Zwizschenzustand forever - rhetorics of complete nihilism as politics of undecidability Dear listeners!

At the beginning this presentation, I find myself at a loss. The topic of our panel, “Literature and/as the Politics of Undecidability” may seem to be, at first sight, quite concrete, but this illusion dissipates quickly when you start thinking about it. Leaving everyday institutions aside, we are faced with a need for a number of definitions and elaborations. What is literature? What is the political and what is its possible distinction from politics? How to tie the two together with the conjunction and or as? The title of my presentation also introduces the vague concepts of nihilism and rhetorics. It is probably not impossible to provide all the necessary conceptual specifications, but not within the space of a brief presentation. As bad would be to use the key concepts as defaults – the implicit definitions of the concepts would immediately predetermine the fate of this discussion. Today I will try to discuss not only undecidability as an object, but also in such a manner that the politics of undecidability that has been presented as a hypothesis for our panel would in fact be realized in my presentation. For this purpose I will nevertheless survey all the concepts I’ve mentioned and will attempt to weave a rather contingent web of thought out of them, at the risk of remaining superficial and of drowning in the labyrinth of specificities. SLAID2 SLAID3 1. Rhetorical opening – embracing nihilism. No thought is born ex nihilo. Today’s presentation draws on my previous research in which I have formulated the fuzzy network of ideas know as nihilist thought. The line of thinking that began with Nietzsche to comprehend contemporary Western civilization through the image of European nihilism seems to me (as to several other researchers, see Levin 1988, Rosen 1969, Vattimo 1994, Weller 2008) to this day to be an arbitrary way of thinking about the surrounding reality. Let us recall the fragment of an aphorism that my title refers to (fragment 9[35], year 1887): Nihilism represents a pathological transitional stage (what is pathological is the tremendous generalization, the inference that there is no meaning at all): whether the productive forces are not yet strong enough, or whether decadence still hesitates and has not yet invented its remedies. (Nietzsche 1968: 45). This passage from Nietzsche (as well as other similar ones) point to the necessity of completing the transitional stage and overcoming nihilism. To this day, many philosophers of culture debate the methods with which nihilism can be disposed, and in general the issue is whether one should put stakes on active overcoming or passive expectation. This last option was chosen by the most noteworthy developer of Nietzsche’s conception of nihilism, Martin Heidegger, according to whom the essence of nihilism resides in the forgetfulness of being and that the only prospect is to wait for the overcoming (Verwindung, see Heidegger 1978, 1999). Such an attitude is undecided; it abstains from an active assault against nihilism and many later thinkers who put their stakes on undecidability (e.g. Derrida) undoubtedly owe much to Heidegger.

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where on the one hand the eternal permanence of nihilist undecidability is announced. Vattimo argues that Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s conceptions of nihilism coincide (Vattimo 1994: 20): on the one hand. It places the value of thing precisely in the lack of any reality corresponding to these values and in their being merely a symptom of strength on the part of the value-positers. a tall tale that can only be effective due to a certain rhetorical persuasiveness – just like any other story. Badiou 1999: 53-59). one particular discourse is decisively imposed? Vattimo’s philosophy does not conclude with the acceptance of complete nihilism. Nevertheless. on the other. the forgetting of Being and transformation into values that circulate in the challengig-fort connections of contemporary technology as enframing (Ge-stell). What is the theoretical status of Vattimo’s conception of nihilism? Is this not just a philosophical feint. is merely nihilism – even the most extreme nihilism. a simplification for the sake of life. a sign of metaphysical nostalgia. And all these books are written rhetorically in a highly persuasive manner. 2004). Hermeneutic 2 . but on the other. including that of subject and object. that there is no absolute nature of things nor a “thing-in-itself”. and we should rather muster our courage to embrace complete nihilism. The rhetorical nature of truth. This. The discourse of complete nihilism is merely one narrative among others. the death of God and the absorption of all higher values into exchange value. for whom there has never been an age of nihilism (e. There are also thinkers. 1997). (Vattimo 1994: 164-181) Yet one must not claim that Vattimo’s description is the (one) objective description of the “state of things”. on the basis of which voluminous monographs have been written (Kuhn 1992). and has reflected repeatedly on the foundations of his thinking. the ontologically substantiated weak thinking develops into ever new ethico-political speeches against violence (Vattimo 1992. Vattimo claims that we live in a world that has lost its own essence and turned into a fable. (Nietzsche 1968: 45). In Nietzsche’s words: Presupposition of this hypothesis: that there is no truth. one cannot accuse Vattimo of naivety: he is well aware of the paradoxical nature of his thinking. I myself have been best convinced by Gianni Vattimo’s hermeneutic interpretation of nihilism (Vattimo 1994. To expect the overcoming of such a situation is. in which the information-technological merry-go-round makes all the previous metaphysical distinctions oscillate. Drawing on Nietzsche. since within his hermeneutic thinking truth has no other status than its rhetorical commitment within a particular discourse. for Vattimo. Nietzsche’s predictions. remain vague in this issue. but rather begins there in a sense. (Vattimo 1997: 13) The peculiarity of Vattimo’s story is the conscious acknowledgement of his own weakness. SLAID4 according to which we should read both Nietzsche and Heidegger in the manner that excludes the possibility of overcoming nihilism.But is this wait for the end of nihilism warranted? The heideggerian line of thought itself provides no guarantees. SLAID5 2. and there arises a need for interpreting the status of the various forms of nihilism.g. too.

g. the foremost political task of complete nihilism is to sow confusion. to propagate cognitive pluralism a la Feyerabend (such as by pitting an alternative against theory. etc. then at least a qualification of literature with respect to non-literature. the distinction between reality and fiction stands on feet of clay. Literature. this far the pursuit of clarity. True enough. From epistemology to literature. science. SLAID7 The pole of philosophy: giving up the pretension as if philosophy (or any other theory) could describe the world “as it really is”. In order to discuss the political function of literature. To be sure. such as when is it justified to ban literary works that impinge on the rights of actual individuals? A widespread contemporary practice is to present as literature those speech acts that aim to insult. we must accept what Vattimo calls aesthetic consciousness (Vattimo 1986) and cast doubt on the possibility of descriptions that correspond to reality (metaphysics. to undermine all hegemonic attempts at the field of fables. only interpretations“. When we proceed from the rhetorical definition of truth.). From the position of complete nihilism. philosophy. it generally acknowledged that literary draws its subject matter from reality and in its turn affects reality. literature creates possible worlds. I have nevertheless no basis to claim that nihilist thinking has achieved. fictive. In this manner. literary utterances differ from such speech acts that describe or attempt to change reality (e. For me. once and for all. which can. and chaosophy in the vein of Guattari. the status of a meta3 .reasoning is a rhetorical act that remembers its own external perspective and thus the contingency of its own validity. however. be always taken back (Derrida 2008). political statements). Thus Vattimo attempts to consciously abate the internal hegemonic pretensions of every discourse. the attempt to understand “how things fit together” has been widespread (pragmatism has put its stakes on this). institutionalised definition of literature goes something like this: literary signification is fictional. facts is precisely what there is not. The front line of debates about the political role of literature indeed mostly consists in settling the tensions between literature and reality. family resemblances with other theories of cultural philosophy. including by repeatedly outlining. The world is fabulated by intertwining different narratives (Nietzsche: “No. 2010b). anarchism against democracy. Elsewhere I have called the rhetorical programme of complete nihilist thought the fusion of philosophy and literature (Luks 2010a. scientific theories. parasciences against science. to proceed from this distinction does not mean a complete isolation between fiction and reality. Nietzsche 1968: 267). sociologists of science). Briefly. I will now sketch the different poles of this attempted fusion. SLAID6 3. Nelson Goodman and the post-Kuhnian philosophers of science (Feyerabend. the most general. we require if not a definition of literature. To be sure. religion are all merely different genres of this fabulation. On the basis of this distinction rests Derrida’s claim that today literature has the right to say anything. in order to avoid litigation. in his works. This disposition is neither new in philosophy nor particularly unique to Vattimo: similar thoughts have been expressed by Richard Rorty. scientific realism). A programme to which I subscribe with both hands.

the critical pathos of nihilist thinking undermines the persuasive force of everyday narratives. To be sure. it has been documented how the “Estonian nation” was constructed in the 19th century primarily through different literary works. universality. On the other hand. generates truth (understood as openness). for which reason it can be said that nihilist thought that puts its stakes on undecidability is thoroughly political. Politics refers to the customary practices of everyday political procedures. Fictional and virtual realities do not reside somehow outside “reality”: they are parts of reality. Referring to Oliver Marchart. essence and ground. getting absorbed in fictions has been treated as playing a conventional as-if game. that nihilist thinking can have no concrete programme. It is precisely because of the political. For the longest time. narratives create and reshape subjects themselves. In any case. Undoubtedly. understood in this manner.” (ibid: 190). the strategy of nihilist thinking must also change accordingly. that is. The political in nihilist thinking. for example. representations presented to subjects). a fight that started in Second Life has led to a murder in the First One). has discovered for himself the kinship between hermeneutic nihilism and early Christian thinking (Vattimo 1999) and in recent decades has focussed precisely on dispelling violent discourses – a limitation that I currently do not share. SLAID9 4. “a constant interrogation of metaphysical figures of foundation – such as totality. On the one hand. SLAID8 The pole of literature: getting rid of the notion that literary fiction resides all alone in a unique ontological sphere. Since literature uses language in a particularly non-mundane manner. My colleague Jüri Lipping. and the political to the ontological dimension of antagonism that constitutes society itself (ibid: 189). who will also give a presentation in this panel has emphasized in one of his recent papers the distinction. For example. Lipping places the political on the field of post-foundationalism. It should be 4 . currently much in vogue. This definition need not be generally valid nor lasting. between the concepts of politics and the political (Lipping 2010). Literary fabulation also creates worlds. This definition completely coincides with the rhetorical pathos of complete nihilism. for which reason we need a politics of undecidability that would blur this boundary. Thus Vattimo. nor a comprehensive list of required politics.discourse – the field of fables is open and there always remains the danger of being absorbed into other stories. their subjectivity. it in fact has greater rhetorical potential than dry scientific texts – here Heidegger is correct about the function of poetry as constituting the world (Heidegger 1977). technological development intensifies the suggestive force of fictions (already. the field of philosophy (and the field of scientific theories more broadly) and the field of literature (art) have so far been sharply differentiated institutionally. Since the configuration of discourses that lay claim to objective truth and its solitary power changes over time and in space. works of fiction are not limited to creating a world (that is. it is counter-thinking that has a large family resemblance to deconstruction.

Levinas. SLAID10 On the front line. but much like the Lacanian tradition thinks antagonism internally: in every subject. SLAID11 Some contingent tasks of nihilist thinking: 1. What is needed is to operate on the micro-level. precisely the kind of literature that. and I will put forth a couple of contingent tasks related to the fusion of literature and thinking. 3. text. It is important to understand that the debate does not take place on the abstract level of thought. against the closest repression (Foucault 2000: 330). Thus for example the position of science within a society does not at all depend on the debate about scientific truth between realists and instrumentalists in philosophy of science. To interpret. At the conclusion of this presentation. which functions as an effective network within a society and tends to displace other forms of cognition. I have a few words about the front lines of the politics of undecidability. under the cover of literary theory. The network-like functioning of power relations operating in today’s world was understood by Michel Foucault at the latest (although in fact Heidegger’s treatment of technics already includes an image of the arbitrary functioning of the modern world). 2. Thus it is important to understand that the counter-thinking that characterises nihilism will have no effect if it is enacted on the abstract level. is to cease to generate meaning and to let language decay (e.clarified that the rhetoric of complete nihilism is not confined to perpetuating antagonism between subjects or discourses. by its very existence. In order to convince the masses. Interpretations of undecidability in contemporary thinking have commonly been ethico-religious (e. To thematise negativity in language – the pursuit of pure poetry in literature. or thought there is a chaotic plurality. To undermine the hegemonic pretension of science by way of texts that formally appear to be scientific works – this both on the level of the message and the form (blurring the message. sound poetry). Agamben). fragmentarity). This task. for example to the sublime of terror. as assaults on the foundations of theory (the top of the so-called power pyramid). which I had no time to discuss in this presentation. casts doubt on widespread ideologies (democracy. nothing else is required from science than to facilitate the standard of living on the level of practice.g. does not need the halo of pure truth for anything else than self-promotion for the masses. 5 . but on the level of practices. and to relativize them).g. Science. and thereby to amplify the power of literature to utter anything. thus the field of interpretations must be opened further. ethics). always threatening to disrupt identity and clarity. Counter-thinking against the hegemony of theories in both writing and teaching (by demonstrating the philosophical premises of every theoretical position. 4.

// Wegmarken. //Hent Kalmo. Leo 2010a. Pp. 6 . The Transparent Society. no. Bd 67. David Michael 1988. Das Wesen des Nihilismus // Gesamtausgabe. Wachterhauser. Souvereignty beyond state. I Abt. Levin. Jacques 2008. Nihilism and the Postmodern Situation. Cambridge: Polity Press. Nietzsche. Luks. Cambridge etc: Cambridge University Press. Derrida. 129-141. Vattimo. Leo 2010b. Quentin Skinner (Ed). Rosen. Present and Future of a Contested Concept. 125-142. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter. 1-74. Lipping. Problemos. Albany: State University of New York Press. Power. Estonian University of Life Sciences References Badiou. The Past. Heidegger. Philosophy and Literature: Two Lines of Fusion. Martin 1999. Manifesto for philosophy: followed by two essays: “The (re)turn of philosophy itself” and “Definition of philosophy”. no. 77. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Leo Luks. Fusion of Philosophy and Literature in Nihilist Thought. Martin 1978. Luks. Zur Seinsfrage. New York: Vintage Books. pp. 78. Heidegger. Metaphysik und Nihilismus. Vattimo. The Gift of Death & Literature in Secret. pp. Heidegger. Fiedrich 1968. Friedrich Nietzsches Philosophie des europäischen Nihilismus. Der Ursprung des Kustwerkes. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 177-267. III Abt. Foucault. Brice (Ed) Hermeneutics and modern philosophy. Alain 1999. Elisabeth 1992. pp. pp. // Gesamtausgabe. Gianni. Kuhn. Problemos. New York: The New Press. // Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984. The Opening of Vision. Sovereignity in Fragments. Frankfurt/M: Klostermann. PP 186-204. Martin 1977. The Subject and Power. Albany: State University of New York Press. pp 379419. London and New York: Routledge. 446-459. The Will to Power. Holzwege. Nihilism: A Philosophical Essay. 326-348. Michel 2000. Jüri 2010. Gianni 1986. Stanley 1969. 1992. Hermeneutics and Nihilism: An Apology for Aesthetic Consciousness. // I. Bd 5. pp. R.

7 . Politics & Law. Nihilism. Shane 2008. New York: Columbia University Press. Gianni 1999. Stanford. Vattimo. The end of modernity : nihilism and hermeneutics in postmodern culture. Belief. Nihilism & Emancipation. Stanford: Stanford University Press. The Meaning of Hermeneutics for Philosophy. Gianni 2004. Gianni 1997. Literature. Vattimo. Philosophy. Palgrave. Beyond Interpretation.Vattimo. Vattimo. Gianni 1994. Weller. Cambridge: Polity Press. Ethics. California: Stanford University Press.

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