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Nihilism, Punk and the International Necronautical Society: an interview with Simon Critchley

Interview by Steven Fowler.


3:AM: The initial sense of where your philosophy begins is undoubtedly what one could call a pessimistic moment. You have said that philosophy begins in disappointment and you acknowledge nihilism as something prominent that needs to be overcome.

SC: Yes, nihilism is the obvious response to the death of God, by which we mean the collapse of any transcendent basis for morality, the value of everything. Just to say well God is dead in one breath is to say in another that nothing means anything, and nothing means anything is the moment of nihilism. Nihilism is the affirmation of meaninglessness. That’s my conception of nihilism. Nihilism is the moment that’s been punctured in a way which can lead you to declare nothing means anything [and] one element in youth culture which is persistent; a rejection of the old gods.

3:AM: Romanticism and fatalism.

SC: You find that in punk, in the Sex Pistols, the cult of death in musical figures. So we abandon. The meaning evaporates, and we feel abandoned.

3:AM: But has there not been a shift in nihilism? You mentioned punk, a fascinating example of a movement based in a purely nihilistic attitude, and you look at the trajectory of punk, the way these bands have been reclaimed by capitalism, as a commodity, and reinterpreted by a new generation, it’s startling.

SC: Yes. I recently took my son shopping; I took him to Oxford Street in London. He bought a Clash t-shirt, a dreadful imitation I might have worn when I was his age, very odd. Punk was a moment of nihilistic refusal, but it always had a truncated relationship to commodities. It used a lot of the rhetoric and symbolism of the Situationists, that is it used commodities against capitalism. We use the music industry against itself, we’ll use this behemoth against itself, and we’ll subvert this from within. Vivienne Westwood was doing this, within certain codes and it was always expensive. Always there was a price to pay. There were other strands of punk, they were politically hardcore, they emerged later, the Clash, craft, the Black Flag anarchist groups, they were very late, but the exuberant period of punk was being released from that dreadful nonsense of the hippie period.

3:AM: It was active nihilism against passive nihilism

SC: It was hate and war against peace and love, and also the way punk saw the sexual liberation as another form of captivity. The most radical element of punk was the refusal of sex. Sid Vicious said sex is two minutes and 19 seconds of squelching noises. A revulsion about sex, it was something complacent Californian hippies did. The drug culture at the time completely amphetamine based, so you couldn’t if you wanted to. You didn’t have the wherewithal.

3:AM: There are examples then of the connection between youth cultures and active nihilism that you call upon from your younger days, that have obviously had a role in influencing the trajectory of your philosophy and so forth but it’s hard to see what the equivalent is now. There doesn’t seem that there is such a movement now.

SC: There’s a sense in which there are people who would say the experiments of rock and roll finished with punk, and even punk was a rehashing of things that had happened anyway, already a repetition, and everything since then has been a repetition of that repetition. Pop music is just a limited form that people will reinhabit in other ways. Part of me agrees, a part disagrees. We can look at dance culture, the way technology has driven that is incredibly novel, but still bands playing three minute pop tunes the way bands played three minute pop tune forty years ago is very depressing.

3:AM: Still it is hard to put your finger on strong alternatives. If we look at literature, that punk generation had certain figures that may not have been prevalent but they’re there, Burroughs, Bataille, Trocchi. I find it difficult to imagine people in my own generation who inhabit the same space.

SC: It was peculiar the way things ran together without anything being explicit. In England, people began listening to underground music, no one in the press said it, then it went overground. Burroughs was someone you read, you went down stores on the King’s Road to read these illicit small pamphlets by Burroughs. I discovered Bataille through Throbbing Gristle, a fantastic late 70s punk band. There was an intellectual side to those music movements that still exists. I hope so anyhow.

3:AM: It doesn’t feel like it does. It feels like you have to excavate it from the past.

SC: Right. Then there are maybe people reading Zizek and Badiou and going out and writing tunes.

3:AM: I don’t think there is. I’d like to hear that music. I can’t picture the music.

SC: The moment remains definitive, in the sense in which if you have the idea of the society as a lie, a spectacular lie to be pointed out and the way that can be done is through popular culture, in a sense, much of the energy of youth culture of the last fifty years is a repetition of that. Maybe there’s a sense in which young people are using the music and literature of fifty years of youth culture as an archive to draw on in positive and creative ways. Things are picked up and appropriated in very different ways. The people I meet and talk to who are doing interesting and creative things, they don’t seem that different from the people I was with when I was their age. The weird thing is that we often have the same set of cultural references.

3:AM: That’s not surprising. We do call backwards. We have an archival culture.

SC: Think about that. I’m forty nine years old. When my mother was forty nine years old, her references would be big band, Sinatra, of no relevance to me. I know twenty five year olds who listen to the same things I’m listening to. I know every song that’s being played in a Brooklyn bar.

3:AM: And we read Burroughs and Bataille. Some of us.

SC: Punk was the watershed, what took place before seems remote. It’s difficult to relate to progressive rock of the early Seventies, whereas it’s easy to relate to The Clash or whatever. That’s strange, a cultural shift took place and we’re still there on some level.


3:AM: It can be said that perhaps you are at the forefront of a current literary movement now, in reference to your prominent involvement with the INS. It does seem you conceive of a very immediate place for literature and poetry in people’s lives?

SC: Absolutely. It has the highest importance. Pasternak says poetry is one of the enlargements of life — by poetry I don’t just mean the words on the page. It’s terrific if people read Rilke, Ponge, Stevens and the rest but you can also get that through music and other separate experiences which are poetic. For me, philosophy is something I do because I’m not really a writer. If I had the ability, I would have been a poet or a novelist, but I don’t, so I do this. For me, it’s always been an acknowledgement of failure. The people I genuinely admire are the people who can really write, who can really open up a world.

3:AM: And the INS?

SC: The INS — I’ve been working with Tom McCarthy for nearly ten years now. It began as this strange project of trying to construct an avant-garde group along the lines of the Surrealists and the Futurists, and to do that in an impersonal form, to write collectively and construct manifestos and develop a Soviet-style aesthetic we’ve used in the events we’ve done. It’s fascinating to inhabit the persona of society, when me and Tom write, it’s genuinely interesting. He’s a novelist, I’m a philosopher: we pull in different directions; it’s very interesting. In many ways, we’re going back to what we were speaking about, we’re trying to do for death what the Situationists did for sex, that’s one way of looking at it. How serious is it? It’s serious, the ideas are absolutely serious, if you read the declaration we did at the Tate, it’s shot through with ideas I’ve developed elsewhere and ideas Tom’s developed elsewhere, but we do it in the form of a conceit, using actors to play us. Because they might actually be better than us. That’s the awful truth.

3:AM: You garnered lots of attention for that recently.

SC: It’s a terrific idea. You begin to think: do we really need to turn up at all? We’ve been discussing going to Athens to do it. Much as we’d like to go to Athens, we might just send actors to go. They can go and have it up, and Greek actors and they can do it in Greek, and we can franchise this in different museums. Who knows? The idea has a deeply serious side to it, we try to do it in a playful way — a way that can mess people up. There was a woman from the Times Literary Supplement at the Tate event who felt that we’d been dishonest. It’s just ludicrous, absolutely ludicrous.

3:AM: She missed the point somewhat.

SC: Exactly. The INS is very interesting. The fact that it has this virtual existence that people don’t really know about, and we don’t do much for a long time and then we’ll emerge. But Tom McCarthy is the real genius behind it.

Steven Fowler is a postgraduate student of philosophy at the University of London and a poet. He is also an employee of the British Museum.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, March 30th, 2009.