"hyphos is the tissue and the spider’s web"

Tag: Existentialism

Nietzsche’s Disavowalist Moment

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a spectacular event unfolded that would forever change history. God was murdered. This scandalous transgression was met with multiple reactions. For some, God’s role was transformed into the logical truths of rationalism. For others, suffering became an eternal condition that only compassion could alleviate for brief moments. A few even continued to cling to the hope that God was alive and well; they transmuted their hopeless hope into “faith.” Yet, the ultimate scandal, according to one German philologist, was that we had assassinated God.

The death of God, according to Friedrich Nietzsche, meant the complete loss of any absolute or universal meaning to life. Contemporary morality and science attempted to mend this void. While Nietzsche offers innovative critiques of moralists (e.g. Kant) and the scientific method, his most venomous rejoinders are directed toward pessimists such as Arthur Schopenhauer. According to Nietzsche, pessimism essentially throws in the towel when confronted with the void of a meaningless existence. It accepts suffering as the eternal condition of life. If the pessimist does not kill herself, she only continues to live for momentary, compassionate acts that unite humans in their shared suffering. Against the pessimist’s resignation and the scientist’s self-certain rationalism, Nietzsche promotes a “gay science” whose task is to tarry with the suffering of existence in order to discover increasingly powerful moments of joy.

In The Gay Science, details of this new science are interspersed with attacks on ancient and modern attempts to escape pessimism (e.g. art, Greek tragedy, Wagnerian opera, religion). The culmination of these guerilla-style interventions is the fourth and final chapter titled “St. Januarius.” (In the second edition, a preface and fifth chapter were added to the book.)  In this chapter Nietzsche turns away from criticism and focuses in on his positive philosophy. It opens with the inauguration of a new year and a new type of person: “I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse the accusers. Let looking away be my only negation! And, all in all and on the whole: some day I want only to be a Yes-sayer!” The Yes-sayer becomes the pinnacle of affirmation; she is the person who resists pessimistic resignation to suffering and creates the new values required for a joyful life. Read the rest of this entry »

The Death of Sisyphus (Part 2)

We had previously arrived at King Midas as the ultimate existential hero. Meaning is impossible to produce ex nihilo and by attempting this we only find ourselves lost in a meaningless world. Yet, is there a place to go after this? Is it true that—as we previously concluded—any existentialism necessarily ends in anxiety and despair? Indeed, it would appear that the conclusion was premature. King Midas does not exist in a vacuum, but is only part of a more complex continuum. Closely related, but on the opposite side, one finds Hermes. It is somewhere between the perilous Midatic-Hermetic chasm that we may find an answer to Camus’ fundamental question.

Unlike primitive aesthetic assessments (e.g. Apollonian-Dionysian), the Midatic-Hermetic is grafted onto a parabola. The inflection point signifies a tectonic shift from absolute meaninglessness to equivocal encryptions of meaning. At this point, which is, itself, always already an origin splitting apart from itself (attempting to generate what-it-is by becoming-what-it-is-not), one finds the precarious scaffolding for a theory of meaning. Scaffolding, to be sure, is of terminological importance. Whereas previous theories have failed at the very beginning by attempting to locate a foundation (arche), the aporias of meaning have suggested that any theory of meaning will be without foundation (an-arche). Thus, the indeterminacy of this inflection point cannot be under-determined.


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The Death of Sisyphus

Camus’ appropriation of the myth of Sisyphus is itself a myth. It determines certain conditions for meaning in an atmosphere in which the means of production are always-already at hand. The myth of the myth is that one is able to produce meaning merely by searching it out. The struggle of Sisyphus is the polar opposite of this profound un-struggle in which the event inherits its value. Derrida’s critique of the ends of man in Sartre is incredibly apt here since it is by murdering God that man himself takes on the position of God. Existentialism posits an alternative theology.

It is not “meaning” that man carves out of a meaningless existence, but an endless search for meaning that produces that very meaninglessness. The image of Sisyphus is entirely misleading in this regard. Despite an aversion to hero-worship and all manifestations of iconography, a more adequate myth can be found in King Midas. By desiring gold and only gold, everything becomes gold, thus destroying the very value that was sought after. In Midas’ desperate search for value, everything becomes valueless. It is here that one encounters the true nature of the boulder. It is not merely an obstacle for Sisyphus, an in-itself that represents a given meaning, but the very limits of the for-itself. This asymptotic border between the for-itself and in-itself leads to the only genuine existential position: despair and anxiety. The assumption of any transcendence beyond these categories leads back to the inconsistencies of theological existentialism.