Nihilism & American Politics

What follows is a completely rewritten version of an essay previously posted on the Weblog.

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Although the American mind is closed to nihilism, perhaps in reaction against it, a pervasive concern about nihilism clearly exists, even if no common understanding of nihilism is at hand. A genuine or deep nihilism necessarily defies definition, as it ultimately challenges or places in crisis every category whatsoever; nonetheless a uniquely modern nihilism has again and again been called forth, as first most openly occurring in Nietzsche’s Madman’s proclamation of the death of God, who thereby unveils that we are now straying through an infinite nothing. Nietzsche’s notebook as published in The Will to Power remains our most profound investigation of nihilism, though there are of course many truly illuminating studies of nihilism, which most commonly occurs in our literary criticism, as an inevitable consequence of the nihilistic ground of a uniquely modern literature. Yet there is also a nihilistic ground of a uniquely modern society or of the late modern world itself, and this is commonly known as exploding in the First World War, when it is realized at the very center of Western consciousness and society — then civilization itself is in an ultimate or eschatological crisis, and the world turns upside down. An unquestionable consequence of this explosion is the advent of a uniquely modern totalitarianism, one giving birth to a truly nihilistic politics, as all political worlds are truly reversed; and not only does an ending here occur of a uniquely Western politics, and a uniquely Western individualism, but so, too, is ended or reversed all established ethical horizons, leading to openly nihilistic political worlds in Nazism and Stalinism.

One consequence of this totalitarianism is a truly new anonymity, one also reflected in late modern art and literature, an anonymity that is not only a facelessness but a voicelessness as well, as an artificial or empty humanity is embodied everywhere, and the world itself becomes a desert. True, there are those who know such a desert as making possible an absolutely new world, and even if demonic expressions of such a world did occur in Nazism, Stalinism, and Maoism, our apocalyptic prophets can know the advent of an absolutely glorious world; or, if not absolutely glorious, a nevertheless fully liberated world, and the most truly liberated world in history. While this is common political rhetoric today, this rhetoric is not unrelated to the new political rhetoric of modern totalitarianism: both promise a truly new liberation, and a liberation actually at hand in a new world. An inescapable question today is what is the relationship between a uniquely contemporary politics and its totalitarian predecessor? Has totalitarianism fully and finally ended, and ended without any consequences for us, thus having no effect at all upon our political institutions and life? Or is there a genuine continuity between totalitarianism and our political world, one manifest in that new anonymity which pervades each, an anonymity realizing a new anonymous or empty language, and an anonymity inseparable from a new and comprehensive technology?

Surely contemporary American political language is coincident with the language of a new media world, giving it an abstract anonymity which it did not previously have, and if this is now our primary mode of political communication, its emptiness is in some sense coincident with a totalitarian emptiness — although it is a seemingly positive rather than negative emptiness, effecting tranquility and calm, as witness the absence of fundamental conflict in contemporary American politics. One of the illusions of politics today is that it is adversarial, but genuine political conflict has truly and substantially declined throughout the world, and most obviously in the United States, where 95% of incumbents are reelected, and a new public opinion rules in which there is seemingly no fundamental division at all, as the public realm itself is transformed into a new anonymity with no trace of an interiority that once was present.

Perhaps this is the point at which there is the greatest continuity between totalitarianism and contemporary American politics. If so, this impels the question as to whether or not a new American politics is a nihilistic politics — not a violent one, as in totalitarianism, but rather a tranquil one, and one introducing a truly new political tranquility. But, how, then, could we understand such a politics as a nihilistic politics?

At this point we can turn to American literature, which is genuinely distinctive at this point, and is so in having evoked a nihilistic ground almost from its beginning. This is a nihilistic ground which is open for all to see in our great American epic, Moby Dick, whose deep center is that White Whale who is an awesome embodiment of a uniquely modern Nothing, and whose tragic hero is that Captain Ahab who is the personification of a uniquely American destiny, a destiny which is clearly a nihilistic destiny. So, too, a nihilistic destiny is enacted in the major plays of our greatest and most deeply American playwright, Eugene O’Neill, plays which are nihilistic even when they are autobiographical, as in Long Day’s Journey into Night, and the most nihilistic of which has had the deepest impact, The Iceman Cometh. While Strindberg did have a fundamental impact upon O’Neill, O’Neill is even more purely nihilistic than Strindberg, seemingly being capable of fully enacting only a nihilistic drama. If this is a distinctively American drama, it surely has an echo in contemporary American politics, and most clearly in an American international politics, where its destructive action in Iraq may well be a distinctively American political action, and perhaps most distinctively American in its self-destructive center or core, as previously enacted in the Vietnam war.

Genuine self-destructiveness is itself a form of nihilism, but our American nihilism, as symbolized by the White Whale, is a truly anonymous one, one in which we are commonly if not wholly unaware of our nihilism, unaware that the world has collapsed beneath us, and that we are standing upon thin air. This is just at the point at which our deeper literature is so terribly important for us, for it awakens us from our slumber, as T. S. Eliot did in his early poetry, poetry reflecting a uniquely American wasteland or desert, and a desert only occurring in a land flowing over with prosperity and success. That is the American paradox, that its emptiness occurs in the midst of over-abundance, and if America is more shorn of history or a deeper history than any other country, its freedom from the past is a fundamental ground of its anonymity, as perhaps most fully manifest in a uniquely American religion. Just as the first separation between church and state occurs in America, this releases a genuine religious vitality, but that occurs in the context of the birth of a secular state, and a secular language and society, too, so that an American religious vitality is inseparable from its horizon in a truly secular world, and for the first time religion realizes itself in a secular world. Historians of American religion are commonly blind to this because they are unaware of the uniqueness of American religion, unaware that a distinctively American religion comes into existence by way of the horizon of a truly secular world, an horizon that closes it to all actual or living religious traditions, forcing it to create its own traditions, and in such a way that it is inevitably unaware of this process itself.

Here lies a fundamental source of American innocence, an innocence integrally unaware of historical tradition itself, hence the passion in America for a family genealogy as a substitute for tradition, as so fully embodied in the most American of all religions, Mormonism, which openly and publicly created its own tradition. But the truth is that most American Protestants have created their own traditions, as is most clearly true of the Baptists, who while seemingly theologically orthodox know the Christ of glory alone, and have created a church that is wholly independent of all tradition save its own. Even American Catholics are freer of tradition than any other Catholics, and can proceed as though American Catholicism is Catholicism itself, just as Reform Judaism has triumphed in America as it has nowhere else, leading to a Judaism that is virtually free of historical Judaism, thus impelling the advent of an orthodox Judaism that is more orthodox than its counterparts elsewhere. While there has been real internal conflict in the history of American religion, this has seemingly vanished in the late twentieth century, as an open anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism has ended, and a truly new ecumenical religious sense has arisen which is open to or tolerant of even non-Western religions.

Of course, this tolerance has arisen in a world in which America has become openly an imperialist power, and the most powerful nation in the world, so that one is reminded of the religious tolerance of the Roman Empire, a tolerance inseparable from an absolute imperial power. But American tolerance unlike Roman tolerance is or was an innocent one, a tolerance ending in the event of 9/11, a truly new Pearl Harbor, and one launching a war on terror that is inevitably a religious war, even if not understood as such by Americans. World War II itself did not embody an anti-Fascism that is comparable to the anti-terrorism that engulfs America today, and nothing is so forbidden in America today as a questioning of terrorism, or a questioning of the war on terror, a war unlike every other war in history, and most unlike them in its very anonymity as war itself. Is there a single political or religious voice in America that truly challenges or questions this war? And is this not because it has become a holy war for us, and therefore a religious war, even if a genuinely anonymous war? But it can be illuminated by relating it to our anonymous religion, an anonymous religion that is truly a new creation, just as the war on terror is a new creation, and one releasing not only a vast fiscal expenditure, but a vast expansion of the power of the national government, and now a nation not only engaged in a crusade, but in a holy crusade; hence it is inevitably and necessarily an expression of American religion, but now a new religious imperialism, one wholly free of all historical religious imperialisms.

It is our very anonymity as a people which most prevents us from recognizing our condition, or recognizing whom we most deeply are as a people — expressed both in American politics and in American religion, and in an American politics which is an American religion, as perhaps most deeply expressed in Abraham Lincoln. No one could imagine the possibility of a Lincoln in our political world, nor could one imagine his possibility in our contemporary religious world, and if that is the emptiest or the most shallow religious world in our history, it, too, has been self-created, and ultimately created out of a contemporary nihilism that is at the very core of the contemporary American soul. Now if we can see that totalitarianism is truly nihilistic, why are we so closed to a contemporary American nihilism, one that can be dislodged or made manifest with only a little critical prodding? But are we not profoundly reluctant to engage in that? This is certainly not true of others, as witness the deep anti-Americanism throughout the world, and even though we seemingly have allies, we only have two in our holy war, and one of these is now withdrawing, leaving us only with Israel. Israel and the United States against the world? Is that not a potential disaster for Israel, and finally a disaster for the United States as well, and above all if America will not now open itself to its deepest disorder, one going far beyond ordinary politics, and, yes, one which truly is a religious disorder, as nihilism necessarily is.

Hence it is that American religion itself creates a new and unique religious anonymity, one unique to America, and one inseparable from the very newness of America.

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2 Responses to “Nihilism & American Politics”

  1. Brad Johnson Says:

    When Tom told me he was going to completely rewrite his essay, I was very doubtful he would be able to replicate its clarity. But I think he did more than that with this piece — he surpassed it. He would surely hate me saying this, but here Altizer has carried Tillich’s theology of culture beyond itself, betraying it (esp. Tillich’s valorization of America) while being faithful to what he had in mind with such an endeavor in the first place. This of course doesn’t mean that such an endeavor is necessarily worthwhile — but neither has the possibility that it is ever been removed from the table.

    There’s a lot to chew on in this essay, much more than is usually suitable for a traditional blog format. So, in a sense, this is kind of a throw-away comment. But it deserved at least some feedback.

  2. Andrew Says:

    Nihilism has nothing to do with Naziism, Maosim, or Stalinism, all of which are also unrelated to eachother. Nazis and Communists were hardly nihilistic, they were in fact firmly devoted to their beleifs and had faith in the purity of their cause. Nihilism is the beleif in nothing. Nihilists could technically be nazis or communists but I wonder how sincere they would be. This is a mindless rant.


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