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A Brief History of Nothing (Part IV): Wars of the Spirit

“Lewis observes that young people are no longer being taught to experience a unity with greater powers but, rather, to accept themselves as separated from greater reality.”

“It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: ‘Exterminate the brutes!'”

—Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness

A World Divided

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“I doubt whether we are attentive enough to the importance of elementary textbooks.” Thus begins C.S. Lewis’s 1943 book The Abolition of Man. The attentive Lewis closely examines the language of a common school textbook of his day and discovers certain radical implications. There are implications, he argues, which, carried to their logical end, could lead to the very abolition of man himself.

What Lewis identifies as the “Green Book” teaches that when we describe anything outside of ourselves, we are not so much talking about outer reality as we are talking about ourselves. When Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously describes a waterfall as being “sublime,” he is not talking about waterfalls; he is talking about his own emotional state. The Green Book, in effect, affirms and cultivates a sense of separation or alienation from the outer world. Greater reality has no qualities until we give it qualities.

Lewis uses the Chinese word Tao for contrast with the divided reality affirmed in the Green Book. Tao is Lewis’ generic term for the interconnectedness of all reality—a concept found in virtually all traditional societies. When Nietzsche writes of the death of God, he is writing in effect about the death of the Tao, the death of our experience of connectivity. Lewis observes that young people are no longer being taught to experience a unity with greater powers but, rather, to accept themselves as separated from greater reality.

When we are no longer continuous with nature, nature itself becomes raw material to be manipulated as we see fit. However, nature becoming raw material means that we, ourselves, become raw material, ultimately to be controlled and manipulated by others. These others who wield power Lewis calls our “Conditioners.” Our Conditioners may presume to liberate us from suffering and conflict, but the more we imagine we can be liberated from the Tao, the more dehumanized we become. We, humans, become the instruments of our own dissolution: It is man who abolishes man.

Our disconnection from the Tao, Lewis argues, is ultimately delusional. Whatever society we imagine we create must be guided by some set of ideas or values, and these had to come from somewhere outside of ourselves. Any society which believes it can separate itself from the whole is simply a case of the parts rebelling against the whole; “the branch,” says Lewis, “is in rebellion against the tree.”

The title of Lewis’s first chapter is “Men without Chests,” which is apparently inspired by a chapter in Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra entitled “On the Land of Education.” Nietzsche writes:

“For thus you speak: ‘Real are we entirely without belief or superstition.’ Thus you stick out your chests, but alas, they are hollow.”

Nietzsche affirms that what makes us human is precisely our capacity to participate in the world, creatively to confront and transform suffering. The generation of culture is, itself, a creative act. These hollow chested men constitute Nietzsche’s “last man,” who prides himself on his education that consists in overcoming belief and superstition. Nietzsche has only contempt for a kind of education that does not allow for man’s capacity to confront the paradoxical world of conflict and change:

“You are sterile: that is why you lack faith. But whoever had to create had his prophetic dreams and astral signs—and had faith in faith. You are half open gates at which the gravediggers wait. And this is your reality: ‘Everything deserves to perish.’”

Lewis also acknowledges the sterilizing effect of modern education: “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise…We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” Nevertheless, a little more than a half century after Nietzsche we are so comfortable in our alienation that we have Green Books benignly adapting young people into a divided universe. Education is no longer concerned with knowledge of the tree but, rather, with adaptation to life in the branch.

Faith in Doubt

We lose our sense of the Tao, of interconnectedness, as we successfully objectify nature, and we become increasingly abstracted from the consequences of our ideas and actions. We become subjective beings in an increasingly objectified reality. Science give us the facts; we give them value. The so-called fact/value distinction virtually defines the modern world.

In the mid-20th century, the bourgeoisie thrived in our materialistic universe. But Nietzsche’s last man supersedes the bourgeoisie and actually prides himself above all on his self-awareness, which is to say, his education. Accepting this divided world requires that we cultivate a state of epistemological skepticism. “Not knowing” is actually exalted as a kind of knowledge.

Nietzsche himself is the greatest of all modern skeptics, but ultimately he is skeptical of skepticism. Skepticism neuters our capacity to engage creatively the paradoxical powers of greater reality. What Nietzsche pronounces as the “disease” of modern man, we now pronounce as the cure. We no longer have “faith in faith,” but we do have faith in doubt.

Skepticism does indeed have many adaptive advantages. Skepticism is a prophylaxis that protects us from the excesses of both religion and ideology. And since it recognizes no particular transcendent authority, skepticism ostensibly encourages democratic values. Skepticism is also a way of psychologically dealing with the increasingly banal objectified consumer reality—and as a way for the last man to distinguish himself from the shallow bourgeois.

However, the skeptical last man does not immediately succumb to Nothing. He retains some capacity for (or at least a memory of) unity and transcendence. Nietzsche condemns the last man for his sterility and inability to create, but the skeptical last man, by no means, abandons the imagination. The last man retains a kind of fascination with the products of the human imagination and a nostalgia for “culture” (the ancient Greeks had no such word; culture was simply lived reality). Moreover, he presumes to salvage the imagination by abstracting it and turning it into a thing in itself. In the divided modern world, science becomes knowledge; art becomes feelings.

The last man loses the transcendent sense of himself united to the whole; however, in art, we can access the feeling of sublimity. The last man teaches “art appreciation.” He worships art and culture not as forms of knowledge but as “aesthetics” or “self-expression.” Some even say that art becomes a substitute for religion. Just as religion was becoming “varieties of religious experience,” art was becoming “varieties of aesthetic experience” or “varieties of self-expression.”

As the inexorable powers of Nothing played themselves out in the 20th century, these attempts to salvage even the psychological benefits of art would prove limited. Critics and educators would teach us that great art does not contain knowledge about any reality beyond ourselves—certainly not about God or gods. Great art is about itself; art is about its own processes and the feelings of the artist. But isn’t an art about itself, as Andy Warhol blandly suggests, really an art about Nothing? Isn’t Nothing really the ground of everything? So isn’t it about time we embraced the authority of Nothing?

Our Original Nothing

John Rawls’ 1971 A Theory of Justice is one of the most influential books that most people have never heard of. A Theory of Justice reflects, embraces, and gives form to our historical moment. Rawls’ project is timely and ambitious: how to construct a just society out of Nothing.

The central concept of A Theory of Justice is what Rawls calls our “original position.” The original position serves a similar function for Rawls as “the state of nature” did for earlier political theorists such as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. The state of nature is our elemental experiential state of the unified and conflicting forces of order/disorder, growth/decay, etc. It resembles the Tao or Nietzsche’s own “will to power” or “monster of energy.” The big difference between the state of nature and the original position is that the original position is completely imaginary, completely theoretical: a human abstraction we do not experience. The original position is the imaginary state of Nothing.

Rawls urges us to conjure in our minds our original position where we must admit, in effect, that we “know Nothing.” As John Lennon would urge, we can all “imagine” a proto state of Nothing, where there are no strong and there are no weak, where we are all fundamentally unformed and equal. So not knowing who or what we are or what will be, shouldn’t we all logically choose a more or less fair and equal society? Amazingly, out of Rawls’ theoretical hat pops a “just society” that looks very much like a modern liberal welfare state.

Unlike the other great theoretical societies of the 20th century, there are no “objective enemies” in Rawls’ just society. All are welcome to pursue whatever “life plan” they wish, with only one condition: All must accept the authority of Nothing. The greatest threat to Rawls’ just society is, apparently, individuals with strong beliefs. Rawls’ just society requires its members to retain a high level of skepticism to neutralize problems associated with belief. An enervating state of doubt is maintained by what Rawls calls “the veil of ignorance,” which descends when necessary and neutralizes any inclination to certainty. This obviates potential disruption and ensures conformity.

Alan Bloom called Rawls’ Theory of Justice “A First Philosophy for the Last Man,” but it is even more than a philosophy. Rawls, in essence, articulates a whole origins myth for the last man. In Rawls’ theory, we are “fallen” from our Edenic Nothing state of no conflict, no suffering, and perfect equality into the world of conflict, suffering, and inequality. If we can only acknowledge our true state of Nothing, then we can begin our redemption. By theorizing a road map back to—or, at least, toward—our pre-fallen egalitarian state, Rawls presumes to deliver us from suffering and inequality.

Significantly, Rawls’ just society is not a vision of a poet or a prophet. It is not an act of human imagination encountering and transforming greater powers into a coherent whole. It is the ideation of the theorist. A just society is a world invented by a theorist, and, no doubt, it is to be tweaked and re-tweaked by future theorists. Lewis’ fear of a world run by “Conditioners” is fully realized in Rawls, apparently in the form of experts and beneficent bureaucrats.

In a unified, meaningful universe, we require prophets and poets to generate myths to unite us to the whole. In a fragmented universe, we require theorists to articulate a good society out of Nothing. Roberto Calasso describes all human myths like so many branches on a single great tree. Rawls’ theoretical just society is a rebellion of a branch against the tree, if not an outright denial of the tree.

A Theory of Justice reflects the same world as Francis Fukuyama’s End of History—again a world adapted to and for the nihilistic last man. Where Fukuyama at least contemplates the potential problems of modern skepticism, Rawls is blind to its dynamic and corrosive aspects. Skepticism, in itself, does not affirm anything, and it will not be contained by reason; indeed, skepticism serves Nothing and turns on reason itself. Rawls’s whole theory of justice is dependent upon cultivating a way of thinking, which, by its very nature, subverts the world Rawls wishes to create. The cure remains the disease.

Knowing Everything, Knowing Nothing

“Enlightenment thinkers believe we can know everything, and radical postmodernists believe we can know nothing.” E.O. Wilson’s 1998 Consilience is his attempt to unify all knowledge under the authority of science. Like Rawls and Fukuyama, Wilson articulates some of the most defining insights of our age. Wilson’s observation could be simplified and inscribed in stone over the gates of our late 20th century Land of Education: We can know everything, We can know nothing.

Wilson’s idea of unification is not the affirmation of a unified and transcendent Tao but, rather, a unification under the universal analytic powers of reason and, in particular, scientific methodologies. “Everything” claims Wilson, “can be reduced to physics.” Contemporary science’s reductive “descent into minutissima” continues processes begun more than two centuries earlier. Consilience is a bottom-up unification by an ever more precise understanding of the parts. We know reality by taking it apart.

Wilson dismisses postmodernism with a pat on the head but fails to acknowledge its essential similarities with science. Postmodernism, too, is concerned with taking things apart. It carries skepticism to its furthest extremes and even relativizes science itself by pointing out that it is merely one of many ways of apprehending reality. Postmodernism presumes to be critical of the Enlightenment rationalism and science, but is actually an inevitable symptom of the Enlightenment rationalism and science. The extreme objectification of reality by science and reason inevitably gives birth to the extreme subjectivism of the postmodern theorist.

Postmodern theorists conjure and channel Karl Marx’s urging of a “ruthless criticism of all that exists,” and they fully embrace his professed fondness for Goethe’s Mephistopheles: “I am the spirit that negates/And rightly so, for all that comes to be/Deserves to perish wretchedly.” But they go beyond Marx; every consciousness turns out to be a kind of “false consciousness.” Postmodern skepticism interrogates, demystifies, and deconstructs all forms generated by human beings. Even great works of art, which presume a kind of transcendence or unity, are themselves revealed to be little more than “masks” for power and privilege. Postmodern skepticism is not post-modern at all; it merely perpetuates and brings to a head the corrosive powers of Nothing and its promise of liberation.

In 1844, Max Stirner wrote, “Reserved for the future are the words: ‘I am owner of the world of things and I am the owner of the world of mind.'” That future appears to be now. Science renders the world of things into some usable form, while a systematic skepticism teaches us the powers of our own minds to make reality. Our new “Professors” do not carry bombs strapped to their chests threatening annihilation. Their “clean sweep” consists more of breaking down reality and enervating minds than with blowing up buildings. Why level cities when you can simply level minds?

Neither science nor postmodernism are concerned with knowledge that arises from participation in a unified greater reality. Neither acknowledges the Tao or any authority outside of themselves. In the name of liberation, both cultivate ways of thinking which render us blind to the whole. They subvert the very capacity to discriminate, to see order, harmony, to apprehend a relationship to the whole by means of metaphor or analogy. As Heidegger saw, the last man confuses ideation with thinking.

We Can Know Everything—We Can Know Nothing; this is a pedagogy that cultivates minds that can celebrate with Stirner: “I am all and nothing.” These are the progeny of the last man. Their skepticism is now absolute, their doubt is certainty. Academia is the great incubator of minds wholly adapted to being subjective beings in an objectified reality. Fortified with a detailed knowledge of everything, and respecting the authority of Nothing, their intent is not simply the rebellion of the branch against the tree. In the 21st century begins the branch’s war of conquest against the tree.

Geisterkrieg

“[T]he brain,” writes Iain McGilchrist, “is—in fact, has to be—a metaphor of the world.” The brain, having evolved out of the world, functions as the world functions—“the inner structure of our intellect reflects the structure of the universe.” If the universe is “eternally self-creating” and “eternally self-destroying,” then the brain embodies an adaptation to this reality. The two hemispheres of the brain acting in concert, McGilchrist argues, simultaneously break the world into pieces and put it back together. This is what our human consciousness does all day every day as we participate in reality, whether it be tying our shoes, cooking breakfast, planting a garden, or composing a tweet. We live in creative participation of a world of parts and wholes. Historically, this creative capacity is what allows us to adapt and it makes human civilization itself possible. A civilization is a metaphor of greater reality.

Our consciousness, however, undergoes a radical transformation in the modern world. Reason and modern science are so powerful at breaking down and manipulating nature that our need to recognize unity and conform to any greater powers seems irrelevant, stifling, arbitrary—God appears to have died. In our modern materialist world, McGilchrist observes, our capacity to apprehend fragments grows, while our capacity to apprehend the whole shrinks. Our ability to apprehend the world by metaphor or analogy atrophies. Again, our minds function like the world in which we find ourselves. Fragmented minds are an adaptation to a fragmented world.

Our modern shift in consciousness has been profoundly disturbing, but also profoundly exhilarating and empowering. We do indeed have tremendous control and power over nature by breaking it into pieces and our skepticism liberates us from outmoded conventions. These processes of liberation by destruction I have been calling Nothing and Ego.

The history of Nothing is then manifest as a history of a shift in consciousness. But what happens when these processes are carried to their extreme? What happens when skepticism itself becomes absolute? When doubt becomes certainty and Nothing becomes truth?

In the 21st century, we see the emergence of a kind of consciousness that is wholly adapted to and guided by a presumption of disconnectedness. To such minds, sustained by incredible wealth, all forms appear arbitrary, accidental, oppressive. The very concepts of nature, history, and culture have no meaning. All human conventions, law, hierarchies, and morality appear as human fabrications. Language does not reflect reality, language makes reality. Reason itself is just another human-generated ruse to justify inequalities. The need or capacity for metaphor or analogy is irrelevant because in a wholly fragmented universe, nothing is really “like” anything else. There is no whole, there is no possibility of transcendence. Minds adapted to this reality feel highly insecure but simultaneously omnipotent—again, evocative of Stirner’s liberated ego: “I am not nothing in the sense of emptiness, but I am the creative nothing, the nothing out of which I myself as creator create everything.” Today we call such minds Woke.

It is no coincidence that the Woke emerge simultaneously with the proliferation of digital reality. Roberto Calasso, inspired by his study of ancient Vedic texts, and echoing McGilchrist, describes the two aspects of consciousness as continuous and discreet, but also as analogical and digital. Our analogical capacities are what enable us to enfold our digital discriminations into a greater whole. What happens in the modern world is that these two aspects of consciousness ultimately become two kinds of reality. Digital reality becomes a world in itself, fundamentally discontinuous, fragmented, a “virtual” reality, an egalitarian, non-hierarchal reality made of undifferentiated “bits.” For decades, we have been trying to “theorize” or “imagine” a formless Nothing world, but it seems we have finally created one—one we can actually participate in. As Calasso observes, in less than a century we have gone from Dada to Data. The Woke are fully adapted to and identified with this fragmented digital universe.

Nietzsche writes of what he calls Geisterkrieg, great wars of the spirit, “the likes of which there have never been on earth.” The inexorable forces of Nothing draw us into a new kind of war, a “civil war,” but not a war between states, rather a war between states of mind. The Woke are not interested in reconciling the two realities. They are intent to enforce the logic of digital reality on what remains of the analogical world. The branch is not simply in rebellion against the tree, the branch declares war on the tree.

Woke “politics” is a celebration of Nothing with a promise of liberation. What moves these fragmented minds is again a totalizing vision, but not of some ideal society, rather, fragmentation itself is the ideal. Fragmentation is liberation. Annihilation is liberation. If the Woke act as if they know everything, it is simply because they know Nothing. This egalitarian undifferentiated state of Nothing is called Justice.

Woke politics is again a revenge fantasy, this time upon all forms, all hierarchies, all appearance of inequality, all configurations of power which do not swear allegiance to Woke reality. What seems to be a political agenda is actually a display of a kind of consciousness. Wokeness is a performance ideology that demands, not reason or logic, but perpetual displays of beneficence and outrage. This is Czelaw Milosz’s “…rapture of self-liberation…the rapture of destroying everything that exists now…not in the name of some new truth, but a program of inner experience, an ecstasy without end.”

The Woke enforce a swift justice on those who enter their reality without proper displays of fealty and do likewise as they attempt to remake the rest of the world in their image. Cancellation awaits all apostates. However, the Woke often encounter little opposition and almost no institutional opposition. Many are drawn to the flame of Wokeness, and many others fear their own cancellation, so collaborators abound. After all, how much “résistance” should we expect from our well-educated geldings who have been marinating in their own skepticism for generations?

This conflict may appear as two kinds of consciousnesses adapted to two kinds of reality, but it is also a battle within our own consciousness. No one, not even the wokest of the Woke, actually lives in a wholly separate reality. Even in digital reality, there are no liberated Egos—Lewis’s Conditioners reappear, this time as Programmers. Everybody, always, participates simultaneously in wholes and parts. In the end, there are no two realities; a reality of fragments is and always will be a branch in a greater tree. We can either see how the parts relate to the whole or not. If not, then the abolition of man may not be far away.

The parasite which kills its host simply ensures its own demise. The digital mind may dominate what remains of the analogical mind, but its final victory can only be pyrrhic. The history of Nothing is only a branch of a greater history. In any war between the branch and the tree, always bet on the tree.

Chris Augusta is an artist living in Maine.

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