Nihilism stands at the door

What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism. This history can be related even now; for necessity itself is at work here. This future speaks even now in a hundred signs, this destiny announces itself everywhere; for this music of the future all ears are cocked even now. For some time now, our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe, with a tortured tension that is growing from decade to decade: restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach the end1

Since Copernicus man has been rolling from the center toward X….2

What does nihilism mean? That the highest values devaluate themselves. The aim is lacking; “why?” finds no answer.3

Why has the advent of nihilism become necessary? Because the values we have had hitherto thus draw their final consequence; because nihilism represents the ultimate logical conclusion of our great values and ideals; because we must experience nihilism before we can find out what value these “values” really had.4

Radical nihilism is the conviction of an absolute untenability of existence when it comes to the highest values (…) — the realization that we lack the least right to posit a beyond or an in-itself of things (…). This realization is a consequence of the cultivation of “truthfulness” — thus itself a consequence of the faith in morality.5

The Will to Power is a collection of Nietzsche’s notes published after his death (he lived from 1844 to 1900 but was incapacitated after 1889) in a series of different renditions.6 In it, as in a number of the books Nietzsche published in his lifetime, problems are posed concerning the logical, psychological, social, political and war and peace consequences of nihilism.

The potential significance of any work published after Nietzsche hangs on the question of whether or not it addresses the problems of nihilism specified by him

Now McLuhan was, of course, a Catholic convert. If his conversion and his work generally are to have significance for us today, 120 years after Nietzsche’s death and 40 years after McLuhan’s, it can only be because he, like Nietzsche, “lost his way (…) in every labyrinth of the future” and so “lived through the whole of nihilism, to the end, leaving it behind, outside himself”. It is such a past that has been passed through, and such a passed past alone, that could provide McLuhan with a methodical basis for his work — if that work is to command our attention today.7 The great question is whether he, too, was “a soothsayer (…) who looks back [to the threading of those labyrinths] when relating what will come” — whether in his work, too, “a countermovement [to nihilism] finds expression, regarding both principle and task; a movement that in some future will take the place of this perfect nihilism — but presupposes it, logically and psychologically, and certainly can come only after and out of it.”8

The first aphorism in The Will to Power is one of Nietzsche’s many drafts of an outline for a book he never came to write. He delineates this outline in 8 points:9

  1. Nihilism stands at the door: whence comes this uncanniest of all guests? Point of departure: it is an error to consider “social distress” or “physiological degeneration” or, worse, corruption, as the cause of nihilism. Ours is the most decent and compassionate age. Distress, whether of the soul, body, or intellect, cannot of itself give birth to nihilism (…). Such distress always permits a variety of interpretations. Rather: it is one particular interpretation [of reality], the Christian-moral one, in which nihilism is rooted.10 (…)
  2. The end of Christianity — at the hands of its own morality. (…)
  3. Skepticism regarding morality is what is decisive. The end of the moral interpretation of the world, which no longer has any sanction after it has tried to escape into some beyond, [all this] leads to nihilism. [Nihilism as both a rigorous philosophical conclusion (by some) and a social whirlwind (of all) is the finding that] “Everything lacks meaning”  the untenability of one interpretation of the world, upon which a tremendous amount of energy has been lavished, awakens the suspicion that all interpretations of the world are false.11 (…)
  4. [Hence any new beginning must be made] against “meaninglessness” on the one hand, [but also] against moral value judgments on the other. (…)
  5. The nihilistic consequences of contemporary natural science [must be demonstrated:] (…) [It must be shown how] the industry of its pursuit eventually leads to self-disintegration [and thence to] an antiscientific mentality [in society generally and even in science itself]. (…)
  6. The nihilistic consequences of the ways of thinking in politics and economics, where all “principles” are (…) histrionic: the [general] air of mediocrity, wretchedness, dishonesty, etc [all this, too, must be set out]. 
  7. (…) The position of art (…) in the modern world [must be shown as] absolutely lacking in originality. (…)
  8. [The key:] Art and the preparation of nihilism: romanticism.12

Many of Nietzsche’s points here are familiar in McLuhan’s work. For example, from his earliest essays onward he argued that the intellectual tenability and even the historical survival of Catholicism depended upon the depth investigation of the Church’s own roots — by the Church itself and its faithful. Such an investigation entailed a familiarity with contemporary art and science13 and, as McLuhan began to see somewhat later, also with the evolving technological environments in and through which the Church attempted to express its message. 

McLuhan’s conversion is therefore the crucial question at the bottom of all his work.14 After the insight of Nietzsche — and after all those McLuhan haphazardly lumped in Nietzsche’s company (Hegel, Marx, Darwin, Sorel, Proudhon, Freud, Bergson, Spengler, Joyce, Stein, Proust, Eliot, Pound, Picasso, Rodin, Benda, Einstein, Lewis and Jung)15 — how was conversion possible in an intellectually cogent manner? In an authentic manner? In a manner we can respect and learn from today? And — most importantly — what has such a possibility to do with our desperate need to extricate ourselves from the cul-de-sac in which we find ourselves in extremis even now?

As insistently described by Nietzsche, the great necessity was to enter and to thread “every labyrinth”. And, indeed, from start to finish, McLuhan never tired of pointing to the significance of Poe’s Maelstrom16, of the vortices of Pound and Lewis and of the ubiquitous labyrinths in modern art, especially in Joyce.17

Further, again like Nietzsche, McLuhan repeatedly insisted that values had no place in his analysis. If they appeared at all, they did so as explanandum, not explanans18 — as what had to be investigated, not as providing any sort of accepted basis from which investigation might be initiated.

Crucially, for both Nietzsche and McLuhan, the cul-de-sac in which the western tradition has eventuated is no merely logical or psychological event. It is above all a global social event in which commerce and government are even more caught up than are the arts. Analyses of the labyrinths exposed at the end of the western tradition are therefore consequential first of all for our communal, national and international lives, and especially for war and peace, as no analysis has ever been before.

We have no choice. We have either to surpass any previous age or to collapse into a new Babel. For our problems, like our means and opportunities, are of a scope beyond those of any previous age. (Symbolist Communication 1953)

Lastly, the very key to this social event which has come to dominate the world like a cloud of poisonous gas, was, for both Nietzsche and McLuhan — romanticism!19 Nietzsche ends his 8-part aphorism above with references to this fact (and therefore to his many discussions of it in his published work20). For his part, McLuhan saw in romanticism an “automatic closure or involuntary fixing of attitude”21, which necessarily disintegrated when that “fixing” was exposed and could not account for the privilege implicated in “fixing” whatever it had fixed!22 As a result, he fully agreed with Nietzsche “that we lack the least right to posit a beyond or an in-itself of things” since these could not be anything but Gutenberg galaxy “fixings” whose legitimacy passed away with it.

All the art and science of any consequence following romanticism could be seen as documenting this disintegration, as can the millions upon millions of deaths in the unending wars waged in its continuing wake. 

The great question, which cannot be repeated often enough, was whether a “counterblast” or “countermovement [to nihilism] finds [open!] expression, regarding both principle and task; a movement that in some future will take the place of this perfect nihilism — but presupposes it, logically and psychologically, and certainly can come only after and out of it.” Any other “movement”, one with a different presupposition, could not withstand the force of nihilism, could not be true,23 and could not win and hold our acceptance.

  1.  Preface #2. The Preface to The Will to Power has its own short series of numbered aphorisms. After the Preface, the aphorism number sequence starts again and is continued for the remainder of the book. Aphorisms from the Preface are therefore specifically noted as such.
  2. #1. Compare from The Genealogy of Morals III:25: “Since Copernicus, man seems to have got himself on an inclined plane — now he is slipping faster and faster away from the center into — what? into nothingness?”
  3. #2.
  4. Preface #4.
  5. #3. See note #10 below for a discussion of the overlap between Nietzsche’s “morality” and McLuhan’s ‘literality’.
  6. See Walter Kaufmann’s history of the different editions in the translation of Wille zur Macht by him and R.J. Hollingdale, xxvii-xxvix.
  7. In this consideration, McLuhan’s way might be said to be just that of Nietzsche. But of course he also de-viated from Nietzsche in crucial ways. The great question concerns those deviations. How did they arise? Where and when did they take place? By what right were they taken? How can they be specified relative to Nietzsche? And what is their potential role in helping us regain our bearings today?
  8. All of the citations in this paragraph come from Preface #3 and #4.
  9. The outline of Nietzsche’s outline given here necessarily reflects an interpretation of it at several levels. For one thing, there is the selection of it by the editors of Nietzsche’s notes as the first aphorism of the book. other outlines or other beginnings could have been selected. For another, there is an outline here of Nietzsche’s outline. What is given here should therefore carefully be compared to Nietzsche’s text  — in German if possible. “Against positivism, which halts at phenomena — ‘There are only facts’ — I would say: No, facts are precisely what there is not, only interpretations. We cannot establish any fact ‘in itself’: perhaps it is folly (even) to want to do such a thing. ‘Everything is subjective’, you say; but even this is interpretation” (The Will to Power #481).
  10. As noted by Nietzsche in this same aphorism: “This realization is a consequence of the cultivation of “truthfulness” — thus itself a consequence of the faith in morality.” It is crucial for a fitting reading of McLuhan to note that there is a significant overlap between Nietzsche’s “morality” and McLuhan’s ‘literality’. For both, these intellectual/technical forces have dominated civilization for two and a half millennia and have produced much good. But they have also terminated in a cul-de-sac from which humans must extricate themselves if we are to survive our own genius.
  11. The Gutenberg galaxy is just such a “one interpretation of the world, upon which a tremendous amount of energy has been lavished” — and which has now terminated in nihilism.
  12. These 8 points are from The Will to Power #1.
  13. McLuhan in 1944: “Lewis (…) assumes that people who have grown up since 1918 are perfectly acquainted not only with such writers as Hegel, Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, Sorel, Proudhon, Freud, Bergson and Spengler, but also with such artists as Joyce, Stein, Proust, Eliot, Pound, Picasso, Rodin and Benda. This is a heavy demand to make on anybody. But the time-lag in the Catholic reading public is such that although Catholics necessarily live in the world of Eliot, Stein and Einstein, their emotional organization is done for them by Kipling, Galsworthy, Shaw and Chesterton” (‘Lemuel in Lilliput’). McLuhan in 1946: “Increasingly, I feel that Catholics must master C.G. Jung. The little self-conscious (…) area in which we live today has nothing to do with the problems of our faith. Modern anthropology and psychology are more important for the Church than St. Thomas today.” (McLuhan to his former SLU Jesuit students, Walter Ong and Clement McNaspy, December 23, 1944, Letters 166.)
  14. McLuhan’s conversion took place in 1937. He often described the event as sudden, but in fact it was the culmination of a long process begun years before, probably in 1931, when he started to read Chesterton. Then at some point he came into contact with Fr Gerald Phelan and (through him?) with the writings of Jacques Maritain. At the same time, that is during his first Cambridge years, McLuhan was reading Hopkins and Eliot intently. And before all that he had, of course, been brought up in a church-going family for which religion was a serious business. His brother Maurice became a United Church minister. But McLuhan’s conversion was a long process also after it was professed, since he admittedly remained caught up in the Gutenberg galaxy for another decade or so afterwards. During this time, in line with the galaxy’s presupposition that truth is necessarily singular, he thought of the Church as uniquely true. What is so significant about McLuhan’s conversion is what happened next, around 1950: he continued to hold to it after he recognized the ‘reconfiguration’ of that galaxy under electric conditions. The ‘electric’ plurality of truth did not undermine faith and the Church, he found, but provided another foundation for it which was certainly less stable than the one the Gutenbergian Church purported to specify and to rest upon (although that one was strangely subject to ongoing debate). This other foundation was, in its own peculiar way, more tenable than any such literary “fixing”. (‘Tenable’ is derived from French ‘tenir’, Latin ‘tenere’: ‘to hold’. For McLuhan’s purposes, ‘tenability’ can be related to ‘tactility’ as the integrating middle between truths and between ways of being.) It would refuse any one-sided “fixing” on the subject or the object, the ideal or the real, etc, to focus instead on the dynamic relation of the two. Exactly on account of such a valorization of plurality, however, this new foundation was able also to value the Gutenberg galaxy and the Church’s deep roots in it rather than merely to disparage them. They now had to be seen as relative, yes, but as relatively good. And so as well with McLuhan’s own first conversion. For further discussion, see Autobiography – the experience of the second conversion.
  15. See the previous note.
  16. See McLuhan on Poe’s Maelstrom.
  17. See Vivisection.
  18. See Breakthrough insight at “the level of essence” and McLuhan’s new sciences: “only the authority of knowledge”.
  19. Compare Harold Innis, ‘The University In The Modern Crisis’ (1945), one of the essays included in Political Economy in the Modern State: “we are forced to conclude that its power (namely, the power of the Platonic tradition) succumbed in the face of the Industrial Revolution and machine industry and the rise of romanticism.” (PEMS, 79)
  20. For example: “Classical and romantic. The classically disposed spirits no less than those romantically inclined — as these two species always exist — carry a vision of the future: but the former out of a strength of their time; the latter, out of its weakness” (The Wanderer and His Shadow #217.)
  21. ‘The Humanities in the Electronic Age’ (1961) which is cited at length and further discussed in Taking Flight. In a 1979 Q&A session on Australian television McLuhan noted in this regard: “Jane Austen of all people (…) said that people go outside to be alone just to prove their inner resources, to prove that they don’t need people. We can make it alone. The Romantic movement was based upon this psychic development.”
  22. This theme is often treated in this blog in terms of Baron Münchhausen and his wondrous extrication of both himself and his horse by pulling on his own pigtail. He is a perfect illustration of the fixer fixing his right to fix. Etymologically, ‘fix’ is related to ‘dike’; it is to set a limit.
  23. Beyond nihilism, a new sense of ‘truth’ emerges, one that is essentially plural. It is such plurality of truth that allows (for example) conversion to Catholicism, without the need for it to be ‘the one singular truth’. The ideal or the demand for singularity in this sense is grounded in the Gutenberg galaxy and necessarily terminates with it. In a global village of different faiths and different social and political commitments, it is insight into the plurality of truth that first enables dialogue and peace between them. As McLuhan never tired of repeating, ‘the gap (at once enabling the plurality of truth and its coherence) is where the action is’.