Existentialism is a space clearing movement. Well…sort of. In effect, existentialism is “a label for several widely different revolts against traditional philosophy” (Kaufmann, Existentialism from Dostoevesky to Sartre, p. 11). This umbrella term was of course not accepted by most of the usual suspects that occupied it, but, making wide sweeping generalizations, it typically fits that said thinkers were markedly critical. As many argue, perhaps the label should be abandoned altogether given the disparate revolts it attempts to link by similarity. As I will argue, however, following Kaufmann, existentialists are primarily preoccupied with considered dissent and protest.
The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and especially of systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic, and remote from life—that is the heart of existentialism (p. 12)
Kierkegaard, at a glance, confirms this hypothesis. As is well known, Kierkegaard consistently rejected the belief in eternal verities in addition to the trust in reason, a common staple of traditional philosophy to be sure. For Kierkegaard it is not ethics or rationality as such that are of crucial importance, but the need to make decisions—and, in this case, wholly uninformed and irrational leaps of faith.
The reasoning is as follows: the haughty tradition of theology, ethics, metaphysics and so on have completely absolved us from the need to make decisions. This is so, according to Kierkegaard, because philosophy has given us prefabricated categories of truth, justice, etc. which defer the responsibility of making philosophical demonstrations ourselves. Doubtless, this would hardly be as troubling as it is for Kierkegaard if it was not for the fact that, as he sees it, philosophy is “a kind of whistling in the dark” or sever “self-deception” (p. 17).
In the worldview of Kierkegaard, we must behold the full spread of our possibilities, what we most certainly experience as the “dizziness of freedom”. Or again, as Kierkegaard says, we are forced make choices in “fear and trembling”. However, with Kierkegaard the matter falls between the cracks of a dualistic thinking separating reason and faith. In short, in the words of Kaufman, “Kierkegaard rashly renounced clear and distinct thinking altogether” (p. 18).
Nietzsche shares this radical negativity towards Western philosophy also, but not quite at the expense of reason as we witness with Kierkegaard. As such, Nietzsche does not rebel against traditional philosophy and Christianity because of its rigid rationalism, but quite the opposite: together they are precisely the archenemy of reason, a barb in the flesh of authentic living.
The great mistake of philosophy, then, is its proclivity to shirk from uncomfortable objects of encounter. Specifically in regard to university professors, as state employees, philosophers have an invested motive to “justify the moral prejudices of society” (p. 23). In contradistinction to the sin of traditional philosophy, Nietzsche presents a philosophy of the future that forces us to think the uncommon, the novel and the uncomfortable. In other words, he wants to kindle a thought that forces his readers to think, wrestling with thoughts that are not easily repeatable. Or again, insights that do not allow us to remain inert of passive after the fact.
What Nietzsche does, indeed, is to move or invite his readers to become dissatisfied with all previous statements and presumptions.
Of course, we can attribute the same sort of strategy to Socrates: whoever came in contact with the infamous gadfly of Athens quickly became uneasy with their previous way of life. Stated otherwise, Socrates “was an incarnate challenge to their way of life and thinking, an exemplary personality, the embodiment of a new ethic” (p. 25). The underlying point of revolutionary acts, such as Socrates’, is that we can never go back to business as usual; some values must be repudiated and, furthermore, we require new attitudes to model ourselves on. As the best existentialists claimed in varying rhetoric, “You must change your life”!
But, and this is the significant point, this challenge to change one’s own life is indirect only and shored up by a more substantial claim regarding a better way to model ourselves off of–that is, a more critical, reflective and rational pattern of life. So while these two philosophers, in particular, re-describe and re-valorize “irrationalism”, this certainly does not disprove their competence as guides for a new positive way of being. On the contrary, it is the very inversion of priorities that retouches misery, melancholy and the wretched as the highest good.
Existentialism, in brief, is anything but self-deception. It is the very encounter with the ugly facts of existence itself. No serenity at all remains. What remains in its place is a wallowing in human depravity, an uncompromising concentration on the dark side of humanity—its inner life in particular.
In my recent post on Black Swan I made the unsubstantiated claim that Aronofsky’s films are of a “space clearing” character, clear-cutting our habitual forms of thought. Moreover, I argued that Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers, in Black Swan, fulfills artistic perfection at the cost of her own physical and mental collapse, but that this is not to be considered self-destruction in itself, for it is only regarded so in the previous regime of common sense. In a genuinely original transvaluation of state of affairs, Nina’s horrifying metamorphosis is precisely an honest and perverse point of view of existence—the very counternarrative of and considered protest against the neat and cordial scheme of things.
In what follows I hope to present an illuminating yet brief explanation of how or why space clearing gestures work at certain times and not at others (or how they might be repeated?) in reference to Žižek’s presentation of Mao. I do not think the crucial element is wholly unlike the strategy of existentialism, as Kaufmann found. To anticipate the argument, a compelling and vitriolic statement of Žižek’s, which sums up the demonstration in short, is begging the question:
It is only this reference to what happens after the revolution, to the ‘morning after’, that allows us to distinguish between libertarian pathetic outbursts and true revolutionary upheavals: the former outbursts lose their energy when one has to approach the prosaic work of social reconstruction – at this point, lethargy sets in. (p. 25)
The point is, as I read it, as follows: the first moment of any revolutionary gesture is radical negativity, a stage of reduction or subtraction that violently and painfully sweeps away the old world as the necessary precondition for the reconstruction of something otherwise. However, this act is nothing without the second. With Žižek the case is stated in this way—the first moment of subtraction is entirely for the purpose of “clearing the space and opening up the way for a new beginning” (Zizek Presents Mao, pp. 21-22). To put it in the simplest of possible terms, space clearing gestures are not negative in themselves but merely make space for the invention of new life or new social realities. Or again, as we saw with existentialism in general and Aronofsky’s Black Swan in particular, the abrupt discontinuation of any previous way of life is transposed “into a truly new positive Order” (p. 21). This, however, is truly the most difficult stage. It is very easy to tear down idols, after all. It is much more difficult to create new ones.
Indeed, this notion collates into some pithy and profound statements on Žižek’s part that present the full flavor of revolutionary fervor, albeit in Hegelian steeped vocabulary:
Those who oscillate, those who are afraid to take the second step of overcoming this form itself, are those who (to repeat Robespierre) want a ‘revolution without revolution’… (pp. 16-17)
…those who advocate qualitative change without struggle of the opposites really oppose change and advocate the continuation of the same; those who advocate change without qualitative jumps really oppose change and advocate immobility… (p. 14)
Why revolution at all, if we do not think that ‘the customary order of things should never be restored’? (p. 21)
This is doubtless not the first appearance of a custom revolutionary dialectic on the part of the Hegelian scholar Slavoj Žižek. In spite of my hesitation of over quoting, I shall conclude this section by embedding perhaps one of my favorite quotes penned by the Slovenian:
…the Nietzschean passage from Lion to Child: it is not yet possible for us, caught as we are in the web of the reflective attitude of nihilism, to enter the “innocence of becoming,” the full life beyond justification; all we can do is engage in “self-overcoming of morality through truthfulness,” that is, bring the moralistic will-to-truth to its self-cancellation, because aware of the truth about will-to-truth itself (that it is an illusion of and for the weak). We “cannot create new values,” we can only be the Lion who, in an outburst of active nihilism, clears the table and thus “creates freedom for new creation”; it is after us that the Child will appear who will mark “a new Beginning, a sacred Yes”. (Parallax View, p. 43)
In my estimation, hipsters easily fit this bill. They (we?) are the caustic rebels who, in strong negative form, senselessly abuse modern social evil. Unquestionably accurate, hipsters possess “a bottomless well of impassioned scorn”, as Stuff Hipsters Hate recounts. Gold star plus 2 points for the postmodern subculture! As much as a sure thing, hipsters recognize that traditional metaphysics–right along with its values, aesthetics, etc.–lies in ruins. By their tongue-in-cheek space creating gestures, hipsters clear the table, so to speak, of false illusions and make room for something original and positive to be posited. But in agreement with Bruno Latour and those I encounter while traveling who confess they frequent less economically developed countries more often than not for the fact that they do not have enough discretionary surplus as of yet to develop hipster subcultures, all the flash-pan denunciation of hipsters has gone stale. In this sense, hipsters only prolong a long standing critique against all the usual -isms and -ologies. Hipsterism, in other words, is not a fresh solution.
I am not as comfortable bombastically lampooning other once-popular rebel-clique groups that I do not currently occupy, but I venture to guess that the same sociology of critique could apply to the beat generation, hippies, punks, grunge rockers, scenesters and so on. In most all cases, apathy and indifference set in overnight, and the once-rebellious movement quickly turned into a commodified and marketed, diasporic identity for big-business. The measured dissent, in the end, was nothing but a pathetic outburst. What is missing and what truly counts, in Žižek’s words, is the “morning after”–the beginning of a new order of things. In other words, protests are only worth the breath if, after destroying the established state of affairs, they provide positive alternatives beyond the status quo. Thus, Kaufmann is absolutely spot on when he notes that genuine philosophical challenges to our way of life are only secondary to the jihad of revealing an original and positive way of being in the world. I find it telling then that Herbert Marcuse, a German philosopher and political theorist who was a radical activist of the student movement in the 1960s, wrote in 1941 that “the dialectical contradiction”, what happens after the revolution, “is distinguished from all pseudo- and crackpot opposition, beatnik and hipsterism” (Reason and Revolution, p. xi). Case in point.