In Nietzsche there could be two types of nihilism, the kind that Heidegger referred to as the transvaluation of the highest values, or the process of what happens when the highest values turn on themselves, and the second is nihilism as the loss of agency. Again, the crisis of nihilism can be read in two ways:
1. The Heideggerian reading that the highest values turn on themselves is a critique of rationality.
2. The other aspect is the crisis of legitimacy, or nihilism as the loss of self-reflexive identity that is necessary for the experience of transforming the past into the future. This loss of nihilism brings out the question of self-reflexive practices in a world that has lost the transcendent dimension.
Mark Warren’s “Nietzsche and Political Philosophy” develops the theory of ‘original nihilism,’ which refers to the formation of transcendent ideals. Importantly, original nihilism does not rely on any sort of will to power, i.e. the will’s desire to be more, but it rests on the prior negation of social and political relations: violence, oppression, and slavery. Nihilism then is an escape into thought that seeks to contemplate suffering.
Original nihilism turns on the pervasive feeling of powerlessness against men, which bequeaths to the slave the choice of either suicidal nihilism or a revaluation of the experience of suffering, a creative recoil against particular social relations. Without the prior negation in political oppression there are no residues destined to become creative elements. Warren finds in Nietzsche the constant constitution of subjectivity out of otherness. Without the prior negation that nihilism rests on, the attempt to give meaning to suffering is impossible. Warren asks: “supposing that human subjectivity (selfhood, agency) is intrinsically valuable, how can we conceive of it as a worldly (social and historical) phenomenon? (Warren, Pg. 7, 1988).
The Christian moral world-view is connected to original nihilism in so far as it is an attempt made by victims of political violence to make sense of their suffering (9). The result of this death of nihilism means that Christians lack the capacity to find meaning in suffering and existence. The death of God is above all the failure of our values system to practice. Because the values are transcendent, the values system undermines the necessary minimum conditions for agency, and this is what Warren calls the ‘crisis of legitimacy’ (10).
In an excellent book on Kristeva’s thought in relation to modernity, (Psychoanalysis and Modernity) Sara Beardsworth places Kristeva’s entire project in the context of original nihilism.
This original nihilistic attitude has its only source in the remnants of freedom in suffering agency, as the collapse of meaning, value, and authority, in the structures of the psyche. Especially is she attentive to the narcissistic crisis and its implications in late modern societies, and the narcissistic crisis is a problem of suffering. Kristeva places the nihilism problem at the center of her idea of suffering subjectivity, and you could say the formula of her entire oeuvre is the following statement: unacknowledged suffering is the remnant of freedom.
The semiotic and the symbolic are the two dimensions of meaning and subjectivity that need to be connected if I-other relation, self and other to world relation are to be restored. With Kristeva, the failings of modern institutions and discourses have left the burden of connecting the semiotic and symbolic on the individual, and the suffering subjectivity that psychoanalytic practice encounters is the suffering of this burden (14). The presence of nihilism in Kristeva is the severance between the symbolic and the semiotic.
Like Nietzsche, Kristeva finds the conditions for agency undermined in modernity because the new focus of psychoanalysis is and should be on the borderline subject. The subject that shows up where a society does not accompany the subject to those limits, which are also society’s own limits.
Kristeva seeks to reconnect the semiotic and the symbolic in the realm of the social.
The symbolic encompasses all utterances in communicative discourse that say something to someone. It encompasses a representation of something, an idea, thing, or any meaningful object. Semiotic encompasses the less visible realm of tone, gesture, and rhythm. The semiotic exceeds the field of human limitations imposed by language. It is in excess of the symbolic order.
Kristeva’s reception and modification of core Lacanian categories is essential to understanding her work, and those modifications will be the stuff of a separate post.