar irregularity is inscribed in theology between catophatic and apostatic registers that theologians must interminably shift across. This interstice which makes the theologian the best and worse Christian is the very gap that requires leaps from formulating true statements about God and his people to acknowledging that conclusions are always provisional. Deconstruction is similarly poised towards the impossible gesture of speaking about the unspeakable, the unrepresentable, the tout autre, that which can never be engulfed or enclosed. However philosophy, unlike theology, is not compelled to classify the void and it is questionable how much of a difference this naming makes.

Exaggerated to its extreme pole this via negativa eventually becomes just another precise and totalizing rationalism utilized to securely grasp reality: a universal (un)knowing. On the other hand, no social theory is any more justifiable than another and we should therefore be suspicious of all knowledges, including scientific and humanistic ones. While the wager is borderline “irrational,” I have found my peace in narrative theology broadly conceived. Drawing from the wisdom that language and narrative is inseparable from humanity and the most basic form of thought, theology can shed its false humility. In other words, religion is irreducible to something more basic lurking behind it. With that said, I believe Christianity, on the whole, educes a more convincing, persuasive, and particularly peaceful account of reality. Unfortunately the church has often merely been a therapeutic enclave community in service of the state whose purpose has been to assuage the burdened souls of laborers in order to keep them toeing the line productively and agreeably.  The help becomes part of the problem.


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