A Sunny Nihilism?

by Kevin Currie-Knight

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Kevin Currie-Knight (East Carolina University) chats with Wendy Syfret (VICE Asia) about her new book The Sunny Nihilist: How a Meaningless Life Can Make You Truly Happy. We talk about why the modern world relentlessly seeks meaning in everything, whether nihilism is a viable or liberating response, and whether/how nihilism is reconcilable with strong belief and activism.

3:00 – What is nihilism? 10:35 – When did Wendy come to nihilsm and find it liberating? 16:48 – Why do we in the modern world “find” meaning in everything? 25:41 – Why does “finding” objective meaning satisfy more than creating subjective meaning? 30:38 – Are the young generally more nihilistic than their elders? Where is nihilism in pop culture? 38:59 – How to reconcile nihilism with activism (another thing that Wendy cares about)?

9 comments

  1. The format doesn’t allow the discussion to go as deeply as it might, but I found this a thought-provoking and entertaining conversation, and I certainly learned something about the angst of more recent generations than my own. (Although frankly I wish we would all stop with the generation labeling -x,y,z, millennials, boomers etc. why not just ‘the generation born 19–‘ or the ‘generation coming of age,’ etc.? Must every age group have a classifying label?)

  2. The observation that embracing the idea that “life has no meaning” and “I don’t matter” is paradoxically liberating and healing is an interesting observation. A couple thoughts on that.

    Meaning is order. When we ask what the meaning of life is, we are essentially asking how existence is ordered.

    The human experience is caught at the rough conflicted border between the given order of the universe (termed “nature” in secular culture, God in religious culture) and our ability to order our universe. In other words, there is both given meaning and meaning that we create in our life. In our current culture of excess (toxic) individualism, embracing nihilism frees the mind to appreciate and access meaning beyond the self, the given meaning in the order of manifest existence. Life becomes not about I but about being part of something bigger; nature, family, the general welfare …

    The fact that this is observed to be soothing, healing, and liberating suggests a given order to existence that supports a balance between selfishness and selflessness (liberty and justice – politically speaking). Since cooperation and compassion is the super-power of our species and has led to our collective flourishing in life, the felt liberation and soothing in selflessness is a manifestation of the meaning of life. We thus circle back to religious teachings on meaning.

    Lastly, the idea of nihilism as a “tool for thinking” that explores the idea that there is “no objective value” highlights the truth that thinking and objectivity are themselves impotent at accessing value and thus accessing meaning. It is the subjective emotional mind that is needed to access value. Hyper-intellectualization dements the mind to value and meaning in its apathy. This applies certain types of (valuable) truths as well. “Subjectivity is truth” – Kierkegaard

  3. A great discussion that is really revealing with regard to the current zeitgeist. That young people in the developed world today think there is no future and that everything is hopeless, such that they need to employ the sort of “strategic nihilism” talked about here should be taken as a very troubling sign.

    Indeed, it is instructive to compare these sorts of attitudes with that expressed by my father in his latest book. At the end of the first chapter, in which he describes having been driven out of Nazi Germany as a child and forced to relocate, virtually penniless to a foreign land, where he and his family did not speak the language, he says: “I had been thrown out from one place, only to find myself in another place which I liked. Problem solved. Very lucky.”

    A similar attitude should prevail for *anyone* living in a modern, developed nation today. Whatever problems one might have — and they may be daunting — one is nonetheless, very, very lucky.

  4. Thanks for posting this interview. Being in my mid 60s, and with death looming up on the horizon, I have been thinking about these issues a lot lately. I don’t believe in an afterlife, and I realize that three generations from now no one will remember that I was even here. However, I do not find this a source of dismay or sadness. In fact, I do find it, as she suggests, liberating in an odd way. I suppose it puts life, and my sense of self-importance, in perspective.

    I also find myself getting tired of life in ways I could not have imagined when I was 30. I think it was Fred Hoyle who said he cannot imagine wanting to live beyond, say, 200 years – by that time he would be quite tired of both himself and the world around him.

    The issue of values and meaning has also been on my mind. Certain things do seem to be valuable, not because we value them, but because they have the nature they have. And you recognize in certain experiences something that warrants appreciation. Some of the value in human relationships, great works for art, have that property.

    So, certain things make up a valuable life because we have the nature we have. There is, however, a lot of variation in what provides meaning and value for particular people. Part of what makes life complicated is that our values are not transparent to us – we have to discover what they are. One of the great sources of joy in my cousin’s life is restoring old cars and going to car shows. That would not work for me, and it is something he discovered about himself over time.

    When my father retired, I saw him try different activities to see what would or could take the place of his jewelry business. Some the things he tried turned out to be dead ends – he told me he realized after a few weeks that he did not find any interest in making bird houses. And it was only over time, and with experimenting, that he discovered interests and activities that would fill his days in a manner that sustained him. And having retired two years ago, I now find myself on a similar quest.

    John Rawls argues in a Theory of Justice that we are all the beneficiaries of the fantastic variety of what people find meaningful. This is what gives us the idea that bird watching, coin collecting, car shows, and writing fan fiction might be worth trying.

  5. Wendy Syfert is a major writing talent. Her book is breezy, accessible, well-written, and yet challenging.
    What she is doing here being interviewed by a “libertarian” pro-marketeer uber alles I have no idea, though Mr. Markets does a fine job as interviewer.

  6. Thanks for posting this. I found it quite thought-provoking, although there were a number of points at which my philosophical muscles were twitching for the interviewer/ee to plumb a tad deeper. Still, it was interesting on all the cultural and sociological aspects of the issue, and illuminating of some facets of the contemporary scene.

    Anyway, a couple of points:

    (1) Is Nietzsche really best characterised as a nihilist, as the conversation presupposes? I mean this question utterly ingenuously, and don’t know the answer, but it seems to me that he might not have been.

    (2) If nothing matters (i.e. nihilism about the meaning of life, or whatever, is true), it does not matter that nothing matters. Is it really possible to find something that doesn’t matter liberatory? I’m not sure.

  7. Kevin,

    Thanks for this. I’ve enjoyed your recent discussions.

    Ej,

    >Although frankly I wish we would all stop with the generation labeling -x,y,z, millennials, boomers etc. why not just ‘the generation born 19–‘ or the ‘generation coming of age,’ etc.? Must every age group have a classifying label?

    Me too. It seems to me like a reification of groupings, groupings based on vague or inconsistent rules more or less formed around some populations’ peaks, and though the idea can sometimes have meaning, the practice seems to most often take us away from the meaning, or common understanding, of the word generation.

    Dan,

    >revealing with regard to the current zeitgeist. That young people in the developed world today think there is no future and that everything is hopeless, such that they need to employ the sort of “strategic nihilism” talked about here should be taken as a very troubling sign.

    Agreed, if you also mean a troubling sign of the general socio-cultural state.

    I also think this kind of ‘nihilism’ can be a positive step. A deconstruction, or a seeing of the relatively optional nature of the content of various higher levels of meaning (like some of those supporting certain ‘status quo’ givens), keeping in mind that that doesn’t mean there isn’t meaning or hope, but that by making room for new or modified constructions and expressions of meaning, from the personal to the intersubjective, including different rituals, traditions, or ways of belonging, we can end up feeling new hope and as much meaning or even more.

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