in the winter of 2010 i took a course on nihilism and i’ve been believing in nothing ever since. the following text is my culminating thesis on the topic. i also started doodling intricate spirals throughout my course notes. i’ve filled journals, agendas, notepads, handouts, notebooks, napkins, the outside of take out boxes, receipts with these spirals. more recently i’ve learned the historical significance of this ancient symbol. returning to such a formative essay after ten years is refreshing and reflective. i’m tempted to edit heavily but i’ll restrain myself. i feel the writings to follow have a tide-like progression, following like waves in and out of ideas like coves and bays, the same ocean but different water. i’d like to keep the originality and integrity of the writer in at that time in tact.
now, i use some thinkings of a rather controversial philosopher to guide and inspire my thinking, but in no way does this usage condone his political affiliations in during world war ii. if anything, i use his thoughts as an opposing force for my own thoughts as over the years i have questioned, wrestled, cut, sutured, broke, cracked, incised, excised my way through western and eastern philosophy, traveling and living in cultures foreign to my own, always searching for the next question. this essay penned the first of many where i follow a line of thought and questioning leading to the question of all questions. i’ll leave you, the reader, to determine what that question may be.
the lectures, books, and writings of Jacques Derrida, Martin Heidegger, and Friedrich Neitzsche inspired this train of thoughts and are referenced and quoted throughout. i give full credit to their audacity to ask these questions first.
The Necessity and
Unperceived Beauty of Violence
When we think of violence, generally we think of something bloody, traumatic, and negative, but if there is one thing I have learned in this class is that not all violence is ugly and it is completely unavoidable. “In con-frontation, the world comes to be” (Heidegger 65). If it were not for violence, civilization would have never been able to propel itself to where it is now. Our lives are filled with violence, cutting, and confrontation because without it nothing (in the most literal sense) would emerge. It is in our nature to assault those around us. It has been thousands of years of violent social conditioning that has repressed our “animal” instincts. This process of humanization, which Derrida refers to, has turned man against himself and sparked the constant internal conflict of man that man in turn has taken out on the animals. “Time” for Jacques Derrida began with the violent act of one naming the other, just as time for each individual begins when man is named by his parents without the ability to respond. In The Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche states, “to speak of right and wrong per se makes no sense at all. No act of violence, rape, exploitation, destruction, is intrinsically ‘unjust,’ since life itself is violent” (Nietzsche 208). To live peacefully is not in man’s nature, but it is through his vow to the social contract, an agreement he is forced to make in order to be a member of society, that he is able to live in peace with others. There are no such things as good or bad, just our struggle to unconceal the truth. It takes a decisive decision, a will to truth for one to separate from the world of seeming and the “real” nihilists, those who refuse to question. Opposing ignorance and violently questioning the world around us is the only way man will know anything.
In his work, The Animal That Therefore I Am, Derrida raises some stimulating arguments about the authority that man has over the animals. God named Adam and Adam named the animals, each having authority over who they named. It is with this violent naming that time began and man imposed his assumed authority over the animals. Animals have the ability to communicate and respond to certain stimuli, but lack the creativity of humans, but does this give us the right to have authority over the animal and use them for our disposal? Without communication, animals were unable to respond for their name and reject the authority of man. It has been man’s “irreversible, welcome or unwelcome event of naming whereby Ish [Adam] would begin to see them and name them without allowing himself to be seen or named by them” (Derrida 17). Since animals have been deprived of the ability to speak, man has used this to inflict “the wound without a name: that of having been given a name. Finding oneself deprived of language, one loses the power to name, to name oneself, indeed to answer for one’s name” (Derrida 19). Man has exploited the animal’s lack of communication and never allowed them to respond to the name he had given them. Animals live and breathe, have families, and are capable of suffering, but the majority of mankind doesn’t take the time to think about these things. Man has made the animal an object, deprived it of a Being or soul, and “such a subjection…can be called violence in the most morally neutral sense of the term” (Derrida 25). The animal is “the point of view of the absolute other” because there is no means of communication between our species (Derrida 11). There is no way of us ever knowing what goes on in the heads of animals or what they are thinking. For all we know they are looking at us the way we have been conditioned to look at them
When Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge and became aware of their nakedness, man began to feel shame of his animality. Shame is a purely human emotion. Animals are incapable of this because they have no need to repress their natural state. Animals lack the knowledge of their nakedness and feel no shame, but for humans, this “original sin” that caused man to feel shame became the internal conflict man grapples with daily. Man feels the need to cover up and hide his nature because it has been engrained on his being to be ashamed of his nature. “This movement of shame…this inhibition…is the very origin of the religious, of religious scruple” (Derrida 47). There is no doubt that the Church, in conjunction with each civilization’s government, has abused its power over its pulpit by violently exploiting man’s shame. Using punishment and pain in order to tame man and his animal instincts, “the ghastliest sacrifices and pledges…the most repulsive mutilations…the cruelest rituals…all these have their origin in that instinct which divined pain to be the strongest aid to mnemonics” (Nietzsche 193). This “aid” has been disguised as a way for man to avoid shame, but if it weren’t for these institutions, would man even feel shame?
In our current age, although the Catholic Church no longer uses torture and painful punishment, it’s use of guilt has created a self-torture mechanism within man. The ascetic life that the world has come to be through the Church is “the habitation of disgruntled, proud, repulsive creature, unable to rid themselves of self-loathing…who inflict as much pain as possible on themselves, solely out of the pleasure in giving pain” (Nietzsche 253). A religious person believes he/she is a sinner because they are told that they are, not because they actually are. The guilt that they feel is not internally motivated, but it comes from the Church which has conditioned its pulpit to feel shameful of its animal instincts. They live life denying their instincts and seeking forgiveness to appease their guilty conscience. It seems as though man enjoys being in this perpetual cycle of sinner, guilt, and shame that further represses their animal instincts.
The violence that has repressed man’s animal instincts has ignited an internal violence within man. With help from the Catholic Church and its ability to make anyone feel guilty, man has been the one animal to be shameful of his nakedness. “Man would be the only one to have invented a garment to cover his sex” because he is the only species to be ashamed of his natural state, and it is purely because society has told him to be so (Derrida 5). Through “all the blood and the horror [that] lies behind all ‘good things” man was made reasonable, in control of his emotions, set apart from the animals, and in turn ashamed of being an “animal” once himself (Nietzsche 194). If it had not been for organized religion, man would have never been ashamed of his true self, but from the generations of societal conditioning, he will always be ashamed. This is the “sentiment of shame related to standing upright” (Derrida 36-37). True nudity without shame is never attainable for human beings because of the institutions of society. Even nudists have to put on clothes at some point, not because of their shame, but the shame that the other imposes. “Every show of modesty is linked to a reserve of shame, to a reserve that attests to a virtual guilt” and this is the guilt of original sin (Derrida 61). Adam and Eve felt the need to cover their sexual organs only after they had disobeyed God. They became aware of their nakedness, and therefore shameful and guilty of their sin. This was the beginning of an internal conflict that was destined to be a part of man’s nature for eternity. When people meet someone new, rarely are people willing to reveal their whole self to them and feel the need to wear a “social mask” because they are ashamed of their true selves. Man is constantly struggling “between the law of nature (reaction) and the law of freedom (response and responsibility);” struggling between his instincts and the place in society he has been forced into and his obedience to being “responsible” (Derrida 83).
The life of man begins violently and continues as he is conditioned to live up to societal standards. Childbirth itself is a violent act as the mother is in obvious pain pushing out another human being and the child is forced out of the womb “gives vent to an outburst of protestation…indicates that something is…frustrating him” because his parents have “accede[d] to culture” (Derrida 98). Without any choice of his own, the infant must also accede to the social contract being born to his parents. As citizens of the United States, man has no choice but to live by the law, and if he violates this agreement, he is punished for his forgetfulness. It is this law that provides us with security and protection, but at the same time has the power to take that security away. The law is essentially a threat to the society it is governing. There is no such thing as law without violence or the threat of violence to enforce it. It provides us freedom and security, but only if we agree to be obedient and act responsibly. It is our human “perverseness being veiled in the state of civil law by the constraint exercised by government” that allows us to function in society, and in turn tolerate and be hospitable to one another, even though we may not want to (Kant).
What I consider to be one of the most tragic acts of violence in history is what Nietzsche refers to as “the genesis of responsibility.” Through enduring the punishment and torture of the law and the Church so man will never forget to repress his animal instincts, and also “the social strait-jacket, man was, in fact, made calculable,” and forced to be responsible for his actions.(Nietzsche 190-191). He was violently molded to fit into society, no longer questioning authority because of the threat the law imposes. He feared being punished, and the shame that he would endure if he were to go against society. “We all know the history of fabulization and how it remains an anthropomorphic taming, a moralizing subjection, a domestication. Always a discourse of man, on man, indeed on the animality of man, but for and in man” (Derrida 37). In the same way we have objectified the animal, so have the law and the Church have made man a subject as well. If a person commits a crime and is convicted, all of their rights as human beings are stripped away, they are required to live in a cell, and essentially they are treated like an animal. This “process of humanization or of the appropriation of man by man, including its most highly developed ethical or religious forms. No ethical or sentimental nobility must be allowed to conceal from us that violence…however more worthy they be than what they oppose” (Derrida 101). This is a violence that will continue for the rest of humanity as long as we are a species governed by law, and law is not law unless it is enforced. Even though this is inevitable, it does not mean that man should continue to repress his right to question.
It is from this calculation of man that we must transcend and make the decisive decision to tear away from the man who does not question. Everyday is a struggle against the supposed beliefs of society, and it is necessary that we make this cut everyday. Through this transcending and struggle where the beauty of violence occurs and allows man to simply be. “Struggle as such not only allows for arising and standing forth; it alone also preserves beings in their constancy. Where struggle cease, beings indeed do not disappear, but world turns away” (Heidegger 65). Man must violate himself everyday and question the things that he and society believe to be true. It is the act of questioning that will unconceal the truth, and the more we question “ does this not make us every day more questionable but also more worth questioning, perhaps more worthy to be alive” (Nietzsche 249)? Man must constantly question, especially if such questioning will disprove what he knows to be true. For Heidegger and Nietzsche, the real nihilists were those with the strongest truths and who refused to question them. The more we question and discuss the notion of nothingness, the closer we are to the unconcealment of truth, even if we never attain it. It is without questioning that man becomes ignorant.
In a very literal sense, de-cision is also an incision, a cut that certain cultures make in to mark those who belong to them. It is a traumatic impression that makes the individual always remember and also “this act of distinguishing puts the human being, as one who knows, upon these paths and at their intersection, and thus into constant de-cision. With de-cision, history as such begins” (Heidegger 116). Circumcision in Judaism is to literally cut and figuratively name those belonging to their religion. It is what differentiates them from the other in knowing. Relate this to the violence of the Greek word techne, translated by Heidegger as “the violence-doing of the knowing” (Heidegger 176). Man must make the decision to question the world around him, and must continue to do so daily. To make a cut or be inscribed, either literally or figuratively, is to know. This knowing “means initially and constantly looking out beyond was, in each case, is directly present” and to separate from what seems (Heidegger 169). The act of circumcision and tribal cutting is intended to separate those cut from those who are not, those of the world of seeming. Any act of knowing is essentially an act of violence because in de-cison one must begin, even though there is no way of knowing if it is the right decision. This knowing is also “the violence-doing in its decisive basic trait; for to do violence is to need to use violence against the over-whelming: the knowing struggle to set Being, which was formerly closed off, into what appears as beings” (Heidegger 170-171). Being may never be unconcealed, but if a decision is never made, man will be even farther from it than before.
Before Heidegger proposed the “decisive decision,” Nietzsche’s asserted that man must have a “will to truth” in opposition to the skewed ethics of society. The man who learns to ask and keeps asking questions, “his belief in ethics of any kind will begin to be shaken” and violated in the most positive way possible (Nietzsche 154-155). Man forgot how to ask questions because knowledge and supposed truths have been laid before him with such force that it seemed he had no choice but to accept them. The most apparent example is the Church and the “truth” it is preaching to its congregation. This “truth” is really an exploitation of their faith and shame. The members of the Church merely take it “as a fact of experience, and put beyond question” because the priests tell them they are going to Hell if they do not do as they are told (Nietzsche 155). The morality of the Church has created generations of people unable to think for themselves and unable to ask questions. Nietzsche asks the question “what if morality should turn out to be the danger of dangers” and he is right in doing so (Nietzsche 155). Morality has become the end of questioning and finding out the concealed truth of the world by the individual. With the invention of religion, man no longer took it upon himself to find his truth, but just accepted what was presented to him. “It is by this dawning self-consciousness of the will to truth that ethics must perish” (Nietzsche 297).
God gave Adam, who was made in His likeness, the task of naming the animals, “in order to see” man have the authority over the beasts, those “destine [d]…to an experience of the power of man” (Derrida 16). In the text, Derrida puts much emphasis on the phrase “in order to see” as if God takes pleasure in seeing the exertion of authority over the animals. God gives Adam this task alone, and waits to see how man will “subject, tame, dominate, train, or domesticate the animals” (Derrida 16). Similarly, in the Roman Coliseum, the people of Rome wanted to see the power of a strong man over a weaker man. In Ancient Rome, a “good” man was “the man of strife, of discord, the warrior” (Nietzsche 164). He was a man who found pleasure in the suffering of others and exercising his authority over the weak. “That pleasure is induced by his being able to exercise his power freely upon one who is powerless…the pleasure of rape” (Nietzsche 196). Although this is a gruesome image, it is accurate. Even though the spectators at the Coliseum were not directly involved in this pleasure of rape, it was entertaining to watch the suffering of others. In our current society, we thrive on the misfortunes of others and exploit the personal lives celebrities when they engage in scandalous or self-destructive behavior. If we didn’t, there wouldn’t be tabloids, celebrity gossip magazines, or the E! Channel on television.
In The Animal That Therefore I Am, Derrida quotes Immanuel Kant in his explanation of human nature in relation to the nature of animals. Man and animals are similar in that they both engage in acts of war, but Kant points out that the war of humans elevates society as “each people seeks to strengthen itself through the subjugation of neighboring peoples, either from the desire to expand or the fear of being swallowed up by the other unless one beats him to it” (Derrida 97). Man lives in a state of constant competition; in the classroom, in the workforce, between nations, and even in trivial matters such as sports and entertainment. Everyone is striving to be better than the other. It is this threat of the other that propels us to better ourselves and therefore it propels history. “This disclosedness of beings is the violence that humanity has to surmount in order to be itself first of all – that is, to be historical in doing violence in the midst of beings” (Heidegger 167). Without the violence of man against the other, there would be no progress because there would not be the need for progress. Kant concludes “therefore civil or foreign war in our species, as great as an evil as it may be, is yet at the same time the incentive [Triebfeder: what excites the drive] to pass from the crude state of nature to the civil state” (Derrida 97). Without the threat of competition, how would man better himself?
It is a necessary evil but “war, however is the only sad recourse in the state of nature by which each state asserts its right to violence, and by which neither party can be adjudged unjust” because war is neither good or bad, but necessary for each state to make itself equal to the others (Kant). It is the perpetual threat of war that one poses and at the same time fears from the other that propels civilizations and their freedom. “As an individual, the human would, like the wild beast, also be ready to go to war against its neighbors in order to affirm its unconditional freedom” (Derrida 96). Take the Cold War for example. Although neither the United States nor Russia used any of their innovations in nuclear weapons violently, just by each state developing this technology the other was forced to do the same. It is the threat of violence that made each nation advance themselves. This “drive against drive, motive against motive…which functions…like a machine for stabilizing and regularizing the course of a society and a history” that led to the majority of man’s innovation (Derrida 98). Since “the state of peace of men living side by side is not the natural state; the natural state is war,” man has agreed to a social contract to abide by as well as between nations, which is a vow of security to each other (Kant). The United Nations is a governing body to promote the perpetual peace between nations, and even though current international relations are far tamer than they were 60 years ago, this union is far from the perpetual peace Kant advocates. For a social covenant to be effective, all nations must be equal, but would super powers like the United States or France ever consider themselves equal to third world nations? Never, and this is why the threat of war will continue to be eminent for as long as super powers exist and countries exert their right to violence to make themselves better than the other.
Between the violent cornerstones of our lives, birth and death, our animal instincts are violently repressed by society, and we struggle internally against this oppression as we come into being. I am not attempting to glorify violence, but it is necessary and makes us who we are. How we react and struggle against it when a violent act has been committed is what brings us into being. The international competition of our era and what deems a country as “powerful” is the development of nuclear weapons simply because any country that possesses them poses the threat of massively exterminating the human race. Each country is striving to pose the greatest threat to their neighbors. The greatest civilizations in history were barbaric and gruesome as they created and sustained their empire. Those beginnings were liberally sprinkled with blood, as are the beginnings of everything great on earth” (Nietzsche 197). The founding of America, a “civilized” culture enslaved Africans and slaughtered Native Americans in their escape from the oppression of the English Crown. For even the most civilized man, to be violent is a necessity of his nature. In the same way that Nietzsche provoked and violated the minds of his readers, I am sure some of the things I have said here have made you the reader, uncomfortable. It is this uncomfortable state that man must learn to exist in. Daily, he must make the uncomfortable and violent decision to cut otherwise he is living a life not worth living. It is time we accept the struggle of being and see the beauty in violence.
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