Drunk Philosophy: Nihilistic Individualism

“Drunk Philosophy” is a series of essays in which I explore deeper issues related to culture, philosophy and metaphysics whilst under the influence of alcohol. I make every attempt to treat these issues seriously and express my thoughts as thoroughly and coherently as possible. At least as far as can be expected.

“If men cannot refer to a common value, recognized by all as existing in each one, then man is incomprehensible to man.” Albert Camus, The Rebel.

Rebellion, as described by Camus in his seminal work, is the attempt by man to negate his experience – that which he perceives as reality – and replace it with an alternative reality or experience. At is most base, cruel, and destructive, this rebellion takes the form of nihilism. Nihilism identifies the human condition as a condition of servitude, slavery, and castration, and seeks liberation by means of the destruction of all that which constitutes and perpetuates it.

As defined by the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. It is often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism that condemns existence. A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy.”

This “negation” or “pessimism” or “impulse to destroy” is classically defined as a rebellion against the institutions of modern society – an attempt to liberate oneself and ones brethren by way of undermining and annihilating the institutions responsible for the enslavement of mankind. The prototypical example of this version of nihilism is Fight Club, the 1999 movie based on the book by Chuck Palahniuk. The philosophical premise of Fight Club (which the narrator, “Jack”, eventually repudiates) could be summarized as follows: Society is a decrepit collection of social, cultural, and political institutions that subjugate, emasculate, and humiliate man in order to ensure submission, docility, and social order. The reaction to this subjugation, emasculation, and humiliation is rebellion. Rebellion against the institutions which promulgate the social order – specifically, corporations, government, and the elite.

The “human condition” against which one rebels is a product of a specific socio-cultural-institutional milieu, one in which the individual has been de-individualized, degraded, subsumed, and dehumanized. The rebellion takes the form of an anarchistic revolt against the institutions and symbols of social order (“Project Chaos”) and the fundamental economic institutions (credit card companies) of society. Murder, terrorism, chaos, destruction, are all justified in the name of the liberation of mankind from a condition of slavery. Rebellion can be described as a social act, an affirmation of man’s social nature, an attempt to liberate oneself by destroying the institutions of subjugation and therefore liberating all of mankind in the process..

Social or Institutional Nihilism, if we can use these terms to describe the form of nihilism exemplified by Fight Club’s Tyler Durden, falls squarely within the Nihilist tradition of Marquis de Sade and Friedrich Nietzsche. The rejection of modern society leads to an impulse to undermine, overthrow, and destroy modern society. The subjugation of man by the institutions of modern society leads to the rebellion of man against the institutions of modern society.

It is becoming clear, however, that post-modern society has, perhaps, so completely subjugated man that rebellion against society ceases to be a viable option, that the promise of another world no longer suffices to attract the cynical, jaded, post-modern rebel, and that rebellion and negation have thereforre become a thoroughly individualist act.

To illustrate my point, I would present as testimony the television shows It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Workaholics as examples of a “Nihilistic Individualism” which represents, at its heart, egoism run amok.

I have long had an antipathy towards shows such as Friends and How I Met Your Mother, which seem to extol egoism and encourage a pathetic devotion to personal happiness (“When will I find someone that makes me happy?” “When will I find someone who is worthy of me?”). Alas, when I first saw It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia I considered it a perfect parody of these types of shows. The characters were egoists, taken to an absurd extreme, willing to humiliate, denigrate, and deceive to their own so-called friends in order to fulfill whatever short-sighted aspiration they had become obsessed with in that particular episode.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is a show about four individuals with no moral compass whatsoever, willing to do any and everything possible to increase their own personal happiness and satisfaction, with no sense of right and wrong, no sense of justice, responsibility or ethics; in a word, nihilists. Instead of rebelling against social order, they reject and ignore it. Instead of proposing and alternative set of rules or mores, they simply refuse to abide by those which exist. They practice Nihilist Individualism: They simply remove themselves from the social order which they reject – not by undermining or overthrowing it, but by simply ignoring it.

In a similar vein, the show Workaholics follows the exploits of a group of three post-college-age friends as they desperately try to “keep the party going” into their mid-twenties. It is, in a somewhat weird way, a “coming of age” story about three college graduates who attempt to keep living like college students: partying, rooming together, acting like assholes, etc.

As with It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the dominant theme of Workaholics seems to be complete disregard as to the affects of your actions on those around you. The characters stab each other in the back, sabotage one another’s schemes, and generally undermine their so-called friend’s attempts at happiness and satisfaction,

The point of all this is that modern American culture seems to be encouraging a form of Nihilism which aims to free man from all those bonds which connect him to his fellow man, and which impede him from the relentless pursuit of his own egoistic happiness.  The “impulse to destruction” which is characteristic of the nihilist is replaced with a general disregard for one’s social, cultural, and institutional environment. This represents both a vulgarization of American Individualism and somewhat of a vulgarization of Nihilism, and their combination into what I refer to as Nihilistic Individualism: the pursuit of one’s own narrow satisfaction with utter disregard for the institutions, customs, and mores of the society in which one lives. This form of nihilism seeks not to destroy or replace the institutions responsible for our subjugation, but to simply ignore them. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Workaholics demonstrate both the futility of this philosophy in practice (the characters are, predictably, failures in most of their pursuits) and its hollowness as a moral principal (the “friendships” of the main characters in both shows are characterized by mistrust, spite, and envy).

Don’t get me wrong – I consider both of these shows to be hilarious. And, although works of fiction, I consider them indicative of a serious trend in modern American culture. I consider this trend corrosive and dangerous and ultimately self-destructive, but one which is worthy of our attention. As with all spontaneous, popular philosophies, it only takes one brilliant mouthpiece to grant it legitimacy and transform it into a serious philosophical movement. For now, we must maintain our vigilance by programming our DVR’s, buying DVDs, and studying syndicated reruns so as to gain a  better understanding of what we are up against………………..

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