Radiolab host Jad Abumrad explores the philosophy that turned his brother-in-law's book cover into a celebrity fashion statement.
BROOKE: Numbed by the absurdity of our democracy in action, we'll now spend the rest of the show visiting two stories that wrangle over the nature of nihilism. One from Radiolab's Jad Abumrad and one from me. Our argument played out last summer. Then the news was especially grim. Ebola was raging in West Africa, beheadings were still a hideous novelty. And then in the midst of all of that, something weird happened to Jad's brother-in-law.
EUGENE THACKER: I'm Eugene Thacker. I'm an author and professor at the New School in New York City.
BROOKE: Jad asked me to join him and Eugene to talk about what happened.
JAD: Eugene is a hard-core scholar of philosophy and he writes these books that sometimes can be a little dense. He'll use words like "exegesis" and "ratiocination." And so the family joke is that he writes books for no one.
EUGENE: I think the joke started out, I write books that nobody reads. And then, after a slow long period of acceptance, I started to think, maybe I should write books for no one to read. And just sort of embrace that.
JAD: So the story begins a couple years ago
EUGENE: in 2011.
JAD: Eugene writes this book.
EUGENE: called In the Dust of This Planet. It's about the end of the world.
JAD: But not in the Hollywood, boom! sense. It's darker than that.
BROOKE: Your hypothesis is the greatest horror is that nothing exists and nothing matters.
EUGENE: Right. What in philosophy is often referred to as nihilism or pessimism. That there might not be a purpose to things or to your life or to our existence or to the cosmos. And this all might be purely arbitrary, an accident.
JAD: That there's no inherent meaning to anything.
EUGENE: That it just doesn't matter.
JAD: This is what Nietzsche called-
EUGENE: The most difficult thought.
JAD: And in the book, Eugene traces this idea through all these different horror movies, from slasher films to sort of more supernatural horror. And also music. At one point, he goes into this deconstruction of how different types of black metal deal with this thought.
EUGENE: I don't know, it's something, a way of thinking I've always found really intriguing and ironically kind of inspiring.
BROOKE: Are you a pessimist?
EUGENE: On my better days.
BROOKE: Are you a nihilist?
EUGENE: Not as much as I should be.
JAD: Ok, so Eugene writes this book in 2011. It is dark, it is dense, he writes it as he says, for no one. And as expected, beyond a few philosophy types, no one really pays attention. So he keeps his head down, teaching, writing, but then - some things happen. 2014 -
from TRUE DETECTIVE: There's all kinds of ghettos in the world.
There's only one ghetto man. Giant gutter in outer space.
JAD: The show True Detective comes along. It becomes a big hit. And at the center of the show is this character is this character Russ Cole, this Louisiana detective, who is one dark dude.
RUSS COLE: I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution.
JAD: He goes on these rants about how there's no order in the world, how humans are just this accident and we have to deal with that.
RUSS COLE: I'd consider myself a realist, but in philosophical terms, I'm what's called a pessimist.
PRAMA: And I just remember watching it and being like, wow
JAD: That's Eugene's wife, Prama Murthey, my sister-in-law.
PRAMA: I was like, this replicates so many conversations we've had in the car.
JAD: She's like, we're they listening in on us?
PRAMA: Yeah, it was eerie.
JAD: So Prama goes online, clicks around.
PRAMA: And all of a sudden I see this article about the True Detective director
JAD: It was an article in which the writer of the show, Nic Pizzolatto was asked how did you create that character of the nihilist police detective? And he lists a bunch of things he was reading at the time.
PRAMA: And included in that list was Eugene.
JAD: Which I was like, cool! At least one person's reading the book
EUGENE: But I really just try to keep my head to the ground and just keep writing, just doing what I'm doing.
JAD: But then. Things got weirder.
EUGENE: Ok so let's pull up Lucky Magazine
JAD: A short time later, Prama is flipping through this fashion magazine.
EUGENE: Lucky Magazine. And there was a spread with this actress,
JAD: Lily Collins, 25 year old actress
EUGENE: Who I'd never heard of
JAD: pretty big right now. She's standing on a street corner,
EUGENE: Dressed up in all this goth make up and clothing
JAD: And in the photo she is wearing Eugene's book on her chest
EUGENE: She had on, in one of the shots, a sweatshirt that had the cover of the book.
JAD: In the Dust of This Planet. Big letters. Right on her chest.
PRAMA: And I was just, no way!
EUGENE: It was definitely, what the bleep
PRAMA: This is crazy, what? She's casually wearing my husband's book cover
EUGENE: I don't know, again, I didn't react- but it was just strange.
JAD: Turns out, a Norwegian artist had made a painting of the book. That image had gotten picked up by a fashion label and turned into some very expensive clothes. Ok, so that happened. But then it gets weirder still. So one day when my wife, Carla Murthey's online, this is the day that Jay-Z and Beyonce announce they're going to do this big international tour. Carla's watching the video that they released to promote that tour, sort of a fake movie trailer.
CARLA: It says On the Run, it's sort of all flashy. Guns, fire, hookers
JAD: Beyonce's in a wedding dress
CARLA: She's got a veil on.
JAD: But she's shooting semi automatic weapons in this wedding dress. Cut to car chases, cut to money flying everywhere. But at exactly 37 seconds in,
CARLA and JAD: Oh! Go back, go back!
JAD: You see Jay-Z turn, stick a giant gun out to his right, and he is wearing Eugene's book. Right there on his back. In the Dust of This Planet. Now this is the point at which I was like, ok. What do we make of this? I mean, could it be that Eugene is no longer writing books for no one, that somehow he has become a conduit for this idea that we all, in that subterranean way that pop music operates, that we all are channeling right now. That was my thought.
EUGENE: Yeah, no I think that's the question. Is whether this is something particular to the moment we're living in.
JAD: And Eugene, his knee-jerk reaction is
EUGENE: I think it could have been this cover or a million other covers.
JAD: No. This is just meaningless appropriation?
EUGENE: Yeah I don't think there's anything more than that to me, it just looks like a cool phrase to go on a T-shirt to go on a goth girl in some photo shoot.
BROOKE: And why is it cool?
JAD: Right. Cause my hunch is, you might be right, but you also might be wrong because of the answer you're about to give to Brooke's question.
EUGENE: It's cool because some publicist..
BROOKE and JAD: No, no!
JAD: And this was sort of the conversation I wanted to have, that's why I called Brooke. What's behind all this nihilistic entertainment? Now Brooke, for her part, agreed that Eugene probably is tapping into something.
BROOKE: Yes. But, is this unique to this moment? And to that I would say, no.
JAD: Really? You don't think this says anything about now?
BROOKE: I think there are cycles in which the sense of meaninglessness comes out in sharper relief than other times. But you can identify them over and over again.
SIMON: Yeah. Nihilism goes all the way back.
JAD: Brooke actually turned us onto this guy.
SIMON: Simon Critchley, I'm the Hans Jonas professor of the New School for Social Research.
JAD: Simon wrote an article that basically made the argument that nihilism is the basic credo of cool
SIMON: Cause it's sexy, it's interesting
JAD: And it's been that way forever.
SIMON: Oh I've got the best thing for you, you'll love this. It's a Russian word.
JAD: He said the word that really got us popping. 1862, this is 150 years ago
SIMON: There's a novel by Turgenev called Fathers and Sons.
JAD: And in the novel, the son, who's the nihilist, turns to his conservative dad. And he says -
SIMON: "We base our conduct on what we recognize as useful. In these days, the most useful things we can do is repudiate. And so we repudiate everything." the father says, "Everything?" "Everything." With indescribable composure. Everything goes.
JAD: And Simon says roughly from that point on, you see young people glom on to this idea again and again as a way to say no to the older generation, or to just what's happening in the world.
SIMON: Pop culture at least since I was a kid, has always been deeply nihilist.
JAD: Alright, so it's nothing new. But when I ran Simon through the Eugene-jacket situation, and then I asked, is there something different about today's nihilism versus the nihilism of the past. Is there something more potent about it? Without hesitation, he said -
SIMON: I'd say yes.
ANDY: Based on what?
JAD: That's producer Andy Mills, who was with me during the interview
JAD: Simon says it was more of a gut feeling based on this class that he taught last year. With Eugene, oddly enough. I didn't know they knew each other. They taught this class together.
SIMON: So this seminar that we did in the fall last year was one of those rare seminars. We're teaching mysticism. No one teaches mysticism.
JAD: He says they started the seminar not really expecting much, by talking about how in the 4th Century A.D.
SIMON: There was the city of Alexandria
JAD: This was near Egypt.
SIMON: Alexandria was a lot like Manhattan. There's an offshore island, it's the seat of all learning and culture in the ancient world. At a certain point in the 4th century, people start to leave. People wander off and they seem to want something else. The city just doesn't do it anymore.
SIMON: It's corrupt. It's broken. It's sinful.
JAD: He said crime was rampant, pollution, and so people just started to wander off into the desert. Live in these caves.
SIMON: And these intense forms of ascetic practice begin.
JAD: Like you had these women who were so enraptured with Christ that they began -
SIMON: Hurting themselves, throwing themselves into icy rivers, jumping into ovens. The body is something that you try to strip away, in order to free the capacity for love. But the premise of that again is that the world is a kind of field of ruins.
JAD: But he says but really struck him is that when he was talking about this, he would glance out at the students, and he would notice this look in their eyes.
SIMON: I just felt that in the room, this deep need was being fulfilled by these strange mystics.
JAD: What exactly? Do you think they were starting to form the thought of wandering into the desert, so to speak?
SIMON: Yeah, I think there's a sense of what you do is secede, walk away. That's where a lot of people are at.
JAD: As for what's behind it all, he says just turn on the news
NEWS: A video showing the beheading of a second American journalist has now been verified.
Disease experts say this is turning into one of the longest, deadliest outbreaks ever.
The girls were gang raped and strangled.
Once again, it is mostly children being brought into this hospital.
SIMON: In the world I grew up in, it made sense. It was completely crazy, mutually assured destruction. But it made sense and you could understand it in very simple terms. It was the United States and the Soviet Union. We were going to be eviscerated that was clear. But it made sense, you knew what the bounds of power were.
JAD: You're nostalgic for mutually assured destruction?
SIMON: It seems a much simpler world.
ANDY: You at least knew who to blame for it, right?
JAD: That's Andy again.
ANDY: And now, who am I supposed to say f**k you to, I'm saying f**k you to -
ANDY: Carbon emissions!
JAD: Speaking of which -
NEWS: Today the world's leading climate scientists warned it will get worse.
JAD: Now, one of the reasons for the current gloom is we're in the middle of an uncomfortable shift in how we talk about climate change.
NEWS: Heat waves will be more frequent and last longer
JAD: This was made official when the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report where, for the first time they stopped using the language of prevention and shifted to the language of adaptation. In other words, hundreds of scientists and policy makers, this is the world's top organization for assessing climate change. We're now saying, we can't stop it, it's inevitable.
DAVID: So now we need to deal with the mess that's on our doorstep
JAD: That's David Victor
DAVID: Professor of international relations at University of California in San Diego.
JAD: And he's one of the authors of the report
DAVID: When the IPCC first began back int he late 1980s you could imagine that people would take the climate change problem seriously. They would start to control emissions and over a period of decades, the climate would stop changing. And instead what's happened is people have talked a lot about climate change but they haven't actually done much to control emissions. The report says if you put into place all these technologies and international agreements we could still stop warming at 2 degrees. My own assessment is that the kind of actions you'd need to do that are so heroic that we're not going to see them on this planet.
JAD: All of which reminded me of that True Detective moment.
from TRUE DETECTIVE: I'd consider myself a realist. But in philosophical terms, I'm what's called a pessimist.
What's that mean?
JAD: Pessimists, like nihilists, agree there's no meaning, they're just a little more mopey about it, less likely to do something.
from TRUE DETECTIVE: Means I'm bad at parties.
JAD: I mean, is that where we're all headed. In a recent Wall Street Journal poll, 76% of people 18 and over weren't confident that the future's going to be brighter than the past. Which brings we back to Brooke's question.
BROOKE: Why is it cool?
JAD: Call it nihilism, pessimism, what ever, shouldn't it be depressing? What would you want to put a phrase like, "In the Dust of This Planet," a phrase that deliberately negates the person wearing it, why would you want to put it on your chest or on your back? And since it was Jay-Z's jacket that was in a way the catalyst of this podcast, we ended up in the flow of things -
JUNE: They want to talk to me, why?
JAD: - Talking to this lady. Who it turns out was the person who made the decision to put it on Jay-Z's back.
JUNE: I should say my name I guess. My name is June Ambrose. I've been a costume designer for 22 years, 23 this year, and I've worked with everyone from Luther Vandross to Puff to Sean, Mariah Carey to Busta Rhymes, Mary J. Blinge, Alicia Keyes, Dave Mathews Band, Backstreet Boys, Kelly Ripa, Kim Cattrall, R. Kelly, Jaime Fox, Missy Elliot,
JAD: And of course, Jay-Z and Beyonce. It occurred to Andy and I during the interview that June has probably influenced the fashion sense of a significant portion of the human beings on this planet. And she was very clear that a costume is more than just a costume.
JUNE: It's like a conversation. Without words.
JAD: Really what she's doing when she styles someone is whispering to all the people that are gonna watch the videos, come in contact with the billboards, go to the concerts.
JUNE: I don't have to talk to you, but I can create this conversation with a pair of pants and how they fall and how they fit and the texture and the color and the feel.
JAD: She says with Jay-Z for that video, she knew she needed something epic,
JUNE: But, like, effortless. I knew I wanted a biker jacket because it was a motorcycle scene, but I knew I couldn't just give him a black leather jacket, I needed it to say something. We were on the hunt.
JAD: Her and her assistant went to dozens of places.
JUNE: To studios, showrooms
JAD: Looking at all these leather jackets
JUNE: It's like finding a needle in a haystack
JAD: Nothing was right
JUNE: But then -
JAD: They saunter into this one place
JUNE: black denim
JAD: This place does sort of high end grunge. They're flipping through the racks, when - she see it. The jacket. Those words
JUNE: and that was it. I knew it. I said, this is what I need. If just felt, it was perfect.
JAD: The question was, why? At this point I hadn't really told her the whole back story. So I pulled up a screen capture of the video. This is when you see Jay-Z sort of standing in the desert, shot from behind. In the Dust of This Planet on his back. He's kind of pointing this really long dirty hairy gun off to his right, sort of up. Like he's about to shoot the sun.
JUNE: Yeah you think he's about the sun.
JAD: Ok, so let's look at this. So why did you choose that jacket.
JUNE: You know, there's something very menacing about it. It's almost like the aftermath. The end of an era. The beginning of something new.
JAD: She says in the back of her head she was thinking about how the music industry might be dying.
JUNE: It's definitely in a place where it's like, what now? You can hear it in the music.
JAD: And the biggest tour in history, really, what now?
JUNE: And these are the whispers that you hear.
JAD: But she says one of the loudest whispers was super simple. Just here's a guy, massive pop star -
JUNE: Like a sovereign
JAD: He's in the desert, it's about to go down, the end of the world is literally on his back
JUNE: - but, it was almost as if he didn't know that was on his back. You know what I mean? it's like that was the afterthought.
JAD: Like, oh yeah, the world is ending? Psht, I don't care.
JUNE: Going out in style.
JAD: In other words,
JUNE: He wasn't afraid
JAD: He wasn't afraid.
JUNE: Wasn't afraid
JAD: You know what, that's what this - we talked about whispers? That's what I get from it. And now that you've said that, it's not so much "I don't give a sh*t," it's "I'm not afraid."
JUNE: Yeah. I mean, we all have to leave the planet. Everyone has their day. What you work on is not being afraid when you have to leave.
EUGENE: I think that that is nothing more than a posture. I mean, it's all fine when you're 18 to wear that t-shirt, but when you're in your 50s dealing with cancer, ok, maybe then is when you really have to confront this thing. It's simply a posture and that's why it's in pop culture.
SIMON: The cynical response would be to say, why we love nihilism in pop culture is it save us having to be burdened with it.
JAD: Simon Critchley again.
SIMON: It saves us having to be bothered with it. Right, we can enjoy it in our rooms, we can get off on it, and then we let it go. And we go back to work.
JAD: Simon says, you don' t have to be cynical about this if you don't want to be. Nietzsche, Mr. Dark Pessimist himself, had this idea about nihilism that it was just the beginning, that if you really dealt with it, took it in, accelerated it to its logical end, you could get to the other side. Which he called -
SIMON: A re-evaluation of values. Some new way of thinking of who we are as moral creatures. And that's kind of where I am. And love. Love is that capacity that can see you through that.
JAD: And that, he suspects, is why his students were so interested in those mystics. Cause they had found a way through.
SIMON: These people, these mystics, have got the uncompromising commitment to something like love
JAD: The fact that they were willing to go all the way, to negate even their own bodies for that love.
SIMON: In a world where love has been reduced to Tindr exchanges, if that's the hell that you're living in as a 25 year old, yeah you're going to read these mystics and think, "I want what she's having" you know? "I'll take what she's having!"
JAD: Burn my flesh! And you could argue that Jay-Z and Beyonce, they've got a little of that going on. Part of what's made this tour so big, the biggest tour ever, is that it's like this grand love story.
JUNE: I'm with the love of my life, so it works
JAD: I have a fantasy that Beyonce and Jay-Z will do this tour, they will go off into the desert and they'll live in a little hut, this monastic existence. A new age of Aquarius will begin. Starting with the two of them.
JUNE: That's beautiful.
JAD: Any chance of that?
JUNE: Pina colada on the beach.