Pit Schultz on Fri, 12 Jul 96 17:10 MDT

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nettime: Nihilism in the Flesh - Critical Art Ensemble

>Date: Tue, 9 Jul 1996 20:09:33 -0500
>From: dburr@mailer.fsu.edu (Critical Art Ensemble)

Nihilism in the Flesh

Critical Art Ensemble

While much of the current cultural discussion regarding technoculture focuses
on issues emerging from new communications technology, there is an
exponentially growing interest in and discussion of flesh technology. Like the
discussion on new communications technologies, this discourse vacillates
wildly from the intensely critical and skeptical to the accepting and utopian.
However, the most significant intersection between the two discourses is their
parallel critique of vision enhancement. Whether it is the development of
global satellite vision or the development of micro interior vision, imaging
systems are key to both apocalyptic or utopian tendencies. For example,
sonography can be used to map an ocean floor, or it can be used to map uterine
space. In both cases, such imaging systems function as a first step toward the
ability to culturally engineer and ideologically design those spaces. As these
two spheres of technology continue to intermingle, a recombinant theory of the
relationship of populations and bodies to technology has begun to emerge that
conflates theories of the social and the natural. The existence of such
theories under the legitimizing mantle of the authority of science is not new,
and in fact the theories have fallen in and out of favor since the 19th
century. They continually re-emerge in different guises, such as Social
Darwinism (Malthusian and Spencerian philosophy), eugenics, and socio-biology.
In each case the results of such thinking have been socially catastrophic,
setting loose the unrestrained deployment of authoritarian ideology and
nihilistic social policy.
        Apparently theories of deep social evolution have come into favor
again, and are rising from the grave to haunt unsuspecting populations.
Socially dangerous principles of cultural development, such as fitness,
natural selection, and adaptability are again in fashion.  Consider the
following quote from the announcement for the 1996 Ars Electronica Symposium
and Exhibition:

<Human evolution, characterized by our ability to process information, is
fundamentally entwined with technological development. Complex tools and
technologies are an integral part of our evolutionary "fitness." Genes that
are not able to cope with this reality will not survive the next millennium>.

This quote contains some of the most frightening authoritarian language since
the Final Solution, and presents the threat of "adapt or die" as a value-free
social given. To what is the reader expected to adapt? To the technology
developed under the regime of pancapitalism for the purpose of better
implementing its imperatives of production, consumption, and control. There is
nothing evolutionary (in the biological sense) about the pancapitalist
situation. It was engineered and designed by rational agencies. "Fitness" is a
designated status that is relative to the ideological environment, not the
natural environment. History repeats itself, as those resistant to
authoritarian order must once again separate the cultural and the natural, and
expose the horrific nihilistic tendency that arises when the two are confused.


Nihilism can have either positive or negative political associations. For
example, some liberationists view nihilism as a revolutionary strategy capable
of dissolving boundaries which retard the full exploration of human
experience, while those interested in maintaining the status quo view it as a
method of social disruption which manifests itself in destruction and chaos.
Certainly the original description of nihilism, in Turgenev's novel Fathers
and Sons, presented it as a revolutionary method designed to promote
Enlightenment political principles. The engine of nihilism in this case was
reason, and its application manifested itself in an overly deterministic and
domineering model of Western science. Turgenev contrasts the nihilist position
with Christian models of faith and a monarchist social order. While many who
situate themselves on the left can sympathize with the nihilist's will to free
h/erself from the constraints of the traditional model of church and state,
there is also an uneasy feeling about this variety of nihilism, as a danger
exists of replacing one tyrant with another. One cannot help but question if
replacing faith and understanding with reason and knowledge could lead to an
equivalent state of oppression. Nietzsche makes this point very elegantly in
his assertions that movement toward purity and uncritical acceptance (in this
case, of reason)  always leads to hegemony and domination.
        The case of Nietzsche in regard to nihilism is peculiar. While the
Nietzschean notion of philosophy with a hammer seems to fit well with the
nihilistic process, Nietzsche actually inverts the argument. From his
perspective, the ability of humans to challenge dominant institutions is an
affirming quality. It affirms life and the world. While the process has
elements of conflict and destruction, acts of skepticism, disavowal, and
resistance are intentionally directed toward the possibility of freedom, and
thereby redeem people from the horrid fate of willing nothingness, rather than
not willing at all. From this perspective, the primary example of the
pathologically nihilistic will made manifest is the institution of the church
in particular and religion in general. Religions encourage the subject to
bring about h/er own disappearance and thereby, to eliminate the world which
envelops h/er. One abhors presence, and seeks absence.  The problem for
Nietzsche is that he cannot accept the principles of absence (the soul, God,
the heavenly kingdom) that are dictated to society under the authority of
church rule, and perpetuated by an unquestioning faith. Nietzsche demands that
life rest in experience and in presence. To negate the given is an
unacceptable nihilistic position that undermines humanity itself.
        On the other hand, if theological principles are accepted, one can
easily see how the positions of secularists appear nihilistic. To sacrifice
one's soul to the immediacy of experience is eternally destructive. The
immediacy of the sensual world should be understood as a site of temptation
that negates the joy of eternity. Those who focus their daily activities on
the sensual world are doomed to the torture of privation in this life, and to
damnation in the next life. To choose an object other than God is to be
continuously left unfulfilled, and during this time the soul decays from
neglect. In terms of Eastern theology, the situation of subject-object is
mediated by the hell of desire, which can only be pacified when the subject is
erased, and thereby returned to the unitary void. In both the Western and the
Eastern varieties of religious life, the subject can only find peace by
affirming God (as opposed to affirming the world).
        The truly interesting and relevant point here in regard to
evolutionary social theory is that the 19th century conflict over the nature
of nihilism has a common thread. No matter what side of the debate one favors,
the discourse centers around institutional criticism. Nietzsche attacks the
church and its doctrines, while the church attacks secular institutions such
as science. People are not the object of nihilism, no matter how it is
defined. However, when nihilism is combined with notions of social evolution,
the object of nihilism (whether valued as good or bad) is people! It speaks of
the fitness of some, and the elimination of others. It is not a racial
construction that the authoritarians of social evolution seek to eliminate,
but people of a race; it is not a class that they seek to eliminate, but
people of a class; it is not an anachronistic skill that they seek to
eliminate, but people who have this skill.

Evolution is a theory, not a fact

To be sure, evolutionary theory has become such a key principle in organizing
biological information that some toxic spillage into other disciplines is
almost inevitable. It commands such great authority that its spectacle is
often confused for fact. At present, evolutionary theory is primarily
speculative; no valid and reliable empirical method has been developed to
overcome the temporal darkness that this conjecture is supposed to illuminate.
Consequently, evolutionary theory circles around in its own self-fulfilling
principles. It is in an epistemological crisis, in spite of authoritative
claims to the contrary.
        The tautological reasoning of evolutionary theory proceeds as follows:
Those species with the greatest ability to adapt to a changing environment are
naturally selected for survival. Those that are selected not only survive, but
often expand their genetic and environmental domains. So how is it known that
a species has a capacity for adaptation? Because it was naturally selected.
How is it known that it was selected? Because it survived. Why did it survive?
Because it was able to adapt to its environment. In spite of this logical flaw
of rotating first principles, evolutionary theory brings a narrative to the
discipline that makes biological dynamics intelligible. While the theory can
in no way approach the realm of certainty, it does have tremendous
common-sense value. If for no other reason, evolutionary theory is dominant
because no one has been able to produce a secular counternarrative that has
such organizational possibilities.
        Evolution is an intriguing notion for other reasons too. The idea that
natural selection is a blind process is certainly a turning point in Western
thinking. There is no teleology, not even the guiding "invisible hand."
Instead, evolution gropes through time, producing both successful and
unsuccessful species. Its varied manifestations display no order, only
accident. This notion is an incredible challenge to the Western desire for
rational order. At best, God is playing dice with the universe. The very
anarchistic strength of this notion is also its scientific downfall. How can
the accidental be measured in causal terms? For example, the engine of
physical adaptability is mutation. If mutation is the accidental, uncommon,
unexpected, and anomalous, how can it be quantified, when the knowledge
systems of science are based on the value of expectation and typicality?
        Can we say with any degree of assurance that social development is
analogous to this model of biological development? It seems extremely unlikely
that culture and nature proceed in a similar fashion. Cultural dynamics appear
to be neither blind nor accidental. While the occurrence of chaotic moments in
social development cannot be denied, unlike with biological evolution, they do
not render the same totalizing picture. Cultural evolution, if there is such a
thing, seems for the most part to be orderly and intentional. It is structured
by the distribution of power, which can be deployed in either a negating or
affirming manner.

Culture and Causality

The ever-changing and transforming manifestations of power over time are the
foundation of what may be considered history. Power manifests itself in
countless forms, both as material artifacts and ideational representation,
including architecture, art, language, laws, norms, population networks, and
so on, which is to say as culture itself. When considering either culture or
history, it seems reasonable to contend that evolution (in its biological
sense) plays little if any role in the configuration of social structure or
dynamics. For example, the history of industrial capitalism spans only a brief
200 years. In the evolutionary timetable, this span of time scarcely
registers. The biological systems of humans have not significantly changed
during this period, nor for the last 10,000 years, and hence it would be
foolish to think that evolution played any kind of causal role in the
development of capitalism. In fact, humankind's seeming evolutionary
specialization (a mammal that specializes in intelligence) places it in a
post-evolutionary position. With the ability for advanced communication using
language capable of forming abstract ideas, in conjunction with the ability to
affect and even control elements of the body and the environment, humans have
at least temporarily inverted significant portions of the evolutionary
dynamic. In an astounding number of cases, the body and the environment do not
control the destiny of "humanity;" rather, "humanity" controls the destiny of
the body and its environment. Unlike the evolutionary process, social
development is overwhelmingly a rationalized and engineered process.
        If the proposition that social development is a rationalized process
(perhaps even hyper-rationalized, under the pancapitalist regime) is accepted,
can evolutionary principles such as natural selection or fitness have any
explanatory value? This possibility seems very unlikely. For instance, there
is nothing "natural" about natural selection. At the macro level, the
populations that have the greatest probability of coming to an untimely end
are not selected for elimination by a blind natural process; rather, they are
designated as expendable populations. In the US, for example, the problem of
homelessness exists not because there is insufficient food and shelter for
every citizen, nor because this social aggregate is unfit, but because various