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Bert Lamberir and Paul Smeyers - Nihilism.pdf

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BERT LAMBEIR and PAUL SMEYERS NIHILISM: BEYOND OPTIMISM AND PESSIMISM Threat or Blessing for Education at the Turn of the Century ABSTRACT. Is the youth culture, or more precisely a particular kind of it, to be charac- terized as “nihilistic”? And is this a threat or a blessing for education? To deal with this “nihilism” is first characterized generally and following particular attention is paid to Niet- zsche’s own version and revaluation of values. Then Foucault’s concept of “life as a work
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  BERT LAMBEIR and PAUL SMEYERS NIHILISM: BEYOND OPTIMISM AND PESSIMISM Threat or Blessing for Education at the Turn of the Century ABSTRACT. Is the youth culture, or more precisely a particular kind of it, to be charac-terized as “nihilistic”? And is this a threat or a blessing for education? To deal with this“nihilism” is first characterized generally and following particular attention is paid to Niet-zsche’s own version and revaluation of values. Then Foucault’s concept of “life as a work of art” is brought to the forefront as a particular manner to give shape to one’s life. It isargued that some of the more popular forms of pleasure nowadays may contrarily towhat isgenerally believed, be reminiscent of a revaluation thus to overcome nihilism. Implicationsfor education include for the educator to realize the unavoidability to offer herself as whoshe is, furthermore to be fully aware of the fact that many boundaries in the educationalprocess are arbitrary, and last but not least the acceptance of the need to create the roomfor the child to develop an image of herself which she can live with.KEY WORDS: Foucault, identity, Nihilism, Nietzsche, pleasure, values education KEEP ON ROCKING IN A FREE WORLDThe coachwork glows, the hubcaps glitter, the surround sound system haspassed the final test – in just a moment the weekend can start. For manyyouth this creates the peak of the week, an exquisite opportunity to makeone’s way, surrounded by companions and a fair amount of decibels. Allexcited they drive to the weekly oasis to take a dip in a cocktail of “drumm’n base,” alcohol, drugs, dancing and flirting. This mix is so much appre-ciated that they may want to drink it for twenty four or even for forty eighthours, perhaps even longer, and such with a steady routine weekend afterweekend. Quite a few will even literally shift some boundaries when theyskim off the country from one disco to another or when they have a break  just to party – Ibiza here we come!Have these youngsters found what they were looking for when theyreturn home after sunrise, not quite sober, or were they not really lookingfor something and is the hangover just physical? They will be there againnext Friday. Much more than a pilgrimage, on one’s way to a “greatertruth,” this nocturnal mobilization looks like a collective escape from adisappointing reality. Existence has only temporary things on offer whichare easy to get and can painlessly exchanged. Life presents a cheerless Studies in Philosophy and Education  22:  183–194, 2003.© 2003  Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.  184  BERT LAMBEIR AND PAUL SMEYERS prospect, almost worthless, now that it has lost its grip on certainty andpermanence, moreover as the power of institutions and the social controlthat goes with it have retired. The loss of ultimate values and norms has putits mark almost on every aspect of one’s existence: nor a job, neither a rela-tionship is for the rest of one’s natural life, it is just one of the alternatives– there is nothing more on offer, to hold on than one demands or permits;a succession of temporary, never really satisfactory stops. One practices“life shopping,” hoping that one will find what one is looking for on theshelves, in the knowledge that hoping in vain too is of this world.The motor starts, it’s time to leave and to deal with the frustration of thesearch, time to forget the meaninglessness of the past few days. They areexpelled by the compelling rhythms of the dance-music – to stop dancingis only an option when one is sure that what needs to be gone is gone, andeven then one may want to continue for another hour or so, accompaniedby some amphetamines. The intensity and this surrendering make goingout more than a game of seduction, more than just recreation. Is it a caseof defying physical limits, looking for peak experiences which lose everysignificance after some hours of sleep? Is it an escape as if the basses of the dancing can shout down the resignation, the disinterestedness? Is it adance around the fire of nihilism that now burns fiercely? A line of vodka tears insideA shot of boredom helps my mindStaring through a thousand dead eyesI guess my nerves are brutalised  . . . There’s nothing I want to seeThere’s nowhere I wanna goCondemned to rock ’n roll 1 NIHILISMIt is not until the late eighteenth century and thus with the emergenceof the Enlightenment, that the term “nihilism” appears on the philosoph-ical scene (Cf. Carr, 1992), partly as a result of the implicit tendency of transcendental idealism to dissolve the reality of the external world in thenothingness of consciousness, by focusing on the subjective conditions forthe possibility of knowledge. The literary realm too had its own version,a poetic nihilism which was attacked as the romantic fascination with theprivacy of individual consciousness. In these discussions the term used tosignify the loss or dissolution of an independently existing world external 1 James, R. & Wire, N. (1991). Condemned to rock ’n roll [Manic Street Preachers].On  Generation Terrorists  [CD]. Sony Music Entertainment.  NIHILISM: BEYOND OPTIMISM AND PESSIMISM  185to consciousness. In the second half of the nineteenth century nihilismtended to be linked to moral, religious, and political anarchism, usuallygrounded in loss of belief in God.Carr (1992) distinguishes four strands of nihilism. Epistemologicallyit is characterized by the denial of the possibility of knowledge with theresult that “All knowledge claims are equal or equally (un)justified” andno standards exist for distinguishing warranted from unwarranted belief, orknowledge from error. Alethiological nihilism denies the reality of truth, of an (independently existing) world. In ethical or moral nihilism the realityof these values is disclaimed. It is not denied that people use ethical ormoral terms, rather it is claimed that these refer to nothing more thanthe bias or taste of the agent making the assertion. Finally, existential oraxiological nihilism refers to the feeling of emptiness and pointlessnessthat follows from the judgment “Life has no meaning” – probably this isthe most commonplace sense of the word. In practice the various sensestend to overlap and intermingle. They are all related to the last kind, sincewe describe life as pointless, meaningless, or our existence as withoutvalue, precisely because we believe that there is no truth, that knowledgeis mere illusion, or that there is no moral fabric in the universe. It is worthpointing to the fact that nihilism which makes a negative assertation aboutthe nature of the world, is different as well from the related position of scepticism as from some forms of relativism.NIETZSCHEAN NIHILISM Indeed, we philosophers and “free spirits” feel, when we hear the news that the “old godis dead,” as if a new dawn shone upon us; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement,premonitions, expectation. At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if itshould not be bright; at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face anydanger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea,  our   sea, liesopen again; perhaps there has never yet been such an “open sea” (Nietzsche, 1887, # 343). The author par excellence to whom nihilism is ascribed is of courseFriedrich Nietzsche, who violently proclaimed that “God is dead,” whichhe calls in the above quoted section “the greatest recent event.” The nihilistdespairs because she longs to value something but in good faith cannot,for she believes that only values believed to be objective can in good faithbe professed (and she no longer believes in objective values). The partic-ular form of nihilism in which Nietzsche is interested should however beunderstood as the state one may be in when nothing truly matters to one.Overcoming this nihilism is not so much a matter of replacing old valueswith new ones, as it is coming to value something where previously one  186  BERT LAMBEIR AND PAUL SMEYERS valued nothing. Roughly what he means is, that we must take a certainsort of responsibility for what we say about the world and accept that wecannot lean on something else when values are concerned. Sense can nolonger be made of the idea that the ways in which we view the world are justified by something standing above, beyond or behind the world itself.Neither nature, nor reason, nor revelation can provide the moral standardsfor the governance of life. He holds that as there are no objective values, asall values are the creation of human beings, they typically serve the needsof their creators – understanding why they were created requires thereforean historical or psychological investigation of these needs. What is mostimportant for us is not in our power.Nietzsche teaches that we are free to adopt the perspective that pro-claims the value of creating subjective value. This creation should not beunderstood asakind ofsubjectivism, asifthe subject could create values  ex nihilo , could impose upon or project some into the world. What Nietzschemeans is that we have to take responsibility for having to take responsi-bility, rather than trying to deny the fact of such responsibility by means of a fantasy of access to the world’s nature that would be wholly independentof our “human, all too human” interests and aims. His interest lies in theloss of the world – more specifically how humans create, not  find   a world.Rather than claiming that we should take responsibility for the meaningwe impose on the world, Nietzsche seems to show us how we can resistthe meaning we find in the world but how we are inclined to hide in theherd. Thus he seeks to replace the Socratic notion of   responsibility , with anotion of   responsiveness  understood in terms of the notion of commitment,a form of passivity, an openness to what matters to us.Nietzsche’s antipathy toward what he calls moral values is aimed atthose ways of life that seek to deny life. Toaffirm life means to affirm one’smembership of a culture, but this is simply to make sense, to speak intelli-gibly; for him it is about affirming those passions, affects, and drives thatare condemned by conventional morality. One should be careful, however,not tostep outside the achievement of intelligibility; that is to say that one’sperspective on the things around one cannot be but from the perspective of the culture to which one belongs which is at the same time partly affirmed.Nietzsche’s revaluation of values is carried out from a naturalistic view-point. Living in accordance with nature is living a life that affirms whatnature is in us, without dressing it up through morality. It consists of instincts and inclinations, the body, sexuality and so forth. Consequently,customs, institutions and moralities are “natural” when they affirm theinstincts of what is nature in some group of human beings. At a deeperlevel living in accordance with nature prescribes an ideal of human perfect-
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