Our Contemporary Nihilism

A Consumer’s Guide to the Apocalypse: Why There Is No Cultural War in America and Why We Will Perish Nonetheless
Eduardo Velasquez, ISI Books, 200 pages, $22

Our contemporary culture reveals the “darkness the Enlightenment can no longer conceal.” That’s the thesis of Eduardo Velasquez’s fascinating new book, A Consumer’s Guide to the Apocalypse: Why There Is No Cultural War in America and Why We Will Perish Nonetheless. Criticisms of the degradation of our culture permeate conservative commentary; what is new and refreshing in Velasquez’s book is his resistance of the claim that we ought to understand our culture in terms of a great ideological war that pits secular science against fundamentalist religion. There is, Velasquez asserts, “curious affinity between our secularism and our religiosity.” Our theology and science are both results of the Enlightenment and thus share certain assumptions and foster certain conceptions of human persons as isolated, inexplicable centers of choice.

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Now, one might want to question the characterizations of science or Protestant religion — or the purported connection between the two. What is impressive is the way these assumptions enable Velasquez to illuminate contemporary cultural phenomena and, conversely, the way his analysis of cultural artifacts supports this interpretation of modernity. Also welcome is the variety of cultural products Velasquez takes under his purview, including film (Fight Club), books (Tom Wolfe’s novel I Am Charlotte Simmons and Michael Frayn’s award-winning play Copenhagen), and popular music (Coldplay, Dave Matthews, and Tori Amos).

Given that so many young persons now have their moral imaginations formed not by books or even films but by music, the analysis of popular music is especially welcome. Velasquez does a terrific job of showing the way substantive issues concerning personal identity, suffering, love, and meaning figure in these songs in relation to the grand narratives of modern science and Christianity. So, Coldplay’s songs reflect on the loss of personal orientation in a scientific world void of clear direction or shape, even as they draw upon Christian symbols. Dave Matthews offers an anti-Christian set of reflections that are nonetheless framed in Christian terms. The latter theme also figures prominently in the music of Tori Amos, who is simultaneously repulsed and attracted to the image of the crucified God and who sees in our residually Christian culture a propensity to self-slaughter and murder-suicide.

There are striking thematic similarities in many of these songs to the narrative arc of Fight Club, a film that offers a marvelous send-up of our petty, hedonistic, consumer culture and strives to replace “painful pleasures with pleasurable pains.” Fight Club, which indicts the legacy of God the Father even as it questions the legacy of the Crucifixion, aims to bring about a grand, liberating act of destruction. In each case, the flirtation with or active embrace of nothingness is about more than nihilism. It is about recreating something out of nothing, about imagining and bringing into being a new era. In Velasquez’s telling, none of these attempts succeeds.

Velasquez nicely summarizes Tori Amos’s solution and its problems. Amos’s project of overcoming the oppression of morality and hierarchy “eradicates the past, embraces nihilism, locates demonic powers in the no-thing, and seeks salvation in the revelatory experience of song and performance.” The difficulty is that, apart from the orgiastic experience of the music, “we grow contemptuous of the mundane present, and transgression by extremity becomes the norm.” The result is “oblivion” and “annihilation” combined with a “hope for a Phoenix rising.” But, Velasquez asks, “from whence, from what, from whom? Perhaps Amos gets the silence she seeks. That is the silence of despair.”

Despite the despairing subtitle, Velasquez hopes to offer us a way out of contemporary nihilism, a return to pre-modern ways of thinking, particularly what he calls Socratic skepticism, which is not really skepticism at all, at least not as that is understood in our culture, but rather a balanced recognition of the limits to our knowledge. That thesis is perhaps most clearly brought out in Velasquez’s discussion of Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen, a recreation of a meeting between 20th-century scientists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, who were influential in the development of quantum physics. In contrast to those who see in quantum physics a relativism or nihilism, Frayn sees the possibility of what he calls “quantum ethics,” a recovery of the sense of human perspective, of the limits to knowledge, and of a balanced sense of what we know and do not know.

By contrast, Velasquez’s Socratic reading of Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons is a rather desperate attempt to reach a pre-determined end by stretching the evidence far beyond what it will bear. Velazquez’s reading is interesting because it demonstrates that the book contains a sophisticated analysis of the implications of modern science. But the attempt by reading allusions as if they contained volumes of secret teachings, discernible only by a set of elite readers, strains credulity. Referring to a chapter titled “The City of God,” Velasquez admits that most of Wolfe’s readers will not be led to think of St. Augustine, but some will. He then asks, “Is Augustine here because Wolfe wants us to think of his philosophical influence (via the neo-Platonists), Plato? And from there back to Socrates?”

The ending of the book is frustratingly brief. Velasquez argues that negation rests on affirmation; the statement that “something is not” presupposes the assertion that “something is.” Hence, even our hyperbolic denials rest on assumptions that cannot be fully repudiated. We can’t simply bypass the distinction between good and evil, and even nihilism affirms an order of being. But this point could have made completely apart from the detailed analysis of the book. Velasquez tries to tie the body of the book to the general thesis about the priority of the given to doubt or denial by stating that there is much to learn about our “contemporary naysaying.” But precisely what we are to learn is unclear.

Part of the problem is that Velaquez is never clear about one of the central conceptual issues in his argument: “nothingness.” He speaks repeatedly of the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo but then talks as if “nothing” were to be equated with a primordial state of chaos. These two conceptions are of course deeply incompatible. Might it be that the failed attempts in contemporary music and film to come to terms with Christianity have to do with a misconstrual of the Christian understanding of nothingness? Of course, to raise such a question is not to resolve anything, but the material Velasquez analyzes begs for such a question to be asked — something he never does.

To return, by way of conclusion, to the thesis Velasquez does explicitly consider, we put the problem thus: How do these contemporary artifacts point us back to Socrates? Or, for that matter, how could such a restrained, even ascetic, form of Socratic discourse inform the worlds of Fight Club, Coldplay, Dave Matthews, or Tori Amos? Despite crucial conceptual lapses, Velasquez’s book opens up important conversations concerning the significance of popular cultural artifacts for our self-understanding.

  • Thomas Hibbs

    Thomas Hibbs is currently Distinguished Professor of Ethics & Culture and Dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. With degrees from the University of Dallas and the University of Notre Dame, Hibbs taught at Boston College (BC) for 13 years, where he was full professor and department chair in philosophy. At BC, he also served on the Steering Committee for BC’s Initiative for the Future of the Church and on the Sub-Committee on Catholic Sexual Teaching. At Baylor, he has been involved in ecumenical discussions of the work of John Courtney Murray and John Paul II. In addition to teaching a variety of interdisciplinary courses, Hibbs teaches in the fields of medieval philosophy, contemporary virtue ethics, and philosophy and popular culture. Hibbs’ popular BC course on Nihilism in American Culture was featured in a Boston Globe article. Hibbs has written scholarly books on Aquinas, including Dialectic and Narrative in Aquinas: An Interpretation of the Summa Contra Gentiles, and a book on popular culture entitled Shows About Nothing. Hibbs has recently published scholarly articles on MacIntyre and Aquinas (Review of Politics), on Anselm (Anselm Studies), and on Pascal (International Philosophical Quarterly). He also has written on film, culture, books and higher education in Books and Culture, Christianity Today, First Things, New Atlantis, The Dallas Morning News, The National Review, The Weekly Standard, and The Chronicle of Higher Education, for which his latest piece is a study of the ethical implications of the films of the Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski. Called upon regularly to comment on film and popular culture, Hibbs has made more than 100 appearances on radio, including nationally syndicated NPR shows such as “The Connection,” “On the Media” and “All Things Considered,” as well as local NPR stations in Boston, Massachusetts; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Dallas, Texas; and Rochester, New York.

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