I know this kind of trails off in the last few paragraphs. But I've been sitting on it for a week already, and if I don't finish it, I can't move onto other things. So now you know.
Discordianism as Perfect Nihilism.
It’s funny, but the more I read about Nihilism, the more I think Discordianism is one possible antidote to it. I know this seems to contradict the title, so perhaps I should explain my terms a little, before I get ahead of myself.
Nihilism is a word that is thrown around a lot. As such, it is often misused, and open to abuse. Its very nature often makes it derogatory, though perhaps not unjustly, which also helps obscure the meaning. However, it does refer to a very real and precise phenomenon. Although the word itself dates back to Jacobi, in his attacks on Kant’s “critical philosophy”, the meaning by which it more usually understood goes back to Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.
The former referred to nihilism as a process of levelling, whereby individual uniqueness ceases to exist and being able to affirm one’s existence becomes impossible. However, it was more fully developed by Nietzsche and, more recently, Deleuze. In its modern meaning, nihilism is the disavowal of not only meaning in the world, a grand unifying ideal or scheme or plan, but all possible meaning for all time. Some of the theorized psychological stances that may lead one to nihilism are an inability to accept pain, conflict and antagonism. Because these are parts of our world, no matter how regrettable that may be, nihilism therefore becomes the quest for another, illusory world, where these imperfections do not exist, a transcendent and perfect realm.
Nihilism is tied to religions, but not purely a part of them. Though Nietzsche correctly diagnosed its presence at the heart of Judeo-Christian-Islamic culture, ceasing to believe in these religions alone cannot end it. Instead, as faith in these religions becomes less pronounced, we have two sorts of nihilism, which Nietzsche called “strong” and “weak” nihilism, in his typical manner. The weak version is pretty much as I explained above: the individual becomes passive and content with this world, giving up on passions and values and becoming almost without a will or desire at all. In “strong” or radical nihilism, the situation is reversed. Here the person cleaves so tightly to their passions and values, that they come to hate the world which cannot live up to them, and so, eventually, seeks to destroy the world they inhabit.
Clever readers, which you all are, will no doubt see a certain symmetry here. Like, say, that between contemporary Western life and radical fundamentalism? I’m sure I’m not the only one. The imperative of our current civilization is to moderate everything. Moderate political positions. Moderate exercise. Moderate religious views to go with our moderate meals. Everything has to be sanitized, made safe and comfortable and fluffy. Showing any sort of passion or conviction, especially of a radical kind, is frowned upon and considered frightening (both due to the fear of failure and the fear of success of any radical program or measure). We even seek to deny the discomfort from the effects of eating or preparing certain food, like with genetically modified onions that don’t make us cry, or diet coke. You can have anything you want...so long as it’s not radical or extreme, so long as its effects are constrained.
And on the other end of the spectrum, we have the religious bigots. The Islamic kamikaze bombers that will stroll into a crowd without hesitation, the Christian terrorists plotting to acquire WMD, the Jewish extremists willing to blow up a girl’s school, not to mention the likes of Aum Shinrikyo. The fallen, apostate and sinful world around them sickens them so much...especially since they have a direct line to God and what he Really Believes. Through violent yet ultimately impotent acts, they hope to divorce themselves from a society they despise. This will for nothingness can and often is directed inwards as well as outwards. The suicide bomber or mall shooter who commits “death by cop” is as much a nihilist as any other example here. The one thing the radical nihilist most fervently disavows is the kind of life and society that passive nihilism produces.
Therefore we have two distinct types which, while sharing a common origin, cannot combine or synthesise in any way. Equal and opposed, they can never meet, never resolve themselves. Yet both define our modern world. Is there any way to break out of this trap, to somehow perhaps go beyond nihilism into new, greener pastures?
I believe so. Furthermore, I believe the answer lies in nihilism itself, in some way.
The problem is this: nihilism itself needs to be negated, which is no small task. Or, to put it another way, anti-nihilism must be nihilism of a higher magnitude, to the degree that it can undermine its own premises. However, anti-nihilism, or, if you prefer, this perfect nihilism must also contain one extra component: it must not only destroy old values but also force a reassessment of how we come to determine our values in the first place. Anti-nihilism also must bring the focus back from imaginary metaphysical realms and transcendent planes of existence to this world, to find meaning in the reality in which we inhabit.
I think Discordianism can do this.
Firstly, most Discordians I know are not transcendent in their views. They don’t see order and disorder as absolutes, abiding in another Universe through which pale reflections are painted onto this reality. No, instead, most Discordians that I know believe that the order/disorder/chaos synthesis is instead a description of the world, and how it actually is, how it acts and reacts and how we perceive it. This immediately moves Discordianism from the theological realm of transcendent theories to the philosophical realm of immanent ones. Immanence holds, roughly, that there is no “beyond”, no “supplementary dimension” or other realm which determines our reality. There only is reality and nothing more.
Anti-nihilism therefore affirms the world, by taking a hammer to these phantoms and illusions that plague us with seductive, yet ultimately empty promises of eternal and external values.
But more yet needs to be done. The act of creation requires the destruction mentioned above, to clear the field of these nihilistic idols. Discordianism not only approves of, but greatly recommends the act of creation, and indeed, some have suggested the two are the same thing. And because Discordianism works from the frame of order/disorder and destruction/creation (=chaos), it is, in a very real sense, “beyond good and evil”. This doesn’t mean, as some think, beyond “good” and “bad” as concepts or descriptions, but denies a moral ordering of the world. The introduction of the idea of evil in particular has definite theological (and thus transcendent) overtones. While order is often seen as bad by Discordians, it is more often than not on a subjective, by which I mean individual case. Because Discordians mostly accept order is a natural part of the world, it is necessary in some sense. Where, when and for whom however, are different questions and often based on the context. Immanence, once again, is evident here, denying transcendence a foothold.
Chaos also denies teleology. Eris does not order her apostles to set themselves free, she tells them they are free. What they choose to do with this information is up to them. Teleology is one way to secularize transcendent values, by posting a utopia in the future. Against this, chaos suggests that there can be no eternal categories, absolute truths or timeless facts, and change cannot be reduced to one-directional evolution to progress.
And, perhaps most importantly, Discordianism meshes almost perfectly with the theory of Agonism. Against most political theory, Agonism suggests conflict is a permanent feature of human society, and so the question is not how to eliminate conflict – as with theories as diverse as liberalism to fascism, who aim at consensus – but instead how to channel this potential for conflict so that it can be used in a positive manner. Agonism is, despite the similarity in spelling and pronunciation, not the same as antagonism. Instead of merely allowing hostility and conflict to flourish, which could, if unchecked, result in the destruction of the social system entirely, Agonism allows for conflict within bounds and with respect for one’s opponents as adversaries. Recognition that conflict is, in a sense or in some part irrational, and cannot ever be entirely eliminated, is very similar to the Discordian synthesis of order and disorder into chaos – a dialectic without final resolution or end stage, because either the victory of order or disorder over the other would be disastrous.
An Agonist society would be very similar to that relationship between order and disorder. Such a society would lack a unity of principle, which could then be exploited by demagogues and would be tyrants. It would also allow for the fullest expression of real difference and dialogue, a return of those values and passions that passive nihilism tries to deny. Agonism reintroduces contest and dispute into a society deadened by consensus, the need for “bi-partisanship”, the “best interests of everyone” and the pathological desire to make everything safe and un-radical.
Nihilism is, in my opinion, the opiate of the 21st century. It is so easy to fall into apathy, to wish to cocoon yourself in a little bubble of comfort and nice things. Equally, it is easy to grow to despise everything around you, for not living up to childish and unrealistic ideas about the world, to the point that you cannot bear the gap between expectation and fact, and so let that frustration out in destructive and terrible ways.
I think a third way exists. Through the sort of “creative destruction” that Discordianism promotes, old idols can be brought low and new idols can be created. Until, they too, need destroying. And so on and so forth.