The term nihilism is derived from the Latin nihil, nothing. Nihilism means belief in nothing. It represents a refusal to accept as given any values. In particular, nihilism questions the basis of ethical values. In one sense, it is an extreme form of scepticism, although its concern is not knowledge and knowing but believing as a basis for action.
Nihilism has undergone a number of interpretations. One interpretation derives from Ivan Turgenev’s characterisation of the younger generation of Russian intellectuals of the mid-19th century in his novel Fathers and Sons (1861). In that novel, the protagonist, Bazarov, is described as a nihilist, i.e. “a person who does not take any principle for granted, however much that principle may be revered” (Macey, 2000: 275-276). The point is not lack of belief per se but a questioning of existing belief structures. Thus, in the Russian context, nihilism came to mean an extreme intellectual radicalism or even terrorism aiming at the overturning of all existing institutions of society in order to build society anew on different principles. Here, it is not so much a belief in ‘nothing’ as a negation of all that is existing, which is very different. Nihilism, in this sense, may be said to incorporate a principle of ‘creative destruction’.
Similarly, Nietzsche is often said to be a nihilist. However, the opening section of The Will to Power (1901) describes the nihilism that stands at the door like the ‘uncanniest of all guests’, which is, rather, a plea for the overcoming of nihilism and for the adoption of new values, particularly those which Nietzsche assigns to the ‘superman’ or ‘higher man’ (Ubermensch), a development of his earlier thinking about free-sprited people who defy convention and its imposed values and thereby acquire a joyful or gay wisdom. In Nietzsche, the dynamic of creative destruction, its agonism, is played out as a recurrent tension between an Apollonian stress on order and individuation and a Dionysiac rapture, violence and destruction of individuality that underlies it.
In the context of avant-garde art movements, Poggioli (1968: 61-65) points out that an important aspect of nihilism lies in attaining non action by acting, a destructive, not a productive labour. This paradoxical combination of activism and antagonistic destruction can be found in Italian and Russian futurism and in English vorticism. However, it was with dadaism that the nihilistic tendency became the primary modality. In dada, nihilism took the form of an intransigent puerility or extreme form of infantilism. Thus, for Tristan Tzara, “There is a great, destructive, negative task to be done: sweeping out, cleaning up” (quoted in Poggioli, 1968: 63).
Poggioli (1968: 64) notes that the British Marxist Christopher Caudwell is sensitive to the dynamic tension that nihilism names in the context of avant-garde art movements. Caudwell suggests that this concerns two features of bourgeois or capitalistic culture: production for the market, which leads to commercialisation and vulgarisation; and a hypostatisation of the art work as the goal of the art process, which places the relation between art work and individual as paramount. The latter leads to a dissolution of those social values which makes the art in question a social relation. In turn, this results in the art work’s ceasing to be an art work and becoming instead a mere private fantasy.
Macey, D. (2000). The Penguin dictionary of critical theory. London, UK: Penguin Books.
Poggioli, R. (1968). Agonism and futurism. In: The Theory of the avant-garde. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 61–77.