Nihilism is the Basic Credo of Cool84Nihilism and RevolutionConsuming not only our psyche, but the planet itself. Nihilism is the basic credo of cool.

Nihilism is a declaration of meaninglessness, a sense of indifference, directionlessness or, at its worst, despair that can flood into all areas of life. For some this is the defining experience of youth – witness the deaths of numerous young romantics, whether Keats, Shelley, Sid Vicious or Kurt Cobain; and their numbers continue to multiply – for others it lasts a whole lifetime.

Simon Critchley


“Nihilist” was originally a term of abuse. Dictionaries from the early 19th century, when the word first came into use, define a nihilist as “one who is politically impartial” and “good-for-nothing,” while Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s dictionary of neologisms, published in 1801, states: “Nihilist or nothingist (riennist): one who doesn’t believe in anything.”

“Nihilist” became a catchall term for young, disillusioned intellectuals whose thoughts and actions were generally regarded as worthless. Their impact on the world around them was, in effect, nothing.

Over time, as nihilist sentiment began to develop and expand, people came to accept nihilism as a real and unavoidable phenomenon. The contempt with which it was once treated gradually gave way to an earnest recognition as people began to realize they were not dealing with nothing, but the far more troubling concept of nothingness. No longer attempting to ignore or combat it, people sought to conquer and transcend nihilism. The movement became not against but beyond nihilism, and the impetus began with Nietzsche.


Commonly misidentified as a nihilist himself, Nietzsche was the first to treat the subject as a serious philosophical matter. He recognized the fires of nihilism burning across swaths of Europe as the result of collapsing traditional morals and values. God – long regarded the source of absolutes – was dead, concluded Nietzsche. Dead in the sense that traditional religion no longer held sway over modern culture. In the absence of absolute values, a vacuum had been created and, for a time, it would seem that nothing existed … nothing was real.

For Nietzsche, though, this nothingness was temporary – a momentary void out of which history was meant to give birth to something entirely new. He saw the collapse of absolute values as the opportunity to reexamine our fundamental truths, to retool our systems to better fit our world.

Around the same time, Russians were embracing the term “nihilist” differently than their European counterparts. The word began to shed its pejorative overtones in the 1860s, following the publication of Tugenev’s Fathers and Sons. Bazarov, the novel’s hero, was long seen as the prototype of “the nihilist.” Turgenev’s definition, voiced through his protagonist, has become a classic: “A nihilist is someone who bows to no authority, who accepts no principle at face value, no matter in how much respect that principle may be held.” The definition is offered proudly. “Nihilist” is not a term of abuse for Bazarov, but one of honor: “Few,” he says, are chosen for the “bitter, hard life.” When an opponent asks him, “You deny everything?” He replies emphatically, “Everything.” “And that is called nihilism?” “And that is called nihilism.”

Adapted from Nihilism and Culture by Johan Goudsblom



The unprecedented slaughter of more than 15 million soldiers during the First World War ushered in a nihlistic moment in Western society. It also provoked the anti-art movement known as Dada, whose members believed that modernization and mechanization had made the war’s high death toll possible. Their response was to create an anti-rational, anti-bourgeois, anti-technological form of art, one that embraced absurdity, intuition, paradox and play. Dadaists produced actions, performances, nonsense texts and installations composed of found objects, which all challenged accepted notions of art. All expressed a nihilistic philosophy.

Marcel Duchamp was the most influential of the Dadaists. A groundbreaker in kinetic, found and conceptual art, Duchamp made his last painting on canvas, Tu m’, in 1918. In 1923, he finished what looked like his last mixed-media art work, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. Exemplifying the nihilistic hopelessness of art production, he gave himself over to chess, becoming a chess grand master, a chess journalist and a composer of endgame problems and strategies. “Chess,” he said, “is much purer than art.”

The horrors of the Second World War, especially the Jewish Holocaust and the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, prompted another existential crisis among artists. It seemed impossible that “civilized” society was capable of committing the vast atrocities that were revealed when the Nazi death camps were opened at the end of the war. It was equally incomprehensible that humankind could possess a technology capable of destroying all life on earth. In the postwar years, artists often expressed horrified anxiety at the prospect of nuclear Armageddon.

As happened after WWI, artists rejected the mechanistic, the rational and the geometric, although it would take a while before neo-Dadaist absurdity and anti-art strategies reasserted themselves. Abstract expressionist painters adopted a form of mark making that was intuitive, impulsive and organic. Designers embraced organic or biomorphic forms, aligning themselves with the natural world rather than with the more problematic realm of the machine. Photographers published images of atomic explosions, and the mushroom cloud became the signature motif of the age.





Recognized as Marcel Duchamp’s creative heir, Andy Warhol revealed the moral and intellectual void at the heart of American culture. His art’s repetitive imagery reflected the spirit-numbing effects of advertising and consumerism, as well as the image bombardment of mass media. He used the same repetitive and uninflected techniques to depict Campbell’s soup cans, electric chairs, movie stars, race riots, dollar signs and the face of Chairman Mao, demonstrating that everything can be reproduced and commodified. At the same time he cultivated a null media persona – emptied of any moral or emotional tone.

Warhol’s nihilistic register of overconsumption, mass marketing, image bombardment, greed and celebrity worship set the tone for the postmodern art of our age. Although some contemporary artists condemn the conditions that have brought us to the brink of another apocalypse – global environmental collapse – others, like Warhol, adopt their glossy, glitzy, consumerist strategies.

Robin Laurence

Bodies of Tutsi victims lie outside a church in Rukara, Rwanda.

After the holocaust, when approximately six million Jews were systemically exterminated, the United Nations pledged that horror of that magnitude would never happen again. But since WWII, genocide has been a terrifying reality in places like Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda. Here, bodies of Tutsi victims lie outside a church in Rukara, Rwanda. Hutu militias killed 4,000 people seeking refuge here in May of 1994 – it was one of the most violent acts of the Rwandan Genocide.

Photo by Paula Bronstein/Liaison

La Chureca in Managua, Nicaragua is the  largest garbage dump in Central America.

La Chureca in Managua, Nicaragua is the largest garbage dump in Central America.


Until now nihilism has been a theory, an abstraction ... the dark muse of poetry, philosophy and art. But now we are confronted with a nihilistic moment that neither Turgenev nor Nietzsche could have prophesied: a global meltdown wrought by wars – on terror, on planet, on self. We are confronted with the moment when this experiment of ours on Planet Earth meets its spectacular and terrifying end, when civilization reaches its summit and begins to tumble into permanent decline. This new breed of nihilism – call it eco-nihilism, psycho-nihilism, apocalypto-nihilism – falls far beyond the bounds of the deeply personal loss of meaning Nietzsche warned of. This new kind of nihilism degrades our very cosmic fiber, consuming not only our psyche, but the planet itself. And for this new, collective brand of nihilism, no philosophy has ever been written, no remedy ever prescribed.

Is it too late now to write the philosophy and find the remedy?



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Nothing is the only truth. The universe came from nothing, all matter is essentially nothing (depending on what quantum physicist you believe) and eventually the universe will annihilate itself. Existence is nothingness feeding back upon itself.

That was the point exactly, Warhol was showing the consumerism of the art world which had reduced art to commodities, to show that the same processes of marketing, distributing and selling products like soup had been applied to art. He used the language of the system to question it and to expose it. His overwhelming success is proof of his own thesis. If you look at his work and only see a soup can then you need to look again.

Ah, bemoaning the blurring of values and language and cultural futility that sooo many copy-cats line up and pay to align themselves with.
How to stop this "leveling" of the proverbial playing field??
I hate to say it... but this arguement is "age-old", and, when simply pointed at ("Oh, look! Nothing!") *yawn* hardly can be understood as a rallying cry for any explosion of consciousness we crave in this sorely vapid civilization into which we've collectively evolved. (Some of us kicking and screaming on the fringes, nonetheless.)

What might happen when one ceases to be who one is TOLD, or expected to be, and begins to become who ONE IS?

So many seem simply to be "who one becomes" as a result of (a victim) of your environment, tossed about by the surf of a vapid, obnoxious, greedy "culture"... We don't have to look far to see an army of representatives of the very mire they've been wallowing in.

So much is offered up for sale... in the name of an "alternative". Alternative to what? You, by virtue of your UNoriginality have become the mainstream. You are shamefully defeated as any alternative to anything. How do I get away from this "alternative" now that it's EVERYWHERE?? ACK!
Life imitates art and art is so commodified that it is now just a front, a virtual substitute for REALLY being more than you are taught to believe you are EVER going to be able to be. Individuality comes prepackaged in three sizes?
Tear off all the labels! Represent something besides abercrombie and fitch. Stop trying to look like everyone else, think like everyone else... We MUST stop providing free advertisement on our very person...
Destroy your OWN paradigm to the extent that it is the OTHER's paradigm. Celebrate a destruction WITHIN YOU of all we foolishly cling to as familiar and safe! It was always a lie if it wasn't you alone taking the risk for no one but you, with no thought for any material gains, or recognition. Stop this screaming out for recognition!! It will lead you to NOTHINGNESS of the "other"... You are invisible, blending in, replicated and... quite dull. Stop looking around for examples, and ideas for "trying to be", and suddenly, YOU just ARE!!
Relish a movement into uncharted territory that is most appreciated upon leaving the pseudo-culture of "somethingness". We are blind. We are lost. We are nothing. Everything is lost. Everything is nothing... It's hysterical. It's laughable. And it's ALL our own!! It's where one finds "self" and that's all ya get! That is IT.
Stop thinking objectively, and stop inhabiting a dependency model on some kind of "map", or example!!!
Nothing objective matters.
Everything subjective TO YOU matters... and only to you. I have my own reality and it is enough... it is authentic.

Contribute what YOU value... live life YOUR way... but do it with integrity and honor, i.e., without harming or controlling others... Be impeccable with your word.
it's f***in LONELY, and HARSH... not an easy road to travel. (ubermensch)

OR, if that sounds too lonely... contribute to others, GIVE your time, your works away, and do not seek reward!! ( (Mother Theresa? Ghandi?? Maybe, but I'll argue LOUDLY that this is Christ's "WAY"... I will live a long time and NEVER meet anyone who could do anything but TALK about it!!) This is not an easy road to travel if you're truly selfless and not in just a front to try to sell something, or to gain control over others...! (Which is why Nietzche expressed such disdain for this, the "slave morality", it's usually dishonest or self serving... and DEVIOUSLY so... unlike the Ubermensch who loudly proclaims "I AM for ME and it is GOOD!!"
The key for either morality is valiant efforts and hyper-vigilance to never bring harm to others.

These are the means Nietzche advised in which life can hold a satisfactory level of meaning.

If someone reading this wants to overcome existentialist dread, it's important not to become frightened by the realization that nothing around you will change, just because you wish it, least of all an entire society with which we are disillusioned! (and yes, today's society is really starting to SUCK)
It will start with you, and it will likely be without any fanfare!

Read "The Four Agreements" by Don Miguel Ruiz. To overcome despair, your contribution must be genuine and honorable! You cannot tell lies, you cannot abuse others, you cannot abuse yourself, you cannot fathom all that life IS and still look around and treat your time here as some boring, dreadful, meaningless haunt...

Most of First World society has become homogenized, commodified and meaningless buying, selling, or advertising something! Everywhere one looks, people are buying into the same prepackaged patterns, and later wondering why their life seems meaningless, and they're unhappy with SO MUCH that they can't imagine not being automatons chained to it all. And then some smarty pants wakes up to it feeling jaded and writes an article like this.

Why the reference to the "Jewish" Holocaust? What about all the non-Jews that died in the same circumstances? Why are these people being airbrushed out of history?

You cannot create something from nothing. Thoughts, emotions, values, and all material existence must originate somewhere. They come from the higher power of GOD. One can argue that these are just social constructs, or products of evolution, but that ignores the central part of the argument; where did these parts come from--to begin with?
I read about nihilism and I see an experiment. There is nothing instrinically wrong with experiementation. Sure, let's break all the rules, let's follow our own impulses, let's act as if we are the masters and creation is ours to own and manipulate. Let's believe in everything and nothing at the same time. The problem is the result. What does this do to our relationships with each other? How does it affect our quality of life? The answer is it hurts both. Why? Because whether you agree with it or not, there are rules for the correct functioning of the human organism. They are universally recognized by everyone. Lying, betrayal, envy--no one needs an explaination to understand how these actions violate the system and hurt relationships. But why embrace them? Why let them throw us into despair? No, the answer is to look to the creative source for forgiveness and reconcilation. And God offers that through his Son, Jesus.

After reading each of these it is utterly obvious we must burn the colleges and cage all the professors is camps. Wipe the left wing clear because post-Marxism has taken theory into a land of babbling nonsense. Or, there is the other option - Someday someone might actually read up on a subject such a nihilism before offering a half-educated opinion of strung together soundbytes and quotes without context.

Good article that has its finger on something important.
Certainly looking at the title and then taking Warhol it again suggests the vacuousness of that which is these days referred to as cool. Perhaps cool was once a method of removing yourself from the machine of modern life if only for a moment, the same way that paradoxically technology, human advancement and civilisation were methods of removing ourselves from the horrors and hardships of nature. But i think civilisation in its pure form means socialism, and capitalism ultimately returns us to the hardships of nature by setting people at each others throats, this hasnt played out yet but nihilism is ultimately cynicism and the universal cynicism behind the philosophies of Rand and Friedman lead only to a downward spiral of self loathing and isolation.

I thought there was going to be something substantive about the contemporary definition of cool and how it relates to nihilism. The title was interesting, but I think it was misleading. The article was ok, but I don't think it addressed "cool" very well. I think it was kind of a glossed-over version of nihilism too.


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