Parallax Views: Dr. Harold Schechter on True Crime, Violence in Culture, Moral Panics, the Art of Joe Coleman, & More

On this edition of Parallax Views, Dr. Harold Schechter, one of America’s most prolific and voluminous true crime authors, joins the show for a wide-ranging conversation on history’s real-life monsters from Ed Gein to H.H Holmes that attempts elucidate why society is fascinated by serial killers, violent art, murder, and mayhem.



It’s widely known that Marilyn Manson came up with his stage name by combining the monikers of actress Marilyn Monroe and infamous convicted mass murderer Charles Manson. The two names were chosen by Marilyn Manson because he felt that the pair were the two biggest icons of the 1960s. Apparently, the shock rock icon is pretty infamous himself in the mind of Charles Manson, as a postcard from the prisoner to the rock star has been leaked online.


‘New World Ordure’: Burroughs, Globalization and the Grotesque

“The scion of a well-known banking family once told me a family secret. When a certain stage of responsibility and awareness has been reached by a young banker he is taken to a room lined with family portraits in the middle of which is an ornate gilded toilet. Here he comes every day to defecate surrounded by the family portraits until he realizes that money is shit. And what does the money machine eat to shit it out? It eats youth, spontaneity, life, beauty, and above all it eats creativity.”
—William S. Burroughs (Job 73–4)

Christopher Wylie: The Man Who Was Deleted From the Internet

When I went public with revelations that Cambridge Analytica had harvested 87 million profiles using an app that Facebook had authorized, Facebook’s first reaction was to immediately ban me — not only from Facebook but also from all the other companies that Facebook owns. That means I couldn’t even go on Instagram. All the apps that used Facebook authentication just showed errors — so my Tinder, Uber and countless other apps stopped working.

Within a day of coming out as “the first Millennial whistleblower,” I was deleted from the Internet.


Portrait of a planet on the verge of climate catastrophe

As the UN sits down for its annual climate conference this week, many experts believe we have passed the point of no return


Operation Wild Mayhem – Games To Collapse Empire

A piece by Julian Langer, whose blog can be found at

“Three minutes. This is it – ground zero. Would you like to say a few words to mark the occasion?” Tyler Durden


As Tyler stood overlooking the heart of civilization he knew he saw a failing empire on the brink of destruction. So Tyler abandons the consumer nesting instinct, in favour of neo-luddite primal anarchy.


Whether or not time and this magical land called the future exists is something for another discussion – I’ll just say that I’m not convinced. But for the purposes of this discussion it seems fair to say that we are three minutes from ground zero. The important thing to remember though is that we are not awaiting the arrival of a nuclear bomb, though Trump, Putin and North Korea appear to be directing us towards that situation. No, we are the embodiment of a thermonuclear cataclysm, a world-ruining piece of machinery, three minutes away from ground zero. So I’ll say a few words to mark the occasion.


Tyler was wrong when he said that our fathers were our models for God; our fathers were merely meant to teach us how to navigate the body of God – the body of the metropolis, the state, the market, civilisation, the Leviathan. But Tyler was correct when he said that God hates us.


After all, what has God, civilisation, the state, the Leviathan, the stranglehold of capitalism brought us? The planet is in ecological ruins. We are plagued by droughts, hurricanes, wildfires intensified by arid conditions and desertification, brought on by agriculture and the deforestation it requires, oil spills, dehabitation, specicde, air unfit to breath and mass extinction. Television feeds us the daily horror of militarism, bombs and politics, along side (m)advertising, supposed reality shows and force-fed comedy spooned down our throats, as we sink deeper into the psychosis of this hyper-real Spectacle – the word of God, the great domesticator.


But in the words of Tyler Durden, “fuck damnation, man, fuck redemption! If we are God’s unwanted children, then so be it!”


If this culture wants us to live lives of death, I propose we rebel, by seeking (near-)Life experiences; that we lose every-Thing to be free to do anything.


How do we do this?


Well if this culture is hell bent on trying to domesticate us all, bringing some wildness to this culture seems the best routeless direction to go down.


With all their attempts to make living in this culture better, most activist projects have served only to make the planetary work machine more bearable for those closest to “radicals”. The revolutionary project is now largely a t-shirt or film. Social anarchists fill potholes and keep this culture going – acts of service to God.


On the other hand, subversive art-focused and psychology-focused milieus, such as Situationists, Discordians, guerrilla ontologists and others which can generally be considered applicable to a post-anarchist practice, have succeeded in creating spaces to release the repressed flow of the wild, within the body of civilisation. This type of practice is that which Hakim Bey (Peter Lamborn Wilson) calls poetic terrorism, and appears to be a means of eco-radicals waging primal war against this world-ruining culture.


Situationists are focused on challenging the psycho-geography of this culture’s everyday normal life, through mediums such as the situationist-prank, which involved turning aspects of capitalism’s everyday-narratives against itself. Discordians and guerrilla ontologists, inspired by the philosophy of Robert Anton Wilson, have often embraced the campaign of Operation Mindfuck, which has focused on art based approaches like performance and guerrilla art, as well as vandalism, practical jokes, reality hacking and hoaxes.


Drawing from these both, in mapping out a loose route for our poetic terrorism, a campaign seems available to us, as agents against this culture, as a means of wild-attack.


What does this look like?


Here are some games –

Modelling glue in the locks of shops, banks and vehicles of world-ruiners. Going into computer shops with fishtank cleaner magnets and destroying the hard drives. Standing on streets with a free hugs sign and giving each person who hugs you a home-made pamphlet on the ecological crisis. Gluing folded up pieces of paper into the coin slots of parking machines and into the card slots of ATMs. Searching for unlocked cars and turning on their lights to drain the battery. Mixing whipped cream, corn flakes, grapes, maple syrup, dish washer fluid and warm water in large quantities in black bags and pouring home-made vomit along streets, in high-traffic pedestrian areas. Standing on the edge and peeing into swimming pools. Leaving kitchen knives in public places covered in fake blood. Graffiti apocalypse poems or surrealist slogans, like “I don’t want to be a wall anymore” on walls, in chalk in public spaces, in sight of on-lookers. Putting itching powder on the toilet paper in public toilets and rolling it back up. Gluing public toilet seats down and putting glue on them. Wearing sandwich boards emblazoned with “the end was yesterday”. Filling wet paper towels with flour, wrapping it up, tying up with a rubber band and throwing flour bombs. Reviving the Existential Negation Campaign. Destroying badger traps or committing other acts of ecotage/monkey-wrenching and turning them into works of art.


These are some of the directions for this project of wild mayhem. With every work of creative-destruction performed a communiqué should be left, as words to mark the occasion.


With this, eco-radical practice escapes the revolutionary model, which is tied to History (the narrative of this culture and its “progress”), without falling into renunciation and becomes an iconoclastic endeavour, full of wild potential. Eco-radicals can challenge believers in this culture’s faith in its ability to maintain everyday normality in ways that are direct and signify a defiant rebellion, without appealing to ideologies and systems, which end up being incorporated and part of that which we hate.


As this operation is intentionally outside of History, there is no start or end date to it. This can be picked up by anyone and dropped as soon as they decide to stop. It has no governing body or even decentralised organisation behind it. It is a wild endeavour, anarchic, free.


So this is it – ground zero. Our operation will be one of wild mayhem. What is to come we cannot know for sure, but the present course only leads to ruin. Disrupting that course, disrupting its ruin of the world and encouraging God’s ruin, through wild poetic terrorism as primal war, seems like a pathway to go down with potential. If you want a future, I will turn again to Mr Durden – In the world I see – you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You’ll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You’ll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down, you’ll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighway.”



In “Electronic Revolution,” whence Gilles Deleuze got his idea of the “control society,” William S. Burroughs writes about how we can scramble the control society grammatically (see Ubuweb for the essay in full):
The aim of this project is to build up a language in which certain falsifications inherit in all existing western languages will be made incapable of formulation. The follow-falsifications to be deleted from the proposed language. (“ER” 33)
Why? As he puts it elsewhere,
There are certain formulas, word-locks, which will lock up a whole civilisation for a thousand years. (The Job 49)
To unscramble control syntax, the DNA precode of the language virus,
  1. delete the copula (is/are), i.e., disrupt fixed identities – YOU ARE WHAT YOU ARE NOT [Lacan]!
  2. replace definite articles (the) with indefinite articles (a/an), i.e., avoid reification — THERE EXIST MULTIPLICITIES [Badiou]!
  3. replace either/or with and, i.e., ignore the law of contradiction — JUXTAPOSE [Silliman]!
William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, “Rub Out the Word,” The Third Mind (Viking, 1978).

The IS OF IDENTITY. You are an animal. You are a body. Now whatever you may be you are not an “animal,” you are not a “body,” because these are verbal labels. The IS of identity always carries the assignment of permanent condition. To stay that way. All name calling presupposes the IS of identity.
This concept is unnecessary in a hieroglyphic language like ancient Egyptian and in fact frequently omitted. No need to say the sun IS in the sky, sun in sky suffices. The verb TO BE can easily be omitted from any languages. . . . (“ER” 33)
The IS of identity . . . was greatly reinforced by the customs and passport control that came in after World War I. Whatever you may be, you are not the verbal labels in your passport any more than you are the word “self.” So you must be prepared to prove at all times that you are what you are not. (ibid.)
THE DEFINITE ARTICLE THE. The contains the implication of one and only: THE God, THE universe, THE way, THE right, THE wrong, If there is another, then THAT universe, THAT way is no longer THE universe, THE way. The definite article THE will be deleted and the indefinite article A will take its place. (33-34)
Definite article THE contains the implications of no other. THE universe locks you in THE, and denies the possibility of any other. If other universes are possible, then the universe is no longer THE[;] it becomes A. (34)
THE WHOLE CONCEPT OF EITHER/OR. Right or wrong, physical or mental, true or false, the whole concept of or will be deleted from the language and replaced by juxtaposition, by AND. This is done to some extent in any pictorial language where two concepts stand literally side by side. (ibid.)
[A] contradictory command gains its force from the Aristotelian concept of either/or. To do everything, to do nothing, to have everything, to have nothing, to do it all, to do not any, to stay up, to stay down, to stay in, to stay out, to stay present, to stay absent. (ibid.)
These falsifications inherent in the English and other western alphabetical languages give the reactive mind commands their overwhelming force in these languages. […] The whole reactive mind can be in fact reduced to three little words — to be “THE.” That is to be what you are not, verbal formulations. (ibid.)
Charles Burns, “Burroughs” (1986), Adam Baumgold Gallery, New York, 2008

There are also his more familiar “lines of fracture” (to use Deleuze’s phrase): aleatory procedures like cut-ups and fold-ins — but also the grid and picture language — that fracture the “lines of association” by which “control systems” exert their monopoly (13, 12). These represent a “new way of thinking”:

The new way of thinking has nothing to do with logical thought. It is no oceanic organismal subconscious body thinking. It is precisely delineated by what is not. Not knowing what is and is not[,] knowing we know not. Like a moving film the flow of thought seems to be continuous while actually the thoughts flow stop change and flow again. At the point where one flow stops there is a split second hiatus [a cut]. The new way of thinking grows in this hiatus between thoughts. (The Job 91)

Burroughs’ “lines of association” foreshadow Deleuze’s “lines of sedimentation,” i.e., of “light” (visibility), “enunciation” (speech), “force” (government) and “subjectification” (self-government); the “new way,” those of “fracture” or “breakage” (events in Badiou’s sense or cuts in Burroughs’). (N.B. “Lines of subjectivation,” being “lines of escape” or excess, point beyond sedimentation across the breaks to new dispositifs [“apparatuses”].)

The upshot of such scrambles is twofold:

  1. they are writing itself: “All writing is in fact cut-ups. A collage of words read heard overhead [sic]. Use of scissors [just] renders the process explicit and subject to extension and variation” (The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin)
  2. they are democratic: “Scrambles is the democratic way” (“ER” 24) — or elsewhere: “Cut-ups are for everyone” (“CMBG”); and, in that they are disruptive,
  3. they are revolutionary:

He who opposes force with counterforce alone forms that which he opposes and is formed by it. History shows that when a system of government is overthrown by force a system in many respects similar will take place. On the other hand he who does not resist force that enslaves and exterminates will be enslaved and exterminated. For revolution to effect basic changes in existing conditions three tactics are required: 1. Disrupt. 2. Attack. 3. Disappear. Look away. Ignore. Forget. These three tactics to be employed alternatively. (The Job 101)



How can art and poetry encourage existential trajectories that move beyond the nihilism of late-modernity? American philosopher Iain Thomson turns towards the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, in order to illustrate nihilism as our deepest historical problem and art as our best response, while establishing Heidegger’s insights into postmodernity and technology.

Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity seeks to show that Heidegger is best understood not simply as another regressive or reactionary “antimodernist” (the way critics typically portray him) but, instead, as a potentially progressive and so still promising “postmodernist”—if I may be forgiven for trying to rehabilitate a term that has become so thoroughly “unfashionable” (or unzeitgemäße, as Nietzsche aptly put it, literally “not cut to the measure of the time”).  Sounding like some hipster conservative, Heidegger contends in Being and Time that a formerly hyper-trendy term like postmodern “can first become free in its positive possibilities only when the idle chatter covering it over has become ineffectual and the ‘common’ interest has died away.”  In other words, once everyone stops talking about “The Next Big Thing,” it becomes possible to understand what was so inspiring about it in the first place, letting us uncover those enduringly inspirational sources that tend to get obscured by the noise that engulfs a major trend during its heyday. [1]

It remains true and important, of course, that Heidegger is highly critical of modernity’s metaphysical foundations, including (1) its axiomatic positing of the Cartesian cogito as the epistemological foundation of intelligibility; (2) the ontological subject/object dualism generated by (1); (3) the fact/value dichotomy that follows from (1) & (2); and (4) the growing nihilism (or meaninglessness) that follows (in part) from (3), that is, from the belief that what matters most to us world-disclosing beings can be understood as “values” projected by human subjects onto an inherently-meaningless realm of objects.  I shall come back to this, and continue to find myself provoked and inspired by Heidegger’s phenomenological ways of undermining modern Cartesian “subjectivism.”  But my own work is even more concerned with Heidegger’s subsequent deconstruction of late-modern “enframing” (Gestell), that is, with his ontological critique of global technologization.  Heidegger’s critique of the nihilism of late-modern enframing develops out of his earlier critique of modern subjectivism but goes well beyond it.  As Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity shows, enframing is “subjectivism squared”:  As modernity’s vaunted subject applies the technologies developed to control the objective realm back onto human subjects, this objectification of the subject is transforming us into just another intrinsically-meaningless resource to be optimized, ordered, and enhanced with maximal efficiency—whether cosmetically, psychopharmacologically, eugenically, aesthetically, educationally, or otherwise “technologically.”  (I shall come back to this point too.)

Taken together, Heidegger’s ontological critiques of modern subjectivism and late-modern enframing helped establish his work as an uncircumventable critical touchstone of twentieth century “continental” philosophy.  And I say this even while fully acknowledging that Heidegger deliberately and directly involved himself and his thinking with history’s greatest horror (greatest thus far, at least), thereby rendering his work even more controversial than it would have been anyway.  All of us would-be post-Heideggerians have to work through the significance of Heidegger’s deeply troubling Nazism for ourselves, as I have long argued.  Indeed, that critical task is new only to those who are new to Heidegger (or who have somehow managed to avoid it by bunkering down in untenable and so increasingly desperate forms of denial).  The critical task of working through and beyond Heidegger’s politics remains difficult nonetheless, because—as I showed in my first book, Heidegger on Ontotheology:  Technology and the Politics of Education—the most insightful and troubling aspects of Heidegger’s thinking are often closely intertwined.  Disentangling them thus requires both care and understanding, and so a capacity to tolerate ethical as well as philosophical ambiguity (traditional scholarly skills that seem to be growing rare in these days of one-sided outrage and indignation). [2]

Yet, despite Heidegger’s sustained critiques of modernity and late-modernity, he is not simply an anti-modernist (or even an anti-late-modernist).  To try to think against something, he repeatedly teaches, is to remain trapped within its underlying logic.  (The proud atheist often remains caught in the traditional logic of theism, for instance, insofar as both theist and atheist presume to know something outside the realm of possible knowledge.  Like Hölderlin, Heidegger himself ended up as a romantic polytheist, open to the relevant phenomena and so capable of different kinds of religious experience.)[3]  I recognize, of course, that many people find it difficult to muster the hermeneutic charity and patience that one needs in order to even be able to understand Heidegger.  But one of the deepest and most universal axioms of the hermeneutic tradition (and still shared from Gadamer to Davidson) is that the only way to understand another thinker is to presume that they make sense, that they are not just passing-off meaningless nonsense as profundity.  (There is a detectably post-Christian wisdom in the hermeneutics tradition here.  “Thinking…loves”:  Love even thy enemy, as it were, because hatred can never understand.)[4]  When Heidegger is read charitably (rather than dismissed polemically), it becomes clear that his overarching goal is not only to undermine but also to transcend modernity.

By working to think modernity from its deepest Cartesian presuppositions to its ultimate late-modern conclusions, I believe Heidegger helps open up some paths that lead beyond those problematically nihilistic modern axioms mentioned above, paths that also allow us to preserve and build upon the most crucial and irreplaceable advances achieved in the modern age.[5]  As that suggests, we need to acknowledge—much less grudgingly than Heidegger himself ever did—that humanity has made undeniable and precious progress in the domains of technology, science, medicine, art, language, and even (I try to show, thus going well beyond Heidegger) in politics.  According to the perhaps heterodox, left-Heideggerian postmodernism I espouse (in the vicinity or aftermath of Dreyfus, Young, Rorty, Vattimo, Derrida, Agamben, and others), Heidegger’s central postmodern insight into the inexhaustible plurality of being serves best to justify and promote a robust liberal tolerance, a tolerance intolerant only of intolerance itself.  That may initially sound relativistic, but this is a tolerance with teeth, because ontological pluralism undermines all fundamentalist claims to have finally arrived at the one correct truth about how to live, let alone to seek to impose those final answers on others (as I have recently tried to show).[6]

“Heidegger’s central postmodern insight into the inexhaustible plurality of being serves best to justify and promote a robust liberal tolerance, a tolerance intolerant only of intolerance itself. ”

Questions concerning how best to understand the implications of Heidegger’s central insights remain complex and controversial, of course.  But I think it is clear—in light of Heidegger’s distinctive attempts to combine philosophy and poetry into a thinking that “twists free” of and so leads beyond modernity—that Heidegger was the original postmodern thinker.  Here I say “original” even while acknowledging that Heidegger’s postmodern vision drew crucial inspiration from many others (including the Romantic tradition, especially Hölderlin, Van Gogh, and Nietzsche, as well as from his creative readings of Presocratic philosophy).  For, as Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity shows, Heideggerian “originality” (Ursprünglichkeit) is less concerned with being first than with remaining inspiring; that is, it is less about planting flags and more about continuing to provoke important insights in others.

Moreover, this view of Heidegger as the Ur-postmodernist gains a great deal of support from the fact that almost every single significant contemporary continental philosopher was profoundly influenced by Heidegger.  The list is long, because it includes not just more recognizably “modern” philosophers like Arendt, Bultmann, Gadamer, Habermas, Kojève, Marcuse, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Taylor, and Tillich, but also such “postmodern” thinkers as Agamben, Badiou, Baudrillard, Blanchot, Butler, Cavell, Derrida, Dreyfus, Foucault, Irigaray, Lacan, Levinas, Rancière, Rorty, Vattimo, and Žižek—all of whom take Heideggerian insights as fundamental philosophical points of departure.  Each of these thinkers seeks to move beyond these Heideggerian or post-Heideggerian starting points (more and less successfully, it must be said, but with lots of significant advances along the way).

Taken as a whole, one thing all of these major thinkers help confirm is that we think best with a hermeneutic phenomenologist like Heidegger only when we learn to read him “reticently”—that is, slowly, critically, carefully, thoughtfully, with reservations and alternatives left open rather than too quickly foreclosed.  If we can adopt a critical yet charitable approach to Heidegger’s views on the matters of deep concern that we continue to share with him, then we can find our own ways into “die Sache selbst,” the matters themselves at stake in the discussion.  Focusing on the issues that matter in this way can also help us avoid getting too bogged down in the interminable terminological disputes that too often turn out to be merely “semantic” misunderstandings or confusions of translation, noisy distortions in which those trained in different traditions and languages continue to unknowingly talk past one another.[7] Our hermeneutic goal should instead be genuine understanding and so the possibility of positive disagreement, that is, disagreements that generate real alternatives and so do not remain merely criticisms (let alone pseudo-criticisms, confused epiphenomena of unrecognized misunderstandings, distortions passed down through generations or sent out across other networks).  The modestly immodest goal of post-Heideggerian thinking, in sum, is to think the most important issues at issue in Heidegger’s thinking further than he himself ever did.  At the very least, such attempts can succeed in developing these enduringly-important issues somewhat differently, in our own directions and inflections, in light of our own contemporary concerns and particular ways of understanding what matters most to our time and generations.

Heidegger’s provocative later suggestion about how best to develop the deepest matters at stake in the thinking of another can be helpful here:  We need to learn “to think the unthought.”  Thinking the unthought of another thinker means creatively disclosing the deepest insights on the basis of which that thinker thought.  When we think their unthought, we uncover some of the ontological “background” which rarely finds its way into the forefront of a thinker’s thinking (as Dreyfus nicely put it, drawing on the Gestalt psychology Heidegger drew on himself).  Thinking the unthought does mean seeing something otherwise unseen or hearing something otherwise unheard, but such hermeneutic “clairvoyance” (as Derrida provocatively dubbed it) should not presume that it has successfully isolated the one true core of another’s thinking (a mistake Heidegger himself too often committed).[8]  But nor should we concede that “death of the author” thesis which presumes that there is no deep background even in the work of our greatest thinkers.  We post-Heideggerian postmodernists should just presume, instead, that any such deep background will be plural rather than singular, and so irreducible to any one over-arching interpretive framework.  In that humbler hermeneutic spirit of ontological pluralism, we can then set out to develop at least some of a thinker’s best insights and deepest philosophical motivations beyond whatever points that thinker was able to take them.[9]

“We need to learn ‘to think the unthought’ ”

In such a spirit, my own work focuses primarily on some of the interconnected issues of enduring concern that I think we continue to share with Heidegger, including (1) his deconstructive critique of Western metaphysics as ontotheology; (2) the ways in which the ontotheology underlying our own late-modern age generates troublingly nihilistic effects in our ongoing technologization of our worlds and ourselves; (3) Heidegger’s alternative vision of learning to transcend such technological nihilism through ontological education, that is, an education centered on the “perfectionist” task of “becoming what we are” in order to come into our own as human beings leading meaningful lives.  My interest in those interconnected issues (of ontotheology, technology, and education) led me to try to explicate (4) the most compelling phenomenological and hermeneutic reasons behind the enduring appeal of Heideggerian and post-Heideggerian visions of postmodernity; and so also (5) the continuing relevance of art and poetry in helping us learn to understand being in some enduringly meaningful, postmodern ways.  The point of this postmodernism, to put it simply, is to help us improve crucial aspects of our understanding of the being of our worlds, ourselves, and each other, as well as of the myriad other entities who populate and shape our interconnected worlds.  (It is, in other words, a continuation of the struggle against nihilism, to which we will turn next.)

Beneath or behind it all, I have also dedicated much of the last decade to working through some of the philosophical issues that arise, directly and indirectly, from the dramatic collision between Heidegger’s life and thinking (as I have been working on a philosophical biography of Heidegger). I have thus taken up, for example, Heidegger’s views on the nature and meaning of love (which prove surprisingly insightful, once again, when approached with critical charity), while also continuing to participate in that ongoing re-examination of the significance of Heidegger’s early commitment to and subsequent break with Nazism, as well as the more recently revealed extent of his ignorant anti-Semitism (fraught and difficult topics).

In what follows I want to focus on the role that art—understood as poiêsis or ontological disclosure—can play in helping us learn to live meaningful lives.  So I shall try briefly to explain some of my thoughts on nihilism as our deepest historical problem and art as our best response.  How can art and poetry encourage existential trajectories that move beyond the nihilism of late-modernity?  Let me take up this question while acknowledging the apparent irony of doing so in this technological medium.  In fact, this need not be ironic at all, given my view that we have to find ways to use technologies against technologization—learning to use technologies without being used by them, as it were—by employing particular technologies in ways that help us uncover and transcend (rather than thoughtlessly reinforce) the nihilistic technologization at work within our late-modern age.  What Heidegger helps us learn to undermine and transcend, in other words, is not technology but rather nihilistic technologization.  By “nihilistic technologization,” I mean the self-fulfilling ontological pre-understanding of being that reduces all things, ourselves included, to the status of intrinsically-meaningless stuff standing by to be optimized as efficiently and flexibly as possible.  (That, of course, will take some explaining.)

“What Heidegger helps us learn to undermine and transcend, in other words, is not technology but rather nihilistic technologization.”

To develop Heidegger’s thinking on technological nihilism beyond the point he himself left it, we need both (1) to learn to recognize the undertow of technologization’s drift toward nihilistic optimization and yet still (2) find ways to use particular technologies (including word processing software, synthesizers, Facebook, on-line philosophy ‘zines, and all the other irreversibly-proliferating technological media of our world) in ways that help move us beyond that nihilistic technologization rather than merely reinforcing it.  Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity suggests that one of the best ways to do this is by cultivating a receptivity to that which overflows and so partly escapes all the willful projects in which the modern subject understands itself as the source of what matters most in the world (as the foundation of all “values,” all “normativity,” and other such widespread but deeply problematic, modern philosophical ideas).  We think Heidegger’s unthought when we disclose this postmodern understanding of being, learning to understand and so encounter being not as a modern domain of objects for subjects to master and control, nor as a late-modern “standing reserve” of resources to be efficiently optimized, but instead as that which continues to both inform and exceed our every way of making sense of ourselves and our worlds.  By learning to cultivate a phenomenological receptivity to this postmodern understanding of being, we can address the nihilism of our technological understanding of being by responding directly to its ontotheological foundations.

Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity begins with the words, “What does Heidegger mean by ontotheology—and why should we care?”  Here is a greatly simplified answer:  If, like Parmenides, we think of all intelligible reality as a sphere, then ontotheology is the attempt to grasp this sphere from the inside-out and the outside-in at the same time.  More precisely, ontotheology is Heidegger’s name for the attempt to stabilize the entire intelligible order (or the whole space of meaning) by grasping both the innermost “ontological” core of what-is and its outermost “theological” expression, then linking these innermost and outermost “grounds” together into a single, doubly-foundational, “ontotheological” understanding of the being of what-is.  An ontotheology, when it works (by uncovering and disseminating those grounds beneath or beyond which no one else can reach, for a time), establishes the meaning of being that “doubly grounds” an historical age.  Such ontotheologies shape and transform Western history’s guiding sense of what being “is” (by telling us what “Isness” itself is), and since everything is, they end up shaping and reshaping our understanding of everything else.  (Heidegger’s notorious antipathy to metaphysics thus obscures the pride of place he in fact assigns to ontotheologies in the transformation and stabilization of history itself.)[10]

One of the crucial points to grasp here is that Heidegger’s critique of technology follows directly from his understanding of ontotheology.  Indeed, the two are so intimately connected that his critique of technology cannot really be understood apart from his view of ontotheology, a fact even scholars were slow to recognize (reminding us that Heidegger still remains, in many ways, our contemporary).  As Heidegger on Ontotheology shows, one of Heidegger’s deepest but most often overlooked insights is that our late-modern, Nietzschean ontotheology generates the nihilistic technologization in whose currents we remain caught.  The deepest problem with this “technologization” of reality is the nihilistic understanding of being that underlies and drives it:  Nietzsche’s ontotheological understanding of the being of entities as “eternally recurring will-to-power” dissolves being into nothing but “sovereign becoming,” an endless circulation of forces, and in so doing, it denies that things have any inherent nature, any genuine meaning capable of resisting this slide into nihilism (any qualitative worth, for example, that cannot be quantified and represented in terms of mere “values,” so that nothing is invaluable—in the full polysemy of that crucial phrase).[11]

Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity explains Heidegger’s radical philosophical challenge to the deepest presuppositions of modernity and his attempt to articulate a genuinely meaningful post-modern alternative by drawing on key insights from art and poetry, especially insights into the polysemic nature of being and the consequent importance of creative world disclosure (as contrasted with the willful, subjective imposure of “value”). Heidegger’s view is that even great late-modern philosophers like Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud remain trapped within unrecognized modern presuppositions, including the nihilistic view that all meaning is projected onto or infused into an inherently-meaningless world of objects through the subject’s conceptual and material labors (both conscious and unconscious).  These unnoticed metaphysical presuppositions undermine their otherwise important attempts to forge paths into a more meaningful future.  Drawing on Kierkegaard, Hölderlin, Van Gogh, and others, Heidegger teaches that more genuinely enduring meaning cannot come from the subject imposing its values on the world but, instead, only from a poetic openness to those meanings that precede and exceed our own subjectivity.  Such meaningful encounters (or “events”) require us to creatively and responsibly disclose their significance, unfolding their meaning throughout the lives they can thus come to transform, guide, and confer meaning on.

“Drawing on Kierkegaard, Hölderlin, Van Gogh, and others, Heidegger teaches that more genuinely enduring meaning cannot come from the subject imposing its values on the world but, instead, only from a poetic openness to those meanings that precede and exceed our own subjectivity.”

One of the central theses of Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity is that this crucial difference between imposing and disclosing—or between technological imposition and poetic disclosure—is the crucial distinction between the meaninglessness of our technological understanding of being and those meaning-full encounters that a postmodern understanding of ourselves and our worlds help give rise to, nurture, and encourage.[12]  Genuinely-enduring, meaningful events, the kinds around which we can build fulfilling lives, do not arise from imposing our wills on the world (as in the modern view which, as Kierkegaard already taught, turns us into sovereign rulers over a land of nothing, where all meaning is fragile because it comes from us, from the groundless voluntarism of our own wills, and so can be rescinded as easily as it was projected).  Genuinely enduring meanings emerge, instead, from learning to creatively disclose those often inchoate glimmers of meaning that exist at least partly independently of our preexisting projects and designs, so that disclosing their significance creatively and responsibly helps teach us to partake in and serve something larger than ourselves (with all the risk and reward that inevitably entails).

In short, a truly postmodern understanding requires us to recognize that, when approached with a poetic openness and respect, things push back against us, resisting out wills and so making subtle but undeniable claims on us.  We need to acknowledge and respond creatively and responsibly to these claims if we do not want to deny the source of genuine meaning in the world.  For, only those meanings which are at least partly independent of us and so not entirely within our control—meanings not simply up to us human beings to bestow and rescind at will—can provide us with the kind of touchstones around which we can build enduringly meaningful lives (and loves).  Heidegger sometimes describes our encounter with these more genuinely meaning-full meanings as an “event of enowning” (Ereignis), thus designating those profoundly significant events in which we come into our own as world-disclosers by creatively enabling things come into their own, just as Michelangelo came into his own as a sculptor by creatively responding to the veins and fissures in a particularly rich piece of marble so as to bring forth his “David,” just as a woodworker comes into her own as a woodworker by learning to respond to the subtle weight and grain of each individual piece of wood, and just as teachers comes into their own as teachers by learning to recognize, cultivate, and so help develop the particular talents and capacities of individual students.

This poetic openness to that which pushes back against our preexisting plans and designs is what Heideger, Art, and Postmodernity calls a sensitivity to the texture of the text, that subtle but dynamic meaning-fullness which is “all around us” phenomenologically, as Heidegger writes.[13]  The current of technologization tend to sweep right passed the texture of the texts all around us, and can even threaten to render us oblivious to it (most plausibly, if our resurgent efforts at genetic enhancement inadvertently eliminate our defining capacity for creative world-disclosure).  When we learn to recognize the ontohistorical current feeding technology, however, we can also learn to resist its nihilistic erosion of all inherent meaning, and so begin to develop a “free relation to technology” in which it becomes possible to thoughtfully use technologies against nihilistic technologization, as we do (for example) when we use a camera, microscope, telescope, or even glasses creatively to help bring out something there in the world that we might not otherwise have seen, a synthesizer or computer to make a new kind of music that helps us develop our sense of what genuinely matters to us, or when we use a word processor or even the Internet to help bring out our sense of what is really there in the issues and texts that most concern us.

In my view, the role human beings play in the disclosure and transformation of our basic sense of reality thus occupies a middle ground between the poles of voluntaristic constructivism and quietistic fatalism.  Heidegger is primarily concerned to combat the former, “subjectivistic” error—that is, the error of thinking that human subjects are the sole source of meaning and so can reshape our understanding of being at will—because that is the dangerous error toward which our modern and late-modern ways of understanding being incline us.  But this has led to some widespread misunderstandings of his view.  Perhaps most importantly, Heidegger’s oft-quoted line from his famous Der Spiegel interview, “Only another God can save us,” is probably the most widely misunderstood sentence in his entire work.  By another “God,” Heidegger does not mean some otherworldly creator or transcendent agent but, instead, another understanding of being.  He means, quite specifically, a post-metaphysical, post-epochal understanding of “the being of entities” in terms of “being as such,” to use his philosophical terms of art.  Heidegger himself equates his “last God” with a postmodern understanding of being, for example, when he poses the question “as to whether being will once more be capable of a God, [that is,] as to whether the essence of the truth of being will make a more primordial claim upon the essence of humanity.”[14]  Here Heidegger asks whether our current understanding of being is capable of being led beyond itself, of giving rise to other world-disclosive events that would allow human beings to understand the being of entities neither as modern “objects” to be mastered and controlled, nor as late-modern, inherently-meaningless “resources” standing by for optimization, but instead as things that always mean more than we are capable of expressing conceptually (and so fixing once and for all in an ontotheology).  That the “God” needed to “save us” is a postmodern understanding of being is one of the central theses of Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity.

“‘Only another God can save us,’ is probably the most widely misunderstood sentence in his entire work.”

Rather than despairing of the possibility of such an inherently pluralistic, postmodern understanding of being ever arriving, moreover, Heidegger thought it was already here, embodied in the “futural” artwork of artists like Hölderlin and Van Gogh, simply needing to be cultivated and disseminated in myriad forms (clearly not limited to the domain of art, pace Badiou) in order to “save” the ontologically abundant “earth” (with its apparently inexhaustible plurality of inchoately meaningful possibilities) from the devastation of technological obliviousness.  When Heidegger stresses that thinking is at best “preparatory” (vorbereitend), what he means is that great thinkers and poets “go ahead and make ready” (im voraus bereiten), that is, that they are ambassadors, emissaries, or envoys of the future, first postmodern arrivals who, like Van Gogh, disseminate and so prepare for this postmodern future with “the unobtrusive sowing of sowers” (as Heidegger nicely put it, drawing a deep and illuminating parallel between his teaching and Van Gogh’s painting which I seek to explain in Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity).  As this suggests, new historical ages are not simply dispensed by some super-human agent to a passively awaiting humanity.  Rather, actively vigilant artists and particularly receptive thinkers pick up on broader tendencies happening partly independently of their own wills (in the world around us or at the margins of our cultures, for example), then make these insights central through their artworks and philosophies.

For good and for ill, then, Heidegger is a profoundly hopeful philosopher, not some teacher of despair and resignation, as he is often polemically portrayed.  As I began by saying, he is not an anti-modern who exhausts himself critiquing modernity but rather the original postmodern philosopher, a thinker who dedicates himself to disseminating a postmodern understanding of being in which he places his hope for the future.  I continue to find myself inspired by Heidegger’s poetic thinking of a postmodern understanding of being (as well as by many of those Heidegger helped inspire in turn), especially in light of his provocative proclamations that the philosophical lessons of art and poetry’s distinctive ways of disclosing the world were needed to help us find ways through and beyond the growing noontime darkness of technological nihilism.  (Perhaps such concerns partly reflect middle-age and its attendant anxieties, but if so, then I have been partly middle-aged my whole life, and suspect that many of us feel similarly, as if we were all living in a time in the middle or between ages, a historical period of radical change and transition—or at least we, some of us, still hope.)


[1] That hipster conservativism sounds rather paradoxical does not make it false—just falsely totalizing in this case:What is false is imagining that only latecomers can truly understand something.As anyone who has ever been there at the beginning of something important will probably recognize, first-comers often understand something too, and can do so at least as deeply (if not often as cogently) as those who come later.Rather than define “understand” more cognitively than Heidegger himself did, let us just admit that we need both:Early arrivals help create and draw our attention to potentially important and inspiring phenomena; late-comers remain crucial to preserving what remains inspiring beneath traditions whose day in the sun might otherwise have come and gone.That we need both “creators” and “preservers” is something Heidegger himself recognized by the time he wrote the magnum opus of his middle period, “The Origin of the Work of Art” (1934-35), which goes so far as to posit creators and preservers as the two equally-important sides of the work of art.For a detailed discussion of the creative role of such interpretive “preservers,” see Thomson, Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity (Cambridge University Press, 2011), ch. 3.(An earlier version is available on-line as Thomson, “Heidegger’s Aesthetics,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, <>.)
[2] See Thomson, Heidegger on Ontotheology:Technology and the Politics of Education (Cambridge University Press, 2005), esp. chs. 3-4.
[3]I discuss Heidegger’s provocative views on polytheism, atheism, and on the phenomenological relation between humanity and “the divine” in Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity (esp. chs. 1 and 6); and in Thomson, “The Nothing (das Nichts),” in Mark Wrathall, ed., The Heidegger Lexicon (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).For more on the perhaps surprising appeal of Heidegger’s romantic polytheism, see also Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly, All Things Shining (New York:Free Press, 2011).
[4] On this point, see Thomson “Heidegger’s Nazism in the Light of his early Black Notebooks,” Alfred Denker and Holger Zaborowski, eds, Zur Hermeneutik der ‘Schwarzen Hefte’:Heidegger Jahrbuch 10 (Freiburg:Karl Alber, forthcoming.)
[5] This hermeneutics of philosophical “fulfillment” (Vollendung)—or what Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity also calls the strategy of hypertrophic deconstruction—is premised on the insight that, where the deepest historical trends are concerned, the only way out is through.
[6] See Thomson, “Heideggerian Phenomenology and the Postmetaphysical Politics of Ontological Pluralism,” in S. West Gurley and Geoffrey Pfeifer, eds, Phenomenology and the Political (Rowman & Littlefield, forthcoming October 2016).
[7] See Thomson, “In the Future Philosophy will be neither Continental nor Analytic but Synthetic:Toward a Promiscuous Miscegenation of (All) Philosophical Traditions and Styles,” Southern Journal of Philosophy 50:2 (2012), pp. 191-205. 
[8] On this still metaphysical mistake, see Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity, ch. 3.
[9] Such limits inevitably follow from our universal condition of existential “finitude,” and include personal limitations of time and perspective to which we can remain insensitive, whether out of ignorance or pride.Obviously, Heidegger’s personal limitations have become increasingly glaring in the four decades since his death, with the ongoing publication of his thinking.However much distance we might like to put between Heidegger’s perspective and our own, the fact that all of our perspectives remains limited (in ways more and less visible to us) may help to motivate the open-minded, hermeneutic humility that we still need (and need all the more) in order to approach Heidegger’s work in ways that remain charitable as well as critical, so that we can both learn something and go further ourselves.
[10] For more on the way the great metaphysical ontotheologies temporarily dam the flow of historicity by grasping the innermost core of reality and its outermost expression and linking these dual perspectives together into a single “ontotheological” account, see Heidegger on Ontotheology, ch. 1.
[11] Heidegger on Ontotheology thus seeks to develop and defend the core of Heidegger’s “reductive yet revealing” and so rightly controversial reading of Nietzsche as the unrecognized ontotheologist of our late-modern age of technologization.For a summation of that view, see ch. 1 of Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity.On the crucial polysemy of the nothing, see Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity, ch. 3.
[12] On the importance of this difference between imposing and disclosing, see also Thomson, “Rethinking Education after Heidegger:Teaching Learning as Ontological Response-Ability,” Educational Philosophy and Theory, 48:8 (2016), pp. 846-861.
[13] “The texture of the text” is also the seditious way in which Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity tries to re-Heideggerize Derrida’s famous, anti-Heideggerian aperçu:“There is nothing outside the text.”
[14] See Heidegger, Off the Beaten Track, Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes, eds. and trans. (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 85 (Holzwege, Gesamtausgabe vol. 5 [Frankfurt:Klostermann, 1977], p. 112).Here the “truth of being” is shorthand for the way an understanding of “the being of entities” (that is, a metaphysical understanding of “the truth concerning entities as such and as a whole” or, in a word, an ontotheology) works to anchor and shape the unfolding of an historical constellation of intelligibility.Its “essence” is that apparently inexhaustible source of historical intelligibility the later Heidegger calls “being as such,” an actively a-lêtheiac (that is, ontologically “dis-closive”) Ur-phenomenon metaphysics eclipses with its ontotheological fixation on finally determining “the being of entities.”(That “being as such” lends itself to a series of different historical understandings of “the being of entities” rightly suggests that it exceeds every ontotheological understanding of the being of entities.)The “essence of humanity” refers to Dasein’s definitive world-disclosive ability to give being as such a place to “be” (i.e., to happen or take place); it refers, that is, to the poietic and maieutic activities by which human beings creatively disclose the inconspicuous and inchoate hints offered us by “the earth” and so help bring genuine meanings into the light of the world.

Iain D. Thomson is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Mexico, where he also serves as Director of Graduate Studies. He is the author of Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity (CUP, 2011) and Heidegger on Ontotheology: Technology and the Politics of Education(CUP, 2005), and his articles have appeared in numerous scholarly journals, essay collections and reference works.


in conversation with Raymond Geuss

Is nihilism the most important philosophical problem of our present? Philosopher Raymond Geuss talks to four by three about our misconception of nihilism, outlining three ways of questioning it, while asking whether nihilism is a philosophical or a historical problem and whether we are truly nihilists or might simply be confused.

Raymond Geuss is Emeritus Professor in the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge and works in the general areas of political philosophy and the history of Continental Philosophy. His most recent publications include, but are not limited to, Politics and the Imagination (2010) and A World Without Why (2014).



Eugene Thacker

Are you a nihilist and should you be one? Philosopher Eugene Thacker turns to Friedrich Nietzsche to break down nihilism into fragments of insights, questions, possible contradictions and thought provoking ruminations, while asking whether nihilism can fulfill itself or always ends up undermining itself?

1. What follows came out of an event held at The New School in the spring of 2015. It was an event on nihilism (strange as that sounds). I admit I had sort of gotten roped into doing it. I blame it on the organizers. An espresso, some good conversation, a few laughs, and there I was. Initially they tell me they’re planning an event about nihilism in relation to politics and the Middle East. I tell them I don’t really have anything to say about the Middle East – or for that matter, about politics – and about nihilism, isn’t the best policy to say nothing? But they say I won’t have to prepare anything, I can just show up, and it’s conveniently after I teach, just a block away, and there’s dinner afterwards…How can I say no?

How can I say no…


2. Though Nietzsche’s late notebooks contain many insightful comments on nihilism, one of my favorite quotes of his comes from his early essay “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense.” I know this essay is, in many ways, over-wrought and over-taught. But I never tire of its opening passage, which reads:

In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the haughtiest and most mendacious minute of “world history” – yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die.

One might invent such a fable and still not have illustrated sufficiently how wretched, how shadowy and flighty, how aimless and arbitrary, the human intellect appears in nature. There have been eternities when it did not exist; and when it is done for again, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no further mission that would lead beyond human life. It is human, rather, and only its owner and producer gives it such importance, as if the world pivoted around it.

The passage evokes a kind of impersonal awe, a cold rationalism, a null-state. In the late 1940s, the Japanese philosopher Keiji Nishitani would summarize Nietzsche’s fable in different terms. “The anthropomorphic view of the world,” he writes, “according to which the intention or will of someone lies behind events in the external world, has been totally refuted by science. Nietzsche wanted to erase the last vestiges of this anthropomorphism by applying the critique to the inner world as well.”

Both Nietzsche and Nishitani point to the horizon of nihilism – the granularity of the human.


3. At the core of nihilism for Nietzsche is a two-fold movement: that a culture’s highest values devalue themselves, and that there is nothing to replace them. And so an abyss opens up. God is dead, leaving a structural vacuum, an empty throne, an empty tomb, adrift in empty space.

But we should also remember that, when Zarathustra comes down from the mountain to make his proclamation, no one hears him. They think he’s just the opening band. They’re all waiting for the tight-rope walker’s performance, which is, of course, way more interesting. Is nihilism melodrama or is it slapstick? Or something in-between, a tragic-comedy?


4. I’ve been emailing with a colleague about various things, including our shared interest in the concepts of refusal, renunciation, and resignation. I mention I’m finishing a book called Infinite Resignation. He replies that there is surprisingly little on resignation as a philosophical concept. The only thing he finds is a book evocatively titled The Art of Resignation – only to find that it’s a self-help book about how to quit your job.

I laugh, but secretly wonder if I should read it.


5. We do not live – we are lived. What would a philosophy have to be in order to begin from this, rather than arriving at it?


6. “Are you a nihilist?”

“Not as much as I should be.”


7. We do Nietzsche a dis-service if we credit him for the death of God. He just happened to be at the scene of the crime, and found the corpse. Actually, it wasn’t even murder – it was a suicide. But how does God commit suicide?


8. By a process I do not understand, scientists estimate that the planet is capable of sustaining a population of around 1.2 billion – though the current population is upwards of 7 billion. Bleakness on this scale is difficult to believe, even for a nihilist.


9. I find Nietzsche’s notebooks from the 1880s to be a fascinating space of experimentation concerning the problem of nihilism. The upshot of his many notes is that the way beyond nihilism is through nihilism.

But along the way he leaps and falls, skips and stumbles. He is by turns analytical and careless; he uses argumentation and then bad jokes; he poses questions without answers and problems without solutions; and he creates typologies, an entire bestiary of negation: radical nihilism, perfect nihilism, complete or incomplete nihilism, active or passive nihilism, Romantic nihilism, European nihilism, and so on…

Nietzsche seems so acutely aware of the fecundity of nihilism.

10. It’s difficult be a nihilist all the way – Eventually nihilism must, by definition, undermine itself. Or fulfill itself.


11. Around 1885 Nietzsche writes in his notebook: “The opposition is dawning between the world we revere and the world which we live – which we are. It remains for us to abolish either our reverence or ourselves.”


12. If we are indeed living in the “anthropocene,” it would seem sensible to concoct forms of discrimination that are adequate to it. Perhaps we should cast off all forms of racism, sexism, classism, nationalism, and the like, in favor of a new kind of discrimination – that of a species-ism. A disgust of the species, which we ourselves have been clever enough to think. A species-specific loathing that might also be the pinnacle of the species. I spite, therefore I am. But is this still too helpful, put forth with too much good conscience?

The weariness of faith. The incredulity of facts.


Eugene Thacker is Professor at The New School in New York City. He is the author of several books, including In The Dust Of This Planet (Zero Books, 2011) and Cosmic Pessimism (Univocal, 2015).